Tanzania’s Wild West

We had not come to Kigoma just to experience an exciting bus ride. The city was the base for our trip to Gombe National Park, which is located at the coast of Lake Tanganyika, about 2.5 hours by boat north of Kigoma. Already before starting our adventure in Peru, we had organized our safaris and prebooked a guide, Hussein. So now we were in the quite new position of not having to plan anything – it was nice after all not to have to worry about how to go on.

Our aim in Gombe was to see the chimpanzees. We were told that you have to walk 2-3 hours trough the forest and that sometimes you need a second try the next day. Usually you only get a glimpse of them while they jump through the trees. So we started our long walk. After maybe ten minutes our guide asked a researcher, who was responsible to keep track of the chimps, whether he had an idea in which direction to go to see them. He simply nodded indifferently towards a trail 20 meters away: a whole family was sitting here, perfectly visible on the ground and relaxed. At least since Jane Goodall this group is used to humans, so it turned out to be pretty easy to watch them. In fact, they are fascinating animals. They just sat there, the babies climbed onto the adults, they played and picked the fleas. Chimpanzees are flexible when it comes to food: they eat plants, fruits but also some baby baboons. They even mix meat with some vegetables, so their menu is much more sophisticated than in any Tanzanian restaurant. Sometimes, they eat Amarula, a fruit that makes them drunk and helps enjoying their time even better. They have such a relaxed life that we wonder which of the chimps was the first to have the stupid idea of starting the evolution towards a human being …. Given we achieved our goal that quickly, we spent the rest of the day walking to a waterfall and lying at the wonderful beach near the research station. Continue reading

To Kigoma with “Adventure Connections”

In the previous post we had already announced to have a looong bus ride to Kigoma ahead. And we were not to be disappointed, the journey was exactly as adventurous as it should be when you go to the place where Stanley met Livingstone. We had to be at the bus station at 5:30 in the morning, where the bus would leave at 6. This was approximately the time when nearly every other bus at the terminal left. But ours took time until 7 to appear. Then we needed an hour to embark because passengers had too much luggage with them and it was total chaos. Each thing they do here you have the feeling they do it for the first time. Eventually we started our 1500 km trip.

We lost one hour in the traffic jams around Dar Es Salaam, another 30 minutes at several police check points and the same amount of time at various bus stations on the way, where they were forced by law to make pretty senseless halts. Yet the best was still to come: Around midday, not more than 200 km away from Dar, the bus had a breakdown. We waited and waited and were quite surprised that after another hour they managed to repair it. We were supposed to arrive in Kahama at 5 in the afternoon to spend the night there and avoid a night ride. We estimated how delayed we actually would arrive but all guesses were much too optimistic – we reached Kahama at 1:30 in the night, after some horrible hours for Eli (who otherwise proved to be very brave). The next bus would go at 5:30 and all hotels were closed, so we slept on the dusty ground directly at the bus station, in the cold and with the music of the adjacent “Chipsi Mayai” restaurant. Continue reading

Ramadan in Zanzibar

Considering our experiences with Ethiopian, one could expect we would have been happy to leave the country. The contrary is the case. Back in Addis Ababa, we even regret not to have more days there. Our great couchsurfing host Ahmed turned out to be such an interesting person that we would have loved to spend more time with him, listening to and learning from his stories. He actually is from Yemen, but grew up in Quebec in Canada. After finishing his studies, he managed to make his jobs follow his way of life – and not the other way round. Working for NGOs, development or environmental companies or foundations, among others he has lived in Brazil, France, Israel, Gaza, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and currently is in Ethiopia. He had so many things to tell about the experiences he made from all over the world, and even better he was still really down-to-earth and interested. We enjoyed the short but great time we spent together, are very thankful about his awesome hospitality and definitely hope to meet him again – wherever it may be.

Before seeing the “real” Tanzania, our next destination was Zanzibar, island famous for its paradise-like beaches, birth-place of Freddy Mercury and also known for its infamous history as center of slave-trade. We had expected Zanzibar to be rather unauthentic and “made” for tourists, but we were positively surprised and in fact are glad to have been here. Of course, there exist expensive beach resorts and the typical souvenir-streets with some touts hanging around. Yet, the island has not given up itself and kept a lot of its authenticity, tradition and charm. The atmosphere in Stonetown was quite relaxed and calm, especially due to ramadan. Nearly 95% are Muslim and Islam plays an important role, influencing the everyday life of the population. During the day, all local restaurants were closed and most inhabitants tried to find some seat in the shadow to have a rest or talk with friends. But in the evening a bit before sunset, it was like the whole town would wake up and prepare for the big event to come. You could smell the freshly cooked food at each corner and feel the anticipation that fasting would be over soon. Also at the main park, street food vendors built up their selling stalls and then started selling some specialties to the tourists. Even if – compared to the remote untouched areas where the locals meet – this place was more touristy with slightly higher prices, the ambience was still nice and enjoyable, mainly because here the tourists seem to be keen on having a local experience and mixing up with Zanzibar’s people. Continue reading

Yet Another Complex Country to Sum-Up

Unbounded Possibilities, Limited Realizations

No, this is not a story about starving children. We know that this is the picture many Europeans have of Ethiopia, but it is a pretty unfair one. In fact, Ethiopians have lots of reasons to be proud of their country. It is often ignored that Ethiopia has one of the longest and most interesting histories in the world. Although not everything they sell as history is true – probably they do not host the “Ark of Covenant” and their kings did not descend from the biblical Salomon – what stands the test of science is still impressive. First, it is the cradle of humanity and the place where Lucy was found. The old kingdom of Axum (in northern Ethiopia) was considered to be one of the four most important empires of the first centuries, together with China, Persia and Rome. Later the Ethiopian kingdoms had relationships to Portugal and France, defeated both the Ottomans and the Italians and remained the only African country to resist colonization.

The landscape here can take your breath away, too. Usually it is nice, friendly and green, but also spectacular canyons and mountains are on offer. You see so many diverse wild animals and for ornithologists it must be paradise. It often is a nearly perfect idyll: there is no motor noise, donkeys, mules, cows and sheep cross the streets and farmers plow their fields with self-made wooden plows and two oxes. Further, everyday life is full of culture and Ethiopians know how to have a good time together. They have their own music and dances and are ready to smile and laugh. Ethiopian food is very special and tasty, you find good pastries but they also skilfully adapt international cuisine – preferably from Italy – and you do not get sick of it. Even the smallest and cheapest café is carefully furnished and will have some charm. And definitely it will have a professional coffee machine to achieve the high standards of Ethiopia’s aromatic coffee culture.

Ethiopia is a dynamic country. They have doubled their GDP per capita in the last ten years, houses and roads are built everywhere and Addis Ababa is growing as fast as any Chinese city. Ethiopians are enthusiastic about the new Nile dam they are about to build and that will solve almost all of their electricity problems. Sudanese and Egyptians are a bit less enthusiastic.

In general, people turned out to be really polite and surprisingly well informed. They’re very open, you easily get into a conversation in a café or elsewhere, small children love greeting and waving to foreigners and the quite high level of most Ethiopians’ English skills facilitates communication. Usually the ordinary street vendors accept a polite “No, thank you”. Especially after Nepal and India, the overall atmosphere is calm and agreeable. However, mainly two problems make travelling through Ethiopia a bit hard and sometimes annoying. One is rather technical and might change over time, the other is deeper rooted.

First, there is nearly no infrastructure for tourists, above all for backpackers or budget visitors. It is complicated to get reliable information about sites, distances are large and just a few main roads are paved. Still worse, government regulations sometimes make travelling even harder by forbidding to use the infrastructure which is existing. Excursions we were interested in were usually tailormade or at least had tailormade-like prices. Maybe it is much easier to travel here with an organized tour, but then you can be sure that the wrong people will get the money. And if you are willing to pay incredibly high prices, it is often better to do it somewhere else because most sights do not justify such expenditures. If you can afford it, maybe it is best to explore Ethiopia with a hired vehicle to be independent and have time to see the countrysides.

The second thing is that Ethiopians are very proud of their hospitality. Honestly, there is no reason for this and in fact, Ethiopia competes with Nepal for the last place in that ranking so far. “I like foreigners because they have dollars” one of our bus drivers said to us, and that might be the best definition of Ethiopian hospitality. Yes, as said before, they are polite and friendly and will help you with anything, for example by translating in a shop. Unfortunately, then you will pay more, and not just 10% to 20% but the threefold or fourfold. With the remarkable exceptions of cafés and restaurants, everywhere they will demand “faranji”-prices and they will tell you almost anything to make you accept their demands. We argued a lot about fair prices and almost never received support from some locals (really different from India, by the way). When it comes to ripping off a foreigner, they usually stick together, and you have dozens of Ethiopians lying to you. Only once or twice some passengers in the bus helped us and told the driver not to overcharge us – and these people then made our day. But generally speaking it is like this: in China, where they also had a different language and a different alphabet, they doubled their efforts to help us when they realized we were not familiar with the country. In Ethiopia they double the prices.

Perhaps it is too hard to say that there is no hospitality. Perhaps they simply forget it when they are tempted by foreigners’ money. Again, we are aware that we must appear incredibly rich to them. Even though we have not seen extremely dire poverty, the country is totally underdeveloped and life must be harsh. It is cold in the mountains and fuel or wood is rare for heating. The next town may be a day away by walking. Cultivating fields appears idyllic but it is physically exhausting, like most of the work here. Nonetheless, we think that hospitality has little to do with income. In fact, our great couchsurfing host Ahmed could tell us from experiences he made in Somalia and Sudan. There, the clans and locals did everything to treat him as a guest and refused to take money. Here, normally the beggars and cheaters are not the poorest in the country. They are bus owners, well-dressed touts, children asking for a new football or young students requesting at least a 200 EUR scholarship per month for their education. In Ethiopia, more than in any other country we visited, they are deeply convinced that it is the white man’s burden to give the black man money. They expect it from us and are truly disappointed when we do not give anything.

Hidden in the countryside, surely most people do their hard work. But in the cities and tourist spots, too many people here hold this truth to be self-evident that work is not a mean to get rich. Working is something for women and old people. Those were the ones we saw carrying the heaviest weights and simply doing their work without complaining, and moreover they were smiling and greeting friendly. Contrasting this, lots of young men hang around idly, some of them waiting for a tourist to rip off. It is not that they are lazy, they invest a lot of effort in overcharging us, but they have no initiative in building up something with a larger time horizon. There are so many things we happily would have paid for, unfortunately no one had the idea of earning money with these services. The only touristy infrastructure that really exists are the officers standing at each tourist spot, even in the middle of nowhere, demanding quite high entrance fees. Maybe corruption discourages potential entrepreneurs, perhaps it also is just more accepted to rip off “faranjis” than providing services for them.

To conclude (*sigh*): Ethiopia is the first country where we are truly not sure whether one should visit it or not. Elsewhere, tourism had side-effects, but it provided income to many classes of people and it enlarged the horizon of both the travellers and the locals. Here, mainly the wrong persons benefit from it and tourism enhances the demands more than income, making people less satisfied than before. Given that honesty and fairness seem to be high values, we had the feeling that our presence rather brought out the worst out of Ethiopians.

At the Springs of the Nile – OR – You Always Meet Twice in Life

Initially, we thought we were in Ethiopia, the land of runners. How wrong we were. Actually, you see runners quite seldom, but when we arrived to Bahir Dar, some roads were blocked and thousands of spectators lined the streets. Interested, we approached them and the reason for this event was very cool: there was a bicycle race with maybe 40 participants, TV broadcast and accompanying cars with replacement bikes. The whole town was enthusiastic and we really like the atmosphere, although the competition level was not so high compared to the professional material (Trek, Bianchi, Canondale, etc.). Probably Ethiopians have the same speed, no matter whether they run or cycle.

In general, Bahir Dar is a pretty town, with a nice boulevard, Italian-like cafés and pizzerias, not too touristy – and above all, Bahir Dar is located at the shores of Lake Tana. This lake is said to be one of the most important springs of the Nile, even though for us it is hard to imagine how a lake can also be a spring. Perhaps they just mean that many rivers from the surrounding lush mountains flow into Lake Tana and form the Blue Nile from there on. We liked Bahir Dar so much that we stayed one day longer than previously planned. Continue reading