Stepping Back in Time
What images come to mind when you think about Ethiopia? I’m ashamed to say that before this trip, when I thought of Ethiopia I immediately associated it with famine, starvation, and fast runners. I never expected it to be such a diverse and fascinating place. I can see why Ethiopia has so many fast runners and we did see plenty of poverty, but there’s so much more to the country than that.
It’s easy to go 8 days without drinking alcohol and not even notice. But it’s strange to be somewhere where you are forbidden to drink like we were during our time in Sudan. So when we crossed the border from Sudan to Ethiopia, the majority of our group walked immediately to the local bar and enjoyed some 50 cent beers. Along with cheap and legal beer, we also regained our youth when we crossed the border into Ethiopia. We immediately went back in time over 7 years. Awesome! I’m now 23 again! 🙂 I’ll take it!
Traveling through Ethiopia seemed like we went much further back in time than just 7 years. It felt more like a century behind – but not in a bad way. The places Bryan tends to enjoy visiting most (such as Romania and Georgia) are where the people live off the land and enjoy simple lifestyles. Such was the case in Ethiopia. People farmed and tended their livestock for a living. Very few Ethiopians seemed to have cars so on market days they would walk for miles (sometimes for a day or more) to take their animals and crops to and from the market. No wonder they are in such good shape. They run and walk up and down the hills as a daily task, carrying large parcels or containers on their backs or heads (even the children). They make us look pretty lazy – all we have to do is hop in the car and drive up the street to a Walmart for everything we need!
Ethiopia is known as the Cradle of Humanity. The earliest human fossils were found in Ethiopia dating back about 6 million years. The oldest known hominid in the world (the infamous Lucy) was discovered in Ethiopia. But from more recent years (the 1600’s), the city of Gondar (our first stop in Ethiopia) boasts ancient castles, churches, and baths. The city is often referred to as the Camelot of Africa. Castles aren’t something I typical associate with Ethiopia, or Africa in general.
The highlight of our Africa trip thus far was our trek through Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. We went through the town of Debark and arranged a two-day trip. We picked up two armed scouts and a guide. Not everyone got the word that we were picking up a couple local armed men so some members of our group got quite a scare when they looked out the back of our truck to see men with rifles trying to get in. The armed guards are supposedly necessary to protect us from hyenas or any other predators, and to keep any people from harming the park.
We heard there was a chance of seeing some Gelada Baboons on our trek, but we didn’t expect to encounter nearly a thousand of them up close. They weren’t scared of us so they ate, played, mated, and did whatever else baboons do while we watched from only a few feet away. There were babies wrestling and rolling down the dirt hills. There was even a mother baboon nursing a tiny baby baboon that was only a day or two old. The male baboons are big and covered with lion-like manes. We’ve had a lot of incredible wildlife experiences (the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica), but the Gelada Baboons in the Simien Mountains is right up there.
The views of the Simien Mountains will take your breath away. The mountain cliffs are sheer with occasional waterfalls pouring over the tops, the vegetation is varied and unusual, and the sunsets are spectacular. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some ibex (curly horned mountain goat-like creatures) along the overhangs. The elevation is high so it’s been the chilliest weather we’ve experienced in quite a while. We actually needed our enormous hunter’s sleeping bags that night, along with wool hats. We were some of the few people in our group who weren’t chilly that night so maybe lugging those huge sleeping bags around is worthwhile. The elevation was high and one guy in our group suffered from altitude sickness and had to be brought down to a lower elevation (for once I wasn’t the one with altitude sickness).
After your first day riding through Ethiopia, don’t be surprised if your arm is sore. I swear I’ve never waved so much in my life! The local kids go crazy when they see foreigners pass through. Over a dozen white people hanging out of huge bright yellow truck was quite a sight for them I’m sure. “You-you-you-you!” they yelled as they sprinted from their mud huts after our truck, waving both arms frantically. Foreigners are known as “Faranji” so this excitement among the locals when we come through is dubbed as “Faranji Frenzy.” It’s sweet and adorable for the first day or so, until you get close enough to hear all the children that ask you for things. “Gimme pen, gimme candy, gimme money, gimme water bottle!” they yelled and held out their hands expectantly. Of course, us Westerners all like to give to those in need and we all want to save the world. But if we give children something for nothing, are we actually helping? Or are we encouraging a begging mentality that encourages them to expect things for free rather than going to school? If you speak with some of the locals or our driver Steve, many of the local parents don’t want foreigners to give things to the children. They don’t want to encourage a begging mentality and they don’t want kids to skip school waiting around for a pen or a treat.
In the beginning, I thought that I was being helpful by giving things out to the local children. But my naive idealism changed quickly when I tossed out a pack of cookies to some children and witnessed the chaos that ensued. The child that caught the cookies ran off and the other children chased him yelling and throwing rocks. I don’t know why I expected them to calmly share the pack of cookies amongst each other. So much for helping the world, it looked like I just caused child violence.
At times the “gimme, gimme” thing really got on all of our nerves. I like to give people things, but not if they expect it or they don’t say please or thank you. Apparently, the “gimme mentality” really took root after the famine of the 70’s and all the aid from foreigners that came in to the country. It’s annoying that the kids immediately ask us for things when we come through their villages, but can we really blame them? As Bryan pointed out to me, if we lived in a crowded mud hut with rags as clothes and “rich” foreign people came through who might give you something, wouldn’t you at least ask? You really can’t blame them.
The weird thing about Ethiopia is that no matter where you stop to go to the bathroom, eat, or camp, you always had a large audience of locals. Once our truck stopped, it only took a few minutes for a crowd to gather. No wonder Ethiopia has so many world class runners. The young barefoot kids came bounding gracefully over the hills full speed with their long, thin legs. Sometimes they watched us quietly and from a distance, but sometimes they were loud and grabby and it was difficult to prepare meals. According to Steve, the other times he traveled through Ethiopia there were much larger groups of people gathered around (sometimes in the hundreds).
We would usually offer our audience the leftovers from our meals but we rarely got any takers. They didn’t seem to find our unfamiliar food appealing. On Christmas Eve we offered a group a big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce but they refused and asked for a banana instead. Clearly, they weren’t starving. They weren’t fans of our strange food, but they did like our digital cameras. The kids loved to have us take their pictures and show them. I also had a group of kids enthralled with my videos of Gelada Baboons I took during our trek. They watched the same short videos over and over again and laughed hysterically each time.
Last Christmas we were in the crappy Amazon city of Manaus after being ripped off by a local scam artist who promised us a fantastic rainforest tour and a hammock spot on the 2-day river ferry far away from the bathroom (and didn’t keep his word). But this Christmas was infinitely better. We bush camped and ate a delicious spaghetti dinner cooked over our camp fire. Our Australian friend Drew dressed up as Santa and handed out treats in little stockings to us. On Christmas morning I woke up at sunrise and climbed out of my tent. I rubbed my eyes because I thought they were playing tricks on me. Three robed men with three camels walked by our campsite. I think it was the three wisemen! A few minutes later a man walked by leading a donkey. If there had been a pregnant woman riding the donkey I would have lost it. What an awesome way to start Christmas. During our drive that day, I borrowed Drew’s Santa hat and beard and stuck my head out the top of the truck and waved to the local kids. Their expressions were a mix of laughter, confusion, and fear. I’m really not sure Ethiopian children have a clue who Santa is. Our holiday ended with a special Christmas Dinner in Lalibela with our group, along with a spectacular sunset over the mountains, local music and entertainment, dancing, and an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. If we couldn’t be home with our family for Christmas, this was probably the next best thing. It was Christmas Day for us and much of the world, but it wasn’t Christmas just yet for Ethiopians. Their Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
Churches, Crocs, & Hippos
After a memorable Christmas, we spent the following day exploring the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. In the 1100’s, King Lalibela had a dream to establish a capital and construct the churches out of the enormous stone that covered the area. The roofs of the churches are at ground level so you have to climb down to get into them. There are tunnels and eerie passages leading through and connecting the churches. Robed priests sit in the churches and offer blessings with their ornately carved wooden crosses. You’ll see many of the locals kissing the crosses. By far the most impressive of the rock carved churches was St. George’s, which was carved in the shape of a perfect and enormous cross. I can’t even imagine the time and man-power used to whittle the large churches from the stone ground.
As you can probably guess, there is a huge Christian influence in Ethiopia – another good reason to spend Christmas there. It was nice to be able to wear shorts and tank tops for the first time in Africa. We didn’t have to worry about offending the locals by showing a bit of skin now that we’re in a largely Christian country. Ethiopia was actually the second country in the world to adopt Christianity (Although there is a Muslim population as well). You’ll notice that many Ethiopians wear simple wooden cross necklaces on black string.
On Lake Tana (near Bahir Dar & Blue Nile Falls), there are 37 islands and 29 monasteries (some dating back to the 11th century). The monasteries are constructed of rustic materials like straw, mud, and cow dung but the paintings inside are amazingly detailed and colorful depictions of historical and biblical events. I can see why visiting Ethiopia is described as experiencing Christianity in its rawest form. Although the paintings are intricate, there is nothing ostentatious about their places of worship. We also saw our first wild hippopotamuses during our monastery tour around Lake Tana.
We saw even more hippos at another lake farther south in Ethiopia. At Lake Chamo, outside of Arba Minch, we took a boat ride to see crocodiles and more hippos. The crocodiles were HUGE – some were over 20 feet long with long, protruding teeth. They looked like dinosaurs and were only a couple feet from us. There were several hippos around the lake, too. I thought it was the tint of my sunglasses but the hippos are actually pink. This is because of a reddish secretion from their sub-dermal glands that protect their sensitive skin from sun damage (they are very susceptible to sunburn). It’s also believed that the red secretion has antibiotic properties to keep their wounds from getting infected. Although they are herbivores, hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other mammal in Africa because they are so territorial. Note to self – never get in a hippo’s path.
Happy 2013 from Addis!
Our New Year last year was another disappointing holiday on the Amazon River. We spent the night in Belem (another crummy Amazon city) searching for a party to no avail, and missing our family and friends. We were again in a rather unpleasant city in my opinion (Addis Ababa). But we had our group of Oasis friends to spend the evening with. This New Year’s Eve was definitely better for me than last year. Not so much for Bryan and a few others though, because they spent New Years’ Eve on the toilet after eating kitfo (Ethiopian dish of raw beef with butter and spices) the day before. Bryan gave me a hard time for only eating a few bites of it but I had no regrets for wimping out. I was able to enjoy a delicious New Year’s Eve Italian dinner (fettuccine alfredo with truffle sauce) while poor Bryan couldn’t eat a bite of his and had to leave early.
On the way to and from the restaurant that evening, we all had to walk in a circle down the road to surround one of the guys in our group so the locals wouldn’t see him. Earlier that day he found himself in quite a predicament. He loves to play football (soccer to us) with the local children. He played for a while and then the coaches invited him in for a coffee to thank him for playing with the kids. After a few drinks they handed him an astronomical bill and wouldn’t let him leave until he paid for it. He left his iPhone as collateral and went back to the hotel to get our driver Steve as the men waited outside the hotel gates for him. Steve was understandably furious, grabbed the men and dragged them to the police station. The iPhone was retrieved and no one was hurt (though apparently a few punches were thrown by our friend). We were all relieved to get out of Addis unscathed. It seemed like a pretty sketchy city to me.
Nat Geo LIVE!
Ethiopia has become increasingly popular among travelers because of its diversity of things to see. Even though we were on our 4 month overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, Oasis allowed us to have a great deal of freedom in Ethiopia. As a group, we were able to pick the places we wanted to visit (within reason). One thing most of us were adamant about seeing was the Lower Omo Valley because of the tribes of people living there.
We visited a few of the local markets on market day in the area where various local tribes come to buy and sell. The tribal people (we believe they were from the Hammer tribe) walked for miles (sometimes days) to come to the market, most dressed in goat skins decorated with shells. Many of the women had tight gold curls in their hair and most had rows of colorful plastic hair barrettes (even the guys wore barrettes). They carried containers made of hollow, dried calabash (like a squash) with goat’s milk, money, food or other items in them. Another market we visited wasn’t as exciting but there were children butchering a cow to sell and eating the raw meat as they sliced. The market had piles of sandals for sale handmade from old vehicle tires. The used tire sandals have been something we’ve seen a lot while in Africa. It’s a pretty smart and green idea for recycling tires and making sandals with sturdy tread.
Our main motivation for visiting the Omo Valley was to see the infamous Mursi tribe. I think nearly everyone has watched a documentary or seen in National Geographic the people in Africa with plates stretching out their earlobes and lips. I know Erik (Bryan’s brother) has seen them because as a little boy he loved to look through copies of his Nat Geo magazines as soon as they arrived to find all the photos of topless women. 🙂 Maybe that’s why he’s meeting us in Africa next month. But anyways, we took a tour out of Jinka to visit one of the many Mursi villages. What a surreal experience. When we got out of our minibus the people surrounded us. One naked baby wearing only a few strands of white beads came toddling up and wrapped himself around my leg. At first the people seemed very friendly and welcoming. We peeked in their huts to see the women preparing breakfast and some topless crushing grain with rocks. As we walked, more and more Mursi people gathered around us. They had gigantic plates in their lips and ears and scarification designs on their skin. Supposedly these things are for decoration and beauty and to show that a woman is ready for marriage. Their lips and ears looked especially odd when they didn’t have the plates in and their lips and ears were dangling and flapping around like long snakes. I felt like I was on another planet.
Some of the women started asking us for our things like our water bottles or scarves, motioning that they needed these items for their babies. We were allowed to take pictures but we had to pay each person in the picture a small set amount of money. When our cameras came out it was chaos. Everyone kept asking us to take their picture and if we tried to take pictures of some of the people others would sneak in the picture and then demand money. At one point it was almost scary because the people were getting pushy and grabby. Some of them were just curious though. One boy came up to me and poked my stomach and then grabbed my boob. They probably aren’t a big deal since the majority of the women don’t wear tops.
After about 20 minutes, we were ready to get back to the haven of our van. Tourism like this can be a tricky thing. On one hand, the money coming in encourages these people to maintain their traditional ways of life. But it can also make them money hungry. All things considered, our Mursi village visit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bryan got some fantastic photos and we purchased a lip plate from one of the women as a souvenir. We realized it had been worn by her when we saw the chip marks on the plate from where her teeth hit.
As you can tell, Ethiopia is diverse and fantastic. I will no longer associate the country with negative things like famine and starvation. What an unforgettable way to spend Christmas and ring in the 2013. I can’t wait to see what else this year has in store!