Addis Ababa (“New Flower”) is a pretty special place. When I first arrived I was shocked to find it less hectic than other places I’ve travelled in Asia. I guess I expected it to be more like Hong Kong. The people here are mellow and laid back. Looking out the window you will see maybe a hundred people on the street, as opposed to heaving masses of thousands of people. Life is simple here and people live within their means, a refreshing reprieve from the western world, where everyone consumes in excess and takes everything for granted.
Addis is the third highest capital city in the world, at 24oom above sea level. This ensures beautiful yet comfortable days with temperatures at a steady twenty or so degrees most of the time, and ten to fifteen degrees at night. No one really knows the population of Addis. Some estimates state 3 million, others say that ten million is closer. I don’t think there is really a way of knowing.
There is no order to Addis. Everything is everywhere! Restaurants, homes, shops, grocers and supermarkets all exist amongst each other. Although there are certain streets where you might go to find hundreds of stationary shops or areas that sell mostly only furniture, you can find almost anything anywhere. Restaurants are scattered throughout the city without organisation so it always feels like a lucky dip. It’s fantastic.
The main area where foreigners live is the Bole area. This is close to the airport and town. Restaurants here are more expensive and beggars and children flock here to ask the ferangis (foreigners) for money. Piaza, up the top of Churchill Road and on a hill is more laid back. No one hassells you for anything and if you are stopped by someone as a ferangi, it’s usually so they can say hello or practice their English. Piaza is full of Italian influence with many restaurants and Italian-style buildings. Ferangis don’t really live here as it is more dingy than Bole, and there is not much of a Federali presence, compared to Bole, but travellers and back packers frequent here. I like Piaza; you get a more authentic experience and the people are more laid back. Most guide books tell you that you will almost definitely get robbed at Merkato. Merkato is supposedly the largest market in Africa, certainly Ethiopia, but since everyone has converted their stalls to corrugated iron shacks, it kind of resembles more of a shantytown, than a market. I’m yet to have anything stolen; if you are vigilant with your posessions, you will be fine. One kid, about ten or so, once tried it on but his efforts were so poor that I grabbed him by the scruff and managed to clip him over the head. He bolted after that. Old Airport is another suburb that seems to be full of ferangis. No one really frequents there as there isn’t anything worth visiting out that way – except maybe a couple of restaurants, but since there are already thousands in Addis, I don’t really see the point.
Tim and I are convinced that Ethiopians believe that the purpose of round-a-bouts is somewhere to shove a mammoth monument or memorial. There are awesome monuments all over the city, all erected on busy round-a-bouts: the obelisk to commemorate the innocent victims killed in the battle of Ardwa against Italy, Teklehamimot Square which boasts a munting big “Samsung” statue and commemorates the death of several martyrs and revolutionists, the Menelik II statue in Piaza, the Bob Marley statue which is currently under construction near Girjee…the cool thing about these is that they’re often representative of significant moments in history or they commemorate important people, but the thing is, you can never get to them! The round-a-bouts are always extremely busy – think of that famously hectic one in Paris, except all over the city! – and the second you step foot into the stream of traffic to try to get close to it, someone either blasts you on their horn, or there’s the ear-shattering sound of a whistle from a nearby police man who then forbids you from going any closer!
Although Addis is a thriving city, you still know you are in the third world. Power cuts occur across the city sometimes several times a day (Ethiopia sells all its power to Kenya!), women carrying 60kg bunches of sticks and branches can be observed hauling arse up and down from Entoto, hotel cleaners hit you up for cash or medicine, kids on the street latch onto you saying they are hungry, and mothers carrying babies approach you asking for money or food, saying their breast milk has run out. Hundreds of polio victims can be seen making their way laboriously across the city, and there are NGO billboards every few hundred metres on the streets, although it is impossible to find a vaccine for local people in this country. Internet is mostly abysmal. But don’t let this put you off!! If this were your only impression of Addis, you would probably run a mile. But everyone who lives here loves it. Because underneath all of this, exploring Addis is like going on the biggest, bestest treasure hunt of your life! It is chock full of gems, scattered throughout the city. Heavenly juice bars, impressive jazz bars, a wonderful culture that everyone is so proud of, some of the oldest history in the world, any type of food you could ask for, more beautiful churches and mosques than you could shake a stick at, lively markets, hilarious displays – such as a rogue donkey racing down the street, having broke free from his owner, second-hand bookshop-lovers havens, some of the most amazing traditional dancing you’ll ever see and a multitude of underrated museums. Within hours of Addis you can observe amazing wildlife and when you need a break from the city, you can take a fifteen minute drive up to Entoto and wander in the National Park amongst the Eucalyps and native plants until you feel relaxed from the clean air and the stunning views over the city.
When you come to Addis, you appreciate the simple things in life. No one gives a dam if you have the latest iPhone or if your clothes are cool. People accept you for who you are, and if you are friendly in return, the locals are extremely welcoming and hospitable. Making friends is easy and it happens fast. The people are genuine and they invite you into their homes for coffee ceremonies and other cultural festivities, having know you for only five minutes, so that you can experience their culture. They will take you to the best eateries, known only to the locals, and, although they don’t have much (by our western standards), refuse to let you pay.
Yes, Addis is pretty special. When you come home in the evenings and wash the day off your face, you always fall asleep knowing that the day you had was good.
View of Addis Ababa from Entoto