Changes for Better and Worse

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July 21st 2013
Published: August 21st 2013
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Africa whispers to me from afar, beckoning me to return when I have been absent too long. It has been three years since my wanderings on that grand continent and those whispers were growing in intensity. Thus, in order to silence them, I embarked on my fourth visit to Ethiopia.

My previous tours of Ethiopia were in 2008 and 2010. Not much was different between those times, but the three years since have brought significant chagnes – some good, some not so good. My initial impressions were positive, for the international arrivals section has been upgraded to be spacious or brighter. My greatest shock was seeing an ATM in the arrivals area. Previously Ethiopia housed only two ATMs in the entire country – in the Hilton and the Sheraton, but they were endemic now. They lay in wait all over Addis Ababa and even provincial towns.

Communications had also improved greatly – Wi-fi was practically non-existent in 2010, but was now available in many hotels in Addis Ababa and in distant Axum. Many Ethiopians carried smart phones and busily interacted with them as you would see in most developed economies. The quality of available accommodation was also superior and more comfortable options are available for those who wish to pay for such facilities.

Transport improvements were significant. Bole Road was now a multilane carriageway with flyovers and underpasses, whereas it used to be a jumbled three lane arterial road. The national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, had upgraded its domestic fleet. Gone were the small Fokker planes of the past, replaced by a fleet of new Bombaardier Q400.

Development is never uniform across a country, and poverty still inflicts some areas as education and health care are not universally available. However, even this situation may change in the near future and such basic rights may extend to all its citizens.

However, some changes were less welcome. The highly disagreeable practice of foreign adoptions of Ethiopian children is far more noticeable. I espied numerous adoptive Caucasian parents (almost all sporting North American accents) nursing dark-skinned babies and toddlers. At one Addis Ababa hotel, approximately 10% of foreign guests were adoptive parents.

Not only is it wrong to remove young children from their culture into another country with (in the majority of cases) no reference person to their heritage; but serious misconduct is occurring as uncovered by the ABC
Friendly waiter in Hawzen - Tigray Region, EthiopiaFriendly waiter in Hawzen - Tigray Region, EthiopiaFriendly waiter in Hawzen - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

He works in the Grealta Restaurant - a highly recommended place to eat in Hawzen.
in Australia (see Fly Away Children, Fly Away Home. Searching the Internet for “Ethiopian Adoption Ethics” or “Ethiopian Adoption Scam” will uncover more stories of young mothers and families being coerced, manipulated and deceived to give up children for adoption.

As soon as money can be made, exploitation is going to occur - whether that be in orphanages in Cambodia or adoptions in Ethiopia. The cost involved in adopting one child out of Ethiopia (US$25,000 according to this thoughtful piece from the Wall Street Journal) could provide better facilities to an Ethiopian village and benefit hundreds of people for years. This is a far more responsible and ethical use of funds.

The attitude towards tourists in some quarters has also changed. In 2008, it was the exception rather than the norm for children to ask me for money, but now that situation has reversed – especially in popular tourist areas. I am unsure as to the cause – whether tourists do give money when asked, or if other projects foreigners are undertaking (such as building roads or other charities) encourage this practice – but it is a worrying trend.

Other changes became apparent when travelling through the Tigray region of north-eastern Ethiopia. This area is famed for the hundreds of rock-hewn churches and monasteries that have been carved into isolated mountains, their difficult access designed to afford protection from religious opponents. Many date back hundreds of years, and as someone told me “Every mountain has a monastery” and surely it follows that every monastery has a story.

The landscape here is only second in beauty within Ethiopia to the Simien Mountains. Being the rainy season, heavy clouds shrouded and swirled around jagged peaks, and verdant fields were dotted with the distinctive acacia tree. Occasionally, the sun would pierce the clouds and transform the muted landscape into a vibrant variety of earthy and emerald hues.

The first day I was accompanied by brooding skies and rumbling thunder whilst visiting two churches. Petros and Paulos church was reached by an unusual wooden ladder contraption that took one high onto a cliff and into the small church where the paintings inside were distinctive yet delicate with faded images of saints, apostles and angels. The second church was Medhane Alem Kesho, and it was marked by a trek along a stone ground with distinctive foot-sized deep impressions, supposedly caused by the divine horse of St
Approaching Petros and Paulos church - Tigray Region, EthiopiaApproaching Petros and Paulos church - Tigray Region, EthiopiaApproaching Petros and Paulos church - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

We climbed the wooden ladder on the right to reach the church.
George. The architecture in this church was gorgeous, and despite it being devoid of paintings, was worthy of the short trek.

Tigray churches once charged 50 Ethiopian birr (US$2.70) for foreigners to visit, but the price is now 150 birr (USD$8.00). The entry ticket to Lalibela’s World Heritage churches in 2008 was only 100 birr (USD$5.30), but in January this year the price jumped from 350 birr (US$18.70) to 910 birr (US$48.60)! The Lalibela increase was so steep that travellers are skipping the town from their itinerary. The church mandated these charges, despite protests from local guides and tour operators. According to reports, this money is not used entirely into church restoration, but is also being directed into purchasing and building hotels.

I can understand why foreigners are charged more, because they do have a greater capacity to pay in a country which does need money to preserve such sites. However, the price differential is so great (Ethiopians enter for free) and the price so high by local standards (Ethiopian earn on average one dollar a day) that tourists are apparently seen as a walking ATM. If this trend continues Ethiopia will gain a reputation for overcharging tourists, who will look elsewhere when planning destinations.

My base for my Tigray church tour was Hawzen, a pleasant and typically friendly Ethiopian town, where I shared many laughs and conversations with locals. It was whilst here I received a highly appreciated compliment from a local resident. Whilst chatting about Michael Jackson (whose song was playing on the radio) he changed the conversation to state “I like the way you travel, you are always talking to abesha (Ethiopians)" for he had notice me engaging in similar conversations elsewhere. I make a determined effort to immerse myself within an environment when travelling, and it was pleasing that this effort had been appreciated.

I retired for the evening to the atmospheric Gheralta Lodge in Hawzen; its round tukal styled buildings allowing glorious views of the beautiful countryside backed by dramatic mountains. As dusk and menacing clouds approached, I stood and observed lines of workers returning to their farms for the evening meal under increasingly darkening skies; a journey that farmers have been undertaking in Ethiopia from the earliest days of civilisation.

Thankfully the weather cleared the next morning for the day promised a challenging hike. However, our journey to Abuna Gebre Mikael was halted by extremely muddy and boggy, so the Chinese crew building a new road kindly graded the dirt so that we could pass. Upon arriving at our destination, we proceeded through farmland before commencing our climb where we heaved ourselves over large boulders and squeezed through fissures. After approximately 90 minutes of tiring climbing and hiking under a warm sun, we were informed that the church was closed to visitors for the man holding the key was nowhere to be found. Though our exertion yielded no church visit, we were rewarded with spectacular scenery.

More significant issues than a closed church arose between my guide from Axum – Mulugeta – and a local guide from the Gheralta Guides Assocation (GGA). There was much pointing, raised voices and grabbing of shirts during our hike – all initiated fom the GGA guide who demanded that any foreigner in the area must use a GGA guide. After we returned to the vehicle a leader of the GGA was waiting (summoned by the first GGA member) and he looked mightily displeased. Both GGA personnel escorted us to the nearby town of Mergab where a most unpleasant scene occurred.

It appeared
Deep  footholes on approach to Medhane Alem Kesho - Tigray Region, EthiopiaDeep  footholes on approach to Medhane Alem Kesho - Tigray Region, EthiopiaDeep footholes on approach to Medhane Alem Kesho - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Supposedly caused the hooves of St George's divine horse.
that the GGA leader had organised a group of their members to effectively ambush our vehicle and demand payment. From my position behind Mulugeta’s front passenger seat, I saw him hand over the required money (275 Birr). After this was paid, a scuffle ensued as the GGA leader physically assaulted Mulugeta and jumped onto him to commandeer the vehicle for a visit to the police station. I waited outside for more than an hour before we were could continue our journey. Mulugeta told me after he returned, “We can go. The police can deal with them now”.

This was a pathetic moment in Ethiopian tourism, initiated by the GGA. I was so unimpressed that I contacted the GGA alerting them to the fact that I was going to report negatively on the actions of the GGA on the Internet, and furthermore that I would place a photo of the GGA leader together with his name online if he failed to provide a reasonable response as to why he assaulted my guide after he had received the required money.

The next day I received a call from the GGA leader. He was very apologetic:
“I am sorry for what happened, I am sorry you saw this. But we have to protect our territory.”
I blurted in response “So you use physical force to protect your territory?”
“No, not normally, but this is a lesson we will learn,” he meekly replied.
I was extremely irate, but the GGA leader kept apologising, and though he sounded sincere, the actions of the previous day seemed so orchestrated that it was difficult to determine if changes would occur. Since forgiveness is a virtue dear to me, I promised that neither his photo nor name would be published. However, the actions of the GGA were utterly unacceptable and it would be irresponsible if I failed to inform other travellers about the GGA on my blog and elsewhere.

I met another guide in Hawzen who declined to join GGA because of their methods – they are “stupid people” he declaimed. I can understand the benefits of an association, but forcing every tourist wanting to visit a church to use their services, even if they have another Ethiopian guide in tow, and using physical force to ensure this occurs, makes the GGA no better than a group of thugs.

Thankfully, my time in Tigray concluded on a positive note. After leaving the police station, we proceeded to the masterpiece of all churches in the area – Abraha Atsbeha. The colours within the church were glorious with the usual pantheon of revered individuals appearing across the walls, with Jesus, St Mary and St George being favoured. The dusky, dusty interior gave a sense of antiquity to this place of worship resplendent with musical instruments and different shrines. It was a beautiful finale to my churches in Tigray, and it is places such as this that make Ethiopia such an enchanting destination.

Ethiopia is my favourite country in Africa, but this title is under threat if some trends I witnessed continue. I sincerely hope that these worrying aspects are resolved before my fifth visit, and that this gem of Eastern Africa is not dulled further.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Table tennis in Hazen - Tigray Region, EthiopiaTable tennis in Hazen - Tigray Region, Ethiopia
Table tennis in Hazen - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

The chap nearest the camera defeated all comers in the twenty minutes I watched him play.
Confident girl of Hazen - Tigray Region, EthiopiaConfident girl of Hazen - Tigray Region, Ethiopia
Confident girl of Hazen - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Her bold personality really comes through in the photograph.
Start of the trek to Abuna Gebre Mikael - Tigray Region, EthiopiaStart of the trek to Abuna Gebre Mikael - Tigray Region, Ethiopia
Start of the trek to Abuna Gebre Mikael - Tigray Region, Ethiopia

We climbed to the top of the flat peak in the middle of the photo.

21st August 2013

Shocking greed
Hi Shane, interesting and enlightening read. Ethiopia has been high on my list of places to visit for quite a while now, but after reading about the hassles and rip-offs that tourists face, I seriously doubt whether I should go there at all. I've had similar experiences in Peru and Laos, and they really soured those countries for me. It's good that travellers are skipping Lalibela now, hopefully the greedy people responsible for that ridiculous price hike will be taught a lesson. Cheers, Jens
22nd August 2013

Greed and beauty
I rarely write in such a tone about a country, but what I observed needed to be detailed in a blog. When one leaves the tourist areas, the country is still amazing - such a beautiful warmth from the people and the culture continues to fascinate me. Thankfully, not all those in the tourism industry condone the greed, as evidenced in this article from an Ethiopian news website:
22nd August 2013

You said you've been to Ethiopia three times before...
but only gave 2008 and 2010 as the dates. Anyway, it's sad how a country changes to cater to tourists; although some of the changes are for the better. And thanks for reporting on the outrageous behavior of the GGA; although such groups usually win in the end unless the tourist boycott them or the police intervene.
22nd August 2013

Previous visits and the GGA
I visited twice in 2008, but the second visit was only for a few days in Addis Ababa, so never wrote a separate blog about that time. I'm going to write to Lonely Planet and Bradt so as to forewarn other travellers about the GGA - their conduct was disgraceful.
22nd August 2013
Morning clouds - near Mergab, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

GORGEOUS jewel of Africa...great this is the beauty of the wet season...thus noted
22nd August 2013
My room in Gheralta Lodge - Hawzen, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Showed Denise this shot and she grabbed my shoulder and said "Ethiopia I could do that...I want to go back"
22nd August 2013
My room in Gheralta Lodge - Hawzen, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Gheralta Lodge
The door you can see is to my room - number 7. It is the most private of the complex. The other half of this building is room number 8. Due to its quiet location and views, I'd recommend room 7 as your best choice. Knowing your refined standards of accommodation - I'm sure both you and Denise would approve of my suggestion.
22nd August 2013

We were there only two years ago and it was ridiculously cheap in both the North and South. What a shame Lalibela is being avoided due to price hikes as it is a real gem in the North that should not be missed. And the GGA to non-GGA learnt from the ugly tourist that treats local populous with disdain...freaky if Tigray loses custom as a result. Love the pics...brings back wonderful memories of an extraordinary country
22nd August 2013

Compelling read as always Shane... And extremely timely as Dominique and I just talked about Etiopia, seeing her brother now lives there.
22nd August 2013

Turn and face the strain...
Insightful as always Shane :-) The highlights and lowlights of progress.
22nd August 2013

Tourist areas
Loved the photo of the wooden ladder you had to climb to get to the church. It can be difficult going back to a place that has captured your heart. As you've said some changes were good but many were difficult to embrace. The encounter with the GGA is disturbing. I'm surprised they called to talk with you. I'm sure they will see the intimidation is not viewed next time. I like the looks of the Gheralta Lodge. As you say in many of your blogs it is ideal to leave the tourist areas if you want to capture the warmth of the locals and experience them without being hassled for tourist items.
22nd August 2013

Wot, no camels?
Seems you're enjoying the highs and lows of your return to Ethiopia. While the Ethiopian people are certainly among the most handsome in Africa, it would be nice to see some of the good-looking camels too!
22nd August 2013

Ethiopian Camels
The Ethiopian camels have the nicest faces I've seen. I'll feature a few photos of attractive camels in the next blog on Axum.

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