Ethiopia is a landlocked nation in the horn of Africa sharing borders with 6 different countries – Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. It is an emerging economy and is currently growing at over 7%. Their currency is almost 2.4 times stronger than that of India but at the same time they are one of the poorest countries in the world with almost 45% of the population earning less than $2 a day.
Ethiopia is rich in history, cultures & traditions and is the only African country which wasn’t colonized. The Italians tried and conquered Ethiopia in 1936 but could not hold the rule for more than 4 years and were eventually overthrown under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie and the help of the British. This is why you can still find a bit of Italian influence in their daily lifestyle. Ethiopia is also home to some of the oldest fossils of pre-historic humans found on Earth. These fossils are roughly 3.2 Million years old. With so much to offer, I couldn’t resist myself from catching that flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Here is my account of an entire month(October’17) in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia:
The route I followed: Addis Ababa – Bahir Dar – Gondar – Simien Mountains – Lalibela – Arba Minch – Jinka – Dilla – Addis Ababa
This is Enya, my travel buddy in Ethiopia. I was really fortunate to have her from Day 01 till my last day in the country. Travelling with her made my trip a lot easier and entertaining. We were complete strangers to each other but we survived a month together travelling to several cities and villages in the country. You will be seeing her a lot in my photos below.
Addis Ababa (the capital) is the city of dreams for most of the Ethiopian youth. It is a city booming with development and opportunities.
More than 6 Million people live in Addis. It is also the only Ethiopian city where you will get stuck in a traffic jam.
If you ask me, I wouldn’t even consider Addis a city of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is nothing like what Addis portrays. You need to travel to the other parts of the country to see the actual life in this country.
The blue-white minibuses are the cheapest mode of transport in the cities but not necessarily the most comfortable. Expect to pay anywhere between 1.5 to 5 birr. They are quick, safe and very reliable. This was my favorite mode of transport in the country. (Image from ianbcross.wordpress.com)
The other common mode of public transport are Bajajs (tuktuks). Their rates are a bit higher than that of minibuses but you don’t have to share your ride with anybody.
Addis Ababa also has the metro which is super slow and they don’t allow you to take water with you on the trains.
The metro stations are clean but your bags will be checked and you will be asked to leave your water bottle at the entrance. Big piles of plastic bottles greet you at the entrance.
The National Museum in Addis Ababa exhibits the replicas of Lucy’s remains which are about 3.2 Million years old.
A famous statue of legendary Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie encouraging 12 students at the National Museum.
Rastafarianism was founded by Emperor Haile Selassie and today people all across the world who follow Rastafarianism, worship him. Tafari was the original name of Haile Selassie and hence the name – Rastafari.
Faranji (meaning white person) is a word you’ll need to get accustomed to if you want to travel through Ethiopia. Even if you’re walking through the street, people will keep shouting – “Hey! Faranji!, Hey!, you Faranji! Faranji money”. You will have to learn to ignore them. More attention you give to them, the louder and closer they will get.
What really got to my nerves here in Ethiopia was that I was never left alone. People keep coming up to you to strike up a conversation. After a couple of minutes you realise the reason for this conversation is to make money from you.
Negotiations/Bargaining in Ethiopia is a must! They will always charge you the ‘Faranji’ price (White person price) which could be 10-50 times more than what the ‘Habeshas’ (locals) would pay. Here, Enya was really fighting with them because of their high rates towards us. (And they are finding it funny because she can speak Amharic)
If possible, learn few introductory phrases of Amharic. This will help you create a bonding with the other person and this really helps! Since Enya was living in Ethiopia for the last few months, she had basic knowledge of Amharic and could converse with the taxi drivers and bring the rates down. That was super convenient for me!
Stop by on any road side stall to experience the Ethiopian Buna (Coffee). If you have the privilege of being hosted by an Ethiopian, they will welcome you to their house with the Coffee ceremony, where you would have to drink about 3 cups of coffee with popcorn! Doesn’t sound bad, eh?
Date and time in Ethiopia are a little off-the-charts than anywhere else in the world.
Time is read with an offset of 6 hours. So, the day starts at 6AM rather than the usual 12AM. When buying bus tickets they’ll often ask you to report at the bus station at “11 o’clock” for the bus leaving at “12 o’clock”. This means that you have to be at the bus station at 5AM for the bus departing at 6AM!
Currently, it is 2010 in Ethiopia (See the date on my bus ticket). Their calendar is about 7 years behind the Gregorian Calendar that we generally use.
There are enough number of buses on any given route but do not wait for the last moment. Just visit your nearest bus station a day in advance and get your tickets with the seat numbers mentioned on it.
Long bus rides would often be a difficult time for me as my legs would never fit in.
The highway connecting Addis to Bahir Dar is the best in the country.
We couchsurfed through most of the country. We met amazing travellers and incredible hosts through this platform and we got to learn how the locals live. Hence, I would like to thank – Edward, Andualam, Desu, Kanu, Degu and Nadjah for helping us and sharing your precious time hosting us!
One of our hosts even gave us a cheap way in (3 USD) to a spa & sauna after our gruelling trek through the Simien Mountains.
If you’re headed to Bahir Dar, then do not miss the Blue Nile Falls. It is a 2-3 hour hike from Tis Abby. You can take a cheap bus from Bahir Dar to Tis Abby and then walk through the countryside to this view.
You walk through numerous villages and sugarcane fields on your way to the waterfalls.
Here are some more photos of the hike:
You will come across this really old Portuguese bridge.
Came across this 1.5 m long monitor lizard on the way.
The children keep following you though. Mostly for money but some follow you because they don’t have anything to do.
The flow of water is mostly regulated by the government to generate electricity and you should enquire before you head to Tis Abby. We were lucky we got to see the full flow.
After the hike, you cross the river with the help of a boat and you are back at Tis Abby. It was a very pleasant walk to the Blue Nile Falls.
Lake Tana visit for us was a waste of time and money. The monasteries/churches here are nothing compared to what Lalibela offers and would recommend to skip it.
Although, if lucky you could see hippos swimming in the lake.
The food in Ethiopia is nothing like you’ve had anywhere. This is Injera(bread) and Wot(different kinds of pulses). Injera is very sour and it makes you squinch at first but it gets better with every bite you take.
And my favourite drink till date is Tej (Honey Wine). It’s always served in such flasks. It is sweet like Mango juice but everything gets dizzy soon. In smaller cities and towns you could get Tej for 5-15ETB per flask but the same in Addis Ababa could cost you over 60ETB.
Gondar is a city I would recommend to eat, drink and live! My second favourite place in Ethiopia. This is a 17th century castle of Emperor Fasilledes.
This place is good enough to feature in Game of Thrones. Maybe the white walkers could live here once they are south of the wall?
Most of it is reduced to ruins now but here once stood a fortress which seated many emperors of Ethiopia.
The Lion cages where the lions were kept till as late as 1992.
How the life has changed in just 4 centuries!
Our favourite breakfast place was her small stall. We both would have plentiful for only 10ETB.
We came across Martin and Shakura in Gondar who were travelling through Africa in their Nissan. Check out their vlogs here. They have been to over 100 countries together with Martin been to over 175 countries!
I would recommend the Simien Mountains to anyone whose knees have not yet given up. My experiences have been explained in a different article. Check it out here.
Laundry day in between. Pretty much all the clothes I had with me in Ethiopia.
Lalibela is one of the holiest places in Ethiopia and a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians from all over the world. This is St. George’s church, the most famous of the 11 churches in the town.
These churches were built in the 7th-13th century and the Ethiopians call them the 8th wonder of the world.
Inside these churches, there are old paintings (over 1000 years old) and some really valuable artifacts.
Many of these churches are undergoing cracks and they are being restored. This is one method of restoration by stapling the cracks on the walls.
It is said that angels had helped the king build such beautiful churches in those days.
But currently, there is a French Archaeological team trying to find scientific evidence of the construction techniques of these churches.
There are small holes carved out in the surrounding walls where the monks would go to meditate.
It is compulsory to pay the 50USD entrance fee which is valid for about 3-4 days and you might want to hire a guide to understand the history of this ancient place. This would cost you another 35USD at least. We didn’t hire a guide but came across this man who claimed to be a Deacon and was ready to show us around and tell us the stories for any donation. We ended up tipping him about 5USD each. It was very cheap for us and we had a really good experience learning about Ethiopian Orthodox Christian history.
I could not afford money or time to visit the Danakil Depression. Every person who’s been here recommends taking a 4-day tour which would cost 300USD and upward. It’s one of the hottest places on Earth and getting so close to the Erta Ale Volcano must be an incredible experience! (Image from Google)
Nightlife in Lalibela. All these bars serve really good Tej along with live Ethiopian music!
Every town has it’s own market days. Usually it’s on weekends and thousands of people from the surrounding villages flock to the towns to sell their produce/goods.
This perhaps is the best and cheapest place to buy your souvenirs from. Souvenir shops in Addis sell the same goods at around 10 times the actual price. So, buy your gabis and jabenas from these markets.
Many women in Ethiopia have their faces and necks tattooed with crosses and patterns. They are Orthodox Christians and it is done to remind them that they are beautiful after they have given birth to a child.
If you’re planning to fly within Ethiopia domestically, then it would be highly beneficial for you to book your round-trip flights to Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines. Otherwise you will be paying more than double the amount on every domestic flight you take. We had not expected to take any domestic flight in Ethiopia but it is not currently possible to travel from Lalibela to Addis in 1 day with public buses. You will have an overnight halt in Dessee. And we did not want to waste 2 days travelling in bus whereas we could cover this distance in a 45 minute flight.
Just like in Bollywood movies where the airplane is ready to depart and you’re running on the runway and chasing them. We almost missed this flight from Lalibela to Addis.
This woman belongs to the Mursi tribe, commonly known as the lip-plate wearing tribe from southern Ethiopia. Mursi are one of the 16 Omo Valley Tribes. They start wearing these plates once they get married. The bigger the plate one woman can support, more beautiful she is thought to be in the society.
Here you could see the difference when the woman removes her lip plate.
The men are very tall and thin. Their society is strongly patriarchal. The women are treated as slaves who have to work all day long while the men drink, sleep or engage in politics.
They also scar their bodies to form a design. In olden times, such scars would signify how many people he has killed; thus wearing it as a badge of honour.
A usual Mursi house.
Notice the AK-47 in the hand of the man. Mursis are allowed to carry guns with them and are usually fighting with neighbour tribes for land and cattle.
This is Dandi from China. We met in Bahir Dar, couchsurfing with the same host and our paths crossed again in Jinka. He really wanted to get the mursi body art done but…… I think he’s having second thoughts.
Meanwhile, I was trying out their ornaments.
Visiting such a tribe is supposed to be an exquisite experience but it really isn’t that way. The moment you enter their village, they leave all the work they are doing, wear their ornaments & lip-plates and surround you for photographs. You need to pay them 5ETB for every photo you click. All-in-all it’s more of a stage show rather than an authentic tribal experience.
We chose the cheapest possible way to visit the Mursi villages. We did everything on our own and did not take a packaged tour but miscellaneous expenses such as security fee, National park fee, village fee, mandatory government fee and the guide fee inflated our costs so much that we couldn’t afford to visit the other Omo Valley tribes such as the Hamer and Karo. You have to go through these mud roads to get to the Mursi villages and it takes over 3 hours one way depending upon the weather conditions.
Ethiopians and their love for their shoes. No matter which city you go to, you’ll find several “shoe cleaners” sitting on the footpaths asking you to be their customer. An Ethiopian man could have over 6 pairs of shoes and would always keep them shining.
Bananas, Avocados, Guavas, Oranges, Papayas and Watermelons! Our occasional breakfast would just be fruits. They are cheap and fill you up very well.
Make sure you try the fruit juices in northern Ethiopia. The south doesn’t have a lot of variety.
If you go to Arba Minch(our favourite city) you would definitely want to go and dine at the Paradise Lodge. This scenic background definitely deserves a visit.
View from our dining table
We went strolling in the Nech Sur National Park in Arba Minch aiming to see the Forty Springs after which the city was named. But upon paying the entrance fee, hiring a mandatory scout and walking 3 Kilometers inside the Park we get to know that the Forty Springs is undergoing maintenance work and we will not be allowed to see them! Sigh!
So, we set out exploring the nature. It’s a lot different to the Simien National Park. Very dense and tropical forest.
“When the last tree is cut, the last person will die”
This photo was taken in a hurry and could not focus it properly. The person you see running in the photo was illegally collecting wood in the forest and the moment he saw our scout with the gun. He just dropped what he had and ran deep into the forest to hide.
Attending a sunday morning Mass at a Protestant Church in Arba Minch. The divide between the Orthodox and the Protestants is quite significant with each having their own areas and cities. Northern Ethiopia is more Orthodox but the Southern part inhabits more Protestants.
Ethiopians are crazy about football and every weekend the bars, juice corners and restaurants are overflowing with fans.
This person is selling Khat (pronounced Chhat). They are leaves which the people chew as a stimulant and are very common throughout East Africa.
Although you might find the cities considerably clean and well managed by the municipal corporations, the river beds are often polluted with all kinds of wastes. The main reason is lack of water available to people. Hence, they use the rivers for any kind of use and it leaves the river beds looking like this in the dry season.
The villagers are transporting water here. Water is scarce in Ethiopia. The villagers have to get up early morning and walk a few kilometres to get water. Sometimes, the water is not available and they might have to return back empty handed. Next time you waste water, you might want to think about their struggles.
In our last part of the journey we headed to Dilla where Enya was living for the last few months doing her research on Guji women:
This was Enya’s beautiful host family in a small village near Dilla called Wallamy.
With only 3 rooms in their house, they didn’t let me feel as if I was away from home giving me all the comfort I needed. They had already coordinated with a local school for a “shower” so that I don’t have to bathe in the open.
The toilets in the villages throughout Ethiopia are nothing more than just a hole in the Earth. Took me sometime to adjust during my initial days in the country but got used to them later on. At least it is covered from all sides and you have a bit of privacy.
Kitchen is always seen as a woman’s place and men do not usually visit this area. So, when I tried helping them with vegetables in the kitchen, I was asked to not do anything and just sit and relax; whereas, here is Enya doing all the work! Haha!
And this is the kitchen where the dinner is being cooked.
The eldest kid, Teshager woke me up early in the morning to take me to his “gym”. That’s him putting in some hardwork.
“Sharing is caring.” These kids had 2 candies with them and when they saw us approaching them for a conversation, they opened both the candies, broke them in half to split it equally between us. They didn’t know us but they gave us half of their share. And, when I gave them a piece of Toblerone chocolate, they took one bite each and ran back to give the rest to their mother! I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than this. And now I wonder why don’t I see anything like this back home or in any of the developed or progressive countries.
The main advantage of living with the locals is that they will take you to such places where even the tour guides might not know about.
Came across these stone carvings claimed to be about 2000 years old by the villagers.
They are hidden in the forests near Dilla. This person we met on the way is clearing the bushes for us to have a better view.
Just like in Bhutan, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the local school in Dilla. The school belongs to the Don Bosco association present worldwide.
The school runs a Free Meal Programme where they feed lunch to over 300 children every day. Had the privilege of enjoying a meal with these beautiful souls.
Enya and her friends back in Belgium had made a big donation to the school for this programme and we wanted to go and see how the donation is put to use. So, here is the kitchen.
Prayer time before each meal. Free lunch is served to all the children regardless of which religion they belong to.
The elder sibling making sure the younger doesn’t go back home hungry.
Finishing it off with these smiling faces.
On my way back home, had the opportunity to witness this sunrise. Surely, something beautiful awaits.
Why would you not be attracted to this country? The famine of 1980’s is long gone and Ethiopian economy and tourism sector are on a boom. As you can see that even a month is not enough to completely travel through Ethiopia. I could not visit the Danakil Depression and the ancient cities of Aksum and Harar. Maybe I’ll leave these cities for you to explore and show me the experiences you had.
Ethiopia is a very diverse country. In some ways you could actually compare it to India. There are numerous tribes and regions having their own topographies, flora, fauna, cultures, traditions and languages. But at the same time, I would not call Ethiopia a very easy country for solo travellers. There is a huge difference in backpacking through Vietnam and Ethiopia. And, I’m glad I did not travel alone here. Enya was a superb travel buddy who was a great friend and an incredible companion throughout these 30 days.
If I had more time in my hands, I would have loved to catch the bus going south to Nairobi from Konso and carry on with my travels but as all good things must come to an end, here’s to another adventure! Till next time!