Ethiopia, possibly the most historically fascinating country in all of sub-saharan Africa. I was returning to East Africa after 5 years. My maiden trip in Kenya was a totally organized group itinerary, and as much fun as that was, I wanted my time in Ethiopia to be semi-independent.
My flight from Istanbul landed after midnight at the Addis Ababa Bole airport, and the place felt deserted as I’m guessing mine was the only flight coming in at this hour. The nice part is, it made immigration a faster-than-expected process, even though the ladies in their white shrouds working the Visa on Arrival desk hand-write the Visa out (!!!!). The baggage area had a few ATMS, with two of them having run dry, luckily one was dispensing a limited amount of cash.
I was picked up by my hotel, the Capital Hotel and Spa. Without the insane Addis traffic at this time of night, it was just 15-odd minutes until we reached my hotel in the eastern part of the city. The city was dead. the hotel was dead.
I hoped to catch up on my sleep, but after a few hours, I had a rather unpleasant surprise. Loud prayers were going on at the Orthodox Church nearby. At first, I hoped it would be like the Islamic call for prayer and be over in a minute, but it went on for a couple of hours and there was no more sleeping happening for me. Sadly, the Capital Hotel served a slightly nauseating instant coffee for breakfast but I had to make do. Welcome to Addis Ababa on a Sunday.
Let me be frank – Addis is not a sightseeing treat, BUT, especially on this Sunday, it was a cultural treat.
So here is how I spent my one fine [Sun]day in Addis Ababa.
1. German Munch Bakery – I love Ethiopian food but what the Capital Hotel served for breakfast was awful. I grabbed a taxi (and they are expensive!) and headed to the German Munch Bakery for a proper coffee and pastry.
2. Trinity Church
The most famous church in Addis Ababa was body to body early on Sunday. There was no way on earth I was getting inside. It required some careful navigation (basically, following others trying to get through the crowds) to even come close to the center of the festivities. Chanting, preaching, women in white shrouds, piousness at its height.
3. National Museum of Ethiopia
This one isn’t going to win any awards anytime soon. It is a hastily put together collection with two main draws: replicas of the earliest fossilized humans, such as Lucky. The other one is a small collections of relics from the Ethiopian monarchy, such a throne and crowns.
The power was out at the national museum so I snuck in with a Chinese delegation to see the basement skeleton replicas via cell phone light.
4. Shola Market
I love markets. Love love love them. On a Sunday, it was off to Shola Market after a lunch with some of the best shiro I have ever had and a coffee perk up at one of the great places around towns (I recommend Kaldi’s).
The best part of spending around an hour in Shola Market was that with the epiphany festival (Timkey) coming up, people were getting ready to make the famous Ethiopian chicken dish, Doro Wat, for the festival, and there were thorough inspections of the live poultry underway. One of the vendors wanted to test my skills in sifting cumin, but otherwise, it was like may other markets – fruits, vegetables, pulses, and random goods ranging from cell phone cases to injera pans.
5. Mount Entoto
Up to Mount Entoto, the festivities were still in full swing, with people returning home from church services. Wedding processions of cars and mini-buses plied down the road. It is an intense and rich cultural experience that I can’t really even describe in the right words to be in the middle of this.
The shared taxi system in the city is super-efficient. Most of them could probably fit 12 people comfortably, so look to sit with 20 people in actuality. Just find a spot somewhere, even on top of the wheel well, and watch your head!
Unless you arrive on one ridiculously clear day, the view from Mount Entoto is likely to disappoint. What doesn’t disappoint is the colorful Maryam Church. The church hosts a small museum inside of yet more historic and religious relics, the latter which hold great dearness locally, such as a animal-skin stretched drums and bibles.
You don’t just come up for the view and church/museum. Nearby, you’ll find the former royal residence of Menelik II.
6. Sub-Saharan Africa’s First Mass Transit
Well, I mentioned the share taxis and regular taxis, but what about the Addis Light Rail, a Chinese infrastructure project like many of the infrastructure projects you see going on around Ethiopia, is the first Light Rail in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pretty impressive, right? After roaming in the over-stuffed shared taxis all day, I was excited to ride this light rail as I am a bit of a mass transit geek. I imagined this spacious, air-conditioned, modern light rail system, but as soon as I stepped on, I realized what it meant that the fare was kept dirt cheap, as my ribs were nearly cracked in the crowd. The shared taxi suddenly looked like a limousine!
The upside? I got a nice view of Meskel Square, which looked pretty barren. I expected more frenetic activity in a major square like that.
Being a landlocked country, the cost of importing cars is heinously expensive, so what are most of the taxis roaming around Addis? The Soviet-Era Lada!
See? Sightseeing isn’t really big in Addis, but the cultural experience is. Most people stop over here on the way to Lalibela, Gondor or other historic sites in Northern Ethiopia, or the tribal villages in Southern Ethiopia. Maybe it was just being here on a Sunday that made it special. I’m not really sure.