Happily, Sally Struthers’ infomercials aren’t representative of the Ethiopian experience, which books refer to as the place to go when you want to be moved.
Either the largest or only third largest African city — locals and guides disagree — Addis Ababa makes my head spin, though my companions say it’s just the altitude.
Not as friendly as rural areas, its sporadic deluges burst upon you at least twice an hour, and religious fervour makes you feel like a demon in a metropolitan Eden. A different calendar only slightly out of step with the western world’s is enough to keep one in a state of perpetual déjà vu.
Key to acceptance on the street is a sturdy nod with a well-enunciated “Selam” — not big gummy smiles as recommended, which mark you instantly as easy pickings for whatever scheme is in vogue that hour. Nods will usually bring smiles after you’re given a once-over.
So much has changed there in the short time since Lonely Planet’s most recent edition — nothing is dependable, and at best the guide provides sympathetic commentary.
Travel guides will have you peeing in terror of complex social graces imperative to survival, when in reality, the entire country waits with baited breath to see if you remember which hand to eat with, while never touching the surface of your face — all to great delight.
Our room booked months in advance is taken (we should have confirmed the week before). But we did (oh, we should have confirmed yesterday then).
As luck would have it, our intended hostel looks like a war-ravaged building from some blockbuster movie and our cabbie, probably on commission, just happens to know of a cheaper place to sleep — the majestic Selam Pensione.
It’s clean and bright, with a feisty and conversational clerk eyeing us up and down, three guys and two girls, giggling as we debate potential stops within the city based on prospective values in sustenance, culture and eye candy.
Very firmly the clerk grabs our attention: two men cannot share a room, we need one room for each “couple” and another for the spare. We’d have found this shocking, if not for being bombarded by holy symbols since leaving the airport — on signs, graffiti, tattoos, bumper stickers, jewelry, hair styles, garbage piles.
Buildings and fences are built to resemble crosses, and there are colourful funeral shops with all your religious death needs.
In our room, my beard and I burst into uncontrollable laughter upon discovering that Selam Pensione seems to be the only hotel ever without a bible in the nightstand. Instead, there’s a package of high quality condoms with instructions in Amharic, the language of Christ, according to the Passion of… We laugh even more as the others eventually stumble upon the same.
Unable to get our bearings from instructions, directions and maps, the hotel arranges cabs to an Italian restaurant. The cabbies need to stop at a bar to ask associates where to go, and even then we circle aimlessly, endlessly, until one of us practically leaps from the cab spying our destination, the Ristorante Castelli, down a twisted alley. And still we had to search a bit for the entrance.
I for one am starting to get a rush from the intensive stares received from urban-trendy locals, distinctly beautiful, who might be sizing you up for anything, but with that same hungry look as boys about to pounce in a circuit blitz.
A quick once-over from Castelli’s table host leads to a shriek before he hurries off in search of the maitre d’ to avoid seating this band of white hooligans.
But Matthew and Justin are invigorated by the promise of fine dining and smell of wines; they are in their element instantly, travel-weariness not an issue.
Justin makes nice with all servers who pass by, as Matt eyes one in particular. The women in our party are both close to snapping. We’re just hungry, might as well seat ourselves…
Before doing anything shocking, Matt charms the cute headwaiter into squeezing us in before the kitchen closes — and can we see the wine list with that?
Italian food to the nines is not uncommon in the city, and almost everyone makes spaghetti. Ask locals and they’ll tell you how Ethiopians smacked Italians silly when they tried to take over, but the best Italian yum I’ve ever had can still be found here — though I’ve never been to Rome — and everyone says “Ciao” from the city to the hills.
Satiated by the superior cuisine after airplanes and convenience stores, and charmed with wine, our irritability instantly changes to excitement.
We set vague goals and missions for the days to come, and laugh about all the variables waiting to knock us in a new direction.