Everything feels fluid and boundary-less here in Addis. Shopfronts pour out into the streets, a slow avalanche of plastic bowls or used engine parts. Buildings all seem in a state of evolution, whether with precarious lashed-log scaffolding or a brick wall that is slowly eroding, casting off fragments into the road. Groups of teenage or young twenty-something boys quickly approach, shifting from an accented 'helllllo' to a beckoning hand to grabbing your arm for attention. Dirt hovers in the afternoon, drying out your nostrils and eyes, giving the city a orange-brown tint.
We walked for miles and miles, aimlessly. It's not a walking city. The sidewalks are often taken over by trash, or goats, or open-topped sewage holes. The locals are clearly amused, looking at us as if we're lost. The bolder of them, always teenage or twenty-something boys, will approach, testing their English, standing too close, penetrating our boundaries. We have a silent language of hand-squeezes to signal our comfort, or sadness, or fear. The city is inhospitable to discussion sometimes.
After adjusting to the time zone, we flew north to the historical sites. Millennia-old churches, monasteries, and tablets dotted the map. Each site was guarded by a local guide, with eager broken English and a desire to convince, really convince someone, of a history that the rest of the world has forgotten. This was a great kingdom. The greatest kingdom of its age. It had a starring role in early civilization. Ignore the blond Jesus, because our 800-year-old Black Jesus paintings are the real deal.
The discussions here have clear boundaries. History and family life is in play (every guide has three kids, and 'no more'), but talk of contemporary Ethiopia yields short responses. The government is 'okay.' The economy is 'good.' Chinese construction is 'not the best.'
So, after a couple probes, we get better at playing tourist. We ask the right questions ('really only one person ever sees the ark?'), pull out our phones and take photos of the right relics, and hand over our email addresses with the promise of staying in touch, of sending our friends. They tell us of their amazing past tourist friends, including one from Arkansas who now call every week. 'They're going to make a movie about this place,' he earnestly explains, 'with a thirty million dollar budget. And I'll play one of the key parts.' We nod, he smiles, and we wonder if he is in on the charade.
After a visit to an archaeological site, he hears music coming from a house and brings us to a wedding party. We slowly approach, first taking photos from down the street, then the entryway, and finally inside the tent. When we enter, the attention focuses on us. the rows of women, in between rounds of 'lulululu' stare in our direction. The crowd of children slowly bubble over towards us, the bigger kids pushing the littler ones our way, smiling as if caught when we look at them. Even the wedding videographer points his lens towards us. We sit in the back, against a tarp, trying to stay inconspicuous despite being the only white people in the 300-person dirt- and confetti-floored tent. We clap and dance to the music, gamely smile when a phone is pointed towards us, and politely refuse every offer of beer and food. We duck out when the bride and groom's procession starts, not wanting to distract from their big day. We ask our guide if it was okay that we attended, and he says 'it's their honor,' and we smile, shirking against the tarp edge of the tent.
At the airport, the guide commends our commitment to cultural learning, shakes our hands, and waves us goodbye with his left hand while pocketing his tip with his right. We pull out our passports and walk up to the army officer checking IDs at the rear of the line, twenty feet into the parking lot. On to Rwanda.