“In Addis Ababa, a no does not mean no” Ziggy tilts his head back and lets out a laugh. He has assured me that using this fine cement wall as a urinal is commonplace and we shouldn’t be bothered by the pseudo-guard approaching us across the street. After a short conversation, we are allowed to proceed as I am a ‘guest’ of the city and thus must have such rights. It’s a bit strange but in the time I've been here I’ve seen many public places used for these purposes, often in the mid-day sun.
Several hours earlier a group of ex-pats and Ethiopians are eating Chinese food. Good Chinese food actually, sharing spoons from a giant circular hot broth vat which meat, veggies, and noodles are dropped into. We risk it and go for the hot version and pay dearly. Innocent bystanders that enter the room inevitably double over in coughs and bleary eyes. Several members of the party leave for an extended smoke break; only the strong and furious stand our ground. The pepper screams at us. Bring more napkins please, they are desperately needed. I hadn’t planned a nasal irrigation over dinner, but spices aside it was the best Asian-African food I’ve ever had.
“That place is alright, but if you want an experience.. an experience! [10 second pause and intense stare] Then you come with me to Chechnya. This other place where the Viking (Jostein) is going to, blah! No humanity, nothing real to hold onto. You know what I mean? That is some boring shit, not my scene. Not at all. So what do you want? An experience or some pretentious bullshit?”
The man makes a good point, while Jostein is already bound with new friends to what is the most Western of bars/clubs in Addis, Vincent and I are being offered a different trip entirely. What exactly Ziggy is talking about though, we can only imagine. As he pulls a final drag out of the n-th cigarette of the night, his black tie simmers under the orange street light. Ziggy is a self-proclaimed mad man of Ethiopia, running one of the biggest ad agencies in the country, bringing experience of many years living and working in new York city. His all black suit, shoes, and leather messenger bag help his case. His voice, with raspy tones that compliment his trade, trails off into the night, “a real damn experience”
“Alright boys get ready” Ziggy warns me and Vincent. As we enter the street I look ahead and see the spectacle that awaits us. Chechnya has a Vegas type of feel to it: neon blasts from the numerous bars and tiny clubs, alcohol is all over the streets and other drugs are surely accompanied. As we walk past the first bar, Vincent and I are assaulted. Two women lock arms with us and start to pull us in to the little parlour. Their decisive move leaves no room for disagreement. We are going with them; they go deadweight, dragging the poor white boys into the bar. Music is loud and communication is non-existent. Luckily Ziggy is there for us and buys everyone drinks. I give him a questioning look and he cracks up. “Yes, they’re all prostitutes. Well mostly. What I’ll say is this; there is always an option for more.” Shaking our heads, Vincent and I can’t help but laugh at where we have found ourselves. They don't make places like this in Cambridge. The bars here, and many others in Addis are formed from shipping containers. In places like this it's best just to order beer since well.. you know what's inside. Vincent decides to get a ‘black label’ whiskey. One sip of digust and I see why sticking with beer is the right choice. A pick-pocket is attempted on my wallet-less pocket (I'm not an idiot) and we decide to move on.
Morally questionable dancing is the best way to describe what followed. Not questionable in the dancing itself but what it was supporting. Anytime the women danced with someone at the bar/club they would ask for a drink. As Ziggy said 'more was an option'. They must have made some sort of commission from the bar depending on how many drinks they ‘sold’. Prostitution is not illegal in Ethiopia and endemic in the capital. Some estimates go over 100,000 daily workers. Many corners are patrolled each night and Chechnya we find out, is the epicenter. “I take my wife here” Ziggy assures us, but I'm not sure how that makes it any better. Although they didn't all seem to be pursuing their dreams, many of the women seemed.. just fine: not strung out, underage or otherwise miserable. Yet Vincent and I are unsure of what to make of all of this. On one hand, neither of us want to support this type of economic venture, on the other it's a very unique experience for us North Americans and just like the ocean, the waves are going to crash on the shores of Chechya whether we are here to see it or not.
On our way out of mini-Vegas, we pass that first bar and the same girl run after us. They make initial contact (more of a full on assault) but we are veteran pro’s now and continue onwards. After using the wall-urinal, we make a taxi ride to Jostein. “You can’t come in here like that” the bouncer tells me, eyeing my shorts. I'm turned away from the door but It's alright, my night has been eventful enough. What contrasts I continue to find here.