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Sep 7, 04 08:54 AM

ETHIOPIA 3: the Siren Scam

All night there was singing through a loudspeaker at a church by the hotel; it's the end of a fasting period (during which they don't actually fast, but abstain from meat other than fish, as well as dairy). So tinny, ululating melodies unspool as I lay there trying to sleep. I get out of bed and turn on Ethiopian national television, which is broadcasting the Brendan Fraser vehicle, Blast From The Past. It cuts inexplicably to Olympic footage, and then cuts back to the Brendan Fraser movie as if nothing happened.

The next day, the religious loudspeaker singing is still going. And there's different rhythmic chants going on in the hotel's gardens. I go out to my balcony. There are no less than five wedding parties in the gardens; a bride in a Western style white dress, bridesmaids in matching pastel prom dresses, and well dressed relatives singing and chanting, stepping in circles. In the parking lot, one wedding party is circling a white limosine, clapping and singing.

I go out to watch. It's raining.

A guy sidles up to me. "You like this?" Yeah. Isn't it a bad omen to have rain on your wedding day. "No, no. It's very lucky. That's why so many weddings in rainy season, like today." Oh.

His name is Abraham. Nice guy. He invites me for a cup of coffee in the garden's café. The rain intensifies, and the café fills up with drenched wedding attendees, many of whom gather around a TV for more Olympics.

"You know," says Abraham, "today is end of sixteen days of fasting. So, many cultural activities. Some students near to this place are having a cultural day at their house."

Really? Interesting. Do you think I could go there?

"You want to go? OK, let's go."

On the walk there, Abraham is wonderfully informative. The wedding parties were chanting, "Oh, tef, tef," after the grain that is the primary ingredient in injera, the spongy bread that serves as staple and utensil. He tells me that "faranji," Amharic for foreigner, is actually a perversion of "French." He tells me that when Ethiopian kids yell "Faranji! Faranji!" at me (which they do, everywhere, near-constantly) I should say back "Habesha!" (Ethiopian). He points out cut grass strewn on doorsteps, and says this is an Ethiopian signal of welcome.

We go up a hill, and into an Ethiopian shanty town. I should mention that, despite the environment of poverty, and the dilipated, jerry-rigged housing, I almost never feel any kind of weird vibe. Ethiopia is an extremely safe country. There will prove to be many annoyances on this journey, but I will never feel truly threatened.

Eventually we reach a private house behind a wall of corrugated metal. At this point I'm feeling uneasy. There is a con described in the Lonely Planet guidebook called "The Siren Scam." It involves being taken to a private house, given a "cultural show," plied with food and drinks, and then presented with an outrageous bill for the proceedings. I can't imagine that's what's going down--this guy is just too cool. I want this to be a genuine experience.

We enter the house. We're in a small room lined with beige pleather couches. There are Ethiopian tourism posters on the walls. There is a big Bob Marley poster. Now I'm certain--the Siren Scam. That is EXACTLY what's going down.

We sit, and a stream of college-age girls file in, each shaking my hand as they pass. The room fills up with twenty girls, filling the couches, sitting on the arms of the furniture. "Would you like to see a traditional coffee ceremony?" One asks. Um, no no, that's OK. "Are you sure?" Yes. "We will show you traditional Ethiopian dancing." They turn on a boombox and dance uninspiringly (I saw traditional dancers at the hotel restaurant last night, and they were the most spectacular dancers I've ever seen in my life. Really. Though I'd see better ones later in this journey)

They try and get me to dance with them. One of the girls drapes over the arm of my chair and tries to engage me in conversation. What is truly weird is that the room is filled with twenty girls, and they are all staring at me; no conversation amongst themselves. "Will you buy us a drink?" Uh, how much? "Don't worry, we'll give you a bill at the end." HOW MUCH. "We'll get you a bill, OK."

But instantly there's four bottles of honey wine on the table. "Drink some with us!" I'm sorry, I don't drink alcohol. "There's no alcohol in this!" I sniff it. Lies.

I have a coke. There's more half-assed dancing, they ask if I want to try some injera. I'm trying to figure out how to get out of here. And yet, I still want to be polite; I want desperately for this to be a genuine experience.

Finally, a labcoated waitress brings a bill on a silver plate. It's for 453 birr--that's fifty bucks. My overpriced dinner last night at the hotel cost 50 birr.

I stand up and make a big show of outrage. I'm not really angry, but I think it's the only thing that will get me out of there. I pull a ten birr note out and throw it on the silver plate, That's for my coke! I'm leaving!

An older guy comes in, looking kind of mean. "Is there a problem here?" YES. The problem is I'm not paying you 453 birr!

"Don't worry, that's Ethiopian, not US Dollars!" one of the girls chirps. "Don't worry!"

Yeah, right. I storm out. One of the girls follows me. She looks genuinely baffled. It's another one of those ambiguous Ethiopian moments; clearly they were trying to con me, and yet they seem truly confused and disappointed. The labcoated waitress follows me, too, pointing to the figure on the bill and holding up the ten birr note like she doesn't understand.

I realize I've left my umbrella in the room. Oh, shit. I turn on my heels and walk back in there. One of the girls hands me the umbrella, very politely.

I get in a taxi and I'm out of there. I go back to the hotel, and the wedding parties are still dancing around the gardens. They sing and clap their way from a gazebo, to in front of a fountain, where they take a bunch of pictures; the bridesmaids, the brides, the thumbs-upping suited men. One party even gets a trio of Japanese tourists with cameras and fannypacks in on the photo session.

Then they dance and sing their way to the limosines. The bride gets in. (Abraham told me they go to the bride's house after the garden-singing, for a reception) The party dances its way around the limosine a few times, circling and then switching direction. Then the limo pulls away, to cheers and applause, and the wedding party disperses to waiting minibuses.

Posted by Mike at September 7, 2004 8:54 AM