Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ethiopia and Kenya

After my forced exit from Yemen, I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with high expectations for my African adventures. Expectations notwithstanding, as soon as I cleared immigration I was played for a small sting. The culprit and I had shared the flight, so I lent him my otherwise guarded trust and shared a taxi with him. When I was dropped off at my hotel, he asked for my “half” of the fare, and, unknowingly, I paid his share also. The scam was small, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth, and set a bad tone for my trip. I slept with suspicion.

I woke up and decided to give Ethiopia a second chance.

As I explored the city, I heard a familiar sound as I walked into restaurants, bookstores and music shops. I was sitting in an Italian restaurant when, realizing where I’d heard this familiar sound, I was overcome with a terrible anxiety. In a number of late 80’s and early 90’s romantic comedies, there is a song that narrates the climax of the story. The climax: A pensive lover realizes that the trifles separating him from his better pale in comparison to the monument of love. At this point, the man—sans the aid of cell phones—scurries to find his lover, and, after tearing apart the city, finds her, admits his shortcomings, professes his love and grovels … the "song" being played throughout this scene. You know the song; an electronic hum, heavy emphasis on vocals, a few timely drum runs. Anyway, I subconsciously associate this sound, leaking from every store and restaurant in the city, with climatic, life-altering moments, and I found myself scurrying urgently nowhere and ready to confess nothing.

In Addis Ababa, one's health is safe, but money will be preyed on by the opportunistic hustlers scavenging the roads. Being the only white guy in the street, I stood out, and rarely had a chance to walk in peace. The scammers were roughly my age, and would start friendly conversations before trying to take me places were people were celebrating the “holiday” and eating green cake. I don’t think there was any holiday, and I never found out what green cake is.

The incessant 80’s music and aggressive hustlers were crushing my traveling spirit, so I decided to jet. My destination: Zanzibar.

Zanzibar is an island that floats off the coast of Tanzania. I’ve dreamed about visiting Zanzibar since I was a little kid, specifically after watching the National Geographic documentary “The Leopards of Zanzibar,” which follows a soccer team, Leopards of Zanzibar, as they journey from their dirt and sand soccer fields to the big city stadium in Dar Es Salaam. Life in Zanzibar seemed simple. The documentary recorded the lives of the locals living in Abweju, a city on Zanzibar, and, to my youthful eyes, the city appeared utopian. Under an equatorial sun, the women would cultivate seaweed in the Indian shallows and gossip about their husbands who were off in deeper waters spearing octopus. In the evening, the men would gather and practice soccer on the beach while a glowing sun waned in the background.

But, Kenya stands between Ethiopia and Zanzibar, and I headed to the bus station to inquire about the next bus to Moyale, a border town between Ethiopia and Kenya. Walking into the bus station, I discovered that everything was written in Amharic. The most academic way I can describe the look of Amharic is “Hebrew on crack.” There weren’t any English signs, and none of the employees spoke a helpful amount of English. So, after buying a ticket to Moyale, I asked, “When does the bus leave?” The employee responded “Tomorrow at 12:30, but, for you, 6:30.” I thought to myself, what the hell does “for you” mean? We repeated the same script a couple times and both grew frustrated with the other’s stubbornness. I didn’t know if he was dropping a metaphysical riddle on me, or just trying to piss me off. Later, I found out that Ethiopia does things a little differently than the rest of the world. For example, Ethiopia is 6 hrs. ahead of European time, and they are in the year 2003, some facts that can easily throw off an unsuspecting traveler.

The morning of my departure, I arrived at the bus station an hour early with sleep still in my eyes, and, in keeping with the tone of my trip, the bus left an hour late. As the bus began to rattle toward Moyale, I noticed a sticker of “Jesus” looking at me. I wondered if it was the sticker manufacturer’s goal to portray Jesus as a pathetic metro-sexual returning from a salon with fresh Cherubim Blond highlights and an eyebrow waxing. I thought about it some more, and concluded that the actual Jesus looked more like the Western perception of a terrorist than the images displayed of him in American living rooms (and Ethiopian stickers). In fact, if you sat next to Jesus on an airplane, you would probably be nervous, especially if he started dropping the apocalyptic one-liners to which he was prone.

I rode the bus all day, finally stopping at a small town to catch some rest before another day of travel. At a wooden shack I bought Obama Orange flavored gum, featuring, of course, the First Family on the wrapper. After a surge of flavor, Obama Orange lost its taste rather quickly.

After two full days on the bus, I arrived in Moyale, the quintessential border town, an African Tijuana. It appears that dreamers afraid of work and criminals gather in border towns; maybe they think they’ll be the first to catch a hot tip from the other side of the border, or know that, if they feel the heat, they can step into the neighboring country and dodge prison. Regardless of the population make-up, I decided the first thing I should do in Moyale was get my hair cut. After receiving an excellent chop, I mingled with the locals, chewed qat, and caught some sleep before my 07:30 to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

The hotel where I slept was questionable. The manager of the hotel was a fat Somali with midnight skin and Sammy Davis Jr. hair. His words bellowed from his gut and when he spoke his body quaked and the room echoed. His voice was disturbingly deep, and although I rarely understood his Arabic, I didn’t ask him to repeat himself.  My room couldn’t be locked from the outside, and, on the inside, a bent nail hammered into the doorframe could be swiveled over the door to offer an illusion of safety (in case a toddler was trying to break in). I paid 5 dollars for the room, and was probably ripped off.

Although the official languages of Ethiopia and Kenya are Amharic and Swahili, respectively, Arabic is used by many, and, in Moyale, many of the people are Muslim, so finding someone to converse with in Arabic isn’t difficult.

The drive from Moyale to Nairobi takes 22 hours. For the first ten hours of the trip we traveled on what could barely qualify as a road; the bus shook so violently that a window fell from its frame and landed on a passenger. Sleeping was impossible as the driver raged through the Kenyan countryside.

Once in Nairobi, I wasted no time finding a way to the next border city, Namanga. Approaching Namanga, I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro. The lonely mountain engulfs the horizon and towers above clouds meagerly adorning its face, demanding all eyes give notice.

Namanga is on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and I’ve been here for the last 4 days. The precedent for my African travels set in Ethiopia, which turned me irritable, suspicious, and explosive, was erased in Kenya.



  1. "After a surge of flavor, Obama Orange lost its taste rather quickly." -- well put.

  2. nice read.

    p.s. Aramaic is not offical language of ethiopia

  3. Correction made, thanks CountyMan.

  4. if i quit my job and give up some of the finer things in my life, can i join you in your travels?

  5. haha maybe, but, some roads are meant to be traveled alone sister

  6. You writing is gold.

  7. "After a surge of flavor, Obama Orange lost its taste rather quickly."