My circus stay was problem-free. The representatives of Fekat I met were incredibly helpful throughout my visit, particularly Eyob Teshome, a Cyr wheel expert and all-around good guy who served as an informal guide for a portion of my stay. He helped acquaint me with the neighborhood, find a local SIM card, answered questions and showed me a few different sights.
He is also, like several Ethiopians I met, incredibly proud of his country. “We are special,” he began, before correcting himself: “We believe we are special,” he said, smiling and looking downward. Mr. Teshome, a devout Christian (most Ethiopians are Christian, either Ethiopian Orthodox or Protestant), talked a bit about Ethiopia and its role in the Bible, and how many Ethiopians view the country — one of the world’s oldest Christian nations — as the promised land.
“And did you know,” asked a smiling Mr. Teshome, as we walked past street hawkers selling mangos and young men offering to clean your sneakers for a few birr, “that we have our own calendar? And that we even have our own time?” Ethiopia works on a 13-month calendar, with 12 30-day months and a 13th intercalary month (a leap month, basically) of five or six days. And instead of working on standard international time, which would put it in the same zone as Moscow, it works on a 12-hour clock determined roughly by sunrise and sunset. What we would call 7 a.m. is simply called “1 o’clock” in Ethiopian time — be careful when making appointments.
After showing me my room — modest, but comfortable, with a bunk bed and shared bathroom down the hallway – Mr. Teshome asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to do. I said I was up for pretty much anything. “O.K.,” he said. “We’ll go to Merkato.” We hopped on the Chinese-built metro rail at Menilik II Square (right near the beautiful St. George’s Cathedral, where Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930), and rode two stops west to Gojam Berenda (2 birr, less than 10 cents). We exited the station to a completely different world.
I’ve been to markets all over the world but I wasn’t prepared for this. By some accounts, Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa: It encompasses an entire neighborhood — several square miles of barely controlled chaos. Vendors hawk nearly everything you could possibly imagine….