Gary and I arrived in Addis Ababa via Dubai late, and after changing money immediately began making delirious ‘Hamilton’ currency puns (would you like some birr, sir?), eventually finding our way to the hotel to crash for a few hours. The next morning we set out for a full day around the capital, starting with the National Museum to visit Lucy, a 3.2 million year old australopithecus afarensis. Fun (and challenging!) to say or spell, it was cool to see and learn about one of our oldest relatives, even though her skeleton is only 40% complete.
After living in Dibba, Oman, a land of monochrome, with brown landscapes, men in white and women in black, Addis seemed a riot of color and motion. Tall blooming jacaranda trees lined the streets in purple while colorfully painted taxis and tuktuks (called a ‘bajaj’ in Amharic) sped past. Posters advertising beer on every corner felt strangely illicit coming from a country where alcohol is illegal, as did the numerous cafes filled with both men and women mingling together. People greeted one another by kissing the backs of hands, pressing cheeks together, and sometimes repeatedly bumping shoulders, before sitting down to chat over tiny cups of espresso.
The rest of our day in Addis was spent visiting the highly informative Ethnological Museum on the university campus, seeing a local market and heading up into the Entoto Mountains for views of the city. As often happens in an entirely new setting, we were basically transformed into giant helpless babies. Humbled by our inability to properly navigate, read Amharic, or order food, we were beyond grateful when time after time people took pity on us, doing their best to help us out.
While attempting to navigate public transportation to the Entoto Mountains, we found ourselves pulled off the street by many hands into a small, dark room. Once our eyes adjusted we saw crowds of people packed shoulder to shoulder on rows of benches, with even more rows packed into further back rooms. Everyone seemed to be in exceptionally good spirits for 2pm on a Wednesday, probably thanks to an orange liquid drank from what appeared to be potion bottles, consistently refilled from a communal teapot. We were definitely the day’s entertainment, and it quickly became overwhelming, so after having a few polite sips we threw down some birr and made a swift exit. Later we learned that the mystery elixir was tej, a homemade honey wine, although why a few hundred people were drinking in a dark den in the middle of the day still remains a mystery.
Eventually we successfully managed to make it up the mountains for a confusing church visit and some meh views of the city, although trying to navigate back to our hotel frustrated us to the extent that we gave up and drank a St George beer before attempting again. Dinner was pizza, a legacy leftover from the five year Italian occupation, and it was the best thing I’ve eaten in the past 6 months. We called it early, trying to get as much sleep as we could before our flight to Gondar the next morning.
After a short, nervous-making flight in what seemed to be a toy propeller plane, we checked into our hotel in Gondar and set out to explore, panting from the altitude on the uphill walk to Debre Burhan Selassi church. We walked past old, moss-covered stone walls and brightly colored square concrete homes with corrugated tin roofs, barbed wire fences softened by pale pink hibiscus or magenta bougainvillea peeping over the top. The church was set within a castle-like stone courtyard, and crossing though the original thick wooden door felt like entering a portal back in time. Tall cedars topped by loudly cawing crows were the only sounds other than our crunching footsteps and the soft murmur of people praying. Passing a sign advising us not to visit if we were menstruating or had slept with our spouse the night before, we entered into the interior of the church, dark and wooden, every surface painted with faded murals telling stories from the Bible.
The rollercoaster bajaj ride down the hill broke the peaceful state we’d been lulled into, and feeling hungry, we opted to skip the famous castle and hunt for lunch instead. Our normal strategy of finding the busiest restaurant and pointing to whatever looks delicious on a nearby table kept failing, as every single business was completely empty, aside from an occasional person sipping coffee or a bottle of beer. We couldn’t figure out why no one seemed to need to eat, and at last had it explained to us that we had arrived during Orthodox Lent, a 55 day period of fasting, where only one vegan meal a day was allowed. After searching for a bit we found a smiley grandma who was willing to feed us, serving us a shared platter of shiro over injera. This flavorful chickpea mash was poured atop the spongey, tangy bread Ethiopians eat at nearly every meal, perfectly cratered to soak up every last bit of sauce.
The rest of our day was spent arranging a tour of Simien Mountain National Park for the upcoming week. There was some confusion the next morning about time- we’d arranged for breakfast at our hotel at 7am, not realizing that for 7am in Ethiopian time you would say 1am. Time here begins with the sunrise at 6am, and continues throughout the day up to 12, restarting again at 6pm. Confusing! But also, sensible. Another unrelated yet interesting fact, their year has 13 months with 30 days each (except month 13, which has 5 days, 6 in a leap year), meaning it currently is March 2010 (I think). Anyways, in the end we managed to get some food in us and head out with other members of our group to the park, a mixed crew, with one Brazilian, two Canadians, one Cabo Verdian, one Israeli and one German. Upon entering the park we were assigned a guide and two gun-slinging scouts, and after a short drive we began walking across rolling hills, dried grass spun into gold whenever the sun peaked out from behind towering thunderheads.
The route soon took us along the edge of a cliff for dramatic views, distant monoliths and mesas revealing the “chess pieces of the Gods.” We continued on, the golden hills broken up by gnarled juniper trees draped with lichen, occasional wild irises and bushes of wild Abyssinian roses. Rounding a corner, we stumbled across a family of gelada baboons, fastidiously and methodically digging for roots and tubers. They were quite unfazed by our presence, letting us get within an arms length, where I closely studied their Tina Turner hairstyles, fearsome fangs, red heart-shaped chest patches and long lion’s tails. The baboons were mostly silent, until by some signal unknown to us they would all periodically let out these pathetic little cries, similar to the sound toddlers make after they’ve worn themselves out from a tantrum but are still doing their best to express their displeasure. I had to pull myself away from watching the babies playing to continue the final half hour to Sankaber, where we were welcomed with tea and sugar-sprinkled popcorn. Our group celebrated Aviv’s, our new Israeli friend, birthday over dinner, blowing out the one candle used to light our hut to make a wish before relighting it immediately.
The next day’s journey to Geech grew more colorful, as we walked past various flowering bushes in reds, purples, yellows and oranges. Our path gradually took us down to a river where we ate lunch and napped, feeling well rested for our final climb to camp. From here the landscape quickly turned surreal, as we trekked past striped mounds of sand in shades of teal, violet and tangerine, barren except for knee-high mushroom shaped boulders. Soon the terrain shifted again, as a corridor of yellow flowers that towered over my head lead us into a eucalyptus forest, the wind overhead stirring up a dry rustling sound similar to rain. At last we reached the plateau, where looming rain clouds held off until we reached our tent. Just as I set my bag down the wind began to howl and hail began to fall, continuing while we ate dinner huddled around a smokey fire in a tiny tin hut.
After a cold, mostly sleepless night, we woke to find much better weather. We started the day passing hundreds of towering lime green lobelia plants, straight from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Eventually we reached another cliff, walking out on a dike for 360 degree views of the park, and then following the ridgeline down for my favorite day of hiking, rewarded with breath-taking views the whole way to Chenek. That night we braved the cold to have a farewell campfire outside, as most of the group would continue back to Gondar the next day while Gary, myself and another couple would continue on to the highest peak in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen.
The next morning the entire group was lucky enough to see an Ethiopian wolf and several ibex, with one ibex actually being groomed by a gelada. From there we said our goodbyes and continued for nearly 8 miles downhill (not friendly on the ol’ knees), surrounded by giant red aloe plants and tall pink flowering cacti. Gary passed the time collecting minerals, finding easy pickings in the turquoise and milky crystals scattered across the path like mosaics. I enjoyed chatting with our guide, Birara, and a grandma who accompanied us for the day, who looked as old as the hills but was more fit than anyone in our group. We eventually reached a strange, Wild West town, where we were instantly mobbed by packs of kids, running out of houses and climbing down from trees in dusty, tattered clothes, yelling ‘hello,’ or ‘ferengi,’ foreigner. Hands were extended and ‘pen’ was yelled over and over again, mirroring the bleating of the nearby herds of goats. The asking for pens was much less heartbreaking than children who asked for food, or soap, or showed me infected wounds and begged for medicine. I wasn’t able to help with any of these needs, and my brain still can’t reconcile the inequality I witnessed with the fact that I tramped through this village as a tourist having a nice vacation.
The downhill ended at last, and we crossed a river for some uphill relief on the other side, reaching the town of Ambiko after a couple miles. I have never been more grateful for tea and popcorn to snack on, and washing in the river would have been grand had we not been mobbed by another group of children, eager to touch my hair and show off their English. We felt a bit like creatures at the zoo, and with crowds of villagers still watching us, we ate dinner and turned in early, ready for our 3am start.
The canopy of stars overhead, perhaps the only night sky I’ve ever seen without any light pollution, made waking up worth it. We covered quite a bit of ground in the chilly darkness, not really feeling the altitude until the sun came up to reveal a land shimmering with frost. After some scrambling we finally reached the top, celebrating with a summit beer and enjoying the Toto a French group was playing on repeat. After relaxing and letting the sun warm us we headed down, able to see the dramatic red cliffs, green lobelia plants, endless African skies and yellow fields that were hidden in darkness on the journey up. The hills had eyes, as groups of shepherd children peered down from escarpments, and 11 hours later we were back at camp, exhausted.
On our last day Birara and I started the day singing Bob Marley, which lead to him showing me some Ethiopian music and demonstrating for me the difference between dancing and ‘shoulders.’ He also tried to teach me Amharic, although my sleep addled brain could only remember ‘ishi’ (okay), au (yes) and em-bee (no). After a full day of type 2 fun retracing those 8 miles uphill, we arrived back in camp early enough to take a bucket shower and dry in the sun while playing gin rummy and Bananagrams. That evening we watched the sunset with another group of geladas, a perfect way to celebrate hiking 58 miles, and summiting the 4th highest peak in Africa. Proud and tired, after a final dinner we crawled into our tent to dream of the pizza and warm shower awaiting us the next day in Gondar.