“Stop!” a soldier with an AK-47 shouted at me. I froze right there, on the steps leading up to the National Palace.
“What you want?” he asked.
“I wanted to walk around the gardens of the National Palace. The guard at the Hilton…”
“You want Hilton?!”
“No, the guard at the Hilton told me I could come and walk around the gardens,” I tried to explain while ignoring the fact that he's lifting his AK-47 as to flex his muscles, I thought. I wasn't afraid, just taken aback a little. After all, after enquiring as to what there is to see in this area, I really was told that I could walk around the National Palace (where Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, lived before the Communist siege in 1974).
“Go away!” he said.
Needless to say, I turned around and headed to my second destination, the oldest Orthodox Christian Church in Addis. This church, which hosts the bodies of Emperor Menelik II* and some of his family members.
That was yet another experience. I made the mistake of clarifying directions, and an Ethiopian man came running up and said, “You go to church? I am going there too. I walk with you.” I made it clear that I wanted to walk alone since I knew I didn't have much Birr (Ethiopian money) on me, and he'd demand payment for his services. “No no no! I go there. No problem!”
We walked up the hill, around the National Palace, and then proceeded to this really old church. My guide refused to leave my side until I told him, “Really! I want to be alone.”
“OK, but you give me something!” he said. Fortunately I had an orange in my bag, so I just reached for the fruit and said, “There. Good-bye.” Yikes!
I walked around inside the church and joined a German father and son's tour group, learning about the good Menelik II and his descendants did for Ethiopia. Exiting the musty basement mausoleum, I was promptly joined by a teenage guide who wanted to point out every gold-painted painting of Mary. “Look, Maria!” he'd say, putting his arm around my shoulders.
“Yes,” I'd nod, politely and discretely taking pictures of the old leather drums and of the pries sitting in a corner praying. And I'd move away at least a step or two. Next picture, next advance. “Look!” he'd say, thinking I might not notice his arm this time having more of a grip around my shoulders. BIG step away.
“Thank you,” I said, gave him 1Birr and he left the church with a smile on his face. I, on the other hand, had the chills. It was just bizarre! I don't mind traveling alone (though I don't prefer doing so). I don't mind asking for help. I don't mind tipping people who do help when I ask them. But I don't like it when people won't take “no” for an answer!
Yikes again. I was happy to leave the grounds. I stopped by a few of the Coptic Christian stores along the way, looking at the relics they had for sale. I spoke to a very friendly Ethiopian lady who explained to me that the 5-ft tall walking sticks they sell (and which I saw in the church) are used to lean on while you pray.
I took several beautiful photos, but plugged my camera into my computer as the computer was still starting up. In the process, all the photos were erased from the camera.
What an utterly bizarre afternoon…
Though I had lost the photos from this afternoon, pictures that will stay in my mind are
* the gentle smile of the Coptic priest as I asked if I may take pictures of him and then showed him his pictures on my camera
* the devotion of worshipers who came and bowed low before entering the church to pray
* the determined look on my guides' faces that they would show me around and that I will pay them for their services
* the “Stop! Go away!” of the soldier whose government has changed, yet the ways of the military still have some Communist remnants
Am I glad I came to the city and walked around. You bet I am. I will be back, but next time I explore downtown Addis, I'll probably invite someone to walk with me. It's so much more fun to share these bizarre moments with someone else! (And it'll probably be easier getting rid of touchy teenagers, too!)
The sun is setting on the city and it's time for me to head southward.
*Menelik II became emperor in 1889, reunified the Ethiopian Empire by gaining control of many of the small kingdoms. In 1896, Menelik defeated an Italian army that had occupied part of Ethiopia. This victory earned him much respect and helped increase his power in Ethiopia.