Sirens and scams in Ethiopia – Part ፪

Now I pride myself on being an aware traveler and realize the majority of the people so overtly approaching me on the street in not so wealthy countries have motives ulterior of pure friendship.   However the wonders of Ethiopian hospitality has been stressed to me many times past, and I had no reason to suspect this situation was anything but.  At any rate Isaias worked at the hotel, had not mentioned anything about money or anything else out of the ordinary thus far, and generally passed my personal gut-check of a vetting process.

So we continued walking, stopping at a few phone kiosks.  Isaias would say a few sentences to them in Amharic that extended beyond my 20 word vocabulary, but nothing would happen and we would leave.  It seemed like he was genuinely trying, but despite how easy I had heard it was to get a phone unlocked in Addis, was not meeting much success.

We made a left at a major roundabout that I had remembered from my walk home from the airport.  I was now truly in unchartered waters, the place looked a bit more residential.  We kept walking farther away from what I knew so I felt compelled to make sure the coffee shop was not too far away, as I had limited time.  Isaias reassured me that it was just up the road.

Isaias greeted someone on the road and right after we entered a residential courtyard.  I was a bit confused as to why we were not at some café, but followed him in regardless.  There were two pretty girls dressed in ‘traditional’ clothing standing in the courtyard.  We greeted them as we entered, they seemed happy to see us and even spoke to me a bit in broken English.  We went inside and greeted an older lady before sitting down on a couch.  This was not quite the café I had expected, but assumed it was prolly Isaias’s house.  I reasoned that we must have become such good friends that he bestowed upon me the ultimate honor of inviting me into his home instead!  I mean, who doesn’t become such good friends with me within 10 minutes of engrossing mind-altering conversation (typically about cell phone logistics)?  I must just be that good at relating to Africans, even after nearly 5 years out of the game.  Thus were the self-inflating thoughts running through my mind at this point of time, taking the place of the arousing suspicions that should be been present instead.

We sat down the couch and now there were three girls standing next to us, swaying from side to side.  An older man in a lab coat also came out and greeted me.  Isaias’s father?  The chemist?

It must’ve been when the girls did not sit on the couch but instead remained standing that made me a bit curious.  The lab coat did not really help matters either.  I felt compelled to be reassured, so I turned to Isaias and asked “is this your house? Is that your mother?”  To his credit and perhaps ultimately folly, he truthfully replied “no, this is the place where we can drink coffee and see the girls dance.”  Alarms bells finally shrieked throughout my brain and flashes of the ‘siren scam’ text from the Lonely Planet appeared vividly in front of me.  I realized I was in that exact situation, how on earth had that happened?   It was obvious, a polite well-dressed young male approached me, invited me to coffee, and took me to a house.  It was all so textbook and I couldn’t believe that is where I found myself at that very moment in this world.

I immediately decided I needed to get out.  I had two choices – I was seated at the outer end of the couch near the door and was in a position to make a run for it, or I could try to somehow leave in a more polite and less blatant manner.  If I failed at one I couldn’t really do the other and would probably be in an even worse situation, as my intentions to get the hell out of there would be well known.

I turned to Isaias and attempted to calmly explain that I had to go, I had no time and needed to call a friend I was going to meet soon.  He pulled out his phone so I could make the call and not have to leave, but I firmly, yet politely insisted I had to go to a telecenter to do it.  Isaias’s was resisting, he replied “you don’t even have 10 minutes for coffee?”  I continued and made motions of getting up.  Isaias, to my surprise, said ok.  I quickly got up, thanked the not-so-smiley-anymore girls, and exited the courtyard without looking back.  Isaias followed me out.

I had fully expected there to me some sort of showdown and much more aggressive resistance to my leaving.  I was certain I was going to be held against my will until I paid an exorbitant sum to secure my exit.  A scene was going to erupt, this was going to take time, and Christine would not even know where I disappeared to.  I did not even have that much money on my person – I had no idea how it was really going to go down but I expected the worst.  But now that I was out, I wasn’t going to think twice about it.  I quickly turned to Isaias once we were about 10 yards from the courtyard, thanked him and said I would go back now and find a telecenter.  I expected him to resist further, follow and harass me as I attempted to get back onto the main road as quickly as possible.

He asked me if I knew the way, then asked “something for me,” and for “for the entrance.”  I knew that code but wasn’t going to give him anything.  I said “I can’t, I don’t have that much.”  To which he bluntly got to the core of the matter by asking, “Ok, how much do you have? 100 birr for the entrance.” (I had left with the idea of unlocking my phone and buying a SIM card, he surely knew I had some money on me).  I again politely but firmly resisted, and called his bluff.   “Ok, well I’ll get you back at the hotel when I see you there.”  He relented at that comment, and I quickly turned to walk in the other direction, saying “ok I’ll see you back at the hotel next time.”

I walked as quickly as I could to the main road, recounting what had just happened.  I could not believe I fell victim to such a naïve practice, but also could not believe I had gotten out of there unscathed.  It could’ve been much, much worse.  I had no recourse once I had entered the house, had they chosen to ‘block’ my exit.  I had not phone to call, no one knew where I was, and in fact I didn’t even really know anyone. As I made my hurriedly made my way back, I was paranoid the entire time that Isaias would be following me, or call some people to come ‘get’ or mug me.  He was reaching for his phone as I left, but luckily I made it back to the main road rather quickly and seemingly with no tails.

On the way back I felt so pathetic and duped.  How could I have been so silly, was I really that long out of the game?  I began replaying the incident in my head to see where I went wrong and came to the conclusion that Isaias prolly did not work for my hotel at all.  He seemingly knew some pertinent details, but in reality he mentioned nothing specifically at all about the place I was staying at and very well could have made the whole thing up.  The ‘tall Swiss couple’ comment was the most convincing, but really I had no idea if there were any tall Swiss people in Ethiopia or elsewhere, ‘twas impossible to verify (Note: I left the next day and stayed at a different hotel upon my return, but I did not see Isaias there afterwards).

I was near the hotel now and realized I was completely empty handed.  How was I going to explain this to ‘sleeping beauty,’ how incompetent did I look?  I passed by a small child selling toilet paper, I figured I might as well buy some to demonstrate I accomplished something at least.  So I acquired a roll, made it back home, attempted to explain the fruits of my past hour – that is, why I left with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone, but returned with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone and an unwarranted roll of toilet paper.  The whole thing made me realize I sorely need more travel ‘practice.’  Good thing it was just the first day of our two week journey, there was nowhere to go but up (or out, the next time I fall for such a silly scam)!

Note: while I did manage to conduct the toilet paper transaction more or less in crappy Amharic, salvaging some sort of dignity, we never once had to open it over the course of the trip.  Another great victory indeed.

Sirens and scams in Ethiopia – Part ፩

I truly enjoy being in Africa and plan on returning at some point to spend a good chunk of my life there.  After nearly 2.5 years with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso I also pride myself on being comfortable there and able to navigate the chaos.  However my first full day in Ethiopia reminded me that after not setting foot on the continent for 4.5 years, I was sorely out of practice.

I was staying in Addis Ababa for a night, before heading up north to see the sights of Ethiopia.  My girlfriend had arrived on an overnight flight that morning and wanted to take a nap in the afternoon, giving me a chance to wander around on my own for a bit.  We had an old locked cellphone and wanted to change that, thus giving me a mission of sorts.  It was a Sunday afternoon and many stores were closed, meaning I might have to venture a ways from our hotel.  Sounded like good fun to me.

The Lonely Planet book for Ethiopia (or as many Ethiopians referred to it as the ‘foreigners bible), has a little cutout box titled the ‘Siren Scam,’ that oddly enough Christine had focused upon while flipping through earlier that morning.  While trying to avoid plagiarism, the basic idea goes like this: a nicely dressed young male would approach a tourist, and make friendly small talk.  The tourist would be exuberant to connect on a personal level with a ‘local’ and relish the opportunity to expand this nascent friendship.  The young gentleman would then invite the tourist for a cup of coffee and to see the ‘traditional’ ceremony behind the process.  The tourist would quickly take up the idea, the two would go off to a house, coffee would be drunken, ceremonies would be performed, and everyone would live happily ever after in eternal bliss.  That is of course until matters turns to business, in which the young, well dressed gentlemen who befriended said tourist would not be so gentlemanly.  Demands upwards of 1000 birr would be demanded for what the tourist thought was pure hospitality (note: an average cup of coffee in Ethiopia can run about 5 birr, or less than 30 cents).  The tourist would be trapped at in a bad situation, and basically be forced to ‘pay’ his or her way out.  A nice introduction into the Ethiopian hospitality of Addis if there was one (Note: 13 out of every 11 people I wound up interacting with in Ethiopia were just like people I met everywhere – super nice, friendly, helpful, and politely willing to ignore my lack of knowledge regarding the deodorant-al arts).  Anyways I dismissed the text as being for ‘inexperienced’ travelers and not people like me – I would never fall victim to such an obvious scam given my years of experience, and thus did not need to pay much attention to it.

That side note aside, I set out from our hotel, wandering aimlessly in the direction of the airport.  After about a block (I made it real far) a man who had been walking parallel to me suddenly noticed my presence and turned his head.  He smiled and asked “do you remember me?  I am working at the hotel.”  Now when I arrived at my hotel the previous night there was a crowd of about 8 Ethiopians hanging out in the courtyard.  It was dark and I did not take note of everyone’s appearance, but rather just talked to the manager and got the key to my room.  So while I did not recognize this young man, I also did not want to offend him by making him aware of that fact.  Thus I deftly ignored his question, but rather asked how he was doing and struck up that low key general friendly conversation that I am known for (Note: “dinosaurs” was the fourth word of my mouth, proceeded by a “do you like?”).

Turns out his name was Isaias and he was on his day off, walking in the same direction I was.  He asked if I had come with the tall Swiss couple, to which I replied I was unaware neutral people were allowed to grow above a neutral size and expressed that someone should prolly do something about that.  Moving quickly on, I asked how long he had been working at the hotel and he said two and a half years.  I feigned impression, saying two years was a long time.  He corrected me, reminding that it was “two and a half years.”  At any rate he seemed legit enough and connected to the hotel, so I felt a level of trust and confided in him my mission.

I told him I needed to unlock my phone and get a SIM card, tasks necessary to impress a sleeping girlfriend and remind myself that I could still get things done in Africa after such prolonged absence (at some level I felt I needed to ‘prove’ this to myself, to show that I hadn’t changed at all since my Peace Corps days – for better or worse).  He said I would need two photos to register a SIM card, and I remembered I was in a country where security concerns can predominate at times.  That and I am brown with a Muslim name – might make that four photos.  He took out two photos from his wallet and offered to register on my behalf.  I considered, but did not wish to really have him hang out throughout the seemingly lengthy process but rather just point me in the direction I needed to go – I had some photos back at the hotel anyways.  Rather if he could show me a store now I could get the phone unlocked, and later buy a SIM card with my own photos.

We continued to walk down Tele Bole Road in the direction of the airport together.  Isaias broke out his phone as if to make some sort of call but did not talk to anyone.  He also stared intently at this piece of paper from his wallet for about a minute, but put it back and didn’t say anything.

We proceeded, I did not really know where I was going anymore and wondered if I should continue walking with him or try my luck in some other direction.  Isaias mumbled something about a SIM card, and then mentioned a cultural festival involving dances from the countryside that was being held today, and only today –  he promptly invited me to attend with him.  Though it sounded interesting and was apparently being held today and only today, I politely declined, using my sleeping girlfriend as an excuse.  Maybe I’ll check it out with her later in the afternoon instead.  He said no problem, why don’t we instead grab a quick cup of coffee, and then I could “return to my sleeping beauty,” as he put it.

I have spent some time studying Ethiopia for a few years now but had never visited the country.  That was the main inspiration behind my decision to take whatever vacation days I had to extricate myself from my DC office and book a flight to Addis Ababa.  I had heard many great things about Ethiopian hospitality and coffee – 16 hours into my stay I had not experienced either, but was jumping for the chance.  I figured I had an hour to kill; it was Sunday and not too shops seemed open for my business.  Might as well take Isaias up on his offer and make an Ethiopian friend in the process.  My first real friend in Ethiopia! – how could I turn this offer down??
to be continued . . .