Navigating Sometimes Chaotic, Always Fascinating Addis Ababa


My circus stay was problem-free. The representatives of Fekat I met were incredibly helpful throughout my visit, particularly Eyob Teshome, a Cyr wheel expert and all-around good guy who served as an informal guide for a portion of my stay. He helped acquaint me with the neighborhood, find a local SIM card, answered questions and showed me a few different sights.

He is also, like several Ethiopians I met, incredibly proud of his country. “We are special,” he began, before correcting himself: “We believe we are special,” he said, smiling and looking downward. Mr. Teshome, a devout Christian (most Ethiopians are Christian, either Ethiopian Orthodox or Protestant), talked a bit about Ethiopia and its role in the Bible, and how many Ethiopians view the country — one of the world’s oldest Christian nations — as the promised land.

“And did you know,” asked a smiling Mr. Teshome, as we walked past street hawkers selling mangos and young men offering to clean your sneakers for a few birr, “that we have our own calendar? And that we even have our own time?” Ethiopia works on a 13-month calendar, with 12 30-day months and a 13th intercalary month (a leap month, basically) of five or six days. And instead of working on standard international time, which would put it in the same zone as Moscow, it works on a 12-hour clock determined roughly by sunrise and sunset. What we would call 7 a.m. is simply called “1 o’clock” in Ethiopian time — be careful when making appointments.

After showing me my room — modest, but comfortable, with a bunk bed and shared bathroom down the hallway – Mr. Teshome asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to do. I said I was up for pretty much anything. “O.K.,” he said. “We’ll go to Merkato.” We hopped on the Chinese-built metro rail at Menilik II Square (right near the beautiful St. George’s Cathedral, where Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930), and rode two stops west to Gojam Berenda (2 birr, less than 10 cents). We exited the station to a completely different world.

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A monument on the grounds of the Ethiopian National Theater.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

I’ve been to markets all over the world but I wasn’t prepared for this. By some accounts, Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa: It encompasses an entire neighborhood — several square miles of barely controlled chaos. Vendors hawk nearly everything you could possibly imagine. Produce, textiles, car parts, baked goods and massive sacks of colorful incense line the dirt roads packed with honking cars and busy traders trying to avoid getting hit.

Things are roughly divided into sections: All the cookware on one street, towering stacks of colorful plastic containers on another. Against the side of a building under a plastic tarp, I saw a man welding old mechanical gears into weight lifting sets. “Watch your pockets,” Mr. Teshome warned me as we wound our way through the crush of people at the Merkato, passing rows of shoes, colorful T-shirts, bags of spices, slaughtered animals. We stopped to snack on chornake, a dense, doughnut-like fried pastry (2 birr), then each bought a mefakia (also 2 birr), a short stick of wood many Ethiopians use as a natural toothbrush. We continued wandering the market, cleaning our teeth. (Many things in the city cost just a few birr — keep some small change handy.)

Mr. Teshome warned me about pickpockets in the market, but overall, I didn’t find safety to be a problem in the city. I used common sense by limited the amount of walking I did after dark and not mindlessly gazing at my phone while strolling down the street. You may occasionally be gawked and called after — my general sense was that it came from a place of friendliness and curiosity.

But there’s also a serious hustle to many of the locals, primarily young men, who are eager to make a birr or two by cleaning your shoes, selling you knickknacks or escorting you to a destination. I’d generally advise against following strangers anywhere or accepting offers to “show you around.” Decline firmly, but not rudely.

After picking up a local SIM card (with 4G capability) from the Ethio Telecom shop near Minilik Square (bring your passport, a hundred birr or so to top up your phone, and plenty of patience — the wait can be considerable), I was beginning to feel the effect of all my recent travel. It was time for a cup of coffee — lucky for me, Addis Ababa is full of modest streetside coffee stands selling amazing java. No surprise there — coffee is believed to have originated on the Ethiopian highlands.

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The Tomoca Coffee shop is flooded with the warm, earthy scent of ground coffee.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

The best cup of my trip was at Tomoca Coffee, a small storefront on Wawel Street in the Piazza area near where I bunked at the circus (there are a few locations). The cozy, homey shop was packed, and flooded with the warm, earthy scent of ground coffee. I picked up a cup for 14 birr and a frosted doughnut for 15 birr. The doughnut was mediocre, but that was beside the point: The coffee, a dense, bittersweet shot of only three or four ounces, was some of the best I’ve had. You can buy whole bean coffee, too; I picked up a couple of 500-gram bags to bring home (138 birr).

Food and drink are practically a religion in Ethiopia, and there’s no shortage of places to get tasty, family-style meals. Expect thick stews of vegetables and meat eaten together with injera, a sour, spongy fermented bread made from teff, a native grass. At KG Corner, a neighborhood restaurant that’s been operating since 1960, I tried the fasting ferefer (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes a number of fasting days during which adherents may not eat animal products) for 43 birr and the shiro tegabino, a pea stew (also 43 birr). The ferefer was essentially a spicy vegetable stew that tasted heavily of the deep, earthy berbere spice that Ethiopia is famous for.

Other highlights of my stay included the Holy Trinity Cathedral, also known as the Haile Selassie church (the former emperor is buried on the premises with his wife). Admission to the church and small museum on the property is a relatively expensive 150 birr. For theater buffs, the Ethiopian National Theater, originally constructed during the Italian occupation, is worth visiting for a look at its massive lobby and gilded interior. I even took in a show, “Finger of God” (40 birr). While I don’t speak Amharic, I found the performance engaging.

The National Museum of Ethiopia is just a 15-minute walk from the Holy Trinity Cathedral and, for just a 10-birr admission fee, it is a must-see. The highlight, naturally, is Lucy — the Australopithecine hominid that made an enormous splash when her partial skeleton was discovered in eastern Ethiopia in 1974 by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray.

When she was discovered, the 3.2-million year old Lucy excited the anthropological world because of her well-preserved remains as well as the fact that she walked upright — shedding possible light on the “missing link” of how humans may have evolved. Seeing the bone fragments up close and in person is fascinating even for casual fans of history and paleontology. While the fossil long predates Ethiopia, of course, it serves as a reminder of how much rich history the country has — and what fascinating discoveries await the curious traveler.

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