On the Right Track in Ethiopia

Ben at Blue Nile Falls.

I never thought I would travel to Ethiopia, but then a unique opportunity came through my job and I jumped on it. I was invited to tour the country, then return to the United States and write about it so my readers would consider visiting there themselves. I went on a press trip on the eve of Nov. 9, 2006, from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., with four other journalists. Two more joined us later. We flew business class on Ethiopian Airlines — which sponsored our journey — stopping in Rome along the way so the flight crew could change and for the Italian maintenance crew to vacuum and take out the garbage.

When we arrived at the airport Nov. 10 around 10 p.m., a guide helped us get our bags and brought us to a van. From there, we drove through Addis Abada to the Sheraton Hotel. Along the way through the capital city, I saw lots of old stores and run-down buildings, although there were spots, like a large park and playground, that looked newer and nicer. We also saw construction, always a good sign for a country’s economy. All of a sudden, we had our first encounter with Ethiopian poverty. As the van stopped at a traffic light, a beggar woman virtually pressed herself up against the window, motioning her fingers toward her mouth. She walked around the van, almost intimidating us to give her food or money.

Our hosts greeted us at the Sheraton Hotel, where we were treated to our own luxury suites. We were supposed to meet the American ambassador to Ethiopia, but that was canceled because our flight had been rescheduled and it was too late in the evening by the time we got there.

The stay at the Sheraton was short, because we had to leave six hours later for a flight to Bahir Dar. Despite the early wakeup call, a few of us went to a club next to the Sheraton. It wasn’t so unusual. Loud (Ethiopian) pop music, young, good-looking people, alcohol, dancing… Security wanted me to leave because I wasn’t dressed properly (I was still wearing the clothing I wore on the plane), something that has happened to me more than once in the United States. I went in anyway. These young city people seemed no different than American youth, or European for that matter.

I got a wakeup call at 4:30 a.m. and room service brought me a coffee on a platter (coffee incident #1). The Sheraton spoiled us, but I knew the rest of the trip wouldn’t be so luxurious. I met everyone in the grand lobby and we went to the airport for a flight to Bahir Dar.

The hotel in Bahir Dar overlooked Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia. While it was a somewhat nice hotel, it was clear the water situation in Ethiopia has problems. Every hotel we stayed at after the Sheraton had some sort of plumbing issue, and only had hot water during certain hours. While much of the population doesn’t even have indoor plumbing, no tourist would want to put up with this at their hotels.

Market at Tis Abay.

From Bahir Dar, we took a ride through a village to a park, which led to Blue Nile Falls — a waterfall that produces electricity for nearby towns. That’s when we saw the most interesting people. It was Saturday, the day they have their town market gathering. As we rode in the van, we saw villagers walking down the unpaved road with their donkeys, goats and sheep, hauling goods to the market. At the market, people stood around, trying to sell cows. Children begged me for pens (I’m told many tourists bring them to hand out). Some of the kids held cow dung in their hands. I was too busy staring instead of taking photos of some of these things, although I filmed a short video. Many people held umbrellas in the midday sun. Lots of folks wore clothing that came from secondhand stores. I saw one guy wearing a Chicago Blackhawks shirt, but he had no idea who they were. “A hockey team,” I said. “The sport with the stick?” He replied. I said yes.

We hiked to Blue Nile Falls, where I discovered another type of beggar — the one who tries to become your friend along the way before saying that he’s a student and needs help paying for his education. We ended up tipping these ‘guides,’ especially because they were helpful in taking pictures of us at the falls with our cameras, and shooing away the kids when the pen-giveaways got out of hand.

Later in the day, we took a boat ride on Lake Tana to a peninsula, and then hiked to a 17th-century church with paintings on the walls. We had an official guide with us the entire trip — Brook Ayalew — but we usually got a local guide at each attraction. Like before, more teens followed each of us, trying to be out personal guides. This time, however, they tried selling us paintings of what we saw in the churches — mostly colorful New Testament drawings. When I didn’t buy any, I got the same ‘I’m a student’ routine.

I didn’t have any problem giving out pens to children along the way, particularly when they let me photograph them, but I’m told by our Ethiopian tour guides that begging will only get worse as more tourists come. It could even become a ‘career’ like in Mexico. Also, the peddlers get pushy selling their goods as they do not take ‘no’ for an answer (however, everything was fairly cheap, all the jewelry, hand-paintings, and knick-knacks). The good news was that I felt safe the entire time. I’m told there is very little crime in Ethiopia, particularly because the citizens are religious, whether Christian or Muslim (although I’m told there are people who will try to scam you). Being too charitable is also dangerous because giving away pens at times was like feeding the gators.

At the hotel, we ran into a tour group of birdwatchers from Europe (mostly Britain). They were spending up to three weeks in the country, traveling around to see up to 26 endemic birds and more than 450 other species of 800 in the country. They came to Bahir Dar and Blue Nile Falls to see the white-throated seedeater and others. The tour cost them about 2500 British pounds, and there were about 14 in the group. Just to see birds? I wondered. Yes, just to see birds.

Before going to the Bahir Dar airport on Sunday, Nov. 12, we stopped to watch people go to an Ethiopian Orthodox church. Those who felt ‘unworthy’ for the week stood outside the gates, while others went inside. I found it awkward that we were taking pictures of people praying on a Sunday morning, but technically we were working so we didn’t have much of a choice.

Joel and his crew

Though we went to the airport for a quick flight to Gonder, we suddenly opted to drive through the Simien Mountains because the roads are paved along the way. Despite three-plus hours in the van, it was completely worth it. We saw harvesters working and beautiful scenery. We stopped in a local town for a coffee ceremony. The process was really long but the coffee (and popcorn) turned out great. A woman roasted the beans, ground them up and made the coffee (coffee incident #2). While waiting, one guy in our group, Joel, bought beer for a bunch of local guys and hung out. I’m told he ended up buying them a basketball.

In Gonder, we visited the Debre Birhan Selassie church, which has beautiful religious paintings on the inside walls. Then we went down the road to Fasil Ghebbi, also known as the Royal Enclosure. The castles look like ancient ruins but date back only to 1632 and later. Much of the destruction of the castles is attributed to an earthquake in the 1700s and British bombardment during World War II when the Italians took over. One of the rulers built lion cages. We also saw King Fasilidas’s bath, which is under renovation for the Jan 19, 2008 Epiphany festival. Ethiopian calendars are about seven years behind the modern calendar, and their clocks operate in 12-hour intervals.

The one attraction that I would have really liked to have seen along the way was the Falasha village, where Ethiopian Jews once lived before being airlifted to Israel between 1985 and 1992. The current residents, all Christians, continue to make pottery in the Falasha tradition for the sake of making money off of tourists. One man in our group — Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly — had been to Ethiopia before and found out about a Jewish woman who lives nearby who is content on staying in Ethiopia. Arnie also found out that there are about 400 more Jewish Ethiopians living in seclusion, waiting to go to Israel.

The Royal Enclosure.

That night, we went to a small bar with local music and dancing. There was a woman singing — with money stuck to the sweat on her forehead — and a man playing a masinko. They danced using mainly their shoulders. We kicked back with some kids outside, who were making fun of Japanese tourists and telling us which nationalities were ‘greedy.’ By the end of the night, they were asking us for money for their education. I told them I didn’t have any to spare, wished them luck and shook their hands. These are good people, they just don’t have much, and they won’t miss an opportunity to ask for something. Can I really blame them for trying? At least they’re nice about it.

Nov. 13, we flew to the one-time capital of Lalibela, known as Roha until recent times. On the way to town, our van broke down while climbing a mountain. We hung out with schoolchildren while waiting for another van, and I played them some Neil Diamond on my IPod portable speakers. Most just stood and looked at me but one child seemed quite enthused. They wore teal school uniforms. I learned that in each town, they wear different uniforms, although bigger cities like Addis Abada have different ones.

People visit Lalibela for the rock-hewn churches, which were inspired by what King Lalibela saw in Jerusalem. They date from 1180 to 1220 C.E. The craftsmanship was remarkable considering these were dug from the ground. There were 12, and each had unique architecture and purpose. Each one has a priest, who came out with his cross and posed for photos while wearing sunglasses (because of all the camera flashes). We had to take off our shoes in every church (including the ones in other towns), so we had a “shoe guard” follow us. He was particularly nice to one woman in our group, who generously tipped him for us all. One church did not allow women in one of the rooms. The churches had replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, but even the replicas were off-limits for viewing.

The hotel sat atop on mountain (Lalibela itself is at an altitude of 2630 meters). The night sky was beautiful. I went out to look at the stars. A local man was doing the same and pointed out constellations, including what we in the west call Orion.

The restaurant at the hotel was cabana-style, and not one of my favorites. In the morning, I couldn’t convince the waitress that she was supposed to bring out coffee and milk at the same time — not 15 minutes apart (coffee incident #3). That was a service problem, not something I found at other places. I have to admit, it was the one time I got frustrated on the trip. I couldn’t complain too much, however, as Ethiopian Airlines picked up to tab for just about everything but the visa, the souvenirs, and tips. That morning, the hotel was without water due to a problem in town. While this did not bother me, it’s clearly a problem as Ethiopia tries to attract more tourists.

Church in Lalibela.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, before traveling to Axum, we stopped to see one more church — Bet Giorgis — that we hadn’t seen the previous day due to time constraints. This church was the only one still standing free of a scaffolding, and the carvings were incredible (see photo on right).

My buddy Joel managed to fly in the cockpit on the way to Axum, helped by the fact that he himself is a pilot and that we had a representative from Ethiopian Airlines with us — a nice man named Fasika Berhanu. We stayed in a hotel overlooking Axum, which had several churches and giant ancient monoliths dating back to the first century B.C. One of the churches is said to hold the Ark of the Covenant. The guardian is there for life — donated at the age of two as an apprentice — until death. One of the men — I’m not sure if it was the guardian or apprentice — came out to bless us. The local kids tried selling us ‘ancient’ scrolls, books and paintings, and also rocks with crystals in them. We were told not to buy anything that resembled an archaeological relic because we would have a hard time getting it through customs without a receipt.

The most impressive site in Axum was the excavated Queen Sheba’s palace, which dates back 3,000 years (however, there in controversy about this, but this is what our guides told us). As we walked around, we could hear workers singing in the background as children played (and begged for pens) nearby. The children here wore purple school uniforms. We also saw Queen Sheba’s pool (again, controversy), where local women gathered water for their families.

This is the part of the trip when I started feeling ill, probably because of something I ate or drank. I was running a slight fever, too, as I spent the evening sweating one minute and shivering the next. No one else in the group got sick. We went to dinner at a hotel in Axum. I went on a long walk with Fasika, discussing what the country needs to do to attract more tourists. He said that if Tanzania could do it, so could Ethiopia.

Though I tried to tough it out, my fellow journalists and guides, all older than me, insisted that I rest. Therefore, I missed a 5 a.m. church gathering in Axum, which I’m told was incredible.

Children climbing on Queen Sheba's palace.

We flew back to Addis Abada on Nov. 15. While the rest of the group went to lunch, I was driven back to the Sheraton, where I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and watching the Bulls-Mavericks game with French broadcasters. The others went on a flight simulator and went to a museum to see Lucy, the 3.5 million year-old skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974. I’m told it wasn’t overly exciting, but I was still disappointed to miss it. I’m told Brook tried to contact me at the Sheraton during the day but I’m sure one of the receptionists didn’t look up my name properly (perhaps looked up ‘Benjamin’ instead of ‘Ben’ or ‘Summer’ instead of ‘Sumner’). Therefore I missed my opportunity to get up and join the group. Regardless, I was not feeling any better.

We went out for a farewell dinner at a hotel with our hosts from Ethiopian Airlines. They gave departure gifts, including handcrafted plaques with sculptured faces on them. Mine was of a man from the ‘Hamer’ tribe. Brook told me that it was the best of the bunch. The music during dinner was wonderful. An Ethiopian pilot explained to me that there are more than 80 languages and cultures in Ethiopia. I’m not sure from how many different cultures these songs and dances came from, but each performance was unique. I really enjoyed myself, though I had yet to fully recover from my illness.

We went back to the airport. Our plane was delayed 45 minutes, which gave me time to spend the rest of my birr. I had exchanged 100 dollars in Bahir Dar (8.73 to the dollar), spending most of it on tips and small gifts along the way, but I still had about 35 dollars of birr remaining. I bought some candlestick holders, two small purses for my mother and grandmother, a package of Ethiopian coasters, a ‘sandal’ key chain for my mother, and some Ethiopian coffee (for my coworkers) at the Duty Free, where I could only use U.S. dollars.

I was brought the Ethiopia to see the country, and then to return home to spread the word about the country as a tourist destination. The people, cultures and attractions are, indeed, fabulous, but even Ethiopia understands the challenges it has in attracting more tourists. It needs more accommodations. It needs more paved roads from city-to-city so travelers do not need to fly everywhere. It needs better plumbing. It needs ATMs, needs to take credit cards, needs to take travelers’ checks, and needs to exchange 20 dollar bills printed after 1996. Yet, it’s made such progress since the early 1990s when the country was far less peaceful. Reinventing Ethiopia as a tourist destination in the coming decades is highly likely. It’s on the right track.

My trip to Ethiopia was over. It was a wonderful experience, particularly for my first trip to Africa. I am not sure if I will ever return, because there are many other places in the world I haven’t seen, though I will not rule out another trip there. But even if that’s the last I see of Ethiopia, I will never forget this trip, and I will continue to root for this country and urge others to visit. Birdwatchers, in particular!