Last Autumn I took myself to the Ethiopian Airlines office and bought tickets for our family holiday – we were spending Christmas in the Seychelles. The most direct route from here is with Ethiopian, via Addis Ababa, with an overnight stopover each way. I briefly registered the beautiful Ethiopian language on the ticket wallets, then tidied them away for a few months, to get on with the business of getting to know Congo, while planning for paradise.
If any of my friends here didn’t know we were on our way to the Seychelles last month, they really weren’t paying attention, so intensely had I been looking forward to our long-awaited getaway. So it was a surprise to me to realise as we boarded the plane that our first destination really excited me too – I was actually going to be staying in Ethiopia!
Like most of my generation in the UK, my earliest awareness of Ethiopia came via Michael Beurk and his ground-breaking reports of the devastating famine in 1984, which made Live Aid happen, but created the long-lingering association of Ethiopia (and Africa) with starvation, poverty, corruption and war. Later I gained a vague idea of the country’s rather glamorous early history and culture – a seat of earliest civilisation, biblical references, and amazing rock-hewn churches. These days I drink Ethiopian coffee (because I’ve never found Ugandan coffee since leaving there) and I once had a chaotic meal in an Ethiopian restaurant. The name of the country even has its own exotic appeal, with its rhythmic blending of vowels.
So thanks to my childhood viewing of the news, mixed up with more exotic ideas that came later, Ethiopia is a kind of ‘first Africa’ in my consciousness – the first Africa that anyone told me about (apart from Egypt – I’m sure we ‘did’ lots of Egypt in primary school – but probably no one ever said it was actually Africa…well, there’s a whole other blog post…). Which is why, once I had some headspace to think about it, I was full of anticipation to be actually landing there.
On the plane I started snapping pictures of every bit of Ethiopian script I came across. What I now know to be called Amharic really is lovely to look at, all curves and circles and precise little squiggly figures that seem to play together in the words. It was exhilarating and challenging to see a language that looks so very different from any I’d seen before; like a glimpse of the limitless scope of human experience.
(Who knew I could get that from a water bottle and lap tray…):
A cheerfully colourful water bottle
The (very good) inflight magazine drew me in further, with a beautifully written piece about trekking in the Ethiopian highlands (being Scottish I always have a little brain glitch coming across the word ‘highlands’ in a more exotic context) and, even more enticing, a spread about Ethiopian food. The writer was actually taking a foodie tour through Little Ethiopia in LA, but it got me wondering optimistically if just maybe the transit hotel would serve any of these traditional dishes for dinner, to be followed of course by rich strong Ethiopian coffee.
But it was driving through the streets of Addis as we shuttled between airport and hotels (four times) that provided the most memorable images of my glimpse of Ethiopia. Before we boarded the bus, the 4 year-old exclaimed “It’s so cold!” Which it really wasn’t. But unlike him, my body’s memories are resolutely Scottish, so I was simply enjoying the fact that the fresh evening air wasn’t hot and humid, thanks to the city’s elevation.
Driving to and from the hotels, through the suburb of Bole, there was much that I recognised as familiarly African. After dark, streets lined with well-stocked shacks were a centre of bustling commercial activity as people made their way home – after an African sunset the day is far from over. The local commerce was interspersed with bursts of development, African style: a not-Starbucks, a not-KFC, both displaying approximations of familiar logos, a shiny mall with slightly shabby-looking boutiques and empty units. Even on what seemed to be a wide, busy highway, there were always people walking, a stream of humans, feet working hard to get home. There were half-built carcasses of buildings, some in sleeping construction sites, others left abandoned probably for months after finance dried up. Roads of smooth tarmac could transform unexpectedly, where one wrong turn of the steering wheel could land us in a large pothole. All of this I was used to.
What made the experience unique was watching the people, especially on the early morning commute. Their height gave them a sense of elegance and confidence. Many were in western clothes, hoodies pulled up against the morning freshness, hoods stretched into a long oval. But many others wore the traditional gabi, usually white, adding an ethereal quality to the grey, slightly misty morning. At one point we turned onto a road, and suddenly there was a mass transit line in front of us, elevated passenger platforms and tracks cutting through the middle of the highway for some kind of tram or overground rail, and for a moment I could have been in Lyon, or Amsterdam. It seemed incongruous to see money having been spent in such a way, when other needs are so much more obvious.
Back on the more typical, busier road, our driver beeped constantly to warn pedestrians and other cars that he was coming up behind them, others rolled down their windows to bark instructions about how to be better drivers, and people and bikes dodged and weaved in and out of the chaotic traffic, with no one paying much attention to the rules of the road.
After our last shuttle back to the airport, it was our end-of-the-holiday flight ‘home’, so the fizzle had faded. We were tired, weary of the transit hotels, and one of the children was even ill. None of which helped with my parting impressions. Unsurprisingly, the hotels had served westernised dishes in their transit guest buffets, so, not the spiced concoctions I’d been hoping for. The coffee was nothing special, but we’d tasted some very good beers. And the people had been really lovely, incredibly helpful and chatty, and keen to fuss over our blonde(ish) children.
But with the perkiness gone on that last morning in Addis Ababa airport I was this time aware of its surprising shabbiness. Surprising, because with Ethiopian Airlines being one of Africa’s biggest carriers, Addis is probably one of the busiest hubs on the continent, and the airline is definitely of an international standard. But it didn’t feel like an international airport. The shelves in the duty-free shops were half empty, while piles of ‘branded’ trainers were stacked on the floor. After going through security at the gate, well before boarding, there was nowhere to buy a bottle of water. And most alarmingly, a lot of the workers did not seem happy, or even healthy. After meeting so many friendly and helpful people outside the airport, it was saddening that many of those inside seemed jaded, exhausted, depressed, huddled sleeping inside hoodies beside a counter. In one souvenir shop I turned around to find a spread of mattresses on the floor, with sleeping mounds under floral blankets. It seemed to me that working conditions are far from ideal there.
Which is perhaps all the more reason for a return visit to Ethiopia one day, to really discover the food, to make coffee like the locals do, to see those highlands and to stand in the same places as some of the earliest humans. Maybe even to learn some of that beautiful language. I can’t say Ethiopia is nudging other places off my bucket list, but it’s definitely made it on there, and I’m grateful to have had my two nights.