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Perched atop the “Roof of Africa,” Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park features dramatic cliffs, promontories, peaks, and valleys that provide the perfect setting for any fantasy film. Situated between the ancient imperial cities of Aksum and Gondar in the north of the country and first deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1978, the park contains a swath of some of the most unique mountainous landscapes in the world. At over 25 million years old, the mountains come from an age even before the creation of the Great Rift Valley. Endangered wildlife species such as the Ethiopian wolf, walia ibex, and gelada monkey call the breathtaking Simien Mountains home.

Contrary to popular belief among tourists, the name Simien comes from the Amharic word for “north” and is unrelated to the monkeys that forage, frolic, and fight along the ridges and outcroppings of the mountains. The gelada monkeys, sometimes classed as baboons, even allow visitors to get up close and personal. Well, close enough to take a few videos, anyway.

Have you ever seen wild monkeys in their natural habitat?

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In biblical times, the Kingdom of Axum was known as the home of the brilliant, dark, and lovely Queen of Sheba and the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Axum, which also went by the name Ethiopia as early as the 4th century AD, was a world power at the center of trading routes between India and the Mediterranean. The Axumites were also among the first in the world to adopt Christianity as their state religion.

In pre-Christian times, however, the Axumites had the practice of erecting carved granite monoliths called stelae, which functioned as the tower-like gravestones of Axumite royalty. Over 500 stelae remain in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia—modern-day states covering part of Axum’s once vast domain—some over 1,700 years old and reaching nearly 110 feet in height (or, rather, length, as the tallest toppled and broke while being constructed).

The modern city of Aksum, on the site of the former imperial capital in northern Ethiopia, hosts the imposing stelae, eerie royal tombs, humbling churches, and a population of regal bearing.


Axumite Tomb
Stelae of Axum
The Black Virgin Mary
Church of Saint Mary
Cross at the pinnacle above Aksum
Tree in the Desert
Fly Brother with an Axumite Cross
Biblical Sunset in Aksum

Have you been to Aksum?

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On the eve of the Ethiopian Orthodox feast day of Timkat, a celebration of the baptism of Baby Jesus and associated with Epiphany, processions of elaborately-dressed clergymen, church mothers, government officials, musicians, scholars, parishioners, and other dignitaries marching through the streets of the capital city, Addis Ababa. Baroque representations of the Ark of the Covenant, the box said to hold the biblical Ten Commandments, are carried from each of the churches in the city to the main baptismal font, where hundreds of thousands of Christians sing and pray through the night.

Epiphany normally takes place 13 days after Christmas. In Ethiopia, where Christianity has been practiced in Ethiopia since 333 AD, the church follows the Julian calendar and celebrates its holidays within a few weeks of comparable celebrations in the rest of the Christian world. This year, Timkat festivities were held on January 19th all around Ethiopia.

That morning in Addis, after an overnight vigil, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church blessed the waters of the font and led a reenactment of the baptism of Jesus. The excited, pious crowd of men, women, and children, mostly dressed in traditional Ethiopian linens, then renewed their own baptismal vows underneath holy water sprayed through water hoses into the dry air of the festival area.

An impactful and powerful expression of faith, Timkat served as an incredible introduction to one of the world’s oldest Christian societies.

Have you ever been to a religious festival?

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“Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all men and the proofs of this statement, they say, are manifest. For they did not come into their land as immigrants from abroad but were natives of it.” — Diodorus Siculus, 60 BC

Yesterday, I arrived in Addis Ababa to start a two-week press assignment in the ancient, mythic land of Ethiopia. This is not my first trip to the “land of origins,” but it will be my first opportunity to leave the bustling capital city to see the some of the most breathtaking scenery and significant religious monuments in the world: the walled imperial city of Gondar, the ruins of biblical Aksum, the stone churches of Lalibela, and the mystical Semien Mountains. We start, however, in Addis on the eve of Timkat, the festival of Epiphany according to the Ethiopian calendar.

Follow along as I explore the vast and transformative empire of Ethiopia.

Image courtesy Andrew Moore via Flickr

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Centro Histórico de Salvador (Pelourinho) Na foto: Turistas aproveitam o Verão 2011 no Pelourinho Foto: Rafael Martins/AGECOM

Salvador da Bahia is a city dripping with history and culture. Founded in 1549 as Brazil’s first capital, some 80% of the city’s population is of African descent. Salvador and the state of Bahia serve as the birthplace of typically “Brazilian” cultural markers: the martial art of capoeira; the syncretic religion of Candomblé, which combines West African and Roman Catholic religious traditions; the samba de roda, the root of Rio-style samba; and feijoada, the bean-based stew ladled nationwide on Saturdays as Brazil’s national dish. With gorgeous architecture, fun and friendly people, and great beaches, Salvador will capture your heart. And don’t forget, Carnival is coming up—the party runs from February 9-14, 2018.

Nickname: SSA and Roma Negra (Black Rome) | Population: 2.9 million baianos/4 million in metro | Area: 268 sq mi | Airport: Luís Eduardo Magalhães International Airport (SSA) | Time Zone: -3h from UTC/-2h DST | Famous for: Afro-Brazilian culture, axé, beaches, beats, capoeira, Candomblé

On arrival: Use the free airport wifi to order a ride via Uber, or take a cab from one of the prepaid taxi offices closest to the terminal exit; insist that the driver uses GPS. The best and least-expensive way to get reais (Brazilian currency) is to withdraw money from the ATM; many Brazilian ATMs do not operate using the U.S. bank card network, but at least one or two will.

Best ‘hoods: Pelourinho is Salvador’s beautiful historic quarter. The name comes from the Portuguese for “whipping post,” which speaks to the city’s sordid past as a center for human trafficking and chattel slavery. That said, the vibrant color, inescapable music, and scrumptious food of Pelourinho speaks to the human ability to rise above suffering and thrive in the face of it. The Cidade Baixa hosts some of Salvador’s attractions, while the beach districts of Barra and Ondina attract swimmers, surfers, and sun-worshippers from all over. Nearby, the island of Itaparica and the villages of Morro de São Paulo and Cachoeira offer beautiful day-trip options with a mix of history, culture, and nature.

Best beaches: Praia do Farol da Barra and Ondina for swimming and flirting; Porto da Barra and Rio Vermelho for great sunset views; Armação, Jaguaribe, and Stella Maris for surfing; Praia do Forte and the beaches of Itaparica for peace and quiet.

Best sights: Pelourinho, churches of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim and Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, Elevador Lacerda, Mercado Modelo, Ilha dos Frades and ferry rides on the Baía de Todos os Santos, Pelourinho and Barra/Ondina during Carnival.

Best eats: Churrasco (Brazilian barbecue) at Boi Preto Grill, feijoada (the national dish) at Boteco or Mini Cacique, comida baiana (local Bahian cuisine/seafood) at Donana or Ki-Mukeka, por kilo (Brazilian buffet) at Mignon or Sinhá, comida mineira (rustic Brazilian food) at Taiobha, açaí na tigela (frozen açaí) at A Cubana or at the Praia do Farol da Barra, pork sandwiches at O Líder, pizza at Pizza da Chapada, sushi at Soho, Brazilian vegan/veg at A Saúde na Panela or Rango Vegan.

Best dranks: Juices at Suco 24 Horas or Ácidos Naturais, beers at Rhoncus Pub, happy hour at Caminho de Casa or in Pelourinho, views and friends at O Cravinho, Barraca do Lôro, or Toro Tapas Bar.

Best hypes: Afternoons and evenings in Pelourinho for amazing live music and delicious food, upscale partying at Tarantino Art Bar, casual fun at Coliseu do Forró, LGBT club nights at Tropical or San Sebastian, Barra and Ondina for New Years (Reveillon) and during Carnival.

Best sounds and scenes: Carlinhos Brown, Margareth Menezes, Olodum, and Daniela Mercury, just to whet the musical appetite. Capitães da Areia and Gabriela Crave e Canela for cinematic eye candy.

Best advice: Remember to be street-smart at all times; leave unnecessary valuables at home. Try to speak a little bit of Portuguese; you’ll make new friends that way. Service in restaurants and other establishments can be slow; try not to let that ruin your trip to such an incredibly memorable place. Use condoms. Have fun!

Image credit: GOVBA

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The last imperial capital of Abyssinia and the capital of the modern nation of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa has only existed for a little over 130 years. As such, its name means “new flower,” and speaks to its flourishing as a center of power, culture, and influence in the ancient and storied Ethiopian highlands. Here, friendships and kindness abound, and Ethiopia’s enduring legacy of independence in the face of external attempts at conquest is a sense of majesty, tempered by humility, that makes visitors feel welcome and cared for.

Heran and I grab some coffee at an Italian-inspired coffee shop. Café-style coffee, pizza, and pasta are some of the culinary influences the Italians left after their short-lived occupation during World War II. That said, machine-brewed coffee has got nothing on the elaborate, traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The juxtaposition of African and European design was evident in the halls of the former Imperial Palace, once home to Emperor Haile Selassie and now a museum on the campus of Addis Ababa University.
Getacho is trained as a medical lab technician. He left the field because of his aversion to the abortions he was required to help perform. I didn’t ask him about his stance on a woman’s right to choose; he just said he couldn’t bare the actual procedure. His other siblings all work in the medical field. He said to me, in much better English than he gave himself credit for, “All will work out. All will be okay.”
Students text and browse on cell phones at Addis Ababa University. The striking campus library was named in honor of former US president John F. Kennedy—a controversial figure in Ethiopia.
Women in bright colors walk past the verdant walls of an upscale residential district near the embassy zone. Some of the mansions house ambassadors and other dignitaries, guarded from—or kept from—the outside world by these high walls.
Traditional Ethiopian coffee (bottom left) compliments a platter of steaming, savory goodness.

-Ernest White II

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I arrived at Bamako, capital of the modern country of Mali, in the late afternoon under a hot and yellow sky. Outside the small airport terminal, greeters waited for friends and family, hotel drivers held signs aloft, and touts—quietly and at a distance—offered local SIM cards or to change currency at the black market rate. One of the touts, his hair cut in the newfangled mohawk so fashionable among youths under thirty around the world, asked me in English if I needed a ride or a guide. I had expected my hotel to pick me up, but we at least spoke for a few minutes about his long-ago trip to Washington. He impressed me with a few words of Spanish that slipped into Italian, which was even more impressive. Than a police officer shooed all the non-passengers away from the shaded terminal entrance and back across the virtually carless roadway into the sun.

After a while, when I guessed that my driver wasn’t on the way, I tried to call the hotel from my cell phone, to no avail and saving me the nearly $5 per minute charge. I asked a uniformed woman passing by if she spoke English—“Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?” being one of the scant French phrases I’ve mastered—and, upon receiving an excited “Yes!,” asked if she could help me contact the hotel. She took me to the baggage office where she worked to contact them and wait for the driver. She told me about her two daughters who live in Atlanta and how she worked for Air Afrique in the ‘90s.

Staring out from the wall of her office was a French fashion model, plump red lips parted by white teeth that protruded as if the model, as a child, sucked her thumb. The face was framed by a tempest of hair, capped by a beret, and the Eiffel Tower rose in the distance over one thin shoulder. “France is in the air,” read the airline poster, advertising the single daily flight from Bamako to Paris. The wan, pouting body in the image appeared lifeless, ghostly compared with the vivid and corpulent bodies in my immediate vicinity. From the taxi on the way to the hotel, I saw an Air France billboard advertising “royal shopping in Paris.” Economically, Mali is one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

Entering the outskirts of the city, tangerine-colored dust, reminding me of Tallahassee or Pietermaritzburg, glowed in the sunlight, and I looked at the faces of the people walking alongside the road, riding on Chinese-made motorbikes, or selling sundries in the scant shade: Auntie Rosemary, Tyrone, Keisha’s little sister, Deacon Jones, Dr. McLendon.

We crossed the River Niger during the afternoon rush hour, and I noticed the abundance of motorbikes and the abundance—not the majority, but a notable number—of women astride and driving the motorbikes in brightly-colored floor-length dresses, traditional West African headwraps, and high heels. Other women wore hijabs or hoodies protecting Beyoncé-inspired braids—blonde, of course—from the citrusy dust. The men, whose second-hand clothing spoke more to the relative economic standing of the country than did the ladies’, wrenched out any bit of style they could muster, be it a cocked and reversed baseball cap, an elegant knee-length shirt with a fedora, chic plastic-rimmed spectacles, or one of the stylish haircuts appearing in Belgian hip-hop videos. Whatever they wore, they wore it well.
I arrived at a clean, mercifully air-conditioned hotel run by an Ivoirian Frenchman and his daughter, had an unimpressive dinner, then read until jetlag sent me to sleep.

The next morning, I had plans to go out into the city after breakfast to take photographs and meet up with the American friend of an American friend for coffee. But at breakfast, I ended up meeting a middle-aged white man who had been born in the Belgian Congo sixty-five years ago. He was ten when the war of independence broke out in the Congo and took a children’s-only train to safety in Cape Town, with no news of the whereabouts or well-being of his parents for a year. They showed up eventually, and he grew into manhood in South Africa, marrying a Coloured woman, illegally. They had two children and could never live in one place longer than three months at a time because, just as surely as they had moved into a house, a neighbor reported the interracial marriage to the police, who took about three months to act on the complaint. He told me how he helped smuggle contraband to anti-Apartheid resistance fighters and about the karate dojo in the Indian section of Johannesburg where he took his children for lessons and where people of all four racial groups bonded under the shared love of a martial art and the ability to not think about race for a while, anyway. Eventually, Apartheid ended, Mandela was released, and the first general election was held in 1994. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Belgium, where his marriage dissolved. He then, finally, accepted that he was gay.

We remained wrapped—and I, rapt—in conversation for the entire day. It was Mandela Day.

The next day, not having seen very much of Bamako at all, but determined to return again during the five-year duration of my visa, I went to the airport around lunchtime to check in to my onward flight to Dakar. The airport was virtually empty of passengers, and three immigration officers stood behind the glass partition sharing a heap of barbecued ribs wrapped in brown paper, just like they do at Jenkins’ Bar-B-Q back home, except the ribs were covered in onions rather than mustard-based barbecue sauce. We all laughed; they offered me some, but I had just eaten lunch and didn’t want to get my passport greasy. One of the officers used his ungreasy hand to process me out of the country and stamp my passport.

My people.

-Ernest White II

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Human trade and culture have traveled through Central Asia for thousands of years. Throughout antiquity, traders, treasures, and tragedies threaded their way through the mountains and across the seas of the region in successive waves, mixing traditions and beliefs from East to West and back again. The modern country of Tajikistan sits high along the northern crest of the Himalayas, and its peaks and valleys have witnessed the rise and fall of religions and empires, from Zoroastrianism and Buddhism to the Mongols and the Soviets. Around each mountain pass is a story, through each tunnel, a tale. It isn’t the cities and settlements of Tajikistan that hold the secrets of time, it’s the places between the places where the whispers shout loudest.

World’s Second-Largest Flagpole, Dushanbe
Karotegin Province
Seven Lakes
Shakhristan Region
Khatlon Province
Zarafshan Valley
Karotegin Province
Seven Lakes
Iskanderkul, named for Alexander the Great. Yes, he was here, too.

Dushanbe (DYU), Tajikistan’s capital city and principal air hub, is served thrice weekly from Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, with onward connections to the United States.

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Russia got Hungary, ate Turkey, fell on Greece and broke China. We learned that little ditty in nursery school, and while it may not have happened in that order, there was obviously some allusion to the Soviet Union’s global sphere of influence during much of the 20th century. As menacing as that may have seemed, the glories of Mother Russia were still extolled to many a traveler, as evidenced by these lovely vintage travel posters. Добро пожаловать!


Have you been to Russia?

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Nickname: A Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City) | Population: 6.5 million cariocas/12 million in metro | Area: 486.5 sq mi | Airports: Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport – Galeao (GIG) and Santos-Dumont Airport (SDU) | Time Zone: -3h from UTC/-2h DST | Famous for: beaches, booties, samba, soccer, Cristo Redentor, crime

Rio de Janeiro is the official calling card of Brazil. No other city in Latin America has been photographed, sung about, or dreamed about more than the Marvelous City. With world-famous beaches, stunning landscapes, spectacular views, hip-swaying music, and scores of tall, tan young-and-lovelies, Rio is the one city that should be experienced at least once in every human being’s life. True, it’s got plenty of social problems and it may not end up being your favorite city in the world, but Rio’s palpable sensuality and peerless natural beauty make it a place that you will never forget.

On arrival: Use the free airport wifi to order a ride via Uber, or take a cab from one of the prepaid taxi offices closest to the terminal exit; insist that the driver uses GPS. The best and least-expensive way to get reais (Brazilian currency) is to withdraw money from the ATM; many Brazilian ATMs do not operate using the U.S. bank card network, but at least one or two will.

Best ‘hoods: Copacabana is the world’s most famous beach, still fun despite being well past its glory days. Ipanema and Leblon hold court as the city’s chic beaches. The beaches of Barra da Tijuca are calmer, but a bit far from the in-town action. Centrally-located Lapa is home to Rio’s iconic samba spots. Santa Teresa’s curvy, cobblestone streets evoke an artsy, bohemian vibe. Flamengo, Botafogo, and Urca offer affordable, interesting dining and lodging conveniently located between the beaches and Centro (Downtown), which is great for exploring during the day. These neighborhoods are part of the Zona Sul (South Zone), which is where most of Rio’s tourist-friendly attractions are located. Be street-smart everywhere.

Best beaches: Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon for swimming, sunbathing, and flirting; Arpoador for great sunset views; Barra da Tijuca for surfing; São Conrado for hang gliding; Prainha for peace and quiet.

Best sights: Christ the Redeemer Statue, Sugarloaf Mountain, Tijuca Forest, Santa Teresa, Selarón Steps, Municipal Theatre, Museum of Tomorrow, Museum of Modern Art, ferry to Niterói, Maracanã Stadium, tour of Rocinha, and the Sambadrome during Carnival.

Best eats: Churrasco (Brazilian barbecue) at Porcão Rio’s, feijoada (the national dish) at Casa da Feijoada, por kilo (Brazilian buffet) at Kilograma or Couve Flor, comida mineira (rustic Brazilian food) at À Mineira, açaí na tigela (frozen açaí) at Bibi Sucos, pork sandwiches at Cervantes, pizza at Mamma Jamma, sushi at Azumi, burgers at Comuna, Brazilian vegan/veg at Vegetariano Social Clube.

Best dranks: Juices at Dona Vitamina or Frutaria Oscar Freire, beers at Espaço Carioquinha or Lapa Café, happy hour at Astor or in the Arcos dos Teles area, views and friends at Bar do Alto, Palaphita Kitch, or Bar Urca.

Best hypes: Any samba school rehearsal, Lapa at night for live Brazilian music and a wild party vibe, upscale partying at 00, LGBT club nights at The Week Rio, Copacabana for New Years (Reveillon) and during Carnival.

Best advice: Remember to be street-smart at all times; leave unnecessary valuables at home. Try to speak a little bit of Portuguese; you’ll make new friends that way. Service in restaurants and other establishments can be slow; try not to let that ruin your trip to one of the world’s most enjoyable cities. Use condoms. Have fun!

And for the ultimate luxury experience in Rio, book an Up in the Air Life adventure today!

Image credit: Christian Haugen via Flickr