Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s new flower

When I talk to NGO workers who have worked all over Africa, most say their favorite posting was Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s capital is a young city, founded by the Empress Itegue Taitu in the late nineteenth century. She named it the “new flower”, and while the pollution and crowded streets don’t give a very flowery impression, it’s still an enjoyable and easy city to visit.

I’ve already mentioned my first impressions and talked about the cafes of Addis Ababa, but there are many more things to do than simply sitting around sipping world-class macchiatos. Here are a few highlights.

Art Galleries. “Addis”, as residents affectionately called their city, is home to a thriving arts scene. Two galleries rise to the top. The Asni Gallery in the Entonto hills overlooking the city offers a cool, green getaway from the busy city. A ramshackle old house features exhibitions by local painters and multimedia artists, while the garden outside has an interesting collection of sculptures made from found objects, like this curious contraption beside which yours truly is posing in such a dignified manner. The gallery of Kristos Solomon Belachew next to the Itegue Taitu Hotel will enchant anyone who appreciates art. This third-generation painter has a style rooted in traditional themes, with vibrant colors depicting historic or Biblical scenes. His works are quite affordable and make unique gifts or mementos. We bought three pieces. Kristos is a fascinating man to talk to and a visit to his gallery/workshop will give you a deeper appreciation of Ethiopian art.


Museums. The National Museum of Ethiopia is justly famous for its collection of fossil hominids, including the famous Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One gripping display shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance, shattering Creationist mythology in a single room. Other rooms show the evolution of animals such as the horse. The rest of the museum is less impressive, with meager collections from Ethiopia’s many ancient empires poorly explained with minimal signage. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is more user-friendly. Housed in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces on the green and pleasant campus of Addis Ababa University, it features a beautiful collection of Ethiopian art as well as cultural artifacts. Long descriptions help the visitor put what they’re seeing into context. You can also visit the upper stories of the palace, where the emperor’s private quarters are still preserved, right down to his baby blue bidet.

Dining. With Ethiopian food being consistently good, few restaurants really stand out. The one at the Finfine Hotel and hot springs is the oldest in the city and serves flavorful national food and sweet, smooth tej. If gloppy stuff on injera is beginning to get tiring, go to Castelli’s, a old-school Italian restaurant run by very old-school Italians. It attracts an interesting mix of expats, tourists, and upper class locals.

Shopping. Addis boasts the largest open-air market in Africa, the Merkato. It’s as big as a medium-sized town and sells anything you can imagine that’s legal, and many things that are not. While a trip through its myriad lanes is popular with visitors, a trustworthy guide is essential as the area abounds with thieves. There are plenty of other shops and smaller markets throughout town that sell the usual tourist knick-knacks, a fine selection of leather goods, Ethiopian music, and colorful crafts from Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. For some reason there’s a severe shortage of postcards; they’re almost impossible to find outside of the main tourist areas so buy them when you see them!

Where to stay. We tried only one hotel in Addis, the Itegue Taitu. It was the first hotel in Ethiopia, and features a grand old wooden staircase and balconies. It’s a bit worse for wear and desperately needs the remodel they are slowly getting around to. Even with the creaky floors and dingy bathrooms, it’s a wonderful place to stay. The back porch is relaxing, the restaurant is one of the best in the city, and the staff are truly kind and helpful. It makes for a good introduction to Ethiopia, both the good and the not-so-good. When I go back, I won’t consider staying anywhere else.

Getting around. Addis is spread out and not very walkable. Luckily there’s an excellent and cheap network of minibuses. A bit of experimenting and asking for directions will help you figure out how to get from A to B, and you’ll usually end up in some interesting conversations on the way. City buses are also numerous, but are crowded, only marginally cheaper, and popular with pickpockets. Taxis are everywhere but as with many countries it’s best to settle the price beforehand. In general, Ethiopian taxi drivers are far less annoying and greedy than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

So if you go to Ethiopia, spare a few days for Addis Ababa. Of the thirty capital cities I’ve visited, it’s one of the most enjoyable.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel articles.

Next time: the medieval walled city of Harar!

In the Corner of the World – It ain’t easy being a kiwi

Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.

What is it about a place that truly makes it unique? Is it one of a kind outdoor spaces? Quirky cities? Perhaps friendly locals that make you feel welcome? In New Zealand, all of these one-of-kind traits are evident. But one particularly defining feature is the country’s truly bizarre wildlife. Thanks to its geographic isolation, over a thousand miles from the nearest large landmass, mother nature has allowed some truly strange and one-of-a-kind animals to flourish, particularly flightless birds like the kiwi.

Given the bird can be found only in New Zealand, the country has long claimed it as a point of national identity. The country first began adopting the bird as its official symbol in the late 19th Century, when it appeared on products like Kiwi Shoe Polish as well as on military uniforms. Signs dot the highways all across New Zealand, warning you to look out for the creatures and gift shops are filled with eyeroll-inducing mounds of kiwi souvenirs.

With all the attention showered on this weird little bird, you’d think they would be all over the place, right? Wrong. Thanks to the threat of predators like dogs and weasels that were introduced to New Zealand and feed on the birds and their eggs, kiwis are now considered an endangered species. In fact, in an intensive effort is currently underway to locate and raise kiwi eggs in labs so they have a better chance of survival.

But, I have a confession. After touring a facility where they raise the young kiwis, I was struck by the futility of the whole process. Why try and protect a flightless bird that can’t fend for itself in the wild? And what does the plight of the kiwi say about New Zealand’s prospects to remain a wild, unspoiled place? Click below to find out…
Saving a kiwi isn’t as easy as declaring them protected. It involves arduous, painstaking work. Once field staff has located kiwi eggs in the wild, they are brought to a facility for protection. The eggs are then weighed, measured and inspected, before being placed in incubators where they must be closely monitored by the staff for around 60-90 days. After which time the birds hatch, the young chicks are kept in protective pens until they are deemed strong enough to be returned to the wild.

The entire operation has a great purpose – I can certainly understand the need to protect a creature that has come to represent a totally unique place in New Zealand’s culture. But let’s be honest here – evolution does not want this animal alive. A variety of factors, including the introduction of invasive species to the New Zealand ecosystem, the encroachment of man on the creature’s traditional habitats and sloppy parental instincts (kiwis are known to desert their eggs) have all conspired to reduce their numbers to the point of near extinction.

Yet there is something so hopelessly noble in the urge to protect the kiwi. This animal is no longer just a cute fluffy thing with a beak. Instead it’s come to represent New Zealand’s attempts to come to grips with the country’s national identity. An urge to recognize the unique things that make their country special but realizing they are partly responsible for their continued decline. It was a relationship doomed from the start – the moment settlers began to colonize New Zealand, they began to inextricably change the landscape and the native Maori people, introducing plants and animals previously unknown to the island’s native wildlife and precipitating their current demise. It’s a process that cannot be stopped – only slowed down.

Yet this totally one-of-a-kind animal persists to survive, nudged along by its hopeful guardians. It’s the most delicate of balancing acts – can the New Zealand of now co-exist with the wild New Zealand that once was? Let’s hope, for the kiwi’s sake, the answer is yes.

Prostitution in Monkeyland?

If anyone says that they don’t stop in their tracks when they see animals mating (out of sheer curiosity, of course), they are probably lying.

When I was in India on a school trek, I remember seeing a chameleon getting it on with another and it changed colors in the process! It’s not something you see often, and I personally think it’s fascinating.

But, who would have thought that paying for sex extends to the animal kingdom?

According to the Discovery Channel, evidence has been found that male monkeys “pay” for sex by untangling and cleaning dirt and parasites from the fur of the females. The higher the ratio of male to female monkeys, the more grooming the male monkeys need to do to get their sex-life going. This process can last from a few seconds up to half-an-hour and turns the monkeys on. Scientists are guessing that this is how foreplay in humans developed. Also, it seems that materialism is part of primate social life as well: the higher status monkeys don’t have to work as hard as lower status monkeys have to for sex.

The research was conducted in Indonesia from 2003-2005 where the 243 grooming sessions of long-tailed macaques were analyzed.

Although we evolved from these animals, you hardly imagine that the prostitution and materialism of humans also have roots in our animal ancestors.

Bizarre dinosaur on display at National Geographic Museum

The fact that until about 65-million years ago dinosaurs dominated our land is as fascinating as it is unfathomable.

For anybody even remotely interested in the evolution of life forms on our planet that goes back 230 million years, understanding how dinosaurs existed is enthralling. This is why National Geographic’s latest exhibition that displays original fossils of the Nigersaurus — one of the most bizarre dinosaurs ever, is worth checking out.

Remants of which were first discovered in 1993, the Nigersaurus was bizarre because it had a long shovel shaped vaccum cleaner type muzzle that sucked up plants with its 600-teeth full jaw — hence dubbed by some as the “mesozoic lawnmower”. If broken, these teeth could regenerate rapidly as each tooth had 10 replacement ones behind them. It grazed like a cow with its head down, this was unusual as dinosaurs are known to eat from trees with their necks up long and high. At 30-feet long, you can imagine its bulk, but funnily it had fragile feather-light bones — some of which are transluscent.

The exhibition will feature a life size reconstructed skeleton of the animal, a flesh model of its head and neck, and a cast of its brain.

The exhibition “Extreme Dinosaur: Africa’s Long-Necked Fern Mower” began yesterday at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall (1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington D.C.), and will run until Tuesday March 18, 2008; admission is free. For more information you can visit