Heading Home…to Addis

When I arrive in Addis, I revel in the familiarity of what was foreign just weeks ago. I know where to go and what to do. The blue-white taxis, the noisy dirt-paved streets, the mish-mash of buildings.  The way “amasegnalo” slides off my tongue (compared to the tongue-twister it was just two weeks ago when I arrived here). The way we’re on a first name basis, and I call this, simply, “Addis” now.

I can tell my impressed cab driver, listening to Katy Perry, where to turn and where to stop.

The Hilton guards, the UN guards remember me and call out warm Amharic welcomes. When birr starts flying from the ATM to my hand, in weathered piles of paper (after nearly eight days without access to cash, in Africa), it feels like I’ve won the lottery! My heart is lighter than air. I know where to find the bank that can wire the money to the trusting hotel owner in Gondar.

When they see me coming, my Addis hotel guards hop from their stools with big grins and waves. Everyone wants to know, “Did I see it? Did I see Lalibela? And Meskel?”

And when I put my hands to my heart, “Lalibela, betam conjo. Meskel, betam conjo. Fasilidades castle, betam conjo. Oh, Ethiopia, betam conjo!” Everyone gasps and laughs with pride!

Five winding flights of stairs up, my room is waiting for me: tidy and clean, fresh sheets stretched across my so-luxurious king bed. I unpack my bag, folding clothes and lining shampoo, conditioner and soap in front of the bathroom mirror, thinking how great new places are, and how good it feels to be home.

I close the doors to the two empty, spare bedrooms and open the balcony door and all the windows to let in the sounds of my Addis side street and hungrily eat spaghetti (a standard in once-occupied-but-never-successfully-colonized-Ethiopia). Even the Italian red-sauce seasoned slightly with cardamon and pepper, for a spicy-sweet Ethiopian twist to the classic, tastes familiar now.

I collapse, dead tired, coughing. Barely remembering to take the malaria pill that I’d already forgotten the last two days in a row.  (While no worries in Addis, where high altitude temperatures keep malaria at bay — my meds must be dutifully taken two weeks after leaving malaria zones. And I’ve repeatedly forgotten. And I’ve spent a week in malaria-plagued Gondar.)

Spanish, Sunset and Beer at the Goha Hotel

I head downstairs, when I spot the guard who bravely defended me from the crazy guy at the hotel gate two nights prior. I can only understand bits of his Amharic (“how are you” “friend” “it was no problem”) and I can only find bits of my Amharic suitable for the strange situation (“I’m am well, thanks to you my friend” and then just “thank you, thank you, thank you…”). Without a thought to gender roles, in my appreciation, I reach out and hug him. His gold-capped teeth gleam with a smile.

When I turn around, a man is listening to us. He stumbles through English. Stopping often. Frustrated. Then apologetic.

I cheer him on, “You’re doing great! English is not easy. Espanol?”

And then, while it’s not perfect, a summer of learning French-Turkish-Amharic has gotten me over my shyness of just trying. To my surprise and his delight, we’re somewhat conversing in Spanish, in Ethiopia. He’s had his camera stolen, he’s had a hard time getting around, he cannot believe I’ve made it this long unscathed and adds his compliments to the growing stack. You’re amazing to do this alone, as a woman. He admires it, and continues, I have only met one other woman, alone, here. But she, she was crazy.

I’m hearing the fear-mixed-with-admiration so often now, I do wonder about my sanity in undertaking the solo trip. I shrug my shoulders and laugh. It’s always possible?

He insists I am not crazy. Just brave.

After work that night, I meet the British boys, Rob and Jerome, on leave from university to teach a three month business class in the local school. We walk up a winding road out of town to the quiet, secluded Goha hotel. I’m more than a little relieved to find the guys (the epitome of youth and fitness) are winded by our ascent to the hotel, at 8K feet elevation.

The low-lying, single-story hotel buildings are perched on the highest hill, overlooking Gondar and some of the most spectacular views of the green, treed hillsides and higher plateaus that are all shades of pink-purple-gray-green with the distance and the  remains of a thrilling sunset.

Buzzing electric “Goha” sign to our back, we sit in plastic chairs at the edge of the cliff. The camaraderie and dry sarcasm of the UK guys is a welcomed break from my own internal dialogue. We talk about the idea of a “gap year” (generally lost on Americans) and what is “meaningful”. We trade stories of our “reasons for being here”: theirs (educating and interacting with children in need, while scraping by on a such a limited pension that they’re plotting ways to save money by saving up for a hotplate to cook at home, and substitute bread for a meal as much as possible) is altruistic and grand. Mine (analyzing data so companies in the US can sell more of something while traveling in relatively luxury with all my camera, laptop and kindle, yoga pants and a US income) feels ridiculously self-indulgent and removed from reality. At least, the reality here.

But to my surprise, while I’m stifling my jealousy for their life–they’re complimentary about mine. It’s brilliant what you’re able to do, to travel and see the world, while working. Instead of being trapped somewhere. People would kill for that.

I laugh more that night than I had in a long time. And I have to insist, multiple times, before the guys let me pay for our “fancy hotel” beers. They only accept my tiny token of friendship when I tell them to let me do this so they pay it forward (they can get me back in the years to come, when they’re “my age” and then run into cool kids going cool things and foot the beer bill).

On the walk home, we’re picked up by a man in older-model Range Rover who insists he’ll give us a free ride down. But only when we’re seated and halfway down the road that he changes his mind and threatens the stiffest rate. It’s a scam. And it takes the boys arguing and me nudging the door open as we move to change his mind back to our original deal of “free”. And while awkward, it’s a good reminder that scams and outrage happen to boys too. It’s not the result of me being female, or having done something wrong. It’s just how travel, life goes sometimes.

We end on a good note: at The Coffee House, for pasta and burgers. It’s a good way to end the day.

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.