|To celebrate the dawn of the new millennium I had arranged to meet an exceptionnally beautiful young lady. |
I was a day late when I arrived in Addis Abeba and worried that I might have missed her, so I hurriedly took a taxi to our agreed meeting point....
Yes, Lucy was still waitingfor me!
3.2 million years old, she had been at the centre of countless anthopological disputes.
Her existence proved Darwin’s theory of evolution.
She was the missing link establishing that Man did indeed descend from the Ape.
Ethiopia’s history goes back a long way, as long as mankind itself. According to some, it is also the birthplace of the Three Wise Men, Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar, who bore Jesus the precious gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense.
Today still, during the coffee ceremony, Ethiopians burn that fragrant resin. And coffee itself was supposedly accidentally discovered not far from Addis Abeba by a shepherd who had noticed how nervous his goats became after eating coffee beans.
I had decided to discover Ethiopia in seven days, travelling mostly along the historic route in the Northern part of the country.
January is one of the best times of the year to visit the country as the middle of the month is when the most important religious festival of the year takes place: Epiphany.
Ethiopia is a huge country (nearly five times as big as Britain) counting 60 million inhabitants.
I arrived in Ethiopia with more than a few prejudices rooted in the pictures I had seen in every newspaper and on every television channel: pictures of long wars which had only just come to an end, pictures of famine, natural disasters, crime, appalling sanitary conditions.
How real were they?
After 7 days on the roads and tracks of Ethiopia, what will my memories of that fascinating country be? Will it be the country still locked in prehistoric times, where grain is still ground by hand between two stones? Or a medieval Ethiopia where farmers reap the wheat manually and then carry it on their backs to a place where it is trampled on by zebus to separate the grain from the chaff.
Or will I remember a country as modern as any, a true country of the third millennium where the Internet has already become commonplace.
Everywhere I came across hard-working, friendly, smiling people.
I saw a country-side dotted with neatly made haystacks and endless herds of cows on the roads, which our car sliced open like the prow of a ship. I met gorgeous women with dazzling smiles, often still wearing traditional dress.
I met myriads of inquisitive children.
I met Orthodox Christians and Muslims living together in peace.
But I also witnessed acute poverty on those roads, those paths and those trails!
So many people, men, women and children hoping for better days.
In parts, I came across people carrying their produce to the market at the crack of dawn, too poor to afford transport and walking for 6 hours to save the fare.
In Ethiopia, luxury hotels costing more than £100 per night exist alongside cheap hostels where you can find a room for a hundredth of that price.
On top of the country’s official time (GMT +3), people also use the Ethiopian clock, which is six hours ahead of western time. If you have an appointment in Ethiopia, it might be wise to check which system your contact uses. The Ethiopian calendar year is 13 months long...so the current year isn’t 2003 but 1995!
And the language spoken in the country is Amharic, one of the oldest languages in the world.
Officially, Ethiopians drive on the right-hand side of the road...but why stick to the rules if the track is better on the left? And why bother waiting at a traffic light if it is permanently stuck on red?
In most villages, there is no running water and no electricity, of course.
In spite of Ethiopia’s often maddening idiosyncrasies, I will go back and go back often. Not only are the people extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable, but also the scenery is among the most amazing on this planet, ranging from the flats of the seaside to 4.500 meter high mountains crisscrossed by a network of roads offering breathtaking vistas.
Ethiopia selflessly offers its wealth to Egypt, its fertile silt being carried away by the Nile over thousands of miles. The country’s numerous lakes harbour one of the richest bird population in the world, making the country a true ornithologist’s paradise.
And Ethiopia is also where some peoples still live in a pristine primitive state, comparable to that of the Himbas of Namibia or the Indians of the Orinoco basin.
Country of kings and queens, of priests and hermits, of timeless youth and everlasting hope, Ethiopia you have deeply moved me and are etched in my memory forever.