Ethiopian Journey: Room at the Inn
The first thing you notice about Eyerusalem’s place (pronounced “Jerusalem”) is the wind – wild and clean, whipping around her century-old compound as a full-moon night deep in October. But this night is in mid-May, weeks before the rains are supposed to come in Ethiopia.
I have come to this country in search of, I am not sure what. My career launched here some 28 years ago smack in the middle of what was to become one of the many famines this country and its neighbors on the Horn of Africa would come to know as ghostly companions in the years ahead. I came not with ships of grain at that time. I came with only a pen and paper to record the grim surroundings. Perhaps it was those memories that drew me back in some vague wish for closure.
I have not been in Addis Ababa long, a week or two slogging from hotel to hotel in search of the right fit. It’s a goldilocks porridge of hapless choices – the top business hotels are pricey, but offer cleanliness, electricity, 24-hr hot water, internet (for a fee) and dependable electrical outlets that won’t destroy your equipment. The lower caste government hotels are still expensive for what they offer – not so clean sheets, not so available hot water, not so dependable electricity and a certain seediness that all the world’s Dettol could not wash out.
But at Abbaba’s Villa Guest House, the feel was just right. The wind blew open the wooden portals and inside, I walked into a 1930’s living room. Eyerusalem could not have planned it this way. No. All this was here long before her time. The chairs, the teak wood tables, the carved Ethiopian decorations, the sloping bookshelves and gallery of framed photos of emperors and princes. Tattered here and there, crooked, chipped, not quite right, I could see this was the living room of someone who lived here before: Eyerusalem’s grandparents and a grandmother who was god daughter to the once and eternal emperor of Ethiopia: Haile Selassie, who lived nearby.
Eyerusalem lived there as a child in the 1960s and ‘70s, when turmoil turned to coups and the emperor was taken in a Volkswagen to a prison called “end of the world,” where he would die in 1975. Her living room walls hold portraits of nobles – family members who ran the country as generals and ministers, the force behind the Lion of Judah and the strength that kept Ethiopia as the only country in Africa to escape European colonization.
Although it is a guesthouse now, it is a ghost house. The furniture in the living room and family areas are the same as they were in their mid-
century heyday, just a little dustier and worn. But the house seems to float with spirits – and the animated laughs and stories that Eyerusalem tells over breakfast on the terrace.
When I arrived there, I knew it was a coming home of sorts. A promised land in the outskirts of a tough city plagued with poverty, traffic, broken and dusty streets and a sense of progress caught up in some sort of Groundhog Day of the Dark Ages. The Russians are out and the Americans are in. But the city stays the same; just more cracked and bruised for it.
But at the Abbaba Villa Guest House I was somewhere else. There was space to breath and think, and a proud history to touch. Eyerusalem had lived in the U.S. for much of her life but decided to come back to Ethiopia – never married and alone—with a backbone made of stone and a dream to make Addis her home again. Her long untied hair hugs her face like a lion’s mane and a wide, disarming smile lets guests know they are safe and in strong, caring hands.
Abbaba’s Villa Guest House has only eight rooms, all large spaces with connecting bathrooms. Beds are comfortable, linens are clean, fresh air streams through the windows overlooking the gardens and all is quiet here. Four dogs share the compound; two of them are gentle and well-cared-for housedogs – something that is rare to find in a country where death and life dwell so close together.
But Eyerusalem’s house is full of life. Couples from Germany, Holland and the U.S. find themselves there, waiting for their newly adopted children to be processed. There are babies playing on blankets on the terrace and new parents-to-be getting help and comfort from Eyerusalem on their long journey to parenthood. Ethiopia has become a new international adoption hot spot and many couples choose the hominess of Abbaba’s guesthouse over the Hilton or Radisson in the center of the city.
And the price is right: $60-$90/night buys the spacious atmospheric surroundings along with coffee, eggs and potatoes in the morning and computer email access. Just outside the gates, Addis Ababa awaits. Cars and people crowd the skinny winding streets; shacks sell needed supplies; goats ply what grass there is, and buses head into town.
But I stay behind the gate and dance with Eyerusalem to the new Teddy Afro album playing on her bedroom stereo. I am far from my country but with Eyerusalem I am home.
ABBABA’S VILLA GUEST HOUSE
Photos courtesy of Lark Ellen Gould Copyright © 2012. For more of Lark’s exotic peregrinations, go to Larkslist.com1 comment