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.

One comment on “Sirens and scams in Ethiopia – Part ፪

  1. Ginger says:


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