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krisek Harar - A travel report by Krys
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Harar,  Ethiopia - flag Ethiopia
17098 readers

krisek's travel reports

Harar. Hyena feeding in a charming old town.

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Hyena feeding is what attracts tourists to Harar. Yet, its charming whitewashed centuries-old centre has own qualities. It is wonderfully labyrinthine and calm. It has also great pavement cafes serving famous macchiato.

Hyena feeding
Hyena feeding
I was found by many official guides who wanted to show me the town. I was falling on my face, almost literally, and, as politely as I was able at that time, I made sure that they understood my physical state.

Anyway, an 18 year-old Teddy found me (this must have been a very popular name), a local guide, who did not give up that easily. I told him that I was going on the pre-bedtime stroll and did not care about the hyenas. Well, he claimed that I was really close to the feeding place, so I thought I might just do that. In fact, it was near but he took me the long way, because he wanted to show me more. He did not make this mistake on the way back - I made sure of that!

Mostly young hyenas came. I was surprised that they would come so close and look almost habituated, but still really shy. I came alone for the feeding and then these scavengers were more comfortable and approachable. But a group of wealthier locals arrived with their posh merc and the animals became more alert and increasingly more shy. I even felt sorry for the hyenas, yet I guess I should not have. They were in fact being fed, instead of taking to the wild and getting their food like all other wild animals.

And then again, these were just wild animals, which in a civilised world cannot even begin to compete with humans. And I guess Harar people developed this tradition of feeding through the respect to hyenas. But the ignorant local tourists chose to frighten them by sudden movements, approaching too closely and pointing German-made high beam headlights at them. I thought I was a bad tourist myself with my camera and flash invading this ritual, and then I realised how bad Ethiopian new-money tourist could be.

Anyway, I was glad that I went to see the feeding. Apparently it was being done to to satisfy the beasts so they would leave the cattle and the donkeys alone. And somehow it also became an attraction of Harar and the real reasons for the ritual became blurred.

Favourite spots:
Harar's old town alley. Mosque in the background.
Harar's old town alley. Mosque in the background.
I hit the town in the morning at 8:30am. I took my guide Teddy. I did not want to see any museums or markets and suddenly my guide struggled to fill the day with attractions for me. I obviously could not visit any of the 91 mosques since I was not Muslim. So, I spent the morning walking about the old town, visiting all of the six gates, strolling about the narrow lanes flanked by three meter tall mudbrick walls. It felt like walking in a labyrinth like a lab mouse. But I really loved that. It was so different from all those other places in Ethiopia, which were so Christian, and Harar felt so Muslim.

I eventually passed by the Muslim and cattle markets. They resembled those I saw in West Africa - large open-air area with flat hardened mud floor, chaotic and odoriferous. And even I had a peak inside one of the museums. Teddy also took me to a traditional Harar house, where a local family lived. I sat in their lounge as he explained the various parts of the household.

What's really great:
Smile! You're on Krys's camera! A little joy for poor little Ethiopians.
Smile! You're on Krys's camera! A little joy for poor little Ethiopians.
I asked Teddy if he had a donkey. He did not. I asked how much would a donkey be. He claimed that a hard working ass would cost approximately 800 birr (£43). I told him that if it was true then I might buy him one as a gratitude for him showing me the town. He took me to the donkey market and I got one. I could not believe how easy it was. No paperwork, no registration, no marking on the skin. A simple handshake! I bought a female ass, so perhaps she could produce more donkeys in the future. Then we took the animal to Teddy's mother's house. Teddy had a plan to rent the donkey to people. This should earn him approximately 100 birr a month. This was exactly in line with my strategy.

Then, it appeared that I had seen everything there was to see in the old town of Harar. And I was planning to stay another day in the town!Teddy proposed that I went to see a holy church, the reason of the annual pilgrimage. It was in a place called Kulubi, some 70 kilometres from Harar. Millions were going!

Inside a traditional Harar house
Inside a traditional Harar house
In Harar I found that not only was the Ethiopian calendar different, so was the clock! It was turned 180 degrees anticlockwise, e.g. it a had six hours lag. For example 8:30am by the European clock was 2:30am by the Ethiopian clock. Bizarre? When making appointments with the Ethiopians I had to be very careful and repeatedly state, by which clock the appointment was being made.

Anyway, the old Harar had 87 of interesting mosques and old houses, which were in a rather good condition, making Harar the place with a largest number of mosques squeezed into a square kilometre. The old town walls were also pretty complete, although some of the six gates were not. I was particularly fond of the whitewashed gate leading to the Christian market and the bus station. There were a few museums as well, including one of Rimbaud, a French poet, who lived in Harar as a trader in arms. UNESCO listed Harar as a World Heritage Site.

Small alley leading to a mosque in the old town.
Small alley leading to a mosque in the old town.
As soon as I secured a room at the Thewodros Hotel (which was close to a miracle due to the masses of pilgrims attending to Kulubi's St Gabriel festivities), I had to sit down to have a pint of fresh draft Harar beer - an intriguing phenomenon to brew beer in a Muslim town. Thewodros restaurant served it for 5 birr. I was indeed tired, I travelled all day from the north, and just before retiring I went for a short walk in the old town.

Anyway, the hotel was pretty bad. The room was infested with crawling insects, very Spartan, not clean, bedspread sticky and stained, and the room was minute - very small. It was also noisy. I could hear every single guest walking the corridors and even spraying their rooms with an insect killer in rooms across the corridor thirty meters away, the trucks and taxis passing by, and the hyenas fighting over garbage food! Hey, not like I had a choice! All hotels were full...

Alley in the old town.
Alley in the old town.
I let myself to be dragged to a nightclub. It was a bizarre one. It was based in an unfinished building. Naturally, prostitutes hoovered around. Some of them, I swear, looked like men. I stayed only until 11pm. I could not stand the character of the place.

I went to a much friendlier nightclub right opposite at the Tourist Hotel. I had a drink (a small bottle of Harar beer - well, I think there was only one size). It was a dodgy, shabby local hotel (my hotel Thewodros once was like that I was told), but the club was lively and packed with more regular people. It was very loud, so I could imagine how easy was to have a good night sleep there! Not!

The other club pretended to be upper scale, where waiters dressed in sparkle waistcoats roamed the venue and all guests were searched at the entrance. Very thoroughly (free massage)! Prostitutes were the predominant female character there. Although a few 'working girls' hovered at the Tourist as well.

View from Adil Cafe towards the Showa Gate.
View from Adil Cafe towards the Showa Gate.
When I arrived and took a short stroll I was kind of hoping to find at least one of the two recommended drinks places. I found both, one of which was no longer in business. And the other looked really uninviting, so I did not step in.

At lunch time the next day, I sat down at the Adil Cafe's balcony from which the Showa Gate of the old town was best viewed in the afternoon sun. The cafe’s position was perfect for people watching, particularly those who traded at the Christian Market. A good part of the old town and a table mountain were visible from the balcony, too. I snoozed at the Adil Cafe until tea time, watching people moving around, engaging in business, chatting, relaxing, watching others. It was like a theatre. And I was on the balcony enjoying it.

Resting by the road.
Resting by the road.
Quick shower after my first day of visiting and a short tuk-tuk ride later, I was sitting behind a small palm tree at the Rose Cafe & Restaurant sipping papaya juice through a white straw. I ordered pasta with tomato sauce, one of few non gut busting dishes from the menu. It was about twenty minutes before the arrival of darkness.

The juice was great. Pasta was slightly overcooked but otherwise not bad at all. The sauce was tasty and a little spicy, which made my day. The cafe filled up quickly. Locals (there must have been only about ten tourists in Harar at that time) came for coffees, macchiatoes, cakes and chips. The tables along the pavement full of people enjoying their snacks created a great atmosphere - almost Mediterranean. The speakers gave pleasant modern jazz, blues, soft reggae and country music. It felt like this place could be just anywhere on the planet. No such thing was available in Aksum or Gondar, or Bahir Dar in the central and northern Ethiopia.

Other recommendations:
St Gabriel's Church in Kulubi
St Gabriel's Church in Kulubi
The next day, I went to Kulubi, the place where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were going to celebrate St Gabriel.

The church was very modest and I really did not know what the entire hoo-ha was about. The crowd was infested with hundreds and hundreds of beggars, who frankly made it a terrible sight. Fortunately, a few giant tents were open playing funky music (local and foreign) and serving food and beer. I tried food, but I did not like the very sour pancake-like bread. And I did not trust the kitchens’ hygiene. There was no running water anywhere and the tents were literally pitched in the bush and the meat was hanging from hooks right behind the provisional bar, sweating in the hot weather. Flies crawled everywhere and I could only fix myself with some bread rolls and beer.

Returning to Harar was a challenge, as everyone was obviously going in the opposite direction. The celebrations were kicking off in earnest the next day. It took me forever to find a bus and travel back.

Published on Tuesday July 22th, 2008

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Wed, Jul 23 2008 - 04:15 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Thanks for the report.
You were lucky to assist to Saint Gabriel festival.
Hyenas must have changed since the last time I was in Harar (the year 2003). I remember some of their names: Charlie, Whiskey, and so on. And the hyenas obeyed to those names!
The man also, seems a younger one.
But the best of your report is your compassion towards Teddy buying him that burro. If all the tourists who spend their surplus of money to take pictures in far away countries helped the poor people there, this would be a much better world.

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