The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

Harar home stay: living in a traditional African home

homsetay, home stay, Harar, Harar homestay, Harar home stay
If you’re staying for any length of time in a place, the best way to experience the local culture is through a home stay. Luckily Harar has a number of traditional homes offering spare rooms.

A local guide showed me a few and I chose one hidden away in a small alley not far from the Catholic mission. This is the neighborhood that got Harar a UNESCO religious tolerance award because there’s an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a Catholic mission, and several mosques all within sight of each other. Walking home I use three minarets and a giant cross as landmarks.

Harari homes look inward. All you see is a gate that leads to a compound of two or more houses, hidden behind their own gates. Enter the second gate and you’re still not inside, you’re in a courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other a large, ornately carved wooden door leading to the main building. Harari homes have a unique architecture. With thick stone walls and small windows, they stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day. Leaving your shoes at the front door, you enter the nedeba, or living room. The walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and often cabinets with multicolored glassware. Hararis love to decorate their rooms with the products of their centuries-old crafts. People sit on a series of platforms, reclining against pillows. The platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at the battle of Tchellenqo in 1887, when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II defeated Harar’s Emir Abdullahi and the city lost its independence.

Where you sit depends on who you are. The amir nedeba is where the head of the family sits. It’s on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound. In olden days there was a spot for keeping some spears right next to the amir nedeba, just in case the person entering the compound wasn’t welcome. After a month in Harar I’ve only seen one guy who regularly carries a spear, though.

%Gallery-119012%I’m a regular at a few Harari homes and nobody throws spears at me. Since I’m an honored guest from far away, I sit at the gidir nedeba, the place of honor. I’ve seen members of the family sitting in that spot immediately move when I come in. No amount of protest will get them to sit back down. The next level down is the tit nedeba (“small place”) for lower-ranking people. This isn’t strictly followed, however. One birtcha (qat-chewing session) I attend has so many people that even some of the most prominent individuals sit on the lower level because there isn’t enough room on the upper. Another, separate platform is called the gebti eher nedeba (“the place behind the door”) and is for the young or people of a lower social class.

Harari homes are full of symbolism. My friend Amir says, “Every color, every shape means something. Most Hararis cannot know it all.”

Even little details are worked out in advance, he says. There’s a special room with a narrow entrance for women to stay during childbirth. It’s wider at the top so that big platters of food can be passed through.

The width of the bedroom door corresponds to the width of a coffin. “That’s to remind you of your fate and to live a good life,” he says.

My house, owned by Faisel and Anisa Abdullah, has a separate upstairs all for me. I get a bedroom, a living room, and a lounge with no furniture but a bunch of pillows ranged around the walls. This is for entertaining. Friends will sit here drinking coffee or chewing qat and talking the hours away. My rooms cost me 3500 birr ($212) a month. Water is included and this is important to confirm when renting a place because water is expensive in Harar, especially in the dry season we’re in now. I wasn’t expecting to have only a squat toilet and bucket showers but it turns out the bathroom has a European-style toilet and a proper shower, luxuries I don’t need but certainly appreciate.

Imme, a German painter staying in a different neighborhood, has three rooms even larger than mine for 3000 birr ($182) a month, but got the more traditional African bathroom. Both of us have far more space than we need, and for a price lower than the city’s hotels!

A home stay allows you to settle in a neighborhood for a while. The closed-off nature of Harari architecture means I haven’t met most of my neighbors, but I’m getting to know the people I pass in the nearby alleys every day. I’m also getting into the rhythm of the place. Just before dawn the muezzin of the Jamia mosque wakes me up with the morning call to prayer. The first couple of mornings I had a hard time falling back asleep, but now the flowery sounds of Arabic barely register in my dreams. I’d make a bad Muslim. The muezzin’s call to prayer is followed by low chanting coming from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, announcing their morning service.

I’m usually up shortly after dawn in any case. Outside my window I can hear the kids from the local school horsing around before the bell rings. If I peek out my window I can just see the front door of the school over the rooftops. The kids in their yellow shirts and sky-blue pants or skirts wait in the shade or run around after each other laughing.

Soon I’m out wandering around Harar. I usually don’t come back until night, when I sit for an hour or two writing in my living room before turning in. The open window lets in all the sounds of the Harari night. Hyenas laugh and howl at the edge of town like the mad lost souls of Purgatory, sometimes getting closer, sometimes drawing away or shifting position. The town dogs bark defiantly but do no good. I often see hyenas pacing through the alleys in the center of town looking for scraps to eat. They keep quiet then, preferring to make noise outside the city walls. The battle ebbs and flows all night, at times lapsing into an eerie silence. Then the hyenas will call to each other again and the dogs will bark self-importantly, completely ignored by the hyenas.

It’s like falling asleep to music.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: A visit to a traditional healer!

Some thoughts on travel in Ethiopia

One evening I was walking near my home in Madrid and in front of me there was a group of people discussing where they should go to dinner. They were just passing Mesob, the only Ethiopian restaurant in Madrid. One of them said, “Look, Ethiopian food!” and they all started laughing. Several stupid comments about empty plates and starving children followed. Needless to say they didn’t go in, and didn’t learn about Ethiopia’s flavorful and varied cuisine, or the relaxing Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ignorance is self-perpetuating.

Ethiopia has an image problem. We all have those horrible pictures of war and famine burned into our minds, but as our series on Ethiopia has shown, Ethiopia is a safe and welcoming place to travel. Tour operators such as Abey Roads say tourism is picking up, and considering how much the country has to offer, it’s amazing it isn’t a major destination. Ethiopia has something for pretty much everyone:

Hikers and rock climbers: The rugged Semien Mountains are fast becoming a destination for serious trekking. The more verdant Bale Mountains also offer good hiking opportunities. Rock climbers are beginning to make a foothold in the country, and with many untouched routes there’s plenty of opportunity to be the first on some challenging climbs.

History buffs: Grandiose castles, towering monoliths, and medieval cities help you delve into the past.

Adventure travelers and package tourists: You can rough it on public transportation or fly in comfort from site to site. You can camp or stay in five-star hotels. With facilities for all sorts of traveler, your level of comfort is dictated only by your inclination and the thickness of your wallet.

Budget travelers: Ethiopia is cheap. Even the airfare isn’t bad. I flew Egyptair from Madrid to Addis Ababa for 550 euros ($728) and it’s easy to travel in relative comfort on $20 a day.Students of religion: Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian nation in the world, and has large number of followers of Islam and traditional African religions. For the most part these different faiths get along, despite an embarrassing and atypical religious flame war on this very site. Angry people always make the most noise, but the vast majority of Ethiopians are easygoing and tolerant.

Nature lovers: The southern part of the country offers many safari opportunities with a chance to see rare black-maned lions, elephants, baboons, and much more. If you really want to get up close and personal, go to Harar and feed the hyenas.

Birdwatchers: An estimated 850 species, including scores of endemics, plus bird-themed tours makes this a great destination for the adventurous birder.

Friendly folks of any description: The best aspect of any trip is the people you meet. Ethiopians are open and friendly, and hopefully they’ll stay that way as tourism increases. Communication can be a problem in the more rural areas, but in cities and towns there’s always someone who speaks English or another European language, and everyone is happy to teach you their own language.

With all this, Ethiopia could and probably will be a major destination in ten years. The worst part of their history is behind them and Ethiopians are busy taking their nation to the next level. Now is an exciting time to see it, if only more people knew. Hopefully the government will invest in a campaign to get the nation’s public image out of the 1980s and into the present day.

This is the last installment of our series on travel in Ethiopia. Hope you enjoyed it!

Coming up next: a series on Somaliland, the other Somalia.

Harar: Ethiopia’s medieval masterpiece

If you’re lucky, every now and then when you’re on the road you’ll come to a place where a little voice will say, “Stop here. This is what you were looking for.” You’ll have other plans, a nice neat schedule you made up in your head of what you wanted to see in the time you have for your trip. If you stop, if you listen to the little voice, you’ll miss a lot of things you had planned to see.

Do it.

For me that place was Harar, a walled medieval city I visited halfway through my two-month trip around the Horn of Africa. My wife had flown home, having thoroughly enjoyed the lifetime of memories I gave her as a tenth anniversary present. Now I was free to go anywhere I liked without consulting anyone else. Or I was free to go nowhere.

Harar is reached on a ten-hour bus ride from Addis Ababa. That’s not as bad as it sounds. The road is paved and the two main bus companies, Salaam Bus and Sky Bus, offer modern, comfortable transport. The scenery gradually changes from the hilly green of the Amhara and Oromo provinces to the rockier, drier region around Harar. The city is at a lower elevation than Addis or most of the north and I could feel the change in temperature.

Nobody knows how old Harar is. Hararis say it was founded in the early part of the Muslim era, perhaps in the 7th century AD, but given its location on the border between the core of the Ethiopian empire in the western and northern highlands, and the Somali lowlands and the sea to the south and east, it was probably a trading center long before that. Harar has always been a place where different cultures meet.

The first thing I noticed about Harar is how small it is. It’s more of a town than a city, with a bit of sprawl in the surrounding hills. The area encompassed by the 16th century walls can be walked across in fifteen minutes, and walked around in little more than an hour. It’s slightly less than 120 acres. Yet within these walls there’s an entire history and a unique culture rich in symbolism. For example the Jegol, as the old city is called, has five gates, corresponding to the five pillars of Islam. There used to be 99 mosques in the Jegol to correspond to the 99 names of Allah. The list of symbols both in the geography of the city and in the shape and layout of the buildings could and does fill volumes.

%Gallery-91809%Walled cities have an atmosphere all their own. Damascus, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Segovia. . .they all feel like they’re worlds unto themselves. The wall is more than just a physical barrier. In the days when city gates were closed at night the walls provided a very real social and psychological barrier. The people who grew up inside the city will be subtly different than those who lived only a few miles away. In the case of Harar the difference isn’t so subtle. Hararis have their own language spoken only within the walls of the Jegol.

My education in the ways of Harar started on the first day. I hadn’t been inside the Jegol for more than an hour before I was invited to join a meeting of the Harar Revitalization group, which is rebuilding dilapidated old buildings and wants to restore three of the five city gates that the Emperor Haile Selassie knocked down in order to allow access to cars. We sat on a carpet on the floor in the back room of one of the museums as a local poet and songwriter coached a group of young people who were recording a CD of songs about their city.

I soon found that the shopkeepers and office workers sitting around me were some of Harar’s intelligentsia–writers and historians and lexicographers. I’d tapped into a rich vein of scholars who cared about their city so deeply that they spent their spare hours learning its secrets and preserving it for future generations. As a former archaeologist turned writer, I couldn’t ask for better company. Over the following days and weeks I found many doors open for me, and over endless rounds of rich Harari coffee I met people who shared vast amounts of knowledge, and were curious to learn what I knew.

I soon settled into a rhythm. Every morning I’d sit at my favorite cafe on the main square sipping an excellent macchiato and watching the world go by. A Somali friend would often join me, and sometimes some of the Harari researchers. After some leisurely conversation it was time for a stroll around town, followed a conversation in some shaded alley or courtyard. Afternoons were spent in one of three homes, drinking coffee and talking about everything from linguistics to travel to history. Then as the sun set it came time to walk the darkened streets of the Jegol under the light of the moon.

It wasn’t long before I became a familiar face. The touts in the main square stopped trying to get me to go on tours and people always knew where to find me. Once I was headed down one of the main streets to find Amir, the assistant curator of a local museum. As I passed down the street someone I didn’t know said, “Amir is in the cafe.” He didn’t tell me which cafe, but I figured it was the one people usually saw me at. Sure enough, there sat Amir. Now this fellow couldn’t have known I was looking for Amir, hell, Amir didn’t know I was looking for Amir, but Harar is that sort of place.

So when you get to Harar, slow down. Skip the sights for a while and sit in the shade with a good companion. Or don’t. Perhaps you need to stop somewhere else.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Next time: more on Harar (with suggestions on what you can actually see there)

Sarah Palin and Hawaii don’t mix? About comfort zones vs going rogue

Here’s a tidbit about Sarah Palin that caught my attention. According to her dad, Palin left college in Hawaii because being around too many Asians made her feel uncomfortable. Interesting. Sarah Palin attributes her leaving the Aloha State after just one semester to too much sunshine for an 18 year-old—as in beaches and academics are not a great mix for an Alaskan gal. Read Palin’s book Going Rogue:An American Life and you’ll get Palin’s version.

Whether Palin found hitting the books in Hawaii too difficult– or the number of Asians there too disconcerting, either option brings up the topic of comfort zones travel and going rogue.

People like Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and Bizarre World thrive on traveling outside of their comfort zones. To them, outside of the comfort zone is a comfort zone. A place where most people feel comfortable might cause them an unsettled feeling. Put a person like Zimmern in the middle of a Wal-mart in the U.S. and he or she might feel creeped out.

Places like a Disney theme park, McDonald’s, Las Vegas and some cruise ships have popular appeal because they have found the magic formula that fits the needs of the masses. They are comfort food with a dash of something that feels like excitement. At these places you know what to expect and can feel safe in the crowd.

How many people don’t travel outside of what they know because of the feeling of the unknown and the discomfort of sticking out in a crowd?

If Sarah Palin’s father is accurate in his assessment that her discomfort with being in the midst of too many Asians sent her to college in Idaho, I’d say Palin’s attitude takes her out of the rogue category and plops her into the main stream. It’s not a matter of being prejudiced either. It has to do with a tolerance for what is different. For some people it’s hard to feel comfortable in ones skin in an environment that is unfamiliar. Feeling comfortable takes time, practice and travel.

As anyone who has traveled extensively in other countries has discovered, travel helps stretch the skin. The more one travels past ones comfort zone, the more ones skin expands. What once felt disquieting feels as comfortable as a well worn shoe. The process of going from discomfort to comfort is one of the joys of travel. It’s one of the elements that pushes world travelers towards new horizons– to a state of going rogue.