I feel sick in the depths of my stomach. I’ve got that I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening feeling — because I really can’t believe this is happening. I’m sitting inside my room at the Thewodros Hotel in Harar, a small town in eastern Ethiopia, and I want to get out of here. Yes, I was chirpy when I arrived late yesterday afternoon. But a series of events has left me with a sensation that seems soul-tormenting and mind-boggling and which is best described as totally tangible bullshit.
I’ve got that sensation that alerts you to get out fast! Run! Go! You know, that same feeling you have when you’re stuck in a dead-end job or a past-its-sell-by-date relationship, or when you’re at the receiving end of bad service at a restaurant claiming to have your interest at heart. The latter happened last night.
But what really ticked me off — the thing that pushed me to this point of rage blended with despair — was when I went to the Central Bank of Ethiopia this morning and was told that it couldn’t change my American dollars to Ethiopian birr because the notes were printed in 1996. “This could be forged,” said the guy in charge of foreign exchange at the bank.
Actually, it wasn’t the first time that I was confronted with this line. The first time was at the Addis View Hotel in Addis Ababa a few days ago. The owner was called when I wanted to change a $100 note to Ethiopian cash. The hotel owner had his doubts but said, after some inspection, that he’d take his chances “because you’re a customer at this hotel”.
This morning, before I went to the Central Bank of Ethiopia, which does international transactions et cetera, I popped in at the bank below the hotel where I slept last night. I checked out of that joint because I realised I could be paying less for a bed and shower. A tour guide helped me find the cheaper Thewodros Hotel. It doesn’t feel as comfy as the other spot and the numbers on the doors on this floor make no sense at all. Opposite my room 213 is room 117; to its right is room 14 and to the left is room 204. The highlight is the service-without-a-smile, but hey, I’m getting what I’m paying for.
At the first bank I went to this morning, the foreign-exchange folk also refused to accept the American dollars printed in 1996. Same reason: it could be fake. They advised me to trip over to the international bank. I did and, well, I ended up feeling this sickness that I am trying to exorcise. I am furious, though, at the Western Union branch and an established foreign-exchange set-up in Khartoum, Sudan, for giving me this damn American money that everybody seems to think has some incurable virus. These people even look at me like I am infected with an incurable virus. I am, after all, the one carrying these notes that could or could not be forged. Worse of all is that I have quite a few of them!
I don’t know what to do with these silly notes. It’s not even about the stupid American dollars any more. It’s about the accompanying discomfort of it all. And all I want now is something or some place that makes sense. The inadequacies that come with travelling in Africa can get you down on days like these.
I don’t even feel like being in Harar any more. But reality means that I am here and, dammit, I’d better make the most of it. The bus journey from Addis Ababa felt like it took forever, but to be precise, it took a little bit less than forever. Maybe it lasted about nine hours. The tour guide is waiting at the hotel reception to show me his birthplace.
PS: It’s now shortly after sunset and I am hooked on Harar. Walked inside the walls of the old walled town and soaked up enough to keep me inspired for another week. Just hope the Ethiopian birr doesn’t run out too soon!