Harar, Ethiopia — THE final streaks of sunlight are fading on a warm summer Sunday, but instead of flipping hamburgers in my backyard, I am standing in the backyard of a man flipping shanks of raw meat to a dozen wild hyenas.
Ethiopia's famous "hyena man" beckons me. Moments later, I am crouching on the ground, cheek to cheek with Derge (pronounced "de-REG-eh"). He grabs a hunk of meat from a basket and places it on the edge of his lips. Within seconds, a wolf-size blur of brown fur and fangs approaches hesitantly from about 6 feet away, then lunges toward us. The hyena sinks its teeth into the food, tearing it from Derge's lips -- 8 inches from my face.
I gasp for breath as my guide, Endale Teffra, a native of this 1,000-yearold walled city, chuckles. He has just snapped a photo I will treasure forever.
It is Day 7 of a 10-day tour through Ethiopia, a cultural, religious and historic crossroads unlike any other in Africa. Take the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which appears to be a blend of ancient religions and pagan beliefs; add the Queen of Sheba and the ruins of her reservoir-size bath from the 10th century BC; top them off with the capital, Addis Ababa, its squalid slums within sight of the only five-star hotel in the country, and you begin to glimpse the depth and diversity of Africa's only sub-Saharan nation that has never been truly colonized.
Ethiopia, almost three times the size of California, has taken conspicuous strides toward modernization, at least in the capital. In Addis Ababa, the renovated Bole International Airport is spacious and easy to maneuver.
For many people, Ethiopia conjures up images of sad-eyed children with stick-thin limbs, distended stomachs and flies in their eyes, images from the nation's 1984-85 famine that killed more than 1 million people.
"When drought and famine struck Ethiopia, Americans were the first to arrive with relief aid as the great contributors and life savers," says Hapte-Selassie Tafesse, who in the 1960s and early '70s was the nation's first minister of tourism. "They should come and see that all that has not been without gratitude or in vain."
One does not vacation in Ethiopia to see lions and elephants or for many Western comforts. Those interested in wildlife should take in a safari in Kenya or one of the many other African countries catering to the desire for "shooting big game" (with telephoto lenses, please) and the amenities that resorts offer.
The resort approach to travel through East Africa spares visitors from children haranguing them for ballpoint pens (a valuable school supply) or disfigured adults begging for spare birr, the Ethiopian currency. But you also miss experiencing the sights, sounds and tastes of the "melting pot" of Africa.
I am introduced to one such taste -- both familiar and foreign -- the moment I arrive in Aksum, the nation's former capital. (It's now Addis Ababa.)
At the hotel, I am greeted with an invitation from the owner to a traditional coffee ceremony. For the next 90 minutes, I savor an irresistibly potent, rich brew. Beans are roasted, then ground by hand, brewed in a decorative pot over a small charcoal burner and served in a demitasse cup as the bittersweet aroma of incense fills the room. It is a wonderful way to relax and discuss with my guide our plans for the next few days.
Aksum, with its downtrodden hotels, shops and bars, doesn't reveal much religious or cultural heritage. But imagining the past is not difficult at the Northern Stelae Park, a collection of ancient obelisks about half a mile from the center of town.
Each is constructed from a single piece of granite and symbolizes the power and authority of one of the country's many rulers. Some are carved with impressions of windows, doors, even doorknockers.
Less than 100 yards away is another park with a green chapel surrounded by a tall wire fence and a locked gate. Legend holds that the church contains the original ark of the covenant, which, according to the Old Testament, was built to hold the tablets of law that God gave to Moses.
However, only local holy men are allowed inside the courtyard and the chapel, raising the question: Is the ark really there?
An inquiry to a priest receives a terse response: "Yes, it is inside." The message is clear: Don't annoy him or embarrass yourself by asking to see the ark.
Faith built of stone
IF Aksum has a history shrouded in mystery and folklore, then Lalibela is a breath of fresh air for visitors, figuratively and literally. This community of about 9,000, perched at 8,000 feet in the rugged Lasta Mountains, is home to what many believe is one of Africa's most incredible man-made creations: 11 churches carved out of solid bedrock in the 12th century. Each church is unique and offers visitors a glimpse into rules and rituals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.