4 years ago

Bunna, beauty, history & hassle | Gondar, Ethiopia

Bunna means coffee.

And Ethiopia means bunna, because it was this nation that came up with the caffeinated concoction and started a worldwide dependency that still persists thousands of years later.

Konjo bunna means good coffee. And that’s exactly what you consistently find here. Seldom will you go more than a block without spotting several ladies serving tiny cups of dark deliciousness on the sidewalk, with tiny tables and stools for patrons. But this isn’t Starbucks, so getting fresh coffee often takes more than 30 minutes, as the beans go from roasting, to brewing, to your cup right before your eyes. It’s glorious.

roasting bunna beans in Ethiopia
So fresh! Roasted right before it is brewed.

Though, if you want something quicker, you can find places with good coffee brewed with modern machines made by the fascist invaders.

Ethiopia is the only country in Africa never to have been colonized, though they were occupied by Italy for a few years in the 30s, and Italians are referenced as fascist invaders often.

Tradition calls for each person to drink three cups during a coffee ceremony, which involves popcorn, walking the pan around so everyone can get a waft of the roasting beans, and incense. I got the full ceremony from Adugna, my AirBnB host in Gonder, which was quite cool.

Bunna cermony at my AirBnB in Ethiopia

I took full advantage of 5 and 10 birr bunna during my three weeks in Ethiopia. At 22 birr to the dollar, it was easy to develop a habit. And after so much crappy coffee no this continent (mostly the instant variety, especially when camping), it hit the spot multiple times a day.

Simien Mountains Ethiopia
Simien Mountains Ethiopia

The spectacular landscapes of northern Ethiopia were a definite highlight.

From Tigray, up to Axum, and back down to Gondar, the peaks and plateaus were a sight to see and made for enjoyable journeys on the road.

Simien Mountains Ethiopia

In particular, the 6 hours from Axum to Gondar were absolutely stunning, as we moved from mountain to valley and up again a couple of times. The rugged highlands of Ethiopia did make for a few nervous moments, but at least the roads were mostly paved and it was dry, unlike some of the unsettling bus trips I had in Bolivia.

I ended the Ethiopian portion of my trip in the great outdoors, about 3600 meters up on the highlands, at Simien Mountains National Park. After haggling and walking away, I ended up paying $200 USD for the ordeal. Not terrible, but not great, either, given the deplorable state of the so-called lodges.

After so much time on minibuses and buses, spending 3 nights and 4 days away from the bustle of cities and towns in Ethiopia hit the spot. Slackpacking is big in Africa, but I just couldn’t do it. I carried Big Blue all three days.

Without a doubt, the highlands of Ethiopia were one of the most scenic places I’ve seen in Africa and not to be missed.

Gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains
One of the coolest things about my trip to Simien Mountains National Park were the gelada monkeys. Only found in Ethiopia.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Geladas running to their caves were a sight to see at sunset.

The cradle of humankind, or something like that.

Some of the oldest known homo erectus fossils have been found here. I met Lucy at the National Museum in Addis Adaba, along with some of her pals. I am not sure how anyone can doubt evolution. Would love to have that conversation with Mike Pence.

Lucy the ancient humanoid in Addis Abeba
There she is. Not in the sky, no diamonds.

Christianity has a long history here, too. It was one of the first places to adopt the belief system, around the 4th century or so.

I planned my visit to Gondar to coincide with Timkat, the celebration of Epiphany, and it was a memorable sight. Everyone draped in white, slowly marching, singing, and shouting as a procession of priests led a copy of the ark of the convenant down streets.

The smell of incense is dominant, as are all-night prayers over speakers, which made sleeping a challenge, since my AirBnB was a couple hundred meters from the Fassilides Bath. It was there that the main event takes place and people jump into the baths as a symbol of renewal.

One of the famous Three Wise Men, Balthazar, was actually King Bazen, of the Axumite Kingdom. He is buried in Axum.

Axum Ethiopia King Bazen Tomb
This was inside his tomb.

The famous rock-hewn churches of Tigray were built so that the Muslim invaders would have a hard time finding and destroying them.

I visited one called Abuna Yemata and it was fantastic. It required a steep climb on a pretty flat cliff face to reach it, making it the most fun church I’ve been to. The inside was in great shape and dated back to the 10th century. If there is one church to see in Ethiopia, this is it.

Abuna Yemata Tigray church Ethiopia
Abuna Yemata’s interior was well preserved and beautiful.

Another religious site that I hit was the Debra Dabo monastery. Without private transport, it required a 22 km rt hike, but it was nice to get outdoors and it was wonderful to run into a really nice local who led me through a shortcut on the way up. He’d turn out to be one of the few locals I met whose sole interest wasn’t personal gain.

Debra Damo Ethiopia
A local villager kindly showed me a shortcut to the Debra Damo monastery in Ethiopia.
My keffiyeh was very helfpul on the dusty way back from Debra Damo.

Getting up to the monastery, which rests on a plateau, was the reason I went there in the first place. It requires ropes to get up to the entrance, about 20 meters from the bottom, which I thought would make it a unique challenge. A 100 Birr charge goes to the rope assistant, who helps stabilize you and pull you up a little. 200 was the entrance fee to the monastery, which leads me to the…


Ah, Ethiopia. It was a country that really tried my patience, compassion, and understanding. And while I like challenges and expanding my world view, this place was an irritating let down.

I enjoyed many aspects of this nation- great coffee and awesome food in particular – but Ethiopia rendered me unable to just smile and look at the positive side of things.

Street food in Ethiopia
Food in Ethiopia rocks. Miss it!

The state of emergency and the corresponding internet censorship made communication difficult. Not having facebook, twitter, and images on What’s App wasn’t the end of the world, but not being able to use google on my phone (maps!) was rough. Yes, yes, 1st world problem, for sure.

Minutes after arriving, I found out the hard way that Ethiopia’s banking system is infuriating. They don’t exchange other African currencies; I am still stuck with Kenyan Shillings. Also, they buy, but don’t sell, dollars, making things difficult my last day here, which I spent trying to find three Benjamins. I needed them for Sudan, where a US embargo prohibits use of American debit or credit cards. I nearly had to resort to the ridiculous black market rate (30% premium) before a serendipitous run-in with Jarkko & Samuli, fellow hikers I met on the Simien Mountains. They kindly exchanged their dollars for my birr at the going rate.

So thankful for these guys. Beers on me!

Two kids in Addis tried to pickpocket me in broad daylight an hour after arriving in Ethiopia. I say tried because once I caught on to the diversion and felt a hand in my left pocket, I choked and slammed the kid on the pavement until he let go of my phone and ran away quite scared. Couldn’t just stop, step back, and breathe. Sorry!

I was livid and unprepared, though not totally off-guard since I am pretty aware when I travel, especially in cities. Though I did feel dumb for falling for a stupid diversion, even for a second. You learn from experience.

And I am glad I did, because a few days later, a couple of dudes were lining up the same exact approach, but I saw it coming a mile away (or at least 10 feet away, anyhow). This time I was prepared; my knife was in my right pocket and not in the bag I checked on the plane. I’m not sure the guy with the magazine understood “F*ck off!” but he did comprehend the meaning of my blade near his face. He and his friend scampered.

Beggars are out of control in Addis. I have never seen so many in quick succession; talking 20 on a block. Even on Ethiopian Christmas, my compassion and change quickly ran out and I ended up walking down the median so I’d be left alone for 5 seconds. Children constantly bother you for pens or simply say “money” and put their hands out. Everywhere, without exception, non-stop, day and night.

Even on the Simien Mountains, you couldn’t escape the hassle from kids.

Away from Addis, near the tourist circuit of the north, people actually see an ATM when they see forengi of light complexion. This includes the Orthodox Church.

After getting up to Abuna Yemata, I was excited to see the famous church, which was hidden in an unbelievable place. Truly a remarkable setting. But, the first thing the priest said to me after paying? “This goes to the church, so I will need a tip. Usually people tip 200-300 birr.” “Holy sh*t,” I thought. “You gotta be kidding me.”

The following day, I went on my solo excursion to Debra Damo, where I paid my 200 birr to enter and was met with no signage, no map, no way to know where I could and couldn’t go or what to see up there. After walking around the perimeter and seeing absolutely nothing besides a few monks, I figured it was a waste of 200 birr, but a good hike.

But it nearly became a waste of 400 birr.

I was leaving and a monk approached. Not to say hello. Not to see how the only tourist on the mountain liked the monastery, Ethiopia, or had any questions. Nope, he wanted my receipt or 200 more birr.

In no uncertain terms, I told him I would not be paying a cent more for such a disappointing experience, especially since I had already paid. He accused me of lying. I told him that wasn’t very Christian and that perhaps they should consider being more organized and less skeptical of tourists.

Given the location, they refused to let me back down the ropes as they argued about where the money went. After 45 minutes of arguing in Amharic, getting more monks and a guy with a machine gun involved, and realizing I was not going to give another cent, they finally agreed to let me down. It was laughable, which I definitely did in disbelief.

An absolutely disappointing debacle at Debra Damo. Here is everyone besides machine gun guy arguing about 200 birr that disappeared.

After those two little episodes, I decided that I wasn’t going to give this greedy church in Ethiopia another cent and skipped Lalibela (and its ridiculous 50 USD admission). It’s the principle.

On a similarly bothersome note, the touts in Tigray, but especially in Gonder, pester you with a frequency and resilience (even with headphones on) that I admire as a sales person but loathe as a tourist.

Ethiopia has so much potential. A treasure trove of sights, sounds, and tastes for tourists, but the manner in which I was consistently treated and the hurdles and hassle make it a place I can’t recommend, nor one I would return to. But I am looking forward to some injera dishes back in the US, away from the touts, beggars, and befuddling banks.

Ethiopia had some of the best food on the continent. Miss it already!

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