The idea of traveling to Ethiopia was never in the original plans. The idea was to head south of Tanzania to the oft-praised country of Malawi. Plans changes though, and with me and travel, plans change rather easily (should I really even call them “plans”? More like rough ideas, really). 10 minutes of conversation with a stranger during our layover back in October was all it took. The seed was planted, and Loes and I bought a travel guide, spoke with friends and soon our imagination ran wild. It was a different kind of Africa, they said. A unique and friendly place, rich with culture and landscapes like you’ve never seen. After those rave reviews, how could we not go?
We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and economic hub, and made our way to Itegue Taitu, the oldest hotel in the country. Taitu was a welcomed splash of luxury. Large rooms with hardwood floors, raised ceilings and plenty of character. Big and comfy beds with no need for mosquito nets. Working showers that didn’t occasionally burst into flames (Loes had a shower in Nairobi that ended in a fireball shooting out from some pipes and wiring. She hasn’t complained about cold showers since then.) We explored Addis’ busy streets and shops, walked through the grounds of the ancient St. George church, and found ourselves eagerly downing large glasses of fresh squeezed mango and banana juice. We weren’t in town for more than 24 hours before we signed up for a tour of the Omo Valley, an area in southwest Ethiopia known for numerous tribes and market places.
The next morning we woke early and met up with our travel partners for the next six days, Erik and Jun. Erik, a 36 year old Dutch man, was a welcome sight for Loes. Any chance Loes gets to speak Dutch, she jumps at. I’ve tried learning some of the language, but there are only so many times Loes can listen to me count to 20 until she gets a bit bored. Jun, a 65 year old Japanese man who had visit over 190 countries, was our self appointed leader. Full of knowledge but a little set in his ways, he mostly kept to himself unless we spoke of travel, after which he willingly shared many of his travel tales.
The car rolled up and was met with our crinkled faces of disbelief. It was a ratty old Landcruiser, with no door handles and a roof so low Erik and I would end up with a concussion after each bump in the road. They must have pulled this thing straight from a wreck yard. We complained a little, but after a guarantee this car wouldn’t break down, we hit the road. I guess guarantees aren’t worth much these days because two hours later the interior of the car smelled of gas and we found ourselves stuck for three hours waiting for a new car.
After getting a new car (with door handles!) and a new driver (he spoke English!), the tour could finally, truly, get started. Over those six days we visited four markets, two remote villages and experienced cultures we’d only previously glimpsed on the cover of a National Geographic. The Mursi village was more of a visual treat than cultural experience. It was a lot to take in, from the women with their lip and ear plates, to the painted faces and bodies of the gun toting young men. The long drive into a remote, barren landscape further fortified the idea that these people were removed from modern civilization. However, the sight of a young villager in Rayban sunglasses confirmed that the slow creep of technology into these societies could not be stopped. As unique of an experience as it was, the Mursi village trip did not feel genuine. It was too short, too forced. We were pestered for photos wherever we went, with demands of money after every click. I don’t fault them for their actions, but it did cheapen the moment. Overall it was a great experience, as long as you know what to expect.
(Above: Mursi woman)
(Above: Afar man)
(Above: Mursi women and an awkward American)
(Above: Loes helping me with my fear of heights. I’m all man, baby!)
(Above: Why did the land tortoise cross the road? Because I helped it, otherwise it would be dead. Eat your vegan hearts out, PETA)
We also spent time in the small village of Kolsho. Here, we were greeted by the village and effectively left alone. We explored the area and played with children, eventually meeting a man by the name of Nokia who eagerly welcomed us into his hut. We felt no pressure and simply enjoyed the experience as we spoke of his life, his family and his village. There were no “wow” moments, no “I’ve never seen that before” type events, but it felt real, which was something everyone was thankful for. Looking back on our few hours in Kolsho, I can only help but smile.
After Omo we found ourselves resting up in Addis then heading east to Harar, a town considered to be the 4th holiest city in the Islamic culture. We spent most of our time within the ancient city walls of old town getting lost amongst the narrow stone streets or in the vast Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of town. The rest of our time was spent in the hotel room hunting cockroaches and flies or praying the water would finally work for once.
The highlight of our time in Harar was the feeding of the hyenas. In years past there was a famine in the region, during which the hyenas began to attack villagers and livestock. Without many other options, the villagers began leaving out bowls of porridge for the hyenas, hoping that would satisfy their appetites. It worked, and since then there has been an annual ceremony in which a bowl of porridge is left out for the hyenas. The daily feeding of the hyenas has it’s roots in this tradition, but is now more of a tourist draw then a cultural ritual.
That said, it’s a surreal and unforgettable experience to be surrounded by eight lurking beasts as a meat-covered stick is placed in your mouth and soon greedily removed by the powerful jaws of an eager hyena. My heart skipped a beat when an overly excited hyena missed his attempt to grab the meat and instead grazed my forehead. I can still feel his slobber on my skin and hair. Maybe that just means I need a shower.