Did I mention they eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia? I mean, of all the crazy things!
This only struck me as remarkable, I suppose, because the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to all have very much the same aesthetic and presentation and menu. So I assumed they were presenting a semifictional version of Ethiopia, the way a certain type of red-lacquer-and-moon-doors Chinese restaurant does of Chinese food.
But there it all was, injera rolled out on platters, dotted with different stews, and men sitting there, eating with their hands, like it was utterly normal. (Which it was, yes. It slowly sunk in…)
The grocery store was even stocked with all the ingredients for these dishes. Berbere, shiro, etc, etc. (Also lots of pasta. And, the one real surprise, loads of different kinds of peanut butter.)
I can’t recommend this tour enough! Our fantastic guide, Xavier, was up for any question, and the neighborhood we walked around was also an interesting mix of business and residence and income. We went everywhere from a really basic lunch joint to a weekend-splurge restaurant that specialized in raw beef.
In the end, the tour didn’t reveal a wildly different cuisine from what Peter and I knew (not the way, say, just walking down the street in Bangkok did the first time we went there). But it did fill in a lot of detail in the big picture we already had. It also gave me fresh respect for the Ethiopian restaurants I know, and how true to the cuisine they actually are.
When Peter and I got on the plane to Addis Ababa, we were giddy about every little thing. They were playing Ethiopian music! And the safety cards were in Ethiopian letters!
We truly had no idea what to expect when we arrived.
We certainly didn’t expect to arrive in what was, to my eyes, Cairo twenty years ago. The airport lighting was that old-fluorescent dim. The springs in the seat of our taxi were sprung just exactly like all the taxi seats I’d known in Cairo in 1992, so that they felt a bit molest-y, but also sad. The air even smelled the same: dusty, smoggy, desert-like, even in the cold.
After we arrived at our hotel, we took a quick spin through the surrounding blocks. It was Christmas day (Ethiopian Calendar), and while that had meant near silence at the airport, around our hotel, it meant the streets thronged with drunken party people.
Mere steps outside of the hotel gate, we were accosted by a gang of four dudes who claimed to be students, and who at various points claimed not to know one another, and then yes, know some of the other guys, and then that they just wanted to have a drink and talk because it was Christmas.
This too reminded me of Cairo twenty years ago–not because Cairo no longer has charming street hustlers who want to chat you up, but because I haven’t been particularly bothered by them in twenty years.
When I wrote the Cairo chapter of the Lonely Planet Egypt guide in 2007, I took it as my chance to pour out all my love for Cairo onto the page. To help the first-time visitor take a short-cut to loving the place the way I did, maybe in a few days, instead of a few months (or never, as happens with the majority of tourists). Don’t worry, I said, basically–just relax and enjoy the chaos. People are basically nice–don’t lose sight of that.
But going to Addis was a good reminder–some might say, ah, a reality check for the blithe travel writer–of just how overwhelming a whole new rough-and-tumble city can be, one where you are very, very obviously a tourist.
I couldn’t read the signs. I couldn’t understand the language. I didn’t yet know where I was on a map, and it was dark, and half-dressed street people were sleeping in the shadows, and I didn’t know how much a beer cost, and hadn’t had time to inspect the money (only enough to notice that the bills all smell like Ethiopian food, from being passed from spicy-buttered hand to spicy-buttered hand). I was out of my depth in a way I had not been in a very, very long time. I couldn’t even blame jet lag, because we’d just flown a few hours, from Kigali.
I knew these faux-students were probably no more than a nuisance, but I could not see past my own discomfort to see how it might be informative and interesting to talk to them anyway–as I had cheerfully advised people to do in the Egypt guide. We bought the guys one round of beers (in a bar strewn with hay, to mark the festive Christmas day), and stomped back to the hotel in a mild, exhausted huff.
Daylight was better. Then I could get my bearings a bit. The corner where we’d gotten press-ganged the night before was now the site of different traffic.
I could walk slowly, and look at architectural details–Greek- and Armenian-style architecture in the blocks around our hotel.
And soon I was noticing even smaller, stranger details. Like the propensity for all the male mannequins to be so…bulging.
In a few more hours, I felt my equilibrium somewhat restored. It wasn’t that the sketchy aspects of Addis had gone. Plenty of people stared, and followed, and a street kid yoinked Rod’s cell phone (but he got it back).
I found myself wondering about Cairo. When I was there in 2011, it seemed cleaner than I remembered, not so filled with beggars, and the hassle is somewhat less. But how much of that was due just to my perception? To my learned ability to screen out the worst, while also seeing (and knowing) the best in Cairenes? That’s what getting comfortable in any new place requires.
We were only in Addis a few days, but even in that short time, I was able to agree with what our guidebook (Bradt) said about the city: “Its bark is worse than its bite,” the author assured us. Which is a gracious way of saying, “Just relax and enjoy the chaos.”
I just saw The Grand Budapest Hotel this weekend, and I came away with such a swoony fever over that fabulous time-warp of a place (the weird, dying 1968 hotel, not the one in the 1930s) that I’m putting off the Rwanda posts I had planned so I can tell you about the fantastico Itegue Taitu Hotel, where I stayed in January.
As I’ve written before, I have a bit of a thing for what I call “vintage hotels” (also, on occasion, motels). I’m always looking for new ones, and the Itegue Taitu was especially delightful.
Apparently, there are some new wings. You don’t want those. You want the original building–built in 1898 (Ethiopian Calendar, which I think means early 1900s), as if I have to tell you.
After spinning through the original revolving door, Peter and I practically skipped and clapped all through the lobby and dining room and upstairs. The stairs creaked! The wall sconces glowed just right! The rooms were weirdly large and erratically furnished!
(Vintage hotel rule: Ideally, there will be no TV. But if there is one, it must always look uncomfortable and out of place.)
So, some of the old wardrobes were a little chipped. And the bathtubs a bit worn. But how many things get chucked out, only for the crime showing a bit of age? What is our mania for new and untouched? You can’t really believe no one has slept in a hotel room before you. I’d rather see this somewhat worn honesty, rather than false sterility.
I could not convince Peter that the painting was hung sideways. I imagine many hotel paintings could be improved by rotating them 90 degrees.
Guests receive the English-language paper, because its guests are so worldly, I suppose (even though the Addis English paper is perhaps not as fine as it once was). You are welcome to read in the central lounge.
The place is filled with paintings, some old and some new. This is Queen Teitu herself, adding some elegance to what is otherwise a rather ungracious reception room around the corner of the building. (The real reception area has been turned into a gift shop.)
And this fabulous one was on the stairs. Please note the actual silver glitter and sequins.
But our hearts really fell right out when we came downstairs for dinner. The tables were full, the waiters were bustling about in ill-fitting uniforms, and the piano player was at it.
This, though it is so distinctly Ethiopian, could be the soundtrack of all vintage hotels.
Ahhh, that was a nice little hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. I know you were drumming your fingers impatiently on your desk all this time. While I hopped around to four different countries and completely wore myself out.
First, Peter and I went to Rwanda. As you do.
But really: Peter and I met a Rwandan (or Rwandese, as they say there) police officer a few years ago, and he invited us to visit. We figured we had better go before he forgot who we were. We also rounded up Rod, whom some of you may remember as our exceptionally great and extroverted travel partneron previous adventures.
It was my first visit to not-North Africa, and I can’t recommend the place highly enough. FWIW, Peter and Rod had been to Kenya before; they both liked Rwanda more. Which, I know, it’s not a contest. But in terms of traveling logistics and concerns, Rwanda has its act together: secure, clean and tasty food.
Don’t go to Rwanda if you’re a penny-pinching backpacker, though. Hotels in Kigali are pricey (we paid $50 for a private room at the hostel; everything else was $70+) and getting around by bus might be tricky. (We got escorted around in a car, which is just not like us.)
And, let’s be honest, Rwanda is not looking for backpacker tourists and doesn’t really want to help them out. Rwanda wants the tourists who will pay big bucks to go visit the mountain gorillas.
Which is not me and Peter. Our cop friend we were visiting did say the gorillas were amazing, and we should go. But it’s $750 per person, and besides, I just feel a little bad bothering them. My general approach to ecotourism is extreme: nature will be better off if I don’t go visit it.
I’ll do a separate post with some more details. Suffice to say for now, we thought we would have “done” it in a week, but I am already plotting my return.
From Kigali, Peter, Rod and I all flew to Addis Ababa. As you do.
This was partly because Ethiopian Airlines was the best way to get to Abu Dhabi (long story; it involves frequent-flyer miles, so I won’t bore you). But it was also because Peter and I have both loved Ethiopian food since forever. And Ethiopian music. So why not stop?
Before we left Kigali, our police officer friend’s wife warned us that Addis would be a rough transition. “It is very dirty,” she sniffed. “Lots of chaos.” After being in pristine and orderly Rwanda, I figured any place would be.
But, whoa. Addis felt like Cairo circa 1992. The taxis are Ladas. The pollution is bad. The street kids are frenzied and miserable and one of them yoinked Rod’s phone right out of his pocket (but was clumsy and dropped it, so Rod got it back).
But our Bradt guidebook said of Addis that “its bark is worse than its bite,” which I think is a rather sweet assessment. And after a couple of days, I could see this was true.
It helped that, ohmygod, they really do eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. I will get to this in more detail.
From Addis, we flew to the UAE. In the morning, we were in a Lada taxi with smoke coming up through the floorboards. In the afternoon, we were in a leather-interior late-model Audi, being whisked along the smooth, straight highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Totally disconcerting. We were so wiped out, we slept through our entire Etihad business-class flight. Rats.
We landed in Bangkok, third and final leg of the trip. If there’s one thing this trip taught me, it’s that three countries is just too damn many. I don’t know how people do the steady-nomad thing and still absorb anything. I’m glad I’ve been to Bangkok before (was this our third trip? or fourth?), because if it had been my first, I would’ve just collapsed in the street.
Peter’s mother met us, and she kept us moving–without her, we would’ve flopped by the pool at the Atlanta Hotel.
But, as a result, I came home and needed to flop around some more. Traveling thoroughly accompanied for three-plus weeks was exhausting. I did a lot of sitting on the couch and staring into space.
Then I went to Costa Rica for about ten days and stared into space some more.
And here we are. Finally. More details to come, folks.