post New York to Harar

July 17th, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 00:15

Travel journal by Nancy Chuang

Semqua and I were each on a fourth mini bottle of red wine. It was the most enjoyable intercontinental flight I’d ever taken alone.

My drunkenness was heightened by lack of sleep; I’d purposely stayed awake the previous night both to take care of all those niggling last-minute things and to crash hard on the flight. But thanks to Virgin Atlantic’s impressive entertainment system and my inability to both cradle my backpack and sleep soundly through my interminable Heathrow layover, I was still exhausted. I’d dozed a bit on the second leg, but upon waking for dinner, I chatted with Swedish-born Ethiopian and London university student Sem happily the rest of the BMI flight.

He taught me my first Amharic words—tadias (hello) and ameseganalehu (thanks)—then teased me when I tested out my new vocab at the airport bank counter at 4AM. With a hug and a kind offer to lodge me when I returned to Addis, my new friend bade me farewell while I headed off to Dire Dawa.

© Nancy Chuang

Ethiopian Air requires re-confirmation of all flights the day before departure. While many locals prefer face-to-face confirmation in the airline offices, I breezed through check-in at the domestic terminal thanks to the quick email I’d sent to the airline before leaving home.

Despite the second bag check at the gate, no one bothered to tell me my backpack was too large for the small plane’s overhead compartments. The airline seemed pretty casual about the whole thing, flight attendants gently admonishing me with beautiful smiles and then simply tucking my pack into a corner. I noticed another passenger actually stood the entire flight so yeah…they weren’t fussy.

Outside Dire Dawa’s small airport, the taxi drivers fighting over me offered the option of taking a private car all the way to Harar rather than a minibus. Not ready to splurge so early in my trip, I insisted on getting to the minibus station, where I basically met a new man every few feet saying “Harar? Get on bus.” They seemed to think I would lose my way in the 40 feet between the parking lot entrance and the minibuses.

I should have checked for seats on the apparently-full minibus, which took off immediately while mine sat for 30 minutes as I tried to ignore the ancient woman out the window with her pleading eyes and hand outstretched, and children reaching inside to sell tissues (locally referred to as “soft”) and gum. Behind me, a man nonchalantly asked his plump seatmate if he’d purchased two seats because he was so fat. Making light of it, the Dutch tourist dryly said, “Thanks for the compliment!” Grinning, the Ethiopian replied, “It wasn’t a compliment, it’s a fact.” Welcome to Africa!

The sweet young woman wedged in between me and driver smiled constantly but spoke no English. She’d caved and purchased gum from the hopeful children, immediately offering me a piece. Unable to make conversation, I found myself staring in awe at the rolling mountain scenery. I’d heard plenty about Ethiopia’s beauty, but the green valleys were still an unexpected thrill.

The road between Dire Dawa and Harar is on good asphalt, but parts are still under construction. Slowed more by frequent stops to pick up new passengers along the way, a distance that could be covered in an hour took almost two. Shenanigans ensued when the driver informed us we had too many passengers to get through the customs check. What customs check? Where did the regional border begin? The line of minibuses pulled over, re-shuffled passengers until every minibus held no more than 12 passengers, and eventually drove on.


Exploring the City with Child Guides

Considered to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, Harar’s walled old city contains perhaps the world’s greatest concentration of mosques, devout women in headscarves, and while I was there, a joyful population preparing to celebrate Eid Al-Adha. Outside its graceful white walls and atmospheric alleyways, the hectic, densely-inhabited modern city feels like a giant open-air market.

Upon retrieving my backpack off the bus’ roof, I gaped at the seething crowd until my kind seatmate grabbed my arm. As we walked through the station, the baggage handler yelled in Amharic until she pushed a tip into his waiting hand.

© Nancy Chuang

She pulled me into her friend Efraim’s mototaxi. Tewodros Hotel was only a short walk away, but I had heavy bags and hundreds of eyes on me; in the brief period since touching down in Ethiopia, I’d already sensed the infamous “ferengi-hysteria” building.

The eager young receptionist at Tewodros spoke only halting English. Immediately after showing me my room, he gently recommended the resident guide’s services. Disoriented, I told him I wasn’t sure yet; uncomprehendingly, he asked me several more times.

The Harar Gate, the Haile Selassie-era addition to the five traditional gates into the old city, was close to the hotel. Within minutes of entering the wall, Efraim drove up on the wide main road with a big smile.

“Remember! I am here if you need anything! Do you still have my number? Write it down again!”

I wish I’d had the nerve to call and taken the opportunity to hang out with locals. But it’s difficult enough for a woman to trust strange men without being the one initiating a meeting—what impression does that give?—and there was no guarantee he’d invite the girl from the bus.

We made small talk as a couple kids sidled up to the mototaxi. They acted like they knew Efraim, but soon it was apparent it was just my first case of “ferenjo, ferenjo, let me be your guide…

Unable to shake them, I allowed the small boys—who claimed to be 16—to show me their city. Ambling vaguely along the cobbled dusty alleys, the kids served as nothing more than company; yet I depended on them to get me out. While my guidebook claimed it was impossible to really get lost as long as one followed the wall, I couldn’t see the wall.”

The boys led me to a traditional Harari home, now a guesthouse requiring a few birr to visit. A woman showed me around while a young man—perhaps her son—impassively watched TV in the main room, its high walls covered in the famous Harari pottery and baskets.

While I hadn’t expressed interest in shopping, the boys took me to a small store with beautiful baskets on display. As I examined the work, the lead boy noted, “white people sure love baskets!” I’d been previously informed that Africans consider all non-blacks to be white, but was still startled. Me? White?

We strolled past the street tailors of Mekena Girgir into the odoriferous meat market, surrounded by optimistic birds of prey. A man struggling with a camel’s bloody head insisted I take his photo for one birr. I didn’t even want the picture but as the crowd grew around me, I didn’t know what else to do but agree.

A merchant woman in a makeshift tent called out, “American? American!” Cackling, she called herself a Jamaican, revealing her mass of dreadlocks as proof. A refugee from Shashemene lost in Harar? I refused the plain injera she offered to share but took a few photos of her adorable child, after which she screamed out for money but didn’t chase me down.

A car pulled up and the men inside asked where I was from. “New York,” I said. Mysteriously, they then screamed “GROUND ZERO!” with huge grins, pumping their fists joyfully.

We left the market and exited through Showa Gate, surrounded by another market. The boys had repeatedly asked me to see the hyena man with them, but still exhausted from the journey, I repeatedly deflected. One tried to convince me the hyena man was his father, and their persistence won me over in the end. They ran off before we reached the hotel, begging me to say nothing to the live-in guide at Tewodros.

The hotel guide Guma approached immediately and informed me that it was illegal to see the hyenas with my unofficial child guides; whether or not that was true, I decided it was easier to go with him instead of some random kids. Almost an hour early, he knocked on my door and awoke me from a long-delayed deep slumber. We rescheduled for the following day.


Harar and its Hyenas

I don’t think Guma owned a watch because the previous night he’d tried to pick me up for the hyenas almost an hour early. I’d been too exhausted from the long travel day to go then, but tonight when he showed up 30 minutes early I was ready.

Harar has a weird relationship with hyenas. The tradition of feeding raw meat daily to hyenas, which by most sources dates back only to the 1950s, may have transformed into its present version from a yearly ceremony begun centuries ago during a famine. Hararis fed the starving hyenas porridge to prevent them from attacking humans, and continued to set out a bowl of porridge yearly to symbolize this pact. The amount of porridge left in the bowl later came to represent the success or failure of the year’s crops. Sort of an Ethiopian Groundhog Day.

© Nancy Chuang

We strolled across the football field behind Tewodros Hotel, taking in the pleasant Harar evening. Guma was the first person I’d met in Ethiopia who spoke English fluently, although there were still misunderstandings. He agreed that directions to Babile’s camel market were not clear in guidebooks, but also insisted that it was simple to follow the stream of animals from the main road, yet the stream hadn’t existed.

As relieved as I was to find an English-speaker, I wasn’t comfortable with the way he looked at me, or his insistence that we should have spent the day together to avoid some vague peril. Was he trying to assert his indispensability, or was it something more salacious? He said I should never have planned to hike in the Valley of Marvels alone because it was dangerous. He said the bus driver dropped me off in the construction camp instead of Dakata because Dakata was also dangerous. It seemed odd that none of this was mentioned in my guidebook. Walking along the dark path outside the old city’s walls, I grew uncomfortable with his staring. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the feeding site and I gladly ended the conversation for a while.

The site was at Fallana Gate, with a younger hyena man rather than long-established Yusef Pepe. This hyena man almost seemed bored, and did not attempt to create any mysterious atmosphere in his relationship with the hyenas. They seemed like docile dogs being fed by their owner.

Even so, there was something intriguing about the feeding. The furry hyenas were surprisingly cute as they nosed curiously at the man’s basket of food. But when a car pulled up with a tour group, their fangs glinted in the headlights, snapping at strips of raw meat. The hyena man alternately fed them from his fingers and off the end of a metal stick. The tour guides, familiar with the procedure, also took a turn feeding the hyenas and invited their guests to join in; I was too chicken.

The feeding lasted perhaps no more than 20 minutes, during which the flashes from various cameras never ceased. I paid Guma the agreed-upon 50 birr and he gave a portion to the hyena man. Until seeing the small crowd at the feeding, I would have sworn I was the only tourist in Harar. Afterwards, I still wasn’t sure where the others I’d seen were hiding.

We walked back through the brightly-lit old city. At night, Harar was full of activity, with stores still open and street stands selling food. I wished I had a travel partner to visit with. Guma wasn’t an acceptable substitute, as his overly-familiar behavior turned me off. He wasn’t even that helpful in his capacity as an officially-licensed guide because of a collision with another pedestrian. He was so distracted soliciting sympathy for the small cut on his forehead that he couldn’t help me negotiate for photos.



1 Comment »

  1. OMG those hyenas are bigger than I remember them to be….Uuuuh. Thanks for the article.

    Comment by Kokebe — 17. July 2008 @ 15:27

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