I spent several days of my trip to Ethiopia wishing I was somewhere else. This started about 24 hours after touching down in the country, when I arrived in the dusty city of Bahir Dar. Touts there hustled me so relentlessly that by the time I reached each of the places I wanted to see, be they mighty waterfalls or ancient lakeside monasteries, I was so spent I couldn’t even enjoy them.
Although my tumultuous ride north to a place called Gondar heightened this anxiety, my experience in the town itself briefly reversed it. Gondar, and especially Fasilides Castles—aptly-dubbed the “Ethiopian Camelot”—saw me, for the first time on my trip, truly impressed by Ethiopia.
I expected this feeling to height in Lalibela, home to St. George’s Church, which is probably the most famous structure in East Africa. But the town greatly disappointed me—and not just because I got food poisoning there. Even with its impressive churches it felt hollow, like if Siem Reap was nothing more than Angkor Wat, or Cusco only Machu Picchu.
Axum was more interesting to me—until I got robbed by an elementary school student during a hike, that is. Likewise, while I found myself taken aback by the rock-hewn cliff churches I visited en route to the city of Mekele, the resurgence of the hustling that had kicked off my trip—both my driver and my guide asked me for large sums of money, even though my tour operator said she’d paid them—soured my mood.
“No,” the British traveler resting inside the chapel of Abuna Yemata Guh reassured me when I ranted to him, “you’re not crazy. Ethiopia’s a hard country—a really fucking hard country.”
This allowed me both to breathe easier during the final chapter of my trip—my excursion to the Danakil Depression—and to feel more accomplished once it was all over. Accomplished and, I’m not shy to admit, relieved.
Would I recommend Ethiopia? If you’re willing to work, to persevere and to laugh as the country flushes out your emotions, your ego and your digestive tract over and over again, then absolutely. But if you’re looking for someplace easy or more than occasionally enjoyable, peeking at my pictures is a better choice for you than actually making the trek—trust me on this one.