As I noted in an earlier post, my friends and I loved our trip to Ethiopia.
Lunch outdoors with our driver Asrat in a small town.
And although we’re all experienced travelers, we learned lots as we went. Here are some more things that might help you enjoy your time there – and do go!
1) Talk to people and ask questions.
Not only is English taught in the schools in Ethiopia, but many subjects, like math and science, are taught in English. So younger people almost all speak English (and they want to practice). Although in the countryside we met people who didn’t speak English, we were often able to chat with people in the towns.
Some of our most memorable moments occurred when we when met a priest in a church and asked him questions about his life. He sent a young boy to fetch his most prized possession to show us – an ancient book of the Gospel John handwritten on parchment in Ge-ez, the precursor language to Amharic. Then he demonstrated for us how he prays and chants.
In Lalibela, we chatted with a teacher from a secondary school, and the next thing we knew, he’d invited us in to meet the administration. They showed up their classrooms and told us about the lives of their students. We were struck by how dedicated to learning they were, while making do with the oldest of working computers and a shortage of just about everything.
Computer lab in a secondary school in Lalibela.
In the Red Terror Museum in Addis, a staffer related his personal experiences of imprisonment and losing family and friends during the Communist rule of the Derg. The exhibits were moving, but his testimony made the horror truly come alive for us.
2) Pack your oldest shoes.
Ethiopia is a very dusty country, and outside of Addis you’ll mostly be walking on dirt roads. We weren’t hiking, so mostly wore sneakers and walking shoes every day. I wore a single pair of sneakers every day, and at the end of the trip, I left them in Lalibela, where many young students need any extra clothes or shoes you can spare.
3) Don’t expect to use your credit cards.
Outside of Addis Ababa (and even there at many places), our credit cards didn’t do us a bit of good. Everything operates on cash. But the good news is that Ethiopia is a terrifically inexpensive country. When we arrived, I took a bit over $500 worth of birr out of the airport ATM. When we left two weeks later, I still had over $100 of birr to trade back in. On the way, I’d paid for all my lunches and dinners and tips to guides and drivers, and done a tiny bit of shopping. And I still had money left over.
4) Follow your ears and your eyes.
On several mornings, we heard chanting wafting through the air, beginning as early as 3am. In Lalibela, we asked to see the source. And there, in a centuries-old church courtyard carved out of the living rock, we witnessed a religious ceremony in which priests and monks chanted hauntingly and danced carrying brightly colored spangled umbrellas (part of their ritual vestments). It was a beautiful and moving scene.
Outside of Bahir Dar, high up on a viewpoint above Lake Tana, we spotted a herd of cows down below. “Can we see the cows?” we asked. Soon we were walking in the pasture, admiring the livestock and surrounded by young people who’d been playing soccer a few minutes before. In fact, we braked for cows just about everywhere and scampered out to get a closer look.
5) If you’re going as a group, use a “mommy wallet.”
With four of us in our group, we were constantly paying for meals or tips – and usually one or more of us didn’t have the correct change. So we designated one extra wallet as the “mommy.” Each of us put $100 worth of birr into this joint wallet, and we used it to pay for anything where we all owed about the same thing. When the “mommy wallet” ran out of money, we replenished.
One person we tipped was the young man who watched our shoes when we entered the rock-hewn churches -- and helped us up and down steep steps.
And at the end of the trip, we disbursed what was left four ways.
One person carried our “mommy wallet” the whole time, making it much more simple than for us to keep remembering who borrowed money from whom.
6) (For women.) Bring a scarf to cover your hair in churches.
Although it’s not required for tourists to cover their hair in churches, all of the Ethiopian women do, and we felt it was most respectful to do the same.
More to come in Part III.