January 2-3, 2009
On January 2nd we finally flew to Ethiopia, arriving at the capital: Addis Ababa.
For the first time since the beginning of the trip, the immigration people in Addis asked to see our immunization cards; they wanted to make sure we have yellow fever vaccination. Pnina had her original card, but I (genius that I am) forgot mine at home so I only had a copy. Luckily they didn’t too much of a fuss.
We paid our $20 visa fee and we were on our way through a surprisingly nice airport.
Exiting the airport we were surprised to discover that it was cold outside, about 62 Farenheit. The airport is at an altitude of over 7500 feet, and it’s one of the lowest places in the city. We had this impression that Ethiopia is flat and parched, but it’s actually one of the most mountenous countries in the region. This was just one of many things that surprised us about Ethiopia. It was the most different country we encountered since the beginning of the trip.
Money in Ethiopia
Before entering the country we were warned by several people that (as with Rwanda), Ethiopian ATM’s don’t accept foreign cards. It turns out that this may not be true – we later heard that the fancy Sheraton hotel in Addis has an ATM that takes foreign cards, and that there’s one bank company that also may work. But we never found out for sure because, to be on the safe side, we showed up in Ethiopia with enough dollars in our pockets to last our 3 weeks there (we hoped). We got all this cash by withdrawing Shillings in Tanzania and exchanging them for dollars – not the most efficient way to go but the best option in our circumstance.
The local currency in Ethiopia is Birr, pronounced like the sound you make when you’re cold. The exchange rate at the moment is roughly 10 Birr for $1, which made it easy to keep track of how much we were spending. We noticed a funny thing about the exchange rates, though. At the airport the bank used 9.9 and 10.1 as their buy/sell exchange rates – sounds reasonable, they take a 2% margin. But later that day we were driving in a taxi and the driver asked us if we wanted to exchange some money because he can give us a good rate. “What’s your rate?” we asked. And he said: 10.8! This means that you can make money by exchanging dollars for Birr with this taxi driver (10.8:1), then head to the bank to exchange back to dollars (10.1:1), and repeat. Each loop gains you 7%. Money for nothing! We asked him how he can afford to give such a good rate and he said that the banks don’t offer enough dollars to local businesses, so they go to the black market to get them at higher rates. Hmm, still doesn’t make sense to me. But whatever, at least we got a good exchange rate from the taxi driver.
Ethiopia turned out to be the cheapest country so far in our trip. It only cost $5-$10 to get our own hotel room with private bathroom. We could eat filling sit-down meals for $3-$6. Even entrance tickets to all the attractions were surprisingly low. All of this changes if you go off the beaten track, though. There are a few remote locations in Ethiopia that are shockingly expensive to visit; we ended up skipping them (more on that later).
Whacked Out Dates and Times
Ethiopia has a completely different system of dates. Their calendar has 13 months. The first 12 have exactly 30 days and the last one has either 5 days or 6 days (same as our leap year February). The first month of the year is in the Fall (September’ish). Oh, and the year is currently 2001.
So the calendar is pretty weird but it’s somewhat understandable. Jews and Muslims also use a different calendar (a lunar calendar). Of course, most people in Israel (for example) tend to use the Gregorian calendar for day-to-day business, and refer to the lunar calendar just to figure out when the next holiday comes. But OK, Ethiopians prefer to just use their calendar for everything.
But the Ethiopian system of time keeping is really different. Like most western countries, Ethiopians divide the day into two sets of 12 hours, with each hour having minutes and seconds. The difference is that one set of 12 hours is for daytime and the other set is for nighttime. In other words, Ethiopians use 12 to refer to the time we call “6 AM”. What we call “7 AM” they call 1. Likewise “6 PM” is 12 and “7 PM” is 1. As far as we can tell they don’t use an AM/PM designation. I guess you just call it “day” or “night”.
So if you look at a timezone calculator online, you’d expect that Ethiopia’s time will be roughly the same as Kenya’s, plus or minus one. But Ethiopia’s official time is actually 6 hours off Kenya’s. So weird!
During our time in Ethiopia, whenever we bought a bus ticket or anything else that involved times, we had to make sure to ask whether the time was “Ethiopian” or “European”.
Other Odds & Ends about Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a very old society. Nobody is sure where the name comes from, but one of the oldest references is in Homer’s famous books: The Odyssey and the Iliad. The word means “land of burned faces”, which sounds like a knock but is not intended as such – The Greeks considered the Ethiopians very beautiful. They also drew a distinction between “black” skin and “burned” skin, a distinction that seems to exist today. The country and the people also go by some other names: Abasha and Abyssinia.
Ethiopia was never colonized like most other African countries. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I suspect that this is due as much to Ethiopia’s military/deplomatic strength as it does to it’s lack of resources. Ethiopia just doesn’t have the diamond/gold/oil/etc that you find in many other African countries.
Besides the non-colonial history, Ethiopians are also proud of their star marathon runner: Haile Gebrselassie. He basically dominates the world of long-distance running. He’s broken 26 world records and won so many titles. While we were in Ethiopia he picked up another win in Europe.
There was a short span of time (1935 – 1941) when Italy, under Mussolini, took control of Ethiopia (I guess not long enough to be considered a true colonial power). When Italy was defeated by the Allied forces in WW II they were forced to relinquish control of the country. Still, in just these 6 years the Italians managed to leave a legacy that persists today. Many towns in Ethiopia have a “piazza”. Ethiopians use “ciao” to say good bye. And it’s easy to get fantastic macchiatos in coffee shops around the country for about $0.25 (as long as the town has power, else they can’t turn on the machine to froth the milk):
Ethiopia has 80 official languages and many more dialects, but the common language is Amharic. We found it a difficult language to learn (though maybe we didn’t try hard enough). For example, the word for “thank you” is “amaseginalo”. That’s 6 syllables just to say thank you! We can’t think of any language that makes such a basic phrase so complicated (“arigato” in Japanese is the closest we could think of).
Much stranger, though, is the way Ethiopians go about saying “yes” / “u-huh”. To do this they open their eyes wide and take a quick breath – same thing that a westerner might do if he was shocked to see or hear something. The first time we experienced this it was very jarring. Our inclination was to ask the local “are you OK?” / “is something wrong?” It took us a while to get over this.
Infrastructure in Ethiopia is pretty bad. The roads in Addis are well paved, but you don’t have to go very far from the city before you hit the bumpy dirt roads that fill the country. As a result it takes an eternity to travel fairly short distances. To Ethiopia’s credit, it looks like they are doing something about it – most of the roads we traveled were undergoing construction. In many cases the construction was kind of obnoxious – instead of working on just one little stretch of the road, there were road crews opearting on various stretches, so that we were never completely past the construction zone. We imagine that in 5-10 years, when all this construction work is done, Ethiopia will be a very different place to travel – much quicker and less painful. But for now it’s slow going. Interestingly enough, nearly all the road construction is being done by Chinese crews! (more on that later)
The electricity grid is not keeping up with the population, so many towns have daily power outages; power is off throughout the day, it comes on around 9 PM (to much applause throughout the town), and it goes off again sometime in the morning.
And internet was abysmal. Addis had a few internet cafes with “broadband”, but it was slow (apparently some communication line in the ocean was severed; this affected the internet throughout east Africa). Outside Addis we generally found either dial-up connections or nothing at all.
Couchsurfing with Solomon
Since we had such a good experience couchsurfing twice before (in Cape Town and in Nairobi), we decided to give it another go. We got a hold of Solomon, a couchsurfer in Addis, and we met him soon after arriving in Ethiopia. Solomon has a fairly small place and, as it turned out, he already had another couchsurfer at his place (an English guy, Alex), so we didn’t actually couch-surf with Solomon. But he helped us find a decent cheap hotel in the piazza (Baro Hotel) and we met up with him a few times while in Addis.
Solomon had some kind of technician job at a tire plant, but he left it recently because the money was no good and the smell wasn’t either. He now does all kinds of freelance work – helping tourists arrange rental cars, helping Ethiopians find jobs outside the country, and so on.
Solomon lives a bit outside the city center, in an area called Temenja Yaj. Next to his place there’s a popping bar called Beemnet, which became our hangout while in Addis. Here we are with some of Solomon’s friends the night we arrived (which happened to be Solomon’s birthday!).
Abraham the Scammer
Solomon had to visit the local Egyptian embassy – he was helping some women find nanny jobs in Cairo – so he took off.
Pnina and I started walking around Addis and soon another local guy, Abraham, came up and introduced himself. He said he’s on holiday break with not much to do, so he’d enjoy spending time with us. We agreed. It was lunch time so we went into a restaurant and let Abraham do the ordering.
More on the food later.
Lunch was good. While we ate Abraham taught us all kinds of stuff about Ethiopian culture. Incidentally he said that he is an Ethiopian Jew (called Falasha), that his mother is in Tel Aviv, and that he’s planning to move there sometime soon. Cool. Anyhow, in exchange for teaching us what he did, we picked up the tab for lunch and also for some drinks we got at a nearby coffee shop.
After lunch Pnina and I planned to head to the bus station to pick up tickets for our ride north to Lalibela, and then walk around and look at some interesting sights in the city. Abraham wanted to join us. We said OK, but just to be clear we said that we don’t want a guide so he’s free to walk with us as a friend but we will not pay him guide fees. Soon after we made this comment, he started talking about the fact that he’s currently taking classes to be a guide and he has a test coming up soon, and there’s this book he needs to do well on his exam – would we consider helping his education by getting him the book? How much is the book? About $25. Pnina and I looked at each other. From what we’d seen in Addis so far, $25 is quite a lot of money. But what do we know? Even back home University books can be crazy expensive. And if we’re going to give philanthropic money, it’s nice to do it for education. When we steppd out of the coffee shop we asked where was the bookshop – we figured we’d rather give him a book than money. But Abraham said that the bookshop is quite far. What to do? Abraham said that there are some book stands in the nearby market, and it’s possible that they have the book he needs. So we walked there. When we approached the book stand Pnina and I immediately grew suspicious because Abraham abviously knew the seller – they hugged each other. At this point we learned that actually it’s not one book but two, though the combined price was about the same ($24). We got a bad feeling about the whole thing so we begged off saying we’ll think about it and maybe get him the book later (without specifying how we would go about finding him).
We left with kind of a rotten feeling because we didn’t really know whether he was trying to scam us or not. Maybe he’s a decent guy just trying to get through school. If so, that makes us assholes for the way we teased him into thinking we would get him the book only to renig at the last second.
Coming back from the bus station, we happened to pass by a row of book stands in another part of Addis. For shits and giggles, we decided to try to find these books and inquire about the price. We found one of them. How much? $2!! And I’m sure this $2 was itself jacked up for tourists. OK, so now we didn’t feel so bad about our decision.
Sometime later we met three travelers at our hotel: Veronica and Yindra from the Check Republic, and Alex from Switzerland. Turns out all three just arrived that day, and they also ran into a local guy (different guy) who is in school and needs help getting some books.
The thing is – even after all this, we’re still not sure if it was a scam or not, but we’re pretty sure it was. When considering whether to donate money or not, I’m plagued by this feeling that it’s better to be an asshole than to be a sucker. At the same time, we heard so much criticism from people working through large charity organizations about all the beaurocracy, that it seems like the best kind of aid is one you do directly to somebody in need, without all the middle-men. These thoughts kept coming back to us during our trip.
Food in Ethiopia
Small aside about Ethiopian food. I mentioned before that so far on the trip we’d been fairly disappointed with African food (the main exception being Zanzibar, where the food was great). But we had high hopes for Ethiopia because we’d been to Ethiopian restaurants in the states (e.g. at Queen Sheeba). I loved all the Ethiopian food I’ve had; Pnina can do without the sour injera breat, but she generally likes the toppings.
So how did actual Ethiopian food compare? It was pretty similar. Unless you asked specifically, you always got injera with stuff on it.
Of the stuff that goes on top, the thing most often offered was “tibs”, which is basically chopped meat. We found that most often it was goat meat and it wasn’t particularly seasoned (at times it even had leftover animal hair, which was awesome). But in a few occasions it was cooked on fire and very tasty. In some cases it came with a red sauce that was very good.
Overall, we found that we liked the vegetarian food better. This usually goes by the name “fasting food”, because it’s the stuff Ethiopians eat in the days leading up to Christmas, when they are not allowed to eat meat. Often it was hard to find fasting food; I guess Ethiopians don’t understand why we’d want to eat veggie if there’s meat available.
One veggie dish that was pretty unversally available is shiro. It basically tastes like vegetarian chilly. You can get it with injera, or just as easily you can get it with bread. This became a staple of our meals.
Because of the Italian influence, we also found spaghetti and pizza everywhere, but really wasn’t anything special.
The one thing that definitely was special: mango juice. Mmmm. It was awesome. You could get a fresh glass of mango juice for $0.50-$1 in most towns. I can’t remember how many glasses we had.
St George Cathedral
Before leaving Addis, we only ended up seeing one site – the St. George Cathedral.
Ethiopia has some Muslim regions (to the east, bordering Somalia/Djibuti) and some areas with tribal beliefs in the south. But the core of the country (the part that Pnina and I visited) is Christian. Ethiopians have their own flavor of Christianity, Orthodox and traditional. It’s very different from the Christianity we’ve seen in other parts of the world.
In our time in Ethiopia we saw just how religious Ethiopians are. This was just our first taste, and already we saw strange things. For example, locals would walk around the octagonal church, praying in front of each wall, each time kneeling and putting their forehead to the ground. It looked much more like Islam than Christianity.
Near the church there was a small museum displaying the garments and other parephenelia that priests wear during ceremonies. The most impressive item was a huge bell outside the museum.
Culture of Begging
Traveling in Ethiopia you encounter a lot of begging. In Addis many of the beggars are truly disabled in some way. Outside of Addis we found locals asking us for stuff everywhere we went, in particular children. They generally don’t know much English, but they know enough to say “Birr”, “hellomoney”, “hellopen”, “hellotrousers”, and so on. We even ran into a security officer at an airport who, upon seeing that Pnina’s bag contained a few pens, asked her for one; and this was a man with a proper job. WTF? We don’t doubt that these people are poor, but we saw people in other African countries who were just as poor and we never saw this level of constant “give-me” nags. It’s just a difference in culture. In Ethiopia it’s considered OK to ask for hand outs, while in other countries begging is disgraceful.
In some places we found kids who wanted our empty water bottles to use as containers, and we were happy to oblige. The kids would ask for the bottles by saying “plastic” or “Highland”. The latter was confusing; it sounded like they wanted an “island” and we had no clue why or how to give them one. It turns out that the first big brand of bottled water in Ethiopia is called Highland.