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{12/11/2012}   Addis Ababa: what I thought of it

My impressions of Addis Ababa while there and now that I’m home are quite different.  I like to think of myself as a bit of an explorer, a traveller rather than a holidaymaker.  Admittedly, I went to Ethiopia for a bizarre four-day trip for work, though ended up with two days at leisure and time in the evenings to take taxis to restaurants and shops.  I realise now that I never got past the culture shock phase, though I definitely felt a bit more aware and ever so slightly more savvy (especially regarding taxi fares and bartering, though I don’t for a minute profess to be anything approaching successful or experienced in it based on a mere few days) by our final day.  I don’t know where this post will take me in terms of my thoughts on my brief stay in Addis Ababa.

Where on earth do I start?  I have not been to many developing countries (I guess rural Indonesia, rural Philippines and Manila, Ghana and rural China are my comparators) and I don’t remember being as shocked in any of them.  We arrived on a Sunday, so most shops and businesses were closed and it was quieter on the streets and lots of people were at church and, I guess, at home.  It’s probably not the best day to arrive, though maybe it being a bit quieter (not that there was anything quiet or slow about it!) was better.  I appreciated that where we walked around our hotel (Radisson Blu), maybe one mile in one direction and an additional mile in a similar direction, no one hassled us, in fact I didn’t even feel particularly noticed, which was good.  Around Churchill Avenue and the Nigeria Road handicraft shops up to Piazza (by Castelli’s Italian restaurant) we were hassled the most, one bloke chatting who wouldn’t leave us for ages,a child that followed us despite crossing the road several times and children along Haile Selassie Street where there are a lot of jewellery shops (probably all areas more likely to be visited by foreigners) .  So in terms of hassle, it was a lot, lot less than in many other places (Morocco, Indonesia and Ghana in particular).  Also, the people we encountered were really nice and I didn’t feel we were treated any differently in shops than locals would be (though I know we were in terms of prices, not that I have a massive issue with that).  People were not overly friendly (I mean that in a good way, ie not false), in jewellery shops I was left walking around with things in my hand, whereas in the UK I probably wouldn’t have been trusted to do that, particularly as the shops were open to the pavement.  Staff in restaurants and shops were all as you would hope people in customer service would be, neither chummy nor rude, kind of gentle, calm and trusting.  That made it easy to go about doing things and I really did appreciate that we didn’t get hassled.  The worst area really was the Nigeria/Churchill handicraft shops and even that wasn’t too bad, though the map sellers annoyed me and tried too hard to obstruct your path, though not aggressively and it wasn’t an issue as we received sanctuary in every shop we went into.  Yes, of course shop owners tried to sell us all manner of bizarre things (a wooden pillow?  No, thank you.  An antique leather shield or large leather lunch box?  Really?  No, thank you).  But we learned a lot from the shop owners who told us what things were and it was a bit like going into museums.

Shopping was fun, there is some cool stuff, and our main focus was on cotton and silver.  Sadly, largely due to illness (it really was that dramatic!), we didn’t get to go to mercato, Africa’s biggest market, and if I ever go back, that will be my second port of call (after coffee).  I love that in so many shops we saw makeshift coffee roasteries with clay pots and burning coals.  In two particular shops I almost asked if we could have a coffee, I am pretty sure we would have been welcomed.

We did walk a fair bit, though there really is a degree of altitude sickness to be felt, which I hadn’t anticipated, though my friend felt it more than I did.  The heat wasn’t unbearable, though I made sure to cover my head whenever out, and it is pleasantly cool once the sun goes down.  I did need to drink a fair bit of water and of course I wore sunscreen.  So that was all pretty much ok.

We got a lot of taxis.  As a foreigner, you obviously pay a lot more than locals.  There are taxis everywhere.  They are not remotely road worthy and with no apparent road rules, it’s quite hairy … as are the seat covers and parcel shelves – what’s with all the faux fur decor?!  Amidst the fur there are also religious and Ethiopian portraits aplenty.  We paid just over £4 (120 birr) for most journeys, having been quoted 150 birr and sometimes more.  Drivers will offer to wait for you.  For certain situations, this seems a good idea.  For example, we’d planned to go to the spice market at mercato and were going to get the taxi to wait for us there, then perhaps drive to another section of the market.  We also did this to go to Habesha, the driver waiting while we had dinner then had a mini wander for cake (failed).  This is another indicator that giving a foreigner a lift makes very good financial sense for taxi drivers.  There is something oddly war correspondenty (no logic) about getting a beat up taxi with bouncy, ancient seats, no seat belts fitted, pictures and hangy things bouncing about, furry seat covers, vinyl headrests, doors that only open if the driver goes through a series of well-rehearsed manoeuvres and, for example, hearing an Ethiopianised version of Axel F from Beverly Hills Cop (go on, sing it to yourself, you won’t get it out of your head for ages!).  They are part of the experience.  Mind you, I guess the ultimate would be to take a blue and white minibus.  There are hundreds of them and they are all crammed with people!

I have dedicated a whole post to food so I’m not going to repeat any of that.  But Addis Ababa, you mystify me, I don’t know what to say.  Did I love it?  No.  Did I hate it?  No. Would I go to Addis Ababa again?  I have no idea.  Do I want to go to Addis Ababa again?  I don’t know.  But at least I’d be more prepared.  Would I like to go to other places in Ethiopia?  From what I’ve heard, there are some staggeringly amazing things to see (what I saw from the plane going into Addis Ababa was mind blowing in its lushness and beauty – seriously) and there are lots of places and things I’d love to see.  I just don’t think my four and a bit days in Addis Ababa demonstrated to me that I am a hardy explorer.  I love the idea though.  But the thought of only being able to eat Ethiopian food – sorry, sorry, sorry – is my main obstacle.

However, Addis Ababa: if you go by smells, I smelled coffee, urine, gently burning charcoal, a river that smelled of death and sewage, aromas from flowers, construction dust (it has a smell!), incense, petrol.  If you go by sounds, I heard traffic, lots of birds, horns pipping, singing/music being played.  If you go by sights, I saw greenery and flowers, dust, brightly coloured corrugated iron, shops and adverts, dusty construction sites, groups of friends talking together, hundreds of knackered vehicles either stationary or driving fairly slowly, beautiful fresh looking fruit and vegetables, a dead dog, mountains, people lying on the pavement looking like death were calling (not a lot but mainly on Sunday and at night time, though at night time, later, I got the impression there were at least areas where people slept side by side lining the pavement), children playing football (in the road), blindingly obvious poverty, people sitting on chairs outside shops drinking coffee, chasms by the road down which people fall and die, people outside church in their Sunday best.  How can you conclude?  It is a city of extremes, though not where poverty and wealth are concerned, more where your senses are concerned.  It’s shocking, delightful, overwhelming, hard work, intriguing and perhaps that makes it a most unexpected and unique city.

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