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.

Working Too Late and Paying the Price

Sitting in the low chairs of the Hilton lounge, I work late into the night on a caramel macchiato roll.

I look up frequently, thinking I’m starring off into the endless Ethiopian evening, conjuring up the right revenue model, the particular word with just the right nuance, the percentage of conversion for a highly-targeted email campaign…I yawn, absentmindedly smile, what an amazing place. It’s not until he gets up to leave the bar and waves to me  that I realize I was being watched. And to my surprise (since my uniform these days are jeans, T-shirt, not-quite-dry hair in a French braid and worn gray backpack), he returns, the German engineer, full of compliments and interest, suggesting we grab a drink later.

Thankfully, it’s late. Nearly 11pm and well past the hour I try to be home. So it’s easy to make excuses and leave.

It’s much harder getting around the massive, muscular guard, who eyes me nervously, like a mother hen, instructing me not to leave, but stay at the Hilton.

I blink. I laugh. It is late, but to play it safe with a night at the Hilton (at $250 a night) is worth more than five nights at my hotel. No.. I need to go to my hotel on Bole.

He shakes his head. When I insist, he sets out to find me a taxi. I think this will be easy, looking at the parking lot full of parked taxis.

But the guard interrogates with a barrage of questions and (with disgust) dismisses the first five.

I’m tired. I’ll be fine, I insist.

So he sticks his massive frame into the window of the next, yelling questions and a rate. He turns to me apologetically shaking his head, 50 birr to Bole. It is the late-night price. It is robbery. 

I want home. I’ll pay it. (I flip my ring onto my wedding finger. I quietly tighten down my backpack.)

There’s more arguing. Then the guard and the driver shake. Then more arguing.

Finally I’m in the cab, heading to Bole.  I realize instantly the roads that are well-traveled around 8PM and 9PM, are now nearly deserted. The few figures on the streets are not women. I’m on my guard. I watch his driving, looking for any sign of deviation from our route while he continues prying into my personal life: what is your age (32) and a husband (yes, married four years), where is he now (at the hotel, waiting up for me, I called him before I left the Hilton), children (no, but hopefully soon).

The driver is full of questions. First very friendly. (Where I’m from, what I’m doing in Ethiopia, what do I think of it so far, how have I learned so much Amharic?) When he finds out that I’m from Seattle (where he says his sister lives), he tells me that we are friends, like family now. And then it gets weird. (He asks me to have a drink with him, to which I respond with:  “I don’t drink.”)

He shakes his head. He tells me that it is sad. That were he my age, he would be married with children. He says that I must be very sad inside to have no children.

I try to change the subject, but he returns the topic of children. So I let him rant as I watch the road.

When we near the gravel road turn off, he stops. 200 birr, he tells me.

I stare at the dark road. No. That’s robbery. You promised 50 birr. (which is already 10X higher than what it usually costs in the day).

I promised the guard. I did not promise this to you. He tells me slyly. He then tells me that the gravel road will damage his car.

I snort laughter that going a half mile on gravel would do anything than knock some dust off his rust-chewed, heavily-used exterior.

You will pay it. Or I leave you. It’s a dangerous place. To be alone here. Maybe you are fine with one or two. But alone…as a woman you will be beaten and worse. You will be raped. 

His matter-of-fact tone and the violence he promises, after swearing friendship and family earlier, sends chills up my back. You will pay me 200 birr.  

My voice is hoarse, but I order him to take me to my hotel, fully ready to jump from the car, moving or not, (fingers already have the door latch released) at any moment. But figure the less I have to cover on-foot, the better.

The sound of gravel crunching between his slowly rolling tires, the pounding of my heart, as he continues to threaten me. You will pay me 200 birr.  Habesha men will find you and beat you and worse, because you are a woman. 

I’m shocked when I see the hotel come into view. The guards stand up. My first impulse is to turn this man over to the mercy of the guards. At the same time, it’s such a weird situation–I don’t want to bring a fight to the kind people here. For $10.

I reach into my bag and then fling birr notes at him, and yell, You are a horrible, evil man…and you are NOT my friend.

I am shaking when the guard jumps to my side, realizing this wasn’t a usual ride. But I call him off. It’s ok–let him go. I want no trouble.

They sit me down at the front desk and I tell them the story. They gasp in shock, appalled, and agree that he is bad and apologize for the experience and insist I tell the guards when I need assistance. I apologize for the trouble, but they tell me not to worry — I’m with friends.

Stuck Between a Gun and an Attempted Kidnapping…

I work non-stop, the next day, only breaking to walk to the Ethiopian Airlines office in the center of town to re-arrange my ticket to fly back to Addis the day after Meskel, instead. (Which they easily do, with a phone call and no computer terminal, for a nominal fee of a few birr.)

Back to work, I sit down in the plastic lawn chair, and huddle over my lap top. Taking a breaks to peek out my balcony window at the men and boys of Gondar hammering together a crude, large cross in the middle of the road. It’s slow, noisy progress. But by afternoon, they’ve built a platform to hold it upright. Then they cover the base with armfuls of freshly cut green grass and yellow-gold meskel blossoms.

Then I sit back down and work until my fingers or legs cramp again.

The sun sets, and darkness falls on Gondar. Outside, the scene grows more and more celebratory. Cars circle the main square, headlights flashing and horns blaring.  The dark streets are unusually alive, teaming with roving troops of people and children, dancing, and singing, while hoisting sticks in the air, in an impromptu parade. Voices intersect and collide in a strange melody as the choruses of one group’s song, grow stronger and fade, then is overcome by the chorus of another. It’s chaotic and impossible not to watch.

I hang from my balcony, trying to take it all in. It’s felt like torture forcing myself to work, and not take part of what’s going on at ground level. Around 10PM, I can’t hold myself back any longer and decide (even if it’s late) to go down and see what’s happening on the street level.

I wrap my scarf around my neck, then sling my camera across my body. The tightness of the strap feels reassuring, like it’s my seatbelt. The guard, shouldering a rifle tonight, speaks no English but understands my intent. He unlocks the heavy metal Quara gate, to let me out with a smile when I thank him in Amharic. And I’m off.

Once on the street, I realize everything seems to have changed. The happy celebrations I’d watched from the balcony are suddenly extremely intense, and, I realize, somewhat drunken. The sunny streets of day are ghostly, nearly pitch-black, and moving with troops of shadowy figures.

And then I realize what’s really putting me ill at ease: There are no women, anywhere in sight, celebrating on the streets tonight.

Within a block, I am descended upon. One, two, then four, then six men begin to follow steps behind me. They know every detail of my trip. They ask where my doctor friends are.

My lie is instantaneous: I’m meeting them at Quara in 15 minutes. Just out to stretch my legs.

They don’t buy it. They laugh at me. Surely, I am not telling the truth. A skinny, tall man asks me to instead have a drink with him, and party with his friends instead. He is friendly, but insistent. He asks me to stop walking. He tells me I am making him mad.

Fending off questions, pleas and barbs, my head feels cluttered. Nothing about this feels right. A plan. I need a plan. Past shuttered grocery stalls and dim restaurants, there is nowhere I can go that is well-lit, that feels safe. Still, there are no women. Only curious, staring men. I walk without stopping, making one big circle around the center of town. As if playing a twisted game of follow-the-leader, even more men tag along behind me, and ask questions. There’s maybe 10 now. I’m fending off hands to my shirt or arm, that reach from the dark. I feel my throat tighten as alarms explode in my head: You’ve walked through Addis at night with no trouble. This isn’t normal. You are no over-reacting. You are alone. You are in real trouble. Be ready to fight for your life. Get the hell out of here.

There is yelling. A shirtless, muscled man staggers from a dark doorway to fall in front of me, grabbing my arms. He flashes a leery, smile. To my horror, his teeth are full of blood, and the sides of his mouth drip red (perhaps from a fight or from eating raw beef kitfo for dinner, I can’t tell.) But he yells at me in Amharic. It feels like the start of a nightmare as I push his sweating body away from me, with a “Leave me alone.” My hands are clenched into fists, my heart pounds with adrenaline as I close the gap between another dark alley and the glassy, glowing Quara. Towards the lit massive, hallway of the hotel entrance, head high and walking calmly, while pushing anything and anyone that tries to delay me, out of my way.

Above the din, I hear someone yelling forcibly,”Wait, stop! Wait, I want to talk to you!” He commands,”Stop now!”

Breathless, I don’t look back as I walk up to the Quara. I smile at the guard, as he unlocks the gate and I breath deep. Safe.

And while the rag-tag group has more or less dispersed, in the light of the Quara, the yelling man has caught up to me. I turn to see a stranger. Ethiopian, tall, stocky, receding hairline, in a surprisingly crisp, ironed blue dress shirt and jeans. A gold watch gleams on his wrist. “STOP, right NOW!” Then he pauses, and smiles, “For I want to talk to you. Why won’t you talk to me? Please would you not be scared and talk to me, only for three minutes.”

Troops of boys and men, singing and celebratory, trot by. Cars honk. It’s near chaos. And I don’t want to add to the drama. I don’t want to offend or be mean, but his manner worries me. I decide I can’t trust this. But instead of running, I request he tell me whatever it is he would like to tell me, here, now.

But he stands over me and insists I go with him. “You see I can speak English, too. I am nothing to be afraid of. You and I have nothing to fear. We are the same people. I am like you. Please have no fear. I only want to talk to you. Three minutes, that is all.”

It’s a peculiarly worded plea. I tell him,”No, thank you.” When nothing works, I try just, a firm “No. Please go away, I do not want to talk to you.”

He grows surly, “Come with me and don’t be like this, don’t be this way. You are hurting me. Can you not see?”

It all happens in a second, then. The angry man steps forward and his hand closes around my wrist. At the same time, the skinny man in the stripped shirt (who also spoke English because he’d been my persecutor earlier) calls to the guard in Amharic. Whatever he says causes the guard (who speaks no English and understood none of this) to take another step towards me, gun raised.

It points just past my other arm, at the heart of the big man clutching my wrist. They growl at each other in Amharic.

I’m frightened to move. A surprise now could kickoff any kind of response, a shot. I want to stop this, but don’t know how.

Despite the gun pointed at him, the man launches into a series of Amharic threats. Their voices rise to yells. Then he turns to yell at me, accusing me of creating the situation, “This would not have happened if you would talk to me. Now!” I relax my arm for a second, pretending I’m giving in and following his lead. As I’d hoped, the unexpected movement of me now heading towards him, puts him off balance, loosens his grip…I yank my arm from him and back up against the wall. When he moves toward me, the guard nudges the gun forward. He stops. Stares. Yells threats.

Stripped shirt guy pulls me behind the metal gate. Then stripped shirt guy calls out to the men eating in the bar. Suddenly there are muffled movement, as they jump down the two flights of stairs, and guys rush from all sides, as the yelling rises higher. Then muffled thuds, more yells.

A stranger calls to me and asks if I care to join them for a drink. I walk straight to the front desk.

I don’t even try our Amharic charade at the front desk. I can hardly find my own words, “Key, please.”

I run upstairs, hands shaking as I turn the lock. The Sudanese men lounging in the hall, call from two stories above me, “Joya, why do you hurry? It is time for more Arabic. Shuweya shuweya…”

I shut and lock the door before they finish the sentence. (I don’t care if it’s rude.)

I didn’t mean to cause trouble. But what was I thinking…

I fall on my bed, shaking.

I fall asleep to the beating of drums and garbled chants.