Travel Stories

Awet Awoke

         I spend hours and hours in the National Museum and its neighbor the Ethiopian Ethnography Museum, which is housed in Haile Selassie’s old palace on the grounds of Addis Ababa University, in the almost Berkeley-like hills of Addis Ababa.  It is awesome to see the many archeological treasures, to stand literally face to face with the three million year old bones of your ancestors, to be in the material presence of a culture with a history and traditions that go back as far as the ancient Greek and ancient Israeli/Canaanite cultures do.  It evokes a reverence in me, a sense of awe and veneration that is physical, a shaking wonder that I feel, a sensation of being inhabited by atoms dancing with sympathetic pleasure at shared memories and shared histories I will never consciously grasp, of DNA reaching out to DNA and brushing up against it, the living with the dead, like elephants do when they find the bones of long deceased elephants.  I sit for quiet periods of time in the museums in beautifully carved old chairs with my chin in my hands.  I feel high, almost dizzy, as if in the presence of some divinity, overwhelmed by the sight and significance of great and ancient art, old utilitarian stone and iron tools, plows, wooden traces that fit real oxen, huge drums and other instruments, fabric, weavings, gorgeous massive anonymous oil paintings, carvings, castings, authentic old clothing once adorning the bodies of people who’d look perfectly at home on the street outside, the material remains and renderings of the many different cultures that make up modern Ethiopia.  It is hard for me to leave the museums, to say goodbye, to feel this grateful to the mysterious and ancient, past and present all one in time, shaking as I did in Jerusalem, and in the Sinai, knowing with absolute certainty that grandparents of mine walked these very lands, that I am as Ethiopian as I am Jewish, Moorish, and east European, that this is my personal history and where my family came from.  Besides, it’s been a really nice visit with the ancestors.  I’d like to do it again sometime.
         Once back out on the street I am just moving along purposelessly, comfortably, strolling to nowhere I am explicitly aware of, maybe hoping in the back of my mind to get to the central Piazza or the Mercato, but not in any hurry, not really lost, but also not really physically present, almost a bit of a fugue state, maybe just daydreaming, like a person in no hurry, lost in reverie, wandering through an old cemetery reading gravestone inscriptions.  I see the vendors, the students, the shoeshine men, the beggars in the street, but I feel invisible, like my feet aren’t really touching the ground, like I am being carried along by a gentle wind at my back, when what do you think happens?  
         This one says his name is Awet (pronounced Out) Awoke (pronounced Ah  woe kay) - who would dare make shit like this up - that his mother is a blind math teacher in Eritrea, and that he hasn’t seen her in eight years.  He shows me her picture.  He remembers the pain he felt at his parents’ formal divorce hearing when he was four years old and how his mother doesn’t believe he can remember things from when he was four.  (No, Awet, that was my mother.)  He is a refuge, has incurable retinal disease, lives in student housing, gets a stipend of twenty three dollars a month.  Wants to learn German.  Wants to know what country I am from and where I’m walking.
         “Oh, I was just thinking of walking down to the Piazza, maybe finding an inexpensive hotel.”
         “Come, I will go with you,” says Awet, and since I’m just ambling along a public street in the general direction of the Piazza how can I say “No, don’t amble with me.”  I’ve even said to some of these guys who glom onto me, “Look, I’m not going to give you any money,” and they say, “I don’t want any money, just to be a friend,” until we are parting, of course, when they say, “Maybe just a little something to help me, maybe something to eat, it is cold, perhaps a room for the night, something for my sick sister.”
         So there I am, strolling along with Awet, who is actually making what would pass in any circle as intelligent conversation, about the world economic crisis, about Obama’s Muslim heritage, about the crime of Guantanamo and how Obama will be divinely punished for the abuses he condones there.  He even asks what I think.  Seems to really want to know.  Listens.
         We stroll along together for more than an hour.  Stop for a cup of coffee.  Awet offers to pay although I don’t let him.  I get a vegetable skewer.  Offer to buy him one.  He declines.  He leads me to the perfect hotel, in the perfect location.  A hotel that charges twenty dollars a night and offers an all you can eat vegan buffet lunch with vegetables they say they grow organically for the price of three dollars - and the same for dinner, for four dollars - and where I book a room.  Then I go with Awet to a travel agent to try to book tickets to Lalibela or Gondar for the upcoming Epiphany weekend, but all the flights are literally booked, I talk with the airlines reservation desk myself, so instead I book two day trips as an alternative – car and driver –for a modest price (what is going on here?) and the travel agent finds me the cheapest airfare to Dakar that he can find on line, turns the computer screen to me so I can enter my own credit card and flight information, and charges me nothing.  Hello?  I invite Awet to join me on the day trips – there will be no extra charges – and he accepts.  We wander some more.  I say I want to stroll for a while before returning to my hotel and Awet looks sad.
         “Must I leave now,” he asks.  
         I say I am going to look for a cab.  He says, “I will join you.”  We are crossing a busy street and when I get to the other side Awet is nowhere to be seen or found.
         Back at my hotel, strictly on impulse, I drop into a neighborhood pub and restaurant.  I’m not particularly hungry, but a beer would be nice.  On the floor of the pub one of the waitresses is seated on a low stool roasting green coffee beans in a flat pan over a small wood fueled iron stove resting on the wooden bar floor.  The smell is intoxicating.  After the beans are freshly roasted she grinds them.  Then she puts them in a ceramic coffee pot and pours boiling hot water over them.  She adds water from time to time to the steaming pitcher-shaped pot with the very long spout.  She pours coffee from the pot into a small espresso cup, swirls the coffee around, and smells it.  She pours the coffee back into the pot.  She repeats this process of adding small amounts of water and pouring out and back small amounts of coffee into the pot more than dozen times.  The process takes well over fifteen minutes.  I’m mesmerized.  The ambiance in the bar is lovely.  People come in and out often.  Peanut sellers cruise in to see if there are any buyers among the throng.  I order a draft beer.  I buy some peanuts.  The coffee is finally done.  The waitress pours it out into a dozen espresso cups packed tightly onto a tray.  She carries the tray over to me and offers me the first cup.  Maybe it’s the beer or the atmosphere in the bar, but it is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. 
         I notice two men at the next table eating a salad that looks delicious.  They tear off pieces of freshly made injeera, the national bread of Ethiopia, something like a sour airy tortilla, hold it between their thumb and first two or three fingers and use it to grasp a considerable amount of salad that they then stuff in their mouths.  It’s just like eating with your fingers, except the injeera rests between your fingers and the food, sort of like grasping your food with a very flat pancake.  One of the men sees me staring at him eating.  He tears off a piece of the injeera, grasps a substantial amount of salad with the injeera between his fingers, stands up, walks over to the table where I’m seated and offers me the raw salad grasped in his fingers that have already been in his mouth while eating.  I feel I have no choice other than to accept, and, laughing good naturedly, I reach out to take the injeera enfolded salad from him,but he pushes my hand away and puts the whole handful into my mouth himself, as if feeding a child.  The bar is aware of what is happening.  People are laughing and clapping.  I say thank you.  Maybe it’s the beer or the ambiance but it is just a fantastically delicious salad, smothered with fresh garlic, bits of very hot green pepper, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrot.  He takes another handful and puts it in my mouth.  I wave no more to him, but the potentially germ laden deed is done.  It’s straight to the antibiotics for me, prophylactically of course.  And since I’ve gone off the deep end, and the salad tastes so good, and I’ve had nothing but pasta, meat, bananas and beer for days, what the hell, I order a salad.  When it arrives I tear off a piece of the injeera and grasp a bunch of salad with it.  I walk over to the man’s table and offer it to him.  He has no choice but to accept and the bar is cheering as I put the salad in his mouth. 
         After eating my salad a waitress walks around the restaurant with a big metal pizza sized tray filled with freshly popped popcorn.  She stops at each table and offers popcorn to the patrons of the bar, most of who scoop up big handfuls to eat, as do I. 
         When I finally go to pay my bill at the cashier’s I tell her I had one beer, one salad, and one coffee.  She says the coffee was free.  The beer and the salad cost less than a dollar and a quarter, and while I have no idea what else may be the cost, I go to my hotel room ridiculously happy. 
         And, of course,I start the Cipro.