Ethiopia: While the rest of the world celebrated the turn of the millennium seven years ago, Ethiopia will mark the year 2000 on September 12. Ethiopia is the only country in the world that has preserved the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox faith-based Julian calendar, which is seven years behind the Gregorian calendar that is commonly used by the rest of the world. We entered, and had passports stamped 17-07-2007, but all the entries in the immigration joker's books were 09-11-1999. Our bus tickets were written up the same way.
Ethiopia: Where clocks are six hours different than ours. But it's pretty easy to work out. Just have to confirm 'European or Ethiopian time?' when making bookings.
Ethiopia: From bullets to ballots only in the last 14-15 years. Tank wrecks on roadside hint at past troubles.
Ethiopia: Named after Ethiopic: grand son of Noah.
Ethiopia: a.k.a. Abyssinia, but haven't yet got to the bottom of the who, when, how, why of that one yet.
Ethiopia: we are no longer muzungu, but now ferang.
Ethiopia. The naivety of Westerners associates the country with famine and drought. Wrong. It does suffer major drought every 10 years, there about. It does have deserts that experience erratic rain. But these are thinly populated, and reading Martin Meredith you learn even this is politically based: send politically dissenting tribes to these areas. Then experience the one particularly big famine (1984), and the world thinks 'that's Ethiopia'. What's more, when the famine/drought kicks in, Mengistu and his Derg government keeps it real quiet as it was preparing its big celebrations and world press releases on how wonderful they have done in the 10 years since the 'revolution'.
Foreign governments, NGOs, the big name charities, and churches are in Ethiopia in force. People get dependant upon the aid and won't budge from the drought prone areas. Yet there are aid organisations established in fertile areas, probably because when the world found out Mengistu just picked up a lot from the famine area and dumped them in the south (also helps lessen the numbers of resistance in the area). We saw them on our trip from the border to Addis Ababa, through what is the most extensive area of fertile land in East Africa. The fertile areas cover more than half of the country's area, and are where the vast majority lives. Interesting trying to find out the real picture.
All through Africa I have seen things I thought 'odd' about aid agencies. (Got to say MSF - medicines sans frontiers does great stuff). I actually had a rant written, but spared you. I mention Graham Hancock in my reading list later, but a book of his I will chase when finished this trip is Lords of Poverty: the power, prestige, and corruption of the international aid business (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989). I've also spotted a more academic book, Post War Thinking on Developmental Studies (or similiar). Then again, Vic. Uni. Wellington offers a Masters in Development Studies. Hmmmmm. Nah.
I've already been stunned by the majestic landscape and farming abundance, which commenced as soon as we crossed the border. Way different to my expectations. Every night we have had a cracker thunderstorm - wicked lightning, massive thunder, and torrential downpours. A conversation with a joker on the bus: "Ethiopia has a good rain season, almost too good." Now there's an irony for you. I'm sure my good friend, Feetay, has a theory.
But the country, even from what we have seen so far and there's still the magical north, is culturally, historically, and socially a wonderland. Its history is back to the first century AD stuff. Orthodox Christianity everywhere.
We are in a different Africa.
I've spoken of flexible honesty before, but Ethiopia is a kalaedescope of information, misinformation, and outright fantasy.
The trip from the border northwards was spent feeling battered and bruised from the Kenya truck trip. The Moyale-Addis bus stopped overnight in Awassa, and we found probably the nicest hotel room of the whole trip. By the time we reached Addis the bus floor was awash with the stems of qat (pronounced chat) leaves. Might have been a bus, but our fellow passengers were all flying high.
Addis Ababa: Third highest altitude capital city in the world: we've been to all top three.
Addis Ababa: prononced locally as one word: Adisaba.
Addis Ababa: Oh boy.
What an only-just-organised state of chaos. Grubby as all hell. Lepers, the blind, the amputated, and every known affliction - you name it, beg in rows on the streets. Homeless sleep on traffic islands, footpaths, everywhere. This is where the charities are needed. Some truely desperate scenes. The closet thing to India you can get.
Everything is in a state of dishevelment. Nice restaurants have a street front you wouldn't ordinarily dream of entering. Good shops have little street appeal. Rain turns the bitumen streets into a quagmire. But there is a growing middle class as well, living quite nicely, thank you.
But it feels very safe. Though the many pick-pocket attempts focus your attention.
It captures you some how, not in nice way, not in a bad way. I don't know. But, we crack it.
Addis is home to the Ethiopian National Museum, highlight of which has got to be 'Lucy'. Known as Dinknesh (wonderful) to the Ethiopians, she is the 3.3 million year old fossilised skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis , an upright walking hominoid found in 1974. She is a contemporary of the 'folk' that left the footprints behind at Laetoli, Serengeti. The oldest hominid fossil found at the time.
She is called Lucy because the Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds was popular amongst the team at the time of discovery.
Since 2004 (European!) an Australopithecus afarensis child fossil, 'Selam' - 150,000 years older than Lucy, has carefully been uncovered in Ethiopia, and is now being prepared for showing at the museum.
Since Lucy's discovery, two older species have been found, both in 1995. Australopithecus aramensis (4 million years old), in Kenya, and Ardipithecus ramidus (4.5 mill year old), again in Ethiopia.
During our stay in Addis, news broke of a find of a fossilised jaw bone that may provide a link between aramensis (4.2 to 3.9 mil years ago) and Lucy's afarensis 'tribe' (3.0 to 3.6 million years ago).
Yep, cradle of civilisation stuff.
Ethiopia: What an unbelievable number of beer brands. One beer, Dashen (named after Ethiopia's highest mountain, 4th in Africa) has a label which highlights a missed opportunity by our brewer's marketers at home. Not in fine print, but scrolled across the label is 'Dashen: ISO14000 Certified Brewery'. I don't think you can imagine how re-assuring it is drinking your beer in the knowledge it is ISO certified.
Ethiopia: Coffee. Hasn't Ethiopia and Starbucks recently engaged in a branding wrangle? But, whacko, can you ever get a good coffee. It's an art form. And the lingering Italian presence means good espresso machines (and pasta, pizza, and pastries. The local spicy stews and Wetex-sponge bread, injera, wears thin. ) Have even found out the bean types: Siadamo, Limu, Kaffa, Gimbi, Harar, and Yerga-Cheffe. Specialty cafes (small, crowded, nothing flash establishments) allow you to choose your type.
English language newspapers are hard to come by, and not much chop. But a couple of articles from The Reporter, 21 July 2007:
A feature article 'Of tour guides and tourists' (p.25) tells of the ploys and traps, and money made by tourist guides, touts and cons in tales of crass gullibility. Crooks? Or entrepreneurs exploiting a business opportunity in a market of stupidity?
Different country, same African problem. Editorial (p.3) 'Fighting corruption with corruption': 'Presently, corruption figures among the topical subject of discussion in Ethiopia. Sadly, not everyone is seen doing what he can to combat it. ...'
And on a better note, The Daily Monitor, (Friday, July 20) Sports (p.9) 'Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru has had his time of 58 mns 33 secs set on March 7 in The Hague confirmed as a new world record for the Half Marathon, by IAAF.'
Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes, those that can be bothered or not chasing money at European events, are doing head to head battle at the All African Games in Algiers.
Sorting out visas has required staying in Addis a few days. But we have done some side excursions. We celebrated our wedding anniversary with a 'weekend away'. Hang the expense, we booked the suite, with bath, DSTV, at a 'resort' at the hot pools town, Ambo. Transport, accommodation, meals, drinks, cost an outrageous 70 bucks Kiwi! What a treat. TV consisted of Aljazeera news, Dubai One movie channel, and ETV - Ethiopian TV, 'nuff said. Aljazeera broadcast news: All Blacks 26 Wallabies 12. Not such a surprise, but the stranglehold grip the All Blacks looked like they had on the World Cup six months ago, doesn't look so strong now. But a hold is a hold, it's enough.
We've also traveled the 520km east, ten and a half hour (if you're lucky) bus trip to Harar. Across arid, camel-scatterd, plains and then up and along fertile, oxen-ploughed, (peasant landholds; subsistence farming) mountains. 320km to Djibouti, 120km to Somalia border: We are now in the Horn of Africa. Harar, built 13th-16th century, is the fourth holiest city of Islam (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem), has 82 mosques - three date from the 10th century, and sits inside a three and a half kilometer-long wall. It's a criss-crossed maze of, they say, 362 alleys. It's a time warp. An 'attraction' is a nutter called the 'Hyena Man', he feeds them, somtimes with food held in his mouth. The country is 30% moslem, and I reckon most live out in these parts. But it also has Christian churches inside. The town prides itself on it's tolerence, understanding, and living together of all peoples. It's a laid back moslem feel.
We visted a fantastic 'museum'. An original house, that Haile Sallase once owned, being renovated by one Abdallah Ali Shariff and his family to house their personal collection of artifacts. Deb and I were actually allowed to touch (we felt obliged to do so very carefully) 500 year old copies of the Koran. He showed us the trick of how they hand wrote the Koran with ink quills, dead straight, with no lines on the page. Not telling.
Over a Harar Beer, one night I met an Ethiopian soldier, Captain Zerihun Tessema Haila. Interesting. Had spent seven months on duty in Somalia, an experience I think that left him lierally 'shell shocked'. He just couldn't fathom the Somalians - crazy! always fighting! Don't know what peace is, don't want peace. Shakes his head, looks into his beer deeply. "Just crazy." He was convinced the Eritrians are supplying weapons to 'the terrorists' in Somalia. Later, a story in The Reporter, 28 July says the UN confirms Zerihun's belief.
The return trip to Addis was another of those African wonders. Have to be on bus at 5:00am, for 6:00am departure (don't ask me!), travel 20 minutes, bus breaks down, sit on side of road for four hours (chat to an Addis local who has done his MBA in the Netherlands. He was interested in the book I was reading, conversation followed. Neat.), replacement bus found, head off, briefest of lunch stop (bus stop retaurants and their dunnies - you don't want to know), dark falls, bus only has very dim low beam, drive very slowly, arrive Addis 10:30 pm, Addis closes at dark and there's few lights, thankfully find a taxi quickly, get to hotel, has given away our room booking, full, phone others - full, now 11:00pm, tired, hungry, and just a tad pissed. Hey! it's been 18 hours. Lovely lady at hotel kitchen cooks a meal, we grab our sleeping bags, a couch on the verandah and go to sleep. About 3:00am hugh thunderstorm, we are under cover. At 6:00 awoken for an emptied room, sleep to 9:00am. Feel a million dollars. Truely. TIA - this is Africa.
For visas, we need a 'letter of introduction', and wanted to get in touch with the British Embassy. A woman from our hotel, trying to help, says "why you not use Australian and New Zealand Embassy?", "There isn't one." "Yes, I ring for you." "Hello, Austrian Embassy" "Good Morning, Embassy of the Netherlands" Arggggggh.
I find out that as an Australian I am not supposed to use the British Embassy. Apparently the Canadians are Aussies' contact overseas in lieu of their own embassy. Poms must really be taking the Ashes loss to heart. But, for a payment, the Poms will do it.
I thought I might have a crack at forging a letter - it's only passport details after all. But I'd have never been up to this job:
Her Britannic Majesty's Embassy present their compliments to the Embassy of
the Republic of the Sudan and have the honour to state that the British
authorities have no objections to the following person traveling to Sudan.
[Name] [Date of Birth] [A lot less detail than I would have provided]
Her Britannic Majesty's Embassy avail themselves of the opportunity to
renew to the Embassy of the Republic of the Sudan the assurance of their highest
[signed] [stamped] [all on embossed, headed paper]
Wow! So there.
Yep. Another change of plan. With an Egyptian visa as well, we are heading north up through the Sudan. It's OK, honestly. Our goal looks good. Travel bottom to top of Africa overland, under our own steam. That will be something. The visa application was straight forward enough, considering all the tribulations we had been told, but the hoop jumping was a bit of a thrash. Just keep your cool.
I've made a misjudgment. I thought I was stocked up on books, but have had to buy, and read a few more to keep up supply. Have read: Paul Stewart's Trek (Jonathan Cape, 1991), a story of a bumbling attempt to drive across the Sahara. Then Joseph Conrad's 1902 classic Heart of Darkness (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994). I wanted to read this one as Paul Theroux reckons he read it twelve times on his Cairo to Cape Town trip. Intense, philosophical. It's only a short read, but once will do me - for now. Then getting into the Ethiopian mood, I read Phillip Marsden's The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian romance. (Harper Perennial, 2005). A travelogue with heaps of info. He walked Lalibela to Axum with pack mules. Nice read. Now, at last, I'm into John Reader's Africa: a biography of the continent (Penguin, 1998). I've looked forward to this one. Deb has told me about it. I also spotted a photo of John Reader, one of the team uncovering the Laetoli footprints, at the Oldavai Museum, Serengeti. Remember Alan Paton's Cry, the beloved country? Well, Reader won the Alan Paton Award 1998 for Africa. As a back up, there's also Graham Hancock's The Sign and The Seal: A quest for the Ark of the Covenant (Arrow Books, 1992), in waiting.
We have the north of Ethiopia to do next: A land of history, magic, mystery, legend, mysticism, faith to do first. Blue Nile source; Gondor: site of five 17th century castles; Lalibela: rock-hewn churches from medieval times; thousands of years old monasteries:, still used, dotted all over; Axum centre of the 1st-7th century AD empire, and where I might just have to do a Harrison Ford/Indianna Jones and try to get a look at the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly housed there. Well, millions belive it!
Caught up with news that Tour de France has turned into a mess, again. Shame. Thank god for BBC on the shortwave. But no AFL news, bugger.
Ethiopia: were there are power outages at least once a day, no matter where you are - usually internet cafes.
Ethiopia: Country of the worst internet response possible. At least you can have a coffee while you wait, and wait ...
'When you drink a cup of coffee,
ideas come in, marching like an army.' Balzac.