Direct flights from Dublin

By John Masterson |

As the world shrinks and high streets start to look more similar across the world, it is rare to find yourself somewhere that really feels different.

Ethiopia provides that wonderful feeling of strangeness. It reminds one that travel can still broaden the mind.

The famine-torn Ethiopia of 1984-5 is a distant memory, although this is still a very poor country and very much two countries in one. There is the massive building boom in the capital, Addis Ababa, where modern glass buildings are going up side by side with tiny street lock up shops. Many of the women dress like in any European capital. People talk on their mobiles. There are good restaurants and hotels.

Out in the country, one steps back in time to wooden ploughs drawn by oxen, women in traditional dress, children offering to shine your shoes for pennies, poverty but with enough to eat. I never saw a child with a bicycle. I saw kids kick around, but never with a real football. Half-used ballpoints were accepted with enormous gratitude. And no one wore glasses. There were very few dogs or cars. Pets eat food.

The new Dreamliner Boeing 787 service from Addis Ababa to Dublin and on to Los Angeles and back beginning in June will open up Africa to Irish travelers. From Addis you can fly on to forty nine African destinations. I had a great night’s sleep on the Dreamliner. It is noticeably quiet and the flatbed in business class is a treat.

We arrived in Addis for morning rush hour. Chaos, bustle, and life are the order of the day. Amazingly it is all done with no horns beeping. There are queues for minibus taxis that are hundreds of yards long. They hold about fifteen people and everyone piles in. A rapid transit system is being built which will ease things. Somewhat.

Smack bang in the office district we see a man arrive at his street stand which is the pedal part of a Singer sewing machine. Out of his rucksack comes the machine proper. He fits it and settles down to work. Nearby a pub advertising the Newcastle v Arsenal match. We checked into the Radisson Hotel and went for a shower happy in the knowledge that the Six Nations crucial final day would be on in the bar.

Ethiopia was Christianised in the fourth Century and the Coptic Christian church is still dominant. First we visited the Trinity Cathedral Church where Haile Selassie is buried. He was a giant in Ethiopian history. He died in 1975, probably murdered in prison by the communists who stayed in power until 1991.

Today there is a democracy with 547 deputies, 546 held by the ruling party! Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst is also buried here.

As at all churches shoes are off and women cover their hair. Men stand to the right and women on the left.

The following morning with the Six Nations Cup safely in the right hands, we took the two hour flight to Lalibela and began to appreciate the enormous differences in this ancient land. In Addis there is building everywhere, often with wooden scaffolding. The country’s small towns are, by contrast, frozen in history and subsistence living. The average annual income in the whole country is about five thousand dollars. It is a lot less here.

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