From India to Ethiopia
Trip Start Mar 05, 2012
1Trip End Mar 20, 2012
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What I did
Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar and Lalibela
"Namaste, Babuji! You from India?" is a phrase that greeted me almost a million times. I was in Ethiopia, the land of burnt faces. I heard this greeting not just in the capital, Addis Ababa but all over Ethiopia even in much smaller towns. I have been to more than 30 countries and this was the friendliest country that I have encountered. Indonesia comes a close second. It was leaving India that was a headache. When I checked-in at the Emirates airline counter in Chennai, the counter clerk wanted to see my Ethiopian visa. I told him that Indians get a visa on arrival in Ethiopia. He said that he needed to call up Dubai and confirm. He called up Dubai while I waited and Dubai said that they will call back. The call from Dubai came in a couple of minutes and they confirmed the visa on arrival. I got my boarding pass. The next hurdle was Immigration. The lady at the Immigration desk wanted to see my Ethiopian visa
of the Ethiopian embassy website in New Delhi that said that Indian nationals can get a 30 day visa on arrival in Ethiopian airports. “Nobody goes to Ethiopia. I need to talk to talk to my boss”, she said. So we went and met her boss. He heard the story, went through my printout and told the lady in Tamil, "The printout is very clear. Stamp him out”. The lady stamped my passport but
was not too happy, “You should have informed us one or two days in advance if you are going to countries like Ethiopia”. Whom do you inform? How do you enter the airport? It fell on deaf ears but I was on my way to Ethiopia!
In Dubai airport, after a long walk on a never ending travelator, I reached the transfer desk. He wanted to see my Ethiopian visa. He then called up Ethiopian Airlines and they confirmed the visa on arrival. He checked my return ticket and gave me my boarding pass to Addis Ababa. Dubai airport is not as user friendly as Singapore airport. You cannot navigate using sign boards alone, you need to ask humans.
I tasted my first Ethiopian meal on board the Ethiopian Airlines flight – steamed rice with spicy Ethiopian chicken
flight were women, all of whom were very well dressed and carrying Gucci, Armani and Yves St Laurent shopping bags. The two girls sitting next to me were Ethiopians returning after a shopping trip to Dubai. They were both carrying designer label bags. Shortly before landing all the women took out their designer make-up kits and sprayed under arm deodorant. After all the troubles in India, the process in Addis Ababa airport itself was a breeze. After I landed I went to the room marked “Visa on Arrival”. A lady there took $20 (Rs 1000) from me and pasted the visa sticker on my passport. The entire process took perhaps thirty seconds. I changed cash (yes, the bank to change cash is before the immigration), went through immigration, collected my bag and walked out into the cold, freezing air of Addis as it is popularly called.
I instantly realized that Ethiopia was a safe place for travel. It was a woman who was waiting for me from the hotel to pick me up at 10:30pm in the night. I cannot imagine a woman in India waiting outside an airport at that time and picking up a stranger. Addis is a big city with a lot of buildings and a lot of traffic moving silently
There is a café every fifty feet serving espresso, cappuccino and macchiato. There must be more espresso machines in Addis than in the whole of India. Macchiato is the national drink – a shot of foamy steamed milk with a shot of espresso poured on top. A lot of the cafes are chic, ultra modern with contemporary African designs. Most cafes serve beer in addition to coffee. A lot of cafes serve steaks, pasta, soups and sandwiches (beef, chicken and tuna). Portions are American size. The chicken sandwich has ten times the amount of meat compared to a chicken sandwich in India. The sandwich is served with a mountain of french fries. Generally speaking, beer is cheaper than water in Ethiopia. A bottle of beer costs 10 Birr (Rs 30) while a bottle of water costs 11 Birr (Rs 33). So you know what to drink when you are thirsty! St George beer is the most popular beer. It is a lager which labels itself as a Premium Lager beer.
The sights to see in Addis are the St George Cathedral, the National Museum, the Ethnological Museum and the Yekalit Monument
of Lucy are stored in the archives of the museum. The Ethnological Museum is housed in the former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie inside the sprawling grounds of the University of Addis Ababa. A gift from the Mayor of Madras who visited Ethiopia in the 1950s is displayed. There is a philatelic section with a nice collection of Ethiopian stamps, souvenir sheets and first day covers. Unfortunately they don't sell any of the stamps or first day covers.
The Ethiopian Airlines office is situated inside the Hilton Hotel. I went there to book my internal flights. The Ethiopian Airlines agent in India had quoted a price of $200 (Rs 10,000) for the Lalibela – Addis flight. I got the same flight for a price of $45 (Rs 2250). You can pay either in US$ or Ethiopian Birr. Buy your Ethiopian domestic tickets inside Ethiopia, they are far cheaper. Diagonally across the Ethiopian Airlines office is a souvenir shop that sells Ethiopian Telecom SIM cards. You need a photocopy of your passport and 2 photos to buy a SIM card. Activation is instantaneous. Calls to India cost 12 Birr (Rs 36) a minute.
From the Hilton Hotel I walked to Meskal Square to book my bus ticket to Bahir Dar. On the way, hundreds of people smiled and wished me “Namaste”! One person told me that from kindergarten to 12th class, he had Indian teachers. There are a lot of Indian teachers in schools and colleges throughout Ethiopia. I reached the bus booking office and checked the timings of the bus to Bahir Dar. He told me that tickets were available for a bus starting at 11am. I knew the journey took almost 12 hours. So I told him that I wanted an earlier bus since I didn’t want to travel through the night. He looked very confused and said that the bus started very early in the morning before sunrise at 11am. Now it was my turn to be confused! Ethiopians follow their own clock. When the sun rises it is 12 noon. When the sun sets it is midnight. So when you are referring to time, you have to be clear whether it is the Ethiopian clock or the standard European
clock. I finally figured out that 11am Ethiopian time was 5am in the morning.
The women in Ethiopia are very pretty. They are dressed impeccably in high fashion clothes. Most of them wear high heeled shoes. Women walk with their heads held straight and are not afraid to meet the eyes of men. I also noticed that there were a lot of smartly dressed waitresses and bar-maids in cafes and bars, an uncommon sight in India. Almost everyone on the streets, irrespective of how poor they are, wear shoes. Nobody walks around wearing slippers or barefoot. In Chennai I think 50% of the population walks around barefoot. You don’t witness that kind of poverty in Ethiopia.
The easiest way to commute in Addis is to walk or take a blue-and-white taxi. The taxis are unmetered and you need to negotiate the fare in advance. Passengers, including women, sit in the front seat next to the driver. Ethiopia is a more liberal and less hierarchical society compared to India. I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The Chinese restaurants in Ethiopia are Chinese owned, operated, have Chinese cooks and serve authentic mainland Chinese food. I had chicken with lemon and pineapple served with steamed rice, accompanied by a never ending supply of Chinese tea. Practice your chopstick skills before you go to a Chinese restaurant in Ethiopia. You are not likely to get a fork and spoon.
I wanted to organise a taxi to reach the 5am bus to Bahir Dar. Most taxi drivers don’t understand the European clock. But by this time I had prepared a chart for converting Ethiopian time to the European clock. So I was able to talk to the taxi driver in his time. We agreed upon a fare of 100
Birr (Rs 300) and exchanged our telephone numbers. At 10pm in the night, the cab driver calls me up and says that he needs 200 Birr (Rs 600) or else he cannot come. It was sheer blackmail but I had no choice but to accept.
The taxi came promptly at 4:15am and dropped me at the starting point of the bus. It was a Chinese made air-conditioned Volvo style bus. I had a comfortable seat right behind the driver with an excellent view. You check in your luggage and you get a luggage tag. The 5am departed at 5:30am. I was the only Indian on board. There was an old Englishman who was working in Addis. Everyone else was Ethiopian. Breakfast consisting of a slice of cake, a can of mango juice and a bottle of water was served on board. The music system was on and Ethiopian folk songs strangely sounded like Nepali folk songs. The villages that we passed were small, neat and clean. Houses had wooden fences with a nice front yard and a backyard. Around 12:30pm the bus stopped in Debra Markos for lunch. Everyone got down, washed their hands and had injera.
Injera is the national dish of Ethiopia. It is a round thick soft crepe made with fermented dough – looks like a plain uthappam but it is four times larger in circumference. The taste is completely different though. The injera is served with wat – a thick spicy stew of beef or chicken. The wat is
served in a small wooden pot. You take the wat from the wooden pot and put it in the centre of the injera. You then tear off bits of injera with your hand, dip it in the wat and eat. Vegetarians can ask for “Shiro Tegabino” – injera served with a thick spicy vegetable stew.
The bus reached Bahir Dar after 11 hours. I took an auto-rickshaw to the hotel for 10 Birr (Rs 30). Outside of Addis, Ethiopia is full of Bajaj auto-rickshaws. They are called tuk tuks or simply Bajaj. I had made a hotel reservation over email and received an email confirmation. But the
guy behind the counter quoted a price double that. Finally he said that if I could show him a printout of the email he will reduce the price. That was a task easier said than done. The first internet place that I went to did not have a printer. The second internet centre had a printer but there was no electricity. Eventually found a place that had internet access, a printer and
electricity. I showed the printout to the counter clerk and got the price quoted in the email.
Bahir Dar is a nice little town with wide avenues lined with palm trees and has nice wide sidewalks. Bahir Dar is on the shores of Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile joins the White Nile in Sudan and then becomes the Nile that flows into Egypt. There are plenty of islands in Lake Tana, most of them have ancient Orthodox Christian monasteries
on them. I went on a boat trip along with 4 others – a German guy and a girl (they had met on the internet and decided to travel to Ethiopia) and a retired Scottish couple who were visiting their daughter working as a doctor in Bahir Dar. The boat man was also the guide. Entrance fee for each monastery is 100 Birr (Rs 300) and you need to remove your shoes. The Westerners were appalled that you need to remove your shoes before entering a church. The Scottish guy
was outraged that you have to pay money to enter a place of worship. Obviously he has not heard of the money making machine called Tirupati. We visited three monasteries before the Scottish guy burst out, “That’s it! No more churches. I am an atheist”. Being an atheist too, I seconded the idea. So we abandoned the idea of visiting more monasteries and instead decided to go the place where the lake ends and the Blue Nile River starts. On the way we saw a herd of swimming hippos. There were millions of pelicans as far as your eye could see filling up the horizon. It was similar in sight to Lake Manyara in Tanzania where there were millions of flamingos. There is no place like Africa to see wildlife. The pelicans were diving and sitting on top of the swimming hippos. There were plenty of other exotic birds. The Scottish lady had a “Birds of the Horn of Africa” book and was calling out their names.
On the way, we also saw a flotilla of small traditional papyrus boats carrying cut wood and going towards Bahir Dar. Each papyrus boat had either one or two men rowing it. The boat man explained that every Friday there is a weekly market in Bahir Dar where the people from the islands come, sell their wood, buy provisions for a week and row back. Economy of the islands
and the Zege Peninsula depends primarily on wood. “Deforestation!” cried the German girl.
Bahir Dar is a nice place to just chill out and relax. That is exactly what I did for a day. There is a nice lake front walkway dotted with cafes and bars. I found one that I liked, settled down and ordered a bottle of wine. Keita, a traditional Ethiopian flat bread served with fiery hot berbere
sauce was on the house. I read a book and wrote postcards. I walked to the post office, bought stamps, mailed the postcards, returned back and ordered some more wine.
An experience not to miss is having traditional Ethiopian coffee. The coffee beans are roasted in front of you, then manually powdered using a mortar and pestle, boiled, filtered and served in a nice colourful Ethiopian pot. You pour the coffee into a small china cup and drink it black. People generally drink at least three cups. It is considered auspicious to drink three cups. Along with the coffee is a wooden pot of smoking incense. You inhale the incense while drinking the coffee! A complete Ethiopian traditional coffee set makes a nice souvenir to carry back home. You can buy them in the string of souvenir shops in Churchill Avenue, Addis Ababa.
From Bahir Dar I travelled to Gondar. It was in a minivan that I travelled. A 9-seater Toyota HiAce had been converted into an 11-seater. Into that the driver stuffed 15 passengers. A lot of the passengers were villagers who were carrying huge bundles of cut long grass. All the villagers were nicely dressed and wearing shoes. It was a 4 hour journey to Gondar with a lot of stops and starts. The route was very scenic and passed through some nice mountain ranges. As soon as I got down in Gondar, a little boy of about 5 or 6 years grabbed my bag, foisted it on top
of his head and said that he will take me to my hotel. When I told him that he should be in school, the little boy cheekily answered, “If you don’t pay me, how can I afford to go to school?”. I decided to take his help since he knew the way to the hotel. I gave him 5 Birr (Rs 15) and he was very thrilled. The little boy spoke perfect English. Most people that I came in contact with – guides, taxi drivers, Bajaj drivers, waiters, waitresses, bar-maids, small shop keepers and fruit sellers – spoke excellent English. The percentage of people who speak English is very high in Ethiopia compared to India. This is in spite of the fact that Ethiopia was never colonised by Britain.
While St George beer is king in the rest of Ethiopia, in Gondar it is Dashen beer. As you enter the town, there is a huge signboard that says “Dashen beer welcomes you to Gondar”. Dashen is also a lager beer. The best place to have it is in Ethiopia Café, bang in the heart of downtown Gondar – in the piazza. Ethiopia Café is an institution where you feel that you have gone back in time to the 1940s. It has the look, feel and atmosphere of Koshy’s (the non air-conditioned part) in St Mark’s Road, Bangalore.
I met the German internet couple in Gondar’s Royal Enclosure. After Gondar they were going trekking in the Simien Mountains. The Royal Enclosure is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was partially designed by an Indian architect, Abdul Karim. The Mughal influence can be clearly seen in the ruins of King Fasiladas’ Palace. From the Royal Enclosure I walked about 2 kms to reach Fasiladas’ Bath. It is a large sunken pool with tree roots entwined in the walls just like in the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. It was a very peaceful place as I was the only tourist there when I visited. From there I took a Bajaj for 20 Birr (Rs 60) and went to Debra Berhan Selassie – Debra means Church. It was packed with Western tourists. It is one of the finest churches in Ethiopia with the walls and ceiling covered with ancient paintings and murals. There were dozens of people standing and reading the Amharic bible.
From Gondar I flew to Lalibela. It is a short 25 minute flight but there is no alternative to flying. There are no roads between Gondar and Lalibela. The airport in Gondar is about 25 kms from the centre of town and is connected by a scenic road through the mountains. On the way I saw a sign board with an arrow marked “Sudan”. The Sudanese border was less than 200 kms away. Gondar airport is a small but neat and tidy airport. The entire area was well paved, the individual parking spaces were clearly marked out and there was not a speck of mud, dust or litter. I was not the only Indian on the flight. I saw another Indian lady with grey hair wearing a saree. I nodded and smiled at her. She completely ignored me. I had met the first unfriendly person in Ethiopia – a fellow Indian. Other than the two of us, everyone else on the flight was a white tourist. It was free seating on a Bombardier Q400 twin engine turbo-prop aircraft. Domestic flights in Ethiopia often leave ahead of schedule. My 12:15pm flight departed at 11:30am.
The airport is quite far from Lalibela town, again about 25 kms. The fare to reach Lalibela was 70 Birr (Rs 210) per person on a 9-seater Hyundai H1. I had a nice room in a hotel with a garden courtyard and view of the mountains. Lalibela is 8600 feet (2630 metres) high in the Ethiopian
highlands. I met the German internet couple from Bahir Dar and Gondar – the German girl was sunning herself in the hotel courtyard wearing a string bikini top. Apparently their Simien Mountain trek had turned into a disaster. They had paid a guy an advance of US$500 who vanished with their money. So they decided to drop the trekking idea and flew to Lalibela. A Canadian girl from Vancouver told me that there was a restaurant in Lalibela with an Indian item on the menu. I decided to go check it out and was pleasantly surprised to see it on the menu. Since I had not had any Indian food for quite a few days, I decided to order the “Indian Chicken Biryani”. The portions were American, the spices were Ethiopian but the rice was Indian Basmati.
Lalibela is known for its rock hewn churches. The churches were excavated from monolithic rock not constructed. It is an astounding sight to say the least. Apparently they are similar in sight to Petra, Jordan though I have never been to Jordan. There are 11 churches spread over a small area. The churches are interconnected through steep steps and narrow dark tunnels.
Carrying a torch is a good idea. According to legend, humans worked during the mornings and in the night angels continued the work, so the churches got completed in record time. It is worthwhile taking a guide so that you don’t get lost in the tunnels. One of the tunnels apparently represents the path to hell. My guide was superstitious and refused to enter it. So we clambered over rocks and went in a roundabout route to the next church. There are Hindu swastika signs in some of the churches. There is no explanation as to how Hindu swastika
signs came to be present in 11th Century Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia. I asked the guide a lot of questions and then the guide asked me a question that stumped me “Orthodox Christian churches are present in five countries of the world – Ethiopia, Egypt, Greece, Armenia and India. Where in India are the Orthodox Christian churches?” . I made an intelligent guess and answered, “Kerala”. Later that evening I did an internet search and found that my answer was indeed right. A Mass was going on in one of the churches. White robed Ethiopian priests carrying candles or incense were chanting hymns.
There is a small museum near the entrance to the churches. You can see thousand year old Amharic bibles written in goat skin. Similar ancient goat skin bibles and religious books can also be seen in the monasteries of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar.
Bet Madhane Alem (Saviour of the World) is the largest rock hewn church in the world. A Belgian tourist was recently arrested for trying to steal the 7 kg gold cross from the church. Since then the cross is kept under lock and key and displayed to the public only on special days such as the Orthodox Christmas and Orthodox Easter.
Bet Giyorgis (Place of George) is the master piece of Ethiopia. It is a church that is excavated from monolithic rock and stands alone from the other group of 11 churches. There is a huge cross emblazoned on the top. The story is that St George was upset that none of the churches were dedicated to him. So King Lalibela decided to construct the finest church in honour of St George. The guide will point out the hoof prints left behind by the horse of St George.
It was time to fly back to Addis to catch my flight back to India. There are buses to Addis, but it is a two day journey. So I decided to save my back and fly back to Addis. Lalibela airport is also very neat and tidy like the airport in Gondar. I saw an Indian American girl travelling with her
Japanese American boyfriend. She studiously ignored me. There was a South Korean girl travelling solo on a whirl wind trip of Seoul-Addis-Bahir Dar-Gondar-Axum-Lalibela-Addis-Seoul. All in six days! I saw a couple of Cessna 172s land and take-off. It was again a Bombardier Q400 aircraft with free seating that left ahead of schedule.
No trip to Ethiopia is complete without having tej – the local Ethiopian honey wine. It comes in different levels of potency – mild, medium and strong. I had the medium tej. The alcohol content was quite high and it hit me quite hard! The bar-maid suggested that I have a Nyala cigarette with it. Nyala seems to be the only Ethiopian brand cigarette. It is a king size cigarette, the tobacco was strong and it tasted like Charms. As someone famously said, “If you can’t get a cognac and cigar, have a tej and Nyala!”. A Nyala cigarette costs 75 Ethiopian cents (Rs 2.25). Marlboro, Marlboro Lights and Rothmans are available for 2 Birr (Rs 6) each.
In Addis I went to a supermarket and took a walk. I did not find any skin whitening creams in any of the shelves. Ethiopia is a country where people are proud of their natural colour. It is not a racist society like India. I found a nice bar on the top floor of a building with an excellent view. You can have a drink and watch planes take-off and land in Addis Ababa airport. I then walked to an Indian restaurant as I was starved of Indian food. The TV was playing a Bollywood movie dubbed in American English. A group of three Indians, speaking in Kannada, were discussing how to get Indian TV channels in their houses in Addis. I ordered a Vegetarian Thali – my first
vegetarian meal since leaving India. The tandoori rotis were khaddak, just the way I like it. The bar man, an Indian Ethiopian who spoke English with an Ethiopian accent, recommended a Bloody Mary made with authentic Russian vodka to go with the thali. A spicy drink goes well with a spicy meal. In addition to standard North Indian fare, the restaurant also serves Idlis, Vadas, a range of Dosas and Uthappams. A Masala Dosa will set you back 80 Birr (Rs 240). There are a lot of rich Indians in Addis. I saw quite a few Mercedes’ parked in front of the restaurant. In fact I saw more Mercedes’ on the roads of Addis than in Bangalore.
I had breakfast and departed for the airport. A standard Western breakfast of juice, eggs, toast and espresso is very widely available throughout Ethiopia. I still had 2800 Birr (Rs 8400) that I wanted to convert to US dollars. Ethiopian Birrs are useless outside Ethiopia. There is a serious
foreign exchange shortage in Ethiopia and the bank in the departure hall said they did not have any foreign exchange. They asked me to try the bank after immigration. Luckily the other bank had foreign exchange. They did not have any US dollars but had Euros which I gladly accepted. I met another Indian in the airport. He was working for the United Nations in Addis and was travelling to Luanda, Angola on work. My Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis to Dubai was delayed by 3 hours. But I had a layover of 5 hours in Dubai, so I was safe.
When I landed in Chennai, the aerobridge looked dilapidated, the rubber matting was dirty and torn and the airport looked very run down compared to Addis and Dubai airports. As soon as I stepped outside the airport I saw empty Lay’s chips packets, discarded paper cups, empty Aquafina bottles and other litter. The ancient Ambassador taxi without any shock absorbers bounced over pot holes and the driver honked all the way through to home even though it was 3:15am in the night. I was back in insane India.