The First Thing You Learn Is the Last Thing You Remember

Part I – Harar, Ethiopia

May you never forget what is worth remembering nor ever remember what is best forgotten”

I came to Ethiopia to take photos of people. The south of Ethiopia has the highest concentration of African tribes in the entire continent. The area is called Omo Valley and it’s another world. I spent two weeks there and I remember having a feeling that I never felt like I was in Africa. To this day I don’t know why I couldn’t escape this feeling. Perhaps it was because Omo is a world unto it’s own, but maybe it was simply because this trip was unexpected and last minute. It wasn’t really planned and the main reason I ended up here was because of the cheap ticket I stumbled across. But even after two weeks something just never sunk in. It was the most exotic place I have ever traveled to. The landscape was surreal, remote and endless. The tribes were beyond anything I could have hoped for. Exotic and other worldly – a photographer’s dream. Still, something never clicked.

After the two weeks in Omo were up, I made my way back to the capital of Addis uncertain of what to do next. I had done what I had came here for and the remaining ten days were just kind of filler to hopefully round out my portfolio for this trip. I wanted to push myself and make the most of these ten days, so I would just stay the night and fly out the next day. The only thing is that I couldn’t decide where to go.

In the north were the rock churches carved into the earth, and in the east was the ancient Islamic walled city of Harar which is located between Addis and Somaliland. Harar sounded like a fantasy to me. The only thing was that most people only spend two or three days in Harar. Where would I go next? What would I do with my other seven days? Was I going to fly there and just fly back to the capital? It wasn’t the most efficient use of my time and money. One idea I had was to get off the travellers circuit and make my way to Somaliland and Djibouti after Harar. That would have been an adventure to never forget. I needed to make a decision, Harar and possibly Somaliland, or north to the churches. At the airline office that night the only available seat anywhere in the country for the next day was to Harar.  It was decided.

I spent only two nights in Harar. I walked around the first day, met some local characters and took my photos but nothing special. I knew I had likely already gotten the best photos I would from this trip in Omo Valley, so I tried to console myself and said even one good photo in Harar would make the trip worthwhile. Still, I decided to push myself and stay a a couple days until I came up with a few good photos.

At the end of the first night after feeding the wild Hyenas (that’s another story) I came back to the guesthouse I was staying at and met three Israeli girls. We chatted a bit and by circumstance we decided to share transport the next day and travel to a livestock market famous for camels. Traders from Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia would come once a week and sell their camels, cows, goats and anything else you can imagine. It sounded like a perfect chance to get the photos to make my trip to Harar worthwhile.

One girl stayed behind in the guesthouse as she had an infection in her foot so it was just two girls, me and two guides. We chatted in the mini bus, not a lot but just enough to make it easy and comfortable. They were young, only 21 and traveling outside their country for the first time. On the surface it might seem we were the opposites. I had traveled for twenty years and was twice their age and in my eyes they were just starting out. But I enjoyed their company and we had a good chemistry.

At the end of the day I thought to myself I wouldn’t stick around Harar and I’d fly back to Addis and make my way north as soon as possible. I felt guilty not trying harder to get photos in Harar, but I had enough of the city and my instincts said  I needed to keep moving on. 

Late that afternoon I tried to buy an air ticket, but had the luck of having the only travel agency in the city employing a woman who had no interest in helping me. As soon as I asked about the ticket, without even looking at her computer she just said “full”. I tried my best and argued politely but wasn’t going to waste my energy on her. I left empty handed and having to figure out what to do the next day.

Back at the guesthouse I overheard the Israeli girls talking about their travels for the next day. They were arranging transport to the city of Awash, half way between Harar and Addis. The trip to the capital was 10 hours on a terribly uncomfortable local bus and none of us were up for that, so the city of Awash was seemingly perfect to break up our journey. I preferred to just fly but I thought one night in Awash and a chance to visit the national park there seemed like a nice unexpected detour. I asked if they minded I join them and they were ok with it, so they arranged the mini bus tickets for all of us. It all seemed so easy as all I had to do was relax in the guesthouse and wait for the next day’s journey. The pieces were falling into place.


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