December 2014 – January 2015
A CORNUCOPIA IN THE HORN OF AFRICA
In Ethiopia, the popcorn is sugared instead of salted. The year is 2008 and the taxi cabs are 50 years old. The calendar has 13 months instead of 12 and the clock is six hours ahead of its geographic time zone. Coffee comes in one size only — perhaps the most difficult adjustment for a java-pounding journalist like me.
Ethiopia is one of the most captivating places I have ever been; simultaneously progressive, yet frozen in time. Its cities are crawling with tablet-toting citizens of the world, who somehow blend in with a much larger population steadfast to traditions of the Biblical era. Ethiopia is both modern and medieval, advanced and antique. Every destination has such distinct character and to quote a friend – it makes my home country of Canada look like a “cultural pygmy.”
I spent 16 days exploring the central, northern and eastern regions of this country, from as high up as Chennek in the Simien Mountains, to as far down as the deep rock churches of Lalibela. There’s a reason Ethiopia was named “Best Tourist Destination for 2015,” and I hope my experience provides a glimpse as to why.
Better yet, it will convince you to hop on a plane and see for yourself.
Ethiopia is truly a cornucopia of offerings for any traveller, and if you’ve got a budget and a sense of adventure, I encourage you to consider this itinerary.
Day One: Nairobi to Addis Ababa
I was impressed with the grandeur of Bole International Airport, which made JKIA in Nairobi look like a Mickey Mouse air club. My friend and I touched down in the capital on Dec. 20, ready for a last-minute, whirlwind adventure in one of Africa’s best kept tourism secrets.
After a lengthy bargaining process with several cab drivers, we were on our way into town, noses eagerly pressed against the passenger windows. Addis Ababa is a fascinating blend of old and new, and in true Elizabeth travel fashion, our first move in this exciting place was to go for a walk in no particular direction.
Piazza is an old quarter in Addis and a great place to wander, have a cheap beer, chat with locals, and get a feel for the city. If you take a few turns off the main road, you’ll find elderly women drying peppers and barley in the sun while men crouch on upside down crates chatting over tiny cups of coffee. Little ones waved at us as we passed by, shouting whatever English they knew and giggling furiously when I responded with a word or two in Amharic (“There are seven days in the week,” one child told me happily). Online reviews might criticize the area as being “shabby,” “crowded,” and “high in dodgy-ness level,” but I found it to be a safe, charming place to walk, take pictures, and have a meal. If you want cleanliness, sidewalks, and nice restaurants, I advise you to go to the financial district, Bole.
Piazza’s name is a legacy Italian invasion era, and the neighbourhood prides itself on being centre of Ethiopia’s jazz music movement, which burgeoned between the 1950s and 70s. Our hotel, Itegue Taitu, was not only the oldest hotel in Ethiopia (established in 1898 by the wife of Emperor Menelik II), but a renowned jazz music lounge for guests and visitors as well. It’s also where most of the budget hotels are located, which makes it a great place to connect with other travellers and enjoy Ethiopian nightlife.
Within half an hour, we had walked from Piazza to Meskal Square, a bustling public plaza in the heart of the city where people sit, eat, and socialize throughout the day. It was a lively place indeed — children sold tissues and sweets from card board boxes, and cab drivers heckled one another as they waited for clients by their iconic blue 1960s Peugeot 404s. Young men did pushups and sprinted up and down the square’s steps (undoubtedly hoping to be the next Fifa stars), and girls gossiped animatedly, pretending not to watch. Elders sat quietly observing the commotion; Ian and I did the same.
Eventually, we made our way up the steps to the 2014 L’Abyssine International Expo, a trade show of traditional Ethiopian music, food, clothing, and crafts. Meskal Square often hosts parades, festivals and events like this one, in addition to the occasional protest. For more on Meskal Square’s religious and political significance, click here. You can also check out this video, which clearly backs up its claim to fame as “The World’s Craziest Intersection.”
From Meskal Square, we walked further into the downtown core of Addis. I don’t usually delve too deeply into a country’s history on this blog, but in the case of Ethiopia, it’s impossible to avoid. During the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Ethiopia was the only African country to defeat a European colonial power and retain its sovereignty; a historic, diplomatic, and political force to be reckoned with. In 1974 however, at the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, the country’s power fell to a communist military junta known as the Derg, which was backed by the Soviet Union. Tens — possibly hundreds — of thousands of people were massacred by this regime in a bloody political resistance known as the Red Terror. Famine struck in the years that followed, and the Ethiopia that emerged was forever scarred. Read more here.
While this is an extreme simplification of 20th century Ethiopian history, evidence of this violent past is emblazoned on the streets of Addis today. Walking through downtown core, names like the ‘National Hotel of Addis Ababa’ and the ‘Patriots Building’ served as a reminder of the country’s brush with communism and the state’s looming power over its people. Remnants of Ethiopia’s colonial past — a past that nearly became its present — could also be seen in Italian names like Piazza, as well as Italian bakeries, cafés, and restaurants, and language schools.
As I strolled through different neighbourhoods, markets and commercial centres, my impression was that Addis had been in a semi-permeable bubble for the last 30 to 50 years. New technology, including tablets and a high-speed 3G network to rival Nairobi’s, had somehow made it through the membrane, yet its age-old framework of 1970s pay phones, 1960s refrigerators, and ancient European cars had somehow remained untouched. It was a spectacular juxtaposition of indigenous and exterior influence that at times, manifested itself in amusing examples: We found a restaurant called ‘Pizza Bell’ using the Taco Bell logo (having clearly left the tacos in North America) and a public sign advertising Ethiopia’s number one ‘Laughter University’ taught by a local ‘laugh master.’
After long morning of walking in the heat, we stopped for lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant near the city’s busy auto shop district. We attracted a few stares when we sat down — this clearly wasn’t a place where ferenji (white people) typically ate. It was our first real meal in Ethiopia and I immediately decided that this was my favourite international cuisine. A typical dish consists of sauces, eggs, veggies or meat served on soft, sourdough flatbread called injera. Shiro (chickpeas), wat (stewed chicken, beef or lamb usually), and ful (breakfast beans) are some of the usual accompaniments. Ethiopian food is typically eaten exclusively with the right hand, so prepare for a mess on your first few runs, and get ready for runs to the bathroom as well. It’s also astonishingly cheap, and at most restaurants or walk-ins on the street, two can fill up for less than 50 Birr. If ever in doubt about where to eat in a new country, go somewhere packed with locals, which is generally a good indicator of value for money.
TOMOCA COFFEE SHOP
After lunch, we went for a pick-me-up at the famous Tomoca Coffee Shop on Wavel Street, an old Italian business from 1953 that survived The Red Terror, two famines, and a war with Eritrea. It was, by no means, a place to enjoy a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, but it served good espresso and sold cheap coffee grinds to go. If you’re there, make sure you ask to use the bathroom, which will lead you to the back of the café where they keep the big roasting machines. Watch out for the cockroaches, which scurry freely through the establishment. Tomoca is worth a visit just to be among the young, up-and-coming of Addis, who visit the old colonial café as a mark of wealth and status. There’s also a random moose head on the wall, sculpted by someone — in my opinion as a Canadian — who has clearly never seen a moose.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, we returned to Piazza for the evening. Addis lights up at night and Piazza is packed with bars, restaurants, clubs and jazz lounges frequented by locals and backpackers alike. We had planned to eat at the internationally-acclaimed Castelli Restaurant for dinner, but opted for a local dive instead. We paid roughly 60 Birr for a massive plate of wat and injera, then hit up a few of the clubs on the strip. This was some of the best bar-hopping I had ever done in my life — beer ranged between 12 and 20 Birr (less than USD 1) per bottle, and the mix of modern and traditional Ethiopian music was refreshing. At a particularly lively hole in the wall, we made friends with an upbeat, Kenyan-Ethiopian named Thomas who regaled us with family stories when we told him we had come from Nairobi. Feel free to dance in Ethiopian clubs (conservatively) and make sure you ask someone to teach you how to dance traditionally. They’ll be happy to show you Ethiopia’s signature step, a move I call ‘The Ethiopian Should Shrug.’ If you’d like to see more traditional dancing, the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant in Mekanisa hosts nightly performances.
Day Two: Addis Ababa
I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the second day of our trip. After wandering around Piazza for a while, Ian and I found a roadside shack serving breakfast next to a group of boys playing soccer on the street. We paid 20 Birr for a mountain of spaghetti on injera and ate with our hands as we watched the game, cheering on the players who had of course, named their teams after Premier League favourites like Chelsea and Manchester United.
I had remarked the previous day that nearly every open space in Addis has been converted into a makeshift soccer field, and the skills demonstrated by neighbourhood youth playing on cobblestone (in flip flops no less) was remarkable. I was amazed, but not nearly as amazed as they were when I got up from my breakfast — hands stained with tomato sauce — and joined in for the second half of the match.
Having been sufficiently put to shame on the pitch, we walked back towards Meskal Square to catch a minibus (3 Birr) to the National Museum of Ethiopia on King George VI Street (entrance is 20 Birr per person). I had been looking forward to this since we landed in the capital — the national museum is home to Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old australopithecus skeleton that practically rewrote human history. Ethiopia is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern humans and the museum has an impressive collection of bones from other early humans and prehistoric animals.
Though poorly lit, poorly maintained and poorly labelled, its exhibits from the pre-Aksumite, Aksumite, Solomonic, and Gonder periods are also impressive, and I was floored by the opulent possessions of early Ethiopian royalty; the intricacy of traditional clothing and jewellery. The relics — bronze coins, ancient utensils, furniture, and art — were spectacular, and English-speaking tour guides were happy to explain the artifacts in exchange for a modest tip.
HOLY TRINITY CATHEDRAL
We could have spent hours walking back from the museum; Africa Hall, the Parliament Building, the University of Addis Ababa, and the National Palace were all on the way to Meskal Square. But with only one more afternoon in the capital, we had to manage our time wisely, and decided to skim these attractions from the outside so we could take our time at the Holy Trinity Cathedral by Niger Street instead.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral is the second most important place of Christian worship in Ethiopia, and at any hour of the day, followers can be seen kissing and caressing its walls, kneeling at the gates, praying on the steps, and reading scripture in the compound garden. Ethiopians follow a unique brand of Orthodox Christianity, somewhat related to the Egyptian Coptic church, which they branched off of nearly 70 years ago. What’s special about their faith however, is that it comes from the age of the Bible (not from European colonialism) beginning as early as 330 AD.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral is the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen Asfaw, whose impressive Aksumite-style granite tombs can be viewed inside. Entrance is 50 Birr per person and includes access to a small museum of church artifacts and the cathedral’s graveyard, where ministers killed by the Derg and patriots who died fighting Italian occupation are buried.
THE RED TERROR MUSEUM
Our next stop was the Red Terror Museum on Bole Road. We paid 20 Birr for a cab from Meskal Square to its doorstep, where a statue of mourning women etched with the words, “Never, Ever Again,” foreshadowed the harrowing exhibits within.
The Red Terror Museum spares its visitors no gruesome, cruel or horrific detail in its commemoration of what many consider to be a “modern day Holocaust.” Inside we found the names, body parts and personal effects of many victims, along with the devices used to torture them before they died. The facts surrounding the slaughter of up to 500,000 Ethiopian men, women, and children at the hands of the Derg are highly contested due to lack of data, but one item is undeniable: Thousands of innocent civilians were brutally massacred under the guise of “building a better Ethiopia” by a twisted junta that seized illegitimate power.
All the tour guides at the museum are survivors of this tragedy and earn a living by reliving these horrific events for dozens of visitors everyday. Their wounds are reopened time and again as they go over pictures of families and friends on the walls — an incredible sacrifice made in the hope that history will never repeat itself. Entrance fees are by donation, and I encourage you to give generously in order to preserve this vital piece of the past.
ST. GEORGE’S CATHEDRAL
The exhibits had their intended effect and we left the Red Terror Museum with knots in the pits of our stomachs. If my feelings were a cocktail, it would have been two parts anger and one part despair, rimmed with a mix of shock and heartbreak. The 50-minute walk to St. George’s Cathedral helped clear these thoughts, but an underlying feeling of upset lingered with me for the rest of the day.
St. George’s Cathedral is a bit out of the way for tourists, but worth dropping by for its proximity to Menelik II Square. It was completed in 1911, commissioned by Emperor Menelik in honour of his defeat of the Italian occupation in Adwa in 1896. Its outer walls are covered in beautiful paintings and mosaics, and religious merchants draped in traditional white Orthodox clothing sat by its gates selling ecclesiastic souvenirs — wooden crosses, stones, necklaces and Bibles. I learned that the cathedral is a popular detour for many commuting Ethiopians, who stop by, kiss its walls and pray on their way home from work if they didn’t have time to attend service that day. Having already paid enough entrance fees for the afternoon however, Ian and I decided to skip a tour of the church interior and people-watch in the square instead.
MENELIK II SQUARE
Menelik II Square is another bustling public plaza in Addis where people sit, eat, drink, and chat. A massive equestrian statue of the emperor rests in the middle of it, marking the spot where all of the major highways in Ethiopia meet. As I peered over the square, one particular image struck me: Massive Pepsi ads plastered near a group of retro coach buses. It was odd— Coca-Cola had a monopoly on every African country I had ever been to, where its products are sold (despicably) cheaper than drinking water. Yet here, in Ethiopia — a country that carefully restricts outside influence — somehow Pepsi had managed to claim this space, and the windows of many restaurants and shops as well. I celebrated a small, private victory — I’ve never been a fan of the Coca-Cola empire.
HAGER FAKIR THEATRE
A hop, skip, and a jump away from Menelik II Square is the historic Hager Fakir Theatre. Founded in 1935, it’s the oldest indigenous theatre in Africa, and represents more than 70 years of development in Ethiopian music and drama. The company survived the Italian occupation, and today runs both traditional Ethiopian plays and translations of European playwrights by Shakespeare, Schiller, Ibsen and Molière. We walked into the compound to take a few photos, but were quickly shooed out by a group of people (actors, staff or security likely) sitting by the theatre doors. I’m not sure why they were upset, but needless to say, we made a hasty exit. I wouldn’t let this discourage you from trying to see it, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t sweat it. The theatre itself is underwhelming, despite it intriguing history.
SAYING GOODBYE TO ADDIS
I spent my last evening in Addis wandering around Piazza again, taking photos and jotting down all the little things I wanted to remember: The dogs that sat in the middle of every intersection watching the cars go by; the catchy electronic tune that echoed through the streets indicating that somewhere nearby, someone had a weight scale you could step on for 1 Birr. I wanted to remember the toddler who danced hand in hand with her father at L’Abyssine International Expo, and Thomas, the Kenyan-Ethiopian who had beer with us at the nightclub. One particularly amusing memory popped out as I walked through a merchant alleyway — a baby, cached in her begging mother’s lap on the street, happily and obliviously tossing their coins into the sewer as his mother looked elsewhere, hands outstretched. We had tried to tell his mother about his little game, but she didn’t understand us. The sun was beginning to set on the horizon when a group of men graciously invited me to join them for coffee; they didn’t speak much English, but through a combination of broken Amharic, French, and Swahili, we managed to exchange basic pleasantries. This was truly one of the friendliest countries I had ever been to, and as they wished me well for the evening, (“Dehna hunu”) I made sure to jot them down in my notebook along with Thomas, the toddler, and all of the others.
Where to Stay
- Itegue Taitu Hotel is a safe, centrally-located backpacker in Piazza. We paid roughly 300 Birr (USD 15) per night for a self-contained double bedroom with only one working power outlet and no toilet paper. The conditions won’t be much better at any other backpacker, so if you’re looking for a bit more comfort, try a nice hotel in Bole. I stayed at the pricey Nexus Hotel there during a layover on the way home (on Ethiopian Airlines’ dime of course), and was very pleased with the rooms and service.
- NOTE: Taitu burned down in a massive fire only weeks after I stayed there — a real loss to Ethiopian heritage. It is scheduled to be rebuilt, but I recommend the nearby Ankober Guest House (+251 111 562 878) or Baro Hotel (+251 111 551 447), both of which are comparable in price and amenities, until Taitu reopens.
- Tourist visas can be purchased on arrival at the airport in Addis for USD50. Bring exact cash — there are no ATMs or banks on this side of the gate and you WILL be stuck without it.
- If you walk past the yellow airport cabs in the parking lot, you can hop in a blue one for much cheaper (30 Birr to Piazza). Alternatively, there is a minibus station under the freeway to your right that can take you to Piazza for 3 to 5 Birr.
- Exchange your currency with the hotel touts in the lobby. They’ll give you a better rate than the bank.
- Buy a local SIM card and data package for your phone — you’ll be grateful for the ability to look up attractions, consult maps, use the GPS, and book hotels on the fly. Plan to spend a few hours accomplishing this; cell phones are strictly controlled by the government.
- Bring an Amharic phrase sheet with you to Ethiopia. English is not widely spoken and you may have trouble ordering food or asking for directions (it’s also basic courtesy to show up knowing how to greet, thank, and ask politely).
- Two days is more than enough to see all of Addis’ major attractions including historical sites, museums, and political buildings. My recommendation however, would be that you choose a few that are important to you, and spend the rest of your time wandering freely, and getting to know the city in person.
- We managed to book most of our hotels in Ethiopia as we went despite having travelled during peak tourism season. Don’t stress too much about planning everything in advance.
Day Three: Addis Ababa to Debark
I’ve never been a big fan of travel by air. If you want to get to know a country, the best way to do it is walk, drive, or take the bus — anything you can do to talk to people or at the very least, peer out the windows. Ethiopia however, is not an easy country to travel by road, and intercity travel through its national airline is so cheap, there really is no better alternative if you’ve only got two or three weeks.
Our airplane landed on time in the northern city of Gondar, above Tana Lake in the Amhara Region. Our tour co-ordinator, Bocata, was a stylish and spritely young man in his mid-20s, and was waiting for us at the airport with a vehicle. Through a three-week email haggling process, he had already arranged an all-inclusive hike for us through the magnificent Simien Mountains (for less than CAD 450), and a two-night stay at the L-Shape Hotel in Gondar.
After a short ride through several small pastoral communities, we arrived at the hotel where Bocata introduced us to Aitor, Juho, and Grace, three tourists who would be hiking with us. All aboard a rickety van, we started the beautiful two-hour drive to Debark, the entrance point for Simien National Park. There, Bocata hired a local scout and picked up Lej, our mountain guide and escort through the “Roof of Africa.” We were soon dropped off on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, and Lej pointed to the winding path ahead. There was nowhere to go but up, so we slung our backpacks around our shoulders and started our adventure.
Day Three to Seven: Simien Mountains
The days that followed were surreal: I had never seen such glorious sunsets or watched a roaring mountain water tumble into a bottomless abyss. The Simien Mountains are a mountain range of overwhelming natural beauty, whose ecological and geographical diversity are practically unparalleled. Rippling highlands, peaks, and plateaus prelude stunning high altitude scenery of palm trees, old growth forest, and barley, where ancient Amhara tribes live the same way their ancestors did a thousand years ago. We were privileged not only to meet some of these residents, but to enter their homes for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Along the way, we bumped into the socially adventurous gelada baboons, the rare walia ibex, and several species of eagle and falcon.
I chronicled the adventure for the Globe and Mail’s travel section — every detail from the food we ate to the people we met. I left out the part where I helped the cooks slaughter a goat for dinner, but the account is otherwise accurate. It also includes a breakdown of the logistics; what to pack, how to get there, where to stay, and how to book your own hike for less than CAD 450. We couldn’t have been happier with Bocata’s services, and he has given me permission to share his contact details. Feel free to call him at +251 918 789 242 for information on arranging a tour.
Day Eight: Gondar
We made it back to Gondar on the fourth day of our hike just in time for Christmas. Around this time of year, the city’s markets are peppered with tacky holiday decorations including trees, tinsel, and plastic baubles. Gondar is a busy place, home to roughly 360,000 permanent residents. Wandering around, we frequently found ourselves dodging rickety tuk tuks on the streets, which are also shared with herds of livestock jogging at the behest of their switch-carrying masters. Gondar is a fine mix of urban and rural living; a chaotic city of craftsmen, farmers, university students, and people who scrape a living out of everything from selling sweets on the street to hosting strangers for shisha and televised soccer matches in their homes (we partook in the latter on several occasions).
It was here in Gondar that Ian and I discovered the most exquisite beverage of all time: an avocado, mango, and passion fruit phenomenon called ‘mixed juice,’ which we shamelessly drank at least twice a day for the remainder of our trip. We also found our new favourite pastime in Ethiopia — hopping between local cafés to drink tea, play cards and people-watch. This was eye-opening; we saw as many young couples in love, seniors reading the news over coffee, and fashionable teenagers as we did ill beggars, starving families, and homeless, khat-addicted children staggering through the streets. Plan to spend at least a day and a half in Gondar.
Gondar was once the capital of Ethiopia — the heart of trade and agriculture under the rule of 17th century Emperor Fasilides. During his reign, the great king constructed Fasil Ghebbi, a fortress city with a 900-metre wall that would house his family, descendants, and visiting emperors. The remains of its castles and palaces earned Gondar the title, “Camelot of Africa,” and in 1979, Fasil Ghebbi was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The fortress city functioned as the centre of the Ethiopian government until 1864, and its architecture “represents a remarkable interface between internal and external cultures, with cultural elements related to Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Jews and Muslims,” (UNESCO). We spent at least an hour exploring these ruins; the crumbling turrets, the tiny windows, and the remains of enclosures for leopards and lions that used to grace the palace grounds. Fasilides’ Castle itself is the most well-preserved site, and while we guessed what the buildings might have looked like during their heyday, you can hire a local tour guide on site for a nominal fee.
We paid 200 Birr for entrance, which included Fasilides’ Castle, the Castle of Emperor Iyasu, the Library of Tzadich Yohannes, the Chancellery of Tzadich Yohannes, the Castle of Emperor David, the Palace of Mentuab and Banqueting Hall of the Emperor Bekaffa.
Our entrance fee to Fasil Ghebbi also covered the great king’s swimming pool, which is located outside of the fortress, northwest of the Qaha River. You can take a tuk-tuk there for roughly 20 Birr from the heart of the city and show them your receipt from the castle for entry. Fasilides’ Bath is a two-storey palace in the centre of a square pool that is usually kept empty for sanitary reasons, but filled by the river for special rituals like Timket, the Ethiopian celebration of the Epiphany. During Timket, thousands of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians pore into Gondar to renew their baptismal vows during a symbolic reenactment of the baptism of Jesus. The bath is quite a sight to behold, if not for its remarkable size and structure, for the strange, winding trees roots that grow around its ledges.
We had paid our tuk tuk driver roughly 60 Birr to take us from Fasil Ghebbi to Fasilides’ Bath and eventually to the Dashen Brewery. We were hoping for a tour, but upon finding it closed to the public for the day, settled for pasta and a pint instead. Dashen is currently the second largest brewing company in Ethiopia by capacity, the youngest major brewery (built in 1996), and the only brewery that strictly adheres to German purity laws on the ingredients of beer. At first, it was one of our favourites, but it quickly sunk to the middle of the pack in our list of favourite beers for its rather bland, pale ale taste.
Despite its strong roots in traditional Christianity, Ethiopia has a robust national beer culture that consists of a dozen or so popular brews. In true reflection of the country’s religious ties, St. George takes the cake as the national favourite, its bottle bearing a red and yellow label depicting the third century Roman soldier who slayed a fire-breathing dragon in ancient Christian legend. Ian and I sampled most of the country’s drafts during our 16-day trip, listed below in order of preference. This will help if you want to be selective during your drinking spree, but at prices ranging between 12 and 20 Birr a bottle, why bother?
(1) Hakim Stout (2) Harar Beer (3) Meta Beer Export Lager (4) Royal Beer
(5) Dashen Beer (6) Amber Beer (7) Meta Premium (8) St. George Beer
(9) Bedele Special (10) Castel Beer (11) Walia Beer
To learn more about Ethiopia’s burgeoning beer market, click here.
FOUR SISTERS RESTAURANT
After lunch at the Dashen Brewery, we spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the city by foot. We ‘tea-hopped’ at several cafés, where as per tradition, our tea and coffee were served to us on a bed of grass, accompanied by seeds or sugared popcorn. We did a loop of neighbourhoods near the Ibex Roundabout, and ran into the same little boy selling sweets from a box over and over, and over again. We had bought gum from him the previous day when we got back from our hike (banana and strawberry were my favourites), and after that we couldn’t shake him! We ran into him at breakfast, during the afternoon and evening — either he had been following us, or Gondar was a small place that two ferenji were easy to find. I can’t remember his name now, but I remember that he was 10 years old, spoke very good English, and worked seven days a week to earn money for his family. He told us he was in school full-time, and did his homework late at night once he had finished selling all of his gum. We didn’t need any gum at the time, but paid him a whopping 10 Birr (barely 50 cents, but enough to buy half his box of sweets) for giving us directions to the Four Sisters Restaurant instead.
The Four Sisters Restaurant is a little tricky to find on your own (especially in the dark), but it’s worth exploring if you missed out on traditional Ethiopian music and dance in Addis Ababa. The restaurant caters itself to tourists, and if you’re tired of worrying about getting sick from street food, the Four Sisters is a place of respite. It’s a tad overpriced, and a little inauthentic in terms of its excessive display of culture, but the fasting plate (meaning vegetarian) was good, and the tej (honey wine) was sweet. After dinner, Ian and I had shisha in someone’s living room down the street from our hotel and watched the Premier League match on television. We made awkward conversation with the other men in the room, most of whom were high from khat and passing around a box of cigarettes.
Day Nine: Gondar to Aksum
Our flight to Aksum wasn’t until 4 p.m., so we made the most of our last day in Gondar. After a quick breakfast of ful, egg, and croissant, we caught a tuk tuk to Wolleka Village (15 Birr), roughly three kilometres north of the city. Wolleka is the main centre of Beta Israel — Ethiopian Jews — who are also known as Falasha. Though most of the Falashas were flown to Israel in the 1980s, a few Stars of David, a small synagogue and a graveyard remain in their old village today. According to Lonely Planet, Falashas were once great craftsmen, forced to take up pottery and other trades after their land was confiscated during Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity. Research suggests they may have even provided the labour for the construction and decoration of Gondar’s castles, but “sadly, the pottery for which they were once famous has mostly degenerated into half-hearted art.” Wolleka is indeed full of cheap trinket, souvenir and craft shops, but if you’re looking for a product of quality, check out the Project Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center in the village. The initiative helps disadvantaged women rekindle the arts and crafts of their ancestors, including traditional Amhara weaving, basketry, and pottery. If you can’t find the centre, one of the local children will be happy to offer directions for a few Birr. In fact, expect an entourage of persistent sales children everywhere you go in Wolleka —Ian and I were followed around for the better part of an hour before shaking the kids off to catch a minibus (3 Birr) back to Gondar.
DEBRE BERHAN SELASSIE CHURCH
When we got back to the city, we hired another tuk tuk (20 Birr) to take us to the Debre Berhan Selassie Church on the eastern outskirts of town. I knew this church was a major attraction in Gondar, but I had only skimmed over its description, and couldn’t remember exactly why. The reason was immediately obviously when we entered the compound — built in the 18th century, Debre Berhan Selassie is considered one of the most beautiful churches in all of Ethiopia. Twelve stone towers (one for each apostle) guard its gates, which are marked by a taller, 13th tower representing Christ himself. An ornament of seven ostrich eggs (mirroring the seven deadly sins) decorates the doors, and the church interior is even more elaborate: Paintings cover the walls and ceilings, including 135 winged cherubs, an image of St. George slaying the dragon, and a depiction of the devil leading Prophet Mohammed into the fiery depths of hell. When Mahdist Dervishes of Sudan sacked the city of Gondar in 1888, they burned down every church except Debre Berhan Selassie, and according to local legend, a swarm of bees kept the soldiers at bay while the Archangel Michael himself came down from Heaven to protect it with a flaming sword.
Though Debre Berhan Selassie Church is technically part of Fasil Ghebbi, its keepers charge separate entrance fee of 80 Birr per person. On the compound, I met a travelling Irish sketch artist who was copying it in his notebook and a young Ethiopian man studying from an ancient Bible near the church patio. I asked him about his studies, and he told me the Bible was an heirloom passed down from his father, who had recently passed away. The 19-year-old’s dream was now to become a priest and offer service at the beautiful church, where his father prayed every day. I shook his hand, wished him luck in his endeavour, and within two or three hours, waved goodbye to Gondar.
Where to Stay
- There aren’t too many accommodation options in Gondar, but the L-Shape Hotel is comfortable, clean, and inexpensive at 280 Birr (USD14) per night. They can keep your luggage safe while you hike or explore, and have a great bar and restaurant in the lobby. Centrally-located, within walking distance of most attractions.
- See my piece, Scaling Simien: Budget mountains for beginners in Africa, for tips on hiking the Simien Mountains.
ARRIVING IN AKSUM
We landed in our Aksum by early evening on Day Nine. At this point, we were a bit worn out and looking forward to a quiet evening of dinner, mixed juice, and perhaps a beer. Unfortunately, the airport experience was a bit aggressive — from the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hustled by tour and hotel operators, who were eager to charge us inflated transportation rates to take us to the city (more directly, the doorsteps of their employers). After a bit of haggling, we settled on 16 Birr each for a minibus ride into town that would drop us off at the Africa Hotel on the main drag. We checked in and as usual, walked straight out the door for a good, long walk.
Despite being home to more than 56,000 people, Aksum was by far the quietist city I visited in Ethiopia. Restaurants and cafés on the main street twinkled brightly with Christmas lights, but the evening hubbub of Gondar and Addis simply wasn’t there. Young people held hands and walked down the street, old friends caught up over cups of coffee, and others read books in the gardens by beautiful Ezana Park. Following their lead, Ian and I pored over trip photos quietly as we ate spaghetti and shiro at a nearby restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, I ended up in heated negotiation with a young man named who approached me on the street offering tuk tuk transportation between Aksum’s ruins for 600 Birr per day. He assured me that these sites were “very far away” and couldn’t be reached easily on foot, but I had read otherwise from reputable sources and sensed a scam. He texted me until 11 p.m. that night trying to broker a deal, and even dropped the price to 230 Birr. Be warned — the tourism industry is pushy in Aksum, especially when visitors are scarce during low season.
Day 10: Aksum
Despite the young man’s advice the previous evening, Ian and I had firmly settled on touring Aksum by foot. It was a beautiful day, and after grabbing bread and bananas at a little shop on the road, we made our way to the Old Quarter of the city, which surrounds the Northern Stelae Field and stretches west to Ta’akha Maryam. It was much like stepping into a time machine — complete with crumbling residences and dusty dirt roads, there wasn’t much differentiating this neighbourhood from the historic ruins two or three blocks away. Teeming with goats, mules, and chickens, it certainly bore no resemblance to the manicured main road we had explored the previous evening, where we had eaten spaghetti and browsed our smartphones on the hotel 3G network. Here, veiled women huddled in groups, children snuck peeks at us through stone windows, and men carried their wares — produce, firewood, and livestock — to market. A 20-minute walk separated these two vastly different worlds, and as Lonely Planet writes, the Old Quarter serves as a reminder that Aksum is “more than just a collection of dead ruins; rather it’s a living, breathing community where the past persists.”
Aksum is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa, and dominated the region as a naval and trading powerhouse from around 400 B.C. to the 9th century. Its kingdom was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, and despite its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned there for many years. Massive ruins, dated between the 1st and 13th century, are all that remains of these glory days, and after exploring the Old Quarter, we made our way to the grandest of them all.
NORTHERN STELLAE FIELD
Aksum was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 as a symbol of the wealth and power of the old Ethiopian kingdom, and a crossroads between Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman world. The Northern Stelae Field — only 10 minutes past the Old Quarter — is one of the best examples of how this ancient society flourished, and has a set of remarkably intact third and fourth century obelisks. The field is a treasure trove of mystery; no one knows exactly why the obelisks were created, how they got there, or what ruins remain undiscovered beneath the ground. Only 10 per cent of the site has been excavated and parts of it remain off limit while digging continues.
Highlights of the stelae field include the Tomb of the False Door, the Mausoleum, the Tomb of the Brick Arches, the Tomb of Nefas Mawcha, and a stunning 33-metre obelisk, likely the largest monolith stele that ancient humans ever attempted to erect (it fell to the ground between the 3rd and 4th century). Most of the tombs were looted by robbers long ago, but locals still believe that beneath one of the graves lies a ‘magic machine’ that the Aksumites used for melting the stone that shaped the stelae and tombs. Another popular legend is that the obelisks — phallic in shape — are ancient symbols relating to fertility. Entrance is around 100 Birr, and includes access to the Archeological Museum next door, which is worth checking out for its fantastic descriptions of Ethiopian monarchical and religious history, old stone artifacts and pottery.
CHURCHES OF ST. MARY OF ZION
From the Northern Stelae Field, we walked a short distance to the Churches of St. Mary of Zion. I didn’t fancy parting with another 200 Birr for admission, but this was another site in Aksum we simply couldn’t miss. There are two churches on the compound; an older one for men only and a newer one for both women and men. The former was built by Emperor Fasilides in 1665 and mostly contains old murals, while the latter was built in the 1960s to the decorative tastes of Emperor Haile Selassie (think brightly-coloured paintings, tacky ornaments, fake flowers, etc.). It is said that this compound is “the centre of the universe for Christian Ethiopians,” and that a church in some form or another has stood there since the very start of Ethiopian Christianity. In fact, many believe God himself descended from the heavens nearly two thousands years ago and indicated that a church should be built in that very spot. We explored the compound for nearly an hour (followed by one male worshipper, who for some reason, appeared to believe we were up to no good), and sat quietly in the pews of the newer church as white-clothed pilgrims came to pray.
Yet the real reason for these pilgrims’ devotion (and my insistence on paying the entrance fee) lies between the old and new churches: A small, carefully-guarded chapel that supposedly contains the legendary Ark of the Covenant. I’m almost certain my heart skipped a beat when I first laid eyes on it — as a lifelong Indiana Jones fan with an interest in religious history, it was a special (albeit anticlimactic) moment. The repository, unfortunately, is not much to look at from the outside, and no one is allowed within 100 feet of it. I took a photo, glanced longingly for several minutes — more than I would care to admit — and made my way down to the museum next door, which contained a magnificent collection of church wealth, including former Ethiopian rulers’ crowns, precious chalices, and crosses. Note that the museum guides there will expect a tip. Still stunned by how underwhelming the chapel containing such an overwhelming item was, I browsed the rows of ancient Bibles and church robes in the museum… Did I really believe it was in there? Ethiopian legend has it that the Ark was stolen (with God’s will) from the Temple of Jerusalem by Melenik I, Solomon’s own son by the legendary Queen of Sheba, and brought to Aksum as its final resting place. To be honest, I’m still not sure to this day.
PALACE OF QUEEN SHEBA
After the Churches of St. Mary of Zion, we walked to the Dungur Palace, also known as the Palace of Queen Sheba. Stone foundations are all that’s left of this once grand, 7th century structure, which despite its nickname, was actually built about 1,500 years after the time of Queen Sheba. Historians believe it was once the mansion of a nobleman, and through sloppy restoration you can make out 44 different rooms, including a bathing area and kitchen where a large brick oven still sits. I recommend hiring one of the guides on site to take you around the ruin, as the rooms (apart from the kitchen and bathroom) contain no artifacts or structure that indicates their purpose. Without someone to explain and illustrate the palace for you, harshly speaking, it’s a three-foot-high foundation of relatively unimpressive rocks. There are some neat trinkets for sale outside the entrance however, and the Judith Stelae Field (not worth your time if you’ve already seen the Northern Stelae Field) is right across the street in what looks like a roped-off corn field.
LIONESS OF GOBODURA
The walk to Queen Sheba’s Palace was much further than we had anticipated, and not to keen on walking much further, we called a tuk tuk driver to take us to the famous Gobodura Hill. The hill, roughly 1.5 kilometres past the palace, is one of four ancient quarries in Aksum that birthed the granite stelae found in the city. Several stelae (all unmarked) are still abandoned there, and as I mentioned, it’s still a mystery how in the 3rd and 4th centuries, ancient Aksumites managed not only to cut these rocks, but transport hundreds of tonnes of them back into town.
After about 20 minutes of climbing through brush and boulders (and repeatedly assuring us he knew where it was) our tuk tuk driver finally found the remarkable stone carving of the Lionness of Gobodura. According to Christian stories, it was here on Gobodura Hill that the Archangel Mikael fought a mighty battle with a fierce lioness, a battle that only ended when he hurled it into a massive boulder, killing the beast on impact. Such was the force of his throw that the outline of the lioness is still visible on the rock that it hit. The other theory of course, is that it was carved around the 3rd century, when people started adding carvings to the nearby stelae. We paid our driver 130 Birr for all of his time, including a drop-off in the Old Quarter. Note that while you can walk to Gobodura Hill (about an hour round trip), you won’t be able to find the carving on your own. There are usually a few children kicking around however, happy to take tourists there for a few Birr.
SAYING GOODBYE TO AKSUM
It’s unfortunate that despite a long day of touring — and some very impressive historical ruins — none of Aksum’s attractions had the same shock and awe factor for me as the tiny chapel that allegedly contained the Ark of the Covenant. I laugh about it today; I was so enchanted by an object that I hadn’t even seen. Perhaps that’s the effect of Hollywood movies, or the illuminating tale of its contents written in the Old Testament. Either way, Ian and I spent our last few hours in Aksum wandering the Old Quarter, drinking mixed juice, and browsing the market for souvenirs, sunglasses, and whatever knick knacks caught our eyes. Our wandering eventually led us to the fancy hilltop Yeha Hotel, where we pretended to be guests so we could sit on the balcony and watch the sunset. We stayed until dark, and ended our evening at the colourful AB Cultural Restaurant in town, which is a nicely-decorated place to eat, but average in terms of taste and price.
Where to Stay
- The Africa Hotel (+251 347 753 700) has plain and simple double occupancy rooms at a modest rate of around 250 Birr per night. The showers, sinks, and toilets work, which is all you can ask for at a cheap Ethiopian backpacker. Wireless Internet is included, and the lobby restaurant isn’t bad either. I also recommend the Atse Kaleb Hotel (+251 347 752 222) as a nearby and comparable alternative.
- Prepare to be hustled almost everywhere in Aksum, especially by drivers and hotel touts.
- You can walk to most of the attractions in town, but to get to the Palace of Queen Sheba, the Judith Stelae Field and the Lionness of Gobodura, you can catch a minibus heading towards Shire for 3 Birr, or you can hire a tuk tuk from Aksum for between 60 and 150 Birr round trip. Expect to haggle heavily for this price.
- While I truly enjoyed Aksum — the Old Quarter and St. Mary Church of Zion especially — it didn’t have the same warmth, charm, or exciting vibrancy of the other places in Ethiopia I visited. I’m glad I went, but if you’re on a really tight schedule, you might want to consider skipping it. Lalibela is much more impactful in terms of religious and historical wow factor and will satisfy your craving for ancient ruins.
Day 11: Aksum to Lalibela
Despite its remote location, Lalibela is the star centrepiece of Ethiopia’s tourism industry. Rightly so; it’s the second holiest city in the country after Aksum and the final destination of an annual pilgrimage that attracts more than 50,000 Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. This was the only place Ian and I ran into a significant number of other tourists, who like us, were hoping to catch the peak of the Christmas pilgrimage. We rattled through the mountains into the city, stopping briefly for pictures of the spectacular landscape and to buy handicrafts from women and children who waited on the shoulders of rural roads.
The town itself was quite a sight: Youngsters ran frantically through the dusty streets chasing ragged soccer balls, adolescents scrubbed the shoes of strangers with dirty water for few extra Birr, and men, full of food, lounged with their pants unbuttoned in the plastic chairs of juice bars. Chickens scurried through the neighbourhood, dogs slept in heaps by burning garbage, and almost every home had a sign on the door advertising “traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony” for tourists. This was clearly a place that was used to visitors, and I couldn’t wait to start my walk. I left Ian at the hotel to do some work, then hit the streets for a breath of silty Lalibela air.
Lalibela is a small city; venturing past the tourism district into some of the residential areas, I was playfully chased by children, one of whom cried frightfully when I chased him back (either he didn’t know how to play tag, or I was the most terrifying ferenji he had ever seen). I was graciously invited for beers by a group of young men who were running their parents’ curio shop, hoping I could break up the monotony of their day by telling them a few good North American jokes. I left when they started pestering me for money to pay for their textbooks, only to walk straight into a group of tour guides pestering me to hire them for a day at the rock-hewn churches. Annoyed with the harassment, I walked straight out of town until I found an out-of-the-way place to have lunch.
Half-way down the hill south of city centre, I found a small family restaurant hidden in the bushes, its yellow sign barely visible to passersby. I was greeted by a man in his early 30s named Abayneh, who couldn’t have been more thrilled to have someone — anyone — walk into his business and order a plate of food. Although I ended up sharing most of my shiro and injera with restaurant’s the scrawny kittens, I had a delightful conversation with Abayneh, who kept bringing over Dashen beers, and refilling my shiro from a pot over a coal fire in the backyard. We talked about government suppression in Ethiopia, the country’s deplorable human rights record (which persecutes journalists in particular), and how Ethiopia is one of ‘the richest poor countries in the world.’ Despite its strong currency, and a GDP ranking among the highest in Africa, the vast majority of Ethiopian citizens are penniless. As as the sun started to set, we shook hands warmly, and I left the restaurant on the promise I would return for another chat before leaving Lalibela.
When I got back to the hotel, my friend had finished his work, and was ready to go out for a walk. Exhausted, I smiled, and set back out again. We had mixed juice at a nearby parlour, and ended the day with dinner at the Blu Lal Hotel restaurant in town, where we caught on the up news through its small tube television.
Day 12: Lalibela
We woke up around 7 a.m. on New Year’s Eve to be first in line for permits to Lalibela’s famous monolithic churches. The ticket office is tricky to find and I recommend asking for directions the day before you actually need to be there. It’s pretty hectic in the morning as tourists rush in and you’ll be hassled by guides hoping for work if you don’t look like you know what you’re doing. Single-day permits are $50 each (bring exact U.S. cash) and all proceeds go to the continued care and restoration of the churches.
Down to business: I can’t even begin to explain the spellbinding magic of this UNESCO World Heritage Site; there are some things even a journalist can’t find the words to describe, and if you have a travel bucket list, put Lalibela at the top of it.
ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES OF LALIBELA
Deep underground in Lalibela are 11 medieval cave churches carved from red volcanic stone by King Lalibela in the 13th century. When Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, he wanted to build a ‘New Jerusalem’ for Ethiopian Christians; somewhere they would be safe to worship, hidden from Muslim invaders in the north. His men built the 11 stone churches, chiselled by hand into single ‘mother rocks,’ some as deep as 63 feet into the ground. If you look closely in these churches, you’ll even see the scratches of the chisels used more than 800 years ago.
As Ian and I descended the stone steps into Bet Medhane Alem — the largest church — we found hundreds of pilgrims already crowded into the pit, circling the church, kissing its walls, caressing its foundation and crumbling doorframe. Some bore ancient religious facial tattoos and others crossed their foreheads with chalk. Most wrapped themselves traditional cloths, and carried walking staffs or Bibles. All had abandoned their footwear, exposing cracked, dry and blistered feet. An essential part of the Lalibela pilgrimage is walking there, and it is said to pray at the steps of the great stone churches is to earn seven generations of blessings for your family. Through a translator, I spoke with a pilgrim in her late sixties, who had walked there from north of Gondar — a distance of more than 400 kilometres — over the course of a month. Like most who make the journey, she was very poor, and relied heavily on the charity of towns along the way. She told me she “could die in peace now,” knowing she had completed her pilgrimage, and my translator told me this was typical of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians: They are groomed from birth to treat the pilgrimage as a kind of “life’s work,” and getting to Lalibela is the ultimate goal. Every year, youth volunteer at the entrance of the city with cloths and buckets to wash the feet of arriving pilgrims, and provide basic humanitarian relief. I was astounded by everything they told me, and humbled by the very idea of such devotion.
Inside Bet Medhane Alem, we found old paintings and relics, and three large rectangular holes in the ground. These empty graves are said to be the symbolical tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on Sundays, worshippers come here to be healed or blessed by a 7kg gold Lalibela Cross inside the church. All of the churches are connected through a network of underground tunnels that allow pilgrims to move around undetected. These passages, pitch black and difficult to navigate, are a representation of hell, and when a pilgrim surfaces into light on the other side of one, it’s a symbol of their salvation. For quite some time, Ian and I sat quietly in the tunnel connecting Bet Gabriel-Rufael and Bet Merkorios, listening to the timeless chanting of pilgrims passing through in the dark. We ended up taking a wrong turn in one of the black tunnels, and ended up deep underground in the middle of a centuries-old Christian ritual.
There are some things words can’t describe, so instead, I made a video:
You may feel pressure to see all 11 of the rock-hewn churches, but I can definitively say that taking your time, absorbing your surroundings, and interacting with people will be far more valuable to you than checking off every church on your list. Ian and I only made it to three of them, but we spoke with pilgrims, got lost, found our way into an underground ceremony, touched the walls, felt the carpets, and basked in the ambiance of what was ultimately, one of the most inspiring and shaking experiences of my life. I couldn’t believe what I had seen… what kind of faith inspires someone to chisel by hand a 63 foot church into the ground? To walk for months on end with little food and water just to pray somewhere different? To perform laborious rituals, day in and day out for a God you’ve never seen? There was something these pilgrims understood about faith, life, spirituality, love, and vitality that I simply didn’t. Perhaps one day I will see the world as they do. I hope so.
You will rarely hear me advise someone not to hire a tour guide as I’m usually an advocate of supporting local business. In this interests of your experience however, I would strongly recommend that your tour the churches without one. As Ian and I wandered through them, overcome with emotion by our very surroundings, we felt sorry for the tourists next to us, who were missing out on what was going on around them because they were listening to a tour guide explain the paintings and architectural style of the churches. Then, when he said it was time, they would pack up and move to the next church. Ian and I had researched all that information beforehand, and if you’d like, you can Google it all afterwards. But take Lalibela at your own pace. Be in the moment. Look, listen, feel, reflect. If you can, go around Christmas (Jan. 7 in Ethiopia), when the pilgrimage reaches its peak. If you do want to hire a guide however, they are available everywhere in Lalibela at any time for 600 Birr per day (negotiable).
NEW YEAR’S EVE
We spent as long as we could in the rock-hewn churches, stopping only for a brief lunch at Abayneh’s restaurant, and to buy a beer for my translator, Haile Abera. That evening was the end of 2014 and the start of 2015, and Ian had purchased tickets to an international buffet dinner at the beautiful Ben Abeba restaurant on top of a hill north of town. We took a tuk tuk to get there, and paid about 530 Birr each for the meal (a real splurge), and watched the sunset with a veritable smorgasbord of food from all over the world. We had beer, wine, dessert, coffee and sugared popcorn, and enjoyed a bonfire until close to midnight. It was a fine end to one of the most fantastic years of my life so far, and a classic Rogers and Hammerstein moment.
Where to Stay
- The Aman Hotel in town is a quiet, plain, budget accommodation with double beds for roughly 450 Birr per night. I’ll speak very highly of its customer service, as the owner switched our rooms free of charges to accommodate bedding requests, and found me a translator for my interviews, last-minute at a very reasonable price. He did all of this for free, just to please us, and I promised I would give him glowing reviews on this website. The Aman is also conveniently located in the centre of town, close to restaurants, juice bars, shops, and the rock-hewn churches. Wireless Internet included in room rate.
- Bring a flashlight to Lalibela to help you navigate the tunnels and churches.
- Photography is permitted in the rock-hewn churches, but try to be as respectful as possible while taking pictures of the pilgrims. They do allow it as part of your entrance fee (they know the money goes towards the church preservation, the priests, and community), but remember this is a place of worship. Avoid flash photography as it damages the ancient paintings within the churches.
- As I mentioned, I recommend visiting as close to Christmas as possible, and without a guide so that you can enjoy the experience at your own pace. Make sure to invest elsewhere in the local economy: Try a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, go souvenir shopping at a nearby curio shop, and eat at local restaurants.
Day 13: Lalibela to Dire Dawa
It was a bittersweet feeling leaving Lalibela. On one hand, I was thrilled I had been able to visit, speak with pilgrims, and gain a special understanding of their journey through interviews, but on the other hand, I knew that few other adventures would ever be as eye-opening or fantastic. What could Dire Dawa possibly have to offer after 13th century rock-hewn churches and a pilgrimage nearly 1,000 years old? To think I had been enchanted by the chapel allegedly containing the Ark of the Convenant in Aksum… Either way, I was pleasantly surprised by this eastern Ethiopian city, which I landed in around 2 p.m. on the very first day of 2016.
KAZIRA AND MEGALA
Dire Dawa was founded in 1897 and is the fourth-largest city in Ethiopia with a population exceeding 600,000 people. Tired and cranky, right away, Ian and I got into a bit of a scuffle with the airport cab drivers, who wanted to charge us a truly insulting rate to take us to the Ras Hotel, which is less than a 15 minute walk directly from the terminal (and should only cost about 15 Birr). There isn’t much to see in Dire Dawa in terms of tourist attractions, apart from the old Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia (which isn’t really worth the entrance fee) and a few busy, messy markets where traditional cloths, tacky home decorations, and plastic cookery are sold in bulk. We quickly found however, that Dire Dawa wasn’t about the tourism checklist — it was about experiencing the unique feel and vibrancy of a city caught between past and present. In Dire Dawa, these two time zones are physically divided by the Dechatu Wadi river, which runs between its two different settlements. To the northwest lies the European-influenced ‘new town’ of Kezira, and to the east lies the more colourful ‘old town’ of Megala. Naturally, Ian and I were more interested in exploring Megala, so we crossed the Dechatu river, which at this time of year, was dried up, full of garbage, and being used as a soccer pitch.
Megala had a distinctly Arabic feel to it and was home to more Muslims that we had observed anywhere else in Ethiopia. We attracted quite a few stares — it was a very poor area, and I had never seen so many khat-addicted men and children living on the streets among heaps of trash. Megala was a rather disorderly place, but people were as kind and friendly as they had been everywhere else — happy to offer directions in whatever broken English they could, and to have us over for coffee and sugared popcorn. We bought a custard apple and walked through the streets, dodging mules and goats along the way. We found lots of barbershops, carpet traders, and fabric stores, and an old junk lot where ancient European cars sat stationary collecting rust (specimens Ian, as an automobile enthusiast, had long believed extinct). After wandering around for a few hours, we decided to partake in the local past-time, and bought a bag of khat to chew after dinner. Drugs are not my thing EVER, but… when in Rome, right?
Khat is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and its chewing as a social custom dates back thousands of years. It’s legal in Ethiopia and its effects as a narcotic are very mild. We paid 20 Birr for quite a large bag of it and though I was nervous about chewing it, I was eager to understand what it was about these rather unremarkable leaves that had so many wasting their days away with open sacks of them at their feet. The sight of two ferenji (a woman especially) walking around town with a big bag of khat however, was enough to send most passersby into fits of roaring laughter, and some people even came up to us to give us handshake or a high five. Apparently, this wasn’t something done by white people, or at least not in that part of town. Not wanting to attract any more attention, Ian and I went back towards the hotel instead, had a quick pasta dinner at the Paradiso Restaurant, and stopped at a bar to begin our ‘trip.’ We bought some strawberry and banana gum from the sweet box children patrolling the square, and chewed it along with the khat to curb its bitter flavour.
We spent the next few hours enjoying beers (here we had our first taste of the malty Harar stout, which was by far our favourite local brew), and chewing away on the bright green leaves. What struck me most about khat was that its calming, relaxing effect wasn’t worth the effort required to consume it — you had to chew quite a bit to feel anything at all, while putting up with a relatively unpleasant taste. You’ve also got to keep it bunched up in your cheeks like a chipmunk to soak up the juice, which makes everyone look a bit silly as they struggle to converse with a mouth full of green. In the end, the effects of the khat were almost unnoticeable; we were a little bit more mellow and talkative, but otherwise quite sober and alert. Around midnight (we decided to have a second round of New Year’s celebrations), we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel (40 Birr), and packed our bags for our trip to Harar.
Where to Stay
- The Ras Hotel, though slightly overpriced at 320 Birr per night, is a comfortable hotel close to town and the airport that has large beds, semi-functional bathrooms, and a bar in the lobby. WiFi not included.
- Don’t go into Dire Dawa with high expectations. It’s a city for appreciating the little things, like not knowing how to eat a custard apple, watching kids play soccer on the road, and trying to figure out who cooks the best beans on the street.
- If you’re going to chew khat, do it somewhere safe, close to your hotel. If it sounds like they’re charging you a lot for the leaves, they probably are.
Day 14: Dire Dawa to Harar
Despite having had a bit of late night, Ian and I were up bright and early for our trip to Harar, a small city roughly 55 kilometres southeast of Dire Dawa. After a light breakfast of bread and ful from a mama on the street, who was cooking on an upside down bucket over a coal fire between cars near the Dechatu Wadi bridge, we caught a minibus around 9 a.m. for 40 Birr per person. The two-hour to Harar drive was beautiful, and meadows, farmland, small villages, and ruins whizzed past us on the rocky road to the city.
Though Harar (locally known as Gey) didn’t have the same historical or scenic wow factor as Lalibela or the Simien Mountains, it certainly had the most appealing vibe out of everywhere we had stayed. Life there just seemed more colourful — from the clothes people wore to the fabrics, mattresses, and treats displayed in shops throughout the neighbourhoods. The residents of Harar took extra care to beautify their city as well, and the town market was decorated with party flags, food stalls were draped with patterned cloths, and people stamped yellow, blue and red beer caps into the sidewalks just to brighten up the dirt. People were truly animated here, and Ian and I were satisfied doing little more than walking around, taking photos, and drinking mixed juice to pass the time.
Our first stop in Harar was the town square of Feres Magala, which is marked by a conspicuous monument to those who died fighting against Menelik’s conquest of Harar. The hustle and bustle truly overwhelmed the senses: Kids played tag in the cobblestone streets, meat hung from hooks in butcher stands, and livestock ran hurriedly by carrying bundles of wood, wheat, and tef.
Men chuckled happily over beers on patios and women greeted customers warmly as they lined up to buy everything from spices to sunglasses. Unlike the segregated settlements in Dire Dawa, Harar felt like one big community: The people referred to themselves as the Gey ‘Usu (People of the City), they spoke their own language, Harari, and at one time in history, they even had their own distinct currency. Also worth checking out near the square is the famous Harar Gate, which was put in place by Ras Makonnen, the first Duke of Harar, in 1889. From Feres Magala, Ian and I walked to Harar Jugol, the historical highlight of the city.
Despite the dominance of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia, Harar is actually the fourth holiest city in Islam. At least 82 mosques and 102 shrines are squeezed into the town, which lies between the country’s coastal lowlands and central highlands. Harar Jugol, the old walled city, dates back to before the 13th century and its strategic geographic location led to its development as an important centre of Islamic culture and commerce. It is sometimes referred to as “The City of Saints” in Arabic, and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. Ian and I had no trouble getting lost in Harar Jugol, where nearly 370 alleyways are packed into one square kilometre. We enjoyed the traditional Islamic architecture juxtaposed with bits and pieces of Western culture, which always manage to sneak their way into even the remotest of places. Here, we had a few charming interactions with local children, who were posed enthusiastically for photos, held our hands, and followed us through the alleys until their older siblings shouted at them for ‘disturbing’ us, and marched them straight back to their gated homes. Before leaving, we passed by the bright green Tomb of Sheikh Abadir (one of the most important preachers of Islam in the region), where worshippers still stop by seeking solutions to the struggles of everyday life: Financial concern, illness, family crises, infertility. Lonely Planet writes that if their prayers are answered, “many devotees return to make gifts to the shrine, usually rugs or expensive sandalwood. The tomb has become an important centre of pilgrimage, especially for those who cannot afford a trip to Mecca.”
A short distance away from the old walled city is a shiny main strip where youth congregate for food, drinks, shopping and their own a discreet version of dating (which may involve handholding when no one is looking). This is where most of the hotels are located and where restaurants light up at night with neon lights to attract new customers. You can buy almost anything in this busy part of town, from skinny jeans and remote control cars to cell phones and sugar cane. Cars and mule carts alike clanged noisily on the streets here, and young men with vats of cooking oil sold chips and ketchup wrapped up in newspaper for 5 Birr a piece. While sitting at a parlour enjoying a some juice, Ian and I met a kind young mother who invited us for shisha in her home in exchange for 20 Birr. Happy to get off the beaten track a little, we followed her into a slum near the town centre, and into a small shack with a curtained door.
It was a one-room residence with a small tube television, a few family possessions, and a number of carpets and pillows on the floor in place of beds or a couch. The woman, who couldn’t have been older than 22 or 23, quickly whipped up a homemade hookah using a water bottle, and passed it over as she opened a bag of khat for herself. One of her friends came over shortly afterwards, and the four of us (unable to communicate in either English or Amharic), sat awkwardly around the television watching an Ethiopian talent contest. The mother’s two-year-old, who was crawling around shack, peed on the floor, and we all smiled, sharing the moment best we could. When it started to get dark, Ian and I rushed back to our hotel, not wanting to miss one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
FEEDING THE HYENAS
I would never want to cross path’s with a hyena in the wild; the animals are dangerous pack hunters and I’ll never forget the first time I saw one gnawing ferociously on a zebra carcass in Kenya. In Addis Ababa, they are considered a vicious pest, and have been known to scavenge near local homes, and in times of scarcity, feed on the homeless. Yet here in Harar — more than 500 kilometres from Addis — hyenas have had a peaceful presence for at least 500 years. Feeding them leftover meat was once an important ritual for Sufi Muslims, but today these animals sanitize the city by feeding on its organic refuse, and are an important source of income for ‘hyena men,’ who tempt them with bits of mule and cow hide for 20 Birr per visiting tourist. Read more on the history here.
Once the sun had dipped below the horizon around 7:30 p.m., Ian and I paid a cab driver 130 Birr to take us to a hyena man, wait for us, and return us to our hotel. Eager to go face to face with one of nature’s most dangerous animals, we were happily led into a pitch black field in the middle of nowhere, where through the feeble flash lights in our cell phones, we finally laid eyes on a pack of spotted wild hyenas. We lined up one by one with several other tourists for an opportunity to feed them, and despite being used to this daily ritual, the hyenas remained quite skittish around anyone who wasn’t the hyena man or his young apprentice. When my turn came up however, I managed to pet one of braver ones, who took a piece of cow flesh directly from the stick I held with my teeth. Coming from a safari country Kenya, it felt surreal to be so close to these aggressive predators, but in all honesty, the hyenas of Harar are more like chubby, unfriendly puppies. It was a special experience indeed, and I was glad we had included this city in our trip.
Where to Stay
- Tewodros Hotel (+251 256 660 217) is a cheap, rundown accommodation that offers sunken-in beds, the occasional cockroach, and dysfunctional bathrooms for about 200 Birr per night. It’s worth it however, for its proximity to a garbage dump, where hyenas are usually visible early in the morning and can easily be heard cackling at night. Check out the soccer pitch around 9 p.m. to see them for sure.
- Catch an early morning or afternoon minibus to Harar to make sure you arrive in the city during daylight. This minimizes your risk of robbery.
- If you’re a ferenji, conductors on the minibus may try and charge you extra to get to Harar; pay attention to what the other people on the bus are paying and don’t be ripped off!
Day 15: Harar to Dire Dawa
RAS TAFARI’S HOUSE
Our second day in Harar passed much like the first; we walked around for several hours taking photos, people-watching, and picking up mixed juice whenever we could. Early in the morning, we went back to Harar Jugol to visit Ras Tafari’s House, one of the only ticketed attractions open on a Sunday. We paid 50 Birr for entry into the big white building, which was once the honeymoon home of Emperor Haile Selassie I, and bears his pre-coronation name. Haile Selassie is widely recognized as a divinity of the Rastafari religion, which was founded around 1930 in Jamaica at the time of his coronation. According to believers, he is the “God of the Black Race” with lineage tracing back to King Solomon and Queen Sheba, his death was a hoax, and he is now arranging for expatriated persons of African origin to return to heaven in Ethiopia. I wasn’t sure how any of this history had churned out stripes, weed, and Bob Marley, but I enjoyed comparing Rastafarianism as it is experienced by African followers with the way it is portrayed by mainstream media in the West. Rather than containing information about this movement however, Ras Tafari’s House is actually the site of the Sherif Harar City Museum, which houses an impressive private collection of weaponry, coins, jewellery, household tools and traditional clothing. It’s definitely worth stopping by for the simple reason that there isn’t much else to do in Harar once you’ve done a solid walk-through of the city. After a short visit, we walked back to the minibus station in the centre of town, and hopped back on a minibus towards Dire Dawa.
RETURN TO DIRE DAWA
We returned to the city feeling full. Our cameras were packed with more than 2,000 photos, I had a notebook brimming with memories and observations, and we had found more meaning and wonder in this astonishing country than we ever could have predicted. We had scaled a mountain next to one of the rarest animals on Earth, stood before the bones of one of the oldest human ancestors known to man, and witnessed a 700-hundred-year-old pilgrimage ritual few outsiders knew existed. We had paused at the foot of ruins that nearly predate the Bible, gone head to head with one of Africa’s most dangerous predators, and been humbled by the inspiring stories of people who had lived through extraordinary hardship. We had haggled our way through six different cities and experienced every possible emotion from physical sickness, to sorrow, serenity, and elation. We had forged relationships in some of the most unlikely places, and been treated as guests in a poor country that could have treated us like wealthy tourists instead. We drank, we ate, we reflected, we walked, we laughed, we cried, and on our last full day in Ethiopia, Ian and I weren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves. We had (metaphorically) been brought to our knees by Ethiopia’s intense character, formed by more years of human history than many Western countries combined.
And so, as per usual, we went for a walk.
Our 15th night in Ethiopia was defined by some of the best street food we had tasted so far, cooked by a Somali woman outside a bakery in central Dire Dawa. We shared a few laughs with some of her patrons, who were surprised to see two ferenji crouched on a wooden bench in a filthy street digging into a bowl of beans. We had a few Harar beers at the fancy Selam Hotel, which even let us take a few back to our own hotel with us, as long as we paid the bottle deposit. We returned to the Ras Hotel, where we had stayed two nights ago, played a few rounds of cards and turned in.
Day 16: Dire Dawa to Nairobi
After one last hearty breakfast on at a roadside stall, surrounded by roosters and whiny cats, we caught a tuk tuk to the airport for our morning flight from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa. Of course, luck would have it that all of our connections, which had gone smoothly throughout the entire trip, would be delayed on the day of our return to Kenya, and our flight to Nairobi was cancelled by a complication at JKIA airport. While this meant we got another night in Ethiopia — paid for by the airline at the spectacular, high-class Nexus Hotel in Bole — it also meant prolonging our exhausted, travel-weary state by one more day. We spent hours on Day 16 waiting in airport lobbies, playing cards and watching the news, until finally, we were able to settle in Addis for the night.
After a sumptuous buffet dinner at the Nexus, for the first time on the trip, I took a hot shower with proper water pressure. I slept in a regal red room with plush pillows, and a feather duvet, expensive art work, and a cable-connected television that picked up more channels than I had grown up with as a child in Canada. There were no cockroaches or flickering light bulbs, and the room came with actual slippers rather than those foul, generic plastic flip flops that come in cheap African hotel rooms, and never fit anyone under six and a half feet tall. I can’t say we didn’t end the trip in style, but I can say that the superfluous luxury felt a bit uncomfortable after more than two-weeks on the road with moth-eaten bed sheets.
Ethiopia was the adventure of a lifetime, and truly proved that there are some things even a journalist can’t describe with words. I hope after reading this, you’ll consider making your own trip to one of the beautiful and historic countries in the world.