Addis Ababa is the world’s third highest capital city, and lies in the central highlands of Ethiopia with its population of more than three million. I arrived here late Thursday night and navigating Bole International Airport felt rather like riding an anxiety-inducing carousel.
I got to my hotel room at the Queen of Sheba and basked in the luxury of running water, a television, a king-sized bed and wireless internet in the room. The 68 degree weather of Addis feels impossibly freezing after sunny Rwanda, and it has rained off and on since I arrived. I spent my first day here walking around and felt a little overwhelmed by the size and bustle of Addis compared to Kigali. There is a startling parade of polio victims, ragged street kids, beggars, and as my guidebook says rather perfectly, “taxi drivers and hawkers clamoring for your attention, and con artists and pickpockets doing their utmost to divert it.” Yet beneath all that, there is an attitude to Ethiopia that is both alluring and impressive.
Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized, as Emperor Menelik II successfully defeated the Italian army in the battle of Adwa in 1896. I visited the Addis Ababa Museum yesterday, detailing this triumphant history, and the pride Ethiopians feel comes across quite clearly. Many Ethiopians do not even consider themselves Africans, and are adamant about this distinction.
One such example of this almost stubborn assertion of independence is Ethiopia’s calendar. Ethiopia did not drop the Julian calendar in 1582 when the rest of the Christian world did, and it never has. The calendar consists of 13 months, of which 12 last 30 days and the remaining month lasts only 5. The Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11th, and whereas we are the year 2008, Ethiopia just celebrated the year 2000. As one Ethiopian man told me yesterday, “while America was sad, Ethiopia was cheering—but it’s not why you think!” When I was walking around, and didn’t yet know this fact, I thought that Ethiopia had just taken a few years too long to take down their quite ornate celebratory 2000 signs all over town…
Today I visited the Mercado, which proudly claims the title of largest open-air market in Africa. I was lucky enough to meet a Jordanian and Australian here on business who know their way around pretty well, and I was grateful to be with them as we wandered the maze of roads lined with stalls, kiosks, and small shops where you could buy almost anything you could imagine. Our taxi driver on the way over pointed out the window as we entered the Mercado area, and said matter-of-factly, “You need a Saudi passport? You go there.” He pointed at another aisle of stalls stretching in another direction, “You need some kind of certification with 15-years experience? You go there.” I didn’t buy either of those things, but I did come away with several beautiful Ethiopian shawls. My Jordanian companion was a natural haggler: he bargained with ease, humor and a ferociousness that was a marvel to behold. We would leave a shop having bought something for less than half of the original price we’d been told, and the shopkeeper would be chuckling and inviting us over for tea at his house later.
The little paths were sludgy and mostly just muck, but the market smelled alternately amazing and nauseating. When we walked down the spice market section, it was overpowering and wonderful—all the spices, colors, and things I’d never seen. To combat the less inspiring smells of the market, shopkeepers spread some kind of grassy plant all over their floors, which, when stepped on, release a very soft but aromatic freshness.
In one shop, we were chatting away with the vendor, when he suddenly yanked the cloth door closed, got very serious and said, “shhhhh, there’s a guide out there…”, pointing ominously towards the path we’d just come from. A “guide” in the Mercado is someone who offers, and more often forces themselves on tourists, luring them into a shop and then robbing them. Our shopkeeper was so warm and protective of us, that we spent a particularly long time haggling and laughing with him afterwards, purchasing many lengths of cloth and embroidery. All in all it was a fabulous afternoon, and I fell in love with Addis a little bit more.
Went to dinner with these two newfound traveling friends, at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Bole Road, run by an Armenian woman and known for its excellent atmosphere. A man from Yemen named “Jimmy” provides live music there every night, and he knew the Jordanian man with me. Apparently Jimmy had a five-star restaurant in Yemen that was blown up a few years ago…now he travels around the Middle East and Eastern Africa, singing and playing at restaurants. He joined our table on his breaks and chatted, this old man character with few teeth, a few missing fingers, and a firm belief that camel milk cures HIV. We ate well, drank some infamous Ethiopian coffee, talked endlessly about what it means to be Arab in today’s world, and came home happy.
One last day in Addis, then the final leg of my journey—home tomorrow evening!