Friday, September 14, 2012
Ethiopia: Tales from the Bar: Gaminiwari Grocery: Part I
When I walked into Gaminiwari Grocery, there was that nice record-scratching moment when everyone stops what they're doing and stares. With everyone's eyes on me, I walked up to the bar and ordered a beer.
"What kind?" the barman asked me.
"This one," I said, pointing at the tap.
I didn't care which brand it was; I just wanted whatever was in the keg.
My pointing had clearly been misunderstood, however, because the bartender and a few other guys shouted out: "That's not beer!"
They thought I was pointing to the bottles of spirits behind the tap.
"I know that's not beer," I replied. "This is what I want."
This time I touched the beer tap.
"Oh, St. George?" the bartender asked.
Then he drew me a pint, and I paid. The damage was 9 birr (about 50 cents).
There were half a dozen small tables in the room with benches on the side of the tables facing the wall and small stools on the side facing the center of the room. On this particular night, no one was sitting on the stools, but the benches along the wall were full. A TV near the door was blasting Ethiopian music videos. There was also a second sitting area in the back.
After I paid for my beer, I took a second to survey the room and scout out a seat. My only option was going to be one of the stools in the center, but then a young man near where I was standing scooted over and made room for me on the bench.
People continued to stare at me off and on, but soon enough the novelty wore off and everyone went back to drinking and talking.
The guy who was sitting next to me couldn't speak much English (nor I Amharic), so I sat and watched the TV. All the while, people were coming and going. Part of the ritual for some of the guys who were leaving was to shake hands or fist-bump with all of the people at the bar on the way out the door. I was at the end of the line, but everyone shook my hand and fist-bumped me along with the rest.
And that was the extent of my interaction.
No matter how boring or awkward the situation is at a bar, I have a personal two-drink minimum. I think it's too easy to retreat after one drink, and it's often not until the second that things start to get interesting. If things are still boring or awkward after two drinks, then I will leave.
With the two-drink rule in mind, I put a 10-birr note on the table. Then one of the waiters appeared, collected my money and my empty glass, and returned with a fresh pint and my change.
The waiters, as well as the barman, wore what looked like lab coats, and they were quite proficient in serving drinks and keeping the tables wiped down.
Many of the guys in the bar were drinking mixed drinks, and I thought the system for serving these was pretty slick. The waiter would come to the table with a tray stocked with ice, the spirit of choice, the mixer of choice, lemons or limes as appropriate, and a shot glass. Then he would mix the drink on the spot. When I would later mention this system to one of my Ethiopian colleagues, he would explain to me that it was a necessity because barmen in Ethiopia were notorious for shorting drinks and no one would take a drink that he hadn't seen being made.
My second beer was nice and frosty, but I was still sitting in virtual isolation. I didn't plan to stick around for a third.
Then, when I had about a quarter of my beer remaining, the guy sitting two people away from me started up a conversation.
"So, are you are tourist?" he asked.
"No, I'm working here," I replied.
"Are you living around here?" he continued.
"Yes," I told him.
"At the Global Hotel?" he interjected.
"No, I live in a house."
"Oh, so you are staying for a while?"
"Yes, I've been here a week so far, but I have a two-year contract."
And at this, he shuddered.
"Wow! Two years is a long time!" he exclaimed.
We both laughed, but I told him I was sure the two years would fly by.
At this point we made our introductions. My new friend was named George. He was a retired sailor (commercial not military), and he had two sons who were both living in the U.S. The older one was an air traffic controller in Birmingham, Alabama, and the younger one was a graduate student in biotechnology at George Mason University in Virginia. Apparently, I was the same age as his older son, although George thought I looked younger.
With two sons living in the U.S., George had visited several times, and he would be returning soon for his younger son's graduation.
He asked me from which state I hailed, and I told him Tennessee. And being a self-proclaimed expert on the U.S., he told me that he knew Tennessee very well. I had my doubts, however, as we continued talking since he was unfamiliar with any of Tennessee's major cities, personalities, or claims to fame. We talked about Elvis Presley, country music, blues, and gospel, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga, barbeque and the Smokey Mountains, and then I was going to pull the ace from my sleeve. I turned and scanned the bottles on the bar, and - lo and behold! - Tennessee's most famous export, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, was not in attendance. Doh! Without the visual aid, I just had to mention Jack as one of Tennessee's highlights.
For his part, George didn't much care for Tennessee, Alabama (and definitely not Birmingham), or Virginia. For him, it was all about California.
After we finished talking about Tennessee, George started telling me about his life on the sea.
"I went all around the world as a sailor," he told me. "Go ahead, try me. Name a country."
"OK," I said, "did you go to Australia?"
"Papua New Guinea?"
This game was going nowhere fast.
I decided to throw him some easy ones.
"What about Singapore?" I asked.
He even went to Norway a few times - to Kristiansand, I think.
By now my beer was finished so I pulled out 10 birr and laid it on the table.
The waiter collected it and returned with a fresh beer.
"You know," George said, "here in Ethiopia we drink what we want and pay at the end. Why are you paying as you go?"
Before I could answer, the barman chimed in: "It's a down payment!"
We all had a laugh.
I had assumed it was like in the U.S. where a patron could either pay by the drink or open a tab, but I guess opening a tab was very much the preferred method in Ethiopia. That said, I don't think the bar staff was terribly inconvenienced by my paying by the drink either.
Some of the other guys were listening to our conversation now, and soon one spoke up.
"Do you smoke?" he asked.
"Sometimes I do," I told him, "but not very often."
"So it doesn't bother you if we smoke?" he asked.
"No," I answered. "Go right ahead."
And I'll be darned if the whole bar didn't light up. All the guys had been holding back because they had assumed that I would be bothered by the smoke. This was both funny to me and also kind of touching that they cared if an outsider such as myself was bothered.
We were all having a good time by now. The third beer turned into a fourth, and that too was soon finished.
It was 11 PM, and early the next morning, I was going on my first trip in Ethiopia, to Bahir Dar. Having not yet packed, and with my 5 AM pick-up looming, I told George that I was calling it a night.
"Can't you stay for one more?" he implored. "If you are worried about security, some of us can walk you home."
I chose to do the responsible thing and passed on that last drink. I also declined to take a security escort.
As I was walking home, I thought back to the medical briefing I had had just a few days prior at the Embassy.
"Remember," the nurse had told me, "at the high altitude of Addis Ababa, one drink has the effect of three at sea level."
And then I felt short-changed. I had consumed four pints, and I was nowhere close to having a 12-pint buzz.