Ethiopian Airlines flight ET365 is a popular one, and I catch a free ride on what is otherwise the Chinese National express sedan from peninsular Djibouti’s hotel district to the airport. I did well in this country with almost no money and no way of obtaining it, though I imagine Ethiopia will be different.
Thankfully, when I arrive late at night I have enough Ethiopian Birr from my prior visit to catch a run-down cab to my Airbnb and buy some groceries at a stall. I buy beans. I buy ramen. I buy tuna. A young Moldovan woman named Camellia is the only other guest in this Airbnb owned by a very Christian American couple. It’s much nicer than what I am used to and only runs me 9 or 10 dollars a night. I feel like I am staying at a distant friend’s house, and get a kick out of WiFi router “ChristIsAll” and sleeping under a piece of driftwood inscribed with some Psalm I haven’t read since church school.
Today I figure everything out. I am still waiting on my plane tickets from my new job, but I suspect I should be gone in about a week, on the 29th. Where can I get food on credit? Where can I exchange my few remaining US Dollars for Ethiopian Birr? On the unnamed main commercial street there are many banks, and the first few I visit do not exchange foreign currencies. I am able to find a “Safeway” that accepts credit cards, and buy enough groceries to make a few meals. For dinner, I make boring ziti and meatballs, and am forced to eat my dinner alone by romantic candlelight after the third power outage of the day. In the dark I break a glass, spill candle wax on the kitchen floor, and leave several dishes in the sink until the power comes back.
At this “villa,” there is both a man in charge of reception and a woman in charge of cleaning, a curious thing when you are only one of two guests. I’ve never had “Help” in my life and the whole idea weirds me out, but begins to grow on me a lot more quickly than I’d have expected. In twenty-four hours the awkwardness of having someone making my bed, cleaning the floors and bathrooms, and another person who shows up routinely to see if I need anything, melts away. In a week, I fear I will actually enjoy it. Now, that idea is repulsive. I’m a man capable of taking care of myself, an individualistic American confused by the concept of having servants. I find irony in the fact that this is the poorest I’ve been, that is to say that here I have the least access to money, and I can somehow live a much more lavish lifestyle than I ever have before. This is what I think about as I eat dinner alone by candlelight like some post-colonial Ebenezer Scrooge.
The administrator tells me not to go out today. I wasn’t planning on it anyway. There are protests in Addis, and it could be unsafe, so I resume my idleness by doing nothing but write until afternoon, when the power cuts out. I meet the housekeeper, Mimi, and get to know Camellia after she returns from work. She is in school, writing a Master’s thesis on female genital mutilation in Ethiopia. She is like me, obsessively hungry for knowledge, and we have fun speaking in pidgin Russian.
I visit a new grocery store and buy enough food to last a few days. I get into the routine of 2 hours of language study, Netflix, and some writing. I also let housekeeper Mimi wash my dirty dishes, which makes me feel dirty. I get my tickets as far as Guam from my new boss. I enjoy my schedule where I get to be alone all day, and just say hi to Mimi or Dagim if they come; at night Camellia comes home from work and we chat for twenty or so minutes before we all resume flitting around the large empty house like ghosts, either into the kitchen to eat, into the living room for better WiFi, or in our rooms to be truly alone. There is peace in being alone with other people not so far away. There is solitude.
Today is, as far as we know, uneventful; tonight is sublime. My roommate invites a humanitarian friend for dinner and I get to entertain. I cook three courses, and a sale on blue food coloring leads me to invent a picturesque sunrise highball-style beverage composed of blue vodka, pineapple juice, and ice. In Addis, stores are far from well-stocked, so I love the opportunity to use what I have to engineer interesting new things to ingest. My creations are popular amongst American, Ethiopian, and Moldovan consumer segments. As we learn traditional Moldovan dances, with lots of kicking and spinning, I grow dizzy from the synergistic effect of dance, cheap juice, and blue vodka. Almost nothing can curb the euphoria.
Administrator Dagim enters through the back door, and sees us all on the floor, laughing.
The Ethiopian news media has just released the death toll of the protests this week. 67 are dead and hundreds injured after the government makes an enemy of one foreign political analyst, condemning non-Ethiopian media. When the dust settles, it is released that protesters bombed churches and mosques, targeting those outside of a given ethnic group, which composes the plurality of the Ethiopian population. We go to our separate rooms, soberly climbing the stairs and hardly muttering “good night.”
I lounge all day, cooking and cleaning. Fearing more violence, our Ethiopian guest spent the night at our place, and passes the whole day with us. In the evening, we have a small dinner party where friends and work colleagues are invited; I get to chat with Ethiopians and Expats alike. We talk academics, like we are in some seminar evaluating the merits of certain writers’ works. Camelia has a true lust for knowledge, which has made this week with her consistently interesting. No one talks about the protests, except to say they are “stupid.”
Today I go clothes shopping. My jeans, which have survived since high school, now have three largely irreparable holes along the seams, two of which I have patched before, only to be torn again by my harsh handwashing techniques and chronic manspreading. Besides, the old ones were faded and hardly school-appropriate.
In the evening, after dinner, I feel a slight ache to the right of my belly button, and Google my symptoms until I am convinced I have appendicitis. I cannot help but think about how inopportune this is, if this is indeed the case. My new job has shelled out over a thousand bucks to fly me from Africa to Micronesia, a four-flight itinerary conveying me through five continents (if you claim Guam to be a part of North America, considering it is an American dependency). I sleep fairly well considering, and--while my symptoms have not alleviated by the following morning--they have not gotten any worse.
My final day in Ethiopia, I start to make the necessary arrangements for squaring away this East African life. I stop by the bank to exchange cash for the maid and for my cab ride to the airport. I eat one last Ethiopian meal at the nearby cafeteria, ordering a breakfast of chepchepsa, eggs, and honey. The first few bites are amazing, but I begin to believe my appendicitis is draining my appetite. I am grateful my symptoms are not so severe that I will miss the flight to Germany that evening. I’d much rather get an emergency appendectomy in Frankfurt, Nagoya, or Guam than spend several more days in Ethiopia at the whim of their healthcare system. Not that they don’t have good doctors, but frequent power outages lead me to imagine a candlelight surgery which, frankly, is not my style.
Goodbyes are oddly tearful as I hop in a “Ride” (the Ethiopian version of Uber) to the airport. One never forget the friends he makes waiting out a revolution. In this moment I am a changed man. 110 countries makes me realize that I hadn’t the guts before Ethiopia to spend more than a few days in a place. I have to face the facts that there is both nothing remarkable about my experiences in Ethiopia, and that I nonetheless fell in love with the rough neighborhood, the lack of credit card readers, and the satellite friends I made playing the role of writer-in-residence at the super-Christian villa. I’ll miss this compound in the neighborhood with three separate names, even though if you ask any Ababan they’ll have no clue this place even exists. On the ride to the airport I feverishly check my pockets, sure that I’ve forgotten something in my hasty departure from the Villa. That’s it, that is what I’ve left behind: the Villa itself. For better or worse the idle compound afternoons have become a part of me, and I feel as though I am missing that makeshift home before I’ve even completely left it.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.