Monday, January 31, 2011

Ciao Ethiopia

Only two countries in the whole of Africa were never formally colonised: Liberia and Ethiopia. It is therefore somewhat depressing that Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest.

Ethiopia is not for the feint-hearted and maybe it is not surprising that the majority of visitors opt for tours rather than backpacking it. Bus journeys are long, the street-hassles and the cheats abound. Nonetheless, i guarantee you’ll have an interesting time, whether you opt for the Northern Circuit (religion and history) or the tribal South.

Despite all the above i really like it – it reminds me a lot of India. Personal highlights include Gonder, Harar and Awassa. Lalibela at Christmas was interesting but i would not like to repeat the experience, and the hike up to Axum was distinctly underwhelming.

Theft is a major problem (P. had over US$250 taken in a shared taxi and his Ipod taken), and although my rickshaw driver in Bahir Dar tries to run off with my MP3 player, i get it returned after visiting the local police station. I come away unscathed.

Unfortunately Gigi Shibabaw postponed her home-coming concert till February 5th and i miss an opportunity to see her live.

With Internet connection so slow, blogging has been impossible to maintain – the first time during my African Adventure.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Beggars in Ethiopia

There is no doubt about it, Ethiopia is a poor country, and like my beloved India, there is a culture of begging. Whilst many are passive, sitting on the streets with an outstretched hand whilst other are far more active, going round bus stops and the streets asking for hand-outs. Most locals hand out small change and i opt to do the same to the elderly or disabled.

Far more annoying is the locals who directly approach faranjis. Usually younger ones, they come out with stories of being orphaned and failing to afford their schooling. Some are genuine, (Derbo my Addis fixer for one), but most are not. They plead for “sponsorship”, and indeed some are successful – every Ethiopian knows of a friend of a friend of a friend who has a “rags to riches” story. This explains the outrageous persistency.

What i really dislike is the children who clamour around the faranjis with the line “one Birr – one Birr” or worse still, simply “Give me money”. One can only imagine that this ploy is successful for them. To pass money out like this is totally irresponsible and should be avoided by the travellist at all costs.

An Ode to Coffee

I openly confess to being a coffee snob. A late arrival to coffee culture, i was only converted by Jamaican Blue Mountain in the 1990s and never looked back. Four years based in Bogota spoilt me rotten.

Sometime between the 5th and 10th centuries, a goat herder called Kafa was tending his flock in the Kaldi region of Ethiopia when he noted the goats going wild whilst eating coffee berries, so tried them himself. He brought some of the berries to a nearby monastery who through the berries into the fire, and then caught a whiff of the luxurious scent.

It was the Turks however in the 15th century who had the idea of brewing coffee and it caught on big time.

Now 4 out of every 5 Americans enjoys at least one cup a day and Starbucks have over 16,000 stores in 49 countries. Coffee it the top export from 12 countries worldwide with 100,000,000 depending on coffee production, and it is the 2nd most valuable commodity after petroleum.

On my African adventures, most of my coffee experiences have been of the vile instant variety, even in countries where they export decent coffee – Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda. Clearly almost all for export only. I never want to see Ricoffee (a powdered blend of chicory and coffee so popular in Southern Africa) ever again.

Here in Ethiopia, coffee is rightly worshipped. Even at the smallest ramshackle street-side coffee-house can rustle up a macchiato for Birr3-4 (about 20-25 US cents).

Who wants to spend two hours being bored shitless by a Japanese tea ceremony when you can experience the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Ceremonies vary from a one courser (about 20 minutes) to the full three one for almost an hour. Pots are arranged around an alter with a strong bark incense burning in a pot.

Fresh green beans are put into a small pan and tossed and shuffled over an open fire, until toasted brown. They are then freshly ground using a heavy pestle and mortar. It’s then boiled up in coffee-pots and drunk with complete pleasure.

Those indulging in the full three course ceremony –
1st comes the finest – known as Abola
2nd comes Tona – the chaser for the Abola
3rd – a dessert coffee as such – the Baraka

Respect to both coffee and Ethiopia.

Editor’s Note: i find it difficult to sleep in Ethiopia, but it may be just the long bus journeys.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Painting on the Streets of Jinka

Dr Gloves in action

Gloves and i opt not to visit the Mursi tribe – an experience that even Lonely Planet describe as a “human zoo”.

Gloves is a keen water-colour artist and decides he wants to find a nice spot in Jinka for a painting session. We walk from the Jinka Resort hotel to the local market place and try to find a “spot”.

We do, in one of the off-shoots from the main square. However, being on a corner, there is a waft of urine emanating from the space. A couple of English speaking locals asks why we want to hang out at a public urinal and they have a point. I procure Gloves a small stool from a shop opposite and then head off for a coffee at a local cafe.

Returning back some 45 minutes later and Gloves is surrounded by curious locals. Clearly the concept of painting is fairly foreign here and many ask if he is an architect or town planner who wants to redevelop the area.

a gathering crowd

As he finishes up, one of the shop owners comes out. She is loud and mad, and demands Birr. Gloves offers her a hand fan he has brought from Hong Kong. She looks at it with distain and passes it back to him. He offers her the painting, but this is also poo-pooed. He then offers her a few Birr but she slings it back in his face. It is starting to get ugly. When faced with madness, i invariably act with greater lunacy and this is no exception. I go into her face and do my Sammy Seal impressions as Gloves quickly packs up his stuff.

We are followed by a youngish man who says he is “security”. He informs us “painting is dangerous” and repeatedly follows us We end up scurrying from cafe to cafe trying to lose him. It takes some 40 minutes.

He is right however, painting is dangerous.

Post Script: With some trepidation, Gloves pulls out his paints at sunset on the bank of Lake Awassa and enjoys an undisturbed 45 minutes.

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Eye and a Lens - Mursi Tribe by Mathieu

Whilst Gloves and i opt out of this part of the trip Mathieu and Lisa can’t resist a visit to this “prehistoric” tribe. Mathieu shares his photos, but like all images on ALITD, they are not for downloading.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cultural Tribal Experiences or a Human Zoo?

Mursi Girl at Jinka market

We all have an image of what “Traditional Africa” looks like, but the reality is far removed. The Christian missionaries forced Africans into clothes and “civilization” and Africa has never been the same since.

Don’t get me wrong, the journey to the tribal south of Ethiopia is both interesting and quite beautiful. However i witness firsthand the pitfalls of such a trip, and it’s not attractive.

Lower Omo provides a rare opportunity to see and experience tribalism like almost nowhere else, including Ari, Banna, Bumi, Hamer, Karo, Mursi and Surma. The tourist market is enormous and the Ethiopian authorities have become very wise to this, charging considerable sums of money to enter the region and visit some of the wilder tribal areas which are have now become Human Reserves.

The vast majority of foreign visitors (and i include myself in this category) come armed with cameras ready to capture “classic” portraits of the tribes. After all we rarely see half naked elaborately ornate women wondering around the streets. And after all many will come and offer to have their photos taken in exchange for Birr – a strong contrast to the camera-shy Ethiopians in almost all other parts of the country.

Although i rarely offer “money for portraits” i don’t have many qualms about paying small amounts for photos – modelling fees are a given in many countries after all. However, in Lower Omo especially i witness some horrendous sights and exchanges that disturb me greatly.

Scene One:
I ask Gitacho our driver to stop as we race towards Turmi at sunset. There are two very beautiful tribal girls ornately decked out in loin cloths and beads and not much else. We are quickly surrounded by villagers, young and old, clambering for photographs and more importantly for them - Birr. Jostled and bustled i beat a rapid retreat back into the Landcruiser. It’s not pretty.

Scene Two:
Three elderly Italians are dining in a restaurant. They ask their guide to invite a young local tribesman to join them for dinner on the condition that they can video him eating spaghetti. He spends the next half hour with a video camera in his face as he tries to negotiate cutlery and spaghetti whilst the three Italians openly hoot with laughter at his attempts to eat.

Scene Three:
A young Italian male and his girlfriend arrive on market day in Demica and arrives into the local restaurant with a Canon D1 and a 300mm lens. He is shouting and screaming at his driver. He is angry and upset because he is being charged Birr10 (about 65 US cents) per photo. “It’s just not fair! They are charging me too much because i have a long lens” he bemoans. “We are not made welcome here” he tells anyone who will listen and storms off.

I catch up with him later and suggest he maybe uses another lens. I am predominantly using my standard 50mm lens for greater anonymity..

Scene Four: An elderly Italian is in the market. He has selected a tribal male and female for a photo shoot. He spends some 15 minutes “training” the models in the particular poses he is after. He carefully angles both their faces and bodies as if in a photographic studio and can’t hide his irritation as he endeavours to get the tribesman’s chin a bit higher and into the light. Not surprisingly his elaborate behaviour draws a large disapproving audience from both locals and travellists alike. He remains in complete ignorance of his behaviour.

After my experience on Day Two, i find i prefer to engage in dialogue and share cultural exchanges rather than through my view-finder, and i find these experience far more rewarding. I admire their jewellery and hair-styles and they seem to admire my bangles and quite intrigued by my dreadlocks. I play with the kids, and they hold my hand and take me through their village.

The highlight for most people’s tour is a visit to the Mursi tribe – complete with large lip plates and a lot of nakedness. Now kept in “reservations” this is the archetypal zoo experience. Both myself and Gloves opt to just hang out in Jinka instead.

Everyone has their own idea on what is an “acceptable” interaction. Mathieu goes round playing his I-pod for the locals and treats wounds he sees with antiseptic cream whilst his mother buys one bare-footed young girl a pair of pink shoes. I find these actions both patronising and inappropriate. It’s all too easy to play the role of the condescending and patronising “White Man”.

My advice would be to think very carefully about undertaking such a “Tribal Experience”. What are you after and what will you bring by such interference into the lives of the local? With road conditions continually improving, more faranjis will have even easier access into this region and both the land and the people with irrevocably change further.

Would i do it again? Absolutely not. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Southern Tour - Day Seven - Awassa to Addis

the fish market
The daily fish market is vaguely interesting but probably not worth the Birr 2o asked of faranjis. A brief stop at Lake Ziway for lunch and it's back to Addis.
3,000 year old rock carvings

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Southern Tour - Day Six - Yabello to Awassa

sunset over the lake in Awassa

Awassa is a really cool town. Set on a lake this must be one of the most relaxed places in Ethiopia.

Check out The Circle of Life Backbackers next to the lake and a quality Italian restaurant Dolce Vita. There is an ATM to top up your funds.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Southern Tour Day Three - Turmi to Jinka


Two Saturday markets to whizz around (Dimeka and Jinka), but it did mean we missed the Buffalo Run - 21kms out of Dimeka - and over an hour even in our natty 30 year old land cruiser. The Buffalo Run is a rite of passage for the boys and ho can only become men by running over the backs of large buff - lined up ith some 30 heads of cattle. Failure to complete straight runs involves ridicule from the watching women and beatings with sticks is not uncommon.

The woman above is from the Hamma tribe, famed for their gorgeous locks which is made from a mix of matural ochre mixed with fat.

Although a custom for the women, i seize on an opportunity for a cultural exchange. i ask for same treatment for my unravelling dread-locks. It thick and course and smells like raw sewage. Gloves is too intrigued or in fits of laughter to capture the moment for prosperity - probably just as well methinks.

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my new hairdresser in action

Friday, January 21, 2011

Southern Tour Day Two - Arba Minch to Turmi


After a boat safari to see yhe hippos and 18 metre crocodiles at the Nechisa National Park it is a beautiful drive into the Omo Valley.

This gorgeous portrait was taken just outside Konso.

prehistoric whopping crocs abound

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Southern Tour Day One - Addis to Arba Minch

I am much indebted to Dr Gloves for hiring a 4wd and driver to take us to Omo Valley - tribal country.

It's a long journey although the road is now sealed most of the way. The further south we go, the more interesting the encounters. We pass through Gurage country, famed for their hard graft and their penchant for Kocho - a dish made using "false" bananas.

In Arba Minch we bed down at the Rendezvous Hotel - an upmarket brothel.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Epiphany Parade in Addis


Epiphany is a mega-holiday in Ethiopia. The streets of Addis were packed this morning with groups parading in the streets with a carnival-like atmosphere with songs, dances and chants. More photos will be added one day i'm sure.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011


sunset from the Old City

Situated south of the Churcher Mountain range in the east of Ethiopia, some 350kms from the border with Djibouti, lies the town/small city of Harar. P. loved it here and tells me not to miss out on this gem, whilst Drew, an Australian backpacker i meet in Lalibela tells me he was looking forward to a few days here, but left town after 24 hours through boredom. We’re all different with different interests and tastes, but i kinda love this place.

I arrive by Skybus from Addis (Birr 278) after an eight and a half hour journey.

Harar self identifies as “a living museum” on its travel brochures, whilst Lonely Planet – Africa calls it “

Harar is undoubtedly an unique place. The old walled city covers just 1 square kilometre but is filled with some 368 alleyways and 87 mosques and shrines. This is a very Moslem part of the country. There is a very Arabesque feel to the place, but more colourful than one might expect, with the local women covered with floating multi-coloured hues. The scents and aromas seeping through from the herbs and spices even overcome more urinary smells from deeper recesses. Unfortunately my photos do little justice to the place.

Somewhat uniquely i am referred to as a “feranjo” rather than the more regular “feranji” – making for a not unpleasant change.

French poet, dromomaniac, hash monster and bon viveur Arthur Rimbaud relocated here in 1884, and became a close personal friend to Haile Selasie’s father – the Governor of Harar. There is a museum in the walled city commemorating Rimbaud’s life and works.

the Rimbaud museum

There are several young men offering you city guides, but they are not too persistent. The locals are friendly and open, and it is the first place in Ethiopia where they are not always asking you for money, even for showing you around and helping you out! The women are very beautiful, with unfeasibly high cheek bones, kohled eyes and stunning flirtatious smiles. Most are far too shy to be photographed – such a pity!

in front of the old city

The Harar Beer factory does tours in the morning, sells souvenirs and has a quality restaurant and beer garden. Nits at the North East edge of town (rickshaw Birr5 – 10). They boast the only export beer in Ethiopia – with New York and London popular clients. I know nada about beer, but i take a sup and the dark ale tastes quite good: rich with just a slight chemical edge in the after-taste.

The nightly feeding session of the hyenas is a must-see. Click here for more information.

During my stay i get to witness the Business Expo 2011 which runs for a week during January. There is live music and a few treats to be had.

There are a couple of day excursions to do out of Harar.

Between 17and 19 kms out lies the Argoban village of Koromi (Koremi). It’s meant to be really interesting, perched high on a cliff, but quotes range between Birr 500 – 1000 for transport. As i am heading to Lower Omo valley i pass up on this option.

Babille lies 31km out of town. Walk 4kms further out of Babille aand you enter Dakhata valley, known as the Valley of Marvels. Read all about it by clicking here.

The city is plagued by water shortages and it turned off for hours every day.
There is a Darshen Bank with international Visa and even Mastercard ATM.

Places to Stay:

My first hotel is the Belayneh – at Birr 175 one of my more expensive stays. The bed is comfy, has a TV (but only two local stations) and a balcony which overlooks the market. The water even when present is not hot despite the enormous water-heater in the bathroom.

The Harar Ras hotel is the opposite end of town by the only set of traffic lights in town. It is a government run place, but at Birr102 with an attached bathroom is a bit better value even if the mattresses are ridiculously soft. Unfortunately they are expanding at the moment and work begins at 8am. The full set breakfast (eggs, toast and fruit juice) is good if a bit pricey at Birr30. They also have a useful 24 hour bar.

Places to Eat:

I really like both the coffee and the Danish breakfast at the large blue Ali Bal Cafe. It’s located on the first roundabout through the Main Gate.

The Barbeque (chicken, beef and goat) at the Harar Beer factory is excellent if somewhat out of town. Combine it with a morning tour perhaps?

The pizzas are good at Fresh Touch, but not much else. Equally good pizza are available at Harar Ras hotel.

The Cozy Cafe in New Town does a fair breakfast, but when i visit at night has virtually no food to offer despite their comprehensive menu.

I check out the Hirut restaurant, a famous local eatery to try kwanta (quanta) firfir, a local dish containing raw beef marinated in chilli and lemon. The meat tastes quite good, but the injera stuffed with injera overdose makes me queasy. Going local is not always sensible for me – when will i learn?

Getting Around

Bajajs both shared (Birr1 – 3) and private (Birr5 – 10) are readily available around town. The taxis are old Peugeots and they look amazing, although i don’t use them myself. Mini buses to a wide variety of destinations depart from just outside the gate to the Old City.
local taxis

outside the Old City