Ethiopia Travel: Drinking Tej in Addis Ababa, Africa’s Third Largest CitySeptember 23, 2017
Upon my solitary entrance during the summer of 2005 into one of the oldest nations in the world, I never guessed that a “chance” meeting and a one-word sentence uttered by me would produce so many challenges, surprises, and lessons. I would not err so embarrassingly again the rest of my half-month in Ethiopia! Leaving my hotel on foot, I began my self-guided tour of Africa’s third largest city, Addis Ababa.
After barely thirty minutes, I met a young man on the sidewalk (I have since forgotten his name). It would in fact be more accurate to say that he met me. At the time, Ethiopia was going through severe political turmoil. The streets and shops were shockingly vacant on a Wednesday afternoon. So meeting one of the few folks out in public on this tense day was a little reassuring, especially since he seemed pretty friendly and excited about something.
He told me he was a college student and that I was lucky we had met; he was just on his way to watch a traditional Ethiopian dance! It was a great ceremony not worth missing, he said. Traditional food was to be served while a bunch of girls danced. I resisted. I did not want to get into a sketchy situation. But he insisted it was just off the main road, not far from where we were standing at the time. I agreed to join him for four main reasons. I was actually in search of lunch anyway. I had no other plans, and if he was telling the truth, it sounded like a great opportunity. Third, I would exit immediately if anything went wrong.
Most of all, though, I wanted to be open to this new culture. I had just dwelt four months in Uganda and learned that the best way to learn about a culture is to engage it: to meet its people and dialogue with them, not just see the touristy places and remain surrounded by foreigners. In doing that, one learns little about the genuine ins and outs of a people and their homeland. I had fallen in love with the most important facet of Uganda (or anywhere) – its people. Truly knowing a person, let alone a culture, requires years; so I wanted to soak up every opportunity in my short time here to get as close as I could to really knowing Ethiopia(ns).
So – my Tej adventure began!
We got to the little side-street “club” where several high school or college-aged girls were just starting their dancing. Their off-white dresses had brightly colored vertical stripes, covering them from the neck down. Their dances seemed simple enough. For most of the next three hours we were the only two guys there. Being white I was an obvious attraction; everyone graciously greeted me, sat with me, and got me to attempt to dance with them several times. It was fun! At first I was a little uncertain, and wished more guys were there – I stayed on my guard concerning purity and security. But it all turned out ok – at least those two aspects of the story!
Most of the girls spoke some English. Most of them seemed very polite and remarkably fair in appearance, which I noticed in many Ethiopians of either gender. One of the girls, Merey, may have wanted to marry me; to which thought I dismally wrote in my journal, “Oh, great!” At any rate, she and I danced and talked the most. She informed me of many her country’s political and cultural characteristics.
As the afternoon came to a close, I began wondering what would happen next. After the dances, one of the girls came and thanked me for coming. Then she asked me a surprise question. Would I buy her a bottle of Tej? They had already presented a liter-sized bottle for me to try. It was a sort of alcoholic-honey juice; I tried it but did not highly approve. Ethiopians love it as one of their unique liqueurs. Anyway, I noticed that this girl asked me quietly, so I responded quietly that is was ok. (I had never “partied” or gone “clubbing,” so I was unaware that buying drinks for girls might suggest additional intentions, of which I had none.) Naively, I hoped the others would not notice, and never considered that she might bring it out for all to see! Sure enough, the word spread like wildfire that the firanji (foreigner) was buying Tej. I could hardly say no after the first “ok,” so I finally consented to buy one Tej for all. I was somewhat disturbed, but my final resolve was motivated by the following musings:
First, I figured that a dozen or so bottles could not be that big of a bill, recalling from my travel guidebook that Tej cost five to fifteen Ethiopian Birr in most restaurants, or 60 to 180 U.S. pennies. Second, no matter the cost, I would be putting money into Ethiopia’s economy – one of the most destitute on Earth. Next, Tej was an obvious treat; I reflected on my extensive capacity to regularly afford such luxuries compared to these girls. My travels through other impoverished areas had made me long for opportunities to directly assist people who had less than me. So even though I figured these girls had more than many, I saw it as a chance to share some of the money God has given me. Fourth, in lieu of their kindness and excitement, I refused to merely take their food, dancing, and hospitality and then leave as a proud, selfish Westerner. Sadly few Americans ever learn much about Ethiopia, let alone visit it; so I wanted to leave good impressions wherever I went – of course recognizing I could not buy stuff for everyone I met! Finally, even if I had to watch my money more closely in the coming days, I knew I would not be in dire trouble if this bill turned out to be a little more than I expected.
Somewhere amidst my pondering, a girl astonished me by asking me to buy her a second bottle of Tej! Now I got defensive! I repeatedly asked the price, but all of them either said they did not know, or that they would just bring me the bill afterward. As soon as I started resisting, they all crowded around. Pressure was high; even Merey wanted me to relent. Finally, I thought: “even if it is 20 drinks at 20 Birr each, it would be 400 Birr (maybe 50 dollars) – expensive, but affordable.” So although I was somewhat satisfied with saying “Ok” the first time – and still am two years later – I was and am exasperated for caving twice. But, retardedly, I did.
Had my estimate of 400 Birr been anywhere near accurate, I may not even be writing this story right now. Fifty dollar mistakes are not too excruciatingly embarrassing. However, reality displayed 26 drinks at an astronomical 85 Birr each, and my tottering wisdom and self-confidence suddenly plunged when I read, re-read, and re-re-read the total cost at over 2200 Birr, or around 260 U.S. Dollars!
I was in disbelief! Half the price of my plane ticket; my second largest purchase in the first half of 2005; and all going to the worst ripoff of my life! These well-organized girls were oh! so grateful, each thanking me with huge smiles before running off! I could do nothing. I had offered to pay in the presence of a dozen witnesses. I could hardly fight and flee, and the language barrier and my ignorance of their culture were too great to talk my way out of the quagmire.
Ironically, I did not have enough money to pay! Few Ethiopians take foreign credit cards, so they produced a car and drove me to the city’s one open bank, 20 minutes away, so I could get some cash. Then they drove me back so I could share! They “graciously” paid for the gas!
That night in my hotel room I pondered the whole scenario and my remarkable gullibility. Then, to add a final insult to injury, I read more of my travel book that evening and came across a certain little paragraph that delineated a common Tej scam in Addis. It warned against the whole thing, all the way down to a young man on the street telling of a lucky opportunity that day!
During the rest of my time in Ethiopia, four or five other people asked me to accompany them for a traditional dance ceremony. Each time, I looked at them knowingly and resolutely and said, “No thanks, I already had that experience in Addis.” And each time, they looked at me with a slightly guilty expression and replied, “Ah, ok”!
Despite everything, circumstances similar to these did not form the bulk of my duration in Ethiopia. In fact, hundreds of precious memories there helped me form an altogether satisfactory attraction to that fantastic culture and nation. I love Ethiopia and Ethiopians, and I hope and pray for the privilege of returning someday. Some of the most charming human beings, traditions, and landscapes I have ever witnessed can be found there. If you wish to explore the amazing corners of the world beyond what you already know, then I strongly encourage sojourning there. Just be sure to check exactly for whom you buy something and exactly how much it will cost before you make your selection!