Ethiopia – A World of its Own
The first thing you notice in Ethiopia is the time. It’s different to the time in the rest of the world. Startlingly logical, 1 o’clock means one hour of sunshine (or darkness) so when an Ethiopian says 1 o’clock, they actually mean 7am or 7pm. As you can imagine, you always need to check whether the time you’ve been given is Ethiopian time or Faranji (foreigner) time – or you’ll miss your bus. Even better, Ethiopia uses its own unique calendar – the upshot of which is that it is only 2005 in Ethiopia. Finding out we (my friend Anna flew in to join me for a month) were eight years younger was a great start to the trip!
If you’re getting the impression that Ethiopia is a unique kind of place, then you’d be right. I had thought it would be a mix between Africa and the Middle East but it’s neither. As one of only two African countries never colonized (although a 5 year Italian occupation left a culture of spaghetti), and home to 91 million people and 90 different languages, it’s big enough to have its own very distinctive cultural identity. With the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa, it’s a fascinating place to visit. And, to my delight (I love scripts), their written script (language = Amharic) looks like people dancing.
We jumped head-first into exploring the culture when Anna, just hours off the plane, chatted up some locals on the street and we found ourselves whisked away to backstreet restaurants and bars. Ethiopian food is delicious and, luckily for vegetarian me, the country was just beginning to observe “fasting” for Lent – a 55 day period when all Orthodox Christians are vegan. So shiro – a chickpea gravy –and the ever present injera – a flat spongy pancake-like bread used to scoop up the other food – was our first meal and became our standard for the rest of the trip. Ceremony surrounds every meal – from the jug and water to watch your hands beforehand (you always eat with your hands) to a three cup coffee ceremony (Ethiopian coffee is considered some of the best in the world) at the end. Even the dingiest of shack restaurants has a special coffee area with someone employed just to tend to this important duty.
That first day also saw us introduced to “tej” – a honey wine – and “qat” – a green leaf that, when chewed continuously, acts as a mild narcotic. While we never got a buzz, it is addictive enough that it causes huge social problems in eastern Ethiopia and the Somalian regions as legions of men basically sit around stoned all afternoon. Finishing off our day, we tried the local beer and engaged in some “shoulder dancing”. This involves energetic movements of the shoulders in all directions while keeping the rest of your body relatively still. It’s incredibly entertaining when watching someone do it well! (Check out seconds 15-50 of this YT clip). Even stranger, this is often done by young men wearing large white buttons sewn all over their clothing. We’re not sure why. Although it soon became clear that the Ethiopians do have a thing about shoulders…it is also traditional to touch right shoulder to right shoulder as you shake hands.
Soon it was off to explore the famed Historical Circuit in northern Ethiopia. Orthodox Christianity is at the very core of society here – in fact I have never seen a more devout Christian country – and throngs of white-veiled worshippers surrounding a church is one of my most enduring images of the whole country. Not to mention the cacophony of microphone chanting at 5am on a Sunday morning as the priests attempt to outdo each other in their sermons (4 hour marathons conducted in an ancient language only they can understand). The most sacred and famous churches are the extraordinary, 11th century rock-hewn creations of Lalibela, impossibly carved out of solid stone mass. Spending a day here as the elderly come to be blessed by yellow-frocked priests and young priests learn from their elders was a wonderfully atmospheric experience. As was the need to navigate our way from church to church through pitch black stone tunnels!
But perhaps our favorite church experience was at Gheralta. With a red rock landscape reminiscent of Arizona or Utah, many of the churches are tunneled caves secreted high on towering rock spires and tended by monks who have lived there for over 60 years. While they are full of well preserved religious paintings, the real attraction is the somewhat precarious climbing involved in getting there. Let’s just say that some basic rock climbing up a sheer cliff and then a shuffle along a 3 foot wide ledge with a precipitous 200m drop over the side were required. Luckily the soaring views made it all worthwhile. And I’m still upset that women weren’t allowed to visit the monastery that involved pulling yourself up a sheer 15m cliff on a tatty plaited leather rope.
Not all our church experiences were so inspiring though – in fact, one priest attempted to have us arrested! Travelling with our new friends Virginie (Belgian), Yann (French) and Igal (Israeli) we visited one small church for five minutes and were then charged an exorbitant entry fee by the priest. Led by our fearless philosopher Igal, we refused to pay and tried to negotiate. The priest declined and, jumping in our car, ordered our driver to take us to the local police station where we were quickly handed over to the public prosecutor. Much animated discussion ensued (none of which we could understand). We increased our offer but the priest was intent on having us arrested and not interested in bargaining. Finally persuaded that he could not have us placed in custody (a civil case without a contract), the priest departed with a disgusted flourish and we were free to go. Although confident in our rights, we all felt a little nervous about a legal argument with a man of the cloth and tipped generously for the next priest who was much nicer!
Looking to break up the religious and cultural focus, we also headed to the wild – with some spectacular multi-day altitude trekking in the Simien mountains, an area full of soaring escarpment, gaping canyons and sheer rock walls falling into valleys (1.7km is the longest cliff drop). It is also an area full of baboons and having hundreds of baboons stream right past you as they run and tumble down a mountainside was quite an experience. Baboons weren’t our only close-up wildlife encounter. A visit to the walled Muslim city of Harar put us in hyena territory and we spent Anna’s last night in the country feeding a pack of hyenas strips of meat from a very short stick. Hyenas are incredibly powerful animals with gnashing teeth so it was no small feat to stand so close to them and have them lunge at us as they grabbed the meat.
Perhaps our most surreal wilderness experience came in the Danakil Depression, considered the hottest place on earth and, without a doubt, the most desolate and other-worldly place I have ever experienced. Stony inhospitable desert gives way to brightly colored sulphur creations which gives way to bizarre salt formations and finally a moon-like lava surface. In scenes reminiscent of the dark ages, men toil away hacking blocks of salt from the crusty ground and then load them onto hundreds of camels who form a camel train and spend a week each way walking to and from the nearest city with their precious cargo. The desert is dotted with Afar nomad villages whose inhabitants somehow eke a living in the swirling dust (driving in the desert was like going through an automatic car wash made of dust). We slept on mattresses under the stars and would wake at unearthly hours of the morning to the sensation of having a huge hair dryer pointed at us on the hot setting.
The highlight of the Danakil, after hours spent bumping over bleak, black lava fields was the Irta’ale volcano, one of only five in the world to have a permanent lava lake in the crater. The locals believe the lake represents hell and watching the fiery red lava bubble, erupt and crash powerfully on itself, it’s easy to understand why. Power and Fury are the words that come to mind – yet extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing. We hiked to the crater through the night, an experience in itself as we stumbled over the uneven lava in the dark and tried to keep up with the armed military guards surrounding us. Anna decided this wasn’t exciting enough and added sickness to the mix. However, she discovered that being the damsel in distress has its advantages as Igal (our good looking Israeli friend) held her hand the whole way and essentially pulled her all the way up the mountain! Heading back out of the desert a couple of days later, Igal once again proved a hero to the rescue as our jeep drivers (six of them) didn’t seem to understand the concept of traveling in convoy and our car ended up lost in the desert. Once we were found again, Igal quickly ordered the drivers into precise driving formation and we managed to make it back to civilization without further ado (well much of it anyway).
Ethiopia was so much more than described here – lake-side monasteries at Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, 15th century castles at Gondar, ancient stellae fields and the alleged home of the Ark of the Covenant (and the Queen of Sheba) in Axum, impressive community-managed trekking in the highlands of Lalibela, taxi driver negotiating in Addis Ababa and even some time pool-side at some lovely resorts – but I hope you get the idea. It is an absolutely fascinating and diverse country with tons to see and I highly recommend it as a destination for both intrepid travellers and those who like their holidays a little more sedate.
A sad goodbye to Anna (thanks for being such a great travel companion) but hello to Amee as we head off to explore the Omo Valley – another (even more different) part of Ethiopia. More from there soon.
Click on any photo to launch a slideshow of the images…