Travel hacks Ethiopia – things you should know before starting your trip

Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonised and maintains its own distinct culture. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of Ethiopia. These travel hacks will help you navigate Ethiopia like a local.


Why you are China

Despite my blonde hair and blue eyes, the people of Ethiopia regularly pointed at me and shouted «CHINA!». It isn’t that Ethiopians can’t tell the difference between Europeans and Asians rather that most of the foreigners that Ethiopians typically see are Chinese construction workers doing road work. Sometimes, you will also be called ‘ferenji’ which comes from the word ‘french.’ This is because the French were the first Europeans to drive in Ethiopia.

Travel hack: If someone calls you Ferenji or China, point at them too and say «Habesha!», which means Ethiopians. Laughter and surprised faces are guaranteed. 

A picture of me with my blond hair next to an Ethiopian

Habesha & Ferenji ;-)

Hidden juice bars

One of the most amazing things about Ethiopia are the juice bars. At most of the fruits stands, you will find an entrance to a back room. There, you can order fresh salads with avocado and bananas, or get freshly pressed juice. 

Depending on the size of the fruit stand, you can get orange, mango, banana, guava, papaya, strawberry, or, my favourite, avocado juice. It is served with a spoon next to it because it is more of a thick smoothie than a liquid juice. Because of the thick texture and the fresh fruits and vegetables used the juices tasted amazing. The juices are often served with syrup as a sweetener and a lime on the side which is dripped into the juice.

Travel hack: If you can’t decide which juice to take, then order a «spris». It means «mix» and is not simply a multifruit juice but is presented in nice layers for each fruit. 

Fruit stand in Ethiopia

Fruit stand in Ethiopia – Picture: Eva Hirschi

Eating with the right hand

I could probably write a book about the gastronomic culture of this country, but let’s just get the basics. Ethiopians eat with their hand, therefore before you start eating you must go to the «hand wash», an outside sink where you can clean your paws with some soap. In fancy restaurants, they will bring you the water and a small bowl to wash your hands.

During the meal, you will only use the right hand. This is accomplished by taking some injera, or flatbread, and wrapping it around some of the toppings which include fish, meat, lentils, vegetables and salad. If you’re a pro, you can manage to make something that looks like a little package even though I’m still far from this.

Travel hack: Licking the fingers is not well seen during the whole meal since it’s not very hygienic when you stick your licked fingers back in the common plate. Makes sense, right?

Travel hack II: It can happen that someone at the table wants to put a handful of the food directly in your mouth. This feeding is called «gursha» and is a sign of hospitality and respect. Usually, a gursha is always given three times during a meal. You can also give a gursha back to your host, but you don’t have to.

Typical Ethiopian dish

Typical Ethiopian dish – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Intimate bus rides

There is a surprisingly big amount of people that fit into an Ethiopian bus. In the city of Addis, you will often find mini-busses. Designed for 12 people, they can easily fit twice as many passengers in there. If you need a comfortable seat and privacy, then just don’t take the bus at all. It is absolutely normal to squeeze three people into two seats or let them sit on boxes on the floor.

You pay the (very small) price directly in the bus, a guy called assistant collects the money from all the passengers and shouts the direction or final destination of the bus when there is a stop. There are no bus stations indicated, so you just tell the assistant where you want to get off.

Travel hack: Try to get one of the two front seats next to the driver, they are way more comfortable and less bumpy.

Like a local: Public bus rides in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

Like a local: Public bus rides in Addis Abeba – Photo: Eva Hirschi

How to greet

In Ethiopia, you shake hands to greet each other, often followed by a short touching of the shoulders, as you would bump into each other. This is followed by a series of questions about how the person is doing, how the family is doing, how work is doing etc. By the way, not to look into the other’s eyes can be a sign of respect, contrary to what we are used to.

Travel hack: Support your right forearm with your left hand while shaking someone’s hand, it strengthens the gesture.

This handshake shows how Ethiopians greet each other

A typical Ethiopian handshake – Photo: Marwan Abdalla

Telling time

If you travel by bus, you might think the clock is wrong, showing a completely different hour than it actually is. But even though it’s true that Ethiopians don’t take being on time very strictly, the clock in the bus is correct – Ethiopia just uses a different system to count the hours than the rest of the world. The day starts with the sunrise, so when it’s six o’clock for us, for them it’s 0 o’clock. Ten o’clock in the morning would, therefore, be four o’clock for Ethiopians.

Travel hack: If you fix an appointment with an Ethiopian friend, don’t forget to ask whether the indicated time refers to the Ethiopian time system or the western one.

How to tell Ethiopian time

Is this Swiss or Ethiopian time? – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Move your body

In Ethiopia, everybody can dance. Women, men, babies and grannies. And they do it all the time. If you are in Ethiopia, sooner or later someone will teach you how to dance. This doesn’t need to be in a club or in a bar – sometimes when there is nice music in a restaurant, people would spontaneously stand up and start dancing, so don’t be surprised.

Travel hack: Don’t be shy and try to dance as well as possible – it will make the Ethiopians happy.

Example of some random dancing in a restaurant, performed by a cute little boy

Get coffee addicted

Ethiopia is the origin of the green gold. So it is no surprise that in Ethiopia, people don’t just drink coffee – they have a traditional coffee ceremony which is an integral part of the daily life (check my blog post about how to perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony).

The coffee is served in small cups, but since it is a stronger coffee than the one we are used to in Europe, it’s perfectly fine. And traditionally, you get three «rounds» of coffee; the first one being the strongest coffee, the last the least strong one.

Travel hack: Tell them in the beginning that you don’t want any sugar in your coffee, since Ethiopians put the sugar directly into the cups before pouring the coffee.

Ethiopian coffee

Ethiopian coffee – Photo: Livia Röthlisberger

Chewing plants

Even though I never tried it, «chat» (khat) is very important to some Ethiopians, so I am briefly going to explain why you might often see chewing Ethiopians. It’s not chewing gums they have in their mouth, but a plant called «chat» which grows in the South. It has a mildly stimulating effect and is totally legal.

Some Ethiopians swear that it increases concentration, so it happens that students eventually chew this plant while studying. The leaves taste bitter so often the Ethiopians take sweet soft drinks and small snacks with them to get a better taste.

Travel hack: You can find «chat» all over the country, but make sure an Ethiopian friend helps you with finding some good one. Prices do reflect quality, and the youngest leaves are supposed to be the best.

Erta Ale, Ethiopia – the most dangerous (and amazing!) trip of my life

More than just a volcano: The trip to Erta Alea and the Danakil Depression is a constant mind-blowing adventure and a once in a lifetime experience.

«You should go to the volcano Erta Alea – it’s on a list of top 10 things to see before you die», my friend told me. Erta Ale means «smoking mountain» in Amharic and is locally known as the gateway to hell. Since my friend sounded deeply fascinated by this place he had googled, and I happened to stay in Ethiopia for a whole month, I booked a tour without hesitation.

In order to be able to go to Erta Ale and the Danakil Depression, it is mandatory to book a tour with a guided group – you even need to be accompanied by military security guards. The Afar region in the north of Ethiopia near the Eritrean border is sometimes turbulent, the inhabitants known to be rather violent and hostile to outsiders coming into their territory.
Little did I know that this would not be the only thing that’s dangerous on this trip.

Trip to volcano Erta Ale in Ethiopia with ETT

Trip to Erta Ale with ETT – Photo: Eva Hirschi

Weiterlesen

How to perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Coffee originates from Ethiopia. However, one does not just brew coffee here, no, there is a special ceremony for it. I got the honour to make coffee for Ethiopia’s New Year, so here is an introduction on how to do it the Ethiopian way.

In Ethiopia, a small sign reveals the presence of a place where traditional coffee is prepared: fresh green grass on the floor. This is said to keep away bad spirits. Also, Ethiopians put some incense on the fire on which the coffee is cooked, which envelops the room with a very nice smelling smoke. This is believed to stimulate the men when they see the wife preparing the coffee. However, once you smell this odour, you will quickly recognise it from a time when you were in close proximity to a coffee place.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony

The traditional coffee is served like an espresso, with two spoons of sugar, and is called «buna». Usually, it’s the women who prepare the coffee. For special occasions, they wear the traditional white dress with coloured woven borders. My Swiss friend, currently living in Ethiopia, put me in contact with two friends. With them by my side, I learned how to do the traditional coffee ceremony.  These are the steps:

1: Washing underneath the skin

Ethiopian coffee is made with fresh coffee beans. First, you have to wash them. Not because they are dirty, but because you want to scrub off the skin of the beans. Therefore, you put a little bit of water on the flat pan and scrub the beans together until the skin comes off.

Washing the coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Washing the coffee beans

2: Roast it over (incense) fire

So far, the beans are still green so you need to roast them over a tiny charcoal stove. Move them constantly on the flat pan so they are roasted equally and regularly. They will become black and shiny because the heat coaxes the aromatic oil out of them. Once they have all reached the same colour, you’re done.

Roasting coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Can’t forget the intensive smell…

3: Small workout for the arms

Now comes the tricky part: you need to make a powder out of the coffee beans. Therefore, you need to grind them with a pestle and a mortar. It takes a lot of effort, so prepare yourself for this task. Note: modern families nowadays use electric coffee mills, but we want to do it the traditional way, right? Keep on!

Workout for the arms: grinding the coffee beans for traditional Ethiopian coffee

Making everyone laugh because of my soft technique…

4: Boil and wait

Before you boil the coffee, you first have to boil the water in the «jebena», the traditional Ethiopian coffee boiling pot. Once it boils you add the coffee powder. Usually, it’s one spoon for two people. Let it boil for a couple of minutes. Soon you’ll get to smell the awesome fresh coffee!

Waiting until it's done: Traditional Ethiopian coffee

Enjoying this Ethiopian coffee tradition.

5: Rest (in peace)

Once you have boiled the coffee, you can’t drink it right away. Be patient. Put the jebena away from the fire and let it rest. This makes the coffee powder go down to the bottom so you’re not going to swallow small pieces. This is similar to how Turkish coffee is made. Some families strain the coffee through a fine sieve several times instead of waiting.

6: Don’t forget the extra cup

After a few minutes, it’s finally time to taste the coffee. Put sugar in the small, handleless cups (Ethiopians usually drink it with two or three spoons of sugar and can’t believe I prefer mine black…) and carefully pour the hot coffee from as high as possible into the cups. On the countryside, they add salt or traditional butter instead of sugar sometimes. Don’t forget to put an extra cup on your plate – this is for spontaneous guests or for God – but don’t pour any coffee in it. After all, it is meant to be symbolic, right?

Ethiopian coffee

There is always time for a coffee break in Ethiopia.

The first cup goes to the oldest person in the room. Don’t forget to serve popcorn or peanuts with the coffee, this is how it is done in Ethiopia (and you won’t drink your coffee without popcorn anymore afterwards, I promise!) This is rather new, however. In the past, they used to serve a homemade pastry called him bash, but the coffee ceremony also goes with the pace of the modern times so popcorn is prepared instead because it is easier and quicker.

7: Three heavens

If you think that was it, then you’re wrong. Coffee is always served in three rounds in Ethiopia, yay! The first is the strongest one, the second is less strong and the third is the weakest. The third round is considered a blessing. After all this hard work, it would be a pity just to have one small cup of the precious green gold, right?

 

Meskel – Ethiopians most holy holiday

The most important Ethiopian holiday – Meskel – took place last week and we went to Dorze in Southern Ethiopia in order to celebrate this special day. A glimpse of one of the craziest days in my life.

One good way to learn more about a culture is to celebrate a holiday. In Ethiopia, the national holiday, Meskel, was the perfect occasion to do so. The region of Dorze is known for its traditional celebration of Meskel, so we decided to go there with our friend who is originally from a town there.

Dorze, Ethiopia

Beautiful Dorze

From Addis Abeba we took a public bus to Arba Minch, where a friend of his picked us up and drove us all the way up to Dorze. This region is composed of 12 villages at a altitude of 2600 meters above sea level, which is 600 meters higher than where I usually go skiing in the Swiss mountains…

Orthodox celebration

The main part of the population belongs to the Ethiopian orthodox church. On Meskel, the discovery of the holy cross is celebrated. According to a legend, in the year 326 Queen Helena discovered the cross upon which Christ was crucified. The celebration takes place over several days and starts on September 26th.

Women dress in white when they go to church

Women dress in white when they go to church

During these days, you even have to greet each other in a special way in Dorze. When you meet friends, you have to jump and shout «Yo, yo, yo!» and then all the people reply with a long «Yooooooo!», hugging each other. We tried to apply it on this day and it worked perfectly – whether young or old, female or male, everybody greets like this and was highly amused by us doing so too.

Bloody field

The most important event of the celebration is the slaughtering of the bulls. On a big field where the market usually takes place, about 700 to 1000 bulls get killed on this one day! When men bring a new bull to the field, people will assemble around and watch them slaughter the animal. To do so, they tie its legs together and make it fall to the side. Then, a guy cuts the neck of the bull with a big knife and it dies within several minutes from bloodloss.

The slaughtering of the bulls

The slaughtering of the bulls

If you walk over the field – as we couragesely did – you’ll find a dead bull lying on the ground every three meters. Or sometimes just parts of it, like a leg, the head or the tail. You need to be careful not to slip on the small lakes of fresh blood, and if you here people shouting «suts suts», watch out, because it means they are carrying a big piece of meat through the crowd, so make sure to get out of the way.

Singing, dancing and drinking

Admittedly, the slaughtering was not my favorite part of the celebration, even though it was very interesting. After this experience, we felt like we needed a beer or two and so we went to a bar close to the field with seating outside on the grass, in the shade. Quickly, people started talking to us, interested about the white foreigners. After a few beers, people started singing, usually with one guy shouting some headlines, and the crowd replying in a choire. They also started showing us some traditional dances.

Meskel celebration in Dorze, Ethiopia

Meskel celebration in Dorze

A group of four people sat there too, with a big piece of fresh meat. They had brought injera (the sour dough flat bred) and some spices, and started eating the raw meat. I got the honour to try some too, and to be honest, it was delicious! People drink a very strong liquor called Araki with it, to «calm down the concert in the stomach» after the raw meat.

My two cents

I’m not a big fan of slaughtering – not at all, actually – but since its part of the culture and I do eat meat, I felt like I should see it. And to be honest, it was a really interesting experience. Even if on first sight it might seem brutal, it’s actually more natural than the methods employed in Europe. Also, the animals lived their whole life in the nature on the fields, and not in metal cages as in Europe. So even if we are not used to it, we should learn about the slaughtering instead of just buying nicely cut pieces of meat in the supermarket without questioning ourselfs on where it comes from.

Meskel in Dorze

Typical scenary of Meskel

Highlights of Morocco

Morocco is the perfect introduction to the African continent: a bit slower, a bit less organised and a bit more colorful than Europe, but yet not as chaotic and crazy as the rest of Africa.

Morocco is a very diverse country: from mountains to beaches, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, from forests to deserts, from Arabs to Berbers – you’ll find a lot of variety in this country. That’s the reason we decided to do a road trip and see as many different things as possible within our two and a half weeks here. We visited nine different places (Casablanca, Meknes, Azrou, Ouzrou, Marrakesh, Essaouira, Oualidia, El-Jadida, Rabat) so here are the highlights from our trip.

Calm Meknes

Meknes is the sixth biggest city in Morocco. Since the city of Fes is a bit bigger and in the same area, most tourists tend to visit Fes, so if you want a less touristy experience, you should go to Meknes – and it’s no less beautiful!

Meknes, Morocco

Meknes

The medina – the old town – is like a small labyrinth: it’s not easy to find your way through the countless small roads and paths, but it makes the exploration of the city even more stunning and exciting. Also, in literally each corner you’ll find a cat taking a nap or chasing some flies… Make sure to drink the traditional peppermint tea or go for some fresh juices like mango or avocado – delicious!

Wild Ouzoud

This was probably my biggest highlight of this trip: the waterfalls of Ouzoud. At first sight, and especially if you walk down the main road with the stairs, you might be disappointed by this place. There is this very nice waterfall, yes, but many many tourists around and not that much nature. But don’t stop here, walk all the way down and continue your way along the river that comes from the waterfall. You will find many different camp sites, the one I recommend is called «Le panard». The owner was one of the first ones to open a campsite next to the waterfall and he has a lot of stories to tell about how the area has changed the past 30 years.

Waterfalls of Ouzoud

Waterfalls of Ouzoud

This place is especially nice since you can also sleep outside without a tent. Actually, there is a kind of a terras with thin mattresses, roofed by plants. For only 30 dirhams you can grab one those mattresses and sleep outside – in summer this is perfect, just take a sleeping bag or a thin blanket since the temperatures might fall a bit in the middle of the night. Even with the ceiling, you’re able to see a bit of the surrounding mountains and the sky with its stars, which is truly beautiful. The next day you can get a delicious breakfast.

Sleeping under the stars

Sleeping under the stars

Instead of going for a swim next to the waterfall, like most of the tourists, you should walk down the river even further and you’ll find different places where you can take a perfect bath, sometimes next to mini waterfalls. The owner recommends the place where this river joins another one, which is about a one to two hour walk away from his camp site, but we never managed to get there because we were already struggling enough with the 40+ degrees during the day. You can also get dinner at his place, I definitely recommend the Berbers omelette (which doesn’t taste like a European omelette, but is served in a tagine).

Crazy Marrakesh

Marrakesh

Marrakesh

Marrakesh is the most famous destination in Morocco – and even if I usually don’t like touristy places, I definitely recommend Marrakesh. Very distinguished from the other cities of Morocco, it feels like entering a different world: more colorful, louder, crazier than everything else. Especially on the souk – the big market – the ambience is vibrating and energizing. Still, Marrakesh is more than just the souk. We did Couchsurfing and stayed with a lovely Moroccan family. They showed us the local life in Marrakesh – for example, we had a night picnic in the park and walked through the very animated streets of a suburb of Marrakesh without seeing any other Europeans.

Another authentic experience was the hammam – not the touristy one for 400 dirhams, but the small local one for 10 dirhams. It was a crazy experience to find yourself topless and only with the bikini sitting on the wet floor of a very simple hallway, pouring hot water on your skin and rubbing it with a special exfoliating glove (kessa) and black soap. And – as our host had predicted – an elderly woman approached us and asked «Madame ou Mademoiselle?» – We were wise enough to answer Madame, not wanting to get her marriage recommendations in Arab.

Beautiful Essaouira

From Marrakesh, we went to Essaouira, a very nice – and in Europe not yet that known – harbour city on the Atlantic coast. Moroccans call Essaouira the windy city, and we can confirm this. Better bring a small jacket or sweater with you, even in summer. Also, the Atlantic is very cold at this place so we decided not to go for a swim. Still, the city has a lot of other things to offer. There are many nice restaurants and bars (check out the Pirate’s Zion, they have a café in the city center and a hostel a little bit outside the center if you are looking for an alternative, artsy place to be) or go to one of the cafés next to the busy main street and sip your tea while watching the people pass by.

Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira

Also, make sure to be at the harbour from 3pm on. This is the time when the first fishermen come back from the Sea and sell their catch on the quai. I discovered sea creatures I’ve never seen in my life before. They even sell shark, if they happen to catch one by accident. Our favorite spot was on top of the wall that surrounds the harbor; from there you can overlook the whole place and take nice discrete pictures.

Royal Rabat

After having checked out some beaches on the Atlantic coast, we drove north all the way to Rabat. You’ll realize very quickly that this is the capital city, the city of the king. The streets are cleaner, the buildings taller, the people more chique. The mausoleum of Mohammed V and the Hassan tour were nice, but I found the Kasbah of the Udayas (Kasbah des Oudaïa) even more impressive. This ancient fortress is part of the UNESCO world heritage sites. On top of a hill, you have a nice view on the beach, the neighbouring city Salé and a bit of Rabat. You can walk through narrow paths between blue and white houses, seeing cats and kids playing. Behind the houses, you’ll find a small paradise: the Andalusian garden. Take a coffee and enjoy the smell of the different plants and the sun on your skin.

Morocco's cats