A Series Of Unfortunate Events: My Ethiopian Stopover

Filed Under: Ethiopian, Travel

Last year I needed to fly from Johannesburg to London. I considered using miles to fly Etihad business class, but decided to try and find something more interesting and exotic.

Searching availability using LifeMiles, there was an option to fly Ethiopian Airlines to London via their hub in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. This involved a quick 3 hour connection. But given my love of a 24 stopover and the unlikeliness I would visit Ethiopia otherwise, I decided to try and give myself a full 24 hours there.

Fortunately this was possible if I booked Ethiopian to Addis, then EgyptAir on to London, via Cairo. I would arrive in Addis at 6am and then fly on to Cairo at 4am the next day. I was excited to visit a new country and also try two new airlines! So I booked the flights about 6 months in advance. The Ethiopian flight was scheduled to be operated by their 787 Dreamliner, and while it may not have had fully-flat seats, it would still provide a comfortable ride for the overnight flight from Johannesburg.

As can often happen in a six month period between booking and taking a flight, the aircraft type for the first flight changed from a 787 to a 767. I knew this had happened to Ben and thought there was a chance it could change back (even last minute).

Otherwise I would just suck it up and bear it, because I was becoming quite excited about visiting Ethiopia.

A vintage arrival

Unfortunately, the aircraft type didn’t change and I boarded the flight in Johannesburg to find the same retro recliner seats as Ben had.

I settled into seat 1H and prepared for a long night ahead. The flight had originated in Cape Town and (I guess because it was a domestic stop in Johannesburg), those passengers continuing on to Addis were allowed to stay onboard the flight during the stop. Not only had they been allowed to stay onboard, as the stop was around midnight, they had been allowed the keep their seats fully reclined and remain fast asleep during the stop (and takeoff), so I boarded a dark cabin mostly full of reclined, fast-asleep passengers.

Yep, this was the seating for my overnight flight

I had a brief discussion with the Ethiopian lady sitting next to me. I asked her something about the arrivals process in Addis. She asked me if I was visiting family there. I said no, it was just a 24 hour stopover. She looked at me oddly, but I thought nothing of it.

The flight wasn’t actually that bad given the terribly outdated seating.

The crew did the best with what they could and I did manage to get a few hours sleep.

We arrived in Addis on time, and as I departed both crew members enthusiastically said ‘Merry Christmas!’ as I walked off the aircraft. As this was January 7th I thought it was a little odd to be wishing me a Merry Christmas two full weeks after I had celebrated Christmas but didn’t really think anything of it.

The most wonderful time of the year

As I was arriving at 6am and departing at 4am the next day, I could have booked 2 nights in a hotel but wanted to find somewhere I could potentially stay with just a one night booking as I would be there for less than 24 hours.

I found a well-rated hotel in the city that offered free airport transfers, free breakfast, and many reviewers had noted that they had been able to check-in early. I had also emailed this request to the hotel when booking and they said if they had space, then I could check in early.

The hotel was by far the best thing about my entire time in Addis.

Everything there worked like clockwork. The hotel transfer was waiting for me, and a smiling driver welcomed me to Ethiopia. We got to talking as he drove me to the hotel and he also asked me if I was visiting family. I told him no, just doing some sightseeing for a day.

He then looked at me curiously and asked why I had picked January 7 to visit ‘because everything would be closed.’ I told him I was coming back from a new years trip to South Africa and this was the most logical day to have my stopover. I asked him why everything would be closed on a standard Saturday and he replied:

‘Because today is Christmas Day here’

Suddenly the reaction of my seatmate on the flight, and the farewell from the cabin crew, made sense. Unbeknown to me, the one day of the year I had decided to visit Ethiopia was their Christmas Day.

And I knew exactly zero people there.

Seasons Greetings.

I hadn’t even thought to check public holidays in Ethiopia and now it was a bit late to do anything about it!

Rush-hour in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

My private taxi tour

I arrived at the hotel where they graciously allowed me to check in at 7:30am, wished me a Merry Christmas, and I managed to catch up on a few hours sleep, before venturing out late morning and trying to work out what on earth to do in Ethiopia, by myself, on Christmas Day.

I had tried to book a very well-rated food tour for that afternoon however they advised me on that day only they were fully booked, whereas every single other day they had plenty of availability (I should have guessed why!).

My research had shown there was a nice lookout at Entoto Hill above the city, and that I would need a taxi to take me there. I also planned to visit the main museum in Addis afterwards, which the hotel concierge did assure me would be open on Christmas Day.

I asked the concierge if he could organize a taxi for me to take me to the lookout, and translate my wishes to the driver. He enthusiastically got on the phone and within a few minutes told me my taxi was outside.

Heading outside, I found a car that was almost as old as I was, and in a terrible condition, waiting for me. The concierge and driver conversed for several minutes and I asked the driver (via the concierge) how much it would cost to go up Entoto Hill, view the lookout, and then take me to the museum (as I guessed there would be no meter in the taxi!). I knew from Google Maps that the round trip would take about 40 minutes.

‘$150 US Dollars’

was the answer from the Concierge.

No. Worries. Mate.

I started to laugh in disbelief at the absurdity of paying that much money in a (very) developing country to take this jalopy up a hill and back for that amount of money. The driver quickly realised I was not going to entertain that so the concierge asked me how much I was willing to pay.

I told him not to worry about the taxi – I was really not that desperate to see a lookout.

He asked me to name a price and I randomly picked ‘$50 US Dollars‘ thinking this would be such a low amount he wouldn’t bother. The driver did speak some broken English, but immediately started shaking his head.

I thanked them both, told them not to worry about the trip and headed back inside the hotel. Before I got to the lift the concierge ran in calling my name, and said ‘okay, okay, he do it for $50‘.

So off we went up the hill. The driver was able to provide some basic commentary of the area which was somewhat interesting. The view from the top of the hill was pretty uninspiring, but I did meet these little dudes at the top who were very interested in my camera.

New mates in Addis Ababa

We headed down to the museum which was fortunately open. The driver offered his services for the rest of the day for a ‘good price’ but I knew everything else was walking distance so declined, paid him his $50 plus a small tip as a Christmas present, thanked him (and wished him a Merry Christmas!), and headed into the museum.

The museum was also pretty uninspiring and I was done in about 30 minutes.

Local delicacies

I knew Ethiopia was famous for its coffee and it had a well known, very well rated coffee shop that was covered in the food walking tour. I was excited to visit it and have some authentic Ethiopian coffee so headed there on foot.

It was closed for Christmas Day.

I also knew Ethiopia also had the largest open-air market in Africa right here in Addis, so headed there on foot.

It was closed for Christmas Day.

You say ‘let’s play a game’, I say ‘give it back’

It was a fairly sunny day so I decided just to wander around and have a look at the city. I was walking down the street, looking for a convenience store to buy some water at around 2pm. Most places were closed for Christmas Day but there were people around on the streets, going about their business.

I was approached on a fairly major street by two Ethiopian men who were around my age. I was the only non-Ethiopian person I saw outside of the airport and museum the entire time I was in Addis, so stuck out like a sore thumb and attracted plenty of interest from the locals.

The two men came up to me and started talking to me, with big smiles on their faces. One of them was holding a pullover rolled up in his hands. They started speaking to me in Amharic, the local language. I smiled, tried to tell them I didn’t speak their language, and tried to keep walking.

They then got very close to me, one either side and kept talking quickly and excitedly and started to touch my waist on both sides. Instinct quickly took over and I quickly slid my hands into my shorts pockets to check my belongings, to find that my mobile phone had gone.

Something in me just snapped.

And I lost it.

I panicked and started screaming at them about where my phone was. They pointed down the street indicating that someone had grabbed it and run off. Unfortunately for them there was no one within 50 metres and this was 4 seconds after it happened. I got very upset and the rage in my face must have been so great that one of them promptly reached into his rolled up pullover and gave me my phone right back still with big smiles on their faces.

I was still seething but made the smart decision to walk off rather than face any further confrontation.

To this day I don’t know whether they were trying to steal it or just trying to play a game with me. We didn’t speak a word of each others language so couldn’t communicate with each other, and they had big smiles on their faces the entire time and the entire thing happened so quickly that it was over in 30 seconds.

I have not been that angry for a long time.

Colourful Ethiopia

My sunset procession

By this stage I realised my Ethiopian stopover was not going to get much better.

There was one more sight, Meskel Square, that I wanted to check out. I decided after the phone incident that I should head back to the hotel before it got dark and have dinner there rather than being on the streets by myself at night.

I found the square, which was not remotely interesting to view, and then headed back to the hotel. It was a good 30 minute walk, and the sun was starting to set earlier than I had anticipated.

Addis Ababa has a large homeless population. I’m very used to being around homeless people — I see them in London every day and they are just a part of life in a large city.

I walked past plenty on the way back to the hotel in Addis and several tried to stop me and ask for money. There were no small notes to give them and I tried to communicate this my shaking my head gently. I started to walk off but several of them started to follow me. I was the only non-Ethiopian person in sight, and must have looked out of place with my blonde hair, sunglasses and nervous expression.

Each person I walked past and said ‘no’ to started to follow me as well, about 10-20 metres behind and as it got dark I realised the precariousness of my situation. I was in a foreign city where I didn’t speak the language, had only a vague idea of where I was, had valuables on me and was being followed by an increasing procession of homeless locals in fading light.

Merry Christmas.

It got to the point where I started to physically run back to the hotel as my anxiety rose. Fortunately they did not pick up their pace and I was able to reach the hotel safely. I headed straight to the hotel restaurant and had dinner there, which was delicious. I love Ethiopian food.

After dinner I looked back at the comedy of errors that was my day, cut my losses, headed to bed to sleep for a few hours, then went to the airport at 2am.

The flights back to London were uneventful and while Cairo was a disaster of an airport to transit, EgyptAir was much better than I was expecting.

Bottom line

I don’t regret visiting Addis Ababa, as I do look back at this and laugh at my misfortune now. This post is meant as no more than a series of humorous anecdotes about how badly your plans can go while traveling.

I have no doubt it’s a wonderful country with plenty to offer. I just had exceedingly bad luck while I was there, especially picking their Christmas Day as the one day to visit. It is my own fault for not knowing or checking this beforehand, and thinking I could manage everything myself.

I might head back one day, but only as a part of an organized tour where I don’t have to organize anything myself.

Have you had any stopovers that just haven’t worked out?

  1. Excellent writing James. As a reader perspective you are a hugely welcome addition to this blog. You can tell a story and keep it fun and interesting.

    Lucky’s… well… lucky to have you. 😉

    And no racist overtones/ intense sarcasm/ American entitlement, (especially) whilst writing about Africa unlike some other writers here.

  2. I got pickpocketed in BCN after someone took my wallet from my pocket. Fortunately, I noticed this very quickly while he was in the act of doing it. He then gave me my wallet back and smiled. Seems like a thing for these pickpocketers to smile…

  3. This is quite an outdated review. The 767s have not been used on the Addis-Johannesburg route for well over a year now (it is currently 1x A350 and 2x B738s for the 3 daily flights) and the 767s are being refitted with flat beds as well (at least 2 are completed so far).

  4. Did you see the skeleton of “Lucy” at the museum?

    You seem to have made the absolute best of the situation, cheers!

  5. The thief deserved their face bashed in but you did the polite thing and didn’t.

    I’ve heard of someone missing their train because they didn’t know daylight savings time started.

    Good to review the dates of public holidays before traveling.

  6. I had my phone stolen from me in the Edna roundabout area with the same tactics, i freaked out and started chasing the thiefs.. it was night time so I thought it was better to go to hotel instead of going into dark allies and lose my cash as wel. Plenty of homeless people there and they get pretty close to you. The rest of my trip was hell since i have everything on it and had no way of replacing it.

    Pretty country still

  7. Good story, always wear pants/shorts with zippered pockets to clue me in.
    Although have heard stories of people with razors to cut pockets/purses open, but can’t protect against everything.

  8. They told you merry Christmas because many countries and denominations of Christianity celebrate on the 6th of January (three kings day, epiphany…).

  9. Lessons learned James? I hope so! Curiousty should always be tied with security. You are so lucky you have got your phone back, that you have come back to the hotel without any harm! The worst case we would not be reading about you or talking with you! Not all smiling people have good intentions..sometimes being frank shows them the limitations.
    Better to have a local guide when you plan to know more extensively of the localities. You being a blond in Africa or China is just like a photo model, everyone wants to have a picture with the white boy! LOL!

  10. I missed the tagline and didnt realize until “just doing some sightseeing for a day.” that this wasnt Lucky.

    Actually visiting a new country and not just the closest chain hotel to the airport??? What a novel idea!

  11. in 2015 I and a friend were in Europe for two weeks. Three days in Geneva…and the day we had for purely local sightseeing happened to be the Swiss national day, with very few things we wanted to see open. We had no idea when arranging it.

    Our next stop was Longyearbyen for three days…coinciding with Norway’s national day. Again, no idea until we were there.

    Longyearbyen was more enjoyable than our day in Geneva. (Nothing wrong with Geneva, just a lack of things we were planning on seeing.) The locals were tickled that we weren’t there for the holiday, or staging for an Arctic excursion, or part of a science expedition…just tourists going somewhere Because.

  12. This is so similar to my visit to Addis (except for the robbery).

    Booked an error-fare last year and decided to book the one with a 17 hour layover in Addis (over the one with 3 hours), arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening. Ethiopian offers free hotel if you have a long layover, but only if that’s the only possible connection. But I got the option to pay 60-70 USD and get a hotel, 3 meals at the hotel and transport.

    Only problem with my timing was that I was there on Easter Day, which is also a big holiday in Ethiopia. Had contacted a few tour companies in advance and not one of them had tours this day.

    Got to my hotel, checked in and then asked the concierge if there was any way to see the city. He called for a taxi and showed me a map with different places to visit, which he then gave to the driver, but most things were closed except the museum. Ended up being a quick tour, but I got to see some sights at least.

    I had agreed to a fixed price to start with, but since the tour was so short (only lasted an hour or so) I tried to bargain it a bit, but he wouldn’t nudge and I quickly gave up.

    Next time I have to plan this better.

  13. This guy doesn’t play around–he releases articles faster than Cardi B releases singles. Great addition to OMAAT!

  14. Great story telling James, very entertaining. Let’s say you were “ unlucky…….. “ Keep up the good work

  15. While the story telling is great, I think it lack a few photos for our to feast and sort of relax a bit. Great job though..

  16. I have to admit agreeing with JJJ above as much as I enjoy reading the review of airline products I do find the whole magic of travel is slightly lost when you don’t see anything but the inside of a chain hotel that could be anywhere in the world. Where is the experience and immersion of culture? Travel is a means to an end, and if you can enhance it with some insight and advice from here great but it seems rather hollow when you don’t get to do the best part.

  17. @ M Simons

    where ever part of the world as long as there is intense poverty, organized gangs etc. this kind of crime in all methods will still excists..even a friend travelling through Frankfurt Main Railway station was victimed by organized Eastern European delinquents(two young girls from Bulgaria)and the police patrol are only 300 meters away from him..so even in a highly industrialized country where you think such thing should not happened especially in a highly patroled area, well anything can happen..the point is how to prevent it and get rid of the problem for good.

  18. The situation may just have been a humorous and ultimately inconsequential event for you, but Western tourists really need to understand that situations like this can devolve rapidly, and they may not end up so lucky. Imagine if your phone did get stolen, or your passport, or your wallet. Or if one of those homeless people was particularly desperate and had a knife.

    Ethiopia is not Eastern Europe (although plenty can go wrong there too). This is a firmly third-world country. A stroll around town really isn’t the right move for someone who sticks out and isn’t familiar with the area.

  19. I spent significant time in Addis, Kombolcha, and Lalibela back in 2006. I encourage you to go back at a more convenient time — it is a beautiful country filled with lovely people. I had my share of misfortune at the beginning, but things got better from there.

    And next time, stay at the Sheraton! It’s a gorgeous hotel and the staff are incredibly helpful.

  20. @DT — the violent crime in Addis is very low. Pickpocketing and scams are common, but assault is incredibly rare. That said, it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings and watch out.

    It’s also good to read warnings in travel guides before you go — I fell for a scam, then read about it in Lonely Planet about six hours later. You live, you learn. 😉

  21. Oh dear @lucky..do you remember when I told you to grow more thick skin..it is happening again! Be strong while reading some of the comments..they are so bored right now of you and the way you report those premium cabins and luxury hotels..they want you to write more exciting things like what is happening with other pax in Econom class while eating your caviar and drinking those expensive liquors in First class or which tabloid personalities are staying next door to your presedential suite..they want you to go out more often..engage yourself or explore the local wilderness.
    So Ben aka James is the flavour of the month?! Watch out Daniel, you are losing your spot here..have not heard from you lately?..Lucky just ignore some readers and enjoy your kind of travel..there are enough here who appreciate your kind of report, no need to explain or defend yourself..just focus on your core of telling us your kind of travels..leave James for the normalos and concentrate on the best

  22. @ flightwonk – I did walk past the Sheraton (it was just up the road from the phone incident) and it looked beautiful – by far the best hotel I saw in Addis.

  23. @ DT – I agree things could have turned ugly quickly but I think it would have been just as ignorant not to visit Ethiopia (or Africa) at all because it ‘seemed dangerous’.
    I’ve felt pretty safe in Eastern Europe – Slovakia was one of the safest countries I’ve visited.

  24. Entertaining story about a bad stopover. I could care less about how dated this review is. Thanks for sharing.

  25. @ Yuan Tanhueco – this wasn’t trip report in the sense that Ben does trip reports (where he takes hundreds of photos) – I wasn’t comfortable taking photographs of many of the things I wrote about as it would have made uncomfortable situations even more uncomfortable.

  26. It saddens me very much to read your article. I am a New Yorker, and have traveled to over 80 countries in the world, but have returned to Ethiopia ten different times to visit – it is, by far, one of my favorite countries in the world, largely due to the people. I am sorry that you weren’t able to witness the gracious, hospitable nature of Ethiopians that I see on my visits – their hospitality matches the extent to which their culture is unique and exotic greatness. I have been a victim of petty theft in Tel Aviv, Madrid, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires, yet have been approached so many times in Ethiopia (and other countries in the Horn of Africa and East Africa) by locals, but unlike in the places where I was a victim of crime, it was by locals who, innocently and sweetly, wanted to practice their English and ask what a middle aged white guy from New York was going wandering around their neighborhood. I hope you return to Ethiopia for longer than 24 hours and give it a chance again. I guarantee you’ll love it.

  27. “To this day I don’t know whether they were trying to steal it or just trying to play a game with me. ”

    Well, let’s clear that up right now. I appreciate your optimism but it wasn’t a game.

  28. This has been one of the most entertaining posts I have read on OMAAT in a while! Keep it up James!!

  29. You don’t know whether they were trying to steal or play a game ??????

    They were trying to play the game of stealing your phone… Quite a common game in Addis.

    The more “substantial” versions of the game, though, are at the Mercato, the open air market. Consider yourself lucky not to have visited it, your new friends or others would have relieved you of far more loot than a phone (and by the way it is never completely closed, shopkeepers live there and there are no business hours, just bigger or smaller crowds).

  30. @ Jamewards – then why did they give it straight back to me? I was absolutely seething with range but I’m not a big or intimidating guy and there were two of them vs one of me…

  31. @James

    Sorry to say but do not be so naive..they are definitely not playing with you..they just do not know better at that time..they want to get out of the situation so you got your phone back..you are lucky they did not push it through! 2 against 1 as you have said..boy, you would not have a chance when these 2 locals meant business!

  32. @James

    LOL! I like your optimistic attitude. But hearing that you come back in the hotel without any harm, is the luckiest thing which happened to you in this unlucky day! A phone is a materialistic and replaceable good, your health or even your life not that easy really!

  33. @ James

    Why did they return the phone to you ?

    Panic is a two way street and you admit yourself that you lost it. You may have looked more menacing than you thought and they may have feared you might strangle them.

    OR they saw a cop seeing them and had no money to pay him off…

  34. I enjoyed reading your report, James! A few places were funny that made me laugh. Thanks for the good reminder to check the dates when traveling to new places.

  35. James, you are a wonderful addition to this blog! Thank you for making your experience come alive so vividly. Looking forward to more from you!

  36. Sad to hear you found the museum uninteresting. You must have missed Lucy, who many people go to AA to see. Our oldest ancestor.

  37. That is the difference between when an American travels and when a European travels. Americans are bloody boring.

  38. You hear that Lucky!!…they are not missing you..at all! They are not eager to hear from you soon, LOL!.
    Lucky I will recommend to extend your stay in the Seychelles and savour some more waves with Ford..
    James is killing it! ..he is Midas with the golden touch!

  39. @ Debit

    James is from Australia! He is just based in London, so from your point of view that makes him European? And by the way thanks for being so nice to call American travellers “boring”…if you are refering to Lucky than just say it frankly no need to insult others!..charming as always, LOL!

  40. Pickpockets!

    Got out of a local bus/truck in Bali and noticed my wallet was missing. Made a quick fuss before it moved away and a guy handed me the wallet and said it had ‘fallen’ out of my pocket. After I gave him a reward and the bus moved away I realized that I just happened to catch him in the process.

    Did a tour with a local guide (retired professor) in Istanbul who warned about two or three guys who might start to jostle each other and then bump into you (while the third party is picking your pocket). Good advice. Day later as I was returning to the cruise ship for departure the scene played out and I immediately grabbed someone’s hand as they were lifting my wallet. He ran off and I gave chase until I realized he did not get the wallet so stopped.

    Tilley shorts and pants (google them) have security pockets closed by velcro or in some cases a zipper. Inconvenient and a pain to get out your wallet but much more difficult for the pick-pocket. Usually have lifetime guarantees as well. The Tilley hat has a secret pocket in the hat for valuables as well. OOps – now I have given the secrets away to budding thieves.

  41. As a fellow Aussie Expat living overseas it’s always great to read the writing of another… “No. Worries. Mate.” haha there’s just no other country that would quite understand how that phrase can mean “yep awesome” or it can also mean “f**k right off!”

  42. great post, James!

    next time try to visit Montevideo, Uruguay, after “regular” Christmas and before New Years Eve. Everyone goes to the beach, stores close on December 31st… and most of them just reopen mid-January! The city feels like a ghost town (but in the end it was pretty funny, despite not even cars on the street!)

  43. A lot of cultures smile when they are caught out/under stress. The Indonesian bombers of the Sari night club in Bali smiled all through their trial. And not because they were happy.

  44. Haha cracking story mate. I loved flying ethiopian, can get some great deals out of cairo with them. But there is always awesome fares from BKK to EZE which i’ll hit up one day.
    Never stopped in addis i dont have a yellow fever vax

  45. I had a similar experience when on a trip to Copenhagen, I planned a 24h stay in nearby Malmö, Sweden. It happened to be May 1 and I didn’t realize that May Day was a big deal in Sweden. I think all the museums there are only closed on Dec. 31, Jan.1 and May 1.

  46. This is incredibly biased and shows your inexperience with traveling. It also shows that you did not do some research beforehand or have city smarts/city sense.
    1. You should have researched the time of year. It’s all over the internet when the local Christmas holiday is.
    2. You should have researched the city before making a long transfer there. Ethiopian, the airline, is expanding and flies to over 100 destinations around the world, but that does not mean that it is not a developing country, which leads me to my next points.
    3. You should have had city smarts. Perhaps because I grew up in a big city or perhaps because I have traveled often to Ethiopia and many other developing countries, I am more careful aware of such things, but you clearly knew the kind of environment that you were in.
    4. Negotiations. Going to a country with taxis without a meter? Going to a developing country which is exotic, as you put it? Caucasians are viewed to have money and want to spend it even if you do not. Everything is a negotiation and be prepared to negotiate hard. Honestly speaking that $50 taxi ride was over priced. Local drivers will receive that price or less for a day’s work.
    5. Having been there a number of times, I actually think the Sheraton is not in a convenient location and also not worth the price relative to the quality of the products and service. There are other hotels that are much more worth the price and quality.

  47. Just to add one comment to my last comment, as others indicated, there are many other places where pickpockets and petty crime is common. You make it sound like people should not go there because of this behavior. If you have common sense and are aware of your surroundings, you have no problem. Pickpockets and petty crime happen in many places around the world.

  48. I don’t understand why certain phrases and sentences are bolded? It makes the article look weird, as if they’re meant to be links. Is the objective so someone can quickly skim through the entire article while only reading the bolded words and still get the gist?

  49. Anything can happen anywhere. But in Africa, the odds are greater. Every single white man is considered rich as f**k, which we actually are, by African standards. The mere fact that we can afford to visit from far away makes us a lot wealthier than most Ethiopians. Which, in turn, makes us a very desirable target for everyone with bad intentions.

    I’m a little surprised that you as a seasoned traveler arrived in Addis Ababa so ill-prepared, and I’m also glad nothing worse happened to you. Next time you travel to Africa, make sure to catch up on the safety situation before you go. Some cities are better than others, but as a rule, street crime is abundant and also very much targeted towards white people. Not everyone gets hit, and you were actually very lucky.

    A brief check list:
    – arrange transportation from the airport in advance
    – find out where to change money
    – find out how safe the city is during the day, and after sunset (in the worst places, walking is completely out of the question)
    – find out which scams are the most common ones
    – find out how corrupt the police are and what to do if they confront you
    – find out what you can and can’t take pictures of
    – find out what local taxi trips should cost; always agree on fares beforehand (in worst cases you can’t use taxis – rely on the hotel to arrange for transportation)

    Africa might be the least developed continent on the planet, but it’s also the most interesting to visit. However, you need to be very very well prepared, even for the shortest of visits.

  50. Very amusing and entertaining read–I spent a decent amount of time traveling to Addis over the past few years and this brought back some memories. Would agree with some of the above advocating for a bit more research before heading to new places on the continent, cultures and customs vary hugely and you can quickly find yourself in difficult situations! Pick-pocketing is pretty common in Addis (keeping valuables in zipped-up pockets helps!), but other than that I found that it’s actually fairly safe (especially in comparison to large cities in neighboring countries).

    Bargaining was also super important. We found that the attitude was generally that firenjis (foreigners) have money and therefore are obligated to pay higher prices. In a couple of cases, after haggling with cabbies for a price still above what locals would pay, we were actually denied services–they would rather not drive us vs. getting a price below what they thought we could afford.

    On a side note, while I’m sure you’re bummed you missed out on coffee in Ethiopia, the coffee you get there isn’t always as good as what you can find abroad. The government reserves the best coffee for export, so sadly locals usually can’t get access to the best stuff.

  51. This post illustrates well what’s wrong with the Weatern civilization. A snowflake bouncing around a third world capital.

  52. Sad and completely incorrect account of the museum. I was just in Addis (alone, white, etc) and found that museum fascinating. Ethiopian history is rich and amazing. I also walked around alone thru several areas day and night, and never felt threatened. Ethiopians are proud and very sincere, and though I don’t consider myself very religious, I was blown away by how devout and spiritual the people in Addis are. Regarding Ethiopian J class, I’ve flown several routes (BOM-ADD, ADD-Abidjan, ADD-FCO, ADD-ZNZ, ADD-Mombasa) in the past 6 months, and those seats were big, spacious, and reclined plenty for comfort and sleep, and the soft product was superb…Ethiopian food, western food. That airline has emerged as the premier carrier in Africa. This review, while witty and anecdotal, is not at all an accurate picture of ET airlines or Addis Ababa, and sadly will serve to scare others away. What a shame.

  53. I wondered if, with “non-Ethiopian”, James actually meant “white”.

    It seems implausible that in a major African capital, there wouldn’t be non-Ethiopians around. Just that some are obviously more “foreign” than others.

  54. Flew Ethiopian earlier this year in economy overnight – Singapore to Addis. Was dreading economy overnight – but surprisingly good as nice plane and an empty flight. I was, however, horrified to wake a few hours into the flight and find all ET flight attendants also enjoying the empty flight – passed out, under covers across rows of empty seats. Not one flight attendant to be seen – all drinks left out to help yourself. The worrying thing was, it was a planned event as when I boarded, many seat rows had all the tray tables down – confusing me at the time. More worrying, however, my flight attendant friends (with a reputable European airline) described how dangerous this was. They said “if there had been a toilet fire or rapid descent, what would have happened?”……

  55. Given that Australia is home to large number of Greek and Ethiopian migrants, who are now Australians, but still practice the Orthodox faith, it seems remiss not to know that these communities mark religious festivals on the basis of the Julian calendar…

  56. @Sean M. — It’s not a review. It’s a story – the kind I read this blog for.

    Thanks, James.

  57. @CharlieM believe it or not, I had the same situation with the passed out flight attendants (all of them, yes) on a “reputable European airline” – SWISS.
    It was a very early morning Moscow-Geneva flight, which had like 20 passengers on a A320. All of the attendants quickly served breakfast, cleared the trash, grabbed a lot of pillows and blankets (which they never offered to the passengers, by the way) and off they went. I even passed through the cabin to make sure all of them went to sleep, and I was correct. I wrote to SWISS about that later and received an apology and an offer to compensate me a meal at a restaurant of my choice (?).
    So yeah, not only ET does this.

  58. @ TheRealBabushka – I’m aware of Greek Easter and Lunar/Chinese New Year each year but was not aware of alternate ‘Christmas’ days

  59. @ Nikhil and others – I did plenty of research before I visited and that is how I had a half-days worth of things to see before I got there. Nowhere in my research did it mention the January Christmas Day, or say ‘stay off the streets during the day or your mobile phone will be taken’

  60. @ Chris – this is intentional and controls the speed at which the reader reads for the parts the writer feels are more important (many people skim-read paragraphs). I’ve learnt that blogging is quite different to traditional writing.

  61. You choose the wrong day to visit such beautiful place. You seem not that much interested in cultures different from yours.how you described the museum is an indication.l lived in London more than 20 years and if you not carful pickpocketing is common in many cities around the world.In Addis high number of foreigners live due to the fact it’s a head quarter of African union and base of many U.N. agencies. It’s the third city interms of international head quarters and meeting location after Geneva and New York. It’s very safe, interesting and comfortable. Good to read the comments like the one who said he visited more than 80 countries and visited addis more than 10 times he found it one of his favourite countries hence visited so many times. Regarding the phone game they may be pickpockets and they gave it back to avoid conflict or sometimes they grab it to warn you that you are not careful and someone might do this to you. anyways to judge a city visiting ghost town on public holiday not seems right. It’s totally opposite to what visitors usually say about Addis and Ethiopia. Sad that some readers might take this as negative review and miss out on Country which is beautiful and unique and people who are proud generous loving friendly and respectful. I advise you to visit Ethiopia and write another proper review which will be true reflection.

  62. Never,ever walk around by yourself at dusk or in the dark in an African city ,town or village . Even if you are a black or dark skinned person. They can tell if you are not a local . Africa is no longer safe . In some cities and towns , it is also dangerous, as a foreigner or even a well dressed local , to walk in certain areas in daylight .Robbery and mugging are rife. For example ,Nairobi, Johannesburg,Lagos. Take local advice on which places are not safe .

  63. Addis serves as head quarter of African union and UN agencies for Africa and many forigners live and work here. It’s one of the safest and interesting places. Pickpocketing is common even in big cities like london new York istanbul etc. Its surprising to comment badly on a city visiting ghost town on public holiday. I lived in London for many years no visitor can find it interesting on Christmas day. You don’t seem like interested in anything outside your cultural comfort zone.the way you described the museum and the view from entoto indicates that.visited many countries but addis is one of the most interesting and safest cities.the people of Ethiopia are very proud friendly loving. It’s good to read comments from guys like the one who visited Ethiopia more than ten times that is what l read usually from visitors. It’s a country which is diverse beautiful culturally and religiously unique. Its sad that some may persive your comment as negative review and miss out on unique experience.Hope you will visit Ethiopia properly and give your comment

  64. Great report James, I actually did this myself last month, we took two days in Addis on the outbound leg for DUB-ADD-MOM-ADD-DUB just to see it as we would likely never be back.

    I wasn’t a fan of the city at all, not much to see and dual carriage ways running right through the centre, Police beating people openly and found the museums and Entoto hill were all let downs. Having said that, I never felt unsafe at all and did enjoy the many bars on offer.

    Our equipment changed regularly as well, ADD-MOM went from a 787 to an a350, MOM-ADD became a 777-200 from a 787, both last minute. Particularly frustrating given the denser layout on the 777. Also frustrating being to wake up for a breakfast (4.30 local time and 1.30am Irish time) I didn’t want some 90 mins before landing.

  65. A great experience shared in a great way. I wish I could invite you once more to replace those unwelcoming memories you had in Addis. Lessons can be learnt out of every journey & even you have got yours 🙂 I had a terrible experience in Oslo & had many great memories in Dubai and I think its about the moments in life that gives it a color 🙂 isn’t it? Cheers anyways.

  66. Hi James, I am enjoying your posts … I am a London-based Aussie so we have a similar perspective maybe.

    Any chance of a post on points and credit cards from a new UK resident’s perspective ? I have an UK Amex which I got because of my AUS history. I applied for a John Lewis card just so I would earn some points via Visa/MC and was auto-rejected because I had been resident for less than a year. Tips?

  67. Same thing happened to me when I was in Singapore and it was Chinese New Year. Still a lot open, but a good chunk of the restaurants and food halls were shut. Of course, no street crime to speak of, being Singapore and all.

  68. @ Marco – yes this is already on my list of topics to write about. Building credit in the UK was not a quick or easy process! I’m in the same boat re AUS Amex history.
    I’m in a slight bind because currently about 90% of OMAAT readers are US based so posts that are not relevant to US readers are not going to be very popular but the long-term plan is definitely to build up the readership of UK and AUS readers. I will be diving into this fairly soon.

  69. James, although I think the article is fun and that you’re a much welcome addition to the blog, I have to admit that I was quite surprised reading this. The ignorance around the precautions that need to be taken when visiting an African capital is surprisign coming from a seasoned traveler. I just got back from a trip to South Africa, and this is like me writing that I went for a walk in the Hillbrow area at dusk and was surprised to have encountered a problem (like, duh). It’s well documented and easy to see with a quick google search that one should take extra precautions when visiting African cities/capitals, and that you really shouldn’t even take anything of value out with you (phones, cameras). Even just going for a walk on your own needs to be taken with extra precaution. Anyways, I’m glad everything turned out ok, and I look forward to reading more of your articles!

  70. @ Henok – if I hadn’t managed to get my phone back, even though it was insured and I was heading back home to London the next day I would probably swear off Ethiopia altogether. I would like to return at some stage but in a different way, as mentioned in the bottom line.
    I had my phone stolen at a restaurant in Istanbul a few years back, didn’t get it back and still had 2 weeks of the trip left which was a pain. But the restaurant owner was so lovely (reviewed their CC footage, took me to the police station to translate a police report for my insurance claim then insisted on buying us a drink and driving us home and wouldn’t accept even a tip for his generosity) that I would happily return to Istanbul.

  71. @ DKB – Ethiopian have been taking some lessons from Thai Airways on equipment swaps it seems!

  72. @ Ken – I had come from Johannesburg where I had felt completely safe so I guess was filled with a false sense of confidence and safety. Admittedly I was staying in the ‘rich, sheltered’ part – Sandton. I did however do a guided bicycle tour through the Soweto townships and also felt completely safe there.

  73. James,

    I just want to say you’re a wonderful addition to the blog and between you, Lucky and other contributors, I think we’re very lucky ( … pun totally intended ) to get such an interesting product free of charge.

    Can’t wait to hear more from you and the others here.

  74. Great story. Love you’re posts so far.

    A colleague and I went to Djibouti.

    “I panicked …. It got to the point where I started to physically run back to the hotel as my anxiety rose. Fortunately they did not pick up their pace and I was able to reach the hotel safely. ”

    Identical to his reaction when we went off for a walk. **chuckles**

  75. I agree with others who say that James is a welcome addition to the OMAAT blog. He is an excellent, prolific writer offering a fresh perspective, especially being based in Europe and formerly from Australia as well as by having a different travelling style than @Lucky. I really enjoy @Lucky’s posts, but its nice to read James write about actually visiting places outside of chain hotels and his advice from his learned experience.

  76. Oh my James! All these praises, do not feel under pressure for bringing us more of your reports and style of story telling..just take it in and be grateful..as you know when you are up, the only way is to go down..
    P.S. do not be too good and make your boss lucky looks bad..as you know he has not got good experiences recently like Bloody FAs and worst F class with TAAG, dreadful F class with MU, no Air Seychelles but a phony one and a car scam on the Seychelles..

  77. @ Myles – along with Debit, you are by far the most eccentric and entertaining commentator on my posts!

    Ben and I obviously have very different travel styles and think we compliment each other well. Together along with Tiffany, Andrew and others who have specific expertise, we are able to cover a wide spectrum of travel experiences and expertise which can only be good for my favourite travel blog!

    I’m not able to comment on every comment you make (as some of them don’t warrant a logical response :P) but rest assured I do read them all and encourage you to keep reading and commenting!

  78. @DKB – Ethiopian will change equipment regularly up until around midnight Addis time two calendar days before the flight – beyond that point they tend to be pretty consistent. Some routes are more likely to switch than others – Nairobi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam, Entebbe, Kinshasa, Khartoum, etc.. are especially susceptible to swaps as those do not involve crew change downroute. The trick in Economy for regular ET fliers is to always select seats 11J or 11L because those two seats are bulkhead extra legroom seats on every single aircraft variant that ET operates from the Dash 8 up to the 777-300. If you are *G you may be able to select them online at least 48 hours in advance of the flight, otherwise call center will assign them on request. Within the last 48 hours, you can’t make advance seat assignments but you can OLCI at T-36 hours.

  79. James, at which hotel did you stay? There are many decent options in Addis, but only a few good ones. Curious.

    I’ve been traveling to Ethiopia regularly since 2011. It’s been very sad to see the changes in the city over these 7 years. Pickpocketing was not really an issue when I first starting going. Now that, and the endless solicitation for sex, is non-stop in some parts of the city. It’s quite sad, as the Ethiopian people and culture are very beautiful and warm.

    I do hope you go back sometime and have a chance to experience it for a bit of a longer stay.

  80. @ Econometrics – I stayed at the Jupiter Hotel Cazanchis and would happily stay there again -it was excellent. I got the feeling it wasn’t remotely full as I hardly saw any other guests and I’m guessing anyone visiting for Christmas would stay with family.
    Addis has a very strong UN presence so obviously many diplomats with expense accounts which may explain the quote for my taxi ride ; )

  81. I know that you say you did research before you went but I really don’t think you did. You definitely did research on sights to see, but not much on the actual country. January 7 is Christmas not only in Ethiopia but in most Orthodox countries (Ukraine, Russia, Greece, etc). I am guessing that you didn’t even know that Ethiopia is an Orthodox Christian country (although all religions are welcome and there is a large Muslim population).
    We were there in 2008 during the new year celebration (September on our calendar). I was able to pick up a millennial commemorative coin, because not only was it not our New Year there, it was the year 2000.
    Yes, you were the victim of pick pockets, but, as mentioned above, violent crime is remarkably rare in Addis. Pretty sure that the people following you around were just curious about you and meant you no harm, although they probably had a good laugh when you panicked and started running away. We (myself, my wife, my parents in law and my two daughters) walked around in Addis regularly and, although we drew a considerable amount of attention, we never felt like we were in any danger (and apparently never will).
    I would imagine you would really have flipped out if the people in a restaurant had taken your infant child away! That is simply how they operate. They want you to enjoy your meal and so they take your baby and take care of them while you relax and enjoy your meal! It is good to be aware of the places you visit, otherwise, you might ascribe sinister motives to innocent actions, like following you around because you are an obvious outsider.
    I will say that, like most countries, you really don’t see the best of Ethiopia in Addis. It is a major city with major pollution and massive crowds (although a trip up Entoto is a nice break). I would not judge Greece by Athens, Peru by Lima, Italy by Rome, China by Beijing or Germany by Berlin, so you really should get back to Ethiopia some time and spend some time outside the city.

  82. @James
    ..you are saying??..is that a read or
    a compliment??..eccentric??..I have not got any eccentric bones in my body!..entertaining??..should I ask @Lucky for some fees ’cause I am entertaining both readers and authors in his blog!..oh, I forgot he is busy trying to get rid of that dump of a car by Eden( no not the paradise)..LOL..
    It is alright James, seriously I can only congratulate you for having a very successful start hier in OMAAT..
    Honestly, I my not be always in favour in how you write or they way you handle your experiences, but I do after a fashion want to be remembered how younger generations travel or see the world in their eyes. And so truthfully learn from you or others here and yes, even from our very own @Lucky!..well not quite with those recent events..oh dear, what a kerfuffle they are !
    I am a traveller who wants his privacy and to be pampered with great service as well as F&B while mostly flying in premium cabins. But in accomodations I believe I am more a free spirit like you who try any great hotels, resorts or houses around outside any brands. I do love to engage with locals but only with the right preparations and procedures..we do not want to be too affectionate or off guard…it is only a holiday not an engagement for life..

  83. Well, it’s good that you came away with a positive feeling. It’s difficult when something bad happens and there’s a somewhat natural tendency for it to colour the whole experience. The only place I’ve had something stolen was Prague and it spoiled the whole stay there and made me reluctant to return, for several years.
    I would do this kind of stopover but I’m not keen on 0500 arrivals or 0400 departures.

  84. @James: Thank you for posting this. While reviews of airlines & chain hotels (and obligatory credit card pumpage) are the bread & butter of this site and are quite useful, it’s nice to get a traveler’s perspective, especially the things which can happen with inexperience. Pickpockets & holidays are base knowledge for seasoned travelers, but this knowledge must come from either experience or word-of-mouth from others with experience.

  85. To pivot back to the original question… on our own experiences with layovers gone wrong…

    Booked mini-RTW with Aeroplan and stretched it further by giving myself 20-hour layover in Istanbul. The actual layover went fine (aside from my husband having a riot with local taxis, but we sort of expected that) and we really enjoyed the shower and amazing food in the lounge after site-seeing. But then, as it was getting dark (and close to our midnight departure), we saw crowds around TVs and some slight commotion in there, and suddenly, all TVs were tuned to news channels… the military coup has started. We spent the night in the lounge (“sleeping” on the floor or on chairs) that was by midnight devoid of local people (martial law was in place) and any maintenance or (seemingly) security. The picture was further completed with three panic waves of people stampeding and screaming, tanks in front of the airport and two sonic booms that rattled big windows (when Erdogan was landing in Istanbul). Even if I have rationally concluded tourists we are of no interest to anybody in coup situation and thus in no direct danger, I still felt waves of fright twice.

    The ensuing chaos next day of re-accommodating all the canceled flights had to be navigated like the episode of Amazing Race, together with pulling up complete strangers together to divvy up different tasks, remembering obscure information (where was the last photocopier anybody saw?), bribing where needed, elbowing as required, making new queues when not asked, being polite end VERY assertive…

    Made for quite interesting story-telling later, but sadly, it completely colored our perception of the whole trip.

  86. @DT – Imagine what would have happened if they actually did take their phone? Well, I would think James would have had his phone stolen. Hardly the end of the world is it…. If you don’t go to “dangerous” areas because you’re scared of losing a few hundred dollars, what’s the point in spending thousands on travelling at all?

    Though I’m as perplexed as him as to why they gave it back if they were trying to steal it? It makes no sense at all to me that they’d stick around in that brief moment where they know they have the phone but the victim doesn’t know they’ve lost it. Or why they’d give it back voluntarily instead of either denying they have it or run off.

  87. Having seen Addis Ababa from the inside of a taxi and mini bus it is one of those cities where unfortunately you won’t be able to walk around long without attracting attention; that’s not a slight on Addis, which is a great city to experience with pleasant local interactions (at tourist areas). Heck, I was even accosted through the window of the mini bus! It’s a shame because I love walking cities but, yeah, you have to use a modicum of common sense when assessing city travel.

  88. @callum

    why do not you go to ADD and experienced it first hand?..why not walk alone and let yourself be mobbed!..do what you want to feel on that moment and throw not only your phone but some or all your money, besides they are so nice and even smiling at you !! ..then probably if you are still alive come back and report it to us…I swear I will be standing there smilling at you!!

  89. I had a very similar experience in Addis. I am Canadian but grew up in Ethiopia until the age of 13 and returned there 50 years later in 2013. Walking alone in Addis two youths came along side of me, one on each side. One grabbed my left arm while the other stuck his hand in my right pocket. Fortunately they came up empty and I strongly pushed them away, made eye contact with someone close by and the two youths left.
    However Ethiopia is a great tourist destination, mostly the countryside and not Addis. It has fabulous bird life, reasonable animal life, great culture, great food, amazing topography, stone hewn churches etc etc.

  90. It does not matter if it is in a first world or third world country..small delinquency is everywhere. The point is how you prevent it and how you behave while its happening..believe or not I would like to discover localities which are different from our own boring towns..but is it worth it to risk your life just to have a nice kick of adventure?..the only similar risky and adventurous situation I can rely and fear.. is to fly LCC and be squeezed and coughed and be flatulated by your seat neighbours the entire flight..thank God!..there is First Class and oxygen masks for very smelly situations…and yes, you know who you are!!

  91. Not too surprised. As an Egyptian, what you said about the taxi trying to charge $150 is completely normal. Actually if you spoke the language and looked native it probably wouldn’t even cost you the equivalent of $3. Also all orthodox countries in the east celebrate both Christmas and Easter about 2 weeks after the west. It’s a Julian calendar thing.

  92. Hey sorry you had a tough experience. The pickpockets are really tough there if you encounter them. I lived there for a summer and had an attempt on me and was really shaken. Cool place but yes organized tour or more research for next time sounds good.

  93. ROTFL. Really great story.

    TL,DR: Dude travels by chance to Ethiopia, does not know his stopover automatically qualifies him for free visa, free hotel, free transportation to the hotel and free meals, gets phone stolen, returns home.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *