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Into Ethiopian Air

When he had gone off, I asked Shibru what would happen to him. He said that in three years he would be dead of AIDS.

Khat and Chat

Well-traveled white-haired tourists go to Ethiopia for its rich visible past, but backpackers like the cheap beer, great food, great weather and, especially in Harer, the chance to chew khat, a mild stimulant indigenous to the shores of the Red Sea that, they claim, brings on euphoria and brilliant talk.

Street scene in Addis Ababa
Street scene in Addis Ababa
A street scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Alexei Dmitriev)

Out on my hotel terrace, some English, German and Canadian kids and a good-looking Israeli guy were chewing khat leaves by the handful, and in fact they were talking like crazy. Their conversation, perhaps reminiscent of Noel Coward or Hannah Arendt just before I began listening, had settled onto the nuances of body hair. One by one they were pulling up their pants legs, to show. The young women bared their legs and howled, but the redheaded Canadian guy was grim as he uncovered a patch of eerily spectral skin. When the Israeli's turn came, he couldn't wait to jam his trousers up and reveal a lush forest. "Oooooooo," the girls cried as the boys stopped chewing. "Ooooooo! That's a lot of hair!" the girls squealed. "Yes," the Israeli nodded suavely, "I began shaving at thirteen."

But in Muslim Harer, I met no other Americans. Late one night on the outskirts of town, some guys asked if I was from the United States. I kept walking but told myself to go for it, and so I said I was from Washington, "the capital." They blocked my way.

The scrawny one was in my face. "Who," he began as I braced for whatever was to come, ". . . who is bigger? Eminem or 50 Cent?" Hmm, I thought, this isn't what I expected. I soon learned that 50 Cent is a world-famous New York hip-hop star, but I didn't know that then, and when I answered "Eminem," I met a roar of disgust -- except from the smug, scrawny one, who kept shaking my hand and saying that Americans were the best foreigners.

The next day I was worried about my endorsement of the self-proclaimed "white boy" Eminem instead of 50 Cent, with his signature bulletproof vest. So when some engineers invited me over to their table at a cafe, I asked for their judgment. They began consideration in English but slipped into Amharic for the real debate. Then it was clear that there was a problem. "In terms of music," one of them asked me, "or in terms of body size?"

Surcharge

Back in Addis, I waved off the guide, who camped outside my hotel. "Where are going this time, Mister John from the United States? To film 'RUSH HOUR 3' WITH JACKIE CHAN?!!!"

I was off to see the Addis Sheraton, which can sleep 30 heads of state at one time or, on New Year's Eve, welcome 3,000 well-dressed Ethiopians for Sean Paul's rap concert until dawn. With 11 restaurants, bars and cafes, 293 luxury rooms, gold plating on the plumbing and six villas that go for $4,000 a night, the hotel, which opened in 1998, already has begun to inspire legend, and the taxi driver who took me back to the Baro Hotel (where I kept a just-fine $6-a-night room for almost a month) seemed exceptionally proud that it consumed more than 25 percent of all the electricity produced for this city of more than 2 million.

As the headquarters of the African Union, Addis has unexpected pockets of sophistication, and more cafes than Rome (a sign inside the venerable Caffe Tomoca quotes Balzac: "When You Drink a Cup of Coffee, Ideas Come in Marching Like an Army"). On the other hand, Harer is definitely a sleepy Muslim town, and yet even there you feel the winds of change.

"Make of it what you like," Meg from England said as she cited the rules posted in her hotel room. There were the usual ones against washing clothes and cooking in the room, but a fresh one had caught her eye -- No. 5: Two people of the same sex occupying the same room will incur an additional surcharge.


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