Sunday, September 11, 2011

Addis Ababa: Chaos

My first trip to Africa and hadn’t a clue what to expect except the hammered out visions from movies and documentaries about AIDS and poverty. Addis Ababa is definitely the most chaotic place I have been. I have seen no working stop lights or stop signs in the entire city. The few intersections that physically have stop lights, they look like they have been off for a few years. Somehow, traffic moves on in spite of this. The minibuses have guys hanging out the side window (or door open occasionally) yelling the destination to everyone walking by. Most roads don’t have lane lines on them, so just try to find an open space or gap and drive in it. That includes humans, and sometimes donkeys or goats, all mixed in the roads. Cross the street anywhere you please like everyone does, but be a little cautious. Well, some people just walk in between the vehicles. Some streets have no or broken street lamps, which at night makes a dangerous mix of too many people and cars. The taxis, minibuses (and occasional full size bus), are definitely mostly Russian Ladas from the 60s-80s, struggling to make it through each day and full of squeaks and loud noises. They pack those things in too. Usually they have a legitimate 12 seats, but you’ll mostly find 17 or 18 including the guy that stands in the doorway and yells at people. My favorite seat is on top of the wheel-well, on which is placed a piece of plywood that you squat on, which I have enjoyed several times. Better yet was a plastic gas can with a pillow on top of it in the middle of the aisle. You must be a joker if you mention the word seatbelt. On the plus side, you’ll get to cross town for around 15 to 50 cents, which might amount to 30 minutes to 1 hour of driving depending upon traffic.

My view on the 5 cent bus atop the plastic gas can seat:

Guy hanging out window yelling. Note the nice wooden bench seat mounted to the wheel well, good for at least 2-3 people:

And forget about any modern looking buildings. Everything looks worn or has age. Buildings on main streets are fine (not for those who are into upscale, posh, or new things), but step onto the side roads and you’ll find shantier looking businesses and houses with steel corrugated roofs and dirt roads. Many sidewalks might be dirt or at least have patches of dirt of broken pavement (creating a nice demand for shoe shiners!). Every once in awhile, the main roads have some construction areas and it turns into a dirt road and traffic grinds to a halt (the amount of honking and the different sounds the horns make are hilarious). It’s like a cartoon of sounds. Or, if the road has a center divider (filled with dirt) look out, because you’ll probably see people sleeping in it. Maybe washing their feet and legs or face with a water bottle. And for the most part, boil your water from the regular tap before you drink it. Restaurants have good tap water, though, it must be filtered, and I drank it plenty of times. You can see people carrying just about anything on their shoulders or heads. And guys lined up on the sidewalk with their wooden stools and water buckets ready to shine people shoes. Why wouldn’t they though, a necessary profession with all the dirt around. Also, please pee anywhere if you are a guy. In short, it feels like anything goes in this city. But I quite enjoy it.

There are at least 10 people in the back of that truck, loaded up top, and a guy standing on the roof (in Mercato):

A guy carrying something in Mercato, the biggest market in Africa:

In contrast with Sweden, where everything is easy, drivers stop 5 feet before the line when they see you, and nobody would touch you with a 10 foot pole, here, you must pay attention. If not, chances are you will bump into someone or something on the street, or get hit by a vehicle (or a donkey, or a dude carrying something really, really heavy really fast that just won’t stop because he’s got all his momentum going). As chaotic as the city is, it is the only African capital built as they say completely by the hands and with the money of only Ethiopians. And internet access isn’t the best here. Forget about wireless in a hotel unless it is the Sheraton (or possibly a hostel geared for westerners), or the majority of coffee shops. But for 5 dollars or less a night, who can expect internet. It’s mostly dial-up or broadband internet cafes. However, one day, for example, the internet was out in an entire part of the city, leaving all internet cafes without access. And for prices, you can eat a meal for three for only a few dollars! Shine your shoes for 10 cents. Pure leather hand made dress shoes for 12 dollars (minimum $100 in US). And nothing goes without negotiating! Being a foreigner, they triple or quadruple the price. So just impressively lowball their first offer by about 75% and they’ll settle for 50% the original offer.

Successful negotiation in Mercato :

With all that said, it would be wrong to say this place doesn’t have incredibly rich culture. Over 80 languages are spoken. An incredible food culture is here, partly due to Ethiopian having never been colonized. They say coffee was first made here, in the southeast, and the coffee is damn good (and normally they are roasting the beans in a pan and grinding it by hand). There is an incredible coffee ceremony always for guests and friends, consisting of a long drawn out roasting of the beans over charcoal and making the coffee and drinking three cups.The world’s oldest skeleton was found here. Still there are plenty of indigenous cultures. The clothes you see people wearing vary incredibly in colors and style and are sometimes just cultural, sometimes religious. Speaking of religion, it seems that most people are believers. 46% Christian, 35% Muslim, a Jewish population, plus local religions. Culturally, like in India, it is common for men to walk down the street holding hands or with their arms around each other. Most things are still done by hand. Farming also…. 80% is done the old school way (ox and plow and manual hand tools) and without pesticides and chemicals (which is why I believe the bananas I have had here, smaller than the ‘average’ banana, are the most incredible tasting bananas I have ever eaten. Even if it’s brown on the outside, it’s probably still perfect on the inside). Anyways, it’s an awesome place (and I can’t say I feel that unsafe even if I am stared at by everyone that I walk by like a tourist attraction for having white skin!).

Hand washing:
Netsanet tries his hand at roasting the beans (though not considered much of a man's thing here...)

Grinding the roasted beans by hand:

Coffee Ceremony:

My lovely hotel phone:

Coffeeeeeee time:

My first Ethiopian coffee:
Getting shoes cleaned:

Donkey traffic:

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