Tag Archives: Addis Ababa

Back in Addis

Ethiopian tour guides pack luggage on roof of Toyota LandcruisersWe are back in Addis after a fairly punishing two day drive from Lalibela. This is the last time I can blog from Ethiopia but I will put the other stuff up when I get home anyway. Thousands of photos to sort out and lots of scribbling to transcribe. It is hard to put in perspective what we have seen in the last two weeks but I suppose the biggest impression is the contrast between the lives of the average rural Ethiopian and that of us in the west – or even those here in the Addis Hilton.

Some strange facts about Ethiopia:

  • They have thirteen months in a year
  • It is currently 2003 in Ethiopia
  • The Ethiopian clock starts at what we call six in the morning. Therefore they have lunch at 6 or 7 o’clock – which for us is noon or 1pm. Weird eh? Mind you most of the clocks we saw didn’t work anyway.
  • Only China has more donkeys than Ethiopia.

Would I come back? Definitely but I would try to do less and spend more time absorbing the culture of one place and trying to see more wildlife. The birds here are stunning and remarkably tame too. You don’t even have to leave the towns to see hornbills, blue starlings, sunbirds, eagles and vultures. Also travelling with an Ethiopian friend made life much easier and cheaper. It is hard to remember the little cultural differences and to leave behind European prejudices. Crimson wild birds, Ethiopia

The historical riches in this country are immense and in danger of being lost despite help from Unesco. I was shocked by the inappropriate and intrusive way they have tried to protect some things – such as the rock-hewn churches. And many things are not protected at all – ancient manuscripts in open cabinets in such a humid environment. My other abiding memory will be of the happiness and kindness of the people here. And not just because they think they can get a few birr from you. I was so pleased we  experienced traditional music too. So it was in a hotle bar and they wre probably doing the equivalent of churning out rock standards for the tourists but it was still fantastic and after three nights of it I think we bonded with musicians if only for the gusto with which we embraced the dancing. Other nationalities were way behind us band of Ethiopian-Irish- Brits. Mind you we had probably drunk more than them too.


Rural Ethiopian woman standing with hand on hip

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Debre Markos – perhaps


Lunchtime start on the road to Debre Marcos . Hilton staff helpful and joshing as we pack the 4x4s. Then off through the suburbs of Addis . Teeming with activity and humanity and every type of vehicle imaginable – nearly all of them totally dilapidated.  Once out of Addis we pick up speed and pretty much maintain it at all times. This seems to be the norm. It is scary but again not really aggressive driving. The concept of slowing down when you enter a village does not exist. Horn used constantly just to say we are coming but everything carries on with donkeys, goats, horses, bajajs (Ethiopian name for tuk-tuks) and people somehow managing to narrowly avoid collision. The roads are lined with tin shack shops selling fruit, pots and pans, welding shops making gates and fencing, kids gathered round table football sets and table tennis tables.  Approaching and leaving towns and villages, hundreds of people walk by the side of the road or drive two wheel carts drawn by donkeys or horses. They carry huge amounts on their backs wrapped in khaki cloth. Outside Addis we see a constant stream of women of all ages carrying an unbelievable amount of firewood on their backs down from the forest to the city.  Not sure what distance they carry this but we were still seeing them about 10 miles out of the city.

The road doesn’t really change much and every town has the same incredible range of goods and humanity. Everywhere we go men and children wave and shout  or smile. Even in the distance working in the fields, the people can spot a ferenje vehicle and shout and wave or ululate or crack their whips. Once well out of the city we are in medieval agricultural territory. With thousands of acres being ploughed by oxen with long wooden ploughs, the men walking behind constantly laying the whip across the hind quarters of the oxen.  In the evening we see the men carrying the huge ploughs back home on their shoulders. Cattle here are not sacred but the way they wander into the road they possibly think they are.

Eventually the terrain changes as we enter the more mountainous areas and climb up to the ridge of the Blue Nile gorge. We stop at a vantage point to look at the view. There is no-one in sight but within about one minute of getting out of the vehicle people begin to appear running up the hillside clutching woven baskets and carved stone crosses. The pressure to buy becomes a little uncomfortable with these young adults and children trying every technique from cute to pleading to mildly aggressive ‘You mister, you buy this now. 30 birr. You give me now’ Accompanied by menacing stares!  But as he is only about 12 and stick thin ………

Then we are winding down the gorge to the bridge over the Blue Nile.  We are allowed to walk over the old bridge but not the new one which is guarded by soldiers with rifles.  The Blue Nile is decidedly brown. As we climb up the other side of the gorge we pass a tree clattering with bird noise and when we look it is decorated with dozens of woven nests suspended from the branches and twice that number of bright yellow birds.

Soon we are driving in the dark which the guide books say is really not a good idea. I  agree entirely. If driving during the day was scary this is terrifying and the lights on the truck are not too impressive either. People and animals loom out of the dark every few minutes and it is really hard to see the regular holes in the road.

After an hour or so we reach town and the hotel.  The drivers tell us ‘no more night driving’. The hotel has rooms but no electricity. Then they do and then they don’t then they do again but it waxes and wanes. Anyway there are beds and it is secure and we eat there and the food is good. We sleep OK but are woken several times by the dogs howling in an amazing cacophony which doesn’t last long and finishes so abruptly it is as if someone flicked a switch. Rebecca says it is because they hear the hyenas coming and they will pick out a dog to separate off and kill.

Morning comes and we have tea and French toast and get back on the road.

The road becomes even more crowded with agricultural vehicles and workers and we pass through many towns all buzzing with activity – country people,  people in modern dress, priests with matching umbrellas.

Soon we head off the main road and stop to ask for a waterfall that Rebecca wants us to see. It is called Fang but no-one seems to have heard of it, even when we get really close they do no t know the name. Then we are off down a very rough mud track lined with mud houses, lots of kettles smoking outside and very thin horses and cattle. The people  obviously  do not see many ferenje go by their front doors. Almost everyone waves and shouts and the kids run after us for miles. This is a very muddy track and at times even our 4×4 vehicles struggle. The track ends in a newly planted field and we now have about 15 of the most determined kids with us. Many of them speak a little English and they are obviously going to guide us down to the waterfall – whether we like it or not.

The path is steep and slippery and the kids are at times a hindrance rather than a help – vying to grab at your every limb and place your foot in the safest place in their opinion or trying to stop you touching poisonous plants. To my horror my guide decides to call me granddad and congratulates me on every step for making it as if I am in my eighties. The climb down is short and definitely worth it. The waterfall is not high but the power of the water cascading over the ridge is awe inspiring with the spray reaching us hundreds of yard away.  I take time to get out the gorilla pod and put an ND filter on the camera  so I can blur the water – and later discover a huge blob in the middle of the filter ruining all my efforts. It is all a bit rushed – especially for a granddad. When we reach the top I tell my guide I will wait for my wife. He asks which one is my wife with a look of incredulity. When I point out Marianne he punches me good naturedly and congratulates me for getting myself a young wife.

Then things go a bit wrong. Fion is crying and says his money – only 10 birr or so –has been stolen by the village kids. Johnny gets upset and starts shouting at the kids. The drivers get wind of this and somehow think a mobile has been stolen and go running off into the village pursuing two young boys. The atmosphere turns dark. Rebecca arrives and gets very angry with Johnny for kicking off at the kids. Just when we think it can’t get any worse the whole adult population starts to arrive and surround the vehicles. Rebecca looks worried that this could turn very unpleasant. There are maybe 200 hundred villagers and the drivers are missing and the vans are locked. But things seem to calm down and the drivers re-appear though they are still threatening some of the kids. We go back to the vans and give our guides some money and sweets but the frenzy starts again with many children shouting for money and stopping us getting into the vehicles. It is not menacing but hard to control. An older boy is trying to stop the children begging with not much success but eventually we are all on board and manage to set off again with dozens of villagers running alongside us and people waving from all the houses.

We learn just how easily wars start! And perhaps to be a bit more sensitive. Still don’t know what really happened – maybe Fion dropped the money. Most villagers seemed horrified to think that someone would steal from their guests. Then again kids are kids the world over.

Back to the main road and off towards Bahir Dar – our next stop on the shore of Lake Tana. Travel is exactly as before – frenetic with lots of swerving and braking hard. Swimming  through a throng of people and animals.

When we reach our chosen hotel the Guion on the lake I admit to being initially  disappointed as I thought it was going to be an idyllic spot on the shores of a lake with gently lapping water and chalets opening on to the shore. But the town is actually on the lake and the hotel is on a busy road though in a compound. The hotel is extremely run down. To call it one star would be extremely generous. In Europe it would be condemned in an instant. Our room is very damp and the furniture is ancient and filthy and the bathroom wet and black with mold. The electrics are fragile and intermittent. But it is secure and safe and we are tired so we check in. It is also very cheap.  Maybe £10 per night. The lake is hidden behind corrugated iron sheets but there are beautiful if dilapidated gardens andthe birds are spectacular and very tame, eating off the tables and sitting in trees all around us. We get settled in after we have had room changes because of non-working locks and dodgy electrics.

We eat on a veranda built round a huge tree. The food is good and again very cheap and the staff very friendly. There are many nationalities here -English, German, Catalan, Belgian. The lake is huge – like a sea really with no sign of the far shore. There is a monastery near buy with amplified chanting of the monks until midnight. The shore path is busy with an air of ne’er do well about it. But we eat good food and go to bed with lots of mosquitos trying to find a way into our net. Tired but feeling secure and healthy if a little damp.

Before dark we go for a short walk and visit the luxury hotel next door which is five star and currently houses the friend s of Rebecca we met in Addis. It is low season and we could stay there for a very reasonable rate but still ten times what we are paying at the Guion.

The next day is sunny and the gardens are beautiful and the birds are back in cups. Breakfast is fine then we head off for the market. Nothing like Mercato but still a shock to all the senses with open sewers criss-crossing it and again we are the subject of much attention from both stall holders and children. All friendly and many with a few words of English.

I am going to try and post this and add fotos later – whilst we have a connection

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lorry loaded with recycling materieals, Addis Ababa

Mercato is apparently Africa’s biggest outdoor market. But if that gives the impression of acres of canvas covered stalls it is not like that all. It is more a vast area dedicated to trading. Yes there are pitches on the streets but there are also wooden shacks, corrugated iron shacks, mud wall buildings and indoor arcades. And you can buy just about anything – including apparently camels though we did not see any. A few words to sum up my thoughts about Mercato would include chaotic, muddy, noisy, confusing, and bewildering. The guide books all issue dire warnings about crime in this market and I guess they have some justification but I wish I had risked bringing my camera. We picked up a ‘guide’ as soon as we arrived – this time a middle aged guy. Actually I will go back a bit and talk about the taxi ride first.

Taxis in Addis are all blue painted Ladas. Old Ladas and the odd Datsun. Those Datsuns from the 70s that are shaped a bit like Ford Capris. Sara Mac used to call them greaseball cars. The paint jobs are hand done – I mean painted by hand rather than sprayed. These cars are small and decidedly tatty and smoky and many don’t have lights. They all have a piece of material – like chenille or sometimes fake fur – draped over the space between the dashboard and the screen. You get a cab by finding one and negotiating a price. We are a big group so we always need two. Rebecca does the bargaining as we don’t speak Amharic. This can take some time and it is tempting to not argue over another 50p but that is just not the way it is done. Anyway eventually we are all aboard and we cast off into the river of traffic like flotsam bobbing about in a stream. Driving in Addis is completely bonkers but it is not at all aggressive – very little horn blowing – but then they probably don’t work.  Somehow every vehicle plus a few donkeys, goats, camels (though we are yet to see one) and pedestrians just about manage to avoid collisions. The fumes are horrendous and add that to the lack of oxygen and it can be very unpleasant. There are buses too – big ones and mini-buses but we haven’t braved them yet. They are seriously overcrowded though everyone is inside – they don’t seem to allow hanging off the outside or climbing on the roof. They don’t have any indication of where they are going and I wonder how you get off if you are at the back and your stop comes up.


Anyway we get to the market and the first thing you notice is that everyone is staring at you – with nothing more than fascination for the most part – I am sure most of these people, except  perhaps some of the children have seen white people before but maybe not often. The market does attract traders from miles around though so I suppose there will be some who might not have seen many white people. Many, many people want to practice however much English they have and smile away at us –some just say Lampard or Beckham or Manchester and grin. But there are also the children with little trays of bubblegum or fruit or strange twiggy things  that I have not got a clue (perhaps toothbrushes) about and you are a definite target for them. The approach ranges from plaintive pleas to buy something to what they call ferenje fever – foreigner fever – where half a dozen or more of these children surround you chanting  ‘You You YOU!’  thrusting their wares in your face. Somewhat unnerving but our self-appointed guide shouts at them and they go way.  There are a couple of moments when you feel people are deliberately blocking your path and you are getting sort of bundled but with a little determination we rapidly extricate ourselves. Obviously you do not have bags open and you try to stick in a little group.

Thing is, it is so easy to get distracted. I feel like I am in one of those documentaries they used to show at tea-time on a Sunday afternoon – the World About Us or something. It is all very colourful – huge sacks of spices and incense and bundles of charcoal, and coffee roasters and twig burners fashioned from old tin cans. And huge drums of cooking oil pierced by hand pumps for dispensing into anything from cups to 5 litre cartons. The people are almost as varied as the goods on offer with dozens of different tribal garments, ancient women squatting on sacks of turmeric, younger women with babies slung on their backs, pitiful beggars with leprosy, other who just crawl along the roads with twisted or missing limbs. The smells change every few yards too – one minute it is roasting coffee, then chilli spices (don’t sniff them we are warned), then incense, then something disgusting, then goats. The whole place assaults your every sense. Many stalls seem to sell just one thing but maybe in different sizes – so it might be baskets , or aluminium pans or incense. It is incredibly colourful and fascinating to look at. Another thing I did not expect are the roads – the main ones are tarmac but many of the twisty side streets and alleys are just huge chunks of stone and mud. You have to watch your step all the time – you could easily fall and that would not be much fun on those rocks. There is constant activity here – lorries reversing, donkeys – some of them seemingly on their own running down the streets, a man with a pile of green and yellow mattresses twice as tall as he is on his head, people cooking and roasting over charcoal.

Soon it is starting to get dark and we decide it is time to find taxis again. I did grab a few shots on my phone but I would love to go back with the big camera – and maybe a couple of minders.

Having difficulty with uploading at the moment. Also we are both poorly and under the doctor… should survive . But maybe no update for a while

incense in sacks, mercato, addis ababa, ethiopia
Sacks of incense for sale
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Fruit and vegetable shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Arrived in Addis late Thursday. Not too crazy at airport. Queued for visa (very pretty). Went to bag reclaim and found the zip on pack from my big pack missing and all straps undone. Resigned myself to buying new socks and pants and could not remember what else was in there. Then it turned up. Hard to believe it detached itself…

Rebecca & Johnny at airport. Weather warm but very humid. Took shuttle to hotel through endless streets lined with green and yellow striped corrugated iron and dozens of shack shops with shelves piled high with everything imaginable. Modern 4x4s alongside put-puts and old crates with no lights.

Hotel slightly quirky version of Hilton. Bar mainly white people. Big wall plaque with bas relief of Selassie who opened the hotel in the sixties. Staff very friendly and helpful and polite. Drank late whilst waiting for Greville. Eventually get message that his luggage is lost & he is going to be a while  – so we go to bed.


Wake late. Very humid and misty outside. Huge shanty town opposite us with plethora of satellite dishes. Mountain in the distance. Breakfast. Very good with full English, Ethiopian and continental on offer.Shanty town and modern tower block, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Greville is here. But his luggage is not. Not changed in fifteen years. Beautiful gardens and dozens of shops in corridors under hotel. Getting hotter.

Jonny & Menelek arrive and we all go for a walk. Now I know what they mean by culture shock. Immediately gather a gaggle of young boys offering advice, tours, historical info – all in very good English and very polite. We politely rebuff them but two persist and walk with us. Abraham and Abe. They teach us bits of Amharic and warn us about when we can and should not take photos – govt buildings absolutely not. There are signs affirming this. Also when we come to the big church – with chanting emanating – we all start to take pictures. Local older beggars start to shout at our ‘guides’ and they tell us no photos. They say these men are aggressive and if we persist they will take our cameras and beat up our guides. Whether this is true or not we don’t know but we stop taking photos. Photo opportunities are everywhere but reticence stops me from taking many shots. Grab a few  though. The people are beautiful and many very well dressed – though many are obviously destitute too with missing limbs. It is very humid and the lack of oxygen makes walking difficult. Amazed by the friendly smiles and greetings we get – even from the soldiers with their Kalshnikovs.
Blue and white bus in Addis Ababa Ethiopia

In the midst of this bustling city with its four lane highways there are people herding goats and sheep. Surprisingly most cars stop at zebras (crossings not the stripy equines) and even when they are not at zebras. At one point a beaten up old Lada holds up several lanes of traffic just so we can cross. A kind act but a bit scary for us. Buses are ancient and colourful and rammed. Shack shops abound and wherever there is a bit of space people are selling beautiful looking fruit and vegetables. A boy walks by pushing a barrow of prickly pear and two men with barrows full of tomatoes. We stop in a Greek Orthodox Church shop to look at the religious icons and 3d Jesus pictures. Then back to the hotel for a beer and a swim. The ‘guides’ are suitably rewarded – I think we are over generous but they don’t complain. Some people say that this is misplaced generosity and we ruin it for subsequent tourists. I say bollocks put your hand in your pocket – we are talking a couple of beers here.


Surrounded by colourful and bold birds in hotel garden. Then discover something really annoying. What sort of bird obsessive goes on the trip of a lifetime to a place over provisioned with birds and leaves his binoculars at home? Me.

Afternoon we go to Mercato = the largest market in Africa. We are warned not to take cameras. Advice I bitterly regret that I did not ignore. But true it is very edgy at times. I will talk more about this in the next blog  but being the only white people in a mass of thousands does make you  realise a few things about the multi-cultural society we live in. And I would stress that we are treated with kindness and fascination by nearly everyone we meet there. But if I thought our brief walk this morning was culture shock I did not realise it was the tip of the iceberg. If I can work out how to get the pics of my phone on to the laptop tomorrow  I will post some.

In the evening we ate traditional Ethiopian food and our first experience of Injeera. Which I liked enough. But first I will try to get on line and post this – not easy or cheap in Addis Ababa.

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