Tribal Time

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Whereas the last post covered a long strenuous 5 days of stress, traveling, and visa drama, this post is the reward. I made it back with the group in time to visit the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. These are some of the coolest, most remote, and most individualistic tribes in Africa and we were going to get a hands on experience. The tiny town of Turmi where we spent the night was only a few kilometers away from the Hamer tribe. When we arrived in the morning, all of the women instantly surrounded us. They wore lavish necklaces made out of goat hide and beads but little else. To be blunt, I saw a lot of boobs. A lot. The men of the tribe sat back, indifferent to our presence, but the women flocked around us. Each of them wanted us to choose them to be in a picture for which they would charge 4 or 5 birr (25 cents). Paying for every picture gets cumbersome quickly, so I really chose not to pay for any pictures and instead I’ll steal some from everyone else.


The women led us through the village to a large hut in the back. We first had to duck through a hole in the thorny fence around it and then crawl through the tiny doorway in. Once we were all seated around the fire, we began a traditional coffee ceremony. They showed us the fresh coffee beans and they basically just roasted the beans and added some water. Boom! Instant coffee. We drank the coffee out of giant wooden gourd-shaped bowls. The coffee was so light and fresh I ended up having three bowls, if also only to be polite. Inside the tent, we were having fun joking with the women. We quickly learned to communicate without language – pointing, faces, charades, whatever. We usually just made fun of each other and the women laughed along.

Fresh coffee.

Fresh coffee.

After the coffee ceremony we got a tour of their village. It was much more spread out than the Samburu village in Kenya, but it was just as rustic. The girls all wanted money for photos and they even tried to get us to donate the shirts off our backs! I suggested making a trade my shirt for their shirts, but they managed to convey that my shirt was shitty cotton and theirs were tough goat hide and would never break. No deal.


That afternoon, we drove some 50km further to visit another branch of the Hamer tribe who were having a very special and very rare bull jumping ceremony. Apparently, one of the final steps before getting married is completing the bull jump. This big ritual invites tribes from all over to celebrate and give him blessings.


We parked pretty close, but we still had to trek for about 45 minutes through dried up riverbeds and thorny acacia trees just to make it to the ceremony. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. When we got there, the ceremony was well underway, but I couldn’t have told you what was going on. People were dressed mostly in what we saw them wearing at the tribe earlier, nothing special. Women had bells strapped around their legs and would occasionally and seemingly randomly join together, and start jumping in a circle. The men were also just milling about, some of who carried large automatic machine guns. Amidst the chaos, there was one element we did understand. We stood silently by as young men would whip the women with branches, leaving deep red cuts in their backs. Many of the other women who weren’t getting whipped wore huge scars across their backs. According to the tradition, the women are all relatives of the man completing the bull jump. They receive the lashes to prove their love for the man – the deeper the cut, the deeper the love. Every now and then you would just hear the crack of a branch on skin and know that someone was getting whipped. It was very upsetting, but all of the women took their beatings nobly and proudly.

Some Hamer women dancing to bless the bull jumper.

Some Hamer women dancing to bless the bull jumper.

After about an hour of milling around and talking to the tribal women, the bulls in the middle started getting sorted. Somehow, the best bulls were chosen. The man of the hour appeared in the middle of the herd of the bulls and we he emerged on our side we realized besides some hair decorations, he was stark naked. He and some of the other males selected the biggest, sturdiest bulls and lined them up so they were shoulder to shoulder.

Do you see him in the middle surrounded by bulls? He's making peace with them... naked.

Do you see him in the middle surrounded by bulls? He’s making peace with them… naked.

The man took his place and with one giant step pushed himself onto the first bull and ran along the backs of the other 6 or 7 bulls to our side. The women were cheering as the men held the bulls in place. He immediately turned back around and jumped on again, running across. He never tripped or stumbled and made bull jumping look very easy. He did this just a couple more times and the whole thing was done in 2 minutes. We applauded his valor and then just like that the tribe vanished.

Line dancing away from us.

Line dancing away from us.

We began our lonely walk back to the truck when we got caught in a downpour. Previously I had been such a good traveler that I was never without an umbrella, a raincoat, or both. But today I had none and we all got soaked. The 45-minute walk seemed to take forever, but once we just accepted getting wet, it became a lot less miserable. That night, we went to a nearby hotel for a delicious dinner and spent the whole night drinking and celebrating our great couple of days in the Omo Valley.

A lot of the men in the tribe carried guns. Why do they need guns?!?!?

A lot of the men in the tribe carried guns. Why do they need guns?!?!?

Debatably my single favorite picture of the trip. This girl wanted to try on my glasses.

Debatably my single favorite picture of the trip. This girl wanted to try on my glasses.


How Not to Get an Ethiopian Visa (Part 1)

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I guess I didn’t take a single picture in Nairobi so here is a picture from the internet of jacaranda trees, my new favorite tree, in Nairobi.

As I was traveling and sharing my itinerary with friends I would meet along the way, I would mention that I was going to Africa and specifically Kenya. Every single person I had met had either been mugged themselves or had never been and only had friends who were mugged while in Kenya. I had a panic attack about safety and decided to book a proper overlanding tour (more on that later) through Kenya and Ethiopia to ensure safety. As of writing this, I made it out of Nairobi without getting mugged and I consider it a personal victory.

But I arrived in Nairobi the evening before my tour group met and I was talking to someone about my trip. When I mentioned Ethiopia they asked about applying for their visa. I responded that I would just get it at the border, because in my notes it said “Ethiopia – Visa on Arrival.” She informed me that Ethiopia only issues visas on arrival at the airport and now I was going overland and could not get the visa on arrival. Interesting. Panic set in.

The next morning was a Sunday, but it was my only day in Nairobi, a big city with resources, to get shit done. I knew I only had two options: 1) Beg the Ethiopian Embassy in Kenya to give me a visa or 2) Ship my passport back to the U.S. and then get it sent to the border town in rural Kenya. Both seemed titanically impossible so I set about the first.

The Ethiopian Embassy was closed on Sunday, but when I talked to someone from the tour company, they said to try the American Embassy to see if they could help at all. I went to the new American Embassy (if you remember in 1998 the U.S. Embassy in Kenya did not fare so well) and arrived at the gates. A Kenyan security guard greeted me there and asked if I had a badge. I told her no, but I have my passport. She told me I was not allowed in without a badge.

I may or may not have made a scene.


I’m sorry, sir, but that is not possible. No one is in the office today.

At the moment, two Americans sauntered out of the embassy wearing badges. They obviously worked there.


After about 15 minutes more of this, I won, and was let in… through the first gate. At the second gate, I was greeted by more Kenyan security guards. They asked me why I was there. I explained my need of an Ethiopian visa and they said that no one at the embassy could help me. Instead of repeating my explosion, I took the calm route, because clearly they could already tell that this crazy white man was not taking no for an answer. I explained that if they were traveling in the U.S. and had a problem and went to the Kenyan Embassy and were told it was closed for two days, that they would be upset too. Traveling crises don’t happen on a Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. They agreed and after about 30 minutes of negotiating, I was able to talk to the on-duty Marine posted at gate 3 who then connected me TO THE ON-CALL EMERGENCY PERSON WHO I KNEW EXISTED THE WHOLE TIME!!! I understand the guards were just doing their jobs, but it was very frustrating. Ultimately, the on-call person told me that they couldn’t really help me, but would write down that there may be an American citizen stranded at the border. Thanks.

I spent the whole night trying to find contact information in Moyale, the tiny border town between Kenya and Ethiopia. On my third attempt, I ended up connecting a couple of dots and locating the main expat hotel in this small town and I found a phone number for it. When I asked them how to ship something to them, they responded that you actually had it shipped to a private bus company in Nairobi (which I later found out was actually owned by the hotel) and then your package rides the bus up to the border.

The next morning, my tour left without me and I told them I would meet up with them in the afternoon. I then went to the Ethiopian Embassy. I waited an hour for them to open and almost as soon as I started filling out my first form I was briskly turned away. They also did not seem to catch my hints about a bribe. Plan #1 was not going to work.

I then set off for the mysterious bus company. Most of my time in Nairobi was spent in the fancy ex-pat districts with posh shopping malls and embassies lining the streets. This bus company was on the East side, which is to say, my taxi driver parked and I climbed over a pile of trash taller than myself to cross to the bus company. When I talked to them about shipping something to them, they acted like it happened every day and of course they could send up to Moyale. I then raced back to other side of town, went to FedEx, paid a surprisingly small amount of money to ship my passport from Kenya to the States and then a surprisingly large amount of money (4x as much!) to pay for the return postage. A couple hours later, my taxi met up with the group and the waiting game began.

As I write this, I am without my passport and without internet, only hoping that it makes it to the border. God speed.

UPDATE: I made it to Ethiopia, but Part II is even better – and by better I mean I threw another tantrum.

SWEET GLORIOUS WIFI (A Very Important Post)


Hey everyone! I know it’s been about a month since I last posted, but it hasn’t been my fault! I swear! I’ve been traveling through the darkest reaches of Kenya and Ethiopia for the last 5 weeks and I’ve been having a blast! However, wifi hasn’t exactly made it to this part of Africa in a major way. A couple places have it, but I would never be able to upload all of the pictures and since I know most of you just read this for the pictures, I felt it would be pointless to just post words. But I’m at a hotel in Ethiopia that has great wifi and in just a couple of days I’ll be leaving for Dubai and the developed world! Hallelujah! But don’t worry, I will be sure to post about all of my misadventures in Kenya and Ethiopia because trust me, there is some good stuff. Bandits, Border Police, Ancient Churches, Lions, Tribal Women’s Boobs, and much much more.

But until then, I thought I would still put something up. For Christmas this year, I kept telling my mom no gifts, and I decided to send her this email to reiterate that. Then I realized that there are a lot of people who like me and I hope get some enjoyment out of my blog or at least some people get enjoyment out of me getting throwing up on planes at 3AM. Either way, I thought I would share this with everyone! Don’t feel any pressure, but with Thanksgiving right around the corner and the holidays just beyond that, it just seemed right to put this up. So donate what you can whether it’s 10,000 dollars or 10,000 Vietnamese dong (50 cents) you’ll be making a difference! So here’s my email in full!

As I write this from a hotel in Gonder, Ethiopia having just come from the Blue Nile Falls, the Lalibela Churches, and the ruins of Axum, I can’t help but think how fortunate I am to have been given this opportunity to travel the world without a thought to the consequences. I don’t have horrible student loans that need to be paid immediately and I have the resources to be able to arrange any kind of trip I choose. I have climbed mountains, swum to the depths of the oceans, and I’m currently on my 9th country. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I feel like I don’t deserve any gifts. All I’ve been doing is enjoying myself and I certainly don’t need any rewards for that!

So instead, I’m supplying a list of charities and NGOs that I’ve either visited along the way or also just a couple that I like and support. Choose your favorite. Choose all of them. It’s up to you how much to give. I also don’t care if you give in my name. In fact, give in your own name! Take that tax deduction for yourself! Thank you so much and I can’t wait to share with all of you the gifts and stories that I’ve gathered from around the world.

New Hope Orphanage
Visited in June with my sister and we played with lots of adorable children.

ICDDRB – International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh
My friend Yoshika worked for them and we had fun evaluating water pumps all over Srimongol!

Mother Teresa Foundation
I actually cried at the Mother Teresa House. Talk about one inspirational lady!

Awassa Children’s Project

This is an extremely well established orphanage and community vocation
training center that is doing incredibly work for children who were
orphaned because of AIDS.

Obscene Amount of Plane Flights:
Carbon Offsets
I’ve been using a whole lot of jet fuel and this is how I will be able
to sleep at night.

This is a healthy mix of different things to donate to so I hope something strikes a chord with you. If you want any more information about any of these charities or my experience with them feel free to ask! Thanks for everything and Merry Christmas!