Ethiopia Part 1: From Immigration to Imitation in Addis Ababa

When attempting to describe a visit to Ethiopia, one would do well to avoid the whole “We are the World” thing. As indelible as the old images of pleading, fly-pestered eyes, distended baby bellies and drought-stricken fields may be, there is much more to the country than can neatly fit into one news clip, one irreverent cartoon episode or one music video.

This much should be obvious.

After all, Switzerland is more than chalets and chocolate; Japan is more than sushi and sake; and the U.S. is more than Big Macs and bad manners (or, is it?). Ethiopia has a rich, complex history; diverse and dynamic cultures; and, according to some, a promising economic future.

Ethiopia’s greatest asset, according to me, may be its attitude. Or, more specifically, Ethiopians attitudes. The people we met along the way were so friendly, so welcoming, so positive, so genuine, so compassionate – it almost makes me wish Ethiopians were the world.

But, one would do well to avoid such a trite narrative.

Instead, one should simply offer a snapshot of on-the-ground experiences, which in our case were among the most unique, most challenging and most rewarding of our lives.

And it all started with a 30-foot walk. That took three hours.

After a smooth flight from OR Tambo to Bole International Airport, we walked quickly towards immigration while discussing what type of food we should seek once we reached our hotel, the Damu. At the top of the escalator, we could see that our plans would be thwarted. A sea of people, mostly delegates of the massive ICASA conference, as well as several American couples in the process of adopting Ethiopian children, were sardined into a narrow passageway, jostling to and fro, as if riding an invisible wave. It was the queue for obtaining a visitor’s visa. It was 8:50 pm. We were doomed.

Now, you may remember that I attempted, on two occasions, to obtain visas at the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria. The first time, I was turned away for not having a “letter of support” from my government; the second time, a different man told me not to “waste my time” at the embassy…I could simply get a visa at the airport. It would be cheaper and easier, he said.

Hindsight, thou art 20/20.

Without belaboring the point, or wasting your time with a synopsis of the three hours spent in line, I will simply say that three visa workers is not enough for hundreds of arriving passengers. I mean, come on, Bole…Addis is home to the African Union, several UN offices and a host of other international NGO headquarters (at least for the time being). You can’t plan better?

Deep breath. Deep Zen. Deep into the night. Finally, at 12:30, we were in a cab, visas in hand, heading for the hotel…

…where there was no food. There were also no hangers or hot water, but tomorrow is another day. Right?

Sunday: Brunch, Banks and Birhanu

To clear the early let-downs from our minds, we decided to walk to a restaurant called Lime Tree for brunch. Lonely Planet hyped it, and they were right on. A hot brunch definitely made up for a cold shower. And what was to be the first of about 500 macchiatos went down like golden elixir. Let’s go.

Let’s go find an ATM. That works. That works and accepts our cards. Or, not. After two strikes on Bole Road, we jumped a taxi to the Hilton for 100 birr (about $6.00), a price we later learned was stupid high.

The four (4!) ATMs at the Hilton denied us, the bank branches inside were closed and the system for obtaining an Ethiopian SIM card was down. We were batting, like, 1-for-13 at this point. Send us down to AAA Durham. We need a pep talk from Susan Sarandon.

So, we walked to the alternate universe that is the Sheraton Addis Ababa. It’s like a fortress. With habeshas in colonial guard uniforms (pith helmets and all), even though there’s no real history of colonialism in Ethiopia, one can sense the vibe of the place before even entering the gates. The dichotomy is palpable: outside is squalor, inside is Saks Fifth Avenue.

Was there a working ATM there? No, but there was a Dashen Bank branch that hooked us up with a fat stack of birr. And, I got a SIM card. We were in business.

Soon, we connected with Birhanu, a friend of a friend who lives in Addis (and works as a chef at the Sheraton, ironically) and made plans to meet at Kaldi’s, which is like saying we made plans to meet at Starbucks. Not only are there several Kaldi’s in Addis (though no Kaldi’s has yet opened in the bathroom of a Kaldi’s), their logo, colors and branding are complete Starbucks rip-offs. Whatever … Jenny had a nice latte and I had macchiato #2 and we chatted with a second-generation Indian Tanzanian while waiting for Birhanu. As one does.

With Birhanu, we got our first introduction to the ubiquitous minibus taxi. The minibuses are operated by two men: the driver, obviously, and the weyala who announces the taxi’s route and destination, and who is responsible for collecting fares. We took one up Bole Road and all the way to Trinity Church in Arat Kilo for 4 birr each, 12 total. For those scoring at home, that’s 69¢ for three people. Total.

After touring around the church, which was in the middle of an outdoor service, we hopped another minibus, transferred to another, and ended up back in the Bole area for dinner at Yod Abyssinia, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant.

We enjoyed several kinds of wat, shuro, beef tibs, tej and, of course, countless handfuls of injera. After dinner, we drank buna (coffee) and munched on popcorn while watching performances of traditional song and dance. We ate and drank until we nearly burst. (And, unfortunately, a little girl at an adjacent table did burst, more or less in the direction of my bag…) We were too wiped to stay out late, though, so Birhanu guided us to another minibus and for 6 birr (35¢), we were back at the Damu Hotel by 9:00. At least they had Wi-Fi. In the lobby.

Monday: Money, Minibuses and Merkato

Early the next morning, Jenny had a meeting with the Center for Creative Leadership, a US-based organization with a branch in Addis. I used the time alone to go off in search of breakfast, not realizing that Jenny had all our cash. One hour and seven uncooperative ATMs later, I was back at the hotel, hot and hungry.

One of the many minibus taxis in Addis Ababa

As it turns out, Jenny was roughly in the same shape, the strong cuppa buna from her meeting not enough to sustain her. So, we put our newfound minibus expertise to use, listened for the weyalas calling for Piazza and climbed aboard.

Piazza is an older neighborhood, but has some influence from the more recent Italian presence in Ethiopia, as evidenced by the name “Piazza.” We found a decidedly non-Italian restaurant (and a decidedly non-friendly waitress) for lunch. Yes, lunch. Breakfast was long gone. As was the crisp on my French fries.

Following a mediocre meal, we walked down Churchill Street to Tomoca Café for some quality coffee. Tomoca is a tiny little shop, with stand-up tables and bins full of freshly roasted beans, popular with locals and tourists alike. With no time to stop for a macchiato, we just bought two kilos of coffee and went on our way.

The damage for 4.4 pounds of Ethiopian coffee? About $15.00.

Next on the list: Merkato.

After saving at least 100 birr by taking the minibus to Piazza, we splurged and hailed a regular taxi to Merkato. When I say, “regular taxi,” what I mean is a blue-bodied, white-roofed, Russian-made, Cold War-era box on wheels. Typically, most of the interior door paneling is missing, the dashboards and rear surfaces are covered in fur (not sure if they are real or synthetic, but my immune system told me not to look too closely), there is one window crank for all four windows (the driver has it), there is a giant flag or plastic bird or strand of beads hanging from the rearview mirror, and the steering wheel has more play than Law & Order reruns on basic cable.

In short, each ride is an adventure.

As is Merkato.

Merkato is, as you deduced, a massive market where one can find anything from mattresses to microwaves, Nikes to necklaces (both would be fake), t-shirts to textiles, and likely just about anything else you desire. It’s even said that you can buy camels and Kalashnikovs (AK-47s) in Merkato, though we didn’t stumble across any such deals.

Oh, the other thing about Merkato: everything is a negotiation. Jenny was back and forth about five times with three people in one shop trying to sell her two scarves. My head was spinning. One merchant saw me eyeing an Amharic t-shirt and before I knew it I was bargaining. And buying.

Stepping out of the stall and back onto the street, we found ourselves dodging buses, donkeys, goats, and men carrying insane amounts of boxes on their heads. It was overwhelming. Not even the narrow souks of Fez or the chaotic bazaars of Kathmandu can compete.

We needed to get out of there. We needed cash. We needed a nap.

Later, we needed dinner. Navigating the dark side streets off Bole Road, on foot this time, we located another Lonely Planet pick: Jewel of India. Because, well, when in Rome…

Actually, the food was great. We hadn’t eaten South Indian in a long time. And the restaurant had South African wine! We didn’t order it, necessarily, but we did enjoy it. Jenny tried to order a wine spritzer from the menu (a fact that may require merciless teasing on Facebook) and the next thing we knew a dirty bottle of Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc was on our table. As polite patrons, we could not refuse.

However, I must refuse to jam the entire Ethiopia tale into one blog post. Part 2, which includes a visit to Haile Selassie’s bathroom, naked massages in a public bathhouse, and amorous donkeys in the middle of the highway, is coming soon. Here’s hoping that sex sells.

7 thoughts on “Ethiopia Part 1: From Immigration to Imitation in Addis Ababa

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  4. I know you wrote this quite a while back but I just wanted to tell you how glad I am that I found it! I’m moving to Addis next week and I’m so excited, nervous, happy, scared you name it! I’m even thinking about blogging about my adventures so any advice is welcome.

  5. Pingback: Ghana Part 1: I Am a Big Fool to Urinate Here | Africa Time, a Second Time

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