My First Impressions of Ethiopia.

My first distinct memory of Ethiopia is standing on a cliff in the Simien Mountains, looking down at tiny highland villages dotting the valley on one side, vast green farm land on the other, volcanic mountains surrounding me, and thick-billed white-headed ravens flying above. I’m in the heart of Africa, I thought to myself as I watched the mist roll in; after dreaming about this part of the world for a long time, I’m finally here.

When I impulsively opted for a flight to Addis Ababa from Mauritius, I thought I was ready for East Africa after all the years I’ve spent travelling in India and Central America. And in some ways, I was. But even as I hiked in the vast, misty wilderness of the Simien Mountains and started appreciating the unique spirit of Addis Ababa, I failed to build a deep connection with the country and its people. I left Ethiopia after 3 weeks – earlier than I had anticipated – but I know I’ll go back someday, with more time, money and perhaps maturity, to rekindle the spark I felt in my initial days.

These are my first impressions, and why I felt challenged over the course of my travels:

Ethiopia’s living culture is awe-inspiring.

Even 900 year old UNESCO Sites are living heritage sites.

ethiopia culture, ethiopian people, lalibela, pictures of ethiopia
A monk deep in prayers in an underground church in Lalibela.

Existential questions like who we are and where we come from, often plague the introspective amongst us. Ethiopia has some deep answers buried in its midst, and here, in the birthplace of mankind, I had the rare feeling that I’m travelling through time. In a 900-year-old underground church cut into a rock in Lalibela, I was lucky enough to witness a special ceremony with men in white robes chanting hypnotically and beating drums, as the rocks echoed their music. Mountain villages on the countryside near the Simiens felt stuck in time, with men and women wearing bright, flowing clothes, hanging out outside their earthy homes with their cattle.

A local shared with me the irony of Ethiopia being the place where the world began, and yet somehow, fell off the world map into obscurity. I’m glad it found its way onto my map.

Also read: My First Impressions of South Africa

Addis Ababa reminds me of India in the 90s.

Think no foreign brands and old-school infrastructure. 

addis ababa, east africa travel, ethiopia travel blogs
A double rainbow on my way out of Addis!

Landing in Addis Ababa, the capital city, was a bit like travelling back to ‘urban’ India in the early 90s. Soviet-era cars ply as taxis, there is only one telecom operator in the country, and you see no known international brands anywhere! I quickly learnt that Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to have never been colonized, and the people, proud of their independence, aren’t too open to foreign influence. Except for a bit of infrastructure developed by China, things are rolling slowly, which means even Addis has the small town feeling that Indian cities once had.

Also read: Romania, You Can Fool the World With Your Smiles, But Not With Your Heart

Ethiopia might have the world’s finest cuisine for vegans (and any foodie).

Many locals eat fasting (vegan) food for nearly 200 days a year!

traditional ethiopian food, ethiopian cuisine, vegan ethiopia, vegan africa, fasting beyaynetu
A traditional fasting beyaynetu served on injera, made of steamed teff.

Confession: I chose to travel to Ethiopia because I’ve been in love with Ethiopian cuisine since I first tried it in New York City. I expected to eat well as a vegan, but imagine my delight when I learnt that their Orthodox Christianity beliefs have most locals eating fasting food (aka no animal products) for several parts of the year; the idea is similar to lent, where believers are expected to give up on food they relish, eat ‘simple’ meals, and feel the suffering of their fellows. That means I could walk into any restaurant – Ethiopian or otherwise – in the country and ask for fasting food, without having to explain that I don’t eat meat, seafood, dairy or eggs.

I still salivate at the thought of fasting beyaynetus (a spread of vegan dishes served on injera), shiro (pureed chickpeas served on injera) and firfir (injera fried with berbere); I even found fasting cupcakes and other bakery delights. It’s been my easiest and most delightful country as a vegan thus far! 

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – And What It Means for My Travel Lifestyle

It’s not a place for digital nomads or slow travel.

Accommodations are either too basic or too expensive, and wifi is rare.

pictures of ethiopia, ethiopia travel blogs, travel in ethiopia, ethiopia solo travel
My home, office and oasis in Addis Ababa.

It didn’t take me long to realize that (my kind of) slow travel was going to be difficult in Ethiopia. I had intended to spend several weeks on the countryside, getting a feel of the local culture while working on the go, but I found that accommodations are either too basic or too expensive (sometimes even the expensive ones are pretty basic), public transport connectivity is limited, private taxis are extremely expensive (150-200$ a day), and hitch-hiking is uncommon. And most importantly, for a digital nomad like me who makes her living on the go, wifi is rare and exorbitantly priced (16$ for 2GB). That meant I had to use Addis as a base, and leach on the wifi offered by big hotels in their coffee shops. On the bright side, that means people still talk to each other in cafes instead of staring into their screens 😉

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

It’s safe to travel solo if you keep your wits about you.

iPhones cost 3 times the regular price in Addis, and are common pickpocketing targets.

Ethiopian people, life in ethiopia, ethiopia culture, solo travel ethiopia
With newfound friends, Genetu and Indak.

If I’m completely honest, I was pretty darn scared the night I landed in Addis. In the course of my journey from the airport to my friend’s place, I heard atleast five different stories of how people (or their friends) had their iPhones flicked while walking or taking a cab at night in the city. Possessive of my own iPhone, I didn’t take it with me the first few times I ventured out! But I quickly realized that pickpocketing in Addis is about as common as it is in say, Delhi; you’ll be fine if you keep your wits about you.

Although I felt safe going solo into the Simiens and Lalibela, I found it hard to strike a genuine conversation with locals; almost every time a conversation ensued, it turned out to be an elaborate front to ask for money. Given the income disparity, it’s totally understandable, but after a while, I felt frustrated and put my guard up. I kept wondering if that’s how foreigners traveling in India feel too?

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

You need to be a mature traveller to truly soak in the beauty of Ethiopia.

While leaving, I felt like I’m not that traveller yet.

simien mountains, ethiopia photos, life in ethiopia
Soaking in the wild beauty of the Simien Mountains.

Due to my lack of research, I ended up spending far more money than I had anticipated, and ultimately decided to cut short my trip in East Africa (I’m spending the last leg in Zanzibar, Tanzania). The more I think about it, the more I feel like I haven’t matured enough as a traveller to take on East Africa – and by maturity, I mean, someone who’s learnt to travel deep enough in a different country to really understand its way of life. The next time I go back, I’ll try to find a more meaningful way to connect with the people, for that’s where the beauty of travel truly lies.

Where have you felt the most challenged on your travels?

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  1. nice post .. Ethiopia brings in a picture of rebels, crime and violence … utter poverty and severe famines .. totally misguided ?

    1. It’s been through all that and emerged for the most part – so yes. The media never shows the prettier, evolved picture, does it?

  2. Your work is inspiring! Ethiopia reminds you that life is not all digital and advancement in technology. Nice read!

  3. With all due respect Chetankjain, making sweeping comments like that speaks more of your ignorance then consigning a country of 91 million plus people into your understanding of what make up Ethiopia.

    And no am not Ethiopian but an expatriate living here for 5 years now. Google a little bit of the country from an East African perspective not from that of a Westerner as information is rarely presented without being synced to the perspective of who is collating the information.

    So ask the contributor whether she saw any rebels, extreme poverty (you find that in India galore and every where else on earth) and violence: what violence in Ethiopia? Have you checked the statistics of Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and by and large India (not to talk of the relative rare privilege of women walking alone in public before being gawked at and grobed and in some instances raped)? Be careful of generalizing things you know nothing of.

    1. Take it easy friend. The entire world is plagued by misconceptions of other countries and cultures – the very reason why I started blogging!

      1. Shivya – absolutely. I dig your blog precisely for the power it has to disspell so many myths and misconceptions. I have learned so much by reading your blog since its inception.

  4. Dominant blog ! it is very good to read it… Thanks for sharing shivya

  5. shaji a.k says:

    wowwwwwwwwwww wonderful

  6. constanttraveller1 says:

    Nice insight Shivya. Love the double rainbow pic too. Did you taste the coffee there? I want to visit Ethiopia just to sample the coffee!

    1. Thanks! I loved the coffee there, but only tried it a couple of times since it doesn’t quite agree with my tummy 🙁

  7. Good stuff. The food looks so yum. How’s life there for the locals? That’d be interesting to know.

    1. The food is yum indeed. It seems to vary quite a bit – between Addis (the capital, more urban, a bit like 90s India but with a growing alternative culture) and the countryside (rural, agrarian, much like rural India).

  8. That pic really reminded of India in the 90s. Great post. Loved your honesty in the end where you mention more research would have helped your stay lot more.
    The vegan food looks extremely tempting. It kinda looks like our South Indian dosa with wide-varieties of side dishes & chutneys! Doesn’t it?

    1. Haha, it does look a bit like that but tastes VERY different 😉 I would love to start an authentic Ethiopian restaurant in India!

  9. I love the post Shivya as anywhere in Africa outside of North Africa and South Africa, isn’t going to be easy!

    The place that I felt most challenged was actually in Singapore! It was in 1999, and the end of my GAP year in Asia. I had had a wonderful time in all the other Asian countries and Singapore was the last one before I flew to Germany, where I was going to start my expat live!

    And I didn’t like it! Not only was it too Western, but for the first time ever, I couldn’t connect with the locals! I kept seeing British expats everywhere, but that wasn’t why I was there. And I tried my best but it didn’t work. I mean, I’ve been to India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, etc and I connected with the locals very, very well. In fact, I pretty much partied my way through Asia lol, but not in Singapore!

    Ah well!

    1. Interesting comment but again bar North Africa and South Africa the rest of the 54 countries that make up the Africa continent are not easy? So what makes travel in Namibia and Botswana so difficult? State of the art infrastructure (telecommunications [4G], no potholed roads, safe and clean potable water, well functioning ports, 24 hour electricity for the past 100 years), top notch accommodation establishments and albeit a second to none hospitality?

      1. @thebritishberliner – I hear you about Singapore; lived there for almost 6 years, and it’s SO different from the rest of the Southeast Asian cluster. I still can’t get over how even the trees on the road side are manicured 😉 I guess it takes living there to be able to connect with locals on a deeper level, since on the outset, everyone seems technology obsessed!

        @dannii29 – From what I’ve heard about Botswana (and researched about Kenya and Tanzania), the infrastructure is great but the costs of travel are extremely high since most national parks are only accessible by bush planes / domestic flights. That true?

        1. @shivya – I am an expat living in Kenya. In my experience, all the national parks in kenya are approachable by road, but due to time restrictions many foreign tourists choose to fly. Also since these national parks are these countries’ major income, they tend to charge more for foreigners.

  10. PANKAJ RAI says:

    Hello Shivya,

    Simply Great.
    Yours all posts, language, pics etc. all reflect the mindset of a mature traveler. You do not simply travel but explore every thing from pin to plane in that destination and that’s the way I like it. You can rightly be called as an advanced traveler. Will continue to enjoy and learn from your posts. Thanks

  11. Reblogged this on Just About Everything and commented:
    As an Ethiopian I am delighted to see my country from a foreigner’s eyes view. However, I am also sad to see how our tourism industry and the accommodations available are very lacking. I do agree that it is ironic how Ethiopia being the place where the world began, yet somehow fell off the world map into obscurity. We the people have a responsibility to put our country back on the map again in all sectors.

    1. I have spend about 5 years in country now and there is a definite disconnect between what an owner of an accommodation establishment think he/she should levy vs the actual quality of the experience and the infrastructure. In the absence of a proper grading system (i.e. what constitute a 3 star grading etc.), it is difficult to quantify in terms of value for money vs the actual experience.

      When I walk into a bed and breakfast establishment, say Awasa or Shashemene, and I am offered a studio apartment or room, and get charged the equivalent of say ET birr 1’500 per day, then my brain tells me to expect at least basic things that need to be in working order (not luxury but functional). Placement of electrical power sockets, lights, carpets or tiling, condition of WC, bedding & linen, general ambience of the room not to talk of the food presented. It can be spartan, but it must be clean and functional. It is like someone forgot to marry the presentation vs the value of money and often you are left with having been short changed.

      Telecommunications, outside Addis Ababa and a few towns, erratic at most or downright not functional. It just pains one so much – there is believe of so much available and yet it just falls short and unfortunately those that runs these places are oblivious to the fact that they are falling short. I wish someone somewhere could just tell them to shape up – there is so much to offer. Why doesn’t the Tourism authorities dispatch a collective group of B&B owners to say Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia and expose these owners to how successful tourism establishments should be run (no reason to re-invent the wheel – best practice in industry or best of breed can be tailored and fashioned to new entrants).

      1. Thank you for your comment and I totally understand your frustration. I believe there’s so much to be done in Ethiopia for the country to be able compete in the globalized world economy. To just build on your example, telecommunications in Ethiopia is one of the fast growing sectors; however, as you mentioned, it’s service is very limited in many parts of the country. But you also need to understand that the Ethiopian telecommunications industry currently runs as a monopoly, so you can imagine the impact that could have on the local businesses (small to big) that depend on it to provide their services efficiently. It is not an easy issue to be fixed but I have seen so much improvement and change in the right direction just in the past five years alone. So, I hope going forward we will see much improvement in all sectors -including tourism – through best practices adaptation or even reinventing the whole system, if that’s what is needed.

        1. Glad to see the discussion here; this is why I loved hanging out at cafes in Ethiopia and overhearing locals / expats discuss innovative solutions! I just want to say that India’s gone through a similar path in many ways, and although the tourism infrastructure still leaves much to be desired, things have really started changing in the price-value equation – especially with people offering (and wanting) more authentic, experiential yet comfortable travel. So I have hope 🙂

  12. Manish agarwal says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Changed my whole perception about this . New to your blog but liking it lot.

  13. Agree that Ethiopia is a magical place — we just had some time in Lalibela and Addis Ababa and were wow-ed by the culture and food! 🙂

  14. Nice post! We have traveled quite a bit (South Africa including 2 months of volunteering in an orphanage, Middle East, US, Europe, Japan, Central America etc.). Our dream is to go across Africa… but indeed you need to be a mature traveller. We will keep on traveling to one day return to Africa and hopefully to be ready to soak up all the culture and beauty there is. (From what we have seen in South Africa and Lesotho, people are extremely welcoming but yeah there are some struggles to deal with!) Safe travels and looking forward reading more from you! Best regards, Marcella

  15. This post was such a fantastic read! I have been dying to travel through Africa and from your post i have decided it may be best to wait a little longer until i’ve become a more mature and cultured traveller. I want to learn really get a feel for every country i visit and i feel your post has highlighted the importance of this with Africa.
    Thankkss <3

  16. Hello Shivya,
    It’s simply wonderful to read your new post on Ethiopia. When you write “The more I think about it, the more I feel like I haven’t matured enough as a traveller to take on East Africa” – it shows your maturity to me, a man of 56.
    Comments of dannii29 & Bethel Tarekegne proves the strength of your write up.
    Thanks a lot….awaiting for the next..
    Best wishes for safe and healthy travels..

  17. Great read! I’ve heard similar feedback, I’ll definitely have to travel more before taking on Africa, but boy oh boy, do I want to go. Can’t wait to keep reading!

  18. caitlinjayne91 says:

    Amazing! Can’t wait to get to Ethiopia!

  19. I just returned from my own Africa trip and I already want to go back! But to answer your question, I found Namibia the hardest to get in touch with the locals. I think the main reason for that is because we chose to drive ourselves everywhere as public transport to national parks are non-existent and as I travel with my elderly mom, hitchiking is out of the question. Namibia has fantastic infrastructure, incredibly helpful service staff, but the only locals we came across reminded me of locals at Jaipur/Agra and other tourist spots in India where all conversations are geared towards making a sale/otherwise extracting money. The one exception to this was a kindly farmer and his wife who were so gracious as to let us use their restroom for a quick stop. They were so friendly and kind and I wish we could have gotten into a long chat, but I could see they were in the middle of their work-day and did not want to disturb them!
    I love this blog and this comment section! Thank you for opening up a space to have great discussions 🙂 Good luck on your travels, eagerly awaiting more reports!

  20. Thank you for your honest post. I tend to feel like a fraud when I visit places that I don’t immediate appreciate or feel a connection with, especially those places that have long been on my dream list. It happened to me on my first day in Marrakesh; I was bothered by how utterly disconnected I was with the city, a city I have been dreaming about visiting for years now, and I felt confused that so many travelers before me are completely smitten by it. Like you, I was not as prepared for the city as I thought I was. To use your words, I wasn’t “matured enough as a traveller” to take on Marrakesh then. That played a big part on how miserable I felt treated by the city.

    But I learned to let all my expectations go and surrender control; as a result, my second day went a whole lot better than my first. And now I cannot wait to go back!

  21. paulitaefe says:

    Inspiring and an honest post – I love the first picture <3

  22. I recently read a book called “cutting for stone”. It is based partly, on the life in Addis in the late 40’s. Reading it made me aware of their culture to such an extent , that I dreamt about it one night. Your mention of injera (and wok) made me nostalgia again, though I haven’t actually been there yet. Excellent post, creating vivid images of the places you have travelled. Keep writing!

  23. nibret negassa says:

    As an Ethiopian I am delighted to see my country from a foreigner’s eyes view. However, I am also sad to see how our tourism industry and the accommodations available are very lacking. I do agree that it is ironic how Ethiopia being the place where the world began, yet somehow fell off the world map into obscurity. We the people have a responsibility to put our country back on the map again in all sectors.

  24. Hi Shivya,

    I have travelled to quite a few countries in Africa thanks to my work as a telecom engineer! I love the way you have written down the feeling of being in Africa and those would be exactly the ones I felt as well. Every time I would be in a country, the only feeling with which I would leave would be to come back for more and soak in all I can. They give you a lot of warmth but also leave you feeling cold sometimes. The disparity tends to get to you after a point of time. Thanks for such an honest impression of Ethiopia.:)

  25. abhijeet bhagat says:

    nice to know, Love from india, iam android developer made an app in Amharic here it is

  26. teamhazard says:

    Love this write up! Haven’t been to Ethiopia but will probably be going soon. Looking forward to the food. We’re not vegan, but we’ve enjoyed Ethiopian food in LA for a long time. I have been to Eritrea, so at least I know which of the restaurants in Little Ethiopia are most authentic. I expect the real thing to be awesome.

    Thanks for getting us excited about another destination!

  27. Your perspective offers a refreshing glimpse into a land that seems to be a blend of timelessness and modernity.

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