Ethiopia isn’t on most people’s travel radar (though, it really should be). The tourism infrastructure is in it’s infancy, but it’s there and it’s growing, making now a great time to visit. Plus, it’s one of the safest countries in Africa to visit at the moment. For those who do travel here, and there are a fair amount of us, we all seem to all share in the solidarity of having found somewhere unique, not quite a last frontier, but something to the effect.
You probably remember Ethiopia for its draught, and truly, that was terrible. But did you know there was a mass genocide here only a few decades ago? Probably not, and neither did we. Global media didn’t really cover it, it was swept under the rug. So much so that one of the leaders is living free and well in Zimbabwe. How is this possible? We don’t know. Of course we don’t know. Just like the majority of what happens in the world, we only know from traveling to the country.
All we knew before we decided to come was we loved the food, the scenery was stunning, and it would be warmer than Dublin. So we came. And it was, incredible. But like any destination, it isn’t for everyone, certainly.
Dinner New Years Day, we walked the dim streets for ten minutes towards a local place for dinner. The blocks surrounding the Sheraton give way back to Addis, low lying metal roof shops with even lower lying tables, crumbling walls and people milling about, ducking in and out of shops, homes, pool halls, bars-all the places that look more or less alike. We stop by a woman frying lentil samosas, pay our 2birr ($.10) and eat it on the dirt path that leads to our unassuming restaurant. Inside we eat a fasting plate, injera with various vegetarian glops and Doro Wat (chicken stewed in hot sauce), and of course Dashen beer. Surprisingly, we haven’t grown tired of Ethiopian food, though many tourists do, instead we’ve grown to crave the sour injera and spicy sauces that accompany it. And because food is one of our favorite parts of travel, it helps us love this place even more.
Warm from the beer, we walk home. The streets are now bustling, we pass groups of men laughing, drinking, huddled around a pool table. There are families eating and chatting, street vendors selling food. There is a joyful boisterous feeling to the air we soak up on our walk home. We aren’t a part of it, but enjoy observing this part of daily life for others.
As we walk, a young girl begins to follow us, which is normal, she asks for money or food. We stay silent and walk, the way you learn to. She is more insistent than most, following us several blocks. As we near the hotel, I stop and look her directly in the eyes and give her a stern “no,” and point her away. The look on her face is why I hate doing that, though it’s effective, but her eyes break my heart. I want to tell her I’m sorry, or something. That I wish I could help her but know giving to begging children isn’t an answer. No matter how often I see this, I always feel terribly. Because of course, I feel for her, but also because I’m confronted directly with my own privilege. And no one wants that when on vacation. People don’t want to go on holiday and be reminded everyday how privileged they are. They want it tucked away, not let in to their all inclusive resorts. And in places like Ethiopia, and really, most of the world that’s not possible. And for many, it can be off putting. But for us, it’s been a critical life lesson. Not, that we are lucky, because that is a naive first impression when confronted with poverty. But instead, a slow realization of the immense complexities of life. Of how privilege is complicated, and how much we lose with our wealth and rampant individualism. There are sacrifices that come from having money, that mean we often forgo much of what we need as human beings, community support systems, trust, generosity, reliance on others. How globalization is a double edged sword. How poverty does not dictate a joyless life of turmoil. But ultimately we see that the world now, is the safest and healthiest it’s ever been. For all the problems we face, people have never had the access to health care they do now, as technology advances and the world becomes increasingly interconnected it makes it harder for oppression and control to exist. Ethiopia does not have great health care access, though it’s getting better. Maternal health in particular has been dismal, coupled with issues related to traditional practices such as female cutting and bride abductions. Ethiopia, historically, has not been a good place to be a woman. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in grad school is that the way a country treats their women is telling of their general state, from over all health care to state security; it is in part why the United States could be better-for a first world country we still don’t have full gender equality. Many of these problems remain, and the government still faces serious issues related to corruption, lack of funding, and general disorganization. But it is getting better, due in part, to international efforts and attention.
But this isn’t why we came, exactly. We didn’t come to experience the complexities of a developing country. But we did come here, in part to come back to the earth. I’ve written before about this, about that conversation in LA with my hair stylist where she noted leaving the first world every now and then is a way to “come back to the earth,” or come back to reality, to check your expectations, assumptions, and desires. To experience life, not some deviated version in some private lodge somewhere (though that too, has it’s place). It is selfish, it is cathartic. And I crave it. I need it sometimes, to be reminded that some of things I things I think of as important are trivial, and to simplify my life. I came to Ethiopia, in part, to come back to the earth. To feel more alive, more aware, more present.
I was also seeking newness, adventure, a change. What I love about travel, and what I seek is the feeling of foreignness, that this place is unlike home. I don’t always need that, of course, but I generally prefer it. It’s why Western Europe doesn’t intrigue me nearly as much as the Middle East, or the Stans. And Ethiopia? Clearly, it fits that bill. As we’ve traveled it’s been more and more difficult to feel that thrill of “well, this is new!” And we seek it out like a high. And Ethiopia satisfies that need. Not to mention, it’s an absolutely stunning country with extremely varied landscape. We didn’t make it to the Danakil depression, though we’d love to one day. It’s the lowest place on earth, and one of the hottest, dominated by otherworldly volcanic landscapes. A plane ride away is the lush Simiens where it drops below freezing at night. To the south, you’ll find the coffee growing region and tribal groups. There is just so much to see here. And last, the people. It seems a ridiculous cliche to extol the lovely nature of these people, but it’s true. They are incredibly friendly, generally. And this, naturally makes travel immensely more enjoyable.
So why did we travel to Ethiopia? For all these reasons, from the adventurous, the philosophical, the visual, all of it. But truly, the best answer I believe, is still, why not?
So, thanks Ethiopia, it’s been a grand adventure, hopefully, we’ll meet again.
And with that we’re off back to Dublin.