011 – The Tall Man and the Fat Man
When I left Alfa at the taxi stand, I started out walking back across Abiot Square towards the Palm. On the north side of the square there was a small tourism office and I stopped to see what they had in the way of maps, but it was closed. When I turned around, I found two men standing there and smiling at me. One was tall, thin and unshaven, the other short, fat and sweating. I looked at them askance, my experience with Alfa still fresh in my mind.
The fat man informed me that the place would reopen at 2:00 p.m. and suggested that I wait in a small tea stall around the corner. I thanked them for their help and turned to go, but before I knew what was happening they’d lockstepped with me, one on each side, crowding close. I admired the neat psychology of what they had done. Nothing had been explicitly said, but they had managed the impression that an invitation had been given and accepted. Who had given the invitation and who had accepted was unimportant. To get rid of them now would require a degree of direct speech and impoliteness I was unwilling to use, at least right away, and they knew that.
We sat a table and I had my first cup of shai – Ethiopian tea. I watched the waitress’ practiced movements over at the counter. She took out a box of “Wush Wush” (“Intelligent”) tea and shook out some loose leaves into a small plastic strainer which she placed under the lid of a large brass kettle. While waiting for the steam to pack the leaves together and get the flavour flowing, she lined up three tiny but thick handleless glass cups and quickly filled the bottom third of each with heavy granulated sugar. When the tea was steamed, she removed the strainer and held it over the first of the three cups and poured water through it. It came out a dark golden brown. She moved the strainer deftly from cup to cup moving it up and down to better judge the flow of water. She had the air of someone who had done this thousands of times before, which of course she had.
My two companions turned out to be guide/hustlers and wasted no time in setting about their work. They had the same basic strategy that the ragamuffin armies had. They would force their ‘guiding’ services on some unsuspecting foreigner before he realized what was happening. Then they would be within their rights to ask for payment. That you hadn’t asked to be guided was immaterial. The service had been rendered. Now payment was due.
The fat man was the go-to guy in their particular team, and we were barely seated before he launched off on long, boring set speeches about Ethiopian tourist sites. The words poured out of him in a torrent, tripping over each other. I recognized place names like Axum, Gondar, Lalibella and the Simien Mountains but nothing that came in between.
I kept trying to put the conversation back on a personal level, and I asked them questions about themselves personally, their names, where they lived, where they were born, their families and their jobs. I thought that by keeping the conversation on a personal level I could lessen their bargaining position when it came to asking me for money. The less they said about Axum and Lalibella, the less they could bluster and howl about being my tour guides when the inevitable demands for money started. We would just be people having tea together. But these guys were unstoppable. They were the ultimate tour guide/hustler tag team, and I couldn’t break the flow of their words.
I paid for the tea and got up to leave, but they followed me outside and down the street. One of them literally dragged me by the arm to a place that did the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony and tried to force me through the doorway. I wrestled free. Then they got angry and demanded money. Then surly. Then insulting.
I finally got rid of them and walked back towards my hotel hounded and hissed at by dozens of children. Every street hustler wanted to shake my hand. And then there were the real beggars everywhere. I got back upset, angry, confused, hungry, and depressed, very depressed. And it wasn’t just the hustlers and the fact that every kind word seemed to be a part of a con. It was because I was thirsty and hardly dared stick my head outside to get something to drink. I was hungry, and getting something to eat promised to be such an ordeal. I’d been subjected to dozens of horrible warnings about the foolishness of cycling north. Robbery seems a certainty and attack and injury very likely.
Something else bothered me as well. Every single person I’d met had tried to con me, and I was hassled everywhere, but beneath this lay a real need and I couldn’t really blame them. Penniless, homeless, hungry, they had every moral right to be angry at this jerk from Canada carrying $4,000 worth of cycling and camping equipment who comes to their country for an adventure. Like an idiot, I planned this trip like I would be cycling in Canada except the people would be African. I wanted adventure and I got reality instead.