Be that as it may, accommodation remains basic and the service erratic. Even in the luxury segment — double rooms at `10,000-plus a night — no hotel has got it right. Some have great food and bad rooms, others vice versa. At the Ambassador Hotel in Addis, its all-day dining takes 35 minutes to serve me a salad in an empty restaurant. And then gets the order wrong. At the spiffy Kuriftu Lodge and Spa in Lalibela, the rooms come unequipped with basics like hand showers, moisturisers or toothbrush. The last is supplied for an extra charge.
The Dance of Addis
But the country’s natural charms and culture make up for all that. Up in the northern highlands, I cruise on the glutinous Lake Tana, a source of the River Nile, its shores speckled with forested islands hiding 16th century monasteries. Lalibela gobsmacks one with its storied churches built top down from pink volcanic rock.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s 8,000-ft-high capital city, is a thriving metropolis peppered with historic churches, fine museums, chic new cafes, global hotel chains and eateries. It bears no visible scars of the starvation years or the Red Terror purges of the 1970s and ’80s. Construction is booming and a metro railway cuts through the sprawling city, the only such network in sub-Saharan Africa. Addis is also Ethiopia’s commercial nerve centre, its wining and dining playground, home to the headquarters of the African Union. For a local immersive experience, one starspangled night I head to a “cultural restaurant”, many of which dot the city. These vibrant hotspots offer authentic Ethiopian cuisine as well as performances by local folk artists. As I enter the al fresco eatery, men and women in tribal dresses are twisting and gyrating to highly choreographed numbers on stage. The audience too is joining in the fun.
It’s is not about shaking one’s hips and body; the real star in Ethiopian dance are the shoulders and the upper body in a style called eskista. I give the dance a shot but fail spectacularly in moving just my shoulders to the exclusion of other body parts. Before long, I’m back to dancing “normally”.
For dinner, we sit on short, polished wooden stools arrayed around a mesop, the hourglass-shaped basket that serves as the Ethiopian dinner table. A waitress, her hair in tight braids and wearing habesha kemis —the diaphanous, traditional, Ethiopian ankle-length, white dress with intricate embroidery — serves us tej, the honey-hued mead wine, out of a contoured glass bottle. To put it politely, tej is an acquired taste. The closest approximation I can think of would be a dry Riesling.
Dinner is celebratory with buffet tables groaning under the weight of fiery curries (wot), himbasha, shiro, kifto, fitfit, ga’at and more. Dishes nuanced with fruit, cinnamon, cloves and herbs (berbere, mitmita) transport me to a place I had never been. The star of the meal is, of course, injera, a deliciously tangy and spongy bread. I nearly ignored it at first, mistaking it for rolled up hand towels.
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