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.


Addis Ababa Museum is up a long flight of steps and the gate and sign identifying the museum, which you can’t see, at the top are peeled and decades past their best.  The neighbouring Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum is at street level and is new.  I had the beginnings of what a few hours later became the worst ever case of diarrhea I have ever, ever endured.  I was all for the modern, nice-toilets museum at ground level.  However, like my friend, I probably wasn’t in the right mood to go into a museum about cruelty, terror and torture that occurred in my lifetime.  With heavy stomach, we set off up the steps.

As the steps were quite steep and high, we got a decent view over Addis Ababa and Meskel Square (a place so vast you can almost picture the revolutions and gatherings).  In part I was taking photos to rest my hungry and not fully functioning body and it was also fairly hot and we had just walked a fair way.

A bit of a pet hate of mine, but we got followed up the steps by a cheery man, clearly intent on being our guide, despite neither of us wanting one, in part because we wanted a quick visit as neither of us were feeling great, in fact feeling increasingly worse.  He bounded to the top, chattering away (he was very sweet and I would have appreciated asking questions were it not that I really was starting to feel rather dreadful) and pointing things out across the city.  We got to the top of the steps and I was surprised to be greeted by a derelict-looking but once grand wood and glass house  set amidst a lovely lush garden with wonderful views.  It really was a bit of an oasis of loveliness.

A lady stationed in a somewhat makeshift booth emerged with tickets; it was 10 birr (c35p) each.  We took our tickets and our cheery guide bounded ahead telling us all manner of things that I am sorry to say I could barely absorb.  I was starting to feel achy from my hips down and I was more concerned about whether there would be a toilet I could use.  The building which houses the museum was, according to our guide, built as a gift by Emperor Menelik II for his security guard, Ras Biru Habte-Gabriel (other sources suggest Ras Biru was the Minister of War not a security guard, as our “guide” told us).  Emperor Menelik II (17 August 1844 – 12 December 1913) is by all accounts a huge hero in Ethiopia, indeed Africa, in large part because of his role in securing victory over the Italians, gaining independence for Ethiopia and beginning to modernise the country.  There are a lot of pictures of him around.

Once inside the museum, you are welcomed by two dreadful examples of wild cat taxidermy and it is apparent the museum does not contain a wealth of artefacts and it did not take a skilled curator to assemble the rooms.  The front of the house (or it might be considered a side) is a wall of windows, which becomes, essentially, a long walk way conservatory.  The doors to the rooms opened onto this conservatory and that was the only light in the rooms as all other windows had closed curtains and there was no electricity used to light the rooms.  All pictures and artefacts were labelled in English on dried, curling bits of paper.  There were plenty of pictures of Menelik II and his wife.  Our guide was keen we took photographs of these handsome portraits.  My friend pointed out that the light was bad so our cameras wouldn’t be able to take the photos.  Fortunately, my friend was feeling a little more alert than me and she chatted to the guide.  I meanwhile was beginning to feel truly awful and had got to the stage where my legs were aching and I couldn’t keep them still, so on the odd occasion we were admiring a picture of the emperor, I was unable to stand still because I felt so uncomfortable.

The museum has some interesting photos and insights into life in Addis Ababa before it was developed, though it is a shame there weren’t more.  There are quite a few photos of eminent Addis Ababa men, which are of greater significance and interest to Ethiopians or people with a knowledge and specific interest in Ethiopian history.  I am not meaning to be dismissive but I do not know enough out Ethiopian history to appreciate what these people did and why they are so revered.

There are display cases which contain random things.  I am not entirely convinced the labels are always accurate.  Once we had looked at the (I think) three rooms downstairs, we went upstairs.  This was not without challenges as we had to step over one step as we would have fallen through it had we stepped on it.  The next step didn’t seem too secure either, but we got up unscathed.  It is a building that will one day be unusable if nothing is done to restore it.

Upstairs, there are displays of handicrafts.  Oh dear, I realise I don’t remember much about upstairs.  I really felt awful by then.  My friend whacked her mouth with her bottle of water, I got paranoid I was going to fall through the floorboards and the upstairs rooms sort of went by in a blur.  We exited the museum via stairs along the pretty conservatory.  I really did think a floor board would break, especially walking up to the window to take a photo.

We then went to the ground floor and our guide explained a few things about pictures drawn on skins.  Again, I would have appreciated this more if it weren’t for the fact I now knew I needed a toilet and bed.  He said he was 32 and when he was 12 had been imprisoned for a month and a half by the Communist-influenced Derg whose atrocities were displayed in part in the neighbouring Red Terror Museum.  His dates don’t quite make sense and I kind of wanted to ask more but I’m not sure how you ask a stranger what atrocities they witnessed as a child during this reign of horrors.

I hope I do not sound dismissive of the museum but it was very surreal for me as I felt so awful.  Of course it’s worth the entry fee and the 20 birr we paid the “guide”, though I know a lot of what he said needed to have been taken with a pinch of salt.  It was, however, probably more interesting for its bizarreness than its contents (coming from someone with little knowledge of Ethiopian history, politics and culture) and it was most unexpected to see such a grand, albeit poised to fall down, residence.  Had I been feeling normal, I would have liked to have wandered around the gardens.  It is worth going if you are in the area, it does not require long to go round, especially as there are no crowds, no one else at all in fact, going round it.  It all added to the unexpectedness of Addis Ababa.

I am writing this with what is hopefully the tail end of the most virulent case of diarrhea I have ever had, so it’s safe to assume there were some issues, though I’m going to attempt not to let this affect my comments on the food and drink we had.  Overall, for the mere four full days we were there, I’d say we had a mix of hotel/international and restaurant/Ethiopian food.  My friend and I both got this dreadful stomach “thing” (yet to have it confirmed what it was/is) and don’t know where it came from, ie there was nothing obvious we ate or drank so it could just have been from imbibing a bit of shower water or perhaps from drinking hotel fruit juice that was slightly watered down to pour through the smoothie taps.  Hmm, where to start …

We landed before 7am on Sunday and by 9.30am we were walking to Yeshi Bunna, a small cafe chain recommended by an Ethiopian friend of a friend.  Now, here I feel it important to say that when you look at a map of Addis (indeed, I had photocopied the maps from the Bradt guide I had left at home and were what we used to walk the c20 minutes to Yeshi Bunna) and see “cafe” or “pastry shop”, neither the map nor the cafe reflect the reality.  I don’t have a photo of the cafe but there is no way I would have ventured inside had I just been wandering around as it just looked like a glorified shack from the outside and having had pretty much no sleep the night before, it being hot and a mad assault on the senses, I was not remotely alert enough to make rational decisions.  Likewise, having a map that makes roads look like roads and businesses look like “normal” buildings is deceiving.  I know, I know, wake up, it’s Ethiopia not France, it’s a whole different world, but that’s all part of culture shock, isn’t it?  And we were exhausted and quietly overwhelmed.

Yeshi Bunna, as it happens, was lovely and there was absolutely nothing touristy about it (largely because this is not a touristy city in the slightest, I mean even using the word “touristy” is weird because it’s not a concept we observed, it’s a poor, chaotic, dusty, working city).  We went inside and it stretched back a long way.  We sat in these fantastic Ethiopian low level stools that are topped with a chunk of wood like an inverted button so your bum sits nicely in them and they are so much more comfy than flat topped stools.  All we knew was we wanted some coffee and something to eat.  The menu was massive, maybe eight pages.  I don’t know how but I didn’t get what I ordered.  I thought I’d ordered the dish on the bottom right of this menu, which isn’t clear on the photo as the cafe was so dark (it really isn’t a cafe as you’d imagine it).  I thought I was getting “Chechebsa: Pieces of thin bread mixed with oil and red pepper served with honey on side”.  I ordered the one that also came with egg on top.  We then ordered the coffee that was being prepared by women sitting across from us.  The coffee is Ethiopian clay pot coffee, which I think has recently been roasted, is ground then made into coffee, then poured from a big pot into a smaller clay pot which is then heated on charcoal before being poured into small handle-less cups, served thick and black.  The smell of charcoal and coffee is extremely comforting.  The coffee we had there that morning was one of the most needed and eyes-closed-bliss coffees I have ever had.  As the home of coffee, Ethiopia did herself proud!  It was just perfect.  So we had another one.

As for the breakfast, portion sizes are staggeringly huge.  I had read that, in fact we had discussed that before ordering, yet still we ordered a dish each.  With shame, I didn’t even manage to eat a sixth of it.  It ended up being kind of fried shredded injera (foam bread, Ethiopian staple – forgive me – absolutely revolting) with strips of egg (a kind of egg pancake) and two jugs, one with lovely sweet honey and the other with  – forgive me – absolutely foul watery, white, lumpy, sour cream/cheese/curd *shudder*.  The egg was good and the fried injera (I think that’s what it was, it’s not what the menu says for the dish I thought I ordered, but neither did it come with red pepper and there was a lot of re-checking of what we’d ordered) was ok to a point as I could just about imagine it to be shredded pancake.  But not long into it, I could eat no more.  My friend and I left so much food, and we both somehow got the same dish, though hers was without the egg.

Food portions are massive.  I don’t understand.  Maybe one dish is designed for about four people.  I am not kidding.  If you are reading this and planning to go to Addis Ababa and you are more than one person, order one dish and share it, you can always order another.

As for the menu, yes, it was a minefield.  I am glad we went there and I am glad we tried something different.  Oh the coffee …

As for other food, we stayed at the Radisson Blu and had buffet breakfasts and work provided buffet lunches.  They were exceptionally good.  Addis Ababa has a good reputation for its pastries and the breakfast pastries were lovely.  There were always fruit juices (mainly a colourful mixed juice – all more smoothie than juice in terms of consistency – avocado (more on that later), papaya, orange, occasionally mango and apple) and a selection of cooked food, a lot of which was Ethiopian in style but not what I could eat for breakfast (eg fried onions, meat, etc).  The lunch buffets there were perfect (yes, yes, you shouldn’t eat buffet when in developing countries!).  We had salady things: bean salad, couscous, baba ganoush, hummus, etc.  Everything, particular the tomatoes, tasted really fresh and delicious.  There were also a lot of lovely kinds of bread.  Very good.

We ate out every night: an Italian restaurant catering for Ethiopians, an Italian restaurant catering for Foreigners, Castelli (incidentally, arguably, considered one of the best Italian restaurants … in the world – I read that in a 2005 Daily Telegraph article.  We didn’t know anything about it before going in, other than that my friend recognised the name of it when we walked past it the previous day as being somewhere mentioned on one of our maps as an Italian restaurant), two cafes catering for Ethiopians and a restaurant suggested in a guide book, Habesha on Bole Road.

I am in danger of going on forever so a potted summary:

Pizza and pasta restaurant, catering for Ethiopians, c200m along and across the road from the Radisson Blu: we shared a pizza (we “got” the one-dish-is-too-big-for-one thing).  It was cooked in a proper wood stove, a bit thick for my personal preference but good quality and we ate it all.  It cost less than £3.  I had my first avocado juice with lime.  I probably wouldn’t have ordered it had I not read that it amazing.  I will write a separate paragraph about it.

Avocado juice with lime: without doubt one of the most amazing drinks ever.  In the hotel it was slightly watered down so not as creamy and delicious.  In the juice bar and pizza restaurant it was thick, spoonable and tasted better than you can imagine.  Sublime.  There are no other words.  If you ever get the chance, try it.  I can’t imagine it would work here because it is so rare to find avocados that are ripe and full of flavour.  But with a generous addition of lime juice it is drink perfection.  Ignore the calories in avocado!

Castelli’s, Mahatma Gandhi Street, Piazza area: A joy.  Apparently it’s where visiting celebrities go (Brad Pitt, Sir Bob Geldof, some US Presidents).  The joy of the place is that it’s not remotely pretentious, it’s at the top of  a hill that to climb up (as we did twice) is quite challenging and where my friend in particular discovered she had a bit of altitude sickness.  It’s also in a frenetic part of the city: markets; dust; lots of people; cars; noise.  It was closed when we got there, though a policeman standing nearby told us it opened at 7 and that it was 6.50 at the time.  At around 7.20 we returned (having had a juice (c65p) at a very busy, popular Ethiopian cafe/juice bar round the corner – avocado for me again!).  We were greeted by a large Italian gentleman on one side and a wealth of antipasti on display on the other side.  We were asked if we had a reservation.  I had a mini panic thinking we wouldn’t get in.  All was ok, we did get a table, but I did notice it was very busy.  Seemingly all foreigners, smartly dressed ones rather than touristy ones.  I reiterate, it’s not a touristy place.  It was exquisite.  I had a tagliatelle carbonara, which I chose as it was one of the asterisked dishes indicating home made pasta.  I also had an Ethiopian beer, Meta, which was lovely.  Our waiter was a charming elderly Ethiopian man.  We ate in what was essentially a dining room (I believe there are five such rooms) with wood panelled floors and ceiling and white walls.  It was simple and comfortable.  Our waiter brought us two helpings of delicious crispy-on-the-outside-soft-in-the-middle bread and told us our pasta would be a while longer as the pasta was still being made.  I believe him.  It was perfect tagliatelle and cooked just how I like it.  The sauce was also amazing and the ham was … oh, seriously, it was good.  My friend concluded likewise and we cleaned our plates.  Was it expensive?  Well, each pasta dish (the non-home made pasta dishes were a bit cheaper), which was generous in size, was about £4.50.  My beer was the same price as my friend’s sparkling water, c70p.  Even the wine was a bit cheaper than you’d pay in the UK, though a lot cheaper if you consider how much such a good quality restaurant in the UK would charge for wine to balance the food and wine costs.  So all in all, well worth the visit.  The people next to us had a huge portion of grilled prawns and the smell was wonderful!

Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant: Yikes.  It is a lovely environment, down a dark pathway with little fairy lights over the top.  It’s very atmospheric, dark and higgledy piggledy.  Just what I wanted to try.  The seats are low, as are the tables, which I struggle with, but it is a lovely environment.  My photo does not do it justice because of the flash (and couldn’t see much without flash).  Some things on the menu sounded nice and some of them were on a mixed dish menu so we decided to go for that.  We had a discussion about whether it would be too much food but as it was only roughly double the price of a single dish (this mix had seven dishes), we decided to try as much as possible so ordered the mixed dish, which is what we’d both imagined we’d be eating in Ethiopia.  So I am glad we ordered and tried it.  Now, if you read Trip Advisor, you will see it gets an average of 4.5 out of 5 and many people say it was a highlight of Addis Ababa.  I struggle with that because – forgive me – I didn’t like any of the food.  At all.  Sorry.  I tried everything and kept eating for as long as I could.  We disgraced ourselves by eating so little and I really am ashamed, though I am confident that food was not thrown out.  There were some nice flavours to be found.  But there is no mistaking the fact that, this being my third attempt at eating an Ethiopian meal (first time for my 21st in San Francisco, second time in Greenwich Market, London), I do not like it.  I do not say this lightly and I am not proud of myself but I just can’t eat it.  It repeated on me all night, I couldn’t get rid of the taste (I had brought the delightfully minty Colpermin tablets and one of them helped get rid of the taste) and I had a burning feeling quite high up my chest, which I suppose was indigestion.  I can eat injera (moist foam, served as cardboard grey and grey brown, the latter being slightly more offensive) in the sense that I couldn’t eat, say, fermented mare’s milk or horse testicles (Mongolia – not that I’ve been), but I dislike it enormously and I have just realised that since writing this section I have been grimacing.  A lot.  I wanted so much to enjoy this meal.  Neither of us did.  The meat (sorry, F, I know you wanted the veggie version, though I suspect that wouldn’t have been without challenges either!) didn’t taste nice and the texture wasn’t pleasant, though some chicken was ok, and … I won’t flog this one.  I didn’t enjoy it in the slightest.  We also wonder whether the water and watery soap hand-cleaning ceremony that preceded this was what gave us our gippy tums.  We’ll never know.  As for the restaurant, we were too early for the main entertainment but we did hear a bit of the keyboard player and singer.  She was very good but it is not the kind of music – forgive me again – that I find easy to listen to.  Ouch, I sound really rude, but I’m afraid it’s true.  I am probably glad we weren’t there for the full show and dancing.  They did have coffee ceremony there but I know you have to have at least three coffees and it was the evening so neither of us were up for that!  It is a fascinating place and an experience, but, please, if you go with someone else, order one dish and share it.  Do not dismiss that advice.

On a final note, we went to a branch of La Parisienne, a pastry cafe billed as one of the best in Addis Ababa.  I reiterate what I said before about my image of a cafe and that in a very poor country being very different.  It was fine but, as with Yeshi Bunna, not somewhere I’d have otherwise stopped.  The one we went to served a decent cappuccino and the chocolate croissant was different to any other I’d eaten but was well made, warm and delicious.  But don’t expect pristine tables and anything remotely fancy or modern.  I know this makes me sound like a middle class snob and I did enjoy it but it takes longer than a few days to adjust to a city so staggeringly different and so staggeringly poor and I wasn’t there long enough to get my head around that.  I had no issue being there or eating there, I just felt very guilty for having a slight feeling of disappointment that a pastry shop and cafe billed as one of the best in Addis Ababa (a place with a reputation for excellent pastries) was at the bottom of a block of flats (I think), along a dusty, busy, chaotic road and the few pastries were displayed in a dirty, old display case and where the toilet was revolting (probably the worst toilet I’d used, though not because of anything horrible in the toilet bowl, just old, smelly, wet floor and precariously hung door and in my defence that was a few hours into my upset stomach, though shortly prior to it being truly awful).  I know, I know, I was in Ethiopia, I had no reason to expect a pristine cafe.  Anyway, our two cappuccinos and two pastries only came to less than £3.

We also went to Tomoca, a coffee shop chain, of which there was a branch in our hotel.  I tried a sprice (I think that’s right), which is a mix of black tea and black coffee!  I actually kind of enjoyed it, being a huge lover of both, but I wouldn’t want to try to recreate it.  I know it sounds weird to emphasise the obvious but at one moment it tasted of rich black tea, and another of strong, black coffee!  Surprising and interesting.  I would have liked to have visited a proper branch of Tomoca as I believe the coffee is roasted outside some of them.  The hotel one was a soulless cafe, unlike La Parisienne (!), that could have been part of any hotel anywhere in the world.

I will be amazed if anyone has read as far as the end of this, I got a bit carried away.  It was, to use a cliche, a real food and drink roller coaster, with extremes of loving and hating things.  I think I appreciate more now that we went into “local” places, such as Yeshi Bunna and Hebesha, and I am truly surprised to find myself feeling a bit nostalgic and “next time, I’ll go to …”  I guess the love/hate thing is kind of unusual for me.  When I first starting writing this, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and my slowly recovering delicate stomach, I was thinking that I will never go to Addis Ababa again and, thinking of the food and drink only, never would.  Now, very, VERY unexpectedly, I am finding myself thinking that I would go again (though it is is unlikely and if I went again not for work it would be to go somewhere outside Addis Ababa) and I would like to drink more coffee at Yeshi Bunna and other places where the coffee smell mingles with the delightful smell of charcoal, go to Castelli’s again, drink more avocado juice … I guess I would just, sadly, avoid the traditional Ethiopian food.  Oh, and there really is nothing quite like a chilled bottle of Coca-Cola!

As Addis Ababa is quite a full-on city, I thought that perhaps the most effective way to reflect that would be to kind of list things as they come to me in terms of what I saw walking about:

Dust.  Potholes so big you could lose a herd of goats down them (it transpires people get high on chat and disappear down such holes).  Goats with Golden Retriever type tails in herds by the side of the road.  People lying by the side of the road, not dead but not looking much better than that.  No road markings.  No traffic lights (I discovered there are 20 sets of lights in the city, only three of which work).  Lots of blue and white beat-up mini buses.  Blue and white Lada taxis.  Yellow taxis.  Taxis decorated inside with varying lengths of faux fur, some of which is long enough to billow in the wind.  Very retro, ludicrously un-roadworthy cars.  No open spaces so children playing by the side of the road, sometimes pipped at for being in the path of cars.  Surprisingly, reasonably slow drivers.  No mopeds or motorbikes or bicycles, or not that I can picture.  Lots of corrugated tin.  Streets lined with small businesses/shacks.  Lots of printing presses.  Very old-fashioned shop signs.  Areas with certain shops, for example an area full of old doors, another full of jewellery shops, another full of meat shops with meat hanging to dry (kind of spatchcock style cow).  Scaffolding made of wooden palings fence posts/glorified sticks.  People standing around.  People chatting to stall holders (shops that are makeshift tin boxes with a window counter).  Stall type shops crammed full of things.  Crazy writing that makes me picture stick people dancing wild dances.  Shop fronts and corrugated tin painted bright but mostly a bit faded and battered.  Chaotic road junctions that somehow work(though our driver suggested otherwise – lots of fatalities, which often result in the drivers moving the bodies to the side of the road as the police aren’t easy to call out).  Mountains beyond the city.  More low level high rise buildings than I expected in certain areas.  Not much lighting on the streets at night.  Traffic noises.  Breezy.  Warm to hot during the day, cool at night.  Food smells.  Smell of urine and sewage with a distinct whiff of death, particularly near rivers.  Residential shanty type streets made of large stones that cars probably can’t get up or down.  Hilly within the city.  Occasional whiffs of incense, charcoal burning and coffee.  Sometimes drivers stop at things that vaguely resemble zebra crossings.  Otherwise roads that seem impossible to cross but which somehow you manage to do without having to run or roll over a bonnet.  Rubble pavements, though at least there is a semblance of pavements.  Calm people.  People don’t seem to shout or go about their business noisily.  Children are the ones most likely to try to get money from you, sometimes reeling off a few poverty words, eg “no parents, no parents”.  Few white people walking around yet hotels like ours, Radisson Blu, full of white people.  Don’t feel particularly stared at.  Feels very much like a working city rather than (remotely) like a tourist city.  Nothing particularly beautiful in the architecture but hugely interesting in its grittiness.  Fruit and vegetable shops selling wonderful-looking produce.  Buildings going up everywhere; a staggering amount of construction work going on.  Corrugated tin panels to block off building sites.  No road signs to suggest there is a massive trench right by the road, for example.  A few areas of water running across the pavement, the water being a kind of pale grey.  People washing in filthy rivulets of water.  People lined up along pavements to sleep at night time.  Busy.  Lots of traffic noise and tooting.  A rigor mortis dog, like the one on the cover of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”.  Lots of dust covered trees and plants; more greenery than you’d expect. No sign of wealthy Ethiopians.  No houses and few apartment blocks (that we saw).  Poverty.  No expensive Western-style shopping malls or shops (though maybe there is an expat area?).  Lots of Coca-Cola.

The next instalments will be about food and drink (a sore subject at present!), a trip to a museum and my overall impressions of Addis Ababa.

At the risk of sounding a bit smug, believe it or not, I am heading to Ethiopia this evening.  I foresee adventures, and on waking up this morning I had a sudden burst of excitement at such a prospect.  It’s been far too long since I went somewhere a bit out of the ordinary and I realise how much I miss having adventures (I’m in danger of rose-tinting my passport-filled 20s!).  I’m trying to ignore the fact this is actually a work trip and in reality, assuming the flight is on time and we don’t have immigration issues (not as unlikely as I’m happy about due to the equipment I’m carrying), we only have tomorrow (after an overnight flight on which I know I won’t sleep) to explore.

It is great to feel this excited about a trip, though I reiterate there is a chance we could pretty much just see the inside of the Radisson Blu hotel (staying and working there).  Now I have read up a bit about Addis Ababa and have been in touch with a friend’s Ethiopian sister-in-law, I feel a bit more prepared than I did before I’d read anything.  I guess I am kind of picturing Accra as Ghana is the only non-Northern African country I’ve visited.  That was really exciting and just so different to anywhere I’d been before.  We are hoping to go to merkato, possibly Africa’s largest market.  This fills me with enormous excitement because markets to me are the soul of certain countries and cultures and tells you so, so much about a country and its people.  Unfortunately, my idyll of walking through wildly busy food stalls, inhaling aromas of spices and fruit and all things lovely has been somewhat scuppered by reading one person’s account of his trip to merkato, which he said was more excrement and rotting food than delightful aromas.  Oh dear.  Something I’d like to see that I was oddly fascinated by in Accra was palm nuts, which are a glorious deep orangey red and I remember there being massive buckets of them with silvery shovels in the buckets and they looked so beautiful.  Oh, this is all very exciting.  I have, however, read about safety issues, which fortunately are mainly pickpockets rather than violent crime.  I am also led to believe that, being women, we may have “fuck you” said to us and that awful hissing, which tends to send me into a seething rage!

More than anything, I am just looking forward to a change of scene and new sights and smells (not the poo though).  I am also very excited about the prospect of pretty much 12 hours of daylight with the promise (pretty much) of blue sky and sun.  If all goes to plan, my friend and I will dump our stuff at the hotel (arriving too early for check-in, assuming we land and get through immigration ok, something I am clearly fretting about) and head out to a place recommended by my friend’s sister-in-law which is good for breakfast brunch and the coffee ceremony I will be really disappointed if I don’t get to experience.  We will so be in need of caffeine to keep us going for our one day of exploring.  Seriously, how many people day trip to Addis Ababa from the UK?!  Right, need to finish packing …

I am having a mini break from blogging so I will no doubt next blog about how things were in Addis Ababa!

If all goes to plan with work, I will be flying to Ethiopia on Saturday night.  I realise that I know very little about Ethiopia and don’t know what to expect from Addis Ababa and I find huge interest in thinking about my expectations of a place before I read anything or go there.  So here goes – this could be a very short blog – this is what I think Addis Ababa might be like.

Ethiopia: famine, Band Aid, Abyssinia, Abyssinian cats wandering about, dusty.  Addis Ababa: smell coffee everywhere, shacks, no high rise buildings, colourful, frenetic markets, food sellers on the street, people sitting on the sides of roads, trees or plants covered in dust, noisy and busy, tall people, lots of different food smells, a lot of beggars and people following you around for money, mangy dogs wandering around.

That’s it, I think.  I have not seen much of Africa, just a few places in both Morocco and Ghana.  I am very much hoping the markets in Addis Ababa will be similar to those of Accra, which were a source of extreme wonder and fascination to me.  Unsurprisingly, I expect Addis Ababa to have a lot more in common with Accra than Marrakech and Fez, though I think Tangier’s more gritty, less touristy nature would have a tiny bit more in common with Addis Ababa.

I am going with a friend and we have one day off, which is a Sunday.  This disappoints me hugely as I am not sure the markets will be fully open and that is where I really want to go, if only to get a feel for the city and its people.  I love going to markets everywhere I visit, for me they offer a unique insight into a culture and I get a real buzz from them.  I am hoping to find some interesting silver to bring home.  I was given a beautiful Coptic cross pendant from Ethiopia, which I love.  It is a chunky, hand crafted, heavy piece of silver that I have always at times held for comfort because it warms up to the temperature of your skin.

As for the temperature, I have already had a look and it isn’t as hot as I was expecting, about 24 degrees at present, which I can survive in!  I also know it’s a city at fairly high altitude, hence I don’t need to take malaria tables (too high for the mozzies, whoop!).  It being that much cooler than I expected (I was thinking about ten degrees more) has surprised me but only because I expect it to be a lot hotter near the Equator and in a country with a painful history of droughts and famine.  But, yes, I know that Addis Ababa is a lot higher than the rest of the country, where those problems have been and are a reality.

As for the food, I have made reference to this already and it is the thing I am most concerned about!  As ever, I am looking forward to trying new things, I’m just worried I will be served something that is far too hot for my very delicate lips and mouth and I can’t abide the thought of leaving food in a country with so many poor and starving people.  That said, in Ghana I saw huge quantities of chillies added to food I would later eat and I survived ok, so maybe there’s hope.  I just need to steer very clear of the lime pickle that nearly caused me a mischief in Greenwich Market.  Oh, but after that distressing incident I did have a wonderfully thick, dark coffee.  I could live on coffee alone, right?! Oh, and I’d love to go to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  The idea of spending a long time loving and appreciating coffee seems the perfect way to spend the morning after an overnight flight!

Now I just have to hope the job doesn’t cancel, my visa comes through ok and I do actually get to fly there.  Very exciting.  Now I need to read up a bit about Addis Ababa and prepare myself.

I cannot and do not eat spicy food and for that reason alone there are certain countries’ food I have not experimented with.  For example, I love the idea of Mexican food but have rarely eaten any as chilli peppers do not agree with me.  However, yesterday I discovered I am probably going to Ethiopia for work next month and this has sent me into a bit of a chilli panic and my current thinking is to slowly introduce chillies into my diet, starting with a Thomasina Miers recipe for “chile* con carne” tonight (there is no way – NO WAY – I can add the four chillies she suggests in her ingredient list, albeit that one variety of chilli she suggests is supposed to be mild, though not available in my  local shops).

It is not that I am a chilli wimp, I have exceptionally sensitive lips and mouth and chilli makes my lips puff and tingle and it isn’t pleasant (I also get this from some fermented food and acidic food, eg oranges, touching my lips).  As a result of not being familiar with it, on the rare occasions I feel it rude to leave an entire meal based on the pain factor (really, truly, it can be pain rather than mere discomfort) my stomach goes into meltdown and I don’t think I need detail that further.

For my 21st birthday, a group of us went for a let’s-try-something-new birthday meal in San Francisco the night before flying back to the UK.  I loved the novelty of eating a new kind of food, all eaten with your hands using a foamy, tasteless pancake (injera, which, incidentally, is a sourdough flatbread made from fermented teff flour) but I struggled to eat much as it was so hot and full of ingredients that I really, really struggled to consume.  I also remember being in a degree of discomfort on the flight back the next day!

My only other experience of eating Ethiopian food was at a stall in Greenwich Market, about ten years after the San Francisco experience.  I recalled that it was hot but I also remembered that there were some amazing flavours, so asked which was the mildest dish and ordered accordingly.  It really was too hot for me but it was edible to a degree … until I ate a spoon full of a lime relish (or whatever, but I remember it was lime).  I was in genuine pain (as can be confirmed by at least two of the people who witnessed my suffering) and all I could do to save myself from exploding was to get it out of my mouth as quickly as possible.  Seriously, that hurt, and I haven’t even contemplated eating Ethiopian food again.

So you can see why I want to build up at least a tiny tolerance to hot food.  I am not someone who has any real interest going somewhere new and exciting and eating fish and chips.  For me, one of the best things about going abroad is trying new food and new flavours.  Plus, in a country that I associate primarily with famine, I do not feel it acceptable to leave any food.  However, for this trip I know my stomach needs to be settled and my lips not bright red and botox-looking as I am supposed to work for three days.

As for tonight’s chile con carne, I won’t be able to bring myself to use a whole chilli pepper even, let alone four.  Usually I will chop up about a tenth of a jalapeno (or similar sized) chilli and I will feel a bit of heat, which will be bearable.  I do not understand how some people can eat really chilli hot food.  Where are your tastebuds?  They must be shot to pieces!  I fear I will not do a good job of acclimatising my mouth but I wonder if I will find ways to at least make Mexican food palatable to me, for there are some amazing looking recipes in Miers’ cookbook.


*The spelling of “chilli pepper” has long bothered me.  In Thomasina Miers’ “Mexican Food Made Simple” there is “chile con carne” which has “ancho chillies” and “chiles de arbol”, so two of the three main spellings (chilli, chile, chili) in one recipe .  I get the impression, from a bit of Googling, that “chile” is the purist way of spelling it, largely because that’s how it is spelled in chile-growing countries.  Americans Americanized it to “chili” and Europeans largely use the “chilli” spelling.

et cetera