Addis is a huge gated Sheraton surrounded by corrugated tin shacks. It's goats grazing on the side of the highway overpass, 50 year old Peugeot taxis that you have to help push start to pop the clutch, mesmerizing shoulder dance displays, and people hand pedaling "polio-carts".
It's heady incense with cup after cup of endless coffee, bowls of fresh popcorn, and food so incredible you secretly end up licking your fingers even though you know it's a terrible social faux pas.
The last time I carried 25 mattresses on my head, things didn't turn out so well.
Addis is an long stream of un- or underemployed young men following you around mainly just to chat and practice their english, but also hoping for some kind, any kind, of job.
Waitin' for a fare.
The city can spend days in a slate gray trance of lackluster drizzle only to burst into motley hyper-drive with the first hint of sun and blue skies.
Ethiopia is unique on the continent. It's the only country in Africa never saddled or milked by a colonial power (the Italian occupation of 1936-1941 being but a blip on the national radar). It never got any of the benefits of foreign investment in infrastructure or an outside boost of "modernization".
But on the other hand, and probably more importantly, it came through last century with its language, culture, customs, traditions, and sense of self intact. Ethiopians are strongly patriotic. People in Addis have a clear idea of what it means to be Ethiopian and their earnestness is infectious.
Mesobs, or traditional Ethiopian tables kick ass. A bit dull though.
Despite the thousands of years of history (the country not the city), the place has a very young and inquisitive vibe to it. Unlike other large African cities, there is this strange aura of innocence and vulnerability. Addis is like a smart, slightly awkward, teenage girl with braces. You can see tons of potential but there's still some pupating to do. You get the strong feeling that they'll figure it out though.
They had better do it on the fly however, as it seems Addis Ababa is currently the fastest growing city in the world.
Fun fact #1: You can buy the national wine, Gouder, in a beer bottle. Why? Why not you mean.
Now some specifics.
Addis has an amazing National Museum. Actually, the museum itself is a bit sad, dusty and threadbare. But once you make it to the bottom floor, their holding of skeletal remains tracing back almost every branch of human evolution is stunning. They have skulls teeth and finger bones that have literally re-written the books on our evolution an dozen times over.
An extremely disproportionate number of all of the important field discoveries have happened in Ethiopia. Any single piece would be the highlight of a collection anywhere else in the world. If you geek out to how hominids funneled down into Homo sapiens, this place will blow your mind.
Addis Ababa is also home to the largest market in Africa. Re-read that. The largest market in Africa. It is insane. Like whole square miles of insane.
Check out these piles of coffee pots. We bought one but Gulf Air smashed it to teach us humility. Or so I can only assume.
Some areas are booths, some are just blankets, some are buildings and some are tarp covered streets. You can buy anything: food, leather, clothes, construction material, house wares, livestock, fabrics, pottery- the list is endless really.
We particularly liked the spices
and the peppers (beriberi)
and the massive displays of produce. Food-centric? Who us?
Not since Mexico City have we seen anything even approaching this scale and even Mexico City's markets would be swallowed like a firehose in the sea here. It's hard to portray in photographs, but trust me, it's big.
After a few hours in the market, a nice relaxing coffee is in order.
For as underdeveloped as it is, at times Addis can seem down right cutting edge. For example, the hotel we stayed at used a lot of extra outdoor space to grow organic vegetables that they then used for the restaurant's daily vegan lunch buffet. ?!?!
A place in Austin could double its prices if it could pull off something like that.
As a bonus we were in town for Meskel, the holiday marking the anniversary of the discovery of the true cross. All over town people burned frankincense, built bonfires decorated with daisies, and laid out fresh green rushes on their floors and entry ways.
Just after sundown on the night of Meskel proper, the bonfires were lit and singing and fireworks filled the air. It was a really spectacular sendoff from a really spectacular city. Thanks, Addis!