Remember that song in the 80s where Cindy Lauper sang “Girls just wanna have fun”? My last night spent in Addis Ababa was precisely like that.
About five months ago you would never hear me say anything good about Ethiopia. I was just a miserable sod counting the days until I would finally pack my bags and bid farewell to what I would then refer to as the trou du cul du monde (assholes of the world). Things started to change as soon as I met Irada, another wife-of-international delegate, whom became a travel buddy, friend, confidante and simply put, the girl you have fun with.
By the time I knew that I was going to leave Ethiopia for good, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and sad. To prove it, I cried whenever someone threw my husband and I farewell dinners or gave us farewell gifts. The once extremely critical and bitter woman had suddenly become this free flowing water tap, much to the amusement of my husband.
Anyway, on my last night, Irada and I decided to paint the city red in true Malaysian-Azeri fashion, just the two of us to some of our favourite places in Addis. First stop was none other than our all time favourite bar, Black Rose which we had frequented daily for the past week.
We had became such a regular, often turning up at its doorstep as early as 5pm especially on Friday just to take full advantage of its happy hour. No wonder, some of our friends had started to raise concern about our alcoholic behaviour. I remember one Friday evening when I had ordered four glasses of Cosmopolitan while waiting alone for Irada to arrive, much to the waitress’ worry. Well, happy hour was about to end in twenty minutes’ time and the thought of paying half price for a Birr45 (USD5) cocktail was a bargain I couldn’t resist even at the risk of being labelled alcoholic.
Why did we love this place so much, despite what some people would refer to as a stuck up or snobbish bar? Well, for a start, it is easily one of the most tastefully decorated bars with great service, good music and bar tenders who are able to mix cocktails which taste like how they are supposed to be. As soon as you enter the bar, it gives you the feeling of Upper Manhattan meets Buddha Bar ambience; walls painted in dark red with bizarre paintings of bald African women and fat naked asian ladies, sheer lacy curtains good enough to make French lingerie, candlelit tables with comfortably cushioned lounges and velvety chairs. The waiters and waitresses are smartly dressed in black and most men would easily agree that Black Rose has some of the most gorgeous looking Ethiopian waitresses.
We loved it more because since we had made such regular appearances and possibly paid half of their weekly profits, we were awarded VIP service. Well, actually to tell you the truth, Irada had a lot to do with it. Words had gotten out that she is a photographer who took great portraits and the waitresses were on their knees trying to be her next muse, well except one. You see, she had taken some portraits of one of the cute waitresses called Lily. Really cute and surprisingly nice as well. So, with this, she had earned their respect, which is rather difficult in a country like Ethiopia. I just so happened to be the photographer’s friend who benefitted and I must say also enjoyed the attention.
Apart from all this, Black Rose was a special place for us. It was a place where we had both come to really know each other. The type of friendship which are normally cultivated over a long period of time but most importantly, the type of honesty between two persons where no holds were barred. We have had our fights, shared naughty conversations and cried buckets over our sad stories. We would sit on those lounges and talked for hours while sipping Cosmopolitan, Margarita or Mojito. I think no other customers enjoyed each other’s company as much as we enjoyed ours. I guess what really intrigued others when they saw us together was the exclusivity of our company, inpenetrable even for single men who had bought us drinks, hoping to get lucky!
Yes, Irada and I had shared some innocent adventures together, contrary to what many people might think. Two married women going off to bars alone, surely they were up to no good.
Once, we were approached by two Italian men who work as security guards for the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa, Paolo and Massimo. We had a chat and I had asked Paolo where we could have good pasta apart from Castelli (an extremely expensive Italian restaurant which had apparently served customers like Bob Geldof and Brangelina) and he answered in his thick Italian accent, “At Paolo’s of course! I make good spaghetti! You like spaghetti? I make for you. You come now, I make spaghetti for you!”
Irada and I looked at our watches and it was close to 1am. Well, 1am really didn’t make any difference to us since we don’t work but an invitation at 1am might be misconstrued as “up to no good”. So, Irada, with her usual wit and sense of adventure told Paolo, “Just spaghetti and no breakfast, ok?” At first I gaped at the thought of leaving with two strangers whom we had just met but then I figured what the hell? It was only spaghetti and no breakfast. Those were the rules and we would make sure that the Italians understood them.
They did and were perfect gentlemen. Not only did they whip up an authentic Italian gastronomic experience with spaghetti Aglia Olio, warm fresh foccacia, served with fine Italian wine, digestif and coffee while being serenaded by the late Pavorotti, they sent us home.... with no breakfast.
The next time we met Paolo, he treated me like his little sister; ruffling my hair and punching me playfully. His other friend, Giuseppe, wasn’t as innocent as he turned to me, so close to my face that I could feel his nostril hairs.
He started sharing the most indecent first conversation about how Ethiopian women suck in bed because they just lie there and do nothing since most of them are circumcised. Information which I didn’t need to know and as a woman, FGM should definitely not be used as the cause for bad sex.
Anyway, I was not there to impress Giuseppe or any man for that matter. So, I ended up giving him a lecture and sure enough, he excused himself quickly and never came back. I considered that one of my biggest achievements!
Anyway, our next stop was Harlem Jazz, a small bar with live music, which draws regular crowd of Ethiopians and foreigners every Friday night. The place doesn’t heat up until 11.30pm, that is when the lead singer, Ken Allen a.k.a the-only-reason-for going-to-Harlem Jazz, begins his performance. It was almost disgusting to see so many women getting wet trying to catch his attention by shoving each other to get to the front of the stage.
He is the local version of a chic Chris Brown although he does bear a slight resemblance of Denzel Washington. To be honest, I didn’t go there for K. Allen (I can see eyes rolling). I went there for the pure letting my hair down kind of dancing. With sufficient drinks at Black Rose, it was time to burn the amount of calories consumed by shaking that booty, although we continued to order rounds of Long Island Ice Tea.
Seriously though, the band is not bad at all. In fact, I would say that it could easily pass on as the best live band I have ever seen anywhere except for one flaw, which I was determined to let them know before I leave the country for good. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the music and danced like I had never danced before, the songs were predictable, even to the extent of the sequence they are played. Some of our friends had stopped going simply for this reason.
It was a strange night that night. While on the dance floor, I felt as if I was going to leave my lover forever. In fact, I was too grateful for all the familiar songs that had been sung because it made me felt as if it was meant to remind me of what Addis Ababa had been for me. Do you get the feeling that songs are eeriely an accurate measurement tool for a specific year or moment? It’s like when you have your first breakup and the first song you listen to after, will subsequently remind you of that moment forever.
So when K. Allen sang “With You” by Chris Brown, I couldn’t help crying instantaneously. It had been the song for all the good memories of Addis Ababa brought by my friendship with Irada. Even until today, when I listen to this song in my car, it would bring me back to Harlem Jazz immediately. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have opened up my eyes to appreciate the beauties of the country and its people. In Harlem Jazz, I had managed to shed whatever cultural differences I had with the Ethiopians by dancing and having a good laugh together. That night when I cried, many of them showed their concern and when I told them it was my last night in Ethiopia, they looked sorry and hugged me. I couldn’t feel more included than that moment and all I could think of was, why now?
I then thought of a mission. I wanted to thank all the band members for what they had given me. There was a particular bassist whom I was very fond of. He was an elderly Ethiopian man who has a smile that brights up your day. He looks simple with no airs at all but when he gets into the music, he plays with his heart and soul. His love for music is apparent on his face and it was just a delight to watch him play. Unfortunately, nobody ever noticed him because they were too engrossed with the young and good looking K. Allen.
During the band’s break time, I sabotaged the bassist while he was waiting in a queue at the gent’s room. With no shame or inhibition, I started telling him how much I appreciated his playing and like a groupie, asked for his autograph. He was so surprised and touched that he took the time to get to know me. He had this charm about him as he told me bashfully that his name is Bibisha; the Ethiopian version of BB King! I couldn’t help but smiled politely.
He proved to be the decent kind of guy as he remembered my name despite only being told once. Anyway, I could see that he was happy to be noticed because when he went back to play much later, I could see a new air of confidence in him.
After obtaining Bibisha’s authograph, Irada and I went out to get some fresh air. While sitting on the floor to catch our breaths, K. Allen walked up to us. I took the opportunity to thank him and then told him how I thought the band should diversify their songs. He explained to us in his American brawl (He is Ethiopian-American) that he shared the same feelings but since most of his Ethiopian fans prefer to listen to the same songs, he has no other choice. I could believe him easily since diversity is seriously not in the Ethiopian genes at all.
Anyway, after a brief conversation, I could sense that K. Allen has an overdose of ego and was decidedly confirmed when he announced on the microphone on stage later that whomever thought he is hot, please approach him at the end of the show. Boy, it was time to go.
At around 2am, where else could we go but Memo? I had a love and hate relationship with this club but that night, I decided to love it since I would probably never get a chance to see it again.
For outsiders, Memo might appear to be a weird place to be and it did take me quite awhile to understand and appreciate its strength. It is a club where prostitutes are in abundance but at the same time, it doesn’t prevent female foreigners from having a good time due to the music and around the clock kitchen, serving piping hot tibs and injeras (local staples).
In addition to that, it is probably the only club in the city which is smart enough to have an al-fresco bar and kitchen where customers can escape the stuffiness of the club by enjoying their drinks and food in the open air. They also have a traditional area where coffee ceremony is being performed and in my opinion, the strongest cup of coffee you could ever have in your life. Probably wise as well in order to keep the alcohol level in check.
One of my favourite past time in Memo was to make a journey to the ladies’ room. While waiting in line, I got to observe the prostitutes applying touch ups to their make-ups. Sometimes, I would offer them compliments or the thumbs up, which they accepted gratefully. Well, let’s face it, a little bit of female solidarity does a lot to their otherwise male and sex dominated world.
Irada and I decided to finish the night with tequila shots at the bar outside. While sitting at the bar, I suddenly noticed that Harlem Jazz’s drummer was having a cup of coffee at the traditional area. I excused myself and informed Irada that I simply had to thank the guy.
Most people wouldn’t believe this but I ended up having one of the best first conversations in my life. He is British-Ethiopian and spoke in that irresistably charming accent. It was that kind of light but yet intelligent conversation, mostly due to the fact that he is also an anthropology lecturer in the University of Addis Ababa.
We were so engrossed in a conversation about nature versus nurture that I had only begun to notice K. Allen was just sitting two seats away, looking completely left out. I apologised shamefully for occupying his friend and he started speaking in that brawl again. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the conversation had somehow gone down the drain.
Yet again, it was time to go but not without doing one final thing.
We went back to the dance floor and while Irada was dancing, I went off to the DJ. When I came back, she asked me where I had gone. I told her, “Wait and listen.” After about five minutes, the song “With You” came on and we just swayed gently to the music.
By the time we reached home, it was 5.30am. I had only a couple of hours left before I made that last journey to Bole Airport. Irada, living up to her Azeri hospitality, went to the kitchen, heated up some food and we settled down to eat. By then, I was finally ready to go.
It dawned on me that it was better to go while things were still going good. After more than one year of hating the country so badly, I finally made my peace with Ethiopia.
Written on 1 September 2008