Return to Ethiopia: The Tao of Teddy
“Like we always say: you have the watch in the West…and we have the time.” – The Tao of Teddy
You have your two-bit tour guides. Then you have your average, run-of-the-mill travel guide. Sure, they know their stuff, but they do it by rote – and they don’t customize the experience to the group they’re traveling with. Some hold themselves apart from their groups, choosing not to interact, not to interfere, not to get too close.
Then you have the rarest breed of all – the fearless ones who enjoy getting their hands dirty. The ones who reach deep into the core of your tribe of travellers, and pull the very best out of each of you. The ones who see all, know all. The ones who are fully in command at all times, but know when to step aside and let you take the reigns because it will help you grow and enhance your experience.
Teddy Berhanu – our chief, our advisor, our problem-solver, our friend – is such a guide. We generally don’t use guides when we travel. Our tribe prefers to author our own experiences, and we keep our itineraries loose. The best experiences are found when you aren’t looking for them.
But Ethiopia is a difficult country to navigate without guides, so when we planned our first journey through the Omo Valley in 2014, we did our research. We stayed away from the large tour groups – we only wanted to travel with our tribe, and we wanted as much as possible to live like locals. Our research led us to Teddy and Acacia Tours.
“I am the backup camera in this truck. An organic one.” – The Tao of Teddy
I’ve documented much of our previous journey on this blog, but I didn’t write about our adventures in the Omo, or about Teddy and his crew – even though they’ve become family to us. I’ve come to realize that it’s because we needed to keep Teddy to ourselves for a couple of years – the experience was that transformative, and that personal. But now, with our second journey to Ethiopia complete, my typing fingers are itching to share Teddy with the world.
He’s equal parts Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee, Jack Sparrow, and Eddie Murphy in his prime. Charm. Strength. Charisma. Wit. Comedic timing. Swarthiness. Swagger. The ability to walk into a room, command it – read the mood, take the measure of the people in it – and always stay 10 steps ahead of everyone else. He does all of the worrying so that no one will have to, all of the planning so that every experience feels unplanned and organic. Until you truly get to know him, you’d think that nothing fazes him, because he deals with problems large and small with nary a wrinkle on his brow.
But there are several shades, layers, and moods of Teddy. He’s softer and more sensitive than he’d have people believe. One afternoon on our journey through the Omo Valley, Teddy took my husband Gabe and I to witness a Hamer tribe bull jumping ceremony. As part of the proceedings, tribeswomen cajole the maza (successful bull jumpers) to beat them with sticks. It’s a symbol of loyalty to the tribe, and a form of protection for the tribeswomen. Viewing the events through my Western lens, with my back rigid against a cliff wall in silent protest, I felt my cheeks heat up suddenly – a sure sign that hot and helpless tears were about to follow. Before the first one could spill over, Teddy was at my side, searching my face with worry on his. My husband was engrossed in the experience and didn’t notice. But Teddy talked me through it, even after I protested that I was okay, that I simply needed to trade that Western lens for a wider-angled one. No one else could have unravelled that complicated, tangled knot of conflicted emotion more swiftly or effectively.
Whenever we stopped somewhere, Teddy silently counted our small tribe of eight – he needed to know where we were and what we were doing at all times. I caught him doing this one day, and called him out for being a Mother Hen. I noticed that he hadn’t counted my husband, and pointed out that his whereabouts were currently unknown. In his usual quick-witted fashion, Teddy didn’t miss a beat, saying: “Oh, Gabe – you know, no one will take him. They will bring him back right away and say ‘I’m sorry – I made a mistake.’ So I don’t worry about Gabe.”
“If you know me, it’s enough.” – The Tao of Teddy
As we discovered, all you really need to tackle any adventure or solve any problem in Ethiopia is Teddy, his trusty Leatherman, and his dynamic crew of Lost Boys. He’s one of those rare spirits whose magnetism draws people into his orbit. It’s a bit like staring at the sun for a fraction too long – dazzling and blinding. On every street corner in Addis Ababa, in every remote town, tribal village, restaurant, lodge, or campground – even a prison in Jinka – the locals greeted Teddy like family. And so, we were treated as family too, wherever we went. With Teddy paving the way, we forged friendships, bridged divides, overcame language barriers, and sucked the marrow out of life.
Similar to my husband, Teddy is a hedonist in every sense of the word, living life with joy and abandon. And he’s never happier than when he is eating his favourite meal: tibs. If you’ve never had tibs – small cubes of beef, goat or lamb cooked with onions and pepper in the most savoury of spices – you haven’t truly lived. Teddy ate tibs at almost every meal, saying: “In Ethiopia, you don’t know when you will get your next meat. So when you get it, attack.” And attack we did – to the point of meat sweats.
“Am I vegetarian? Tsk. No, I always eat meat – to make the driving safer. There are too many animals on the road.” – The Tao of Teddy
Though it didn’t happen often – Teddy likes to take the road less travelled by – we periodically encountered other tour groups during our travels. And we saw the difference in their experience versus ours. In some tribal villages, we saw tour guides sitting in the parking lot, leaving their groups to their own devices. And we saw how the tribesmen and women patently ignored them when they weren’t taking photos for 5 Ethiopian Birr a piece. In contrast, we were invited into huts for coffee, offered opportunities to shoot AK-47s, played games of frisbee, given gifts of jewelry, and generally greeted as friends, not ferengi (foreigners). Some of that has to do with the kind of travellers we are. But it’s mostly Teddy.
One afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a lodge where a large group of Spanish tourists was seated near us. Teddy overheard some of them trying to figure out how Teddy and his crew were related to us. We were all seated together in a jumbled pile – trying bits and pieces from one another’s platters of tibs, injera, and shiro; talking and laughing. But for the colour of our skin, it would be tough for an outsider to tell traveller from local, because we were a tribe by that point.
The Spanish group couldn’t understand how or why we were sharing a meal with our guides. Teddy heard the haughtiness in their tones and their out loud musings. And he couldn’t understand it. Neither could we. Tourists go home with some souvenirs and a camera full of photos. We left Ethiopia with a large piece of hearts behind, a family in our guides, and minds full of deep, transformative experiences.
Teddy, we can’t thank you enough for showing us your Ethiopia. We love it almost as deeply as you do, and not nearly as much as we love you.
In Teddy We Trust.