On Thursday I woke up in Addis Ababa. After a late flight from Cairo, I slept well into the morning. By the time I woke up, the sun had almost completely flooded the room. I stepped out into the blinding light and immediately felt as though I'd traveled back in time.
Sven Kiplesund, an old Norwegian friend from high school days, had offered both a ride from the airport and a place to stay for a few days. In another life, Sven had played music in my basement, traveled with me to Harare and made out with my little sister. Now in between his masters and an impending career, Sven's been back in Addis visiting family.
Before doing anything else in Addis, the two of us headed for some tibs, chunks of spicy meat spilled across a beautiful carpet of injera. Ethiopian food had been extremely hard to come by since leaving Addis. I'd only managed two injera meals in nearly eight years since saying goodbye, at a couple restaurants in Phoenix and Jerusalem. It tastes better here of course, partly because it's about ten times cheaper.
With Sven, I circled the city the next few days to see what's become of Addis. Much has changed. We hit our old school first, taking an alumni walking tour that made us both feel old and made our former teachers feel ancient. Mr. Grant, my favorite English teacher, was long gone, Lenio had been "let go," Mr. Wills had been fired and the band room had been bulldozed. Mrs. Kidane, my old art teacher, was the only one still around that was happy to see me. Behind the school was Samet, the old hangout spot where we wasted hundreds of hours: it's since lost both its pool table and its popularity. Finally, around the corner was my old house, mostly hidden from view behind its giant gate, barring by just a few meters all the good old days of jamming in the basement, climbing the roof tower and squeezing through the tv room window. Despite the smooth new network of roads lined with glassy blue high-rises, the ride back to the Norwegian compound was pure nostalgia.
Of course, some things haven't changed. We checked out the old Merkato district, still bustling with as much chaos as ever. We caught a glimpse of 4 million-year-old Lucy's bones, still perched in their place at the Ethiopian Museum, right across from Blue Tops. Eating at a small cafe next door, I noticed an upcoming show date on a Teddy Afro poster and it made me feel young: eight years have passed, but according to the Ethiopian calendar, it's still 2002.
It was hours earlier than I'd ever been awake in Cairo as I waited on the Sakanat metro platform. It was still dark when I met Nacia, Aden and Jahi at the next stop, Maadi. We kept each other awake until Mubarak. The sun finally came out about when we'd boarded a bus to Imbaba.
We crossed the Nile in a thick haze and wound through the canals to the northeast until we'd reached a messy little town called Nigla, where we hopped out of the last minibus, crossed an old iron bridge into the fog and hopped onto the back of a truck that took us off into the desert. After two hours, four legs, and about 10 pounds we'd made it to Birqash, site of one of the world's largest camel markets.
Immediately through the gates we glimpsed hundreds of abused dromedaries while thousands more were hidden behind the burning fog. Marched from as far off as Sudan and Somaliland, each camel had survived a long and painful ordeal, at least 40 days along the infamous 40 Day Road through the desert. One large beast had collapsed from exhaustion just minutes before our arrival. Worthless to its owner, its neck had been slit wide open, the gangly corpse left sprawling in the sun. On our way out we watched it awkwardly maneuvered onto the back of a truck, gobs of blood spurting all over the sand and spilling across the bed of the truck.
The owners and camel boys seemed to be having a bit more fun than their beasts, almost as relievedat having reached the end of the road, glad to be making some serious cash: camels run from 2,000 to 15,000 pounds each. In case anyone's looking, it seemed the Somali camels were the top of the line.
We wandered the giant complex for a couple hours to take it all in. From one end of the market to the other were tight clusters of shouting auctioneers, skeptical buyers, terrified camels, and swirls of dust. Each camel was paraded one at a time, smacked, prodded and poked with sticks, marked with bright paint along its side, and finally led off to be loaded into trucks. The auction went on for hours and the fog had burned out when we took our leave.
We shared a truck bed along the dusty road back to Nigla with the driver's prize purchase, the enormous camel strapped within biting range of my head. After a quick stop at a local koshari joint we all headed back to our beds in Cairo.