Uncornered Market http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:46:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg?http://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 15:03:05 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18913 By Audrey Scott

We paused along the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a view over the hills outside of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Moments later, a boy of about four years ran up. He was shepherd to his family’s goats on a nearby hill. His clothes were torn, he […]

The post Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg? appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

We paused along the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a view over the hills outside of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Moments later, a boy of about four years ran up. He was shepherd to his family’s goats on a nearby hill. His clothes were torn, he poked curiously around us foreigners, using our guide as an interpreter.

One of the people in our group began pulling a toy koala bear out of her purse to give to him.

No. Please don’t,” Fekadu, our Ethiopian guide, implored. “There are other kids around. He will tell his family and the others will hear that he got something from a faranji (the local term for “foreigner”). This is how the begging cycle begins. It used to not be this way. I don’t want this for my people, my country.”

To his point, within a matter of minutes, the hills were literally crawling with kids, palms upturned, echoing the words pen, money and candy. By this point in our journey, we’d faced this situation countless times. Some of the kids were plain curious, while others clearly expected stuff.

If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you’re probably familiar with this scene. Maybe you find it uncomfortable. Maybe your heart aches since the kids around you appear to have so very little. Maybe the contrasting privilege that carried you to the country is not lost on you.

Giving is a good thing, right? But is it a good idea to give money and pass out things to children who beg? Will it really help those kids? Will it help their community?

A recent visit to Ethiopia and more generally to East Africa reaffirmed and crystallized my thinking on the topic. The answer: No.

Here’s why we believe this, followed by a few ideas how you can engage with kids and give responsibly to help and support children and families where you are visiting.

This Article Includes:


The Don’ts: 7 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Give to Kids Who Beg

Here are a few reasons why we discourage giving handouts to kids while you are traveling. The big takeaway: our actions may have consequences unseen, ones we cannot even fathom. There are times where direct distribution may be appropriate. Travelers handing out stuff indiscriminately on the streets isn’t one of them.

This list is compiled from our own experience, including conversations with local people, organizations, and well-informed travelers from Latin America to Asia to Africa.

1) Contributes to a cycle of begging and continued poverty

Kids learn quickly. If one begging encounter yields success, why wouldn’t others? When children hear that foreign travelers give away money and stuff, why not give it a try? And why wouldn’t parents who are poor take advantage of this and send their kids to beg or sell goods on the street? Watch this short video from ChildSafe that explains the cycle even better.

Not to mention, it furthers a culture of sympathy tourism and dependency, for which there is no productive place. [Editors update: To further explain, our definition of "sympathy tourism." Sympathy is defined by "feeling pity for someone" and put into action it is when organizations and people engage in earning money with the technique of trying to get pity from travelers. We first heard this phrase used in Uganda after a discussion about being approached by numerous people supposedly representing NGOs and orphanages.]

2) Begging success = no school?

If a child makes too much money begging or selling, his parents might not send him to school. File this under the Law of Unintended Consequences. Now what traveler would intentionally try to prevent a kid from going to school? None that we know of. That’s why awareness of this issue is so important.

Young Students in Rural School - Nalbata, Bangladesh
Travelers should be supporting education for children, not unknowingly hindering it.

3) Reduces tourism to a transaction

The greatest disservice in all of tourism: reducing two people to a transaction. Begging dehumanizes, it objectifies. It turns the traveler into a walking dollar bill and transforms the begging child into a walking collection box, thereby stripping everyone involved of his dignity. It erects barriers behind which there might otherwise be a connection. It takes the human-ness out of travel. It creates a stereotype of all of us, robbing us of our humanity.

4) Food money = drug money?

When a traveler gives money or stuff to kids, does she imagine the gift being used to get high? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

While traveling in Uganda, we heard about GI-ASCO, a small home for runaway kids, in the town of Jinja. The founder of the home, Gerald Wandera, tells of children ending up in Jinja solely to beg from tourists and get enough money to buy their next hit — usually sniffing glue or petrol (gas). If travelers knew the child recipients of their generosity were using it to get high, would they knowingly contribute to this practice?

5) Creates an imbalance in the local community

The thing to note about children living in poverty: quite often the people around them live in similar conditions. Giving to some children creates a situation of imbalance where, by nothing other than luck, some have more than others. This can also contribute to bullying to even the score.

6) Supports begging mafias.

If you don’t know what a begging mafia is, read here. The concept was also brought to light by the film Slumdog Millionaire and the novel A Fine Balance. Begging mafias also exist outside of India and are more prevalent than most of us are aware. The exploitation of children alone is tragic enough. To make matters worse, mafias kidnap, blind or otherwise injure and disable children so that they may earn even more money. The developed world isn’t quite free of it, either. A well-established begging mafia used to exist in Prague, Czech Republic when we lived there.

7) Contributes to other unforeseen dangers

When we were in Ethiopia we saw kids dancing in the middle of the road. “Cute!” was our first thought. The problem was that they were doing this to get money. They were consistently putting themselves at added risk on already dangerous roads. The same principle was at work in Uganda where we witnessed travelers throwing pens and pencils out of an open overland truck window. One wrong move by the driver or one of the kids and you have another unnecessary casualty on your hands.

The Do’s: 7 Ways to Give and Engage Responsibly

The desire to give and to give back to the places we visit is a good thing. It’s something that ought to be encouraged, but we need to find the appropriate outlets or channels to give effectively.

What does “giving effectively” really mean? It means giving in a way that supports a set of behaviors and expectations that may someday obviate the need to give. Call it the Teach a Man to Fish precept.

So it’s not only that you give, but how. Here are a few ideas for effective and responsible giving while traveling.

1) Give directly to an organization

Find an organization that you can trust, one whose work is paired with long-term values such as furthering education, providing opportunity and promoting self-reliance. You might be able to find such organizations through a recommendation from your tour operator. Or if you are traveling independently ask around where you are traveling or do some research in advance to find out about organizations operating in the area. Then give money or supplies to these organizations directly. This might include donating from home (e.g., online) or perhaps finding a way to visit the organization as part of your trip.

Likewise, do not shy away from asking tough questions to find out how an organization uses its money and resources. The sad thing is that some people (locals and foreigners alike) have begun creating organizations to earn money from sympathetic travelers. Throughout Uganda, “sympathy” orphanages whose business model seems to run on referrals from local itinerants and opportunists seemed a popular choice. A few questions about the organization usually served to dispel any notion of legitimacy.

Finally, do not underestimate the collective knowledge of your social networks and be sure to reach out on social media channels (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) to gather information and recommendations.

2) Seek out and frequent social enterprises

A social enterprise is an organization that is run like a business, but whose profits go to community projects that address a social need. Social enterprises will often train and hire disadvantaged single mothers or street kids, providing them employment and skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain.

This could mean that as you enjoy lunch or a coffee at a social enterprise restaurant, your money is supporting that organization’s projects. Same goes for when you buy handicrafts from a social enterprise. When the right organizations are involved, it can really be a win-win situation for everyone.

Women Learn Crafts at Give a Heart to Africa - Moshi, Tanzania
Adult women’s education classes at Give a Heart to Africa teach handicrafts. The products are for sale in shop.

During our recent trip to East Africa we found the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre in Kigali, Rwanda providing walking tours and selling crafts as a way to fund the organization’s women’s training programs. In Moshi, Tanzania we also visited a new project by Planeterra and Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA) whereby the proceeds from a local crafts shop and spa go to supporting a local women’s education and development program. We also recommend checking out the Grassroots Volunteering worldwide database of social enterprises before setting off on your next trip. Update: We also saw that ChildSafe has a good list of social enterprises for Southeast Asia on this page.

3) Find out what organizations actually need instead of giving what you think they need.

These may not be the same thing. Many people are apparently under the impression that kids need pens at school. Maybe so, maybe not depending on the school. If you buy goods and supplies, try to buy them locally instead of buying them at home. Not only will this strategy further contribute to the local economy via your purchases, but your bags will weigh less.

4) Engage with kids as kids

Play games (juggling or magic tricks work great), kick a ball around, practice English, ask questions, or just be present. It may not always easy, but creatively turning the uncomfortable into fun is an art we can all benefit by learning. It also humanizes the interaction and your travel experience.

Audrey Plays Soccer (football) with Kids in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Audrey jumps into a game of pickup football (soccer) in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

5) Invest in a meal

If you really feel you must help a child who appears to be hungry, consider buying him a meal or giving him some food that he can consume on the spot, so that there’s no opportunity to trade it for something else.

6) Learn a few words in the local language that respectfully communicate no or no money and say them firmly

I found that worked effectively in Ethiopia. Once children realized I wasn’t going to give them anything, they began engaging me as a human being again.

7) Ask permission for photographs and show the images

If the child is particularly young, ask the mother or father if it’s OK to take the photo. If it looks like money might be expected, ask permission and clearly say “no money.” Be sure to show the kids their image in the viewfinder. In most cases, that’s what they’re interested in. Then enjoy the giggles that ensue.

Having Fun with the Kids of the Garo Village - Srimongal, Bangladesh
Kids all over the world love seeing their image in the viewfinder. Srimongal, Bangladesh

How the Tourism Industry Can Better Educate Travelers on Begging and Giving

We can’t assume that everyone traveling has the knowledge and experience required to understand the local context and the right thing to do. The tourism industry and all its players should aim to provide travelers with locally-relevant, practical advice on how to engage responsibly with children (and adults, for that matter).

1) Hotels and accommodation providers

Provide guidelines on DO’s and DON’Ts in the local community as part of the information packet in each room and in the lobby area. Kudos to Simien Lodge in Ethiopia for including an explanation as to why they recommend their guests not give pens and money to kids they meet on nearby hiking trails. Lodge management then provided an alternative where travelers could donate money to help outfit local schools with much needed furniture and supplies.

2) Tour operators

Include a section in the tour notes for applicable destinations regarding responsible engagement with local children. This information should be reinforced in the introductory tour briefing. For example, G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation are working with ChildSafe to create a training webinar for their guides on child safety and traveler interaction with local children.

3) Local tourism offices

In addition to having written information displayed in the office about the local situation and best practices for responsible engagement, staff should be trained to talk about this issue and answer travelers’ questions.

4) Restaurants and cafes

If you run a restaurant or cafe that’s popular with tourists, congratulations! Could you also consider prominently displaying a laminated page or poster with the do’s and don’ts of engaging with local kids — as you see it. Ideally, your public service poster could also include a list of local, respected organizations where travelers can contribute supplies, time and money.


Conclusion: Travel Giving and Altruism

If your goal is to truly help others while you travel, think twice about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Don’t confuse a good feeling of giving with doing what’s best for the recipients of your gift and their community. For you may just be doing what’s best for you while doing a disservice to the very people you are seeking to help.

As travelers become more aware locally and globally, we can better align our giving decisions with our values and our hopes for making an impact and contribution. We can maximize the good we do, especially when we do it effectively.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have any suggestions of other ways to give responsibly and effectively when traveling?

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My Date With An Ethiopian Hair Butcherhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/my-date-ethiopian-hair-butcher/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/my-date-ethiopian-hair-butcher/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 19:47:03 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18891 By Daniel Noll

I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my hair in Ethiopia. The danger sign was there, quite literally. The two hairstyle options apparently available to me at my Ethiopian barber shop of choice: Ricky Martin and Ludacris. I was in northern Ethiopia with a mess I’d deliberately grown out for almost two […]

The post My Date With An Ethiopian Hair Butcher appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Dan's Ethiopian Haircut - Gondar, Ethiopia
My hair style option: Ricky Martin or Ludacris?

I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my hair in Ethiopia.

The danger sign was there, quite literally. The two hairstyle options apparently available to me at my Ethiopian barber shop of choice: Ricky Martin and Ludacris.

I was in northern Ethiopia with a mess I’d deliberately grown out for almost two months — saving myself, the African haircut virgin — and I was determined to navigate yet another haircut-as-cultural-experience. A World Wrestling Entertainment match, piped in from somewhere in the Middle East (who knew WWE needed subtitles?), blared on the television. All the men in the shop sported either dreadlocks or close cut afros.

Oh, the many forms of adventure travel we embrace.

Barber Shop Tourism. Why?

Sure, I seek traditional thrills while I travel. But I also pursue haircuts. I figure that barber shops serve as a window onto a culture. Haircuts have something to teach me about a place, and also my nerve.

I’ve had my ears torched in Turkey. I’ve enjoyed a 66-cent best-ever haircut in Peru (satisfying), a dazzling butt-cut grease comb in the mountains of Azerbaijan (horrifying), a birth control class with an Armenian barber in Yerevan (puzzling), a doom delivering barber in Malaysia (enlightening), and a street-side shave in Bangladesh that nearly halted traffic (unsettling), among a host of others.

I should note that Audrey, quite wisely and thankfully, does not share my curiosity.

A full account of haircut chronicles are forthcoming. To it I will add Ethiopia, a place that is known to me now as much for its deep culture as it is for its deep cuts.

The Hair Butcher of Gondar

I asked Fekadu, our dreadlocked guide, for barber shop recommendations in Gondar, a well-serviced looking town known for its collection of castles. Skeptical, he narrowed his eyes. In the most diplomatic tone he could muster, he tried to warn me off, “Ethiopia might not be the best place for a white guy like you to get a haircut.

What did he know?

As it turns out, a lot.

The barbers looked a little thrown-off when I sat down in their chair. I might as well have been a fish. There was a distinct hesitation as to who would tackle this customer.

After puzzling for a pause, the one with a huge tattoo of Jesus Christ in a crown of thorns across his left bicep wrapped a cover around me. I pointed to the Ricky Martin poster in the window and offered a charade: “Ricky. Short on the side, little longer on top.”

He gave a quick nod in something that approximated acknowledgement and went to work.

It occurs to me that “work” here is a generous term. Wrecking balls do work, too.

Clippers. Lots of them. Attachments, too. Maybe a dozen. The odd thing was that the barber seemed to switch back and forth between various gauges of clipper extensions in random sequence and at random sites of my skull: number 4, then 9, then 6. Back, then side, then back again.

This struck me as unusual and dubious. Frightening and dangerous. In retrospect, I should have stood up, placed my hands together in a sort of gratitudinous prayer and walked out. Instead, I stuck with it.

My hair began to slough off in uneven chunks.

The barber and I shared no common verbal language. And charades carried their own special danger. There was no escape.

I retreated inward. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” I attempted to console myself. I looked into the mirror, then to Audrey sitting along the back wall. I hoped she might intervene and save me. Instead, she buried her head in Ethiopian men’s magazines.

I wouldn’t have watched, either.

For a brief moment, I became philosophical. Haircuts are instructive, I thought. For in haircuts — as in the whole of one’s life — there are no do-overs. Life is short. Abruptly, my hair was becoming so, too.

Lean into it,” I thought.

As the buzzing continued, it was clear that I would look nothing like Ricky Martin or Ludacris, but rather their love child. Maybe even a little bit shorn, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3.

Sigourney weaver hair

Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Worse

What troubled me were all the little bits, bobs, and tufts that hadn’t quite been trimmed, rounded, tapered or faded properly.

The situation, however, would grow considerably worse.

Dan's Ethiopian Hair Cut
Wrestling on the TV above, about to enter hair hazard zone.

The barber began to focus decreasing amounts of his already waning attention on my head and redirected it to the television. As his focus drifted to the TV, and greased bodies flew on the screen above him, so did his hand. He held the clippers in one hand and sparred in response to the fake brawl playing out on the television with the other. His movements took on a sort of involuntary quality, much like a dog’s might when you scratch its belly and you hit the spot.

Clearly, the wrestling match hit the spot for my barber. While he stabbed at the air with his left hand, his right hand got into the action. It was this right hand that really frightened me. In it were the still humming clippers and its vicinity was my unevenly shorn head.

This wasn’t so bad.

It was grim.

Ummm, yes. My head,” I murmured quietly. I wished to make eye contact but I was afraid to move at all, for any sudden lurch might speed catastrophe. I imagined a zipper cut down a random lane of my skull.

kid shaves head
I kind of felt like this.

Thankfully, one wrestler pinned the other, things simmered down, and my barber returned to work.

I’d exhausted any hope for the sides and the back. Thankfully, there was still a flappy tuft on top and flaky bangs in front.

Then he pulled out a short clipper and bee-lined straight for the bangs.

But, but…” I murmured to myself, in that paralyzed “I’d like to scream, but I can’t” kind of sensation I’ve had during my worst nightmares. I could see the train wreck – like the one that spills over a mountainside and takes out an orphanage along the way — playing out in slow motion.

He’s not really going to do this, is he?

Then he did.

Help…” A meek little voice cried out silently inside of me.

He cut straight under the bangs on the right side of my head. The shingle of hair that remained was probably less than a centimeter long. My head looked like a roof where the right pitch had been removed for repair.

I stared into the mirror in search of solace, paths of restoration.

There were none. The damage was virtually complete.

It was apparent my barber knew not of bangs nor of forward fringes. He left the tuft on top. I didn’t take issue. Better to leave with the devil we know than to find the one we don’t. As I alighted my chair and looked around the shop, no surprise. There were a few dreadlocks, and the others sheer afro cuts at the front of the head.

The barber tried to make me look just like everyone else in the shop.

How could I begrudge that?

Dan's Hair Cut in Ethiopia
With my Ethiopian barber after it was all over. Good times!

The Verdict

I returned to meet our group for dinner, running my hand through the remaining hair to salvage tousle what remained, all in a painfully weak attempt to disguise the damage.

Oh, it looks good,” they echoed. You know, the perfunctory bit everyone utters when she’s shocked that you actually did THAT.

One of our companions took a first look, “Oh, not so bad.”

Then as she moved around, you could see the extent of the mess registering on her face. “Yes, it’s a little uneven.” As she wheeled to the back, “Ohh, yes…

She didn’t need to finish the sentence. Easily, hands down to a hairy barbershop floor, it was my worst haircut ever.

Ludacris? Or ludicrous?

Fekadu looked at my hair and shook his head with a smile: “Yes. But, it was an experience.

He was right. I got exactly what I’d come for.

Have a hair-raising moment of your own, or an odd travel routine that’s your lens of cultural comparison? Sound off.


Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.


Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Africa Tours with G Adventures

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Ethiopian Food (An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine)http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopian-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopian-food/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 15:45:27 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18839 By Daniel Noll

When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds […]

The post Ethiopian Food (An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Maheberawi (Mixed Meat Platter) at Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. Expectations exceeded.

When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds of what looked to me like curries, and a massive circular tin plate from which we all grabbed and chowed down. The flavors and communal style of eating was cool and unusual, like nothing I had experienced before. I wanted to learn more.

After praising the food in Ethiopia upon our recent return – yes, it’s as good on the home turf as it is abroad — I was surprised by how little awareness seemed to exist not only of Ethiopian dishes but also of the distinct existence of the cuisine itself, even among some friends I consider well-traveled and food aware.

This isn’t terribly surprising. After all, how often do you hear someone raving about and posting photos of cuisine from sub-Saharan Africa?

Ethiopia is the exception. With its rich, spicy stews and diversity of flavors, Ethiopian food surely qualifies as one the world’s great stand-alone cuisines.

Considering the country’s history and geography, particularly in situ, it makes sense. The cuisine follows the culture, formed and informed by millennia of trade and exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. Amidst this storm of positive culinary influence, acquired spices blend with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients.

And, poof! You get Ethiopian food, a unique table befitting the context.

Here’s what we discovered about Ethiopian food during our time in country: from the basic ingredients and spices that make the cuisine so unique to some of our favorite Ethiopian dishes.

Let’s dig in!

Ethiopian Food: The Fundamentals and Basics


Ethiopian food without injera might be considered heresy by Ethiopians. This spongy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia) is fundamental to every Ethiopian meal.

Making Injera (Ethiopian Flatbread) in Village near Lalibela, Ethiopia
Making injera the traditional way as a local village prepares for a 500-person wedding.

Injera features a slightly sour flavor that comes from the fermentation of its primary ingredient, a grain called tef. Although we enjoy eating injera, for some it may be an unusual, if not acquired, taste. The tangy flavor, however, seems well-designed to complement the flavors found in Ethiopian stews.

After eating injera across Ethiopia, we also learned that not all injera is created equal. Typically, the lighter the color the higher the quality of the tef grain therein, meaning a smoother, subtler tang. Some injera is deliberately dark, almost to the point of brownish purple.

An Ethiopian Welcome, Injera and Berbere - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Injera with a simple berbere sauce offered as a sign of welcome to a village near Lalibela.

In traditional Ethiopian meals you’ll often find circles of injera rolled out like a natural plate, atop which are arranged a smattering of spicy stews, cooked vegetables and salads. Although the presentation may appear similar to that of an Indian thali, the flavors and style is uniquely Ethiopian. Restaurants will usually bring out baskets full of additional napkin-rolled injera rounds. One thing is almost certain in Ethiopia – you’ll never ever have to worry about running out of injera during a meal!

Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Platter) at Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar, Ethiopia
Injera, the edible base of a typical Ethiopian mixed vegetarian plate. No fork and knife needed.

Injera is meant to be eaten with your hands. Tear off a small bit with your right hand (as in many countries, eating with one’s left hand is a no-no in Ethiopia) and scoop bits of the stews and various dishes into it, forming a bite sized food parcel and gingerly tuck it into your mouth. Don’t feel embarrassed if you get some of the stew or sauce on your fingers in the process – it’s natural and is part of the fun. Tempted though you may be to lick your fingers, know that Ethiopians don’t care for that practice, either.

Injera tip to beat all injera tips: the best bits of injera are the spice- and sauce-infused patches underneath the piles of stew on the tray!

It’s unlikely you’ll ever emerge hungry from a meal with lots of injera, as it fills the stomach for hours. After a big lunch in Ethiopia, it’s rare that we ate a full dinner later in the day, if we ate at all.


The signature red spice mound that delivers magic to most Ethiopian stews, berbere is composed of ground semi-spicy chili peppers (which themselves are called berbere to further confuse) mixed with upwards of 20 individual herbs, spices and ingredients including garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fenugreek.

Ethiopian Cuisine, Berbere and Shiro Powder - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Crucial to the Ethiopian kitchen: berbere on the left, chickpea flour for shiro on the right.


Mitmita is another core spice blend composed of chili peppers (smaller and hotter than berbere), cardamom seed, cloves and salt. While mitmita is often turned in meat dishes to add an extra kick during the cooking process, it’s also used as a condiment to lend some additional heat to the meal on one’s plate.

Mitmita Chili Peppers - Merkato, Addis Ababa
Birdseye chili peppers, core to mitmita. We couldn’t resist buying a bag of mitmita in Addis Ababa.

Niter Kibbeh

Niter kibbeh, a spiced clarified butter similar to Indian ghee, is one of Ethiopia’s secret, magic ingredients that we all ought to know more about. It’s also pure culinary fusion inspiration.

Niter kibbeh is made by cooking butter together with a raft of ingredients including onions, garlic and ginger and spices like fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. After a long simmer, the solids are then strained away from the concoction leaving a delicious clarified butter that adds both richness and distinction to most Ethiopian dishes, especially tibs (stir-fried meat), wats (stews), and gored gored (raw beef).

Getting Started with Ethiopian Food: Mixed Plates

Ethiopian dining is a social event, a shared experience that is not only delicious but also a shocking amount of fun.

For the first time visitor to the country (or an Ethiopian restaurant), the best place to begin with Ethiopian food is to order a mixed plate – meat, vegetarian, or both — so that you can sample a variety of stews (wats) and dishes at one sitting. Although the mounds delivered to your table may individually appear small, collectively the portions are often staggeringly large. We recommend sharing a plate with others so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Although some dishes may appear regularly in mixed plates, the ones that comprise yours will likely be based on whatever happens to be cooked fresh that day. Always a tasty surprise!

Ethiopian Eating = Sociable Eating: When I consider the Ethiopian style of eating, the word that comes to mind is “thali”, the Indian/South Asian term for a meal composed of samples of various dishes.

After our first big meal in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar, I aimed to find out the Ethiopian equivalent of this term. So I took a photo of our meal to the bartender at the hotel where we were staying and asked him. After a few false starts, including a round of identifying each of the dishes in the image, the man explained that this was “soshabie” style.

“Can you write it down?” I asked. He did, in English and Amharic script.
Ethiopia Sociable Food
After receiving the piece of paper, I went to the internet to confirm this “soshabie” style of eating. Nothing. I posted it to Facebook anyway, proud that I’d unearthed a new term for Ethiopian eating that no other writer had previously discovered.

I later took the piece of paper to our guide, Fekadu. After puzzling over it, he began laughing. “It’s sociable food. The only reason I know this is that he spelled sociable phonetically using Amharic letters.”

So while there’s no special term like “thali” to describe the Ethiopian style of eating where everyone gathers around a big platter to share, there’s always a story. And perhaps a cultural lesson, too.

Maheberawi (Meat Mixed Plate)

Ethiopian meat-based mixed plates usually combine several stews like key wat (beef stew), tibs (lamb, beef or goat cubes cooked with nitter kibeh and herbs like rosemary), and kitfo (raw ground beef). We highly recommend ordering one of these and sharing it with at least two to three people.

Maheberawi (Meat Mixed Plate) - Ethiopian Food at Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar
Our Ethiopian Easter meat feast: a maherberawi featuring kitfo, key wat, and tibs.

Recommended Restaurants: Among the best maheberawi we ate in Ethiopia: Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar and Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa.

Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Mixed Plate)

Also known as a fasting platter, yetsom beyaynetu is a mixed vegetarian plate that usually includes several types of lentil and split pea stews (e.g., misir wat, alecha kik or mesir kik) with kale (gomen) and a spicy tomato stew (sils). Talk about a vegetarian – if not a vegan — dream.

Ethiopian Fasting Platter (Yetsom Beyaynetu) - Gondar, Ethiopia
A delicious yetsom beyaynetu with an array of lentil stews and mixed vegetables.

Yetsom Beyaynetu is usually available in restaurants in Ethiopia on Wednesday and Friday when practicing Orthodox Ethiopians (the majority of the population) forego meat and dairy products. These dishes are also readily available during the fasting periods before Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Bigger restaurants that are more accustomed to foreigners may offer a vegetarian fasting plate every day, while smaller local restaurants may not.

Recommended Restaurant: The best yetsom beyaynetu we ate in Ethiopia was at Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar. The staff may encourage the buffet as all the vegetarian dishes are there, but if you order the fasting plate straight from the menu it is cheaper and prettier, and still quite plentiful. Seven Olives Restaurant in Lalibela also serves up a decent yetsom beyaynetu.

A Note for Vegetarians and Vegans Traveling in Ethiopia

Consider traveling in Ethiopia just prior to Orthodox Easter and Orthodox Christmas, as you will be virtually guaranteed to find vegetarian food at this time. During these periods, more strict Ethiopians observe a fast and forgo meat and dairy products for upwards of 50 days. Fasting plates served during these periods are terrifically delicious, and may not always be available in restaurants during non-fasting periods — particularly when locals are ravenous for meat, just after the conclusion of the fast.

Ethiopian Meat Dishes

Doro Wat (Chicken Stew)

This rich chicken stew is one of Ethiopia’s most famous dishes. We were told that when an Ethiopian girl wants to marry, she has to make doro wat for her fiancé’s family as a demonstration of her culinary proficiency and thus worthiness to be chosen as a wife. While this traditional cooking exam may still hold in rural areas, it is quickly dying out in Ethiopian cities.

Doro wat takes forever to make, which is why it is often only served during holidays and on special occasions. It involves slow cooking red onions, berbere and chicken parts for hours, until just the right consistency and blend of flavors has been achieved.

Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew) and Injera - Gondar, Ethiopia
Homemade doro wat on a piece of injera. Rich and delicious.

We were fortunate to enjoy a home-cooked version of doro wat at our guide’s friend’s girlfriend’s house. Though the connection was tenuous and the meal difficult to photograph, the taste was wonderful.

Doro wat is difficult to find at restaurants due to the amount of time it takes to prepare, but it is worth making the extra effort to seek it out. Ask your guide, other locals and hotel or restaurant staff well in advance of your meal and they may be able to point you in the direction of where to find it. If it’s not on a restaurant’s standard menu, ask if you can pre-order it for that night or for the following day.

Minchet (Spicy Ground Beef Stew)

Quite often our favorite meat dish, minchet is often placed at the center of a maheberawi (mixed meat plate). This ground meat stew is made from simmered red onions blended with ground beef and berbere. It’s often served topped with a boiled egg or two. Apparently you can ask for a low-spice version, too.

Key Wat (Spicy Beef Stew)

Similar to minchet, but made with meat chunks instead of minced meat. Also served with a boiled egg on top, in the middle of a mixed plate.

Tibs (Stir-Fried Meat)

Cubes of meat (beef, lamb or goat) stir-fried with onions, peppers and other vegetables in niter kibbeh. Quite often, twigs of rosemary or other herbs are added to it. Tibs can also be served spicy with some berbere thrown in. A simple and unassuming dish that’s got more flavor than you would imagine.

Cooking Ethiopian Food, Tibs (Beef with Rosemary) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Cooking lesson: tibs with fresh rosemary at Lalibela Lodge.

Gomen Be Sega (Meat with Vegetables)

Beef or lamb simmered in copious amounts of niter kibbeh with collard greens and other vegetables like carrots, cabbage and onions. On the occasions we tried gomen be sega, the meat was tough but the vegetables were absolute perfection thanks to the blended flavor of the meat and spiced clarified butter.

Gomen Besega (Vegetables with Beef) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
A hearty serving of gomen be sega.

Recommended Restaurants: We found the best versions of gomen be sega at 7 Olives Restaurant in Lalibela and Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa.


Kifto, raw lean ground beef blended with berbere, is another signature dish of Ethiopia. Think of it as the Ethiopian version of the French raw beef steak tartare. As such, visitors will earn bonus points from locals for eating this. Before you judge kitfo and yell “OMG, raw meat in Ethiopia!”, we suggest you give it try. You may look at eating raw meat – and doing so in Ethiopia — in a whole new light.

Recommended Restaurant: The best kitfo we ate: Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar. It also helped that this was Easter day so the meat was incredibly fresh and rolling out of the kitchen as if it were going out of style.

Gored Gored

Raw meat fine dining at its best. Gored gored features raw cubes of the highest quality beef warmed slightly in spiced Ethiopian butter (niter kibbeh) and turned with berbere spice. Even if you try kitfo and decide that raw meat is not for you, we recommend that you still give gored gored a try. When done well, it’s a spectacularly flavored and textured dish.

Restaurant recommendation: Order gored gored at one of the Kategna Restaurant locations in Addis Ababa. The meat is high quality, the flavor incredibly delicious.

Ethiopian Vegetarian Dishes

Shiro (Chickpea Stew)

Both a fast food and a fasting food, shiro is a vegetarian stew made from chickpea flour mixed with berbere and other spices. It can be served either thick (tagamino) or thin (feses). Although shiro often serves as the center of a yetsom beyaynetu fasting plate, you’ll also find it served on its own. For vegetarians, this is reliable and widely available.

Shiro (Chickpea Flour Stew), Ethiopian Food - Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
A bowl of shiro served with a side of injera.

Mesir Wat (Red Lentil Stew) and Kik Wat (Split Pea Stew)

A rich and spicy red lentil stew, mesir wat was among our favorite staples on a fasting plate. Made with sautéed onions, berbere, cardamom and other spices, misir wat is the ultimate vegetarian comfort food.

Mesir Wat (Spicy Lentil Stew) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Learning to cook mesir wat at an impromptu cooking class at Lalibela Lodge.

A similarly styled stew made with split peas is called kik wat.

Kik Alicha (Split Pea Stew)

A non-spicy split pea stew made with turmeric, kik alicha helps balance out all the other flavors and spice on an Ethiopian plate. Although kik alicha does not pack a lot of heat, it still features a lot of flavor.

Gomen (Kale or Collard Greens)

Gomen is a simple, flavorful dish made from kale (or collard greens), onions, niter kibbeh and other spices sauteed and simmered together. Gomen made a regular appearance on vegetarian platters and is a welcome addition amongst all those lentils and beans.

Sils (Tomato Stew)

A savory tomato stew made from blended roasted onions, tomatoes, and berbere, sils provides a one-part tart and one-part sweet balance to the greens and beans on a vegetarian platter.

If you tire of injera and traditional food and order pasta in Ethiopia, it’s likely that sils will form the base of your pasta’s red sauce. A unique and roasted twist on Italian pasta sauce.

Ethiopian Snacks and Breakfast

Kolo (Roasted Barley)

Kolo became our go-to beer snack at the end of the day. It’s often served mixed with peanuts and other seeds or nuts. Hearty and healthy, it pairs nicely with a St. George beer at the end of a long day.

Fir-Fir (or Fit-Fit)

Made of sliced pieces of injera turned in berbere sauce or leftover wat, fir-fir is a traditional and hearty (some may say heavy) way to start your day.

Other Ethiopian Spices and Condiments

If you enjoy heat like we do and you’d like to further spice your Ethiopian meal, here are a couple of additional spice condiment items to consider requesting at an Ethiopian restaurant. Not only will your food be spicier, but you’ll also likely impress or puzzle your hosts with the request.


A typical and traditional dark red spice sauce made of berbere blended with water or oil. In traditional Ethiopian restaurants unaccustomed to tourists, it’s typical for this to be served automatically with your meal. In Ethiopian restaurants that cater more to tourists, you may have to ask for it.


A thick, pulverized chili topping. We came across a red chili variety and a green variety that tasted like a blend of Ethiopian low-heat green chilis and green herbs.

Da’ta is especially good if you’d like to spice up western food (e.g., pasta) when you’re taking a break from traditional Ethiopian fare.

Ethiopian Coffee

Coffee in Ethiopia, the land where it was first discovered, is a treat not only because the quality of the coffee is very high, but also because its preparation is careful and elaborate. Regardless of whether you take your coffee in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony or from an Italian espresso machine (a legacy of the short Italian occupation of Ethiopia during World War II), you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Roasting Coffee Beans & Frankincense - Gondar, Ethiopia
Invited to enjoy an Ethiopian coffee ceremony inside a home in Gondar.

A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony will likely take at least twenty minutes from start to finish for the first cup of coffee, but it is worth the wait. It begins with your host, always a woman, roasting raw green coffee beans in a pan over a small charcoal oven. When the beans have finished roasting, your host will bring the pan to each person present so that he may enjoy the aroma. At the same time, she’ll light some frankincense to purify and clear the air. Popcorn is usually served as a snack.

The boiled water and freshly ground coffee beans are mixed together in a jebena, a traditional coffee pot, and a magic process — one that only the host knows to ensure a perfect cup of strong coffee — ensues. The coffee is then poured gracefully into small, handleless cups.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Pouring Coffee - Aksum, Ethiopia
Our host pours freshly brewed coffee from a jebena.

Traditionally, a full coffee ceremony involves three rounds of coffee that proceed from strong (abol) to medium (tona) to weak (baraka), with the final round considered as bestowing a blessing on the coffee drinker.

Coffee ceremonies serve an important social function beyond the actual coffee consumed. Our guide told us that women in the community used to gather each afternoon for a coffee ceremony that takes several hours to finish, thereby ensuring ample time to discuss all news and family issues. Coffee meetings such as these rotate from house to house in a community group, so as to give each of the hosts a break.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Enjoying a cup of coffee in a village outside of Lalibela.

Ethiopian Coffee Recommendation: If you are looking for a truly outstanding espresso or macchiato, pay a visit to Tomoca in Addis Ababa. This unassuming coffee roaster and café features a decor of a bygone era and serves up an incredibly rich brew at the hands of a couple masterful baristas. It’s also a good place to purchase whole bean or ground Ethiopian coffee to take home as gifts.

Other Ethiopian Drinks

Tej (Honey Wine or Mead)

An Ethiopian local specialty, tej is a honey wine featuring varying degrees of sweetness. The first batch we tried was almost like a dessert wine (our guide called it “the children’s version”). We took our second taste of a cloudy, earthy and higher alcohol tej in a tej betoch (honey wine house) and nightclub in Lalibela.

Ethiopian Honey Wine (Tej) - Gondar, Ethiopia
Tej served in a traditional bottle (berele).

Tej is usually served in a rounded vase-like or beaker-like glass container called a berele. Although it’s typical to order one berele per person, drinker beware if you manage to finish it all.


A traditional Ethiopian beer made from teff, barley, maize or other grains blended with a green herb called gesho. Tella is usually brewed at home. You’ll often find it in grimy, nondescript plastic bottles lurking in the doorways of local homes. Alcohol concentrations vary widely.


During one of our monster lunch Ethiopian food gorging sessions, I asked Fekadu, our guide: “What do Ethiopians do when they get an upset stomach?”

His response without skipping a beat: “We take a shot of araki.”

Araki is essentially the Ethiopian version of grappa (firewater or moonshine, if you like). If the name sounds like Greek raki or Balkan rakia, that’s because it’s likely descended from or related to the Mediterranean distilled spirits of a similar name. It’s made from gesho leaves and features an alcohol level of around 45%. No wonder it is good for an upset stomach. It likely kills anything in its path, bacteria included.

Ethiopian Beer

Talk to anyone who likes a beer about their experience in Ethiopia and they might wax long about St. George beer. It’s not an incredible beer — and there are certainly other, more complex beers for those who search — but it is tasty enough, particularly after a long day of rock-hewn church hopping.

Be sure to check out the St. George beer label in detail. It’s one of the more colorful and notable beer labels in this part of the world.

Other Ethiopian beers in order of our preference include Dashen, Bedele, Castel, Harar and Meta.

Ethiopian Wine

Ethiopia makes wine? Turns out that it does. We had no idea, either.

Although some Ethiopian wines are unimpressive — sweet and appropriate for aperitif drinking (e.g., Axumit) — it’s rumored that French winemakers have been brought on board to help.

If the oak aged Rift Valley Syrah 2013 (of Castel Winery) is any indication of the future, the situation for Ethiopian wine is looking up. This wine is drinkable straight out of the bottle (or aired for a bit) on its own or paired with doro wat, mesir wat or shiro.

Less remarkable, though still good, is the Rift Valley Merlot 2013.

Although restaurants and hotels may sell these wines at the equivalent of $15/bottle, we were able to find each of them at approximately $7 from a night club in Lalibela. It never hurts to ask.


Ethiopian food demonstrates that we are a product of cultural and culinary evolution. A blend of influences, experiments and vessels carrying flavors that were once unknown.

If you’d like some homework, it’s this: find an Ethiopian restaurant, gather together some friends and go. Sample widely, don’t over-order, marvel at the injera bread with your eyes and mouth, and inspire yourself to travel to the source one day.

Melkam megeb! (መልካም ምግብ)


A huge thanks goes to Fekadu Tesfaye, our G Adventures CEO (guide), who was incredibly patient and helpful with all our questions about Ethiopian food. When we showed our curiosity about Ethiopian cuisine, Fekadu made things happen for all of us — arranging a coffee ceremony and doro wat tasting at a friend of a friend’s home, coming across a village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, and organizing an impromptu cooking class.


Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Africa Tours with G Adventures

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Travel to Ethiopia: First Impressionshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopia-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopia-travel/#comments Mon, 02 Jun 2014 13:42:55 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18753 By Daniel Noll

When I was growing up, I remember Ethiopia having a long run on the nightly news. Unfortunately newscasts all pointed to the grim. Newsreel images featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies, drought-ruined landscapes and a ravaging famine made only worse by civil war. Sounding familiar? Prior to our visit, we figured some distance between the […]

The post Travel to Ethiopia: First Impressions appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Daniel Noll

Audrey around the bend, on the edge of the cliffside, a few inches from a long way down (about 500m / 1600ft). Worth the terror, slowly facing fears. Backdrop = Gheralta, Ethiopia. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1n7MchY
This is Ethiopia? Yes. A land of many surprises.

When I was growing up, I remember Ethiopia having a long run on the nightly news. Unfortunately newscasts all pointed to the grim. Newsreel images featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies, drought-ruined landscapes and a ravaging famine made only worse by civil war.

Sounding familiar?

Prior to our visit, we figured some distance between the Ethiopia of the 1980s and the Ethiopia of today — yet not quite to the extent we’d found. If our visit to Ethiopia proved nothing else, it proved this: though countries remain themselves at heart, they can emerge from perilous circumstances. When they do, stereotypes can slowly be cast aside and the historical, cultural and natural contours – which had always existed yet never been highlighted – can more clearly be revealed.

As we shared photos of unexpected castles, remarkable mountain landscapes, ancient churches and colorful plates of local food during our trip, readers would ask: “Is that really Ethiopia?

Yes it is.

Our unpacking of our travels in Ethiopia begins with a few first yet lasting impressions of the country.

There be castles in Ethiopia. This 17th c. one: Fasiladas' Palace in Gondar. I'm fast realizing I knew little of the depth of this country's history. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1lzMDQn
There be castles in Ethiopia. This 17th century one: Fasiladas’ Palace in Gondar.

1. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Living History

Before our trip to Ethiopia, we were aware in a book sense that it was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity (in 330 A.D.). We did not imagine how pervasive and well-documented this historical vein would be, nor could we appreciate how much the country’s present would be connected with its past through ritual.

Church of St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century. Ethiopia's signature historical sight...remarkable. Note the tiny people, right. George slew the dragon. For this, Ethiopia named a beer after him and a country was named after him, too. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1i6tp1b
St. George. Carved top-down from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.

Whether they are rock-hewn or tucked far into the hills, Ethiopia’s churches often feature original paintings and frescoes from as much as 1000 years ago or more. Ancient texts and relics remain in use by today’s priests who bless all those willing by rubbing large ancient metal crosses over afflicted areas of the body.
Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World). Waiting for a Blessing - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Women await a blessing at Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) in Lalibela.

In the Gheralta Mountains of Tigray province, churches were carved out of natural mountaintop caves as long ago as the fourth century. Why build so? The idea: hide your churches from invading armies while bringing yourself that much closer to heaven.

Climbs were steep then, just as they are now — even for young mothers who carry 40-day old babies on their backs in hopes of peak baptism.

As we followed a 78-year old monk around a cliff’s edge to the 6th century cave church of Daniel Korkor, we could imagine a staggered line of devout Ethiopians making that same journey, wrapped in the same white cotton cloth, over the course of hundreds of years.

Following the Monk on a Cliff's Edge to Daniel Korkor Cave Church - Tigray, Ethiopia
Careful steps behind a 78-year old monk to the cliffside 6th century monastery of Daniel Korkor.

Ethiopia feels very much like a case study in living history. An experience that is as much about feeling an energy as it is about seeing the relics and remnants of an ancient history.

2. Land of Legends

The story goes…

Ethiopian history blends fact and myth almost seamlessly. (Some may even say shamelessly.)

Favorite ancient doorway candidate #32. This one literally buried in a cave, at the 12th century Yemrehanna Kristos church in the northern Ethiopian hills. via Instagram http://ift.tt/1jcHCy9
What’s behind the 12th century Yemrehanna Kristos church near Lalibela? A legend.

So much of Ethiopia’s identity is connected to its history, a history passed on orally which traces its roots back four thousand years to the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant. For over a thousand years, Ethiopian kings claimed to be direct descendants of the line of Solomon, living connections between their country, its history, and the Holy Land.

Amidst all that, stories and legends circulate in a fog akin to a long-running historical version of the telephone game. Historians may argue as to the validity of any and all prevailing accounts, but as our guide suggested, “If you believe, then it is true to you. And we believe this is our heritage.”

Belief, it seems, trumps all.

3. Mountains and Desertscape Interactive

Until this visit, we never really considered Ethiopia for trekking and adventure, but our experiences in the Simien Mountains and Gheralta Mountains of Tigray set that straight.

Simien Mountains in Ethiopia
Audrey takes in mountain layers while trekking the Simien Mountains.

Some of our most enjoyable moments and context: the Gheralta Mountains near the town of Hawzia in Ethiopia’s Tigray province. Not only does the area surprise and stun with its Utah-reminiscent red rock backdrop and outcroppings, but treks to 1500-year old cave churches like Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor leave no adrenaline untapped as they force challenging climbs up sheer sandstone walls and precarious walks along narrow cliffs.

Not for the faint of heart or for those unwilling to press deeply into their fear of heights.

Late afternoon descent, Gheralta heights. Phenomenal hike and rock climb to the hilltop monasteries of Maryam Korkor. This is peak Ethiopia. #skyporn via Instagram http://ift.tt/1nICdC1
En route to the hilltop monasteries in the Gheralta Mountains. Look familiar?

4. Ancient Language, Ancient Civilization

In and around the ancient sites that make up the modern day northern town of Aksum, stone tablets dating back thousands of years will often be inscribed in three languages: Greek, Arabic, and Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language that predates Ethiopia’s present-day regional languages. Giant stone obelisks stand, lean and have fallen. While most recognize the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome and Greece among the greats, few know of the similarly advanced Aksumite civilization which made its name in trade across the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia from 400 B.C. to 800 A.D.

It’s thanks to Ge’ez, a long-standing written language, that we now know so much about Ethiopia’s past.

Old Ethiopian Religious Books in Ge'ez Language - Ashetan Maryam, Lalibela
An Ethiopian religious book written in Ge’ez on goatskin parchment.

All monks and priests are required to learn Ge’ez and services are still held in this ancient language. In the early hours of the morning, Ge’ez chants and melodies echo through the hills. Eerie, beautiful and sleep-challenging, especially during the high holidays.

With over 200 symbols, Ge’ez– a mesmerizing spaghetti of symbols to the uninitiated — now serves as the phonetic alphabet for Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

5. Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

There’s nothing more disappointing than a coffee-producing country that does not actively consume and appreciate what it grows. No worry of this in Ethiopia: they not only grow the beans, but they also carry a proficiency in roasting, so much so that coffee roasting seems a rite of passage for young women across the country. Unsurprising considering that Ethiopia’s Kaffa region is where coffee is said to have originated.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Aksum, Ethiopia
Frankincense burning during an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is deliberate, a process that has been handed down through generations of Ethiopian women for centuries. It has an almost magical way of seeming to slow time, if not stop it altogether.

Coffee is central to Ethiopian life and pace. You’ll find coffee ceremonies taking place throughout the country in cafes, on street corners, in markets and most importantly in homes. Fronds and greens scattered on the ground, frankincense alight and in a pot, young green coffee beans roasting in a small pan over a charcoal stove, a delicate passing of water through the grounds until the ideal strength is achieved.

Coffee drinkers rejoice. All others, just behold.

6. Ethiopian Food

In our experience, Africa rarely garners an “Ooh, awesome food!” distinction. Ethiopian cuisine is an exception, one of the great cuisines of the world, I’d venture. In any event, it stands out against its neighbors with an array of rich and spicy stews.

Our Easter Feast, Ethiopia style. A soshabie (like a thali) to break the Ethiopian Orthodox 55-day Lenten fast. A mix of tasty stews served atop injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread. #yum via Instagram http://ift.tt/1r4SGQ8
Our Ethiopian Easter feast – injera covered in various meat and vegetarian stews.

Ask an Ethiopian the most important part of any meal and she’ll answer injera, the spongy, stretchy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia). Injera forms the foundation of every Ethiopian meal. You’ll often find a round of injera spread out like a natural platter atop which a variety of spicy stews made from lentils, meats and vegetables blended with spices blends like berbere (ground chilies mixed with upwards of 15-20 ingredients) are piled.
Making injera the traditional way over a fire.

Although the presentation and flavor hints of an Indian thali, the Ethiopian table is very much unto itself.

We’ll reserve further comment on Ethiopian cuisine for now, as we plan a comprehensive guide on it soon, from how to eat it to why you should consider a deep dive during the vegetarian fasting season or avail yourself of its raw beef specialties during the remainder of the year. Stay tuned.

7. Traditional Music and Eskista Shoulder Dancing

Think “dancing in Africa” and you might appropriately imagine hips and butts moving and shaking in ways that blow the mind of those not of the continent. But in northern Ethiopia, the shoulders and upper body are the stars of the dancing show in something called eskista.

Traditional night clubs usually feature a group of professional dancers, but even better than those are the impromptu “dance offs” between two club-goers who try to out-shoulder one another. The beat, the energy, the atmosphere — all superbly infectious.

Even we got into the act.

Next up to make the leap from local music to the world stage: Ethiopian.

8. Kids, Kids

Our bus pulls off for a potty break in bushes or trees (a “bush stop” in local travel parlance) in what most might consider the middle of nowhere Ethiopia. Even here, the children appear out of the woodwork, from the hills up, the valleys down.

Where do all the children come from?! I won’t bore you with a lesson as to how those children are conceived, but population estimates in Ethiopia hover around 95 million, with projections topping 120 million in the next 15 years or so. Staggering.

Surrounded by Kids at a Road Stop in Ethiopia
As always, we attract a crowd at a roadside stop between Gondar and the Simien Mountains.

Note: Kids and pens? We will soon publish another piece on the unfortunate practice of tourists indiscriminately giving pens and money to kids in developing countries — a practice that has slowly but surely “trained” them to beg.

9. Ethiopian Roads Overflow with Life

Much the world over, vehicles take first priority on the roads. Not so in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Road Scenes, Camels and All
Ethiopia’s roads, often a condition between disorder and mayhem.

From village lanes to full-fledged highways, the Ethiopian road is ruled by a fog of people, animals (sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, camels), lean-tos, funerals, weddings and more. Cars and buses get out of the way of what was happening on the street, not the other way around.

If you remember the video game Frogger, this is the live version. One unfortunate result: road carnage. Heaps of tarp-draped remains of horrifying wrecks stand testament to a country coming to grips with the old ways of doing things converging with the unappreciated power of new vehicles on paved roads.

10. Market Days are Social Days

“Markets are not just for buying and selling. They perform an important social function. Most Ethiopians work in the fields, so market day is when people have a chance to meet, share news, and even find the person they will marry,” Fekadu, our guide, explained.

Debark Market Day - Ethiopia
Spices, roots and families at the Debark village market.

You can always tell market days in rural areas. For kilometers on end, roads are clogged even more so than usual with people from all neighboring villages carrying their goods to market – sheep, goats, wares, foodstuffs. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have to sell: any and all are clearly welcome.

And they’re coming.

Ethiopian traditional markets are sprawling affairs with goods arranged accordingly: all the peppers here, all the green coffee beans there, homeopathic treatment for the cows somewhere in an open field in the distance.

Beyond the sale, these markets bind this primarily agrarian society. They provide an essential social focal point — not just for the trade of goods, but for the trade in life.

And in Ethiopia, there’s certainly no shortage of that.


Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.


Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Africa Tours with G Adventures

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The Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/lalibela-rock-churches-ethiopia-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/lalibela-rock-churches-ethiopia-panorama/#comments Mon, 12 May 2014 19:00:13 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18733 By Audrey Scott

The story goes: almost 900 years ago in Ethiopia there lived a visionary king named Lalibela. Lalibela traveled far and wide, including an extended pilgrimage he took to Jerusalem, after which he brought back home to Ethiopia all he’d seen and learned. When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the late 12th century and it became too […]

The post The Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia [360-Degree Panorama] appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

The story goes: almost 900 years ago in Ethiopia there lived a visionary king named Lalibela.

Lalibela traveled far and wide, including an extended pilgrimage he took to Jerusalem, after which he brought back home to Ethiopia all he’d seen and learned.

When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the late 12th century and it became too dangerous for devout Ethiopian Christians to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem itself, Lalibela fashioned a work-around: to build a New Jerusalem in his home country.

But this New Jerusalem was no ordinary holy place.

The foundation of Lalibela’s vision was to build churches in the ground. Today, each of his eleven rock-hewn churches stands carved out top-down from a single piece of solid rock — all so that foreign invaders would not see them above ground from afar.

Construction was a remarkable feat of execution. Once the rough shape of the structure was carved away from the rock, work would then begin on carving the church from the outside in.

Remember: all of this engineering took place 900 years ago without the aid of today’s machinery and sophisticated measurement tools. No wonder local legend says that Lalibela claims to have had a vision of the churches — including detailed instruction as to how they ought to be built — directly from God.

Open up the panorama below to see the inside of our favorite Lalibela rock-hewn church, Biete Maryam (House of Mary). Be sure to use the up arrow and check out the engraved arches and ceilings covered in original frescoes.

What makes these churches even more remarkable: they have been used continually, filling with hundreds of people chanting and praying every Sunday for almost 900 years.

Ethiopia is a land of living history where you can get a glimpse of the past through present-day society and culture. We look forward to sharing much more on this fascinating country very soon.

360-Degree Panorama: Biete Maryam, a Lalibela Rock-Hewn Church in Ethiopia

panorama directions

Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia is provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Up Next: A Journey to East Africahttp://uncorneredmarket.com/east-africa-journey/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/east-africa-journey/#comments Sat, 19 Apr 2014 12:14:29 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18691 By Audrey Scott

Our journey to East Africa, just about underway. What follows includes not only our itinerary and a call for your recommendations, but a personal note and a couple of back-stories including $100 given to us with a purpose on a ship in Antarctica. As you read this, we’re on our way to Ethiopia to begin […]

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By Audrey Scott

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
Simien Mountains under a misty cover, Ethiopia.

Our journey to East Africa, just about underway. What follows includes not only our itinerary and a call for your recommendations, but a personal note and a couple of back-stories including $100 given to us with a purpose on a ship in Antarctica.

As you read this, we’re on our way to Ethiopia to begin a six week journey through Eastern Africa. We expect the journey to take us from Ethiopia to Uganda, Rwanda and finally Tanzania.

We’ll have an opportunity to visit 1000-year old rock-cut churches in Ethiopia (and of course dig deeply into Ethiopian food), seek out mountain gorillas in Uganda, hike the volcanoes of Rwanda and learn more about social entrepreneurship in Tanzania.

Tanzania aside, these countries have known their share of famine, war, and genocide in the last couple of decades. And while we hope to learn more about that history, our ultimate goal is to better understand their people, where they stand now, and get a glimpse into their future through their eyes.

Our East Africa Itinerary


Lalibela Churches
Ethiopia: Lalibela Churches Cut from Earth and Stone

In the mid-1980s, when I was a little girl, my Aunt Betsy worked as a nurse for a year or two in Ethiopia at a feeding station. For Ethiopia, it was a time of drought and famine. I recall sad images, nothing short of devastating. However, my aunt had a first-hand experience of the famine, and despite the suffering she witnessed day-in and day-out, she also shared stories of the warmth and spirit of the Ethiopian people.

Count this among my first learning of the lesson, “there’s more to a place and its people than what you see on the news.”

We will explore Ethiopia with the G Adventures Highlights of Ethiopia Tour. We chose this tour specifically for its itinerary. Take a look below and you’ll see why.

  • Bahir Dar with a visit to the local market and Blue Nile Falls
  • Gondar with exploration of the castles and Debre Berhan Selassie Church whose interior is covered with angel faces and eyes.
  • Hiking in the Simien Mountains. Take a look at the lead photo of this article. Enough said.
  • Lalibela. This segment of the trip might count as the one we’re most looking forward to. I’d heard about the underground medieval churches carved into the mountains, but this recent article took my curiosity to a new level.
  • A drive through the Sekota and Alamata Mountains with a stop at 3,000-year old Hawzien.
  • Ancient city of Axum, Ethiopia’s oldest city of almost 2,000 years.
  • Although we won’t have much time in Addis Ababa, we do hope we will be able to visit Merkato, the largest open market in Africa.

Ethiopian food, you ask? We’ve had our share in cities around the world, but now it’s time to taste it at the source. To say that we are excited to eat: understatement. We expect to consume plenty of Ethiopian coffee and experience a coffee ceremony or two.

Uganda and Rwanda

Lake Bunyoni, Uganda
Lake Bunyoni, Uganda. We’ll trek here in search of mountain gorillas.

We’ll begin our travels in Uganda with a G Adventures gorillas overland tour. Our trek will take us to the forests near Lake Bunyon to find mountain gorillas. Friends who’ve experienced this have described a feeling unimaginable, if not unmatched. We must manage our expectations, however, as we know there are no guarantees that we’ll actually be able to spot gorillas.

That’s the thing with wild animals. True to their description, they are indeed a wild and unpredictable bunch.

Our trip will also include trekking in search of chimpanzees at Kalinzu Forest Reserve and a rafting experience along the Blue Nile near the town of Jinja, all before returning to Kampala.

After our tour, we’re free for the next two weeks between Uganda and Rwanda and we’ll piece together an itinerary (with the help of your suggestions) as we go. At the moment our Rwanda plans include spending some time in the Parc National des Volcans and Lake Kivu for some volcano trekking and perhaps a visit to Nyungwe Forest National Park before winding up in Kigali.

As the 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has just passed, it strikes us as an appropriate time to visit to reflect on what happened and through the eyes of others, understand how the country copes and looks towards the future as it continues to come to terms with its past.

We could use your help. If you have suggestions of places to visit, what to do, organizations and people to connect with, or anything else that comes to mind regarding Uganda and Rwanda please email us or leave a comment below.


Masai Kids at the Door of Hut - Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Maasai children shyly guarding the door to their hut in a village near Lake Manyara, Tanzania.

Some of you might remember our visit to Tanzania a few years ago when we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, got up close with wild animals on safari and relaxed on the beaches of Zanzibar.

This time, our visit to Tanzania will feature something a bit different. We are working with Planeterra, G Adventures’ foundation, to learn more about two new projects it runs in and around Moshi: a clean cookstoves project in a Maasai village and a women’s cooperative in Moshi that provides business skills and training to local women.

What makes these projects unique to traditional NGO projects is that G Adventures’ passenger traffic — and the market access that provides — are tied in to help make these projects financially sustainable. For example, G Adventures tours to the Serengeti use a portion of tour fees to serve as contribution to the purchase of a clean cookstove. Additionally, travelers have the opportunity to visit the village to learn more about how the stoves work and what it means for quality of life. Those G Adventures passengers in Moshi will be able to stop by the women’s cooperative center to engage with the women involved and to purchase their goods.

Our goal: to understand the local organizations and people involved. And to see firsthand how this sort of partnership model actually works on the ground.

$100 in East Africa: A Backstory

A little more than four years ago, aboard our ship to Antarctica, we were asked to give a talk about our around-the-world travels. As we shared stories from Central Asia to Central America, we shared all sorts of travel stories, including some of what we had seen in the way of micro-finance projects along the way. We mentioned to the audience that we hoped to travel in Africa next. After the presentation, a well-traveled British woman came up to us and placed $100 in my hand in twenty dollar bills.

When you get to East Africa, give this money to five good organizations you find, to people who are really making a difference in their communities. I spent many years working with projects in this region, and specifically Uganda and Rwanda. But now I’m too old to travel there. I want you to bring part of me with you when you go.

I asked for her name and email address so that I could follow up with her and inform her as to where and to whom we gave her money, but she didn’t want any of that. She told us that trusted us; she believed we would do the right thing.

Although it has taken longer to getting around to make it to the full of East Africa in order to fulfill her wish, we are now on our way.

One Final Personal Note on this Trip

A week ago I received news that my stepfather, Larry, passed away. Amidst the sadness we felt, we also found ourselves deciding whether to cancel the trip and when to return to the U.S. to honor him.

As I spoke to both family and friends that knew Larry, it became clear — with an imagined motion of his hand — that he would have wanted us to go. Everyone agreed he would have said something like this:

“Go. Explore. Meet people. Tell good stories. And be sure to share stories from people and places that don’t usually have a voice. And have lots of fun, too.

Good advice for us. Good advice in general, I’d like to think.

You see, East Africa was one of Larry’s favorite regions in the whole world. He spent years living, working and traveling in Tanzania and Kenya as U.S. diplomat. And although he also served in other parts of Africa — including an ambassadorship to Gabon and a nice, posh placement in London along the way, East Africa was and always would be the place that stole his heart.

Stepping back, spiritual or otherwise, one might find the coming together of this trip — to be able to spend the next six weeks in an area Larry loved and knew well — as beyond mere coincidence.

Follow Along with Us in East Africa

We hope you’ll join us on this journey! As much as is possible, we will post photos and real-time updates to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’ll use the hashtag #dna2EAfrica to digitally gather the content from this trip. A search for #dna2EAfrica on each platform should return all available related photos and updates from our trip.

And please don’t forget to share your advice for Uganda and Rwanda by email or in a comment below.

Photo credits: Rod_Waddington, Henrik Berger Jørgensen, amateur_photo_bore.

Disclosure: Our tours in Ethiopia and Uganda are provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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A New Look at Uncornered Markethttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-look-uncornered-market/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-look-uncornered-market/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 11:24:36 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18660 By Audrey Scott

If you’re looking at this article on our website, either on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone you may have noticed that things are looking a little different around here. (And if you’re reading this via RSS or email, we encourage you to hop over to the actual website right now. Otherwise, the rest of […]

The post A New Look at Uncornered Market appeared first on Uncornered Market.

By Audrey Scott

If you’re looking at this article on our website, either on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone you may have noticed that things are looking a little different around here. (And if you’re reading this via RSS or email, we encourage you to hop over to the actual website right now. Otherwise, the rest of this won’t make any sense.)

Uncornered Market has been redesigned!

This has been a long, long process, including several fits and starts over the years. But now we’re finally here with a new look and more importantly, a much better engine.

Why the change?

We designed the original Uncornered Market site and built it from scratch as we traveled through Southeast Asia in early 2007, working in steamy internet cafes and siphoning off wifi signals where we could find them. Although the original Uncornered Market served us well for many years, internet technology, blogging and how people consume online content has changed considerably since then. It was time for a change.

What’s new at Uncornered Market?

That there is a completely new design is obvious. However, it’s the under-the-hood changes that we hope will make the experience on our site more enjoyable and accessible.

New Homepage, New Tagline

Uncornered Market Home
You’ll notice that the actual homepage (UncorneredMarket.com) has changed considerably. We also wanted to better highlight what the site is about through a new tagline: travel wide, live deeply.

We also wanted Uncornered Market to represent all that we do. This is why you’ll see a new homepage that highlights our consulting, speaking, and books (coming soon) in addition to the blog.

You’ll also find links to some of our most popular posts and article series (e.g., Beginner’s Guides and World Cuisine Guides), as well as the latest articles.

Faster, Lighter, More Responsive

This was at the heart of the redesign. We wanted to make the site fast, easy to load and readable on every kind of device. And to improve the readability of articles with bigger font, photos and titles.

We still use WordPress as our Content Management System (CMS), but are now using the Genesis Framework with a slightly modified Genesis child theme underneath. One reason for this is that Genesis 2.0 themes are built to be responsive and use HTML5. As technology improves and changes, our aim is to be able to easily keep up, even as we tinker with and change the look of the site.

Improved 360-Degree Panoramas

It used to be that our 360-degree panoramas were only viewable on a desktop or laptop. No more flash — now our panoramas are full HTML5 and are viewable on tablets and iPhones as well. Not only that, but the viewing experience (especially on the desktop/laptop) has vastly improved. Don’t believe us? Then take a look at this, this and this. Be sure to open them to full screen (four arrows on the control) and take a good spin around.

New Photo Gallery

photo gallery

Since it wasn’t difficult enough to just update our website, we decided to change our photo hosting and main photo gallery as well. We opted to use Smugmug. The reasons for this were many, including SEO, better flexibility with organizing and displaying photos, as well as the ability to instantly resize photos for this site. You can find our photos organized on a continent, region or country level.

The photo switch from Flickr to SmugMug in our articles was also a long haul. A huge thank you to David from Smugmug. Without his technical help we would still be knee-deep in this process.

Your Feedback and Testing

While we originally had plans for more bells, whistles and content to be packed into the new site, we decided to keep things simple with this release, especially since we wanted to get it out there before our next adventure — which begins in just a few days and takes us to places with limited connectivity. Now that we’ve switched over to a flexible theme, we look forward to iterative changes in the future. As we fixed the engine with this release, it’s likely you’ll see more experimentation, particularly in the typography/font and design departments.

As you poke and click around, please let us know if something isn’t working or if something isn’t as it should be. We’d also welcome your feedback and suggestions for improvement!

As always, thanks for your support and being part of this journey.

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Itsukushima Shinto Shrine on Miyajima Island, Japan [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/itsukushima-shrine-miyajima-japan-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/itsukushima-shrine-miyajima-japan-panorama/#comments Thu, 03 Apr 2014 09:51:43 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14338 By Audrey Scott

Miyajima, a sacred island in Japan. So sacred in fact that its famous Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (now a UNESCO site) was designed very cleverly 500 years ago. You see, the raised boards provided a way for pilgrims to visit the island without actually touching sacred land directly. The purity of the island was kept in […]

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By Audrey Scott

Miyajima, a sacred island in Japan. So sacred in fact that its famous Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (now a UNESCO site) was designed very cleverly 500 years ago. You see, the raised boards provided a way for pilgrims to visit the island without actually touching sacred land directly. The purity of the island was kept in check for hundreds of years. (Another feature of the design is that it look like the shrine is floating on water during high tide, which is pretty cool.)

Once at the shrine we gazed out over the water to the famous “floating” vermillion Torii (gate), only to find scaffolding and construction work obscuring the iconic structure. Disappointment.

But then something began happening in front of us – a traditional Japanese wedding, complete with a Bugaku Court Dance. The main dancer, dressed in heavy, colorful cloth with a wooden mask obscuring the face, was deliberate with every single movement, even the slightest. tai chi precision brought to dance. We later learned that this dance has been performed, with this same precision, in Japan for over 1,200 years. I can imagine.

I’ll trade you a missed photo opportunity of a torii for this – watching the dancer and the excitement on the face of the perfectly coiffed Japanese bride – any day. It was an experience we would keep with us and remember for much longer.

Open the panorama to full screen and take a spin around the outside of Itsukushima Shrine. Although the Bugaku dancer is gone, you can see the wedding party in the distance coming from their staged photo shoot (some things are universal). And if you look closely, you can see the torii out in the distance, all covered up. Maybe next time we’ll get to see it in all its vermillion glory.

Panorama: Itsukushima Shinto Shrine – Miyajima Island, Japan

panorama directions

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Being Present in Travel: 6 Reasons Why, 4 Ways Howhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/being-present-travel/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/being-present-travel/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 04:41:34 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14590 By Audrey Scott

Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you. – Robert Kaplan It’s de rigueur to speak of “creating memories,” particularly when it comes to travel. This tendency has only been intensified by and through social media […]

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By Audrey Scott

travel being present

Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness—the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you.

Robert Kaplan

It’s de rigueur to speak of “creating memories,” particularly when it comes to travel. This tendency has only been intensified by and through social media and online sharing. Similarly, we’ve written about creating a story-filled life, the idea being that experiences rather than material goods are what truly shape who we are. While I still believe that implicit underlying premise to be true, something happened recently that nudged me to consider the idea of creating memories in a different light.

Before sharing that story, two questions occurred to me:

1. What if in our quest to create memories, we inadvertently sell the actual experience short or diminish its importance as it happens? That is, we forsake the experience for the metaphor.

2. How can we be more present during our travels so as to savor those experiences for what they are in the moment while also deepening how we might recall and share the memory of them later?

What if accessing memories isn’t an option?

Last month, I returned to the United States to spend time with family, including with my stepfather who now suffers from Lewy Body dementia, an Alzheimer’s-like disease. He’s led an incredibly full life, one flush with experiences that span growing up in small town Arkansas to serving as an ambassador in Africa, with all manner of storied twists and turns along the way that were both a function of who he was and also made him whom he came to be. He could fill a room with his stories and presence; he kept everyone laughing, wondering which story might come next.

He’s pretty far along in the disease right now, so it is unclear if he still accesses his memories since he is no longer able to share them.

In spending time with him recently, I realized that in our interaction with one another, what really mattered was what happened in the moment. The experience was about being together, the power of touch, and presence – or perhaps more precisely, presentness. All the while, the world outside of me and my stepfather moved along at pace with its typical rapidity.

As this unfolded, I was struck by the realization: being present is about slowing things down enough to truly feel, experience, and sense them – to grasp them in full. To think of it another way: to slow things down so that life begins to feel a little like one of those film reels where the bullet from the gun is slowed to such a speed that it might be plucked from the air by the human hand.

That kind of attention. That kind of grasp.

In full disclosure, none of this was easy or comfortable for me to process. As I focused on trying to be present with my stepfather, the urge to “escape” the situation by considering my to-do list or pulling out my phone to check my email was difficult to resist.

In this life, it’s far too easy to buzz around, to drift into the busy. This racing around grants me the permission to not focus on what’s in front of me. It also provides a retreat from possible productive discomfort, something I must face if I ever hope to sort this world.

This experience caused me to wonder: What if amidst the noise, the din, the speed, we could slow down and be more deliberately present — with our life experience, our travel experience?

Being Present in Travel: Why?

Being present and practicing presentness is hard. So why burn cycles trying to do it, especially while traveling? After all, travel is supposed to be unadulterated bliss, no?

My first answer to this is: “Because it’s a ‘good’ for us, of course.” But I realize that’s not a particularly convincing argument so I dug a little deeper.

Here’s my why.

1. To create calm or peace in an overwhelming (too) fast-moving world.

This is one of the reasons why many of us travel in the first place, to get away from the day-to-day “busy-ness” of our lives, to recharge creatively, mentally.

So then what’s the point of “getting away” only to re-create the same circumstances from which you were hoping to escape?

A walk on the beach, a reflection, a perfect afternoon on Rabbit Island (outside of Nelson) today's New Zealand #nofilter special
A walk on the beach, a sustained breath of fresh air. Rabbit Island, New Zealand.

2. To avoid missing the present by constantly pondering the future.

If we are busy “collecting memories,” something inherently future-oriented, are we truly immersed or fully engaged in what is happening around us during the actual experience? Once we begin to measure or capture an experience, we give away fragments of it in exchange for its capture.

Sure, you can make the argument that capturing the experience is in fact part of it. I’ll buy that to a limited degree.

3. To find deeper connections with people and place.

It takes time to fully grasp a place and its people, to push through the confusion and difference and discord that first greets us upon our arrival — all so that we may depart with greater appreciation, connection, empathy and something even stronger: care.

Dan with Honey Vendors - Zugdidi, Georgia
What began as confusion ended with pure generosity. An impromptu market feast — Zugdidi, Georgia

4. To judge less, to be more open.

I’d argue that simply observing and being present actually tones down the rush-to-judgment tendency of the human brain. If we take things in as they come instead of trying to evaluate them all against our preconceived notions and measuring sticks, maybe we’ll make more room for others and for ourselves.

5. To deepen our observation, to heighten our awareness.

Being present surfaces previously unseen details. It also exposes the depths. Presentness gives us a chance to connect heart and mind in a way that no photograph, no matter how well composed, can ever capture.

Lao Food Fixings - Luang Prabang, Laos
Beautiful details are easy to miss. Luang Prabang, Laos.

6. To build patience for learning and reward.

If you’ve ever tried yoga or experienced very slow movements of the body in physiotherapy, maybe you’ve understood how coming to terms with a little pain or discomfort is necessary to make progress. It’s also not surprising that exceptionally slow body movements can paradoxically make us feel disoriented or even ill. Same thing applies with slowing down the world around us. It forces us into a different mode of operation and to deal with new and sometimes uncomfortable data and circumstances.

4 Ways to be Present in Travel

If you’re still with us (and we’ve hopefully convinced you of the benefits of being present), here are some ways that may practically help you put this all into play while you travel.

1. Just sit, be and observe for a while.

Be perfectly still — for at least five minutes, taking in all that is around you. Don’t try to judge or make sense of what you’re seeing, but notice and appreciate the details, the once insignificant.

Let it go by.

Audrey Takes a Rest at Market - Bandarban, Bangladesh
Pulling over to the side of the market in Rangamati, Bangladesh.

In urban areas, I like to find a bench in a park or busy city street. Or I’ll lean against a street corner wall of a market to watch without attracting attention. Like being in the middle of it without being the center of anyone’s attention. Perhaps like a fly on the wall.

Later I engage and I find that my engagement is more informed, more connected.

If I feel over-stimulated by a place (e.g., the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh or Mumbai, India) I find that this approach helps me to to better take in the big picture so I’m not as overwhelmed by the action, the sensory overload that comes with immersion.

In nature, this means finding a spot to sit. Give this one at least 15 mintues, longer if you like. All day even. You may be overwhelmed not only by the greater range of sights, smells, and sounds available to you, but also their intensity. Why? Because you’ve begun to notice and pay attention to what has always been there, yet was somehow deprived of your attention.

2. Have a destination in mind to allow “productive” wandering.

This may sound like an oxymoron, but stick with me on this one. Choose a destination (e.g., bakery, cafe, temple, sight, etc.), but free yourself from the expectation that you must actually arrive.

I find that some of our best experiences are the unexpected ones, ones that happen when en route we’ve allowed ourselves to stop, get lost, follow our curiosity and in some cases, granted ourselves the freedom to never even arrive.

Game Time at the Market - Kathmandu, Nepal
Stumbling upon a street market while getting lost on the way to Durbar Square, Kathmandu.

However, while setting off to wander without purpose may work for some, for others it can result in a feeling of pointlessness. Having some destination in mind, even if loosely, allows us to focus less on where we’re going and enjoy a little more of what’s around us.

During our recent trip to Strasbourg, we found that some of our most satisfying moments of exploration and immersion occurred en route (usually to something food-related), in the little things.

3. Put down the device, for a few minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, photographing and documenting a place, an experience is important to many of us. If anyone can appreciate that need, that impulse, we can. Very much so. Consuming an image-memory is also satisfying.

However there’s a difference between taking things in from behind the lens and engaging with them barrier-free with our senses only. Recognizing that difference seems crucial to our maintaining our humanity, our human-ness.

Looking Out Over the Water at Dusk - Koh Samui, Thailand
Being taken away by what is. Koh Samui, Thailand.

Blink. Take a photo with your mind. What you observe will be more, different.

When we were invited to an evening Ramadan gathering in Kyrgyzstan, we resisted the urge to pull out our camera and take photos, despite the spectacular uniqueness of our circumstance: a gritty, candlelight meal in a yurt. We aimed not to break the atmosphere of our welcome and treatment as one-part honored guest, another part family. There were many unusual moments during that meal, including being handed the jawbone of a goat to gnaw on, but enjoying the experience without escape delivered a deeper connection with the place and the people around us.

Furthermore, if you embrace this, you just might find your photos appearing strangely three-dimensional when you view them later. That other dimension? It was formed and informed by the depth of your connection to the experience.

4. Go light on the itinerary.

I’ve found that in most parts of my life, the concept “less is more” reaffirms itself with each new experience. In travel, definitely so. The flip side: this one is strenuously difficult to put into practice.

In the face of limited time and resources, it’s tempting to try and pack it all in, to shoehorn the Top 10 list from your favorite guidebook into your itinerary — because it’s what you ought to do to maximize your experience. Been there, done that. While checking the boxes may provide some satisfaction and a series of photo ops, the question you might consider asking yourself: Will I really come away feeling refreshed, recharged, exhilarated, renewed?

And: What is my unique story to have emerged from all this?

Our advice, just as it is with packing: put everything you want to do on a list and then prioritize the top half. Then begin to let go of even more. Try to plan only a visit or two a day and leave room for those in-between times lounging at a café, sitting on a park bench, diving into an unexpected conversation. Take in the people and place, the living history around you.

Breakfast Tea - Xiahe, China
Stopping for tea is almost always a good idea. Xiahe, China.


Just as it’s easy to find ways to be busy in our day-to-day lives, a similar temptation exists while traveling. Despite all our own travel experiences, Dan and I continue to struggle with this.

It’s difficult to fully be where we are and to appreciate the simplicity of the moment. There’s fear of missing out (FOMO). Ironically, this fear may stand in the way of some of the most rewarding experiences travel has to offer.

Being present is not only key to accessing experience and memory creation, but it’s also an end in itself.

How do you remain present in your travels?

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Capturing the Essence of a Place (Or, A Long Weekend in Strasbourg)http://uncorneredmarket.com/strasbourg-essence-of-place/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/strasbourg-essence-of-place/#comments Thu, 13 Mar 2014 16:49:17 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14571 By Daniel Noll

A few thoughts on how to find the essence of a place, and I suppose ultimately the essence of life — told through a long weekend in Strasbourg, France. It’s about how a fully cooked itinerary might actually get in the way of getting what I really came for in the first place. A few […]

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By Daniel Noll

La Petite France Canal and Architecture - Strasbourg, France
Peering down the canal. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

A few thoughts on how to find the essence of a place, and I suppose ultimately the essence of life — told through a long weekend in Strasbourg, France. It’s about how a fully cooked itinerary might actually get in the way of getting what I really came for in the first place.

A few weekends ago, Audrey and I traveled to Strasbourg, France — a town ostensibly in France, but Germanic under the skin. An Alsatian town. We’d been there twice before for the same reason we’d come for this third time: a wine exhibition featuring 600 independent vintners from across France. (More on that soon.)

There were no specific items on our itinerary other than the wine tasting event. Perhaps previously we would have carried a short checklist of must-sees. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the place Strasbourg, but this time our visit inexplicably seemed to defy the need for such a thing.

Or maybe we’re at the point in our lives where we can extract meaning and pleasure, joy and satisfaction by admiring the little things, those tiny details of life that whoosh, drift and tick by in inimitably local ways.

Such as it was in Strasbourg.

Soft light and fading chill, skies free and crisp, cotton and blue. Strasbourg.

Strasbourg Wakes Up

When we first arrived in town, it was by way of an early morning train from Basel, Switzerland where we’d flown in on inhumanely early flight from Berlin. Upon landing, we’d hopped a bus to the local train station and caught the regional train. At the Strasbourg main train station, we were welcomed by the bouncy little signature tune of SNCF (the French railway) over the PA system. Kids hummed the earworm, so did we.

The whole thing was terribly French. I don’t think any other country could pull off this tune with a straight face.

From the train station we stumbled out onto cobblestones and light rail lines carving themselves through the city. Early morning gray, people cycled. And yes, bad things sometimes happen: an older woman on a bicycle got caught in one of the rails and fell over as she tried to escape the clutches of an aggressive street sweeper. Passers-by yelled, children cried. Early morning drama!

Meanwhile, women exited cafes boulangeries with several baguettes clutched tightly under their arms, men too.

Stores began to open, as did shutters. Ah Mediterranean shutters. So French. Old, wooden, splintered, often beautiful if not sometimes muted colors. Vegetable and fruit shops and vendors slowly leaked out onto the sidewalks, filling their bare shelves with wintery European root vegetables complemented with crates of tropical fruit, much of which came from former French colonies in Africa.

Traditional French Pharmacy - Strasbourg, France
Fading shutters and a classic drug store in Strasbourg

The sense of style in these shops overwhelmed. Everyone appeared stylish. It was important to them, even in the smallest of ways. Maybe not to own a lot of clothing, but to have a few — even if a little expensive — items that were to them worthy of wear.

And then there is the French institution of the sidewalk cafe, the place where all chairs and tables are turned in the direction of the street, of passers-by, of life — so that customers sit on one side of the table while they unabashedly spy, ogle and visually deconstruct the flow in unimaginable ways as they quaff their morning warmth. This is the daily beat, an easing into the day, one where your place, your connection to the environment around you is confirmed.

Yes, this is so totally French.

Marche Rue de la Douance - La Petite France, Strasbourg
Saturday is market day in Strasbourg, streets steeped in French history and culture.

A little bit of Germany in France

Meanwhile the buildings in the center, in old town and a little neighborhood where we’d find ourselves called La Petite France, would look something German. The wood plank siding and whitewash with a splash of color here and there. (I would later learn that this architectural style is referred to as half-timbered.) Terra cotta and painted tile rooftops that survived for centuries (they avoided the war, clearly) buckled and sagged slightly, perceptibly.

Buildings were just impossible to photograph with a mind to straight lines, for there were no straight lines. I imagined, wondered: were the buildings built off-center? Or had they slowly settled to the their positions today from hundreds of years of sinking into the ground? A little bit of both perhaps?

This — this appreciation — was not really on the itinerary.

Strasbourg Canals and Architecture - France
A view from my croissant and café au lait. La Petite France, Strasbourg.

We made our way further into the center, along walkways, bridges and locks. The views, even under cloud cover and muted sky were abundantly beautiful, charming, romantic.

Strasbourg was built along waterways for function, for safety and protection, but much like Amsterdam actually, it could be said that it must have been built to capture our sense of romance.

Strasbourg, this place, struck me as an almost perfect spot to dose oneself with a little French culture, a little German culture. A little taste of each, cleaved along once firm borders.

Cafes, Blood Sausage and Pornographic Plates

Just down the street a little cafe decked in chartreuse and metal folding chairs with wood slat seats and back panels seemed to say, “Please admire me, the way I look.”

This is France. It wasn’t on the itinerary.

Guidebooks don’t tell you to look for this, because frankly it’s beyond the grasp of lists. The feeling, the moment transcends the bullet point. In fact, the more you focus on the list, the more likely you are to miss it. Resonance does not belong on a checklist, but if you don’t make note of it, you miss it. And you’ve missed something you should have come for all along. You’ve missed your opportunity to catch and to articulate the essence of the place in details, in tiny waves that spin the head and leave a sense nothing short of small wonder.

Like any good patisserie or cafe, this one had run out of croissants early that morning. Once you get your first taste, you’ll know why. It’s bad for me, it’s addictive, it’s drug-like. I don’t care. For joy, I’m going to bathe in it for a short while. I missed my butter and flaky layers for the moment, but I knew it would yet be delivered.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Strasbourg Cathedral, a building clearly constructed to make those in its shadow feel small.

For lunch, we ducked into a bistrot decorated in local bits and bobs, ochre walls, bright red chairs. It featured a hand-written (more like scribbled) sign in the window showcasing that day’s lunch menu, one that was reasonably priced.

In La Choucrouterie (connected to Théâtre de la Chouc’routerie), we ordered the daily specials — German blood sausages (don’t judge until you’ve tried it), shallot gravy, scalloped potatoes (the latter two I now associate with France more than ever) and delightfully fresh apple sauce. German at the heart, finished by France. Strasbourg.

Our fish pasta, while abundant with fish, wasn’t amazing, but when finished with a dose of the Alsatian Pinto Gris recommended by the waitress, I couldn’t find a lot of fault. I felt it. I couldn’t bring myself to do dessert, even for the mere 1€ extra. I felt a bit guilty.

But the real star of the meal was what we found on our plates when we finished our food. A French sense of bawdy humor polished with a bit of German-inspired light obscenity. We could not make this up if we tried.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, Strasbourg
A surprise at the end of our meal at La Choucrouterie.

Finding Place in a Local Bakery

The following morning we went looking for breakfast, but the bakery on our street was closed. Where would we get our morning croissants?

In France a quest and question of utmost importance that borders on panic.

We poked around a corner through an alleyway, past some colorful Strasbourgian homes whose windows were thrown open, duvets and pillows folded over the sills, spilling out to air.

Air the bedding, this is Europe. This was not on the itinerary.

Only one of the two bakeries on the street was open. Inside it was simple, delightful. Mille Feuille. A million leaves. Croissants, pains au chocolat, pear and chocolate stuffed. Claw-like baked goods pumped with cream, another with nutella. The smell of butter and nuts, apples and fruit simmered in the upper airwaves.

The bread, beautifully crusted and dusted stood at attention. Customers, one after another, came and went. Hands empty in, hands full on the way out. Maybe to buy a coffee, but always for a baguette. Maybe one of the special baguettes shaped like a bird of paradise.

Now this was a simple neighborhood bakery, one that isn’t in any travel or foodie guidebooks. It’s not a place like Paul with it’s dazzlingly fancy spotless windows and design that you see in malls and contrived on shopping boulevards the world over. I have no problem with it. No, this one was just a local, family-run boulangerie.

As I looked around, the woman who ran the bakery was probably in her 50s. Although she maintained a bright disposition and was very friendly, she moved quickly and was dusted from work, giving you the sense that she’d hardly had a break. The kitchen and ovens were going full bore, for every time the pains au chocolat ran out, she’d pull a few more from a space behind the door, as if mysteriously. Baked goods emerging from a place of never-ending joy.

I wonder when this woman retires, to whom she’ll pass the baking torch. And I wonder as we lose our sense of the art of creating baked things and food and all that we take for granted, who will make the croissants the next time we visit.

We emerged with six pastries (I’m so glad we took the final pear and chocolate croissant, for all its many calories it made my day) and a coffee for €7.50.**

I hope, artisanal or not, we continue to know how to work hard to create things of simple beauty like this.


We departed Strasbourg with a sense that even without an itinerary, we didn’t miss a beat. We found the essence of the place, this French town on the German border, in the details.

What are the moments and details that help you grasp the essence of a place?

**Author’s note on gluttony: Those six pastries above were not only for the two of us, but to be shared between us and two other friends in our apartment.


Strasbourg Travel Tips

Strasbourg Food and Restaurants

Boulangerie Artisanale JF, 14 rue Finkwiller, Strasbourg: Our favorite local bakery mentioned above. In a quiet neighborhood near La Petite France.

La Choucrouterie Restaurant, 20 rue St-Louis, Strasbourg: Fun restaurant serving Alsatian food that is packed at lunch and dinner with locals. Lots of fun — and funky — quasi-pornographic art hanging on the walls. Lunch menu changes daily – good value, reasonably priced (around €8).

Le Bistrot du Boulanger, 42 rue de Zurich, Strasbourg: For high quality classical French food in a relaxed setting, it would be hard to beat this place (kudos to our friend, Kathleen, for finding it). We had a wonderful meal here in the evening of magret de canard flambé set ablaze at the table with Alsatian whiskey (watch your eyebrows and hair!) that we paired with a Vacqueyras, and fish served with creamy polenta and a semi-dried tomato coulis that we paired with a Viognier. The coulant tout chocolat is deadly. Not cheap, but very high value, the menu changes regularly. Note: This restaurant also offers a reasonably priced lunch menu, from €9-€15 Euros.

Magret de Canard Flambé - Strasbourg, France
Duck on fire!! Magret de canard flambé at Le Bistrot du Boulanger.

La Corde à Linge Restaurant, 2, place Benjamin Zix, La Petite France, Strasbourg: A popular restaurant in La Petite France with a solid menu of Alsatian, French and Continental fare. For dinner, be sure to make a reservation. Portions are large, so consider sharing one main dish between two people or ordering starters. Audrey and I enjoyed a nicely prepared steak tartare (yes, that’s raw meat) and we heard rumors that the spätzle was also quite good.

Maison Kamerzell, 16 Place de la Cathédrale, Strasbourg: We strolled by Maison Kammerzell early in our visit and dismissed it as a touristy restaurant given its location and decor. But then we met François, a Strasbourg local we struck up a conversation with at the wine salon insisted we go for the two-for-one special choucroute featuring three types of fish draped over a bed of sauerkraut. Note: this special is offered from January to April every year. How could we resist? For other Alsatian, we might recommend someplace lower profile and more personal.

Strasbourg Markets

Markets take place across Strasbourg throughout the week (take a look here for a listing). We enjoyed the Saturday market that was one part flea market on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons and another part fresh market on Rue de la Douane near the L’Ill river. Lots of fresh produce, friendly vendors, some tasty nibbles. What’s not to like?

Saturday Market in Strasbourg, France
Saturday Market along Rue de la Doune, Strasbourg.

Where to Stay in Strasbourg
We don’t claim extensive knowledge of Strasbourg and its neighborhoods. However, we enjoyed the location of our apartment rental on Rue des Glacières, just across the river from La Petite France and the center of town. It was a quiet, local, and not far from the action. When you’re seeking Strasbourg accommodation, consider this area.

Getting to/from Strasbourg
Direct flights to Strasbourg airport were pricy when we searched, so we flew instead into nearby Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport as it was quite a bit cheaper (e.g., €75 round trip on EasyJet from Berlin). From the airport, hop a local bus (€2.50) to St. Louis railway station. From there, it’s about an hour by train to Strasbourg (€22.50). Trains leave around every 30 minutes in the morning and evening.

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