- Malachy Harty.
We've made it to the third capital city on their public transport adventure from Cairo to Cape Town. Addis Ababa has been a welcome break from the rustic challenges of North Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharaic. It is no more like a fresh blossom than any city I’ve ever been in. We had come from the north by shared Landcruiser, a cramped 9 hour trip. We traveled on Saturday, when markets all over Ethiopia are held, so the roads were busy with animals and produce. As we rounded a hilly corner, we saw the city spreading out below us, large buildings and a few shiny new sky scrapers peek out through a threadbare blanket of green trees enjoying the wet season. Where the green cover has worn away, we saw the swathes of red and brown tin roofs of poorer shops and homes. Even here in one of Africa’s poorest countries, awash with hunger and poverty, we find it’s been too easy to settle in and enjoy the creature comforts of a large town, such as a clean hotel room and a wider selection of food.
The first thing we noticed was the style. In the countryside we were taken with the traditional dress – those lovely white blankets everywhere. The elegant young people here have abandoned these quaint garments and could certainly teach us a thing or two about dress. Men talk on modern mobile phones as they sip macciatos in stylish suits. Young women have taken the national enthusiasm for tightly braided patterned hair to extremes. They wear very fashionable outfits which, at times, turn the high streets into veritable catwalks.
In stark contrast to this stunning style, there are beggars and homeless people lining the grassy verges of the busy streets. The old men and the lame walk using sticks around the open doors of the blue and white Toyota minibuses which ply the city routes. Hands and eyes are outstretched to passengers. They sometimes receive small change - about a cent. Women lie on street corners in groups. Young, shoeless, children scamper to us when they see us coming. “You”, “bread”, “one birr”, they call excitedly as they crowd around our heels. It was very upsetting at first but now we get impatient with them for barricading our way.
The best thing for us about Addis is the food. In the north, we painstakingly searched out faranji (foreigner) food and national food. Getting good vegetables was always a challenge. Here, we have a great choice of world cuisine. Conscious of more limited choice in the south, we are shamelessly eating good and varied meals. The reality of the city’s poverty lies on the doorsteps of these restaurants.
Since arriving in Africa, the coffee has only got better. We have found the Italian 1960s style, Tomoca Coffee House, near our hotel. Coffee plants line the doorstep. In the morning, the air is almost too thick with the smoke of roasting coffee from a large vat in a back room. A woman stands near a straw basket of freshly roasted beans, inviting the pungent smoke towards her with her hands. Colourful paintings and maps of Ethiopian and World coffee line the yellow walls. Old grinders are filled with different varieties of beans, ranging from light green and brown to pitch black. Large dispensers are labeled with blends; Famiglia, Turco, U.S.A., Bar and Swedish types. We sip sweet frothy macciatos, a reminder of the Italian invasion here in the 1930s. Men stand with shots of espressos at the high counters, heads turned towards the BBC World News on a loud television.
Everywhere in Ethiopia, televisions in restaurants and cafes assault customers with 24 hour football and news. In our hotel lobby, two televisions fight for viewers. One local station in Amharaic screams over international news in English. Television has ruined many a supper.
We are staying at the Taitu Hotel, the oldest in Ethiopia, in the cheapest of the rooms. Less than five Euro a night for quite a bare chamber with spotless sheets on the slightly bumpy beds. It’s the best value and cleanest accommodation we’ve had in ages. It may even be free of fleas, which have plagued us for the last three weeks.
The merkato in Addis is among the biggest markets in Africa. We had been warned that pick pockets are rife here, so we took the minimum. Market stalls line the dirty, hilly Addis streets and large covered halls are filled with tiny clothes stalls. The district will soon be dominated by a mammoth shopping centre which is under construction. In the mean time, donkeys are still ushered through the crowds, boys roll deafening empty oil drums along the street and men chew the narcotic qwat leaves in the shade.
One of Addis Ababa’s main attractions is the world’s oldest known hominid at the National Museum. In the basement of the museum, visitors are taken on a simple and enjoyable tour of fossils, carbon dating, and reconstruction of prehistoric environments. The grand finale of the accessible school kid tour is a small room containing the skeleton of Lucy, who was discovered in North East Ethiopia in 1974. The rest of the museum is divided into well presented 19th and 20th century clothes, contemporary art and an ethnology section.