We spent an average of five hours in the (bad ass Land Cruiser with snorkel) each day over the last five days; an amazing, torturous way to see some of the country. We watched the landscape change from lush, rain soaked highlands to cactus ridden arid dessert. We watched the population change from urban dwellers in sneakers to rural goat herders, barefoot and wearing only fabric wrapped around their waists. Dwellings devolved from high rise apartment buildings to mud and stick huts with tin roofs to the lean-tos made completely out of scrub brush of the nomadic Kariyu people.
And now we are back in Addis, enjoying our last days in Ethiopia swimming at the Hilton pool. It is safe and easy here, with no hours of driving before our next stop and french fries at the ready. We pass through a baracade and a metal detector before entering the lobby, and the hotel grounds are so vast that they hold the poverty, the noise and the pollution of the city at bay. It was within this sheltered environment that I made the decision to take us on a trip to the Merkato.
I have been to a decent number of large markets in different parts of the world. I pictured rows and rows of vendors as far as the eye could see. I pictured chaos, talking and haggling. I imagined different sections for different goods, and that we would walk through the spice section and sniff, through the food section and taste, and through the clothing section and find some Ethiopian football jerseys. We've been here for awhile now and the kids have grown used to the chaos of the streets. I thought we could handle the Merkato.
The Addis Ababa Merkato is touted as the largest open air market in Africa and the size was mind boggling, even without seeing the whole thing. It is a teeming, seething collection of things and people and animals and people and animals carrying things. You cannot put your foot down without stepping in something that is not ground. We knew there would be beggars and pick pockets. I hadn't counted on arms traders and thugs.
It was the first time on this trip that I have felt afraid. We were in a van with a driver and we were totally stuck- nothing on the road was moving unless it had legs. My kids we both at open windows with their headphones on listening to their iPods. People would walk by the van and bang on the side and stare at us. Maybe they were just saying a friendly hello, but it didn't feel that way, and there was no where to go. I gathered up the fancy electronics and closed the windows.
It got stuffy in the van, the banging continued coupled sometimes with a yell (a taunt?) and the cluster fuck of traffic that yawned out in front of us showed no sign of movement. Hayden was sick from all the bumping along on pot-holed roads and breathing exhaust. We told him if he had to puke to puke on the floor of the van, not to open the window and stick his head out.
In my 20s I fancied myself a Traveler:
Public transportation please.
Skip the boring tourist "must sees" and get lost exploring a "dangerous" neighborhood.
Taste all the street food.
Swim in the all lakes.
Sleep in the train stations.
I was invincible.
I was alone. My poor decision making affected only me, and occasionally a travel companion who had to hold my hair as I yacked up some snails from a Vietnamese food cart.
I wasn't invincible in that van. I felt afraid, like an asshole of a person and a complete failure as a mother for having put my kids, of whom we had already asked so much so many times on this trip, in that situation.
It all ended fine, but that was luck.
I can see the look on my 20 year old face as my almost 40 year old self relaxes by the pool watching my kids play. She is horrified by the sell out she has become. She is horrified that she will buy souvenirs from the hotel gift shop, and will leave Ethiopia without tasting all of the different foods. I want to tell her to keep on doing everything she is doing. To take the risks, to live selfishly and to take everything the world offers because there will be a day, sooner than she imagines, when those risks are no longer palatable and when your life is no longer your own.
And I would tell her that while I know she will not believe me now, her 40 year old self is more stable and content and fulfilled than she has ever been, and that she cherishes all of the accumulated memories and experiences and happily recalls them on her mommy blog.