I spent fifteen days travelling around Ethiopia from Addis Ababa north, through Gonder, the Simien Mountains, Aksum, Lalibela, remote villages, and Bahir Dar. It’s a fascinating country, completely different to what most people would expect. Here are some of the observations and insights I made along the way.
Ethiopia is one of the oldest independent nations in the world, and is proud of being the only African country not to be colonised during the “Scramble for Africa” by the European powers during the 19th century. They were the only African country to defeat Europeans in battle, repealing the Italian invasion of 1896. Unfortunately the Italians finally succeeded in 1936 and controlled Ethiopia for eleven years. During that time a lot of artifacts were removed and taken back to Rome, with only a few returned. A lot of infrastructure was built though, including 4,500km of roads, railway lines, dams, hydroelectric plants, hospitals, and airports.
Table football appears to be incredibly popular, with seemingly every town or village having at least one table out on the street, always in use. Apparently the games are often played for money.
Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country in the world, converting in 324, only 21 years after Armenia. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has elements of the Jewish faith, such as not eating pork. It has 81 holy books, the 66 books of the Old and New Testament, and 15 extra books common to all orthodox churches. There are three types of cross used, the Aksum cross has four arrows, Gondar cross seven arrows, and the Lalibela cross twelve arrows. You must remove your shoes before going into any church in Ethiopia, and the vast majority of them are round structures, something I’ve not seen anywhere else.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church requires at least 180 fasting days a year, and up to 250 days for the more observant. Fasting means one meal a day and no meat, fat, eggs or milk. On non-fasting days they can make up by buying slices of raw meat cut directly from a cow spread in an unrefrigerated stall, to eat uncooked with sauces. One kg is 400 bir or about USD14.
The Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments, is apparently in Aksum, and replicas of the ark can be found (though access is limited to priests) in all significant churches in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is home to over 100 million people, the second most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria, and is the most populous landlocked country in the world. Imports come through the port in Djibouti, but they add duties, such as a 100% duty on imported cars.
The most common vehicles on the mostly empty roads outside Addis Ababa were tuk-tuks, driving much longer distances than I’d expect to see. Taxis are blue and white or all blue, and were mainly old Russian Ladas in Addis Ababa, and tuk-tuks elsewhere.
People are often found standing in the middle of the road, and usually don’t move until the horn is blown, even where decent pavements in towns exist. Children seem completely oblivious to oncoming traffic, cars have to slow right down assuming that children may run out in front.
Ethiopia is relatively undiscovered by tourism, with peak season (around Christmas) in popular places such as Aksum attracting around 150-200 people a day, though Lalibela is expecting 80-100,000 visitors this year. This is still a contrast from up to 5,000 people a day at Machu Picchu, or the millions of tourists visiting so many countries. It is possible to travel independently but it would be hard work, and English isn’t generally widely spoken. The vast majority of tourists are on guided tours (as I was with Wild Frontiers).
The commonly seen donkeys are tiny, probably due to a lack of decent food sources.
None of the museums I went into in Addis Ababa (other than the Ethnological Museum) or Aksum allowed photography, though there was no issue inside churches. There are some stunning items in some of the museums, and the security appeared pretty minimal, so it’s probably a good thing for them not to publicise the treasures on display.
Over 80% of the country is more than 3,000m above sea level, and much of it is green, in part thanks to extensive tree planting, quite different to the popular image of the droughts and famine in the early 1980s which inspired Live Aid.
Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the world. Coffee originated in southern Ethiopia, and it has the most genetically diverse range of coffee plants in the world. Around 95% of production is by smallholders with less than two hectares of land, and directly and indirectly it supports a quarter of the population. They are huge coffee drinkers, consuming half of what they produce domestically. It is hard work making a cup of coffee though, needing a fire to be built, and beans roasted and ground by hand.
As expected the Internet is mostly terrible, though there was more extensive than expected mobile phone coverage.
Don’t even touch your camera within sight of a checkpoint. We stopped at one and there was a beautiful small shrine close by. My driver said it was fine but as soon as I picked up my camera some rather angry men in uniform came up and demanded to see the camera. They appeared disappointed that I hadn’t taken a photo, perhaps missing an opportunity for a bribe.
The national dish is injera, eaten 2-3 times a day by Ethiopians. It is an unusual flatbread, 50cm wide, made of fermented teff flour, which has the look and texture of carpet underlay. Onto this various sauces, vegetables and meats sit, and you eat it by tearing pieces of the injera off to scoop them up with. It is definitely an acquired taste, which both I and the rest of my group (and apparently the vast majority of other Westerners) failed to acquire…
Everywhere you stop, even in the middle of nowhere, kids will run up and ask for money. It was sad to see seemingly half a village sprint up a hill to surround us within a few seconds of stopping the cars. Thankfully they’re not aggressive, and usually not even that persistent.
I flew Ethiopian five times and found them a good airline, but their onboard announcements might need to be updated. After taking off we were advised that it was now safe to switch on laptops, CD players and calculators! The safety video featured an original GameBoy and advised that while laptops could be used, you couldn’t use attachments such as printers!
There was remarkably little rubbish around, far less than I’ve seen anywhere in South-East Asia or India, though that is an incredibly low bar.
Ethiopia is a very dusty country, most of the group picked up a cough while there.
I saw very few people smoking anywhere in Ethiopia, primarily for religious reasons.
I’d heard of the phrase TIA or “this is Africa” before arriving, but hadn’t realised how often it would apply. It made places like India, Papua New Guinea and Pakistan look organised. Airport transfers confirmed twice weren’t sorted, two of my three internal flights were changed at late notice, meal orders were highly liable to go wrong, flight changes requested six times weren’t actioned, staff got easily distracted and confused, local guides disappeared and were replaced by others on the day, and there were power cuts at Addis Ababa international airport. It is a fascinating, unpredictable, and exhausting place to travel around.