Eye-opening Ethiopia

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I made my second visit to Ethiopia, Jan. 10-24, ’05. My first was in 1995, a 6-day stopover to the historic north on my way to Yemen. This time I went on a 3-week “Explore Ethiopia In Depth” trip with the first-rate Spiekermann Travel Service (St. Clair Shores, MI; 800/645-3233 or www.mideasttrvl.com). My third trip with them to Africa within 12 months, it cost $4,985 including all airfare and most meals.

I flew from Chicago to Washington/Dulles airport on American Airlines and on to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian offered a very cheap first-class ticket, which I felt would be worthwhile as it was a 15-hour direct flight.

The first problem was two hours of chaos at check-in! There were long lines at security, longer lines at the baggage check desk and total confusion at the gate. With the behavior of the staff and of the passengers, it was as if this was the airline’s first flight ever, even though the chaos occurs four times per week. Almost all of the passengers were Ethiopians; less than five percent were American tourists.

Upon our arriving in Addis Ababa, the guide who was supposed to meet us and who had our hotel vouchers was not there. I arranged a ride to the hotel, which did have a room reserved in my name.

After a night’s sleep, we went for a walk in the neighborhood of our hotel, the venerable Hilton, 25 years old and still very good, even though it is showing its age a little. The beggars and vendors did crowd around us and were very insistent that they have a share of our money.

The neighborhood of the Hilton was not very interesting, so in the afternoon we hired a car and driver to give us a tour of the city and a visit to the big market. Even though we had many warnings about pickpockets, scams and minor crimes, we had no trouble.

Our first good guess about the level of the Ethiopian economy arose when we took our guide into a posh coffeehouse in a better neighborhood for two cappuccinos and a cup of regular coffee. In a first-class establishment with clean tables and floor, clean cups and saucers, etc., plus a first-rate staff, the total bill came to 72¢ U.S.! It would have been at least $10 at Starbucks at home! Still, in Ethiopia only the extremely rich can afford to buy a cup of coffee in a restaurant.

I later found that a wood carrier, who provides fuel for people to cook their food, earns less than 25¢ per day! A college professor earns only about $80 per month. Yet we four tourists were each advised to tip our driver $3 per day. This would make our driver seven times better paid than a man who earned a doctorate degree!

To see emaciated women carrying bundles of twigs down the road from the mountains near Addis Ababa to sell as cooking fuel for pennies was a great sadness. To see skinny children begging for a birr (about 12¢) — or to see the blind, the crippled, the sick — wrings one’s heart.

As we drove through the countryside, in both the north and south, the roads were crowded with people walking, at least half with loads on their backs — plastic water jugs, bundles of firewood, bags of grain, pieces of timber and wrapped bundles of unknown products. There were a few wheelbarrows, very primitive, plus a few donkey-drawn wagons made with wheels and axles from old autos or trucks. Only near Addis Ababa was there any significant number of trucks, efficiently carrying freight.

Visiting Ethiopia is like visiting the zoo. We tourists watch from a safe distance and do not involve ourselves in the hunger, sadness, sickness, exhausting labor and hopelessness of the average Ethiopian’s life! It is quite unlike a visit to Italy, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Japan where the people live lives similar to our own and each day is not a struggle to keep hunger at bay. Obesity is not a problem in Ethiopia.

We in the developed parts of the world have safe water, electricity, central heating, air-conditioning, fine medical care and plans for a contented old age. In Ethiopia, I did not see one person, except in Addis Ababa, who appeared to be over 50 years of age. Malaria, famine, AIDS and tuberculosis almost totally eliminate the problems of aging!

We in the West do not everywhere see victims of polio, blindness and AIDS or the bloated bellies of starvation! In visiting Ethiopia, we grit our teeth, observe and sympathize but do not wish to share their lives. We give a bit of money and try to distance ourselves from their tragedy of being born in the wrong place.

We must see many parts of the world in order to appreciate our own good fortune.

Visiting Ethiopia is an unforgettable experience. It is going back in time to before the age of metals and, essentially, the wheel, to when we all were hunter-gatherers.

MARK STONE
Libertyville, IL

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

I made my second visit to Ethiopia, Jan. 10-24, ’05. My first was in 1995, a 6-day stopover to the historic north on my way to Yemen. This time I went on a 3-week “Explore Ethiopia In Depth” trip with the first-rate Spiekermann Travel Service (St. Clair Shores, MI; 800/645-3233 or www.mideasttrvl.com). My third trip with them to Africa within 12 months, it cost $4,985 including all airfare and most meals.

I flew from Chicago to Washington/Dulles airport on American Airlines and on to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian offered a very cheap first-class ticket, which I felt would be worthwhile as it was a 15-hour direct flight.

The first problem was two hours of chaos at check-in! There were long lines at security, longer lines at the baggage check desk and total confusion at the gate. With the behavior of the staff and of the passengers, it was as if this was the airline’s first flight ever, even though the chaos occurs four times per week. Almost all of the passengers were Ethiopians; less than five percent were American tourists.

Upon our arriving in Addis Ababa, the guide who was supposed to meet us and who had our hotel vouchers was not there. I arranged a ride to the hotel, which did have a room reserved in my name.

After a night’s sleep, we went for a walk in the neighborhood of our hotel, the venerable Hilton, 25 years old and still very good, even though it is showing its age a little. The beggars and vendors did crowd around us and were very insistent that they have a share of our money.

The neighborhood of the Hilton was not very interesting, so in the afternoon we hired a car and driver to give us a tour of the city and a visit to the big market. Even though we had many warnings about pickpockets, scams and minor crimes, we had no trouble.

Our first good guess about the level of the Ethiopian economy arose when we took our guide into a posh coffeehouse in a better neighborhood for two cappuccinos and a cup of regular coffee. In a first-class establishment with clean tables and floor, clean cups and saucers, etc., plus a first-rate staff, the total bill came to 72¢ U.S.! It would have been at least $10 at Starbucks at home! Still, in Ethiopia only the extremely rich can afford to buy a cup of coffee in a restaurant.

I later found that a wood carrier, who provides fuel for people to cook their food, earns less than 25¢ per day! A college professor earns only about $80 per month. Yet we four tourists were each advised to tip our driver $3 per day. This would make our driver seven times better paid than a man who earned a doctorate degree!

To see emaciated women carrying bundles of twigs down the road from the mountains near Addis Ababa to sell as cooking fuel for pennies was a great sadness. To see skinny children begging for a birr (about 12¢) — or to see the blind, the crippled, the sick — wrings one’s heart.

As we drove through the countryside, in both the north and south, the roads were crowded with people walking, at least half with loads on their backs — plastic water jugs, bundles of firewood, bags of grain, pieces of timber and wrapped bundles of unknown products. There were a few wheelbarrows, very primitive, plus a few donkey-drawn wagons made with wheels and axles from old autos or trucks. Only near Addis Ababa was there any significant number of trucks, efficiently carrying freight.

Visiting Ethiopia is like visiting the zoo. We tourists watch from a safe distance and do not involve ourselves in the hunger, sadness, sickness, exhausting labor and hopelessness of the average Ethiopian’s life! It is quite unlike a visit to Italy, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Japan where the people live lives similar to our own and each day is not a struggle to keep hunger at bay. Obesity is not a problem in Ethiopia.

We in the developed parts of the world have safe water, electricity, central heating, air-conditioning, fine medical care and plans for a contented old age. In Ethiopia, I did not see one person, except in Addis Ababa, who appeared to be over 50 years of age. Malaria, famine, AIDS and tuberculosis almost totally eliminate the problems of aging!

We in the West do not everywhere see victims of polio, blindness and AIDS or the bloated bellies of starvation! In visiting Ethiopia, we grit our teeth, observe and sympathize but do not wish to share their lives. We give a bit of money and try to distance ourselves from their tragedy of being born in the wrong place.

We must see many parts of the world in order to appreciate our own good fortune.

Visiting Ethiopia is an unforgettable experience. It is going back in time to before the age of metals and, essentially, the wheel, to when we all were hunter-gatherers.

MARK STONE
Libertyville, IL