Our departure from Harar was abrupt. Our guided tour had just ended and the options to stay in more expensive hotels outside of the walled city didn’t seem appetizing. On top of that, it was a Sunday- a long way from the vegan feasts of Wednesday and Friday, so we boarded a minibus bound for Dire Dawa. The bumpy ride was intimate at maximum capacity. Lil’ Z fell asleep in my arms and we bounced our way through the countryside. The checkpoints along the way were curious. Some passengers paid their fare in chat or qat, the leafy “crack” that’s chewing up the time, energy, and resources of East Africa and Yemen. There were pre-checkpoint shuffles where bags of chat were tucked in inconspicuous pockets in our caravan. Between the bags of green and Bob Marley jammin’ on the radio, the trip was starting to feel a little shady. But, in Bob’s own words, “we’re the survivors” and we found ourselves in Dire Dawa an hour later.
Our vegan friend suggested that we spend some time in Dire Dawa where it boasts wide, clean streets with proper sidewalks. When researching places to stay, I found a guesthouse that was highly praised in its reviews. Maybe what intrigued me most about the accommodation was there unofficial “no fornication” policy. They ask that unmarried couples not share the same room to honor God, as they strive to. While many may gasp at the thought, Urbndervish and I give them props for having principles and trying to uphold them. Whether you agree or disagree, it takes guts to adhere to your values in the modern, secular, nothing-is-sacred climate of the day. Fortunately, they had a cozy room available, vegan food on the menu, and we didn’t have to produce our marriage certificate. 😉
After eating well, checking our email, and strolling through town, we rested and relaxed in preparation for the next day’s flight to…Mekele.
We started the day early, filled by the Ethiopian version of foul mudammas and layered fruit smoothies. Our chariot to the airport was a three-wheeled bajaaj, which is like a covered motorbike with an attached carriage. The ride was colorful as we were traveling on Flag Day (October 29). Even foreigners were flyin’ the red, gold, and green but our backpack wardrobes were out of compliance.
While movement through the airport was stop-and-go, the flight to Mekele was smooth. We had no idea where to stay, so we hitched a ride with another hotel’s airport shuttle. Unfortunately, that hotel was booked, so we were taken to another one. Its sign said “four stars” but the room lacked the glimmer of a twinkle. It was cheap in cost and central in location, so we walked with curled toes on the old carpeted floors but were content for one night’s stay.
Before nightfall, we flexed our Amharic muscles once again, asking for itsomm (fasting food) and shiro wat (pea flour stew). We finally found an empty diner to oblige us but the meal was abruptly interrupted when a herd of goats decided to come through. It was surreal and disturbing to see the owners trying to toss the goats out of the restaurant. They were grabbing them by the horn, the tail, and the leg, trying to fling them back into the street but they were outnumbered. Lil’ Z couldn’t take the animal cruelty and started to cry with the goats. Once the drama subsided, we returned to our room to rest up for the next day’s adventure.
After a modest breakfast of toast and tea, we walked up the road to the bus station, asking for Negash. While waiting to depart, we saw the distinct style and dress of the Tigray women. Cornrows pulled back tight with one braid parted down the middle and joining into a taut braid headband below the hairline. As our minibus climbed into the mountains, we were joined by Afar herders who travel with warm cloaks and walking sticks. We passed the town of Wukro but climbed even further up the mountain.
A friendly woman sitting beside us confirmed when we reached Negash. We were wondering how to find Ethiopia’s first mosque and the resting place of an-Najaashi but there it was towering over an open market below. We carefully tiptoed through the livestock and produce laid out on sheets to find an open gate and beautiful mosque. We were greeted by a man who led us to the prayer room and met Imam Muhammad, a humble man fluent in Arabic, who graciously gave us a tour with two elders.
Visiting the tomb of an-Najaashi was respectful and sober, no hype, hoopla, or hustle; just a simple opportunity to pay respects to an upright man who vowed to protect the early Muslim community and later embraced Islam. According to Islamic sources, an-Najaashi sent a letter to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both) to inform him that he accepted the faith. Upon hearing the news of his death, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prayed Salaatu’l Janaza ‘ala al-Gha’ibin (The Funeral Prayer in absentia) on his behalf. Before leaving, we prayed, ate dates, and left a donation for the mosque.
At the top of the hill, the way back to Mekele seemed long and buses were few. Each bus was mobbed upon arrival and the chances of checking out of our hotel by noon looked slim. The wait got so long that the same elder brought us metal chairs from his home to sit on. Convinced that we had to get proactive about getting out of town, we waited by the roadside. A young boy with piecemeal Arabic came to our rescue. He offered to do the footwork for us, inquiring about each bus’ destination and later securing our seats on the first bus to Mekele. The kind soul didn’t ask for thing which was a welcomed relief.
An hour after check-out time, we grabbed our bags and checked out of our hotel. In gratitude for not being charged for late check-out, we ate lunch there and rode another rickety bajaaj up the steep hill to the airport. At a snail’s pace, we arrived at the airport with two hours to spare, which became four after the delayed arrival of the plane.
By this time, the Raggamuslim train was losing steam. Bed bugs and mosquitoes, wet weather, and being constantly overcharged left me itchy, Lil’ Z sniffly, and Urbndervish exhausted. On the late flight to Addis Ababa, we made a last minute decision to cancel our tightly packed travels for the last two days. A taxi driver took us from the airport to a nearby guesthouse so new that they didn’t know what to do with us or where to put us. An hour later, all the confusion settled and we slept sound.
To be continued…