sundowner

Ethiopia

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The trip started with 5 days in the Mara at Governor's Camp. Sandy (divewop) and I went there together. Our guide on the Ethiopian portion of the trip, Piper, was on a workshop with Andy Biggs at Governors at the same time we were there so we were able to meet before the official trip began. And I finally met Andy after first "talking" to him on the internet almost a decade ago. Very nice guy, as you all know. He was very helpful when Sandy had camera and tripod problems and was able to get her tripod repaired in the machine shop there at Governors. Good on you, Andy. I wouldn't have even thought of that.

 

The Ethiopian part of the trip started with a 3:30 AM flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa. Yes, 3:30 AM. Yes, it was a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the reasonable time flight. Yes, I was willing to get up at the time I’m usually going to bed to save a couple hundred dollars. At the Addis airport the first stop after customs was a toilet stop and the first intro to no toilet paper, a common theme in Ethiopia.

 

At this airport you have to go thru a scanner when you leave the airport. They said they were looking for video equipment. Whatever. I had no video equipment so no worries. We were met by our guide, Robel, who gathered us and our luggage and took us to the vehicles with our drivers for the next week or so. We drove to a hotel where we met our 4th traveling companion, Vaughn, and had breakfast. One more trip to the toilet (with TP) and we were on our way.

 

I quickly learned that you cannot drive in Ethiopia without your car horn. There were plenty of cars and people everywhere in Addis. But no signal lights (any that I saw were ignored) or stop signs. Vehicles have the right of way over pedestrians so you honk your horn when you approach other cars or people, especially people walking in the direction you were driving that couldn’t see you coming. And you honk a lot. This would be for the whole trip.

 

We made a couple of stops in Addis looking for a place to pick up a bottle of bourbon and amarula. Once we finally found some it was $60-65 US dollars so we decided we would stick to beer and wine. But we did run across a very nice little grocery store and a pastry store. Vaughn indulged in a pastry and I got chastised in the grocery store for taking photos (it was such a neat, cute store!). We didn’t pick up beer or wine in Addis because “it will be available anywhere on the trip”. Mistake. It wasn’t. Beer became a little treat because it wasn’t easy to find. Note to self: Next time you go to Ethiopia buy any alcohol in the duty free shop in the prior airport and buy beer in Addis.

 

The first 3 days are driving days. You might think we went a long way since we drove for 3 days but you would be mistaken. The roads are dirt/gravel and the cows and goats have the right of way. If the map I looked at was correct we travelled about 400 miles over the 3 days and we went from early morning to late afternoon/dusk every day. We honked our way along and made a few quick stops for photos but it was just slow driving. We stayed in hotels on the travel days but we were on the non-tourist west side of the Omo River (I think). The first hotel was on the nicer side (for a developing country) but the second left a bit (lot!) to be desired. The shower didn’t work at all in 2 of the rooms, 1 room didn’t have hot water and the 4th room did but it ran out when the first person was half finished showering. They did have flush toilets, dirty sheets, doors that barely locked, windows that didn’t shut and they did have mosquito netting for the bed. The beer was cold and the food was good.

 

Shots made on the road.

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This man saw us stopped and ran into his house to grab a stool so we could take his picture. He was very happy.

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His wife.

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A cute little girl.

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Excellent start, I'm looking forward to this very much,

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Thanks, Twaffle.

 

The 3rd night we arrived at our first village where we camped. We were quickly surrounded by children as we would be everywhere we went. Robel was pretty good about making sure we weren’t too mobbed and shooed the kids away after the initial meet and greet.

 

We met with the chief of the tribe and our trip leader, Piper, made financial arrangements to photo some of the people. I’m told that regular tourists pay 1 or 2 birr per click of the camera. We aren’t as good a photographers as they are and it takes us many clicks to get an image we are happy with :) so we made an arrangement for group rates. Usually it was 10 birr per photographer per subject (I’ll refer to them as models to make it easier). So if all 4 of us photographed one model, that model received 40 birr. This arrangement worked well for the first couple of tribes but towards the end of the trip the same arrangements were made but the models wanted more money. Each of us would choose our model and take photos and pay. Sometimes the model would then want to argue. Sometimes I would keep the money and just walk away and later the model would approach me with their hand out and accept the same amount I offered in the first place. Sometimes the model would follow me around (cussing me out, probably) and then I would call for our guide, Robel, or the translator. We picked up a translator/guide before we went into any village so any problems could be worked out. Sometimes some of us would leave in one vehicle and leave the guides there still arguing with the tribes people.

 

Our camp. Ours are the green tents and the guys were in the yellow tents.

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Included in the trip price was some birr to pay for the photos. Here’s my pile. (17 birr to the US $1)

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Painting themselves for photos. Notice the arms bulging above and below some of the bracelets. Those are one piece of wire wound round and round and cannot be removed easily. They also wear bracelets that are singles and they wear several of them. Those can be adjusted for size and growth.

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Herding cattle through the river where they drink, bathe, wash clothes etc. The guy tried to get us to pay him for taking photos of his cattle.

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I'd say those photos are worth every Birr!

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Twaffle, we had to keep reminding ourselves that 1 birr was like 6 cents so when we paid 10 birr it wasn't 10 US dollars. :)

 

That’s pretty much how the trip went. We stayed in each spot 2 or 3 nights and photographed people in local villages. On the first side (west side) of the Omo, once we were about a day out of Addis, it seemed that most people only wore the traditional clothes and no western clothes. No one spoke English on the west side (that we knew of). The Ethiopian government does provide school for the children and we saw schools in quite a few of the larger villages and small towns (and some health clinics). Once we crossed the river there were some kids that could speak English.

 

We would usually leave our camp between 5:30 and 6:30 am, depending on how close we were, and would stop on the side of the road somewhere and honk (of course we honked!) and a sleepy guide/translator would come out and hop in the car to ride with us to the tribe. We would take photos while the light was good and then head back to camp for lunch, downloading etc. Mid afternoon we would head back to the village to be ready for the good afternoon light.

 

 

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Oh yeah, remember the beer we could buy all along the way? There isn’t any to buy. REALLY? And who planned this trip without verifying the beer situation? I have probably had maybe 10 beers in my life at home but on trips it just seems like beer tastes better so it was a real disappointment to not have any. I guess I shouldn’t say we didn’t have any because we were able to buy some in one village. But the seller didn’t want us taking them with us. He said we had to drink them there because he had to have the bottles. If he didn’t return the bottles to his supplier then he couldn’t buy more beer to sell. He made a big concession and let Robel take the beer to our camp with a promise to return the bottles in a day or two. So we did have warm beer in that camp.

 

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Notice the condensation on the bottles in the next picture. That meant we were at a restaurant.

 

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Something I haven’t mentioned yet is we had no refrigeration (hence, hot beer). Solomon only cooked food that didn’t require any refrigeration. Almost every meal included a fresh tomato/onion/garlic/hot pepper salad. (It was good every time.) We were served a soup first course for nearly every dinner. Several lunches were pasta, the tomato salad and canned tuna. Or sardines. It was totally fine. Another dish he made was a potato and beet salad. He would cook them separately and then stir together with onions, etc. Any meat was freshly killed (chicken, goat). For breakfast he usually made scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers. And fresh bread. There was fresh bread with every meal that they picked up from a store somewhere or a village. Not sure. Oh, on the mornings we left camp early in the morning Solomon made us egg sandwiches and thermoses of hot water for coffee and tea. What a great guy. He cooked everything on 2 propane burners. Oh, and he made pizza! We were staying in a hotel and the guys were staying in a camp site a few minutes away. We went over there for lunch under the dozens of shade trees. It was so nice and cool and he served pizza! It was so good. The next day Robel told Solomon to make pizza again. Solomon said he couldn’t make pizza two days in a row and Robel said he thought we would really like it and we did. Pizza with tomato sauce and tuna. Yum!

 

Here are more pics from the first place we camped.

 

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When I saw your FB photos, Cindy ....... I knew this was a truly unique experience!!! Thanks for posting this report .........

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Great photos, great models!

 

Some development since 1984 when I was in Ethiopia. I never paid for portraits, but, they never put on makeup like your models ...

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What a tremendous series of images - thankyou Sundowner. Echoing everyone else's sentiments above, keep this series coming please. Certainly I'd also like to know more about the logistics of such a trip. Matt

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This is super to read and brings back great memories of visiting the Wolves in the Bale Mountains. Best coffee!

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Ayesha, I've edited this post as it was just quoting the series of images from Sundowner. Matt.

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I love the decorations on the head dresses, little melons and flowers. What a lot of effort they went to and what a priceless collection of photos and memories you have.

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Absolutely fantastic pics Cindy! Have been waiting for this one since the thread mentioning this trip with Pippa on Fodors, infact was following it a bit on her fb page! Look forward to more!

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Great models - the last picture in the first set (of models) is extra special, but that set is all fabulous. I saw this on TV once with a couple of photographers - different people though and found it fascinating. I'm not sure I'd like to go through it all, but the results are extraordinary.

 

Some of the headgear looks so incongruous that you have to wonder if they actually ever wore it before the photographers came along, or they make it up as they go along now - most likely that's what they always did, I guess - they are certainly "dressers". Great stuff and I'm really looking forward to more of the trip.

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Thank you all for the kind comments! It was definitely a special experience. I met a guy from France a couple of years ago at a photography workshop, Sylvan, and he showed me photos on his harddrive. He had quite a few from this area of Ethiopia and they were just jaw-dropping beautiful. When Sandy sent me the itinerary of this trip I just HAD to go. I'm very glad I did.

 

One pleasant surprise was the Hamer tribe was having a celebration the day we visited. We went in the early morning and stopped at several villages and they were mostly empty. We were told the people were practicing for the dancing that afternoon and we found where they were and watched and visited with them for awhile. We went back in the afternoon for the celebration and there were dozens and dozens of other tourists there also.

 

The celebration was for a coming of age ceremony for one of the men. We nicknamed him Birthday Boy. After this ceremony he can marry, own cattle and have children. The more well know bull jumping ceremony takes place 21 days after this day and Birthday Boy gave Robel (our guide) a piece of long grass with the 21 knots in it to signify each day until the bull jumping takes place. Robel is supposed to break off a knot per day so he knows when to be there.

 

One part of the ceremony that was strange to me was whipping the female relatives of the Birthday Boy. The whipper is a friend of Birthday Boy and the women gather around the whipper and try to attract his attention so he will whip them on their back. I read that this whipping is to create a strong debt between the Birthday boy and his sisters and that if they need help in the future he will help them because of the pain they went through during the ceremony. There were a few bloody backs that afternoon. You could also see many healed scars from prior whippings. I forgot to mention that the women are blowing horns during this whipping ceremony and it's pretty loud with that and the jingling of the bells.

 

There was also lots of dancing by the men in a large circle. And part of the time young women went inside the circle and danced, too. I don’t know the significance of that. I never saw any of the tribe eating but the women were making beer and the men were drinking beer. They started getting a little tipsy in the late afternoon.

 

Here are some photos of the Hamer tribe and the celebration for "Birthday Boy". They don't keep track of birthdays like we do and if you asked someone how old they were they didn't know.

 

Most of the women had the ochre mixed with butter fat in their hair. You can see in some of the images that it gets on their necklaces and clothing, too.

 

This woman's top necklace (if you call it a necklace) signifies that she is the first wife and she is higher in society. I also read somewhere that the additional necklaces signify the other wives of her husband and that the second and third wives are treated like slaves.

 

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Here is a younger girl, probably 12 or 13.

 

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And an older woman, still wearing the hair the same way.

 

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A couple of girls and you can see where the hair color rubbed off/melted (?) down onto their clothes. It was pretty hot there.

 

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Here are a couple of the men dancing.

 

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The next two are of the women dancing. They are wearing the traditional clothes that they wear every day. They did have bells around their calves for the dancing that they don't normally wear.

 

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The next one shows new and old scars from the whipping ceremony and below that is a video of it.

 

P.S. I'm a still photographer, not a videographer so don't expect a lot!

 

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Wow!

Ditto on all the previous comments. Some the body painting and headgear decorations have an other- worldly quality about them.

I also liked the tailor photo with the billowing white cloth very much.

Did you get to the wolves at all?

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These are absolutely fantastic photos. What an amazing experience, despite the warm beer. Who knew Little Gov's had a machine shop and I'd never think to repair my tripod there. Way to go Andy.

 

That's a brutal ceremony. Did you learn the purpose of it?

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Lynn, I think this quote from Cindy is probably much of the reason?

I read that this whipping is to create a strong debt between the Birthday boy and his sisters and that if they need help in the future he will help them because of the pain they went through during the ceremony.

 

Brutal is right.

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Here are a couple more from that day.

 

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Making the beer.

 

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Pouring the beer. They drink it out of the gourds.

 

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Cute baby boy.

 

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Some of the girls/women + tourist

 

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The front of the daily clothing. They use these shells a lot in their decorations.

 

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One of the girls blowing a horn.

 

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Birthday Boy. He has taken off all of his jewelry and adornments for the celebration.

 

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sundowner, I can't even put into words how incredible your photos are, and how memorable your trip must have been. WOW!

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Thanks, Sangeeta, Lynn and Dennis!

 

Sangeeta, we did not see the wolves. This trip was all about the people and it was plenty long enough. :) I love the sewing photo, too.

 

Lynn, Twaffle found the answer. :) With what Robel told us and what I could find googling, I believe that is the reason they do it. To build a bond.

 

Mat, the kids are so amazing. You tell them you want to take pictures and they head off into the bush for a few minutes (5-15) and come back out and look like they've been to the Nature Beauty Salon. They helped each other do the painting (they also use plants they dip into the paint to stamp on their faces and body) and only one person used a mirror. Every time we pulled into a village the kids used every opportunity to look at themselves in the car mirror. :) And they loved to see the images on the back of the camera.

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Excellent report and photos, Sundowner! :)

Thank you for doing this.

 

In a nutshell, from my perspective, it was a very interesting and *eye-opening* trip, on so many different levels!

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Thanks, Sandy. And - me, too. :)

 

I'm almost finished with this story.

 

We stayed in Jima and Mizan on the way down and we photographed the Sheka, a couple of the Surma tribes and then we camped on the banks of the Omo River. The next morning we got up early, packed up camp and got ready to cross the river. We would be leaving our two drivers and cars there and they were returning to Addis. Once we crossed the river with all of our stuff, camping gear, Solomon and Robel we would be picked up by two new drivers and cars.

 

There aren’t any bridges so we would be taken across in a small aluminum boat. We could see a motor boat across the river but the tribesmen told us the motor didn’t work. Then they said it sometimes works but it may quit halfway across the river and then we would be in trouble so the only way was in the aluminum boat and being poled across. There were two tribesmen and they poled along the shore upstream far enough that they could ride the current and pole across the river. Our luggage (probably 100+ lbs per person – my camera gear was 75 lbs and my suitcase was 40 lbs) and all four of us went in one trip. The guys seemed to be working much harder with all that weight in the boat but we made it.

 

Another trip was made to bring over the camping stuff and Robel and Solomon. We got there around 8 am. Our new guides weren’t there. They weren’t there at 9 am either. Or 10 am. Worried much? Ok. Yes, I was. Robel wasn’t but it’s his job to make us comfortable so I’m sure he was faking not being worried. Finally, 11 am our ride showed up. We were on our way again. Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you that the motorboat that doesn’t work? At about 9:30 or 10:00, a guy showed up on the other side of the river. The guys that had poled us across in the aluminum boat jumped in the power boat, started it up, drove it across the river, loaded that guy up and drove him to our side. I thought the motor didn’t work. What’s up with that?

 

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While we waited on our ride, a couple of us went up the steep hill to visit the couple of families that live there. The women were doing their chores so I grabbed a couple of pics and also of the river.

 

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And of course, hands and feet. Baby feet with bells so the kids don't get lost.

 

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I know I’m not telling all of the tribes we saw and/or telling them out of order. We stayed at Buska Lodge (Busca is a mountain range) and it was very nice. Next tribe is Kara. We split up camping here. A couple of people wanted to camp at the tribe’s village which was in a beautiful location on a high river bank with a beautiful view but no trees, no shade, no toilets, no showers, no privacy. The other option for camping (that two of us chose - Sandy and me) was on the grounds of a hunting camp (we were the only ones there – no hunters) and it was completely shaded, had a big pavilion overlooking the river, flush toilets (byotp – bring your own toilet paper) and hot showers. (It was all very basic, dirty, primitive but it was there.) The cook chose to stay where we were because he had access to running water there. Solomon cooked the meals and our driver, Engdu, took the meals to the village for Piper and Vaughn. They would come to our camp for lunch, charging batteries with the generator, etc and then go back for the afternoon. I was feeling sick for the couple of days that we were here and I just stayed in camp and didn’t visit the tribe at all. There were chairs and couches with cushions here and I just rested and ended up feeling better. So no pictures . Well, there is one. We saw colobus monkeys – 7, I think, a couple of monitor lizards, pretty birds.

 

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Next stop was an overnight in Yabello in a nice hotel.

 

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We got up early the next morning (5:30) to drive to one of the singing wells in the area. I’m tired of writing and thinking so I’m stealing this from another website. “The Borena are a semi-nomadic tribe, related to the northern Oromo. They are especially famous for their expertise in surviving in a dry area by building and running what is described as “singing wells.” From these big water holes- up to 50 m deep- they carry the water to the surface by using a human ladder passing the filled buckets up from one to another. To keep the working rhythm and the motivation they sing during their work.” It had rained a great deal before we got there so they didn’t really need to get water from the well for the cattle but they did it for us for a fee. After they finished we paid a separate fee to photograph the women up close. It was 7:30 am and a couple of men were drunk. Still drunk or drunk already? Not sure.

 

Here are a couple of images of the well with the women bringing up the water and images of the women.

 

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The final hotel was in Yirgalem, the Aregash Lodge. It was the best. The BEST. If you ever find yourself in the area, stay there.

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That’s it. We got back in Addis around 4pm on Oct 8th and had a day room at the same hotel we had breakfast in at the beginning of the trip. Showered, used wifi in the hotel lobby, and went to the airport. Something unusual there. They searched people driving into the airport parking lot. There weren’t any women searchers so I didn’t have to get out of the car but every male had to get out and get patted down. And the carryon nazi at the airport almost didn’t let me carry on my camera gear. I had to go back to the guy at the counter twice before he could convince the carryon guy to let me through. I didn’t have any problems with Ethiopian Airlines that I had read about in reviews. The staff and the flight attendants were all very pleasant and helpful. I would use that airline again.

 

Some random thoughts:

 

They all wanted razor blades. Most of the tribes had shaved heads. Even the little kids and babies. And the kids wanted caramela (candy). I tried one and it wasn't very sweet and tasted pretty good.

 

None of the tribes people had any body odor. We may have. We missed showers a couple of nights in a row when we were camping.

 

Most of the villages were very clean. One area was very dirty and our driver said “These people are lazy.They only drink beer and chew chat”. We teased each other about chewing chat but none of us ever did. Here is a link that describes chat and it’s effect. http://biopsychiatry.com/methcathinone/qat-khat.html

Here’s a picture of guys selling chat and a pic of the dirty village.

 

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Some of the tribes routinely remove teeth even without lip plates. One of the guides told me that if a baby's top teeth come in before the bottom teeth they pull out the top ones.

 

Everyone looked healthy. The people, the cows, goats and dogs. The horses and donkeys, not so much. They use horses and donkeys as tools and don’t seem to care much for their well being.

 

Need a fence? Just grow one. I saw many plant fences.

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It was very hot and it wasn’t even the hot season. It did get cool the second to the last day.

 

The country is very beautiful with a variety of landscapes. Some areas could have been a tropical island, other areas were pretty barren, some areas were flat but we were in a lot of mountains (7000’ +), lots of red dirt. In one spot we saw where the red dirt ended and the brown dirt began. It was a line of color stopping/starting. Many areas reminded me of Rwanda. We saw some amazing storm clouds more than once but we were only rained on once (when we were checking into a hotel).

 

Ethiopia is a land of feet, not wheels. Once we were a half day or a day outside of Addis we may have seen half a dozen passenger cars per day. We did see more trucks because China is building roads there. There are many articles on the web about China building the roads. One article I read the last sentence of the article is “The cash is a loan, he says, touching on a delicate issue most in Ethiopia's government would prefer he left alone: "It will be repaid when the Chinese find oil in the south of Ethiopia." People walked everywhere. Everywhere. We probably didn’t drive two or three miles without seeing someone on the side of the road. We would be in the middle of nowhere and someone would materialize out of the bush. And stopping for “comfort stops” on the side of the road you might be surprised by someone walking up. One of the villages took probably 15 minutes to drive to from town (slow driving of course) and we would see village people walking to and from town every time we drove that road. Walk, walk, walk.

 

And speaking of roads, or lack of roads, they were pretty bad. In many places the roads were being worked on and there were roads that had been started (years ago) and never finished. To keep people from driving on the new, unfinished roads they had placed rocks all along them and you have to drive on dirt roads next to the tar roads.

 

The people we saw walking and carrying the huge loads of hay and firewood were always women. Older women. And they were usually bent over at the waist under the load. I don’t know why the women get that chore.

 

No one owns land in Ethiopia. The government owns it all and leases it out.

 

We drove through a huge park with very little wildlife. We saw some ground hornbills (Abyssinian), dik-diks, ostriches, and a few other things I can’t remember. Our driver had pictures of a pack of WILD DOGS he had taken in the park a couple of weeks before. The park looked like we were in Kenya. It was beautiful and looked like an animal paradise. Why weren’t there any animals? All hunted or poached? Don’t know. The hunting camp we stayed in mostly had kudu horns laying around. At one government place we stopped they had eland, nyala, waterbuck and kudu horns. The government also moved out some villages that were in the park area.

 

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Our first afternoon in the first town we visited a street market in a tuk-tuk. Sensory overload for me.

 

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When they have a fire going inside a hut it looks like it’s on fire.

 

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Once you leave the city all houses are the mud huts. I was told the painted ones signify wealth of the family.

 

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We were invited into a hut in one of the villages. My stomach was upset most mornings (malarone maybe?) and the smoke immediately had my stomach rolling so I didn’t go in but the others said it was huge inside. There were 20 or 30 people inside, the fire was going and it wasn’t smoky once you were inside, it had a loft and there were several kids up there. I missed out but my stomach was happy.

 

One of the early days of the trip was flag day and there were celebrations. (I think the Ethiopians celebrate a lot because there were also other celebrations while we were there.)

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Teeth – some of the tribes had clean, beautiful teeth and I saw them with little twigs in their mouth that were chewed to look like a toothbrush. Other tribes had dirty teeth.

 

The main crops we saw growning near the villages was maize and sorghum. One village we were in had gardens right outside the huts but the other villages were bare inside the fences. We did see commercial maize and sorghum and cotton crops once we were closer to Addis at the end of the trip. And we were told there was a new sugar plantation in the southern area.

 

The little boys and boy babies are all naked. I never did see a girl naked, even baby girls. The girls all wore a loin cloth looking thing until they were older when they started wearing the traditional clothes. Maybe preteen age? Not sure.

 

And I’m finished. I hope you enjoyed this little visit to Ethiopia. If you have any questions I will attempt to answer them.

 

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So much better than a magazine article (not as smooth, but better) and the pictures are consistently excellent. Singing wells look to be similar to those Kenya, but I think the men do most of the work there (?). Love those pictures - they really show what's going on, and the group portrait is really, really nice. Thanks for an eye-opening story so beautifully and copiously illustrated.

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Thank you very much for a beautiful report and stunning photos!

 

A couple of questions:

 

You mention you travelled through a park - was it Omo National Park (to the west of the namesake river) or Mago National Park (to the east)? I had read a few years ago that Omo NP is practically inaccessible and all tourism take place in Mago. But it seems that you have spent a lot of your time on the western side of the river too.

 

Did you go and visit the Mursi tribe (those with the large lip plates)? Most of the people visiting the lower Omo Valley seem to come out with pictures of those, to the point that I wonder whether they are still "authentic".

 

Thanks.

 

Paolo

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