The morning is by no means young anymore. The oat cereal has been prepared and devoured – it was generously left behind by the previous Latvian tour group. Time to start climbing. I climb almost step by step in my husband’s footsteps up a narrow stony trail covered by thorny bushes. I have no idea how far there is still left to go. And I do not want to know. I keep climbing, deep in thoughts about life and about people I’ve just met at the foot of the mountain gathering there for a funeral.
I feel a vibration in my belt bag. The phone from deep within drags me out of my contemplations. I look at the screen – an sms from a friend. A nice poem. Very sweet indeed. I am clueless – why am I the addressee? I do not intend to stay here forever, neither am I lethally sick and therefore deserving of such heart-felt lines. I walk on and ponder. Ah, of course, it’s my name day.
Indeed, the time and its perception here has a whole different value to it. Not only because here, in Ethiopia, it is 2012 now. If you are an adept of the ortodox Tewahido church, you live by the Ethiopian calendar that has 13 months: 12 of them are 30 days long and the 13th lasts just 5 days (6 in the leap year). The Ethiopian calendar is closely linked to the Coptic and Julian calendars, but has its nuances. For Ethiopians the New Year sets in on our September 11 (or September 12 on a leap year).
I come to Ethiopia on a regular basis since 2008. Not that I am completely obsessed with this country, I have been elsewhere too – in other African countries, India and such. But there is something that draws me specifically to Ethiopia. Which is why I keep exploring all and any opportunity to go there at least once a year and at least for a month, preferably for three or more, if I get lucky. In my travels I have criss-crossed this country all over, I have worked here, I have lazed around – just living among the people. Alone. At the beginning – with no language skills at all. Ok, so I did know a bit of English and a few words in the Amharic language. But it is not language that matters. It is the interaction that has to be learnt.
One of my most emotional experiences dates back to four years ago. The tour group and I had travelled and hiked through the southern part of Ethiopia, had visited the Omo valley and its local tribes and, now, in two jeeps we were slowly struggling uphill towards the Dorze lodge. It is located in the vicinity of a small town named Arba Minch around 3000 m above sea level inhabited by the Dorze tribe. I had been there before, I knew the owner of the lodge and we had made a barter – I would help out with everyday tasks and in return he would provide me with accommodation and a bite to eat.
After the recent rains the road was unstable and the first jeep crawled to a stop halfway up. Our driver delved into his rich experience to come up with a solution. Success! Soon we reached the destination. My commendable and enduring travel mates hurried off to explore the surroundings (and indeed, the area boasts a fabulous view of the Abaja and Chamo lakes at the foot of the mountain) and get a glimpse of the everyday life of the tribe, but I stumbled upon the thought that I HAVE TO STAY here. Short and cordial goodbyes from my compatriots who were soon on their way, and I moved into my new home for the following three weeks.
It is worth mentioning that at this point I used English only as a last resort and in abrupt sentences that were far from correct. During the evening it turned out that one of the guest lodge owners had had to leave for his homeland, the Netherlands, and the other (local by ethnicity) had had an unfortunate motorbike landing and had ended up in the hospital in the capital. I gathered all my existent and non-existent knowledge of English and called the owner. He tried to persuade me to stay and do nothing at all. Enjoy life, mountains and nature, he said. He said – I can work when I arrive the next time (the initial idea was for me to help decorate the newly built lodge bungalows). It did sound tempting, but I am a true Latvian girl and do not know how to stay still. The next morning I demanded at least a gardening hoe. In a few hours I did get one. Freshly made. Very impressive. Later it turned out that it was perfectly suitable for this hard clay soil that I kept trying to loosen up, weed and cultivate for the remaining three weeks. Amazingly, my shower mittens were just perfectly made for the gardening tasks at hand.
Let’s put it this way – my English did not exactly improve during the course of this process, but I did learn some local words, at least the key ones (tosimo – thank you). I learnt to chew kat in a way that had some effect. The effect was as follows – I understood that without these stimulating leaves it was very hard indeed to work as much and under such dire circumstances as done by the locals. I know that many do not believe that in Ethiopia the locals do a lot of hard work. It might not seem so if you rush through the country in a few days (and, especially, if you watch only the male part of the population). But to be honest, I cannot picture an average Latvian working that hard. Imagine: you have to feed your family but you only have rocky clay soil at your disposal, on a steep slope of a mountain – unattainable by machinery or an ox. You can but wait for the rainy season to come so you can then try and work this soil by means of your own two hands and to sow some grain and other useful things. And then, pray and pray to God for a good crop year. Tend to it all and harvest it, by hand. Day in, day out, year in, year out. All of the available land plots are cultivated there. No bush or weed overgrowth.
Indeed, it was proper education for me – about peace and harmony of the soul, about mutual understanding, about coexistence and living with and beside each other, about values. About the fact that reality does not always comply with the first impressions or perceptions that we form because of the stereotypes ingrained in our brain regarding life and everything else in Africa. It was a new experience for them as well. People from the nearby village came to watch me work. To observe that a job can be done not only well, but also in a way that is pleasing to the eye. They came to help me, to learn from me. They came to thank me for the work I (a white person) was doing for their sake, for my efforts to improve and develop a place that provided them with jobs and would continue to do so. Over my last days there, I was moved to tears when during my walk through the village I was approached and hugged, and thanked by so many. Never have I experienced anything like that in Latvia. You do not need much to be happy, only to help and do good. If you are true and generous, you will be accepted. That was not my homeland, but it was there that I felt truly needed, it was there that I felt at home, I felt loved.
It is easier to work with people there, because they have much less of everything – opportunities, experience, knowledge. It is not to say that they are inexperienced or stupid. They have all the same things, just on a different level, to a different extent. We have to leave them alone so that they can grow and comprehend the differences between Africa and Europe, or America. We can extend a helping hand but we should not provide them with ready solutions. Africa can be harsh, cruel even, at the same time being beautiful and mesmerizing, making us gravitate towards it again and again. The experience acquired in Africa definitely makes you stronger. But that feeling cannot be obtained by dashing through the country in an organised tour group, zigzagging from one sightseeing object to the other.
Ethiopia has a huge number of places and things to see and visit. Only a few of them are included in the official lists of popular touristic sights. That is so because of the comfort to be gained from organising the itinerary amongst well-known sights without the added difficulty of aiming to explore and discover anything new. It would be a failure not to reach out for new adventures and surprising experiences. And this country does not lack for surprises.
Once, after yet another tour through Ethiopia, I returned home and started browsing the internet for anything new and exciting to attract travel mates for a next trip. By sheer coincidence I stumbled upon a homepage of a French speleologist association containing interesting information on the cave systems in Ethiopia. I knew of Sof Omar caves. That is a cave system 15 km in length; the caves are vast and beautiful and serve as a holy site for the local Muslim community (Muslims make up 35% of Ethiopia’s population). But it turned out that there were so many other long and interesting cave systems. Well, no choice but to go visit them!
Of course, in addition to the cave visit we had to climb up to at least some of the Gheralta rock-hewn churches. There was the Danakil Desert with its Dallol and Erta Ale volcanoes, there were the hot springs and so much more. But the caves remained at the centre of the expedition. And – happy day! – we arrived at the caves. It was around midday, the guide, at quite a nimble pace, led us along a miniscule overgrown trail, a paper folder in hand. We approached a small opening in the ground, the young man opened his folder, read out a few facts about the site and the caves and said: “Here you are, go ahead!” We watched each other: “What does he mean? Alone?!?” I didn’t even have proper cave exploration clothing and definitely no desire to crawl in there. Be it as it may, we switched on our head torches, fixed our water bottles to the belts and entered…
For the restless let me say at once that everything turned out ok. The caves were amazing, long, and interesting, we did not lose our way, nor did we suffocate from poisonous gas (because we turned away as soon as we felt a whiff of any). But when I remember it now I have to admit that we were fairly reckless – the four lone Latvian travellers / wanderers who journeyed into unknown caves without a guide. Would I do it again? I am not certain. But given a similar company of experienced, amazing and capable mates, definitely. Not that there are many of such people around
Back to the cave topic. There are many caves in Ethiopia, but they are practically never included in the touristic itineraries and are not equipped with lamps, boardwalks and many other utilities so habitual for the white tourist. The tourism industry in this sector, and, in fact, all others, is only on the verge of development. This has its up- and downsides. I, personally, am literally drawn to such slightly wild places and people who have not yet encountered the white man, and thus they have not yet been spoilt by the white tourist. At the same time Ethiopia is safe from the security angle. The country actively promotes tourism and is fairly successful at it. Consequently they do care and aim for the white visitor to stay out of harm’s way, for them to be satisfied with the sights and experience and to return home happy. Their stories would then attract more tourists to this blessed African country so different from the others in the region. That, of course, does not preclude a possibility that criminals might cross over the border to the sightseeing places in the vicinity and attempt to kidnap or even shoot a tourist or two (note the infamous events of 2012). Recently, for example, a tourist and his guide were shot when they reached a volcano summit in the dark and from an unusual angle which led to them being mistaken for Eritrean bandits. Neither can you exclude situations when tourists themselves are to blame for their untimely demise – they happen to overestimate their capacity or simply lose their way in a desert and die of heat and dehydration. Anything can happen. But that is true not only of Ethiopia.
UNESCO heritage lists include 9 sites in Ethiopia. All of them are truly noteworthy. I personally am a great fan of the Simien Mountain range. These might not be the highest mountains in the world, as the highest peak there, Ras Dashen, rises only to 4 550 m asl. But there are more important things than height (I have never aspired to climb as many peaks as possible) – and that is the diverse nature, the amazing wildlife, the fabulous landscapes opening up before your eyes at every step. Then again, to be honest, I am rather against staying there overnight. I tend to suffer at a low temperature, and just after sunset at 6.30 pm it gets very chilly there. Very chilly indeed. The warmth returns only after sunrise at 6 am. So it has happened that I miserably shiver through these 12 hours in between, waiting for the warming glow of the first sun rays. However, as soon as I have had my 30 minutes of lizard-like basking in the sun, I forget my misery and am ready for new exciting adventures. And the vast expanse that is Ethiopia is something that I thirst for always and ever again. You can sit down on a non-descript hill (it will definitely be higher than the highest elevation of Latvia, Gaizins at its 312m) and you have the world endlessly unfolding right there at your feet. Like the whole of Latvia. Or two of them. You can spot the next village, and the next, and again, and again.
One of the most popular things on the bucket list of almost any self-respecting traveller is the Omo Valley tribes. It is a famous location for photographers where they (or a significant share of them) keep tirelessly snapping shots of the tribal people as if in a human zoo. I cannot deny that it is interesting to watch people who regardless of the progress around still hold on to their way of living. But it should not be turned into a circus. It seems that tourism brings more harm than good to these tribes. Many a tourist group led by me have come to decline visits to other tribes after the first couple of encounters, since we feel deeply uncomfortable when interfering with their lives and entering their homes and territory, where our presence is distinctly superfluous. It becomes unthinkable to traipse around, camera in hand, for juicy photomoments to be posted on Instagram. Please be considerate! One might say – but they get paid for that. That is so. But most of that money is then spent on alcohol and weapons, which, by general knowledge, have never resulted in anything good. Everything at the right time and sparingly, should be the moto.
I am not completely averse to observing the everyday life of a tribe (and it is indeed different in every one of them), but you have to exercise respect and regard for privacy. Therefore I much rather shorten my visits to the Omo Valley and instead head on to the rest of the world. The landscapes, people and their lifestyles change in Ethiopia with every few hundred kilometres. Almost any village is worth a break so that you can sit down at a street side coffee shack with a steaming cup of locally brewed coffee, and leisurely watch the bustle of the village life flow around you. Sometimes, just the other way round – you feel inclined to join the kids playing the ball or hide-and-seek. To let go. Or, you may lend a hand to a farmer, giving the tasks a try and getting a real taste of the life there. And life is colourful and full of taste.
In a few weeks my husband tends to develop a desire for peace and quiet, the people around just seem too much for him. Not me. I do not feel their presence that way. Of course, there are a lot of them. Crowds. You get remarks from a roadside bunch of youngsters, you feel a cool but fairly dirty hand of a curious child slip into your palm and he turns to you with his wide, black eyes. I do not feel disturbed by that. I feel I am a part of it all. If, all of a sudden, I do feel a wave of homesickness creep towards me (and I do miss my home and family), it is enough that I go out on the street. My mood improves instantly. Though the people are poor and the sheer amount of their troubles by far exceed that of mine, they smile and are kind. The air is permeated by the sense of positivism. You breeze it in and the world seems different. You understand that happiness does not come either from heaps of money, a villa, a fancy car or a pedigree dog. Happiness resides in our hearts (or some may call it the soul). The bigger the heart, the happier the person.
I you, dear reader, believe that my life there flows by on a puffy, pink cloud, you are definitely mistaken. I have gone through many less enjoyable moments, experienced some fairly extreme situations and seen sad stories evolve. A few years ago Ethiopia was prone to numerous strikes all over the country. Let me leave out the political and economic reasoning of those. However, I happened to be staying in one of the small cities where one such strike was organised and carried out. I had no knowledge of it until one morning I was not let out of the hotel yard. The streets were empty and silent. I was at a loss. The hotel staff stood to the side, whispering to each other, watching me. Finally, a man came up to me, he spoke English and explained the situation. Funny, that strike – not a sound anywhere. Something must have gone on somewhere, but not within my sight. During the following days the streets were increasingly patrolled by the police, all the roads into the city were placed under guard. That did not stop me from freely meandering to the mountains and local villages. The police patrols merely inquired where I was heading and what I intended to do. And, upon return, they ascertained themselves that I was alright. Initially, my walking barefoot, shoes in hand, was cause for some suspicion – was I really alright, they wanted to know. Tourists, as a rule, always wore hiking boots to the mountains, nobody ever went barefoot. I replied that I am not an ordinary tourist.
Most likely, there are those among you who believe it reckless of me, a white woman, to roam Ethiopia all alone. But regardless of how that may look, I am well aware of what I do, where I go and to whom I speak. Over the years I have learnt to read them, albeit just a little. They are different from us. Not worse, not better, just different. And wiser. There was a point at first when I had been to Ethiopia twice and started to believe that I now knew the country, that I understood its hows and whys. Yeah, a really smart thought, that. It took me another two visits to realise that I knew not a single damn thing. Nothing is what it seems at the first sight. Now that I have stayed there for a lengthier period of time on my own in the wild, so to say, I have formed a different view of the social fabric. Is this a genuine understanding? I do not know. But it feels very close to my heart.
A painful topic definitely deserving some thought is the poverty, lack of medical care and education system in the country. Not even to speak about environment protection. Not that they die of hunger there, as occasionally portrayed by the mass media, but there are many who live in poverty in the countryside and many beggars in the streets of the cities. People move to cities in the hope of a better life and end up being homeless, since there is no warm welcome for them with an offer of jobs and accommodation waiting. If you cannot push your way through, you have to be content with however little life throws your way.
We are always horrified by the extreme squalor there. Plastic bags, PET bottles strewn all over the place. Then again, where would they discard them noting how the country lacks a decent waste collection and management system. You may gather all that dirt into a small pile but what next? Some burn the waste and then the surroundings remain wrapped in the smell of burning plastic for days. Is that better? The developed countries came to Africa with eloquent motos offering their production and help. But nobody thought about the consequences. Nobody questioned if the locals were ready for that. I would say – let’s spare them our wisdom, technologies and humanitarian aid, let us allow them to live their own life, go through the development at their own pace, without jumping over a few decades in the course of it. They are not yet ready for that. The fact that we see and understand things differently does not mean that the Ethiopians are not right in their own way.
It is much more pleasant to talk about nice things, right? Therefore, regardless of it all, I love the children of Ethiopia. Little, curious, dirty. Certainly, not all of them, but I love the dirty ones. We have a habit of bringing them useful things. Exercise-books, pens and pencils, clothing, balls, skipping ropes. Anything along these lines. I often hear it said that you should bring hard candies (chocolate would melt) and exercise-books. I agree on the exercise-books, but candies can wait. Better bring a simple graph paper exercise book (if it has the multiplication table at the back, the better), so that the kids have somewhere to write down the information received during the class. You can also acquire all of this in a nearby city and take it to a rural school. Also, there are quite a few schools for orphans. There all and any help will be highly appreciated and every little bit will come in handy. (bildes no Harara mapes)
One more thing – do not give them money. Money needs to be earned. I find it difficult to grasp why tourists have made a habit of giving them money thus teaching them to beg. The children need be given a possibility to educate themselves and to find a job, instead of receiving money just like that. The fact that you are poor does not entitle you to begging. Some locals understand that. They produce little souvenirs and sell them at the street side. The trinkets they manufacture and sell are nothing elaborate but it is worth buying them to support the people. You can always give the souvenirs away again, at another distant village for the joy of the smaller kids, you don’t have to bring every little item home. I have to admit that I ignore the children who cheekily follow you on the street and yell give, give or chinese, chinese (there are numerous Chinese investors there and, honestly, they seem to have taken over their best agricultural lands). It is, however, not their fault that they have been taught this.
I still have said nothing of the Ethiopian kitchen (https://adventuresinethiopia.com/our-kitchen/). That is a special and very delicious story. I love the fact that the country has its own, very specific cuisine that has not been destroyed or ruined by the colonisers (Ethiopia has never been colonised!). Since the population is mostly made up of religious communities – Christians and Muslims, there is a notable difference between the eating and cooking ways. All dishes, however, are relatively spicy, which might be a good means against tummy problems and efficient in helping to live through the heat. The spicy food is also a good energy boost (try and fall asleep after a spicy meal in the evening!). Obviously, fancy hotels cater also for the choosy white tourist, but I have no taste for that. I always recommend my travel mates to choose the local cuisine. It is a fact that tummy problems more frequently befall those who have gone for the fancy and sterile meal.
The dishes here will please all and any taste buds. There is meat (chicken, beef, goat, mutton), there are vegetarian dishes. All kinds of legume. The key food item without which any meal would be unthinkable for any proper Ethiopian is injera. Injera is a pancake made of the edible seeds of teff, a staple grain native to Ethiopia. Prior to baking, the dough is left to rise for a few days and then is used to make a thin, big pancake. Its taste is specific, slightly sour and not to everyone’s liking. However, injera does not contain gluten and thus teff flour has become increasingly sought after all over the world (especially the USA).
Initially it may have been slightly problematic to understand where to turn for the things you want to eat, since Christians here have 180 days of lent. Outside those, they tend to eat a lot of meat. Now I have figured out ways of getting diverse food at all times to keep everybody well-fed and happy. Even our guide Henok has come to accept that Latvians are ready to experiment and try anything new, even in the choice of food, and every time I visit there I still manage to find something new to taste. This, certainly, is not an experience on offer in 5 star restaurants.
And, at last but not the least – coffee! Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. We have also visited the Bonga rainforests with their ancient coffee trees that have grown there for centuries and are now covered with moss and lichen. A true fairy-tale forest! The coffee ceremony lasts at least an hour and a half. Then again, what’s the rush? Enjoy life, conversations, sip coffee. People tend to eat out here, gathering in large groups, sharing food, discussing the news and simply enjoying each other’s company. Affectionate experience. It keeps them together, and shapes their identity.
Already I have made a plan for the upcoming autumn. There is still so much to see, to discover over and over again. Henok laughs that I know Ethiopia better than their guides. We have explored and discovered so many attractive places for sightseeing that these are now included in his touristic itineraries also for tourists from other countries.
I eagerly look forward to November when I will step out of the airport and breathe in the Ethiopian air that I I know and love so well. It will be another cool morning, there will be a car waiting for me in the parking lot and a glass of freshly squeezed juice – in a nearby café.
Translated by Dace Rubene