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My interest in Ethiopia must have begun some six years ago when I made my first foray into the country's cuisine at an excellent little eatery in Durham, NC. The very idea of a country where everything was eaten not with forks or spoons, but with pancakes, was a source of endless intrigue for me - why this idea hasn't caught on in the rest of the world (with the exception of Mcdonald's recent addition, the McGriddle) is a mystery to me - it is a scientific certainty that pancakes make everything better (except possibly sauerkraut).

When I read "Three Cups of Tea", a motivating story of how an American mountain climber failed his ascent of K2 and ended up building 500 schools in the mountains of Pakistan, I chose Ethiopia, which is not doing particularly hot on the development front, as a candidate spot to construct my own school. However, being a researcher in computer science, I couldn't very well just take off and spend a year building such a structure, so I concocted a software system that would fit nicely into my research vein and hopefully greatly expedite the collaboration of the necessary players in such projects.

Knowing nothing about construction, I hunted down a professor in the appropriate department and sent her an email with a slew of questions. She responded by introducing me to an NSF-funded research program which would send me to either Kenya or Tanzania to do some sort of construction research and interface with people who could help with my software. A few weeks before the start of summer, I discovered that I, along with four undergraduates from around the country, would be spending 10 weeks in Nairobi working on sustainable water management. I quickly ascertained that I could fly to Ethiopia beforehand for approximately the same price as flying direct to Kenya, and I had soon used the school's credit card to purchase my tickets complete with a 16-day stopover.

As luck would have it, two of my friends (oddly the same ones who I had sent on a half-witted 4-day excursion to Cartagena, Colombia the weekend before) were both leaving on their own trips at exactly the same time from the same airport as me. So we drove to Orlando and parked at a cheap daily lot (one friend would be returning in 3 days and would drive my car home). I took Delta to New York and then onward to Heathrow. The online confirmation page had stated that dinner would be served on both of these flights, but since the first was domestic, "dinner" consisted of my choice of a bag of peanuts or a pack of cookies. On the overnight flight to London, it soon came to my attention that the male flight attendant had the hots for me - he brought me an extra dinner and drinks, and rubbed my shoulder or gave me a hip bump whenever he passed. My usual approach to handling gay advances (which are unfortunately not entirely uncommon for single male travelers) would not apply here, as there was very little room in which to run and hide; furthermore, any sort of verbal rebuttal might endanger future food and drink services. I found myself wishing more than ever that I had found a way to bring Andie along.

Since I was obliged to bring my laptop along in order to do actual work in Kenya, I had planned to spend my 12-hour London layover working on my research. Unfortunately, I soon found that I had packed only the Australian adapter, and so I would instead spend much of the day engaged in an intensive review of Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia - I had audited the course at UF the semester before).

If you were to rank a country's development based on its airplanes, the US would score very low indeed. Kenya, on the other hand, has sparkling new planes with extensive in-seat entertainment systems; in lieu of sleeping, I watched Valkyrie and Benjamin Button and ate some curried lamb and rice.

Anyone who's ever been to an international airport, whether it be in Texas or Bangkok, probably knows about what to expect when stepping off a plane. Nairobi Kenyatta, the hub of East Africa, looks nothing like an airport; with one long narrow hallway lined with souvenir vendors and juice stands, it's a lot closer to a bus station or market than anything you might expect to launch you several thousand meters into the air. Birds of every variety flew about the place as if it were situated in a giant aviary; it seemed no one was making any effort to stop them from perching on the planes. My gate listed at least four destinations, with no indication of timing; depending on which plane I chose upon exiting onto the tarmac, I would that morning arrive in Addis, Djibouti, Harare or Kinshasha; in other words, my odds were 50/50 that I would find myself in a very interesting situation.

Much to my relief, I did board the correct plane and ended up in Addis Ababa (and not the DRC) two hours later. Though the state department urges everyone to obtain a visa in advance, getting one at the airport took about 5 minutes and avoided lots of extra fees and frustrations; at $20 for 60 days, it's definitely one of the cheaper visas in the region.

Day 1 - Addis Ababa

A hassle-free bus ride got me to the city center for a quarter (though I apparently paid twice the going rate). Addis has nearly as many English translations as it has Amharic signs, and most of the important intersections are signposted, but it is still a mess of confusing urban sprawl with no clear center or districts, and I spent the better part of 4 hours hauling around my ridiculously heavy pack. Finding the hotels listed in the book (or any reasonably-priced, non-hourly places to stay, proved practically impossible.

All museums and other points of interest were closed for May Day, so I had to rely on the unlisted attractions. Addis is a town made up of a smattering of nearly modern shops and restaurants, interspersed with very colorful and intriguingly designed shanty towns, and arbitrary wandering can be as rewarding as it can be frustrating. I saw a naked woman standing at the edge of a construction lot; I'm assuming she was a prostitute since she was hardly properly attired for construction work. As I walked along a major road near Addis Ababa University, I suddenly heard a loud growl coming from an adjacent street, and thus stumbled upon a true gem; I found the famed Lion Zoo that Haile Selassie had established half a century ago. It was made up of about twenty lions stuffed into a circular cage. General admission got you to a fence recessed about 10ft from the cages, but an extra birr allowed you to walk right up to the bars. One lion stuck its paw through the bars and swiped at a child as her family posed for a picture.

I tried my first in-country Ethiopian meal for lunch - it consisted of crushed chickpeas, jalapenos and onions and was quite delicious; one challenge with being a lone culinary traveler here is that you're obligated to consume a tablecloth worth of bread with every meal, which insures that you're filled to capacity regardless of the size of the actual dish. The other challenge would hit me about an hour later - even though I had only eaten vegetarian food at a touristy restaurant, traveler's diarrhea reared its ugly head within three hours of my arrival. Strangely, a horde of TP vendors mysteriously appears all over the streets of Addis immediately following lunch, and one birr saw that my needs were met.

It will probably surprise just about all of you to learn that Ethiopia has some of the largest portions in the world. In every country that I'd traveled in up til now, I'd always been able to clean my plate, but here it was consistently impossible for me to finish whatever I ordered. This was ok, because people here believe it is bad luck to finish everything served to you, and so you needn't worry about someone dropping by to chastise you, saying that there are starving children in America you should be thinking about.

There are many pictures to be taken in Addis, but few of them come easy; many of the most vivid scenes are of poverty and may therefore be a sensitive subject for the locals. Most of the remainder are forbidden due to some political or military significance; I had lined up a perfect shot of four children playing soccer next to a rusted tank, before I took note of the guy with his automatic rifle watching me from his tower nearby. After about six hours of wandering, I finally tracked down a hotel and dropped off my load; the staff stuffed my laptop in a crevice beneath the desk, assuring me that no one would bother it for the next two weeks; the odds seemed pretty good that it wouldn't be there when I came back, but I wasn't about to haul it all over the country.

Despite the fact that I was still somewhat full from lunch, I dropped into a place with an Amharic-only menu and got some meat chunks with an ample supply of bread. They turned down the lights to prevent me from actually seeing what I was eating, but I still managed to pick out a small beetle crawling amongst the folds of bread. Unlike with most everywhere else I've been, years of eating at Ethiopian restaurants and a class in written Amharic have made me quite capable of deciphering much of what is likely to show up on a menu, but as in many countries, regardless of what you might read, a restaurant is unlikely to offer more than one or two dishes at a time.

Addis is a perfectly lively place at night; unlike in North Africa, where old men sip tea well into the evening hours, citizens of Addis promptly switch from tea to beer around 6; whether it is the same cafes that serve both, and the same patrons that receive both, I'm not sure, but the switch is quite thorough and precise. I find the Ethiopian schedule somewhat boggling; the locals don't eat dinner til after 7, and they wander the streets in droves all night long, but virtually every long-distance bus in the country leaves at 6 in the morning. I had to call it a night pretty early so as to be ready for my 4am wakeup call.

Think your Y2K was scary? Ethiopia celebrated its millenium seven years late!

One of several grand churches

Somehow I doubt 7up knows what they're sponsoring here...

Poor man's bumper cars

Tasty lunchtime morsels

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Day 2 - Addis to Dessie

I never got a call to alert me to the pending departure of my bus, but I woke up right around 4 regardless. I suspected that I might have been the victim of the peculiar Ethiopian time system where everything is shifted by 6 hours, so perhaps someone would come knocking at my door around 10 (which would be a much more reasonable time to get up anyway). I found a watchman to open the gate and walked half a mile through the dark, and caught a minibus for the last four kilometers. Hordes of hundreds of people streamed off of minibuses and flowed through the chaotic central station where dozens of touts shouted out their destinations, their voices all coalescing into an indecipherable clamor. I found a seat around 4:50, and was soon joined by a German traveler from the same hotel; he had come overland from Kenya and was on his way to transit through Sudan. The bus filled around 5 and began to think about moving around 6:30.

The roads on the outskirts of the city and for about 100km into the countryside were in the midst of an enormous Chinese development project. It would be possible to cruise along newly refinished road for a minute or two, before a line of rocks indicated that it was time to pull off onto the rocky potholed fields to either side. The area was perfectly flat and should have made for rapid progress, but in the first four hours, we had only made it through a tiny portion of the requisite distance. We eventually left the plateau and dove into the western edge of the Great Rift Valley.

It was around this time that we stopped for lunch. I attempted to order vegetables, and the waiter signaled that he understood and brought me a small dish of rice. Sensing my apprehension, he took this away and promptly returned with a plate of injera, piled high with chunks of meat, and a Fanta.

Being a vegetarian can be prohibitively difficult in Ethiopia; the people here generally eat exclusively meat, but switch to vegetables on the fasting days of Wednesday and Friday. No meat at all is to be eaten during Lent, but during the Easter season (when I arrived), even the usual fasting days are eliminated. This would be a source of continual frustration for me, for even though I typically give up my usual vegetarian ways while traveling, a vegetable here and there is still essential for staving off the scurvy.

We passed down into the verdant lowlands and sped among villages of conical straw huts and free-roaming camels. At one point, we heard a loud crash and the bus came to an abrupt halt. It turned out to be a flat tire, so we all got out to meet the village folk while the driver and helper threw on the spare. One enterprising young man used his extensive English vocabulary to engage me in a rather one-sided conversation (I had no idea what he was saying) and about thirty village children gathered around to witness it. These kids were a refreshing change from those in the city; instead of the usual mantras of "money, money, money", or "you, you, you", they all just stared at us in silent bewilderment.

It is generally illegal for buses to run overnight, so all of the longer bus trips simply offload everyone in a town around sundown and take off again at five the next morning. After a fairly excruciating (think three people to a bench seat in a decaying school bus) thirteen hours, we arrived in Dessie and found it to be essentially one big rubble heap. Another huge road project had left it completely incapacitated; makeshift bamboo bridges stretched across construction ditches, and generators powered many of the shops. Most of the hotels were already full when we arrived, so we settled on one with no electricity or running water (and no discount for these limitations).

Feeling a bit under the weather from the bus ride and the pile of meat I had for lunch, I ordered a dinner consisting of a cup of milk (hot with lots of sugar) and a peanut tea (essentially boiling-hot peanut butter).

This Dessie hotel should be 'ambarased' by this entryway.

Day 3 - Dessie to Lalibela

When we got to our bus at 4:45, it was already jam-packed; fortunately, someone helped to push some newcomers out of our seats. The engine started shortly after 5 and the bus skipped along for the next 45 minutes - it would come up to speed, then someone would yell something (perhaps that someone was still on the roof) and we would again come to a stop. On the way out of town, we passed by a spectacular church to rival most in Rome; it had elaborate stonework and shiny silver cupolas, but was not even mentioned in the guidebook; a little further on, two army tanks could be seen breaching the edge of a cliff, forever frozen in an impossible assault.

We passed along a winding road which followed lush mountainsides and looked down on valleys that were amazingly verdant considering that every single riverbed was bone dry. Villagers hiked towards town with bundles of chat (a mild stimulant which is Ethiopia's second largest export after coffee) and other produce. We arrived in Woldia sooner than expected and stopped for breakfast; I shared a pile of meat and tea with a local teacher and tourist guide.

Once the bus got moving again, we headed up the escarpment to what must have been pretty near 4000 meters, and I became acutely aware that I had been at sea level just two days before; luckily, my head didn't explode. The scenery changed to rocky desert and the straw huts to stone. We stopped for lunch around noon, but only a few people got off and I assumed it was a bathroom break; I would only learn the truth when I found after half an hour that we still had yet to move from that spot.

Ten minutes after we started again, we blew a tire (two in one trip!) and so we all got off and sat beneath the scrubs on the barren leeward mountainside. I thought this a good opportunity to take pictures of the dramatic landscapes and frequent straw huts, so I started snapping away, but I failed to realize the man taking a dump in a bush just below my frame; he stood up and turned around to see my camera pointed right at him, and considerable awkwardness ensued as I realized I had no good way to communicate to him that I was not a filthy pervert.

After the second spare had been affixed, we continued along the last few twisty miles to our destination. In one place, we stopped at a village and a horde of rowdy villagers boarded, one armed with a large rifle. The ticket seller had a heated discussion with them for some minutes and they disembarked several hundred meters later. We reached Lalibela around 4 and a tout led myself and the other two foreigners up to the hotel where we had already intended to stay; fortunately for us, he knocked 20 birr off the going rate in his effort to persuade us.

I used the waning daylight hours to make a steep ascent up to 3200m where a monastery had been carved into a cave. It was closed for the day but the views of the surrounding countryside were sufficient to justify the trip. Though I consistently refused anyone who offered guide services, I eventually ended up with three small children leading me up the treacherous path; as much as I am opposed to guides, I probably never would have found the place without them.

I returned to town and had an awesome vegetarian combo platter (for only $1.25) at a tourist-friendly restaurant with some Canadians who had spent the last seven months overlanding through fourteen African countries (they even made it to Timbuktu!) - they confirmed my suspicions that West Africa was just an expensive waste of time with bad food, and that Namibia was awesome. These were just a few of a long string of backpackers I would run across on this trip who were way more hardcore than me.

The second blown tire of the trip

Waiting on repairs

My petite guides lead me up to see Ashetan Maryam

The (locked) door to the monastery.

One of many cave houses in the area

Mountainside hut

View of Lalibela

Day 4 - Lalibela

Ethiopians love Obama; the instant you tell any local that you're from America, they'll tell you just how wonderful your current president is. This is a welcome change from any reactions I had received in my previous eight years of traveling; some travelers who had been in the area for the election, described the experience as being like winning the lottery, an impetus for ridiculous amounts of freebies, discounts, and good will. I had one young Ethiopian show me a picture of the guy that he carried in his wallet, and I was constantly running across businesses, like "Barack Obama Tire and Lube", that had changed their names to honor him - some even before the election results were in.

We were accustomed to getting up at 4 and were therefore quite ready to explore the famed rock churches at the crack of dawn. There were no tourists about at this time, only active services, locked doors, and an utter lack of explanatory signs. We soon found that it was quite difficult to see any of the attractions appropriately, despite having parted with a $20 admission fee. We would try to enter a structure or cross a bridge spanning a 20m-deep chasm and someone would yell at us in Amharic and make incomprehensible hand gestures; we eventually gave up on the first group and headed for the most famous of the town's churches, the cross-shaped Bet Giorgis.

It was no little effort to track down the priest in charge of the place, but we eventually got him to let us in and show us the tapestries. Surrounding the monolithic rock-hewn church, there were a number of small cave dwellings, along with open graves that held some well-preserved mummies.

Nearby in the southeastern group, we scrambled over high rock walls and crawled through long dark tunnels to get from one temple to the next. An entire city had been carved out of solid rock, complete with four massive churches, dozens of houses, and underground thoroughfares guarded by trap doors.

I really don't know how to adequately describe the rock churches of Lalibela, but it is clear that they are a wonder of the world. While they lack any special scenery and typically make for terrible photography, the fun factor of diving in and out of caves, and discovering new chambers at the end of convoluted tunnels and technical climbs, easily puts this up there with the likes of Macchu Picchu, Chichen Itza, and Angkor Wat. Only 20,000 foreign tourists visit the site each year, probably due to the high airfares, absurdly unfriendly overland options, and general poor reputation of Ethiopia, but a ten- or hundred-fold increase would not seem at all unreasonable.

You've probably spotted the ubiquitous images of starving African children with flies all over their faces; contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be starving or African to achieve this look - anyone who walks through Lalibela during the daylight hours will find him/herself with a healthy coat of flies, their little suckers kissing away the moisture from his/her lips and eyeballs.

For lunch I got a combo plate of four veggies and injera, which could have easily filled two or three of me, that set me back all of 60 cents. I tracked down some postcards and fired them off for 18 cents per international stamp, and then turned to the arduous task of finding a ride to Axum.

The subject of transport between Lalibela and Axum is a challenging one. A flight will cost around $130 and the bus would come in at about a tenth of that. While the flight takes around 40 minutes, the bus requires 3 days. There is no public transport on the road that runs directly between the two towns; it is possible to hire a private car for this route, but this only makes sense if you can track down a couple other tourists with which to split the fare. After I had spent some hours trying to piece a solution together, I ran into a group of tourists that explained that Axum was a complete waste of time - so I switched my sights to the Gonder bus leaving the next morning at 5.

I went with some local kids to a distant mountaintop to watch the sunset; this turned out to be the site for a new hotel and some guy showed up to yell at us in Amharic; fortunately, it was pretty easy to play the dumb tourist card. I got some spicy meat at a restaurant in town, which was a poor call, given that I would be getting up 8 hours later and should've probably already been in bed. Some other westerners went out for a meal after that and I joined them to swap stories; while we were there, a young troubadour came in and made fun of us in a witty Amharic song while stroking his one string guitar; the other patrons found this hilarious while we simply sat perplexed.

One of several massive rock-hewn churches

Young ham

Obama is the best thing to happen to the American traveler since... well I guess we've always been hated up until now

Any climber's dream

David, my German friend, at the exit of one of the cave tunnels

Local priest

Inside the cave church

Cave house furnishings

One of the more high-end cave houses (others just had sheets for doors)

Donkeys and neighborhood foosball game

The Saturday market (this picture was not taken on a Saturday)

Modern spin on traditional housing

Classic village housing

Day 5 - Lalibela to Gonder

Had I known what awaited me on the day's buses to Gonder, I would certainly have chosen one of the three options for Axum. We left our motel around 4:40 and hiked down the mountain to the bus station. Here we found three buses going to the highway junction at Gashema, but all of them were stuffed to the brim. Perhaps because Lalibela is more remote than most places, the Ethiopian "everyone needs a seat rule" rule did not seem to apply in this case. I was lucky enough to get one cheek's worth of space on the engine housing, but it was still a most uncomfortable 2-hour ride.

In Gashema, the bus that met us was the bottom of the barrel of 50s school bus technology - at the slightest perturbation in the road, the vehicle would shake violently, and diesel fumes would fill the cabin whenever we slowed (pretty much all the time). A baby with a high fever spent much of the ride crawling all over me. Over the course of the 9-hour ride, we had a single 10-minute lunch stop where I managed to purchase banana cream and glucose biscuits - this would be my sole sustenance for the day.

I am as big a fan of long-distance busses as anyone, but after some 40-odd hours of bumpy contemplation, I've decided I must tell you this: if you ever find yourself in Ethiopia, do not, under any circumstances, take the public busses between distant cities. They are an atrociously slow, painful, and nonsensical way to get around, and using them will very quickly vilify an otherwise beautiful country. If your international flight is with Ethiopian, internal flights are very affordable ($30). If you go with a bunch of other people, a self-drive 4WD rental would be a really fun, reasonably affordable way to tackle the country's fascinating road network.

When we reached the newly paved Bahir Dar-Gonder road, we were greeted by a shiny new short bus. The ride that ensued was heaven compared to anything I had endured thus far; on the way, we passed a huge rock tower which was right up there with Wyoming's Devil's Tower, but had no park, tourists, or climbers to admire its heights; the closest thing it got to appreciation was the prolonged chuckling from the kids next to me over its phallic shape. At a brief stop in one small town, a typical crowd of vendors came racing up to sell the passengers snacks through the windows of the bus - one notable first was a live chicken which was hoisted, kicking and squawking, up to my window; I was not quite hungry enough to clean and cook the beast mid-ride. Just before sunset, we stopped for a bathroom break, and everyone went running for the fields; photographing the multihued sky proved particularly challenging with the obstacle-rich environment.

About thirty minutes into the night, our bus stopped in a seemingly random field. A man boarded and gave a very lengthy explanation in Amharic; everyone then got off, and many prepared to camp right there. Some kid eventually came along and explained that we were actually only 5km outside of town, so we began to walk. We got tired of this after a time, and hopped on a minibus without making any effort to figure out where it was going. We shortly found ourselves out in the country at the Dashen Brewery. From here, there was not much in the way of onward transport, so we eventually negotiated an extremely long tuk-tuk ride to the central piazza.

The whole town was watching a heated match between two British football teams, and the streets and bars were still packed when we arrived at 9:30. One after another, we ruled out every hotel in the book as being either closed or full. A horde of touts led us down dark alleys and dusty side streets to all sorts of disreputable establishments; David ended up at what appeared to be a private home across from a junkyard, where wild-eyed dogs ran around and barked at shadows; I chose a highrise that seemed at least partially abandoned, had no running water, and was apparently at the epicenter of Gonder's raucous party scene.

You become tipped off to the fact that Ethiopia probably isn't the best for your lungs when, after the first day, you snort out a huge glob of pitch-black snot. At least during the dry season, this is likely one of the dustiest countries on earth, and with every step you breathe in more particulate matter than you'd probably get in a day of trouncing around a European city. It is generally a good idea to get out of the cities as quickly as you can.

Most likely a view from where our bus broke down on one occasion or another

Day 6 - Gonder

As of the 2006 guidebook (the latest addition), there were no ATMs in Ethiopia, and nothing on the internet seems to have since refuted that. However, I can now assure you that there are in fact several. While they don't have nearly the presence that they do elsewhere in the world, and are still very susceptible to power failures, software glitches, and the like, you can find one in several spots around Addis, and typically at a single bank in a few of the larger cities. If you plan your withdrawals well, there should never be a reason to go through the Herculean tasks of exchanging a traveler's check or getting a cash advance. Oddly, many shops (often ones which would require a $10 minimum purchase in America) have begun to accept Visa credit cards.

For breakfast, I stopped in at a café to get some ful (chickpeas, butter, spices, and oil), then I checked into a hotel with a working shower. Visiting the city market, I found it to be a stinking mess, with nothing of much interest beyond Obama t-shirts and a mule auction. The city's main attraction is the royal enclosure, which houses plenty of crumbling castle pieces; unfortunately, the star of the show, a tower from which you could see as far as Lake Tana, was closed for renovation. Lunch was at a safari-themed restaurant which had animal furs, statues of bushmen, and a live duck in its lobby; my meal, a huge collection of vegetables and cheeses, probably could've lasted me a whole day, if there were any way to transport the soggy mess that all Ethiopian food becomes once you add topping to injera.

Fasiladas Bath was a bit harder to find; this was one of those instances where the guidebook simply shows an arrow pointing off the map with an estimated distance; presumably it is on you to ask directions and figure out the rest of the route; in this case, a long sequence of such directions led me in a complete loop around the place. The guidebook likened it to Angkor Thom for the trees that grew out of the ancient walls, but besides that aspect, it wasn't overly exciting. Nearby, at the top of a steep mountain, was another castle complex called Kuskuam; even though I showed up smack in the middle of the afternoon opening hours, no one with keys to the place could be found. Clear on the other side of town, Debre Berhan Selassie Church displayed a cool outer façade, as well as an impressive collection of biblical murals inside; I ran into a pair of Englishmen here who had just spent a month traveling around Sudan - they were a rather stoic group, and would only say that "it was different."

I had not had much luck in finding people to go trekking with me; a French couple, which had just spent a year biking through West Africa, was not leaving til the day after and was doing a 10-day trek all the way to Ras Dashen. I collected any information I could about renting gear and what-not, and purchased a enough dry food to carry me through 4-6 days of hiking through the mountains by myself.

I went to dinner with a pair of guys I had met in Lalibela two days before - they had arrived after me because their flight had been cancelled due to high winds. While we ate, a 'musician' came to our table and 'played' very badly, with the tacit understanding that he would not go away until we paid him. Fortunately, his resolve was no match for our own and he eventually moved to the next table empty-handed.

The British guy, Mike, insisted that I take all his cold weather gear with me to the mountains, and while this seemed unnecessary, given that it was extremely hot at the current locale, I consented to bring it just in case.

Fasiladas Castle

Live duck waddling through a restaurant gift shop

Traditional coffee ceremony, music, and diesel generator

Possibly a warning against child marriage, particularly when it involves sketchy fat guys with pointy ears and clown hair

Fasiladas Bath - somewhat Angor Thom-esque

Strange pointy-roofed village


Debre Berhan Selassie Church

104 slightly different cherubic expressions

Day 7 - Simien Mountains, Debark to Buyit Ras

Several people had told me that there would be no problem showing up at 6 and grabbing a bus to Debark - even though every bus I'd caught up until then had involved showing up at the station an hour earlier to get a spot. At 10 minutes til 6, the first bus was already past full; a new bus was branded as Debark-bound and was instantly filled up; myself and three other Americans boarded the third bus just in time to get the last seats, but somehow that bus was reassigned and everyone was forced to get off to be replaced by a new set. We were subsequently informed by several of the touts that there would be no more buses for the day - we later found this to be a lie, but never ascertained the reason for it; at any rate, waiting there provided no guarantee of success since there was a whole slew of locals also waiting who would inevitably find out about a new bus well before we did.

The four of us took tuk-tuks to the north of town to try and hitch a ride. We soon found that no one stopped (not even a Debark bus clearly coming from the bus station) and we soon gave up and returned to the station. Here we once again found nothing so we finally resigned to hiring a private minibus for 500 birr (compared to the 88 it would've cost us all to take a normal bus). The deal we struck was supposed to give us a private charter, but somehow we ended up with two random women, along with a guy who explained that he was only there to open and close the door. The driver had agreed to let us stop and pick up additional fares and keep the proceeds, but the necessary stopping didn't happen in any real sense, and by the end of the trip we had only recovered 30 birr. The typically city-bound minibus did not seem terribly well equipped to handle the country roads, and we were passed by two more Debark-bound buses over the course of the journey. In one intermediate town, both women abruptly began wailing and chanting hysterically behind us; it turned out that a family member had died and they were returning for the funeral.

We got to the park headquarters at 2 and were informed that we had no time to make the necessary preparations that day and begin hiking, and we would have to stay overnight in the dusty little town; this was clearly not an acceptable solution, so we argued that we were in fact extremely fast hikers and could make it to the first camp with daylight to spare. For some reason they believed us and rapidly arranged for our entourage; for the next four days, we would be accompanied by two mules and a driver ($10/day), an armed scout ($4/day), a cook ($7/day), and an English-speaking guide ($12/day) - we would also be renting sleeping bags, tents, and various cooking supplies; I was convinced that all we really needed out of this was the scout and sleeping bags, but the others wanted the full expedition experience.

It was up to the cook to arrange our food and we agreed on a list of way-overpriced vegetables and starches; whether he actually bought those is not clear, but he took our money for them, and would later request more for a whole slew of expensive foreigner-friendly foods such as ramen noodles, baked beans and tomato paste. Despite having supposedly purchased about 20 kilos of food, he would use the pasta, tuna, bread, and other supplies we had brought along for the base of every meal. I would guess he made about $30 in total off this little scam, and probably had enough leftovers to feed himself for a week. He even went so far as to 'sell' us heavily used ropes and sacks to attach this huge compilation of extra crap to the mules - the other guys made an extra effort to keep both of these purchases (or at least set them on fire) at the end of the hike.

We began the hike out of town as the scout ran interference for us and chased off all the local children who sought to ambush us with requests for money and pens; we would repeatedly suggest that he fire a warning shot to scare them off, but this was clearly not in his list of standard duties. He was also none too keen on the idea of letting any of us hold the gun.

Though the initial stretch to Sankaber is not considered part of the park proper and is skipped by most by using a 4WD, the terrain is absolutely spectacular. Huge, dry gullies sweep through rolling hills and curious soil formations provide a rather other-worldly aspect to the scene. Children called to each other and to us from miles away, their small voices foretelling some impending doom. Darkness fell before we reached camp, but a full moon kept us from tripping up too much before we arrived at 7:30. The team went to work setting up our tents, while the other three Americans sipped on cold beers freshly delivered from a nearby village. With a liter of kerosene, our guide had soon set off a roaring plywood fire (they obviously don't have the same guidelines for fire-starting that we abide by in the States). The cook worked for nearly three hours on his masterpiece while we sat starving; the result was tomato paste mixed with ramen soup, along with spaghetti with tomato sauce and a topping of tomatoes - it would have been difficult to imagine a late-night meal that could be more successful at obliterating my sensitive stomach. We had tea and discussed the carnivorous baboons that frequented the caves lying beneath our site; the others went to sleep while I sat down and began the long, difficult process of digestion.

The other three guys were Peace Corps volunteers who had just come off a two-year contract teaching teachers in remote villages in Uganda. They were not the idealism-blinded hippies I had imagined such volunteers to be, but were just a couple of down-to-earth Americans who liked baseball and cheese fries, and had spent the last 24 months without power or running water, using car batteries and solar power to charge their ipods, and slaughtering goats and chickens for their dinners.

Beginning the hike into the Simiens

Our tents were already set up when we arrived - now that's the way camping is supposed to be!

Most of the horses in the area seemed to be in various states of decay

Day 8 - Simien Mountains, Buyit Ras to Geech Camp

We were up at 6:30, ready to eat the breakfast that was to be prepared for us by that time; unfortunately, the cook had been waiting on us to ask us where to find our oatmeal, and he took another hour to prepare a pot of watery porridge (even though it was the instant variety). After our tea and nourishing gruel, we broke camp (where 'we' mostly implies our hired team) and we started hiking along an incredibly scenic escarpment where cliffs dropped over a kilometer to the lush valley below. Troops of Gelada baboons scurried along the cliff edge, alternatively fighting and grooming each other. It was about a 4-hour hike to the Sankabar Camp where we ate our prepared lunch of cabbage, potato, and carrot sandwiches.

We pressed on and covered five more hours of increasingly scenic trail. We spotted several leaping klipspringers (small deer) and bushbacks (slightly larger deer); our efforts to find leopards and rock hyraxes (micro-elephants we liked to call them) were sadly unsuccessful. Along the route, village children attempted to sell us cups made from cow horns, baskets, and rides up the steep inclines on their horses. In the village of Geech, we bought nineteen eggs for the next day's breakfast.

As is pretty typical of these really remote wilderness camping trips, I had acquired a pretty serious stomach ailment and had proceeded to empty everything in my gut into the pit latrines at camp. Around this time, it was getting significantly colder, and I soon found myself missing my once substantial calorie store. Despite the fact that the cook seemed to be preparing something when we arrived, it would be another three hours before dinner was served. We ordered wood for a fire but it was slow in coming, so the four of us bundled together under a single sleeping bag; we listened to an NPR podcast (oddly from Valentines Day 2008) that one of the guys had picked up from a fellow traveler; our guide, seeing this, recommended that we bring our girlfriends along next time.

I was soon approaching hypothermia and left the huddle for the even warmer kitchen. Several of our employees, seeing me shivering, wrapped their blankets around me and started up the fire (they had apparently had the wood for some time now). I had soon recovered a normal body temperature, but the kerosene fumes soon got to me and I retreated to my sleeping bag in the tent. When the dinner bell sounded, I made some effort to get down an extremely salty dish of rice, potatoes, beans, and ramen soup, but soon gave up and went to bed at 7. While I remained nice and toasty throughout the night, the other three (accustomed to the endless summer of Uganda) were a bit on the freezing side; in the morning we would find ice on our tent.

1000m drop from cliff edge to floor

Gelada baboons

Alpha male

Characteristic 'bleeding heart'

Our kindly old (though remarkably bad-ass) scout

One of many sheep attacks we repulsed

Rich and his admirers

View from the toilet (which I became all too familiar with)

Day 9 - Simien Mountains, Geech to Imet Gogo and back to Sankabar

By 7, our cook had prepared scrambled eggs, though the amount seemed a bit short of what our 19 eggs should have provided. We hiked for 2 hours to the seventh highest peak in the range, Imet Gogo, which provided awesome views of the surrounding peaks and features, in spite of the heavy fog. From there, we hiked back to Geech Campground and retraced our steps toward Sankabar. We made it to our campsite by 2:30 and found that our tents were already set up and the tea was prepared. The French cyclists I had met a few days prior, were now coming from the other direction and had set up camp next to ours (though they lacked our extensive staff and had to erect their own tent and prepare their tea themselves). A pair of tourists, most likely American, who wore shorts and neon-green backpacks, walked up, looked around for 20 minutes, and then took a hired 4WD back to Gonder.

There wasn't a whole lot to do around camp. One of the guys committed the sacrilege of using the camp's cold shower to wash off some of his accumulated grime. We again gathered around the IPod speakers for "This American Life" and awaited the completion of the painfully slow cooking process. Around 5PM, two buses stacked high with mattresses pulled up to the camp and unloaded around 60 college students. Within minutes, a massive tent city was built; two sheep and a goat were brought in for the slaughter, and a massive bonfire was prepared. This was a group of tourism students from Gonder University; one of them wore a Gators sweatshirt, and I let out a rousing "Go Gators" in his direction, but I received no response, and no further attempts were made at communication between the two groups. Luckily they made less noise then we'd expected and the tranquility of the spot was only partially spoiled.

For dinner we feasted on pasta, cabbage, potatoes, spinach, and minestrone soup. We even had enough leftover to share with the French couple who would be living off bread and pasta for the next nine days. Our shifty cook had sold the other guys 17 beers, promising that the bottles would be 9 birr a piece, but when it came time to pay, he ramped the price up to 15 each, and a vicious argument ensued - this was of course made all the more interesting by the fact that we were battling with the man who would be preparing our breakfast and lunch the next day. The French pair used our guide to communicate with their team, and soon found much to their concern, that their group had no idea where they were going or how long they'd be out.

When we had rented our equipment, the outfitter had made a point of setting up the tents for our review. I had looked them over and told them that the zipper was broken on one; they hadn't quite leapt into action to resolve this at the time. When the final evening of the trip arrived, our zipper had fallen off entirely, so we slept with the door wide open. Luckily, we made it through the night sans any encounters with hyenas or man-eating baboons.

Me and the guide near the summit of Imet Gogo


The frat kids descend...

Day 10 - Sankabar to Debark and back to Gonder

The tour buses cranked up around 6 while we ate our oatmeal and pancakes. It was a rather uneventful final 20km to round out our 100km trek and we arrived at Debark just after 1. I bid farewell to the Peace Corps guys (they were taking off for Axum, then Somaliland, Djibouti, and Yemen), tipped the guide, muleman, and scout (but not the cook!), and jumped on the first bus back to Gonder. This particular bus smelled strongly of vomit and other miscellaneous scents, but likely did not come close to the delightful odor I had built up over the previous 4 days.

An English teacher from a college prep school sat next to me; he was soon being transferred to a new school some charity had constructed inside the park. I quizzed him on the status of education in the country, and found that there was indeed a need for many new schools, but there was probably an even greater need for new teachers, as well as for a fundamental shift in the priorities and lifestyle of the local peoples. He spent some time lecturing me on Greek drama, the works of Homer, Virgil, and Petrarch, and the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. He also told me that a sheep in the mountains is typically sold for $1-2, and not the $15-20 for which one was offered to us. He cleared up several mysteries of the Ethiopian bus ride, namely that the bus takes so long to move after filling because the ticket seller must debate the correct cost for intermediate destinations with a number of people who would much prefer to ride for free. When we were stopped at a traffic checkpoint for 20 minutes, he explained that the driver was in the process of negotiating a bribe with the cop to avoid a hefty fine for having too many passengers.

I checked into the same hotel where I had stayed 4 nights before; upon looking in the mirror, I discovered how truly grotesque I had become, and immediately set about the practically unprecedented task of washing my clothes in-transit.

Day 11 - Bahir Dar, Blue Nile Falls

I got an early start and walked out into the foggy darkness. I had no sooner reached the piazza, when a minibus came speeding up with a man leaning out yelling "Bahir Dar"; I yelled back, the passenger door was flung open, and I was inside - I'm fairly sure the thing never came to a full stop. From there, the bus sped towards its destination, collecting anyone who happened to be out on the streets at that hour. My front seat would have been ideal, since I didn't have to put up with the constant flow of passengers crunching in and out, but my seatbelt didn't work and we were barreling at top speed through nearly impenetrable fog - I was prepared to end up on the asphalt pending our first encounter with an inopportunely placed cow.

We got to Bahir Dar around 9 and I got a typical breakfast of egg tibs, bread and avocado juice. The town is composed of a grid of palm-lined boulevards that lend it a structure quite set apart from any other cities in the region; however, the rigors of Ethiopian life are gradually destroying this neatly assembled package, and it seems only a matter of time before the whole place is reduced to the dust and rubble you see elsewhere. I had come across very few bikes on the trip thus far, but here they are the way to get around, and you see just as many bike commuters as tuk-tuks cruising down the broad streets.

The city is much more compact and organized than the capital, and would be an excellent place to relax if it were not for one (quite literally) fatal flaw - Bahir Dar is below 2000m and thus has malarial mosquitoes - lots of them. The primary breeding ground for these seemed to be the communal toilet in my hotel; I found myself pressed to leave the place, if only to be able to relieve myself without fear of contracting a life-threatening illness. It wouldn't be such an issue if I were on some sort of prophylaxis, but I had sworn off Doxycycline a few years back after it had burned a hole in my esophagus, and I was trying my best to avoid falling back on Larium, colloquially known by many as 'the crazy pill'. I went to a pharmacy to inquire about options and receive a batch of choloroquine - I had been under the impression that this was completely ineffective in Africa, but the list of side effects wasn't too bad, so I decided to give it a shot regardless.

I went to the tourist office to inquire about bike rental places, and ended up getting one employee's personal bike for 3 birr/hour. I sped down to the Blue Nile bridge to see some of the hippos and crocodiles said to frequent that space, but the weather was still far too bleak for afternoon sunning. With the help of a local, I biked out of town and up a mountain to see the views from the palace of Haile Selassie; parts of the ride were quite lovely with lots of flowering trees and vibrantly colored birds, but it ended with a brutal uphill slog that (quite predictably) offered no views through the fog.

I returned to my hotel for lunch; as usual none of the vegetarian options on the menu were available, so I settled for something with fish - I would look up this dish shortly after ordering and discover that it could be roughly translated to 'spicy fish guts' - and that's more or less what I got.

The highlight of any trip to Bahir Dar is supposedly a boat trip to see the island monasteries of Lake Tana, so I went down to the dock to try to arrange something along these lines; a tout led me to and fro along the lakeside promenade, explaining all the while that he had two groups lined up and I could join either one of them. Neither group materialized, and the search ended with an attempt to get me to rent a whole boat myself.

I decided to postpone the boat trip til the next day and head for the famed Blue Nile Falls instead. I went to the bus station and grabbed the tenth unofficial seat on the rickety old bus bound for the tiny village of Tis Isat. I had read in the guidebook that the last bus back left at 3:30, and I would miss that by a wide margin, but the book also mentioned that it was an easy matter to hitch back. However, it soon became apparent that the place was the inconsequential endpoint of a seldom-used road, and I was shortly doing the calculations on what it would take to hike the 32km back to town starting two hours before dusk.

Arriving in the village, the ticket window was easy to find; the actual falls were not. Like everywhere else in Ethiopia, these falls are completely devoid of any signage, English or otherwise. I think this is meant to drive up the demand for guides, but it is a real nuisance for those of us firmly dedicated to independent travel. Following a goat path, I eventually found the overlook; the falls were really quite impressive despite being sapped of most of their grandeur by a recent hydroelectric project. I narrowly missed the dry crossing of the Alata River, and ended up wading across, wondering all the while what strange worms resided in the foul-smelling waters. Going to the base of the falls, I spotted a lone monkey scampering along the dramatic cliff face.

Returning to the main trail, I had the good fortune of coming across a gang of wealthy city folk who volunteered the backseat of their 4WD for the trip back into town - I was even invited to join some of them for a boat trip the following morning.

For dinner, I stopped in at five restaurants and inquired about vegetarian food, before settling on a dish which was essentially injera soaked in beef gravy with a large bone in the middle. At my hotel, I set up my mosquito net and patiently waited for the massive wedding party situated 5ft from my door in the hotel courtyard to burn itself out.

In every corner of the world I've visited up until now, I've always been able to occupy idle hours and keep in touch with the outside world by using cheap, fast internet. For years, I have been able to duck into any internet café in virtually any remote locale, whether I was in South America or Southeast Asia, Fiji or Northern Africa, and surf the web just as I would do at home. It seems Sub-Saharan Africa is truly the last frontier in the quest to bring broadband to every last man, woman, and child on the planet. While there are certainly internet cafes around, they mostly rely on dial-up, and you're typically quite lucky if you can average a page load every five minutes. But even this tiny trickle is inevitably unavailable before 5PM. For this paltry allowance, you can expect to pay $1.50 - $6 an hour, depending on location. Lalibela and Axum have truly abysmal connections for the highest prices; the capital and larger cities are cheaper but offer little in the way of speed improvements. Oddly enough, the only decent connection I ever found was in the town of Dessie, where the vast majority of shops had no power or running water, and the streets were nothing more than barely navigable piles of rubble.

Portuguese bridge

Not nearly what it used to be, but still worth the trip

Tour boats on Lake Tana

Primitive kayak

Day 12 - Bahir Dar, Island Monasteries

I had arranged to meet the city folk from the day before at 7 near the dock, but they didn't show and I was soon snatched up by the touts who claimed they had a group leaving at 8. This turned out to be my group, but rather than being allowed to just pay my share of the boat, I was charged a highly arbitrary $9 (probably double the correct value of my seat), and what was worse, shortly after we were under way, I discovered that we would be going to about half as many places and using half the engine power as had been promised.

We cruised out into the fog and were soon in the middle of a vast sea with no sight of land on any side. After a time, we arrived at the first island monastery which had many very impressive murals on its internal walls. Moving to a nearby island, we found that its ancient church was closed for renovation (though I still had to pay the $3 admission fee); the exterior, however, was quite impressive and an English-speaking priest showed us a small museum housing a collection of manuscripts and paintings. For some reason, the Ethiopians have always made it a point to print all religious texts on goat skin - one particularly large tome required 161 goats!

Next, we floated over to the outlet to the Blue Nile. Here, we walked through an unusually lush corridor of coffee and banana plants to see the monastery of Debre Maryam. I was fed up with entrance fees by this time, so I stayed outside. We returned across the lake, I exchanged email addresses with the group, and we parted ways.

The next minibus was not until 8 that night, so I had some time to kill. I went to a clinic to check out a possible strep throat; the secretary spoke little English, but charged me a 20 birr check-up fee and rushed me into a doctor; he did a 10-second examination, informed me that they didn't do strep tests and gave me a prescription for the necessary antibiotics.

The city market was a larger, slightly more organized version of those I'd seen previously. Markets in Ethiopia seem to be remarkably squalid affairs - blocks of vendors, interspersed with avenues filled with trash and filth, sell all manner of fruits, grains, and vegetables from towels and baskets. Other sections sell a small selection of consumer goods such as sandals, jerry cans, and stoves made from old US relief tins.

The minibus departed promptly at 8 but circled town a couple of times to collect packages before finally hitting the road an hour later. The ride was horrendously uncomfortable; not only did the seats not recline, but they seemed to lean a bit forward, and there were two men seated where my leg room should have been. Contrary to what I had been led to believe, much of the road to Addis was still unsurfaced and fairly thoroughly potholed. At 5 the next morning, we arrived just up the street from my previous hotel.

Scenes adorning the walls of one island monastery

Herod killing the children

This is supposedly so the monks can avoid temptation, but I've seen what really goes on behind this gate...

Ancient musical instrument

Goatskin manuscript

The outlet of the Blue Nile

The Bahir Dar market (one of the cleanest and most orderly)

Days 13-16 - Addis Ababa

There was clearly much of the country I had yet to visit, namely the southern, western, and eastern quadrants of a place roughly twice the size of Texas. I was pretty sure, however, that my spine and patience would not survive any more 12-hour bus rides, so I resolved to stay in the capital and get some work done. This proved more difficult than I had hoped, as my only working environment was a very dark and dingy room that reeked of mildew, and high-speed internet was nonexistent, or at least very difficult to find.

I spent the first day visiting some of the museums that had been closed on my earlier visit to the city. The Ethnology Museum, situated in the center of the extensive campus of Addis Ababa University, offered lots of interesting crafts and paintings. The campus itself had all the trappings and activity of a typical western campus but everything was a good deal grungier. Nearby, the National Museum showcased the bones of Lucy, and had an extensive exhibition on early man and bizarre prehistoric creatures. Just down the street from that was the Natural History Museum which had some pickled animals in jars and an overstuffed leopard. I visited the city's extensive souvenir district and picked up a collection that would for once necessitate that I actually check a bag on my upcoming flight.

It almost looked as if I might spend much of Thursday working, but then around noon the power went out. So I took off for the Merkato, widely held to be the biggest market district in Sub-Saharan Africa. The place was massive, and as in the medinas of Morocco, you could find absolutely anything you could imagine, but finding any one particular thing proved to be near impossible; for example, I never managed to track down the camel auction or the recycled tire craft aisle. Further wanderings throughout the town confirmed my suspicions that the city was downright terrible for walking, and my lungs soon ached from the constant onslaught of black fumes.

When I returned to my hotel around 5, the maintenance men seemed convinced that they had tracked the power outage to my room (even though it seemed to be a citywide outage) - they went in with a candle and some electrical tools and fiddled with the wiring for a bit; this valiant effort ended only when one of them attempted to hold the candle up to a ceiling light and dropped hot wax on his face. Most of the town's lights, including those in the majority of the hotel would come back on that night, but those in my room never did.

One thing that would appear to separate Addis from just about any other city on earth, is that there seems to be a remarkably flat price structure. Sure, there are a couple ritzy hotels, including the Sheraton that will rent you a villa for $8000/night, but beyond an opulent room, there is little opportunity for the rich to strut their stuff. To illustrate this point, I got dinner at the ultra-touristy Addis Ababa restaurant, which is housed in a palatial circular building filled with antique furniture and traditional handicrafts; I ordered a meal that consisted of six different meat and vegetable dishes (I probably got through about half of each), and was accompanied by a traditional coffee ceremony; the whole experience with 25% tax and tip set me back about $3.50. After my meal, some guy invited me over to his group's table for a glass of honey wine; this stuff was very sweet and quite tasty as wines go, but a tiny amount rendered me rather useless for the rest of the evening.

Never having visited anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa before, I couldn't help feeling that there was something terribly wrong with Addis. It's a city of 3 million, and the political and economic hub for one of the most populous countries on Earth; it's even spent many years under a free, democratic government, but I would likely feel better connected in a remote village in the Andes than in the busiest sections of this sprawling burg. Something is weird about a city of this size where most of the businesses run generators for half the day. It follows none of the conventions that might tie it into the world as a whole. There is no McDonalds or Starbucks (though I did see one Starbacks), or air-conditioned shopping malls, or any glimmer of familiarity that you come to expect to be present in at least some corner of every major city. It is truly a world set apart.

On Friday I woke to find the whole hotel once again without electricity, and upon inquiring into it, discovered that the whole section of the city where I stayed was routinely without power on Fridays. With no chance of getting any work done, I set out to find a couple churches and a newly created national park just north of town. The hike into the Entoto Mountains was a fun trudge uphill, with panoramic views of the smog-drenched city, but the churches at the top were expensive and nothing new or exciting. The Entoto Mountains National Park did not seem to exist in any real form, or was at least situated in such a way that no one knew the first thing about it. There were plenty of semi-inhabited forest lands that had a slew of random trails to provide a temporary reprieve from the smog, so I explored these for a bit before returning to the piazza district.

Finding (as expected) that my hotel was still without power, I decided I would try to rough it for two nights at the airport. I packed up all my belongings and took a series of minibuses to the international terminal. The place was buzzing as a large staff vacuumed and mopped the floor again and again; there was only one set of chairs for departing passengers, and I doubted that my continued presence there would go unchallenged for long. I sat and worked for some six hours straight, not wanting to move and lose my highly coveted outlet seat; while I did so, I noted a peculiar number of white couples with black babies checking in for flights to the west; apparently Ethiopia is among today's hot destinations for orphan acquisition.

My plan had been to talk to the Kenya Airways officials around 1am and attempt to get a standby spot on the 4am flight to Nairobi (24 hours prior to the one I had a ticket for). What I soon realized, as the departure board moved further into the future, was that there was no such flight; by this time, it was too late to grab a bus to the nearest hotel, so I had no choice but to rough it. Around 9:30 I found a spot on the floor in the corner of the room; Bole International has the fewest announcements of any airport, and after warming up a small section of tile, I had no problem falling sound asleep. About 10 minutes after I had done so, an official came over and yelled "Hey you, wake up!" and similar things until I groggily sat up; he asked me what flight I was on, and expressed no surprise when I told him; he told me to stay where I was. I soon drifted back to sleep, and an hour later another guy prodded me awake, asking "Are you sleeping?" I responded to this as reasonably as I could; he, like the other guy, had no issues with me sleeping there, but was just intrigued that I had in fact chosen to sleep there. Neither one seemed to realize the negative correlation between his waking me and my ability to sleep. Around 1, I secured a bench and managed a few hours sans interruption.

I began to feel much like that guy who attempted to live as long as he could in a Walmart Supercenter, except my self-appointed prison was a single barren room with no food or water. I had enough peanuts and injera to last me the duration, but my 2L water bottle was starting to run dry; I had no choice but to leave. The street that runs past the airport, quite separate from anywhere else in the city, has become the domain of western-style consumerism, and is home to mini-malls, big supermarkets, and every variety of international cuisine. I stocked up on water and cookies, had an omelet for breakfast, checked my email, and went through the way-too-intense-for-the-checkin-lounge security checkpoint a second time.

I was first in line when the checkin finally opened for my flight around 1:30. The guy at the desk rejected my burlap sack full of souvenirs, and I had to get the guys at the wrapping service to package it better. They charged me $1 to stick my sack in a box they dug out of the garbage and wrap the whole mess in tape. The flight took off around 4 and I got into Nairobi by 6AM; I was considerably dazed from a lack of sleep and the general intensity of Ethiopian travel, but still I was ready to begin the next, considerably longer phase of my African adventure...

Clearly no one's informed this jubilant cow-goat beast of its imminent extinction

Considering it's only been a year since the Ethiopian Millenium, the National Museum might have managed a little better upkeep on this icon

The ibex we failed to see in the Simien Mountains (much easier to spot at the Natural History museum)

Way more food than I could ever eat in one sitting


Food: Street food is virtually nonexistent; you can pick up oranges, mangos, pastries, samosas or cookies, but the variety of savory snacks and meals you encounter in most of the developing world just aren't sold here. There are plenty of restaurants that have tasty meat and bread dishes at virtually any time of day, but seeking out vegetables is truly an exercise in futility. Thick fruit juices, such as avocado and mango, typically lack the sweetness or cool refreshing quality we look for here, but they're certainly a good dose of light, fruity goodness when you're sick of meat.
Transport: Unless you fly from city to city (hugely recommended where possible), a large chunk of your time in-country will be spent on rickety old buses. On many routes there are apparently executive services which are faster and more comfortable that should be sought out if your schedule allows.
Hotels: At least at the budget end of the spectrum, these tend to be dingy holes with very interesting bathrooms. There are a handful that are good value.
Attractions: There are a ton of monumental and highly historical sights in Ethiopia, as well as plenty of truly amazing scenery, and lots of neat cultural aspects dispersed across a slew of unique tribes. The Ethiopian traveling experience isn't for everyone, but if you have several weeks to spend, companions to keep you sane, a stomach made of iron, and a backside to endure all punishment, a true treasure trove awaits you.


Food: A plate of injera and meat/vegetables will usually cost around $1. Drinks such as tea and coffee are about 15 cents, pastries run around 15-30 cents and a glass of juice is almost always 45-55 cents.
Sleeping: Depending on the location (and very rarely on quality), you can find a nearly decent room with bath for $1-10
Admission fees: The prices for churches, museums, and other monuments vary wildly, but usually start at $1 and can run as high as $10.
Transport: City buses cost about 5-10 cents depending on distance. Intercity buses are typically around 50 cents an hour; minibuses and executive services run about twice that. Plane flights can be as low as $30 if you came in with Ethiopian Airlines.
Total (17 days): $338