Never in my life have I ever been as dirty as I was during my 9 days in southern Ethiopia; but it has been an incredibly life-changing experience, one that I feel lucky to have experienced.
If you've ever browsed the Discovery Channel or opened up a National Geographic in a waiting room, you have likely seen pictures of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia - the people with the discs on their overstretched lips.
These people, along with hundreds of other tribes, all live in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia. Getting there, however, is incredibly difficult: planes do not fly and roads are either in terrible condition or nonexistent.

Because of this, organized jeep tours cost over a thousand dollars per person for an 8 day tour of the tribes - 8 days being minimal considering it takes 2 days to get there and another 2 back.

Luckily, I met Hitomu, Akira, and Aki: three independent backpackers from Japan who had the idea of trying it ourselves - without a tour.
Very few people go tourless simply because it's very, very difficult.
Bus travel in southern Ethiopia is like a safari in itself. The roads that are paved are extremely bumpy and the roads that aren't feel like a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. Add in tribal pedestrians, large slow animals, and water crossings and the bus is going at a top speed of about 35 mph.

Not to mention the cramped conditions. In one of our minibuses, I counted 22 people in our bus built for 12. I did everything from sitting on the floor to laying in the back of a truck.

This was taken right before 5 more people came on board.
One silver lining is that the scenery along the way is quite nice.
Two days by bus from Addis, we made it to Kayefour, a town without electricity or running water, where we found a guide that brought us to see our first tribe: the Bana people.
Of all the tribes we visited, the Bana were by far the most welcoming and least exposed to tourists of them all.
We were quickly welcomed by a Bana family that invited us into their hut for refreshments and (interpreted) conversation.
They offered us roasted coffee, brewed beer, and invited us to stay with them for the night! Even hospitality can transcend language barriers, it seems.
The Bana people are especially known for their beads and bracelets in Ethiopia. I made sure to buy a few when we visited their weekly market the next day!
I also tried chewing 'chat' for the first time - a popular Ethiopian narcotic. Instead of slowing things down like marijuana, chat actually makes you incredibly alert and aware. 

The first time I tried it, I read 34 pages of my Dubai guidebook before I realized what I was doing. One guy told me he chewed chat and read the entire Quran in one sitting. Where was this amazing plant during high school?
A few days later, we finally made it to Jinka - the closest town to the Mursi people, known for their discs.
It's worth nothing that only the married Mursi women have disc lips as they consider it beautiful on women. The men just paint themselves in white and look tough.
While I was hoping for something a little more pristine, the village we visited felt more like a business than anything. The Mursi people are so used to hoards of tourists coming in jeeps that they simply ask for tips and pose for photographs. I suppose the downside of being so famous is the inevitable commercialization that follows.
"You can touch them, y'know. They really don't care," said the tour guide to me as he casually copped a feel on one of the young girls.
At the Jinka market, Tom, being a tall guy, was naturally very popular with the local kids. They jumped, climbed, and swung from his arms; he was basically a walking jungle gym! It was pretty adorable.
At one point, Akira suddenly disappeared.  A few minutes of searching later, we found him like this.
Being the only girl in the group, Aki also got a bit too much attention from the market kids. 

Wise word of advice: Never wear a skirt to a tribal market!
Sadly, Akira got pretty sick in Jinka. Turns out, he contracted an intestinal parasite and, not wanting to risk losing hospital access as we went deeper into the Omo, he decided to call it quits and head back to Addis Ababa to see a hospital.

However, at the same time we met Daisuke (also from Japan) and Jong Ho from Korea, who both decided to travel onward with us. Even with Akira gone, our group rose from 4 to 5!

We missed the last weekly bus to the next town (Turmi) so we had to contract a private one to take us. I've realized that splitting everything 5 ways is quite nice!
In Turmi, it was cheap enough for all 5 of us to get our own private rooms. 

Akira and Tom taught me an amazingly addictive Japanese card game called 'Daifugo.' We played a round of it to decide room picks and - being the winner - I got the 'suite!'

If you've ever traveled through Africa, you'd understand how nice this room is! This is like Vegas status in the Omo Valley.
From our hotel, we walked a good 4 miles with a guide to visit a Hamer village during their evening dances.
The Hamer kids were initially shy about getting their photos taken, but once I showed them pictures of themselves, they all started fighting to have their pictures taken!
Nighttime in the Omo can be pretty lonely as electricity is pretty limited, if any at all.

We resorted to hanging up some flashlights and the five of us started playing Daifugo for money. What started as 1 Birr stakes (5 cents) quickly escalated into 30 Birr stakes (2 dollar) a few hours later. With a game this fast, you'd be surprised at how much people start to owe after a while. The most we ever played for was a 200 Birr game, roughly 12 bucks!

It doesn't sound like a lot, but once you get used to spending less than $20 a day in Ethiopia, 12 dollars is a LOT. We also chewed some chat while playing, of course!
On our last day in Turmi, we were lucky enough to witness a Hamer wedding ceremony. There's a big reason why they wear bras for this ceremony.
A Hamer wedding ceremony, for those not warned about the customs, can be a huge shock to experience. 

The women wear bras because the husband-to-be and his family whip (that's right, whip) the bride(s) to symbolize them giving themselves to their husband.
Watching it was completely different than what I had expected. Not only do the women not mind being whipped, they absolutely want it! The husbands, on the other hand, didn't seem to enjoy it, but the women aggressively sang, danced, and shouted to be whipped. To them, it's an incredible honor to be whipped by your husband's family.

It got to the point where brides would actually fight each other to be whipped first. One bride almost cried because her husband didn't want to keep whipping her.
While to outsiders, the whole concept is extremely gruesome, the married Hamer women flaunt their scars with a huge amount of pride. These are, by far, the toughest women I've ever seen.

After the whipping, the final ceremony is the bull jump, where the husband must jump and run across a line of bulls 8 times to signify his manhood.
Never in my life did I think I would ever witness this type of tribal ritual. It's all been extremely surreal to me. I've definitely come a long way since Dubai!

Everyone else being on their way down to Kenya, I said a few bittersweet goodbyes to the group of awesome people I traveled with for over 9 days.

I miss everyone already!
Going back to Addis, I hitched a ride with an overnight banana truck.
A terrible 23 hours later, I finally made it back to the capital, barely intact.

As for my experiences back in Addis Ababa, this dusty city has been overwhelming, to say the least.
I've also been hanging out with three American expats living in Addis: Marie Claire, Feleg, and Agata. We've been hanging out between my trips to the outer regions of the country.
I also made an afternoon trip to the Entoto Mountains north of the city. What surprised me was how the Ethiopian highlands look more like Canada to me than the way I pictured 'Africa' to be.
And today, I had my first hot water shower in almost 2 weeks.

While I won't miss not showering for 4 days at a time and sleeping in mosquito nets, I sure will miss those kids.
Rachel L.
11/4/2012 08:50:23 am

The picture of you and the kids is so cute :) That ritual is really interesting... Hard for me to fathom something like that, but it really opens your eyes to the different cultures around the world. And you're right, those trees don't look like what I would think "Africa" would look like... I might have to come see for myself!

11/4/2012 09:02:24 pm

as seen on TV!
you seem lost so much weight.
original whip hobby and group wedding?
priceless experience!

11/5/2012 01:06:31 pm

All I see is.... IMMORTALS at the end, not the cute picture with you and the kids. LOL.

The pictures you took of the tribes are exactly like National Geography. I still can't believe you were actually there. If you think about it, a lot of these pictures you can sell.... hmmmm.

Miss you!

11/7/2012 05:47:38 am


11/7/2012 04:08:18 pm

Where to even begin...! Reading about it is overwhelming - to have experienced it firsthand must have been utterly surreal (especially after the earlier leg of your journey as you note!).

I have many questions for you; questions you definitely ought to answer under the influence of some 'chat', ha. (You'll probably need it to get to all of them)

Kick-ass pictures as usual.

Bon voyage for the rest of your adventure!!

3/28/2013 10:52:16 pm

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