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