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Enjoying Ethiopia's Capital

A few days in Addis Ababa and Lake Langano

storm 22 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After our whistlestop tour of northern Ethiopia, we were glad to get back "home" to Susanna's place in Addis. We enjoyed a few days in the capital and also a weekend trip with Susanna to Lake Langano, which lies a few hours drive south of Addis.

Home from home in Addis

Susanna and her awesome car

Lake Langano

At the weekend, we did what well-heeled Addis residents do and escaped the city for the tranquility of a nearby lake. Susanna drove us in her imposing Ford 4x4 south out of the city and we soon found ourselves in beautiful lush savannah. It was our first glimpse of Rift Valley and it really felt more like Africa than the scenery of the north of the country. 

Beautiful savannah scenery as we approach Lake Langano, south of Addis

The explorers

This pack of vultures was devouring a cow carcass at the side of the road

We stayed a night in the very nice Sabana Lodge by the lake, where we ate well, relaxed and even managed a swim in the suspiciously slimy water - reassured that it is apparently bilharzia-free.

Enjoying Sabana Lodge

Swimming in Lake Langano. That's us, honest

Addis Ababa

Just the name Addis Ababa is exciting. It sounds so exotic. The reality is not quite so exotic but it's a fairly nice city. We found the place a bit overwhelming and hard to get your bearings in: the wide streets all look very similar and there are few visible landmarks to orientate yourself around. Addis sprawls over several hills at a height of around 2,400 metres - something we only truly appreciated when we went out for a breathless run one afternoon in Susanna's neighbourhood!

We headed on Friday to the Museum of Ethiopia in the heart of the city, where you can check out Emperor Haile Selassie's crowns and throne.

Helena and Emperor Haile Selassie's throne

The highlight, however, was the Lucy display. Lucy is a pre-human skeleton of around three million years in age, found in Ethiopia's Rift Valley forty years ago. Her discovery was hailed as revealing a "missing link" between apes and humans. In fact, the museum shows the evolution of different types of pre-humans over ten million years through skeletons found in Ethiopia. Lucy was not the oldest but was one of the first to regularly walk on its hind legs, splitting her time between living in trees and walking in the emerging savannah. Lucy is thought to be a distant "cousin" of modern man. It really puts us into context when you look at these specimens that led up to the emergence of homo sapiens only around 200,000 years ago.

Grant and Lucy strike a pose

We found ourselves in Addis at an interesting time as it was the six monthly African Union council meeting. It felt like being back in Brussels as traffic came to a standstill for cavalcades in the centre of the city. However, there the similarities ended: instead of relatively approachable Belgian police, AK-47-wielding blue camouflaged Ethiopian soldiers stood every twenty metres or so in the centre of town. Apparently security was stepped up after a failed assassination attempt on Egypt's former president Mubarrack in Addis at a previous summit.  We also found ourselves at the brand new Radisson Blu a couple of times (amazingly fast wifi), which has become the destination of choice for all the AU delegates. In the lobby, it felt like the cream of African politics was in town as middle aged African political types in sharp suits sat around gossiping, glued to their mobiles and/or ordering cheeseburgers and club sandwiches from the bar. Outside stood their private executive cars - invariably Mercedes or other expensive marks that one never sees around Addis otherwise - and drivers, with signs glued to the windshields such as "VVIP, Gabon Delegate".  

The opulence of the African political class is all the more shocking when it is assembled and on display in the middle of a typically run-down African city like Addis.  Ordinary Ethiopians are doing very well if they can afford to buy a 20 year old Toyota Corolla, which seems to be the car of choice on the streets. One of these will cost around USD 13,000 (including the 100 per cent sales tax the government adds) our driver, Baye, told us. A sales tax that high ensures people cannot buy modern cars and struggle to afford even old cars. Even well-to-do Addis residents drive Range Rovers that date from the early 1990s. It really makes you feel that this is the continent of cast-offs: in Europe we drive cars into the ground and then ship them off to Africa where they are sold on to run for several more decades. The same is true of everything you see in Ethiopia: mobile phones, computers, TVs.  The sales tax undoubtedly keeps Ethiopia's leaders' palaces well maintained and their cavalcades well stocked, however.

Another source of goods supply for Ethiopia these days is China. You don't need to go far in Addis until you see the influence of the People's Republic here: many roads are Chinese-built, you regularly see Chinese minibuses and even cars on the roads, and the grandest building in Addis - the African Union Tower - was recently gifted by Beijing. Having a white face in Ethiopia will often lead to you being called "Chinese" as they are some of the most prominent foreigners here. A number of Ethiopians we spoke to bemoaned Chinese interference and low quality products, and seemed suspicious of the superpower's intentions. What are they doing in Ethiopia? Investing heavily but presumably looking for returns in the form of contracts for Chinese companies and access to Ethiopian resources. This is a trend occurring across the African continent, and it is interesting to witness firsthand the expansion of Chinese influence through economic power.

This dramatic monument in the centre of Addis pre-dates the rise of China's influence in the country, recalling the years when Ethiopia was officially a communist state

We had an interesting tour of the Mercato on Monday, Africa's biggest market, in the centre of Addis. We went along with a guide, Haile, and driver, Baye, and felt some reassurance from having them both with us as we cruised the streets and alleys of the Mercato area. This place is legendary for thieving, and Baye warned us that Nigerians use black magic to numb your body while they leisurely steal your valuables. Luckily we made it around a small section of the area without any losses and even managed to take some photos of what we saw. At one point Grant almost tripped over a heap covered in polythene in the middle of the pavement. Baye laughed and pointed out that there was a man sleeping under that polythene. After that we noticed a lot of people sleeping in nooks and crannies on the street with at most a plastic sheet or wheat bag to protect themselves from the daily rain this time of year.

In the Mercato of Addis

Butter shop

Shoe shine boys are everywhere

Religious tension is an unfortunate feature of Addis, and it comes to a head in the Mercato where the main church backs into the main mosque. Turn a street and suddenly you no longer see priests dishing out blessings but rather veiled women and men in Islamic robes and headgear. Even the sounds from the music shops in the Muslim area are different.

The Mercato's main church...

...and it's main mosque, right behind it

After the Mercato tour, we hit the famous local coffee shop, Tomoca. This place is an Addis institution and a popular local hangout. Ethiopians certainly know how to make coffee and we have become especially keen on the Macchiatos.

In Tomoca coffee shop

A real highlight of our time in Addis was dinner on the Monday night at Yod Abyssinia "cultural restaurant". Ethiopians love song and dance and these cultural restaurants serve traditional Ethiopian Njira together with a three hour stage show of traditional music and dance. The food was really good and we were joined by colleagues and friends of Susanna's, all of whom had a connection to Brussels, giving us plenty to discuss. 

Excellent Njira dinner at Yod Abyssinia

The best bit was that tourists were hugely outnumbered in the place by Ethiopians, who were there to enjoy a night of their own culture. It's not often you see that at "tourist" events. The stage show was interactive and audience members were encouraged to get on stage to try "dance-offs" with the performers. No problem if you don't want to get up on stage; the performers will come to your table, as Grant found out!

Grant was dragged up for a shoulder shaking dance-off, Ethiopian style

Addis Ababa is a big African city and you can't expect too much from it. However, we found a lot to keep us amused and most of all enjoyed spending time with Susanna, who was a brilliant (and tolerant!) host for our several days  in Addis; so good in fact, that we're already planning our trip to Morocco, Susanna and Mathieu's next home!

Posted by Grantandhelena 21:02 Archived in Ethiopia

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Most interesting to read of your travels through the savannah area and about life in Addis. Wonderful that you managed to see the Lucy display and the crowns and throne - great photos of you both there! Again so lovely to have a good friend like Susanna to stay with and be such a good hostess to you both! Really enjoyed reading your tales of life in Ethiopia. Always written so well noting your observations and opinions in tremendous detail of every aspect of each adventure.

by Anne and Bill


Tomorrow i begin working again after my vacation. I heard you're soon i Sweden also, welcome back!

Nice to read about your experiences i Etiophia.

Best regards from Martin and Britt!

by Martin

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