Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ethiopia Diary

I tried to keep a day-by-day account of our Ethiopia trip way back in January, in the hopes that I could turn it into an awesome blog post. Because, of course, I excel at writing trip reports. Like the great posts about the Vietnam trip where I got arrested, or our trip to Turkey in 2010, or our trip to Indonesia in 2011. Oh wait--I didn't blog about any of those? Sigh.

In any case, I kept decent notes this trip, hoping to craft an amazing post, complete with all our best photos, one that might make up for all those other failed posts...and then, since that just seemed exhausting, I did nothing instead.

So let me tone down my ambitions, for once: this is not an amazing post. This is just my scattered notes, and some scattered photos. But look, ma: I'm actually posting!


Ethiopia, December/January 2012

Day 1: We arrive at the airport in Boston. We take family photos--the airport is a surprisingly good backdrop for this--and then change into our hiking clothes for the trip. I am too fat for my hiking pants (thank you, Christmas) and must buy Vaseline to stop a developing rash at my waistline. (Yes, I had to grease myself up to get into pants.) Meanwhile, Mike meets an Ethiopian woman at the airport who is surprised to hear of our destination. She then promptly asks him if he knows Jesus. This bodes well.

Day 2: Still in transit. Does air travel always take this long? My Vaseline is taken away at customs in London, except for what I can fit into a plastic baggie. (Note: a plastic baggie of Vaseline is disgusting.) Not surprisingly, everyone on our flight from London to Bahrain is Indian. We have way too long at the airport in Bahrain, and so we spend our time aimlessly wandering in circles because it was too noisy to sleep.  The flight to Addis Ababa was entirely women, all of them were enthusiastically talking at the top of their lungs...at 3am. Pleasant!

Day 3: We have a flight on a prop plane to Gonder, which Mike spends enthusiastically taking pictures out the window. We meet some South Africans at airport who had come for a supposed "luxury" lodge in the mountains. It must not have been as luxurious as they thought, since we later saw their note in the national park's guest book: "visiting but never ever coming back again." Too cheap to share their "luxury" transport, we take a bus to the national park's departure town, which is 4 1/2 hours on a dusty road, after 33 hours on planes. We are crammed in me at the back, practically on our neighbors' laps, with everyone on the bus surreptitiously turning to stare. I can't stop humming that Shakira song for the last World Cup: waka waka hey hey, this is Africa! We make arrangements for backpacking at the park office, where the guy has a very proper British accent. Much to our disappointment, the national park officials insist that we have to take a tent.

Day 4: The first day of our trek. We leave from Debark and arrive at camp to Sankaber what feels like a lifetime later: we covered 14 1/2 miles all told, at 10,000 feet, and me with food poisoning, puking the entire way. (Here's some travel advice: don't eat at a place called the Semen Park Restaurant.) We are accompanied by a scout, complete with an antique rifle, who speaks absolutely no English. (He knows "yello," which I think he thinks is "hello.") From him I learn the Amharic names for animals, but not much more than that. We're passing through foothills mostly populated by goat- and cowherds, plus lots of baboons. Mike stalks them; I lie down. In Sankaber I collapse before the tent is even set up and sleep fitfully for the next 14 hours.

Day 5: Sankaber to Geech. We pass several villages and are always, always invited in for a coffee ceremony. Our climb to a nearby peak is amazing--even Scout sits down to appreciate the views. (Scout is an iron man, we quickly learn. I'm not sure what he was eating on the trip--no, seriously, I'm not sure if he even ate at all--but someone should seriously market it.) The landscape changes to the Afro-Alpine zone, which, as far as I can tell, just means lots of lobelia. An old woman follows us some of the way, probably impatient with our slow, fat Western pace. (Scout is equally impatient and terrible at hiding it. All day long, he says "yello! Yello!" I think in this context it means "hurry up, fatty!") We camp that night at 13,000 feet. A British girl in a nearby tent gets altitude sickness and is heard vomiting loudly all night. I am sympathetic.

Day 6: Geech to Chenek, December 31. I'm having a sluggish morning, so I begin counting my steps: 2.186 is the highest number I reach before we pause for some views. The British girl is also afraid of heights; why is she here again? We try to buy a sheep for dinner in camp but it doesn't work out, so we're stuck, again, eating cold rehydrated backpacking food. I don't recommend it. Lots of climbing; the gelada baboons here are skittish, probably because there are far fewer people around. Mike stalks them anyway, while I laugh in delight every time they move because they are just. so. shaggy. At camp that night, a large European tour group (Czech, maybe?) stays up late drinking and singing for New Year's. We still fall asleep almost immediately after dark.

Day 7: Bwahit (from Chenek): We wake up in the morning to see walia ibex, one of the park's most endangered species, frolicking just outside our camp. We stay at last night's campsite at 13,000 feet and aim to summit a 14,500 foot peak as a day hike. I'm too exhausted/altitude weak to go far, so I climb back down, find the world's most scenic bench, and spend the day reading. Heaven! Mike races Scout to the peak and loses, but gets his revenge by practically sprinting down. (He hears a lot of the other Amharic word we learned: K'uss! Or, slowly!) Since the day hike takes less than a day, we spend the afternoon reading, playing cards, and chatting with the other tourists at the campsite. We are the only people who came to Ethiopia specifically for these mountains. Even I have to admit they're gorgeous and we got our money's worth.

Day 8: Chenek to Sankaber. I suddenly feel marvelously strong; hiking along, I think I was born to do this! This is our last day, though, so it's mostly hiking out on a road, trailing Mule Man, who is leading the mule carrying our big backpacks. We pass lots of villages, and lots of small children tending goat/sheep, all of whom have enormous balls. (The goats, not the children.) We pass priest; everyone else genuflects and kisses his cross. When we reach an intermediate campsite, we decide we don't want to walk all the way out, so instead we wait by road and waylay some grumpy Germans, persuading them to give us a ride out. We stay in the town of Debark again that night, where we get to take showers and eat real food. (We tried the Semen Park Hotel again, because we are crazy.) We explore the evening market, where some local children follow us around. When we hold their hands and swing them, they are sold on us forever.

Day 9: We take an early morning (5:30) bus to Gonder. I fall asleep on the bus (I really can sleep anywhere). We stay at the Circle Hotel, which is very circular, and discover a cafe with fatira to die for; as a result, we spend the rest of the day overfull and lethargic. We eat there for dinner, too, but it's less delicious. (Tuna fish on spaghetti?!?) Gonder is full of castles, which were super cool but also super hot. Gonder also has one of my favorite sites, the Debre Birhan Selassie church, whose roof is painted with hundreds of angel faces; it's adorable, trust me. We spent the afternoon walking the city streets, where Mike noticed a teenager carrying a physics textbook and offered to help him with his homework. The double take was tremendous.


Day 10: Bahir Dar. We take another early morning (5:30) bus to Bahir Dar. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?) This city was full of touts; even a guy from the restaurant we ate at offered us a "great deal" on a boat; is everyone in this town in the tourist business? (Answer: yes.) We walked out to Lake Tana, the main attraction, and caught a papyrus reed boat across the river. (Most tourists take a motorboat around the lake to visit the monasteries, but given that women aren't allowed in most of them I wasn't about to overspend on just a motorboat ride.) After seeing a small church on the lake, we hired a tuktuk driver to take us to the Blue Nile falls. The falls aren't very impressive now thanks to a dam, but it was still hilarious/insane to spend two hours in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk on a dirt road. We were entertainment for every single villager along the way.

Day 11-12: Lalibella. The more I enjoyed a place, the worse my notes are. Lalibella, Ethiopia's main pilgrimage site, was spectacular, full of rock-hewn medieval churches. Apparently I was not dressed appropriately for a pilgrimage, as some young girls chastised me: "skirts are for females." (Their word, not mine.) It being Ethiopian Christmas, Lalibella was also incredibly overcrowded. There was no room at any of the inns--fitting for a Christmas visit--and so we stayed at the family home of a young man we met on the bus. (Yes, this is sketchy.) The room was above the stable--also fitting for a Christmas visit--and Mike got fleas.

Day 13-14: Axum. We loved Axum, but that might have just been because we found a pleasant hotel. Again, my notes are spotty since we actually kept busy, touring obelisks, museums, ancient ruins, and staring at the church that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. It was fun for me to discover that I could immediately hear the difference between Amharic and Tigrinya; I am still a linguist at heart. Axum also featured some great old military propaganda, apparently left over from the days when the military wore short shorts.

Day 15: On this day, Mike got to climb a goatskin rope up a cliff to a 6th-century monastery. I got to sit at the bottom and watch him because women are not allowed. And no, I'm not bitter about it at all.

Day 16: Addis Ababa. We flew to Addis Ababa and were hoping to catch a bus to Harrar immediately but the buses were all full, so we had to stay the night. Meanwhile we were relatively near the museum with Lucy's bones, so we walked there with our backpacks still on, assuming the museum would have a bag check area. It doesn't.

Day 17: We take a bus to Harrar. We have lots of time to observe the scenery: lots of cows, goats, and donkeys, and, as we get further east, camels. The oil here comes from Libya, as all the stations proudly announce. China is building roads everywhere. The language here, Orominya, is also noticeably different from Amharic, though for a while I wondered if it was just English doubled, thanks to all the signs saying "hootteella." 

Day 18-20: Harrar. This is too long to stay in Harrar but too short to go anywhere else. We try to negotiate a trip to an elephant park, but fail, repeatedly; the guide we arrange never shows up, and meanwhile everyone tells us conflicting stories about how great the park is (or isn't). We hang around Harrar instead, eating at our favorite restaurant multiple times per day. (Ethiopian food is delicious, but by now I'm getting sick of injera, which is in absolutely everything. One popular dish is torn-up pieces of injera in sauce...that you then eat with a side of injera.) We take a bus out to a nearby town to visit its camel market. We also go hiking in some rock formations near the town; while Mike scales a steep slope, I wait at the bottom, out of sight, and am possibly threatened at knifepoint. (It wasn't really clear what the guy was trying to communicate by pulling out his knife and drawing it across his throat, but I didn't like it.)  This is the closest I've ever been to Somalia (about 100 miles) and, after my friend with the knife, the closest I ever want to be to Somalia. We tour Harar's old city--it's legitimately cool--and, get this, we feed hyenas

Day 21-24: We take a bus back to Addis Ababa to catch our flight. We sleep terribly the night before thanks to hyenas rooting through the trash pile next to our hotel and barking all night long. On our way back we pass two different crashes of long-distance buses just like ours. At this point we have run out of books and have only one Kindle between the two of us, so we trade off between reading and playing cards. I keep track of how often I win or lose solitaire; mostly I lose. After getting off the bus in Addis we walk to the airport; it's fully 5 miles away but we have time to kill. When we arrive at the airport we find out that our Saturday night flight was cancelled and there isn't another one until Monday morning. We kick ourselves for not going somewhere other than Harrar, now that we have an extra day on our trip. Mostly, we want to kick the airline for canceling our flight and not telling us until the day before. (When we get home, I begin a campaign of furious--and constant--emails to the airline and eventually get us a $250 apology.) We hang out in Addis Ababa for another day, mostly walking around doing nothing, and have an uneventful trip back, arriving home two days later than planned. ("I'm trapped in Addis Ababa" turns out to be a very good excuse to miss some extra work.)