Today as I write is April 30, 2011 in Ethiopia. No, I’m not high on khat (alternatively spelled qat, and pronounced chaht in the country), though I was for four straight days during a recent visit to Addis Ababa, the capital.
Ethiopia is a magical land like none other, definitely on a Top Five Favorite list of the sixty or so countries I’ve visited, and it has a calendar like nowhere else. The official Ge’ez calendar has twelve months with 30 days each and a thirteenth month with five or six days depending on what year it is.
So basically what that means is that whatever day it is in the rest of the world, it’s eight years and one week earlier in Ethiopia. Why is this so? Nobody could explain it to me, as was the case with a lot of wonderfully crazy things about Ethiopia, so at some point I just stopped asking about the many mysteries surrounding the country and enjoyed every minute of my time there.
Do you want to know about Ethiopian history or politics? Of course you don’t, but what I will say is that current prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali may not be perfect but he’s way better than the appalling military-dominated regime which he succeeded and which constrains him from doing more for the people.
Unfortunately, most Ethiopians are, of course, very poor. Despite that, they are among the most dignified, generous, happy people I have ever encountered. I believe that’s because Ethiopia is a great civilization and, to the best of my knowledge, the only African country that was never colonized.
The idiot Italians tried for decades but the first Italo–Ethiopian War ended in 1896 with the total defeat of Italian armed forces at the Battle of Adowa. This made Emperor Menelik a hero to his people and he is revered to this day. In 1930, “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God” was crowned.
Here’s a bit more, cribbed and lightly edited from Wikipedia about Ethiopian history and the legendary, inspiring Haile Selassie.
“The Italian army, under the direction of dictator Benito Mussolini, occupied Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936. Emperor Haile Selassie pleaded to the League of Nations for aid in resisting the Italians. Nevertheless, the country was formally annexed on May 9, 1936, and the Emperor went into exile. All League of Nations members recognized the annexation with the exception of the Soviet Union. In spring 1941 the Italians were defeated by British and Allied forces (including Ethiopian forces). On May 5, 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie re-entered Addis Ababa and returned to the throne. The Italians, after their final stand at Gondar in November 1941, conducted a guerrilla war in Ethiopia, that lasted until summer 1943. After the defeat of Italy, Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony of Eritrea.
Anyway, let’s move on from boring history and politics and let me lay out for readers how to spend four perfect four days in Addis, and offer tips on food, nightlife and cultural spots of interest.
Where to stay: The Hilton is more expensive than local hotels but you’ll have 24/7 internet access, which at times is difficult to get in Addis. Also, the staff is wonderful and always happy to help out.
Minor downsides. I was rarely at the hotel but when I was it was filled with a lot of horrible white and Chinese tourists. Also, I never went to the hotel swimming pool — I pretty much only slept at the Hilton — but there were always a lot of assholes lounging about, some I believe consultants from the World Bank which preys on Ethiopia the way a tick sucks blood from a deer.
Also, the music emanating from the pool area was generally terrible. It was mostly a mix of Bob Marley Light and other bland music, and it reminded me of the woman Bill Murray shacks up with in “Lost In Translation” who sings that god awful song “Midnight at the Oasis.”
My general view in traveling is when in Rome, do what the Romans do. So in Ethiopia, as noted above, I chewed khat, which is perfectly legal and can easily be bought at street shops in a variety of convenient locations. I paid the equivalent of about $2.70 for two big bundles. You pick the leaves off the stem, chew them up and lodge the wad in the corner of your mouth (like chewing tobacco) for about 10 minutes. Do that for a few hours and you’ll feel pretty fucking nice and want to talk non-stop and don’t need to sleep.
Some people say that it’s bad for you and addictive but I was high off my rocker for four days and I have nothing but positive feelings about khat. If anyone here in the U.S. has a supplier, hook me up. One friend I met in Addis told me he has chewed khat every day for the past seven years except when traveling and when he goes without he doesn’t feel a longing for it. So I think concerns about its dangers are highly overblown.
Another great local item is Honey Wine, which is said to be a natural Viagra. But do not drink it when chewing khat because it will cause stomach problems, so wait until you’ve finished chewing before downing this delightful, intoxicating Kool Aid-like liquid.
The food in Ethiopia is amazing and way better than anything you can find in the U.S., because Ethiopians here cannot import all the spices found locally and meat and vegetables shipped here are not nearly as fresh.
I’d recommend a place called Romina, which is in an area called Arat Kilo. Try the Ingera Wat, which is the traditional Ethiopian bread but fortified with iron and darker than the usual one. If they have it on the menu try the sheep or raw beef sliced directly from a bone of the cow that was alive not long before. There’s another branch of Romina near the back entrance of the Hilton, which is also delightful and it has great local music at night, sometimes live show.
Weirdly, while khat is legal, shisha is not except in allegedly private residences that in reality have been converted into shisha joints so, as far as I can tell, that makes it legal. My favorite flavor is Lemon Mint, which is nice and smooth. Apple is much stronger and harsher but also not bad. Orange Mint is in between the two in terms of harshness but very, very flavorful. Shisha is not habit forming to the best of my knowledge, but I smoked it every day and desperately craved it. Had it not been essentially legal and if there were local 7/11’s, I would have robbed one for money to pay for more shisha.
Seriously, I don’t wake up craving shisha, which I smoke a lot in DC, and if I go a day or two without it I’m fine. And I am healthier because when I smoke shisha about five times a week I don’t drink anything except water or tea because drinking booze while smoking makes you feel dangerously lightheaded. Hence, my alcohol consumption is down by about 90 percent, so that’s got to be a good tradeoff.
What to do:
Day 1: Buy and chew khat for 21.5 hours until 30 minutes before bedtime. Two hours of sleep is plenty.
Go to my favorite shisha bar. I can’t provide many details or photos or its location because even though it’s sort of legal, people don’t want their pictures taken there and owners don’t want their locations disclosed because it’s sort of illegal too. It’s another wonderful mystery which no one could explain to me. (Interested parties can message me at DCBabylon1, my Twitter handle. For a small fee, I can disclose the shisha bar’s location.)
At night, go to Born Again Bar. You can drink booze — I’d recommend the local St. George beer — and listen to great Ethiopian music and Reggae. There are a lot of massage parlors in the area. It’s probably best to avoid them, especially if you have been drinking Honey Wine, because you’ll get more than a regular massage and the women who work there don’t really think you are handsome, charming and attractive, they are, for obvious and understandable reasons, pretending to. It’s not a nice way to make a living, but if you do decide to go treat the women with respect, treat the drunk tourists/customers with contempt, and tip heavily.
Day 2: Buy and chew khat for 21.5 hours until 30 minutes before bedtime.
Daytime: Mount Entoto is the highest peak on the Entoto Mountains, which overlooks the city of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a well-informed source (Wikipedia) tells me. It’s very lovely and when you drive up you can visit Selassie Church — not named for the Emperor — and the Temple and Palace of King Menelik.
At night, go to the branch of Romina you didn’t go to on Day 1 and eat and drink a lot, and listen to music.
Day 3: Buy and chew khat for 21.5 hours until 30 minutes before bedtime.
Daytime: Personally, I don’t like museums because history is a bore and never taught me anything useful, just like science and math. But if you do, I’m told the National Museum of Ethiopia is worth a visit. It contains the fossilized remains of early hominids, including “Lucy,” the partial skeleton of a specimen of Australopithecus afarensis.
You might also check out the “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, a memorial to those who were killed during a Communist government during the 1970s. The museum is said to have feature torture instruments, skulls and bones, coffins and photographs of victims.
“The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia,” says this website. “In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent.” The violence resulted in more than 50,000 deaths by some estimates.
Before getting on your high horse about the superiority of “Western Civilization,” recall here that Ethiopia was a pawn in the Cold War. Moscow backed Ethiopia, which had been in the American orbit until a 1974 left-wing military coup. The Jimmy Carter administration provided weapons to Somalia in a dispute over the desolate Ogaden region.
Ethiopian troops decimated Somali forces. All the weapons that poured in destabilized Somalia, which soon fell into a state of complete anarchy — and off the U.S. radar screen. “The thing about Somalia,” an unnamed “regional analyst” told the Washington Post in 1998, “is they really don’t get the fact that nobody gives a shit about them anymore.”
Nighttime: Go to what this Internet post describes as a “bad neighborhood” in Addis ketema Sub city. This area is “not that tourist friendly, not meaning that they will stab you or something worse but your stuff might get stolen.” Trust me, you’ll have fun, just don’t pull a wad of $1,000 bills from your pocket when you pay you $3 tab.
Day 4: Buy and chew khat for 21.5 hours until 30 minutes before bedtime.
Shop in one of the many markets in what we here in the U.S. call “ghetto” neighborhoods. I bought a wonderful skin lotion for five cents per bottle. Then go back to my favorite shisha place. At night go back to Born Again.
I really miss Ethiopia. Fortunately, there are 300,000 Ethiopians in DC and environs — making it the biggest Ethiopian city in the world outside of Ethiopia– and I live near a ton of Ethiopian shisha bars and restaurants so I almost feel like I’m there. But it’s a little different so I’m going back to Addis ASAP, especially because khat, for some strange, mysterious reason, is illegal here and impossible to find, to the best of my knowledge.
Note: A shorter version of this story was published earlier today at Splice Today.