A merkato through the eyes of a firanji

Soon after arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a week's visit, I began to hear about "the largest open-air market in all of Africa." It supposedly covered 50 square blocks: an endless array of vendors selling everything from retread tires to colorful spices to hand-woven baskets the size of a washing machine.

Desperately hoping to go, I envisioned the setting. Growing up in the American Midwest, I'd thumbed through my parents' National Geographics and had flipped through weighty coffee table books about Africa. Then there was that episode of the TV show "Alias" where the CIA agent meets her contact in the back of a market stall in Africa. They all painted a clear picture of what I was sure I'd see at the Ethiopian merkato.

First of all, it would probably be a spacious, expansive plaza, packed with vendors selling exotic fruits and native wares. There would be bare-breasted women with rich, dark skin wearing beaded jewelry and balancing items on their heads. Photogenic children would probably be everywhere. And, naturally, I would barter intelligently to get low prices for quality goods. It would be an unforgettable experience, something to tell my friends and family about once I returned to the United States. Ready for adventure, I was undeterred by my guidebook's warnings about potential dangers at the market.

So when my Ethiopian friend Yalem offered to take me to the merkato, I jumped at the chance. Born and raised in Addis, Yalem now lives in my hometown of Boston. She was visiting Ethiopia on business and needed to buy children's clothing and gifts. She invited me to join her.

The morning of our outing, I put 300 birr (about US$35) in my pocket and strapped sturdy sandals onto my feet. Yalem met me and we hopped on a bus. The closer we got to the market, the wider my eyes grew. Instead of a spacious and colorful plaza, it occupied a series of dirt streets threading between mud-and-straw structures and shacks made of tin. The rickety shanties shaded people selling everything from woven rugs to plastic toys. I was unprepared for the dusty, jerry-built structures, the masses of people, and the dozens of burros and goats moseying along the streets.

We hopped out of the bus near the spice aisles. The sweet scent of chilies and the rancid odor of homemade butter overwhelmed me. Vendors squatted in shacks while women sat on the dirt in front of their stalls, selling dried chilies or hair products spread out on plastic bags.

Turmeric, cracked wheat, cardamom, and other ground spices and seeds filled large baskets and bags. Fine powders (yellow, beige, rust-colored) were heaped into tall cone shapes that towered high above their containers, creating two-foot-tall towers of curry.

Yalem and I picked up handfuls of seeds and powders as she asked in Amharic (the local language) what they were, what they were used for, and how much they cost. Not only was everything presented in bulk, but it was also well-sampled. Many shoppers took a handful of seeds or powder to test it, running it through their fingers before deciding whether to buy. Many spice vendors also sold butter piled in dirty, foot-tall heaps. Like me, the yellow pyramids were sweating in the intense sun.

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").

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.

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