An extended backpacking jaunt around Ethiopia.

My Photo
Location: Washington, DC, United States

I lead a rich inner life, appreciate a good marshmallow, and have been known to indulge in the occasional Wednesday afternoon tryst underneath the linden tree. I am currently between extended trips to East Africa; this is my story.

07 September 2010

Washington, DC Photographer - Dallas Lillich

I don't know if anyone's out there is still reading this ole blog, but during my extended absence from East Africa, I've gone pro with photography. Here a link to my website:

Washington, DC Photographer - Dallas Lillich

Please submit any feedback through the contact form.



20 September 2007

From the Archives: The Stoning Begins Now

Since moving to DC, I've been confronted with outlandish rumors alleging daredevilry in the Horn of Africa. The source of these lurid tales is, unsurprisingly, Joshua Cogan--the evil photographic genius and monger of drivel. So just to set the record straight, here's the story that seems to suffer from the rudest hyperbole. All the way back in January 2007...

I've been a bit backlogged on my posts and placing the blame on the exorbitant cost of Lalibela's Internet cafes and a nasty case of the flu. I've been trying to fill in the lacunae chronologically, but last night I had an experience that begs relation while freshly plowed in my mind.

I can say, even conservatively, that I have never been so thoroughly in the cross-hairs of danger; nor have I ever been party to so bloody a fracas.

So fast-forward: I'm convalescing in Gondar, the site of a 17th century castle complex and one of the more atmospheric cities in Ethiopia. For a week now, I've been tagging along with a professional photographer by the name of Josh Cogan, a fast friend and willing tutor. Yesterday I began lusting for a bit of adventure as most of my time has been spent catching up on sleep--a scarce commodity in Lalibela--and hacking my way to a clean pair of lungs. So I suggested to Josh that we scale the nameless mountain of the ritzy Goha hotel and suss out the scene.

We walked a couple of kilometers, forging our way through the hassle heaped on faranjis, when we spied a horse-drawn cart, a gari, led by an erratic young colt. It zoomed past us, only to double back, the colt capering wildly and bucking about. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. We settled on a price of 5 birr to convey us to the mountaintop, but bailed out about halfway once the horse began zigzagging on the switchbacks with scant regard for the margins of the road. After half an hour, we walked through the gates of the Goha and into a wedding.

Having been wedding guests a week before, we were versed in the chants, songs and antics of an Ethiopian wedding and comported ourselves magnificently. Before long, we were as much a part of it as anyone else. The body heat rose, the singing climbed the decibel ladder, the beer flowed in cascades and everyone had a right good time. As the night wore on and we realized that all the town's taxis had been commissioned by the wedding, Josh and I wondered how we were to get back to the Circle Hotel. The answer came in the form of a flatbed truck loaded with 30 drunk Ethiopians.

Josh had success earlier that day hitching a ride with a similar vehicle and bounded into the truck bed without reservation. I followed suit. The truck itself was in poor repair, composed of a closed cab and an uncovered cargo hold bisected by a shoulder-height pole. The bed, as mentioned above, was bustling with some 30 rowdy Ethiopians between the ages of 12 and 20, all despicably inebriated.

"Where you go?" asked one of the crew.
"Circle Hotel."
"Ah, Circle Hotel."
"Ou." Yes.
"Chigger yellum." No problem.

Our destination settled, we proceeded to get down. Nothing, not even the sordid spectacle that followed, could undermine how hard we partied with this crew of Habashawoch. The call-and-response patterns peculiar to Ethiopia were trotted out with unusual gusto. Our facility with them enlivened our Ethiopian friends who swung heartily from the pole, danced in a rapturous flurry of limbs, and yelped in appreciation. Josh executed his Thriller-era Michael Jackson moves and roused everyone into a screaming rendition of "I Like to Move It, Move It." I answered by emceeing a vicious version of "Who Let the Dogs Out," complete with a schizophrenic proto-breakdance. As our truck lumbered down the mountain with the rest of the wedding caravan, our party wailed and barked like a portable junkyard.

The party rose to one pitch and then another, the cultural bounds of the passengers less appreciable by the minute. It was a supremely beautiful moment, the kind vaguely imagined when one undertakes a long stint of travel. But it was too labile to last. It turned ugly in an instant, and the joy came crashing down like a wall of fine china.

"Okay," Josh screamed. "Where is it? Where's my camera?"
The barking doghouse fell silent, and the writhing dancers froze.
"This isn't funny!" he yelled. "My camera is my life, my livelihood!"

With that, he tore into the crowd, laying hands on every benighted article he could, ransacking his way to the pilfered camera and flash. He recovered them but kept scouring for a missing camera battery. It happened so quickly that I turned to my own camera bag a bit late. I rummaged through it to find the front pocket unzipped and my little notebook missing. I frisked myself and felt my passport and wallet in my shirt pocket. So far so good. Josh returned to the front and double-checked his belongings. We exchanged a few words; I had recovered his notebook and handed it back to him. Satisfied that I had made off pretty well, I turned to the scene at the back of the truck.

A menagerie of bodies and shadows converged on the two thieves caught in flagrante delicto, one with a flash in his hand, the other with a camera. Emboldened by drink and enraged at the fact of our special fraternity blasphemed by treachery, our Ethiopian friends commenced the most spirited beating I have ever seen. With the truck still chugging down the mountain road, I saw one thief, clad in a crisp red shirt, get his face pummeled into a pulp. One of the huskier Ethiopians, with whom I had exchanged a number big-hearted back slaps, held the thief by his neck, hissed imprecations into his ear, and repeatedly slammed his face into the guardrail. The foe's teeth spilled out like beads from a broken necklace. At one point, the avenger pushed the bandit's head as far over the rail as he could, trying to mash it against the cliff face as the truck scraped by. The thief, delirious from the beating, fell to the ground, and everyone uninvolved in restraining his sidekick began stomping him furiously.

It was a total beat down.

Josh, meanwhile, had rushed back into the mêlée, still trying to find his camera battery. The truck stopped abruptly at a perilous mountain switchback. I followed him in, trying to have his back in one way or another. As he berated the bleeding, sobbing remains of the thief, I felt a little kid tug on my sleeve. I shook it off, taking it for misdirection. He tugged again. I swung around and hissed

"Dallas, get down!" he quavered.
"Why?" I demanded.
"The stoning begins now!"

Sure enough, a volley of stones arrived, crashing into the truck bed. I ducked down and covered my head. Apparently more than just two thieves were in on the scam; they had escaped in the fray and started hurling rocks at us, aiming to free their co-conspirators. I crawled into one of the corners and turned back to see Josh obliviously shaking down another shady character.

"Josh, get the fuck down! They're stoning us!"
He turned to me, his glasses atilt, "What?"
"Get down! They're throwing rocks! Big ones!"

He clambered up to the front and took cover with me. The rocks fell like hailstones and sent everybody scrambling. The bloodied, half-dead thief leapt over the side of the truck and ran to the front. I looked through the back window of the cab to see him holding a stone in each hand, crying hysterically. With gore surging from his nostrils and oozing from his punched-out mouth, he wound up, aiming a rock at the windshield through his imbalance. Just as he pitched to throw, he staggered into the road and right into the path of an overtaking minibus from the wedding party. A rock whizzed over my head, and I fell to the ground hearing a dull thud and what sounded like a skidding body.

"Holy shit!" Josh exclaimed. "The thief just got hit by a minibus!"
"Is he dead?"
"I don't know...No, he got up. Man, he got totally plowed! He flew like ten feet!"

Josh stood up to get a better look just as another fusillade of rocks landed in the truck. One hit him square in the small of the back.

"I'm hit!"

And so our ride back to the hotel turned into a hard-fought battle between good and evil with full air support. I remained covering my head in the corner; one of the stones grazed my shoulder. Again, I was exceedingly lucky. The small boy next to me, the one who had warned me of the barrage in the first place, was clutching his stomach and crying. Josh and I attended to him; there was no bleeding or contusion of any sort. In all likelihood, he was more scared than anything else. As the truck raced down the mountain, we asked whether there was a clinic or hospital nearby. The good Ethiopians sloughed off the suggestion.

"He okay. We are fine."

The truck stopped in the Piazza, and our companions admonished us to get off. They still had one of the thieves detained; he too was bloody, swollen and crying like a baby. A fight broke out between a contingent that wanted to beat him further and another that felt he had had enough. Josh and I took the stance of the latter. After all, we had most of our possessions (Josh lacking only a camera battery--as I reminded him), one of the guilty parties had been run over by a bus, the remaining hostage was sufficiently smothered in blood, and everyone was drunk enough that a fatal lynching was a real possibility. Vigilante justice had been served, a bit illiberally perhaps.

We hopped off the truck, thanking our friends and protectors. Back at the hotel, I flushed Josh's wound with providone-iodine, and that was that.

In retrospect, hopping on a flatbed truck with over two dozen soused strangers intent on having a rowdy freakout down a darkling mountain road was probably not the best idea. But that's how you acquire experience; you have to risk it to learn a bit. Increasingly in Ethiopia, I'm finding that those risks pay off in my best and worst experiences ever traveling, with very little in between. And sometimes, like last night, studded as it was with minor heroes and petty thieves, the best and the worst arrive in tandem.


21 August 2007

Ethiopia's Christian Historical Circuit

I found an excellent article detailing the popular northern historical circuit and its Christian pedigree. Written by Joshua Hammer, the author of Yokohama Burning, it travels from the early days in Aksum to the Zagwé installment in Lalibela and also covers the embattled Solomonic days in Gonder.

Ethiopia Opens its Doors, Slowly


12 August 2007

Timkat in Lalibela

Here's an audio slideshow from the Guardian showing this year's Timkat, the celebration of Christ's baptism, in Lalibela.

Timkat in Lalibela


11 August 2007

Simien Mountains Geology

Wading through the tangled hyperlink skein today, I came across a very fine article by Simon Winchester about "one of the most remarkable geomorphological spectacles existing on our planet." It concerned Wulingyuan National Park in the Hunan province of China. Mr. Winchester deploys his considerable geological background to explain the weird, otherwordly formations that give the park its pedigree:

"Sixty million years ago there were tropical seas there; sometimes they were deep, leaving soft and fossil-rich limestones, sometimes shallow, leaving hard beach-sandstone. Then the land rose under tectonic pressure...[the] limestones dissolved over millions of years into fissures and immense caves, the sandstones cracked into knife-edged pillars, some them needle-shaped mesas, gully 1,000 feet high."

With Ethiopia perpetually on my mind, it won't come as a surprise that my thoughts turned to the similarly singular pillars of rock in the Simien Mountains. I became curious as to whether the Simiens--whose dramatic escarpment serrations are, at first perception, nearly rejected by the mind--had anything in common with the needle-shaped mesas of "China's Ancient Skyline."

First things first: much of the Simien Mountains' most dramatic scenery centers around an escarpment many kilometers long where a blade of lofty peaks falls 3,000 feet. You could move from the frigid Afromontane belt to arid lowlands in a matter of steps, should self-preservation not be on your shortlist of favored pastimes. The escarpment, like much of the massif, is carved by deep river-bearing gorges. The end result is spectacular and something like this:

What exactly would produce such a precipitous drop over so short a distance? From my limited understanding of geology, I inferred that there must be some kind of erosion at work...

I raced around the internet in search of geological references to the Simiens, keen to find out if sandstone and limestone were at work as in Wulingyuan. As with almost everything I find interesting about Ethiopia, little had work had been done on the matter. After a couple hours of dredging, the only pertinent information I could come up with was from a tour company called World Expeditions:

"The Simiens dramatic topography is a result of the erosion of basalt lavas which have been calculated to be nearly 3,ooo meters thick. The rocks beneath the lava spread were horizontal layers of sandstone and limestone. Here and there weaknesses and cracks developed, opening the way for points of erosion. The cracks in the hard, resistant basalt once begun were widened and deepened by floods that poured into them, creating deep trenches and leaving hard cores of volcanic outlets from which the surrounding material has eroded away. Thus leaving an incredible array of jagged carvings, reminiscent of America's Grand Canyon." [sic]

I remembered previously reading that the Simiens were technically a massif that predated the creation of the Rift Valley, the Abyssinian arm of which cut through the landscape a couple hundred miles to the east. Some 40 million years ago the area was host to violent primeval volcanic activity that left behind a 9,800 foot layer of lava.

But I still didn't get to the bottom of what precise processes were responsible for such awe-inspiring spires of rock, such as these below:


06 August 2007

Where is He Now?

Last seen in a kamikaze minibus running the smuggler's corridor from Harar to Addis Abeba, the author is now believed to be unhappily moored somewhere in the Middle West. Reports indicate that his willpower expired under the protozoan persuasion of dysentery; his mind, moreover, is believed to have been permanently mishmashed by the social use of catha edulis, known colloquially as qat. Nearly seven months and sixty-three pounds after arriving in Ethiopia, the author is reputed to have found God, lost his girlfriend, endured a near-death experience in the Awash desert, started an export business in Africa's largest outdoor market, purchased an Abyssinian canine, developed a taste for Muslim headscarves, passed out in Tewodros Square due to Cipro complications, made off with a payload of digitized Harari Qur'ans, upset his previous no-sleep record, and otherwise rearranged his psyche.

Rumors of a reinvigoration of his erstwhile blog have gained momentum, but precious else is known. He is supposedly planning a return to the land of the Lion of Judah complete with a daring Red Sea-crossing to the city of Sana'a in Yemen.


21 May 2007


Here are some pictures from a photo project I did in Dorze, Southern Ethiopia.


05 May 2007


Hey yall,

I'm living in Harar right now, the fourth holiest city in Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). I'm lucky enough to have fallen in with a Sufi Muslim who's teaching me the history of Islam and Harar. It's pretty enriching and, needless to say, fascinating. Anyway, I'm not in a position to post much at the moment. The book is coming along, however. I'm also working on turning this humble blog into a photo rich guide to the region; this is taking up a lot of my time. So I'll leave you with an ellipsis for the time being. Check back in a couple weeks and you'll see something new and deeply interesting, to be sure.



21 April 2007

"I've got my pills and my problems man. You can keep your traditional medicine."

It was a Thursday evening and Hassan was snorting some local concoction of herbs. "It makes you sneeze!" I looked at the traditional medicine. It was a loose collection of pungent spices in a plastic bag.

Assuming that the main property of the medicine was its efficacy in the production of sneezing, I said, "No shit it's going to make you sneeze. Why buy this schlock? Just get a spoonful of beriberi and bump it."

He looked at me as if I had just stabbed his mother. Three roots were hanging from his loaded left nostril as he said, "No! This one ma--"

And he proceeded to sneeze with such violence that the adrenaline kissed my blood. He stood up and staggered around the hut, sneezing with the rapidity of a machine gun. He sneezed into the heavens, against the wall, on himself and sprayed a salad of roots and snot on the mirror.

A fine spray of mucus particles hung in the air. He crouched to the ground hanging his head between conjoined arms and legs. Slowly, he lifted his flushed face, looked me in the eye like a rival general and said,

"This one makes you sneeze."


17 April 2007

From Kabale to Kisoro

Uganda, Rwanda and DRC (sort of)

Lake Bunyonyi proved to be a most halcyon retreat. Beth, Lauren and I spent four days sharing a rustic cabin, gorging ourselves on the outstanding food, and relaxing over a growing army of empty beer bottles. I passed the days reading volumes from Boonya Amagara’s extensive library, awkwardly coexisting with the other backpakers, and drilling the wonderfully informative Beth on the legal minutiae of Limited Liability Companies (LLCs to the layperson).

Things did get a little strange now and then. Beth and Lauren were fast approaching a toxic saturation level of Larium, the malarial prophylactic notorious for provoking deranged dreams and psychiatric disorders. The first time I visited Africa, I had taken Larium only to notice a strange spike in the significance of colors and a multiplying pixelization of my visual field. I switched to Malarone which instead of disturbing my labile brain diminished my bank account.

Given the general onset of Gothic horror attending protracted Larium use, the cabin was ill-suited for the girls—especially Lauren and her personality’s mixture of OCD and arachnophobic qualities. In other words, the cabin was absolutely infested with spiders. The amount of spiders crawling, spinning webs and slowly descending into Lauren’s hair was truly remarkable. On Monday, the day after the afeared ‘Larium Day’, I spent the evening bravely dispatching spider after spider to insect limbo while Lauren trembled inconsolably. My valiant efforts came to aught. The foes were simply too many for me.

Lauren took solace in her dwindling supply of unnamed Tanzanian spirits. I busied myself walking around the grounds of Boonya Amagara. If you’re ever in Uganda, you should really make an effort to visit this not-for-proft organization. Otters swim backstroke in the lake, strange birds call mellifluously from the trees, and Jason—the American coordinator—huddles behind the desk scoping out the internet and nursing the contents of ‘the Box’. It’s a scrupulously eco-friendly place with composting toilets, locally fashioned furnishings, and a wonderfully competent staff. The food is among the best I’ve had in Africa; the profits are all re-invested in the community (which has access to the library and computer lab); the location is stunning and tranquil. It’s basically a workable utopia—not to mention fantastically cheap. I wondered why nothing of the sort had been attempted in Ethiopia where every tourist hotel seems curiously indifferent—even downright hostile—to the local community.

Not much of note happened, the true measure of Byoona Amagara’s pleasant remoteness. My admiration for Lauren and Beth grew steadily until we parted ways. They headed back to Kampala en route to Cairo. I was westward bound trying to see Rwanda and the Congo. I hugged them with unusual warmth as they boarded the bus. They were really good friends.

On the road from Kabale to Kisoro, the earth undulated into clusters of green hills. Some of the vegetation was so green and rinsed in the sun that it appeared an iridescent blue. Prodigiously rumped women busied themselves in the agricultural plots, slamming hoes into upturned soil, some with slumbering children cradled on their backs in kangas. I was headed to Mgahinga National Park on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. As the bus swayed its way into Kisoro, the cloud strewn-peaks of the Virunga volcanoes came into view.

I spent the night in Kisroro and got things together for some mountain hiking in Mgahinga, the densely forested habitat of one of the world’s last troops of mountain gorillas. As the taxi belched along a horrendous 14 kilometer stretch of road to the park gates, I saw a small girls’ school with this heartening scrawl smeared across it: “Moving alone is not safe. You could be defiled.” Indeed, this part of Uganda had been the site of some terrifying fall out from the civil war in neighboring Congo. A couple of years back, the self-styled Mai Mai militia—noted for its espousal of cannibalism, wanton slaughter and other nihilistic delights—had crossed the border at Bunagana and wreaked havoc on the hapless country folk. As anyone conversant with reports from the many NGOs in the area knows, rape had been widely used as a weapon of war to devastating effect. I was assured that there was no longer any danger—the UN had driven the rebels back into the jungles, and the Mai Mai leader was now part of the DRC’S power-sharing government.

I arrived at Mgahinga Community Camp, another model community-oriented tourism initiative, and began pitching my tent. While struggling with the poles, a brunette Swedish woman walked out of one of the bandas, looked at me with a blasé expression, and threw back a swig of water.

“Hello,” I offered with a smile.
She glared at me cooly, turned around and walked back inside.

I learned later that her name was Louise and that she was studying the local Batwa community known more commonly—and pejoratively—as pygmies. Improbably for an agrarian backwater in southwest Uganda, Kisoro was literally crawling with bonny Swedish women in the early-twenties age bracket. They were there taking part in some sort of government-sponsored school program. I started wishing I was Swedish.

I found what I thought was an outdoor urinal, a wall of thatch enclosing a couple of bricks and apprehensively used it. After four days of camping at the MCC and
pissing in the same place, I still didn't know if it was a urinal. But my transgressive urination aside, I did spend four magnificent days in and around the
the park.

More on that soon.