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Ethiopia in the eyes of a "Faranja"  (Part 1- Addis Ababa)

  The flight from Tel Aviv, via Larnaca, in a modern Ethiopian Airlines' Boeing, took us above the skies of Cairo, with  pyramids clearly visible on the desert rim, all along the Nile river fertile banks.

After a while, the route changed and the plane crossed the coastline of the Red Sea, continuing south, not far from the Saudi coast. Underneath, like white pearls in turquoise rings, set in the deep blue, were the small coral atolls. Most of them barren and sea and sun beaten. Some, though, did have some kind of vegetation, making them look like real paradise islands.

After five hours we entered Yemenite air space and soon the Bab El Mandeb straits with tiny model-like oil tankers appeared. Through Djibouti, finally we were above Ethiopia. The landscape rapidly changed from arid to deep green hills with strangely shaped hand cultivated fields. The flight was through huge mountains of cream white cumulus clouds; a bit bumpy, and on the approach to Addis Ababa airport, which we circled a number of times, we entered a rain cloud that obscured the view.

The short distance between the plane and the arrivals building we crossed on foot, through the seeping rain. Passport control went smooth, and our luggage started emerging from an ancient belt conveyor. Everything accounted for, we proceeded through the customs where the clerks were overwhelmed by the quantity of equipment and food we brought with us. On a small parking
lot an old hotel minibus waited. The equipment was loaded on its roof and the back seat. We were finally in Ethiopia!

The twenty minutes drive from the airport leads through densely populated poor suburbs: although the road itself is paved, the pavements are muddy, small houses prevalently made of tiny mud plastered logs with tin roofs, and everywhere along the road streams of polluted rainwater could be seen.

Finally our immediate destination was in sight: Hotel Extreme! The name is quite suitable: it is an extreme in a neighborhood of undescript "houses", on the border of an area known as "Mercato" - the market. The area that houses some of the poorest people of Ethiopia: those lucky enough to live under at least some kind of roof share the streets with homeless sleeping on the ground under plastic sheets or in the tiny tin boxes alongside the walls of mud houses. Often we saw children sleeping on the ground in the half-meter dirt band separating the two traffic lanes! Here, in the Mercato, everything's for sale: fruit, hardware, aluminum kitchenware, plastic combs, soap bars, goats, love. Tens of small automobile spare parts shops offer spares for the cars just off the production lines, as well as for the antique Opel, Fiat or Taunus models from the late '50s and early '60s that make most of the city vehicles and cabs. General stores, the size of a matchbox, sell everything one can buy living on a monthly income of 150-250 Birrs (20-30 US$). In stark contrast to the vehicles they cater for stand shiny new Shell, Total, Agip and Mobil petrol stations.

No sooner than a white man steps on these unpaved streets is he surrounded by swarms of children and elderly, crying in unison: "Faranja!" (stranger), followed by "You, money!" or "Brother, money". Those with broader knowledge of English would say "Me, hungry!" and point to their mouths. At first, the scene is heartbreaking, but, very soon, the sympathy runs thin with the
annoyance: it is impossible to move in these streets without bunches of persistent tailing you! Only an escape into a guarded premise like bank, restaurant or a "better" shop saves you from further harassment, that is, as long as you stay inside; your "tail" is right there, waiting for you outside! Cameras attract such an interest that before you take the desired shot you have at least a couple of locals portrayed!

One of the things I was looking for in the town was a present for my two sons (the daughter is too small to care for presents!). After four days of intensive search for something in the category of Toys'R'Us, I settled for two little handicraft drums, spending the whole 1US$ (for both, of course!) in one of hundreds of small shops that sell everything local, authentic and tourist for the same price! For myself I've found a nice spear, thinking of how funny it would look on the flight back trying to hijack a plane with the threat of using it!

One of my aimless wonderings took me to a part of town, not far from the center, harboring the cattle market. What caught my attention was not the market though, but the sickening stench in the air. It could not possibly come from the beasts. Looking around, just across the road, I saw the source of it: meters high huge piles of cattle bones, rotting under the clear blue sky, topped by a crown of tens of vultures feasting on the remaining flesh!

Before the trip, searching Internet for some info on the country, I've found a city plan. Nice: there was Churchill boulevard, Tito street…in fact, these names exist only on the map. I couldn't find a single name on any of the street corners, not to mention the house numbers! Finding the desired destination is quite easy though: one has to tell the cab driver the part of the city and the vicinity of some better known hotel, government building or the like. That takes you close; the rest is done on the spot: the driver
gets out of the car, knocks on a couple of doors, asks for the place and there you are. If, instead of an Armenian restaurant we were looking for we dined finally in a Turkish one - well, what's the big deal? The food is close enough!

People, however poor, are quite friendly and smiling, God knows why?!
Visiting far away countries one gets used to seeing different, usually brightly colored, ornamented objects: be it jewelry, clothing or rugs. Here, rarely a woman was seen wearing anything but the white shawl with colored ends; no necklaces, earrings or even a plain nail polish. The local rugs are in duotone: off-white and gray, with the simplest of designs possible, made of wool. The exceptions are some wooden objects, like masks and small
statuettes that show exquisite carvings here and there.

Buildings, palaces, gardens and squares from the Emperor Haile Selasie's time, once probably well kept, today are in a more or less advanced state of decay: weed is taking over the gardens tended only by grazing goats, among the stones of a huge central square roots are slowly gaining ground and homeless find these long tribunes very suitable for overnight escape. Rare really modern buildings glass and steel, look so out of place there! Hotel
Sheraton, on a high ground above the center, looks like an oasis in the sea of poverty. On the inside of the well-guarded gates one should post a sign reading: "You, who are venturing out, leave all your hopes behind!"

Saturday morning, half of the group decided to attend a Mass in the St George Church. At 6 am (zero hour local time!) we were inside the church, barefoot, like in a mosque! Two rows of ministers, all in white robes, facing one another, were chanting the prayers. Accompanying them were two youths, hitting two huge drums in a rhythmless fashion, following the chant.
Each of the priests held in his left hand a long wooden pole with a T-like top with which he gave back-up rhythm to the prayer, and in their right hand they held a kind of forklike brass bell with a handle made of a used 0.5" shell which they'd ring by extending or retracting their arm. The dim light came from the ceiling lamp, filtered through the thyme smoke. The whole structure echoed with the deep drumming sound. Once outside, on a heavily
overcast morning, we sat for a while at the entrance, watching the believers come and go. As everywhere else in the city, there were a couple of soldiers in plain rugged clothes with their fingers on triggers of Kalachnikov rifles. One of them, obviously not liking our taking pictures of the church, demanded possession of the camera. When we objected it (all the conversation went by hands and other moving body parts!), without further thinking, he pointed the gun at us! After a couple of minutes there came some more, this time uniformed, policeman, explaining us we were to follow
them to a nearby police station. So, the ten of us followed on foot until, after a twenty minutes walk, we reached what was supposed to be the Station!
A small structure surrounded by rusty tin plates fence on wooden poles. At the small gate a body search was performed; my huge commando knife would certainly create excitement, so I slowly slipped it to my backwhere it passed undetected. With such a kind of search one could probably smuggle an AA gun! On the left, a tiny guard box - you guessed right - tin again, with the wooden ladder with four steps, one of them missing. Once inside the
premises - a small mud-covered unpaved yard - waiting begun: they weren't quite sure what our offense was or what to do with us, so that soon small mixed discussion groups were formed! Only the cameramen and the tape interested them. The camera suddenly refused its services, so that the tape couldn't be played, making this a very suspicious coincidence! While waiting for another camera to be brought from our hotel, we were offered tea in the jailhouse canteen - a tin box, some four by six meters with makeshift benches and tables (I didn't want to think how one feels with the sun brightly shining on this roof !) from which a narrow jail window with black hands holding bars could be seen. Well, to be honest, that was the best tea I've ever tasted. Since we've missed our hotel breakfast, the only logical thing was to ask for something to bite as well; the middle-aged women in attendance, however unwashed, did speak some English and we were offered
some pastry. There were two kinds - one quite recognizable and the other, tasting really great, fried in deep oil! Against all advice I eat my fill and - nothing happened! Soon after we were "released" and returned to the hotel. In the evening, one of the high police officers visited us and apologized for the arrest!

The next day, equipment loaded on a mini-bus and a tender, we were on the road to Gibe where our rafting expedition was to start the following morning. To tell you we were sad leaving Addis would be a lie!

Dejan Dizdar