Next Stop? The Horn of Africa!


March 29, 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

My upcoming departure for the Horn of Africa reminds me of  Haile Selassie and Abebe Bikile and the dramatic events and the enduring personalities of the 1960's.

Who among us can ever forget the sounds and images from late November, 1963: the gunshots in Dallas, the bloodied dress, Walter Cronkite's tears, the murder of the murderer (?), Chopin's music, a boy's salute to the flag covering the coffin of his father, the rider-less horse?
Do you remember the funeral procession of John Kennedy - heads of state in a solemn march? Le Président de la République française, Charles de Gaulle at 6'5" (1.96 m) walking beside and towering over the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie at 5'1¾" (1.58 m).

De Gaulle died in his bed in 1970. But Selassie?

The opening sequence of the film "Marathon Man" features the archive footage of a graceful young athlete, on a summer evening in 1960, effortlessly running the 42km (26 mi) Olympic marathon, gliding past the Coliseum and along the darkened, torch lit avenues of Rome, sprinting toward the finish line at the Arch of Constantine. Abebe Bikile became the first black African to win a gold medal at an Olympics event. 

At the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Bikile repeated his victory wearing Puma brand running shoes. But in 1960, in Rome, he ran the Marathon barefoot!

The Imperial Palace guard Abebe Bikile became a national hero. He was awarded a Volkswagen automobile. In 1975, to avoid a student demonstration in his country, his car swerved and landed in a ditch. The lithe athlete spent the remainder of his foreshortened life in a wheelchair. A national day of mourning was declared when he died. A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor.

"His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Elect of God" ruled Ethiopia from his palace for almost sixty years. At the time, he was the longest reigning monarch. He claimed to be a descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After a military coup, humbly and unceremoniously, he was sped away in a little Volkeswagon to an uncertain future. After a surgery, he died under mysterious circumstances in 1975.

My nine-hour, non-stop Ethiopian Airlines flight departs Bangkok late on April 4 and arrives in Addis Ababa on the morning of April 5. The Addis Guest House will send a driver to pick me up at the Bole International Airport.

I will explore Addis for a few days before flying north to visit Aksum, Tigray, Lalibela and Gonder. I will return to Addis and then travel east to Dire Dawa and Harar and then further east on the Horn to see the small seacoast countries of Somaliland - a breakaway province from Somalia, and Djibouti - a former French colony. In total, I plan about six weeks on the road.

Somaliland is not to be confused with Somalia - surely a no-go at this time. The other country on the Horn of Africa is Eritrea. But the folks in Eritrea don't see eye-to-eye with any of their neighbors, so I "can't get there from there."

I expect to see mountains and deserts and rifts and valleys and below-sea-level steaming hot springs. I expect to visit ancient rock-hewn churches and enormous stele - part of the history of a six thousand year old civilization. I expect to drink a lot of coffee with a lot of different ethnic groups. Of course, there's always the unexpected.

The guidebook says that at dawn in Dire Dawa, large camel caravans march in from the Somali desert. And at dusk, outside the walled city of Harar, teams of men feed packs of wild hyenas.

The frequent flier program on Ethiopian Airlines is called "Sheba Miles." Sheba Miles!

How many of us can remember our mothers' favorite admonition when they scolded their disobedient, demanding, lackadaisical, acquisitive young daughters? "Who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba?!"

To my friends and family, kings and queens all, my best wishes for a Happy Easter, and a Happy Passover, and a Happy Songkran and a colorful Spring season.






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