Sept. 9, Addis Ababa
Winter is winding done here. It's a chilly 57 degrees.
Today is Saturday, and the university is closed, so I hired a car and driver for three hours and went into the Mercato, the largest open-air marketplace in Africa. I was warned not to go as a woman alone, so I took the driver along. It was the last shopping day before a national holiday, and the place was jammed. Saw a young boy carrying a baby goat around his neck, a woman clutching five live chickens by their feet in her two hands. Passed a pungently scented section of spices, and saw street vendors squatting and selling "chat," or "khat," a legal intoxicant used widely here and in the Middle East. It comes in bundles of fresh green leaves on a stem, wrapped in larger banana leaves.
Shopping for jewelry, scarves, baskets and knickknacks, I quickly spent $120, then realized with horror that that's close to the average per-capita income in Ethiopia. And again I was reminded of how spoiled I am and how much I take for granted.
Even in the press of humanity, I found people friendly and decent. There was little hassling and few rude comments from men (Ethiopian men are generally shy, I'm told), but there was one very pushy middleman in the covered market who kept trying to force us into his shops, and even seemed to intimidate my driver.
I saw limbless beggars, children hawking things through the car window, people sleeping in the street. Yet for all the struggle and sadness, somehow the place manages to maintain an aura of festivity and aliveness.
My driver supports the Iraq war against what he says is the growing threat of Muslim fundamentalism. He even thinks the United States should take on Iran. That's a very different take from what I've heard elsewhere, both in Ethiopia and in other countries around the world. Ethiopia is predominantly Orthodox Christian and Muslim. The two seem to live in relative harmony.
Struggled in the evening with whether to go to a restaurant by myself or stay in and order room service, and opted to be adventurous. Asked around, got a name and took a cab. The driver took me to a remote, unlit, rut-filled dirt road beyond the railroad tracks, and just as I was getting nervous, we arrived at Agelgil, a popular nightspot. The restaurant had a thatched roof and wooden floor, and a bar that led into the dining room. One wall was adorned with animal skins. At the front of the room was a stage, where two musicians fingered stringed instruments and two others worked their strings with reeds. To the right of the room, a flutist sat on a rock in an alcove decorated like a rock garden. Once again, I was immediately glad I'd come. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming.
Male and female dancers in a multitude of costume changes thumped their feet and shivered their shoulders seductively, approached diners' tables, making eye contact and inviting participation. I smiled but kept sitting.
The food arrived in a large round basket. A spongy flat bread called Injera was dotted with meat and vegetables. Afterward, the fresh roasting coffee was brought around to be sniffed. I'm not a coffee drinker, but this trip is converting me.
Spent some time chatting with the beautiful female manager about a universal topic -- men problems.