64 – A strange day at Dila (Addis to Nairobi – part 1)

Fri 29th Jan, Etalemahu Pension, Dila, Ethiopia

In the morning, took a cab (30 birr, split with a Japanese guy who was also going to the bus station).  The Addis-Moyale bus was 138 birr, over 2 days, with a stopover at Dila. The journey passed through the Rift Valley lakes, along the river Awasa. There were birds galore along the way. The weather got hotter and hotter as we went southwards.

At each town we stopped to drop people, a horde of sellers will crowd the bus windows. You could literally go window shopping, the amount of things that were on offer. The non-exhaustive list included bananas, sugarcane, kolo, qat, chewing gum, tissue packets, biscuits, lottery tickets, pineapples, potraits of Jesus. The list goes on. Lunch was in Ziway, a 14 birr delight of fried freshwater fish from the Awasa.

We reached Dila at around 330pm. I got my bag from the bus roof. The fellow as usual wanted his birr. Maybe i’m becoming less of a pushover. You want 5 birr? I’ll give you 2. You don’t want 2 birr, fine, i grab my money back and walk off. Faced with the prospect of not getting anything, they take the 2 birr. Works like a charm. It’s crazy how faranjis get quoted the stupidest prices. I still remember the Jijiga to Harar bus, when the fella demanded 10 birr. We protested, and the locals on the bus actually egged us on with approval.

I stayed at the Etalemahu Pension, a 30 birr place very near to the bus station. The other locals from the bus were on the adjacent rooms. My room is pleasant, except for the mosquitoes. I lighted up one coil to disturb the mosquitoes, then proceeded to kill about 20 of them, in a 2 by 2m room. Not exaggerating. I’m sure there are more in the room. I will buy a can of spray later, as it will get worse when i head into Kenya im sure.

Dila is a little bit dangerous in my opinion. Somehow it seems to be a well developed town, with one nice restaurant that might cater for the Addis crowd. But the local populace who comes up to you asking for money can be very persistent. Two blocked my path and had to be reprimanded by another local before i could slip away.

Also, I got a souvenir on my penultimate day in Ethiopia: a bloody nose. I was returning from dinner, walking along the main road, when a young woman with unkempt hair crossed the road and headed towards me. I thought nothing of it and walked on. Then she facepalmed me on my face, hard. And walked off. Leaving me with a bloody nose. I was too shocked to chase after her. There were a lot of witnesses too, and they told me she was crazy. It woke me up though. Reminded me that i am traveling alone again and need to get my guard up.

Another amazing thing that happened was that the wrapping paper for my insecticide aerosol spray (35 birr) is half a page of the 25th July 2009 edition of The Straits Times Recruit section. I am completely flabbergasted. Why would a piece of Singapore newspaper end up here in a remote non-tourist town in Ethiopia? Let alone one dated on my birthday??? It could be a sign, mind you. Which in this case, as printed in the newspaper, it’s a sign that i should be an SCDF officer, a Commercial Affairs officer in the Police force, an ICA officer, an ITE lecturer or a MICA officer.

This has been a very unusual night. And on an ordinary pitstop en route from Addis Ababa to Moyale. Tomorrow i carry on on the same bus southwards.

63 –Reuniting with the New Flower

Thu 28th Jan, Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
The flower mentioned here is Addis Ababa, or “new flower” in Amharic. Just like back in Khartoum, returning to Addis is like meeting an old friend. A comforting familiar location, the same hotel, somewhere you know you can clean up. And best of all, a killer location in the lounge to watch Egypt-Algeria in the semis later.
Arrived in Addis at 5am, somewhere in the middle of the Merkato market apparently (it is dark). The other passengers leave, but driver tells me to sleep a couple of hours in the van, because i will probably get mugged if i travel through the market in the night.
I woke up and made my way to the hotel. This time round, I am a pro at getting around, since i am familiar with the city. I take the minibus from the Merkato to the Piazza (1 birr) easily, since i now know the bus with the bus conductor shouting the destination “Arat Kilo” is the bus that bypasses the Piazza. Next i checked in at the hotel, paid 108 birr (14 birr more than last time) and got a nicer room upstairs with a better mattress. The plan today was to get my onward tickets south to Moyale, the border to Kenya, to stock up on everyday stuff, and to get some proper sleep later in the afternoon.
Ok, after a shower (i was full of grime and dirt), I went out to the railway station down south along Churchill Ave. It was still a cool morning, so the walk helped to warm up my muscles. The Selam bus station, which sells tickets for the more comfortable and pricier Selam bus, is located near to the train station (turn left and follow the road and there’s the Selam sign). Unfortunately the only destinations they cover are Gonder and Bahir Dar to the north, and Harar, Dire Dawa and Jimma to the east. I would have to take the normal bus to Moyale. Two days of travel on those buses again. Sigh. No matter. Now i need to make my way to the Merkato again. Took a minibus back from the train station to the Piazza (1 birr) then the Piazza to Merkato (1.70 birr). From the Merkato, had to walk to the end of the market where the main bus station was. Bad news, the guys there said the tickets are sold the next morning at 530am at the counter. Come back then. The
company with buses to Moyale is “3A Tsegaye Kassahun”, with its own booth (No.6) near the bus station entrance.
That’s that for bus hunting then.. Next is replenishment, both groceries and myself, for i didn’t have dinner yesterday. The best place i know for this is the Bole Road area with its upmarket supermarkets. So i pick up another minibus from Merkato to Bole Road (3.50 birr). I don’t know whether i’ve just gotten used to the city, or i’m becoming more confident. I seem to be able to get these minibuses way easier than back then.
I drop off at the New York Supermarket and bought instant noodles, toothpaste, teabags, more eggs and the dailies before having a decent tuna sandwich in the cafe next door, topped with black forest cake and mango juice. The price of lunch is a grand 50 birr. Took yet another minibus from Bole Rd back to the Piazza where the hotel is (2.50 birr).
That’s enough of walking around then. It’s 2pm, i will stay in the room, type this out and take a nap. Later this evening, i’ll go down to the net cafe (no this one doesn’t have wifi unlike Hargeisa’s posh Oriental Hotel in Somaliland).

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49 – A day at the musuem(s)

Thu 14th  Jan, Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
So i decided on going clockwise and stayed another day. That way i can visit the salt lakes along the way (since the Danakil Depression was expensive with 4WD hires and all that) and also save on costs in Djibouti, which is an expensive place to go.

In the late morning, took a walk down to the bus station and get the Dessie-bound tickets. But they were sold out. One ticket guy tells me to turn up tomorrow morning and he’ll sort it out. Not sure how he is going to do that, but it will probably cost more.

Next, went down to the museums around town, namely the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum. The first museum (10 birr entry) was of interest because of Lucy, our apeman ancestor first found in Ethiopia. There was also Selam, a 3 year old ape from around the same period, discovered in 2003.

The second musuem was in the middle of the Addis Ababa Univesity grounds, in their ethnological studies building. The museum (20 birr entry) was divided into 3 sections, Chilhood, Adulthood, and Death & Beyond.  The exhibits were interesting enough to keep me occupied for a couple of hours.

Dinner was a tuna pizza, another welcome change from the daily dose of injeera. Tonight would probably be the last one though. Tomorrow I go back on the road, together with Chris the Englishman i met yesterday at the embassy.

48 – Hooray for successful visa applications!

Wed 13th Jan, Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
I’m typing this as i go along in the Internet cafe. Slept in…. ahhhh…it is lovely to be able to sleep in and not wake up at 4am for buses. Then made my way to the long distance bus station to buy a ticket to Dire Dawa. The big Merkato market was there. So i walked around the market, holding on tightly to my pouch and valuables. The tout back at the Piazza was here! He started following me around, and i got really pissed. I get freaked out by people trailing me, so i turned around, and blasted him in the face: “Stop following me, i dont know what you want but leave me alone. If you dont Ill call the police. Get lost!” Which apparently worked. The hassling has always been there around the country, but here at the Piazza area especially, they are relentless and persistent.
I bought my kettle (a hefty 250 birr) but i figured in the long run it would be worth it. Along the market i also bought a bowl and a fork. I am fully self sufficient now. Later on at the supermarkets i stocked up on instant noodles, hibiscus tea and eggs.
I tore my shirt today when it got caught on a railing. So that’s three time i’ve sewn my pants, once my jacket and now i need to sew back my shirt. I think i’ll be back home with rags…and locally bought clothes.
In the afternoon i made my way to the embassies area again. My Djibouti visa got approved with no problems. I am elated. Two visas in two days. Then i met Chris, an English guy at the embassy. He also is doing the Djibouti Somaliland run, albeit in the other direction. I am now considering whether to travel together with him. I was walking back to the hotel, and we were talking about our travel routes (he did the same from Egypt) and i realised he was on the Egypt-Sudan boat the week before mine. We talked about how we meet people on the boat, and keep meeting them over and over again. I talked about Andy and Z who I met first at the ferry and later in Khartoum. He actually knew them, having traveled the Simien Mountains together!
We were still talking when suddenly the ultimate coincidence of coincidences happened. We saw both Andy and Z on the same uphill road headed towards the same hotel. All 4 of us were staying at the same place! Amazing right? Right? Haahaha.
Dinner together just now ( i had lovely pasta) and now im at the internet place. So all’s good. Now i just need to see if i want to go clockwise or anti-clockwise into Djibouti and Somaliland. I’ll join them to watch African Nations Cup football at the hotel lobby later. It has been a good day =)

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47 – What’s up Addis?

Tue 12th Jan, Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
Woke up early morning looking for a bank for me to change money. I had 30 birr on me (3 SGD) and wouldn’t last too long in Addis without cash. The Ethiopian Commercial Bank changes US dollars. I later realised Dashen Bank was the bank to use, as they were the only bank that accepted VISA and Mastercard, and i even withdrew cash (for the first time since Egypt) through their ATM.
Next made my way to Bole Road, a long stretch of main road with various embassies found on the many side streets. Took one of the minivans bound there (2.6 birr) and made my way to the Somaliland representation. The visa application was over in a jiffy. It was a lot easier than expected. I filled up a form, attached a photo, paid 40 USD and got it in less than 10 minutes. I was elated.
I walked over to the Djibouti embassy next. Similarly i filled up a form, added my photo, paid 40 USD but this time had to wait till tomorrow to collect the visa. I did notice the secretary already had a stack of visa applications and passports on her desk. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, no worries, i had time in Addis.
I decided to celebrate with lunch at a fancy restaurant. That set me back around 25 birr. However, i was an idiot and ordered traditional firfir, instead of some western dishes. So i had to munch through injeera coated with butter. I know better now and will avoid local food, at least while i am in Addis.
Addis is really cosmopolitan. Besides the range of food, the supermarkets along Bole Road (which i presume is a rather upmarket stretch) sell western favourites such as pasta, HP sauce, various cheeses and other imports. I decided to walk back north instead of taking the minibus to check out the city. I visited at least 4 supermarkets, checking out each one in the hopes of getting my own electric kettle. Found many 2 litre ones, which were too bulky (cheapest was 350 birr) to stuff into my bag. I’ll try in the market tomorrow, if i can’t find one i might just buy the 2 litre one. In the end, i just bought every single English language newspaper i could find (Fortune, 3 birr. Sub-Saharan news, 4 birr, Capital, 4 birr)
Continuing on the cosmopolitan bit…the general populace about town are well dressed, with fancy hair and accessories, going their way about town, sipping their cup of macchiatos. It is certainly different from the countryside in the north where i’ve been roaming the past two weeks. Fended off more would-be tricksters (Hi, im a student (a really old one!) from Addis Ababa University. Would you like to see a coffee ceremony?) and decided i don’t really want to see any sights or museums today. Instead i will go and watch a movie at the nearby Cinema Ethiopia. The selection of shows are pretty old stuff i think and the only show was King’s Ransom (no i havent heard of it either). The price was 4 birr (thats 40 cents in SGD, hah, beat that!) I was strip searched at the entrance, and my camera was put under lock The interior of the cinema was much like how old cinemas look like, the seats pretty spartan. And you had these cinema ushers going around with buns
on trays. The peculiar thing was that halfway through the show, there was a break, the lights went on and the cinema ushers did their thing with their trays. I’m not sure whether the break was intentional or there was something wrong with the reel.
Had some internet time next, yes it feels great to not be doing anything, instead of rushing to see some sight or taking a 12 hour bus ride. The connections were much faster here than elsewhere and cheaper at 12 birr/hr.
For dinner i had a fish burger and 7 up (grand total of 26 birr) at a restaurant. I figured in Ethiopia there are no street food (besides snacks such as the abovementioned samosas, barley, sugar cane, kolo etc.). Instead there are cafes (for pastries), bars (for drinks) and restaurants for food. Any combination of these would make the establishment.
Lastly, i am in africa in the midst of the Afican Nations Cup 2010. This meant that all the satelite Tvs are tuned in to the live matches where everyone is watching. Today was Egypt Nigeria, though i did not catch the game.

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46 – Helloooo everyone, yeah i feel fine! (That and i am high on qat)

Mon 11th Jan, Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa
It was another long journey. At 5am, a few hundred people were freezing in the cold (phooooo, see the cold air i can blow out of my mouth!) waiting for the bus station gates to open. If there was a stampede i wasn’t sure i’d survive.
By this second day, i had made contact with the passengers still in the bus, heading to Addis. I’m the asian faranji in the back corner of the bus, who’s not from China as the thought. The Ethiopians have their own mannerisms (like those Egyptians who have their hisses, and the Sudanese who have their tsktsks).. The Ethiopians exaggerate to show they are surprised, like sucking in your breath with your eyes and mouth open, making only a mild almost silent sound. I’ve seen this many times now.
Along the way, i was offered qat by the bus conductor, who had a whole bagload. I took a few stalks and started munching, providing a spectacle for the rest of the passengers in the rear. They were amused this faranji was munching his qat. The way to chew the qat is to take in some leaves, put it at the rear of the teeth and coat it with saliva, chewing and sucking on the bitter leaves. Now, as i mentioned some posts back, qat (or chat) is a mildly intoxicating stimulant. Its banned in neighbouring Eritrea, and is exported to Djibouti and Somalia. I began munching on my leaves. When the bus conductor started going on about how “I feel free! Free!” then i realised maybe it’s not such a good idea. The other passengers told me through hand actions, pointing at the head and then at the stomach to not eat anymore. I stopped at 2 stalks, and i think i went to sleep.
On reaching Addis, i got off and made my way to the Piazza area, where i hope the hotels were concentrated. The LP maps had hotels sprawed all over the place and i wasn’t sure where the best place to base myself was. I had decided on Piazza simply because it was within walking distance. However this entails passing through the Merkata, Addis’ large market, the largest in Ethiopia. Plenty of pickpockets, confidence men and the like abound in the area. I would explore the market later, but not now with my large backpack. Arming myself with a samosa (its the same like ours, but without curry and with beans as filling) from a street vendor, i tried to look as though i knew where i was going. Taking bites out of my samosa, i nonchanlantly asked for directions here and there. It was 5pm and i better find a place to stay before dark.
Reached the Piazza area, which i realised is near the city centre. All the better, a centralised location to base myself. Trailed by a guy who won’t leave me alone (i just want to be your friend, i want to improve my english..), i asked around 3 hotels before settling on the 1st, the other two were full. Singles with bathrooms went up to 200birr in the Taitu hotel’s newer main building. I picked a skanky room with common toilet (i got my own shower though, but no hot water) in the older rear building for 94 birr. Rooms in Addis were (relatively) expensive, i could get better rooms back in the northern region. But this place is comfortable enough, with my prerequisite, a power point, so i am happy. And for the first time in two weeks, i have showered and am clean. Don’t get me wrong, i do shower and stuff over the last couple weeks, it’s just that as soon as i step out of my room, i get covered in dust again.
Tomorrow will be visa hunting day again. I hope it will not be like in khartoum, where i spent days waiting for my visa application, only for it not to be approved. In the meantime, i will spend the rest of the night in the loo. I realise what the lady in the bus meant when she pointed at the qat i ate and then at her stomach. I didn’t know it was a laxative too!