Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ethiopia: Out for a Stroll: Part I

Ready to see more of the jewels in Addis Ababa’s crown, I decided one fine Saturday to visit the city’s modern art museum.  The museum is clear across town from my house, close to the Embassy, so I had a long walk ahead of me.

As I walked up Debre Zeit Road to Meskel Square, nothing much interesting happened.  I got some smiles, some glares, some shouts, some winks, and some hellos from the passers-by.  I got approached by a few beggars, of course, and probably 50 shoe-shine boys were dying to give me a polish.  Actually, I was wearing canvas shoes, so they wanted to give me a cleaning.  There were also a few street food vendors: two guys were frying and selling samosas, either filled with lentils or rice, and an old woman was frying donuts.  I was tempted by both options, but my stomach was still squirrely.  Since I wasn’t sure when I’d next have access to a toilet, I decided not to risk it.

Just short of Meskel Square, I met two young men.  They gave me the old “hey faranji”, and one moved in to shake my hand.  As we shook, he took my hand in both of his and held tight.  Was I being greeted or restrained?  It was hard to tell, but I started to think that it was the latter case.  As the first guy immobilized my hand, the second guy started walking behind me.  I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; it was time to extricate myself.   In case this was all just a misunderstanding, I didn’t want to look paranoid.  I started gesticulating as we chatted, and my hand popped free.  I’m sure I looked like an Italian on speed, but it got the job done.  Once I was free, I subtly turned so that both guys were in front of me.  Then we had a few minutes of light banter, and I excused myself.  Besides the fact that I didn’t fully trust these guys, there was further motivation not to linger:  We were standing right near a retaining pond that was like a huge outdoor toilet.  In the few minutes that we had been standing there, half a dozen men had relieved themselves.  The air was heavy with the smell of urine.

I continued on through Meskel Square and made my way across all 15 lanes of traffic.  Motorists give pedestrians very little consideration, even when using the cross-walk, so you inch across the highway at your own risk.  It’s fun, though, like a real-life game of Frogger.

Just after Meskel Square, I happened upon three lads selling qollo.  Qollo is Ethiopia’s national snack.  The bulk of it is usually toasted barley, and mixed into this you often have some combination of toasted wheat, toasted chick peas, and peanuts.

About half a cup, served in a cone fashioned from newspaper, cost me 1 birr (about 6 cents).  I figured a few dried grains shouldn’t exacerbate my stomach condition.

When I bought the qollo, the boys were cracking up.  I assumed it was because I was a foreigner, but my guard thinks it’s because I was overcharged.  Maybe the going rate is 50 santim (half a birr), but I’m not going to sweat a 3-cent overcharge.

Continuing north, I crossed the bridge over the Bantyiketu, a river in crisis.  Like other rivers in Addis Ababa, the Bantyiketu is highly polluted with thick piles of rubbish along the banks.  When I crossed the bridge, my eye was drawn to some activity a few hundred meters upstream.  It turned out to be four guys washing clothes, slapping wet garments against stones like the dhobis I had seen in India.  Unlike the Indian dhobis, however, these men were completely naked.  I guess they were cleaning their one and only set of clothes.

My route was entirely uphill, so I climbed onward and upward past the President’s Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Mapping Agency, and the Prime Minister’s Palace.  Then I reached the round-about at Arat Kilo.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop at the Post Office to get some information on international shipping.  The guard at the entrance was skeptical when he saw that I had nothing to mail, but soon enough he allowed me inside to talk to a customer service rep.  While the woman at the window was looking up the United States in her book of postal rates, I noticed something funny behind the counter:  There were several plastic U.S. Postal Service trays and boxes.  It reminded me of Papua New Guinea where I also saw USPS boxes at the local post office.  It seems like the U.S. Postal Service is always going bankrupt and restructuring and raising prices.  I realize that the rise of the internet has seriously decreased the volume of traditional mail, but providing plastic boxes for all the world’s postal services can’t be helping the USPS’s bottom line either.

From the Post Office, I continued climbing north.  One block later, another guy intercepted me.

“I used to have those same shoes,” he told me.  “Are they Vans?”

I was actually wearing Converse, but close enough.

Since our shared bond was the shoes, this guy told me about his former prized pair.  There wasn’t that much to tell actually.  He had received them from his uncle who had visited the States.  Then they broke apart one day while he was playing soccer.

That said, his shoe story was way better than mine.

“What about your shoes?” he asked me.

“Well, I ordered them online a few months ago,” I told him, “and they are still in good condition.”

Admittedly, this was the lamest story ever, but my new friend didn’t mind.

“That’s cool, man!” he exclaimed.

Then we discussed more fascinating shoe topics like how this kind of shoe didn’t offer much cushioning on the sole and how the canvas upper would saturate quickly in the rain.

It was an engrossing conversation to be sure, but I just didn’t think it was sustainable.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

This guy was wearing a few hats.  Primarily, he was a DJ, spinning vinyl 5 nights a week from 10 PM until 4 AM.

“Do you play traditional music?” I foolishly asked.

“No, man,” he replied, pointing up at his dreads with a huge smile.

Yup, he was a reggae DJ.

He invited me to his club, and I wasn’t opposed to checking it out one day.  Unfortunately, however, my mind could not grasp the Amharic name.  He would say it, and I would repeat it.  Then I would forget it two seconds later.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  I was having a serious mental block.  I suppose I should have entered the name of the club in my phone, but I didn’t.

This guy was also a student in a tourism and hospitality program, and closely related to that, he was a tour guide.

We started talking about tourism in general in Ethiopia, the dearth of licensed guides, and the abundance of opportunistic, untrained guides.  During this discussion, I brought up my trip to Ethiopia five years ago, when I had hired an unlicensed street guide for a trip to Awassa.

My street guide for the Awassa trip did have some short-comings, but he did well enough.  Then after the touring was over, we went bar-hopping.

"What was his name?" my Rasta friend inquired.

"Nebyou," I replied.

This caused a moment of confusion because it turned out that my new friend had the same name.  At first he thought I was addressing him.

Unlike my Awassa guide, the DJ spelled his name Nebue.  This is just an artifact of transliteration, however, and they probably both spell their names the same way in Amharic.

Nebue was blown away that I knew someone else with the same name as him.  It was a fun coincidence, but at the same time, it wasn't that unusual.  It would be about like meeting two Marks in the U.S. or something.

We continued walking and talking, but soon we reached the proverbial fork in the road.

It was less than a week until the Ethiopian holiday, Meskel, and Nebue was ready to start celebrating.

"Today is really the first day of Meskel," he told me.  "It's when you get together with your friends and talk and chew chat and drink beer."

"Wanna join us?" he asked me.

Under the right circumstances, I would have been more than happy to join him and his friends.  On this occasion, I was not.  My hesitation was four-fold.  First, there was my intestinal problem.  Second, I still wanted to see the museum.  Third, I didn't feel like being the curiosity for his circle of friends, and finally, I had plans to meet some colleagues for dinner.  It was only about 11 AM at the time, but I had a feeling that this hanging out might consume the whole afternoon.

When I told Nebue that I had other plans, he pleaded with me a few more times.  I held firm.

With that settled, Nebue asked if we could exchange cell phone numbers.

As always, I obliged.  So, if you are ever in need of a reggae tour-guiding DJ, I know a guy...

Nebue went his way, and I went mine.

Finally in the home stretch, I turned down the road where the modern art museum resides.  About halfway down, a guard stopped me.

"Where are you going?" he asked me.

When I told him I was going to the art museum, he told me there wasn't one.

This was hilarious because the entrance was 20 meters away, as plain as day.

"It's right there," I told him.  "I can see the sign."

"Oh, that art museum," he replied.

I was allowed to pass, so I walked up the stairs and into the museum doors.

I would only get as far as the lobby, for while the museum was technically open, I had arrived on the day that a new exhibit was being installed.  Doh!

I walked back out, and the guard was confused.  I tried to explain that a new exhibit was being installed, but my efforts were for naught.  All I got in return was a blank stare.

As I continued down the road, I passed a group of trash collectors.  The group consisted of six women who seemed to be in their 40s and 50s.  Their heavy dresses were fashioned from trash bags, which in their former life had been woven plastic grain sacks.  They were pushing a cart, shoveling piles of trash off the street, and emptying trash cans.  A few street dogs were following them in hopes that the ladies would uncover some tasty morsels amongst the rubbish.

The work in the hot sun was clearly strenuous, but just around the corner, there was a group of ladies with a more grueling task yet.  This second group of women was engaged in road repair.  Without the benefit of modern equipment, these ladies were opening a sizeable hole in the pavement using pickaxes.

I've heard it said that societies develop on the backs of women, and it's true.  Of course, they also develop of the backs of men and children.  It seems that very few people get a pass from the toils.

The Embassy is about 15 minutes past the art museum, so I decided to walk this final bit and then go home.

On the property adjacent to the Embassy, a soldier was guarding an old house.  He called me over, and we sat down to chat.

This guy was named Abebe, and he spoke very little English.  After a brief, confusing, and goofy conversation, we both just sat on the bench in silence.  Abebe didn't want me to leave, but we had reached the limits of our communication.

Silence was not golden in this case, however, and after a minute or two, things were awkward.

"OK, I'm gonna go now," I told Abebe.

He understood, so we stood up from the bench and shook hands.  In Ethiopia, one of the most common styles of hand-shaking between friends is to grasp hands while leaning in to bump shoulders.  A second style is for two people to bump their wrists together.  This is used especially when someone has dirty hands or is eating.  A third variation is fist-bumping.  You bump fists on the top, on the bottom, and then straight on, knuckles-to-knuckles.  And lastly, there is the variable grip shake, where you go for 3 or 4 different holds in one shake, possibly capped off with fist-bumping.

Abebe went for a combination shake.  We started with some grip work, and then ended with a shoulder bump.  Then I continued walking.

By now, I had reached the Embassy so I turned around and headed home.

One side mission for the day's walk had been to study the bus routes between my home and the Embassy.  To this end, I noted which buses stopped at the bus stops I encountered.  For direct service from home to work, only one bus fit the bill: the 56.  The trip cost 2.40 birr (about 13 cents).

I passed various characters on the walk home, but it wasn't until I reached the Prime Minister's residence that the next person struck up a conversation.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he asked me.

"Nein," I replied.

"Italiano? Français?" he continued.

"No and no," I answered. "Do you speak English?"

And of course he did speak English, for I was dealing with a language wizard.

This young man's name was George, and we covered all the usual introductory topics.  Then he made his pitch.

"How's your Amharic?" he asked me.

At the time, my Amharic was non-existent, but I told George that I was scheduled to begin classes the following week.

"I'm a certified language instructor," he informed me.  "I can give you private lessons at a fair price."

Then he produced some letters of reference for my review.

After I reiterated a second time that I had already enrolled in the Embassy's language program, he tried a different approach.

"Maybe I could be the Embassy's language instructor," he surmised.

"We have one already," I answered, "and I don't think we are hiring a second."

When he finally accepted that I wasn't going to hire him, we did the usual phone number exchange.

So, if you are ever in need of an English-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking, French-speaking Amharic instructor, who also does tour-guiding on the side, I know a guy...

I was now halfway home.  Down the hill, past the Hilton, and over the river, and I was back at Meskel Square.

As I was just about to start my way across the 15 lanes of traffic, a young man said something to me.  In Amharic, he had asked me my name, but at the time I did not understand.

This guy was named Yonatan, and he had an attitude problem.

"This is Ethiopia!" he yelled at me, "We speak Amharic!"

Then he began to aggressively tutor me.

"When I say 'Seme man noe?' that means 'What is your name?'!!!"

"When I say 'Salam noe' that means 'Hello'. That is our greeting!!!"

The "lessons" continued through several more phrases, and I dutifully parroted as I walked through traffic.

I didn't care one bit for his approach, though.  It would have been different if I had initiated contact with him by asking him something in English.  Then maybe his fierce defense of Amharic would have been understandable.  But to pounce on me just for walking by?  Nonsense!

I suppose my humility paid off, however, because by the time we reached the far side of the road, Yonatan and I were fast friends - or at least he seemed to think so.

We met up with one of his friends, Tesfaye, and like Nebue, he had a thick mane of dreadlocks.

"Are you a Rasta?" I asked him.

"Yah, mon," he answered with a smile.

Then I told him about how my guide in Bahir Dar, Des, had admitted to liking the Rastafari lifestyle while not subscribing to all the tenets.  According to Des, this made him a rasco.

When Tes heard this, he cracked up.

"I also don't follow Rasta completely," he told me, "but I'm no rasco!"  "I'm a Christafari."

As had Nebue, Yonatan and Tes focused their energy on getting me to join them for their pre-Meskel festivities.  They had more on the menu, however, than Nebue did with his beer and chat.

"We have the best ganja around," Tes proclaimed.  "It will really relax you."

For the same reasons that I hadn't wanted to go vegetate with Nebue earlier, I also didn't want to go with Yonatan and Tes.  And there were two additional reasons: Yonatan had made a terrible first impression, and I don't smoke pot.

Only after I lied and told them that we had routine drug testing at the Embassy did they stop pestering me to join them for marijuana.

When I parted ways with Yonatan and Tes, it was the second time that day that I had done so without exchanging contact information.  So, if you are looking for the best weed in town, I don't know a guy.  Go ask someone else.  Ha ha.

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