ETHIOPIA 7: Birds, Whores, Dancing

September 8, 2004

At breakfast I am approached by these beautiful yellow birds with black faces. The bird scene in Bahar Dar is just amazing, in general. I am tickled to be hanging out with these four or five birds.
One of them hops right between my coffee cup and my eggs, and starts munching furiously at the sugar bowl. Whoa, aggressive bird. So I tear off some toast fragments and put them on the edge of the table. Instantly there’s twenty birds battling furiously for a little bread, right there on the same table. Unnerving.

I shoo them away and put the bread on the ground. Suddenly more birds swoop down–maybe fifty birds!–and fight like devils for a bite of the bread.
I spend the day bicycling around the town.
That night, in the restaurant, two college-girls are hanging out at the restaurant on the verandah, looking out at the dark lake. They say hello and beckon me to sit with them. We have a fifteen minute, very stilted conversation, mostly about their school and injera. Always injera.
Could these be whores? Naw. They were dressed conservatively, arms and knees covered, as the proper Ethiopian woman’s always are. Then one of them asks, “Mike, when do you sleep?” Hm.
Lul, waiting tables that night, comes by. “Mike! Are you fine?” Yes, Lul, just fine.
Sirage takes me out to see another Azmari, a local celebrity named Wainyo. Again: great dancers and singing, and clapping along that is a master class in subverting and shaping rhythm. Wainyo sings a few very sad songs (seemingly), and then gets out a krar and hands it to be. Oh, boy. I pick at it, tentatively–though it sounds like an electric guitar, in practice it’s like playing a cross between a diddley bow, a lute, and a Chapman stick. As I pick out a cautious rhythm, EVERYBODY IN THE BAR STOPS AND STARES AT ME. Ulp.
We walk through the dark, romantic, puddled streets of the Ethiopian town, Amharic pop blasting from the doors of the bars. We go to a place called the John Bar, down the street. A couple guys from the hotel, another guide, Mulgeta (a sardonic, very lovable guy), and a driver named Daniel, are dancing. Daniel is a very sweet MANIAC. He dances a dance that’s like a boxer’s version of the cabbage patch. He keeps reaching out to me, dancing with me, shaking my hand, grabbing my arms. Ethiopian men are extremely affectionate, physically, with one another. You see guys walking down the street, hand in hand, or draped around each other like only lovers do in the West.
They have a friend with them, the only woman in the bar who’s not a whore. Whoring is par for the course in Ethiopia. The Lonely Planet says, “It’s not exactly a respectable profession, but it’s considered a viable way for a student to make ends meet.”
We dance to Aster Aweke, Soweto pop, and “Show Me Love.” There are posters of Jay-Z and P. Diddy on the wall.
A big fat whore with blonde extensions and a missing tooth keeps vying for my attention. Raising her eyes and smiling and touching her mouth to signal that she wants to me to buy her a drink. When I head to the bathroom, she follows and corners me. “What your name is?” Mike. “I, Hanna.” she says shaking my hand in a very businesswomany manner. “It’s nice to meet you, Hanna,” I say, and hightail it back into the bar to dance with my friends.
I feel so unselfconscious, dancing in the John Bar. It’s wonderful. A balm for a loneliness I barely knew I was suffering.
I return to the Ghion, and go to my room. Undress and get in bed, lower the mosquito netting around the mattress. There is a knock. I get up, in my glasses and boxer shorts, and open the door to find one of the college girls from the verandah, smiling at me expectantly.
“Do you sleep now?”
Yes, I was just about to. She looks at me with a clearly implied question.
OK, I’m going to bed now. Goodnight. I say pleasantly.
“Give me 20 birr for a taxi?” she says.
Suddenly I turn into a suave rat-packer. Sorry, baby, I say, I can’t do that. And I give her a peck on the cheek and shut the door.