I stood on the road, shocked, as I saw the group of men running away with my new phone. One minute it was in my back pocket and the next it was gone. I had just been robbed. For the first time in my life. That too in the centre of town, the popular Piazza area of Addis Ababa. In broad day light. I should have chased them, shouted at them, resisted, done something, but I couldn’t.
It all happened so fast.
I saw a policeman on the other side of the road and went to him for help but all he could do was say “Be careful” over and over again in his heavily accented English. This was the second day of the trip and for first time since I started planning this trip, I was not sure if I could do this. To me, suddenly Africa became dangerous and everyone was out to get me.
Soon the realisation set in that I had gotten off easy. I could have easily been robbed of my wallet or something a lot more valuable than a phone. It wasn’t as much the phone, but the way it had been taken from me that had shaken my psyche. I had realised how vulnerable I was.
The next few days were tough. It seemed that I couldn’t, no matter how much I tried, do the things I liked doing while I was travelling. Things like eating at roadside joints, drinking at local bars, talking to people, walking through local markets… I was constantly looking over my shoulders, scared of being robbed again, maybe even physical harm.
In fact, all I really wanted to do was go back to my guesthouse, where it was safe. I would stand in the balcony of the guest house, overlooking the busy bus stand, and think of all the negatives. The dusty roads, crowded buses and trains, the pollution, the noise.
I thought of the morning rush I had seen at the light rail station nearby. People pushing and jumping on each other, sometimes violently. Their shouts and cries still ringing in my ears. Though I realise now that, even if at times a little too extreme for my taste, the train rides were definitely not that horrible and were actually one of the better ways to explore the city. But at the time, I was demonising everything and everyone in my mind. I decided that I hated Addis Ababa and couldn’t wait to leave.
On one of these dusty evenings, during the course of a conversation, I told Tesfa, the French fry loving, lanky receptionist of my guest house, about the incident.
“A guy caught hold of my arm and as I was trying to free it, another guy took the phone from my back pocket and ran away. I couldn’t do anything.”
Tesfa listened with a look of horror on his face. He was outraged that this had happened to me, a foreigner, and said if he had been there, he would have killed all of them.
“Over a phone?” I asked.
“Not phone. They give Ethiopia bad name. What will you go and tell about Ethiopia in your country. They are all bad people. Thieves.”
“Of course, I won’t.” I guiltily said to him, realising that this is exactly what I have been feeling ever since the incident.
I kept this conversation in mind, when I went to Mercato the next day. Mercato is one of Africa’s biggest open air markets. There are hundreds of shops selling everything from clothes to jewellery to coffee and meat. It is also infamous for being a haven for pickpocketers and scam artists.
Hand-drawn carts with piles of clothes sped through the uneven pot hole filled roads of the market; the runner clearing the pedestrians from the road with his frantic yells. Trucks and tempos with fumes shooting out of their exhausts, stood in front of shops, as goods were unloaded from its back. A part of the market had two storied buildings on both sides of the road. Carpets and curtains hung from the upper floors and mannequins donning the latest in Ethiopian fashion crowded the lower floors. A section towards the other end of the market was a ghetto of shanty shop-houses selling spices, coffee and small furniture.
With my wallet in the front pocket of my jeans, I walked through the market. For the next couple of hours, I explored Mercato and its many offerings. I haggled over a packet of local coffee, felt the gold rush in my veins while passing endless lines of jewellery shops, and got creeped out by a butcher wearing an apron with blood dripping from it (they wear it to show their customers that the meat is fresh). Mercato was wonderfully scary and horribly good.
Walking out of Mercato with all my belongings intact, I felt a lot more confident about myself. That night, I visited a local bar near my guesthouse, and after a few pints, found myself cheering Tottenham on with the locals. Over the next few days, I sat for hours on the steps of the historic Meskel Square, experienced the tranquillity of the ancient Holy Trinity Church, tasted the elaborate food platters that I had only read about and sipped on coffee from freshly roasted coffee beans that I still dream about. Even though I was now a little more aware of my surroundings, Addis Ababa did not seem dangerous anymore.
I was travelling with the office goers on the crowded trains during peak time, pushing and shoving like a local, bargaining for fruits at the market, getting my shoe cleaned by the street cobblers and drinking an insane amount of macchiato at the café downstairs from my guesthouse, so much so that the waitresses knew exactly how I liked it and brought it before I could order!!
But all good things must come to an end and soon it was time for me to move on. On my last day, I asked Tesfa to book a taxi for me at 4 am for the airport. He had given his usual toothy grin and assured me it will be done. As I was leaving in the morning, he insisted that he will drop me off at the airport.
Addis early in the morning is totally different from the Addis we know later in the day. The air is cleaner and cooler. The roads are not buzzing with cars and trucks. We zoomed through the roads as cool morning breeze entered through the half open windows of our dusty old Fiat car.
As we said goodbye that morning at the parking space of Bole International airport, I remember Tesfa saying, “I am so sorry about your phone.”
At that moment, I realised how trivial this was. The incident didn’t matter anymore. I realised that that 10 second incident aside, Addis Ababa had overwhelmed me with its kindness. It had beaten me down but it had picked me back up and humbled me with its warm embrace.
Within my short stay in Addis, I had fallen in, out and back in love with the city.
And as for getting robbed, to borrow words from one of my philosophical friends, I must have had some bad karma and I had to get robbed to redeem myself. The universe and I are now even.
Well, we better be. It was a new phone.