Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 2 in Addis

Wednesday 19 March 2008
Went to the Somaliland Liaison Office in Addis. Very friendly people who were anxious to get more tourists and assure that their country is absolutely safe. The Chief Rep even said that he had been to Singapore and that there are many Asian businessmen in Somaliland. The visa was issued to me in a mere 15 minutes at a price of US$40. I flicked through their recent proceed visa applications and apart from the usual assorted young tourists, there were quite a few China citizens, probably businessmen. My visa was the 144th issued for the year, which implies about 2 visas issued each working day of the year.
I then rushed to the Djibouti Embassy where I lodged my visa application and passport for collection in the afternoon the same day. Single entry visa for US$30. They don't issue multiple entry visas.
Went to the nearby Rwanda Embassy. After I filled up the visa application forms, the staff told me that her boss said the visa would only be issued if I have bookings with "tourist destinations", whatever that means, and that my employers letter has a company stamp. I showed them various website printouts but could not impress them. Too bad if they didn't want my money. I would try again when I am in Uganda.
I then walked around the nearby Bole Road area. This is a very long road leading to the airport. It's emerging as a new CBD with a number of skyscrapers, fancy hotels and modern shopping malls. In short, a very nice area guaranteed to be popular with expats and the middle class. This area, as well as the flashy new ring road around Addis with the flyovers, are all being developed by the Chinese. In fact, the design of many buildings in Addis and surrounding areas seem to have come straight from China, with a kind of standardized look common among commercial or office buildings five to six storeys tall common in Chinese suburban areas.
There are a lot of new construction going on. Addis looks like it is booming big time, perhaps from natural gas exports to China.
I walked into a pharmacy and bought a bottle of cough mixture (some slight cough recently) – very glad that the people here understand English. Browsed at an English bookshop at a shopping mall. There are English books here! In most of West Africa, people are too poor to read!
The Airport is very near here. I went there and was delighted to find out that my luggage has been found. Returned to the hotel – smiling widely. Here I met people from Nomadic Ethiopia Tours, who operated out of Wutma Hotel. They persuaded me to do a tour of the Omo Valley. I was previously concerned about the rainy season which would make travel in Omo difficult and unpleasant, but was assured by them and some taxi drivers that there has been a drought and the rainy season seems to be starting later this year. Having spent some time in very costly West Africa, the US$110 asked for per day for driver, car and fuel didn't look excessive. So I agreed to it. (They said it would be possible to find other tourists in Jinka who didn't have transport to share the costs, but of course I didn't place too much weight on that happening).
We then rushed off to do various admin: Collect passport back from Djibouti embassy, book air tickets for ADD-Djibouti, Hargeisa-ADD (fully booked weeks in advance), ADD-Bahir Dar, Gondor-Lalibela, Lalibela-Axum and Axum-ADD, plus changing my Uganda flight from 14th Apr to 16th Apr. Amazing list of admin done in one single day!
I find Ethiopians friendly and many speak English. There are also many supermarkets here. Things are cheap here. Prices are like that of Thailand. Basic hotel rooms with attached bathroom in Ethiopia start from US$10 whereas the same in West Africa's CFA zone start from US$50. Meals cost only US$1 to 3 in a simple tourist restaurant in Ethiopia, compared to US$ 10 in West Africa. A cup of coffee costs US$0.15 to US$0.30 in Ethiopia compared to US$1 in West Africa. Five bananas cost between US$0.50 to US$1.50 in West Africa, but only US$0.40 in Addis Ababa. (On Thursday, I was to buy a whole bunch of twenty plus bananas in the countryside for only US$0.20!) I think this proves my earlier point about how French-speaking countries of West Africa have impoverished themselves by being in the CFA zone and hence virtual economic colonies of France. Ethiopia can import anything it wants and gets a wide range of products from all over the world. It is also not tied to the overvalued Euro and not reducing its competiveness as a result.
Having said that, the Ethiopian Birr has been depreciating rapidly – even faster than the US$1. A year ago, US$1 was equivalent to Birr 8; it is now Birr 9.6 and press reports say black market rates are Birr 10.5. Even based on the official rates, it means that the Birr had depreciated by over 20% against non-US$ linked currencies such as the Euro or S$.
I walked into a bookshop in Addis. Bought a few magazines and newspapers, a coffeetable book called "Under Ethiopian Skies", printed in Singapore. Think about it – I would be bringing this book back to where its own odyssey started. Also bought an amazing 84-page brochure published in 1953 by the Imperial Ethiopian Government's Press and Information Department called "Eritrea Hails Her Sovereign". It's a propaganda publication published half a century ago on Eritrea's annexation by Ethiopia and of how the territory welcomes the first official visit by Emperor Haile Selassie. I bought this antique piece at only Birr 35. The bookshop is one of those places in many Third World countries which continues to stock outdated stuff and sell them at original prices, without due consideration to inflation. I recall buying twenty year old books for US$2 or 3 in a nice bookshop in remote Assam State of India.
Ethiopia uses the Julian Calendar which the Western World abandoned over 500 years ago. That means that the country has 13 months and is over 7 years behind everybody else. Late last year, Ethiopia celebrates the year 2000. We are still in Ethiopian year 2000, and there are posters and billboards everywhere celebrating the "Ethiopian Millennium".
Ethiopia even uses a different time from everybody else. They are always 6 hours from everybody else. When it's 6am ("European time"), the Ethiopian say it's 12 o'clock. When it's 7am, the Ethiopians say it's one o'clock after sunrise. Ethiopians will always use Ethiopian date and time. To be sure, I always have to ask them again and again what is it in European time.
There is a lot of pride in Ethiopian Airlines here. It is known as "Africa's World Class Airline" and "The New Spirit of Africa" in advertisements and billboards. An Ethiopian scoffed at Kenya Airways when I mentioned another major African aviation player, "They are nothing compared to us."
There are many types of Ethiopian faces. Walking on the wide boulevards of Addis or while sipping coffee in many of Addis' many cafes, I can't help but noticed brown faces, black faces, faces with flatter Asiatic features and those with roundish Bantu features, whatever. Ethiopia has over 80 ethnic groups. Two of its major groups, the Amharas (whose language is the national language) and Tigres who are closely linked to each other, are Semitic languages whose closest cousins are Arabic and Hebrew. In fact, the founder of the Ethiopian Kingdom was Menelik I, whom the Ethiopians claimed to be the son resulting from a rather unusual sexual encounter between King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. I have already recounted the story of how Solomon tricked the Queen of Sheba onto bed in my Yemeni travelogue.
I wanted to ask an Addis taxi driver whether people still respect and revere the legacy of late Halie Selassie today. I made the mistake of using the word "worship". He said, "No, the Ethiopians do not worship him. Only the Jamaicans do and many Ethiopians like neither these Rastafarians nor the emperor. The Rastafarian movement began in the 1920s when a group of Jamaicans decided to reject the Christian churches and sought to "return" to their African roots by embracing Africa's only independent, non-colonised state at that time (- they ignored Liberia properly because it had strong American influence).
The Rastas saw Halie Selassie as a god-king of sorts and some even undertook pilgrimages to Ethiopia. To many Ethiopians, however, even after taking into account his campaign to liberate the country from Fascist Italy during WWII, Halie Selassie's over half-century rule was autocratic and backward, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands from famine. The Rastas, with their marijuana habits, braid-hair, rejection of anything Western and blurry, easygoing ways, are an embarrassment to some Ethiopians and sometimes despised by others. A group even settled in a small town south of Addis, which I passed on my way southwards to the Omo valley.

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