The Holidays Part One: An Ethiopian Hanukkah, or, A Festival of Lights Benighted

by Scott McAllister

A lot of our fellow Tigray PCVs came into Mek’ele for the first night of Hanukkah. We kicked the day off quite early with beers and food at a restaurant most of us had never been to before. It was a pretty swanky place as far as Mek’ele is concerned, and everyone was in high spirits. It was good to be together. Eventually, after the food and x amount of draft beers, some of the group – the girls mostly – paid their tab and made out for the house. They had some things they wanted to shop for in preparation for the feast we’d be having later in the night. Some of the guys and I stuck around, however, because, well, we had nothing better to do.

Having decided to stick around we soon became cognizant of some beer towers looming disused in the distance behind the bar. We made inquiries with the wait staff, procured one, then two, and then two more since we made such good time with the first two. Afterward, sated and happy, we received the bill. Reading through to the final sum through some rather bleary eyes, we noticed that the number of beers the tab claimed we drank to be something astronomical, so much so that we all felt no choice but to doubt its veracity. Gumption gathered, I hailed the waitress and, deciding it’d be best to broach this obvious miscalculation in her native tongue, I proceeded (in Tigrinya) as follows:

“How many beers are in one beer tower?”

“Huh?”

“How many beers are in one beer tower?”

‘Beer tower’ is simply ‘beer tower’ in Tigrinya, so I lucked out with that part of the exchange.

“Nine.”

“Nine?!”

“Yes, nine.”

“Nine drafts”, I said, holding one of the empty mugs up for her inspection, “Nine of these?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not nine drafts.”

Confidence with these sorts of things is key. You have to seem like you know what you’re talking about, and people will buy whatever you’re selling. But this lady wasn’t buying. Faltering in the face of her leery glare, a spark of inspiration alit on my mind in the nick of time. I’d simply fill up some mugs with water and pour them into the empty tower to see how many it actually took to fill the sucker up. She’d watch me, we’d both keep count, and together we’d let the impartial objectivity of mathematics settle the score. Genius, right?

Sure enough, one tower worked out to seven, not nine, beers. Now, given the fact that we drained a total of four towers, my little experiment should have deducted eight beers from the total on the bill we received. Yet, despite my dazzling display of the scientific method applied to the quantification of beer consumption, the logical suasion of induction proved to hold no sway over our waitress’s philistine mind.

She literally wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) believe her eyes. We were flabbergasted. But we had no other recourse. Our insistence on the matter, or perhaps our inability to adequately vocalize the findings of our experiment in perfect Tigrinya – to present it to her in, say, abstract form complete with footnotes and a bibliography – whatever the case, our waitress was inclined to defer the matter to the restaurant owner, a man whose English was scarcely better than her own and who was not privy to the results of the experiment so recently concluded.

Several iterations later we were going nowhere fast with this guy. Despite our best protestations the original bill still lay on the table.  Patience ran dry. Gumption turned to temerity when, in order to get them out of our hair for a moment, we shooed them away with a few ‘OK, OK’s’ in Tigrinya. Alone now, we schemed. We decided, rightfully I should add, that we’d recalculate the bill ourselves, factoring in the difference in beer consumption that we felt our dalliance in science justifiably proved. We’d pay that amount, dip out, and they’d take what we’d give them and be happy with it.

So we paid what we thought just and right, and left. Most of the guys went one way to catch a taxi to the house while myself and another volunteer took the reins on procuring more beer for the night’s festivities and went another way. We figured one bar would be as good as any other for our mission so we went in the direction of the closest bar we knew of.

We didn’t get very far until the waitress from the restaurant caught up with us. She looked harried, like she had been running after us, and she had the bill and all the money we had paid in hand. She was saying something, but Tigrinya can be a whirlwind of guttural clicks and clacks so we told her to speak slowly and repeat what she was saying. It was about the beer tower discrepancy. She wanted the extra money. At this point we were fed up. We made our case once again, reiterating the fact that one beer tower is seven, not nine, beers. People within earshot got interested in what was happening because, well, it’s not every day that two ferenji can hold their own in an argument conducted in Tigrinya. Lucky for us an older gentleman approached and, after directing a derogatory guffaw to the waitress, said something very rapidly in Tigrinya to the effect that we were right and she was wrong. And like that she dropped it. She sulked away and we were on our way.

It was fixing to get dark and the town was out in force to catch the night’s soccer matches. It was rivalry night or something other so some of the best Premier League teams were playing. The place was crowded, standing room only. Our presence, once known, drew more eyes than the riveting neck-and-neck game on the tube. Feeling the weight of all the stares, we waded through a sea of people to get to the bar. Once there, we had to shout over the roar to make ourselves heard. Once again, we reached deep into our reserves and sprung our best Tigrinya on the ostensible owner of the bar.

“Good evening. How are you? Are you fine?”

A blank expression drapes his face as he wonders whether or not to trust his ears. Then it dawns on him, those ferenji are actually speaking Tigrinya. A smile lit on his face and we knew we were in business.

“What is your favorite soccer team?”, my friend says.

“Arsenal.”, the guy says. “And you?”

“Liverpool.”

“And you?”

“Liverpool.”, I say.

Introductory banter behind us, we got to the point.

“We need a case of beer. How much?”

Now normally when you buy anything in a bottle with the intention of consuming it outside the premises from whence it came you must pay a deposit on the bottle. Folks here like to recycle their glass so breaking or misplacing the bottle is a lost investment in their eyes. We, however, did not have enough of a cash cushion to absorb this extra cost. We did, however, have enough cash to buy a convivial round or two of drinks for the guy.

The owner took kindly to the gesture and gave us the case without the deposit charge. All he wanted in exchange was my phone number and a promise that we’d return the empty bottles tomorrow. No sweat.

Riding that wave of success, not to mention the extra drinks we downed, we bid farewell and marched out of the bar into the heady winds of a starry night. We knew the general direction of our friend’s house, so we started traipsing through the city center with that bearing in mind.

I’m sure we must have been an odd sight to behold:  two ferenji carrying a case of beer through the city center on foot instead of being chauffeured around by some garish UN or NGO-labeled vehicle like all the other ‘normal’ ferenji in town. We were center stage, reeling in the spotlight of the city center’s twilit phantasmagoria:  dodging kids whenever they offered us a helping hand in exchange for a few birr; shooing them away and laughing about it right along with them; checking our pockets afterward to make sure we weren’t pickpocketed; feigning ignorance of the sidelong glances coming from the young that feel too ashamed to be caught staring; enduring the fervid glares from the elderly that just don’t give a damn; shaking off the ever-persistent, ever-rude bajajs as they clamored for our business; and, of course, being the ever-vigilant folks we were, keeping an eye out for the crazies, drunks and tweakers that roam in the gloaming of any concrete jungle.

We had intended to head in the general direction of the house by keeping to the roads that we knew the line taxi used, our hope being to catch one of the buses mid-route. But we soon figured out that it was too late to catch a line taxi, that we were far removed from the safe and reassuring street lights of the city center, and that we had somehow wandered off this taxi line in the process.

Whoops.

The streets were narrow, dimly lit and hemmed in by rows of squat stone walls. Beyond these walls were houses, people and families. But every door was locked shut, the lights within off, and we were left alone with the empty click-clack of our feet dragging on the cobblestone.

The darkness (or maybe the beer) was making reality into deceptive shadow play. We’d espy an alleyway in the distance, plan to turn off there in hopes of its leading to a main road, some light, a place to sit and rest, but the niche in the stone wall would prove to be nothing more than a dead-end.

Yea, we were lost. But the panic lasted all of one minute.

Being lost is tough work, you see, especially if you’re lugging a case of beer all the while, so we found a suitable stoop, something quaint and in the lee of building that skirted the ochre glow of a nearby street light, and proceeded to wedge open some piss warm beers with locally available resources, i.e. stones. With every sip the atavistic fear of being lost transmogrified more and more into a great odyssean sense of adventure.

A moment’s rest gave us a moment of clarity. Our arms were throbbing from the weight of our load and our fingers were smarting from being crimped into the tiny handholds of the case. People came and went but did not notice us shrouded in the lamplight’s penumbra. Plopped on the stoop, beer in hand, we tried to get our bearings straight, tried to descry some recognizable landmark to act as a signpost for the remainder of our journey, but it was of no avail. It was damn dark. Resigned to being downright lost, we polished off our beers, lurched to our feet, wiped the dust off from our behinds, and kept on keeping on in the same direction we had been going beforehand.

We interspersed the remainder of our journey with two or three more of these recuperative sojourns. But, as they say, all good things come to an end. Eventually the others started getting worried over our absence. Our cells were blowing up. We tried to conceal the fact of our being lost at first, but a woman’s intuition all too easily unravels the subterfuge of men, and so we were found out.

Feeling a little embarrassed, but certainly a bit more exhilarated after having the women confirm our audacity with their heartfelt plaints about our welfare, we swallowed our pride and agreed to seek out a bajaj. Soon enough we found one. We threw bargaining for a fair price to the wayside and shamefacedly sunk into our seats, resigned to pay whatever the hell this guy asked for.

We told the driver our destination and were on our way.

As it turned out, we were two blocks – two measly blocks! – from our friends house when we decided to give up and take the bajaj. We had overshot her road during our wanderings and, in the bajaj now, approached it from the rear. So close but yet so far.

So we made it to the house, and with our adventure at an end it was time to relay the story of our epic journey to those interested. Before we could, however, there was a story waiting for us. The other guys, the ones that parted ways with us after the restaurant, had been chased down by the owner of the restaurant and a cop because of the bill discrepancy. Here’s what went down.

If you recall, myself and my friend managed to overcome the waitress’s importunes by simply reiterating the findings of our little experiment back at the restaurant. We also had that older gentleman swoop in, but that was probably just because our logic was so damn appealing that he couldn’t resist an opportunity to stand up for reason and justice. A sort of Good Samaritan, I’d say. Anyways, as we were listening to the other guys’ story about their run-in with the cop and proprietor, it soon became obvious that it wasn’t going to end well.

At first they tried to play buddy-buddy with the cop. That never works, so then they resorted to anger and invective. That also never works, especially if you’re dealing with a cop. Long story short, it came down to paying the difference or paying a visit to the local jail. And I’m sure you can guess what happened from there.

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