Horses, Hooves, and Heat in Today's Evolving Ethiopia
Story and photos by Julia Hubbel

In Ethiopia, the ancient and the modern clash as a surge in tourism produces begging children who grow up to become extortionists.

Ethiopia travel story

There is still tribal warfare around the Danikil Depression of Ethiopia, but now it's over who gets to gouge the tourists. The two-to-four-day excursions are already very expensive. The guides pay a "tourist tax" to small towns along the route, one of the towns' few sources of Western income. By the time you arrive to begin your climb, late in the day, hot and tired, there is yet another conflict. Not an armed one, but just as challenging.

Because now, more neighboring tribes are demanding identical fees from guides. They require that the guide wait for the tribal elders to decide if your group can make the journey to the top. This can take hours. In the meantime, you and your fellow trekkers sit in the car, in the heat, surrounded by masses of kids trying to open your windows and remove anything that isn't tied down.

Some kids block the roads with three lines of large rocks, which forces the driver to stop while everyone rushes out to remove them. In our case, we barely made it back inside the car before we were mobbed by at least twenty kids armed with rocks and sticks. Some village elders have threatened the guides that if they don't pay up, they'll send the gangs of kids at night to slash the tires, break the windows, and ruin the paint.

Ethiopian kids begging

The Rising Costs of Special Places

When I had landed in Lalibela, I was picked up at the airport, as was everyone else on the plane (all white, all old, and part of a Roads Scholar program), in dusty vans. I was hustled into one jammed with Germans. Kenaw, my guide, inserted himself next to me as we began the bumpy journey to town.

We would be taking a bus ($60) to see Coptic churches in the countryside. Kenaw was $30 a day. Each church charged at least $30 per person. By day's end I'd be out $150, and that was after I skipped the big Coptic church in town. Locals there now charge $50 per person. At Christmas, not only would the entrance fees increase, but the local hotels would double or triple their rates.

Kenaw and I reorganized our program to better meet my budget. I dropped my gear at my small hotel, which, due to all the construction, had sporadic running water. In just a few minutes we were driving through the wide, spreading valley, the golden wheat fields rimmed by the dark green trees stretching away in all directions. Farmers tossed forkfuls of hay skyward, shimmering in the early afternoon sun, as their animals gathered to graze. Small children, seeing the tourist bus, scampered from their chores to shriek greetings and wave.

Kenaw translated; Money! Give us money!!!!

Lalibela is growing fast. The once-tiny village, home of some of the world's oldest churches carved out of stone, is being overwhelmed. Six-hundred-room hotels are popping up along the canyon walls where kids used to be able to stand and enjoy the view. Now, they're shooed away like irritating wildlife.

This in their own village, which is fast morphing into a small city.

workers at Coptic churchesThe Coptic churches are marvels of stonework. Ancient men who have worked here for more than fifty years point their cell phone flashlights at the ceilings to show off the paintings. Here, the cool dry air preserves what's left. Bees build bustling hives in the windows. Broken scaffolding tumbles along the walls, abandoned efforts to rebuild.

The local kids have learned to claim that they're students in hopes of extracting funds. Each bus, each tourist car is mobbed in turn. Because people are so poor, you tip a local child five bucks to protect your boots when you tour the church. Or, lose your shoes.

On the way back, we passed small groups of people herding their cows, sheep, and goats along the road. Kids who'd seen us pass the first time were closer to the road in hopes of money, candy, or pens. I had my window open to enjoy the breeze.

Up ahead, one group had a young boy, who apparently made a decision right as the tourist bus came into view. For as we came alongside him, he launched a massive gob of spit at my window, only barely missing my shirt.

The spit slid lazily down the sliding glass window, as pure an expression of hate as a human can muster.

Kenaw was horrified.

I wasn't. That boy spat at a symbol. Not me. His world is disappearing rapidly. In no time he will be an outsider in his own valley, not allowed where he and his ancestors played, grew up, and led a pastoral life. The same way a hunter becomes a poacher in a jungle where his traditional prey is now endangered. He didn't sign up for this "progress." If anything, it's deeply confusing, if not terrifying.

Places like Lalibela, which are responding to surges of interest from all over the world, are responding to the opportunity. That has resulted in a combination of gross overpricing and even more overbuilding. By the time that boy reaches manhood, everything he knows and loves will likely be paved over with the government-sponsored, one-room homes built for the influx of job seekers.

I don't blame him at all. I'd probably spit, too.

horse trip ethiopia

Riding into Raw Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a country stretched across values. The ancient, like the Coptic churches of Lalibela, and the modern, which is personified by the fast-growing suburbs of its capital city, Addis Ababa. There, the outskirts are sprouting huge apartment house and condos. In front of them, herders stand staring at these monstrosities, while their cows and sheep graze quietly. It won't be long before his hut will be gone, and all his memories of the open spaces of his youth will be dust floating into the open windows of endless concrete condos.

In search of what is still ancient and magical in this remarkable country, I signed up with Unicorn Trails for an eight-day riding adventure through the Bale Mountains. This particular trip is still in its infancy. As a result, the rawness and newness make it pure magic. Each day, with the help of our guide Hussein, we would ride to a new village. There, the locals would present their horses for us to ride. These Abyssinian horses are tough, stringy, and remarkably durable. Each rider had to bring their own stirrup leathers and irons, as the local versions were too small for Western boots.

My group was a mix of folks from the UK, the Netherlands and two Americans. The horses and tack were completely foreign to all of us. In most cases, rather than having a bridle with a bit, the owner would wrap a rope around the horse's lower jaw, toss one end around the saddle horn and tie it into a loop on the other side. Nothing else. We quickly adjusted to the comparatively primitive riding gear.

The first day we headed up hills into the mountains. Our group rode up steep hills of thick, viscous African mud, the result of heavy rains. The horses labored under our weight.

Suddenly in the near distance, a large group of villagers rounded the corner. On foot, on horseback they hurried as one down the mountain. In the middle were two litters, both with an inert form covered with blankets.

They were the ambulance. As Hussein explained, this was actually an improvement. These villagers had to travel forty-five kilometers over rough terrain to reach any kind of medical care. It was only recently that a German concern had built the road.

Forty-five kilometers, one way, no road, by litter. Now, it's forty-five kilometers, one way, by a curving road layered with mud so thick it would defeat a tank.

It's a bad idea to get ill in Ethiopia.

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