Ethiopia: First Flight Jitters, Injera, Friendly Faces - a Week in Addis Ababa

2 December 2023

I arrived at Kigali International Airport three hours early to my departure time. For my first-ever flight, I was excited and slightly terrified -- I wasn't about to let anything or anyone mess with my voyage. No escorts, just me, and my nerves.

I should admit, I almost regretted it when I saw people hanging out with their families, and loved ones, bidding them goodbye. But I reassured myself thinking a week would slip away unnoticed.

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I left my 'Miss Independent' vibe at home and was introduced to the kindness of strangers. Right from the start, the journey unfolded with incredible encounters, starting with Frank at the airport desk, who ushered me through procedures with kindness and patience.

Contrary to the horror stories I'd heard about air travel, the plane experience was surprisingly pleasant. No panic attacks, no passing out--just the breathtaking view of the sky from above. After a slightly extended six-hour journey, due to a layover, I arrived in Addis Ababa, still buzzing with excitement despite a hiccup at the visa office.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally my turn to be served. However, I discovered I had made a big amateur mistake, I hadn't exchanged enough money for the visa! As I'm still figuring out how to get more money, convert currencies, and then come back to start the cue afresh, enter Bliss, a fellow Rwandan on the cue, who generously offers to cover the remaining balance.

Of course, I reimbursed him later, but I remain forever grateful for his kindness. Lesson learned; excess currency conversion is preferable to a shortage in a foreign land.

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First thing I noticed cruising from the airport; everyone in Addis is beautiful. Men, women, drop-dead gorgeous. It made me think that if I was single, perhaps I'd be on the lookout for an Ethiopian beau, but alas.

With no delays, my lift arrived, and took me to the Elily International Hotel, my home for the next six days, with impeccable service, reliable internet, and convenient proximity to all necessities.

Intrigued by this country already, I spent most of the night reading some of the books on its history - its unique calendar, non-colonial history, and its claim as the birthplace of coffee and civilisation itself, which is why it is known as the Land of Origins'.

I discovered that Addis Ababa stands as the world's third-highest capital city at 2,665 metres above sea level.

However, I had not read anywhere that you might be thirsty and sweaty while also shivering from the cold there. That even though it is always very chilly at night, you wake up sweaty and thirsty. Even the hotel recognises it and provides you with two free bottles of water every day since, well, it's more than a necessity.

It's also the first time in my life that I haven't felt self-conscious about my height. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a proud five-foot shorty, but being in this city where most people are the same height makes me feel even better about it. I wish my high school bullies realised they'd be the odd men out here.

The first thing I noticed on my way to the African Union offices, where I spent the majority of my time attending a conference on land policy in Africa 2023, is what folks here call shoe shine.

Shoe shine is particularly popular among Ethiopians, where young-looking boys known as 'listros' smear away the layers of dust and mud on their clients' shoes, and apply a generous portion of shoe shine, for a mere 2 birr.

There are lots of these on every corner of the road, especially early in the morning when many people go to work or school. In other regions, listros have gone so far as to rope together stools and make umbrellas out of plastic sheets to guard against the rain and sun.

I was surprised to see that this is not only on the roads but also among the services offered at the hotel. It made me wonder how someone could feel comfortable leaving their house with dirty shoes and have someone else clean them on the road.

After asking around, I discovered that most of these boys are migrants from outside of Addis. Originally, listros were thought to be members of the Guragai tribe, who are famed for their commerce and entrepreneurship skills. For them, working as a listro is the first rung on the ladder to becoming a self-made businessman.

Secondly, I couldn't help but notice that Addis Ababa looks like it's in constant construction work, with tall (very tall) buildings awaiting completion at every turn, dusty and unoccupied.

While crossing the road, pedestrians and drivers seem to be engaged in a dance of unpredictability. With the latter constantly switching their foot between the brakes and the speed, as there are no speed limits here. Functioning traffic lights seemed reserved for roundabouts, often guarded by physically unimposing yet charming police officers.

Given the city's size and population, it's hardly surprising that Addis Ababa has far larger highways than my adorable country. The driving is already somewhat chaotic, so it's a relief that most of the roads here are one-way.

Most people in Addis Ababa are early risers. Some people get up early to walk to work, some wait for the bus, others drive in hopes to dodge the traffic, and still more go to pray; with the majority of the population practicing the Orthodox faith.

On my second morning, I went to a grocery to get some necessities. Surprisingly, they were open at 5:30, which is unusual in Kigali. However, they close at 10 pm, as people here also tend to go to bed early in preparation for the next day.

Motorbikes are not a mode of transportation here; instead, individuals must depend on the pricey choice of taxis or buses. It has been like this ever since Ethiopia banned the use of goats and donkeys on public roads and phased out their iconic blue taxis (the kind you had to clutch the door to keep from flying off).

Considering how clean the inhabitants of Addis Ababa already are, I believe the city might become even cleaner in the future. However, there is still a long way to go, particularly considering the amount of people living on the streets, especially, women and children.

Another thing that stands out is the abundance of banks in the area, that occupy the tallest buildings. Over thirty banks consisting of 8,250 branches, and so many ATMs that you can't walk ten feet without passing at least two.

Now let's address the biggest elephant in the room, 'Injera'. I'm sorry, but I thought that this sour fermented pancake-like flatbread is not worth the hype. This famous Ethiopian food goes as an accompaniment to a whole host of dishes for the locals, and so needless to say, it was the first thing I was recommended to taste. But to my dismay, I couldn't even finish a single mouthful.

As I kept discovering, another fun fact that stood out for me, is that women in Ethiopia, unlike any other African countries, tend to have very lively and outgoing personalities! I loved seeing them everywhere, taking on different jobs and keeping their beautiful smiles on! There's an apparent gender balance almost everywhere.

I had the opportunity to dine at Union Restaurant, the most flexible restaurant I have ever seen, after a visit to Friendship Park with some local friends, who introduced me to Ethiopian coffee and fresh juices. We also passed by the great Museum of Science, located in the heart of Addis Ababa.

Just as I anticipated more adventures, illness struck; I was diagnosed with food poisoning and flu. I stayed in my room for what felt like an eternity, ate nothing but water, shivered in the bone-chilling cold, and felt like I was going to die, so naturally, I was just glad to go home.

I left indebted to the kind Ethiopian taxi driver, Gizaw and Addis, who took me to and from the hospital and ensured I had everything I needed. I hope next time I go back, the weather will be kinder to me, so I can enjoy the true warmth of these lovely people.

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