I woke and started to pack. Mike had found that the Hotel Wutma had 2 single rooms for little more than we were already paying so across the road we went. Once that was out of the way we headed towards the British Embassy because we needed to obtain a letter of commendation before we went to the Sudanese embassy.
A Brief Description of Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa is Amharic for New Flower, and was built about a hundred years ago as a capitol city and is mainly a business and administrative centre. As a result there isn’t much there for tourists and most tend to fly in for a night and fly out to wherever they want to go, or once they have arranged a tour.
In terms of entertainment there isn’t much either. Most restaurants close by 9pm, and outside the hotels the bars are usually packed out (for those of you who don’t know me bars aren’t my thing). I saw 3 cinemas in Addis, all showing films I had already seen. There were places that were open later than we could go to but they tended to be a bit more up market.
I thought that the lack of English speakers would not be a problem once we get to country’s capitol, unfortunately it still was, and trying to find the right taxi stand (here the mini buss’s are called taxi’s very confusing when you want to catch an actual taxi) resulted in a lot of pointing at a map (next to useless as the roads kept being renamed, if they had names) and blank expressions. Eventually we remembered that they all knew where the Kenyan Embassy which was down the road. We were also short on Ethiopian Birr so the Sheraton Hotel, the only place in town that accepted overseas credit and debit cards was next.
The strange thing here was that they didn’t overfill the taxis, 10 people was the maximum. They were also honest about the price and gave you change with out you having to ask.
The British Embassy
We rocked up outside the embassy 10 minutes later and saw the huge queue. Bugger, time was short as they stopped collecting applications at midday at the Sudanese embassy, which was closed on Friday.
Instead of waiting in line though I walked up to the security guard and asked him if I was in the right place. He asked to see my passport, and bingo I was pointed towards reception. They asked too see my passport. It was looking hopeful! Before they let me through they wanted to check a few details.
“The cost of the letter is 750 birr (about £50) each, payable in cash”
“Yes we have the currency”
“No. We have 50 pounds each.”
“I’m sorry but we only accept birr.”
“But this is the British Embassy.”
“I know but we only accept birr.”
“I have money with Her Majesty’s Head on it. Surely you must accept pounds?”
“I’m sorry sir it is our policy to only accept birr.”
“Is there any where, nearby, where we can get birr?”
“The nearest place is the Sheraton.”
I did want to argue the point but dealing with receptionists who are reading from a rule book… I would have been escorted off the premises by one of the many armed security guards.
Mike and I started or trudge towards the Sheraton, and in true adventurer fashion decided to take a short cut.
Before I continue let me tell you about the security situation in Addis Ababa. It is not a violent city. You won’t get held up at gun point. However there is a high chance of being pick-pocketed. There is also a high chance of your possessions being ‘looked over’ while you’re not at the hotel (I kept my belongings in my rucksack which was locked in a pack safe.
Neither of us had anything valuable on us so off we went.
In theory this was a straight forward route. You went down road A, followed road B through a suburb and ended up at a round about , next to which the hotel was found.
Road A was fine. Road B was not we expected. The suburb we were in was a bit confusing and we ended up walking down the wrong way. We turned round and walked off the main road into a cobbled area that looked a bit older tan the rest of the area. We were promptly surrounded by some children asking where we were going. Mike talked to them. I was just asked for money. When I ignored them they one of them started to cry. His friend told me that he was crying because he didn’t have football, but I could buy him a football and then he would stop. I stopped. Looked at the kid as if I was about to deliver a hiding. The kid had seen that look before and ran away. At which point the crying promptly stopped.
Eventually, after about an hour and a half we could see the hotel. It was one of the only modern non-concrete buildings in Addis. We paid some one to show us the rest of the way there as there was no one clear route. Also the number of people offering to show us the way dramatically increased as we reached the gates. But when we reached the gates they all disappeared. Ah well at least there’s one place we wont be bothered. We were probably the poorest people here.
Walking through the car park I couldn’t help but notice the number of cars that had little flags on the bonnet, with security guards dressed in suits. For a moment I was wondering how I was actually going to get into the hotel itself as I was wearing boot and hiking garb.
I walked up to the front door where some one opened the door for me! They are gong to let me in! Then I saw the X-ray machine and the metal detector and the security guard asked me if I had anything that could be used as a weapon. I promptly handed over my Swiss army knife, at which point it was handed back to me. I was a bit confused but took it and turned round too look at the lobby.
Comfortable arm chairs, marble floors, bell boys, waiters and a concierge desk. Luxury. We found the cash machine and promptly noticed the out of service sign… We went to the foreign exchange desk and asked if we could buy currency on our cards. They told us to use the machine. Rather than say ‘Oh well there’s nothing we can do’ they told us that they would get it fixed but if we didn’t want to wait we could use the bank found behind the bookshop. A refreshing change from most other places I had been.
I also looked at their exchange rates, they were better than every where else I had seen!
Bank out of the way we wondered around this little oasis looking at the prices of things, in the hope that maybe we could afford a drink. Unfortunately everything was at European prices and, as a result, outside budget.
I could see why Mr Clinton would be staying here next week (well that was the rumour).
It was back to the hotel and for a late lunch and contemplate what to do next.
On the walk back to the Piazza, the area our hotel was in, we were joined by a boy offering to show us the way. We made sure that he understood that we couldn’t pay him, so he decided to practice his English. Mike carried on talking to him while I asked for directions. When we did get to the Piazza he asked for money. Mike handed over 5 birr. He refused saying that it was not enough, and he wanted 5 Euro’s! (Please remember that One Euro is a days pay in Ethiopia). Mike tried to walk away but the boy followed us and stood in front, blocking the way. After a couple of minutes and him pretending to break down in tears I moved to give the money to the people begging on the side of the street. He too the 5 birr and trudged off.
British Embassy – The Second Attempt
The next morning we ventured over to the British Embassy again, armed with the money needed to purchase the letter of commendation.
This time we were let in and given a number. We went into the service area and waited for our number to be called. And waited, and waited.
During the wait I did look at the reading material available. Lots of smiling faces about how wonderful life in Britain is, and how fantastic all the cities are. I miss home.
I also took a look at the security they have. Apart from the 5 meter high bomb proof wall there were security guards every where, and twin barriers at every sensitive point. The grass was very green and the flowers well tended. Just on the other side of that wall there was a shanty town.
This was the first tie I had been to a British embassy overseas so I was surprised that there was no picture of the Queen. Instead there was a picture f some bloke in a skirt at an opening ceremony with lots of flags and a brass band behind him while he was giving a speech. I would rather have seen the Queen, or even Prince Albert.
A couple of hours went by and I noticed that people that had come in after us where now being served. I walked up to the security guard and asked him how much longer we would have too wait. He asked to see my number. I showed him the ticket they gave me at the front desk. He then asked to see the other number we had. We didn’t have one.
Fortunately he didn’t give us a number and tell us too wait. Nor did he tell us too come back another day. He called over a desk clerk who asked us what we wanted, and five minutes later we had the letter and a copy at half the price as we had both our names put on the same letter.
On the off chance that the Sudanese embassy was open we took another minibus into town to see if we could get there in time. During the journey I noticed that it took a road leading out of the city centre! I looked at the conductor, he smiled back! What was happening? At the next stop we were about to get off the conductor looked at us and motioned for us to stay in our seats while he went to speak to another conductor. He handed over some money to the other person and looked at us. If this was Nairobi I would have gotten off, but I remembered that Addis is not a violent place and that I didn’t have enough money to worry about in the first place.
The conductor looked at us then motioned for us too get off and then led us to the other minibus… which was heading into town. Wow, they didn’t rip us off AND they didn’t just leave us there!
While walkingthrough the Piazza we bumped into Ian, some one else trying to get his Sudanese visa and had spent the morning at the embassy. He told us that they would not be taking any more applications until Monday (it was Thursday).
Walters’ Last Night
Walter, the Canadian I mentioned in my last entry had come to the end of an eight month holiday that had seen him travel through South East Asia, India and East Africa. Tomorrow morning would see him fly home. I couldn’t let him go with out as much as a celebratory drink.
We walked around the Piazza area of the hotel looking for somewhere that served Ethiopian food. Despite the numerous places labelled Restaurant & Bar no one was serving food. Eventually we reached one place that understood what we wanted when we made and too mouth motion. We were taken into a side room and showed too some tables and told where too sit, at separate tables both surrounded by women. We thanked him and walked out. He followed us out shouting “how about this one?” pointing to a couple of other women stood just outside the door.
It’s amazing how the word “food” and a hand too mouth motion can be read for prostitute…
We went back to the hotel and settled for what ever fare they had. This is where I had my first proper opportunity to talk too Ian, a Scot that had been teaching in New Zealand and decided that it was time to travel back home via the rest of the world, I had already bumped into him a couple of times but we were always going in different directions. He too was trying to get to Cairo via Sudan and had dealings with both the British and Sudanese embassies.
Yet more goodbye’s and best wishes said it was bed time.
Friday was spent trying to cost flights around Ethiopia as the bus journey we had was still fresh in our memories. Unfortunately a stints between citied on the northern tourist circuit cost in excess of $250 each. If we wanted to go anywhere it would be by bus.
So next up was a cafe for some tea. Instead of hanging around afterwards I decided to just walk around, leaving Mike on to read.
This is where I discovered what plonkers are.
Before I continue let me tell you about a phenomenon in Addis Ababa called plonkers. Plonkers are people who try to make small mundane talk that is so boring you want to paint a wall and then watch it dry for the uplifting entertainment value. The hypothesis goes that they are so boring that their friends run away from them. Then they ask for money, for you to send them to University in your country, take them back to your country and give them a job, or arrange a marriage to your sister.
Why are they called plonkers? Apparently the guy who I got this off didn’t know the proper term for them, so he just called them something appropriate but polite. Plonker seems appropriate.
As I walked around I was joined by a man who would like to be my guide. I told him that I couldn’t pay him. He then informed me that he ‘wanted to practice his English’ so we started to talk. We talked about such things as my life as a cleaner (accountant in Africa earn loads of money, relatively, so they start to over charge) how I had saved 10 years for this holiday, and that I didn’t have any money. Basically I tried to impress upon him how I had no money. He seemed to get the message and left me alone after 15 minutes strained conversation where he didn’t understand a word I said.
Remember What I Said About Pick Pockets?
The whole trip I had not carried a wallet. Why? If you don’t carry a wallet you don’t have one place to put all your cash. If you don’t have one place to put all your cash then you don’t have one place to loose all your cash from.
Earlier in the cafe Mike had taken his wallet out to pay for the coffee. Some one must have seen him because as he left some one deliberately barged into him and then slid their foot down his side. Some on must have grabbed his wallet from behind. It had a US$100 note in it.
The weekend was spent discovering how frustrating the internet could actually be along with the telephone lines out of the country. I just about managed to get a message home that I was in Addis and that I was safe and well.
I also discovered that things close early on the weekend here as well. Only the hotel restaurant was open any later and even then until 9.30 if there wasn’t any world cup football on.
I had also noticed that everywhere we went every one was playing the same music. As brilliant as it was that I was in a country that had its own, very strong, culture every one was playing the same music. It was as if some one had made the same pirate copy of a mix tape and sold it too the whole country. Grrrrrrrr.
Ethiopia is, apparently, the home of coffee. To compliment this there is a very large number of cafes that will sell you the best coffee in the world from about 1 birr (about 8 pence) per cup. This is where Ian and I met a French Canadian called Filipe. Normally I prefer instant coffee, but today I decided that I should have some. I then had some more. Later that day I started trembling when ever I tried to do anything. I also felt sick in my stomach and found it hard to concentrate. As the evening came on I got a head ache.
The coffee was strong, so strong that I got a caffeine headache, the shakes, and a reaction in my stomach.
The First Of Many Trips To The Sudanese Embassy
Monday morning saw Mike, Ian and my self trudge down to the Sudanese embassy. This was also the first time I saw the kind of poverty that Africa is associated with. While the main business districts didn’t have that many people , despite the high proportion of amputees, on the side of the street the walk to the Sudanese embassy did.
I wish I could tell you about the state I saw people in. But it makes me sick to think of the people with legs swollen so large that their flesh had split to the bone sitting in pools of stagnant dirty water. Addis was going to be hard work.
We went into the embassy, and started to queue with every one else. Ian had already applied so we waited with him and grabbed a security asking if we could see the relevant person for non-Ethiopian applications.
Eventually we were allowed through. Mike and I submitted our applications Ian was told to come back that afternoon. My ethnic origin was also questioned, at first in Arabic, then in English once they realised I didn’t speak any. I told them the usual about being of Pakistani origin, but born and raised in England. I was then informed that Sehail is a Muslim name. I greeted him with the standard Muslim greeting and informed him that I am. He looked surprised.
A Conversation with Orin
After being told to come back in the afternoon Ian was kind enough to show us around the Bole Road area city where some of the better cafes were as well as a supply of decent chocolate. We found the New York Cafe and sat out in the front waiting for our drinks and cake to delivered I went of to the New York Supermarket next door to get some of the chocolate.
When I returned I found my seat under the parasol taken by some one who was talking to Ian and Mike as if he knew them. I sat down in the glaring sun and asked Mike who he was. Mike just shrugged his shoulders. Ian then started talking to me, politely ignoring the new person. The new person jumped into the conversation.
At first I welcomed this break. Here was another opportunity to talk to some one different. I should have just ignored him.
No really, pretending you don’t speak a language that they don’t understand can work wonders when you want to get rid of some one.
I mentioned plonkers earlier, Orin the plonker was not as blatant as most, but he was still blatant enough.
First he asked me if I had seen some French people, as he was supposed to meet 2 people from the French embassy so apply for some funding for a course but he had been delayed because the taxi (remember those minibuses?) broke down. I asked him why he didn’t plan to get here earlier. He looked at me as I was from another planet.
He then told me what he did. He took courses. Usually foreigners gave him some money so that he could take these courses. Usually they gave 100 or 200 birr (about 15-30 USD). Then he told me that he wanted to take a course in French, he could already speak some but he needed more practice. At this point Ian gave him the perfect opportunity to practice by speaking in French. Orin asked him what he was saying and in what language. The he said the same thing about German, Ian obliged again and again Orin looked as if he didn’t have a clue, but tried to blag his way out of the blunder by saying that is what he wants to learn.
Next he told me about his ambitions…
The proposed career in IT, but couldn’t get his head around the fact that India is the worlds’ IT centre.
The move to the US so that he could have an American accent and then get a better job (we informed him that its really hard to change you’re accent as an adult and that you were better off having an English accent as more people found it easier too listen too than an American one, but that didn’t register either).
Then there was the career in accounting,
And then engineering
And then medicine.
He then told me about how he got the money for these courses again. All I could was that I had spent the last 6 years paying for my own study by working. But he found this too hard, (and I had a walk in the park??).
Eventually I turned to Ian and told him that I was getting neither truth nor wisdom from the conversation. Orin didn’t understand, so we started talking about cricket. That got rid of him. A lot quicker than I thought it would. I think I had better bear the cricket conversation in mind incase any one else tries to annoy me.
Food and drinks served I struck upon the idea of trying to ay an ‘express service fee’ in a ploy to get the Sudanese visa processed quicker.
At 2 pm we found ourselves outside the Sudanese embassy, again. We walked into the visa office and put forward the ‘express service’ request. (Basically I was looking to see if I could bribe the guy) He told me no. (Damn. How could I go to Africa not bribe any one?)
We were told to come back tomorrow, and then we were told to call instead.
We tried, and tried a week went by so we decided to and see him instead. And still no luck. We even tried the ‘express service’ angle again. He asked what other counties did this. Ian mentioned Belarus and a couple of other eastern European/former soviet union countries. We were politely informed that Sudan had no such policies.
On the way back Ian and I decided to go via the Sheraton just to get e feel for some thing different (even if it meant just sitting in the bath room).
By this stage I had stopped noticing the people asking for money or offering over priced services. In fact on the way to the Sheraton I did decide that if some asked me for money I would ask for some back. Grrrrrr. Low and behold some one did. I asked them for money as well. I think other people had done this before. The well dressed boy produced a 1 Birr note. When I took it he looked at me as if he expected me to give it back… As I passed the security guard he shouted that he would be waiting to show me around afterwards.
Whilst there we ran into Filipe again. He told us that he was checking out the jewellery shop.
“See anything nice?”
“Oh yes!” For a bloke he sounded very enthusiastic about jewellery! “There are some very beautiful items in there.” He then pointed out the sales assistants to me.
“Ah, I see your point.”
Addis not a place where a lot is happening. The end result? If you are on a budget then you can get very bored, very quickly.
Ian and I decided to console our selves with a drink from the bar/cafe while we discussed other options. For Ian it was a case of wait until Monday, and then fly to Europe, as he now had a new teaching job starting in August ad he wanted to see his grand children in Germany, as for myself I was still undecided. I would probably wait another week, before deciding what to do next. However talk of going home was becoming more frequent.
The situation was all the more frustrating when we came across other backpackers who travelled south from Cairo. Apparently you can get the Sudanese visa on the same day. Also hearing about the Sudanese themselves made me want to get out of Addis even more. (Apparently they don’t hassle you, they invite you in to their homes out of genuine interest and don’t ask for a penny in return -the guy hadn’t paid for any accommodation whilst in Sudan there was always some one willing to help out – and one person who we spoke too said that in Khartoum his MP3 player was stolen. His host went out and returned a couple of hours later with the MP3 player) I really wanted to get out of Addis and over to Sudan.
As much as I liked the company of Ian and Mike I was relieved when other people I had met in Nairobi started to return from their various side trips.
Also staying at the Wutma meant that we would always meet other foreign travellers. Most of whom had the sense to get out into the country as quickly as possible and while they were waiting there was always the museum at the university, but that could only keep you busy for an afternoon.
The week of boredom also gave me the unwelcome opportunity to actually look at the room I was staying in.
The grey paint on the walls couldn’t hide the varying layers of black grime. The room hadn’t been cleaned the whole time I was there. The ‘shower’ didn’t have a shower head, so it was basically a hose that had tepid water coming out of it. Also the bed had an interesting (remember what I said about being bored) crack in the mattress base, I guese to go with the stickers of condom use every where.
De Ja Vu
One evening I was walking through the reception area of the hotel when I noticed a familiar face. Natalie and Rene had turned up again after doing the northern circuit themselves. After a brief catch up we went out to get some pizza. The subsequent conversation sort of went like this…
Rene “Sehail, we’re going to Harar tomorrow. Why don’t you come with us?”
Sehail “Urm, I should wait for the Sudanese visa to come through.”
Natalie “That thing wont be done for another month, so why don’t you come to Harar?”
“Erm…okay. But I may change my mind tomorrow morning.”
Natalie “Come on, you know you want to.”
Unlike the Lake Nivasha excursion I was not as willing to go on a 12 hour bus journey for some thing that would probably just disappoint. Talking off disappointments…
I also got an update on what Ethiopia was actually like. The churches in Lalibella, the ones that make Petra look average, where under scaffolding for renovation. Axum was not that impressive, and they got a lot of hassle.
As for the castles of Gondar and the start of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana Falls: The castles were unimpressive, and the falls where drowned out by a hydro electric damn, the pictures on the leaflets were taken in the 70’s before the dam was built. Thinking of hiking through the Simian Mountains in the North West in search of one of Africa’s most endangered animals the Ethiopian Wolf… the whole area was snow bound. If I was going to go anywhere I guess it would be Harar.
That evening I packed, said my good byes to Mike and Ian packed for a couple of days and after the football match (the World Cup Final), went to bed late and it was going to be a 4.30 am start…