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Hostile environments, Part #5: Ethiopia



Many travel writers about Ethiopia enthuse that it is the only country in Africa not to be colonised (that is not true; it was colonised briefly by the Italians); and, unlike other sub-Saharan countries, it is very safe. These assertions are preposterous. Danger meets the casual traveller at every turn.


To be fair to Ethiopia, one thing it does have right is its bureaucracy. There are no problems at the airport, at which this author obtained a visa on arrival albeit that he had to leave his passport at the airport for 24 hours. But nobody in the hotel cared. Ethiopian Airlines, the state-owned carrier, is renowned as the best airline in Africa. It is one of the only airlines to offer a reasonably comprehensive service of flights around African countries (e.g. from east to west); few other airlines do that. The airline has a fleet of properly serviced small aircraft for domestic travel, that are reliable in every way. Security at Ethiopian airports is meticulous, a welcome respite from the lackadaisical standards of most African airports.


But there the plus-points end. Addis Ababa, a sprawling sewer of over five million people, is possibly the dirtiest place this author has ever visited. The geography of the city causes overhwleming smog problems; sleep in a hotel high up. The shanty towns that comprise 95 per cent of the city are extremely dangerous. People will follow you anywhere you go, armed with knives and with a view not to murdering you but to robbing you. This author had several knives pulled on him in Addis. He also almost lost half the skin on his back as a man slit his rucksack open with a Stanley knife while another man distracted him as he walked down the street.


Addis Ababa does not seem to have adequate mortuary facilities. It is common to see dead bodies just lying in the road. Someone died in the street, perhaps due to malnutrition or tropical disease, and their cadaver is just left there. This author discovered he was sitting next to a corpse when he was at a bus stop waiting for the bus (mistake) and asked his fellow passenger when the next bus would arrive. Whatever time it was, it was too late for that gentleman.


Taxis can be dangerous, as they can take you to men with knives. Walking is dangerous, due to the men with knives. Also walking anywhere in Ethiopia is infuriating, as you will rapidly acquire a large group of men (e.g. 5 to 10) who will follow you down the street, surrounding you, saying they want to talk to you but in fact they want to rob you. It matters not if you take one clean out with a punch; another one will replace him from somewhere. Unless you want life to feel like a Bruce Lee action movie in which you are constantly beating off various assailants with acts of violence, walking around Ethiopian streets is not for you.


The buses and minibuses within towns are unusuable, because they are all so packed that people are hanging out of the doors, off the back of the rear bumper (fender), etcetera, as the bus is careering at great speed through dangerous traffic. Decent hotel cars are few, and are available only to people staying in decent hotels, of which there are few given that Addis Ababa is supposed to be the diplomatic capital of Africa.


Ethiopian food is extremely dangerous. Many dishes are raw meat, something the menu might not advertise when you order. Raw meat can carry worms and other unpleasantnesses, while the raw vegetables, washed in unboiled water, while give you one of the two principal kinds of dysentry. Even so-called tourist restaurants serve very dangerous things to eat. When buying bottled water, check the cap meticulously; much of it is tap water, extremely dangerous, and the Ethiopians are masters in sealing both metal and plastic caps back on opened bottles.


In every town you visit, you must stay in the very best hotel and only eat in its restaurant. The staff there are trained how to prepare food safely and how to wash bed linen properly. And beds will have mosquito nets. As a result of not staying in the very best hotel in various towns, this author:

  1. Has contracted malaria despite prophylaxis

  2. Has contracted hook worms and ring worms

  3. Has been bitten by bed bugs

  4. Has found a tarantula in his bed, next to his head

  5. Has contracted both amoebic and bacyllic dysentry

  6. Has been bitten by triatominae (kissing bugs)

  7. Has had his luggage rifled through by hotel staff

  8. Had leeches and spiders coming out of the bath water taps

  9. Had some terrible shocks with animals that live in the u-bend of the lavatory and become interested in the outside world whenever a person sits on the toilet seat

  10. Found his en suite facilities to be a pile of smashed up porcelain covered in faeces and a layer of insects living on top of the faeces

  11. Had every wall, ceilings and floors included, covered in armies of marching ants

Ethiopia is awash with dangers.


Something should be said about the domestic intercity bus system, which is as intriguing as it is terrible. There is no doubt that this author's worst land journeys were undertaken by Ethiopian buses. In Ethiopia there is an official time as well as the real time, which causes all sorts of confusions. The official time is six hours behind the real time, so 06:00 actual time is 00:00 official time. All intercity buses leave from a town's official bus station at 00:00 official time each day, that is to say in the pitch black. When you arrive at the bus station at 23:30 official time to buy your ticket, the place will be awash with men wearing white sheets and turbans and carrying big sticks, seeking to insert some order into the frenzy that inevitably results from every bus leaving at exactly the same time every day.


You will buy your ticket; but the problems arise when you see that your bus is actually a truck with hard wooden benches inserted in the back. The local people will insist on closing the windows to stop the desert sand from blowing in and covering everyone. This will not be successful; within 30 minutes you will be covered by sand, including small dunes that have built up on the brim of the hat you are wearing to keep off the sun; and so on and so forth. Meanwhile the absence of breeze will raise the temperature on the bus to in excess of 40 degrees. Don't worry; the other passengers will have nice bottles of tap water to offer you with their caps resealed; and the driver will make periodic stops at 'restaurants' offering raw liver and similar such delicacies. No roads outside the capital are paved. They are desert gravel roads, so the ride on those hard wooden truck seats is particularly uncomfortable and unpleasant. Some of these journeys can last as long as 48 hours. You will not be getting any sleep. By the end of the journey you may be suffering from psychosis because it really was all too much and it can break a man.


You can rent cars with driver, but only 4WD and they are very expensive in light of the driving conditions they have to endure; dangerous (no roads are lit; some mountain passes are single lane; and there might be a truck coming round the corner) and these private hire vehicles predictably frequently break down, leaving you by the side of the road in the baking desert heat for hours while your driver hitches a lift to the next town to get help.


Hence only travel domestically by aeroplane. It is insanity to try anything else.


Do not travel to the northern Tigray region; there is a civil war. The tourist town of Axum, actually cleaner than most, is out of bounds for now. Take great care in the Muslim areas east of the capital and any other area where you hear of civil unrest. There is no reason to go to these places. There is nothing for you there.


Always be on your guard for supposedly friendly people who will pull a knife on you as soon as the right opportunities arise. Ensure you are trained on what to do in such an eventuality.


Take as much industrial insecticide as you can carry. Buy a rural hatchet to chop foliage out of the way. Do not go on boats (e.g. in Bahar Dar); they frequently sink; be aware that Lalibela involves walking in heaps of wet mud and you will find yourself covered in it if you attempt to visit those churches.


Generally do not venture out at night. There is nothing out there except opportunities for violent robbery. Eat in your hotel. Addis Ababa has a selection of bars and nightclubs. They are all full of extremely violent people beating each other and shouting and throwing beer bottles while prostitutes try to pick your pocket. These places should be avoided.


If you fly everywhere and only stay and eat in the very best hotels, and get driven around cities by hotel cars, you may find Ethiopia quite pleasant. The country is actually quite interesting; there is lots to see. If you stray from any of these norms, you are going to realise you have made a serious mistake. Correct yourself, and your trip should continue pleasantly.


Welcome to Ethiopia. You have been warned.