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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Faranji in Addis and Awassa

Getting a lift to the mercato

"Faranji" is a common cry in Ethiopia. It means "white person" and it's easy to imagine how many times I heard this during my stay in Ethiopia if you link the eternal fact of my tan-free complexion with my propensity to wear factor 50 sunscreen, and add to that that Ethiopia is vast, so the tourists that are around tend to be quite sparse.

Me drinking a macchiato (though it looked a little too milky to me) at Tomoca coffee house...In Ethiopia I had to put aside my anti-coffee views and try it!

I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the foreignness of everything on arriving in Addis late on Saturday night. I didn't speak a word of Amharic, and even though the hotel was situated across the road from the CARE office, it seemed very isolated. The roads dusty, the streets dark and the smells unfamiliar, and the hotel rather uncomfortable and extremely dingy. That and the powercuts. No internet, phone or light / heat for several hours and I did feel rather desperate. Power cuts are very common in Addis. Not so in much of the rest of Ethiopia. They don't have power at all there. I was suddenly all too conscious of my reliance on technology and felt frustrated and ashamed of my frustration in equal measures. Luckily the power would eventually come back on. I would just learn to use Ctrl + S frequently during the week!

Looking out of the window of the Addis hotel, there are office buildings far in the distance, but immediately outside are many more being built. Instead of uniform metal scaffolding, everywhere are elaborate constructs of wooden poles, covering the skyscrapers to be and several storeys high. I feared for the safety of the climbers, who have to scale their way to the top of these wooden poles, but the skeleton structure of wood which forms the cages around these building sites is intricate and almost beautiful, and I suspect, strong.

View from the hotel window of the intricate scaffolding

This is much the way of scenery in Addis. Either you're driving past a collection of building sites in various states of completion, or past a range of corrugated iron or stone hastily built huts selling clothes, tourist paraphernalia or maybe a butcher or a liquor shop thrown into the mix. There are throngs of people everywhere, so many people walking the streets day or night. Some are laughing together as they sell fruit from their street stalls; some are on their way to church / the mosque, carrying or leading a small army of young children close behind them. There are more homeless people around than in Accra, sprawled on the central verges of the streets or begging - children, mothers, grandmothers and men all together - on the pavements and around the tourist spots.

In Awassa - five hours south of Addis - there were also pelicans, vultures, donkeys, goats and a menagerie of other creatures thrown into this mix. On the way there camels grazed by the side of the road, and there were frequent stops as a donkey or other lone animal wandered carelessly into the road and paused, oblivious to the trucks zooming toward it at alarming speeds. The colours by the roadside were vivid, especially in the small towns where thousands of people gathered for market day, and we were held up by crowds in the road shouting to us to buy their wares.

The best way I found to see Addis was in a taxi - and what taxis they do have. Ladas are the taxi brand of choice here, usually with no seat belts, although their dashboards are ornate with velvet coverings, complete with tassels. In such a poor state of repair was my first taxi that it conked out repeatedly - no wonder given it was very frail and yet still trying to tackle to steep hills of Addis to take me around. By bargaining like a pro, you can enjoy a couple of hours sight seeing for as little as £8 (and I suspect this is a steep price, aimed at other faranji like me).

Negato and me - and his taxi!

On my last full day in Addis, Negato my taxi driver drove me and escorted me around the mercato and the piazza. The mercato is where the social and work sides of Addis combine, with thousands of residents swarming together to sell or buy spices, clothing, oil, soap, shoes, rugs...anything at all. So large is the mercato that there are 'districts' such as you might find in a city. "It's this way to the spice market", Negato directs me, and then "Would you like to see the traditional clothing market?" Picking my way over the uneven cobbles and past the smells of burning incense and loud laughter and banter, I would be lost in this other world of Addis without a guide.

Injera being served at a little (albeit touristy) haunt in Addis

My greatest fortune in Addis was to make some new Ethiopian friends who showed me Ethiopian culture their way. Maaza, working for CARE, who lived in Ethiopia as a child, showed me the sights and introduced me to her friends.

Me 'enjoying' a glass of red wine with my dinner

I met Maaza in Awassa, south of Addis where I visited a field team of CARE staff. There I ate injera for the first time - and then proceeded to eat this for pretty much every lunch and dinner throughout my stay. A spongy pancake made from teff, injera is the carbohydrate of choice for Ethiopian food. You eat it served on a large round platter, covered with any filling / range of fillings you like. Lentil daal-like mixtures, bean and cabbage salad, potatoes with spices, chicken, lamb and boiled eggs are all spooned in dainty portions onto the platter for you to dig in. (To eat this you break off pieces of injera and scoop a small portion of a different item onto it and then into your mouth. Every bite delicious.) Most of the CARE team I spent time with were orthodox Christians, and therefore fasting for several of the days I spent with them. Luckily for them, Ethiopian fasting food is a treat rather than a trial. Injera with fasting shiro (chickpea stew, cooked with oil rather than butter as dairy products are banned during fasting) was delectable.

Sharing injera, watching dancing, drinking beer (see picture of me trying the red wine...not good) and then dancing together all part of a fun, relaxed night out in this vibrant city.

At the Addis hash, downing a (small) beer as a forfeit for leaving (right after I joined!)

Maaza also introduced me to my first Hash meet. A Hash is a club, more precisely a drinking club with a running problem. Perfect! Meeting at The Hilton in Addis, about 30/40 people meet up to drive out of the city and run or walk for an hour or so, followed by drinks, a lot of ceremony, and the 'on-on'. The run was rather tough. Not only did I fall down the hill side - almost - about twenty times, hearing gasp upon gasp from those behind me as I slid over the dusty gravel, but running at the altitude of Ethiopia felt like the world's strongest man was holding my shoulders and pushing me back. Over hill, down dale, not having the faintest idea where we were supposed to be going, a crowd of ex pats and Ethiopian nationals traipsed over the hillside, pursued often by the nimbler feet of children from the nearby kebele, screaming and giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. We followed paper trails (or were supposed to - the paper was in absence most of the time!) in a loop over a river with very non-health and safety stepping stones and back over a metal chain-link bridge to the start. Feeling like I was about to expire but proud to have finished first of the women, it was time for beers and catching up in half a dozen languages. Sunshine, running, friends, beer. Happiness on a Saturday.

I feel like I haven't covered even a fraction of what I saw here. The scenery dwarfed me; the food was a delight and so different from everything I've tasted before; the people I met wonderful. I left wanting to come back again.

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