Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Ok, so Ethiopia IS actually in Africa, but what I mean by the title is that every part of every place is different from every other part of that place, and every other place as well, and so you have to look at every place you are looking at as different, and not the same, so Ethiopia and Africa are not actually the same place. Thats right, and I know we've all heard this before, but were all different, and when it comes to places we know almost nothing about, those differences can be a whole lot bigger than you thought, or at least I thought, because I always thought of myself as fairly thoughtful, but the thought never crossed my mind that I didn’t actually know anything about Africa, let alone Ethiopia. Sure we all know one or two things about one or two of the 50 odd countries in Africa, and at least we can all agree that its Dangerous, we all know that much for certain, and we know there are elephants there as well, which is too bad that its so dangerous, because we all like elephants and it would be nice to be able to go see them right? Wrong, well not about the elephants, its true we do all like elephants, but most of everything else, even if it is right about some places is not right for all places, for example, not all places in Africa are covered in elephants, so actually its wrong for most places, which gives us a positive wrong value, and a negative correct value, the sum of which equals we don't know what the hell were talking about, and more research is necessary. Luckily, I'm just the guy to go get the data, mostly by ignorantly putting myself into dangerous positions, and measuring the outcome in terms of "harm incurred". What I am obliquely referring to here is my uncanny ability to get any and all types of major stomach problems while traveling mostly due to the fact that I spend a lot of my time while traveling actually actively seeking out unusual things to eat, smoke, chew, drink, or otherwise ingest. What I’m driving at here is that if I can manage to survive traveling someplace in spite of being constantly debilitated, dehydrated, and delirious with diarrhea, then someone who, say, orders the spaghetti, as opposed to, say, the raw minced camel fat, probably stands a pretty good chance of making it out alive. The bigger point in all of this is that the most dangerous thing you are likely to encounter in a supposedly dangerous place is probably something like a fruit salad, not "Terrorists" (camel fat, incidentally, is delicious).
Getting back to Ethiopia, it really is a unique place, and definitely worth visiting. It's surprising actually, that Ethiopia isn't better known in the west, unfortunately most of the associations people make with the place are negative ones. For a country of over 80 million people, one of the most culturally diverse, historically powerful empires in Africa, the place is practically ignored. In Camilla Gibbs novel "sweetness in the belly" one of her characters, an Ethiopian refugee living in London, observes that his countries relative obscurity is due to the fact that, "there is nothing left there for the world to exploit". Thanks to almost 30 years of communist totalitarianism this is partly true, we can only hope that the world doesn’t start to exploit their culture, Ethiopia really could be left with nothing.
Happily, as of this time, Ethiopia has all the things which make for a great place to travel. It has unusual food, interesting sights, and friendly people, lots and lots of people. The country is roughly the same size as British Columbia, and it has 80 million people in it. I was marveling at the fact that a country which is a fraction the size of our own could have two and a half times as many people, when some German friends pointed out that Ethiopia is roughly twice the size of their own country, but has more or less the same population. However, Addis Ababa, the capitol, has only about 4 million people in it, the next most populous city, Dire Dawa, has only 400,ooo, the next after that far fewer again, so where do all those people live? In contrast to a place like the United States and Canada, the majority of the population live outside of cities. In fact, when you go anywhere by road, it almost feels like you are driving through a never ending village with varying degrees of density until eventually you find yourself in the next city. It has to be a pretty arid and inhospitable region for it not to have been settled in Ethiopia. Even in the Danakil Depression, in the north east of the country, the part of the Earth most resembling Hell, the Afar nomads scratch out a living in the salt flats amongst the volcanoes and sulphur lakes, supplementing their income by extorting money from tourists and scientists who come there not prepared to find anyone.
I was traveling with my good friend Andre, and toward the end of our stay we went out towards the far east of the country, near Somalia. We went to visit Harar, an ancient walled city, regarded as one of the holy cities of Islam. During the week we were there, we decided to get out of the city one day, and go visit the camel market in nearby Babile. We crammed into a crowded minibus and took the hour long drive down the winding gravel road to get there, stopping here and there to pick up beautiful market bound young Somali women who tormented the guys flirtatiously. We arrived in a dusty town circled by a rocky ridge barely visible through the brown haze. We walked down to the corral, where the nomads would be gathering their livestock to be brokered in the afternoon. We took shelter from the sun at the local café, Somali style, which consisted of some woven plastic mats spread out on the gravel next to some thorny bushes, with a shredded tarp roof suspended between twisted tree branches bleached and cracking in the sun. We happily joined a group of men already sitting chewing chat, an addiction I had picked up myself during the past month and a half, and the proprietor, a colorfully dressed and beautiful Somali woman bought us sugary weak tea. While we were killing time waiting for the camels to show up I took the opportunity to do a watercolor of one of the older guys we were sitting with which turned out to lead to all sorts of good humor, as upon completion, he first declared that he should receive payment for his services as a model, and secondly that he should be given the watercolor of his likeness as a gift for his hospitality. Naturally I refused on both counts, and the matter had to be settled by the group, who were already in fits of laughter not only because they found my likeness of their friend to be particularly amusing (it was a hot day, and chat in the morning shows in the eyes), but also because he had only consented to model on the condition that he would kill me if he was displeased with the outcome, and now he seemed to have mixed feelings on the matter. We had brought an interpreter with us from Harar who spoke Somali and English very well, and after some negotiating it was decided I would buy the man 5 birr of chat for his services, but retain the watercolor, and live. Our model, pressing the issue, insisted that we should send money later from Canada, which sent out guide into uncontrollable laughter when the man could provide only his first name and a nickname for an address. Fearing our guide should loose too much moisture through tears of laughter in such a forbidding environment, I decided It would only be prudent for us to pay for our tea and carry on. Besides it was only 9:30, and the temptation to start the daily chewing session was coming too early. By this time the corral was full of sharp looking cattle and camels. What I couldn’t understand and what still perplexes me now is how these people manage to get their livestock so fat. Never in my life have I seen bulls as massive as these, giant humps of fat over the shoulders, and huge thick haunches, no bone visible whatsoever, with skin so tight that if the animal was hollow it would make a terrific drumming sound, but nowhere, as far as the eye could see, was there ANYTHING that looked like it could be eaten. A total mystery to me.