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?”
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.”
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: