Five Priceless Possessions for Traveling like a Local

 

Last month, my family and I took a long-awaited and highly-anticipated journey to Ethiopia, visiting Addis Ababa, Harar, and Negash.  While we were riding high on the hype of an enriching historical journey, we had to come to terms with the poverty we would face in a developing country.  The tourism industry is booming in Ethiopia and there is a conscientious effort to move beyond the image of a starving, famine-stricken country, towards a prosperous and worldly society.  As with progress in most developing countries, change comes with a cost and you more than likely will feel it in your own pocket.  In spite of the rising cost of living and travel, these are five invaluable allies that helped us move through the country  “with the people”.

 
1. Useful Information
While knowing the population of a city or historical facts are useful, save some time for researching what’s going to count in your day-to-day travels.  Admission fees, taxi fares, and tipping customs can be extremely variable in some parts of the world.  If you’re not careful, you can be paying double, triple, or quadruple of what’s appropriate.  Be prepared to talk down prices that are negotiable and refer to the great bartering tips shared by others.  If you can talk numbers in the local language, peppered with the lingo and mannerisms of seasoned locals, then you have yet another advantage in securing a reasonable price for whatever you’re pursuing.
2. Loose Change
Keeping small bills in your wallet is useful for making donations to charities or individuals, as well as hand-to-hand business transactions in your travels.  We lost a few bucks here and there after giving a large currency note to pay a tour guide or a guesthouse and not receiving any change.  Save the big bills for large establishments and fixed fare transportation, where you’re more likely to have your change returned. Keep the small bills handy for everything else.
Depending on how much cash you feel comfortable carrying, try to avoid using your debit or credit card internationally.  More than likely you’ll be paying transaction fees on both ends, so travel with large currency bills (dollars, euros, etc.) and exchange them after exiting the airport.  Airports are notorious for pitiful exchange rates, so consider using a bank or other exchange services.
Side Note:  Don’t forget to inform your home bank about your travels so they don’t assume your account is being used fraudulently!
3. Local Connections
Use your common interests to connect with others.  Tap into clubs, groups, and societies, where you can make authentic connections on topics other than tourism and make plans to connect while you’re in town.  When researching vegan travel tips, we came across the Ethiopian Vegan Association and connected with Ethiopians who had a common interest and were keen to answer our inquiries and give us travel advice, without a fee.  One member became more than just our unofficial guide in Addis Ababa but has become a true friend.  He weaved us through the capital on a shoestring budget, with the added benefit of seeing how others live, work, and move through the bustling city.  We also found great places for delicious local food that were way off the beaten path and even further from the pages of a guidebook.
 

4. Good Health

After touring a good bit of Addis Ababa carrying my toddler daughter in a sling, I was grateful for being in good shape.  Long walks and cramped minibuses were bearable and we spent about a tenth of what it would cost to ride taxis all through town.  Similarly, we took an entertaining long distance bus which was also about a tenth of the domestic flight cost.  Being able to carry your own bags, walk comfortably, and withstand a long bus or train ride can save you the expense of private transport, tipping bellboys, and door-to-door service for your entire journey.  A habit of daily walking and exercise is not only great preparation for travel but great for healthy living in general.

5. Good Attitude
Last-minute delays, cancellations, and changes to your itinerary can be frustrating.  If you can breathe through the irritation, you’ll more than likely find a helpful hand, a kind word, or a brilliant back-up plan to keep your itinerary moving smoothly, in spite of the detour.  The angry, belligerent tourist may not be able to move beyond their disappointment, making rash decisions that spoil a good trip for everyone.  However, the patient, flexible tourist can “go with the flow”, embrace their circumstances, and ride the waves of whatever travel brings their way.  Instead of being fixated on what you “missed” and trying to buy it back at all costs, you may find a Plan B that is equally (if not, more) satisfying at a lower cost.  We had our hearts set on visiting a town that sounded great online but, to Ethiopians, was not as spectacular as we thought.  We saved some time and money by changing our plans and it was the best decision we could’ve made.  Be open to the possibilities and travel safely!
 
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.
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Finding Organic Produce Abroad

Produce in Sana’a, Yemen

Whether herbivore or omnivore, most would agree that consuming fresh produce is essential to good health.  In Western countries, we find small sticker labels on produce to distinguish conventional from organic, but how do you know the difference in the rest of the world?  Are the “dirty dozen”and “clean fifteen” lists relevant outside of the United States?  Because fresh fruits and vegetables make up the majority of our diet, this issue is critical for us.  We don’t want pesticides circulating in our family’s bloodstreams, so here’s our strategy for securing organic (or near organic) produce when traveling abroad.

Research
Before you touch ground read up about agriculture in your new destination.  There are some countries that have made legal commitments to only grow organic, non-genetically modified produce, while other countries do the same because they cannot afford otherwise.  Take Ethiopia as an example.  When we arrived, a fellow vegan informed us that all of Ethiopia’s produce is organic.  Why?  Because farmers cannot afford to purchase the herbicides and pesticides made popular by corporatized farm factories in the developed world.  Even if we doubted his assertion, all of the food we ate had a rich, sweetness to it, unlike the flavorless conventional counterparts I grew up eating in New York City.

Vegan Platter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Connect
Supporting local farmers is not only good for the local economy but also your health.  Whether organized farmer’s markets, traditional markets, or a friendly farmer in the neighborhood, all are great options for knowing the source of your food, allowing you to eat in good confidence.  While living in Algeria, I had a memorable experience visiting a co-worker’s family farm in the outskirts of Algiers in Sidi Abdullah.  After three bus rides to reach her home, each subsequent bus became smaller and the air progressively became clearer.  Walking across the open fields, I inhaled crisp, clean air and the occasional scent of livestock.  After meeting her family and eating a meal prepared from their very own harvest, we walked around their land, identifying vegetable crops and local herbs along with their medicinal purposes.  Knowing the hands behind the labor that farming requires not only connects you to the land but the people inhabiting it.
Observe
Conformity is not cool, not even for fruits and veggies.  Organically grown produce has character and variety and should not appear homogenous.  Look for varied sizes, shades, and shapes in your produce.  Though I usually ask a merchant if their produce is local or imported, I often know the answer based on their appearance.  Use your senses by smelling the sweetness of tree-ripened fruits, feeling the smooth texture of your vegetables, and seeing small holes in your leafy greens, made by ladybugs savoring their meal before it becomes yours.  In Yemen, I vividly remember buying okra, cutting one open and finding a little worm inside.  Initially, I was disturbed but came to realize that if this bug can safely eat it, so can I.

Lettuce in Nizwa, Oman

Taste
When the abovementioned efforts elude you, it’s time to be your own scientist and trust your taste buds.  While in Algeria, our former director explained that some of the agricultural development agreements being forged in the country stipulated the use of herbicides and pesticides, which many farmers were unaccustomed to and some were using improperly without adequate training.  She warned us to be mindful of the produce we purchase and we heeded her advice diligently.  In most cases, we enjoyed the produce we bought, preferring the unattractive yet tasty local fruits over the uniformly shiny, waxy imports.  However, on several occasions our locally sourced beets had a distinct synthetic aftertaste, much like medicine, and we thought it best to leave them alone.

Pomegranates in Sana’a, Yemen

Grow
If all other efforts prove to be fruitless, it’s time to take matters into your own hand, on your own land.  Raised garden beds, potted plants, or upcycled water jugs are all great options for growing your own produce.  In the middle of Sana’a, Yemen, my Arabic teacher had a rooftop garden where he grew flowers, strawberries, and tomatoes in recycled tin cans and paint buckets.  Whether outdoors or indoors, even the palest shade of green thumbs can start growing low maintenance plants like peppermint, aloe vera, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers.  And, if you don’t have earth of your own to till, you can practice guerilla gardening or urban reclamation, by finding a vacant lot of public space and building your own garden.  In some countries, cultivating formerly barren land would be a welcomed act of beauty and kindness.  Establishing community gardens can even be a means of conflict resolution and peacemaking.  The possibilities are endless.
Important Note:  No matter how organic your produce may be, bacterial contamination is a possibility in many developing countries.  Wash your produce with safe potable water and peel the skin or have it peeled in your presence.  Eat your veggies with wisdom and gratitude!
This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.

Vegan Activism in Addis Ababa

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At the forefront of the animal rights movement in Ethiopia, you’ll find a spirited activist leading the way.  Mesfin Hailemariam is introducing veganism to his homeland, one person and pamphlet at a time.  Between establishing vegan organizations, training farmers in vegan organic agriculture, and teaching children that animals are their friends, we were surprised that he found the time to show us around Addis Ababa.  On our last day in the city, we sat with Mesfin to hear his story, insights, and vision for Ethiopia.

What sparked your interest in veganism?

My love for animals and my principle to include all non-human animals within our moral circle.  I’m more of an ethical vegan and my journey to being vegan started in the weirdest way.  I’ve loved animals from childhood.  As a kid, I rescued cats, birds, wild dogs, snakes- everyone knew I loved animals.  In college, I studied animal agriculture and was brainwashed to tolerate the torture of animals as a part of our culture.  I wanted to pursue a post-graduate degree and another undergraduate course in wildlife conservation but needed a scholarship, so I tried animal rights organizations and found people who worked for animal rights.  I didn’t find a scholarship but I made contact with groups who loved animals so much that they didn’t eat them.  So, I renounced my education and tried to counteract it by discouraging the study and use of animal agriculture.

Is there a word for vegan in Amharic?

You cannot translate the word individually but there’s a more Christian word yetsom which translates to mean “fasting.”  It’s difficult to find a word to describe plant-based food otherwise. Yetsom, however, only describes the dietary phase of veganism and does not necessarily exclude honey and sometimes fish, whereas veganism is more like a way of living. Veganism is best defined in Amharic in its own script as “ከእንስሳት ተወጽኦ ዉጪ የሆነ ኑሮ”, which says in plain translation “a way of living that excludes all animal products”.

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In the United States, Ethiopian cuisine is considered vegan-friendly.  Is Ethiopia vegan-friendly?

It can be made vegan-friendly.  We have very good choices of vegan food and very bad choices of non-vegan food like kitfo which is raw beef with a lot of butter.  In Ethiopia, we don’t eat much cheese but moreso milk and milk products.  We love our fruits and vegetables and have great vegan options.

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Can you tell us about your involvement with the Ethiopian Vegan Association (EVA)? 

I’m one of the guys who co-founded EVA.  We were a handful of vegans inspired by myself and some American vegans at the time.  We are only about two active vegans now with three or four others spreading the word about veganism.  Now, I’m working more independently in activism by distributing pamphlets and promoting vegan organic farming without the use of manure.  We also have Animal’s Friends clubs in some elementary schools.  My friend Faye writes books for children and we get help from foreign vegan groups to print books and run club activities.  We try to engage and educate everyone.  In the future, we hope to do more speeches, show documentaries on veganism and do more.  I’m also responsible for Food not Bombs in Ethiopia but I can’t do it alone. I am also directly involved in YVE (Young Volunteers for Environment)-Ethiopia: A pan-African environmental advocacy group.

What obstacles do you face as a vegan activist?

People don’t know about veganism and that is the big problem.  People have never heard of it and don’t want to consider animals as their friends.  People find it strange here.  In the West, people know what veganism means and know about animal rights.  Here, the biggest problem is opposition from religious groups.  You have to be the bravest of people to try and debate on spiritual terms being in a religious country with both Christians and Muslims.  Sometimes, people may consider you to be a parrot of Western society, which is totally ridiculous.  Even a parrot for love is good.

What is your vision for veganism in Ethiopia?

I always like to envision good things.  I want to see a prosperous vegan society, especially in terms of animal rights.  Animal abuse should never be justified.  Animal rights should be the baseline.  Veganism is the least you can do; we should work towards a prosperous animal and human society.  I’m thinking of animal reserves.  I see myself working in conservation.  I want to spend some part of my life involved in world and domestic animal rights and protecting the environment.  My biggest passion is working in conservation.