The word souvenir means ‘a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event’ or to ‘take as a memento’. These days I don’t collect souvenirs like I used to. For years I’d buy what were often useless items that would ultimately end up in op shops.
But on this trip through Ethiopia in the northeast of Africa, buying local artefacts becomes compulsory. Not only is the merchandise irresistible but the interaction with the local shopkeepers makes it an absolute pleasure, adding tenfold to the experience.
Known as the ‘A Land of a Thousand Smiles’, Ethiopia lives up to its name. While driving along the Historic Route through ancient cities like Aksum with the Ark of the Covenant, Gondar with majestic palaces and Lalibela with remarkable rock-hewn churches built in the 12th Century, we meet and chat to people who are friendly beyond belief, especially considering the hardship they’ve endured.
The capital, Addis Ababa, although full of construction, has first-class hotels, excellent restaurants and great shopping, particularly at Merkato, one of Africa’s largest and best markets.
Our visit coincides with Timkat, one of the many festivals held in the earliest known home of humankind, and, at the celebration on the outskirts of Addis, priests carry ornately decorated and embroidered umbrellas. As I see one gorgeous umbrella after another, I envisage a sample on my apartment balcony in Sydney. Our escort, Mercey, assures me that replicas are for sale in the street stalls of Aksum.
We cross the road from the fabulous city museum, which contains gold crowns laden with rubies, bejewelled thrones, emperors’ robes and silver Ethiopian crosses, all worth tens of millions of dollars. At the store, the shopkeeper smiles as we stop outside what appears to be headquarters for piles of yellow water bottles. Mercey asks for umbrellas like the ones at Timkat and, hiding among stacks of bottles and other household items he, with the help of his wife, pulls out a massive variety of colours, shapes and sizes. The bright red and gold one with tassles is perfect. After he wraps it in umpteen sheets of old newspaper and plastic to protect the handle, it’s ready to take home.
Getting around in many of the towns is easy, cheap and fun if you use the common form of transport, the bajaj which looks exactly like the tuk tuks used in Thailand – blue and white with skimpy side flaps. So for a few birr, the local currency, we flag down a young chap to drive us from shop to shop along the main shopping street in Aksum.
Although Ethiopia has suffered from poverty, the economic situation is improving. Many of the 100 million population also have subsidised mobile phones, which is how they control the to-ing and fro-ing at the marketplaces found throughout the country.
It’s not unusual to see a stallholder hollering instructions on his mobile to truck drivers or locals leading donkeys laden with fruit and vegetables. At such a marketplace, behind the ruins of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba walls, we see a beautiful girl selling straw place mats and bowls so colourful we can’t miss them. And we can’t resist her smile. So, I have to have one and so does everyone else in the group.
In a village on the way to Gondar, hand-woven carpets hang on the mud-brick walls outside houses where the kids happily help me choose the one that would best suit my lounge room. With much assistance and all sorts of advice, I choose a three-metre brown and beige carpet runner that now lies proudly on my floor.
At the main marketplace in the town of Shiro Meda, the chief salesman drapes linen and flax scarves around our shoulders. He’s an expert in demonstrating the precision of scarf placement and even more of an expert in convincing me that blue is my colour. I simply have to have one.
As we sip on delicious Ethiopian coffee at Mount Simien Lodge, girls modelling jewellery around their slender necks make them too pretty to resist, so one necklace please. The Simien Mountains National Park, registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, is home to the Gelada baboon, often referred to as the bleeding-heart monkey.
As we walk among a large group of about 50, including babies, they barely bother to look up as they graze frantically on both the blades and the seeds of the grass, which provides 90 per cent of their diet. But at the lodge restaurant, a group of young ones brazenly attempt to steal food and, if we’re not careful, our recent purchases.
Bahir Dar is located on the southern shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the country’s largest lake, covering 3,600 square kilometres. On the peninsula opposite our waterfront hotel is one of many monasteries, including Ura Kidane Mehret, famous for its paintings.
A modern small launch drops us at the beginning of a 400-metre-track that leads up to the monastery and guess what? The track’s adorned with souvenirs from the water’s edge to the monastery entrance so there’s no escaping. But by now we don’t mind one bit as the shopkeepers are so happy that it’s a pleasure doing business – or not – with them. Here, as we walk past stalls of brightly coloured blankets, hand-carved wooden bowls, silver crosses, leather bags and all sorts of local knickknacks, we’re invited to a traditional coffee ceremony.
In case you didn’t know, Ethiopia is the birthplace of the essential liquid gold that begins the day for many people around the world. Coffee originated in a place called ‘Kaffa’, discovered by Kaldi, an Abyssinian goatherder, and everywhere you go coffee ceremonies are on the agenda. As an integral part of social and cultural life here, it’s considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality.
To begin with, a young female roasts the coffee beans on a simple, flat copper plate over a tiny charcoal stove with hot coals arranged on a bed of long scented palm grasses. The beans are poked and prodded until they turn black and shiny, then ground in a long, handled mortar and pestle and placed in a jebena, a round-bottomed jar with a straw lid.
This long procedure (about half an hour) is fascinating to watch as roughly ground coffee is passed through a fine sieve several times.
A child announces that it’s about to be served and it’s then poured gracefully into tiny, china cups from a height of 30 centimetres or so without spilling a drop. As we happily sip away, we feel privileged at having been included in such an important cultural ceremony.
It’s music to their ears to hear the words ‘holiday and scenery’ and with construction underway everywhere, the plan is to be in the top five African countries to visit by 2025. If they keep up the smiles, the first-rate souvenirs, happy marketplaces and freshly brewed coffee at airports, Ethiopia is bound to make its target.
Until I return again, I love the little pieces of Ethiopia in my apartment, and I can’t help but smile every time I see them.
Photography by Pamela Wright & the Ethiopian Embassy
• OMO AND AWASH VALLEYS: Visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed areas of the Omo and Awash Valleys. The Awash Valley, located near Djibouti in the Afar region, is where the skeleton of ‘Lucy’ was found. Thought to be 3.5 million years old, Lucy provided a vital window into the evolution of the human species.
• HARAR: The historic walled city of Harar dates back to the 7th Century and developed as a trading centre and centre of Islamic learning. Today it has 80 mosques and 100 shrines and showcases the fact that Ethiopia has historical ties to a number of major religions.
• SOF OMER CAVES: These caves, in the Oromia region in south-eastern Ethiopia, are significant as both a cultural and natural treasure. A sheikh lived in the cave where he taught Islam long before the religion was introduced in the region. The cave hosts two religious ceremonies a year. The caves are also a natural marvel, with 15 kilometres of passages as well as a river running through the chambers.
Connect with Ethiopian Airlines in Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong or Singapore for flights to Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines is the fastest growing airline in Africa and has its own aviation academy. ethiopianairlines.com
When to go
Tourist high season is from September to April. Timkat starts 19 January each year.
Where to stay
Addis Ababa – InterContinental Addis Hotel: intercontinentaladdis.com
Bahir Dar – Blue Nile Hotel: bluenilehotel.com
Gondar – Goha Hotel: gohahotel.com
Aksum – Sabean International Hotel: sabeanhotel.com
Lalibela – Mountain View Hotel: mountainview-hotel.com
Bishoftu – Kuriftu Resort and Spa
Arrange a visa beforehand with the Ethiopian Embassy in Canberra or obtain on arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa.