Harar – Now we’re talking dirty

“Faranjo, money!” is probably the phrase you will hear most when visiting Harar. It means “Foreigner, money!” And it seems everyone wants something from you.

Harar is one of the most sacred Muslim cities in the world. But you’d be hard-pressed to call it a city. This ancient trading-post in East Ethiopia, not far from the Somaliland border, seems barely bigger than a sprawled-out market. It’s main drawing card is the old town with over 90 mosques, and the colorful people doing business within its walls.

Merchants, peasants and nomads all gather in Harar to sell whatever they can – mangoes, tomatoes, beans, spices, bread, textiles, used clothes, counterfeit items. Anything. Covered-up women in kaleidoscopic patterns walk for miles to reach the city, carrying their merchandise in woven bowls on their heads. Each tribe with their own style and hues . Men and children load donkeys and slowly make their way to one of the many markets.

It’s also one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever been to. Everything is covered in dust. A “water-program” limits water access to a couple of hours in the early morning and a couple of hours at night. The houses in the old town have neither electricity or running water. Stoned men lay on the street, green froth bubbling around their mouths from chewing the narcotic chat-leaves, oblivious to their own poverty. And children play in garbage containers.

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Opportunists abound, all children, men and women want your cash. Eduardo almost got into a fight with a guy who took him to “his” antique store, which wasn’t his at all, and then wanted a commission. The true owner of the store knew us from our previous visit, and refused the commission. Outside, I stepped in between the Eduardo and the false owner to break up the fight, while a one-eyed old lady stood right in front of me and begged me for money.

The poverty of this country finally hit me in Harar. Complaining about the cock-roaches in our dirty hotel, when the inhabitants of this town most likely have never slept in clean sheets or in creepy-crawly-free spaces. Realizing that most of these people have never had a hot shower in their lives. Seeing a woman wearing just one shoe, because one shoe is better than none at all.

It’s a dirty old town, for sure. But a great reminder of how blessed I am. And how rich I am. And how clean I am (most of the time). And I think I will never complain about anything again in my life.

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Agadez – Sweating in A Not So Sleepy Desert Town

After only ten minutes in Agadez, we were ready to leave. We had just gotten off an eight-hour journey in a steaming bus, chock-full of people with “interesting” body odors. Outside, the scorching desert air hit us like a hot wall, so we quickly checked into the only hotel still open to tourists. But when we turned the faucet to take a refreshing bath, there was a hissing sound, but not a single drop. No water? Panic! This place was not only hot as hell, this was hell.

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But there was air-conditioning in our room in the ancient mud-made hotel, and it’s incredible what a difference a drop in temperature can make. After cooling down, and bathing with water from a bucket, things didn’t seem so bad. So we stayed.

Agadez used to be the main tourist destination in Niger. People would arrive by truckloads (and direct flights from France) to visit the Teneré Desert, the Aïr Mountains, and to see the male beauty contest during the annual Cure Salée festival in nearby In-Gall. But in the last three years, the Tuareg rebellion has put a stop to that. And although the Nigerien authorities have opened up Agadez to tourists again, most Western countries advise their citizens against travelling to Northern Niger.

However, visiting Agadez itself is still worthwhile. Walking through the old town with traditional Hausa and Tuareg mud-brick architecture takes you back hundreds of years. The inhabitants still live in dire poverty without running water and electricity, with a sewer system that consists of a pipe leading into a back alley. But it’s nonetheless an intriguing place, where behind every corner you discover something interesting, like an old man reading the Koran out loud, or teenage mother with a baby tied to her back doing laundry by the village pump, or a group of boys playing football with a ball made of dirty rags.

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The center point of Agadez is a tall, mud-structure mosque, decorated with wooden beams sticking out on the sides, much like a cactus. For a “small dash”, the caretaker opens the gate and you can climb to the top via a narrow staircase. I crept through a small opening into total darkness. A swishing sound of wings just above my head made me stop. Then I heard the screeches. Birds? I ducked and climbed higher, slowly. As the light seeped in from above, I started making out the shapes of what seemed to be millions of tiny flying things. Bats!
“Eduardo!” I screamed. But he was still taking photos below.. Crouched down, and with my heart beating at super-speed, I ran all the way up, with Eduardo, now following me closely at my heels, was panting with fear, but laughing.
We made it to the top, unbitten, to enjoy the 360 degree view of the dusty town. And stayed for a while, knowing what awaited us on the descent.

The caretaker chuckled contently when we returned back down. We had not paid him enough for him to warn us about the bats.

While Agadez may not be the most pleasant place in the Universe, a visit is definitely doable by exploring the town in the early hours of morning and late afternoons, and resting during the hottest hours of the day. And we ended up loving Agadez!

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Djenné – Get Off My Mosque!

Entirely isolated on a small island, in the middle of nowhere in Central Mali, lies the old kingdom of Djenné. Auburn, slightly Moorish-inspired houses line the labyrinthine lanes, and streams of sewage run unabashedly between the buildings. It’s a hot, steamy, and stinky place, with its fair share of wannabe guides tugging on your sleeves, yearning for any dollars you may have to spare.

In the center of town, the grand mosque towers; fabulous in its height and size. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the pride of Mali. Mud-covered spires adorn the facade, with angry sticks of wood embedded in the walls, like thorns of a cactus. This house of worship resembles a fairytale castle of an evil queen. And it slyly beckons you: come closer, have a look, adore me!

But as we were climbing the stairs to admire the marvel a little closer, a shunned guide blocked our way. “You can not go in!” he screamed in our faces. “Go away!”

We stared at him, surprised. We weren’t even close to the entrance. We were still outside, standing on the stairs below the landing of the main building. “Look!” He pointed at a sign below the stairs saying “Entry Prohibited to Non-Muslims.” Fair enough. Understandable. But we were still outside the mosque.

“No! Go away! You cannot stand on the stairs. You are not allowed here. You have to go away or I will hit you. You are not Muslims! You must go away now! Go away! You are not allowed here! You have to leave now.” And so on and on and on.

But we refused to leave. We were not inside the mosque. We were outside, and we just wanted to take a couple of pictures of the only reason anyone ever comes to Djenné – to see the mosque.

After nearly getting into a fist fight, and also a screaming match with a passing old man, we decided to walk away. They could stick their mosque up their derrière, as far as we were concerned.

Instead, we joined three French guys in search of a different kind of culture. And found a decrepit local bar in the backyard of someone’s house, that had cheap beer and a fabulous toilet with neither sewerage nor a roof, but a lovely view of the Bani River.

Early the next morning, before getting on the bus back, we sneaked a last look at the mosque (from the outside!).

It is a beautiful structure, after all.