Ethiopian Adventures: A Southern Mountain Trek and Cave Exploration

The last 4 days of our Ethiopian trip were spent with a tour company who took us to the south of the country to explore Bale Mountains National Park and explore Sof Omar Cave, the longest cave system on the African continent. Our driver Bir (short for Birhanu) was a cool guy who did his best to give us everything we wanted. When we decided we were not big fans of the hotel’s packed lunches for us, he got us peanut butter, bananas, and bread as we asked for daytime picnics. We also had a guide who I could almost swear had superhuman powers to detect any bird species or rare animal from a very long distance without the aid of binoculars. Our hotel was also one of the only ones around for tourists to stay in, which was interesting to me because it is a beautiful area that more people should visit. On the way down to the mountains, we got stuck in the town of Nazreth for 2 hours while a bike race blocked every exit out of the town, but we also had a beautiful breakfast overlooking one of the Rift Valley lakes.

The Bale Mountains, including the Harena Forest and Senetti Plateau was a wonderful adventure into the animal species of Ethiopia. We saw many endemic and rare animals, such as the mountain nyala and Ethiopian wolf. There were many uphill climbs that my legs felt afterward too. We had a picnic one day in the forest and saw an entire part of the forest covered by bamboo. It was much colder in the mountains than the other parts of Ethiopia that we had visited. However, when we went to Sof Omar, the weather returned to its usual hotness.

Bale Mountains National Park
Bale at sunrise
Mountain Nyala
The warthogs were everywhere
Very bushy monkey
We witnessed a fox kill a sheep
Harena Forest
Bamboo growing in Harena
Picturesque mountains and stream outside Harena
Senetti Plateau
Senetti watering hole
Multitude of cute small palm-like trees
Posing at the top of the plateau

Sof Omar Caves is a site of pilgrimage in Islam. The caves are absolutely spectacular. We explored the 15km of it with the aid of a local guide and flashlights. The river that comes down from the Bale mountains to cut through the caves made it so that we had to cross it 7 times, with one of those crossings being a bridge that was really just some large twigs someone had fashioned a “bridge ladder” from. It was probably one of the least stable things I have crossed. The crossings were made easy with the help of our guides and driver helping us across the slippery and often pain-inducing river rocks and stones. It took us almost 3 hours to explore the cave. I have also never seen so many bats in one place in my life. After exploring the cave, we ate a picnic lunch and fed a precocious monkey who dared to come very near us.

People living in the valley on the way to Sof Omar
The river scene outside the caves
These camels were ready for their close-up
Descending into the cave
Mesmerized by the beauty inside Sof Omar
Close up of a cave opening
Nature's design at the top of the cave
With our tour driver Bir in the cave
Opening at the end of the cave
Feeding monkeys outside Sof Omar
This bold monkey stole Tristen's peanut butter and banana sandwich
Playing with the boldest monkey we encountered

On the journey back to Addis Ababa, we stopped in the town of Shashamene, which is home to the Ethiopian Rastafarian community. For anyone who does not know, Rastafarians think of Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie as a god, or at least a highly honored man. We went to the Banana Museum, which is owned by a man who makes art out of all the parts of the banana plant. It is pretty incredible what he does. Many of the inhabitants of the town are from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. They were very happy to know that I was from Grenada and now lived in Africa. I was like a kindred spirit to them minus the excessive use of marijuana. Bir also took us to see gigantic cranes on a pond. I promise you that they are the size of small humans. It was a wonderful tour and it was great to not have to worry about anything for the last part of our journey.

Tristen helping the Banana Artist with his map of Africa (He had forgotten a few countries)
Comparing my size to the birds
Close up of the (in my opinion) scary birds
Birds about to take flight



Ethiopian Adventures: Addis Ababa and the East to Harar

I only spent one full day in Addis Ababa, because when I travel I prefer to see cities and towns other than the capital, although I do like to at least see them for one day to compare with other big African cities. We spent a lovely day in Addis exploring the market areas, and I helped Tristen find the ingredients for her to try and make injera and doro wat (chicken dish) when she went back to the States. We also had our first taste of the delicious blend of cinnamon and Addis tea. We later bought some in Harar. The hotel also had an amazing and very delicious vegan lunch buffet. I don’t remember the last time I ate so much food.

Market in Addis
And the injera never ceased to be delicious
The infamous plant that Ethiopians love to chew

From Addis we took a 10-hour bus across the countryside to visit the city of Harar. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam, and the only walled city in Ethiopia. The wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I believe there are 8 in total in Ethiopia, and we went to a few of them. The 10-hour bus ride was much better than the people vomiting near us mini bus ride of earlier in our trip. We even stopped in a very quaint town on the way for lunch and saw baboons along the roadside. That evening when we got to Harar we went to see one of the hyena men. These men sit outside of the city walls in the evenings and call hyenas from the surrounding countryside to them. They have even named the hyenas! Then they have the onlookers participate in feeding them. I will not lie. I was terrified at first at the thought of being so close to a hyena, but I decided that I could not be so close to such an interesting spectacle and not take part. So I put on my brave face and sat down by the hyena man. Then he broke a stick and put one end in my mouth and put a piece of meat on the other end. Then a hyena came up and ate the meat from the stick, coming closer to my face than I would have ever liked a hyena to come. I did this twice. Then Tristen, who had also done this, joined me and we fed a hyena together from a basket filled with meat scraps. It was probably one of the crazier things I have done in my life so far.

Feeding the hyena--I was more scared than I look here

The rest of our time in Harar was spent exploring the different gates and the wall of the city. We also went to the Rimbaud house and Haile Selassie’s house. It was very different from any other town we went through during our time in Ethiopia. It was also the site of our most unfortunate encounter in the country. A young boy of around 15 followed us for a long time asking if we would have sex with him. We finally got angry at his persistence and went to a museum to get help from someone inside. While Tristen was talking to someone, I turned around and the boy exposed himself to me. I have never had anything like that happen to me and was angered at how far he would take things. We then picked up a large stick and he got the idea when we shook it at him that we would not be afraid to use it if he insisted on escalating the situation. That boy aside, Harar was my favorite city we visited during our tour of Ethiopia. It had cute breakfast stations where we would sit and eat bread and this dish called phoul and drink tea. From Harar we took a short bus ride to the neighboring city of Dire Dawa to get a flight back to Addis.

Haile Selassie House
Largest mosque in the city
Cultural Heritage Museum
UNESCO World Heritage Site (the wall)
Bustling market by one of the many gates
Spices in the market
A sea of peppers
Drinking tea at an outdoor breakfast stop
Bread seller at the market

Ethiopian Adventures: Gondar and Bahir Dar

I arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in the evening to meet my college friend Tristen for an 11 day trip around Ethiopia. We choose the country because we are both a big fan of Ethiopian food and it seemed like it offered a lot of diversity in terms of things to see and for the right price. It was really great to see Tristen and hear her talk in person about her time in Rwanda. Our style of traveling really complemented each other’s as well.

The trip started off as hectic as trips can start off. We did not have the physical plane tickets for our domestic flights and we had one the next morning. The tour company we had booked them with was unable to get them to us, and our point person told us to just go to the airport and say we had a preliminary booking to get the tickets. When we got to the airport, however, we were told that we were on the waiting list to get on the flight. We had no idea that this was true. Our entire itinerary was iron-clad and we needed to get on that flight. So we stood there and told the check-in worker that whatever he had to do, we had to get on that flight. Our urging paid off and we were able to get on the flight to Gondar. Gondar is an old capital of Ethiopia. It is famous for its medieval-like castle ruins. We had a wonderful guide and it was great to learn more about Ethiopia’s unique history. We also participated in a traditional coffee ceremony in Gondar. You drink three cups of the coffee during the ceremony, and it was some of the most delicious coffee I had ever tasted.

City center of Gondar
Coffee ceremony
Delicious! All three cups 🙂
Traditional honey wine
Fasil Gebbi
Beautiful medieval scenery
Built by a woman--yes!
A pathway of lovely lavender petals
Very cool tree formations at the baths near Fasil Gebbi

One interesting story from Gondar involves these two young men Tristen and I encountered. When we got to Gondar, one young, Rastafarian man offered to show us the location of a reasonably priced pension. We though he was being nice, since we had encountered nice people who helped us in Addis. Then he and a friend of his showed us a restaurant to eat at, where we watched the coffee ceremony and had a wonderful meal. (Tristen and I ate so much injera with the sauces, but not as much meat because they were fasting for Easter). However, then they started planning our entire time in Gondar out and we felt they were smothering us, so when we parted ways for us to use an Internet café, we decided not to meet them up later. We thought we would never see them again, but the Rastafarian young man found us later in the day and was so upset that we had ditched our “tour guide” and insisted that we pay him for his time earlier in the day. We told him that we would certainly not pay him and we had not entered into an agreement with him to be our tour guide. It was our first encounter with an Ethiopian hustler. Later that night his friend showed up claiming to the hotel owner to be our tour guide who had hired a bus to take us to Bahir Dar. We had to have the hotel owner get rid of him. The hustlers all over the country proved to be very persistent.

Tristen and I took a minibus from Gondar to our next stop, Bahir Dar. Bahir Dar is located on beautiful Lake Tana, one of the Rift Valley Lakes. It was not a particularly bumpy or winding road ride, but for some reason several people in this close-spaced mini bus got sick and started vomiting into small plastic bags. We could not have gotten out of the mini bus any sooner. But Bahir Dar was worth the ride. The lake is beautiful and we took a trip out onto the lake to visit one of the old monasteries upon one of the numerous islands in the lake. Some of the monasteries are only open to men, however. From the lake we also saw the source of the Nile River. We also took a trip out to see the Blue Nile Falls. The falls are about an hour and a half from the main part of the city. We decided to take a tuk-tuk to save money. It proved to be a VERY long journey by tuk-tuk, as we did not know that the road was not paved for the entire way. So we were in a small tuk-tuk feeling every bump of each stone on the gravel road. On the way back our tuk-tuk actually broke down. First the top of the tuk-tuk began to fall in on Tristen and myself. Then, the tuk-tuk battery died and we had to get out and help the driver push it until it ran again. It was an unforgettable journey.

The quality of a $3/per person a night hotel
On Lake Tana
Papyrus boat
The island monastery we visited
Paintings inside the monastery
A sea of green

The Blue Nile Falls was not quite what we expected, as the area was using 100% of the water from the falls for energy and so there was no water running down the falls. The hike was still beautiful, and we got to hike down to where some of the river still ran and put our feet inside while sitting on large rocks. My favorite hustler from the falls was a young boy who kept insisting that he was a ‘student’ and not a guide and would only take half the price. When we told him we would not pay him he told us he hated Americans and America. Then there was an older gentleman who kept following us until I yelled at him. Then he asked if I had a boyfriend.

A glimpse of the lowered waters of the Blue Nile
Where the waterfall is during rainy season
Bridge by the waterfall
Cooling my feet in the Blue Nile
The calm waters we crossed by ferry to get back after visiting the falls

I wish we had gotten to see the other sites of Lalibela and Axum in the historic northern route. However, with limited time in a country one cannot see everything and must plan according to what is easiest to transport to. After our time in Bahir Dar, we took a flight back to Addis Ababa.

I should take the time to write a note that almost everyone in Ethiopia thought I was Ethiopian. I knew it would happen though, as there have been several times in Ghana where people here have thought that I was Ethiopian. I have similar skin pigmentation and facial features and hair to them. People would always speak to me in Amharic and I think they thought I was rude when I did not respond.

*Note: Photos from the trip are courtesy of Tristen’s camera


Tolerance, Peace, and Value Systems

“It may seem naively idealistic, but I know that as long as we can imagine a better tomorrow, we can work towards a better tomorrow.”

–James Orbinski, An Imperfect Offering

 About two weeks ago I had a session with my students on stereotypes and how we should not act on them in order to avoid prejudiced behavior. It was very interesting to hear the types of stereotypes they had about particular groups of people. But after we listed those perceptions, we dissected where they had gotten the information from, how reliable such sources are, and how the best way to analyze someone is to get to know them. I think it was a very important lesson to children, especially when oftentimes in Ghana, their perception of foreigners comes from television and movies, which are not the best sources of information. To end the session, I divided the students into groups and they were asked to make a poster promoting peace and tolerance in Ghana. These were the resulting posters:

Group 1's poster depicted modern Ghana and traditional Ghana coming together
Group 2's poster focused on building friendships
Group 3's poster focused on peace and unity
Group 4 had the winning poster. It took a look at different tribes working together, unity, loving others, and did a great job of encompassing all the parts of the session
Group 5 focused on unity as strength and friendship bringing together a nation
A special poster done by one student represented how tolerance leads to joy and peace

In continuation of the discussion on differences between individuals, this past Thursday the session focused on how value systems are formed. Values were explained to the students through the use of the Alligator River Story. The story is first read to the students, and while it is being read, each student ranks the characters in the order from who they think is the worst in the story to the least offensive in action. Then they got into groups and discussed their rankings, and tried to reach a group decision on a ranking. The discussion within the groups and the class discussion that followed led students to see how people’s rankings of characters was a commentary on many of their values of what they think is more important in what people do. Here is the story. I hope people will comment on this post and share their own rankings of the individuals with a brief explanation on why they chose that order:


There lived a woman named Abigail who was in love with a man named Gregory. Gregory lived on the shore of a river. Abigail lived on the opposite shore of the same river. The river that separated the two lovers was teeming with dangerous alligators. Abigail wanted to cross the river to be with Gregory. Unfortunately, the bridge had been washed out by a heavy flood the previous week. So she went to ask Sinbad, a riverboat captain, to take her across. He said he would be glad to if she would consent to go to bed with him prior to the voyage. She promptly refused and went to a friend named Ivan to explain her plight. Ivan did not want to get involved at all in the situation. Abigail felt her only alternative was to accept Sinbad’s terms. Sinbad fulfilled his promise to Abigail and delivered her into the arms of Gregory.

When Abigail told Gregory about her amorous escapade in order to cross the river, Gregory cast her aside with disdain. Heartsick and rejected, Abigail turned to Slug with her tale of woe. Slug, feeling compassion for Abigail, sought out Gregory and beat him brutally. Abigail was overjoyed at the sight of Gregory getting his due. As the sun set on the horizon, people heard Abigail laughing at Gregory.


Promoting Discussion

Before leaving for my vacation to Ethiopia, which I will soon blog about, I had the pleasure of spending a week surrounded by talks of promoting discussion of various topics from witchcraft to stereotypes to sexual abuse. It is a topic important to me because the simple act of promoting discussion is what opens doors for action and change to be made. We cannot fix what we do not discuss.

I was honored to be part of the Secretariat for the 2nd International Conference in Africa on Child Sexual Abuse. The host organization was the one that I work for, AMPCAN, which financial support for the conference coming from our regional office in Kenya, Plan Ghana, and Plan Netherlands. From beginning the conference with a call from local students to help children in need, to the closing hopeful dance of the same students, it was three days of incredible discussion on many controversial and “taboo” topics. It was wonderful to see people from all different professions, some from the private and others from the public sector, as well as so many countries represented. Delegates came from all across the globe, from the U.S. to Madagascar to the U.K. It was a global showing for what is quite certainly a global affair. The presentations were thought-provoking and all conversations were in the spirit of sharing across countries and continents. There was also a strong spirit of sharing in the stories of those who were participating, which is probably one of the strongest tools of opening discussion on hard topics.

A woman from Nigeria told one story that I remember best from the conference. During the opening ceremony, she was invited to speak about her past. She bravely got up in front of a room full of strangers and opened up to us the honest and heartbreaking story of herself as a young girl who was almost destroyed by the years of sexual abuse at the hands of a respected family friend. When she got to the part about how the man gave her an abortion himself since he was a doctor when she got pregnant at 14, I could only grip my notepad and imagine the kind of pain one goes through in times such as those. That woman lives in a society in which telling a story like that one is not welcome. In fact, she said that her family basically disowned her when she told them what was going on. But she told it anyway. And that type of knowledge that the consequence of telling is less important than who she can help by sharing her story is what not just opens up the door to discussing such topics, but can physically knock it down.