Goodbye Arabic, Hello Amharic!
Welcome to Anytown, Ethiopia. You’ve just stepped off a crowded bus; your ears are ringing from the music that blared for the past 8 hours, and the blood is slowly returning to your legs. The bus arrived on the main dirt road through town, a way lined with unmarked wooden shacks that serve as restaurants, bars, shops, and houses, though it’s difficult to tell which is which. The street is filled with everything but cars: kids in bright uniforms on their way to school; women carrying babies on their backs and umbrellas to ward off the sun; beggars with canes and long shawls draped across their bodies; men chewing chat (a mildly narcotic plant that you can buy on the street for $1 a bunch) and children chewing sugarcane; donkeys, horse carts, and herds of sheep.
Of course, you don’t have time to notice any of this because you’re suddenly surrounded by a flurry of dirty kids with outstretched hands as you, tired and disoriented, search for your bags in the dust. You manage to escape the begging mob, but not the English-speaking self-appointed “guides” who attach themselves to your hip and want to ‘help’ you with your hotel, cab, our tour immediately at inflated prices. As you walk through the town, your mere presence is a spectacle. People turning their heads to stare out of dark doorways, children running to meet you with shrieks of “hello!” and “you! you! you!”
Finally reaching your hotel, you pay $2 for a room and close the door behind you, barely muting the street commotion and music outside. The dingy room features a light bulb that dims and brightens periodically and a pee dish in case of midnight emergencies.
Such is the life of a “faranji” in Ethiopia. And that’s only the beginning.
We two faranjis (foreigners) came from Cairo to Addis Ababa 3 weeks ago. While in Cairo we’d been devastated to discover that, while all other nationalities could get a Sudanese visa in one day, it would take six weeks for Americans (we owe this distinction to Clintons’ pointless bombing of Sudan 7 years back). We bit the bullet and spent half our monthly budget on a red-eye flight from Cairo to Addis. In Ethiopia we had to start all over again: new land, new currency, new people, new culture, and new calendar (it’s still 1998 over here).
Addis Ababa, at 7600 feet, is so high that some people suffer from altitude sickness just getting off the plane. We luckily encountered no such problems; but, having arrived at 3am, we did spend the remainder of the morning inside the airport to avoid a night’s hotel fees. There we sipped our first Ethiopian coffee (in the country that invented coffee no less!) and tasted our first injera cuisine in Ethiopia (injera is a sour pancake-like bread that comes with every meal—like Italy’s pasta or China’s rice. You either love it or hate it.).
Like in Jordan, we came to Ethiopia in the wake of political troubles. A few weeks earlier, Addis had been the site of protests against the government that had turned violent when the riot police tried to suppress it. As a result, many foreigners cancelled their trips to the country, and we almost crapped ourselves when our bus drove through the middle of a protest in a village outside of Addis. People were chanting and waving signs and firearms in the air; we ducked our heads from the window and the bus plowed right through.
Addis is an exception to the “Anytown” phenomenon. It’s a modern city with high rises and traffic lights, Internet and hot showers (conveniences little known outside the capital). The city sprawls over several hills, not unlike San Francisco, with clusters of green Eucalyptus trees and streets tangled like fettuccini. Addis claims to have the biggest outdoor market in Africa, Merkato, where you can buy just about anything. While wandering in this labyrinth in search of gas containers for our camping stove, Randy was the victim of an attempted pickpocket—one guy bumped into Randy and apologized by shaking his arm vigorously while a co-conspirator slipped his hand into Randy’s pocket. We were prepared though, so there was nothing in there to take. Still, the incident was a reminder of how much we stand out by virtue of our skin.
It’s impossible to walk around downtown Addis for the first time and be unaffected. Beggars are everywhere: crippled men, women with scrawny babies, children sleeping on the street. Some kids ask outright for pens and money; others sell tissues, gum, candy, and nuts. Many are barefoot and dressed in nothing more than dirty rags. Walking among them are men in business suits and fashionable teenagers, throngs of people going about their daily business.
Speaking of daily business, people go just about anywhere—on the side of the road, near a stream, anyplace but the 2-cent public toilets. Whether it’s from lack of education, lack of funds, or just plain apathy we couldn’t be sure.
After long hours of getting lost in the city and its surrounding village-like neighborhoods, we always ended up reading newspapers in one of the pastry shops that serve Italian-like cappuccinos and deserts (with nothing over 30 cents on the menu). Ethiopia is one of only two African countries to have never been colonized, but it retains some Italian influence from the occupation of Mussolini’s army during WWII. This extends to food as well—almost every restaurant serves spaghetti and pizza for those who prefer faranji food to injera.
Reading Addis newspapers was a lesson in free press. One paper openly complained of government censorship and the harsh punishment for anyone who speaks against the administration. Offending reporters were detained and accused of inciting violence (we wondered how long this paper would last). In fact, any Ethiopians speaking against the government are in danger of being imprisoned. The American-supported ruling party allegedly lost the June elections but refused to relinquish control, later jailing the leaders of the opposing party (the CUD), who are currently on hunger strike inside the prison. Every Ethiopian we talked to supported the CUD, citing allegations of the current government’s misuse of aid money, their Swiss bank accounts, and general corruption. One man admitted he was only speaking openly to us because informers wouldn’t understand English. Perhaps that was an exaggeration—just bar talk—but we haven’t yet encountered any supporters of the ruling party to provide the other side of the story.
After three days, we left Addis and hopped on a day-and-a-half bus ride north to Bahir Dar. The bus stopped overnight in a small town where we slept in a room that cost us about 25 cents each, and was worth every penny (but not a penny more). We befriended a 30-something Ethiopian who insisted on buying us drinks despite his 800-birr-a-month salary (less than $100). The next morning we were back on the bus at 5am for the remaining four hours to Bahir Dar.
A word about Ethiopian buses. We knew the bus rides would be rough, and so far they’ve certainly lived up to expectations. They leave between 5am and 6:30am, which means it’s too cold in the morning and inevitably too hot in the afternoon. You’re packed in with 30 other sweaty bodies, and windows are only opened if someone gets sick. Loud Ethiopian music plays at full volume on repeat. Aisles are filled with luggage, sacks of food, and people. The vehicle breaks down every few hours and everyone piles out while the mechanic on board works miracles under the bus. The driver is constantly swerving to avoid cattle and other livestock, and the roads are bumpier than Jenny’s mosquito bites.
Despite this, buses are still the most reliable form of transportation for budget travelers. And with nothing better to do for 10 hours (too bumpy to read, too bumpy to write, too bumpy to sleep…), you have ample time to watch the countryside jolt by. Rolling hills covered in yellow and green fields and grazing pastures. Terraced mountains under perpetually blue skies. Rusty tanks lying dormant at the side of the road. Farmers tending to their crops—coffee, chickpeas, lentils, and sugarcane—and children tending to the livestock. Handfuls of “tukuls” (traditional domed huts of wood and mud) swallowed by the surrounding farmlands. We were told that 85% of Ethiopians are farmers, and it seems that no square inch of the land goes unused.
Once in Bahir Dar, we mostly spent our time avoiding the numerous local “guides.” In Ethiopia, more than in other countries we’ve seen so far, it’s impossible for faranjis to be alone, except perhaps in your hotel room (even then, if locals know which room is yours, you may be woken up to obnoxious door pounding at early hours of the morning, as we learned on several occasions). Whether we’re walking to the market or just to the bathroom, we’re always escorted by enthusiastic youngsters looking for a tip.
With or without an entourage, we did manage to see the Blue Nile Falls (less spectacular since the hydroelectric dam was built) as well as the palace outside town (set atop a hill overlooking Bahir Dar and Lake Tana). We also got our first glimpse of wild hippos in the river beyond the palace. At night we feasted on roasted corn-on-the-cob which we bought for 1 birr (12 cents) from women cooking them over open coals on the sidewalk.
On the outskirts of the Blue Nile Falls we witnessed part of a traditional Ethiopian funeral (the first of several during our few weeks in the country). A hundred people dressed all in white, walking slowly through the main street, women wailing out loud in public display of their grief. At the café where we were sitting, the workers silenced the music out of respect while the procession passed. They told us that the family of the deceased traditionally wipe their tears so hard that their cheeks bleed, and then wear black for one year thereafter. Once the funeral was out of sight, the music went back on and the conversation about the English soccer league resumed.
Having gotten our fill of Bahir Dar, and traumatized by our last bus experience, we opted to hitchhike to Gonder, the next stop on the “Northern circuit.” We caught a ride with a pickup truck carrying pharmaceuticals (in the back there was one particularly intriguing box labeled “WormExpel”). We paid about the same as we would have for the bus, but it was infinitely more comfortable and the three guys were friendly.
Gonder boasts an impressive 16th century castle, built by Emperor Fasilidas yada yada yada. We took a self-guided tour around the perimeter and then spent the afternoon at the movies. The flick of the day was “Romancing the Stone” for 25 cents apiece. There were only ten other people in the theater that could have seated 500. At first we were baffled by the lack of Amharic subtitles—but then we realized that the movie wasn’t too hard to follow anyway (perhaps that’s why Van Damm and the Rock are so popular here).
Next on the agenda was the Simien Mountains. This World Heritage site offers many endemic animals and Africa’s 4th-highest peak, Ras Deshan. Serious trekkers from all over the world visit Ethiopia solely for the trekking in this park. We debarked from Debark (the town where trips are launched) accompanied by a compulsory scout armed with a Kalashnikov, a mule to handle our baggage, and a muleteer to handle the mule. Between the crew, the park fees, and the food, it cost us $15 each a day for the trip—not bad considering the production made just for us. Over the course of our 3-day trek, we climbed to a height of 12,800 feet (with staggeringly beautiful views), were almost run over by a herd of stampeding baboons, and listened to the howling of hyenas as we huddled around a campfire. We also battled blisters and sunburn from walking hours on end.
To save our feet, we caught a lorry halfway down the mountain on the way back to Debark. We piled in the back with 30 Ethiopians and their bags and held on for dear life as the truck careened down the windy cliff-side roads. We ate dust every time the truck stopped. Dirty, sore, and exhausted, we celebrated Jenny’s 23rd birthday back in Debark with warm showers and cold beers.
The last stop on our Northern circle was Lalibela, the site of 11 famous rock-hewn churches. The only thing standing between us and the city was five all-day bus rides along steep, mountainous, dirt roads. We sucked it up and spent a night each in Shire, Aksum, Mekele, and Woldiya—classic “Anytowns.” The eight-hour bus ride from Woldiya to Lalibela was the worst yet: wedged in the back next to a woman getting sick in a plastic baggie, and us getting several inches of air between us and our seat every few minutes.
But we agreed all the trouble was worth it. Perched on a secluded mountainside, Lalibela is graced with beautiful views of the valleys below, and the city remains—despite its heavy tourism—a humble and laid-back village. We planned to stay one day but were so enchanted we stayed three. Here we were finally able to scratch a bit beneath the surface of Ethiopian culture. Jenny sifted barley in woven baskets with local women in the process of making injera. We quenched our thirst on locally brewed wheat beer (non-alcoholic, non-carbonated…pointless) and “tej” (honey wine) of various strengths. We clapped to the music of “azmaris” (traditional comedian singer-dancers). We were invited by one family to a coffee ceremony, an Ethiopian tradition in which coffee beans are roasted, pounded, and then served in three delicious batches. The ceremony took place in the family’s small mud home, with hay covered floors and a tin roof; their one hen roosted in the same room as their 19-year-old son.
Worst (or best?) of all, we developed a taste for sugar cane, which we bought in long stalks for 12 cents apiece. We were assured by locals that this sweet treat was good for your teeth and best chewed before breakfast for energy.
And of course we saw the churches, found in three groups within the town. The strange stone structures were carved into the ground so that when you approach the roofs are at foot level. They’re connected by a series of underground tunnels in which we, guideless, got lost on a few occasions. On January 7th, thousands of people will gather around the churches in celebration of Ethiopian Christmas. We were glad the only other people there when we visited were the monks who still live in and among the churches.
We’ll be celebrating our Christmas back in Addis, where we’re currently renewing our visas and recharging for our trip to the tribal Southern Ethiopia, towards Kenya and beyond.