Name an airline that cancels your flight then reschedules you on one that gives you only 30 minute to transfer from Heathrow terminal 3 to terminal 5. Qatar, that’s who. Finding out in the nick of time in Den Haag, Sarah has a ball aching time with the Customer Service department to rearrange all flights, now leaving us an extra transfer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and a seven hour stopover at Heathrow, great.
Catching the last train from Den Haag at midnight before spending a couple of early morning hours asleep on the floor at Schiphol airport, we arrive in Heathrow where Sarah, being the calmer more presentable one, manages to go through three different Qatar desks to learn that a) our original flight was never cancelled and is still going ahead, b) there is no explanation for why we were rescheduled, c) the unexpected change is apparently OUR fault and d) Qatar Customer Service is no match for an overtired, pissed off Sarah and we’re given complimentary access to the Sky Lounge.
For the first time in over 12 years of travel we’ve actually entered a lounge and it felt like the first time we’d laid eyes on an all you can eat buffet. First things first, a Bloody Mary to kick off the morning followed by a full breakfast spread whilst reading the Daily Mail newspaper. Needing a moment to refresh the private sleeping rooms with reclining lounges are a bonus so with refilled Bloody Mary’s and full bellies sleep overtakes us with ease until the alarm wakes us for another buffet. Seven hours at an airport never passed so quickly.
We actually rate Qatar as one of the better airlines we’ve flown with. The service is attentive and the food always good. Ample leg room and a plethora of movies on the entertainment system make flying a pleasure. Transferring in Doha was a breeze whilst the next in Jeddah was somewhat strange. Held in a waiting pen one of the staff commandeers our passports before shooting out a nondescript door without a word. One and half hours later he returns and we’re allowed to pass through to the waiting hall, where as the only non-Arabs there, we shrink behind the nearest pole as the stares become impossible to bear.
Ethiopian Airlines, our carrier for the next leg of the flight, is complete chaos. No system sees the entire flight boarding in no certain order in what becomes known as the ‘Ethiopian Shuffle’. Business class passengers boarded from the rear then push past oncoming passengers who’ve boarded from the front but are actually sitting in the rear. People seem to choose whichever seat they fancy, and when the actual seat owner arrives the result is everybody having to shuffle seats again. Falling asleep in the mayhem, we wake to the flight taking off two hours late.
Touching down for the first time in Sub Saharan Africa, Addis Ababa airport is under construction and the old terminal is a plain old shithole. No queue for visas sees us stamped through quickly before the same shuffle ensues for baggage and over an hour later we’re finally reunited with ours. As usual after an exhausting haul from Europe across the Middle East into Africa, the only thing we want is to get to the hotel. Not wanting to pay the faranji (tourist) priced taxis at the airport, we lug our gear out to the road looking for a local minibus. This is not an easy feat when your caring backpacks, thus the only way was to contract one for 150 Birr ($7.50 USD), still much cheaper than the 750 Birr the taxi guys wanted.
Museum of Anthropology
Checking into Atelefugne Hotel in the Kera area the place is clean enough though commencement of our Ethiopian experiences start here. Pillows the size and hardness of a volleyball, stinky bathroom drains, Wi-Fi that barely works and music turned up to eleven at ridiculous hours. Happy enough we decide not to waste any of the two days we have in the capital and head out.
In a country named after the Ancient Greek word for ‘Land of burnt faces’ (Aethiopia / Αἰθιοπία), a white couple with red hair and dreadlocks obviously stand out like dogs bollocks. We get a lot of attention, most of it friendly. Getting around on the public transport is easy enough, though asking your hotel how to get somewhere may help as more likely than not you need to change minibuses at some point and unless you’re a superhero you’ll struggle to read the Aramaic script that makes up the local language.
Addis is typical of many major African cities with development occurring at a rampant rate, such that it gives an image that it’s just emerged from a war. Infrastructure is also under major works in the capital. With the construction of the elevated rail system underway, many of the footpaths are non-existent and service holes big enough to swallow a truck are opened everywhere with general disregard to barriers keeping us on our toes, literally. The presence of UN vehicles is also a reminder that Ethiopia is still in the middle of several ongoing conflict zones including an ongoing conflict along it’s border with Eritrea.
Addis Ababa’s Lion of Judah statue has a fabled tail to tell. Erected on the eve of Haile Selassie’s (Ras Tafari’s) coronation in 1930, the occupying Italians smuggled it to Rome in 1935 where it sat until the 1960’s. A symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy you’ll see it everywhere, and it’s here in 1930 that the Rastafarian movement began, spreading across the Atlantic to Jamaica. A gentleman by the name of Marcus Garvey saw the coronation as a completed prophecy that ‘Kings will come out of Africa’. Thus Garvey’s followers elevated the emperor to divine status and gave the new religion it’s name as Haile Selassie’s pre coronation name – Ras-tafari. The colours traditionally associated with Rastafarianism, green, yellow and red, were taken from the Ethiopian flag.
We’d once tried Ethiopian food in London and became instant lovers of it. Whilst 80% of tourists apparently stop eating it in the first week, the injera based cuisine rank as some of the best food we’ve ever eaten (along with Vietnamese and Greek) and Barkot (Ras Desta Damtew Street) gives us an introduction to authentic lamb tibs. Small chucks of meat in an onion and fresh chilli sauce piled on a huge injera is presented accompanied by Ethiopia’s famous coffee and again we’re smitten.
With it’s low wood beam ceilings, English menu, traditional low round tables and busy local vibe, the restaurant is a great place to start your Ethiopian food journey, and all for under 50 birr (USD$2.5) each. The sour injera is produced with ground tiny teff grains which mellows the heat from the chillies and is perfect for mopping up the sauce. This gluten free grain has become a ‘superfoods’ that fad followers hale, sending the domestic prices for the grain through the roof.
Pleasantly satisfied with our first meal we head northward to the Derg Monument. The Derg were the socialist regime that overthrew Haile Selassie in September of 1974 by utilising media driven propaganda to great effect, showing the Wolo famine mashed up with clips of palace banquets. They then proceeded to nationalise the banks, factories and businesses along with all land. Help came from the Soviets against dissident Somalia and Eritrea by way of state of the art arms – Somalia was beaten though fighting with Eritrea continued. The Derg split due to internal arguing that became violent with Mengitsu and his party taking power. His campaign against counter revolutionaries, known as the Red Terror, left hundreds of thousands dead and many more displaced, mainly fleeing the country (there’s a museum in the city dedicated to this). With the fall of communism in 1990 The Derg soon collapsed aided by the countries’ financial ruin. Ethiopia now has peaceful elections and is considered one of the most stable countries in Africa to visit.
Leaving in two days we’d been advised to purchase bus tickets for the Selam bus as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. Located on Meskel Square it’s a straightforward process and we’re soon back to the city’s gathering spot of the square opposite. Impromptu soccer matches, lovers embracing (Ethiopia is quiet a forward country in regards to sexual relationships amongst the younger generation) whilst children try hustling you out of a birr or two, the square is Addis’ central melting pot and we ascend the stairs for a commanding view over the scene.
Addis Ababa University contains the former palace of Haile Selassie which has been transformed into the Ethnological Museum, hailed as one of the finest museums’ in Africa. Entering through the main gates on the Eastern side of the campus the sight to our right has us puzzled though intrigued as to how and why it’s here. What seems to be an old-school London Routemaster double decker bus draws us in and upon further investigation we discover it is in fact a café/bar frequented by faculty and students alike. Obviously we can’t miss an opportunity in the middle of Ethiopia to take us nostalgically back to London.
Dresses from the Emperors days with a broad history of the Ethiopian people’s starts off in the lobby. Taking the stairs to the first floor the Palace of Selassie retains a few rooms as if they had been used the day before with the bedroom, bathroom and study being the main ones. Housed on the same floor is a more in depth story into the various tribes of Ethiopia along with their unique customs and stories. An excellent though slightly dark display of traditional religious art and silver crosses rounds out the worthwhile exhibition.
We were also slightly surprised to see that Australia and Ethiopia have a long history (50 years plus) of cooperation, and this was being celebrated with a small photography display. We were to discover over the next few weeks that Ethiopians in general have a soft spot for Australia, and we always treated with respect and smiles.
Opting for the long walk back to our hostel, we pass the packed Croc Cafe and join the locals for a huge plate of mixed fruit salad and an avocado mango salad. To make it even better you can enjoy your shake while sitting beneath a wooden crocodile embedded in the ceiling. With an early morning bus we head back to the hotel and turn in early.
For more photos of Ethiopia, you can check out our Flickr!
TIPS FOR ETHIOPIA
- Any flights in or out of Saudi Arabia will be dry (no booze) typically making them cheaper.
- In Addis Ababa walk away from the airport to the streets and contract a minivan for a fraction of the cost, just be sure to barter hard.
- If wanting to travel on the Sky or Selam Bus (the posh ones) try to book your tickets at the office as soon as you arrive in town. Some routes are not serviced by them but you can catch the public bus which is bearable enough and half the cost.
- Also consider an internal flight. We took one from Axsum to Lalibela in order to save three bus transfers and two long days of travel. If you flew into the country on Ethiopian Airlines you will receive a large discount, just make sure you book in person at one of their offices and bring your boarding pass or booking confirmation with you.
- If you are getting cheap accommodation, like us, simply keep the door closed and the bathroom window open. As for the pillows, forget it, they all suck.
- DO eat the local food. Whilst many can’t handle weeks of the sour injera we LOVED it and ate it up to three times a day, every day.
- Atelefugne Hotel has friendly staff and an attached restaurant where the food is cheap and tasty. It’s located a little way from the centre of town but you can easily get a minibus from out the front making a decent cheap option.