Actually, why am I starting with the word dear, when what I really want to say is, “fuck you”! It’s difficult to hold anything dear about a place that has institutionalised the ripping off of visitors and does so with a level of contempt that may well be unique. If it was just me that had similar thoughts, I’d keep my whining to myself and any other embittered travellers for when we’d had a few too many beers, but too many other veterans of the continent have all came to a similar conclusion: that your commitment to hassling foreigners is in a class of its own. I’ve been to over twenty countries in Africa, where I have endured the kind of demanding environments that keep 99% of backpackers well away, yet left with great memories, good friends and the urge to return. And return I have done, on several occasions to a number of countries. But you are not the Africa I knew before having the misfortune to cross the border.
So what makes you a special case? In many respects you’ve got a lot more going for you than just about every sub-Saharan, African country, in terms of things to offer tourists, particularly as your ancestors built things out of rock, rather than wood and mud, so there is a solid cultural heritage stamped onto your ancient buildings. Anyone not impressed by the carved stone churches of Lalibela or the seething lava lake of Erte Ale needs to have a cv that starts with, “surfed the rings of Saturn”, or some such feat, to justify a, “yeah,whatever”, to your physical charms.
It’s not simply the extent of wanting to relieve us of as much money as possible, which extends well beyond the high-profile tourist spots, but the rank cynicism with which its done. Take an early encounter I had with a couple of students in Gonder who invited me to a “party”. This social function consisted of sitting in a dilapidated shack with a number of dubious males, chewing chat (the popular stimulant in the region) smoking shishas and talking shit for a couple of hours. So, whats the problem? Well none up to this point, it’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve always loved doing, even if it could be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act for being referred to as a party. It was clearly a little facet of everyday life for some in the country and such opportunities are not to be missed. In such situations I always know its going to cost me some money and something for which I am happy to pay more than my share when I know I am with people in a poor country who have limited funds. It seems only right for an insight into a culture.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the bill for the other six guys sitting with us as well, who’d been tucking into the chat and puffing away at the shishas, and to then be fed a load of bullshit excuses for why I should be paying for everything and everyone, ignoring that it was they who invited me, not the other way round. One kept saying, “it’s our culture”, as if that was some kind of justification. Well, if your culture means luring foreigners in on false pretences so you can get shit faced for free, then you know which orifice you can shove your culture up. It seems somewhat pertinent that their favourite subject matter was economics. I might add that, even if the bill was a legitimate piece of arithmetic, which I doubt, as it came to nearly $45, it wasn’t the kind of sum that my budget allows me to shrug off without using a broad selection of expletives from my extensive vocabulary of insults. Generally speaking, it is not the African way to solve disagreements by shouting, “you’re taking the fucking piss you fucking wanker” at people, but my anger at being continually regarded as nothing more than a fat, white wallet meant that I usually opted for this mode of communication in such circumstances. After following my expletive laden diatribes with me telling them what I was going to pay them, it did prove, in later encounters, to be more of an effective negotiating technique than quiet diplomacy, as shameful as it may be.
In most countries I travel in I am happy to aimlessly wander around, say hello to everyone and go where the encounters take me but after a few conversations on the street which proved to be solely motivated by what the speaker could get out of me, you start to avoid entering into anything more than brief hellos and swiftly moving on. Maybe I missed a richly, rewarding occasion in stimulating company because of it, I certainly missed out on a procession of cynical leeches looking for a free beer though. Don’t get me wrong, you are a poor country and life is bloody hard for a lot of people and I’ll gladly buy drinks and food for those who are prepared to share a bit of their time and life experiences with me but not when it’s simply just a facade for financial extraction.
For some, these practices were so engrained that the notion that foreigners might be treated in any other way was not a concept that had ever entered their heads. Twice, when drinking with some of the nice examples of your population (yes there are some, I am not condemning every last one of you to eternal torment in the Pits of Hell) who insisted on paying the bill and translate the waitress’s reply, explained that they’d said, “why are you only paying that much? he’s a foreigner”! Although the, “is that it”? look on their faces didn’t require translation, anyway. It’s one thing to disrespect a tourist but to disrespect your own people because they are socialising with one is low, really low! Of course, even at the levels of tourism you have you are bound to get some of this kind of behaviour almost anywhere in the world, but even in a small village, where it was difficult to imagine that any tourist would have bothered going unless they had developed a penchant for walking around in goat shit, the kids had only learnt two words: you and money. Not that I blame the kids but it’s difficult to see how they act that way with strangers unless it’s taught to them by adults. Why not try just being nice to people? You’ll be surprised how effective it is.
While we are on the subject of the charming, little, snot faced turds, it’s about time I mentioned the stone throwing. Having one of the grinning bastards throwing stones may have only happened to me once in my stay, but several other travellers I’ve spoken to over the years have talked about having gangs of kids chucking rocks at them. Don’t tell me, “it’s just our culture”, nowhere is that a quaint way of welcoming guests. If you really don’t want us to come, then fine, don’t give us visas and put, “white people fuck off”, signs at the borders, I can respect that level of honesty. If not, include, “throwing rocks at people is not nice”, in the school curriculum.
You could take a look at your neighbour, Sudan: equally demanding quality of life, but not once in my entire month there did I have a single encounter with a person who treated me with any kind of disrespect; if anyone overcharged me it can’t have been of enough consequence for it to set any alarm bells ringing on the rip off monitor. Unlike with you, where demanding three times the going rate for a mini bus journey and talking as if you are doing me a favour is entirely respectable behaviour and I might add there were worse examples than that, which naturally required a lot of swearing to deal with.
Of course, this is all just the ungrateful ranting of white privilege. I am fortunate enough to know where my next meal is coming from and can return to the world of flush toilets and porcelain tiling whenever I want. I’ll never have to choose between spending my week’s money on food or medicine to keep a baby alive. Also however, I don’t live in the world of gleaming spires and smoked glass 4×4’s. I’ve travelled more than most in Africa and have seen how many have to make the kind of hard decisions every day of their lives that most westerners never have to think about, not least because I count some of those Africans as my friends. And I am pretty sure that they’ve got bigger problems than worrying about some white guy whose had to pay too much for some stuff, somewhere. But, do you want a tourist industry that’s going to get bigger, bringing in foreign currency and creating more jobs? Because, if someone like me doesn’t want to come back to visit you again I am pretty sure not many other people will either.
I might add that if you are going to keep insisting on shooting your own people because they have the impertinence to ask for more equality and justice, you are going to lose a lot more than your tourist industry, try Googling Syria, news, and see what comes up. It might not have registered much in the foreign media yet but it will do and if you want to know what machine gunning innocent people does to tourist industries just ask Egypt – the Pyramids are much better known than anything you have but they don’t see many visitors these days.
Just to show that I am not a totally, miserable old tosser, in spite of everything I’ve said I am going to give you the last laugh. As I said earlier, you are not all a scheming bunch of jizz bags and as luck would have it, I did end up meeting a rather nice lady, who actually liked me enough to want me to come back. Bearing in mind that among her not inconsiderable and more visible charms, was a dedication to ensuring a fair pricing structure for all of our purchases and that, as years of meetings with the fairer sex have taught me, I have all the sexual allure of a second-hand wheel barrow, it’s an offer that’s too tempting to turn down. So, I now have to come back and visit you again.
God! I hate you Ethiopia.
I would ask readers to look at the comments section below and see my exchange with the Ethiopian Jos to get a better appreciation of this issue.