Today, I left Ethiopia. As usual, there are the questions: How was my experience? Did I enjoy it? Was it worthwhile?
Before I can explain my answer, I need to first describe a very frank reality: Life in Ethiopia has not been easy. Here on this blog, I like to post photos of pretty scenery and tell stories of interesting people because that’s the part of my life that I enjoy sharing with all of you. But in between those moments of joy, awe, intrigue, and contemplation lies a lot of frustration – sometimes even anger. I know I am not alone on this.
Take yesterday as an example: It was my last full day in Addis and I had planned to check out a museum, do some hiking, and maybe do some souvenir shopping. But, first, I wanted to stop by a shop to print out some travel guides for my upcoming trip. I left the house at 10am, eager to enjoy my last day.
What should have been a very simple task turned into four grueling hours of trekking from shop to shop across the city. Despite the ubiquity of large photocopiers and printers, no one had the capacity to print double-sided. I couldn’t believe it. And so I journeyed on, hopeful that the next shop would be it.
Finally, three hours, seven shops, two buses, and three neighborhoods later, I found a place that could print on both sides. There was one caveat: they needed to get a new cartridge. The shopkeeper promised it would only take 10-15 minutes, so I stayed. An hour later, I found myself still sitting there, waiting for the cartridge. When it finally arrived, they couldn’t connect the computer to the printer. By then, it was already 3pm. Five hours had passed and I had accomplished nothing. Utterly frustrated, I decided to cut my losses and call it a day. Little did I know, the trouble did not stop there.
As soon as I stepped outside of the shop, men from nearby cafes, street corners, and shops all started to gawk and yell things at me. It was the usual: China! Korea! Japan! Ching-chang-nwangnwigwowa! I had learned to ignore them long ago.
This time, however, a strange man came up to me suddenly and physically grabbed my arm in a tight hold, refusing to let go. I had to fight vigorously and yell for him to finally release me and move on. Bystanders came over afterward and asked if I was okay. I knew they would have helped me, but it didn’t matter anymore. I had hit rock bottom.
Fortunately, my friend Manisha was nearby and scooped me up with her car. As if the universe decided to be kind to me, the rest of the day was actually incredibly wonderful. Manisha took me shopping for coffee and souvenirs. I got to see a wonderful museum that left me heavy-hearted but inspired. At dinner, I was joined by 15 of my favorite people in Addis Ababa for one last night of companionship and delicious Indian food. The generosity, friendship, and kindness with which they showered me cannot be overstated.
I returned home last night and recounted the day’s events to my ever patient and understanding roommate, Nebeyu. While he was incredulous about the arm-grabbing incident, he shared stories of Ethiopian teachings and provided some perspective.
“In Addis there are a number of strange characters… some of them run around naked, others throw rocks at people from the mountains, and some even run up and grab women’s breasts randomly. Many people wonder – what is wrong with these people?
“The famous Sage who lives at the top of Entoto Mountain—a thought figure in Ethiopian communities—has an explanation for this. He says that these people, by doing these seemingly bizarre acts, are actually taking away our sins in the process.
“I’m not saying that I think his explanation is necessarily accurate. But I do think that everything happens for a reason,” he concluded. “We may not always know why, but maybe there are reasons for events that we cannot understand in the moment.” I agreed with him, but didn’t think much of it.
We spent the rest of the night chatting away in front of the television, casually enjoying Hollywood movies as we always do. While mundane, those are some of my most precious memories of Ethiopia.
I woke up this morning to find him in the living room again. Avicii’s Wake Me Up music video was playing on television, and we head bopped in unison to the dance club beats. My flight was leaving in the afternoon and there was still packing to be done, but in that moment, I was happy to enjoy some peace and calm with my roomie.
Then, all of a sudden, it hit me.
“You know, Nebeyu. I lived in DC for so many years, and this music video of partying people is exactly how it felt. It was fun. Almost too much fun. Every time someone asked me how I felt about life in DC and the United States, my standard response was always ‘it’s fun, but life is too easy. You go to work, meet friends for drinks, hit the gym, party all the time. It’s just… too easy.’ I must have said that literally a dozen times over the years—no joke.”
It was true: I had wanted more out of life. I yearned to be unsettled, challenged, pushed to grow. All this time I’ve been here in Ethiopia, the universe has given me exactly what I had asked for. Instead of the perfect summer weather in DC, I got crappy rainy season and mud-soaked shoes everyday. Instead of a beautiful bike ride to work, I endured a daily dose of harassment and attention on the road. Instead of the comfort and privacy of my own apartment, I dealt with constant water and power outages, as well as a passive-aggressive maid.
“It all makes sense now! You were right!” I excitedly yelled. “I am such an idiot. I got everything I asked for. And that man was totally meant to grab my arm yesterday! It happened for a reason!” It was so crystal clear.
And all of a sudden, everything was okay. All the discrimination, inconvenience, and general frustration that I had endured over the past three months made sense. I no longer had to say “I loved… this.. and that about Ethiopia, but–“. There was no ‘but’.
In the last hours of my time in Ethiopia, I had finally come full circle.