Wow! My heart is full of the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of Ethiopia. So full, I feel almost ready to burst. It’s been a good – very good – day.
This morning, when I awoke from a surprisingly good sleep (that homeopathic “no jetlag” pill that Stu gave me seems to have worked!) I realized that, as much as I love stepping off the airplane (or train or car) in a new country, even more than that I like waking up in one. The first day is often a little overwhelming in its intensity. Everything feels foreign – you don’t know who to trust, you don’t know how to catch a cab, you don’t know how to say “no thank you” to the dozens of people who want you to buy their wares, and you don’t even have a familiar room to hide in when the unfamiliarity gets to be too much. On top of that, you’re suffering from jetlag or just plain tiredness from traveling, and your emotions feel a little close to the surface.
By the next morning, however, if you’re lucky enough to have had a good night’s sleep, the world looks full of possibilities and promise. By then, there is some safety in the room where you’ve laid your head, you’ve had a brief opportunity to learn some of the crucial cultural do’s and don’ts, and you feel so much more prepared to see the foreignness as opportunity rather than obstacle.
This morning, I ventured out onto the streets alone. I’d been told that there was a market within walking distance, and I headed in that direction. As soon as I’d set foot outside of the hotel complex, however, I was joined by Solomon, who told me he worked at the hotel laundry and was out for a stroll and wondered if he could join me. Having had enough experience traveling in places similar to this one in the past, I knew that Solomon’s interest in joining me was not strictly for a friendly stroll. I wasn’t sure what he was after, but I had a pretty good hunch he would offer to show me the sights, maybe help me find my way to the market, and then hope to be paid for his efforts. At first, I was wary, but after chatting with him for awhile, I decided to trust him to help me find my way. After all, it seemed easier to navigate the streets with a local person at my side than alone. At least with him beside me, it was easier to say no to beggars, enterprising salespeople, and/or people offering a taxi or bus ride.
That’s one of the things I have a hard time getting used to in developing countries – especially in the cities. Because of the lack of employment and the intensity of poverty, people have to become resourceful in order to support themselves and their families. Some turn to begging and many hock their wares wherever they can find a willing customer. A white person – particularly one walking alone and looking distinctly like a visitor – is a prime target. Everywhere you go, someone is hoping you’ll be willing to part with your money. Walk down a short street, and you’ll be approached by small children with sob stories about their parents both being dead as well as several dozen people wanting to sell you paintings or crafts or fruit or any number of things. Most of them are quite aggressive too – following you down the street and insisting that you stop. In areas where poverty is particularly intense, you see a desperation in their eyes. I find it rather exhausting. I suppose if you lived here, you’d become somewhat immune to it, but in my short visits, it often feels overwhelming.
Anyway – back to Solomon, my personal guide to the market place. He was very pleasant, and he told me many stories of Addis Ababa and himself. If his story is truthful (and I have no reason to believe it’s not, but some of it might have been a story to get me to trust him and be generous to him), he’s studying to be an artist. While he studies, he does laundry at the hotel. But they don’t pay him - they only provide food and lodging. He has a girlfriend, but he cannot marry her until he has a steady income and her family is satisfied that he can provide for her.
Solomon took me to what he called the “student market”. Apparently, the handicrafts sold there raise money to support the student artists who make them. He showed me some of his paintings, and I liked one of them enough to buy it. I also bought some beautiful silver jewelry. Oh my! There is so much beautiful local art, jewelry and textiles! I could come home with a boat-load!
We didn’t make it past that store (since I already spent more money than I’d planned to today). When we were done there, he took me back to the hotel aboard the most common local transportation – a small bus/van that they pack full of so many people it feels like the sides will burst open. When we parted, I was a little surprised at the amount of money he asked for – I gave him a lower sum which was still VERY generous. Not surprisingly, we parted ways before reaching the hotel. I suspect he doesn’t actually work for the hotel, but that he used that bit of information to get me to trust him.
For lunch, I had my first serving of injera, the local food. It’s a pancake-like bread that they put a variety of stews and sauces on and you tear a piece off to wrap around the bite of food you want to eat. I quite like it, though I’m horribly messy and use up a lot of napkins.
After lunch, Azeb, the administrative assistant at our Ethiopian office, picked me up to give me a tour of the city. First we drove up Entoto (sp?) mountain where there is a museum, St. Mary’s church, and the rather plain palace of a former emperor. We hired a tour guide and took a tour of the buildings and grounds. One thing I’ve learned fairly quickly is that Ethiopia is steeped in ancient history that dates back to Biblical times, and the people feel a great pride for their history. Everyone talks about the Queen of Sheba, who gave birth to one of King Solomon’s sons who grew up and took the Ark of the Covenant away from Israel and carried it to Ethiopia. Apparently, the Ark is still here in Ethiopia, though no one is ever allowed to see it anymore.
After the mountain (which was a bit of an interesting, steep, white-knuckle climb) we visited the cathedral. The orthodox church is very strong in Ethiopia. Depending on who you talk to, either 60 or 80 percent of Ethiopians are Christians, and of those, 90 percent are Orthodox. The other 20 to 40 percent are Islamic. While we were at the cathedral, worship was in process, so we got to sit and watch and listen to the worship. Most of the service, including the reading of the holy book, is done in a melodic, sing-song voice that sounds somewhat like the Islamic call to prayer. It was quite moving sitting there in a beautiful church listening to the people worship.
Azeb brought me back to the hotel, and I went down to the restaurant for supper. Though I usually enjoy eating alone when I travel, after a few days of it, I was feeling rather lonely tonight. After 2 full intense days, I really wanted someone to talk to and share my food with. But I had no-one, so once again, I ate alone. I was beginning to wish that, instead of a hotel I’d stayed at a guest house where people tend to eat together and have more communal spaces in which to strike up conversations.
Just as I was eating my fruit salad for dessert, God must have decided to answer the prayer I didn’t really pray, and sent some people to keep me company. What a pleasant surprise! First I chatted with a young girl whose precociousness made me lonesome for Maddie. Then I struck up a conversation with her mom. Frey grew up in Ethiopia but moved to Portland 10 years ago. This was her first visit back to Ethiopia since she left. She was dining with her brother Samson who still lives in Ethiopia. Recognizing that I might be lonely, they invited me to eat with them. I carried my dessert over to their table, and very quickly knew that I’d found just the right friendly, gracious people to take the edge off my loneliness. They were so gracious in fact, that they not only paid for my meal, but invited me to join them at a local night club where we could see cultural dancing and music.
We shared a bottle of wine at the Dos Abyssimia and it proved to be a magical evening. We watched the dancing and enjoyed comfortable conversation. Little Helen danced for us, and before long, fell asleep in her mother’s lap. We ate lamb goulash (once again with injera), and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to pass the evening. They wouldn't let me pay for the wine but once again insisted on treating me. It was their way of welcoming me into their country, they said.
Wow! What hospitality! It makes me want to search out lonely foreigners visiting my country and make them feel as welcome as I was made to feel tonight. Unfortunately, in North America, we’re too often wary of strangers and not often enough open and gracious.
After a full day, I look forward to another good night’s sleep. As I lay my head down tonight, most of you are in the middle of your day. It’s eleven thirty here, but at home, it’s 2:30 in the afternoon.