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maxwell Dec 7th, 2006 11:05 AM

Ethiopia Trip Report
Following is a trip report from an 11 day trip through the historical route in Ethiopia. This was a very, very low budget trip. I accounted for every last birr I spent and averaged $96 / day including six internal flights ($45 / day excluding my flight costs).
Most of the problems I experienced (the expected issues involved in being a female backpacking around alone, repeatedly having prices changed after agreement had been reached on a price, dealing with the utter incompetence of Ethiopian Air) would be avoided by having a guide. Despite the frustrations, it was a very memorable and worthwhile trip and provided an unforgettable contrast to my two prior experiences in east Africa.

Pictures are at


I really only had a half day to explore Addis, and only ended up seeing the Merkato, which is supposed to be the largest open air market in east Africa. The merkato is huge – very little I wanted to buy (and certainly nothing I wanted to carry around on my back for the next seven weeks!). I paid my taxi driver from the night before (about 5 USD) to drive me there and walk around with me. For someone like me with no sense of direction, having someone walk around with me was a necessity or I would still be trying to find my way out of the Merkato right now. I saw no other tourists during my hour and a half cruising around the market – definitely worth wandering around if you have some time to kill.

Bahar Dar: My night in a brothel

I took an afternoon flight to Bahar Dar from Addis. It’s a fairly relaxed, pleasant little town and easy to wonder around on foot. I had already picked out a budget place in Lonely Planet, but due to some unclear signage (and me not paying careful enough attention) I ended up next door to my intended destination. After checking out the room, I decided it was fine for 6USD. I noticed I was the only faranji there, but I really wasn’t seeing many other tourists so thought nothing of it.

I spent the afternoon wandering around Bahar Dar and had a small posse with me at all times. (E.g., I’d stop to check email somewhere and my posse would either sit inside the internet place or stand outside waiting for me until I came out…as soon as I convinced my posse of the moment that I was not interested in a tour, a coffee ceremony, or being their girlfriend, they would usually wander off and within two minutes I’d have a new posse). All harmless entertainment, or so I thought…

After dinner at the Ghion Hotel, which is located right on Lake Tana, I headed “home.” I had stayed at the Ghion fairly late talking to people, and based on the timing of when the knocking on my door started, I assume people were waiting for me to return. Within ten minutes of retuning to my room, the delightful offers/inquiries I received from my would be suitors included:

“Have you consummated yet?”
“Would you like to go back to my village?”
“But the man at the desk said I could come see you!”
“Would you like to join me next door?”
and my absolute favorite… “I’ll give you 100 birr!” (about ten dollars)

In retrospect it is all terribly funny, but at the time I started to wonder if the guys at the front would give my visitors my door key. After a bit of screaming on my part to “get the hell away from my door!” and repeated “NO NO NO!” the knocking stopped. I did find out later that a night with a local woman can go for as little as 15 birr, so I was pleased that my boyfriends were at least offering an above market price. (At this point in the story most people are completely disgusted that I was sleeping on some possibly very funky sheets….for the record, I was snuggled up in my sleeping bag liner, which was washed about five times after that night!)

The next morning I packed up as quickly as possible and hightailed it out of the brothel (stopping to tell the man at the desk that what he did was bull----) and headed over to the Ghion. The rooms at the Ghion were only marginally better, but it had a lakeside setting and was definitely not being used as a brothel. (Many of the budget hotels double as brothels, and even though I tried to avoid this for the remainder of my trip, I was still fairly certain that other places I stayed later in the trip were also being used as brothels.)

The manager of the Ghion had befriended me the previous day and I had promised to do some editing of his term paper. I rolled into his office to relay the events of the previous evening. When I finished telling him about my visitors, he expressed surprise at what had happened, but then asked me, in all seriousness, “Well, did you take the money?” What?!?!?!

I headed out that morning on a tour of the monasteries on Lake Tana. (You can arrange any kind of tour you would like through the Ghion, and they can usually find someone to split the cost of the trip with you.) We saw Ura Kidane Meret, which is the most visited and quite interesting. The other two monasteries were fairly nondescript – unfortunately women were not permitted to visit the other monasteries that sounded the most interesting.

I met a woman from New Zealand traveling alone and headed off with her after the tour to eat at a local restaurant for some injera and fasting food. (If you like injera and are vegetarian, there will be plenty to eat on Wednesday and Friday…other than those days though, you are going to find little else to eat other than spaghetti and eggs.) I have never liked injera. I want to like injera. I even came up with a strategy of learning to love, or at least not gag, when eating injera. (This well thought out strategy involved drinking a beer fairly quickly prior to facing the injera – the theory being that perhaps with a slight buzz perhaps I would find the injera more palatable.) yeah…no.

After lunch we headed over to the market with a stomach full of injera. The market is fairly large and interesting to wander around. We saw only a couple of other faranjis there, and always had a small posse following us. People were very friendly though and did not mind us taking pictures. I should note that I bumped into several locals I had met the prior day and they were all very embarrassed about my visitors the night before.

Two little girls (not more than four or five years old) followed us all the way home from the market. The images of these little girls and all the other little kids I met along the way are seared in my brain…although I can laugh about being propositioned in Bahar Dar, the statistics regarding the likelihood of a little girl becoming a prostitute in Ethiopia are heartbreaking. It’s impossible to interact with these innocent little girls without thinking about what the future may hold for them….

Next up, Gondar…

Chris_GA_Atl Dec 7th, 2006 11:29 AM

Linda, thanks for the report so far, and keep it coming. We are leaving for Ethiopia (Addis, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum, Lalibela) in just over two weeks, so I am eager to hear the rest of your account!

Leely Dec 7th, 2006 11:41 AM

I agree with Chris--terrific report so far. Funny/sad, funny/sad. Really enjoyed your photos, too, but what on earth were thinking with those hyenas???

YvonneM Dec 7th, 2006 11:43 AM

Brilliant reportage, keep it coming..Y

MyDogKyle Dec 7th, 2006 12:03 PM

Looking forward to reading more -- thanks!

thit_cho Dec 7th, 2006 12:07 PM

Linda, this is great. What's the deal with the camel head in Harar -- don't they eat the heads, too?

How did you get to Harar -- its a decent train ride, I believe, but I think there's an airport an hour or so away.

I would really like to combine a visit to Harar with a trip on the northern circuit, and I'm mostly interested in Lalibela and the lake monasteries. Did you get to Axum -- I think its known for its obelisks?

Looking forward to rest of your report. Have you finished your Africa/Middle East trip -- I'd really like to hear about Syria. I'm getting a new passport next year (so I will not have an Israeli stamp), and I would like to visit Lebanon and Syria, although that may neet to wait until 2008.


sandi Dec 7th, 2006 12:15 PM

Great report.
Funny (in a brothel) and sad (future for many young girls); laugh and cry.

Hyenas as pets, of course. Doesn't everyone have these?

Khat, of course, why not? Makes the time go by.

ann_nyc Dec 7th, 2006 12:55 PM

I love the brothel story -- that's a classic!

maxwell Dec 7th, 2006 07:47 PM

Glad the report appeals to some people!
Chris: I will be really interested to hear about your experience compared to mine when you return. I have to admit that I think I reacted a little more strongly/negatively than normal to certain frustrations just because I was feeling a little beaten down at certain times in Ethiopia.

Leely: when in Rome….and they seemed like pet dogs with extra big teeth at the time.

Michael: I asked about the camel head – but never got a clear answer as to why this would be in the street. No one seemed bothered by it but me…
I flew to Dire Dawa and then took a mini bus from Dire Dawa to Harar (which was quite a little adventure, stay tuned for more). I’m not sure that you can take a train there. I just got back from the rest of my trip – I am going to try to post at least an abbreviated Syria report – it was really an amazing experience. I hope to see more of Lebanon when things calm down – I left the afternoon before Gemayel was assassinated - and then a week later someone blew themselves up at passport control on the Lebanese side of the Beirut/Damascus crossing. Luckily he did not do it inside the actual structure – it’s a small building, so I don’t want to even think what would have happened to anyone in there at the time.

Clifton Dec 8th, 2006 04:52 AM

I hope you do continue on with your trip stories through the Ethiopia portion. This route has been on my short list for a long time and I'm enjoying your writing so - double points!

Chris_GA_Atl Dec 8th, 2006 05:36 AM

Linda, I will definitely post a full report when we get back in mid-January. Our trip is a guided one, so I am hoping we will be insulated from some of the things that you encountered (and that I have read about in the Bradt guide to Ethiopia). We are traveling only by air, with no bus rides to look forward to, but given your comments about Ethiopian Airlines, that may not be a good thing. Anyway, I am eagerly awaiting the rest of your report, and I may have some specific questions as you get further into the story. Also, I really appreciated your pictures.

cybor Dec 8th, 2006 07:38 AM

Fascinating adventure and photos. Loved your people pictures - it looks as though they welcomed your company. Interesting architecture as well - even the thatched roofs seem to have a mid. eastern curve to them.
Look forward to the rest. thanks for sharing.

maxwell Dec 8th, 2006 10:32 AM

I had planned to make a quick half day trip to Blue Nile falls before I left for Gondar, but felt a little sick that morning and decided to skip it. Although numerous people had warned me that the falls are often less than spectacular, they were apparently quite impressive while I was there so I am sorry I missed it. (As I mentioned above, you can just show up at the Ghion Hotel and easily line up a tour to the falls.)

Gondar: Africa’s Camelot??

If you are at all short of time, the best way (but obviously not the most comfortable way) to get to Gondar from Bahar Dar is by minibus (about 4 hours). I had planned to arrive in Gondar a little after lunch and meet up with my Kiwi friend early afternoon (she took the mini bus), but due to a plane shortage (the delay with Ethiopian Air was always, without exception, because of a plane shortage), I did not arrive in Gondar until early evening.

I have more to say on Ethiopian Airlines later, but you absolutely must reconfirm your flights, and you really need to do this at one of their offices, and not at the airport. You also absolutely must give them a name of where you are staying, even if you don’t know where you are staying, and even if they don’t specifically ask you for this information or your seat may be cancelled. (I just started making things up even though I had no idea where I’d be staying.) I began to get a glimpse of the depths of the incompetence of Ethiopian Air in Bahar Dar after they repeatedly told me that I had missed my flight to Gondar and I’d have to wait another day to fly out, despite the fact that I was at the airport an hour before the flight. An hour or so later a local guide in the airport took pity on me and stepped in to help – we finally established that I had not missed my flight to Gondar and that the flight to Gondar had never even left, and due to a plane shortage I was being rerouted later that afternoon. About three of my six flights in Ethiopia were over four hours late, and based on my discussions with various NGO workers I met through the trip, the intra-country flights are severely delayed, or cancelled, more often than not. Luckily I had heeded this warning when booking my flights and had built in extra time to allow for this.

I finally arrived in Gondar around dinner time and met up with Kiwi to share a room for the night. (Although we picked a Lonely Planet recommended place, I am still pretty sure it was doubling as a brothel due to various signs regarding condom usage posted in the room and other activity on the premises.) I had come to Gondar (“Africa’s Camelot”) to see the castles and churches that are one of the main attractions on the historical route. Kiwi and the other tourists I had dinner with that evening were in Gondar to line up a trip to the Simien Mountains. After hearing from Kiwi post-trip how amazing the Simiens were, I really regret I didn’t bag sightseeing in Gondar and go trekking in the mountains instead. (If you are looking to line up a short trip in the Simiens, you can just head to Gondar and easily line up a trip from there.)

I know there are people that love Gondar, but I have not met these people. The other tourists I met in Ethiopia had a similar reaction as me – the castles and the church were interesting enough, but I really did not care for the town and thought it definitely could be skipped if one were short on time. After Kiwi and others left at the crack of dawn the next morning for their camping trip, I headed out for a half day tour of the castles and churches. I hired a guide for the morning and we set out on foot to see the various sights – the main sights are close enough together to see them on foot, and you clearly get a much better feel for the town than if you are traveling by taxi. I saw no other tourists during the four or five hours I was touring the sights, and it was definitely interesting to walk through areas on the outskirts of Gondar and see all the local activity. After the tour was over, however, I was really kind of bored and itching to get out of Gondar. I spent the afternoon killing time in an internet place and counting down the hours until I was on my way to Lalibela in the morning.


I loved Lalibela. I thought the churches were incredible. Many of the churches are connected by tunnels and little passage ways – it’s very cool walking through there and seeing priests and local people praying. The setting (in the Lasta Mountains) is beautiful. The poverty in Lalibela seemed much worse than I had been seeing, and I started to notice that many people were not even wearing shoes while walking on the mountain roads. (I cannot recall if I saw as many shoeless people in Kenya or Uganda …I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.)
I got off to a rocky start in Lalibela after a man at the Seven Olives Hotel became extremely upset that I would not sign up for his tours, which were way too expensive for me. I had met a French woman a few days earlier who had given me the low down on who to use and how much to pay for local tours. If you are traveling alone and want to find people to split costs with you, the man to see in Lalibela is Beyene Abate, AKA “44.” He’s usually at the airport or outside the Seven Olives, but you can let people know you want to talk to him and he’ll find you (I think it took about ten minutes for him to find me in an internet place after I let some local guys know I was looking for him. You can also call him on his cell at 0911 0383 45.)
Within a few minutes, 44 and I agreed on a price for a guide for the churches, and he promised to help me arrange a trip to Yemrehanna Kristos, a church about two hours outside of town. 44 followed through on everything he promised – he lined up one option for me to get to Yemrehanna Kristos that evening, but promised to come back by 7:30 am the next morning and tell me if he found a cheaper group for me to join. Sure enough, just as I was finishing my breakfast the next morning, 44 showed up and said he found a group of British guys for me to join for a slightly cheaper price.

I spent the afternoon exploring the two groups of churches in-town and talking to some local people. I also spent the afternoon listening to people yell “Japan!” at me – for some reason – maybe my dark hair - everyone in Lalibela thought I was Japanese and was completely fascinated by this Japanese woman in their town. Make sure you have enough small bills to tip the keepers of the shoes outside all the churches – no one gave me a hard time when I ran out of birr to tip them, but I felt bad I didn’t have enough small bills to hand out. You are also supposed to give the priests a birr or two if you take their photo inside the churches.

The next day, I went with a few British guys (arranged by 44) to Yemrehanna Kristos, a church built within a cave in the 11th century. Yemrehanna Kristos is supposed to be the most impressive of the churches outside of town, but you can easily add on a few other churches nearby that are (from what I heard) fairly interesting. The church is about a two hour drive from Lalibela – I thought the trip was worth it for the drive alone, as I had not seen any of the surrounding area since I had flown to Lalibela. We passed a “local ambulance” on the way there – this ambulance consisted of four people carrying someone on a stretcher through the mountain roads.

The church itself is very small, but interesting, and there are lots of local people around the church (many of whom are missing limbs, etc. – I saw more of this in Lalibela than anywhere else in Ethiopia). Make sure you take a very strong flashlight, as a brick wall was built outside the church (which is already in a cave), making a strong light a must to really see everything inside the church. You can also go to this church and the surrounding churches by mule from Lalibela – Ever since my scary as hell experience on a horse in the Andes Mountains years ago (I spent about six hours screaming “no me gusta!” while my horse ran at full speed through the Andes, and in the interest of surviving I made a number of promises to God during that jaunt that I’m not sure I’ve kept), I am not a fan of travel on four legged animals so didn’t even look into it. I would imagine it would be an interesting day if one were into that sort of trip.

I wandered back to the churches in town after lunch, and ended up chatting with some kids who invited me for coffee. I had no idea how many birr they were going to want for this, and so I showed them a one birr I had in my pocket and said that I could not come since I really could not pay them. They conferred amongst themselves and then said, “Come anyway!” Although I was still a bit worried about a possible scene when I left, I frankly had no pressing social engagements that afternoon and the kids were delightful, so decided to join them. The house, which was right outside St. George (the cross-shaped church), was a tiny one room structure, with mattresses lining the walls (there is a picture of this on the link I posted). We sat down, and I immediately saw something moving on one of the mattresses. As we sat there chatting, I finally realized that it was a man under the covers – a very, very, very frail, elderly, sickly looking man. Quite frankly, he looked like he was on his deathbed. Turns out it was the girl's grandfather. They showed me a photo of him hanging on the wall. They knew he could speak Italian, but had no idea how old he was, just that he was “very old.” So, we sat there and chatted about movie stars and singers (they loved Arnold Schwarzenegger and knew that he is the “president” of California, but said that Michael Jackson is “not theirs” anymore), while this elderly man lay dying about five feet away. It was surreal.
Only the little girl had asked me for a pen. Although I never go around handing out pens to kids, when we were writing our names down for each other (I actually didn’t have a pen on me), it was a big ordeal to get any of their pens to write. In fact, after I reflected on my afternoon with the kids, it dawned on me that I think the reason they were all reluctant to offer up their pens to use was because they were all running out of ink. Had I had a big bag of pens, I would have given them all to these kids – it just really bothered me that these bright, engaging little kids were carrying around pens that did not even really work. When they were all telling me what they wanted to be when they grew up (I sensed the little girl was probably not attending school right now – the boys were though), I was especially moved by one of them that told me he wanted to be not just any kind of engineer, but a water engineer because he wanted to help fix Lalibela’s water problems (water shortages are still a big problem in Lalibela). I was really feeling more than a little hopeless about the situation in Ethiopia at this point, but meeting kids like this little boy that dream of making their town a better place gave me a teeny bit of optimism that was sorely needed at this point in my trip.

I ended up giving the girl and her sister 10 birr when I left (about a dollar). They really were not expecting anything and I just was not comfortable feeling that I had consumed the coffee of a destitute family. Also, maybe I am the world’s biggest sucker, but I bought the boys a soccer ball. They had originally asked me if I knew anyone that could buy them a soccer ball (I was telling everyone I was a student and had no money to cut down on the requests for money), but they had dropped the request when they figured I wasn’t going to be able to get them a ball. I found a little shop with a ball and pump, and after bargaining the seller down to about 7 USD, figured what the hell, these kids needed a soccer ball and I wasn’t going to be able to sleep that night unless they had that ball.

Next up, Harar.

moremiles Dec 8th, 2006 11:18 AM

Wonderful report on a fascinating country. Loved your description of the ride thru the Andes!

thit_cho Dec 11th, 2006 05:39 AM

Linda, very interesting observations about the northern circuit. Now that you've been, which stops (of the principal) stops would you recommend -- I am thinking about visiting the lake monasteries and Lalibela, but skipping Axum and Gonder, and then spending time in Harar, and maybe visiting a national park. But that trips more than a year away -- I'm booked well into 2007. I'm looking forward to your report on Harar.


Nyamera Dec 11th, 2006 08:02 AM

Linda, fascinating report and pictures! The hyena feeding doesn’t look entirely safe. I too would have worried about meat juice on the stick. I’m looking forward to more.

maxwell Dec 12th, 2006 06:41 PM

Well I would definitely recommend that you go to a national park since I did not meet anyone on my trip that made it to one, and I would absolutely love to hear about it ;) For me, Lalibela and Harar were definitely the highlights (even though I thought Harar was a cesspool and the hassle factor was extremely high, it was so incredibly different than anything I had experienced on my own I really loved it in a weird way). A lot of people seemed to be skipping Axum, so I’m eagerly awaiting Chris’ report on it. Bahar Dar was a very nice way to “ease” into traveling Ethiopia on my own, but it was a little underwhelming – I don’t regret going though. I will post the rest of my trip report this weekend – sadly I’ve already found a new job after just returning to town!

Chris_GA_Atl Dec 12th, 2006 06:58 PM

Linda, congrats on the new job, and I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest when you post it. When we planned our trip earlier this year, we chose Axum instead of Harar because the monuments in Axum are the oldest in Ethiopia (at least that I know of), and because of Harar's proximity to Somalia. Given what is happening in Somalia right now, I am comforted that we won't be anywhere near there, although fortunately Harar is well away from the portion of Somalia where the fighting is occurring at the moment. With Eritrea and Ethiopia preoccupied with supporting opposing sides in Somalia, suddenly the border near Axum seems so secure ...
We are leaving in 10 days, so I will definitely be looking forward to hearing about the rest of your experiences, Linda.

sarahandflo Dec 13th, 2006 08:45 AM

very nice photos and report... i CANNOT get over the hyena photos!!!!


Femi Dec 13th, 2006 10:00 AM

I love your pictures Linda, and your stories. You've definitely moved Ethiopa higher up on my list of places to go.

I remain torn about giving gifts to kids. The situation you described (with the pens) is heartbreaking, yet I do not want to turn the kids into beggars...

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