Because it is Timkat, the Jan. 20 celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ, some villagers participated in a symbolic ceremony transporting the Ark of the Covenant (that encapsulates the Ten Commandments) to the river and back. Others rejoiced with a tasty honey wine called tej. A lot of tej. Everyone was quite happy and welcoming of a strange white person.
Down the mountain at Arba Minch, the biggest town in the southwest region of the country, pilgrims dressed in white gathered along the banks of the Kulfo River to bathe themselves and splash friends with the holy water. Timkat is a joyous occasion of togetherness.
This country of 90 million has a majority Orthodox Christian population and is home to seven ethnic groups who speak a host of dialects. The cuisine is as varied and delightful as its residents. On a recent visit there, I was taken by the friendly people and their fresh and delicious food.
Ethiopia's topography varies from forested mountains to scrubby lowlands, where even goats struggle to survive in a dry year. Between them is fertile land where farmers grow coffee, bananas, cotton, avocado, tobacco, corn, tomatoes and almost anything, it seems even watermelon.
Some of the tastiest dishes are spicy stews: shiro, made with chickpeas; and a lentil dish, masir wat. Other specialties include raw beef, grilled goat and doro wat a chicken stew.
A key ingredient in many Ethiopian dishes is berbere, a mixture of spices and herbs that includes chile peppers, cumin, garlic, ginger and up to a dozen more, depending on the cook.
When Americans think of Ethiopian food, we most often picture injera, a spongy flat bread that is commonly used to scoop up aromatic vegetarian and meaty stews. It is used in place of utensils and is ubiquitous in many Ethiopian locales. Injera is made with teff, a grain from the highlands that is practically gluten-free.
Salt Lake City plays host to at least three restaurants with Ethiopian cuisine African Restaurant, 1878 S. Redwood Road; the Blue Nile, 755 S. State; and Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant and Market, 1465 S. State where your taste buds can experience something unlike anything you'll find elsewhere.
Only in Africa • Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, sits at about 7,000 feet and boasts a Southern California-like climate, with 12-hour days and nights year round. Unfortunately, the sprawling city of 5 million suffers from traffic jams and accompanying air pollution.
The countryside, however, smells sweet and clean and is filled with marvelous sights and the comings and goings of Africans who walk and walk and walk. Everyone uses the highway donkey carts, women carrying huge loads, as well as goat and cattle herds that are sometimes guided by kids with switches.
A day's drive south and west of the capital lie Lake Chamo and its sister, Lake Abaya, at about 3,000 feet. They are among seven lakes within Africa's Great Rift Valley.
Around Lake Chamo, tilapia is popular. Fishermen standing on little boats that look like wood slats throw nets, apparently unafraid of the crocodiles and hippos that swim nearby. The locals grill the tilapia whole and eat it, skin and all simply delicious.
From there, my fun-loving guide, Chapy, and easygoing interpreter, Gino, and I headed into the rugged and dry Lower Omo Valley near Kenya to the south and South Sudan to the east. This fascinating region is home to a number of indigenous tribes, mainly herders who live like they have for perhaps a thousand years.
But the massive Gibe III hydroelectric dam and two others planned for the area could upset the fragile ecosystem and threaten their livelihoods. Beyond that, the Ethiopian government is leasing out large tracts for plantations on historic tribal grazing lands.
Each tribe has distinct customs and beliefs. Near the town of Dimeka, a small village of the Hamar tribe celebrate the Jumping of the Bulls. Women with bells on their ankles danced and sang for hours before a young male would attempt to walk across the backs of six bulls. He must complete the task four times without falling to become qualified for marriage.
The air was electric as the afternoon wore on. Naked, the lean young man bested the challenge. Joy erupted. It was a wonderful day for the entire village.
The Hamar people subsist on a diet of porridge made from the grain of the sorghum plant, and a similar dish prepared with maize, that is eaten with milk or shoforo boiled coffee husk. They also eat beef and goat.
Farther south, the Dassanech people live within 30 miles of the Kenya border on the Omo River. Their land is below 1,000 feet, where temperatures hover around 100 degrees in the dry season. They eat porridge, too, but round out their diets with fish from the river and crocodiles they hunt along the muddy banks.
Most of the people in the Lower Omo live in little huts of various designs, depending on the tribe, with dirt floors and no plumbing. Women from some villages carry water miles each day in 5-gallon plastic jerrycans when full, they weigh 40 pounds.
Fifty miles north along the Omo River on bumpy roads, we found the Kara tribe, known for painting their faces and bodies. Cattle and goats are their livelihood. They use spears to fish the river their name, Kara, also is their word for fish.
Maintaining a northern trajectory, we enter Margo National Park, home to Mursi people. The women look distinctive, if not shocking, with wooden plates in their lower lips. They, too, subsist on sorghum or maize, but these herders also drink blood by sticking a cow in the neck.
I passed on the cow blood. But that's not to say Ethiopia is devoid of good beverages. The coffee is served espresso and is especially rich. Drinking more than one could put your nervous system at risk.
Equally killer is the juice no water added. My favorite is a guava, mango and avocado combo. It's so thick you drink it with a spoon. And they have a wonderful bottled sparkling water, called Amdo.
Not least, this African nation is home to a half-dozen bottled beers, brewed to 5.5 percent alcohol. They're full-bodied and flavorful. My favorite is Saint George, named for the ancient warrior who is revered in Ethiopia as the dragon slayer. And after a hot day of bull jumping, there's nothing better than resuscitating in an open air cafe with a cold Saint George. Ah, Africa.
A passage to Ethiopia SLC style
I was all schooled up on Ethiopian food after a wonderful trip, and back at home, I had a hankering for more.
It was a Sunday, but no worry, Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant & Market was open, and I could smell the shiro from the parking lot.
Shiro wat is a spicy stew made with chickpeas and onions and garlic and berbere spice. It's a simple vegetarian dish that I couldn't resist in Ethiopia.
I made my order to Sleshi Tadesse, the owner and operator of the Salt Lake eatery, and counted the minutes until its arrival.
As is typical, the spicy stew came atop a big round of injera the spongy flatbread that is used in place of utensils in Ethiopia. Before my trip, I would always ask for utensils, because eating one-handed with injera requires some skill. But not this time. I was going to do it the way my guide, Chapy, had instructed me.
I tore a piece of injera off with my right hand and set about scooping up the wonderful shiro, something like a tortilla chip into guacamole. But eating with injera is divorced by several orders of difficulty from chips and guacamole think of a two-and-a-half gainer with a full twist off the high board compared to a cannon ball from poolside.
Anyway, I managed to get some shiro in and around my mouth. Oh baby, it was so good.
In Ethiopia, you don't get napkins. Luckily, at Mahider, you can have as many as you need. And I needed a lot.
A side note: In Ethiopia, it's all right to eat off your friend's plate, if you see something you like. And no, you don't ask, you just do it. Even if you're just walking by to say hello. "Hi, how are you? Ooh, this is good."
Despite my lack of skill with injera, I wasn't going to stop eating until all the shiro was gone. The feat, however, required a lot of the spongy flatbread. Next time, I think I'll opt for utensils and eat less injera. And it should save about 10 napkins and the embarrassment of shiro in my beard.
So don't be shy about asking for utensils, especially if you eat Chinese food with a fork. It's learned behavior and doesn't necessarily reflect upon your intelligence unless your friends are snobs.
When first exploring Ethiopian cuisine, many Americans like to order combo dishes. At all three Ethiopian restaurants in Salt Lake City, you can do just that, getting a taste of a variety of east African mainstays that can be served with or without chicken, beef or goat.
Combo plates will help you zero in on your favorite dishes. At the same time, you can practice your injera skills, knowing you have the safety of that spoon and fork nearby.