Getting to Harar: riding the bus through eastern Ethiopia

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, harar
It’s good to be back in Ethiopia again.
I’ve noticed some changes since my last trip to Ethiopia. More high-rises are going up in the capital Addis Ababa and ATMs have finally appeared. The Internet is faster too, although it isn’t the full broadband promised by the government.
Addis is fun, but my real destination is Harar, a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Harar is reached by a ten-hour bus ride run by two companies–Salaam Bus and Sky Bus. I’m taking Sky Bus (“German technology, Chinese price”) which like its rival offers modern coaches, breakfast, and even a TV playing Ethiopian movies and music videos. This luxury can’t change the fact that you’re stuck in a bus for ten hours, though.
For some reason Ethiopians like to start long trips at an ungodly hour of the morning, so at 5:30am we set out through the darkened streets of Addis Ababa. The only people on the streets are a few sad-eyed prostitutes and drunks staggering home, and joggers zipping along during the only hours the streets aren’t choked with exhaust. A homeless man, bulky under layers of rags, grasps a telephone pole and does a series of quick deep-knee bends.
The sky brightens to the east as the buildings thin out and the countryside opens up. Thatched roof huts called tukuls dot the landscape like haystacks. Farmers with adzes over their shoulders stroll to their fields while tiny children wield thin sticks to control herds of goats.
The road is asphalt all the way but modernity creates its own hazards. Increased speed on aged, bald tires leads to blowouts and more than once we have to creep along the edge of the road to pass overturned trucks. One blocks the road entirely. The bigger vehicles turn around back in the direction of Addis, now two hours behind us. My heart sinks. Our driver doesn’t like that option so he steers the bus off road. Thorn trees scrape the metal sides of the bus like witches’ fingernails. We run over several bushes and sharp stones and I’m positive we’ll puncture a tire, but we emerge victorious back on the road and speed along. Not two miles further on we pass an overturned beer truck. Smashed bottles lie in glittering heaps and the tang of alcohol wafts through the cabin.Little else happens and I feel a bit lonely. Last time I did this route I was sitting in the middle of a half dozen college girls who all wanted to practice their English. Harar was taking care of me even before I arrived. This time the woman next to me gives me a friendly smile and a hello as she sits down and the proceeds to ignore me for the next ten hours. That’s a Western trait I hope doesn’t catch on in Ethiopia. I stare out the window. The defunct Addis-Djibouti railway snakes by, its rails slowly rusting under the sun. We pass little villages next to sheer gorges cut into the hard-baked soil. In the rainy season they become filled with raging torrents. Now none of them have more than a trickle.
We stop for a pee break. The men stand behind thorn bushes as the women cross the street and squat behind a low ridge. As I come back to the bus I see the driver throwing out a pile of trash into the field. All along Ethiopia’s roads you can see plastic bags blowing in the wind. The Ethiopians don’t think anything of it now but some day they’ll regret it.
Then it’s another several hours before we stop at Hirna, a collection of concrete buildings on either side of the highway, for lunch at a noisy little two-room restaurant. I look in vain for an empty table until a man waves me over with a hand covered in sauce.
“I’m Kete, want some lamb?” he asks as he indicates a platter of injera bread and a long bone with some meat stuck to it.
I roll up my sleeve and order a cup of rich Ethiopian coffee. All food is finger food here. You tear off a piece of bread and dip it in some sauce, or use it to grab some meat from the lamb shank.
Kete works for an NGO helping children orphaned by AIDS. They provide education, vocational training, and healthcare. I’ll be covering their branch in Addis later in this series. We chat until his phone rings and he’s called off to a meeting. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “work never stops. Enjoy your trip.”
Soon our driver comes through the restaurant clapping his hands to tell us to get back onto the bus. The highway to the east of Hirna winds up and down a series of ever higher hills. The land is drier but people still wrest a life out of it. Ever since leaving Addis we’ve been driving through the Oromo region. The Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups and populate the region all the way to the Somali lowlands. Harar is an island in the middle, separate from but reliant on the surrounding Oromo.
We arrive in the mid-afternoon and park on the main street connecting the new city with the Jugol, the walled medieval Harar. My spirits lift immediately. I say goodbye to Mrs. Silent, grab my backpack, and head towards my hotel. A bejaj, one of the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia, sputters up and the driver asks, “Where are you going?”
“Ras Hotel.”
“I’ll take you there for 15 birr.”
“Fifteen birr? It’s only a five-minute walk away.”
He looks confused.
“You’re been here before?”
“Yes, last year.”
He grins and shouts “Welcome back!”
He does a quick 180 and speeds off, one hand still waving.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities!

Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s new flower

When I talk to NGO workers who have worked all over Africa, most say their favorite posting was Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s capital is a young city, founded by the Empress Itegue Taitu in the late nineteenth century. She named it the “new flower”, and while the pollution and crowded streets don’t give a very flowery impression, it’s still an enjoyable and easy city to visit.

I’ve already mentioned my first impressions and talked about the cafes of Addis Ababa, but there are many more things to do than simply sitting around sipping world-class macchiatos. Here are a few highlights.

Art Galleries. “Addis”, as residents affectionately called their city, is home to a thriving arts scene. Two galleries rise to the top. The Asni Gallery in the Entonto hills overlooking the city offers a cool, green getaway from the busy city. A ramshackle old house features exhibitions by local painters and multimedia artists, while the garden outside has an interesting collection of sculptures made from found objects, like this curious contraption beside which yours truly is posing in such a dignified manner. The gallery of Kristos Solomon Belachew next to the Itegue Taitu Hotel will enchant anyone who appreciates art. This third-generation painter has a style rooted in traditional themes, with vibrant colors depicting historic or Biblical scenes. His works are quite affordable and make unique gifts or mementos. We bought three pieces. Kristos is a fascinating man to talk to and a visit to his gallery/workshop will give you a deeper appreciation of Ethiopian art.

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Museums. The National Museum of Ethiopia is justly famous for its collection of fossil hominids, including the famous Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One gripping display shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance, shattering Creationist mythology in a single room. Other rooms show the evolution of animals such as the horse. The rest of the museum is less impressive, with meager collections from Ethiopia’s many ancient empires poorly explained with minimal signage. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is more user-friendly. Housed in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces on the green and pleasant campus of Addis Ababa University, it features a beautiful collection of Ethiopian art as well as cultural artifacts. Long descriptions help the visitor put what they’re seeing into context. You can also visit the upper stories of the palace, where the emperor’s private quarters are still preserved, right down to his baby blue bidet.

Dining. With Ethiopian food being consistently good, few restaurants really stand out. The one at the Finfine Hotel and hot springs is the oldest in the city and serves flavorful national food and sweet, smooth tej. If gloppy stuff on injera is beginning to get tiring, go to Castelli’s, a old-school Italian restaurant run by very old-school Italians. It attracts an interesting mix of expats, tourists, and upper class locals.

Shopping. Addis boasts the largest open-air market in Africa, the Merkato. It’s as big as a medium-sized town and sells anything you can imagine that’s legal, and many things that are not. While a trip through its myriad lanes is popular with visitors, a trustworthy guide is essential as the area abounds with thieves. There are plenty of other shops and smaller markets throughout town that sell the usual tourist knick-knacks, a fine selection of leather goods, Ethiopian music, and colorful crafts from Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. For some reason there’s a severe shortage of postcards; they’re almost impossible to find outside of the main tourist areas so buy them when you see them!

Where to stay. We tried only one hotel in Addis, the Itegue Taitu. It was the first hotel in Ethiopia, and features a grand old wooden staircase and balconies. It’s a bit worse for wear and desperately needs the remodel they are slowly getting around to. Even with the creaky floors and dingy bathrooms, it’s a wonderful place to stay. The back porch is relaxing, the restaurant is one of the best in the city, and the staff are truly kind and helpful. It makes for a good introduction to Ethiopia, both the good and the not-so-good. When I go back, I won’t consider staying anywhere else.

Getting around. Addis is spread out and not very walkable. Luckily there’s an excellent and cheap network of minibuses. A bit of experimenting and asking for directions will help you figure out how to get from A to B, and you’ll usually end up in some interesting conversations on the way. City buses are also numerous, but are crowded, only marginally cheaper, and popular with pickpockets. Taxis are everywhere but as with many countries it’s best to settle the price beforehand. In general, Ethiopian taxi drivers are far less annoying and greedy than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

So if you go to Ethiopia, spare a few days for Addis Ababa. Of the thirty capital cities I’ve visited, it’s one of the most enjoyable.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel articles.

Next time: the medieval walled city of Harar!

First impressions of Ethiopia

They say first impressions are lasting impressions, and while that’s a cliché, strong first impressions of a country can tell you a lot.

I’ve been in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for four days now. My wife has just joined me and I’m treating her to a two-week road trip around the historic northern part of the country to celebrate our tenth anniversary. Memories make the best presents, after all.

This is our first time in sub-Saharan Africa and we’ve both been taken by surprise, summed up by my wife’s assessment of the Ethiopians: “They’re like us.”

(She’s Spanish, so when she says “us” she means Mediterranean people.)

To a great extent they are–in attitudes, priorities, even many mannerisms. With 1500 years of Christianity and an even longer period of nationhood, along with several centuries of Islamic learning and contact with the Mediterranean, Middle East, and South Asia, they’ve developed a culture similar enough to Southern Europe to be recognizable while different enough to be intriguing.

Take social life, for instance. Ethiopians have a great cafe culture and love to while away the hours sipping coffee, chatting with friends, and reading the paper at their favorite cafe. Addis Ababa has a wealth of cafes, both traditional and modern, to suit every mood. The Ethiopians discovered coffee, and it’s equally excellent everywhere, so you pick your place by location and decor.

Their attitude to education is similar to ours too. Private schools abound, the capital has plenty of good bookshops, and every city of any size has at least one university. I’ll be taking a closer look at the schools in a later post in the series.

There’s a relaxed relationship between the sexes here that’s much like our own. While many people frown on premarital sex, that doesn’t stop them from having dating. This has a beneficial effect for female Western travelers in that they won’t be constantly harassed by chronically lonely men like often happens in northern India and parts of the Middle East. Both male and female travelers will receive a fair amount of innocent flirting, though. Considering how good looking the Ethiopians are, this isn’t a bad thing.

%Gallery-85449%I’m ashamed to admit that I thought Addis Ababa was going to be dirty. While it’s a poor city, a small army of street sweepers keeps it pretty tidy. They can’t stop the dust that blows everywhere, though, and the pollution is as bad as a Western city during rush hour. One stark difference is the poverty. There are countless beggars. Many of them are farmers whose crops have failed and they’ve been forced to come to the city to find food. Others are handicapped or have suffered injuries that keep them from working. More prosperous Ethiopians readily give to beggars and don’t judge them simply because they’re poor. This is a pleasant difference from our own culture.

So in the first four days we haven’t had any real culture shock. Expats living in Addis Ababa say it’s easy to slip into daily life here. The Ethiopians we know in Madrid say the same thing about Spain!

Of course we’ve only seen the capital city so far and talked to members of only three of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, so as we travel around Ethiopia for the next two months I suspect we’ll discover many differences.

But I bet we’ll find some more similarities too.

Coming attractions: Ethiopia

There aren’t many countries that can truly call themselves unique. France has great cuisine, but so does Italy. India has challenging and beautiful mountaineering routes, and so does Peru.

But Ethiopia really is unique. It’s the only African country that was never colonized, and as far as paleontologists can tell, it’s where the human race evolved from our earlier ancestors.

Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley is a treasure trove of fossils that have revealed our origins from something not quite human and not quite ape, and our slow evolution into something more recognizable. These fossils, including the famous Lucy, are on show at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The great lesson evolution has to teach us is that we’re all related. Ethiopia is everyone’s hometown.

Ethiopia’s great history didn’t end with simply giving birth to the human race. It was home to a series of important civilizations that left a rich cultural legacy. The country boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the eleven churches of Lalibela cut out of solid rock. The one pictured here is called Bete Medhane Alem (“Savior of the World”) and is believed to be the largest rock-hewn church anywhere. Another entry to the list is the ancient capital of Aksum with its towering monoliths. Aksum’s rulers controlled one of the ancient world’s great empires for a thousand years from about 50 BC until 950 AD.

Ethiopians are proud of their history and near Aksum is the battlefield of Adowa, where in 1896 an Italian army determined to colonize the country was gobbled up by a well-armed and disciplined Ethiopian force in one of the biggest defeats of a colonial force by a native army in history. The Italians returned in 1935 under Mussolini, this time with tanks and poison gas, and took over for a few brutal years, but they never really controlled the country and got promptly ejected during World War Two.This is a large nation, almost twice the size of France, with several different cultural and ethnic groups and a mix of Christian, Muslim, and animist beliefs. The population of 79 million speaks 83 languages and more than 200 dialects. In the rugged highlands of the north are the Amhara and Tigrayana, who are mostly Christian. In the dry east are the Muslim Harari, whose main city of Harar is considered one of the holiest cities of Islam. The grasslands to the south are home to the Oromo, who embrace various faiths, and tribal animist cultures such as the Mursi, who are famous for the giant rings they put through their lower lips. There are many more ethnic groups, but it would take a book to cover them all.

One aspect of Ethiopian culture many people in the West have discovered is the food. There’s Ethiopian coffee, of course. Coffee was discovered coffee here and the Ethiopians have a pleasant ceremony to celebrate drinking it with friends. There’s also distinct cuisine that’s beginning to catch on in the West. A spongy, slightly sour bread called injera provided a base for a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. There’s lots for vegetarians to eat in Ethiopia, plus Wednesdays and Fridays are traditional fasting days when most restaurants and private homes won’t serve meat. Ethiopian restaurants have become popular in the U.S. and U.K. and provide a good introduction to the cuisine. If you’re in London, try Merkato Restaurant on 196 Caledonian Road. The best I’ve had in England!

If nature is more your style then try the wild and rugged Semien Mountains, another World Heritage Site, that offers unspoiled trekking where you can see rare species found only in Ethiopia, such as the Ethiopian wolf and Gelada baboon. You might also want to dare the Danakil Depression in the extreme northeast. An inhospitable desert 100 meters below sea level, it’s seen a record high of 64.4°C (148.0°F) and regularly gets up to 48 °C (118 °F).

Get there

A number of airlines fly to Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Since it isn’t a hugely popular destination prices aren’t very competitive but they aren’t outrageous if you shop around. I got a flight on Egyptair from Madrid via Cairo to Addis Ababa for only 550 euros ($830). Few flights from Europe are direct; most stop in the Gulf or North Africa. One odd thing is that many flights land in the wee hours of the morning. I’m getting in at 4am, so I guess I’ll just change some money at the 24-hour bank, hope one of the airport cafes is open, and wait until sunrise.

I’ll be there from February 9-March 27. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see Ethiopia. I’ve been studying the history for years and talking to every expat I can find. Now I’m finally going there! Expect to see lots more about this fascinating country on Gadling.

Archeological adventures in East Africa

Ethiopian Airlines has teamed up with the Tanzanian Tourist Board to offer a unique travel experience to East Africa, in which travelers will go on an archeological adventure that will send them in search of the Lost Ark and to the depths of the Olduvai Gorge, believed to be the “Cradle of Mankind”.

The eleven-day journey begins in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and quickly moves to the ancient city of Axum, rumored to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Legend has it that the holy relic was brought there by the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon thousands of years ago, and that it remains in an isolated chapel to this day. While in Ethiopia, travelers will also visit Lalibela, the site of 12 churches craved out of the very rock itself.

After exploring the mysteries of Ethiopia, the adventure will continue in Tanzania, with a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater and the Olduvai Gorge, home to the first humans and the very spot where the first humanoid skull was found 50 years ago. The journey will finish up with a Serengeti safari before travelers return home.

To find out more about this amazing trip, visit www.seeyouinethiopia.com/archeology. This special tour, which includes all transporation and accomodations, is offered for a limited time only.