Sunday, February 8, 2009
Arie in Ethiopia: The Merkato
I stopped by the Sheraton today. It was pretty amazing. I'm used to thinking of the Sheraton as a mid-range hotel -- nice, clean beds, but nothing fancy. Not in Addis Ababa. In Addis, the Sheraton is a massive compound in the middle of the city. Once you get through the gates (and they don't let taxis in), you get to beautifully manicured gardens and an enormous building. The lobby is beautiful. I didn't get to see a room -- $300/night is slightly out of my price range -- but I'm sure they're amazing. I think it's a hotel for rich first worlders who really aren't interested in being in Ethiopia. I heard from a female friend that it's an uncomfortable lobby in the evenings -- there are basically only Saudi businessmen and prostitutes. And she wasn't wearing a turban. No wonder she was getting dirty looks.
From the Sheraton we walked to the Piazza, a neighborhood in the northern part of Addis that has a strong Italian influence. Addis is a very hilly town, and it's about eight thousand feet above sea level. Even coming from Kampala, which is 4000 feet up, I had a bit of altitude trouble. Not outright altitude sickness or anything, but I was often out of breath at the top of a hill. Also I had a sore throat, which is apparently an altitude thing.
The Piazza is the upscale part of Addis -- the more expensive stores and restaurants are around here. It's also the area that bears the most obvious Italian influence, with coffee shops scattered around.
After seeing the church, we decided to get some coffee. Although coffee is now grown all over the world, it's native to the Kaffe region of Ethiopia. Allegedly a shepherd (named Kaldi) noticed that his sheep were more energetic after eating the beans (you could read the Ethiopian Legend of Dancing Goats). Traditionally in Ethiopia it was used for religious ceremonies -- until the early part of the twentieth century, it wasn't legal to drink it in a secular context. It made it to Europe through the middle east -- the Pope was asked to ban it because it was a "Muslim drink", but in 1600 he said it was fine. (It was also repressed by Islamic authorities at various times, and the Mormons still ban it.) To preserve their monopoly, Arab states prohibited the export of unroasted beans or plants, but Dutch smugglers brought plants to Europe.
Coffee is one of Ethiopia's major exports. Something I didn't know is that it takes about one hundred and forty liters of water -- eleven hundred and twenty cups -- to grow the beans for one cup of coffee. It was actually banned by Ethiopia's Christian community until the late nineteenth century, being seen as a Muslim drink. It's a big export of Uganda, though something that surprised me is that it didn't come to Uganda directly from Ethiopia -- Europeans brought it there from Brazil in the nineteenth century.
Anyway, we went to a little coffee shop and I had some. I don't normally drink coffee, but this seemed like the time to start. After coffee, we had a traditional Ethiopian lunch, then went to the Merkato.
The markets in Cambodia were similar.) But the Merkato is more like a western strip-mall for pedestrians -- the individual stores are real buildings and there's no real center. Instead, it's just store after store after store.
One of the striking things was the people carrying enormous loads. It's routine to see people bent half-way over with a gigantic package on their shoulders as they walk very quickly. Sometimes children, but generally adult men. The stuff looked very very heavy. I guess that's the primary mode of transport.
Unfortunately, the Merkato is a hotbed for pickpocketing. Prepared, I had left most of my valuables in the hotel safe and kept a close eye on the rest.
khat district of the Merkato. In the road was an enormous pile of plant stalks (shown). I guess the plants are brought into the neighborhood whole and the sellers strip the leaves off. Khat is a shrub that likely originated in Ethiopia whose leaves and stems contain an amphetamine-like chemical. Ancient Egyptians believed that it unlocks divine energy when chewed. It's not incredibly potent -- on the contrary, it's considered less harmful and less habit-forming than tobacco and alcohol.
I'd heard little about khat before coming to Africa, but in this part of the world it's very popular. Major growth countries include Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Some estimate that forty percent of Yemen's water is used to irrigate khat. Somalia banned khat during Ramadan and there were street protests. A majority of Yemenis chew khat. Saudi Arabia, however, vigorously enforces a ban on it.
The Merkato is also the site of an enormous coffee auction every morning, but we had missed that by many hours. Also I don't buy coffee by the kilogram.
More of my trip to Ethiopia coming soon.
Posted by arie at 6:23 AM