Thursday, February 16, 2012


It's really weird being back in Addis. I was here 3 years and 3 months ago with Ben, Kees and the family. We stayed at Wim's Holland House for a week or so getting visas and repaired and so got to know them well there. My couchsurfing host this time ended being out of town and so when I changed my flight and arrived in the evening I really had no choice but to fall back on what I already knew and so I am back at Wim's Holland House.
The place hasn't changed much at all. They've now expanded a little and got possession of the place across the street that they were using for emergency last time and now rent rooms out there so that's where I am instead of a tent this time. Rahel (Wim's Ethiopian partner) remembered Kees, mom, the girls and me quite clearly and gave me a warm welcome which was nice. The flood of memories from that time, the whole Africa trip and everything that has happened since (we really had no idea what the future would hold back then) has made this in a way an overwhelming visit. I have been back to a few of the same spots before now (Cairo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines) but not really after so long or in so exactly the same spot with the same people. And unlike those other places, I don't know that I really ever expected to come back here again either, certainly not this soon.
But I also quickly realized that despite being here once before, I don't know the rest of the city at all. Addis is big and so we had been driving around it before or just hanging out at the compound so walking around or trying to get minibuses to somewhere else in the city is completely new. In truth I don't feel much like exploring the city anyway as I have had a cursory, drive through experience already. Thus I've become very inefficient here with my budget, especially in terms of food since I continue to eat most of my meals at Wim's.
I have been out to walk around and get organized of course. My impressions of the city this time around are probably quite different from last time. For one thing I am definitely noticing the altitude a lot more now. We're up at nearly 7000ft and I find myself periodically huffing and puffing and gasping for breath while I am walking around, especially if I'm trying to munch on something at the same time. The sky is blue again and the air really crisp and clear and quite chilly at night (compared to where I was, not where you guys are) and I find myself dehydrating and drying out, in a way even more than when I was in Chad. At least in Chad it was hot and you knew your lips were cracking for a reason. Here it kind of sneaks up on you.
The roads are better here and a lot bigger compared to Yaounde or Douala. The vehicles are in much better condition and it seems there are more private vehicles too and almost no motorcycles at all. Generally it's just a lot more developed and even cleaner. They have garbage cans on the sidewalks for example. There are lots of westerners, lots more begging and people approaching you on the street. Ethiopia is notorious for hassle and it's immediately much much worse than Cameroon. Not that it bothers me yet, but already every overlander and other tourist I have met have complained about the people here. One of the most common comments is that yes the country is amazingly beautiful and definitely worth visiting but it's really hard because you need a long time to do it all and there is absolutely nowhere in the country that is chilled out where you can rest and relax without getting constantly harassed by the locals.
I've dealt with all that before but being on my own on public transport will be rough. My more immediate concern has to do with food. Cameroon had wonderful street food, from grilled fish and meat to baguettes to lots of really good fruit to baton and other local snacks everywhere. In the area I'm in there are lots of little cafes (which seem to do mostly coffee and pastries) but the only regular street food I'm seeing right now is bananas. I saw some fruit stalls and the avocados and other fruit and vegetables on display were terrible looking compared to Cameroon. This is not good as I prefer to grab stuff on the run than actually go sit down somewhere and deal with a menu and considering how much weight I've already lost under good food conditions, this may actually become a health concern... I'm hoping outside the capital things will become much simpler (and cheaper).
Ethiopia feels a lot more restrictive in some ways too. There aren't any moneychangers on the street as currency is tightly controlled here. They have had some problems with inflation and the devaluation of their currency. When we were here in 2008, $1 was worth about 8 Birr, now it is worth 17. I needed to buy some more US dollars for some visas and it was really hard to find a place where I could do that. In the end I had to go to the central office of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (they are the main bank and one of 2 that have ATM's we can use I think) and could only buy dollars once I gave them my passport, airline ticket out of the country and receipt from the ATM of their bank where I got my local currency in the first place. Lucky I even got a receipt because the last 2 times I've used the ATM they didn't give me one... There is also only 1 telecom company here as well, so to get a SIM card I needed to give a copy of my passport and a photo and fill out a form, and the price of calls and internet use is on the high side too. I'm sure I mentioned it before, but Ethiopia runs on the Julian calendar of 13 months and has it's own time, where 0 is our 6am. Last time we didn't really see that but now that I'm out on the street more dealing with people I've run across it a few times.
Normally I wouldn't've stayed in Addis for as long as I have but I needed to get 2 visas first before I left. One of the reasons I changed my flight was so I could be here from the beginning of the week to make sure I could get everything done before the weekend. My first visa stop was for Djibouti. In the end they were bastards and my impression of the country is already spoiled unfortunately. The 1 month tourist visa should be $40. When you apply now they tell you that they no longer have the 1 month visa stickers so you have to buy a 3 month visa for $130. Never mind that 3x40 is only 120, and that they print the info on the visa sticker anyway so it shouldn't matter what kind of sticker they have. Sounds like a scam though it could be gross incompetency. I had no choice in the end and rationalized it by remembering that I've paid a lot more for other visas and normally I think you need a letter from your own embassy saying you can go and for Canada that costs $50 but they didn't require it of me this time. But I did have some words for the people there and they got rude and I nearly got kicked out and refused a visa anyway. In comparison, the visa for Somaliland was much easier to get. Friendly staff and they do the visa on the spot for $40. I was in and out of there in about 15 minutes.
But speaking of visas, I was talking to an overlander here that has been going for 2 ½ years continuously around Africa in his Land Rover and from what he was telling me about the latest rules for visas and entries for different countries, it would be impossible for us to repeat the trip we did in 2008. Apparently Angola is no longer issuing visas and everyone is getting even more stuck than before, the DRC is starting to issue biometric visas and you need to apply in your home country, Ethiopia no longer issues visas for overland travel from any embassy south of Ethiopia so you have to mail your passport to Europe or something to get one or just fly in and get it on arrival, and other countries are moving more toward requiring you to apply from your home country only, including some of the more tourist friendly countries like Ghana. Thus in answer to all the criticism and comments I get about why travel now and not later, once again I emphasize my answer of “because I can”. There is no guarantee that things will be possible later and I have felt things getting more restrictive for non-package tourism all over the world in the last few years. Even Ethiopia is taking photos of people and has fingerprint scanners at the airports now.
One thing I had to get done here was get a haircut. Ethiopians have very different hair styles than in Cameroon. A woman with braids is a rarity here instead of the norm and the guys actually have some hair on their heads. Maybe that's why not every other shop is a barber shop or hair salon like before. Instead there are lots of shoe shiners on the sidewalks (people aren't all wearing flipflops either here). I had had my head and beard trimmed in Cameroon and ended up with the 2nd worst haircut in the world (nobody will ever get a haircut as bad as James in N'Djamena) with some serious length patchiness. There could only be one solution and that was to have it all cut off and start all over again. Since I was already in the barber shop I decided to have a shave as well. I don't know why but I like getting a shave. There's something nice about having someone else do the work for you and it makes me miss India and all the street shavers... Anyway, my head and face are now freezing.
Another thing I've noticed is that there is less traditional dress here and the women's clothes are much less colourful and vibrant as they are in other parts of Africa. So far....
My next destination will be to the far south of Ethiopia, so the Omo valley which is famous for several different, very traditional, “remote and uncivilized” tribes. I've heard it's now the worst hassle section of the country and has been in many ways completely ruined by the tourism that it gets but I still gotta go see them. It will take 2 days on the bus just to get down there. Somehow that 2 day trip only costs 50% more than my short taxi ride from the airport, yet another reason why I really hate taxis. I don't expect to be online in the area either so I guess it'll be a while before my next post.


At 10:10 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
I hope you have a great side trip, and don't get touted to death. Interesting how africa is getting more and more expert at squeezing money out of people. So far it leaves me with little reason to go there.
Funny how going back somewhere triggers so much in expectaions and memories.
Bear Hugs
See you when you are back out from going into.

At 6:16 PM , Anonymous James said...

"...nobody will ever get a haircut as bad as James in N'Djamena." James agrees.


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