Feb 17, 2005
Arba Minch is a town of two parts. Shecha is up on top of a hill with a nice breeze and a view over two lakes. The view would be spectacular in a clean-aired country like Switzerland, but a dusty haze obscures the view in Ethiopia. Sikela, the lower town, is hot and dusty, lacking a breeze or a view.
It was easy deciding which half of town to stay in. Unfortunately, I found out an AIDS conference was going on, and had to wander Shecha, trying every hotel twice before finally finding a hotel willing to give me a room.
I was more interested in meeting people in Arba Minch than in seeing the sites, so returned to habits I picked up in Myanmar. If you wander aimlessly through back alleys and side streets, you never know who you are going to meet. In Myanmar, the people, unaccustomed to foreigners, often invited me into their homes.
Down one street in Arba Minch, I met a pretty, and conservatively dressed, woman who invited me into her house. Inside, a half- dozen women were lounging around. Prostitution is extremely prevalent as Ethiopia. With 6 young women in one room, it was pretty clear that they were prostitutes. We had no common language and no way to communicate. At one point, one of the women showed me a 50 birr note (US$6). It wasn't until later that I realized it was her asking price. I drank some tea and took their pictures, but with no way to talk to them, I didn't stay long.
Down another alley, a young girl waved at me, and beckoned me inside. This place was a tiny local restaurant. Everyone inside was super-friendly and welcoming. A customer acted as a translator, and the owner told me that she sees tourists in town all the time, but none have ever come into her restaurant. She's excited about her first chance to talk to a tourist. I drank more tea, and ate some bread. They refused to let me pay for any of it.
I returned to this restaurant every day until I left Arba Minch. Seeing a white person close up was fascinating for the locals. Between bits of conversation, they'd just stare and smile, when they weren't actually poking or prodding me like a science experiment. Ethiopians have never seen freckles. They often seem to wonder if I have some sort of horrible disease. Through necessity, you rapidly learn to speak some of the local language where English isn't spoken. In this case, it was necessary to rapidly learn how to explain that I wasn't sick. "Tseh-hai. Chig re-ellum", was what I'd use. The translation is, "Sun. No problem." It was far from perfect Amharic, but it was enough that they understood. Arm hair, particularly red arm hair, was also something new for them. On occasion, young Ethiopian girls would shyly tug at my arm hair with amazement.
Hanging out with the people was fun, but what I was amazed with - once again - were the marabou storks. In Arba Minch, the trees are full of Marabou Storks. After months in Uganda, I would have thought I would have grown bored of the Marabous, but here in Arba Minch, I'm again in shock. I can't believe how huge they are.
I was having a good time in Arba Minch, and feeling adventurous, so I went into a restaurant and ordered what my neighbors were eating. The dish was a local delicacy called "Tere Sega"; raw chunks of beef. The meal was expensive by Ethiopian standards at 15 birr (US$2) and I assumed the extra cost was because it was a special dish. I should have known better - they brought me half a dead cow - more than I could possibly finish. "Raw meat" conjured up images of dripping blood, but tere sega was not what I expected. It sounded more exciting than it was. The dish was similar to a rare, well very rare, steak.
A National Park sits alongside the lake, below Arba Minch. My safari in Tanzania was a very mediocre experience, so I had no desire to repeat one here. Instead, I decided that I'd prefer a walk to see the springs that the town is named after. "Arba Minch" translates to "40 springs." Visiting the springs is free. All you have to do is first visit the town's water authority for permission to go.
As I entered Ethiopia, I was shocked at the huge difference between the culture of Ethiopia and that that of neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. Walking into this National Park, I was again shocked at the differences. In Tanzania, at the entrance to the National Parks, there are gates, guards, lots of paperwork, and hefty fees. Here in Ethiopia, a sleepy guard reluctantly checked the authorization letter that the water authority gave me. I just walked into the park.
The road was hot and dusty, but I soon reached the edges of a forest, and from there everything very green and shady. The road was far from empty. Bicycles passed by on their way to the springs to collect water. People were gathering firewood just off the road. Everyone was very friendly, and they all wanted to shake my hands, but almost all of them asked for money. In poor countries like Ethiopia, the people think that tourists are rich, and carry around huge sums of money - and you know what, they're right.
On occasion, trucks would zoom by kicking up clouds of dust. The dust was blinding and choking, but at one point, sun came through the trees and created beautiful beams of light through the dust. It was gorgeous. People zooming by in trucks barely have any chance to admire the scenery, like the wonderful beams of light that their dust left behind.
The road dead-ended at a fence and locked gate. I skirted around it and found a pool of water, which was a madhouse. A hundred people were at the water hole. Some were bathing, others were filling water containers, and still others were doing laundry. Armed soldiers guarded the fence, keeping the mob from approaching the cleaner drinking water behind.
One of the locals informed me that the letter that I'm carrying would get me inside the fence. I walked back to the gate and was escorted into the compound that was an armed camp. Scores of soldiers with AK47s were loitering around, and a large army truck was filling up with drinking water. A guide gave me a tour of the springs. There wasn't much to see, but my guide encouraged me to fill up my water bottle. He told me that it is natural spring water, and perfectly clean drinking water. It tasted cool and fresh. My guide puts some of the water on a leaf, and in the light, it glitters like a diamond.
As I exited the fenced in compound, I met a Belgian. He had a guide and a Landrover, but no letter from the water authority and so he was not allowed past the gate. He offered me a ride back to town, which I gratefully accepted. My walk into the park was fantastic, but I felt no need to see the same scenery twice. In only a couple of minutes, we were out of the park, and back on the main road.
The Belgian offered me a ride down to see the lake. When we got there, we found no boats, nor any fishermen, to photograph, so we zoomed off again. Once again on the main road, our truck rushed past locals who were smiling and waving at us. After perhaps half an hour of zooming about, my preconceptions of traveling by private Landrover had been fulfilled. When you travel in a private 4-wheel drive, you see everything, and yet also see nothing.
My favorite things in Arba Minch were the local restaurant where I spent so much time, and the beams of light left behind by trucks - these things you will never see if you travel by private truck. I asked to be let off near a bridge a half-hour walk outside of Arba Minch. I got out of the truck, and by the side of the road immediately made ten new local friends.
The trip from Nairobi to Addis Ababa was interesting enough that I wrote it up as a daily log. If you'd like to read it from the beginning click here: [ Leaving Nairobi ]
Leave a comment! I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading.
I am leaving for Ethiopia and surely will be in touch with you.
Paula Menard - Nov 12, 2005
I loved living vicariously through your 5-star photos and notebook-stories.
Are there many oak trees in Arba Minch? I am trying to find out what--if any--type of oak trees live there.
It is hard-but safe!-to be an arm-chair explorer...but that's all I have in my budget. So if you have time to respond, I will heap blessing and prayers of thanks TO YOU.
Looking forward to reading more of your diaries. Paula in San Diego, CA USA
David Loguda - Nov 24, 2005
Haven't set foot in Arba Minch since 1974 for a fishing expedition with two buddies of mine. Enjoyed reading your exploits. Along time ago but I remember staying in a shabby little motel and remember there was plenty of female company to be had. We were greeted by a flock of ostriches and fed them cookies until we ran out and then they got mad at us and chased us onto to roof of our truck. Got a 174 pound Blue Nile Perch and several smaller ones. Lots of crocs! Used Clorox bottles for bobbers and ski rope for fishing line and the hooks were huge. Normal to use 4-8 pound catfish or tigerfish for bait. Drove down from Addis Ababa.
KHAR JAISWAL - Dec 22, 2005
I am in Gondar. Please do get in contact.It was all wonderful reading your adventures.
ramon - May 05, 2006
Hy, I'm from Barcelona and I'm going to Arba Minch this summer. I'would like to find any contact there. I'would like to stay in a school or other places like this to do some practics with the children's. I'm a sports teacher's and I have experience in Africa. I've been in Ethiopia, Moambique, Ghana and Senegal before. doing the same think, Can you help me ?. Thank you and best regards. Ramon.
Amanuel Ghrmay - Dec 01, 2006
(I have sent a similar message the day before yesterday but I doubt if it ever reached you so here is a modified one again.)
I lived in Arba Mnch for four glorious days, from 1988 to 1992. That is when I was between 8 and 12 years old. My father was a manager of the Arba Mnch branch of the commercial bank of Ethiopia and we lived in a huge house belonging to the bank. We lived in Secha, (not Shecha) one of the two parts of Arba Mnch. I could see the lake of Abaya through the window of our living room. Now I live in Eritrea, being an Eritrean.
I have read your lovely article about my home town. You just visited Arba Mnch but I lived there, assimilated the beauty and fragrance of the place and the people. I consider myself a citizen of that place, actually. The people are my friends, old friends. Anything said about Arba Mnch feels just like it is about me. Although its been many years since I left Arba Mnch, the memory of my childhood life in Arba Mnch is so strong. There were many things I did there as a first experience. To mention three: love, nature, and religion. That is where I enjoyed nature, rivers, springs, forest, swimming, wildlife etc. That was where I had my first lover, a girl named Wubayehu Zelelew. The translation of her name is I saw beautiful. I did. She was my classmate of the 6th grade. I dont know where she is now.
And yes I went to those 40 springs. They arent really 40 but much more than that but the name just stuck. I went there almost everyday to swim and we went there with my friends not through the dirt road you followed (we called that road tourist road) but down across the steep slope that hang over the springs to the west. Going back home up the slope was a tough job but we enjoyed the loud shrieks of baboons and other arboreal creatures deep in the forest. The other thing interesting when we went up the slope was the view of the flat canopy of the vast forest that goes down slowly as we gained altitude. But I went by the road few times and I saw those rays of the sun filtered through the canopy of the trees.
Now, you said that some part of the springs is guarded by armed men. There were no soldiers when I was there. I felt some bad feelings about that. That is a place where one shouldnt see armed men. Although I recognized none of the people or the exact places in your photos of Arba Mnch, they were so familiar and they rekindled my memory and I thought I came face to face with my hometown in more than 15 years. And in your recent photos Arba Mnch looks greener than when I knew it years ago. I am happy about this because I feared the place might have lost much of its vegetation due to population pressure and urbanization. Sorry to hear that there are now more prostitutes than before in Arba Mnch. God forbid but some of these prostitutes could be those who actually went to school with me.
Unfortunately, I cant visit Arba Mnch any time soon because of the current border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. But I will go there one day, for sure.
Say hi to the place for me if you ever go there, please. I love Arba Mnch.
yohannes - Dec 19, 2006
thank you very much for expersing my country in your priceless words and to your lenses of camera.
i am proud to read your message and to see your picture.
i want to sugest you as you know 2007 is coming on and i think it had been like 2 year since you see ethiopia and i will be happy if you come bake again and see some many changes in ethiopia.
thank you agian.
being proud yohannes!!!