Ethiopia, who would have thought?!

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Monday, October 9, 2006

I arrived in Addis Ababa around 3-4 am. Way too early, but the cheapest flight that got me from Egypt to Ethiopia. (I did not go overland through Sudan. This bothers me, a lot. But I had promised to try and a tiny more common sense on this trip than I had shown in the past, so given the situation there, I decided to avoid it. I've since learned that the central corridor leading straight through the heart of the country, through Khartoum to Ethiopia is considered reasonably safe. I regret not doing it, but hope to visit the country someday in happier times). By the time I had sorted out money and bought my visa, another hour had passed. Finally, after much haggling, I caught a taxi to the Baro Hotel; which was full. So was every other hotel I tried for the next hour, driving around Addis in the dark, hoping for a place, any place, to stay. Finally, with an extra 100 birr added to the taxi bill I found the Dobro Doma, a nice enough place within my price range.

From the start, the "otherness" of Ethiopia was apparent. Frankly, I'm ready to love any country whose first tourism posters in the airport have half-naked women on them. In the taxi in the way into town, the driver had a "Jesus is Lord" sign on his dashboard and was playing a cassette of praise songs. This visible and enthusiastic approach to faith would be my first introduction to a pattern of behaviour and belief that has been common all throughout Africa to date.

Driving through Addis Ababa at 4:30 am was a bit dodgy. Few street lights existed, people standing around in small groups, and scantily clad prostitutes posed on the wide of the road, hoping to make a few more birr before sunrise. I will admit to feeling a bit uneasy on my first day in Ethiopia. I don't think I'm racist. I think my beliefs and actions bare that out. But still... when I first walked out onto the street, the only white face among thousands of black ones, I felt a bit uneasy. I think it had more to do with feeling like such a minority than being racially based. Although I don't know that I ever felt as uneasy being in Asia. I'm happy to say that feeling has almost entirely passed, and I'm getting comfortable in my role as celebrity faranji.

(*An aside - it is over a month since I wrote this, and I have been in Africa for about a month and a half or longer. Almost all of the friends I have made to date have been locals. I've sat with Ethiopians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, shared food, laughs, and made friends with all of them. In fact, I've seemed to have found it easier to make friends with locals than other foreign travellers. I still don't know what prompted those feelings of uneasiness when arriving in Sub-Saharan Africa, and I'm not proud of them. I suppose part of why people travel is to confront these hidden pockets of prejudice, fear, or ignorance that can exist in all of us. I think I am the better for facing it.*)

I spent two days in Addis Ababa, mostly walking around, getting stared at, and trying (almost always in vain) to check my email. It appears the entire internet infrastructure in Ethiopia is powered by an asthmatic hamster in a little wheel. While there, I did stop to visit an old relative of mine - I mean REALLY old. About 3.2 millions years old to be exact. The skeleton of Lucy (named from the Beatles song that was playing when the Leakey's discovered her skeleton - "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") rests in the National Museum of Ethiopia. Believe what you will about how humans got here, but I'm telling you, 3.2 million years ago, we looked A LOT different than we do now. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm sure she had a wonderful personality. Really, it's not her, it's me. I'm into existentialist philosophy, she's into grubs. It just wouldn't have worked out.

Finally, after a couple of days of feeling somewhat aimless, I made a move to get out of Addis Ababa. I decided to go to Lalibela. I had heard of this place before, but will admit (to my intense shame) that it was an episode of the Amazing Race that took place here a few years ago that made burn to see it even more. After paying an extortionate amount for a 5 a.m. taxi ride, I arrived at the dark, huge bus station of Addis. It was utter chaos in the darkness, with dozens of bus touts yelling destinations at the top of their lungs, trying desperately to get bodies into their buses. After allowing a bus tout to claim me (though it didn't keep others from grabbing at my arms and bag as I passed and asking "where you go?") I was led to a bus heading to Lalibela. It would only be in comparison to the return bus trip that I would realize just how nice this bus was. The bus had 5 seats across in a space back home that would fit four. I grabbed a seat next to an old Orthodox Church priest and as the only white face on the bus, provided a welcome distraction for the other passengers until finally, after an hour wait or so, we lurched out of the bus station and were on our way.
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