Finding an address in Addis Abeba can be difficult for people with little or no exposure to the capital city. The haphazard placement of street signs, the vague mapping on Google Maps and conflicting directions from others can be an exasperating experience, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED (email@example.com).
The cell phone a man carries in his hand rings at full blast, chiming a Christmas Carol that, somehow, does not seem to be out of place on a rainy day in August inside the bedlam of a packed cross-country bus.
A blaring, screeching and out-of-tune serenade of a female singer squawks from cracked speakers that hang loosely from the ceiling. Once inside, there is no place to retreat in the tightly packed bus.
Every seat is taken and crammed with bulging bundles, and in the island space between the rows of seats, travellers are sitting on little plastic stools, shuffling in close quarters to each other like penguins from Antarctica.
The man has his phone’s speaker on at full volume so that those sitting close to him can hear a female voice squealing directions to him.
“Hello, Hello, Hello. Yes, I can hear you. I will take a Bajaj,” says the man, referring to the three-wheel rickshaws that still run in the suburbs of the city. “No. You get off at T’affo. Get off at the square and then take a taxi to Goro,” the voice shrieks.
The man hangs up the phone with the slightly embarrassed look but tries not to reveal his confusion to the other travellers who are by now eyeing him with aroused interest. His phone rings again and the voice shouts, “Let me speak to the assistant. Put the assistant on so I can tell him,” she never finishes.
“I get off at the square and take a Bajajto Goro,” he retorts without conviction, but with the slightly timid look of a child attempting to placate the voice that is increasingly getting desperate. “You get off after the square and take a taxi to Christo,” she shrieks and then immediately corrects herself, “you get off at T’affo. Let me talk to the assistant!”
“Yes. That is where I was going to get off, at Goro, and then take a taxi to Christo,” he answers and turns the phone off while the vexed voice still shouts exasperatedly.
Many Ethiopians are notoriously unskilled in giving directions or receiving it.
We humans “instinctively understand where we are in relation to the rest of the world, and that gives us our sense of direction,” Kaitlin Goodrich writes in an article on brainscape.com.
“These are [cellular events] that process direction (where your head is pointing), place (your location within an environment), and grid (the relation between different locations). These [particular] cells give us a neural map of our environment that is essentially an innate sense of direction.”
But try to tell this to a senior manager of a large IT firm, an American diaspora living in Los Angeles, who takes her visiting mother and uncle on a sightseeing trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. For those familiar with the trip, it only takes about four hours in a car to drive the 430Km or so distance.
Not only does she drive five and a half hours and 600Km in the wrong direction towards the east, instead of north; but she arrives in a different city and state altogether, Phoenix, Arizona.
Unaware of the gaffe, she pulls into a gas station in Phoenix and nonchalantly asks the attendant for directions to Las Vegas. He dangles a long finger towards the lonely highway, indicating the general cardinal direction of north, and resumes to pump the gas with the amused look of a man who has seen it all.
In America and Europe, the roads are well marked, the streets have names and the buildings are numbered so that it is easy to find the way around. Not so in Addis Abeba. There are few addresses in the city, or the country for that matter.
An innocent attempt to find the location of an art gallery can take up a good part of a day. A Google search for an art gallery shows that it is located somewhere behind the Vatican Embassy and the gallery’s website lists a phone number that is not answered.
A group of artists on a mission to visit the gallery rent a taxi, and in a typical American poise, bring along a print out of Google maps and try to match the real-world labyrinth of Addis Abeba’s cavernous streets to the ordered lines shown on the piece of paper.
The problem is the Vatican and the Indonesian Embassies appear on the same blob on the map and any attempt to use them as a landmark, or a benchmark to orient themselves to the neighbourhood proves virtually impossible.
The tourists abandon the taxi, but not the map, and start looking for the gallery on foot because the myriad of battered and narrow side roads, alleyways, cut-off streets and flooded streams makes driving in a beat-up vehicle impractical. In that familiar contradiction of our fair city, the environs of the Vatican Embassy host grand and guarded mansions all around, some still under construction in the area.
These are stately manors that rival Washington D.C’s suburb of McLean’s Gold Coastline, but no art gallery is found here. The carpenters, masons, guards, maids and labours buzzing about have never heard of an art gallery; nor have the owners of the little hovel of stores and fruit stands that poke out of the stonewalls of some older and dilapidated mansions.
The search continues out on the main street where the driver finds a group of taxis parked on the main boulevard. They know of a local artist who should be able to locate the gallery. Many calls are placed to find him and just as many calls are returned, still no art gallery.
The Americans finally give up and go back to their hotel in frustration. For many Ethiopians, the lack of sense of direction is not considered a disadvantage, just another nuisance that merits no attention.
The bus of our story, fast approaching T’affo, is abuzz with the chatter of travellers each giving conflicting direction to the distraught man who is now standing up, leaning on a seat and fumbling to answer another call from the exasperated caller.
“Get me the assistant, now! Get me the assistant!” the voice in the phone screams until the man shuts it off again.
The assistant, who had remained silent throughout the entire hour of discussions, turns his attention to the man and tells him, “You get off here, walk across the street to the taxi stand over there, and they will take you to Goro for 10 Br.”
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