26 December 2007

Today's entry begins in a slightly unorthodox fashion with the moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for.

Every venture outside our little living compound inevitably yields a new situation to process, a new challenge to face, a new town character to encounter, a new story to laugh about. Many of these occur on our three-quarters-mile walk from my house to the town center or vice versa, during which we pass seemingly half the people living in Debremarkos, all lining the two-lane asphalt road. Their responses to two blonde farenji girls walking down the street together range from unabashed gawking to calling after us with a hodgepodge of Amharic and English phrases. In the case of the bolder and usually university-educated ones, they approach us and strike up conversation as we walk, in order to test out their English. Sometimes, though, people are even bolder than this, and these occasions make either the best or the worst stories, depending on how you want to look at it.

Yesterday was, perhaps as a bizarre Christmas present, a day for bold characters. As KB and I walked home from some Christmas Internetting, we made eye contact with a young boy of about 16 years, wearing an old Miami Hurricanes Starter jacket, as he crossed our path. This proved to be a critical mistake, as he consequently altered his course and began following us home. We tried subtle evasion tactics at first. We sped up, but he sped up along with us. We stopped walking to let him pass us, but he stopped, turned around, and waited for us. We changed sides of the street, changed speeds erratically, and used other pedestrians as human screens, but through all our maneuvering the boy remained never more than two steps behind us. Every time we looked at him, he would laugh nervously (though I'm not sure HE had the right to be nervous, considering the situation). I asked him in Amharic where he was going; he replied (laughing nervously) that he didn't know. We were running out of subtle tactics. KB turned to me and said, seemingly harmlessly, "This is when we need to run into someone we know." At that exact moment, as if in a well-intentioned but horribly misguided answer to our desperate and perhaps hasty prayer, from the cross street ahead of us emerged a figure we indeed knew all too well: Tirssaw the Toothman, our neighborhood shady realtor, baring his four ludicrously protruding front teeth at us in a smarmy grin as he walked past. [See entry from 26 November.] While it was certainly not the answer we were hoping for, it did serve one useful purpose in making me decide I had had enough of sketchy characters for one Christmas. I stopped in the middle of the intersection, turned to the young boy, and prepared to launch into a firm Amharic telling-off, but I had gotten only as far as, "Ishee (okay), chao," when he replied, "Ishee," and left us. KB and I looked at each other incredulously – why hadn't we thought of that before?

The story might have ended there, but the Toothman's unexpected appearance proved to be a portent of things to come. Today, KB wanted to visit the government store to buy toilet paper (at the bargain price of birr 2.90 a roll, versus a normal price of birr 3). We were waiting outside the store while a worker went to retrieve some rolls from the warehouse when, from the darkness just inside the doorway, we caught the unmistakable glint of four familiar snaggled teeth. Tirssaw the Toothman had apparently chosen the government store as his Wednesday morning haunt and was relaxing in a wooden chair, watching the proceedings. As KB went up to the counter to collect her TP and look through a selection of other household items, I found myself standing alone with him, face-to-face with his jumbled dentistry. I tried desperately not to meet his unconcealed stare in my direction, as each time I did resulted in his waggling his eyebrows up and down at me pointedly (which resulted subsequently in my feeling the need to vomit). Mercifully, KB was not long in making her purchases, and we left the Toothman behind to unsettle other customers.

I wish I could say the story ended even there…but it was not to be. KB and I were having what we like to call a "competent day," one of those rare days amidst long stretches of clumsiness in which it feels like we really have things under control. We had been involved in successful Amharic conversations, made several purchases at fair prices from shopkeepers who knew us by name, and made friends of the post office workers (whom a PCV always wants on his or her side). We were basking in the glory of our cultural adaptation as we walked back to the house when, having apparently failed to learn my lesson, I made a very foolish comment to KB: "I almost hope we run into some characters on the walk home. We need to meet our daily quota of hilarious awkwardness." I got exactly what I deserved when, at the same fated intersection from the day before, we ran into the Toothman. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that he ran into us, as he sprinted out to the road from the hotel bar when he saw us approaching. Apparently our encounter at the government store had made us best friends, as we each received an enthusiastic hug in greeting. He tried to talk to us as we walked, but his Amharic was too rapid and too garbled from having to pass through his snarled teeth that he was absolutely incomprehensible to us. My language comprehension skills were not assisted by the fact that I was laughing uncontrollably at the irony of the moment. The Toothman was not deterred, however, and he laughed right along with me as if we were just having a grand old time together. After a few meters of carrying on like this, the Toothman took his leave, off to do some other important socializing. Being the lucky one at his side, I got a second hug. KB had walked far enough ahead that she was out of the Toothman's hug radius, but she received the celebrated chest-pump/fist-point combo, which I think officially makes them Ethiopian homies.

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