Saturday, June 2nd, 2012
After spending the second flight cozied up to an overweight African woman who spoke no English and insisted on monopolizing our shared armrest (which included my in-flight controls for light, air, tv, etc.) and overflowing into my seat, we landed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Many people have asked if the purpose of our trip was for some kind of mission or service work, but alas, we are not so philanthropic; we were simply going to visit a college friend of mine and spend a week exploring a country we would have never otherwise thought to visit.
Once we arrived at the airport, we had to get tourist visas and go through the immigration process. After we collected our baggage, they sent us through a sort of backwards security, where you have to confirm that the baggage you collected is indeed yours, and then they rescreen the contents before you leave. When we got outside, we realized we had no idea really where to meet my friend, who was picking us up, and our cell phones would not work without an Ethiopian sim card. The outside of the airport looked thoroughly abandoned with the exception of armed military guards. We wandered around for a while, eventually making it down a hill and seeing a huge wall of people waiting at the edge of a parking lot. Eventually we learned that security is tight and no one except passengers are allowed past the parking lot, so everyone waits in a mass group to pick up their family and friends. At the time though, we didn’t realize that and ended up having one of the military guards call my friend to see where we should meet her. Within fifteen minutes, she had picked us up and we were driving through downtown Addis.
Now, Todd and I had both been to London before, so we had no expectations there. We also knew we had extremely limited time, so we didn’t make too many plans, and were both satisfied at the end of our English excursion. On the other hand, neither of us had ever been to Africa and both had differing expectations—Todd referred to images of mud huts and extreme famine, while I envisioned a society much like I experienced in China, with modern cities and impoverished rural areas. What we discovered was actually a mix of both.
Addis is apparently the fastest growing economy in Africa, and this is apparent by the abundant construction taking place all over the city. Like any normal urban community, you have multi-lane roads and office buildings and skyscrapers, with cars and taxis and hotels and tourists. But you also see torn up sidewalks where they might be putting in some water pipes, or Bole Road which is in pieces as they completely renovate to be a dual-layered road like a freeway. One minute you are cruising through a busy street, and the next, you turn onto an unpaved side road lined with makeshift kiosks selling fruit or tshirts or chewing gum.
An example of a poorly maintained road
Here you can see an example of a little makeshift kiosk (blue)
The driving was what we referred to in jest as “freestyle,” essentially meaning they follow no rules! If there are lanes, no one stays in them, and stop signs are merely suggestions. Occasionally someone will drive on the opposite side of the road, and large intersections with crossing traffic have no traffic regulators whatsoever…you just drive and try not to hit each other! To complicate matters, pedestrians and animals like donkeys, cattle, sheep, or goats are frequently stepping into and crossing the streets, including busy main roadways. It’s basically like a real life version of a video game.
Goats and cattle were everywhere
Notice the animals and people just casually walking in front of cars
People watching in Addis is incredibly interesting, as you see so many walks of life in such a close proximity: rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, farmers and businessmen. My friend informed us of the wide gap between the rich and poor of Ethiopia, and described the economic setup which is much like America in terms of 1% holding most of the wealth, and the other 99% being significantly lower on the financial totem pole (my friend and, subsequently, her friends were clearly in the 1%, giving us exposure to both sides of life during our travels while maintaining our Westernized standard of living).
Candid photo by Todd Sipes
After our tour through town, we found ourselves at the home of our friend’s boyfriend, settled in a neighborhood with barbed wire atop the fences surrounding each home and a guard at every gate. The boyfriend (who Todd and I jokingly named the Godfather) is a very successful business man with a wonderful personality (and clearly a man in charge), and he was extremely kind, generous, and hospitable to us during our stay. At his home, we were able to finally take showers and get ready before a car drive out to Lake Langano, where we would spend the weekend.
At this time, we also met 2 brothers that would travel to Lake Langano with us, who Todd and I determined must be the Godfather’s Henchmen. The oldest brother is a well-established Artist that works in a variety of materials and has his work on display in a beautiful gallery in Addis. His personality is very jolly and there was a good-humored and on-going joke that he catches on to what everyone else is talking about 20 seconds later. It’s my understanding that he and the Godfather have been best friends since they were small. The younger brother is a fun-loving College Student studying at UC Santa Barbara who was home for the summer working at the family business. We also learned we would be traveling with the Godfather’s Driver (whose actual name means Forever). Naturally, the Godfather also has a guard, a maid, someone to wash his various vehicles, and other staff members, but the Driver was the only one who accompanied us on our weekend excursion.
So the group of 7 of us (myself, Todd, my Friend, the Godfather, his 2 Henchmen—the Artist and the College Student, and the Driver) caravanned on a three-hour road trip through the Rift Valley to Lake Langano. Of his various vehicles, the Godfather drove his older Porsche Cayenne—his new 2012 version he had custom built in Dubai is much too fancy for the arduous trek—and we road in his giant Nissan pickup truck with a jet ski hitched to the back. During this ride, we were able to see much of the African countryside, which directly fit Todd’s mental image of a barren land with sparse mud huts and half-naked children running barefoot in the street.
A traditional mud hut in the country
After passing through some villages lined with brightly colored shanty-style shops and homes, we stopped to eat lunch at a roadside restaurant. Since it was the very beginning of the rainy season, the weather was warm but not overly sunny and we sat outside on a shaded patio and ordered a traditional meal. Our African friends ordered raw goat meat for themselves, and for us a cooked goat meat with onions served above hot coals. The way you eat this goat meat is by ripping off a piece of injera, which is a flat pancake-like bread that is fermented, and use it to scoop up meat and spicy sauces. We also enjoyed a traditional honey mead called tej that is served in individual flasks that look like a mad scientist’s chemistry beakers! Before and after you eat, you obviously wash your hands since you are using them to eat. There was a large communal sink outside the bathrooms and when the faucet stopped working, you simply dipped a bucket into a large barrel of water sitting nearby. We called that “Africa Style.” J
Traditional Ethiopian food
While we were eating, we were able to witness the reception of a traditional Ethiopian wedding. The bride and groom arrived with flowers on the hood of their car, and were greeted with a circle of dancing and singing around their car. The procession made its way into the restaurant, headed by the bride and groom and followed by the wedding party and guests. The bride wore a strapless and very poofy wedding gown, very Western in style, and a veil, but I noticed she didn’t smile and looked very serious the whole time. My Friend mentioned this was normal, since traditionally in this culture you stay at home until you are married, so it is sad to leave your family behind.
When lunch was finished we got back on the road to continue our trip to the lake resort where we would spend the weekend. We had spent most of the time up until this point on a modern, paved highway-type road with large trucks and passing lanes. Now, we veered off onto a poorly maintained dirt lane with enormous potholes and giant rocks that required skilled drivers and slow speeds to navigate successfully. Huts made of mud, sticks, and straw peppered the surrounding land, some with farm land being tended by bent workers, and all with small children in various states of undress. We were frequently confronted with herds of animals to avoid, and children chased our cars and begged for plastic water bottles. Donkeys passed by loaded with bundles of grain and sticks. Women filled yellow plastic jugs with water from large puddles where rainwater had collected and carried them home on their backs. To say the ride was long and bumpy would be an understatement, but we had a wonderful opportunity to witness rural African life from the privileged distance of inside our luxury vehicles.
A donkey pulling a cart carrying yellow water jugs
It was dark when we arrived at Bishangari, a eco-lodge that uses solar power as its primary source of energy. A skinny horse attached to a cart pulled our luggage to our individual bungalows as we checked in at the reception hut by the light of one single solar-powered desk lamp. Stumbling through the dark, we found our bungalow, called a godjo, passing by the shadowy figure of a warthog along the way (and who knows what else!). Our godjo was named Roophii, which means Hippopotamus in the Oromo language local to the area, and was set back in a grove of fig trees, facing the lake. The buildings were constructed using natural materials and traditional techniques as much as possible, and the interiors are decorated with traditional crafts and furnished with natural materials and fibers. Large mosquito net curtains and candlelight added a romantic charm to our bungalow. As we approached our bungalow to drop off our luggage and freshen up before dinner, a large bat swooped down from our porch roof reminding us that the African night was as alive as ever.
Welcome to Bishangari Lodge!
Our godjo, Roophii
Inside our godjo
We all met up for dinner in the main restaurant, which is an open air format with a canopy roof and no walls. Dinner was fairly Westernized. I ordered chicken and it came out breaded and fried with french fries and ketchup. Very delicious! The table bread looked like biscuits cut into heart shapes, but was blander than other biscuits I’ve had in the States or Europe (probably because there are less preservatives and chemical fillers?). Of course, some delicious (South African?) wine was served because not only do Africans love wine, but most of them are half Italian as well, and we all know how Italians love their wine!
Bishangari restaurant, photo courtesy of TripAdvisor
After dinner, we made our way down to the beach. The resort staff laid out blankets on the sand and had pillows and blankets on the lounge chairs for us. They literally laid blankets over us (tucking us in!) as we spread out on the lounges! Talk about great service! The stars were out and the clouds moved through the sky overhead, with the sound of the lake and the buzz of the African night around us. After a while, our jet lag began kicking in full-force since we had yet to sleep since our arrival in Africa, and we headed back to our godjo for a good night’s sleep.
Daytime view of the lounge chairs. The staff also put out blankets on the sand.
View of the lake from the lounge chairs