When I arrive somewhere new in Ethiopia, I step off the bus, turn and walk towards the highest mountain. This way, I can conquer a city or town in one fell swoop and from a bird’s eye view take in the width and length of the town. Many of the highland cities in Ethiopia are situated on the paved two-lane highway with dirt roads on either side petering out at the edge of a steep mountainside.
Plus, the most interesting people in Ethiopia have one foot in the city and the other in the mountains.
The region of Tigray lies in Northern Ethiopia and borders Eritrea. The area is famous for its 4th century sandstone hewn churches perched on vertiginous cliffsides. The region’s capital city, Mekele, sits at 2200m, scattered over a series of sandstone capped hills. Directly east of the city, the mountains show signs of agriculture terracing from head to toe, and are strewn with sandstone cliff bands and boulders. When I arrived, I immediately headed to the city limits with my climbing shoes in my backpack, searching out boulders for the touching.
On the way to my invisible goal, I came across a holy man. With my broken Amharic, I convinced him that I wanted to find the “path to the mountain”. He took my request literally and not metaphysically and took me by the hand. We walked up a series of steep rocky roads. He led me to a Christian orthodox church where the path continued up the mountainside. Spotting my boulder, I bade him farewell and took up the trail on my own.
I reached the first boulder, and he sat and watched from the church wall. He made a sign that this boulder was meant to be climbed, however, I knew there was another boulder around the corner. I told myself I would come back. The holy man waved his arms furiously, lifted a book, and did everything he could to sway me from going further.
“He thinks I’m going to get hurt. I’m just going to have a look,” I told myself.
THE MEKELE ROCK ORPHANS
When I arrived to the larger crag, I was immediately surrounded by several children. They were all screaming farenji, and gradually their numbers grew. I realized I had crossed the line, leaving the church and the holy man behind, and landed in the hectic world of the rock orphans of Mekele. A twelve year old boy named Samy wearing tattered pants and an oversized white t-shirt stepped towards me and grabbed my hand.
“Come,” he said.
The rest of the boys eagerly watched me as Samy took me toward a small opening at the bottom of the cliff. Samy crawled into the rock, out of the sunlight, and I saw his feet disappear into the tunnel’s shadows.
“Come,” he repeated.
Without much assessment, I bent down and started crawling up the ramp leading into the cave. After 10 feet, I reached a chamber where Samy was waiting. Luckily, I had my African cell phone flashlight and could see the true dimensions of the chamber. I assumed this was the end of the ‘cave tour’ with the rock orphans, but when I looked back down the tunnel, it filled with numerous scrubby headed rock orphans, blotting out the light and the rest of the world.
Turning this train of rock orphans around would take time, I reasoned, but I would eventually escape from the cave’s constrictions. The chamber was only 3 feet wide. There were no other visible passages. Samy pointed up and started climbing.
“Come,” he called from above my head.
I stuck the cell phone in my mouth and put my chimney climbing technique in practice. The walls of the cave were conglomerate masses of rounded stones, frozen in time following an ancient volcanic explosion in the Great Rift Valley long before there there were rock orphans. The crack was probably formed from thousands of years of water seepage. I briefly imagined climbing through the earth’s crust, where two tectonic plates were sliding by one another.
After another 8 feet, I reached the next chamber where Samy was wedged between the walls, smiling. I could no longer see the entrance to the cave and looking above resembled a narrow mouth of crooked teeth leading to an ever tighter esophagus, suffocating and desperate. I put my head into high gear, arm wrestling thoughts of claustrophobia. Thoughts are the catalyst for disasters in these types of situations, and steady breathing and silence are like medicine.
I looked at Samy and read an adolescent coolness in his beady eyes. he has probably sat here numerous times before. He pointed up again. This time I had to remove the backpack to maneuver my body through the vertical cavern. After another 7 feet I reached a chamber that opened slightly wider, meaning I could actually look down, into the darkness where I could hear the voices but see no children. The darkness had swallowed me.
If the rock orphans were after my backpack, this was it. All Samy had to do was drop the backpack down the windy crack to his friends. Instead, Samy handed me my backpack and joined me in the next chamber.
This time he smiled even wider and pointed to a corner of the cave where a faint light filtered through the darkness.
“Final,” he said.
I don’t know if he meant it was the end for me or the cave, but I was thrilled to see sunlight. The final move, which I will call the birth canal, required worm-like maneuvering. Headfirst, I shifted my shoulders through a 12 inch opening only a few inches wide, which explained why so little light was entering from outside. After negotiating the shoulders, the final trial meant sliding my hips through the birth canal. Because of my size, I had to slide one hip through, move one direction and pull the other hip through while worming the rest of my body into a small cave perched 25 feet above the ground.
Once I was free, I was overcome with happiness and looked back at Samy, whose 50 pound body seemed to spring through the birth canal. Samy told me I was the first farenji to pass through the birth canal, we hugged and shouted our triumph over the top of the city. Three hundred meters away, the holy man clutched his leather bound bible, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer.
The rock orphans must have been impressed. Only two others would follow me and Samy all the way through the birth canal, while the rest, too afraid of the vertical crack, climbed up the side of the rock on the outside and joined us in the cave. Yet again I was surrounded by more than a dozen children, staring at me, this time with a tinge of respect. The biggest rock orphan, and clearly their leader, demanded money.
I was emotionally charged after the birth canal and wanted to take Samy out for some injera (Ethiopian bread) but didn’t know how to get him away from the rest of the rock orphans. I handed Samy 10birr (75 cents) which was way too much for a 12-year old, but the smallest bill I had in my pocket.
Immediately the rock orphan bully took the money from Samy and slid it into his pocket. “We’re brothers,” he said.
I was surprised yet sure that I had just made a huge mistake. While I knew that Samy would never see any of the 10birr, I believed the bully rock orphan would share the winnings with the rest of the orphan gang.
Samy disappeared around the corner and started climbing up the second half of the climb, I still had to face the rest of the Mekele rock orphan tour. Out of the cave there was a 15 foot free solo face climb.
Before I followed Samy the rest of the way up the rock, I decided to put on my climbing shoes. The rock orphans had never seen any type of climbing equipment and were especially mesmerized by the chalkbag and my supply of white “magical” dust that they believed would make your hands stick to any surface, possibly even upside down. I passed the chalk around the orphans, allowing them to experience the farenji magic powder. As a climber, I was captivated by the scene of enchantment. A cluster of miniature hands reached for the chalk, “oohs” and “aahs” echoed off from the cave as they all tried to slather as much magnesium as possible on their fingertips and hands.
I put the chalk away, started climbing and joined Samy on top. The rock orphan bully struggled with the climb and was disappointed and angry that the chalk didn’t actually provide any super powers. He was the last to arrive and by then we had already turned and started walking up the rest of the mountain.
The orphan rock gang and I climbed up onto a thick stone wall, formally used for terracing and walked towards the top of the hill. I was interested in photographing the rock orphans and made them all go in front of me. Three orphans refused to pass me on the wall, possibly out of fear, and stayed behind.
Suddenly I heard a shuffle, and with one misstep a rock orphan behind me hit the ground, 15 feet below. His arms and legs moved in a circular motion and propelled his body to continue rolling another 5 feet. The rock orphan fun had come to an end. This was serious. Recalling my Wilderness First Rescue course material, this could be a serious injury compounded by the fact that he’s an orphan, can’t go to a hospital or a family for that matter.
The rock orphan was sobbing softly and bleeding from his ankle. Before moving him, I tried to check his spine and head for possible injuries. But his friends quickly picked him up and told him to walk; the rock orphan law dictates that if he was strong enough to survive the fall, he was strong enough to walk.
I decided we should carry humpty-dumpty down to the main trail and see if he can limp out. I changed into my hiking boots, and together with another member of the Mekele rock orphans picked up the shoeless orphan. We marched down the steep mountainside, stepping around boulders and slowly negotiated the steeper steps, sometimes dropping three or four feet.
It was here, where one of the more audacious of the rock orphans decided to take advantage of his friend’s unfortunate tumble and tried to unbutton my back pocket. When I felt his fumbling hands reaching into my trousers, I dropped his friend on the rocks. The rock orphan’s second fall produced a hollow thud followed by a painful sob.
“Alright you little fuckers. Your friend is too heavy for me. You’re on your own,” I yelled at them.
I chased the long-fingered thief off and threw rocks at him. His friends watched, helplessly. I walked the rest of the way on my own, no longer taking any interest in the poor kid’s foot or fate.
When we met up with a main path, I stopped two men walking side by side. With a sense of urgency, I explained to them that a boy had fallen and been hurt, and that he may or may not need to go to the hospital. Around the corner, the boy appeared, piggybacking on his friend. The old man walked up to the kid and asked him something in Tigrenya. The boy replied with a smile.
He wagged his finger at me, saying nothing was wrong with the boy.
A bomb of confusion created a plume of doubt in my head. I did not know whether to believe he had a broken foot. Did he really fall? Did his friend push him? Was this part of an elaborate scam to try to rob me? Was this poor kid’s role really to fall 15 feet? Was this a rock orphan mafia? Did I really just slither through a vertical cave and free solo on the heels of a 12 year old orphan in Northern Ethiopia?
“I’ve had it with your shit man,” I said. I pushed him back, and with all my Amharic verbiage told him to stay the hell away from me.
My mind was racing. The Mekele rock orphans continued to follow, albeit from a distance, to the city. When I was a block from the main highway, I turned around and called Samy to come to me. I held his hand and we walked the last block back to Mekele.
“It’s bad this,” I said with broken Amharic. “I like rock, but I don’t like thieves.” Samy shrugged.
“The money. I get none of that. Do you have any more?” he asked.
“No money, Samy. You know why?” I asked him. He looked at me waiting for a reason.
“There are thieves among us,” I said.
“Yes, there are thieves among us,” he repeated my words.
postscript: Six months later I ran into Samy in Mekele in a large park downtown. I bought him a Fanta and we ate sambusas. The next day I walked past the bus station and saw the rock orphan who fell off the wall. He was limping.