Ethiopia map:
An Ethiopian culture of sitting
Feb 06, 2005

Today was a nice, relaxing, day.  I mostly sat around my guesthouse.  The Ethiopians sit around and do nothing all day.  I'm doing my best to fit in.  The big conversation today, while I was sitting around the guesthouse, was on exactly that topic:  The Ethiopian culture of sitting. 

My hotel hosted another hour-long coffee ceremony today, and I told them how nice it was.  I explained that in San Francisco there is no cut grass, no incense, and no hand-roasting of beans.  We make our coffee in two minutes - buzz, buzz, buzz from the coffee grinder - drip, drip, drip from the espresso machine, and it's done.  We rush to make our coffee, we rush to drink our coffee, and then we rush out the door to work.  They told me that they'd rather rush and have a job than sit and do nothing. 

Birds of Omorate

Birds of Omorate

Birds of Omorate

People of Omorate

People of Omorate

Like a Sore Thumb

In America, we do nothing but work.  In Ethiopia, they do nothing but sit.  Americans wish for more free time.  Ethiopians wish and pray for work to keep them busy.  I wish that there were a way to find a compromise.  The American culture is moving in the wrong direction towards more and more work - 40 hour weeks (remember those?), 60 hour weeks, 80 hour weeks....  The Ethiopian culture will certainly move towards a more western culture and western work ethic.  Unfortunately, I don't think that they'll know when to stop.  Someday, they'll be out of time for coffee ceremonies, and it will be a loss. 

The hardest thing for me about Ethiopia is the complete lack of personal space and what we'd call 'respect' for personal property.  Everything I own is constantly picked up, looked at, and fondled.  Every time that I sit down in the restaurant, someone grabs my guidebook and flips through it.  Someone else picks up the novel I'm reading.  Yet a third person takes my pen and starts playing with it.  I'm left with only my cup of tea.  Everything is always returned, but it's nerve wracking. 

"Don't touch my stuff", is something that's very ingrained in our culture.  Imagine you're at work.  Someone walks by and without saying a word takes a book from your desk.  You're wondering what they hell they're doing, when someone else unplugs your mouse and walks off with it.  You'd be pulling your hair out too.  I find that I'm culturally completely unprepared for people, without asking permission, taking "my stuff".  But, it's normal here, and they don't mean any harm, so I'm trying to learn to accept it.

In between all the sitting, I've been taking a lot of photos.  I'm not a bird watcher, but there are plenty of pretty birds in the trees around the hotel.  I have lots of free time, and a new big telephoto lens, so I rush back and forth photographing the birds.  Everyone from my hotel thinks that I'm a bird-addict, but in truth I'm just a little bit bored.  I also, of course, went for a walk again today to photograph the local people.

There are lots of beggars in town - or perhaps they're better described as ordinary people who are desperate for some money and see a tourist as the only way to get it.  When I refuse to give them money, they always ask for my plastic 1-liter water bottle.  I remember being on a truck in a remote corner of Southern Laos.  In San Francisco, I'd never litter, but this far out in the middle of nowhere everything is different.  I finished a bottle of water and assuming that someone would find a use for it, tossed it out of the truck as we passed through a village.  I'm not sure that the bottle even hit the ground as everyone immediately grabbed for it.  In parts of the world, Plastic water bottles are a huge problem contributing immensely to the amount of garbage.  But, in the rest of the world, like Omorate and Southern Laos, the same water bottles are an extremely useful and valuable commodity.

When the crowds demanding photos got too thick, I retreated into a local bar - the same place where I drank tea yesterday.  Today, they were serving a local beer called "tehla" which is made from maize.  I was feeling brave, so I asked for a taste.  They misunderstood my request, and gave me a liter.  The beer was served in an old rusty tomato can.  I was a bit hesitant to drink it, but I preach participating, not spectating while traveling, and I'd hate to be a hypocrite.  Here was a chance to participate, so I took advantage of it and drank the beer.  It wasn't bad, and the price was right - $0.12 a liter.

Many of the houses and shops around town are protected by high wooden fences that look like they're from some ancient pre-medieval fortress.  The houses themselves are thatched, or like the local bar made just from mud, or like my hotel made from mud that has been covered in plaster.  I have been traveling for so long that I'm starting to forget what America is like.  But somehow, I don't remember basing my hotel selections on the quality of the mud. 

My guidebook tells me that "Ethiopia women never expose their shoulders" and that tourists should do the same.  Every year, I trust guidebooks less and less.  What are they talking about?  Everywhere I look, I see braless women with their nipples showing through their tight shirts, women with breasts enticingly poking out the side of their tanks tops, and lots of women who are just plain topless.  I haven't seen this many breasts since the "Critical Tits" bike ride at Burningman. 

This didn't really fit in anywhere, but I had to mention it.  Last night, one of those nasty big biting red ants bit me again.  I haven't seen ants around here, so I wonder if I carried this one in my pack from the desert.

Tomorrow, I need to decide if I'm going stay in Omorate or move to the next town for the weekly market.  I'm enjoying Omorate, sitting around and learning Amharic.  Omorate also has no tourists, which I see as a big bonus.  Unfortunately, my camera's memory card is almost full so I'm getting desperate to burn the photos to CD.  Perhaps, I'll rush up to Addis and then return back down here. 

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. 

frances - Apr 27, 2005

The photos of the people of Omorate are truly, truly exceptional, Adam.  Beautiful and sensitive.


Thanks Frances.


Deirdre - Apr 27, 2005

Hey Adam,

I really liked this entry.  You described the culture of the place really well and relating Ethiopians to us work-crazy Americans was eye-opening.  Hope you're doing well!

barce - May 08, 2005

I'm liking all the cultural descriptions.  Personal space varies pretty wildly.


Yes they do.

I'm not sure that I'm looking forward to religious muslim countries where you hold hands with the guys and stay far, far away from the girls.  *sigh*


Matthew - May 09, 2005

You make me miss being on the road.  Your photos and journals continue to be interesting to read and see.  they are only getting better.


Thanks Matthew.


Chris Webb - May 10, 2005

Great to read your stuff again.  What an epic journey you're making.  The new camera's edge is making itself felt.  Hopefully you'll be able to create a photo library.  I once met a model whose photographer husband was making quite a useful income stream from the pictures he had sold to a library.  Your writing too has got into an easy stride.  You should soon be selling your words, as well as giving them away free to your friends in cyberspace!  I shall enjoy further browsing though your user-friendly site.  Take care.  Chris

Can Sar - May 28, 2005

Just ran across your sight.  Wow, simply amazing.

Owen - Jul 20, 2005

Your description of culture, place, and practices lead me to read further.  I'm glad to provide that conceptual sense of 'audience' in your mind.  It's a good fuel.  (Your page is 'bookmarked' if that also helps.)


ashley - Nov 17, 2005

This web sight really helped with my home work.  this is a great sight

Elias - Apr 18, 2006

HI Adam

I`ve read your journey and like it.  The picture was beautiful.  I was in Ethiopia 4 month ago.  I havn`t had fun like you had.  I wish if i see all of your picture that you burn it on the CD.  I am living in San Jose but, I am working in SF.  By the way, I am Ethiopian.
Thank you

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