Jesus Christ and I have nothing in common, except a star-sign (Capricorn, symbol: the goat) and a birthday. As a result of my accident of birth, the day on which Christians in much of the world celebrate the birth of the Saviour is of personal interest.
I seem to spend most of my life being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a problem that has dogged me since my early days. Or, more accurately, earliest day. I was born beside the A23 in Crawley, just south of Gatwick airport, on a date 25 December when other matters tended to overshadow birthdays. Unless, that is, you are in Ethiopia. Do they know it's Christmas? Yes, but only on 7 January.
This nation may be nine times the size of Britain, but Ethiopia has plenty of similarities to the UK. Both nations have a large and growing population, in which Christianity and Islam coexist mostly peaceably. The national saint, George, is the same as England's (and the label of the nation's favourite beer depicts him slaying the dragon). Thanks to a strong Italian influence in the field of catering, you can get an excellent coffee. And while Ethiopia is embedded between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the high altitude of a fair proportion of the country makes it decidedly green and pleasant. But what Ethiopia does not share with anyone else is its calendar.
Ethiopia may have been the birthplace of humanity, but it is chronologically out of kilter with the rest of the world. Only last September did the nation join the remainder of Christendom here in the 21st century. Ethiopia was last to celebrate the Millennium because the Coptic church retains an ancient calendar that has been superseded in most of the world by the more accurate Gregorian calibration. So 25 December is just another day.
Just another day in Ethiopia, though, is more than likely to be surprising and exhilarating. Most journeys start in Addis Ababa. The city whose name translates as "New Flower" occupies the 60th and last place in today's survey of world capitals. Agreed, Ethiopia's hub scores no points for loveliness nor history, but it is a cheerfully ramshackle place: imagine a city of the former Soviet Union, transferred to the Tropics and endowed with the spirit of Africa. Add a cathedral and museum, plus the best restaurants in Ethiopia (not a demanding target) and there is plenty to sustain interest for the day or two that most visitors stay.
Heaven is waiting upcountry in the form of the Heaven Guest House (the polar opposite, I guess, to Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel). The hotel's sign greets you as you reach Lalibela, two days' drive or a couple of hours' flight north-east of Addis Ababa. On one level this is an enchanting mountain town set amid superb scenery. On another, it is home to some African sights as dramatic as the Pyramids outside Cairo; one is near the source of the Blue Nile, the other close to the great river's mouth.
Christianity arrived as early as the 4th century in Ethiopia, and it remains one of the most devout realms in Christendom. Devotion takes many forms, but it is difficult to think of any that demands such sheer toil and artistry as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Rather than the standard architectural practice of finding a reasonably flat piece of ground and constructing something above it, in Lalibela, the priests decided to work the other way. From the slabs of stone that help to make up this heavenly landscape, they cut down towards the centre of the earth.
The results are epitomised in the church of St George. I nearly wrote "the majestic church ...", but when you stand on the lip of stone that overlooks a subterranean church stamped with an ancient cross, majesty is not quite the sense. Awe, though, is entirely appropriate when you stumble down the steps and emerge into the space that has been hewn from the rock to allow the church to take shape. This is a mirror image of traditional building: here, the structure is defined by what is left behind. And what is left behind is awesome.
Take a few steps up to the doorway, and peer into the darkness. Strange litanies resound amid a haze of incense, which might sound rather like the Isle of Wight pop festival in 1970, but in fact goes back much further. The Orthodox liturgy practised in Ethiopia has roots that extend deep into the past: you are witnessing Christian worship that has barely changed since the gospel arrived in this mile-high pinnacle 17 centuries ago, and have suffused the place with profound passion ever since.
When they arrive in this warren of stone, most visitors take the standard afternoon tour around the dozen or so rock-hewn churches. This provides an overview of the mesmeric masonry, but it is equally important to rise at dawn next morning and wander alone around the churches. The town may now depend on tourism, but none of this quiet ceremony is laid on for visitors. They do it for themselves, or rather for Jesus Christ.
At on the other side of Addis Ababa, He is celebrated in the name of Hosanna. On the highway that meanders uncertainly in the general direction of Kenya, Hosanna is a sprawling market town. I came here to find out what had happened to my Christmas presents.
Some time ago, the Calder family stopped giving each other gifts at Christmas not due to some family feud, but because the money could be far better spent elsewhere. In my particular branch of the family, the chosen charity is Farm Africa, and we specialise in goats. Over the years we have provided a good number of these creatures (female, for milking) to the continent, but since the donor does not deliver them personally, none of us was too sure exactly where they were or what they did. The charity pointed me in the direction of Hosanna, home to a project of the Capricornian kind. And off I went.
A short distance before Hosanna, the highway swung sharply to the left to reveal yet another broad and beautiful valley. Suddenly a goat charged across the road. Fortunately the driver saw her in time, sounded the horn (his, not the goat's), braked hard and successfully steered around the beast.
To have hit her would have been a tragedy for the owner (as well as the goat). The name of the game is enfranchisement. In a male-dominated society, the poorest women are powerless from every point of view. Farm Africa does not just dish out goats to the least fortunate; it also provides education about micro-capitalism.
You can do several things with a goat, including selling her. But the women learn that it is a better investment to milk her until she is old, then eat her. They can slowly build up enough funds to allow them to buy a donkey; in a continent that walks, this is the beast that bears most of the burdens and very effective and valuable it is, too.
Hosanna is a picture of exuberance amid hardship. The countryside all around is lush, but the land has many mouths to feed. The town itself is, after the rains, a mire of ruddy brown mud. There is one hotel in town, and it is almost empty. Yet throughout Hosanna, the buzz of conversation, music and humanity takes a lot longer to fade than the daylight.
The thrum begins again as the sun comes up. At dawn a Farm Africa representative takes me around a few villages in the scheme. Some distance from the highway, we find a huddle of tightly thatched cones perched above cylindrical walls whose chief constituent is mud. Inside each dwelling, the main ingredient is children, lots of them, but these are not just family homes; the livestock lives here, too. I am introduced to each goat, and learn what its presence has done (besides neatly trimming the grass outside). The women are at last economic players, able to take decisions for themselves and make choices for their families. Plainly some of the menfolk find it hard to adjust to this change of relationship; others are clearly enjoying the benefits of their wives' enterprise.
At the very last home in the very last village we visited, I asked (politely) if I could take a picture of the goat. Unfortunately, I asked the owner, not the animal. It reared, charged and gored me in less time, sadly, than it takes to set an exposure. The goat was fine; I am still nursing my wounds and sporting a Capricornian scar. The photographs were a write-off, and I continued my journey south to Kenya, where I decided to institute a temporary reversal of the "goats to Africa" tradition.
Two words: goat stew.
You can fly from Heathrow to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; www.ethiopianairlines.com), which has daily services either non-stop or via Rome. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) flies the same route several times each week, though with a stop in the Jordanian capital, Amman. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Several adventure operators run trips through Ethiopia. For example, Exodus (0845 863 9600; www.exodus.co.uk) has a 15-day "Discover Ethiopia" trip leaving on 11 January 2008, for 1,799 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow, internal flights, transfers, excursions, hotel accommodation with breakfast and most dinners.
Unless you are on an organised tour, surface transportation tends to be slow and sporadic. Ethiopian Airlines has a network of flights serving leading tourist destinations.
The Foreign Office says "We advise against all travel to areas off the principal roads/towns within 50km of the border areas with Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya".
British passport-holders require a visa to enter Ethiopia, which can be obtained upon arrival at Addis Ababa airport for US$20 (10); one passport photo is also required.
Lonely Planet's Ethiopia & Eritrea Travel Guide (2006) is priced at 16.99. Farm Africa: 020-7430 0440; www.farmafrica.org.uk. A milking goat costs 27, Ethiopian tourism: 00 251 11 551 2310; www.tourismethiopia.org.