The last of tar road soon disappears and we can wait to leave behind the scorched terrain for the cooler air of the mountains. The going is slow and as always the Harer map dot turns out to be far further afield than we had thought.
Most of Ethiopian roads are metal roads, well constructed but highly puncture prone. As we climb, the skies begin to turn and the first drops of rain explode on the road in small plumes of dust. It’s not long before the dust turns into clinging mud and visibility all but disappears.
We eventually in darkness arrive in Hirna call it a day and check into Wegegan Hotel that has by now a larger river flowing past its entrance. At US3$ a room it is clean with a small bar and restaurant that produces an Ethiopian style omelet that rumbles in our stomachs for most of the night in time with the thunder.
Morning breaks clear and fresh making the valleys surrounding Hirna look like fresh oil painted landscapes. Breakfast is more of last night’s leathery omelets which we skip settling for some strong coffee and stale bread. While Fanny showers and dons her burnt face Florence and I go for a stroll.
In the market place we attract more than our fair share of attention. Walking back I ask Florence without looking over her shoulder to have a stab as to how many young kids are following us. “Fifty.” No. “One hundred.” > No. > “Two hundred.” No. She turns around to be confronted by almost a street full.
Wearing jumper’s one-hour later we are on our way. Peak after peak looms in the distance making our route a majestic drive if rather bumpy. Six hours on we arrive in Harer the spiritual focus of Ethiopian’s Muslim population.
Overhead wires hang from lopsided wooden electrical or telephone poles. Pavements are marked out by a smooth trail over building debris, rubbish and open sewers. Behind every wrought iron gate lays a dog or two exhausted from the nights chorus of relentless barking.
The streets heave to the mass of walking figures that somehow or other to avoid being wiped out by the passing power of the Japanese auto industry. Mitsubishi, Toyota, Suzuki, Datson, Nissan with the odd large Merc with fluttering embassy pendants. Bleaches of exhaust fumes camouflage the wandering donkeys, sheep, grazing cattle. Hiach vans weave in and out of gaps too small to have wing mirrors. The whole lot is bouncing over or evading known potholes.
Beggars position themselves for the day’s alms. A naked man is lying asleep. Men in suits are walking with bunches of garden peas; Allah is singing the morning howl. A posh hotel security guard is awaiting a few cents from a departing guest. The local barber in a galvanised shed is picking his nose. Wedding dresses for hire are opening for business. Chat the local leaf is being munched by the ton to get out of the real world.
Unlike my friend Richard Burton the first European dressed as a Muslim to penetrate the walls of Harer in 1854 our entrances is totally ignored.We drive through the walls main gate, which is named after the town stopping at a bar in Feres Magala Square the centre. The first gulp of cold beer has hardly hit the back of my throat when we are surrounded by the hungry for a few dollars chat chewing Harer guides. “I show you Rambo house, Haile Selasie house, Hareri house, the Hyena man.”
All attempts to explain that we have just arrived and are only interested in a cold beer have no effect. Looking across the street I see a large poster Sylvester Stallone and much to our chat-chewing guides I announce what should I pay to see Rambo house while we can enjoy his large poster on the wall opposite with cold beer.
With the promise of gainful employment in the morning one of punting guides suggests the Tewodros Hotel. Describing it as not expensive, clean, even European, modern, it turns out to be a concrete three-story block that seems to act as the main communication tower. All Harer overhead wires emanate from or pass through its majestic height.
Up the concrete steps to floor one a room with a view and a balcony pleasantly surprises us with a clean room three decent beds and a black and white telly.
Right on time our guide arrives. He joins us over lunch introducing himself as Giorgis – Ethiopian George. He is bright and passes our test in commanding adequate English we can understand. The first task is to agree a day’s non-guilt Faranji guiding fees and then to explain we are not here to discover the Ark of the Covenant. Last but not least we will dump him if he drags us to any shops where he is on a commission, however there is a bonus for a good days work –he gets the message.
It takes us another half an hour to battle our injera breakfast of fried eggs called inkolala tibs according to George who is by now tucking in to our great relief. Injera you know says George is made from tef, wheat like grain only found in Ethiopia. The tef dough is fermented for three days before it is cooked, producing a foamy rubbery sour tasting pancake bread, which is torn off to scoop whatever you are eating.
Three cups later of Buna (espresso coffee) and we are on our way. First stop is the Chat market a stone throw over rubble from the hotel. According to George tons of the stuff is flown daily to Brixton market in London where it is sold as a vegetable. Row after row of dealers sits in front of their mounds of what looks like branches of Bay leaves. Business is brisk with the going price for a bundle of small brighter green leaves at 3.50bir about the same as a bottle of beer. The best stuff to be had according to George is from young shrubs. It’s all to do with getting the freshest leaves. Like a twittering bird he moves from one bundle to the next. It’s not long before I have a hand full. “Chew it into a pulpy mesh,” and hold it like me in you mouth in your cheeks “
The taste is bitter. “Any minute now, I am expecting my mouth and lips to go num and for my brain to follow.
Chat or as it is also called Gat, is a mild narcotic, a natural stimulant containing Cathione and Cathine one of which substances is used in the manufacture of Ecstasy pills. Most of the supplies don’t arrive in Ethiopian villages, towns till around 2pm. The amount of time it takes the growers to huff the stuff on the backs of woman, donkeys, for delivery to onwards pick up points.
Just as I deposit a large green gob to join the green hue of the surrounding rubble and well-worn pathways “It will take a few hours chewing before you enter blissful eternity”, say George. To the question why do so many Ethiopians chew Chat he replies, “If you lived here you would want to forget you daily routine and problems.” With bonus dulling eyes he also adds “It takes the pains of hunger away.”
We move on into the old quarters. A living museum of rectangular stone houses set in forty-eight hectares with three hundred and sixty-two lanes. The confusing webs of cobble alleys are more in keeping with a Moroccan sulk than an Ethiopian town.
We enter one of the houses. A world of hanging carpets, baskets, all walls decorated from top to bottom with dozen or so small alcoves in each wall displaying glittering crockery.
In front of us is a raised floor also richly carpeted on which a large lady is sitting smoking one of the many bubble pipes that are standing between suitable arranged sequent adorned cushions. She has short fat arm with all fingers sporting gold rings that stop an avalanche of bangles escaping on to the floor. She beckons us to approach.
“This carpet shows the house has a daughter of marriageable age”, says George.
Before you could say Jack Robin Florence is sitting on the large lady’s knee sucking on the Hubble-bubble turning forty shades of green. A cherish sight. Resisting an offer of the coffee ceremony and numerous sale pitches in Gai and Sinan we move on.
Lining up his next play at earning some commission “Harer has its own language, and is one of the few cities that produced its own coinage. “ “The Marie Theresa Thaler coins are now made into earrings and other items of jewellery that are very beautiful,” says George. He has no explanation as to how a coin from the Austria Empire ended up as currency in Harar.
Back in the narrow alleyway our footsteps ring on the smooth stoned floor and vibrate up the walls announcing our approach to all living behind the solid wooded doors. “This is Haile Selasie house, where he lived when he was a boy” “You want to go in and see”. It costs 10 Bir per person to visit.” A sign on the wall of the house has no mention of the Emperors stay, but seems to indicate that it is some sort of herbal shop. We give the visit the skip and move to the next house Rambo’s house, which happens to be right next store.
This building from the outside looks dimly Oriental. Two stories it stands out like a wart against the surrounding structures because of its unusual architecture.
In a small booth with 10 Bir entrance notice a government looking official is fanning a book of tickets. “It’s worth having a look say George,” “From the top you can see out over the city “. We walk into a courtyard. Facing us is a rather sad-looking building with a less had safe looking balcony. The stone steps up to the main entrance has a pillared covered porch which is totally out of character with the rest of the building gives the whole place a look as if it is a Hollywood setting for a horror movie.
Inside we cross a wooden floor that has lost its natural grain sheen to a staircase that once had grandeur. On the second floor the frescoed ceiling. (Which is supposes to be painted by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud who came to Harer as a merchant dealing in coffee and arms) is also in need of attention. Indeed the whole story of Rambo living in this house could be taken with a pinch of salt although he was friendly with Ras Makonnen Haile Selasie father who might have sub the Poet for the odd verse.
We spend the rest of the day browsing the many small shops eventually buying some reshaped Marie Theresa coins that have being made into a necklace. Later that night we ventured out to witness one of Harer strangest events. We were told that there is a tradition since the great Famine of the 19th century of feeding Harer Hyena. Apparently there is still one as nutty as a fruitcake that carries on this tradition outside the city walls.
Parking Williwaw just outside the Fallana gates we walk alongside the battered walls in the dark towards a high-pitched whistle emanating from an out crop of rock. We have seen many Hyenas during our travels so I am somewhat sceptical as to what we are going to witness.
A Hyena can kill a lion and pound for pound it is the strongest animal in the world. It is only second behind the crocodile in jaw crunching strength when it bites it crushes with 1000 + lbs. To get a comparison a pit bullterrier comes in at 250lbs and a Rothweiler 360lbs. So you can imagine the thought of holding out a pork chop or a cow’s leg to an animal that could bite through your arm as if it was butter is far from attractive.
In the ever-increasing darkness we arrive beside a man who has a large bucket of Hyena goodies. We are motioned to sit but the standing position seems more prudent if a quick escape is required.
While the man emits an eerie high whistle that rebounds of the city walls into darkness the hushed ground slops away from us. It not long before a few set of green reflecting eyes are approaching. Gutless a first the first animal snatches a hunk of meat and disappears into the night. After a while the night air is full of supernatural Hyena calls. They are now coming within meters taking large bones held by the Hyena man. As time moves on he is getting more and more rakish with manner he is offering the bones. He put his arm around his neck holding a bone, another bone (not his) between his legs, and the piece de resistance one in his mouth.
The atmosphere is electric. He turns with a smile and beckons me to join him. Handing me a large bone I hold it out to dream for the rest of the night that my arm is being crushed in the vice grips of a Hyena.
It’s quite a sensation watching those eyes approaching. Your nose picks up a pungent strong smell floating on the air before there is flash of white teeth that sends a vibration up your arm, then a sharp braking noise that makes you wonder why you are feeling no pain.(Top TIP: It must be said that feeding Hyena has its down side they becoming less fearful of humans but if you get the chance it is an experience not to miss.)
Leaving Harer with two hands on the steering wheel we return to main drag to turn right for Dirae Dawa (Originally known as Addis Harer, New Harer).The road as always in Ethiopia has its striding crucified humans marching in either direction. (Ethiopians use their walking sticks to hang their arms from when walking long distances. They place the walking stick across the back of their necks holding it in position by looping their arms over it. When viewed by other they look like Christians captured by the Romans marching along the road to the coliseum. ) In some way their image captures for us the essence of Ethiopia which is an unforgiving land, immersed in Rituals of religion/traditions, grinding its way from one famine to the next into the modern world.
Late afternoon we arrive in Dirae Dawa a shabby town with nothing much to show other than one main street with some modern buildings and a bridge over dry river. Like most cities it robs one of the splendour of its surroundings. Not until a warm mellowing of light indicated that the sun is setting do we find Paulo house. His home like most is up a non-named dirt road once more behind large gates. Like him the insides of the house is chaotic. A heavy smell of pot hangs in the air.
The road as always in Ethiopia has its striding crucified humans marching in either direction. (Ethiopians use their walking sticks to hang their arms from when walking long distances. They place the walking stick across the back of their necks holding it in position by looping their arms over it. When viewed by other they look like Christians captured by the Romans marching along the road to the coliseum. ) In some way their image captures for us the essence of Ethiopia which is an unforgiving land, immersed in Rituals of religion/traditions, grinding its way from one famine to the next into the modern world.