Today was a day of transitions as we prepare to move to Mekelle tomorrow. We made a trip to the U.S. embassy this morning to officially “check in” as Fulbrighters. We were supposed to do this yesterday but the embassy was closed for a religious holiday: the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him!) One of the challenges of working in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country is finding a way to treat all parties with equal respect. Making schedules can be more difficult here because of the large number of religious holidays, the timing of which may be somewhat unpredictable. The Muslim calendar is based on the phases of the moon and, therefore, the exact timing of many Islamic holidays is often not known or announced almost until they start (at least in Africa). Nobody really knew when the holiday would begin until the night before. We had planned our arrival in Addis Ababa carefully with the US embassy so that we could coordinate schedules efficiently. Alas, it didn’t work out. (The embassy also didn’t meet us at the airport on Saturday night as planned, but the Muslim calendar had nothing to do with that).
The American embassy in Addis Ababa is huge, somber, and forbidding. It is surrounded by high gray bleak walls and it looks more like a prison than anything else. It is Fortress America and the security is amazingly tight. The grounds are pleasant and spacious, the offices drab and functional, the commissary stocked with little bits of American consumerism. While I prefer the chaos of Africa myself, I recognize (to my sorrow) that the US embassy simply reflects the times in which we live.
We were greeted cordially by our contacts in the Cultural Affairs Section. The bad news is that there is still considerable paperwork yet to be completed before we can obtain our residence permits from the Ethiopian government. The good news is that the 60 pound box of medical books that I sent to the embassy arrived safely. Now I just have to lug it up to Mekelle.
Helen and I have lived in some of America’s most challenging traffic cities— Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles—but these places pale in comparison with Addis Ababa at its finest. Americans can scarcely imagine the congestion, pollution, and chaos of intermingled vehicles, animals, and pedestrians that is the norm for driving in a major African metropolis like Addis Ababa. Perhaps the narrow crowded streets of London or New York 150 years ago with potholes, little or no paving, horse-drawn carts, sewage and pedestrians would have been the same: all you would have to do is add combustion engines, chemical smells, and a few neon signs to update the scene. We had lunch at a hotel downtown, visited a museum (more on that later), and caught a taxi back to the hospital in the late afternoon.
There are two kinds of taxis in Addis Ababa: bad yellow cabs and worse blue and white cabs. The latter are small and cramped. Most of them are Ladas—a cheap, poorly engineered, and badly manufactured Soviet-era vehicle that never made it to the US market (think of an even cheaper version of a Yugo). In spite of these drawbacks, Ladas have been highly popular cars in developing countries. We fought the traffic across town for an hour. The taxi’s side mirror was falling off and the engine died about every 50 yards. The driver had to keep getting out a screwdriver to work on the mirror, the window frame, and the door. But it wasn’t too difficult for him since the traffic ground to a halt about every 45 seconds. He could probably have overhauled the engine if he had needed to. But we made it back. It won’t be as bad at 5 AM when we leave for the airport to catch our flight to Mekelle.