Nestled between Sudan, Somalia, and Eretria, Ethiopia is not a destination most people think of visiting for the holidays. But time spent in the hot December ovens of Dar es Salaam (which translates to “bake at 350 degrees for three months per year), and Ethiopia, with its balmy days in the 70’s and cool nights in the 40s becomes appealing. We had heard that it is stunning, with amazing landscapes, and incredibly warm people. A few friends described it as going back thousands of years.
Yes and no. After Tanzania, Addis Ababa, at first view, looks downright thriving. Addis is a big city, bustling with traffic, businesses, and buildings under construction. In fact, Addis boasts 128 buildings over 4 stories tall currently under construction. Hillary said she felt like a country bumpkin when we walked through the airport and we were remarking on how the building is big and clean with long marble hallways, shiny steel and glass, and immigration booths that didn’t look like they were picked up at a soviet salvage sale.
Streets have curbs (nonexistent in Tanzania), which means there are sewers. This sounds minor, but is significant. Not only are they paving, they are planning for rain and runoff and water flow. Yes, planning!
And above ground, coffee bars and cafes! While there is significant poverty here, in Addis, unlike in Dar, there appears to be a burgeoning middle class that can support the frivolous things we’ve grown accustomed to, like coffee bars.
Our first few days were spent at the New Flower, a small guesthouse that mostly caters to European and American couples aiming to adopt a child. Ethiopia boasts a combination of significant poverty, stunning people, and liberal adoption laws, making it the top country in Africa from which westerners can adopt. Sassu, who runs the guest house, advises the families on where to go with their new babies, as not all Ethiopians are happy about these children being ‘exported’. The government, heavily involved in all affairs in the country, gets a sizable fee for each baby, so many Ethiopians view the adoption process as the selling of their babies. However, while we were at the guest house, a Danish couple had just adopted their baby, a boy who had been left on the street and found by a policeman. Clearly, the story is complicated.
On our first day, a Sunday with much of the city closed, we walked around the Bole area. There were cafes with the scent of Ethiopian coffee wafting out, and real, flakey buttery croissants.
For dinner, we strolled for 40 minutes to a “cultural restaurant” that had been recommended to us. We realized we were lost and hailed a taxi which drove us the final one block to Yod Abyssinia, a restaurant that features amazing Ethiopian food, and a show with traditional music and dancing. The dancing here is unlike anything else in Africa that we’ve seen. While most African dancing is all about gyrating hips, here it is all shoulders. Shoulders and heads move in ways that one wouldn’t think they could move – vibrating up and down, left shoulder and right bouncing separately, shimmying and popping.
Bodie met two other toddlers. While they couldn’t communicate, Bodie’s English and their Amharic not finding common ground, all three stood below the stage, dancing, spinning and hugging, and imitating the dancers’ moves for an hour. I think most people there found this to be cute, but there were definitely some clear glances in our direction that parents should get their children under control. As we were the only farangi there, it was clear that Bodie was ours, so we’d make a show of going over every song or two and bending down to talk to him, hoping it looked like we were parenting. It was halfhearted as we both liked his dancing and had calculated that another few dances and we’d be sure to get a solid night’s sleep.
Monday morning found us at the National Museum. The history of Ethiopian kingdoms – bronze work and weapons from 400 BC from the kingdom of Aksum, which extended into Arabia – shows a vibrant civilization that had broad trade with Persia, India and Arabia.
More mindboggling are the paleological testaments to this truly being the birthplace of mankind. From the findings of Lucy, the 3.5 million year old fossils of a woman hominid slightly bigger then Bodie, to a video showing how all mankind evolved from people here – a film of early man morphing into an Ethiopian face, then a Scandanavian face, an Indian one, Asian..-- it is astounding and forces recognition of the vast majority of commonalities we all share far outnumbering the differences.
We wandered the Piazza, an area that I had thought, based on nothing but its name and the slight knowledge I had that the Italians had invaded here 50 years ago, that it would be filled with Italian architecture and cafes. Instead, it was jammed with a hundred jewelry stores. Hillary mumbled something about justice being served as we walked from one window to the next.
Our dinner was at the family of Hillary’s sort-of half-brother. Twenty-three years ago, when Hillary was 15, her father visited Ethiopia as a journalist. He befriended a family who had a 17-year-old son, and feared his entry into the army. Edward managed to secure a visa for Siele and brought him back to live with the family in Princeton. This was certainly generous, but more importantly, very prescient as we got the opportunity to have dinner at Siela’s family’s house. His sister, Kide, and their mother, Amelework, threw a feast fit for a dozen. The table, laden with injira and a dozen bowls of lentils, chickpeas, shiro wat, beets, and other delicious food, was an amazing feast. After dinner, they drove us around Addis, giving a tour of the neighborhoods, small tin shacks built on plots next to large mansions, panoramic views of the city, and a quick tour of the resplendent Sheraton, where Siela had one of the three ceremonies celebrating his marriage.
We also learned that in Orthodox Christianity, as practiced here, one “fasts” every Wednesday and Friday. This means a vegan diet for those two days per week. In addition, all the holidays are fasting days. In total, there are more than 200 fasting days per year, so more fasting than meat days. This makes Ethiopia perfect for travelling vegetarians who simply need to request fasting food.
On Tuesday morning, Hillary had to wrestle with a proposal due before Christmas, so Bodie and I went to the Sheraton to swim. The Sheraton is not a regular Sheraton – it is huge and 5 star and one of Africa’s most elite hotels. The pool is not so much a pool as a tiled lake. There are peninsulas and tiled beaches and well-heeled people lolling about in shallow water having drinks brought to them. This was not anything that we had expected in Ethiopia.
From this large bustling city, filled with the sounds of horns, goats, cows and music, and the smells of too many cars, injira and spices and the pungent musks of animals, we were launching our trip. First, south to see nature, and then north, to tour historical and cultural sites.