Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethiopia 2017 - Day 14. The last, nerve-frazzling day.

The last day is always bitter-sweet. I have enjoyed myself tremendously here, so I will miss Ethiopia and all the nice friends I leave behind. On the other hand, the end of one adventure is also the beginning of the next one, so my spirit is ready to fly to Ghana.

But first things first. I need to return the car, and get rid of a half brick of cash. I gave me half an hour to find my way to ABC Car Rentals, and another hour and a half to complete the return process. However, it took me only 10 minutes to get there (I have this part of the city down pat by now), so I had to wait 20 more minutes for the place to open. I used the time to visit the cathedral, which happens to be set amidst beautiful gardens. It is a sober building on the outside, but rather handsome in its simplicity on the inside, which reminds me a lot of the Greek Orthodox Church, but less overloaded with mosaics and gold. It does have some beautiful murals, and the central cupola is imposing in its frescos of the Last Supper and biblical scenes. The tabernacle is hidden behind heavy curtains, but the side chapels attracted many of the faithful.

Back at the car rental place, the first check went smoothly. The car was clean, had fuel, and had no new dents. However, when the lady who was assisting me looked at the mileage she did a double-take. In fact she sent one of the guys to check again, and then in disbelief she told me 2,400 km was too much. I innocently answered that I had gone to Mek’ele and the whole office came unglued. “Mek’ele?” “All by yourself?” “In that car?”

Once the hubbub calmed down I was told that such a little car was not suited for driving outside the city. “Says who”, I answered, “the little guy performed admirably (but of course I failed to mention the last miserable 100 km of dirt road before I reached Woldiya).” At that very moment one of the drivers was sent to take the car to the mechanic, who took a sweet hour to return his verdict: The car was in perfect mechanical condition! “Well, there is a different rate for outside the city, and you are going to have to pay for extra kilometers.” So I did, and now that I make the final accounting I figure renting the car cost me about $US 400, which yields a very high benefit/cost ratio.

I was done at 9:30 am, and Getachew had promised he was going to pick me up at 10 am to accompany to the central bank to see about exchanging my leftover fortune for familiar US dollars. Now, I don’t mind waiting half an hour for an appointment, but I get awfully anxious when 10:10 am swings by, or 10:30, or 11:00 (no answer in Getachew’s phone), or 11:30 (Getachew’s assistant finally picks up the phone and let’s me know the boss is in a meeting), or 12 (Gteachew finally calls to tell me he is on his way). By that time I was cursing freely because I knew better than to put my fate in the hands of my flaky friend, and because I had needed to go to the bathroom for a good three hours (yes, I asked at the car rental place, and they graciously showed me to a restroom that was very clean but had no toilette paper; no, I am not carrying paper with me, which in Ethiopia is a major mistake). Curse Getachew!

Finally at 12:30 pm he shows up, and at least he had the grace of apologizing and giving me a plausible excuse for the delay. Breath. . . Breath . . . I cannot make any smart ass comments because I need his help for the money exchange transaction. At least now we are heading for the bank. But wait, no, he makes a detour to introduce me to another one of his friends, who is a big player in the Ethiopian Ag agency . . . I really need to go . . . But before we go to the bank, let’s go to the office to pick his wife and daughter. Fine, I don’t care, and as soon as we arrive I trot to the fourth floor to use the President’s restroom. Rats, no toilette paper either. By this time I don’t care, grab a magazine from the rack to cut little squares of paper, and . . . aaah, Nirvana.

When I came down I met Getachew’s delightful wife, Selama, who greeted me warmly and express her admiration for accomplishing my epic trip, driving all by myself. Selama is a doctor, owns a Women Clinic in Addis and another in Mek’ele, and is a wonderful conversationalist. Half an hour later their daughter Hermela came in; she is a very pretty young woman who very much reminded me of my Faby (both of them pick out the olives off their pizzas and dislike raisins). Now that we were all assembled it was time to go for dinner at the local pizzeria. It was a delightful lunch, but I kept thinking that the afternoon was wearing off. In an offhand way I asked at what time banks closed (5 pm). Since it was already 3:30 pm Getachew thought that perhaps we better get going.

So we get to the central bank, which is indeed a big concern, and Getachew starts the rounds, oozing personal charm, while I clutch to my half brick of bills. One time after another Getachew introduced me as the big professor from California, but on every case was told that exchanging 25,000 Birr into dollars was out of the question. Every time my friend kept his cool and asked for the next manager up, until eventually we got to the office of the Boss Lady. Getachew really turned on the charm with her, speaking in a mellifluous voice until, half hypnotized, she decided there was no problem with the amount, authorized the transaction, and directed one of her minions to take care of us. I had to fill a form, of course, detailing date of my travel and purpose of the trip. Exchanging money is a problem for Ethiopians who want to travel out of the country and need dollars for their trips, but thanks to the approval from the Boss Lady half an hour later I received 10 crisp new US$ 100 bills, and the ordeal was over, just shy of 5 minutes from closing time. Hail Getachew!

Now that I have managed to exchange my fortune I can make a final tally of my trip. I figure I spent US $1,600 (car rental included), plus US$ 200 for Bank of America cash advance and foreign exchange fees, foreign exchange rates, and the 800 Birrs I have left. Inexpensive for a memory of the only time in my life when I traveled without having to worry about the cash I was spending.

To end this blog let me tell you a couple of funny stories I had been saving for the day, God forbids, when I will find I have nothing else to say:

In order to indicate attention at what is being said, some Ethiopians like to say ishi, whereas other say hau (with the h being a very soft sound made by puling air in, as if it was spoken in surprise) or whe. To my untrained ear, the last two words sound like “how?” or “when?” particularly if I am speaking with someone over the phone and cannot read their body language. Just imagine the following conversation:
   Me: I will contact you via email.
   2nd person: How?
   Me: Well . . . I think I will connect to the internet with my notebook.
   2nd person: When?
   Me: Eh . . . When I get back home.
   2nd person: How?
   Me: Ahh. . . by plane via Paris and Houston.
   2nd person: When?
   Me: Humm . . . later in August.
   2nd person: How?

Such a misunderstanding can keep going for ages until finally you hear ishi, at which point you put down the phone with trembling hands and hide under the pillows.

Another source of confusion is the time of day. Ethiopians use 12 morning hours and 12 afternoon/evening hours like we do, but the morning starts at 6 am our time. So when you ask a person at what time will the bank open, they might say “at 2:30”. Really, and here I am telling the world Ethiopians are hard working people! Or you may be trying to set a lunch date, and the person might say “Great, let’s meet at the pizzeria at 7:00”. By that time I am likely to be growling with hunger! Translation 2:30 am Ethiopian means 8:30 am, and 7 am Ethiopian means 1 pm. Pretty cool, isn’t it? I might use this trick to freak out my students J

So goodbye beautiful land. I will miss your majestic mountains, your good food, and your quirky but lovable people. Until we meet again.

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