You know when you fall asleep on public transportation, wake up and try to casually wipe the drool off your chin before anyone notices? On Ethiopian public transport, no one noticing is not an option. Being (or at least feeling like) the only faranji (foreigner, actually from the same root as both Thai farang and the Star Trek alien race) within a hundred mile radius was awkward enough, but the unabashed staring on the local bus made our group of five feel like zoo animals.
The highlight of the public spectacle, at least for the spectators, seemed to be when I managed to fall asleep and drool all over my lap. When I finally woke up, I realized the entire bus was literally pointing and laughing. Though tactless and highly uncomfortable to my Canadian sensibilities, this was just the tip of the faranji fever iceberg.
The fever, more commonly known as faranji hysteria, is the general public fascination with and excitement at seeing foreigners, particular white foreigners. Cries of “hello hello hello hello”, the perennially popular “give me money”, or simply “YOU!” followed us wherever we went outside of Addis. I’ve experienced the mzungu madness in Tanzania and Rwanda, but Ethiopia was next level.
Using public transport from Gondar to Debark, a tiny village in the Ethiopian highlands, was asking for attention. The bus station itself was havoc – our group of five was surrounded by 15 or so ticket hawkers, desperate for business. Several of them grabbed our bags and arms and tried to pull us onto their buses before even asking where we were going. It was the kind of pressure and havoc that put a terrible face on traveling in a developing country.
Being a Western traveler in certain areas (rural areas of developing countries in particular) means you mean a lot of different things to people. Some see you as a celebrity, a mysterious movie star to be followed and observed. Some kids play the “touch the mzungu” game, or simply beam at you, holding your hands and practicing their English. Some people just treat you like a person, though it feels like that happens rarely enough. Others treat you like a walking wallet and a prime source of exploitation. This is what I’m most used to, and its sad to say that it can sometimes lead to a cold and adversarial vibe when meeting people.
We met our fair share of hustlers in Addis, and the Gondar bus station was a typical display of the feeding frenzy that descends when foreigners don’t have pre-arranged plans. Coming from Addis to that, I was thoroughly sick of people in general.
Maybe I was just cranky, because post nap, the bus ride became really fun. Going into the boonies of Ethiopia seemed to mean that not everybody saw faranji as a source of funds. They stared, but they were also really friendly and willing to smile and laugh as a means of communication. Shepherds (complete with crook) with dull blue crosses of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church tattooed into their foreheads and cheeks made friends with us quickly just through smiling and shrugging at our inability to communicate. Sharing a bundle of snap peas with the whole bus cemented our friendships and everyone waved and smiled when we got off the bus.
This trip was the first leg of our journey into the Amhara region and the world famous Simien Mountain range. Unfortunately, having only 14 days for the entire country means we can only get as far as the nearest highland base camp, Sankabar.
The Simiens are characterized by flat continents of highland plateaus rising up out of steep, choppy valleys. Ethiopia is actually incredibly fertile, contrary to popular belief. One visit to the Ethiopian highlands will take the image of dust and desolation and sweep it away with a wide vista of green, rich land. Once again, I’m reminded of the global view on Africa and how ridiculously narrow it is.
Time won’t allow us to go deeper into the park, but even the first base camp means you get to see the Amhara wilds from the vantage point of the small groups of mountain villagers that still call the remote part of Ethiopia home.
We couldn’t have arrived on a better day – Saturday is market day in Debark, which means that countless mountain villagers were heading down to the market to buy and sell goods. We walked against the stream of people, passing herds of goats guided by shepherds in white robes and shepherd’s crooks, warrior-like horsemen from another era leading tribes of walkers laden with vegetables or bundles of sticks, and women and children coming to buy the week’s supplies for their families. Unaccustomed to seeing faranji on the journey, the villagers were surprised but friendly, calling “Selam-no” or “Dedanesh-cho” (I make no promises about the spelling). While there was the staring and giggling that accompanies faranji fever, there was no harassment or attempts at exploitation. The first few hours of our walk were an intimate view into village life and a chance to see Ethiopia’s rural people, mostly only present in Addis in extreme poverty, in their real lives.
Walking from Debark also meant that we had to walk up the most intense incline of the highland area, usually skipped by trekkers bussing in for the trailhead. What looks from a distance like a gentle, rolling hill looms larger and larger as you approach and finally spot the tiny rock-hewn path zigzagging at an almost impossible incline up the mountain. I used to be in pretty good shape, but eight months of island living (work, beach, write, drinks, repeat) has left me a little, shall we say, softer.
What the park office had neglected to tell us was that this was actually supposed to be a three-day hike, condensed into two to fit our schedule. What we had neglected to tell the guides was that we had two cases of traveler’s diarrhea, three cases of PMS and five hikers that looked to be in better shape than we actually were.
Cut to the end of the incline. Laying starfished on the grass, I was contemplating an exercise-induced death when I heard a small “hello” from a ways away. Two children, dusty and beautiful, stared at the faranji while we recovered. We said “hello” back and, instead of asking for a pen or money, they waved shyly and ran away giggling. Their nearby village was visible by a few peaked thatch roofs in a cluster of forest in a nearby valley. That their parents and family members were probably on their weekly walk down to Debark, heading back up the incline of death the next day, probably in third or fourth hand women’s jelly sandals (shockingly popular in the country), with no complaints, did not escape me.
The views of the Simiens are intense – wide vistas of flat plateaus rising up out of choppy, peaked lowland mountain ranges, deep green valleys snaked with rivers and dotted with tiny villages and herds of goats. The (insanely painful) hike was well worth it for the view alone. But the thing that always stays with you after the pain goes away and your pictures are printed are the people you meet along the way. Even when we couldn’t speak the language, the smiling faces of Amhara greeted us from the first step on the public bus to the Simien highlands. Of course, getting hustled and harassed will kill your mood – but, there’s always someone else, someone good and friendly and kind, around the corner. People who are living their real lives and who you can connect with, even with a smile or sharing a snack. It was good to be reminded of that.