How NOT to start a year
I was asking for it. The last two things I’ve written are a post entitled ‘a happy new year (for most)’, and a competition entry all about the joys of stumbling on things (ooh wordplay, clever).
Inevitably, my literary conceit(edness) came back to haunt me and, at some very early hour of New Year’s Day, I stumbled – bad, onto my face.
It was, in fairness, entirely my fault. I’d just got a lift back from a colleague’s brilliant New Year’s Eve party: hundreds of people, a huge garden, free bar, even a big screen for the countdown. ‘Only in Ethiopia’ said an American behind me as we clustered round a colourful mat where, metres away, a boy somersaulted through the air from one man’s upturned soles to another. This routine was later repeated with large flaming hoops.
I could have used that balance a few hours later, facing the alleyway to my house. For some reason (or rather total lack of reasoning), not only did I decline my friends’ offer to walk with me, I also decided to run. Running is never a good idea in the dark and drunk (and pumps), but on a ‘path’ comprised mainly of potholes and rocks, it’s moronic. My face literally didn’t know what hit it.
I didn’t think anything of my little trip til I got home and saw blood, a line of it dissecting my face from forehead to chin. It didn’t look too bad, until it scabbed over, at which point I started to feel like one of those horses with white stripes down the centre of their face – only, y’know, less fur, more scab.
Anyway, I decided to take it on the chin (!) and face up (!) to my temporary disfigurement. I could look at it as a social experiment: would it change how people reacted to me? Would they be sympathetic? And, most importantly, would it – and here I got excited – finally put an end to the relentless attention of random men?
It doesn’t deter the guys who try to chat me up within minutes of me leaving my house. Or the guys who invite me back to their house to chew chat (or ‘chew chat’, probably) while I’m waiting for a friend the next morning. Or the middle-aged man who matches my stride near Meganagna and surprises me with his stories of two years studying in Belgium (Belgium! <3) before the catch: ‘Where are you going? I live there too! I can go home with you? You have a boyfriend?’
Sigh. I guess they just don’t care about my injury. Maybe they’re less superficial, or maybe more – maybe I’m a farenji, and that’s enough.
As for the men and women who aren’t trying to chat me up, a lot react how I’d expect anywhere – lots of glances and a bit of staring – and a lot how I wouldn’t: asking me straight up what’s happened. (My favourite: ‘min de nesh?’ – literally ‘what are you?’ I’m sure the proper translation is more nuanced…!). Maybe it’s forward, but I definitely prefer it to covert nosiness – especially as, judging by their mime, a lot of people think I’ve been punched in the face, which alarms me as much as them.
Assuaging their concerns isn’t always easy. At first I resort to mime too, acting out running and tripping with my fingers (unsurprisingly, to general bemusement) – but then I learn the magic word.
‘Wedersh?’ says one shopkeeper, and translates for me: ‘you fell over?’ And voila! I deduce my most useful Amharic word yet. ‘Ow’ I say (the word for ‘yes’ couldn’t have been more appropriate). ‘Wedeku’. I fell over.
It’s touching how many people seem genuinely concerned. At the post office in Mexico, the staff gasp and elicit a blow-by-blow account of my downfall. The nicest moment comes at a fruit-stall in Piazza when the concerned attendant nods sympathetically to my (really undeserving idiotic) story and replies consolingly ‘but the rest of your face, it’s beautiful’. Awww.
So far, so tolerable – and then my friend recommends me a hospital. The next day I brave a minibus to the depths of Gerji and watch the familiar landmarks of Bole recede behind a huge meadow. I feel like I’m behind a mirror. Then the fare-collector shouts ‘Korea’ and I’m turfed off in front of a large modern-looking complex – ‘Myungsung Christian Medical Center’.
It’s quiet and almost empty, and within minutes, I’ve been registered and checked over by a friendly doctor with perfect English. He prods at my face a bit and reassures me that no, I’m not going to get gangrene. I get a blood test, and wait in the half-empty foyer, with its rows of plastic chairs and premier league, until he reassures me that my blood is fine, too. I think he thinks I’m a hypochondriac.
It’s all going great until the nurse cleans my wounds for me – with iodine, which, it turns out, is purple, and stains.
Henceforth, I have a purple face. I can see purple out of the corner of my eye, and, out of the rest, people staring. I detour home and dab at it for a bit, but it’s hopeless. Hey, well at least it’s my favourite colour…
I’m determined to stick with my plans, so my next destination? The most crowded place in Addis Ababa. Naturally.
Beyond the seductive neon bunting of the Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) exhibition in Meskel Square, crushed consumers inch round huge warehouses full of stalls selling everything from soil from the holy land to inflatable santas. It’s uncomfortable, even if your face is a normal colour.
As for me, I’m the centre of attention. Once again, though, I’m grateful for people’s general inquisitiveness – it lets me explain myself, in their language, so I’m not simply a foreign freak-show, and they a nosey stranger. Of course it’s not that simple – no amount of mumbling ‘wedeku’ explains why the hell my face is an unnatural shade of purple. But the message more or less gets across, and, as before, I’m moved by people’s concern. ‘I’m sorry’ say some, in English or Amharic; others offer skincare advice (and one offers me some peanuts. Why not).
There are upsides, then, but free snacks or not, this is easily the most painful, self-conscious and generally disastrous start to the year I’ve ever had. I don’t know what, if anything, I can conclude from this whole messy episode – except, kids, don’t run in the dark.
(0h, and the doctor texted me – he thinks I have some weird type of anaemia. HAPPY NEW YEAR!)
[Horse pic: jenny downing]