Many roads have led me to Ethiopia. I have always wanted to experience the Africa you see on documentaries – the wide open plains, the sand of the vast Sahara, the mighty Kilimanjaro, elephants and wildebeest and traditional tribespeople. Of course, there is so much more to Africa than this and the traditional way of living is perhaps now in a minority; but in the West this somewhat traditional view of the continent perpetuates. One of the only associations we in the UK have of Ethiopia is famine, and seeing malnourished children in dusty camps back in the 1980’s.
My first venture abroad was in the mid-90s, when I visited Indonesia, India and some parts of south-east Asia. Since then, I’ve explored other South-east Asian countries, various countries in central and South America, the UAE, Japan and Northern (Morocco and Egypt) and Southern (South) Africa; but central, west and east Africa has always been a mystery. Many of these countries are reported to be dangerous for westerners. Indeed a quick look at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for easy/central/west Africa,it advises against all travel or essential travel only for many of these places.
Last year (2017), I discovered an organization called Projects Abroad while researching a 3-month round-the-world trip, and I undertook a short volunteering teaching placement on the Galápagos Islands. On my return home I was looking through the worldwide projects available and came across opportunities in Africa. Having observed the conservation work in Galapagos, I thought I might work on conservation in Kenya and finally get to see the Africa in my head.
Along with the awesome landscapes, there are vast mountains, rivers and volcanoes. Having studied Geology for a short period at University, I have always been interested in volcanoes and have been lucky enough to visit active and dormant volcanoes in Indonesia, Japan, Costa Rica and more recently Nicaragua. I once watched a program on lava lakes (active magma bubbling up in a volcano crater) and one image stuck in my head of a lava lake in an inhospitable landscape somewhere in Africa.
I found out that there was one such lava lake in Ethiopia, called Erta Ale, in the Danakil Depression. Not knowing much about Ethiopia, I began to do some research and suddenly came across amazing stories about rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, saw images of the Simien Mountains and found out that a fossil of the earliest human being was also found in Ethiopia in Afar Regional State a place called Hadar. This wealth of history and rich landscapes was too appealing to resist; I decided to visit Ethiopia instead and found a short tour that would take me to Erta Ale.
My current job is in administrative management; however,following my round-the-world trip last year, I started to keep a journal about my experiences and really enjoyed the creative writing aspect. Therefore a placement as an intern at The Reporter sounded like an interesting experience to have in Addis Ababa, to learn more about the culture and share what I learn with others back home; thus my 3-week trip was born.
Remembering the conceptions of Ethiopia being a developing country, landing in Addis I was expecting the airport to be chaotic and crowded, a bit like in Kathmandu (Nepal) where it is all hustle and bustle. However, I waited in an orderly queue to get my passport stamped, having already purchased my visa, collected my baggage and went out into the warm sunshine to find my pick-up waiting in the parking lot; All very easy and stress-free.
It was a Sunday so we drove through the light traffic, stopping off for a cool glass of water at a cafe, before arriving at my host’s house. Having stayed in many different places in the world, I was not sure what to expect. Last year, I spent a short time at a homestay in Nicaragua in a village on one of the islands, and a few nights on a remote farm in Uruguay. Both places were very basic in comparison to my home in the UK, and having been advised that the accommodation here would be similar, I was interested to see where I would be staying. It is true to say that my host’s house does not perhaps have the amenities I am used to, but the comfy bed and warm hospitality I received more than makes up for it.
Fully expecting the traffic to be busy on Monday morning I was pleasantly surprised. While it was busy, there is an order to the traffic and it is nowhere near the near-death experience it can be on, say, the roads in Hanoi or Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam with all the bicycles and motorcycles that dodge in and out and often drive on the pavement!
Having only been here for a couple of days I know I’ve not yet started to experience life in Addis, and Ethiopia, to the full. It’s true to say that I’m a little apprehensive about having to navigate the city on my own in pursuit of finding out what it has to offer. Maybe this is healthy and natural and I should heed my instincts while I’m getting to know the people and culture. There are very real dangers that a lone woman may face in any big city, but hope that my positive experiences so far will continue.
Ed.’s Note: Elizabeth Mooney is a volunteer at The Reporter.