This text was kindly translated by Tania Cannon. Thanks!I made a point in arriving to Addis Ababa, the Capital of Ethiopia, from Cairo, traveling with an Ethiopian national carrier, the Ethiopian Airlines. The reason: simply in order to get into the mood. But, I was taken by surprise by multiculturalism, expressed by the different faces and nationalities in my flight. Europeans and Asians (mainly Chinese and Philippines) mixed with an array of Africans, and, in fact, maybe a minority of Ethiopian (a phenomena muffled by the interactions in English, French or sign language spoken by the flight attendants).

Before going through immigration, I needed to have my entry visa for the country. Twenty dollars and tem minutes wasted later I had my new visa stamped in my passport. Then, in a few minutes, I breezed through immigration and left the airport. I was met by an Ethiopian friend, Afework, whom I met during the course about poor neighborhoods/slum improvement through my former job in Israel. It was both a pleasure and a relief to see him. With him, I stayed away from the private cabs that surround the airport and we walked for 10 minutes until we reached the shared taxis outside (“lotação” style)

We changed vans in an area called Arat Kilo and we headed to the region of Piazza, where backpackers in general end up staying. We had some coffee at a local restaurant and I realized it was similar to and had the same quality of the Brazilian coffee, mainly in the way of drinking it, the cafezinho. Later on I found out that that around my hostel – and around all Addis – a large numbers of coffee places characterizes the city. Thousands of Ethiopians’ sit down, at any time of the day, to drink a cup of coffee, a  Machiatto or a capuccino.

Ethiopians are famous for their hospitality and their respect for etiquette, but I knew that my friend needed to go back to his routine, so I kindly asked him to trust me, I would be fine. I went back to my hotel, unpacked and went to explore the region. As soon as I left, I was approached by a well-dressed young man, with an impeccable English accent and so nice that any Egyptian would be envy. Even with my gloves on and my fists ready, I decided to chat with him and I was taken aback.

Just a note before I go on: from the beginning I knew this was a kind of a scam, a trickery, or something along those lines. However, I still trusted my abilities of making decisions, my power of persuasion and my good pep talk to get me out of trouble. And at the same time, my curiosity in understanding this type of deals always keeps me going. Cautiously.

We talked while walking together to the market – I had mentioned to Yonatan, my new friend, my need to shower, and consequently, the need for a shampoo. As we walked along he told me his story: 25 years old, studied literature at the University of Addis Ababa, currently on vacation, lives close to the region I am staying in, and would like to practice his English. If I said I needed to go left, he would tell me he was also heading that way so, in such a way, I decided to use him.

I was planning to visit a region called Mercato, 20 minutes walking distance from my hostel. It is one of the largest – and most chaotic – markets in Africa. I had read about the region and I thought it could be a good place to start observing the daily life around here. Thus, I told Yonatan that I was going to take a shower, leave all my belongings at the hotel and we would go together to the Mercato. I made a point in making it quite clear, before and during our walk,  that I was not carrying anything on me, and this would bring me some freedom.

I’d rather write a separate text about the specific description of the Mercato. In fact, it was the entry point for a quite impacting Ethiopia and, insensibly on my part, I expected something like that. We walked; the ground was not even, not planned and humid due to the rainy season. We entered through the route that all the tourists usually visit (normally led by tourist guides) and we walked through small alleys and residential areas surrounding the market.

After more than two hours of going in and out of that region we headed back. We talked about soccer, housing public policies and life in Ethiopia and in Brazil. He was taking me through a way a little bit longer than that we came from, and I made it clear, but in a jokingly way, that I knew exactly where I was and how to go back. As we approached the hostel, he asked me what my plans were next. He asked me if I was willing to “have some fun”, chew Qat and exchange some deep ideas with him and his friends. I told him that, unfortunately, I was here to work, I had to go back and write, and later on I was meeting my friends here.

I wrote down his phone number, for a future gathering. The whole time I made jokes such as: “I don’t need your phone number, Í am sure you are going to be here tomorrow looking for people like me”. He laughed, and I guess he understood that I was not really in the mood to fall for a scam. I went back and got some rest. I needed a break. I was very tired from the trip and had a heavy heart from the things I observed in the Mercato.

After I woke up I went for a cup of coffee nearby and, on my way, I was approached by two youngsters with the same story. I led them on. And when I returned I was approached by another one. I also led him on. That evening, when I left to have dinner, by myself, I decided that there was limit for the scams, and that without day light nothing would be as safe, so I decided to have dinner at a restaurant across the street from my hotel. For the first time I ate an Ethiopian meal: Fir Fir meat, with injera, the traditional bread of the region. Surprisingly the taste did not bother me, but of course I did not eat even half of my plate (with my hands. of course).

I am going to write about what I researched and learned about the scam of the “Ethiopian university youngsters” whom I was talking to: After they introduce themselves and gain your trust, sometime after cups of coffee or mugs of beer in local restaurants, they invite the tourist for an activity and then offer a free service. Something like a local music presentation (even if in a CD) or the consumption of Qat and some chat (Yonatan told me that those chats are nicknamed “Facebook”).

And then, at the end of the group experience– normally far away from the hotel, in some place where they have better control – they charge, under threats, for the rendered “service” (I don’t know and don’t want to know how severe those threats are). Something around 2000 Birr (more than U$100.00), according to what I heard from tourist who have been here for a while. The thing is that in a coffee place or a bar they cannot scam tourists. They can only act when the “product” belongs to them, and cannot have a price tag on it. Note: the stories they tell are very well concocted and even facing some tricky questions, most of them did very well (of course with some incoherencies and discrepancies, but they are not perceived by the, unaware tourist).

And I thought I could suggest to Yonatan to become a professional in his service as a “local guide”, with good reviews in all the online traveler sites. I also talked for a long time with another youngster named Tony. We got to the conclusion that the scam was already well known, and I suggested to approach tourists in a more sincere and straight manner, in exchange for some Birrs. Something like: “I am a young Ethiopian, local resident and I know the region. I offer to be your guide/safety contact in the region for X Birrs”. He, of course, agreed with me, but I seriously doubt he will change his ways.

As days went by I became more and more interested in that subject. I talked to dozens (!) of youngsters on the streets of Piazza, and to many backpackers. Some of them had been victims of scams (an Austrian girl and her boyfriend lost 500 Birr in one of those “chats”). I had a long conversation with two youngsters and I gave them a stern suggestion to change their strategy and turn them into local guides. We talked for at least 1 hour; we discussed prejudice, Africa, Brazil and the impact of tourism in the region.

All along both nodded, praised me for my different approach and thanked me for the opportunity to exchange ideas. Meanwhile, on the streets, dozens of beggars went by, apparently in worse health and social stability shape. We got to the conclusion that not all the tourists are the same and not all the youngsters in the region are trying to scam someone. When we said good bye they had a last question: “Alex, would you pay us for a blessing for your safe trip?”

I smiled at them, shook their hand, Ethiopian style, and left.

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