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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
In Africa 31.I.2009 07:56
When I was in Cairo, there were a few days when everyone's eyes were fixed on their television screens because al-Ahly, Egypt's premier football team, were playing in the World Club Championship as African champions. Although the vagaries of geography do indeed make this an accurate designation, I can state categorically that Egypt, like all the Arab countries along the Mediterranean coast, is a different world. Geographically speaking, I've been on the continent for over a month, but only a week ago, in the Ethiopian border town of Metema, did I really enter it. The backpackers' refrain here is TIA - 'This Is Africa,' first coined in a movie I believe - used in all the situations in which you have no recourse but to shrug your shoulders or shut your eyes and put up with something that any normal Westerner would consider unthinkable, the mosquitoes, or the bathrooms, or the total absence of the concept of scheduling. I had never had much of an interest in sub-Saharan Africa before I came here, but Libyan visa regulations have brought me here and it's certainly been a fascinating experience.

In Khartoum, I had met Jerry and Peter, who were on a Cairo-to-Cape Town trip, and we soon found ourselves heading as fast as possible towards the border so that we could be in Gonder for Timkat, Ethiopia's national holiday which coincides with the celebration of Epiphany. We did in fact make it across the border in time, but not to Gonder - instead, we wound up in the town of Shehedi, about halfway to our destination, which at first didn't please me one bit but in the end I was quite happy about, because it was a much more authentic Ethiopian experience than any I've gotten so far. We met two priests, who were also teachers at the primary school there, and they showed us around everything and were quite open about the problems they faced - one of them said he hated living in the north (especially the food: more about that later), but the centralised system of job allotment made it impossible for him to teach in his hometown. The school was really cool though, and one kid - my favourite so far - could point to all African countries and all other major ones on the world map, beaming with justified satisfaction.

The other thing that impressed us in Shehedi was our first taste of Ethiopian coffee. I cannot overstate what it feels like, after five months of uninterrupted Nescafe, how good it feels to drink a proper cappuccino - or rather, macchiato, which we've learned was the drink of choice around these parts. We'd been afraid that Ethiopia, despite being a great coffee-growing country, would not be a great coffee-drinking one, but oh were we wrong - and, at 2 birr (20 cents) each, it's almost impossible to say no to another. I can honestly say I've had more than is strictly consistent with a healthy lifestyle. Combine that with draft beer at 3 birr a pint and you've got a recipe for a culture of just sitting down, relaxing and drinking that the Middle East - with the possible exception of Cairo's ahwas - just can't match.

The flip side of the drinks, however, is the food, about which I'm of two minds. The staple - and by staple I mean 'only' - dish around here is injeera, a barley-based bread that has earned the nickname 'towel' for its appearance, consistency, and, to some, taste. I actually rather like it - it's particularly good with tibs, slices of lamb served with the wonderful and ubiquitous Ethiopian spice berbere - but I have to admit it wreaks havoc on the digestive system. Combine a stomach full of that with some of the bumpiest roads in the world and buses for which 'shock absorption' is but a distant dream and you have the recipe for one angry stomach, as my friend Matthias discovered the other day on the twelve (twelve!) hour bus ride from Gonder to Aksum, so much so that he and his girlfriend are flying rather than busing out. I was all right, but I certainly can't describe it as pleasant. Of course, there's nothing you can do - TIA.

Although Ethiopia, unusually in sub-Saharan Africa, has a number of historical attractions, there are two main reasons people come here - the people and the natural beauty. Unfortunately, I have to say that in Ethiopia, my experience with the former has been largely unpleasant. This is particularly hard because many Ethiopians I've interacted with - like, I think, people everywhere - are very welcoming and helpful to guests. Unfortunately, here in the more-touristed north, every city is crawling with 'guides' - English-speaking guys in their late teens or twenties who stick like glue to any faranji (foreigner) who happens to arrive, 'helping' them with anything they might need, cheating them at every opportunity and then demanding outrageous 'service' fees. The Western instinct to be nice, polite and inoffensive is a huge disadvantage when dealing with these people, and I've been involved in several disputes, one of which resulted in around six teenage boys threatening to stab me to death as I slept over 20 birr ($2).

In one incident, a guide (Abebe from Bahir Dar) had a friend come up to my floor while he and I argued over a minibus I hadn't asked for, a friend of his (who I thought was a hotel guest) borrowed my mobile to talk to his brother - I shouldn't have given it to him, but I did, because I was so focused on the argument. Then, while the guide distracted me, the guy simply walked away with my phone. Of course, I figured everything out pretty quickly - it wasn't what you'd call sophisticated - and immediately accused him quite loudly of being a thief and demanded he come with me as the hotel manager led us to the nearest police station. Of course, the police knew him and believed me very quickly, but he still refused to admit his guilt, although at points he was near tears in the face of the 4-6 year jail term he was facing, and he eventually agreed to call the guy (his best friend, turns out) and give me my phone back. (Here, I have to pause a second to extend a big thank you to the staff of the Tana Pension in Bahir Dar, and to the local police department, especially Haile, who is a great guy and helped me quite a lot). What I can't understand is why he went to the police in the first place when I had told him that if he just got my phone back we could forget the whole thing - but all of them have this teenage boy's pride (and lack of foresight) that must cause them no end of problems. That's why two guides and their friends threatened to kill me in Gonder - they felt that spending three minutes leading me to a hotel where my friends were staying (I hadn't asked them to) was worth 20 birr when I had offerred them two. They knew they were cheating me, but just couldn't let go; they had convinced themselves that they were being cheated themselves, claimed that they could make 100 birr in five minutes and didn't need my money (the Bahir Dar guy similarly claimed he could 'buy 20 cell phones any time'), and then proceeded to spend the next four hours following my friends and me around town and giving threatening looks - in which time, by their estimation, the idiots could have made $480. Of course they didn't do anything - the police are everywhere and could absolutely destroy anyone who hurts a tourist - but it was pathetic to watch the display of menace they tried to put on over absolutely nothing. But that's what happens when you see people as mere vehicles of making money, and I've never been treated with less dignity or respect than by Ethiopian guides.

The problem is that in Ethiopia, it's not just the touts and guides - there's a huge culture of begging (and entitlement) pervading the country. Now I understand that the country is extremely poor, but here, every child talks to you in the hopes of gaining money - some as blatantly as opening with the phrase 'give me money!', though others are quite cute about it and have pretty good English. Restaurants here have faranji menus with double prices, and we've had at least five disputes with bars and pool halls over how much we drank or payed. Every thing has to be carefully counted, and every birr argued over, because almost any business owner has no qualms whatsoever about cheating you - minibuses, in the Arab world a haven of scrupulous honesty, were the first place we got scammed here, charged double becaue they thought we didn't know any better. Actually, the guy charged triple, but the bus station owner said we were lucky to get him to give us half back and said arguing further 'just wasn't worth the effort.' They won't even let you take your own bags off the bus - they hand it to someone on the ground beside you who hands it to you, so that they can charge you a service fee, and one of my attempts to avoid this got me a loud lecture on my responsibilities as a bourgeois towards the proletariat (it's still pretty socialist here). I understand all this, of course - in Egypt, I paid baksheesh with much less resentment than many - but here it's so completely all-pervasive, happening at every turn, and also done with such a total lack of respect that I find it maddening. I can't blame them - the desperately poor do desperate things, although the guides have more money than many - but having to be constantly suspicious of everyone, and having to open all new encounters with 'no money, sorry,' is hardly a pleasant experience.

Now, I admit that all Ethiopia is almost certainly not like this, and these experiences are entirely from those parts of the country where package tourists, protected from anything authentically African by Hummers, portable toilets and, in one case, an entire truck-mounted hotel throw money around with no concept of fairness or damage to society at rewarding begging, which even the government here knows is huge - I never give to children because it mostly makes them drop out of school. But the other mitigating factor - the one that makes every TIA moment here and in other countries worthwhile - is the stunning natural beauty. I spent three days trekking in the Simien mountains, and I simply cannot describe, nor convey in photographs, the otherworldly splendour of the landscapes. There is no plateau here, and the highest peaks are so far above the ground that you look down on other mountains, and the paths are so close to sheer cliffs that you feel you may walk off at any moment. I was here with a group of five others: the two guys from Khartoum, Marta and Ingunn, two of their friends who are Scandinavian but actually study in Warsaw, and Jurgen, a pretty eccentric German guy we'd met in Gonder. Everyone in the bunch had a different passport (I'm on my Polish at the moment), and it was a truly European group - between us, we had about six or seven different languages at least a pair of us could speak. The three days we spent trekking were arduous, since it's not really something I'd done before and we'd decided to go hardcore and carry our own packs, but the amazing views, and the ability to come face to face with hundreds of gelada baboons, was absolutely worth it, and I can definitely see why companies use such experiences for 'team-building' - though I think if I'd been forced to do it it would've been absolutely miserable. The group of us parted in Bahir Dar a few days later, and it was really a sad moment for me, even though we'd only known each other for about a week. That's one of the great and difficult things about travelling - you meet and grow close to a lot of amazing people, but at some point your paths always diverge, and you can only stay in touch with some, though I definitely hope these guys will be among them; I've promised I'll visit Marta and Ingunn in Warsaw.

Anyway, those are just a few of the many things I meant to write about Ethiopia - one interesting one I'm just going to throw into the last paragraph here is that of a phenomenon I thought no longer existed: the village idiot. This is a guy, possibly with a mild mental disability, who dances around, yells at people, rolls in mud with a huge goofy grin on his face, and sometimes gets angry for no reason, all for the amusement of onlookers who give him a few birr for his trouble; I think it goes without saying that I felt very uncomfortable in these situations. Now I'm in Aksum, a historically important (though visually unimpressive) town, and steeling myself for four days of bus rides through Lalibela to Addis that I believe my friends Matthias and Kari have decided they're not prepared for. The internet in Ethiopia being what it is - terrible even for Africa, I'm told - photos won't be going up until I'm back in the Arab world, but I'll try to get in a blog post or two. In the meantime, dehna hunu - be well.

Aksum, Ethiopia Et

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