A Long Walk Through an Ancient City

October 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

There is an old piano that sits just off the massive mahogany staircase in the lobby of the Taitu Hotel.

Everyday at noon, a woman comes to play, filling the century old halls of Addis Ababa’s most historic hotel with a haunting soundtrack.

The name Taitu comes from a former Empress. In the 1800s she moved the capital to its current site, and called it “new flower,” Addis Ababa.

The lobby of the Taitu is a living, breathing Graham Green novel.

An older Eastern European man in a ruffled suit, sits alone in the corner, drinking a St. George’s beer. He stares down at the table. His sunken shoulders, and weathered face suggest a tragic tome.

Across from him is an Ethiopian man with an earpiece connected to some kind of mobile device. He sits in a chair facing the action, so he can survey the entire room. His demeanor suggests he’s a spy, not a far-fetched possibility in what is still a police state, despite the return of democracy in the early 90s.

A group of young Sudanese men, dressed in flashy red, purple, and blue suits, discuss intently, but at a whisper.

Scandinavian backpackers with grizzled beards and knotted hair are glued to guidebooks, plotting their next conquest.

Busy hotel staff buzz around the lobby, delivering beers, tibs, injera, and bottles of soda with the word Coke spelled out in the ancient, twisted symbols of the local Amharic language.

The Taitu staff are mostly young women, dressed smartly in green skirts and vests. Some have frizzled afros and others tightly wound braids.

They proudly polish the ancient expresso machine at the bar, a relic from the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the 40s.  It’s the perfect machine for the self-proclaimed birthplace of coffee. The Italians didn’t last, but their macchiatos did.

The piano player continues, her foot squarely on the damper pedal, giving notes a longer breath as they swirl around the room and out into the courtyard.

Outside Taitu, there is a rainstorm…Ethiopians like to say theirs is the land of 13 months of sun, but at least two are marked by heavy, torrential downpours.

Small rivers form, trickling down pot holed streets towards the city center.

As the rains stop, a group of young boys play soccer at the foot of a tall concrete tower, topped with a communist star. It’s one of the only remaining symbols of an era most want to forget.

These same streets ran red with blood during the 20 years of the Derg military junta. Socialism was mixed with executions and disappearances.

But these boys have thankfully only known Ethiopia’s more long standing scourge, poverty. Few have actual shoes to play soccer in, most wear plastic sandals on the makeshift asphalt field.

One team has matching orange socks, and most players wear pirated Real Madrid jerseys with the last name Van Nistelroy. a Dutch striker who hasn’t played for the team in years.

A goal is scored and the celebration is as jubilant as a World Cup final.

Back up the hill, pilgrims draped in white are filing through the gates of St. George’s Orthodox Cathedral. It’s a feast day at the church, the same one where Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930.

Lining the entrance to the church are the poor, hungry, and physically broken. Arms with no hands, and hands with no fingers are extended for coins from the worshipers.

One side of the church sees an impromptu celebration–jumping, singing, and the crescendos of pure devotion.

Leaving the church, past a statute of Haile Selassie on horseback, there’s a taxi stand of idle Ladas and Fiat’s, lasting reminders of Ethiopia’s dance with Russian communism and Italian colonialism.

Nightfall comes, which in Addis Ababa means a deep quiet.

Although curfews are gone, the culture of silence seems to still cover a city recovering from military rule.

Except, there IS one sound that comes out at night.

A once vibrant jazz scene, whose stars were banned and exiled in the 70s and 80s, is making a comeback.

At Jazzamba lounge, the evening crowd is dressed to the nines, Ethiopian men in suits and ties, women in flowing dresses, their hair picked out into beautiful afros.

They sit, sip cocktails, and listen to a mixture of old timers…even a former member of Haile Selassie’s personal orchestra takes the stage…and youngsters, adding their own improvisation to this jazz revival.

And while the night gets late, there is always the promise of a morning macchiato to look forward to, and another good, long walk around Ethiopia’s “new” “old” flower, to see what lessons Addis Ababa has still to teach, and secrets still to reveal.



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