The way the airport is the best people watching place in America, the market on market day is the most authentic place to dive deep into community culture here in Ethiopia. A hustling, bustling, chaotic, crazy mess, many volunteers shy away from market days. I kind of love them. Yes I get a lot of attention, but at the same time, most people just want to conduct their business, get the best deal and crack a few jokes. Especially surprising people by using Amharic (even if it is only tinish tinish “a little bit”) is one my favorite moments.
Sorry for the lack of photos on this one- I don’t like taking my camera out in this area (duh). But a few anecdotes will help explain this Saturday ritual.
1) The bus station is in the middle of the market, and only the bravest of tourists attempt to enter Gondar this way (the usual way being the airport at the other end of town- for those interested in coming!). My good friend Morgan comes in often from her small village a couple hours away to do her banking, pick up food not available at her market and get a pizza every once in a while. She usually loads up with stuff before heading back. Being white, the bus boys naturally assume we are headed to Bahar Dar (a resort town a couple hours away). When she says the name of her tiny town and I say I live here and am just helping (all in Amharic), I’ve never seen so many confused looks in my life.
2) Similarly, a few days ago I bought 2 giant plastic buckets to hold my vegetables/dirty dishes/wash my clothes in. An Ethiopian tour guide was leading a group of tourists down the road, took a double look at my buckets and said “You’re not in my group—you live here!” Like it was a great discovery. Clearly, because all tourists buy cheap plastic buckets. They make great souvenirs.
3) Walking to the market the other day I ran into one of the few mentally ill people in town. Small pause- this is actually a sad problem here. Many mentally ill people are left to fend for themselves on the streets because there are no free/public mental institutions and their families do not have the money to support them. Anyway, one such man passed me and pinched me on the arm, not very hard, but it took me by surprise. I told him it was rude, and he started to walk behind me rattling a water bottle. But what makes this better were the people who came to my aid and led him away. For as much harassment as I receive there is an equal amount of looking out for me.
4) Berbere is the spicy powder used in almost every Ethiopian dish, and it is made from dried peppers and a myriad of other things. Getting turned around in the market the other day I ended up wandering down “berbere lane,” basically the section where all the berbere is made and sold. With kariya (dried pepper) dust floating into my eye, I was weeping as I walked down the road. And by weeping I mean, snot nosed, puffy eyed, crawling on my knees in confusion of how to get away from the poisonous dust that was choking me. Ok it wasn’t that bad, but I did get a whole lot more “izosh!es” (stay strong girl!) from the women as I made my way out of that section.
5) Less of a market story, but “market related.” One New Year’s Eve a few of us volunteers went out to dinner at one of the nicer hotels in the area as a treat. This was a nice restaurant, good service, a beautiful view and even a prix fix menu. The choice for dessert was a chocolate cake or seasonal fruit. One volunteer chose the fruit… and was brought a banana. On a plate. Clearly it’s dry season. But who doesn’t choose chocolate cake? He brought that one on himself.
6) Speaking of bananas, they are everywhere. Every stand, souk, and lady with a tarp on the ground is selling them. Therefore, there a lot of banana peels in the road… you can guess where I am heading with this. I literally Charlie Chaplin/3 Stooges/Mario Kart/My Usual Self style slipped on a banana peel in the middle of the market. I kid you not. Lucky for me, slapstick comedy is very popular here and I’m glad the Ethiopians who saw this thoroughly appreciated the humour.
So these are just a few weeks of notes and stories. I try to carry my notebook around with me to write down the funny moments of the day because the only way to live cross culturally is to hold your head up high and laugh with the punches (and sometimes pinches) that come along.