Addis ababa Agression Academy
Date- August 29, 2019
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
“The heart of a fool is in his mouth and the mouth of a wise man is in his heart.”
After passing through customs and immigration, I ripped open the box and assembled my bike piece by piece. Seat, handlebars, tires. Ready.
Ethiopians passed me and stared like they had never seen a Caucasian guy with greasy hands before. Some even stopped and gave me an applause as I tightened the final screws on my handlebars. My heart was ready to burst like a cork from a bottle of champagne. What was in store for me out there? Would I really be able to handle hyenas, tigers and guns? Even failure looked like a good option. If something went wrong, at least I know I prepared as much as possible. I was ready to go down fighting, all for the sake of personal growth and adrenaline.
After so much anticipation, I finally made it to Addis Ababa (“New Flower”), the city that became the nation’s capital in the early 19th century. The city is located on a plateau situated at the base of mountains and cliffs and is the world’s third highest capital city. Its predecessor, Entoto, was located at the highlands and deemed unsuitable due to lack of firewood and cold climate. The town ran out of firewood soon after foundation and Eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia to provide foliage, shade and provide fuel. The Empress Taitu persuaded her husband to move near the hot springs at the mountain base and moved several members of the nobility to the location. At first, the capital became known as a military encampment, as the city population only consisted of the emperor’s palace and army personnel and was nearly abandoned until trees were shipped in from Australia.
Addis Ababa was the capital of Italian East Africa for five years, as several stone buildings, paved roads and a hydroelectric plant were constructed in the city. The city center is still labeled “piazza” and nearly every Ethiopian restaurant offers pasta as an alternative to traditional fare.
I rode my bike through quiet, sun-drenched city streets to a campsite where I pitched my tent for a few days before embarking on the big journey. I decided to go north, which would provide me with plenty of mountainous roads to tackle, historical spots to discover and hyenas to chuckle with. With Addis Ababa as a starting point, my plan was to cycle up to Bahir Dar and cut across to Debre Tabor and Lalibela, all while traveling east. After passing Woldiya, I would head north again to Mekele and Aksum. There were so many places to explore and one month was sure to leave me wanting more.
I quickly realized that one month would not be enough time to visit all of the regions I wanted to visit. Many places of interest are spread out in the far corners of the country. The multicultural Omo Valley would have to wait until next time. The indigenous cultural hub of Ethiopia, where George W. Bush visited in 2016 and went unrecognized, was high on my list. Many tribes in the Omo Valley continue with ancient traditions such as scarification, caused by rubbing charcoal over intentionally administers cuts on the torso, create intricate designs and were sure to bring shock to my Western eyes.
The World Heritage-designated town of Harar would also have to be put on my waiting list. According to UNESCO, Harar is the fourth most important Islamic city in the world, and is home to more than one hundred mosques and shrines. The town, founded in the seventh century, also has a long standing tradition of hyena feeding in order to prevent attacks on people. Residents keep hyenas in their homes as pets and develop a loving relationship with the often feared animals.
During my first day in Addis, I cycled to Saint George’s church in the city center and entered a serene oasis of foliage and purple flowers, which provided a stark contrast from the noisy central area. Trees shielded the church grounds from the diesel fuel-spewing automobile exhaust that gave the city a metallic smell. Finally, I found a place where I could sit down and enjoy a few moments to myself in the shade.
The church, built on the ruins of an older church from the 15th century, is the site where Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned in 1930 and became a pilgrimage area for Rastafarians. Ethiopia is the birthplace of the Rastafari way of life, as “Ras” means prince and “Tafari Makonen” is the former name of Emperor Selassie before he was crowned. Many Rastafarians view Emperor Haile Selassie as the reincarnation of God on earth and as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Rastafarians seek the resettlement of the African diaspora in Ethiopia, referring to it as the Promised Land of “Zion.” Rastas use the flag of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie as their main symbol of unity and believe the Bible was first written on stone in the Ethiopian national language of Amharic.
As I pictured long dreadlock-sporting marijuana-smoking Rastas congregating along the church grounds, a young man interrupted my silence and began telling me his life story. He was a short, wiry guy with an afro that shot up several centimeters in the air. A thin layer of dark brown dust covered his clothing and it appeared as if he had not showered in several weeks. Much to my surprise, he spoke perfect English, with the cadence of a stand up comedian. For all I knew, he could have been a guy from the streets of New Jersey or Queens.
“I graduated from university and have no work. I came to Addis to find a job but there is nothing for me. Now I sleep on the streets every night. People always stare at me like I am a bum and I can’t stand it.”
We chatted for several minutes about his family life and then he accompanied me for a walk to the church entrance. After sharing several Wikipedia-quality facts about the church’s history, he made a brash request.
“I explained a little bit about the church, now give me money,” he insisted in an angry tone, eyebrows furrowed and body opened up, pointing his feet right in my direction while invading my personal space by a few paces.
His heated persistence caught me off guard and my attitude changed from sympathy to resentment at the blink of an eye. There were people all around and even several police officers roamed the church grounds, making sure tourists paid their entry fee. I did not feel threatened by this guy, especially since I trained myself until physical depletion every day and knew I would surely put him on the ground in a brawl.
The man moved in closer, only a few nose lengths away from my face. I had a feeling this was going to get ugly soon. “Give me something. Come on!”
My lizard brain told me to shut this guy up with an uppercut to the jaw, but the meditator in me regained control before it was too late. My higher-self kept the inner-brawler at bay this time. He could have been carrying a gun and I was not about to risk my life over a few cents. Stay aware!
Throwing fists on my first day in Ethiopia would result in bad karma for the next month. I had visions of hyenas, lions and scorpions entering my tent at night, clawing through the flimsy plastic, inching closer to the 80-kilogram piece of meat that lay there shaking in fear at the thought of becoming a midnight snack for the wild beasts and horrid insects of the night.
“Okay. Take this,” I said while handing him a one birr coin.
“This is one birr. I can’t buy anything with one birr,” he said sounding more insulted than if I had spit in his face.
“That is all I have for you. If you don’t want it, I will keep it for myself,” I said smiling.
“Why are you smiling like that? Go fuck yourself!” he exclaimed at the top of his lungs.
“Okay. I will be sure to do that,” I responded in a sly tone as he stomped off.
I don’t know if I was more shocked by his explosive reaction to my smart-ass gesture or by his perfect English expletive. Had this guy had watched more than his share of R-rated Hollywood movies?
I felt sorry for the man. If he had a job where he could earn a living wage, would our conversation have gone much differently? Was it desperation that led him to blow up and lose his cool? Perhaps he was abused as a child? Maybe he hadn’t had a meal in a long time. I had so many questions.
There is nothing I can do to control his actions or anyone else around me. All I can do is strive to improve myself.
On the surface, it is easy to say I handled the situation well. I did not accept his anger and frustration, stayed cool under pressure, and avoided a conflict and potentially explosive situation.
By my personal tape measure, I failed my first self-realization test on the Horn of Africa. My ego had grown out of control. I was twice as big as the kid and spent three to four hours per day over the last month heaving barbells over my head and jumping over knee-high boxes. The confidence I gained from rigorous physical training turned into arrogance, which led me to act in a sarcastic manner instead of one of compassion and understanding.
My first day in Ethiopia taught me I was much further behind on the road to self-actualization than I originally thought. At least I had more self-knowledge from my failure. Stay aware.