Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“You don’t work for the Ethiopian government, do you?” John (all names have been changed) was asking me. He was less than half-joking. “Because I’ve realized that one fifth of the times when I go anywhere, there’s a government person tailing me. There was a guy here just the other day from the Ministry of Defense.”
It was the latter half of October at the landmark (if terrible) Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and John had good reason to be worried.
Nearly a year earlier major ethnic groups largely left out of the country’s governance began protesting the government dominated by the minority Tigray people, who represented only about six percent of the population. On October 2, a religious festival in Oromia, the region surrounding Addis, turned bloody when police confronted protestors. Official and local accounts of how over fifty individuals (and perhaps many more) died remained conflicting. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds more had already died in the preceding year.
The incident touched off a fresh wave of protests as well as attacks on factories and other capital projects around the country important to the government’s economic plans. In response, the government declared a six-month state of emergency effective October 8 and issued a decree banning, among other activities, any communication that could, in the government’s view, incite violence. Thousands had been arrested since the issuance of the decree. In Addis Ababa, a citywide curfew at 10pm every night was now in effect.
North of Oromia, in the Amhara region, the city of Gondar formed another epicenter of protests. Toyota pickup trucks patrolled the outskirts, without license plates but with machine guns mounted on the backs and half a dozen soldiers in green fatigues each. They didn’t seem tense but beamed like boys with their new Christmas toys.
But in the city itself a trickle of intrepid — or simply ill-informed — tourists still came. In central Gondar a retiree from Los Angeles could be overheard mansplaining the state of emergency to his Ethiopian guide as his wife stalked off. In Lalibela, also in Amhara, a clueless African-African gentleman from Atlanta had yet to learn of the State Department’s travel warning against Ethiopia. One could easily forgive him — to the casual observer, hardly anything seemed amiss. Groups of French, Russian, and Taiwanese tourists still filed past. Random boys and young men looking for a payday still sidled up to foreigners.
Hotel proprietors and tour operators had to admit, however, that business had all but dried up in what was supposed to be high season. And in these towns when Ethiopians mentioned “the political situation,” by way of explaining the decline in tourism, they always said it with a heavy hint of meaning before stopping themselves.
Because this was Ethiopia. A beautiful country. The browns of its hills and the greens of its trees in its landscapes pulled together to form an impression like a Cezanne canvas. But like the ubiquitous vultures flying low, a sense of threat loomed as a constant presence.
Now the Peace Corps was contemplating withdrawing from Ethiopia. It had pulled most of the volunteers out of their far flung locations and placed them at the Ghion Hotel, offering most of them “interrupted service” and a plane ticket home, whether they had been in-country for two weeks or nearly the full contracted term of two years. Suddenly an aging hotel with a reputation for espionage felt like a very peculiar American summer camp.
As for the guy from the Ministry of Defense? He really was there, or at least John wasn’t the first Ghion guest to tell me about him.
At 60, John with his salt-and-pepper hair and pre-braces teeth was one of the oldest Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. A former environmental lawyer turned landscape designer, he had the older man’s conviction in how much he deserved to be listened to. “If I’ve never heard of him,” he said at the mention of a certain historical figure, “then he must be obscure.”
His wife, a cellist, had died several years ago of breast cancer. Eight months later, her sister, who happened to be married to his brother, died of the same illness. “That’s why I don’t do holidays anymore.” He got misty-eyed talking about her. “I won the love lottery. Couldn’t understand how lucky I was. She was this redhead who looked like the cover of a romance novel. I knew we wanted to get married the day we met.” He paused. “I can’t talk about this anymore. I’m going to cry.”
And John had one of the best if saddest stories for why he decided to come here. Most everyone else here fit easily into the type of young people who bled for the less fortunate and went into development work. Some were simply recent college graduates who had no immediate prospect that was more enticing. Liam from Philadelphia, bespectacled and eager to please, whose birthday was that week (turning all of 25), had worked for the better part of a year at Starbucks while waiting for his Peace Corps assignment. Many had an eye on their next act. GRE study guides were strewn about the hotel. Mick, balding and recently out of Amherst, was contemplating law school and making curious inquiries as to what law firm life was like. Many were from the Midwest and had that stereotypical Midwestern bonhomie about them. “Son of a bee sting” was Shawna’s go to expression when something didn’t go her way.
(To be continued...)
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."