I'd been predisposed to hate Addis. I knew the hills outside of Addis were green and beautiful, and a friend who had worked there frequently told me Ethiopia itself was wonderously beautiful. "But not Addis," he added. Fair enough, few emerging market capitals are what you would call lovely. But a popular travel writer characterised the place as filthy and rutted and festering, and that's the image I braced myself for as I arrived.
Instead, Addis was pretty interesting.
Like most places I've lived and worked over the past twenty years, Addis struggles with storm water and too-small roads and too much traffic, and all the usual ills of developing nations. But that wasn't what I'll remember now. Rather, it was the pride.
You always read about how Ethiopia was never colonised, but that seems like nothing more than a historical footnote until you see it in play, and especially if you have any reason to work with the authorities. Then ou realize there's a deep mistrust of foreigners, and a drive to learn from everyone but to make one's own decision and then live with it. Gone is the sense of desperation to learn from the West; in Ethiopia we'll do it our way or not at all.
The city streets – at least the ones I traveled along – were filled with stores selling lighting: variations of crystal chandeliers and other household effects intended for illumination. Toward the end of the day when the skies darkened, it was really interesting to look upon.
They were also filled with cafés. Turns out there's a huge café culture in Ethiopia, and there are endless places you can get a good cup of coffee and chat with friends. In fact, as I hustled from one meeting to the next, I suspect these Ethiopian coffee drinkers were living a better lifestyle than I was. Not just coffee, either: various teas and infusions, and of course a rich assortment of pastries, breads, cookies. I hadn't been prepared for that at all.
That brought me back to memories of my own Ethiopian friends, who stop everything at around 4 PM to brew strong coffee over scented hardwoods. How come every culture on earth seems to remember to step back and enjoy community and friendship over a coffee except mine?
The flip side of this cool, interesting experience was the Internet: In Ethiopia, all internet access is managed by the state monopoly, who controls it tightly and scrutinizes traffic ravenously. It's a move straight out of some Handbook I remember reading ... just can't remember the name ...
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