Saturday, May 30, 2009


Before we reached the Ethiopian border with Sudan we could feel the final evidence of the Middle East slipping away, minarets towering over flat-roofed towns and camels wandering the streets petered out, to be replaced with villages of round African mud huts and herds of cattle and goats surrounding waterholes.

We almost got stuck at the Ethiopian border town of Metema, until we convinced a bus driver we did want to go to Shihedi. From there we found a bus to Gonder, a slow going ride as we weaved up and down the various mountain passes. This bus however stopped at a village just 60km before Gonder and everyone was given a refund of the difference. From here we finally managed to persuade a truck driver to let us ride in the back, relaxing on his cargo of rice. By now it was already dark and as we bounced over yet more mountains and lay gazing up to the clear night sky I realised this is the reason why we travel, for moments like those. Suddenly however the truck stopped and cut it lights. We looked towards the road and when the driver put the lights back on they illuminated a line of guys standing across the road, carrying AK-47’s. Thinking they were bandits we lay flat on the rice, wondering what would happen next. Luckily they were just farmers and wanted a lift to the next village. We soon got used to the idea of people carrying guns around everywhere in Ethiopia, like a sign of wealth or something.

For most people in the West the only images they know of Ethiopia are those from Live Aid and other charity events organised by rich rock stars looking for a bit of free publicity, i.e. Bob Geldof and Bono, images of drought and famine. The reality is somewhat different, the highland plateau of Ethiopia is one of the most fertile in Africa and much of the land is taken up by farming. The more arid, desert areas of Ethiopia are very sparsely populated and, in the event of another drought the people would be able to reach more hospitable land easily. In fact the only effects of the aid organisations I have witnessed are severely negative ones, money simply being thrown at the people, removing from them the ambition to work, robbing them of their independence and diluting their culture. Well done lads, but stick to the radio-friendly rock next time.

Talking of music, Ethiopian music is probably some of the best in Africa. The range of styles leads to comparisons with jazz, reggae and even Cambodian pop. Monika and I are huge fans of Mulatu Astatke and I urge you all to get hold of some of his music, in particular 'Ethiopiques Vol. 4'.

Soon the town of Gonder appeared across the valley. We asked a local guy to point us out a hotel and soon we were being followed by a tribe of hangers-on, something you must get used to quickly in Ethiopia, young guys who would rather follow tourists around in the hope of scrounging a few birr rather than get a job. Nevermind. We went out to experience our first tastes of Ethiopian food and drink. Virtually every meal here revolves around injera, a massive, slightly sour, grey pancake which acts as a plate, cutlery and the staple food all at once. On top of this is poured a stew or gravy, usually with chicken or goat meat and always spicy. It may look like a used tea towel but it is delicious, I have had it every day. Ethiopia is also a good place to have a beer, especially if you have just come from Sudan! Draft beer is widely available and although it is only lager it is not so sweet as the English piss, more like a Pilsner. So, by night injera and beer, by day coffee and cream cakes. Being the original home of coffee, and more infamously being occupied by Italy during WWII, it should come as no surprise that coffee is the national morning pick-me-up. It is mostly drunk macchiato, which means an espresso with steamed milk, very tasty and cheap too, a cup with a piece of cake costs less than a dollar even in the shiny plush cafes whilst in the street vendors sell tasty lentil samosas and greasy donuts.

Gonder was the former home of the Emporer Fasilas and his castle overlooks the town today. It’s like a step back in time to wander through these ruins. Also in Gonder is the Debre Birhan Selassie church, with its amazing painted ceilings, the many faces of the messiah look down with the smile of the Mona Lisa, an amazing example of the vibrant, albeit garish Ethiopian version of Christianity . I also saw a chained off car park where aspiring motorists were being taught to ride motorcycles? This might not sound unusual but bear in mind that in most countries in Africa, and indeed Asia, kids as young as 7 or 8 years old generally scoot around town on a moped. What made Ethiopians adhere to road traffic regulations?

In Gonder we loaded up with supplies and headed to the town of Debark in the Simien mountains. From here we undertook a four day trek to the viewpoint of Imet Gogo (3926m asl) and back. At the park office we had to arrange our mandatory ‘scout’ carrying an ancient rifle with which to protect us. He had to point it at two angry dogs but apart from that I think it is a deterrent against the young children ho have learnt to put their hand out and say “Givememoneypenssweets” ad nauseum which means that some demented tourist has already turned these kids into beggars by doing so, simply to make themselves feel good. Our route took us along an escarpment with amazing views over the mountain range as well as through several groups of baboons. There are also many small villages along the way where you can sometimes buy eggs, or perhaps a chicken or goat to skin and roast. At the small campsites there is running water and showers. It is ironic that they have constant running water here and yet in any town or city, including Addis Ababa, running water is often dependent on the electricity. No electricity, no power to pump the water through! Here in the mountains I watched a young girl wash her shoes for about 15 minutes, letting the water drain away.

After walking up to 32km each day we stumbled into Debark tired and aching. After getting a refund for the two packets of rock-hard Dairylea triangles (they cost about $2.50 each!) we spent the evening eating and drinking in the hotel.

Things take time in Ethiopia, the roads are fairly bad and the buses are slow and prone to breakdowns. Where there is a half-decent road there is normally only one, meaning circuits are not really possible and one must be continually backtracking. For these reasons we culled some stops from our original plan, realising we would spend most of the time on buses. We decided not to visit Aksum, 12 hours by bus north of Debark, the home of one of Ethiopia’s ancient civilisations who erected some tall stelae and also the alleged home of the Ark of the Covenant, in the St Mary of Zion cathedral. However, as anyone who views the Ark supposedly bursts into flames, I didn’t think it was worth the risk! Similarly we decided against visiting the walled city of Harar, 10 hours east of Addis Ababa (and back again). Apart from the wall the other highlight is that hyenas come to town at night to scavenge from the bins. Lonely Planet describes Harar as ‘a bit like Zanzibar’. As Harar is a dusty town in a landlocked country I presume this is their idea of a joke! We also planned to visit the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia, but decided against it for different reasons. This is the home of many of the tribes that you would have seen in coffee table books, the National Geographic and ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ such as the lip-plated Mursi, the hair-braded Hamer or the white painted Konso. We could have detoured here enroute to Kenya but decided against it due to the many stories we have heard of how much damage tourism has caused, with tribesmen now demanding several dollars per photo and giving drivers bad directions and then demanding hundreds of dollars to help pull them out of the swamps. They then spend all the money on homebrewed alcohol. Meanwhile the kids pelt visitors with stones if they refuse to give them pens, money or sweets. Unfortunately it is not the first time we have seen the negative effects of uncontrolled tourism, especially alcohol addiction which the government seems to encourage. So in order to protect both us and the tribes we have decided to give it a miss.

So, from the mountains we headed south to Bahir Dar, on the shores of Lake Tana. We found a hotel that looked right over the lake, the perfect place to ease our tired muscles. We took a boat trip across the lake to islands and a peninsular to visit some of the colourful monasteries hidden within. Each one has a variety of the brightly coloured murals, looking more Hindu than Christian, something like a comic book of Bible stories! If only all Christianity was like this, instead of the dour gothic art of European churches. The lake is also home to hundreds of pelicans and hours can be passed sitting on a lakeside restaurant watching them skim the lake like German bombers or just hang out on the rocky islands just offshore.

Ethiopians pride themselves on their history, culture and language and the fact that they were the only African country never to have succumbed to colonisation. In addition they are also proud of their unique calendar and clock. They refer to 6am as 12 o’clock, 7am is 1 o’clock etc. International businesses generally use the universal time but most Ethiopians use this method. When asking the time, or asking when a bus leaves you must also check whether the answer is ‘Ethiopian or foreign time?’ The calendar is also different, based on the Coptic calendar. We are currently in the year 2001 and will be until they celebrate New Year on September 11th. Luckily my passport was stamped 2009!

The influence of China is also apparent in Ethiopia. Groups of Chinese developers are building all the roads and bridges here, including the road from Bahir Dar to Lalibella and on to Dessie. They bring their own foremen and some workers with them. Many Ethiopians aspire to work on a ‘Chinese project’. My question is, what are they getting in return? We know that in Sudan they trade guns and military equipment for oil what is Ethiopia giving them? We know they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts!

The rock hewn churches of Lalibela are one the ‘highlights’ of Ethiopia and it is possible to visit them between Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa by taking the scenic route. This means one full day to cover the 160km to Lalibela and two days to cover the 560km on to Addis. The churches have been referred to as ‘Africa’s Petra’ although the only similarity I could see was in the ridiculous entrance fee. The churches have been ‘sheltered’ under some ugly constructions. I first thought we were in the wrong place. There are metal pillars and electric wires everywhere. It must be a Chinese project as no-one else in the world could disregard aesthetics so terribly. The one saving grace was that the St George church, in the shape of a cross, had been left uncovered. The scrappy nearby market drew as much attention from us as the churches. It was nice, but was it worth the three days of bus rides?

The reason I ask is because Ethiopian bus rides are really an experience in themselves. They all leave at 5:30am, or 11:30 their time. I am not sure of the reason why but perhaps in case of breakdown along the way? Just before 5am a crowd gathers outside the gates of the bus station and as soon as the gates open everyone rushes to get a good seat. Once the bags have been loaded on the roofs and the last few seats have been filled the bus sets off. The first hour or so is OK, until people start calling for plastic bags, which each bus supplies in abundance. Soon the sour stench of vomit swirls around the bus. Those that miss the bag will incur the wrath of the conductor as he throws dust from the road over the pile to dry it up. Although the percentage of travelsick-afflicted is lower than, say, India, Laos or Indonesia, there is one factor that makes it worse. No windows are allowed to be opened whilst the bus is in transit. Why? Answers range from ‘to stop ghosts getting in’ to ‘for health’. Whatever the reason it means that by midday the pungent mix of puke and perspiration is preferred to a breath of fresh air. So, not only can no air get in, but no-one can be sick out of the window. Personally I think this is the reason. The drivers are too protective. Once, when I replied indifferently as to whether I would rather my bag went up on top or ‘in the hold’ I was told it is better on top, as inside there are ‘dust particles present’. It wasn’t ‘dirty’, or ‘dusty’, no, there were dust particles present. The journey from Lalibela to Addis Ababa was no different, the first bus died just 60km from Dessie, where we would make our night halt. The driver jumped in a passing truck, one of the conductors in a minibus (supposedly to go for parts) and left one guy to sort out a bus load of angry passengers. After a sleepless night in a hotel in Dessie (it was very clean but there were mice everywhere and they kept running about under the bed!), we were delayed leaving because everyone protested about a price rise. We were worried as we had less than $10 to get to Addis. In the end we relied on the kindness of strangers to get there, and introduced a taxi driver to the wonders of an ATM, newly installed in Addis Ababa! Along the way a vehicle flagged us down. We were leaking from behind. Someone had brought a bag of 25kg of butter and put it in the back. An argument ensued as to who would clear the mess up. Eventually the owner of the - now liquid – butter agreed to do it and the mess was fed to a stray dog!

Addis Ababa is a typical African city, sprawling, crowded and dusty, and prone to ugly development. But they are a good place to get organised, eat some good food and do chores such as visiting the barbers. The central Piazza is quite ugly and full of annoying touts following tourists around. The national museum is a highlight, the home of the oldest early ‘human’ Lucy. There are a couple of nice churches, including the home of the ‘King of Kings’ Haile Selassie, not to be confused with Ethiopias other favourite son, the very much still ‘up and running’ Haile Gabreselassie. Unfortunately we did not visit his tomb as they wanted an entrance fee. Not a large one but I refused to pay. There are donation boxes in every corner of every church, we always leave something, and on every bus ride there is a collection for some church or another, again we always contribute. So why should we have to pay a set fee here? Is it only Christianity that charges admission?

So, from Addis Ababa we will head south to the Kenyan border. Apparently the road is quite good, the best in Ethiopia. Unfortunately the road on the other side is touted as the ‘worst in Africa’ and it is a bone-crunching 17 hours until Isiolo and reunite ourselves with tarmac once again. This road is also infamous for bandits and tribal warfare, however it seems to have calmed down in the past couple of years and we have met many people coming the other way with no problems.

My last observation on Ethiopia is the wholehearted way in which they have embraced President Obama. Everywhere are buses, cafes, restaurants and hotels named in his honour and people walk the streets in Obama t-shirts with ‘Change!’ and ‘Yes We Can’ translated into Amheric. I wonder if this trend will continue in Kenya. Although it is the home of part of Obamas family it has traditionally been a place where it would be more likely to see an ‘Osama’ t-shirt than an Obama one. Now that there are already tours of his grandparents village I wonder if things have changed? We shall see.

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