Exploring Ethiopia: The Merkato

Hello Dear Readers!

This is my last post on my Ethiopia trip. Next up…Dubai!

Our entire trip in Ethiopia was jam packed. The country is huge, and we only had five days to spend, so making the most of our time was really important. Thus, we found ourselves on the last day of the trip having spent some serious time outside of the city, but not much time inside Addis Ababa itself. The Merkato, then, is supposed to be one of the best things to visit inside the city, aptly described as ‘a world unto itself.’ I had originally (and incorrectly) decided that we could visit by ourselves. I was disabused of that notion immediately upon my arrival to Ethiopia, so booked us both a full city tour with a guide (via Viator), who took us through the Merkato.

Words fail me here. The Merkato is…huge, a sprawling mass of commerce. It’s concentrated wealth, business, tourism, and poverty all in one place. It’s a teeming mass of humanity that thrives on the countless customers from across the country.

We had no business being there.

Still, our guide led us adroitly through the narrow alleyways, wending his way through the ironworks, the spice market, the basket weavers, and the textile center, never losing his way as he dragged us across the muddy pathways.

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It was incredible.

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Since the Merkato is well-known as the home of those with the stickiest fingers (so, so, many pickpockets) Harrison and I both walked with our hands inside our pockets. I bought a money belt just for this trip, but managed to forget it in my suitcase, so my cell phone was literally tucked into the waistband of my pants. I let Harrison take all the photos, (I’m not risky enough) which led to a ridiculous situation, in which we were making our way through various piles of injera baskets (of course) and he took his hands out of his pockets (with his phone) in order to take photos of the market.

Immediately, this ragged little kid darted up, his hands reaching for Harrison’s pockets, which I swiftly hip-checked out of the way. I mean they were empty, but still, it’s the principle of the thing.

I then turned full around, faced the kid, who stared unabashedly into my eyes, and shook my head. He grinned at me, knowing full well that I had caught him, then continued to follow us for another five minutes, reaching every so often for one of our pockets.

That cheeky little bugger.

In the end, nothing was stolen and we exited the Merkato, heads spinning and eyes wide open. It was a really cool end to a really cool trip.

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A few other notes before I wrap up. Ethiopia is not the easiest country to navigate, with hardly any internet capability. My T-Mobile plan, sadly, did not provide me data, and social media within the country is literally blocked (Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail, etc.)

A VPN will save you from most of those troubles, if you can find WiFi. Hola VPN on the Chrome browser works well, and the iTunes stores has a number of free VPN apps as well.

As for getting around, I used the Addis Map, which cost me ten bucks on Amazon and saved my butt numerous times.

Apparently, (though I didn’t buy one), SIM cards in Ethiopia are dirt cheap. So bringing an unlocked phone and buying a local SIM card should do you good.

Please haggle, haggle, haggle. With everything from souvenirs to taxi drivers, everywhere you go, people are sizing you up and overcharging you to see what you’ll pay. Don’t be fooled, most of those prices can be cut in half.

Finally, both Viator and Go Addis offer some really cool tour options, each of which provided friendly, professional service. We had an excellent time with them, and I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a good tour guide.

My time spent in Ethiopia was just the beginning of a love for Africa, and I look forward to heading back to explore some more in the future.

Until then, I’ll feast myself on some injera.

-Carissa “The Unpickpocketed” Rawson

Exploring Ethiopia: A Culinary Adventure

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s been a few days, hasn’t it? I’ve had an incredible time traveling around these last few weeks, and let me tell you where.

Are you guys ready?

Ok! I went to Ethiopia!

The decision for this came kind of abruptly, as I was originally set to head to Dubai for eleven days. However, PJ, my brother, wasn’t able to come out for the entire trip and rather than hang out in the Middle East alone (again), I decided to meet up with a friend all the way in Africa. (He lives in the Middle East too, so it wasn’t such a stretch for him).

It was my first time anywhere on the African continent, and it was awesome!

Flights to Ethiopia from Dubai are actually fairly cheap and quick, so hopping a plane to Addis Ababa (the capital) was simple.

So what did I do in Ethiopia? Many things! I wandered the city of Addis Ababa, went on a food tour of the city, rode a horse down into an extinct volcano, visited a monastery (Ethiopians are super religious), and hiked across a four hundred year old bridge to stand on a waterfall. Was it great? Yes. Was it exhausting? Also yes. But it was so much fun!

Reading up on Addis Ababa, I saw that it is generally considered the ‘safest’ of cities in Africa, with the exception of pickpockets. With this in mind, I dumped everything of value with my parents (hi Joni!) during my one day back in the US before heading to Africa. The only things I took with me worth anything were my cell phone (my lifeline) and my iPad (my writing instrument). Other than that, I had my half-empty backpack, full of clothes and not much else. This turned out to be a good idea, as, over the course of the trip, I disappointed many pickpockets with my own state of poverty. I imagine robbing someone with nothing is frustrating at best.

My first day there, I had booked reservations at a cultural restaurant named Yod Abyssinia. I arrived in town at 9am but hadn’t slept for…2 days? So I was pretty exhausted. (I left California at 3pm on May 24th and arrived in town at 9am on the 26th) Thus, when I got to my hotel, I crashed out immediately and didn’t wake up until my friend, Harrison, arrived at 3pm.

A side note here: I stayed at the Marriott Executive Apartments, which give you a 1000sq ft apartment for around $170/night. This is expensive for Ethiopia, but not bad when splitting with someone else, especially as I used my Citi Prestige card’s 4th night free in order to save on the cost.

Anyway, I scrambled awake and tried to play it cool when Harrison arrived, which failed miserably since I still had on last night’s (3 days ago) makeup and my hair was a mess. Still, we had a good time catching up until the dinner at Yod Abyssinia, which, let me tell you guys, was really, really, cool.

This place is well known in Addis Ababa and features live entertainment, excellent Ethiopian food, and a really cool atmosphere.

We had no idea what to order, so accidentally ended up ordering a vegetarian fasting platter…which was… pretty tasty, to be honest.

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Did you guys know that Ethiopians don’t use utensils? They have this special kind of bread, called injera, which is made from an indigenous cereal crop called tef. It’s unlike anything we have in the west, so it’s hard to describe. Think…pita bread, but totally flat, and with the texture of a sponge. That doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

Now you’re getting it.

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And it’s served with everything.

Anyway, this injera is used in lieu of a fork and knife. Food is served on a giant platter with rolled piles of injera around it, and you have to use a single hand to tear some injera off, wrap it around whatever food you’re trying to eat, and then shove it in your mouth. It’s not very easy, especially since the injera is prone to tearing.

We had no idea how to eat all this stuff when our food arrived, and spent a good five minutes searching surreptitiously around the restaurant, looking for people who were eating as well. (We did it wrong all night, as you guys can imagine).

The live show on stage showcased the dance styles of eleven different tribes within Ethiopia, as you guys can see below:

Now, ok, let me tell you something.

Near the end of the night, they were dragging people up to dance. Yes, I got called up. And here I am, two beers in, dancing along to this incredibly high speed music and totally feeling myself. My pride only intensified as three separate people told me how great I was after I finished dancing.

Well, Harrison took a video.



I was not great. I was not even close. At best, I can call my dancing a bastardized version of the musical Stomp. You know, the one with Irish line dancing? At worst, it looks like…like a tipsy white girl way out of her depth attempting to emulate some seriously high speed tribal dancing. No, I will not show you the video. Suffice to say that my dancing was not the best. And there is permanent evidence of it.

So! We ate this fasting platter the first day, (Ethiopians fast twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, so this food is common), and the next day had a food tour that took us around the city.

Our guide had us meet at a cafe’ called Oh Canada, which Harrison particularly enjoyed, since he is unapologetically Canadian. (Eh?)

Do you guys remember when I said I would eat a cow hoof and cheek, but draw the line at fish?

Well, peer pressure does a lot for you. Take a look at these deep-fried beauties, one of which I was convinced to shove down my gullet after much coercion:

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Ugh.
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Proof!

We also ate at this restaurant named Yilma, which Anthony Bourdain once visited, and which our food guide assured us was “totally safe.”

Which is how I ended up eating a pile of raw beef in the middle of Africa.

No, it wasn’t tasty.

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With injera!

We even had a traditional coffee ceremony, which was delicious. We ended the night with smoothies…at a mini mart, because apparently that is a thing?

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I’m a part-time mayonnaise model

Anyway, the tour was really spectacular overall, and I ate a lot of super weird things, which is basically what you’re paying for, right?

There isn’t much for tourist stuff in Addis Ababa, but the food tour was via Go Addis, which I highly recommend. They’re great people, and the fact that I wasn’t poisoned from any of the food is a rare and glorious thing when in Africa.

Next up, stories from Wenchi Crater lake and my attempts to ride a horse down a mountain.

-Carissa “Why Did I Eat Raw Meat?” Rawson