We exit the airport in Addis Ababa in the predawn hours, before the light is drawn taut over the landscape. Before guttering plumes of exhaust blanket the city in a carcinogenic cloud. Before the newness of Ethiopia can contrast itself with Kenya's familiarity. It's all technically new to me, but then again, I also mistakenly assumed that the neighboring countries would contain a lion's share of similarities in addition to a ragged border. Unsurprisingly, there are no lions, and unbeknownst to me at this murky morning hour, there are very few similarities, either.
It's too early for the russet dirt or the expansive greenery to saturate the landscape, too early to squint at the Amharic signage and attempt a guess at its meaning. We are renegades fleeing dawn, folded into the cloaked ambiguity of nighttime. Us, our driver, and the Muslim call to prayer. Tremulous and of indeterminate emotional resonance, we could hear it even in our hotel room. We fall asleep to it; awake to its mysterious provocations.
Then: The light of day. The vast and innumerable and intrusively abrupt differences. Arabic intonations still fluttering uneasily through the air. New construction on the horizon, concrete monoliths fortified by toothpickish scaffolding. Clouds containing an entire zoo's worth of denizens rollicking across the sky, purely blue as Pantone - blazing at a searing 5,500 degrees Kelvin.
Later: Forging rather effortlessly on an impeccable road (a haughty snub to Kenya's rattled asphalt graveyard), nodding at Pepsi's poltergeist every 50 feet. In Kenya, Coca-Cola has a stronghold and a seemingly Mafia-like presence but it's no wonder given that Coke Light (Diet Coke's sophisticated and worldly cousin) could make DC fiends weep with longing. We're back on the right side of the road, too, just as I'd gotten used to the left's charming thrills in Nairobi.
Ethiopians bear very little resemblance to Kenyans. While the structural peaks and valleys on the faces of the women I'd met in Kenya are broad and compulsively expressive, an Ethiopian face is one of measured, patrician features. Delicate brow bones and open foreheads. Mouths that seem hand-sculpted to speak in the florid, musical tones that Amharic and Arabic demand. Differences abounding in places I never thought to look.
The contrasts between the two countries remains one of the most riveting aspects of my time there.