Moving at a crawl my taxi driver follows a procession of cars up an unpaved street then turns down a path barely wide enough for it to pass. We stop suddenly.
Ahead a small van is unloading wares and my driver, recognizing the pending gridlock, switches off the engine and we sit. Car horns erupt from behind.
On either side vendors are seated on makeshift wooden stools selling carpets, shawls and other knitted goods.
Pedestrians squeeze past unfazed by the congestion. A young boy of school age herds some donkeys up the potholed road behind us and he smiles when our eyes meet.
We are in Addis Ababa’s Merkato, the largest outdoor market in Africa, a place where tens of thousands shop, sell and hustle on a daily basis, a place where everything from spices and foods to cooking pots and wooden doors are on offer at ridiculously low prices. A handcrafted bronze cross pendant, for instance, cost me less than $5. Dusty, smelly and noisy, it is, nevertheless, a compelling experience for any visitor to Ethiopia.
In the Amharic language Addis Ababa means “new flower” which invokes tranquil images seemingly at odds with the chaos I am experiencing. This city of 3.8 million is widely considered Africa’s capital. It is, after all, home to the headquarters of the 50-year-old African Union, and the United Nations has many of its African headquarters here, including the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
Addis, as it is commonly known, also has a captivating arts scene that blends African and Western sensibilities. The colourful works of Ethiopian painters, yet to be discovered by Western collectors, hang in venues such as the National Museum Gallery. But you can dine on Italian food and then buy a painting at the Makush Restaurant and Gallery. There is a hip music scene, too.
One evening I attended a brilliant outdoor jazz concert at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise. There were hundreds of music lovers there to see The Jazzmaris, a group comprised of an Ethiopian rhythm section and a pair of Germans on guitar and saxophone.
Back in the market, I decide to snap a few pictures. In every direction are streets filled with vendors. I walk downhill a few blocks and see two women selling spices from enormous canvas bags. They both cover their faces as I approach with my Nikon. On a previous visit to the Merkato I had been in the company of a guide and was able to take more pictures. Alone today I had the feeling that the camera is more of an intrusion. I walk back to the taxi and notice the gridlock is clearing and so I ask the driver to take me back to my hotel.
While taxis are plentiful on the streets of Addis and especially around hotels, the locals rely upon “public taxis,” blue and white vans that constitute an affordable public transit system. Fraol, the concierge at The Kenenisa Hotel where I am staying, offers to take me up to the National Museum of Ethiopia in one the next day.
One of the beat-up Toyotas pulls up and Fraol ushers me into the front seat. By the puzzled looks from the other occupants it is clear that farenji or foreigners don’t often ride the “better way.” On the other hand, I’m not sure if I would make this trip without an Amharic speaking guide. Off we go down crowded, dusty side streets.
Eventually the taxi pulls up outside the National Museum. Among the treasures here are Emperor Haile Selassie’s throne, but the highlight is “Lucy” or rather, the remains of the 3.2-million year old Australopithecus — the apelike human ancestors — discovered in Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974.
After spending 10 minutes taking pictures from all angles I learn this is a replica and the original bones are downstairs preserved for scientific review only. How do you say “bloody idiot” in Amharic?
We hop another taxi over to the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral where the Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife are entombed. No sooner have we entered the grounds than a “guide” spots us and offers to escort us about. Groups of schoolchildren in uniforms smile and try out their English. “Hey mister, give me money!” one says and they all laugh.
Although Ethiopia is peaceful these days it wasn’t always the case. Emperor Selassie ruled from 1930 until 1974 when political opponents led by Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power. Known as The Derg, Mengistu and his Soviet-supported comrades oversaw a period which has come to be called the Red Terror during which an estimated half a million people were rounded up and murdered.
The mood contrasted heavily with what I would experience one evening at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant called Yod Abyssinia. Here, smiling musicians and dancers in national costume perform age-old routines that look more like mating rituals. I turned to my Ethiopian friend Kenenisa Bekele joking “What sort of place have you taken us to?” He just grins.
The server brings a flask of apricot brandy and a national drink called tej. It’s homemade she tells me. We wash our hands with soap and hot water before dining on tibs, delicious strips of spicy beef and onions, scooped up with injera, the ubiquitous flat bread. No cutlery. At once I feel the warmth of Ethiopia, its friendly people and a hospitality unmatched in my experience anywhere in the world.