Travel Tips for Ethiopia

September 12, 2012

Addis Ababa Street

Yesterday, Gabrielle Blair of Design Momone of my favorite go-to blogs – told readers about a trip she’s taking next month to Ethiopia as part of ONE Moms. She’ll be traveling with a group of influential social-media moms and asked her readers to share info and tips about Ethiopia. Since I happen to know someone who was just there (ahem), I wanted to share my two cents, and I thought SlowMama readers might enjoy hearing  it, too… 

Hi Gabrielle,

Your upcoming trip to Ethiopia sounds so exciting! It’s a diverse country with an incredible history and every kind of topography — mountains, desert, lake country, green hills, and grassy plains. There are more than 80 languages spoken there; Amharic is the predominant one. If you can remember only one word, I recommend: amesegenallo‘ (pronounced ama-sega-nallo). It means “thank you.” I used it constantly.

Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized by a Western power — though Italy tried, which means you can find pasta, pizza, Italian pastries, lattes, and cappuccinos everywhere. Coffee is actually Ethiopia’s largest export and a huge part of the culture: if you visit someone’s home, they may welcome you with a coffee ceremony. And it’s traditional to serve popcorn with coffee, not sweets.

Ethiopia is predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox, with an ancient Jewish community, many Muslims, and a growing numbers of Evangelical Protestants. Ethiopians claim to possess the Ark of the Covenant, housed in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, guarded 24/7 by a man who never leaves the small compound. Fascinating! The rock-hewn churches in the northern region are incredible, as are the Simian Mountains, where my friend Beth encountered the most amazing mountain monkeys on a trip there two years ago. In the south, you’ll find wildlife reserves and tribal villages. The eastern and western parts of the country have their own unique aspects and beauty, too.

For various geopolitical reasons, Ethiopia is extremely impoverished. I was shocked at how profound and widespread it is, even in the growing metropolis of Addis Ababa, one of the major cities of Africa. Nothing there is automated (bank tellers use pens and paper), automobiles are falling apart, diesel fumes pollute the city, internet is spotty, and electricity is intermittent. But the people are endlessly patient, friendly, and kind. You may be overcome by the swarms of children on the street, women with malnourished babies holding out their hands to you, men following as you walk. But I never felt unsafe. There are plenty of professional pick-pockets (as we unfortunately discovered) but very little violent crime.

Okay, on to a packing list and travel tips. Here are some items I highly recommend bringing:

  • Toilet paper — Because there will be none in any bathroom outside your hotel (or restaurants catering to westerners).
  • Hand sanitizer — Ethiopian money (called birr) is filthy, and you’ll want to constantly wash your hands before and after meals, bathroom visits, travel, etc.
  • Body/face wipes — Great for washing if you (like me) want to be super careful about using the water.
  • Bandana or scarf — For your mouth and nose when you’re stuck in traffic breathing in diesel fumes, which will happen. Also, many women there wear headscarves;  if you visit a church, it’s appreciated if you don one as a sign of respect. I wrapped a scarf around my head on my last few days there, and I felt like I drew less attention to myself with it on. Ethiopian Woman in Art
  • Nasal spray — Did I mention that Addis is very polluted? This will help clear your nasal passages and prevent colds and sinus headaches.
  • Electrolyte powder — Gatorade, Pedialyte, whatever floats your boat. It’s a life-saver if you get dehydrated.
  • Cipro — If you get sick from the food or water, you’ll thank your lucky stars you have this.
  • Activated charcoal tablets — We took 2-3 before or after each meal. If you pick up some bacteria, it helps bind it up so it will move out of your system quickly. (For those who drink, a beer or spirit with your meals is also a good idea!)
  • Snacks — Power bars, nuts, chocolate. Eating can be tricky there because you have to stay away from all uncooked food, unless you can peel it. It helps to have high-protein or comforting snacks from home when you need a break from restaurants or can’t find something suitable to eat, especially while in transit. (We even brought MaryJaneFarms organic oatmeal from REI.)
  • A “green” supplement — I’m a salad freak and was craving fruits and veggies the whole week. It helps to have a greens capsule or powder to use as a substitute and fake your body out a bit.

General travel tips:

Pack light and bring layers; hotel and guest-house staff will do laundry for you. Drink lots (and only!) bottled, sealed water, which you can buy there. Hire a driver to take you places (rather than hailing cabs). Choose one who speaks English; it’s much easier. If you need medical care, the “Korean Hospital” has one of the best reputations. Be careful taking out your portable electronic devices in public; we were targeted on a safe, main road in the middle of the day as an expert thief walked away with one of our iPhones.

What to see/do in Addis:

  • Mount Entoto — An incredible view of the city and a beautiful old monastery at the top called Entoto Maryam Bete Christian.
  • Ethnological Museum – Located in the former palace. (Be sure to go upstairs to see the incredible Ethiopian icons.)
  • Holy Trinity Cathedral – Beautiful. And an interesting tidbit: Ethiopian Orthodox churches are traditionally built over springs.
  • The area of the “post office shops” is a good place for little gifts, souvenirs, etc. We scored some amazing hand-painted, hand-carved mini icons, as well as traditional Ethiopian dresses for our girls.
  • If you really need a break from the city, a little refresher, a spa treatment, a piece of lettuce, a few hours by a pool, pay a visit to the Sheraton Hotel. The internet is quicker there, too.
  • There are numerous Ethiopian restaurants to try, and the food is delicious. But many other restaurants cater to Western palates. A favorite is on Tele Bole Road, not far from the airport, called Enya — a Greek-Mediterranean place run by a warm, boisterous Greek woman who welcomes patrons with hugs and kisses.It’s one of the few places a Westerner might dare eat a salad. One of our new friends enjoyed this, but I was too chicken:
I feel like I’ve only gotten started here, but I hope this helps you to have a safe,  healthy, memorable trip!

P.S. — I recently shared some of these tips with my friend Jamie, who just returned from an extraordinary trip of her own to Ethiopia. If you’re anywhere near a TV today, catch Jamie on Dr. Phil — she’ll be talking about attachment parenting and some of the things she learned on her trip!

 Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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1 Alissa Lively September 13, 2012 at 10:31 am

Zoe, I think you covered everything! I hope that I have an opportunity to go Ethiopia at some point. It sounds fascinating.

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2 cheap clothing April 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

! I hope that I have an opportunity to go Ethiopia at some point. It sounds fascinating.

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