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Ethiopia: Part 1

sunny 68 °F

Being the excellent procrastinator that I am, I have waited until the eve of our next trip to write about East Africa. Turns out I’m not as good at posting regularly without Gabrielle’s encouragement, but here is part 1 of the post on Ethiopia.

It was a little hard for me to adjust to the style of travel on this trip. I’m very used to doing things my own way and ‘living as the locals do’ as much as possible. One of my favorite ways to see a country is by just walking around different areas and never really knowing what I’ll see each day. I also really enjoy eating at little hole in the wall local joints and just observing people in their everyday lives. I’m also used to traveling on a (quite extreme) traveler’s budget, so that means staying in some maybe not so nice places. This trip was a little different. There are only certain hotels that are approved by the government to stay in, so that meant that we stayed in Hiltons, Sheratons and other 4 or 5 star hotels the whole time! We were also on an organized tour that picked us up from every airport, hotel, attraction, etc and drove us to the next thing. Not to mention the fact that we were traveling with a toddler, so that was a whole new experience in of itself! This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time; it was just a big adjustment for me!

The first country on our list was Ethiopia, and boy was it a pleasant surprise! I didn’t really know that much about the country before going there and a lot of the images I had in mind were far from what we actually saw. We happened to be there right at the end of the rainy season which meant it was nice and cool, and so luscious and green! Coming from Senegal where temperatures were near 100 degrees every day the cool 70 degrees felt amazing! I was even pretty cold at times and had to sleep with wool blankets a few nights!
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We arrived in Addis Ababa and I was instantly impressed with how clean it was. Dakar is pretty dirty and trash can be found just about everywhere, but Addis was just the opposite. The Ethiopians are known for being very proud people, and it shows by how well they take care of their capital. We were only in Addis for a day before heading out to tour around the northern part of the country.

Our first stop was Bahir Dar. We flew in to what has to be the world’s smallest airport! We stepped off the plane right on to the run way and walked ourselves over to the ‘baggage claim’
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We never actually went inside the ‘terminal’, because this was it!
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We met our guide, dropped our things off at the hotel and headed out for our first excursion. We took a 45 minute boat trip to an island in Lake Tana, which is the biggest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. It is pretty big at 52 miles long and 40 miles wide. Along the way we saw quite a few men paddling homemade papyrus boats across the lake, and were told that it usually takes them about six hours to get across!
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Once we got to our destination we hiked through a little village to what would be the first of many churches on our trip. The village’s main livelihood is coffee, and there are coffee trees scattered all over the island. The plants were native to the area, and the villagers began to cultivate them more as they realized they could make a profit it from them. Our guide was very informed and gave us his opinion on the coffee sales. He said that there is a big problem with the villagers getting taken advantage of. The government doesn’t regulate the coffee sales, and therefore the big wholesalers come in and buy the coffee from the locals for about $3 per kilogram, and then turn around and make a huge profit off of it. He said the average family makes about $3,000 a year from coffee sales. Seeing as this is the only source of income for most of these families, usually with an average of 6 kids, it is no surprise that they are struggling to send all their kids to school. According to our guide there are more and more private schools opening across Ethiopia and they cost upwards of $250 a year per child, compared to $3 a year at public schools. There is only one school on the island we visited and it only goes up to sixth grade.

Lots of kids followed us around while we made our way to the church. At first I thought they were all asking for money, but it turns out they wanted paper and pens so they could practice writing at home (again, this is what our guide told us).

Once we arrived at the first church, which is protected b UNESCO, we heard what was to become a very repeated speech about Ethiopian Orthodox, and how Ethiopia is the believed birthplace of Christianity. Since Ethiopia is one of the few African countries to not have been colonized (many Ethiopians argue that they are the ONLY country), they are very proud of their culture and history. Many of their churches are protected by UNESCO and are being restored. This has created mixed feelings with the locals. While lots of people we met are very happy that the churches will be protected, they also have fears about the amount of tourism it might bring. According to our guide, “If gays and people who smoke come into our churches to see them, they become less holy and we don’t like that.” We were all a little shocked by that statement! However it was a something we heard often throughout our trip.
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The churches in the north are all very beautiful and most have very vivid paintings. We were told that this is such an important part of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches because so many people are illiterate that this gives them a way to understand.
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The next part of our tour consisted of hiking down to the Blue Nile Falls. Since we were there in the raining season the falls were in full force, but they were also brown. It was still a pretty amazing sight though, and pictures just don’t do it justice! (And I’ve heard they are nothing in comparison to Victoria Falls that we’ll be seeing later this month!)
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Jayme hasn't quite mastered the timing for the powerkick shot, but I tried!
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The most interesting part of the tour was again talking with our guide. Most of our guides were of the general opinion that most aid agencies in the country, with the exception of USAID, were doing more harm than good. Most of their complaints were to do with the wages offered to locals by the agencies. Since they offer western wages most of the time, lots of educated, qualified Ethiopians only want to work for the western organizations since they can make a higher salary. An example given was that many local hospitals are lacking good doctors because they all go to work for the western agencies. However, they were all in agreement that USAID was doing some really good work in the country. They said that the big difference was that USAID focuses on sustainability rather than quick fixes. They work on equipping people with skills so that once they leave the people can continue to thrive. They also work with the local elders to teach the communities why certain practices are not beneficial. One example a guide gave us was that USAID was currently working with the elders in the village he grew up in to educate them on why the age to marry should be higher. Ethiopia has a very high percentage of young brides, and they still practice arranged marriages. Often times very young girls, usually around 10-12 years old, are sold to a much older man, and expected to have children right away. They are trying to increase the age to 16, and educating people about the risks involved when a girl that young is expected to have a child. Our guide told us that his parent’s marriage was arranged, his mom was 9 at the time, and his father 14. They weren’t told until the night before they were to be married, and they were then tied to a table so they couldn’t run away. Our guide told us that things are slowly changing, and it is becoming more acceptable to choose to attend school and get an education instead of starting a family, but a lot of work still needs to be done.

Once we were back in Bahir Dar we saw people gathering on the side of the road huddled around what looked like herbs for sale. It turns out they were eagerly waiting to buy their daily khat fix. Khat is a drug that is still legal in Ethiopia. It has been described as a mix between cocaine and marijuana, and it is considered a stimulant. Everywhere we went in Ethiopia you could see people buying and selling it on the side of the road. Ethiopia exports a lot of their khat to neighboring Djibouti. There is a lot of debate about whether it should remain legal in Ethiopia. Many people claim that it is not addictive and it is purely used the same way as coffee, while others argue that too many people have become dependent on it to perform daily tasks.
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Another common theme throughout the country was the presence of the Chinese. On every new road, building and construction site there was some sign saying ‘Built by the Chinese’! And all of it is being done ‘for free’…but every single Ethiopian we talked to said ‘but nothing is ever free!’ So they are all just waiting to see what comes of it. Many of them are unhappy that the Chinese are taking away job opportunities for locals, and they are afraid, as one man told us “That Ethiopia will become too cross-cultural. The Chinese will want us to eat dog and there will be China towns everywhere like in the US…we wouldn’t be Ethiopia anymore!”

After Bahir Dar we continued on to a town called Gondar.
Gondar is known as the ‘Camelot of Africa’ since it was once the old imperial capital and there are some remains of the royal castles.
We spent our time here visiting churches, touring the remains and trying to avoid all the goats in the road!
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We were there are the end of a fast and it is customary for each family that is able to buy a goat, so the streets were full of people selling them!
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We headed out on the road again, and saw some of the most beautiful views along the way!
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Next up on the list was Lalibella. This is where the most impressive churches were. There are a group of churches here carved below ground level out of rock. They were built this way so that they could stay hidden from enemies. It is pretty impressive to see, and again, pictures do not do it justice, especially since there is a bunch of scaffolding from UNESCO to protect them.
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Because of my procrastination I’m going to have to pause the Ethiopia post here and continue at a later date, since I only have a few short hours before we board the plane to Mozambique!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 11:58 Archived in Ethiopia

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