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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Mounting moodiness at Mount Wenchi

When it came time to leave Addis early Tuesday morning, Michael, en route to work, dropped me off at Piazza around 5:30 am to catch a minibus for Asco Bus Station on the edge of the city.


I would be heading 125 km west of Addis to a town called Ambo, which I planned to use as a pivot point to Mount Wenchi, an extinct volcano with a crater lake in the center, providing an opportunity for a day trek. Otherwise, the town of Ambo is famous for its natural mineral water sold all over Ethiopia (which presumably does not go flat even after standing open overnight—I did not test this theory).


Eternally bubbly Ambo water


Ambo is part of Oromia, a district encompassing a large portion of central and western Ethiopia and where the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo, are concentrated. They have their own language, Oromifa (although most people also speak Amharic). There is a long history of disputes between the Oromo and the Amhara (the other major ethnic group in the country) regarding land boundaries and marginalization of the Oromo by the Amhara-dominated government, and violent protests led by Oromo activists have erupted in Addis in recent years.


The minibus ride to Ambo cost a mere 60 birr and took around two hours (after waiting for the bus to fill up with passengers). A rather annoying local in the backseat (I got the shotgun seat) periodically tapped my shoulder to ask me inane questions in English I could maybe understand half the time, just to show off to the other passengers. I humored him for the first little while but eventually gave him one-word answers later in the ride, as my eyes were closing from sleep deprivation.


When I'm just not enjoying an interaction when I travel, I try to strike a balance between being friendly and patient and being assertive. This is not always easy, but I keep in mind that in many cases, locals are just curious and happy to meet a foreigner for once. If they have this positive, nonthreatening attitude, I think it warrants some added patience (as long as they're respecting your personal space, which is measured differently for everyone).


I've noticed that men here are a little handsy, but anytime someone has patted my arm or leg in friendly conversation, it hasn't felt like an inappropriate advance. I myself actually have a tendency to reach out and briefly place my hand on someone's arm in everyday conversation (to emphasize a point or joke), even if we're not best buds, so this level of interaction with a stranger is within my comfort zone.


One thing Aziz pointed out in Addis, and I later noticed myself, is how surprisingly affectionate Ethiopian men are with each other. Hugging, and even sort-of holding hands, seems to be common among friends. I've also noticed that men and women will sit on strangers' laps on the minibus, so there is definitely a different concept of personal space at work here.


I love the Ethiopian handshake. For historical reasons, it's called the "fighters salute" (it was used among those who fought together against the Derg regime) and involves shaking hands while knocking your shoulder against the opposite shoulder of the other person. Both men and women informally greet friends this way, and I was also offered this handshake along my travels, which made me feel very welcome.


Aside from giving me a little extra space to stretch my legs, having the shotgun seat on the minibus allowed me to ogle the landscape with a rolled-down window. This was my first glimpse of the beautiful Ethiopian highlands, consisting of multiple hills rolling off into the distance and scattered acacia trees (the tree you automatically think of when you imagine an archetypal African landscape).


A lonely acacia tree en route to Ambo

Farm animals roaming along the roadside


After arriving in Ambo, I asked a Bajaj driver to take me to Abebech Metaferia Hotel, which I knew would have decent rooms based on my guidebook recommendations. It turned out to be just down the street (a five-minute walk) from the bus station, so the Bajaj wasn't really necessary.


The elderly hotel manager, Endale, greeted me warmly and joined me for breakfast when I arrived. I mentioned my plan to visit Mount Wenchi the following morning as well as my transportation predicament: there is no public transport to Wenchi except on Friday and Sunday (Wenchi's market days), and it was midweek. He said he could arrange for a driver to both take me and drive me back.


View from my room at Abebech Metaferia Hotel (appears deceptively quiet, but music blared from across the street well into the evening hours each day)


After I napped (much needed) for a few hours, I took a stroll up and down the main street in Ambo. Although nothing really stood out to me, I definitely stood out—local boys yelled "Faranji!", "You!", and sometimes "I love you!" or actual greetings instead of comments, which I prefer. Women were mostly shy towards me, but the odd one would say "Hello, Sister," "Welcome!" or just smile. The women (Ethiopian women in general, not only in Ambo) are beautiful, many of them also quite fashionable with intricate braids in their hair, flowing skirts, and sometimes wrapping their hair in colorful scarves.


I walked briskly because I wasn't quite in the mood to be a source of entertainment. And so it begins, I thought. That inevitable point in my trip where I morph into a goddamn unicorn. I know it's harmless attention and comes with being in foreign territory, but it can be an irritating experience when you just want to be inconspicuous.


I later asked at the hotel reception desk for Endale in order to follow up on the driving arrangement to Wenchi the next day. The young clerk at the desk (a university student) wasn't too interested in calling Endale and asked me to wait in the lobby, where I sat for maybe 20 minutes. I was tired and getting impatient, so I reapproached the clerk and told him I needed to discuss my plan for Wenchi, thinking he might know how to arrange a driver.


This clerk called a friend of his to see if he was interested in the driving assignment, who showed up a few minutes later with some of his friends to negotiate a price. The "leader" of this all-male posse pitched a high price (close to 80 EUR) and refused to bargain with me.


Determined to go to Wenchi the next morning, I gave in for convenience's sake (even knowing the cost was too high), but Endale let me know that he could have arranged a driver for less. I was a bit annoyed with myself for not insisting on waiting for Endale to book the driver. I also could have winged it the next morning at the minibus station to look for a driver, which would have been cheaper, but it was not guaranteed that I could find someone (much less someone I could trust).


On a positive note, there was at least some accountability with this driver given his connection to the hotel, and Endale insisted on personally admonishing the young guy to keep me safe, which was a kind, parent-like gesture. I felt better.


Both Endale and Michael had pointed out that my travel route of choice was somewhat off the beaten tourist track. The north caters much more to tourists, while the west doesn't have the same infrastructure. Given this, I knew I would run into difficulties as a backpacker and promised not to be too hard on myself in the future.


The next morning, my driver was punctual for the 8 am (i.e., 2:00 Ethiopian time) start, but I was a bit annoyed to find an extra four people (friends of the driver) in the back of the minivan (including the hotel clerk) to hitch a free ride to the lake, especially after being overcharged for the ride. It wasn't part of the agreement, and I wanted to go without an opportunistic entourage, but I decided to go with the flow this time and vowed to be firm in not letting random people latch onto my excursions in the future (unless I actually wanted the company).


I was told by another solo female traveler in Addis (a German I met on a minibus ride) that she found it difficult to ditch unwanted male company on her journey in northern Ethiopia, particularly in small villages. I realized that I would have to amp up my assertiveness if I was to avoid a similar experience. Realistically, you would want to weigh your safety (in being alone) against your degree of irritability. It's your vacation, and a kind "fuck off" (okay, maybe not in those terms exactly, but a variation), is perfectly valid.


The drive took about an hour (to travel only 20 km south of Ambo) along a very rough, bumpy path, but it was extremely scenic, and many of the Oromo farmers scattered along the way waved at us when we passed.





I was under the impression that I would be dropped off at Wenchi and picked up later, so I was even more annoyed to find out that my unwanted entourage would be walking with me and the guide (as Ethiopians, they could access the park free of charge). In spite of my earlier silent vow to be assertive, I decided there was no use in arguing about it at this point—we had already come this far. At least they were friendly enough company and kept up with the guide, Kebede, on the walk, and I was too enamored with the stunning landscape to let this be a total buzzkill.


Wenchi Crater Lake


Nevertheless, I still smiled to myself when Kebede and I abandoned the troupe on the shore to cross the lake (they were not permitted to take the boat across the lake without payment, and I wasn't about to volunteer). Sweet revenge.



The ferrymen (with my abandoned posse on the shore in the distance)

The Monastery of Wenchi Chirkos, situated on an island in the middle of the lake


After crossing the lake, Kebede and I walked through the forest, passing bamboo trees and then entering a valley where horses, goats, sheep, and donkeys grazed. Farmers here grow the Ethiopian staples: teff, barley, and false banana plants (enset). The startchy part of the enset plant can be ground into a flour and fermented to make a flatbread called kocho (I didn't have the opportunity to try it during my trip, unfortunately), and the fibrous part is used as a material for ropes, mats, sacks, and other items.


A woman harvesting enset from a plantation in Mount Wenchi


We even caught sight of a few stealthy guereza (Colobus) monkeys, which are commonly found in southern and western Ethiopia, along our walk. Eventually, we reached the Dawala hot springs and waterfall, where some of the locals were relaxing in the small thermal pools (they believe the water cures sickness) and washing clothes in the stream—apparently, around 700 people live around the 4 km2 crater (according to Kebede).


Cute kids herding farm animals

A small waterfall leading into Dawala Hot Springs


The uphill climb towards the end of the hike damn near killed me, forcing me to stop a handful of times to catch my breath. No doubt the higher altitude (the rim of the crater lies at 3386 meters) and heat, not to mention my considerably lighter Muay Thai training regimen for the last six months, all played a role in my periodic panting. All in all, the hike only took around three hours (for 16 km) with a few breaks.


Again, I remembered not to be so hard on myself.


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