Thursday, June 14, 2012

The City with No Stop Signs

There is something about a city that has no stop signs that cries out for comment. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is one of those cities. To make matters more complicated, Addis has only a handful of street signs. This leaves traffic, pedestrians included, to their own devices, with a multitude of strategic decisions to make when navigating their way through the innumerable avenues and alleyways of this sprawling city. Sidewalks and streets are in various states of disrepair, although they are generally paved (a relatively new phenomenon apparently). With a population of somewhere around 4 million people (no one really knows), it has the distinction of being the world's largest city in a landlocked country. Add this all together and you have a lot of people who are essentially trapped, not sure where they are going but who are impatient to get there.
During the day one is struck by the number of shoeshine entrepreneurs occupying each block. Beggars are common, and hawkers of almost any kind of goods are persistent in many places. At night the same sidewalks may be occupied by provocatively dressed hookers who appear entirely out of place in this basically conservative environment. Construction is occurring everywhere, with modernistic, new buildings pushing into the cityscape alongside ramshackled, old structures. It is not unusual to see herds of goats being driven down a main thoroughfare, claiming the right-of-way from the innumerable taxis. It is difficult to avoid observing the city's incongruous and confusing mixture of culture, religion and controls.
We arrived after a long day of travel only to find that our accommodation, a modest bed-and-breakfast, had confused our reservation. We always reserved on the basis of one room, two beds and Internet accessibility. We assumed that a shower would be available in each room we booked, however, in several cases this involved a bathtub and a handheld shower nozzle (making it somewhat difficult to keep the remainder of the bathroom from being drenched). Our accomodation reservation in Addis Ababa seemed to have hit a snag. Two rooms showed as being required (therefore doubling the price). However, after arguing, mostly in sign language and broken English, the problem was solved by the night clerk setting up a rollaway bed in the room, bringing the total cost down from $140 for two rooms to $95 for one. Despite the somewhat reluctant negotiated late night compromise, we received a call from the manager the next morning advising that it was against the law to allow two non-Ethiopian man to sleep in a single room. The rather bold assumption and double discrimination were troubling but seemed irrefutable.  However, skillful negotiation on Carson's part made way for an exception in our case based upon my apparent need for 24-hour attendance by DOCTOR Pue due to my Parkinson's disease.
While Addis Ababa is anxious to greet the Western world, it appears to be doing so at somewhat of a pell-mell pace and piecemeal fashion, tripping over itself in the confusion of cultures, the desire to advance and the shrugging off of its reputation as a famine-plagued, have-not country. One evening for supper we attended a traditional European restaurant with  cultural entertainment in the form of singing and dancing. Although the ancient instruments and historical music were fascinating, it was difficult to avoid the fact that very loud amplification, technical sound enhancement and computerized musical support was utilized throughout the show, despite the rather small audience of 30 or so patron.
Racing away from the past and into the future inevitably means that some things and some people are left behind. The city's landmark-based navigation requirements and almost total lack of regulated traffic are indications of this anomaly. The fact that almost everyone seems to have a cellular phone presents a visual contradiction to the evidence that the country is continuing to struggle with poverty, corruption and economic challenges. It is, after all, the city with no stop signs.

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