Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ethiopia, The Most Unique African Country Yet

I have been in Ethiopia for just over a month now and as usual have barely scratched the surface of this truly fascinating country.  Unfortunately due to my schedule, I must leave the country in just two days but I always feel it is better to leave a country hungry for more than to have moved on feeling like you have done it all.  Who knows, maybe I will return to this part of the world sooner than I expected!  In the last month I’ve gotten to know the capital city of Addis Ababa, joined a local family to celebrate breaking two months of fasting, hung out with a group of Peace Corps volunteers in a small town, visited lakeside monasteries and ancient churches carved out of stone, done battle with the Egyptian and Sudanese embassies, hiked in the Simien Mountains and so much more.  Ethiopia still isn’t a very common destination as far as African nations go, however I have a feeling that is changing and changing fast.  It is a country with a huge amount to offer both the road hardened traveler and the casual tourists alike, so sit back and over this and the next post I will attempt to show just what it is about this country that has grabbed me in a way unlike any other nation thus far on my journey up the continent.

(and once again having stupid text/formatting problems, sorry about that)


Through CouchSurfing I’d arranged to stay with Claudio, a great guy who happened to have another CouchSurfer, Caro, staying with him at the same time.  She was just days away from ending her three yearlong African journey and happy to have another serious traveler to hang out with, we spent the next few days exploring Addis Ababa together.  She had already been in the country for a month or so and was a great resource to show me the ropes of the new country, something that can be a big help at times.  A large part of this exploration involved eating and drinking coffee and fruit juice.  No complaints from me!

Also, it seems for all its positives, Ethiopia can be a much more difficult place for women than other parts of Africa.  Levels of harassment such as cat calls, touching and sexual gestures towards women seem to be much higher here from the women I’ve talked to.  Because of this, Caro and I agreed to tell people we were married when we were out together to make it easier on her, and she repeatedly commented on how different, and how much better it is to walk around the city with a man rather than alone. 

One funny (or disgusting) thing that did happen while walking together though was a twist on the usual asking for money.  That happens frequently, but this time the guy asking for money did it, penis in hand, while taking a piss and turning towards us, mid-stream to say “give me money.”  Uh, no.


As soon as I landed in Ethiopia I could just see and feel that it was different from every other country I’ve visited to this point.  These differences are sometimes subtle, but to me it felt like literally everything was just a little different from any other country I have seen.  The people look different, the city actually has proper buses (but still donkeys walking down the street), the food is rich and complex, it has its own unique language and script, great old cars, countless monuments around the city and so many other features that stood out to me.  Everywhere I looked I saw something I hadn’t seen anywhere else in Africa up to this point and I was walking down the streets with a huge grin on my face. 


Caro and I had set out to meet some other friends of hers who were also flying out of the country and wanted to buy some gifts to bring home.  We took taxis (shared mini buses) around various parts of the city to explore different local markets and ended up in the Piazza area where there is a line of shops selling tourist trinkets.  Keeping in tune with the uniqueness of Ethiopia, I actually saw a huge number amount of art, woodcarvings and metal work that was actually country specific, instead of some of the generic ‘African handicrafts’ you find in every other country.  What impressed me the most was the beautiful furniture carved out of single pieces of wood and the incredibly detailed carved crosses, but by far the most surprising was this leopard skin.  Curious, I asked the price and was pretty shocked to hear they are trying to sell it for…. $2,250.  I then inquired if it was even legal to bring into the USA or other countries and was told they have some import permit allowing it; however I have my doubts that such a thing actually exists or would be recognized at customs.


After a long day on our feet walking around the city, it was time to grab a bite to eat so we walked down a trash strewn and pothole filled street off the main road and into a surprisingly nice restaurant. 

People keep asking me how Ethiopia is different from other countries in Africa that I’ve been to, and the example I keep coming back to is food.  From South Africa all the way to Kenya, it seems everyone in southern/eastern Africa eats corn meal, called ugalli/nshima/pap depending on what country you find yourself.  In so many places I’ve been, this along with beans, a boiled green and on occasion, fish or chicken is the staple dish and pretty much the only option.  When it comes to ‘spices’, your options are salt and oil.  It feels like in so many places I’ve been food is just fuel, not something to be enjoyed in itself.  Ethiopia on the other hand seems to have a fantastically rich food culture.  The batter for injera, the thin and soft sort of pancake-like base for Ethiopian food takes 24 hours to make, and some of the wats, the sauces that are scoped up using a piece of injera in your hand, take all day to cook.  This plate above is called ‘assorted fasting food’, a combination of vegetarian wats to be eaten during fasting times when meat is not allowed, and if you are counting, there are ten different wats there in one meal!  I haven’t seen this kind of diversity and effort put into national foods in any other country and I think it says a lot about the richness of Ethiopian culture as a whole. 

It was not only the food that impressed me though, Ethiopia also has the best beer of any country I’ve been to!  The typical beer is St George, which is a pretty typical lager, but there are a few different brands making various lagers and most importantly, a great locally produced Amber beer, which I consider the first truly good, full flavored, African beer I’ve found.  Also, it’s the first country other than South Africa that has keg beer instead of only from bottles, which I thought was interesting. 


In keeping with the food theme, the next morning (and like most mornings) Caro and I walked out of the compound where we were staying with our CouchSurf host, down the bumpy gravel road, between the other walled compounds and out to the main street where we each bought a fruit juice.  Common flavors are mango, guava and avocado, or ‘sprees’ which is a layered mix of all the juices they currently have.  It is fresh, healthy, delicious and just about the best 50 cents to a dollar you will ever spend.  Yet another wonderful thing common here but nowhere else I’ve been. 

Fruit juice is big, but the real beverage of choice in Ethiopia is coffee.  Legend around here says that drinking coffee started in Ethiopia, and it is even more prevalent here than in my home town of Seattle!  Along nearly every street, no matter how big or small you usually see a small charcoal cookstove with a black, long necked clay pot of coffee sitting in it, along with a tray of small cups (you can see this to my left).  Cops of simple coffee go for 10 to 15 cents and tradition says to have three cups and it is often served with popcorn. 

That afternoon the two of us joined Golda, one of Caros previous CS hosts here in Addis for lunch at a Korean place.  The last time I had Korean food was staying with Insun, a CS host of mine way back in Tanzania, and I was both surprised to find it here in Addis and amazed at how delicious it was.  In the same area there is actually a Canadian restaurant called Oh Canada, but I’m not exactly sure what ‘Canadian cuisine’ consists of; Tim Horton’s, poutine and maple syrup? 


As I mentioned already, Addis Ababa has the coolest cars of any city I’ve seen in Africa (well, other than some of the Ferraris and whatnot I saw in Cape Town).  The two most prominent interesting cars I see here and nowhere else is the blue and white private hire taxis that are usually old Ladas, and the huge prevalence of old VW Beetles and Buses.  As an owner of a 1970 VW myself, I took particular pleasure in seeing other old bugs all over the city and enjoy trying to find the most in one place at a time.  So far the record I’ve seen is something like 6 beetles in a 50 meter stretch and three parked in a row.  In addition to this, I’ve seen lots of cars from my past, such as lots of Toyota Tercel 4x4s like my dad used to have when I was a kid, Volvo 240 wagons like my friend had in high school and the occasional weird American car such as big Chevy Blazers and even this amazing old Cadillac!  I’m told there is another old Caddy here in Addis, and while I’ve kept my eyes out for it I haven’t seen it yet…


Meskel Square.  I’m not sure the intended purpose of this place is, but it’s always busy with people.

After a bit more wandering around Addis and yet another fruit juice, Caro and I returned home where we did the usual traveller file swap (movies, music, books) and hung out with Claudio and his friends in their ‘relax room,’ sitting around trading stories.


After another leisurely morning of brunch and multiple coffees, it was time to take care of business; visiting the Sudan Embassy.  Sudan is a very seldom visited country, notoriously difficult to get into and has some major security issues in certain areas.  Despite this it is known among many travelers as the friendliest people in Africa, some amazing archaeological ruins in the north completely devoid of tourists and an unforgettable and key part of the Cape-to-Cairo route.  It was actually the country in north Africa I was most excited about visiting.

On my way to the embassy, I heard someone shout ‘Scott!’ from the other side of the street, but confused as I’d only been in the city for two days and no one knew me I ignored it.  It happened a few more times, and I finally turned around to see what this was all about.  As it turned out, it was Wossen, a friend of my Ethiopian CS host I stayed with in Kampala!  We had connected on Facebook when I asked for a contact in the city, and somehow Wossen recognized me from across the street as I was walking to the embassy!  I joined him for a coffee, we agreed to meet up later and I continued to the embassy.

In stark contrast to the US embassy here in Addis, which is basically a huge, fortified military base, the Sudan embassy was just a low building consisting of a few rooms behind a corrugated metal fence and a lone security guard sitting casually in a metal chair with his AK47 leaning against it.  There was a waiting area, a table with one or two staff members sitting behind it, and a TV on the wall showing movies that seemed to occupy all of their attention.  When I finally did talk to them, I was informed I could get a 15-day transit visa, all it required was filling out the forms, two passport photos, $100 USD, I had to have the Egypt visa first since I was travelling overland and could be issued in 24 hours.  Then she asked where I was from and when I replied with “USA,” she said the visa would actually be $200.  The whole time the attitude seemed to be very dismissive, like they she didn’t have any interest in doing her job, in letting people into the country or diverting her attention from the TV any more than she absolutely had to.  Ah Sudan, already living up to your reputation I see….  It was a lot of money for a 15-day visa, but I was still going to do it. 

Obviously the first step was to get the Egypt visa, so after spending way too long trying to figure out how to actually get there, I arrived at the Egypt embassy.  There I was told hours to apply were passed and I had to come back another day.  You can probably see where this is going… Displeased but not deterred, I met up with Caro again, we checked out some ‘expo’ that was going on at an event space off Meskel Square and were not surprised to find it had nothing to offer, then returned to our hosts house. 


That evening I joined Claudio and his friends for a khat chewing session.  Khat is a plant that grows in this part of the world and has mild stimulant effects.  It is popular in parts of northeast Africa and the middle east, sold and chewed openly on the streets, but still a bit taboo.  Essentially, you just pick the leaves off the stem and chew, building up a big wad and adding to it for an hour or two until you have had enough or run out.  Here, people usually take off their shoes, sit with friends on cushions arranged around the floor, drink water or tea, smoke cigarettes or shisha and chew and chat.  It is a very social activity.  After about two hours I still wasn’t feeling anything, but as we got up to go out for drinks, a necessity I’m told so you can actually fall asleep after chewing, I noticed a bit of an uplifting feeling, increased energy and mental activity, a little clenching of my jaw and talkativeness.  It’s not a powerful effect, closer to very strong coffee than any ‘drug’, but it’s certainly there and I did find it to be enjoyable. 


Claudio had other CouchSurfers coming to stay with him, so after a few great nights at his place it was time for me to move on.  Luckily I’d gotten a great response from other hosts in the city and had a few options of people to stay with.  I ended up picking a young guy named Addis (yes, like the city) who lived in a studio in a large apartment block.  His place is a bit small and messy, a bit college dorm style but I’m fine with that and he is a great guy who I could immediately tell would work out great for both of us.  He gave me a key, we chatted for a few minutes and he took off for work, leaving me to get settled in.


I put my things down and headed out for breakfast.  No one spoke English and the menu was only in Amharic, but I ended up getting some delicious mystery dish for breakfast and left satisfied.  That afternoon I had yet another CS host to meet up with, an Ethiopian guy named Mike who has spent much of the last 15 years travelling the world.  We got coffee, food and he also wanted to take me out for khat.  After getting some good local food, we entered through an unmarked metal gate and into a compound where there were rooms filled with cushions, a TV, shisha pipes and about 15 people chewing khat.  Conversation flowed easily, including with some strangers who sat down next to us before going out for drinks again and calling it a night. 

Here is another Addis Ababa street scene including two things of interest to me; again a big American car I haven’t seen anywhere else (80-era Chevy K5 Blazer) and more importantly the beginnings of Addis’ light rail transportation system.  I was amazed to see light rail being built, because it is something I haven’t seen in any other African city, and something I think is very forward thinking and positive for the city and the country.  I heard plenty of people complaining about how all the roads are torn up or congested as a result of the construction, but I’m sure when finished it will help the city tremendously and be a sign of progress in the region.


I was headed to the Egypt Embassy again to try again to apply for the visa and as I walked out of the apartment complex asked a young man for directions.  His name was Ashenafi and he said he would take me there but first invited me to have breakfast with him!  I know I’ve wound up meeting amazing people all the time, and have been the beneficiary of amazing hospitality all across Africa on this journey, but it never ceases to amaze me.  He treated me to breakfast, then we minibussed it to the Egypt embassy.  There I was told it was a holiday and I should come back the next day….. yay. 


With time to kill, Ashenafi and I stopped by the Lion Zoo, which is in the same area as the embassy and Addis Ababa University.  Entrance was 20 birr, just over $1 and another 20 for a camera for forigners, for locals it costs just 2 birr.  The lack of funds certainly shows.  The zoo is a small and sad place, consisting of just a few monkeys, storks, bucks, a tortoise and a large number of lions in empty, miserable looking and often trash strewn concrete cages. 


This ‘zoo’ was founded by Haile Selassiei in 1940 with two pairs of lion cubs collected from the southern part of Ethiopia, and I assume has held many unhappy animals ever since…


In the same area is the Yekatit Monument, ‘the monument of the martyrs.’ This monument, one of many in the city (and yes, another type of thing I haven’t really seen in any other city!) is dedicated to the thousands of Ethiopians who were killed by the Italians in 1937 over a three day period after an assassination attempt on Viceroy Graziani. 


By now it was lunch time, and we headed to the restaurant at the National Museum for some delicious Ethiopian food.  Wossen (left) met me there as well as another friend and we had a long, leisurely and filling meal.


Overlooking Addis from a rooftop hotel restaurant we visited later in the afternoon.


The tour of the city continued with yet another monument, this time a huge and very interesting one, the Dilachen Monument.  This one was built by the old communist government of Ethiopia, is adorned by the hammer and sickle and huge brass statues and plaques depicting the rise of the proletariat overcoming oppression and creating a peoples utopia.  The whole effect is very powerful and reflects an important part of the country’s history, however the current government is intentionally choosing to neglect the place due to opposition to the ideology it represents, and the fountains are broken and dry, weeds fill the cracks between the pavement and tiles are beginning to fall off the monument.  A shame.


Another view of the city, this time from the ritzy Sheridan Hotel on one of the hillsides.  Looking at the number of cranes and buildings under construction, it is clear Addis Ababa is a place of rapid growth and development. 


My busy social calendar continued into the night, with a dinner and going away party for Golda who I’d met earlier through Caro.  Out of about ten people, we were from something like eight different countries and everyone but one was a CouchSurfer, very cool! 


I returned to the Egypt embassy for a third day in a row, and while the process was straightforward enough it was very tedious.  I had to get new passport photos taken because I was told my background wasn’t white enough, had to provide a copy of the card I took out Ethiopian birr with and an ATM receipt, have the name and number of a hotel I’d be staying with (I just picked a random one I found online), pay 290 birr (only about $15, quite cheap) and wait FIFTEEN DAYS.  For everyone else in the world, the process is just three, but for Americans and for some reason, Canadians, they take 15 days to put a little sticker in your passport… why?  After turning in all the necessary pieces I was given a date and time to return in two weeks and feeling somewhat confident everything would work out, I set off, sans-passport (and without any sort of receipt saying that I’d paid or that the Egypt embassy was holding my passport for fifteen days) back into the city.

In the same area is the National Museum, and although I wasn’t expecting much the Lucy skeleton was supposed to have returned the previous day and I was curious.  Like the zoo the entrance was cheap, less than a dollar, but it didn’t have a lot to offer.  There were some stone tools and pottery shards, a few garments, crowns and so on from the countries various leaders, various ‘ancient’ tools that you still used every day in the countryside and as you went up the different floors, an increasingly random collection of paintings from Ethiopian artists.  For the price I couldn’t complain and it is worth the visit, but it turned out the Lucy exhibit wasn’t actually finished and I wasn’t able to see it, despite what the huge posters outside of the place indicated. 


That evening I returned ‘home’ to Addis my CS host and he cooked up some dinner for us to have while watching movies on TV.  As much as I like adventure travel, being out in the bush, and that kind of thing, sometimes it’s nice to just hang out and watch TV with a cool guy, haha. 

The next day was also uneventful and pretty lazy, spending most of the day lounging around the apartment before going out for the evening.  I met up with Mike again and found the first Israeli travelers I’ve seen in a long time, spending the night sitting around a fire outside chatting, eating injera and drinking beers. 


Although I was itching to get out of the city and see more of the country, Ashenafi had invited me to join him and his family to celebrate Fasika, the celebration of breaking the two month fast that is part of Orthodox Christianity here in Ethiopia and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity so I hung around longer than I’d originally intended.  I met Wossen again at the rooftop restaurant where I had a great pizza, managed to get my bus ticket to Addis Kedam, a small town where I was going to be meeting a Peace Corps volunteer I connected with through CouchSurfing, and generally wander about town but it was nothing too exciting. 

A huge part of the Fasika celebration is being able to eat meat again after two months without.  As a result, the streets were filled with people herding sheep, goats and cows through traffic to sell for the festivities, which made for some pretty hilarious ‘only in Africa’ scenes.  Something tells me if I tried to tie 6 goats to the roof of a taxi in America, they would tell me no…


On Sunday morning I met Ashenafi and his family at his place, which amazingly was just two buildings down from where I was staying with Addis in the same complex.  The morning started off with the traditional ‘coffee ceremony’ where the fresh beans are roasted in front of you, brought around for everyone to smell, ground on the spot and turned into fresh coffee, three rounds.  The first round of food came quickly as well, and consisted of meat, meat and meat!  Everyone was thrilled to be eating meat again and seemed to want to eat nothing but it.  Not that I was going to complain, it was delicious!  Other than the fasting time, it seems like there is just simply more meat here in Ethiopia than the other countries I’ve visited.  A few places have a bit of fish and despite the fact that Ethiopia is also pretty poor, especially the rural areas, it seems like I see far more meat out here than I have in every other country. 


After eating the first meal of the day, it was time to move to another apartment in the same complex and continue eating and drinking for the rest of the day.  Thanks to the wonderful Ethiopian hospitality, my plate was never empty and my two different drinks never seemed to go below a third.  I was stuffed and had some interesting conversations with the family, two of whom live in London and in Washington DC.  Ethiopia has a huge diaspora community and not only does it seem that everyone has family in Australia, England or America, there is actually a large Ethiopian community in Seattle I was never really aware of until actually coming here to Ethiopia!  After eating and drinking to the point when I could stand no more, I said thank you, humbled by the kindness of the family and returned to my own bed to lie down and digest before falling asleep.


I had a long bus ride ahead of me, and just after 5am boarded the Selam bus from Addis Ababa to Bahar Dar.  The ticket was about 300 birr, not so different from what I’ve paid for similar bus trips in other countries, but it was the nicest bus I’ve been on outside of South Africa.  It was new, clean, they passed out water and snacks and the seats were actually comfortable.  Despite being tired, it was hard to sleep because the roads were so windy and bumpy.  Despite hundreds of KM of new roads in the country, they is the same poor quality construction I’ve seen across the continent.  What was only a year or two old was already filled with potholes, deep tire grooves and bumps from too-soft asphalt and collapsing water management systems on the sides… a shame. 

Most of the scenery wasn’t all that spectacular, just brown, dry fields and small wood and mud homes, but when we got to the gorge things improved drastically.  Apparently there are lots of bus crashes going up and down this section of road and I certainly believe it, but as the bus creeped around the countless hairpin turns to the bridge I was enjoying the scenery too much to worry about it.


Some beautiful cliffs and stalactites on the way out of the gorge. 


That small stretch of road was very scenic, but this is much more representative of the countryside.  The rainy season is almost here but for now everything is brown and mowed to the ground by the grazing animals.  Though it wasn’t usually full of dramatic sights, the Ethiopian countryside has a beauty all its own and looks different from the rest of my journey.


A short while later we turned off the main paved road to a dirt bypass and quickly came upon a line of buses and trucks with their engines shut off.  Obviously someone ahead was stuck.  The bypass, nothing but sticky mud, had trapped an entire bus as well as a van who tried to pass it.  It’s not the first time I’ve seen this problem in Africa, haha… Everyone was out of their cars and buses to watch, as was the whole village it seemed, this was a big (but probably common) event!  It’s easy for situations like this to drag on for hours and I was preparing myself for a long one, but within an hour a dump truck had come with a tow cable, pulled the van and bus out without incident, traffic was diverted back onto the unfinished, unpaved main road and we were off again. 


Ten hours after setting off from the big city, I arrived in the small town of Addis Kedam.  I was here to meet Amanda, a Peace Corps volunteer I’d found through CouchSurfing.  Like most small towns across Africa, it consisted of a row of single story buildings lined up against the paved main road, and took only five or ten minutes to walk the entire length of town.  With dirt roads it does extend behind the main road, but there isn’t a lot going on here in Addis Kedam.  Then again, that’s a big reason I came! 


I called up Amanda and we met on the side of the road.  It isn’t hard to find the only white guy in town, haha.  After picking up two packages from home at the post office, we stopped into a restaurant for some injera and tagabeno, a wat that I’d compare to refried beans and I found quite delicious.  Being the end of fasting when people are allowed to eat again, it seems to be all anyone wants to eat.  The owner of the restaurant was honestly shocked we weren’t ordering a meat dish and it took some convincing that we actually wanted a vegetarian option, haha. 


Amanda lives in part of a family compound a few dirt streets off the main road.  Her house is separate from the family, consists of three rooms, has electricity (with some pretty sketchy looking wiring!), a propane stove, a pit toilet and a tap on the compound for water that works most of the time. 

Since I talked about the infection on my foot in the last post and how it pretty much ruined my time in Nairobi, I ought to give an update.  At this point it was getting progressively better.  It was still two rather nasty looking open wounds, but they were slowly healing despite my somewhat poor care of them, and I was only limping a small amount from the pain (and at the time of writing now they are almost totally healed, though it did take a lot of time).


Because the previous day was Fasika  everyone was still in a very festive mood and wanted to invite Amanda and myself over to continue celebrating.  One of her neighbors invited us in for tea, which of course turned into a full meal of injera and tibs (a meat dish) as well as soda and liquor.  We had just eaten of course, but it would have been rude to refuse so we sat down and did our best on the back to back meals. 

After stuffing ourselves again, Amanda’s phone rang.  It was one her counterpart, a local man whos job it is to work together with Amanda and Peace Corps.  And guess what?  He wanted to have us over for a meal!  Yet again, refusal wasn’t an option so we walked to the other side of town (this takes less than 10 minutes) and sat down to coffee, soda, injera and yet more meat.  Three meals back to back to back. 

After doing our duty of eating and drinking yet more food we said thank you, made our goodbyes and returned to Amanda’s place for the night.  Unfortunately when we arrived we discovered the keys were locked inside and we had to use a hammer to break in, prying the lock off of the door, haha!  With the door and lock in a few pieces, we sat down to relax and chat for the evening, opening the packages she had just received from home.  For PCVs this is like Christmas; and while there are often useful and fun things, or supplies for projects in the village, a great deal of the packages contain food and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we sat down and ate yet more food, this time dried fruit from Trader Joes.


Amanda’s living room, where I slept on the ‘couch.’


After a lazy morning around the house, we finally got out to and into the village.  We walked to the open field that serves as the town market, but it seemed everyone in the country was still on ‘holiday hangover’ and the place was almost empty.  Instead of the usual variety Amanda assured me the market offers, on this morning it only consisted of a small group of women sitting together in the dirt, in the hot sun, selling a few onions, potatoes and plastic buckets. 

Having failed at the market, we picked up some fresh bread, went to the ‘fancy’ restaurant in town for some tasty eggs, then to a sort of community center where I was able to use the decently fast internet and cold shower. 


As it turned out, Amanda was throwing a bit of a party in town that night and a something like eight other Peace Corps volunteers from the region descended on the little town of Addis Kedam.  This was probably the most ferengie (foreigners, what Ethiopians call white people…) the town had ever seen in one place and the sight of us walking down the road together to the hillside restaurant where the event was taking place caused a great deal of excitement amount the children. 


From the venue we watched the sun set behind the hillside that was being prepared for the upcoming rains and the party got into full swing.  A huge bonfire was lit, the food seemed to come in an endless procession, the booze flowed freely until the wee hours of the morning and stars and the milky way filled the sky above. 

One thing I have heard from many travelers about Ethiopia is that kids throw rocks at white people.  It sound a bit strange, but it seems to happen with some frequency, to the point where it comes up in almost every travel discussion of Ethiopia.  I was curious about this and asked the volunteers about it and it was yet again confirmed.  I have no idea why, but it seems very clear to me that volunteers here in Ethiopia deal with a lot more harassment from the locals than in any other country I’ve been to.  It’s strange, because I never experienced any of that kind of thing and instead had some wonderful experiences with Ethiopian hospitality. Despite this, I’ve met people who have had groups of kids chase them with whips, throw rocks at them, spit in their hands before offering to shake and surround cars, slamming their hands on the windows and trying to climb in demanding money.  I even met someone whose friend got brain damage from being hit with a rock while cycling through the country.  I’ve tried to find theories for why this is the case, and the only one that was presented to me was that because the country has such a strong identity and culture, maybe they hold stronger anti-foreigner feelings, but I don’t buy this.  These problems seem exclusively limited to children, but the reason for it remains a mystery.


Despite the late night, everyone seemed to wake early and we were heading back into town shortly after 8am.  A number of us went to breakfast at the ‘nice place’ in town then most hopped on minibuses back to their villages. 

As a result of all the celebration and animal slaughter surrounding the recently passed holiday, the streets were littered with animal heads, mostly goat.  I was surprised to see this because I figured people would have some use for at least parts of the head, but I guess not. 

With everyone gone and some new information, advice and contacts, I made a plan to take off for Bahir Dar the next day.  The rest of the day was spent simply relaxing around the house with Amanda and eating a dinner made that included some dried mushrooms from her recent care package. 


In the morning I packed my bags and walked to the road with Amanda to catch a minibus north to Bahir Dar.  Between heavy trucks, minibuses, NGO Land Cruisers and a handful of private cars, donkey carts roam the streets and are a popular way to get around and to transport goods here in Ethiopia, something I haven’t seen regularly since rural Botswana.


A little over an hour into what was an uneventful ride we came upon a line of stopped cars and got out of the minibus to check it out.  I’d been sitting and talking with a local guy who was able to tell me details of the incident, but it was easy enough to figure out what had happened.  This minibus had been driving with a bald and worn out rear tire.  The tire blew while it was traveling at high speed; the driver lost control, swerved into the opposite lane and was t-boned by a dump truck.  All 12 people in the minibus were killed.  I’ve always said if I were to die in Africa it would probably happen just like this.  Forget about lions, malaria and robbers, the most dangerous thing you can do in Africa is use the roads, especially in a minibus.  That said, I do it all the time and don’t ever plan on stopping, it’s just something one needs to be aware and honest about.  The mother of one of those killed in the crash happened to be in my minibus and spent the rest of the ride shouting, chanting sobbing and rocking back and forth.  All it would have taken to avoid this tragedy would have been one better tire, but that is the sad reality out here and I’ve seen it time and time again. 


I arrived in Bahir Dar around 1pm and was quite amazed at what I saw.  Not only was the rode wide and consisting of a grass and tree lined median separating directions of traffic and with sidewalks on both sides of the road, but the other development was even more impressive.  On the edge of town they are building a huge new football stadium, rows upon rows of identical multi-story apartment units and much more.  I have no idea if there is a real economy to support this kind of development (and my assumptions usually are on the side of cynicism to be honest), but from the outside at least it appears to be a real boomtown. 


I checked into a hotel room, the nicest place I’d been in a long time (which cost about $7 a night!), connected with more Peace Corps volunteers in the area and headed towards the lake to organize a boat trip for the next day.  Near the lake sits a very new and fairly impressive church.  Despite the fact Ethiopia is  poor country, almost everything here seems more elaborate and more interesting than in other countries African I’ve visited.  This entrance to the church probably has more artistry and creativity than every church I saw in Zambia combined. 


Bahir Dar sits on the southern end of Lake Tana, the largest lake in the country, and is known for the many monasteries that dot shore and islands among the lake.  I was ready to see some actual built history, something older than the colonial era that is about as far back as many places in Africa go, so I headed to the waterfront to get it organized. 

The waterfront area was surprisingly developed; full of bars, restaurants, a children’s play place and an abundance of people trying to sell tourists on boat trips.  After speaking with a few people I settled on a ‘half day trip of five monasteries, the source of the nile and the hippo pool.’  The agreed upon price was 300 birr, about $16, and while it is a pretty standard price to pay I feel like I should have and could have done a lot better… oh well. 


I spent the afternoon and evening at a lakeside hotel and restaurant popular with foreign travellers, met an Irish couple who had just spent a year in Congo at a gorilla reserve, did some bird watching with them, ate dinner together and called it a night. 


In the morning I woke to my alarm at 7am and after the boat only being 40 minutes later than I was told, set off onto the lake.  The lake was a surprisingly unpleasant green/brown color, but just being out on the water was relaxing and enjoyable. 


Locals still use papyrus boats to get around the lake and although they move very slowly, they are able to carry surprisingly large loads across the water.


After an hour of motoring the boat reached the Zebe Peninsula where Ura Kidane Mihret, built in the 16th century, is situated.  The two other people on the boat and I split the cost of a guide to tell us about the place, which I felt was worth it, and walked the ten or so minutes through trees and coffee bushes from the dock to the church complex.  After stepping through a wood and mud/straw entry way, you come upon a few pretty uninteresting round buildings and a construction project that will become the new museum.  The fee for entering each monastery is 150 birr, about $8 and while it’s not exactly cheap it is certainly worth it to see at least one.


Behind the recently constructed new metal roof and bamboo walls sits the actual building, built with wooden framing and mud/straw walls packed around the wood, which is still the preferred construction method in much of the country. 


Inside the plain mud walls of the church is a colorful and elaborate series of paintings depicting Christian bible stories.  A good portion of the work is still original, but much of it, especially the lower paintings have been recolored as a result of excessive touching over the past few hundred years, haha.


As the story goes, the original Ark of the Covenant is kept behind these doors, but naturally only the priests are able to actually go in and see it. 


In addition to the monastery the fee also allows you to see the ‘museum’, which consists of two glass front cabinets in a mud hut.  They do house some beautiful old religious books, extremely elaborate crows and one or two other artifacts, but to call it a museum is a bit of a stretch and they will certainly have to do better than that if they want the new museum they are building to make any sense.


After visiting the priests quarters and having the rest of our questions answered by the surprisingly good guide we hopped aboard the boat again to visit one of the island monasteries.  I decided I’d pay to go in this one as well then not the others (because they are remarkably similar to each other, one or two is probably enough for most people), but was then informed that it was closed, but they would be happy to have us pay full price to see the boring outside and another ‘museum’ which I’m guessing its entire contents would probably fit into a suitcase.  No thanks, next.


The next island monastery was more of the same.  I was a bit annoyed at the whole thing at this point and wasn’t about to pay another 150 birr to see a smaller and less interesting version of what I’d already seen, and they wouldn’t even let us leave the dock area to see the island without paying despite the fact I’d been told you can walk around and see the outside for free.  Instead I spent those few minutes, where the other passengers refused to pay as well I might add, checking out the numerous species of birds on the island.

From there the boat headed back towards where we had begun to the outflow of the Blue Nile, which was just some reeds and still water, probably the least interesting ‘water feature’ I’ve ever seen.  There were no hippos to be seen in the area.  The other couple paid to see the last of the monasteries on our tour and when the returned saying it was a waste of money, I was pleased I’d stayed behind bird watching and actually being able to walk around the area for a few minutes this time.

Overall I’d say that although I returned from the trip a bit annoyed and disappointed with the whole experience, it was very interesting to finally see some built history in Africa that is a couple of hundred years old.  There is a public ferry that goes to the first monastery and would be a very cheap option, so I’d say do it that way (which will require more waiting on your part) or come up to the boatmen directly in the morning and drive a hard bargain to get a lower price on the transport part of it, then to be realistic about what is worthwhile to see out here, because 150 birr for each monastery is far too much in my opinion. 


Having returned from the boat trip, which was nearly five hours in total, I met up with a group of PCVs for lunch and coffee, then we went on a mission to rent one or two of the papyrus boats to play around with.  As we walked down the road which goes along the shore we walked past this huge new hotel being built, and after the initial thought of how out of place something like this looks in a fairly small African town, I once again had to wonder about the economic feasibility of such a project…


We walked for almost 45 minutes out of town, down dirt roads lined with very basic shacks for people to live in, the kind of place where no tourists would ever find themselves, and came across a number of boats.  A group of six or seven white people walking in this area attracted some attention and soon there were probably 20 locals watching us try and negotiate to rent these boats.  Luckily because most of the group was PCVs they spoke Amharic but we were eventually told that the owners of the boats weren’t around and we would not be able to rent from them.


We walked even farther out of town, where even buildings stop appearing, and found a spot where it appeared they actually make the boats.  There were probably 20 of them in the area and the ground was covered in cut bits of papyrus from the construction process.  We thought it was going to be a sure thing, but ran into the all too common nonsense of African business negations.  We had all heard that locals buy the boats for around 100 birr at most and all we wanted to do was rent one for an hour.  For this, we were actually prepared to pay 100 birr, but the locals started by asking for 500!  After much arguing we simply walked away.  They called us back, threw out stupid numbers again, we walked away a second time and then they finally agreed to 100 for an hour.  But then they got really clever, obviously we would need a paddle as well, and while the boat would be 100, the paddle would be 350!!!  It never fails to amaze me how so many people out here would rather make nothing than a more than fair price.  I see this time and time again in Africa and I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.  We walked away annoyed and amazed at their greed and stupidity. 


After stopping for ‘milk shakes’, which I’m pretty sure was just cold water, some ice chips and chocolate syrup, we went to Kuriftu Resort, an Italian run (if I remember correctly) resort and spa on the shore.  The place is really nice and we all enjoyed a swim as the sun went down and then wound up with about ten of us together for dinner in the places somewhat expensive but pretty good restaurant. 


The next day after hanging in my room for a good chunk of the morning, I met some of the same crew for lunch.  We ended up walking through the market, where I noticed two other interesting things about Ethiopia that I think show an organization and thoughtfulness beyond other places.  Those things were that stands actually sell food by weight using scales, something I can’t even recall when I saw last, and also that they utilize reusable wood crates for produce transport.  It might sound silly to be impressed by seeing such ‘basic’ things, but what can I say, standards are just different in this part of the world!  The next morning I was headed to Lalibela, the countries famous stone churches, so I stopped by the internet café, had some spaghetti for dinner and went to bed early.


I’ve actually entering my second night of my time in Egypt as I finish this post, so the next post will conclude my time in Ethiopia and cover some of the country’s most spectacular sights: the stone churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondor and the absolutely stunning Simien Mountains.  Check back soon, I promise I’ll make it worth your time!

2 comments:

  1. Interesting, and really different view of the things i usually see in my own country. I like the part about the lion cage, I always think the same and wish they can let them free.

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  2. Thank you for posting so many pictures and for writing in detail about your experiences. I read a lot of expat and travel blogs, and yours is one of my favorites so far. Good for you for being so adventurous! I hope you get to keep traveling (and blogging).

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