A Long Way Since the Eighties


This blog entry about the events of Friday, May 21, 2004 was originally posted on May 24, 2004.

DAY 216:  Ethiopia has come a long way since the 1980s when a famine caused by political and economic struggle got worldwide attention, prompting American musicians to sing “We Are The World” as a benefit.  The news of the famine also spread to the United Kingdom, prompting British musicians to band together in a similar collective known as Band Aid and ask in song, “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”  My thinking is that the Ethiopians did know it was Christmas; the majority of the population is Christian after all.  (However, in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which uses the Gregorian calendar, Christmas is actually celebrated on January 7.)

Ethiopia’s Christianity — in an area of the world where Islam is widespread — is just one of the unique characteristics of the country that Ethiopians pride themselves on.  That and the fact that during the mad scramble for territories by European nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that had been left uncolonized.  (There was only a brief occupation by the Italians for five years between 1936 and 1941 under the regime of Mussolini.)  What was left uncolonized by Europeans is slowly being discovered by Western travelers, although Ethiopia is far from being ruined by the backpacker set like other countries.  (The usual backpacker trail in sub-Saharan Africa only goes as far north as Nairobi, Kenya.)

GETTING TO ETHIOPIA FOR THIS BACKPACKER was more or less a straightforward affair.  Having decided to skip Kenya since I saw most of what I wanted to see of eastern African in Tanzania anyway, I flew from Dar-es-Salaam to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on a two and a half hour flight, which flew high above Mount Kilimanjaro, the mountain I had survived just a couple of weeks before.  I bought a tourist visa at customs for $37 (USD) and about 45 minutes of waiting, picked up my bag and then head out to the main hall.  The airport didn’t have a foreign exchange office in sight, so I ended up getting Ethiopian birr for American dollars on the black market at a good rate from the guy running the airport taxi service.  That guy put me in a taxi which took me around town to figure out my plan of attack in the once starving nation.  Getting in the taxi was stepping back into a familiar situation I hadn’t had in a long time; it was my first time since I had touched down in Africa that I was back in a car on the American (right) side of the road, on the American (right) passenger side of the car.

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA’S CAPITAL CITY, is located in the geographic center of the country.  Founded by Emperor Menelik II in 1887, it’s name translates into “New Flower.”  Despite Lonely Planet describing it as “noisy, dusty, sprawling and shambolic” on first impression, I found it to be a decent-looking, laid back and spread out city with not many cars on the road at all.

The driver took me to his suggestion of accommodation, the decent Debre Demo Hotel not mentioned in my guidebook, a reasonable “motel”-like place with clean and comfortable rooms for about eight bucks.  After dropping off my things, the driver took me to Travel Ethiopia, the travel agency based out of the luxurious Ghion Hotel that Lonely Planet suggested.  On the hotel grounds there were multiple Christian wedding receptions going on taking advantage of the sunny weather, with brides and grooms dancing in a crowd of rhythmically-clapping guests the way I had seen on an episode of Globe Trekker

Travel Ethiopia turned out to be not as helpful as Lonely Planet had raved, and their package tours of the northern highlights were way out of my budget.  At their suggestion, I went to the office of National Tour Operations, a government-run travel agency with better options for me on my tight schedule.  In a compromise of “doing Ethiopia independently” and going on a package tour, I could work out my own flights and buses to and from the main cities of interest, and meet up with NTO guides in each one. 

The taxi driver zipped me around the streets of Addis Ababa (picture above) to the Ethiopian Airlines office where getting flights to the four major sites in the north wasn’t as easy as either travel agency said it would be, mostly because of fully-booked flights.  I should have known though; everywhere that I’d been reading told me that travel in Ethiopia wouldn’t be as easy as in other countries since their travel infrastructure is fairly new — English isn’t even an official language.  The first available northbound domestic flight out of Addis Ababa wouldn’t depart for another five days, and after working out the details on paper, I toyed with the idea of going to the closest city via a two-day bus ride.  My thinking was that if I had to wait five days to get out of the city, I might as well be on a bus and get to the first destination cheaper. 

I made a provisional booking on three flights to and from the last two of the four sites and left the office with a printout to sleep on it.  (Literally, it was under my pillow.)  I couldn’t really set anything in stone just yet without first changing my Egypt Air flight out of Ethiopia to a later date, a flight from Addis to Cairo that I already booked with AirTreks.com back when I didn’t know my exact schedule of traveling.  It was a Saturday and Egypt Air wouldn’t be open until Monday, so I had to wait out the weekend before making a move.

REALIZING I HAD NO RECOURSE for the time being, I just headed back to the hotel to think things over.  I had dinner in the restaurant while watching the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride on Ethiopia’s channel MBC2, subtitled in the squiggly strokes of the Ge’ez alphabet in the main language of Amharic

Steve Martin and Martin Short on the television screen?  Yep, Ethiopia had truly made leaps since the desperation of the 1980s, even if there were still hurdles like getting a domestic flight when you want it.

Next entry: Cradle of Humanity

Previous entry: Closure In Tanzania

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “A Long Way Since the Eighties”

  • Kili looks like someone hacked the top off of it. Neat that you got to see it as you went by. Why is it that so many Brits and Americans want to stay in the fancy resorts and not experience the countries they travel to? I don’t get it…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/23  at  06:39 PM

  • yeah, Mt Kilimanjaro looks so innocent from up in the air! 

    I like the squiggly writing on the coke bottle too.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/23  at  07:40 PM

  • NOELLE - everyone has different travel preferences….there is nothing wrong with the fancy resorts if that is a person’s cup of tea, and there is certainly nothing wrong with the travel budget….

    with vacation or holiday time so limited in the states, i’m sure people want to “relax” at a resort, while others are adventure seekers…or a combo of all…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  07:21 AM

  • ...and lets not forget all inclusive vacation packages!

    Beer 24/7

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  04:23 PM

  • Erik,

    If you see Starvin Marvin, tell him I said “click-click-clack-click-click-clack-click-click-click-click”


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/25  at  07:22 PM

  • WARREN: Good one buddy. Let’s hope Sally Struthers isn’t around! Hehe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/26  at  06:49 PM

  • that joke went over my head.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  08:50 AM

  • Td0t:  Starvin Marvin is a character on South Park.

    Marvin is shipped to the boys from Ethiopia by Sally Struthers. The boys donate five dollars to the foundation and get Marvin in return.?

    I am not sure why he speaks in “clicks and clacks,” I think they are saying the Ethiopian language sounds like that.  We will have to ask Erik to confirm that part.


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  04:47 PM

  • Here is a wave of what he sounds like when he talks:


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  04:53 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Cradle of Humanity

Previous entry:
Closure In Tanzania


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