The kindness of strangers comes with a price

January 11, 2014
10:30 p.m. local time
Bethel Guest House
Addis Ababa, Ethiopa

My friend Kitty and her team were not scheduled to arrive at the Bethel Guest House until late afternoon, so I decided that I must take advantage of the free day by visiting downtown Addis Ababa on my own. I didn’t know anything — I still don’t know anything, really — about this teeming metropolis that is sometimes called the “capital of Africa” because various international organizations have their headquarters here.

I was up at about 7:30 and went into the bathroom to bathe. There was no water to speak of — it dribbled out of the bathtub faucet and just gurgled in the sink. I started filling the bath and and the depth reached about an inch before the water just stopped.

So I got dressed and went down to breakfast.

There was one place set at the table, and on the table were cold toast (carefully wrapped in saran wrap), a bowl full of fruit, liquid pancake batter, a cereal bowl, and pots of coffee and tea. I wasn’t sure what to make of the pancake batter — put it into the cereal bowl, since there was no cereal? But I did know how to peel a banana, and I recalled the advice of my travel nurse from the Penn Travel Clinic: “Boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it.” I peeled and ate.

And then the cook came out of the kitchen and asked if I wanted an egg. Yes, please!

And then I tried and failed to pour coffee. I’m not sure if my travel nurse would have approved, because coffee is not really boiled, and who knows the provenance of the water with which it was made? But I didn’t care. I was NOT going to spend time in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and avoid drinking it. With help, I finally got it to pour — thick, black, and strong.

After breakfast, I went back to my room and used my washcloth and my one inch of bath water, and I gave myself a cold sponge bath, put on clean clothes, and went down stairs to conquer Africa.

The front desk clerk had phoned for a taxi for me. You’re thinking a spacious yellow cab? Think again, my friend. This was a classic Soviet-made Lada from the 1970s, and I felt like Oliver Hardy trying to get into Mr. Bean’s passenger seat. I was never able to sit up straight during the whole half-hour trip to the center of Addis.

And as you would expect, my ancient, wizened driver drove like a madman. We had hardly started before he plowed straight through a herd of donkeys wandering down the street. We dodged minibuses and pedestrians, sailed by goats and their goatherds, and nearly crashed into other cars several times. The Lada reeks of gasoline fumes, and I was feeling lightheaded when we got to Meskel Square. On the map printed in my guidebook, this had looked like a promising start for a walk around downtown. In real life, it looked somewhat less promising.

But I gamely hopped out and started walking purposefully, eager to look like I knew where I was going. I brazenly crossed the multiple lanes of traffic, just as confident as a local, and turned toward a church. If you know me at all, you know that old churches are catnip to me.

I walked up the steps from the street. Ethiopian music played from a hidden loudspeaker. The church seemed to be closed, but there were a dozen or more people sitting around, praying, or walking up to the locked doors to cross themselves, genuflect, and kiss the doorposts. In the grounds of the church, there were several shrines — mostly religious posters or paintings behind glass. I looked but wasn’t overly impressed. I walked on.

I passed the enormous Africa House, home of the United Nations in Addis Ababa, with its manicured grounds. I passed the Hilton, protected behind shrubs, fences, and guards. I kept walking uphill toward what my map identified as the “Old Palace.” I thought there might be something to see at the top.

And then a young man fell into step next to me and struck up a conversation. Now, the guidebooks warn against just this kind of thing. A helpful “student” will strike up a conversation, show you lots of things, and then present you with a huge “bill” at the end of the day. It’s a classic scam. And I knew this — I had just read it in my guidebook yesterday!

And yet, when it happens, it’s not at all easy to stop.

And in fact, maybe it’s not really a scam. It depends on what’s valuable to you. I was alone and was quickly realizing that I knew nothing about this city. Not a lot of people spoke English. I wasn’t seeing anything that was all that great. And it was kind of fun to start chatting with this nice young guy with a horribly broken incisor. He was headed uphill to a church. I walked along with him, and soon he was showing me several churches, one dedicated to Gabriel, one to John the Baptist. Here was a bell in a rather ugly campanile. In the distance, a loudspeaker blared an Ethiopian voice that reminded me of the call to prayer at the mosque near my guest house.

We kept walking uphill, past an enormous and ancient tortoise who grazed at the verge of the path, and were soon at the oldest church I’d yet seen — although, since Addis Ababa was only founded in the late 19th century, it wasn’t really that old. But it was a tall stone church octagonal in plan, and it was solid-looking. A respectable church. My young guide hailed an older man in a navy suit. They spoke to each other in Amharic, and soon the young man disappeared and the older man spoke to me in rather broken English, telling me how important this church is.

I was like a drunkard. How could I say no to this confident man in his best suit? I followed him up to the church. On the east side, a wedding was in progress! Sitting on the western steps of the church, facing away from the building toward the west, were the bride and groom and perhaps a hundred other people. This was no stereotypical African chaos. It was formal, even stylized. There were Ethiopian monks in black, and priests and deacons in white. The bride and groom sat side by side on the stairs, and all the bride’s kin sat on her side of the center line of the stairs. All the groom’s people sat on his side. Facing them and the church’s great west doors, a priest spoke on and on and on in Amharic. No one talked except the priest, and occasionally the voice would stop and people would applaud politely and briefly.

The pavement to the west of the church was empty, but along the low walls at the edge of the pavement, a couple hundred onlookers sat. Some seemed like they might be beggars, but others looked like family and friends who were there just for the wedding. It was rather beautiful, and I felt like I was intruding. My elderly guide said, “Go head! You take pictures! Is OK!”

He ushered me to a side door of the church, and we walked into a dim narthex. A dozen women stood or knelt in the cramped space, davening in a way that that an Orthodox Jew would recognize immediately. My guide said, “This is the area for women. Men and women pray separately.”

We passed through a velvet curtain into a similar narthex for men. Here, half a dozen men were doing the same thing — gently rocking, holding not tefillin but prayer books. Like the women, they prayed silently.

And then we passed through a door into the center chamber of this church. There, in front of me, was the Holy of Holies.

In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, as I understand it, the Holy of Holies stands always at the center of the church, or the center of the east end — where you would find an altar in a Catholic, Anglican, or Greek Orthodox church. In the Holy of Holies is a table of the Ten Commandments. A priest can enter once a year, but lay people are never allowed. In this church, the Holy of Holies was a freestanding room within the church, made of rich carved wood. Within the central chamber of the church — the sanctuary — there was enough room to walk around the Holy of Holies, but not much. Here there were more men praying, using prayer books that looked to be copied by hand. My guide pointed out some of the artwork high on the walls. And then he said, “Now we go down.”

We took off our shoes. He rolled back some of the carpets on the floor of the sanctuary and there was a trap door — a metal door like you see on the sidewalk in front of a Philadelphia rowhouse. He pulled it open and a steep staircase descended into the gloom. He went down on his hands and knees, and I followed on my hands and knees.

He flipped on the lights and we were in a crypt, perhaps 25 feet square, that was crowded with objects. In one corner, a bookcase filled with codexes on vellum, written in the ancient Geez language that’s used only for religious services in the Ethiopian church. In a glass cupboard, a shelf of thuribles that excited my Anglo-Catholic heart. And taking up most of the space, three enormous stone tombs.

Here, at rest till the last trump, was the mortal remains of the Emperor Menelik II, modernizer of Ethiopia. His consort, Empress Taytu, lay in an equally imposing tomb one one side of him, and his daughter, Empress Zewditu, lay on the other. I felt like I was in a secret chamber, although I am sure many tourists visit here. In fact, an elderly monk had followed us down the stairs and went to a little desk. He presented me with a guest book, where I wrote my name, and then he showed me an admission ticket with a price on it: 50 birr. My guide said it was customary to give alms at the same time, and 100 birr would be a good amount. Five bucks seemed like a paltry gift for such a hidden wonder beneath the floorboards of the Holy of Holies.

We climbed the stairs again and circumambulated the Holy of Holies. On the far side, my guide opened a small door in the wall and showed me the picture it was hiding — a Madonna and child in the Renaissance style. He told me that it was a gift from the Italian church, and that it was an authentic Michelangelo. This I doubted.

I gathered up my shoes and we returned to the bright sunshine outside. The wedding was still going on, the wedding guests just as quiet and reserved as before. We headed down the hillside, passing the spring of holy water where priests fill their buckets each morning, and passed the tortoise, still munching on the grass.

And then my elderly guide stopped and told me his bill for the services he had rendered. 400 birr, he said. Twenty dollars. I thought this was outrageous, but what can you do? I don’t speak the language, don’t know who his friends are, don’t understand what the going rate is. I tried to bargain, but I did a poor job, and soon my wallet was 400 birr lighter. Then the young man — the one with the broken tooth — reappeared.

So what did I do? Why, it was like seeing an old friend! We struck up a conversation. He taught me some words in Amharic. He asked if I could tell how old he was. Since I knew he was a student, I guessed that he was 16. But I was way off — he was actually 20, he said. I asked if he could tell how old I was. He appraised me carefully. “Forty-three,” he said. I was shocked at his accuracy. He said, “I am very good at telling how old someone is. Other people look at the face, but I look at the body.”

I had no idea what he meant by that, but it didn’t sound like a compliment.

As we walked along, he pointed to the top of the next hill and said, “There is the Holy Trinity Cathedral. There is buried the Emperor Haile Selassie.” We kept walking.

Now, Holy Trinity Cathedral is in all the guidebooks, and here there were a busload of European tourists who had come because this was a must-see stop on their tour. Here also were Americans with oversized cameras and fat bellies. We walked around the outside of the church and I considered whether I wanted to go inside.

Finally, I decided to go in, because, really, how often do you get to see the tomb of one of the 20th century’s great dictators? The ticket, sold in a separate office near the courtyard gate, set me back another 100 birr, or $5. I went into the cathedral and removed my shoes.

Holy Trinity Cathedral was built by Haile Selassie to celebrate the end of the fascist occupation of Ethiopia. It’s a rather small version of a baroque basilica. The emperor and his wife are entombed in marble in the north transept. I wasn’t wowed here like I had been back in the crypt of Menelik II. As I sat in a pew on the north transept, near the door, I wondered what to do about my young gap-toothed guide outside. I was sure he was still out there. How was I going to get rid of him?

An old priest standing by the cathedral door put out his hand, asking for money. I showed him the ticket I had purchased, and he studied it carefully before returning it to me. He put out his hand again, asking for money. I smiled, shook my head, grabbed my shoes, and exited.

Outside, I sat in the shade and my guide asked me how I liked it. “Very nice,” I said. “I liked the emperor’s tomb.”

As we walked on, he asked me if I was married, and I said no. He asked why not, and I said I hadn’t found the right person. He didn’t approve. “You must marry,” he said. “And have a boy and a girl. That is enough.” I agreed solemnly.

As we walked out of the north gate of the Cathedral grounds, I could see that we were approaching a very vibrant commercial area, but I was getting tired, feeling like I’d had enough touring for one day. But my guide wasn’t done. The national museum was just five minutes’ walk away!

I told him that I was tired and that I didn’t think that I wanted to see the museum, but it was so pleasant to keep walking that we did. We passed another church, this one dedicated to Mary, and he crossed himself three times and kissed the stone gate. We came to the National Museum, and he turned to enter the grounds. I held my ground.

“No,” I said. “I do not want to go in.”

“Is very nice,” he said.

“No, thank you. I am ready to go back to my hotel.”

And now came the negotiation. We stopped on the sidewalk and he began telling me how he had a plan to sell maps to tourists so that they could find their way around the city. All he needed was the capital to buy the maps. He rattled off numbers — how many birr he would need to buy the maps and sell them. He was sure that I’d want to be an investor. He said he was in school during the day, but he wanted to work on Saturdays and Sundays, when the tourists needed help.

Incidentally, you can read about this racket right in the guidebook to Ethiopia. Countless tourists have been taken in by it.

I said, “How much should I give you for the time you have spent with me today?” He had been with me all morning and had proved to be an amiable companion. He dodged my question.” I said, “I will give you 300 birr,” or $15. His face fell. He was crestfallen.

“I have spent three hours with you! I try to help you! Six hundred birr is what I ask.”

I said, “I can give you 500 birr. That is all. I need money for my taxi to get home.” And that was that — I was out $25, knowing that I had been taken.

Except I wasn’t sure I had been. How much would you pay for an unforgettable experience — a day without a lifeline in an unfamiliar city? By the end of today, I spent about $85 for two half-hour taxi rides, admission to a couple of churches, and a friendly companion for a few hours’ walking tour. Was that a bargain or a rip-off? I don’t really know.

I have been telling people that I’m not going to Africa to see big game or tourist sites. Kitty and I will indeed be going on a safari, but that’s only secondary to me. I came to Africa to mingle with Africans and immerse myself (if even for a tiny bit) in unfamiliar cultures. I want to throw myself into the deep end of the pool and see if I can swim. I want to eat unfamiliar food, talk to strangers, and feel the pulse of African life. I think I did that today.

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One thought on “The kindness of strangers comes with a price

  1. Well done, Jay! $85 sounds like a good deal for such an extraordinary day. I love your sense of adventure AND the fact that you’re chronicling it all for us armchair travelers. Keep it coming!

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