So Sorry I don’t write very much these days! I was tempted to say ‘see Marcy’s blog’ for this, but I wrote up a little about our travels. Hers is Here and has pictures.
At the end of January, the schools were closed for a week, so Marcy and I decided to do a bit of travelling. Lalibela is pretty much the place to see in Ethiopia, but…it’s very remote. Since this was her one chance to do something touristy, we decided to go there….
… by public transport, rather than plane.
Ethiopia has a great airlines, and the prices for flights within the country are quite reasonable. So, a one-way trip from Lalibela to Addis is about US$40. Of course, it’s cheaper to take busses, and… that way you get to see a lot more of the country and experience it. So, that’s what we decided to do. Not too many tourists do that.
I think it was worth it, but I also think that it’s going to be a long time before I plan a vacation where I have to get up before 5 AM more often than not! Monday we left Addis on the very nice Selam bus for the 6 or 7 hour drive to Dessie (210 birr). The bus leaves from Meskel Square about 6 AM, but they ask everyone to be there at 5 AM to load the bus. It’s a nice bus with air and a TV and even complimentary breakfast – very high end! It also took the curves a bit fast, so I got carsick (along with some of the other Ethiopians). That did not bode well, but luckily it didn’t happen again. All of the busses in the north come with complimentary plastic baggies, just in case.
Dessie is a sizable and well-off town, likely related to its location on a main road. The hotels there range from cheap to nice, but the mid-priced ones fill up quickly. So we had a choice of staying in the cheap, cheap places…or spending real money on a room. We opted for the former. So, the first place was 70 birr ($4) for a room with toilet/shower. The power went out and the place smelled like urine, but it was decent enough. On the return trip, we paid 60 birr for a room with a shower (communal toilets only), and a screen above the door rather than a window that closed. So that was… less nice, but worked out in the end. The only other options cost over 200 birr/night, and that didn’t even get you hot water.
Again at 5 AM, we found ourselves in the bus station, taking a 1st level bus to Lalibela (92 birr). The buses all left at 6:30, once it was light. The drive to Wollo is only a few hours, and then after that, we headed up the hills into the highlands. Once there, we drove along the plateau for a long ways. The highlands are…dry. Everything is brown; no green in sight during the dry season. All the houses had large stacks of hay to feed their livestock (in most other places, they just let them graze all year). I was most worried about this leg of the journey, as a 10 hour bus ride through the mountains can be brutal. On the contrary, it wasn’t even unpleasant. When we descended from the highlands, it was by a gravel road, so that part of the trip was slow going (~2 hours). We had to stop for a flat tire for a bit, but other than that, no problem. The only other foreigner on the bus was a Japanese man; it was his second day in Ethiopia, but he was coming from another African country I think.
Once in Lalibela, we had to hike up the hill into town from the bus station. Naturally, we stopped for cold drinks at a café when we got there, and they asked us why we didn’t get a taxi. We planned to find a place to stay on our walk through town, but failed to notice signs for the places we’d picked out of the guidebook. Instead, we kept going to the Ben Abeba restaurant for dinner and a beautiful view at sunset. I figured Marcy would really enjoy it, especially since it was owned by a Scottish lady. We stayed until sunset, and then had to walk back into town and look for a place to stay in the dark. Not our brightest idea (haha), but it worked out fine. We walked into a place whose name I forget (began with a Y) and asked the price. They told us rooms cost $30/night. When we looked at each other and turned to go, the man asked us what price we’d be willing to pay. I said… how about $30 for two nights? He gave us the room for $20/night in the end, and it was very nice. It had a bathtub! They also were willing to give us a ‘wakeup call’ when we needed to leave at 4 AM to get to the bus station when we left on Thursday – but what this meant was the zebenya (guard) would very kindly knock on our door to wake us up!
Wednesday was our day to sleep in, enjoy our beautiful beds, eat a leisurely breakfast, and spend all day in Lalibela. We were a bit SHOCKED to find out the price of admission is now US$50 – it used to be $25, which was already quite high! Apparently, they doubled it in January. We tagged along with two other travelers who had hired a guide, and the guide was of course happy to take us along, too… for double the fee. (He was charging 400 birr for 2 people, but 750 birr for 4 people.) I seriously hate the tourism industry here. Yes, the churches in Lalibela are worth seeing. And, if you get yourself there, you’re going to pay $50 to see them. But I can think of a lot of other things to do with 900 birr, and that’s just a ridiculous entrance fee for anything in Ethiopia. People on package tours won’t notice the $25 price increase, but for volunteers here, it’s a major deterrent – there are other things to see, other places to visit. (Of course, only foreigners have to pay this fee – Ethiopians can visit the churches without paying that kind of money.) The locals are relatively friendly, having honed their begging skills. They scare off the kids who come up to you asking for money, and it’s the older kids who stop and chat and then eventually get around to asking you for your shoes or to buy them a school book. Not surprisingly, they disappeared after we said no!
But anyway, so we met two other travelers, Rita and Josh. Rita was from Belgium and was my parents’ age, and Josh was Australian and younger. It was fun to tag along with them all day, and they even joined us for dinner at Ben Abeba. We got back after dark, and then got up early for our trek down the hill to the bus station. I was a bit nervous to be walking around so early in the morning, but there were other people walking down the hill to the bus station and it wasn’t all that dark. We didn’t hear any hyenas close by, either (Marcy had rocks in her pocket, just in case).
We got on the 2nd level bus to Dessie, and this was an interesting experience. It’s a 3 hour drive up into the highlands (the first hour on the paved road from Lalibela to the airport, and the second 2 hours on gravel). They stopped to let people on and off the entire time, so the aisle was always packed full of people. Luckily, as thru travelers who were there early, we had a seat. This bus driver took very good care of us, making sure we had transport to Dessie when the bus broke down in Wollo.
By the time we arrived in Dessie and secured our cheap room, I was mostly done with travelling by bus in Ethiopia. But, the next morning, we caught a minibus to Addis (200 birr) which should have been a good idea. We made good time for the first half of the trip. But then when we stopped for lunch, a woman discovered that her luggage had fallen off and she demanded compensation from the bus driver. This dispute resulted in a trip for the two of them to the local police station. So, two hours later, we were back on the road.
We finally arrived in Addis, being dropped off near Mercato, and then had to make our way by minibus to Mexico and Mekanissa. We were glad to be back. :)
We of course had to consider what souvenirs to bring back for our Austrian roommates. My first suggestion was the bathtub in the hotel in Lalibela – it was so nice, and wonderful to be able to wash off after all that traveling! Of course, this wasn’t a very practical suggestion…. My next idea was promptly vetoed by Marcy. I thought we could bring back a cat. What gave me this idea was that someone got on the bus with a cat in a bag on our way up the mountain leaving Lalibela! The poor critter sounded very unhappy in the luggage rack over our heads, but the owner was standing and couldn’t do much about it. In the end, we got them some nice oranges in Dessie (most oranges here in Addis are green, but these were actually orange) and some sugarcane. [As you can tell, Marcy is the reasonable one in the group.]
Another thing we brought back were bug bites. Marcy had been dealing with fleas before we left, but when we got back, she had over 100 flea bites! (She counted) I had considerably fewer, but more disturbingly, a tick (my only one here). Anyway, we obviously immediately washed all our clothes from the trip and after awhile, she was flea-free. I do hate those bugs though!!! The worst part of the trip had to be the crazy half-naked man who randomly punched Marcy in the face in Dessie (she was fine, but stuff like that comes out of nowhere and happens very fast.)
The best parts were the view, seeing so much of the countryside (including a baboon and many camels!) and visiting the churches in Lalibela. Oh, and I took pictures.