Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ethiopia, Take One

I usually don't have apprehension before starting a trip. Then again, every year, every month, every day, every hour, I'm a little more feeble. Add to that the cocoon of living in the West always makes the rest of the world seem far scarier than it actually is. Plus the cold of winter and the added hassle of dealing with the business.

But I always have faith that once I'm in the air, if for no other reason than the fatigue of endless airports and waits and connecting flights, that will all fade away. And after about eight hours on the twelve hour flight from D.C, in the midst of the grog that these flights induce, I opened my little plane window, and we were right above the bright lights of the European Mediterranean coast. I knew that once we hit the African side there would just be the darkness of Libya and the long Saharan nothingness. And now I was back in my personal little world of travel.

The middle class Ethiopians sharing my flight seemed pleasant and on the ball. Brown, not black, they looked more like East Indians than Africans. Ethiopian Airlines is easily the best in Africa, but that isn't saying much. Yes, it was a Boeing 777, but there was no soap in the toilet, and the movie selection was terrible. I went back into my grog.

The sun came up over the Ethiopian plateau. Dessicated and sharply eroded. Finally some strangely shaped and colored fields, like one of those Earth From Above pictures. Then, in short order, a city and an airport.

A half hour for everyone to very slowly deplane. Then an hour in the visa on arrival line. When I finally made it out into the open air there was surprisingly low key hassle on a pleasant warm morning. My purported hotel pickup was not there, so I had to negotiate a taxi. Off we went into Addis Ababa.

Twenty years ago Ethiopia was the poorest country in the world, and in the grips of a frighteningly brutal police state to boot. So I was totally unprepared for the Third World Dubai which I was immediately thrust into. Incredible scenes of mindless construction everywhere: Buildings, buildings, buildings, virtually none of them anywhere near completion. All the roads torn up, with flyovers to nowhere and train tracks heading east. Where had the money come from to build this? Who was going to inhabit all the square footage? I had no idea.

Trip Advisor had ranked my hotel #6 in all of Addis. But it was a small, un-modern building on a dirt alley in the middle of nowhere. I'd been duped. I got my things to my room and then went out to explore my environs.

Over a half mile away was somewhat of a mall. The prices in the supermarket were really high. At least 8 ATMs in the area didn't work. I went into a bank and it took the guy twenty minutes to get all the approvals to change some money. I decided to go downtown. The cab driver wanted $8. I got into a minivan bus that I thought was going to Meskel Square. At some point a guy who spoke some English corrected me and said that if I got out immediately it was only a ten minute walk. Twenty minutes later I had found the bus company office, where I now bought a ticket to Harar.

That taken care of, now I had to get my visa for Somaliland. The taxi drivers were all blatantly cutthroat. I luckily found one who, all friendly, actually knew where their little office was. He helpfully waited outside while I filled out their half-legible form and gave them their $50. Then he drove me to an Indian restaurant. And tried to charge me a fortune for his helpfulness. I got rid of him and went inside and paid a fortune for a mediocre meal.

Sick of dealing with taxis, I decided to walk back towards my hotel. I made it a mile or so through a soulless endless commercial construction zone, with the afternoon getting steadily hotter. I finally gave up and got a taxi, who of course got lost trying to find the hotel. Which, of course, I couldn't really blame him for, since it was almost impossible to find. Did I mention that I hadn't really slept for at least 36 hours?

With the proper infusion of pills, however, I did knock myself out, break the jet lag, and get a good night's sleep. The next morning, though, my first order of business was to locate a better located hotel for when I returned to Addis. My best bet seemed to be one about a mile closer in to the center of town, so I planned to walk to it, check it out, and then take a taxi the rest of the way. Back along the endless road/building construction site. Problem was, there were absolutely no toad signs, in English or even funny Amharic script, anywhere in Addis. So I kept expecting to see the hotel at every major intersection. I kept walking and walking and walking. Then at some point I just happened to notice that I had just walked past Meskel Square in the center of the city. This was not being fun.
I was, however, somewhat around the corner from Ethiopian Airlines, so I went there to buy a couple of tickets from the nice young clerk.  A huge EEP when I realized how much my desire to go to Djibouti would set me back, but, hey, how many times does a guy get to go to Djibouti?
Now it was time for tourism.  So I overpaid a taxi to take me to St George Cathedral, one of the major centers of Ethiopian Christianity.  Which, if you are not aware, has been around since the 4th Century, and is its own distinctive branch.  Octagonal, somewhat like the churches in Georgia, I was anxious to go in and see the magnificent painted ceilings.  But a bunch of Ethiopian women, all clothed in white gauze, and standing and swaying and praying, all angrily chased me away.  Finding the men's entrance, they chased me away, too.  I sat and waited for their museum to open at 2.  But finally it dawned on me that this was the first day of Timkat, Ethiopia's most important religious festival.  So museums and churches would stay closed to the likes of me.
Okay, so off to the Ethnological Museum, which was somewhere on the University campus.  Walking up and down hills and around on winding roads, occasionally asking for the University, wonder of wonders, I actually found it on the first try.  Stucco buildings kind of still held together, this weren't the Harvard campus.  Weirdly, though, these buildings used to be Haile Selassie's palace complex.
The museum itself in fact used to be the Emperor's residence, and you can still see his bedroom and bathroom.  Frankly, even if you live in an apartment complex, you've got better quarters.  Most of the building, though, was given over to a small, but extremely well put together and intelligently described museum of the people and practices of the country.
It was after 4 now, so I walked the half mile or so down to the National Museum, which is famous for housing the bones of Lucy, our 3 million year old ancestor, plus other fossil hominids, Ethiopia being the place where the most important of them have been found.  I snapped away with my new camera.
Somehow I had lost my old camera last spring whilst Mo and I were in Granada, Spain.  Which meant that all my pictures of that trip had been lost.  So for Christmas I had bought myself a new Nikon, which I was now finding out to be a pretty neat one.
It was now 5:30 and the museum was closing.  I sat on a chair, took one last photo, and then walked out to where a nice cab driver was waiting.  He took me back to my hotel for only a slightly exorbitant fare.  I ordered a pizza at their tiny restaurant and went upstairs to wait.
While there I absent mindedly touched my pocket and realized that something was wrong.  No camera.  What???  Impossible.  I tore through all my pockets, small backpack, large backpack, then through everything again.   Unbelievable.  Writing this, at a distance, my most logical explanation is that both cameras vanished into thin air.  The alternative explanation, that somehow I have gotten so senile as to leave cameras lying around, is unacceptable.
So now I will have no pictures of this trip, either.
The next morning I was up at 4:30 for the 5:30 bus to Harar.  It was delayed for forty minutes because two different people said that their luggage was stolen, so the police had to be called.  Weird, since Ethiopia has a reputation for low crime, and because in all my world travels, I have never seen stolen luggage problems.  Good to know, though, for the future.
This was supposed to be one of the three fully modern bus companies, but the bus was only barely so, and hardly luxurious.  The first forty miles out of town were on a brand new expressway, but that soon stopped and we were on a two lane road the rest of the way.  Relatively well paved, though. 

The only other white person on the bus was sitting right next to me.  His name was Peter, he was Swiss, and when he turned 65 last year he realized that there was no way he could live at home on his measly pension.  So he decided to get rid of everything and just travel for the rest of his life.  Year one was Africa, and though he had almost died in West Africa, he was gamely following through on his plan.
It took 11 hours to get to Harar, and my first tired impressions were not good ones.  Yes, there was a hotel near the Old City gates, but it was dumpy and had no internet or running water, let alone edible food.  Of course, for $10...    Not to mention that my first brief excursion into the Old City showed something a lot drabber than the overblown descriptions of Harar would lead one to believe.
But there was one decent restaurant in the city.  Dribbling water came back on that night.  And a good night's sleep improved my outlook immeasurably.  And when Peter and I went for a stroll through the Old City on Sunday morning, it proved to be much cuter than the small part I had seen before.  I'm not sure it's worth a flight or an 11 hour bus ride, but it was suitably Medieval, with narrow twisting alleys and brightly colored walls.  Certainly more reminiscent of Morocco than the rest of Ethiopia.
And although Harar is mostly Muslim, it still has a significant Christian population (and everyone gets along just fine).  And, remember, it was Timkat weekend.  So in mid-afternoon I was delighted to come across a Timkat parade in the Old City, with hundreds of women, and men, swathed in white gauze and joyously dancing.  Plus a flatbed truck with singers and amplifiers, plus children in incredibly cute little religious uniforms, plus priests carrying crosses and sacred books, plus ornate religious umbrellas covering said priests.  Not to mention a lot of ululating.  All of it was actually quite moving and uplifting.
I followed them until they entered the new city.  Peter, who came upon them at a different point, said that they continued for about a mile, whereupon they met other groups from different directions.  Then they finally had a gigantic dancing, singing ululation.  And then everybody went home. 
Fortunately, earlier Peter had helped me buy a memory card for the $20 phone that I had brought along.  So I will have pictures of Timkat and the rest of my trip.  Just really bad ones.
Monday morning was the official Timkat holiday.  But the parade had been sufficient for me.  And I had 'gotten' Harar.  So it was time to move on.  At 7 am Peter and I went 200 meters to the little bus depot, where we got a funky Ethiopian bus for two hours to Jijiga.  Then a smaller funky bus to the small border town of Wajaale.
So far Ethiopia wasn't the most annoying place I've been to.  But it wasn't the least annoying, either.  Middle class folks are really nice.  But taxi drivers, bus loaders, and others involved with the farenji (foreigner) tourist trade can be a hassle.  Peter said that when I hit the 'historical circuit' I should be on my hassle guard.  Especially when compared with how nice most of Africa and Africans are.  We shall see.
But for now it was time to head into Somaliland.


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