Ethiopia: The Good, The Bad, And A Lot Of Ugly

“You are late. Hurry up,” an unknown man intoned. My face scrunched up. I was an hour and forty-five minute early for my short domestic flight in Ethiopia: Lalibela to Addis Ababa. How was I late? And who was this guy?

The Airline

He grabbed my bag and dragged it over to the singular counter. The non-uniformed, badge-less man checked my bag and printed me a ticket. He mumbled the plane had arrived early, and Ethiopian Airlines decided to depart an hour earlier than the stated time at this bus-like terminal.

Ethiopian Airlines - Ethiopia

I scurried over to security. It took me ten minutes to cross this gauntlet. After the fifth time of setting the metal detector alarm, my frustration grew. “Now, take off your eyeglasses.” The security official ordered. My face scrunched up in wonderment for a second time. “You want me to take off my plastic eyeglasses?”   This was already after I took off my plastic watch, sneakers, socks, and belt and emptied my pocket of my wallet, tissue, pen, and printed itinerary. I finally made it through.

Besides arbitrarily changing the times of their flight, Ethiopian Airlines also irritated with unannounced stops. A direct flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa might actually make two additional stops on the direct flight. It felt like the local bus.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, has a modern international terminal and an adjacent domestic terminal. Oddly, a handful of international flights leave from the domestic terminal. Even more bizarre, is that some international flights also arrive at the domestic airport. As I exited the plane at the domestic terminal, I realized my flight that I picked up in Dira Dawa (Ethiopia) had initiated in Djibouti (a neighboring country). It was then incumbent upon the passenger to either exit directly or to pass through immigration. What country would allow for visitors to choose whether to get their passport stamped?

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Also, disturbing is the ShebaMiles Lounge, the executive lounge for Ethiopian Airlines, in the domestic terminal. A singular rat darted by me as I entered in the lounge. The Wi-Fi did not work. The ShebaMiles Lounge offered desktops with internet access. I was unsuccessful in logging in with an illegible password.

Sheba Lounge

ShebaMiles Lounge (rat not pictured)

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Can you decipher this?

On the plus side, Ethiopian Airlines which has a monopoly on domestic routes offers sub $100 fares, making it economical to skip the brutal buses.

Ethiopia in my mind held a mystical spot. Rock-carved churches. Ancient walled cities. Majestic panoramas. Ancient Christian Orthodox Culture. Unfortunately, my two week experience was degraded over a number of different factors.

The Tour Operator

It started with an unprofessional and incompetent tour operator. Several days prior to my arrival while traveling in another country; he informed me did not accept credit cards or Paypal. He asked that I bring US dollars to pay for my trip. After I shared with him I was unable to bring that much cash he settled on Western Union (high fees to me) which was settled to his private account, not a corporate account. Seemed shady. I had been dealing with him for a couple of months, but he was unable to articulate his payment policy until days before my arrival. Also, he was not able to share with me the tipping policy of his country. And sadly, he was unable to articulate the posse (see my article on trekking) that would accompany me on my trek to the Simien Mountains. Engaging the services of a travel professional I would have hoped he would have been able to add some value to my trip instead of detracting. I recommend you do not use this company, Blue Sky Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa

The more I read, the greater my expectations grew. And the more I was to be disappointed. I touched down in the sprawling capital of Addis Ababa. After walking for hours I realized the city’s economy is defined by banana sellers and shoe shiners. Every corner is consumed by these men pushing their wares. Ethiopia is a very poor country with a per capita income of around $1000 a year.

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The poverty shows transparently. It manifests itself through the fabricated interactions with the locals. Most of my interactions fall into one of two categories. The first is an uninspiring variation of “give me money”. The second is a variation of “I am and English student, do you mind if I walk with you and practice my English?” The creativity here is whether the “student” asks for money after five minutes or ten minutes. Other fun times with the natives include: a stone throwing incident, being chased by a mentally ill man for ten minutes as the locals watched and laughed, and my favorite an attempted, day light strong arm mugging by two teenagers.  The final insult was being chased out of a national monument by a “tour guide” after refusing to provide a bribe.

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Mafia “tour guides” ran me out of here!

Afterwards, I stood on the adjacent sidewalk taking photos of the monument, as he continued screaming for his money. On the plus side, the cappuccino is amazing.  It was formerly occupied by Italy.  Welcome to AA!

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Couldn’t drink enough of these, average price 50 cents

One dollar approximately equals 20 Ethiopian Birr. A common refrain from the taxi drivers is 300 Birr! I would be able to bargain it down, but many of these drivers were still demanding 100 or 200 Birr. I was a bit perplexed in many other developing countries I was paying $1-$3 a ride. Why did these ancient, uncomfortable Soviet Ladas demand such a premium?

There is no metro in Addis Ababa and the city is spread out. One on trip to a church I negotiated a fare of 80 Birr. Upon finishing my visit I decided to go back to my hotel. I approached the line of taxis. I was met with a chorus of 300 Birr. I calmly responded with 80 Birr the cost of my trip to the destination. My potential suitor offered 200 Birr and again I responded with 80 Birr. He refused.

I started walking. The taxi driver in his Lada slowly chased me in reverse as I walked down the street. The window was rolled down and he repeatedly yelled out 100 Birr as I steadily progressed toward my hotel. This exercise took place for over a kilometer as I refused any verbal exchange.

It was a matter of principal. I knew the fair value of the ride: 80 Birr. And instead of overpaying by 20 Birr (just one dollar) I leisurely walked back to my hotel, over an hour away.

Lalibela

Oh, Lalibela. What a disappointment. This fabled ancient town of subterranean, hand carved churches. King/Saint Lalibela recreated his vision of Jerusalem by attempting to recreate the holy city in Ethiopia. The rock churches are said to be organized similar to the layout of Jerusalem during King Lalibela’s visit to the holy land. The 11 churches organized into three groups believed to be carved from the 12th to 13th century.

This UNESCO site is a magical place. Unfortunately, the vision of perfection has been sullied with incongruous protective roofs. I understand the need to protect these historical gems, but these roofs detract from the visual magic.

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These roofs ruined the spectacular visuals

The saving grace is of the eleven churches, one is still left in its natural state, St George. I spent dawn sitting at ground level, watching the sun rise over the sunken church as the worshipers clad in white chanted.

St George

St George

St George

The other ten churches separated in two groups are hideously covered with the roofs. I lacklusterly grabbed my camera to take shots of the churches. Attempting to angle the lens to avoid the overhang. I found myself returning to St George a second and a third time. This church captured my expectations and rewarded me every visit.

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Harar

The ancient walled city of Harar epitomizes a traveler’s dream. Charge your camera battery, leave your map at home, and tuck in your hotel’s business card to show to a taxi driver at the end of the day. Harar does not possess that must-see landmark, but is an atmospheric wonderland. Every alley and side street is potentially enchanting. Harar squeezes 40,000 people into one square km. This former trading town connected the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula. This town dates back to the 7th century and contains over 80 mosques. Unfortunately, there is another but. The residents of this compact area were relentless in their harassment. There was no blending in the background. No watching time lazily pass by. A non-stop carousel of demands for money, come to my shop, buy this, do that, or yelling at you for holding a camera. I found myself lounging in a mediocre café called Fresh Touch eating equally mediocre margarita pizza, but I was safe from the hordes.

I rallied, and decide to enter Harar one more time. I felt like a quitter, I decided to hire a guide at the least who could run interference for me. So often, in a foreign land, I love to simply wander, get lost, and discover. But I just did not have the heart for it in Harar. Teddy, my guide, had creepily followed me from the first hotel I stayed in (and then checked out of) and mysteriously appeared lounging in the lobby of my new hotel. Teddy did an able job of both showing me the nooks and crannies as well as keeping the populace in check. It was a much more rewarding experience.

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The twisty streets of the walled city

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Eyes bigger than his tummy!

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There is one other reason to come to Harar. The evening hyena feeding. Past dusk at two designated areas in Harar, you can view wild hyenas being fed by some of the locals. Hyenas and Harar have had a symbiotic relationship for over 500 years. Hyenas would sneak into the walled city, not to snack on children, but to devour the animal remnants outside of butcher shops. Around 60 years ago, a local family began feeding the hyenas on a regular basis. These hyena whisperers (now passed onto following generations) began as a cottage industry.   Ethiopians began to gather to watch these feedings, as the whisperer draped meat out his mouth for the hyenas to munch on. Eventually, the foreign tourists caught on and began to attend as well.

My rickshaw driver picked me up at my hotel and darted through the labyrinthine of Harar to find the feeding area. The lone headlight of the rickshaw illuminated the site. Besides myself, the only other tourist was an Ethiopian couple. The hyena whisperer appeared with a basket. My ticket immediately doubled in price when he noticed I was the sole foreign tourist. Newly announced camera fee.

Three sets of glowing eyes shined in the beam of the rickshaw. Three hyenas sauntered, approaching the whisperer. Their powerful necks and shoulders combined with its bone crushing jaw created unease. At least for me. The whisperer squatted, and hung raw meat from his mouth. The hyenas paraded over to grab the morsels. I stood a mere ten feet away and politely declined the opportunity to feed the hyenas. Not on my bucket list.

After several minutes, the feeding ended. The whisperer grabbed his basket. The hyenas slipped back into darkness.

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Don’t do this at home!

Check out trekking in the Simien Mountains, the roof of Africa!

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10 thoughts on “Ethiopia: The Good, The Bad, And A Lot Of Ugly

  1. Cherri Megasko

    How wonderful! Ethiopia is on my travel list. We went to Kenya last December and loved it so much I suspect we’ll be sending a lot more time in Africa once we retire. Beautiful photographs!

    Reply
  2. Frank

    Good read – sounds a lot rougher than I would have expected, especially the people. I can’t stand having people constantly trying to rip you off as the ‘stupid foreigner’. Gets really old fast.
    On the other hand an interesting adventure off the beaten track. I’ve seen the hyena feeding on a show somehwere before and for sure something I wouldn’t do.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    Reply
  3. Gugulethu

    Lovely article. I’m in Harar now about to see the hyena men. I hope that they won’t charge me a ridiculous fee. After Harar, I’m heading to Lalibela

    Reply
    1. Ric Gazarian Post author

      I hope you get see the Hyena men …. if memory serves me correctly, it is only $5. But it is worth seeing.

      Lalibela has one amazing church, the others are disappointing with the roofing they installed to protect the sites.

      Reply

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