Travel Stories

Ethiopia - Addis Ababa/The Mark

          Addis Ababa – which everyone calls Addis – is definitely not anything like its southern East African counterparts.   Not in topography, ethnicity, nor as best as I can see, culturally. Topographically it sits 7,500 feet above sea level and can get quite cold at night.Ethnically the Ethiopians - an ancient Greek word meaning “sunburnt faces” - are a genetic mix of African, Arabian, and Eurasian, with high foreheads, receded hairlines, and angular faces, in a country comprised of more than eighty major ethnic groups.  And culturally Ethiopia is in a world of its own, a high percentage of Ethiopians belonging to the Coptic-like Orthodox Christian church, a faith and set of beliefs with significant Judaic resonances.  Plus the documented culture and history of Ethiopia reaches back well into the second millennium B.C.,and as such is a society with deep recorded traditions and roots – a “civilization” as opposed to much of sub-Saharan East Africa which emerges from more contemporary “tribal” traditions. 
         Not to mention that “Lucy,” the oddly named three million year old,short, small brained, bipedal Australopithecine ancestor of us all was found in Ethiopia, which Ethiopians proudly like to say is “where it all began,” and what has been recovered of her partial skeleton is on display in the National Museum, where she is known by her Ethiopian name, Dinkinesh, also the name of the Ethiopian National Women’s soccer team, that means “Wonderful” in the Afar language of Hadar, the region where she was found in in the GreatRift Valley, which itself clearly played a significant and determinative role in human evolution.  Oh don’t get me started on this anthropological evolutionary archeological stuff, because it is fascinating to me, and also a bit subject to controversy, inasmuch more recent recoveries/discoveries- subsequent to Dinkinesh’s recovery in the mid nineteen seventies, which gave Ethiopians bragging rights to the being the home of the most clear link until then in the direct human evolutionary chain - in places like Kenya, also in the Rift Valley, cast doubt on which subspecies of Australopithecine was in fact the most direct evolutionary antecedent of modern humankind, or indeed, if we are a blend, which is what I suspect.
         So fast forward a few “ma” (each ma being a million years in archeology speak) and along comes the oldest clearly direct ancestor of modern Homo Sapiens, grandpa Idaltu - Idaltu being a word meaning “Elder,” or “First Born,”in Afar - whose skull is also displayed reverentially at the National Museum and was a totally modern human who lived and died in these Ethiopian valleys a mere 160,000 years ago, or only about 8,000 generations back, and who, along with his kin is clearly in the direct line of my father’s father’s father, and my mother’s mother’smother’s father … and yours too. 
        Anyhow, before even visiting the museums, the first priority for me in Addis - a huge sprawling mushroom of a city - is to get oriented. I do this in the most casual manner, I’ve got the time, by walking up to the main streetfrom my first hotel, jumping on a bus, any bus, paying the fare of five cents, getting off at a local market a few kilometers down the road, wandering around eyes open, getting on another bus, any bus, going in the opposite direction, away from Diaspora Square, paying the fourteen and three quarter cent fare (hey, the fare collector gave me back a coin worth one quarter of a cent),getting off in a neighborhood called Merkel Square, wandering around again, having a great cup of coffee, the first of many, and getting completely but comfortably disoriented and lost before being found in my wanderings by a young Ethiopian man named Dawod, who says he is a student (of course),  and who wants to know if I want to see “traditional Ethiopian dances” being performed this very day not far from where I presently am.  Wherever that may be.  Do I really have “mark” that brightly tattooed across my forehead?
          So Dawod and I - my new best friend - walk a ways, turn into this very lovely looking exotic residential street running up a tree lined hill, knock on a metal door off a side alley of what are nice homes by Ethiopian standards, which is opened to reveal a bevy of absolutely gorgeous young Ethiopian women, who all look me in the eye, shake my hand one by one,welcome me smiling, escort me to a lounge chair, sit me down, inquire what I’d like to drink, and start to shimmy and dance, their breasts just reaching out of their blouses  … and only then does the light bulb finally switch to on and I realize, holy shit, I’m in a whorehouse. 
         Now trust me, for better or worst I’ve got no enmity toward our sister prostitutes, and even regret use of the word “whore,” - I think from a P.C. perspective they are “sex workers,” - but the last thing in the world I am interested in is being with a prostitute.  Call me prudish, but it embarrasses me and makes me immensely uncomfortable to be here, and rake though I may have been, I’ve never been with a prostitute in my life and have no desire to start now.  So I walk out as quickly as I can, saying goodbye to Dawod, who has the chutzpah to ask if I’d prefer to see a different “dance company,”and if I would give him a little something for his efforts, being the poor struggling student he is, as I jump into the first cab I see and am back in the safety of my hotel in time to take an early nap and then wake up at 1:00 P.M. local time to watch the Pats streaming live from Gillette Stadium, alone in the solitary comfort of my bed, thank you.Hey, I’ve got my priorities.  And it is only the next day when a part of me thinks I could have learned more - from an anthropological perspective only, of course – about what goes on in the “traditional dance” theaters of Ethiopia, but I also realize I feared, perhaps was terrified is more accurate, getting in too deeply, or getting in at all.