Journey to the East

I decided to take advantage of the long Easter weekend – not as long as it might be because while DFID has a holiday today, the Government of Ethiopia does not – and embark on a Journey to the East, to Harar, a city about 500km from Addis Ababa towards Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland.

Early start on friday, for a 5.00 am check in. Having checked in to fly to Lalibela a few weeks ago with no delays at all, I thought 2 hours was excessive but when I saw the queues (throngs would be a more accurate word) I realised the importance of getting there early. Everyone was travelling for Easter weekend. The throng was getting a bit agitated by the prospect of missing flights, but fortunately I had latched on to someone who is a peacekeeper for the United Nations – I figured that he would help to defuse any rows!

Anyway, we made our flight and 50 minutes later arrived in Dire Dawa. I had been here maybe 7 years ago, en route to Somaliland with a bunch of MPs – I still have the wooden camel that was left for me once the MPs had shared out the souvenir spoils when they got back in Addis! I hadn’t expected to return. There were 4 foreigners – farengos in this neck of the woods – on the flight. We all piled into a taxi to take us to Harar, skipping the hassle of going into Dire Dawa and getting a taxi. It was an interesting trip, up into the hills – or perhaps onto the plateau – from Dire Dawa, the hillsides much greener than expected, with lots of chat cultivation to be seen and lots of small dusty chat-filled market towns.

On arrival in Harar we first went to look at a couple of hotels that the taxi driver recommended, before making it to the Heritage Plaza, which is where I had a reservation. Plaza is a bit out of town, and not in the walled city, which is the main draw of Harar. However, room was OK. A bit shabby, but clean and with a balcony. And the hotel had a nice terrace with a cafe that served great coffee-with-milk.

Friday was spent having a look round the walled city – a maze of cobbled and uncobbled alleyways, houses arranged round courtyards, lots of churches, lots of mosques, and, as the afternoon progressed, more and more people (mainly but not only men) lying on the ground armed with their shopping bags full of chat and a big bottle of water to help the chewing process. By this time I had acquired a guide, with a couple of other young men competing for my business, a competition that was given extra edge by the fact that at least one of the guides had had his fair share and a bit of chat.

In the evening, we went in a tuk-tuk to see one of the hyena-men. Not half-man-half-hyena, which would have been even better, but some nutter who feeds a pack of hyenas meat with his hands and from sticks held in his mouth. Hyenas are big! Very big. Like a very very big dog. And they can crush a skull in their jaws. Frankly, it was all a bit scary. I stayed firmly in the tuk-tuk, wishing that I were in a vehicle with solid sides and trying to explain to the driver that no, I did not want to go any closer, no I did not want to get out, and no I did not want to feed the hyenas myself. We escaped, with me very glad to be in a vehicle rather than walking away from the hyenas in the pitch black.

Me plus my guide plus my would be guide had dinner at Hirut (oh, I had had lunch – a great pizza – at Fresh Touch, where we met an older Spanish woman and I dusted off my spanish skills, well hidden as they were by more recent french and amharic efforts). Hirut was good. I managed to get meatless shiro (pea stew) with bread rather than injera, so that was very nice. Also bumped into a bunch of Irish folks, one of whom I had met previously on the first night of the TESFA trek. I think that illustrates that there’s a fairly limited circuit of things that ferenge/ferengo tourists do! We swapped stories about continuing open wounds caused by the bed bugs of some weeks previous.

After Hirut, I was taken on a tour of various bars and clubs. Samson Hotel. National Hotel. Tourist Hotel. Family Hotel. However, what would have been a good evening was spoilt; lesson learned – one guide good, two guides bad. Can’t say I blame them for competing for my business – I should have realised earlier that the concerns of guide 1 that potential guide 2 might cause problems were based on years of experience. Anyway, I managed to extricate myself from the situation without annoying anyone too much (paying guide 1 what we had agreed and paying guide 2 something too, despite his – and guide 1 as I remember – previous claims that “I am not a guide” (I was reminded of a Peep Show sketch that went something like “the first thing to note is that this is not a pyramid scheme …)  and got a tuk-tuk – of which there were many – back to the Plaza, which by this time was all locked up with gates that I didn’t much fancy scaling. Fortunately after 10 minutes a security guard arrived and, after some pleading, let me in.

Saturday morning, I decided to leave the over-expensive Plaza and stay for one night in the Rewda guesthouse in the heart of the walled city and near the Shoa Gate and “Christian market” – not a market where you can buy Christians, but to distinguish it from the Moslem market and the Oromo market. (Harar is a mix of Harari people, Oromo people, Somali people). I had had a lie in. By the time I got to the Rewda – 250  birr rather than the plaza’s 600 birr (£25, which is a lot in Ethiopia) – the room had gone so I was directed to the owner’s sister’s nearby guesthouse – Zubeyda Waber. I left my stuff there. The other occupants were a south african couple who were spending the afternoon chewing chat with their guide, a man who was dreaming of moving to greece (because of its philosophers) rather than the US (whose get-rich-appeal had no appeal). I agreed that greece would be better than the US, and apologised that I couldn’t get him a passport to the UK. We chatted about the forthcoming elections. I did my best to defend the idea of elections, to no avail.

Saturday afternoon was a different sort of harar cultural experience. Watching Man Utd lose – always good, even to Chelsea – in an underground unventilated boiling hot fire-trap cinema along with maybe 500 others.  After that, I bumped into a colleague from DFID who also happened to be in Harar. The rest of the day was spent relaxing – but not chewing chat (yes, I had tried some on the Friday and concluded that the investment of time and leaf-chewing required was too great to make it worth it) – at the guesthouse and then wandering around a couple of bars. By this point I had told my guide that I didn’t need him and paid him – I wanted to have a wander around on my own.

Slept very well in the single bed in an alcove at the guest house, disturbed only by the all night chanting from the orthodox churches. Not sure whether they were chanting more than usual for easter or not, but their persistence was impressive. Sunday morning was a lovely breakfast of honey and pancakes and tea. A bit of chatting to the South Africans about their travels and mine and then off to the bus station to catch a minibus to Dire Dawa. The driver took good care of me, and my main bag that was on the roof. Was a stop-start journey, picking people up, making sure that there were not too many people in the bus at points where it was going to be stopped and inspected. Stashing bags of something or other in hidden places. Made it in an hour and then got a tuk-tuk to the airport from Dire Dawa, finding out somewhat to my surprise that Arsenal had managed to sneak a late goal.

Airport check in was easy and all was going well, until about 2 seconds before take-off. We were away, nearly, early, and I had texted Teddy to pick me up at Addis. However, the plane – or the plane’s left engine – decided that it didn’t want to take off. Was a wee bit scary as in maybe 100 flights I’ve never had an aborted take-off. More scary was wondering whether we were going to have another go in the same plane once the mechanics had had a look at the engine. In the end we didn’t, and after much delay and lots of confusion we were bused to the Ras Hotel in Dire Dawa, to be fed – or to be fed if you were OK eating meat – and then back to the airport where a bigger plane was expected to take us and the afternoon flight’s people back to Addis. There was a lot of nervousness and jostling as it wasn’t clear that everyone was going to get on, but Ethiopian Airlines had sorted things properly and we were all back in Addis by 7, only 5 hours late for me.

So, was a very good trip. A bit difficult in places, with big queues, delays and guides fighting – very nearly literally – over my business. But very interesting. I’m not sure that having 50% of the people spend 6 hours per day chewing chat is the recipe for a very productive economy, but the people of various ethnic groups and religions seem to live together peacefully – maybe the chat helps for that? Maybe a productive economy would too? Other thought was that for a place to develop, what you need fundamentally is for the people to have at least some sense that they can – by doing things differently – help to shape their own prospects. Perhaps that’s what “empowerment” means? Perhaps I should know?!

In Harar, the people I talked to felt that they were totally powerless to shape their own lives, whether that was because of bad politics or because they felt that god would decide what would happen to them. And perhaps chewing chat for 6 hours per day is not particularly empowering?

More photos are available here.

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