When I headed to Ethiopia, I really wanted to see wildlife. But sometimes when you get what you want, you find that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Nevertheless, a good experience that made me all-the-more hardier for future travels. The title of this article seems harsh. I actually had a wonderful time in Ethiopia. But now more than ever, it’s important to make sure that [our] world travel is environmentally friendly and culturally responsible.
Although crowded, the country was indeed beautiful. There were many typical interesting sights like pack donkeys and women carrying firewood. There were also tangled ideas to think about, like the Orthodox religion that had obvious influences of Judaism and Muslim blending; I was wondering what thological ideas originated here or came from other parts of the nerby world? I also contemplated the living of uncomplicated pastoral lives versus the crowded city of Addis, where the overcrowding of 7 million people presented urban problems. The government forcibly bought land from people living in poor economic living conditions to make way for high rises and Western hotels. Those people were then relocated back out to the countryside to live in nice suburban stucco houses. My trip educated me on the injustices of the Derg regime during the Red Terror as I overlooked one of many mass graves of the 1970s (a time of power struggle and instability over the rise of communism). The Derg was never properly punished for their war crimes. Then I felt proud of the overwhelming sense of new intellectual creativity while I observed the new art evident throughout the capital city and considered the ideas of human ancestors like the tiny boned Lucy and her relatives. I giggled at the prehistoric remains of miniature hippos and elephants. Most of all I was amused at the men and women who stared, sometimes smiled, and sometimes scowled, then came in for a closer look. Why was this white lady here? I’m sure they wondered.
I had grown accustomed to the crowds that gathered for the village markets in the Ethiopian state of Oromia. On the outskirts of the capital city, Addis Ababa, and then further into the rural teff-grain fields children often approached me with desperate eyes looking for candy or money. Sometimes they even took their closed fists to their mouths to pantomime eating. They wanted anything that I could spare; it broke my heart and I didn’t like the overwhelming sense of guilt that I had. I began to question what responsible tourism looked like. Should I give them what I had? Most of the time I smiled and shook my head no. Complicated thoughts surrounded the subject. White people were associated with wealth, either from NGO handouts or tourism. But there were several desperate situations where I gave away the honey granola bars that I brought for myself to kids that looked hungry. Then I had an encounter that I would cradle dearly.
We pulled over to photograph the horizon of teff fields, the grains used for famous injera bread, and examined the dwellings made of grass and mud in the distance. A young adult farm girl called out from her family’s land. She ran through many fields to approach the vehicle. Not knowing whether her approach was hostile or friendly, we quickly made our way back to the van. Before she reached the roadside she could be heard shouting in the distance, which our guide translated to us from Arahmeic, “PEN?! PEN?!”
“She wants to know if you have a pen”, the guide looked at us in the backseat.
Confused, I scrounged around in our bags for an old hotel advertisement pen; something I had accidentally collected throughout the years, and stretched my arm out the window to her. My feelings of guilt, for never acknowledging the resources available to me grew stronger as we pulled away. The guide mumbled “God bless you for that”.
She hadn’t wanted money, it was almost useless; there was no market to spend it at for many kilometers. She didn’t want a handout of candy. She needed a pen. Maybe it was for school, to learn to write? Perhaps it was for her father to sign some legal documents, who knows?
We climbed stone stairs through the jungle to a hidden monastery. Our guide, an avid bird spotting enthusiast received haunting echoing whistles back to his tropical bird calls. Above us were the green cliffs that were home to an important monastery to the Orothodox religion. Monkeys shook tree branches high above. The branches wove impossibly tangled treescapes that I thought, could only be found in Africa. Disturbing mournful wailing bellowed from several kilometers away where a large crowd cried and screamed at a funeral. Pilgrim women in white vails fell on their faces to kiss their holy ground. Monks and nuns dressed in bright yellows and oranges. Holy water dripped from the ceiling at Debre Libanos. The water was often used to “cure” mentally ill people of their demon possession, “Most often women”, our guide told us as I raised my eyebrows skeptically.
We ate injera overlooking the Great Rift Valley near a baboon family. The male kept attempting to steal food out of the restaurant kitchen whereupon the women would chase him away. The baboon had a nose that he’d rubbed raw, either from fighting or sickness. I rolled my eyes as a Chinese tour group got too close and mocked the baboon with poorly imitated monkey calls. Apparently they hadn’t seen the videos of baboons shredding meat with their formidable incisors. He was incredibly dangerous. More baboons leapt out of the trees with infants. The male yawned at the Chinese in distress, displaying his large teeth. There weren’t many Ethiopians who ate out, so the rare restaurant stops were chocked full of tourists. We left the tourist restaurant to hike down to the Potugese Bridge. We observed oodles of hyena scat as we looked ahead on the trail for militant baboons but ultimately were distracted by the incredible views of the Rift Valley. We carefully crept up and down steep rocks of the Blue Nile that had bared their teeth during the dry season. Scared of heights, I inched my way forward to look down over the top of a high waterfall. A rainbow shimmered in the mist.
Although I was satisfied with my baboon sighting, I eventually got what I had some to see.
I had seen impressive photos of Gelada Monkeys online. They’re the last of the worlds grazing primates. They had impressive manes like lions and strange red chests that were called bleeding hearts. With numbers estimated to be around 200,000, they only reside in the highlands of Ethiopia and can be tricky to find. I wanted to see them bad, but not at the expense of the animals’ welfare. Our tour guides consisted of several men who paid (for what I’m sure was safe passage) through various unofficial village checkpoints. They also were meant to be our “fixers” should anything go wrong. Some of the tour helpers had suspiciously disappeared at one point, which tipped me off that something strange was happening. They then suddenly loaded us up in the van in a hurry. We drove down a black top road with pilgrims walking on each side. The trees began to shake while the men combed the roadside forrest from the van, backed the van up, stopped, went forward, and backup up again. It was then I knew that we were looking for the Gelada Monkeys, and that the monkeys were close by. But the tree shaking and stomping through the brush wasn’t from the monkeys. It was the sounds and sights of humans harassing the monkeys. More vigilant on most of my trips than most, I knew that I was the only astute tourist who figured out what these Ethiopian guys were up to. I suddenly became angry and choked down the feelings of injustice. These guys were using farm boys to chase the troop of Gelada Monkeys to us. My tourism dollars had created a traumatic situation for these amazing creatures.
I got out of the van with my wildlife shooting lense, which also earned me lots of unwanted attention. I stood in awe as a troop of Gelada Monkeys, 100 strong crossed the road. Their male troop leader was the largest, with the biggest mane. He was on high alert and I was hesitant to approach him. The Ethiopian guide shouted at me to move closer, shouting that they were afraid of “us” meaning Ethiopians, but that they won’t be afraid of “you” (meaning me the whitey). Well no wonder, I thought. You people chase and harass them.
The troop leader posed on a rock for perfect shots while I watched him look over his young. The females had long nipples for suckling. But my feeling of amazement was overpowered by feelings of pity for the creatures. This region of the world was so desperate for dollars, that everyone and everything was at risk of being collateral damage. I climbed back into the van feeling more guilty and disappointed.
At the end of the tour I unofficially interviewed the guide about the treatment of the monkeys. He was surprised that I’d picked up on his tactics. “Oh no” he defensively lied. We only chase them to get away from farms.
It was then that I wished I hadn’t gone to see the Gelada Monkeys at all.
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