The Once-Forbidden City of Harrar

HyenaHarrar is an ancient walled city near the border of Somalia, and until a few months ago was off-limits for Peace Corps Volunteers. Now that we’re allowed to travel there freely, we jumped at the opportunity. It’s a 10-hour bus ride from Addis, so only four of us braved the road; the other five decided to fly. When we all arrived, the first thing we did was head out to see the infamous hyena man.

Just on the outskirts of the city, a man emerges from his house every night at dusk. He lures out hyenas with scraps of raw meat, and teaches visitors how to feed them by mouth. At first, the idea seems insane. The first sights of a hyena up close are strange and exciting. They’re like some spotted mix of cat, dog and bear, lurking in the darkness.

The longer we watched, the more we saw their timid side. Surrounded by people, these hyenas were way out of their element. They cautiously emerged from the shadows, swiped the meat, and ran back into the darkness. All nine of us stepped up, and all nine of us kept our faces.

Camel MarketOur next mission was camels. About an hour outside the city of Harrar is a town called Bilbile. Twice a week, Bilbile hosts a camel market where thousands of camels are collected for buying and selling. We arrived a little late, so we saw maybe a hundred camels. Average price for a camel: 20,000 birr (over $1,000). We got up close, took pictures, then walked down to the tents where they were serving camel milk. I shared a cup with two other people. I thought it was a little smoky. A few sips were enough for me.

Bilbile is also known for their natural sparkling water, and the “Valley of the Marvels,” which are a few giant rocks balanced naturally on small pedestals. It was interesting, but not quite worthy of the term marvelous.

Camel T'ibsAfter Bilbile, we decided to go back to Harrar and try the camel meat. Looking like tourists inside the old walled city, a young girl ambitiously offered to help. She led us to the butcher shop where you buy the raw camel meat, and we pitched in to buy a kilo. She then led us through the narrow paths to a small shop with two tiny benches and handed the meat over to a woman behind the counter. The shop was hot and clammy, and filled with flies. In 20 minutes, the camel meat came out on a pile of injera. We timidly dipped in, and fed ourselves the chewy meat. Nothing spectacular. Not entirely delicious. Just meat piled on injera. I don’t think any of us were too thrilled, and we ended up leaving the majority on the plate. Then the bill came. It was in the form of a round number that made our jaws drop. Clearly the girl wasn’t helping out of the kindness of her heart. She saw dollar signs in place of our faces. There was no arguing the price though, after it was cooked. Rookie mistake. We forked over her exorbitant fee.

So I had enough of the walled city for one day, and met the rest of our group out for a beer. The beers were served in mugs with the logo of Ato Condom. (Mr. Condom, that is.) He’s shaped like a condom and has a big thumbs-up to support using protection. What a fantastic place to advertise.

Factory TourOur third day was a visit to the infamous beer factory. Among Peace Corps Volunteers, Hakim Stout is the favorite of Ethiopian Beers. It’s brewed in Harrar, along with a few other varieties. If you want to tour the factory, we were warned to wear close-toed shoes. Unfortunately, I never wear close-toed shoes.

When we got to the gates, we read the sign: Must Wear Shoes. We considered sandals shoes, but the guy at the gate didn‘t. Christina, our ever-most persistent volunteer, insisted that we speak to the manager. A few minutes later we were walking up the stairs to a cushy office with a big desk. A lady sat behind the desk and made small talk for awhile. She then asked our shoe size and brought out three boxes of shoes. “Don’t tell your friends about this,” she warned with a smile.

After our brief tour with a spirited guide, we were informed that it was time to try the beer and we were to invite him. We agreed, and it was as fresh as you’d expect. Half-way through the beer, our brazen guide informed us that we should also invite him to lunch. Though it was only 11 a.m., Paul conceded to share some t’ibs.

A little while later we were back in the walled city, this time on the hunt for Shities, or what we Americans like to call Muumuus. The fabrics in Harrar are plentiful, colorful, and completely affordable. I bought two.

ShitiesBest. Decision. Ever.  You wouldn’t believe how comfortable they are. And it’s the hot fashion in Harrar. Almost every woman you see is wearing one.

On our last day, we decided to have a photo shoot and wear them to dinner. It was loud and fabulous.

Harrar just might be my favorite city in Ethiopia yet.

One response to “The Once-Forbidden City of Harrar

  1. Pingback: Four Months of Madness | Ityop'ia

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