We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia around 8 PM after a two-hour flight from Tanzania. Traci and I said goodbye to our travel companions. They would be taking an overnight flight back to the U.S. that night. As for Traci and me, we would be spending two nights in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, to do some sightseeing before our flight home.
After making it through customs and the health screening (They were looking for people who had visited hard-hit Ebola countries in West Africa), our first order of business was to get the local currency. We did not need to do this in Tanzania because they accepted U.S. dollars in addition to their own currency. Ethiopia, on the other hand, might not be as lenient. Furthermore, during my pre-trip research, I learned that credit cards are not widely accepted in Ethiopia. Cash was really my only option.
I found an ATM in the airport but it did not accept my ATM card. I saw my credit card listed as one of the ones I could use to withdraw money; however, this is not something I have ever done and thus I do not even know my PIN. I was starting to get a little nervous about our cash situation. I was somewhat relieved when Traci and I pooled our money together and found out we had about $180 between the two of us. We found a currency exchange booth in the airport where Traci changed $100 to Ethiopian birr ($1 = 20 birr at the time) while I went off to collect our luggage from the carousel.
I collected our luggage and discovered that Ethiopian Airlines got us again. I noticed that Traci’s suitcase had a long tear in its side. We went to the baggage claim desk to file a claim. This process took almost 30 minutes! Again, I am so glad that Traci told me to bring duct tape on this trip. I was able to patch the suitcase. From now on, duct tape will definitely be included in my packing list when I travel.
Our Ethiopian stopover was not part of the package that Marie Frances organized for Tanzania. When Traci and I mentioned that we were interested in doing a sightseeing tour of Addis Ababa since we would be changing planes there, Marie Frances recommended that we contact an Addis Ababa-based tour company called Ethiopian Quadrants. I was totally pleased with this company. I corresponded with them via email about a month before our trip. They were very responsive to my emails and were very detailed in laying out the itinerary for our Ethiopia visit. The only thing that initially caused me some worry was when they indicated I would need to wire money to their bank account to pay for the tour. I had never wired money before. Furthermore, some of the first internet scams I heard about years ago dealt with wiring money to a foreign bank account. I did more online research on Ethiopian Quadrants and found nothing but praise from hundreds of people on sites like TripAdvisor.com who had used them before. The fact that I had to wire money made sense when you consider Ethiopia is generally a cash society. I was told I could use a credit card for payment but there would be a 5% fee added to the total. Even though the 5% would have been slightly cheaper than the $45 bank charge to wire money, I decided to wire our payment because I did not want to put my credit card information in an email. Everything worked out just fine. Ethiopian Quadrants sent me an email confirming they had received my payment and also confirmed our itinerary. They would handle our transfers to/from the airport, take us on a full-day tour of Addis Ababa which included lunch, and cover our two-night hotel stay which included breakfast.
Our driver from Ethiopian Quadrants met Traci and me at the airport in Ethiopia. He was holding a sign with my name on it. He led us to his van. This was our first encounter with the aggressive baggage porters in the parking lot of Boles Airport. As our driver was loading our luggage into his van, a porter came along and tried to help him. Even though our driver was waving him off and telling him that he did not need help, the porter kept trying to put our bags in the van. Afterwards, the porter came to me, pointed at his palm, and kept saying, "Tip! Tip!" (sounded more like "Teep! Teep!"). I realize there was a possibility that the porter relied on tips to make a living but I could not pay for a service we did not ask for. Therefore, I ignored him and got in the van.
Riding through the streets of Addis Ababa felt so different from Tanzania. First of all, we were now back to riding on the right side of the road instead of the left. Whereas Tanzanian always looked so rural to me, Addis Ababa was a concrete jungle with overpasses, multi-lane streets, traffic lights, neon signs, etc... I was surprised at the amount of English I saw on signs. The official language is Amharic. Many of the signs were written in both languages.
We had an aggressive driver who zoomed through the streets passing cars at will. He told us some general tidbits about the city and Ethiopia in general. One of the more interesting facts we heard is that Ethiopia uses its own time. They use the Julian calendar whereas we in the West use the Gregorian calendar. To us it was the year 2015 but according to Ethiopia's calendar, it was 2007. The Ethiopian clock is also different but for convenience, our tour company referred to times based on the western clock which for us was 7 hours ahead of east coast U.S. time.
Our driver pulled into the driveway of the Jupiter International Hotel, our lodging for our two nights in Addis. The hotel is an elegant high-rise. We learned that Ethiopia takes security very seriously. Each time we entered the hotel, we had to send our bags through a scanner and then walk through a metal detector - just like at an airport. This was not only the case for the Jupiter Hotel but we were required to do this at every restaurant and museum we visited in the city.
Check-in was simple. The hotel receptionists were fluent in English. Our room was impressive. It was like staying in a nice Marriott. Shortly after Traci finished her ritual of photographing the room, the bellman arrived with our luggage. Not yet familiar with the Ethiopian currency, I handed the bellman a tip of 10 birr. I later felt bad about this after looking up the conversion rate and realizing I had given him the equivalent of $0.50 for handling our four 50-lb bags. I was able to make things right when Traci and I had to change rooms due to a bad mildew smell in the bathroom. The same bellman helped us move our luggage to the new room which was just as impressive as our original room but without the mildew smell. We took advantage of the complimentary Wi-Fi to check email and Facebook before sinking into the comfortable bed for a good night’s sleep.
our room at the Jupiter International Hotel
We were up early the next morning to have breakfast at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet. They had a nice spread of breads, pastries, pork, cereal, and fruit in addition to a cook-to-order omelet station. I was happy to see pancakes and waffles. Some of the items on the buffet were not what we in the U.S. would consider breakfast food but I have seen these on the breakfast buffets of European countries to which we have traveled so this was not too surprising to me. Examples of this are items like baked beans and rice.
Traci and I enjoyed our breakfast and then made it to the lobby by 9 AM as we had been instructed by our driver the night before. Our tour guide was already waiting for us when we arrived. It was good to finally meet him face-to-face after having only communicated by email the month prior to leaving for the trip. He led us to the van where we rejoined our driver who picked us up from the airport the previous evening. Traci and I were the only clients doing the tour. We were told it was still the low tourist season. The high tourist season occurs between August and September in Ethiopia.
Now that it was daytime, we got a much better view of Addis Ababa. The streets were crowded with cars, people, and the occasional donkey. There was a lot of construction going on. We would see new buildings next to old crumbling ones. We saw several slum areas – one right across the street from the Ethiopian Parliament building. The interesting thing about the slums in Addis was that no matter how dilapidated the dwelling looked, there was still a good chance that you would see a satellite dish on its roof. Although we saw many business, shops, and stores, none of them were recognizable to Traci and me except for the Sally Beauty Supply store. Traci and I were wondering if it was part of the same chain that exists in the U.S..
Ethiopia has a long religious history. The nation and its people are mentioned numerous times in the bible – from the Ethiopian on a chariot that Philip encountered to the Queen of Sheba who is believed to have been Ethiopian. Christianity, the most practiced religion in Ethiopia, has existed in the nation almost since the beginning. Islam, the second most-practiced religion, has also existed for a very long time in Ethiopia. Although we did not enter any mosques, we rode by one of them during our city tour. Several times during the day, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer emanating from a PA system somewhere in the city.
With so much religious history in the nation, it made sense that our full-day tour of Addis Ababa would consist of visits to churches and museums. The first stop of our tour was at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. This is an Orthodox Christian cathedral. The majority of Christians in Ethiopia are Orthodox Christians. The cathedral is a grand domed building with an exquisite tower and ornate statues. Scattered outside the cathedral were a few worshippers. Some of the women were wrapped in white robes that covered their head. There were others in unassuming street clothes. Regardless of how they were dressed, they all seemed to be in deep prayer. Some of them were kneeling with their head down on the steps of the cathedral. Others were on their knees with their hands lifted towards the sky. Some people had drenched themselves with holy water. There were others who stood bobbing back and forth at the exterior walls of the building much like I have seen Jewish worshippers on TV do at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. With all this going on, I felt like we were walking on egg shells so as not to disturb the worshippers as we walked towards the cathedral. We were skittish about taking photos until we could find out the proper etiquette for our visit.
Our guide led us across the courtyard to the entrance of the cathedral. We were instructed to remove our shoes before entering. Inside the dim sanctuary we saw grand arches, columns, a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, stained-glass windows, and more. Our guide had us sit in the pews while he explained the history of the cathedral and some of its features. I was initially seated next to Traci until he explained that men normally sit on the left side of the church and women on the right. We were not required to follow this rule since we were visitors but I did anyway. A bearded priest dressed in a robe and a round cap came along and began stoically giving our guide instructions in Amharic on what to show us next. We were led around the sanctuary looking at the stained-glass windows containing bible scenes. I saw what looked like crutches on the floor. I assumed they were left behind by people who had been healed as a result of praying at the church. I have seen this at churches around the world. However, this was not the case at Holy Trinity Cathedral. These were prayer sticks. They are used to help people endure standing during some of the long masses that are held there.
I was surprised that we were led onto the altar of the cathedral. It was there where we were shown the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife which are located off to the side. We also saw the thrones on which they sat when they worshipped in the cathedral. Back behind the altar is a room under lock and key. We were told it contains a replica of the Arc of the Covenant. Even though it is a replica, only the holiest of holy men are allowed to see it. We exited the cathedral and took a walk around its perimeter before getting back in the van to continue our tour.
tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife
We were driven up the winding road of Entoto Mountain. There always seemed to be people or livestock walking along the side of the road. They were carrying things like yellow water jugs, piles of sticks, etc. I admired their stamina for going up these steep inclines. The reason we were being driven up Entoto Mountain was so that we could get a scenic elevated view of Addis Ababa. This did not go as planned. It was the rainy season and thus the trees were full of leaves that blocked our view. By the way, the rainy season was not what I envisioned. I thought it meant there would be constant rain. Instead, I was told that during the rainy season in Ethiopia, you can expect a quick downpour at some point during the day. We did not see any rain while we were out touring.
Our driver drove us down the mountain a bit looking for an opening in the trees. He let us out at a spot where we could catch a glimpse of the city below. There was a haze over the valley that prevented us from seeing anything spectacular.
The next stop of our tour was the octagonal Entoto Mariam Church where Emperor Menelik II was crowned in 1889. Menelik II defeated the Italians and expanded Ethiopia's borders to its present size. While we were in the parking lot of the church, a line of mourners walked by weeping and wailing loudly behind men carrying the covered body of a deceased person on a decorated cloth stretcher. We did not enter the church but we did go to the small museum at the entrance of the parking lot. No photos were allowed inside. Our guide narrated as he led us around the museum. We saw mainly religious relics like priest robes, chalices, and bibles. There were also crowns and some of the Ethiopian emperors' possessions. We also saw swords, spears, and shields. Ethiopia is the only African nation that was never colonized by the Europeans. Italy tried twice but was unsuccessful. Even though the Italians fought with machine guns, the Ethiopians were able to defeat them using swords and shields.
As we exited the museum, we were led behind the church and down some steps to the former 19th century palace of Menelik II. Had our guide not told us it was a palace, I would have thought it was a farmhouse or something. It had white walls with a thatched roof. It looked rather rustic. We were shown the empty interior rooms and told what the rooms would have been used for during the emperor’s time, i.e., reception, dining, sleeping, etc…
Entoto Mariam Church
19th century palace of Menelik II
Our next stop was Addis Ababa University. We were there to visit the Institute of Ethiopian Studies museum. The building that houses the museum was once the palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. His bedroom has been preserved there. Today, the museum has exhibits containing tools, art, weapons, and musical instruments from the more than 80 ethnic groups that comprise Ethiopia. Each of these groups have their own language, customs, and traditions. There was a power outage in the building on the day we visited but this did not stop our guide from doing his job. He used the flash light on his mobile phone to guide Traci and me through the museum and explain the exhibits.
former bedroom of Emperor Haile Selassie
We were driven to our next destination – the National Museum of Ethiopia. We first had a nice lunch at the adjacent Lucy Café. Lunch there was included in our tour package. We spent about an hour in the National Museum of Ethiopia. It has three floors of Ethiopian history ranging from prehistoric times up to the 20th century. The main attraction of the museum is the Lucy skeleton that was unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974. Through carbon-dating, archaeologists discovered that the bones were approximately 3.2 million years old! This was significant because before the Lucy discovery, the oldest human bones that archaeologists had uncovered were carbon-dated back to about 10,000 years. There were older human bones on display in the museum but their skeletons were not as intact as that of Lucy. The other floors of the museum contained Ethiopian art, weapons, gifts to emperors, and tools of Ethiopia’s various Ethnic groups.
"Lucy" - 3.2 million year old human bones unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974
During the ride to our next destination, we got another taste of the city’s seriousness about security. Our guide told us earlier in the day that we were not allowed to take photos of uniformed personnel (they were everywhere) nor official buildings such as the Parliament Building and embassies. I think Traci had dosed off when we were given this warning. As we rode by the U.S. Embassy, we noticed a large sign on the lawn wishing everyone a ‘Happy 4th of July’. Of course, this only had meaning if you are from the U.S.. As Traci raised her camera to take a picture, our guide told her that pictures are forbidden. Although he got Traci’s attention before she pushed the button, it was too late. A soldier blew a whistle and came pointing at the window of our van as if Traci had committed a foul on a basketball court. I’m still trying to figure out how he saw her given how fast our driver was driving at the time. As the guard approached our van, our guide whispered to us to take out our passports but then he suddenly told us to put them away. This made me nervous because the last thing I wanted to do was to be seen fiddling with my pocket as a guard is approaching our vehicle. Our driver and our guide conversed with the guard but apparently he was not buying whatever they were saying. He reached in the window of our van and motioned for Traci to hand over her camera. Traci calmly turned on the camera and let him scroll through the pictures she had taken. When the guard did not see any photos of the embassy, he let us go. Whew! Continue...