Ethiopia is a country that is horrifically misunderstood by so many people. Visiting this incredible, staggeringly beautiful place for yourself will reward you with the most stunning, amazing experiences (and photographs!) which will live with you for ever. Forget what you THINK you know about Ethiopia (and don't listen to the opinions of people who've never been!) and prepare yourself for one hell of a trip.
- What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
Where to even begin? There are just so many. Actually being in Ethiopia itself was pretty inspirational. The country and its brilliantly random, colourful, chaotic nature is just a joy to be immersed in. The people are so friendly and welcoming and just taking the time to talk with them is inspiration itself.
There were SO many highlights for me. The most awe-inspiring happenstance though, believe it or not, has to be a funeral, of all things, on the first Sunday, in Axum. We were visiting a church, which, I apologise in advance to all females reading this, was male-only. Through sheer good fortune we happened to visit while a funeral was taking place. Now, I know what you are thinking: *reads your mind* "a funeral? Good fortune?! You're mad!" I'm not mad though. (Honest!) The funeral was for a chap in the higher echelons of the clergy, as we were informed at the time. The Archbishop of Axum was there; he blessed Scotland. (Don't ask!) What unfolded in front of us was just mind-blowing and rendered me speechless. The Ethiopians really do take their religion seriously and this can be seen throughout the country: in the churches and even on the children, by way of necklaces and pendants. The funeral of which I was so lucky to witness just really enforced the importance of religion; it was truly awesome and very humbling.
Yes, I realise that stating "a funeral was one of the best parts of my holiday!" will garner looks of incredulity from most people, but it really had to be seen to be believed.
Sitting and gazing out over the Simien Mountains was hugely inspirational as well; 'spectacular' comes nowhere even close to describing the beauty and sheer staggeringly incredible scenery of which I don't believe any photograph could ever do it justice.
Markets. We really DO like markets and we, thanks to our wonderful, diligent guide, were lucky enough to experience a couple of incredible markets. The one down south was fantastic and earlier in the trip we stopped at one in a place called Woreta, on the drive to Gondar. To say this market is amazing would quite simply be a master of understatement which would gain me nomination for the Understatement of the Year Award. It was just astonishing and a real experience to be in such an environment. If you stop here, keep an eye out for the surprise in the middle of the market! I won't say what it is and ruin the surprise but it will be unexpected (Ethiopia specialises in the unexpected and random!) and you really won't miss it! For me, the markets were an undisputed highlight of this trip.
- What did you think of your group leader?
Gebre was an absolute diamond. Always insightful and informative, he had a fantastic sense of humour, was always laughing and smiling with us and was enormously knowledgeable about his incredible country. He was there when we needed him and attentive if one of us wasn't feeling too great. A brilliant guy, in my opinion, whom I'm honoured to have met and to have been in his company for the two weeks.
The local guides were pretty good too, with the exception of at least two of them who were just fantastic characters and conducted themselves and their story-telling so well, history just came alive in front of us.
- Do you have any advice for potential travellers?
LEARN THE LANGUAGE!!! I can't stress that enough. Of course, you don't NEED to; everyone I encountered spoke a very good level of English. However, I can unequivocally say that taking the time to learn some of the language opened up another side to the trip. The Ethiopians loved any attempt at their language (which is Amharic, in case you don't know) and was always greeted by smiles and even laughter with the kids. Even just the basics like hello, thank you, please and sorry will go a long way. Being able to count to ten and say 'no problem' will further enhance things. I stress again, it's not essential nor even necessary but will endear you to the locals and will garner more of their beautiful smiles. Learning some Amharic before I went was time very well spent.
If, like I was before this trip, you were umming and arring about mosquito nets, allow me, please, dearest reader, to state that they're not necessary. I didn't even use my insect repellent and was unperturbed when it was confiscated at Lalibella Airport because I'd forgotten to remove it from my hand luggage. (Hint hint: don't forget to remove such items from your hand luggage, which is an easy mistake to make when you're tired and excited about the next leg of your journey!) A few other members of the group were bitten by fleas and there are flies and other such annoyances about but I didn't find them too problematic.
I had read, in the opinions of others before I went to Ethiopia, that it perhaps may be best to have experience of travelling in third world countries before tackling this wonderful country on the Horn of Africa. I did worry a little as not only had I never been to Africa before, I'd never been out of the UK before so this was my first trip but honestly, as long as you have an idea of what Ethiopia is about and understand that the culture is very different and do your research beforehand, you will be fine. It is a very random place and things just don't work as they do over here: but that is the beauty of it. Instead of sighing when a lavatory cistern disintegrates when you touch it, have a giggle at it. Ethiopia is to be enjoyed but you have to be open to it.
I was told in an e-mail from Exodus that sterling is an acceptable currency to pay for your visa on arrival. I'm sure you can imagine my disconcertment when sterling actually isn't accepted: dollars and Euros only, if you please! Thankfully another member of our group was stood next to me at the time and kindly allowed me to purchase some dollars from him.
I changed money at the Ghion Hotel in Addis. Some people changed small amounts of money as and when they needed it but I changed a larger sum to last me the entire trip. Which is all well and good until you come to exchange it back again, when you are introduced to bureaucracy with a very firm handshake indeed. To change birr back to your desired currency, you need to fill a form out, present your receipt you were issued with upon the original transaction, then provide two photocopies of your passport. I did actually have these but they were in my luggage somewhere, which by that point was loaded onto the bus, which was, you know, handy, so you have to go to the Ghion Business Centre (a small room with two computers and a photocopier) and get the copies done for a birr apiece. And then they only had £20 left so I had to have that and a mix of dollars. It wasn't even an inconvenience, just an unexpected encounter. It id take about twenty minutes or so, if not longer, to complete the transaction though, so just be aware of that and if you do exchange money back, don't leave it while the last second before leaving.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
Hmmmmmmmm: the trip south. The south is quite a contrast to the north and it was nice to experience it. There is, however, a long drive from Addis and back again and I personally feel that it would have been more worth it if we were able to spend more time in the south. I mean, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the experiences we had on the trip south but it is an awful long drive for the day there. Still, it's an experience so enjoy it!
The food: I quite liked the spicy Ethiopian cuisine. One one of the early nights I had dry tibs (spicy fried lamb) and it was absolutely delicious. Like anywhere, there were instances of good food and bad food but as I say, it all adds to the experience. I had the best spaghetti bolognese of my life here in Ethiopia; I couldn't believe how tasty it was. European food was rather nice; some very tasty pizzas to be had. I only encountered honey once, in a cafe in Lalibela town but it was divine and so tasty. om nom nom. The beer was quite nice, if a little gassy. As other reviewers here have said: St George beer was by far the best. Harar Beer was ghastly. One evening in Addis, three of us went for a walk to a restaurant called The Cottage. Turn right out of the Ghion Hotel and follow the road for a little distance and it's set back in a little courtyard. Myself and another chap had the steak which was just delicious. A very nice atmosphere as well and the fellow running the establishment was a cheerful, fun, helpful guy. Allow me to be so bold to recommend this place to you.
One point of utmost importance which could not be stressed any more vociferously if I were stood atop a ladder in the Simien Mountains, shouting through a megaphone, being broadcast through an amplifier, fed through an even bigger amplifier and then through the largest megaphone of which you've never seen the like. This point is so important I'm going to dust off my caps lock button and shout it at you. In bold. And underlined.....
ENJOY THE TRIP!!!!!!
Ameseginalehu! (That's thank you, by the way. See, you're learning Amharic already. Go you!)