This may surprise many people. Ethiopia’s cell/mobile phone system is much better than that in the
United States. We don’t think there is anywhere you can’t receive a phone call. Please keep in
mind, that even today Embrace Foundation can not receive cell phone calls at their retreat in New
Mexico. If you wish to rent a cell/mobile phone in Ethiopia you can.
Embrace has a mobile phone that operates on sim cards, so the founders went to a government
office and registered. You need a photo I.D. It is very fast and inexpensive. The office installs a sim
card at the time you go in. They will program however many minutes you wish to have. After that you
can buy sim cards all over the country.
Many guide books will speak of unpaved roads between Northern cities. This is pretty much a thing
of the past. The Chinese have built excellent paved roads between most major towns. Having taken
an inventory of their technique, once again we have to say that their roads are made far better than
the ones we have in the United States. They are bedded about 8 to 10 inches high and usually go
with very steep ditches on each side for runoff.
An Ecumenical Story
Ethiopia is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. It is common to see school girls
Christian and Muslim with linked arms or arms wrapped around each others shoulders coming home
In the small town of Denje, Ajata and Virginia noticed that a newly built church stood on one side of
the two lane road and a mosque under construction but nearly finished stood directly on the other
side of the road. Both buildings appeared to be built of the same materials and pretty much the
When the bus stopped for a break, Ajata befriended a high school teacher and asked about the
church and mosque. The teacher said that the Muslims in the community had helped build the
church and now the Christians were helping the Muslims build their mosque!
Buses - Mini Vans
If you wish to travel off the beaten path, to small villages or towns, getting back on board a bus or
a van to your next destination can be a wait. Young men that tourists should compensate can
sometimes chase after buses and vans so that you can get on one. Some times the situation is more
problematic. Information about transportation in smaller towns is not easy to get.
One enterprising group of men secured a U.N. pickup truck to take the founders to their destination.
(We declined, not knowing whether this would be a problem for someone in the long run.) There
are many young men in parts of Addis Ababa, some in small northern towns and in particular in
Lalibella in the 12-30 year age range that try in every conceivable way to earn a living. If a tourist
can honestly employ or help give them a job, it is often well worth it. The young men frequently work
in groups, often belonging to the same extended family/ clan and share the little money they get.
The idea of sharing whatever you get is a traditional and touching aspect of rural Ethiopians.
The one area of baksheesh the Embrace Founders do not subscribe to, is when there is a
reservation with a hotel or guest house and the van driver picks up a friend along the way, (usually
a couple of miles from the hotel) who tells the hotel manager or owner that he “brought” you there.
This means that the hotel is obligated to pay a commission for steering a new guest to the
establishment. When a reservation is on file, we make it clear to the manager or owner that we had
a reservation and that the “tout” had nothing to do with our staying at that particular hotel.
Guest Houses in Addis Ababa
Excellent, fair priced guest houses are available in the capital. Otherwise a Western styled hotel is
often twice the price it would be in Europe or the United States. This is most likely due to the
expected traffic from politicians and diplomats visiting the Organization of African Union & the
headquarters for the U.N. in African. The U.N. in fact is a help in locating guest houses for those
with modest means - check their listings in the internet. Also the Ethiopian government has an
excellent listing of guest houses in Addis Ababa. When we say “Guest Houses” they are really small
hotels or B&B’s. They are immaculate and have many amenities.
Hotels - General
In general hotels outside of Addis Ababa including the major tourist draws, lack many of the basic
necessities. For those used to “long stay” travel or “backpacking” in Asia, this will be nothing new.
However, what is different in Ethiopia, is that even if you wish to take a break from budget hotels
and spend more for an upgraded hotel, inn or guest house, such hostelries are most often not
This brings us to Harar. The hotels in Harar are limited and don’t offer a break from hard travel.
Those on an extremely tight budget will opt for staying there but Dire Dawa has an excellent hotel
for very reasonable rates. We don’t like to recommend either hotels or restaurants, but with such
limited options, we are going to say, if you can stay at the Selam Hotel in Dire Dawa, do so. It is
preferable to anything in Harar and it has a very good restaurant. It is a short van ride to and from
Harar is an old Muslim city which travel writers will encourage you to visit. At present one of the
more lively areas of the city is not behind the “old city” walls but the new Somali refugee market.
These people are always energetic and bringing in new products. Chat is another issue in Harar. It
is dismissed as pretty much harmless in the travel guides and as a large amount of currency is
evolved with it’s trade on the exchange, it should be. But there are a number of Harar residents
addicted to it. This gives rise to people walking up to you or others on the street and acting fairly
insane. It also gives rise to people who apparently can not judge distance adequately and bush,
touch or bump into others on the street regularly. The addicts are not hostile to visitors nor are they
pickpockets, they are just stoned.
It is difficult in a few tourist areas to just “ask” for directions. If you ask for directions you may find
that you have unwittingly extended an invitation for a young man to be with you for the rest of the
day trying to offer you his services -be it as a guide or any other sundry service. (Anyone who has
traveled in Asia is already familiar with a version of this.) When you need directions- store
clerks, bank security guards and other employed people will politely and gladly help you.
This is particularly important in Lalibella, where it seems young men from all the distant surrounding
countryside have come to town in the hopes of earning money by rendering service to tourists.
For those who do not want to walk up hill in the heat or can not walk up hill each day they wish to
visit the great rock hewn churches, you need to be aware of the fact that there are two areas for
hotels. One at the top of the hill, so that you walk down to the churches and the other at the bottom,
so that you walk up to the churches. There is no reliable transportation from the top to the bottom of
the hill. Taxis are non existent and so are Bajajas due to the fact that the street is cobbled with giant
and widely spaced cobblestones. Lalibella is a good place to visit really ancient monasteries that
exist as they have for hundreds of years. Most visitors do not go to them. Do not expect any thing
like a Western monastery. Ethiopians are very much into asceticism. Both nuns and monks often live
Monasteries & the Elderly
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a custom identical to devout Hindus. That is, at the end of your
life, you are likely to join a monastery to contemplate the Divine and to prepare for your next stage of
your life. There are many elderly monks and nuns you will see traveling to pilgrimage sights on the
road or by bus. However, many elderly monks and nuns have also joined monasteries when they
are young and have grown up through serving the church.
Car Rental, Taxis & Bajajas
If you do want to rent a car, you must do so with a driver. Taxis are often non-existent in smaller
towns. (The ones you are likely to get stranded in.) However motor rickshaws, known as Bajajas in
Ethiopia (three wheeled vehicles) are often around. They can travel some distance but are limited
per their gas capacity and speed.
Ethiopia has excellent airline routes between many destinations and all major cities. The flights are
professional, very reasonable and generally leave on time.
Vegans & Vegetarians
Visit Ethiopia during Easter Lent! All devout Ethiopian Christians abstain from meat and animal
products during this 56 day period. There is a 40 day Lent prior to Christmas which is celebrated on
the 7th of January. (Only once at a hotel, did we see fish including in a fasting buffet, on a separate
plate and not included in any of the dishes.) Fasting food is easy to come by and pretty much
everyone in Ethiopia, Christian or not knows what fasting food is. Incidentally, all signs in Ethiopia
are in English or pretty close to 99% (possibly excluding the tribal South) including signage
announcing “Fasting Buffets.”
Coffee & Tea
Coffee roasting and drinking began in Ethiopia. Needless to say, Ethiopian coffee is a connoisseurs
delight. Machiotta (spelled different ways in different menus) seems to be the national coffee
specialty and it is a very strong (expresso) with a steamed rich creamy foam. Ethiopia also grows an
Every thing is going up in Ethiopia. Do not rely on guide books. Go into Coinmill.com or some other
exchange rate website and find out the exchange rate before you go.