Leaving Awash NP, you would think that the road will remain in the lowland plateaus that are hot and dry. Within an hour however, we started climbing up to hills and valleys and roads with beautiful valleys on both sides. Terraces of millet, khat or qat (the leafy drug of choice in these parts) and maize went on for hours as we drove on roads that curved and hugged the green hillsides. The rain started to pour hard and I was very thankful that our driver was very competent because we had some close calls with some trucks on the way. But more than anything, I loved looking at the people along the way. Near Awash NP, you could see Afar tribesmen walking with their cattle along the road, or Kuruyu women dressed in all kinds of colours gossiping among themselves as they carried their heavy loads of charcoal to their communities. When you travel on a road, you can really get a feel for the people that inhabit the country you live in. Sometimes they will give you dirty looks. Other times (most times) they will be so curious, will want to say hi and touch your hand. Other times, they are probably just wondering (just as I wonder) who they are and what are their stories.
Due to the rains, by the time we got to Harar, it was already quite late. We passed a city right before Harar where there were so many bundles of qat, I was surprised that the town was actually still functioning. Men and women with huge bundles on their shoulders selling to people for their nightly qat chewing. (I learned afterwards that there are three qat market times- the first is in the early morning when people line up to buy their qat for the day; the second is in the afternoon when people settle in to chew after lunch and the third is right before sunset when families will sit around chewing qat all night).
I had expected Harar to appear like a miracle or oasis from the middle of a desert (Morocco style) but it was nothing of the sort. Although it is not in the highlands, the weather was very pleasant while we were there and we approached within a suburb to finally arrive at the gates. We picked up a guide who navigated us through dark, narrow pathways in the old city until we arrived at a bright green door. I had reserved a Cultural Guesthouse with a woman names Anisa and we were shown to our rooms and told to quickly get ready so we could catch the hyena feeding.
Harar is popular for a few things: coffee, being a walled city and their hyenas. Legend has it that a family has been feeding hyenas for generations in an effort to make them not eat humans. It’s a very popular tourist attraction but honestly, it wasn’t even that touristy (not compared to sunrise in Pokhara, Nepal or most places really). You basically drive up to this place and get out of the car and you watch a hyena man feeding hyenas that were very scared of getting too close. Not at all like the sneering Lion King had led me to believe. The car’s headlights need to be on to highlight the show. The hyena man then calls people to come and feed them with pieces of tripe that he has in a small basket. You can choose to feed them with your hands or your mouth! The hyena man will also help them get on your back if you want (why would you want it). So R, M and C all went for it and did the hyena thing. I mostly felt sorry for them. They were so scared and by the time we got there, they weren’t even that hungry but the hyena man yells at them to come get the food. Anyways, I didn’t do it but I did take some photos.
After the hyena feeding, we had a nice dinner and drinks at a local restaurant before being dropped off in the first major alleyway before our guesthouse to find our way home. Right, left, right, left, right again, left again. Who knows! I think I could find it again through muscle memory. But right as we were heading in the last turn of our guesthouse, it started POURING. I mean, buckets of water were falling out of the sky. We quickly ducked into the closest courtyard we could find. Only to find ourselves in front of a cozy little house with three women chewing qat. It looked amazingly comfortable and before we knew it, the women beckoned to us to come in, had taken off our wet sweaters and jackets and given us clothes to wear. Before we knew it, we were sitting under warm blankets while we tried to decipher what they were saying to each other. Amanta-she – hello- was the only word we knew in Harari but it went a long way in breaking the silence. They were all chewing qat and speaking about their days it seemed and we were very happy and warm to be inside, listening to the rain on their roof. The house was a big room with a big platform with lots of pillows and blankets on which they all sat and slept. It was an incredibly cosy and familial way to live and made us feel welcome.
I saw that they had been doing prayers in Arabic (most Hararis are Muslim) so I offered the Al Fatiha prayer (the first verse of the Holy Quran). They were SOOOOO happy to hear that. They started praising Allah (SWT) and thanking Him for bringing us to them. That really broke the barrier and they offered us some qat leaves to try out. Since we had all come to Harar with the intention of trying, there really was never going to be a better occasion. So, I took the small leaves offered and stuffed them in my mouth. It basically just tasted like green leaf. I suspect that after hours of chewing you do get high from it but honestly, I wasn’t really into it. Either way, for fear of offending our new friends, I kept chewing and we all got cozy while the women started singing softly as the rain kept coming down outside. I didn’t take a photograph for fear of ruining the moment but it was something I will never forget. All too soon, the rain stopped and we made motions to leave. The women wouldn’t take their blankets or clothes back and told to bring them back in the morning. We left feeling like our first night in Harar was very much a success.
Harar: The Walking City
We woke up bright and early to the cacophonous sounds of dogs, roosters and the Call to Prayer. It felt good to be in a living, breathing city and to see the view from outside out window. Anisa had prepared breakfast for us and we ate it in the communal living space- some delicious bread and local honey with local coffee. Our guide came to get us and we went for a walk around the city. Starting off at the morning qat market, we then visited the recycling market, the spice market and a series of alleyways before arriving at the Arthur Rimbaud House. Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet who lived in Harar as an arms dealer and he was apparently the first westerner to do so. The actual museum is housed in an older Indian style colonial house and is not actually his own but the architecture was great. It was particularly nice to see the photographs of Rimbaud and of old Harar in the museum to get a sense of how little really has changed within the walls of the old city. We walked for hours and I was pretty lost by the end of it I must say! Walls painted green and pink and all kinds of other colours. (Photos are on their way- unfortunately the Internet is very slow so it is difficult to upload them right now).
For lunch, we bought some camel meat at the local butcher’s and asked our host Anisa to cook it for us. It was delicious! Very tender and juicy. It might be my new favourite meat in Ethiopia considering how tough the beef is. We were all very sleepy post lunch so took a nice little nap and woke up in time to go to dinner at place outside the old city where we ordered a crazy quantities of food for 4 people but managed to finish it all up.
The next day, we packed up again and were off to drive back to Addis Ababa (a 10 hour drive). Thankfully, it was sunny the whole way this time so it seemed to take a lot less time. We also happened to arrive in time for the opening of the new Dire Dawa- Addis Ababa toll highway. With no people or animals to have to cut around and being able to sustain speeds of 100 km/h, we made it back in no time and were super impressed by the speed of “progress” in Ethiopia. Not sure it is progress but it will make a lot of traveling easier and commerce/trade from Djibouti much better.
All in all, a trip that was well worth the many hours sitting in a car as it allowed me to get a better sense of the country, it’s landscape and it’s people.