Travel: Ethiopia

Flying over Africa for the first time I watched as the land hardened, began to drift as a lazy compass needle from the pale yellow of faded marble into marigold, sienna, burnt orange, golden brown. Still – unutterably still – foreign, and yet familiar. For an instant I had a glimpse of what Yuri Gagarin must have felt as he looked down on the little blue orb, when he was alone and suspended in nothingness.

The air is hot but not as hot as you’d expect – it is the beginning of May, after all, and the rainy season arrives in a few short weeks. Instead it is the pollution that stifles, the thick and heavy blanket of taupe-coloured smog and dust that permeates everything. Every city’s got a rhythm but Addis Ababa has none. Addis is a city totally devoid of logic. Addis, this tumbling, tumultuous tempest, was born from the vision of the Emperor Menelik II in the late 1880s, pulled as cleanly and completely from his mind as an egg is laid by a bird and you can tell, I think. You can feel the inorganic nature of this metropolis. The total chaos of its traffic, the evidence of globalization which has this developing city in its beast-like jaws: soaring piles of rubble, torn-up sidewalks, unnerving skeletal toothpick scaffolding draping every half-constructed hotel.

Limes, and jalapeños, rotting mangoes, dung. This smell is indescribable.

I shake my head at how ridiculous I was to think of putting on nice sandals when solid boots are worth their weight in gold in this city. The light is dawn light but it is not pale and thin: there are too many people crushing, moving, shouting, clamouring. In the first five minutes of walking around the produce market I am nearly run over by a truck and miss by an inch a concussion from a crate full of the tomatoes carried on top of someone’s head. I drink in everything around me like the eucalyptus trees – they call them sea trees in Amharic – that dot every hillside in Ethiopia. My camera slips so easily into my hands here. I want to catch everything but there is so much left that won’t fit in my frame: the delicate smokiness emanating from heaping sacks of deep red dried chilli pepper, the green truck overflowing with even greener bananas, the shouts of laughter between vendors. The light, most of all, and the way it slants over their faces. The assault of smells. I can't pin it down and so I drink it in instead.

He asked us what religion we were. I don’t know if Ethiopian cabbies are chatty by nature or if it was because we were ferenge girls, but they always talked to us.

We told him that none of us had a religion. I was in the front seat and I watched his face when we answered to see his reaction and to his credit he only pursed his lips a little, raised his eyebrows a fraction and then shrugged uncomprehendingly. Every cabby in Addis plasters their windows with motifs of the Virgin Mary in her blue hood, hands folded and sunbeams blazing, or Jesus with his thorny crown. Around their necks they hang soapstone crosses, white linen scarves covers the heads of their mothers and sisters, and we always knew when we were passing a church because they would take a hand off the wheel to cross themselves three times. Ethiopians are proud of the way Muslims and Christians live so peacefully side by side in this country, one of the cabbies told us. We have never had problems like you see in other countries – we are all brothers.

They were accepting of our total lack of faith but they could not comprehend that a white girl, a Chinese girl and a black girl were all from the same country. They looked at me and smiled when I said I was from Canada, then they turned to my friends and said, really? They chuckled. Really? Really, I said, a little fiercely. I am no more or less Canadian than they are. They shook their heads and chuckled again.

On the weekend we left. We piled onto the bus and this time we drove past the embassies, the toothpick scaffolding, the thick brown smog, the clots of shanty towns and we drove high, into the hills above Addis. The city ends abruptly: we turn a corner past a cement factory and suddenly the plains widen into farmland and the bus begins to swerve unnervingly around petulant cows standing in the middle of the highway. We breathe the air which is so sweet in our lungs and out the black dust that permeates everything in the city below, I swear you can taste the juniper trees on your tongue.

And I’m happy. I haven’t been this happy in such a long time – I curl up in the back seat of the bus, I throw open the window, I hang my head out and the wind picks up my hair and tosses it around and I can feel my heart tugging behind me like a kite on a string, dancing in the breeze. These are the things I cannot photograph and these are the moments I can’t keep in a frame! Strands of purple hair trailing across lazy hazy grey-green humps of mountains in the distance, the old woman’s wrinkles as she peers out from beneath her wide white headscarf, the village we fly through which lines its streets with greenhouses and the woman’s blue and orange patterned skirt pinned in a doorway against all that green.

I knew it would be like nothing I’ve seen so far, and I was not wrong. Ethiopia was filthy, confusing, impenetrable and intense – and yet it gets under your skin. It is a different kind of thrill to be a part of something so dynamic, something so tremblingly new, something with so much potential and lust for life burning within it. The people tell me the city has changed in leaps and bounds just in the last five years: it is unrecognizable, and I believe them. The first time we went to the UN compound we saw the barest bones of a ten-storey building being constructed across the street; when we returned two weeks later it was a few stones away from being completed.

Ethiopia – or at least the Ethiopia that I have seen – is a land of contrasts. In this place the wasteland desert changes to lush and rolling farmlands as quick as a town flashes by and the poorest of the dirt poor live in squalid tin shanties next to the opulent mansions of the nouveau riche. The flowers that tumble over gates and stone walls are some of the loveliest I’ve seen: striking magentas and luscious creams and fiery corals careen into disintegrating roads, onto clots of unemployed young men and scavenger dogs – there are the stray dogs everywhere. The contrasts in this country are stark and universal – and yet such beauty, such a fierce and unrelenting kind of beauty, is created in the clamour between these contrasts.

When the joy is this swelling inside of you and it is overflowing onto your face and cracking your smile in two, and the sun and the wind are warm on your neck, you must simply shake your head, and laugh, and tell yourself, remember this. You must remember this.