It took the jet propelled fly-by-wire tin can a mere four hours to reach Addis. As we descended out of the turbulent storm clouds, it felt like being transported to a completely different world. The parched earth of the Eastern Mediterranean was now replaced with lush semi-tropical pasture, pine and eucalyptus forest that fringed the sprawling city below.
“Welcome to our shower!” smiled the sprightly young taxi driver as I emerged from Bole International Airport into an early morning deluge. The first drops of rain on my face in more than six weeks felt cool and refreshing. My first instinct was to scan the precariously balanced bike box being fixed to the roof of one of Addis’ quintessential taxis – a lovingly maintained old blue and white Lada with No Fear! emblazoned across the rear window – for any signs of visible damage. The montage of ‘fragile’ stickers that I had so enthusiastically decorated it with hours earlier appeared to be of no consequence, and the box clearly bore the scars from a baggage (mis)handling ordeal of its own.
The fact that the rest of my luggage was to languish in Beirut for the next few days was of little concern. The main thing was that I had arrived. By some stroke of luck, I had managed to persuade the customs official to waive the tax (based on the sum value of the Sherpa which I was in no position, or could afford, to pay!) on the condition that it was; a) used and not for resale; b) my sole means of transport around the country; c) I would be leaving Ethiopia overland via the Sudanese border on said used steed and therefore would not be returning to the airport to collect my deposit. The feeling of total elation to be finally on Ethiopian soil was only ever-so-slightly tempered by the sight of the rear axle poking through the torn and battered cardboard bike box at a suspiciously odd angle. Above all, the overriding factor was that I had thankfully reached – although not necessarily by the means or manner in which I intended – the birthplace of ‘Buna’ (Amharic for Coffee) with the bike hopefully, all in one piece.
Acclimatising to Addis
It’s taken a good week to acclimatise to Ethiopia’s alpine mountain capital in more ways than one but Addis Ababa (meaning ‘new flower’) is starting to grow on me. With each foray that takes me deeper into the myriad of back streets that cluster around the network of Embassy lined roads, I’m slowly realising that its bark is worse than its bite.
It’s the smiles that strike you first. With the odd and to be expected exception, there is a genuine warmth and friendliness to every interaction. This is usually along the lines of trying to take my first faltering baby steps into speaking Amharic where nine times out of ten, my pronunciation is gently corrected (always with a smile). I’ve clearly still got a long way to go before I can even stand up, never mind walk the talk. Meanwhile, English is widely spoken which puts my own linguistic attempts at speaking the lingo to utter shame. Still, I can only keep on trying.
The cherry on top of this sea of smiles is – and apologies for my predictability here – the coffee! Addis is undisputedly one of the few high altitude Meccas for the pilgrim in search of a sublime shot of the black stuff. The city is literally awash with busy, independently run espresso bars; each offering a tasty selection of freshly baked cakes and pastries with which to line the stomach. It really does feel like I have come ‘home’. In most cafes, the coffee served is from the Harar region in the Eastern Highlands or Sidamo to the south, and I’m bowled over at how consistently outstanding the coffee is. Every buna I’ve tried bar the odd exception has excelled. Gosh, if this is only just the start of a roller-coaster Ethiopian coffee adventure then I think my taste buds have already sealed the deal and gone for a honeymoon.
Chat for all Occasions
The other addictive substance that seems to be vying for the affection of the nation’s heart – second only to coffee – is chat. Every morning without fail, an energetic twenty-something guy called Teddy latches himself to onto me like a limpet and proceeds to extol the virtues of this mildly narcotic plant. The seemingly genuine overtures are however a tried and tested confidence trick but the conversation is nonetheless stimulating. According to his philosophy this widely available, water intensive cash crop really is the wonder cure-all drug that we’ve is all been waiting for. Paradoxically, it aids sleep whilst promoting alertness. It can cure a cold in 24 hours. Aside from bringing on a natural high, the sour tasting leaves also serve as a potent aphrodisiac… The list of benefits grows with each passing day. “Even the Prime Minister chews chat!” he tells me reassuringly with a slightly manic look in his bloodshot eyes.
Based on its evident popularity on the streets of Addis, I’m sure he’s right. The sight of men (I’ve not seen a woman chewing chat yet) – young and old – sitting in the doorways of chat houses clutching a bag of leaves, cheeks bulging, whilst munching away intently is a common fixture to the city’s furniture. As a self-confessed caffeine addict who has never indulged in a chat chewing session (yet), I’m certainly in no position to judge, but for now I think I’m going to stick to nurturing a healthy obsession with coffee until the right time and place presents itself.
On a Mission
It’s currently the height of the rainy (kremit) season here. A least one deluge each day turns the streets into a running river of brown flotsam and jetsam. This is usually heralded by a dramatic show of thunder, lightning and hailstone that falls down from the heavens in sheets and hammers the corrugated roofs with a ferocity that I’ve not seen before. It’s hard to comprehend when the worst famine to stalk the Horn of Africa since 1984 displaces millions of people, and causes needless human tragedy to countless more, is unfolding just a few days ride away towards the Somalian and Kenyan borders to the south.
Waiting for a dispatch of spare/replacement bike parts to arrive from my ‘support team’ back in South London (thanks Ross and Soph!) provides the perfect opportunity to set up camp in the lively backpacker area of the Piazza district in the north of the city. Currently sharing my cozy, budget accommodation in The Wutma Hotel (there are no hostels in Addis) with a whole host of other creepy crawlies who have taken up residence with me, I’m using the time to shelter from the rains and prepare for the mission that lies ahead.
Introducing Bean on a Bike HQ: