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GSP 12: The mysterious delights of Addis Ababa

Many people who hear about my visit to Ethiopia immediately ask about its poverty, but the limited picture I got of the country’s capital had far more complexity. While the country does have the second-highest population on the continent, it also boasts Africa’s top airline and fastest-growing economy. And as far as I can tell, Ethiopian restaurants may be the continent’s most successful food export.

Even though I had to work around a country-wide gap in my Google Fi phone service, and it cost more than any other African city to visit, Addis Ababa still proved one of my favorite cities in the continent. I even liked it so much, I went twice.

On the first visit, I combined participation in a physician meeting (where I lectured on communication) with singleness research. Though I ultimately had to get an AirBnb both times, this housing arrangement worked out better than I expected.

My first host lived near enough to the physician meeting — and the city was safe enough — that I could walk to and from the meeting site each day. That alone offered a huge relief after my two-week confinement from walking in Lagos.

During my visit, part of this side street underwent road work. First they laid the larger stones out, as close as they’d fit, then filled in the gaps with loose gravel. I couldn’t tell if they added a third material to serve as mortar, or if this happened on its own as rain mixed with the dirt.

During my visit, part of this side street underwent road work. First they laid the larger stones out, as close as they’d fit, then filled in the gaps with loose gravel. I couldn’t tell if they added a third material to serve as mortar, or if this happened on its own as rain mixed with the dirt.

But Abraham offered far more than just a good location. Almost as if he knew the woes I’d gone through in Nigeria, he offered to pick me up from the airport — for free. Though I had a few nerves in the first minutes outside the airport’s WiFi zone — the only means by which I could contact him — we soon found each other in the parking lot.

Normally I try to stay with families or women, but Abraham made me very comfortable as a guest. His two-bedroom home with backyard apparently represents an older style of housing in the city, possibly from Italy’s 11-year colonization of the country.

During my second stay, I got more exposure to Ethiopia’s Italian history, thanks to my expat host. (Shown here: a turtle in her courtyard.) I even attended a jazz concert featuring an Italian quartet, organized through a local cultural institute.

During my second stay, I got more exposure to Ethiopia’s Italian history, thanks to my expat host. (Shown here: a turtle in her courtyard.) I even attended a jazz concert featuring an Italian quartet, organized through a local cultural institute.

Since I’d arrived somewhat late and neither of us had eaten dinner, Abraham offered to take me to a restaurant he knew, after dropping off my bags. Unlike in Istanbul, we split the bill, but I still enjoyed the company. Good experiences cry out for someone with whom to share them.

I remember hardly any names of what I ate in Ethiopia, except the thin, fermented, pancake-like injera they eat with everything, but I ate some of my best meals this trip in Addis Ababa. That first meal with Abraham, I think I might have tried something called firfir.

I had liked the versions of Ethiopian food served in U.S. restaurants, but local cuisine exceeded that. And unlike much of the poultry and meat I would eat throughout my Africa stops, Ethiopians somehow manage to get such flesh very tender.

They also do an exceptional job of seasoning it. I’ve yet to figure out which spices they use most, but I definitely recognized one prominent herb in that first dinner; I just couldn’t identify it. (We debated if it was rosemary, but I kept thinking something more like oregano or marjoram. That mystery remains unsolved.)

By the time we finished dinner, it was getting close to midnight, but Abraham persuaded me to make one more stop before we went home: to an unassuming one-room building that specialized in something called “house” music.

The ease of parking outside did not prepare me for how full we’d find the establishment, a kind of club called Fandika. Once inside, dim lighting cast a dusky red glow over the large crowd of Ethiopians, who clustered around several small, low tables.

A palpable energy coursed through the room, grounded in the rhythms a corner drummer produced. On top of this foundation, a man with a one-stringed instrument (and sometimes a woman dressed in traditional attire) sang in the haunting, mesmerizing melodic patterns from which Ethiopian jazz must borrow.

I was entranced. A local experience. A local music experience. Though I don’t know precisely what form of local music I experienced that night, hearing it and the Ethiopian jazz playlist at right conjures the country’s mysterious and contested ancient history. Does the arc of the covenant still hide in closely guarded ruins somewhere? Did their queen (“of Sheba”) once bear a child of King Solomon’s?

I don’t know, but both music and history make me want to linger in them.

As the musicians circulated — the man improvising satirical lyrics that Abraham told me commented on different parties among the crowd — the audience responded with laughter, applause and what I’m told is Ethiopian shoulder dancing.

I could have stayed much longer, but after one or two beers we both felt tired — and I had church to attend in the morning. After paying the bill, we walked back out to Abraham’s elderly Fiat and the end of a magical first night.

Despite hopes that I’d get to see Ethiopia’s famous rock churches at Lalibela, that night proved one of my riches tastes of local culture. The rest of the first week I spent at the physician meeting, in interviews or figuring out how to buy groceries without a translator and cook meals on Abraham’s two-burner plug-in stove.

Part of the road en route to an interview outside the city center. We managed to find a paved route for the trip back.

Part of the road en route to an interview outside the city center. We managed to find a paved route for the trip back.

Though I felt comfortable shopping on my own in Addis, I soon learned that the city had almost no street lights after dark, which meant I had to finish all errands by early evening.

I never did learn if Addis Ababa had anything like the small but more western-style grocery stores I’d seen in Lagos. Instead, most shops near Abraham’s house were closet-like stands so small that the proprietor (sometimes an older child or teenager) could almost reach all the wares without taking a step. A counter formed the front wall, across which you could point and gesture until the proprietor found the item you wanted.

None of these shops had prices that I could see, but each time I asked him about what I’d paid, Abraham said he thought I got the prices that he would have. All of them took cash only, and the shop in which I found beer for sale charged a bottle fee returned only when I took my empties back to that specific shop. (It appeared you could also drink your beers there — perhaps the more common custom.)

Produce stands had a slightly different layout, fruits and vegetables stacked diagonally down the side of a wall. After dark, shopkeepers sometimes covered the bulk of their stock with a tarp, but if they spoke English and I asked for specific items, they would lift the sheet to show me what they had. These items sold by the half kilo or the kilo, often determined by putting one of two fixed metal weights on the other side of the scale.

The first night of cooking, I only managed to get a ramen packet, an egg and cabbage to round it out, and a packet of salted potato crisps. But eventually I found a shop with large, almost waist-high sacks of lentils, pasta and grains, which included plump, golden kernels of corn. After that, I made popcorn almost every night, using Abraham’s grill pan as a lid for his largest pot.

People sometimes ask what foods I’ve missed this trip, and my honest answer is: little. Because I know how to cook and have been able to do at least some shopping in most stops, I’ve found ingredients to sate most of my biggest cravings, from guacamole to a delightfully tangy Indian sauté.

The one thing I’ve missed since Addis, however, is Ethiopian food. Between that and still not seeing Lalibela even on my second visit, I just might have to visit a third time.

Country snapshot

Part of the market where I caught my first mutatu (the brown-and-green bus in the background).

Part of the market where I caught my first mutatu (the brown-and-green bus in the background).

  • Beer: Roughly $1.08 in a restaurant, $0.96 from the store, after bottle rebate (assuming I remember correctly).

  • Water: Drinkable after treatment by SteriPen. Locals mostly drank bottle water.

  • Transit: Cabs cost as much as $5.50, but when a local helped me catch one of the minivan buses I’d come to see all over Africa (called names that ranged from mutatu to dala-dala and other terms I never learned), it cost only $0.11.

  • Weather: Cool enough in late August to wear my rain coat several days. After sweltering through nights in Lagos, it was glorious to fall asleep in a cool room. I even enjoyed the rain.

  • Phone: Google Fi only worked on WiFi, but between careful planning, offline Google maps and sometimes phone help from a local, I always managed.

  • Electrical grid: Far better than in Lagos, but we still had a few, short power cuts. I’m told it used to be worse.

  • ATMs: If they charged fees, I hardly noticed it — another great relief after my Nigeria stay.

  • Visa: $30 for a conference; $50 for a tourist visit. Many countries also qualify for visas on arrival. They processed my online application even faster than the promised three-day delivery period. If you’re in a hurry, some countries also qualify for a visa-on-arrival.