Ethiopia is a fascinating country of 108 million people which is located in East Africa. Everything about this place is distinct, as I learned over the month I traveled there. It is known for the origins of humans…among many other things and it was for me one of the most challenging places I’ve ever traveled.
I have been holding off writing about Ethiopia because I was honestly split between being amazed and down right bitter from my visit. I wanted to allow myself some time to contemplate the experiences of the trip because I left on a high and enjoyable note (aka at peace with my overall experience).
I had my breath taken away several times. From the sheer unending gorges in the Simien Mountains to the cliff hanger orthodox rock churches. I experienced a landscape that I could only believe to be Mars (and I was walking on it)…just incredible to witness something so extreme and unusual on Earth. I saw beautiful castles and churches everywhere that sometimes were so old it was hard to fathom how they were even constructed to survive so long. Two festivals marked my trip allowing me to feel and live in the Ethiopian Orthodox religion for a moment in time. Overall I was swept away in the history of humans, coffee, beer, food, time, speed and friendship.
In the mist of all these experiences I also had my bag slashed (nearly robbed) for the first time in my life (yes, 1st time ever after visiting over 70 countries!). I was palm punched by a drug addict on the street. I was invited to coffee at a humble home only to be asked to pay way more then any coffee on the street (oh and I don´t really drink coffee I accepted the offer to be nice). I was made fun of and laughed at for hours on end in a minibus (even in a different language one understands). And though this could all make this the worst trip ever, it was not….It was indeed challenging and awful at times but nearly all are things that could happen literally anywhere in the world…it is just unfortunate that Ethiopia decided to hand many of them to me at once.
The attempted robbery happened at a festival (religious) with many people…could happen at any large gathering of people literally anywhere in the world. Bag was slashed with many valuables inside yet none were taken (amateurs maybe). Drug addicts, well, usually I see them beforehand and can avoid any encounters….Just like anywhere else in the world, here they have drug addicts too…I was just caught off guard. No broken nose, just really sore for over 2 weeks and the community came to my aid as it unfolded (and yes I was very pissed off). The other things well I count them as frustrations that really got to me in the moment they occurred but could be let go of with time. The truth is the good far outweighed the bad and nothing was particular to Ethiopia (no hard feelings).
So my experience was literally a roller coaster…
Ethiopia is very popular among tourists but I would never ever recommend it as a first timer Africa destination. Infrastructure for tourists is there. Roads are mainly great and there are many tour companies and organized nice vehicles to use to move around from one tourist site to another. Additionally, Ethiopian Airways is obviously from here (state owned) and is the safest, most worldwide airline in Africa…and they make it easy for you to fly around this massive country…not to mention for cheap (the trick – if you fly on Ethiopian to arrive you get access to domestic pricing for all internal flights – yes fees are based generally on your country of origin and greatly differ). Hotels are plenty and range from luxury to nasty but most were really nice, generally with wifi, hot water and quite cheap. All of this pairs well with Ethiopia having an abundance of incredible sights to see for tourists. One would think, perfect destination. It is and it isn´t.
Ethiopia might look on the outside developed but as I generally say development is perceived when in reality it is very much so, still underdeveloped. Ethiopia is still a very poor country…yes with skyscrapers, metro, nice roads, cookie cutter houses, a massive airline, international businesses and more. I felt it was the poorest I had seen on my whole trip after The Gambia….now The Gambia is very small and Ethiopia is humongous…which I believe is why it could have felt so poor to me (but I bet if you have been you would agree with me). I decided to look it up, on one hand it says it´s one of the poorest countries in the world and on the other it is one of the lowest in terms of income inequality in the world too (according to CIA World Factbook) but still it placed better than The Gambia….perceived reality.
The people here were for me what made or broke the country. I met plenty of locals, many were just great people but there were also plenty on the opposite side…enough for me to question why it was this way. First I would say that in all societies there are good and bad people but once you increase the population there is a higher chance of encountering the bad ones….and for me I found plenty! Don´t get me wrong though Ethiopians as a whole are kind and amazing people to be around. The next I feel comes from tourism. Ethiopia as I mentioned seems to be ready for tourists and our income helps the country advance generally but I feel like tourism has boomed far quicker than the people can adjust and many are left in our wake adapting to us tourists in ways that are saddening and degrading. For example, like many countries in Africa children beg for money but here everyone is about the money, I felt I had to negotiate for everything and every child was taught to ask me for money…hell even some asked for sex! Many people felt tourists were literally an ATM and it was really exhausting to deal with this every single day with every aspect…Not to mention very sad to see all ages of the population act this way. I really hope Ethiopia can change this and educate it´s children to be better humans because people are a huge asset and I´d hate to see the bad surpass the many good people of Ethiopia.
Above is just some of what I saw while traveling there but I don´t want to lose touch on the fact that it is still one of the most unique cultures and wonderful places I have ever experienced. Every day this country surprised me and it wasn´t always something you quickly notice but rather over time the clues presented themselves. Having arrived around new years the first major difference I witnessed was the calendar…ha ha there was no new years on January 1 at midnight 12 am (00:00)! Great for me as I wanted to escape the whole celebration and be in the mountains anyway. Well in Ethiopia they simply follow a different calendar…and they celebrate new years in September…LOL! So for my New Years Eve I ate a nice dish at a hotel restaurant alone, only 1 other western couple in the room, and was home by 10 pm…in fact there was hardly anyone on the main street as I walked back to my hotel…anywhere else on this night it would be packed. Even in the more touristy city in Ethiopia the celebration was similar, westerners tried to party together, maybe someone set off some fireworks at 10 pm to celebrate and then the night pretty much ended. Talk about a different new years. I was asleep before midnight and sent some text greetings to others around the world celebrating before passing out lol! To top this all off in Ethiopia I was 7 years behind, the year is 2012 (well until September at least of 2020) on their 13 month calendar (12 months of 30 days and then the excess 5-6 days go on the last month)! If you ever want to skip new years some time I suggest heading on over to Ethiopia or Eritrea.
Now the good news with a different calendar was that I was going to celebrate Christmas for a second time…lol. Once I knew about it I made sure to make my way to the most important city for that, Lalibela…discovering once I arrived that this being a leap year the celebration was a day later than I expected-read- etc…omg…this calendar!…I had to scramble to find a spot to stay for one more night in a very packed little town…
By the way for New Years I spent it in the mountains (3 days only) just as I had wanted (0 prior planning was harsh) and it was spectacular; I was very happy to be in nature. Here I was impressed by the unique wildlife and stunning views…oh and once again I had my breath taken away…actually it was the first time on said trip… And the deep gorges did make me wonder if it was here that human origins were found. It is not. Basically my first real encounter with the country left me breathless, pondering the human race and awestruck. It did go a tad downhill from there…but eh!
After months traveling the colorful nations of West Africa, Ethiopia represented apparent change. I first noticed it was much cooler here than in Ghana where I previously was and a good portion of the country is in high altitude…another breath taker…lol. Instead of garments with vibrant colors people wore all white garments with a flash of color…change didn´t stop at the clothes either…I quickly noticed even their skin color, facial features, physique and hair changed drastically…it caught me off guard…yet again I was amazed at the diversity on the African continent. Many say the origins of humankind (current slogan ¨Country of Origins¨) come from these parts and as I ventured around the country I was left in awe visualizing that where I was visiting is where we humans first walked the Earth…mind blowing when you imagine this…It is in Ethiopia that archaeologists have found some of the oldest human skeletal remains in the world telling more about the history of how us sapiens began. (…you know Lucy, 3.2 million years old or Ardi 4.4 million). But it doesn´t stop there…not only does Ethiopia have these remains and history but as I learned coffee seems to also originate from here, some of the oldest churches ever built reside here, the Blue Nile River starts here and I am sure there is tons more…hum beer too?…maybe because it was damn good there!
Overall I would say I did Ethiopia like a backpacker (save money, go local) but I also tried out all options. I flew 3 times, tried one long distance bus, took tour agencies, and used private organized transit…generally though I took local transit everywhere and stuck to my backpacking roots. Well I guess you could say there are many different styles or levels of backpacking and by now, in my 30s, my backpacking version is quite different than that of me in my 20s. In Ethiopia, I don´t actually recommend a complete or extreme backpacker version unless you have nerves of steel and just don´t give a shit. Doing the backpacker local way was more challenging and exhausting than I expected or had ever encountered in Africa before (been to 11 countries in East and West Africa). Obviously as a Caucasian single female I stuck out like a sore thumb but Ethiopia was the first time this actually became a noticeable issue. In every other country I was fine, people minded their own business and we were all just together on the same journey. In Ethiopia I had to always watch my back, there were sexist remarks (understood even when you don´t speak the same language), people tried to steel my stuff or take advantage of my money (not the first country to do this on transportation, I´m just including it here too), I was stared at (also normal elsewhere, just adding it) and basically treated different (I am…I guess. I come from a country of wealth and I look different). Maybe writing these doesn´t show you any difference but trust me when I say it…Ethiopia was an exhausting challenge (by no means was it only transportation related). Oh and for those non backpackers know you can do Ethiopia with nearly all the luxury you need/want, enough of it is available although I may not approve of skipping the way of life aspect if you go super luxury. haha
Again I believe it is challenging here due to this tourist boom. Ethiopians overall are not ready for us. If they were, sharing transport (for example) with them would be a breeze, they simply aren´t used to having us around. Since most tourists take the organized transports, the big buses, fly or take a tour…interaction is limited to touristy spots and bad practices. Yes, using organized transit or taking a tour is easier but you see middle and upper class locals only. I chose other means of travel because I simply feel you do no understand the country fully until you move as they would. I even ran into a couple at lunch on a tour that asked me how the people are…seriously OMG…you are getting to know the country and don´t even know how Ethiopians are…the real people of Ethiopia!!! I hope I never let myself see a country without knowing those who makes it great…that for me would be very, very sad :(.
By the way this should be sad for you too! The next time you are booking a tour…Ask yourself…Who is getting all of the money I am spending on a tour??? If not the people?…..who gets it?…Most likely your dollars are only going to a very small amount of people and not helping any people in need nor their economy… Oh and the tour…it is likely only showing you a very skewed perspective of their country…nearly hiding everything about the real situation there. It actually reminds me of my trip to Kenya, I couldn´t believe you could travel there and fly directly from the airport into a safari…basically skipping everything about the country…and yet those tourists say they visited Kenya (think about this for a second)! Before booking a tour think about this….if they drop you at a specific place to eat, cross the street and support those who really need it….I guarantee the experience will be unique and very legit. I know tours are great because they cut out the logistics of travel but rarely do they put the money where it should go nor does it allow you to see the real life in a country (trust me it is worth seeing because it opens your mind). Sadly I saw a lot of this problem with tour companies in Ethiopia….but hey the tourism industry is really developed there…think again.
Can you tell I have some issues with the whole tourism infrastructure there? OBVIOUSLY!
Onwards…one of the main reasons I was attracted to visit Ethiopia was actually for the food. I love Ethiopian food and it was amazing to finally be there and try so many different dishes. Imagine a huge very thin pancake that is grayish or very light brown that has been heated just long enough for the bubbles to make holes in it and it stays that way. Well it kind of looks like this but unlike a pancake it´s served cold, tastes a little bitter and is called injera. This injera is made of teff, a small grain grown everywhere there, especially in the highlands, and is full of protein and calcium….sooo good for you! Each dish has warm food on top of it, like meat, lentils, vegetables or just a simple thick sauce. Culturally it´s placed on a huge plate (usually way too big for the plate) to be shared with others and eaten by hand. You tear a piece of the injera (pancake thing) and pick up some of the food or sauce on top and stuff it into your mouth (sometimes someone else at your table feeds you). Locals eat it rather fast. I savored each one and took my sweet way too slow time. Another cultural thing to note is that Ethiopians (the majority) are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and fast a good chunk of the year. Unlike other religions this doesn´t mean they don´t eat but instead fasting means no meat (plus other things not related to food that the body desires). They fast every Wednesday and Friday and then 55 days for Lent (Easter) and some 43 days for Advent (Christmas)…even then there are a few other celebrations when they are fasting…Totaling a whooping 252/365 days a year (minimum 180) of fasting! This I believe is the longest fasting time of a religion in the world..ha if eating can be included! In Islam, for example, they fast during Ramadan, only eating when the sun is absent during a whole month.
I really enjoy eating with my hands so naturally I love this food but besides this I find it very nutritious. Other´s I met were trying it here for the first time and I believe they were over it quickly while I ate it nearly everyday the whole month! Some said it was weird to eat the cold injera while others were bored with the flavor and then there were others like me just trying to figure out what was on the menu that hadn´t been tried yet. You could eat injera everywhere, even the little coffee shops had it. Injera was always fresh and good so I never had to really worry about getting sick from it. Even meat was super fresh…literally taken from the butcher on premise or just out back (no joke). I tried it in many different types of shops/restaurants meaning most of the time I couldn´t read the menu unfortunately….Really made it difficult for trying something new and leaving me ordering the basic Shiro if I gave up on figuring out a new dish. Shiro is a brownish red thick sauce made of chickpeas or beans and is the go to dish, especially on fasting days….though you might get bored if only eating this plus some shiro´s are way better than others. Besides injera Ethiopia has tons of other dishes to try especially at breakfast…really I don´t know how you could get bored. Some odd (for me) injera dishes were injera with pasta (yes, even they eat pasta on it!) and the injera with seasoned injera (not bad but I think a bit overkill). My favorite food was injera with eggs and meat and the surprise and not to be missed amazing fresh smoothies (if you see fruit outside or on a sign with fruit enter because they have smoothies…just sit, you won´t regret it). My go to was avocado mango and if they had banana I quickly add it (no water used so no worries there).
Remember I mentioned that the calendar is different, well guess what, so is the time! My first few days I heard a person mention local time and it caught me off guard but I assumed that is just normal until I heard it again and began to wonder that something was up. Well on a mini bus I had the chance to ask a local who was referring to time as local time just what he meant. He said there was local time and European time…hum. Wait aren´t we on European time….I mean it certainly wasn´t US time. European time is what we westerners know as local time (1 hour ahead of Paris – spring – or the same time – fall -) while in actuality they are locally 6 hours different (5-6 hours ahead of Paris)…6 hours behind because their day starts at 7 pm when the sun goes down and resets at 7 am. Most Ethiopians know both clocks but before planning anything you might want to double check if they are referring to local or Ethiopian time otherwise forget your meeting, bus, etc. ha ha. I went into a bank in a small town one time at 8 pm and was happy they were open so late (as I needed money)…I was happy but also surprised, at home banks close at 5 or 6…but then it dawned on me as I found their hours posted and I realized why…they work on local time of course! By the way no need to worry about money in Ethiopia, this country has by far has the most atms available in Africa (that I have seen)….no running out here…small towns even have several…oh but pay attention to local time, they do run out of cash at certain hours…ha ha..2 pm European time is a smart time to visit (aka 8 am). Confused yet?
There are plenty of other things about this culture that is unique that blows my mind and I can´t cover them all but I will add two more…my favorites. When you ask any person a question whether they speak English or not you might hear them gasp deeply for air…or so it seems that way…or maybe even sounds as if they are shocked. Well actually this sound means Okay or Yes to whatever you just asked….It takes some getting used to but with time (the right time lol) you get used to it and might even start using it yourself. I know right, it can´t get any more unique than this…oh but it does…my second favorite would be dancing…just look up Ethiopian dance and pick the fourth video and you will notice some major shoulder moves (called Eskista)…though it is way better in person at a bar or celebrations. They love when you join them too so get off your butt and give it a try.
Ethiopia is really an astonishing country to visit with all of it’s culture, beauty and uniqueness it definitely shouldn’t be missed…… just maybe visit it as your second stop in Africa. I feel it might be too much to handle on a first visit or too eye opening for most. Trust me tourism isn’t going to do anything but get better here especially as more and more places become popular and get the tourism facelift. There is just so much beauty and history here that it´s hard for me to tell you not to go…but really what I want to say is wait. I, even with my incidents, really enjoyed Ethiopia and I am lucky none of the incidents were worse experiences…they were all simply just reminders that I am here…in the world.
Useful links below:
Common Ethiopian dishes