Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ethiopia -- You've got to be kidding me

Warning: Ethiopia has turned out to be much more difficult to travel in as a white person than expected and this blog entry contains a therapeutic release of some of the accumulated bitterness resulting from said difficulties.

Did you know that white people are actually vending machines? Yeah, it’s this magical transformation that happens as soon as you enter Ethiopia. Suddenly, every child and even some older teens greet you with “Hello, money. Hello, pen. Hello, plastic (bottle).” The begging is constant, and it’s not like you can just say no. They just keep repeating themselves and following you everywhere. Sometimes I think the kids actually think “hello pen” is how you say “hello”.  You’re mobbed by kids who want something from you. Of course, Jeanette and I are broken vending machines. We refuse to dispense. 

This does not deter the kids from surrounding us and repeating themselves, though.  When we walk anywhere in smaller towns, including our hike in the Simen Mountains, there is a chorus of “hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello,..”.  Some kids will shout this one word indefinitely from across a valley so eventually you say hello back or wave and then you are returned with another 5 minute chorus of “hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello,…”.  This is much better than the begging though.

When hiking in the Simen Mountains we encountered kids who were selling little baskets, woven hats, and long ropes that work as slingshots. We debated whether or not buying them would be helpful or just encourage them not to go to school. We were still on the fence about the issue when we walked to a beautiful view point where a group of kids were peddling their trinkets. After saying no and taking a few photos of the mountains the kids shouted “Picture! Picture!” Unsuspectingly I assumed they were like the kids in every other country we’ve been through so far and just wanted to see themselves in the little screen. I shot the photos then showed them. Immediately one of the boys pointed to himself and then the others saying “One. One. One.” I thought he meant they each wanted individual photos, to which I said no, but he quickly clarified saying they wanted one birr each for being in a photo. In a photo I didn’t want. Luckily, the word “delete” is the same in English and Amharic and the scout who was required to accompany us knew that we got rid of the unwanted photos and told the kids.  Then the kids started throwing rocks at him. Seriously. Later on in the walk, kids started throwing rocks at us, too, with the slingshots we declined to buy. It sucked.

Typically Jeanette is the jaded one out of us and I try to find the positive, so here’s my futile attempt. At least interacting with all of the really, really, REALLY annoying children was like a hammer whacking into each of our biological clocks. Neither of us wants kids and boy did this help make sure that as we each approach the magical age of 35 when every woman starts hankering for a baby, neither of us will. Also, we don’t have the added weight of their small baskets in our packs. (That said, we love all of our family and friends’ children and love watching them grow up.) 

I’m not sure if it’s just because we’ve been traveling for so long and our tolerance levels are low or because I’m running a low-grade fever or what, but I’ve never thought I could be so annoyed at an entire population. Because it’s not as if it’s only the kids who want something from us, it’s the adults, too.

Before heading to the Simen Mountains we spent a few days in Addis Ababa, the capital city. On the second day we were walking around looking for the telecommunications office to buy a SIM card for our phone and got horribly lost. We asked a man on the street who greeted us in English. He said it was close by and he would show us. “How nice!” I thought. As I got the SIM card, he chatted with Jeanette. Then he followed us to the airline office where we were sorting out our low-cost internal flights. Jeanette kept saying things like, “We can do all of this on our own, if you have to go somewhere, feel free.” He kept saying, no, no, as if he enjoyed hanging out with us. He showed us to the museum, at which point Jeanette said, very politely, go away. She even offered him 20 birr to help him buy a new phone. He scoffed at her saying that as our guide he was owed much more. Our what??? We never asked him to be our guide; we just wanted directions and thought he just wanted to hang out. We were completely scammed and spent 10 minutes explaining to him that we shouldn’t have to pay for a service we did not ask for or even want and that if he was going to finish his tourism degree and work with Western cultures as he wanted to and claimed to be good at, that he needs to understand Western cultures operate in a very straightforward and upfront manner - no sidling up to people, following them around, and then demanding money. 

I won’t even get into it about visiting the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. Suffice it to say, everybody and their brother wanted a piece of the pie. We were transformed from vending machines to walking ATMs. We even had to a pay a guy who followed us up the cliff to watch our shoes outside of a church on the top of an isolated mountain so the crazy monks didn’t steal them, or so we were told. Our guide/driver even got angry with us for not buying old church icons for $50 each to support a church’s restoration. How could we not want them? Not only are we white tourists, who always buy these things, but also, the priest at the church showed us a book and said we were good people and predicted we would soon have children. (If only he knew, right? Was he predicting another immaculate conception?) How could we not buy them? Oy vey.

Suffice it to say that while slightly being taken advantage of and seen as a target in the rest of Africa was a bit tiresome, this blows my mind. I really, really wanted to like Ethiopia and while it has incredible landscapes and history, I’m so over this. The begging is intense in a way I’ve never experienced before even though the people honestly seem to have more money than in many other places we’ve been. The land is producing plenty of grain.  Families have numerous cattle and countless sheep and goats. My old village in Tanzania was home to maybe ten cows, total.

Our tour guide for Tigray says that the country was destroyed by tourists who just hand out things to children. He has a point, but at the same time, parents have the responsibility of teaching children that mobbing white people and begging isn’t a great way to make a living. But it’s a hard thing to teach when you yourself see white people as a walking ATM as well.  We are doing our best to right the wrongs of other travelers by not handing out anything, but I doubt we've made any impression on the kids.

Sorry to sound so bitter. Not all of the people here are horrible; some are truly friendly. But for the most part, neither of us is sure we could actually recommend coming here except on a highly organized tour wherein you never have to interact with money and thus only have to deal with begging kids and not being fleeced for everything else. The following post will highlight what we’ve been doing since getting to Ethiopia. It’s an interesting place, but it sure is exhausting. I can’t wait to get back to east Africa! (Also, since writing this we’ve landed in Mekele, the first town we’ve been to where pretty much everyone ignores us. It’s FABULOUS.)

This is Jeanette here.  I take back everything bad I said about the touts and annoyances in Tanzania.  It was nothing compared to this, nothing at all.  This is exhausting and frustrating and wearing me out.  I am completely on the defensive now, not like I thought I was in Tanzania.  It’s awful to not take people at face value but we just can’t or we’ll be taken for every last dime we have.  A few other travelers have said that it’s much worse in India so I don’t know how I’m going to survive that some day.  Maybe it will help going right at the begging of a trip rather than several months in when you’re already somewhat worn down.

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