I’ve come to Addis Ababa for one purpose only: To get visas for Sudan and Burundi. Like Eritrea, these are not easy visas to obtain. The standard procedure is to fill out a long application, submit your passport to the embassy in your country of residence and then wait a few weeks. I read on the web that it’s sometimes possible to obtain these visas more quickly and with less paperwork in Addis Ababa. I figured I’d give this a try.
I’ve been to Addis before. It’s not my favorite city. At 2300 meters, I felt the altitude. It’s crowded and dusty. The traffic is terrible. When I was here in 2014, I walked almost everywhere because the traffic was so bad. I braced myself for having to push my way through sidewalks full of vendors and garbage again.
On this visit, I was surprised to see that parts of Addis are becoming quite modern. There’s lots of new foreign investment and major construction in the downtown area.
Best of all, Addis Ababa now has a beautiful new light rail system. This is the first light rail and rapid transit system in eastern and sub-saharan Africa. I witnessed its initial construction in 2014, but no one seemed to have any expectations of when it would be completed. There are now two lines — one N-S and one E-W — for a total of 32 kms of railway. My life got easy when I discovered that there were train stations near my guest house as well as the Sudanese and Burundi embassies.
I learned how to use the light rail system on my first morning. It was a joy to ride quickly and smoothly above the city and the gridlock below. A ride of any length costs about 12 cents US.
There are some curious things about this transportation system, unique to how business is done in Africa. First, there are no automated systems. You can only buy a single train ticket at a time and only for the day of travel by paying cash (4 birr) to an agent in a kiosk. Next, before you step onto the station platform, another agent will inspect your paper ticket and tear it slightly. Then, when your train arrives, be prepared for minor chaos as the people boarding your train won’t wait for folks to get off the train. Finally, when you wish to disembark, you must thread your way through the crowd that’s pushing onto your train. This is, of course, the standard boarding scrum that’s common to all transportation systems in Africa.
Although the trains are packed at rush hour, I found that the Addis Ababa train system worked very well for me. It was a pleasure to ride, especially not at rush hour.
As expected, the process of getting visas wasn’t fast. It took 5 days from my first visit to each embassy before I had my visas for Sudan and Burundi. I dressed nicely for each visit. I treated the two ladies who received my visa applications with friendly respect and empathized with the piles of paperwork that they were confronted with. Consequently, I received VIP treatment at both embassies.
This was one of those occasions when I was glad to have two US passports. With only one passport, it would’ve taken 10 days to get these two visas.
While waiting for my visas, I did the usual tourist thing. I visited museums and churches. I also had some wonderful meals. I’ve have meals at Ethiopian restaurants in the US that didn’t impress me. With this visit to Addis, I was reminded that, if you want really good food from country “X”, just go to country “X”.
As on my previous visit to Ethiopia, I was impressed by the fervor with which the people here participate in their religions. Whether Christian or Muslim, pilgrims walk for days to pray at their cathedrals or mosques.
Finally, with my two passports back in hand, I celebrated with a bottle of St.George, named after the cathedral. The next day, I went to the Addis Ababa airport and took off on my next adventure. Stay tuned!