It occurred to me during a moment of tangible spontaneity around New Years. I had been interested in visiting Ethiopia for some time, spurred on by images of the remote and mystical monasteries of Lalibela and by the majesty of the Simien mountains. I found myself reevaluating my Easter plans and wondering what I should do with the impending fortnight holiday. While contemplating this, there was a persistent muffled voice in my head yelling “you could go to Ethiopia man!” which must have sighed with subdued exasperation when I finally and gradually crystallized the thought “hey, I could go to Ethiopia! Could I? Of course I could”! So with that I made some calls and one evening I found myself on the phone to my girlfriend declaring “I’m going to Ethiopia!”
I surprised myself by feeling a certain amount of anxiety for this trip, a feeling that I haven’t experienced in years. This was based primarily on the intensity I felt, and which I didn’t feel comfortable with, during a trip to West Africa 8 years ago. I am struck by how much our previous disparate experiences from places that only hold a very loose association tend to form our preconceptions of new destinations. The implications of which, if not kept conscious and rightfully in their place, can range between heightened expectations being compromised to an overly sensitized air of caution. With this in mind, I strove to maintain this relative anxiety as a motivating factor as it clearly signified a stone to be turned over fully from my previous travel experiences at a younger age. In fact, as a solo traveler I somewhat relished it as an indication that this brief journey would have an edge to it, a sense of adventure, shrink wrapped into two weeks. More importantly, it signified that I was not likely to become desensitized to the sense of wonder and adventure that is so intrinsic to the desire to travel independently.
Dealing with a constant barrage of attention is an unavoidable fact of life when traveling in a third world country. Yes it can be frustrating, vexing and the underlying poverty can pull on one’s heart strings, but it is difficult to make judgments when the cultural and economic divides are so vast. Ultimately, we can’t justifiably remove ourselves from the grand equation just to satisfy a sense of guilt or inconvenience. Common sense will point to the necessity of accepting and adapting to the prevailing circumstances, being open to new experiences, accepting a minor ambassadorial role, standing one’s ground and realizing that certain well-intended attempts to help people often does more harm than good. Most importantly, it is essential to remember that the common threads of humanity will always shine through in the most unexpected and heart-warming ways when given a chance.
On my first day in Addis Ababa, having arrived late the night before and checking into my dank hotel room with the usual excited feelings of a new impending mini-adventure, I set out on the all important first day urban ramble. My main aim was to acquire some cash, a task hampered by the fact that it was Sunday in a very catholic country and by the fact that there were reputedly no ATM’s in Ethiopia. The need for sustenance dictated a lengthy stroll to the Hilton hotel exchange office. With all of my first-day-in-a-new-country defenses solidly in place, I gradually began the process of absorbing my surroundings, getting my bearings, shaking off the cobwebs and allowing a smile to sweep across my face with the realization of where I was. The places; the faces; the urban musk; the sights; the smells; the expectations; the moment, all permeating my pores. As if on cue to test my resolve, I was then approached by a young man of obvious savvy. You can tell by the approaching footsteps that your would-be-new-best-friend has approached many a foreigner and his opening lines had a universal predictability; “hey my friend”, “from where?”, “first time in Ethiopia?” etc, followed by the usual unsolicited and whole hearted, if perfectly obvious, list of recommendations to enhance one’s cultural experience. My well-practiced defenses were now standing on immediate alert and I wasn’t going to allow this guy to think that this faranji was going to be an easy meal ticket. However, despite my monosyllabic and uninterested responses, he did not yield nor did he exert any insistence or request (such conniving subtlety I was to learn would be a rarity in street encounters!). The conversation began to flourish on a refreshingly even keel and I began to reestablish my desire not to let past experiences or overt reactive defenses to compromise the quality of potential social interactions. Without ever fully losing my guard, I began to enjoy the conversation, gaining many subtle insights into the political and social psyche of Ethiopian people. I found the foreign exchange office, changed some money, returned with my new ‘friend’ and met a Kenyan companion of his. Upon our farewell, the lack of requests, offers to be my ‘guide’ or any other form of insistence finally satisfied my trust and I agreed to meet them later for some lunch. I was feeling good about my first day. Unfortunately, my first injera experience (a classic Ethiopian dish, somewhat resembling a bread pancake tablecloth, garnished with all manner of vegetables, meat, spices and anything whose colour instantly gave away its tantalizing flavours) was to leave a nasty aftertaste. The final clincher to my new ‘friend’ establishing my trust was when he offered to split the cost of the meal between us, an offer which I was happy to accept as a token gesture only, the prospect of having overcome my suspicions and gained a friend being payment enough. And so it was that the bill arrived. It was considerably higher than I had expected, though I had no adequate comparisons to draw on my first day. In a moment of disarmament and provided with an unconvincing explanation regarding the prices, I handed over the money, thanked them for their company, made my farewells and returned towards my hotel. Every hitherto muted alarm bell in me was ringing to the tune of ‘scam’. Yep, despite my well-practiced and determined caution, I failed to make it through my first day without getting caught out! As it turned out, the restaurant didn’t normally issue paper bills and so the ‘waiter’ was clearly in on the scam, charging me roughly 500% of the price for a meal for three. Although this wasn’t a huge amount for me, it is necessary to gauge such things by local standards and suffice to say I was left feeling naïve and stupid. If there is a lesson to be learned I guess it is that the only way to assuredly safeguard yourself from such situations is to completely cut yourself off and not award anybody the opportunity to reach you, a practice which I do not intend to adopt. Feeling suitably frayed around the edges and self-deprecating, I returned to my hotel room where my hot shower nonchalantly spurted out a treacle of cold water accompanied by a mild electric shock when I tried to convince it to offer up something more tepid. Feeling rather deflated, I picked myself up somewhat by purchasing an onward ticket to the town of Bahir Dar, leaving early the next morning. Suffice to say that despite a promising start, my first day wasn’t quite going as planned, but I tried to convince myself that the first day is when you must pay your dues in order to clear the way to a memorable journey. I was determined to suck it up and not let it affect future encounters. I would remain friendly yet vigilant, lest risk never fully turning over that damn stone, even if it meant potentially putting myself in a similar position again. I was not going to judge every situation by one negative encounter. Most importantly, I would accept the prospect that my trust could, at least by reckoning borne out of my own socio-economic background, be taken advantage of again. I was healthy, I had my wits about me and Africa truly is a place where the rough needs to be taken with the smooth. On that note, upon regaling friends of the hotel manager with tales of my first experience in Addis Ababa, it was nice to see how disgusted and up in arms they were about what happened. They reassured me that it is a common occurrence and that a few days previously some other tourists were duped out of a considerably higher amount of money in similar circumstances. They insisted on accompanying me to the local police station to file a report of sorts, though realistically I knew there was very little point. In much need of some positive human contact I returned again to my hotel. I was greeted warmly by a group of waitresses and cleaners who had settled down for a communal platter of injera. Though we had no common language it was made very clear that I had no choice but to join them for lunch. I guess they had been informed of my plight! Luckily I had read that you should not be embarrassed or alarmed by the custom of ‘gursha’, during which a handful of food is carefully and affectionately fed to you, using right hand only (left hand being used for something else entirely!) in such a way that fingers do not meet lips and no food is dropped. And so it was, being fed food which I did not recognize, by girls I had just met, with giggles and gestures the only form of communication, that I wound up my first day. If my first day was anything to go by, it was going to be an interesting and unique trip!
My minibus to Bahir Dar left the following morning at 04:00, or 10:00 Ethiopian time (the Ethiopian 12 hour clock commences at 06:00 and again at18:00, a quirk of Ethiopian time keeping rivaled only by the fact that the their Coptic calendar is roughly 7 years behind the rest of the world). The 10 hour journey involved bumping, rattling and hair-pinning through mountainous roads, frequently only semi-paved at best, dodging the debris of recent landslides and the crowds of people plodding alongside with their herds and goods, through the Blue Nile gorge. My weary senses were awakening to scenes of every quintessentially African cliché I could dream of, from the majestic scenery to the myriad small encircled communities of thatched mud huts, to the crowds of people gently and incongruously pacing from the middle of nowhere to God knows where. Many of the people carried considerable loads on their back or head. The patience and fortitude with which they balanced these formidable loads was paralleled only by the unquestioned perseverance with which they accepted being engulfed by vehicular fumes and the near death experiences of overtaking vehicles. Every scene signified a lifetime of standards much harder and grittier than my own. It was difficult not to romanticize, respect and even idealize this lifestyle, though this serves only to naively trivialize the fact that this lifestyle is not limited to the minorities of the world and people will adapt to their surrounding conditions. To gradually awaken to such casual musings was certainly a treat outside of my normal daily routines back home!
The leafy boulevards and dusty back streets of Bahir Dar made for a very refreshing arrival in this lakeside town. I was pleased to be out of the big city. Located on the shores of Lake Tana, the town has a more relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe than the capital. Students chill out among the many cafes lining the lakefront promenade and children play improvised games on unpaved dirt roads. Of course the faranji attention is still as apparent as to be expected in a poor country that is only beginning to re-familiarize itself with international tourism, but it is generally accompanied by a more genuine, friendly and hospitable manner. It is a nice and compromising town in which to hone oneself to the pulse of the Ethiopian way of life, and to learn that most seemingly important of lessons in Ethiopia, that being seen as a mobile cash dispenser to be availed of by any means necessary does not necessarily nor entirely preclude the desire or potential for genuine hospitality or friendship. Upon arrival I investigated a number of hotels accompanied by a couple of tourists I had met on the minibus. We settled for a dirt cheap and centrally located place with decent rooms, nice balcony restaurant and bathrooms which managed to make you feel dirtier after using them. That evening we rented some bikes and armed with our crude Lonely Planet map we headed off to explore a few miles out of town and along the lakefront. Blending in anonymously with the locals was simply not an option so the easy, and only, option was to pedal away while enjoying the novelty of being such a novelty to the many curious passersby! We passed the Blue Nile outlet, where the source of the Blue Nile is birthed from Lake Tana, and eventually turned off road over arid farmland towards the lake. Here we were approached by a gang of young farm children, clad in colorful tatters and some of them with colloquial and eye-catching hairstyles. They were innocent, beautiful, unassuming and seemingly uncontaminated by the culture clash often perpetuated by modern day tourism. There was no verbal communication, no requests for money or gifts and no pretences. They were as curious about and bemused by us, armed with our cameras, as we were thrilled to be in their company in such a serendipitous place. I can only hope that I propagated as happy and memorable an impression on them as they bestowed on me and that my arguably incessant photo taking and attempts to engage them personally didn’t leave any culturally detrimental side effects. With smiles and many return glances, I thanked them for their company in my own way and we returned to town to end a lovely day with an appetizing meal and a restful nights sleep.
As genuinely helpful, friendly and sincere they all were, unfortunately the outcome became tiring and predictable- a ‘no obligation’ request for financial assistance which is exceptionally difficult to brush aside. Trying to find the balance between maintaining a thick skin and being open to new people, even when, as is normally the case, their assistance is neither solicited nor required, is an art form in itself! Unfortunately i am having to adopt the cynical point of view that i wanted to avoid which is to not trust anyone. I must have faith that the people who are honest and not actually treating us faranji’s as mobile cash dispensing units will shine through when it counts. It is necessary to compose oneself here as it is not possible to avoid this constant attention, whether its wannabe guides or young children giving bogus sob stories about both their parents being dead. It is necessary to take it all with good humour, firmness and thick skin, but not so thick as to lose your heart. It can often be endearing afterall when young children get excited seeing you walk by, yelling ‘you, you, YOU, give me money, give me pen’ and sometimes holding your hand. This response seems enculturated and doesn’t necessarily take away from how sweet, friendly, innocent and genuinely curious most of these kids are. It seems i am able to turn over that stone afterall as i am much better at dealing with it than i used to be. It really is a unique country. Its coptic calendar (currently the year 2000), 12hour clock, only uncolonised african country, oldest catholic country in the world, diverse landscape and generally incredible people.
From Bahir Dar we took an excursion across lake Tana to visit various very old coptic monasteries, which are still in use today, located on very peaceful and atmospheric islands and peninsulas around the lake. The bird life there would whet any ornithologists appetite and we even saw some hippos, mostly submerged, in the distance. The next say i went to the village of Tis Isat to hike the short distance to the Blue Nile waterfall. An awesome site, which unfortunately is only a fraction of its original might due to a nearby hydroelectric power plant. Whether it was the pristine landscape surrounding the waterfall, the iridescent blue birds which were abound or the myriad colourful characters carrying heavy loads to and from market, everywhere i looked there was an amazing potential photographic moment. Unfortunately, the french people i was with didn’t have any qualms about sticking their cameras in peoples’ faces without permission or any attempt to engage the person. It was rude, insensitive and embarressing, along with annoying because they avail of many great photographic moments that i felt were inappropriate. It is challenging trying to maintain the thin line seperating cultures with a large camera in my hand and a strong desire to get good photos, a line i no doubt occasionally cross myself, but i will continue to strive to be fully aware and respectful in my hunt for memorable images. Yesterday i arrived in Gonder, a very historical city with a vast and impressive castle enclosure in the center of town along with a number of lovely 17th century coptic monasteries which are still in active use. I have booked a couple of flights for next week as i unfortunately do not have time to complete my already stretched itinerary in the time i have by road transport. I have booked a trek for the next 3-4 days with 3 girls from australia, which will no doubt be challenging due to the 3000-4000+ metres altitudes, but shall be rewarded by panoramic vistas an packs of charismatic gelada baboons. Then i will come back to Gonder and fly to Lalibela, saving the best for last.