Turning 32 in Ethiopia

I take the next day off work and rest. I cancel my trip south to coffee country. I slowly re-gain my strength. Then suddenly I only have one day in Ethiopia left.

It’s my birthday. October 6th. It’s the fourth year I’ve managed to be out of the country for my birthday. I take my last lukewarm shower before the power goes out, I pick up the room, then hang out the balcony to watch the road wake up. Whisper a “happy 32nd birthday!” I made it. I finally made it to Africa. All on my own. And while it’s had its rocky moments, I couldn’t be happier.

I decide to eat at the Dreamliner and see if I can catch the Brits, mostly because showing my face at the Hilton feels a little embarrassing right now.

And I’m choking on waves of ink-black exhaust. It never seemed so bad until I got back from Gondar, with its crisp-clean mountain air, and now my eyes constantly water as cabs belch black smoke and I have no choice but to drink it in.  I stop in the middle, waiting calmly in line with the locals, as speeding cars (one blaring “we all need somebody to lean on”) come within inches of either side and massive open air jeeps that cart blue-uniformed military men with guns.

I pick my way through tumultuous (in name and reality) Congo road, past piles and piles of coal wrapped in ropes, tattered tarps and blocks of rusted corrugated tin-walls. The dust in the warm morning air, the faltering trill of Amharic, man chants guttural over a microphone, a white wrapped swirl, as I try not to think how this is going to end. Try not to be too hard on myself.

I head upstairs for breakfast and buna, but the buffet is over. It ended 15 minutes ago. When I wave off the inconvenience with a chigreyellum the wait staff stop.

Then the head waiter says he’ll see what he can do.

Next thing I know I’m being guided through my own private breakfast, cooks standing by to serve me whatever I’d desire as I recite  unkalal (eggs), leitat (milk), dabo (bread), firfir (leftover injeera mixed with redhot berbere spice), chemaki (juice)…as each word takes my, already nostalgic, mind back to the moment in the last month when I first learned those sounds: sitting in Tsbuy’s quiet dining room, holding hands and laughing in that cold kitchen, ducking into the tiny tienda to sit with the woman, the tiny store in Gondar where the sisters and their elderly father served me bananas one-at-a-time so I could practice, working from the coffee shop…

I sit down to breakfast after answering the requisite questions about why I’m here. Then peace. I flip open my laptop to start working. Then 10 minutes later she’s standing in front of me, Excuse me (thick with some European accent).

She’s 50 or 60. Bright red lipstick and dark hair. She’s tense or nervous, she’s wondering if I have a map. She has no idea where she is. Do I know this area.

I don’t have a map, but try to draw her what I know on a napkin. (I’m surprised how much I can connect of this maze of streets.)

She is trying to think of something to do, she has no idea what. Her friends just left her. Can you believe it? Left me? I’m here now, here, alone.

I take a sip of my coffee, and tell her that I’m sorry for that.

She continues: I have no one. Absolutely no one right now. You cannot possibly understand what it is like to be alone in a big, ugly city like this.

Perhaps some of her sentiment is lost in translation. But I smile and chuckle softly to myself. As I take a sip of my coffee, eye my dying laptop battery, then take a deep breath to listen.

She flew from Switzerland with her friends, a younger, married couple. He’s a photographer, he takes pictures of children and has a big camera, he pays them, the children. She doesn’t like that. (I nod my head, I’m not a fan of it either.) He spends too much time trying to get it just right. She doesn’t like that either. They had a big fight. She woke up this morning, they’d taken the guide book and  left to go exploring…

I keep sipping my coffee. Adding an “oh”, “ok”, “ah” when it seems appropriate.

She then describes in detail the incompetence of the staff, to precise detail (how they’ve made her wait, how they are mean, how…)

Just then the waiter brings me coffee, with much flourish:



Minum Eider.


I shake my head, take a sip. Betam conjo Amasaganalo.

I laugh and wave him off.

She sits, jaw hanging. It is unbelievable. But they are so nice to you.

(I hate the way she says “they”) But I laugh, I have met some of the kindness people here.

But there are evil ones here too. Bad things they will do…

But…bad things exist anywhere in this world. Bad people too. It’s a problem of humanity….I add softly, not Ethiopia. Not Addis Abeba. 

Ah, but it is easy for you! She points accusingly at me, You are young, beautiful and… you are not alone here. You cannot know how I feel. 

Then I can’t hold back my, surprised, laughter.

She asks: Have you been scared?

I’ve had moments, but nothing came of it. More often I’ve been overwhelmed with the kindness and character of the people around me. I know this is a rough start, and not what you’d hoped, but you will have an amazing time here. I am sure of this. I smile reassuringly.

I can see her slowly relaxing, shoulders less hunched, mouth less frowned.
It’s time to get back to work, so I begin to make my move when she looks me in the eye and tells me, I am very pleased we have met and I wish you well on this trip and your life. You are an exceptional woman.

I shake my head. But she insists. No, do accept this. If nothing more you have made my life better for this. I do not know how to thank you for this morning. It is amazing what you have done. I believe you have helped others, along the way, without even knowing of it. 

It’s an unusual sentence, perhaps it’s her accented English that makes it peculiar. But it gives me little chills. As if knowing I was feeling exceptionally useless in the past few days, and needed to hear some encouragement today, the universe delivers, to Addis Abeba, with love.

I stand up and give her a warm hug: I’m so sorry this has been hard, and I’m so glad we talked. I hope you have a wonderful day, today.

The Man from Sudan and My First Arabic Lesson

Weary and tired, the party winds down. I share a cab with the American peace-corp couple, and listen to their stories of daily-life, and try to imagine what it would have been like to go that route. We trade Amharic tips. They compliment my speaking, they can’t believe how much I picked up in just two weeks. (I can’t believe how time has flown by…)

When I arrive at the Quara, the boy in the oversized green uniform, grins (and calls to his co-workers, two young managers to listen) as I dutifully practice our routine, “Abakah, kelf sitchen” (and somehow my tongue clicks the “k” and hisses the “tch”).

“Chigryellum” he hands me my room key.

“Amasaganalo” I convey my thanks with fake seriousness, and bow slightly. Then burst out laughing at our charade.

“It is very good! You are perfect!” the staff sing to me.

I realize then, to the side are a group of men, wrapped in flowing robes and loose pants unusual to Gondar, watching us. The one dressed in all white steps forward, “I am not from here, but they are correct. You are very good. You are perfect.”

His smile is friendly, but his manner (or maybe the all-male muscled entourage behind him)  disconcerting. Or the fact that he’s closed the distance between us and stands inches from my face. I don’t know what women in his country do. But I stand my ground. I smile serenely, “Thank you…or Amasaganalo.”

“Ama..amas…Amasaganalo” He repeats, thoughtfully. “How long have you studied this language?”

I pause, then, “Aser-arat kan…” (Letting the “k” click at the back of my mouth, extra hard)... Or 14 days.” The friendly guy at the front desk glows with pride.

The man adjusts his robes and gives me a studious look as his eyebrows raise. He speaks rapidly to one of the men behind him. He glances at me, “You understand?”

“Was that French? Je suis désolé, je ne parle un petit peu…” I smile. And my hand flies up nervously, then pretend to stifle a yawn, in preparation for my exit. I’m antsy to be on my way.

Talking to the same man for any set period of time makes me nervous, with the questions that inevitably come up. And my new game “truth, outright lie, or just refuse to answer” which all can end in complications (That and I don’t want to mistakenly encourage what I might not understand. I don’t understand this interaction.)

He tells me he’s impressed.

“A little bit at a time,” I tell him, “Just keep learning a little more, day by day.”

“I will teach you my language, Joya. Say, Shu-weya Shu-weya. It’s Arabic, it means “Slowly slowly” or as you say “bit by bit””

I dutifully repeat and smile. He continues. He’s from Sudan. They’ve driven all day (and point to the SUVs in the corridor).  He formally invites me to visit Sudan, then insists that I must visit “It is not what you might think, my country is often mis-represented. A woman as yourself would enjoy it. I will be your host, whenever you wish to come.”

I use a question from the hotel staff as my cue to exit…I slip through the men, across the maze of spiraled, outdoor halls.

“It is a most gracious offer! I cannot thank you enough…” I sing over my shoulder, my heart pounding, hoping it did the right thing. Hoping I walked the line between friendly (I have no desire to risk offending others, when on my own, in a small town such as this) and conservative (I have no desire to come across as a forward, easy, party-girl from America)

Amharic Lessons On Arrival

I touch the blue ink of my Ethiopian visa as I wait in line. It was handwritten seconds ago by one of the six indifferent people, sitting in front of stacks of receipt books, writing out visas and recording the $15 USD visa transaction through a series of carbon copies (like a step back in time) for each and every traveler landing in Addis Ababa tonight.

After 28 hours of travel (Seattle to Newark to Frankfurt to Addis) and staying up the night before that, my stinging eyes can hardly read the blur of English letters. Does this expire in 30 days or 90 days? I can’t tell. I’ll figure it out tomorrow. I trade my ragged passport and yellow card (stamped full of exotic immunizations) for my Amharic dictionary.

It’s the first time I’ve opened it, too busy with Turkish, French and Dutch dictionaries in the months of travel prior.

A security guy, who directs tourist traffic, smiles at me and asks what I’m reading.

I hold it up, with a tired smile.

Ah! You learning Amharic, our language. Say something for us! [Everyone, foreigners and locals turn their attention to me. No pressure, right?]

[I scan the first pages, trying to ignore my mind churning through Turkish and Spanish…] He looks at me expectantly.

Az…aznalo! Sorry…and shake my head.

The travel-weary line erupts in laughter and smiles.

You are good! Bright laughter and smiles as he nods his approval. Then he paces in front of me. My interview is not over.

I scan for something to up the ante…here’s my chance to learn Amharic, 20 minutes off the plane, might as well start the lesson now. Ah…ah-ma-sa-ga-nalo? Thank you? I look up at him with a hesitant smile. And the game begins.

Amasaganalo. He corrects. Amasaganalo. I repeat.

Amasaganalo. He says, faster. I try not to look at my book, but to feel the sound of each syllable. Amasaganalo. He shrugs, smiles, walks a step and points: Amasaganalo.

Amasaganalo. I say, faster, Amasaganalo. I shrug, smile, pretending the strange syllables pouring from my mouth were familiar. Amasaganalo, I say with a bow and a flourish to the woman wrapped in embroidered white, who stands in front of me, but turned to watch the show.

Her dark eyes smile and she nods. Amasaganalo. She says back and then, You are good. I think you will become fluent in little time. How long are you here?

All the flattery upon arrival and I think I’m going to like Ethiopia! Two months?

Ashee? (yes?!)

They laugh again. It is very good, he tells me (And they all agree, the customs man, the Ethiopian women in front of me, the NGO women in back of me)
Amasaganalo. I smile.

Time spent standing still flies by as I field the familiar questions about what organization I’m with (none) why I’m here (work and travel, is the easiest answer), what work do I do (sell things on the internet, again easy answer for tired girl) what I’m doing for two months (I’m not entirely sure…), I traveled alone to Ethiopia…for two months…alone (yes!)…?

Before the hard questions come, I’m stamped through and walking through the cool Ethiopian evening with the hotel driver, a 20 year old with a friendly smile and amazing English, Ebenezer. He offers to take the orange pack I’m realizing now I over-stuffed in my late night packing frenzy. I hesitantly hand it to him.

Aznalo! (Sorry), I apologize.

We laugh. He asks how many times I’ve been to Ethiopia. And looks shocked when I tell him it is my first, actually my first trip to Africa. I’m worried I’ve said something wrong.

And you start in Ethiopia.

Ashee. Yes.

He is pleased. I ask how many times you’ve been to Ethiopia because when you say “aznalo”, you say it as I would say it. It is very good! You are perfect!

Smile, ash-ee. (yes)

The car headlamps leave a dim glow on muddy roads, and I can just barely make out my surroundings and quick flashes of life: the never-ending ripple of corrugated metal fencing that stretch for miles, patchwork homes, bright windows of tiny shops, baskets of vegetables under an orange tarp, a steady stream of cars trundling past each other in the mud-road, dodging each other while honking at the dark legs of ragged pedestrians, churning through the streets. I wonder what this will look like in the daylight.

We maneuver through the muddy, cold chaos and Ebenezer tells me about the new year, tomorrow, September 11, will be the end of their rainy winter and the beginning of spring and the hot season. It is also 2003 in Ethiopia (as they use the Gregorian calendar).

Then we’re here the Ethio Comfort House, and my home for the next week.