Activity is constant, religious celebrations, major and minor, never stop. Breakfast is honey-drenched pastry and a sampling of exotic coffee and steamed milk creations. Sun brilliantly hot, rain wonderfully sporadic, city bustling, everyone crashing into each other without blinking — just going.
The poor of Ethiopia are legendary. The city instructs you to point them towards God, which makes you want to give even more. Eerily districts seem to each house a separate type of beggar: the just poor in one area, all the blind in another.
Cabbies in the hundreds, rickety little Russian Skodas, rusted VW vans boasting brash sales pitches, hanging out windows, shouting for your attention, haggling a fee. One van kicks out 10 passengers to offer itself to us. The driver’s eyebrows bounce, dirty twist in his grin. I chat him up, liking his obvious bad-boi demeanor, the others take my easy acceptance as a warning and carry on.
We accomplish much more by walking, vague sense of landmarks to guide us, boldly forward in our daytime-casual safari gear. Making friends with anyone who will talk with us. Checking off a shortlist of goals including Lucy, humanity’s eldest genetic relative.
Walking leaves us vulnerable to spurts of rain, though sunshine restores order regularly and you end up dry enough. But you can see in the faces of locals, this rain season is something special, ominous.
Forced eventually to seek shelter, we meet discover Bamino, of dour complexities, intense stares and butter-melting grin. DJ, who knew music, charming where he lacked in looks. And the Runt, not quite a player but smoking hot with skills to show off. They take to us instantly. Of course they do — five ferengi out walking the city, we’re putty in their hands.
They start with collecting information, proving their skill with simple opening gestures as they interrogate us with interest. My beard, an Australian super-woman of vast experience, looks them over once and knows the score but decides to leave us to it. We know enough of what is happening to keep it from going off the rails.
First they help us find some drinks; we set the standard by treating them. Money in Ethiopia goes really far, each on a shoestring budget and acting like kings, our wayward charmers have no idea.
They took us to markets we were interested in, pointing out sites along the way, acting as historians, cultural entrepreneurs. Bamino bristled with tension, continually asking us what his name is, testing to see if we listened, or cared. After proving themselves to us, they upped the allure pointing us to where we really want to go.
A mammoth walking tour of the city shows alleys and paths not even mentioned on maps, snapping pictures covertly, gasping at the marvelous chicken ladies, heated passion for Obama, and any American hip-hopper to press vinyl. Onwards to a deep inner-city market, basically where locals acquire the goods they hock in recognized tourist shops.
Our hustlers lead us to specific stalls while competitors scream for our attention. Like a flea market on crack, discovering special discounts only our companions can score us. The Runt leads me by the hand to several booths searching for a particular mask. He buzzes with questions, one of my companions has already probed how dangerous he may be as the little one, to prove himself, hustles in overdrive, raving for our next destination, with some booze, maybe some weed, and some women — boo, buzz kill.