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

The Finger Post Travel (October 15, 2017)

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


As I stepped into the main terminal at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa I couldn’t help but ask myself why Togo had to make things so damn difficult. I had gone to Accra, Ghana to cover a boxing show and my original plan was to spend a couple of days traveling overland to Togo, Benin and then Nigeria. It would have been cheap and from what I could tell it would have been one heck of an adventure. In particular I was interested in the Akodessewa Fetish Market just outside of Lome, which was apparently the largest voodoo fetish market in the world. Reading about it on Atlas Obscura made it sound like the sort of place I needed to check out, at least once in my life. It was something right out of an Indiana Jones movie and I was gun-ho about having my own Dr. Jones adventure (at least one with the cool locations.  Truth be told I didn’t want to deal with melting Nazi faces and Indian death cults leaders trying to rip out my heart).

But then came the visa process, and I suddenly understood why Robert Kaplan was so critical of West Africa in his book “The Coming Anarchy.” Togo was 128 miles from Accra, and Lome was just across the border. From Lome I would just be 48 miles to the first town in Benin: Grand Popo. All in all I could catch a TroTro in Accra to the border for about $5 and then splurge for a cab in Lome (which according to Wikitravel would set me back a cool $2.16 for a ride to Grand Popo). I was stoked: I was about to cover two countries in three days…all for under $10. From Grand Popo I assumed it wouldn’t be more than $10 to make the 123-mile journey to Lagos, Nigeria.

But then came my first hurdle: I didn’t have a multiple entry visa for Ghana and I couldn’t get a straight answer as to if they were available at the border between Ghana and Togo. I was facing the prospect of having to go to the Ghanaian embassy and getting another visa, which from what I could tell might run me upwards of $100 since I would need it the following day. Then I would need to get a visa for Togo, which would run me $140 for a single entry visa. Although the website for the embassy of Togo made reference to multiple entry visas, I couldn’t find a price for that, which led me to assume that the multiple entry visas I would need for Togo could run me as much as $280. Finally there was Benin, and their $140 visa fee for a single entry visa…which meant my trip to Nigeria could end up costing me $280 for two separate single-entry visas in Benin as well. Finally there was Nigeria’s $180 visa fee, which pretty much killed the planned overland trip through West Africa. My $20 bus and cab ride from Accra to Lagos was now looking to run me as much as $840, and as I didn’t have time to get the visas in the States I was unsure of how successful I would be getting the necessary visas in Accra. But it did lead me to an interesting discovery while researching if I could fly from Lagos to Accra without dealing with reentry in Togo or Benin: Ethiopian Airlines flew from Accra to Kigali. Rwanda and that included a layover in Addis Ababa.

Rwanda was high on my list of countries I had to visit, and although Ethiopia was not exactly a nation on my radar, realizing I could visit the country immediately had me hooked. And reading about Ethiopia online I saw three of the most welcome words to any traveler in Africa: visa on arrival. It wouldn’t be outrageously expensive ($50, which was a bit steep but certainly a lot more reasonable than the $180 that Nigeria required) and I could get it at the airport when I landed. I switched my search to a multiple-city search on Kayak and was pleased to see that the price didn’t jump up much. I would be looking at $602 for the roundtrip ticket from Accra to Addis Ababa with an overnight in Addis before I headed out to Kigali. The flight arrived at 9:00 PM and my flight to Kigali would depart the following night, at 10:45 PM. It gave me pretty much an entire day in Addis Ababa, which was an opportunity I wasn’t going to pass up on.

I won’t lie; I was expecting bureaucracy and a line that resembled the opening night of a Star Wars movie at the one counter for visas at Bole International Airport. But although it wasn’t exactly free from bureaucracy and long lines, they seemed to move well and I was able to get my visa (paid in cash with US dollars) without much drama.

I then changed my currency and discovered that I had somehow wasted over 90 minutes since landing. I couldn’t blame it on the airport or the lines. Somehow I found a way to dilly dally in the airport for over an hour (twice I left the line for visas to look for a squirrel). I had made arrangements to have my hotel pick me up and I was certain that the driver had assumed I missed my flight and left. It was after 10pm and I was assuming he had better things to do than sit in the airport parking lot all night. After all, the hotel I booked, Hotel Lobelia, ran me a mere $51 on It wasn’t reasonable to expect a $50 hotel room to come with a driver waiting for close to two hours at the airport.

What better way to spend a Saturday night?


Fortunately for me Hotel Lobelia was all about exceeding expectations. Waiting for me was my driver and the van from Hotel Lobelia. The hotel was a mere ten minutes from the hotel and I was able to get checked in quickly and call it a night.

The following morning I had something that sort of resembled an agenda in place. The Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum was going to be the first stop, and if need be the only stop. I was a day away from Kigali…and the genocide memorials and museums documenting the terror of the Rwandan Genocide. But in a strange way I felt that this was something arguably more important. The Holocaust is forever seared in our collective memory. And for me Bosnia and Rwanda were equally traumatic since I could remember watching them unfold. A handful of brave journalist risking their lives to document the horror unfolding…and challenging the world to stand up and fulfill humanity’s most empty promise: never again. Sadly the world chose to not to intervene. But we couldn’t ignore. Even in Cambodia we couldn’t ignore as the aftermath of the genocide came to light.

But Ethiopia was different.

The Red Terror was a genocide that the world didn’t forget…it was a genocide that the world never paid attention to at all. It was a genocide that didn’t end with rebel soldiers liberating the oppressed, or American and NATO bombs forcing the Serbs to the negotiating table, or even the Vietnamese invading out of general repulsion at the horror unfolding next door. It was a genocide that just slowed down after they ran out of people to kill. And then it simmered for another fourteen years before the man behind the madness, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was driven from power in 1991. Sadly, the injustice would continue. Mengistu would avoid prosecution for war crimes and would find safe haven in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe…where he resides today.

I had planned to simply take a cab to the museum, and then just sort of figure out what was next from there. Outside the Hotel Lobelia I encountered Zelalem Chanyalew, aka Zola Rich. My first response was dismissive, he offered to take me to the museum for 200 birr (about $8), which I balked at (I was told it would be around 150, or a little under $6). But I nonetheless hired him with the intention of just getting to the museum and then playing it by ear. He then made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. I could hire him for the day for under $50 USD. Considering I had to be back at the airport later that afternoon and considering how spread out Addis Ababa was it made a lot more sense to tackle the city this way than to aimlessly wander from location to location.

We soon arrived at the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, a small and rather unassuming museum and memorial. The statue in front featured a harrowing image, three women and a single phrase on the plaque below them: “never ever again.”

It was depressing in that it seemed to prove a most uncomfortable truth: “never again” had already proven to be hollow and meaningless. Perhaps the extra “ever” would give it the forcefulness that “never again” lacked. But then again, Syria was happening as I gazed upon the statue. Maybe it was time to revisit “never ever again” as well. Maybe they should just say something that better summed up the genocide in Ethiopia…perhaps “screw you all for letting this happen…and screw you again for continuing to let this happen.”

The museum itself, which was technically free of charge, was a somber and yet fascinating history of a dark chapter of Ethiopia’s history: the history of the Derg. The Derg was the name given to the Communist military junta that overthrew the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, setting up the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Jon Stewart made a joke in his book America about how the more number of inherent lies in a countries name was directly connected to the level of oppression of that country (just pick up the book yourself, it is a lot funnier in print and a lot funnier when told by Jon Stewart. You can find it on page 185). Needless to say the name change from Ethiopian Empire to People’s Democratic Republic did coincide with a transition from an undemocratic monarchy that nonetheless had some positive qualities to it to pure hell on earth. The museum discussed the coup that lead to the fall of the Empire and the rise of the Derg before they went into the genocide that followed. As with most genocide museums, the image and photos of the victim’s portraits hits you harder than anything else. You can’t help but relate to them when you see them staring at you.

Some of the photos appeared to be mug shots, but most appeared to be portraits. Some of the people were smiling, although not all. But regardless of if they were a man or woman, or if they smiled or tried to look serious…the knowledge of what was to follow after these photos were taken was powerful…and horrifying.

The display then featured photos of Derg loyalist in the height of the Red Terror, rounding up suspects (most who would be tortured and killed) and seizing “contraband” (such as radios).

More victim portraits followed and then a horrific display of a shirt worn by a victim of the Derg when shot.

The man survived the attempted execution but his mother kept the shirt with the bullet hole. It was harrowing…but what followed was even more powerful. A room dedicated to the victims buried in one of 725 mass graves outside of Addis Ababa included a display of the remains of hundreds of victims. Many of the remains were displayed with the rope they were bound with and many also included a photo of the victim next to their remains. It was a stark reminder of the human toll of the Derg’s genocidal reign.

As I left I took a moment to speak with an employee of the museum who had been imprisoned by the Derg as a youth. Arrested in 1974 he spent the next eight years in custody without a trail. Once he was released he was continuously hounded by the Derg and would spend the next several years in hiding.

The museum and memorial was very much a gut punch, but Zola had a full schedule planned for me and once I left he drove me to our next stop: the Holy Trinity Cathedral.


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