Close your eyes for a second, and picture Ethiopia. What do you see?
I bet you three bucks you’re wrong. I’m willing to wage such high stakes given all the people that scrunched up their faces and went “Really, why would you want to go there?” as if I had blurted out that I wanted to visit downtown Baghdad. And I get it, I really had no idea what Ethiopia was either. I had the Bob Geldof songs in my head from the Live Aid efforts in the 80s, I’d seen the heartbreaking charity commercials that make you uncomfortably change channels. Dry, dusty, dismal.
Despite my impression of Ethiopia, I was still desperately curious and inexplicably smitten. Ethiopia had been whispering my name for years. I can’t explain it – my travel cravings have always been based on a gut feeling colliding with my insatiable curiosity. I just knew I had to see it.
I started to do a little homework. National Geographic would inspire dreams of Indiana Jones style adventures in buried churches. I’d frighten my mother with stories of barefoot cliff climbing, no strings attached. Dilapidated boats in crocodile infested waters. Bustling cities and mysterious foods. Smitten devolved into crazed stalker-like obsession. (I apologize to my ever-tolerent friends who endured my love poems to Ethiopia.) But no photos, blogs or glossy magazines could have prepared me for this. If only there were words sufficient enough to capture Ethiopia. You’ll just have to bear with my meager attempt – or better yet, discover it for yourself.
How To Get There
I have a terrible confession to make. I’d been to Africa 3 times prior to my Ethiopian escapade, and had brushed of Ethiopian Airlines each time – despite their less expensive tickets. I had flown on an African airline or two and felt a little uneasy about it all. Zambezi Airlines, now defunct, had a terrible safety record and was banned from landing in most countries. I left my fingernails embedded in their seats while I held on for dear life. I had just lobbed the airlines together in my narrow little mind.
Well, I was wrong again – Ethiopian Airlines is a classy operation. Award winning, and part of the Star Alliance which includes Air Canada and Lufthansa, I’ve now taken 9 flights with them, basking in their hospitality and sleeping peacefully on their cushy new planes. Their windows do cool dimming tricks and their attendants make you feel at home. I even got a cute overnight kit with cozy socks. You can catch a direct flight from Toronto or Washington D.C. and start your African adventure sooner. And, in the interest of full disclosure, they also sponsored the flights on this journey – though the naps and opinions are entirely mine.
What To Eat
Everything you can get your hands on. Okay, well, maybe not everything. My first full day in Ethiopia I was terribly excited to meet Lucy – the 3.2 million year old skeletal remains of a young woman. She’s encased in a lovely display in Addis Ababa’s National Museum of Ethiopia. I was charmed, but it was a very short visit. A quick hello followed by a mad dash to some bushes out in front of the building. Horrified school children scattered while my dinner from the previous night made a second appearance.
I had been destroyed by one of the most delicious salads I had ever had. Loaded up with fruit, fresh greens and other slivers of goodness, it was exactly what I needed after a long day of travel. Sadly, I had forgotten Rule #1 about eating in Africa… do not eat the salad. My delicate little North American stomach wasn’t quite prepared for fresh foods washed in African waters. So, experiment, eat what you’d like, just make sure it’s cooked until everything is thoroughly dead. My guide kindly scurried into the local pharmacy and bought an ominous looking pill. The English words I spotted on the label listed a variety of scary sounding worms. I don’t know what a hookworm is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want one. The package advertised that the pill was sugar free – because calories are a top concern when buying worm pills.
I ate random meats, I’m not sure what they were, other than delicious. I didn’t love injera, but whatever globs of goodness they put on top were scrumptious. And that perch? Caught just that morning from Lake Tana. I drool just looking at the photo. And yes, they’re served on a bed of mashed potatoes – for that rare and fleeting bit of homesick.
Where to Stay
Ethiopia was the seventh country on my Africa checklist. Previously, I had slept in rat infested huts, shared my lodgings with bulging-eyed bats that dangled from the ceiling, spiders the size of Fiats, and cockroaches that could carry off a small child. I’ve had monsters build nests in my toes while I slept, and rooms that I am certain had been transformed form a prison cell – with large padlocks on the outside of the door and smelling of misery.
My experience in Ethiopia was quite exactly the opposite. I basked in crisp white linens, scattered with rose petals. Furniture fit for kings, thatched-roof front porches perfect for sunny afternoon naps, robes that inspired you to do your best Hefner impression. One of my rooms came with a kitten. I’m not even kidding. Waaaay better than cockroaches.
Check out the Kuriftu suite of luxury resorts and spas – I stayed in a few of their locations – Bahir Dar, Lake Tana and their Guesthouse in Addis Ababa. I was pampered, rubbed, polished and fed until I was stuffed at each of them. The service was astonishing – at the Guesthouse I had my very own butler. I would sneak out into the hallway in the middle of the night just to see if he was still there, and he’d come running. Looking back, it was likely poor behaviour – but I had my own butler! You’d do it too. I’ve been told Ethiopians pride themselves on hospitality, and that typical of was my experience.
What To Do
When you’re not testing the dedication of your butler, there’s oodles of things to keep you entertained. On Lake Tana, you can visit the source of the Blue Nile, say hi to the hippos, but watch out for the crocs – apparently they’ve developed a taste for tourists. Visit the lake’s island monasteries, where the nuns and monks have to endure tests of temptation to prove their purity before being selected for island life. My guide refused to tell me more about these tests, but he did blush.
Got a thing for churches? This is the place for you. The buried churches of Lalibela will leave you gobsmacked. And if you’re ridiculous and have a thing for risk, I double dog dare you to visit Abuna Yemeta Gah, a church tucked away high up on a cliff in the northern Tigray region. Hundreds of metres up, you scale a wall with only bare feet and steel nerves. You should wear a diaper, it’s that scary, but my goodness it’s worth it. The centuries old el fresco paintings, were closely guarded by a young priest. The guides will lead you up in their 1980s jelly sandals as though they’re simply taking a stroll up the street. Show-offs. I was too scared to do a video of my own, but this one makes my palms sweat even after the adventure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8059xQ48T70
Go. Right now.
Ethiopia has a rich cultural heritage, and anyone I bumped into had a story to tell, and were quite knowledgeable about their country. No doubt, Ethiopia has had a tough past. It’s heartbreaking really. More than just the famine that we heard of in the west, but effectively a genocide, a civil war, rebels, landmines and scars. But this land is miles more than just bruises – it’s a country moving forward. Museums tell the story of the past, but with a voice of moving forward towards peace. The economy is now booming and Ethiopia is under construction. It’s a deeply religious country – a blend of Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and they seem to get along swimmingly. The music is captivating, and the traditional dancing is fascinating (and terribly embarrassing when they make you join in!) The people are quick to flash a smile and were nothing but kind – despite many warnings of pushy people, I never once felt unsafe or pursued. This is not the Ethiopia of the 80s, it’s the Ethiopia of right now, and it’s begging to be discovered.
Go, and say hi to the kitten for me.A very big thank you to my trip sponsors. Considerations were provided by Ethiopian Airlines, Kuriftu Resorts, and Ethiopian Holidays, however all opinions are mine. If you’re thinking about heading to Ethiopia, my experience with each of these organizations was exceptional. If you’d like contacts, connections or more tips, just drop me a line.