Ethiopia / Out Of Africa / The End

27 Aug

THIS IS OUR FINAL POST OF OUR TRIP. TO SEE THE TOP 5 OF EVERYTHING (off our trip) CLICK HERE

Addis Ababa

Our passage through Africa so far hadn’t brought any enormous contrasts from country to country – the weather, the social attitude, physical appearances of the people and local dress had varied a little from nation to nation, but not markedly. However, having spent a lazy morning enjoying the sunshine and open friendliness of Uganda, the difference on arriving in Ethiopia later that afternoon was the greatest distinction between countries we’d noticed since we flew from Cairo to South Africa.

Stepping off the plane we immediately needed to put on more layers, making us feel like we’d been diverted back to Blighty. We later discovered Ethiopians to be friendly, warm and kind, but their friendliness isn’t so obvious as the big friendly welcoming grins you get in southern Africa – you have to get to know Ethiopians first, so first impressions of them make them seem colder than they are – perhaps a little like the British. Ethiopians are also probably the best looking bunch of all the Africans on our trip – talent spotters for supermodels should post themselves here, as there are high-cheek-boned, slender and elegant women everywhere.

We got what we perceived to be an overpriced taxi into Addis Ababa, only to later find that it was a normal price – taxis in Addis are just expensive. We checked into Martin’s Cozy Place, the nearest to a backpackers hostel we could find, where there was no sign of Martin and it wasn’t particularly cosy, but it was fine and we settled down to have our first Ethiopian beer in the covered outside communal area, appreciating how the cold grey drizzle was doing a good job of preparing us for home in a couple of weeks.

The next morning we walked further into the city to see if we could afford to buy a flight for one leg of our route around the northern historical sights, which would save us a day’s travelling on a bus. On our way to the Ethiopian Airlines office we struck up conversation with a stern but kindly man heading in our direction who confirmed we were going the right direction. Within a few moments of chat we got our first taste of Ethiopian kindness and hospitality – and their direct approach to both.

Coffee ceremony in our host’s appartment

‘You will come to my house now, and drink coffee, and then I shall take you to Ethiopian Airlines’, he demanded. It seemed rude to refuse so we obeyed as he seemed like a respectable middle-aged man, but a little part of us couldn’t help but wonder if we were walking into a scam. We followed him to his small ground floor flat in a block of flats on an estate that wouldn’t look out of place in Peckham. We were whisked straight into his living room where we were seated and introduced in a very polite and formal manner to his wife and two kids. We realised that this was no scam, but just a kind and proud man welcoming foreign strangers into his house to sample some Ethiopian hospitality. He explained that it is tradition to welcome new friends into their house and to look after them.

He showed us a couple of photo albums of his 33-year career in the army, from where he had recently retired as a Colonel. He had served in Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia – three places that I’m sure most soldiers would dread going to, but if you’re in the Ethiopian army they are the obligatory big three that you expect to be posted to. His sternness made for amusing photos – he never smiles in any of them, but strikes a serious and stoic face that reads ‘I’m a Colonel, and I don’t mess about’.

We were then treated to our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ethiopia prides itself in being the home of both the human being (‘Lucy’  – great name – is the oldest humanoid fossilised skeleton is from Ethiopia) and of coffee. When Italy failed to colonise Ethiopia, they did manage to steal a few coffee secrets.

First of all, the coffee beans are roasted in a small pit of hot coals (or in our abridged version, on the hob) in an iron dish, like a Balti dish, and then presented to the guests who have the smoke wafted in their faces to appreciate the aroma. His daughter then came through with the rest of coffee ceremony set, which includes a nice smelling but pungent incense burner, a tray of small handless coffee cups and a traditional spouted coffee jug which is also usually heated on the hot coals. The end result is an unfiltered espresso-sized cup of wonderfully fresh coffee, which was excellent.

He made a loose offer of inviting us back for dinner another night, which we weren’t sure whether to take seriously, and then accompanied us to the airline office. The Ethiopian Airlines flight for the final leg of our trip back to Addis was bargainous – £30 one way. We then went to buy a bus ticket for the first leg – from Addis to Bahir Dar, on the shores of Ethiopia’s biggest lake, Lake Tana. Alas, the preferred bus company was sold out so we instead went their rivals who told us the same. It meant staying in Addis another day, and getting the bus the following morning, which was disappointing as we hadn’t yet much taken to Addis.

First of many injera-based meals – this one with baby diarrhoea

However, after our first delicious Ethiopian meal of injera (huge sour pancake, upon which your main course is dumped, and then eaten with the right hand – no cutlery) and the best beer yet tasted in Africa, we felt more up for embracing the city and headed off to its most important cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is designed in a mishmash of European styles, but with classic Ethiopian Orthodox Christian iconography adorning every wall. It is also the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

Haile Selassie’s tomb, and the priest we had to tip for showing us the thing we were already stood next to looking at

As a result of being one of the few sub-Saharan African countries to have pretty much avoided colonisation (Italy, at the second attempt, conquered parts of the country for just five years before us good’ol Brits helped kick Mussolini out), they have a proudly unique character and tradition. Their religious art is one such unique characteristic – slightly cartoony characters with the big dark eyes and high hairlines, two generalised features that can still be seen in most of their people.

There are beggars aplenty in Ethiopia, and also a fair few professional ‘hanger-onners’, who will sidle up to you and after a few exchanges declare you as their new friends (‘friends’ repeated several  times to reinforce the point). It is also expected that you tip almost anyone that does you the slightest favour. As such I started to designate my left pocket as my begging/tips pocket, from which I would try and keep a ready supply of easy-to-grab one- and five-Birr notes to give (although never to kids).

As we left the cathedral we experienced our first daily downpour – a ferocious tropical storm that drenches the city at around 5pm each day during the rainy season. The next day with a day to fill before our bus to Bahir Dar we went to the local university which houses the country’s finest museum, the Ethnological Museum, and also the former palace of Haile Selassie. The museum was very interesting and brought home how utterly different Ethiopia is to any of the six previous African countries we have visited.

We then wandered into Haile Selassie’s palace, which – if we saw it as it was when he lived there – is a fairly modest pad. Ras Tafari, as he was known before being crowned Emperor, became a reluctant figurehead of the Rastafarian faith, for which he is still worshiped. But seeing how highly regarded he is today in Ethiopia it is hard to believe that his tenure turned so sour in his latter years (a bit like Simon Bolivar in northern South America).

Rasta bog: the former bathroom of former Emporer Haile Selassie (formerly known as Ras Tafari)

We ate that evening at a recommended Ethiopian restaurant, with more huge portions of top-notch injera with vegetarian dishes and a lamb dish called tibs. When eating, we were still finding it quite hard to restrain the left hand from helping the right to rip small tears of injera off for scooping up the sauce.

The next day wasn’t a fun one. We awoke a little after 4am to get the bus to Bahir Dar, but as we stepped out of our room at 4.45am we discovered that there are actually two downpours a day in the rainy season. We also discovered that the hotel man hadn’t booked the cab he’d promised us. After spending our last few waking minutes the evening before trying to dry with Lucy’s hairdryer the socks we’d hand-washed so we’d have a clean and dry pair to wear, we were completely soaked to the skin and shivering cold within minutes of stepping out onto the morning street to try and hail a cab. In the pitch black darkness of the Addis streets we eventually got one, but with the pounding rain slowly infiltrating our rucksacks we weren’t in a position to negotiate hard on the overpriced fare. it didn’t help that the driver stunk of booze and hared it along the empty soaked roads, swerving from side to side. We were glad to get to the bus company office in one piece, but then found that the bus hadn’t arrived so we had to stand in the rain for another 45 minutes getting more and more soaked in the darkness.

The area we were waiting in is famous for being where keen amateur long-distance runners train at 5am each morning, along the stone steps of an old amphitheatre that overlooks a large bus and taxi space. It is here that the budding Olympic gold medallists start getting noticed, and the space is surrounded by gigantic billboards with some of Haile Gabreselassie’s many adverts.

Budding Ethiopian Olympians training under the gaze of Gabreselassie (well, the products he endorses)

The bus ride took us through some beautiful green rolling countryside, where it becomes noticeable how vastly populated the key connecting roads outside the cities are. The main rural roads are lined with thousands of people going about their lives; almost all swaddled in white blankets, the men with bare legs and feet and carrying large staffs, all looking like they’ve just walked out of a psalm of the Bible.

Gorge-ous: On the way hup north

After about five bumpy hours our bus couldn’t take any more potholes and its suspension gave up the ghost, and frankly I couldn’t blame it. We ground to a halt in a tiny hilltop village where a big bus breaking down seemed to be the most exciting thing that had ever happened, as hoards of people came to watch. But for the kids, the unusual happenings were about to increase further when they would get what appeared to me to be their first glimpse of a faranji (me). As I got off the bus to stretch my legs and see how bad the damage was about 15 kids just stood round me in a crescent and gawped open mouthed. All were barefoot and most were in rags with encrusted snot smeared around their lower faces.

A few of the kids

We were transferred to a minibus, which took us for another few hours before we were told it was an enforced lunchtime and we’d have to transfer to a third bus for the final few hours. We were still cold and wet, and arrived in Bahir Dar at 6pm, four hours late.

Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar is best known for the many monasteries that are dotted around the neighbouring Lake Tana. It’s a bustling place with a few boulevard-type main roads and lots of crumbling streets off them. It’s also much cheaper than Addis, and our slightly grubby and slightly smelly en-suite room cost just £2.50 each a night.

We booked up for a boat trip the next morning around ‘three or four’ monasteries. First stop was the Ura Kidane Meret Monastery which was a late 16h Century hexagonal mud and wood building, with three concentric sections. The outer ring is where the congregation kneel, with women in their own section, segregated from the men. The walls are covered with fine depictions of Biblical stories, with a few lesser known stories about Mary, and with a now-familiar painting of their Patron Saint and ours, George, spearing a dragon through the face (although this dragon was so small he could have stamped on it). The middle section is for the Priest, who presumably has to slowly rotate to speak to everyone around him. In the central section is a secret and hidden copy of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which –legend has it – is in a church in the northern historical city of Aksum.

These boats are apparently unsinkable. But they also seem to not be completely floatable either

Exterior of a monestry in Bahir Dar

Priest

The Ark of the Covenant is one of those annoying religious myths that is taken so seriously but without any good reason. Nobody except the official keeper can know exactly what the Ark is, although legend has it that it’s the Ten Commandments engraved on stone tablets that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai to bring to the people. The keeper spends his life guarding the Ark and when he dies another guardian in found. Tradition states that a copy of the Ark is held in all Ethiopian Christian Orthodox churches – nobody except for the priest in each church gets to see these copies but they are held very sacred and paraded around hidden inside a box at religious ceremonies.  No-one knows for sure whether the Ark actually exists – except the guardian. However to create the copies, surely at least one copier must have seen the original? And he, or they, might just have let it slip? Sounds like nonsense to me, but it keeps the pilgrims – and tourists – coming. In fact the Ethiopian Christians take it all extremely seriously and would be appalled to hear anyone questioning the Ark’s authenticity.

Monestry interior and art

Our second monastery wasn’t entirely different from the first, and soon we were off to our third. Although we weren’t, as our driver just took us back but no one could be bothered to complain. In the afternoon, encouraged by our cheap flight we’d booked in Addis, we bought two more £30 flights that would save us enough time to allow us to get to another of Ethiopia’s most important historical cities, Aksum, as well as Gonder and Lalibela.

In the evening we ate for the second time at an excellent restaurant called Wude Coffee that was full of trendy and affluent locals, and yet was unbelievably cheap. Two huge meals, two first-class beers, a big bottle of water and a generous tip for under £3 – it makes Nepal seem dear. We then took a tuk-tuk with three lads from our boat trip – a Brit and two South Africans – to a Balageru Club, which turned out to be one of the most fun nights of entertainment we’d had in Africa.

Balageru clubs are where the locals let their hair down, have a few drinks, a sing-song and a laugh. The size of a small pub, everyone is crammed in, sitting wherever they can, while the entertainment is performed in a tiny slither of space in the middle of the room. A drummer on traditional cow-skin drums beats out dancey rhythms and man with a single stringed violin-type instrument with a cow-skin body walks around playing, while the hostess improvises a sung stand-up routine, taking the piss out of members of the audience to howls of infectious laughter. The second part of the fun is when the stringed fiddler and the drummer play and semi-professional dancers strut in the middle of the floor, inviting the audience (and especially us as the only faranji) to have a go. It was so packed that Lucy and I had to stand behind the bar, and so I got away without being dragged out to dance, but Lucy and the rest of the group took the humiliation for the team.

Balageru club and hands-on-hips traditional dancing

The Ethiopian dance is called itekta and is the most extraordinary dance I’ve ever seen – quite unlike anything else I can think of. In a way it is the opposite of the Irish river-dance, which is hands-on-hips but is all in the legs. The itekta is also usually performed with your hands on your hips or by your sides, but it is the torso that that does all the work. The shoulders, pecks and tummy all convulse and pulsate at great speed and rhythm as though an electric eel is trying to get out. It looks much easier that it is, as Lucy and the others discovered. All Ethiopian pop videos use this dancing, usually with the performers in traditional outfits stood in damp fields that look like valleys of Wales, but the videos make for compulsive viewing. Here’s a few of short clip offs of YouTube to give you a taster: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfZlGVtK87M and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH7eGKTDD98&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA4_nvFlbhA

The wonder of Gonder

We headed four hours north around the lake to Gonder in a shared taxi / minibus, where we later discovered we’d paid over the odds for the ride again. Gonder is home to some incredible 17th Century castles, palaces and churches. It’s a big city of over 200,000, with plenty of young hustlers on the street who will follow you, trying to spark up conversation and ultimately to ask you buy or give something to them.

The Royal Enclosure is the pearl in the crown of Gonder; a walled enclosure housing grand castles, churches, banqueting halls and other housing for the Royal entourage. The biggest buildings look not unlike British castles, and have been well maintained.

Castles and palaces at Gonder

As we were leaving we happened upon a pop video being filmed in front of the biggest castle. We had seen in cafes and bars at least another couple of videos set in exactly the same spot, so they clearly felt there was appetite for one more. The music is quite good – a bouncy bass and dancey beat, and is somehow melodic without having any discernible tune.

Pop video at Gonder castles being filmed

We then got a tuk-tuk out of town to the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of Ethiopia’s most famous. The tiny church has displayed some excellent religious art and the ceiling depicts one of the country’s most famous paintings, which adorns posters, t-shirts and postcards – around 135 cherub faces, painted in the traditional Ethiopian manner.

The ceiling of the church

And soon our time was up in the city and we were Gonder to the northern town of Aksum, right near the Eritrea border.

Gonder

MRR

Aksum

Aksum, on the whole, was a quieter city that felt a lot less hassle to wander about than the previous places we’d so far visited in Ethiopia. Despite this we were still given the hard sell by the guide at our hotel to do a tour of the sights in a day-trip for an extortionate 1200 birr (£43). We got him to knock a third off his price but then cancelled altogether when we discovered that it would cost just a few quid each to find an independent guide ourselves.

Aksum abounds with historical mystery and intrigue. Not only is it meant to be home to the Ark of the Covenant, which resides within the St Mary of Zion church compound – the home of Orthodox Christianity for Ethiopians, but it was also meant to be the Queen of Sheba’s home. Its most famous sites, however, are magnificent granite stelae columns, which date back as far as the 4th Century.

We began our visit at the stelae field, which at first glance looks slightly odd and underwhelming, surrounded by local houses and the general hustle and bustle of everyday life. Our guide soon brought them to life though by taking us on a tour of the monoliths that range from 1m to 33m in height, with more than 120 located in one field. He explained that although their history and meaning were still not entirely clear they dated back to pagan times and most marked tombs.

Stelae field at Aksum

The stelae themselves were carved with amazing skill to feature doors and windows – almost like an ancient tower block. They looked strangely modern, but the granite used to make them came from a quarry 4km away and they would have been moved by rollers and elephants – no mean feat.

Three stelae stood out: the first was 33m high but had collapsed and broken into pieces during erection, and still lay as it had fallen, on top of an impressive tomb not unlike those in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The second, King Ezana’s Stelae at 24m, had amazingly been used by pagans as an altar for making sacrifices but had also since been embraced by the Orthodox Church for use in their celebrations. The third, the Rome Stelae, at nearly 25m had been shipped to Rome on Mussolini’s orders when Italy briefly and fairly unsuccessfully tried to colonise Ethiopia in 1937, but it was then returned in 2008 was reinstalled in time for the millennium celebrations. No, I’ve not got my sums wrong but a bizarre quirk of the Orthodox Christian calendar in Ethiopia is that they have a 13th month of 5-6 days each year so they in fact are currently 7.5 years behind the Western world, and are slipping further behind each year. This weirdness made buying bus tickets quite confusing as they were dated for 2004 – meaning we’d already missed them by 7.5 years!

A fallen stele

Ethiopian time is also very unusual. Their time is represented by however many hours it is past sunrise or sunset, so if the sunrises at 6am and it’s now two hours later the times is 2am. And if the sun sets at 6pm and the time is 10pm it is 4pm in Ethiopian time. Luckily for tourists they tend to write bus tickets and the like in western time.

After the excitement of the monoliths and tombs we dropped into to a small museum which helped bring the whole story to life. However, what really made Aksum even more engaging for me was a trip to the St Mary of Zion church complex to see the transition of worship from the times of the stelae and pagans to modern day fervent Christian Orthodoxy. Seeing how the move from one to the other when Christianity reached Ethiopia in the 4th Century, and how it’s still such a hugely significant part of the daily life of Ethiopians today, is quite overwhelming. When we arrived at the church complex mass was taking place and there were hundreds of worshippers around, kneeling and kissing the floor and the gate, asking for alms, and generally looking like they could be on a film set as extras in an Old Testament classic. For the people in the church there was no doubt in their minds that the Ark of the Covenant was housed in their town and it had genuine meaning and relevance to their daily life, it wasn’t just some sort of historical fable.

Inside the church complex there was one old church which men only could visit (frustratingly a few of the religious sites weren’t open to women in Ethiopia) – I saw Marcus’s photos and it looks incredibly underwhelming inside; as with most Ethiopian churches their best features are external. A newer church was built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie which was impressive, although more for being so well used than for being an amazing building with fantastic art. There was also the Chapel of the tablet that houses the Ark of the Covenant, which only the guardian priest is allowed to enter.

Illuminated manuscript inside the new St. Mary of Zion church (the man makes his living from the tips received for opening the book)

The Ark of the Covenant is apparently in this building

We topped off our visit with a trip to a local eatery that was hotly tipped by some friendly Americans. From outside it looked like a butchers, but after viewing the meat you could walk round the back and sit under a tin roof on little chairs and enjoy a draft St George beer and some fresh tibs (lamb or beef grilled over charcoal in a clay dish and served on a hot-coal burner with a spicy sauce and of course injera). The rain hammering onto the shack roof and the bloody apron of the butcher/waiter, fresh from cutting the meat, made for an atmospheric dinner that was also some of the best local food we’d tasted.

Tibs and beer straight from the butcher

LE

Lalibela

The cheap flights enabled us to reach Lalibela from Aksum in just over an hour, instead of the 1-2 day trip it would have taken by bus. Lalibela is home of Ethiopia’s most famous attractions, and the most important must-see place on any tourist’s trip. We drove from the airport through beautiful and lush fertile green fields, climbing higher and higher up to a plateau where the town sits at 2630m.

The town was nothing like we imagined – we were expecting a large town swarming with tourists and with plenty of businesses pandering to tourists’ needs. But it is in fact just a small and normal Ethiopian town, which just happens to have in and around it some of the most incredible and religiously important  buildings ever constructed. Being at relative altitude Lalibela suffers more from the rainy season than elsewhere we’d visited, and most days it drizzled between the ferocious downpours; only occasionally we were treated to some glorious warm sunshine that gave some clue when the clouds cleared as to what the stunning scenery that surrounds it is like for ten months of the year.

Lalibela – seemed always to be raining or wet from the rain

Lalibela is also the hassle capital of Ethiopia and you can’t walk for two minutes without a teenage boy sidling up and trying to engage you in a conversation that you will find yourself repeating almost identically ten or more times a day. The conversation always starts either with a cheerful ‘Hi, can I help?’ or ‘Hi, where are you going?’. They will then follow you and ask the same well-rehearsed questions, and will just talk over you if you are deep in conversation. The chat always then ends with the a request for something: money for a football, money for a dictionary, spare clothes, a tip for showing you to where you were going anyway, or come to my house for coffee and bring us a present.  I began to just provide in one long stream the answers to the questions that would inevitably come: hello my name is Marcus and hers is Lucy we’re from London England I support Man United my favourite player is Giggs and yes Rooney is great we’re in Lalibela for three days and in Ethiopia for two weeks and both are very nice. That would usually work. Or another popular opener is them offering to name the capital city of any European country, as they know them all. Except for Montenegro, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, I found to my delight.

We bought our 5-day pass for the historical church sites but the torrential rain, and the fact that oddly the sites close at lunchtime for an hour, meant we didn’t get much site-seeing done.

In the evening we met up with a couple of nice guys from Tottenham who we’d met at the airport.  One works for our local council in London and explained that he could be a useful contact once we’re back in Harringey, and the other was his brother-in-law who was Ethiopian but had lived in London for years. We met in the local tej house, which is the Ethiopian take on a pub – but one that specialises in tej, the homebrew honey-wine. The tej is sold in three strengths, and is pretty good – not too sweet, but one science-lab flask full is about enough. As there were so few people it was inevitable that we would be dragged up to dance badly and be laughed at, and that the wag wandering about playing the musical instrument (the masengo) would crack a few gags at our expense. 

Flasks of tej

Look – Lucy is actually taller than someone!! But can’t shake her shoulders quite as quick

We tried to get round more churches the next day, but again the rain and the resulting slipperiness of the cobbled and muddy streets, meant that our enthusiasm levels weren’t peaking and we once again didn’t see as much as we could have. However we got to see enough of the eleven churches to understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most important Orthodox Christian sites in the world. The churches are amongst the most amazing structures I have ever seen – they are completely, gob-smackingly incredible feats of engineering and workmanship. Rather than take the easy and customary option of building a church on the ground with bricks or stone,  they instead seemed to have considered what the most problematic and challenging way of building a church could be, and so decided to chisel their churches deep into the granite bedrock as vast underground monolithic caverns.

Interior of church dug out of the ground

Steps of a church

The churches are almost a thousand years old and due to the durable nature of granite are generally in very good nick, with the detailed carving well preserved, although the interiors have none of the grandeur of the exteriors; the insides of most of the churches look like un-kept church halls, with badly laid carpet and Christian paintings of varying quality propped up on the floor looking like they are waiting to be hung.

Lalibela

We went back to the tej house the next evening, this time with a bigger group of people we’d met including an American couple who we’d met in Aksum. The bar was packed, which meant that attention from the comedian/musician was diluted amongst the crowd, but it also meant that when the comedian came over to crack few jokes about us as the only faranji in the house he brought the house down with roars of laughter from the audience. You can only grin and bear it, not having a clue who or what the joke was about. Only Lu got picked on this time to dance, and dragged up in front of everyone – and I think was beginning to get the hang of it by now.

On our final day in Lalibela we made sure we got to see the remainder of the monolith churches, and were blessed with much more favourable weather – bar just the one huge downpour. We had left the best til last – the Church of Saint George (their Patron saint too) was the last of the eleven churches to be built, and is the most impressive. In the shape of a cross, the building is dug 30-meters deep, and has no barriers – rope or otherwise – between you and the drop down to it’s surrounding trench. There can be little doubt that tourists at some point have taken a step back too far for a photo and fallen, or toddlers or dogs have wandered off the edge and perished, but there are no danger warnings at all. The church’s surroundings are also the most impressive, and even the late shower couldn’t reduce appreciation of its stunning setting.

St. George’s church

St George’s church – dug and chiseled out the ground from above

Church-goers leave a service

Priest

Lalibela

The fact that we would be home and back to reality in a matter of days had been looming over us for a while, but we still didn’t seem to have time for it to properly sink in or effect us. We were still savouring every day, and appreciating how Ethiopia – almost more than any other country we’d visited – has so much to take in and is so different to normal UK life that you can’t help but value each day, even if it was largely spent shaking off beggars and hasslers, and sheltering from the rain.

We flew back to Addis the next morning and checked into our final hotel of the whole trip – and the last of probably 150 or more places we had stayed. It was a significant one too – Addis’, and possibly Ethiopia’s, oldest hotel. It was over-priced and was clearly trading off its historical tag, and even though it was our final night we hadn’t lose the relative value of things, and when they tried to mess us about by upgrading us to a room with three beds we asked instead to be downgraded and ended up in a simple box room with a broken telly and a stinky bathroom with no toilet seat. It somehow seemed fitting for our final night.

The hotel is in the central Piazza district, which has a great buzz about it. We headed off with a Kiwi girl we’d met to do some last-minute shopping, and stopped by the country’s most famous and best coffee shop to sample and buy their best coffee. Needless to say, the coffee was outstanding – and still dirt cheap compared to UK prices.

Addis: with Jay-Jay the Kiwi girl and our self-appointed guide who followed us round for the afternoon (before asking for a tip)

Our hotel’s best feature was its restaurant, which attracted (wealthy) locals as well as tourists, and although it was three times the price of everywhere else we still had to remind ourselves that its filling and delicious meals were still only £3 each. They also served all the missing beers I’d not yet managed to try, which helped confirm Ethiopia our our world champion beer country.

To our pleasant surprise the American couple we’d met in the historical sites turned up out the blue and so with them, the Kiwi and a few others we watched the opening ceremony at 11pm, although we needed to get up at 2.30am to fly home. It was too mesmerising a ceremony to leave but by the time the Guam team had appeared for their procession, at around 1am, we decided to try and get 90 minutes kip before our cab was due to pick us up. I set our alarm and tried to sleep, but realised I just wouldn’t be able. However after a while of lying awake I just remember having the clear realisation thought that it felt like more than an hour and a half’s time had passed. I checked our clock and we’d somehow slept through our alarm by an hour.

The Last Supper: a chicken wat (‘ a chicken what?’ i hear you ask) with a boiled egg

Watching the Olympics opening ceremony an hour and a half before we needed to get up for our flight

It meant that the final moments of our eight-and-a-bit months away were spent in a panicked flap, stuffing things into our rucksacks for the final time and running out to find our cab had come and gone. He returned ten minutes later, and once we were speeding through the dark, damp and empty streets of Addis at 3.30am I felt confident that we’d make our flight, no problem. Lu’s demeanor suggested she thought otherwise. We arrived at check-in with a little under an hour to go, and although the check-in lady gave us a ticking off for being late it meant we could coast through with no queue to the boarding gate and still had plenty of time to spare – there’s a lot to be said for being very late -but not too late – for an international flight.

Homeward bound…

The emotion of it being the end of the best eight months of our lives only really hit home once we landed. But thankfully all too soon we were preoccupied with meeting Lu’s parents and me trying to comprehending how a bus from Heathrow to Cambridge can cost £35 one-way. Within no time and everything that happened on our trip became memories.

MRR

FOR PHOTOS OF ETHIOPIA CLICK HERE

FOR BEER REVIEWS OF ETHIOPIA CLICK HERE

FOR THE TOP FIVE OF EVERYTHING (from our trip) CLICK HERE

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