Travelers hold authentic experiences with locals in high regard. To see a new place not just with your own eyes but through the eyes of people who live there is to many what traveling is about. It separates a traveller from a … tourist. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of these experiences, but until now they’ve all been enabled by my bolder traveling companions. Today I had my own solo encounter with some of Addis Ababa’s citizens. It’s not something I’ll soon forget.
As I dip further and further into the non-rational, I’ve picked up some new habits. Amongst these habits is drawing a tarot card every day. Once drawn, I keep the card in mind. Regardless of any mystical woo-woo I can believe or disbelieve as the wind changes, the card and its story give me another way of responding to my life that day. A random one I may not have come up with on my own.
Today’s card was the 4 of pentacles. This card is about material success and the stability it brings. Good fortune. Indeed, I just got paid for another slice of my longest running and most lucrative contract. My budding freelance career is going well. It pays a tiny fraction of my corporate salary, but it’s able to comfortably support my much-reduced needs and gives me vastly more freedom.
The card represents prosperity but it comes with a warning: don’t be a miser. Share your wealth. So perhaps today I ought to give a few more birr to some of the huge population of beggars in Addis’ streets.
With that in mind I set off to visit some sights in Addis. The Palace. The mausoleum of Emperor Menelik II. Just some tourist basics.
I saw neither of these guide-book staples. Not for lack of trying, though. My maps failed me. So I just walked. And walked. Past armed guards and beggars. Past impromptu side-of-the road car washes. Past the massive UN complex and past the vast Addis Ababa park, whose every entrance was locked and guarded by a soldier with a machine gun.
Eventually I neared an imposing church thronging with activity on the other side of a busy thoroughfare. Feeling the weight of all the photos I haven’t taken with my costly new camera, I headed to the cross walk. Well, I headed to it after a well-armed bank security guard gestured at me to cross legally as I was poised to Frogger it across the busy city road.
Perhaps he noted the wad of notes I’d just taken from his ATM and was shepherding me to the shearing station.
In any event, I met my two new local friends for the day at this intersection while waiting to cross: two guys in their late 20s. Yonas and Yoseph.
They hailed me. They wanted to practice their English. They like to show foreigners the real culture of Ethiopia. Yonas is a reggae DJ but doesn’t do that much any more. Now he goes to school to learn history and tourism. Yoseph has a similarly-vague employment status.
Talking to them was fun. They were truly engaging, articulate and with a with interesting perspectives on life. Their english was far better than other Ethiopians I’ve met here.
We walked to the church, which they said was closed for a holiday. The courtyard was full of people praying. Evidently it’s orthodox lent, a period of fasting. Fasting in this context means a series of food restrictions (no meat, no fat, etc..) and only one meal per day. After the fact research revealed that it’s not the start of lent, which was apparently on the 7th. So maybe “holiday” was an overstatement — or lent is 50 days of holidays here. Details were hazy; perhaps that’s not surprising since Yonas described himself as an atheist.
Regardless, they want to celebrate this holiday. They want to celebrate with me. Would I like to join them?
Yes, yes I would. And yes, from the beginning the whole thing felt too smooth to be spontaneous. But I was enjoying myself and curious at how this would turn out. Getting to know some locals when I’m here for a couple of months would be great. So despite misgivings that this encounter wasn’t genuine, I went along. Violence and outright theft were my main concerns and these guys didn’t look violent. (Which is exactly the sort of ill-founded judgement that gets people knifed.)
Thankfully that judgement was accurate enough. I never got hurt.
We duck off the main road and into an alley. We leave the big streets with their generic concrete modernity and a series of quick turns sends us into warren of tiny random alleys ending in a corrugated metal shack. We sit down in someone’s home; smaller than a shipping container yet with a similar style. It featured a double bunk bed and a living-room area and provides shelter for a family of four. The living area has a small table surrounded by cozy padded bench seating. We sit.
We start with a vegetarian injera dish, because of course this is lent and we must fast on this holiday. Like all good atheists.
Definitely not Khat
Then they bring out plastic bags filled with green-leafed branches. They claim these leaves are definitely not khat. It’s a much milder stimulant that gets flown in from the South (coincidentally, this is where khat comes from too). They get flown even to the US. It’s good for conversation, they say, good for relaxing with friends and enjoying the day. Yonas allows that it is also a treatment for diabetes (which is yet more evidence that it’s not khat, as khat is bad for diabetes).
To consume the stimulant, you pick a bunch of leaves, form them into a ball in your hand, add peanuts and give it to a neighbor. You receive a ball from a neighbor, pop it in your mouth and chew it. Like gum they say.
We chew ball after ball. Keep it on one side so you can still talk and drink, they say. Soon I’ve developed a mature wad on the side of my face. Slowly I grind it and the juices go down my throat. Eventually the leaves disintegrate and follow the juices down and it’s time to replenish the lost mass.
We discuss a huge range of topics: what they think about America, various presidents, the poor quality of African leadership, their lives and their community. They tell inscrutable jokes, set puzzles to me (name all the African countries without an A or an E in the name). We tell our favorite music and movies. Plans to move and create businesses. Helpful words of Amharic for me. Thoughts on the world. Sports. My ignorance of soccer didn’t go over well for the guy with the Manchester United tattoos. I let them know, menacingly, that the only sport I watch are MMA fights. So, you know. Don’t fuck with me. I watched Nate Diaz submit Conner McGregor last week, so I can definitely mess an entire room full of guys up.
It was fantastically entertaining. The leaves were bitter but not gross. A steady supply of tea and coffee was supplied by the — very pregnant — woman who owned the establishment/home. This nicely washed down the particles which strayed out of their designated home in my right cheek. With the tea and the coffee, the effects of the leaf were mild and hard to notice. Definitely not khat.
Not thinking myself a total rube, I wondered idly as I was enjoying it what the scam was. Yonas mentioned his brother who operates tours. Maybe a long game to sell me a costly trip? The longer we went on the less outright violence seemed likely. Pick pocketing? Maybe. But all my valuables were sitting in my ultra sexy fanny pack. Were the drugs meant to befuddle me? To the extent that I could feel an effect it was definitely a stimulant: more anxious. More energy. Taking what they wanted while I was passed out stoned in the gutter didn’t seem like the plan.
After about four hours we were winding down and I got my answer.
The reveal was simple and quick: as with any bar or restaurant, the end of the party brings the bill. And the bill the pregnant proprietress brought was a doozy: 3800 birr. Almost $180. A month’s good wage. This was like one of those Vegas hip hop/sports blowout party receipts you see on the Internet: 20 bottles of Cristal, 20 of Grey Goose, a case of red bull, etc… $46000 for a night to celebrate 50 Cent’s fiftycentishness.
So, split 8 or so ways that’s… A look around the table informed me that we were not going Dutch. No, we are a long ways away from the Netherlands and there is only one person in the room backed by the unlimited wealth of the USA, and that person is now experiencing the disappointing seediness of the situation.
Of course, it’s dishonest. How can that really be the price for a bunch of leaves? How could they regularly spend that much on a holiday or a drug party? How can they expect me to pay when they invited me? This is a scam and we should let the police sort it out.
But here’s the thing. 4 of pentacles. $180 is a lot of money, for sure. I’m no longer in a position where that’s merely an accidental Amazon order of crap I’ll never use. But I’m living cheaply here and making decent money. These guys are clever enough to rope me into a scam which gets their little community paid or at least high.
And I also know that this was a genuinely delightful experience until the end. A unique experience for me. I know to be a little smarter next time. Take pictures of the people involved. Message someone my location. Tone down the recklessness when it doesn’t detract from the experience.
But seriously, $180? I should at least argue them down. They shouldn’t just get away with this, it’s just not right.
So what did I do? I told them I knew that they’re grifting me. I told them it was not fair for me to pay a bill I never expected and could not have imagined (not-khat goes for 257 birr a bundle, more than $10 — and we had 12 of them). I told them all this plainly, with what I hope was contained anger. And then you know what?
I paid the bill. In full.
You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here
After that, the party dissolved quickly, they hailed me a cab and sent me on my way. Yonas and especially Yoseph looked incredibly ashamed and guilty. I was sheared but they were sheepish. What is simply the sign of a true professional, him playing his role to the end? Such a misunderstanding! Or was it an addict’s guilt at what they need to do to fix, strong but washed away by their drug of choice? I’ve no idea.
Now I realize I fertilized some ugly weeds by doing this. Had I looked, I’d’ve found this particular scam in almost identical detail on Lonely Planet. I took in drugs of unknown origin (from which I experienced nearly all the effects of
Khat, good thing it definitely wasn’t khat), perhaps covered in pesticides. I gambled with my health and safety.
But ultimately I felt that I didn’t figure out the game before it was over, and so I lost, so why not be generous about it? They’ve plenty of encouragement to continue this regardless of what I do. Things have indeed gone materially well for me. And I can hoard that wealth as I’ve done in the past. I can rail against the unfairness. Or I can have this experience of being the mark in a well-done con. Of being the Santa Clause for kids who’ve been crafty and morally flexible all year long.
After all nobody, not even a criminal, loves a miser.