Grim impression of Ethiopia

I returned from a 3-week tour of Ethiopia on Feb. 7, ’05. Imagine my surprise the next morning to find that a featured article (Feb. ’05, pg. 52) in my new ITN was about the Omo Valley, where I had just spent a week.

My travel reservations were made through Adventures Abroad (1124 Fir Ave., Blaine, WA 98230, phone 800/665-3998), with the ground arrangements handled by Green Land Tours (P.0. Box 19018, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone 251-1-63-25-97 or fax 251-1-63-25-951). Total tour charges, including insurance, single supplement, airfares and most tipping, were $6,513.

Most of my experiences closely paralleled those of Mr. Zizzamia and Ms. Holloman, who wrote the above-mentioned article. I agree with most, but not all, of their statements.

Ethiopia is definitely a destination only for those experienced in third-world travel. Culture shock can be extreme. Daily life for most Ethiopians is hard, with poverty beyond Westerners’ imaginations.

In many of the “best available” hotels, electricity and water are available for only a few hours per day and can fail at any time. If you are lucky, a warm or hot shower should be possible every two or three days.

While a nationwide road-improvement program is under way, many roads are even worse than those described by Zizzamia and Holloman. Once I was knocked groggy when my head hit the car door post during a particularly bad bump.

BUT the food in all our hotels and in all the restaurants recommended by Girma, our chief driver, unofficial advisor and sometime cook, was safe, as was Girma’s tasty cooking. Bottled water, beer and soft drinks were easily obtainable. Also, good, inexpensive laundry service was available at all our hotels and at the campground near Turmi.

Almost my only purely good memory of Ethiopia is of the many beautiful and colorful birds, from the tiny, bright sunbirds through the aptly named superb starling to the majestic, tricolored fish eagle.

Most of my memories are deeply disturbing. The whole country is overpopulated with people and their cattle, goats, sheep and camels. Pastureland is badly overgrazed. Few trees are left. Most agriculture is on a subsistence level. The worst erosion I have seen worldwide is widespread there, especially in the Omo region. Of all the farmers I saw, only the Konso people of the Omo region seemed to practice water or soil conservation. There is little industry.

On the surface, Ethiopians are very friendly, but I found that 98%-99% of their overtures led to requests, even demands, for tips or gifts of pens, water bottles, candy or clothing. Children everywhere pestered tourists to pay for schoolbooks, fees, uniforms, etc. Many Omo Valley tribes, especially the Mursi, whose women are known for their large, saucer-like lip plates, aggressively hounded tourists to buy souvenirs and to take many photos, for which one had to pay a fee to each person in the picture.

I fear Ethiopia has a tragic future.

Richmond, VA