Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ethiopia

I had mixed feelings on Ethiopia before we got there and I'm not sure they are any less mixed now. The problem arises from Ethiopia's history. It is the only country in Africa to not be fully colonized by the Europeans. Italy occupied it in the 30's but for only a year or two so didn't have a lot of impact. They are also one of the richest African countries in terms of archaeological heritage and recorded ancient history. In other words, they actually have stuff to see and Ethiopia was supposed to be the solution to my African boredom that has hit lately. From a tourist perspective, Africa severely lacks the ancient civilizations that left stuff behind for us to climb over and vote for in the World Wonders list. Ethiopia was going to renew that travelling excitement.
Unfortunately, everyone that we talked to that had travelled through there recently had negative reports. The talk was constant complaints about hassle, begging, ripping tourists off and rock-throwing. From pedestrians to cyclists to overlanders, they all mention rocks. Everyone supposedly throws rocks and we saw enough dents and broken windows or headlights to know there was truth to the stories. In other words, we were all preparing for war and like everyone else, were seriously considering just a rapid transit through the country and getting out quickly. This plan was only encouraged by the fact that our group is trying to get out of Africa quickly and just before we entered Ethiopia there were bombings targetting westerners in Somaliland so my plans for visiting it and Djibouti were suddenly scrapped.
So what happened?
Things started off well. The border was not a problem and right at the border we were back on tarmac. Oh, the sight of a beautiful, newly-paved road! Our progress continued at a much faster pace, through green desert and past interesting villages and people for the remainder of the day. We camped on a hotel lawn in Yabello. The rainy season in the south should normally stop at the end of Oct. It was the first week of Nov and we were still getting lots of rain so any thoughts of cutting west on dirt (mud) roads to see the Omo valley tribes were given up. The Omo valley tribes include the lip-plate wearing Mursi tribe and a bunch of others nearly as strange. It is a major attraction (though I've heard a lot of complaints).
It was a good thing we opted not to try the rough roads to get to the Omo valley because later in the day the big truck totally broke down. Ben and I were in the Land Rover for a change and suddenly the truck was no longer behind us. We found them stopped coming down a hill, surrounded by a couple dozen locals and a broken clutch plate! After a lot of hassle and negotiation with people in the little town (whose mechanics scarily knew nothing about vehicles but were well equiped with the tools to make things worse) we had the truck towed 120km to the regional capital of Awasa. Awasa wasn't too bad a place although none of us were very excited about being stuck there trying to fix the truck again. The place we ended up staying was once a popular campsite that had been shut down as the German owner had gone home and their license had expired. They only let us stay because we dragged a broken truck into their compound and couldn't move it out again! They were nice though and fortunately they knew some competent mechanics in town. Because the campsite was difficult to find, while asking directions to it in Awasa the night the truck arrived, Kees met a local guy, Abiy, who decided to hang out and help us for the following 4 days. We weren't sure about him at first but he turned out to be extremely helpful and friendly. He did most of the translating and even went up to Addis Ababa (the capital), a couple hundred km away, with Ben and Kees to find a new clutch plate. That trip was apparently a little crazy because Ben, while only going a snail's pace, hit a lady with the Land Rover and knocked her over and they were immediately mobbed by the entire village and had to take refuge in the police station to escape any serious retaliation. I believe it took them a couple hours to get out of there and again Abiy helped to get them out of trouble. An x-ray and a few dollars and nobody was worse off than they were before.
As a side note, there is something very strange about Ethiopia and it's roads. Everyone mentions it and it is different from the rest of Africa. The people just don't move off the road quickly. It's like they don't know what a road is for and that cars kill when they hit. They act like there is no traffic in the country but that is not true at all. As soon as one car passes, immediately without looking the people will start to cross the street or walk back into the middle of the road. As a driver you are constantly slamming on the brakes because the people lack any kind of self-preservation instinct. The weirdest thing is that it's not just the people either. The animals are just as stupid, donkeys being the worst, then cows, goats, camels and chickens. They don't move or will cross just so they can be hit. The little kids that are supposed to be taking care of the animals obviously failed Herding 101 just as the animals obviously failed Survival 101. So really it was not too surprising that Ben managed to have someone walk in front of him (it's more like she hit him than the other way around). The other things is all the construction. They will have beautiful new roads in a couple years because right now they are doing almost all of them at once. The Chinese are doing it, of course, and the Chinese style of road work is to tear up the entire stretch of road of several hundred km and then rebuild it from there. No bit by bit with them.
As another side note, mob mentality is really strong in Ethiopia, especially where foreigners are concerned. If you stop you get mobbed. People appear out of nowhere, to look, to beg or just to wave and shout "youyouyouyouyouyou" like a siren. Ethiopia has the 2nd highest population in Africa and with all the aid that has been coming in for decades it is understandable one of the most notorious places in the world for beggers, ranking right up there with India and Egypt for most annoying people for a tourist to deal with (and that is many other tourists comments, not mine, btw). I'm sure aid agencies are worse than tourists for undermining the self-respect of the people and teaching them all to be beggars because tourism really isn't that big in Ethiopia compared to many other places in Africa, and yet it seriously feels like every single child in the country (and we're talking millions in a country where almost half the population is under 15 and they are pushing 90 million now) is a beggar. Wave and hand out. The more remote you are, the worse it is. In most countries it is in the big cities or touristy places that all the beggars hang out and harrass you. In Ethiopia it feels like there are more when you try to stop in a quite place along the road to pee. You can't stop without a group of herder kids (or the village half a km down the road that was spying on your approach), popping up out of the bush, runnning as fast as fast as they can and surrounding you to beg. Where do they learn this? What will happen to a country when the entire younger generation grows up shamelessly begging? Some of the young adults do it too, and clearly not those in need, while the older generation still has some pride left. We are all unanimous in our confusion as to how people can be so quick to demean themselves by opportunistically begging when they know they won't get anything and don't need it anyway. I'm seriously concerned with the psychology of this culture and country. In contrast, in Addis, Lalibela and Gonder we walked around quite freely without beggar kids mobbing us, even at the tourist sites. It's a strange country. A few times Kees would stop on the road next to some very young child with their hand out in the middle of nowhere to see what they would do. All of them would then become very self-conscious and start to back away afraid. They seem to have no idea why they are doing it and obviously don't expect anyone to ever stop. Again, where do they learn this?
It took 4 days for us to get back on the road and heading to Addis Ababa. We were lucky in Addis because after one night at a crappy hotel we met an American guy with a truck that showed us the new and future popular overlander stop in central Addis. Holland house is run by a Dutch guy who had set up a restaurant but is now considering switching over to making it something of an overlander camp. At present he is known only by word of mouth and is letting people camp for free at eat at the restaurant. The food is good and cheap so it is a great deal. The guys that run it are very nice and very helpful and we found ourselves not too concerned that we'd be stuck in town for a while doing visa runs.
I liked Addis. It is one of the most populous cities in Africa and yet is developed enough that in the center it doesn't feel overcrowded. It's a bit of a strange place because it feels like half the major roads in town are currently under construction (as are half the highways around the country too) and it has very strong security concerns as well. The reason is that Addis is the headquarters for the African Union and some UN stuff as well. Ethiopia also has the ongoing dispute with Eritrea and the recent bombing is Somaliland targetted the Ethiopian embassy because of the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia. All this means that the threat is real and there are lots of police in Addis, there is a lot of development in some parts of the city and it looks quite nice, the 5-star hotels have lots of security and there is a 3-ton limit on most roads in the city so Ben (and I) had to do almost all the work driving around town to embassies, etc because Kees couldn't get anywhere.
Our crucial goal in Addis was to get a Sudan visa and as it turned out, it was quite easy. It is almost impossible to get a tourist visa now for Sudan in most places but we were able to get a14-day transit visa without difficulty. First we had to get an Egyptian visa (to "prove" onward travel, and Canadians pay the 2nd most for that one now) and then $100US for the Sudan visa, $200US for Americans. I'll be happy when I don't have to pay this kind of money for visas anymore, Africa is brutal. The people in the Sudan embassy were nice once you got past the infamous guard at the gate. He's known to be so scary that other foreigners recommend bringing him gifts to get through. Picture the classic hulking, dark beady-eyed, knuckle-dragging, gorilla-sized, thug in a suit, with a short temper and you have this guy. He was fine with us but we saw him apparently randomly taking a disliking to some people at the gate and tossing them out rather violently. Everyone seemed to cower as he walked by the lines of waiting applicants. But we got our visas and were ready to head off again. Or were we? Nope. Ben had his last mountain to climb in Ethiopia and none of the rest of us wanted to follow him up there so Kees, Savannah and I decided (to mom and dad's dismay) to give him a head start while we stayed in Addis eating pizza and flirting with the serving girls at Holland House. Did I mention that the Ethiopian women are beautiful? They are, more so that most of the rest of the Africans. Why? Well, they have hair again, as the style went back to braids rather than shaved heads, and probably also because they have a slightly lighter look to them. I think there's been some distant cross-breeding with Arabs or something because they aren't as dark and have softer African features. Or maybe I'm just full of it, but they were pretty anyway.
We spent a week in Addis and during that time I was able to learn a few words of Amharic (their national language) though I could make no headway with their script. Their alphabet is very unique and looks like stickmen or rudimentary Asian characters and is based on sounds like ta, tu, te, etc with a lot of redundancy. Very confusing. I was also able to try the local food. Ethiopian cuisine is also unique and centers around injera, a grey thin pancake or thick crepe with a sour tang to it suggesting that it may have gone rotten or be fermenting. There are lots of different quality levels to it, the lighter colour being better and it should be made from the local cereal, tef, and not any other. Most foreigners seem to think it's disgusting but I must've only eaten good ones or I just like it because I had no problem with it at all. On the injera they will serve spicy beans or stew and you then eat with your hands, tearing off the injera and picking at the rest of the food, the sour of the injera going well with the spicy of the rest. Ethiopia is also the origin of coffee so of course they have a coffee ceremony with the roasting and grinding of the beans done in front of you. We had the ceremony in Awasa and Addis. The coffee is served strong and dark but with sugar, three times in little cups. I can't really compare but the others say it is quite good.
Ammon

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