Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - A Couple of Days to see the Sights
Addis Ababa Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
Addis Ababa was not quite what we expected. Before arriving in the Ethiopian capital, Angela and I had visions of a fully-blown Third World city: dust everywhere, masses of poor people dressed in rags, shacks and huts along the sides of roads, beggars suffering from the worst pestilence and hunger imaginable, and in the middle of it all, Bob Geldof asking why the feck we weren’t giving more money.
But it wasn’t like that at all. For a start, the vast majority of people we saw on the streets of Addis Ababa were well dressed, quite a large proportion dressed in western-style clothing. There were plenty of shops and even a few small malls to cater for the upwardly mobile.
That said, there were still enough reminders to tell us that we were not in New York or Hong Kong. For a start, the smog was bad, mostly coming from the cars clogging up the streets. Above our heads circled the vultures and kites, searching out scraps of carrion. And then there were the homeless people, quite often lying comatose by the side of streets, wrapped in dusty old clothes and being sniffed at by the feral dogs.
* * *
Despite being one of the most successful and profitable airlines of Africa, Ethiopian Airlines customer service centre still received calls from worried Westerners inquiring whether food would be served aboard their flights.
After obtaining the visa from a dodgy-looking side room, we were then ushered to the front of a queue reserved for diplomats and aircrew. Why we had been allowed to bypass the long line of locals waiting at the other booths we couldn’t guess, but giving Ethiopia the thumbs up were soon stamped into the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and one the way to our hotel.
The Harmony Hotel was only five minutes away from the airport, located in a bustling area full of construction. From our balcony we had a good view of the surrounding city as well as the shell of a building covered in wooden scaffolding.
Tomoca Cafe was a popular place to hang out and we weren’t the only Westerners in attendance. From what we could gather a tour group had arrived just before us and I remarked to Angela about the number of sightseers we had already seen in the city.
We left the cafe and decided to follow our own navigation down Churchill Avenue, a long stretch of road comprising of shops, cafes, bus stops and people sat around doing nothing in particular. The weather was perfect though, an uplifting 23 degrees Celsius (which it was more or less all year round), just warm enough for T-shirts. “I’ll tell you what I have noticed,” I said as we ambled along. “It’s that I’m getting short of breath a bit more here.” I was referring to the fact that Addis Ababa was located at an altitude of about 7500ft, making it the fourth highest capital city in the world. The lack of Oxygen in the air meant that our lungs were working overtime.
“Hello! How are you both?” said the young Ethiopian man who had just approached us. Like many of his compatriots he was a wiry individual with close-cropped hair. “My name is Job – a Biblical name as I’m sure you know – and I am wondering what you are doing here in Addis Ababa?”
Job looked to be in his mid-twenties and seemed friendly enough. His English was good and he didn’t seem to have any concealed weapons about his person, but nevertheless his presence still put us on our guard. It is a sad fact of travel that whenever an unannounced person tries to make your acquaintance, it is usually as a precursor to extract money in some way or another. Angela and I walked away from him; heading off to what we hoped was a set of shops just down Churchill Avenue.
“So are you here as tourists or for business? And by the way, I can’t help but notice that you, sir, look like an American film star. Perhaps you are one? Am I wrong?”
Instead of lying down on the pavement showing my exposed abdomen whilst simultaneously proffering my open wallet towards him, I smiled and walked on. By my side Angela said nothing; clearly feeling the same as me. While Job chatted on about football and other such trivial matters, we passed a large roundabout with a large canon as its centrepiece. After negotiating an assortment of beggars, traders and shysters (as Angela so eloquently put) we arrived at a point on the road where we were sure we had gone wrong. All three of us stopped and so I took the opportunity to engage Job directly.
“Look. Are you going to follow us about all day or have you got anything else to do?” Job’s smile disappeared to be replaced with a look of confusion and so I continued. “Because we are fine by ourselves. We don’t need you to look after us.”
Job nodded. “I understand. I will go now. And I’m sorry to have made you feel uncomfortable.” With that he turned on his heels and blended in with the crowd heading south on Churchill Avenue. Satisfied that we had got rid of Job, but also feeling guilty in case he hadn’t been a shyster, we headed back up the hill and caught a taxi back towards the Harmony Hotel.
Instead of entering the hotel though, we elected to go for a bit of a wander in the local vicinity and so headed south along Bole Road.
Gabriel was aged thirty and was our tour guide for an afternoon of sightseeing in Addis Ababa. He spoke excellent English and wasted no time in leading us to the car which came complete with driver.
Lucy, of course, was the skeleton of hominid woman dating from 3.2 million years ago. It had been an immensely important discovery for science and the remains were contained within the museum. However, had we not been with Gabriel, I’m pretty sure we’d have walked right past the pile of old bones inside the glass cabinet. The room they were contained within was not specially lit or sign posted either and the actual display cabinet was just plonked at the back. But now that we knew what they were, we looked at them more closely.
As well as Lucy, the museum contained the usual assortment of pots, weapons, tools and clothing – the same sort of stuff found in museums all over the world. If Angela and I had been left to our own devices, we’d have seen the lot in about ten minutes, but with Gabriel following us, we felt obliged to stare are the offerings for longer than usual. “Hmmm, this is an interesting bit of pot,” I said to Angela.
I was bored to hell, and couldn’t help but stifle a yawn. Angela was bored too and so we tried to move around the exhibits at a nippier pace. “Hold on!” said Gabriel, “You’ve missed this out. And it is very interesting because....” And so we slowed down to look at the pot in question a bit more carefully.
“Tell me,” asked Gabriel an hour later as we headed back to the car. With the museum thankfully ticked off the list, we were about to to head about ten kilometres up to Entoto, a place where we could get a good view of Addis Ababa from above. “What are the houses like in England?”
As we set off, we told him that some were very big and some were very small.
Gabriel looked pensive for a second or two before saying that he thought he would perhaps like to live in England. I nodded but told him that it was usually cold and windy and usually raining too. I added that everything was so expensive as well. “I understand all of that, but what I’m thinking of is the overall quality of life. You must agree that the average quality of life is better in England than it is here in Ethiopia.”
We began a drive up a steep curving hill populated by donkeys, goat herders and women carrying back-breaking amounts of fire wood on their backs. Gabriel informed us that the women did the trip twice a day and would sell what they had collected for a few birr. I looked at one woman passing our car and couldn’t believe the amount of wood that had been bundled and tied to her back. God help her if she ever fell down because she’d never be able to get back up again, I thought. I commented that it appeared to be only women doing the carrying and not men. Gabriel smiled at told me that carrying these bundles was seen as women’s work.
At the top of the hill was a colourful church as well as a good lookout point. The sprawl of Addis Ababa could be seen with a backdrop of mountains in the distance. After snapping off a few photos we headed along a stony path to the old Palace of Emperor Menelik.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from the palace but it certainly wasn’t what greeted us. Instead of a stately home, or perhaps a grand building, the palace comprised of a few large huts overlooked by a tall tree with a couple of squawking vultures perched in its branches. Nearby a young boy sat with his goats and eyed us as we followed Gabriel into one of the huts.
It was the largest of the huts and once inside we found that there was nothing there, not even a single exhibit or picture. For this I was glad, because it meant that we wouldn’t have to feign interest in an old bowl or spoon. But despite its bareness, Gabriel still led us through the various rooms, including a large gathering room. “That is where the Emperor and his wife would sit during important banquets,” he explained. “And this is where the food would be served.”
After snapping off a photo of the boy with his goat (for which he was paid one birr) the three of us stood about enjoying the clean mountain air. Up here the air was perfect, the opposite of the fume-filled atmosphere of downtown Addis. There was lots of greenery too and the countryside in the hills was quite breathtaking. After a few minutes, Gabriel told us that we’d drive back down the hill to Merkato.
Merkato claimed to be the largest open air market in Africa, but to us, it wasn’t so much outdoor as located inside an endless array of shacks and holes in the wall. Gabriel said that because it was Saturday, the busiest day for trading, together with the high probability of being pick-pocketed, we wouldn’t actually stop in Merkato, but would instead drive through so we could get a taste of what was on offer.
According to the Lonely Planet, it was possible to buy camels and weapons in the market but Angela and I saw no evidence of this as we drove through the busy market. To be honest, it didn’t look that impressive either, and was nowhere near the league of say, the markets of Marrakech or Damascus. The majority of stalls seemed to be peddling clothes and shoes and after perhaps twenty minutes, we bid Merkato farewell and headed back to the hotel. After saying goodbye to Gabriel and the driver, we left behind the grit and dust of the street and stepped into the comfort of the Harmony Hotel. The next morning we headed back to the airport for our flight to Zanzibar.
So what did we make of Addis Ababa? Quite a lot actually. Angela managed to sum it up quite well. “The people are very nice, the prices are very cheap and if you manage to get outside of the actual city, then the countryside is really quite breathtaking. I mean, when we went up that mountain road, I could’ve stayed there for ages just watching people going about their daily business. So yes, Ethiopia was good.”
-Lots of coffee
-Seems quite safe
-The countryside surrounding Addis Ababa is quite beautiful
-Not that much to see (unless you like museums)