WARNING: This is a likely to sound like a very strange trip report, at times.
First of all, I had never previously visited Africa, so I was quite “green”; those with extensive experience will have to excuse my clueless errors.
Secondly, it wasn’t mainly a vacation. I spent a month as a volunteer at a charity school in Nazret (aka Adama). Short explanation: I am a retired English teacher/school principal. Ethiopia requires all students to begin learning English in elementary school, and high school exams are given in English. However, the rapid expansion in the education system has resulted in a shortage of qualified teachers, and even those technically qualified often lack verbal fluency. Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, so that just running a functional school system is a challenge. Hence the need for volunteers.
Obviously, I saw a good deal of ordinary Ethiopian life while in Nazret, and at the end of the month, I spent 9 days travelling in the northern half of the country. Those final experiences form the basis of this report, not my teaching experience, since I assume possible readers (if any!) will be planning a vacation to Ethiopia.
OVERVIEW: I spent 3 ½ days total in the capital, Addis Ababa. I flew to Lalibela and spent 2 nights, flew onward to Gondar for 2 nights, travelled by road to Bahir Dar for 2 nights, then flew back to Addis.
PRACTICAL DETAILS: PLANNING & ACCOMMODATION
First, my guidebook was the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia, 6th ed. It was very helpful. While the maps weren’t perfect, I really can’t imagine going out alone in Addis, or even Bahir Dar, without them. I saw about 5 street signs in Addis; none elsewhere. Bradt’s maps show “landmarks”, in the form of gas stations, hotels, hospitals, which make it usually possible to orient yourself. And if you think you can just get a taxi....read on.
My touring was done in mid-April, which is the latter part of the dry season, and a low season for tourism. Most hotels had only a few guests, and last-minute plane reservations were easy. There was occasional rain—apparently these are the “little rains”. They were generally quite heavy, with frequent thunder, but only lasted a couple of hours, and only a couple of times a week.
In Addis Ababa, I stayed at the Addis Regency, chosen from TripAdvisor and Bradt. It was clean, comfortable (best bed I had), and the staff was very helpful. An actual shower stall, and good wifi. One downside: it is not in a hotel area (though not remote; I walked to the Ethnographic Museum) and a random taxi will not be able to find it. However, they have an airport shuttle, and taxis called from the hotel can obviously find it again. Cost U.S. $75/night, with breakfast, which was tasty.
The remainder of my hotels were booked as a package through Ethiopia Travel and Tours, by far the cheapest of the 10 agencies I contacted for quotes. This was not a 5-star operation, but the hotels were some of the same ones offered by agencies charging more than twice the price. There are a limited number of western-style hotels outside of the capital, and the star rating does not conform to western expectations. But before I sound whiny, I will note that the prices were not western either: the Bradt Guide lists these three hotels as between US $40-70 U.S. per night. Having said that, in Nazret I stayed in a very clean local guesthouse, with a satisfactory bed, wet-room private bath, TV and wifi, for $11 US per night. No breakfast, but laundry service available.
In Lalibela, I stayed at the Roha, at the edge of town This is one of the larger hotels, with an extensive garden, but very worn, and far below its claimed standards. There was no water—just a bucket to flush the toilet—for half the time I was there. This was apparently because of roadwork being done in the town, but that wouldn’t explain the layer of dust, the immoveable window (fortunately stuck open), and the lumpy,saggy bed. The food was edible, but better at the Lal or the Tukal down the road.
In Gondar, I stayed at the Florida International. It’s outside the centre, so you can’t walk to any sights, although the location between the university and a technical college ensures the streets are busy and safe. Positively, it’s fairly new, all the fixtures work and the bed is ok (hard European, which fortunately I don’t mind). It has a large pool, a massage facility, and a decent restaurant, but spotty wifi.
In Bahir Dar, I stayed at the Summerland. It’s apparently only about 10 years old (the style is much older), my 3rd floor section had no elevator, and the bath was a “wet room” style. The power went out for several hours one night; there was a generator for lights in the lobby, but only a candle at the top of my stairwell, so don’t forget your flashlight! The bed was sagging and there was no wifi. However, front rooms have a balcony or terrace, and the hotel is on the lakeside road, near to restaurants, lakeside strolls, and the main business street. The Lakeshore Resort (across the street and down the path) has lovely views and good food. The Kiriftu Resort further west along the lakeshore has an elegant dining room, but makes no use of its location for restaurant views; also it’s twice the price of the Lakeshore.
The tour company, ETT, booked airport transfers and the transfer from Gondar to Bahir Dar, which is a 3-hour drive, and arranged local guides in all three places.
Wow! I really appreciated having a hotel on a quiet side street, since Addis is pretty much a full-bore experience. The traffic is the main challenge to any attempt to travel independently. There are no street signs, there are only a few stoplights/stop signs, and most parts of the city centre are cut through by major construction projects: a commuter railway, a railway, and a ring road. These will undoubtedly be much-needed infrastructure, but at the moment, they mean that there's frequent gridlock and any major intersection may be uncrossable by car, and involve a trek around unmarked cobbled lanes for a pedestrian. The blue and white taxis are usually 20+ years old, and the driver may not speak any English. You will pay a foreigner (faranji) rate, unless you are a much more skilled negotiator than I, since even a local helping with instructions didn’t get the rate down to what he considered normal. The yellow taxis are much newer (my hotel called one for me when I wanted to find a telecom office and a person who could translate there), often have English-speaking drivers, and are more expensive. However, even “more expensive” is still reasonable--$14 for a 3 km trip, and return journey 2 hours later.
The National Museum is a terrific value: only 10 Birr (0.60), with English labels on most cases, and English-speaking guides available. Of course, everyone comes here to see Lucy—and you can’t. She’s only a replica, unless you are an accredited anthropologist and can visit the back rooms. Still, it was a fascinating exhibit; I had no idea she was so small, or that there were such enormous time gaps between the various Australopithecus afarensis remains that have been found in the Rift Valley. I guess I had the foolish idea that such life forms were only around for short time, because they were just the lead-up to the real show: US! Foolish, and I didn’t even realize I had thought that, until the guide started saying “this one 2.3 million years old”, and “this one, 3.4 million years old”.
The museum also has displays of traditional Ethiopian life (burial markers, clothing, furniture), traditional and some modern art, and (bizarrely circling the video loop explaining anthropological research in the Great Rift Valley) regalia of the last emperors of Ethiopia.
The Ethnographic Museum is on the grounds of Addis Ababa University. (The map will send you in from the main entrance, north of Siddist Kilo intersection; you can also enter from the side gate off what the map lists as Weatherall Street) The university has the leafy, buzzing ambiance common to universities ; the museum is a former royal palace, and is signed as the Institute for Ethiopian Studies. Go upstairs for the museum. It has a split personality: one section has a series of displays illustrating the culture of various ethnic groups, and traditional lifestyles; the other displays the bedrooms and bathrooms of the last emperor. Oh, and there’s a stuffed lion—one of a group that used to accompany the emperor—at the museum door. It’s 10x the price of the National Museum, and probably half as well laid out and interpreted.
Churches: I “picked up” a guide (they are all over the area) in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral. It was Holy Week, so I really wanted a guide to ensure I didn’t do anything offensive, since all the churches had services/people praying constantly. I had brought a scarf to cover my head, and you also need to remove your shoes.
The Cathedral is probably the least interesting of the churches clustered in the area: a late-19th c. stone building, orthodox in both senses of the word. You see the thrones and tombs of Haile Selassie, who was eventually reburied here after his death in captivity under the Communist Derg regime. There are an interesting variety of tombs around the courtyard, from victims of the Italian invasion, to victims of the Derg regime, to an unfortunate Ethiopian who died on one of the 9-11 planes. Further down the hill to the south, Kidane Mihret is a more traditional round wooden church, with traditional Ethiopian paintings inside. Kiddist Mariam is a square stone church, rather unlike anything else I had seen in Ethiopia (I was vaguely reminded of the synagogue in Rome). The dome has paintings of the traditional Queen of Sheba scene (she is believed to be the progenitor of an Ethiopian dynasty), and of Menelik’s (I think) coronation. The big surprise, for me, came when the guide went and got one of the deacons, moved people off one of the carpets, rolled back the carpet, and lifted a heavy metal hatch that covered the steps down to Menelik’s mausoleum. I knew Menelik was buried there, but I didn’t expect that! The tombs are quite large, but not as impressive as the production of viewing them.
There is a 100 Birr charge for the Cathedral, and 50 Birr for the tomb. You need to be careful with photographs, not as I expected because of offending worshippers, but because the Parliament and the President’s Palace run beside these churches, and photographs are strictly forbidden there—and enforced by men with machine guns. I didn’t attempt to dispute this ruling!
City Walks: It’s not really a very walkable city. It’s quite spread out, there are basically no street signs (a problem exacerbated by the construction), and of course most Ethiopian houses are surrounded by high walls. However, I did walk from Haile Gebre Selassie Street, near the Axum Hotel, to the Mehane Alem Cathedral off Bole Road (neither of these locations is a “sight”, merely the limits of my stroll), an area with plenty of shops/restaurants/hotels. I also went from the Ethnographic Museum south past Siddist Kilo (my map says Yekirik 12 Square, but this is another name unfamiliar to many locals). Siddist Kilo was about 1 km from my hotel, but 7 separate taxis failed to recognize the hotel name. And the small map on the keycard was useful only to me, as almost no one I encountered could read a map.
From the National Museum (which has a Lucy Cafe just north of the main gate) if you stroll south, there are sidewalk stalls with some possible souvenirs (honey wine!), the residence of the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which you can’t miss, since the gateposts are surmounted by 2 m white doves), and a variety of restaurants and cafes (I found the Papyrus Cafe good for a snack). At St. Mary’s Church I went west, thinking to see the traditional Armenian houses marked on my map. However, the combination of no signage and high walls everywhere left me baffled. I went (I think) along Yohannis/Johannes St. until I reached Weatherall St. and the roundabout which circles the unfinished blue & white striped mosque, the nearest major intersection to my hotel.
Another day I went from the Hilton Hotel down past the U.N. Building (Africa Hall on Bradt map, but I couldn’t find anyone who recognized it by that name), St. Stephen’s Church (walk up to look at the very graphic stoning of Stephen mosaic over the door), Meskal Square (insane traffic and Ras Mekkonen St. is more construction), and hoped to circle back by Yohannes Street, but was defeated by more construction, and no one able to understand my questions about directions (a community policing station officer assured me he could speak English, but he had never heard of Africa Hall, the U.N. building, the Hilton Hotel, or ...Meskal Square, which I had walked through 30 minutes previously). So I gave up and found a taxi “rank”,”—it’s not hard to find taxi drivers who can find the Hilton.
It’s about 30 minutes drive from the airport to the town,or village, of Lalibela, basically going up a mountain, on a very scenic route past farms and a few homes. I met with my local guide (Mesele) on arrival, and arranged the plan for my 2-day stay. After lunch, we met to see the NW group of rock churches. The church here charges US $50 (an incredible price compared to other sights in Ethiopia, and apparently the same even for those who don’t go to all of them) for the entry, and there is a small museum in the new visitors’ centre. But I wouldn’t hesitate, because these huge (the largest is 30 m high) 12th c. buildings, carved out of the solid hillside, are incredible and unique. My guide was also a deacon in one of the churches, so he had a thorough inside knowledge, and it was fascinating to hear the stories of the symbolism of the various windows, doors, and passageways. The NW group contains the largest church, and the one most heavily decorated inside(St. Mary’s, or Bet Maryam). There were a handful of other tourists going through, but we were notably outnumbered by locals/domestic pilgrims. Walking through town afterwards gave an overview of daily life: cattle stabled by the house’s doorway, a weaver working in his yard, and spectacular views down to the valley. The next day I arose early, since it was Lent, there was not only a morning mass but also priests and deacons chanting in the courtyards. It was fascinating to see the young boys participating in the chanting, while old women came up to prostrate themselves by the church door.
The second group of churches are more varied. Some are caves, or partially separated from the surrounding rock. One may have been a stable or a house previous to the 12th c. You cross a small (stagnant, in this dry season) stream called the Jordan River (King Lalibela was supposedly inspired by a visit to Jerusalem, when he initiated the building frenzy that created these marvels). Then you walk through the 40 m pitch-black tunnel which represents the movement from hell to heaven. If you have a guide, he’s familiar with the way and will hold your hand. Otherwise, I would seriously suggest crawling! Oh, and did I mention the mummified remains of Syrian missionaries, who were the original Christians in Ethiopia? These are in tiny caves carved out around the courtyard of some of the churches. Some of the caves are empty; others are still used by monks or priests as retreats. So the expression “once-in-a-lifetime experience” definitely applies here.
After breakfast I went for a walk. Yes, as the guidebook warns, there are people trying to strike up a conversation with you, ( it happened even when the guide was present, although he would discourage the persistent ones), but most of them are fairly low-key. The souvenir shops have some good deals, I think, if you have the time/patience/knack for bargaining. And you can really see local life; unlike larger towns, there are few houses surrounded by walls, and more of a rural atmosphere, with chickens everywhere and sheep disappearing up a tiny alley between houses.
In the afternoon I visited the final rock church; St. George is the cruciform building you see when you Google “Lalibela rock churches”. It is quite amazing, and has a pleasant setting by itself, on a hillside which looks over the valley and the tiny River Jordan.
Or Gonder or Gondor—I saw all three used in the town-- transliteration of Amharic pronunciation is obviously uncertain. The drive from the airport into town was only 20 minutes, through a few fields and a scattering of agricultural factories (flour mills, oil seeds). Public transport to these factories must be limited, since a pickup truck that stopped promptly had its box filled with about 20 people, and our van was constantly being hailed.
The local guide (he said to call him Charley, and I have neglected to note his actual name) was excellent. The main city attraction is the Royal Enclosure, built by a series of 17th and 18th c. emperors who made it their capital. There are 6 castles (built by successive emperors/empresses), a wall and the remains of a bridge, a sauna (!—in this climate!), stables, a concert hall, the remains of a prison, and undoubtedly something I forgot to note. The interiors are mostly just ruins, although the ceilings and floors remain in the oldest and largest. Although large and crenellated, the stone buildings seem more palaces than fortresses. There are apparently descriptions of the interior by Portuguese and French contemporary visitors, which I must see if I can track down somewhere. My guide recounted the episodes of religious infighting (Catholic-influenced kings vs local Orthodox clergy, mainly) which resulted in some changes of government, until I became mesmerized by the names. Included in the ticket to the Royal Enclosure is Fasilidas’ pool, across town, which consists of a small building (not open to the public) attributed to the 17th c. emperor who began the castle-building in the Royal Enclosure. It stands at the end of a small bridge, marooned in the centre of a large stone pool. The inflow pipe which formerly filled it from the river is visible; today it is filled yearly at Epiphany, for what must be a memorable festival when the citizens dress in traditional clothes, the local bishop blesses the water, and, according to my guide, everyone jumps into the water! The banyan trees climbing over the walls around the empty pool give a rather eerie effect, and there is a small building which Bradt says is a chicken house or sweating lodge, but which my guide called a mausoleum. Just outside the grounds there is a large paved area backed by bleachers, which I was told was built by the Derg dictatorship in the 1980s, to provide a location for harangues by Communist politicians. It is still used during political campaigns, presumably now with a more persuasive tone.
Finally, the other noted sight in Gondar is the 18th c. church of Debre Birhan Selassie (its exact date is apparently uncertain because it was rebuilt after a fire). The exterior is attractive (although the vultures hanging about in the surrounding trees are a bit off-putting), but the draw is the totally painted interior, especially the ceiling of cherubs’ heads. I was quite a while inside, as it’s very dim, and only once your eyes adjust can you see the saints, and martyrs, and the devil collecting sinners.
I should mention that one of my favourite things about Gondar was its “airy” feel, a combination of its high elevation, relative lack of pollution, and uncongested roads. The centre shopping area is the Piazza and it’s a pleasant-looking wide, uncluttered street (with an Italian name; the Ethiopians pushed out the Italian invasion as fast as possible, but they sensibly kept the pasta, the pizza, and apparently some of the names. Seriously, even local restaurants sell some kind of pasta with spicy tomato sauce, and even impoverished schoolchildren will bring it for lunch as a switch from injera. And pizza is available quite often; I ate it at a local Muslim “pizza and grill” in Nazret.)
From Gondar I took a day trip to Simien Mountains National Park. Unfortunately, a mixup with the driver delayed my start to the 1 1/2 hour drive, so I only had a couple of hours walk inside the park. However, the scenery is wonderful, fully deserving the name of “Roof of Africa”. Even in a couple of hours, I did see the endemic Gelada baboons (their little red “shirtfronts” make them quite photogenic). I was more amazed to see the women and children selling woven baskets by the side of the path, since they must walk for miles each day on the chance of a sale to the tourists, relatively scarce in this season. The park rules mean you must take a “scout” to direct your path and locate wildlife(mine was a charming young woman who spoke excellent English, the only female I saw in such a role in Ethiopia) and a guard (who made me quite nervous, since someone following 1m behind me with a gun doesn’t really make me happy—and on a day trip danger from animals or robbers is highly unlikely). On the return trip I stopped in the signposted Falasha village, but the guidebook warnings seem correct; this is an impoverished village from whom most of the native Jews left for Israel in the 1990s.
I travelled here road from Gondar. It’s an interesting drive, if you like to see farmland, village markets, and goatherds heading down the roadside. There’s a monadnock (isolated rock formation) which is obviously a standard “photo op”; the driver mentioned a monastery there but I couldn’t clarify if it existed in the present or past.
Bahir Dar is at a lower elevation than most of the cities in Northern Ethiopia, beside the country’s largest lake, and has an immediately tropical feel, with warmer temperatures and a lakeside boulevard lined with palm trees. There is a lakeside walkway that begins beside the Amhara Development Association (a peculiarly Moorish-looking building) and goes for well over a km, and the birds, the reeds, and the local cafes make this an irresistible stroll. I arrived on Saturday, which is market day, so I walked south down the main street to the market. It is very busy, crowded, and interesting, although it produced some of the most persistent nuisance beggars I encountered anywhere—a couple of teenagers followed me four blocks, sticking their hands under my chin repeatedly.
I took a group tour to a couple of the Zege Peninsula monasteries (it left from the dock at the Ghion Hotel on the lakeshore road). We went to the Kidane Mihret church(where a funeral was in preparation, and local mourners were chanting in the veranda which surrounds the round church), then a second monastery which I foolishly forgot to note the name of (because I thought it would be found in my guidebook—wrong!). The tour included a guide in each church, and our varied (German, Ethiopian, English, American & Canadian) group was taken aback when the “popular” painting in both monasteries turned out to be a grisly depiction of a man who had been forced by three devils to cannibalize his family, then was saved by the intervention of St. Mary. Then a young Ethiopian couple (honeymooners?—they certainly wanted pictures of them together in every location, haha) convinced the captain to go to another monastery. Entos Eyesu is apparently what we would call a convent, a women’s monastery, with incongruous yellow metal doors enclosing the tabernacle (what would be the curtained altar in other Orthodox churches), and a tiny museum displaying a 3 m python’s skin! Sadly, although the captain went into a cove where he expected to find hippos, we only saw one, briefly, and too far away to see clearly. I wasn’t nearly as jaded as the elderly American who leaned back against the side of the boat and said, “Don’t wake me if they find hippos”! In fact, I became quite giddy at the sight of several papyrus boats, especially with a young man attempting, not too successfully, to learn to pilot one.
My next morning’s trip to the Blue Nile Falls had a varied and interesting combo of fellow travellers in the van: a middle-aged couple from the Sudan (he spoke a little English), and a trio of 20ish Israelis who were the children of Falasha (“black Jews”) who had fled the Ethiopian famine and discrimination a generation earlier. They could speak fluent Amharic, and a little English (as well as Hebrew, I assume), and were now relatively prosperous tourists in the country their parents had left as refugees. I wished their English was better so I had a chance of finding out how they felt about their trip. We drove for 45 minutes on a rough dirt road, past fields of corn and small villages before reaching the village of Tis Abey, from which the trail to the falls departs and we picked up our local guide. The Sudanese woman wore flip-flops on henna’d feet, and I wondered about her hiking to the falls in that footwear; when we reached the beginning of the trail, they decided to opt for the boat ride (which doesn’t go right up to the falls themselves). So the Israelis and I went up—up—up the hill, past the 16th c. stone bridge built by Portuguese missionaries (they sent skilled missionaries in those days—the bridge is holding up fine). There were an endless succession of vendors with weaving (mainly) for sale, and we passed several other groups of tourists. The falls are quite lovely. I wasn’t sure what I would find, as the guidebook said that the hydro-electric project had reduced the falls to a trickle. But there are apparently two hydro dams, the older one (which sucked dry the falls) now unused, and a second dam, also visible from the top of the hill, which must draw its water below the falls. I was admiring the water when the guide, and a passing German tourist, assured me that what I now saw was less than ¼ of the width during the rainy season! I thought it was marvellous, especially as the dry season meant we could easily walk down to the base of the falls. Across a (not very alarming) Swiss-built suspension bridge, where local boys play flutes and encourage you to buy them, you meet a small boat which takes you back across the river to a very rough, short track where you meet your van. A lovely half-day outing.
Everything you read about the necessity of bringing cash—is true. Nazret had a Wagagen Bank which took my foreign Plus-network ATM card (which everyone referred to as a Visa card) on both occasions I tried it. The Dashen Bank has some ATMs which take the Maestro network cards., but these are not common. However, in Addis Ababa I twice encountered days when no ATM would work for me (oh, well, I didn’t actually need to buy souvenirs, lol). And I saw no business outside of Addis Ababa which used credit cards; even in Addis only the airlines and the large foreign-oriented hotels would take them. In fact, I went in one of the shops at the Hilton to be told “network not working”. My telephone and internet experience had already shown me that the network is frequently not working. However, I was told changing U.S. cash is possible in almost any bank. I did it in Nazret, although it brought out the manager and a ream of paperwork (and Nazret is a city of 200,000).
If you eat locally, the food is fairly predictable. Injera—the national pancake-bread which is spongy, damp, and vaguely sour-tasting—is served with every meal with everything. In fact, I had a “tradtional food” platter which included injera on injera—the usual layer of injera beneath the various items, one of which was small bits of injera fried with onion and hot peppers. Shiro, a kind of spicy chickpea paste/sauce appears at most meals, especially since I was there during Lent, when Ethiopian Orthodox Christians eat no meat. So shiro was more common than wat (a kind of meat stew served over injera). However, if you dislike spicy foods, there are usually vegetables available: carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and green beans are all common. Oh, and onions. Onions with everything. In Bahir Dar the hotel even included onions with the porridge. Sadly, I had added sugar and milk before I discovered this.
If you eat "international" food in Ethiopian hotels/restaurants, be prepared for some variations from your pre-existing ideas of certain foods.
If you make any Ethiopian friends, be aware of “gursha”. I had read in the guidebook “When eating injera, a person uses his or her right hand to strip off a piece, wraps it around some wat or kitfo, and then puts it into his or her mouth. During a meal with friends or family, it is a common custom to feed others in the group with one's hand by putting the rolled injera into another's mouth. This is called a gursha,” . One day when I arrived a bit early after lunch, the school secretary took a biscuit-thingee and held it to my lips, so fortunately I knew not to jump back or look shocked. And on my final school day in Nazret, the teachers invited me to share lunch. Once lunch was well underway, and I was eating sparingly around the edges (because I unsure of how spicy it was, and didn’t want to make a giant mess since eating with my hands isn’t something I’ve learnt since childhood)... Well, you can see where this is going—I had four different people stuff me with big mouthfuls of spicy sauce/injera. Thank God it wasn’t unbearably spicy, and I did have a bottle of water with me.
IF YOU USE LOCAL TRANSPORT:
Then this story will provide both caution and reassurance. And maybe a bit of humour.
I came back from Nazret to Addis on the bus. The Nazret bus station is an unmarked wide gateway leading into a large dirt lot. There are minibuses, full size buses, crammed randomly onto the space. People are rushing everywhere. The “system” is to look for a boy yelling “Addis”, and see if he has room (a minibus doesn’t have anywhere to put a suitcase). So we find a bus. It looks like a scrapyard reject, the window is decalled with Orthodox saints, there is a fur “rug” on the ceiling, and I jam myself onto the outside of the front seat, and jam my suitcase between my outside leg and the hump between me and a driver. The hump has a cushion on it, with the leatherette coming off. After the rest of the seats are filled, a young man sits on this cushion. The driver gets on and we leave.
The “boy” (every bus, even a city minibus, has a “boy”, and some of them are boys, about 12) hauls a tiny wooden stool from behind my legs and sits at the top of the bus steps. He collects the fares, and when we are stopped by the traffic police (3 times in 2 hours) he hands them some pieces of paper which...??? I don’t know, but the traffic police let us go on. So off we go, passing donkeys, horsecarts, 18-wheelers, sometimes passing on the shoulder, sometimes turning the 2-lane road into three lanes, but more often going about 50 km/hr, since the traffic is bumper to bumper in places.
The woman sitting by the window gets off about halfway and the young man on the cushion takes her spot. He strikes up a conversation. He is a lecturer in chemical engineering at Adama University, his name is Samuel, and he chats about Canada and Ethiopia for a while.
We reach Addis Ababa. I knew that the bus station was on the outskirts of town, and I would have to get a taxi. I discover that the Addis bus station is the same, only bigger and more crowded. Dirt and rocks, and no chance of rolling my (heavy) suitcase. Samuel appoints himself my saviour. I tell him where I am going, and he says we will go into the city centre, where I can get a taxi. So we board a minibus (he manages to shove the suitcase, on end, between us on the seat) and drive for 20-30 minutes (Addis is sprawling, few highrises.). We get out. He starts asking people if they have heard of the Addis Regency (my hotel). No one has. I haul out my guidebook and its map, showing Samuel that it is north of something called Adwa Square. He relays this to the people on the bus stop. No one has a clue. He hails a couple of taxis. No clue. I get out the cell phone and call the hotel. He talks to them, but isn’t getting anywhere (I learn that he knows Addis only slightly; he has never lived there). He gives the phone to another man at the bus stop. When the conversation ends, they confer intently, look at the map, shake their heads. Ok, I’m starting to get stressed. He says that we must be heading in the wrong direction. We cross the road, and ask the people at the bus stop on the other side. Hallejujah! A woman there knows the hotel! And she says there is an Adwa Bridge and an Adwa Square, we’re at the wrong one, and apparently that’s why everyone across the street couldn’t understand the map. So now we find a taxi. This takes three tries, as when the first 2 drivers see me (although Samuel does the talking), the price immediately triples, and he sends them away in horror. Finally I have a taxi, and say goodbye to Samuel. I try to give him money for the minibus, as he is now miles out of his way, but he refuses——he was a godsend. And even when we find the nearest main road for the hotel, and see the sign “Addis Regency” pointing up the hill, the driver tries to turn into the Ayrat Pension! Finally we reach the hotel—which I consider never leaving.
Ethiopia doesn’t have a fully functioning modern tourist infrastructure. But it does have an inexpensive (quite inexpensive if you fly into the country vis Ethiopian Airlines) domestic air system, hotels in all major centres, and it's building a highway network. It does have some terrific scenery, some of the most incredible historical sights you could see anywhere, and it is changing so quickly that these words may be negated by the time you get there. Most people in the tourist industry are constantly asking for suggestions to improve, and the country is full of young people eager to see their country move forward economically. I certainly hope they succeed, and I would call it a worthwhile destination for someone willing to go off the beaten path.
And here's a link to some pictures:
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- 22 Help with Flight Option: CMN or RAK
- 23 Ethiopian Holidays You Should Not Miss
- 24 Best Wineries - 2-3 days in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch
- 25 Tentative Itinerary - what do you think?
WARNING: This is a likely to sound like a very strange trip report, at times.