January 10, 2014
10 p.m. local time
Bethel Guest House
Addis Ababa, Ethiopa
Once I awoke from my nap, I decided to explore the city before dark. I went down to the front desk and spoke to the pleasant young woman there. I wanted to just walk around, maybe get something to eat, since I hadn’t had a bite to eat since the airplane — about 11 hours.
She walked me out of the gate and up the block to a busy street at the head of our little side road. She walked me to the right, toward the busy roundabout that I can just see from my third-floor bedroom. She showed me the second-floor pizzeria just above the shop on the corner.
Thanking her, I decided to walk around and explore. I can’t quite figure this place out yet. I seem to be in an outlying, almost suburban area within Addis Ababa. There are many large, new houses with walls around them. Some of the sidewalks are paved with decorative pavers. There are very few beggars in the streets here. And there are zero tourists.
I walked around for an hour or so, and I saw precisely one other white guy, who was out walking with a group of Africans. I saw one white woman behind the wheel of an SUV. But I saw an amazing multitude of Ethiopians.
I have read that Ethiopia is mostly Christian, with a significant Muslim minority, but this neighborhood, with the mosque right there on the traffic circle, has a lot of Muslims. At least, there are many women in various styles of scarf — a few with the full niqab, covering the entire face, but mostly wearing the abaya, covering body and hair but not face.
Very few people approached me. No one begged. Some of the children stared but didn’t speak. Some teenagers said, “Salaam! Hello!” but they were sitting on the sidewalk chewing on a green plant and seemed high. They giggled.
The neighborhood is somewhat prosperous, I guess, but I’m dumbfounded by the dirt, the hulks of unfinished buildings, the bricks lying here and there at random, the vacant lots. This is a new neighborhood — there’s not a single structure here that’s more than 25 years old — but it’s incomplete.
Pedestrians walk slowly here. Most people are in pairs or groups — there are relatively few solo walkers. Some younger men hold hands, or one man holds the elbow of his friend. Some women hold hands too. But all in all, it’s not a clingy culture. I’m struck again by the reserve. The people are tall and thin — I was actually surprised to see literally one man as stout as I am, although among the women, perhaps 3 to 5 percent are heavy.
Finally, I returned to the Alternet Cafe and Restaurant, which is on the second story of a building diagonally across the roundabout from the mosque. I asked for a seat out on the balcony and ordered a pizza and a Pepsi. The sun was going down behind the mountains, and the lights at the bakery and the market started to twinkle. Ethiopian pop played softly on the CD player. The traffic below me on the street was fairly but silent — Ethiopians don’t honk. The service in the restaurant was slow but polite — Ethiopians don’t rush. The pizza came eventually, and it was really quite good.
And when the power suddenly went out, throwing the restaurant and the whole neighborhood into darkness, no one even blinked. Everything was quiet for five minutes, and then the power returned, the music started again, the bill came.
More than 100 birr for a pizza and two sodas? I whipped out my calculator. Oh, that’s five bucks. Not bad. Not bad.