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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

A crashless course in Addis Ababa

As far as first impressions go, Addis Ababa has the coolest-sounding name of any place I've ever visited. Pronounced "add-iss ab-uh-buh" in English, it means "New Flower" in Amharigna (Amharic), Ethiopia's official language. (There are around 70 different languages spoken throughout the country!)

Spanning an altitude of 2350 to 2600 meters, Addis is the world's fourth-highest capital city. It's also located roughly in the center of the country, making it a great pivot point for traveling in any direction.

I landed in Addis in the late evening after a seven-hour direct flight from Frankfurt. I'm one of those people who always chats up my seatmate on a flight (provided they're receptive to conversation and not giving me the side eye before I open my mouth)—in this case it was Dave, an American gentleman with a heavy midwestern accent and a well-worn-in cowboy hat.

Now retired, I learned that he travels the world to volunteer-teach good agricultural practices to workers in developing countries. This purpose had brought him to Africa previously, and he was in Ethiopia on one such assignment. Dave was highly knowledgeable about agriculture and passionate about travel, even at his 60-something years. He had been to many remote places through work (Mongolia seemed to be his favorite country), and I was delighted to hear his stories. Simply put, he was an excellent seatmate and made the seven hours fly by.

Once I landed, I was met at the airport by my AirBnB host, Michael, who lives in a quiet neighborhood outside the city center, in a "subcity" called Nifas Silk-Lafto. I was a little surprised that the streets of the city were so empty, especially on a Saturday evening. It was late, but not that late (maybe 11 pm, i.e., 5 o'clock Ethiopian time). This was my first sign that the craziness factor must be lower in Addis than I was expecting.

Michael's lovely housekeeper, "Eetchyguyo" (no idea how to correctly spell her name in English, but this is how it's pronounced) invited me to join her for breakfast the next morning, consisting of yinjera firfir (torn-up bits of injera soaked in spicy, chili-based kai wot sauce with some chopped-up veggies) and my first cup of Ethiopian coffee, which was very strong—the coffee is meant to be served with an abundance of sugar, but I'm not into sugary coffee and took it black. Eetchyguyo added a tiny rue leaf from the garden, a herb that Ethiopians sometimes use to flavor their coffee. It gave the coffee an interesting taste, but not one that I was fond of.

After breakfast, Eetchyguyo came with me to pick up a few groceries in the neighborhood, and then I was on my way into the city center on my first African minibus (the main mode of public transport in Ethiopia, along with normal-sized buses). The thicker traffic had revealed itself, but since it was Sunday, it was pretty tame. No crashes or heart-stopping close-calls with other motorists Mario-Kart racing through the traffic, à la India or Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, there were very few motorbikes on the street at all.

In terms of population, Addis is currently the fourth-largest city in Africa, so naturally, I was expecting chaos on par with the likes of Delhi (where I had visited last year) and which, by my standards, was extreme (think Rainbow Road, the most difficult level in Super Mario Kart).

As I navigated the city by foot and crammed minibuses, I found a different scenario. I was genuinely surprised by the fairly well-maintained and organized state of the city. There are public toilets and garbage bins that aren't overflowing (in comparison to the street basically serving the dual purpose of both toilet and garbage bin in Delhi) and people calmly queued while waiting for the bus.

Gangs of women armed with straw brooms roam the streets, sweeping up dirt and debris from the sidewalks. Other women water the plant boxes that line the side of the road. Oh, and bonus: there are very few gaping holes in the sidewalks to fall into as a pedestrian.

The smell of burning incense mingled with freshly roasted coffee emanates from the little cafés along the streets, and some people wear their love for Jesus on their face, literally—I spotted a few women with (crudely drawn) cross tattoos on their foreheads and necks.

If the cross was not inked on their neck, it was around their neck—almost every single person, man or woman, wears a cross necklace. Some of them are heavy, ornate, and blingy (mostly men wore these); some are more inconspicuous and hang from delicate gold chains (favored by women); and other crosses are more stylized and made of wood (worn by both genders). I even caught sight of a Jesus background picture on the mobile phone of someone sitting next to me on the minibus, and another person reading bible verses from theirs (also on the minibus).

Oh, and I also spotted a few Rastafarians on the street, who stand out with their long dreadlocks and beanies striped with the Rasta colors (green, gold, and red). There is a small community of them in Ethiopia, with most living in Shashamane, a town in the south of the country. I noticed in my guidebook there is even a "Bob Marley intersection” in Addis.

These observations made sense—the majority of the country subscribes to Christianity (as Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant) and around 34% are Muslim (plus animism and other minority religions). Later in my trip, I had a casual conversation with an Ethiopian about religion, and he could not fathom how I did not have one. Religion is definitely a way of life here.

Navigating the Big City by Minibus

Public transportation is another story. Lacking a subway system, Addis relies on minibuses (along with normal-sized buses) to shuttle people around, and they run on Africa time.

The buses congregate at certain meeting points around the city and there are no signs or schedules, only drivers (actually, their "helpers" who collect the fare) yelling out the destination repeatedly (and sometimes incomprehensibly) until the minibus is full or over-full (which luckily doesn't take long in the city, but be prepared to get a little cozy with your neighbor because you will all be crammed in there like canned sardines). There are no fixed departure times. Sometimes a minibus driving on the street will call out to people standing on the curb along its route if a seat becomes available, and you can jump on spontaneously.

Luckily, my Bradt travel guide has a meaty section on Addis, including a very handy minibus map, so I had a rough idea of where to find the clusters of buses heading to one of the main drop-off points (Mexico Square, Piazza, Merkato, Megenagna, Arat Kilo, Siddist Kilo) in the vicinity of my destination. When in doubt, friendly strangers gladly pointed me in the general direction of the correct minibus, and I eventually found it.

I started to get the hang of all this later in my trip, but it was exhausting to get around.

The ubiquitous blue and white minibus (around the Piazza, with the Emperor Menelik II statue in the background)

When I set out for a second day of exploration on Monday, I had company—Aziz, a flamboyant, enthusiastic Australian with Eritrean and Sudanese heritage who was also a guest in Michael's home.

Getting across the city by bus and minibus on a weekday morning turned out to be an exhausting, long excursion, and our efforts to buy a local SIM card were futile. The first Ethio Telecom we tried (in Michael's neighborhood in Lebu) not only had technical difficulties but a roomful of people waiting for service. The second one near Piazza was even worse, with a gigantic line winding around the outside of the building that made us say "fuck it" in preference for spending our time out and about.

Me and Aziz, minibusing it like bosses

Nevertheless, we had fun wandering around the Piazza (on a quest to find Tomoca Coffee, which is commonly cited as having the best coffee in the city by both locals and foreigners) and bartering with taxi and Bajaj (basically a tuk-tuk) drivers to take us to Shola Market. Shola is a much less insane version of Merkato, Addis' largest market (and also happens to be the largest market in Africa—I decided to avoid it given its reputation as a hub for pickpocketers and wasn't in the mood for navigating the inevitable clusterfuck of people).

Staring into the dark, delicious depths of my coffee from Tomoca

Dude selling Africa maps outside Tomoca

A fairly deserted alley of Shola Market

One of the highlights among the amazing food scene in Addis is the pure, fresh fruit juice served up at juice bars and restaurants. Yes, it's a bit of a gamble sanitation-wise, but it's so, so delicious and a welcome treat in the heat. Avocado juice was hands-down my favorite.

Museums near Siddist Kilo and Arat Kilo

In my attempt to absorb some history during my initial stay in Addis, I visited the Ethnological Museum and the National Museum in one fell swoop because they are located in the vicinity of each other at the roundabouts Arat Kilo and Siddist Kilo (literally meaning 4 and 6 km from the city center, respectively). Both areas are main stops on the minibus routes and the museums are within quick walking distance.

Siddist Kilo roundabout

The Ethnological Museum is located on the very scenic Addis Ababa University campus, near Siddist Kilo. The building itself is the former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie (complete with a prison out back).

Haile Selassie's (emperor of Ethiopia from 1930–1974) backyard prison

Emperor Tewodros II meant serious business.

An exhibit at the Ethnological Museum displaying the clothing and stories of young rape survivors

Believe it or not, these are traditional pillows (my neck hurts just envisioning this).

The National Museum is best known for housing the bones of Lucy, our 3.5-million-year-old hominid ancestor (technically, the replica is displayed and the actual fossils are stored in the museum's archive) as well as other ancient and traditional artifacts, paleontological finds, and modern art.

Mother of Dragons?

What About Stranger Danger?

Although Addis is a big city, which in theory should be full of shady characters, I never encountered one. Quite the contrary. For example, during a water break at a café, two separate locals struck up a conversation with me, offering to share their injera and buy me a coffee, respectively (I graciously declined, but was happy to chat with them).

In another instance, a man insisted he talk with my Bajaj driver to make sure I was charged the local's price. I have a number of examples of similar kind gestures throughout my trip, but the "big city mentality" that we associate with the West (as in, unfriendly urbanites) didn't seem to exist in Addis. Obviously, my perception as a foreigner passing through is somewhat superficial, but my first impressions were of a warm, welcoming city.

Probably 99% of the time it was men who talked to me, yes, but I perceived none of this as creepy, invasive, or preamble to a marriage proposal—only helpful and considerate. In fact, the general perception of Addis is that it's quite safe, with rare incidences of violent crime.

Local Versus Faranji Prices

My Bradt guide warned me to expect discrepancies in cost as a foreigner (faranji) for hotels and food, but to my knowledge (I could have been shown a separate price list, in theory), I did not encounter this in Addis (or anywhere else, for that matter). Even for market merchandise, I always felt like I was being charged the genuine value of an item.

For transportation, only taxis and Bajaj drivers occasionally upped the cost of the ride (which was always fixed for bus and minibus). I was expecting to have to barter far more than I did. In India, pitching significantly higher prices to foreigners is the norm and bargaining is like an extreme sport.

I noticed more and more subtle details later in my trip when I revisited the city, but this much I could glean right off the bat. Of course I was harassed or singled out as a foreigner to an extent, but I found that the forwardness of touts and beggars towards me was considerably higher in Delhi, even though the locals are used to encountering foreigners in both cities. In Addis, comparatively fewer people on the street tried to sell me anything, and if they did, they gave up easily after I politely declined (or ignored them, depending on my mood).

Overall, it was a relatively gentle introduction to Addis (definitely compared to what was to come in other regions of Ethiopia).


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