Hey Faranji!

The Bearded Northeastern Faranji in Summer Habitat

The Bearded Northeastern Faranji in Summer Habitat

We arrive on a prop plane in Axum, far to the north and center of the ancient Axumite Empire, early on Saturday morning. The tarmac consists of two guys waiting for our plane, our plane, and one other plane about to take off on the runway. It’s quiet and in the middle of a mountainous terrain of desert and rock. The sky is a peaceful and perfect blue.

We walk through the arrival room and I am overcome with the familiar gratitude and disbelief that I enjoy every time I disembark from an airplane. Despite the quiet, there is something happening, some unrest which causes our faranji sense to go off.

We are becoming experts in this. We have grown faranji eyes and see everything. Outside of the arrivals room, three inches past the threshold into the hallway, there are ten men waiting with signs featuring various hotels. A second before they were chatting amiably, but at our appearance they battle for placement. They push and grapple each other. They hoist the signs while shouting their hotel’s distinguishing characteristics at the top of their lungs.

They are held behind the threshold of the doorway by a soldier holding a machine and glaring at their toes with diligence. Normally, I don’t enjoy a military presence, having seen too many movies with a “things go wrong for American tourist in a big way” theme. However, today Mark and I are quietly grateful for our soldier, since after four days in the country we know that the only thing that could keep these men at bay is a machine gun in the hands of a guy who doesn’t mind using it before lunch.

Every public place we have been in Ethiopia has found us an immediate source of attention. It has become a fact of travel here for us. While the attention is unending, the interactions are different.

The Ethiopian people are without a doubt amongst the nicest people we have ever met. They smile genuinely and are generous and lovely. They have a pleasant attitude towards others and the vibe in the cities reflects that. Many Ethiopians just want to say hello or try out the one or two English phrases in their lexicon. On the streets we are bombarded with greetings. “Hello Faranji!” or “Welcome, faranji!” or “Have a nice day, Faranji!” (faranji means foreigner and we will have heard it roughly 35,000 times in the next two weeks.)

Others try something similar, but clearly get in over their linguistic heads.

“How are you, faranji?”

“Good. How are you, Hapashat?” (Hapashat means Ethiopian.)

Eyes wide. “Money?”

Others use the English they have clearly only heard in movies. “Hey faranji, fuck you!” One boy shouted “Fuck it, faranji!” Mark’s response, “I’m trying, Hapashat!” fell upon sadly indifferent ears.

In Addis, we walked by a group of gents selling bibles and wearing huge grins. They gawked at us, calling after us and raising their bibles in the air as we walked on. “Hey sir, bitch! Sir! Fuck you, sir, you bitch! Hey bitch, come have a beer with us, you fucking bitch! Fuck you!”

We might have considered the beer if we weren’t too busy doubling over in laughter.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the people who approach us on the street have an agenda. Guide. Driver. Shop. Necklaces. My dad has a shop. Restaurant. I’m a student and need books. I was hit by a car, look at my foot. The less subtle will walk up, stick out their hands and shout “Give me money, faranji!” or just “Money!” or just “Gimme!” One little boy reached out his hand and screamed “Candy!” at Mark as he took pictures of St. George’s Church during a mass procession, which the little boy was taking part in.

As a result of this, we have developed a “faranji sense,” so to speak. We have learned to see from all sides of our heads and to know exactly who is going to engage us in conversation two minutes before they do so. There are noted methods. Some case us from about twenty or thirty feet ahead and then they start walking slowly, allowing us to catch up. Then they will turn to us nonchalantly, “Oh, hey faranji…” Other times they’ll spy us from across the street, jog a hundred feet ahead and then magically appear leaning against a wall in front of us. We have learned to scope them out, mutter little phrases of recon to each other. We are getting better at responding to those who simply want to say hello and spotting and ignoring those who seem to have an agenda.

Still, it’s exhausting.

The Axum Airport is no different. It occurs to me as I watch the men grope for our attention teetering behind the threshold of a gun-guarded doorway that in Ethiopia I am gaining mild insight into the frustrating life of a celebrity. We are at a rope line. Also, there are the hordes of people, the constant attention, the unwanted interactions.

We take a breath, scan the signs looking for the hotel we have already chosen. It’s there, on white cardboard in green, red, and yellow letters: Hotel Africa. Mark points at him and he nods at us, the victor. This does nothing to thwart the advances of the nine men surrounding him, who try to sway our loyalty by shouting folk tales about hot showers and bug-free rooms.

Like celebrities, we are shuffled into a minibus and brought to our hotel. We have momentary flashbacks and twitches, until we can stretch out. In an hour we are walking through Axum’s Caribbean reminiscent streets. Every manner of Ethiopian interaction is being represented. A man stands up amongst a group of men at an outdoor pub, points to his bottle of beer and says, “Welcome to St. George beer, faranji!” Another man walks by and says, “Hey hey, faranji!” It’s very pleasant so far, but soon our faranji sense beeps.

Mark says, “Company soon at about 3 o’clock.”

Thirty seconds later a boy is walking with us, step for step. “How are you?” I do not answer. “I am a guide, I can bring you to the Stelae.” I still do not answer. “What are you looking for?” He is soon joined by a man who has a tiny head on a normal sized body; we will call him mole-man for the next three days. “You need guide.”

I answer, “No thank you.”

“You speak English?” The onslaught continues.

Mark and I locate a pub and head in. Since bar and restaurant owners scare away the salesman and would be guides, we’ve learned it’s our one respite aside from our hotel room. We sit and order a beer. The waitress has a smile that could frame a softball. She teaches us how to say “thank you” and “please” in Tigrinya.

The pub is a small park outside. There is a hedge maze, pool tables, enclaves of seating under shed roofs, and donuts for sale. We get donuts and St. George beer. Mark holds the bottle up and says, “Welcome to St. George Beer, Faranji.” We both laugh and are soon relaxed. And while our fellow drinkers and eaters greet us with smiles and hellos and faranjis, our faranji sense does not go off again for the rest of the day.

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