GPS coord.
lat.: 9.30976
lon.: 42.1273
Hassle and the Hyena Man of Harrar
May 18, 2005

Harrar is the only Muslim enclave in a very Christian country.  Ancient walls surround the town made up of more than 300 narrow twisting alleys.  But the only reason that I wanted to go was to see the hyenas.  Hyenas wander the streets at night, and the famous Hyena-man of Harrar will let you feed wild hyenas for a fee.  There is no way that I could resist a 300-mile detour to feed a hyena.

I bought a first-class ticket on an overnight train to Harrar.  The seats in first-class were large and comfortable.  But, the train stopped every 45 minutes.  The lights came on and people rushed on and off the train.  What little sleep I got that night, I got in 45-minute increments. 

A pair of soldiers joined us and stood at the front of our train car.  At first, I thought that they were passengers, but soon realized that they were guards.  At every stop, they would jump out and watch for trouble.  I've grown accustomed to seeing guns, but these soldiers were fully outfitted for war - carrying grenades, and extra clips of ammunition.  I don't know if these are the usual precautions, or if things were extra tense due to the upcoming election.

While it was still dark, the train arrived in Dire Dawa.  I changed to a mini-bus for Harrar.  It was remarkably efficient.  Two mini-buses were waiting in front of the train station.  I got in one.  Five minutes later, it filled up with passengers, and we were off again.

When I heard Harrar described as an ancient, walled, Muslim city, I pictured heat, sand, and desert; especially since Harrar lies near the border of scorching Eritrea.  Instead, I discovered that Harrar is up in the hills.  The mini-bus climbed up through a sea of fog and kept climbing higher into the hills

Harrar at Sunrise

Chat eater

Firewood vendors

Chat vendors

Harrari girls.

We arrived in Harrar, just as the sun rose.  I decided to take advantage of the good light, as I'm rarely awake this early, and wandered aimlessly for an hour taking photos, before checking into a hotel, and passing out for a very long nap.

Harrar was established 500 years ago, but other than the massive wall that surrounds the town, nothing substantial remains from that time.  I passed away 3 days just wandering through the streets and alleys of Harrar. 

After years of traveling the world, I'm jaded and not easily impressed, but the markets of Harrar are amazing.  Wow!  The women dress in bright colors and patterns:  bright oranges, yellows, greens, blue and golds.  Individually the women were impressive, but crowded together in a market the incredible clash of colors was beautiful and overwhelming.

In addition to Harrar being famous for hyenas, it's also known for its chat (the local drug of choice - originally from Yemen).  It was bizarre, but it seemed that the markets sold nothing but chat.  If you wanted food, or tools you had to look hard for them.  But, chat was for sale everywhere. 

My first night in Harrar was filled with excitement and anticipation.  Will I see a hyena??  The anticipation was fulfilled.  Walking back from dinner, a hyena rushed past; jogging down the main street.  I rushed after him to get a better look until one of the locals warned me that it's best not to get too close.

The excitement of seeing Hyenas never left me even after being in Harrar for a couple of days and seeing lots of them.  All night, Hyenas walked through the large soccer field behind the Tewodros hotel.  If you hung out there for a while you were guaranteed to see at least one. 

Hyena Man

Hyena #2

Hyenas are bizarre creatures.  They are a cross between a dog and a really ugly teddy bear.  Like giraffes, their front legs are longer than their back legs, giving them a crazy lopsided lop instead of a proper run.  And, instead of barking or howling with dignity, the Hyenas laugh all night.  The hyena might be a runner-up for the world's strangest beast (with the platypus, of course, being the clear winner).

On my last night in Harrar, I went to see the Hyena man.  For 50 birr (US$6), I could feed the hyenas and take pictures.  If you're in Ethiopia, it's something that shouldn't be missed.  The Hyena Man puts a piece of raw meat on the end of a stick, and then the hyenas slowly and cautiously come right up to your face to take the meat from you.

What amazed me most was that the Hyena Man had cats and dogs as pets.  The cats, the dogs, and the hyenas all get along perfectly.  And, I asked the Hyena Man if the hyenas ever ate the local kids.  "No, never", he responded.  Amazing!

I was almost pick-pocketed my first week in Africa.  At the time, it freaked me out a bit, and I was shaken up afterwards.  Now, a year later, in Harrar, I was almost pick-pocketed again.  Africa has toughened me up a bit.  This time, I took it in stride, and almost came out ahead. 

Some Australians I met in Addis had arrived in town and I was walking across Harrar with my backpack to join them at their hotel.  A middle-aged man grabbed strongly onto my arm and begged for money.  I thought he was just a little bit crazy, until I felt a hand on my pocket.  His partner was trying to pickpocket me. 

I grabbed my pocket with my left hand, and the guy behind me with my right hand.  I turned and saw a much younger guy.  I had a good hold of his sweatshirt, but he wiggled out of it and took off at a jog.  I turned around again to find that the original guy was gone too.  They'd both disappeared, and I was left standing there with a sweatshirt in my hand.  I checked my pockets, and was very happy to find that nothing was missing. 

Adrenaline rushed through my body from the excitement, but my biggest reaction was amusement.  Two guys tried to pick pocket me and I came out ahead!  I skipped away, with my backpack on my back and my new sweatshirt in my hand.  But, two minutes later, the young guy was back.  He kept a distance, but insisted that he wanted his sweatshirt back.  I yelled "thief" ("laybah") at him in Amharic, but he argued back that he wasn't a thief and pleaded for his shirt.  I decided to avoid any further trouble, and threw the shirt to him. 

The pickpocket attempt wasn't a real problem.  It instantly became an anecdote to laugh about with my friends.  But unfriendly attitudes and constant hassle in Harrar got to me.  Some of the locals were smiling and laughing in town, but not nearly enough.  I heard a constant echo from the kids in Harrar - "give money, give money."  In Addis, the shouts of "You, you, you" never bothered me, because the kids were being friendly.  But, demands for money quickly grated on my nerves.

In one narrow alley, a little girl of perhaps 7 years old, hissed "hitd" at me, which is a rude way of saying, "go away, scat, scram".  It stopped me in my tracks.  I am accustomed to kids in small towns being super-friendly and happy to meet foreigners, so her hostility was a total shock.  She kept hissing "go away" at me.  There was no one else around.  I wasn't sure if I should obey her command and leave, or if I should beat her with a stick for being so rude.

Then, I had one really bad day.  I was talking to a woman in a chat market about taking her photo, when another woman looked at me with a look of hatred and motioned like she was going to tear my throat out with her bare hands.  After that disturbing incident, I walked over to another chat market on the other end of town.  I'd been there the day before and paid some people 1 birr ($0.12) to take their photo.  That was a mistake. 

When I went back, a crowd of kids all wanted their photos taken.  I told them to go away and they wouldn't listen.  Using my tripod as a club, I jokingly chased them away.  But, they came right back.  Then I seriously chased them away using my tripod as a club.  And again, they came right back.  Then I lost it.  I snapped.  I was ready to kill someone - or at least kick the shit out of a little kid.  This has only happened to me once before in India.  I couldn't deal with anyone for a while.  I found a spot under a tree and slowly calmed down over the period of an hour, politely screaming at anyone who tried to come near.

My father proofreads all of these journal entries before I post them.  Thanks Dad!  Along with fixing some bad punctuation, he was concerned about how Ethiopians would feel about me wanting to beat up their kids for being rude, and also worried that I might get in trouble if I actually hit a kid.

I've been away too long and have too much forgotten how different life is in America.  From my Lonely Planet guidebook:

    "The dula is the chosen traveling companion of almost every Amhara man.  A kind of hardwood staff, measuring about 3 feet long, it serves a variety of purposes:  to carry loads to and from market, to brace the shoulders on long treks, to lean on during never-ending church services, and to defend oneself in times of need." 

If an Ethiopian waves a stick at a kid, the kid will obey instantly because kids know the adult will use it.  But these kids had no respect for me as a foreigner, thinking that I wouldn't hit them, and they were probably right. 

And so, when it was time to leave Harrar, I was ready to go.  I barely got any sleep on the train, so I decided to join my friends, on the slightly more expensive mini-bus for the ride back.  The mini-buses depart at 2am, so the obvious choice was to go out drinking. 

I started drinking at 9pm.  By midnight, I was tipsy.  By 2am, I was standing in front of the hotel with my backpack, very drunk, watching hyenas, and waiting for the minibus.  But by 3:30am, I was still standing there, exhausted, and already starting to sober up, when the mini-bus finally arrived. 

It seemed that I wasn't the only one who had troubles in Harrar.  My friends paid a deposit to a tour guide reserving their place on a minibus.  But when the mini bus showed up, they're told this is not the one that they paid the deposit for.  Both their minibus and deposit had disappeared.  The tour guide was staying at our hotel, so my friends woke him up.  An ugly fight ensued, but they never got any of their deposit back. 

4am.  I'm exhausted, sober, and miserable; ready for the minibus to finally depart for Addis Ababa, but instead it circles for another hour looking for more passengers making me all the more miserable.

Amazing Sunrise

We don't leave until just before sunrise.  But the delays paid off.  As we descended from Harrar, the sunrise lit up the green hills with magical shades of orange and gold.  It was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.  That one sunrise more than made up for all the troubles that I had in Harrar.

I can't help but wonder and fear if my negative experiences in Harrar forebode problems on the road ahead.  I'm about to start traveling through a bunch of Muslim countries.  I'm worried that the next 6 months of my life might be full of hassle and hostility.

Leave a comment!  I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading. 

Sebastian - Sept 06, 2005

Domesticated hyenas...?  great idea :) next please.  lions?

Carmel - Sept 09, 2005

oh my GOD, Adam!!!  I thought you meant you feed the hyenas with a very LONG stick!  Not get up right in their face!  The rest of the Harrar experience sounds very unpleasant, but that hyena encounter seems like it must have been a totally worthwhile adventure.  Dang!  Up close and personal with a HYENA!

Philip - Sept 12, 2005

Hey Adam
probably being a bit lazy here as Im sure you have your itinerary somewhere but which Muslim countries are you off to next?
Keep up the good work by the way

barce - Sept 13, 2005

I need to get me a dula.  :)

Inga - Oct 01, 2005

Reading it I could understand how important is to keep your spirits high.
Even though you know about the country, and I am sure that you had got all possible information before travelling,surprises arise.
I would be devastated by such hospitality...  and would never visit such countries again.
As about your neverending travels I wish you to believe in good destiny.
Thanks for sharing the story:)

nathan cook - Dec 08, 2005

hi adam im nathan a londoner you met in uganda and addis along with my girlfriend julia.sorry to hear about your shitty experiences in harar.we found the people of harar very friendly but the kids could be a bit of a pain in the arse. 
in addis two guys tried to pickpocket me in the same useless way the two tried to rob you in harar, they should maybe watch an old oliver twist movie and take some lessons.
are you still heading towards turkey and iran next year,we were there earlier this year and had a great time travelling through these two great muslim countries,but i must say the people of iran are very intense especialy towards english and americans.they can be very hostile at times , maybe this is tobe expected considering the time.
anyway adam happy travels and did the guy steven from south africa finally get out of the youth hostel in addis after his friends trevor and rositta left after not being able to secure a visa for the sudan.if you have his or trevors e mail could you pass it on as trevors web site doesnt seem to be working, was i zulu
happy new year and are in eygpt still?
nathan and julia english couple kampala and addis and next????

banshee - Jan 21, 2006

Adam, did the Hyenas pee on you and the food?


No...  should they?

Just as a side-bit of trivia:  In parts of Asia I believe it is considered good luck if a gecko urinates on you.


basliel - Sept 04, 2006

What is adventure without all the excitements you mentioned!  Come on Adam, It reminds me of Shaft in Africa movie of the 70's filmed exactly where you were at.  Write a script right now before you venture into real dangerous places!

Basliel the Ethiopian

basliel - Sept 04, 2006

What is adventure without all the excitements you mentioned!  Come on Adam, It reminds me of Shaft in Africa movie of the 70's filmed exactly where you were at.  Write a script right now before you venture into real dangerous places!
Basliel the Ethiopian

- Apr 18, 2007

strange safe

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