The monolithic rock-cut churches of Lalibela, the Ethiopian cuisine, the country’s landscapes and the beauty of local people – just a few reasons why Ethiopia should be in your travel list.
Our first African journey started after midnight when we arrived at the Bole airport in Addis Ababa. We had to wait there for two hours just to get our passports checked. While we were still waiting on the queue the passengers from a plane coming from Saudi Arabia entered the passport control area. They started pushing each other, and once a guy tried to jump the queue, where we were the only foreigners left waiting, I realized how peaceful Ethiopian people are. They didn’t say a word, so I told the guy with the white thobe to wait for his turn but he didn’t even turn to me. I tried explaining once again but he didn’t listen. But when the guy heard Ivo almost shouting at him he suddenly stopped. This is when the authorities decided they might intervene and put some order.
As I said, what surprised me the most was the way Ethiopian people were reacting to all the waiting, the rude people trying to get ahead of them and even the authorities who seemed like they didn’t know how to react in such a situation.
Once we managed to pick up our luggage we went outside to look for a taxi – so we had to choose between a Lada and a Lada J That’s right – almost all taxis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, are some 40-50 year old dark blue Lada’s, like the one my grandparents had when I was little. Only that the Ethiopian ones had a bonus – once you get in you start inhaling the burned gases as there are no filters preventing this. Ethiopian taxi drivers also like to adorn their cars. Inside you can see Christian icons, plastic flowers, a tufted rug which you could see in almost every socialist home in Bulgaria not so long ago.
It turned out we had booked our accommodation in an area that looked like the African version of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Since it was already around 3 a.m. we just checked in and went to sleep.
On the next day we took a taxi to Meskel square where the office of Selam Bus Company is located. There we bought our tickets for Dessie for the next morning. In the office we met a young guy and his friend who both started chatting with us. They showed us the way to the center and even explained interesting facts about the monuments and buildings we were seeing on our way. We first went to the old train station, build by the Italians. From there we walked along Churchill Avenue until we reached the Piazza and Menelik II Square – the heart of the city. At that time we were still walking around with the two guys we met at the ticket office. They took us to a cozy traditional restaurant and ordered something which turned out to be lamb served in something like a big pancake which Ethiopians call injera. Our new friends started eating with their fingers like all other people around us but since we were super afraid not to get sick we decided not to eat. That is when our suspicions about the Ethiopian guys were confirmed – they wanted money from us. They asked us to give them $130. So that’s how we realized that when someone in this country comes to talk to you, in 90% of the cases this person will ask for money. And that’s how it really was, only that no one else asked us for so much money the following days. So those two guys gave a bitter taste to our first day in Addis. But it was a good way to be prepared. As one of the guys said when someone asked us for money earlier the same day – you have the color of rich.
We spent the rest of the day by ourselves, just walking around and went to the hotel earlier, as we had to wake up quite early in order to catch our bus to Dessie.
Around 4 a.m. we arrived at the bus station at Meskel square. It was really cold and it was a mess. A dozen of buses parked, people waiting with their luggage. After waiting for almost an hour in the cold (Addis Ababa is at an altitude of 2400m – the day can be very hot while the evenings are chilly and sometimes it can get really cold) we finally were directed to the bus heading for Dessie and in some minutes we were already on the road. It took us about 6 hours to reach the destination. We stopped at several places where our fellow travelers enjoyed a cup of aromatic Ethiopian coffee. What I was hoping to enjoy was a toilet J. Well, there was a squat toilet and while I was trying not to touch anything my sunglasses fell directly into the hole. And that was the end of them.
Once we arrived at Dessie we started looking for a place to stay, so we checked two of the places listed in our guide as budget options – Amba Ras and Qualiber. For what they were offering, these places were a bit overpriced. The showers in both hotels looked as terrible as did the bed linen so we decided to go to the only hotel listed as moderate in our guidebook – Time hotel. It is located somewhat far from the center, but its rooms are the best in town and, of course – the most expensive ones (around $40). So we decided to invest a bit more for accommodation, but enjoy hot water and a clean room with no mosquitoes.
To find a decent place to eat was also a little adventure. According to our guide the Amba Ras and the Qualiber hotels had restaurants offering good local and Western dishes. We checked both restaurants where there were no other people, it didn’t look very clean and we had difficulties explaining we want a vegetarian dish. So we decided to find the last restaurant listed in the guide – Aytegeb. After looking for the place for half an hour a guy drinking coffee in front of his shop told us the place doesn’t exist anymore. Starving and slowly losing hope that we will find a place to eat we started walking towards the Piazza on the main street. There we saw this 4-storey restaurant called Milano. The food was nice, the service was excellent, the coffee amazing, but for a tea drinker like me it was so strong that I had to mix it with a lot of milk to be able to drink it.
Dessie is famous for its traditional azmari bars with traditional Amhara singers who improvise with the lyrics based on the questions they ask the guests and the answers they receive. Shembeket bar is one of the popular places to check in town. Unfortunately, nothing was happening there when we went to check it out. So we went to Aba Jalewo which is located almost opposite the Shembeket. It is like a maze with different more private areas and the central area, where the musicians and singers are. When they saw us enter the place the lady, who was singing came to us and started talking in Amharic. Then she started singing to us and wanted me to stand up and dance with her. I preferred to enjoy my drink sitting, but she insisted and then a teenage girl came to me and started pulling my hand so that I stand up. It was very difficult to explain to her to leave me alone. It was a bit weird and we felt, as being the only foreigners there, everybody was too focused on us. We finished our drinks and left.
On the next morning we took a bus to Lalibela. We bought the tickets for it from the bus station in Dessie located close to the main road. It was a bit difficult to find it but people were very helpful, one guy who was speaking English even came with us and asked for our tickets in Amharic. The bus station at 5 a.m. looks horrible: people shouting around, buses trying to make their way through the crowds, animals looking around confused by all the mess and dirt all over the place. Our bus was a small one, which is why the number of people who entered it was rather unexpected. They were sitting on the floor, three people on a double seat; a woman was begging the driver to take her although there was no space to breathe inside. This is how we spent the next 7 or 8 hours. It was a good opportunity to blend in with the locals. The most typical thing about Ethiopians travelling is that they listen to music super loud, so loud that in 2-3 hours you get a headache. This was the case in all the buses we took, as well as in a private car, where as a bonus the driver was singing along.
In one village we stopped and people started opening the windows to buy cane sugar bundles which the villagers were selling. And then they started peeling them with their teeth, spitting the peelings on the floor and eating the inner part. In a couple of minutes the bus floor was all covered with the cane sugar remains.
After several hours of travelling we reached Weldiya where we spent more than 30 minutes for a break. This is a small village situated along the main road with nothing much to see or do, the locals were staring at us as if we were exhibits in a zoo.
After Weldiya you only get to enjoy a dirt road which at times gets really bumpy and dusty. It took us about 3 hours to get to Lalibela so when we finally arrived our butts felt heavily bruised. But we were really happy to have reached our destination and inpatient to go and see the churches in the rocks. So we rushed to the hotel and then to the ticket office where we were surprised to find out that an entrance ticket costs $50. We got our 2 tickets and since it was already 4 p.m. we had one hour to walk around and see some of the churches. After 5 p.m. you are not allowed to walk around in the area where the churches are situated. The major exploration of the churches we left for the next day and we enjoyed a dinner in the Ben Abeba restaurant – a must see while in town. The restaurant is located on top of a hill at the end of the town and offers a splendid 360° view over the valley. Its architecture as well as its cuisine and service are amazing and if I have to recommend a place in Ethiopia – this will be it.
Another great restaurant in town is Seven Olives. Centrally located with a beautiful garden and stone tables, this place is cheaper than Ben Ababa but its dishes are of the same quality if not better. It is usually recommended for a place to enjoy your lunch. If you also need to plan the next days of your trip you can go to the travel agency office located within the restaurant area. There we managed to find direct transportation for Bahir Dar for the next day.
The next day we spent walking around the Lalibela churches, accompanied by many kids who were willing to talk with us in English and practice and improve their language skills. The kids were awesome – they were so kind and warm-hearted, full of hopes for the future.
Since we were in Lalibela at the time when the elections in the United States were taking place everyone wanted to know what we taught about the candidates. We could see that people in all the houses were watching TV programs about the elections. When we went to a tour operator office the first thing the guy working there told us when we entered was that Trump won.
In the evenings when we were going home there were at least a dozen of kids walking with us, giggling and asking us where we were coming from. When they were hearing Bulgaria they were saying “Oooo, Sofia”! All the kids in town knew all capitals of the European cities.
Overall, the best time we had during our stay in Ethiopia was in Lalibela. The evening walks in the quiet town with the groups of kids around us were the best. This reminded me of my childhood days spent in a village when I was spending the whole day and the evenings outside with my friends. Free as a bird.