Yes, I have walked your streets,
I have made no strides.
Your secrets are endless, Addis!
I will give in now,
I will rest.
– Fekade Azeze, Addis Ababa.
December 2020-January 2021
If Tunisia is North African, Ethiopia is the real thing. Welcome to Africa… the sights and sounds, crowds and colours, expansive sky and glorious sunsets, the whole bundle! It takes me a few days to master the seven syllables just to say thank you, A-me-se-gin-a-le-hu, in ancient Amharic. No, it ain’t one of the those languages that you could learn in a month on duolingo!
Ethiopia is one big, long country. From Addis, I head down south to Arba Minch, gateway to the famous Omo Valley, bordering South Sudan and Kenya, home to 16 ethnic tribes, UNESCO World Heritage traditional villages, colourful markets, and intoxicating homemade brews. Then I wind our way back up through the romantic lake city of Awassa, continuing on to another UNESCO WH site, the old city of Harar, retracing the steps of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. I fly out to Bahir Dar to celebrate new year on the Blue Nile, Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela, and Epiphany in Gondar! The bouquet final of my two month long journey is camping on Erta Ale, an active volcano, and celebrating my birthday in the Danakil Depression, the lowest and hottest place on earth! What a way to begin 2021!
Set in a valley with Mt. Entoto (3200m) as its backdrop, Addis is an amazingly vibrant capital city, hub of expatriate African Union and UN staff, and home to the only light rail system in Africa and the biggest outdoor market in the world. When the Italians invaded (not colonized!) Ethiopia, from 1936-1941, they created a market in Piazza and called the other local market, Mercato. Extraordinarily photogenic and inviting, this sprawling place is a wonderful introduction to Ethiopian daily life. Social distancing? I don’t see any! Where is Covid? is a great ice-breaker! Locals would always break into an uproarious laugh…
All of a sudden, in the midst of chaos, everything stops. Prayer time! Yes, in Ethiopia, Christians and Muslims have co-existed for centuries. At a time when intolerance rears its ugly head in so many different places, it is wonderful to see that peace is possible in community living, if we care for each other enough…
From Addis, the plan is to go South first. If my itinerary looks straight forward, it is anything but! Mishaps begin almost immediately. Despite spending hours securing my bus ticket and confirming departure time for Arba Minch at least FIVE times, I miss my first bus!
Being lost in translation is always part of the travel package. I learn that there are two times in Ethiopia: local and international. What Ethiopians refer as “local time” is actually 6 hours ahead of the dials on my watch, while “international time” is what we foreigners would consider as the local time (read this sentence again if you lose me!). It takes us days to get used to this peculiar way of Ethiopian time counting, with the constant fear of missing my next bus! I still have little clue about the origin of this dual time that apparently confuses even Ethiopians, showing up 6 hours early – or late – for dates! Here months have only 30 days and a year has 13 months (the last one having only 5 days, all unpaid unfortunately!). Christmas is celebrated on Jan 7, Epiphany on Jan 19, new year in September, according to the Julian calendar, and the millennium just seven years later in 2007! So much about my “timeless” living!
Flanked by two large lakes, the beautiful southern capital city of Arba Minch is a pleasant, laid-back place. The bus is packed with graduate students at the local university who return to class after eight months of Covid holidays. Two semesters in one, I am told. What a nightmare for both profs and students! Coming from Canada where all courses moved online immediately and seamlessly in March, I forget that this option is a total luxury elsewhere, with frequent electricity cuts and unreliable and inaccessible internet. Thankfully, it is December and I have finished prepping for the next semester. It would have been a real challenge teaching out of Omo Valley! Patience is a necessary virtue in Ethiopia. You learn to do like the locals, accepting whatever comes, wifi connection or not!
I begin my visit with a day trip to the nearby Dorze village, famed for its picturesque elephant houses, weaving, and home brewed tej/honey wine. As soon as I get off the bus, I am greeted by “sons of kings”-guides with leopard skin and all. Half a village of touts and phony police circle around me like sharks, selling guide service. I get a quick taste of what awaits me for the rest of my 10-day DIY stay in Omo Valley; little wonder most foreigners just zoom in and out in a package tour or skip the valley altogether. After much wrangling (but without paying a dime – birr – to anyone thanks to the intervention of the one-and-only kind and honest cafe owner), I head to the market. When I see rows of quietly seated – stoned – locals enjoying an OJ-looking drink, I couldn’t help join them for a round (for the sake of photogenic portraits, of course!). Tej/honey wine turns out to be not so innocent; within minutes, the sky turns white, as if my eyes overexpose! By the time my senses return, I have missed the last bus and hitchhike back to Arba Minch. And this is only the first day!
The next morning – sober – I go visit a young social entrepreneur, Firew, who forsook a comfortable career in order to save the cultural heritage of weaving by creating a co-op, employing 35 village weavers (18 women! gender parity in Ethiopia that put so many countries to shame!). He invites me home and treats me to a delicious stir-fried moringa lunch. What an inspiring encounter! This is the future of Africa…
From Arba Minch, I take a short ride to the luxurious Kanta lodge to visit the UNESCO World Heritage of Konso known for its ingenious traditional architecture and irrigation system.
Then in the colourful weekly market of Keyafar, my Omo Valley guide-hiring (mis)adventure begins when vociferous (faux) guides bar me from entering the market. I recall almost nothing of what my young guide says (he is more interested in buying a hunting knife), focusing instead on the portraits of the highly photogenic but camera-resistant Bani tribe with their colourful beads and sexy skirts. I imagine they must have been photographed to death by busloads of tourists for decades…
Finally, the question of whether to pay to take pictures comes up in Mursi village. I decide, no, out of principle, even if I find the local villagers with their huge clay lip plates irresistible. My unlicensed but honest guide proposes to pay himself and asks me to pick 3, like a high school grad picture bundle. Children don’t count, he adds! I pay him back, of course. So much for my moralizing gesture!
The constant haggling quickly becomes exhausting, except in Ari village near Jinka where no one put up any show for foreign visitors. What a pleasant change!
The reprieve turns out to be short; things get worse after Jinka. I get stranded in Dimeka where the minivan driver refuses to leave because Bani villagers could not afford to pay double for his last ride with no return passengers…
I reach Turmi by motorcycle just before dark. It is not easy to organize your own visits – with a guide of course – to the nearby Kassenech, Hamer, and Karo tribes. Unfortunately, the German owner of Turmi Tourist Hotel is away in Addis, leaving me to deal with his greed-incarnate guide. The trip to the Kassenech tribe goes more or less as planned, but by the time I reach a Hamer village in a late afternoon, it is totally deserted with only two inhabitants present – a mom and daughter – demanding money for their portraits in no uncertain terms.
My “guided” tour of the Karo tribe – known for their body paintings – with Tom who barely speaks English lasts all of nine minutes before a spectacle unfolds in front of my eyes when two Jeeps arrive with a Russian camera crew. The entire village quickly dot their bodies with paints and line up in photo-ready positions. What a circus! A real pity, because the South Omo region is gorgeous and my sunrise motorcycle ride to Omerate spectacular.
I am happy to leave Omo valley and hunker down in a three-star hotel in Hawasa to recuperate. Neither the beautiful lake nor delicious grilled fishes could entice me to venture out to avoid more haggling before a long ride to Harar, 200k from the Somaliland border. I find a new-ish, comfortable hotel by the Harar Gate to spend a blissful week, doing little other than hanging out with Amhed, a smiley, kind-hearted French-trained Djiboutian baker who is waiting for his industrial oven to arrive to churn out croissants and pains au chocolat. In Harar!
The UNESCO World Heritage old-walled city of Harar is famous for many things: the capital of the Harari Kingdom, the fourth holiest city of Islam with mosques and shrines dating from the 10th century, the mecca for fans of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who resided there in the 1880s after crossing the Gulf of Aden in a wooden dhow and trekking 20 days on horseback through the Somali Desert, and last but not least, hyena feeding! The old city feels dirty and run down, but the timeless markets remain vibrant. Locals mill around, looking totally stoned from compulsive khat-chewing…
I celebrate Christmas back in Addis before flying out to beautiful Bahir Dar to bid goodbye to tumultuous 2020 in the spiritual monasteries on Lake Tana and the majestic Blue Nile Fall. Since Ethiopians already celebrated their new year in September, there is no champagne or fanfare to welcome 2021 except a fabulous, exotic reveillon dinner of injera with grilled meat and veggies!
While prepping for this trip a year ago, I came across a stunning black and white picture of ghost-like figures in Lalibela that left an indelible impression on me. So I head to the holy city on Jan 7 for Ethiopian Christmas when hundreds of thousands of white-robed pilgrims pile into town, flowing between the eleven picturesque UNESCO World Heritage old rock-hewn churches built in the 13th century. How does one capture such a massive religious and spiritual event? Feeling overwhelmed at first by the crowds, I spend a lot of time observing until a sudden change of perspective happens, as if I begin to feel their spirituality… Taking this favourite set of portraits is akin to a photographic awakening. What an awe-inspiring experience!
If celebrating Christmas in Lalibela feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Ethiopia still has more to offer. I spend a marvellous day trekking in the gorgeous Simien mountains, home to many endemic birds and mammals including Gelada monkeys. Then it is a week-long wait for Timkat/Ethiopian Epiphany in Gondar that is in every bit as impressive as Christmas in Lalibela. I put my alarm at 1:45am, arrive at Fasil Bath – filled with water for the occasion – and wait in the cold from three to nine in the morning. Everyone is excited to catch a glimpse of a replica of the Ark of Covenant before the priests bless the water. Then, one, two, three… Splash! Hundreds of locals jump into the bath. What a sight and unforgettable experience!
From Gondar, most travellers would normally continue on to Mekele and Axum, must-visit historic capital of the Aksumite Empire. Since a civil war broke out in November shortly before my arrival, however, it has become a no-go zone for tourists. As for the Erta Ale volcano and the Danakil Depression in the neighbouring Afar province close to the Eritrean border, few operators are ready to take foreigners to a region already notorious for inter-tribal conflicts and where now some Tigray rebels have reportedly fled…
A last-minute tour is cobbled up with two other backpackers by ETT. The tour is supposed to last for five days, driving from Gondar to Lalibela, onwards to Aballa (not far from Mekele!), Erta Ale and Dallol, returning to Addis. Except that nothing is ever that simple in Ethiopia!
We arrive in Semera, capital of the Afar region, at 6pm the first day instead and are told to soldier on to Erta Ale – in the dark, seeing nothing along the way – for another 8 hours, arriving at two in the morning, then hike in and out of the volcano! When we reject the dumbfoundingly dangerous idea and insist on overnighting in Semera, the manager threatens to skip the volcano visit because “the permit is issued on that day only” even though that is not our itinerary. Only later I learn the sudden change is a cost saving measure, as there is a rare contingent of 200 local visitors organized by the Ministry of Tourism that day and so armed guards and guides etc. are already paid…
The manager finally capitulates and we drive to Lake Afrera the next morning where we spend three hours waiting for logistics arrangement before arriving in the volcano at nightfall. The legendary Erta Ale, with a rare permanent lava lake, feels underwhelming. After gazing at the few sputtering flames, we head back to camp where our local guide, holding my hand to his chest, murmurs, “If you become my second wife, I will give you a house…” What a once-in-a-lifetime offer, on Erta Ale! I am not sure what scares me more, having a house or being a (second) wife! In all likelihood, both!
I celebrate my birthday in the Danakil Depression, this mesmerizingly remote and alien lowest and hottest place on earth, painted in God’s palette, a paradise for photographers!
Two long incredible months – 60 days of sun – in one and only Ethiopia! From the freshly ground and brewed coffee, always served in the most welcoming fashion with fresh grass/Sar on the floor and fragrant incense burning to delicious and exotic renditions of injera – the local sourdough flatbread staple – and smiley, welcoming locals who live with such simplicity and pure joy that no hardships seem too much. I see what a true minimalist life looks like. Everyone walks, with neither fancy Patagonia micro-puff jacket nor Salomon shoes. Above all, I learn from Ethiopians’ deep spirituality and generosity that no poverty can strip away. With spartan material comfort and spotty internet connection, Ethiopia is not for the faint-hearted. But when you finally begin to let go of your long held habits and convictions, you enter a timeless existence and experience…
i turned silences and nights into words.
what was unutterable, I wrote down.
i made the whirling world stand still.
– Arthur Rimbaud
One and Only: Ethiopia
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan