Three months into my travels, Ethiopia has shown me the trials and tribulations that come with traveling in the developing world. It has definitely not been easy and, in some cases, frustrating. But man, I have learned so much.
I also feel like my physical tolerance is much higher now than a few months ago. Although it's still hard not to go batshit crazy every now and then when it takes 4 hours to travel 60 miles...
Being all bussed out in the south, I decided this time to fly into the north, compared to the alternative of a rough two-day bus ride.
What I didn't know was that planes in Ethiopia operate like busses. My what-I-assumed-was-a-direct flight to Lalibela flew first to Gondar, then the northernmost city of Axum, before finally backtracking to Lalibela. What was supposed to be a short 45-minute flight ended up taking over three hours.
"This is Ethiopia" pretty much became my mantra every time something ridiculous or unexpected happened.
Lalibela, known as the Jerusalem of Africa, is known for having the largest monolithic churches in the world - eleven of them in fact. Monolithic meaning carved completely out of one single piece of rock!
I'm not sure why King Lalibela decided to carve these churches from the ground, but I've never seen anything like it. Amazing!
I also happened to be in Lalibela on the day of their weekly market. Northern Ethiopia being VERY cold this time of year, I quickly bought a traditional 'gabi' - a large thick blanket that Ethiopians drape across their necks. And wonderfully toasty it was.
From Lalibela, I bussed an incredibly scenic route westward towards Bahir Dar - a city situated on Lake Tana - the only coastal city in an otherwise landlocked Ethiopia. The Ethiopian highlands along the way were spectacularly photogenic.
When I arrived, I managed to hit the lottery and found a hotel that was not only clean but had hot water and free wifi. Most Ethiopian hotels don't even offer a single of those three things, so this certainly felt like the Sheraton!
In my hotel, I met Hal and Leslie from Wales and we shared a boat out to see the monastaries of Lake Tana.
Unfortunately, boat scams in Lake Tana are commonplace. After we initially paid, they told us that "a few people cancelled" and that we would have to pay more. They also refused to return the money we already paid. Again, this is Ethiopia, I told myself.
I learned afterwards that this scam happens to basically everyone.
On top of that, the island monasteries on the lake treat tourists like cash cows. Entrance is 100 Birr (6 dollars) PER monastery, and if you don't want to visit their monastery, they basically kick you off the island. Yep.
We decided to pay to see the biggest (and oldest) monastery on the lake, this one being from the 14th century.
I've been to loads of churches over the years, but Ethiopian Orthodox ones feel and look completely different than western Christianity ones.
The lake is also known for its hippos, but we weren't lucky enough to see any that day.
The next day, I got a guide that took me to see the Blue Nile Falls outside of Bahir Dar.
On the way, we passed a religious ceremony honoring the day of the goat, an Ethiopian holiday according to my guide.
We walked through incredible scenery and medieval bridges and villages before making it to the falls.
Apparently during the wet season, the amount of water here is more than doubled!
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Leaving the falls by boat, I was forced into paying 150 Birr (9 dollars!) for a 1 MINUTE boat ride that was supposed to cost less than 50 cents.
To make matters worse, my tour guide also tried to scam me by telling me I had to tip him a "set fee of 350 BIRR" (21 DOLLARS) for his "guide association fee" and that anything extra would be for him. He conveniently told me this while I was trapped in the middle of nowhere with him!
I threatened to call the police and demanded to be taken back to Bahir Dar, which surprisingly worked. I just couldn't believe that in two days, I had been scammed twice.
Despite these discouraging mishaps, there was a silver lining in Bahir Dar. Hal and I went out for a few beers one night and we met some college students who brought us to some cool Ethiopian bars and clubs!
They bought us drinks and showed us a pretty good night on the town, something that helped pick me up from some of my bad experiences before.
A few days later, I headed northbound to Gondar, a medieval town in northern Ethiopia known for its castles built by the emperors.
When I read about Ethiopian castles, I wasn't sure what to expect. I guess I had my bar set low because I was pretty blown away by the Gondar castles!
Inside, some of them were bombed by the British in WWII (when Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians).
Gondar is also a popular staging point for treks through the famous Simien Mountains, a popular camping spot.
I met Maude and Osho from Quebec and Rabia from Switzerland, and the four of us went around town arranging a trek to see the mountains.
Knowing a little Amharic goes a long way! I was able to negotiate $40 off per person for our three day, two night trek - which included everything from food to tents and mules!
In our group, we also met Rhona from Ireland and Cameron from Australia, and the six of us set off for what would be three grueling, but rewarding, days of hiking!
Approximately 12,000 feet above sea level (almost the altitude of my skydiving in April), the air in the Simien Mountains was not only thin but freezing cold.
Two people in the group experienced a bit of altitude sickness our first day. The views, however, were spectacular.
I'm not much of a scarf-wearing guy, but when it's that cold, I'll take what I can get!
We also spotted wild baboons and ibexes! It was the first time I had been so close to such exotic animals without some sort of barrier...
At night, our chefs in the camps cooked us some incredible 3-course dinners, as well as plenty of snacks throughout the day.
On the last night, I witnessed our cook kill a chicken for our dinner...
And of course, I taught everyone Daifugo, the Japanese card game I mentioned in my last entry!
During the course of our three days in the mountains, we climbed and trekked a total of 25 miles!
When we got back to Gondar, I coincidentally ran into Hal and Leslie (from Bahir Dar! It was a pleasant surprise to reunite with them for another night of drinks.
In terms of natural scenery, Ethiopia has been the most beautiful country I've seen on my trip thus far.
Though in terms of the local people, it has been a bit disappointing.
During my 4 weeks in Ethiopia, I was scammed twice, had two theft attempts, and was grossly overcharged for everything from water to bus fares.
Sadly, almost everyone who approached me wanted money, and for the first time, I had people ask for money for giving me directions!
It's sad to me that, for such a beautiful country, there's so much blatant discrimination against foreigners, or "faranjis." Most restaurants and hotels will overcharge foreigners as much as they can get away with. Even if you know the real price, they'll tell you directly "No, you will pay the faranji price."
As for the begging, the kids in the cities basically know two English words: "Hello," followed by "money."
In one instance, I had a security guard in a church ask me for money. "If your face is white, everyone assumes you have money to give them," one Ethiopian told me. They refer to all non-Africans as 'white.'
And the staring... oh, the staring. This must be how celebrities feel all the time.
Despite these hindrances, Ethiopia, to my surprise, will remain one of the most stunningly beautiful countries I've ever visited.
Next up... the northern Somalia de facto Republic of Somaliland!
Yes, I really am going there!