Ethiopia Reloaded

An Addis PanoramaHere’s a blast from the past in your inbox, eh? Another blog entry from Al and Sara!

Three years have passed and as promised we have returned to Ethiopia to see our friends and introduce Sahai (T’sehaye) to the country where she spent 6 months bouncing aorund in Sara’s tummy and the country that gave her her name.

Flying out to Ethiopia on the Thursday 22nd November overnighter, we landed in Addis very early in the morning for us (not Ethiopians, who had probably been up several hours running, praying or both!).

After a curious mexican stand off where we sat in the shai bet (coffee shop) in the airport waiting for Debebe and Zikargechew and Debebe and Zikargechew sat in the car park waiting for us, I finally borrowed the mobile phone of a cleaner and broke the impasse.

As the airport doors opened we walked happily and expectantly into the early sunshine of the Addis morning for a (much shorter 2 week) African adventure – but this time as a family &x1F60A

The Egg Becomes a Chicken?

So what has changed in Addis; and I guess in other parts of Ethiopia?

Firstly Three long years in the waitingthe frenzied building work has picked up pace, if that was at all possible! Where there is a gap, there’s a ten storey building going up. Allegedly boosted by diaspora money and overseas investment it seems real estate it the way forward (or upward).

The Yonas – our favourite little hotel – used by VSO for volunteers in transit inbound and outbound of Addis – was barely discernable as a high rise has gone up about six feet from one side (the Haille Gebresellasie Street side) and opposite is an equally tall edifice. What was once a satellite dish adorned feature of that stretch of the road is now swallowed up and surrounded by new construction.

In complete contrast, one of the bars (was it the Garden Bar?) barely 100 yards down the main road towards Shola market and Megananya has been completed erased! All that is left is rubble in a small triangle of land.

We visited a vast field of partially built (yet still partially inhabited) condominium high rise flat type housing estates in the outskirts of Addis – past Megananya, past the Management Institute and past the CRC Schweppes factory. High rise flats as Building better worlds?far as the eye can see. We went to see the flat purchased by our friend Debebe and even he seemed amused and slightly embarrassed that he could not find his flat amongst these concrete suburbs.

This rush to fling up condominium style appartments to accomodate the ever-increasing infux of rural refugees seeking the birr-lined streets and life of their capital city is mirrored all across the skyline. In another 3 years we might struggle to recognise half the landmarks once so familiar to us. It will be interesting to return once more and compare.

Waraj Alleh?

And what about the traffic? No sign of that changing any time soon.

People say there are more private cars on the roads and Sara was convinced the traffic has got worse (she did live there for 6 months while pregnamt with Sahai whilst I lived on my own in Assosa) whereas I thought it was just as bad back in the day when we were there. Regardless. It is b-a-d!

Other changes? The buses – including the line taxi style shuttle buses between towns – have a rating for quality and comfort. The score is from 1 Missed this tooto 3, though by looking at the vehicles I couldn’t tell if 1 was good or 3 was good!! There is at least a big sticker on every bus now that highlights the rating, assuming you understand the criteria &x1F60A

Not necessarily in Addis, but certainly on the roads between Addis and Assosa, there are a lot more Chinese and Korean trucks. The usual cross section of Isuzu and Iveco trucks (frequently upside down in a ditch) along with Mitsubishi, Scandia, Calebrase and the rare Mercedes truck have been supplemented with Daewoo, Shinotruk and Shacmans – presumably of Asian origin.

We were told that the Chinese colonisation has continued at pace and these days it is hard for non-Chinese businesses to win contracts any more. Someone told us that the Ethiopian road construction firm Sunshine Construction, who used to have a base in our region and seemed to have a 50:50 breakdown as far as contracts awarded in the region went, have now gone out of business or are at the best struggling to survive. The Chinese can offer such sweet terms on the contracts that no one else can compete. That said, someone else told us the The Panorama HotelSouth Koreans have won some road construction business recently and – they seemed amazed – are even faster at putting road down than the Chinese.

And guess what? The Chinese are building a metro for Addis! We saw the middle area of the road (once tree-lined verges, shelter for sleeping beggars or recently built bus lanes) being converted into flattened area for future trains to hurtle into Meskel Square from all corners of Addis. Should be interesting. Busier than the Ambasa buses? Wait and see.

You, You, Give me one point two six five birr..

People say the prices have gone up and inflation is killing everyone. Hard to corroborate this when we returned in tourist mode with the pound running at £1 = 28 birr, but it was clear everything has got more expensive. When we first arrived in 2008 the pound was around 18-20 birr and I think dropped to about 15 at the height (or depth?) of the recession.

From a tourist point of view – and probably a volunteer in Addis point of view – the big resturants and hotels have all started wacking on 15%!V(MISSING)AT to all bills as well Where did all the billboards come from?as anywhere between 5-10% service charge. The additions are cumulative so if you spend 100 birr on a meal in a hotel, 10% service will be added and THEN the total will have 15% VAT added. Although there is the peripheral benefit of having to have a paper receipt with all the purchases detailed on it (presumably for VAT records purposes) it still meant that you were probably better off under the old inflated ‘Ferengi price’ regime where an arbitary amount was added for being non-Ethiopian.

The 10% service charge is a bit unfair as it means people are less likely to leave a tip and I severely doubt the management split the extra 10% amongst staff. It is essentially a way of inflating prices 10% and lining the owners pockets. The extra overall 26.5%, or whatever it equates to, can surprise you a little. We took friends out for big meal treats and found ourselves paying several 100 birr more than expected. The menu’s haven’t changed, just expect the extra charge and tax to be added to the final bill.

Other changes? The scabby one birr notes are slowly being replaced by 1 birr coins! They look a bit like our UK £2 coin and are handy for distributing at road junctions when your hire car is descended upon by beggars with disabilities or mothers with sad looking babies, wrapped up and hungry.

From the tourist point of view the ATMs in Addis have replicated like bunny rabbits. Whereas you once had to make a pilgrimage to the Hilton Hotel to get cash, pretty much every mini shopping mall has two or three ATMs, often freestanding, from a variety of banks. The Dashen Bank still seems to be the only one that takes Mastercard and the old faithful Shola Market ATM near the time zone (handily just opposite the Panorama Hotel) saw a fair bit of use.

Travellers Cheques? Don’t bother. Got badly burnt by taking $400 in US dollar traveller’s cheques but after trips to the Hilton, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and the National Bank, I found out nowhere accepts them any more. Travelex kindly shafted me to the tune of £40 for exchanging them back into UK cash at Heathrow, so that was a lesson to take home for next time…

Line is no longer busy now – you just need "I am African"to subscribe

Telecoms? Have changed.

As we left in late 2009/early 2010, CDMA was just taking off. Now the service is saturated (you charge it up with the magic number off a scratch card, like the PAYG mobile phones) but EVDO has come along – which offers up to 6Mb/s Internet speeds. Apparently this was great for a while (you pay a fixed rate monthly, based upon the speed you subscribe too) but has now become saturated and slow.

We did see many places in Addis advertising free Wi-Fi and the Panorama Hotel had a wireless router on every floor, which enabled us to send “we have arrived” messages ho,e and post a few brief, picture free, updates on Facebook. Our mileage varied at other places. Either the access was dismally slow or we failed to connect, but we did find free Wi-Fi at the airport on the way home. Sit close to the Sheba Miles lounge and join the open wireless for free &x1F60A

Mobile SIM cards are much easier to buy now. Apparently high street shops can sell them for 40 birr (with a 15 birr credit included) which is an improvement on the zinab alleh!old – find a Tele (Ethiopian Telecom) office which a fresh batch of SIM cards, bum rush the office (based upon rumour and local insider knowledge) and queue for hours to fill in a mass of forms and pay 350+ birr for the precious ability to connect. Debebe had kindly picked me up a SIM as mine from late 2009 had expired and would need some beaurocratic attention to reactivate – if at all possible.

Interestingly the error messages have changed. The usual ‘subscriber busy’ or ‘phone turned off’ messages in Amharic are equally unintelligable as before, however ‘the line is busy now, please try again later…’ message has been replaced by “Sorry, you have not subscribed to this service”. This really threw me for the first day and I was convinced I had an error with the SIM or the handset. Once I realised this was a standard error I just retried and within 2-3 attempts I could usually get through.

By and large the mobile network has improved, though where Andreas – our SIL buddy – and his family live in Mechanisa in Addis, the network is dire. Really difficult to get through or connect out Ramen noodleswhen you are there.

The confusion with different coloured mobile top up cards has also gone. No more green or blue cards based upon the first 3 digits of your phone number. One card fits all.

Beereh alleh? Alleh. Bedele Special alleh? Alleh. Tilliq Bedele Special alleh? Alleh, alleh, alleh….

So onto my favourite subject (time to pause and top up my wine glass) – Ethiopian Beer &#x1F60A

Bedele Special has come to town! No longer only available in good beer houses around Assosa and Nekemte, the brand has been purchased by Heineken (who along with Diageo are buying up Ethiopian beers – they see it as an untapped market, pardon the pun) and Bedele Special is at last on the menu in Addis. Even the big bottles (the “tilliq” or tall bottle) are available – which are 500ml, rather than the usual 330ml of the poorer cousins such as St George, Meta and plain old Bedele beer.

There is a new dark beer made by St George called ‘Amba’ beer which is not too bad and somewhat strong – the reason I know this is another change; beer %!a(MISSING)lcohol is now printed on Aye Aye, Captain!the bottle, so St George is a casual 4.5%, Bedele Special a serious 5.5% and Amba beer a stand-up-and-salute 6.5%.

It is not just the beers that have changed. Ambo water now has a flavoured variant in a plastic bottle and what has happened to Highland and Topland water bottles??

Within 3 years it seems the brand has completely disappeared and has been replaced by “Yes” water – which claims to have added minerals and if you drink enough of it over 15 days (take the test the adverts say) then you are guaranteed to feel better. I suspect the owners of “Yes” water will reap the ultimate benefit if you believe this but in a country where kidney stones are common and high sugar, carbonated soft drinks are favourite, encouraging people to drink more plain old bottled potable water cannot be a bad thing.

Of course, like the word “hoover”, the term “Highland” remains in general circulation so if you ask for Highland, people still understand you want bottled, non-sparkling water.

Have the prices changed? Yes indeed. I paid anywhere between 17 and 20 birr for a standard St George in a bar and and up to 38 birr for a big Bedele Special in a hotel. Three years ago (pre tax and service charge) we were looking at 6 for a standard Bedele in Assosa and 10 for a Special.

Mabrat Alleh?

Was there power? Well we were either really lucky or things have improved. No problems with power at the Panorama Hotel at all. Or water.

Considering we were in the dry season this was impressive. Maybe it is a better class of establishment and has water tanks and a generator to cover local outages, but even so, with Sahai along for the adventure, having water all the time and power was a bonus.

We will fulfill your vision

And finally our experience of Addis had to be coloured by the recent passing of Mr Meles, the leader of the TPLF ruling political party. Love him or hate him he seemed to have worked hard and Ethiopia has taken steps forward in many respects since the early 90’s when he and his supporters overthrew the no-longer-supplied-by-the-soviets Derg regime.

When such a figurehead dies – and in line with the Ethiopian way of dealing with death – he is remembered at death, after 40 days and seemingly by every business across Addis.

The bill boards which have multipled, small ones along great stretches of wooden fencing, obscuring new building work; medium ones attached to building frontage and shop roofs; to uber large, Olympic-size high-rise 20 storey high banners – 90%!o(MISSING)f them all proclaiming good words about Mr Meles and his good work. Meles as the young, bearded revolutionary; Meles as the patriot in Ethiopian baseball cap; Meles as the visionary, pointing towards the bright future of the “Ethiopian Renaissance” so often quoted during his reign.

Each advert and banner sponsored by a local company or government administrative unit (“Yeka Subcity administration will fulfill your vision”) trying to outdo each other in size and goodwill towards the former leader.

But what happens next? Who knows.

All I know is that after a while I played ‘spot the Bedele Special’ advert instead and can honestly say the building-sized bottle, frosted with ice – taller even than pictures of Jessica Ennis on the walls of an East London council high-rise – almost made me salivate it was so inviting.

Now that is also a vision worth fulfilling… 😀

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