The Addis Ababa airport is perched on a hilltop overlooking part of the city. From the distance, it looks like a toy town, with miniature skyscrapers dotting a forest of oversized broccoli heads. My friends and I arrived at 5:30 a.m. from an overnight journey from Zanzibar, red-eyed but keen to discover a new city (after a nap, our first and only unanimous decision).
In the early hours, the city is waking up, teams of young athletes running uphill laps and men and women making their way to work. The first thing I noticed of Addis was stately entrances, wide paved roads and well-tended green areas lining the route into town from the airport. Seconds after I formulated that opinion the paved road turned into a dirt maze with deep potholes and a shell of a blown out vehicle left in the middle of the street.
This visual oxymoron is my real first impression of Addis Ababa. The city is at once a modern cultural mecca and home to devastating poverty. Contradictions are everywhere, from the people on the street to the grand gateways next to corrugated tin shacks. While all cities are complex and full of contrast, Addis is so in a way that assaults every sense.
The city was established as capital in the late 19th century, moving from the strategically superior but climactically unpleasant site of Entonto. Today, Entonto stands at the top of a long, winding hill as the oldest church in the region and a popular lookout point (and potential Lover’s Lane) over its replacement capital, Addis Ababa. The city gets its name from the original house on the site, Amharic for New Flower, a house built for Taitu, the mistress of Menelik II. The story goes that Taitu was bored in Entonto so moved down to the prettier, more temperate foothills below, and eventually Menelik II moved his capital down to be with her. Hence, the town born of the ennui of the emperor’s consort has become Africa’s fourth largest city and its diplomatic capital.
Ethiopia’s Italian influence reads like a soap opera. Since the late 1800s, the nation has been involved in a tumultuous relationship with the failed colonizer, sometimes good, mostly bad. Its strong Italian influence should not by any means reduce the patriotism and national pride of its people – the Ethiopian resistance to colonization was one of the most fierce and successful resistance movements on the continent, and in fact the battle of Adwa is one of very few major battles in which a local force soundly beat a colonizing army. For better or worse, the Italians were here long enough to influence regional culture in a few key ways.
I would never support violent colonization of any sort, but the first sip of a smooth, perfect macchiato made with freshly roasted Ethiopian Yergacheffe beans can’t help but make you think that the Italian-Ethiopian cultural fusion was a match made in heaven. From the knockout punch of street espresso from a chipped ceramic teacup to the dense foam layers of a cappuchino at Tumuca coffeeshop in the Piazza district, Ethiopia’s coffee lives up to its famous reputation. The poor lone tea drinker in our group has been horribly bored as we hop from coffeehouse to coffeehouse getting progressively buzzed.
Of course, the other famous Ethiopian culinary export is its national cuisine (I may have reached pants-unbuttoning levels of fullness here). Tomes have been written on Ethiopian food, and various iterations are found over the globe. Now that I’ve tasted it from the source I can say its worth every self-indulgent Instagram photo ever taken. Our whole group has been waxing rhapsodic about the food at every location – like coffee, the national dishes are ridiculously good at either a streetside hole in the wall or a fancy restaurant. At Yod Abyssinia, the traditional foods are served with a show. Traditional singers and dancers dance tirelessly all night (video to be uploaded later!). When you can eventually look up from the constellation of richly coloured foods on your giant injera, the sensory experience switches from your nose and tongue to your eyes and ears.
After two days and two nights, we’re starting to adjust to the constant barrage of sights, smells and (delicious, delicious) tastes. Discovering the burgeoning Ethiopian jazz scene, untouched hot springs, and trekking rough are next on the docket. If only I can find some decent Internet (currently trying to look casual snaking WiFi at the Addis Ababa Hilton), I can already tell Ethiopia will be a utopia of stories.