It’s hard to believe we have been in Ethiopia for over 2 weeks. The kids handled the trans-Atlantic flight like champs, thanks to unlimited screen time, exorbitant amounts of juice, and a pretty rad kids gift bag from the Ethiopian Airline hostesses complete with coloring, a stuffy, a puzzle, and more (you will hear repeatedly in future posts how much Ethiopians love children, and this was their first taste).
Getting over jet lag was a complete junk show (you can’t know the struggle until you’ve tried to rouse a comatose 5-year-old for 3 hours straight, then called it a night for the whole family at 3:45pm). We managed to keep busy in Addis Ababa for 3 days as we struggled to get on schedule.
Finally, despite the absolutely delightful hospitality from Ephrim and Yeshi, our guesthouse hosts in Addis, we were chomping at the bit to leave the big city and head for the North.
And that, I would say, is where our adventures truly began.
I’m assuming you are reading this because you’d like to hear about them, yes?
Every day seems to outrank the previous one as the new favorite, but there’s one that truly tops them all, mainly because it was equally enchanting for everyone in our family. If you’re on social media you’ve seen multiple posts about this already. If not, consider this your official warning that there is a dangerously high level of cuteness in this post.
The Simien Mountains National Park: The Grand Canyon of Africa
On day 5 of our 11-day tour of the North, we pile into the Toyota 12-passenger van with Yonas, our guide and friend, and Gabriel, our smiley, jubilant driver.
I will never tire of driving through the Ethiopian country-side. There is something happening at every second. Goats and sheep litter the road. Men work the field with traditional plow and oxen or horse. Women make their way to and fro, dresses and white wraps, or netelas, flowing in the breeze, hair braided in the style of their region. A child stands in the doorway of his home, peering curiously at the ferenji (white people) passing by. Camel caravans transport goods, sharing the road with us, the other animals, and a multitude of blue and white bajaji (small taxis intended for short distances). A woman shoulders a long stick, chickens dangling helplessly on the way to their destiny at the market. A man strikes his whip, a sign to the donkey pulling his oversized cart of hay, to hurry up. We pass by coffee ceremonies, cement construction sites, and school children dressed in uniform, the smell of diesel thick in the air.
We travel several hours north from Gondar to Debark, where we buy our passage into the national park. From here it is a short drive to the Simien Mountain Lodge.
My eyes light up like a child on Christmas morning as we crest the hill to our home for the next two nights. Arrival to the rustic lodge is everything you might imagine when you think of traveling to the rural mountainous highlands of Ethiopia. A plot of neatly laid out thatched roof huts greet us as we pull into the gravel parking lot. As is the way of Ethiopian hospitality, all our belongings are whisked off to our own hut before we can even say amasaganalu or “thank you.”
By this point in the afternoon it is all too apparent that our oldest is the first to succumb to the woes of the traveler’s tummy bug. While the others go off in search of the endemic Gelada monkeys, I volunteer to stay back with our sick one. Once she is medicated, hydrated, and tucked under the thick, minky, caramel-colored blanket in our little hut, I find sweetness in the fellowship of my companions at hand: my own cozy blanket, Abundant Simplicity by Jan Johnson, and a glass of local Acacia dry red. Electricity is out for the afternoon, but that is of no matter. The light pouring in from the window is just enough to spotlight the pages of my book, simple and perfect.
I embrace the afternoon, choosing JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) over FOMO, as Brene Brown so wisely advises of all of us. It is delicious and restorative for both of us.
The next morning brings sun, crisp and cool, and renewed strength for our girl, she more determined than anyone to see the monkeys. After a quick breakfast, we grab our packs and head for the hills.
It is a day we never could have prepared for.
Our meandering hike takes us through vast, dry grassy land, and the kids are anxious to be able to run freely.
Magnificent views peak through the trees in the near distance. The air is noticeably thinner up here at 10,700 feet, even for our family of mountain dwellers and we feel it in the quickening of our pulses and added effort in our breath. The scent of thyme permeates the air, the hills thick with the aromatic herb. The sun is hot on our backs and I am beginning to regret bringing two jackets. “No, it’s good you have them,” comes the wise advice from Yonas. “The weather changes frequently up here.” I am reminded of a common saying in our own home mountains: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.” Sure enough, the sun rapidly dips behind the clouds and cooler breezes begin to blow, rain clouds threatening to unleash for the remainder of the day.
Nina is the first to spot them.
Two Gelada monkeys across the grassy meadow. Then a few more. And more. And more! There must be a hundred of them, coming up the hill from the cliffside caves where they sleep. They are chattering and frolicking in and out of trees. Babies are scurrying for a ride on their mamas backs, others are grooming their buddy’s cinnamon-colored fur. Everyone stops to pick the green strands of grass from the tufts that scatter the land. The males keep a close eye on the surroundings to make sure predators are not lurking.
They don’t mind us much, the ferenjis in brightly colored jackets, cameras at the ready. And we are more than happy to stay awhile and watch their antics. I am torn between taking endless videos and photos and simply parking myself in the dirt to take it all in. We all oscillate between the two. Indeed, I’ve never seen my kids, all three of them, so quietly engrossed in something for so long that did not involve some kind of animation.
This alone is almost worth the entire trip. Nina is already making plans to become a wildlife biologist and come back to study the Geladas. Her animal-loving great-grandmother Emma is rejoicing in heaven over this.
At every turn, sheer cliffs either cut down to the green valley below or rise up even higher to greet the heavens above. We marvel at every moment. We can’t walk more than 6 feet without a breathtaking panorama staring us in the face.
We even wander (and by wander I mean walk our babies across a narrow rock-hewn bridge with steep drop offs on either side) to a rocky ledge, a dramatic waterfall cascading down the jagged wall across the canyon from where we are standing. And it hits me that this view, this moment, is a masterpiece of art, sculpted and painted by God, alive and organic, intended to be enjoyed just as it is today. For today is the only day it will look this way, with that exact water cascading in that certain way, this exact cloud cover, this exact air tempurature, that bird flying in just such a pattern as it is right now.
It is a gift that calls for pause, complete with crackers and peanut butter.
Later this afternoon, and to our great delight, we happen upon another group of Geladas. Or rather they happen upon us. The group descends down the hill to the valley in which we are standing and it is one hundred percent surreal. With the canvas of the Simiens for our backdrop, we walk with with them as they make their way up the adjacent hillside, the adults no taller than our littlest ones.
Watching their interactions, enduring baby Gelada cuteness overload, utterly mesmerized by their conversations, it is other-worldly. Nina and I track a mama and baby until we feel we know them so well she names them (Mama Mia and baby Fran, if you must know). How much time we spend, I cannot tell you. We are unaware of time. But I can assure you it is hours.
Mama Mia and Baby Fran
Later that night, with smiles plastered to our faces, we gather around the cozy fireplace in the lodge with refreshing beverages, thankful for warmth in the chill of the evening mountain air. BBC and Nat Geo specials play on a pull down screen, enthralling us all with more Gelada footage, as though we are now part of a secret club. Ben and I Iook at each other over sleepy little heads resting on our chests and without a word completely agree that this moment, this day, is worth the entire trip because these family memories are far greater and lasting gifts than anything we could ever put in a box and tie a bow around.
Happy Birthday Christmas Easter Valentine’s Life Abundant, kids. May you cherish it more than any shiny object.
If you want to see videos and more photos, check out my Instagram page, @addiepascal.
Photo cred: Graham