After an uncomfortable number of travelling issues throughout Europe, I was glad to return briefly to Dubai where a fabulous evening awaited that certainly improved my mood. Though I enjoyed the party I attended filled with socialising expats, it did not fully assuage my weariness from the rollercoaster of (mis)fortune I rode in Europe. The party lasted to the early hours, after which I headed to the airport for my 5am flight to Addis Ababa. This was to be my first experience of sub-Saharan Africa and my initial observations was of a leafy, sprawling city that was far more subdued than its counterparts in Asia or the Middle East. I was a trifle disappointed for I was yearning for the dusty and demanding environment that more typified Africa. Thankfully, my first stop in regional Ethiopia, a town called Bahir Dar, provided me with my wishes. Within an hour of my arrival in this quaint place lined with dirt roads and ramshackled hovels mounted by broad tin roofs, my energy that had slowly been sapped during Europe returned and I walked again with enthusiasm and a broad smile of my face.
As my boots thudded the ground and kicked small puffs
of dust, I formed an impression that was to continue throughout my two weeks in the country – that the Ethiopian people possessed the most interesting faces I have seen. Every single visage had a story to tell – whether it be in their universally dark eyes and ebony skin, or in the glowing complexion of the children and the weathered wrinkles of the elderly – I wanted to photograph them all! And sure enough, when these faces did speak to me, they all did have a story to tell – they would enlighten me on their education, their career and family to name just a few. Not only are these a generous people who are keen for visitors to enjoy their country, but they are all deeply inquisitive, and had many questions about the world outside of their country. I was approached on a continual basis by people eager to say hello and to converse with a foreigner (who the Ethiopians term faranj
One of the dominant aspects of the Ethiopian psyche was their deep religious conviction – particularly amongst the Christians – and this devotion manifested itself most strongly in two places. The first was on Lake
Tana where venerable monasteries located on remote islands were attended by mostly sombre priests who proudly presented their metal crosses and extracted other religious artefacts from dusty reliquaries. Lalibella, home to the famous rock-hewn churches, was another place where devotion manifested itself very strongly. Though the churches were slightly underwhelming – the fact that they were still in daily use, made them fascinating living monuments. Every morning priests and church attendants adorned in either white cloaks or covered in brightly coloured robes of gold, maroon or aqua, would perform rituals that have been practiced for many hundreds of years. One morning, I witnessed scores of devotees winding their way across the dusty hillside after performing a pre-dawn ceremony – it was as if I were watching a ritual from another age.
There was one aspect of Ethiopia that surpassed even the warmth of the people and the richness of their culture - and that was the food. This is one of the world’s great cuisines and it would be impossible to label the gastronomic experience as bland. Almost every meal would be smothered with one of the variety of chilli mixtures on offer, and the highlight of most days
was searching for another delicious meal to savour. Even a simple meal, such as rice with a tomato sauce, was a culinary delight. I was even served one the hottest meals of my life, an injeera
(sour pancake) smothered in a rich berber sauce – my tastebuds were not even able to finish half of it!
However, Ethiopia is not the easiest country to travel. Their infrastructure is still lacking in many areas – there were continual power outages wherever I went – and these would last for a day at a time. Despite this, people would still walk around the darkened city as if was still fully lit, going to restaurants that cooked with gas (and thus still able to serve meals), or sitting in cafes that were illuminated by candlelight. It was odd to see a fully functioning town totally blacked out for hours on end, and to walk the blackened streets surrounded by the silhouettes of shadowy buildings.
Of more importance though were the societal conditions – there is no social welfare system, so beggars were numerous – they would loiter around churches, bus stations, at busy thoroughfares and outside of banks. These constant pleas
are a very noticeable part of Ethiopia and the scale of the begging was quite surprising. Another aspect of note is the low level of education in parts of the country – literacy nudges above 40%. Instead, many children will shun school to assist on the farm, and many times I would witness children carrying produce on their head or back or tilling the fields. Some children would work in the towns in order to bring in extra income to support their family – but what a meagre income it is. I watched a ten year old boy in Bahir Dar spend well over five minutes cleaning a local man’s shoes. He was very proficient at his task – a combination of soap, water and polish had the shoes looking like new – but his payment was a miserly ten Ethiopian Birr – or ten cents. Even in Ethiopia, ten cents does not buy much.
Travelling through parts of Ethiopia brought further surprises, for what seemed a short distance on the map was in reality long hours winding through the mountainous countryside on poorly maintained roads. I rode the local buses, which continually collect and deposit passengers along its
route, and it was here that one could glimpse the rural population that composed a large portion of Ethiopia’s populace. One time, a lady boarded with two-dozen clucking chickens tied to several wooden poles by their legs, but on most occasions it was men and women dressed in full-length gowns carrying baskets of grain or other supplies. It was obvious that foreigners were not a common site on these buses, because I was the only faranj
on every public bus I took – which fascinated the local children, who would walk to within a metre of my seat on the bus and silently stare at me for almost half an hour.
Bus travel also provided an insight into a peculiarity of the local people – an aversion to open windows – regardless of the temperature. I had read previously a belief exists that breezes brought illness. Whatever the reason, I was having none of it. Sitting in a stuffy, stifling bus with 30 other people is not enjoyable, so I always positioned myself near to the opening point of a window to enable me to catch the fresh mountain air. But sure enough, if I opened the window, there
was always someone on the bus who closed it again – particularly those people who had just embarked on their journey. Eventually, the more intelligent ones figured out that for everytime they closed the window, I just opened it again – so they just left me alone and allowed me to enjoy, in their eyes, this unhealthy practice.
Ethiopia is a fascinating country to visit, and what it lacks in terms of attractions, is more than compensated for by the richness of the culture, the warmth of the people, and the incredible flavour of its food. However, it will be the many and varied faces of the Ethiopians – their frequent smiles and fond welcomes – that will be the most enduring memory of this ancient land.
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