After stopping for an hour in Khartoum, Sudan (which was itself a moving experience, just to actually be in that land that has faced so much suffering), we landed in Addis Ababa in the evening. The moderately-organized chaos of the airport felt familiar, and as we waited in line for customs, we were surrounded by enormous posters of the country’s late prime minister, who passed away about a month before. My suitcases had not followed me to Addis (which I confirmed by looking through a huge pile of their brethren stacked in a corner), so I found the CDC driver and we wove our way through the dark roads.
The next week required and strengthened detachment, because until my luggage arrived I basically had 1 pair of clothes (and fortunately all my diabetes supplies)! When I ventured out the next day to meet the city, a small wave of familiarity washed over me. Clearly there were many aspects unique to Ethiopia (which I’ll describe later), but the basic layout of an African street was a memory refreshed.
At this point I’m finding it really hard, impossible really, to state my impression of the city of Addis as a whole. So I’ll break my thoughts up into bite-size tidbits which I’ll try to serve up with some degree of regularity. Here goes…
I’m not exaggerating when I say that crossing the road here is terrifying! There are about 2 functional traffic lights in the entire city; the rest of the time, drivers and pedestrians are left to work things out for themselves, with about the same result as telling a pack of hissing alley cats to sit down and talk out their differences. It’s every man-taxi-minibus-truck-bus-donkey cart for himself, each vying to possess that small slot of space in front of him before anyone else grabs it. People wander out into the road aimlessly or dart out with no notice (I’m told that some of the wanderers are people from remote rural villages, so they forget they have to look for cars), so drivers have to constantly be alert for that. (Drivers also have a strong incentive to not hit anybody: if a driver hits a pedestrian, even if it’s the pedestrian’s fault, the driver gets 15 years in prison!!) I thought after being in India and other African countries, I’d seen everything involving crazy driving… but no, Addis takes the cake! My first week or two here, I’d literally hold my breath every time we approached the Meskel Square intersection, where 8 roads spill into a central open space and vehicles are coming at you from every direction! One of the managers here actually finds driving through that area meditative, which utterly amazes me (maybe because having a Zen-like calm makes you less worried about whether you’ll get out alive!).
Interestingly, after a few weeks in this mess, a strange order has emerged from the chaos. I’ve ridden the packed minibuses a bunch of times to work, and after seeing the drivers deftly navigate their way through the tangle, I’m starting to learn the steps to this traffic dance. For example, when a minibus swerves without warning in front of you, there are rules about whether your minibus driver will stop and wait, blare his horn, or swerve out to the next lane himself. I’m sorry if this is way too much boring detail about traffic haha… it’s just a very large part of the day-to-day experience here!
The rest of the view from the streets
Besides the crazy traffic, a walk down the street gives you a view of:
- An endless row of little shops: some are literally holes-in-the-walls, selling bread, tins of dried milk powder, phone cards, and other odds and ends. Others are fruit and veggie stands, where you can buy delicious tomatoes, oranges, limes, etc. that actually TASTE like a tomato / orange etc.!! (This might sound like a weird thing to say, but if you’ve tried this produce, then go back to the States, you’ll realize that our tomatoes have far less tomato taste! Same with bananas, they just taste sweeter and more flavorful here.)
- People on the side of the road selling anything else you might need: It’s pretty cool to be able to randomly pick up anything from Tupperware containers to movies. The down side is that shopping can take a LONG time! I’m still trying to figure out which stores to go to for a particular item, because each store sells particular things. Definitely less convenient than the one-stop shopping back at home, but infinitely more interesting: more opportunities to make friends with the multiple [fill-in-the-blank]-sellers, a tangible sense of satisfaction when you FINALLY find the place selling peanut butter (whew 🙂 ), and an opportunity to practice bargaining and language skills.
- An array of sounds: the clucking of chickens in bamboo crates, the sweet lament of Ethiopian music floating out from coffee shops, a person singing softly as he walks down the road (I’ve heard so many people doing this, it’s quite nice!), the repeated barks of the minibus drivers announcing their destination (Stadium-stadium-stadium), the howling of the wind, the squealing of kids playing (or their giggles upon seeing a white person)… quite the symphony 🙂
Flora and fauna: