Addis Ababa, late evening, it is dark, the street is dimly lit. I am carrying all my luggage with me. Coming from the right side someone approaches me holding a tray on his right hand, merely containing a bunch of napkin packages. Continuously talking to me “Mister, mister, please buy something. Please, mister, can you buy something…”. From the left side another guy approachs me asking for money. The hand of the guy on my right moves towards my pocket. With a swift move I lift my arm, catapulting his arm up, and with it up into the air go all the napkin packages, then tumbling back all over the ground.
My couchsurfing host Mahelet and another guest from Spain were walking a little behind me and had observed the scene. “That is exactly how they do it”, was the dry-witted comment by Mahelet. Just one hour ago I had arrived, had met up with Mahelet and her guest, and we had had two beers, listening to some traditional music. Now were on the lookout for another place to go to. I felt uncomfortable carrying all my stuff, as I usually attempt to drop it off first. But the host’s place was too far outside of town to drop my luggage off first. Addis had seized the opportunity and introduced itself to me. But before you get all jiggly, I have expereinced worse. Do go! 😉
I had arrived from Djibouti (a city and country close to the horn of Africa, in case you wonder) which had unexpectedly strong rainfalls for this time of the year. The city was flooded much of the days and it seemed to increase in intensity day by day. People tended to joke that the rainy season was over, pointing upwards to the cloudy and rainy sky.
“Djibouti is probably one of the dirtiest places in Africa. But people are alright”, an Eritrean guest worker stated unexcitedly. I thought to myself, that I had seen quite much in terms of dirt anywhere in the world. Clearly though, Djibouti was able to play ball with any of the other places and kick a lot of asses in the competition for offering the filthiest appearance on the globe. “Shit whole country”, is what a famous modern philosopher notoriously has denominated countries like this, I suppose. Sure enough, people were nice. Nice enough anyhow. I guess. What do I know, I speak no French. 😉
“I make money with everything that is hip at any given time, may it be stocks, online gaming, bitcoin, sport bets, or whatever makes people money”, Bruce from the US said. Bruce is an IT developer who got tired of regular working hours, bosses, hierarchies, and much else that rang familiar to me. “But I do not do it for the money itself. I just want to take time off whenever I decide, and travel”, Bruce explained over a beer, while the rain was pouring down with tropical magnitude.
“I run a lab at a hospital in Denmark”, Thomas explained. “Checking for substances in blood that can help us figure out that someone will become ill from something, long before it actually becomes apparent”. Thomas’ real passion? Traveling of course. Preferably and seemingly exclusively in Africa. Every spare minute he gets, he grabs his always readily packed luggage, that stands in a corner of his house waiting for him and takes off. “What makes you guys long for traveling so much”, I wanted to know. The unexpected, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the exitement. The common motives of course.
Staring at the rain, watching the raindrops heavily hitting the puddles in front of our veranda, with droplets dancing on the surface of the water, we agreed that a life worth living is one that largely needs not be regretted. Sounds trivial. But so often people tell me that waiting to live your dreams until you are a pensioner may be too long a wait. And very much in vain if you are unlucky. Bruce and Thomas seemed very much at peace with their life choices. Maybe just wishing they could travel more. The travel-bug. Once it stings there seems to be no cure.
Djibouti remained somewhat obscure to me. Not just because of the rain. I could not figure it out. And I did not really bother to. What Djibouti was for me was a place that forced me to stand still for some days and reflect. The white noise which the rain produced on the roof of my hut gently accompanied me into sleep. The soft noise of far-away thunder woke me up in the morning. Nothing else to do than reminisce, philosophize, and meditate. A wonderful time out.
I did not see the famous Salt Lake, nor the beaches outside of the city. And I come to the realization more and more that traveling, the longer it is being pursued, is best when done taking things the way they present themselves. This holds true for life in general, Bruce, Thomas and I agreed, it seemed. Another triviality, maybe. What is your passion? Are you willing to surrender to it?
Invitation for dinner at grandmaˋs
Injera is probably the most important word in the Ethiopian language. Injera is a sour dough-based pancake with a spongy texture that is being used to serve close to all ethiopian food on top of. Pieces of injera are broken off with the hand, a piece of food wrapped in it and eaten, obviously. Not necessarily eaten by the person who broke if off though. It is a sign of affection to put food into another person’s mouth with your hand. You can witness politicians and clergy men doing it on the evening news on TV, when being shown inaugurating something or celebrating somewhere. You can witness it life at every restaurant any time of the day, actually. No one fed me. I am just as little popular it seems, as I am upset about not being fed by hand.
I am always envious when I hear that someone somewhere is being invited by locals for food when traveling. It happens rarely to me. Maybe partially because I am often socially awkward (or have been) and shy away from such opportunities. No more! Here I was, invited for dinner! Thanks to my couchsurfing host Andreas.
I was writing with Andreas using a chat app in order to arrange to meet while sitting at the airport waiting for my flight to his city. There was a bit of forth and back in the chat when suddenly a guy turned to me and asked “are you trotting?”. That is a quite intimate question I felt. I am the trotting kind, but being put on the spot like this!? The guy held his phone with my image in front of my face. “That is you, is it not?”. Before I could deny I realized that my nick on couchsurfing is “trotting”. Andreas, who I was chatting with for half an hour or so, sat right next to me. Andreas took me under his wings like a real host. Arranging the transport to his place, let me stay at a great place in his guesthouse for free. Unexpected acts of kindness they call it, I guess.
Furthermore Andreas made sure that I had a great time. Lalibela experienced a water cut for several days due to some chinese construction work going wrong. I restrict myself here to saying this is not the only reason why chinese construction work is hugely unpopular in Ethiopia. Google it. Something to do with what some call modern slavery. Just quoting. Anyhow, Andreas tried to make sure that we got throught this well. It was a reality check of sorts not to have water for a shower for several days. How spoiled we are. Or me.
Andreas said “why pay for food, you eat with us”. The cosy place was just large enough for a bed, a little table for the TV, a small table for eating, and three tiny stools in front of it. Another reality check of sorts. The floor by the entrance, where the coffee was prepared, was decorated with some sort of long leaves, almost like a grass, as it is common in Ethiopia. No matter where you go, will you encounter places decorated with leaves. I cannot really enlighten on the purpose.
In my mind it is of course for people to connect with the habitat they originally are used to. Rather romantic. Rather ignorant too I am sure. Really it may be for the reason that people in Europe cut down whole trees, take them inside, decorate them with lights and colored glas-balls, sing songs in front of it, put presents underneath, and throw it out again. Ask not why they do it, ask why you do it. 😉 You google it and tell me!
The lady of the house served injera, dried and fried meat, fried with some vegetables, and a lot of chilly. The mother in law of my couchsurfing host Andreas had cooked a delicious meal for us. We arrived in the dark and took seat on shallow stools. Andreas had brought his younger brother too. The injera is being served on a large metal plate, on top of which the meat and sauce is being served. We were munching away more or less silently, the evening news playing on the TV.
Immediately left of me the bed of the lady. Immediately right of Andreas the TV with the evening news. His mother in law kept pouring more of the bean based delicious sauce on the injera when she saw the risk of us running out of it.
I had observed how this eating with your hands thing is done. So I copied. With my right hand I broke off some of the injera bread or pancake, dunked it in the sauce, picked some meat, made sure I also had some fried onion and vegetables, squeezed it a bit with my fingers, moved it to my mouth and dropped a healthy amount of it on my pants. Copy that!
“What is the biggest problem in Ethiopia?”, I asked Andreas, looking at a politician type of person on TV who was feeding some other people extremely enthusiastically. I was most amazed by the size of these food parcels. They were big enough to otherwise feed a small family. I concluded that the bigger the affection, the bigger the feed.
It looked almost like the politician on TV was force-feeding his constituency with huge food parcels by hand. Which looked to me rather metaphorical. “Corruption”, he replied. The old enemy, of course. “What can be done about it?”, I wanted to know. “Nothing much. Politicians talk nice, but then take care of only their own tribe, their own family and friends. They enrich themselves and don’t care about the people.” Andreas explained the challenges that Ethiopia faces with ten different ethnicities who do not necessarily get along well with each other.
“And the Nobel Price for the PM for creating peace with Eritrea?”, I asked. Andreas was not impressed. In fact, I did not meet anyone who condoned the nobel prize, it seems. In November atrocities occurred in a part of the country in which dozens of people died. Many people in the north seem to feel that the prime minister is not interested in finding a solution. Or at best being incapable of doing so. “His own people, his government, they do not listen to him”, people explained to me. Why does Ethiopia have this problem with corruption though, I wondered. Andreas felt that it was a problem that encompasses all of Africa. Why? Andreas seemed as clueless as myself. But it sure is a good reason for people to leave the country, he felt.
“Why are you still here?”, I inquired. “I love my country. And I believe I can achieve something here, working in tourism”, Andreas told me. But he also knows a lot of people who have left. He also knows people who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. He also knows people who returned, when they understood that in Europe life is hard in a different way.
“People often have a wrong expectation”, Andreas explained. “They think that it is all very easy in Europe. That you get a job immediately, money, a house, a car.” “That is not at all the case”, I exclaimed. “Of course not!”, Andreas responded. Apparently one of Andreas’ friends has gotten a job as Parking lot guard. They stay in touch. His friend is very happy. He apparently still lives in a refugee home in Germany, and his only complaints are some of the other nationalities around in this home. Multicultural problems. All cultures are equal. But not necessarily compatible, it seems from an Ethiopian perspective. Or maybe that is a general fact?
Andreas is fully aware that his friend may be a positive exception. And he is also sure that on some level his friend misses Ethiopia. But without education, without job, without money, and in some cases even with not enough food, a refugee home in Germany can be a good alternative to a shed – if even that – in Ethiopia, Andreas said. I did see people sleeping in the street mid-day on a daily basis. Often covered with a thin cloth, lying alongside the stray dogs who run around all night and sleep all day. “Even though a refugee shelter is quite a shitty place. It tells you something about how desperate some people are to change their life that they have in Ethiopia.
I was wondering what Andreas felt Europe could do to help. Certainly not take up all people who want to have a better life, he stated. It is a no brainer to me too. Brain drain is just one aspect. It also will not work financially of course. “But definitely help some people of course”, he said. Donating money? I asked. It was the first time I heard the story of self-enriching organizations from Europe from an Ethiopian. But it was not at all the only time I heard about it. So, what to do? I left the tasty dinner after having a delicious coffee, but without more wisdom on how to help people in Africa.
Coffee in Ethiopia is not just a drink. People have it all the time, but time it takes. Often times the coffee is ground freshly and even roasted on the spot. The presentation takes centre stage. A little table with plenty of artfully decorated cups is being cleaned while the water is brought to a boil over a coal fire that has been prepared especially for the purpose of boiling coffee. The freshly roasted and ground coffee powder is put into a special pot, mixed with the boiling water and let rest for a long time. After the coffee is being served to the guest one can observe that the coffee pot if being refilled with remaining coffee, and heated over a coal fire again. The strength of coffee increases thereby. of course The coffee is frequently flavoured. Sometimes with an herb (called Tena Dam) I had never seen before, that adds a strong herbal flavour and is said to be beneficial to the stomache. The procedure takes probably ten minutes or so. What I liked was that people do come together for a chat over a cup. Waiting time ultimately is not a drawback therefore but rather welcome. And if being asked to share a cup of coffee it is often a genuine offer to have an easy going chat. I had some of the best and genuine encounters over a spontaneous cup of coffee. My humble advice, if people yell out over the street to you “let us have a coffee!”, just take the offer. Enjoy.
Do you speak English?
One of the first actions in a country with notoriously bad internet is to buy data for my phone. This allowed me to change to notoriously bad mobile data, since Ethiopia is on 3G level. But I am not complaining. Or maybe I am. But such is traveling. Spoiled again.
To get mobile internet I go to the only place in town where SIM cards are being offered. There are two people in front of me, and two clerks – one male and one female – are on shift. The silent atmosphere is only disturbed by an occasional click of a paper clipper, and some keyboard clicks. People speak quietly, almost whispering. Two more people enter the spacious room and inspect me thoroughly. It is not my turn yet. Still whispering and clicking. Every time the lady-clerk asks the customer a question her voice goes up at the end of the sentence so extremely, that it reminds me of a guinea pig squealing. I am damn allergic against the little critters, but their squealing sounds are probably amongst the most adorable sounds you can encounter. The situation fills me with profound calmness. And I am hoping for customers that cause a lot of questioning.
The smell of the warm earth entering the office from outside reaches my nose. A comforting smell. Of growth, of summer (mind you this is Ethiopian winter). The large office doors are completely open, letting some rays of sunlight in that shine and glimmer on the marble like floor in the otherwise unlit room. Time is on my side. There is no place I have to be, other than this place, here and now. I just take in all soothing phenomena that my senses present to me. My thoughts drift. Maybe they are not really thoughts. Just brief sparks of images, connections to experiences that glow up and vanish again as quickly as they came. Occasionally a thought wants to grab onto me, but I let it go.
It is my turn now. English is not as widely spoken in Ethiopia as I had hoped. But with some gesturing things work out fine usually. I amaze myself with my acting skills at times to get what I require. I try to explain what I need; the lady tries to explain what they have. But either they have data plans so complex that they rival NASA’s telemetry calculations for a mission to Mars, or we have a language problem. A couple of people enter the room, one of them speaking perfect sounding American English, and they disappear again. Briefly Ithink that they could be of help. I struggle to comprehend what she tries to explain to me. My ZEN-like state is being eaten up by the reality of my desire to achieve an end. The good thing is that no one here even remotely complains that I am spending 15 minutes or more without much result. No one gives me the feeling that a result is actually compulsory. I briefly think of Germany.
Other people in the room try to help out, but to little avail. I realize that they have no nano-SIM which I will need for my phone. The male clerk, who has now joined us, tells me that I can cut the SIM to the right size. But I am afraid to disable it that way, so I ask the clerk to do it for me. He may be declining, maybe he does not understand me. The people from before, with the one who spoke perfect sounding American English, enter the room again. He must help me I think to myself. “You speak English, right?”, I ask him. “Yes, I do”, he answers in perfect sounding American English.
I explain my misery in full length and ask him: “Can you please tell them that they should cut the SIM for me?” “No problem!”, he reassures me in perfect sounding American English. He looks sternly at the clerk. “Dude, you gotta cut the SIM for him!”, he says in perfect sounding American English. I look at him in disbelieve. I realize the perfect sounding American English is indeed just that: American English. He speaks as much Amharic as I do. He is just that, American. So much for judging a book by its cover.
The safety dance
Traditional dance in some touristic places is presented rather than lived. What I mean is that it only exists for the tourists. It is a show. After ending up in such a place I decided to go on with a local whom I had just asked where a cool bar could be found, longing for a more authentic experience. And for more beer of course. He took me to a place where he and his friends apparently hang out regularly.
Some shoe boxes have been manufactured larger than this place I am sure. Everyone dancing to local music. Laughing and being silly. The beer is flowing. The dance section of the ministry of silly walks would have had to expand their compendium. Exactely my kind of place. I decided to join the dancing activity, which was a sign that the honey wine I had enjoyed in the tourist place was actually much stronger than the taste of it would let on!
Everyone was cheering me on and tried to show me the local moves. In Ethiopia people mostly dance with their shoulders and upper body. In fact, they do not dance like in other parts of Africa at all. In short, I would say it is the European version of African dances, which suited me quite well. There is no dry humping as they call it in Kenia. Pros and cons my friends, pros and cons.
I struggled with getting my motor-skills under control nonetheless. To my relieve, folks eventually started to copy some of my moves, when I had finally given up on being able to shake my shoulders appropriately. Maybe out of pitty. I want to believe out of admiration. What they did not know is that I could be banned from European dance floors for the lameness of my moves. But hey, lame in one country, a national hero in another! Pros and cons my friends, pros and cons.
After shaking it well we hung out in front of the place on what one could possibly call a veranda, right by the dirt road. Many people walking by joined us. I was rather certain that I was the only “Ferendji” or foreigner roaming the streets at night with his new friends. My new friends keenly reported of my dancing with them to the new arrivals. Probably it is good I did not understand everything they said about me. We moved on to one, two or three other places. Always the same size of place, similar music (not bad, mind you!). And eventually I was maneuvered back to my room.
Is it dangerous I hear you ask, to hang out like that with strangers? My new friends warned me not to talk to certain folks who came to me. I was wondering if I had just coincidently met the right crew or if the other guys would have told me the same in reverse had I happened to bump into them first? One thing that occurred to me repeatedly though is that people seemed eager to take care of me. They made sure I get home for instance by walking me to my door. This may have been a function of the bunch of beer I handed out beforehand. However, the appreciation that a foreigner not only wants to visit their churches, but also the local club with them, seemed genuine.
Cray-cray Scottish castle
“Who had the idea to build this?”, I inquired. The crazy looking place has become a tourist attraction in its own right. A weirdly shaped restaurant with a plentitude of balconies and porches allowing a wonderful sunset view down the mountains. The Scottish lady who is the owner explained that she was an English teacher in Ethiopia just before she became a pensioner. Instead of going back to Europe she decided to build the restaurant, which had been designed by Ethiopians, with a local partner.
“I figured, I could sit in the cold UK, or just be here”, she explained. Over 70 years old now she did not look as if she felt that she had taken the wrong decision. “I was the last generation of teachers who still get a pension! Mind you, as small one. But here it is sufficient”, she continued. Her obligation nowadays is to act as the mother of the place. Making sure that everyone gets their food and is content.
The tasty food is very fairly priced. She is not after the money, that much is obvious. I had full lunch and dinner including drinks at her restaurant for about seven Euros. And when she says she can live off her pension I would not be surprised if she has to, because the restaurant with its many, many employees does not necessarily turn a profit. It may also be a way to give back to the local people who she obviously has become to love. In exchange she apparently got something that makes her radiate a calm happiness, and enables her to wear a near constant smile. Not a bad deal, it seems to me.
Extreme chills that seem to come from deep inside of your body, followed by sweating and feeling extremely hot and sweaty, nausea to the point of vomiting and strong headaches are signs of malaria. of course these things are also signs of many other diseases. When I got these symptoms Iwas not sure what was going on of course. I felt that the smart decision was to get some sleep and see what the next day would bring.
The onset of the symptoms was extremely sudden. Since digestive issues were not that extreme and I did not really feel like having a food related infection I became a little bit concerned. I felt drained and fell asleep imediately in the early evening. Waking up in the middle of the night I felt very hot and sweaty but the rest of the symptoms except the headache had basically disappeared. Relieved and yet confused I fell aslep again.
I felt this is very untypical for stomach related illnesses. Food poisoning was basically to be excluded. An infection would be much more drawn-out as well of course. I did know that malaria symptoms can disappear almost as quickly as they appear and then reappear twenty-four to forty-eight hours later. Malaria is rare in Ethiopia, but coming from Djibouti, where mosquitos had tortured me, since no net was available, I was slightly concerned. Knowing that malaria is quite well treatable if cought early Ifelt I should check it out.
My self-assessment is of course nothing to base a diagnosis on. So when I arrived in Gondar I asked the host of my hostel if he could bring me to the hospital for a check-up. Abraham, who was a chef in Italy trying to get an extension on his visa immediately took me to the hospital and we arranged to see a doctor.
The whole procedure cost me 50 cent’s and the doctor was quite convinced that I have not contracted malaria. That was a relief to hear and at the same time I still wish to know what actually occurred that night. How could my immunsystem handle a food based infection in three hours? Yeay immune system Iguess!? The positive side effect was that I had enough time to talk to Abraham and upon receiving the good news we decided to go and have dinner together. Him being a chef gave us much to talk about of course, considering my interest in cooking.
For Abraham the challenge is of course the work visa for Europe. He has met some guys from Berlin (Germany, for my US friends) who offered him work as well. But of course also there to work a visa must be in place before taking up any job there. It drives home the fact that it is a real challenge for anyone from Africa to get work and maintain work abroad even if they are gifted in something or have a qualification that is sought for.
Dancing queen in Gondar
Going out together the next evening I met friends of Abraham. His friend Kedir and him got into a conversation which is the bigger problem in Africa. Triggered by my inquiries of course. Is it a lack of education or the the widespread corruption? I had the impression that in the end there was some agreement that the funding fom more education would be in place without the corruption.
“He has been to prison”, Abraham stated, noding in Kedir’s direction. Taking a sip from his bottle of beer. We sat in a little pub, as they are typical in Ethiopia, with not much more than a christmas -ike of lights and some makeshift bar in a corner.
Some plastic chairs around the room were enough for us to lounge and and start a conversation. Surprisingly cosy. Making me think once more that it takes close to nothing to get together. The local beer in hand we cheered looking forward to spending a pleasant evening together.
“He has been a refugee but he got caught”, Abraham added. “What exactly happened?”, I inquired. “Well I have been managing to scrape the money together to take a boat from Libya to Italy”, Kedir explained. “After a short time the Italian police caught me in the Streets and send me back to Libya. There they put me in jail for half a year.”
“It must have been very toughen prison”, I asked rather rhetorically. Kedir nodded. I felt foolish. What are good questions, I was wondering. Kedir restricted his report to very general descriptions. The prison was very rough and apparently the guards were anything but compassionate. I was curious to hear more. But I also did not dare to ask.
“When they finally sent me back to Ethiopia,” Kedir continued, “I started a chicken farm”. Apparently his farm is doing pretty well. He now owns cars, equipment and land. He even thinks about building a Lodge on the grounds that he just bought from the government. Kedir had a big smile on his face. “I don’t want to leave Ethiopia anymore”, he explained.
Kedirˋs experience highlights why some refugees from Africa are trying to reach Europe. Live can seem very hopeless for young people there. Why not leave the country? Anything seems better than what they have at home. It is very understandable that you must not be starving necessarily in order to look for a better life. Being young and full of energy and driven to achieve something in your life can be motivation enough.
Thinking of the policies of the left party in Germany I used to ask Ethiopians if it was a good idea to abolish borders altogether. This is a not so secret dream of myself obviously. Although my personal nuisance with borders admitedly is a minute one, having to do with visas, not life threatening issues. Over the years I have grown sceptical of the idea though. I was somewhat surprised that noone I have met in Ethiopia thought that abolishing borders was a great idea.
People do have the wish to advance their country. And although many told me they would leave in a heartbeat if they could get a work visa, most would prefer to find work in their own country. No surprise really. Sad is only the consternation with which most tol me this. Not having much hope that they would live to experience change in their own country any time soon.
Again, I was wondering and asking many people what Europe can do to help. And what they feel about the stream of refugees reaching Europe. Can offering refugees a Home in Europe be a solution for Africa? Of course, that is a rhetorical question in light of the aforementioned.
We changed premises and went to a classical dancing place. So we also exchanged the heavy topics for the more lighthearted things in life. I had a blast that night. We also frequented nightclubs and I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the partying scene in Gondar. I can very honestly say however that I have not learnt how to dance Ethiopian style. Work in progress. Or as my mom put it: It can be expanded upon.
But then again what are solutions?
I’m afraid again I cannot give any answers. It would be surpsising if I could. But maybe I was hoping that talking to the people who are actually affected would enlighten me. People like the idea of course that education in order to achieve something in their own country is beneficial. But people seem to also agree that education without jobs in their home countries would just drive people even more to leave the country, seeking opportunities matching their level of qualification elsewhere.
One of my taxi drivers who was just finished with his studies in civil engineering explained to me that his education was paid for by the state as a loan. But he cannot leave the country until he has paid back the loan, he explained. At the same time of course people will leave illegally trying their luck elsewhere.
This contradicts one of the main narratives I encounter repeatedly in Europe. The narrative is that people who leave not for economical reasons. I did some googling to understand the issue better. I learned that even in situations where people are displaced due to conflict between ethnic groups or natural disaster, poverty is still an important aspect.
People with enough funding are able to stay in the country and maintain a decent level of living standard, nonetheless. People with a lack of resources to start over have no foundation to maintain a living in their own country after being replaced due to conflict or natural disaster. This aspect is quite underestimated I feel in the discussion in the west. Maybe in a globilized world we have to rethink poverty? Fortunately poverty is decreasing globaly. However, if you sat in a country, with little opportunity to get your living standard to anywhere close to the west, which you can easily see in all sorts of media as a shining beacon, would you not want to leave, given the opportunity?
In conclusion, after talking to people on my trip I have come to the conviction that poverty is the main problem in the equation of producing refugees. And the fundament of poverty in Africa seems to be mostly down to corruption. Unless we become fully aware of this connection we may be addressing the problem in the wrong way in Europe.
The answer to the question what Europe can do you may wonder? There never is a clear answer it seems. Stop collaborating with African leaders who are corrupt? Help people help themselves? Does it not sound very vague and cliché? Sorry for getting deep on you here. 😉
Sneaky old man
“Do you have children?”. That is probably one of the most common questions I have gotten in Ethiopia. Aside from “Hello Mr Money?”, “Welcome, where are you from?”, and “Do you want a coffee?”. This time I was sitting on a local bus without non-Ethiopian people on board. They had put me in the front so I could stretch my legs. An elderly gentleman was placed next to me, who struck up the conversation with the aforementioned question.
The bus was quickly filling up with people and we were about to leave. “No children”, I answered”. Are you sure everything is alright?”, he inquired. He formed a fist with his right hand, his arm and stretched out and slapping his right arm with his left hand. “Everything firm?”, he asked. The bus erupted in slightly embarrassed laughter.
Apparently encouraged by the reaction of the fellow passengers he added another overly personal question. “Is it big enough?”, this time stretching out his right arm even more ambitiously. Slapping it again. Even harder this time. His candor was welcomed by the spectators on the bus and rather amusing to me. I laughed and insisted on taking a photograph with him, which he resisted in the beginning.
When he looked at the photograph he gestured to throw the phone away and explain something to the surounding folks. Apparently he did not like the way he looked. He felt he was looking too old. I was surprised to learn that he was only 60 years old. I was thinking that life must be quite a bit harder than in Germany where he lived. However, I felt that the photographs were actually beautiful. Stll, I could barely stop him from deleting them.
He explained to me that he is poor and he needs food. There are always people selling things on the bus so I offered to buy him something. I usually refain from doing so, but felt compelled to make an exception. Unfortunately the things on offer were nuts and other things that require a full set of teeth. He gestured at his missing teeths and explained that this was not the right kind of food for him. We agreed that I would buy him a lemonade. The lemonade, a Fanta, was three times the price of any food on offer. 50 cents.
The ride was about 20 km. It took us roughly one and a half hour to get there. It was a very entertaining ride for sure. Of course that was why I took the local bus. Most tourists would of course take a mini bus that transports only tourists. However, I had time, I felt like hanging with the locals, and I was in search for an alternative to the typical tourist way of doing things. Even getting the ticket was a bit of an adventure. Running around with many people yelling at me trying to sell a ticket. To make it short, what I love about Ethiopia is that laughing and a big smile gets you very far.
And answering loudly. I felt that yelling back: “And how are YOU?!”, ensured big smiles. I started to live these silly interactions.
When I was lost or frustrated I often resorted to laughing out of reflex. Mostly about my own incapability not peaking the language and the resulting bizarreness of the situation. It is heartwarming how well this resonates with people. I may have a very myopic tourist view of course, but it felt as if people love taking such situations with humour. I want to believe that – sadly of course – people are well trained in it.
After being bugged with the same questions by everyone over and over again I discovered that humor is always a good advisor. “Hello Mister!”, was best answered with “where are you from?” equally forcefully. I felt sorry for me sometimes reacting annoyed previously, when all it took was reacting slightly unexpectedly to tease out a laughter. I did not have the energy to do so in every situation.
Human decency and a bit of humor goes a long way. I mostly say this because I observed tourists, often coming in groups, who seemed intimidated by locals, almost running away from the situation, while all it would have taken to enjoy the encounter was to act humane.
Sure. I am the better human. Not at all. Well, yes. But that is not the point here. 😉 But I again learned that the interaction in a situation that is arguably quite disparate between people meeting in many ways by definition is best resolved by thinking simple and kind.
I regress. Back to the bus.
I got into a conversation with a construction worker. He had just divorced his 20 years younger wife, after she had been cheating on him. He had been working over time in order to fulfill her financial wishes. Mabe his absence was instrumental in her seeking someone else? Ironic, if so. Anyhow.
He had to sell his house in order to pay her off after the divorce. Stories like these sound extremely familiar and apparently it does not matter in which country they happen. The struggles and daily worries of people are apparently the same in most places. That being said, there were plenty of people on the bus who could not even dream of ever owning a house.
I was thinking about buying my new old friend next ot me some more treats besides a lemonade, when people on the bus explained to me that I had been duped. My beautiful friend apparently owns a large farm and a lot of land. He is far away from being poor. While people explain this to me he signals them to shut up. “I have told the foreigner that I’m poor so he would buy me things”, he explained with a huge smile, as I was told.
Before he left the bus we performed the typical hugging procedure common in Ethiopia and I waved goodbye from the bus window to him as we went on. Learnt another lesson about books and covers. To my defense, the covers look very different in Ethiopia to what I am used to.
Winding down in Axum
Ethiopian houses one of the archaeological remains of a a civilization that is seldomly mentioned, when discussing the big civilizations of the antiquity. Nevertheless some argue that the kingdom of Axum (Aksum) is one of the crucial civilizations and should be mentioned alongside for example the Greeks or Romans. I know close to nothing about it. As little as I could argue for or against the assumption that the garden of Eden was in Ethiopia.
Wait, is that not a concept in this book that also claims – and I quote from a reliable source – that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree?
At this part of the travels I I was questioning if I am really that interested in visiting more tourist sites. I am still in the process of discovering a new style of travelling, as I have mentioned before. I am not quite sure yet what is new style will entail.
It feels as if though I will interact more with local people and maybe just do “stuff” that local people would do. Looking back on the weeks of traveling behind me I realise that it is often times not required to see a lot of things. The small encounters that I have had with people are often the experiences that make the biggest impressions on me.
P.S. Why is the blog header “Checkered Ethiopia”? Someone told me that Ethiopians are not black or white, they consider themseves checkered. I liked it, without knowing if this is a common thing. My Ethiopian friends are welcome to comment… 😉
P.P.S. I apologize to my ethiopian friends in advance for the naive narrative and representation of their country which I love dearly (my disclaimer). Bare with me. 😉
P.P.P.S. For more nonsensical dancing videos visit my youtube channel.
P.P.P.P.S. I realized that something went wrong with the upload of the images. Too much work to fix it. You will see the best stuff in the album I will upload shortly.