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The Amber Nectar

A Local Encounter that Changed my Perspective - Hard Knock Life

ETHIOPIA | Tuesday, 16 April 2013 | Views [156] | Scholarship Entry

They have bars in smallsville, Ethiopia. I have no idea why I assume there isn't but it's a noticeable sense of surprise that leads us in. Not that the mud shack looks different to every other on the dust road but I guess after a schlep through underground chapels in Lalibela you kind of sniff the lingering scent of expectant salivation. We shuffle along a bench parallel to one of three allocated walls. The bar, also regulation mud, takes up the remainder of the square room. There are no tables in the centre, as if we've walked into a mini ballroom on competition evening.

Leaning against a richly woven rug cushioning the wall from droves of past patrons I watch the Buna bedecked barmaid passing between tables and tender, taking orders and delivering drinks – I guess the red stuff to be wine, the bottles I recognise as Bati beer (a light local lager), and some thick yellow concoction in conical flasks. The crowd is about half and half locals and tourists.

Our interpreter, Negasi, has been regaling tales but stops to shoot a mischievous grin in response to my questions; 'what is that drink? And why is there so much space when it's so busy?'

Negasi sweeps the grin off his face and tells us of the sleepy monk in the hills who take services which take two hours a week of his time and guard his chapel from looters. 'He drinks.' Negasi explains.

The barmaid appears at our table to take orders. The yellow drink is home-brewed honey beer, available in three options; weak, medium, and strong. The weak is 6%, the medium 9%, the strong 12%. Four mediums please.

She brings the apparatus over and like the charlatan connoisseurs we are we spend an age debating the intricacies of the strange brew. It's tasty, is the long, short and rest of it but we continue to be tourists until something sweeter floats in, recognisably the tones of a Kalimba – the African finger piano – I look round confused, there's no jukebox here surely. I'm right, there is no jukebox. There is however, the tender, in a rapture, circling the 'dancefloor'. After a dizzying round of rotations he comes to stand dead centre and stops with a flourish. Applause. He picks up the rhythm again. The barmaid re-appears, targets a person in the audience and starts an Amharic rap. She gives it about sixteen bars before turning on someone else. She points out one of our group. I ask Negasi what she is saying. He grins that grin again. 'She is taking the piss.'

I vow to burn every Jay-Z album I own.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2013

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