14 January 2018
Ethiopia uses a 13-month calendar, with twelve 30-day months and a 13th leap month of five or six days. And instead of using standard international time, which would put it in the same time zone as Moscow, it works on a 12-hour clock determined by sunrise and sunset.
After about 36 hours travel time, my personal clock is ticking on Holy Cow time. It is not easy getting to Africa. I have attempted easing my pain with a few strategies learned from 45 years of flying. I ignore other’s advice and drink alcohol. I take my body’s advice and fly Business Class. Logic advises me to get a day room for my 10-hour layover. I have read to take care with Ethiopian time because what I would call 7 a.m. is simply called “1 o’clock” in Ethiopian time. Well, I try to tell myself it is “1 o’clock” but my body knows I’m lying.
Ethiopia was historically called Abyssinia, especially by British explorers. Maybe it sounded more romantic to them. Abyssinia was a nation comprising the northern half of today’s Ethiopia (not including the ancient Kingdom of Aksum). Although Ethiopians, Eritreans and peoples inhabiting the Horn of Africa can be referred to as Abyssinians, Ethiopia has been Ethiopia since the 4th century.
Also, Ethiopia was one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to adopt Christianity, dating back to the 1st Century AD. The majority of Christians, 43.5%, belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Aksum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury there, in spite of what the adventures of Indiana Jones dramatizes. Another 34% of Ethiopias practice Islam. There is a very old but small Jewish community, and a few people practice Paganism.
I am eager to get onto the streets and see Addis, a city of 3.4 million. Ethiopia is one of the only countries on the Africa Continent never to be colonized (the other is Liberia) and has an interesting history beginning before the time of Solomon and Sheba. And being a genealogist and studying my families’ DNA, I recognize that we, like most people, began in this part of Africa. Studying Google Maps and plotting my route, Addis is a city of monuments, busy squares, churches, museums and more. Jet Lag will have to wait.
The streets are a lesson in history and geography. Climbing the main boulevard of Churchill, I encounter Wingate, Pankhurst, Queen Elizabeth II, and Selassie Streets. Others are named after states of Africa: Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Congo. Streets are also a challenge of artful walking.
Addis Ababa is hilly. I begin at 7566’ and climb to above 8100’. There are ups and downs in between. Temperatures were cold when I arrived, the surrounding mountains cast in the pink hue of dawn. By noon it is sunny and 75 degrees, air quality is poor and the mountains have disappeared behind haze.
“Addis Ababa is a pleasant city with wide avenues of jacaranda trees…” writes my tour literature. From descriptions, I expect cafes, shops, lovely streets. The reality is totally opposite. I walked some 7 miles today and saw few sidewalks of any kind. Walking is to challenge a gauntlet of holes, open trenches, piles of stone and garbage. Most walks are paths of dirt and many people just take to the sides of the streets, which generally are better. Shops are kiosks, makeshift shacks, or a blanket on the ground. The occasional boombox blasts music loudly enough to drown out the traffic and constant horn beeping. Many, many homeless sleep in the dirt and refuse along the streets. Very mangy dogs pick through trash heaps and goat herds have the right of way (like the goats but the dogs are sad). City center at Menelik Square offers little except scores of buses, taxis, cars and pedestrians attempting to maneuver the roundabout without getting run over. There is a dearth of stoplights and crossings but a plethora of lively activity.
I saw unbelievable poverty. Ethiopia is ranked the 15th poorest country in the world with an annual GDP per capita of $1656. It shows. New high rises are everywhere in the city, but it is impossible to overlook the poverty and homeless.
I walked up Churchill Avenue, the widest street in Addis with a center island of palm and violet jacaranda trees but few sidewalks, past several interesting monuments and streets crammed with people on a Sunday afternoon. There are many shoe shine opportunities and countless tiny shops bustling with activity. I visited:
Meskel or “Cross” Square, often the site for public demonstrations and festivals. Right now it is just a big open pseudo parking lot. It is also my first real experience of maneuvering in traffic. No lights, no traffic police, no roundabout, and what is only a hint of a pedestrian crosswalk where lucky people narrowly avoid being run over. If I survive crossing Ras Mekenen, I might learn the system;
Lion of Judah, copied from a gold statue of same name, is the emblem of Ethiopia and the Rastafaris and dedicated to Ethiopia’s ancient monarchs. It is situated in a rather neglected park filled with tables of men drinking tea and talking. Set on a granite pedestal, portraits of the greatest emperors are included;
Lion Monument, not to be confused with the Lion of Judah at the southern end of Churchill Avenue, commemorates the 1955 Silver Jubilee of Haile Selassie. When the emperor asked what it was, people told him it was the Lion of Judah in modern art. Selassie reportedly said “whatever you say” as he didn’t like it. The shoe shine men at its base expressed great pride for it;
Black Lion Monument in Piazza area, referred to as the Derg, but not dedicated to Communists but to Cuban and Ethiopian soldiers who fought in Ethiopia’s 1977 war with Somali. Ethiopia won due to Soviet intervention. There was top security here, checking my pockets. The fountain, monument and mural walls are quite nice. The red star atop the monument along with hammer and sickle and negative depiction of Selassie is a reminder that this city is still sorting out its own view of its recent history. Surprisingly, I didn’t see Che’s photo;
Tewodros Square is named for Emperor Tewodros II who reigned 1855-1868. There is an old cannon as a monument to this emperor who fought to modernize and unify Ethiopia, a task that remains a challenge. Tewodros hoped to use the original 6.7 ton Sebastopol cannon against the British in 1868 but couldn’t haul it up to his fortress. (Tewodros committed suicide over his loss to the British.) This cannon is a copy. The monument, like others in the city, is centered in a roundabout and one risks being run over in any attempt to get closer;
Menelik Square, a huge roundabout, features an equestrian monument to one of the greatest emperors of Ethiopia, Menelik II, who soundly defeated the Italians at Adwa. Erected by Haile Selassie in 1930, this statue is considered the center of Ethiopia and distance markers on all major highways radiate from this spot. This is also the central area for buses and taxis and the activity is insane;
Victory Monument commemorates all Ethiopians who fought and defeated the Italian fascist invaders in 1941. Found appropriately at the corner of Adwa and QEII avenues, it represents a blow to the Italian ego. The 50’ obelisk is styled after the ancient obelisks of Aksum and is supported by pillars. The history of the five-year struggle is narrated on stone tablets as is the speech given by Emperor Selassie upon his return after Ethiopia’s liberation in 1941.
Typical of my travels, I never pass an opportunity to explore a church. Addis Ababa has its share, like:
St George Cathedral built at the end of the 19th century in an unusual octagonal design. This Cathedral was the site of Emperor Selassie’s coronation in 1930 and still contains his coronation throne. Outside is an intricately carved statue which represents a martyr who was assassinated in 1937, during the war with Italy;
Holy Savior is cared for by the Capuchin brothers. Addis has a small Catholic population of about 7000. The exterior is brick with a wonderful square tower and rounded apse. The interior is simple with round black and white granite columns, murals and gold altar. Being Sunday, it is packed for Mass.
I discuss Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral and some of the monuments visited in more detail when I discuss Emperor Haile Selassie.
Arrival at Addis Ababa Airport in Bole was easy but slow. I purchased the $50 electronic entry Visa online for an additional $2 fee. I printed out my Visa just in case and was able to cut the long lines. Neither ATM worked so I purchased Birr from one of the money exchange booths. I don’t need much in the way of cash.
During my stay in Addis, I experienced two hotels. I booked a $65 single at the Friendship International on Africa Ave. in Bole. They picked me up at the airport, the room was good including a terrace and jacuzzi tub. Their breakfast was a huge buffet and omelet of my choice. Meeting my ElderTrek tour group, I walked across the street to the Saro Maria which was priced for twice as much and just as pleasant.
I did have my hotel arrange a taxi for me, but I still had to bargain the price. I almost never use them when walking a city and have a deep mistrust of taxis in general. However, my experience was good Uber is not found in Addis but there is ZayRide which has its own APP. The ubiquitous blue and white Lada taxis probably should be avoided but after walking the streets for several hours, I could not face walking back to the hotel. The drivers are unscrupulous in overcharging but the promise of a cold beer clouded my judgement.
Addis has cafes and Ethiopia brags about its coffee. There are fruit drinks called ‘spris juice’ created of layers of great stuff like avocado, mango, papaya and banana that you can eat with a spoon. Finding a comfortable shop on the street can be a challenge and there is no way I am trusting the water here.
As a single woman traveling solo for the first two days, I practice safety first, though there was no doubt in my mind there were times I was the first blonde lady walking down their street in some time. All the major roads and areas where I and other tourists stop are patrolled by the Federal Police who have a reputation for being tough on suspected criminals (think pickpockets and scam artists). I saw armed patrols often and was glad of it. I could walk around mostly hassle free and suffered few of the ‘self-proclaimed guides’ who can be so damn annoying. Many people said hello to me, often addressing me as “mama.” There were several men who would smile or strike up a conversation, mostly interested in where I was from, some looking to be my guide but easily put off with a “no.”
Ethiopians are friendly, though most seem to think I am French. Abdul, assigning himself as my guide, thought I was a Catholic nun because of the way I was dressed; it was just as well to let him think that. Once learning I was American, he smiled and said “Obama!” Then he mentioned Trump. I assured him I was a fan of Obama, never Trump. “Don’t worry, Trump is not America, Trump is not the people….it is only four years and then the people will take it all back. It will be good again.” Wise African viewpoint, from Abdul’s mouth to God’s ears.
Perhaps the funniest safety advice I read concerned using ATMs, not for the danger of skimming cards but for the danger of using ATMs after dark because “there are so many blackouts there is no way to retrieve your card if the electricity fails during your transaction.”
Gotta love the unpredictability of travel.