It may be a cold and white January in the UK, but this weekend last year, I found myself in the much less cold and remarkably interesting surroundings of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I have travelled quite extensively in Africa, and was fortunate enough to spend several years in a job that meant travelling to somewhere in Africa every other week. However, I have always somehow missed out Ethiopia. It’s a country that I find fascinating, from it’s ancient monuments like Lalibela that are incredibly still in use, through it’s non-colonial past, to the more modern and familiar Haile Selassie and on to famine. Therefore, when the opportunity came up for a couple of days in Ethiopia helping a couple of colleagues, I jumped at the chance.
Now, I should tell you a bit about my colleagues. John is a frequent traveler, much more so than me, and a great photographer. He was the one really going to do the work. Paul then has worked in the travel industry for years, but somehow managed not to get to the actual travelling end. Paul was going to help John, and understand what was required on this trip so that he could better plan similar activities in other places. Then there was me. I was going along to provide an extra pair of hands, and of course for the opportunity to go to Ethiopia…
There is an ongoing story that “interesting” things happen when I go places. Not through anything that I say or do, I just seem to be in the “interesting” place at an “interesting” time. For example, the previous year, as the “Arab Spring” kicked off in January, I found myself in Tehran. Or, that I happened to be in Caracas for the 2000 elections when Hugo Chavez was returned, or for the re-inauguration of President Museveni in 2001, I was in Kampala. You get the picture.
John asked me what I did to facilitate these random occurrences, and I protested that “these things just happen”.
We arrived without too much incident, or at least not interesting enough to mention, and were met by our hosts at the airport. There were some technical challenges at the airport, so, even after his long flight, John decided to help straight away. The three of us found ourselves behind a check in desk in an otherwise deserted part of the terminal as John ran some tests, and Paul and I looked on knowingly. Then, we were spotted by some passengers who seemed to assume that we were about to open these desks and check them in. One to women came, then a few more and a few more, and suddenly there were hundreds of women, all presumably passengers awaiting a flight, which we later learned was bound for Yemen, looking expectantly at us. Thankfully, their flight was called for check in before John finished his fixes, and we managed to leave the airport without too much of an incident.
Our plan was, then to work on the next day, Friday, and Saturday morning, giving us a few hours to be tourists on Saturday afternoon before flying back that evening. We went for an early start on the Friday with the intention of getting as much done as possible, allowing us more time to explore on Saturday. We actually managed to get all of the work done, and a bit more, during the Friday, and were happy at the idea of a full day’s sightseeing on Saturday. In fact, other than the usual random urban sights, like an outdoor hairdresser, Friday went almost without incident. I was feeling confident that I would put my reputation of “odd things happen” to bed.
We got back to our hotel, the rather opulent Sheraton, which was both rather grand and rather large. We decided to have a quiet night so that we could make the most of the next day, and went to seek out the quietest bar in the hotel to have some food and a quick beer – the local brew, St George, is rather good – for the evening. I eventually led the three of us into a pool bar area that was looking relaxed and not too busy. Almost as soon as we perched ourselves on some barstools, however, bouncers arrived and restricted who was coming in or out of the bar. We were fine, as we were already there. Unknown to us, we have stumbled upon a local band’s launch party for their new album, and somehow seemed to be partying with the great and the good. John seemed convinced that I knew this was about to happen. I didn’t. It was one of those things.
There was plenty of dancing and drinking going on around us – some of the dancing even worse than mine, although much of it was rather better – and then everyone in the bar was invited off to a club for an after party. The same collective thought passed through all three of us, followed by an equally collective realization that a night of partying would not be the best preparation for a day spent exploring the incredible capital of an incredible country.
We had breakfast the next morning sitting in the gardens of the hotel, looking at the view. Addis Ababa’s skyline contains many impressive buildings, and is the home not only to the usual embassies and the like, but also to many of the organs of the African Union. It was a delightful place to sit in the cool early morning air watching the impressive local birds fly over the hotel and over the city.
We had arranged for the taxi driver who normally escorted John around the city on his travels there to spend the day with us on Saturday, and to take us to a mixture of places that we wanted to visit, and places that he thought we should see.
We headed off, with the first planned stop being the Menelik Palace, which was built in 1886 when the capital moved to Addis. It is located up on the side of Mount Entoto, with spectacular views of the city. Traffic on the hill was a mix of cars, and donkeys that were beasts of burden, carrying freshly cut straw back down the hill. It was a bizarre mix of old and new, and of course, was the first step towards some bizarre occurrences for us. Half way up the hill, the car was struggling. We eventually had to stop, and debate whether the car would get us to the top of the hill. Neither John nor I are blessed with what could be called a petite frame, and the overall weight seemed too much. However, with some additional water in the radiator, and a few minutes to cool down, the car started moving again with only a gentle push from us. We had a few other moments on the way, but after half an hour or so more, we were able to explore the Menelik, or Imperial Palace, and our car was able to have a welcome rest. Our driver stayed with it, and worked on his car. We were hoping for a positive outcome, as it was a long walk back to the city, and we did not want to be fighting the donkeys for space on the road.
The palace is a curious collection of buildings, containing several churches and a monastery. It is the location of the death of Haile Selassie, and remained the seat of the emperor until 1974. There were a few tourists there, and a handful of goats relaxing outside one of the buildings. There were a series of weapons on display in the museum there, and an odd connection to my town of birth, Larne, is that some of the guns landed in the Larne Gun Running of 1914 eventually found their way to arm the militias of Haile Selassie in the 1940-41 East Africa campaign.
We got back to the car, and the driver was filled with confidence that the car was back in top condition. We were less convinced. We drove back into the city, and spent the next few hours visiting a series of museums highlighting the incredible history and prehistory of Ethiopia. We found ourselves in a garden having lunch with a giant tortoise, before an obligatory automotive related piece of sightseeing. Sitting outside the Ethnographic Museum is the first ever car in Ethiopia, imported by Haile Selassie. This, however, seemed to be the only automotive tourist attraction in the city.
Among the many museums that we visited was the National Museum of Ethiopia, which contains the skeleton of Lucy. Lucy, or AL 288-1 to use her more formal name, is a skeleton about 40% complete of a 3.2 million year old australopithecus afarensis, either an ancestor of humans, or at least evolutionary close, discovered in 1974 at Hadar in the Awash Valley in Ethiopia. When she was found, the Beatles song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was playing, hence her name. Seeing Lucy – or at least, a plaster cast of her as the original is safely locked away in the same building – was one of those odd experiences of seeing something quite so famous and memorable, a little like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time, or stepping into Moscow’s Red Square.
As well as an impressive number of museums through Addis, there are also an impressive number of very busy churches and mosques. We saw the tomb of Haile Selassie at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. His remains had been buried there in a funeral in 2000, after being found under a concrete slab in the palace after the fall of the Derg, the communist movement run by military officers, who ran Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987.
Our next church visit – St George’s Cathedral – was located on Churchill Road, named after Winston, for the help that the UK had provided Ethiopia during the wars with Italy. It is an impressive octagonal building, built by Italian prisoners of war in 1896. It was set on fire by the Italians in 1937, but was later restored in 1941 following Ethiopia’s liberation. Mid way through a tour around the surrounding buildings, a chap in a while robe came running over to us and said “five minutes. I will be with you in five minutes”. We smiled politely. We finished our tour, and the man in the robe came back. It transpired that he was the Arch Deacon of the cathedral, and kindly took the three of us on a private tour of the cathedral. As soon as we got inside, he looked at me, and said “My brother, I know you. You have been here before”. I tried to convince him that not only was this my first time in the cathedral, or in Addis Ababa, it was my first time in Ethiopia. He was having none of it. “I know you. You, sir, are my brother”. I have no idea who he thought I was, but this misidentification did result in us having a most wonderful tour of the cathedral, complete with example playing of various religious musical instruments, and chants. We also got pointed towards the Tabot, or Ark of the Covenant, which is kept in the cathedral. Fascinating, but most odd.
The extended time in the cathedral took up most of the rest of our time in Addis, and we headed to Bole Airport for our flight home. We were amused at the advert still showing for Ethiopian Airlines’ launch of the Dreamliner in 2008. After delays in arrival, the plane was finally delivered to Ethiopian in August 2012. I hope that they managed to update their poster.
We headed off, with John and Paul still amused by our random encounters, and particularly with my brother, the arch deacon, and touched down in Beirut on the way back. As the crew changed, one of the cabin crew who would be taking us back to London saw me as soon as she got on the plane – we were sitting in row one – and gave me a hug and said “Mark! Haven’t seen you for ages! How are you?”. John asked “OK, how do you know him?”. She answered “We were out partying in Sierra Leone a few weeks ago”. “Of course”, said John. “Of course.”