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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

The city of squeaky clean shoes

It turns out I was very wrong in assuming that a cozy room would automatically lead to quality sleep. For the third night in a row, I tossed and turned, falling asleep in a few short intervals before having to "wake up" at 4 am to board the bus to Addis half an hour later.

Needless to say, I was beyond feeling like shit at this point: I was a corpse with a cause (to drag my carcass to Addis). Thank God this was the final bus ride of the trip. And although it lasted close to eight hours (with a few breaks), it was a surprisingly pleasant ride. The seats were comfortable⏤no human sandwiching needed⏤and the company on board was cool (no blatant gawking this time). I even joined two of my male busmates, a lawyer and a journalist, for a quick breakfast of eggs and injera (inkolala tibs) during our longer roadside stop in Woliso.

Once in Addis, the bus dropped off passengers at both Jemo and Meskel Square. I got off at the latter stop and bartered with a cab driver to take me to the accommodation I had in mind: TYA Hotel.

Located on a side street off Meskel Flower Road near the Cuban Embassy, TYA is tucked away from the noise (with the exception of the chanting broadcasted over loudspeakers from the nearby church⏤seriously, 5 am? And why the eff do they need loudspeakers?), yet not far from Meskel, one of four major squares in Addis and also a popular workout spot. Locals can be found running through the steps (the entire distance covered by running the full length of each step is equivalent to a marathon).

Men kicking a ball around Meskel Square

I later took a walk around my new neighborhood and noticed quite a few armed military personnel stationed around the streets (I've seen a solid number of women in military uniform throughout my travels, which is also cool). I wondered if their presence had to do with past mass protests that have taken place around Meskel Square.

The most recent series of protests, led by the Oromo Liberation Front (previously considered to be a rebel group) erupted over the potential expansion of Addis Ababa into Oromo territory. Either way, with its large number of restaurants, hotels, and shopping centres, the area seemed safe enough at first glance. I would stay here for the week leading up to my departure.

Although I managed to sleep well, I didn't feel so hot when I woke up. I wasn't as bad as the previous day's state of animated corpse, but something unpleasant was lurking under the surface. I had developed a deep cough in the last few days (likely as a result of all the pollution I've been subjecting myself to, despite my best efforts of wearing a scarf over my face half the time) and my stomach was grumbling in a way that is only foreboding of bad shit (i.e., diarrhea).

By the time I finished breakfast (of course I couldn't resist the spicy ful, my favourite breakfast food), the bad feeling escalated to the point that I could barely stand, so I abandoned my plan to explore the city that day, instead horizontally holing up in my room. But on the bright side, I was relieved that I didn't have to commute while sick, and at least there were plenty of good medical facilities in Addis if the need arose. If I had gone to Chebera-Churchura, I would have been miserable and facing a fairly long commute to get back to the city.

That one miserable day aside, I ended up covering a lot of ground walking around Addis in the heat. Walking is always my preferred method for orienting myself, and after a few days, I had mapped out my immediate surroundings and was acquainted with the main parts of the city via the minibus routes (mostly by patient trial and error). Of course, you're a bit exposed on foot (i.e., more vulnerable to harassment and unwanted attention, especially being a solo female), and although this was a nuisance at times, I didn't let it deter me.

However, a line was crossed twice. On two separate occasions around Meskel Square, a boy grabbed my wrist/arm just to provoke me. In both cases, I yanked it away, growling "don't touch me" and resuming my stride while they laughed. These kids (younger teenagers, by my estimate) clearly did it for their own kicks rather than to be threatening, but it's still harassment, and I hadn't yet encountered this level of confrontation in my travels.

In fact, it was always young men, often sitting in small groups on the roadside, who shouted some kind of teasing remark my way⏤never crude or sexual remarks, just immature (and sometimes complimentary). Adult men were much more likely to say hello or ask how I was doing.

As for women, I found that they occupied public spaces in roughly equal numbers as men, but they generally paid me little attention. It's a bit unfortunate that I didn't have more interactions with women, and in hindsight, I wish I had been more proactive at striking up conversations with them when opportunities arose.

On that note (and I think I emphasized this in an earlier post), it's important to say that I never felt threatened in any circumstance whatsoever, and the number of friendly, welcoming people I encountered in Ethiopia far outweighed the disrespectful ones.

Even though I was feeling well below 100 percent and ignoring the fact that I rarely bicycle, my desperation to escape the heavy pollution of Addis led me to impulsively book a full-day mountain biking trip with Ethio Cycling Adventures, a company run by Chewy (nickname), a former competitive cyclist. And when Chewy asked how fit I was in our email exchange, I typed "very good shape" horizontally, from the false comfort of my bed.

Now, normally this is a true statement, and don't get me wrong⏤I love a good physical challenge. But I recognize that my assessment of my abilities at that precise moment in time was just a tad bit delusional. In fact, I think I've never overestimated myself so greatly in my entire life.

As Chewy and I biked up the steep cobblestone streets on the first leg of the journey (okay, Chewy biked and I ended up walking my bike up most of it), I knew early on that I would struggle, but it wasn't until we reached the forest and went off-road that I realized that being able to hike up mountains doesn't automatically translate into being able to bike up them. Not only was I unfit for biking up the hills at high altitude on rough terrain, but I didn't feel safe doing it. Thinking I could ride around all day in the mountains with Chewy, a seasoned pro, was a little irrational.

My one hard-earned view overlooking Addis

So, I threw in the towel before we barely started. Chewy was professional, patient, and good company, at least, and he treated me to two tall glasses of fresh juice afterwards (I think he felt bad). Luckily, it turned out avocado juice soothes all bicycle woes.

All in all, I had a bit of a bruised ego (and a bruised ass). I missed out on some beautiful views and it was a rather expensive learning experience (I insisted on paying Chewy for the anticipated full-day outing). Nevertheless, I would totally recommend Chewy as a guide for biking enthusiasts visiting Addis. He also organizes multi-day or multi-week tours that can include northern Ethiopia (the Simien Mountains). Not all his tours are so extreme⏤he also offers recreational rides in the city and suburbs, which I really should have opted for myself in hindsight.

As I hauled my bruised butt back into action the next day, what ended up being my favourite thing about Addis suddenly became apparent to me. All over the streets, small groups of young boys operate simple shoe-washing stations. Having your shoes washed (and repaired if needed) is something you do regularly as a local, so I imagine they have no shortage of business.

Not only are these guys super fast and efficient, but they even have a style about their work, adeptly removing the laces first, washing them, then wringing and hanging them out to dry before moving onto the shoes. The process involves dry brushing as much dirt as possible off the first shoe, wetting it with clean water, using soapy water and a sponge to scrub like crazy until no traces of grime are left, and then repeating the process for the other shoe⏤all for 10 birr (yes, I was given the local's price). I couldn't imagine paying only 10 birr for this kind of service, so I tipped big (which was met with big eyes).

All this is done while you're still wearing your shoes, and the whole process is strangely therapeutic. You just relax and people-watch from a chair in the shade (sometimes you have a canopy overheard) with your foot propped up on a stool. I swear it's the next best thing after a foot massage.

Feeling a subtle sense of loyalty, I ended up going to the same dude twice. Not only did he scrub all evidence of dirt off my sneakers and hiking boots, he also quickly sewed up the soles of my well-worn boots (which were becoming detached). I had such a fun time chatting with the boys in his shoe-washing gang. It's the unexpected, positive interactions like these that really touch me and form the essence of my travel experiences.

The final touch on the trip, however, was quite an epic display. On my last day in Addis, I stumbled into a parade (consisting of a marching band, a troupe of women dancing in traditional dresses, more dancers, and flag wavers) along Africa Avenue, one of the main streets coming from Meskel Square.

I had no idea what they were celebrating, but I didn't care. I needed no explanation. The emotion they were representing was perfectly understandable: pure joy.

I love it when I accidentally run into parades.


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