27 01 2009

osted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 10.11.08 – 10.26.08

We’ve laid it on pretty thick in our posts but in case you haven’t read, busing around Africa can be tough and draining.  Fortunately Ethiopia Airlines is one of Africa’s most well organized airlines and we lucked out on a deal for 5 flights within the country for about $250, saving us what would have been 10 days of pure bus travel.  If you fly into Ethiopia via Ethiopian airlines be sure to check up on this deal and whatever other specials they might have.  We checked out several towns before heading back to Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela, and Axum:

Bahir Dar: The Ethiopian Orthodox church was acknowledged as independent from the Coptic Orthodox church in 1959 and while the differences are subtle and probably incomprehensible to anyone not Orthodox themselves, these churches differ from Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox branches.   But the Ethiopian branch is one of the oldest Christian religions in Africa and Orthodox was made the official religion of the  Axumite Empire back in the 4th century A.D. bahir-dar-04

Lake Tana can be reached by Bahir Dar where there are several island monasteries that can be explored by boat.  The Monasteries are simple in structure with colorfully painted Christian passages on the inside walls.  The men are dressed in beautiful colored robes, usually yellow, and recite their prayers as you walk around.    Inside they burn Frankincense and take out massive bronze crosses whose different styles represent different regions of the country.   In one Monastery, I was allowed to see and take pictures of huge Bibles written over a thousand years ago (if in Europe these books would be locked up behind glass in a museum; here, they were still being used).  There were also the crowns of some of the Kings of Gondar, brass crosses, and other religious relics.  Some of the Monasteries are for men only though, and Laura wasn’t allowed on this one.


Laura liked the cool looking “puff plants” everywhere (which we later discovered were papyrus), and we also saw the source of the Nile.  There was an Ethiopian from Gondar who was also sightseeing with us.  Funny thing was, the boat driver charged him more than he charged us, so it looks like even the locals get screwed if they don’t bargain right.  A day trip nearby here can be taken to “Tis Abbey” which is the 2nd largest waterfall in Africa (after Victoria Falls).

Gondar: The “Camelot of Africa,” who knew there were medieval castles in Ethiopia?  Although facts might get in the way of the following, it is a generally accepted belief in the country that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son, Menelik I, who became king of Ethiopia and started a long line of rulers claiming King Solomon’s descent and thus became one of if not the oldest ruling dynasties in the world (they were deposed in 1974).



During the 16th & 17th centuries, Gondar became the capital of the Ethiopian empire where it remained until 1855, and rulers proceeded to build up the area.  The result is a large European medieval castle influenced in one way or another by the Portuguese that once lived in Ethiopia.  Around the area aregondar-kids-running-with-laura-01 also churches, and a massive pool called Fasaladis’s Bath where every year a blessing ceremony is held.

This country is famous for long-distance athletes with Haile Gebrselassie toping that list as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.  On one run, Laura had a couple kids tag along (something that’s become a pretty common occurrence in Africa).  I meanwhile watched 2 guys practicing 100m sprints; not on the grass or a track, but on the stadium rows which were made out of stone and lacked any sort of railing.  Barefoot.    During another run Laura was heading along the sidewalk, passed a cafe, and as she passed everyone started clapping for her.

Lalibela: In response to Jerusalem being sacked by Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela started what he wished to be a “New Jerusalem,” a city that would rival Axum in religious importance.  Some say he visited the Holy land himself and others claim there must have been architects from other civilizations due to the complicated engineering.  But so far the facts suggest that Ethiopia constructed the churches themselves during the 12th & 13th centuries, carving out of pure granite 11 rock-hewn churches.  Most are free standing connected only at the base while the interior has been carved out, complete with arches, doorways, and reliefs.  Similar to Petra in Jordan (the church in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and the Ellora caves in India.lalibela-09



An extremely religious city, it is said out of the 8-10,000 people in town, 1,000 are priests.  The smells of Frankenscense abound, along with kind (but difficult to locate) priests who keep the keys to the churches, this middle of nowhere town feels ancient.  Strangely, there are more flies here than anywhere in the world and walking down the street can be almost unbearable at times as they swarm.  You’re also guaranteed to be followed for miles by children (and adults) aggressively demanding candy, pens, money, etc.  But if these churches were in somewhere other than Ethiopia, it would be a well known Christian site.  Instead, you’re pretty much alone wandering through.


Axum: The largest Obelisks in the world, Axum is also home to the Axumite Empire whose language, Ge’ez, can still be heard around the country.  To be honest, we thought the place was a dump and changed our flight to leave the following day.  The Obelisks are cool, especially since Italy has finally returned one they stole back during their occupation, but they stand on a pretty lonely field that takes away from the feel.  The museum was moderately interesting, and we read of several more things that could be seen around the area, but we were kinda dis-interested at this point.  Locals claim the Ark of the Covenant was moved here and rests in a chapel near the Church of St. Mary of Zion, but you have 0% chance of getting near it (how convenient). axum-02axum-01

We did manage to set our personal highin a game we call “let’s screw the tourist.”  Here, we go into a store and ask how much an item is, in this case a necklace that we know we can buy for under $5 at the least (they have the same stuff all over the country to buy).  One store tried to sell it to us for $40, convincing us that locals watch way too much “Cribs” on MTV.

Back in Addis: More coffee, more fantastic food, and a lot of time spent with some Irish friends we met in Lalibela.  Gary and Suzanne helped cement a future trip to Ireland regardless of how much it rains.  They traveled down through Sudan and the Middle East and like everyone else we met who has been to Sudan, they claim it holds some of the kindest, most welcoming people in the world.  Of course, there’s not much there to see besides the people, but hey.

We spent a couple mornings in the gigantic outdoor market buying gifts like spices, frankincense, a wooden cross, embroidered fabrics, jewelry, and all sorts of unique items that cannot be found anywhere outside of Ethiopia.  We also had to watch our back pretty hard as we caught several people blatantly tailing us.


Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries but many people hate it and it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the rougher side .  The trend sems to be if you come up from South Africa/Kenya/Tanzania, then you will like it more.  If you travel down and enter Ethiopia after the Middle East and Sudan (basically the Arab world), then Ethiopia is too harsh a change and some of the people too frustrating.   To quote Bradt (a respected guide for African backpackers), there is a part of the population that “once all the patronizing excuses are made, are rude, racist, and cowardly.”  Pretty harsh words, but you gotta appreciate that he has the balls to call it for what it is.  Beggers, especially the kids, can be aggressive and threatening.  Some children get so excited, they start throwing rocks at you.  You might be loved, hated, blamed, or idiolized, but you won’t be ignored.  There are two different sides, but it is without a doubt unique and one of the few countries that can claim such a distinctive personality.  There is little tourism and you’re likely to be the only Westerner around in some parts, so expect stares (don’t worry, their mostly innocent and just curious).  By the end of it I was drinking 6-7 macchiatos per day, discussing American politics with locals, eating Kitfo (raw beef), and haggling over the price of frankincense.

***Click here to see the rest of our Ethiopia pics on our Flickr account


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