Harar Ethiopia seen through Emily’s eyes

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After our big day attending church at Abuna Yemata Guh Emily found us another spur of the moment guest house in Mekele.  She called and talked to the owner who was an Englishman.  His guest house only has three rooms and they were all available so Emily booked without looking at pictures.  It was much too fancy for her taste and by far the best place I have ever stayed in Ethiopia.  Chris and his Ethiopian wife Saba built this place as their home adding three extra bedrooms to rent out as The Asimba Guest House.  Their home is beautiful and very well done.  Saba had a beautiful bar built for Chris as a Christmas gift and he served us vodka and wine from the bar.  He even cooked a breakfast of our choice and drove us to the Mekele airport the next day.

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Asimba Guest House.
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Bad picture of the beautiful handmade wooden bar.

November 11 was Peter’s last day in Ethiopia. We all flew from Mekele to Addis Ababa where Peter caught his flight back to NYC.  Claude and Jeanne had elected to stay in Addis as Emily and I flew on to Dire Dawa and then drove 1.5 hours to Harar.  There were demonstrations against the present government in Harar about two weeks prior and we had been getting conflicting advise as to whether it was safe to be there.  We decided to give it a go as the situation seemed to have settled down.  Please note that this is Harar Ethiopia and not Harare the capital of Zimbabwe.

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Mekele airport.
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Can you tell that my mobile is NOT switched off?
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This is Dire Dawe International airport.  As tiny as it is they do have flights to Somalia and Djibouti which makes it international.
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This airport was funny as there was Coca Cola and Pepsi advertising all over the inside of it.

Guest blogger Emily, here. My dad asked if I could finish up the trip details, so here I am with my recap:

Harar caught my interest for many reasons – It is a walled city with over 300 alleyways in just 1 sq km. It’s a predominantly Muslim city (considered the 4th holiest Muslim city in the world behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem) and has been compared to Fez, Morocco.

We arrived in the late afternoon, just before the sun was going down. I have to say I rarely feel unsafe while traveling, but for some reason I felt slightly unsafe from when our taxi picked us up and sped us through the busy mountain road to get out to Harar. He pulled into a nondescript alleyway and said follow this guy. It turns out that guy was Emaj, the tour guide that is associated with the guest house that we were staying at. He walked us a short distance down a few more alleys to another nondescript door that was our guesthouse.

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Not the entry to our guesthouse, but very similar.
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The shared courtyard to the Rowda Guesthouse – just 1 of 3 traditional Harari guesthouses that travelers can stay at.
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The shared living room in these traditional family homes. We later learned that the red paint on all of these tiered concrete ‘couches’ is for lost Harari lives.  The owner of this home is quite wealthy as noted by everything displayed on the wall.

Staying in one of these traditional Harari guesthouses seemed like the most authentic experience, so we were glad when the Rowda had day-before availability on our last weekend in Ethiopia. Being a predominately Muslim city, they had specified that my dad and I could not share a room – so we booked the last 2 ‘rooms’ for 2 nights. They described that one was behind a curtain and we got a clearer picture of what that meant when we arrived. They showed us this bed that was behind a curtain in the hallway and a more traditional room with a locking door and a shared bathroom. I’ve slept in many non-traditional places and opted for what we later learned was the honeymoon ‘room’. It is my understanding that when you get married, the couple is confined to this space for a week. They stay in bed all day if their family is around and their family leaves them food through that small red door on the right. If the family leaves, then the couple is free to come out. Clearly not our idea of a honeymoon with limited privacy from the rest of the family – the family room is right there at the other end of the hallway.

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The only picture we took of Emily’s honeymoon ‘room’.

After getting acquainted with our accommodations and talking to our hosts about things to do. We set out on an early evening walk through the narrow colorful streets and busy markets that make Harar quite unique from the rest of Ethiopia.

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A very classic street scene, adjacent to the market.
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The busy Saturday evening market – one of several in Harar.

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We were overwhelmed by the activity at the market and for whatever reason I was still carrying around a slight feeling of uncertain safety. We moved through it taking as much in as we could and set off for dinner. Harar is quite a small city with limited options for meals. We ate at one of the better reviewed restaurants and it was unmemorable. After an only ok introduction to Harar, we were both debating cutting this leg of the trip short and just spend a single day here. I retired shortly after dinner to the privacy of my hallway honeymoon suite and my dad ended up staying up talking with the 2 other groups of young people who were staying at the guesthouse.

I woke up early and walked the streets listening to the call to prayer and taking in the uniqueness of the city. I didn’t stray too far as it’s very easy to get lost in the maze of alleys. After a good rest and exploring the city in the daylight, I felt safe and open to letting the unique nature of Harar present itself and we decided to stay for the intended 2 nights. The guesthouse served us an enjoyable simple breakfast of fried bread-like pancakes with honey and world famous Harari coffee.

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After breakfast, we talked with the other guests about plans for the day. I had read about a few tour guides that take you around the city. The day previous Emaj had offered to take us and he planted the seed for a hyena feeding (more on that later). All throughout our trip I was noticing how the majority (if not all) of our extended interactions with locals were with males – drivers, tour guides, hoteliers, etc. I was excited to hear there was one woman tour guide, Aeisha. Two other guests were going on a hike with her outside the city that morning so we joined in on their tour and stayed with her the rest of the day.

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We took a quick tour of Arthur Rimbaud’s house (a famous French poet) and met Aeisha here.
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Arthur Rimbaud.

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The hill we climbed up after this.

We met Aeisha and realized that we had seen her the day before at the restaurant. She called a larger tuk tuk for the 5 of us and we took a quick drive to the suburbs of Harar. We walked up a hill to get a view of the city from the outskirts. We would probably call this a hike, but I got the impression that Ethiopian’s don’t hike for recreation, it’s how they get places.

IMG_1665Not shown in this video is the amount of trash that was up here. Aeisha littered several times throughout the day, including here. We all engaged in a quick conversation about it, showing our disappointment while also respecting their culture and habits. The leaves under Chris’s feet are chewed up khat leaves-a native grown plant that people chew as a simulant, similar to coca leaves in South America. After the hike, my dad and I split off and went to lunch at one of the best meals we had in Ethiopia.IMG_1670

We met up with Aeisha again and toured the city – including most or all of the gates, markets and the recycling market. All very picturesque and interesting. The following photos should give a good taste of the colors and textures of the city and the daily street life.

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I found it fascinating that men sew clothing on-demand here. We saw this all over the country. I believe you choose your fabric and cut and they sew you a custom garment.
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We saw lots of men on street-side sewing machines.
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The recycling market – they have a lot of trash but they also reuse EVERYTHING!

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One of the gates.
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A typical colorful alley of Harar.

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Our guest house was part of the tour – that’s where we learned all about the traditional layout of these homes and the meaning behind the design.
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The camel meat market – we both passed on the opportunity to try camel meat.
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One of many Islamic mosques.
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Another city gate with a smaller market.
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So much litter, one of the most obviously dirty places I have been in a long time. It makes me question whether they are doing it right by making it obvious and not hiding it like we’re used to in developed countries. We come from a very out of sight out of mind mentality.

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A mid afternoon street sambusa – a gift from Aeisha. I love how developing countries package their food. This is a reused piece of notebook paper.
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Street-side milk or yogurt
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A lot of hole-in-the-wall barbershops.
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Who’s that handsome old man?
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I loved all the markets. No packaging and you can buy the exact amount you need.

IMG_4516For dinner we opted for fatira – a traditional breakfast or dinner street food. It was essentially a crepe, with egg and peppers and onion. Quite nice!

After the fatira we decided to do as the tourists do and feed the hyenas. It was definitely not the reason we came to Harar, but we decided to partake in the unique experience and support their local economy. I was one of the first to go and certainly not at ease like my dad, but felt comfortable enough to experience it twice. Overall we had a very pleasant stay in Harar and I would recommend it to anyone interested in a unique city experience.

We took an early morning ride back to the Dire Dawa airport and a quick flight back to Addis where we met up with Jeanne at the hotel. We spent our last afternoon with Jeanne and Claude and had a last traditional meal together before heading off to the airport. We got out of the taxi and I immediately knew that I had either left my phone at the restaurant or it had fallen out of my pocket in the taxi. My dad wins the dad of the year award for chasing it down in the taxi and returning it to me in the hour before I was flying back to Portland.

All in all a great trip reconnecting with family, experiencing a beautiful and unique country and culture.

Jim here again.  Thanks Emily for that great writing about Harar.  It was an extraordinarily  exceptional trip for me also and I so appreciate having Claude, Peter and Jeanne join us for this memorable trip.  I must add that if was very difficult for Sandy and I to be separated for such a long time.  We have been together constantly for almost three years now and the huge separation in distance for such a long time was very tough for both of us.  We are so happy to be reunited again at this point and have vowed to never experience this prolonged separation again.

Happy holidays to all.

One Reply to “Harar Ethiopia seen through Emily’s eyes”

  1. Emily, I loved your perspectives….obviously seeing Ethiopia so honestly but in a most refreshing way you think globally about how trash and recycling affects our entire globe. I think it’s difficult to really convey how untouched, with no concrete, no plastic, the Ethiopia of Jim’s and my 1950’s childhood was.

    Terry and I are watching the 200 year time travel fantasy series “Outlander “ and the 1746 to 1946 changes in Scotland are so profound. That’s what living in Gimbi in 1955 felt like and it is my most cherished memory. I felt like a foreign observer in a world I did not understand but that looked happy and healthy and strong even in their ”poverty”.

    We flew into Serengeti in 1971 and a whole family of cheetahs were lying in front of a chain linked yard of Cessnas. Around that enclosure was seemingly endless wildness. The sign said something like “ Welcome to when the world was young.”

    Sometimes I feel like we are all choking on the explosion of technology and change that has just occurred in the past 50 years.

    The Ethiopia blogs are my favorite.❤️

    Like

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