Sunday, January 14, 2007

Day 1, Part 2- The Bunna Baet Scam

So, we got to see our kids on this first day, which was great. Afterwards, we decided to walk down the street to a little restaurant for a bite to eat for dinner. Well, a block or so from the hotel, this guy came up to us and started speaking terribly accented English with us. He said he was a construction worker at our hotel and that he was going to church, it’s a Muslim festival day, blah blah blah. He invited us to come with him to see a "special program" and have bunna (coffee). It did seem a bit odd to me that this guy who was named Dawit (A traditionally Christian name) who was headed to church would be so interested in informing us of the Muslim holiday, but I'm a very trusting person. I was unclear as to why he kept telling us about the Muslim holiday, but assumed the "special program" had something to do with the festival and thought that maybe Christians took it as an opportunity to have a festival too????? Too bad I often miss these types of serious red flags until I'm already in over my head! So, we, the silly ferinj (white foreigners) that we are, agreed. We should have stopped at our destination restaurant as originally planned, but we decided to continue on with him. He took us to a different section of town that was far from our hotel. He stopped on the way to “call his sister.” Then we walked some more. And some more. And some more. But Dawit was so nice and so hospitable in wanting us to be able to experience Ethiopian culture, blah blah blah. And what a nice bit of Ethiopian culture we got to experience that night!

Finally, we got to the place, and we were the only ones attending this special “program.” This too was odd to me, but I actually had a lot of fun at first. There were 12 or so dancers who performed traditional dances from all of the various regions and tribes of Ethiopia. They wanted me to dance with them, so I did, and it was a lot of fun. Avery played the cabarro (drum). I was actually really enjoying myself. I was a bit thrown by the fact that our “friend” Dawit had told us the “program” would be very interesting, yet he barely paid any attention at all and even disappeared during the “program.” I was also a bit concerned when he started talking on his cell phone, yet on the way, we had to stop at a little shop where he paid money to "call his sister." And yet, because I'm trusting and want to believe the best about people until they prove to me that they are less than honorable, I continued to have fun.

Avery and I ordered a soda to share. Then, the “manager” asked Avery (unbeknown to me) to buy drinks for all of the employees there (about 16 people). He asked how much and was told “70 birr.” He clarified that it was 70 birr total, which is about $8 US dollars, so he agreed. They all enjoyed a round of tej (Ethiopian honey wine). Then the “manager” asked him to buy another round and when he refused, she wasn’t pleased. I didn’t know that all of this had happened.

However, I could see that Avery was no longer having a good time, though I assumed he was merely bored with the music. We waited until they served the bunna (coffee) and then said we needed to leave. They brought us the bill for 800 birr! That’s $100 US dollars! Avery argued with the guy for a bit, to no avail. He said he would pay 200 birr. The dude was not into bargaining at all though. Avery had already caught on to the fact that our “friend” was actually part of the scam on the ferinj and said that since Dawit brought us here, he would pay the rest. I hadn’t caught on to that yet! Boy, am I slow sometimes! I began to pray, as I was pretty scarred at that point! And I didn't want our "friend" Dawit to have to pay. Eventually, Avery gave them 600 birr ($70!) and said we were leaving. They said we could not, but Avery grabbed my arm and I knew it was time to just leave. We walked out, praying the entire time, mind you! That is when we discovered that we were gated in! And when we got to the gate, the padlock was locked! Talk about panic! I was thinking I could climb the gate easy enough, but I didn’t know how fast I could do it and I didn’t think Avery could climb it at all. I'm really very attached to Avery and certainly didn't want to leave him behind! I was ready to go back in and demand that the gate be opened. Then, Avery tried the latch and somehow got it opened. We briskly walked away and let me tell you, I was scarred to death! We walked very quickly. And they did not try to come after us. Why should they?????? They made an absolute fortune!

I didn’t realize until after we left that Dawit was part of the scam! I can be so slow sometimes! He hadn't stopped to call his sister! He stopped to alert this little bunna baet (coffee house) that we were on our way! As we walked home, Avery told me that the reason he had suddenly stopped having a good time was he had looked out the window and realized they had closed the gate on us and he saw a guard with one of those nice big guns with ammo strapped around his neck! I don't know if I've ever been that scarred in my life!

So, we’re halfway back to the hotel when another man starts speaking even more terribly accented and hard-to-understand English to us. He wanted us to see a program about Oromiya culture and started telling us how Ethiopia is really Oromiya. Pretty lousy sales pitch to people who are obviously visitors to Ethiopia! You don’t visit a country you don’t like and the dude's pitch made it evident that the “program” was about how Ethiopia was bad and Oromiya is good! Not that I'm taking a political stance either for or against Oromiya. I just think it wasn't a very bright sales pitch to a couple of ferinj tourists! Anyway, we kept telling him “aiy” but he wouldn’t take “aiy” for an answer. He kept asking us why. I told him “Yane alga efellagallo” (I want my bed) but he didn’t seem to like that answer either. He kept walking with us and we told him “chow” several times. He was pretty persistent. Or maybe he didn't understand our good-bye? He was so persistent that I thought there might be something wrong with him! I thought that maybe he was drunk, but he was walking just fine. Then I thought that maybe he was mentally handicapped. He was not. He was just a persistent salesman because he wanted a nice little cut of the profit just like our friend Dawit got. He asked if I was English. I laughed and said, “aiy” so he asked if I was American. I said, “aiy” (please forgive the lie, I just wasn't into chit chatting with the guy given our little experience with Dawit that I still hadn't recovered from!). He persisted in asking where I was from. I turned to him and said quite sarcastically, “Neny Abesha! Ow! Abesha!” (I'm Ethiopian! Yes! Ethiopian!) I was scarred to death at that point, as I didn’t know how my sarcasm would be taken. But it worked! We crossed the street and he didn’t follow. It probably helped that we stepped right in front of a taxi and he wasn't brave enough (or stupid enough???) to follow suit. Good grief!

We should have gone with our first instinct and eaten supper instead, as my legs were so sore from the long walk. Well, maybe they were sore from the time I spent jump-roping with Mihret. But still, all that walking, all that money, and we were still hungry. We could have fed the entire hotel for the price we paid just to get out of that place in one piece!

Now, mind you, Avery and I went back and forth on whether we should share this on our blog. We finally figured, what the heck? Of course we'll share it. It was definitely not funny at the time, but now it's kind of funny. Okay, it's kind of funny as long as we don't allow ourselves to think about how much money $70 is! At some future point, I'm sure it will be extremely funny! And if nothing else, maybe somebody else will recognize this scam when it happens to them so that they won't agree to go the way we did! Now, mind you, we were fully aware of the "bunna baet scam" but we didn't understand that the scam artists would befriend you on the street in order to draw you in.

Oh yeah, the next morning when we left the hotel, we saw Dawit hanging out in the alley behind the hotel! He saw us and he turned around and started running the other direction! We were solicited two more times this week. One time, it was the exact same scam for the exact same location. He had the exact same story about being a hotel employee. The hotel was very upset and assured us that neither man was an employee.

When I told my Ethiopian friend here in America, Abeba, what had happened, with her limited English, she just kept exclaiming, "He is a bad bad man! He did a bad bad thing! That was a bad bad thing!" For sure. A bad, bad thing indeed!

***Disclaimer to my family who might be reading: please don't have a heart attack. You're reading this blog, so we obviously made it back to America in one piece. Just to make you feel better, I'll let you know now that nothing else that dramatic happened to us that week. The rest of the week was much better than that first day. :)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing for the sake of the rest of us "trusting" types. Oy - that is certainly not the type of experience to have! Glad you left safely though.
Really enjoying reading about your trip!

Brian (dad to 3) said...

Not that this is any help now (maybe someone else though), but there's a page in Lonely Planet book on this scam. Sorry it happened to you. Glad you made it out OK.

Heather said...

The sad part is that we had read that page in the Lonely Planet book! From reading the book though, we didn't realize that it worked by having people on the streets to solicit your friendship. I thought they just kind of stood in the door of the bunna bet and tried to entice you that way. I wish we would have known! That was why we finally decided to put it on our blog. We wanted to be more specific so that maybe we can spare somebody else the grief. Good grief pretty well explains that day!

Brianna Heldt said...

Wow Heather, I am sorry that happened to you guys! We didn't have anyone try to scam us while we were there, which is good because I'd never heard of the coffee house scam before. I'm glad you made it out okay!!!

Manabuna said...

Ok Wow that's a horrible experience to have. Now that just makes me feel embarassed for being from there (I'm actually more embarassed about the Oromo guy). We do have a reputation to keep as being one of the most hospitable people anywhere. Now aside from that unfortunate anamoly, how was your overall experience?

Anonymous said...

Heather, As an Ethiopian, I am upset that you were scammed. You should have brought it to the attention of the police as soon as you got to your hotel. Not only that you may have gotten your money back, but they may have thrown the ring that took part in the scam behind bars.


Anonymous said...

The original message I wrote was VERY mean, rude, and just plain wrong to be posted here. Thank me for not subjecting you to it. Oooo, but I SO wanted to give you a piece of my mind for even being that gullible. However, I'm certainly glad that you were able to walk away unharmed, albeit a costly lesson. Whew! It was scary enough just to read it. Good luck on your future travels... and that still includes here in the United States. WAKE UP!

Anonymous said...

Sorry that this had happened to you but one should be cautious when in foreign land specially someone from the street approach you and tell you about a program that you had no idea shouldn't budge for any of such thing the best at least you could have done would be ask your hotel provider about it before you get along with the plan and leave your money and valuables in the hotel. Anyway i m glad you made it unharmed and able to get away, hope it is a lesson for another time and for anyone who came across your blog.