I have something like 10 pictures of Addis Ababa. Most are unusable, the bulk of them taken as a complaint. They show the grottiness of our hotel, our dank bedroom and the bathroom in a state of decay so active that it seemed to advance by the hour. There's also a view from the threshhold of the main building, facing outward past the gates in the direction of nondescript apartment blocks, phone lines and the distant Entoto Hills, which are a mere suggestion through the smog.
Even now, I can't really say that I understand how I feel about Addis. I didn't really like it, but at the same time, I don't feel qualified to unequivocally say that I hated it. I just don't know it, which, for someone who craves comprehensive knowledge obtained through maniacal research or immersive experience, is a bitter pill.
For the most part, we weren't in Addis, the way we've been in other cities. It felt as though we were constantly going through the city, and, in point of fact, that's pretty much what we did. We flew in and out of Addis six times total, bouncing between the airport and the Itegue Taitu hotel, mostly in the hours between sunset and sunrise, mostly in liminal states of wakefulness.
During that time, we got very, very good at negotiating with Addis cabbies. By "negotiating," I mean this:
Us: We need to go to Itegue Taitu.
Cabbie: 300 birr.
Us: Yeah, no. We've done this trip four times now and we know it costs 150.
Cabbie: 200 birr.
We got used to the cabs being almost universally fur-lined. We started to know roads by sight (both helpful and not helpful, as Addis has virtually no street names but "that one street with the clothing shops" not being a great point of reference). We felt the familiar trepidation about putting our lives and luggage in a stranger's hands, but were never let down, never pestered with insistence that the quoted price was per person.
The city we sped through in twilight and dawn pulsed with music emanating from tiny clubs and was cluttered with new construction obscured by wooden scaffolding. It was lit by tubes of colored Christmas lights snaking along the side of buildings, by single bulbs, tungsten and neon alike, in corrugated shacks that were fronted by cascading piles of fruit or neat stacks of soap and plastic baskets. It was mostly an unphotographable blur, a Muybridge series of scenes unfolding between origin and destination.
But there was one scene that I wish I could have photographed, which I'm trying to come to terms with as something that will live only in my mind. Before we left for Dire Dawa, our second destination in Ethiopia, we set our clocks incorrecty and instead of getting up at 4:30 for our flight, we got up at 3:30. By the time we called a cab and realized the mistake, it was too late to go back to bed. It was the first time we got to see Addis waking from slumber in the pre-dawn darkness, and the activity, languid as it was, was centered on the city's Orthodox Christian churches, where chants were being sung and drums placidly beaten. From my window, I watched as people draped in gauzy cotton textiles kissed the gates of a church, knelt in prayer, huddled in the angle of a stone wall, and walked slowly, almost shuffling, toward the church with hand-rolled candles illuminating their faces in glowing, golden light.