Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Day 3, Part 1- Mercado Was So Much Fun!!!

We woke up this third day in Ethiopia, as we knew that a lovely young lady named Ma'aza would be there for us very soon. Ma'aza worked in one of the internet cafe's from Avery's first trip and was so very helpful to him. She had helped him with buying a few items so that he wouldn't have to pay the ferinj price, which is always much higher than what would be charged to an Ethiopian. Ma'aza, whose name means "perfume", arrived at the hotel right on time, 9:00AM. As we walked out of the hotel together, she casually reached over to hold my hand. Whoa!! I was fully aware of this practice throughout most of Africa, that is the fact that same-sex friends are quite comfortable with showing non-sexual affection to one another. I had never considered that I might be in a position to practice this local custom though...let's just say it was a bit weird at first. But, I didn't want to offend this nice young lady, so I returned the gesture. I evidently wasn't doing it right though because she took our hands and entwined our fingers. Okay. Note to self- there must be a right way and a wrong way to do this! So, we got into the taxi, Avery in the front and the two girls in the back. Rather than leaving the middle seat empty, which most Americans with all of our "personal space issues" would have done, Ma'aza scooted over right next to me. She reached out for my hand and casually placed it on her thigh. Then she rested her hand on top of mine. How many of my American readers are already freaking out?!?! Well, I was freaking out too, but only on the inside. On the outside, I was as cool as a cucumber. :)

Honestly, by the end of the day, I was perfectly comfortable with Ma'aza and realized that as Americans, we could really use a dose of healthy, same-sex affection. Perhaps men even more so than women, as women do tend to be at least a little bit more affectionate than men in our western culture. Anyway, off to Mercado we went.

No wait. Before it was off to Mercado, Ma'aza had to negotiate the taxi fare down to about 1/5 of the original asking price. There it is again- the meaning of ferinj! To be ferinj is to be rich, at least in the minds of most Ethiopians. And truly, next to the lifestyle of so many in this country, the poorest of the poor in America is rich by comparison. But I still don't like to have to pay more than somebody else for the same service!

So, off to Mercado we went, and what an incredible experience it was! Due to the conflict with Somalia, we almost missed out on this. But before we left, my Ethiopian friend here in America, Rosa, told me that it would be a tragedy to visit Ethiopia and not go to Mercado. That was the best advice I've gotten in a very long time. Next to seeing my kids, this was the most fun we had in Ethiopia!

Mercado is the largest open-air market in all of Africa, and what a busy place Mercado was! It was so large that we didn't even begin to discover all of its wonders. And it was so full of vendors selling bunna and shai (tea) spices and frankincense that the smells permeated every corner of the market. And I got to have lots of up-close and personal encounters with goats and donkeys wandering around the streets and walkways. To me, they seemed to be wandering aimlessly without owners, but if you watched long enough, eventually an owner would come along to steer them in the right direction. Too bad for me that I'm really prissy when it comes to animal dung on my shoes!

Ma'aza said that she'd never seen Mercado that crowded before in her entire life! She figured that it was partly due to the fact that Ethiopians were preparing to celebrate Christmas in just a few days.

I got to try out my Amharic a lot on this day, and I learned a lot too. Really, when you're willing to try out a second language regardless of how stupid you fear you might sound, you will learn so much faster. Mind you, I was far from fluent, and Ma'aza had to step in and help a lot, but I was able to negotiate price by myself. Mind you, I usually had no idea what a fair price would be. And of course, Ma'aza could negotiate a far better price than I could ever dream of since she's an Ethiopian, but knowing Amharic fluently still won't change the fact that I am forever ferinj. I managed to get myself a sufid (round, flat, basket-like object used for removing injera from the mitad after it's finished cooking) for only 10 birr more than my original stated price. It didn't look quite like Abeba's sufid, but I was pretty proud of myself! When I was able to make another shop owner understand that I wanted to buy a wrap for securing a baby to my back, I was equally as proud of myself. His sudden look of recognition told me that I had communicated the right thing to him. But, he returned a few minutes later with some humongous leather and seashell contraption, and I knew that there had been a breakdown in communication! Sure enough, it would hold baby to my back, but it wasn't quite what I wanted. It was more like a horse saddle! But, I did manage to make him understand when I said, "Aiy! Cotton efelegalo ebakah!" (No, I want cotton please!) That's when I got the sorry look with a polite, "Yellum" (Not here). All I can say is, FUN!

Everywhere we went, we saw street- side vendors holding huge bouquets of green vegetation. I asked Ma'azawhat it was and she negotiated a price on a handful for us. It's called "eshat" and it's a vegetable. You pick off small pods to find a pea-like vegetable inside. You eat the pea. It tasted like soybeans to me. It must be a popular thing to eat though because two days later when I gave the remnants to one of the hotel maids she was really excited about it.

One of the things I needed to buy was roasted whole coffee beans for a friend in America who is putting together a fundraiser. Various baskets of coffee from all over the world will be raffled off (I think). Well, it was no easy task to find pre-roasted beans at Mercado! Duh! Ethiopians roast their own beans at home. Why would they sell them pre-roasted?! The only pre-roasted beans we could find were also pre-ground, which I did not want. When Ma'aza would try to explain to the shop owners what we wanted they seemed perplexed that anybody would want to buy coffee that way. Finally though, we found a nice up-scale Ethiopian equivalent of a Star Bucks. Sure enough, they had exactly what we wanted. We even had the choice of buying clean or dirty beans. Okay, really they were called "washed" and "unwashed" beans, but it sounds funnier to say "clean" or "dirty." I've never been faced with such a choice in America!

Another thing I wanted to buy was a traditional dress. The clothing shops were mostly very tiny, and though you could see just fine from outside, the owners would always insist that we come inside and sit down on a little stool. Mind you, these shops were so tiny that with Avery, Ma'aza, and me along with 1-2 employees, we were so close we were touching. But, I'd already realized that Ethiopians definitely aren't hung up on "personal space", nor do they seem to realize that Americans are hung up on this concept! I finally found one that I liked and Ma'aza said I could try it on. I wasn't exactly sure where the fitting room might be since we were in a tiny little shed, but before I could inquire the male store owner left. I signalled Avery to leave too. That left me alone with Ma'aza and the female store owner inside this little shop with no door. I was positive that people on the street could see me, but when in Rome....I really didn't know what the proper protocol was in this situation, so I just asked Ma'aza. Apparently, it's appropriate to take off your clothes to try on the new clothes. Perhaps everybody is just on the honor system to not peek in through the door?! What a day! Nothing like being totally immersed in a culture! I loved every minute of it!

I was particularly amused when a young Ethiopian guy came up behind Ma'aza and me holding hands and began singing Michael's Jackson's song, "It doesn't matter if you're black or white..." Ma'aza and I both laughed hysterically at this. We had such a fun day together. Ma'aza later in an email said that it was one of the happiest days of her life. For me, it ranked pretty high too! More about this incredibly fun day in a later post...

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