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getting by in amharic ኣማርኛ

     One of the most exciting things about traveling in different countries, for me, is attempting to learn the language. Next would be using it with the locals - often just to cheer them up with my horrid accent. Below, I've compiled a list of useful phrases that I've noted in my travels in Ethiopia. If anything is incorrect, please let me know. I am simply copying from my notebook the words learned from both guidebooks and Ethiopian friends. That being said, I have only traveled to Addis Ababa, South Omo Valley, Lalibela, and Harar, so it is likely that some phrases are different in other regions of the country.
     Although I tried to transliterate the words into Amharic fidel alphabet next to most of them, it is unnecessary to memorize in order to get by (as is learning Amharic, really - almost everyone speaks English), so all of the below is purely for your own interest, as it was mine!
a few key things to note:
- Amharic phrases vary from region to region
- ishee እሺ is a word that is often used to express both agreement and reassurance; it is also used to say hi or bye
- a sharp intake of breath means agreement and understanding
- nefse is used to get someone's attention (kind of like, "you there!")
- mitmita is a spicy Ethiopian seasoning mix of ground African birdseye chili peppers, cardamom, cloves, and other spices
- similarily, berbere is another typical blend, dominating with cayenne and paprika
- it is not uncommon for Ethiopians to drink ispris, a mixture of coffee and tea
- the word faranji is used to describe foreigners. You're gonna hear it a lot

eating vegan in... ethiopia

Women selling fruit in Harar
     Ethiopia must be one of the easiest places in the world to be a vegan, let alone a vegetarian. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church instills 7 "fasting" periods, during which most religious folks refrain from eating any animal products except for fish. Accordingly, many "fasting" dishes are available throughout the year, especially over the many fasting periods. These include shiro, a fiery lunchtime dish made of chickpea flour and berbere spice; tegabino, a thicker, blander version of shiro; ful, the typical Ethiopian breakfast dish made of pureed broad/fava/kidney beans, the "special" version of which usually includes avocado [and eggs] - this one is often served with a bun either alongside or instead of injera; vegetable firfir, which consists of pieces of injera pieces cooked in a tangy tomato sauce; and many others. If you decide that you're not a big fan of injera, the fermented teff grain pancake that all of the above dishes are served on, there are also a whole lot of spaghetti dishes around!
Woman selling injera at a local market
     Ethiopian food (the stuff served on injera, not the italian pasta!) is eaten without the help of cutlery, with your right hand specifically. A piece of injera (either the one on which the sauces are or one of the rolls served with it) is broken off and, using all five fingers, the sauce is picked up using the pancake. A few people are generally seen sharing one dish, often ordering more side sauces to go with it if it isn't enough.
     Apart from injera and spaghetti, there's a whole ton of wonderfully delicious fruits in the country. During our stay in the month of August, we encountered mass amounts of bananas, green oranges, sugarcane, papayas, avocados, and mangoes, as well as some other exotic fruit I wouldn't be able to identify without the help of a local. The markets are generally abundant in various grains and colourful produce (whatever is in season and/or accessible in the area), and there are many roadside fruit-sellers standing around on the popular highways. Not to mention, there's a whole lotta grilled corn going on on the streets, and, when in Addis, don't miss out on one of the many vegan buffets offered, particularly the daily one at Taitu Hotel.

ethiopia itinerary - august 2013

August
.06 Fly from Warsaw, Poland to Rome, Italy. {Enjoy} an 8 hour layover and fly to Cairo, Egypt
.07 Arrive in Cairo at 3AM. Fly to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the evening
.08 Arrive in Addis Ababa at 8AM
.09 Leave for South Omo Valley. Stop by a local market, arrive in Arba Minch
.10 Drive to Lake Chomo, arrive in Jinka
.11 Hike through Ari tribe highlands, drive to Mursi village and spend the night
.12 Visit Bodi tribe, return to Jinka
.13 Visit market in Albuda (Bena tribe), market in Dimeka (Hamar tribe), drive to Turmi
.14 Visit Karo tribe, attend bull-jumping ceremony
.15 Visit Arbore tribe, then drive through Konso (also name of the tribe dominating the area) and return to Arba Minch
.16 Visit Dorze tribe, then stop by the hot springs in Wendo Genet
.17 Visit fish market in Awassa, the "Banana Leaf Gallery" in the Rastafari community in Shashemene, and return to Addis Ababa.
.18 Fly to Lalibela
.19 Continue visiting churches in Lalibela
.20 Visit museum in Lalibela, continue visiting churches
.21 Fly through Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, bus to Harar
.22 Visit Harar with our guide Anwar and feed hyenas
.23 Bus to Dire Dawa, fly back to Addis Ababa
.24 Visit "grandmother Lucy" in the National Museum in Addis, fly to Cairo
.25 Arrive back in Poland

harar, the muslim gem of ethiopia

Shoa Gate, from within the city walls
     My favourite part of travel in Ethiopia was going to Harar. After spending three weeks absorbed in a deeply Christian culture, islamic Harar was something quite different. I fell instantly in love with the walled city, with its brightly painted inner walls and its maze of over 350 cobblestone streets. Harar is nothing short of colourful. The old city, enclosed within the 500+ year old jugol (city wall), is home to over 80 mosques and a single church, in addition to hosting the poet Arthur Rimbaud for the last 10 years of his life.
     We arrived from Dire Dawa late in the evening, and the lack of street lights lended to our complete disorientation. A young man hopped onto our bus and convinced us to let him take us to a guesthouse* within the walls of Harar, where we ended up staying for our first night (albeit it being fairly overpriced). He then led us to a local cafe for a late dinner and offered his services as a guide for the following day. 
     Anwar was really easy going and felt more like a friend than a guide. For 400 birr, he showed us around Harar, had us over for tea in his family's home, and took us to feed hyenas in the evening. Hyena feeding occurs in two locations on a nightly basis, costing 50 birr per person to attend, an additional 50 birr to take photos, and another 50 birr for transport to and from the outskirts of the city walls. The "hyena man" calls out to the creatures until they come out of the bush - this can take up to an hour. He then proceeds to feed them by slapping some meat onto a short stick, sometimes holding the stick in his mouth to get the animals to come nearer. Onlooking tourists are given the chance to do the same. The tradition (and what is now a popular attraction) arose out of the belief that hyenas were the only creatures capable of perceiving evil spirits and were thus allowed entrance into Harar in order to ride the city of such demons. A pact was then formed between the people of Harar and the hyenas, and every year the creatures are offered a hearty porridge made with butter. If the leader of the hyena pack eats more than half of the porridge, it is a sign of a prosperous new year, however, if less than half or none is eaten... well, that's just bad news.
Feeding the hyena in style
Shoa Gate
Courtyard of Rowda Guesthouse
     *Rowda Guesthouse - no wifi, small courtyard, shared bathroom (between all 3 rooms), common area. Definitely overpriced for what it is, 700 birr for 3 people. Breakfast included in the price of the guesthouse: consisted of deep-fried pancakes (ish) served with jam, plus coffee or tea. We decided to change guesthouses to Belayneh Hotel, (conveniently) located just outside the Shoa Gate.
Two singles in Belayneh Hotel

sleepover with the tribal mursi people of omo valley

     Our guide chose to take us to a more remote Mursi village of which he knew the chief and where, unlike most travellers do, we were to spend the night. We arrived in the late afternoon, immediately swarmed by some Mursi asking "photo photo" (for money) and decided to hold off on picture taking until the next day to get to know them on a more friend-friend level. We walked around the little village guided by the chief, Niarabi, dressed only in a blanket slung around his body that somehow managed to cover his intimates just perfectly (albeit dangerously). All of the Mursi men were dressed this way, none other than the chief wore shoes, and a few walked around with an AK-47 casually swinging at his side. They all hung around in an open area outside the village, where our 4x4 was parked, and we entered the village (repeating achali - hello - countless times) to find all the women working away (while the men relaxed under the trees by our car). Some were grinding sorghum into flour, others breastfeeding; virtually all with their lips and earlobes hanging (due to the cutting and stretching that they endure in order to be able to wear lip plates - often around 6" in diameter). These lip plates are not worn so much due to their weight and the incisions are not mandatory, but the practice is pursued by most Mursi women in the name of beauty.

a day in cairo

     We arrived in Cairo at around 3AM and were set to leave to Ethiopia before midnight the same day, so we didn't have all that much time to spend (unfortunately) in the ancient capital. After a combination of long layovers and uncomfortable night-flights, we decided to get a few hours' rest in our hostel* (at which we were the only guests) before setting out to see the city.
Deserted Giza
     At around 9AM we set out to Giza, with entry fees of 80 EGP per person. There were no other tourists in sight, except perhaps another group or two wandering around the pyramids. This on its own is fascinating - it really felt like it was just us and the pyramids, and of course the many locals trying to convince us into riding camels or buying their trinkets. We spent about 2 hours wandering around the pyramids, seeing the Solar boat (40 EGP) and the Sphinx, after which we took a trip into the Old City (Coptic Cairo), where we visited the Hanging Church among others.
Tahrir Square


     As our hostel was centrally located, we spent the evening resting, smoking hookah with the hostel staff and walking around the area of Tahrir Square, although the square itself was mostly deserted except for some tents and half-hanging banners (contrary to the havoc reported on international news). At the cafe located directed under Paris Hotel, we bought some pitas complete with hummous and baba ghanoug. The restaurant served a myriad of foods including Koshari, salads, and various pita wraps. At midnight, we left for the airport for 100 EGP with the driver from our hostel.


Hookah
*Paris Hotel - 170EGP for a 3 person room and ensuite bathroom, wifi, kitchen, hookah, and reliable driver available for hire.
Room in Paris Hotel

balkans itinerary - july 2013

.05 Fly (Ryanair) Marseille, France to Zadar, Croatia
.07 Night bus Zadar to Dubrovnik
.08 Day in Dubrovnik, bus Dubrovnik to Kotor, Montenegro
.10 Bus Kotor (via Niksic) to Zabljak
.11 Bus Zabljak (via Podgorica) to Ulcinje
.12 Bus Ulcinje to Tirana, Albania
.13 Bus Tirana to Himare
.15 Bus Himare to Berat, then bus Berat to Ohrid, Macedonia
.18 Bus Ohrid to Skojpe, night bus Skojpe to Belgrade, Serbia
.21 Night train Belgrade to Budapest, Hungary
.22 Train Budapest to Warsaw, Poland

where to stay in zabljak

     To get to Žabljak from Kotor, there is a bus that goes through Nikšić. Žabljak is still fairly underdeveloped in terms of tourism, especially with regard to snow sports in the winter, but there's lots of great hikes to do in the area, including walking around Black Lake (Crno jezero) or climbing glaciers, or going rafting (which really isn't as epic as you might expect...). If you're into the great outdoors, it's good to spend more than a night or two in Žabljak to get a chance to see a little more. While accommodation is sparse, there is one, new hostel that's worth it to stay at, called Hiker's Den. It's not massive, but it's clean, got a kitchen, heaters (for the chill), and wifi access. It's located close to the town "centre," where there's a supermarket to buy food. It's also a close walk to Crno jezero.

zdravo, zadar

After my week-long rest stop on France's Côte d'Azur, where I met my parents to recount my travels (ie. to get fed, rest up, and stock up on provisions at their expense), I decided to buy the cheapest Ryanair ticket out of there that I could find -- and it happened to be to Zadar. I've never even heard of this place, I stupidely thought as I booked my ticket and inched closer to the McDonalds' to refresh the WiFi connection.
A few days later I arrived in Zadar at 8:00AM, an hour and a half after takeoff from Marseille. I took the bus from the airport to the bus station, where I transferred to another bus to take me into Stari Grad (the Old Town). I wandered around for a while, searching for a hostel, but found that not only were they charging between 20-40 euros for a dorm, but that they were all completely booked up. In my post-beach daze, I'd forgotten that it was Friday and that Croatia is a total tourist hotspot (especially for Europeans, who often head out here even if just for the weekend). After one of the central hostels (Old Town Hostel) recommended that I try my luck with finding accommodation in one of the boutique hostels, I panicked. I had thought the Balkans would be easier on my wallet, but if I was going to have to spend 40 euros on a place to stay every night, I didn't think I was going to make it out alive! In the end, after countless hours meandering the shiny cobblestone streets, I was kindly directed to House Hostel by a local I had run into. 

hopping over to chefchaouen, morocco

Catching the bus in Tanger
     When traveling in Andalusia, it's popular to jump over to Africa for a day or two. Since we'd heard that Tangier is not much more than a busy port city, we took advice and bussed to Chefchaouen instead. We left Tarifa, Spain, on the first ferry of the morning and arrived in Tangier no more than 2 hours later. From there, we took a taxi to the bus station and caught a bus to Chefchaouen. We were immediately glad that we didn't stay in Tangier - it was chaotic, people harassing us and following us on the streets, asking for money or trying to con us however they could. By the time we got on the bus, we were already drained. Around five hours later and after a pitstop in Tetouan, we arrived in quiet little Chefchaouen and sighed relief.

south east asia itinerary - april/may 2013

[Visit the links for more info]
April
.25 Night at Guangzhou airport, fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
.28 Bus Saigon (HCMC) to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
.30 Bus Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
May
.03 Bus/ferry (4AM) Siem Reap to Don Det, Laos
.05 Ferry/bus Don Det to Pakse, then night bus Pakse to Vientaine
.07 Bus Vientaine (via Vang Vieng) to Luang Prabang
.11 Bus Luang Prabang to Oudomxay
.12 Bus Oudomxay (via Muang La) to Muang Khua
.13 Bus Muang Khua to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
.14 Bus Dien Bien Phu (via Lai Chau) to Sa Pa
.15 Trek to Hmong villages (Hau Thao)
.16 Bus Sa Pa to Lai Chau, then night train Lai Chau to Hanoi
.18 Bus/ferry Hanoi to Cat Ba City
.19 Bus/ferry Cat Ba City to Hanoi
.22 Fly Hanoi to Guangzhou, China

why sapa wasn't a highlight on my trip

Rice paddies in Sapa
Getting to Sapa by bus from Laos was a total gongshow. The section crossing the border and coming into Dien Bien Phu was a loong day spent cramped in nonexistant spaces on hot, sweaty busses with groups of 5 or 6 Vietnamese men (albeit thin) in two seaters, and sacks of rice piled on my lap. In retrospect, I don't know how I didn't freak out in a bout of claustrophobia. I regained some of my mental health after a night in Dien Bien Phu in a single room, and ploughed on toward Sapa the next day. The internet had warned me about the brutal road ahead, yet I resolutely decided that I would do it anyway.

crossing from laos to vietnam & dien bien phu

     When I first got on the bus in Muang Khua, I thought it might even be a semi-comfortable ride - I don't know what I was thinking. By about a half hour into the trip, the bus was filled at almost double its capacity and I was lodged between a bagful of textbooks, it seems, and a teenage Vietnamese boy who offered up his second earbud when the bus driver's radio got to be a little too much (which was 90% of the time). The window seat in the picture? Three of us were cramped in there. No, no leg room. Despite the prominent "no smoking" sign at the front of the bus, everyone smoked because the driver did too. And would you expect any less in South East Asia? I felt like I was sitting in a hot box. The Vietnamese schoolboy's friends kept trying to start conversations with me even though, quite obviously, they couldn't speak any English and I couldn't speak Vietnamese. So, of course, it makes total sense to ask for my number. Maybe although we can't communicate in person we'll miraculously be able to over the phone. 
     The bus was painfully hot, smoky, and generally uncomfortable (take the limit of negative comfort as it tends to infinity - brownie points if you got that one), but everyone seemed to enjoy looking after the only falang on the bus and I felt safe. At the rest stop, some ladies pointed me to where I could buy a little bag of rice to eat with my leftover kip, and at the Laos border, the Vietnamese boys helped me get across without any problems (when we were to present our passports, they wanted to take mine along with theirs - at first I felt skeptical, but one of them shot me such a Jokes aside, we're trying to help you and it only serves you to present your passport with ours glance that my intuition let me oblige). Even at the Vietnamese border, I was scared shitless when the officer singled me out and called me into his office, after my passport had taken the longest to process - but it was just to make sure I knew where I was going, to give me tips on staying safe, and to wish me happy travels. I was warmed by his concern, but I also worried about my bus leaving without me! 

catching the bus in muang khua

     The following morning in Oudomxay, I got up early to make sure I didn't miss any busses going to Muang Khua. Arriving in the early afternoon, after a 4 hour bus, I found myself in a guesthouse*(details below) run by a funny little homely man that demanded to be called "Father" and spoke in a broken, caveman-like English. As I sat on the common "balcony" of the place, overlooking the river, I spied the outline of the Greek man that I'd been continuously running into in Laos crossing the bamboo bridge. He had left Luang Prabang a day before me, and took the more weathered route through Nong Khiaw, reporting that it was fantastic. I definitely regretted not having done that instead of going through Oudomxay.
I had bartered the price of a room down to 35000 kip, and Father put me in one on the side of the house, not facing the river. But hey, it was "ensuite." What I didn't realize, though, was that the neighbours (much like the rest of the town's residents, and South-East Asians in general) were avid karaoke-singers, so much so that my bed rattled from their singing. Thankfully there was a power outage that evening, marking the beginning of the rainy season with a night-long monsoon. Unable to sleep regardless, I found the remaining guests in a common room, eating and talking, with Father continuously coming around to offer laolao whiskey and deep-fried cockroaches (that one of the other guests had seen him catching earlier that day). 
---
Catching the bus to Vietnam: There was little to no available information online or anywhere about the bus that passes Muang Khua and makes its way to Dien Bien Phu, so I figured I'd be luckier and find out once I actually got to Muang Khua - no dice. Some locals told me it passed by Muang Khua at 7AM, others assured me that it was between 11AM and noon, and a handful were adamant about the bus only coming 3 times a week (and, of course, nobody knew when it would pass next). 

oudomxay

     Arriving in Oudomxay (on a hell of a shaky road from Luang Prabang - luckily the man sitting next to me on the bus worked at a hotel in Luang Prabang and helped me buy pills for carsickness at the bus station, just in case), I found that I'd just missed the last bus to Mong La and was forced to spend the night there. Exhausted and dispirited, I found myself stuck in a city that, according to my Lonely Planet book, was the ugliest place in Laos. With no idea of where to spend the night, I trudged out from the bus station and walked aimlessly around the deserted-looking town. After visiting a few hostels that proved to be way over my budget, I broke down and decided to find an internet cafe in order to figure out how to get out of the place asap. I quickly found that virtually no one in Oudomxay spoke Lao, let alone English, and let's be honest - my mandarin is shit. And, of course, the computers at the only internet cafe I came across where programmed in this language. Frustrated, I even stopped some tuktuk drivers to ask the price to getting to Muang La that evening, but it simply wasn't realistic. This was probably one of the lowest points in my trip. I felt like I was wasting time but, in retrospect, it was quality time spent learning to cope with the inevitable surprises that travel brings.

northbound in laos

Leaving Don Det by "ferry boat"
     After a relaxing 2 nights in Si Phan Don (1000 Islands), I headed northbound to Vientaine with a 5 hour stopover in Pakse, where I waited for my 12 hour night bus to the capital. Pakse was a lovely little town but after a half-day of travel by ferry boat, minivan, and bus, I was exhausted when I got there. I grabbed some 7,000kp soup at the local market and walked around town, hanging out with some monks at Wat Luang and passing time before my sleeper bus. Twelve (brutal) hours later, I arrived in Vientiane with a bad case of diarrhea.  

[NOTE ON THE SLEEPER BUS: I absolutely don't recommend getting a sleeper to Vientiane if you're planning on getting any rest - the roads are SUPER ruggedy, especially when you're literally trying your hardest not to poop your pants. Also, the bus is fairly tight. I'm 5"2 and I fit in perfectly, but if you're any taller you are probably not going to fit. The roof is too low to sit up, so you've got to stay lying down the entire 12 hours, and if you're travelling solo there's a 99% chance you'll have a stranger sleeping up against you at night]
     I was warned not to go to Sabaidee Guesthouse due to bed bugs, so I easily found the Funky Monkey Hostel instead, where I payed 4.50USD for a 18-bed mixed dorm and spent the day napping and crapping. For 40000kp in a 18-mixed dorm, the hostel provided wifi (albeit a little glitchy), free breakfast (choice of baguette with either omelette or with butter and jam, plus a drink), and loud music & pool until about 3AM in the common area. The staff spoke very little English, and it's impossible to sleep at night (due to the noise), especially if you're in the dorm room directly above the entrance. 
     I didn't get to see much of Vientiane at all, but managed to get Carbon (charcoal) and Berberin at a local pharmacy. The drugs didn't help, but thankfully a fellow traveler was able to pass me some Immodium the next day on our way to Luang Prabang.
Wat Luang in Pakse

how to cross the street in vietnam


Streetlights are non-existent in Vietnam, and even if they're there, no one abides by them. Pedestrians cross the streets at their own discretion, with cars and scooters swiftly swerving around them. Here are a few tips to keep you alive:
Never speed up or slow down your step, walk confidently, and don't panic. Nothing scares the locals more than tourists freaking out in the middle of the street. Keep your eyes fixed- ahead of you, at your feet, or even closed if you need to. If you need to, wear a diaper, cause you might just crap your pants. 

snippets of saigon

     I was lucky to have gotten in to the Ho Chi Minh City airport at 5AM, before the hustle bustle of the place spun into gear, though I was exhausted after my overly-extended layover in Guangzhou. I caught a taxi into District 1 (the Backpackers' District), and immediately haggled the price down to the equivalent of 7USD (yes, it's possible!). As I was scheduled to arrive well past midnight, I had pre-booked a dorm at Ngọc Thảo Guesthouse for the first night of my trip - a night that I ended up spending in the gritty international terminal of the Chinese airport anyway, miming conversation with an inviting Vietnamese family of 12, - though it is completely unnecessary to do so as there are plenty of hostels and rooms to rent in the area. Once you get over the inevitable fear of crossing the street, you're set.