ETHIOPIA 11: Return to Bahar Dar

September 15, 2004

I fly back to Addis Ababa, sleep a night, and then fly back to Bahar Dar, where again I’m on the lake, with Lul, asking me, “Mike! Are you fine?”
I hang out by the lake with a guy from the hotel named Genanew, a high school history teacher who gave that up for a more profitable career in guiding. He asks me about “the sisterly buildings.” The sisterly buildings? Oh. He means the World Trade Center.

I ask him if the Tigrinyans in Axum and the North of Ethiopia feels a kinship with Eritrea, due to the common language. I get a 45 minute history of Tigrinyan resistance movements, and a highly biased account of the Eritrean war, in which he glosses over Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea in the 60’s, and depicts the Eritreans as the aggressors in the 90’s. “They are like Nazis,” he says. “They want to be the master race of the Horn of Africa.”
“Eritrea think you can make a country with blood and iron,” Genanew says, “but Ethiopia know you can make a country only with loving.”
I meet a guy on the verandah named Hunachew, a man in his sixties who lived in Sweden for 33 years. He moved back to Ethiopia due to an old injury that would flare up in the Scandinavian cold. He lives on his Swedish pension, a pretty sweet deal in impoverished Ethiopia.
We talk about the time he saw Jimi Hendrix play, in Malmo. I meet his wife–his third, two Swedes divorced him–a younger woman with traditional Ethiopian cross tattoos on her cheek and forehead. He talks about Aretha Franklin, the certainty of life on other planets, cyclical famine, his job as a clerk in the Physics Department of a Swedish university.
“My life today is nothing but reading, smoking, having coffee,” he says. There is a tattered paperback in front of him; an Amharic translation of Chekhov’s short stories. “I’ve read them in Swedish and English already.”
That night I go back to the Azmari bar with a lovely guide named Sakitaw, and Genanew, Daniel the driver, and my beloved Lul. The place is packed. There are a couple of hottie African-American girls in the house, actually; they just came to Bahar Dar to speak English. They’re from Brooklyn, and they dress like Williamsburg hipsters. They’re not shy about dancing; they’re wild and totally unselfconscious, and clearly the guys I’m with are transfixed.
Lul is holding my hand. That’s what you do with a friend in Ethiopia. OK, it’s weird. I go along with it.
The Brooklyn girls have brought a wild energy into the place. Everybody’s dancing. Even Lul, who claims he doesn’t dance, but two seconds later is on the floor dancing like a madman. The place is absolutely going off.
We go to a place called Gary Bar, a few doors down from John Bar. Daniel the driver orders a wine–it comes in a beer bottle–and a coke. He mixes them both in a glass. Everybody laughs at my expression of horror.
I’ve worked out a good imitation of Daniel Coke-and-Wine’s boxing-cabbage-patch dance. I do it for the fellas and they are amazed by its accuracy, rolling with laughter. For the rest of the evening, I would point to Daniel, say, “Coke and wine!” and then the two of us would do the boxing-cabbage-patch together.
Everybody gets shitfaced but me and Genanew. The dancing is getting crazy. Sikataw and Lul are losing their minds on the dancefloor. They play 50 Cent, Aster Aweke (a sexy tune in three, with undulating Rhodes piano and brilliant stabs of electric guitar leads). Minute by minute, the place gets drunker, more crowded, wilder.
A kid sitting near me, that I don’t know, taps me on the shoulder. He says: “I HATE MOTHERFUCKING WHITES. But, I think I like you.”
Thanks, man.
It’s the single incident of racial tension in my entire trip. And it has an almost touching quality. It feels insincere. It sounds like the kid heard it in a movie, and is trying it on like a kid tries on a new identity, trying to be cool.
We pile into a car and they take me back to the hotel. In the backseat, I’m between Lul and Sikataw, and they are hanging all over each other, and me; arms around my neck, holding hands, hands on knees. If he hears something funny, Sikatew laughs and gives me this very tender kiss on the neck.