"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 44

Tulgit, Ethiopia           July 5, 2014

One evening, while I was staying in the Surma people's village of Tulgit, some local women gathered and danced. They made jerky motions, bending their upper bodies forward and moving to the rhythm. They danced happily in their green cloths, with their shiny black breasts showing. I and my young friends weren't allowed to join them, because we were unmarried men. But, a married Surma man in Western clothes danced briefly.
     I really loved the Suri!
     The following day, I walked through the village. As always, I passed groups of men wearing cloths and holding AK-47s. These groups of men always intimidated me. I usually greeted them with "tselli" (the Suri word for 'peace'), and they usually responded with welcoming words and hand-shakes. But on this day, two men ignored my greeting. They stared at me coldly. They cradled their AK-47s, the long guns which resembled Star Wars star trooper weapons and which gave them a power they were addicted to.
     I took this as a bad sign.
     Around this same time, a shirtless Chinese man appeared. A young traveler, he wanted to take videos of the Surma tribe. He seemed clueless to the dangers of this region. And when I told him about the existence of a disease called malaria, his eyes grew big. "Uh oh!"
     He began sharing my guesthouse with me.
     In the morning, I gave a free English lesson to a Surma boy named Peteros. Peteros wore Western clothes, dreamed of becoming the world's best soccer player, and was a great student. Thankful for my lessons, he became my friend and accompanied me on jungle walks. I asked him: Would it be safe for me and Hong Min, the Chinese man, to climb a nearby mountain together?
     "It might be dangerous."
     Were the Surma people really so dangerous? Peteros' answer contributed to my growing feeling of discomfort.
     I compared the risks of a hike in Surma territory, to the risks of a night camping in my tent elsewhere. In other parts of the world, I felt safe from people when sleeping outside. I reasoned that all of the following had to happen, for me to be in danger:
     1. Someone had to see me.
     2. He must believe I had something of value.
     3. He must want what I had.
     4. He must be the type of person, mean and aggressive, who'd rob another.
     5. He must believe he could succeed in overpowering/intimidating me.
     6. He mustn't be afraid of getting caught.
     7. In the end, he must overcome his nervousness to actually do it.
     8. He must succeed. But, I was going to put up a fight.
     Seeing as how it was rare that anyone even saw me in my camping spots, I figured I was pretty safe.
     But, if I were hiking in a land of nomads, where half of the men carried AK-47s and everyone believed all whites were rich, then many of the requirements for danger were already met. And although the Suri seemed peaceful, this look was deceiving. They'd robbed Ulrike, the German woman, twice at gun-point; they'd shot the tire of an American man's car, and robbed other tourists in cars; and they killed each other all the time.
     I was living in a peaceful land full of killers.
     And I mustn't forget ...
     Bugu. My nemesis, Bugu. The harmless-looking Christian Surma boy. In an instant, he transformed into an alcoholic money-extorting authority figure in a khaki military uniform.
     I saw him, sometimes.
     Sitting in the grass of our village. Looking harmless. Calling me to him, with his friendly wobbly voice. He was not, as he'd claimed, the son of the American minister, Mr. John; nor did he live with him. Bugu was capable of any lie. Any deceit.
     Bugu was my nightmare. Oh, no ... what was that? That noise!? Behind you! Oh, no. It's Bugu! Aah!!!
     Terrified of Bugu, a bit less concerned about the AK-47s, I began to feel like I was in a prison in my guesthouse.
     At the same time, Hong Min's arrival attracted new visitors to the guesthouse. A Surma boy in a purple cloth, whose scratched face liked alcohol, and who served as Hong Min's friend/guide. Men with guns. An official guide, who - if he contacted Ethiopia's tourism authorities - could've forced us to employ him. Also ... Hong Min regularly paid the locals when he photographed them; he laughed that they always bought beer with his money.
     I had known that my adventure to the Surma people would end, once I started to feel uncomfortable. It seemed that now, after ten days here, was the time. Mr. John would be making the four-hour drive to the nearest city; and he had room in his car for me.
     Surma people gathered, to say good-bye to their friends who would travel with me and Mr. John. They were so beautiful. Soft-faced, smooth-skinned boys wore green or purple cloths. Bald girls with sympathetic eyes wore large clay discs inside the bottom of their ears, and their healthy young breasts curled upwards.
     Darn! I didn't want to leave these people.
     Mr. John started the car. And we drove off, towards the city of Mizan.
     In the countryside, we passed a woman doing laundry in a stream. I stuck my head out the window. Speaking the Suri's language, I yelled, "Keheo Mizana!" (We're going to Mizan!) I climbed back inside the car, and all the Surma passengers laughed. I'd gotten rather good at their language. A Nilo-Saharan language, it seemed easy.
     Or rather, it had seemed easy. I would be abandoning it now for Ethiopian Amharic, a Semitic language which seemed difficult.
     My final thoughts turned to the Chinese man.
     He had $60 cash and was seven hundred kilometers away from a place where he could access his bank account. When I'd left him, he was lying sick in bed and was covered in a rash. Nevertheless, he was confident he'd be able to attend and video-tape a Surma ceremony in the neighboring town.
     Whatever would happen to Hong Min?
     And also ...
     Was I a big coward?
     Or had I made the right decision?

"te she" (stay well),
the Modern Oddyseus

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