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by David James
After an hour of bouncing along crowded city streets while dodging goats and pedestrians with equal indifference, the taxi reached the drop-off point of the Addis Ababa Hilton. To enter the lobby, I had to join a slow-moving queue at an airport-style security check, causing the beginning of frustration to make its home in the hollow of my chest. I had just enough presence of mind to take a slow breath, acknowledge the welcome scent of fresh-cut grass, and check my impatience. I was, after all, invited here by Ethiopian Airlines at their expense for a job interview. My previous employer had recently gone bust without providing a moment’s notice, and after panic-scattering a dozen résumés across four continents, the next phase had begun. Starting tomorrow and for three days, Ethiopian Airlines would conduct personnel interviews, a flight test in a simulator, and an all-day medical exam.
I was exhausted after the long flight from London, but as inviting as the hotel’s bed appeared, I wasn’t about to waste the remaining daylight sleeping it all away. Curiosity can provide its own restless energy, and I was eager to collect first impressions of a city that could very well be home for the next several years. Self-conscious, I employed a traveler’s survival skill first learned in India years before. In unfamiliar territory, when venturing out to points unknown, walk with purpose and determination, as if you’ve trodden these streets your whole life. To amble along with little conviction while the head swivels and the eyes dart, is to invite unwanted attention, or worse. And so, without the faintest knowledge of the surrounding area, nor even a map, I turned left upon departing the hotel, walked to the first corner, crossed the street, and kept going, all with pretend determination.
A white man walking alone in Addis Ababa is not unusual, but a few locals take notice, regardless of his body language or demeanor. Immediately upon leaving the hotel, I was plonked by a man who introduced himself as Tesfaya. “Plonker” is a local term used to describe a man (always a man … there are other words for women) who ingratiates himself to a foreign pedestrian. The word differs in meaning from the colloquial British term, the latter implying stupidity. A plonker in Addis would be friendly, have decent English, and just slide up alongside his quarry and start chatting away. To the uninitiated, natural instincts would suggest their new acquaintance is a con artist or beggar, but the Addis plonker is neither of these. Tesfaya asked me where I was from, then proceeded to tell me about his family. He did most of the talking, and every few minutes he would say, “Are you fine? I am fine. Are you fine?” Although I didn’t lie, my answers to his many questions were intentionally brief. “I am David. From America by way of England. Just here for a day or so. On business.” Tesfaya stayed alongside me for about a quarter mile, and after I politely suggested that I would rather be alone, he understood and said, “See you later, David.” I would come to understand that these exchanges are a plonker’s version of networking, as befriending a foreigner might lead to better opportunities. I would eventually have many of these encounters, and they almost always began with, “Hello! Are you fine? I am fine. Are you fine?” A few asked for money, but never was I assaulted, swindled, or pickpocketed.
When I returned to the hotel, there was a young boy loitering outside the main entrance, a first glance suggesting he was about twelve years old. Too young to be a plonker, he was just standing around in his skinny frame wearing an extra-large T-shirt, which on him looked more like a knee-length dress. The picture on the otherwise black shirt was of a smiling Bob Marley with long dreadlocks, framed in yellow, green, and red, Ethiopia’s national colors. On his feet were tattered sandals a few sizes too large.
“Hi, mister! Are you fine? I am fine.”
Uh-oh. I’m about to be swindled by a street urchin taking me for an easy mark. The little con artist has even gone to the trouble to learn some English to ply his trade. I thought of responding with, “Bonjour, je suis bien, et tu?” But that would imply I understood his English, and the last time I tried this trick was in a Spanish-speaking country, resulting in a quick response in fast and fluent French, way over my head. But I wanted to lose this kid, first by being evasive, not rude. But if the little brat persisted, it could easily be notched up to rude. “Just heading to the hotel. Good night…” I said, now thankful for the Hilton’s gatekeeper security.
“Hey, mister. Where are you from?”
“No, thanks,” I said, quickening my pace.
“I’m not a beggar! Honest!” What came over me…fear? Paranoia? Of a twelve-year-old? Or was it greed, in that I might loath to part with a few local coins for the asking? I’m in this exotic culture only briefly, witnessing nuances of local life. So far, this is an innocent exchange and one that I have complete control over. My instincts were telling me that this kid was probably all right but no doubt happy to be on the receiving end of a few birr. Or dollars or euros or pounds, as he likely knew the exchange rate as well as any local banker. In some odd way, he reminded me of myself at his age, though I never loitered outside hotels introducing myself to middle-aged men. In my culture, this would have more disturbing implications. But this was not my culture, and nothing about him seemed depraved. Impoverished, maybe, but nothing worse.
“Where did you learn English?”
“In the school, but also some talking to people. Are you fine? I am fine.”
“Yes, fine, thank you. You know who that is?” I pointed to his shirt.
“Yes. You know him?”
“Bob Marley, Rastafarian extraordinaire.” I regretted using that last word the moment I said it.
“Ras Tafari was Haile Selassie, Marley’s guru.” This kid is way ahead of me. I had recently read up on Haile Selassie, the revered emperor of Ethiopia who died in 1975.
“I liked Peter Tosh too,” I said.
“Marley’s first guitar player, in the Wailers.” This kid is teaching me and in his third language, as I was soon to discover. It crossed my mind to just give him a hundred birr and bolt to the lobby. A generation gap (or two) is no excuse to be rude, but surely he’d rather have the money than my company any day.
“Hi, mister,” he said again. “I am Peter.” He offered his hand to shake, which I accepted. Peter was thirteen years old and lived nearby with his mother and younger sister. I didn’t ask about his dad. His smile seemed genuine, while the rest of him radiated confidence and street smarts. If he really was a budding con artist, he would likely go far, especially if he entered business or politics. His first language was the local Amharic, and he claimed to have a working knowledge of Oromo (another Ethiopian language), English, and Italian, in that order. Although his English wasn’t excellent, it was better than my French, and he could easily hold his own against any native English speaker his own age.
Peter was offering his services as a local tour guide for guests of the Hilton, or if the pickings were slim here, the Sheraton was only a few blocks away. He claimed to hustle foreigners (not his choice of words) at each hotel and that he had to keep an eye out for their staff, who would chase him away. He was proud of his knowledge of the local museums, tourist shops, and restaurants, and knew the location of the most important embassies. “And how much the taxis should charge. Some of the drivers don’t like me.” I suspected a white lie but didn’t hold that against him. Then he asked, “Would you like me to take you to Lucy?”
Confident that he wasn’t a pimp and becoming more impressed with his salesmanship, I said, “Do you know what a rain check is?” He looked at me quizzically. “It means some other time…”
“When?” He had already managed to get out of me the fact I was here on business for a few days and might return in a few weeks, but I did not commit to a date and time with Lucy. I politely said some version of “see you later,” before disappearing into the lobby. He yelled to my back, “See you tomorrow, Mister David.”
Over the next two days, I was poked, prodded, and interviewed, then flight tested in Ethiopian Airline’s simulator. Each of these days I was returned to the hotel at five in the afternoon, where Peter was milling about, pretending to be nonchalant as I was dropped off in the company van, a vehicle displaying the logo of Ethiopian Airlines. I did not tell him what company I was “doing business with,” yet he seemed alert to the van’s arrival, as if waiting for someone. “Hello, David. Are you fine? I am fine.” He was wearing the same tattered sandals, but a different T-shirt, this one plain white, and like the last one, it came down to his knees.
Peter took hold of my hand as we proceeded to walk, causing me to pull away as if jolted by electricity. To a point, I am willing to go native, but strolling down a boulevard holding hands with a thirteen-year-old boy wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t solely about appearances, because in Addis, two males holding hands was normal enough that Peter initiated it without a second thought. My own conditioning reflexively kicked in, and I disconnected before fully processing Peter’s gesture. I tried to convey that holding hands with a child would only be normal for me if the child were my own and also much younger. I’m not sure that he understood, but he laughed it off and said, “Okay, Mister David.”
Designated Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy is a hominid skeleton about three million years old, and one of the first apish things to walk on two legs. She resides at the National Museum, about a mile and a half north of the Hilton. This was easily walking distance, but Peter insisted we get a taxi as that would be time better spent. Out went his arm, and the first blue and white Lada pulled over. He spoke to the driver in Amharic, and in the response I heard the word “Peter.” This upped my confidence in my new friend’s honesty (remembering that he claimed to know several of the local drivers and what the fares should be)…until at the destination Peter said, “One hundred birr for the driver, please, Mister David.” That was about ten dollars, and also the same as yesterday’s ride to the Hilton from the airport, a distance five times greater which also included an airport surcharge.
“That’s a lot of inflation in just twenty-four hours there, Pete.”
He may not have known the word, but he could definitely parse the sentence to figure out what I really meant. Instead of an impromptu English lesson with a little economics thrown in, I just paid the “local tax” and filed the memory under experience. We spent an hour at the Ethiopian National Museum, where Peter-the-tour-guide was known to the staff and let in free. He knew his way around the floors and dioramas and could add to the written information tacked up beside them. Lucy was the star attraction, but compared to most of the other exhibits, she was a bit of a letdown. Standing just over three feet tall, she was a lone skeleton in an unobtrusive little glass box devoid of adornments. Most of her bones were fabricated add-ons.
“You know why they called her Lucy?” Peter said.
“She looks like a Lucy?”
“No.” With a serious face and an attempt at scholarly authority, he said, “When the archeologists found her, they were listening to the Beatles’ song, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Do you know it? Elton John did it too.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if Peter knew the song’s trippy words and LSD connection, coded in the title, but stopped short of asking him.
Afterward, he wanted to go to a specific restaurant, no doubt as a favor to the owners, but I was ready to walk to the hotel and eat alone. It was almost dark, and I offered to pay his cab home, which was a little farther than the Hilton. “How much would that be, Peter?”
“Thirty birr,” he said quickly.
“That’s deflation, Pete. You’ll have to learn to be quicker than that.”
He looked at me with an exaggerated puzzled expression, then broke into a smile and slapped my shoulder. We walked all the way to the Hilton, and every few minutes he would say hello or stop to chat with other pedestrians he knew. I told him that my appointments the next day would probably go late, putting me at the hotel well past the time he should be there. He understood and was happy with the one hundred birr I gave him.
Despite my innocent lie, there he was, milling around as the van arrived at five o’clock. He was again draped in the Bob Marley shirt and wearing the same sandals. What I really wanted was to flop on the bed and read for an hour or two before turning in early, as I had a full schedule the next day, including a night flight to London. But Peter insisted that he show me his favorite restaurant, “walking distance and not a tourist trap.” His words. Had someone told me a few weeks prior that before this month was over, I would be out of work, in a restaurant in Ethiopia being taught how to eat injera by a thirteen-year-old local boy, I would have respectfully suggested they not pursue a career in fortune-telling. This was the thought running through my mind when Peter asked, “Your day didn’t run late?”
“Not really. We got everything done.”
He smiled like he knew I had fibbed, and before saying a version of “takes one to know one,” I just said, “Plans can change, Pete, sometimes quite suddenly.”
“Do you know what Addis Ababa means in English, Mister David?”
“David’s okay. You don’t have to call me mister. And no, I don’t.”
A few days after returning home to England, I received an offer from Ethiopian Airlines, to begin in two weeks. If I accepted, they would put me up at the Hilton for the first month of training. The very same day I received this offer, an invitation arrived from Qatar Airways to attend an interview in London. When faced with a choice of which job to pursue, most pilots consider only two factors, pay and domicile. By those and most other objective measures, Qatar was the better of the two jobs, and not by a slim margin. The pay was about thirty per cent more than Ethiopian, and most of my colleagues would consider a base near a beach on the Persian Gulf to be preferable to Addis Ababa. Or “New Flower,” as I was beginning to think of it.
For the next few days, I was conflicted about whether to even pursue Qatar. A few of my colleagues were reminding me that Addis is filthy and dangerous. Third world, they said. Yet, those who talked the loudest in this regard had never set foot in Ethiopia, and many of them had already been offered a position with Qatar. The truth is, during my solo walkabouts and time spent with Peter, I never found Addis Ababa to be filthy or dangerous. Compared to the world’s more “modern” cities, it can seem a little rough around the edges, but it is hardly more dangerous than many cities in the US.
I cannot determine with any certainty why big decisions unfold the way they do. I slept on the choice in front of me for a couple of nights, and each morning I awoke with a stronger conviction to accept the position in Ethiopia. On the third day I responded to Ethiopian Airlines with an acceptance. I genuinely didn’t know what was motiving me, causing this pull to chuck the job search and move to Addis Ababa. Much of that dynamic was no doubt subliminal, and part of that, in hindsight, was probably related to my walkabouts with Peter.
For that first month of training I stayed at the Hilton, where I met up with Peter a few times. He appreciated the occasional dinner plus a hundred birr tip, and was genuinely interested in life in England and the United States. He didn’t have a phone, so it was always hit or miss if we met up. After that first month, I would look for him whenever I was near the Hilton, but had no luck. For the next eighteen months I lived in Addis Ababa and flew regularly to about half the countries in Africa, plus many in the Middle East and Europe. It was my first exposure to living and working outside of familiar surroundings, and I have never regretted the decision. Somewhere, I think I owe Peter a “thank you” for helping me turn the page to the next chapter of my life.