Ethiopia, a small detour from the Middle East

Besides being one of Africa’s largest countries, second only to Algeria I think, Ethiopia was also a complete diversion to my Arabic/Muslim themed journey. Filled with Orthodox churches and a very active Christian community, Jewish Ethiopians also consider themselves ‘Beta’ Israel. I was confronted with an unfamiliar language and an undecipherable alphabet; I felt like I had crossed a new frontier into an unknown world, yet thrilled to be in Africa again. Each corner of Ethiopia had a different Africa – the far east is filled with Somali Muslims, the south to West with big mountains and big game animal parks, the northwest bridging into Sudanese desert plains, the Egyptian influenced north, and the northeast blocking out their most familiar African brothers in Eritrea. There were highlands, lowlands, active volcanoes and lakes, making even the climate different in each area. I woke up my first morning in Ethiopia to the sound of birds singing and opened my eyes to a tree filled with purple flowers, the first time in a long time that either had happened.

Blue Nile Falls

Blue Nile Falls

I could easily have spent 3 months just traveling in Ethiopia, and still I’m not sure I could have reached all those places. The distances between spaces are never ending, and filled with little villages in between to stop and visit, so one could make dozens of destinations out of every journey and I’m not sure where the road could end. Its possible to travel in circles or take a different route back, and public transport and hitchhiking are cheap and easy… but very slow. English was less common, Arabic useful only close to Somalia, and the Amharic language was difficult to absorb, especially in written form. I managed to finally memorize ‘thanks,’ the 6 syllable word ‘amasakanalo,’ and a few numbers, but charades got me a lot further.

a lone papyrus boat fishing on Lake Tana

a lone papyrus boat fishing on Lake Tana

My travel route was from Wajaale, on the Somaliland border, to Jigjiga, the capital of the Somali speaking province in the east, and onto Harar, considered by some the 4th most holy city in Islam. It has a walled old town filled with windy pedestrian alleys, and strangely enough a high concentration of pubs and Harar beer consumption. The local tourist attractions include feeding wild hyenas after sunset and visiting the livestock/camel market where locals expect you to pay an entrance unless you’re really there to buy a goat or something. I met a handful of other travelers there, who always seemed to be coming from or going to the same places, and the degrees of separation between me and Ethiopian couchsurfers or even a traveler I met in Jordan was never more than one.

the Holy Trinity Orthodox cathedral in Addis

the Holy Trinity Orthodox cathedral in Addis

I traveled some days with a Belgian woman named Debbie, and together we left Harar and visited the little village of Hirna, where a Canadian raised Ethiopian Somali girl greeted us in perfect English. We carried onto Awash Saba and shared our hotel with another traveler from France, who hitchhiked a semi-truck with us to Adama. I carried onto Addis where I couchsurfed with a French guy from Cote d’Ivoire who liked to Salsa dance, and managed to get a visa from both the Sudanese and Saudi Arabian embassies.

hand feeding hyenas

hand feeding hyenas

To go south seemed a little unsafe and the north seemed too far away, so I went to Lake Tana in the mid-west of Ethiopia. Bahir Dar wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped, but a boat tour on the hippo-filled lake to some island monasteries was a highlight. On the northside of the lake was the car-less, chicken-filled village of Gorgora, where a Dutch woman has opened the most serene, idyllic tourist retreat called Tim and Kim village. I ‘camped’ there by tying my hammock in some trees before carrying onto nearby Gondar. It was a lovely, hill-perched town, with a UNESCO site of six castles, and my gateway to the Sudan border. It was tempting to stay a little longer in Ethiopia, carry onto the more touristy places in Axum or Lalibella, but its also nice to save something for next time, especially since I was smart enough to get a multi-entry Ethiopian visa.

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