Ethiopia was a country that toyed with my emotions to no end. At first it struck me as one of the toughest places I’ve ever been – for one thing because it’s a very poor country with little infrastructure. Yet it occurred to me that I’ve been to a number of poor countries but I didn’t consider them tough places to be (at least not for me). Laos, Cambodia and Jordan come to mind in this regard – they’re not swimming in cash, but they at least have a bit of infrastructure in place for visitors to their respective countries.
I then wondered if it was the difficulty I had with the language. Not many people in Ethiopia speak English, and there was zero chance I’d be communicating with them in Amharic. Even just learning thank you (an exhausting, six-syllable “ameseginalehugn”, with no abbreviated form) took a couple days.
It might have been a combination of these factors, along with the fact that I had just come from Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. My first trip to Africa in general, and East Africa specifically, was safer than I expected but also more frustrating than I had thought it would be.
By the time I arrived in Addis Ababa (locally referred to as just “Addis”) I had already been fighting a stomach bug from Tanzania that left me feeling pretty awful any time I passed food through my esophagus. The second it would hit my stomach, I felt a nasty grumble and an overall feeling of ickiness. And considering that this mystery illness did absolutely nothing to suppress my appetite and Ethiopian food might just be my favorite cuisine on the planet, I started off the trip in Addis scarfing down as much delicious food as I could possibly shove in my mouth. It was great at the time, but the second Chris and I left the restaurant and started meandering down the street, I keeled over in pain.
My next source of irritation came from a trip we decided to take down south. Less touristy and very much off the beaten path, we thought a private tour to Hawassa would be a treat. Turns out some places remain off the beaten path for a reason. Although we were at a nice hotel on the lake, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the city itself. The five-hour drive down there was less than scenic at times: The architecture was very typical of East Africa, meaning incredibly uninspiring and at times downright ugly and shady-looking. Entire fields were filled with litter every few inches, almost to the point of giving them an unintentional landfill appearance. Occasionally, I would spot people passed out face down on the side of the road. Just before arriving at our hotel, our driver Brook even had to swerve around a man passed out in the middle of the road. “Probably just drunk” Brook explained, as I expressed concern over whether he was alive and/or safe in the middle of the street.
Our hotel in Hawassa, nice as it seemed at first glance, was also incredibly frustrating. As Chris and I sat down hoping to enjoy a meal of doro wat and vegetables piled onto a plate of injera bread, a waiter came to our table and greeted us with a blunt “What do you want?”. We both sat there stunned – “Umm, a menu, please?” This was followed by the usual language-based miscommunication and some dishes that we hadn’t ordered. Our hotel staff seemed severely under-trained and failed to respond to even the most basic requests, like a towel (we were only given one for a double-occupancy room). On the second day we asked to change rooms due to a horrendous, retch-inducing smell of sewage coming up from the bathroom drain and straight in our room. After a couple attempts, we got a staff member to check out the smell for himself, followed by an immediate call to his colleagues to have us moved. I was relieved that it wasn’t just us, a couple of spoiled American brats making unreasonable demands – he too found the smell worthy of action.
Possibly the most frustrating part of my entire round-the-world journey came when I just wanted a simple breakfast and a cup of tea one morning. Chris had left and I was on my own, awaiting a flight from another somewhat uninspiring town called Gondar back to Addis. I seemed to have been the only one who missed the memo that the flight was delayed by an undisclosed number of hours. So I wasn’t in the greatest mood to begin with. I sat down in an empty restaurant, waited for the waitress to come over and politely asked for the full breakfast and a cup of tea. Everything seemed to be going smoothly – and then this happened:
“Tea, with milk, okay.” The fact that she repeats my order back tells me she understood. She walks over to the counter, gives the order to her colleague, and stands around for another 20 minutes.
“Excuse me”, I motion to her, as she walks over. In the meantime another woman has sat down and ordered. “Could I have a tea, with milk please?” I ask in slow, clear English.
“Tea, with milk, yes” she replies. She then strolls leisurely over to the other woman in the restaurant and takes her order. A few moments later I watch her pour what appears from afar to be a tea, with milk, then walk it over to… the other woman.
“Excuse me”, I motion again after another ten minutes or so. “Tea, milk?” This time I truncate it down to the simplest possible English.
“Tea, with milk?” she replies.
“Yes, please. Ameseginalehugn” I say, still maintaining my patience, thinning as it is at this point.
I wait another ten minutes as she strolls, leisurely yet again, to the counter and chats with her colleague for a while. At this point I’m internally fuming. A man walks in, sits down, and is somehow able to immediately order breakfast and a coffee. He gets his coffee immediately. As the waitress passes by, I catch her attention.
“Sorry, tea with milk? Pleeeeeeease?”
“Yes, tea with milk.”
Ten minutes later my food arrives, sans tea. “Tea, please?” I ask for the fifth time.
“Tea, with milk, yes” she repeats.
For the next few attempts I decide I need to change up my strategy. I consult my guidebook for the word for “tea” and request it in Amharic (“shai?” I ask, still politely, abandoning any hope of getting milk with it). After that fails, I motion my waitress’ colleague, thinking maybe she’ll have an easier time understanding me. To no avail.
To this day I have absolutely no idea what the problem was. It didn’t seem to be a communication issue. Other people got their teas. The ladies didn’t seem spiteful, and (in my mind anyway) I didn’t give them a reason to play games with me. I did finally get my tea, after my meal and about 75 minutes after I first sat down. It took seven – yes, seven – requests, and when it did come, the water was a light shade of brown (teabag on the side, so the color didn’t come from any actual tea) and the milk was nowhere to be seen. I don’t think I’ve ever been so on edge while still maintaining a polite smile. I wondered if the ladies could see the steam coming from my ears.
So Ethiopia was ten days of absolute frustration, but it had its saving graces: There were moments when I truly loved the experience, the country and the people in it. For starters, the food was absolutely unbeatable. I became addicted to injera bread and anything “goopy” (Chris liked to laugh at my love of goopy food), whether it be the doro wat (chicken stew), mashed collared greens or lentils. By day three I had hit up some antibiotics and successfully kicked my Tanzanian stomach bug, so I was actually able to enjoy the food without consequence.
Another amazing thing happened when we got Brook out of his shell and got him to tell us about life in Ethiopia. He hold us about himself and his girlfriend, how she couldn’t tell her Muslim parents about him because he’s Christian. He told us about dating in Ethiopia and the relationships between men and women. We were fascinated to learn that in some of the more rural parts, marriages were still a financial transaction between families based on an exchange of livestock. As many goats, sheep, cows, mules and horses as we saw, we could believe it.
I also had a great time in a town to the north called Lalibela. Known for its famous rock-hewn churches (a UNESCO World Heritage sight, nonetheless), the town itself by the same name is a lot more pleasant and laid back. Children greeted me with smiles, wanting more to practice their English on me than to beg for money. Garbage in the streets and on the sidewalks was far less prevalent. And the mountains offered a stunning backdrop to the churches, which with an entrance fee of $50 are a bit expensive to visit, but worth every penny.
Finally, my last night in the country, back in Addis, I was told to check out a restaurant called Jod Abyssinia. I immediately had regrets following this advice when I stepped out of my taxi to the sight of no fewer than 15 tourists snapping pictures of the front door. Ugh, a tourist trap, I thought. Over the course of the night, thought, I realized this was a place for tourists and locals alike, and the locals are the ones that actually stay late to enjoy the traditional dances from all parts of the country.
Just as I was about to leave, a table full of locals motioned me over and insisted I sit with them when they discovered I was alone. I had the most amazing time chatting with them, all of whom spoke fluent English after having lived abroad, mostly in the U.S. One guy had even made a career working for the U.N. and was absolutely fascinating to talk to. They bought me dinner, drinks and gave me a ride back to my hotel. It made me sad to be leaving the next day, especially when they mentioned that if I stayed, I’d have an invitation to a home-cooked meal.
The great moments were still dotted with times of hair-pulling irritation. There was the time I took a $20 taxi to the National Museum in hopes of seeing Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus, only to find that Lucy is not in fact on display but rather stowed away in the basement. The rest of the museum was somewhat underwhelming and I was in and out in under 30 minutes.
There was also the time in Hawassa when, ready to leave and return to Addis Ababa, our car failed to start. After more than an hour sitting in the hot sun, fending off beggars who saw the perfect opportunity to get some money out of the stranded tourists, Brook and a few passersby finally realized the car wouldn’t start because we were parked next to a bank with some sort of engine-disabling radio system. We got a handful of guys off the street to give us a push out of the range of the device, but even this plan was thwarted by the row of motorcycles in front of the car combined with the locked steering wheel, meaning we had no chance to veer around them. That left us with only one option – push the car backwards, straight into an intersection of oncoming traffic. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid – into traffic we went and across the street. The plan worked, but not before nearly an hour and a half of trying to figure the mystery out.
In the end, though, I met some great people and wondered if my frustration and our differences could mostly be traced back to an inability to communicate. It really drove home the importance of education (specifically language education) and of translators and interpreters, since obviously no one can be expected to learn the language of every country they go to. It also taught me to appreciate the places that are far from perfect, and to always keep perspective.
I left Ethiopia with fond memories overall, but if you plan to go, don’t expect them to come easily.