Ethiopia Adventure - Oct 10 - Oct 13, 2017

Traveler: Jean R. - Local specialist: Marco Degasper

I have been traveling internationally all my life, and have been to 50+ countries and counting. In my experience, there are 2 kinds of tour companies - the big bus kind, where everything is regimented - you stay at hotels and eat at restaurants that cater to tours, and are given a strictly regimented, one-size-fits-all itinerary, where you get picked up and bused around all day, passively being fed information by a guide who recites factoids over a microphone at each known tourist spot, and gives you 10-15 minutes to wander around on your own before hustling you back on the bus to head to the next spot. Then there are the kind that offer tours that cater to your specific interests and needs. Where they ask you what kinds of things you’re interested in doing, and find ways to make that happen. I’ve done the former when traveling with my first-generation, elderly parents who really like the comfort of having everything handled for them when they’re on holiday, and who don’t mind tourist traps at all, but when I’m on my own or with friends, I always guide/explore myself or opt for the latter.

This October, my friend and I wanted to go to Ethiopia, among other places in East Africa,and thought with a tagline like “book unique trips, customized to your needs, with the help of reliable local travel specialists,” Kimkim would provide us with a guide or guides in the know who would not only be able to show us the top sights, but give us a true taste of local culture. Unfortunately for us, Kimkim did not deliver, despite being backed by former TripAdvisor top dogs and having strong reviews, which I now am firmly convinced were all fake reviews written by friends and family. In fact, what we had with Kimkim was the worst of all worlds - we neither had the comfort/security of a big bus tour where everything runs like clock work, nor anything one could say was unique in any way other than uniquely poorly planned.

Marco was our local Kimkim liaison. He was incredibly responsive during the booking phase, but that’s where that ended.

We booked a 3.5 day tour in Ethiopia through Kimkim, planning to spend the first half-day and last day in Addis Ababa and the intervening 2 days in Lalibela. Marco was going to guide us in Addis Ababa, and hand us off to someone else in Lalibela.

I was upset pretty much from the minute we landed in Addis Ababa. Here’s why. Apparently, a few weeks before we arrived, Ethiopia enacted new laws requiring people to register mobile phones at the airport when entering the country in an effort to combat counterfeit phones. Marco did not think to alert us of this. In fact, my friend only found out from him just before we boarded our flight to Addis because she planned to get a Sim card in Ethiopia and was asking him about it. He did not tell me or tell her to tell me, and we assumed I did not need to do it because my phone is not unlocked and therefore I was not eligible to get a local Sim card anyway. So imagine my surprise when I cleared customs and exited the airport, only to have Marco tell me that he thought maybe I might have to register my phone even just to use WiFi and that I should try to go back into the airport and do it. Ethiopia, however, is very strict about airport security, and does not allow anyone who has already exited the airport to simply reenter. In this day and age, where everyone has a mobile phone and often relies on it for work - which both of us were having to do to some degree while in Ethiopia - we did not understand how a local specialist would not think this was extremely pertinent information to share with all visitors. Suffice to say we felt we had gotten off on the wrong foot.

Our flight was delayed 20 minutes, and it was around 2 when we wrapped up at the airport, and we were starved. So we asked about local snack foods. But were told that Ethiopians don’t have any snacks. We did eventually end up at a juice bar getting fresh juice that was quite lovely, but we found it impossible to believe that there were no uniquely Ethiopian snack options at all.

Then we were supposed to do an afternoon city tour. We were taken to Trinity Cathedral where the last emperor, Haile Selassie, is entombed. According to Lonely Planet, this is the second-most important place of worship in the entire country of Ethiopia. As of today, TripAdvisor ranks it #4 of all things to do in Addis Ababa. In short, it’s a pretty significant stop for any visitor to Addis Ababa, not to mention important to locals. As we were walking up, I asked Marco how old it was. He said he did not know and that the deacon would probably be able to tell us. We were pretty stunned. Neither of us had ever had a local guide who did not know such basics about key monuments. And because the deacon could not speak much English, and our so-called local guide could not speak more than a few words of the local language (!!!), we basically spent a few minutes walking quickly around the cathedral in near silence, taking pictures of interesting looking things.

After we left the cathedral, we sat in the car for several minutes because we apparently had an hour to kill before dinner and Marco did not know what to do with us in the interim. It got to the point where we were throwing out suggestions - “What about taking us where you might take your friends or family when they come to visit? Are there any monuments? Parks? Cafes? Art galleries?” At the word, “gallery,” Marco perked up and said he knew of a place. So we relaxed, thinking we were going to see some local art. But it turned out that the “gallery” was one of those cheesy souvenir shops on the big bus tours routes, where they follow you around and try to sell you everything for a “good price.”

Finally, we escaped and headed to dinner. We were excited for our first real meal in Ethiopia. Also, Marco had told us we would see a traditional coffee ceremony and traditional dances being performed there. We wound up at… a big bus tour restaurant with a giant Ethiopian airlines mural on the outside and an Ethiopian airlines model plane suspended from the ceiling. We were greeted with, “are you with a [tour] company?” And we learned Marco hadn’t even made reservations for us. Then we saw other big group tours ordering a la carte food to be brought out so their guests could at least enjoy them served in a traditional way, but we were directed to a long buffet that literally had fake pictures of fire taped along the side. The traditional dancers were dressed in far from traditional neon dress. And the traditional coffee ceremony girl sat around looking bored and annoyed and talking on her mobile phone. Ultimately, we were told there would not be a coffee ceremony after all and that we could catch one at Lalibela. The only saving grace was that the food was actually quite good, despite being served in a big bus tour cafeteria with zero ambience. Because we had to leave for the airport before 6 am the next day, before we were dropped off at our hotel, we asked Marco to please send us the name and contact information for our Lalibela guide so we could know who to look for when we landed. But that never happened.

When we landed in Lalibela, we walked around the tiny arrivals area outside searching for signs with our names. Nothing. Then we pulled out the only itinerary Marco had provided us to see if there was a company or hotel name on it. All it said was “Accommodations - Lalibela Lodge or similar.” Everyone else on our flight had been scooped up by their respective guides and hotel shuttles and was long gone. We were literally the only people left standing at the airport, and were desperately trying to make use of the WiFi signal emanating from the baggage claim area to contact Marco as they started locking up the airport - it appeared that there was only our one flight coming in at that time - and yelling at us to move along. Reps from other tour companies and hotels were milling around us, trying to offer their help in getting to town or finding our tour company or hotel. They kept asking, understandably, “what is the name of your hotel? What is the name of your tour company?” But that was not information we had ever been given despite having asked for it.

Eventually, our driver came. And to be honest, from that point on, aside from one additional snafu with how the meals that were supposed to be included were paid for, our time in Lalibela was great. We had a legitimate local guide take us around the churches that Lalibela is famous for. He had grown up in Lalibela, had worshipped at these churches his entire life, and was a fount of knowledge about their history, the art displayed in them, and the practices. We mentioned having missed out on the coffee ceremony in Addis Ababa and wanting to try local tej (honey) wine, and he made sure both happened during our short time in Lalibela. So, to be completely fair and give credit where credit is due, we were really happy with our Lalibela experience.

We returned to spend our last day in Ethiopia with Marco in Addis Ababa. We really hoped that things would improve. And to be fair, in some regards it did seem as though he was genuinely trying, but just falling short. We went to lunch, and then to get coffee at a famous local spot. Marco then mentioned he had remembered an Ethiopian snack called Kola, but when my friend asked if we could try it, he said he would think about it and never followed through. As it turns out, we saw Kola at the airpot as we were leaving the next day - it is like a nut mix that you would be able to buy in any supermarket or gas station. Then we went to Mount Entoto to see city views from a high point and visit another significant church, which I now know is the Maryam Church, but which Marco could not even tell us the name of even as he was taking us there to see it. When we asked him the name, he told us it was probably on the sign. Then when we got to the museum attached to the church, instead of waiting for the museum guide, he hurried us around, pointing to things and making very obvious but fairly meaningless remarks like, “this is a crown.”

Then he took us to a market filled with 300+ stalls that mostly sold identical looking traditional Ethiopian dresses but had no recommendations as to which stalls were better than others, so we gave up after a short while and moved on… to a juice bar, where he had invited a friend to meet him. Which would have been OK with us, except that the friend apparently was unable to find the place, so Marco got up, ostensibly to go help her, and left us sitting alone in the juice bar for 20 minutes, wondering if we had been abandoned and should try to make our way back to our hotel on our own. Then, Marco tried to take us to the wrong hotel despite us having told him a number of times, including at his request, where we were staying the last night since we were responsible for booking our own place for the last night.

In sum, with the exception of Lalibela (post airport arrival trauma, of course), we felt that our overall experience with Kimkim was incredibly sub-par and disappointing and left us feeling like we had been sold a false bill of goods. We paid over $1000 pp for less than 4 full days (with Kimkim pocketing 5%) because we were promised we would have local specialist with in-depth knowledge of Ethiopia take care of all the details, and what we got for our money was no better, and likely much worse, than if we had just booked directly with the local guides in Lalibela and tried to muddle through Addis Ababa alone with a copy of Lonely Planet and the TripAdvisor app. Which is honestly what I urge everyone considering Kimkim to do instead. I cannot in good conscience recommend this company to anyone after the time we had.

Marco Degasper profile photo
Marco Degasper, local specialist, responded to this review:

Dear Jean,
thanks for your long review and time spent in pointing out everything in detail. Let me explain to you how I see these things.
- Reviews: I can guarantee and the Kimkim staff can confirm that all previous reviews are from real (and satisfied) clients and not fake or written by friends and family as you're supposing.
- Phone registration: the registration of the mobile phone (which still now is unclear if it's necessary or not) was a news that came up in the very last moment and no... read more

Dear Jean,
thanks for your long review and time spent in pointing out everything in detail. Let me explain to you how I see these things.
- Reviews: I can guarantee and the Kimkim staff can confirm that all previous reviews are from real (and satisfied) clients and not fake or written by friends and family as you're supposing.
- Phone registration: the registration of the mobile phone (which still now is unclear if it's necessary or not) was a news that came up in the very last moment and no one knew how it's going to work. Despite warning you (well, one of you, but I knew you were travelling together and supposed you exchange info), as you have seen Wifi was working on your phone and in my opinion for only 3.5 days in the country there is no need to buy a local SIM card (90-95% of our customers don't buy any, even if they stay 2 or 3 weeks). In case of emergency you always could have asked us to borrow our phone.
- Ethiopian snacks: I even asked my Ethiopian wife, but there is really no typical Ethiopian snack. I thought a fresh fruit juice (which you enjoyed) can be equivalent to it. Kollo, mentioned in your review, is just meant to accompany coffee or other drinks and is not really something which stops your hunger. As snack maybe you can consider some traditional bread or Bakollo (kind of roasted corn), but it's not something you find at any place and hour of the day.
- Trinity church: as you maybe know in each tourist destination in Ethiopia it's mandatory to take a so called local guide (which usually can answer all your questions). I agree with you that not all local guides are professional, but the reason for the guiding problem in the trinity church was that due to delayed flight, hotel check, snack and traffic we arrived there shortly before 5pm, the time when the church is usually closing and local guides are leaving. I expected a guide (again, normally mandatory) to be there while they just assigned us a priest which we realized didn't speak English. Sorry for that. I was upset by myself and didn't leave him any tip (which usually I'm always doing). Anyway, I understand your disappointment for this visit and I apologize for it. One more thing, I admit not to know the exact year of construction of the church (should be task of the local guide), but I gave you an approximate date or decade.
- Art gallery: the gallery we visited was (beside the other, Zebra Gallery) the best place to find local art. Of course also other tourists are going there to buy some souvenirs, but I don't agree that it's a tourist trap. At least in this gallery you find original Ethiopian things and not just Chinese copies like in the classic small souvenir shops (which I avoided).
- Ethiopian dinner: 2000 Habesha, name of the traditional Ethiopian Restaurant, is one of the historical and best places to eat Ethiopian food. I admit the atmosphere recently became a bit too touristy, but there are few other options (and these look the same, btw). In most places not common for tourists to eat, the food and/or service is not really good or the place and kitchen not clean enough. Anyway I appreciate your comments and in future I will advise clients in advance about the kind of place. Finally, I didn't make any reservation because there was simply no need to do it for only 3 persons. Reservations are necessary for bigger groups but for 3 persons there is always space, as we have seen.
- Lalibela: I already apologized (and do it again) for what happened at your arrival in Lalibela. Belaynew, who was supposed to pick you up, got stuck and could't reach the airport on time. This sometimes happened due to bad road conditions, poor conditions of some cars but most of all because of the generally very poor service of the public transportation. Anyway, no excuse, there should have been waiting someone for you a bit earlier. Anyway, I'm glad to hear that starting from this point you enjoyed the stay and visit in Lalibela.
- Last afternoon in Addis: As I explained to you in Addis Ababa we don't have a standard city tour program for the capital, but usually I just give to the customers some options and we're carrying out the best suitable program depending on the interest of the people. To be honest I had the impression that you enjoyed the last afternoon in Addis Ababa. I took you to a place for lunch with good food and not at all for tourists, the guiding in the museum was more than just "this is a crown" and on the market with 300+ shops it's really difficult to give any suggestion because as you wrote in the end they are all selling the traditional clothes. I also had the impression that you were not really interested in these shops, since I asked you several times if you would like to have a look in one of the shops, but you didn't enter any. Then, before going to meet my friend I asked you if you don't mind to leave you alone for 10-20 minutes. I really thought it was not a problem to leave you for this time alone, in a safe place. Finally, dinner was held in a restaurant (with Lebanese, Armenian and Mediterranean food) which you chose and liked, although not Ethiopian. As for all other meals we included also all alcoholic drinks (and juices) even if it was not included.
As general consideration, I think 3.5 days is very little time to see real Ethiopia and immerge yourself into the culture.
I'm sorry that we didn't meet your expectations. We're constantly trying to improve ourselves and hope we can fully satisfy our next customers as we always did in the past.