Day 15: Addis Ababa

I got an even earlier start on my final full day in Addis—I had a lot on my plate. I was planning to track down a leather jacket if I could, ‘cause I’ve always wanted a cool-guy leather jacket, and pick up some more gifts for folks back home. Also, I figured I should see St. George’s Cathedral, one of the final “sights” in Addis that I’d skipped. But first, naturally, it was breakfast, coffee coffee coffee and some world news. I also emailed some people, and checked my work email in earnest for the first time. I don’t want to go back. But whatever, I’ve only got ‘til January anyway. Soon enough, America…

With the maps app in my pocket, I hit the street, considering my itinerary. My furthest stop was a leather shop mentioned online with only a vague location listed. I hit up the cab drivers on the corner about getting out that way and they needed to call around to even figure out what the location was, before quoting me a pretty high price. They didn’t seem to be giving me the runaround—it was far—but I wasn’t feeling it, so I told them I’d walk. They thought that was funny. Haters. Saving that stop for later, I headed up into town, once again moving across Meskel Sqaure, fending off the unctuously friendly bros looking to sell stuff. Today I alternated between “Je ne parle pas anglais” and “Not interested, bro, seriously, go away” as my responses. It worked well enough.

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I walked a couple laps around the stadium, up and down one of the main streets, popping into a couple shops and looking over some jackets, but finding nothing that struck me. Too many boxy fits, too many pieces with an overabundance of contrast stitching. I’m notoriously picky when it comes to shopping, but hey, I like what I like. When a piece speaks to me, I’ll know, and I’m not gonna talk myself into a major purchase, hoping it’ll grow on me. There’s way too much cool stuff out there to settle. I did, however, get to see the Lion of Judah statues near this part of the center city, as well as the old rail station with a line to Djibouti. While Ethiopia is a relatively safe, peaceful country, I always forget that it’s surrounded by Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia—not exactly countries on American’s Christmas card list, you know?

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I decided to head back up Churchill Street, the main drag, looking for the original Tomoca Coffee storefront. My Mecca. I briefly stopped to take a picture of a giant Communist memorial on the way, winding between the buses waiting in front of the park, catching a lot of confused looks from the comrades. It was interesting, and I was sad to be skipping the Red Terror Museum—a friend would later tell me it was really informative—but there’s always gotta be a reason to go back, right? Up at the top of Churchill, I turned down a sidestreet, walking by the café I was after but stumbling into a bookshop. It looked relatively current, but there wasn’t a copy of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which has been at the top of my list for about a year now. It also just won him the Man Booker prize, which is pretty cool. I did enjoy browsing for a few minutes, reveling in the air conditioning after the uphill slog.

Finally, I doubled back to Tomoca and entered the church of coffee, ordering up a macchiato and a half kilo of their grounds to take home. All surprisingly cheap. There was no seating in the place, just a bunch of stand-up tables to take your drink and get to getting. Plenty of hip locals were hanging out, talking and sipping their coffee, and I tried my best to blend unobtrusively. Then, about 10 Western tourists rolled in talking loudly and trying to figure out how to order, yelling back and forth: “Bob, do you want whole beans or grounds?!” “Look at these postcards!” “Lets get a couple t-shirts!” I finished my coffee quickly and bailed. Up at the top of the hill, the high end of Churchill Street, I navigated the vertiginous streets around some city buildings and over to St. George’s Cathedral. It was pretty cool, but as I arrived, I realized I had seen a lot of churches, ancient ones, really, and this relatively modern house of worship wasn’t particularly up my alley. I retired instead to the hilariously decorated Island Breeze restaurant for an Ambo—the local sparkling water—and a surprisingly good spicy chicken wrap. The place was empty except for a large group of lumpy, vaguely-Midwestern churchy types make broad observations about Africa and listening to their ex-pat friend explain living overseas. I tried not to stare, then focused on tuning them out. I instead enjoyed my food, my sparkling water, and whatever coolness I assume I have. If I do end up with a career abroad, don’t let me turn out like that. Please.

Recharged from the meal, I decided to head back to the Mercato area, looking for more gifts for the folks back home. I checked the map one time and struck out toward Kenya Street. Coming around a corner, I was blown away to see the streets absolutely packed with Muslim men at prayer outside a large mosque. The mosque’s grounds, the sidewalks and even the middle of the street were filled with men kneeling on prayer rugs, cardboard and even sheets of packing paper. It was an awesome sight in the original sense of the word: awe inspiring. I slowed down, not wanting to push through, but luckily prayer was just breaking up—as people stood and started to move on their way, the streets became a flood of bodies, crowding into the traffic circle and bringing everything to a stop. Checking my landmarks, I dove in to the flow, moving along this giant river of hundreds, if not thousands of people heading back to their lives. I got a glimpse of the other side of the mosque as we passed and it was equally packed with people. It was rather impressive.

I eventually came to the Mercato and back to the shops we had seen the day before. I kept my hat low and sunglasses on, not wanting to get sidetracked by the homie Zeberga again. I looked around for a while, entertaining the “Come, look, free” entreaties of just about every merchant. I negotiated down the price on a couple scarves with a group of ladies in a stall I had visited the day before. Ever the consummate saleswomen, they kept unfolding scarves and draping them across my hands, keeping the pressure up. I kept trying to return them, eventually tossing a couple back to the main woman, assuring her I’d be back. She quickly tossed them back, lowering her prices, the negotiation looking like some kind of modern dance show, a juggling pass of fluttering scarves between two people in a rainbow of colors and embroidery as we went back and forth, eventually settling on a mutually agreeable price. They had some beautiful longer, softer scarves, but the colors were much too shiny for my taste. Too many metallics.

I looked around at other knickknacks, but many of the small ebony carvings were exactly the same African souvenirs available in Tanzania and probably manufactured in Thailand. While some of the crosses were cool, they were awfully overtly religious for me, and I didn’t feel like negotiating down the sure to be astronomical prices. I was in the market for some older Ethiopian coins, but selection was limited. I wanted the old school Lion of Judah-backed joints, but couldn’t find any in decent shape. When I wasn’t pawing through dusty bowls of world coins, dealers were trying to sell me more ancient models. I tried to explain I didn’t want the fancy stuff, I wanted pairs of relatively modern looking coins I merely found aesthetically pleasing. That’s not what they were selling. This is all for an art project idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while, and it looks like I’ll have to resort to finding them online—a process that is surely efficient, but somewhat lacking in adventure or artistic process and authenticity.

By this point, it was early afternoon, and I still wanted to try and track down the leather shop that was my morning’s original goal. I checked the map and struck out through the market, walking quickly and assuredly behind my dark glasses, the brim of my cap pulled low and the bundle of coffee and scarves tucked up under my arm in a football carry. I didn’t stop to say hi or acknowledge calls of “ferengi” and “my friend!” The streets twisted and got narrower, and I found myself weaving between closely parked trucks being loaded by porters with towers of boxes on their shoulders, shuffling bent-backed through the narrow gaps amid the fumes of idling diesels. Undeterred, I kept on, eventually following my street down into a shanty-town, the shops and wholesale trading outlets giving way to ramshackle living spaces, the sliver of sky above me a spiderweb of electrical wires delivering pirated energy and clothes lines, their multicolored contents drying and flapping in the breeze. Chickens ran back and forth ahead of me and the looks intensified. Suddenly, the road came to an end, some makeshift squatters quarters built up in the way. I stopped for a barest of seconds before I heard someone say, “Road closed,” then turned quickly on my heel without a second thought and struck back the way I came. Confidence in all things, even being lost.

Once I made my way back to a decent place where I could post up off the road, my back to a wall, and check my phone, I used the map to quickly plan an alternate route and struck off again, undeterred. I made my way to the long street that would take me from northwest to southwest Addis and cruised—Dej Wolde Mikael Street stretches out and down a long hill, curving ever so gracefully and affording a terrific view of the city not often seen by tourists. It’s not a bad part of town, but there’s nothing too noteworthy either. But there were trees lining the median and fairly friendly people going about their daily lives as I made my way along, drinking in the quotidian aspects of a foreign city, which is easily one of my favorite things to do.

I eventually wound my way down to the bottom of Roosevelt Street, crossing a bridge over a small stream and approaching the International Evangelical Church across from which this leather shop was allegedly located. I didn’t see it and continued past the church, up onto a weird, exposed overpass, feeling a bit hollow and let down under this suddenly infinite sky with cars whipping by extremely close. I had been thinking about this shop for a while and walking for hours now. Surely it couldn’t end like this. I crossed the street and retraced my steps, eventually finding a well-hidden sign and wandering around the back of a group of shops, looking confused, until an ancient old security guard silently pointed me to Lucy’s Leather Goods. Success! Well, short lived success. There was very little stock at Lucy’s and none of it fit me. They were mostly a custom-work house. Which was cool, but I was leaving Addis the next day. I patiently paged through some catalogs of example styles with the lovely, matronly woman who ran the place, but didn’t want my disappointment to shine through. Making excuses and promises I’d be back, I dipped out into the late afternoon. So that was a bust, but I had really seen some sights—it had been a heck of a day.

I briefly entertained the idea of cabbing back, but after 8 hours of walking the city, even as exhausted from the sun and dehydrated I was, I didn’t want to pack it in now. There was a completionist aspect to the adventure. I bought a water, sucked it down, and hit the bricks, heading up the main road through town, the artery that would bring me back home. In the long light of the late afternoon, I moved with the rush hour traffic, around busy traffic circles and through crowded bus stops, slowly but surely making my way back to my neighborhood. Before reaching the guest house, I stopped in at the nearby bar to relax a minute, drinking a well deserved beer (or two) after such a long, thirst-inducing day. I also had some coffee to power me through the end of the day. I love having those two in conjunction, a common move for local men in the evening.

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Dinner was a Western affair, but I stopped off for some tej before heading back to the guesthouse—how could I not on my last night? Then it was some packing up, a process that was mainly shuffling things around before resolving to finish in the morning. My flight isn’t ‘til the afternoon, so I should have some time to do a little last minute shopping or exploring before it’s back to reality. Regardless of what my last hours in Addis bring, it’s been a hell of a ride…

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