The Time I Lost it all in Ethiopia, Then Got it Right Back

On rare occasions during my time living in Ethiopia (or Benin and Burkina Faso before it), I have gotten so maddeningly frustrated that if an Aladdin-type genie suddenly appeared with a one-way plane ticket home, even if I would’ve had to surrender all the injera I owned, I would not hesitate. Yet without fail, every time one of those moments of utter despair arrives, the universe almost immediately counterbalances with an equally heartwarming moment. This is one of those times.

A few months ago, I was chasing someone more important than I for a work meeting (hard to believe I know, but I tend to reside in the lower end of the pecking order in the Addis Ababa power lunch scene). I had sort of given up on the meeting when his secretary randomly called me some Tuesday, and asked if I could come to their office this second. Dropping everything (literally, our office pet turtle almost broke his back), I ran down the six flights of stairs out of the office and onto the main road. Luckily my prospective meeting was on the same road and not too far away, but still would require hopping a minibus to get there in time.

Despite boasting sub-Saharan Africa’s only metro system (South Africa aside?), minibuses continue to be the public transportation mode of choice for most of Addis Ababa-ans. Referred to affectionately as ‘blue donkeys,’ the streets of Addis are filled with the ubiquitous sight of the frequently blue and white 11-seater vans zooming in and out of traffic. They ply set routes, which can be a bit confusing to learn at first, as there are no route maps (we’ve tried to create one here) or officially-designated stops, and the language of instruction is always Amharic. On the plus side, they are frequent on major routes, and best of all quite cheap (usually between 2-5 birr depending on the distance, or 7 to 18 cents).

light rail

the light rail actually costs about the same as the minibuses

After getting over the initial intimidation, the minibuses are actually quite easy and efficient to use – as long as you know where you are going of course. Christine overcame the steep learning curve in our first few months by literally just taking random ones around the town to figure out where they went (that is before she became a legitimate working woman) – a maddeningly complicated process of trial and error. But if you see a crowd of people standing on the side of the road in the city, it’s a good chance they disappear inside a blue donkey within a few minutes.

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blue donkey in action

In any case, I ran out of the office determined to catch a minibus to go 10 minutes down the road. Unfortunately our office is on the airport road, which means anytime a dignitary or the like visits, the entire road gets shut down (with Addis Ababa also being the headquarters of the African Union, this happens a lot). So it was just at that time when I ran out that police were mobilizing to close the road, which meant no minibuses would be coming my way.

Frantically, I decided to run down the road past a big circle, to see if there were any still on that side. A large crowd had mobilized after the intersection, all trying to hop into the few minibuses that still remained. One other thing I didn’t mention about the minibus system that also makes it confusing – at some stops there are well-organized lines, but at others it is just a free for all. Those who push their way get in, those that don’t, well don’t. Initially I was not in a pushing mood, but once I realized I was going to miss my chance at this meeting, that changed.

Nonetheless, with the impending road closure and the sizable crowd, even pushing wasn’t working – there were just too many people and not enough spaces (even if the minibuses overcrowd themselves to fit in around 18 passengers in 11 official seats).

I began freaking out a bit – I contemplated running down the road to the office, but this would take at least twenty minutes and would force me to arrive drenched in a vat of my own sweat – not the first impression I wanted to make (though it would distract from the fact that I had nothing of value to truly say). So I resolved to stay in the crowd, and just hoped the supply would quickly meet our demand.

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sadly that day, even the horsies were nowhere to be found

The minibuses that arrive don’t always stop exactly at the same spot, so when it’s crowded it is sometimes a comical process of running 20 feet in one direction, only to get stymied and run 20 feet back in the other. This time during this process, a man in the crowd somewhat befriended me, the only struggling foreigner in his midst. He insisted I follow him as he aggressively pushed his way through the crowd. I was wary of it but needed to get on and had no other transport option at this point (much of the road has already been closed so no taxis were coming down either, just a few remaining minibuses).

I followed the man back and forth a few times, before he pushed me ahead of him and we got on one. I made my way to an open seat in the back row. Despite being another open seat one row ahead, he came and sat next to me. I was still panicking a bit and didn’t make much conversation; I just wanted to get going. Squeezed next to me in the back row was a middle-aged woman with a young child on her lap – both paid scant attention to me, and the feeling was mutual.

In any case, we got a move on and quickly came to where I want to get off (you must verbally signal your stop to the driver’s assistant in order to dismount). The man who had helped me get in was a little surprised, and said in English “oh, this is your stop?” I replied affirmatively, and not wanting to get involved in any long conversation, starting the process of trying to extract myself from the sardine can that was the minibus. Instead of shifting his position to let me pass, however, he made me step over him, and took a long time in doing it. I finally got past his seemingly intentional blockage of my path, and exited from the minibus triumphantly – I was going to make my meeting!

As soon as I got out, I quickly patted my pockets to make sure everything is there, as I always do upon exiting (Addis and minibuses are quite safe in general, but there is a degree of pickpocketing that goes on). When I patted my back pocket I realized my wallet was not there. My mind immediately flashed back to the ‘friendly’ man who was lazily blocking my exit just a few minutes prior. But then I thought I was in such a hurry to get down here, that I may have just left my wallet at the office (I had some small change in my pocket to pay the few cents minibus fare).

I momentarily decided that was had happened, and started walking up to my meeting. But thinking about it more, I realized that could not be case – I never forget to bring my wallet anywhere (unless it is intentional act during one of those famous Addis Ababa power lunches I mentioned earlier). I still had my phone and keys – how could I have selectively forgotten my wallet then (as I keep them next to each other in a drawer at work)?

But maybe it had just fallen out as I was squeezing myself to get out of the overly crowded minibus. So I ran back to where I got off and began looking on the ground. Something kept bothering me about the ‘friendly’ man though, and it just sort of hit me – he must have it. There was no proof, but just a suspicion about our entire interaction – specifically his concern for me, and how he had insisted I get on the crowded bus ahead of him, and then he sat next to me despite being an open seat elsewhere.

By the time I was getting incensed – I was panicked about not being able to get to my meeting due to the road closure, and now was dealing with a missing wallet. I saw the minibus I had been on up ahead – I ran down the road about 100 meters after it. For some reason despite the road closure it ran into a spot of traffic and was sitting there. I ran up to it and asked to open the door – the driver’s assistant refused, probably saying in classical Amharic which I did not understand, that they weren’t allowed to due to the road closure. I didn’t take that for an answer – by this point I was sweating, flailing, and shouting a lot (so much for a good first impression) – screaming that my wallet was on the minibus. I grabbed the door and he kind of smiled nervously, as in a ‘I got another crazy foreigner trying to force his will upon me’ sort of way. I was convinced at this point and when he opened the door and I was about to jump in to a seated crowd of about 15 Ethiopians staring quizzically at me, I realized this was actually not the minibus I was just in.

Cursing very loudly, I retreated and turned back up the road – only to see the minibus I was in pulling away too far to catch up to (or at least I assume, it could’ve been a repeat episode, a groundhog day sort of situation). Too angry and flustered to be embarrassed, I started walking down the road in the direction of my meeting, resigned to my fate. Well not so resigned – I am sure I very much looked like a crazy person, more so than normal. I was red with anger, sweating profusely in my work clothes, and cursing quite loudly to myself. I was about to lose it – well I probably already had.

It was at this precise moment that, wallet-less, all I felt was rage at everything I could think of – mad at Ethiopia for always closing the road, mad at my situation for not having a car that could drive me to meetings, mad at the meeting setup given the lack of notice, and mad at myself for not realizing that ‘friendly’ man was clearly a hustler. The only think I could think of is why, why do I do this work, why do I live here, what is the point, and of course F-it all (aside from the heaven-inducing Ambo mineral water they have here of course – I could never get mad at that).

That lasted about three intense minutes. I still had to make my meeting, so exhaled, cursed a little more for good measure, and composed myself. Wallet or no wallet, life would go on. I began mentally calculating what was in there and how much of a pain it would be to replace my American credit cards in Ethiopia (luckily there wasn’t too much in terms of cash – getting a new wallet and replacing all the cards/IDs would cost more than the hustler had gained).

In any case, I went up to the building where I was to have my meeting, now more than 30 minutes after the assistant had called to tell me to come immediately. Given that this was an official headquarters, security wouldn’t let me in without ID, which of course was in my missing wallet. I protested that I had been here yesterday (in fact, trying to secure the same meeting), but they insisted. Finally, I explained my wallet was just stolen and with it my ID, which seemed to make them relent (in fact, this has happened to me before in a difficult situation where authorities were demanding ID – as soon as I played the wallet-was-stolen card, especially emphasizing the fact that I am foreign guest in your country and this is how I have been treated, the local hospitality instinct kicks in and people change their tune).

In any case, they let me through and I was about to get on the elevator when I got a call from an unknown number. Typically I would have ignored this (telemarketing hasn’t really taken off in Ethiopia, but thought it best to ignore still just in case they figured it out that day) – but I answered, I think subconsciously holding out hope just in the slight chance this had something to do with my missing wallet. On the other side was the receptionist from my office, and she said bluntly uttered the magical phrase “Omar, did you lose your wallet?”

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the rage that was in inside me suddenly dissipated, just like the Meskel celebrations . . . 

Flabbergasted I stammered a ‘yes, how did you know?’ She said someone called her and had my wallet in their possession, and asked me to contact him. I explained I was about to run into an important meeting and couldn’t do it, but could she arrange somehow (in fact, I had to wait another hour-and-a-half for my meeting partner to become available, so I definitely could’ve done a lot in that time span, including ride many more minibuses and lose many more wallets). She said ok and hung up – I wasn’t sure if that was the right choice, or if I should’ve dropped everything to resolve this. In any case, all was not lost and my anger had been for naught! I further composed myself, and combined with the one-and-a-half hour wait, was fully calm during the ensuring meeting.

About two hours later, I strolled back into my office, taking another minibus on the return despite the receptionist’s advice not to (I no longer had a wallet, what else could I lose – if they really wanted my pants, they could have them). When I walked in, she was holding my wallet triumphantly at the front desk. I had no idea of its whereabouts over the past two hours (we had much to catch up on), but certainly was glad to have it back.

Stunned, I asked her what happened. In between spurts of laughter, she explained the story to me. The ‘friendly’ man from the minibus indeed had not been so friendly after all (while I was waiting for the meeting I began feeling bad for my immediate castigation of him, as perhaps I had just dropped the wallet somewhere and someone else had found it – but clearly my instincts to judge everyone immediately without evidence proved apt). He had been ‘helping’ get on the minibus, and ensuring I sat next to him, with a clear objective in mind.

Apparently when I was trying to get out and he was not being so conducive to that, it is because at the same time he was unbuttoning my back pocket, removing my wallet without me even noticing, and then on top of it re-buttoning the pocket (that was part of my confusion as when got out of the minibus – my wallet was not there, but my pocket was still buttoned)! I actually find that to be quite skillful and tipped my gnarled Redskins hat off to him, as he exceeded even my highest expectations with regards to the delicate art of pick pocketry.

Apparently, this did not amuse the woman sitting to my left with a child on her lap. She witnessed the whole incident, but did not say anything at the time, perhaps unsure of what to do. After I got out, they went a few more stops until the ‘friendly’ man also exited the minibus. At that moment the lady decided to get out as well and followed him. As soon as they were out of the minibus she began berating him loudly, yelling at him for stealing my wallet. A crowd was forming around this spectacle, and apparently fearing he would get caught, the man threw the wallet on the ground and ran.

She picked it up, but didn’t know what to do with it. She turned to another man in this nascent crowd who I suppose looked trusting, and apparently just said I’m busy and can’t deal with this – can you return it to the owner?

So at this point my wallet had been in the hands of three different Ethiopians, all unbeknownst to me. Luckily the man she chose who looked trusting in fact actually was. He looked through my wallet and found my business card, calling our office to track me down (at that point our receptionist sent our office cleaner to go retrieve it from the man, and she came back to hand it to her – so a total of five people in possession of it until it got back to me!).

Thus as soon as I got back to the office and saw it, the world was righted again. There was nothing at all missing from the wallet, no cash, no Redskins collectable stamps, nothing. This is what restored my faith in Ethiopia and made me proud to live there – the random act of kindness of an individual (or in this case multiple individuals) far outweighs the damaging actions of one single degenerate. And thus a moment of complete despair is followed by one of utter happiness and pride – but the effects of the latter are always more profound than the former. And in that sense a small, internal crisis averted– until the next time I get pickpocketed on a minibus, without a benevolent but timorous benefactor to witness it!

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next time ditching the blue donkey to hail this

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The Proposal (Part IV of life!)

To Propose or to not Propose

After a picture taking session, I lingered around a bit as everyone else made a move on.  It was more than sprinkling now, and I still had my little companion saying to me every 10 seconds, “mister, you buy?”  The Israelis were moving around a bend and soon to be out of sight.  I felt that this would probably be my best opportunity.   Christine turned around to me and gave me a quizzical face, demanding to know why I was going so slow and that we needed to keep up with everyone, especially as it was raining.  I replied that I just wanted to enjoy the scene.  She shrugged, unaware of any previous soft spot I had for waterfalls, and turned her back to meander forward a bit, in an attempt to keep me moving.  I felt like this must be it.

My heart was pounding rather heavily and my hands shaking as I reached into my side pocket.  The Israelis and Co. were now out of sight.  I had to do it!  But I was still questioning if it was right, if I should do this right here, right now.  I had a serious five second debate where I decided against the move, only to overrule myself.  The little girl was still chattering away. I really had hoped to lose her somehow, but she was persistent and clearly not going anywhere.  I just had to ignore her and go ahead.

I grabbed the ring out of my pocket.  Christine was about 10 feet in front of me, the falls to my left.  I called out “Christine!” and got down on one knee.  She turned around, saw me, and gave me the most confused, boggled look.  I put out my hand and said “Christine, I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you, will you marry me?”  I couldn’t believe it, I had actually done it!  The little girl, to her credit, must’ve sensed something special was happening as she stopped talking and just stared at us.  Christine also was just staring.  Not exactly the reaction I had expected.  I think her mind was literally blown.

I didn’t really want to be down on my knee on the rocks in the rain anymore, so I got up.  All Christine could mutter as a response was “oh my goodness” over and over.   I gave her the ring and said, “Well, you can think about it.”  At that point she realized she had not given me an answer, and said something to the effect of “yes, of course!”  She put the ring on her finger, we embraced, and took some self photos by the waterfall.  The little girl stared at us dumbfounded the entire time.

Christine was still in shock, but it was starting to rain a bit more, so we felt we needed to catch up.  As soon as we started moving again I heard a “mister, you buy?”  She had resumed her selling stance (in retrospect I think I should’ve bought her recorder after all, it would’ve been a nice keepsake of the moment).  I continued to ignore her though, pulling Christine’s hand as I was ready to go faster now, while she was nearly paralyzed with her mind still in a state of semi-shock.

We caught up to the Israeli girls and had them take some pictures of us, but decided not to tell them the news (we didn’t really know them, and felt it would be an awkward thing – though it was perhaps even more awkward for us to try to pretend to be normal and like nothing happened, when all Christine could mutter for the next hour in the car ride home was “oh my goodness,” over and over).  Anyways, we continued, it rained harder, and the little girl pleaded harder.  We made it back to our car a bit wet and recorder-less, but having finished the Blue Nile Falls in manner not to be forgotten.

Now We Live Happily Ever After . . . Right?

We had a wonderful time during the rest of our stay in Ethiopia (unfortunately that night we had made prior dinner plans with an older Israeli couple – we didn’t want to tell them either so we did not really celebrate that evening – Israelis were cramping our style all over Ethiopia!).  I kept thinking about the moment, how nervous I was, and how literally close I was to not even doing it.  In the end, it was weird, not quite the way I drew it up, but it all worked out (sounds like our lives).  The Israelis never knew (it has become my personal goal to ensure the nation never finds out), the little recorder salesgirl had a memory that maybe she will piece together later on in life, and I started the process of making it legally difficult for my beloved Christine to leave my side.  Everybody wins (or really just me)!

The End!

The Proposal (Part III of life!)

The Falls (getting closer . . .)

It was an hour ride to the spot from which you hike about 30 minutes to get to the Blue Nile Falls.  During that ride we made some small chit-chat with our fellow passengers, while I wondered whether this felt ‘right’ or not.  Once we got there, the driver dropped us off, and we were instructed to walk down a bridge, up a hill, through a village, passed a yellow Yeti eating a popsicle, and then we would see the falls.  I began wondering at which part might be best – I had known there would be some walking involved but hadn’t really started to think about where exactly I might want to fake an injury and get down on one knee.  However I did not have much time to think, for as soon as Christine and I, plus the three Israeli girls, walked through the village, a cadre of about 10 to 15 small children surrounded us, more than half of them insistent that we contribute to the local small goods economy.

I wanted to distance myself from this crowd, while somehow also breaking off Christine.  The Israeli girls led the way and interacted with many of the kids, drawing most of their attention.  I lagged behind and Christine was in the middle.  It was a decent situation, and one I was later grateful for, because if the Israeli girls had not been there, then the entire undivided focus of all these tiny salespeople would’ve been solely on Christine and I, and who knows what would’ve happened (for the record, Christine is not the most ‘kid-friendly’ individual).

So I was walking slowly up the hill, thinking everything could still work.  However there was one small, eight year old, female problem.  One of the girls had decided to attach herself to me, and that I was definitely going to buy her recorder.  Now while I was pretty much an all world ‘hot cross buns’ recorder player in my prime, I figured that this might not impress the ladies (re: Christine) now as much as it had in third grade.   I was probably not going to buy this girl’s recorder and I tried to communicate that message clearly, but she was persistent.  It was actually a good marketing strategy on her part; all the other kids were trying to vie for the attention of three individuals, while she was one-on-one with me.  For some reason no kid followed Christine, I suppose she looks ‘not-kid-friendly’ on the outside as well.

So the circumstances weren’t great – the morning hadn’t been awesome, we had a lot of company on this trip, I specifically had some very persistent company, and on top of that it started to rain.  It was not a ton of rain, but enough to make you want to pick up the pace a bit and get the falls over with.  Unfortunately I did not have that luxury.  I was walking as slowly as possible while not making it look awkward, hoping that the Israeli girls would charge ahead with the crowd, and not just wait for me to catch up.  Christine was in the middle, trying to keep pace, but confused as to why I was going so slowly.  We came up to the falls, which are actually very, very brown, and everyone stopped to take pictures, meaning I would have to start being slow to avoid the crowd all over again.  The falls, for the record, were actually pretty decent – many had told us a recent dam and the beginning of the rainy season meant that there would barely be any water trickling out, but luckily for us it had supposedly rained the previous day (the first truly positive sign).

The Blue (Brown) Nile Falls

to be continued . . .

The Proposal (Part II of life!)

Ethiopia!

Fast forward to our trip.  Lalibella was cool, but definitely not the place for this.  Next up was Bahir Dar, which I felt would be more appropriate.  We arrived and planned to spend three days there.  The first one was just hanging out, the second going to the Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon (where I would do my deed), and the third touring around Lake Tana in the boat and visiting the monasteries in the area.

On our second day, in the afternoon, I sneakily put the ring in my side pocket as we left our hotel room to grab the bus for the falls.  We were waiting around the lobby for a bit, when the manager of the hotel told us the weather out at the falls was very rainy right now and it would be a bad time to go (it was the wet season in Ethiopia at the time).  I, however, really wanted to push on regardless, given my pre-arranged plans.  But he assured me we could go in the afternoon tomorrow instead, after touring the lake in the morning.  I asked “but what if it rains tomorrow,” as we had to leave the day after that, meaning I would have to devise a new plan.  But he assured me, “oh, it won’t rain tomorrow.”  With that, we instead toured some sites around Bahir Dar that afternoon, which involved a small walk to a viewpoint of the city.  I still had the ring in my pocket and was seriously contemplating making a move then, but thought it best to stick with my gut and the original plan.

The next day we met our tour guide in the morning, and proceeded to go in a boat around Lana Tana’s monasteries.  It was a resounding failure, and put us in a really bad mood.  To begin, our guide was a rookie, this was literally his first time taking people around.  That was fine enough, I like giving people chances (unless they are pilots or pedicurists).  He was very nice and spoke English well, though he had a hard time understanding us.  What we thought we understood though, was that he was our guide, and not just someone tagging along for the ride.  He apparently did not seem to understand that last part, and once we got to the first monastery, he explained that we would have to pay for a new guide there.  All he had literally done was sit with us for a 45-minute boat ride across the lake, making awkward small talk.  It was a bit of a fiasco, and we wound up paying for new guides, refusing to pay him, getting reimbursed by the hotel manager for the new guides we paid for, then ultimately paying him his fare, even though he provided absolutely no value to the morning whatsoever (the boat driver, supposedly ‘unskilled labor’ as our guide implied, spoke better English and knew more about the area than he did).  We also cut the morning tour short, because we were incensed at the idea of paying for a new guide at each and every monastery (we were supposed to visit anywhere from three to eight).  So we arrived back at home not in the best of moods.  Not the way I had imagined the morning of the day we would remember for the rest of our lives (though in my imagination there were also a lot more dinosaurs carrying exotic cheeses around).

After getting some lunch out in town, we walked back to our hotel to get ready for the trip to the Blue Nile Falls (and pray that various Ethiopian rain gods in fact did not exist).  On the way back, a group of three young female tourists stopped us on the side of the road and asked us if we were Spanish.  That was an odd question, but many people in Ethiopia had assumed we were Spanish so far on the trip, though usually other Ethiopians (to their credit though, I did happen to be fighting a bull while taking a siesta on a bed of paella at the time).  We said no, and they seemed a bit dejected and puzzled, which made me wonder why they were wandering the streets of Bahir Dar looking for Spanish tourists.  But then they asked if we were going to the Blue Nile Falls this afternoon.  We said yes and they were less dejected (however I became more so).  They said they might come along on our trip as there were empty spots in the car.  Great I said enthusiastically out loud, but sarcastically inside.  Before we had been the only ones signed up, and I obviously was hoping for a little privacy.  But they were just getting lunch now and we were scheduled to go soon, so I figured they wouldn’t make it back in time, and we would indeed be on our own.

We got back to the hotel and were ready for our 3:00 departure.   The three female tourists, who we discovered were from Israel, were nowhere to be found.  This was looking good.  However we did not depart at 3:00, but instead waited around for some time.  This is what happened the previous day, before we ultimately were not able to go.  I was preparing for the worst, and began racking my brain for other suitable locations on our trip.  However once all hope was lost, the manager decided that we were leaving.  It seemed like it would only be us and we headed for the car . . . when we saw the three Israeli tourists enter the hotel compound and walk right into the vehicle.  We were all in it together now I suppose (though in some ways, this development technically gave me some backup options in case Christine felt more ‘seasick’ than overjoyed).

Lallibella is sweet!

to be continued . . .

The Proposal (Part I of life!)

The Lead Up

Around the sixth month of the twelfth year in the second millennium of our Gregorian calendar, the time had come for two things in my life: to visit Ethiopia, a country that fascinated me, I had extensively studied, and desperately wanted to experience, and to finally ensure that the girl of my dreams would not be able to run away in the middle of the night (or at least make it a bit more legally complex for her to do so).  I had been thinking about the latter move for some time, as many of my previous excuses had run dry.  I was now out of school, in a stable job, and attaining financial independence.  I even had health insurance and a retirement plan.  In other words, I was the ‘realest’ person I knew, so it seemed like the right time to become ever ‘realer.’

However, despite thinking about such moves for a short while, I hadn’t acted upon them.  I wanted to do something special, despite it not really being my nature, as I assumed I would have to tell this story for the rest of my life (hence why I am writing this, to eliminate that necessity).  You see, Christine and I had met many moons ago on a study abroad trip in South Africa.  Following, we both did the Peace Corps in West Africa, I in Burkina Faso, she in Benin (Christine did a Fulbright in Burkina as well).  So despite the fact that I wouldn’t necessarily say we are full-fledged Africa-philes for life (more just enjoy anything international), Africa has significantly defined our relationship.  I thought it only logical for the next step to involve the continent as well.  I had toyed with the idea of going back to our old college hangouts in Charlottesville and doing it there, but that was too normal.  A nice restaurant in DC just seemed boring, and my dream of doing it on Mars was about 83 years premature (as patient as Christine is, even I doubted she would wait that long).  Thus when I got word that I was going to be spending a week in Kenya taking a course for work, I started to scheme.

If I was going to Kenya, then I was going to neighboring Ethiopia as well (it was a package deal for me).  I cashed in all my paltry vacation days to ensure I would have two full weeks to romp around (I was previously more accustomed to the frequent three month travel stints during my extensive time in the not-so ’real’ world).  Now that that was done, arranging a trip to the country I had studied so much, and the region I want to focus a large part of my career on, I had to figure out how to get Christine there.  That, unsurprisingly, was easy.  You see, convincing Christine to take a trip abroad to a country she has never been to is a fairly easy enterprise (it happens to be a bit trickier if that country is a focal point in our generational ‘war on terror,’ a la Pakistan, but not impossible!).  She also just so happens to work as a contractor for the World Bank, where she is ‘forced’ to take three months off a year.  We should all be so lucky.  So when I PROPOSED the idea that she come meet me in Ethiopia, about eleven minutes later she had a plane ticket.

These events took place around March or April of 2012.  Now that I knew we were going to Ethiopia, I had to first of all ignore the constant pleas from everyone else around me to ‘lock her down before it’s too late,’ (I informed essentially no one of my plan) and figure out where/when to ask the proverbial question.  Despite having studied Ethiopia’s external relations extensively, I knew very little about the country from a tourist’s perspective.  After flipping through a Lonely Planet book a bit, we decided we would head north during our travels, visiting some old Christian churches hand carved completely from large stones in the ground (Lalibella – look it up), a small town on the shore of Lake Tana near many old monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls (Bahir Dar), and another city known for its medieval castles (Gonder).  Those all sounded like awesome places, so it was hard to pick which one might be best for such an occasion.  I initially thought Lalibella, but decided against it once I realized how touristy it might be (wasn’t as much as I had imagined, but a bit – like popping the question at your local TGIF, but on a Tuesday).  I then thought Lake Tana might be a nice place.  However that consists of a day-long boat trip around the massive lake visiting various monasteries, and Christine doesn’t do so well with boats.  I wanted to avoid a situation where she would mistake the seasickness in her stomach for how she felt about the prospects of my offer.  Thus, I felt the Blue Nile Falls might be the best option, but I resolved to more or less play it by ear once we got there, in case a more opportune situation arose.

Now that I had decided to go forward, found a location in Africa, and schemed to get Christine to that location, there remained a slight issue of obtaining a ring.  I am not much of one to dole out a month’s salary for the blood of an African miner (sorry, little diamond editorial!), and the odds that I would be able to identify a ring suitable to Christine were perilously low.  However, luckily I had another viable, and more meaningful, option.  In my village in Burkina Faso, there was a man who used to make rings out of coins.  One day when Christine was visiting me, we went and hung out with him for a bit.  We watched as he made two rings out of CFA (Burkinabe coins) and gave them to us.  It was pretty cool to see the coin, and then see him do the labor to turn it into something cheap machines at tourist traps do in America (in fact I told him if he ever wanted to come to America, he’d make a great machine).  But then, as we were talking with him and admiring his handiwork, he unveiled an old gold coin from Ghana, likely from colonial times.  It was awfully shiny and he said he had been saving it for a special occasion.  Us hanging out at his little corner was apparently enough of a special occasion.  I felt bad, but he insisted on using this coin he had been saving for so long, and turned it into a gold ring right before our very eyes.  Though it didn’t look like anything overly special (and in fact it turns Christine’s fingers green), it meant a lot to us, and was pretty cool as we were an integral part of its formation.  He gave it to me, ostensibly thinking I would know what to do with it, but rather it sat in my closet for over five years.  Now was the perfect time to bring it out of the woodworks.

This might’ve been a nice time to do it

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 . . .