A Soft Landing in the Third World
And so it began. Africa.
As we left Italy I felt like I was stuckinaglasscaseofemotion – a little down on our Western Europe leg of the trip coming to a close, but also excited and nervous about moving to the next continent on our itinerary: Africa. The first 50 or so days were amazing, but if we’re being honest it was really just a way for us to ease into life on the road. Europe is, in many ways, a mirror image of the U.S. lifestyle we have grown accustomed. It was familiar. It was comfortable. (EDITOR’S NOTE: …and as you’ll recall, I spoke fluent Italian) But now we were about to leave that familiar, comfortable world and go to Ethiopia. It was about to get real.
How real? We’re talking staying in a house with 24-hour security on the grounds, a house cook who would do our laundry, a dog that would hang with us on the couch, and access to ESPN for the first time since leaving the motherland. I know what you’re thinking – “Ermergerd!!! How did you survive?!?!?”
This seamless transition into an unfamiliar land was facilitated by friends who have spent about two years working for the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia’s capitol city, Addis Ababa. So instead of having to find a budget-friendly hotel or hostel and crossing our fingers in hopes that it would be clean and we weren’t getting ripped off, we were graciously welcomed to Addis by Chris and Lindsay into their home.
They were pretty much the sole reason we ended up in Ethiopia. Prior to broaching the subject of visiting with Chris months earlier, I knew nearly nothing about the country. It’s not exactly one of the top tourist stops in Africa for most people. So in the spirit of helping our vast audience of loyal readers friends, family and a few former co-workers learn up on this not-so-frequently-visited country in northeast Africa, here’s a quick list of facts about Ethiopia:
- In the capital city, Addis Ababa, there are only two working traffic lights. And even then, it’s basically optional whether or not you obey them.
- There are goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, horses and many other animals that wander around the streets of major cities and rural areas alike. You name it, it probably has crossed a road in Ethiopia. And if you hit one that darts in front of your car, the situation is resolved by promptly paying the owner for the animal on the spot.
- It’s also commonplace for cars to share the highways with adults and children who treat it as a sidewalk and playground.
- Addis Ababa is more than 7,500 feet above sea level (which took our midwestern lungs a bit of getting used to), as is much of the northern part of the country. However, Ethiopia also owns the claim to the lowest point in Africa (and second lowest on earth) at Lake Assal in the Danakil Depression.
- You can count on one
handfinger the number of freshwater lakes in the country that you can swim in without being at risk of contracting Bilharzia.
We arrived with about two weeks of activities and excursions planned which included exploring Addis and then heading north to visit the “major” cities of Lalibela and Gondar, followed by four days of trekking in the Simien Mountains.
But to first acclimate ourselves to this new country before we headed north from the capital, we got to join our hosts for a weekend of camping on the shores of Lake Langano (the one freshwater lake noted above that you can actually swim in without acquiring a disease). It was a three and a half hour drive from Addis, and was also the first time Noelle and I really ventured outside the friendly confines of Chris and Lindsay’s home in 24 hours. With the creature comforts we’d enjoyed there (EDITOR’S NOTE: a couch! a spacious living room! endless internet access! a kitchen!) it was easy to forget our surroundings until we saw donkeys carrying loads of hay along the road, horses pulling men on make-shift carriages in the slow lane on the highway, small tuk-tuks driving along the shoulder and tin roofed and walled roadside huts selling locally made goods or foods.
This was the “outside our comfort zone” we hadn’t yet been exposed to, but we quickly returned to the comforts of familiarity as we arrived at the U.S. Embassy’s campsite at Langano – complete with a fully functional kitchen and dining area and A-frame roofs covering our tent (which came in handy during a pretty awesome thunderstorm our second night there).
Chris, Lindsay and their friends spoiled us with food they’d each prepared before we arrived, and we spent the rest of our time, swimming, reading and relaxing. (EDITOR’S NOTE: YAY! Our first chance to spend time withe real US newspaper! No mind that the crisp New York Times you see in my hands was 2 weeks old, courtesy of the much-delayed mail delivery they’ve become accustomed to.) Each night ended with a campfire and some drinks. Life was good.
All in all, I’d say we felt almost like we were cheating with how easy our first few days in Ethiopia were for us. But that would soon change as we boarded a plane to spend a week without the comforts our American hosts provided. (EDITOR’S NOTE: COMMENCE PROJECT PERMANENT NOELLE-SCARRING…read on and you’ll know….oh, you’ll know…).