May 24, 2004
A Long Way Since the Eighties
DAY 216: Ethiopia has come a long way since the 1980s when a famine caused by political and economic struggle got worldwide attention, prompting American musicians to sing "We Are The World" as a benefit. The news of the famine also spread to the United Kingdom, prompting British musicians to band together in a similar collective known as Band Aid and ask in song, "Do they know it's Christmas time at all?" My thinking is that the Ethiopians did know it was Christmas; the majority of the population is Christian after all. (However, in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which uses the Gregorian calendar, Christmas is actually celebrated on January 7.)
Ethiopia's Christianity -- in an area of the world where Islam is widespread -- is just one of the unique characteristics of the country that Ethiopians pride themselves on. That and the fact that during the mad scramble for territories by European nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that had been left uncolonized. (There was only a brief occupation by the Italians for five years between 1936 and 1941 under the regime of Mussolini.) What was left uncolonized by Europeans is slowly being discovered by Western travelers, although Ethiopia is far from being ruined by the backpacker set like other countries. (The usual backpacker trail in sub-Saharan Africa only goes as far north as Nairobi, Kenya.)
The driver took me to his suggestion of accommodation, the decent Debre Demo Hotel not mentioned in my guidebook, a reasonable "motel"-like place with clean and comfortable rooms for about eight bucks. After dropping off my things, the driver took me to Travel Ethiopia, the travel agency based out of the luxurious Ghion Hotel that Lonely Planet suggested. On the hotel grounds there were multiple Christian wedding receptions going on taking advantage of the sunny weather, with brides and grooms dancing in a crowd of rhythmically-clapping guests the way I had seen on an episode of Globe Trekker.
Travel Ethiopia turned out to be not as helpful as Lonely Planet had raved, and their package tours of the northern highlights were way out of my budget. At their suggestion, I went to the office of National Tour Operations, a government-run travel agency with better options for me on my tight schedule. In a compromise of "doing Ethiopia independently" and going on a package tour, I could work out my own flights and buses to and from the main cities of interest, and meet up with NTO guides in each one.
The taxi driver zipped me around the streets of Addis Ababa (picture above) to the Ethiopian Airlines office where getting flights to the four major sites in the north wasn't as easy as either travel agency said it would be, mostly because of fully-booked flights. I should have known though; everywhere that I'd been reading told me that travel in Ethiopia wouldn't be as easy as in other countries since their travel infrastructure is fairly new -- English isn't even an official language. The first available northbound domestic flight out of Addis Ababa wouldn't depart for another five days, and after working out the details on paper, I toyed with the idea of going to the closest city via a two-day bus ride. My thinking was that if I had to wait five days to get out of the city, I might as well be on a bus and get to the first destination cheaper.
I made a provisional booking on three flights to and from the last two of the four sites and left the office with a printout to sleep on it. (Literally, it was under my pillow.) I couldn't really set anything in stone just yet without first changing my Egypt Air flight out of Ethiopia to a later date, a flight from Addis to Cairo that I already booked with AirTreks.com back when I didn't know my exact schedule of traveling. It was a Saturday and Egypt Air wouldn't be open until Monday, so I had to wait out the weekend before making a move.
Steve Martin and Martin Short on the television screen? Yep, Ethiopia had truly made leaps since the desperation of the 1980s, even if there were still hurdles like getting a domestic flight when you want it.
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