“You’re going where?!” My mother shouted to me through the receiver of the phone.
“Ethiopia,” I responded somewhat meekly.
“Why on Earth would you do that?”
“It’s supposed to be beautiful, you know, untouched.”
“I hear it’s full of emaciated children in need. Is this a charity trip?”
“No, seriously it’s going to be a relaxing vacation, I think.”
“Well call me when you get back, so that I know you’re still alive.”
“Will do. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
And with that, I boarded the plane to Ethiopia with my boyfriend, Lanu and best friend, Adam. We felt adequately prepared with our recent guide book and new backpacks. We all knew this trip would be one to remember.
Upon arriving in Ethiopia we joined a stampede of people making their way through passport control. After negotiating our way through customs, we went outside to hail a taxi towards the main bus station.
We felt reassured in our plan. We had been led to believe that getting to Dodola was a simple enough experience from the bus station. The only problem was that everything was written in the regional Amharic script and was indecipherable to us. We were screwed. We looked at our friendly taxi driver, and asked him if he would take us all the way to Dodola. He looked at us with sorrowful eyes.
“Yes, but it will be very expensive,” he responded.
“Okay, how much do you think it will be?” we asked.
“At least sixty-dollars.”
“Together or separately?”
“Together. I am so sorry.”
“Are you serious? We’ll take it! And buy you lunch!”
5 hours later we parked outside of our small hotel in Dodola. Our trekking guide, Daniel met us outside and took our bags. After settling into our rooms we met Daniel outside of the kitchen for a brief run-down of the next week. Daniel cracked open a cold beer for each of us and asked when we would like our dinner.
“Dinner would be great at 7:30,” Adam responded anxiously.
“Okay, well then 12:30 it is,” Daniel replied.
“No, no, no. That’s too late, we will be sleeping by then,” Lanu chimed in.
“Trust me, it will be okay, in Ethiopia the time of day starts with the sun. The day that begins at 7:00am for you is 1:00am for us. You will eat long before you grow tired,” Daniel said with a huge smile.
Daniel was right. That night we went to bed not only feeling like we were in an untouched land, but a different world, with different times and even a different year. We had left for Ethiopia in the year 2011, but Daniel quickly let us know that it was in fact 2004 as Ethiopians follow the Gregorian calendar.
I instantly felt younger.
The next day we went to the local store to purchase food for our trek. By the time we arrived to the small shop, we had a large procession of villagers behind us. (This would prove to be a common theme on our trip). When we turned around, we were greeted by a group of smiling faces with waving hands. Many of them had never seen white people before, or a mixed girl with dyed blond hair (Me).
After we were almost complete with our purchases, I noticed I small rubber ball in the corner of the shop.
“How much is this sir?” I asked.
“For you, or the children outside?” He said with a smile.
“For the kids.”
“Oh no…please do not buy out children gifts. We do not want them to beg when people come into town. It is not our custom.”
“Okay.” I responded, feeling guilty that the children saw me pick up the ball and were all hoping to have it in their little hands in a few minutes.
After that encounter with the shopkeeper, we all began to notice that we didn’t have to deal with any begging from anyone on our trip so far. It was such a pleasant experience that we didn’t realize it was something people consciously didn’t do.
Daniel took us to a field of long grass (with our following procession) and loaded our horses up with our materials.
The entire village stood by watching.
Once our final bag was loaded we got on our horses and headed towards the forest camps. After about twenty-minutes of riding, our procession grew bored and headed home with a few waves and blown kisses. It was just us now, with Daniel, our horse companions and the wilderness. We began riding through dry farmland with beautiful mounds of wheat, barley and corn. Periodically our horses would take off chasing after each other, while nonplussed farmers looked on and shook their heads while smiling. The farmland stretched on for miles upon miles.
A few hours later, we reached the edge of the forest. It beckoned us to come in and see what it had hidden inside. As we entered the forest, the climate instantaneously changed to that of a cool and wet place. Our horses took a more relaxed pace with the uneven ground, giving us a chance to take in our surroundings properly. Bright flowers peaked through large leaves to see us as we passed. A family of monkeys entertained us by preforming acrobatics in the tree branches above.
The next day brought cliffs, and mist-covered mountains. Our horses took a break as we led them along by foot until we reached the top of a mountain for lunch. None of us could believe the various temperatures we had experienced over the past few days. I wouldn’t have survived without all the types of clothing I brought for this trek.
We stayed in a new place each night over the next few days, but nothing prepared us for what we would experience on the last day.
After trekking through forest, farmland and over rocky cliffs, we arrived at a clearing. Lush palm trees, bright greenery and the softest grass we had ever touched in our lives surrounded it. It was as if we found the garden of Eden, the Ethiopians little secret. Daniel beamed as we looked at the waterfall that flowed into a small stream at our feet. Little horses came up to our own, sniffing our bags and looking at us curiously.
This was the Ethiopia we came to see; the secret Ethiopians didn’t care if the rest of us misunderstood. Things only got better after the clearing, and time seemed to fly by with each step that followed.
Soon after, we were boarding the plane to head back home, with bags full of Ethiopian chilies, coffee and tapestries. And a small secret shared by a few, but felt by everyone that makes the trip to this untouched land.
A note from the author
Traveling in Ethiopia can be challenging. It is easiest to hire a private driver to make your way to your destination. Also, if passing through Addis Ababa, make sure to have a burger at Sishu. Probably the best food we had on the entire trip, and well worth seeking out!