I was so excited to come to Addis – I’ve been all over the world, but never to Africa. It always felt like a big hole in terms of my understanding of the world. Of course, what I was imagining wasn’t quite accurate. In my mind it was all blaring stereo systems with vibrant beats, headdresses, streetside grilled meat shacks and well, a lot more hustle. I expected a lot of hustle, and banter too. But of course, thats not Ethiopia – nor Horn of Africa in General.
What I’ve found instead is a ‘chillness’ that is completely unexpected for most developing country cities, let alone one as large and bustling as Addis. Yes, there is traffic and buses spout clouds of burnt oil and diesel exhaust, but it is orderly. Horns are used moderately. Music is rarely heard. Macchiatos are drank on terraced cafes that look out onto wide boulevards (I use the definition of ‘terraced cafe’ loosely – it may be made of corrugated tin). Taxi Drivers are honest. Even beggars ask politely once, maybe twice cause I’m a foreigner and then leave me alone.
I’ll be honest, my first impression when I arrived is that Addis could be ‘generic developing country urban area’. I saw no distinguishing architecture or green space – and parts of Addis seemed interchangeable with parts of equivalently sized cities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, China, India, Korea and even Ecuador. Lines of tin shacks serve as stores. Large concrete high rises from the 1970s with hand painted signs are government ministries. Shiny tall concrete shopping malls are packed with shops selling homogenous globalised clothing and electronics from China. My first few days traversing the city in taxis running between the office, restaurants and my guesthouse, I couldn’t help but wonder: where was Addis’ soul?
It is a large and rambling city, with no real historical centre. Large avenues cute through like arteries, with various alleys and tiny streets linking them. Without addresses, a typical set of directions in Addis might be: go to Arat Kilo traffic circle, head towards the Mexican Embassy, take the second left, turn onto the 2nd alley on your right, stop at the compound at the bottom of the hill with the pink flowers near the pile of dirt.
Addis is not only the capital of Ethiopia, but it is the Capital of Africa. The African Union is based here, and this is where most countries anchor their diplomatic presence. My host Katy’s son goes to a local American International school, and the morning school run usually involves a train of land rovers with diplomatic license plates dropping of children.
What does distinguish Addis? Perhaps its safety is most noticeable. I can walk along the street with less harassment than I experience in certain areas of London, petty crime is tiny, violent crime (at least towards foreigners) is almost non-existent. The large international presence means most cuisines from around the world are represented, plentiful and delicious.
I have eaten Ethiopian food several times in Canada – and I’ve always loved it. I’ve been pleased to find that I was well prepared by my Canadian experience (can’t say the same about eating India food in Canada before heading to India!), and the fact that traditional Ethiopian food doesn’t seem to extend too far beyond what I’ve already had in Canada has been a small disappointment. However, there’s more to this story – and I’ll be blogging all things food when I get back to London.
The lack of street food is noticeable, and is enough to make a foodie like me weep softly should I think on it too much. I’ve been told this is because Ethiopians feel eating is very intimate. One would hardly eat a meal outdoors anymore than walk around naked.
My first impressions of Addis may have been deceptive, and I think I’ll discover its uniqueness bit by bit as I slowly work my way towards understanding what makes Ethiopians tick, and why its so special. Its a city that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but begs you to discover it – which hopefully in a whirlwind work trip of 3 weeks I’ll actually have time to do.
And none of this is to say Ethiopia is devoid of culture – indeed it is a bastion of culture and tradition compared to its continental neighbours ravaged by colonialism for so many years. But there is a reserved nature to the people here, meaning its not so easy to penetrate or even observe the traditions all around you.