If you get to Mercato early enough, you can watch the young men weaving shawls.
"How early?" I ask my translator and guide, Tariku Woldearegay.
"When it’s dark."
The trick, I learn, is to get to Mercato in time to watch the shopkeepers unlatching their stalls and teenage boys artfully weaving colorful yards of cot-ton into netelas, or wraps, but not so early that they are still gambling, smoking marijuana, or doing other untoward things that young boys in urban Africa are apt to do under the cover of night.
The biggest outdoor market in Africa, set 9,000 feet above sea level on the western edge of Addis Ababa, is alive with capitalism by day; between dusk and dawn, it’s the Ethiopian capital’s hub of ill repute. Mercato was founded around the same time as the city itself, about 120 years ago; since then it has spread into a massive labyrinth where most of Ethiopia’s two million citizens come to buy, sell, and trade everything they could ever need. Over there for fruit, DVDs, cell phones, rugs, tables, and goats; down that way, sandals, spears, and ancient headdresses.
"There are always two numbers in Mercato," says Tariku, who works with El-Ta Tours, "the real price, called habesha, and the tourist price, called fernji." Not surprisingly, even the tourist price falls below market value: 30 birr (about $3.50) for leather sandals, 100 birr (about $12) for centuries-old beaded necklaces. Like a homing pigeon, I make my way to the jewelry pocket of the maze until I am surrounded by glass cases of intricately carved silver necklaces, heavy pewter talismans adorned with orange and red beads, weighty cuffs as long as my forearm. On the wall hang earrings the size of small hula hoops, brass crosses three feet tall, rings with enormous colorful stones. It’s like one of those craftsy stores in the West Village or on Melrose Avenue, only the proprietor isn’t a CEO’s wife who picks up salad tossers on her exotic travels—it’s the son of a tribesman from the Danakil desert region on the Eritrean border who’s journeyed for days to sell his family’s beaded bracelets.
Tariku and I spend hours negotiating and amassing. I buy a chunky sil-ver necklace with an Ethiopian cross hanging from it; four engraved silver rings; beaded necklaces in red, yellow, blue, and green; a small pile of bright embroidered pillowcases; a tablecloth in red, yellow, and green (the colors of the country’s flag) with matching napkins; leather sandals; the complete CD collection of Mulatu Astatke (the local jazz musician who did the sound track to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers); a Haile Selassie amulet (Tariku gets the matching T-shirt); two thick silver chains that only fit around my ankle, which I’ll likely never wear; and a gag-gle of small cotton dresses for relatives under six. And the high point: eight netelas, the bright shawls woven of soft North African cotton that would cost a few hundred dollars at Barneys. It’s Christmas shopping for a decade, and it will never fit in the extra space I’ve allotted in my suitcase.
But nine hours and $200 later, the crowds have thinned, the light has waned into an orange end-of-day hue, and my spree at Africa’s largest open-air market is over. "We can come back tomorrow," Tariku says, sensing my loss. "Mercato never closes."
Eltatoursethiopia.com has information on hiring guides—including Tariku Woldearegay—for tours in Mercato.