Expect the unexpected in Ethiopia

By Paballo Thekiso Time of article published Jun 8, 2012

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Growing up in Soweto, I dreamed of visiting Miami and New York… because those were the only beautiful places I saw on TV or in American movies.

Africa? Not a place I thought of much because, like most South Africans, black and white, I tended to regard our home continent as the “dark continent”.

Then, a few years ago, after a visit to Mozambique, my dream changed its shape and I found myself longing to visit more of this intriguing continent.

But when I told my friends and family I was going to Ethiopia, they became very worried. Without knowing recent facts about the country, they started expressing their concerns: are you going to be safe? Is there war there? Pirates will kidnap you…

Which goes to show that there are still many of us who regard the continent as a place of coups, wars and famines.

And which is also why more of us need to go to places like Ethiopia, and have our eyes opened to the treasures which are in our own backyard.

This, then, is the story of how my eyes were opened.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous when I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane in Joburg with other journalists and tour operators.

But from the moment we touched down in Addis Ababa, the capital of a country with more than 82 million inhabitants (the second most populous in Africa), we were made to feel at home.

Our first two nights were spent at the Kuriftu resort and spa in Debre-Zeit, about 45 minutes south of the capital.

The nights at the resort, which is built on the banks of Lake Kuriftu, were filled with lots of local dancing, live performances, local food and luxuries like La Vieja cigars and Remy Martin cognac. No different from what you’ll get in upmarket places here or in Europe.

The next stop was the city of Bahir Dar, 548km north of Addis Ababa.

It was in this city that we experienced the beautiful Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia that stretches 93km.

This lake also feeds the famous Blue Nile river and is home to 39 islands, 19 monasteries, 14 species of fish and more than 53 species of birds.

After a quick breakfast we were whisked away for a motor boat cruise to visit one of the monasteries. Walking uphill for about 15minutes to visit the monastery appeared impossible, especially after the hectic nights – but I survived.

I might have felt out of place because of my Christian belief, but it was humbling to see the creativity in paintings that existed in people many years ago.

A lot of us were tired after this but our host and business guru Tadiwos Balete brought back the excitement by hosting a big lunch at Emperor Haile Selassie’s palace, something even locals have never experienced.

This was an honour because the palace is never normally opened to the public and we were treated like royalty.

Balete and his team outdid themselves with their natural hospitality but the urge to be “normal again” was rising – we were dying to socialise with the locals.

And, after another high-profile dinner, seven of us escaped the formal environment and found ourselves at Club Balageru.

We squeezed ourselves into a corner of what could have been a 25m2 room filled with almost 70 people.

The room temperature was about 25°C and, unlike South African traditional clubs, where you find a DJ and huge speakers, here people danced to local drums and masenko instruments.

My travelling companions didn’t miss the chance to join the locals and teach them one or two of our moves.

Because we were “high-profile” guests, some of us felt the hospitality was rehearsed on the official programme, but it was in the informality in Club Balageru that I realised people in Ethiopia are warm and welcoming.

In the early hours, after our spirits had been fulfilled, we cheerfully we took a tuk-tuk (mini taxi) back to the luxurious Kuriftu resort.

The journey continued the next day when we arrived in the holy city of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia.

Though we were guests of the chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines, the minister of tourismand the respected businessman Balete, we wereat all times, like everybody else, made to go through security scanners, and remove our shoes and all metal articles that the machine could detect.

Considering the number of flights we took, this process tended to be a little irritating but we were in Rome and had to do as the Romans.

Lalibela has a population of less than 20 000 people and is referred to by many Christians as the second Jerusalem.

It was the beautiful and unique architecture of the 11 rock-cut churches that were built in the 12th and 13th centuries that mesmerised us.

Standing on top of a hill looking down on the famous Church of St George, I understood why the churches were listed as one of the eight wonders of the world.

Like many in different parts of Ethiopia, Lalibela people are very poor and and have few resources.

As we finished our four-hour spiritual tour of the churches, we were met by a group of young boys who looked to be under 15.

“Hello hello, Bafana Bafana, Nelson Mandela,” they shouted.

Someone must have told them we were from South Africa and we thought they were begging for money or food.

But we were wrong.

“Do you have an e-mail address?” they asked. Thinking I hadn’t heard them properly I asked them to repeat their question.

“Do you have an e-mail address?” “Yes,” I responded.

“Please give it to us, we would like to keep in contact with you.”

Looking at their poor surroundings and how torn their school clothes were, them asking for ane-mail address was the last thing I expected.

But, back at home, after I received an e-mail from Samuel asking if I could help with his school fees, I understood why an e-mail address was more important than small change.

Our last night was spent in Addis Ababa, a city with a population of 3 384 569, according to the 2007 population census.

It prides itself on being “the political capital of Africa” – home of the AU and hosting the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and numerous other continental and international organisations.

The architecture in Addis Ababa might not be glamorous but the lifestyle and the vibe are the same as in any big city.

After seeing different parts of the country, I can safely say that there is deep poverty throughout this beautiful country. However, what gives it hope is that Ethiopia is a country under construction and will soon be a force to be reckoned with.

The elegant Suba Lounge was where we had our farewell party and, there, “things” happened.

I won’t say what happened, because what happened in Addis stays in Addis, but I can safely reveal that my companions had a very good reason to sleep through the five-and-a-half hour flight back home.

Reminiscing about the great week we had, I carried out an introspection about the negative perception Africans have about themselves.

To my friends and family: there is no war and no pirates in Ethiopia, only great people with warm, welcoming spirits.

Until we change how we view ourselves as Africans, the world’s view about us will remain the same.

I can say without fear of contradiction that Africa is beautiful and Ethiopia is surely one of her hidden treasures.

The food was nice, the resorts and five-star hotels beautiful.

But it was the warmth and hospitality of the people that will keepreminding me to lobby my friends and family for a return trip to the country where nature took its first step.

To all my Ethiopian friends, I say, Amesege’nallo’: thank you.

If You Go...

l For great accommodation visit

www.Kurifturesortspa.com

www.ethiodreamland.com

www.babogayaresort.com

www.sheraton.com

www.Jupiterinternationalhotel.com

l Dining places:

Castelli Restaurant in Addis Ababa

Ben Abeba restaurant in Lalibela

www.benabeba.com

l Things to see:

Blue Nile waterfalls

Lake Tana in Bahir Dar

Churches in Lalibela

Merkato crafts market – the largest outdoor market in Africa.

l For flights:

www.ethiopianairlines.com

l Best times to visit:

September till May is the dry season - Saturday Star

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