Exploring Ethiopia’s bustling capital, from markets to museums

Sunday 6th of July 2014 09:17:48 AM  |  Ethiopia Observer Travel

Paul Gains, Special to National Post
Addis, as Ethiopia’s capital is commonly known, is famous for its market culture, but also for its stellar institutions and museums.
Moving at a crawl my taxi driver follows a procession of cars up an unpaved street then turns down a path barely wide enough for it to pass. We stop suddenly.
Ahead a small van is unloading wares and my driver, recognizing the pending gridlock, switches off the engine and we sit. Car horns erupt from behind.
On either side vendors are seated on makeshift wooden stools selling carpets, shawls and other knitted goods.
Pedestrians squeeze past unfazed by the congestion. A young boy of school age herds some donkeys up the potholed road behind us and he smiles when our eyes meet.
We are in Addis Ababa’s Merkato, the largest outdoor market in Africa, a place where tens of thousands shop, sell and hustle on a daily basis, a place where everything from spices and foods to cooking pots and wooden doors are on offer at ridiculously low prices. A handcrafted bronze cross pendant, for instance, cost me less than $5. Dusty, smelly and noisy, it is, nevertheless, a compelling experience for any visitor to Ethiopia.
In the Amharic language Addis Ababa means “new flower” which invokes tranquil images seemingly at odds with the chaos I am experiencing. This city of 3.8 million is widely considered Africa’s capital. It is, after all, home to the headquarters of the 50-year-old African Union, and the United Nations has many of its African headquarters here, including the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
Addis, as it is commonly known, also has a captivating arts scene that blends African and Western sensibilities. The colourful works of Ethiopian painters, yet to be discovered by Western collectors, hang in venues such as the National Museum Gallery. But you can dine on Italian food and then buy a painting at the Makush Restaurant and Gallery. There is a hip music scene, too.
One evening I attended a brilliant outdoor jazz concert at the Alliance Ethio-Francaise. There were hundreds of music lovers there to see The Jazzmaris, a group comprised of an Ethiopian rhythm section and a pair of Germans on guitar and saxophone.
Back in the market, I decide to snap a few pictures. In every direction are streets filled with vendors. I walk downhill a few blocks and see two women selling spices from enormous canvas bags. They both cover their faces as I approach with my Nikon. On a previous visit to the Merkato I had been in the company of a guide and was able to take more pictures. Alone today I had the feeling that the camera is more of an intrusion. I walk back to the taxi and notice the gridlock is clearing and so I ask the driver to take me back to my hotel.
While taxis are plentiful on the streets of Addis and especially around hotels, the locals rely upon “public taxis,” blue and white vans that constitute an affordable public transit system. Fraol, the concierge at The Kenenisa Hotel where I am staying, offers to take me up to the National Museum of Ethiopia in one the next day.