Friday, 7 August 2009

Ethiopia: In search of the Ark

Apologies for the delay in giving any sort of update on Ethiopia. The combination of internet and power supply is a little hard to come by…mind you not as rare as the combo of power, running water and a hotel room that I am happy to wander in barefoot.

Our trip in from Sudan, three weeks ago, was a lot easier than we had expected, and the immigration office, complete with resident chicken was a good laugh.

The next day, having decided that border towns are no place to linger, we had our first taste of Ethiopian public transport.  

As a general rule, no bus is allowed to leave until you have been waiting (with the engine on) for at least two hours and it is 125% full.  The roads are awful, the locals vomit as soon as you hit a sealed road, and the one tape (the only one in all of Ethiopia it seems) is played on a loop at speaker damaging volume.  At least the rides are long…

Our travels have taken us to the castle filled town of Gonder, the Simien Mountain National Park, Lake Tana & Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa (by mistake), Laibela (via some small towns where it is necessary to overnight on the two day bus trip there, and back), back to Addis and we are now traveling the Rift Valley Lakes (Ziway and Awasa so far) and then on to Kenya.  

I'm not going to go into any great detail about all the places, so I hope that these highlights help to give a small insight into this thoroughly confusing place. 

The Simien Mountains are just stunning and we had a very enjoyable three days hiking.  Unlike New Zealand national parks, people still live within the park boundaries and everywhere we went little shepherd boys would be tending their flocks.  The standard uniform for a shepherd boy, in fact any man in the north, is a blanket which at the start of the day covers your shoulders, but as the day heats up it migrates up until it just covers your head.  Paul had great fun trying to explain to our mountain guide, an ex shepherd boy, the merits of both fences and sheep dogs – neither of which are present in the Ethiopian Highlands.

According to the last Ethiopian census (the results of which I understand have no actual correlation to the real representation of the country), Christians far outnumber the Muslims.  Certainly in the north it feels like a Christian stronghold.  There are brightly coloured churches, wailing at all hours and people throw money from buses into the upturned umbrellas of priests in spots where new churches are to be built. Presumably this is to help build yet another protective sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant, which appears to be housed in every church in the country. 

The churches in Laibela were, in spite of the absence of the Ark, quite a visual treat, especially as it was St George's Day and there were lots of people scurrying with their white blankets (which moved headwards as the day progressed).

It seems that the three real options for a well educated person are to work in the Church, the Government or an NGO – or at least that seems to be the case in the north where there does not appear to be much wealth generating industry.  While there certainly are some very poor people here, 25 years after the famine that we are all familiar with, it is hard to tell sometimes how much of the begging and constant requests for money is learned habit as opposed to real need.


We had been warned about the culture of seriously inflated prices for farangis, and the constant requests for money, but this has not been as bad as we had expected.  We often get followed by kids yelling "YOU!", rather than hello, but for the most part they just want to shake our hands, or follow us wherever we are going.  The adults too are far friendlier than we are expecting and many people, from bus-driver's-mate to waiters are keen to shake hands and do the traditional shake-hands-while-also-bumping-right-shoulders trick.

Ethiopia has heralded the start of really cool wildlife – baboons in the north, colourful birds everywhere, and here in south monkeys and hippos!

In the coffee arena, expectations have been exceeded with my personal favourite being the upside down macchiato. 

We only have a couple more injera filled days before our visas run out and then it's on to Kenya!





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