002 – Ethiopia Journal on Tape
(Transcript of an audio journal I kept on a micro-cassette recorder. I hung the recorder around my neck on a strap, and I made recordings throughout the day.)
Sunday, October 25th, 1998 9:30 in the morning ferengi time, 3:30 in the morning Ethiopian time.
This isn’t the best day to begin recording my journal instead of writing it considering that I’m still quite hungover. Well, not hungover, but I definitely have that nauseous feeling. It just feels so strange to be staring at this micro cassette recorder and talking into thin air. But I think in the long run this is going to be helpful, so I’ll give it a try.
Around 6:00 p.m. yesterday, I went outside my room, down the hallway and outside into Addis, and I found Abiy waiting for me in the billiardo room. He was dressed as he always is: very nicely. He looks like an English professor at a college in a boy’s school. He always wears dress pants with a colored shirt and a knitted vest with, of course, dress shoes. We’d arranged this get-together three days before when I went to their village and we had something to drink over there. We sat for a while… One of their friends was waiting for us out in the Supermarket area. I’d met him the previous night at the Alem Bunna coffee shop. I think he’s another teacher or a student. Either way, his subject is history. Earlier in the day, I’d finally gone over to the gambling room to see what was going on there, and when I first looked through the window there were about eight men sitting around the table. Five of them seemed to be playing cards. And as I watched, I couldn’t figure out at first what they were playing. It looked like a very complicated local Ethiopian game. I knew that this room was meant for gambling, and the men who went back there had an air about them of masculinity and toughness, so I assumed they were playing poker and gambling for money. But as I stood there watching, I saw a couple of players pull sets of three cards out of their hands and lay them down on the table, and it suddenly dawned on me that these tough gamblers were gambling with gin rummy.
I told this story to Abiy, and he was so amused by it that he made me repeat it to his friend there. In fact, a lot of the things that I say…
Ageri was in the restaurant when I went outside, and she asked me what I wanted for breakfast (kurs). I asked for pasta because I wasn’t feeling that well, and I didn’t want any challenging food. She went off into the kitchen, but a few minutes later came back and said that they didn’t have pasta. Pasta yellem. She suggested a couple of other dishes that I could have, and none of them I recognized. I tried to find them in my dictionary, but I couldn’t find them there either. And finally she suggested something called “kulalet”. We couldn’t figure out what that was, and finally I just said okay (eshi). I still felt pretty nauseous, so I was hoping it would not be very challenging. But when the meal arrived, I wasn’t exactly sure of what it was, but I’m pretty sure it was liver, chopped up and cooked. A great big mound of chopped up liver with of course enjera, and one piece of dabbo. For the first few mouthfuls or the first two minutes of eating, I felt like I was going to throw up, but now that I’ve got some food in my stomach I feel a thousand percent better which is why I’m back recording on this tape recorder, and it seems to be going quite a bit easier.
Abiy, myself, and the history student were standing out on the street waiting for Derege to show up. As I said before, Abiy got me to tell my poker story, my gin rummy story, and a few other stories. It seems the other night when we were in Aware at the bar, I called Derege a gangster once because he took out a cigarette and the way he held it in his mouth so it was pointing up and he was sort of chewing on it with his teeth I said he looked a little bit like a gangster. Abiy found that to be a very funny comment, and when the story was told to the history student he said that I was a very transparent person, that I said what was on my mind, and he really enjoyed these funny comments that I seemed to come up with all the time. In fact throughout the whole evening, they kept saying that over and over again, that I was a very funny man. And it seems that what we in the west would say has a slightly different tone here. I don’t know what that means exactly except that you kind of have to be careful of what you say. Some of our small talk that we just might toss off at the moment might be offensive, or if not offensive it has a lot more strength than we think.
After a few minutes, Derege showed up. We spotted him about a block away down the street and Abiy called out, “Look, here comes the gangster.” And when I looked up the street, the way he was walking he still reminded me of a gangster, and we kept that joke going for a little bit. But I got the impression that Derege didn’t quite appreciate the humour as much as we did. So after a while I dropped it. The history student agreed with me that the Alem Bunna coffee shop made the best coffee available, and he in fact refused to go anywhere else to get coffee. Abiy told me that Alem means world in Amharic, so the name of the coffee shop is the World Coffee Shop. And I think they chose that name because they export a lot of their coffee overseas to the rest of the world.
The three of them talked amongst themselves in Amharic as we walked along slowly, and I think that they decided that there really wasn’t enough time to have a long coffee and then go to wherever else we were going to go. And they decided to abandon the coffee idea and head straight for a restaurant/bar they knew. Derege tried to tell me exactly what was going on. It seems that there are a lot of saints and holy men and historical figures that are celebrated in Ethiopia, and each of these saints has their own day and many hotels have adopted a patron saint, and on that patron saint’s special day they have an evening of special food and celebration, and this is where we were going.
To get there, we had to take one of the local taxis. Abiy mentioned that Ethiopia adopted this style of taxi from Kenya, and I remember reading somewhere that they have a special name for these taxis in Swahili, but I couldn’t think of it at the time. For a foreigner to get around on one of these taxis would be almost impossible. They’re just stripped down rebuilt vans, pick-up trucks, any kind of vehicle you can imagine with a driver and a tout I guess you would call them – the person who has to lean out the window shouting out to everyone their destination. I don’t quite see how only the destination works, because even if you know where the taxi is going you can’t be sure the route it’s taking to get there so a lot of this is guesswork. We were on the wrong side of the road from the direction that we needed to go, but that didn’t matter at all. Derege saw a taxi coming along, and he shouted across the street to them, “Where are you going?” or “We have four people here who want to go to this place, are you going there?” And the driver of the taxi on the other side of the street stopped, rolled down his window, and shouted back and forth to figure out whether they could take us where they wanted to go. In the meantime, they were blocking traffic, horns were blowing, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. Then we decided that yes we could indeed take this taxi but we couldn’t get across the street. Traffic was so heavy that we were delayed for three or four minutes. It took us about three minutes just to get to the middle of the road across the first half of the traffic, and then when we were there, we had to cross the second half and that took another two or three minutes. In the meantime, while we were stuck in the middle of the road, I was nearly hit by several vehicles. It really is survival of the fittest. You have to watch every second, because these vehicles will head straight for you and they will hit you, and as I mentioned before the pedestrians are even worse. They will walk right out in front of traffic without looking. They’ll cross streets right in front of vehicles without a care in the world. I don’t know what the fatality rates are here, but I’m guessing they have to be pretty high.
We got into the taxi. Abiy and the history student sat in the back. Derege and I took a seat together in the middle. There was no chance of me getting my legs in there at all, and I had to keep them stuck out in the aisle. The tout on this particular van was a girl, and Derege pointed this out to me saying look there’s a girl. She’s doing the boy’s job. I thought this was quite interesting.
Derege paid for all four of us, 45 cents each, which comes to I guess 1 birr 80. I’m finding with Amharic that I get the words right, and when they tell me how to say them I remember it properly, but when they say it they throw in extra syllables that I don’t where they came from. In money, they put a “K” into the numbers, so one birr fifty which according to the words themselves would be “and birr hamsa” comes out as “and birr kamsa.” I assume the K is thrown in to make it easier to pronounce, but it does add to the confusion.
I spent most of the time talking to Derege, so unfortunately I didn’t follow where this taxi went. I don’t think we went very far. I get the impression in Ethiopia that people don’t like to walk. My plan to ride my bicycle into Gondar is treated not with surprise but total disbelief. As far as they’re concerned, it simply can’t be done. And a lot of these people who are giving me advice about which roads to take I think are just treating it as a bit of a joke that this will never happen anyway, that I will end up taking a bus, and I think deep down they’re indeed convinced that I may indeed take the bicycle, but I’m going to put the bicycle onto the bus and then take the bus to that town. We got down out of the taxi in an area that they called the Mercado. I rode my bike around the big market that they call Mercato the other day, and I didn’t recognize this neighborhood. I’ll look at a map later on and figure out where we were. We had to walk a few hundred metres to get where we’re going. On the way, we passed a large movie theatre and I did a real double-take because the big movie playing, to my surprise, was Code of Silence starring Chuck Norris. I find that when I see something that surprises me like that in Ethiopia, my first reaction is surprise and I express it and it amuses me to see an old Chuck Norris movie playing now at a theatre. I’m not sure exactly when Code of Silence came out, but I’m guessing it has to be ten years ago (1985 actually), maybe even fifteen years ago, so how is that movie playing in a theatre now? But I did mention this to Derege and Abiy, and they thought it was quite amusing that I was amused. They didn’t seem to be offended at all. I can’t really express how lucky I feel to have met Abiy and through him Derege and their circle of friends. My luck in that was just extraordinary and in fact over the last few days when I get together with them I keep delaying my trip north and I keep thinking I should stay longer in Addis just to take advantage of knowing these men.
I also get the feeling when I’m with them that… it’s kind of a strange out of context feeling because I’m here in this third world country and out there on the streets everything makes sense – the traffic and the chaos and the beggars, the fact that Code of Silence is playing in the theatre – all of that says to me, yes you are here in Ethiopia, but then as I’m walking along with Derege and Code of Silence has led into a conversation about movies I find we’re talking about A Walk In The Clouds with Keanu Reeves. We’re talking about Amadeus which is one of his favorite movies. We end up discussing an incredible range of really good movies and other movies like A Walk In The Clouds that I can’t imagine how they know about them.
The same goes for literature, as I’ve already mentioned. And politics and history and geography, and there’s a story later on in the evening that I’ll tell is really by far the most astonishing one of the bunch. One funny little thing happened walking along with Derege talking about movies and books and he asked me if I’d read “The Other Side Of Midnight” and I think I have, but I couldn’t quite remember it, and I was trying to think of this book and what it was about, and I said it was that skiing book about the man who had an accident skiing. I don’t even know why I said that because the book I’m thinking of is not a great book and there’s no reason in the world that anyone here would ever have heard of it, but Derege says “No, you’re thinking of “The Other Side Of The Mountain.” And he’s right. That is the name of the book that I was thinking of. And how he knew that just continues to astonish me.
We crossed over a few streets, and then we cut through a gas station. I was looking all around and ahead, of course, to see where we were going but none of it made any sense to me. We headed towards this little gateway or path, but then Derege changed his mind and made us go around because there were about ten men standing there, well-dressed men, but Derege didn’t like the looks of them so we went around. They said this neighborhood was downtown and that confuses me because I thought downtown was City Hall and the Piazza. In fact, Addis Ababa doesn’t seem to have a real centre. It’s spread out in all kinds of directions, and I think they’ve had different downtowns over the years. It keeps changing location. But this was downtown, and they told me a number of times to be careful of my belongings because this could be a bad or dangerous area.
That’s something I notice here as well as so many other places that every person you meet is in general wonderfully honest and helpful, and yet they continually warn you about the evil men surrounding you. Like these five Ethiopians I know are wonderful but please be careful because everyone else out there is a bad man. You’ll be in one village and they treat you like a king, but then when you go to move on to the next village they’re frightened for you and warn you that there are bad men in that village. You get to that village, find them to be incredibly kind and hospitable, you tell them where you came from and they say, “Oh, how did you get out alive? That is such a bad village with bad men.”
I was happy to see when we finally arrived at our destination that this was no put-on tourist place. This was an actual bar that Derege and his friends go to all the time. It’s built into the wall of the giant sports stadium and there are many, many small establishments lined up there. They come to this place because Derege’s school where he works is quite nearby. I’m still hoping to be able to go to that school and see the place, which is why I’m kind of reluctant to go north right now. I’d like to get to know these men a bit better before I go for my sake and also to kind of assure them that I’m not going to disappear on them. They seem so genuinely overjoyed to know me and to spend time with me. I try and reassure them that no, this isn’t our last meeting. When I leave Addis Ababa I’m coming right back in two or three months time. And I will see them again. I have no plans to leave the country right away. But even now I’ve become so fond of these guys that two months seems a long time to go north so we’ll see what happens.
The bar was called “The Lifesaver’s Restaurant” and that struck me as kind of funny, and it became a kind of joke throughout the evening which everyone seemed to appreciate. They commented that I seemed to enjoy names of things, unusual names, and I’m forever readings signs and commenting on this or that. And it’s true. Partially I’m comparing it with other countries because every country in the world has adopted English to a certain extent, but they always give English their own little twists. For example one country to express “greatness” might use the word ‘super’. Everything is super. Super big. Super party. Super music. Super theatre. Super toilet paper. Everything is super. In Addis Ababa, so far the word of choice is “mega”. Everything is ‘mega’. There’s mega theatres, mega stores, mega toilet paper, mega everything. So in this case the Lifesaver’s Restaurant is quite funny.
There were about twenty tables in this bar. The bar was maybe fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. There was no live music or anything like that. At the far wall there was a table set up, and on this table was a photograph of the saint whose day they were celebrating, and a collection of perhaps ten candles were around the saint. There was some debate whether this man was a saint or just a holy man or just who he was, but I eventually learned he was Greek from 700 AD. I can’t remember his name, but he came to Ethiopia and now this bar has adopted him as their own special saint. Part of the celebration was that they prepared a brew of local beer called “talla”. Talla along with tej are the two traditional Ethiopian alcoholic drinks that everyone talks about. I had tej the other day and found it quite good. Tella was poured out of a pitcher, so it wasn’t bottled and it had a dark brown color and had kind of a cider taste to it. It was alcoholic and essentially Ethiopian beer made from barley or corn depending on what part of the country you’re in. And I didn’t mind the flavor. In fact, in some ways I would have preferred it to the beer that they serve here which has a tangy flavor that I don’t associate with beer. So I had one glass of talla. There was no carbonation in the drink itself and it tasted fine. Thinking back now I should have finished that glass and ordered another one and drunk tella all night sort of as a compliment to Ethiopian culture. As it was I drink everything slowly, and they watched me like a hawk to see how I’m reacting to things around me and they noticed I drank it slowly and they assumed it was because I didn’t like it, and when the next round was ordered they switched me over to beer. And they were all drinking beer anyway, so I didn’t switch back to talla.
Another friend of theirs was there and this man was really something special and for me he was sort of the centre of the evening. He works with Derege at the Catholic private school and his specialty is biology and he’s one year senior to Derege. The fact that they felt they had to point that out… It’s the first time that’s happened in Ethiopia, so I guess age and seniority does have importance here.
His name was Gitahun and his English was impeccable as was his knowledge of the west along with everyone else which continues to amaze me. Very interesting man because he not only teaches biology at this school, he’s a freelance radio journalist working for the Ethiopian shortwave program Voice of Ethiopia, modelled after of course Voice of America. He reads the news. He translates from Amharic into English and this kind of thing. So he’s a real radio man. And to my pleasure, to my joy, he mentioned that he listens to CBC Canada all the time. I guess you can get it here, and I asked him, well, then you must know Peter Gzawski not expecting him to say yes but indeed he knew who Peter Gzawski was. He listened to him all the time and admired him as much as I did.
Gitahun offered to make me some tapes or find some tapes of traditional Amharic music for me, which I really appreciate. Unfortunately, Abiy and the history student are both teetotallers. They used to drink, but they don’t anymore and at the beginning of our little get-together they went to have a cup of coffee, and I was actually quite sad to see them go because I really enjoy Abiy’s company and his conversation. In this instance, however, Gitahun more than made up for it and our conversation ranged over so many topics it was bewildering. We talked about Korea and Koreans and different nationalities, the British, and throughout this they kept the beer coming. I didn’t have any choice in the matter. They drank very quickly and every time they needed a new beer, they ordered three so three would come, one for me. I soon had three glasses in front of me, two of them half full and the third one completely full and there’s just no way I can drink that much particularly since I hadn’t had anything to eat since around lunchtime. I found that one of the reasons I’ve been sick a lot is because I was mixing alcohol with food, having a couple of draft before I ate. It didn’t help my digestion at all. And knowing this was going to be a drinking evening, I didn’t want to have stomach cramps so I simply didn’t eat for the whole day so the beer went straight to my head.
At one point in the evening, Gitahun and Derege practically offered me a job. They were curious to know how long I was going to stay in Ethiopia and trying to return all their compliments cause they were complimenting me continuously, I said that I liked it here so much that I would never leave. Both of them jumped on that comment and said that would be wonderful if I stayed and in fact they’re currently short an English teacher at their school and the way they described it, if I wanted that job given nothing going wrong I could probably get it. The salary would be equivalent to foreign salaries. I would be making a lot more than they did, but I guess they generally have a foreign English literature teacher there but at the moment that post is vacant and it sounds like a perfectly feasible thing to do. From the sounds of it, that teacher didn’t really teach a course in literature so much as work very similar to what I was doing in Korea, just being a resident expert in the English language and you could essentially run your own class. It sounded like the previous teacher was not that good, but he could get away with doing anything at all because he was the resident foreigner, the ferenj.
This isn’t something I’d like to do if it required an incredible amount of preparation and paperwork and bureaucracy and flying to Canada and getting it organized and flying back. And I don’t think I’d want it to interfere with my bike trip. This is something I’ve planned quite carefully, and I think a lot of the good things that are happening to me is because of this bike and the whole idea behind the trip. And if I abandon that now and stay in Addis and take this job I’d end up regretting it. I’d be better off leaving as planned at least to the north, exploring the country and then if there is a job like that available I’d consider it at that time. And my experience travelling around Ethiopia will stand me in good stead in whatever kind of work I track down.
Gitahun inevitably mentioned at one point that I reminded him of a movie star but it was someone named Alan. This has happened to me all over the world of course, and in fact I’m doing it now and I can understand it more because of that. When I was in Korea, I used to tease the Koreans or make fun of them because they couldn’t look at a foreigner without comparing him to some movie star and I thought that was kind of weird because the movie stars they picked out looked nothing like us. But now that I’m here in Africa, I find having had no experience with black people at all as I look around at them, I’m pigeonholing them as movie stars. I look at one and say he looks like Eddie Murphy and she looks like Oprah Winfrey. He looks like Danny Glover. He looks like Morgan Freemen. Oh, there’s Samuel L. Jackson. When I look for a peg on which to hang their appearance I inevitably go towards my own experience of black Americans and that’s in the movies.
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