A day in the life
A brothel/bar in Lalibela. 4:35am. Xavier knocks on the door: “Khwaja?” I had set my own alarm but forgot to turn it on. Good to have a travel companion. We exchange sparse words: I’m going to shit. More use of that excellent newspaper we bought. Our bags are packed and ready from the previous night. Lalibela has chronic water shortage and I haven’t showered since we left Addis Ababa 6 days ago. I smell awful. X coughed all night; he’s developed a dry rasping cough over the last couple of days. We went to bed around 8:30 but neither of us got much sleep. The brothel manager is patiently waiting for us to leave so she can go back to sleep. Two baby calves emerge from the bathroom area; in Turkish villages they also keep young calves in the house. It’s pitch black outside and I have 2 more days of this to look forward to before I can finally relax in Axum. In Ethiopia buses only depart between 5-6:30am. The guy who sold us the tickets last night told us to be there at 5. We’ve got it down to a science: 15 minutes after the alarm rings we emerge clothed and bearing our loads. X travels super light and his tiny bag hardly weighs anything. I, on the other hand, am carrying the small library of a dozen or so books I accumulated in Tel Aviv and Cairo. This is in addition to the myriad other things that seemed indispensable before leaving, but in fact have proven useless. At least I’ll eventually get through the books. I bought a metal water bottle from the manager and it’s currently full of iodine and water, trying to kill the alien life which is festering inside. So that’s another kilo and half, in addition to the litre of drinking (tap) water in my regular Nalgene. X is carrying the stick he picked up while hiking yesterday: we both hope it will help deter the “one birr” beggars. We have about a kilometer to walk uphill. There are already people in the street: villagers come to participate in the Saturday market. At the bus station X refuses to part with his pack: it’s small enough to fit somewhere inside, and more often than not one finds oneself in an unpleasant confrontation with the luggage handlers over a tip. My bag is too big, so I climb the stairs to the top of the bus, shove my pack into my battered WFP sack, and curse when I can’t tie it shut. X has grabbed us a decent spot: a 2-seater near the middle of the bus, and close to a functioning window. The space between the seats is way too close for comfort, so I head over to the 5-seater in the far back, while X repents and goes out to stow his bag on top. Sitting in the far rear is a gamble: it bounces violently and can throw you more than a foot or so into the air, but it also tends to be less favored, and there is potential to stretch out and nap, at least for part of the way. Its contents, too, are constantly shuffling: mostly villagers on short hops tend to sit here. A villager woman sharing my theory plops her bag down on one seat, sits on another, and proceeds to sleep. So much for stretching out. It’s getting light outside. The bus starts and stops a few times for door-front pickups before leaving town, and then heads downhill for Woldia.
Lalibela is a holy town perched at 2650m and home to a number of tourist-attraction rock-hewn churches, as well as a number of churches and monasteries scattered around the nearby countryside. It also has a large number of kids eager to follow you around, and under one pretext or another share in your legendary “wealth”. My favorite scheme begins with casually mentioning a “football club” they are a member of, and then producing a piece of handwritten notebook paper with broken english, and ample space for you to write down your name and the amount you will pledge. “We need 100 birr to buy a leather football”, they explain. Other tactics inlude following you from the bus station to the hotel you decide to check into, and then demanding a commission which you indirectly pay for. One kid was trying to explain that they were asknig for very little: entrance to the churches is 100birr. “Yes, and that’s why I haven’t visited them yet: it’s expensive!” “Not expeensive !” replies the boy, “you paid so much for the plane ticket to Addis.” “I didn’t take a plane, I took a bus.” “Ha ha, I don’t believe you.” X: “get lost, kid.” He has a very low tolerance for all this and is constantly making an effort to not lash out; he’s the “bad cop” of our team. Yesterday we took bananas, tomatoes, and bread rolls and struck out to hike in the beautiful countryside, only to be followed by two kids: sometimes at a more respectable distance, at others right up in your face demanding something. Having nothing better to do, they will follow you around all day, presumably hoping you willl get sick of it and pay them to leave you alone. No such luck with us. I yelled at them and made it abundantly clear that they are not welcome; one slowly walked away, while the other showed no intentions of leaving. Even with X’s newly found stick, it’s dangerous to threaten violence: theyt may retreat to a safe distance and shower you with stones, or else may return with indignant adults. I have had stones thrown at me on a number of occasions by kids who believe it is every faranji’s duty to hand out money and goodies to any kid they may meet on their way. The attitude is shared by those of all ages: it’s not uncommon for fully grown men and women to drop whatever they may be doing and run up to demand money. Ethiopia is possibly the most beautiful counry I’ve seen, full of lakes, rivers, lush greenery, and farm upon farm upon farm: indeed the whole country looks like one big farm, and very little land is left fallow. Salaries are ridiculously low when compared to the West, but prices are accordingly low: a rural schoolteacher I met on the road makes about $70/mo, but only pays about $1.25/mo in rent! Nevertheless english-speakers I’ve encountered make it a point to exclaim about how poor Ethiopia is. _Sudan_ is a poor country; don’t talk to me about poor countries. But they firmly believe they are pitiable and have a monopoly on misery, so… where’s the money, faranji?!
A special place in hell is reserved for those faranju who hand out money and pens to further encourage and spread the behavior rather than trying to stop it. I’ve heard fools say asking for money is begging and wrong, while asking for a pen is good beause “it’s for education.” The demands commonly follow this pattern: “one birr!” “no!” “one pen!” “no” “take foto!” “no (I’m not stupid; then they demand “foto money”)” “come to my house for coffee ceremony; my mother would be very happy!” “no (leaving your mother aside, you must really think I’m stupid if you think I’ll fall for that one)” It’s begging just for the sake of begging, and it doesn’t matter what they get as long as it’s free! A really common theme is “no fazer, no mazer, no sister, no brazer”; no doubt there are such unfortunate orphans, but it’s unlikely that every kid on the street has suffereed such loss. And so, those who are really needy are disbelieved, and go without.
So yesterday I finally turned to our shadow kid and explained that we would give him nothing — not one pen, not one birr, nothing — but we wanted him to stop following us, otherwise my nervous friend may snap and beat him with his stick. He had already been following us for hours at this point, and X was ready to throw in the towel and go back to town, but I refuse to admit defeat at the hands of a 9-year-old; he finally got the idea and left us alone. I then barked at the few kids who saw us and exclaimed “faranji! money!”, and the day ended with me reading about 20-30 pages of Steppenwolf in peace under a sycamorous fig tree. Ozgur Can – 1, Ethiopian kids – 0.
But I’m safe for now; they don’t beg from fellow-passengers, and it’s unlikely that kids selling bananas, sugar cane, tissues, or roasted wheat at the bus stops will do more than stare and offer their wares. The road to Woldia winds down through beautiful lush hills and green greeen valleys, past villages of round traditional Amharra huts built of vertical sticks covered with straw and clay, and topped off with straw thatching, and the steady flow of villagers carrying things to be sold in the market. The girl sitting next to X puked after the first bend in the road. Luckily the smell doesn’t penetrate to where I am; plus I have a window at my disposal. They don’t like opening windows: when the smell became oppressive and the ticket man opened a window, the villagers tightly wrapped themselves in their shawls. They always wear their shawls, even though also sporting very short shorts. The other essential ingredient is the stick the men carry slung across their shoulders at all times: “for snakes”, I’ve heard, although I haven’t seen any snakes. A woman sits down next to me carrying her child on her back in her leather sling decorated with white shells. Her hair is in the traditional configuraion: tight corn-rows in the front, and the back fanning out (something like a mullet), and she is wearing the traditional dress of white home-made cloth with decorative patterns (mostly crosses) on the cuffs and folds. Many women tattoo their faces: a cross or the ankh symbol on the forehead as wll as a ruler-like line drawn across the length of the lower jaw and replicated across the neck seem to be the most popular. The driver is going too fast for the unpaved (but even) road, and we in the back seat are flung high into the air. I feel sorry for the woman forced to endure this. The child does not whine: only after one particularly violent jolt did he cry, but was quickly pacified. It seems to be characteristic of African babies that they do not whine or fuss like their western counterparts. The woman’s husband is sitting in front of me with an older son, probably 6-7 years old. I like the expression on the father’s face. The boy’s head is completely shaved, although it’s much more common for a tuft of hair to be left, usually in the front of the head. My original neighbor is still taking up two seats while she sleeps, and the ticket man comes over to make room for a man who’s standing and carrying two large “injeera” woks. Only after much arguing and threatening does she agree to relinquish one seat. Injeera, incidentally, is something like the national staple food, a large spongy pancake made out of an indigenous crop, which all food is served on and scooped up and eaten with. Foreigners are supposed to not like it, but I don’t mind it at all. It’s very difficult to find vegetables in restaurants, though, and we end up eating meat two meals a day. X eats “tipps”, chopped pieces of meat served without sauce or spices, for every meal. I frequently order by asking what *else* (apart from tipps) they have. Food generally runs out around 8pm or so, so once we’ve eaten there’s little else to do than “bowl” (drink beer on draft) and then go to sleep. We accordingly wake up pretty early, usually before 7, even when not “traveling”.
I stare out the window and space out. It’s been over 10 months since I started, and the pressure is mounting for me to make a commitment about my post-september future. I push the unpleasant thought aside. I try to mentally calculate whether we can arrive in Woldia in time to connect with a bus coming from Dessie and heading for Mekele. Slim chance. I must shower tonight. My gear is beginning to show its age: the soles of my sandals are falling apart; the backs of my shoes are breaking up and ruining my socks; the shoes also have small tears; I’m down to a single pair of pants; my money belt is falling to pieces; my brown (only) tshirt is completely faded and has more holes than I care to count. It’s a wonder they beg from me. I wonder if I can have reinforcements sent by mail. Maybe in Yemen.
The driver honks and the bus swerves and stops abruptly. Cows. Or maybe donkeys. They have no sense or fear of cars, and wander down the middle of the road, only reluctantly and slowly moving out of the way. Sometimes they will suddenly bolt in front of the bus. I’ve seen people do that too. The whole village would probably come out for a lynching if an animal were hit, so the drivers excercise caution. The other day we passed by an enormous herd of cattle with gigantic horns, herded by 3-4 Afara youths armed with kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders like sticks. We should be seeing more of that in Somaliland and Eritrea if all goes well.
The bus eventually pulls up in Woldia. It’s about 10:30; if I were at work I’d be checking email and slowly waking up. As it is, I’ve already been traveling for hours, up mountains and down valleys, and may even be done with today’s travels. By the time we get off he bus, self-appointed porters are already hauling down my bag. Crap. X starts climbing the ladder to take his own bag, but they try to stop him and one man pulls on his foot. X unleashes a torrent of curses in French, and motions as if he would kick the guy in the face. The ever-present onlooking crowd exclaims in surprise and amusement, and X gets his way. They then make a half-hearted attempt to ask for a tip, but they’re barking up the wrong tree. An english-speaking man asks me where I’m going; I like the look on his face. He says we might be able to catch a bus passing through town. We walk together towards the town center. The chick he’s with is a real beauty, but it doesn’t make a difference to me: I’m like a vapor that will vanish in hours if not days. No girls for me. There was a really cute chick at the place in Lalibela; she spent hours climbing around my bed to perfectly fit the sheets. A waste of time, but I enjoyed the show. No common language, but somehow the point gets across. Too bad there are so many “professionals”; one never knows what the girl is interested in. We must be finally getting used to Ethiopian beauties; the day we crossed the border X mournfully exclaimed “not one single cute chick”, while now it seems like there’s too many of them. Either that or they’re really cute in Lalibela. Two porters approach; our new friend speaks for us, and we are told to hang around as something might turn up. Good. We’ll save a day. We sit down in a cafe; it’s breakfast time for us, and we eat like pigs. X is in a bad mood and grumbles about the table I’ve chosen. I ignore him: proximity to our new friend is the most important thing for now. Today is my turn to order: one milk coffee, one tea (with ginger), two donuts, two cakes, two pastries, and… I turn and point to eggs in a spicy sauce which someone else is eating: one of those. My pants are too big for me, and constantly fall down: I can indulge. The bill comes out to about a dollar a person. The porters inform us that we can catch a ride with a truck, but it’s going to cost us: 60 birr instead of 30. X says 100 for 2 sounds OK, so I go over for the negotiation: “80 for 2 seems right.” “ok, 100 for 2.” Khalas. We’re saving a day anyhow. X surprisingly thinks we should tip the porters: after all, they have rendered a valuable service. We ask our friend if they expect it; he foolishly asks them and they (not surprisingly) say yes, they do expect a tip. We give them 3 birr each. They seem happy. Turns out there will be 4 of us in the cab; I’m not amused. They journey to Mekele takes over 8 hours, and I’m not looking forward to being cramped. At least I can see my bag in its sack from the side mirror: I’ll know if it falls off. X is sitting next to the driver, I in the middle, and the mechanic by the door. It’s really cramped. Turns out the porters will make a 10 birr commission from the driver as well. Not bad for 10 minutes’ work; farm workers are apparently happy to make 7 birr for a day of manual labor. The porters say something about having put up our bags and try to get more, but it’s in vain. We drive off: another perfect connection. I turn to X and say “the Universe is on our side.” He silently agrees. The road starts off as asphalt, but we quickly turn off to a decent but unpaved road. We’re heading to the Tigray province, and we’ll be seeing people of that tribe. They’re famous for their colorful necklaces, and I lust after a few I see on kids along the way. When they notice us they shout “faranji! money!” Even the driver is amused and laughs apologetically. At one point the road is blocked by two parallel lines of rocks. Kids. The driver honks furiously and two villagers start moving the rocks aside, while the mechanic alights to help. The driver keeps an eye out for kids in the fields and shakes his fist at them when he sees one. The scenery is more of the same: green mountains, beautiful valleys, and a sky full of the most unbelievable clouds. The houses are now made of stones instead of mud, and the men wear Indian-style lungees (skirts) rather than shorts. There is no deviation in the stick-carrying behavior. We eventually stop for lunch and ask if they have draft beer: no such luck. I can buy 6 glasses of beer for a dollar, but only 2 bottles. We eat tipps (again). I’m amazed X doesn’t get sick of it. While washing our hands before the meal, the childen and girls come out to stare: there are giggles and whispers of “Yesus Kristos”. “Yes!” X exclaims, “He is Jesus and he’s back!” I bless them and go inside. Not really in the mood. The other customers stare with curiosity. I just want to finish eating so I can return to the stupor of riding in the truck. If we could only ride on top of the truck like in Sudan! The driver and mechanic stop eating a bit early to give us a chance to prove we are pigs. We oblige them. While we are washing our hands, they pay the whole bill. Nice of them. I suppose they’re making enough money as it is. We switch seats with X and I cuddle up with the driver, basically sitting on the hand brake, and moving my leg when he needs to switch gears. I’m horrified by the thought of accidentally knocking the truck out of gear, and share the thought with X, who laughs. I switch into screensaver mode and let my thoughts wander. There are large stickers blocking off the top of the window, and a large collection of plastic greenery directly in front of me so I can’t see much more than the road ahead of me. Those cows really do have enormous horns. At a village we pass through there are kids standing on top of isolated and raised platforms: X thinks they’re to scare off birds. The farmers plough with wooden ploughs and a pair of oxen, probably the same way they’ve done for centuries. Probably don’t use artificial fertilizers either. That must explain the presence of gorgeous and brightly colored birds, the kind of which I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Ethiopia really is a gorgeous country, but the people really have an attitude problem. I think it’s that they’re used to (and fully expect to) be spoon-fed and not take responsibility for themselves. Other travelers I’ve met also say the same: the begging gets old real quick. It’s obviously worse in places most frequented by tourists. While on the bus someone pointed to a truck carrying sacks and explained they were food-aid from some western country, destined for poor farmers. I look around to the lush greenery and never-ending ploughed fields and wonder if it’s possible that they don’t have enough food? In the markets one can find WFP-labeled “aid” 25lt cans of cooking oil and large sacks of flour with “USA” written in large letters. Is this a plot to keep an African country undeveloped and dependent on the West, while finding a convenient outlet for the surplus grain in the US?
Even though it’s a predominantly Christian country, there’s a significant Muslim minority. X and I agree that the Muslims are generally nicer, more hospitable, and more honest. They also tend to speak a little Arabic, so basic non-English communication is possible. I wish I spoke more Arabic. X is considering stopping in Yemen for a few months to study Arabic. Sounds like a great plan if I only had the time.
The discomfort in my leg is increasing in intensity. This isn’t a really comfortable spot I have.
I borrow X’s guidebook and look at the hotels section for Mekele: good, there’s a cheap one (35 for two) with a shower. After weeks of bucket-washing in Sudan, in Gondar I incredulously asked “you mean you have a shower with water coming down from the top?” They did. Unbelievable. Guidebooks are generally redundant if you’re ready to do some legwork and investigate. They’re most useful for finding hotels where you’re most likely to meet other travelers, although once mentioned in a guidebook hotels tend to raise prices and lower standards. All the same, they’re good for ballpark figures for how much things should cost. “Queen of Sheba Hotel.” Sounds good. The truck driver points out a couple of expensive hotels along the way and wants to know if we want to be dropped off there. I’m frantically trying to find where we are on the map, while X makes futile attempts at asking them if they know where “Queen of Sheba Hotel” is. They don’t speak any english. We ask to be dropped off at the bus station, take down the bags, shake hands and pay. Now everyone is happy. It’s pretty dark and I don’t want to sleep in a whorehouse/bar where the party gets started just as I’m going to bed, where I’m obliged to sleep with earplugs and occasionally wake up to the rhythmic squeaking of beds and muffled cries of pleasure. I need some comfort tonight. I stay with the bags while X goes to investigate a nice-looking hotel right by the bus station. Queen of Sheba is a bit far, and that means waking up even earlier tomorrow. A small crowd gathers to stare, and I hear the word “faranji” repeated over and over. I need a course in Zen meditation. Some kids ask “where are you go ” and don’t seem to care about the answer. I could really use some good St George draft right now. There are about half a dozen different beers, but St George is the smoothest, and as only one kind of draft is available in a given region, I’m sure that’s what we’ll be finding. X returns with good news: a super clean and super spacious room for 40. Here we come. The beds are decent, there’s a balcony, and they even provide slippers for trips to the bathroom. Too bad we won’t be staying longer. After a moment’s hesitation, X decides to switch slippers with the hotel. On our way out the guy at the reception wants to give us a piece of paper with the name of the hotel on it; I laugh and thank him. We won’t be *that* drunk. We walk into a bar; they don’t have draft, but some kind soul points us in the direction of a place that has some. The place looks good, so we seat ourselves outside and utter the magical words “oulet draft!” We drink to the universe and our patron saint, St George. Sitting outdoors, eating peanuts and sipping our beers, far away from hassle and harassment, everything seems bright and happy.
We talk about our plans: after Axum, we head down to the Simien mountains for some trekking, then back to Gondar and Addis, and then the monolithic and mystical “south”, where we will be spending another month. I was sick with diahorrea (first time since Syria) in Addis, so we didn’t do much apart from extending our visas, eating, sleeping, and attending the last two nights of the “European Film Festival”, and remarking at how unattractive yet smug and self-contented the expats seem. Next time around we need to inquire at the embassies for Somaliland, Djibouti and Yemen for visa requirements. The country commonly referred to as Somalia is apparently in actuality broken up into 3 parts, the northernmost and safest one being Somaliland. If all goes well we will be heading to Somaliland, Djibouti (out of necessity), Eritrea, and then taking a boat across to Yemen. After 5 beers I call upon my Sudanese oracle-coin to decide my future: this is our conflict-resolution and decision-making mechanism for practically everything. “10” means “go” while “hotel” means “stay”. People watch with amusement as I flip the coin and jubilantly see it is a “10”. Time for celebration: more beers and tipps. The rest of the night is uneventful: we buy bananas (4 for one birr), an onlooking boy tries to snatch a one birr note out of my hand and then motions as if he needs it for food. Possible, but unlikely. I probably should have given him one across the back with the stick, but violence has never been my stong point. The shower is cold, but the feeling of cleanliness after a long absence is priceless. I return to the room, pack my bag, set the alarm and go to bed. In a matter of seconds I am sleeping the sleep of the blessed, far from all worries and stress, cradled in the arms of the Universe.