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Melissa’s Travels: Ethiopia

We talk a lot about transformational travel at Indagare, and I believe that shifts in perceptions and in patterns of behavior often happen when you are out of your comfort zone or exposed to different perspectives. All of our Insider Journeys are designed to give travelers access to locals and exposure to unusual experiences and viewpoints. But our recent member trip to Ethiopia was one of the most physically and intellectually challenging trips I’ve made.

One afternoon we climbed to what has been called the world’s most dangerous church, Abuna Yemata. The hike to reach it is only a mile long, but it includes rock climbing with ropes and crossing some seriously narrow ledges; one juts above a sheer 650-foot drop. And because in Ethiopian churches you must remove your shoes before entering—and the entry to this one begins part of the way down the cliff—you have to climb the last quarter of a mile in your bare feet. Inside a cave-like room carved into the sandstone in the fifth century, the priest, who had clambered up behind us, shared the church’s centuries-old relics, religious paintings and bibles in Amharic. I don’t know what was more awe-inspiring: the priest’s serene devotion, the views across the Tigray Valley or the camaraderie our group felt in all safely ascending and descending.

Another afternoon, in the Omo River Valley, we traveled by boat and bumpy dirt road to attend a bull-jumping ceremony of the Hamar tribe. For boys in this pastoralist society to formally become men, the rite of passage involves running across the backs of seven to 10 bulls without falling off. The whole village gathers to watch the ceremony, and beforehand, the women in the boys’ families show their loyalty by offering themselves up to be whipped. It’s an ancient practice, and not an easy one to watch, as the women beseech men to lash them with a birch stick. The scars they receive are permanent symbols of their courage and strength, but also of the loyalty that the boys owe them in return.

While it is easy to recoil at the brutality of this ritual and others equally foreign to us, I was reminded of the anthropologist Wade Davis, who is an ardent supporter of cultural diversity and reminds us that “the world in which you were born is just one reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” Another one of my favorite travel quotes is from the Moroccan explorer and scholar Ibn Battuta: “First, travel leaves you speechless, and then it turns you into a storyteller.” Ethiopia left me with many stories. I hope you enjoy some of my photos.

– Melissa Biggs Bradley on December 6, 2019

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