By Rafiq Raji
Ethiopians love their coffee. Well, I love coffee as well. I’ve recently had to cut back on my intake – apparently drinking too much coffee could be problematic for the digestive system. Too late. However, I’m skeptical that caution would apply to Ethiopian coffee. At least, not the coffee I drank during my first visit to the country in late 2013. That caffeine kick you get when you drink instant coffee is an intrusion, I think. You drink Ethiopian coffee (got another chance in London at the Africa Utopia food market in September 2014); you don’t feel any of that. Instead, your senses are enlivened by the aroma, taste and smoothness of the coffee. At least mine were. And since one drank a lot of awful instant coffee most of the time, believe me it was not too difficult to tell the difference. You drink it and you want to know how much it had journeyed to finally make it to your cup. You want another cup, and then another cup; until afterwards you say maybe I should stop now. But it certainly wouldn’t be because you fear the coffee would burn a hole in your stomach. Ethiopians take their coffee seriously. And whether you are rich or poor, it is the same coffee.
On holiday and being in Ethiopia for the first time in late 2013, I was curious. First of all, I wanted to know how they’d manage to do so well with their national airline unlike a lot of other African countries. Well, how do you get a feel for that? Well, you fly the airline. So I did. Once in Addis Ababa, I took my time to survey the airport. The Bole International Airport is functional. The first thought that came to my mind was: Chinese. The Shanghai and Beijing international airports are not extravagant. They are simply functional and efficient. Bole was built by the Chinese. You could tell instantly. One thing I did observe was the caution around foreign exchange. One was able to procure goods and services in the convertible foreign currencies quite easily. To acquire foreign currency (to convert your Birrs to US dollars, say), however, you had to go to a bank. You could also change currencies both ways at any of the international hotel chains. Since I was also attending The African High-Growth Markets Summit organized by The Economist at one of them, I made enquiries. Yes, you could. But at the smaller and less pricey ones, you get your change in Birrs. At least, that was my experience at the hotel I stayed at. As you can imagine, I was on a budget. When paying my hotel (not an international chain) bills, the receptionist gave me change in Birrs for my US dollars.
On the road to the hotel, I kept trying to benchmark the size of the city with other African cities I had been in. Nigeria’s northwestern city of Kaduna was the closest city I could think of that compared with Addis. But Addis is a much more international city than Kaduna. The African Union, United Nations and a myriad of other multilateral agencies and NGOs have made Addis their home. It is somewhat of a paradox that a supposedly “closed” country would be host to so many international agencies (and many international conferences) on the African continent. First thing I did when I got to the hotel was to pick up the local newspapers at the lobby. There is just no way you can get a feel for a country without actually going there, meet its people and get a feel for what makes the country tick.
The other thing I try do when I visit a city – not that I’ve visited many – for the first time (and even subsequently) is go for a walk/jog around the city centre. There is a lot that you miss if you try to get a feel for a city from behind the windows of a car. You have to breathe the air. You have to lock gazes with the locals. You have to get into conversations with them. Even make a few mistakes. For instance, I thought the ornate surroundings of this particular compound was worthy of a photo. Well, in no time, the guards came out from their watching posts and wondered why I was taking a photo. Unbeknownst to me, it was an official residence. I did think though the surroundings were eerily calm. It was so for a reason. I was not too eager to take out my camera afterwards though. My caution was unnecessary. Soon enough, I’d see other tourists clicking away. Unlike most of them, however, I didn’t get a chance to see the hinterland. Not that I’d planned to do much spending on this trip. I was on a budget, remember. I did acquire some books on Ethiopia that I doubt you’d find readily elsewhere. But there was a lot of sightseeing I didn’t get to do.
For instance, Abyssinia (in today’s Ethiopia) is of great importance to Muslims. The first set of Muslims to flee persecution in Makkah (in then pagan Arabia) found refuge in Abyssinia and were settled in Negash (northern part of today’s Ethiopia) by King Armah (“Ashama ibn Abjar” in the Arabic tradition) of Axum. As a Muslim, I would have loved to visit (still do) where they were buried. Time and money were constraints. I also didn’t get to visit any of the nine World Heritage Sites in the country. The stone castles of Gondar, rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, and Lake Tana monasteries are marvels I’m told. The country’s high mountains – some over 4,500 metres high – are also breathtaking, I gather. These are sites I’d certainly like to visit on my next trip, which I hope would be some time soon. I’d definitely like to travel the so-called Historic Circuit, which includes some of the above-mentioned sites and more.
I did enjoy my walk through the city though; often a round trip that started on Tito street where my hotel was located, through Menelik II Avenue, Taitu street and Yohanis Street and then back on Tito street. It was also surprisingly (for me) cold at night. I visited during the dry season, usually between October and May. Although it was chilly in London at that time of the year, I was a little surprised I had to hang on to my jacket at night the entire time. As you can imagine, I didn’t get to see a lot of the many sites I would have loved to see. Having happened on quite some time lately, you wish you could move time and money to coincide with a travel opportunity. And even when that happens, you want to go somewhere different. The lesson I’ve learnt, however, is to make sure to be more exploring of the cities I travel to. So the next Ethiopian trip – though likely more adventurous – would have to wait. But then coffee is best-enjoyed one slow sip at a time!
Opinions expressed are mine and not that of any institution(s) I may be affiliated with.