One of the more appreciable aspects of life in Ethiopia, as compared to the United States, is the freedom from overwhelming commercialism and “marketing” in seemingly all spheres of life. Advertising circulars, restaurants that decorate their walls with images of their own dishes and special promotions, sales catalogs, free samples, and the like are exceedingly rare here. It makes life nicer, more natural, if you like.
That said, I must confess to my own enjoyment, coveting even, of a good product. I became somewhat of a gear-head (at least in the realms of outdoor/camping/hiking equipment, biking accessories, and products aimed at audiophiles) a while back. As a volunteer one of the common communication streams revolves around new volunteers and their requests for information, for recommendations: What do I need, What should I bring?
With these points in mind, I’ve been reflecting back on the nearly two years that I’ve been living in Ethiopia on a volunteer’s budget. I came with a rolling suitcase full of clothing and supplies, plus a small duffel bag full of some more. After setting in at my site in the Amhara highlands, I supplemented these original possessions with some online orders from the US. After that I had a couple of foreign trips that allowed me to fill in the gaps. In this entry I’ll reflect on my collection and present 14 of the top vote-getters (voted on by me, myself, and I) with short a blurb to back up each selection.
- Adidas sandals
I picked these up on sale at a JC Penny’s in a mall in Coralville, Iowa. In Ethiopia you need something like this to use as shower shoes, if not house or compound shoes. Lucky volunteers like me also have the occasional opportunity to avail of pool shoes. These are supposedly quick-dry, which seems somewhat accurate. The surprise is how comfortable they are, and how long they’ve lasted, something on the order of 685 days now … and still going strong.
- Eagle Creek No Matter What Duffel
It has a lot bigger carrying capacity than it looks like it would, it has interlocking zippers to accommodate travel locks, a handy sleeve that lets it ride on top of a wheeled suitcase without falling off, and most importantly, it’s tough as nails. This utilitarian gem came over on the plane with me and has been on countless bus rides since, and has visited way more Ethiopian hotels than your average backpacker.
- Patagonia Continental Pants
I bought these in – what – 2005? 2007? Something like that. At a recent conference a fellow volunteer told me they looked brand new. Quick-dry and sharp enough looking, if I had to have only one pair of pants, I guess it would be this one. They’re suitable for work, travel, hiking, lounging – you name it. Too bad Patagonia no longer makes them.
- Patagonia El Ray Shirt
Again: quick-dry, lightweight, versatile. Two things about Ethiopia come into play here: 1) In the rainy season, you’ll get wet. Hence you’ll appreciate anything that dries quickly and easily. 2) You’ll be washing your own clothes by hand and hanging them to dry. A third point is the confluence of the first two: in the rainy season, it will be hard to hang-dry clothes. Why? Because it’s always raining outside. You can only hang things out in short intervals. That’s what makes quick-dry clothing so essential.
- Sennheiser earphones
Not as great sound quality as the Shure e3’s that I had before, but so far more durable (and cheaper). Plus the sound quality is plenty good. There are a couple of downsides (the rubberized cord seems almost intentionally designed to tangle up in itself) but nothing to seriously mar the great utility of these (sorry, not sure of the model) ultralight sound machines that work just as well for workouts and yoga as everyday time wasting on the laptop.. ipod sold separately.
- Promate Computer Speakers
I bought these right after swearing in and prior to heading out to my new site. They were a little expensive – maybe 800 birr – at The Apple Store in Addis. What a great purchase, though: the sound quality is great, they charge via a USB connection to the laptop, and they are very portable as they fit together into an interlocking sphere. These have kept up well through many trainings, lessons, workouts, and down days. When I left the US, I was under the misapprehension that I wouldn’t need or wouldn’t use something like this in Ethiopia. I was wrong.
- Newfeel minimalist backpack
OK, so I’ve had this for less than a year, but what a score. I nabbed this at a sporting goods store in Barcelona for only four Euros, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. Perfect for taking along empty and then filling at the market, souk, or grocery store, it weighs nothing, stuffs up into its own pocket-sized pouch, and is therefore of perfect utility. I remember considering buying something similar at the Patagonia store for – what – 60 or 70 dollars, before I left the states. This does the job perfectly well.
- Prana Privet Zip Hoodie
Sometimes you don’t want quick-dry. Sometimes you don’t want polyester. You just want something comfotable, something cotton. If you’re in the highlands, you want that something to be warm. I ordered this on sale, online, and it’s been my go-to overlayer (providing it’s not raining out) ever since. Great for lounging in or out of doors.
- Patagonia Pima Cotton Shirt
Soft and light organic cotton with a bit of style. I brought two of these over with me and they are still going strong after way too many wearings and washings. Great for work or semi-formal occasions.
- Prana Wister Pant
Another online purchase, these bridge the gap between dress and casual. You can give a training in them one day and go out for pizza in them the next night (if your town has pizza, the odds of which, let’s face it, are not in your favor. Comfortable and stylish, ready for anything these pants are.
- Naot Dome shoes
I’ve been wearing these on an almost daily basis for over two years now, and, though worse for wear, they’re still holding up like champs. Real leather in a relaxed style with a generous toe box, these are probably the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.
- Black Diamond Mini-Lantern
There are a lot of power outages in Ethiopia, especially in the rainy season. They can come on at any time, and last for minutes or hours or even days. This is a super handy, lightweight, and compact lantern that’s plenty bright and has saved me many times, going way back to my homestay training period. It telescopes out for use and collapses back down for transport and storage. This needs to be paired with rechargeable batteries to be worthwhile though; otherwise you’ll burn through the regular ones, which is expensive. And so far know one I know has figured out a good, safe, eco-friendly way to dispose of regular batteries here.
- Patagonia Araveto Jacket
The Beast. This fleece has gotten me through the best of times and the worst of times, especially those cold nights at 8,000 feet and above. When you think of Africa, you don’t think about shivering. Think again. It must be said that after heavy use the zipper began to misfire; it’s still finicky now, but I plan to take this in to the shop when I’m back in the US next fall and get it repaired or replaced for free.
- Melitta Pour-Ever Coffee Maker
Some go gaga over a French Press, but I’ll take this little plastic contraption any day. Why? It weighs nothing, is virtually indestructible, incredibly simple to use, and – most importantly – brews better coffee. The one catch is that you need to keep up your supply of filters, either through care packages or some judicious (and a tad expensive) shopping in Addis. Or, if you’re really in need, I’ll mail you some.
Not Pictured/Optional Essentials
Above was simply as list of some of the items that have served me the best during my service here; it’s not a “must-bring” list. Some other items not mentioned that are quite useful include an affordable silk sleeping sack, small (kayaking) dry bag, compact sleeping bag, etc., etc. Other items not mentioned I would consider essentials, such as a good raincoat and some rugged shoes (bulky trail runners or boots; waterproof ones are a good idea, although I did fine with leather hiking shoes with soles thick enough that they kept me up out of the muck), good sunglasses, compact binoculars, etc. A hiking towel was also quite useful during homestay. Yes, and let’s not forget a good water bottle and a nice, insulated metal bottle for hot beverages. The list could go on an on. For me it’s basically a subset and an extension of my usual hiking gear. Think quick-dry, lightweight, versatile, and comfortable.