I arrived in Shihedi after a rough ride from Gonder that began at 4am. The last few days have brought the first rains of the season - normally dusty dirt roads have turned into muddy tracks. My backpack got thoroughly soaked on top of the bus thanks to a poor covering job by the weyero. It was slow going.
In just one afternoon I was able to see all that Shihedi had to offer. I passed the day chewing chat, drinking coffee, and chatting with locals. Most of that time was spent sitting in a dingy “chat den” conversing in broken English with a few strange characters.
The “den” was a small typical Ethiopian construction, with a dirt floor and mud-plastered walls. Balanced atop a pile of bricks in the corner sat a TV and DVD player, blasting out a continuous stream of Ethiopian pop music videos. The owner sat by the doorway, weighing out bags of chat on an old balance scale. A cooler stocked with Coca-cola and water sat opposite him across the room. A bench along each wall filled the remaining space. The walls were bare but for 3 large posters: Britney Spears (circa 2003, captioned “In the Zone”), Ronaldinho (“OK”), and Jennifer Lopez (striking a sexy pose, showing off her wedding ring).
I chewed nearly 100 grams of fer-fer (loose leaves) over a few hours - I was a bit high. The conversations, all translated by the one guy present who spoke some English, revealed a lot about the sad story of Shihedi.
Just an hour into Ethiopia from the border with Sudan, Shihedi is a small truck-stop town for drivers who ply the route between the two countries. Most of it is made up of cheap hotels, bars and brothels. It has a reputation for being quite a rowdy place - the horrible state of the economy has made catering to these truck drivers Shihedi’s main business. Tragically this has also earned it the #1 spot on the list of Ethiopian cities worst-affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Ethiopia is sick! We are dying,” one man told me with tears in his eyes.
I asked how often faranjis pass through Shihedi.
“Oh, quite often,” I was told. “Almost 1 every 2 weeks.” Often indeed!
Any many Americans?
“Not so many. Maybe some in a year. 10, 15.”
Thus began my departure from the beaten track. Walking around town made me feel like quite a celebrity. I could hardly go a few meters without giving handshakes to a dozen children. “You!” is the one English word that every Ethiopian child seems to know (the Amharic/Tigrinya equivalent, ante/at’ta, is the casual way to get someone’s attention and isn’t at all rude) and I heard it everywhere. I got used to the “faranji-frenzy” effect throughout Ethiopia, but here I was amazed at the level of excitement caused just by walking down the road. I slept poorly (too much chat) and left Shihedi on the first bus the next day at 8am.