In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to Eskinder Hailu Senbeta. Eskinder is a passionate traveler and tour operator based in Ethiopia. With over 15 years of experience in the travel industry, Eskinder has organized and led countless trips throughout his country and beyond. He has a particular interest in discovering hidden gems and remote areas that are off the beaten track.
Eskinder’s curiosity and desire to explore new places have taken him to some of the most remote and wild parts of the world. He enjoys interacting with the locals and learning about their different ways of life, which he finds enriching and eye-opening. His travels have given him a deeper understanding of himself, different cultures, and the world around him.
Beyond his love for travel, Eskinder is also passionate about supporting local economies and creating more job opportunities in the places he visits. He believes that tourism can be a force for good when it is done responsibly and sustainably. As part of his commitment to giving back, Eskinder donates footballs and volleyballs to rural schools that have limited access to such things, which he has seen make a significant impact on the children’s education and well-being.
Eskinder is the owner of Highway Tours, a tour operator that specializes in vegan tours in Ethiopia. He is dedicated to promoting responsible and sustainable tourism and providing his clients with unique and unforgettable travel experiences. With his extensive knowledge of Ethiopia and the surrounding regions, Eskinder is a trusted guide and a valuable resource for anyone looking to explore this fascinating part of the world.
In this episode we discuss:
- The rich history of Ethiopia
- The amazing food (and just how vegan-friendly it is)
- The unique flora and fauna of Ethiopia
- The incredible scenery and how it is an amazing place for trekking
- The rich culture and different ethnic groups
- The diversity of Ethiopia’s festivals and holidays
Learn more about what we talk about
Ethiopian Historic Tour
- The historic circuit includes the following (Axum/Aksum 2000 years old city, Lalibela – 13th-century rock-hewn churches, Gondar 17th century royal castles, Bahirdar and Lake Tana Island monasteries, Harar 600 years old walled town considered as the 4th holiest Islamic town).
- Axum and Lalibela
- Lalibela, Ethiopia’s yet active spiritual center
- Ethiopian Hiking and Trekking Tour
- Ethiopian Vegan Tour
- The Ethiopian fasting experience
- Ethiopian Vegan Tour
- Ethiopian Birdwatching and Wildlife Tour
- Ethiopian birding
- Ethiopia’s gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains
- Ethiopian endemic mammals
- Ethiopian Tribal Culture Tour to Lower Omo Valley
- Ethiopian Festival Tour
- Ethiopia festivals and holidays
- Ethiopian Coffee Tour
- History of Ethiopian coffee
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- Living a Life of Purpose in a Crazy World | Peter Eastwood | Ep 106
- Five Best Places in South Africa to see The Big Five | Ingrid Geertsema | Ep 105
- Two Huge Vegan Budget Travel Tips | Lucy Elkin | Ep 102
- How to Meaningfully Elevate Your Travels | Claire Burt | Ep 103
- Travel Hacking 101 – The Basics | David Goudreau | Ep 101
Connect with Eskinder
Brighde: Hello, Eskinder. Thank you so much for joining me on The World Vegan Travel Podcast.
Eskinder: Thank you, Brighde. Thank you for having me.
Brighde: I am interested to have you here to talk about this fascinating destination. A destination that is not very widely visited, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be. I’m sure by the end of this trip everyone listening, is going to want to put Ethiopia on their bucket list, of places they would like to travel to. So before we get into all of the reasons why people should consider a trip to Ethiopia, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do in the travel space, as well as your connection with veganism?
Eskinder: Thank you Brighde once again. I was looking forward to this interview. I appreciate what you are doing for me and my country. Thank you so much. My name is Eskinder Hailu Senbeta and you can call me just Eskinder. I am a tour operator based in Ethiopia and I live in Addis Ababa. I was raised in Addis Ababa. I own a small company named Highway Tours. I have several websites that promote trips to Ethiopia. I also run a few trips to Eritrea and Sudan, a few trips. But 90% of my trips are in Ethiopia. We cover from north to south, east to west, of the country. I love the tourism industry and the hospitality industry. As an Ethiopian, it comes even naturally to us. I love to host people. I love the industry. It gave me friends from All over the country. It gave me a chance to create jobs in my country, which we needed, so badly. It made me connect to nature. It made me appreciate and value, what my country has and what it can offer to the rest of the world. So, a few years ago, I don’t exactly remember how I got connected to the vegan trips but I will come to this later in our discussion. You could call it a vegan nation. At least, for six or seven months of the year. It’s not something, foreign to us that is because of the spirituality, the religious influence. So it is very natural for us to go vegan. Me, once I know that there’s a big group of people, who are interested in this type of tour. I say, I have to do something about this and I have to introduce Ethiopia as a vegan destination. I remember just before the Covid outbreak, I was searching on the net and I found your company and I talked to you at that time. You told me that either you or one of your colleagues, I don’t remember who exactly it was that you’d be thinking about considering Ethiopia in the future and now it’s a time. Thank you, Yeah.
Brighde: Amazing. You’ve been offering some vegan tours on your website and have you had some people book them yet?
Eskinder: Oh, yes. As I said, that was during Covid, thus we’ve been out of business. But even before that some groups really enjoyed good vegan trips and I even advertise on other websites. They have reviewed very wonderful experiences they had. Yeah, I do still give vegan tours.
Brighde: Great. fantastic. So before we get into the small specific reasons why people might like to go and check out Ethiopia, can you give us some general information, and talk about the location of where Ethiopia in the world I think they know it’s in Africa, but they dunno where about it is, in the north Center, south. Can you explain a little bit about the general information just to get us acquainted with Ethiopia?
Eskinder: Thank You. That’s a very good question. A few months ago, I was in London. I met a guy while I was waiting, for a bus. They asked me where I’m from, and I told him from Ethiopia. He heard the name Ethiopia. Somehow he was familiar with it, but he doesn’t know whether it is in the middle East or whether it’s in Africa. So I realized, some people, might have known it, but they don’t know where it’s exactly located. So it’s a good question. Ethiopia is in Africa and East Africa, it’s not in the Middle East, it’s and we call it The Horn of Africa. When you see the African map, you see that horn. It’s an old nation, one of the oldest nations in the world. Its history goes as far back as 3000 years. Even the Bible, it’s recorded, and written more than 60 times. We prided ourselves on that. Even the Quran, the Holy Book of Muslims, it’s written several times. It’s a diverse country, comprised of more than 80 ethnic groups. It is not just us, but it’s believed that the cradle of humanity started from, and originated from. There are so many paleontological discoveries that are found in Ethiopia. One of them is Lucy. Amharic name is, Dinkinesh, which means you are wonderful. She is 3.2 million years old, and she is the most complete hominid ever to be found. That’s why we say this place must be the origin of humanity where people start to originate from. It is a country that has never been colonized. The only African country which has never been under, European colonial powers and we pride ourselves on that a lot, which has made us maintain our cultural identity, distinctively different from many other African nations. You can tell it’s notated with the Western. Of course now, thanks to globalization, everything here but we still, claim to be unique and special. Not for other wrong reasons, of course, but we have culture. We have an authentic culture.
Brighde: I’m so curious. This is a specific question, Eskinder but if Ethiopia was the only country that was not colonized, how did that come to pass? How was Ethiopia never colonized when all of the surrounding countries were? Are you able to share?
Eskinder: This is not an easy question. Now you are asking me tough questions. Yeah. The country has been actually for four and a half years occupation by the Italians. I have to tell you that, but we’ve been through a lot. Our history actually, has been for a long. It’s a war, conflict history with the rest of the world led and even among ourselves, unfortunately. But how did that come? It’s because we followed that. It’s not because they didn’t come. It’s because we fight for our freedom.
Eskinder: For our right. That is the only reason it could be. Still, you can find that spirit in every Ethiopian, that sense of freedom. We value it a lot, more than anything else. So that is the only reason, as I told you, it is a country even named in the Bible, more than 60 times. I don’t know, why if you ask me exactly, I can’t answer that. But there must be something in this country, why it’s even written Bible so many times. if I can put it in the words, it’s because we fought it.
Brighde: Right? Yeah, It was very interesting because when I read recently that Ethiopia had not been colonized. I thought it was occupied by Italy during the Second World War. And then I googled, has Ethiopia ever been colonized? And I found out that it hadn’t. So I was like, oh, I must be mistaken then. But I guess that occupation during the Second World War doesn’t necessarily count as being properly colonized. They just occupied it for a certain period. Yeah. Interesting.
Eskinder: That is right. Yeah.
Brighde: So I would love to know because, I keep fairly on top of news going around the world, and I have heard that there has been some violence in Ethiopia in recent months and years. Does this mean that Ethiopia is a dangerous destination to go to or is it very localized, in these areas? Of course, safety is the most important thing. So how would you describe Ethiopia as a destination from a safety point of view?
Eskinder: yeah we’ve been through difficult times, as you mentioned it. Especially, in the past, two years we’ve been all over the news. We’ve been subject of lots of discussions, and depressing times we’ve been through. But a couple of months ago, my answer would be very different. We just, recently come out of it. That conflict was confined to the northern part of the country. Ethiopia is a big country, not as big as actually Canada but it’s a big country. When you compare the size, it could be four times the size of England, for example. Or if you bring France and Spain together, you get Ethiopia. It’s like the 10th largest country in Africa. So the conflict was confined to the northern part, in that gray province. But now the guns are silenced and all the infrastructures, the network, and everything have been in place. We hope that this would be the last war, we’ll have ever seen. We learned a lot and we’ve learned the value of peace. I hope Ethiopia would be the most peaceful country, from now on. There is no active conflict in the past few months, have made up a deal. The rebels and the government have signed up a deal. Now life is getting back to where it was a few years ago. But as I say, Ethiopia is big, even while the conflict was confined in the north, I even have a group who are running tours for like 17 Days and it’s safe. We had groups in the past, and since September every two weeks, we have groups who still give us five-star reviews. It is safe.
Eskinder: It has always been safe, especially for travelers. I’ve been in this business for the past 17 years. I’m not exaggerating, I never had any safety issues with my clients, any problems associated with their, safety. Pickpockets as they get it anywhere in the world. But safety-wise, people normally accommodate and respect. If you are a foreigner, normally most welcome. Even the local person that’s very natural for Ethiopia, without any exaggeration, I’m telling you this. It has always been safe for travelers. When they see that you are a guest, they get very compassionate, they like to even host you in the home. So it is safe. It has always been safe for travelers and it will be safe and safer for all of us, including travelers.
Brighde: Yeah, it’s really interesting cuz as you were talking about the situation in Ethiopia in the past several years, it reminded me of my time when I was growing up in the UK and this was in the eighties and nineties, a long time ago now. During that time there were a lot of troubles and there were a lot of issues in Northern Ireland and sometimes that spilled over to London, the big cities, bombings, and things like that. But it was very localized. There were not a lot of government warnings for coming to the UK as a tourist or a visitor, possibly because people know that, whereas because people don’t have enough knowledge about Ethiopia as a destination, they might not understand it’s a little bit more difficult. For example, maybe for some time in the past, Ethiopia wasn’t very safe to go to in the northern part of the country, but everywhere else was just fine. That’s helpful to think about when you are wanting to go to these places and dig into a little bit of the safety information from your country like the CDC website, for example, in the United States. Then it usually says, maybe some general safety recommendations based on the country as a whole. But then if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll find that decision might be based on something that happens in a very small area of the country.
Eskinder: Yeah, I was taking an initiative like a few days ago. I was searching on the net for the travel alerts that are issued by different countries in Ethiopia. It’s hard to see those travel alerts are putting the country on red or orange lists. I wish they do some reconsideration and check what is going on the ground, even in the parts where the conflict was. are now changed, and the airline has resumed their daily flights. The roads, and transportation are now open and people on the telecommunication networks have started services. Life is getting back to normal and they must reconsider that because people benefit from tourism and
Eskinder: tourism brings peace at the same time. When people, travel a lot of things would happen, not just, the money but all other things related to the traveling experience, and the good stuff would come because travelers can travel. So the countries must reconsider. We are appealing for that.
Brighde: If I could do something about that, I would Eskinder, but that’s helpful for you to share. It must be frustrating for somebody who is putting tours together and sees the benefit of tourism, the country that they live in, and see that, it is safe. But to see these foreign advisories still exist and haven’t been reviewed recently, must be frustrating, and sorry to hear that. So, we have quite a few reasons why visitors might like to consider putting Ethiopia on their bucket list of places to go. So why don’t we start with the first one that you listed, which is Ethiopia’s history? What is so interesting about Ethiopia’s history that visitors might like to learn about, to see, to witness?
Eskinder: Thank you for mentioning that. Ethiopia has some uniqueness innate. It’s not just another country or another destination for the sake of counting purposes. It’s a country that has its own, alphabet. It’s a country that has its calendar. We say that, come and be seven years younger because we count time and calendar differently than yours. Now it is in Ethiopia, it’s 2015. not 2023.
Brighde: WOW! I did not know that.
Eskinder: Yeah, it’s just different. It’s based on the Julian calendar system, not the Gregorian one, that we use. There are lots of reasons to come to Ethiopia. We have even our own time. Time is different when you come to Ethiopia. We start the day at one o’clock when the sun rises and ends it when the sun sets at midnight. So many different things about this country. It’s a country where you get the largest number of UNESCO heritage sites, than any other African country. Come to Ethiopia and you will experience a very different trip. It’s an ancient country, one of the oldest countries whose history goes back to 3000 years ago. That historical trip takes you back in time. Imagine yourself, working in Axum 2500 year old capital of the country, and look at that huge massive Stele made out of a single granite stone. You’ll be amazed by how did they do this. It’s not just brick by brick, which I’ve built. It’s a single granite stone. It is the tallest standing Stele that you could ever find on earth, and challenge yourself. How did that happen?
Brighde: Eskinder, how big is it?
Eskinder: That is 33 meters. The first time I went there like 17 18 years ago, I couldn’t believe it. It’s nothing like you see in pictures, or on video when you are there. How did this happen on Earth? humans that are involved with, or some aliens. Not just Axum goes to Lalibela, which call it the 8th, wonder of the world. And ask yourself, how could this happen? Not just a church, 11 churches made out of a single rock.
Eskinder: Built into the rock from the outside and the inside. Some are built into the cave. Some are monolithic, some are semi-monolithic. Put yourself there and go back in time. It’s like a time machine taking you somewhere. They’re not just there for tourists, for photography. They’re active worship centers.
People go there, they pray it’s a church. So the historical aspect of the country it’s not just only confined to the north. I can take you to the eastern part of the country to see the old town, which is considered the fourth holiest Islamic town after Makka, Medina, and Jerusalem. It is Harar, where you get over 80 mosques in a small world town, which has built 600 years ago. As an old nation, full of regional history, historical culture, and treasures. It’s not just the buildings. For example, if I take you where it’s believed to be, I haven’t seen it with my eyes, but they keep the arc of the covenant there for thousands of years. The most important thing on earth. The arc of the covenant, which is written by God himself So lots of things to put yourself in the historical circuit and that is the highlight of the Ethiopian trip. People come here to experience history. It’s not just to take pictures, but to immerse yourself back in time and see how it was and you bring it back again and still find yourself praying to worship God in what was 3000 years ago, 2000 years ago, hundreds of years ago. That is one of the reasons why people should come here, to experience history. It’s not just only history, you come here for the wonderful experience of hiking and trekking, to see yourself in the natural aspects of the country.
It’s not just historical. It’s also a natural aspect of it that would attract you to this country. We have amazing landscapes and amazing natural phenomena. For example, on our hiking trip, we take clients to the cement mountains, which they call the Roof of Africa. Summits which are 14 mountain summits over 4,000 meters sea level.
Brighde: That’s high.
Eskinder: An amazing experience. They call it the Roof of Africa. It’s not just summits. I had clients, who came from the Himalayas and they have Mount Everest, I’ve never been there. much about The Himalayas, Nepal and I took some to cement mountains for a hiking trip and they couldn’t believe it, it’s so amazing. It’s not just mountains. It has everything in it. It has the gorge, It has the valleys, it has the canyons. It’s so amazing. There you will also experience the wildlife. Not only the cement mountains. We have other mountains in Simien called valley mountains, you get there is the largest Afro-alpine habitat.
Eskinder: It’s bird watching paradise that is in the southwestern part of the country. We have another natural geological phenomenon, which is called the Great Rift Valley, which bisects a country from north to south. There you find the Danakil depression, one of the hottest places on earth, on daytime temperature could go like 50 degrees celsius. It’s one of the most inhospitable places on earth but at the same time, people live there and run a nomadic way of life. So we have hiking and trekking, sites which people love and experience nature. The Danakil depression, I told you about, is 125 meters below sea level.
Eskinder: The Simien mountains over 14 submit above 4,000 meters, you can see the contrast between the two. That is also the other reason people should come, to be honest, there is no single person that I found who doesn’t admire Ethiopia’s beautiful landscapes. It is the most beautiful place on Earth, without any exaggeration.
Another reason to come to Ethiopia, which we love to, provide is the vegan experience, vegan trips. Ethiopia you could call it a Vegan nation. It’s a spiritual nation. Religious people, predominantly orthodox Christians, including my mother, observes every bit of the fasting season. It’s very common to see youngsters, boys as old as 12 years old, normal to see them observing the fasting seasons. The fasting season, it’s a land season. I think some people in the west also have that during certain times of the year. But in Ethiopia, if you bring all of them together, you could make like seven months I counted They could be like seven months or eight months, depending on the person. We have a wide selection of vegan dishes during those times. Teff, which is a very tiny grain, is the most important seed in the country. So we have this Injera. Have you tried Injera before?
Brighde: Yes, I have. Eskinder its delicious. I love Ethiopian food and of course, it’s always served on this big Injera pancake but I want you to tell us more about it.
Eskinder: Yeah I must, we can’t do without Injera, by the way. When I travel, I take injera with me. Otherwise, I go to Ethiopian restaurants. But here you get the best one, the most authentic one. So that is the basis of vegan dishes. The vegan platter we have is Heaven. I’ll send you some pictures.
Brighde: You did. My mouth was watering as I looked at them.
Eskinder: Yeah so you have all those different dishes on the base of Injera and you eat them using your fingers, by the way. We don’t use forks. We don’t use spoons to eat injera. So we are connected with the food. We don’t use any utensils. The other reason people should come for, as I told you, seven months of the year are, strictly vegan. You get a wide selection of dishes; colorful, tasty spicy based on injera.
Of course, you can base it with bread or if you don’t have that acquired taste for injera. This is a fermented food, it’s one of the superfoods people love it. We also give cooking classes, when people come, especially vegans. If they’re vegan, we love to teach them how to make injera, and how to make coffee in the Ethiopian way. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, not only the birthplace of mankind, but it’s also the first place of coffee that is our gift to the rest of the world. We do it differently, the coffee ceremony. We also have a coffee trip, which I’ll tell you about later on. The entire vegan experience, the cooking class, making injera, we take them, what they look like and how injera is processed, and how different the vegan platters are. How they are made, and how we do it from scratch. Food is made from scratch here.
We don’t just go to the supermarket, to the store. We don’t do that. So you do it from scratch. It takes you normally, making any food hours and hours. There’s no such as instant food. If you make coffee, for example, you do it from the beans, you start from the beans and you roast them, you grind them. If you have the grinding machine, thanks to China now. You can find any, machines at cheap prices. So you do it from scratch, you send the aroma and you make food. Then you eat respectfully after giving thanks to God, blessing it you enjoy the food. We showed the whole experience with our vegan tour.
Brighde: So you mentioned that you have almost seven months of fasting days in a year, which means that people are essentially eating vegan on those days. Do I understand well?
Brighde: Even on the days when fasting isn’t happening, because it’s not a particular religious holiday. A vegan can go into any restaurant and they can say, can I see the fasting menu? Or Can I have the fasting menu? Then usually, a big tray with an Injera will appear with several 4, 5, and 8 different kinds of salads and dishes on top of that. Do I understand that Well?
Eskinder: Exactly. When I say seven months, it’s not necessarily consecutive months, but every Wednesday and Friday are fasting days. So strictly vegan during those days. Every Wednesday and Friday, so you can count, bring all the Wednesdays and Fridays together. The new year begins on September 11th, so September 11 is the first day of the year. So I should start from September to the 12 months. We have Christmas on January 7th, 40 days before Christmas is a fasting land season. 56 days before Easter, is a fasting season other than Wednesdays and Fridays. The whole month of June is fasting. 16 days in August are fasting seasons and there are others I should ask my mother, She’s the one who knows perfectly. So during those days, strictly vegan. So I love to run vegan tours, especially during those times. I want my clients to experience the best but if it’s Monday or Tuesday, or if it’s Sunday, that doesn’t mean that there is no vegan. If you go to the restaurants, we don’t use the word vegan by the way, we call it, uh, or fasting. So you can order fasting. Fasting macchiato, fasting even macchiato or cake or whatever you want, desserts or food, you could call fasting. The waiters, ask you normally, fasting or non-fasting, is the first word they offer you, whenever you are about to order food. You get this throughout the country, by the way. It’s not just in the north. You get it everywhere in the country. It’s very uniform. That is the experience you could enjoy if you are a vegan. It’s the best country for vegan travelers. It’s the best country. I’m promoting my tours with other outlets as one of the tours that would be very popular in Ethiopia, there is huge potential in it. I send you a link about Ethiopian runners. It was recently posted. We are good at running.
Brighde: Oh yes.
Eskinder: The whole article was about, not only about their practice, but the food they eat. It is based on grains. They’re vegans. They are not necessarily vegans, but the food they eat that makes them good and strong is vegan. I love vegan food. My mother, I could say is vegan. It’s not just for the fasting type. She loves it. I see most people are now going toward that. In the old days, it was considered as a poor man’s food but nowadays no, it’s not. It is the best food. So you get the best experience generally.
Brighde: I can’t imagine just how easy it must be to travel in Ethiopia, even independently, when you can just go into a restaurant and the first thing they ask you is fasting or non-fasting. And to just be able to say fasting, which means vegan, and then just know that everything is so easy after that incredible Vegan food and incredible coffee. I cannot even imagine how awesome that would be.
Eskinder: Yeah. By the way, they are so strict when they say vegan or non-vegan, they don’t even use the same plate which they used to serve non-vegan. If you are big and you don’t even use the same plates you used unless otherwise, you washed them. So it is strict.
Brighde: Wow. Most vegans I know don’t worry too much about that. I know often in some Indian restaurants as well, they are very particular about having vegetarian dishes and pots different from the non-vegan ones. Most vegans don’t worry too much about that, but it’s just very interesting to see how seriously restaurants take this separation of fasting and non-fasting. I’m really curious as to what the wildlife situation is like in Ethiopia. I don’t think it has elephants and giraffes and things like that, but I’m sure it has its unique wild animals. Could you tell us about that?
Eskinder: Yeah. We have elephants
Eskinder: We have giraffes, Not all Big five. You know, it’s not a big five country. For some reason, we are not advertised. We are not popular with that. But we have the lions, even we have endemic lions, the black-maned lions, which are endemic to Ethiopia, by the way. Look I give you some facts. Ethiopia has tens of the world’s bird population
Brighde: One 10th of the world’s population species?
Eskinder: Birding population. Yeah. They are believed to be like 10,000 bird species. Out of them, 830 of them are found in Ethiopia as well. Out of the 10 endemic birds in Africa, you can find eight of them in Ethiopia. Out of the 830 bird species, 23 are endemic. You won’t find them in any African countries, let alone in the world. We have over 15 endemic mammals. The most popular ones are the Walia ibex, and the gelada baboon, which is very intelligent, they have their language. And the red fox, which doesn’t find anywhere else in the world. Ethiopia is a bird’s paradise. We run birding tours. We normally give 15 days to three weeks. We take our clients from north to South. During those times, they could make like, 400 to 450 types of birds.
Brighde: Wow, that is huge. They could spot 450 different species in one trip?
Eskinder: Yeah. That is the record, I had with one of my groups, they count birds.
I love birds. You can easily fall in love with birds once you start looking at them. That’s what I’ve learned, even though I’m not very good at identifying the birds, I have seen, the joy and the satisfaction, my clients had. They told me that they made it like 450. I had another group who made like 320 in three weeks. The other one was like 450 in three weeks. Imagine 450 birds within three weeks, but we have over 830 bird species. We have over 16 mammals.
The Walia ibex you don’t see anywhere else, even in Africa, let alone in the world. The gelada baboon is very intelligent, you don’t see them anywhere else in the world. And the red fox, which is abundantly seen in one of the trekking sites, in the Bale mountains especially and so many other small creatures, which you will appreciate when you come and visit the national parks we had.
If you go to other African countries, most of their tourism is operated by western companies, unlike ours. So that is a problem. The disadvantage of not being exposed. We haven’t been colonized, as I said, but at the same time, we are hiding from the rest of the world. So not much of our potential, what we can offer is known to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the country is known for bad reasons, for the conflicts for the famine which happened 40 years ago. It’s not like that. When you come here and when you see it. I have hundreds of reviews, and independent reviews, and people say that is the best experience.
I’m not trying to sell, I don’t wanna be a salesman here. But it is a country where you can come to for wildlife and especially for birds. It’s heaven for birds. A very good wildlife experience.
Brighde: I love it. We’ve got another two reasons, haven’t we? The different tribes that live in Ethiopia. Tell us about that.
Eskinder: Yeah. This place is confined to the southern parts of the country, where you could get over 50, ethnic groups. It’s a very diverse nation. Ethiopia is comprised of more than 80 ethnic groups, but when you go to the south, especially in a place called Omo Valley that is close to the Kenyan border, there you see like 20 of the tribes running a very different way of life. In a tribal culture, you see their rights, the passages, body paintings, scarification, hair braces, costumes, and their belief system, a lot to see. It may not be for everyone. Some people, feel guilty, when they go there, taking pictures of a naked person or painted person, they may feel guilty, which I understand. But I don’t feel guilty when I go to England and take a picture of people. I don’t feel guilty when I go to Germany or America and take pictures of people. Why should they feel guilty? Who am I to tell them that, this is good, this is bad? I have to respect that. I have to respect them by treating them as normal people. It’s not my way of life. It is their way of life and I have to appreciate that. I have to take pictures and I have to go there and see them and talk to them.
So it’s very, very interesting. It’s not for everyone. I understand this clarification is not for everyone, but they’re not forced to scarify themselves. They do it for their reasons and purposes and I have to respect that as well. They’re races. One of the things you like, when you go to the Omo Valley, is I advise people to go there to see the market. The market is super colorful. It’s a very basic way of life but at the same time, it’s complex within itself. I appreciate life, where we live in the city, you know, it’s very complicated.
But when you go there, you appreciate life, it’s only basic. It has its complexity within itself. So you learn about life, you learn about even yourself when you go there. Not just about other people.
It’s as if going to a church at the same time, when you go to church, you reflect on yourself. You meditate and you look at yourself. At the same time, when you go to those people, when you interact with them, of course, you don’t go there just to take pictures. It’s not a photo safari. I don’t like that. I want people to shake hands, sit down, talk to those people, and appreciate, understand, to learn, about the way of life. I remember I had a group who came from America and at the end of his trip he said, Eskinder, you know what, know, I sat down with them. I spent time with them. He was there like for four days around. He said I use deodorants. I use all those perfumes on those people. They don’t use any of it. I smell if I don’t use it, my deodorant or my toothbrush. But those people, they’re the healthiest people I saw. So that is an experience I want people to get when they go there, not just a photo safari.
So it is colorful when you go to their market. Especially, since you are ignored there. No one cares about you. Whether you are a tourist or local, so they mind their own business. We take people for the markets, and the markets are not standing markets every day. They have a market day, like twice a week. So we consign our trips during those market days and our travelers, make the most out of it. That is the cultural trip we offer.
Brighde: That sounds so interesting, really interesting. To finish off our reasons to visit Ethiopia, we’ve talked a little bit about this as well, but could you reference some particularly interesting festivals or religious holidays that travelers can observe and maybe participate in?
Eskinder: Yeah Festivals are one of the best reasons people should come for. Most of our festivals are religious but not necessarily. They also have that carnival sense. It’s the time to get drunk, to party. It’s not just religious. Most are listed by UNESCO as led intangible heritage. They are the ones that defined Ethiopia at the same time. We have the first day of the year on September 11th, our new year, once leap year, it goes to September 12th. Happy new year’s day, not so huge but just two weeks after the new year, we have the most colorful festival which is called Maskal. Maskal means cross. The Maskal Festival is about the commemoration of the finding of the true cross. The legend goes to Queen Elena, the mother of Constantine, and they say she was looking for the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. As she pray, she was guided by the angel, and located where he was buried underneath. She had to burn incense and she was guided by the smoke, located the exact place. She has to excavate it. To commemorate every step of it, we have a bonfire, it’s like the whole country is on fire, on September 26th. For example, in Addis, the Square named after the festival, Meskel Square, is a very center of the city. A million people could gather there with all the dignitaries, with the church choirs, and with the padre, with the president of the country, with the mayors, so huge festival. The same practices are replicated in every church and every household. Huge festival, afterward, the singing, drinking, and partying contingencies, basically a spiritual event. A week after that, the next Sunday we have another festival, which comes from the Oromo, supposedly the largest tribe in the country, which comprises about 40 45% of the nation. There is a festival called Irreecha. It’s a Thanksgiving day. The Oromos, are celebrated by the shorts of the water. Because September is the most important month of the year because our rainy season, it’s in July and August. Sometimes it goes to mid-September.
Now in September, the entire country goes green and the harvest is about to start. The party is about to start, and even the school season is about to start. So it’s a Thanksgiving day for the Oromos and the entire nation. So it’s a huge festival again that lasted for two days, the 30th and 31st. Then you go to Christmas. Our Christmas, falls on January, seventh. Especially if you go to, Lalibela, it is super colorful. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is there. It’s very picture skill, very colorful. I always advise people to go to Lalibela, on Christmas, much more colorful than the European Christmas. I love European Christmas at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, last Christmas I was in Amsterdam.
Brighde: Oh, lovely.
Eskinder: I enjoyed it. Yeah, not only festivals, by the way, we are natural-born runners. I can’t give the exact date of the course, but it’s always in November, and there is a great run event. Over 50,000 people normally on average attend that running event. This is by far the biggest running event in Africa. I attended a couple of times. I didn’t run, I’m not a runner actually, but I just attended the London Marathon and another marathon maybe in Holland. By far, this is the biggest and the most colorful. World-class athletes, including Haile Gebrselassie. He is the most popular runner in the world and they are 10. They come from all over Africa and Europe and it’s a huge kind of festival itself, even though it’s a running event.
Another world, intangible list by UNESCO is the epiphany, the Timket festival. It is the most colorful one. I cannot put it into words. It is very, very colorful from north to south, east to west. So people should come in January for festivals and in September for festivals. It’s the time when the whole country brings together. You forget about your problems, you forget about any negative things. You come together, appreciate each other, worship God and be happy. That is our best moment. People should come for festivals. It’s the best thing we can offer.
Brighde: Eskinder, this all sounds so interesting and so exciting. It’s just so interesting to me that there is this country, in the Horn of Africa, where one can experience such a huge diversity of activities and landscapes and foods, and that it’s so vegan friendly. I’m just so excited, for our listeners to learn more about this destination. If people did want to come to Ethiopia and employ the services of you and your company to create an incredible experience incorporating some of the things that you’ve talked about today, how can they get in touch with you? And work with you to create this incredible itinerary?
Eskinder: Thank you Brighde. Thank you once again for giving me this incredible opportunity, honestly. Thanks to the internet, now we are not that far from each other. I have several websites, and some of them are going to be published purely for vegans only. It is ethiopiantrips.com, which is the website running and I have my vegan tour listed there and my contact addresses, contact form, and email addresses are listed there. I love to cut trips based on the traveler’s best interest. That’s how I run the tours in the past 15-plus years. I always listen to my clients. So normally before we end up booking, we exchange like 50, or 60 emails. I don’t mind answering all of them. I always love to listen because it helps me as well. It always gives me, the chance to learn about clients’ interests.
So on the next trip, it would make me a better person. So I love to listen to them. I’m working with, Responsible Travel based in the UK. I have over a hundred reviews there. They can find me on the website. They can give me a call and I’m happy to chat with them. They can find me, through my blogs as well. I’m also a blogger on ethiopiantour.com/blog. There are over a hundred different blog pieces there which I wrote and some of my friends also contributed. I love to work on vegan trips. Soon, I’m going to publish a couple of websites on Ethiopian vegan trips. That’s how they could find me and I’m happy to be at that service.
Brighde: Amazing. Eskinder, I wanna thank you so much. A lot of the links for many of the things that we’ve talked about today will be found in the show notes for this episode, it’s going to be a veritable resource for people to look at and explore and to get to know this country a little bit more. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Thank you.
Eskinder: Thank you, Brighde. Thanks a million.