My Arrival In Mekelle

Today’s Synopsis:

  • Mango/Avocado juice is actually really good
  • I made it to Ethiopia without any injury or loss
  • Tibs are phenomenal
  • I can’t dance (but we already knew that)


Spriz mango and avocado. A concoction that can be found on every corner in Mekelle, this blended and then layered fruit-based, suspiciously viscous treat was to be my first meal. Sitting outside the street-side shop in plastic chairs, we watched the evidence of Ethiopian’s wet season under the protection of an awning. Classically raining for just about an hour or two a day, the low-set, dark, heavy clouds authoritatively notified us of their already obvious presence with a deep, bass-heavy rumble without the theatrics of a flash. Positioned on an incline, the paved streets were soon lined on either side with rapidly moving brown liquid streams resembling gutters along a bowling lane. Peppered with occasional hail, I couldn’t help but notice that no-one had umbrellas nor had the facial expression I’m used to when observing someone is caught in the rain. The sheer panic and distress that I normally appreciate is replaced with calm acceptance. This is the norm for them; my new norm.

I was joined by Erin, a global women’s health fellow from UIC who I had met in Mekelle in November and have since become friends with. I arrived in the middle of her 2-week trip here to continue her research. We comfortably sat under our rectangle of protection absorbing the sights and smells while I recounted my travels to Mekelle earlier that day.

I was planning an entire post on the traveling experience, but it was surprisingly smooth. A super shuttle to Dulles, a 13.5 hours flight, a 5 hour layover culminated by a 1.5 hour flight to Mekelle. There’s nothing to elaborate on, it was as normal as it could have been. My highlight of the trip came from the 5 and 11 year old girls I sat next to on the plane. Polite as can be, the 11yo opened up her introduction to me, not with her name, but with a question: “what is your favorite animal?” Caught by surprise and deficient of a stock answer, I replied “giraffe.”  She smiled and turned away to dig in her bag. Although she left me confused, she seemed satisfied with my answer. About 45 seconds later, she handed me an autographed single-line drawing of two of my favorite animals. And people still wonder why I went into peds.


My biggest concern for the past couple of months had been centered around the medical supplies that had been donated to this mission. Other physicians doing mission trips to Ethiopia explained the trouble encountered when traveling with medical equipment. Confiscation, long delays in the airport and disappointment. I took great care to pack my bags carefully, created proper documentation and was mentally prepared for the worst. However, I checked my bags through to Mekelle and they arrived when I did. Beaten, but complete.

My first night in Mekelle couldn’t have been better. Mentally blurred from sleep deprivation, I met up with Erin and her Spanish friends (Judith, Alina, John and Judith’s Ethiopian boyfriend Joseph). The place of choice was a “traditional restaurant.” Before entering you’re greeted by heavy bass at the rate and rhythm of a heartbeat setting the pace of an unwavering, upbeat music. The entryway to the right was a line of sinks and a huge open dining hall full of elaborate wooden chairs and tables. The walls were lined with elegant single person armchairs which neatly lead towards that back of the restaurant. Based on first glance, I estimated about 100 people in total. The back wall featured a large glass window pane with copious hanging meats and 5 butchers efficiently stripping every last morsel of meat from whatever animal du jour. It was a mesmerizing site and I had trouble looking away as piles of meat formed only to be whisked away into a back room somewhere.

After sampling each of the 3 beers offered, I settled on St. George which reminded me of New Castle. Beer in hand, my attention turned to the dance floor which was jammed with people. All performed variations of the same traditional dance. Its posture reminded me of a standing relaxed tripod or sniffing position with the shoulders forward and the chin lifted. The hands were held somewhere near the hips and all the action centered at the shoulders. Quick, rapid jerks (up and back) of the shoulders to the rhythm. Appearing simple, but on the first attempt, clearly difficult. The stage featured two bands which would alternate every song. Sounds silly until you realize that each song usually lasts 20 mins.

From my limited experience with Ethiopian food, I knew Tibs were awesome small fried pieces of meat. We ordered by the kilo and when it arrived at our table, my decision to come to Ethiopia was officially justified. Using the injera (spongy bread) to grab the morsels of meat reminded me of crab picking oddly and was nearly just as good. What put it over the top was the addition of meat-meata (that’s what it sounds like, I have no idea how to spell it). A red spice that tasted extremely similar to old bay seasoning, adding to my Maryland crab fantasy. This went on for hours and I loved it.


To culminate, we transitioned to an empty cobblestone street lured by the now familiar low-frequency vibrations. All of us (by this point we had picked up another 4 people) danced the night away to some unknown hour. At some point in the night, I had stepped out onto this barren street to absorb the reality I had somehow ignored up until this point… I live in Mekelle, Ethiopia.

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