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)

Seven Olives

I have no hotel. But it’s no problem – chigreyellum — the tiny airport reception/baggage/departures room is lined with men with hotels.

I find the Seven Olives representative, and I’m herded into a packed van with the others, including an Australian consulate who’s returning to his post in South Africa, but had to see Lalibela first and two elderly British sisters.

We trade travel stories, of Uganda and gorillas, India, Petra, and lost luggage and Turkey over the duration of a long and gloriously bumpy car ride, on a road that winds past fields of corn and wispy chartreuse tef (use to make injeera). Shadowy figures in gray-brown rags tend to goats gardens. Tokuls, the traditional round stone house with a thatched roof, speed by.

We climb steadily. Higher and higher, until we’re flying along a plateau. Breathtaking views of the lush green valley, the result of record rains, then deposited at Seven Olives. A modest single row of simple rooms. The summer palace of Haile Sailasi’s.

It’s vintage 1950’s. Turquoise walls and yellow interior. I pull the cheesecloth curtains that hang limply over the window. I check my new internet modem. No signal. 1000 birr total fail. But this is the one thing I wanted to see in Ethiopia. Lalibela, the rock churches of the 13th century, carved out of solid stone, so I’m determined not to stress about work today.

Instead, I have the most amazing lunch–a delicate pasta with veggies, cooked to perfection by the European trained chef. Then, I take a nap.

Then meet the English sisters for bread and coffee on the veranda, after dropping off a pile of laundry for 14 birr. As I drink the strong brew, emerald birds land in swirls on the patio, feeding from home-made stands, as bouquets of roses twirl  in the wind, drying in the sunshine.