In the Bole area of Addis Ababa, gorgeous young women take selfies at a trendy juice bar on their iPads.
Metres away, street children high on exhaust fumes stagger through traffic, hands outstretched beseechingly for alms.
The booming Ethiopian capital is a viewing deck on the jagged cliff-face of capitalism.
Ethiopia’s regional diversity and unique uncolonised history make it an unforgettable destination.
Numerous tour companies offer high-end, hermetically sealed encounters with Ethiopia; you see jeep-loads of rich Europeans disgorging at the biggest hotels in Addis, road-weary from tours of the country’s countless attractions.
Ethiopia was the first Christian country in the world, and the seat of the Abyssinian empire. Its mountain highlands are the birthplace of coffee.
From the Afar valley came early human ancestors like 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, the fossilized Australopithecus also known as “Dinkinesh,” which endearingly translates as “you are marvellous” in Amharic, the official language.
Following a bumper year for tourism in 2015, when Ethiopia was named Best place to Travel in 2015 by the European Council on Tourism despite a severe drought and mounting food insecurity in some regions, 2016 was beset with greater difficulties.
The government declared a six-month State of Emergency in following 55 deaths in a violent riot in the Omoria region, where the country’s majority ethnic group, the Omoro, threatened insurgency in a series of progressively larger protests against government, who, they say, disproportionately represent the interests of a powerful Tigrayan minority.
The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs issued travel warnings for certain areas, although Addis was unaffected.
Despite the ban later being lifted, for tour operators like Irishman Tony Hickey, who settled in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the impact was detrimental and, he says, unnecessary.
“Negative travel advisories have huge impacts on employment in tourism,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of people were affected.”
The country is safe, Tony says: “42,000 runners came here for Africa’s biggest road race, the Great Ethiopian Run, last November.
It passed off without incident.
The threat of terrorism is greater in many European countries than here, and the threat of violent crime is greater in most US cities than cities in Ethiopia.”
Hickey runs an independent company called Ethiopian Quadrants, providing tailored itineraries taking in the best of authentic Ethiopia, from the Simian mountains and the mysteries of Lake Tana to the carved rock churches of Lalibela.
“But I always tell people that they have to make time to take in Addis by night,” he says.
Despite a decade of economic growth, Addis is a cosmopolitan city in the heart of a poor, rural country; according to latest figures, 58% of Ethiopia’s population is classified as destitute.
The narrative you hear most frequently is that your tourist dollar is aiding the economy but unless you’re careful, it’s lining the pockets of people who are already wealthy, and propping up systemic inequality.
Allow for hitches like laser machines not working or internet being down; you’re travelling in one of the world’s poorest countries and services aren’t as smooth as you may be used to.
To understand the ingrained Ethiopian mistrust of Faranji (“foreigner” – it’s how you’ll be greeted on the street), the brutish behaviour of wannabe colonisers is clear in the Ethnological Museum in the palace of the last emperor, Haile Selassie: many of the treasures are accompanied by a placard stating the date they were looted by Italian or British forces and the date they were returned.
The “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum is essential but harrowing. Learn about the reign of the brutal “Derg” regime from tour guides who were themselves victims of the notorious Mengistu’s torture.
Taxi drivers will point out the Italian Embassy, where two of Mengistu’s commanding officers sought shelter following the 1991 liberation of Addis. They still live there to this day.
Gebre Kristos Desta, the father of Ethiopian modern art, taught at Addis Ababa University. A fantastic collection of his visceral and dynamic work lies in a dedicated museum in the University grounds.
Entoto is the highest mountain overlooking Addis Ababa, at 3,200m, a fantastic vantage point to view the city.
Unless you can set aside a whole day to walk up the winding road to the colourful Church of St Maryam at the top, take a taxi or bus up and walk down.
Mercato, Africa’s largest street market selling every single commodity you can imagine, is an unmissable assault on the senses.
FOOD AND DRINK
Don’t visit Addis without a traditional coffee ceremony.
Reeds are scattered on the floor, the beans are roasted in front of you and a bowl of smoking incense accompanies your brew.
Nor should you forgo a palpitation-inducing espresso from the 50-year-old Italian machine in To.Mo.Ca Coffee in the Piazza area, frequented by a young, hip crowd.
Ethiopia’s cuisine is based on Injera, a flat bread made from barley-like tef flour, and a variety of different spicy stews.
With most signs in Amharic script, it’s difficult to make spontaneous restaurant choices. Tej Bet are the ubiquitous bars that serve Tej, Ethiopia’s national drink, a honey wine brewed to three different strengths. The sourest is an acquired taste, as is Turbo, a blend of beer, wine and Sprite.
2000 Habesha restaurant does traditional cuisine and cultural evenings for tourists with music and breathtakingly energetic dances. The Bunratty Castle of Addis, it’s twee but fun, and caters to domestic visitors as well as jolly adventure-seeking Italians drunk on Tej.
Fendika Azmari Bet in Kazanchis is owned by a former Azmari singer. Azmari music is a complex traditional music where singers use poetic lyrical forms to sing songs with two distinct layers of meaning.
Road Runner Bar and Pizzeria in Haya Hulet is owned by Tony Hickey. With open outdoor fires and music in the evenings, the best thing about it is the Friday night get-togethers, where ex-pats, locals and tourists fresh from one of Tony’s tours mingle and chat.
Ethiopian Airlines fly Dublin- Bole International Airport. Tourist visas are available on arrival. Most hotels arrange a free shuttle service.www.ethiopianairlines.com
Addis on foot is a chaotic but law-abiding city and any threat is to your possessions, not your person; I walked everywhere alone and, apart from verbal hassle, felt safe. “Heet” is the Amharic for “go away” – unfortunately useful.
Getting lost isn’t a problem, with countless blue taxis to hail.
Ask how much before you get in: 150 birr (€6.50) for a 4km journey is an acceptable price for a faranji.
They’re amazingly dilapidated but weaving through the streets in a Lada so sodden with petrol fumes that you stick your face out the window like a dog, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blasting from the stereo, is strangely satisfying.
Try the amazing chaos of the minibus system; beat-up minivans career down the street with a youth hanging out, shouting the destinations. It’s 1 birr (about 4c) for a few stops.
WHERE TO STAY
The reassuring homogeneity of a Radisson or Sheraton may be alluring, but your birr will trickle down more effectively if you find mid-range, locally owned hotels instead of allowing multinationals to cream off a profit.
The Addis Regency, close to St George’s church, comes highly recommended. Staff and management are extremely friendly and helpful. The Caravan Hotel on Mickey Leyland street is another good option.
It’s close to an area known as Chechnya, which has some red-light activity at night, but it’s safe and well-run, if a little cheerless.