Starvin’ Marvin

9 01 2009

Posted by: Chris & Laura

Travel dates: 10.02.08- 10.10.08

Chris: We all have stereotypes of Africa: the animals, the tribal dress, the classic image of an Acacia tree in a lonely, dusty sprawl of meek vegetation in the Serengeti. And thanks to the “We are the World” video (and more recently South Park) Ethiopia has its main stereotype too–starving.

We didn’t originally plan to come to Ethiopia and didn’t talk about the idea until Mozambique (which ironically was another country we didn’t plan to go to and I couldn’t have placed on the map before the trip). It’s a poor African country with tenuous relationships with bordering Eritrea and Somalia. The capital, Addis Ababa, where we flew into can be pretty tough to handle if you aren’t mentally prepared. Poverty, disability, and malnutrition are on full display in certain areas. But Ethiopia isn’t anything like the African images of dusty Kenya and Tanzania. It’s one of the oldest countries in the world with a fascinating culture all to it’s own, and a dry moderate climate.  The language, Amarhic, is unique and incomrehensible.  The local music and dance, while perhaps takes some getting used too, are again totally original.  It’s one of only 2 countries in Africa that was never colonized by Europe and therefore has developed  independently (Liberia is the other, though this is debated). Originally referred to as Abyssinia, it was later home to the Kingdom of Aksum and was mentioned in both the Illiad and the Odyssey. This is also the home of Lucy, still the oldest complete fossilized human skeleton. Point is it’s old, real old.

Strangely, Ethiopia has the best cusine in Africa–a spicy array of stew-like dishes served on “injera,” a slightly sour pancake made of fermented teff flour. They use their own spice mixes such as “Berbere,” which we bought a few kilos of and shipped home.  I tried their honey wine which is similar to mead and not to my taste.  I did however eat Kitfo–or raw spiced beef–6 times while in the country, which might be the ballsiest thing I’ve done all trip, yet I never got sick. Laura did not partake, and the locals who saw me cracked up.  They liked it, but apparently never saw tourists eat it.addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-01

We spent a lot of time in Addis doing nothing particularly worth noting except eating, talking with people, eating more, looking at the cool markets, and drinking lots, and lots of badass coffee. As it turns out, this is also the home to the popular magical bean that has made Starbucks possible.  Our favorite place is “Tomoca” where for $0.30 you can get the best Macchiato of your life and discuss politics with the locals.  While never colonized, Italians occupied Ethiopia for several years during WWII.  The result is decent Italian food to go along with the local stuff, and old Italian espresso machines.  We could be in the middle of nowhere and almost every single restaurant would have a vintage machine–and know how to use it.  Ethiopians also have a traditional coffee ceremony where they roast the beans in front of you while burning incense, and serve it to you black with sugar (along with popcorn).addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-10


After a few days in Addis, we took a bus to Harar, a city in the east and once on a major trade route.  The Harar region is also well known for it’s coffee bean quality. I spoke with a local guide who toured the Starbucks reps around the area when they were buying the beans. Starbucks imports a lot of coffee from this region and had a pretty nasty court case not too long ago where they addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-12were actively trying to block Ethiopia from trademarking 3 brands of coffee. Ethiopia got the trademarks and are now paid a lot more for the exports than Starbucks would have preferred. But while sipping a macchiato with the guide he asked if I liked Starbucks coffee. I explained no, that it’s more sugar and milk than coffee and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing I just prefer the taste of the actual coffee bean. But I told him that the people want milk and sugar, so Starbucks caters to that instead of making good coffee. He took another sip and said, “that’s exactly what the Starbucks guy said. He doesn’t drink it either.”

At night we found our way outside the town gates to try a local tradition: feeding wild Hyenas with our bare hands.  Not sure exactly how this got started, the book claims it’s an old tradition but I’ve also heard it started as a tourist gimmick back in the 60’s.  The feeder is some local who picked up the duty after his father died several years back.  We figured there would be more people, but no—just the 3 of us.  He kept yelling at the kids running around nearby.  He told us it was safe and we had nothing to worry about, but obviously he respected the animals and made sure no one else was around.  We sat on some steps when quietly they came, one by one.  We thought they were dogs at first.  Big dogs.  With shiny eyes and huge necks.  They just sat there until the guy came back with a bucket of raw meat and a stick.  We came over with him, got on our knees with the feeder, and took pieces of meat and fed the Hyenas.  Sometimes they’d snap too close or gather together, and the feeder would swing the stick and yell to back them off from us.  A bit surreal, it was completely quiet besides us three and the Hyenas as everyone else dissapeared.  We used our flashlights to see the creatures in the dark, and to watch the local feed them with his mouth.  Freaking nutcase.


One afternoon some local teenage girls welcomed themselves to our table and we spent the next hour talking with them.  They even taught us some Arabic (which they learn in school along with English and Amarhic), and bought us some cake to eat.  Rarely in Ethiopia can you be alone as locals will invite themselves for conversation.  Most are just curious and really want  learn about the USA.  But there are few tourists and you’re likely to be the only Westerner at any sight, restaurant, or coffee house.  In Guatemala or Peru, they may make quality coffee but none of the locals drink it.  It all gets exported and the few upscale places serving it are visited only by Westerners.  But this country isn’t like Zanzibar, or Capetown, or some Safari.  Here, everything is for the locals.  When we ate in Ethiopia we were surrounded by locals.  When we visited ruins or historical sights it was us and all locals.  They have the money to travel around and eat out regularly and are very proud of their history (it might be the only place we’ve travelled where this happens). And while we’ve gotten pretty used to being the only white people around, it still cracks me up when kids pass by and stare at Laura like she’s some sort of alien.harar-kids-01

Laura: As I’ve noted before, I’m used to getting stares. Chris’ height, dark hair, and tan skin help him blend in. So when we got to Ethiopia, I was surprised to see the women staring at Chris. They would walk by in clusters and couldn’t take their eyes off him. If Chris smiled, or said hello, they would break into giggles and laughter. I have to note that the women in Ethiopia are georgous. Absolutely beautiful. So I got more than a little jealous watching groups of georgous women swooning over Chris. I told Chris that he could have a very lucrative career in an Ethiopian boy band.

***Click Here to See More Ethiopia Pics at Our Flickr Site




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