Chapter 2: Madness in Addis
I was awoken this morning by a mélange of natural alarm clocks that included the pre-dawn call to prayer from a local mosque, followed by the just-after-dawn moaning from a nearby Orthodox Christian church—imagine an old man with a smoker’s cough sobbing over the body of a dead dog while other dogs howl from nearby yards and you’ve got it. This was followed by the pitter-patter and chitter-chatter of excited kids being bundled off to school. And just to make sure I was awake, a flock of enormous vultures began some kind of battle royale on the corrugated metal of a nearby roof.
The first thing my eyes saw was the bright new African sun shinning over a poster of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. It was the first trip I had ever taken with Jim and Melissa. The Zion camping trip was a prelude to their wedding and, while they didn’t know me real well at the time, they decided to roll the dice and invite me along. The rest is history.
There wasn’t much to see of the city last night as Jim drove me home from the airport. He said Ethiopians were of the early-to-bed-early-to-rise good Christian ethic. By the light of the occasional fluorescent street lamp or random shop window I could make out the dingy stores and ramshackle sheds I’d seen on previous trips to Africa.
We turned off the Chinese-built Friendship Road—the only decent road in all of Addis, according to Jim—and took the back way to their house. Which apparently meant a lightless washboard road with no markings. It was hemmed in on either side by high metal walls topped with with vicious afros of barbed wire.
“Here we are.” said Jim pulling up to a large iron gate with an array of artfully splayed spikes on it. A man with the word ‘Security’ on the back of his jacket swung open the doors for us.
Melissa had waited up for our return. Or maybe she just wanted the Aveda products and Frontera salsa she had asked me to bring. Either way, we enjoyed a St. George beer and worked out some details for our upcoming ten-day road trip to the north.
But we had a few days in Addis before then. I was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t much of a friendly walking town. First off, it was tough to walk anywhere because of beggars and bad traffic. And secondly, there wasn’t really any thing to walk to. Never the less, I tagged along with Jim as he ran some errands, taking wide-eyed delight in the littlest of details in common objects. The way ads looked on billboards. What was being displayed outside storefronts. What the vehicles looked like. That I was the only white dude in sight.
We stopped at a local supermarket called Bambis. It seemed to offer enough variety that if one were forced to live here, they could make due without too many adjustments. Due to the Italian occupation back during World War II, there was a startling abundance of Italian products. I wandered off from Jim to take it all in. The smell of fresh roasted coffee beans mingled with fragrant bushels of oranges. I also caught a whiff of the hot blend of chili peppers and other spices called berbere. There were new labels and packaging in every aisle. Like Finger brand biscuits, French Feelings condoms and Hip Hop fasting biscuits. On that note, I also discovered two great rapper names in Ginger Nuts cookies and Hakim Stout beer. They would be a formidable combination on both the palate and the mic.
While the car was being loaded, I looked out over the city from the slight hill that Bambis was on. Early Mad Max seemed to be the prominent architectural style with rusted corrugated metal and blue plastic tarp being the materials of choice. Antennas rose above the smog like dead ferns. Wires and pipes entered and exited buildings at seemingly random places and it was tough to tell which structure of sticks was scaffolding for a building going up or the remnants of a building coming down.
Perhaps what one notices most about Addis is the high level of insanity on the roads. Imagine everyone being a drunk blonde Asian woman on her cellphone eating a burrito and you get the general idea. They seem to think the dotted lines are where you’re supposed to center your car. Horns are used as brakes and turn signals are the stuff of fairy tales. Ruless roundabouts abound, the traffic swirling in herky-jerky unpredictable spirals. A bust of Pushkin sits entombed in the center of one such circle, his expression eternally agape at the anarchy around him. Scrawny donkey herds try to pass doweled-legged boys pulling a wooden cart dropping metal scrap on the road behind it. Pedestrians cross the street wherever they want without looking even one direction. They’ll eschew sidewalks and walk in the road along medians. Add to this the usual madness caused by road construction and raise it to the power of three. As in Third World. There are ditches being dug with picks and shovels just to seemingly be filled in with the same dirt. Trucks dump their loads of rocks in one lane and then workers scramble to move it by hand. Meanwhile, nearby potholes so big that they show up on topo maps with their own names are left untouched.
The major mechanical inhabitants of the road are what the ferengi (foreigners) have dubbed Blue Donkeys. These are old VW vans whose bottom halves are painted blue. Like their animal counterparts they are slow, ornery, unpredictable and usually loaded down with huge loads of people. Then there are the Al Qaeda (AQ). These are white snub-nosed delivery trucks that careen through the city like the drivers want to be martyred. The only chrome lining is that things are usually so congested that you can’t get up enough speed to have too serious an accident.
When traffic does bottle up, (usually when a police officer randomly decides to try to direct traffic), beggars rush to the middle of the street and approach your vehicle. Most seem to be trying to sell lottery tickets or small packets of tissue that have David Beckham’s picture on them. But there are also plenty of street urchins, land mine amputees, polio victims and all kinds of other illnesses and deformities. Apparently, there is one beggar who has like eight fingers each of his hands that is known as Wolverine.
Jim said one time he shooed away a woman holding her baby up to the window. The woman then went to the back where she began banging on their four year-old daughter Reeve’s window. “No!” replied Reeve, pointing to her younger sister, “We’ve already got a baby!”
There are a pair of beggars that Jim has kind of adopted because they seem to be in tough physical shape that would make work difficult. They recognize the vehicle and he hands them a few birr out the window. This BYOB policy also keeps the other beggars at bay once they realize you’ve got your own already.
There are a few moments during the day when my knuckles turn white and instinctively clutch for the overhead ‘Oh Christ handle’ of their Nissan Patrol. But Jim manages the traffic like a pro, making moves that would garner several tickets back in the States. Here, it’s just how things are done.
It all makes me wonder what our 1,500-mile road trip is going to be like. We’ll find out in two days from now. Barring him hitting that Blue Donkey trying to pull away from the curb without looking, oh, Chirst….
[In our next episode: “From the Meat or From the Fish?”]