Ethiopia, A Trip Report, First Part
I went for a 5 weeks holiday to Ethiopia early this year. I would never have thought about visiting this off the tourist map country if it hadn’t been my brother’s choice destination for many years. I usually only visit and stay in Asian countries, but for some reason(s) can never really feel at home there and immerse myself into the fun and excitement that Thailand and Indonesia offer most of the Western guys who go there. My bro who always has many exciting stories about his exploits in Ethiopia therefore told me to try Ethiopia, different (VERY DIFFERENT) country, different atmosphere, different culture, different people, different girls (also very differently looking from Asian girls), who knows, maybe I could feel more at home there and so I pulled the trigger, and got a ticket to Addis Ababa.
A little background
I forgot to mention that my brother actually married a girls from Ethiopia although for the last 3 years they have living separately (she lives in the remotely located town of Axum with their 2 kids while he is in our native country alone), he still visits Ethiopia twice every year, usually traveling around with his brother in Law who I will call S.
S has actually been to our country in Europe once when his sister was still living there with my brother to visit them so I know him, he is a great guy, well-educated and who speaks well and speaks fluent English which is very rare in Ethiopia where only a very small minority of the people speak any English at all. He will accompany me during my stay in Ethiopia.
The trip to Addis was boring, I took a flight with Egyptair with a stopover in Cairo. Business class but might as well have taken economy. Poor seating, could not even turn my seat into a bed as is usual with business class flights, poor choice of movies and even poorer food choices.
Arrived in Addis around 1am in the morning, Got through customs quickly on the quiet airport and collected my luggage and then got a local Ethiopian SIM card. Got to the front of the airport as per my brothers instructions to get a taxi to the Taitu Hotel in the central Piazza of Addis. The taxis in Ethiopia are a sight to behold. Many taxis are ancient blue and white Ladas who should technically not have been able to drive anymore but perhaps due to divine intervention (Ethiopia is a very Christian Orthodox nation) they just keep driving. S had already booked a room for me in the old Taitu hotel (first and oldest tourist hotel in Ethiopia), so by 2am I was asleep in the old bed with a paper-thin mattres.
Next morning at around 10 I was awake and saw that S had already WhatAapped me that he had arrived at Taitu. I found him in the outside dining-lounge area and we greeted each other warmly. We had breakfast, caught up on things and after that I checked out of Taitu. I would not want to stay in that old room even the hotel does have some old-fashioned charm which is undeniably true, it’s not the type of accommodation I like to spend more than one night.
I checked out and we grabbed an old Lada in front of Taitu to bring us to a more modern and luxurious hotel about one Kilometer from the town center. The room rates of this hotel were a bit steep (around 75USD per night) but I liked the room and facilities so I decided to take it for the next 7 nights. After I had settled myself in the room and refreshed(nice shower) it was time for a stroll around town.
Some background on Addis Ababa (AA) and impressions of the city
Addis Ababa is located high in the mountains at around 2000 metres from sea level, on a hilly sloping plane. It was chosen as the new capital by emperor Menelik II and his wife Taitu in 1886. They liked it because of the (in those days) beautiful landscape and views and not importantly the nice cool weather. The piazza (nowadays the city center) was the first area to be built and after that the city grew in phases and now has around 5 million inhabitants. It’s growing as fast as most of the big towns in Africa (mostly due to migration of poor rural people to the cities and the 5% population growth each year).
AA, especially in and around the city center has a very confusing and chaotic infrastructure, it seems not logically planned, buildings look old and crumbling especially in and around the center, but in the business area’s such as Bole area (far from the center) it looks much more organized and there you find more modern office buildings, malls, high rises etcetera.
If you think that countries such as Indonesia and Thailand are third world countries you have not seen Ethiopia. Even in AA, a capital city it immediately becomes apparent that Ethiopia is a very poor country, many people are very poorly dressed and beggars are everywhere. A big problem, especially in and around the center are the hordes of annoying local guys (many of whom are addicted to whatever substance or alcohol)who try to get a few bir (local currency) from any white guy they see. If you don’t manage to scare them off they will keep following you around, grab your arm or try to stop you. It’s even worse in other towns as I would experience. However when you walk around with a local as I did most of my time in Ethiopia, you will not nearly be bothered as much as when you walk around alone.
First trip was to the black market to change money. When going to Ethiopia it is advisable to bring your own currency (/Euro or USD) in as high denominations as possible with you. Bigger notes are preferred over small notes so they give a higher rate for big notes. It is never a good idea to go to the bank to change money because you will be presented with a lousy exchange rate. But in the black market you will receive probably 10% more than in the official exchange rate. It is nota good idea to do this alone, one has to use a trusted local to do the exchanging, they know where to go and also they will get a very good rate. It is very dangerous for locals to carry Euro’s or US dollars, if they get caught with foreign money they can receive jail sentences for up to 5 years. Anyway we managed to exchange my money so I got a huge stash of 100 bir notes wrapped in packets of a hundred 100 bir notes(94.000 in all so I got 9 packages of 100 notes + change . Around 2500euro exchanged for 37 bir for one euro. The official rate was 33 bir at that time so at the bank I would probably have gotten 32 bir per euro. Or around 80.000 bir or so. About ATM’s in Ethiopia, they are unreliable and known to love swallowing cards or are simply not working, also they are hard to find in many places especially outside the big city.
After we had a stroll in the Piazza we went to Bole area (the business district). Here it is quite different compared to the center of town. Nice clean roads, modern buildings, and even some malls. A favourite pastime of Ethiopians during the day is visiting a coffee place or a so-called Juice place . In the coffee places they mostly serve Macciato and cakes while in the juice places one usually cannot find orange juice but usually only pineapple, papaya juice, mango juice and the most popular avocado juice. Most Ethiopians opt for a so-called spriss juice which is usually a mix of Papaya and avocado juice topped with some strawberry juice.
There is very little tourist infrastructure in Ethiopia that is why most tourists who visit the country opt for an organized tour. It is a very hard country to travel in by oneself. It’s not only the lack of tourist infrastructure that is the problem, but also the lack of people that can speak passable English. Ethiopians are very proud of their own culture and country, they always boast that they are the only country that has never been colonized (although this is not strictly true since the Italians have tried twice to colonize the country, the first time was a miserable failure but the second time (during the time of Mussolini)they managed to get a very shaky hold on some parts of the country. Even though the Italians did not manage to subdue all of the country and only for a decade, there is still some Italian influence felt. They left some buildings (especially in the center of AA), and they left some names(Piazza or central area or square being one) and they left part of their cuisine. Ethiopians are very fond of spaghetti and pizza for instance and pizza and spaghetti places can be found all over the country (even in the most remote towns).
The local food however is undoubtedly Injera, a grey kind of large circular and very sour pancake (but not remotely tasting like a pancake). It has a very spongy and soft texture. It is a staple I never learned to enjoy, I just don’t like the taste. Injera is topped with berbere, a red-brown paste consisting of herbs which is quite spicy, but not as spicy as for instance green Thai curry, and usually goat meat or mutton or boiled fish (burbur), and mashed white and red beans that almost taste like Chili concarne and vegetables.
Goat meat or mutton (but especially goat meat) are the favorite meat choice for most Ethiopians, unfortunately I don’t like goat (I even more dislike mutton). But not to worry, another favourite meal choice for Ethiopians are so-called Tibs. Tibs are roasted meat pieces. Many Tibs are made from goat meat but also Beef tips are very popular and everywhere one can find places (butcheries actually) where one can see a whole torso of a cow hanging from the wall. You can select the parts you want to eat and the butcher will cut it off (usually you order 500 grams or one kilo). Then the butcher will cut your chosen steak in pieces and roast it in a bowl which will then be served to you sizzling in the bowl, with the charcoal still glowing beneath it, with berbera in powder form, with white bread and the ever-present injera
In my country the government and media keep telling the people to stop eating meat because if we keep eating so much meat, the African people cannot eat meat anymore. Never in my life have I been in a country where people eat so much meat as in Africa. It is perfectly normal for(even the poorer classes) to eat one kilo of meat in one meal at least a few times per week. It may be goat or mutton but still that’s meat also, and many, many Ethiopians go to a Tibs place at least a few times per week and they love the beef tibs, and they never eat less than 500 grams of cow tibs per person.
Transportation in AA
In AA and most other bigger sized towns the mode of transportation is usually a minibus. During my stay in Ethiopia, S and I would usually take minibuses during the daytime and taxis during the night (after 10:00 PM minibuses stop driving). Like I said a large part of the taxi fleet consists of very old blue and white-colored Ladas who are being held together with glue and rope, Some still look kind of ok even though old but a lot also look like they long overdue for the scrap yard. They are very small and cramped and I doubt a person over 2 metres could even sit in one, sometimes doors cannot close anymore and the driver uses a kind of rope to close them, many miss front or side windows, many are dented in various places due to past accidents. There is also a fleet of newt axis now, (I think Toyotas), but during my stay in Ethiopia we always used the old Ladas since they are cheaper, and most do have a working meter.
After our trip to Bole, we went back to my hotel for a rest. And around 7:00 PM it was time to hit the Piazza again. In the Piazza one finds one of the bar area’s in AA. There are many bar area’s in AA, some upscale but many low-class. One of this low-class bar areas can be found in the piazza. Many of the bars are located in run down, old shacks but there are actually 2 nice looking bars in the Piazza, one of them is named Abyssinia Cafe, there is also a club which looks quite decent and I went there a few times with S but I forgot the name of that one. The rest of the bars there are run-down places with real horror toilets where my eyes often broke into tears because of the horrid pee smell.
In each bar one can find some working girls who usually work for that particular bar (not freelancers but girls who have a contract with the bar). I must admit that most of these bar girls are horribly ugly by Ethiopian standards (usually overweight, old and not clean-looking).Lucky for me S (although he is married and lives in AA) is a real reveler and he loves going to the Piazza, partly for the girls and the beer and also partly because he is a freelance tour guide and many(probably most) of the tourists visiting AA stay in the Piazza, especially the tourists visiting individually (group tours never book a hotel in the piazza because the hotels there are mostly low-class hostels). Many of the tourists that are not in group tours are on budget, traveling alone or in pairs or small groups and they are most often young travelers. S has met and befriended very many over they ears. Many of the tourists who come without a tour to Ethiopia very quickly find out that it will be very hard for them to go traveling around the country without a tour guide, since there are virtually no tourist facilities and it’s very hard to find a soul who speaks English. S has been a rescue for at least a few hundred of these tourists over the years who have invited him to join them for travel around the country and act as a freelance tour guide for them, of course for a fee. He has actually made so much money from his freelance tour guiding that he has been able to buy a decent house in the city and he has 3 minibuses driving for him now. He also is lucky to have found a smart wife who is programmer and who works for an international company nowadays in AA as a programmer and she makes more than decent money for Ethiopian standards, this is (and also of course the fact that he is married now) is the reason that even though he still goes to the Piazza during the day and often also during the night he does it nowadays not to find people in need for a tour guide anymore but more to go to the bars and enjoy the beer and the girls.
Even though pretty girls are not easy to find in the bars in the Piazzas knows every girl in every bar and he also knows where the gems are. He had already spoken to a few of these girls before I came so they were kind of ready to meet me.
So we went to the bar of S choice to meet a girl S wanted to introduce me to. Luckily S is smart and he really knows my taste (not like Thai or Indonesian guys who would always match me with the wrong girl, exactly opposite from my taste even though I had told them and showed them 1000 times what kind of girl I liked). She was not yet there but the manager assured us she was on her way, so we sat down and drank a beer. For Beer lovers Ethiopia is a paradise, the country has numerous beer brands(many of whom have unfortunately been bought up by Heineken nowadays)and the quality and taste of the beers is as good as any beer you will find anywhere. Habesha, Walia, St. George and Dashen are among the most popular brands. S and I would be drinking St. George for some reason during my stay in Ethiopia, and if (sometimes) that was not available we would opt for Dashen beer. Beer prices are very cheap in bars in Ethiopia although according to my brother they have gone up much in recent years, a beer can be had in most bar for around 20 bir (0.70 dollar). In clubs it is a bit more but never more than around 40 bir per bottle. This makes going out in Ethiopia very cheap compared to Asia.
After we had a couple of beers the girl appeared. She had just been to a family wedding (She hails from the Tigray area in the north of Ethiopia)and she was still dressed in traditional Tigray style complete with the Tigray hairstyle and looked indeed stunning. 23 years old and slim but very shapely with nice headlights so to speak. She is a very popular girl in the bar and is booked by local guys nearly every night but this night I could try.
The bar system in Ethiopia is kind of similar to that in bars in Thailand. The girls are not freelancers but work for the bars, this means there is a bar fee to be paid if one chooses to take a girl out of the bar. Most local guys who go to a bar in Ethiopia go there for the beer and the music (it’s very often local Ethiopian music that is played in the bars, one does not hear too much western music, let’s say 3 local Ethiopian beats followed by 1 western tune etc). The guys then usually just like to hang out and dance and make fun with the working girls woof course need to get treated beers and who in turn will encourage the guys to drink as much as possible. They rarely take the girls out. Butt he beautiful ones still tend to get taken out almost every night because there are always some guys in the bars with deep pockets albeit most of the punters can only afford to drink beer.
The girls however do not just go with any guy who wants them. They are free to decline an offer from a guy if they don’t like him or if they do not trust him. Ethiopian girls are very sensitive to the way a guy treats them and very careful because it is a dangerous place for a girl. The management of most bars also prefers if a working girl stays in the bar instead of going with a customer, especially if she is very good-looking(there are few good-looking girls in most bars), because they make more money if she stays all night and makes many guys happy with her presence which will result in many extra beer sales. S told me most bars in the Piazza only get between 200 to 300 bir barfine for a girl (which is around 7 to 10 USD) and the girl can negotiate her own price with the customer. After you negotiate with the girl for her fee and it is agreed and it is time to go home together, you will be presented with a tab consisting of the barfine + the price for the drinks. In Thai bars the lady drinks are usually more expensive than the drinks the punter has, but this is never the case in bars in Ethiopia. The beers and other drinks all have a fixed price and that price is the same for everybody.
Oftentimes the girls will request payment for her service upfront, I had already told S that I totally did not like this policy but it is kind of normal in most bars in Ethiopia, but because most of the girls in the Piazza know S he could negotiate with the girls that I would pay their fee in the morning.
Anyway one has to make the girl like him to be able to take her out of the bar, that is even more important with the girls that are in high demand, they have many options so they can be choosy. The girl (Fiora)was a little apprehensive at first (they do not regularly meet western guys) and I could not really communicate with her since her English ability was just 10% or so, but somehow we struck a cord, mostly thanks to S who is a great joker and can everyone at ease very easily and of course the beers. She started loosening up after around 4 beers and I managed to find my funny bone (using Google translate on my Samsung to tell and ask her all kind of stupid things in of course wrong sounding Ethiopian which she found increasingly funny). It was my first night and I felt actually great to be there and I felt more and more happy and confident (a state I usually never manage to feel in Indonesia or Thailand) after every beer. Anyway when S asked her if she wanted to join us to the club in the Piazza, a place the bargirls really like to be invited to because it has Air conditioning and looks upscale and has a dance floor and good music, she was more than happy to say yes. Then the negotiation started, S had told me that the average girl usually charges around 1000 bir for an all-nighter (around 35 USD) but the really pretty and sexy ones usually charge double that so I expected she would quote around 2000 bir or even more, and they often start higher anyway because they want to get as much out of it as possible. Fiora and S were discussing and I was waiting the outcome. After they were done S motioned me over and whispered in my ear “1500 including barfine. I could not believe my ears. Around 50 USD. She had already showed me some of her nude pictures on her phone so I knew she had a near perfect body. Anyway we went to the club and had a great time, after that S kinder brought me to my hotel with the girl in a taxi and after that he left for his home, thus ending my first day in Ethiopia.
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]