Life in Ethiopia

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Africa » Ethiopia
November 8th 2007
Published: November 19th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

Well my time of traveling Ethiopia has finished. It has been a really amazing 3 weeks with lots seen and done. I spent my entire time in the north, in the Ethiopian Highlands. This is a very mountainous area, similar to Lesotho (I know that doesn’t help). The people even where blankets like in Lesotho. I found this very reassuring for some reason. It has an average altitude of above 2000 meters.

Simien Mountains

The plan for the Simiens was an eight day trek starting and ending in Debark and making it to the top of Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia. I had hooked up with Mandy and Lori in Addis to do this trek. I figured it would be nicer (and cheaper) in a small group than by myself. I think the girls were happy to have a guy along.

I should start by saying that the Simien Mountains are beautiful. I mean really beautiful. They are rugged and craggy (and I need a thesaurus). The pictures won’t really do this place justice. For some reason, every time we looked off of the escarpment the distance was always in a haze. I don’t know what this haze was.

The Simiens are different than what you think of as a National Park. It is protected but all the trails and roads and such were not created and are not reserved for park use. There primary function is for the local villagers to get around. So this trek is not a get in touch with nature type trek, because we were constantly hiking through villages or meeting people going to or from town.

The logistics of the trek were pretty simple. In Debark we hired our Scout (guy with AK47 to “protect” us. All of the other trekkers were jealous because our scout had an AK47 and theirs just had single shot bolt actions), and got our mules. It was nice not to have to carry all of our own gear. Debark sits at an altitude of 2800m, the lowest point on the trek. Our nights would see us camping at Sankaber (3200m), Gitch (3600m), Chennek (3600m), Ambiko (3200m), Ambiko, Chennek, and then Sankaber before returning to Debark. The summit of Ras Dashen (4533m) would be attempted from Ambiko… yes from the lowest camp.

Actually the push for the summit actually starts from Chennek. Most people that aren’t planning on attempting the summit don’t go past Chennek, and for good reason. I believe, and I’m sure everyone will agree that the hardest hiking was from Chennek to Ras Dashen and back. As I mentioned Chennek is at 3600m, from this camp you hike immediately up to 4200m to go through Bwahit Pass. Sounds good actually considering that Ras Dashen is only at 4533m. However, from the Pass you then hike down, down, down, down to 2900m to cross a river and then back up to 3200m to camp at Ambiko. That day took about 7 or 8 hours. That could almost be considered as summit day #1. Summit day #2 was THE SUMMIT DAY for Ras Dashen. You start at 3200m, climb to 4533 and return… hard going, and lots of altitude but it was what we had come to do. Summit day #3 is then the return to Chennek. The climb from the river bed to the pass is almost as much altitude as we did the previous day. Needless to say we were Nackered when we reached Chennek. We decided we didn’t need two more days of hiking out, so on the morning of day 7 we hitched a ride on a truck going back to Debark.

So that was the hard hike. The most beautiful day of hiking was from Gitch to Chennek. You start out hiking across this high plain to reach the summit of Imet Gogo (3925m). This is a peak that sits more like a point on the edge of the escarpment. On three sides of this point you look down an almost sheer wall to the valley below. I failed to mention that to get out to Imet Gogo you have to hike out along a ridge line that drops on either side… spectacular. From Imet Gogo, after hiking back along the ridge line, the trail then roughly follows the edge of the escarpment to Chennek. You don’t realize it until you reach Chennek and look back, how high above the camp you were, and also how steeply you came down to reach the camp.

For me Gitch was the coldest camp we stayed at. This was mostly because of its location. It was situated on an exposed plain. The day/night we were there was cloudy and windy. With the wind and without the sun it was very cold. In the morning I believe it was -2C in my tent. For some Chennek was the colder camp. Once again it was -2C in the morning. Chennek didn’t have the wind that Gitch did but it was situated on the west side of a mountain. So we were up for several hours before the sun finally got high enough to start taking the frost off the tent. My favorite camp was Ambiko. This was mostly because it was the warmest. It was a balmy 4C in the morning in my tent. The girls didn’t like Ambiko, mostly for the drama that occurred there. This camp seemed to have the most hangers on, who just sit and stare and ask for money. There was also drama with the church that wanted us to pay more money to use the cooking shelter. I don’t really know what finally happened. I think we didn’t have to pay because we fed the priest but I’m not really sure. It wasn’t uncommon for us to feed our scout and mule drivers. We tended to have too much food in the pot when all was said and done. The most amazing thing was how hard it was to get them to eat it sometimes. We often wondered if our crew was eating because we rarely saw them sit down to eat so we always offered them food and made tea for them. But Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days. On fasting days Ethiopian Orthodox Christians don’t eat meat or animal products. Like good Catholics fish doesn’t count as an animal product -- don’t ask me. Anyway, on these days it almost always took an hour of gesturing and looking for someone who spoke English to convince our mule men that we didn’t have any animal products in our food and the margarine was made from vegetables. We always prevailed and we really didn’t have any meat products (Mandy and Lori are vegetarians).

It was a good 6+ days on the trail. There was lots of random singing and segways that nobody could follow unless you were there. As with all good treks there was lots of cussing oneself and wondering why we were there in the first place. Of course all of these misgivings usually vanished as soon as we reached the top or made it around the bend to be greeted with another amazing vista.

We saw a fair number of animals, mostly birds. The most common birds were the Lammergeyer (vultures) and the thick billed raven. The ravens were very cheeky and around every camp. They were quite strange looking. We never caught sight of any Ethiopian Wolves, but we did see a couple Ibex. Ibex are a type of mountain goat. The most impressive and common animal we saw were the gelada baboons. These baboons look very different from the baboons I had seen in the rest of Africa. They are a lighter brown color and their hair is much longer. When seen from far away with the right wind, one almost has to do a double take to make sure you aren’t looking at a lion… ok maybe not but if you use your imagination, the hair looks like a mane. On the hike to Ambiko camp as we were coming down from the pass we saw an incredibly large number of vultures below us on the ground. It turns out that a baboon had fallen somehow and was down there being feasted on by the birds.

There is a road that runs from Debark to beyond Chennek. However, it doesn’t go over Bwahit Pass and into that valley. Yet Ambiko village is of decent size with Coke and flour and plastic buckets for sale. Walking up the pass from Chennek, we saw in the distance on the side of the road what looked like tents. It turns out that these tents are storage. Trucks from Debark come up and either load or unload at the tents. Then mule trains (just like in the old west) come over the pass and pick up the goods. I watched as these processions of mules would march over one way empty and then coming back you could see them marching back laden down. Sometimes what had to be brought over was too big for mules. When we were returning to Chennek we saw a group of guys, probably 8-10, carrying what looked like part of a mill on a litter. I don’t know how far they were going with this but I’m sure it got heavy before they got there.

Click for all the pictures of the Simien Mountains

Lalibela -- The tourist Mecca of Ethiopia

By themselves, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are enough reason to make the flight to Ethiopia. I don’t think I knew what to expect when it came to seeing rock-hewn churches. But I can assure you that whatever you think you will see, will not do justice to the engineering marvel and just sheer awe in seeing these things.

I sat for over an hour around the rim of Bet Giorgis, the most iconic of the churches, trying to decide how to describe the construction of these churches. I knew the pictures wouldn’t do them justice. This is what I came up with. Imagine you are at the beach and you want to build I sand castle. However, you want your sandcastle to be level with the beach. I don’t know why, you just do. So you start by digging a big hole in the sand with vertical sides. Now, you fill your bucket with sand and turn it over upside down in the hole. Ok, now imagine instead of sand you are digging in rock and you don’t have a bucket to put the castle in the middle. As you dig your hole you have to leave/carve your church out of the center of the hole. Ok, once that is finish you now have to go and carve out the inside of the church. Ok, now you are going to do this during the 12th century. As I was looking at the churches I was always struck by how small they were. Of course now that I’ve explained the work, no wonder they are small.

I don’t have the linguistics to describe these churches. I can only hope that the pictures can convey the feeling but I don’t think they can either. Lalibela to me had almost the same affect as Angkor Wat in Cambodia on a much smaller scale. One large difference between these churches and the temples of Angkor Wat is that these have never been lost, they are still used for daily service. They are often closed at times during the day when special services are going on.

My timing for being in Lalibela was not great. Many of the churches are experiencing construction. The churches are starting to be damaged by water seepage. So UNESCO is providing money to construct roofs over the worst of the churches. This work is ongoing so there is temporary scaffolding over the churches. However, even the completed structures I saw were not very aesthetic. My take on the subject is, “what is causing the water seepage.” These churches are 900 years old. If the seepage is started because of all the people that visit the churches then I think they should be protected. However, if the seepage is completely natural then while it would be a shame for future generations to lose this, we can’t keep everything. Maybe Mother Nature should be allowed to have her world, I’m sure she will get it if she wants.

I thoroughly enjoyed walking around Lalibela without a guide. Sure I lost out on some of the interesting stories, but I got to get lost around every corner. I wandered into cracks and holes that the tours didn’t go in. I found myself several secret spots where I could just sit and watch people go by and gaze in wonder at the construction and life around me.

I actually wonder if the guides believe the story that the are telling or if it is really just for the tourist. The guided tour of a church always brings out in detail the painting of St. George slaying the dragon, and then the priest poses with the crosses of the church and they show you that church's bible. Now what makes me cynical is that the story is always the same. The book and crosses are almost always as old as the church. Sure it might be possible, but the way they flip the pages of the bible, if it was really 900 years old it would have disintegrated by now. Unless, of course it is just a miracle.

The bibles are all written by hand in Ge'ez language (only spoken by the church) and for parchment they use goat skin. The artwork and writing in the bibles and the metallurgy of the crosses is quite special. By the time you have been into 8 churches in a day and have seen 8 bibles and crosses, you just don’t care anymore.

The churches are all actually quite small on the inside. They don't have rows and rows of pews like we might be used to. Most people that come to worship at a church don't even go inside. It might only be certain people that are allowed to come to service inside the church but I'm not sure. Inside there is always one special room, the Holy of Holies. It is in this room that the Talbot is kept. This is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. In order for something to be a church it must have this replica. Only certain priests are allowed to see or touch the Holy of Holies. It is all very mysterious.

Click for all the pictures from Lalibela

The rest of the historical circuit

The tour of the northern Ethiopian historical circuit has more to it than just the churches of Lalibela. I really enjoyed the town of Gonder. The main attraction in Gonder is the Royal Enclosure which lies in the heart of the city. This enclosure surrounds several 17th century castles. These castles were built by several different kings of the Ethiopia. While none of the individual castles are large by European standards, the entire complex was of sufficient size. I thoroughly enjoyed just wandering around looking at the different structures. I even made the girls go back in the evening so we could see it all again at sunset, which was really a cool light on the castles.

Gonder also has one of the most interestingly decorated churches that I saw. Debre Birhan Selassie has some incredible paintings throughout. The most impressive is the one on the ceiling which is a painting of cherubs, well just their faces. The whole ceiling is covered in this repeating pattern. The walls are also covered with paintings depicting various scenes of religious importance. We didn’t really find out what many of the scenes were because the caretaker didn’t speak English. So unless the scene was obvious, we didn’t really find out much.

To a person, I think everyone I talked with was unimpressed with Axum. I think the problem is that it just can’t live up to the hype that surrounds it. Axum was the capital of a little understood or researched kingdom during the 4th century. It is famous from a tourist perspective for the stelae and tombs that were built during this time. It is also the rumored home of the Ark of the Covent. Though you can’t get anywhere close to where the Ark is said to be resting. You can however, walk around and explore the stelae field. For those that don’t know, stelae are monoliths of rock that have been erected and are free standing. I guess the Washington Monument could be considered a stelae. For all the history surrounding the stelae, little is actually known about them. Maybe that is why Axum is such a let down, you never get a feeling of what it is all about. There is also a great deal of construction going on here as well. They are working on re-erecting the “Rome” stelae. During the Italian occupation of WWII, the Italians cut this 26m tall stelae into 3 pieces and took it to Rome where they reassembled it. It has just recently been returned to Ethiopia and is being put back up. The Ethiopians are very happy about this.

Of more interest to me than the stelae fields were the two side trips that I took outside of Axum. The first was to Yeha. Yeha is the site of an ancient, ruined temple. There really isn’t much to this temple, just 4 walls of which one is crumbled. The masonry of the temple is impressive. The stones are carved perfectly flat and square. One is even 3 meters long and straight as a board. Maybe not a big deal until you consider that the temple is 2500 years old. In one of the walls there are windows in the shape of a cross. These were created at least 500 years before Christ… hmmm.

The other site was the cliff monastery of Debre Damo. Debre Damo can only be visited by men, and then they must be hearty men. Mostly because to get to the monastery you must climb up the cliff face. The climb is probably a solid 10-15 meters. You do have the aid of a “rope” and a “safety rope.” The climbing rope is braided cow hide and is maybe 3 or 4 centimeters in diameter. This rope seemed to be coated in animal fat, we guessed to keep it from drying out but aren’t really sure. The safety rope is a 1in wide leather strap that you tie around your waist. It is hauled up by a man at the top of the cliff. The monastery was nice, but the real draw is the climb up the cliff to get to it. On this cliff top we found goats, and cows. I guess they get pulled up in the leather strap. Water on the top was pretty repugnant. It looked like there were cisterns carved into the rock. They fill during the rainy season. There are steps going down into these cisterns so water jugs can be filled. During the time of the year that I was here, the water was a sickly green color, but I saw boys filling jugs.

And now the rest of the pictures

Other Observations

One of my favorite things that I saw in Addis was a statue on the Addis Abba campus. This university grounds contain the former palace of Haile Selassie. It was taken over by the Italians during WWII as their headquarters, I believe. Outside the palace the Italians erected a statue of 13 steps. These represented something to do with Italy and fascism. When the Ethiopians regained control of their country they didn’t pull the monument down. Instead they placed a lion, the symbol of Ethiopia, on top of the last step. I just looked at that and laughed. I thought it was a great “up yours.”

The roads in Ethiopia are amazingly beautiful and scary. I don’t know how many times I was just amazed at the construction. It always seemed like we were either going up or down a cliff face. Just switchback, followed by switchback. I’m sure on the road from Debark to Axum the driver was hardly ever out of 2nd gear. It took longer but I was fine with that, I didn’t want to end up as “stuff on a rock.” I remember being particularly scared on the ride to Lalibela. As we were climbing up the mountainside, we became fogged in. Of course the bus didn’t stop, we just kept trudging along this road that we couldn’t see how far down the drop was.

Speaking of buses, Ethiopia has a very strange way of loading buses in the morning. I experienced this by accident one morning. I showed up at about 5:45AM for my 6AM bus and started walking into the bus station/bus park. The security guard challenged me but let me go when I said I was looking for my bus. I remember thinking there are lots of people hanging around outside the bus station for 6AM, but oh well. Inside the bus station was unusually calm. I actually had to ask several people where my bus was, there wasn’t any touting. Once again “Oh well.” There was no one on my bus, however, I was assured that it was the first bus and I should get on. Not convinced, I stood around outside the bus with my pack, just talking to the touts, drivers, conductors that were around. After a few minutes I noticed another gate for the bus station that was closed but was extremely crowded on the other side. I asked one guy what those people were. He told me that they were coming in shortly. About that time the gates opened, and everyone came running in. Running towards their different buses. I realized that I should be scrambling up to my bus and try and get a good seat. I guess today being Faranji (white man/mzungu) had its advantages.

Ethiopian Calender and time
Just some info about time and dates in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has both its own calender and time system. This year on our Sept 11, they celebrated their millennium, so when I was there it was 2000. They have 13 months in the year. As far as time, well that is different also, but I like it. There day starts at 6AM by our counting. They call this 12. 6PM by our counting is also called 12. This works out well because almost year round the sun rises and sets at 6 (European time). So you always know how far from sunrise/sunset you are. Once you get used to it, it isn’t so bad.

Throwing Rocks, Yelling Children and Touts
People often complain/comment about people constantly yelling “You, You You” or “Give me” or throwing rocks at them. For me I mostly noticed it was just the kids with the yelling. “You, You, You” could usually be stopped by answering with “Salaam” (Hello). I think it really is just their version of all the kids everywhere else yelling “Mzungu” just to get attention.

I only had rocks thrown at me once, by a kid that I wouldn’t give any money to. I was very angry at first. The only way I could get him to stop was to pick up a rock and act like I was going to throw it at him and he would run away. As I walked on, and calmed down, I thought about the rocks some more. It is really just part of their society. I’ve seen naked, crazy men in the streets throw rocks at people just because. But I also watch adults pick up rocks and aim them at groups of kids when they want to get them to disperse. I think they don’t see it as malicious. They know it hurts and they don’t want to get hit so they run, but to them it isn’t wrong.

Along these same lines, it seems that everyone wants to “help” you for a fee, or commission. It made me question whether the Church preaches “Do a good turn?” It was interesting that I had someone tagging along to “help” buy beriberi spice in the market on my last day. The first place he took me, they told me for 1/4kg it would cost me 125birr. I paid 16birr for 1/4kg in Lalibela so I didn’t believe him. We tried another shop and it was 75birr. Finally, he walked in one shop and I walked in the shop next door. Amazingly, my price was suddenly 17birr. Sometimes I guess a local helps and sometimes he doesn’t.

I will say that many of the locals are incredibly nice. On several bus rides I had my lunch bought for me by my seat mate. Just because I guess. They wouldn’t let me pay. In Bahir Dar, the bus driver and conductor that brought me up there kept buying me juice and chai (tea). It was a special experience because it is pretty rare.


In and around Axum we saw camels. I really didn’t expect to see camels in the highlands. It made everyone stare

*They have some interesting tea and fruit juices. My favorite tea was pineapple and peanut tea. Pineapple tea is really just hot pineapple juice. Peanut tea is like liquefied peanut butter with sugar added. It tasted like peanut butter pie so good. My favorite fruit juice was “sprees” juice. This is a mixture of juices. If you are lucky you get pineapple, guava, papaya, and (the coup’de grace) avocado juice. Yes, the avocado was strange at first but you get used to it and it is quite good. Oh yeah you “drink” these fruit juices with a spoon

*Everyone seemed to get fleas or bedbugs other than me. I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m just lucky I guess. I just think that some people react to the bites and others don’t. I don’t seem to be bothered by mosquitoes either, but obviously I got bit. (FYI-- there are no residual affects to having malaria. I am fine and healthy)

*True story. I’m walking out of the post and a tout walks up to me and says “Do you need help with an international phone call?” I must have looked like someone that was trying to make an international phone call instead of someone who had just mailed away a postcard.

*Flies are everywhere. They seem to just congregate on people. It was annoying at first, but then you get used to it.

*Foosball and ping pong are big pastimes. They are played out in the street. I got pummeled in both games

*Night flights are the worst ever when you are in a foreign land. I had to check out of my room at 10AM and my flight was at 10PM. What to do for 12 hours. I drank lots of chai, ate lots of pastries and went shopping for jeans in the market. Then went to the airport 5 hours early because I was bored.

*I was treated to culture shock after customs in Addis Abba airport. I had 30birr left to my name (about $3). I went to buy a tea and was told it would

St. George slaying the dragon
be $1. I said 1birr, and was told no, 9birr. On the street it is .6birr at the bus station, 1birr at my hotel and maybe 3birr at the Hilton. I was floored. Everywhere in the airport, all prices were suddenly Western

Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 34



This is inside a church

22nd January 2010

Hi Mike, I just came across your travel blog while googling 'Ethiopian avocado juice'....having just come back from there and trying to find a name for the avocado cocktails (non-alcohol) they had there - Sprees! I loved what you wrote on your blog...this was my first trip to the continent and I already experienced much of the lovely 'africanism' you mentioned. Great time somebody mentiones they are going to visit Ethiopia or the African continent I am recommending your blog.
8th February 2010

Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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