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This subject has been covered by many others and a common message seems to run through the discussions that ensue. While it might be tempting to show pity on those who approach us pleading for a dollar to feed them and their family, by giving money we are encouraging the act of begging and perpetuating a cycle of dependence on handouts from passing tourists.
But walking past a person asking us for help leave most of us feeling guilty in some way. Guilty for having so much more, guilty for not being able to look them in the eye, guilty for saying no. Guilt alone is not a reason to give of course. Yet are there some circumstances where the act of giving to a beggar is justified? Where the long-term downsides of giving should be disregarded for the greater immediate need of that individual?
Here are five simple examples that many of us will have come across. Who would you give your change to? Who would you decline?
Person 1: the Cambodian war veteran who lost both his legs to a landmine explosion. Now he sits at the entrance to the craft market begging for change from passing tourists.
Person 2: the Indian woman with a young baby slung across her chest. She shuffles between cars at the busy Delhi intersection, palm outstretched and wearing a mournful look of despair.
Person 3: the Roma lady with three young children hanging to her skirt who approaches you for money while you are sipping a coffee in a Venice cafe.
Person 4: the young man who suddenly appears as you stop your rental car in the small South African town for a spot of lunch. He asks for a few rand to 'watch the car'.
Person 5: the young girl on the London street, asking politely for some spare change as you enter the underground station.
Would you adopt the same approach for each of these situations? Or does the way that we handle beggars depend on our own perceptions of their need, and on how we think they will use the money we give them?
"See the world on $10 a day"
"Travel for free"
"How to eat for under $1 a day"
Headlines like these are very alluring to many young travellers, eager to see the world and not prepared to let a lack of financial resources stop them in their mission. Millions of people head off each year to explore the world excited to see and experience all that they can while keeping one eye firmly on their finances.
I was speaking at a local business forum recently and brought up the topic of ethical travel. "How can travel be ethical?" I was asked. The argument went that every time we choose to explore another part of the world we are burning yet more carbon, both in our journey itself and in the consumption that is involved in every aspect of our trip. And what for? For us to get our kicks from seeing another place? Who is actually going to benefit from our wanderings?
"Travel enables us to see and share our cultures with others" I said. I argued that by experiencing how others live, their beliefs, their ideologies and their customs, people can develop a greater tolerance for others, a great acceptance for those who are different to them. The lesson that we are all bound by a common humanity, a wish to be happy and a desire to do good to others.
"Rubbish" was the sharp retort. Most people go to another country and look for their own comforts. Their own food, their own people, their own music. They just want to live a more exotic version of their own lives for a little while under a different sky. There's precious little exchange of culture going on here.
"But think of the money" I retorted. When we travel we spend money in local hotels and guest houses. We eat at humble eateries and travel on rickety buses and boats. All of these dollars go into the local economy, and some of it filters through to help provide an income for the communities we visit.
"Nonsense" was the answer I got back. Most young people pride themselves on how little their travels will cost. Those in motorhomes and caravans who bring everything wherever they go and leave having contributed little more than their human waste. Backpackers on the other hand often employ the most desperate measures to avoid spending money and then plead poverty to those around them, even when the pocket money they received as a teenager often far exceeds a teacher's salary in their host country.
And here is where I turn to others for help in this argument. If we are travelling in extreme frugality, are we making as much of a positive difference as we can to those who we impact along the way? And if we compound this by sticking to our own comfort zones and hanging out only with other backpackers, how do we make sure that our travels have a meaning beyond the burning of yet more carbon?
North Ethiopia is studded with mountains. In a rough triangle forged by Gonder, Lalibella and Axsum lies a barren mountain range that has played host to kings, bandits, monks and freedom fighters.
The Simien Mountains National Park sits at its Southern edge and offers the most dramatic views and the loftiest peaks. Throughout the park runs a ridge trail that probably offers the greatest view to km ratio in the world. Through five days trekking we rarely strayed out of view of the terrifying 1000m drops to the lowlands below - Lowlands is a relative concept in Northern Ethiopia. The Simien Mountain National Park sits at an altitude between 3000 and 4500m, and the lowlands below are at an alpine 2000m.
The photographs below were captured during the dry season, if you visit in Sep - November after the rains, you can expect crisp greens and haze free views. The incredible wildlife is a feature year-round.
And now, I need at least three showers to wash off the dust...
The first of many incredible views.
Sunset at Sankaber Camp
We took coffee in Geech village, expecting the usual tourist exploitative photo opportunity we were amazed to be able to simply sit, drink coffee and attempt to communicate with the lovely family living in this simple hut. the family slept in the hut on a platform above their livestock, It didn't feel like anything had changed in over 500 years.
Our scout Adem, a friendly smile, an incredible story and a very old rifle!
One of many incredible sunsets
The birdlife is incredible, eagles, vultures and ravens soar over the peaks. this is a tawny eagle that watched over Geech Camp.
Gelada Baboons are unique to Ethiopia and common in the park.
A Wallia Ibex. Unique to the Ethiopian highlands. This Ibex strolled unperturbed through the final campsite at Cheneck. (the trail we took follows the ridge in the background)
At the peak of Mount Buahit at 4,437m
Few people have heard of Belmopan. In fact, ask most folk to name the capital of Belize and the chances are that they will say Belize City. There is an irony here in that if Belize City was indeed the capital of the country (as it was for many years) it would probably win the title of Ugliest Capital in the World without question, not so much for its aesthetic qualities (it does have some nice buildings) but for the rough and seedy welcome that anyone who has been there will be familiar with (as this post by Aygenlina in her Bacon is Magic blog illustrates).
No, Belize's modern capital was created in the 1960s when Belize City was hit by one too many hurricanes. Being a small country with a small population, a purpose-built capital was never going to be a grand one. But Belmopan's biggest tragedy was that it was dreamt up and built during the darkest, most unimaginative and architecturally inept period in building design. As a result it's grey concrete buildings resemble a council estate in a mining village in south Wales more than they do a modern capital city.
It is truly drab, with the green spaces between the buildings the only saving grace. Even the Belize Tourist Office can't summon up any enthusiasm for its capital, with its most glowing endorsement being "what Belmopan lacks in size, it makes up for in strategic location". Wow. It's on the crossroads of two of the country's main roads.
But Belmopan is by no means alone. In recent years other countries have relocated their capitals and created purpose built administrative centres, often miles from anywhere. This excellent description of Burmese capital Naypyidaw by Lonely Planet's Robert Reid leaves the reader in no doubt that a visit to the city will probably leave the traveller scratching their head and asking 'why?' - thankfully, no-one would be there to see your look of bemusement.
Another capital that might challenge for this title is Ashgabat, the main city of Turkmenistan. Not that it's run-down or full of grey inconspicuous concrete. In fact it's quite the opposite. Ashgabat is perhaps one of the most ostentatious capitals in one of the world's poorest and most repressed states. Gold, marble and the ever-present image of their great leader can be found in ever corner of the capital. Can a city be described as chav? Perhaps Ashgabat stakes a claim to this dubious accolade. This blog by KF and Glen provides a first hand account of a stay in the city here.
What is the ugliest capital you've managed to visit? Have you arrived at a capital and it's been so ugly you've promptly got the next bus out? Let us know where you would nominate for this prestigious title!
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The view arriving in Ethiopia coming off the airplane is text book Africa, grass savannah broken up by hazy mountains in the distance, but Addis feels anything but African. Addis the de facto the diplomatic capital of Africa and is a surprisingly calm place to wonder around.
The big draws in Addis are the museums, with the highlight being Lucy, the oldest and most complete hominid found. Unfortunately she is on loan to the US at the moment so you will have to make do with a replica model and very good explanation of the the evolutionary process!
Coffee is alleged to originate in Ethiopia and whilst I'm not really a coffee buff, I can assure you I've never tasted better coffee than in Ethiopia.
The Central mercado in Addis is the largest in Africa. Unfortunately it isn't quite what it used to be, as much is undergoing modernisation. Still, you can pick up souvenirs, AK47s, cows and trucks if you know where to look (not all in the same shop I hasten to add).
Injurra, the typical food of Ethiopia is a slightly sour pancake that serves as plate, spoon and accompaniment to most meals in Ethiopia. It is served here with a variety of vegetable stews.