Africa, Culture, Destinations, History, Travel Tips

The Good, the Bad and the UGLY (Ethiopia)

January 30, 2009 • By

Hi everyone:

I know I worried many of you but I am safe (maybe not sound) and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. For starters, they only have dial up internet and for several reasons unknown to me the government refuses to get high speed Internet but I will discuss my theories on this country later.

Let me start from the beginning. There were two places I studied as a youngster: Tanzania and Ethiopia and therefore had always wanted to see both of them when I grew up (I guess that means now). We all know what happened in Tanzania. Now let me fill you in on the last 10 days in Ethiopia.


Ethiopia is divided into North and South with Addis Ababa, a major metropolitan city slam dunk in the middle. The country used to border the Red Sea but various wars and land grabs have left it land locked (surrounded by fun neighbors: Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya). Many of you have probably heard about the discovery of LUCY, the remains of the oldest living human being. Lucy was found in Ethiopia. Her remains date back approximately 4.4 million years ago. More recently foreigners are probably aware of the Derg coming to power in the 70s and the extreme famine and poverty suffered by the people of Ethiopia.

I visited Addis Ababa and the northern historic route consisting of Lalibela, Bahir Dahr, Gonder and Axum. Addis is insane. It is filled with people who have either no knowledge of birth control or no desire to limit their offspring to less than 7. The city is fast-paced and filled with restaurants, bars and a fair amount of museums and historical monuments. The government is trying to control the number of shacks being built but to give you an idea pretty much everywhere you look you see shacks. They are somewhat different than other countries but the basics are the same….aluminum or thatched roofs and dung (animal crap) and straw and bits of wood holding the sides together. There is a major market in the center of town and people sell everything from t-shirts to mobile phones and fruits and vegetables. There is also an enormous international presence whether it’s NGOs or the United Nations. The national language in Ethiopia is Amharic, which is similar to Judaism but still nothing like it. Many people speak English and it is taught in the schools here.

Tourists either take the northern route (historic) or the southern route (safari mountains and more tribes) when visiting Ethiopia. Let me warn you in advance. Ethiopia has never been a colony and they have no desire to conform to western ways. More on that later.

The Food:

If you are a foodie, then you would love the food in Ethiopia. It is incredible. They eat a pizza/pancake like bread called enjera. Unfortunately, they eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After 10 days, I am about done with enjera but it is mighty tasty. Picture a huge pancake about 12×12 with all these types of dipping sauces on top of it. You take the enjera and rip it and sort of use your fingers to scoop up the sauces. The locals are obviously used to eating this type of food and therefore do not need napkins. I, however, require the use of several napkins but instead had to lick my fingers as restaurants don’t seem to care about napkins or toilet paper for that matter. On Wednesday’s and Friday’s the food is vegetarian since these are fasting days here. Hence, they call it fasting food. I have to admit the vegetable enjera is preferable to the meats as they don’t ever take the bones out of the sauces so you are spitting half the time. The national drink is called Tej which people make at home. It’s basically fermented honey. Apparently it’s wine but it’s so sweet I couldn’t even sip it.

The People:

There are an estimated 80 million people living in Ethiopia. The country is about the size of New York State which means there are way too many people living in such a small space. There about 83 languages spoken from the various tribes and the population is divided into 8 ethnic groups — the government calls it federalism but basically the regions are divided by ethnicity. While all people speak Amharic, there are a couple hundred dialects spoken.

The people living in the rural areas are still getting married at age 13-14 and again many men have multiple wives. In the city, the men are getting married around mid-20s and the women a bit younger than that. With 80 million people, one can guess the problems the people are facing. Right now, the school day is divided into two sessions so as many kids can attend school as possible but even then only 50 percent attend primary school. There aren’t enough jobs to go around and the crops which can typically provide for the people do no produce enough for everyone. Many have chosen a life of begging as a result.

In the smaller rural areas, I witnessed an extreme lack of hygiene, poverty and uneducated people. AIDS is a massive problem here as an estimated 70 percent of the population is under 14. The adults are dying at a rapid rate. That hasn’t done much to curb the population (as I mentioned people are having a minimum of 7 kids). I also noticed people in the rural areas celebrate family but do not regard life as maybe we do in western countries. A child passes on and it’s like ok I have 7 others. It’s just a different way of thinking. The women are very much the worker bees. They collect the wood to burn for fires and for building; they tend to the crops, the children, make the homes and participate in selling in the markets. Children, along the same lines, are also working hard collecting water bottles so they can fetch what little water there is from the lakes and rivers. Women were often seen washing each other’s hair in front of their shacks or wringing out clothes in a bucket. I was pleasantly surprised to see some bars of soap. As for the men and boys, they were often found naked at the rivers and the lakes dunking themselves. I often encountered a naked body and learned quickly to stay away from the “cleaning” spots which were well-known to the locals maybe just not the random wanderer like me.

Now for my travels:

After my first night in Addis Ababa and having arrived very late, I was starving and looking forward to my first Ethiopian breakfast. I ordered my regular scrambled eggs – cooked not runny and plain please. What I got was 2 moldy pieces of bread and eggs with onions and jalapeño peppers.  Ok so I skipped breakfast.

Later, I met a fellow New Yorker Arie (a great travel companion- he reads maps and appreciates fine food) and we embarked on the sights and sounds of Addis together. I was appreciative of his escort as I didn’t have to worry about being out at night or grabbed by the locals. Addis is actually a very safe city and if you discount the millions of people everywhere there is actually a lot to it. I only had one bad encounter and that was with my taxi driver who decided driving between two lanes was better than one (they drive on the right here). I insisted he pull over so I could have a go of it. We battled back and forth in sign language and grunting and when he finally figured out what I had in mind he moved his seat even closer to the steering wheel and drove off again. I just sat back and put my arms on the side handle ready for the accident.

Interesting fact about Ethiopia…there are approximately 6 million donkeys here second only to China. The donkeys are used for transporting just about everything.


My first stop after Addis was a place called Lalibela so named after King Lalibela. The Lasta Mountains surround the city and are very similar to the flat tops of the Grand Canyon. Lalibela is known for its rock churches chiseled out of a volcanic red rock from the top down. The region is also referred to as the Jerusalem of Africa or Africa’s Petra.

When I arrived at the airport, I was not only swarmed with sketchy guides I was also greeted by another local the FLY. They were everywhere. I guess that is what happens when the land is dry, the people have no hygiene standards and the animals roam the streets at will. I knew I was in trouble when my hotel room resembled cell block 6 complete with the iron clad door but I tried to suck it up and make do. When I woke up at 5 am itching, I knew I had been had by the fleas. On further inspection of my body, I noticed red dots everywhere. It’s unclear if it was bed bugs or fleas but my new found fellow travelers contend fleas. After my 20 second freezing cold shower, I made my way to the church for 6 am mass where my guide wreaking of alcohol greeted me 45 minutes late. I was pissed.

The Orthodox Church celebrates mass daily with Saturday being their holiest day (similar to Judaism). Mass is from 6-9 am and if you are not inside by 6 am you will be spending the next 3 hours leaned up again the outside walls with the locals. I was amazed how many hundreds of people attended mass in a town only as big as 10,000. People are deeply religious here and it was hard for me to decipher between their beliefs and the legends in some of these places I visited.

The Church is very powerful in Ethiopia. Women must be covered and men enter from one side and women the other. They are not together during the mass. These rock churches as they are called represent planets, the trinity and the crucifixion. The people wear these linen outfits to the mass and many attend daily before their workday begins.

It is important to mention that Lalibela is a very religious site. People come from all over the world to see the churches. I found it very difficult to just be a tourist in Lalibela. The children were poorly clothed, the streets were dusty and the air smelled like urine and feces. The children had cuts and tears and the flies just landed on their wounds. Many people here eat honey (big export) and the flies would just stick to their mouths.

It is hard to be negative as the churches were an incredible feat and the mountains made for a splendid backdrop. I was not prepared mentally or physically for the inadequacies of the town and to see that many children in such poor conditions made me sick.

Bahir Dahr:

My next stop was Bahir Dahr. It’s the second largest city in Ethiopia and I had big expectations for the hotel after my mishap in Lalibela. I decided to stay in the government run hotel and had read in lonely planet it was a wise choice. It just keeps getting better and better. At least my flea hotel in Lalibela was only $16, this hotel was $60 and the toilet smelled of sewage, would not stop running and was missing the back cover. Note to self: ASK TO SEE THE ROOM FIRST. Anyway, I was excited it had hot water and I could shower but guess what? It had one temperature of water and that was SCOLDING.

I had met some Ethiopian Americans who both randomly won the Visa lotto and met in Las Vegas. They were going on a tour of the Blue Nile and asked me to join them. It wasn’t Niagara Falls but it was the source of the Nile and apparently in winter (don’t ask we are in the Northern Hemisphere but they insist it’s summer now) the falls are enormous. It was still pretty impressive and spanned a good quarter of a mile. My guide was “Moola” which means food in Amharic I think it was the appropriate name for him because all he wanted was money from us. At first, we agreed on $45 then it shot up to $60 and all these other things were thrown in for prosperity. I couldn’t even make sense of it all. I just wanted to get back to the hotel to eat and then of course we had a flat tire and were still an hour away from me eating. Everyone in the minivan was speaking in Amharic and I was relying on the green card holders to inform me when we would get moving again. Alas, we fixed the tire and headed to see some local entertainment. I decided I could fit in well in Ethiopia aside from the accommodations. Their dancing consists of a ton of shoulder action and they just beat up and down on a drum. It was lots of fun.

Bahir Dahr is known for Lake Tana and its famous monasteries. Many of the monks and deacons still live in them. Lake Tana flows into the Blue Nile and when you think of the Nile in your head that is exactly what you get with Lake Tana – dirty brown and massive. I also only survived one night at the Tana Hotel and went on a hunt the next day for the cleanest hotel in Bahir Dahr. The Summerland was the only hotel that got my stamp of approval and that’s where I decided to lay my head. It was a brief sleep as the St. George holiday kicked off at 5 AM. I did mention they are a religious folk here. Well at a very prompt 5 AM as to make it to the church by 6 AM they were marching passed my hotel chanting in whatever it is they say in the ancient Church language of Ge’ez. Again, I was ANGRY very very ANGRY. It made for a long day. There I was on Lake Tana visiting monasteries and falling asleep in between stops.

Oh and I forgot to mention Moola was back in the picture. He abandoned me on this boat and then had the nerve to come and hunt me down 8 hours later at a restaurant demanding 60USD. I went ballistic. I said Moola first of all you interrupted my dinner. Second, you cannot treat Western people like this and third you did not earn that $60 so I will not be paying you that $60. He looked shocked and kept apologizing and then I threw $30 at him and told him I would never recommend him to anyone – death to a “tour guide.” Little did I know Moola would then turn up at the airport on my departure to buy me coffee AND to ask me to recommend him to people AND to introduce him to anyone who would give him a VISA to come to the USA. I am not kidding.


It was by far my favorite stop of the trip. Gonder is home to the Royal Enclosure an area where successive emperors built castles in the 17-18th centuries. They were all pretty amazing and in very good condition. I met a wonderful Italian couple who was staying next to my room. They were complaining about the hotel to the manager which my keen ears picked up on and I decided to share their concerns. YES, it was another disgusting hotel. They were from Torino and absolutely lovely. I thought it was so nice that when they realized I was alone, they invited me on their tour with their daughter and son-in-law. Another crazy American also joined us and we spent the day taking in Gonder.

I only had one bad experience in Gonder because by now I had come to terms with the inadequate accommodations. My hotel had “western” food one night and I thought I would take a chance on the beef. It looked fine but after one very large bite I realized it wasn’t the beef I was used to eating. After one or two more bites, I thought this is disgusting. I finally asked what I was eating and learned a calf’s kidneys. Yeah no thanks.


My final stop in Ethiopia was a placed called Axum. Its home to the “Ark of the Covenant” at least that’s what they have going for them. As a city, it’s probably the most advanced on the historical route. They have more attractions like the famous obelisk that Mussolini stole during World War II – only recently returned, underground tombs, and famous St. Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba went baring gift to King Solomon in Jerusalem. After a little bumpity bump in the night, the Queen found out she was pregnant and bore a son King Menelik I. The story goes that King Menelik went to Jerusalem to see his father and he picked King Solomon out of a room of 200 and then Solomon accepted him as his son. When all of this was going on, King Menelik’s handlers stole the Ark and brought it back to Axum.

Axum seems to have benefited from the boost in tourism. There is an Old Axum (all shacks) and now a new Axum with cute little store fronts and 5 star hotels being built. It has a bit to go as it is still very dusty and I didn’t get the sense that people are educated as not many spoke English.


Every time I had a chance to learn from a guide the conversation ended with him asking for me to find him a Visa. After a few of these conversations, I started learned that many older WHITE women come to Ethiopia looking for younger (stronger) men who can take care of them in their old age. It seems relatively common as many of the locals I met had friends living in the States or the UK with older women. There is a huge misconception that Westerners are rolling in the money.

Ethiopia has never been a colony and therefore not had many external influences. Even now the government allows very little outside investment. Everything is sort of stuck in 1995. The Internet is dial up, the hotels have not been renovated in at least 10 years and there aren’t any businesses here except for the few local banks and family run stores. No one even takes Visa except at the Hilton and Sheraton in Addis Ababa so basically I had to take out enough money at the ATM to survive for the last 10 days. When I asked for an ATM on arrival, the woman responded by asking me what was an ATM. Ethiopian Airlines is the only carrier in the country and it shows. There is one route for all the entire North and it just stops once a day at each place. Nothing is on time and nothing ever works. Flights are often sold out and you are just out of luck as a result.

It was very apparent to me that this country’s lack of education is stopping it dead in its tracks. The country is beautiful but there is no way I would recommend anyone to visit here just yet. The people don’t have a sense of service or commitment to their jobs. Many just walk the donkeys and cattle and go from place to place. I did enjoy the churches and the architecture of some of the Italian influences. The Mountains are simply glorious and stretch for days.

Ethiopians are a very proud and deeply religious people but they just don’t know or understand what it takes to get their country moving forward. It’s probably like the rest of Africa: disease, bad government and uneducated people. The combination is dire.

Few funny things:

Upon my arrival at my hotel in ADDIS, I started chatting up some Americans only to find out later they were missionaries. I knew I was in trouble when I am trying to eat my moldy bread and they are singing Jesus Save Me.

The Ethiopian/Greek/Italian owner of my Addis hotel who told me upon arrival she hated Americans specifically African Americans. That night she offered me her homemade Tej and said I wasn’t that awful.

All the hotel beds here are ROCK hard. I mean like you are sleeping outside on the sidewalk hard.

After having Sheraton Hotel envy, I sat in the lobby and people watched realizing after 30 minutes I was the only woman beside the prostitutes and Saudi business men. Here I thought they were just staring at me because I was dirty.

The Australian student who only lasted in Ethiopia 4 days and spent $2,000 AU to get to Bangkok because that sounded better than Lalibela.

Arie and I ordering the “sampler” at the Habesha restaurant in Addis—Our waitress seemed pretty irritated we couldn’t eat the entire plate of enjera which typically serves 4-5 people. Even the group next to us had leftovers.

Me asking where people get the aluminum for their roofs and the guide responding with, “you mean you don’t have aluminum tops on your homes?” Um um no we have something different.

Meeting a fellow American traveler at the Summerland Hotel in Bahir Dahr—She is 34, a MICHIGAN STATE GRAD, lives in Chicago and yes is single. I guess there is either something in the water at MSU or in Chicago.

The cleaning people using a bucket full of dirty water from the river to scrub the floors.

A guy who pointed out a monastery to me demanded, “you give me money for guide” but you just pointed it to me and I walked there myself. “No, no that is guide.” Ok you win.

The beating of the church drums every single morning at 5 AM to make sure people are at mass by 6 AM. It’s a very loud drum with non-stop chanting.

Shoving enjera into my mouth with most of the inside meat ending up in my lap.

Moola telling me I should take the minibus to Gonder instead of flying because he can afford that and then we can talk more about me finding him a Visa.

Hotels offering pools as an amenity to entice guests. The pools were either empty or had some water I would not deem safe to swim in.

My cab driver from 2 days before remembering I had a flight that morning and arrived knocking on my door at 5:30 AM. “I take you to the airport.” It’s 5:30 AM. “Yes, you said you wanted to be picked up at 5:45 AM”  No, I said I would likely leave at 6:45 AM and I never agreed for you to take me. “But I am here so let’s go now.” I am not leaving until 7 AM so you can go sit back in your car and wait for me. Ethiopians tell time completely different than we do hence the confusion.  It was something like 9 to him.

My guide in Axum who I tipped to basically leave me alone saw me walking down the street and offered to buy me coffee. I foolishly thought that was a nice gesture. After he told me he had 10 children and a bank account at in the USA, he asked me to marry him. What about your wife? “I have 3 but they don’t care. I go anyway.” I forgot women have no rights here. Oooops.