African Diaries I

I woke up with the terrible back pain I carried over from London. After a quick stretch (physical and mental), I went to get my breakfast: porridge and Ethiopian scrambled egg, which is, pure red, deliciously spicy and enough to wash any back pain away with some great Ethiopian coffee.

Before setting off, I decided to take some precautions. Although I pride on being street smart, courtesy of childhood wonderings on streets (much to mom’s agony), privilege of travelling (and being male), and running a brain like a map (much to my friends’ annoyance), this was going to be my first day alone in an African city.

So, I left my wallet, took some cash and my shattered iPhone 4 as a prop and started walking.

With no Google Maps, Whatsapp or Internet, only a sense of direction and some recollection of Addis Ababa maps I’ve seen, I set out to hit a few landmarks and try to find a Ethio Telecom shop to get a local SIM card.

And thus began my 5-hour walk. Immediate mental associations were with Kuwait, Istanbul, Marrakesh, and Napoli. The smells of spices, sewage and exhaust mixed with sweat of my own and others…

As I ducked to prevent dust from the construction sites and broken pavements carried by strong winds, my mind was playing tricks on me as I was seeing mountain ranges in the distance and a lush city landscape peppered with very low-density buildings all around me.

I usually stuck to the major roads to get acquainted with the pace and the social landscape. Now, despite keeping a pace similar to locals, I kept feeling out of breath. Yes, I had done less exercise in London but… then I remembered I was at 2,400m altitude! Which also went to explain why I woke up with dried up nosebleed.

All day, I saw only a total of 8 other people of no colour (I guess this is what we shoul call them?). I was naturally being looked at and soemtimes offered assistance (or else) but didn’t feel much at threat at all.

Now, when in Brazil, I was trying to pass as a Latin American, constantly walking in flip flops and responding in Spanish. When here, I’m trying to pass as an Arab with the occasional “shukran”s and gesturing with a bow and my right hand on my chest.

So, it was only natural I was starting to think I was too precautious, but then the incident with the man who spat on me happened, right after I visited the St George Armenian Orthodox Church on Adwa Street! But before I get to that, more on the church…

After the somewhat steep, diagonal climb to the palace guarded by armed soldiers, which is what I took in grand views back into the city, and kept walking towards the Ethnological Museum, only to be told it was closed due to renovation.

At this point I was at a square called Arat Kilo which means 4 Kilo and is supposed to refer to the square’s distance from the main palace. At the centre of which is a monument to those who fought to liberate Ethiopia from the short-lived Italian occupation of 1936–1941.

It is interesting then, that, an Armenian and a much Italian-influenced area sit just to the west of it. And as I made my way in that direction, I stumbled upon the Armenian church, only to see its gate shut by attended by an Ethiopian man. When asked if it was open, he opened the gate and pointed me towards an old man of a distinctly paler colour and a fragile posture.

He was tending the little garden in the church frontyard and introduced himself as Simon. He kindly said he would open the church for me. He went back to the shed behind the church while I listened to the singing birds and the passing traffic. After my short visit inside, enjoying the church’s classic grey stone Orthodox-style architecture with stained glasses and its narrow length to emphasise its verticality, we went back outside.

We had a quick chat next to the marble plaque dedicated to the Armenian Genocide: he told me his father was an Italian-Armenian and one of the 40 orphans of Jerusalem that survived the Genocide and was thus invited to Ethiopia by the then Crown Prince Ras Tefari (who would later become Emperor Haile Selassie). These kids went on to form a brass band, as the official Ethiopian state orchestra.

The father married an Ethiopian and Simon grew up in Addis Ababa. As I observed the buildings around the Church, he told me in some agony that the Government has taken properties belonging to the Armenians, including a nearby school. They have also lost three priests who demanded high salaries.

He was happily adamant still, that the church had a sizeable congregation on Sunday masses and cheerfully invited me to do so when he learned I was here for about a week as I grasped his right wrist between both of my hands.

By this point he already knew I was Turkish and was not Christian, but he was all the same invitational.

He reminded me of the priests D. and I had met in the Assyrian valleys of Southeastern Turkey and their struggle to keep their churches and communities intact. And the story of the orphans remind me of the Georgian families who sang Georgian flokloric songs to each other across the hills of Mahaçkale/Machakela separated by the Turkish-Soviet border.

Shortly after, following Simon’s directions, I crossed the bridge over an open latrine-strewn stream as a man who seemed to have been looking away turned and accidentally spat on me. He quickly gave me small pieces of tissue out of his pocket and as I was trying to clean it away, he used his shirt to rub off some of it himself.

Slightly annoyed but determined to keep going, I said in haste “it’s OK” and as I started walking away, he said “I’m really sorry about that” and handed me the old iPhone 4 he had just picked out of my pocket.

I had clearly wasted his time and efforts!

In return, I’ve learned the most common con pickpockets apply here, at no cost!

The next couple of hours was more walking, failing to get a SIM card, a coffee break, a short journey on the light rail (why doesn’t Kuwait that’s 20,000 times richer have one!?), and more walking.

Pretty dead by the time I got to the hotel and having left people in the dark who tried to arrange to meet me in the evening, N. texted me saying she ran into Mulatu again and confirmed he’s playing Thursday night and we should go to see him.

In the meanwhile, T. came to pick me up.

An Addis local, on his first day back from New York, he got a traffic fine and got into a massive jam just to come my way and in the short hour or so we had, he has enlightened me about the Ethiopian culture and probably sold me the best 10-day travel package I can get after Addis.

We also had an aniseed-based mojito, which reminded me of the recent Rakito (raki mojito) craze N. and other friends instigated in London.

I still had time (and energy) to make it to A. and her friends’ dinner and what a joy that was! A few endorsements on my first day followed by an offer for a free accomodation, a free SIM card, a hevaily discounted massage, invite to a party, and a little scrutiny regarding Mulatu’s gig on Thursday… I think I would call this a good, first day.

You see, back in London, R. had told me “you won’t be blown away by Addis”. I think that’s acucurate. Fairly few cities gave me an instant crush but Addis, only over 100 years old proper, in so many ways, is an Ankara of the sorts, is not one of them. But just like its Turkish counterpart, it will probably be a city that does not fail one.

A. was kind enough to ask her driver to drop me by the hotel. There was a game on the TV and following a quick chat about Manchester United and West Ham United, I went upstairs to my room.

As I started rubbing some muscle pain relief on my back, a Mulatu song was playing outside. I have little confidence my back will pull me tomorrow to do any proper walking but from what I have already seen, smelled, tasted, heard and breathed in today feels like I have got a very good introduction to Addis Ababa.

Good night / መልካም ሌሊት



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