Reading Departure Signs: Addis Ababa

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!

The last leg of our tour falls on Andy’s birthday, so we have a “truck party” the night before to decorate the truck to surprise him.

On this Information Board dividing the cab from the coach is a map where we have plotted our course around Ethiopia. The red pin serves as the “You Are Here.”

On our last day, we drive through the scenic Blue Nile Gorge.

Not sure what kind of monkey this is, but they all seemed to enjoy looking at us people inside the rolling zoo!

Women seem to bear the burden of heavy lifting in Ethiopia, this one carrying eucalyptus branches down from Mount Entoto to be used as firewood for cooking.

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.

Yet another religious celebration taking place at the Church of St George in Addis.

Velvet beaded umbrellas and large wax wicks are ubiquitous in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian ceremonies.

Traditional Ethiopian dresses for sale.

Another common sight on every street corner is the small, make-shift coffee shop with tiny plastic cups and tiny plastic stools to match.

I finally get to try ” tena adam,” this fern-like herb that is added to Ethiopian coffee. It really does remove the bitterness from the strong black coffee.

Looks like these haven’t been moved in a while. Guess there is no “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” in Addis.

Medhane Alem Cathedral. The stark contrast between these religious monstrosities and the mud huts people live in stuns me over and over.

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.

I didn’t want to leave Ethiopia without visiting Addis’ Merkato, the largest outdoor market in Africa.

Merkato is said to cover several square miles with over 7,000 business entities that employ 13,000 people.

These women are selling a type of hops used in making the local libation, Tej, a mead or honey wine.

The Merkato is well sectioned off into specialty areas selling spices, grains, etc.

Most of the businesses are agriculture-related.

Local farmers bring their produce in to sell.

There is even a “chicken market.”

But nothing is so prevalent as Ethiopian coffee. Bags and bags, stand after stand, all selling coffee.

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.

Here lies “Lucy.” Or at least 40% of her. While my guide tells me this is original fossil, I read in my guidebook that it is a plaster cast, with the original being stored in the archive of the museum.

Also on display in the museum is the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 2019 to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to resolve the 20-year border conflict with neighboring Eritrea. You may recall that our own Dear Leader whined that the prize should have gone to him instead, falsely claiming he “saved Ethiopia from war.” A bit of trivia which gives me a particular sense of delight seeing it on display here in Ethiopia’s local museum.

The museum contains many displays of Ethiopian culture, this one being some beautiful traditional coffee pots.

In between visiting the two museums, my guide (on the left) takes me to the famous Tomoca Coffee Shop.

Established in 1953, Tomoca Coffee is Addis Ababa’s first commercial coffee shop.

Tomoca Coffee brews Italian-style (espresso as opposed to drip-style) coffee using arabica beans. Arabica originated in the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia and is the most popular kind of coffee worldwide.

My guide orders us both a macchiato, an espresso shot with a bit of steamed milk. Strong, but oh so good!

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.

A few of Emperor Selassie’s crowns on display in the museum.

Tour of the museum inside the palace includes Emperor Selassie’s bedroom.

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.

Kategna Restaurant in Ethiopia was the nicest place (not just restaurant) I had set foot in over the past 30 days.

It took me some research to locate it. While the restaurant name was listed in the show’s production notes, it’s a chain restaurant, so which branch was featured in Bourdain’s show?

I had to narrow it down by using photos on Trip Advisor. Only the curved rattan chairs seen in the episode clued me in that this was the one.

Kategna are known for their injera. It’s Friday, so I succumb to veganism by having the plant-based “Fasting Injera.” The thing rolled up like a napkin, as well as the “plate” itself beneath the sauces is the actual injera, prompting Bourdain to call it “Not just a food, but an implement.” Made from the grain teff, which contains symbiotic yeast, the only other ingredient required is water. To me, it tastes a bit like a thin sheet of foam rubber.

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….

Utopia in Ethiopia?

Thanks to everyone for their support and kind words about my premature evacuation from India.  It’s only Day Six of my self-imposed quarantine, but it feels more like Day Twenty-Six.  Still, I am grateful to have a place as comfortable as 80 square feet can be.  At least unlike many, I have a free and secure place to park it, food to eat, internet to entertain me, and a solid 98.6° temperature. So for that, I am extremely grateful!

A good friend of mine who is in the mental health profession suggested we shift the term “social distancing” to instead “engaging in physical distancing but staying socially engaged.” I like that idea. Thanks to all my friends, family, and followers who continue to help me stay socially engaged.

Okay, so now it’s back to a much happier time in Ethiopia when the only things I had to worry about were severe dehydrating diarrhea, pick-pockets, and looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov held by the roadside militia. Looking back, things seemed so much less scary then. Continue reading

Ten Deteriorating Days in Paradise

So this is a real-time update for a change. I still have two more posts to write from Ethiopia, and then the blog carries on to India by way of Bahrain. But as anyone knows who has followed the blog, it’s always lagging behind the times. Looking back in blog years while in Ethiopia, “coronavirus” was nothing more than a passing headline from China.

So I am fast forwarding to present day, one reason being because I have received several “Where are you now…Are you okay?” emails. But more so because I want to remember… Continue reading

Lovely Lalibela and the Rock-Hewn Churches

Back in Atlanta 2011 when my favorite Borders Bookstore in Lenox Square was going out of business, all travel guides were 75% off. There was one travel guide left on the Sale shelf to a country I had not yet visited, Bradt’s Ethiopia. So I bought it. As a long time collector of travel guides, it was just one more to add to my bookshelf full of Lonely Planet guides, Let’s Go, Rick Steves, Moon Guides, etc. dating all the way back to Europe on $15 a Day. My travel guides were one of the toughest things I had to liquidate when I sold my home and went full time in the Winnie.

Leafing through that Ethiopia guide, reading about the eleven rock-hewn churches, I Continue reading

Salt of the Earth

As I mentioned in my previous post, Feeling the Danakil Depression, there were other factors toward my feeling a bit depressed than just the Depression. National Geographic had a reason for calling it “The cruelest place on Earth.” Not only is the Danakil infamous for its inhospitable climate and riotous multi-colored, toxic fume-spewing geysers and sulfur pools. The phantasmagorical formations are a recent attraction, believed to be created only as recently as 1926 when inorganic iron from red hot magma emerged up through the standing salt pans, ten times more salty than the Continue reading

Feeling the Danakil Depression

One of the reasons I chose to do this tour with Dragoman is because it included the Danakil Depression. While many tour companies do the “historic circuit” through Ethiopia, not many include both the Simien Mountains and the Danakil Depression. Dragoman did both, so that contributed to my choosing them for my Ethiopia visit.

Located in the Afar region about 15 miles from the border with Eritrea, the Danakil Depression lies at the junction where three tectonic plates come together within the area known as the Horn of Africa. Dropping down to 410 ft below sea level, it is not only Continue reading

Ark of the Covenant Lost and Found in the Ancient City of Axum

Leaving the Simien Mountains National Park behind did not mean we were leaving the beautiful scenery behind. The road leading from Debark to our next destination, Axum, was about the most beautiful road I had seen in all of Ethiopia, and that is saying a lot because they are all beautiful! That is one aspect that we all mentioned over and over, the incredible beauty of the roads as we twisted and turned and wound our way up and over the mountains, meeting ourselves coming back around the switchbacks. Continue reading

Simien Mountains National Park

Ethiopia has over 20 national parks, but none so famous as the Simien Mountains National Park, guardian of Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen at 14,905 ft. The Simien Mountains are known throughout the world for their wildly dramatic scenery as jagged mountain peaks flank deep valleys often referred to as “Africa’s Grand Canyon.”

The Simien Mountains National Park was created initially as a protection area for a Continue reading

Border Crossing: Sudan to Ethiopia

Out of 22 passengers on the Sudan Loop, we would say goodbye to all but two in Khartoum. George, an older, quite proper, stodgy gentlemen from the UK with a wry smile and sense of humor to match, and yours truly would be the only two passengers to continue the two day journey from Khartoum, across the Ethiopian border to Gondar, where we would pick up 11 new passengers. Until then, George and I would have all 24 seats in Amelia between us. We joked about fighting over who would get the window seat.

I must be candid in saying the Sudan loop had been a bit physically taxing, starting with Continue reading

Sudan Loop Part Two: Meroë Back to Khartoum

Note, this is the second half of my loop through Sudan with Dragoman Tours. In case you missed the first half, you can find it here.

At this point of the tour, Day Five, we had now arrived at the main tourist attraction of Sudan, and the main reason the majority of travelers take this tour…the Meroë Pyramids, reportedly the finest example of Nubian pyramids in existence. Continue reading