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Addis Ababa - A view from our expert author
The Holy Trinity Cathedral © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
This is a city with a real buzz, one possessed of a sense of self-definition and place.
The world’s third-highest capital city, Addis Ababa (which somewhat improbably means ‘New Flower’, and is often shortened to plain ‘Addis’) lies in the central highlands of Ethiopia at an altitude of 2,400m. Climatically, this large city is a highly encouraging introduction to Ethiopia: characterised throughout the year, both day and night, by comfortable temperate weather, interrupted by the occasional torrential downpour, Addis Ababa will swiftly dispel any lingering preconceptions about Ethiopia being a searing desert. In most other respects, however, Addis Ababa and its three million residents can be rather overwhelming on first exposure, with beggars, cripples, taxi drivers and hawkers clamouring for your attention, and con artists and pickpockets doing their utmost to divert it. Visitors on organised tours will be reasonably sheltered from Addis’s more bombastic elements, but independent travellers who haven’t visited a large Third World city before – and, indeed, many who have – are likely to end their first day in Addis Ababa feeling somewhat besieged. A not unreasonable response to Addis Ababa would be to move on as swiftly as possible. Certainly, those who touchdown at Bole Airport in the morning or early afternoon could easily bus straight on to somewhere like Bishoftu (Debre Zeyit) or Adama (Nazret), and save prolonged confrontation with the capital for a later date.
Like most African cities, Addis does tend to grow on you. When I researched the first edition of the Bradt guide, I found it difficult to reconcile the notes I made after my first day in Addis with the city I eventually came to know and, if not exactly love, then certainly like and enjoy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any single reason for this. One factor, particularly for those who travel rough, is that the capital’s relatively Westernised facilities look a lot more inviting after a week or two bussing through the sticks than they do coming directly from Europe or wherever. Another is that Addis Ababa’s less savoury elements – the pickpockets, con artists and bogus students – are far more easily handled and deflected once one has become attuned to Ethiopia more generally. Eventually, sadly, the visitor will even become somewhat if not entirely numbed to Addis’s shocking parade of polio cripples, amputee war veterans, ragged street children, naked beggars and ranting loonies. More than anything, though, Addis Ababa grows on the visitor because it is all bark and very little bite. For all the hustlers and opportunistic thieves, the show-off teenagers who gratuitously yell the F-word at travellers and make lewd propositions to single females, the actual threat to one’s personal safety is negligible. I’d feel safer spending a month in downtown Addis Ababa than I would an hour in parts of Nairobi or Johannesburg – or parts of many Western capitals. And beneath the grotesquery and poverty there lies the infectious spirit that is characteristic of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is a busy, bustling, exciting city; the hassle that one might occasionally receive comes from only a tiny fraction of its predominantly friendly population – don’t let first impressions put you off.