The last few posts have dealt a lot with the subject of travelling vs expectations, and finally I managed to circumvent both my prejudices and hopes by not really knowing much at all about Ethiopia. Yes, I have noticed an increased interest from fellow travelling friends to visit Ethiopia, but I haven’t really reflected on why. I had merely taking time to look up some cool mountains and fleetingly reading about some super old rock hewn churches I couldn’t really create an image of. Of course I was also well aware of PM Abiy Ahmed and the last year of peace processing with Eritrea, democratisation and general high economical growth (with a bit of help from the gentle Chinese), but of what there really was to experience in Ethiopia I was surprisingly ignorant, being me.
After setting out from Gedaref while the dawn was still hours away, the difference between the neighbouring countries became strikingly visible as the sun rose. The long lines of plastic along the roadside in Sudan glimmered for the few hours before we reached Ethiopia, and then mysteriously vanished on the other side of the border. What had been a super sweet tea country turned into a bitter coffee drinking culture, a remnant from the Italian occupation during the WWII. Where no alcohol had been seen for weeks, suddenly every shack shop in Ethiopia could present five different local beers, with many more to explore in the larger cities. Where the sun had been merciless over endless desert, the mountains lifted us up to fresh air, moderate temperatures and lush landscapes. The conservative Islamic culture turned into a semi conservative Christian tradition, where both women and men bore crosses, sometimes as walking sticks, sometimes carved into their forehead which apparently was completely normal. Still, chewing khat or drinking beer for breakfast did not make anyone less religious, which I guess is the main difference between strict Muslims and strict Christians. Without saying that I prefer the state of affairs in Ethiopia to Sudan, circumstances made it a lot easier to fully enjoy and take part of Ethiopia than what had been possible in Sudan. All this is explained in my last post, for those interested.
Firstly, just the perfectly temperate days and slightly chilly nights were divine after roasting away in Sudan and Egypt. Thanks to most of the country being perched on mountains 2000 metres or higher, the climate let us breathe properly for 3 weeks, with the Danakil depression being the exception. Secondly, temperate climate and mountains are perhaps my two favourite things in the world, which in combination resulted in lush greenness and stunning views everywhere we went. The Simien mountains were just a start; the whole country turned out to be (almost) as majestic. What more, in Ethiopia you also find the aforementioned Danakil Depression – the hottest place on earth and the weirdest place I ever visited. 111 metres below sea level, the landscape looks like what you’d expect on planet Mars. The earth is coloured red, white, yellow and green from the leaking magnesium, iron and sulphur. Pools of acid boiling under the surface, salt pillars shooting up in bright, unnatural colours and neon green hot springs looking deceptively tempting. One does best to tread carefully. As if the Danakil Depression and the Simien mountains is not in themselves enough to bring travellers looking for a thrill to Ethiopia, they also have some proper action filled church climbing. Yes indeed. Thinking about sightseeing churches maybe doesn’t ring big bells of excitement or sexiness, but here things got extreme. In Tigray they dug out the churches hundreds of metres up along steep cliff walls in remote mountain ranges, visited by the real devotees, (and us unorthodox but thrill seeking travellers), still inhabited by hermits. In Lalibela they went the other way and dug out full, complex church structures from the rock underneath their feet. Instead of building, the early Christians in Ethiopia decided to carve the churches out of monolithic rock, resembling the ridiculous work effort one can image was put into building the pyramids in Giza, Stone Henge in England or the massive face sculptures of Easter Island. Free from any Christian belief I still couldn’t help but drop my jaw and whisper ”hoooooow?!” in wondrous awe. This is the heart of western civilisation, both biologically and socially, though today Ethiopia still stands out in its uniqueness, like nothing you experienced. Perhaps thanks to not being formally colonized, their culture and sense of self remained intact through modern times. Only some small remnants of the Italian occupiers from WWII (like the coffee) appears as the only clear European interference; everything else seems to be so genuinely Ethiopian it’s hard to compare it to anything else. Food, music and dance is maybe as important as the ancient heritage from early Christian civilisation, or, if you want to go back some millions of years, Lucy, the first humanoid. Instead of cultural restaurants being tourist traps, they are mostly frequented by locals going to drink their typical honey wine while being roasted by the club’s singers. I guess Ethiopia also is the origin of the comic roast or the rap battle, where seemingly innocent guests are showered with comical insults making most of them blush and the rest of us laugh. I felt lucky not knowing what they were saying to us forengis, obviously being the easiest to roast. After not just keeping your face, the challenge continues with a specific shoulder shaking dance none of us ever could master, not stopping us from trying though.
It’s hard not to love a country like Ethiopia where anyone can find a piece of anything which they are looking for. Like most countries on this continent, it has also seen hard times, and as it’s neighbours there are also touts and scammers, of course. As a forengi you will always be noticed and quite often asked for money, pens, candy or perhaps your watch. A white person in Africa will have to carry the burden of our colonial past, just as the black person does in Europe (but in an opposite fashion), whether we think it is fair or not. In the grand scheme of things, I can accept that people try to cheat me a few times a day and that I have to bargain hard to stay in budget sometimes, because I can also acknowledge how incredibly privileged I am being able to collect these experiences from every corner of the globe, mainly due to being born in the right place. Ethiopia is one of the countries I happened upon, but which deserves all the peace and stability one can hope the current trends are offering them. Thanks to peace processing, fresh flow of Chinese money and some PR from the Peace Prize winning Abiy Ahmed Ethiopia has seen a steady increase in tourists of all kind, coming to marvel at nature, history and culture in one of the countries which has it all, and in abundance too!