Our African adventure began in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital – and the world’s third-highest capital city, sitting at 2,400 metres above sea level. Emperor Menelik II founded the city-state in 1887, but thanks to capital investment and expansion funded by tax revenue and Western aid, Addis Ababa’s skyline is rapidly transforming.
The prevalence of tower cranes, bamboo-stick scaffolding, and concrete rubble lend the city a decidedly post-apocalyptic vibe. New developments rise menacingly above shantytown slums constructed of wood, mud and corrugated metal, creating a fascinating visual dichotomy.
Accommodation & Amenities
Knowing that we would spend much of our journey ‘roughing it,’ we sought relative luxury for our stay in Addis. We found just that in Jazly – a B&B owned and managed by an Ethiopian-American family that was the perfect blend of both cultures. We rented the entire house for our three-day stay in the city at an affordable rate of $450/day, warmed by the knowledge that the family uses some of the B&B’s revenues to support the 450-student school it owns.
The highlight of our stay – beyond the scrumptious, complimentary breakfast that introduced me to the frothy delights of the avocado smoothie – was the B&B’s manager, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Barrack Obama, and was every bit as witty and dynamic. Over several illuminating late-night and early-morning conversations, we drew out his story: He studied to become a lawyer, spent three years at the Baha’i in Israel, and is now considering going back to university to study sociology.
The frequent failure of the B&B’s wi-fi and wired internet connections was the only downside, but this is an issue experienced city-wide, even at the newer mainstream hotels like the Radisson. We learned that Ethiopians affectionately refer to their spotty-at-best wi-fi as why?-why? – with good reason. If you’re the type of person who suffers from smartphone withdrawal, you will not enjoy Ethiopia – but if you can manage to unplug from the connected world, you will find connection on a deeper level here.
A Rich Culture of Contrasts
No stay in Addis Ababa is complete without a trip to the Mercato – the Italian name an echo of the colonial administration of the late 1930s. The largest outdoor market in the world, the Mercato is a chaotic, dizzying assault on the senses – bustling with people, brimming with colour and texture, a cacophony of sounds both human and animal. It’s loud. It’s gritty. It’s local life in macrocosm. We paid a market security officer to serve as our guide, taking us to the areas we knew would provide the best opportunities for photographs – spice market, fruits and vegetable market, automotive market. It was well worth the birr, as he and his stick dissuaded ‘brokers’ and scammers from approaching us. A large group of white people – a small blonde woman among them – attracts attention.
In my last post, I noted that Ethiopia is often referred to as the cradle of civilization – in part because its history can be traced to the Aksum Empire of two millennia ago, with its former capital in the north the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Fossils of our human ancestors dating back five million years have been found in the country, with the fossilized remains of 3.2 million-year-old hominid Lucy the most celebrated of discoveries. We visited Lucy at her home in the National Museum, and at first I was a bit surprised at the modest display. I soon discovered that modesty is simply the Ethiopian way, something I would come to appreciate more as I traded my Western lens for a wider-angled one.
On the seedier side of the culture coin, Addis Ababa boasts a vibrant nightlife scene. You can enjoy live Ethio-Jazz every night of the week at clubs like Jazzamba Lounge. A heady musical cocktail of the traditional and modern, the singers we heard perform at the charmingly rustic lounge increased our love for the local sound. Bonus: the drinks are fire-breathingly stiff.
One thing I’ve learned through my travels is that if you enjoy people watching, there’s no better place to do it than at a local sporting event. I’ve been to a baseball game in Havana, a Muay Thai match in Bangkok. Both pale in comparison to the electrifying experience of an Africa Cup of Nations football match. The street leading to the Addis Ababa Stadium was closed the day Ethiopia took on Mali, so Gabe and I wound our way on foot through the crowd that snaked the length of the street in a sinuous and seemingly endless line. I was a bit nervous that the locals wouldn’t take kindly to foreigners edging in on the ticket purchase line, but they gamely waved us through to the front of the line.
At the ticket booth, we were told we’d need to go in right away – two hours before the match – if we wanted to get a seat, so we rounded up the rest of our group and headed in to the fast-filling stadium. The mid-afternoon sun was searing that day, leaving us sweaty and sluggish in our hard plastic seats. Soon, the energy of the crowd would give us a boost. Ethiopians support their national team with a zeal bordering on the unholy – we spotted jerseys on kids and adults of all ages in the country’s most remote villages. In Addis, that zeal reaches a fever pitch. The locals, infinitely amused that a group of foreigners came to cheer wildly alongside them, welcomed us into the fray. We spent more time watching the people, and snapping some amazing portraits, than we did the disappointing action on the pitch. When it became clear that Mali would overpower the home team, we slunk out quietly to avoid superstitious grumblings about foreigners bringing bad luck in with them.
We stepped away from the frenzied pace of the city, and its omnipresent cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, on a drive to the 3,200-metre peak of Mount Entoto. A sacred place marked by monasteries and churches, the mountain was once home to Emperor Menelik II and his palace, and is densely blanketed with the eucalyptus trees imported during his reign. The ride up offered yet another glimpse into the everyday life of Ethiopians, as we watched women, girls and children carrying impossibly large bundles of firewood down to the city for sale or home use.
The view from the top overlooking the city is breathtaking. As we scanned the horizon, we instinctively knew why emperors and clergy alike chose to rule from its peak. The wind tickling your face, feet planted precariously on rocky ground dotted with the most delicate of flowers, you feel like you’re in the presence of royalty. You are. Her name is Mother Nature – looming quietly over human progress as ever she has – and she, like Addis Ababa, is resplendent.
Stay tuned for the next installment in my Eyes on Ethiopia series: The Road Less Travelled.