Ethiopia with two Bangkok expats and a lot of mutton

by Jocelyn Pollak

Mehal Meda, a small town in rural Ethiopia, is an unlikely place to find a current and former Bangkok expat. But sure enough, in April, I (the current Bangkok expat) journeyed to this small town to visit a close friend whom I taught English with for over two years in Thailand. In 2016, my friend Conor began his service with the US Peace Corps in the education sector. Essentially this means that he would spend 27 months teaching at a local high school in a farming community in central Ethiopia making just enough money to cover his rent, food and transport. When he was assigned to his post, I remember telling him that I was going to come visit and sure enough, two years later, I had the chance.

I flew into Addis Ababa the day after Orthodox Easter, which I didn’t realise would be a big deal until I arrived. In Ethiopia, everyone participates in a vegan fast for 55 days before Easter, which meant that I arrived precisely at meat o’clock. Restaurants were only serving injera (traditional Ethiopian spongy flat bread) and meat, mostly ox and sheep. As it is a major holiday, travel and life in general is not ‘normal’ which added to the, let’s use the word ‘excitement’, of trying to figure out logistics for the next 10 days.

Addis Ababa is at around 8000 feet so it enjoys relatively cool temperatures and lots of sun year round; except for the day I was there. Conor and I wandered the city, battling brief rain showers, and visited the national museum and a couple big churches. The break from the Bangkok heat and humidity was very welcome. Our dinner of all meat save for a few tomatoes was a fantastic introduction to Ethiopian cuisine for me. I had to eat with my hands which is obviously very different from eating with the ubiquitous Thai spoon.

“We had some amazing mutton with rosemary and spices in a local restaurant whose cleanliness would scare away even the most seasoned Thai expat. It was fantastic, probably some of the freshest, best meat I have ever eaten. Living abroad has definitely taught me to never judge a book by its cover in terms of restaurants.”

We took two days to go north to his site. There are no bus tickets or system so, needless to say, it was an “every man for himself ” situation to try to get a seat in the cramped van heading to Debra Brehan, our first stop. We were incredibly lucky and were able to get the front seats of a van and survived the dangerous speeds, sheep crossings and potholes and screeched into our midpoint destination. It was obviously time for more meat, so we had some amazing mutton with rosemary and spices in a local restaurant whose cleanliness would scare away even the most seasoned Thai expat. It was fantastic, probably some of the freshest, best meat I have ever eaten. Living abroad has definitely taught me to never judge a book by its cover in terms of restaurants.

Monkey

I also have an iron stomach, so I suppose I can gamble more than the average person. The next day, we took a five hour mini-bus ride on a dirt road up to 11,000 feet and arrived at Conor’s home of 2 years, Mehal Meda, which translates to ‘centre field’. It is remote! My first day consisted of wandering the town and being the subject of the gaping stares of the farmers and townspeople who have never seen a Western woman. Minus the catcalls, the people in the town were welcoming and friendly. Within an hour of our arrival, we sat down with a 6’4” retired geography teacher for a lunch of, you guessed it, sheep, honey wine, real coffee and popcorn. They typically eat popcorn with coffee after meals; I was thankful for this ‘vegetable’.

Conor lives in a compound with a family of 4 and a maid. There is a water tap in the yard, a latrine and sporadic electricity. And it’s cold up there, with no heat; wool blankets were essential. Being off the grid for 5 days was a much-needed vacation for me. Since most people barely have a cellphone, it was so refreshing to sit and talk to people and not be interrupted by a bunch of messages. Children were playing with rocks and sticks and parents were paying attention to them rather than looking at a screen. It really puts into perspective just how far and how quickly we have drifted away from this critical human behaviour.

Ethiopia

The next day, we headed out to a spectacular gorge about 5 kilometres outside of the town. Conor just kind of found it by accident because no one in the village bothered to tell him it was there. It was complete with donkey paths, waterfalls and spectacular scenery. We followed one of the goat/donkey paths down into the canyon and back up, which was literally breathtaking at 11,000 feet. That night, we found some tomatoes and onions and Connor whipped up his Peace Corps staple, spaghetti and tomato sauce, sans meat.

For all the primate fans out there, you may be interested to know that there are alpine monkeys living near Mehal Meda that are endemic to this very small area of Ethiopia. Gelada monkeys look like a cross between a baboon and a lion and chomp away on grass all day long. We hiked up a different mountain in the fog and were lucky enough to get right up close to the monkeys. I was jealous of their vegetarian diet. There are 3 researchers (2 American and 1 Taiwanese) who dedicate a year of their life to living in tents and following these monkeys into incredibly remote locations.

We went to visit their camp and to my surprise, while enjoying a cup of hot tea, I saw probably the most unbelievable sight of the whole trip hanging on the wall of their food tent. A Bangkok Bank 2018 calendar of the King of Thailand! I did a triple take when I saw that. Apparently, one of the researchers had been living in Thailand until early 2018 and brought the calendar back with him. Talk about small world!

My final day in Mehal Meda was all about market day and hanging with the local people in the town. I met one of Conor’s high school students named Betty who helped us navigate the market. Her father died of kidney failure when she was 7 and she wants to become a doctor. Her English was near perfect from speaking with the Peace Corps volunteers over the years. She lives in a mud house where her mom distills ‘Arake’ (moonshine) and serves the local drunks who stumble in to their house. Betty was truly inspirational. She was so strong and steadfast in her goals. Meeting people like that really makes you think more about what opportunities you have and how you are using them.

We spent the afternoon with Conor’s counterpart, Teshome. The counterpart’s job is to be a liaison for the Peace Corps volunteers in the town; it’s unpaid. Teshome’s friends showed me how to make coffee from start to finish – from green beans to a deliciously aromatic brew. Unbelievably, this was the first cup of coffee I have ever had, but that’s a story for another time. It seemed only appropriate to drink it here as coffee supposedly originated in Ethiopia. Plus, coffee basically became classified as a vegetable at that point so I was happy to drink it.

Ethiopia Lady

After a full day of travel back to Addis Ababa, I had one more night in the capital, where we decided to eat pizza and drink German beer. Local food was amazing, but for a Peace Corps volunteer who doesn’t get a chance to experience the luxuries of a city very often, pizza was a must-do. We reminisced about our times in Bangkok drinking Chang beer and what a totally different world we seemed to be sitting in at the German beer garden in Ethiopia. Since I was in Peace Corps mode (and Peace Corps budget), my trip was definitely not what the average tourist to Ethiopia should expect. There are fantastic world heritage sites and nice hotels catering to the more well-heeled traveller. If you ever have the opportunity to go to this beautiful country, go, but if you aren’t a meatatarian, make sure it’s not the week after orthodox Easter!

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