Our flight today was at 10.45 am, we had arranged with our guide to be picked up from the hotel at 8 am so we were in breakfast for 7 am, all packed and ready to leave.
It is just a short drive to the airport and along with three other members of our group who were on the same flight we stepped off the shuttle bus at 8.30 am to discover that we had to have our passports scanned before we entered the building. Ir was the first of many checks we had to endure before boarding the aircraft.
On entering the building we immediately joined a very long queue to have our cases and belongings scanned (shoes, belts, watches etc.). As expected, I was called by the operative to open my suitcase to show my binoculars, I explained the key to open the case was in my rucksack which was still in the scanner, by the time it was ejected from the bowels of the machine and I offered to open the case in front of him, he had lost interests and waved me through.
Rejoining Sue, we made our way to check-in to discover there was a horrendously long snake of a queue due to only two check-in desks being operating. It took half an hour to acquire our boarding cards and watch our suitcases (with binoculars) disappear along the belt.
Next, was another ridiculously long queue to passport control, preceded by another disrobing and scanning of hand luggage. Hurrying on with time running out, we checked our gate number to see that it was already boarding. No time to peruse the duty-free and spend our spare Birr!
Marching quickly through the terminal we discovered that Gate 16 was the furthest away and speeded up only to be stopped next to Gate 14 to again join another queue to disrobe and have our belongings scanned. Here they seemed particularly keen on checking passport photos with faces, many in front of us had to take their glasses off and have another member of staff confirmed the decision, and some even had to provide alternative ID. This process took ages, however, as soon as we were next in line and European we were thankfully waved through.
Arriving at Gate 16 we quickly joined the line that was feeding onto the aircraft and within fifteen minutes we were making ourselves comfortable for the seven-and-a-half-hour flight. It went well.
Ethiopia is a huge country with spectacular scenery, it has a vast highland complex of mountains and dissected plateaus divided by the Great Rift Valley, which runs southwest to northeast and is surrounded by lowlands, steppes, or semi-desert. It is ecologically diverse, ranging from the deserts along the eastern border to the tropical forests in the south. Lake Tana in the north is the source of the Blue Nile. Its population is highly diverse, containing over 80 different ethnic groups, the four largest of which are the Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Tigrayans. Ethiopia has one of the earliest sites of the emergence of Homo sapiens through the discovery of ‘Lucy’. The oldest of these local fossil finds, the Omo remains, were excavated in the southwestern Omo Kibish area and have been dated to the Middle Paleolithic, around 200,000 years ago.
Not a moment of our adventure to this country wasn’t filled with wonderment, respect and occasionally apprehension. Our visit to Lalibela in the north and its unique culture and the rock-hewn churches was a time filled with emotion and an appreciation of the dignity of its people and their way of life built on religious ideals stretching back through the mists of time.
Our time in the south visiting the various tribes was an experience we won’t forget. The diversity of lifestyles and customs has been the subject of many a documentary and it has been a privilege to witness them before they become too influenced by the modern world. Among others, we visited the Mursi tribe who live a very tribal lifestyle, they have their own language and practise a religion that falls into the category of animism. The women still wear lip plates and both men and women engage in body painting for a variety of reasons, including healing. Also memorable, were the Hamar tribesmen who engage in a bull jumping ceremony as a coming-of-age rite. Part of this ceremony includes whipping the backs of women, who are very proud of the scars created. At times we felt we were observers of the last embers of a once great race of people.
Over the years, as admirers of the artistic culture of the many countries we have visited, we found Ethiopian artwork and music to be one of the most interesting and pleasing we have experienced. Though much is influenced by religion, its simplicity and form are a refreshing contrast to what we have seen in most other countries.
The hangover from the recent conflicts in the country is less pleasing, more evident in the north than the south, and noticeable wherever you travel. The obsession with security reflects a deep mistrust between the people and its government. For we British it is very disconcerting to see so many military and citizens openly carrying arms and this was brought into stark reality when we joined the funeral of two young 18 yrs old soldiers killed in a recent incident, confusingly we were told that it was the government-backed rebels that were responsible. Politically there is so much intrigue, corruption and mistrust in the country that I fear for its people. Nearly all we have met over these two weeks have been happy to see us, helpful and smiling, only on the few occasions when meeting with the Federal Army have we felt wary and afraid. Putting heavy calibre armaments in the hands of sixteen-year-olds is crazy, irresponsible and a certain recipe for trouble. At the many checkpoints we came across, there is palpable, visible animosity between the Amhara militia and the Federal Army and I won’t be surprised if the current peace process breaks down through a clash between these two.
If the country remains at peace and the democratic process of discussion and debate becomes the way, then I would recommend that you visit Ethiopia before it becomes fully influenced by modernity and its rich culture becomes immersed in MacDonalds and TV soap dramas.
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