Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ten Reasons Why Ethiopia Was My Favorite African Country

Ethiopia simply has the most beautiful people. 

The children are adorable, gracious and always curious. While traveling they run to the edge of the road, sometimes onto the road (not so good), to make sure you do not miss their wave and smile - both of which are hard to miss. Though they have a reputation of throwing rocks at passing vehicles, that was not my experience. Walking in the streets or through the markets you will soon have a few little friends wanting to follow and hold your hand - wanting nothing more than some companionship and to practice their English. 

Whether in the capital of Addis Ababa or out in the rural villages, the women were the most attractive of the trip. They exhibit an exquisite balance of classic beauty and mild exotic features. 

Approachable and always in good spirits despite being some of the poorest on the continent, I enjoyed the people of Ethiopia very much. 

I was blown away by the landscape of the country, something that had taken me by surprise. The deep river gorges and high mountains made the riding spectacular. I was there in March, still the dry season, but could only imagine how spectacular the place would be after things turned green after the rains. If Ethiopia had a coast, if would be a hard place to leave. 

What better way to see the landscape than a network of good quality roads? After replacing the shocks on the bike, I did not venture too far off the beaten path and primarily stayed on the paved roads and graded dirt roads. Always in good repair without potholes, the driving was some of the best in Africa. 

The "road theater" was some of the best as well. Driving was often slow due to the constant activity on the road's shoulders. On market days, there would be a procession of people and domestic animals going to market. It never failed to be colorful and entertaining, but also nerve-racking as you had to be on high alert at all times. 

The cool refreshing taste of a St. George can really slay a guy's thirst.

To love a country with inferior coffee is an empty short lasting relationship. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, owes a lot to the sacred bean and the worshipping is going well. It is a tradition to invite one into your house for the traditional coffee ceremony. I was lucky enough to have been welcomed into locals home to experience the process on a couple different occasions. 

The green coffee bean is roasted over hot coals while incense burns atop the small coffee platform surrounded by fresh palm frowns. Next, the newly roasted beans are then crushed into a large wooden motar and smashed usually with a heavy steel pestle. The grounds are then placed into a ceramic vessel along with water and sat back on the hot coals. The coffee later comes to boil, removed from the heat and allowed to cool some. When the time is right the lovely coffee maiden raises the vessel high and demonstrates a long pour of thick black coffee. Served in a small ceramic cup with a generous amount of sugar and often times fresh popcorn. 

The ceremony can take up to two hours but is a social cornerstone to entertaining in Ethiopia. It is a very pleasant experience and a great way to see into the lives of the locals. Though nobody ever asked for any money, I always tried and leave something behind. 

Ethiopia is one of the first areas to officially adopt Christianity as it's religion, in the 4th century. The majority of the population is Orthodox Christian and 1/3 muslim. Remnants of this history is on display throughout the country, with monasteries along Lake Tana to monolithic churches of Lalibela.

Lalibela had an amazing display of churches carved out of the earth's rock - the entire thing, exterior and interior carved out of one piece of rock. (Of course, I could not get a number of how many slaves died so that others could worship, but impressive nonetheless.)

It was never hard to find something to do. 

Well, not exactly a reason to love the country. I enjoy Ethiopian food and it is a fun way to eat, but the novelty wears off fast. The orthodox followers were seemingly always fasting (we were there around Easter), the local menu was often limited to "injera" the soft sourdough flatbread and a spicy chile paste. The soft soggy texture can get monotonous eating it twice a day. 

When the menu is in fully force a platter of injera is placed in the middle of the table ladened with spicy bits of beef, lamb, greens and vegetables and sometimes even pasta. One pitches off some injera - always with the right - and uses it to scoop of the different offerings. It is communal way of eating, and yes, hand washing is always a part of the ritual. 
If Ethiopia seems to be living in the past - it is! If protocols and practices seems inefficient and dated (Retrieving my shocks from the post office was a near nightmare.), they are.  In Ethiopia, it is only 2004. The Ethiopian calendar adds a leap day every four year and begins its new year in August. Once you get that down, the clocks are set six hours behind yours, so good luck trying to make plans to meet someone for coffee - you, or they, maybe hours late, or a few years(?)

I have not experienced many regrets on this trip, but one thing that may classify is this - I should have spent more time in Ethiopia. I should have explored other areas. Because I had to truck the bike to capital city of Addis Ababa in the center of the county, I missed the colorful tribes of the Omo River Valley in the southwest corner of the country. Described as going back to primitive times the people of the Omo Valley live as basic as you can imagine and practice several beautification and scarification techniques. At the time, I was reluctant to travel the 500-miles back down to the area, only to travel the same road back up - for a third time. Plus, I was enjoying traveling with Sheldon, the Aussie that crossed the Marsabit road with me. My visa for Sudan gave me two months to cross the border, so I had some extra time, but not unlimited. 

Later, when I was on the ferry to Turkey I ran into a Polish photographer who had just circumnavigated the continent of Africa taking portraits of the the tribal people. Here are some of his photos of the people of the Omo River Valley: