Adrift in Addis

Normally I would’ve done much more research on my own to prepare for navigating a new city on my own, but there were so many variables at play this time—I wasn’t sure I could even get the yellow fever vaccine which would make me more comfortable about leaving the airport; it was a stopover of only a few hours anyway; I didn’t know in what hotel or area of the city the airline would place me, etc—that I admittedly hadn’t done enough homework. Addis is a place where you really need to do your homework and brace yourself, especially if you are traveling alone, foreign, not Black, or female. I was all four.

After I finally obtained my transit visa and waited 2 hours for my Ethiopian Air shuttle, I arrived at my day hotel in Addis. The hotel was actually quite nice, although I did get a kick out of the fact that my bathroom mirror had literally been taped together:

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I took a brief nap, much shorter than I had wanted, but it was already 1 pm when I woke up so I knew I only had a few hours (I in no way wanted to be out in the city once the sun went down). I had withdrawn 300 birr (about $15) from an airport ATM before I left, calculating that this was both enough to cover my potential expenses for the afternoon and not enough to be sad about losing if I got ripped off and/or pickpocketed. I put two 100-birr notes in my money belt and the smaller bills that the hotel had broken my third 100 into in my front pocket. I didn’t carry any purse or any additional money, though at the last minute I also tucked my ATM card well away in a back pocket of the money belt, figuring that while I didn’t want to carry much on me, I also didn’t want to end up stranded in the middle of Addis with no funds in an emergency.

Upon request, reception provided me with probably the worst map of a major city that I’ve ever seen (only major and totally arbitrary roads included, barely any street names – not that most streets are labeled anyway, but every time I saw a street sign during my walk, it was never on the map). I asked the receptionist to point out where the hotel was on the map, and as I would later discover, the area she indicated was either completely wrong or the map was just impossible to follow; either possibility seems equally likely.

I asked about getting downtown: was it walkable? The receptionist said it was rather far to walk and that the cabs parked outside the hotel were available for rental by the hour. I explained that I just wanted to go to Mezcal Square and then walk around myself from there, so I didn’t need a cab for a whole hour. She said that I could walk up to the main road and take a minibus, which would be cheaper and more what I was looking for; I should get on the minibus heading to Stadium Mexico. I had read a little about these minibuses (we also have similar buses in Bulgaria, which I have never ridden) and tried to get as much detailed information from her as possible, since I knew it would be tricky once I actually got out there.

“Yeah yeah,” she said, “just go up, cross the street for the other direction, and it’s there. It’s easy.”

For the record, it is not at all easy if you don’t speak or read any Amharic.

Admittedly, it would have been easier if I was getting on at a major stop. I later walked through a large circle where all the minibuses were stopped and barking out their destinations. However, there aren’t clearly marked stops for the minibuses (at least to a foreigner’s eyes), and unless you’re at a terminus or certain other areas, there aren’t necessarily a bunch of people gathered and waiting to indicate to you that there is a stop there. Certainly from my hotel I could not see a formal or informal stop. You can hail a minibus driving past and it will stop for you, but in this case it gets trickier because the person sitting by the door doesn’t always yell out the destination at you; he figures, you hailed us, you must know where we’re going. The minibuses have little placards on their roof with Amharic writing which I’m guessing lists the destination and/or major stops along the way, but obviously this was no help to me either. I sort of wimpishly hailed a few minibuses, asked “Stadium Mexico?” each time, and was rejected each time, leaving me standing lamely in the road inhaling dust.

I knew from the little homework that I had done that the blue and white Ladas in Addis are unmetered taxis where you can negotiate the fare beforehand with the driver. Foreigners will naturally always pay way more than Ethiopians, but I had learned some typical fare ranges to negotiate for beforehand (though all from the airport, which didn’t really help me now because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was relative to the airport and center), and Ethiopia is cheap enough by American standards anyway that even the foreigner rates didn’t seem exorbitant. I knew that, at worst, the 300 birr I had should be more than enough to get me two taxi rides: there and back.

I hailed one Lada which had a very friendly, young driver with pretty good English. I asked how much to Mezcal Square, and he answered, “100 birr” (about $5). He was willing to bargain down to 80 birr ($4) but not below – “80 birr is a fair price, I swear,” he said. I decided to decline and walk away as a test run, and he drove away.

With 80 birr as my new target figure, I hailed a second cab. This driver was a bit older and didn’t speak any English, but he snagged a young woman walking past and got her to translate (I’m sure she thought this entire transaction was hilarious). He asked for 150 birr. I talked him down to 80, and he agreed; I got in. As he spoke no English, however, we weren’t able to work out exactly where he should drop me off, so I ended up just getting out somewhere that looked like a fairly major crossroads. I paid him his 80 birr, which left me with 20 in my pocket. This later turned out to be useful.

I had figured I’d go to Mezcal Square and walk around from there, possibly popping in at a couple of the museums, but mostly just wander to get a sense of the city, especially since I wasn’t sure if the museums would be open on Christmas Eve anyway. This was my first mistake: I should’ve just started with a targeted destination in order to know where I was and to have something to do. In retrospect, I also should’ve just hired a taxi driver for a few hours and had him drive me to a few different specific locales; everything I’ve read and experienced indicates that most of the Lada taxi drivers are pretty friendly and trustworthy, and that cabs are safe places. The driver in the first cab that I rejected probably would’ve been a great afternoon guide, and the second driver was nice enough, we just couldn’t communicate. Left to my own devices, between my useless map and the sprawling nature of Addis, I was pretty quickly disoriented. I could see the major hotels and buildings that were marked on my map, but the streets that I saw and the ones drawn on the map didn’t seem to match up. P
lus, there was the harassment factor.

A side note about this: I really want to be a bold, adventurous traveler and have authentic experiences in the places I visit. I totally understand and appreciate the sentiment of articles like this. However, after reading a few paragraphs of that article, I went back up to check the author’s name, and sure enough, he is male (Bert Archer), and also was traveling with someone else. And I have to say, the experience is totally and completely different for a solo female traveler, and I think it’s misleading not to acknowledge this in the article. (I also bet they didn’t tell anyone they were a gay couple.)

Foreign women get harassed in a lot of African and Middle Eastern cities. It is just a fact. In Istanbul two summers ago, my female friend R and I enjoyed a summer night’s walk (not too late at night either, around 9 pm) from Istiklal Street back to our hotel in Old Town, and every single man we passed for those 45 minutes called out to us, ranging from the fairly innocuous, “Hello, where are you from?” to things like, “Want to be my girlfriend?” Add a man to the equation, such as when I was previously in Istanbul with my co-workers H and a married couple J and S and the four of us walked around together, the women are no longer directly addressed but they are commented upon to the man: “Ahh, lucky man, what beautiful wives you have.” When I explored Cairo with J (the man in the married couple), people didn’t really say anything to us, but I got a lot of long looks, especially in the more conservative area of the city, and I didn’t have to think too hard to imagine how things might have been different if I were unaccompanied.

Even knowing what to expect from these previous experiences didn’t make Addis much easier. It’s just not something I think I could ever get used to. The comments were less sexualized in nature, probably because Ethiopia, and particularly Addis Ababa, is more religiously diverse than Egypt or Turkey, and you do see skimpily clad women and teenagers making out in public, so a foreign woman’s attire is less, well, foreign. (Though I’ve always been conservatively dressed in all of these cities and still gotten harassed, and in Addis I was wearing a long-sleeved T and jeans, so I’m not sure how much difference the actual clothing makes.)

I will say that I’ve never actually felt unsafe in any of these three cities, despite the verbal haranguings. The New Delhi gang rape case certainly gives me pause, but at least in Istanbul, Cairo, and Addis, it does seem to be mostly restricted to foreign women (though I’ve seen a pair of Turkish women in headscarves get called out in Istanbul), and the men usually call out once or twice and then stop if you ignore them. Only in the markets in Istanbul and Cairo does anyone actually touch you (more to get you to stop and buy something from them than as a sexualized act – I have gotten my shoulder or arm grabbed even when I was one of J’s “wives”), and they don’t pursue it physically if you shake them off. The cities are also definitely worst. People in the smaller towns and more remote areas are unfailingly friendlier; J and I got no snarky comments at all when we were staying with the Bedouins and hiking in the Sinai Mountains.

However, despite the relative harmlessness of the comments I’ve received, it is still a major problem and it makes it difficult to visit, and to want to visit, more places like this. It’s such an endemic issue that it’s really more than an individual traveler can take on; it’s a culture of misogyny and proprietary attitudes toward women, of large-scale bullying and permissiveness of that bullying, that I simply don’t know how to combat. It’s telling, for instance, that this never happens in the airports of these cities, partly because airports are politically/culturally neutral territory but also because there isn’t a critical mass of people there who will accept that kind of behavior. However, take the exact same men who will keep their mouths shut in the airport and put them out on a downtown street, and they will cat-call and harass with the best of them.

I’m pretty thick-skinned, but I don’t think that such a thick skin should be a prerequisite for travel; moreover, it violates the kind of experience the solo female traveler can have, because you pretty much have to race-walk around the city and ignore everyone, because any pause, any eye contact, any smallest sign of acquiescence or encouragement makes the vultures descend, and then you have to expend extra effort to shake them off.

This was the case for me in Addis when I, having already endured several minutes of walking past various taunts, veered off briefly onto a side street to stand in some shade and try to orient myself on my impossible map.

I might as well have been a wounded wildebeest calf. Blood in the water. From behind me, a male voice: “Hello?” Then persistently, “Hello? Hello? Hello?”

I was tired of shaking people off, I was admittedly kind of lost, and I didn’t want to leave Ethiopia having not spoken to any Ethiopians other than airport and hotel employees. The man who approached me was quite young, friendly, and gave off a non-predatory air. Of course I knew he was lying when he said he wasn’t asking me for any money but just wanted to walk with me and practice his English as he was a university student (he also claimed to work as a janitor at the Chinese Embassy – a miraculous connection!), but I figured I only had on me 20 birr in my pocket and 200 more in my money belt, for a grand total of $11, plus an ATM card that could be quickly canceled. Also, it was broad daylight, we were on a major road, I knew to be on my guard and not get myself into a tricky situation, and as a last resort, I wasn’t afraid to kick him in the balls and run if I had to; despite the harassment I’d already experienced, Addis did not give off the vibe of a city that would side with the male offender in that kind of public situation.

So Daniel and I walked off, and instantly all verbal harassment towards me stopped. Really, it’d be quite remarkable if it wasn’t so fucking offensive: Want to not get cat-called? Just add a man! Once you’re someone’s property, you’re off-limits to the public.

Daniel pointed out several buildings to me along the way, gave me some history of Addis and Ethiopia, and after about 15 minutes we ended up at the Derg Monument.

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This is Daniel at the Derg Monument. If you see him around Addis Ababa, ask him how his job at the Chinese Embassy is going. 

He started to lead me into the compound area, where I definitely saw him exchange some money with one of the
young men loitering around, who then started to charge me admission to the park. I later learned that this is illegal, as the grounds are of course free to wander, but I had no intention of paying anything anyway. I also kind of had to laugh at the irony of traveling all the way to Ethiopia just to get led to a Communist memorial. Seriously, Daniel, I live in Bulgaria – this is old hat to me.

I turned and walked away from Daniel and the “gatekeepers,” who were still trying to convince me to pay for admission to the grounds. I think there might have been some arguing behind me, as it took Daniel a minute or so to catch up to me. I walked slowly and calmly, though, so as not to seem like I was running away and drawing more attention to myself. Daniel caught up and asked if I was sure I didn’t want to go in; I said yes. He suggested that we visit some of the market stalls on the street, as there were very good souvenirs I could buy to bring home; I said I wasn’t doing any shopping today, then repeated myself a few times as he was insistent. I then thanked him for his help and said firmly that I would continue to walk around on my own. At this point, he turned on the charm.

“Okay,” he said. “But you know, before you go, it would make me so happy if I could see a euro or American dollars—to see what they look like, you know. I mean, I have seen like one or two euro or dollars, but I have never seen a ten, twenty, fifty—I would love to see what it looks like, and it would make me so happy, and it would really inspire me to run up there [the university is located in an area uphill from the center] and study so very, very hard!”

I smiled sweetly and said that was really nice to hear, but I didn’t have any euro or dollars. He coaxed and wheedled some more. I said no really, you’re out of luck. He didn’t believe me. I said 1) I don’t live in the U.S. so I can’t actually withdraw dollars from where I live; 2) why would I have dollars and euro on me when Ethiopia’s currency is the birr; 3) I’m only here for the afternoon so I had basically no spending money; 4) but I did have 30 birr [sic—I really did forget how much I had] in my pocket that I would gladly give him.

He got distinctly less charming then and just said rather bluntly, “OK, then.”

I reached into my jeans pocket, pulled out the bills, and handed them to him.

“This is 20, not 30,” he said.

“Oops, I remembered wrong – I forgot how much I’d paid the taxi. But that’s all I have left.”

“Maybe you should check again,” he said.

I laughed lightly. “I’ll turn this pocket inside out if you like, but you won’t find anything else there.”

He relented, wished me a nice trip and hoped I would return to Ethiopia someday, and peeled off. I really was happy to give him the money despite his obvious deception at the beginning—I figured 20 birr ($1) was worth the re-orientation and 20 minutes of harassment-free walking he’d given me.

The rest of my time in Addis was tiring and uneventful. I basically walked endlessly and continued to be screwed over by my terrible map. Here are some of the pictures I took, though I was also trying to keep my camera concealed as much as possible. I regret that I didn’t get a picture of the boy driving his 6-7 donkeys down a major artery in the center.  

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I was hungry (though oddly not starving – my stomach closes up sometimes when traveling) and had really been looking forward to getting some real injera and Ethiopian coffee, but all the cafes were so small and intimidating. I couldn’t stop for a second without getting harassed, and I was sleep-deprived, after all, and worn out from my overnight flight and wearying experience with Ethiopian Air that morning. I finally stopped in a supermarket to buy some water, partly because I desperately needed it, and partly to break one of my remaining 100s into smaller bills. Six birr for 1.5 liters of water, paid for with a 100 – boy was the cashier annoyed, but unlike in Bulgaria, she made the change. Incidentally, neither Ethiopia nor Tanzania has coins, which means that their smaller bills are well-worn and in Addis in particular their smaller denomination bills (1 birr, 10 birr) were some of the filthiest things I can imagine. Back at the hotel I literally had to wash my hands immediately after transferring some bills; you only had to touch them once and the grime and smell got on your skin.

I walked and walked, could not find any of the museums due to my useless map, and began to think that I ought to just take a cab back to save on the fatigue, but by then I was at the major crossroads where all the minibuses and a bunch of Lada taxis were, and there was so much noise and so many people and so many drivers hollering out at me that it was just too much and I resolved to keep walking back toward Mezcal and find a cab closer to there, since I also knew a reasonable fare back to the hotel from that spot. As I got closer to Mezcal, though, I couldn’t seem to hail a taxi to save my life; they were all occupied, or they were three lanes over, or going in the other direction. It was afternoon rush hour on Christmas Eve, I guess. I kept walking, figuring I’d walk in the directi
on of the hotel and pick up a taxi if necessary. I walked and walked and walked, clearly out of the central area but couldn’t figure out if I was on the right street for my hotel or not, walked and walked and walked some more, began to worry.

My sore feet and the positioning of the sun finally forced me into action. I tried to hail a Lada and failed, but a man waiting to cross on the same street corner pointed out a cab pulled over down the side street. “Just go down there,” he said.

I went, and asked the driver if his cab was free.

It was, he said. (There actually was an elderly woman in the passenger seat whom he ended up dropping off before me, but whatever – not going to argue.)

I told him the name of my hotel and showed him the address on the front of my map. (This turned out to be the one thing my map was good for.)

He conferred with a few drivers around him (the traffic was so bad that a lot of them were just idling), confirmed the location, and agreed.

I asked him how much.

He paused, clearly thinking about it.

I waited. I had 194 birr. I had no idea how close we were to the hotel (we could’ve been around the block and I wouldn’t have known), but I was willing to give him pretty close to all of it. I was tired, footsore, cranky, overwhelmed, and not at all in the mood for bargaining. I needed him to name a price before I got in the cab, though.

“100,” he said at last. (That’s $5 for those of you keeping track.)

I almost started laughing at how reasonable his extortion was. “Done,” I said. (JUST TAKE ME HOME.)

It might be the best $5 I’ve ever spent. We weren’t so obscenely close to make it feel like a waste or make me feel like an idiot for not being able to find the hotel, though it was definitely closer than the 80-birr distance between the hotel and Mezcal Square. The traffic was horrific and the streets narrow and difficult to pass, so it saved me a lot of trouble walking. Plus no one said a goddamned word to me. At the front door of the hotel, I handed over the 100-birr note almost giddily and practically skipped up the steps. A hot shower and dinner (included in the voucher, though technically lunch also should’ve been included but the hotel only gave me one meal and beverage coupon), and a transfer back to the airport neutral zone were waiting for me.

So, overall, while I can’t believe I was actually in Ethiopia and didn’t drink any coffee or eat any injera, or enter a building that wasn’t a hotel/airport, I don’t really blame myself. I mean, what can you do. I guess I’ll have to go back someday, and actually I gladly would (the weather is perfection and it’s clearly a fascinating place) – but with accompaniment this time. Maybe I’m a wimp, but some places are just really hard on your own.

 

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