Weraj Ale: The Good, The Bad, The Addis
It occurred to me, after 24 hrs of flight, a duty-free shopping rendezvous through Frankfurt airport; a lot of bad airlines food [that I had out of boredom], and plenty of getting up to let a seat-mate [a seat-mate whose capacity for sleep is astounding] make his way to the rest room; it occurred to me that going to a country and living among the “indigenous people” [as we used to call them in my tour-agency employment days] is like being baptised into a new life. It’s not like a walk in the woods. Or a train ride through the country-side. Or even staying long enough to buy keepsakes and take photos, for family and friends, of things you were too busy to notice.
Once you figured out how to negotiate the roads so you can cross just in time to make it alive [the same roads that made you want to change your return date and fly home early the first two weeks, as all Diasporas do, and are a grave reminder how desperate it is to live in a country where no one can afford to say “Abet” on behalf of the average Yohannes], once you watched “Teketai Filega” and betted on who would make it and which judge would send the other one away with what Ama-Englizegna expression, once you got “home-bred” enough to tell a woyala “asgebat ene ezih ga ekemetalehu” and became ok with mixing one part of Rotana liquid-soap to three parts water to make it last longer, it’s hard to go back.
Go back you would try, ofcourse, physically atleast. The packing and the actual flight [to the civilized world] which should prepare you to be entered into the old life – a ritual meant to help you shed the new so you could be sawn into the old seamlessly; you spend it worrying about losing your luggage. You arrive at SEATAC airport; where you are ushered into, kicked about and run around in pursuit of those same luggage full of dirQosh that has been crushed to dust before you [even] left Bole Airport. Then you walk out into the American sky; bizarre and oddly familiar at the same time. You go home, through highways where strangers [man or donkey] don’t jump into to cross over, through industrial complexes whose appearance isn’t as much of an eye sore as every building in Addis seems to be. You recognize the old streets, how “White” America really is [gone are the days in which only brown eyes from black faces would be staring back at you instead of minding the road – as they should – every time you turn to look at something], how none of them would know where you have been and who you have been fighting with only 30 hrs earlier.
Then you stop looping around and give yourself unto the merciful embrace of a confused … drunk-like sleep.
Some 6 hrs later, you wake up. You murmur something meaningless into your partner’s ears, go back to sleep and find out that you were to be re-born into the old life – kicking and screaming – as if your days were rivers of wild waters that has to crush violently to be fitted together.
You go out into the streets, streets with signs – zip codes – and well-kept lawns no one has peed into, like a day hasn’t passed between January 1st and February 2nd, 2015. A shy and bewildered you .. trying to re-pretend to belong here, to be just another working girl standing in line, ordering a Latte – smiling her thankyou at the nice motorist who stopped for her even though he didn’t have to, another Seattlite who knows her way about – keeping the fact [to herself–yourself] that what you wish was to walk back into the old picture where your little sister is always around to go with on your errands, that home was a place where your mom is never too tired to heat you up a wot [with lots of Qibe – to show her love] while retelling the tales you have heard over a rekebot full of buna; that your heart would always belong to the country, a [3rd world] country nonetheless where your father tries to fix all your problems by asking if you need money and where your little brother is only a door away to check on.
Qelemwa, as Abraham “Balageru” Wolde, would say, is Abwara, Tsehai and yeShint bett shita.
It is also a place where yeJib chuhet rocks you to sleep and yedoro chuhet calls you out of it.
People are surprised out of their wits by kindness in Addis – as if “thitina” was a beautiful wild animal they haven’t figured out how to deal with yet.
It is chaotic, full of stranger faces, stranger accents and stranger needs [for anyone who has stayed away for more than 3 years]. Where 9 out of ten of the customers in an internet cafe are there to obsessively read other people’s posts on other people’s Facebook profiles and the one guy who is not is either filling out an application for, or calculating his profits from, some European university or some kind of online scam, respectively.
It’s poor. It’s uncivilized. And slightly menacing. Young, full of energy, and the sort of unabashed thick-headedness that only comes with living among your kind – a life unexamined! A biguram yegeter lij with naturally curly hair, a mobile phone [he seems to always want to show off] and a strong body odor.
And.. bloody expensive!! Alas.. the expensive places may not always be the expensive-looking spots you think of at first. A lunch at Yordanos hotel, for example, this little cafe slash “yemigib adarash” behind Ethiopia hotel that’s full of waiters who either megorgor their tirs with “steakini” while you try to squeeze yourself between chairs and tables covered with flies [while their colleagues sit at one, frantically texting on their phone] a “doro arusto” [made from 6 slices of the one thigh] and a bit of boiled gomen will cost you 80 bucks [plus a value-added-tax of about 25%]. Make your way up Ghion Hotel’s steps and find yourself in one its deserted “nefasha” cafes and a plate of thick fresh-cut french fries costs only 19 Birr.
Prices of working out at gyms, having your hair done at a salon and/or getting mani/pedicures at one of the various saunas the city boasts of may come as a pleasant surprise [Alem Gym, how much do I love thee? Let me count the ways..]. Just don’t ask how much the conditioner costs. You would leave with a bitter DubaiOne fabricated, arabic-alphabet versioned taste in your mouth.
Endihim hono, as the saying goes, “yeAddis Abeba sewu” “yibelal!!”: Whether it’s at “Yilma siga bett”, where a kilo of dereQ tibs costs 250 birr or at Rodeo – where waiters in cowboy hats and pleasant smile serve you food that you won’t be able to finish the next morning; you would see a horde of AddisAbebe dragging chairs towards and launching eyes from a table where making as much happy-noise as possible seems a prerequisite to a happy meal.
Had they looked close enough [and they always try to] they would know you weren’t from around here by your intense curiosity about everything around you, by the joyful noises you make at the start of the next song [old and heart-wrenching to you; something to yawn at for them], and mostly by your disinterest to “meQeyet” English in your Amharic to show you were learned – despite appearing to be so.
[If you were a diaspora worth his/her salt] You do and are that.
What you do not want to do and be is…
* The guy who ordered a take-away pizza assuming the box comes with it. It is 15 birr a pop, Aba. [And don’t, for heaven’s sakes, ask what was wrong with the cheese. That chalk-colored half-melted grease may look creepy. But it is, as most things are in Addis, usually safe on the hod-eQa]
* Don’t expect Bilos’ cafe’s macchiato to be as good as you remember it. The pastries, yeah! But again baking is the only art form [next to the music-video industry] that has truly “maDeG” in Ethiopia.
* Finally, don’t break an item in a store and expect to be met with anything less than “wetemsha dulla yeyaze zebegna” next to the most wiry of Store Managers giving you a “Qechin tizaz” to pay full price for it. I did and was met by the later. And what helped me get away with paying a full price for an unbroken version of the “Ocholonia Qibe” “termus” was, to the wonderment of Blen and Enat, my keen ability to find legal-sounding loop-holes [“Ende.. Qoy.. ene kemetate befit sebrachihu astekaklachu asQemitachu endehone bemin awQalehu – bilils..”] and belief that if you say it repeatedly enough, people would have no other option but to give in. Mogn yiretal imbi bilo, what!!
And don’t, for heaven’s sakes, leave without visiting the Thursday jazz-club at Jupiter Hotel. It’s a treat [a wonderful treat!!!] that makes you realize that AddisAbebes have a potential for true contentment if they but stopped believing the only way they can find true happiness is by going abroad.
[Looking @ you, Blen]
Finally, please tip generously [however much your AddisAbebe relatives discouraged you from doing so]. It may make a whole lot of difference to the man coming after you!
To Blen, Babi, Enat, Aregu and Etete…
I will miss you. And I can’t wait to be back!!
P.S. For all those trying to figure out the Cocktail menu above, “Sex on the beach”, listed as “Set of bitch”, is a delicious and fruity vodka-based drink that is perfect for almost any occasion.
For more “Weraj Ale” posts, and/or to find out why “Weraj Ale” go here.