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The Addis Mercato is Africa's biggest outdoor market and is actually a whole neighborhood. It's probably about 20 city blocks and it's chock full of people, cars and anything under the sun that can be retailed.
The Mercato is also one of the best ways to see into the 'real Africa' - at least the Africa that has been around for the last 100 years.
The Mercato is also a dangerous area where even the locals routinely get robbed and pick-pocketed. It is chaotic, hot and overbearing. But trust me - it will be something you will remember and you can save yourself a whole trip to Bombay :)
- Don't take more money than you really want to spend - take only a bit of cash, nothing else
- Get a local guide (e.g. your driver) to take you around
- If you have a small, cheap, back-up camera, use this one and leave a DSLR at home
- Don't talk to anyone except your driver and shopkeepers who you really consider buying from
- Walk fast - don't stop unless you are in a shop
- Don't get run over by the cars
- Have fun :)
I was stupid enough to not do this with a guide and the person who approached me after exiting my taxi seemed genuine and helpful. He showed me around, had no affiliation with the shopkeepers and it was he who suggested we move quickly to cover more terrain and not really buy anything. He spoke good English and seemed the type of trustworthy person who stands out from the hungry masses.
I ended up spending two hours in the area and kept moving quickly. I took my DSLR and shot lots of pictures without stopping too much. The spice market and incense market were the most interesting. I also tried to buy clothing since my luggage had been delayed from my flight with Ethiopian Airlines.
So of course there was a reason for my guide's superior education... On the way back to my taxi, he led me through an underground garage. According to him, my driver had moved there because there was no parking available at the drop-off point. I got suspicious, but frankly the Mercato is so huge and confusing that I lost orientation right away. It's also not a place to show your iPhone around.
He then brought up the topic of the compensation that was in order - $100 was his starting bid! Suddenly more people affiliated with my guide showed up in this underground garage... Not a good sign :(
I had my running shoes on and decided to make a run for it. Luckily enough, my driver was exactly where I left him (he never went to the underground parking lot) and opened the door right away. The 'angry mob' was right behind me demanding payment. I was ready to pay something, but my 'guide' refused the amount I offered with an angry gesture. I knew this would soon escalate. Keep in mind that this is a place with hundreds of locals all around (I'm sure 99.9% of them are honest, regular, Ethiopian people, but there are just so many bystanders).
To my surprise the mob did not do more than bang their fists against the car and voice their disgust with lots of 4-letter words and body fluids. I wasn't dragged out of the car and lynched. We indeed drove off as quickly as possible and I dared not to look back for a couple of minutes before we got to a main street.
I wasn't low on adrenaline for the rest of the day.
If you are an adventurous traveler and take more precautions than I did, then you will be fine and you should go to the Mercato. It is all about the memories and sometimes danger helps us create those better than luxury (though it's a good tool as well).
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