Our second time in Addis Ababa, we met a German aid worker and stayed at his apartment inside the guarded USAID compound. Henning showed us the city as he knew it: the local shiro restaurants, the decadent diplomats, and his views on the city’s political turmoil.
Together we celebrated New Year’s at a classy party held in a mansion-turned-art-gallery overlooking the city. Our backpackers’ attire of t-shirts and tennishoes set us apart from the crowd of rich Ethiopians and ex-pats, but that didn’t stop us from feeling welcome and enjoying the dinner, drinks, and dancing. The Embassy workers who gave us a lift spent the 20 minute drive complaining about the lack of intelligence in Ethiopia, but that didn’t stop them from going home with Ethiopian women, leaving us ride-less at midnight. We just laughed it off and watched the city lights below while sharing stories of past New Years.
We spent a solid week at Henning’s apartment. Seeing how hard he worked made us feel lazy in comparison: while we waited for visas and sipped on makiatos, he was practically running a town. The organization he’s working for had the initial aim of providing alternative low-cost housing for those who might otherwise live in the slums surrounding the city. But the project now finds itself facing many of the same problems as the shanties: no sewage or waste disposal systems, shoddy construction, and a complete lack of responsibility. As the one burdened with resolving these issues, “Mayor” Henning, at only 26 years old, has quite a handful.
With the free room, cheap food, and good company, we were half tempted to call off Kenya and spend the rest of our trip on Henning’s couch. But the $50 we’d already spent on our Kenya visas tipped the scale in that direction, and a few days after New Year’s we boarded a bus south.
We camped overnight on the shore of Lake Langano, one of the Rift Valley lakes best known for its reddish color and diverse bird life. Other common sightings include pale Europeans on water skis and the ever elusive American Tourist sunning himself on the beach. Definitely our kind of place. The next day we followed the road south and were picked up by a minibus decked out in reaggae paraphernalia that was bound for–where else?–Shashemene, the Rastafarian capital of Africa. Besides listening to reggae music and smoking ganja (for which they’re better known), Rastas accept Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, as divine. Our experience with Rastas in Shashemene mainly consisted of exchanging “yeah, man”s in passing, and seeing a lot of Bob Marley shirts and dreadlocks.
Our favorite part of Shashemene was actually the hot springs 15 kilometers outside of town at Wondo Genet. From where the bus dropped us off in the village, it was a 30 minute walk through lush banana plantations and tall sugar cane fields, colorful homes and kids selling their families’ crops. At the hot springs, along with a hot waterfall there were pools of various temperatures, and the peaceful, tropical atmosphere was a far cry from the dust and bustle of Shashemene.
From Shashemene we hopped on a bus to Sodo, then another to Arba Minch, whose neighboring national park is famous for its crocodiles. Here we spent most of our time drinking tea and playing chess at the fancy hotel with the best view in town (of course we stayed at the $5-a-night place down the road). The terrace looked out over the park’s two sister lakes, which are separated by a narrow strip of mountainous land known as the “Bridge of Heaven”. Heaven indeed, with a panoramic like this and nothing to bother us (besides a few pesky mosquitoes and the inevitable bill).
After a few days we got our fill of doing nothing much, and once again headed south out of town, this time on foot. No need for a map–when there’s just one road to and from town, it’s easy to figure out which way to walk to get to the next city. Lucky for us the way was all downhill. We walked with a family for a while as they herded their goats toward the lake. We, too, directed our steps toward the water, where we had a mind to see the famous crocodiles without buying the expensive boat rides so often offered in town.
Upon reaching the lake shore, we ate mangoes on a rickety wooden pier…with no crocs in sight. After our snack we happened to walk by the house of the family we’d walked with earlier; Randy did the universal crocodile sign with his hands, and they smiled and offered to show us the way. We followed them past fields of corn and grazing cattle for about 20 minutes–still carrying our heavy packs in the noon sun. We finally spied the crocodiles napping on the lake shore alongside herons and cranes; we snapped photos while the family dug for croc eggs but came up empty-handed. It was exciting to be mere meters away from these deadly creatures, but they seemed more afraid of us than us of them as many slipped into the water at our slightest move.
Back on the main road we broke for sugar cane before continuing our hike south. After 30 minutes of walking, Jenny suddenly felt nauseous–and in another minute we had retired beneath a shady tree where Jenny threw up mango, sugar cane, and water and generally felt awful. Whether it was brought on by the heat or by something she’d eaten, we couldn’t tell–but after an hour she felt better, and we decided it was time to get a ride instead of walking any further that day. We waved down a few trucks before one actually had room to give us a lift (but the others that passed took pity on us and gave us precious gifts of waters and bananas!).
Our ride was an Isuzu lorry carrying goods to Konso (also our destination), and we sat in the back on top of sacks of onions, corn, and various other vegetables. Lounging among the bags was amazingly comfortable–except for the bumpiness. Endless blue skies and an ever-evolving landscape of mountains and valleys surrounded us; kids would squeal with excitement whenever our truck bounced by. Our driver was oh so cruel: he would tease the kids by dangling an empty bottle of water out the window (“plastics” or “Highlanders” are worth a few pennies, and we often had kids asking for them), and then he’d laugh as the kids ran barefoot alongside the truck with their arms outstretched and their hopes high. He never gave up the bottle.
From the lorry we witnessed the strangest thing: during just one stretch of 10 or 15 kilometers, whenever kids saw us coming they would drop whatever they were doing and literally drop into a Russian-like squat-kick-clap dance for us. We never saw the dance anywhere else except this short bit of road. We wished we had something handy to toss to the kids, but we didn’t want to perpetuate the “faranji frenzy”.
Riding so high, seeing in all directions, feeling the wind in our hair–the whole experience was exhilarating. When we said in our last blog that the best way to get around Ethiopia is by bus, we were wrong. That lorry from Arba Minch to Konso changed our perspective on inter-city travel; we haven’t taken a bus since.
The further south we went, the more we saw loitering, unemployed men chewing chat for hours on end. Those we met who did have jobs tended to work on social issues: water projects, malaria research, animal nutrition, and human health. Everyone we talked to–regardless of job status–stressed the need for more and better employment opportunities in Ethiopia. They wanted more aid and more development. Little wonder, since the amenities in the south became fewer and farther between. Konso had sporadic electricity, no running water, and no refrigeration (a real bummer when it’s 90 degrees, you’ve been walking all day, and all you want is a cold Coke with your shiro). The current drought in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya meant that water was scarcer than usual; even cold bucket showers at our small hotel cost extra.
Most people visit Konso only as a stop-over point on their way to the Omo Valley, where Ethiopia’s most famous tribes still live as they did hundreds of years ago. The more renowned tribes include the Mursi people (known for the giant plates the women wear in their lips) and the Hamar people (who have elaborate hairstyles and painted faces). But we were eager to get to Kenya where we might have the opportunity to mingle with tribes people without the “Omo package tour” (includes village admission fees, guide fees, and photography fees–not exactly an authentic experience).
We did have time to spend an afternoon at the Konso market, where thousands of people from local villages stream into town twice-weekly to buy and sell their various goods. Here we saw people from the actual Konso tribe (not just those living in town)–the women identified by the double-ruffle skirts they wore. At the market villagers spread their wares across sheets on the ground, grouped according to type: food (onions, chilies, potatoes, garlic, sugar cane, cooking oil, and heaps of spices, flour, corn kernels , chickpeas, grains, and beans); clothing (electrically colored shirts as well as traditional shawls of green and pink); housewares (silverware, batteries, mirrors, school supplies); livestock (sheep, cattle, chickens); cheese (kept in large, hollowed-out gourds); and a few miscellaneous items like USA vegetable oil tin cans and leaves for making “tella”.
But the biggest curiosity at the market was us. Whenever we stopped moving for more than a moment, locals crowded around us. A few bold ones occasionally asked us where we were from or what our names were, but mostly they would just stare–waiting, apparently, for the faranjis to do something interesting. If we spoke a few words of Amharic, this was usually enough to send teenage girls and grown men alike into squeals of amusement; if we shook a child’s hand he would immediately run away laughing. We felt like a walking circus with the amount of entertainment we were inadvertently providing.
From Konso it was essentially a straight shot to Moyale, the border town where we would cross into Kenya. But before we left Ethiopia, we wanted to have at least one real night of bush camping. So we stocked up on food and water and walked down the windy dirt road out of town. We hiked through the morning before the sun rose too high, with no other traffic aside from the occasional shepherd leading his cattle to water. We took a lunch break in the only shade we could find and listened to the BBC on our cheap radio while waiting out the hottest part of the day. Three giggly girls passed by with huge bundles of firewood on their backs; they seemed out of place because as far as we could tell there were no farms or huts anywhere nearby.
A while later, after we felt rested, we took a detour to a stream close by, where we discovered locals filling jugs and doing their washing in the trickling water. They took their drinking water from a shallow hole they’d dug to the side of the main stream, so the water was naturally filtered through the soil (of course our stomachs still required the use of our purifier). They graciously let us fill up our bottles, and we showed our gratitude by sharing our sugar cane. We spent the next hour walking alongside two young boys carrying water to their family’s modest hut. The longer we walked, the better we understood the way the sparse population folded themselves into the land: tiny “tukuls” were tucked into the brush, crop fields followed the curves of the hills.
As sunset approached, we found a place to camp for the night on a bit of land hidden from the road, which we thought wasn’t on anyone’s property. The evening was filled with birds chirping, kids playing in the distance, and a light sprinkling of rain on our tent. Despite a few close calls (like when a herd of goats wandered through our campsite), we remained undiscovered by our new neighbors. It was a night of starry skies and solitude, of feeling like we’d fallen off the map–if only for a moment.
At sunrise we made coffee, packed up, and walked on–but not far this time. Our legs were sore and we were running low on water, so we found a shady spot on a bridge and waited a few hours for the next vehicle. While waiting, amazingly, we spotted a family of wild monkeys up a tree nearby. Finally a lorry picked us up on its way to Yabelo, and once again we watched the countryside scroll by from atop sacks of something.
From there it was really just hopping from one small town to another until Moyale. Here we ate our last Ethiopian dinner and said goodbye to the beautiful country. All told, we spent about six weeks in Ethiopia–longer than we’d planned, but well worth the extra time. Now on to Kenya with its big cities, big game, and (most importantly) hot showers.