Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Addis Ababa- first impressions

Addis Ababa – First Impressions. May 18 2009.

Less than 24 hours in Addis Ababa and I find myself on the side of a mountain looking down into a lush green valley – the sort of view that sells picture postcards – and watching rag tag group of boys playing soccer; from somewhere in the distance a church megaphone bellows in opposition to the call from a mosque; a herd of goats skitters down the trail ahead of me; my hiking boots are so encrusted with thick, red mud that they have lost all traction. Pinch me!
I arrived early hours of Sunday morning. My son met me and apart from a few minutes in line to get a visa, we were out of the airport in record time. Passport duly stamped, re-stamped and then stamped again – the Ethiopians love stamps! – I was officially in Africa. Apparently I was meant to fill in an entry statement – none was given to me.
Sunday was a blur of re-acquainting with adorable granddaughter, Maxine, walking to a grocery store and in general feeling very dislocated. Monday morning another blur followed by a hair-raising ride through the streets of Addis to the hillside I found myself on. My son belongs to a multi-national and international running/social group Hash Harriers and we are on the hike component of a regular Monday evening run. The runners have long headed into the hills and the hiking group comprised of two young women beside myself, daughter-in-law and, Maxine. Sweep for the hikers was a very distinguished and urbane Ethiopian man. Must say that I had not anticipated a hike at 7,800 ft. elevation still suffering from jet lag.
First impressions of Addis are a kaleidoscope of noise, color and crowds. This is the place that old Toyota Corollas come to die and it must surely boast the bulk of all Lada’s produced in Russia. These along with the Blue Donkeys – small mini vans crammed with passengers - take over the roads along with the hefty SUV’s of the diplomatic corps, massive trucks, goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, oxen and people. There is no civil order to the traffic system; traffic lights are turned off, stop signs do not exist. Rather than direct traffic, neatly uniformed traffic police cluster in the shade to smoke, drink coffee and occasionally stroll into the midst of chaos and attempt to untangle the mess. And it is a mess. I have never, in all my travels, seen such turmoil. Accidents are frequent as are breakdowns and forget move it off the road common sense. Repairs are made where the vehicle stops. At one intersection the size of a football field (not exaggerating) traffic hurtled in from all directions, not one driver willing to give way. I simply held onto the safety strap (gave it a less polite name) and closed my eyes.
Addis is the HQ for the African Union and embassies from the entire continent are wedged in behind massive walls, compounds that are guarded by blue uniformed soldiers. It’s a hub of diplomatic and economic activity for African nations and the lobby of the Hilton was jammed yesterday with a contingent from someplace all dressed in stunning batik printed robes and suits.
My son and his family live in an area that is home to several embassies and private homes. As is the norm here, all residential buildings are secured behind compound walls, accessible through impenetrable gates opened by the compulsory and necessary guard. Inside the walls houses are either modest or grand but they have one thing in common – a riot of vines, blooms and greenery in gardens. My son’s house is modest and a bizarre mix of Ethiopia chic from 20 years ago (think lots of gilded light fixtures and veneer built ins) parquet flooring and enormous, solid wood doors. Verandahs open off most rooms to the small, riotous garden; electricity is an iffy thing, usually off for two days out of the week and the wall outlets testimony to the variety of foreign nationals who have lived here and retrofitted according to the needs of their appliances.

More than anything here, culture shock hits hard when out on the streets. Begging is universal and persistent; it’s tough to see the physical disabilities, outright poverty and filth that come with it. The government has no safety net for the mentally and physically disabled. There is certainly a middle and upper middle class – men and women working for the government and aid agencies, impeccably turned out and sophisticated. The contrast is difficult to take. My daughter-in-law, working for a foundation here tells me of the grim determination of these native Ethiopians, many educated in the US or UK, who could have cushy lives someplace else but who have chosen to come “home “ wanting to “make a difference”.
Photos: my dughter-in-law (I love her) and granddaughter, Maxine - what's not to love! The jet lag hike into a valley that could have come from central casting.

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