Against all logic and advice, Maureen Magee was committed to her plan to travel the world alone. It hadn’t been easy to quit her job and sell her house. But, the hard part was behind her Or, so she thought...
Mageru pulls over to the side of the road, parks and idles the Land Cruiser. We are still a few hours away from arriving back in Addis Ababa. He looks over to me, pats the steering wheel and says “I am a little tired. You can drive.”
This does not strike me as a generosity I should accept. Although I am confident in Canada, Ethiopian driving doesn’t exactly rev my engines. “Oh…I don’t think so, honey. The driving here is very different from my experience back home.”
We pull up the Land Cruiser next to a petite man walking along the road. He is wearing a sarong-type skirt; his hair is coiffed in mud and feathers. He is distinguished.
“It is Wolle!” cries Mageru as he gets out from behind the wheel. “He is the Chief of Chiefs for the Hamer people.”
They greet each other in the traditional way for Ethiopian men – clasping each other’s backs with the left hand, shaking right hands while butting right shoulders three times. Wolle’s head feathers stroked Mageru’s mustache.
In the Hamer language, Mageru introduces me as his wife. Wolle looks me over and absent-mindedly undoes and reties his sarong. He wears nothing underneath.
“We should invite him to camp with us,” suggests Mageru. “It is a long way back to his village.”
Wolle is happy to do that but insists on supplying dinner and so we swing the car off the road and bump our way across the scrubby, dry savannah. A landscape so formless, I cannot gauge how many miles we have travelled before reaching Wolle’s family enclave, a few cone-shaped huts made of sticks and grass and encircled by thorn bushes.
As I get out of the car, I am immediately surrounded by dozens of naked children and, standing back, shy semi-naked women. The women and I smile uncertainly – not knowing what is expected of us.
Meanwhile, under Wolle’s direction, Mageru and a few other men are playing chase with a small goat. The goat loses, and is manipulated safely - but not quietly - into the back of the Land Cruiser. He is wedged in tight and I pray that he will not pee, poo or upchuck on our gear.
It surely is the goat’s first car ride and it will definitely be his last. And by the time he bleats all the way back to our campsite, I am not feeling even a smidge remorseful. Our cook hustles him off (out of sight of my tender ferenj sensitivities) and disposes of him quickly; within a few hours he has become a tasty stew called figel wot. It is a pleasant camping evening; the men’s Amharic/Hamer murmurings around the fire are like soft ambient music to ears that don’t understand.
I tell lies when I travel. My mother would call them “little white lies” and I only tell them to spare the feelings of others.
Oh, alright. That wasn’t exactly honest. I tell lies when I travel in order to spare myself the piteous looks I receive when I tell the truth. A woman traveling alone is not as rare as it once was but, depending on where she goes, there is still a curiosity factor. The farther afield she wanders, the more curious the local folks will be.
“Where is your husband?” That is the first question.
Now, I never mind admitting that I am single – I am an optimist and the inquirer just might have some terrific friend I could meet. Of course, if I answer truthfully and admit to two divorces I could appear to be a poor risk. So I hang my head, and in a tragic voice, I whisper, “Gone.”
Which is not a lie, not really. They are all gone, those husbands.
words + photos by Maureen Magee
Time zones, the International Date Line and jet lag all contribute to my feeling disoriented when traveling. Date lines especially – leaving home on a Tuesday and arriving on the Monday before I left definitely throws me for a loop.
But what about when the traveler leaves home in 2011 and arrives in 2004?
It happens all the time – when traveling to Ethiopia. Once you disembark in Addis Ababa, you will be at least 7 years younger.
My first trip to this time-estranged nation was in September, 1999. The airport was festively decked out with banners proclaiming some kind of celebration, followed by “1993!” I couldn’t speak or read Amharic, so the actual celebration was a mystery – but I figured it must have been a heck of an important party, if Ethiopians left the banners up for 7 years.
My guide greeted me with a standard “Hello”, followed by a joyous “Happy New Year!” After 24 hours in transit, I was too tired to question this and thought, who knows – maybe in Ethiopia, everyone is welcomed with a New Years greeting – even if it is 9 months later. One never knows in other cultures…