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Addis Ababa: Capital City of Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA: CAPITOL CITY OF ETHIOPIA
                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2013

The capitol of Ethiopia is booming, and the people of Ethiopia are smiling. The starving, desperate faces of Ethiopia you saw on T.V. years ago are morphing into determined, hopeful faces. There is still dire poverty here, but the war with Eritrea is long since over, the rains have been better, and the country is forging ahead. People here are working hard, and making real efforts to improve their lives. For a country with tons of unemployment, I saw very few people lounging about. Everybody seemed to have something to do or somewhere to go. Change is happening fast, and for the better. It’'s exciting to see an African country on the move.

Our first day was lazy. We had been traveling for over thirty five hours without a break, coming all the way from Bangkok to India, through Saudi Arabia. We had booked into a nice hotel on line, and they picked us up at the airport when we arrived at seven A.M. Our driver was very friendly, giving us the first of thousands of welcoming Ethiopian smiles.

After sleeping away most of the day at our hotel compound (with a sea of tin-roofed shacks directly outside the back window), we wandered down into town. The hotel was not in the best of neighborhoods. We strolled past a selection of local bars, restaurants and liquor stores. The restaurants were the grimmest. Addis Ababa is known for its raw meat restaurants. Yes- raw meat. These restaurants have a butcher shop right inside the restaurant, with fresh meat dangling from hooks. Customers select beef or goat, and they hack off raw pieces and serve it, barely warmed, with lime or something on it. I didn’'t want to look too hard. The smell of the restaurants was quite enough. They made me nervous about eating in this country.

People were delighted to see foreigners walking around their city. We soon attracted quite a following. Curious onlookers came up to us with big grins on their faces, asking us where we were from, and how did we like Ethiopia, and was it our first time in their country, and what did we do for work and more. Everybody mentioned President Obama with pride, and they were obviously excited that America had just reelected its first black President. You could tell how much Obama'’s win gave them hope for their own future. Many of them knew quite a bit about American politics. Their command of English was very impressive.

The locals loved shaking hands, doing the high-five, the fist bump or the African shoulder-to-shoulder handshake. Dave is especially good at talking and joking with everybody, so he got along very well. But there was another, darker side to all the friendliness. We were on our guard for pickpockets. Addis is famous for sneak- thieves. Everyone we met warned us about them. I wore my daypack with everything important wrapped up under a jacket, and only toilet paper in the vulnerable back pocket. (although even toilet paper can be precious here). All of our valuables were stashed in our secret pockets hidden under our clothes, along with our passports. This is how you should travel in Africa. Anything else would be crazy. Dave had the equivalent of $10 in his pants pocket, with his hand on it at all times.

We walked past a huge construction site. They are putting a modern rapid transit train/subway system into this city. The work the government is doing on infrastructure is amazing. Everywhere in Ethiopia they are working on the roads, the bridges, and general modernization. America should be doing half as much investment per capita as Ethiopia is…

The first step in planning our trip was to arrange transport. The Itegue Taitu Hotel (a rambling old African classic built in 1907) held both the “first class” bus ticket office and a recommended travel agency. The one and only bus out of town left at a very unappealing 5 A.M. Local transport looked extremely difficult, with brutally long bus rides (many rides were 12 hours without stopping except for a brief lunch. Five 5 a.m. departures were normal, because the buses are not permitted to run after dark.) We stopped in at the tour company, but the people at the Red Jackal tour company seemed indifferent and disorganized. We weren’t impressed, so we decided to continue shopping around.

The hotel’'s garden restaurant looked like a good spot for a drink. To our delight, we discovered Ambo,– the local bottled soda water, which became our daytime drink of choice. With fresh lime, Ambo was very refreshing, safe, and sugar free. While at the restaurant, we met two very nice (and very handsome) young male college students, and we struck up a conversation. They were studying English, French and tourism development at the university, and they were quite impressive. With students like these, Ethiopia should forge ahead in the future.

The next day, we walked downtown to another tour agency recommended by our guidebook. Abeba Tours Ethiopia was friendly and well organized. The price of the tour was astonishingly high for a developing country. This included a Land Rover (in good condition with two spare tires) and an English speaking driver who was reasonably experienced as a mechanic, all gas, hotels in the “midrange”, our breakfast, and all local guide and entrance fees to attractions and National Parks. We would have to pay for our lunches, dinners, and, that most important commodity: our beer. At the time, the prices seemed excessive, but the alternative of local buses and the stress of haggling for every little thing, worrying about getting overcharged (or worse) at every turn, trying to find good hotels by ourselves, with an already out-of-date guidebook, and the fear of missing half of the attractions due to lack of local transport, all made us decide to go with the all-inclusive option. It turned out that that was the best decision we could have made. It also turned out that the company really was giving us the best value they could manage for our money. When we saw how much money they had to pay for local guides and for entrance fees, we realized why the overall daily budget was so high. And the cost of vehicles was unbelievable. The government charges a 250% import tax for all vehicles! So that means our Land Rover cost the company over $100,000 U.S. dollars. The miles and miles of rough dirt roads and dust must also do terrible things to a vehicle. This we all discovered later. But we liked the businesslike nature of the company, and we got a generally good feeling from the people there. I also was shuddering from the idea of trying to find restaurants on our own, after seeing some of the local offerings. So we took the plunge. We spent the next couple of hours borrowing one of the company cars, and driving around Addis, looking for a bank that could change enough money to pay most of the bill up front. It took some doing, but we finally got a cash advance on one credit card. (Budget travelers: Ethiopia may not be the best country for you to start out in – unless you are ready for some very challenging travel).

That evening, we treated ourselves to an Italian restaurant, because our diet would soon be all Ethiopian (whatever that meant…) On the way home, we met a friendly fellow who claimed to be a DJ in a local bar. We were walking together, having a pleasant conversation, when an obviously deranged individual started screaming at us. He crossed the street, following us, swearing at us and yelling that we would perish at judgement day in the fires of Hell etc. etc. Our DJ friend stuck right with us, making sure we got back to the hotel safely, despite possible risk to himself from this violent mental case. That's what Ethiopians are like. They are very kind, lovely people. His kindness set the tone for the whole trip.

This story will continue, with two exciting road trips, one to the historic North, and one to the tribal South. Thanks for reading! Diana


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