My favorite Jimmy Buffett song, “Changes in Latitudes” has a verse, “Reading departure signs in some big airport reminds me of the places I’ve been.” Only the opposite is true for me. Reading departure signs in some big airport has always reminded me of places I still would like to go… and perhaps none so much as Addis Ababa. Through years of travel through international airports, I have always stood in awe of this quirky sounding city appearing on departure signs, and hoped that one day I would get to visit such an exotic-sounding place.
Our Dragoman tour would end in Addis Ababa, where I would say goodbye to Louise, our tour guide extraordinaire, and James, our driver, along with my eleven new friends and travel companions. A sense of dread came over me on that last drive from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa, realizing that after 30 days, I was about to leave the safety and security of “Amelia,” our big orange cocoon of a truck. For 30 days, I had enjoyed a comfortable seat, safe place to secure my luggage, an ample supply of hand sanitizer mounted at the top of the steps. An on-board fridge kept my cold beers and Coke Zero cold, while large windows allowed the scenic views in while keeping the dirt and din out. Getting in and out of the truck had become my daily routine that I would sorely miss, particularly now landing in what felt like the scariest city I have visited in my life!
I first got a sense of what was in store for me in Addis Ababa when I watched a youtube video by a young Brit who had been gifted a free tour in exchange for making a marketing video for the tour company. When he spent 25% of what was to be a promotional video talking about ways to avoid petty theft, I got a knot in my stomach as he stated while violent crime is unlikely, pick-pocketing schemes are so rampant that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” I began to get apprehensive, particularly after my recent experience in Ecuador where not only my pocket was picked, but so was my entire hotel room. (Guess I still haven’t “moved on.”)
Situated at an elevation of 7,796 ft, rising up to 9,800 ft in the Entoto Mountains to the north, Addis Ababa is Africa’s highest capital city, fourth highest in the world. I had allotted myself a week to explore the city. I knew that was likely too long, but flight availability dictated that I either stay a little too long or leave a little too soon. Since the temperatures were in the low 70’s, I decided it was preferable to stay awhile to rest up in a place with such cool, dry mountain air before I headed into the sweaty armpit of India.
While I had accounted for the weather, I hadn’t accounted for the “atmosphere.” On my first walk out in broad daylight, I was greeted first by the hotel manager telling me that strapping my small cross-body bag across my shoulder wasn’t enough. I needed to also firmly grip it with my hand. As I rounded the corner out of my hotel on the way to the grocery store, I encountered a man standing on the sidewalk stark naked, without a stitch other than his pants crumbled down around his ankles. It was going to be a long week.
I had a list of places I wanted to explore while in Addis, one being the Merkato, largest outdoor market in Africa. Unfortunately, all the warnings of petty theft and pickpocket schemes didn’t make me feel comfortable exploring on my own, despite the fact that I had chosen a hotel within walking distance of the main tourist attractions.
I don’t typically like doing city tours, preferring instead to explore at my own pace with guidebook in hand. However, in this case, I decided it was the only way I was going to feel comfortable without constantly trying to look over both shoulders. I didn’t have enough hands to hold the guidebook while clutching all my valuables too! So I booked a tour with Addis Ethiopia Tours based on recommendations in Trip Advisor. Turns out, I was the only person on the tour, so it was like having a private guide and driver all to myself for the day.
Also on my list of many things to see while in Addis was “Lucy,” the 3.2 million year old skeleton of what is considered to be an upright-walking primate and human ancestor fossil. Lucy, found in the Afar Region, northwestern Ethiopia in 1974, is considered to be the oldest known hominin. She was named for the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that was playing in the paleoanthropologist’s expedition camp at the time her fossilized remains were discovered. After a world tour of several noteworthy museums, she is now at rest in Addis Ababa’s National Museum.
While on the day tour, I also hoped to get a better understanding of Ethiopia’s last ruling monarch, Haile Selassie. More specifically, I wanted to understand what connection the former emperor has to the dreadlock-wearing, Bob Marley-loving Rastafarian movement, and why the Jamaican “Rastas” such as Bob Marley regard Ethiopia as their homeland. No place better to explore this than the Emperor’s former palace itself, now home of the Ethnological Museum.
As the 225th and last Emperor of the 3,000 year old Ethiopian monarchy, Selassie ruled from 1930 to 1974. His reign, along with the monarchy was ended when he was deposed by a military coup. He was believed to be a descendant of the Solomonic dynasty, formed under Menelik I, first emperor of Ethiopia. You may recall I wrote about Menelik being the illegitimate love child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Menelik’s posse is credited with bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.
Selassie ascended to the throne just after a Jamaican black political leader, Marcus Garvey, made a prophecy, “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.” This prophecy prompted the belief among followers that Selassie was the messiah. While the name Haile (meaning “Power of”) Selassie (meaning “the Trinity”) was given to the Emperor at the time of coronation, his true birth name was Tafari Makonnen. In the Ethiopian language of Amharic, “Ras” means “head, or leader,” so truncated, his name and title form “Ras Tafari,” ergo the Rastafarian movement was born.
On my last day in Addis, I got brave enough (more like hungry enough!) to wander out in search of the restaurant visited by Anthony Bourdain in his “Parts Unknown: Ethiopia” episode. As I have stated before, I was a huge fan of Bourdain since his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and never miss an opportunity to see what he saw, and taste what he tasted. However, unlike most establishments that exploit Bourdain’s visits with autographed photos and plaques, there is no evidence of his patronage in Addis. It took a little research to finally locate Kategna, what was the nicest, cleanest, and most modern restaurant I visited in all of Ethiopia. Pity it took me until the last day to experience it.
And so concludes my Dragoman “Deserts and Mountains of Sudan & Ethiopia” tour series. When I started out on this journey, sending New Years Eve greetings from the United departure lounge on my way to Khartoum, I knew the trip would be challenging, overlanding on rough roads, camping with no facilities, and finding creature comforts. But not just finding things like safe food to eat and clean water to drink. It would also mean carving out some personal space while living amongst a truck full of strangers for a month. But what I didn’t account for was the lack of personal space in the country overall. Every single activity drew a crowd or some in-your-face interaction, from the loud children shouting “YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU! PEN? PEN? MONEY?” while trying to hold your hand, to the creepy men who stared while whispering “faranji” (white person) as I walked by. There is no solitude, no privacy, no “me time” to be had in Ethiopia.
I set my intentions to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” on this tour. There were challenges, yes. But now in retrospect after everything we have gone through in the past two weeks and still face ahead, it was a cake walk. Ethiopia left an impression on me like no other, in observing their resourcefulness and tenacity toward sustaining life in what is one of the poorest, most populous countries on earth. Looking back, as I give more thought to my own sustenance these days, those impressions deepen even further into my psyche.
My heart goes out to Louise and James who worked so hard make sure it wasn’t just about safety and comfort, but also about having fun. Dragoman has now cancelled all tours through June, so they have joined the uncertain and untethered ranks of the unemployed. And as for those tenacious, resourceful Ethiopians, well, aside from the absence of us “faranjis,” I suspect life goes on….