Since moving to DC, I've been confronted with outlandish rumors alleging daredevilry in the Horn of Africa. The source of these lurid tales is, unsurprisingly, Joshua Cogan--the evil photographic genius and monger of drivel. So just to set the record straight, here's the story that seems to suffer from the rudest hyperbole. All the way back in January 2007...
I've been a bit backlogged on my posts and placing the blame on the exorbitant cost of Lalibela's Internet cafes and a nasty case of the flu. I've been trying to fill in the lacunae chronologically, but last night I had an experience that begs relation while freshly plowed in my mind.
I can say, even conservatively, that I have never been so thoroughly in the cross-hairs of danger; nor have I ever been party to so bloody a fracas.
So fast-forward: I'm convalescing in Gondar, the site of a 17th century castle complex and one of the more atmospheric cities in Ethiopia. For a week now, I've been tagging along with a professional photographer by the name of Josh Cogan
, a fast friend and willing tutor. Yesterday I began lusting for a bit of adventure as most of my time has been spent catching up on sleep--a scarce commodity in Lalibela--and hacking my way to a clean pair of lungs. So I suggested to Josh that we scale the nameless mountain of the ritzy Goha hotel and suss out the scene.
We walked a couple of kilometers, forging our way through the hassle heaped on faranjis, when we spied a horse-drawn cart, a gari
, led by an erratic young colt. It zoomed past us, only to double back, the colt capering wildly and bucking about. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. We settled on a price of 5 birr to convey us to the mountaintop, but bailed out about halfway once the horse began zigzagging on the switchbacks with scant regard for the margins of the road. After half an hour, we walked through the gates of the Goha and into a wedding.
Having been wedding guests a week before, we were versed in the chants, songs and antics of an Ethiopian wedding and comported ourselves magnificently. Before long, we were as much a part of it as anyone else. The body heat rose, the singing climbed the decibel ladder, the beer flowed in cascades and everyone had a right good time. As the night wore on and we realized that all the town's taxis had been commissioned by the wedding, Josh and I wondered how we were to get back to the Circle Hotel. The answer came in the form of a flatbed truck loaded with 30 drunk Ethiopians.
Josh had success earlier that day hitching a ride with a similar vehicle and bounded into the truck bed without reservation. I followed suit. The truck itself was in poor repair, composed of a closed cab and an uncovered cargo hold bisected by a shoulder-height pole. The bed, as mentioned above, was bustling with some 30 rowdy Ethiopians between the ages of 12 and 20, all despicably inebriated.
"Where you go?" asked one of the crew.
"Ah, Circle Hotel."
"Chigger yellum." No problem.
Our destination settled, we proceeded to get down. Nothing, not even the sordid spectacle that followed, could undermine how hard we partied with this crew of Habashawoch. The call-and-response patterns peculiar to Ethiopia were trotted out with unusual gusto. Our facility with them enlivened our Ethiopian friends who swung heartily from the pole, danced in a rapturous flurry of limbs, and yelped in appreciation. Josh executed his Thriller-era Michael Jackson moves and roused everyone into a screaming rendition of "I Like to Move It, Move It." I answered by emceeing a vicious version of "Who Let the Dogs Out," complete with a schizophrenic proto-breakdance. As our truck lumbered down the mountain with the rest of the wedding caravan, our party wailed and barked like a portable junkyard.
The party rose to one pitch and then another, the cultural bounds of the passengers less appreciable by the minute. It was a supremely beautiful moment, the kind vaguely imagined when one undertakes a long stint of travel. But it was too labile to last. It turned ugly in an instant, and the joy came crashing down like a wall of fine china.
"Okay," Josh screamed. "Where is it? Where's my camera?"
The barking doghouse fell silent, and the writhing dancers froze.
"This isn't funny!" he yelled. "My camera is my life, my livelihood!"
With that, he tore into the crowd, laying hands on every benighted article he could, ransacking his way to the pilfered camera and flash. He recovered them but kept scouring for a missing camera battery. It happened so quickly that I turned to my own camera bag a bit late. I rummaged through it to find the front pocket unzipped and my little notebook missing. I frisked myself and felt my passport and wallet in my shirt pocket. So far so good. Josh returned to the front and double-checked his belongings. We exchanged a few words; I had recovered his notebook and handed it back to him. Satisfied that I had made off pretty well, I turned to the scene at the back of the truck.
A menagerie of bodies and shadows converged on the two thieves caught in flagrante delicto
, one with a flash in his hand, the other with a camera. Emboldened by drink and enraged at the fact of our special fraternity blasphemed by treachery, our Ethiopian friends commenced the most spirited beating I have ever seen. With the truck still chugging down the mountain road, I saw one thief, clad in a crisp red shirt, get his face pummeled into a pulp. One of the huskier Ethiopians, with whom I had exchanged a number big-hearted back slaps, held the thief by his neck, hissed imprecations into his ear, and repeatedly slammed his face into the guardrail. The foe's teeth spilled out like beads from a broken necklace. At one point, the avenger pushed the bandit's head as far over the rail as he could, trying to mash it against the cliff face as the truck scraped by. The thief, delirious from the beating, fell to the ground, and everyone uninvolved in restraining his sidekick began stomping him furiously.
It was a total beat down.
Josh, meanwhile, had rushed back into the mêlée, still trying to find his camera battery. The truck stopped abruptly at a perilous mountain switchback. I followed him in, trying to have his back in one way or another. As he berated the bleeding, sobbing remains of the thief, I felt a little kid tug on my sleeve. I shook it off, taking it for misdirection. He tugged again. I swung around and hissed
"Dallas, get down!" he quavered.
"Why?" I demanded.
"The stoning begins now!"
Sure enough, a volley of stones arrived, crashing into the truck bed. I ducked down and covered my head. Apparently more than just two thieves were in on the scam; they had escaped in the fray and started hurling rocks at us, aiming to free their co-conspirators. I crawled into one of the corners and turned back to see Josh obliviously shaking down another shady character.
"Josh, get the fuck down! They're stoning us!"
He turned to me, his glasses atilt, "What?"
"Get down! They're throwing rocks! Big ones!"
He clambered up to the front and took cover with me. The rocks fell like hailstones and sent everybody scrambling. The bloodied, half-dead thief leapt over the side of the truck and ran to the front. I looked through the back window of the cab to see him holding a stone in each hand, crying hysterically. With gore surging from his nostrils and oozing from his punched-out mouth, he wound up, aiming a rock at the windshield through his imbalance. Just as he pitched to throw, he staggered into the road and right into the path of an overtaking minibus from the wedding party. A rock whizzed over my head, and I fell to the ground hearing a dull thud and what sounded like a skidding body.
"Holy shit!" Josh exclaimed. "The thief just got hit by a minibus!"
"Is he dead?"
"I don't know...No, he got up. Man, he got totally plowed! He flew like ten feet!"
Josh stood up to get a better look just as another fusillade of rocks landed in the truck. One hit him square in the small of the back.
And so our ride back to the hotel turned into a hard-fought battle between good and evil with full air support. I remained covering my head in the corner; one of the stones grazed my shoulder. Again, I was exceedingly lucky. The small boy next to me, the one who had warned me of the barrage in the first place, was clutching his stomach and crying. Josh and I attended to him; there was no bleeding or contusion of any sort. In all likelihood, he was more scared than anything else. As the truck raced down the mountain, we asked whether there was a clinic or hospital nearby. The good Ethiopians sloughed off the suggestion.
"He okay. We are fine."
The truck stopped in the Piazza, and our companions admonished us to get off. They still had one of the thieves detained; he too was bloody, swollen and crying like a baby. A fight broke out between a contingent that wanted to beat him further and another that felt he had had enough. Josh and I took the stance of the latter. After all, we had most of our possessions (Josh lacking only a camera battery--as I reminded him), one of the guilty parties had been run over by a bus, the remaining hostage was sufficiently smothered in blood, and everyone was drunk enough that a fatal lynching was a real possibility. Vigilante justice had been served, a bit illiberally perhaps.
We hopped off the truck, thanking our friends and protectors. Back at the hotel, I flushed Josh's wound with providone-iodine, and that was that.
In retrospect, hopping on a flatbed truck with over two dozen soused strangers intent on having a rowdy freakout down a darkling mountain road was probably not the best idea. But that's how you acquire experience; you have to risk it to learn a bit. Increasingly in Ethiopia, I'm finding that those risks pay off in my best and worst experiences ever traveling, with very little in between. And sometimes, like last night, studded as it was with minor heroes and petty thieves, the best and the worst arrive in tandem.