Ethiopia #1: Salam

I can look back on many experiences in my life where I came out the other end as a changed person. Most of these events transpired over months or years, like graduate school or the REU I did in Chile; however, I don't think any of my changes can be distilled down to one week like this trip to Ethiopia to see my Uncle and Aunt and two cousins. This will again be a massively long post because I actually took my first 'vacation' in months...


Typical living arrangements everywhere we went in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country of extremes and religions. Ethiopians pride themselves on being the capital of Africa and the only African country to never have been colonized by Europe. However, the country was brutalized by communism during the Cold War, with an entire generation of educated men and women murdered as part of occupation. There are two major religions (from my perspective) - Orthodox Christian and Islam and an extensive history between the two. There is also extreme poverty... an intelligent, hardworking, college degreed individual will make less than $10,000 a year and will be expected to support an entire family.
Women carrying eucalyptus wood down a mountain 

But it is also a country of happiness. Wherever we went, people smiled, waved, and were generally friendly. The door man to the community where my Sarno cousins lived would literally jump up and down with joy once he saw my uncle was in the car ("Oh, it's Happy Man, and he's happy today"). I think I heard "You're beautiful!! I love you!"  by more random strangers in this week than I have heard in my entire life. You don't need money to be happy, but you do need money for things like education, clean water, and food.


View from a tower in Gondar Castle 
My week was a week of juxtapositions, of learning, and of family, and I'm so immensely glad for all three. The Sarnos are stationed out of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Midweek as a birthday present, my Aunt and Uncle planned a guided trip for my Uncle and I to travel from Gondar to Bahir Dar, both of which are in the North. We first flew to Gondar which was a 1.5 hour flight from Addis and met our charming and extremely handsome (!) guide at the airport. The castle at Gondar was unreal - everything looked straight out of a movie.

We then moved on see some nearby baths which they fill up once a year during the feast of the Ascension in January. Ethiopians have an interesting perspective of time over the course of a year in the sense that they have essentially near constant 12 hour days and nights and the temperature is hot year round. There are multiple growing seasons, and the rainy season/dry season (now is dry) are the main seasonal changes.

Gondar Castle and Grounds 

The Eyes and skin color were fascinating considering these were done in the 1600s 
We then toured an Orthodox Christian church. Without going into too much explanation, touring monasteries and churches is the main tourist attraction in Ethiopia. It can be a little... aggressive at times. The artwork though is unbelievable, and they take a lot pride in maintaining their churches. 

Drive to Bahir Dar

We then hopped in the van after lunch and drove 3 hours to Bahir Dar via mountain passes and the country side. In some ways, this was one of my favorite parts of the tour. We saw so much along the way - huge baboons, smaller monkeys like in the picture below, and a diverse landscape through the mountains. But we also saw how desperate some of the farmers were to farm the land... they attempted terracing up mountain sides that it would be difficult to walk up, let alone herd cattle. Wealthy farmers had metal roofs on the stick and mud huts, while most worked with straw. 

Scenery and monkey on the way Bahir Dar! 

Bahir Dar

At our hotel in Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is where one of the largest lakes in Ethiopia is located. Unlike the desert conditions in Gondar and on the drive there, Bahir Dar is almost tropical and very lush.  We arrived and our guide and I walked around town a bit on a nice lakeside path. I confess, people blankly staring at me made me extremely uncomfortable and it was hard for me find places on the walk where I could look without finding a face looking back at me. It felt like I was naked or walking without a head, and forgive me my naivety and sheltered life, it was unsettling for me.
Papyrus fishing boats

The next morning, we woke up early to take a boat to two island monasteries, and then to head to the Blue Nile Falls. The lake at Bahir Dar is one of the head water points for the Nile River, so I can now say I've been on the Nile (no crocodiles...!). Actually, the main concern was hippos (...!) We saw two from the road floating in the river, but no hippos... on this trip ;)

Blue Nile Falls
After the quick monastery visits, we proceeded to take an African massage (re: unpaved dirt road trip) for 45 minutes to the beginning of a hiking trail for the Blue Nile Falls. I think this was the point that really hit home for me the reality of Ethiopia. I couldn't pretend that the shacks were 'just a city thing' or whatever my brain was trying to delude me into thinking. No, we drove by kilometers of stick and mud huts, schools, shops, etc. Some were partially collapsed, some were a few sq meters, some were 10s of meters. Some had metal roofs, some had straw. All meant families were sleeping on mats or dirt floors, and that each home contained 6+ people or so. A small irrigation channel ran alongside the road providing water, but even then, it was dirty and life stock walked in it.

The most horrifying thing I saw was a child about 10 years old drinking straight out of the Nile River which had cow dung clearly floating in it.  A few moments later our guide pointed out some cows plowing the soil with a metal plow tied to the cattle with logs and asked if I had seen that before. Feeling like a total asshole, I said I had... as a recreation of how we plowed the soil in the 1800s. At this point, I think something in my brain snapped. It doesn't have to be this way... if they want it to be, then that is their prerogative. But... it doesn't need to be this way. Things could be better for the future, more children could have a fair chance to grow up and not just hope that they are born with a strong stomach.

Trip to Lake

Dromedaries hanging out on the road
Uncle Jim and I returned to Addis Ababa on Friday night to pick up my cousins and immediately turn around and go to a nearby lake ~3 hour drive from Addis the next morning. Once again, nothing changed... the poverty was still everywhere and totally inescapable.

We got to the lake mid-day and immediately went out on a small motorboat to see a family of hippos (~10 hippos). We were about 10 meters away from them at closest approach. Hippos are totally terrifying for the record (and totally the inspiration for Shrek). They are absolutely massive and quite agile in both land and water. When they started making angry noises at us, we scootered away pretty quickly.

Check out those Shrek Ears 
Hungry, Hungry Hippos

To no one's surprise, the morning of this trip I started showing preliminary signs of food poisoning. Post-hippo viewing, I was in bad shape. Not quite Chile-why-did-I-eat-raw-oysters-at-a-fish-market bad, but I had a fever and, um, several typical food poisoning symptoms. It took me a solid 36 hours to recover and many hours of sleep (a good chunk of my last day in Ethiopia). Just as I was feeling better, I got to hop on a 6 hour overnight flight leaving at 23:40 to South Africa. But that's another adventure now for next week :)

This post didn't go into as much detail about my family, but I loved and needed the time I got to spend with the Sarnos. My Uncle Jim was an amazing travel companion, and we got along fantastically well. At one point Abby and I were playing volleyball after she got back from school, and we were having so much fun I couldn't but help but say "I have always wanted a little sister so badly - this is what I imagined it would be like". She just kind of paused and said back "And this is what I always thought it would be like to have an older sister. Why can't you stay? This could be everyday." She's right, it could be, and I wish I could have all my travels and the day to day joys of having family around.

Ethiopia has changed the way I view needs versus wants. I hope I never say "I'm poor" or "when I was poor" to anyone again. The fact is I've never been poor... in any way. I've been incredibly fortunate and given opportunities that (A) kept me alive and (B) provided the necessary tools for me to flourish in an educational environment. Sure, I've had to work, I was a waitress and worked multiple jobs for a while... and those jobs 'built character'.   I was never destitute and I still had clean water and meat on my table (when I wanted it). It took 26 years, but I really do feel changed after this trip and I feel like my eyes have been opened.

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