To move from one western culture to another is a stretch, but to move from a western society and land into the middle of Africa is beyond stretching — it is transforming.
A brief stop in Germany was a good way to prepare me for changes on the horizon. Just to be in an environment where English is not the first language allows the ear to become more sensitive, and the awareness to ratchet up.
Landing in Ethiopia was like landing in a world where rules are fluid. I have been here once before, although briefly, in 2002. Slowly I have been moving back into the traveler’s mode. Small things, for example; not turning your head every time someone says “you” or “Hey, mister” have crept back into my day.
Additionally, saying “hello” and asking “how are you” in the local language always brings a surprised smile in a crowded mini bus or fruit stand. And it has the magical power of breaking down barriers.
People almost always ask me where I’m from, and I always tell them. This elicits a response, “Oh, what a beautiful country,” followed by a comment, “I have a friend in New York or California.” This is communicated with a question of wondering, do I know the person? This is understandable in a culture where people spend considerable time with family and friends.
Addis Abba is the bustling capital of Ethiopia. Situated in the center of the country, it is the fourth-largest city in Africa, with more than 3 million residents. It is also a maze of busy narrow streets and walkways that can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming to navigate through.
One of the best ways to travel around the city is by minibus. These are privately owned minivans that have been converted into public transportation. They travel on set routes, unpublished of course, to various parts of the city. The vans generally leave a location once they are full, as a man hangs out a window yelling the destination name as passengers jump in.
They also have a reputation.
My friend Adisu Beyene told me they have a nickname called “Al Queda,” because they drive so crazy and appear to have no common sense.
“When you see them coming down the road, beware, you never know if they will stop,” Adisu said.
They also are one of the cheapest ways to move around town. And when you are traveling on a small budget, you move with local people.
A block from my hotel, I stepped in, said a prayer, and away we sped down the road to explore Addis Abba.