When we announced we would be travelling to Ethiopia, everyone had the same response. Soon, my practised answer became, “Because I want to experience the typical African way of life.”
In reality, it was only one of two reasons my partner and I decided to visit the country. Around the time we were finalizing our travel plans, I was editing a book on the prehistoric cultures of the people around the Indian Ocean that devoted a substantial bit to Ethiopia, where the first hominid, with the ability to walk on two legs, was discovered.
Her name is Lucy, inspired by the Beatles song that played during the celebratory party after her excavation. She existed 3.2 million years ago and her remains were preserved in the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Reading about her, I felt an intense longing to see Lucy in person.
And then, as I read more about Ethiopia, I found it was the only country in Africa that was not colonized by a Western power (the Italians were there for a couple of years; their legacy, arguably, is that the best Italian food outside of the motherland can be found in Ethiopia).
The country, as we were to discover, had remained unadulterated by foreign cultures, holding on to its ancient heritage—including its own daily clock and civil calendar.
During the time we were there in late 2016, their calendar reflected the year 2008. That they had a 13-month year, celebrated Christmas in January and New Year’s in September really piqued our curiosity.
In retrospect, I have no regrets about our choice. Ethiopia offered us much more than its museum displays—it embraced us with its warmth, beauty and quirkiness.
But I also realized that a lot of what percolated in my imagination as the “African way of life” was from reading Western accounts of that continent. To gobar-tinted Indian eyes accustomed to diversity of cultures and economy—wealth and abject poverty in close proximity—Africa seemed a lot like home.
Another reason for choosing Ethiopia was less romantic and more logistical. My partner had recently applied for an extension to his UK visa. Although he had a comfortable six-week window from applications to our travel date, we had to find a country which offered visas on arrival. Ethiopia was a perfect fit.
A warm welcome
In my brief travelling career, I have met more stern immigration officers than pleasant ones. So I approached the visa desk at the Addis Ababa airport with my most officious demeanour and a well-organized file.
The woman behind the counter greeted me with a broad smile and said, “You are so beautiful!”
It took me a couple of seconds to recover and return a compliment about her braided hair. My admiration was genuine—my Ethiopian must-dos included getting a shuruba, the local style of hair-braiding.
Over the course of our travels in the country, we ended up receiving many more such warm smiles and compliments. Time and again, people would express surprise when they found out I don’t speak Amharic or have any Ethiopian ancestry.
After a cheery reunion with my partner, who had arrived an hour earlier from the UK, and a quick trip to a forex booth for some Ethiopian birr (the exchange rate then was approximately Rs3 to a birr), we headed out of the airport lounge into a chilly, rain-drenched afternoon.
There we caught our first glimpse of Addis—surrounded by low-lying hills and highlighted by mist from the rain, it looked to me like a north-east Indian town, more familiar than exotic. The similarity was driven home when we hit the crater-filled roads on our way into town; actually, I haven’t encountered potholes of such magnitude even on the post-monsoon highways of Assam.
Not left with much time to explore the city that evening, we decided on an early dinner. My vegan partner, who had embarked on this trip expecting to survive on salads alone, was in for a pleasant surprise.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, we were told, has seven fasting periods (additionally, every Wednesday and Friday were also fasting days), amounting to almost four months a year in total. During this, believers are not allowed to eat any animal or dairy products—a vegan fast.
We had landed in middle of a week-long fast for the Virgin Mary, which would mean all restaurants served elaborate vegan meals all day long. At a neighbourhood eatery, after confidently asking for non-dairy dinner options, the waitress pointed to something on the menu called beyaynetu. It was the best decision we made on our trip.
What came was a vegan thali, as it were, packed with spicy flavours. We discovered injera, the base of any Ethiopian meal. Dosa-like, it is made of fermented teff flour batter and fried over a pan. In our beyaynetu, the injera was spread over a large plate, topped with portions of various dry and curry-like preparations.
The staple topping is shiro wat, an extremely flavourful curry made from ground chickpea flour; there was misir wat, a red lentil curry; gomen or collard greens, a green leafy vegetable; sautéed veggies including cabbage, beetroot, potato, carrot and broad beans; and a timatim salata, tomato salad with red onions and slices of jalapeno, dressed in salt, lemon and a drizzle of olive oil.
All curries had a delicious helping of the chilli powder-heavy berbere seasoning, like our own garam masala.
Before leaving the restaurant, I asked the pretty waitress where I could get a shuruba like hers. She pointed me to a place nearby. It was decided, the one day we would spend in Addis would include a date with Lucy and a shuruba for my hair.
The next day started out rainy as well. We headed out of the hotel and hopped into a taxi, not our usual mode of travel, after some initial bargaining, partly because the car was a communist-era Lada. Our initial impressions changed as the roads got better when we headed to the centre of the city. While it had impressive squares with statues flaunting their tradition, it also seemed like a city under construction.
Inside the sombre National Museum, after building up Lucy quite a bit in my head by then, I almost passed her by. Only 40% of her skeleton had been unearthed and restructured. As she had grown to a height of three and a half feet, there wasn’t really much left of her.
Apart from prehistoric remains, the museum also housed some interesting Ethiopian art—the one that particularly stood out was of the great famine of the 1980s, depicting an exodus of skeletal people. As we would come to discover, that period had shaped much of the Ethiopian imagination, and also of how the outside world views the country.
The rain was coming down more heavily as we stepped out. It was a little after noon and we heard chanting from the Bet Maryam church. We witnessed for the first time the devoutness of the followers of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.
Head and upper body covered in a white muslin cloth, a stark contrast to the colourful umbrellas that sheltered them from the rain, they bowed their heads and gathered in droves outside the church and soon spilled on to the road. We made our way through the umbrellas and moved into the surrounding courtyard. We spent a quiet time with our heads bowed, soaking in all the positivity from the prayers.
Recharged, we headed towards the Piazza, a bustling market area. The previous evening, my faithful camera of many years had deserted me. The click button would not work. With only one dodgy phone camera between the two of us—after all the anticipation, I only have a few blurry photos of the dimly lit Lucy panel—we had made up our minds to buy a point-and-shoot from Addis before we set out northwards.
Walking on the roads, the first thing one notices is the number of temporary tarpaulin-covered kiosks manned by listros, the shoeshine boys. There are thousands of them in the city, like the ubiquitous chaiwallahs in India. Their shops are always full of people who come there to gossip and for a bit of rest, as well as clean shoes.
We heard a minivan driver call out Piazza and decided to hop on. Waiting for the van to fill up, I was reminded yet again of home—this time of shared transport on Delhi roads. Once in Piazza, we unsuccessfully looked for a camera that met our budget as well as specifications and soon gave up. Also, we wanted to make it to Merkato, the largest open air market in Africa before it got dark.
Using public transport in a country that does not speak your language is always a challenge. After many confusing instructions, we finally found a bus parked in a busy market area. When the driver, the only person in the bus, confirmed he was heading towards our destination, we hopped on. The bus, however, did not move for the next 10 minutes and nobody else got in.
Feeling quite foolish, we tried again with the driver, “Merkato go when?” He gesticulated at the empty bus and said something to the effect of, “How much you pay to hire whole bus?” As I started to animatedly refuse this proposition, he began to laugh.
We started up a conversation and soon he was telling us about his love for Mithun Chakraborty movies. Bollywood and saas-bahu serials, dubbed in Amharic, it seems, are as ubiquitous as the listros in Ethiopia. After five minutes, as if on some cue, a huge crowd streamed into the bus and we took off immediately.
Merkato started about half a kilometre from where the bus dropped us. We made a quick stop at a bank to exchange some more currency and met a friendly manager, who while regaling us with local stories, introduced us to an important Ethiopian tradition, the coffee ceremony.
We would soon encounter more elaborate versions, where the hostess—Ethiopia has gender-specific roles—first fills your senses with the aroma of roasted coffee beans before pouring out the rich liquid from a long-necked black earthen pot into small ceramic cups, often painted with red and green flowers.
After buying a camera that would ensure less hazy photographic evidence of our trip, we were ready to take on Merkato, a foray that proved to be quite overwhelming for jet-lagged souls. We covered but the tip of what was a humongous area where we found everything from mounds of souvenirs to vegetables, similar to a typical Indian mandi, before departing.
We decided to try out a fourth mode of transport—after the Lada taxi, the shared minivan and the bus—halfway back to the hotel, the swanky new overground metro, a stark contrast to the more traditional blue and white minivans plying the roads.
Shuruba at last
There was time to do only one thing before our last meal in Addis. And so, I found my way to the beauty parlour the waitress had told me about for my long-awaited shuruba.
There, they offered me a choice of wigs to which I indicated I wanted it done on my own hair. When the hairdresser began to separate my hair into fine clumps, I was certain I would be sitting with her for the rest of the evening. But her nimble fingers turned my unruly mop into tidy cornrows in under half an hour. She was the first of many who told me I looked like I was one of them.
The waitress echoed her thoughts when we walked into the restaurant of the previous evening for a repeat order of beyaynetu. With or without the shuruba, we would find out throughout our journey around the country, the Ethiopians are an inclusive people.
When we walked out of the restaurant, we found the owners along with a few children making a bonfire with thin fragrant sticks, marking an auspicious day. We hung around the fire for a while, soaking in the warmth of participation, playing with the children, and also reminiscing about Magh Bihu festivities around a similar fire while growing up in Assam.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small shop to pick up water for the night. The man behind the counter was chewing on a leaf, the notorious khat, an energy-inducing plant that also causes red eye. While it is a controlled drug in the West, it can be legally consumed in some East African countries, including Ethiopia.
Many Ethiopians chew on the herb all day long, and during our travels we heard both moralistic objections and defences on its practicality. We asked the shopkeeper to give us a sample and chewed on a couple of the bittersweet leaves as we walked back.
We were leaving Addis early next morning to go to Bahir Dar, the town next to Lake Tana, the second largest lake in Africa and the source of the Blue Nile.
During our day-long tryst with the capital, we had not encountered any of the harshness and impersonality associated with big cities. It was almost as if Addis Ababa had refreshingly imbibed the meaning of its name, “New Flower”.
Paloma Dutta is a book editor based in Delhi.