Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Ethiopia Should Be Your Next Tourist Destination

Well, I've been lax on the updating front of late - sorry!  Ever since I got back from Ethiopia, work has been a bigger nightmare than normal, so I haven't had the energy or the inclination to be creative.  So let's catch you up through the end of my vacation in early December, shall we?

I left you as I was sitting at a cafe in Jerusalem.  I found out later that night that, consistent with my Middle East travel patterns, something screwy happened when I got to Jerusalem.  When I was there in 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed in the middle of my trip.  This time, right as our minibus was climbing out of the Jordan river valley, the IDF evicted some of the more toxic West Bank settlers from a building they'd claimed in Hebron.  I managed to dodge all of the fallout from this, happily, since I didn't spend much time in the Old City, where there were demonstrations but nothing too bothersome.

The last time I went to Jerusalem, the trip solely revolved around the city's historical and cultural fabric - we paid the barest of lip service to everyday life there, and we spent every waking hour seeing any site with any historical significance (in a city continuously settled for over three thousand years) - so we didn't have much time for creature comforts in Jerusalem.  This time, I did nothing historical, nothing touristy, nothing that required a tour guide or a translator.  It was my first time out of the Kingdom since I got here in August, and I honestly can say that in the intervening three months I had forgotten what it was like to hang out for fun in a bar with friends.  For those of you who've been worried about my sanity, Jerusalem was a good tonic for me.  It was good to see my friend Cyndee, whom I hadn't seen since we left DC in August, as well as meet other people posted to the consulate in Jerusalem.  Since everyone in my bureau (Near Eastern Affairs) just bounces from one neighboring country to another, I ended up meeting a lot of people who have mutual friends with me.  In short?  I had fun.  I hadn't had that in months.

Ethiopia was a different sort of fun.  It was the first time I had spent a few days in a country that is clearly in the third world; poverty is very apparent there, especially in Addis Ababa, where we spent most of our time.  Begging, shanty towns, and a near-complete lack of infrastructure plague the city.  With that being said, the people are phenomenally kind, the city is quite safe, and the ever-present cafe culture blends the best that Ethiopia has to offer: coffee, music, food, and friendliness.  If you're looking for a cheap and unusual vacation, I can't recommend Ethiopia enough.

I and a friend of mine from Embassy Sanaa spent five days in Ethiopia, with two days spent outside of Addis and the rest of the time roaming the city.  We went to Wenchi Crater, a lake in the cone of a dormant volcano.  For about fifteen dollars each, we got a horseback ride down from the edge to the lake surface, a boat ride to the monastery on an island in the middle of the lake, and a guided hike/horseback schlep back up to the top of the volcano by way of a small rift valley filled with green pastures, small springfed watermills, and hot water springs and mud vents.  File this one under things you can't do in the States!  

And now for the obligatory photos.  Again, there's some overlap with Facebook, but I'll try to go a bit more in-depth here.  Most of the photos from our days out in Addis are with my friend David now, because my camera was dead for part of the trip, but I think the more interesting stuff is from our trip outside the city anyway.

My friend Cyndee, from US Consulate Jerusalem.  We are standing in an honest-to-God bar.   Just before this I had pork for dinner while sitting between two men.  Amazing!  

Addis from above.  If it doesn't look very distinct, well...  it was a hazy day from the car pollution, and the city really isn't all that developed.  Some of the women who live on the edge of town hike all the way up this mountain every morning, cut down a hundred pounds of firewood or more, and then hike down to those far-off buildings with the bundle strapped to their back.  They then do it again in the afternoon.

Wenchi Crater lake, from the very top of the crater.  It's a long way down, folks... luckily, we had horses to ride for the worst parts of the trek down to the lake and back up again.  Unluckily, the horses were tiny, the saddles were jerry-rigged, and stirrups were a suggestion - suffice it to say that we were walking in pain the next day.  

The intrepid explorer on the lake, also known as David, my friend from months of Arabic training in DC.  

The edge of the crater and the lake.  The people who live in the village on the lakeshore grow bananas, coffee, and wheat on the slopes of the crater.  I can't help but wonder how frequently they lose their footing and roll down into the lake.


This church is on an island in the middle of the lake.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has to be one of my favorite Christian sects, if only because their churches are so much more colorful than everyone else's.  I mean, a church on an island in the middle of a lake in a dead volcano?  Why wouldn't we paint it the same colors as the Ethiopian flag?  Rock on, Ethiopian Orthodoxy.  Rock on.

There are tilapia in this lake.  No one seems to know how they got there, but one would assume they were brought in, right?  I mean, tilapia don't just emerge from lava, do they?

One of the small fields beside the lake.  My inner farmer wonders how much better the crops grow in the soils on top of a dead volcano.

This little valley started with just one tiny spring...

...but it started to open up as we rode on.

Eventually the valley got pretty wide, but as we progressed, we noticed that the landscape was acquiring a distinct resemblance to the set of The Lord of the Rings.  No hobbits were harmed in the process of capturing these photos.

Our noble steeds, or as we call them in Arkansas, "nags."

The landscape became closeer to a moonscape as we progressed.  I'm shooting down into the mud vents in the valley from its eastern wall now, which I climbed up to see a sulfourous waterfall/spring up close.

A sign at our hotel near the lake.  Regretably, we saw no monkeys.  (Seriously, I was heartbroken.  What the hell, Africa?)

Moonrise in Addis, the view from our hotel balcony.  Amusingly, that's a Baha'i center across the street from us.  Praise globalism!

That's it for my early December trip.  Later this week I'll write up Christmas in Bahrain, a 48-hour extravaganza of drunken British expatriates, culinary gluttony, and the worst cover bands I've ever heard.  Cheers!

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