How to travel in Addis


I’m now almost two weeks into my Ethiopian adventure, and Addis is slowly turning from a monolithic spiderweb of traffic, noise and dust to a slightly more tamable beast. There’s organisation within the chaos of any developing city, and it takes any visitor (or ferengi as we’re known) at least a week or two to see beyond the veil.

With first hand experience of Indian driving, I was surprised to find that, although unconventional, Ethiopia seems to have a much more friendly and organised roads systems. Pips on the horn are only used to signal an approaching vehicle and driving on the opposite side of the road is kept to a minimum. The same lack of respect to pedestrians applies, however. When walking on two feet, you’ll need to slowly wade into approaching traffic and just hope the drivers haven’t been chewing too much chat (a local natural drug) to see you.

Public transport is the only way to go for VSO volunteers, and what better way to explore a new city? Well, when you’re sat on an Ethiopian man’s lap, in a taxi with 20 people inside instead of 12, taking a slight off-road detour to avoid an oncoming bus and a herd of goats…wait a second.

The Line Taxi
Cheap, fairly reliable and with mostly fixed routes, line taxis are one of the best ways to explore Addis Ababa. The blue and white Toyota minibuses carry 12 people, but expect to find 18+ on board at any time (hence sitting on laps, inside the door, on modified benches by the wheel arches…) A conductor standing in the doorway shouts out the destination of the taxi as it hurtles through the streets in a characteristic Amharic double vocalisation: “Bole bole” or “magananya magananya” and you simply tip your hand to the side if you need to get on.

Line taxis charge a fixed rate, 1 birr 25 cents for a short journey, and 2 birr 70 cents for a longer one. If you’re a ferengi, it depends on your conductor or your insistence whether you’ll get mels (change) from your 2/3 birr notes. Line taxi drivers are generally the most experienced on the road, and whilst some maneuvers induce heart-in-mouth anxiety, have faith that your friendly chauffeur knows the roads of Addis better than anyone else. Getting off the taxi is fairly easy, just say waraj, or waraj alleh (with a rolled ‘r’).

The only problem lies in finding the correct line taxi pick up point for your destination. For example, on my typical journey to work, I leave Imperial (after the Imperial hotel) and take a line taxi to Magananya, then cross multiple lanes of traffic at the roundabout, continue down the road and find taxis to Kotabe. Without a guide or prior knowledge, it’s like using the London Underground without any signs to the station entrances or the tube map. Taxis only go in certain directions, so for a longer journey, you might need to take 2, 3 or even 4 line taxis. Thankfully, if you try and speak a little Amharic, everyone tries to help you on your way.

The Private Bus
Cramped, sweaty and with a higher risk of leba (thieves), the private buses definitely make use of their increased capacity. They charge lower rates to line taxis, and have fewer rights on stopping locations (though that doesn’t tend to be a problem most of the time). Keep your hands in your pockets and bags in the overhead storage. Same rules apply for getting on and off.

The Public Bus
The public bus is an opportunity for every man and his dog in Addis to travel around. With subsidised fares (measured in cents, not birr) from the government, these buses are packt like sardines in a crushd tin box. I’ve yet to travel on one, but it’ll be my last resort, along with the Lada.

The Lada
A throwback to Soviet manufacturing, somehow Addis has been inundated with thousands of the small sedans which are painted in the same white and blue of the line taxis. We’ve been advised to avoid them at all costs. Not only are they incredibly expensive for a short journey, foreigners are particularly at risk of muggings/beatings if travelling alone or at night.

90% of transportation needs will be met by the above forms, though I have volunteer friends who travel via horse and cart to exit their lavish gated compound and some who travel by rickshaw (ahh, memories of India).