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A merkato through the eyes of a firanji

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Next we walked past the shacks where tires, baby clothes, and cooking oil, among other things, were sold. Then we entered the covered part of the market, where we found Ethiopian kitsch in ready supply. What looked like a former warehouse housed more than 100 merchants, some in stalls only two feet wide. Vendors' eyes lit up when they saw me - as a firanji, a foreigner, they could try to sell me their wares at twice the normal price. Yalem and I stopped to examine jewelry, scarves, tablecloths, crudely carved African animals, traditional dresses, baskets, and tacky knockoffs of designer shoes (the shoes, interestingly, were marked "Imported from China").

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The baskets caught my eye, and I ended up buying four apricot-sized purple-and-white baskets for US$2. Yalem had bargained the vendors down from their initial asking price of US$3.50. I felt silly bargaining, as the price was already so cheap by my Western standards. But Yalem insisted. She said it wasn't fair to us or to future foreigners to allow double-charging to prevail as the standard.

As we wandered away from the baskets, Yalem stopped to examine a silver cross. After a spirited discussion in Amharic with the vendor, she pulled my arm and we walked away. She laughingly told me, "He was overcharging me because I'm with you." I found I was shy about purchasing things; I felt awkward and uncertain and knew just a few words of Amharic. The baskets were my only purchase. Despite my earlier visions of bravado, I much preferred observing to buying.

There was so much to see! Yalem was my guide, speaking Amharic, which enabled me to absorb everything around me: the beautiful whiteness of smiles that spread across light brown faces; the cat walking through the dried chili peppers spread out on a plastic bag; the chickens for sale squawking in crude wooden cages. I smelled diesel fumes and heard the constant honking of car horns. A thin, morose girl followed me for several blocks in silence. Burros moved unhurriedly through the traffic.

For all its texture, the merkato was not particularly colorful, romantic, or exotic. It was really just a third-world mall, but it was fascinating. My well-meaning pocket guide notwithstanding, never once did I feel unsafe.

As interesting as it was for me - a girl born and raised in rural Illinois - to see an African market in action, I realized that there was nothing remarkable about it to anyone there. Vendors and buyers were simply trying to make a living, buy everyday items, and feed their families. This wasn't some staged exhibition of traditional Ethiopian life provided for my entertainment. This was life - with all the messiness, haggling, stress, and laughter that seem to go along with it.

And the fact that the market was dirty, ramshackle, overcrowded, and not all that photogenic wasn't at all disappointing to me. It was just different. If anything, the scruffiness made it more authentic. And not only were all the women I saw fully dressed, but also none of them were balancing things on their heads.

My trip to the merkato taught me not to have expectations about other markets in Africa. I'll go in with my eyes wide open, receptive to whatever a particular city and country have to offer.

And next time, I'll wear close-toed shoes.