Travel to Ethiopia and become seven years younger…”
This much-touted slogan appears on every tourist brochure and poster that you see in Ethiopia and has its origin in the fact that Ethiopia runs on a completely different calendar system to the rest of the world. Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar and their new year falls on our 11 September each year. The year falls seven or eight behind Western time so if you consider the year to be 2013 it will be 2006 in Ethiopia, We are so privileged to be in Addis Ababa on New Years day 2006! Ethiopian time is completely different from Western time. Both runs on a twelve hour cycle but in Ethiopia this twelve hour cycle starts at 6am and again at 6pm so when we made our appointment with our guide at Gheralda to go to the rock hewn churches of Tigray, we made the appointment for 8:00 our time which was 2 in Ethiopian time.
Driving in Ethiopia is an ongoing challenge. The first difficulty that presents itself is the fact that driving takes place on the right hand side of the road – a relatively straight forward task until you come to obstacles like traffic circles which require a complete paradigm shift from the normal driving we as South Africans are used to. The second complication lies in the fact that the roads are very narrow and are often completely inundated with pedestrians and livestock. It is not unusual for the road to be completely covered by pack donkeys, goats, horses, sheep and cattle. Pedestrians seem to be completely deaf and often do not respond to hooting
An additional dimension to the whole driving saga is what Philip Briggs (Bradt guide to Ethiopia) describes as “farangi hysteria”. Farangi is the Amarigna word for foreigner and the term farangi hysteria refers to the bizarre reaction of some locals (often kids and teenagers) to the presence of a foreigner in their midst. Mostly the hysteria involves shouting and demands for money (most commonly “you, you give me money!”). We countered their bad behaviour by waving to them which made them smile and wave back. Arno lost his temper only twice, stopping the truck and chasing the culprit who got such a fright that we think he is still running!
Ethiopia is an enormous country and the distances between main centres are huge. Ethiopia is also incredibly mountainous and our travels took us through and over the most gorgeous craggy mountains. As a result, travel is slow and it is not possible to cover great distances each day. We found that we kept calculating the distances between spots with reference to our map and our GPS and then discovering that we could not realistically travel even a third of the distance because the road wound its way back and forward over mountain passes. The GPS cannot read the mountain passes and we often drove kilometers and kilometers while the GPS recalculated and the distance between 2 towns were suddenly much longer than previously!! Often two or three hundred kilometres took us an entire day to travel. On the up side, however, the scenery and landscapes in Ethiopia are breathtakingly beautiful. It’s certainly not the desert wasteland of popular perception. There is also always a hotel in even the smallest places where you can pull in for the night if your journey takes longer than expected.
In most cases, the main centers are linked by tarred roads in various states of repair, some are relatively new and others are badly potholed. For additional fun, the road signs are all in Amarigna and there are often not English translations, so you need to be sure of your route, especially of the more obscure turn off’s as there is no guarantee that they will be signposted in a language you will understand. Camping is a veritable mystery to Ethiopians so as a result very few campsites are available. We stayed very cheaply in hotels although we learned very quickly to inspect the room before committing ourselves. We paid 230Birr for a “single” room with a double bed while a “double” room in Ethiopian terms has 2 single beds and will be more expensive this suits us very well!
Ethiopian food is totally different. The local standby dish is called injera and is a huge, sour pancake made of tef. The sourness comes from the fact that the dough is fermented for three days before preparation. Injera is served with a sauce called wat which comes in various shapes and sizes but is usually very spicy. You can also have injera with tips (roasted meat – usually goat) or with vegetables on traditional fasting days (Wednesday and Friday). You can also order a wide variety of spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni and pizza.
Food is quiet cheap and we were able to buy a decent plate of food for about R80 which was enough for the 2 of us. A pizza with the works will cost between 80 and 100 Birr. Arno’s beer of choice is St George beer although there are a variety of locally brewed beers including Dashen, Castel (not at all like our Castle) and Harar. Beer costs between 11 and 13 Birr and a cold drink (Coke, Pepsi etc) cost around 8 Birr. The Ethiopians make excellent cheap red wine which is available for about 36 Birr a bottle. The highlight of a trip to Ethiopia is the coffee which is served not only at the traditional coffee ceremonies but is a huge part of everyday life. Coffee is served in little cups and is very nice.. We were numerously times invited to a coffee ceremony where the beans are roasted, crushed and then brewed three times and it is rude to leave before the third cup is drunk!
Ethiopians speak Amharaic or Amarigna, an ancient Semitic language made up of 200 characters and which seems closer to hieroglyphics to the average traveller. In Addis Ababa and sometimes in the provinces English is spoken but it is not widespread. Of course, all and sundry know how to say “you, you give me money!”
Petrol cost round about 19Birr which is double what we paid in Sudan but still cheap in comparison to the Southern African countries.