Monday, June 25, 2012

African Adventure Day 5: Addis Museums

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

We woke up early the Tuesday morning to the buzz of a mosquito that had trapped itself in our room and insisted on flying obnoxiously close to our ears. Noticing that my bug bite count was up by two (for a total of 7 bites now), we ate another granola bar breakfast and got ready for a day of museum hopping while my Friend was at work. She was gracious enough to first drop us off at the National Museum, which cost 10 birr each for farenji (foreigners) to attend, and only 2 birr for any habishat (Ethiopians). My guide book explained that Ethiopians frequently charge more for foreigners because they believe if you are rich enough to be visiting their country, you probably have more money to pay for attractions. We only had a 100 birr bill, and the lady at the ticket counter did not have change. We decided to leave the remaining 80 birr as a donation to the museum, which ended up being extremely well curated and interesting, though obviously underfunded.

The museum itself is set in a garden gated in and guarded by military personnel, parts of which were under construction (surprise, surprise). Statues, cannon, and even giant live tortoises stood freely in this garden, and what looked like something that used to be a fountain. There were multiple buildings that housed different kinds of galleries and exhibits, but we were primarily interested in the National Museum that housed Lucy. Above the door to the museum is a beautiful mosaic that I was particularly captivated by.

The mosaic at the museum

Me in front of the museum

Museum day!

Giant tortoise!
Inside the museum, the first floor is divided into two sections, the first of which has glass cases filled with ancient artifacts excavated primarily from the same site dating from the 12th century, but there were also other artifacts that were much older. Some highlights included pottery, figurines, and statues. The second room had more recent items, specifically weapons, clothing, crowns, thrones, and other regalia from the royal leaders of Ethiopia’s past. The centerpiece is a skull from the species homo sapiens idaltu, which is said to be the direct ancestors of current homo sapiens sapiens like us. Large video screens above this encased skull demonstrate the evolution of humanity in a looping video.

We then ventured upstairs, learning that the top floor was closed for remodeling. This left the second floor, the main floor, and the basement as available viewing areas. On the second floor, we found modern paintings and sculpture endemic to the country, as well as a group of school children dressed in light blue polo shirts on a class field trip. These students were all very eager to shake our hands (sometimes even kiss our hands) and try out their English on us. An entire group of 25 or so children maybe ages 8-10 wanted to make sure that each one was able to touch us and say hello. It was very heartwarming and sweet. Their teachers and chaperones all took photos of this exchange.

Next we made our way down to the basement, where we found a fabulously curated walk-through of human evolution from ape to homo sapiens. Each case contained fossils or bones discovered for each species including reconstructed skulls, plus descriptions of defining characteristics and lifestyles. The rest of the basement floor held a maze of rooms that contained hominid skull and skeletal fossils, as well as those from other large animals including many that are now extinct. I learned a lot about ancient animals, especially that many of them were HUGE! I knew about mammoths and dinosaurs being gigantic compared to humans, but seeing so many other fossils from enormous creatures of all kinds that are now extinct really surprised me. Why have animals in general gotten so much smaller in comparison to their ancestors? I also enjoyed reading the displays that indicated how they can tell so much about each species from examining their teeth—where they lived, what they ate, how they moved, etc. There was even a section about how the landscape has changed throughout history, from being a lush jungle to the dry landscape of today.

A reconstructed skull

The same species as Lucy

The final room in the museum showcased Lucy, including her fossils as well as a reconstructed skeleton, information on her excavation, and an image of what she may have looked like when she was alive. We also saw a display on the First Child, Selam (which means Peace), estimated to be 3.3 million years old and of the same species as Lucy. I was struck by the size of Lucy…I think I had expected her to be larger, or more human-sized, but she was clearly more of a medium-sized primate.

Ready to meet Lucy!

Selam, the First Child

What Lucy would have looked like when she was alive.

Lucy's Place in Nature

Lucy's Skeleton

Lucy reconstructed

We had some time after visiting the museum before we would be picked up, so we headed over to the Lucy CafĂ© on the other side of the gardens for lunch. On my way, I was surprised by a giant tortoise that seemed to pop out of thin air! The restaurant was totally empty, and very scenic…a mini paradise in the middle of a busy city. Our waitress was extremely friendly and the food was good—I ordered chicken curry, and Todd had a cheese pizza. We also tried banana and strawberry “shakes,” which really tasted like smoothies, and my strawberry shake may be the best smoothie or milkshake I have ever had. It was AMAZING! I can’t even tell you how delicious it really was. The bathrooms were an exciting story as well, since the faucets didn’t work and I had to dip a pitcher into a bucket of water to wash my hands.

This guy scared me!

The Lucy Cafe

Todd is ready for lunch!

Curry, pizza, and shakes!

After lunch, my Friend picked us up and we decided to visit the Lion Zoo to see some Abyssinian lions. I had heard that it was a sad sight, since they are all caged up, but I was interested in seeing a live lion that looks like Scar from The Lion King. Abyssinian lions are smaller than regular lions and their manes are a dark, almost black color. The zoo definitely had lions, most of which were lying lazily in their cages. One, however, gave us a show by roaring repeatedly, and two other lions created a scene when they were trying to get to each other from neighboring cages. We also saw a variety of Ethiopian birds and monkeys in cages, and commented that Todd and I must be in the right place because everyone was staring at us shamelessly. This was definitely the place to come to stare at unusual creatures!

These lions were trying to get to each other.

Driving around, my Friend was able to point out and give us brief histories on some of the major sites and buildings in the city. Our next stop was at the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, a place Todd had wanted to visit because of the great reviews he read online. This museum was free to visit, though Todd left a fat donation upon the completion of our tour. One of the museum employees offered to take us on a guided tour through the museum, and we obliged since we really had no knowledge of the Red Terror of Ethiopia. Through our tour, we learned that when Haile Selassie was overthrown, the military took over the government and were extraordinarily brutal, arresting people for minor infractions and torturing them mercilessly. The exhibits begin with the reign of Haile Selassie, and progress with photographs and documents depicting his removal from office and the aftermath. Some of the displays were particularly poignant. One of the walls was completely covered in photographs of people the new government considered “enemies of the state” and were wanted for questioning (aka torture, mutilation, and murder), and our guide was able to tell us which of them were still alive (not many). We also saw displays of the torture devices that were used, like dipping prisoners into hot oil, or cutting off their toes so they couldn’t run away. Some of the clothes of victims who had been shot were on display with the bullet holes clearly visible. Because these clothes were obvious 70s attire, the closeness to our modern day was chilling. This is when we learned that our guide had been one of these victims; the polo shirt with 3 bullet holes belonged to his cell mate.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

One of the rooms contained a reconstruction of a memorial mass grave, and the walls of the room were lined with bins of actual bones from massacred victims. Some items such as necklaces and toothbrushes remained, and one skull still miraculously had hair. It was extremely disturbing to witness the effects of such a genocide up close. Outside of this room, there were glass towers, maybe 6 feet tall, filled with clothing and shoes and belongings from victims, reminiscent of Holocaust museums. The final room on the tour housed modern artist interpretations of the Red Terror. It’s amazing to me that in the West we only hear about the famines in Ethiopia and totally neglected to cover this period of history where over half a million people were brutally tortured and killed. We also learned that the instigators of this holocaust were found guilty of genocide and war crimes, and had recently been pardoned and set free per the pleas of a group of religious representatives, which I found truly appalling. To learn more about the Red Terror and the Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, please visit the museum’s website:

After our visit to the Martyrs’ Museum had concluded, we freshened up and headed over to the Hilton hotel, which is massive and exceptionally nice, even by our Hilton standards. Western tourists, especially those with any kind of money, generally stay at either the Hilton or the Sheraton when visiting Addis, and it’s not hard to see why; these hotels are basically palaces! My Friend had spent a good amount of the day contacting her travel agent friends because Todd and I were interested in taking a day trip to Lalibela to see the famous rock-hewn churches, and our flights could be purchased at the Ethiopian Airlines office located in the Hilton (I’m telling you, this place has everything). It just so happened that the same night they were having a concert featuring a famous Ethiopian singer, so we had to park on the street outside of the gated/guarded Hilton parking lot. We joined a group of vehicles haphazardly strewn near the curb, and headed through the parking lot and into the crowded hotel. We had to go through security screening including metal detectors and bag xrays, and then made our way past some fancy lounges and restaurants to the outdoor area, where they have a whole line of expensive shops, a fresh juice bar, a regular bar, and heated outdoor seating next to a fantastic swimming pool. My Friend told us the pool is naturally heated with water they import from a hot spring, and cleaned every day.

The Hilton

Hanging out at the Hilton

One of the things Todd and I noticed is that we definitely were not stared at here. While we were frequently the only white people at many establishments we visited, the Hilton dining patio had a variety of foreign visitors, particularly middle aged business men. We attempted to order coffee, but the waiter abruptly informed us that the machines had been turned off for the evening. Ten minutes later, we saw a wealthy older man be served a cappuccino. Clearly this was a man who tips well.

The bugs began to bite us, and so we decided to venture off to feast on some traditional Ethiopian food at Yod Abyssinia. On our way, we decided to try our luck at hyena hunting again, but alas, we were disappointed a second time. But we wouldn’t let that ruin our evening! Yod Abyssinia is a restaurant with a show, so you eat traditional cuisine while watching cultural dances on stage. The restaurant is divided into group seating in half circle arrangements facing the stage, with a small circular table in the center of each group of chairs.  Some servers bring by this really cool looking silver vessel with two tiers, and the first is a pitcher that they remove and give you soap and you wash your hands right there at the table. The water collects in the second tier, which is a bowl with a sort of slotted lid for the water to go through, but so the pitcher can sit on top when not in use. Hand washing is important because traditional Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. After dinner was over, they repeated this hand washing process, and a second server provided us with scented towels to help remove the smell from the spices still on our hands.

Our dinner was a huge community style dish that they put on a plate and set in a basket on top of our tiny round table, and it took up the whole surface area. The meal consisted of injera with a variety of sauces made with lentils or meats or vegetables. It was quite the culinary adventure. While we were eating, we witnessed a variety of Ethiopian dances with both men and women, and I enjoyed watching the musicians play these crazy instruments that were like unusual variations of guitars and flutes. Periodically, the dancers would come into the crowd and entice unsuspecting tourists to get up from their seats and dance with them in the aisles (Todd and I tried to look particularly busy with our meal when they would pass by our table). Some of the dance moves were unusual and wild…one dancer whipped her hair around so fiercely and quickly that I thought it was a miracle she didn’t take off into the night sky like a helicopter!

Dinner--injera with sauces

Dinner and a show!

Traditional dancing

The restaurant was in the vicinity of the Artist’s gallery where he shows his work, so, despite the late hour, we thought we would drop by and have a look around. Whoops—remember that concert at the Hilton? That’s where the Artist was that evening. No matter…we would still head on over and get the guard to let us in! We honked outside of the dark gallery, signaling to the hidden guard that we would like him to come out and let us in. After a few honks and no results, my Friend laughed that if she got out and shook the door of the gallery, guards would pop out of thin air. And so they did! Like a genie poofing his way out of his ancient lamp, the guard was there to serve and protect, and Todd and I waited in the car while they attempted to reach the Artist for permission. As this verbal transaction was going on, I looked around at the dirt road we were on and noticed that even when it rains here for just a short time, HUGE puddles are formed, like mini lakes.

Once we had clearance to go inside the gallery, we were met with 3 floors of fabulous work in a variety of media. The ground floor had a cool wooden desk, and a few key pieces on the walls, plus certificates showcasing awards and honors the Artist had achieved, announcements from past openings, and newspaper articles. The top floor was a loft-like space with paintings done by another artist who was using this space to show and sell his work. But the bottom floor is where the magic really happened! It was clear that the gallery was in the middle of transitioning between exhibits, so some pieces still hung on the wall while others were propped up on the floor, with nails and other hardware in various stages of installation. Some of the large scale abstract paintings on interesting materials like mesh and wire were particularly interesting.

The Gallery

Making our way through a labyrinth of rooms, we were able to see stacks upon stacks of paintings, drawings, and prints, some abstract and others more realistic. We particularly enjoyed a painting of a chair that was created on three-dimensional materials and was quite large in size. The Godfather had actually purchased this original piece for the house he is having built, and it was held in the gallery for safekeeping at the current time. There were a variety of prints available of this painting as well, and you can see a photo I quickly snapped of it below.

One of the rooms in the gallery

A print of the chair painting, smaller in size

After we visited the gallery, we went for one final hyena hunting excursion, but they still eluded us. By now, it was nearly midnight, and our plane for Lalibela left in the morning at 7:00am. Ethiopian Airlines suggest you arrive at least 2 hours before your flight takes off (which is crucial, we learned, as sometimes they decide to leave early!), so we decided to head back, pack up, and get some much needed sleep.

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