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Thursday, September 25, 2014


For those of you following along with my travels and eagerly awaiting more reading material, I offer my sincerest apologies for the delay! I have many great stories to share and so little time to document them in the ways that I want. While I could take the easier route and just document what I am doing, I hope this blog will be more than just a journal of journeys. I am hoping to dive deeper into the philosophy of travel and provide thought provoking anecdotes and theological connections that I have made during my excursions. That being said, these types of posts take a little more time and effort to write! Good news is, I have a couple stories brewing and I am liking where they are headed! Stay tuned for some tales of travel from trips both recent and past!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lessons Learned in Lalibela

We finally made it. After a failed attempt to see the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela in 2012 that sent us instead to the home of the Arc of the Covenant in Axum, we were finally able to make it to see what many call the African Petra. These eleven churches were carved out of mountains in the 12th Century under the direction of Saint Lalibela and are some of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Ethiopia.  People come from all over the world to see these massive stone buildings including pilgrims from various regions in Ethiopia, thereby perpetuating a town based almost entirely on tourism surrounding the churches.

The Around-the-World Semester taught me to be a traveler, not a tourist.  A traveler goes places to learn about the people and the culture of the area by connecting with locals while a tourist goes places to take pictures next to famous sites. A traveler goes abroad to forge his own new adventures while a tourist goes abroad to follow in the footsteps of guides who have given the same tour to thousands of other tourists. A traveler attempts to get in touch with the local transportation and shops while the tourist takes a tour bus from overpriced gift shop to overpriced gift shop at the end of each site that they have gone to tour. Travelers are independent explorers while tourists are sheep being herded to traps of profiteering extortionists who make their living preying on ignorant foreigners. At least that is the dichotomy I have come to know.

As Dr. Preuss and Teddy went to buy the tickets to Lalibela, Teddy made another friend. It is no wonder he knows everyone wherever we go. The airport clerk gave Teddy the contact information for a tour guide friend he has in Lalibela. While it is always nice to have contacts when traveling to new places, I was a bit skeptical when I hear ours will be a tour guide. I began to prepare myself for a weekend of dealing with tourist traps and rip-off schemes.  

When we arrived, just the opposite occurs. As our shuttle dropped us off at the Bete Abraham hotel, we were greeted by a smiley gentleman who introduces himself as Tefera. He was the guide that would be showing us around Lalibela.  After some discussion in Amharic between him, Teddy, and the hotel clerk, Teddy informed us that our rooms will cost 250 birr/night (~USD$12.50) as opposed to the regular rate of 900 birr/night (~USD$45) because Tefera is friends with the hotel manager.  While this is welcome news, I thought to myself that this is a clever tactic to gain our trust. The hotel probably never charges 900 birr and they are just telling us that we are getting a discount to make it seem like a great deal.

Our trip was short so we hit the gravel landing strip running. There are 11 churches at Lalibela, divided into three groups, so Tefera decided to take us to two of the three groups the first afternoon, totaling seven churches.  The next day we would see the four remaining churches of Lalibela as well as another historic site Tefera thought would be good for us to see. He said that he would lower his normal price of 500 birr/day to 400 since we would only be using him for half of the day. “Right…” I thought, “Normal price for ‘rich’ farangis who you can easily charge more than locals.” Despite the many discounts, we were still working with people in the business of tourism, a Nazareth of which no good can come in my book.  Despite this skepticism, the magnificence of the churches wowed and impressed.

Outside of the Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World)
Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George)

This negative sentiment was furthered the next morning when we went to the Yimrhane Kristos Church, nearly two hours away by van. The remote and almost inaccessible church is visited mostly by pilgrims and tourists and since the locals some how recognize that we are not Ethiopian Orthodox, they decide we are tourists.  As we walk through the small, sleepy town to the church, everything begins to wake up. After touring the cave church we emerged to see the town bustling with gift shop owners all hawking their overpriced wares. The epitome of this was a vendor with a dish of coins, both Ethiopian and foreign, including an American nickel which he was trying to off-load on some na├»ve souvenir hunter for the low price of 40 birr (~US $2.00).  “Typical,” I thought, “Mark ups of literally 4000% the actual value…” 

Teddy with the priest
holding the church cross and umbrella

Yhimrhane Kristos Church
(Which I did enjoy! Just not the vendors!)

When we arrived back in Lalibela, Tefera showed us some of the places where he grew up as a child. Under a gum tree that he frequented in his younger years was a rock with his name carved in it in both English and Amharic.  Despite his displays of credibility, I was still skeptical of his integrity, wondering how many different tour guides call themselves “Tefera” in order to gain the tourists trust.

We continued on to the final churches. They consisted of more amazing architecture and lessons on Orthodoxy, which was strikingly similar to pre-Reformation Catholicism.  Tefera grew up Orthodox so he was able to explain some of the intricacies to us from an insiders perspective.  We learned that the Orthodox primarily use Ge’ez, a dead language that only the priestly order are allowed to learn, much like the Catholic Church used Latin, another dead language that the people did not understand. They worship Mary and the other saints as well.  The prices to get into the churches (USD$50, one of the only prices Teddy could not haggle for us) seemed to be extortion just like the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.  I wondered if the Orthodox Church profits off of any of the exorbitant merchandise sold at the gift shops surrounding the churches.

After a very informative two days of touring, I had finally come to trust Tefera, whom we call Tefe now that we have grown so close.  What he did at the end of our tour made me feel bad for ever doubting his sincerity.  As we finished the tour in the early afternoon, Tefe invited us to his home for some traditional Ethiopian food. He said that he does not invite all of his tours to his home but he liked our group so he wanted to show us portions of his daily life. When we arrived, his sister-in-law prepared us a coffee ceremony and engira (a traditional bread that tastes like a sourdough crepe) with fresh goat cheese, shero wat (a vegetable paste), and burberry (a spicy mixer for the other two dishes.  The meal was topped of with fresh honey that Tefe harvests from his personal bee hives.  With that meal, I felt terrible for thinking of Tefe as a con artist.  His enthusiasm was not a plot to gain tips or encourage spending, but rather it was closer to the excitement of a man sharing interesting facts and connections to history from his childhood.  Lalibela had been his home for his whole life and he knows it better than most, qualifying him to be one of the best tour guides in town.

Traditional Ethiopian food at Tefe's

Preparing the coffee ceremony and honey

Our group with Tefe and his sister-in-law

However, after dinner there was still the unresolved issue of souvenir hunting.  None of us had given in and bought anything from the vendors we had seen so far but there were still gifts to be purchased and trinkets to acquire.  Realizing that a US nickel would sell for ETB 40, I naturally extrapolated that I could trade a pressed penny that costs USD$0.51 to create for at least 400 birr(~USD$20).  With this knowledge in my coin pouch, we set off with Teddy as our translator to see what vendors were still open.

We walked into the first shop we came across.  Being a coin collector, I immediately noticed the tray of mixed change that included foreign coins and old Ethiopian coins on the counter.  “Perfect,” I thought, “Just the person to unload this smashed penny on.”  I begin rummaging around through the dish a come across a birr penny, the one coin I could not find on my last trip to Ethiopia.  Teddy says that they are just considered a hassle because they are next to worthless.  The only time you really see them is at the bank because they are the only ones that care about exact change.  This makes them rare despite their low face value and explains why I had not yet seen one.  

When the vendor discovers that I am a coin collector, he tells me via Teddy that I can have it as a gift, from one numismatist to another.  I am shocked and amazed that someone in the souvenir sales sector would literally give away his merchandise to a random foreigner.  I pull out my pressed penny to see if he will accept it in trade for one of his other coins.  However, there is a bit of communication breakdown and he adds it to his pile of coins, thanking me for my gift to him.  A bit confused, I just accept it, feeling bad for wanting to take advantage of him earlier.

Our whole group ends out buying many gifts and personal keepsakes at his shop and at the end, he gives everyone an Axumite cross necklace (in the style of the people of Axum in the north).  He stops me as I am about to leave and hands me two Haile Selassie coins saying that if I am a collector, I should have these in my collection.  These are old coins that are no longer in circulation and that every vendor tries to sell for upwards of 50 birr.  “Aren’t these hard to find?” I ask him. “Oh yes,” he says through Teddy, “It takes much sweat to get them.”  I am touched by his generosity and ask what his name is, realizing we never actually introduced ourselves.  He tells me it is Iyere which Teddy informs me means “I have seen.” The Ethiopians are all very proud of their name meanings.  

Reflecting on my meeting with Iyere shows me that I have truly seen.  While there can be annoying pieces to the tourism trade, this does not mean that all individuals involved in it are that way.  I was so caught up in the fact that many of them generalize all non-African people as rich folks that they can take advantage of that I began to generalize all of them as trying to take advantage of me.  Both Tefe and Iyere demonstrated to me that there are in fact genuinely good people in the tourist trade.  I now wear the Axumite cross to remind myself of the generosity of Iyere and to not judge people too quickly by their vocation or any other outward indicators.  

Lesson learned: those in tourism are people nonetheless. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sleepless in Soddo

                 After an all day excursion driving from Addis Ababa to Wolaita Soddo in the southern region of the country on Friday, I am tired. Riding in a van is surprisingly exhausting, not to mention the 10 hour time difference that has my body thinking it should be sleeping all day and awake all night. Even after a few days in Soddo I am not adjusting well because of the noise at night. Oh the noise! Our hotel, while a very nice place to stay, is right next to the discotech, which ironically blasts “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Chris Brown late into the night. I guess they can’t wake me up if I am not asleep… The only relief is the blessing of a power-outage, a phrase I never thought I would say during summer in Africa.  However, even when the whole city of Soddo is without power, the Orthodox church is “miraculously” still able to keep its morning sermons going over the citywide loudspeaker which begin around three or four in the morning depending on the day.  Somehow the Muslims have worked around the power grid as well, as their early morning call to prayer is still going in full force. While we cannot take a hot shower, use any lights, or charge our cameras, the Orthodox and the Muslims still vie for volume victory while those not from either religion, including myself, fight for a few fleeting seconds of shuteye before giving in and listening to the drone of elderly Ethiopian men singing to the sky. At least the evangelical Kale Heywet Church across the street doesn’t start singing and service until eight.
                This public religious proclamations are very representative of the religious culture of Ethiopia as a whole.  The Orthodox have been around forever, tracing their lineage back to King Solomon. In fact, it was only recently during the surge of communism that the kingly lineage was broken when Haile Selassie was removed from office during the rise of the Derg (the Ethiopian communist government that ruled from 1974-1987). Even during the Derg, the Orthodox Church retained some power and now that communism has fallen the Orthodox are once again in control of most of the government.  Islam too has a vast history starting in the Sixth Century and it has a foothold in Ethiopia as well.  Islam is on the rise though as it has a plan to Islamize Ethiopia by 2020. Once again, the late one to the religious culture party is the Evangelical Church. 
                Despite its tardiness, the Evangelical Church is on the rise in Ethiopia.  Pastor Yosef, one of the men we worked with in our evangelizing excursion in 2012, is a leader in the Kale Heywet Church which partners with the Sudan Interior Mission Church.  While behind the times in some ways, there are other ways that the Evangelical Churches of Ethiopia show great maturity.  “We do not care about denomination,” says Yosef, “Only Jesus!”  During our stay in Soddo we had the opportunity to visit many different churches including Kale Heywet, Faith Bible Institute, and Mekane Yesus, a church currently in dialogue about opening fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  These and many others all partnered together for the evangelism of Mount Damot in 2012 and over 80 people came to Christ and six or seven home churches that were planted then are still meeting to this day! During our efforts this time, another 26 came to Christ and joined home churches that were planted in 2012 and we were able to distribute over 30 Amharic Bibles (the national language) and Wolaitenya New Testaments (in the local language). The Evangelical Churches even tried to band together to purchase some property for campus ministry at Wolaita Soddo University. Even though they could not afford it, they still plan to let all of the Christian students use the property if Mekane Yesus can afford the new land before the Muslims find out about it and purchase it for twice its worth with oil money. Just imagine what could be accomplished for Christ if churches in America set aside their differences to reach out to non-Christians rather than allowing their “theological superiority” get in the way of partnering with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I have a lot to learn from Christians in Ethiopia, that’s for sure.

                Now I am not trying to say that we should ignore doctrinal differences in the Church. Doctrine is a very important part of Christianity and it can and should be discussed in the right times and settings.  The point I am trying to make clear is that none of us have it all figured out theologically and it is arrogant to believe that you do.  I know that I can fall into this trap myself quite often.  What is most important though is sharing Christ with those who do not yet know him as their Lord and Savior. Doctrine can be sorted out later, as I believe that anyone who professes Christ as their only Righteousness will be saved, regardless of their denomination. Our mission is not to make sure that everyone we know is Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or whatever denomination we hold. Our mission is share the Good News of Jesus sacrificial death and resurrection with those who do not know about it yet, just as the Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia have a united front against Islam and Orthodoxy. What will non-Christians think if the only exposure to Christianity they have is bickering between denominational groups? We are all parts of the Body of Christ with different abilities and strengths and I believe it is time for the Church to stop poking itself in the eye and use that hand to help someone in need and share Christ with them. I know that I will be trying to improve on this thanks to the many sleepless nights I have had wrestling with these issues.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Warm Ethiopian Welcome

Seulam from Ethiopia! I am writing this early Sunday morning before It has been an eventful few days so far. We arrived in Addis Ababa in the wee hours of Thursday morning and were warmly greeted by Teddy, Grace and her husband, and Thomas (the nephew of Pastor Yosef whom we worked with last time).  Despite the late timing of our arrival, they all stayed up with us to visit, drink tea, and eat pizza! We are so blessed to have such wonderful contacts here!

After sleeping in very late (partially due to our late night and partially due to jet lag [we are 10 hours ahead of CA time]) we decided to delay our journey to Soddo a day and do some things in Addis while we had the time.  We were able to visit Thomas’s church and also the Mekane Yesus Seminary.  The campus of the seminary was beautiful and was much larger than I expected.  It turns out that the seminary was around the corner from Grace Place, where we stayed last time and where we are staying currently!  We walked by it countless times in 2012 and did not even know it was there. I believe I even took a picture of the sign in front of it!
The seminary is more than just a theological school.  While it does train pastors and theological educators, there is also a school of Leadership and Management and even a Jazz Music school! We were able to tour all of these and some of the jazz students played us a song that they composed themselves.  Those in the Jazz Music program will eventually lead worship in their churches. I saw many parallels between this campus and Concordia, as both train up leaders for the church. It was great to see the place where the late Concordia theology professor Dr. Eshetu Abate was once the president. His photo still hangs on the wall with all of the other former presidents.  We get to learn about the TEE (Theological Education by Extension) program from the director.  This is an amazing program where many are trained to be theological leaders in their home congregations in the countryside.  These leaders are not paid for their service to the church but they voluntarily pay the tuition anyway so that they can learn more to be of service to their brothers and sisters in Christ.  I have a lot to learn from such selfless theologians!

The next day we began our delayed journey to Soddo, a six hour van ride south of the capital city of Addis Ababa.  Leaving at 6 AM is no problem since we are up early due to jet lag anyway! Teddy, Thomas, and Grace’s husband accompany us, though we drop Grace’s husband off along the way.  He voluntarily teaches one or two week intensive theological courses in the countryside to help educate those who cannot come to Addis. We arrive in Soddo at about noon, just in time to meet up with Pastor Yosef for lunch.  We were joined by his wife Ribka when we went to visit the students worship night where we were able to reconnect with many of the medical students whom we worked and stayed with last time.  After some time of catching up, we headed to Sudi for dinner, the familiar restaurant where we ate every meal while in Soddo last time.  The restaurant had changed some, adding more landscaping and decorations to the inside, but the neon green and red walls with the photo of the ancient tribal man were still there to greet us.

I will have much more to say about the amazing work that God is doing another day, but this will have to do until then! There is so much good news to report but the internet is limited so more on that later.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On the Road Again

Sitting here in the terminal of the Oakland Airport using my travel netbook that has sat idly for much too long, it comes to my attention that I have failed you all. After India, my blog went dry. This is when I could make various excuses about lack of internet or time but those are both pretty lame considering that I just uncovered Word documents with unposted blog material.  However, this is an auspicious discovery, for this flight departing Oakland is the first leg of my next excursion to Ethiopia, the precise country I left off on last time! It seems appropriate that we take a look through the archives at this time to enlighten you as to the many reasons why I have decided to go back to the land of Haile Selassie and the Arc of the Covenant.

Now my reasons for returning could be dull as my reasons for not blogging (i.e. this is one of the few places Concordia decided to send a team this summer, they needed more people to make the trip viable, I had to go somewhere this summer, etc.)  While there is validity to all of these reasons, these are by no means my only motivations for returning to Ethiopia.  Many of my reasons for returning were recorded by this great blogger by the name of Wesley Gong back in 2012. Here are some excerpts from his archives:

"Travel necessitates leaving the comforts of one’s home.  This is the appeal of travel, exploring new places and experiencing new things.  However, travelling for a long time can leave the explorer yearning for basic familial interactions and normal day to day activities.  One factor that helps alleviate this desire is hospitable locals who welcome the traveler into their homes and lives.  Along our journey, Ethiopia was the country most characterized by hospitality.  This is not to discount the love that we have been shown by all of the other friends we have met along the way; the fact is just that one cannot talk about Ethiopia without discussing the hospitality we were shown there."

A year and a half later, I still stand by my statement that Ethiopian hospitality is world-class.  We were shown so much love from people who were complete strangers the day before. Whether it was from Pastor Yosef, who made sure our groups arrangements were cared for and that we had the best that Ethiopia had to offer, from Teddy, who helped our group get our out of many a sticky situation, from the medical students, who joyfully greeted us when we arrived in the wee hours of the morning, asking us how God was working in our lives, and then gave up their beds and mosquito nets so our group could be comfortable, from the people we were ministering to, who stopped their daily work to welcome us into their homes and bring us fresh produce from their fields as they listened to our message, or from Grace who slept on her kitchen floor so that our leadership could have a room with a bed, Ethiopian hospitality was above and beyond any of our expectations.

These various contributors to our experience truly exemplified the Good Samaritan, going our of their way to demonstrate Christ-like care to a group of weary travelers far from home.  This hospitality was the carrying out of Christ's call to love our neighbors.  I can only pray that someday I too will learn to love and care for others as deeply and genuinely as my friends in Ethiopia. This is why I am going back. The people. The people here have a passion I have not seen anywhere else. They love God and they love their neighbor.  I hope in the next three weeks I can learn more from them as we go to support them in their ministries.

P.S. A very special thank you to those friends and family members who have supported me financially on this journey, especially from Our Savior Lutheran Livermore and Light of Christ Lutheran Irvine! I wouldn't be able to do this without all of your support! Stay tuned for presentation dates when I return!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Presentation of the Journey

If anyone is interested in hearing me give a first hand account of this incredible trip, you are invited to come do just that!  I will be speaking at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Livermore, CA this next weekend (7/13-7/14).  Anyone and everyone is welcome! Refreshments will be provided. There will be a short photo presentation and a Q/A time at the end where I will do my best to answer whatever questions you have for me (though I may not know all the answers!).


There will be two opportunities to hear about the trip:
Saturday 7/13 @ 7 PM, and Sunday 7/14 @ 10:30 AM

Our Savior Lutheran Ministries (presentation will be in the Fireside Room)
1385 S Livermore Ave
Livermore, CA 94550

Look forward to seeing you all there!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Home Again

Sorry to everyone who has been following my blog.  The end of the trip got busy with school and service and blogging fell to the way side.  I just wanted to let you all know that I am home safe and back at school in Irvine.  I am still working on more posts reflecting on the latter half of the trip and those will be up eventually.  Stay tuned if you are still interested in more travel stories from Ethiopia, Europe, and South America!