Thoughts / Travel

Impressions: Ethiopia

Ethiopia 231

Photo: Jessica Tana

Unable to comprehend, I pressed my face up to the grimey taxi window. My eyes strained to take in the alien landscape. The city was strange, like a post-apocalyptic movie set, several hundred years after a great war. Buildings sat in half completed construction for imagined decades. Rotting wooden frames barely supporting their foundations. Mossy walls creviced with the bright green tufts of unfamiliar plants slowly reclaiming the city.

And people.

People, everywhere. Leaning against crooked brick walls, sleeping on the sidewalk, moving down the streets in droves, hands caressing the car as it passed, curious eyes, and crooked smiles beckoning me to withdraw from the backseat of the taxi and into the foggy unknown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

That was my first impression of Ethiopia back in 2010. Since then I have travelled to Egypt, Borneo, back to Ethiopia again and lived in Sudan. That taxi ride, however, stands out to me as the first time I really started to see the world outside my comfort zone. My pre-conceived notions of life and how to live it, literally flew out the window of the back seat of that taxi. I was 24 years old and apart from Bali had never been to a developing country. I had never seen how most of the world actually lives. Ethiopia seemed a haphazard life of shared joys and frustrations, in stark contrast to the obsessively managed, private world of Australia, where I was born.

The reason for my trip to the land of coffee, Christianity and castles (!)

A wedding.

My brother met Naairah through work in Yemen the year before. Quickly infatuated with each other, my mother and I learnt of the marriage when my brother called to invite us a month before the celebration. They chose Ethiopia as Naairah was both Yemeni and Ethiopian and the bulk of her family were in Addis Ababa. They would fly over from Yemen with her mother and siblings, and mum and I would fly over from Western Australia. We were nervous. We had never met Naairah and she was a young Muslim woman from Yemen, a country we knew nothing about, except that it was the hiding place of Al Qaeda. My brother had converted to Islam in Yemen and the Islamic part of the wedding was already settled. Ethiopia was going to be a mix of both Christian and Muslim family on Naairah’s side and then my mother and me; two literature obsessed atheists from a small Port city in an isolated state of Australia. It was a chance for the newly wedded couple to throw a party, free from the Yemeni conventions of gender segregation and in a country, I now know, which throws a great party.

Like most foreigners we drove straight to Hotel Taitu in the tourist section of Addis Ababa known by the Italian word, Piazza. The reason for the Italian references is that Ethiopia was invaded by the Italians in 1935, the second in an attempt to claim the country after a failed invasion in the 1890’s. The war lasted a year, Addis Ababa fell to Benito Mussolini on May 5th 1936. The Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, fled the country three days earlier. For roughly 5 years Ethiopia was part of Italy’s Fascist empire.


Emperor Haile Seassie I on the cover of Time Magazine

Ethiopia was liberated in 1941. There is a noticeable Italian influence, albeit a small one. My mother (who grew up in Italy) immediately noticed the dilapidated Fiats used as taxis and people say ‘ciao’ as way of goodbye. Ethiopians also make a fantastic macchiato, however, as Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee (an often ignored fact) they were making coffee long ago.

A great video to watch for added Ethiopian history is Teddy Afro’s Tikur Sew. Ethiopia’s most beloved pop star, Teddy Afro is plastered on billboards and posters everywhere! The video shows Emperor Menelik II and his forces fighting off the Italians in the first invasion. Not only is the video astoundingly good, it is also a great song. It emphasises the pride of Ethiopia as they fight off the invading forces, the emperor riding his white horse at the front. Ethiopians will tell you they are the only country to remain un-colonised on the African continent.


Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu – Photo from Imperial Ethiopia

I did not know any of this, however, as we pulled into the closed parking space behind Hotel Taitu. Nor that the dark wooden accentuated building was named after Empress Taitu Betal, Menelik II’s wife. It is also the first hotel of Ethiopia and very popular with tourists. My brother and Naairah were already there when mum and I checked in. I was glad to see a dividing wall between the street and the hotel, guarded day and night. It sounds ludicrous to me now, but at the time I was terrified. I couldn’t place what it was that terrified me, only that everything was unknown, and that in itself was terrifying. It would take me some time to cross that wall without hesitation, and this leaves me with a good, yet rather clichéd analogy. I believe every traveller feels this dividing wall at some point in their lives. On one side, things make sense, and on the other, everything is open to interpretation and error. I often feel like a child when I travel. People have to explain everything to me, and I make mistakes. This can be hard to embrace as a confident adult, but once we can cross over the cultural superiority and unfounded fear, we can learn to love and enjoy the experience of the unknown.

My brother and Naairah were married at Hotel Genet, the Amharic word for heaven. Amharic is the spoken language of Ethiopia, but it is only one tribe’s language, the Amhara. There are many others and in different parts of the country, people speak their tribal language. Amharic is the main language of Addis Ababa, which means ‘new flower’.

As I danced at my brother’s wedding, surrounded by brightly coloured dresses and suit jackets, head wraps and hairstyles, it struck me that so many people here now were my family. I couldn’t speak to them, and they to me, but their eyes were kind and encouraging, whereas I felt desperately out of my depth and shy. The older women grabbed my hands and swirled me around, the camera crew focused in on my flushed face and shone a giant light on me from a stand. This was crazy! I didn’t know anyone, and yet here was my only brother getting married. I felt saddened that I hadn’t been a part of his life for so long. That I didn’t get to read a speech or help set anything up, I was selfishly overwhelmed. I let go of the women’s arms and ran outside for a cigarette. The cold air outside brought tears to my eyes, which I blinked away amongst the smoke. I was not doing well, whereas my mother seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. They had set up a white, dolphin encrusted set of throne chairs for the wedded couple upon a stage. To the left and right were smaller chairs of the same make, one for Naairah’s mother and sister, and one for my mother and myself.

Looking at Naairah’s family I realised immediately that I had underdressed. Her sister looked as if she was going clubbing in a tiny white dress and huge stilettos. I was wearing a ‘culturally appropriate’ blue cotton dress that went down to my feet and was covered in white polka dots. I felt like an idiot. Why had I thought, that coming to Ethiopia would be ‘roughing it’? My flat, sensible shoes felt inappropriate. I had my hair done, but the curling irons used at the hairdressers were heated by coals and seemed much too strong for my thin hair.  I tried to pull out the tiny, tight curls, but the Shirley Temple look was there to stay.

A buffet table was placed in the hotel hall, stacked high with Ethiopian cuisine. Curries, roasted vegetables, flat, pancake bread called ‘injeera’ and drinks placed along it. At the end of the table, however, hung the raw, red carcass of a cow. People went up to the carcass and the hotel staff would cut off a generous slice of meat and hand it to the guest. They would then smother it in red hot chilli sauce and eat. To eat it raw was a delicacy, one I tried to avoid until it became unavoidable. If someone offers you food in Ethiopia with their hands to your mouth, I was told, it was rude not to accept. Naairah’s sister did just this with another raw meat dish called ‘kitfo’. I took the raw meat off her fingers with my lips and chewed. It was a similar consistency to cooked meat and the hot sauce disguised the ‘rawness’. I did get sick a few times during that trip, but not through the raw meat.

There was the usual wedding cake, people threw rose petals and danced and ate. Live music by a local band played and the wedding was a great success. Afterwards, the 100 or so guests spilt out into the carpark and started to go home. My brother found me and suggested we take the party with a select few to the streets. We spent the wee hours of the morning trapesing around Addis’ party quarters, clubs and bars. Again I was underdressed, but I felt more relaxed and the more I smiled and the more I danced, the more everyone around me responded in kind.

I had learnt so much in such a small time. Ethiopia was the beginning of a life outside of Australia for me. I had been to Europe and lived on my own there, but this was a different feeling. Most of Europe is exciting, but familiar. We don’t learn a whole lot by tasting Italian and French cuisine or looking at famous artworks. Don’t get me wrong, these are some of my favourite things to do, but I feel the travel world is still inherently Eurocentric. It’s time to branch out and see parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Challenge your senses and find the familiarity in humanity, which is universal.

My own fears of the unfamiliar, were unfounded. My ideas of an ‘African country’ so mislead. To relax and smile and move with the flow of things around you, these are the best tools a traveller can have. It took a wedding in Ethiopia to make me see this.

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P.S. Take note of the statue of Menelik II on his horse, and a photo of me inside Hotel Taitu grounds with the looming ‘wall’ open behind me.

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