The Debre Damo saga: unexpected outcome of the day

Yesterday night I was doing some planning and I fell in love with Debre Damo just by reading about it. Its location on a mountain top that can only be reached by climbing up a rope seemed very intriguing, let alone the impressive history of the place that dates back to the 6th century. Unfortunately, it lies off the main road and the nearest public transport routes are 11 km off. I asked the hotel manager if they had any tourists going there, but the offer he came up with was just ridiculous and unacceptable. So I decided for DIY, thus adding even more suspense to an already thrilling adventure.

Instead of staying another night in Axum, I left to Adigrat at 1 pm with hopes of reaching the village of Bizzet on the main road, staying overnight and setting out for the monastery the next day. The bus to Adwa left immediately and arrived in under an hour. From Adwa, there was no bus to Adigrat, but a student coming from Addis Ababa, who’d spent the last two days travelling home for his semester break, suggested I jump on one to Enticcio, which lies on the main road 24 km before the junction to Debre Damo.

The minibus crossed a magnificent landscape dotted with beautiful Tigrian stone houses dwarfed by volcanic mountains that are impressive not much for their shape, but the dark stone they are made of. Some have distinctly conical shapes. At Enticcio, where a mosque minaret sticks out of the second row of houses, I had a vegetable ingera, then placed myself by the roadside ready to jump on the first bus. A Muslim boy speaking classical Arabic helped arrange the transport and tipped me about the right fare.

Once on board, I realised my best expectations for the day were coming true and I revised my plans accordingly. I’d always had an unavowed dream at the back of my mind of walking to monastery and spending the night there. Now, with a prospect to be at the junction by half past three, this could become very possible.

I was sharing the front seat with an Ethiopian woman emigrated to the US. A convert to Protestantism, retired albeit still young, she had devoted her recent years to a children orphanage she runs in Mekele. Her looks set her apart from the simplicity of local women, with perm hair, long polished nails, orderly clothes and a handbag.

She’s in a talkative mood and after a few civilities gushes about her new-found mission in life in enthusiastic terms, referring to the “divine message of the Bible” and other ideas that lay bare an unquestioning faith in what she believes to be absolute truth. She enquires my personal state mentioning the necessity of living a life in conjunction with another being because of a divine law, although I’d rather call it a law of nature – but I don’t engage in the argument.

She then focuses the conversation on a more intimate perspective and asks what my mission in life is. The question is interesting, but I am a bit confused about what to say. I wish I could come up with a great project that I carry out with the same conviction as her and under the same divine guidance that illuminates her path. I don’t feel like talking about profound ideas now that I have little time and a blurred mind.

At least I certainly have a mission today, and it is to go to Debre Damo. I mention my plan and she drops her jaw in bewilderment: “Don’t you read the news?”, she exclaimed, referring to the shooting of the five tourists in Ethiopia a month ago. “You’re mad to venture out into the wild with no guide! You should beware of people who could harm you!”.

I reassure her by saying this is not the Afar region where that tragic event unfolded, but she’s not content. She asks: “But really, what makes you want to walk and suffer for three hours to go there?”. Hard to make her see, maybe as hard for me to understand her unfaltering faith, which I nevertheless admire. Like many people in the West, I’ve gone back to square one and I’d be very glad if I could only know what life is about.

I got dropped off at the junction where only a house and a stall stand next to a road sign saying “Debre Damo, 11 km”. In this scorched landscape, it sounded like a courtesy notice to the driver, but a menace to the wayfarer. Knowing that no food was available at the monastery, I bought whatever I could find at the booth: not much, a paquet of biscuits and a roll of bread.

I certainly didn’t want to carry all my luggage so, under the puzzled gaze of the few present, I made a smaller bag with the strict necessary for the night. The rest, I asked with gestures and a few words to leave there.