An urban monster called Addis Abeba

Warning: many of the commentaries and opinions that you will be about to read might sound very harsh, but I promise they are the most accurate account of the frequently miserable experience that is crossing Ethiopia by bicycle. Given the radical difference that exists between those of us who travel by bicycle across this country (and those who walk the world too) and those who travel by any kind of motorised transport, I don't feel particularly well predisposed to accept any objections coming from those who haven't crossed it in the same way.

Translation courtesy of Thomas Benitex

I have said it more than once already and I like to say it again: the entrance to (and exits of) the great cities of the world by bicycle is not easy and it is rarely a simple experience. It is a stressful process where you have to go around finding your way in a completely unknown metropolis while keeping your concentration to protect yourself from a traffic that is potentially dangerous at any time. Added to that, in some cities, it is vital to remain alert at all times, since one may be going unknowingly through generally peripheral areas, where the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time increases considerably. But as much as it can be a stressful process, it can also be a fascinating experience, as is the case of large African cities, and Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is a good example of them.

The rural world of the Ethiopian highlands dramatically stops at the great ring road around the big Addis. The chaos is imminent, a cramped mass of improvised houses, made of wood, cardboard, corrugated steel, grows organically on a still rigorously mountainous terrain at an average altitude of 2400 m. We keep descending and ascending slowly to keep the balance, along dirt and stony streets muddied by the rain. We pass along street markets selling every imaginable piece of cheap Chinese stuff, dodging people walking in all directions, donkeys, goats. Nilotic, Bantu, Trigrayans, Afaris, Somalis, Oromos, the cultural mix is amazing. Street vendors carrying more junk hanging on their bodies than a Christmas tree on December 25th, seeking to earn a few cents a day. Chaos, bustle, shattered vans acting as public transport, overflowing with people, make their way through every possible opening. The driver's assistant with his body half-way out of the window yells out the destinations as he hits the door to draw the attention of potential travelers. So we go, plunging into the incredible universe of Addis, a city as ugly as dazzling.

We have to get to the very heart of the city, where Claudio lives. He is an Ethiopian whose grandfather arrived with the Italian forces of Mussolini, later married an Ethiopian woman whom gave birth to Claudio's mother, who later married the Italian man who became his father. Claudio is now indistinguishable from an ordinary Italian but has grown up and lived all his life in Ethiopia. He and his friends show us a new Ethiopia, a very different one, that one of people with higher levels of education, a reality that reaches only 15% of this country. We welcome this change as a new relief from the constant harassment, because they are really lovely people and obviously they do not welcome us (or say farewell) by stoning us. Sometimes it becomes so clear the immeasurable value of having been able to access education.

It takes us until mid-afternoon to get to Claudio's house, Addis' chaos puts constant hindrances on the way and last but not least the ups and downs of the hills continue well within the city's boundaries, which right in the urban chaos are significantly worse and more dangerous than in the rural areas. As if the wild nature of this urban jungle were not enough, the government had the brilliant idea of calling the Chinese to make an urban plan for them and build a train. Only an Ethiopian mind can conceive an idea of such a degree of stupidity, or perhaps a degree of corruption, to have the Chinese, who are not precisely characterized by having a well-adjusted urban vision for places so foreign to their own culture, build them and urban train that contradicts the very intrinsic nature of the city. Although Addis is hell, it is an organic urban hell that has found its own, even though naturally twisted, logic and it is a "logic" that allows it to function and serve its citizens; the day that urban train planned and built by the Chinese is ready to run, the whole city will collapse, that is my guess.

Ethiopian culinary delights

In this African megacity, it becomes very evident, more than in any other region of the country, the remnants of the influence of the years of the Italian occupation. The food is superb in Ethiopia, not only the local flavors such as the fuul, the shiro, the tibs saturating the cavernous interior of the ever omnipresent injera, a giant foamy pancake made from tef, with a slightly acidic taste, which absorbs the spicy sauces that are spread on it. The mix is eaten right before the injera disintegrates.

Aside from all these local delicacies, there's the Italian legacy, quite a blessing for those of us who from time to time need a break from the average African menu. In any canteen you may find in Addis, you can get a massive plate of spaguettis al dente  for a dollar, served with delicious gravy and fresh panini.

The best comes at night, when you can go belly up with pizza with real mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. A pizza with a dough so good that could match that one of Italy or Argentina and likewise, cooked in a stone oven!!  

Finally there is the coffee, which in Ethiopia is extraordinary and that apart from being able to drink it in the traditional ceremonial way, it comes in all the Italian versions: Cappuccino, espresso and our favorite, the macchiato. It is served for pennies in any little bar anywhere in Ethiopia, and we have drunk so much that it has contributed to add stress to the already stressful experience of cycling across this country.

The Merkato

Back in 1999 I set foot in Asia for the first time. I had dreamed all my life to get there and in that very first trip I would find myself fallen into a constant state of fascination. At every step I took, I felt like a sponge trying to absorb absolutely everything and not to miss a thing. It was the people, the streets, architecture, the traffic, the food, the odors, but of that all, it was the markets and their hustle and bustle what truly captivated me. Years passed by and I would return to Asia again and again until I made it my home. I would spend nine years in the continent traveling, living and working, slowly, those markets that I had originally been so fascinated by, ended up turning into an ordinary part of my everyday life. Although I never stopped enjoying them, they lost that element of fascination that I had formerly found in them. And by the time I had spent enough time already convinced that I would never recover that initial feeling, I arrived to the huge merkato of Addis Ababa and almost like a shock of adrenaline, I recovered that original excitement of the first time.

The Merkato is the huge heart of Addis, a massive urban stain that spreads in all directions following the organic logic of an amorphous living organism. It nourishes itself from the tens of thousands of people passing through the endless maze of narrow alleys that make up the channels of its internal structure.

You can find everything you need in the thousands of stalls built from stilts, wood, corrugated metal sheets, cardboard, tarps, forcefully compressed within. Each may have as little as 50 cm wide and to take the compression even further, they often are two stories high and vendors squeeze themselves inside them to work.

Within the chaos there seems to be an intrinsic order that allows only those who frequent the place to navigate seamlessly, make the necessary purchases and move through the frenetic pace without problems, amid the noise and mess with the tranquility of an aristocrat wandering the gardens of Versailles on a Sunday afternoon.

Compression in certain sectors is such that it seems as though the improvised walls of corrugated metal sheets would be holding so much pressure that they could burst at any time. Through the interstices and passageways squeeze those who come and go from the workshops where they repair absolutely everything.

Finally there's the repulsively fascinating restrooms area, a public space within the Merkato that has so much garbage, urine and so many accumulated piles of human shit that it is impossible to overlook even if one wanted to. In case of an emergency, it is very easy to get to it, just follow the path indicated by the smell, following the stench that permeates the nostrils making them burn by the pestilence. Upon arrival, the show is nothing short of surreal.

The

merkato

is not a static place, is a cellular ever-growing urban monster that seems to breed at the same reckless rate of Ethiopians themselves. With its growth, it seems to be devouring Addis itself on the way and making it part of its digestion. It is as repulsive as incredibly fascinating of a place, where I could spend days if not weeks getting lost in it.

After a few days of resting among friends in this fascinating mess of a metropolis called Addis Ababa, eating Italian delicacies and chewing khat with sophisticated locals, we set off for the final stretch to escape from this hell of a wicked country. After more than a month and a half crossing it, I can now easily affirm that it is the country where I spent the worst time in the whole world, thanks to the overwhelming hostility of its people, towards whom I can not even generate slightly postive feelings for more than a few minutes a week. Therefore, the plan was to use all of our strength and energy, taking advantage of the less mountainous terrain ahead, to get as fast as possible to the Kenyan border, traversing the mythical Omo valley. We set off believing that the worst had already passed, what we didn't know actually, was that it was just about to begin.....