Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eclectic Ethiopia

I really have enjoyed my stay in this great country.  The people, the landscape, the tribes, the museums, history and food - it's all been excellent.

The people are very welcoming and friendly - kids run towards our truck from their tukuls along the way, hollering "you, you, you" , "la, la, la" or simply "hello" as we drive along and there is NO HASSLE! something I truly appreciate.  It seems a child is born into a family every year - there are so many little ones.  A lot of the kids wear the Ethiopian soccer jersey.  While in the market, no one wanted me to come to "their shop" but to see the sites.  They made sure I saw all the little nooks and crannies that held the interesting souks.  In Gonder, while walking by a home, a young woman was spreading grass at the entrance.  I poked my head in to ask what she was up to.  She invited me in for a coffee ceremony.  She couldn't speak a word of English and I couldn't speak a word of Amharic.  Every time I walked by after that, she said hello and invited me in!  

Christians are the majority but there are also lots of Muslims.  Both groups are very devout and chanting for both starts very early in the mornings and continues on and on and on......  

Rural people are poor compared to our standards but they appear very content.  In the south, homes are made from the Cordoafrican tree - strong and durable and termites won't eat it so the houses last up to 100 years.  They place the 2-3 inch trunks vertically and brace them with more wood.  In the north they use eucalyptus.  Roofs are corrugated metal and smoke wafts through the cracks.  Villages have rock fences and walls while shops are often just metal containers.  Women and children are seen everywhere hauling yellow jerry cans, on their way to the nearest well, pump or river.
A lot of the land is very arable but ALL work is done by hand - oxen pull wooden ploughs, rows of people sit on the ground in front of the ripe crop and cut it by hand to form stooks, cattle trample cut grain stalks to separate the kernel from the chaff and carts pulled by donkeys haul the sacked grain to the collection points.  Barley, sorghum, tef for injera, maize and hay are the most popular crops and it looks like there has been ample rain except in the north, towards Lalibela, where it's a drought and food distribution centres are set up in villages.  Crops are being harvested in the lowlands, but in the highlands, all the work is finished.  Kids as young as 4 herd cattle and goats-there are NO fences. 

The landscape varies from beautiful, red, fertile, often hilly farmland to the Simien mountains, to dry - nothing has or will grow for a while, to lush valleys filled with banana plants and roaring rivers.  Paved roads are passable but often with many potholes, dips and bumps but they are great compared to a lot of the dusty gravel roads that are completely potholed and with massive erosion tracks running right through.  A lot of road work is happening and in a couple of years travel will be much easier.  Most people don't own a vehicle - Ethiopians walk for miles every day and if they need a lift, will use a tuk tuk, donkey, 125cc motorbike or public bus.  

We visited two tribes: the Hamer and Mursi.  We saw other tribes - clay painted boys walking on stilts along the road and others carrying spears and guns, walking, always walking.  The Hamer were super-it was such an authentic visit, but the Mursi - tourists have ruined them.  All they want is money (they charge for each photograph).  They are determined to keep their culture and I hope they do but it is difficult for me to think that in 2015, people actually live like they do!

Museums such as the Red Terror - (Derg regime), Ethnographical (tribal culture) and National (home of Lucy) all in Addis, the rock churches in Lalibela and monasteries in Bahir Dar have helped explain the long history of this place.  Ethiopians are very proud of where they come from and want the world to know about them.

As far as food, there is no diet Coke, but diet Pepsi can be found in cities.  A staple is injera - a spongy flat bread used to scoop up the bits of food sitting on top.  Utensils are not used, at least not by Ethiopians who eat with their right hand only.  Due to the Italian influence, pizza is popular and pretty good.  Burgers can be excellent, especially with a fried egg on top.  The coffee is the best so far and most interesting, especially if you're lucky enough to be invited to a coffee ceremony.  2 litres of water cost a $1, a beer is 80 cents to $1.20, a good lunch - the fish stew I had was $3.

There aren't a lot of souvenirs to buy - woven hot mats and trinket type jewellery.  Shops sell the basics, and I mean the very absolute basics.  

Stopping for a pee break, people appear from literally nowhere in no time.  The kids along the roads are poorly dressed - clothes are in tatters and sometimes missing - no pants and no shoes.  The poorest of the poor or is it the bravest of the brave ask for "money, money, money" while others ask for pens.  Quite a few adult walkers had rifles too - Kaleshnikovs.

Most kids in the cities and larger towns are educated but only for a few years.  Rural kids don't go to school at all because schools are far away, but more importantly, they are needed at home to help farm. It's hard to imagine what would happen if they started educating their people.  Would they want a different life?  If so, who would work in the fields?  The country is not automated - what kind of revolution would have to occur to bring in machines to replace those who wouldn't want to live and work like this anymore?  Or maybe they still would.  Life seems simple and even though they are very curious of us, people seem content.

Telling time is a bit different.  When the sun comes up, it's 12 o'clock and after one hour of sunshine, it's one o'clock until the sun sets and it's 12'o'clock again.  The first hour after sunset is one o'clock and on it goes.  I guess you can do that when you're close to the equator and hours of sunlight don't vary much throughout the year.  Their calendar is also different.  It's based on the Coptic calendar with 12 months of 30 days each plus a 13th month with 5 or 6 days depending if it's a leap year.  This means the Ethiopian calendar is 7 1/2 years behind our Gregorian calendar.  It's important to clarify if your tour is following tourist time or Ethiopian time.  

As  I leave this fascinating place, I wonder what they think when they see us - if they wish for what we appear to have or if they are glad they live where they do and do what they do.  As tourism increases, I am sure that a lot of what I've seen the past couple of weeks will change and disappear.  I feel honoured and so lucky to have seen it now.

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