Ethiopia…………. What the tourist doesn’t see

The traffic in Addis only added to the utter chaos of too many construction sites with buildings in various stages of development. I had never seen sticks of wood being used to support the floors of apartment and hotel complexes rising in the sky. And the excessive use of mirrored glass on so many of the buildings cheapened the entire landscape. Addis Abba is a town growing like an octopus, without any thought toward city planning.
Not only is this one of the most unpleasant cities to walk in, it is also one of the most expensive cities in Africa to use a taxi. While the average worker in Addis earns $60 a month for a fifty hour week, a twenty minute cab ride from the airport into the town was $20. One of the few places I wanted to visit was the famous Merkato downtown Addis. Reminding me a bit of Delancey street in Manhattan’s

Lower East Side without the character, it stretched over several city blocks. Staring at the ground so I didn’t fall into a hole or slip into a pile of rotten food was a challenge since there were no sidewalks and people, push carts, cars and trucks fought their way through the streets. I had expected something like the colorful bazaars of Istanbul or Cairo but instead it was a mass of dirty grey buildings selling electronics, appliances, cheap clothes from Asia, all kinds of food and of course khat, Ethiopia’s favorite pass time. The high point of my market fore was finding merchants who spoke Arabic, so I could show off my limited vocabulary which I still remembered from my trips to the Middle East in the seventies.

Realizing that I was not enamored of this city, I decided to spend as little time as necessary here. Flying is the cheapest way to travel in this country as long as you buy your tickets in Ethiopia. I happened across this info on a Trip Advisor forum and saved hundreds of dollars. I flew up north to Mekele,the city between two major tourist locations; the rockhewn churches of Tigray, dating back 1000 years and the famous world heritage site of Lalibela. After struggling for a day at a hotel where
Amharic was the only spoken language, I moved to the Aksum hotel,the oasis of foreign nationals and tour agencies. As I traveled around Ethiopia over the next 12 days I was never alone.; everyone is a potential guide. My first companion was a young girl from the non English speaking Yordanos hotel. She showed me the city, I bought her lunch, dinner and gave her a 100 bir note which sadly is 3 days salary.
Finally after her constant phone calls and appeal for financial assistance, I ended our relationship.

I soon realized I was one of the lone travelers who was not on a guided tour or in a private car. I already knew that taxis were more expensive than lunch and dinner combined, so when I was quoted $100 for a 2 hour ride out to the village of Hawsien, I opted for public transport for $2.30. As all over Africa, the government had given the contract for the new road to the Chinese, even though the roads they had built recently were already bubbling and cracked. So the trip out of Mekele was dusty and the bus was diverted to side roads because of the construction. I actually didn’t see any Chinese workers but I was told they work at night because they are more productive. The Chinese are prisoners so they are not paid and the Ethiopians that work for the Chinese company earn $1 a day. A great combination of cost savings for the company.

As I found out later, someone had called ahead to my future guide Mulay to tell him there was a potential client on the bus. So before I even got off he had jumped on and I found my new companion and guide. There is a famous hotel outside of the town called Gheralta Lodge, owned by an Italian. I had emailed from Cameroon but this place was so exalted by the tour books that prepay of twenty days was asked. An impossibility from Cameroon .. But when I called from Mekele, my name was still on the guest list. Mulay and I walked 2km on a dirt road under the blazing sun to the lodge. Gabre, the manager, a fluent Italian speaking Ethiopian greeted us and within minutes we were discussing the last hundred years of Ethiopian history. The place was fully booked but I got the room behind the kitchen for $15. There were tourists of all ages and nationalities all coming in hired cars with drivers and guides. Everyone found it amusing that I had actually taken the minibus with the villagers their chickens and sacks of maize.

There were three French who had spent six days trekking with mules,guides and a body guard in the Siemen mountains..they had bought a package so they had no information on the individual costs. An black American woman, a tv producer from New York stayed mostly in the air and landed at all the tourist sites in the best hotels. She had drivers and guides on the ground so I don’t know if she really knows what is going on here. Two English blokes were visiting their friend who worked at the embassy in Addis and a young woman of Italian, German, French and several other blood lines was also seeing the sites by private car. In total I think I was the only one at the lodge that actually was in Ethiopia.

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