A Travellerspoint blog

Ethiopia Again

Some years later...2007

‘Ferench! Ferench!’
The cry is a familiar one to me. I’ve never been the type to stand out in a crowd but since I stepped off the plane in Addis International Airport seven months ago I have been visible wherever I go. The Ethiopians seem to separate the world into four distinct categories: Habesha (Ethiopians), Africans (from whom they separate themselves through a proud history), Chinese (that seems to be everyone with dark hair and pale skin) and Ferenchis (everyone else). I belong to the latter of these categories and with my white skin and pale brown hair seem to emanate flashing dollar signs as I walk.
I make my way as quickly as I can through the late-afternoon crowds in Mexico square. It is five o’clock, the air thick and leaden with the promise of rain, but the streets and pavements are still crammed with people buying and selling. It is a short distance from the place where my minibus stops to where I am meeting a friend and I must walk quickly or risk being waylaid.
‘Ferench! Ferench!’
The man selling flip-flops from an arrangement of plastic sacks on the pavement has sprung up as he sees me approach and now attempts to show me his stock. Hundreds of pairs of many-coloured flip-flops and other plastic shoes are laid neatly on the ground where they compete for the attention of the not so discerning buyer with the sandals, trainers and underwear sold by the woman five metres up the street and, around the corner, the rich selection of handbags and T-shirts with slogans that you could never have believed existed. I am almost tempted by the pair of what look like pink rubber moulds of a pair of trainers (complete with Nike tick) that sit, smugly melting, in the middle. Think how practical they would be when the rain finally starts, as it has been threatening to for weeks. And I could fulfil a life-long ambition to walk around looking as if I was wearing a pair of neon pink Nike trainers, but not actually doing so. I demur. Despite apparently resembling a walking wallet I am on very limited funds and headed for Mercato, the largest outdoor market in the world, to buy presents for my far away family with this month’s pay.
‘Ferench! Ferench!’
‘Good Lord,’ I mutter bad-temperedly as I dodge the on-coming traffic heading for Meskal Square in one direction and Sarbet in the other, ‘If I yelled out “Foreigner, foreigner” in the middle of the street in Europe I don’t know what people would think of me!’ This time I am hailed by two desperately thin but cheeky looking kids running barefoot towards me through the dust and crowds. I turn my head away and, eyes fixed to the ground, hurry on to the petrol station where I am to meet my friend. It is hard to explain what it’s like being begged for money wherever you go, especially if you don’t have very much to give away. I had made a bargain with myself that I would give money to women with children and to disabled people, but it could never be enough. The cynical thought arises, as it so often does when I refuse to give money to somebody that I am simply refusing because I would rather spend the money on myself than help someone who is clearly starving. I push the thought away and, rather ineffectually, attempt to cover my face with my hair and sunglasses. This is pointless of course since it is the hair that will draw attention to me anyway.
I lean on the wall by the Total gas station where I have agreed to meet my friend Eptsam. I have been told she is the best person to go bargain-hunting at Mercato with and since it is my first visit I am rather nervous; I shall stick to her like a limpet, I decide. Leaning my head back a little I scan the sky apprehensively. The clouds bunch together, pressing ominously in and the air around seems oppressive. This time, it is going to rain.
It is as I bring my head down with a sigh and a muttered ‘Perfect’ that I see him. I have heard about him before – hushed hearsay over coffee and French- fries, shakes of the head and ineffectual shrugs of shoulders – but now seeing him my heart still gives a sick little jolt in reaction. He is terribly thin; his open shirt and tattered jeans hang off him and the bones of his chest can be counted like railway tracks. He isn’t old, though it is hard to tell his age exactly, but he staggers like an old man, arms outstretched, feeling his way because he can hardly see. He clutches a wooden cross and as he throws out a blind arm the wood scrapes the stone wall. The growth, whatever it is, how it had got there I can’t tell, stretches across his face completely covering one eye. Where the eye should be is thick stretched skin that seems to pull his whole face to one side. His nose is almost totally gone, a misshapen lump of useless flesh. His heavy breathing flutters the elastic skin around the tiny gash that is left of his mouth and as his jaw moves in time to his continual mumbled prayers the grotesque, suffocating layer of skin stretches and relaxes; his own face a horror mask that he can never remove.
My own mind betrays me as the thought flashes across it, ‘Please don’t let him see me.’ With all the prying, pushy, begging, friendly Habesha in the whole of Mexico Square I wish in that moment that this one will not see me, the only ferench.
He weaves towards me, head twisted sideways painfully. The eye he fixes on me is shot through with red, the face bunches and twists once more and the gash stretches as he smiles. ‘Ferench.’ I nod and smile pulling the corners of my mouth up as best I can. Now that face is so near I cannot look at it. A phrase rears up in my head from Heart of Darkness. I loathe that book.
‘Salamnesh.’ Peace be with you and the first drop of rain lands on my cheek.
My answer is a croaked whisper from a dry throat. ‘Salamno.’ And with you.
‘Welcome in Ethiopia.’
‘ameseghinallehu.’ Thank you. Curt British nod as if he’s offering me tea.
‘Amarigna yechelalu?’ Do you speak Amharic?
‘Yellem.’ No. Stammered Amharic. Shake of the head. Rueful smile.
‘Exyehestelign.’ God bless you.
‘Exyehestelign.’ I whisper the word. It’s almost a question. How can he wish me well when I stand here in a parallel universe grumbling about the rain and mud on my old trainers? He will sleep in the mud and he has no trainers. The rain drops spatter his shoulders, turning his T-shirt from faded to new-washed.
I clumsily fumble in my shoulder-bag and reaching for his hand press a few birr into it. I draw my hand away quickly, embarrassed, hating myself. The hand that has touched him twitches as if I shall wipe my hand on my skirt. Wipe away the germs of poverty and disfigurement and bad luck that he may have transferred to me. ‘Exyehestelign.’ And it’s over, he stumbles away. I am blessed. And each new drop of rain brings a new blessing like a starved garden bursting into life.

Posted by rosiescott 02:14 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged educational Comments (0)

My very first (proper) journey

Part 2

Continuing on from yesterday.

Now for what I have been told by my parents, and frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves. Not for the decision to leave jobs and mortgage in Nottingham, to move to very recently famine-stricken and politically torn apart Ethiopia, with their three daughters (five, three and one), to live in a house that was too small and to subsist for a year (from what I remember) largely on pasta and beans, with no car and no television, putting their complete trust in people they barely knew. No. That was the best decision they ever made. What they should be ashamed of is first bribing two eldest daughters with Polly Pocket pencil-cases (the lid was a little house!) and then feeding giant sleeping pills to said beautiful daughters and knocking them out for the duration of the trip! My mother lives in guilt from the moment when as she helped her groggy children off the plane she was approached by a kindly gentleman, who said, 'Your daughters were so beautifully behaved during that flight, thank you.' No doubt she'll still go to heaven, but if it's a points system like on your driving licence her saintly-scorecard is not clean. Humph.

Finally the feeling. Well, this is harder to describe. I was three and therefore not a real person yet. I'm not even sure if I thought that this was a huge upheaval or change, though perhaps the fact that I do remember it suggests I was at least aware. The only thing I can say is that there was a sense of rightness. My thought process was little bit like this: The trip might have been a hassle but I did get a new Polly Pocket out of it, and there's nothing wrong with that. This new place has a garden to play in. I have to share a room with Becky, but I'm used to that. There's no upstairs on this house, that's weird. These people are nice, that woman that's in charge looks a bit like Grandma, but doesn't seem scary like Grandma. What I didn't feel was 'This is different' or 'This is strange.' It all felt...right.

Well, there we are. A full and frank account of my first journey to my spiritual home, Africa. And if you think there is no way I could remember this journey so well after nearly twenty years, please bear in mind that I lived in Ethiopia for five years after this, so I know it pretty well. And if you think I ought to remember this a lot better than I do (just covering the bases) then blame my pill-pushing parents.
I don't know what I'm going to write about next (if I even do write anything else), since there's not a chance these accounts will form any sort of chronological order. You (and by you, I mean me) will have to wait and see.

P.S. My parent's are not really pill-pushers


Posted by rosiescott 06:32 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

My very first (proper) journey

Being a full and frank description of what I remember of travelling to Ethiopia in 1992 at the age of about 3. Part 1.

Hello reader! There are no readers, petal, you are talking to yourself. This is my first ever blog entry. I don't even read blogs let alone have enough opinions about anything to make one myself. And yet here I am. Blogging. About travel. Well I guess I know a bit about travel. NOT the logistics of getting from A to B, sorry, this blog (if indeed this becomes a blog, which I doubt, I am the flakiest individual I have ever met) is not going to be useful. It will contain no tips about how to deal with airport staff (actually, just one, abandon all sense of humour), what to do about visas and traveller's cheques (confused face) or how to say 'Excusez-moi, ou est la bibliotheque?' in French. I don't know any of that. When I travel I tend to hope that sort of stuff works itself out and just do my level best to turn up at airports and bus stations at the right time.
This is about travel getting into your blood, and spreading out to your toes and fingertips and nerve-endings so that you can't get away from it, from that feeling, that itching, twitching feeling that in some unimaginable way there is more to see and feel than here.

I think I might have been away (on holiday) before the time I'm going to tell you about. Possibly to Wales or France (permanent residence at the time was Nottingham, England), but I don't remember that. Actually I have a sneaking suspicion that I have blocked the trip (trips?) out due to the psychological damage caused by being unceremoniously plunged into icy water by people I trusted and loved (my parents) before I was old enough to voice my objections. These would have been, 'Excuse me, mum and/or dad, I would prefer to wash in warm water. Please stop dunking me like a medieval witch, I have done nothing, I am too small.' So much for bitterness, it was 'character building'. Thanks, dad.

Truth be told, since I was only 3 when we first moved out to Ethiopia, my memories of the journey boil down to a few images seen through sleep-clumped eyes, what I have been told by my parents and a feeling. First the images: Heathrow airport, 1992. It is a place that seems indecently light a busy for five o'clock in the morning in Winter. Second, my first plane. I'm not entirely sure of the airline, I have a suspicion it's one that's not going any more, though I take no responsibility for that. If I am wrong, it was Ethiopian Airlines, which I would recommend to anyone. I am sitting in an aeroplane seat (it's big! There's leg-room! That's to do with my size, not the seat) and messing with the tray table. Even at three the novelty of the twist and release catch and the convenient cup-holder depression does not impress for long. What is more my five-year-old sister, Bex, is sitting beside me and she is very carefully delineating for me which side is her's and which is mine, and also how I will be sleeping on the floor, under the seat, because I'm smaller, and she has long legs. She still uses that excuse now...but moving on, image number three: Addis airport, sitting on a luggage trolley and waiting for luggage to arrive on the carousel. Wishing I could ride the carousel. Yes, these feelings will be familiar to you, at whatever age you began to travel. We all know it, an airport could be a fantastic adventure land of wonders and delights, rivalling Disneyland, if they only gave us the chance. And the final image: The house we spent the next four years living in, zoom in to the front garden, zoom in to the darkest most overgrown corner, zoom in to the rusty, twisting corrugated iron fence, and the hole in it. My first thought: 'I must see where that goes'.

Posted by rosiescott 09:13 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

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