Travel: A long layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Part Two)

The Finger Post Travel (December 20, 2017)

(Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 24-25, 2017)


Ethiopia is an interesting place. It is a place of antiquity and prehistory. It is a nation that claims to possess the Arc of the Covenant, the Danakil Depression, and the world’s most famous 3.2 million year old fossil: Lucy.

But oddly enough that’s not what jumps out at you when you take a day tour of Addis Ababa. For a nation that can make a serious claim to the Ark of the Covenant, it’s not the ancient history that they proudly put on display. Instead a tour of Addis Ababa becomes a lesson in Ethiopia’s recent history starting with the Italian Invasion in 1935.

Ethiopia, like pretty much every African country, suffered under colonialism. Although Ethiopia was able to avoid the fate of pretty much every other African nation (except Liberia) during the 19th century, a brief occupation by the Italians from 1935-1940 clearly shaped the nation in a way that will nonetheless be felt for many centuries. And what is perhaps most significant is how their eventual expulsion of the Italian occupiers also shaped a nation image (and dare I say a national pride) that you don’t often find in former colonial nations. They may have suffered under Italian rule (they did) but against all odds the plucky Africans did the impossible: the drove the European interlopers out of their nation. For a country that can trace their history to 1137 it says a lot about how much that meant to them. How much that one victory meant to them as a nation.

After leaving the Red Terror Museum Zola, who I hired to drive me around the city for the day, prepared to take me to our second stop of the day: the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The Holy Trinity Cathedral is widely regarded as the second holiest site in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It’s an interesting distinction since it was built in the 20th century to commemorate Ethiopia’s liberation from Italian occupation. Yes, in a country that (maybe) has a church with the Arc of the Covenant housed in it, in a country that can trace it’s Christian heritage to the first century…it is a cathedral that was built to commemorate the defeat of the Italians during World War II that is the second holiest site in the nation.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa

Did I mention how much that victory meant to the Ethiopians?

Arriving at the cathedral I forked over a somewhat steep 200 Birr (about $7.30) for admission, but once I stepped in I was glad I did. A guide began to take me on a tour of the interior of the cathedral, which was unlike any cathedral I had ever been in. For one thing, it was in many ways a shrine to the former Emperor Haile Selassie. That was understandable since this was where the last Emperor of Ethiopia was buried. But I still had never seen a church mural featuring a speech to the United Nations before.

After a quick tour of the cathedral, which included a photo op with the priest on duty, we made our way outside.

It was there where hundreds of martyrs from the war with the Italians were buried as well as the grave of the former President Meles Zenawi.

It was at this time that the guide informed me that he was working freelance and was not part of my 200 Birr admission and that he charged 300 Birr for the tour. I informed him that since he didn’t tell me he was charging me before hand I had no intention of paying him 300 Birr. I always hate turning into a jerk over this, but I realize a lot of tourist get hustled by guys like this and always take the path of least resistance.  I figured I needed to stand my ground and make sure this guy knew I was onto his gig before I gave him the 100 Birr I was going to give him anyways as a tip. He started combative but quickly switched gears to the pleading, which convinced me to give him an extra 50 Birr as part of his tip. It was an expensive tour by Ethiopian standards, but at the end of the day it was around $5, and in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have made such an issue over what amounted to $3.

I was ready for the next stop but no trip to a country is complete without trying the food and it was lunch time. I asked Zola if he had a recommendation for a restaurant popular with the locals. The fact of the matter was that I didn’t want to eat at a tourist restaurant because, to the best of my knowledge, I hated Ethiopian food.

I know, I know…but here me out. I only ate at Ethiopian restaurants twice in my life. The first time was in college when I was a student at the University of Windsor in Ontario. I was eager to try something different but after my meal I was convinced that this was the worst food ever. Ten years after that I gave Ethiopian food a second chance when I lived in Denver and again, wasn’t feeling it. So I closed the book on Ethiopian food and just assumed it wasn’t my thing.

But then I remembered how I gave hummus a fair shake even though I hated it the first time I tried it and how that really worked out for me in the long run. If there was a restaurant that could change my view of Ethiopian food I was fairly confident that Zola could show me where it was. We were going to get real Ethiopian food, not the stuff they made for the tourist but the stuff the locals ate.

I was stoked.

Then I saw the butcher selling raw meat outside the restaurant.

“What is that?” I asked Zola.

“Tere siga. It’s good.”

He advised me that Ethiopians ate raw beef. It was considered something of a delicacy.

I realize that eating raw beef is generally frowned upon, and considering that I was going to this place to give Ethiopian food a “fair shake”, I realized I wasn’t really setting them up for success. But this looked like a culinary adventure that I had to try.

So I did. I ate raw beef from a street butcher in Africa.

And it was awesome.

I can’t recommend it to everyone, and I was sick the next day when I arrived in Rwanda. But like my favorite cat meme, I regret nothing.

It was delicious and took me outside my comfort zone. Although I will stress, it’s a lot better with the pepper and bread.

We then went inside and I deferred to Zola on what to order. He proved to be a ideal guide for a crash course on Ethiopian food. The first dish was Tibs, or Ethiopian roasted meat.

And any reservations I had about Ethiopian food went out the door once I tried it. As an American I realize we have a somewhat mixed reputation when it comes to food but I like to think we got the roasted meat thing down pat. And this was amazing. It was served on a small charcoal filled bowl that looked almost like a hookah but the flavor was simply out of this world.

The next dish was another popular local dish, and I realized this would be the true test. I wasn’t sure, but this looked like the same dish I ate in Canada. It even sounded like the same thing I ordered all those years ago in Windsor: chick pea stew, aka Shiro Wot.

I was already pretty stuffed from all the raw and roasted meat, but once I tasted the Shiro I realized that my grudge against Ethiopian food was entirely unwarranted. Shiro was, like everything else I tried that afternoon, simply amazing. I topped the meal off with a macchiato since some random guy at the airport told me the coffee in Ehtiopia was to die for (it was pretty damn good) and then we made our way to our next stop.

Now this is a good time to mention that any tour of Addis Ababa becomes a lesson on Ethiopia’s recent history and the history of one of the twentieth centuries most controversial and complex world leaders: Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie was the last emperor of 704-year old Solomonic Dynasty, a House that traced it’s lineage to King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. He was revered and respected by many in the West, and became a messiah to Rastafarians in Jamaica. But domestically his reputation was considerably more checkered. After being driven from power by Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1936 he returned a liberating hero in 1941. But his subsequent reign was dogged by a general lack of freedom and by accusations of widespread corruption.

Our next stop was the National Museum and again I was greeted with what appeared to be a statute of Haile Selassie as a substitute teacher in front of a group of young students.

I could tell that there was a legitimate nostalgia towards Selassie by many Ethiopians, including my driver Zola. There is recognition that although he was hardly perfect, he still represented a proud time in their history. They recognize that the world looked upon Ethiopia with deference and respect when Selassie was Emperor.

The National Museum was a nice change of pace, with a $0.42 admission fee and a souvenir shop that had posters and t-shirts for dirt cheap. I also enjoyed the display on the art from Ethiopia as well as the basement display on the history of Lucy and prehistoric man in Ethiopia.

From there we made our way to another museum, the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum located in the former residence of Haile Selassie and inside the grounds of the University of Addis Ababa. Now although I was becoming somewhat overloaded on museums, I found this to be a great stop with a fun balance of history, culture, and just overall cool stuff. After paying the 100 Birr admission I couldn’t help but notice that this was very much a University. Passing through the main hallway I read about the history of the building during the 20th century before I made my way upstairs to check out the display on Ethiopia’s ethnic groups and religions as well as a stuffed lion.

From there I went to the part of the museum that was the former residence of the Emperor, which had numerous displays of uniforms and gifts given to Haile Selassie over the years like a vase from Greece, a musical instrument from Burma, and a miniature tank from the Soviet Union, which in hindsight was somewhat prophetic.

After touring the Emperor’s bedroom I was able to check out his bathroom, which thanks to the movie Coming to America is impossible to do without picturing a unsmiling Paul Bates in a suit.

Taking a selfie in the Emperor’s bathroom mirror

Outside the museum was one of the most unique displays in Addis Ababa, the Italian made stairway to nowhere.

Zola took me to a few other stops including a drive through the marketplace and a quick stop at the Lion of Judah statue.

But I only had one day and it was time to make my way back to the airport and on to my next stop: Rwanda.

Still, I had one last stop I had to make. The random guy in the airport who swore that Ethiopian coffee was the best coffee in the world. I had to find out if he was telling me the truth. So Zola took me to a coffee shop near the airport where I got the full Ethiopian coffee shop experience, with straw on the ground and the smell of roasted beans that would put any Starbucks to shame.

It’s a funny thing about getting travel tips from random people in the airport.

Sometimes they are 100% correct.

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