Ethiopia 09 p1

Addis Abeba

The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Addis was that it made my nose drip abnormally. Other travelers confirmed: there was something in the air we were all allergic to. Almost as soon as I had dropped my bag at the notorious Baro, I went out for a long walk and discovered a barely urbanized place, whose big avenues were long past their heyday (if they ever had one), whose streets were strewn with grey bundles that turned out on closer inspection to be utterly dispossessed human beings, whose inhabitants seemed incapable of not calling out at foreigners; a filthy city with no charm and little incentive to linger in.
And yet, after a few days traveling around the countryside, Addis felt like a haven of peace and civilization that I didn't want to leave again.

Addis' blue taxis

My guidebook had said it would be so, but I didn't believe it till I experienced it. In terms of human experience, Ethiopia ranks lowest of all the countries I have visited. It wasn't just me: all of the numerous travelers I crossed paths with shared a similar disappointment, particularly those that had traveled there overland through much gentler African countries. In Ethiopia we were faced with open xenophobia and aggressive solicitation, children (and adults) demanding money and throwing rocks if not satisfied, idle young men latching onto a passing victim and pestering them till they either give them money, find refuge somewhere or give them an excuse to be violent. While those working in the tourism industry were naturally very friendly, I did not see anyone outside those circles attempt to keep their countrymen from harassing foreigners. I didn't reach a point where I feared for my safety, but almost everywhere, I found myself walking quickly without pausing to take photos, so as not to give locals a chance to catch up with me and pester me. In the end I stopped going around on my own – other visitors also preferred to move in groups after a while. 
This to say that my very relative enjoyment of Ethiopia was not thanks to its inhabitants, but in spite of them.

The people climbing the steps in pairs are all blind.
I was amazed to see them walk around unaided in Addis.

I managed to run across a Wushu school!

Addis train station. The only remaining train goes to Djibouti.

My room at Baro. The crosswords book saved my sanity.

Baro, it turns out, was an institution amongst backpackers and the few foreigners that return to Ethiopia frequently. It's very cheap for the country, though that means there are no frills and you share the city's power outages, but what makes it a prize location is the fact it has a patio (so one can sit around with other travelers and eat in company) enclosed in a courtyard (so you are safe from the pestering). I spent most of my time in the city there, recovering from the hostility and meeting people from around the world: an exchange medical student from Germany, a moviemaker from Russia, an artist from the UK, a writer from Norway, even a French musician who had turned down an invitation to stay at the French embassy because he preferred to stay at Baro.
There I also met a very big Canadian named Clark (hello Superman puns), who noted with astonishment that being literally twice the height and breadth of most Ethiopians did not make them less aggressive towards him. Still, I was quite glad to walk around in his company, and he taught me to play the addictive game of baw. Thinking of ways to make a homemade version kept me gratefully occupied for at least one full evening (by then my malaria meds were starting to keep me up all night.)

Fellow Baro tenants Guy with prints of his art, and Hedva

Oromo milk jug. To this day I can't rid it of its smell.

When I returned to Addis after touring the North, I toyed with the idea of taking a tour to the South, and stopped by a travel agency to make inquiries. When I arrived, the agency owners, an Ethiopian man with his American wife, were chatting with a couple of British visitors. He was saying: ".. and I learned the hard way, NEVER put Germans and Israelis in the same group tour. Man, they can't stand each other! Oh, hello! How can I help you?"
I explained I was looking for a group heading south that I could join.
"Oh yes!" he beamed. "I have an Israeli girl here who wants to go south, she's really nice, let me ask her if she still wants to g-- uh, where are you from?" He had been stopped mid-sentence by my ear-splitting grin.
He already had his phone in hand to call her, but noticed I was grinning from ear to ear, and with a doubt he asked: "Uh, where are you from?"
I managed to say "I'm Lebanese!" before collapsing... Everyone in the office exploded into howling laughter.

Sample of the Mercato, where it isn't safe to go alone.

It was Guy who suggested to go to Mercato together. I don't remember how that came up, but we wanted to look for antique beads. We both spoke French, which allowed us to communicate privately in the course of negotiating. Acquiring the beads was such a sport that I wrote down the entire, convoluted event in my journal, which I copy here verbatim.
The vendor first swore that he didn't lie, he's a Christian (takes out cross and kisses it), that the beads were old as demonstrated by the core, and that they are sold by piece and if we chose he'd make us a good price. Then (upon prompting) that they were 10 birr each but he'd make us a good price. As I started picking beads, dramatic entrance of the "brother" looking upset, upon which our vendor says their father didn't want to sell them by piece – but no problem, keep picking and then we would discuss with "dad". I carry on, the vendor not shutting up for an instant about not lying abnd how pretty the beads are. Once done, they both go to "talk to dad", not taking the beads with them and making sure I appreciated the honesty demonstrated there. Throughout, Guy and I are discussin gin French. They return looking discomfited: "no bad news" but dad wants 20. They try to give us a price from there but we get up and leave. After the appropriate delay, they run out agreeing to the price. The reason and purpose behind this cinema? Get us to take the beads at the original price, not a discount. The joke's on them, however – we both believe (supported by our guide) that they don't realize the true value of the beads, and that birr 10 is still a good deal for me.

Other than these 30 beads the likes of which I haven't seen elsewhere (which means something, coming from someone as bead-obsessed as I was) I also brought 4 beautiful Sidamo pendants out of the market, so it was a productive visit.

I discovered a rooftop cafe nearby. My view while having breakfast and peanut tea...

My greatest find in Addis Abeba was the Center for Ethiopian Studies, at the University, with its attached Ethnographic museum that looks like it belongs in Europe. All my questions about Ethiopian crosses and other aspects of the many cultures of the land were answered there, and I spent happy hours filling my sketchbook. The National Museum, in comparison, is completely worthless and a waste of time.
That evening I went out for tea with a fireman from Barcelona, who in typical Spanish fashion made friends with all the locals the moment he arrived. It was a much nicer social experience, hanging out in a locally popular place, and as we had an eye on the street outside, we were treated with the sight of Somalis in full garb (and weapons), looking but obviously not feeling out of place.

Ethiopia has some particularities that make for unusual tourism ads. For instance: 13 MONTHS OF SUNSHINE may not make much sense until you realize their calendar has 13 months. Even more opaque to me was TRAVEL IN ETHIOPIA AND BE 7 YEARS YOUNGER! It took a while for me to find out the Ethiopian calendar is simply 7 years behind the commonly used one...
The most potentially problematic, however, is their use of time: being near the Equator, so that day and night are roughly equal, Ethiopian time begins (00:00) when the sun rises (which is 06:00 in our language) and ends (12:00) when the sun sets (that is 18:00 for us poor mortals). Never assume that because you're foreign, they will give you the foreign version of the time...