The Tej Effect

Tej: Ethiopian honey wine

Tej: Ethiopian honey wine

It’s our last night in Lalibela. Tomorrow it’s back to Addis Ababa for a day and then back to Prague. We have decided to end this portion of our trip with a few glasses of Tej, Ethiopian honey wine.

Our guide points out a pub down the muddy road. He says they have good Tej and a nice atmosphere. It’s called Torpido.

After an hour nap to recover from a day of rock-hewn church madness, we head down the dark road with our sightseeing partner, Something with a J.

Torpido is underground. Thick wooden beams are surely all that’s keeping the low ceiling from burying us. The walls are decorated with instruments, paintings, tapestries, and metal and wooden knick knacks that must be kitchen utensils of Ethiopia yore. Its warm. We sit on saddles at low tables. The room is empty.

A waitress approaches and takes our order. Tej. She brings back beakers of a dull golden liquid, breaks off the wax seal with a snap of her wrist. We order goat tibs and lentils on injera. we eat with our (right) hands, as we’ve done for two weeks. There is a medieval pub feel tonight. Shortly after arriving, the room fills up.

The entertainment begins.

Pub culture is a wonderful and interesting aspect of Ethiopian cutlure. The Ethiopians enjoy their honey wine and their beer. They also enjoy the folk music and entertainment that comes along with a night at the pub.

This entertainment tonight is in the form of a man and woman walking around singing improvised songs. The man is playing a masenqo, a box like lute that he strums in perpetuity. He plays his way up to a table, his female partner dancing alongside him, and then he sing at them. And about them.

We don’t need to be fluent in Amharic to get that he is addressing a specific table and, after each verse, the rest of the Amharic-speaking audience in the room laughs hysterically. Clearly, he is making some lighthearted sport of the table members.

I also do not have to be fluent in Amharic to realize that he has spent an unprecedented amount of time singing about Mark, me, and Something with a J.

We are drunk on Tej, which helps us cope with the embarrassment. Plus, we are good sports and join in the laughing. A man at another table leans over to Something with a J and says, “You know he is singing about you?”

She looks terrified. “Me?”

“They want to see your vagina.”

I try to contain my shock and laughter, but, well, I am unsuccessful.

We let out a collective and tangible sigh of relief when the man moves to another table with his masenqo and for a few minutes he makes the rounds. Their embarrassed expressions surely replicate ours and they are proof that someone else’s unease is more fun than yours.

Then the dancers come.

The man plays the masenqo and his female partner is joined by a man. They begin dancing throughout the room twirling sashes and targeting random members of the audience. They zero in on someone, approach, throw the sash over his or her head, and then pull them up to dance.

Since leaving Ethiopia I have tried desperately to paint a picture of the Ethiopian dance called eskista. I have never been successful. Eskista involves rolling the shoulder blades and jilting the chest while the head gathers speed until it is engaged in spasmodic convulsions akin to Peter Gabriel in Sledgehammer.

Torpido: dancer beginning the eskata, ancient dance (and tourist torture ritual)

Torpido: dancer beginning the Eskista, ancient dance (and tourist torture ritual)

I realize with growing terror that I will soon have a sash thrown around my waist. When the dancer pulls Mark to his feet I drink Tej and make notes. The Ethiopians are doing little to hide their glee at this tall thin white guy trying to roll his shoulders and bop his head. I assume they are going to enjoy his physical polar opposite do the same.

I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with dancing. It’s basic impetus is dependent upon increased blood alcohol level and decreased self-consciousness. While this describes a lot of decisions and actions in my life, for dancing there has to be something else. Something that shrugs off the embarrassment and stows my reserved white guy into a nearby can, bottle…or beaker of Tej. We don’t meet that often, dance and I, only at school balls, weddings, and while cleaning my flat listening to Zeppelin. When we do, it’s usually epic.

When the sash gets thrown over my head I stow away the reserved white dude for a while. I am sweating because I am drunk in a low-ceilinged pub in an African hill town and this liquid state only grows. I watch woman I am dancing with and tied to, averting my gaze from the audience. When the eskista’s speed picks up I try my best to mimic her head’s undulations and her shoulder’s gyrations. While I am fairly certain that I gloriously fail in this attempt, the hysterical laughing from the audience confirms that I am at least entertaining.

Mark, me, and Something with a J become the most popular dancing partners and we are pulled to our feet and sashed four more times each. The waitress brings us a complementary “this should help you for forget” bottle of Tej. By the time we stumble back into the night, whether on purpose or not, we are a hit. My only consolation is that I will never see any of these folks ever again. My shame is contained at Torpido forever.

In the morning Something with a J is gone before we awake. She has a long bus ride today and I do not envy her. Mark and I head to the airport ready for our last inter-Ethiopian flight and the stripping, sweating, and unpacking that they entail. A straight-faced guard eyes us as he lets us into the security line. His flat mouth breaks into a wide grin. He nods and points.

“Hey! Torpido!”


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