5. Harar, Ethiopia

31 Jul

[Yes, I’ve written these in whatever order that has suited me best.  Yes, I’ve skipped the 4th blog post about DONKEY.  It’s coming.  In the meantime, here is post 5 (of 6)]

Our next stop in Ethiopia was Dire Dawa. We landed in Addis Ababa, didn’t leave the airport, AND CELEBRATED THE APPROVAL OF OUR E-VISA TO TO DJIBOUTI by eating bourbon cream cookies.  They were not good.  BUT we were incredibly excited that in just a couple of days, we’d be heading TO DJIBOUTI (!!) and a flurry of booking ensued.



To Dire Dawa we go!


But first thing’s first: We had to survive (…and enjoy ourselves) in Dire Dawa. We headed The African Village (check out the rating here), where Patrick and I forged marriage documents so that we could stay in the same room (fan included).  After settling in, we went to dinner at an Indian restaurant with a pool, which we described as “dank.”  I’ll spare you the photos.

Luckily, the pool wasn’t indicative of the food.  We enjoyed our butter chicken & co. (which cost us double what we had paid for our room).

On the street, I saw people using sign language and couldn’t help but try to engage. However, when I’m signing, I can only pay attention to signing — and loose track of my surroundings.  So I didn’t chat for too long because it fell on Patrick to do all of the safe keeping.

BUT I will say, after talking to those deaf people, I realized that I had SO MANY MORE QUESTIONS. Like…DO THEY SPEAK AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE IN ETHIOPIA?!  Why could I understand them?! And, more importantly, I had forgotten to ask, “Where can we get ice cream??” Over the next couple of days, staring out the bus window, I pretended I saw those people again and practiced what I would sign. 

Anyway, that evening we continued wandering around the city but by dusk, things were getting uncomfortable, and locals began fending off kids and scary guys. We were grateful because the locals came to our aid (almost before we needed them to) — but it was clear that we needed to head back to our hotel.  

We called it a night and watched Queer Eye to fall asleep and were awoken the next morning by a caged bird.  For (free) breakfast we had  fuul + an egg — Great combination — Although the honey for the tea was not very sweet and very viscous.

With enough fuul for the day (hehe, get it?), we headed out to conquer some more public transportation (but not in a colonialist sort of way).  We headed to the (wrong) bus station which was tragic because the station in Dire Dawa was Jamaicain-style aggressive — people gathering, yelling, ‘ductors fighting over you and trying to grab your bag. It was then that I decided that I should wear a head scarf. Even though lots of women had their heads uncovered, I realized that I blended in more when I wore one because you couldn’t see what type of hair I had, so it wasn’t as immediately obvious that I was a foreigner. Eventually, we got to the right bus station which would take us to conservative, Muslim city called Harar, with over 80+ mosques.



Let me repeat: 80+ mosques


On the bus memories:  We were overcharged but only by 35 cents (total). When we got overcharged, half of the locals on the bus started speaking up, not letting the ‘ductor get away with taking advantage of us. Thank you very-thiopia much.  A fluffy lady came and sat next to Patrick, which changed our situation for the worse– there was no cross seat– but she sat anyway.

During the ride, people kept trying to touch us from the windows, but the locals on the bus came through YET AGAIN, and protected us. During this very stimulating ride, we learned what khat (pronounced ‘chat’) was — a green plant that makes people feel like they’re on speed. Ethi-dope-ia.

Once in Harar, Patrick and I solidified our holy matrimony by buying rings in shops with no people…but then people came in. We purchased rings by the gram.  To make it more convincing, Patrick rubbed his ring on the wall to get it scuffed up. Five years of marriage, amiright?

After the wedding ceremony, we arrived at our guest house:


Colorful courtyards


Later, at our homestay, Patrick told me to tell the French guy staying at our hostel that I was a dancer.  

Me: I’m a dancer.
French Guy: Yeah, I can tell.
Patrick: WHAT!?
*cue me glaring at Patrick for almost giving me away.
Patrick: …I mean, what do you mean you can tell?
Me [telepathically]: Nice save.
French Guy: I run a dance school.
Me [telepathically]: s***
French Guy: What kind of dance do you do?
Me: …Modern.


Welp.  On that note we went for a walk around Harar.  While we strolled, children– whose children, I never know — ran all around us begging. Money seems to be the universal word everyone knows.

We saw (lots of) people with sticks on their backs, animals, garbage heaps overflowing from the dumpsters, wheelbarrows, tuk tuks, and vehicles moving in all directions through the cobblestone. 

To be honest, Harar was a complete assault on our senses. It was extra noisy, and we felt like we had to be aware of everyone and everything around us. People were yelling “faranji” from every side, and “at any given point, in any direction, something could happen that would be completely unwelcome”.  I couldn’t take pictures for so many reasons, pretty much all of the reasons, actually. 

On the flip side, the atmosphere was incredibly interesting with the sea of colors, adorable goats, people on top of vehicles, and tuk tuks overflowing. Even though it was overstimulating, it really put us in the moment– we couldn’t think about anything else except what was going on in that very instant. We had to process the experience later because it was impossible to do in real time. 

So, the atmosphere in Harar was INTENSE, but most tangible when we removed ourselves to go into somewhere quiet.  Luckily, we found a hotel (that we promised we’d go back to if we got sick) to take a breather before we headed out again to find another spot for lunch.  A place where we could wash our hands. But here’s the catch: it was stagnant water (strike one). It had been sitting out and developed a grimy film (strike two). The soap was disgusting (strike 3). But we probably would’ve struck out even harder if we didn’t washed our hands.   So, we did it anyway and hoped for the best. 

With clean(ish) hands, we ordered everything we wanted — including 3 meals (2 pastas and half a roast chicken), 2 cokes, a huge bottled water, and coffee that came with popcorn. The whole thing was $13. #WinnerWinnerHalfRoastChickenDinner.


But, nothing was that delicious.  Or hot, like, to the touch.  We took guesses on whether our rice was spoiled — and made a list of reasons why we should be scared for our stomachs.

But, alas, I’m writing this from the future AND WE WERE FINE, GREAT NEWS!!!!!!!  


As we finished lunch, we headed out to brave the streets yet again.  We were met with more of crazy khat eyes, begging from every direction — even from grated slots (what horror movies are made of) — and just general overall chaos. We checked out the street food — dirty fruits and veg laid out on tarps with garbage all around. Plus flies and dirty hands.  The bananas were just okay — the selling point was that they had skin, but even so, everything had a layer of grime or “perfume,” as the taxi driver in Addis liked to call it.

We needed another break.  We stopped in a second floor cafe where we also waited for the guide we’d hired through our guide book. And while waiting…. WE MET A DEAF PERSON NAMED ABDUL!! I must have manifested him from all the practice signing I had been doing. I unleashed ALL my sign language on him and was thrilled because AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE IS THE SAME AS ETHIOPIAN SIGN LANGUAGE.  It was truly a revelation!  A local we could talk to and communicate with in THE SAME LANGUAGE?!  How ideal!!  Plus I was in a place where I didn’t have to focus on anything else except signing! 

This cafe also had a public restroom…that was through a construction site.  Patrick stood guard while I held my nose and went for it.  It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself day dreaming about how nice our gas station bathrooms are in the United States. Being in Ethiopia kept us not only really present, but also really grateful.



When our guide, Hailu, arrived, he introduced himself and spoke PERFECT ENGLISH. Which was amazing because it was someone we could both talk to.  We liked him right away.  Also– quick promotion, here’s his email in case you ever find yourself in Harar (hallu_harar@yahoo.com). Seriously.  Hailu was so amazing that we ended up hiring him for three days in a row. 

That night, we were supposed to go and feed wild hyenas, but it ended up being the hardest rain Harar had seen in three years. “Watch. The lights will go out in a minute.” – Hailu.  And then BOOM, the lights went out, right on cue! (And, in the privacy of darkness, your girl put even more sugar in her tea). This guy clearly knew what was up.  We were impressed.  Hailu asked us if we’d ever seen a river flood.  We hadn’t so he invited us to be flood chasers (an unofficial class of storm chaser). And all 3 of us went to the river, where “a wet person doesn’t care about the rain” – Amheric.

Patrick and I felt alive!

Later that night, back at Anisa’s guest house, Patrick and I, with our host family, all watched some Turkish TV and then retired to our room where we prepared for the next day, which included meeting Hailu for a thorough tour — including the many tastes — of Harar.  

At this point, Harar had been hard.  But Hailu changed everything!



In fair Harar where we lay our scene.


The next morning, the three of us walked through the walled city and down the winding cobblestone roads that jutted out. Occasionally we came across water that smelled atrocious. To offset the terrible smell, however, there were a bunch of crazy colored buildings, which were beautiful or cool (depending on which one of us you asked). Walking down the street, lots of people called us Faranji (foreigners), and eventually we learned the word for ‘local’ (Habesha), so we started using it right back.  A small joke but… a joke’s a joke. And I’ll take all the laughter I can get!

While walking we speculated that maybe the posture of women in Africa is better because as they grow up they carry water (and all sorts of things) on their heads.



Khat me while you can


Everyone watched us going down the street.  There were people quarreling, guys arguing, vehicles overflowing with humans and animals, lots of dirty water, uneven steps, and men sitting on the side of the road drinking beer. There was a cacophany around us 100% of the time.


In a single stroll through the city, we experienced weeks’ worth of living.



Foodies beware



As you walk forward, there were multiple assaults on your senses.


A working school room.

Per usual in Ethiopia, there were also coffee stands everywhere. Yum!

Different kind of fuel



Having Hailu around really gave us the confidence to both take pictures (thank you, Hailu!) and to try the street food, since he knew the ins and outs, the language, the city, the people, the flavors, and he gave us all the tips.   Truly,  he gave us our street food mojo back. Which, up to this point, we had’t fully recovered from.  See blog post: When Sammi got sick.


Yes, we ate that.



And it was delicious!


*above, taking a picture of street food on the street. So meta.


Eventually, we found ourselves in a world of khat — the men we already were cautious about were now just essentially chewing speed.  They were hyperactive and very intense!  Conversely, when you take too much khat that it ruins your life (it is an addictive drug), it makes you lifeless.  The homeless people we encountered were “sleeping” on the uncomfortable pavement with flies all over their faces, bare feet, and dirty legs.  Not moving.  We wondered how long it would take anyone to notice if they were actually dead.  It was uncomfortable and also ironic that the bitter, leafy drug which makes you SO HYPED UP can also make you into a living corpse, the longer you use it.  It’s an epidemic in Harar.

Below: The largest khat market in the world. Word on the street was that 10.5 million bier pass through their per day.



Everyday is market day.


I can not reiterate enough how much more confident having Hailu nearby made both of us feel.   We were able to see, do, taste, and learn so much more.



This is what khat looks like. It’s a leaf that you chew.




As we made our way through Hrar we sampled all of the tastes. Including samosas (multiple kinds like potato and lentil), smokey french bread straight from the oven, and soursop. But we couldn’t help but notice that Ethiopia does not do dessert well. Even with Hailu, there was NO ice cream and the treats were not very good.  We sound so spoiled as I read it now.  At the time though, we had a hankering for something sweet.  We were in Ethiopia for 3 weeks, after all.  One time, we had a solid lead to head to a place called the Ice Cream Mermaid, but just like mermaids in real life, it was non-existent.  They had run out of ice cream days (or was it weeks) ago with no plans on getting any again soon.


Domino? More like DominYES.


Of course, the lack of ice cream was just a challenge.  Something to look for as we moved about our days, which, by the way, had been AMAZING!  I needed Patrick’s portable phone charger because I’d been able to take so many pictures that I drained my battery.  What a delight!


Happily overwhelmed, the faranji,


PS: Hailu gave me a bunch of recommendations (which I’m just gunna leave on here): Deadly Water the book, a honey bird documentary, the movie Face to Face with Hyenas, and the Planet Earth episode also about hyenas because, spoiler alert, the next and final installment-thiopia is about, you guessed it, hyenas.  

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