Sunday, 12 November 2017

"Euthopia" or Abyssinian Adventures


It's been a while since the trip itself, so only now, having moved to London from Amsterdam and having explored some of the local attractions (see posts about Bath and BristolBrighton, London + the infamous road trip around the UK) and having been to Lapland to case (but not catch) Aurora Borealis, did I finally get a chance to review last year's Easter holiday in Ethiopia... So, here comes the long-awaited (haha, mostly by ME :-) ) "Euthopia" post.
The name Euthopia comes from Utopia + Ethiopia which is a tribute to - on the one side - the multiple typos that one can find EVERYWHERE in Ethiopia (ads, billboards, doormats and menus,
in the Red Terror Museum:) ), and - on the other - to the surreal and bizarre (from a European's perspective) and absolutely mind-blowing life that people lead there.
So, let's start at the beginning: my first encounter with the "local" culture started at the airport when I met a US-based Canadian Ethiopian called Semeri. Curiously enough, his cousin, Saba, runs a restaurant in Amsterdam called "Ras dashen", so I right away promised to check it out once I'm back home. I wished him a "melkem ken" ("have a good day!") and went to talk to the customs officer feeling a little nervous, but even with my Belarusian passport, a hand-written (to be fair: by Ethiopian consul) Ethiopian visa and 6 kg of dog food in my luggage (during the "fasting" season before Easter meat is particularly scarce in Ethiopia, hence my friends' 60kg "puppy" Zorzan  was forced on a diet of dried dry dog food, which, as it turns out, is not easy to come in Ethiopia, you can't just drop by a pet store & buy it :-) But even with all that, I was not under suspicion and was allowed to enter Ethiopia. 


The topic of time is quite special in Ethiopia. To start with, Ethiopians have a very different calendar from the rest of humanity. To give you an example, the 5th of April 2016 (a date when we checked into a hotel in Gondar) was actually the 24th of July 2008 - naturally, that's also how it was recorded in our hotel registry). 
Also, a "normal" time of day is different, i.e. when it's noon "international time", it's actually 6 a.m. Ethiopian time, which can be VERY confusing when talking with the locals about schedules and exact times of departures, etc. That is definitely something to keep in mind: talking about specific departure times (e.g. of public buses) can be quite a challenge because of the combination of a very poor command of English that most Ethiopians have and this factual cultural difference.
Ah yeah, the background: Ethiopia follows a Julian calendar (30 days each and the 13th month of five or six days (in a leap year).
Another interesting thing is: places in Ethiopia don't really have addresses. People just kind of know where everything is situated and will describe to you pretty well where things are, but you won't be able to get an exact address. Even when you look things up on Google Maps (e.g. Boston Day Spa, you'll notice that there is a spot on the map and the address will be "Africa Ave, Addis Ababa" but it won't have a house number or - God forbid! - zip code :-)


Unfortunately, the general "business model" is not to work hard and earn more money by eventually giving a discount, consequently having more clients and turnover, but to have crazy high prices and wait till someone not familiar with the actual prices is ready to pay it. They do give in sometimes, so it's definitely worth trying to walk away and wait for the vendor/taxi driver, etc. to offer a lower alternative price, but don't be surprised if that doesn't work as well as it might in India or in Turkey (it's Euthopia, baby!).
Consequently, taxi prices in Addis are simply astronomical. For reference: 7 km (t get from the house of my friends to the Ethnological museum) costs 150 Birr (one way!). After 5 minutes of hard negotiation, we agreed for 300 Birr return fee with an hour of waiting while I'm at the museum. Taxi drivers in Ethiopia don't value their time too much, so often it's easier and cheaper to bargain for a return fee with waiting partially than get a taxi one way and then catch another one. Well, you can imagine, that it's also safer. Partially, I think the reason for this is that they know that in the same amount of time driving the locals around they'll never earn even half of what a "stupid foreigner" can pay for an hour of waiting.
It's very likely related to the fact that the official unemployment rate in Ethiopia is 95%, which is absolutely unbelievable, but definitely confirmed by lots of people "standing around" whenever anything is happening (one person filling the gas, four people observing)... Well, with this you can imagine that a lot of unofficial unmonitored transactions are happening, e.g. street vendors selling all kinds of weird things (from socks to skipping strings (not exactly a first-necessity item on my list) and books (not helpfully: all in Amharic) at a gas station. As a foreigner in Ethiopia, pretty much everywhere you'll be confronted with faranji prices (prices which are much higher for foreigners than they are for the locals. Well, because of that, one must ALWAYS bargain: in some cases, tuk-tuk drivers, hotel marketing "specialists", etc. will go down with the price half the price 50% or even 100%.


One important thing to be prepared for in Ethiopia is: be prepared that "You can order whatever you want, the waiter will bring whatever he wants" :-) So, it's important to know the main dishes and what they mean, however, you can never be too sure you'll get exactly what you ordered. All in all, the food is cheap in Ethiopia, hotels are not. You can eat at local Ethiopian places for around a dollar and have a nice vegetarian meal (with meat it would be 2 dollars but you never know if the meat is good while the vegetarian options usually are). A "faranji" (white people/foreigner) restaurant would be between $5-50 per meal ($50 being the nicest Italian in town with a glass of wine and a starter). On the food-related topic of hygiene: I do strongly encourage you (even if you're doing a faranji holiday eating in fanciest places!) to bring alcohol-based cleanser with you as there's almost never any soap (or water) in the washrooms. On the same note, have a generous supply of paper towels/napkins - as you can imagine, toilet paper (esp. in public bathrooms) is either non-existent or strictly rationed :-) We were there during the fasting (lent) season, so as you can imagine (remember my friend's puppy-on-a-diet as the meat wasn't readily available?) it's advisable to eat vegan unless completely sure about the restaurant. When in doubt: order an injera/beyenatu (spongy pancake with lots of stewed sides - like lentils and veggies on it. Another curious dish is tagamino is another dish, which combines injera with shiro (powdered chickpeas or broad bean meal). An interesting meal experience could be ordering a "special fata": the waiter/waitress will bring you a basket of bread and you'll break it with your own hands, then the waiter will take the basket back to the kitchen and will make your dish with the bread that you broke.
On a healthier, more fruity note: you'll be pleasantly surprised with the prices for fresh juices and smoothies (less than $1!), if you're looking for a reason to move to Ethiopia, well, in my opinion, that would be it! Oh, haha, and don't forget to try tej (honey wine) - going to one of the local tej houses and drinking with the locals will be an experience you'll never forget!


  • Thank you! = Amesgnalehu
  • Excuse me = Yikrta
  • Bill, please! = Hisab
  • Cheers could be said in different ways, for example, "letenachin" (as in "to our health") "ledestachin" (as in "to our happiness").
  • Shirit - a traditional Ethiopian 'blanket' that a lot of people. 



Addis is well-known to be a great training ground for professional long-distance runners (seen jogging all around Addis, particularly in the morning): situated at the altitude of 2'500m, Ethiopian capital offers a unique natural setting for training resilience. This, combined with all the bizarre and unusual things happening all around us, made me constantly ask myself a question: "Are we high?!" :-)
It's different, sometimes scary, and many things are simply contradictory and ironic. There's religious dogmatism defining the lives of the population, but there's a weird degree of naivety reining the nation. Homosexuality is a criminal offence, but all men are holding hands in public, they're quite puritan about sex, but there're billboards of lubricant called "Smooth Move" are all over the capital. So, all the time that I was there, I kept on wondering: are they taking a piss or are they just THAT naive? And I think... it's both :)

Addis sights and restaurants

  • "Red Terror" Martyrs' Memorial Museum - considered one of the best museums in Addis, it tells the story of Red Terror (Qey Shibir), which was a violent political campaign against competing Marxist-Leninist groups in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 70s.
  • The Ethnological Museum - I'd say if you have time to see one museum, then do chose that one: it's definitely the most logical museum that I've seen in Ethiopia: it had a red line and a logical approach (that's not a given in Ethiopia!) towards history, detailing reasons for war and backing up theories with specific documents, historical facts and events that led up to it.
  • St.George's Cathedral - distinctively octagonal, there's a pretty park around it. 
  • Boston Day Spa - best massage I've ever had in my life and + the pedicure was pretty great, too.
  • Le Grand Reve - (apparently), the best Belgian restaurant in town. 
  • Yod Abyssinia - absolutely lovely cultural restaurant, you can try all traditional dishes there, dinner will be accompanied by live music and dance performances (albeit slightly modernized/adapted for tourists).


So, after being welcomed and toured around by our friends in Addis, we took our first self-organized excursion and flew to Lalibela, the mysterious beautiful UNESCO world heritage home of rock-hewn churches dating back at least to the 12th century.
Lalibela is situated in a pretty remote area, far away from any major water source, so, on the way there, it was fascinating to learn about the free door-to-door distribution of water by the government (daily dose it 5 litres per person): it's being brought in a car with a big tank and people are queueing up with various vessel to get it... 
Our friends helped us organize a hotel as well as a guide (ca. 350 Birr/15$ per for half a day of service) in Lalibela and we spent 2 days exploring 2 groups of churches scattered around that area (bring a torch for the Gabriel-Rufael and Bet Merkorios tunnel). All churches are done in a very different style (mainly with Aksumite characteristics) and with different artisanship. The churches are believed to have been ordered by the King Lalibela (who, in his turn, was ordered by God) in order to build the New Jerusalem so that pilgrims didn't have to do a dangerous and long journey to the real Jerusalem in Israel.
Be prepared (coming back to the topic of faranji prices) that admission to the Lalibela Church Area is quite pricey (1000 Birr = 50$). Sure, it's a unique experience, but it did feel like a bit of a rip-off, given that most people in Ethiopia don't earn that amount of money in a month, especially not in that rural area of the country. 
The town of Lalibela is pretty nondescript: there's one street that leads to the churches from a couple of hotels (Ben Abeba - "good view, great food" Vs. Mountain View Hotel - "great view, OK food").
Along the way (if you chose to walk and not take tuk-tuks), which are absolutely ubiquitous around tourist places like that), you'll have to pass by a street where local kids are playing table hockey and all the other kids are running around screaming "hello, welcome!" at you (haha, both me and Anton agreed that we've "never felt so welcome in our lives" :-) Sometimes such hospitality is innocent and is driven by genuine curiosity, but don't be fooled, one of the most common schemes is that a kid tries to touch your hand, they chat you up, tell you their name and ask about yours (to build an emotional connection with you). Then they'll tell you about how they need to do their homework and ask you afterwards to either give them money or to get them a book at a local shop, after which they'll exchange the book for cash :-)
Our guide was quite knowledgeable and we did learn a couple of interesting tidbits about the history of the churches and the area and local life. For example, it was curious that to build a little hut like the one on the picture below, one needed approximately 5000 bricks and with a price of one brick being approximately $1, it wasn't hard to calculate that housing is ... pretty expensive! :-)
One of the things that I found particularly humorous was that in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition people are shown from the side, they're bad and evil - you can imagine that upon learning that we spent most of the take taking profile pictures of ourselves in front of the churches :)
As roads are pretty terrible in Ethiopia, the easiest way to get around the country is by plane, and there're airports close to all major cities, however air travel is quite expensive by local standards, so airports are pretty small, which was illustrated for me in a quick exchange with an airport clerk at the tiny Lalibela airport. When I asked: "Which gate does the plane to Gonder depart to?", the airport official smiled and politely answered: "There's only ONE gate, ma'am!" :-D


We started off by having a traditional coffee ceremony in Gondar, organized a one-day trip to the Simien Mountains with a local travel agency and then went to see the Gondar Castle (Fasil Ghebbi).
Despite being a bit overpriced, the walled ruins of a 17th-century residence of Emperor Fasilides are a pretty cool sight to visit. However, this is where I also learned that as a white woman in Ethiopia, it's really better to stick to your group, friends or whoever is in your party), as while I was waiting for Anton (literally, for 5 minutes) outside of the Castle's walls, I was attacked by a local crazy person who gave me a slap on the head, attacking me from behind. Thankfully, he didn't hit me that hard, and his intention was most likely just to "touch" as bystanders explained to me later, but it was nonetheless a very scary moment, well, I seem to learn my lessons the hard way... :-S
Next day was reserved for the Simien Mountains, which is a very beautiful trip and often travellers prefer to stay there for several days, but we were on a schedule, so had to make compromises. It's full of dramatic mountain and bush-scapes and, naturally, a presence of an armed one-eyed guard makes any trip much more exciting and than it actually is :-)
From Gondar, I took a flight to Aksum (Anton took a bus, well, what can I say: he really likes cheap, dangerous and uncomfortable rides), so we met up already in Aksum.


The capital of the ancient Kingdom of Axum (present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia), Aksum is quite famous for its Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (which is considered to be the most important church in Ethiopia as it claims to have the Ark of the Covenant) and the King Ezana's stelae and obelisks. As I had time to kill, I hired a local guide by the name of Tilahun (who went by "Tome") and he gave me a private guided tour of the Obelisk Field, which was pretty cool.
From Aksum took a bus, as it wasn't too far, we took a ride to Gheralta for the "fancy" part of our journey: Gheralta Lodge, where we met up with our friends for some chilled out time.


The Tigray region is full of wonderful landscapes and churches in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. This is the #1 thing to do in Ethiopia according to a lot of people. If you're doing the "official sightseeing" with an organized tour, be ready to pay around 275 Birr for a guide from a town of Megab (near Hawzen) or you can also ask the Gheralta lodge to arrange a tour for you. As we weren't in the mood to spend a fortune, we walked to Hawzen and hired a guy to show us around for a price 15 times below that. The main churches in the area are Abuna Gebremichiel (nice long hike)Maryam Korkor and Abuna Yemata (extremely (!) steep. Well, actually, it's a vertical climb (see some snaps below) of about 10m and there isn't any equipment to help you climb. But there're a couple of dudes who hand around the path and can help you climb up for s couple of Birr... Do bear in mind, it's not a hike for the faint-hearted and, in case you slip and fall... well, I don't think it's going to be anyone's concern or responsibility to get you to a hospital. Thankfully, we did survive that adventurous trip and made it safely back to Gheralta Lodge. 
At dinner, we were reunited with our friends to boast about our bad-ass adventures and, interestingly enough (even despite a very remote nature of that place), met an Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky, who was at a time doing a photo reportage on the Gheralta Churches.  
After Gheralta we headed to Mekele where - through Couchsurfing - we stayed with a great guy called Amanuel who showed us around, took us clubbing and kept us out of trouble while we were in town.


In terms of sightseeing, Mekele isn't exactly a treasure trove, but it was quite cool to visit the Tigray Martyrs' Memorial Monument Center (expect to find a lot of books by Engels and Lenin :-). 
While in the region, also don't miss tasting the Tigranian honey. If you're taking it as a souvenir, though, beware, it's quite expensive (around 200-250 Birr per jar), the white honey is tastier, but red is also good and is much cheaper (around 100 Birr per jar).
But the main reason why we went to that part of Ethiopia in the first place was to see the Dallol and Danakil depression. It's an expensive trip (be prepared to potentially pay $400 per person, but we managed to get it for around $250 per person with some SERIOUS haggling), however even although I got a serious food poisoning during the journey and had to climb a volcano after having fainted and not being able to eat anything for the whole day, it was still worth all the trouble. At the end of it, I could tick one more item off my the bucket list: climbing the Erta Ale volcano at night and starring into the bubbling lava lake in its crater at midnight!

Bear in mind that the Danakil depression is one of the (if not THE MOST) inhospitable regions in the world, average temperatures here are above +40C, it can rain while it's +42C* outside, there is no fresh water (lakes are full of salt) and the land is literally full of volcanoes! But that's exactly the 'romance' we wanted.
The sequence of the destinations might vary, but most probably on a Dallol-Danakil trip you'll visit: 
  • Ragad (Asebo) - the place where the salt is mined. You can watch the workers break off the salt from the ground, but them into rectangular pieces and load them on to camels. 
It's usually the locals, i.e. the Afar people who work here. It's a tradition for them and they consider this type of work a "gift of Allah". In case you're wondering, cutting and selling salt is probably one of the hardest and worst paid jobs in the world. The camels can walk up to 40 km per day, a block of salt costs 4 Birr, a camel can carry 15-20 blocks (or 130kg). For comparison, a donkey can carry approx. 8-10 blocks and a mule - ca. 10-12 blocks. The price for a block of salt (which can be from 3,5 to 8,0 kg is the same) and so per camel with his salty cargo, an owner usually earns around 100 Birr.
Our guide told us a story that the guy we saw with an axe on a cliff claims that only he can get salt in these mountains. Naturally, he has no papers to prove the land belongs to him, but because he's not exactly sane and has an axe, no one really argues with him - plenty of other places to get salt ...  competition isn't too vicious around these parts :-)
  • Dallol - 116 meters below sea level, one of the lowest places in the world, home to the colourful spectacular sulphur springs. 
  • Scenic sunset picnic stop at the Salt Lake (Lake Karum): that's the place where even without being divine, you can do some authentic "walking "on water" :)
  • Night in the desert at camp at Hamedela
To add to the overall drama of the area, it's still inhabited by a very curious (and VERY traditional) Muslim tribe of people known as the Afar people. They still marry girls when they're 13 years old, selling them for a couple of camels, families still have an AVERAGE of 9 children, but there's one guy in the area with 48 children from 4+ wives... 
Well, you can imagine that the very traditional atmosphere of the region also has a downside to it. The locals don't want to "commercialize" the area and in their definition it means no toilets (even in the most general definition as in "a wooden shack with a hole in the ground"), which means - yep - in case you need to go to the toilet while you're in the Afar region ... well, you can't :-) 
  • The other night will be in a little town of Dodom or the village of Abaala - nothing to do there, but it's a place where you'll likely sleep indoors on floor matrasses and where you can potentially take a quick shower and have a traditional meal with the family that owns the place. 


Well, as you can imagine by the fact that I survived to tell the story, we safely made it home... Coming back to Europe after almost 3 weeks in Ethiopia really changed my worldview. Although it's widely known that Ethiopia is "Africa light", but this trip had a profound impact on me and my understanding of the world. When I landed in Frankfurt to change planes to go to Amsterdam, I walked into the bathroom and stopped in my tracks at the sight of a fresh flower in a little vase, liquid soap in a dispenser on the wall, free candy/mints and running hot & cold water... I had to take a picture of this scene because it epitomized so many things at once that were different in these two worlds, but I guess I never noticed before, simply wasn't aware and, hence, took these things for granted.
I had some time to kill before my flight and went on to explore the airport. Apparently, the Universe wasn't yet done making sure that the trip and the juxtaposition of the two worlds and their striking contrast makes a lasting impression on me and teaches me a valuable lesson. So, interestingly, the passenger transfer tunnel in Frankfurt Airport's Terminal 1 at the time was "hosting" the artwork called "Destinations" by Martin Liebscher. The tunnel is 288 m long and features moving walkways, which enabled the artist to "speed up space" and equally enabled the observer to "move forward while standing still". The walls of the tunnel had 1000 square meters of Martin's photographic work from cities around the world (all destinations served by flights from Frankfurt airport) and took the viewer on an atmospheric journey, poetically depicting "the thrill of modern life" and "the world that never stops moving". I had to think to myself: what an interesting stop-over on the way back home from my African adventures :-)