Okay, so you’re headed to Ethiopia. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:
Don’t forget to pack: a few scarves and wraps - perfect to shield your head from the desert heat and protect you from the highland chills.
If you only have 24-48 hours in Ethiopia: tour the hidden corners of Addis. Start out with a trip around the city's quirky, vibrant coffee shops, indulge in massages at East Africa's best spas, then hit the art galleries and chilled-out clubs.
If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: when prices aren't fixed, you never really get ripped off. If the price seems too high, don't pay it! And if you decided to purchase then you must have felt that the item was worth it. Stay happy, even if someone else got the same thing for half the amount - you felt it was a bargain when you shopped. Stick with that feeling!
The one food I totally loved was: Sprice juice. It is easy to make too: Individually blend an avocado, mango and papaya. Scoop the juicy pulp into a giant glass - first the mango, then the avocado and then the papaya, for that beautiful tricolour effect. Squeeze fresh lime on top and spoon up pure, delicious energy!
And the one food I will pass on in the future is: raw meat. All across Addis, butcher stalls offer slices of the stuff with pints of beer. Loved the beer, but couldn't bring myself to swallow strips of raw cow.
I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: to make it to Hadar, the incredible excavation site, where the skeletons of several of humankind's oldest ancestors were found. It is bare, desolate and hot - but utterly fascinating, both for the eerie surroundings and the feeling of standing right at the cradle of humanity.
But as an independent traveller in Ethiopia, the one thing I would avoid is: trying to spring a surprise visit on an Afar village, it might not be appreciated. Go with a guide who has the trust of the community - he will be your key to an unforgettable stay and get you access to a world you are unlikely to see if setting off on your own.
I was really surprised: to discover a country where spiritual discovery and adventure sports are close travel companions. Some of Ethiopia's lesser-known, rock-hewn churches can only be reached through lengthy treks or bicycle rides. When you scramble, walk or ride through the escarpments of Wollo, you negotiate dizzying altitudes and pass enough churches to feel close to God. On the shores of Lake Tana, you can combine extended hikes and boat trips with visits to tucked-away monasteries; and reaching some of Tigray's churches requires real rock-climbing skill.
The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to you is: not trying too hard to fit in. The harder you work on perfecting your Africa-look, the more you wil stand out. Forget about colourful prints, batik and wrap-around skirts: dress smart or stylish, best slightly conservatively (meaning longish skirts and trousers). And remember: the right look is less important to integration than a solid understanding of cultural values. Be as polite, reserved and friendly in your dealings with people as they will be with you - respect and courtesy mean a lot in this part of the world.
When it comes to getting around, I recommend: Ethiopia's buses. Buses are neither comfortable nor fast, but you are guaranteed an entertaining ride, including free Amharic lessons from fellow passengers and mechanics classes when the vehicle breaks down. Ethiopia's bus network is tighter than a spider's web. As if by magic, there always seems to be a bus going into the direction you want.
Good places to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) are: Addis Ababa's supermarkets, or the tiny shacks selling 'survival basics' in small towns. You usually find them near markets and bus stations.
And it’s always nice to say ‘thank you,’ in the native tongue: as often as you can. And that’s 'Amesegenallaw' - accompanied by a big smile.