Ethiopia? Why? Who goes there? What’s there to see? All good questions.
Craig reads an overly complementary review of Ethiopia that refers to it as “Egypt without the tourists”. Enticing. We are heading that direction on our way to Cairo and have some time to spare. Two weeks in fact. Why not go to Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is interesting. It’s just that it is also difficult. And possibly not interesting enough to warrant the degree of difficulty. But we have two weeks there and we are determined to see as much as we can. A tour package that includes air and hotels for the 5 top tourist sites is a good deal. The 2 1/2 star hotels are government run, spare & clean, with decent restaurants.
We start in Addis Ababa as our flight from Kenya lands there. “Addis”, as it is called by the locals, is hard to describe. There is a modern city of mostly UN buildings, a Sheraton hotel, a university and an old residential section of nice houses, but mostly the city is run down, featuring a lot of shacks, hovels and garbage. Poverty. Lots of AIDS orphans. Lepers. Beggars. Nasty food. Stews of tough goat meat. A spongy yeasty bread called injera that we are not fond of. We are thankful for spagetthi bolognais and grilled tilapia fish on offer at the hotel restaurants.
While in Addis we take late afternoon refuge daily in the bar of the Sheraton hotel. It is cool and clean, and quiet and dark. A glass of south african wine is $5. A beer for Craig is $2. It is an affordable luxury. And after a few days in Addis, it is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. We sip with an array of well dressed professional looking young black and white men and women. We imagine the intrigue of their conversations. Is one a deposed dictator, living in exile? Is another an immigration lawyer looking for clients? Perhaps a Soviet spy or two?
The parking lot at the front of the hotel is full of white jeeps, all sporting UN logos. UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO. These are our drinking companions. Of course. But why aren’t they across the street in the slum? This is their work? To drink in bars with other aid workers?
I am reading “The Lords of Poverty”, an expose written by a former UN aid worker. His message: aid is a rip off. Most aid workers are living ex-pat lives in cheap countries, doing little if anything to help the locals or the situation. Money is spent on their salaries and their housing/food/security, etc. It is a good gig. Other money is spent on US contractors hired to consult and then to build enormous projects that put no money in the hands of locals. My views on charity are changing.
In Ethiopia I see a generation of survivors of the 80s famine. The kids we saved by sending rice and milk are mostly alive, uneducated, unemployed, poor, sick, with no prospects. There are so many of them and so little arable land to grow food. They are dependent on aid money. Dependent on us to feed them. It seems wrong. They are not our pets. We can’t just feed them and do nothing else. And yet, because of war and politics, often all we can do is feed them.
Craig thinks I am becoming unsympathetic and right wing. I think I am being realistic.
We meet a fellow on one of the flights who is a bit of a jaded traveler. We are sharing “hellholes I have known” stories. Where was the worst? The poorest? The ugliest? He comments that regardless of the name of the place, poverty looks the same everywhere. Although this is not entirely true in my experience, his view has some truth to it. There is a sameness to those places lacking in distinctive culture; all that is evident is the poverty, which does look the same everywhere.
But we do find distinctive culture in Ethiopia. It is the only continuously Christian country in Africa. As well, in the eastern part of the country, close to the Somali border, there are ancient Muslim towns. Ethiopia has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa. Coffee and khat both originated in Ethiopia. We don’t try the khat, a mildly hallucinogenic plant that is chewed. The coffee is strong enough! The Italians who briefly occupied Ethiopia in the early 20th century left their marvellous espresso machines behind when they left the country. The resulting brew is delicious.
Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country on the planet and the second most populous country in Africa. One hundred and two million people live in just 420,000 square miles. Some of the oldest human skeletons have been found here and it is thought that modern humans set out from here, migrating to Europe and the Middle East.
From Addis Ababa we travel to Harar, a city in the east. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is an ancient desert outpost on an important trade route across the horn of Africa. It has a frontier feel that is out of step with the 20th century.
The kids taunt us, calling out “ferenghi” as we walk by. “Foreigner”. Initially they seem a bit aggressive and we are uncomfortable, but eventually they calm down and start laughing and joking with us.
Harar is a walled city chock full of colourful inhabitants. The photo opportunities are outstanding. See for yourself.
From Harar, we fly north to Lake Tana, where numerous islands house treasures of the Ethiopian Christian Church in monasteries that are hundreds of years old.
Next stop is Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and home to the famed monolithic rock churches. They were cut down into the earth in the 12th and 13th centuries and are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. We are lucky to be in Lalibela for market day. As well, we connect with two women who were born in Ethiopia but now live in Seattle, of all places.
Last stop in Ethiopia is the far northern city of Aksum, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, it originated as a trading centre in about 400 BC. It is reputed to once have been the home of the Queen of Sheba. The biblical Ark of the Covenant was found here. Today, the main attraction is the collection of obelisks, carved during the 4th century AD.
From Ethiopia we fly to Cairo, on an overnight flight through Khartoum, Sudan. A fabled place we would love to visit, but today Sudan is no place for tourists. We sit on the runway for an hour, landing and taking off in the dark.
Another country, another blog. The odyssey carries on in “Egypt 2005”.