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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...

moremiles Dec 13th, 2006 10:33 AM

Finally got a chance to look at your photos and they are stunning! You really have some beautiful shots of the children and everyday life. What kind of camera did you use?

maxwell Dec 18th, 2006 04:40 PM

Thanks Chris, although I still haven’t fully extricated myself from the legal profession so I’m not sure congrats are in order! (Couldn’t resist, I think you are an atty also).
Are you and your wife still doing the chimp walk(s) at Ngamba? I can’t recall where you came out on that. Will post rest of report tonight.

Moremiles: Thanks very much…it’s a cannon C-750 but I’m lucky any of my pictures came out b/c the camera is starting to malfunction...grrr...

Chris_GA_Atl Dec 18th, 2006 05:01 PM

Linda, yes, I am a lawyer, and I have NO IDEA why ANYONE would want to extricate themselves from the legal profession! I am very lucky because I really love my firm, but I have plenty of friends who are ex-lawyers now doing something else!
And yes we are still going to Ngamba Island, but I don't know whether they are still doing the forest walks or not. Lilly told me that they were going to discontinue them at some point, but I am not sure whether that has happened yet or not. We are staying overnight on the island anyway, whether they are doing the forest walks or not. When we get back in mid-January I will post a report and let everyone know what is going on there at the moment.
I am still very eager to hear about the rest of your Ethiopia experiences, as we will be landing in Addis Ababa in just a few days...

maxwell Dec 18th, 2006 05:06 PM

I just about choked on my dinner b/c of laughing out loud at your first sentence (as I sit here working on offering documents while I eat dinner...and check Fodors)...

I am going to be very disappointed if you guys do not get to do the walk! You have to meet Pasa and Nakuu.

Chris_GA_Atl Dec 18th, 2006 05:14 PM

Glad you got a laugh out of it! I do litigation so I don't look at offering documents until someone says they contain a material misstatement. I think they are pretty interesting when it gets to that point ...
We'll be disappointed too if they have eliminated the forest walks, but at least we will still get some good chimp pictures. The gorilla treks are the main wildlife focus of the trip anyway -- Ngamba Island is just an interlude between Ethiopia and the gorillas.

maxwell Dec 18th, 2006 07:42 PM

One thing I forgot to add regarding Lalibela is that if you are there on a Saturday night and there is an all night church service – this is definitely worth attending for a bit. I never got a clear answer as to whether this happens every Saturday night. The service started very late at night and ran until after sunrise – you could hear soft chanting all night from my hotel. I didn’t make it down to the churches, as the only person I could find that wanted to go was a guide – and I was a little unclear whether he was looking for money or a date, so I skipped it. I saw some photos later that some other tourists took during the early morning portion of that service and was really sorry I didn’t hightail it down there by myself (their pictures were incredible – tons of local worshipers were at the service).

To get to Harar, I had to fly from Lalibela back to Addis, and then had to sit outside the airport for about three hours since they would not let me wait in the domestic terminal until closer to my flight to Dire Dawa. I would then fly from Addis onto Dire Dawa. From Dire Dawa, I would take a mini bus to Harar.

My flight to Dire Dawa didn’t get in until after dark, and because I had been told by, well, everyone, that it was not safe for me to travel onto Harar after dark, I grabbed a cab at the airport to find a hotel for the night. I found a decent place near the airport for about ten dollars – it was very hot and very muggy in Dire Dawa, and the cab driver had charged me as much as my hotel room for a very short ride, so it wasn’t one of my better nights.

The next morning, I asked one of the local men working at the hotel how to get to where the minibuses were that would take me to Harar. He had only been in town a week, but was very eager to help. I spent a fair amount of time hanging out on the street near the hotel, trying to catch a taxi to the Harar minibuses. After a while, some wonderful local men on the street decide to help me - no one spoke English but I keep saying “Harar” and everyone seemed to understand.

The guys finally get a taxi for me, and I tell the driver where I want to go. He takes me exactly where I’ve instructed him to go…hmmm..this doesn’t look right. (I later learn I have instructed him to take me to the “horse market.”) I decide if I say “Harar” enough he’ll figure it out – we eventually clear that up and off we go. We arrive at the minibus station, which is utter madness. Someone grabs my backpack out of this golf cart type taxi and it is immediately thrown on top of a minibus. That man starts demanding money for touching my backpack, and another man is yelling “get in! get in!” at me. Meanwhile, I’m standing there clutching my other bag yelling “can someone please tell me how much?!” I know the bus ride is about a dollar, but I’m getting a little tired of prices doubling for me and am determined to pay only the local price for the minibus. I finally get a price, and I get in. The bus starts moving and I realize I’m not totally sure I am headed to Harar, as no one ever actually told me I was headed to Harar. I spending the first 20 minutes asking everyone else in the minibus (no other tourists, all the women in hijabs, and no one seems particularly fond of me) saying, “pardon me, could you tell me if this is going to Harar?” I finally get a yes, more money is demanded for my backpack (about 60 cents) but whatever. After multiple stops, we arrive in to Harar. Hallelujah. Riding in a minibus with what seemed like a million other people, crammed into the very back row with my face pressed against the window for some fresh air is not my idea of a good time.

Holy cow. Harar – and in particular, the area where the mini buses drop you off - is complete and utter chaos. A total cesspool. I loved it. The streets around where I was dropped off were completely packed with people, goats, cars, fruit stands, bags of chat for sale, trash, etc etc. Out of the van I go, into a sea of people. (I am the only faranji and so am pretty damn obvious.) Someone on the street immediately grabs my bag and yells “50 birr!” at me. I scream “you’re crazy! Give me my bag!” another man steps up to translate and we settle on five birr. I say the name of where I want to go and he takes off running, darting between the cars, people and goats. I’m running after him, trying desperately not to step on people or their bags of chat. We arrive at the hotel, and I’m told it is 12 dollars a night with only the possibility of running water later. Fine, sounds great. I found out later that almost all the hotels have water for only a few hours a day – I think the water did come on at one point in my hotel, but I missed it.

I had heard that people in Harar weren’t too friendly to outsiders, and honestly, if I had to live there I’d be a tad snippy myself. Life looks hard. Women are shoving me if I am remotely in their way, kids are pinching me and everyone is screaming “faranji!” at me literally every five seconds. Even the goats are being pushy.

I tried to roam around on my own without a guide, but it was really just too hard. If you want a guide, walk to Feres Magala, the central square in the walled city, and you will instantly be approached. Although Lonely Planet recommends getting one of the official guides, I found a student that I immediately liked and set off for the afternoon with him. Having him with me made all the difference in the world – I just didn’t have the energy at this point to “fight” people off every few minutes.

The old city is a wonderful maze of alleyways – it’s only about 1 square kilometer, but has almost 90 mosques. (Supposedly the largest concentration anywhere in the world.) We roamed around checking out the highlights – Adare houses (make sure to check out the teeny tiny room where newlyweds have to stay for a week), Rimbaud’s house, Ras Tafari’s House, the various gates…lots to explore. The city appears to be perpetually high on chat – someone is selling it every few feet. You cannot help but notice on the ride there that countryside is covered with it. I had read this, but thought that people were exaggerating. Um, no. we are talking chat everywhere, people passed out in street, high on chat, trying to get in their last chew. Even the goats are high and were roaming around scavenging for chat. My guide introduced me to some men “guarding” something or another who were just sitting there trying to smoke chat – he explained that their teeth had fallen out due to too much chat, so now they had no choice but to smoke it.

My guide promised to come back to my hotel later with a taxi driver to take me to the hyena feeding. (He was really great – although he wasn’t an official guide, he knew his stuff and did a great job taking pictures for me at the hyena feeding – you can reach him at [email protected] and his name is Biniyam Mengstufiyato.) I think there are two hyena feedings a night at two locations outside the walled city. I also think they are in competition with each other, based on the smack talking that was occurring about the competing hyena feeding. I had not seen any other tourists all day, but suddenly about 15 other tourists appeared at feeding time. Even if you don’t want to feed the hyenas (I think I was the only one that took him up on it, which I thought was odd), you are really only a few feet away from the hyenas. I gasped when I first got out of the cab, as one of the hyenas anxiously pacing back and forth, eyeing the hyena man’s basket of meat practically brushed my leg. My guide assured me they had never eaten a tourist, and it suddenly seemed all very normal. It only lasted about 20 minutes, but was really an exhilarating experience.

I had planned to stay two nights in Harar, but decided to head back to Dire Dawa after I was informed that my hotel was full the second night and I’d have to move. I had really enjoyed Harar, but it was really frustrating trying to walk around on my own, and so I decided to head back to Dire Dawa before my mood turned sour.

On the torturous bus ride back to Dire Dawa (which included a boy smiling sweetly at me and then spitting chewed up oranges on me), almost everyone was transport bushels of chat. At one point, a lady kept handing me her chat to hold. I kept telling her, “I don’t want to hold your chat” and passing it back. This went on for a few minutes – I had nothing else to do and so continued to play “pass the chat” until she gave up. We stopped at every chat market on the way back (about every few feet it seemed). To say that there is a chat epidemic is an understatement. I drew the line when (after minibus change number three), the bus driver attempted to cram me into a seat where I could not put my legs down because the entire floor area was blocked by an enormous bag of chat – this guy really expected me to sit squished against a wall in the fetal position, clutching my legs against my body! (I may have possibly screamed “No! I’m not sitting like this for the chat!” at him. They moved the bag of chat.) Almost three hours later (about three times as long as it should have taken), we arrive in Dire Dawa.


Dire Dawa sucks. Seriously. It’s hot, muggy and there’s not much to do, except get ripped off by cab drivers and swat at the flies that are swarming you. Although sitting outside was not pleasant (hot, stinky and too many flies), it was better than being in my room, which was hotter, stinkier and also had too many flies.

By this point, I had tried several times to reconfirm my flight from Dire Dawa back to Addis, and also my flight from Addis onto Cairo the next day. I had tried this at airports, at ticket offices, hell – anytime I had seen an Ethiopian Air worker I had asked them to reconfirm my flights. Finally, on the Addis – Dire Dawa flight a few days prior, an Ethiopian Air employee reconfirmed my flight from DD to Addis.

Before I left my hotel in DD the next morning, I spent some time on the phone with Ethiopian Air trying to get them to reconfirm my flight to Cairo the next day. Man on phone says I have to go to the actual ticket office in Dire Dawa. I tell him this is insane – and explain that I have tried repeatedly to reconfirm this flight in offices and everyone says I have to call. We go back and forth, I decide to ignore him and head to the airport for my flight to Addis.

I get to the airport and learn – surprise – there’s about a six hour delay to Addis. I think, “Great! With six hours to kill I bet that is just about enough time to reconfirm my flight to Cairo.” I head to one of the Ethiopian Air offices in the airport, and the conversation goes something like this:
Me: “I need to confirm my flight to Cairo tomorrow.”
Employee: “You can’t do that at the airport. You must go down to the ticket office in town.”
Me: “But I’m here. Please don’t make me take a taxi. I have no more Birr.” (I show her my actual ticket to Cairo and try to explain she has all the info she could need on that ticket.)
Employee: “Wow, you’ll have to go to a bank to get more money then to get a taxi to the ticket office. The bank is closing for lunch soon so I’m not sure how you’ll get there in time.”
Me: “No! Please just do this for me!”
Employee: “Don’t you have more money – where are you sleeping tonight?”

After she quizzes my financial situation (the idea that I would have to go to a bank, to change more birr, for a ridiculously expensive cab ride was NOT ok with me), she realizes I’m not going anywhere. After more back and forth about how I better get moving back to the ticket office in-town, she finally re-confirms my flight to Cairo. I practically hug her, say thanks, and start to leave.

The conversation then goes something like this:
Employee, who clearly hates me: “Wait, did you say you are on the flight to Addis today?”
Me: “yes, that is why I’m here AT THE AIRPORT.”
Employee: “Oh, we cancelled your seat and the plane is now full.”

At this point my fierce independent woman shtick comes to a screeching halt, and to my horror, I burst into tears, and start pleading with her to please give me my seat back. The thought of being stuck in Dire Dawa for another night and missing my flight was just a little much. I try to explain that I reconfirmed (she finally acknowledges that I did, but says that because I didn’t give them the name of a hotel (that they did not ask for), they cancelled it anyway) and I explain that it is imperative I get out of Dire Dawa. None of it works, she tells me to please stop crying and leave the office.
The only other faranjis in the airport – a lovely couple from Spain – immediately adopt me and spend the next handful of hours demanding that they let me on the plane… and many hours later, we get on the plane. As I am boarding what I feel like is the last plane out of Saigon, the Employee That Clearly Hates Me says to me, “so NOW are you happy?”

I had planned to cram in a much as possible during my last afternoon in Addis, but we arrived so late I didn’t bother to venture into town at all. I forked over a whopping 30 dollars (a splurge for me on this trip) for a great room near the airport…clean sheets, spotless bathroom and BBC on TV – absolute heaven. It was definitely an anti-climatic way to spend my last night in Ethiopia, but I was really ready to wrap up my Ethiopian adventure by that point. I really am glad I made the trip, but it turned out to be one of those experiences that has gotten better and easier in hindsight.

ann_nyc Dec 19th, 2006 09:05 AM

Wow -- you are so brave! But your report also made me laugh out loud. I'm nowhere near courageous enough to travel solo, but I sure like the opportunity to live vicariously.

thit_cho Dec 23rd, 2006 06:25 AM

Linda, thanks for the detail about getting to, and staying in, Harar. I really want to see and feed the hyenas -- I can't imagine traveling that hard, and enduring so much travel pain, to not feed them (kind of like some on my shark dives who decided to stay in the boat not because they were scared of sharks, but because they said the water was "too cold").

I'm writing from Athens, then to Rhodes, Creete and Cyprus.

I'd like to combine Ethiopia with Djibouti and Eritrea, so I need to start doing some research if I'm going to visit at end of 2007 (unlikely) or 2008 (more likely).

Lolazahra Dec 25th, 2006 05:46 PM

So very interesting and wonderful to read. The pictures are just stunning. I feel as if these are the most beautiful people on earth. Brilliant report!

TigerPride Dec 25th, 2006 09:55 PM

I am so glad you had a memorable time. I know this might seem a little "whimpy" compared to what you did; however, recent war escalations between Ethiopia and Somalia's fundemental Islamists have me concerned about our connection flight in Ethiopia. Do you believe there is any threat to us connecting in Ethiopia on our way to Tanzania?



Lin Dec 26th, 2006 06:54 PM

Thank you so much for the report, the incredible photos, and the inspiration to all of us women for traveling solo. I have been trying to decide where in Africa to visit after 'doing' southern Africa for 3 years in a row. I hope you continue to have such adventures for the rest of your life!

maxwell Dec 27th, 2006 07:37 AM

Michael: enjoy the rest of your trip – that sounds great.

Tigerpaw: I wouldn’t sweat it, unless you are planning to pop into Mogadishu en route ;) Have a great trip!

Lin – thanks for your kind words….have to admit though that I hope my trip in a few weeks (Thailand/Cambodia) is a little less eventful than this past trip…I’m still a little worn out!

thit_cho Dec 27th, 2006 08:39 AM

It was on my Cambodia/Vietnam trip in 1998 that, in a bit of frustration, I selected thit_cho as my yahoo e-mail address (all my other attempts were already taken). Have a great time -- Southeast Asia is, after Africa, my favorite travel spot, and I'm thinking about Laos and Myanmar for next December (its between that, New Zealand and Ethiopia, but I'm sure I can change my mind a dozen times before booking tickets, which I need to do in a few weeks since I want to use frequent flyer miles for a biz class seat).

Clifton Dec 27th, 2006 03:33 PM

Just came back to finish your report and enjoyed it. Honestly, it got me thinking about whether Harar is as high on my list as I thought it would be. But we have a couple of trips already thought out, so likely a couple of years before we seriously consider Ethiopia and a lot can change in that amount of time.

Hope you have a great time in Thailand and Cambodia. Cambodia quickly became my favorite place anywhere. Although we were in awe of Angkor, the further we got from the tourist areas, the more we liked the country as a whole. We got to Battambang and made our way down the southern side of the Tonle Sap by buses and motos and such. If you find yourself at Kampong Chhnang, check out the Holiday guesthouse. The owner, besides being a good host, is a former translator between the UN and the Khmer Rouge and has a few stories. They run about $5 per night if you want hot water and the rooms are spotless.

maxwell Dec 28th, 2006 12:09 PM

Michael and Clifton - I've been needing a pep talk to get jazzed about getting on a plane again at the moment, so thanks for the positive thoughts on SE Asia!

Leely Dec 28th, 2006 03:16 PM

Have a great time on your upcoming trip. I really enjoyed this report. It had me chuckling quite a bit, but I don't think I'll be showing it to any of the friends I want to "sell" Ethiopia to.

maxwell Dec 29th, 2006 08:46 AM

Thanks Leely!
Yes, I think that my fellow Atlantonian's upcoming Ethiopia trip report might provide a better sales pitch...

divewop Dec 29th, 2006 09:49 AM

Matter of fact, I just got an email yesterday from Chris_GA_Atl reporting in from Lalibela, Ethiopia.

He said they were having a great time so far and just visited some pretty cool looking churches from the 12th and 13th centuries carved from the bedrock on the side of mountains.

They're off to Uganda on Sunday to ring in the New Year at Ngamba Island.

What a cool place to celebrate!

Gizaw Feb 22nd, 2007 09:14 AM

it is interesting. you talk about the other side of Eth.You might heard about Eth in your home media, linked with poverty, famine and war. It strikes, esp us the Eth. allow me to add tips about your trip to Eht.
you all share one thing, the kids along your walk and stop. it happend for three reasons: either you (tourists) used to provide tips or you donot ask them go away or they want to see you, different color. i understand your tip support them, but they misbehave for future life. begging is not the culture. in the childhood parents teach how to behave. if parents or elder people know that a child recieved tips (cents) they will be punished. now they are asking pens ..., this is the way they express their eager and life. any one of you don not ask why they beg and what is the cause?

Do not miss to visit church services/ceremonies in the evening and early in the morning. this is the most you go for. every saturday and early sunday morning, the churches are always serving. Holidays are much better. In gonder 44 churches and Lalibela 11+1 churches and every where in the rural too. x-mas eve (usually Jan 6 or 7), check Eth calendar, all churches make holiday ceremony. still for X-mas i recommend you be in Lalibela. Famous church professionals go there and present their hymes and dances, philosophy. Sept. 26 or 27, Demera holiday, Jan 19 Epiphany, is nice in Addis, colorful and different presentations of church communities.

One thing. in the churches, take care. Sometimes not allowed. People learned from experience and their past history. because in one of your museum there is at least one from Eth.

Night in brothel: because you are not go through proper guides, following tourist regulation. they have standards for tourists. the reason is likely very very low budget.

Most important for your trip and want to link to Ethiopia, or want to see great people's effort, browse, and


saucywalker May 19th, 2007 08:50 AM

I went to Ethiopia in Nov. 2005 and it was the best experience I ever had. I was with 2 friends from Zurich (I'm from US) and we had a guide, Solomon Berhe who was beyond excellent. We went to Mekele and then to Gerhalta region (town of Degume) to camp and visit the 2nd century rock hewn churches that are built within the high cliffs. It was beautiful, but realize that you will be several days with out toilet facilities. Solomon and his local contacts waited on us hand and foot, so all we had to do was hike and take pictures. If you go, bring lots of pens for the children. We went back to Mekele for a night then drove to Lalibela - long drive but stunningly beautiful. 2 days there and then back to Addis.

For those of you who want to see this part of the world, like a camping experience (we stayed in the Castle hotel in Mekele and I forget the one in Lalibela), have money for a 24/7 guide, but aren't brave enough to go on your own, you must look into hiring Solomon. I think he has a web site so if you search his name, it should come up. He books about 6 months in advance at least as he does a lot of work for naturalists and journalists.

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