Traveling in Africa is not easy. Traveling alone, single and female is all together something else. I had spent much of my youth doing just that. When I say youth these days I mean my 20s-40s as I am nearly 60 now and thought I was finally and happily in that “invisible” class, which, like wearing an opaque black veil, gives you the freedom to be anything you choose. But that is not the case in Africa. Not now, not ever. With the mantle of whiteness, even with age, there is no invisibility in these parts. And so it was that in my beloved Ethiopia, which had I visited many times “in my youth” I still seemed to attract what one guidebook author called “plonkers,” those school-age boys who see a target and go right to work.
I was in Addis for business this time – some 25 years after my first round of visits. At that time I was an eager reporter with a few good scoops and spent my savings to go there and do what I needed to do for my career. It was famine time in 1983-85. I was there to report about the Falashas, a tribe of lost Jews who were leaving the Ethiopian highlands in droves to cross into sprawling Sudanese refugee camps and get airlifted in the dead of night by Mossad operations to Israel.
It was my first time to Africa, actually my first time anywhere, and I fell in love with everything about this country – the wafting smells of exotic spices mixed with the smoke of frankincense, the rolling hills under billowing clouds, the beauty of the people whose physiognomic perfection seemed to take my breath away. I was hooked and came back again and again. I came back to cover the war of independence in Eritrea (and was subsequently arrested in Addis) and I came a time or two for romance. Yes, I surrendered to the alluring concept of an exotic liaison and let it take me over. It was all part of my youthful peregrinations, which lead me far off the beam before humbling adulthood (albeit delayed) could take its course.
So when I touched down in Addis at the age of 58, some cringing realities took hold. First there was the 90-minute line to process my visa, vying with a crush of humanity to get into a little room where four people at desks wrote every record by hand into large ledger books and then wrote carbon paper receipts. Then there was the hour line to get someone from immigration to process my passport. Foreigners – ferengis – were driven into one thick line that never moved. Never. I finally broke the line and went to a “local” immigration kiosk where the officer sat staring into space. I greeted him with a disarming laugh and joke and he processed me through. I looked back to the non-moving line. They just stood there, not following my lead.
At that point I knew Addis Abeba was just another African capital, like Lagos or Accra, which would hold no magic for me, just traffic, dirt and hassles. And I began to question myself for coming this way. The days this time were long. I was there to meet with government ministers and airline ceos and not to wander aimlessly around the city to see what trouble I could get into. My last visit was during the time of the Dergue, when Ethiopia was ruled by a Communist dictator and people whispered and looked down when they spoke, frightened of being overheard, frightened of being seen with a “ferengi.” Today’s Ethiopia has a parliament, some struggling touches of democracy, and is friendly again with US government officials who run aid programs here and keep these smoothed with international financing. The arches bearing portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin and the famous statue of Lenin facing the airport are gone. The former prison that was called “the end of the world” in Amharic is still there but the torturing, I am told (thousands of people were systematically strung upside down and beaten on the arches of their feet and killed during the time of the Dergue), has stopped.
But the streets are still the dusty paths of rubble they were then. The shops are mostly tin shacks selling cigarettes and laundry powder. “Supermarkets” stock their thin shelves with oil, rice, oats and coffee. Even the Hilton, the one top class place where you could find a working bathroom and get a chicken sandwich in my youth, still had the same dark leather furnishings in the lobby and the same yellow chairs in the bar where I once huddled with reporters from AP, NYT, UPI and AFP for planning sessions in famine coverage.
So it was with such thoughts in mind that I decided to find my way to the Piazza this time. The Piazza is the oldest part of Addis, built by the Italians during their 6-year failed occupation in the 1930s. But the buildings have stood the test of time, and now the area bustles with wholesale supply shops and electronics outlets. Still, there are the cafes there where one could get a perfect espresso and cannoli. Where most of the buildings around Addis are either broken down tin shacks or huge, empty office buildings created with no design in mind by the Chinese, the Piazza has character. The Italianate Deco edifices have arching entrances, shuttered windows, color and a certain solidity lacking elsewhere in the city. But I could not find the spots I had held in my memory for so long. None of this area seemed familiar to me.
I wandered into a café by accident and immediately two college aged boys stood at my attention. “What do you want? Are you looking for something? We can be your guides.” Hot, vulnerable in the equatorial sun, I spoke to them. They wanted to “practice their English,” – another term for hook onto you. “Where are the old cafes?” I asked. “Come, we will show you. I study tourism at the university. Let me be your guide.”
I had been strong until now, avoiding the “plonkers” as they came my way one after the other asking if I needed help, asking if I needed a taxi, asking my name. This dominant boy was particularly cute in his boiling rasta hair and rascally smiles. They swept me out on the street, walking this way and that. The Piazza began to come to life for me – a memory here, a discovery there. So we walked like this, seeing the famous St. Georges cathedral, sitting under trees that have been providing shade for Ethiopians more than a century, checking the rows of outdoor booksellers for things I needed (but not willing to pay their ferengi prices) and then off on another mission –to change money on the black market.
For this we needed to take a minibus (at 20-cents each) to Churchill Road. We wandered down rubbley, rocky paths to a tin fence and went through the rusty gate to what looked like an outhouse. Inside, a man counted money. He did not look at me. He looked at my money. Did my dollars have rips, were they too old? I wanted to change $100 and settled on a rate of 18.30 (the bank rate is 17.5 birr/dollar.) What would I save on this deal, $5? So I gave him my money and he gave it back to me. He wanted a single note, not my 20s. I came down to 18 birr, not a great rate but the deal was done. And we were done, but not so fast. My boys sensed I was tiring of their silly comments in broken English so took me to a bar. I believed I owed them something for their time so ordered rounds of injera and shiro or whatever they wanted to eat and we ate – well.
I happily paid for the lunch and got up to leave when I was segued into a hidden room in the ally. In it a floor of grassy stems, tables of men sipping water and coffee and all in the darkness, like stable animals content with their hay, chewing khat leaves. The leaves, bitter and laborious to chew, provide a bit of a buzz eventually, more like a sip of wine after two cups of coffee than a cocaine or marijuana high. The leaves are grown in parts of Yemen, Somalia and hot parts of Ethiopia and for all the times I tried to chew these delicate leaves, I still could not stomach the stuff. Despite my declines, the bags came and the boys chewed with abandon, as if the end of the world were already here. The khat smelled like fish. Each bag cost around 80 birr, $5 and I had counted six of them so far.
I got up to leave and bid them my farewells and thank you’s. But what I got was a tussle.
“You cannot just leave, you have to pay for this. We have no money! We will be shamed!” they protested.
My youth self would have whipped out the big bucks rather than see these poor boys cry. After all, did I not owe them this much? My adult self, muttered something about not enabling their pathetic behavior and that they will just have to suss this problem out for themselves and learn their own lessons.
I bid them good bye and kept walking, leaving them in their shock that a vulnerable single ferengi lady could not be manipulated into hosting them for an evening.
I am ready for Ethiopia, I thought. Tough, single, nearly 60. Bring it on!