Chapter 3: On and Off the Road
Ghion Abassel Hotel, Dessie, Ethiopia…
Did you know that behind Washington and London, Addis Ababa has the largest number of ambassadors of any city in the world? It’s true. On any given trip around town, you’ll see more signs pointing the way to embassies than you will street signs. Benin. Finland. Canada. Jamaica!
Speaking of trivia, last night Jim hosted his bi-monthly trivia game at the U.S. Embassy. Unlike the other embassies with their signs directing you to their front gate, the U.S. instead subtly disguises itself behind a block square compound surrounded by two-story razor wire-topped walls and massive yellow concrete barricades.
I’d never been to an embassy before, so I was excited to see what it was like and meet some of the people who worked in such an important place. The embassy compound was much huger than I expected. Behind the layers of barriers and security checks were grounds shaded with groves of trees and its own parks, tennis courts, pool, housing, garage and general store.
I was worried about playing trivia with a group of highly-educated people who have lived all over the world and who’s job it is to keep up on current events. But after a couple of Bati beers it sounded just like any other after work happy hour: complaints about crazy schedules, dumb managers, discussion of practical jokes played on co-workers and plans for the coming weekend. And I think I held my own on the trivia questions. At least I was the only one to know that the Zombies performed “Time of the Season”.
But that was last night. Right now, Jim and I had the Nissan Patrol loaded up and were trying to find our way out of Addis Ababa to officially begin our road trip. Immediately, we hit a snag because Kofi Annan was in town and they simply shut down several major roads completely. We followed some Blue Donkeys and soon were back climbing the hills on the outskirts of the capital. Our destination was the town of Dessie, some four hundred miles to the north.
Before we left, Melissa reminded us that some of the rural people believe if you jump out in front of a car right before it passes, the vehicle will kill any evil spirits that may be following you. Plus, when you put a road through a village where, at most, a few people own vehicles, the road becomes a nice sidewalk. And a convenient place to herd your donkeys, sheep, cattle or camels. All of which we spent most of the day dodging on the roads.
“Road”, we were soon to discover, was a loosely defined term. Sure, we were usually driving on relatively flattish surfaces devoid of trees that, possibly, at some distant time, had been covered with asphalt in sporadic places. The quality of roadway varied from decent to what could have been dried up riverbed. At some points, we were bounced around so much I was afraid my airbag was going to go off. This is while managing hairpin turns on a mountainside with some insane Al Qaeda truck held together with chewing gum and duct tape coming around the bend the other way.
At one point we came upon a tunnel through a mountain. And it was literally a tunnel. No lights or pavement. Just a big hole with a faint circle of light at the other end. “Is this the darkest tunnel you have ever been in or what?” said Jim squinting into the headlights. “Take off your sunglasses.” I replied.
The imminent and constant fear of vehicular demise still didn’t detract from the scenery. I wouldn’t say the villages we went through were attractive in any sense of the word, but they were certainly interesting. All the Amharic lettering, the wooden donkey cart taxis built on old truck axels, new foods, new people. Scenes that were simultaneously foreign and familiar blurred by the window. Friends smiled and shook hands. Kids chased each other home from school shielding their eyes from the sun with notebooks. Grocery shopping for the evening meal was done (Although the butcher shops with huge shanks of meat hanging out with only shade for refrigeration almost made me go vegan). You could buy lumber or bundles of charcoal. A wedding party danced its way across an open field, brightly pimped out parasols happily bobbing above the heads of the couple and priests. Life goes on.
There were stretches where you could stare at the rolling fields and gentle hills full of golden wheat (tef, actually) and imagine you were somewhere in the Midwest. Then you’d pass a farmer herding a cow in a tight circle to thresh the grain outside his mud and stick hut. Just as his ancestors did a thousand years ago. Except there might be an electric line running by it. Not to it, just right on by. It was made even more surreal by the fact we were blasting Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” from Jim’s iPod inside our SUV.
We only saw one or two other ferengi the entire day, so when we rounded a sharp bend and found ourselves on Dessie’s main street, it felt like there was a needle-across-the-record moment. The curious and close stares we got from everybody made us seem like the town’s entertainment.
Dessie means “My joy” in Amharinga. But I think it translates to “armpit” in English. Maybe ‘armpit’ is too harsh a word, but it would be a synonym for sure. I know. I know. This is the Third World. But Dessie had an obvious grunginess about it that even the residents of Deadwood would call cocksuckingly dingy. The government-run Ghion Ambassel Hotel was a little walled haven from the dusty fevered throngs on the street, but it still left much to be desired: tissue thin walls, a medieval toilet and a mattress that folded in half like a lumpy taco. The art nailed upon the wall appeared to be a photo of two pit bulls with huge horns fighting in a jungle. But for $15 a night, you can’t raise your expectations much above sea level.
Rather than risk feasting upon ‘Risted Lamp’, we went for beef tibbes with injera. This national staple—which means it’s likely that the chef has actually made it before—is beef tips cooked in a spicy sauce that you scoop up with a chunk of the spongy injera bread. It was filling, but the beef was so chewy I had to check the menu to see if I had ordered belt by mistake.
The hotel had a ping-pong table in a little shed that Jim and I checked it out after dinner. “There’s bird crap all over it.” he noticed, walking around the white-splotched table.
“How the hell did that happen?” I wondered.
“It’s from that bird up there.” Jim pointed to a huge pigeon sitting in the rafters just a few feet above us. “The one that just crapped on me.” Sure enough, the avian had bullseyed Jim’s head and shoulder with a fresh load of pigeon pudding. We beat a hasty retreat to our room, laughing the entire way. At least I was.
“This’ll kill the germs.” I said handing Jim the bottle of Johnny Walker Black we had brought for just such occasions. I also opened a pack of Finger brand cookies from Turkey. I bought them in Addis simply because I wanted to make a joke about giving somebody the Finger. It certainly wasn’t for the taste, which was akin to cinnamon ground into a piece of cardboard by a dirty boot.
Jim was unzipping a small pouch holding six shiny spheres. “Is that a mini-bocce ball set?” I joked.
“It is.” He held them aloft for effect.
“Soooooo, I’m in an Ethiopian hotel eating Turkish cookies, drinking Scottish whiskey about to play a game of miniature Italian lawn bowling…”
“It’s a small world after all.”
“Thanks. Now I’ve got that damn song in my head.”
Up on the wall, the two horned pit bulls grinned at us.
[In Our Next Installment: “My eyes are more powerful than your Uzi…”]