i started my ethiopian adventure solo because irena got a bug in her eye (and slept with her contacts in) while we were in malawi. as a result, she got a terrible terrible eye infection. after several doctors and ineffective treatment, she had to fly to south africa to get treatment. i continued north through kenya, hitching a ride with a huge truck that groaned and bumped along the unpaved, freshly muddied roads to ethiopia. 36 hours that ride took me; i think i ended up paying $20 to traverse the country in the back of an incredibly uncomfortable lorry. at the time i thought i was getting ripped off (and i probably was), but now that price doesn’t seem so bad considering all i did was sleep, eat and not have to drive those conditions myself…
also, thank goodness another traveler had heard me talking about my trip up kenya to ethiopia via a border crossing. he chimed in and mentioned something about my visa. visa?? i was just going to get it at the border….right? every other country we had visited was visa on arrival (and i hadn’t bothered looking to see if ethiopia was any different!). nope. no visas at the border. so i ran to the embassy and asked politely if i could have a visa in 3 hours please? there was no ‘hakuna matata’ here–the response that you hear everywhere while in tanzania. these guys looked serious and i wasn’t sure they wanted to comply. but they stamped my papers, took my pictures and filled in my passport with a lovely embossed visa for ethiopia. i ran to catch the ride that i had arranged the day before, nervous the traffic would surely make me miss it. but when i got there i waited 6 more hours until the driver finally felt like we had enough passengers on top of the truck to make it worth the ride.
36 hours later, a trip only broken by a few restroom stops, a couple bites and a quick rest at a rest house along the way ($0.50 for a room with no electricity and a bed that made me nervous to even look at it), we arrived at moyale, the border crossing to ethiopia.
my new norwegian friend sebastian and i (we slept in the back of the lorry in a space that was meant for 1/2 a person) decided we wanted to venture into the omo valley–the south west part of ethiopia that is home to 80+ tribes. i wanted to see this part of the world that is still pretty much untouched from modernity. i asked around a few villages and was finally directed to a guy named dusta. he used to spend a lot of his adolescent years hanging out with the hamer tribe. he said he would be able to take us there to stay a few nights, so we arranged to spend $15 a day for his help in getting us there and setting up all arrangements.
the few days i spent in the omo valley and hanging out in the middle of nowhere is probably one of the most memorable travel experiences i’ve had. ever.
we hitched many rides in the back of trucks. dusta negotiated for us so we wouldn’t be overcharged (drastically). most drivers see a foreigner and want to charge exorbitant rates for allowing them to hang off the back of a swaying truck. dusta haggled for us. after squinting through the hot sun and dusty afternoons, we finally arrived at a spot in the ‘road’ where he asked to be let off. the women with the copper clay buttered hair and gourd hats, and the men with the ostrich poofs atop their heads, nodded a farewell.
we followed no path. dusta took us through trees, up streams and finally to a dried up river bed. along the way we encountered an old man swinging two squacking chickens over his shoulder and a young boy pulling at a goat, urging it to move. we walked with them for a bit, all the while the old man chanted and grinned the word ‘friend’ (at least that’s what dusta said he was saying!). we also stumbled upon many people passed out along the riverbed. at first glance it seemed very odd, until dusta mentioned it was market day in the village: the day that everyone gets together to socialize and drink lots of sorghum beer! wow, it was just like a saturday night in new york city!! … but during the day, and in the middle of a vast, undeveloped expanse of ethiopia…
by nightfall, we reached the destination. a woman was standing outside naked, draped partially in an animal hide. she and dusta exchanged greetings and she directed us to the chief’s home. we pushed through a reed wall and walked into an immaculately clean space. the dirt had been swept free of debris, yet there were hundreds of goats and cows everywhere. we poked our heads inside the hut and dusta introduced us to the family sitting within. we climbed into the dark and waited for our eyes to adjust. and then we sat down. it was awkward at first. i didn’t know where to look. what to do. what to say. i was looking at them looking at me. but it was all smiles and friendly. just very little communication. even dusta had a hard time talking with them.
the family, the chief, his wife, three young sons and a few other women were sitting in the dark. the women were patting out rolls of sorghum and cooking them in a clay pot over the fire. i was handed a jug of fresh, warm goat’s milk and told to drink up. i was given a chewy roll, piping hot right out of the jar. that was dinner. and it was surprisingly delicious. i think the atmosphere, the experience, the generosity made the meal comforting and eventually comfortable. the kids held my hair and kept sneaking peaks at my tummy. dusta told me that they most likely had never seen a westerner before.
after a short while, the chief brought out another clay jar and pulled out a huge piece of honeycomb. he tried to show me where to bite on the piece. dusta assisted with his pocket flashlight and showed me the larva that were wiggling about in there. i smiled and without hesitation bit in. the whole house laughed and i got nervous that maybe they were just tricking me into eating the bugs! i looked confused i’m sure, until dusta said that they were so impressed that i’d eat the larva. they considered it the best part of the comb (in an almost medicinal kind of way actually). but of course i’d eat the larva!! if that’s what they do, then i will too. and wowza. that bite was intense. the beehives are kept in tamarind trees, thus producing tamarind flavored honey– and i can easily say, larva included, it was the best honey i’ve ever had.
the chief rolled out a hide for me and put it in between him and his children. the kids just stared at me while i pretended to fall asleep. at first it was difficult to doze on the hard ground, having only an animal skin in between me and the earth…but after a long day of trucks and hikes, i slept.
i spent the next few days with the older kids of the hamer tribe: watching them tend goat, sitting with families and eating (toasted corn that had been crushed into a powder, sorghum bread used to swipe up pastes made from barleys and wheats), sipped fermented drinks in the hot afternoons, and played with lots of cute babies. oh, and i drank many a canteen of warm goat’s milk and partook in the coffee ceremonies in the early morning (you go around from hut to hut and sit and talk and sip boiled coffee skins out of a huge dried gourd bowl. mm).
the omo valley was like stepping into a national geographic special. the people were so beautiful with their painted bodies, copper colored hair, stretched mouths and jewelried bodies.
ethiopia is one of the oldest sites of human existence known to scientists today. you will most definitely feel the ancient vibes if you take the time to explore ethiopia’s south west region. it’s the real o.g.
how to get there?
from the kenyan/ethiopian border, head to konso by either by bus or by hitchhiking. ask around for someone who is willing to guide and then negotiate a price. we settled on $15/day. food and accommodation was included in that price.
buses leave early in the mornings in ethiopia and they’re first come, first serve. be at the bus station by 6am. do not buy tickets from anyone other than the person authorized to sell them on the bus. many touts will try to charge you extra. if someone offers to help, they may be trying to ask the driver to charge you more and give them a cut of the commission. it’s always good to try and find the price out from someone already on the bus.
i’ve never done a tour since i started traveling by myself. but if you’re interested in exploring the omo valley, you’ll need one. ask around and you will find.
interesting tidbit: ethiopia has 13 months. and they use a different local time. the local time begins at dawn, as opposed to midnight. make sure to clarify whether the bus you want to catch is leaving at ethiopia local time, or east africa time. it can be a bit confusing.
visas are not available at the borders, if crossing by land from either kenya or sudan. but if you fly into bole int’l airport, you can get a visa upon arrival.