Burnt and Blistered in Southern Ethiopia

I finally got back on my bike after three weeks. It was brutal. I left Addis Ababa out of shape, overloaded and lost. It was a bit nerve-wracking: everyone was shouting and yelling at me. I guess a white bicycle tourist is not a very common sight.

I also quickly realized that Ethiopia is nearly on the equator and I was at 2000 meters (6000 feet) altitude. By the end of the first day I felt like I had been basting in an oven. By the third day despite copious amount of sunscreen, by face and arms were burnt to a crisp. Even worse, my lower lip had been burnt. Who ever thought to put sunscreen on their lips.? Well It got so bad I had trouble eating or drinking and my lower lip became swollen and blistered. At night this weird liquid oozed out and glued my lips together. Yuck. I could imagine having to take a rest day due to diarrhea, sore legs or just general fatigue, but a sunburnt lip? Who woulda thought? But that’s what I had to do. I could not go on until I let my lip heal.

Meanwhile, riding in Ethiopia has been a very strange experience. EVERYONE stares at me and shouts. It’s even worse than China. Kids come running from the fields in their tattered rags yelling, “faranji faranji!”(foreigner). Others yell out, “you you you!”, “money”, or “where are you go?” Occasionally I get, “I love you!” or “you are a good man.” It’s a bit overwhelming. Some kids ran behind me while I was struggling up a  hill in the dirt and stole my Nike warm weather jacket which I had tucked behind me. But at this point I don’t think I will be needing it. Here are some of the photos I took of people on the road.


Ethiopia is largely rural so there are thousands of people farming or raising cattle or goats away from the cities. I pass hundreds every day on the road. Most have donkeys carrying their sacks of grain or something. Here is a typical scene.

If I stop for a rest or a drink I am immediately surrounded by dozens people, especially kids.  Most ask for money, which I never give, but if they look interesting I will take a photo and give them 1 birr (10 cents). Many people do speak some English, but in the country the kids work the fields and rarely go to school; the family can’t afford it. So they only speak the local dialect. Now this is amazing: there are 85 official languages in the country. Amharic is supposed to be the standard, but many small tribes don’t speak it–only their local language. So I learned a few words of Amharic and Oromia, another language spoken in a town I stayed in. But the next day when I stopped for lunch to try out my new words, they said in that area people spoke yet another language. This was only about 50 km away!

I rode one day on a rocky dusty road. Whenever a car passed it kicked up a huge cloud of dust. I had to wear my Bedouin headdress that I bought in Jordan. Just call me Ahmed.

As I said before the food is great. Here is a serving of bayaynet, which is injera piled with meat sauce, beetroot, boiled potatos, and chopped vegetables. As I mentioned before, you tear off a piece of injera and wrap it around the food. The concept of using individual plates and utensils is a foreign one to the Ethiopians; everyone eats from the same plate of injera.

I mentioned the strange Ethiopian calendar, but their timing system is different as well. It has an appealing simplicity to it and makes you want to adopt it. In the morning, one hour after the sun rises it is one o’clock, after two hours it is two o’clock, etc. Same thing in the evening. One hour after after sunset is one o’clock. I love it. Since the sun always rises at 6:00 am and sets at 6:00 pm I guess it makes sense to use such a system. But it is confusing to foreigners: I was told that check out time at a hotel was 6 o’clock. I was incredulous until I realized that 6 o’clock is noon by “regular” time (six hours after sunrise).

This is the first country I have encountered where internet access has been difficult. The connections are slow and there are daily power cuts, sometimes for hours. So it has taken me several sessions at various locations just to write this and upload the photos. Plus this is the holiday season here. They celebrated Christmas on January 7 so everything was shut down.

I stayed one night in a small village where tej (pronounced tesh) was popular. Tej is a mead liquor made with fermented corn and honey. It’s a cheap way to get drunk in Ethiopia. As I walked down the street I was cajoled into entering a tej beat, a bar where guys (no women) sit around getting sloshed on tej. Here’s a shot of guys swilling the stuff. It’s actually pretty tasty.

A couple of characters in the tej beat who wanted their photo taken. I love the suits.

Ethiopian bicycle repair shop.

In towns you have to watch out for various farm animals.

African tree.

I am about four days from the Kenyan border, assuming my lip heals. The terrain has been quite hilly, with constant short steep hills. The great rift valley runs through this part of Ethiopia. But towards Kenya it looks like it gets flatter, but it’s also more desert-like apparently. Something to look forward to.

One other good thing about Ethiopia: no police roadblocks yet.

13 thoughts on “Burnt and Blistered in Southern Ethiopia

  1. Nicole January 10, 2009 / 3:19 am

    Hey Kev,
    I bet you would kill for some Blistex right about now. I’m kinda glad you bypassed Sudan. If it was that hard to get a visa, it probably wasn’t someplace you needed to be biking through.

    As you bike towards the Kenyan border, think “The Lion King.” I looked through The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbbok, and I don’t think the chapter on How to Escape from a Mountain Lion would do you much good if you are confronted by a pride of African lions. However, if you need tips on how to wrestle free from an alligator, I got you covered.

    Anyway, I’m going to visit Kim in February. I’ll think about you when I’m sitting on your balcony, sipping a cocktail, and watching scantily clad Hookers walk the Collin’s Ave. beat.

    Take care and be safe.

    Love, Nik

  2. Katrina January 10, 2009 / 6:04 am

    Hey you you you!…. poor thing. Did you take a picture of your lip? I once had terribly burned eyelids. It was awful.

    Mmm enjoy that food.

    miss you

  3. David Lewis January 10, 2009 / 1:08 pm

    Kevin – it was great to meet you in Wadi Rum and we have been following your progress since we returned to the mundane life of work back in England. Your blog is a fabulous, very informative and entertaining at the same time. Be careful if you go through Nairobi – we have heard lots of stories about people being mugged there.
    Good Luck as you head south – you are a fine ambassador for the USA.

  4. DAD January 11, 2009 / 2:32 pm

    If you have any skin problems you may have to go see a dermitologist when you get back here. Of course now you are careful—DAD

  5. Steve January 11, 2009 / 4:31 pm

    Great pictures and stories, Kev. I hope you heal up quickly. What’s the story with the building behind the photo of the goat in the road? It looks like its made of sticks! We’ll have high temps around 0F here next week. Wish I could attach a little snow to this post so you could rub it on your lips. Be careful.

  6. Jim January 11, 2009 / 10:23 pm

    Very, very interesting, Kev, thanks again your informative blog and oictrures. I can’t imagine cycling in those conditions and I thought Calif. heat was tough!

    I am relieved that you bypased Sudan what with the situation there…especially on the Sudan/Chad border.

    If you will be visiting Liberia I have a pastor friend who is establishing a clinic and may be able to give you contacts.

    Please be safe, and best wishes for the new year. We miss you!

  7. Alix January 14, 2009 / 1:38 am

    Kevin–I can tell that you and Katrina are related now that I see that you too take pictures of food. Your lip sounds incredibly painful, weird how for granted we all take certain things such as the ability to eat and drink. Stay strong, it’s amazing how much you have experienced……….Alix

  8. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. January 14, 2009 / 3:56 pm

    We just returned from a visit to Katrina’s where she debuted her new DVD which was filmed during her trip to Cairo. Very well done and it certainly gives one a feeling for your journey. Can’t say that I envy your trip through Ethiopia. Be safe.

    While in Denver, I discovered that there are a couple of Ethiopian restaurants which feature Bayaynet. On our next trip I will sample it.

    Be safe, my man.

  9. Eva S January 16, 2009 / 1:57 am

    Hi Kev! I have to tell you that I showed your website to one of my co-workers and she finds your posts extremely interesting and informative as do I. I look forward to reading about your experiences in the other African countries as you pass through them.

    Safe travels,

  10. Alissa February 2, 2009 / 8:12 pm

    Hi Kev:
    Have you seen any dangerous animal yet? If so please take some pic so I can see it. Especially lions and their baby cubs.

  11. Rodger Stonefelt February 3, 2009 / 12:00 am

    Kevin, Ena & I read with interest your travels thru China. Hope my email didn’t create problems w/Chinese officials.

    Your recent travels evoke memories of my days studying anthropology. A population density economist, Ester Boserup, theorized that population pressure will find out ways to increase productivity by increasing workforce, machinery, fertilizers, etc. That non-industrialized people will not understand how to use machinery given by, say, the UN unless their is a reason. Conversely, a guy named, Malthus, stated that the size of population growth depends on food supply and ag methods–and when food is not suffiecient people will die off.

    I don’t know if either has a handle on what you’re observing, but certainly if you can’t grow something in a barren land it would follow that people can’t survive in large numbers.

    Is there anyway these impoverished people are going to survive long enough to realize the next level? Can it be attained.

    On a personal note, Ena, Bree and I are doing fine. Bree is now a robust 5 1/2 years. We look forward to seeing you in the not too distant future.

    Take care. We are thinking of you.

    Rodger, Ena and Bree

  12. MJ February 21, 2012 / 6:38 am

    Hey Kevin,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am from Ethiopia and I find it fascinating to read other people’s take on my homeland. I just wanted to clarify that the word Ferenji originates from the term “French”. It doesn’t mean foreigner. Just to give you a little bit of back ground, the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile-Silasea had some ties with the french and was apparently fluent speaker of French language. Somehow, the people labeled all white people French. Its funny because Ethiopia was briefly colonized by Italy and it would make sense to call white people Italians. Oh well! 🙂
    Also, the Oromo did not migrate from Kenya. As you have explained Oromo people come from history of pastoralism and nomadic subsistence. Our ancestors are indigenous to southern Ethiopia and spread across through out the horn of Africa. It probably doesn’t matter much to you, but as a power minority (economic & political), the Oromo people have been struggling to tell their story and I thought I should share what I know as an Oromo person. Kenya has very small population of Oromo people. They are the Borana people and they live on the boarder. There are also some Oromo tribes in Somlia. But the largest population of Oromos are in Ethiopia. Which means they migrated out of Ethiopia not the other way around.
    Any way, this great blog. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  13. Kevin Koski August 7, 2012 / 1:20 am


    Excellent, thanks for clarifying those facts.

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