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  • Theresa Vernetti

Overlanding in Ethiopia

March 27, 2011  Addis Ababa – Ethiopia

Ethiopia is no easy travel destination.  Every day is a struggle, hardly anything ever works or makes sense but the little gems – the beautiful unguarded moments of connection – string you along and leave you thirsting for more.  It’s what could be categorized as a “second-tier country,” not the most obvious choice for tourism and definitely lacking in infrastructure but safe enough to explore – with tons of unspoiled potential.  Expectations in comfort and convenience are immediately adjusted when traveling overland in the third world.  A luxury bathroom experience might include a seatless commode with a half-bucket of water next to it and a cold shower which has a functional shut off mechanism.  Group travel allows for minimal privacy and time to deal with gastrointestinal distress  – difficult to know if one has tapeworms if rushed, long-drop bathroom time has been illuminated by a dimming headlamp for weeks on end.

While bumping and bouncing along in an oversized orange truck, the Dragoman parade catches more than a glance  Children come sprinting down hillsides and trot or skip alongside the vehicle for as long as they are able…waving and shouting “Hiland” (water), “Birr” (money), “Toffee” & “Pen.”  Young men shout this as well – from crowded ping pong tables, shop doorways and roadwork stations. Women motion with a hand to mouth gesture.  It makes one wonder where all the aid has been going in this country….whether it’s created self-sustaining projects or simply reliance.  Despite the first impression, these same people, when approached and warmly greeted,  will reciprocate with friendly smile, gentle eye contact, a waggley horizontal handshake and affectionate shoulder bumping.  They will help anyone in need as they would a family member and  make do with what little they have yet are aware of what life could be and what a successful interaction with a “farangi” (foreigner) might bring.

Camping, most nights…even out in the bush, is preferable to broken, untidy hotel rooms in Africa.  We had a cook station, treated drinking water, sturdy tents and camp stools.  Time in urban areas involved a sort of scavenger hunt…searching for and gathering ingredients which may or may not be available for our western recipe ideas.  The end result, though, was always delicious…as camping food tends to be.  At the last lakeside campsite, a group of onlookers showed great interest in camp set-up and dinner preparation…about 20-30 visitors gawked and whispered to each other for several hours.  To liven things up,  a  “flash mob” dance routine to M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch Dis” was performed by 8 members of our group which had the local children gleefully jumping and wiggling…so much fun.

Tribal visits could be socially awkward yet visually and photographically stimulating.  Attitudes, morals and ethics were challenged as we confronted dying babies, tales of painful tribal rituals and strict gender roles.  It’s always awe-inspiring and magical to witness a culture in its authentic state. It’s also a little sad to know that with each interaction, these tribes will change and begin to favor tourism dollars over their traditional sources of income.  There’s no doubt that tribal people should have contact with and participate in the modern world….there is definitely benefit to children being educated and land rights having protection but it’s a shame to witness the breakdown of tight societal and family structure.  The new roads being built through the Omo Valley will provide much needed infrastructure for farming, production and trade. These same roads will make a higher volume of tourism available.  Tourism which may or may not  be environmentally or culturally sensitive.

Now in Addis Ababa, removing layers of grime with hot water, snapping a few last pics,  gathering a couple of souveniers, and considering re-immersion into the workplace after a month of college style road trip…leaves me a little melancholy…and excited to start planning the next exotic adventure.

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