Some Negatives of Traveling in Ethiopia

First, let me preface this rant with the fact that, overall, I do/did like Ethiopia.  But, of course, there are downsides to everything… and the biggest downside to traveling in Ethiopia, especially if you’re white, is that when certain segments of the population look at you, all they is see is a walking ATM machine.  And for those of you non-white folk reading this, don’t think the fact that you’re not white will escape the attention of the folks here… you will still be a “farengi” and will be treated as such (especially asians… who, instead of getting “farengi, farengi, farengi” calls will get “china, china, china” calls).  Even the diaspora Ethiopians (ethnically Ethiopian, but raised in another, usually western country) whom I spoke with reported that they got some of the price discrimination hassles as well, especially if they didn’t speak perfect Amharic.

So what do I mean by this… first, when walking down the street in anywhere in Ethiopia (from the tiniest village to the capital city) people will just yell “farengi, farengi, farengi” at you from wherever they are… I’m not sure if they’re announcing the presence of a foreigner to everybody else (just in case everybody who’s stopped to stare at you hadn’t noticed you were a foreigner) or it’s a game of who can call them out first (ala the slug-bug game while on road trips) in order to see who can get money, or gifts, from them the fastest.  And while it’s non-threatening, it’s definitely slightly disconcerting.  Second, every single beggar/hustler around will flock to you like moths to a flame… when you get out of the mini-bus, someone will try and help you out the door, then ask for a tip… when you’re out the door of the bus, someone will try and catch your bag (being unloaded from the roof) or get your bag out of the bottom of the bus, then ask for a tip… when you walk to your hotel, several people will offer to walk you there (even when you obviously know where you’re going), and then ask for a tip… people in Addis Ababa will approach you and “just happen” to be going wherever you’re going in the hopes of striking up some sympathy in order to ask for some money (usually a “student” who needs “money for books” or something along those lines)… street beggars will follow you around asking for money… every single idle taxi driver you pass will honk his horn at you and ask if you need a taxi.  And note that this is all the presence of tons of other Ethiopians… getting off the bus, walking to hotels, etc… they’re are tons of other folks around who are not being approached/bothered by these people (for obvious reasons).  And, despite their cuteness and curiosity, all the children that gather around will ask for money, then pens, then candy, then food in that order.  Third thing is that every single price magically doubles to quadruples in your presence… and it’s not like you’re getting a better room or service for the price.  Hotels in most every city save Addis Ababa have a “farengi” price that is much higher than the “Abusha (i.e. Ethiopian… note that I might have misspelled it, but that’s how the word sounded to me)” price… for example, in Jinka, the farengi price was 200 Birr while the abusha price was 50 Birr (I know this because wherever possible, and in this case, I send in an Ethiopian to ask about prices for me… but note that even if you get the abusha price for something like a hotel room, the price will increase the second they see you).  Taxi drivers in Addis are also a constant source of frustration in this department… they will quote ridiculous prices for short drives, and then when you tell them you know the price, or you took a taxi here for X, they’ll still only lower the price slightly.  I still can’t wrap my head around it… I mean I get that they’re trying to get a one-off bonus basically, but when they won’t come down to something reasonable I’ll walk away (taxis are all over the place here all the time, so it’s not like these guys have too much leverage in the pricing department except late at night) and they’ll get no business… and they’ll just be sitting there with no fares… I see it happen all the time (even during non-busy times).  Even the Ethiopians I’m with don’t get it… it’s like once upon a time these drivers all really stuck into a farengi in the pricing department, and they’re still forever searching for the feeling of that first high… and now they think anything (even when it’s still more than the abusha price) below that huge mark-up is losing.

Two Examples of what I’m talking about:
Example #1: Bahir Dar.  I went to Bahir Dar before I did my Simien Mountains trek.  It’s a nice little city situated on the southern shore of Lake Tana, which, I’m sure all of you geography majors out there already know, is the source of the Blue Nile (one of two tributaries, the other being the White Nile, that eventually join in Khartoum, Sudan to form “the” Nile River).  One thing to do in Bahir Dar is walking up to see a palace built by the last Ethiopian Emperor (Haile Selassie)  situated upon a hill overlooking the town.  My guidebook mentions that it’s a nice excursion, and I manage to recruit a Canadian I met two nights before to come with for a walk.  He agrees and off we go at around 10 AM.  The route follows the main road along the lake shore, until turning right past the bridge over the Blue Nile, then it follows the river for a bit before climbing the hill up to the palace.  Being two tall white dudes, we attract a decent amount of attention from passers-by, even getting a hanger-on less than ten minutes into our walk.  This guy passed us going the other way on his bicycle… he then turned around, pulled up next to us and started with the hey, where are you from questions.  Again, this happens a lot, but usually, people are just being curious, and will go on their way after a bit of conversation, or, if they’re trying to sell something, or ask for money, will get onto their pitch.  But this guy did the usual five-minute conversation and then just kept walking beside us.  My friend I just ignored him for a bit, but after a while we asked him where he was headed…and, of course, he said that he to (coincidentally of course) also happened to be heading up to the palace (we had let slip where we were headed on about question number 3).  Alright we said, but we told him that he could tag along if he wanted, but that, in no uncertain terms, would we be paying him anything.  He said fine, but you could tell he was angling for a tip, because every time we passed a building he’d, without fail, tell us what it was… despite the fact that there are huge signs on every building telling us the function or the name of the building (that’s the Blue Nile Hotel, he’d say as we passed a building where Blue Nile Hotel was clearly written on the sign).  My Canadian friend and I mostly ignored him, but he actually loosened up after a while (i.e. stopped trying so hard) and we were able to have some pleasant chats with him.  Anyhow, the walk up to the hill the palace took about 2 hours.  When we got to the palace, we were informed by the guard that we weren’t allowed to take pictures of it… so, just imagine a large house from the 60’s behind a gate (gracelandish, for those of you that have been)… that’s pretty much it, not at all that impressive.  Now, from the main entrance, a clear path runs around the walls of the palace heading towards the back of the grounds and the view over the town/river.  The three of us (myself, my Canadian friend and our first hanger-on) manage to get a second hanger-on telling us that he can show us views of the hippos that live in Lake Tana.  Okay… is it the view from the end of this path (which we have begun to walk along already) we ask… to which he says yes, come, come.  So we walk along the path that we were already on to the views behind the house (nice… overlooking the river, the lake and the town in the distance).

Our little gang takes in the sights for a bit and then we start to head back as it’s around noon now and getting pretty hot.  As we go, hanger-on number two begins having an earnest discussion with hanger-on number one about, presumably, getting some money out of us (even though we couldn’t understand what they’re saying, when you hear the word farengi, you know they are talking about you as an ATM machine).  As we round the bend past the palace gates, hanger-on number 2 announces that he has to go.  Alright, ciao we say.  But then he asks for some money for showing us the way… i.e. the path we were already headed down to see the views and where no hippos were seen.  We, of course, refuse, to which he balks, to which we say he should of asked us upfront if we’d pay for his non-existent guide services, to which he replies that he wasted all his energy walking with us in the sun (for about 20 minutes), to which we say tough shit, piss off, to which he yells at us that we’re not human beings as we continue walking away.  Ahhh… Ethiopia.  We head back down with hanger-on number one still in tow.  My Canadian friend and I are a bit tired at this point, and it’s pretty hot out (it’s not so much that the temperature is hot, it’s really just something about the equatorial sun beating down… it’s pretty intense), so we inquire with passing tuk-tuks about rides back into town.  Of course, being white, they quote us prices that are orders of magnitude above the normal price (5 Birr will get even a foreigner one way all the way across town, and these guys would start at 100 Birr… and yes, 100 Birr is only $6.50 USD, but it’s not about the money, it’s about the principal dammit… I expect to pay more than a local, but not that much more… and yes, I should have just gotten in without talking about money and handed the guy a 10 Birr note when I got out and just walked away).  So we walk away when they won’t come down past 90 Birr all the while insisting it’s a good price… I can walk back no problem (and of course they drive off, or just sit there by the side of the road with no other customers in sight).  We walk on.  We pass some kids on the road and stop for a chat, when they find out that we’re headed back to Bahir Dar proper, they tell us that there’s a ferry across the river we just passed that will shorten the journey considerably.  They walk us back to the ferry dock… and I learn that by ferry, they mean two kids with paddles and a dingy.

We shoot the shit a bit until the ferry reaches us, at which point our new friends say goodbye (without asking for anything… they’re just being nice, which I find very common despite the what I’m saying in this post).  Our entourage gets in the boat along with several others and we go across the river.  When we reach the opposite bank, my Canadian friend and I simply watch what the other passengers are paying the ferryman and we do the same (2 Birr per person), but then the farengi greed strikes the ferryman, who insists we have to pay 15 Birr each (not our hanger-on of course).  We stand around and yell a bit, and I point out that we all saw everyone else pay and that I’m not going to pay more for the same ride.  I hand the money collector 6 Birr and just walk off the boat (for me, the Canadian and our hanger-on), a bit more yelling at us from behind but we continue walking.  We walk a bit more and finally manage to get a tuk-tuk to stop for us with a reasonable fare proposal (after some bargaining of course).  We all get in (including our hanger-on) and are whisked back to our hotel where we started this adventure about 4 to 5 hours ago.  We begin to head in the gates of our hotel, when our hanger-on informs us that he lives back where we first got in the taxi and needs to go back.  Cool we say… sayonara and good luck, thanks for your company and see you later.  He says that we don’t understand, he has to be back to his place soon, so he needs taxi money.  Well, we ask, why you get in the tuk-tuk with us in the first place (to ask us for money being the real answer)?  He hems and haws a bit to where my Canadian friend and I just give him 20 Birr (the fare we just paid… which is still about double the abusha price) to get him home.  He kind of balks with the is-this-all-face, and we tell him that we told him we weren’t going to pay him, and that he’s kind of an idiot to have gotten in the tuk tuk with us if he was already near his house, and if he doesn’t like the 20 Birr we’re happy to take it back.  To which he says alright, and then asks for our numbers… we lie and both say we don’t have Ethiopian SIM cards and wish him a good day.  So… his ploy worked somewhat, if earning 20 Birr (about $1.10 USD) for four hours of walking is your idea of worked… and he wasn’t as annoying as most touts… but still annoying.

Example #2: Gondar.  I stopped in Gondar for a day (after being in Bahir Dar) just before the start of my Simien Mountain trek.  I ate something that didn’t agree with me for lunch the day before, and could feel myself coming down with food poisoning… not something you really want to have on a week-long mountain trek… so I went off in search of a pharmacy.  Now, Ethiopia is nice in that you buy cipro (as in ciproflaxin, the most common foul stomach antibiotic) over the counter at a pharmacy without a prescription (something I found out my first week in Addis Ababa).  I walk a bit and head into the first pharmacy I see… and some dude follows me in… hello friend, how are you, what can I help you with (and no this is not the pharmacist).  I politely say hello, and then ignore him  talk to the pharmacist… I ask for some cipro, but she doesn’t speak English… I’m busy searching my bag for a pen and paper to write it down (as it says ciproflaxin on the boxes so she’ll likely recognize it when she sees it), but my new “friend” asks her about it in Amharic.  She understands him, and before I have chance to write it down she fetches a box.  Now, as an aside, in Ethiopia, drugs are sold by the pill, not the box itself… so the pharmacist will open the box and pull out a foil sheet of pills and you pay either per pill or per sheet (unless you actually want the whole box of course… then the pharmacist will get an unopened box for purchase).  Aside over… the pharmacist pulls out a foil packet of ten pills and I ask how much.  She takes a calculator and enters the figure 160 into it ans shows me… alright, 160 for ten (which seems right price-wise).  Here’s where it gets fun… my “friend” starts to speak with the pharmacist in Amharic… although it really seems like more of a one way conversation given his tone of voice… and whatever it is he’s saying, she doesn’t seem to be quite comfortable with it judging by her body language.  He then turns to me and tells me that I’m mistaken… it’s actually 160 Birr for 5 pills.  Errr… well… I’m just not buying it.  I immediately turn back to the pharmacist, point to the 160 figure in her calculator, and use my hands to say 160 for 5 (one hand up, fingers out), or 10 (two hands up, fingers out).  She doesn’t respond… just kind of stares straight ahead.  Now, I don’t really know the price of cipro, but this is just weird.  Rather than try to figure this whole deal out, I just tell her thanks (ignoring this dude the whole time) and leave.  Immediately my friend runs after me telling me that he can get me a discount blah blah blah… I tell him to fuck off (in English… I didn’t learn the Amharic word for this until later, but I would have liked to use it then and there… but he knew what I meant… btw, sounds like “tebeda” if you ever find yourself needing to use it) and keep walking.  I see another pharmacy and head for it… and another (different) guy follows me with the same hello, how are you, how can I help you lines… f-ing aye… what is it about Gondar I wonder, as I turn and immediately leave.  Later on, I found a pharmacy where no one followed me in and got some cipro… at 160 Birr for 10.  Fucker.

Incidents like these are a bit on the extreme side for illustrative purposes, but they’re an unfortunate reality of traveling in Ethiopia.  And the sad part is, I would say that positive events… the exact opposite of those described above… happen quite a lot, but many times the negatives just seem to stand out more (and believe me, much more positive happened to me here then negative)… maybe because of the constant, and I mean constant, attention (I mean, wouldn’t you want to go talk to a walking, money and candy dispensing machine?).  So, if you ever come this way, you just have to be prepared to deal with it… more so the stuff described right up front than anything as extreme as my two examples… but it is definitely annoying… even with a thick skin and the ability to ignore… especially if you’re already in a foul mood for whatever reason (say food poisoning).

Addendum: I wrote the draft of the above post just as I was leaving Ethiopia… to do some more traveling in East Africa, and eventually, India.  I had gotten used to the above experiences and simply chalked them up to something along the lines of maybe that’s just the way it is over in these parts.  I’d heard from other folks that this level of… ummm… what’s the word… interaction(?)… isn’t the norm for the rest of Africa… but since I hadn’t really seen anywhere in sub-saharan Africa at this point, I really didn’t know.  So, when I finally got off the plane in Mombasa (Kenya), it was literally quite a shock to not be constantly harangued by everybody… nobody yelling “mizungo, mizungo, mizungo” at me from across the street (the swahili equivalent of farengi in amharic), people selling me stuff would move on after a polite no, not nearly the amount of beggars, no little kids constantly asking me for money, or my shirt or anything at all for that matter, every taxi driver didn’t honk his horn at me while I walked down the street… in other words, a totally different world.  It was both nice not to be bothered, and yet somewhat saddening not to be the center of attention anymore (in Ethiopia you feel a bit like a minor celebrity everywhere you go).  The same thing happened in Tanzania…  I wasn’t bothered at all.  I posed to the question to other Africans I had met about why Ethiopia was the way it was… and generally got two answers, the first being that tourism was relatively new in Ethiopia so white people were still a novelty.  I found this one hard to reconcile, because there wasn’t a single place I’d been where there weren’t other foreigners around, and even if they weren’t around at the moment, it’s not like I was breaking new ground and going where no other foreigner had gone before… Ethiopians had definitely seen and interacted with foreigners before, so, again, this explanation didn’t seem to make sense.  The second answer I got was the Ethiopia was much poorer than several of it’s neighbors, so the people were more apt to beg and hustle than folks in Kenya and Tanzania.  Now, I didn’t realize how vastly undeveloped Ethiopia was until I saw the country in comparison to both Kenya and Tanzania… so this seems like it could be true, but I’ve also heard that foreigners don’t get the Ethiopian treatment in the equally poor, if not poorer, neighboring countries of Sudan, South Sudan and Somaliland… so this explanation doesn’t exactly work either.  I still don’t understand it, even at this point… why do Ethiopians act that way?  Although, now that I’m in India, the whole being the center of attention thing is coming back a little bit… but nowhere near the levels I experienced in Ethiopia (and in India, it seems more out of curiosity than them seeing you as a walking ATM machine).


8 thoughts on “Some Negatives of Traveling in Ethiopia

  1. I’m not surprised by all this, however you have a way of making it soooo interesting….
    Carry on. I love this journey of yours.

  2. Fully agree with you. They even started with the baggage on arrival on the airport! Beggars on the street in Addis Ababa were a nightmare too.
    Regarding prices; in Lalibela and some restaurants in Addis I saw the other side of the menu with the prices for the locals; there were 3 times, bigger; ours for the farangi!

    • Yeah.. depending on where you were in Addis they can be pretty bad (esp. Piazza area). And I saw those menus as well… too bad I couldn’t read amharic. Did you at least enjoy the rest of your trip?

      • at the end only the positive things remained! Ethiopia was amazing; from the landscapes, the Omo Valley tribes and the people, expeciall in the North part.

  3. In ethiopia, begging for alms is a culturally acceptable and respectable form of income unfortunately encouraged by the Orthodox Church. Other african countries do not have an army of priests and monks living on alms. I’m ethiopin and it took me awhile to figure it out. Upside-crime is unacceptable when you can beg. Btw, parts if ethiopia that are Protestant do not ave that strong a problem with begging.

    • That does explain the begging (and, of course, there’s plenty of people begging in other countries as well… even the US), but I still wonder about the whole shouting out farengi, farengi, faregni everywhere I go… that just has not happened to me anywhere else (staring yes, but that, no).

  4. I understand and our stupid government had never said any thing against it through the media. I am from bahirdar and I used to complain this to city officials and actually they took some measure and it was working till they forget it again. Till they ignor it again. Some kids call faranji, which mean white man or women, to get attention and after that no English to talk.
    But I do not recommend fuck off “tebeda” to tell them to go away, since it is an offensive insult, it might bring a barrage of rock or stick fight to you. Yes! it can cause bad response. Just tell them you do not need any one and tell them to get away. ” kezih hid- atirebish” it mean go away , do not disturb me.

    • I only used tebeda when I was really, really frustrated (and generally this was only with cabdrivers). The words fro go away would have been useful… I’ll have to remember them fro next time.

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