Fall in a Small Land: A Ramble through Luxembourg

It is, of course, an unusual time to travel now. Which means this blog has sat unused for many months – trips around Sweden and back to the U.S. notwithstanding, it is challenging to plan an interesting international trip without a car in a world of border restrictions, lockdowns, and quarantine.

But regardless of epidemiological concerns, going without international travel for such an extended period has grated on me, and when we started a consulting course that left large blocks of time without any scheduled events, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist taking a break from Sweden. But where to go that I could access with few restrictions, and see enough of to feel satisfied in only a weekend?

The answer came surprisingly quickly – Luxembourg. As my San Marino post shows, the tiny countries of Europe have always been particularly interesting to me. And Luxembourg is both large enough to have easy travel in and out, and small enough to hit the key sites within a few days. Luxembourg also may be the quintessential Western Europe, combining culture, food, and landscapes from France, Germany, and Belgium which surround it, and especially proud of its outsize role in the European Union (with many of the EU’s institutions based here in its smallest member state). Due to its current position as a global financial center, Luxembourg is prosperous, diverse, comfortable, and welcoming. Yet it also hearkens back to a previous era of fragmented principalities and constant conflict with its Grand Duke running the state, a unique local language, and plenty of castles defending the borders of empires past.

My two-day excursion began in the capital, Luxembourg City. Situated atop multiple bluffs and valleys of the Alzette and Petrusse river, Luxembourg City is exceedingly picturesque, especially with fall colors filling the trees. The well-preserved historic center, still with many of its fortifications erected to protect against essentially every European power at one time or another, is a historical tourist’s dream come true, even with some areas closed due to pandemic-related restrictions. And it makes an interesting contrast with the gleaming skyscrapers of the EU’s Kirchberg district on the opposite hilltop. The borderland legacy extends to its languages, with French and German spoken fluently by essentially every resident (Luxembourgish is much less common in written or official media, though apparently also spoken widely). Though sadly my high school study of both languages though was not nearly enough to cover for my American accent.

My itinerary in Luxembourg City the first day was relatively brief, circling the old city via the Chemin de la Corniche (the “most beautiful balcony of Europe”), popping in a few museums, cafes, and churches and enjoying the many viewpoints. While prices are high, Luxembourg City has the offerings of a much bigger city and is certainly worth exploring (as long as you don’t mind climbing the hills).

The reason for the short period in Luxembourg City was my desire to visit Vianden, a small town with an impressive castle 1.5 hours north. Luxembourg’s public transit is free, which makes it much more worthwhile to take similar jaunts across the country, though it is not so small as to make that travel seem instantaneous. But I reached Vianden with plenty of time to climb up the hill to the castle and explore before catching another bus to my final destination in Echternach.

Vianden Castle dates to the 11th century, and with its massive keep and towers is an archetypal medieval castle of a type uncommon in Sweden. However, much of the current castle has been restored in the 20th century after it had fallen into ruin. Still, the castle was the site of a World War II battle, showing that even these ancient structures can still fulfill defensive purposes in modern warfare. Today, it is simply a museum and a well-maintained one, though admittedly with many castles the interiors are not quite as impressive as the outer fortifications.

My first day ended with another bus ride to Echternach. Echternach is the oldest and holiest city in Luxembourg, home to an abbey and the remains of the country’s patron St. Willibrord. It still maintains a charming town center and a number of historic sites (including even the ruins of a Roman villa outside of town). As Echternach is on the German border, I took advantage to cross the river for my first time in Germany outside of the airport (not that the other side was particularly different from Luxembourg).

My interest however was more in the natural landscape of the region. Echternach is in the Mullerthal region, known as the “Switzerland of Luxembourg”. While having not been to Switzerland I cannot compare (though the mountains are certainly much smaller), it is nonetheless a wonderful hiking landscape, full of canyons, forests, and unusual rock formations. I followed the E1/Wollefschluft route, one of the most popular and easily accessible trails, which ended up being a perfect mix of interesting features, while the foggy atmosphere kept away many other hikers, leaving the woods to my mostly solitary meandering.

While the hike tired me out too much to consider a bike trip I had planned to visit another nearby castle, I nonetheless was very satisfied by my decision to stay in Echternach. But for the second night I returned to Luxembourg City, exploring parts of the lower city (Grund) before preparing for my flight the next morning. While I do not know how long Luxembourg will satisfy my travel urges, especially as the dark and damp of the Swedish winter approaches, I can absolutely say it was the perfect place for a weekend trip.

The Art of European Travel: Florence and San Marino

While living in Sweden gives me the option to take weekend trips almost anywhere in Europe, due to a number of reasons I had not yet ventured beyond Scandinavia save my fall trip to North Macedonia and Kosovo (described in the previous post). But given the darkness and dampness of the Swedish winter, I was certainly ready to travel somewhere sunnier for a few days by February, and planned a trip to Florence, Italy. This trip was unusual, given my usual solitary wanderings, as I went to visit my brother Erik, who was studying abroad there. While due to schedule challenges on both our ends I was only able to spend two days on this trip (while for many people even a week is not enough in Florence) I also decided to make my most of my time in the region and indulge my fascination with microstates by visiting the tiny nation of San Marino.

Enclosed within east central Italy, San Marino is the world’s oldest sovereign state, a remnant of the city-states of pre-19th century Italy. With a population of only 30,000, it is one of the world’s smallest countries by both population and area, though still culturally and linguistically similar to its Italian surroundings. Our trip to San Marino by public transportation from Florence was far longer than what would be expected given the relatively close proximity between Florence and San Marino on the map – due to the mountains in between, our trip required transferring in Bologna and Rimini, though with limited time to explore either city. The city of San Marino itself looks like something out of a fairytale, three towers perched on the imposing peak of Mount Titano, with the narrow streets and historic buildings of the old city in their shadow. Small as the country is, there are however multiple more modern villages in San Marino besides the capital, far less charming but undoubtedly more functional for today’s residents. San Marino’s government buildings seem curiously large given the presumably minimal requirements of running such a minuscule nation, but several were situated in quite picturesque locations. The old city itself has become full of tourist traps, but neither these nor the plethora of weapons dealers (San Marino apparently has laxer gun laws than Italy, so many Italians will come here to purchase their firearms) detracted much from the extraordinary views and well-preserved or restored fortifications, essential in war-torn medieval and Renaissance Italy.

San Marino worked perfectly as a day trip, leaving the Sunday free to explore a selection of Florence’s many highlights. Erik and I stopped in early to the Uffizi Galleries, exploring this extraordinary collection of art a step ahead of the tourist throngs that usually filled the museum. One of the oldest art collections, the Uffizi holds too many masterpieces to count, so many that I could not choose any single art pictures to include here. But the art tour did not end here, as our next stop (after crossing the Arno River to Florence’s south side) was the Medici’s Pitti Palace, also filled on every wall and ceiling with even more precious paintings. Behind this palace, the Boboli Gardens provided some welcome nature in the midst of the crowded city, while the close by Bardini Gardens gave uninterrupted views across Florence’s cityscape. Florence’s churches also hold artwork that would be the highlight of most American museums, and while long lines and lack of time prevented us from visiting the Duomo, Florence’s most recognizable landmark, we stopped in several smaller but still dazzlingly decorated churches in the afternoon. On both days, we enjoyed feasting on the local Tuscan specialties, given Italy’s cuisine far outstrips that of Sweden.

Now given as I took this trip in the beginning of February, you may wonder why I did not write about it until now. Well, my original plan was to combine this blog with one about my trip to Venice the first weekend of March. But as you may know, nature found a way to throw all plans astray, as the spread of COVID-19 forced a cancellation of that trip, and eventually the full shutdown of Italy overall. So I’m grateful I reached Florence when I did – at the moment, it may be some time before anywhere in Italy returns to its normal state.

The Tiny Heart of the Balkans: A Weekend in (North) Macedonia and Kosovo

Given a four-day break from classes and the onset of the cold and darkness of a Swedish winter, an excursion outside the country was in order. And due to quirks of migration and airline economics, Malmo Airport offers flights to a random collection of Eastern European cities for very low prices. One of these cities is Skopje, Macedonia. Or as I should say, North Macedonia, as in the months before I visited the country agreed on a name change in order to remove Greek opposition to North Macedonia’s candidacy for the EU (I will return to this later). North Macedonia was an ideal country for this short trip, as it is geographically small enough to hit all the main sites in a short period, but not so packed with attractions to demand multi-day stays in multiple cities. It is also a significant change of atmosphere from the development of Sweden, with much lower costs.

As the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje is the heart of political and cultural life in the country. Its cityscape is fascinating, despite a dearth of meaningful historical relics – while the city boasts a large castle and scattered other relics such as a Roman aqueduct, the significant destruction caused by the 1963 earthquake led to redevelopment of most of the city, with only a small Old Town area remaining. The city center nonetheless is reminiscent of major central European cities such as Budapest or Vienna, with grand avenues, ornate building facades, and a plethora of grandiose sculptures – but this all dates to 2014. In order to move the city on from the blandness of the Communist-era 1963 architecture and assert a renewed Macedonian nationalism, the government implemented a massive city redesign five years ago, creating a false (though likely more attractive) cityscape, though one marred in part by the polluted river at its heart. Given that the concept of Macedonian nationalism is nebulous and the history of a Macedonian state has many historical gaps – and the true heritage of Macedonia’s most famous son, Alexander the Great, is hotly contested between North Macedonia and Greece – the monuments and museums are disproportionate to the country’s current influence, but the attempt to create a shared history is illuminating in the context of current geopolitical disputes. Nonetheless, changes in political focus led to a retreat from nationalism for the higher dream of EU admittance – a dream harshly dashed shortly before I visited by French opposition to allowing North Macedonia (and other Balkan states) to progress within the EU membership stages. This setback was not welcomed by the Macedonians, even those of liberal bent who were unconcerned with the name change, as all viewed it as a betrayal of agreements, a waste of money already spent, and an impediment to economic or political progress – for more details on the political situation, this is an interesting article.

Returning to my trip, the mountainous nature of North Macedonia offers many opportunities for outside activities, and the warmer Mediterranean climate allowed me a quick kayaking trip in Matka Canyon, outside of Skopje, right when I arrived (though in the down season, there were no other kayakers sharing the water). Exploring Skopje itself was relatively quick though, as the next morning I caught a bus to cross the nearby border into Kosovo.

While both Kosovo and Macedonia experienced turmoil in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Kosovo suffered much more heavily, and was more in the public consciousness due to the US’s role in peacekeeping and air support for the Kosovar Albanian rebels against Serbian rule (which has caused great appreciation for the US in the country, I passed a Bill Clinton gymnasium in one small city). Kosovo was devastated in this war, with 90% of the population displaced and tens of thousands of deaths. Despite two decades of peace, Kosovo remains the poorest country in Europe, with enormous amounts of outmigration to wealthier countries – it’s also the youngest country in Europe. And while governed by the local Albanian population, Serbia and its allies refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent country, limiting its diplomatic and economic options (it is not a member of the UN). Between its geographic and political isolation, small size, and historic violence, Kosovo is not at all a popular tourist destination save for dedicated Balkan travelers. Yet it certainly offers its own charms. The focal point of my trip (well, the only point, as I spent only one day) was the city of Prizren, Kosovo’s second largest and most historic.

Like Skopje, Prizren is centered around a river with a stone bridge, a collection of Ottoman mosques and inns, and a castle on the hill overlooking the city. However, without the growth and cosmopolitanism spurred by the political importance of Skopje, Prizren is far more laid back, with a vibrant café culture and a surprisingly large art scene. It has few specific tourist attractions, though is an interesting base to hike in the mountains or transport oneself back to the Ottoman era, a feel more pronounced in the mostly Muslim city. Despite the language and religious differences, cuisine is still largely the same as in North Macedonia, with an overwhelming emphasis on grilled meat.

After a night in Prizren I returned to North Macedonia to travel down to the “Macedonian Riviera” in Ohrid. Skopje is actually very close to the Kosovo border, so the international trip to Prizren was shorter than from Skopje to Ohrid, though the infrequency of buses forced several extra hours in transit.

Ohrid is extremely picturesque, located on a hill overlooking Lake Ohrid, one of the largest lakes in the Balkans. Long a population, cultural, and religious center for the region (once called the Jerusalem of the Balkans), Ohrid boasts many churches dating back to the medieval era, with ruins from Byzantines and Romans before and a large old city area. The surrounding landscape is also dotted with churches and monasteries, most prominently the Sveti Naum monastery at the south end of the lake near the Albanian border. Ohrid is North Macedonia’s most popular tourist site, but while apparently it gets quite crowded in the summer months, by November mostly only locals were around, giving me almost sole access to the impressive scenery.

Ohrid was also only a day trip, though unlike Skopje and Prizren I could certainly have spent more time there. But its airport also had direct flights to Malmo, making it the perfect final destination for this short adventure, as I needed to be back for a workshop the next day.

Into the Ocean, Into History: Indonesia Part 2 & Timor-Leste

After leaving Malang, I flew to the town of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. A town of only a couple thousand people, Labuan Bajo has no particular historic or cultural significance. What it does have is the closest airport to Komodo National Park, home of the eponymous dragons. That, plus a plethora of dive sites makes it a tourist mecca that far outweighs its size. Perhaps it was my childhood love of dinosaurs drew me to their closest modern counterparts on Komodo, but I chose the right time to go, as due to ecological pressures from tourism (including the mass theft of juvenile dragons) the Indonesian government plans to close Komodo island for one year starting next January (Komodo dragons are found on a few other islands in the area, so large reptile enthusiasts will not be entirely out of luck). Luckily on this trip, there was no difficulty spotting the lizards – it took all of a few hundred feet of hiking before running into two lying in the middle of the trail, while on the return trip we saw three more, including one sleeping right next to the park restaurant. Despite their comfort with humans and laziness (their hunting style is apparently to lay at a waterhole until a prey animal appears, then wait for it to die from the bacteria in their saliva), the Komodo dragons are as impressive as hoped for, and quite dangerous if traveling solo in the remote parts of the island.

The Komodo tour also included a climb to the heights of Padar island to view the paradisiacal landscape of deserted tropical islands as far as the eye could see and a trip to an impressive reef abutting a pink sand beach, though rough seas disrupted another spot known for its manta ray population, which would have been exciting to see. The six hours spent on a boat were less enjoyable, but it was nonetheless easy to relax with the sun beating down and the sea breezes blowing over the deck. Before the tour, I also took the hostel’s old kayak out to explore Labuan Bajo’s bay – before realizing that I was returning at low tide, forcing me to walk through a particularly disgusting stream to return (proper garbage disposal is very lacking throughout Indonesia).

After Labuan Bajo, I doubled back to perhaps the most essential spot on any traveler’s Indonesian itinerary, Bali. Bali is the stereotypical picture most Westerners have of Indonesia, but besides the climate it could not be more different than the rest of the country. The only overwhelmingly Hindu island of Indonesia, it preserves an ancient culture long ago displaced by Islam in the rest of the archipelago, though remnants still remain as monuments such as Prambanan. Given the syncretism and general liberalism of Indonesian Islam the contrast is not so great as between India or Pakistan, for example, but minarets are replaced with monumental statues of Hindu gods and ornate temple gateways, pork rejoins the menu, and headscarves are nowhere to be seen. Needless to say, any Ramadan festivities or limited eating options were absent from Bali – but given the ubiquity of Hindu festivals the island was still in a celebratory mood. Long a tourist destination, Bali is far more geared toward and used to Westerners than other parts of the country, though only marginally more expensive.

Many Western visitors to Bali head straight to the beaches, I however stayed with relatives living in inland Ubud. While no less touristy, Ubud focuses more on cultural, spiritual, and gastronomic tourism and as a result is classier and somewhat more authentic than the beach districts. And while I usually avoid over-touristed sites and even early in the summer Ubud’s main street is packed, Ubud is certainly worth its reputation. In just two days I hit the local palace, multiple temples (including Saraswati, famous for its lotus ponds; Tirta Empul, which featured ritual water immersion; and the 11th century rock sculptures of Gunung Kawi), spectacular rice terraces, the sprawling local market, and a traditional Hindu kecak dance ceremony.  And that’s ignoring all the spas, top-tier vegetarian restaurants, and numerous other historic and natural sites which could easily give someone with more time a week’s worth of activities. While in many cases it seemed tourism had largely replaced the traditional spiritual aspect of these sites or activities, they nonetheless were well-maintained, beautiful destinations that presented an excellent picture of Bali’s unique cultural offerings. Having access to my family’s driver certainly helped, as public transit is nonexistent in Bali, giving taxi drivers license to charge ridiculous prices to whichever tourists are unable to rent their own motorbikes to navigate the constant traffic. Sadly, my constant island-hopping forced me to miss many other Bali highlights, but given the wealth of direct international flights to the island, it’s not difficult to return.

The last segment of my trip left Indonesia, even if not by a lot, as I escaped the tourist highlights to squeeze in a visit to the world’s 4th newest country, Timor-Leste. Unlike the rest of the archipelago, which was divided between the Netherlands (Indonesia) and the UK (Malaysia/Brunei), Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony (Timor-Leste is the Portuguese translation and official name of East Timor, which used to be the more commonly used name in the US). It experienced an extremely short-lived independence in 1975, after which is was violently annexed by Indonesia, then fought a guerrilla war for the next 30 years before finally breaking away in 2003 after significant damage to the country. After independence, it essentially dropped off the global map except for Peace Corps volunteers and geography enthusiasts, an isolated and undeveloped backwater of the world of minimal strategic or economic importance. Even the discovery of oil has not meaningfully changed that situation, especially as the large UN presence wound down as the country transitioned into a shaky democracy, though competition between the US and China in Southeast Asia has brought some investment benefits. Still, with only three flights in and out of the country a day (and my original one was cancelled), infrastructure largely nonexistent outside the capital, and high prices compared to the rest of the region, it’s still not an easy country to visit. However, it certainly is a fascinating one. The struggle for independence has created a national pride that supersedes internal divisions – Timor has a stunning ethno-linguistic diversity for its size, with the largest local language only spoken by 25% of the population; the people of West Timor, which remained Indonesian, are traditionally antagonistic to their eastern brethren but many families have ties across the border. Flags and the name of independence hero Xanana Gusmao are ubiquitous, while the colonial inheritance of Catholicism and the Portuguese language have become the unifying features of the new nation. It is interesting to contrast the situation in Timor-Leste with that of other separatist regions of Indonesia, as the diversity and disconnectedness of the country prompted independence movements in Aceh, West Papua, and the Moluccas that failed, while little Timor-Leste eventually won.

That being said, Timor-Leste is still limited when it comes to tourist attractions. The capital, Dili, is a standard second-rate third-world city (though one with a disproportionately high number of expatriates). While attractively sited along the waterfront it has relatively few attractions, save a museum of the war for independence and a colossal statue of Jesus overlooking the bay (not the only way that Timor-Leste feels similar to Brazil). The other “cities” of the country are even less engaging, while the interior jungles, mountains, and tribal villages require four-wheel drives and far more than a few days to explore, making them essentially inaccessible to all but the most devoted trekkers. What Timor-Leste does have in profusion are reefs, as it is located at the heart of the coral triangle, the richest underwater environment in the world. And because of its lack of development, Timor-Leste’s reefs are in better condition and less crowded than many others in Indonesia (though Indonesia does have many spectacular ones as well). Most famous is Atauro island, across Dili’s harbor, though many dive sites are only a short drive from Dili (indeed, one good one is apparently right off one of the main docks). Thus, I spent most of my full day in Timor-Leste in the water as I snorkeled at a couple beaches east of town. Despite my hostel owner’s recommendations, it’s debatable whether the locations I visited were better than taking the shuttle to Atauro, but they nonetheless presented a remarkable variety of fish and coral and no other swimmers, though I again missed out on seeing any larger marine creatures such as dugongs, which are present at one of the beaches I visited (and I do regret not investing in an underwater camera before this trip). While I enjoyed my time in Timor-Leste, it is hard to imagine how it can differentiate itself enough from Indonesia to become a thriving tourist destination – but perhaps it will always be best suited to people like me who are willing to sacrifice some comfort to experience something a little unique.

Despite my worries about flight cancellations due to the eruption of Mt. Agung on Bali the weekend I left (and various tropical diseases I ended up escaping), it was no difficulty returning from Timor-Leste. While there are many more parts of Indonesia still to explore (and I would return to Timor-Leste too) the 36 hours I spent in planes or airports traveling back may dissuade me from stopping back in the region in the near future – so my next blog will likely be from somewhere a little closer to home.

Islands of Nature, Islands of Culture: Indonesia Part 1

In May 2019, I traveled to Indonesia to experience the vast cultural and natural diversity of this archipelago – and if being completely honest, because I’ve always had a particular affinity for islands. As my trip generally went from west to east across the country and involved multiple different islands/cities, this first post will cover my time in Indonesia’s major islands of Sumatra and Java. Sumatra and Java, as the main population/economic centers of Indonesia, are the source of much of the elements of Indonesia identity, yet nonetheless host many different cultures and religions even within the islands. However, my time in Sumatra left cultural exploration in favor of the most natural part of my voyage as I traveled to Bukit Lawang, the main base of exploration for Gunung Leuser National Park, located in the far north of the island near the sprawling but charmless city of Medan.

Bukit Lawang became a tourist center due to it being the location of an orangutan feeding and rehabilitation center. These great apes, perhaps Indonesia’s most famous wild resident, are more commonly associated with the island of Borneo, but Sumatra hosts a smaller but still notable population. While official feeding operations have been curtailed, Bukit Lawang maintains likely the highest density of orangutans in perhaps the most easily accessible location in Indonesia. Governmental and non-profit organizations have both promoted developing Bukit Lawang’s ecotourism as a way to save an environment heavily threatened by habitat destruction, primarily for palm oil plantations, which have led to the destruction of Sumatra’s forests at a faster rate than the loss of the Amazon, and which are found along most of the route from Medan – though hunting, mining, infrastructure construction, and general human population growth also have led to catastrophic declines in Sumatran wilderness (even technically protected areas) and wildlife population counts across the island. Bukit Lawang has been successful in stopping human encroachment in this sector of the park – but it can be argued given the constant human presence and interaction with wildlife whether this is still truly a wilderness environment. Nonetheless, my particular trip did give me the outdoors experience I desired, hiking into the jungle to a riverside campsite, and whitewater tubing back to the village the second day (technically, the trip was supposed to include two days of hiking but given high water levels and the laggardly sleep schedule of my tour companions the actual hiking was curtailed). While the humidity and slippery trails made hiking challenging, traveling in the dry season meant the torrential rainforest downpours luckily held off until evening, allowing clear weather for wildlife watching. There is an immense diversity of species in Sumatra, but only the monkeys, apes, and insects seemed willing to be seen during our first day – but we did see many of those, including several baby orangutans and three other species of monkey.  A few reptiles on the second day added a bit of variety, though birds and large predators stayed well out of sight (tigers, sun bears, and clouded leopards are present in the park, but even the guides have never seen them). While the accommodations were basic, the tour fed us well, including an enormous amount of tropical fruit (a particular pleasure of mine).

Given the number of guesthouses and restaurants in the village, Bukit Lawang is clearly built for a large number of tourists. However, either due to the early time of the year or the fact that I was traveling during Ramadan (when Muslims may travel less frequently as they often make trips around the festivals at its beginning and end) the village was deserted and encounters with other groups on the trail were rare – giving an unusual experience of a mostly empty village after dark.  

Given Bukit Lawang’s isolation, it was a long trip to my next destination of Yogyakarta, on Java’s south central coast (luckily, given the amount of time I spent in airports on this trip, Indonesia’s airports are quite comfortable and well maintained).  Today, while Yogyakarta lacks the enormous population of Jakarta, Indonesia’s current capital (which I skipped on this trip), it has perhaps the greatest concentration of historic and spiritual sites in the nation, from a variety of historic, cultural, and religious sources. Most prominently are the massive Buddhist temple Borobudur, the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, and the sprawling kraton (castle) and associated constructions of Yogyakarta’s Muslim sultans. The latter I missed save from the outside due to inconveniently brief opening hours, but the former two were the main focus of my time in Yogyakarta (Jogja to locals). A 3:30AM pickup for a sunrise view of Borobudur did little to help my sleep schedule, but provided spectacular views over Borobudur’s surroundings and towering Mount Merapi, an active volcano – but not the actual temple of Borobudur, which was obscured by fog and vegetation. Nonetheless, we soon moved to the actual temple site to trace its mandala layout and marvel at the intricate carving. Prambanan, though very architecturally distinct from Borobudur, displays the same mastery of stonework, as well as the complexity of this region’s religious history (it is now primarily Muslim, like most of Java). A number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have damaged the original temples at both sites, but strong design and dedicated renovation efforts make them seem as spectacular as they must have been at their peak.

My other major activity in Yogyakarta (besides a stop at the very cute but also very depressing animal market, which included otters, owls, and monkeys sold as pets) was a course in traditional Javanese archery within the older city. It felt like being trained at a Shaolin monastery in terms of the philosophy behind the sport and the interaction with the older instructor, though I was joined by a number of younger locals who also practiced the sport, where we broke the Ramadan fast together with local snacks. Traveling during Ramadan originally concerned me, as Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country and I was unsure if I would be able to eat during the day. However, most restaurants apparently have no trouble serving meals, even if the owners are not eating themselves, plus there are a number of restaurants owned by minorities that stay open regardless, so Ramadan made almost no inconvenience (and to be fair, given how timezones are set up Eastern Java gets to speed up sunset to eat dinner at a normal time even in summer).

After Malang I took an overnight train further east on Java to Malang, an experience I do not care to repeat, as the train had only hard benches, no seats, and lacked air conditioning – still, having the train as an option was convenient given that flights/ferries are the only options to get around Indonesia outside of Java. Malang is a nice city though not one with many particular attractions compared to Yogyakarta, though it does have one remarkable area in the colorful Jodipan district. Formerly (and still, technically) a slum, the entirety of the village was painted in bright colors and with murals in order to turn it into an Instagram-worthy tourist destination, which has certainly succeeded. Most tourists visit Malang, however, as a stopover point to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. This park surrounds some of the most photogenic of the 127 active volcanoes in Indonesia (and many more dormant ones), the most of any country. The main tour circuit is popular enough to draw in hordes of tourists even at 5AM, but the amazing views of the volcanoes rising above the fog make the early morning and bumpy ride worthwhile.

You may have noted that despite spending a week on islands, I never went near the sea. That, however would be rectified in the islands I visited east of Java in the second half of the trip, to be covered in my next post.

Hiking the Holy Land: an Israeli Sojourn

Having missed out when my study abroad group traveled to Israel several years ago, the country had long been top of my list of next destinations. And given its small size would allow me to hit many of the key destinations with minimal travel time, it was the first country that came to mind when I realized I had a week of vacation time to play with and I was getting antsy after too long without traveling.

Still, with 5,000 years of history, religion, and nature packed into this tiny state, there was still no way to get everything into a week trip, especially when considering the extensive time spent to fly from the U.S. (with a layover in old “friend” Istanbul Ataturk airport). Thus, this trip did exclude several of Israel’s main destinations, including Bethlehem, Eilat, and even Israel’s largest city Tel Aviv. Yet with the aid of the weather and efficient intercity transit system, I nonetheless hit a diverse mix of destinations including the “must-see” sites in my opinion. After a very early morning flight, I took the train up to Haifa along the Mediterranean coast and the nearby historic city of Akko, ending the day in Nazareth. I then spent two days hiking the Jesus Trail between various sights (biblical and otherwise) in the Galilee. That was followed by a stop at the Roman ruins of Bet Shean while en route to Jerusalem, where I spent the latter half of my trip, including a day trip south to Masada, En Gedi, and the Dead Sea.

Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, is not particularly known as a tourist site in the manner of several others I visited. Haifa is primarily industrial and residential, developed (like Tel Aviv) primarily since the 20th century. Yet what it lacks in significance for the Abrahamic religions it makes up for in being the spiritual heart of a fourth faith, Baha’ism, whose founder Baha’u’llah was exiled to the vicinity of Haifa and whose followers, who had built a community in the area during his lifetime, endowed the city with the spectacular garden terraces surrounding the tomb of Baha’u’llah’s mentor, the Bab. Also, like almost every settlement and natural feature in Israel, it has biblical ties – in Haifa’s case, it’s built around Mount Carmel, home of the prophet Elijah.


Haifa cityscape

Beyond the Baha’i sites, Haifa primarily serves for tourists as the gateway to the northern parts of Israel. Shortly north of the city is the smaller city of Akko, formerly known as Acre. Once a Phoenician settlement, it became famous as the main port of the Crusader kingdoms of the Levant during the Middle Ages, before falling to Muslim armies. Both Crusaders and Muslims (primarily the Mamluks and Ottomans) left significant architectural riches in the city that outlasted the tumultuous creation of the state of Israel. Today, the old walled city contains a plethora of mostly well-preserved castles, mosques, and marketplaces hidden among its labyrinth of alleys. It felt very similar to Dubrovnik, but with more local residents and fewer and more scattered tourists.

The last step in this long first day was in Nazareth, third holiest-city of Christianity (I would presume if there’s a ranking). Home of Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus, Nazareth played a key role in the gospels even if in a less memorable fashion than Bethlehem and Jerusalem. While several churches mark biblical events (most prominently the Basilica of the Annunciation, where God called Mary to have a child) and serve the local and tourist Christian population, today’s Nazareth is far different than the city of yore. Archaeological evidence shows that biblical Nazareth contained at most a few hundred residents, but today’s city is approximately 75,000 – not huge, but certainly a major local hub with the feel of a larger metropolitan area. Nazareth today is also predominantly Arab – Israeli Arabs (distinct politically if not ethnically from Palestinians) form approximately 25% of Israel’s population, with large concentrations in the Galilee. Nazareth’s Arab population was originally mostly Christian, but as in other Christian communities of the Middle East, high emigration, settlement of displaced residents from other portions of the country, and higher birth rates among the Muslim community have made Christianity a minority religion here.

Note that for most biblical sites mentioned in this blog, there is limited if any extra-biblical corroboration for their locations, and they can largely be preceded by “assumed” or “traditional”. While many of these sites were identified very early by the Byzantines, even that was several hundred years after the time of Christ, and many of their original structures were destroyed by invaders or natural disasters. And to be fair, the Bible is also not so descriptive as to replace GPS coordinates, and it would take superhuman archaeological skills to prove even in a town that existed in the first century AD that a specific building housed Jesus and/or his apostles. Indeed, for some of these stories (such as the Annunciation to Mary and the feeding of the 5,000), multiple Christian denominations have built their own churches or monuments each claiming to be the true site of the event. Of course, whether or not these events happened at all historically depends on one’s personal faith. Moral of the story – marvel at the architecture of these sites and use them to reconnect with the Gospels and worship in your own fashion, but do not put too much faith in a specific rock, ruin, or tree.

Nazareth, as the genesis of Jesus’s ministry, forms the start of a relatively new hiking path called the Jesus Trail. Modeled after the Camino de Santiago (though much shorter), this trail connects the purported locations of major events in the Gospels in the upper Galilee, as well as other historical, religious, and natural sites of interest along the way. Intended as a four-day trek, timing constraints forced me to hike just the 22 miles of the latter half (which my feet were very thankful for in the end). My section of the trail, while excluding Nazareth and Cana, caught the following sites:

  • The Horns of Hattin, site of the most famous battle of the Crusades, a decisive Christian defeat
  • Nabi Shueib, the tomb of the Druze prophet Jethro. A minor figure in the Bible (he was the father in law of Moses), he is revered by the quasi-Islamic Druze sect as the father of monotheism.
  • Cliffs of Arbel, both an impressive natural feature and the site of a major Jewish revolt during the time of King Herod, where the rebels lived in fortified caves in the cliff face.
  • Tabgha, the site of the feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus walking on water, now hosting multiple churches
  • Capernaum, the epicenter of Jesus’s ministry along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Unlike several of the other Christian sites, there has been extensive archaeological evidence of major Jewish settlement at Capernaum in the first century AD, including the alleged home of Saint Peter, who like many of Jesus’s disciples came from this region.

Additional sites near but not directly along the trail include Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene; the Mount of Beatitudes; the Roman city of Zippori (Sephoris) and various other ruins from across the eras.

You may have noted that the number of sites is very high for the relatively small distance traveled, a distance that’s even shorter as the crow flies. While Jesus likely did not trek hundreds of miles on a regular basis in general, this also is a result of the extraordinary density of the Galilee. The Galilee is one of the most fertile regions of Israel, and as a result it has been extensively developed for agriculture and human settlement, with new villages every few kilometers. The fact that Jews and Muslims live generally in separate villages, and that there are relatively few individual houses outside of settlements (presumably for security purposes) also increases the number of settlements. Unfortunately, that population density means that a relatively small section of the trail is actually on isolated hiking paths – much more is on the road, or following various tracks through farmland and pastures (occasionally needing to scare a cow out of the way). For someone used to hiking in the parks of the U.S., this was disappointing – the hike became more of a means to connect the sites rather than an enjoyable outdoor activity in and of itself.

I stayed the night after finishing the hike in the Galilean beach city of Tiberias, which seemed like a pleasant if slightly rundown city though I arrived too late and exhausted to do much sightseeing in the city itself (while Tiberias has an impressive historical pedigree, its major sites are tombs of Jewish sages, of less relevance to my personal interest in this trip).

The next day I did not attempt such an arduous undertaking as the Jesus Trail, but with so much to see there was no day I could truly rest. I was heading to Jerusalem, but made a brief stop along the way at the Roman ruins of Bet Shean (Scythopolis). A key regional center in the Roman period and earlier (5,000 years of settlement are built on top of each other to form the tell that overlooks the site), Bet Shean contains the classic buildings of a Roman city – amphitheater, arena, bathhouses, temples, and plenty of columns (fallen or standing). While destroyed by earthquake in 749, the remaining structures clearly demonstrate the consistency the Romans applied to urban planning across their empire as they brought back many memories of similar ruins in Turkey.

After Bet Shean was a relatively short bus ride to Jerusalem through the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of course a key part of modern Israeli life, but while I have digressed into geopolitics in earlier blogs I will leave that controversy aside here. However, it is striking to note the contrast between the well-maintained but heavily fortified Israeli settlements, many along the limited arable land along the Jordan river, and the ramshackle Palestinian villages, many perched on desolate desert hilltops. The boundaries between Israeli Palestine and Arab Palestine are geographically convoluted but clear – while Israeli vehicles transited across Palestine unmolested and in many cases the border was unnoticeable (in contrast to the other semi-independent states I had been in or near, such as Northern Cyprus or South Ossetia) multiple signs warned of violence or death for Israeli citizens leaving the main roads to enter into the Palestinian Zone A. I began my exploration of Jerusalem that evening, but I will jump ahead slightly to the next day’s trip to Masada, En Gedi, and the Dead Sea.

This is a classic day trip from Jerusalem, as each site, while close geographically, is significantly different in its clear attractions. Masada, which I hiked up to see the sunrise, was a natural mesa transformed into a palace by Herod (you will note that Herod comes up in regards to multiple of these sites – whatever his personal flaws recounted in the Bible, he clearly dedicated himself to transforming Judea into a modernized architectural wonder equal to anywhere else in the Roman Empire. and then a fortress by the Jewish rebels, who committed mass suicide atop the mountain when facing imminent defeat by the Roman legions. While the ruins are more extensive than I expected, the highlight is stunning views over the Dead Sea and into Jordan, as well as the canyons and mountains surrounding the site.

En Gedi is another break from the desert’s emptiness, though this time natural. An oasis since biblical times, the river of En Gedi, flowing over a series of waterfalls from its mountain source, supported many settlements since vanished, and today sustains a diverse collection of rare desert flora and fauna – unfortunately this fauna did not make an appearance during my visit.

The last stop on this trip was at the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. With a highly elevated salt content, the Dead Sea’s water is far easier to float in than a standard lake or pool – even I, who cannot float in a normal pool to save my life, could float there. It also is said to have therapeutic properties – while I did not apply a full mud bath as some people did, putting just a little on my limbs did make them feel noticeably softer, while the overall water texture was somewhat oily. And with the temperature noticeably warmer than in Jerusalem and very exposed to the sun, jumping in any body of water was a needed break from a lot of hiking.


Dead Sea

Lastly and most importantly is Jerusalem, holiest place on Earth. All the modern development that has occurred within the city is subsumed beneath its religious fervor – the sounds of prayer lifting over the deserted Shabbat streets, the Muslim adhan echoing from the hills of East Jerusalem, the Christian pilgrims bearing their crosses to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Regardless of the truth behind the stories that animate every corner of the Old City, Jerusalem has an undeniable spiritual energy barely suppressed by the crowds and trinket-sellers that intrude like the moneychangers in the biblical temple. One could spend a lifetime getting lost in the narrow alleys of the Old City, tracking down the tomb of every saint and sage and trying to find one’s own epiphany (and that does not even count the world-renowned museums and artistic exhibitions of the newer parts of the city). I limited myself to the key Christian sites, taking the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and tomb) and visiting the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, while also getting a more secular historical overview and city panorama at the Jerusalem Citadel (also largely built by Herod), then mostly wandered to find unique corners of the city not covered in the guidebook. While Jerusalem (and Israel as a whole) draws visitors from all over the world, the prominence of Russians, Indians, and Africans in pilgrim groups demonstrated the diversity of modern Christianity.


Jerusalem Old City Panorama

As befits its status as the center of empires and the home of global faiths, Jerusalem’s residents are particularly diverse, with Jews from Morocco, India, Iran, Ethiopia, and other African and Asian countries mixed with the largest cohort from Europe. The most prominent Jewish group is the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi),now one-third of Jerusalem’s population. Easily noticeable in their suits and felt or fur hats (for men) and long dresses (for women), the ultra-Orthodox have an extraordinary high birth rate (more than 4 children per woman) and are rapidly replacing secular Jews, giving Jerusalem a far more conservative character than the other main Jewish cities (the Arab population, primarily confined to East Jerusalem, is growing as well). Due to its diversity, Jerusalem has a dining scene influenced by every corner of the world with a Jewish population, arguably the best of any city I’ve visited (I ate Georgian, Armenian, Kurdish, Puerto Rican, and Yemenite cuisine, as well as the traditional Israeli breakfasts at the hostel). Unfortunately though, Israel is very expensive, especially compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors, with prices comparable to if not exceeding Western Europe and the U.S. (an unfortunate drawback for someone like me who usually eats on a budget).

If it were possible to understand all of Israel in a week, scholars and diplomats would not need to spend their lifetimes trying to piece together the incredibly rich history and culture of this place, or its occasionally tragic modern results. Luckily, as just a tourist I was able to come away quite satisfied, though as with most places I go, there may always be a next time.

Wild Ethiopia: Simien and Bale Mountains

Due to Ethiopia’s mountains, it lacks the famous megafauna found elsewhere in Africa, save for along the western and southern borders, which are far more difficult to access. The tradeoff for this is that the landscapes and views from the mountain parks are nothing short of spectacular (and the wildlife watching, while subdued, is nonetheless exceptional). Ethiopia does have tremendous biodiversity, including numerous endemic species, but much of it faces the same threats as elsewhere in the developing world, with habitat destruction, overpopulation, overgrazing, and pollution causing wildlife to retreat into protected or otherwise remote areas. Luckily for tourists like me, these areas have become much less remote as the government has made significant effort to pave roads and encourage development near the national parks to boost tourism, and numerous agencies manage transportation and handle the array of required permits, personnel, and equipment.

I visited two of Ethiopia’s national parks, and despite the historical and cultural wonders of the cities, I can safely say these were the highlights of the trip. My first, after Gondar, was the Simien Mountains National Park where I spent two days and one night hiking and camping. The Simien Mountains are considered Ethiopia’s Grand Canyon, and are deservedly famous both for their steep drop-offs and awe-inspiring views and for the local wildlife – gelada monkeys, walia ibex, and rare Ethiopian wolves. The park itself incorporates Ethiopia’s highest peak and mountain meadows used by local herders for grazing – unfortunately, this means the most common fauna are cows and sheep and there are significant erosion issues. Nonetheless, despite the altitude (most of the park is above 11,000 feet), the views from my campsite at Geech and from the peak of Imet Gogo the next day more than made up for the exercise of carrying my pack through the mountains (most treks include a mule to carry any baggage, my tour company apparently just pocketed that portion of the fees for the first day and let me use my own strength). And there was little difficulty seeing the park’s famous denizens – I passed multiple hundred strong packs of gelada monkeys just driving in, and more while on the trail. While returning to camp after sunset, our guide tracked down a unique noise to find an Ethiopian wolf, which we followed back toward the camp for some time – and then saw again the next day when it came around the camp garbage, only perhaps 100 yards from the tents. With only 500 individuals left in the world in a few sections of the Ethiopian highlands, seeing an Ethiopian wolf is a treat – but maybe not quite so rare, as they’ll come up again later in this post. Hiking in Ethiopia’s national parks is a change from elsewhere in the Western world, and not just for the landscape and wildlife. Both to provide sustainable employment to local people and to provide protection from the rare but still present leopards and hyenas (Ethiopian wolves are too small to pose much threat to humans), all trekkers are required to hire both a guide and an armed scout. I, however, did not get a guide for the first day and was left to wander around with a non-English-speaking scout and one other British traveler.

My second trip was also up into the mountains, but this time in the south of Ethiopia in the Bale Mountains. The only part of my travels that went south of Addis Ababa, traveling to the Bale Mountains meant passing through the Oromo regions, luckily no longer restive. There are minimal physical differences between the Oromo and Amhara, however the Oromo language, which uses a Latin alphabet and is closely related to Somali, does clearly differ from Amharic, a descendant of the Ge’ez language. There is also a much larger Muslim population among the Oromo, especially as one moves further East, so minarets replaced many of the crosses I found elsewhere in the country.

The first stop on the way to the Bale Mountains was Lake Ziway, part of the Rift Valley that is a significant waterfowl habitat. While I stopped only briefly at the shore, I was surrounded by flocks of marabou storks, pelicans, and other birds that hang around to feast on the fishermen’s leftovers.

The Bale Mountains National Park encompasses a much broader range of terrain than the Simien Mountains, and despite similar altitudes is far more verdant. Here, the wildlife is the main draw over the scenery (though both are impressive) and as if they were set up for me, just after crossing the park border into the region known as the Gaysay Grassland there were so many antelope (mountain nyala, Bohor reedbuck, and Menelik’s bushbuck) and warthogs it was impossible to drive a few feet without seeing another one. This was replicated in the forested area around park headquarters, where the guide with me to track animals seemed superfluous given their ubiquity – besides the antelope and warthogs I was able to sight a colobus monkey, baboons, and a honey badger. The next day entailed driving up into the meadowlands of the Sanetti Plateau, the best place in the world to spot Ethiopian wolves. My luck at spotting these creatures continued, as I saw seven in my two trips across the plateau, some at close range, as well as many smaller rodents and several endemic birds. The wolves (as well as birds of prey) hunt the giant mole-rats whose burrows cover the landscape, easily viewable in the barren landscape when racing from den to den. The trip also took me above the clouds to the peak of Tulu Dimtu, the second highest peak in Ethiopia, and down into the Harenna Forest, where my weather luck ran out (I had been traveling towards the end of the dry season so rain was rare), and in conjunction with a miscommunication with the guide that resulted in me getting lost in the jungle, I was not able to find the local Bale monkey (or, if terrifically lucky, a lion). While I regretted not getting more of a chance to hike in the park, the ease of access to the most important sites by 4WD definitely allowed me to have a better wildlife-viewing experience.

Both of these national parks, while still wildlife rich and popular with foreign tourists (though they were far from crowded at this time of year, I did not see a single visitor outside my group in the Simiens), show the challenges of maintaining large protected spaces in populated areas – in the Bale Mountains park rangers do a good job of keeping livestock out of the park, while in the Simiens there is less protection, but in both cases there are many communities within or just outside the park that rely on its resources for daily life and the parks must balance the tourism benefits of an undisturbed environment with the local demands for water, wood, and grazing land. Both parks also owe some of their upkeep to Western governments (Simiens to Austria, Bale Mountains to the EU/Oxford University). Indeed, throughout my travels in Ethiopia there were many signs of Western humanitarian involvement in Africa – local infrastructure projects bearing USAID or World Bank signs, posters urging local communities to stop migration to Europe, workers with medical charities trying to treat tropical diseases.

After the Bale Mountains, I headed back to Addis for one day to souvenir shop and relax before heading back to America with many great memories. Ethiopia is undoubtedly a challenging country – far too many of the inhabitants think of foreigners as walking piggy banks to beg or scam from, infrastructure and accommodations are certain lower quality than in the West, the cuisine can get monotonous, and political turmoil is always a risk. But I have never been anywhere like it, and its attractions are truly special, the sort of places that really are worth traveling halfway across the world to see.

Sacred Ethiopia: Lalibela and Aksum

The one benefit of not having enough Internet access to post these blogs while I was traveling is that I can organize them more thematically, instead of just going through places in the order visited. Thus, this post skips over my trip to the Simien Mountains National Park, which was my next step after Gondar, to focus on the two historic sites remaining, Lalibela and Aksum (don’t worry, there’s plenty to talk about with the national parks in the next post).

Unintentionally, I had arranged my trip so that I essentially went back in time through Ethiopia’s history, jumping from modern Addis Ababa to the 17th century castles of Gondar, to the 12th century capital of Lalibela and the even more ancient Aksum.

Lalibela today is a small community, approximately 40,000 people isolated amid soaring mountains reachable only by dirt roads. Yet during the 11th through 13th centuries, this isolation provided the perfect defense for the capital established by the Zagwe dynasty under King Lalibela. Inspired by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the news of Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim armies during the Crusades, Lalibela began an ambitious program to make his capital a new Jerusalem, and a holy city for all Christians. The result of this vision was the construction of eleven churches hewn out of solid rock, surrounded by biblically named natural features such as the River Jordan and Mount Tabor. These churches, so intricately designed and complexly engineered that Ethiopians believe they were partially built by angels when the humans stopped working during the night, are each different and each dedicated to a specific religious figure. Still in extraordinarily good condition (even though the roofs built by UNESCO detract from the scenic beauty), the churches are the main tourist attraction of Ethiopia and one of the most well-preserved historic sites in sub-Saharan Africa, most prominently the cross-shaped Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s). During the holy days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which do not necessarily align with their corresponding festivals in Western Christianity, as Ethiopian Orthodoxy follows a distinct calendar) these churches are swarmed with pilgrims from across the country – however, arriving approximately two weeks after Ethiopian Easter, the churches were largely deserted except for a few other foreign tourists and the priests. These churches generally lack the interior paintings found at the Lake Tana monasteries, though carvings along the walls and windows still have Christian symbolism and the experience of worship in the stone churches is quite distinct (if the stone floors make walking and kneeling admittedly a bit uncomfortable). Several of the churches today likely served other roles, such as palaces or storerooms in the past, providing some rationale for the many differences in design. My visit to Lalibela also included a side trip to the Yemrehana Kristos church a ways north of Lalibela in the countryside. This church, from the 11th century, predates the churches of Lalibela by almost a century. While the architectural links between the churches are clear, Yemrehana Kristos is unique in that it was built inside a cave, instead of carved out from the ground. This church became a pilgrimage site for many dying worshippers, whose mummies still fill the back of the cave in a rather macabre display of devotion. Unfortunately, for all of the tourism and pilgrimage to Lalibela, it is difficult to see a positive impact in the community, which is still quite poor and unexceptional beyond the cluster of churches.

After Lalibela I continued the Christianity theme by flying north to Aksum (often spelled Axum, especially when as a historical reference). Aksum is the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray population, and is within sight of the bitterly contested border with Eritrea, also primarily Tigray. Also mountainous but drier than the cities I had previously visited, Aksum has an outsize importance for its small size (approximately 80,000 people). Long before the year 0, Aksum and surrounding communities were the center of Ethiopian civilization, and the growth of the Aksumite Empire in the first millennium AD, when it controlled most of the Horn of Africa as well as Yemen and parts of Sudan, left a profusion of historical relics. Foremost among these are the stone obelisks (stelae) dotted around town, especially in the Northern Stelae Field. The progression from uncarved, unraised stones to small uncarved raised stones to the massive carved raised stones (of which only three remain, the fallen Great Stela, the Rome Stela captured and returned by the Italians, and the King Ezana’s Stela (which is currently held up by scaffolding) is clear in the small field, which also contains the tombs of local notables the stelae were placed here to mark. The adoption of Christianity by Aksumite King Ezana (whose stone marker inscribed in the Aksumite Ge’ez language, Greek, and Sabaean [Yemenite] can be considered the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone) caused a conflation of the Aksumite ruins with biblical stories in later years – Aksum claims the palace and bath of the Queen of Sheba, the tomb of King Bazen (Balthazar), one of the Magi, and most importantly the Ark of the Covenant.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Solomon had a son with the Queen of Sheba. This son, Menelik, who was the founder of the Ethiopian royal lineage, traveled to Jerusalem to visit his father and on his return took the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and carried it to Ethiopia, where it has remained ever since. Now held in a small chapel between the St. Mary of Zion churches (one from the 17th century, one from the 1950s) inaccessible to all except one monk, the presence of the famous relic here makes Aksum the holiest site in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Only the monks can say if the true Ark is actually in Aksum, but with no other would-be Arks elsewhere in the world as yet, this mystery does not stop Ethiopians’ faith in their country’s possession of this most powerful of biblical objects.


Due to this claim to religious fame, Aksum is also surrounded by monasteries and rock churches, such as the hilltop monastery of Abba Pentalewon, offering views across town, north to Eritrea, and into the moonscape of the Adwa Mountains in the East, where Ethiopia won its famous victory against Italian invaders on March 1, 1896 (now an Ethiopian holiday). The importance of the Tigray region has continued into present day Ethiopia, as it was the epicenter of resistance against the Communist Derg and its inhabitants were disproportionately represented in the governments that followed the civil war – perhaps the reason for the better condition of Aksum as compared to many of the smaller Amharic and Oromo cities I passed through.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy is a far more powerful part of Ethiopian culture than Christianity is even in more religious countries such as Russia or Latin America, let alone the largely non-religious West. Ethiopian Christianity dates back to King Ezana, Aba Salama (Frumentius) and the Nine Saints in the 4th century AD, though the church claims an even older descent, to the Ethiopian official baptized by Philip in the Bible. On holy days Ethiopians will wear white ceremonial robes and spend much of the day in worship – the day I left Gondar was St. Michael’s Day, and starting at 3:00 in the morning sermons were blared by loudspeaker across the town for at least six straight hours, similar to the Muslim call to prayer. Ethiopians particularly venerate St. Mary and St. George, whose images are found in almost all churches, and spend much of the year abstaining from meat as part of a strict fasting regimen. The Ethiopian Bible, written in the ancient liturgical Ge’ez language, contains numerous unique books used by no other denomination. Yet despite this Christian fervor, modern Ethiopia is remarkably tolerant, as the third of the country which is Muslim (across all ethnic groups) coexists peacefully with Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike, and most still practice certain local traditions regardless of faith.


Ancient Bible in Ge’ez, Abba Pentalewon monastery

But after so many days seeing churches and castles, it was time to escape the small cities in Ethiopia’s nature – the focus of the last of my Ethiopia posts.

Urban Ethiopia: Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, and Gondar

Having seen Europe, Asia, North and South America on my travels so far, I started to consider taking my next trip to Africa, and Ethiopia was the first country that I started to study. As more travelers seek more adventurous destinations, Ethiopia has just barely started to feature on tourist itineraries, and with a great diversity of landscapes, wildlife, historical sites, and ethnic groups, Ethiopia seemed a wonderful place to get a first taste of the continent (the fact that it has direct flights from DC also helped). I spent two weeks traveling solo in Ethiopia, jumping between a half-dozen cities and parks to cover most of the country’s highlights.

As some background to keep track of the differences and importance of the various cities and sites I visited, here’s a brief history. Unlike most African countries, the results of modern European meddling, Ethiopia has an ancient history – it is referenced in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in the Bible, developed major civilizations as early as 1500 BC, was the world’s second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and likely formed the basis for the European legends of the kingdom of Prester John. Ethiopia’s defeat of Italian would-be colonizers is a defining feature of national identity. Yet despite this history, Ethiopia today is not a unified country, and is divided into a multitude of different ethnic groups, predominantly the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and Somali, each of which inhabit their own region of the country – I visited all except for the Somali region, which is discouraged by the State Department due to ongoing intertribal and anti-government violence. Dissatisfaction between the Oromo and Amhara, which comprise the majority of the population, and the Tigray-dominated government led to major violent protests around the country in the two years prior to my visit. Approximately one month before I arrived, the long-time prime minister was replaced with an Oromo, leading to increased optimism in the political direction of the country. Nonetheless, surging population growth and a still largely agricultural lifestyle in much of the country pose a significant challenge to any leadership seeking to integrate the masses of underemployed young people into a modern nation.

I began my trip, as most foreigners must, in the capital Addis Ababa. While no particular tourist destination itself, Addis perfectly encapsulates the changing nature of today’s Ethiopia. Flush with Chinese-built infrastructure, high-rise hotels and office buildings, diverse dining and entertainment options to suit a burgeoning middle class (and the army of foreign diplomats and NGO workers who pass through the city), Addis’ wealth has drawn in millions of people from other parts of the country, most of whom have not found the high-paying jobs they desired. As a result, much of the city consists of hastily constructed slum neighborhoods hidden behind the main streets, while the haphazard growth of even the more modern sections of town has caused major problems with congestion and pollution across the city.

Founded only at the end of the 19th century, Addis has relatively few historical sites, though it does host Ethiopia’s main museums – while admittedly shabbier than their Western counterparts, the National Museum of Ethiopia and Ethnological Museum host some important artifacts, such as the cast of the skeleton of “Lucy”, the most famous early human specimen, while the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum shines a powerful light on some of the horrific, if little-known violence of late 20th century Ethiopia under Communist rule.

Chiefly, however, for those who are not in Ethiopia for business or government purposes, Addis serves as a gateway to the more spectacular outlying regions of Ethiopia, thanks to the high-quality intercity service offered by Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s premier carrier (which offers half-off domestic flight prices to people who book on its international routes). My trip, largely following the traditional northern circuit route, focused on these cities and parks, starting with the city of Bahir Dar.

Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, is located on the shore of Lake Tana (Ethiopia’s biggest lake) and the source of the Blue Nile river (one of the two headwaters of the Nile), and has developed into a domestic tourist destination for Ethiopians thanks to its picturesque scenery. Its palm-lined main boulevard is far more reminiscent of the Caribbean than anywhere else in landlocked, arid, Ethiopia; though unfortunately this attractiveness does not extend past the first block from the lake.

While the city is comfortable enough, Bahir Dar’s main attractions are located along its waterways. Due to earlier periods of religious strife, many of Ethiopia’s Christian monks established communities on the islands and peninsulas around Lake Tana, decorating these monasteries (which on the outside are simple and very African-looking with their round, thatched churches) with beautiful depictions of biblical scenes, including unique local stories included solely in the Ethiopian Bible or related texts. The source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana also is a great site for wildlife viewing, adding an extra bonus to a boat trip to the lake monasteries (I visited only two, Ura Kidane Meret and Azuwa Maryam on the Zege Peninsula, though per the guidebooks differences between the dozen-odd monasteries on the lake are rather minor).

In the other direction from the city, the Blue Nile has an impressive waterfall, though at the time of my visit it was shrunken heavily due to the dry season (which lasts from around October-April), as well as dams built upstream. Though not far from the city, the trip to the falls provided a fascinating glimpse of Ethiopian rural life, as most of the country’s population is still engaged in agriculture and lives in small villages like those I passed through, where the dirt roads are used for livestock instead of vehicles, traditional clothing is still regularly worn, and school is secondary to helping in the fields, even for 5-6 year old children.

A very crowded and uncomfortable local minibus ride took me next to Gondar, another Amhara city even higher in the mountains, and the seat of Ethiopian power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most prominently under Emperor Fasilides. The presence of the emperor’s court in Gondar endowed the city with a profusion of castles and other historic architecture, most well preserved in the Royal Enclosure despite destruction from later wars and the general decline of the city’s importance after 1850 – Gondar is sometimes called the “Camelot of Africa” for its medieval appearance, though its crumbling palaces show far more signs of Indian and Middle Eastern influence than European. Still walled off from the rest of the city, wandering through the mostly-deserted grounds of the Royal Enclosure is strangely peaceful, with the lost opulence of the ancient emperors a stark contrast to the poverty and bustle of the modern city. While most of the rest of Gondar today is similar to any other Ethiopian city, a few historic sites are scattered elsewhere in the city, such as the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, allegedly saved from a marauding army by a miraculous swarm of bees. While leaving the city, I got an experience of Ethiopian’s approach to the new leadership, far different than the emperors of yore – a visit from the new prime minister drew thousands of marchers to welcome him to the city, waving the flags of Ethiopia and the Amhara region and posters of his face – clearly, despite the lack of democratic participation in his rise to power, the local people have great expectations for a more inclusive government under his direction. As an interesting side note, according to one would-be guide, many of Washington DC’s large Ethiopian population hail originally from Gondar.

Next I go back in time to even older capitals of Ethiopia in Lalibela and Aksum, but that’s for another blog.

Tropical Escape: A Week in Colombia (and I Don’t Mean the District)

When I found myself with an extra week of vacation time, I thought there would be no better use to taking a trip to a continent I had never visited, South America. And there’s arguably no better place to get a taste for Latin American and Caribbean culture and history then in Colombia’s historic but booming port of Cartagena. Once a rare destination due to many years of internal conflict related to radical political ideology and the drug trade, Colombia’s recent peace deals, rapidly developing cities, and the general growth of adventure tourism have brought many more visitors in recent years to experience Colombia’s beautiful nature and rich colonial heritage (though I’ll admit that part of my inspiration was from the TV show Narcos, which presents the rise and fall of Colombia’s most notorious claim to fame, Pablo Escobar). And most of this tourism is centered on Cartagena, easily accessible by plane or ship from North America. However, as I traveled in the rainy season, most of the other tourists were European backpackers or American week-trippers, not the crowds of cruise ship passengers that overwhelm the city during the winter months (despite the season, the rain consisted only of short afternoon showers that did not interfere with my plans).

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 as the hub of their colonial empire in the Americas, shipping out untold tons of gold and silver mined or stolen from native peoples across the Andean region and serving as the stopping place for thousands of slaves, soldiers, fortune seekers, and other Europeans moving to these vast territories. But such a wealthy but distant city proved an irresistible attraction to pirates and other European powers seeking a foothold in the Caribbean, and was attacked multiple times, including by such famous figures as Francis Drake and John Hawkins. As a result, the Spanish colonial government developed a massive system of fortifications around the Old City and the surrounding islands and mainland dominated by the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress complex in Spanish North America. Despite their imposing looks, this castle was relatively ineffective in actually defending the city, which still fell multiple times after its construction.


San Felipe Castle


San Felipe Castle


San Felipe Castle, Cartagena


View of Getsemani and Old Town Cartagena from San Felipe Castle


Fort in the outer islands of Cartagena


Wall of Old Town Cartagena with modern high-rises in the background

Inside the walls, the Old City of Cartagena’s closely packed mansions and churches are a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, while the nearby Getsemani neighborhood (once the lower class section of the city, now the “hip” neighborhood and site of most backpacker accommodation, including my own) includes a profusion of murals and colorful houses overflowing with flowers. Both parts of the city, despite their tourist appeal, are still living cities, and the sightseer regularly passes local residents going to and from their homes, work, and errands. With hundreds of years of mixing between African, Indian, and European residents, Cartagena’s people are remarkably diverse, if largely poor, with tourism giving many extra income but making limited large-scale impact on the lives of most residents.


Torre Regoj, Entrance to Old Town Cartagena


Old Town Cartagena


Old Town Cartagena


Old Town, Cartagena


Simon Bolivar statue and local dancers, Old Town Cartagena


Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena


Mural, Getsemani, Cartagena


Palenque woman, Old Town Cartagena

Yet Cartagena today has grown to nearly one million residents, far outstripping the old town, and resulting in a dizzying array of neighborhood types; the high-rise resort and condo towers of Bocagrande, the busy ports, the well-preserved tourist center, and the sprawling slums to the East and South, with striking contrasts between the lives of rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal countries. But the prices are fantastic for a foreigner, especially if one eats like the locals (Colombian cuisine is mostly simple but satisfying – meat with rice and potatoes or beans, with Cartagena’s food especially drawing off the sea, and a profusion of fresh fruit and juices).

Cartagena also draws its popularity from the ease of taking day or longer trips from the city to dozens of pristine beaches, hidden ruins, or wild rainforests. As part of my trip, I took two classic trips from Cartagena. The first, just a day trip, was to the Isla Pirata (Pirate Island), part of the Islas Rosarios National Park, which preserves remarkable coral reefs and all the expected features of a tropical resort, though it has also become a ritzy vacation destination for the upper class of Colombia and around the world. For my trip, though, I appreciated having a few other groups of Americans to spend the day with.