I dash over the level crossing, hoping to make it to the other side before the warning lights start to signal that a train is approaching, arriving breathless at the platform in time to see my air-conditioned train glide into the station. There is a seat in the carriage I like to frequent and I settle down with a book to keep me occupied on the 50-minute journey into London. Exiting St. Pancras station I’m slightly disoriented to see silently idling taxis waiting in a line for passengers, double decker buses slowly trundling their way down the Euston Road and commuters, wrapped in coats and scarves (it’s a mere 7 degrees), heads down, single-mindedly hurrying to their destinations.
I’m slightly disoriented because it’s my first day back at work after my 3-week visit to Ethiopia and I am struck with nostalgia, yearning to hear the shared-taxi conductors shouting “Kazanchis-Kazanchis-Kazanchis”, the Ethiopian pop music blaring from each and every vehicle on the road and the cries of “Hey Ferengi!” from the shoe-shiners lining the streets. Being at home is as much as a culture shock as it was on my first morning making the journey to The Reporter office in Bole.
At work my team flock around, happy to see me, relieved that I’m back and full of questions about my trip. One person gives me a big hug saying they were glad I was back safe and that they were worried about me while I was away. Of course, it is natural to worry about someone when they are travelling, but this concern was because everyone was convinced that I would get kidnapped/sick/killed visiting Ethiopia!
I soon set them right, this misconception is something I and everyone who visits the country needs to dispel. I must admit, at the beginning, I was a bit wary when out on my own because I had been warned (by the people I was staying with) about pickpockets and that I should not carry valuables around. And yes, one of the other volunteers did get their phone stolen although she was in the midst of a massive crowd at an open-air event; but to be honest there is that risk in any city anywhere in the world. I guess she was just unlucky.
I soon worked out that Addis Ababa is not a city of vagabonds and thieves, and that the people travelling in my shared taxi or walking along the street were ordinary people going about their ordinary business just like me! In fact, every single person I met, whether they are security guards checking my bag at the mall, my Projects Abroad contacts or a fellow passenger in the taxi, was so helpful and friendly that I felt safe in all parts of the country that I visited. This is especially true when I went to the Afar Regional State to visit the Danakil, the small team (a guide, cook and driver) I and five others were with were fantastic and it felt like they really went the extra mile to ensure we had a truly memorable time.
When my colleagues finally allowed me to sit down my photos were the next topic of conversation. As mentioned in my previous article ‘Coming to Ethiopia!” the general impression in the UK is that Ethiopia is a desert “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow” (lyrics from the 1984 Band Aid song “Do they know it’s Christmas?” released to raise funds for the victims of the Ethiopian famine at that time). Again, it is my duty to bust this myth as I was literally awestruck at the landscapes; from the rolling hills around Addis, the mountains of Lalibela, the volcanic scenes around Erta Ale, to the colourful out-of-this-world landscape in the Danakil Depression. I can honestly say that I’ve not experienced such diverse environments in any other country I have visited.
The photos of the sulphur lakes were marvelled over … “Are those colours real?”, “You look like you’re standing on a bed of meringue!”. The rock churches of Lalibela, along with the wonderful views of the farmland and valleys, also drew similar cries of wonderment. Who knew Ethiopia was so amazing? Well they do now!
Of course travelling in Ethiopia is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you are going to go to the Danakil. For someone who has never travelled before landing in Addis is an overwhelming experience; dealing with the noise and pollution, not to mention the altitude, and seeing the poverty and basic living conditions of the majority of citizens. Similarly, trekking 9.5km up an active volcano in the dark in 30 degree heat or sleeping out under the stars lying on a bed frame with animal skins for slats in the middle of the desert is not for everyone. However, this rawness, for want of a better word, is what I came for.
The world is becoming smaller and places that are relatively untouched by excessive tourism and commercialism are getting harder to find. I wanted an adventure and to live a little outside my comfort zone for a few weeks, and that is what I got. For me, the reward more than outweighed any risks highlighted in the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office travel advice. My trip has shown me that there is so much untapped potential in this amazing country, and I will be encouraging everyone I know to make Ethiopia their next holiday destination!
I will sign off with a quote by Anthony Bourdain that perfectly sums up my feelings about my visit: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s ok. The journey changes you –it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you … Hopefully, you leave something good behind”.
Ed.’s Note: Elizabeth Mooney is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Elizabeth Mooney