Ethiopia has always been a source of vague curiosity to me, but never really my “top ten” list of places I desperately want to visit… All that changed when I saw TV show a few years ago featuring Joanna Lumley. Entitled “Joanna Lumley’s Nile“, this show had her following the River Nile from Egypt through to, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda.
In the particular episode that I watched, Joanna was in Ethiopia exploring some funky monasteries in the bush and the bathing at source of the Blue Nile. It was then that I thought to myself “Ah, this place I must go!”. I made a half-hearted declaration to my mum about my pipe-dream travel intentions. I’ve been known to take an interest in strange things, so she thought it was another one of those moments. I also concurred – it wasn’t exactly part of my 5-year strategic life plan… But over the past 4 years, none of crazy adventures have been part of my 5 year plan. I’m just stoked that I’ve had the opportunity to go!
My adventure last weekend started at the airport in Nairobi and almost ended there. As well as some slight immigration issues, things got even more eventful. My flight diverted to Djibouti because of bad weather in Addis.
By the time I eventually arrived in Addis, it was 4 hours later than anticipated. Understandably, the driver from the guesthouse I had booked at, gave up on me ever arriving had went home to bed.
I eventually found a taxi to take me to the guesthouse and got some rest. By the time I felt a little more coherent, it was early afternoon. Armed with my trusty Bradt Guide (which I have since given away), I decided to explore a little bit of Addis Ababa and also book my tickets for Northern Ethiopia. As a seasoned matatu user in Nairobi, I was determined to use the Ethiopian equivalent and not be like those “other” tourists. But who was I kidding, seriously? My lack of Amharic and the general lack of English was a serious hindrance. I approached some university students on the directions to the Hilton and they told me take a taxi. Ah well. At least I had good intentions. I quickly got over my snobbery and used taxis for the rest of the day. I’m glad I did, because the drivers were like my history / culture teachers.
After purchasing my tickets for Bahar Dar, I wandered around, grabbed some food and hung out at a Kidus Estifanos (Church of St Stephen). The Bradt Guide said it was good place to go. Unfortunately, it was under renovations, so I couldn’t go outside. But I sat in a shelter outside the church, chatted to God for a bit and attempted to meditate. The meditation didn’t really happen. I just people-watched for a while. Folks different ages and walks of life chilling, praying, daydreaming…
I also stopped off at the memorial museum to the victims of the Derg regime. It was a disturbing, yet interesting insight into Ethiopia’s recent history. So many families lost their loved ones during this era (1970s – 1991). What human beings do to one another.
Later that evening I was picked up by some friends – who are relatives of my Kenyan work mate here in Nairobi. They’ve been living in Addis for 2 years working with UNICEF. We had dinner at Yod Abyssinia. Everyone country has one of these – a cultural experience restaurant. It was fun, traditional music and dance, while you eat traditional cuisine.
The next day I headed to Bahar Dar – a small town approximately 578 km northwest of Addis that sits on the southern shore of Lake Tana. Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake is home to the famous lakeside and island monasteries and for being the source of the Blue Nile.
I spent a couple of days there, doing a guided tour of the lakeside and island monasteries, visiting the Blue Nile Falls and eating copious amounts of Injera. Good times!
The first monastery that we visited, Debre Maryam was epic – we had stumbled into a festival and found hundreds of worshippers inside, outside and around the church. We stuck out like sore thumbs, but the people didn’t seem to mind tourists trooping in and out of their worship space. In fact, some offered to take my picture for me. 🙂 When planning my trip, I had visions in my head of being all contemplative and silent. Well, that didn’t happen at all. But I was enthralled by the beautiful Biblical-inspired artwork. It was originally composed in xyz but redone again in xyz. I found it refreshing to see depictions of Jesus and other Biblical characters looking somewhat Middle Eastern as opposed to the countless Aryan/Anglo-Saxon depictions that we are assaulted with regularly. These annoy me no end, and I’m prone to rant about this from time to time.
We also visited the mouth of the Nile, where I saw WAY more hippos than I saw in Naivasha. Happy day.
Unfortunately my camera battery went pakaru on Monday – the day we visited the Blue Nile falls. The falls were not blue at all, but still very imposing. To reach the viewing point, you walk through a village that is literally up a hill. As we huffed and puffed our way up, children followed us, beckoning us to buy their trinkets. “Maybe when you come down you buy from me ok? Don’t forget me, I won’t forget you.” I felt bad saying no, but my main concern was to reach the top without dying along the way, not buying a basket.
On Monday afternoon, I flew back to Addis and spent the night at with my friends. Before my flight back to Nairobi the next afternoon, I had breakfast with my cousin’s friend. He had moved to Ethiopia from London, working in Agricultural development. We had an interesting conversation about economics, development and human rights.
My weekend was a lot more energetic than I envisaged. I expected that because I was travelling alone, I would have lots of solitary space to think and be still. For an extrovert who barely sits still for 5 minutes, this is a tad impossible. Instead, I managed to make friends along the way.
I like Ethiopia – at least the parts I’ve experienced. The comparatively orderly traffic of Addis is endearing. The food is tasty and yes the people are very beautiful (however, I have my views on this and those of you who know me, will know where I’m heading). I’m also enamoured by the diversity of the country – culturally, historically and even the natural terrain.
At the same time, the poverty I witnessed is stark and alarming. At one point I was swarmed by 5 different groups of people begging. The inefficiencies (such as plumbing!!) are a tad bizarre. A few such things I must hold in tension with the things I like about Ethiopia. Although it was a brief encounter, I’m glad that I went and hope to visit again at some point for a bit longer.
Finally, whilst I did enjoy myself, I cannot forget those in the Southeast (as well as North East of Kenya and parts of Somalia) who are suffering because of drought and famine. The uncomfortable dichotomy of abundance and affliction in the real world never sleeps.