Travel begets travel. We scratch the itch to explore and, like a real rash, it only causes the itch to need more scratching. We meet other travelers who boast of their time at such-and-such destination and we find ourselves wanting. Or, in the idle moments of a return flight we pull out the airline magazine, which fills our heads with other needs. After all, we don’t want to miss out on the up and coming arts scene in City We Didn’t Expect Had an Arts Scene. Or the newest Michelin restaurant reviving Forgotten Ski Resort. Or the Remote Village with the best views of the Northern Lights. And so on.
In this case, on a trip to Copenhagen for a work conference, I visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The museum had a temporary exhibit focusing on the architecture of Sub-Saharan African. Based on the American portrayal of Africa, some would be surprised to find out Africa has buildings, so an exhibit on architecture certainly pushes the envelope. And even if intellectually I understood the continent to be more complex than Out of Africa or Black Hawk Down, I rarely take the time to consider what skyscrapers might look like there or how many there might be.
There was a there of which I knew little. And there at the Louisiana I think I resolved to make the trip. Like a lot of Americans I always felt I would eventually travel to Africa, but I supposed it would be part of some organized group and most likely a safari. Something with the university alumni club or Elderhostel. I would be dressed a little like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond and slightly aloof with an army of tour guides to iron out every kink in the experience.
That vision suddenly dissolved in favor of this more immediate trip, but the question of where remained. Lagos, Nigeria captured my imagination as the largest city on the continent and Ethiopia captured my attention as the only African country to never be colonized.
I would ultimately come to the conclusion that travel to Africa has become more accessible than in the American psyche, but the process remains daunting and even more so for a gay man. The African continent, with the exception of South Africa, is divided into two kinds of countries – those that kill you for being gay and those that merely imprison you. In my planning I assumed that I preferred the latter, but what I really wanted was a place where Americans peeling off cash and spending it would be left alone altogether.
The current State Department provides excellent resources for LGBT travelers going to Africa, something to consider next time someone tells you that elections don’t matter. It’s nice to know that of all the varied things my tax dollars go towards, one such thing was cautionary advice about leaving Lagos for the countryside in Nigeria. And how could I travel to Africa and not feel the wide-open expanse promised in the movies?
Ethiopia was looking like the better choice but even finding information proved more difficult than past trips. At Barnes and Noble, past the wall of guides on Europe was a small shelf of guidebooks for African countries, but none for Ethiopia and one had to be secured on Amazon. On TripAdvisor, I didn’t even have “Friends of Friends” who had been to Ethiopia. A blog written by a Nordic ex-pat living in the capital, Addis Ababa, had such a long list of things to bring with you, that she was essentially advising to pack one of everything in Target, just in case. A little like Noah filling the Ark. A search for rental cars on Kayak.com led to a screen I had never seen before on that site: No Results. One simply can’t mosey up to the Hertz counter in Addis Ababa.
These obstacles added to the allure, which reveals one of the great paradoxes about travel to Africa. For the xenophobes it’s dangerous, full of terrorists and disease lurks at every impoverished corner. For the traveling set, in a world where Machu Picchu and the Great Wall have become common fixtures on Facebook profiles, it’s impossibly exotic and perhaps even a little prestigious.
My curiosity was now aided by vanity and I bought the tickets as a surprise gift for my boyfriend Steve. On the eve of his birthday I drove us to the Little Ethiopia neighborhood of Los Angeles. Like a lot of immigrant restaurants, the one I chose relied solely on its food for the charm. We reviewed our laminated picture menus under terrible lighting without any ambient noise or music. An image can reveal a thousand words and at that instant, without speaking, Steve’s demeanor and body language said Why the fuck are we here, I would never be so cheap on your birthday?
He denies this. . . . sure, ok. After ordering, I quickly, handed him a guidebook with the tickets enclosed. His body language changed considerably, it was shocked and gracious, but not entirely reassuring either. He mostly exuded disbelief.
Steve to his credit came around. Reaction from friends and family ranged. Some of our older gay friends – the type who have visited sixty or more countries – enthusiastically supported the trip. Other friends had a natural curiosity.
Steve is a black American and many asked me if this was Steve’s heritage. I understand the question as well meaning and from a white Euro-centric idea of returning to the “old country.” But as a point of order, it should be said that most black Americans don’t really know where they are from. They didn’t exactly have scrapbooking sessions on the slave ships. Beyond this, most of the slave trade came from western Africa and Ethiopia is on the eastern “horn” of the continent.
The most pervasive reaction was one of concern for our safety. Since the trip has concluded successfully, it’s tempting to be glib about this, but I did have my own anxiety. Our flight path went over Russia, Iran, Iraq and Saudia Arabia, countries not exactly a rainbow coalition embracing gay rights. In the event of mechanical problems, would I have preferred an emergency landing or that we take our chances? In all seriousness, a brother of mine obsessed over Ethiopia’s prison sentence for being gay – 10 years – but my mind kept wandering back to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine.
As the time for the trip came close though I started becoming worried about it all. I took the recommended vaccinations. I bought the travel insurance with medical evacuation, which I had never done before. I removed my relationship with Steve from my Facebook and removed my status as being interested in men. Unlike trips to western Europe, Grindr would not be checked.
Writing about travel poses distinct challenges. We can’t really know a place within two weeks time. And yet simultaneously we immerse ourselves into sensory overload and our impressions feel so raw it begs for a narrative to be written if only to make sense of it. The experience can strip us of the unconsidered comforts of the quotidian and suddenly we find ourselves asking – as I did – why are butter dollops floating in a bowl of water on this buffet line? Or we encounter norms so differ from our own that it shocks the senses. For example, when a hotel bellman smacked a young boy on the back of the head to leave us alone as we got into our cab. Further, we want to accept a place as it is – indeed we say we crave the authentic – but the experience leads to inevitable comparisons with home. In the back of a cab, in the chaos of traffic, it certainly feels like a city of 4 million people ought to have more than a dozen stoplights.
And, so, we write. To explore and comprehend.
Our welcome into the city was entirely without complication and yet it would embody all of the culture shock and contradictions we would encounter. The Qatar Airways flight lands at the smaller, domestic terminal in Addis Ababa, seemingly the only international flight to do so. Rather than shuttling us off to the the international terminal which appeared to be a gleaming, glass temple of commerce, we walk into a squat building which felt from the 1970’s with light wood finishing and fluorescent lights. U.S. visitors to Ethiopia are required to obtain a tourist visa, which can be done in advance or on arrival. Behind a plexiglass window, an official in street clothes sitting in a white plastic lawn chair processes us for our visas. We wait in another short line to pay for it and then a third short line to have our passports checked.
At baggage claim, an agent checked our claim tickets presumably because of the vagabond drifters standing right next to the currency exchange. They waited until we had a fat stack of Ethiopian Birr to beg. We declined on our way to have our bags scanned by customs, though it felt like someone with enough confidence could have simply walked by and out into the world.
In the U.S. or Europe I will go posh or down-market depending on whether I am under the prevailing mood of California Consumer or Midwest Miser. In some circumstances I am navigating a city or its public transit at odd hours to save a buck, but in Ethiopia I didn’t take the chance. We were staying at four-star properties. I reasoned that innkeepers and hotels serving that clientele were less likely to dote on our sexuality, as the most important religion of the rich has always been the worship of money.
This decision was rewarded. I had called ahead to the hotel. A substantial language barrier – and frankly a Western attitude about the developing world – had made me feel uncertain as to whether the hotel would actually be there to pick us up at the airport. A sign, with your name on it at 3:00am after 22-23 hours of traveling held by a man in a suit, ah thine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!
He ushered us past dozens and dozens of cabs to the hotel van, easily the nicest vehicle in the lot and off we were off into the Ethiopian night. With shops closed and far fewer streetlights we only saw some random signs in a mixture of English and Amharic as we weaved though what was definitely not a grid. I felt a palpable sense of being: here we were in Africa and though I typically plan trips on a shorter timeline, months of building anticipation had its advantages as well.
I asked the driver how long he waited and he said three hours. I felt terrible though on reflection it seems perhaps a little embellished. When we arrived at the hotel, I tipped him what would roughly be US.. minimum wage for his time spent waiting, which I think is probably equivalent to several days of wages. He seemed a little amazed and we received the treatment of royalty.
As an aside, in the U.S., room service feels like a guilty luxury. I love to do it (who doesn’t?) but the prices generally make me feel like I simply should have gotten off my fat ass and walked down to the corner to the Circle K to buy a six pack for the same price.
Perhaps the outposts of American hotels in Ethiopia follow the same formula, but refreshingly Ethiopian owned hotels have not performed complex McKinsey-style algorithms to maximize the price. Two beers delivered to the room usually came out somewhere around $2 to $3.
With a beer in hand we platonically stood out on our 10th floor balcony and surveyed Addis Ababa below. The contradictions played out before us. The hotel overlooked the new light rail line, the first in Sub-Saharan Africa, but if definitely felt much darker than the U.S. There were enough lights twinkling we could make out construction of other tall buildings in the near horizon. Our room felt like a Westin. The night air felt still and smelled like a campfire. That I went to bed confused that the city smelled like a campfire –and not realizing it was because burning of wood in homes — is a sign of how much culture shock was yet to come.
Years ago on my first trip to Europe as a college junior I recall loving Munich and Paris and yet hating the stark modernism of Berlin. I still love Paris and Munich but now I LOVE Berlin. With time and perspective I have realized that on my first trip I went to see “Europe” – or some fantasy Disneyfied version of it. Those experiences which validated that vision – the busty waitresses in traditional Bavarian garb with giant mugs of beer – made me feel, ah ha!, this is it, I I have found Europe! On the one hand this now feels juvenile; on the other hand I watch tourists in LA visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in order to feel like they are finding Hollywood and I realize wanting certain experiences is entirely natural. For that matter, if you called today and offered to take me to Munich I would still jump on the first plane with you.
My point is every trip is some part seeing and some part seeing what we want to see. We have contrived ideas of a place and we have agendas. And being cognizant of that, I went into Ethiopia aware of my agendas. I wanted to see the “New Africa” and to experience the wide open expanse promised in the movies.
I did find that New Africa. One of our guides lost his cell phone and was most upset about the loss of the contacts in it. A set of rural grandparents took care of their three-year old granddaughter because their daughter had left for the city, part of the wave of urbanization happening across the world. A chef was saving money to open his restaurant one day. The U.S. Ambassador suggested we visit the Sheraton because it had live music that night. We went and the mostly Ethiopian crowd was there to enjoy the night and perhaps flaunt their wealth, sort of like a Thursday night at the Viceroy Hotel.
I purchased a prepaid SIM card for my iPhone and found, almost without fail, great connectivity throughout our trip. Indeed, I would speculate that parts of rural Ethiopia have better cell service than parts of the rural U.S. We saw projects funded or being executed by Chinese firms. On a long drive, the countryside flickered by the window with high tension power lines in the distance and it reminded me of topography in Utah. In our hotel room we watched an African fashion show on TV. Addis Ababa was a frenzy of construction and people. The Bole area of it felt distinctively more upwardly mobile than other areas. With a little effort I found the bougie Little Gabies baby boutique and towards the end we had dinner at the French restaurant La Mandoline. At the Makush Art Gallery, I bought a piece from the insanely talented Shewangizaw Tamerat. On our last night, a wealthy family was hosting a wedding celebration for 700 guests at our hotel.
Writing about these experiences is essential because they are counter to the typical mainstream U.S. news story where Ethiopia (or Africa in general) is portrayed as a giant UNICEF poster. For just $5 a week you can feed a village, that sort of thing. I went and I saw evidence of the New Africa, a bubbling cauldron of human striving with a feeling of kinetic energy that exceeds our own. I would most certainly invest in an ETF focused on Ethiopia.
And, yet . . . the guide who lost his cell phone grew up as a shepherd, a word we only use around Christmas. The grandparents taking care of the granddaughter lived in a hut without electricity. They hosted the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony we attended. They shared their home with their livestock, including a chicken, which on the dirt floor flapped near the injera bread that had been made for us. In a lifetime of travel, nothing has challenged me more than making myself eat that food. The chef wanting to open a restaurant had a friend who had been attacked by a bull the day before — and it was unclear that he would live.
And, yet . . . we hired a driver to take us from Gondar to Lalibela about a six or seven hour drive. About midway through the trip some cute young kids shouted at the van. The driver told me they were asking for a pen. As we sped off the driver assured me it was their shtick but of course, as a writer, it feels tragic. What kid should want of a pen? Forty-five minutes later we stop and this impossibly cute kid comes to the window and asks me for a pen. As if to make amends for passing up the earlier children, I give this child two, the only two in my possession and as it were, the nice sort of gel pens common to law firms everywhere in the U.S. The kid is smiling ear to ear and I feel so happy. The driver, who had been tinkering under the hood, proceeds to go over to the boy and take one of the two pens from the boy. As the driver sits back into the car, I assume he had admonished the boy for taking two, with the intention of returning one to me. Instead the driver says, “this is a nice pen, I take one for me.” SMH.
And, yet . . . the same driver though roughly my parents’ age had never heard of the Beatles. The electricity flickered out in our hotel in Gondar and an earlier hotel had no hot water. A 3-4 year old child approached me on the street not asking for money but making hand gestures for my half finished water bottle. My heart melted, melts again thinking of it and of course I gave her the water. I gave another boy money out of a van window and he shoves a piece of paper in my hand with his email address on it. I am not sure what I am supposed to do with that, but now I can’t find it and I feel guilty. At one point in time Steve rifled through his bag to find a business card to give to one teenage boy and a crowd gathered. Women in the countryside can be seen physically carrying the days’ water in a yellow plastic containers.
Returning from this trip proved to a more intense form of reverse culture shock than I had previously experienced. On the first days back at my office, I felt that I possessed a new knowledge and perspective, and I wanted to tell anyone who would listen. But days later when friends would ask me about the trip, I struggled to respond with anything at all.
The range of emotion and responses had simply been too great to package into a glib response. During our time in the Simien Mountains I had been so sure that everyone needed to visit as quickly as possible. We saw a spectacular majesty that matched the best of nature that I have seen in other places and definitely matching the Africa promised in the movies. I have thousands of pictures and none quite do the experience any justice. For anyone truly considering it, without any reservation I would recommend our guide Dawit Yohannes. I became almost childlike when I saw primates in the wild, almost putting myself at risk to take photos that will help recall the moment but certainly fail to capture the magic of actually seeing human-like ears on the babies tugging at their mother. Outside of Kenyan safaris, there is almost no awareness in the United States of national parks in Africa. In Gondar, standing under the castles built in the 17th and 18th century I felt like I was in Camelot. But there is almost no awareness in the United States of any castles in Africa.
So one conclusion from the trip certainly is that Ethiopia is a place of majesty and wonder. For the adventurous set it certainly deserves to be on your list and there is a world of activity happening outside of our mainstream media milieu. But to draw any other conclusions is tough. Etihiopia, like all things, is in media res and nothing ties up neatly like a bow — life is messy. I saw a lot of poverty and though it shocked the senses, to solely focus on it fails to see the immense development and future that I simultaneously witnessed.
What I mostly feel on reflection is further bewilderment of the political phenomena occurring in this country right now. Other peoples have an inherent right to strive, to enter the market, to love and thrive. Why would we erect trade or other barriers? It’s really against the humanism of the Democratic Party and our own vision of democratic liberalism. Further, focusing solely on the great spoils of the one percent is a sickness and myopia of its own. Although our own society has serious imperfections which we ought to strive to remedy, a call to “Revolution” can only be made by someone who lacks the perspective of the relative prosperity of the ninety nine percent here versus elsewhere. A system delivering our lifestyle can’t be so bad that a “Revolution” is necessary.
Otherwise, as always, travel. Explore. See. Experience. And, on one of my flights on Ethiopia Airlines, I read there’s a new Radisson opening up in Sierra Leone.
Los Angeles, California