Best described to me as a town that keeps overflowing its borders, Addis Ababa is not so much a proper city as an expansive warren of unpaved streets and low-rise sheet-metal shanties with the occasional high-rise mixed in for good luck. The place is infested with farenji (foreigner)-targeting hustlers, and has few must-see attractions which are themselves geographically-dispersed.
These features of Addis, combined with an underdeveloped transportation infrastructure, makes touring Addis difficult if you lack local intelligence. Changes are afoot now — China is building Addis’ underground metro, and new buildings are rising literally (not figuratively) on every block. But, in my experience, one should abide a couple key lessons to get the most out of Addis Ababa today.
The first lesson I took from my time in Addis is: if you don’t have a good contact in Addis when you arrive, hire a guide. The idea of hiring a guide, or “paying for an experience,” puts a bad taste in my mouth initially. But, as a friend explained to me, it is actually a more realistic experience to invest in local knowledge up front and explore the city with help from a guide, than it is to bumble around ignorantly for days. This path could even save money, depending on how costly one’s bumblings are.
For instance, Nathan and I were told one morning that a taxi to the Mercato should only cost 6 birr. We got in one after the driver acceded to charging us 20 birr. However, once at the Mercato, the driver jumped the price to 150 birr. I gave him the 20 birr we’d agreed on and we got out of the car; he followed, latched onto Nathan’s backpack. A bit of an argument ensued. With a couple locals negotiating between us, we ended up paying 100 birr. Nathan and I were pissed for the rest of the day, but later realized that — while the driver was an asshole for changing the price upon arrival — he was about right on the cost of the car to Mercato. “Taxis” in Addis are actually the vans driving around; cars are not taxis, but rather contract vehicles. Moral of the story: the driver was a dick, but our ignorance cost us a fair bit of birrs and a day walking around pissed.
The second lesson I took from Addis is always bring a rain coat when going out, and once you hear thunder, get out of the street pronto. During the rainy season, tropical storm-force rains and winds batter Addis’ streets for hours every day starting at about 1500. Roads are quickly flooded, and as locals rush to pile under awnings to wait out the worst of the storm, protection from the wet quickly becomes sparse. Relatedly, keeping a flashlight handy in the hostel room is clutch as storms and bad infrastructure cause long, rolling power outages regularly.
To conclude and to be honest, I did not enjoy Addis. However, although I curse the city regularly, my inability to exploit the place was probably as much my fault for not investing in local intelligence as it was the city’s for actually being inaccessible. While I won’t concede yet that Addis is not a giant zit on the face of Ethiopia, I’ll reserve final judgment until I attack the place again, hopefully better-prepared.
For now, Nathan, a great new friend named Yanush, and myself are wandering about in northern Ethiopia. Since leaving Addis, we’ve seen 12th century monasteries hidden in island forests, motored through a huge storm in a smallish boat, discovered an incredible utopia at Awra Amba (this place must be on everyone’s Ethiopia to-visit list), and traipsed about the ruins of 400 year old castles in Gondar. More to come about all of that 🙂
‘Til then — take care!