Day 14: Addis, Mercato

I woke up to a nice breakfast, though the folks at the guesthouse weren’t as talkative this week. Perhaps it was because BBC was on. It was nice to be somewhere familiar and low-key. Plus, I was still stoked on the cornflakes. I had a couple cups of coffee and chilled on the couches, letting news wash over me while I caught up on some writing. It never ends, in the best possible way. I started planning out a route through Addis, looking for leather goods, souvenirs and gifts for back home, an itinerary strung together by stops at the premiere coffee shops in town. I was a bit nervous, as I didn’t have a phone line for Ethiopia and therefore no network, so I was trying to commit maps to memory. Then I remembered, an offline mapping application that we’ve been flogging relentlessly in TZ, and it ended up coming in super handy. I downloaded the Ethiopia map while I wrote, feeling a bit more confident.

However, as I was working, Harry came up to me and mentioned that he and Laura were headed into the Mercato area, asking if I wanted to go. My natural introverted reticence was about to surface, but they were really cool, and I remembered the key to having a good time and a life full of adventures was being up for anything. (This was advice conferred upon me my freshman year of college by a somewhat-wise upperclassman. I try to remember it as often as I can). So I said yes and we planned to head out around 10.

Once I was suncreened up and found my hat and cheapo sunglasses, I was ready to roll. After brief taxi negotiations, we set off in possibly the worst cab in Bole, a decrepit old Russian Lada driven by an equally ancient old man. He was terribly friendly, and as we crawled along in stop and go traffic he gave us a running history of the city, its occupants and the efforts being made to modernize—which usually meant displaced poor as their slums were torn down in favor of malls and high-rises. He continually pumped the pedals to keep us from stalling out, dispensing advice about avoiding pickpockets and thieves in the market and pumping me with questions about America. Eventually, he dropped us on a street corner with vague directions about heading towards the high, bright aluminum domes of a church in the distance, then heading west, further into the market district. It sounded like a plan, sorta.

Mercato is very similar to Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam—blocks on blocks of the city as an “open market,” but nothing like what most people expect. It’s small stores everywhere, mostly selling Chinese goods: pots and pans and clothes and stationery and car parts and everything you could want, but probably don’t. After walking around and being called ferengi for a while,we stopped and had a juice, trying to ask where to find the spice market. We weren’t particularly successful, getting a lot of general “this way, then over that way” directions, but we did manage to track down a covered, indoor area that had some souvenir-type stuff. I got a nice scarf, but held off on other things, realizing I could negotiate better. As my new pals looked around in various shops, I started talking to an older guy hanging out in the pavilion who spoke pretty good English and a bit of Swahili, which was neat. I’m normally super sketched out by friendly English speakers, ‘cause it’s a good way to get robbed, but I decided to roll with it a little. He said he had a scarf/textile shop and would hook us up with a good deal. That sounded nice. Then he mentioned going to the spice market, which Laura had been all about. I asked him to point me in the right direction, but he said he’d take us. Classic move. I mentioned that we didn’t want a guide, or more to the point, to pay for one, but he assured me that so long as we came by the shop, it was all good. Plus, he wanted to practice English. I was skeptical, but I’ve also been trying to convince myself that people are inherently good, so I figured we’d try the trust thing for a second. I grabbed my fellow foreigners and we set off after our guy, Zeberga.

Zeberga chattered along in an unending stream of questions, stories and jokes, very proud of his (pretty decent) American accent. My compatriots were a little sketched out, not sure where he was leading us, but as he greeted just about every person on the street, I felt better about things: jokes with the young guys, hellos and snippets of ongoing conversations to the middle-aged merchants, and respectful Amharic greetings for the old men drinking their coffee and sitting out, taking in the afternoon. He was a man about town. And he knew town: we passed through the spice market, with giant burlap sacks of multicolored spices and powders, our guide unabashedly pinching and poking here and there, tasting spices and encouraging us to do the same. I was particularly enamored with a sack of dried chilies that was as tall as I was and a good 5 feet in diameter. Awesome. We dipped in and out of small alleyways and down sidestreets, seeing a side of the market that most tourists probably never do. There were the leather workshops, turning out harnesses and saddles, the series of stalls where women prepared cheese and dough, the air pungent with the sour smells of injera, and the recycling district, where scrap metal was repurposed and pounded into new, useful items by rows of workers wielding hammers.

It was really cool. One of the homies was starting to get a little antsy, though, still unsure whether or not our guide was going to ask us for money. I pulled Zeberga aside and told him that my friends were tired, but if he doubled us back to his shop, I’d love to look at some scarves. Off we went, Zeberga still talking away, asking about whether or not I had a “gee eff” or telling me how he met Bob Marley—personally—at the Addis Sheraton in the ‘70s, getting VIP access to his show and a picture. He’d also met Danny Glover, Sean Paul and Michael Jackson’s brother, “you know, Jermany!” It was wild. I have long since learned to indulge such people, so I meted out the appropriate grunts of agreement and sounds of appreciation to keep him spinning tales as we walked. Pretty great.

We got to the shop and I was able to speak some Swahili with one of the guys who worked there, as he’d spent some time in Kenya. It was nice, even if his dissonant Kenyan Swahili offended my snobbish sensibilities. I looked at a million and one scarves, eventually settling on a couple I liked—before being quoted an absolutely ridiculous price. I stifled a laugh, after being promised the fair, real prices all day. I made up a quick excuse about not having enough birr, and as they extolled the virtues of the embroidery, I grabbed my hat and my things, making my way to the exit with my very patient friends. I took down Zeberga’s number as he whispered conspiratorially outside that if I called, he’d get me the real real prices. Sure, bro. I made a promise to call the next day and we bailed out, cabbing back to our neighborhood in possibly the only cab crappier than the one we arrived in. Luckily, it was a nice time to chat some more with Harry and Laura, who are so terribly nice that it suddenly became my new goal to be just like them and to find a cool girl to travel the world with by the time I hit my late twenties.

Back at the guesthouse, I kicked it for a couple minutes before heading back out, skipping lunch in favor of espresso and crossing town on foot, past the main square, where a variety of English-speaking bros fell into step with me, chatting me up about this and that before eventually getting around to the fact that their sisters run souvenir shops but totally give 15% of their profits to charity or orphans or whatever. Seriously: same exact story 4 times. Funny, then annoying. I headed past the stadium, up to Churchill Road, the main drag through town, a long, slow ascent past tourist shops, government buildings and monuments, moving toward the city hall and a cathedral. I didn’t make it all the way, getting sidetracked and stopping off for a macchiato at a satellite branch of Tomoca, Addis’ premier café. It was damn good. The evening was coming down and I was well across town from where I was staying, so I hopped a cab back home, feet aching in the car. I dropped near the guesthouse, stopping first for a cold, 5:30 St. George beer because they’re cheap and on tap—something not so common in Tanzania. Back down the alley to the guesthouse and up the stairs, dreaming on a shower, I saw Harry reading on the terrace, and he mentioned they were thinking about getting some Ethiopian on their last night before heading to Kenya, asking me if I’d like to join. But of course.

After a nice long shower and a session of Facebooking on the couches downstairs, within range of the wifi, I met up with Harry and Laura and we headed off for the bar and restaurant I had hit up the night before. I was more than eager to go back, as the food was damn good and the beer was cold. We had a great, lowkey dinner, marked by excellent food and an excellent conversation. This trip was my first real foray into solo traveling, and while I really enjoyed some of the solitary aspects of it, I was really happy I ran into these two—it was a fun, familial way to end the trip. We exchanged info at dinner, and hopefully they’ll be in touch as they pass through Dar es Salaam, headed to Zanzibar in November. A great end to a great day in the capital.

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