As one of the major hubs for Africa, a direct flight from Heathrow landed me on the 4th of April into Addis Ababa – a memorable favourite for the timeless drinking game ‘capitals of the world.’ Due to Ethiopia’s stability in Africa’s post colonial era, it had evolved into effectively the capital for Africa. The home to the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa . The city definitely resembled other African metropolises I had seen, but yet it had a easy going demeanour.
One beneficial hangover from Italian occupation coupled with being the original home of coffee means that Macchiatos are plentiful and taste superb. Going for anywhere between 4 and 10 birr (14 birr to the NZ dollar), it was easy to acquire a habit for them. Coupled with cheap cell phone services and great reception throughout the country, it was hard to know who was developing and who was developed when coming from England – the land of the burnt bland coffee and terrible cell reception. Not that NZ’s cell reception can talk. Perhaps there is something to be said about Ethiopia’s socialist leaning government monopoly on infrastructure such as cell phones.
Addis is going through what seems to be a massive transformation, as part of the development that is happening in all of Ethiopia and most of the continent. The amount of roading that is occurring is dramatic – most of the arterial routes are being rebuilt, many with Chinese foremen shouting orders due to their countries infrastructure investment that is occurring. What results is convoluted trips down side roads, across small sections of existing roads and the odd new section. Attempts on the first day to navigate from my guest house near the airport into town were a bit adventurous to start with. It was soon apparent that I was going to have to be careful with my possessions. The cost of cabs in Addis are similar to back home – about 150 birr ($10) to get into town. However, taking the minibuses that ply the major routes are a lot cheaper ranging from 1 to 5 birr. So for the frugal minded, that was the way to go. It does rely on a bit of knowledge about where the vans go, and where to find the right departure spot. It was soon apparent that if I walked up to a stack of minivans with a puzzled look on my face, I was clearly a ferenji (foreigner) with possessions for the taking. Hands grasping at pockets and my camera bag had to be swatted away and some stern verbs used. Ethiopia has very high tax on cars, costing about 2 to 3 times the cost of the car. Resultantly, all of the taxis are Blue Ladas from the 70s, most with limited amounts of working functions and all with voluminous black smoke billowing.
My first dabble into Ethiopian fare was a mixed bag. The local staple is Injera, a sour pancake made from Teff, which is a type of cereal. These greyish pancakes are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner with differing vegetables or meat to go with it. The country has a majority of orthodox christians, who celebrate Easter in late April. They also have a longer lent (55 days i think), to compensate for the nights of the 40 days of standard lent. During lent, in most places only fasting food is on offer, with an absence of meat, eggs or nuts. What i was hoping was going to be some hot curry meat, tibs fir fir was in fact a very sour variety of injera with curried veggies. Not great, but definitely edible. My menu choosing needed some refining. A bottle of St George beer (St George seems to take pride of place in the Orthodox church for some reason), and some hot chips sorted things out.
A friend from London had sung the praises of the mango avocado juice you can get. Not exactly juice consistency I was used to, this smoothie thickness drink was amazing, for only about 10 birr (70c), went down a treat with a squeeze of lime.
Being a landlocked country without easy port access, I was surprised to find that the railway to Djibouti (a small neighbour nestled in between Somalia and Eritrea, and home of a French naval base and commercial port on the red sea) had more than ran into disrepair. I had had thoughts of hopping on a train or bus to Djibouti as I had heard great things about the diving in the Red Sea there, as well as some vast desolate lunar landscapes that are found inland. With flights costing about $600, that wasn’t an option for a few day side trip, and on seeing the railway station, it was clearly apparent that things had stopped working there some time around the invention of the wheel. Dad is a keen railway enthusiast, so I took an obligatory photo of the dilapidated station, much to the amusement of the locals looking on.
The next day was spent exploring the museums of Addis. The Awash valley of Ethiopia which flows out of the central highlands of Ethiopia to the north, is the site of the the most famous of the world’s Paleontological sites. Faint memories of australopithicus, homo erectus and other names that were funny to pubescent teenage boys, could be barely dredged from biology class memory. With fossils discovered dating back 4 million years, the most famous of these is Lucy, named by Donald Johanson who discovered her in 1974, after Lucy in the sky with diamonds, which was a hit for the Beatles at the time. Housed in the National Museum, she is called ‘Dinknesh’ by the Ethiopians, meaning ‘wonderful’, and is the most complete human ancestor skeleton ever found, belonging to Austrolopithecus afarensis and dates to 3.2 million years ago. The museum also housed several other bit of bone, teeth and basic implements from precursors and other humanoids in between. Aside from the paleontological displays, the rest of the museum was quite underwhelming.
A bit further up the road was the Ethnological museum, housed in Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace. Haile Selassie has a cult like following in Ethiopia, and even more so in the worldwide Rastafarian community which perceives him as the returned messiah. Leading the country from 1916 until 1974, broken only by his time in exile during the Italian occupation, he was a strong leader domestically and internationally. Noted for his small stature but surprisingly big feet, his face remains a common sight on posters and clothing throughout the country. Eventually overthrown in a revolution with his death soon after in dubious circumstances, which heralded the period of control by the Derg, a soviet backed communist military junta, and with it, genocide, civil war and the famous famine of 1984-1985 which was largely due to intentional counter-insurgency policies against the northern opposition areas. It was eventually overthrown after rebels from the northern province, Eritrean separatists (Eritrea was part of Ethiopia at this point) and other uprisings led to collapse as the Soviet backed support disappeared in the late ’80s.
The museum housed displays of every day traditional life in Ethiopia, detailing their cultural practices, intricate coffee ceremonies, nomadic lifestyle of those living in the desert lowlands, and other nuances of Ethiopian life. The museum is in the grounds of Addis Ababa university, and I had a uni student approach me offering a guided tour of the museum, under the auspices of wanting to practice his english, which he apparently was studying along with italian and german in order to work in the burgeoning tourism industry. Trying to work out where people that approach you on the street lie on the continuum of genuinely helpful locals that are proud of the country and keen to be hospitable, through to touts that either blatantly entice you to their sponsored establishment, or more subtly get you to sign up to some services they and funded by. He was a pretty helpful guy, and gave a good run down of traditions of the country, and was reluctant to accept a small tip (about $2) at the end. I figured he was somewhere on the genuinely helpful end, rather than the rip off merchant end. He promised to get in touch with his cousin who lived in the north and would help with sorting out a look around the sights without being ripped off.