Teacher Dona Malan has traveled to all seven continents and has visited 150 countries in her lifetime. This year’s first adventure was an Ethiopia tour with Journeys International in late January. “Everything we saw was worthwhile,” she said of the experience. “Every day was amazing.”

Her Inspiration to Visit Ethiopia

Why Ethiopia? Dona has a neighbor, Daniel, who is a native to the African nation and a good friend in San Francisco. Over the years, as Daniel’s friends and family have come to visit him in California, Dona had several opportunities to meet them and show them around the Bay area. She became close with one friend in particular, Etalem, who had visited Daniel in the United States twice. And as soon as she arrived in Addis Ababa, Dona reached out to Etalem so she could show her around.

Highlights of the Adventure

The adventure included a small group of six people: Dona traveled with two friends; plus a mother-son team from Michigan and an Ethiopian guide. She spoke emphatically when she described the experiences they shared. “This was one of the most amazing trips because of the variety of activities. Every day had surprises in it!”

The tour began in Lalibela, which is home to 12th and 13th century churches built of pink basalt. The group got the opportunity there to observe the TImkat festival, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany. Dona said she found it difficult to understand exactly what was going on but sincerely enjoyed the people watching. What still “blows my mind,” she said, is the festival procession, during which a carpet is unrolled under the priests’ feet (and then packed up and passed forward to the front of the procession to be unrolled again) for miles on end.

Dona and her fellow travelers were able to visit other ancient churches and monasteries; the city of Gondar, which is the origin of the Falasha people, the “Black Jews” of Ethiopia; and the city of Axum, which many assert is where the Ark of the Covenant can be found. They saw the Blue Nile and the red chests characteristic of the gelada baboons of the Simien Mountains. They enjoyed a stay at a holiday resort on Lake Lagano, home to all sorts of native wildlife, including an occasional hippopotamus. Part of the itinerary involved a cooking lesson (complete with a demonstration of the making of the Ethiopian bread known as injera) and a coffee ceremony in a private home.

The Ethiopian People

“The Ethiopians are beautiful people—always smiling,” Dona said. A popular misconception among Americans is the notion that everyone there is starving. She didn’t get any sense of that, and in fact noted that she found people growing lots of food.

She and the group spent some time visiting with and learning about the various tribes of the Omo River Valley, a region within Africa’s Great Rift Valley known for its agricultural fertility and its great ethnic diversity, not to mention its rich archaeological heritage. They visited with the Dorze people, who are known for their bamboo “beehive” houses. The Hamer tribe is famous for their pottery and their hairstyling. The group also toured villages of the Konso, the Mursi, the Karo, and the Erbore people, all of whom live according to culturally distinct traditions within the same relatively small geographic area.

The Last to Discover Ethiopia

Dona doesn’t have only one favorite recollection from her time in Ethiopia. Instead she lives with a head “crammed full of memories.” She and her travel companions still talk all the time about the experience and recall together some of the big moments as well as the smaller glimpses of life halfway around the world. The journey was “very [physically] challenging,” she said, and a wonderful, amazing experience. Americans seem to be “the last to discover Ethiopia,” and Dona encourages others to take advantage of the opportunity to go.

Read more about Dona’s trip and see her photos on her blog.

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