Ethiopia Part V: Journey to the Center of the Earth – The Danakil Depression


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Camel train in the Danakil

Our four day/three-night trip to one of the most inhospitable areas of the globe was very weird.   And not necessarily for the reasons that I was expecting.

I was expecting it to be really hot and dusty.  I was expecting to see weird rock formations, bubbling pools of sulphuric acid and geysers.  I was expecting to sleep out rough under the stars and smell really bad by the end of the trip.  I was expecting long hours of driving in the car observing tiny villages of the Afar people who somehow manage to live a nomadic existence drifting from place to place in this arid, harsh, landscape.

Cool Rock formations in the Danakil

But those weren’t really the weirder aspects of the trip for me.

The weirdest part of the trip was the large group that we were traveling in – and the group dynamics that arose as a result.  It impacted my impression of almost every activity we participated in – and made a jaunt into the rock pools to see multi-colored geological phenomenon feel more like a trip to the mall in Shanghai than an expedition to one of the lowest points on the planet.

Our group consisted of about 40 persons, of which about 30 were a large group of Chinese tourists, who seemed to all know one another, though I never actually ascertained for sure whether or not this was true.

Quatchi poses on the salt flats

Mike walks through the salt lakes

I would like to think of myself as a very open and unbiased person.  I certainly do not consider myself to be racist.  I do not wish to offend any of my readers by stating this – so I will reserve my observations to be solely about the individual group of people that I spent this time in the Ethiopian desert with.  But I came to truly dislike the behaviors of these individuals, and it proved difficult by the end to separate my feelings about the Danakil and the sites we were witnessing with my feelings at how this group would act in the space.

First, other than the lovely two individuals from Shanghai that Mike and I shared our 4X4 with – the group of Chinese pretty much kept to themselves and didn’t engage in conversation with any of us “outsiders”.  They were obsessed with taking selfies and spent hours and hours getting the perfect photos of themselves at each and every site of interest.  Boyfriends would patiently acquiesce to their woman’s request for hundreds of pictures at different angles, with and without sunglasses, with and without certain expressions, standing facing to the right or to the left, with and without a flash, and any and all possible variations in between.

Since we had armed security with us (there is a real threat of Eritrean terrorism as the Danakil is very close to the border that is still disputed, and tourists have been targets in the past) – some of the Chinese would “borrow” their guns and spend hours taking photos holding the guns in a mind numbing array of different poses and set ups.

Chillin’ on the roof of our 4×4 with Mike

I found it both entertaining and nauseating to watch.

Then came the photo editing and the obligatory “whitening” of pictures by the women who are obsessed with being as pale as humanly possible – to the point where some of the girls looked like ghosts – and would not consider spending any time out in this inhospitable environment without perfect makeup which including lots of whitening foundation and powder.  To avoid the horrific possibility of sun ever touching their skin – they would all be dressed in multiple layers including down vests – even when the temperature hovered around 40 degrees centigrade.

Many of their group smoked and they never failed to drop their cigarette butts wherever it suited them.  On our hike to the summit of the Erta Ale volcano – which happened in the dark, late evening in the eeriest and most atmospheric of times – the Chinese group were selfish enough to be BLASTING music from their phones as loud as possible spoiling any of the 40 or so of us hiking from the possibility of enjoying a quiet moment of peace while hiking the mountain.

Sunset at the Salt Lakes

Aside from the fascinating human observation opportunities this provided – the geography of the region we were visiting was quite vivid – I still think it paled slightly in comparison to Yellowstone, Death Valley, and the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni,  though it was interestingly a cool combination of all 3.

I enjoyed the chance to walk through the salt laden lakes and see my feet crunching on the beautiful crystallized salt as the sun was setting on our first evening.  That kind of vast emptiness has a haunting quality unique unto itself.  Seeing our 8 4×4’s driving side by side on this highway-less terrain was crazy and quite unnerving whenever our driver pointed out that he wasn’t quite sure of the direction we were supposed to be heading in (with an endless horizon, it is super easy to get turned around and navigation skills are crucial.)

Folks in our group pose for pics

Our car was the lucky one to get stuck in the salt mud and had to get help as our spinning tires were just sinking us ever further into the mire.  Eventually, the large group of arguing Ethiopian guides and drivers figured out how to secure a wench to the back of our car and pulled it free – leaving it to us to scream at the Chinese group taking photos that they might wanna take 30 or so steps back to avoid getting their heads knocked clean off if anything were to go wrong and the cable snapped during the dangerous operation.

My vision of sleeping in a desert wilderness sans tent with just the stars for light was not to be.  The camp in Hamedela was slapped right next to a Potash factory that had massive artificial spotlights that kept the entire camp illuminated throughout the night, much to my disappointment.  The guides set out our hammock-like “cots” in rows, somehow wrongly believing that we must all want to sleep in tight proximity with one another rather than to spread out and experience the wilderness.

Getting stuck

Food was served en masse and it was a free for all and you had to take what you could or end up hungry – especially since there were no chances to obtain snacks and we’d sometimes go six or seven hours between meals.

Our guides left much to be desired also and I found myself completely switched off most of the time they were talking anyways.  The first one barely spoke English, though I really loved his reference to how the following day we would be driving 15 minutes between one site and the next “water bubbly.”   Everything we stopped to see we did as a large group which gave one the feeling of being part of a herd of cattle.  During our time at the geysers, rock pools, and multi-colored acidic rock – we were often led walking directly over the highly toxic and dangerous ground and I got yelled at for taking a safer more indirect route – by the guards with the guns!  I couldn’t believe that they would let tourists trample all over this fragile and geologically thin/exposed/volcanic and potentially explosive/corrosive ground without regard to its preservation or to our safety.

It was infuriating, even though the natural wonders themselves were incredible.

Our camp beds

In the middle of Day two, we visited a working salt mine that was complete with hundreds of workers hacking away at the ground to produce rectangular shapes of rock salt that they would then affix to hundreds of camels who would carry it over hundreds of miles to and from market.  It really was quite a sight to see and it looked like incredibly arduous work done over long stretches of time in the blaring sun and heat.

Ironically, everywhere we went, we would see salt in its many forms, but there was never salt served with our meals.  I’d point this out – but I think as I mentioned before – irony and sarcasm is somewhat lost on Africans.

Remains of a not so lucky donkey that drank salt water

We had a very long drive to our mid-way point on day two – which was going to take us back on the road to Mekele to a town that was on the way to our destination for day three – the Erta Ale Volcano where we might hopefully see molten red lava at night while we camped on its summit.

Though our itinerary stated we’d be camping for 3 nights – we apparently were going to be staying on mattresses in three rooms in a private house that had been arranged for us in the small town of Abala.  When our car arrived, our guide explained that there really wasn’t room for us in the assigned rooms and that we could either sleep on the floor of our hosts’ living room – or we could drive back to Mekele for the night and they would cover the cost of a hotel room.  It was altogether very confusing – it appeared that they’d overbooked the place by several individuals, and the idea of sharing one bathroom and one shower with 39 individuals was not in the least appealing.

Multi colored pools on day 2

Colorful volcanic rock

Mini Geyser

Mike suggested that perhaps they might cover the cost of a room in a local hotel in town – and we were happy when they agreed to this suggestion.  Strangely, our two car companions opted to stay with the group while Mike and I got our own room about half a kilometer up the road with our own private shower.  We high-fived; feeling that we had definitely scored.

It rained that night for the second time during our whole trip and Mike and I made our way back to our room after a rather yummy fasting meal with the soft patter of raindrops and the exhortations of kids begging for candy all the way to our room where we thankfully fell asleep, grateful for our luxurious privacy.

Highway to nowhere

One of the other main issues on this trip that spoiled my enjoyment of it was the lack of hygiene and basic sanitation.  On our first and last camps – despite the fact that hundreds of tourists stay here every single week during the visiting season – there were no pit toilets or facilities of any kind.  Not being given any sort of instruction – folks would just take a shit anywhere they took a fancy, very often just strewing their toilet paper along with it.  It was absolutely disgusting.  Peeing in the bush is one thing – but having human excrement building up over years and years right next to where Afar villages were trying to live life and raise their herds of animals is unacceptably gross.   Not only that, but no water was provided for us to wash our hands prior to mealtimes.  Luckily, we had a very kind and thoughtful driver who would bring us a gerry can and soap for our car when Mike and I would insist on washing our hands.

On the third day we drove over seven long hours to reach the volcano.  Much of this was over very rocky and non-paved terrain that was as good an African massage as any we’d experienced on this trip.  We spent long hours waiting for everything that day – to leave Abala in the am, to get lunch, to leave on the climb for the summit.  Then, as we were climbing to the summit of Erta Ale along with many many other groups of a similar size to ours, all of a sudden they decided to march us at such a pace that it was impossible to pee or rest along the way.  It took all of four hours to get to the summit and we were only given 3-5 minutes breaks ever hour and a half.  It was crazy to be herded at that kind of pace when we had been waiting and waiting all day long.  I didn’t understand the reason for it – but I can only assume that ETT is given a certain “window” in which to climb and have a time for “viewing” of the lava before they have to clear out and make room for other groups.

Camels at the salt digging site

With this herd mentality and the blaring of music along the way, I can’t say I enjoyed this mountain experience since it was anything but.  In addition, there was trash all along the way – thousands of discarded plastic bottles along with toilet paper and cigarette butts lining the path all the way to the summit.  Which, unfortunately, was obscured with high winds and steam – so you could see a really eerie red glow – but not any lava.

We were finally getting into our sleeping bags around midnight, and were expected to get up to have another viewing opportunity at 4:30am.  Clearly this segment of the trip was badly organized as I need more sleep than that to function properly – not to mention it was 11 kms each way to ascend and descend.  I skipped the ass-raping crack of dawn call and tried to get another hour of sleep before we were forced to march down the mountain single file following our brave gun-toting military scouts.


Red glow from Erta Ale

I could easily have skipped this part of the trip.  Seeing the lava would have been just amazing – but I felt like I was hiking a large garbage dump on a poorly organized multi-school trip where you had an uncomfortable sleepless night and had to take a shit where thousands had before you, out in the open for all to see in a massive area covered in human excrement for the past 17 years.

By the time we arrived back in Mekele, I was falling down from exhaustion and beyond ready for a shower, a decent meal, and clean sheets.  I was also waiting to hear from a friend in Accra who was potentially going to be available for me to hang out with for my last week in Africa.  After the Danakil, I really had seen all I wanted to see in Ethiopia and I was so done with the people here and their attitudes (as I described in my first article about this country).  Unfortunately, my friend was not going to be able to have me visit – so Mike joined me as I drank 3 Gin and Tonics before we ordered a rather delicious pizza and righteously passed out.

The next day was going to be a day of rest, no doubt about it!


Ethiopia Part IV: Tigray – where Churches are the Cherry not the Cake


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Views over Tigray

We had only driven out of Axum for about 90 minutes – I was laying spread out across one of the bench seats, taking advantage of our massive luxurious van for just the two of us – when Mike told me to get up and look out of the window.  This is what I saw.

Scenery right out of Axum

The geography in this area of Ethiopia is astounding.  A huge pink and orange rock escarpment with towering sandstone cliffs and mountains that are reminiscent of Utah, Arizona’s Monument Valley, North Western Australia and Namibia to mention a few similar places.  This is all just wonderful – BUT!  They sold me this trip to see CHURCHES??????!!!!

It blows my mind that the tour company who markets this particular route only focuses on the historic churches that we would get to see.  No mention is made of the views, or the trekking opportunities.  All that was said was that a few of the churches on day two required a little bit of clambering to get to.  This was a huge understatement, both in scope and in practical terms.

Mike ascending the vertical wall at Debre Damo

I had agreed to make our first stop the monastery of Debre Damo – which only allowed for male visitors.  In fact, the monks only allowed male cows, chickens, donkeys and any other livestock they needed for their purposes to be provided for their day to day needs.  I’m guessing female cows would be just too much of a powerful temptation for them, living all alone at the top of a monolithic mountain?

The fun part of visiting this monastery is that it involved a near vertical 15 m rock climb where the priest assists the person climbing via a rope around the waist.  Mike is a little afraid of heights, so I was super proud of him for wanting to give this a go.  Plus, I wanted everything documented on camera in case something funny or super embarrassing happened to him on the way up or down.

Fortunately for me, I got both.

Enjoy this wonderful video footage of Mike being aided down the rock, and toward the end, not even being allowed to place his feet to steady himself:

After a nice lunch, our next stop was located at the end of another stunning drive through the magnificent countryside, and according to the guidebook, one of the most scenic roads in the country.  There was a complex of 3 churches called the Teka Tesray cluster, but we’d been advised to just visit the most beautiful – Medhane Alem.  As we approached the trailhead (because, yes, you have to hike to each of these churches as they’ve been built literally into the rock/mountain) we were swarmed by a bunch of kids wanting to make some quick birr to show us the way.  We chose one competent looking enough chap and we made our way through the late afternoon sun up the steep sandstone cliffs to the church – which was about 30 minutes away.

Beautiful Medhane Alem

What made this particular location a little unique was that we were surrounded by a beautiful variety of cacti, eucalyptus trees, and green, rolling hills.  It reminded me of a fragrant late afternoon in Tuscany – except without the olive trees.  We entered the gated entrance with its standard issue crowd of elderly shawled folk who seemed to “live” at the church and beg for money.  We were told to remove our shoes and make our way through the dirty and rocky garden area leading to the white rock-hewn church – and I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t just let us remove our shoes at the doorway – thereby ensuring we didn’t bring the dirt and dust inside the church with us.  I asked this of our guide and was informed that the rocky path was already “holy land” which appeared to be more important than whether or not it was clean.

Artwork inside Medhane Alem

The inside of this 6th century church was very cool and carved out in one giant piece, consisting of 4 inter connected rooms containing mosaics, remnants of religious artwork depicting the angels and the apostles, and of course, the holy of holies that contained a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, in line with Ethiopian Orthodox teachings.

As usual, the outside and surrounding scenery was more fascinating to me than the inside of the church, where it was hard for me to not be preoccupied with how old the carpet was and how many thousands of dirty feet had walked here since it was last replaced.

Having said that, the feat of work this represented and the age of the church itself was pretty staggering.  I think when you’re dealing with architecture this ancient, it is really hard for a layman to determine the actual talent that may or may not be involved in its creation, based purely on its age.

As with many of these very very old churches – the guides often claimed that the only explanation for their creation at a time when technology was so limited was that they were made with the assistance of the angels.  These explanations are given entirely with a straight face, I might add.

Making our way back to the van as the sun was setting was rather magical and I managed to get some nice sunset shots.  Why is it we never tire of a beautiful sunset?

Pretty sunset as we descend from Medhane Alem

That night we stayed in a small town called Hawzen.  It took visiting four hotels before Mike and I found one with an available room that had hot water in the bathroom – the Habesha Hotel.  We soon headed out in search of a restaurant our driver had recommended, and when we did finally find it – it turned out it was only serving fasting food.  It’s funny to me how excited the restaurant staff are to tell us that their menu doesn’t contain any dairy, meat or animal fat of any kind – but it’s clearly because they don’t realize that hearing such news is an instant disappointment for me.

I settled on ordering some vegetable soup and beer.  And eating some rice off of Mike’s plate, of course.

Our second day in Tigray was definitely the highlight.  This is in spite of the horrendous hassle we had to overcome in locating a scout for each of the two churches we hiked to – you can read about the first instant in my former post here.  Despite this, it was easily my favorite day of the entire trip – perhaps since the scenery, degree of difficulty, and the steep ledges we had to scramble over to reach these churches built on top of mountains was altogether unexpected.

Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia

Our first visit was to a church called Abuna Yemal, which, funnily enough – was featured in a BBC article about the priest having what was claimed the “most difficult commute in the world.”  The route was a tough scramble, possibly a technical enough route that a harness and rope would be called for were it in the States – but I certainly enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came from trying to find foot and hand holds (and doing so in the midst of yelling at the bunch of super annoying men, dressed in SUITS I might add, to shut the hell up as they threw out constant muttered directives of how and where I should climb, assuming I was a complete idiot who’d never scrambled before.)

Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal

I was, however, filled with more than adrenaline when one of these douche bags (who expect tips even though you never asked for help, in fact, when you had actively told them to go away multiple times) actually down climbed right over the top of me and stood on my hand.  I screamed at him, in a terrified rage, for committing the ultimate rock climbing faux pas – though I’m not sure he really gave a shit.

It did end up being totally worth it – and the views from the teeny tiny ledge that led to the church were stupendous.  Hopefully you can get some idea from these pictures.

Sitting on a ledge near the church

Again, the church was a nice cherry to find at the top of this climb, but the journey was reward enough in itself.

This first church was about 3 hours return, and it was well past lunchtime by the time we got back to the van.  I cursed not having known about the number of hours we’d be hiking today, and I cursed our guides/drivers for not telling us to pack a lunch with us to help fuel us for the afternoon’s venture out to Maryam Kokor – which was going to take us another 3 arduous hours to climb and return from.  Luckily, Mike had some chocolate in his pack and Sneetchi gave us some bananas…so we managed fairly well despite our outputs.  It’s just that this was clearly not the first time this company had brought tourists to these places – so why can’t they advise this ahead of time?  SMH.

Not so happy priest at Abuna Yemal with ancient text inscribed on goat skin

The approach to Maryam Kokor was very different, as was our lovely and QUIET scout whom our driver had been kind enough to arrange for us to have after the nightmare we’d experienced at Abuna Yemal.  There were sections of tunnel-like through paths of rocks with giant sandstone walls rising up either side of us.  Then there were sections where we had to clamber on hands and feet on well-trodden and eroded “steps” up the pink cliffs.

Views were out of this world and I include some pictures here.

There were two small churches to visit at the top of the mountain, and the first had separate entrances for men and women.  It looked rather like Medhane Alem inside, though the artwork was far better preserved.  The second much smaller church had just one room with a mural going in a circle across all four walls – but we had to navigate a narrow ledge where the wind threatened to pick us up and throw us up and over the edge where we’d fall several thousand feet to the valley below.  I include some pictures and videos of this exhilarating hike here.

Hanging out on ledges

I felt extremely satisfied and physically spent by the time we made it back to the van.  Here is a link to the video:  Not just that – I was rather hungry, but we opted to grab avocado smoothies and make our way to Mekele since it was already 4:30pm in the afternoon – and we would be leaving for our 4 day/3-night trip to the Danakil Depression the very next day – and probably at early o’clock.

Maryam Kokor

We visited our tour agency on arrival in Mekele to pay for our trip – but alas, the credit card machine wasn’t working (shocking, I know.)  So Sneetchi dropped us at a nice hotel (which was a little expensive, but well worth the little bit of luxury we felt we deserved) where we got a SEMI-SUITE, which was essentially a room with an adjoining living area.  More importantly, the restaurant served burgers and fries which we joyfully washed down with large beers and toasted our incredible two day adventure visiting historical churches…I mean, trekking through some of the best scenery I’ve experienced yet on the Dark Continent.

Ethiopia Part III: Visiting the Ancient Axumite Kingdom


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The most “Totes Adorbs” sheep you’ve ever seen napping anywhere

The night in Debark turned out rather badly.  Though I was pretty much recovered from the shit-barfs, my cough was back with a vengeance and I awoke around midnight to feeling utterly parched, with a hacking cough.  I looked over and saw that my water bottle was empty – so I got up to refill it and was going to steripen it and drink a whole liter ( I was very dehydrated from the prior day’s exertions) – when I discovered, to my horror, that there was no water coming out of the tap.  I looked over at Mike’s stuff – he was out of water too.  None of us had refilled prior to going out the night before and we’d only drank beer with dinner.

Long winding roads to Axum

I tried to go back to sleep, but found that I wasn’t able to and started getting a headache from the dehydration.  Around 630 am, I decided that maybe someone might be up downstairs and could point me towards a functioning tap.  I dressed and walked down the four flights of stairs only to find that it seemed like the whole hotel and/or block had the water turned off.  I begged for hot water from the kitchen, since they were undoubtedly going to make an entire cauldron of coffee for the buffet breakfast that was due to be ready by 7.  No one understood me.  I went out into the street and walked along for a few blocks when I saw a security guard dozing in a garden of a building that appeared to have a hose attached to a tap.  I walked over and showed him my empty bottles and he kindly turned the tap and miraculously – water came out!

As I hurried back to our room to treat the water so we could drink – I was stopped by a man in the lobby who told me that Tadele (our asshole tour operator) had told him to come and get Mike and me to go to the bus station.  I thanked him, but explained that we were planning to eat first and head over to the station around 8 o’ clock.  That’s when he said we would need to leave by 7:15 because sometimes the bus showed up at 07:30 am – early from Gonder.

A random dude puts our luggage on the roof of the bus

Frustrated and panicked, I rushed up the stairs, woke Michael up and told him we had 15 minutes to get up, pack and be heading to the station.  It was not the morning I had envisioned but we made it to the station by 0730 and anxiously waited for the bus to arrive, where presumably, someone was sitting in our seat from Gonder to ensure someone else didn’t take it.  It’s a strange system.

New Church of St. Mary of Zion, Axum

Our guide who’d brought us disappeared and the minutes ticked on by with no sign of him or the bus.  Eventually, around 0815, I went and found someone who spoke English and he told me that the bus from Gonder usually showed up around 9am, or later.

All that rushing for no reason.

Additionally – the “guide” eventually showed back up and I asked him why he’d told us to come for 0730?  He repeated that sometimes the bus showed up that early.  Then I asked whether he knew the guy who was actually on the bus reserving our seats.  Turns out that he did.  I asked whether he had that guy’s cell phone number?  He said he did.  So, logically, I asked him “Why on earth didn’t you just tell the guy to give you a call when the bus was 15 minutes away from Debark?”

He stared at me, and then responded “Thank you.  That is a very good idea.”

I’m still not sure if he was being genuine or if he was the first African I’d met who understood the concept of sarcasm.

NOT happy on this bus ride

In any case, the bus eventually showed up on the street at around 9:15am and there was total pandemonium.  Some guy grabbed our suitcases and hauled them up to the roof, and then started demanding money.  People were yelling and squeezing to get on board which had standing room only.  Our guide literally pushed us on board where we played squeezing musical chairs to get into our seats for the journey.

Finally, we were on our way.  Despite the fact that the journey first to Shire was only 180 kms or 100 miles, it took over 9 hours to arrive.  The bus literally struggled to keep moving forward on the bending mountainous roads we covered.  It was incredibly hot, and since Ethiopians just hate direct sunlight or a breeze, most of the windows either stayed shut, or if by the grace of God they were open, the curtain was pulled all the way across preventing precious fresh air from getting in.  It was an exhausting and claustrophobic journey – and we were lucky enough to be seated!  Many people stood this entire way.

Legends abound in Axum

We stopped a couple of times to pee in the bush, but I definitely arrived in Shire dehydrated and tired.  Mike had the smart idea to gather all the faranji folks from the bus (there were about 7 of us) and we each paid for 2 seats on a minibus for the final hours’ drive to Axum and subsequently, we were able to leave straight away.  The room and open windows in the van were an incredible relief – even more so to the few passengers who’d begun their journey that morning at 5am from Gonder!

We finally arrived at our chosen hotel for the night – aptly and generically named Africa Hotel.  Mike and I wandered off to an international hotel for dinner and ordered some delicious tomato soup and then we shared a burger (my appetite had still not fully returned.)

Mike checks out the funeral procession

Group of churchgoing white-robed ladies

We chose to rest the following day as we were both spent from the Simiens and what was an even more arduous day of sitting on the bus the day before.  I did laundry and tried to edit photos – though I was having some major technology issues that was taking hours to work around and in the end I gave up and went for a walk and had beers with Mike at a lovely little restaurant he’d found called Kuda Juice and Burger that had this delightful outdoor green space.  I felt a little better after having a good cry with Mike (I don’t quite remember what was upsetting me at the time) – he is certainly a good listener and I appreciate him for that very much.

It was time to pack and head out again – this time we would be traveling through the region known as Tigray which had some famous 5th and 6th century rock-hewn churches to visit and would be a nice way to kill time as we made our way to Mekele from where we would join a tour with Ethio Travel Tours to the Danakil Depression.

The agency we booked with was located in our hotel and we were given the choice of a one day drive-thru to Mekele visiting a couple of churches, or a two-day private tour where we could visit four or five churches.  Not being an avid history aficionado, and certainly not someone to whom visiting churches, however historical, is that appealing –  I told Mike I wasn’t really bothered about which tour we did and could do whatever he felt made the most sense.  Mike opted for the two-day tour as it would include a visit to Debre Damo – a monastery atop a mountain that was only accessible by men and involved a 15 meter climb with rope and a priest helping to haul you up the vertical cliff.  He liked the idea of the challenge since he has a fear of heights.  I wanted to support him in that brave quest.

Stelae Field in Axum

The next morning we met our driver who said his name was “Sneetchie” – I have no idea if I’ve spelled his name correctly or not.  He was 22 years old and played some awesome music for us in the minivan that we had all to ourselves.  We arranged first of all to visit some of the historic sites of Axum including the Stelae field (which date from 300 to 500 A.D) which most likely served as funeral monuments and pre-date the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia (Ethiopia was the second country after Armenia to implement the practice of Christianity) The tallest one still standing is 24 meters, and the Great Stele probably fell down during construction – was 33 meters in length.  When Italy occupied Ethiopia under Mussolini’s regime in 1937 – the five broken pieces were taken by truck and ship to Rome as ‘war booty’ and put back together, not getting repatriated back until 1947!

The five-piece stelae that was returned to Ethiopia in 1947

These Stelae marked the center of what at the time was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world – the Royal Kingdom of Axum, and they are still quite an impressive sight.  There are tunnels and burial sites that you can walk through – and though they were once filled with incredible treasures – they have since all been looted and robbed.

Some of the Stelae had modern reinforcements now

One of the burial sites

We spent a few hours walking around and then when it was time to leave – we couldn’t seem to locate our private van anywhere.  Worse yet, Axum has some of the pushiest cab/tuk-tuk drivers anywhere and we were asked every two minutes whether we needed a taxi.  Getting hungry, I started eating a dry sweet roll I’d bought earlier that morning and some guy walked over and told me to stop eating in public because other people were fasting that day.  I told him that I wasn’t fasting or a Christian.   So, not a very comfortable place to sit around waiting.  Though we did get to watch and photograph these gorgeously cute sheep who were napping on each other on the side of the road.

After wandering around a while longer, we came across a funeral procession and a few of the modern churches that were dotted around the Stelae field and the Queen of Sheba’s baths (though they looked like disintegrating rock walls to me.)  The official Ark of the Covenant was supposedly also housed in some museum in Axum – but our guidebooks stated that there was no credible evidence that it was actually here – so my Indiana Jones’ notions were crushed.

Eventually, Sneetchie showed up and we headed in the direction of Tigray.

Ethiopia Part II: No Pain, No Gain in the Simiens


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The beautiful Simien Mountains

Our flight and arrival in Addis went without a hitch and the visa process was pretty straightforward also.  We chose to stay the night at Lobelia Hotel as it was close to the airport and we’d have to leave at an ungodly hour to catch our domestic flight in the morning to Gonder – where we would begin our Historical Northern Tour of Ethiopia.

After checking in and getting some soup for our tummies, I was ready for an early night when I noticed that the hotel had a sauna and a steam room! I later discovered that this is a trend in moderate to nicer hotels in Ethiopia – and it was one I took advantage of at any given opportunity.  This was my first and it helped with my cough immensely.  In the end, I had that cough for about six weeks on and off…it has finally cleared up, as of about a week ago.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am not to have to take antibiotics and be able to sleep through the night without waking Mike up with a coughing fit.

The next morning began rather badly.  As we arrived at the domestic terminal, Mike put his iPhone in another person’s “security box” as his had already gone through and he’d just that moment realized it was still in his pocket as he needed to pass through the body scanner.  Once through, he waited for it to “reappear” on the other side.

It never did.

I was, meanwhile, trying to check both our bags onto the flight and save time.  When Mike wasn’t showing up I went back to find him distressed and searching for his phone.  I cursed myself for not having been there at that moment, as doubtless someone had grabbed it and it might have been possible to spot them if it was done soon enough.  Security was useless, assuring us that they would check the CCTV cameras etc.  I kept asking “how on earth is that going to help?  You won’t know the identity of the person who you see took the phone!”  Besides, I’m pretty sure that it was a member of the x-ray machine team that took it.  We put a message on his phone to indicate it was lost and to contact my number, but unfortunately, Mike hadn’t connected it to the wifi of the domestic terminal yet – so whomever had taken it, wouldn’t see the message.  Moreover, a stolen iPhone might as well be a stolen brick – without the password, there’s no way to get into it.

What a waste.  It was Mike’s baby too – so I felt super bad for him.

Shopping in Gonder

Our flight was only about 45 minutes and we landed in Gonder, taking a hotel shuttle to the AG – chosen because it had my initials!  Mike then discovered that his camera viewing screen was broken and his day had just gotten worse, poor guy.  The hotel was actually quite nice and we soon passed out since we’d barely slept the night before.

Gonder and the day and a half we spent there turned out to be rather arduous.  Other than being the former capital of the country and full of amazing history such as the palace of Emperor Fasilades who founded the city in 1636 – it is already at an elevation of 2133 m and being quite hilly, was a physical test just to walk around and get errands ran before starting our 4 day trek to the Simien mountains.

We had to find a tour company that we could trust and was leaving in the next day or two (NOT an easy task), buy warm jackets as the temperatures at night would be below freezing, find warm hats/gloves, buy some Acetazolamide (altitude medication), buy hiking boots, buy more malaria pills for me as I was almost out, get SIM cards for our phones, and other odds and ends.  It ended up taking us almost all of our free time to accomplish these tasks, and at almost one hour prior to closing – we finally got in a cab to go visit the Royal Palace – feeling it would be too awful to not visit this UNESCO world heritage site before leaving in the am for Debark.

The Royal Palace was quite impressive, especially the castle that was actually intact.  Since we were so late, we failed to find a guide, and had to satisfy our historical curiosities by reading about each building on Lonely Planet – promising ourselves we would do more earnest research later.  Getting back to our room, we had to pack our overnight bags and combine what we were leaving into my suitcase and try to get an early night.

Fasilada’s Palace, Gonder

The next morning, we were picked up nice and early and informed that we would be getting a private tour as the Korean couple they had paired us with had never actually trekked before and our tour operator was concerned that we would leave them in the dust.  Poor Mike just looked at me and I told him that I was sorry he’d had no one else to talk to for the next 3 nights.

On arrival at park headquarters, however, we came across a lovely Polish girl, Kamila, who was looking to hire a scout and share transportation with someone to the trailhead and back from Chennek.  I told her that I’d be happy to let her share our scout and transport – but she’d have to arrange it with Tedele – our “charming” tour operator.  In the end, she paid him $50 for transport and the use of our scout – and as it turned out, she ended up having the exact same trip that we did, except for the fact that she’d brought her own tent.  We didn’t mind, per se, but she sure lucked out with getting fed at every meal – our cooks even baked her a cake on the last day of the hike for her birthday!  I was glad that Mike would have someone new to talk to – and goodness, did they ever hit it off!  They talked a lot on the trail, which was fine with me, because as many of you know, hiking in the mountains is about the only time that I’m relatively quiet – it’s my form of church.

Our first sighting of a group of Gelada monkeys – walking from Buyit Ras to Sankaber

That day the hike was short and relatively easy, though the temperatures were much higher than I had expected.  Since they were only going to feed us plain bread and bananas for lunch, I asked to stop at the Simien Lodge where I managed to finagle some ham and cheese for our rolls – which made them greatly improved.

That evening, we set up tents and got on a few layers before heading out to a viewing point to watch the sunset.  Everything about camp reminded me of Kilimanjaro – especially the little bowl of hot water they’d put out to do washing before dinner.  Already, many of the hikers at camp were feeling sick and had symptoms of AMS.  Thankfully I felt ok – at least, I did at that moment.

Dinner was very abundant, and just like on Kili, they had already fed us with popcorn and cookies so I wasn’t exactly hungry, but that didn’t stop me from pigging out.  It was lovely and warm in the cook tent, especially when they lit a nice wooden fire which we sat around with tea after dinner.

Start of Day 2 – heading to Geech

I was feeling a bit too full but fine right after dinner and was soon snugly wrapped up in my sleeping bag within a sleeping bag.  I found that I just couldn’t get comfortable and my stomach was rumbling a bit, but I put it down to having overeaten.  Around 11:30 at night, I suddenly felt bile rise in my mouth and I knew I had seconds before I was going to barf over everything in the tent, including Mike.  In those few seconds, I managed to locate my headlamp, unzip my sleeping bags, unzip the tent and stick my head out far enough that when the contents of my stomach emptied out, it was just inches from the tarp under our tent.  Feeling somewhat relieved, I crawled back inside, thinking that I would immediately feel better and be able to fall asleep.

Not so.

I started feeling nauseous and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse.  The hours crawled by slowly and I was soon writhing in agony.  Soon enough, I realized I needed the bathroom and I struggled to walk down to the outhouse because I was also starting to feel feverish and weak.  I won’t go into too much detail about what happened next – but my travel partner Mike the next day best described it as my body mandating a total body evacuation.  I sipped some water on return to my tent, believing that by now, at 3am, the worst had to be over.

I was wrong.  The next thing that happened was one of the most embarrassing and dehumanizing moments of my life.  I shat my pants, and I realized that I was too sick to be able to walk back to the outhouse without help.  I lay there crying and woke up Mike telling him what had happened through gulped tears.  God bless him, he got up and helped me walk back down the hill to the nasty nasty hole in the ground that was the outhouse.

I’m not sure how I still had that much still left inside me, and furthermore I don’t know from where I found the strength to also change my clothes while having to balance on alternating feet in my shoes.  But Mike stayed the whole time and got me some mango juice to sip on once we were back in the tent.

It was 5am and feeling horrifically weak and sorry for myself, I managed to fall asleep.

After only a few hours’ of rest, it was time for us to awaken and head out for our 5-6 hour hike to the next camp.  I didn’t think I’d be able to make it – I felt so lousy.  Problem was, Mike was insisting on accompanying me if I decided to head back to Debark and wait my illness out.   I kept telling him that I wanted him to go on and enjoy the trip without me.  He refused.

Riding the horse after being sick all night

So, – I made a decision to try and walk for the first 90 minutes at which point our guide, Gashaw, informed me that we would be crossing the main road, and if I was still too sick to continue, I would be able to arrange transport from there.

And so, in pain, nauseated and very weak – I started to put one foot in front of the other.  It was pretty bad and required all my concentration.  After the first hour, the pain eased a little bit, and in another 30 mins I found out why – my period had just started.  Oh great – exactly what I needed on top of my nasty bug, I had horrible cramps that I’d mistaken for aftermath of the night before.

At least I was feeling a little stronger, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of an offer of a horse ride the rest of the way to camp when we came across a boy with a horse offering rides to presumably feeble tourists who didn’t want to go uphill.  Though it really went against the grain for me to “give up” like that – I reasoned that if I took it easier that day, I just might have the strength to finish the rest of the hike that was two more days and lots more elevation gain – up to Mt Bwahit which was at 4437 M.

Our beautiful campsite at Geech

The views on arrival at our campsite that afternoon were so welcome.  It was a beautiful high altitude plain of grass, open and flat but surrounded by cliffs in all directions.   Thought it was only 4pm, I was feeling utterly spent and happily crawled into my sleeping bag and slept for three hours before I was told dinner was ready.  I also learned that the others had gone on a short hike from camp to watch the sunset and had been stampeded by a larger group of gorgeous gelada monkeys (granted we had seen them several times during the day – but this was a very up, close and personal encounter) as they tried to get past the humans to the cliffs where they would rest for the night inside caves.  I was glad I had chosen to rest and regain strength, but disappointed not to have witnessed this spectacle first hand.

Luckily, Mike was able to capture the event on video and I include it here for your viewing pleasure.

That night in Geech was particularly cold.  I got up around 10pm to take a pee, and for the second night, I noticed our 64-year old scout – a delightfully cheerful though non-English speaking man – sitting out in the open air wearing nothing more than his shirt, thin jacket and a tarp for warmth.  I literally feared for his life and was so worried that I ended up taking the extra jacket that I’d bought in Gonder and went over to where he was keeping watch and offered it to him.  At first he motioned with his hand, “Anita…no, no, it ok!” but then I forcibly unwrapped him from his tarp and put his arms inside the jacket, the hood up over his head and zipped him all the way up.  To my delight, it fit him perfectly (it is very disturbing that the men I come into contact with here seem to all have a body shape and size that would mean I could share my wardrobe with them!)  From that point on, he wore my jacket most of the day, removing it only in the heat of midday – and even then, leaving the detachable hood on his head like the coolest dude ever.  I loved Nursie…he said almost nothing, but was always smiling, saying my name, and saying “Good, good Anita! Strong!”

I gave him the jacket to keep on the last day of the trip.

Nursie – our fearless but chilled scout who kept watch over us

The altitude and remnants of my illness had destroyed my appetite and I forced myself to have a little soup and bread most nights, got porridge in me for the morning and snacked lightly during the day.   As such, I found myself having lost much of the weight I’d gained during my time in West Africa – so being sick and this high up did have some positive consequences.

The third day’s hike was pretty tough – about 8 hours of walking, and I was proud that I managed it – despite still vacating most of what I was eating along the way.  One time I went to pee and found that I peed out of my butt instead without warning.  I felt bad because one is supposed to dig a deep hole to avoid the almost extinct Ethiopian wolves from accidentally ingesting your feces and suffering fatal consequences.  Incidentally, the beetroots I’d managed to eat the night before had turned my product a violent pink color.  I looked for a giant rock to, at the very least, cover up the evidence that I’d failed to “leave no trace”, only to accidentally drop it from a height that caused everything to spatter raspberry colored shit over the entire surrounding area, including my shoes and trekking poles.  I had to use up some of my precious drinking water to rectify the situation, and be on my way – now precariously behind the rest of the group and getting slower as the afternoon wore on.

Looking back, it is still quite a funny story – and I am so proud of myself for not giving up and for pressing on.

More Geladas

As a sidenote to all this talk of excrement (my apologies, dear readers) – the scenery we were passing through was pretty immense and spectacular, despite the fact that it was rather brown given the time of year and it being the dry season.  Much of the wide expanse of ridges below us reminded me of a lighter colored south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Once we’d made it to Imet Gogo – all the suffering was made worthwhile by the incredible views we got to enjoy from this high point.  Unfortunately, this is the typical turnaround point for all the folks who choose to do the 2 night/3 day itinerary.  I found, however, that it was the scenery and the ability to walk along a long ridgeline the rest of the afternoon before descending to Chennek and our 3rd camp night – to be the highlight of the whole trek.

On the descent to Chennek, Mike and I spotted our one far away Ibex, which made us happy – though we were hoping to spot more the next day.  On arrival at camp, we were happy to note that there was a cold water well with a pump where we could take an ice-cold bucket shower.  We took it in turns to pump water for one another, hastily, as the sun was setting and it would soon be cold both by water and air temperature.

3rd day on the way to Chennek

At Imet Gogo

I took another early night as I was very spent, forcing myself to eat a little food.  The group had quite a rowdy dance/singalong by the fire that night, and I tried so hard to enjoy it for as long as I could, then grabbing my hot water bottle and bidding all a good night.

Singalong around the campfire

The next day was an optional day hike to the summit of Bwahit – the second highest mountain in Ethiopia.  Though I had told myself I didn’t really have to summit – I don’t easily give up, and despite having another bout of diarrhea, I proudly made the summit – albeit much more slowly than the rest of the team.  I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment, especially after noting several of the members of other groups on the mountain turning around, tired or deterred by the extreme altitude.

I made it!

Celebrating the summit of Mt. Bwahit

After some celebratory summit shots, I was happy to point my feet downhill for the last time.  We loaded back into 4 x 4’s and were treated to a nice sunny field picnic lunch on the way back where Kamila was presented with a birthday cake made for her by our cook, Messy.

I was relieved when we got to Debark, and though very pissed off at having another drama just getting our bags back (which I talked about in the last article) – was so happy to finally find ourselves in a room at the Hotel Sona resting a bit before going out for dinner.  Unfortunately, the room we found (that Kamila shared since it was a family room with four beds and adjoining rooms) was on the 4th floor of the hotel that didn’t have an elevator – so you can imagine how it felt going up and down those stairs with luggage after the day we’d had.  To add insult to injury, the water was shut off for a few hours but we finally were able to take a restorative lukewarm shower.

Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark

We had agreed to meet up with Messy and Gashaw for dinner, and they took us to a bar where we started with beer.  Everyone was up and dancing (shoulder dancing, that is – my first introduction into this uniqe and rather strange custom of dance that doesn’t include much in the way of hip or lower body movement.)   Funny thing is – it took 30 minutes after we’d ordered food for the waiter to come over and tell us that they were out of food!

Turns out this was the last night before lent and 55 days of fasting for Ethiopians.  So finding food was going to be difficult.  We finally left and went to another bar where more guys were dancing (only with other guys and in an alarmingly intense manner) and I was able to order some injera with veggies and minced meat.  I ate a little and then made my apologies and headed back to our hotel.

It was only a few blocks, but I still managed to get harassed multiple times on the way back.  I was so not in the mood and needed my bed.

What a memory-filled trek it had been.  Proud and happy that I finished what I had started.  It really reminded me how much physical suffering is and can be mind-over-matter.  I pushed myself, hard.  And I had made it!

Ethiopia Part I: Impressions from Ethiopia


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Men chanting and singing during a church ceremony in Lalibela

I’ve now spent about three weeks in Ethiopia and one thing is for sure.  This is unlike any country I have been to in Africa.  It is a confounding place – it is both claimed to be more purely African than any other nation – since it is the only country on the dark continent that managed to escape the atrocities and impacts of European colonization.  On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like Africa at all – at least, to me.  So, I must state as my opening caveat to this post – these are merely my opinions and my impressions of this – my 21st African country.  Other tourists here may have totally different experiences, in fact, I hope they do.  These are just my own personal experiences, and I grant you – they might have felt different if this were the only country I was visiting on this trip.  Since we came here after having spent almost two months in West Africa, it was far easier to compare the people with those we had just had experience with.

Ethiopia is a staggeringly beautiful country – the geography is interesting and diverse and the history is rich and there is so much to learn and see for a history lover. It is an archaeologist’s paradise – ancient civilizations that have only just started to be excavated.  The potential for tourism, therefore, is immense and from what I can tell – there is an established tourist circuit in the north, and wherever we traveled – we met a lot of tourists.

Having said all of that – I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit Ethiopia to consider coming here on a package tour that is organized and paid for by a western company – OR – be prepared to need nerves of steel.  In order to fully appreciate each and every day, it is important to have a “separation” from needing to deal with local tour operators, guides, and almost any type of service staff.  The reason for this is there is more hassle, difficulties, price-gouging, unfair treatment, lying and horrible service here than anywhere else I have traveled.  Some of it, of course, can be attributed to the language barrier – but this does not explain all of it.

Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia

Before I launch into descriptions of the struggles Mike and I have faced, I would like to point out that we did have a handful of positive local interactions.  Our driver in Tigray was a 22 – year old called Sneetchie (spelling?) and though he didn’t speak English, he was always cheerful and helpful.  In the Danakil, our driver was the exact opposite of everything I’m going to describe here – but to the extreme.  Sisay, constantly asked if we were okay, did we want the windows down or AC?  Did we want to stop for a photo?  When we responded, he would verify our answer by re-asking the same question 3 or 4 times.  It was overkill – but at the very least, he was extremely caring.  I will give him a great review on Trip Advisor – because these two individuals were absolutely the exceptions to the general rule.

Just last night, at our hotel in Bahir Dar, I decided to order the same dinner I’d had the night before because it had been so delicious.  It was a chicken breast with a mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes.  The meal arrived but it was a chicken thigh and leg served with rice.  Looking at the menu, it was a totally different meal.  The waiter came over and I asked if it would be possible for him to bring me some mashed potato?  He said “of course” and went away.  Fifteen minutes later, a woman arrived (who I presumed is the restaurant manager) and asked me “what is the problem?”  I said, “there is no problem, it’s just that I got a different dish to what I ordered and could I have some potato?”  She pointed at the menu and told me that I had the dish I ordered.  I said, “no” – this isn’t a chicken breast.  To which, she responded “Yes, this is chicken breast – it has just been flattened out.”  I laughed because I thought she must be joking.  “No, this can’t be a chicken breast because there are bones.”  “No bones, madam.” “Yes, bones…look!” I said, holding the chicken leg up for her to see, “…this is a chicken leg, right?”

“No,” she replied, “this is not a chicken leg. It is breast.”

This went on for a few hilarious minutes while she continued to deny that what I had on my plate was a chicken’s thigh and leg.  I told her I didn’t care about the chicken (I had only wanted some mashed potatoes instead of rice) but what I did care about was her lying to my face that the chicken leg was breast meat.

She simply didn’t care, and walked away.  The waiter also just walked away.

I sighed and ate my meal.  Then, without being told anything, 20 minutes later a fresh plate of food arrives – and it is the dish I had ordered and the one I’d eaten the night before.  Of course, now, I wasn’t hungry – just exasperated.  I thanked the waiter and told him that next time, it might be a good idea to TELL the customer that you are planning to replace a dish.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee being served street-side

This is an extreme example, but Mike and I experience hassle and trouble here with logistics and site-seeing on a daily basis.  Vendors pester us with a persistence that is mind-numbing – you can say “no” 15 times and they still come after you to buy whatever it is that they’re selling – even super strange things like, in Axum, a round rock split in two filled with purple-looking gemstones.  Or wooden flutes.  Or strange-looking hats with a giant pointy bobble on top that we are told are “traditional Ethiopian hats” – yet we haven’t seen a single person wearing them other than the vendor pressuring us to buy them.

Even with the kids.  We have come across kids selling items and/or begging all across West Africa.  Here, they follow you, not taking no for an answer.  It goes like this: “Sir, you buy?  I give you good price?  Please.  Sir, you buy?  You want this?  Sir?  Madam?  Where you from?  You have pen?  Give me pen.  Pen. Pen.  I want pen.  Money.  Give me money.  Hey, money!  You.  You.  You give me pen?  Money. Pen. Pen. Pen.  Sweets?  You have sweets?  Madam, Madam, Madam….” This entire time, you’ve been walking away, fast, and they keep up with you, not tiring out.  I have had to take to stopping, looking them in the eye, and yelling “NO!!!!!” to get them to stop.  The other day, while visiting the Blue Nile Falls, a young girl no older than six, actually hit me in the legs with her bag of wooden flutes when I told her “sorry” but that I didn’t want to buy one.  Mike had rocks thrown at him.  Today, a school boy hit me in the small of my back as I rode past him on a bicycle.  It is really, really sad situation – that I’m actually afraid of groups of children here.

Thank God for Mike – he saved me from most of the hassle and dangers I would have faced if traveling here solo

As for issues with money and pricing for all things needed to see this country – I don’t even know where to begin.  As a foreigner, we are called “Faranji” (or even more hilariously, “China”) and everywhere you go, service providers will name a sky-high price that is sometimes 3 or 4 times what the standard price for a service should be, just on the off-chance that you don’t know this and you’re a stupid tourist who will fall for the quote.  In Lalibela, I was quoted 100 Birr for a tuk-tuk ride that I knew to be 30.  In Gonder, we wanted to buy a beanie hat for the mountains, and they asked us for 700 Birr.  That’s over $25!   We laughed and walked away.

While visiting the Rock-Hewn churches of Tigray, we negotiated with a scout who told us we needed his services to get up the steep trail to the church Abuna Yemal.  Our driver had told us we should pay no more than 100-150 birr in total.  This scout tried to charge us 300, but we managed to negotiate him down to 200 birr, with him explaining that entrance to the church was separate at 150 Birr each.  After carefully repeating this back and confirming that there would be no additional fees or costs, we agreed to head on up the trail.  At which point he asked us if we wanted him to bring a rope?

“A rope?  What for?  Do we need it?” we asked.

“If you want, I can bring” his response.

“But will we need it?”

“It’s up to you.”

“But we haven’t seen the trail – do most tourists use the rope?”

“Some do, some do not.”

“Ok, well, then, let’s bring it and then we will have it if we need it.”

“Then that is extra 100 Birr.”

“Oh. Isn’t it your rope?”

“No, you have to rent the rope.  It’s 100 Birr.”

Mike and I look at each other, exasperated.

“Ok, but if we pay you another 100 Birr, that is EVERYTHING, right?”

“Yes. Everything”

So.  We pay him the 100 Birr for the rope and move to get going.  He then stops and says:

“No, it’s 100 Birr EACH to use the rope.”

“What on earth?  Why would it be 100 each?  It’s one rope!  You said we have to rent a rope. You can’t charge per person for a rented rope! That’s just ridiculous.”

“You pay each…”

Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal

And so it went on.  Mike walked away, his energy for talking to this guy having evaporated.  I told the guy, we’d pay for the rope, and I would see if I needed to use it.  In the end, I climbed without the rope and Mike used it, however, the whole “rope rental” cost was a total fabrication because our scout LEFT the rope up there for other tourists to use who came by.  Other clients who shared our car in the Danakil told us they were charged 150 birr each for the rope going to this church.  It feels like those who work with tourists simply pull prices out of the sky whenever it suits them – depending on just how much they think they might get away with charging.

So, you can see, it is quite tiring having to negotiate for each and every little thing.  Everything is a discussion.  Everything.  Nothing is simple.  Nobody ever apologizes.  Ever.

We have had some very shady/incompetent/mendacious tour guides during our time here.  The owner of the tour operator we booked with to go to the Simiens got into an argument with me when he claimed that almost no-one ever suffered symptoms of altitude sickness while hiking to 4500 meters – I told him that not only was he wrong, but that saying that to less experienced hikers could actually be dangerous.  On our first night – over half of our camp had symptoms of AMS.  The same guy who promised our main luggage would be stored safely for us and returned to us, at no additional cost per his website (our trip cost us $300 each) – had the audacity to yell at me on the phone and tell me that he had never claimed our bag storage would be free and that we would have to pay 120 birr to the hotel manager to get them back.  He had never mentioned this additional cost and we were lucky that we had spare cash on hand at the end of our 4 day trek – but seriously?  Why would you argue with a client who’s just paid you $600 for a four-day tour over $4?  On the last day when we were scorched, dirty and exhausted?

On our boat trip to the Zege Peninsula in Bahir Dar – we negotiated to pay 1500 birr to visit two monasteries on the peninsula, then visit one of the islands, and the outlet to the Blue Nile on the way back.  After we’d finished the second monastery- our boat captain informed us we were “going back to hotel now” – and when we pointed out that we’d only covered ½ of our promised itinerary, he rolled his eyes and started getting pissy.  We called our hotel, who had arranged the trip, and explained that if we were going to be taken directly back, we wanted a discount (thank goodness I had refused to pay the full 1500 Birr before the trip, stating that a tourist typically pays for a day trip at the end.  They finally agreed to letting me pay 1000 up front and I would owe 500 at the end.)

Me and our lovely driver, Sissay, in the Danakil Depression

At this point, the trip was ruined anyways and we didn’t want to visit any more places with a boat captain in a foul mood.  The guy from our hotel asked to speak to the boat captain who proceeded to start yelling into the phone for a good five minutes while we tried to calmly enjoy a coffee at a tranquil lakeside location.  After giving us the phone back, our hotel person said that there was “no problem, and he would take us to all the promised places now, no problem” to which we explained that “yes, there was a problem in that we didn’t sign up to have to listen to him arguing about giving us the service we’d agreed upon.”  There was more yelling and calls back and forth, and we had to insist he just take the boat directly back to the hotel, whereupon we got out giving him 300 Birr less for the hassle we’d suffered.

In the Danakil, we stayed for one night in a hotel, and after several days in the hot dusty desert, I was eager to take a shower.  I didn’t have a towel with me as we’d been told we’d be camping for each of the 3 nights.  But the hotel gave us a double room, which, unfortunately, only had one towel on the bed.  I took the towel to the manager, and asked if I could possibly get another towel?  He said he would go get one for me.

Half hour later, I still didn’t have a towel.  I went out of the room looking for the manager.  I spoke to five housekeepers, showed them the towel, and asked for another towel.  “You want water?”  “No, just a towel.  A TOWEL.”

Five women commence a long and loud conversation in Amharic.  It goes on and on and on and on.  Eventually, they point me to the restaurant where I see the manager sitting and eating a meal and having a beer.  All five women follow me into the restaurant.  I ask the manager for a towel, again.  He just stares at me.

Then, his phone rings.  He leans back in his chair and takes the call, completely ignoring me.  I look at the women, who start to laugh.  I ask them again, pleading, “Please?  May I have a towel?”  One of them says “Office is closed.”

Oh, God.

I’m about to lose it, when a GUEST of the hotel who has observed this whole fiasco, gets up from his meal, apologizes to me, says something to the douchebag still on his phone, then something to the five housekeepers still standing there gawking at me and laughing, and proceeds to go behind the counter of the reception, grabs a key hanging from a hook, saying “Come with me.”

We walk down the hall to another hotel room, he unlocks the door, grabs the towel from the bed and hands it to me.  I thank him profusely.

Guys being guys in Ethiopia – Friday night cuddles in the bar

These situations – unfortunately, have become very common interactions for us as independent travelers.  The bigger downside, is, however, that I feel I have my back up, and I’m already on the defensive whenever someone approaches us, or offers us a good price for something we are actually interested in doing.  When most of your experiences with vendors is bad, one can’t help tensing up, anticipating getting lied to or ripped off.  The problem then becomes that I can inadvertently come across as hostile or nasty to someone who genuinely wants to help.  I admit that – the effect of this daily hassle has been cumulative and I’ve almost reached my breaking point.

It is a real shame, because as I said earlier, this is a stunning country with so much that is worthwhile to see and visit.

That covers what it feels like to be here in Ethiopia as a tourist. Let me tell you a little bit about how it feels to be here as a woman.  First, I have been hassled, ogled, stared at, whistled at, called after, yelled at, and grabbed (once) during my three weeks here.  It has been the worst in terms of unwanted male attention compared with anywhere else in Africa.  I get this attention even when I am out with Mike walking along the street together.  If I am separated from him, it gets much worse – to the point that I would probably advise any white woman thinking of traveling to Ethiopia alone – to not.  I even got hassled when riding a bike today.  Almost every 20 meters, a guy or group of guys would call out, ask me where I was from, tell me I was beautiful, stare and say “hey, Baby!”, and the funniest of all…every tuk tuk would pull over next to my bike, even on a crowded bridge where driving close to a bike could be dangerous, and the driver would try and get my attention in any way possible.

It is exhausting and a little unnerving, even if it is flattering – which I’m not even sure about.

The shirt I should have worn every day in Ethiopia to ward off unwanted male attention

I was grabbed in a park a few nights ago in Bahir Dar and the guy said he wanted to spend the night with me and would I let him bite my butt?  I mean, what the hell? Luckily, I swiveled around kicking him and told him to “fuck off” sharply and loudly enough that he let go – but it was in a crowded place and no one even noticed.

From Gonder to Debark, from Axum to the Danakil – everywhere we went – whether in the cities or in rural areas (though it is worse in rural areas) – men are abundant in number, be it on the street, in restaurants, bars or cafes.  Men are everywhere.  Women ? – not so much.  Yes, there are a few, and definitely more in the markets selling goods.  But for the most part there are at least 10-15 men out to every 1 woman.  In Debark, we went out to the bars after our hike through the Simiens and got to witness the famous “shoulder dancing” of the north – but it felt super strange to me because all the men were only dancing with other men.  Some even “coupled up” and never once broke eye contact as they gyrated their shoulders and bodies in time with one another.  I asked our guide where all the women were – he remarked that since the next day marked the first day of their 55-day fasting schedule – the women were probably at home preparing food for the family and caring for the kids.  Whatever the reason, women simply are not out in public as much.

Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark

Incidentally, the shoulder dancing is really something to see.  It reminds me of “pop and lock” dance – which I’m sure was influenced by this very traditional form of dancing.  When it is just guys – like it was that night in Debark – I find it altogether very strange.  And, of course, it just looks so different to me as dancing is such a culturally below-the-waist activity (for me) – and in Northern Ethiopia, the movement is concentrated above the waist.  We did go see some traditional dancing in Bahir Dar and this was far more enjoyable to watch – the movements are so intricate and fast it almost defies belief.  I will try to upload some video to YouTube! so you can see what I’m talking about.

The country as a whole is predominantly Christian and very very religious at that.  Women, however, are even kept seated in a whole other section of the church during mass, many churches don’t allow women inside (because they might be menstruating – oh the horror!!!) and choirs that sing during mass are all made up of men only.  So, there’s discrimination even in the practicing of their faith.

In Mekele, after our trip to the Danakil, I went to get a haircut and met a group of six female students from the university there.  One of them spoke very good English and asked me what my general impression of Ethiopia had been.  When I mentioned this lack of women, and also how men had treated me here – she immediately sympathized and nodded with understanding.  She agreed that a female is still treated as a second class citizen in much of the country – but she was positive that change was coming.  She explained that a large portion of girls, especially those in the countryside, don’t get educated much past the age of 12 and often are married and starting a family by the time they are 14 or 15 years old.  She said that many women just accept what men expect of them – that they belong inside the house and nowhere else.  Again, she said she was happy to be getting her masters’ degree because it meant she at least had the chance of getting her own job so that she wouldn’t have to get married just to be supported.  We talked about how educating girls was the key to progress – and she assured me that even though it was difficult, women were starting to be able to compete for jobs.  Twenty years ago, she said there were almost no jobs available to women.

I hope she was right and that things are improving for women here.

Yummy traditional food

On a final note – I’d like to tell you about the food here.  For the most part, it has been quite delicious, though typically very hot & spicy – notably our first meal in Gonder at a restaurant called the Four Sisters – it was a vast array of traditional foods like Ndjera that was served with Lamb Tibs, lots of different sautéed vegetables and a variety of side dishes.  However, on the day after we completed our trek through the Simiens – Ethiopian Christians began their 55-day Fast for Easter/Lent – and this meant that many restaurants now would only serve “fasting food” – which is a paradise for vegans or vegetarians because all the dishes did not contain any animal products whatsoever.  So, no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no butter.  Meaning, rather bland vegetable based dishes only.  As a consequence, we have had to seek out non-fasting restaurants or stick to more touristy places where we can satisfy the unavoidable cravings for food from home, such as pizza or a burger.

Oh!  You can buy delicious juices everywhere here too – that has been a huge hit with Mike and I.  We love the avocado, guava, mango and banana combinations!

Coffee has a very long history here, and it is served everywhere on the street and at makeshift huts lined with grass on the floor and always a little stool where a woman boils the coffee in a traditional pot over hot charcoal before pouring out an espresso sized blackest of black liquids into a tray of waiting cups.  I’ve grown more accustomed to taking one of these strong black coffees in the afternoon, but in the morning, I still crave my coffee a little less strong (I just add hot water) and with some milk.

It has been quite a feat trying to get all 3 items in the morning when we aren’t at a hotel serving a breakfast buffet.  I bought packets of powdered milk which I use sometimes, but even in a 4-star international hotel, when I ask for one coffee, and some hot water on the side – the servers just stare at me and begin a debate with all of their co-workers that lasts at least 15 minutes.  Eventually someone brings me a coffee and then I pour it into my to-go bottle and ask again, with different hand gestures for more water?  They just stare at me and laugh.  What is this woman doing with her coffee? – they must be thinking.   Hahahaha…I guess it would be easier for me just to learn to take my coffee strong and espresso sized.

My remedy at the end of a day being a woman and a tourist in Northern Ethiopia

The language barrier has also been difficult – moreso with guides who claim they can speak “very good English” but, as it turns out, they can speak English but they cannot understand it spoken to them, and cannot answer the simplest of questions.  So, communication has been a little bit of a struggle.  My favorite exchange was in Bahir Dar with the aforementioned mean boat driver (before he got mean).  I asked him where he lived, and his response was simply:


Togo Part I: To Go or not Togo, that is the question


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City square in Lome

We got lucky again with our cab drive to the Togolese border with Benin.  The driver was willing to negotiate a very reasonable rate for us to continue driving on to Lomé.  We had opted not to visit Togoville after getting a warning from some of the truck members who’d visited previously – plus it was easily one of the hottest, most humid days we’d experienced on the southern coast of West Africa – probably 38 degrees centigrade.

We got through the border without any degree of difficulty except for our clothes being soaked through and clinging to us as we sweated profusely.  Arriving in Lomé, we did our typical last-minute search for a reasonable hotel and opted for a cheap option after we had been living it up in Benin.  Our cab dropped us off and we entered the rather ran down facility only to discover that the rooms did not have functioning showers.  Luckily, the manager was kind enough to point out that there was another hotel, Le Galion, that was walking distance away that might offer a slight upgrade in terms of standards.

She was certainly correct – Le Galion was exactly what we were looking for and had a rather English looking pub/bar attached to it with a number of “randoms” sitting and drinking beer –  it had a nice welcoming ambiance.  Plus, it was only a few blocks away from the ocean-facing main road and city beach that stretches along the length of the city.

Main road through Lome

After getting organized and taking a much needed cold shower, we walked to the beach to take in the sights and sounds of Togo’s capital.  The first thing we noticed was that unlike Accra or Freetown, there was less garbage strewn on this city beach, however, there was one element of garbage that we hadn’t observed anywhere else on West Africa’s coastline – dead puffer fish.  I know, bizarre, right?  There were probably over a hundred dead puffer fish that I counted on our hour-long stroll that afternoon and more than a few remnants of what was clearly human excrement (we had heard that many Lomé residents, unfortunately, use the beach as a toilet first thing in the morning)

On the plus side, there was a lot of activity – from crowds of young men playing soccer, to beach front bars and cafes with tables and chairs spilling out and filled with folks enjoying their Thursday afternoon sunset.

Despite the fact that we would only be in Togo for two days – we opted to purchase sim cards and some credit because it was so cheap – and since we didn’t know how fast or reliable our internet would be back at the hotel.  It was at one of these mobile phone kiosks that we noticed that we had walked almost far enough west that we were staring at the actual border crossing into Ghana.  People were buying things along the street in CFA and Cedis alike.  We realized that when it came time to cross the border the day after next – we could opt to do it on foot which would be a novel way to experience a land border.

We ate dinner at our hotel and the food was exceptionally good!  I had a Nicoise salad which I regretted because Mike got a fish Brochette that was absolutely delicious – a fish called Lotte, I believe.  He got it served with Creamed Spinach, which he generously shared with me.

After dinner, we watched “Ex Machina” in our room and fell asleep half way through. The heat was so exhausting and draining.

Cocktails at February 2nd Hotel

On our full day in Lomé, I’m sorry to report that we spent the vast majority of the early part of the day making arrangements for Ethiopia.  We booked flights to Addis from Accra using Mike’s airmiles (which he so generously gave to me as well!) I found super cheap one-way tickets from Addis to London, so I could visit family and have a slower re-introduction to the West (much like I did two years ago when returning from Kilimanjaro) and then, even more surprisingly, a one-way direct ticket for only $300 on Norwegian Airlines from London to Seattle!  In all, it only cost about $130 more to buy new tickets that allowed me to go to the UK first, compared to what it was going to cost to re-book my United flight back to the US straight from Addis.  So that made much more sense to me.

I also received a lovely letter from a former boss of mine that morning who’d been reading this blog – and he had a wonderful idea that could well result in a wonderful employment opportunity upon my return to the States.  I cried with joy and felt so grateful that I told Mike we would have to celebrate later that evening.

Lome Beach

After agreeing on a rough itinerary in Ethiopia – Mike set out to spend what was left of the daylight hours checking out the Fetish market and downtown.  We hopped on Mototaxis that took the beach road to the market.  On arriving, we realized that it was a tiny affair that was way too expensive to go inside.  We weren’t going to pay 3000 CFA each just to see a few horsetails and feathers for sale.  We had out moto drivers take us to the center of the city from where we could walk past the majority of the city monuments and then proceed back to Le Galion on foot.

There really wasn’t too much that was impressive about the city of Lomé.  However, Mike pointed out a beautiful new hotel across the main city plaza that was named “The Second of February”.  I looked, and remarked, “Wait.  Isn’t today the 2nd of February?!”

As it turned out, the road we were walking along was also called the 2nd of February and I began stopping random Lomé citizens and enquiring, in my best French, what the significance of this date might be to have a hotel and a street named after it?  Not surprising, nobody knew the answer, so I dragged Mike over to the new hotel, believing that surely someone who worked there would know the answer, and weren’t going to say it was named after the street it was built on.

As it turned out, a security guard told us that February 2nd was a day that the Togo President returned to power after getting involved in an accident during some civil conflict that had occurred a few decades back.  I haven’t as yet verified this information with a thorough internet search since internet in Africa doesn’t afford one the kind of speed to spend time searching for this kind of Wikipedia information.  But since we found ourselves at sunset in the lobby of this nice hotel – I suggested that we go to the rooftop bar for cocktails to celebrate my good news from the morning – on my tab.  We did, thankful that our nasty flip flop and t-shirt attire didn’t bar our entry from the fancy establishment where we gleefully ordered mojitos, pina coladas and…wait for it…actual fresh sushi!!!

It was so good and well worth the cost.

We walked back to Le Galion, determined to both get the same fish dish as Mike had enjoyed the prior evening.  As an added bonus, the hotel was showcasing live music that evening that we thoroughly enjoyed with our delicious meal.

The next day we had a lazy morning and got to the border around 1pm – timed for the purpose of our flight’s time leaving Addis on that Monday – since Mike’s transit visa would only be valid for a maximum of 48 hours.  Since we walked, we were drenched with sweat when we arrived at immigration, and because we had been hassled non-stop to get a cab to the border by at least twenty drivers – we were each in foul moods and snapping at the other.  Ahhh…the joys of traveling with a friend, 24/7.

The lighthouse in Jamestown, Accra

The border and negotiating Mike’s transit visa was a total nightmare.  They moved at a glacially slow pace, which is the opposite to the ambient air temperature we had to sit/stand in while we waited.  They demanded a printed copy of our flight reservation to Addis – of course we had been unable to find someone to print this information, especially since we had mobiles that allowed for online boarding passes.  Eventually, I was able to get an officer to let me email him our flight information and get him to print it himself.  This took time and determination.  By the time we were stamped and allowed on our way, we were too irritated to stop and eat before heading to Accra.

Getting in a four person-cab, we did get out at a gas station and buy 2 “yogurt-with-wheat in a bottle” to tie us over before getting to the city.  The journey wasn’t that long or uncomfortable, bar the grotesque body odor that emanated from the disgusting man on my right side in the back of the car.  Each time he lifted him arm I thought I would pass out.  It was so bad, I almost told him to keep his arm firmly pressed to his side, choosing instead to bury my face in my hair bandana each time he shifted in his seat.

Our last big night in Accra with the truck folks turned out to be quite epic, and well worth our return to Ghana.  It was actually the first time Mike and I had partied on a Saturday night since we started this West African adventure.  We began with amazing burgers/cocktails at Burger and Relish and followed it with large and rather high-alcohol content beers in the reception area of Niagara Hotel.  Mike, the Dragoman driver, was in rare form and making us laugh hysterically. The alcohol continued to flow and we ended up going dancing at the Shisha bar next door, where I continued drinking and found myself quite drunk by 1 in the morning.  I danced with a group of locals until around 2 – when I got invited to go to the beach with them the next day at Krokrobite and enjoy all-I-could-eat lobster and fish that they’d ordered.  Since a number of us were up for going – I gladly accepted the offer, excited to hang out with some locals on my last day in Ghana.

That night was a bit rough and I spent much of it puking and trying to re-hydrate.  The following morning was a bad hangover, but I managed to get enough coffee and pastry into my face to dampen the headache and nausea enough that I was ready for my pick-up to Krokrobite.  Mike and the others were too hungover to join me, so I said my goodbyes to Sinead and Mike and headed out.  Hanging out at the beach with some cool Ghanaians was about all I had energy for during the day, and it was a lovely and relaxing time.

Beach in Jamestown

On the way back to the city, my friend Chris was kind enough to drop me off in Jamestown where I’d be meeting back up with Mike and taking a walking tour with our “Fixer” Isaac.  It was really cool to finally see this historic part of Accra and we walked during the sunset amongst the fishing village down by the water and then later up in the actual neighborhoods that were literally bursting with life, music so loud it would damage your hearing within a few hours, and people everywhere – socializing, watching soccer crowded around shared TV’s, talking and drinking in the street.  The only thing that was missing from Jamestown, especially if you were a resident, would be peace or privacy.

Isaac also took us to the famous Black Star Square and past Kwame Nkrumah’s mausoleum before finishing off our night at a bar perched precipitously on a cliff overlooking the beach and the old slave fort known as Osu.  The location was truly magnificent, the only reason we were in a hurry to leave was, again, the music being played was at such a volume as to make it not only impossible to have a normal conversation without screaming, it really hurt your eardrums.

Heading back to our accommodation, Isaac invited us to his place for a final smoke goodbye and we couldn’t refuse – especially given the fact that this was to be our last night in West Africa.

In the morning, we got up and did a final pack of our bags before heading to the airport in an Uber.  I was proud of the fact that I finally did some souvenir shopping – buying a skirt on the way back from picking up coffee in under five minutes flat.

I had very mixed feelings about leaving Ghana and flying to Ethiopia.  As is so often the case, I longed for a few more days to enjoy Accra a little more.  To get a deeper sense of what it might be like to live here – because of all the places we had visited in West Africa – this would be by and far the easiest place for a westerner to move to. I didn’t want to go.  Not just yet.

And so, it was with a heavy heart that I boarded our Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Addis, connecting to Gonder the next morning.

Benin Part III – Time Out in Ouidah and Chillin’ in Grand Popo


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The Door of No Return monument on the beach in Ouidah

Ouidah is a significant town on the beautiful Benin coastline because of its historically significant slave trade sites.  Among these is a famous “Tree of Forgetting” that captured slaves would walk around in circles – men nine times and women seven times, in an attempt to forget and leave behind their memories of their West African lives before being forced into slavery.  The tree marks the spot from which there was a well-used path of no return to a strip of beach where ships would forcibly remove chained men and women from their African Homeland.  This path is called the “Route des Esclaves” and is now scattered with monuments, museums, and voodoo fetishes (statues) to commemorate this walk that would have been trodden by thousands of men and women during the 300+ year slave trade.

Mike and I set out to visit these sites, but started at the supposedly famous “Python Temple” which turned out to not be a temple at all – you basically walked into a reddish room that looked like it might be the entryway – and it turned out to be the actual temple, with a handful of pythons laying around looking trapped and without much room to be…snakes. It was the biggest waste of 3,000 CFA each that we had spent.  Cursing ourselves for not having gone inside one at a time (to exit and advise the other not to bother) – we made our way to the tree of forgetting, hoping it might also do the trick for us and the Python Temple.

This is how I felt about the Python Temple

From there, it was about an hour’s walk back to the beach along the “Route Des Esclaves” passing the various monuments and commemorative plaques about slavery along the way.  Luckily, since we had napped, we had skipped the hottest part of the day and were making this longer walk as the sunset approached.

About two-thirds of the way, we came across yet another voodoo ceremony being enjoyed by a rather large crowd of locals, all clapping and dancing to the music being played by men while a group of women danced and “performed” their ceremony to the onlookers.  I loved the fact that a good number of these women were elderly, and it didn’t inhibit them one bit in owning their movement to the music.

One of the fetishes along the “Route des Esclaves”

At one point, one of the oldest ladies feigned (whether “real” or not is ultimately in the eye of the beholder) possession and ran out into the crowd to grab someone, and the whole audience shrieked and took off in the opposite direction.  It appeared to be lighthearted, but again, it was a little difficult to tell.

Again, we were the only white people present and we got a mixed reception, some folks smiling and inviting us to take photos, while others appeared to be deeply suspicious and instructing us to put our cameras away.  It was a real shame that the folks from the truck, staying at a different hotel on the other side of the “Door of No Return” monument on the beach hadn’t known about this voodoo ceremony.  Mike and I were grateful to have yet again stumbled across one that tourists have to typically pre-arrange and then doubt its authenticity.

Monument to Benin Independence

It was almost dark when we got back to the beach, and we decided it might be nice to visit the truck’s hotel for a beer or two.  As it turned out, the hotel served pizza which was too good of an idea for us to pass.  We got to our hotel finally much later than planned, but bellies full of cheesy goodness.

The following day we took advantage of our nice digs for a relaxing morning by the pool.  Since leaving Accra, we had been going at quite a pace, and I for one was desperate for a few days to slow down.  Since it had been closed the day before, we headed back out along the beach that afternoon to visit the “Museum of Return” which honored the heritage of those who had been forcibly removed from Africa who were now being given an open invitation to return.

Ironically, the museum’s “Door of Return” remained locked and unattended even after we had waited and taken beers on the beach until the signposted re-opening hour.  Like sarcasm, I think irony is also lost on West Africans – as I received zero reaction from our hotel receptionist when I related this funny story to her.  Then again, it might have been my French.

Trying to get in through the Door of Return


Of note that afternoon was the fact that a local Benin man bought us a round of beers when we sat down at the beach bar waiting for the museum to re-open.  That was a first, and it was a most welcome sign of hospitality.

Being too lazy at this juncture to take public transport, we arranged a pretty decent cab fare to be driven the hour or so to our next point of interest – Grand Popo – a lovely beachside hotel called Auberge de Grand Popo, that would also house Dragoman for the next two nights.  Not only did Mike and I crave some more respite from our formerly chaotic pace of travel, but we also had a lot to discuss/arrange in regards to whether we were ending the trip in Lome/Accra – or whether we would continue traveling and visit Ethiopia together.

Our lovely room at the Auberge de Grand Popo

It was Jan 30th and we’d been traveling together for two weeks.  Originally, I was supposed to fly home on the 5th of February, so a decision had to be made soon and I was hoping for fast internet in order to accomplish all the research I would need to do.

The Auberge was gorgeous, historic, and beautifully kept with a location that I would gladly fly to just for a week’s vacation – if I lived in Europe.  The highlight was the restaurant, and though the food was a little expensive compared to what we had grown used to spending – it was still very affordable by western standards and boasted utterly delicious food.  On the first night, we ordered a shrimp cocktail followed by grilled prawns with rice and vegetables, topping it off with a raspberry sorbet for dessert.  It was phenomenal and paired with a couple of cocktails, I felt like I was home again.

Me, Mike and Liz enjoying our lovely meal in Grand Popo

We hung out that night deep in conversation with Liz and Sinead from the truck and it was really nice to be social with our friends again.  The whole next day I edited photos, wrote my blog, researched Ethiopia/flights, and took breaks to swim in the pool and walk along the beach.  I was feeling much restored especially with the lovely surroundings, good company, and delicious food.  I didn’t even want to leave the next day – but we needed to make our way to Togo and then on to Accra, having decided that we would fly to Addis Ababa from Accra and join the truck for their final goodbye party on a Saturday night in the Ghanaian capital.  Since we had missed so many of Accra’s main attractions during our first stay – it only made sense to go back – even if we had to finagle and pay for a transit visa for Mike – who opted to get a single entry visa for Ghana when first making his travel plans.

On the first of February, we left Grand Popo in a cab headed for the Togolese border.

Benin Part II – Stilt Villages and Voodoo


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The Stilt Village of Ganvie

The bus journey was actually quite comfortable.  If you can stand the fact that they insisted on blaring loud gospel music for hours starting at 6am, followed by God-awful Benin-ois soap operas played back to back for hours on end, all of which had essentially the exact same plot.  There would be a room of men shouting at one guy, the victim.  He would eventually get beaten with a stick and have his shirt taken from him while all the men continued yelling.  Then there would be a “romance” scene with a man and a woman in some passionate embrace, followed by them having a falling out.  The woman would then grasp her face in both hands, crying, and begging the man to not leave her (am guessing here) while he loudly berates her before storming out.  Then the final scene would be the crying woman seeking comfort from her father/friend about the awful man who’d yelled at her.

I swear it was the same plot every episode – and the people on the bus were absolutely mad for it and laughed up a storm.

The good thing about this very long journey was the fact that we had air conditioning.  The bus also actually stopped a number of times for bush pees – and I learned a fascinating thing.  The women in Benin use large rectangles of fabric, much like the material they use to tie a baby to their backs, to cover themselves while they squat and pee out in the open alongside the men!  It’s ingenious!  The only trick is to skip wearing panties, and presto – the woman’s nightmare of peeing in the bush in Africa in private is partially solved.

Our lovely air-conditioned bus from Tanguieta to Cotonou

Sure beats holding it in for hours, I can tell you.  I made a mental note to make better use of my sarong for next time.

After weeks and weeks of public transport and bus stations – I can tell you that what Africa needs above all else – is an abundance of clean, available, usable, public toilets.  We take toilets for granted.  Toilets are a luxury item.  And peeing isn’t a big deal for guys – though some very funny signs in Togo and Ghana warned that urination against a particular wall carried with it the penalty of death!

We got off the bus in Abomey-Cavalie, the town where there was a port where one could catch motorized pirogues (long wooden fishing boats) to the stilt villages of Ganvie.  Hundreds of years ago, the local people started building homes on the lake to try and escape being captured in the slave trade.  Since then, over 130,000 people now call these settlements in the middle of the lake home (and, presumably so does the raw sewage they must pump out into it on a daily basis…)

Men and women sporting matching outfits in pirogues in Ganvie

We were met with the normal swarm of moto-taxis vying for our business.  Two guys who were particularly aggressive told us they knew where our hotel was and started grabbing our bags before we had negotiated a price.  They asked for 1500 and I stated I wanted to pay 1200 and they started arguing violently talking about the price of gas, blah and blah as per normal.  However, they were also super pushy, so I decided against going with them and walked a little further down to a nice quiet rider who immediately agreed to my stated fare.  At that moment, the two guys who’d lost my business come over and start screaming at this man saying he doesn’t get to give me and Mike a ride.  This escalates and Mike and I take a step back as now a larger group of men are screaming at each other and starting to fight.  The whole thing is ridiculous.

A “supervisor” of sorts comes over and asks me what is going on.  I state that I want to ride with my chosen moto-taxi.  He takes our luggage and starts walking away and gives it to two totally new moto drivers and we are forced to leave this melee that is quickly worsening.  I turn around and try to tell the poor man who is being attacked that I’m sorry – and off we go.

Not exactly what we wanted for our first 10 minutes off an 11-hour bus ride.

We arrive at our accommodation for the night and immediately order some dinner and beer.  After half an hour, the driver who was attacked shows up to apologize.  He told us that the two guys who first tried to take us to our hotel were drunk and it was good that I had avoided them.  At first I am taken aback by his kindness, but then came the predictable “sob story/ask for help/please can I call you in the US and you can get me a visa?” part of the conversation.  By this point, I was hoarse with my standard sore throat/cough and could barely speak English, let alone French.  I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to send this poor guy away empty-handed.

I told him, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t help him come to America.  That it wasn’t the prized solution he thought it was – it was a tough and unforgiving place where you need to speak English, not French, to get by.  I told him if he was determined to leave Benin, he should consider France first – but also to consider that perhaps life in the West was not as glorified as he imagined.  I asked if he wanted the opportunity to make some money and make up for the business he had lost that evening.  He said yes.  So – I asked him what he would charge us to go buy phone credit for Mike and some cough/cold medicine for me.  After another short lecture on how important it is for him to decide what the value is for his time (since so many Africans rely on the “pay me whatever you think my services are worth to you” mentality) we came to an agreed amount.  He happily went and ran our errands for us, and we were able to pay him for his time.

It felt like a positive outcome from a negative event.

The following morning, we moto’ed again over to the port to await the arrival of our orange truck.  It felt a little weird and good at the same time to be seeing our friends again, and we soon got a message from Sinead that they were running a little behind schedule.  A commotion on the dock drew our attention and we wandered over, only to find ourselves in the midst of an annual Voodoo ceremony commemorating the start of the Voodoo calendar in Benin!  It was quite a spectacle.

Priest officiating the Voodoo Ceremony

Woman, feeling the “spirit” move her

There was a couple hundred people all dressed ornately in white, some with face tattoos/painting.  A priest, I’m assuming, was chanting over some lit candles which were, in fact, not candles at all but lit cigarettes mounted in a tall candle-holder.  He was holding a pigeon that was presumably going to get sacrificed.  All the while, musicians played rhythmically on drums, drawing shouts and dancing from the crowd.

After a few minutes, several women starting showing signs of contortion and flailing about, as if possessed.  They pawed at their own faces and started screaming in gibberish (though, of course, we couldn’t quite tell the local dialect from gibberish, so whether or not they were speaking in tongues or not remains a mystery.)  It was quite a spectacle and Mike and I were proud that we had taken the initiative of walking over and getting involved with this local ceremony – we were travelers, unlike the other white “tourists” who stood waiting for their own pirogues to show up on the docks – completely ignoring this authentic display of culture because it wasn’t a part of their organized itinerary.

Soon enough, the Dragoman truck showed up and we were greeted heartily by our friends old and new before piling into two boats that headed out into the lake.

The stilt village of Ganvie was a photographer’s dream because it was full of people going about their daily lives, so very different to any other we’d seen, because their life was on the water.  It was a Benin version of Venice.  In addition, since it was a Sunday, and the start of their New Year, many locals were dressed in their very best – and even better, entire boatloads of men and women passed by our chosen hotel for the night dressed in identical vibrantly colored and highly-patterned costumes.

One of our pirogues used to get to the island

Our hotel was very basic and unfortunately, not all rooms had fans in them and we were facing a very sleepless night in the bug-infested, hot and humid night air.  In addition, the hotel was built out of wood with very rickety floorboards that had massive gaps/holes in them – our room being situated above the kitchen such that we also got the conversations and the plethora of aromas rising up from below.  Add to that the fact that the bed was on a sloping floor, we both committed to sleeping somewhere out in the open that night – especially after deciding to move the bed clockwise so that the slope was from head to feet rather than lateral, and realizing too late that this meant our mosquito net would no longer fit the bed.

Some of the oldest structures on the lake – over 120 years old.

We passed lunch with beer catching up with friends and watching life boat by us on the water from the convenient balcony above the restaurant which afforded a great viewing platform.  In the afternoon, we ventured out onto the water once more, visiting more settlements, some of the oldest stilt homes in the lake, and a few mosques/churches built on the few land masses/islands that existed at the center of this large body of water.

The oil needed for boats, generators and cooking in these villages came from Nigeria – and we were shown the giant jerry-can laden boats that make the hazardous journey via the lake across the border to buy illegal oil to bring back in the dead and dark of night.  We were also lucky enough to spot some beautiful kingfishers diving for their own lunches in the water.

Offerings on the ground at the Voodoo Ceremony

On our return, we saw a huge line of boats with villagers all patiently waiting for fresh water that is presumably pumped from a spring hundreds of meters below the lake bed.  The water was being dispensed by a giant pipe that one by one was filling the huge water containers that locals used for their freshwater needs.

It was a sight to see and the line didn’t seem to grow any shorter as the sun began to set.

My night passed quite fitfully and awkwardly – maybe one of the worst I’d had in Africa yet on this trip.  Mike, I and Jodie all opted to vacate our “rooms” above the kitchen to place our mattresses on the second floor of the hotel in a wide open space at the top of the stairs.  The air was still and hot, but at least it was cooler than our fanless rooms.

After about an hour, Mike fast asleep, I noticed I was getting bitten all over by mosquitoes.  I decided to go back to the room, realizing though, that our bed no longer had a mattress on it!  Thankfully, I had my own inflatable sleeping pad, but once I placed it on the bed – I faced two issues.  One – the slats of the bedframe were too big to properly support my small pad, and Two – the mosquito netting only covered the pad partially, inviting my original problem back with a vengeance.

Realizing that Jodie had also left her room, I went next door and settled my sleeping pad on her bedframe which was made out of wire and therefore supported my pad.  Unfortunately, without her mattress on the bed frame, the mosquito net also didn’t quite reach me, and some of the little buggers were able to fly up for their blood-feed through the wire frame of the bed.

It was 2am by now and I was exasperated and tired.

I decided to take my sleeping pad and try the other side of the hotel where perhaps additional breeze meant fewer mozzies.  I found Ron, one of the trucks’ passengers trying to catch some Zzzz’s in a chair – telling me it was just too hot in his room to sleep.  Sympathizing, I offered him my sleeping pad, and resolved to go back to where Mike was still happily asleep.

I doused myself in extra repellant, took an ambien, and hoped for the best.  I finally managed to get a few hours’ sleep before having to awake for breakfast and our boat ride back to the mainland.

Grabbing our luggage from the hotel in Abomey-Cavalie, our guides from Ganvie were kind enough to drive us to a taxi rank and negotiate for us a ride to Ouidah – our next stop along the Benin coast.  Turns out that the screaming/arguing we had observed a few nights’ prior amongst moto and taxi drivers alike – is standard practice.  At least we weren’t involved this time as it took about 15 minutes for our guides to negotiate a fair and reasonable fair to the coast.  I was so tired, I was glad to have someone else deal with this apparently unavoidable discussion/fight that ensues at almost every stage of navigating the logistics of public transport.

Super happy and chillin’ in our lovely hotel pool in Ouidah

On arrival in Ouidah, we found a lovely and well-maintained, clean, rather upscale hotel with a beautiful pool only ten minutes’ walk from the beach.  I was thrilled, and after some lunch and a swim, enjoyed a glorious nap to make up for my prior mostly sleepless night.

Benin Part I: A Safari to Remember


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Beautiful bird in Penjari

The night in Fada N’Gourma luckily passed without incident, unless you count the fact that Mike and I both got up in the night and had to pee in our shower, since our bathroom was sans toilet.  We had to get transport to Pama and then onto the border with Benin from there, so the first order was to find a ride to where minibuses were heading south.  We had been seeing these tricycle trucks that were flatbed trucks being pulled by a motorcycle, and I couldn’t resist thumbing one down and asking if he would take us to the station.  At first, the guy was confused since he wasn’t a taxi – but gladly accepted our offer of money and we were happily on our way.  It was one of my favorite forms of transportation yet.

Happy on the Tricycle

Getting aboard the tricycle

Better yet, the guy driving knew exactly where to go, and I was lucky enough to be able to find a café that let me fill my Nalgene with coffee for the long journey ahead.

In a triangulation with 3 countries

The minibus was jam-packed and turned out to be one of the tightest squeezes on our foray into West African public transport to date.  At one point we were 23 people, 6 goats, a motorcycle strapped to the roof, luggage, jerry cans and even then 2 more people squeezed in through the back windows to fill any available pocket of air, regardless of whether an area of their butt actually touched a seat or not.  Mike and I were squished together to where we had to relieve certain areas of our body that had gone numb in unison, otherwise it was pointless.

I was pretty happy to get out of that transport once we were close to the border.

Guy getting in to the already crammed minibus through the window!

Our minibus

For the rest of the ride, we negotiated to go in a private taxi that wanted to take six people before it would leave.  Imagine riding with 2 people in the front seat and 4 squeezed into the back?  Yeah.  That is standard practice in Burkina.

To be able to get going faster and have a little more room, we negotiated to pay the cost of 5 seats so that the one person waiting could still go and we wouldn’t have to wait any longer.  All seemed to be going well until our driver decided it would be ok to try and make some extra cash along the way and leverage the fact that he already had six paid fares in the bag.  First, he picked up someone who rode in the front for five miles and then mysteriously got out.  Then, he tried to put a pregnant woman and her small daughter in the front seat sitting next to/on a man she’d never met.  We violently protested and, of course, insisted that she get in the back with us.  I complained to the driver who just kept saying it was only for a “short distance” – which was a blatant lie.

The woman, who at first was grateful, decided she could own her part of the back seat and gladly spread out herself and her child to where Mike and I were now squashed.  I assured the driver that he had broken his agreement with us and he was not gonna be getting the full fare.

How to wind up a window in Burkina Faso

I was well and truly convinced of this when he had the audacity to then further pick up another THREE guys and put them in the rear of the vehicle, crushed and sitting on top of our luggage.  I was livid at this point, and by the time Mike and I had made it through the border crossing and the extra hour to Tanguieta, the town we would stay at in order to visit Penjari National Park the next day, I was determined to only pay for 3 of 6 seats and geared up for a confrontation.

I gave the money to the driver, got out of the taxi and walked straight into our hotel for the night – and the taxi drove away without saying a word.


Mike climbing onto the “death seat”

Exhausted, hot, sweaty and irritated – we still had to figure out transport and a guide for tomorrow, as well as figure out communication/SIM cards for our time in Benin.  After a shower and beer on the rooftop terrace, we started feeling a little better.  The hotel contacted a local guide, Charles, who came over to the hotel to explain what would be involved in a visit to Penjari the next day. Another guy who worked for the hotel in maintenance had also been kind enough to go into town and register SIM cards for Mike and I.  We offered to pay him for his trouble and he actually turned it down.  We were shocked – that was a first in Africa.   Charles explained that this was not that uncommon and that the Beninoise people were very hospitable by nature and truly wanted visitors to feel welcome.

We were going to need to be ready to leave the next day at 4:30am in order to get to the park at a reasonable hour to spot wildlife.  We would rent a private 4×4 vehicle and complete a full game drive till around 2pm when we would leave the park and head to a waterfall for a refreshing swim.  We then negotiated into our private tour the option to visit a traditional Tata Somba house in the evening before returning to the hotel.


Baby Elephant

Charles didn’t disappoint.  Unfortunately, despite being promised repeatedly that there would be a packed/prepared breakfast ready for us to take on safari at 0500 – the restaurant was closed and no-one who was awake knew or cared enough to find out where our promised food order was.  This meant that we would have to go till 2pm without refreshment as there was apparently no services inside the park until we had reached a distance where the two lodges were located.  Luckily, Charles knew of a shack that sold coffee and eggs that was open at this ungodly hour.

Not only was it open, but they were literally blasting a full on action movie at that time.  It was something to behold.  Armed with coffee and baguettes with fried eggs – we could finally be on our way.

We tried to get some sleep but the road was just too bumpy.  We arrived at the park around 6am and had to register.  Then Charles put up the rooftop seat for us to climb into for our private game drive.  Apart from the fact that the seat up there had no guard rail and a large bump in the road or an overly enthusiastic right turn would result in certain death for the unfortunate occupant of that side of the seat or both – it was super fun being up there.

Beautiful Penjari Lodge where we had lunch

Mike, ever the gentleman

I’d say the wildlife here was far less habituated to humans than we had seen in Mole and so, Penjari became a highlight for us.  Aside from the expected crocodiles, hippos, baboons, oodles of antelope (JAFA, or AKA Just another fucking antelope) elephant and warthogs, we also saw red colobus monkey and some incredibly colorful birds that I can’t remember the names of, but will try to include photos of lhere.

We were altogether quite happy with our decision to visit, and yet, the highlight of our day was to come during our lunch stop at the Penjari Lodge.  I had requested to dine at this accommodation because I knew they had a watering hole and I thought we might be able to view more wildlife while having lunch.  As it turned out, it was a beautiful spot and rather swanky to boot – and despite the fact that they told us the kitchen didn’t serve lunch, per se, and we could only have spaghetti with tomato sauce – we were quite happy to enjoy cold beer and our simple meal while watching for more animals.

During our meal, the waiter came over to tell us that a lion had been spotted at the watering hole.  We excitedly made our way over and looked through our own binoculars as well as with the hotel’s own standing powerful scope that afforded a very clear close up of the two lionesses who were walking together around the water.  It was such a treat to see big cats – which are rarely spotted anywhere in West Africa anymore.  After about a half hour, satisfied, we returned to finish our now-cold spaghetti.

A huge herd of Hartebeest started approaching the watering hole and also a family of warthogs (well, I like to think they were a family, but I really have no clue).  The lions were nowhere to be seen, but the herd was beautiful to see nonetheless.

Just as I had grown tired of watching them and was about to go back yet again to our table, Mike shrieks and says “Oh My God!  One of the lionesses just grabbed an antelope!” and in an instant I spun around to see the cloud of red dust from which emerged the gruesome sight of an unfortunate Hartebeest with its neck in the jaws of one lioness while the other was chewing away at its intestines and leg.  This was my second time seeing a “kill” in the wild, and I couldn’t believe we were so lucky as to have such a clear view of what in reality was a good distance away, through the hotel’s scope.  I started screaming in French in case any of the other guests of the hotel were in earshot and wanted to witness this spectacle.

Lionesses with their kill

Lions at the watering hole

Incredibly, people seemed totally nonplussed at this awesomeness and we continued to have the viewing platform to ourselves, and we were giddy as children with toys.

As gruesome as it was to watch, it was still just astonishing.  These cats really play with their food.  This animal was being eaten alive – it took a full ten minutes for it to die.  One cat just held it in its mouth, allowing the other to eat.  You could see the ring of blood around her mouth as she munched away.

In any case, we were grinning from ear to ear when we left and Mike was excited to see what shots he’d managed to capture on his zoom camera.  Charles was happy for us – he didn’t get to see it at all as he was attending to our rented vehicle whose wheel had decided to come loose…luckily for us, right as we arrived at the lodge.

If the lion kill hadn’t been entertaining enough, Charles woke us both from afternoon naps on the way out to see a herd of elephants that were crossing the road right in front of the car, including a few juveniles.  As we stood up out of the car to get a better look, the dominant male starting to charge our vehicle!  We jumped back inside and Charles floored it out of there.  So exciting!

By the time we reached the waterfall it was after 4 in the afternoon and blazing hot.  It was a nice 30- minute walk to the lower falls and we cheerfully noted that we passed the campground where the Dragoman truck had stayed just three days prior.  After a refreshing swim in and around the falls, and watching the daredevil climbing antics of a few locals – it was time to head back to Tanguieta.  I did purchase some drop earrings made from bone that were being sold by a local artist – it’s so rare that I buy souvenirs, but this had been a special day for sure.

Mike and I at the first waterfall

Refreshing dip at the second waterfall

Despite our blinding exhaustion, Charles said that he had promised us a Tata Somba tour, and by God, despite the growing darkness, he was going to show us one.  These are traditional homes in the north of Togo and Benin that are designed to house livestock in the ground floor of the home along with a kitchen, and the roof contains other rooms where the family sleep, eat, and where grains/foods are stored.  We got a tour by a very enthusiastic Tata Somba occupant, and managed to take just a few flash-produced photos before I insisted Charles drive us back to our lodging at Hotel Atacora because we had now had a 15-hour day-trip and I was so tired I no longer knew my own name.

Me climbing to the roof of this traditional Tata Somba home

Unfortunately, there is no rest for the wicked, and the next day we were going to be leaving the hotel at 0500 to catch the 0600 bus that would be taking us all. The. Way. South. To Abomey-Calavie – a stop just short of Cotonou, and a journey which promised to be about 11 hours long.  We would be re-joining our friends on the Dragoman truck the following day on an overnight stay/tour to the stilt villages of Ganvie.

Burkina Fasso Part II: Royalty and what you do-do in Ouagadougou


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Riding a bicycle around Tiabele

Sleeping out on the roof was quite the experience and the stars were absolutely brilliant and shone magically, aided by the lack of streetlights. It will be something I will always remember, especially listening to the village noises in the night. We had heard drumming at around 1 in the morning (apparently there had been a funeral) and a rather upset donkey who brayed at regular intervals through the night, matched only in force by several roosters who I’d gladly see shot. Upon rising to take breakfast and returning – we even found little goats prancing around our mattress, having jumped onto the roof in curiosity.

Our bed for the night was a mattress on the roof of the traditional style home. In the morning, goats were frolicking about.

Arnaud’s cousin, Herman, would take us on the tour that day since he did speak some (broken) English, and with my broken French – we made a passable attempt at understanding one another. The royal court housed approximately 300 people and was marked at its entrance by a seating area surrounding an altar-like building and a mound behind that, rather disturbingly, we were informed contained the buried placentas of all the descendants of the King of Tiabele.

Ok, then.

And so began the running theme of the day: what men can do and what women can/can’t do in this tribe. To start, this seating area was reserved only for men – it was forbidden for women to sit here. Then we were shown the various structures for dwelling – the rectangular houses for grandparents and the children/unmarried women – the round houses for single men over the age of sixteen (who get to live alone while women have to do as grandma says till she finds a man) and the hexagonal units for couples.

The homes in the Royal Court

Built out of clay, these homes all have very low door entrances, presumably to keep the interiors cool. Once inside the initial room, they can extend another two to three rooms further back, with each room requiring a dexterous crawl to enter. Though super impressive in terms of the organization and how there was a place for every conceivably needed tool, I started getting super claustrophobic at the thought of needing to crawl 3 times before getting to daylight again.

Each March, after the harvest, the women of the village use local plants/reeds to make inks that they use to paint the homes with symbols like turtles, trees, birds and all kinds of patterns. Just the women. (Me, rolling my eyes.)

After the royal court, we got on scooters and had Herman and his cousin Charles take us to another village where we had a woman show us how she made pottery, and another village called Tangassouko. For me, the most memorable time during this very hot afternoon, was stopping in the shade at this brightly green painted bar in the middle of nowhere for cold beer and donuts. Somehow, Africans always forget to include plans for refreshment and peeing in their trips.

They’d get more tips if they did.

Could this dude, in Tiabele, be any cooler if he tried?? Check out those shades!!

After a much needed nap, we then rented bicycles and after a slight delay getting new SIM cards cut to nano size, and a foray to the market in search of paw paw, and an improvised way to eat it, we set off on the very dusty road out of town in search of the nearby lake.

This was my first time on a bike in West Africa and incredibly, this rickety old cruiser fit me perfectly. We were quite a sight to the locals and quickly stirred up lots of kissy noises (sound Africans make to get someone’s attention) waves, and invitations to come over to where they were socializing.

Woman making pottery

We stuck to our bikes as the sun was already starting to set and we didn’t want to have to return in pitch darkness.   As it turned out, we did, because we decided to make one more stop for a drink at a roadside café that was playing too good of a reggae beat to pass up.

We used our iPhones as bike lights for the return to our Auberge and dinner.

Arnaud was a musician and he had planned a musical performance and dance for a group of Belgians that had arrived that day, and us, that evening at the Auberge. It was actually rather good, it felt genuine and was especially entertaining when about 20 children poured into the courtyard and took turns showing us their mad skills at the traditional form of Tiabele dance, which involved a lot of stamping and rhythmic arm movements. We westerners often got pulled into the circle, but alas, our skills were quite lacking.

Mike was very thankful when the festivities ended around 10 o’clock and like the true grandma and grandpa that we had become, we exhaustedly hobbled up the steps to our rooftop mattress for the night.

Arnaud and his band entertain us with song and dance

We had learned that there was a minibus going directly from Tiabele to Ouagadougou that Tuesday morning at 7am, and that would save us from needing to rent the car for another day. Since the bus was leaving from the center of town, a dusty ½ mile away, Arnaud had offered to pick us up on his moto (or at least our luggage) at 6:30 to drop us there.

Unfortunately, he didn’t show up and we started walking ourselves in the dawn light, armed with packed coffee for the minibus. Herman walked up and said goodbye and that Arnaud was still asleep. That riled me up and I called him. He lied and said that he was working with the Belgians. He didn’t know that Herman had just told me he was still sleeping, and moreso, that the Belgians were staying at the same Auberge as us and we had seen a handful of them up brushing their teeth or sleeping – so it was a rather obvious lie.

When I pointed out that he’d offered us a lift to the bus the day before, he paused, remembered, and said he was “coming”.

About 100 meters from the bus, he pulled up on his motorbike and started telling me how my French is bad and that I had misunderstood him yesterday. I thought: Is it really necessary to drive all this way just to insult your paying guests who are about to leave? Even IF I had misunderstood his offer to give us a ride to the bus, was it necessary to come over just to tell us that? And not, instead, just apologize for the confusion and wish us a good onward journey? Thank us for visiting?

Burkina might be suffering from a lack of tourists, but Arnaud was not helping himself out in any way by treating the rare guests he did get badly.

Luckily, we made the Tro Tro and got the front seats again. The tro tro left five minutes early and we were on the way to Paga. The coffee I had mixed with milk from yesterday and I think it had gone a little bad because I had explosive diarrhea on arrival in Ouaga and fortunately found a bathroom in a hotel in the nick of time while a taxi waited for us.

The journey had taken five hours in total from Tiabele and there hadn’t been much to see other than a group of elephants that were on the side of the highway just north of Paga! The driver seemed very happy about that. Our seats were relatively comfortable except for the fact that the gear shift was literally against my left leg and the driver had to touch and move my leg away every time he wanted to shift.

Entering Ouagadougou

Burkina and all the northern latitude locales in West Africa are so full of dust, red dirt and pollution this time of year that my cough was back in full force, and Mike’s throat would swell up each night and he was suffering with nose bleeds. This has made traveling here that much more arduous and I haven’t really felt well since we left Amedzofe. I am almost recovered now, writing this from the beach in Benin.

Taking the oldest and most unreliable vehicle you’ve ever seen – we made our way through the capital to our reserved hotel for the night – Hotel de la Liberte. Mike has converted me to – and it is super fun to be able to direct a taxi driver how/where to get somewhere, offline, in his city – better than he knows it himself. This cab was so old there was a thick film of dust all across the dash, the roof was sagging, and the windows were permanently rolled down.

Our hotel could not have been more of a welcome oasis. Quiet, clean, simple, with a lovely back courtyard bar/restaurant and just enough creature comforts in our second floor room to offer us some needed rest after our journey.

We later ventured out on foot, with caution, to Kwame Nkrumah street. We had decided to get coffee and cake at Cappuccino, figuring that with the armed guards and body scanner at its entrance, this was probably the safest place for us to hang out, despite its awful history. We ordered cappuccinos, a strawberry cream cake and a chocolate mousse cake.


Coffee and cakes at Cappuccino!

Walking back through the city, we debated whether to get a cab as the light was fading, and decided together that we both felt quite safe and this was a chance to get some exercise and take in the city’s vibe.

There are a lot of motorbikes in Ouaga…far more than in other cities. People often carry a scar on their cheek, which is intentionally cut into the face of babies to signify their tribe. The practice is very common in Benin too. Streets were wide and buildings spread out and designed in such a way that Ouaga reminded me very much of Harare. It was, of course, dirty and littered trash was visible everywhere alongside the roads. We passed businesses of a large variety and tried to avoid the darkest of streets. On arrival at our hotel, we found there was a power outage, so we waited for the lights to come back on before ordering a simple dinner.

We were, as yet, undecided as to whether we would stay another day in the city or not – and fell asleep committed to making plans in the morning.

As it turned out, our goal was to meet back up with the truck in Ganvie on the 28th of January. If we still wanted to see Pendjari National Park in northern Benin, we would have to leave the next day and get as close to the border as we could.

So we opted to get a taxi to take us to a number of the more tourist “sites” in the city for some photo opportunities, and then to take us to the Autogare for the bus that headed east to Fada N’Gourma at either 12 or 2pm– information obtained with great effort in over an hour of conversation and calls with the front desk lady at our hotel.

Ouaga Sculpture

God how we take getting information as simple as bus departure times via the internet at home for granted!!!!

Our taxi driver, being a little overzealous in his estimation of speed, got us to the station after the 12pm bus had already left. Luckily, there was a waiting area with a TV playing the move Alien: Resurrection, in French to keep us entertained.

The signs said the next bus to Fada was at 1500. The guy who sold me tickets confirmed that there was a bus at 1400. Then another guy asked to check my tickets and told me I had tickets for the 0600 bus and that I should go back to the window. More questions, and the ticket guy just crossed the 0600 time out in colored marker and wrote 1400 in, which seemed to appease the other guy.

Seriously, NOTHING is simple here. Fucking NOTHING.

In need of a beer, Mike agreed to let me walk down the dusty main street in search of one for him and I. I finally came across a street side bar that was full of men, four across sitting at the bar directly opposite me, staring in disbelief. One asked “who are you? Who do you think you are, as a woman buying beer in the middle of the day?’ – or, at least, something to this effect. I replied “Une femme qui a soif “ or a woman who is thirsty. All four of them raised their glass to me at that, and it was quite a funny moment.

After our beer, we boarded our old, falling apart, large, but comfortable bus that was heading to Fada. We got a row of seats each and despite it being very hot and dusty – it was actually a rather comfortable journey of five hours.

Me getting dust off our nasty mattress

Our crack den for the night in Fada

We arrived in Fada just after 7 and I immediately thought I’d landed in post-war zone Iraq. At least what I imagined that would look like. It was desolate, dark and covered in red dirt streets. We walked to a hotel that we’d found in the Bradt guide and found an abandoned building.

Not a good sign.

Taking two motorbikes across the river to a second guesthouse – we found what appeared to be the same thing (we later found out that the lights were just turned off and that we could have stayed there…I guess if we’d yelled loud enough?) and then found a guesthouse that was open, but no one had stayed there in over a year – or so it seemed by the layer of dust on the crappy mattress and the cobwebs in the ceiling.

Mike told me to take a breath and deal – it was, after all only $10 for the night.

Strangely enough, we managed to have one of our best meals of the trip that night which came to $4 including a beer each.

Tomorrow, we’d be heading to the Benin border!