Change of Plans


This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, May 25, 2004 was originally posted on June 02, 2004.

DAY 220:  On Day 218: Dominoes, I ran around Addis Ababa trying to book flights, buses and tours in a tight schedule where one thing would lead into the next and to the next like a row of dominoes.  Doing so cost more money than it had to be; but I didn’t have the luxury of time, and time is money.  It was my last month before meeting people in Spain and I really didn’t have much of a choice — or did I?

MY ALARM CLOCK WOKE FRED AND I UP at 5:05, then 5:10, then 5:15 as I kept on hitting the snooze button.  We finally got up and ready by 5:45 and walked with Lishan to the bus station across town.  Our bus #2112 left at 6 a.m. on the dot to continue the northbound journey to Bahir Dar.  The 7 1/2-hr. bus journey was more of the same scene, with small villages full of children selling food to the people on the bus in the aisles and through the window.  Most of the kids were in awe of my little spy camera when I revealed it to take a picture, but were in real awe (adults too) when Fred busted out his huge DVCAM video camera with external mic and used it in the most indiscreet way possible — the exact opposite of my “spy” camera shooting style.  I felt a bit weird at him from shoving the lens in people’s faces without asking, but at the same time could help but feel jealous that he was getting some awesome footage.  (Later he told me he was a professional film and video cameraman working in the Paris advertising scene.)

We only had one major stop on the way to Bahir Dar for breakfast in a small town.  When we departed, an old man with an AK-47 assault rifle hanging off his shoulder got on.  Um, yeah, so we’re just going to let this guy on the bus?  Um, excuse me Mr. Conductor, if you didn’t notice, there’s a man in the back with a huge automatic weapon on him.  No one questioned the armed passenger, but I suppose they knew there would be no problem.  In fact, when I dozed off for a bit, he must have left because when I woke up he was gone.

BAHIR DAR, ON THE SOUTH END OF LAKE TANA (picture above), surprised me.  Like all of Ethiopia so far, it too broke the stereotype of being nothing but a dry barren country of starving people.  Bahir Dar was a fairly modern city with many restaurants, hotels and even internet facilities; it was the main tourist hub of visitors to the Blue Nile Falls and the sacred monasteries on or around Lake Tana. 

The bus arrived at the bus station after 1:30 p.m. where we were greeted by a crowd of touts who saw how obviously foreign Fred and I looked.  Several of them followed us as we walked to a nearby hotel — it wasn’t very promising so we moved on. 

“This is Ethiopia.  Safety first,” Fred said in his campy French way.  Lishan agreed and the three of us walked across town to find a nicer place.  The street boys still followed us to the hotel we eventually settled on — the farther we went, the more of them gave up, but one guy named Mulualem followed us all the way, pitching us with a boat tour of the lake monasteries for 600 birr (200 birr each, about $25 USD), which was way under what I had already paid with my American Express card at NTO back in Addis Ababa.  When I told Fred that I already had a tour booked ahead and told him how much I paid for it, his jaw dropped.

“100 birr?” he asked.

“No, dollars.”

“That’s so expensive!  Do you always travel like this?”

“No, it’s only because I don’t have much time.”  I told him that in my Lonely Planet it said that boat tours were about $25/hr anyway (it was a four-hour tour).  Later I read Fred’s Bradt guide which made my Lonely Planet really out of date; it used to be $25/hr when the government regulated the tour boats, but that had been scrapped and one could do a boat tour for a lot cheaper.  My love/hate relationship with Lonely Planet just turned into hate/hate.  I felt like I had a big “L” on my forehead.

No matter, you get what you pay for I supposed, and that “L” stood for “luxury” I guessed.  I called my National Tour Operations contact in town who picked me up in twenty minutes to give me the city tour I had booked and paid for in advance with my AmEx card.

“There’s a problem,” Legasse the tour guide said as we drove to the NTO office in the super fancy Tana Hotel, run by the government at $65 a night.  (Contrary to what you may think, “government hotels” aren’t basic tenements; in Ethiopia, the government runs the upscale hotel chain and tour companies.)  Withing ten minutes I was on the phone with the NTO office back in Addis.  Hamere’s boss told me there were two problems:  1) that Hamere mad a mistake in my charges; she charged me the rate if I had two people and that I actually owed $50 more being solo and 2) my American Express card was rejected.  I wasn’t so shocked when I heard that the card was rejected; Egypt Air probably charged on it first, flagging a block on all subsequent overseas charges since I never told them I was going overseas beforehand.  What I was in shock was the extra money that I had to pay, especially when I knew from the Bradt guide that paying the government tour price was way too high. 

I followed the omen of the AmEx rejection.  Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental, perhaps it was a sign that since I wasn’t technically paid for any of NTO’s services, that I should go the cheaper, independent route — and with new friends (one of which knew Amharic).  I followed the sign and canceled the order, surrendering the three other vouchers I had in my pocket for the other cities.

“Sorry about everything,” Legasse apologized.  No longer would he be my guide, and no longer would we go off to the Blue Nile Falls that afternoon.

“I suppose I have to get my own taxi now, huh?”

He arranged one for me, which took me back to my privatized and much cheaper hotel just in time to tell roommate Fred that I would join him and Lishan on their cheaper boat deal.

CONVERSING IN ENGLISH and a smattering of French, Fred, Lishan and I discussed our plans over a mid-afternoon lunch at a humble little lakeshore restaurant.  Mulualem tracked us down almost immediately after we finished eating (he probably just asked people in town “Where did that white guy go?”) and brought us to the nice lakeshore hangout, Pelican Park, where photography rights were 4 birr (or free if you’re sneaky about it with a tiny camera.)  Mulualem and his associate chat us up as we sat with our teas and explained our options:  a short trip or a long trip at different prices.  Fred played the game of not giving a straight answer or declining offers.  “We don’t have to go with you if we’re not happy” was his basic strategy.  “It’s not a race.  We have time.”

Easy for him to say; I only had the next day for Bahir Dar before having to move on since I still had domestic flights to make (booked independently from NTO and on a MasterCard). 

Fred waited out the guys and played the game until it was nighttime.  All plans to see Blue Nile Falls that day for me were out the door, although Mulualem and his colleague said that it wasn’t the season to see it since there wasn’t much water.  Fred figured it was just a ploy in their end of the game to have us spend more time/money with them.

After wandering town with Mulualem still escorting us for business, we stopped for snacks and shopping and eventually told him to meet us at our hotel in an hour for our answer.  When we got back to the hotel and looked in the Bradt guide, it confirmed that the prices for the full-day tour we were interested in were correct.

“I’ve noticed that most Ethiopians usually tell the truth,” Fred pointed out.  No one was really out to scam us after all.

The street boys came at 9:00 and we told them it was a go for the next day.  They asked us for 100 birr as a deposit, which Fred played again and declined.  “It’s fine.  More important that money is your word,” one guy said.

“You have our word.”

“Meet us here at 6:00?  We’re not going anywhere,” I added.

And that was that.  Lishan went to bed early while Fred and I went out for dinner and drinks nearby.  We didn’t stay out too late because our full-day boat tour would start very early and go on all day.  I’d have to forsake Blue Nile Falls, but as Mulualem said, it wasn’t worth seeing anyway.  When Fred and I asked a random guy in a cafe about the falls, the guy also confirmed the falls weren’t spectacular that time of year.  Perhaps they all do tell the truth after all.

Next entry: Sacred Lake

Previous entry: Get A Room You Two

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Comments for “Change of Plans”

  • now i know if i ever plan to travel, i shouldn’t trust the lonely planet guides. those books seem to give you the wrong information most of the time.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  05:48 PM

  • ALICE:  Lonely Planet SHOESTRING guides suck… the ones for countries ain’t bad…  Shoestring guides try to pack too much in one book that they forget a lot of things.

    Then again, I think Lonely Planet knows they are a big brand now and people will just buy them.  I’m hearing that Let’s Go is the better way to go since it’s run by a university and research is done by graduates every year.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  05:50 PM

  • I always use Let’s Go and like it.  Some other friends like the ‘Rough Guide’. has a good message board, though.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/02  at  07:33 PM

  • erik would you advise that if one wants to do a tour in a certain city that it is best to wait until ariving at that city to find the best deal?  i know when you were in quito you said you were waiting to get to guyaquill for a galapagos trip.  just curious if this is a good strategy.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  04:36 AM

  • SCOTT:  Yes, NEVER book anything until you are there…  NEVER EVER book something from overseas (i.e. home)—unless you don’t have time to organize anything when you get there.  (When time = money.)

    The guys at Tin Tin Tours in Moshi dropped their jaws when I told them that MICHELLE was paying over $1k USD for a Kilimanjaro trek…  the average price in town is $600-$750…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  10:47 AM

  • “a smattering of French…”  - nice….

    i think i’m gonna have to use “smattering” in my vocab now…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  07:09 PM

  • Let’s Go guides are my books of choice. Rough guides are great for archeological stuff - my cousin the classics major loves them for that stuff.

    Good to know about booking while there, and not before. I’ll keep that in mind - you rock, Erik, for alerting us to these tips!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/07  at  10:44 AM

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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 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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Get A Room You Two


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