30 Hours in Addis
A loose plan was to hop in a cab and get taken to a random hotel at a driver’s discretion. Then a couple I met on the plane suggested that I join them in a cab. I ended up at a cheap and quaint traveler’s guesthouse.
Originally, the assumption was that I’d be drifting throughout the city on my own. However, random luck selected a different fate.
Upon checking into the Baro Pension in the Piassa district, we were greeted by a guest, a retired Dutch woman who practices the philosophy of Rastafarianism. At first I was skeptical of her demeanor. But after a short while I realized that she was for real. She insisted that we join her and a British traveler named Eddie at her favorite restaurant. Left to right in the photo above you see the couple from the plane, me, and the woman who hails from Holland.
I relaxed the late afternoon away with the four other travelers at the Dutch lady’s restaurant of choice. During this time I ate (next post), and sipped delicious local beer as we talked about Ethiopia and other lands in the region.
A couple of hours passed before I suggested that I needed to go because my time was short and I wanted to check out the city. They all happily decided to get the check and hit the road with me. Upon getting up and walking, I felt woozy from the beer and lightheaded from the altitude. Addis Ababa sits at 2,300 meters or 7,546 feet above sea level. The climate reminded me of some of the Andean cities I visited earlier this year.
The five of us went to another bar/restaurant. Since the land I’m temporarily residing in prohibits alcohol, I wanted to get a cognac or whiskey. They were out of foreign booze so I sampled a few local concoctions and settled on a lemon liqueur.
We then walked around the Piassa neighborhood and returned to the cozy guesthouse.
We sat around talking to other travelers and some Ethiopians that spoke great English, and drank more beer. Then, the British lad and I decided to hit the town, or to be more precise, head out into the dark Piassa neighborhood. For some reason, streetlights were switched off or didn’t exist, making it hard to see the way. I mentioned that it’s probably to save electricity. My new British friend suggested that it was because the people prefer it that way.
We proceeded to bar hop. There were many little shanty bars a short walk away. In the first bar, Eddie pulled out his over sized camera and started snapping. While taking a photo of a poster above a man who was sitting down, the guy threw an empty bottle over Eddie’s head. It shattered on the wall.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s OK, let’s stay and finish our beers.”
Eddie had been staying at the guesthouse for three weeks and was a seasoned east Africa traveler.
Other patrons came between to make sure the man wouldn’t throw any more bottles. They quickly assured us that all was fine. The man was pissed off and obviously intoxicated. Women sat around glum faced and uninterested. Nobody seemed bothered by the broken bottle.
Litter was scattered throughout the bar. Everyone seemed to be drinking bottled beer.
After leaving that first, odd place, we spent a couple of hours bar hopping. People were super friendly and interested in us. Not knowing one word in the local Amharic tongue, I felt unprepared. Because this land is so close to the Arabic speaking world and most Ethiopians seem to be polyglots, they understood the rudimentary Arabic that I was able to throw out. Most people spoke at least some English. Many were fluent.
Bar hopping is not often my thing, but I had a lot of fun. I even managed some dancing. People were super friendly and they sure could move their bodies.
I got to bed at about 5 and was awake at 9. After lying in bed for another hour, I headed out to a restaurant and ordered food. Inside, a woman was preparing traditional Ethiopian coffee. Through this process the restaurant became very smoky. No one was fazed, not the workers nor the patrons. I became incredibly nauseous. I got up and left them with a 100 Birr note or $5.52, saying that I’d be back in a bit.
I went back to my room and rested off the nausea. I returned to the restaurant. They immediately gave me my change and told me they’d have my food ready soon. The restaurant was no longer smoky and I was able to take in the ambiance, eat my food and drink delicious local coffee.
I planned to walk aimlessly and take in what I could of the city. Within two minutes I was greeted by three guys sitting on the side of the road chewing khat. They offered me some and then asked if I wanted to take a walk to get some more. I obliged.
Khat is a green leafy plant that grows in the highlands of eastern Ethiopia where it’s legal to chew. It acts as a mild stimulant and is said to help gastritis and ulcers.
After an hour of walking and talking we were at an Ethiopian khat house. There we ate, drank water, smoked shisha and chewed khat for quite some time. As I chewed and digested, they kept handing me more. Bunches were constantly replenished. I said that I needed to leave a few times. They kept insisting that we chew more and that I spend more of my day with them. They wanted me to hang out with them right up until I had to go to the airport. Finally I was adamant in needing to leave on my own. They had the waitress bring the bill. It was given directly to me in the amount of 2,224 Birr or $122.80. Bewildered, I looked around at everyone incredulously. There were the three scam artists, the waitress, and two others who just happened to be there chewing, drinking and eating with us.
I asked for an explanation and was told that we’d really run up the bill. I was shown everything that we’d ordered, in English, written down in pencil. Perhaps two hours had gone by. There were many things written down with inflated prices beside them.
I had just over 600 birr or $33.13 in my pocket. Two of the guys pulled out what they claimed to have, maybe 300 Birr between them. One of them made a gesture pointing towards another room, saying that someone would be upset if we didn’t come up with the money. Instead of trying to argue, I said:
“I need to go to an ATM then.”
Two of them said they’d need to join me. We stepped outside. Feeling more awake than when I’d entered, I pulled out my wallet where I had many more 100 Birr bills stashed. I took out one, handed it to one of the guys and then instantly sprinted up the road. There were many people around, no one seemed to notice. The guys didn’t chase me. They’d already gotten me for around $40, which was possibly four times more than what everything really cost.
I walked aimlessly around the city and thought: In Saudi I’ve gotten used to people being completely genuine. There, if anything, people give me things, like sweets, cologne and free rides in cars and taxis. I’ve been a bit spoiled. In South America I befriended people and paid the normal price for things that we ate, and for transportation. There was never a scam. Oh well. I’m only human. It wasn’t a lot of money. These poor guys must have a very hard time generating honest cash. They see us western travelers and must feel envy. If the three guys and the lady split the profit then they made less than $10 each. I’ll chalk this up as a learning experience and move on.
TIP: If you want to try khat while in Addis, just talk to people in your guest house or hotel.
Dusk started to seep in and so did the wonderfully cool temps. I wanted to flag a cab but couldn’t find one. A bus came up beside me. A kid yelled:
I hopped on and had to reach into my wallet for another 100 Birr bill, to pay the 2 Birr or $.11 fare. I’d given all the smaller bills that I had to the woman at the khat house. Later I counted my change to find that the kid gave me back 89 Birr. He overcharged me by about $.45. I couldn’t blame him.
On the completely crowded bus a woman gave up her seat, insisting that I take it. She got off at the next stop.
A man asked me.
“Where are you from?”
“What do you think of African Americans and black people here?”
Heads turned. Eyes widened around me.
“I don’t think about black and white. I don’t feel we should look at ourselves that way.”
I felt vibes of respect around me.
Back in Piassa, I returned to the Baro Pension. Travelers and Ethiopians were hanging out in the chilled out common area. I told my story of the khat and got a few replies.
“The same thing happened to the Belgian guy two days ago.”
“Oh, those three right up the road. Yes. They always do that. They’re constantly trying that scam on new arrivals to Addis.”
“You paid 700. That was way too much. You shouldn’t have given them more than 500 and even that’s too much. They’re harmless. They’re only trying to get as much as they can from you. It’s a very common scam.
I went back to my room, brushed the khat from my teeth, showered and ventured out to find something to eat. In comparison to the night before, I was walking alone, and clearly new to the area. I wasn’t able to make it far before a tout was walking beside me saying that he wanted to practice his English.
The guy you see followed me into this place and sat down with me. After I downed the delicious strawberry juice and went to the cashier to pay, the man intervened and spoke Amharic to the woman. He charged me 45 Birr and took care of the transaction. The drink only cost 20 or 25, or less. I found the situation to be ridiculous and hilarious. I didn’t bother to argue. I’d learned another scam.
After I explained to him nicely three times that I wanted to be on my own, he still wouldn’t leave. I sprinted away. Shortly thereafter, I had to do the same thing with another man who appeared to be very kind. This sprinting system has never failed.
Before I knew it it was time to have my guest house arrange a cab to the airport. A friend of a friend showed up in an unmarked, old, rickety car that lacked seat belts or the ability to adjust the seat. My thirty hours in Addis had come to a close.
NOTE: Addis Ababa is a very safe city. I got mildly cheated because I was a new tourist who wasn’t thinking. There is no violence that I know of. Keep your wits about you, learn from my mistakes. These scams seem to happen mostly in the Piassa area where there are bunch of guest houses. Talk to the people where you’re staying and find out about any potential swindlers. Most of the people I met seemed very nice.
I stayed at the Baro Pension in Piassa. My shabby but big room with two beds cost 260 Birr or $14.40. I was first offered a much smaller room with one bed for 170 or $9.39. The rooms have private bathrooms with hot water shower and wifi. The Baro Pension can be reached by phone: 251-11-57-41-57 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to make a reservation.