With no idea what to expect, I arrived at Addis Ababa airport around 4/5am with an ear infection (swimmer’s ear) that had flared up on the plane ride over. No stranger to solo travel, I had not planned anything other than my hotel for an easy 3-day weekend. The hotel told me I could use American dollars for the taxi ride from the airport but I thought it would be a good idea to get some local currency for the rest of my trip. Ethiopian Birr is near impossible to obtain or exchange outside of Ethiopia and it wasn’t easy to find in Ethiopia, even at the arrivals of their international airport. After waiting in what is essentially a free-for-all horde for about 10 minutes, the cashier announced that they were out of Birr and there didn’t seem to be a clear timeline of when they’d have more.
I arrived at my hotel, intending to drop my bags, eat breakfast and head out on an early morning city walkabout but without asking the hotel clerk checked me into a room free of charge. Since the aforementioned ear ache was plaguing me I decided it would be wise to rest a bit before heading out. At around noon, I woke up, took a shower and started to contemplate my wardrobe for the day when suddenly a chamber maid sauntered into my room, I pulled a cartoon style cover-up, wrapping my fully nude form in my arms, while the woman’s eyes and mouthed widened into a state of shock, let out a tiny scream and slammed the door shut, mumbling something in Aramaic. Clearly they had not informed her that I had checked in early.
The hotel, Edna Addis Hotel, was a pretty non-descript place, in some random part of town, so I was delighted when for breakfast, they served me a steaming bowl of fragrant porridge and the strongest, bestest hotel coffee I have ever had, AND it was complimentary. Even paying for a coffee at a hotel, I am consistently disappointed and without fail, the fanciest of resorts in any country will serve the most tepid, dirty dishwater they like to pass off as “coffee”. But this little random, basic hotel in one of the poorest countries in the world knows how to make a better cappuccino than 5-star resort in Dubai does.
I set out towards the Holy Trinity Cathedralwhere Haile Selassie is buried, forgetting that some sects of Christianity are just as conservative as Islam and that bare shoulders and a tank depicting a female demon, advertising a Metal Festival, might not be the way to go for Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I stood out enough on my own that I doubt most people even noticed the shirt. I was fine to wander around the grounds but was not permitted to enter the church which was fine because I was the only tourist on site, the patrons were legitimate Christians and I felt a whole lot of conspicuous.
There wasn’t a whole lot to see around the Cathedral but there was something so delightful about the beige stone building, tombs surrounding the grounds and the severe, grey, stone statues looking down on you like a disappointed grandfather. Trees surround the grounds cutting you off from the traffic and diesel fumes on the street, a crisp blue sky forms the backdrop, while ethereal women float around in wispy white muslin prayer shawls. It was both delightful and surreal, I couldn’t place this church in an architectural or cultural box but that was ok, no one bothered me, except when I tried to enter the Cathedral and a very ancient priest yelled at me in one of the worlds oldest languages. I felt hopeful for the rest of my day and set off with a bounce in my step.
Last minute trips with no planning can, in my experience, turn out one of two ways, a whirlwind of spontaneous ridiculousness, or kind of a let down. In this case, Addis Ababa was the sadly the latter, in Paul Theroux’s words “Addis Ababa was a sprawling high-altitude settlement resembling a vast rusty-roofed village scattered over many hills. (Dark Star Safari, p.92-93)” Spread out as it is, you need wheels to get around and being the foreigner that I am, wheels cost more than it should and everyone wanted to “take me for a ride.” I did briefly look up things to do in and around Addis Ababa, my hotel booked me a day tour of the Blue Nile Valley and 13thC Monastery for the following day, so I had the afternoon to explore Addis. I often rely on hotel staff to have the best advice on what to do, but it doesn’t always pan out and in this case it really didn’t, as they didn’t seem too knowledgeable about or interested in the attractions in their city.
My ear infection was bothering me and draining my energy so I decided to head to a famous café I’d read about, I jumped in a shared cab, a blue and white contraption from the 1960’s, I still needed to get local currency so I had the cab drop me outside a bank near the café. There was a mass of people in the bank and no line to speak of. If you’re going to survive in Ethiopia for any period of time you’re going to have to forget everything you know about line-etiquette and just enter the fray. I had not reached that level yet and so waited…and waited…and waited. Someone took pity on me and asked me what I wanted, and then politely informed me that they did not have any currency to give me and sent me across the street to another bank. As soon as I walked in a bank manager ushered me to an office and exchanged a giant wad of old Birr notes with my crispy American dollars. I figured since I didn’t know when I would be able to exchange money next I would exchange more than I’d likely need, this was both smart, and a mistake as the currency exchange center at the airport was not open in my terminal upon departure and I had to search high and low for a place to exchange the Birr in Abu Dhabi and the buy rate was so low, I lost approximately 40$.
The bank manager watched with amusement as I tucked bills into both sides of my bra, boots, a hidden pocket of my purse, and finally, the small bills in my wallet that I then clipped to the inside of my purse, finally I stuffed a scarf over my valuables…pickpockets would not be getting anything from me. As I was crossing the street to the café, 2 young boys about 9-12 years old came up one on each side of me. The boy on my right tapped my arm continuously repeatedly going “hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey” while simultaneously trying to sell me a random magazine, the boy on my left was getting conspicuously close to my purse. I stopped and put my hand out, said STOP, quite loudly, and as if timed perfectly, the light turned green and my short but powerful legs took me across the street and into the café before the boys could process that I was gone.
Tomoca Café is not a sit down and chill, read your book, check your email kind of place. It appears to be a place where people stop in for the sole purpose of drinking a quick coffee and carrying on about their day. There is no food served there so don’t make plans for lunch either as I did because you’ll end up starving with caffeine jitters. You order your coffee at the front desk and then proceed to the back where you hand them your receipt through the crowd and watch in fascination as they manage to get everyone’s various espresso based orders correct. They do not have a ‘to go’ option to my knowledge, so you can either take your coffee to one of the stand-up tables occupied by many and stand there awkwardly sipping coffee as people have conversations around you or you can accept the kind gentleman’s invitation to sit down on the only bench with other older men and cheers him with the best goddamn coffee you will EVER have in your life…I’m not joking. You know when you have something for the first time and it’s so unexpectedly delicious, that it transcends all that your taste bud’s have ever known or could ever expect? The rich, bold flavours cause your eyeballs to pop out of your skull, and you have literal tingles spread from your nipples to extremities, because you have never had something so wonderful and then you get emotional because you know nothing will ever be as good, not ever. I got teary eyed as I wrote that, the memory (nearly 3 years old) is that strong.
Fun Fact about Ethiopia: coffee was banned by the Orthodox Christian Church until the mid 19th Century.
After my existential moment at Tomoca Café, I was in dire need of some food and a bathroom. Someone directed me to a bathroom in a random building but I could not get passed the foot of murky water on the floor. Nothing takes the wind out of my adventurous sails as the need to pee, one quick look around this area and I determined that I would neither find much in the way of nutrition or a bathroom so my survival instinct kicked in, I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the Hilton. I knew there was one in town and I figured they’d have reliable wifi, food, and a bathroom. They had 2 of the 3…I had to pay for wifi…wtf! Feeling a bit like a tourist who eats at McDonalds instead of trying local food; I ordered Fish and Chips and a Cider, got very sleepy and decided to call it a day. I hoped my ear infection would be better after a good sleep.
I started my day with a strong coffee and hearty bowl of porridge and then jumped into a van with a driver and tour guide, off to explore the Blue Nile Valley (part of the Great Rift Valley), the 13thC Monastery, Debre Libanos, and a Portuguese Bridge. This is an incredibly easy day trip from Addis Ababa and worth every penny, since I was alone it cost me a bit more (120USD) than if I had been with a group. I didn’t see any other tourists there which is an unusual treat, I guess that shows how off the beaten track Ethiopia is for tourists and travellers alike.
I knew I would have to dress conservatively for the monastery visit so I was much more appropriately attired than the day before, in addition, I brought a scarf to cover my hair. This was not enough apparently and the most adorable little monk; he reminded me of a Christian Merlin; wrapped me up like a mummy in white muslin. He told me in no uncertain terms that if I was menstruating or had fornicated in the last 48hours I would not be permitted inside the church. Wellllll…..I was menstruating but I had not travelled all that way to be turned away because my body was doing the biological thing that literally sustains our species, sooo I kept it to myself and entered the church. I have not been smote yet and things have been going pretty good for me, so I can confidently say you should ignore that rule.
Debre Libanos is one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, pilgrimages are made by many, especially sick people, where they receive holy water from a sacred mountain spring, to cure what ails them. The church, both inside and out is very basic and filled with the actual faithful and not a bunch of tourists which makes the general vibe very sombre, I felt like a voyeuristic gawker. The most impressive part of the church are the stained glass windows that were made by Afewerk Tekle, a famous Ethiopian artist. “Merlin”, the monk who guided me around the site told me Tekle’s artwork was sent to the moon but I could not find any information about this so I can neither confirm nor deny.
The church and monastery on site are not actually from the 13thC, as it was destroyed a few times throughout history; the latest church was built by Haile Selassie in the 1960’s. There is a museum on site that houses many artifacts and displays but I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much, except learning that in the adjacent cemetery, people build little houses over their loved one’s graves and pilgrims or those in need can stay in these little houses for a night or two, monks also stay there. Clearly their creepy senses are much lower than mine because I’m pretty sure that sleeping in a cemetery is how many terrible horror movies from the 80’s begin.
A local teenage boy guided us down the rocky foot paths to the Portuguese Bridge, the bridge itself is not so impressive, you can tell its quite old, and it’s curious as to why the Portuguese built this bridge in the middle of nowhere, but the waterfall under the bridge is stunning and the baboons that hang out on the bridge are fun to photograph, like furry bridge gargoyles.
What is beyond impressive is the gorge that the bridge overlooks. Apparently the gorge is comparable in size to the Grand Canyon and is 1km deep. The wind was strong up on the cliffs so I stepped gingerly as I made my way around the waterfalls and up onto a point where my driver, guide, and I ate lunch. It truly bother’s me that I don’t remember their names or the name of the tourist company because they were really lovely and we had a lot of fun jamming out to tunes in the van. The tour company had packed us all a lunch which is essential because there didn’t seem to be anywhere around to buy food. The lunch was a bit disappointing though because they packed me a western style lunch but the driver and guide had a traditional Injera lunch.
The teenager guided us back to the road and then presented 3 beautifully carved crosses made of different coloured marble and without a word pointed across the Gorge to a section of cliff that looked as though it had been scratched at by a very large cat. My guide told me that the boy gets marble from the cliff and carves these crosses to sell to tourists. I was both confused and impressed as to how he obtained this marble from the side of a kilometre-deep cliff. I wasn’t really in the market for a cross as a non-religious person, but they were so beautifully carved and the marble was so fine and otherworldly, that I bought one, hung it in my home and every time I see it I am reminded of that beautiful day eating lunch on a cliff in Ethiopia. That day I learned that swimmer’s ear can be cured by strong winds on a cliff top, because that evening when I got back to the hotel, I realized my ear ache was gone. Henceforth, every time I finish a swim, I dry my ears out with a blow dryer to avoid swimmer’s ear.
The next day I set out to go to the National Museum but it was closed, so then I asked the taxi to take me to St. George’s Art Gallery. We drove around a lot, asked many people, and after a very long time, learned that it was close to the Sheraton and the cab driver dumped me outside the Sheraton, figuring it was my fault that we had gotten lost and didn’t know where the Art Gallery was. The Art Gallery happens to be an art institution in Addis Ababa but it was definitely my fault for not knowing it’s precise location even though I had presented him with a screen shot of the google maps location. Did I mention the general attitude in Addis Ababa, toward foreigners is somewhere in between aloof haughtiness and a give me money mentality. From Hotel staff to Art Gallery curators, to almost everyone on the street, they seemed disinterested regardless of whether you’re asking for directions or just saying hello. I tried to ask questions about various points of interest or the artwork in the gallery and for the most part the answers were non-committal mumbling, offering no insight or useful information whatsoever. I have only ever encountered this general ambivalence once before and once since, in Beijing, China and Harare, Zimbabwe. All 3 cities felt depressed and bleak, even when the sky is blue and the sun brilliant, the city feels shrouded in grey. All 3 cities have been economically repressed and politically oppressed so I guess it makes sense.
Despite the difficulty of finding the place, St. George’s Gallery was a worthwhile stop. They have beautiful Art, furniture, jewelry, and textiles that are of high quality. I bought a gorgeous turquoise, silk scarf that I left in a taxi 2 years later and nearly cried about it.
I kept hearing about this upscale, trendy area of Addis Ababa called Bole street, so on my last evening I thought it would be prudent to check out the nightlife, even though I had to get up at 4:30 am for my flight. I had the taxi drop me somewhere on Bole street and started walking, it was a chilly evening so I wore a jacket. The street wasn’t well lit and I kept seeing disconcerting dark figures off to the side whispering at me, I was also really hungry, so I stopped at the first place I saw and had Blue Nile Perch which was just ok. I used the free wifi and found a bar not far from the restaurant called Black Rose Lounge. The music wasn’t obnoxious so I stayed for a bit but it felt like the kind of place you go with friends so if you’re solo, there’s no where to set up shop and chill. Eventually my standing around, turning in circles became just awkward and some men decided to talk to me. They turned out to be very friendly and we had a good time shooting the shit and then we went to a nightclub somewhere else; these guys were the friendliest people I had met in Addis Ababa who genuinely just wanted me to have a fun night.
Finally, around 3am I thought I should get back to my hotel for a quick disco nap but drunk me forget to set the alarm, or I set it wrong, or I didn’t hear it. Either way I was awoken by loud knocking at my door, thankfully sober me had arranged an airport transfer and they were waiting for me. At the airport I was sent to a terminal that actually looked like a defunct airport out of a horror movie. There was nothing open in the way of food or water, I was still drunk so I was in dire need of water. Every seat was taken so I sat on the cold floor with my head in my hands in pure agony. The bathroom down a long hallway lit by one flickering light bulb was cold, dirty, water was everywhere and if a rat had scurried across the floor I would not have been surprised. The flight was over an hour delayed so I got to Bahrain too late to catch my connection to Abu Dhabi. The hangover was in full swing so I set up shop in the Irish Pub drinking Bloody Mary’s for approximately 8 hours.
Addis Ababa is not a city I’d return to any time soon but if I had the chance I would go back to Ethiopia to visit Lalibela and a few other places of note; the country boasts many fascinating historical and natural attractions, a unique cultural heritage, and the best damn coffee in the world.