Ethiopia doesn't exactly scream "fun family vacation" (or fun solo vacation, for that matter) to many Westerners. Instead, mental images of a poverty-stricken nation pop up thanks to those guilt-inducing World Vision commercials. No doubt this is the default mental image people associate with most places in Africa if they have never visited the continent.
That brings me to another very important point. As a tourist, taking photos of human suffering only perpetuates "poverty tourism," which is not only rude and invasive in my mind; it can deliver the wrong message about a country. Alex of the travel blog Lost With Purpose wrote a great article on how to be a responsible traveler, and she thoughtfully addressed this issue along with other important considerations we can easily forget about when wrapped up in the excitement of a new place.
Personally, I never take photos that focus closely on people in the streets (at least without permission), and especially if their vulnerabilities are exposed. Yes, the sad reality is that it is commonplace for lepers, amputees, and barefoot mothers with tiny nude babies to be lying in the middle of the sidewalk in third-world countries, but there is no need to photograph any of it.
I chose to visit Ethiopia for the rich, exotic culture I had tasted in the form of injera, shiro, and wot (staples of Ethiopian cuisine) in the West (oh, and the coffee, which I knew would be nothing short of amazing straight from the source). Trekking is always on the agenda when I travel, and having both mountains and jungle, Ethiopia provided plenty of opportunities to indulge my inner adrenaline junkie. I was sold.
One important thing to keep in mind when traveling to Ethiopia is that significant discounts for domestic flights are available to those who fly into Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines.
Even though it may not be the cheapest option for the international part of the trip, the extra cost will be more than compensated if you are planning to fly around the country when you arrive. Domestic flights are damn expensive if you do not.
All this being said, I booked my international flights with Lufthansa, unaware that this discount existed until after the fact. I wasn't too disturbed, however—although flying is good for the sake of saving time, it's not so good for the environment. Because takeoff and landing account for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions generated during a flight, short flights in particular are bad. Taking the bus is the cheaper and more environmentally friendly option (trains only operate in a few parts of the country).
I had done my research beforehand and knew that the Ethiopian clock was different from the international clock. Time is measured in two 12-hour cycles beginning at 6:00 and 18:00, meaning 6:00 am is 0 o'clock (or hour 0) and 18:00 is 12 o'clock.
Mindfuck, I know.
Ethiopians do not distinguish between am and pm, so you have to specify whether you mean 1 o'clock in the morning or at night if it's not obvious. Some locals might take the fact that you're a foreigner into account and use international time when speaking with you, but it's good to clarify this if in doubt.
To add another dimension to the time warp, the Ethiopian calendar has 13 months. Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th and the new year takes place on September 11th. This means that Ethiopia is seven years, eight months behind the Western world, and the new millennium was celebrated in year 2007 (so, they partied like it was 2006, not 1999).
The concept of “Africa time" is also an unofficial thing (although Wikipedia actually has an article about it). When I say this, I mean that things don't exactly run like clockwork in the country, and I've been told that this tendency to be laid back about time prevails throughout Africa.
People are much less strict about when to make an appearance or get something done than we are in the West. For example, timetables for local transportation are either nonexistent or rough estimates. The same goes for opening times for shops, museums, etc., which can be flexible. It's simply a cultural difference. You just have to be patient and go with the flow.
Planning My Route
I would start my trip with a few days in Addis Ababa, the country's capital, but where to go when I left Addis was a question mark. Each region of Ethiopia had its appeal, but I knew it would be impossible to access all these areas by bus over the course of three weeks, so I had to narrow down my route.
To the north is the historical circuit, which is undoubtedly the route that attracts the most tourists, and for good reason: there are the ancient rock-hewn churches (churches carved below ground level) of Lalibela and Tigray; the Simien Mountains, known for its Grand-Canyon-like landscape and as the place to see endemic gelada monkeys and the rare Walia ibex; and the Danakil Depression near Eritrea, home to the active volcano Erta Ale.
The combination of history and breathtaking scenery made this option immediately appealing (Who doesn't get excited by lava?), but covering the large distances between landmarks by bus over the course of three weeks might have been a stretch. I would likely have had to reduce my number of destinations.
Not to mention it's damn expensive to trek in the Simien Mountains National Park as a solo traveler. I contacted a number of guides beforehand to inquire about the cost for a one-week trek and was quoted anywhere between 650 and 1950 USD. The prices in the upper end of this range included an extra day to reach Ras Daschen, the highest peak in Ethiopia (4,533 meters). These treks are all-inclusive, meaning they include a guide, armed scout, park fees, camping gear, a mule, mule handler, and cook—the whole circus troupe—but even still, these high costs seemed a bit ridiculous to me.
Trekking with other travelers in a group would have brought the cost down per traveler, but I preferred to go on my own with the minimum amount of mandatory company (guide, scout, and hopefully a nice-tempered mule to carry my big backpack and camping gear). In theory, it would be less expensive to forgo the pre-organized tour by showing up at the national park headquarters and hiring the guide, scout, and mule on the spot, separately renting camping gear and bringing food or buying meals at the campsites. I considered this option as well, but ultimately abandoned the idea to go north in favor of a less touristy route.
In southern Ethiopia, the Lower Omo Valley (South Omo) is the main tourist attraction. Home to 16 different ethnic groups (including the Mursi, Surmi, and Hamer), it's the tribal epicenter of the country, where the people are adorned with lip plates, tattoos, body paint, ornate jewelry and headdresses, and colorful hairstyles. Although it must be an amazing cultural experience to visit South Omo (and an authentic one for the most part), there are ethical issues surrounding tourism in the region, which has become highly commercialized.
Tribespeople sometimes perform and deck themselves out in a more elaborate way than usual specifically for the tourists, who often (whether knowingly or unknowingly) treat the experience like a "human zoo," where the priority is to snap a few photos and then be on their merry way. The main argument in favor of tourism in the Omo Valley is that it's helping to keep the tribes and their traditions from disappearing due to modernization (such as the building of hydroelectric dams and plantations, as well as oil exploration), and the fees charged for entering villages and taking photos have become an important source of income for the people.
To the east lies the Islamic holy city of Harar and Ethiopia's second-largest city, Dire Dawa. Apart from its religious significance, Harar is famous for its "hyena men," who feed the wild hyenas that lurk outside the city's walls by hand each night. Definitely intriguing, but not enough to fuel a three-week journey in this direction.
According to my guidebooks, traveling to the western part of the country is considered to be the most adventurous. Characterized by coffee plantations and rainforests, this route is exotic and relatively uncharted by tourists compared to the north and south. This is mainly because of its lack of tourist infrastructure, but might also be in part due to its more unpredictable security situation near the border. The Gambella district, bordering with South Sudan, is occasionally under travel advisory due to tribal conflicts; five major ethnic groups (the majority are Nuer and Anuwak) and a large number of Sudanese refugees inhabit the area, which also has a large NGO presence as a result.
The region is also extremely rich in wildlife—giraffes, elephants, antelopes, hippos, and even lions (although rare) can be found in Gambella National Park, which is notoriously difficult to access (at least for the time being).
Based on the level of adventure and diverse mix of culture, wildlife, and landscape, I decided that I would head west towards Gambella using only the local transportation (bus) and stopping in different towns along the way. Following this route, I would also be able to trek at Mount Wenchi (an extinct volcano) and in the Kafa Biosphere Reserve (the birthplace of coffee) in the southwest.
All I would bring aside from my backpack was a rough plan. I did not arrange transportation, accommodations (aside from my initial few days in Addis), guides, or tours beforehand—I had no fixed agenda and would figure things out as I went along (in true "Africa time" fashion). I knew that the trip would be more stressful at times as a result, but I was more than up for the adventure and confident in my ability to succeed (as in, not die, which I think a few friends and family members were half-expecting).
I lived to tell the tale.