Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Getting around Addis Ababa

After the fiasco of my flight out of Rwanda I arrived in Addis Ababa three hours late for the Meskel eve celebrations. It was frustrating, given the effort I had gone to so I could see it, but such things happen. Travel is full of unplanned events.

The mood in Addis was still celebratory. Music was playing and people sat drinking with groups of friends in their courtyards while the smell and white haze of smoke from innumerable bonfires blanketed the sprawling city. I got just a taste of it. My friendly driver from the great little Addis Regency Hotel, J.J., who picked me up from the airport, was sympathetic with my frustration. On the way to the Regency we swung by Meskel Square, the site of the central celebrations and major bonfire, where we located the ashes and, per tradition, drew a cross on our foreheads, as the Catholics do on Ash Wednesday. I'm not religious but was happy to participate in the festival in even a small way.

The following day was a public holiday, so the usually frenetic roads were quiet and the typically chaotic traffic subdued. It was a nice but false introduction to Addis. It isn't usually so easy to get around.

The cheapest mode of transport in the city is on the public transit system of orange and yellow buses, but I was warned off them. They are crammed with pickpockets. Violence against tourists in Addis is almost completely unheard of (would-be perpetrators fear too much the consequences: if caught by the police, they could be beaten to death in front of you. Since the oppressive regime of the Derg in the latter 20th-century there remains a healthy fear of the police, though this has abated somewhat in recent years). Pickpockets, however, abound. Common sense and an air of confidence, though, with a few phrases in Amharic to sound like a local, will dissuade them.

The better transport option is the private licensed blue and white minibuses. These are found all over Africa. An independent traveller could actually cross the continent in them, provided you can understand the destination the conductor shouts out the window. In Addis the prices are fixed, and they won't cheat you.

For the beaten up blue Peugeot taxis and the little blue three-wheeled tuk-tuks with white canvas roofs called bajat, prices need to be negotiated. A short trip shouldn't cost more than 100 birr, about AU$6. And when you tell the driver where you're going, forget about street addresses. They are meaningless. Locals don't use them, or even know the street names. As is the way in old cities, navigation is by landmarks and districts: you tell the driver, "Take me to the Itegua Taitu Hotel in Piazza."

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