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Published: October 30th 2007
State Highway 1
..and this was quite a good part
For our second week in Ethiopia we travelled overland to the South. What followed was 7 dusty, bone rattling, dusty, incredible, and did I mention dusty, days.
We organised our tour via our cheapie hotel The Wutma in Addis Ababa and given the cut down price we eventaully managed to negotiate we were pleasantly suprised when our driver Guade turned up, not only on time, but in a reasonable looking 4x4.
"Today to Arba Minch" he told us, in what turned out to be fairly bad English, and off we set. It's 500km south and setting off at 8am we fully expected to be there by 3 even allowing for a generous lunch break and several tea stops...more fool us! Getting out of Addis was fine, if not hugely polluted. The whole sky has a permanent smoky haze which isn't helped by the hundreds of huge clapped out old trucks belching black smoke from dawn 'til dusk. Then at about the 200km mark the tarmac ended...well not so much ended as fell apart. In theory the road was still there, but the holes and cracks were so large that for most of the time we had half, if not all
Dave meets the locals
"Anyone know where I can get a latte?"
of our wheels off the side of the road in the sandy and grassy verges. We drove through some amazing scenery: an almost tropical landscape, with papaya and banana trees everywhere and then through cotton plantations, fields of coffee plants and corn and wheat as far as the eye could see. Then huge lakes on both sides of the road where we passed pelicans and dozens of other different birds.
After a week of history and ruins in the north we really began to feel like we were in Africa. We arrived in Arba Minch just as it was getting dark and after finally managing to communicate to our driver that our budget did not stretch to the usual 'faranji' upmarket hotels, we checked into a little motel type place with 'en-suite' - in this case a hole in the ground and a shower you most certainly needed fip flops to enter! It poured with rain and a combination of the very happy frogs and the drunken squealings of the other guests (all drivers for other tours we soon realised) meant a pretty sleepless night.
Ethiopians all get up at 6
And when they get up
These women were the most beautiful and ornate of the tribes we met...and the best natured.
you get up. There's no talking in muted whispers and quietly closing doors - oh no - from almost 6 on the dot there is shouting, truck revving, door slamming and always, where ever you go, cockerels doing their thing. It totally makes sense of course, because that is when the sun comes up and it is light enough to do things.
So back into the car and today we head for a market in a place called Turmi. This is where people from the Hamer tribe go to trade food and catttle, and also sell their colourful jewellery and leather clothing. Refreshed from a night's sleep we'd forgotten just how bad the jiggling was in the the car...then the road turned to total dirt track. We bumped and rocked, twisted and turned our way for another 300km through rivers, across sections where the road had been totally swept away by rain and round god knows how many holes. Mocking us was a lovely flat, straight, tarmac coated new road running along side us, not quite finished yet, and therefore out of bounds! This 300km took 7 hours and we arrived just in time for the market, and the
Bull jumping ceremony
A young boy shows his strength and courage to be initiated into the tribe as a man
amazing Hamer people. The beautiful women wear brightly coloured beads around their heads and gold and silver bracelets on their arms, wrists and ankles. Their clothes are made of animal skins: one slung from the waist with a belt of shells is long at the back and short at the front. The other slung from the neck with the same shell decoration is long enough to cover the front but leaves the back bare. They have loads of necklaces too and the number one wife (each man has up to 5) wears a thick leather collar which sticks out about 10cm at the front, bound with metal discs. The men wear the same coloured beads on their heads, but also sometimes a feather and wear beads on their arms, wrists, ankles and shins. They wear a short brightly coloured sarong and no top and some have clay in their hair, shaped into a bun, meaning they've killed a person or dangerous animal in the last year.
The market was fascinating and then we were lucky enough to witness a bull jumping ceremony. They only take place every so often to initiate boys into the tribe. The bull jumping is
Not sure where she'll put the money she charged for this photo!
preceeded by a ritualistic beating of all the women. This was really upsetting to watch. The women cover their hair in deep red mud from the river then dance and sing and jump round in circles, working themselves into a frenzy. Then the men who have already been initiated over the years sharpen long thin branches and whip the women's backs. It was horrific - each thwack drawing blood - until we realised the women were actually pestering the men to whip them, almost as if the number of wounds was a mark of pride. Still, Tracey couldn't watch. The smell was overpowering too: a mixture of fear, mud, sweat and blood in the searing heat of the day.
That over, the boy who was about to jump the bulls was brought forward, put into an animal skin smock, coverged upon by all the older men then pushed into the middle of a herd of about 25 bulls. At this moment Tracey inadvertently took part in the ceremony as an overzealous tribesman thought he could sneak in one more back whipping before the jumping began. The end of his willow unfortunately connected with her shin and calf instead of
Everybody say 'oooooooh'
the ground. Boy did it hurt! Anyway the elders of the tribe then lined the bulls up so their backs were parallel and the boy had to leap up on to the first one (no hands allowed), run across their backs, land, turn around, and do it all again to much cheering from the crowd. Fascinating to watch and how he managed to jump up there when his head wasn't much higher than their backs, heaven only knows. Dave got some amazing pictures and when we can find a broadband connection we'll put them up!
Later we realised how much we take electricity for granted as there was no light when we get back to our room. It doesn't come on anywhere in the town until 6 when the generator starts up. Remember this is in a fairly decent sized town. It goes off again at 10pm, by which time everyone is supposed to be tucked up in bed ready for that 6am start!
The next couple of days were spent getting to and exploring Jinka, a large town with an airport. When we arrived we were told the whole town was without mains water because the pump had been broken for the last 15 days so everyone was using the hand pump well in the centre of the town. Also we found out the airport has been closed for a few months because the grass strip that serves as the runway has got too bumpy for planes to land.
From Jinka we visited the Mursi people and although they are a fascinating tribe I do not recommend anyone takes this trip because they have grabbed commercialism with both hands and are bleeding it dry.
The Mursi:ancient tribe turned to plastic by tourism
The Mursi people are famous for their women. At around 20 years old a small slit is cut into their bottom lip and a clay disc inserted. This is gradually enlarged until some - the most prized and valuable - can fit side plate sized discs into their bottom lip. The discs are about half a centimetre thick and are quite heavy. In fact we saw several holding them up with their hands, or taking them out when the tourists weren't looking. And when they take them out it is quite grotesque. Their bottom lip hangs down with a huge hole in it and the skin looks like the rubber of a balloon that's been blown up too big then deflated. Meanwhile, the men do not mutilate themselves and really seemed quite ordinary. This would be an amazing site to see...EXCEPT...the elders have cottoned on to the fact that tourists want to see them and take photos and have decided to make a bit of money. Fair enough, but not like this:
We were told we needed to take an armed guard/guide with us. He turned out to have very poor English and did very little to help with the situation we are about to describe. We arrived shortly after a convy of 3 other 4x4s and got out of the car to see the entire collection of women lined up in a semicircle, like debutantes waiting to be asked to dance. We were told we should select which women we want, agree a fee then take a photo. Now you would expect to pay someone a bit of cash to take thier picture - how would you fee if someone just walked up and started snapping you - but this was ridiculous. As we neared the women they all started demanding we took their
photo, and started demanding ridiculous amounts of money per shot. There was no chance of taking any natural, local people in action pictures and the whole thing felt very uncomfortable.
After a while more cars arrived and the orderly line broke down. Women started wondering around, grabbing our arms, pawing at the camera and demanding we took their picture. Then one started scratching Tracey's arm to get her attention, and when she refused, for the 4th time, to take a picture, she was flicked across the face. We hurried into the village behind the gaggle of money hungry monsters to try and imagine how they lived when 17 car loads of tourists weren't staring at them, only to be followed in by more women - you guessed it - demanding their photo be taken and money be paid. This was not a tribe who were angry at the intrusion and demanding compensation, this was a people who had seen an opportunity for cash and now think it is their right to be snapped at and paid, even if you just want to observe from a distance. It got to the point where, if you tried to photograph the outside of one of their huts, someone would jump into the frame and demand payment. Ridiculous and really very disappointing. The worst point came when we then had to pay an extra fee for parking in front of the village. This goes directly to the elders and again we tried to be reasonable. Of course we should pay, if it helps them to survive. Then we discovered the fee has more than trebbled in the last 2 years and instead of spending the money on cattle and grain etc, the men take it in to town on market days and buy alcohol and prostitutes, going back to their villages with all kinds of diseases and infecting their wives. We know a trip will be very tempting for anyone visiting, but it really isn't worth it and the more people that go the worse it will get. We left feeling harrased and very sad.
Konso and home, via New York
The rest of our trip was yet more bumpy roads, but it was all incredible. We passed people grazing their herds of cows, goats and sheep at the sides of the road, others using their donkeys to carry water and every where that we went the homes were all very small. Imagine a single garage...then half it. Even in main towns and villages they were made of mud and sticks with thatched rooves, or, where a charity had been to work, corrugated metal. Others were circular, made with wood and straw. Inside was mud on the floor, covered with animal skins, or in the more developed areas, with concrete. This is how the majority of people still live. Very simple lives, looking after crops, eating, sleeping and family time.
We made two other stops of significance: one to New York and a Konso Tribe village and one to a lake to look for hippos.
'New York' is a sandstone area which has been worn away by wind and rain to create skyscraper-esk formations. Interesting enough, but here again the hassle factor from the local families was very high. Children pawing you and asking for money, water, pens, anything else you might have. It may sound cruel to complain, after all we obviously have much more than they do but these were not people in need, desperate and impoverished. These were people totally happy with their daily lives, but out to try and exploit the visitors to their area. Again, we had already paid an entry fee to the area which goes towards supporting them and again we were told we had to take a guard/translator. This man was even worse than the other - he didn't stop the hassle and couldn't speak English, so that when we visited the Konso village later on and a woman decided she was Tracey's best friend and wanted to talk to her, he couldn't explain what she was saying. The Konso village was lovely though. Very organised compared to others, with each family unit living behind a fence with neat little passage ways in between plots.
On our final day we drove to a place where hippos were supposed to gather at dawn and dusk. We didn't see any but wandering along the river bank we did come face to face with a lot of rather large crocodiles. Nature suddenly seemed very real when it wasn't being kept safely behind bars or in a wildlife sanctuary! It was lovely to spend some quiet, hassle free time watching them sunbathe before getting in the car and heading back to Addis. It was our first taster of what will hopefully be a lot more animals.
We should say the whole Ethiopian experience has been great and despite the hassle factor we would really recommend anyone taking a trip there. There are still hardly any tourists, getting around is easy, accommodation is cheap and the food is really good too.
We're off to Uganda now for a rest and hopefully more paved roads and perhaps a few other travellers to talk to!
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