“Hey brother,” he sits on his haunches, “you looking for weed? Ganja? Hash?”
He lights a half-smoked cigarette. “I make good price for you brother, no problem”.
We stand at the end of the pavement waiting for the latest wave of traffic to pass.
“I know many tourist. they like making fun fun. Me I get you anything. I am working with tourist many years”.
He stands up, hand out. “I’m Isaac”. He pulls out a soft pack of cigarettes. “You want smoke?”
“Actually, we’re looking for a bus or something. To the Sudan border.”
“Sure? You go that country? Man, that place is fucked up.” He throws down his hands. Nearly every finger has a ring on it. “Come I take you rather somewhere. I know good place”
We pause. Look at one another.
“Is cheap cheap man brothers, come”.
Isaac is big for an Ethiopian. Not tall, but solid, thick like his American accent. His teeth are nearly as yellow as the end of his peroxided dreads. We walk through a small market selling touristy things, Isaac tugs at my hair. “You surfer?”
He’s the first person in Northern Africa to ever ask me this.
“I can see. Was in Cali, man, 2008”
I smile and nod.
“Isaac can spot a surfer from miles. I saw many of your type. Travelled around with some. Many drugs”.
He grabs six bananas from a man selling them in a wheelbarrow, dishes them out, doesn’t pay.
“Cool dude,” he says passing me mine.
I’m still wondering who the sixth banana is for when a short man in a brown shirt that is too big for him, joins us. Isaac hands him the last banana. A sidekick of some sort. We jump on a taxi and they chat frantically in Amharic.
I turn to Jordan and in my pathetic Afrikaans: “Heir die ou is nie so lekker nie”.
“Ja, ja, ek weet. Mar ons kan sien waar ons gaan.”
FP, a fellow traveler we’d met up with, laughs at our Afrikaans, he’s fluent. He and Rob agree with Jordan. Let’s see where this goes.
The sidekick doesn’t say a word to us. Isaac breaks the silence, “So you’re Afrikaans?”
I swallow hard, caught out.
Flustered, I fumble out a lame resurrection plan. “Not really, Jordan went to an Afrikaans school though.” Still hot under the collar I ask Isaac if he can speak the language.
“No, not speaking, only hearing. You know, many South Africans here. Sounds like Dutch.”
I swallow hard, relieved. Our secret code remains intact. Communication is priceless, and if he isn’t aware that we’re onto him, we have a huge advantage.
Our trip seems never ending; it begins to turn into a makeshift tour and we start to talk about Fidel Castro. “He is like big celebrity here. Helped for freedom. Even Mandela, he train in secret camps here in Ethiopia”. We nod, every Ethiopian has told us this when they find out we’re from South Africa. Now we’re onto Haile Selassie. “He isn’t a god, we rastas know that. But we believe he has some power. He can do kinds of miracles.”
We say we’re not convinced and ask where we are. “Marketo Subcity”. Our destination is apparently around the corner for the third time.
“I think. You think. Either way,” Isaac says, “Selassie is good man. Once he give a street child a house. Always giving pretty women jobs”.
“I bet he is,” I say.
Isaac finds that very funny. “No no” he laughs, “In airport, properly, not personal.”
We push through more crowded streets, a few tight alleys. On into a residential area. A herd of goats clatter past. A big billboard with the president and the flag on it stares at the houses below.
“You see the star in the middle?” Isaac says pointing at the flag. “You remember it was a lion?” We all nod.
“The lion was sign of monarch. Star is communist.” We nod again, this time showing our enlightenment.
“Ethiopia is big communism man. But people don’t realise”. We say nothing.
“I you’re caught with that old flag, big sheet man”. We turn another corner. “You will see suddenly. One day you will be at home and six men with guns will come to your house. Four will come to get you; two will wait outside if you run.”
We jump into a taxi. “You pay this time,” he says, then continues. “When they get you they blindfold you and put a bag on your head. Then they throw you in the back of an army van and drive you like this”, he holds an invisible steering wheel and swerves left and right like a madman.
He looks funny. We laugh. The whole idea of it.
“Is no funny man, beeg sheet. The soldiers take you to a secret base, maybe in the forest. They put you inside a room. They grab you and rip off the blindfold”.
He tells a story well and lets it hang a short while in anticipation.
I give a high five to a school kid as we pass a mosque with big marble arches.
“Then they shake you,” like this – Isaac wrestles my shoulders. “They put gun to your head. Then, give you the new flag and tell you, ‘Now hang this in your room!’”
We can’t stop laughing. All four of us. “That’s it?”
Isaac nods, unhappy with our reaction. We advise him to change the ending of his story, especially when he’s telling tourists. It ends too softly, we say. Then we share some violent South African stories and have him eating out our hand. Roles successfully reversed.
“Surely brother? Is true man? Sheet!”
“How far?” Jordan asks.
“Close. Around the corner, brother.”
“Isaac, if we turn one more corner we’ll beat you like the police in South Africa, I swear!”
Isaac laughs. We turn three more corners and stop at a door with stairs that go down below street level.
“Is here brothers!”
The doorway is dark. The smell of weed wafts up so strongly my head feels light.
Two days earlier we’d been arrested at a cheap, brothel-like place for staying in an area that was “too cheap” for tourists. We had walked for five kilometres with the police to reach the station. Our bags were searched and our motives questioned by an English speaking commander who took hours to find. Eventually the police called a hotel and booked us in themselves. We didn’t stay. We had climbed through the window and caught a taxi to the other side of Addis.
Now a similar feeling was welling up inside my stomach.
“Isaac,” I say, “there’s no ways we’re going in there”.
His stubbly moustache highlights his smile.
“I dunno what your plan is, but we’re not falling for it”.
He smiles harder.
“Do you know what we call this in South Africa?”
“A wild goose chase.”
“A wild goose chase?” He thinks, “I like that.” And nods, impressed. “It’s OK man. If I can’t get you then let’s be friends?”
Friends are good, we all agree. He hasn’t been bad company by any means. He suggests breakfast. Of course, he knows a good place.
We cross the road, turn a few more corners, and the smell of coffee replaces the smell of weed.
“We eat Ethiopian. I order.”
Later, behind Isaac’s back, the owner signals me to the kitchen. “This is not good man. He bring you trouble. Even police trouble. Many big problem”.
I tell him it’s okay, we know. He looks less than convinced and shakes his head every time we meet eyes.
Black coffee comes with njeera, a sour like pancake. I push it down with water. Isaac now introduces his sidekick who still hasn’t said a word.
“This is Benjamin, he has no English. He is good for my plan. I catch many tourists man”.
Benjamin smiles. Like a puppet on a string. Poor guy. He doesn’t know the game has turned, that we’re all just friends now, not con and dupe. He sits there, still thinking they’re about to pull a scam on the nice guys buying them breakfast. Wondering when. His conscience is working overtime, his face is guilt-ridden. He can barely eat.
We’ve been caught in so many scams we’re not even interested in what Isaac’s plan was. Whether it was bribery, cops, theft, a drug scam, or worse. He wouldn’t tell us anyway, so we eat breakfast without any interrogation. There’s no point.
“Perhaps I visit you in SA man?” Isaac says, enjoying the last of the njeera. “Surfing?”
“Yes,” I say, “and perhaps we’ll help you find a bus”.
Isaac laughs. “Good men, clever men” he says, lifting his coffee in a friendly toast.