Arriving in Ethiopia: finally no more instant coffee!

In a previous post, I had mentioned how Southern Africa was not an area of coffee drinkers and how limited the coffee options were, outside the major cities. I was expecting a major change once I got to Ethiopia, and I was not disappointed.


I headed for Tomoca, an old cafe in the Piazza (old Italian district). To go from instant coffee in B&Bs to a café which has been roasting its own beans for decades was a very nice change. A round of four coffees also cost me about the same as a disgusting drip coffee in a South African Wimpy fast food!


Along with the three lawyers from Canada and Switzerland I had met that morning, I was the only foreigner at Tomoca. In the less traditional part of town, the Bole Road area, I also found some very nice cafés, catering to a more hip Ethiopian crowd, as well as foreigners staying in the area’s nice hotels. This place, Cupcake Delights, made an incredible mixed juice and brewed some mean coffee. Unfortunately, these two coffee places must have been close to 10 km apart. I never thought I would ever compare Addis Ababa to Los Angeles, but they do have something in common: lots of nice things to be found, but spread over vast distances, with nothing of interest in between and massive traffic jams to get there.


Just as I had seen in Namibia, Addis has a few coffee places with logos that strangely reminded me of something. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it…


Another nice aspect of local cafés, and Ethiopia in general, is that it is quite cheap, even if over the course of the last 3 or 4 years, prices for most things have doubled or tripled. In this small cafe in Makele, I got a coffee with milk (which was clearly misunderstood, I later learned to just order a machiatto), some local bread and a large bottle of water. It cost me about a dollar, and the water was half the bill.

While Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, people have many other first languages, and English is a bit of an unofficial language of convenience. All restaurants I went to had some English on the menus and the vast majority of businesses, in Addis and in smaller cities, had at least the main nature of their business displayed in English. This included many businesses which certainly did not cater to tourists, such as driving schools or construction companies.


Despite my appreciation for their coffee, I must say I was disappointed with Ethiopian cuisine. The problem was not so much with what they eat, but with how they eat it. Like in many places in the Middle-East or India, they use food to pick-up the food. Instead of pita or naan bread, they use injera, a sourdough crepe such as the one you see in the picture. I don’t mind the concept at all, but truth be told, I really don’t like injera. That left me in the same situation as a food lover who just landed in Paris, but who hates the taste of forks. Very limiting in terms of options. I ordered this spicy meat dish, with an egg and a side bowl of white cheese, as room service in Addis. I pulled out my spork (spoon-fork hybrid) from my luggage and ate it like stew. It was nice, but the injera was left nearly untouched.


Much stranger than any food offerings is the way Ethiopians tell time. Their calendar is different, but many countries are like that. They have a 13 month calendar, 12 x 30 days, plus a 13th month of 5 or 6 days. They also are in 2004 right now, because they never adjusted their calendar, while Catholic Popes fiddled with it throughout the Middle Ages. What I had never seen before is their way to tell the time. They consider that when the sun rises, it’s the beginning of the day, so 00:00 hours. When it’s six o’clock, the sun has been up for six hours. Quite logical, but very confusing. The picture is one I took of a movie schedule, simply so I wouldn’t have to write it down. You can see the descriptions in Amharic and English, and since the Amharic language uses the same arab numerals we do, you can tell how different the times are. In practice, for the average tourist, there is usually no confusion. In small towns, if you ask for opening hours or something like that, you might get it in the “local form”, but since the difference is so big, you can easily guess it. After all, it’s unlikely the bank opens at 3:00 am!


A slightly less pleasant feature of life in Ethiopia comes from the fact that the Central Bank doesn’t pull old notes from circulation and businesses accept notes which have literally fallen apart. It’s a detail for sure, but in dozens of countries I have visited, I have never been so grossed out at handling currency. The old ones are greasy from dirt and it’s hard to underestimate how bad a big wad of them smells. On the picture is a new and old 1 Birr note. At least these are being replaced gradually with coins, but the 10 Birr notes are awful.


Since in my next posts I will have lots of fantastic things to say about Ethiopia, I will start with all my complaints. Internet is a Government-run thing in Ethiopia. No further comment.


Ethiopia is also not the place where health and safety practices are the most evolved and, like in Zimbabwe, I would not recommend bungee jumping. In case you didn’t know, in Hong Kong they still work with bamboo scaffoldings, tightly held together with nylon plastic straps. It may not have the tensile strength of steel, but on a very high building, it doesn’t have to withhold countless tons of its own weight, and it ends up being very sturdy. This scaffold, however, is made of small wood sticks, nailed together, with incredibly flimsy planks of wood as “boards”. It is an absolute death trap. Something to keep in mind when I wonder about the safety of something.

Originally, I had planned to spend a good three weeks in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, as long-term travel plans change, I lengthened my stay in Zambia and added a week long stopover in Kuala Lumpur over Christmas. Furthermore, I needed a break and some time to do some travel planning. This crunched my stay in Ethiopia a lot. I ended up spending time in the capital and in Makele, where I visited some churches carved out of solid rock in the 4th Century. I also went to the Danakil, the main reason why I visited Ethiopia, but that’s for the next post.


I must say the church tour in the Tigray area was underwhelming. Nothing wrong with the tour itself, but the churches did nothing for me. The fact that they were carved straight out of the mountain 1,600 years ago is certainly impressive, but this is no Petra. Also, not much is known about who built them, how and why. To me they were interesting oddities, not worth the massive detour by 4×4.


The original paintings were destroyed by some Muslim Queen centuries ago.


The new paintings are, hum… Did I mention it was sunny that day?


One church that I was looking forward to visit was Abuna Yemata Guh. It was built at the summit of a mountain and visiting it involves a nice hike. Furthermore, it was so hard to detect or reach that the original paintings were never destroyed by the Muslims. Close to the start of the hike, I enjoyed looking at how a local village could disappear in the background. The fact that it was mid-day and everyone was hiding from the Sun helped.


After an hour and some, we arrived at this little cliff. Now, I used to do a lot of rock climbing, and this cliff is a crazy easy to climb. I could do it drunk while wearing boxing gloves; but I would still properly anchor myself! No such option here, this is free climbing, no rope, no ladder, no nothing, and bare feet, since it is a “sacred” area! I figured I had gone this far and wanted to see the church. The odds of falling were very low, and the consequences were likely to break a few bones, so overall risk, low, and I went.


It looked a little more risky from above, but it was too late.


After more hiking, we got to the last few meters. Basically, you head up these few rocks, with a convenient branch to hold on to, then turn left and walk on that little ledge. The entrance to the church is a few meters further down. The odds of taking a fall were just as low, or probably lower than the first climb.


The problem was that the consequence of falling was now a 200 m vertical drop to your death. The overall risk went to medium. Now, I would take this medium risk to see Machu Picchu, but to see this? Not worth it in my book. I didn’t go and the only regrets I had were making it this far. We all analyze risk differently, but as a moderately experience mountaineer, this call was easy for me.


And this is where I avoided ending up!


4 thoughts on “Arriving in Ethiopia: finally no more instant coffee!

  1. I’m thinking to take in the Danikil on my way to a big desert trip in Sudan in 2014.
    I could get to Ethiopia in early March.
    Is that too late in terms of heat?
    Do you have a tour company to recommend?
    How many days trip do you recommend?
    What should the tour include? I’m especially interested in the Afar people.
    Please give me some guidance. Thanks,

    • Hi Chuck,

      About the weather, I am not sure, I only went to the region once, in November. The Depression is one of the hottest places on Earth, so you will be uncomfortable no matter what. I wouldn’t miss it any time of the year though.

      I used K.G. Ahadu Tours, located in Mek’ele. They were fine and the few other tours I saw seemed to be running in a similar fashion. One exception was a tour company based in Addis. They are the company who were attacked early last year, and they did not allow their clients spend the night on the Erta Ale volcano – which is a major downside, as it is totally worth it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name.

      I think the tours are all quite similar, if you leave from Mak’ele. Mostly it’s 3-4 days of painful driving and uncomfortable, extremely rustic camping, all to spend a few hours watching the Afar salt miners, the Erta Ale volcano, and the Dallol. Since these three things all make my top 20 list of incredible things I saw in my life, the pain is well worth it! Plus, if you are planning a trip to the deserts of Sudan, I am going to assume you’re not the kind of guy who starts crying if there’s a bug in your hotel room.

      Our guide spoke a little Afar, so we could ask a few questions and see how they live, but if your interest is beyond normal tourism, (like you want to live a week with the Afar or something), you are likely to need a customized, private tour. I have no doubt this can be arranged, but it is likely to be quite expensive. And do keep in mind why the mandatory Ethiopian Army escort is there: to protect you from Afar hostage takers…

      Good luck,


      • Very helpful. Thanks.
        Yes, rugged is not a problem for me on Danikil. I’ve lived on the edge of the sahara without AC for two years (05-07) and just back from camping and sea kayaking in Antarctica. I believe in pain and gain. Thanks again.

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