We had one bag of belongings each, no data connection, and no social calendar piling up. The only thing on our to-do list was to relax and discover. Angella, my good friend of 20 years, and I were about to embark on a journey to Ethiopia. With a shared a passion for traveling to remote destinations, and learning about different customs and traditions, we couldn’t wait to put the airport behind us and get started.
We began on a three-day trek in the Simien Mountains National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the remote highlands of Northern Ethiopia. We exchanged smiles as our native guide weaved the 4×4 around cows, goats and locals carrying giant loads of firewood down the bumpy dirt road.
The Park’s precipitous paths boast sheer, 3,000-foot drop-offs, which led us to picturesque panorama views standing atop Imet Gogo (12,881 ft).
Giant birds of prey rode the thermals overhead as we trekked through the varied landscapes of lush palm forests, golden grasslands with Giant Lobelias, and colorful alpine flowers.
Time seemed to stop when we happened upon a herd of over one hundred gorgeous Gelada baboons, which are endemic to Ethiopia. The males’ lion-like manes blew in the wind as young baboons playfully romped around and clung to their mothers.
The villages we passed through were characterized by primitive mud and straw huts. The endless colorful farmland patterned the rolling landscape.
The sweet children we met were fascinated by our soft hair, strange freckled skin and of course our cameras. Owning no mirrors, they loved to see their faces captured on our display screens. While we didn’t speak the same language, we communicated with smiles and giggles.
Just before we reached our campsite, we passed a picturesque hilltop village where a woman invited us into her home for a customary coffee ceremony. We watched as she gracefully prepared our coffee, literally from scratch. Over an open fire in the center of her small hut, she washed the coffee beans with water she collected from a nearby well, then roasted the beans in a rustic pan. She used a homemade tool to grind the beans and then brewed the most delicious coffee I’ve ever tasted. My eyes absorbed the fire-lit details of her hut, which offered an intimate glimpse of her life in the village.
I am reminded every time I travel that it’s the people that have the least who seem the happiest.
After our time in the mountains, we headed to Africa’s Great Rift Valley in Southern Ethiopia. The remote tribes in the Omo Valley are very proud of their cultures and have very little influence from Western societies.
We got our first glimpse of the primitive and traditional lifestyles at a weekly market. Villagers sold livestock, crops such as sorghum, maize, and teff, soap, spices and red ochre clay, which is used with butter by Hamar women to create their local hairstyle.
Many villagers adorned themselves with patterned bands of beads and copper and brass bracelets. The women wore gorgeous beaded goatskin clothing, and the men stood tall with hardened clay and fluttering feathers on top of their heads.
We were invited to attend a special bull jumping ceremony, where a Hamar boy symbolically became a man. He will soon be ready to marry, but he must be able to afford the expensive dowry of cows and goats owed to the bride’s father. We shared gourds of coffee shell tea, and were captivated by the energy of the singing and dancing in the two-day ceremony.
The tribesmen sacrificed a cow for dinner, then snacked on raw bites. A few elder Hamar women opened one of the cow’s stomachs, took handfuls of partially digested grass and held it to their faces. We learned that they believe this is preventative medicine for Yellow Fever.
After dinner, the men snaked in different lines through the bushes. They danced, sang, and hummed a beautiful harmony. The lowering sun illuminated the decorative scarring on their skin among a backdrop of golden-glowing acacia trees. Our senses were enlivened they invited us to join in the dancing. The ground shook with the rhythm of their jumping.
Angella and I couldn’t communicate the appreciation we felt for the magic of this moment, but it was written across our faces in the biggest smiles and most genuine, joyful laughter we’ve had in a long time.
Back in the Hamar village that night, we lay on goatskin mats under the light of a waxing crescent moon and millions of stars. Silhouetted tribal figures walked around the huts, cleaning and prepping for the next day’s work, while goats and mules rummaged through the bushes. We didn’t sleep much that night as we recapped memories of the trip and tried to make the moment last.
As I write this, stateside once again, I reflect fondly on the purity of the experience, which was made up of so many wonderful moments. We had no expectations, no stress, no impressions to make, and no deadlines. We were fully present with open minds and open hearts. Without the chatter of our busy lives in our heads, we were left with a clarity that allowed for true connection with the people and natural world around us.
The essential growth I experience each time I travel gets me closer to learning how to embody this kind of brilliant simplicity in my everyday life.