Ethiopian Airlines has a ton of daily internal flights that are quite affordable if you are an Ethiopian resident OR if you are a foreigner who entered Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines (which we did). We hadn’t taken advantage of this option yet, so last weekend we decided to take a quick trip to Harar. We worked most of a Thursday and then boarded a 4pm flight out of Addis Ababa and arrived in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, before 5.
As we stepped off the plane onto the roll-up staircase, the warm, humid air enveloped us like a hug – welcoming and friendly in contrast with the cold, smoggy air of high-altitude Addis during their “winter.”
We wandered out of the tiny airport and down the street towards town, following the small crowd of people who got off our plane, and eventually found a cluster of taxis parked nearby. The drivers lounged in their vehicles and languidly offered to take us to our hotel for a hugely inflated price.
We stayed in this hotel for about $20/night – the pool was amazing!
The next morning, we got up and started making our way to Harar. We had heard that we could travel there in an hour or so by public transportation, so we got a bajaj (a small rickshaw-style taxi) from our hotel to the bus area. After some wandering and asking of directions from strangers, we found our way to the minibus park, where the sleepy atmosphere switched abruptly to dozens of young men shouting destination names at us and pulling forcefully at our arms to direct us to one place or another.
Once they figured out that we didn’t want to hire a private car, but were determined to go by public taxi, at the cost of $1, there was a lot less commotion. We climbed into the back row of a mostly full minibus (which seats about 16 people) and immediately regretted not wearing cooler clothing as we waited for it to start moving, sweating profusely.
We had heard that Harar people were very friendly, and the minibus ride seemed to confirm this. We sat next to two young men who made a valiant effort to talk with us despite very limited shared language. The other people in the taxi stole glances at us with what seemed to be friendly amusement and curiosity as we climbed the gentle rolling hills of the area. We drove through small towns of stone houses with corrugated iron roofs, livestock and children wandering through the corridors between the houses and chilies laid out to dry on sections of the shoulder.
The car stopped frequently to let people on and off of the minibus, and it was a beautiful opportunity to glimpse a slice of rural Ethiopian life.
Harar itself was a much bigger city than we expected. It’s called the city of peace because of the legend in Islam that when the Prophet Muhammad was exiled, he sought refuge in Harar and people welcomed him even though they were a majority Christian town. It is considered the 4th most important city in Islam.
It reminded me a lot of Morocco, in that it has two main parts – the new and old cities. The old city is enclosed within a stone wall, in the style of Moroccan medinas, and the new city is the part that sprawls outside of those walls. A lot of the old city is residential, with traditional Ethiopian houses, many of which are painted in vibrant colors, and narrow alleys weaving between them. It even smelled like Morocco – something like a mix of nice soap, tea, and spices wafting through stone alleyways.
We spent most of our time wandering around the small alleys, searching for and then eating recommended food items, and saying hi to small children and old people who greeted us everywhere we went with cries of “ferenj-o!” and wanted to shake hands. (In Addis, we’re used to the word ferenj being used to refer to foreigners, but we were enamored with the addition of the “o” to the end of the word in Harar.)
We met some fascinating people in Harar, including a woman who read our fortunes from coffee cups. We heard about her from a guy we met at a café, and he helped us to procure the necessary materials to use her services, including coffee, incense, and khat (the leaf in the foreground of the picture below, which grows in the area and is a stimulant used by a lot of people in the area).
Fortune teller in Harar preparing to tell us about our futures
We also attended a ritual hyena feeding that has been happening in Harar for decades, which was fascinating (I first learned about this on an episode of the Netflix show, Our Planet, which I highly recommend).
In a lot of Africa, hyenas are feared animals that can attack livestock or even people, but in Harar, the community has forged a relationship with the hyenas that is mutually beneficial. Every night, butchers give the hyena man piles of bones, skins, and other parts of the animal that can’t be used, and the hyenas are treated to dinner just outside of the city. In return, they hyenas don’t attack the Hararis’ livestock or children, and people don’t fear them.
We sat outside the hyena man’s home with about a dozen other people, mostly Ethiopians, who had come to see the feeding. The current hyena man is the son of the original hyena man, who is now old and passing on the responsibility to his son.
It was fascinating to see how comfortable he was with the hyenas as he fed them with a short stick or even by hand. All I really knew about hyenas prior to this game from The Lion King, but in person (in this and scared context) they were surprisingly cute animals. At any rate it was a unique experience and our visit to Harar was a lovely break from Addis.