And while we say the words “not too spicy” to the waiter, as the senior Habesha men within hearing distance grin, my breakfast is one of the hottest on record (which is saying a lot, since I started my days in Addis with a tomato and pepper salad, drizzled with red-chili dressing). Served in a silver bowl too hot to touch (so they give me a clothespin to hold it steady while eating), the unkalal (egg) and quinche (bulgar wheat type food) soaked in chili-red berbere has my usually spice-resilient mouth on fire. I wash it down with hot coffee, and nod to the (now laughing) Ethiopian men, as I feel my forehead breaking into a vigorous, hilarious morning sweat.
The initial building built in 1630’s by the emperor Fasilides, then expanded (building by building) by subsequent rulers…while progress was freely interspersed with brutal sacking and destruction of various marauders…Today it covers and impressive 70K square meter complex. Carefully carved sandstone-colored walls radiate warmth, history and certain mystery of a colorful history. Given it’s colorful past, climbing the giant stairs (a generous foot in height) through half-destroyed courtyards, halls with grass stubble for floor and a blue sky as ceiling, it feels strangely quiet, sitting ghostly still in the bright morning sun, as busy Gondar bustles about its day beyond one of the castle’s 12 gates.
As if hoping I could somehow soak up the history and stories of this place through osmosis, I trace with my fingers, lovingly, along the old stone lining of half-underground walkways between compounds.
Then turn the corner where I can easily eavesdrop on the group of old, gray German tourists, as they wait for the Ethiopian tour guide recount stories of the castles previous glory, of rulers past (when Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia…) in English, for a German tour guide to them translate the Ethiopian’s English into German.
A handful of Ethiopian tourists pass by me. I see them look deplorably at the ferangis lounging in the ruins, disinterestedly fanning themselves in the hot morning as the tour rolls on. In particular, a middle-aged woman, hair in the half-braid half-wild curls of a traditional Tigrayan hairstyle, shakes her head in disapproval to her husband. With only six feet to spare in the narrow passageway, there’s no avoiding her disapproval which will undoubtedly be passed to me and my pale skin.
I find my best smile, and nod to her and her husband, Tenastali. (the traditional greeting of highest respect) Then, playfully, just to show that it was no accident, I finish with a good afternoon Deuna walu (with the special tense for greetings to one or more person).
Her shock takes the form of an audible gasp. As I turn the corner, I hear her debate with her husband in Amharic. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. And continue my self-guided tour.
I see them at the next corner and she stops me. “You speak to me in my own language. Where did you learn? I have never heard anything like this from a ferangi. I would like to thank you for making my day more beautiful.”
She asks then for a picture, I think she wants me to take their picture. But no, she wants a picture with me. I gladly oblige on the condition she takes a picture with me. She’s too pleased.