Taking a trip to Ethiopia is literally like time travelling back into an era one never knew existed.
After landing at the new Bole Airport, my sense of time went haywire. That’s because I’d landed in Addis on ‘New Year’s Eve’.
2011 was just ending and at midnight, the new year would arrive. Signs celebrating 2012 were everywhere, but no one could explain why exactly we were now living seven years behind where I had been just a few hours before.
Apparently, the Ethiopian calendar is based on the ancient Coptic calendar wherein one year is 365 days plus six hours, two minutes and 24 seconds longer than the Gregorian calendar that I’ve always known.
I normally adapt easily to ‘jet lag’ but in the Ethiopian case, I felt suspended in time, even as I see a country experiencing a radical transformation, leapfrogging into the future. One sees a myriad of rusty iron sheets shacks standing side by side, massive skyscrapers under construction. But the city seems to lack a central town plan such that tall structures are sprouting up all over the place.
September 14 being New Year’s Day, everything was closed around Addis apart from the churches. Even most restaurants, shops and the National Museum of Ethiopia were closed. And since Addis has nothing like a Garden City Mall, leave alone a Sarit Centre or a Two Rivers, the only place open for business were hotels like the luxurious five-star Sheraton Addis.
Situated on almost 50 hectares of land, the Sheraton is palatial with massive gardens, fountains, 8,000 plus apartments, playgrounds, health facilities, pools and other sundry services.
Thus, it was no surprise to hear it had been built in between two actual palaces, the National Palace which is the residence of the President of Ethiopia and the Menelik Palace, residence of the country’s Prime Minister.
We could have spent the day exploring the massive, beautifully manicured gardens, walkways and playgrounds, but we discovered that one small Zoma Museum was open.
Designed and built by one of the country’s most original and environmentally-conscious artists, Elias Sime, the museum’s structures are all made out of straw, mud and sand.
But the outside of the buildings was more interesting that the spaces within since Sime had sculpted swirls and shapely drawings on every outer wall. It looked rather like a child’s finger painting only every swirl and curve was deeply etched into each ochre-coloured wall.
“The theme of the walls is the life cycle of the caterpillar,” said our guide, who we paid 100 birrs (Sh354) for a short talk and long walk around the lush green carefully planted grounds.
“Here on this wall, you will see the egg and the larva. Then there’s the chrysalis and finally the butterfly,” he said pointing from one wall to the next.
Then atop one border wall were big stone vessels which were each crowned with a different coloured butterfly.
My stay in Addis was brief but the finest moment of the trip came the following day. We were invited to the home of my friend’s mother who had prepared authentic Ethiopian food for us. Her home was humble. It was mainly iron sheets mixed with cement walls inside.
There was a large flat-screened TV and two small sofas for us to be seated and extra stools for the mother’s other guests to sit. It was a squeeze, but who cared! Her food was first-class and it was clear, she and her family must have spent their New Year’s preparing amazing foods for her son’s guests.
The injera (spongy baked bread) was delicious, and meant to be used like chapati, to scoop up all the yummy meats, vegetables and sauces that she had prepared especially for us.
Then, by the time our tummys’ were stuffed, the last-born girl began roasting coffee beans, signalling the first part of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Thereafter, the mom got out the mortar and pestle and began grinding the coffee beans until they were just the right texture to now place in the water which had already boiled.
Leaving it to steep for several minutes, we finally topped off our marvellous meal with miniature cups of authentic Ethiopian coffee.