I’m riding in the backseat, trying to stifle my laughter. As a foreigner I’m sure I already come across oddly enough. I’d hate to have to explain why I’m laughing at nothing. But I can’t stop thinking, “How did my life get to the point where I’m about to go clubbing in Addis Ababa?”
Because surely clubbing in Addis Ababa are words I never thought would cross my mouth or my mind.
But here I am giggling at the prospect of a night out on the town. A town so very different than any I’ve ever experienced.
Tafe, my friend and the driver, points out parked cars. His friend is in the passenger seat. He explains that in Addis at night people first drink coffee in their cars and then move on to alcohol. I check my seatbelt.
When Tafe picked me up I thought we were simply going out for coffee. I’m wearing the only kind of clothes I brought for this trip: jeans, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt. My tennis shoes are covered in a layer of dry, dusty dirt. Even if I’d known the plan, I would have had no other options.
We still start with coffee. And fasting (AKA vegan) cookies. We are joined by three of Tafe’s friends. I seek information from all of them. How has the country changed since their childhood? What is their impression of the poverty? What do they think of NGOs? Where does real change need to come from?
We close the coffee shop down. They are turning off the lights as we leave. Tafe and his friends discuss our next stop in Amharic. I don’t bother asking where we’re off to.
I move to the front seat, and I now have a better view of Addis at night. We make our way down roads both dirt and paved. The street lights are not on tonight. Apparently a transformer is down. Has been for weeks. We come around the corner, and a dog is illuminated by the headlights. We swerve accordingly.
“Hey Tafe! I don’t flinch anymore when you almost hit dogs!” I say.
We have come within inches of many animals in the past two weeks.
Ahead a large, illuminated structure stands out among the low profile of surrounding buildings and shacks.
“Welcome to America,” he says as we cross the high security gates of the Sheraton Hotel.
We walk through the manicured gardens in the parking lot. Luxury cars are parked near the entrance. Metal detectors and x-ray machines separate the lobby from the outside. I’m in a state of shock as I gaze at my surroundings.
I think, “What the (fill in the blank) is going on?”
Because this hotel is a palace. Opulent beyond belief. Luxurious and excessive. As we make our way to the bar, he says to me, “You look like you’re not here.” And I’m not. I can’t wrap my mind around it. This great divide. From the streets to the Sheraton.
The bar is filled with both locals and foreigners. A worldly mix. Live music, an eclectic selection of American pop songs, directs everyone’s attention to the stage. Still in a fog, two men push past me, shouting their conversation.
“You gotta meet this guy. He’s a fucking high roller in Addis.”
I want to shake him and say, “You’re amped about a high roller in Addis? Have you seen the world outside these gates?!”
Eventually I settle in. We drink South African wine and laugh at the music selection. I stand out in my casual attire, but I don’t care.
When the music ends, we leave the Sheraton and head to a place that is much more my speed. A jazz club. Less than 10 minutes from the hotel, but a world away. A winding staircase leads us underground. Music fills the space. Jazz with an Ethiopian flare.
We stand at the bar, and I feel at ease. The bartender tries to teach me how to use my shoulders to move to the music. He laughs at me. Whether it’s because my interpretation is good or bad, I don’t know. But I laugh, too.
I meet about two dozen people who Tafe calls “my best friend!” It seems in Addis everyone knows everyone. When I ask how it is that everyone is his best friend, he replies, “I’m Ethiopian!”
That seems to be the answer to a lot of things.