post Paradise Found

May 22nd, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 20:37

Paradise Found in Ethiopia

by Gwen Tiernan

After stumbling off the truck, totally beaten down by the harsh travel experience of northern Kenya, we dragged ourselves through Kenya border control and walked to the Ethiopian side where the border was closed. We would have to come back at 3pm when it reopened. Spent the next hour or so walking up the hill that Ethiopian Moyale is sprawled across looking at every accommodation option; they were all just that bad.


We didn’t have our tent because we didn’t have our bike, and already regretted it. One place had an ensuite bathroom, but there was a very large pile of human fasces in the shower. When we pointed it out to the guy showing us the room he said, “Yes, shower”. Umm…. Things went on in a similar vein, and we finally settled on Tourist Hotel back at the bottom of the hill next to the border post. Cockroaches that could feed a family, but there was a poo-free shower.

The next morning we were up at 4am to catch a bus to Addis Ababa. Buses are only allowed to travel between 6am and 6pm in Ethiopia so they try to fill them up as early as possible, and it would take 2 days to get from Moyale to Addis with an overnight stop in Awassa. The trip was the height of comfort and uneventful compared to the truck through northern Kenya, though both days the bus had a flat tire, and both times it was replaced by an equal bald tire.

Semen Mountains

In fact, I could see the weaving so it was beyond bald. The conductors were quick to change it so I didn’t mind, and southern Ethiopia is scenic, similar to northern Kenya with scrubby vegetation covering the dry earth. We noticed a profusion of donkey carts on the road, and this was our introduction to how essential donkeys are to the Ethiopian economy: everything is transported near and far by donkey.

From other travellers we had heard nothing but bad news about Ethiopia, especially the begging, and were prepared to hate the country. However, people are friendly and begging to us wasn’t nearly as bad as East Africa. At a lunch stop on the bus a few kids came over to complain that they were hungry, and some older guys threw rocks at them to make them stop begging. Definitely have not seen that before in Africa!

Addis Piazza

Ethiopians are fine featured and tall, and I think the men and women are beautiful. The food is great as well, which is worlds apart from what I would say about most African cuisine: injera, a huge, flat, spongy piece of bread-like substance, covered with some variety of wot (stew), tibs (sautéed meat), spaghetti, or fasting food (vegetarian food without egg or dairy either). Coffee’s very good also as the Italians left lots of espresso machines behind when they briefly tried to colonize Ethiopia in the 1930s. They also left gelato, pasta and pastries, and Ethiopians brew some of the best African beer I have tasted. What more could you want? My only complaint would be that Ethiopians have some inexplicable superstition regarding fresh air, and the windows on the bus stay firmly closed despite the sweltering heat, sun pouring in, and people getting sick. At least we will appreciate the bike when we get back to Nairobi, no lack of fresh air there.

Arrived in Addis late in the afternoon of the second day and it was like stepping out of prison. We splashed out on a decent hotel and went out for martinis, wine and dinner at a nice restaurant; after the 5 day ordeal to get from Nairobi to Addis, and the good impression we had of the country on the way up, we were now ready to love Ethiopia. Addis is quite a modern city, but still has oodles of character, great museums, and loads to do. The day after arriving we treated ourselves to coffee and pastries- eating out is a rare novelty on the trip as we usually make meals on our cooker- and made our first attempt at getting a Cameroonian visa. Nick’s application (NZ passport) was accepted, but the receptionist told me I needed an invitation letter (American passport). There’s no Cameroonian Embassy in Nairobi, so we need to get it here. The visa costs US$114 so I would have thought the bribe was included, but apparently not.

Village in North Ethiopia

Our next destination was the predominantly Muslim walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. We caught an overnight minibus, much quicker than the buses, and spent the day wandering around the city, checking out markets, alleys, the various gates, and taking it all in. Really cool, picturesque city, and just walking around is an experience. People herding fully-laden donkeys through the alleys, crazy homeless men motioning you over and uncovering a severed camel’s head sitting next to them, an amazing amount of beggars clogging the road inside the walls and sleeping on the cold streets at night. Once walking down an empty alley a huge grey dog that looked half hyena came out of the haze from someone burning rubbish. Scary dog and we weren’t quite sure what to do as it was growling at us and pacing around the end of the alley, but then this kid walked by and held up a stone to scare away the dog for us. He had this big grin, and every time the dog got close, he held the stone higher and it left us alone. Even remembering it feels like a dream.

Tried Kitfo, an Ethiopian specialty of raw mince mixed with butter and berbere (a hot, uniquely Ethiopian blend of spices including up to 94 different spices) - tasty. That evening we went to watch the hyena feeding, according to the Lonely Planet a totally traditional, non-touristy event. Other than the floodlights from the tour bus full of aging German tourists… We had to pay an extra 5Birr for staying 5 minutes longer than our time allotment. Still, I got to feed hyenas out of my hand so without the LP build-up it was quite a cool, unique experience.

Coffee ceremony

Back in Addis we checked out the National Museum, quite a rarity for us to darken a museum’s door, and so glad we did! We saw casts of the Lucy bones that were discovered in Ethiopia (they keep the real ones locked away in the museum’s archive), and a cast of what her complete skeleton would have looked like, which is short. Also passed by Yekatit 12 Monument to those who were killed during a massacre by the Italian occupiers, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which is the final resting place of Haile Selassie and his wife. We walked around Piazza, a very Italian section of Addis, ate some of the best food we have had on the trip, and generally loved being in Addis.

Minibuses are the way to go in Ethiopia, so for our next foray, to Gondar in northern Ethiopia, we arranged to go by minibus. It left at 3.30am and got into Gondar at 4pm the same day, which sounded vastly better than spending 2, or possibly 3 days on a hot, slow bus. On this trip faranjis (foreigners) far outnumbered the 2 Ethiopians, but we still had to fight for every millimetre of open window. What a bizarre custom. Arriving in Gondar we had to wander the city a while to find a place to stay. In typical African style I had a kid pestering me as we walked along, and, typically Ethiopian, when I finally looked over to tell him to go away, he held up my keys that I had dropped and said with a huge smile “Welcome!”

Enjoying chat in Addis

Gondar is another pretty city with lots to see, and was capital of an Ethiopian kingdom from 1636-1855. Other than a bit of bomb damage from when the British helped chase out the Italians after WWII, the castles are in good shape. Most are concentrated in the Royal Enclosure in the middle of Gondar; the Lion Houses were actually used to keep lions until the 1990s, and restoration work has been done on the major castles.

We had been hoping to hike in the Simien Mountains, near Gondar, and were lucky enough to find the perfect group of 3 other people who wanted to do a similar route. There was Karen, a Scottish GP who has been the medical support for a number of other treks, Phil, a crazy Dutch psychiatric nurse who has also done loads of trekking, including to Everest base camp, and was the character of the trip, and Chris, an Aussie corporate bank manager and also well experienced. Could not have gotten luckier with a more fun, chilled-out and fit crew, and they made half the trip. For once we went along with flow and didn’t try to do everything dirt cheap, and had one of the best experience of the trip because of it. We organized the hike through a company (all this was virgin territory for me), and who knew hiking could be so luxurious? Mules carried our food and gear, we had a COOK (!), bonfires every night, snacks laid out for us when we reached that night’s camp- it was unreal. Everyone agreed that the scenery is some of the best in the world.

Everything in Ethiopia is carried by donkey it never took long to reach the next highlight. Waterfalls plunging 400m into gorges, gelada baboons and their constant shagging, valleys and amazing rock formations, picturesque villages, mountain ibex, and generally great scenery. The scout even let us pose with his Kalashnikov. The highest mountain was over 4400m and we were up pretty high the whole time, so it was mighty cold and one morning my breakfast plate kept vibrating off my lap because I was shivering so hard. At least we were always keen to get hiking first thing in the morning!

Back in Gondar we had a few boozy nights with our fellow hikers to celebrate, and one night had the dubious pleasure of experiencing an Ethiopian specialty. It’s like Ethiopian stand-up: someone, usually a guy, plays this stringed instrument while a woman sings. She comes around and sings to everyone individually and says either nice things or not depending on how much money you give her. Apparently is wickedly funny, but as it’s all in Amharic she could sing what she wanted to about us.

The main problem with Gondar is its lack of good restaurants: we found one good one only to have the
owners try to majorly rip us off and get nasty about it (never go to Mini Fogera), but our last night we went to a decent pizza place, and the waiter made it by teaching me how to shoulder dance (another Ethiopian specialty). I’ll post the video if travel blog lets me.

Scout on Semen Mountains

We really went overboard on the luxury side of things, and flew from Gondar to Lalibela as there were no minibuses between the cities, and buses could have taken up to a week. In our usual early morning Gondar state, totally hungover, we could hardly appreciate all the hassle the 20 minute flight saved us. Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches were not the stunningly beautiful masterpieces I had expected, and are probably a teensy bit over-hyped, but maybe once they are no longer shrouded in scaffolding all the work that went into making them will be easier to appreciate. They were built around the 12th Century, and I wondered how King Lalibela knew that the rock went deep enough to carve these multi-storied churches. The actual making of them must have been an amazing undertaking. We were lucky enough to be visiting on St. Michael’s Day, so we watched.

Every night he feeds hyenas outside the gates, and the tourists almost outnumber the hyenas the swaying, chanting priests and worshippers in Bet Mikael for a while. We got the bus back to Addis, 2 days of slow, dusty travel on mountain roads that made us glad NOT to be on the bike. The second day was mostly through road works, and it was interesting to see these camel trains of massively laden camels carrying the building materials. Sometimes their loads were taller than our bus, and the whole scene made me wish the road wasn’t too bumpy for my camera. No pictures, sorry.

Addis the third time around was meant to be a quick stopover to get my Cameroonian visa before the 5 day trip back to Nairobi where we still had to fix the bike before flying to Cameroon. However, quick it was not as the Cameroonian Consular took exception to my American passport and repeatedly denied me a visa. Luckily we ran into some good friends we had made along the way, Hugh, an Irish biker, Rene, a Canadian biker, and Guy and Marlaine, a vagabond Belgian couple. Had some good nights out in Addis nightclubs (they really are FULL of prostitutes, Ethiopians have a very liberated view of prostitution), and good times to break the Cameroonian Embassy monotony.

Here’s what happened: The US Embassy does not give invitation letters, period, and the standard letter they give out is almost insulting, so I was not totally surprised when I was denied my visa a second time. I now needed an invitation letter from someone in Cameroon. Luckily, my grandparents help sponsor a Cameroonian to study in the US, and his sister, Bea, was happy to help. It took ages to contact her, but I finally did and she wrote me the perfect invitation letter and had it certified. There were lots of problems with fax machines not working, the Embassy staff giving me the wrong email address, etc, but finally the letter arrived. No, denied a visa again, and this time there was no reason and nothing more I could do. We already had our plane tickets to Douala, Cameroon, so I really needed that visa and Nick went back to talk/beg the Consular on my behalf. The Consular railed on at Nick for ages that the wrong official had signed the letter; it had to be the president, vice president, or mayor inviting me to Cameroon! That is astoundingly incorrect, but I should not have needed this stupid letter in the first place and Herr Consular was above fairness. Stunningly, Bea somehow managed to get the mayor to sign the letter. Wow. Already this had dragged on for 2 weeks of me running between the Embassy, internet café, and hotel where I could call Bea in Cameroon. So, I went back to the Embassy and the Consular had left that morning on holiday and would not be back for weeks! The second Consular could give me a visa, though, and when the first Consular’s secretary ran down to ask for my passport, she ran back upstairs saying, “You are very lucky Mr. whoever is not here today. I’m very happy for you!” She came back down for the receptionist to put the visa stamp in my passport and fill it out, and both of them were really excited that I was getting my visa as they both knew me well at this point and were on my side. Now all my visa needed was the official stamp, which would be put in by the second Consular, but he was on the phone. I waited downstairs with the receptionist and secretary, and finally he swept downstairs with my application and told me there was a problem. On the visa application I had given an address in Douala, not knowing I would need an invitation letter, and he wanted to know why I had put an address in Douala when I was going to visit Bea in Limbe. He was on his way to a meeting and told me to come back the next morning and I could discuss it with him. As soon as he was out of eyesight, the secretary and receptionist were shaking their heads and motioning no, then when he left they told me he was a nice man, but I would not get my visa if I came the next morning. They had already put the final stamp in without him knowing! They told me to go, enjoy my holiday, and never come back.

On the road to the North
To compound it all we were at the same time
trying to sort out our flights to Cameroon. We had booked our bike to be on a cargo flight the same day as our passenger flight from Nairobi to Douala December 14th. Now there was some problem with cargo flights in December, but no one quite knew what the problem was. Finally got Kenya Airways to call Nairobi, and were told that cargo flights to Douala were to be terminated as of December 4. No one was sure if we could take the bike on a passenger plane, and as it was so close to Christmas flights to anywhere else in West Africa were full. We really needed this flight to work out. The visa took so long that we would have to change the dates anyway, and the whole thing was such a mess I was looking at flights to Europe! If they hadn’t also been full, this blog may have had a premature ending: it was a trying couple of weeks in Addis. Found out, entirely through our own research with no thanks to Kenya Airways staff, that Kenya Airways flew a 767 on Fridays from Nairobi to Douala, and our bike would fit on that plane. So we rebooked for December 21st, a Friday, and kept our fingers crossed.

The morning after the Cameroonian Embassy told me never to return, we were up at 4am to begin the journey back to Nairobi. Again uneventful compared to what lay ahead, and despite all the final frustrations in Addis we were still sad to be leaving: we both decided that Ethiopia has been our favourite country of the trip so far. Ate our last injeras, drank our last Ethiopian beers, and crossed the border to where the fun began in finding a truck to Nairobi.

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