Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tribes of Southern Omo Valley

There have been times on this trip when we have debated about going some place or another, and most of the time we have not regretted the decision. During the Ethiopia leg of the journey the big debate was to head south or not. Whats in the South?? The Tribes are in the south! Ethiopia for the traveler is essentially split into discrete circuits covering the north, south and east of the country. The North is the Church and Historical circuit. The East has some amazing natural wonders, and the south has the tribes. The tribes of Ethiopia are varied and interesting, they hold much intrigue for those who venture down to visit them, and deciding to take this trip was the best choice of the whole african leg of the journey.

We were really debating this one hard, solely because of the costs - you have to take a 4x4 to visit the tribes, as the roads are even worse than the awful highway roads found around Addis! They really are African Bum massagers! The 4x4 guys have a great monopoly going on and the rates rarely drop below $100US per car per day. Sure for a group this might work out ok, but for us backpackers, thats a lot of Injera!

We were super lucky that as we were booking our jeeps we met a couple of guys from the Czech Republic and Slovakia - Ivan and Michel, they too wanted to do the trip and so we were set, 50% straight off!

I guess the first thing to say is that there are tribes all over Ethiopia, but the southern Omo Valley tribes have gained some notoriety as they have been cut off for a number of years (for main stream travelers, the villages were really only opened for visits 15 years ago), also they have maintained customs and traditions to this day that set them apart from what I or most others would know. They are intriguing and mind boggling in the way they live life. I think it gives some indication on how past generations may have lived.

Of course times are changing as these tribes are becoming more commercially savvy. There are new ‘better’ roads being built and villages are becoming easier to get to. There are park and village entrance fees, and I am waiting for the first tribal Starbucks to open soon!! Seriously I think that we had an experience that was somewhat staged, but as close to real life as I would expect. In the end we were visiting people in their homes and communities and jumping out of a non air-conditioned 4x4 to take photos and gawp at bull jumping and lip plates, is already pretty synthetic. This aside the experience was mind blowing and I am so glad that we decided to visit these tribes.

We were fortunate in that over 3 days we visited 4 different tribal groups - the Konso, the Arbore, the Hamer and the Mursi. Each were different. The Konso were most like conventional towns folk, the Arbore are famous for the beaded and metal jewelry they wear. The Mursi are rough, aggressive, savvy and plain weird! The ladies are famous for the huge lip plates the wear IN their bottom lips. These plate could easily hold my dinner on them and they are apparently a sign of beauty. I am not one to judge but the way that the ladies were taking the plates out and letting the resultant skin flap around was not too catchy for me!!

The Hamer were the most interesting and most welcoming of the tribes we met. We were super lucky to be in the area at the right time of year and the right day to witness and in some ways be part of the famous bull jumping ceremony they have. The Bull jumping is a coming of age ritual that any boy must perform before they can be called men. It is complex and goes on for many days, but the main highlights are as follows.

All boys must undergo the ceremonial process to become a man, indeed even if you leave the village for work or anything else, you must come back to your village for this ceremony.

All the ladies of the family of the boy perform many dances and performances to show their support to the boy. The greatest sign of their support however is that they are voluntarily whipped, by whippers for the area. These are no light dashes with a leaf, this whipping leads to blood. It is a very disturbing process to watch, but one can’t help being enthralled by the ruthlessness of the act. The more the whipping the more you are showing your support for your brother or cousin or son.

The boys family must arrange for many bulls to be brought to the village, the more bulls they can buy the richer they are and again the better for the boy. As you might guess there is whole marriage subtext to this whole thing, as once the boy becomes a man he needs a wife. As ever everyone is one to impress!

The concluding act of the bull jumping ceremony is exactly that. The boy must jump onto and run over the backs of all the bulls that have been collected. Other men of the tribe help him by holding the bulls by their tails and horns and her jumps on them and runs. He must do this non stop at least 3 times and he cant ‘train’ for it. More over as ever with tribes he is naked (why do they always do this!).

Seeing a boy grow in to a man by jumping over 7-10 angry bulls in a row is a sight to behold. This was not a show, it was not put on to impress the tour groups, these ceremonies are how life moves with the Hamer. I was taken aback by it all and it really was a privilege to see the events unfold. Sure I felt a bit uncomfortable as I clicked away throughout the ceremonies, but to be honest this was a time when the pics did not matter, having seen the tribes of the south Omo valley was an experience by itself and was unforgetable.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

What is the cost of a Photo

We have taken over 23,000 photos on this trip so far and many have been of people, of young and old. Indeed the people we have seen on our trip are the most interesting subjects for me when taking photos. To date most of these pictures were largely unstaged, in many cases spontaneous and in some cases, down right sneakily taken! So when we decided to come to Ethiopia and ‘visit’ the southern Omo tribes, Urvi told me of the custom of paying for all the photos. Villagers would be happy to pose for us (even what to pose) but insist on payment. There is no choice in this and in the end you enter into what feels like a mass portrait session, with numerous photo shoots taking place throughout the village.

I must say that this was very unforgettable for me, not least because although the tribes were in tradition dress and setting, most would pose for a photo, this resulted in staged looking photos, which I didn’t like. However we were fortunate to come across one tribal group that did not pose for shots. The Hamer are a welcoming and intense tribe with many distinct traditions. The reason that they were not posing for shots was that we visited at the time of a bull jumping ceremony. This is described in detail in a later post, but we were lucky that as the tribe were busy in this celebratory function, they were happy to invite us in and allowed photos. Indeed some of the tribe are budding snappers themselves, and loved to click away happily. I pondered what they actually thought of taking photos as they believe that when you take a photo it takes some part of the subjects soul away and captures it! Maybe they are right, paying for posed shots was a bit soul consuming for me!

Paying for photos is not in itself a bad thing, but the business transaction takes away all feeling that the photo you take is a glimpse in the real life of the subject. I didn't have the photographic skills to influence the situation, and I guess just photographing these tribes in interesting enough. General feedback on the shots was positive so something must have good right!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Visions from an Alien world

As we trundle around Ethiopia I am starting to contemplate what life will be like in a few short months when I will be back in the UK. So many things have happened in the last year that I am not sure what life will look life when I return. It is in many ways an alien world for me. I find it a very bizarre feeling that I am currently on never ending dirt road in Ethiopia, with farms all around me, chickens and pigs scuttling all over the place and in 2 months I will be back in a different world again. How will this be?? I have no idea. For so many reasons I am not sure I recall normal life. I know that things will settle quickly, but right now this thought is as alien for me as the tribes of southern Ethiopia will be!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Ethiopia - A Land Full of Surprises

It seemed strange at first, but the people we met who had either been to Ethiopia or were visiting when we were there, all showed some major commitment in travelling to this country. By this I meant that people didn't seem to just land up in Ethiopia and it wasn't not to be found on any sort of gringo backpackers trail through Africa. This meant that travelers (us included had some story and reason to be in Ethiopia). Why is this notable? Well, it got me thinking why people were here? What was special about this country that made people ‘want’ to come here rather than just land up here.

It soon became very clear. Ethiopia is totally intoxicating - if you open up and let it in. Arriving in the capital Addis Ababa is an experience, the city is a mess, and is not very welcoming but spend a day here and we started to warm to the Capitals ways. In many ways it felt to us like we were hauled back in time, people went about their business mainly on foot, and the air of old world africa is all over. There are very few new buildings anywhere in Addis, and business style and culture just seemed to be stuck in the 20s!

Addis was where the real point of Ethiopia started to become apparent to us. This city and the country moreover is totally a land of surprises. Surprises and more importantly broken stereotypes. If you had asked me or most people about Ethiopia, the main themes that would come back are the famine of 1984 and a vision of an arid land, with no sense of future - all in all another african basket-case. Ethiopia is nothing of the sort. It is a land so rich in history and culture that it would put most other countries to shame, indeed the lands of Ethiopia are thought to be some of the first to host Mankind no less! Ethiopia’s history spans many generations and includes a rich and complex religious structure - the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church is a religion all by its self and evident in most of the north of the country. We were amazed at the churches and substantial religious tradition here. The churches are simple but totally different to any other Christian buildings we have seen, and have the stamp of Africa and Ethiopia all over them.

Sure the country is poor, very poor, but its people are so hard working and over the last decades the state of the country has been totally turned around. Far from being a basket-case of Africa, Ethiopia is one of the success stories. And as in so many other countries we have visited the richness of the culture and the people shines through. Ethiopian people are so good to each other that we were seriously taken aback at the familial nature of society. Maybe history had had a part to play, but for example, no one will let a stranger eat alone. While travelling we would take lunch breaks and if there was someone travelling alone, without fail others would call them over to share a meal. We were invited for coffee by the driver of our bus on one such journey. People here really have big hearts and it shows all the time. Smiles are free and donate in abundance.

Another surprise was just how naturally beautiful Ethiopia is. Again a legacy of the coverage of the famine - peoples can be forgiven for thinking that Ethiopia would be nothing more than dry and parched scrub land. In fact, it is green green green, There are lush forests, stunning green fields the like of which we have only seen in Vietnam and just outstandingly beautiful lakes,hills and mountains. Ethiopia is truly stunning and varied in appearance - a total surprise to me in particular.

By far and away the most pleasant surprise for both of us was the variety and quality of the food. Put simply Ethiopians sure know how to cook. We were totally spoilt for most of our time here. The local fare is dominated by Injera. A kind of pancake made from a millet kind of grain, it is steamed, and then served cold. This forms the base (literally) of your meal. On top you are served with Wat (curry) or Shiro (like a Dal) or best of all a Beyenatu (a combo of curries, daals, salads and all). Its true injera takes a few goes to get used to, but once you are happy with it (Urvi as ever adapted faster than me) it is a really hearty meal. Best of all, the traditional way to eat Ethiopian food is together with company. One always asks people to join in and share a meal, and this is never turned down. It is such a nice change from the one person one plate culture that is all over the West.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this might be the limit of the food enjoyment, but its just the start. Ethiopia had some of the best pasts we have EVER eaten, including the fair we had in Italy! There are a few truly awesome restaurants and in general anywhere you order pasta you are sure to get a good meal. To top this off we had great pizza, Indian and even sandwiches.

Ethiopia is really a place where food is a joy and we had a great time, however even better than the food was the coffee. Oh My, I will go as far as saying, coffee in Ethiopia is pretty much the best coffee I have ever had. In the traditional form it is strong but served with sugar and from a classic clay jug, along side much incense burning. Its just a great way to finish your injera meal. In the western espresso or Macchiato form, the coffee is smooth, intense and just a joy. Add the 25p price tag for a cup and it is pure coffee drinkers heaven!!

Ethiopia may well be THE find of the world trip for us. We thought that Laos was a discovery for us, but this welcoming part of central Africa has won a place in both our hearts, and as I sip another cup of black gold coffee, I am so thankful that we were tempted to visit here, and that Urvi confirmed it in the plans. Missing Ethiopia would have (in hindsight) been such a mistake.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The home straight is well and truly upon us.

We have 2 months to go, we have 2 main countries to go and we have little energy left. Don't get me wrong, Africa is as important for us as any of the other continents, but I think that we needed to break the trip up with some work or some other distraction, volunteering or something. I might be giving the impression that I cant wait for the trip to finish, this is not true, I am really saying that if you are gonna be away for this length of time then really consider what it means. It means a new way of life for that long, its not a vacation and its not always easy. When you know that you are ending this type of trip you really do feel mixed emotions, in many ways just as when you start it.

I am sure that we did the right thing to take on such a long venture, and I am also sure that at this final stage, the benefits may seem hazy than ever before, but I think that once we decompress in a few months time, we will look back with nothing but fondness to what has been unimaginably wonderful.

Ethiopia and Southern Africa await. I hope that we run through the finish line and not stumble over it out of breath and pining for home.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Egypt - dare I say - do it on a tour!

Egypt is only the 2nd country I can think of that we have had mixed emotions about leaving. Everywhere else other than here and Ecuador (excluding Galapagos and Cotopaxi) we were real sad to be moving on. Its not that we have had a bad time, but I guess that there are a number of factors that make this part of the trip less enjoyable than many others. The first is that despite Egypt housing some of the oldest and most important monuments in the world, it felt that there was not much to experience. The culture of the Egyptian people today is far from interesting and from the travelers perspective Egypt is the Nile, the Pyramids and ancient remains. These do indeed blow your mind but after that what?? The modern day culture is a little bland and there is little to sink your teeth or mind into. I think that we therefore found the place to be a little underwhelming from the travelers perspective. You also don't meet that many other travelers. Meeting others has been the cornerstone of our trip and we have enriched the experience beyond comparison because of the people we have met as well as physically where we have met them. So while in Egypt we have felt alone and detached from the traveller circuit and we have been besieged by tour groups and people on short breaks!

Indeed I think the dynamics of travelling in Egypt make it perfect for the tour or short break setup. Thats basically what you end up doing anyway so why not have the comfort and ease of travel that comes with it too!

2 weeks touring around Egypt gets you to all the major sights and although all our travelling friends will be freaking out as I say this, I think that it is a far more pleasurable experience if you bite the bullet and just travel on the tour bus! Would we have missed anything if we had done that? I don't think so...

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