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 . . .

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