A Fist Full of Birr

In 2010 I spent my 44th birthday in an Ethiopia brothel. Believe it or not, that’s what can happen as a result of what can only be described as anxiety induced amnesia. I forgot my ATM pin number.

I was on a reporting assignment, doing a story on an NGO that builds schools in the poverty stricken regions of Eastern Africa call Imagine One Day. I’d just arrived in Addis Ababa and as I’m about to withdraw a couple of hundred bucks in trade for the local currency, Ethiopian Birr, I ask myself, “Wow what would happen if I forgot my pin code?”

Thoroughly jinxed that’s exactly what happened. And here’s what happened next.

 

 

A Fist Full of Birr

Daniel sits waiting patiently. The Deutsche Bank office in the Addis Ababa Sheraton Hotel has plush velvet seats. He folds into this one with the preternatural self-awareness of a panther in a tree. I was Daniel’s mark and didn’t even know it. As I turn from the teller window holding 3,000 Birr in cash the first thing I say is, “Thanks man. You’re a lifesaver.”

 

I met Daniel about an hour earlier as I searched the crowed streets of Addis looking for an automatic teller machine. Most merchants in this third world metropolis don’t take plastic and I was heading to a remote part of Ethiopia where cash is king. Daniel must have overheard my conversation with the cab driver as I asked for directions through his passenger side window

“You need ATM man? I show you.”

My first instinct is not to trust this guy. I’m further from home then ever in my life. And with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight today I can say without a doubt I was a complete and total chump.

“That’d be great,” I say. “Lead the way.”

 

We set out on foot toward several high-rise buildings on the busy street.
Along the way we talk and Daniel tells me about his life in Addis. His father was a soldier killed in one of Ethiopia’s wars. His mother is sick and needs his help to stay in her little apartment. But he’s all smiles, friendliest guy you’d ever want to meet. What strikes me most is how enthusiastic he is about all the construction that’s going on and how much he wants to see his hometown become a major world city like New York or even Paris, blah, blah, blah. In November if Daniel runs for mayor I’ll vote him.

We find an ATM about a half-mile down the street. That one fails. We try again at another one a few blocks later, same thing. It’s getting dark and I’m getting worried. I have plane to catch before dawn the next morning so I get cash now or not all. On Daniel’s suggestion we take a cab ride to the Sheraton. “It’s a four-star hotel,” he says. “I bet they can help you.”

This place is posh, as nice as any hotel I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It’s a glaring contrast to the muddy streets and dilapidated buildings that surround it. Armed guards frisk us as we pass through metal detectors, no weapons on either one of us. The concierge points us to the bank down a marble staircase next to the Cartier Store. I hand over my credit card for a chance advance. And just twenty minutes later I walk out again with a fist full of Birr.

The local currency has an exchange rate of around 16 Birr to one US dollar. So 3,000 Birr is about $187 bucks with change. Believe it or not that’s enough to get me through most of my trip in Ethiopia. We grab another cab. I’m thinking to head back to my hotel.

But Daniel says, “I tired. You want get coffee?”

“Sure,” I say. “Least I can do is buy you a cup of coffee.”

The cab drops us off at the head of a muddy ally with lights only from the adjoining street. We walk about 50 yards. I’m careful to avoid the puddles. Then a guy appears from nowhere and starts following us. We arrive at a rickety structure where another guy is setting smoking a cigarette. The first guy sits down. Three little kids watch us from the shadows of the next doorway. “You like this,” Daniel says. “Traditional Ethiopian coffee house.”

We walk into a dimly lit room with music playing, an Afro-Pop kind of sound. About 12 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 all wearing white floor length dresses stand and welcomed us in, all broad smiles and white teeth. Daniel and I take a seat on a shabby couch. Then someone turns up the music. All the girls but one start to dance.

The one not dancing sits beside me on a leather couch. “You not Ethiopian,” she says to me. “But you look.” Africa is where my gene pool began. Who knows what country?

“No I reply. I’m from the United States. You know Wisconsin?”

“No, no,” she says smiling shaking her head. “Welcome. You seeing anything you like, you can take.” She nods toward the girls dancing.

In a sudden panic I lean over to Daniel. “Dude! What the hell is this?” I rasp in a whisper.

“What kind of girl you like?” Daniel asks.

Pointing to the gold band at my finger through clinched teeth I growl. “My wife!” Daniel just smiles.

So here’s the problem. I can’t just leave. Between me and the door are 12 girls still dancing, if you can call it that. It’s more the awkward shuffle of teenagers trying to be sexy. Outside are at least two guys of average build and of course there’s Daniel. The notion of slugging my way out passed my mind for about a second. I knew from the pat down at the Sheraton that Daniel had no kind of weapon. A skinny kid, I could have taken him in fight but what about the other two and who knows how many others. And if I make it to the alley which way do I run? then where?

But suddenly I recognized my surroundings and I’m reminded of an interview I did three years before with National Geographic photojournalist Jodi Cobb. She did an amazing magazine spread and a book on the international slave and sex trade called 21st Century Slavery. And as I watch these girls all still dancing I think about that piece and the circumstances of poverty, violence and abuse that put them here with me, or worse with men who arrive looking for something more lurid than an ATM.

So I say to Daniel, “What’s it going to cost me to get out of here?”

He smiles and all I can I see is his teeth. “You can go when you want,” he says. “Just pay the bill when it comes.”

As if on cue the guy out front with the cigarette comes in past the girls and hands me an itemized check, like I’m in a restaurant. The grand total: 1,800 Birr. My jaw drops. That’s more than half my operating capital. And just then it’s also my way out.

I’ve dropped more than my share of bills down g-strings in Las Vegas strip joints. Back when I was a traveling salesman I’d shelled out a couple hundred bucks easy in hour on drinks and lap dances. But this, this was something different.

So I count the bills, hand them to the dude with the cigarette and walk through the door. No one follows me as I make way down the dark alley with purpose toward the lights on the street ahead. There’s a cold stream of sweat trickling down by back as my ears prick to hear footsteps behind me. Thank God. There’s a cab. I jumped in and give the driver the name of my hotel. I lean back into the seat my heart pounding in my chest. Then I think about those girls dancing and others like them all over the world. “I hope they get paid,” I say to myself. “But at least one less person will hurt them tonight.”

 

 
The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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