Jinka: Mad Max and the Wild Soutwest of Ethiopia

21 March 2008

Jinka is the sort of town one sees in movies. Not the sort flanked by snowcapped Alpine mountains where Bollywood stars and their entourage swing their hips with wild abandon, but the dirty, dusty godforsaken oversized village where one would prefer to get out once the necessary things have been done. In the middle of town is a rectangular grass patch the size of two football fields. During the high tourism season, four flights land here in one week. For most of the rest of the year, this becomes an occasional football field, or alternatively a downtown grazing spot for cows. I have it seen it performing all three functions during the two days I stayed in Jinka.
There is only one internet café in Jinka, and it has only one pathetic terminal. It is a painfully slow dialup that operates from sometime in the afternoon (at anytime the cybercafé operator feels like coming to work), to 7pm. It charges foreigners US$13/hour and the locals one quarter that amount. Half the time, one couldn't dial through to the ISP. Even then, there is normally a long queue and one often has to wait between half an hour to one hour plus for one's turn.
I put up at GOH Hotel – I'm told that GOH means "the first" or "earliest" in Amharic, a basic place where water and power gets cut off at certain times of the day. Here I also met tourists from many countries and we exchanged travel notes about this remote part of the world. The average tourist to Ethiopia is fairly well-travelled and have a fair share of unusual places in their travelers CV. I asked a guide if he had seen any Singaporean traveler. Yes, but not many. He brought a Singapore girl to the tribes last year.
Many of the 16 tribes that live in the South Omo Zone of which Jinka is capital are animists, though some have in recent decades converted to either Orthodox Christianity, Protestant/Evangelical denominations or Islam. Sometime after 4am every morning, one gets waken up by loudspeakers calling for prayers from both the Orthodox Churches and the Mosques. And I met missionaries from Jehovah Witness on the streets. Remote this town may be but it is the battleground of faiths and a competing arena for souls.
There is not a lot to do in town if you don't watch Mexican dramas badly dubbed into English or cultural dances on Ethiopian TV. I saw large crowds of locals watching a small plane taking off at the downtown airport. Once a week, market is held here and the surrounding tribes come to town. This is the sort of place I am reminded of Mad Max or the Wild, Wild West.
I tried to find to find tourists who might be interested in joining me to visit the Mursi tribe or for the rest of the journey in South Omo. Not surprisingly, it was a fruitless search. Most people have either come here in their own vehicles, or are one day ahead or behind me. Nevertheless I have met interesting travelers and had nice conversations, including with a Spanish couple based in Juba, South Sudan.
It's religious fasting time in Ethiopia and I cannot find meat. I am sick of the food here!