Culture Vultures in Ethiopia

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Ethiopia >> 22 Aug – 10 Sep >> 3,090 km

Ethiopia had developed into the great unknown for us. Before setting off we’d seen picture of “The Roof of Africa,” with green mountains cracked by deep fissures and ravines and inhabited by strange-looking monkeys. As we talked to more travellers and read some blogs, it degenerated into a stone-throwing, tourist-tired, xenophobic place to be careful in. We were particularly perturbed by Peter’s report that in his estimation after three trips over the years, it fell from top dog to absolutely bottom of the pile, dead and buried.

After the wonders of Omo Valley and then driving more of the Rift Valley everything subtly changes and we’ve entered a different Africa. Apart from the road to Tim & Kim Village, where everyone was much more outgoing and chatty, most other people from Addis northwards and into the mountains, seem more serious and scowl a lot, not even the kids smile or wave. The majority look different too, with an Arabic influence and even an Indian one. This isn’t limited to their facial features either: the roads are full, people and cattle roam around as if the tar doesn’t exist, or anyone on it, with seemingly no concept of the danger they are putting everyone in.  This is different to the overflowing roads in Rwanda and Tanzania, where everyone hears a vehicle and jumps to the side. Needless to say, wild camping seems too difficult and the hotel car parks we sleep on have such dire facilities that we don’t wash for days! Thankfully, Kim & Tim Village (particularly Kim herself) and Sora Lodge in Lalibela are notable exceptions.

Many have long learned that tourism is a huge industry they could gain from, and why shouldn’t they, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 174th out of 188 in the most recent Human Development Report. But its continued to the extreme and now you’re confronted with too many claiming to be guides, pestering you well past the point of enjoyment, and in some cases using downright trickery to make a fast buck. It’s hard to differentiate between those who actually would like to communicate with you and those who see you as a money machine. Until you realise that the latter probably make up 90% of those you talk to. So you stop talking to anyone and the opportunity for exchange is gone, and we miss it.

Often within seconds after we stop at the roadside, children, and even some grown ups, will appear out of nowhere and the only word they say again and again is: Birrrrrrr! Birrrrrr! Birrrrrr!… (Birr is the local currency). To emphasise to everyone how ridiculous this reaction is, we started a competition trying to be even quicker at doing the same thing to the kids before they even can start their show: Birrrrr! Birrrrr! Birrrrr! we growl and hold open our hand to them. They look really surprised and can’t really figure out what to do next? Some manage to say Money! Money! in response – we respond with the same and so on. Maybe this gets to them a little and maybe they even realise how weird it feels to get these words thrown at you just like that. In the youngsters this is a language thing, but in general, aid has bred laziness, and everyone wants money from tourists, because that’s what tourists and foreigners are there for: to give money but receive no work or services in return, no input on their side necessary. But ask them why they beg and their pride is severely hurt: “Begging? I’m not begging!”

Occasionally there are the funny exceptions though: these kids here were doing funny dances and jives to any car coming towards them, in the hope of earning a penny or two.


If there’s one epithet we’d apply to Ethiopians, it’s about pride, and its loss. They are rightly proud of never having been colonised (if you overlook a short-lived Italian attempt). They’re proud of their cultural heritage, though they need to be careful they don’t sell-out for short-term profit. They could be proud of their natural resources, instead the exploitation and outflow of money to foreign investors has contributed to their poverty and created their xenophobia. Aid has streamed in over the years, but the country possibly serves as a clear example of both good and bad solutions in aid and support. These days there is little motivation to plant their own food or consider ways of utilising their land best to reap the future fruits. Chatting to Holly, setting up an NGO in Omo Valley, was enlightening, as she explained the people there have no sense of the future, no concept of planning and they are a generation and more away from being business-astute. Questions she often asks them are: If you had money, what would you do with it? How can you best sustain yourself and your family for this season, the next and the one after? What would be the worst thing to happen to you tomorrow? (Response: If the food aid packs stopped arriving).  There’s a long way to go to restore pride and independence here.

The thin animals, rib cages pitifully clear, are roughly manhandled, abused, whipped and stoned. I wonder if this is related to pride? Robbed of any real power and independence, they have little to be proud of inside themselves. The power they can exert over an animal, by thrashing it into obedience seems like it might improve their self-esteem and makes them proud of their dominance.

But you know what? We enjoyed Ethiopia a lot more than we thought we would, and we are glad we didn’t curtail our stay. This was the cultural highlight of the African tour!

The Ethiopians have a beautiful way of greeting each other, taking each other’s right hand as usual but then leaning your right shoulders towards each other, until they (almost) touch, left hand coming up to the right shoulder as well if you like, hinting at a European hug.  And if your hand is dirty or wet, you can still extend your right arm, but with the back or your hand showing, and touch the other’s back of the hand.



The food is fantastic. Thick ‘injeera’ pancakes, made with teff, slightly sour and cold. On top, your meat and veg, often spicy, maybe made of lentils or chickpeas, perhaps like an Indian thali, with a dollop of several things on the one pancake. Tear off bits of pancake, gather or one-handedly roll some of the main dish into it and pop it into your mouth. The spongy pancake soaks up the sauces quickly, it’s just a shame that licking your fingers is rude!

We continue along the Great Rift Valley along its string of milky lakes and gain altitude constantly.

Bruce got a service in the biggest Toyota garage we’ve ever seen: 60 active workstations! The diesel is of such poor quality here that for an engine oil change they wash the inside of the engine first by filling it with a special cleaning oil (11 litres for 6 Euros), let it run for 30 minutes before emptying it again and filling it up with proper engine oil! Toyota advises to have an oil change every 5,000km here! As importing parts and new vehicles are expensive, the place also has excellent specialists for rebuilding damaged vehicles: where anywhere else would scrap them, here they are painstakingly reconstructed, to probably better galvan before!

Lalibela was the architectural highlight, and the track to get there absolutely stunning in its views and intense greens – one of the best!

The striking churches are hewn out of rocks (not into rocks like in Cappadocia or Georgia). Only UNESCO messed it up a bit with their unsightly protective measures over a couple of them.

In Addis we visited the former palace of the final Emperor Heile Selassie with an interesting, though neglected ethnological section and some interesting royal exhibits, including an incredible bathroom in baby blue, replete with mirrors and a recessed, spotlit bath: it must have been very de rigeur in its day!  Though the real historical highlight was Gonder, with ancient castles in the middle of the town.

The grande finale and scenic highlight were the Simien mountains. They were exactly as we’d imagined, only taller, greener and with more rifts and clefts. It’s more inspiring than the Jurassic Park of Kauai, Hawaii!

Here we have an obligatory scout in our car, complete with rifle, which he parks between our feet, butt on the floor, muzzle pointing straight at his head!

We didn’t see much on our arrival afternoon: the clouds engulfed us, the mountains and the views. He told us to pull over and stop, this would be our camp for the night. Errr, OK…. after an hour there was a break in the clouds and we could see a couple of houses and a steep-drop-view down the mountainside. This is our the highest camp on our whole African trip and the next day we drive on a little further to our altitude highlight of the trip: 4,294 m and you can feel it in some breathlessness when you walk around. You can also feel it in the biting cold! No sitting outside tonight, not even for a minute.. inside for a video and a hot soup!

Our scout took his job very seriously and he crouched down with his thick blanket and guarded us from wolves, while we toasted inside. Unbearable! We warmed him up with some soup and pretended to go to bed early so he could go to the hut with the locals: he would otherwise have frozen to death!

Click the photo to see the flight over the Simiens:

We saw at most a third of the things we’d have liked to have seen or done here. Despite it being a difficult country to visit in some senses, it wasn’t even half as bad as we thought it might be and we’d definitely like to return some day and experience the rest!



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