The Sheraton is one of Ethiopia’s paradoxes: the jewel in the dust of Addis. The luxury hotel rises up, above the valley bowl, its six stories of pale stone crowned by a terracotta roof and set back from the city as if to mark its position outside of normal life. “Go to The Hilton and you’re still in Africa,” my old colleague in Gondar, Dr Shitaye said. “But at The Sheraton, you can be somewhere else.”
For years the rooms overlooked the tin roofs of the kebeles below, where the streets are rivers of mud and the standpipes run dry, until the shacks were allegedly pulled down to avoid destroying the view. The Sheraton is the kind of place that will never run out of water or even, for that matter, champagne. Somehow it keeps its swimming pool filled, along with its graceful waterways and its fountains gently spraying the air. When the government shut down the whole of the country’s internet during the state of emergency, The Sheraton was still online.
I shunned The Sheraton for 15 years. When used to stay in ‘local’ hotels with bedbugs and loud music and food like slops thrown onto plates of stale injera. Then I upgraded to better run places with bathroom towels I dared actually use. But never The Sheraton. It was my point of honour, my little patch of moral high ground. I found such opulence outrageous in Ethiopia. Ferenj at The Sheraton were, in my views, weak and pampered, shielding themselves from the culture. If you are coming to Ethiopia for The Sheraton, then why not stay at home?
Ethiopia breaks everyone in the end. It has a habit of chewing people up and spits them back out again. It was the adoption process that broke me. I was a tearful wreck, always trembling on the verge of another meltdown. This was at last, my nemesis. Four months crawling around the floor of an orphanage had left me caked in gunfo – grain porridge fed to babies – which clogs the pores and does not wash out of clothes. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs had misplaced our adoption file, my eyes oozed pus from conjunctivitis, and now the government had announced a state of emergency. No-one could leave the city. Suddenly I was on the phone speaking to an Ethiopian with impeccable English begging them to get me a room and having to be that person needing to ask how much it is. I could have almost written myself a prescription stating that a night at The Sheraton would heal.
Mesfin chugged up the wide boulevard in his blue Lada taxi, pulling up just close enough to annoy the guards. “Not allowed in,” said Mesfin, shrugging his shoulders as apology but with also a glint of irony in his eyes. The guards looked at him haughtily and Mesfin glared back in defiance. I felt like offering some kind of excuse to Mesfin along the lines of my not really being the kind of person to stay here and it was no fault of my own that I was booked in. Jude and I hauled our cases over the hot tarmac of the car park, arriving perspiring at the security check while rich Africans were gliding out of their 4 by 4s without so much as a crease on their robes and UN types hugged their mobile phones and tapped their stilletoes across the floor.
Nothing soothes like that moment when you step into air conditioning in a hot country. I inhaled the air freshened by the foyer fountain. My eyeballs felt pleasantly chilled. The cool from the marble floor rose up through my feet, administering calm as If I had been anointed by one of the priests chanting in the churches that peppered the hills. How did they keep out the dust? There was marble everywhere, a huge foyer with arches, all lit by an enormous chandlier. Jude was already asking to book an extra night, surrendering his credit card to the cashier. A man in a suit pushed the lift button for us and we glided upwards, propelled by the silent mechanism of the lift, surrounded by wood panels and gasping at the opulence of it all.
The room was somewhat formulaic (we had the cheapest, of course): big bed, big tv, mini bar (small bottles with big prices) and a balcony overlooking a long waterway with more fountains below. The main attraction was also here: at last, a bath, after months of standing spraying myself with a broken shower head that was always too hot or too cold. The taps gushed huge jets of water and I stepped over the marble and sunk in, feeling the soothing water, the hush, the cleanliness of it all. The gunfo washed away down the drain. On the way up, there had been no haggling, no cat calling, no traffic and no need to look at car crashes on the road. There had been no hustlers roaming the halls hunting for tourists; no-one had tweaked my sleeve asking for money; no-one had made a joke about me I didn’t understand. The place was as much about what it wasn’t as opposed to what it was. And so, our physical healing began.
Al-Amoudi, Ethiopia’s richest man, created The Sheraton as a homage of love for his country. I had to concede it was all lovely: the sweeps of pink and white roses, the lavender bushes, the lightly-trimmed privets, the palm trees and the three-sided building with its rows of balconies reminiscent of a Parador in Spain. The foyer floor has tiny black and white squares inlaid, reminiscent of the roof of Debre Birhan Selassie church in Gondar. The shops sell the best Ethiopian crosses and dresses, not international stuff. The pool is a lozenge of aquamarine, sparkling in the sun and glittering under the moon at night. Staff are Ethiopians, graceful and proud in their suits. Ethiopian art hangs on every wall – the kind of art that is discrete and restful. Nothing is challenging here. It was a symbol of what Ethiopia can be given some care and money thrown at it. Guests were a mixture of ferenj, wealthy Africans, Ethiopians and Arabs. It was pleasing to see ordinary Ethiopians who had found their way in via a family celebration or a business event and were busy taking selfies or fingering the potted ferns to check if they were real. I had to admit Al-Amoudi had probably got it right.The hotel has numerous restaurants but for some reason, the Ethiopian one was closed. The Indian restaurant was superb; the Sunday lunch buffet excellent with complimentary sparkling wines and somewhat of a scene, with pole-like Ethiopian model types making the most of flashing their huge eyes. An attempt at Pad Thai at the poolside produced gluey rice noodles with vegetables. An Asian salad was more like chicken with mayonnaise. Imported wines are excellent – but about 15 US dollars a glass. If you are here to drown your sorrows, then be sure to budget for that.So should you stay at The Sheraton? Yes, if you’re exhausted or if you’re very sick or very old or you need the security of no bed bugs (they must kill them off in the security x-ray machine). Yes if you need certainty in life. The Sheraton did prove to be physically healing. I had 3 baths a day, slept well and spent hours flopped on the bench in the sauna. I had more energy and I was calm. I stopped crying and I didn’t have any infections anymore. But being rich doesn’t make you happy, I thought, hugging myself under a fluffy towel, clutching the cocktail menu and overlooking the pool. All the luxury in the world won’t heal a breaking heart. But The Sheraton will make it easier to bear. Everyone should go at least once.
Image of main building adapted from original by Francisco Anzola