To Khat or not to Khat

Debre Damo: The Climb

Debre Damo: The Climb

Whenever I decide to take a trip somewhere, it becomes my world to some extent. Like many travelers, I try to learn as much as I can before going somewhere in order to enhance the experience.

So, recently, my world has become Ethiopia. I read about it, watch documentaries about it, and scan the news for bad things about it. Reading my travel guide and having just finished a travel narrative, Lure of the Honey Bird, I am learning an awful lot about my next travel destination, which I chose in search of a good adventure. And in terms of that, Ethiopia will not disappoint…maybe frighteningly so.

Ethiopia is very well-known for its archaeological sites. The country is simply teeming with history and people flock to the rock-hewn churches, mystical cities like Harar, obelisks, and monasteries. And I will soon be one of them.

One of these is a 6th century monastery called Debre Damo. It’s on top of a flat-topped mountain (the actual Debre Damo), known for its manuscripts, and has never been visited by a woman. Even female animals aren’t allowed up there.

Oh yeah, and it’s only accessible by climbing a leather rope up a sheer cliff as monks help you with a goat-skin harness tied around your waist.

Since reading about this I have been assaulted by visions of several monks dragging me up a hill as I collapse into a juicy bag of sweat and tears. Moreover, since reading that while entrance to the monastery is 150 Birr, the goat-skin harness is an additional 50 Birr, that vision has included the monks bringing me halfway up and then demanding their 50 Birr before they bring me the rest of the way. I guess these monks know how to turn a Birr in this joint.

It seems that the people who write about Ethiopia mention the wildlife in a very casual manner. Oh and some hyenas disrupted our lunch in Harar and we were forced to shoo them with brooms and sticks before dessert.

Um. What?

In Lure of the Honey Bird, Elizabeth Laird tells of being chased out of a latrine by a giant lizard that are seen “everywhere.” Hyenas are a common sight in cities. Cities. There are wolves, hippos, crocodiles, and “large herds” of Gelada baboons running around the Semien Mountains.

And these are animals I can mostly see. There are others which are much smaller and bigger pains, like the mosquito, who happily transfers his little bags of malaria to thousands of people a year. There is also the weird little worm who lives in natural bodies of water in Africa and who climbs up one’s penis hole and eats it from the inside. Awesome. Swimming? No, I think not.

Despite these little harmful bastards, it’s the big ones I am obsessing about. And I spend my afternoons reading and then daydreaming my future in international headlines:

American Tourist Carried off by Angry Herd of Baboons

American Man Goes to Latrine, Never Returns

Fat American Man Eaten by 20 Million Pecker Worms

I have never before eaten Ethiopian food and it is something I am looking forward to enormously. From all accounts it is a radically different experience from what I have enjoyed in the last forty years. The cuisine’s most ubiquitous aspects are the wat and the injera. Wat is – essentially – a very spicy stew consisting of beef, goat, or chicken, and injera is its constant companion, a large thin and tangy pancake which is the base of almost every meal.Most food is eaten by wrapping it up in injera, like a burrito.

While I can’t wait to try it all, Ethiopia’s cuisine and water is said to do to a visitor’s stomach and bowels what Sherman did to Georgia. So I am stocking up on anti-diarrhea medicine, toilet paper, and, if all else fails, a cork.

There are dozens of aspects of Ethiopia completely new and fascinating to me, but the one on my head at the moment is khat (or chat or qat). Khat is a plant whose leaves people chew on, stuffing it in their cheeks sort of like baseball players do with chaw. The effects of khat are debatable, but most things I have read claim that it gives the chewer an unbeatable high, making him more talkative, happier, and even enhances sexual performance.

The afternoon khat-chewing session is an important part of Ethiopian life, so I feel certain that I will try it. By not trying it, I risk missing out on a phenomenal and unique experience, like screaming my way up Debre Damo, eating my first injera, or fighting giant lizards in the toilet.

Still, considering the effects of khat on the chewer, I don’t know if I should be more talkative than I already am. This might be especially dangerous when combined with what will apparently be my rabbit-like sexual prowess. Anyway, while I am obsessing and imagining worst case scenarios, a huge part of traveling is shaking your head and saying:

“Sure. Why not.”

  1. #1 by PJ on June 8, 2015 - 6:27 pm

    You definitely have to try that chewing leaf thing, it sounds like fun. However, I think you’re second headline has already been reserved for my obituary

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