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By Nick Welman

First impressions

For whatever reason, most airlines fly back to East (and West) Africa during the day, and back at night. The other way around always seemed more logical to me. Now arriving invariably means arriving late at night, often shortly before midnight, arriving at an unknown airport, including the uncomfortable scenes at a dark taxi parking lot and the disoriented ride through a murky, strange city in search of a first hotel.

All of that would await me on arrival in Ethiopia. But the reality turned out differently. Right outside the airport, an employee was ready with an official list of taxi fares and he led me to a licensed driver. He drove me to the friendly Debre Damo hotel at a peaceful 30-mile-per-hour pass. I was scared to arrive at night in Addis Ababa for nothing. The chilly mountain air made me fall asleep like a log.

A week later I had already experienced all the ups & downs of Ethiopia. I had had the most warm and genuinely cordial meetings with Ethiopians. But I was also extorted by a few handy impostors. I had experienced the paradisiacal nature of the cool, green plateaus. And I had seen the abject poverty in Addis Ababa. In order to get to know this truly great country, it quickly dawned on me, you probably needed at least a year – not the few weeks. 

Cultures

The origins of early Ethiopia are recorded in the Kebre Nagast (Glory of the Kings), a book that in itself aims to be an extension of the Bible. It tells how King Solomon seduces the Queen of Sheba during her illustrious visit. Solomon swears to Queen Sheba that he will not touch her body as long as she also respects his possessions. However, he feeds her food that is so salty that she takes a can of drinking water. Solomon, who has been waiting for his prey like a lion, immediately takes his chance.

Their son, the later Menelik I, is the first male monarch of Ethiopia. All this is bordering on the realm of legends – the Kebre Nagast only emerged around the year 1000. For Ethiopia, however, the book has a status equal to the sacred scripture. Several Ethiopian emperors died with the Kebre Nagast glued to their chests.

The fact remains that the Ethiopians were already Christians while the Romans were still marvelling at pagan spectacles in their Colosseum. Today’s Ethiopia is a state in which many things are ‘own’, without a reference to any other country or any other culture.

Ethiopia has its own writing, based on syllables, which does not look like anything else. (The system has linguistic similarities with Japanese at most.) Ethiopia has a unique Christian Orthodox religion. It has its own cuisine, based on injera (sourdough bread) and kitfo (depending on the region, raw or semi-raw meat, marinated in butter, herbs and cheese). It has a unique fauna with endemic mammal species that do not occur outside Ethiopia. The language, the Amharic, is more closely related to Arabic than to surrounding African languages. Ethiopia’s view has traditionally been more towards the Middle East than the African interior. This is also reflected in the greater number of international flights to overseas Arab and European states than to African destinations.

Ethiopia has its own calendar with thirteen months (the thirteenth month, pagame or ‘jump year’, falls around the end of August and has five or six days) and its own era, which is eight years different from ours. (Ethiopians celebrated the millennium in 2008.) As usual in the Horn of Africa, the country has its own clock – seven o’clock in the morning is one o’clock in the morning for the Ethiopians, and from there one counts further. So don’t think the clocks at the bank, the post office or the hotel are wrong.

In addition, the Ethiopian state comprises a multitude of indigenous cultures as varied as those of the Oromo, Afar and Somali. The differences by region are enormous: from Addis Ababa to, for example, Dire Dawa, where life seems to take place at the pace of a summery southern French provincial town and where you can sip orange juice on shady terraces under the sounds of Cheb Khaled. 

Tourism

During the heyday of the Haile Selassie regime, Ethiopia was one of the first African mass destinations on the rise. The inhabitants of Addis Ababa will explain to you that during Haile Selassie the economy flourished, the currency Birr was almost equal to the dollar and life was cheap and luxurious for many. During that period, many organized tours visited Ethiopia; logical, since no country in Africa offered the unique combination of both unspoilt nature in the national parks and cultural-historical heritage.

After 1974, Mengistu and his entourage hermetically closed Ethiopia from the outside world. A visit to Addis Ababa was only allowed with a three-day transit visa, or under the guidance of a government guide in accordance with the Soviet Intourist model. In both cases, the cost to the tourist adds up to hundreds of dollars per day.

Since Meles Zenawi reopened the country, tourism has not reached the level of the Selassie period. It is almost unimaginable how quickly you, travelling outside Addis Ababa, can end up in hamlets where no one seems to know a foreign language, only the most basic accommodation is available and only the native cuisine is served (injera with goat meat). Public transport is certainly not yet reaching the level of countries such as Kenya or Tanzania, which makes Ethiopia a difficult destination for individual travel. The average tourist is therefore reliant on an organised tour. 

Photography and video remain a tricky affair in Ethiopia. Suspicion – a legacy of the Marxist Mengistu regime – prevails. Both in Addis and elsewhere, you can expect police officers to question you about your intentions. Video cameras are seen as bad already. One hardly recognizes the distinction between an amateur home-video and professional journalistic equipment. At least show video and photo equipment to or register by customs or visit the tourism office in Addis. Not that all this offers much solace, but it may be useful to have a visit card from the tourism office in your pocket.

A French freelance photographer, Ludovic Maillard, spent two months in the town of Harar in the summer of 2000: he rented a house and lived among the population, so that one could get used to his camera and his work. Such an approach seems to be a prerequisite for a successful photo shoot: don’t expect to be able to take the most beautiful shots during a hastily bite-snap visit. The attitude of the population towards photography has to do with a strong sense of privacy, which is affected by the wildness of shooting. In addition, Ethiopians prefer to be photographed only when one looks at their best: not in the everyday clobber, but with appropriate clothes, jewelry and ‘hair-do’. As with any destination, it is essential to ask permission in advance from the people you want to photograph.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia is an unimaginable destination. A simple circuit from the port of the francophone Djibouti via Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa to the Bale Mountains National Park takes you through just about all the landscape types, climate zones and cultural extremes that East Africa has to offer. 

Ethiopia’s tourism potential is endless. The historical monuments such as the medieval castle town of Gondar, the supposed repository of the Ark des Covenant in Axum, the rock churches of Lalibela and the game parks offer a kaleidoscope of attractions awaiting rediscovery by tourism. The fact that Ethiopia has an eventful history of famines, drought and wars does not, of course, help to make Ethiopia a tourist destination.

Ethiopia as a destination

Those who visit Ethiopia must have a certain resilience – and must also be somewhat ‘streetwise’. Poverty is certainly found in Ethiopia, both in the cities and outside here. On the street in Addis Ababa you can be addressed by seemingly friendly men who invite you to special occasions or ceremonies – turn down these offers as soon as possible. These are usually scams (which, by the way, in the eyes of many Ethiopians, ruin the country’s reputation). Ethiopians can certainly invite you to a coffee ceremony (or qat-chew) at their home, but that happens after a first day of acquaintance and mutual conversations – not just in the streets. Once again, it appears that ‘taking your time’ is an essential condition for a sustainable holiday.

Once you have found a balanced way to deal with the downsides of Ethiopia, there are few other countries around the world where you can face such a special and interesting time. Ethiopia is an overwhelming destination of unexpected landscapes and breathtaking vistas. Parts of the country look like the Garden of Eden, with lush farmlands. Ethiopia is a strong rural country. Outside Addis Ababa there are hardly any cities of significance. Even places that appear to be ‘large’ on the map sometimes appear to consist of no more than a row of houses along a main road. Occasionally it is striking how with some luck you can find quiet and pleasant hotels in villages, with a pleasant terrace, almost in the middle of a rural area.

The train from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa is hardly suitable for tourism. In any case, the timetable is very irregular. If you’re going to go around individually, you’ll be on the bus. Those who are taller than 1.85 meters will have claustrophobic experiences.

Although the price level is low, Ethiopia is not a country for those who simply want a cheap holiday. The conditions in which some parts of the population have to live are more likely to lend a generous hand. Ethiopia is a country of tipping. Ethiopians themselves also regularly mediate among themselves about the purchase of all kinds of services and obligations. So you’re going to have to pay to the one handling your luggage, the waiter in the restaurant, the maid, and so on. The people who work in tourism depend on these tips for their livelihood.

Last impression

More than many other people in Africa, many Ethiopians have respect for the animals in their country. The native species such as the bergnyala and the Ethiopian wolf are considered indispensable part of the national heritage. My guide Tilahun in Bale National Park recounted how, in the anarchic transition period between the reign of Mengistu and Meles Zenawi, a group of soldiers who shot two nyalas were then almost lynched by the angry village population of Dinsho.

On public transport, bus passengers spring from their seats as soon as an ostrich or baboon appears in the thicket. The Ethiopians lift children with both hands into the air to catch a glimpse of a family of warthogs in the verge. It is a disarming enthusiasm for nature that in no way relates to our stubborn image of Ethiopia as a land of hunger, war and misery.

Interesting links:

Cyber Ethiopia

News on Ethiopia

Transitions Abroad

Article on tourism in Ethiopia

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