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Published: April 15th 2011
After 4 weeks, 2 Christmases, and countless bus journeys, I'm now heading south from Addis Adaba towards the Kenyan border at Moyale, ready to leave Ethiopia behind and head on to my next country. There'll be no more shouts of 'feranji' as I pass children, or traders. They'll be no more injera, no more fasting food, and no more tej beer. Until next time that is, because what a country Ethiopia is - the sights, the sounds, the food, the culture, the friendliness, the sheer randomness or the place.
If you ever get the chance to visit, forget everything you think that you know about the country, and forget everything you've heard. Forget about the famine. Forget about the hassle. Forget about the image you have in your mind. Forget it all. And prepare to be surprised, and amazed. At each and every turn, with each and every step, you will be shocked, awed, and astounded. Some things will annoy, others confuse, disturb, perplex, or inspire. Many things will just blow your mind, and take your breathe away. The only constant, is that you'll be surprised.
I was expecting an almost dull, featureless, barren landscape apart from the Simiens,
but the entire north of the country, and much of the south is entirely covered in mountains. Beautiful scenery greets you with every bend of the road, and every peak you reach. And almost every single inch is cultivated, fields of tef, barley and wheat as far as the eye can see, to the top of every peak, hundreds of meters above the nearest house. It must rival New Zealand for scenery, from the tall finger-like peaks of Gheralta, to the rolling hillsides or pine forests and green fields around Gondar (a scene plucked straight from Lord of the Rings), to the majestic peaks of the Simien mountains reaching into the sky, giving views all the way to Sudan. And it's then combined with such a unique, more often than not bizarre, culture - women singing in a pitch that could burst attract dogs, priests chatting and swaying in incense filled caves in the same way they're been doing for the last 2000 years, and men making their whole bodies shake and stutter to the rhythm of a single stringed guitar. A time system that's different from anywhere else I've been in the world. A calendar that's unique. And a
language and script that's used nowhere else. And the cafes! I could sit in an Ethiopian cafe for the rest of my life - drinking some of the finest cups of coffee in the world for 4p, while a gorgeous waitress, with a gorgeous smile, is over the moon to serve you.
Before coming here, I was terrified about the hassle and the hustle I'd heard about, just thinking about making it through to Kenya. And although there have been times when I thought my lasting impression of Ethiopia would be of touts and hustlers, and although I've had my moments, I look back and see a country full of kindness, where most people have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I've been offered places to stay for the night, twice, and been treated like a king when I've accepted. I've been given the only bed in the house. Been given chat, beer, tea, and injera. Had people take me out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Had people stand up so I could sit down on a bus, for no other reason than I'm the only tourist in town. And these people wouldn't accept a
single birr for their trouble.
And my best experiences have happened away from the tourist crowd, when I've travelled on my own, and been away from the well publicised and 'must-see' sights. And the result is that it's shattered my opinion of group tours and packaged tourism. I wanted to join a tour for some company, but it just put barriers between me and the locals. Cultural interaction was reduced to demands for birr for photos. In Ethiopia, I think package tourism has a lot to answer for. Tourists and their zoom lenses are transported around the country in bubbles of buses, only to jump out and take photos of the next sight, before jumping back in the bubble and disappearing to the safety of the next tourist hotel. And personally, I think it's this, not any misuse of aid that is the main cause of the hassle tourists get in Ethiopia - when locals see such unobtainable wealth flaunted in their faces, but so far out of reach, when do you expect them to do?
It really is a unique, bizarre, fascinating, spell bindingly fantastic, and incredibly intense country. At the same time the best and worst
destination in the world. And it's one that just defies explanation. You'll just have to come and visit for yourself. Sorry.
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