Our Adventure in Dire Dawa

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Here is a little bit about our trip while my buddy Pilar McCracken was just visiting. It was an action packed 16 days, and our main plan was to have a fashion adventure.
Much of my favorite printed material I have found in the eastern town of Dire Dawa. Their fabric of choice is a kind of rayon that is colorful, soft, cheap, breathable, and impossible to find in US. Pilar and I are like minded in these matters so I knew we would have a blast together if I took her on a fashion adventure with me.
Dire Dawa is beautiful, with lots of shady trees and big old stone buildings. There are two sides of the town divided by 200 meter “river”. Every time I have been there however, the river has been dry as a bone, dry enough for a whole second hand clothes market to set up, probably about 300 stalls, and sell their wares right in the middle of the river bed, with shady tent structures and all. But while we were there, every afternoon would be a serious and dramatic rainstorm. For about 1 hour, the streets themselves would turn into rivers, hail pounding down on the corrugated roofs, power outages all over the city, and we would be stuck somewhere. On our bajaj ride home to get dry (this happened almost every day), we would cross over the river and see it rippling and flowing fast with sandy reddish water. By the next morning it would be dry and dusty again, until the next rain storm. (About two years ago there was a flash flood on this river that killed about 200 people. There had been no rain in Dire Dawa that day, but the water had accumulated higher up in the mountains.)
The format of the christian side of town is long square blocks, and there are lots of big shady trees that line the streets. This side is also the home of the now defunct train station, a line that ran from Addis to Djibouti, the closest port after separating with Eritrea. It was built and overseen by the French and ran up until the 1980s. Now the train station is simply a vintage building, with a rusty old train car out front. It’s grand, as train stations tend to be, but not functional. All the ex train employees (Ethiopian), just hang around all day drinking tea and playing Pétanque! This side of the city is also home to a modest but very old branch of Alliance Française. There are two bridges in town that bring you across about 200 meters
The other side of the town is the muslim side. Markets, lively street scene, bustling business, street snacks, zooming bajajs etc can all be found there. Because Dire Dawa is the first stop in Ethiopia for merchants coming from Djibouti, you find a variety of things that are available here that never make it to Addis.
Pilar and I got right to fabric digging the evening we arrived. We found a whole row of fabric sellers in the covered market and started unabashedly shopping. The covered market is in a huge permanent building, with permanent stalls.
Pilar is now doing so well selling her prints down in New Orleans and online, she has collected a lot of art-business experience. So one of our ongoing conversations while she was here was about how all that works in this day an age. And Ive basically realized through a lot of our chats that I am just inches away from having my own thing happening— selling clothes that I make etc. With this in mind, I allowed myself to buy as much fabric as I wanted!
We found this guy with a sewing machine and a little stall named Mohammed, and got him to make a bunch of men’s shirts for us, leaving him with shirt assignments while we went nuts buying tons of fabric! So we spent the week hanging out with these tailors, and soaking up the local vibe.
At the end of the week, we took a minibus up the windy mountain road, across the empty lake with destination Harar. Beautiful old town (UNESCO site actually), home of beautiful sufi traditions, and a lot of Harar specific traditions, styles, stories– a strong and unique identity. I recently created some music for a film about Rimbaud– a kind of “Rimbaud from the point of view of Africans”, so I have had him on the mind, and have been imagining the world of Rimbaud a lot lately. So Pilar and I spent the day poking around the old walled city, getting lost, sampling regional yummy food in tiny restaurants, tried going to the Rimbaud museum, chatted with folks, bought fabric, heard some hyenas. We had coffee at women’s house who has a little guest house. Was fantastic coffee–specially spiced. That’s where the photo of me and Pilar was taken.
We stayed one night at the “backpackers favorite” hotel, owned by a really nice fellow named Mulugeta, whom I know from Addis. He’s a music lover so he comes to my shows when he’s around. The night was rainy, so we hung out on the covered patio of the hotel and played cribbage, and at night when we were going to sleep we could still kind of hear the hyenas through the pitter patter.
Harar was starting to wrap us up in its tendrils, and one thing was already leading to another, so we had to extract ourselves because we wanted to get back to Dire Dawa in time for the Pétanque competition! It was taking place at the Pétanque court in Alliance compound, and was arranged for the train workers. They have teams and it gets pretty competitive. Was so fun to watch. It of course started pouring so there was a bit of a break but the water quickly soaked in and the competition resumed. The team with the only girl won!
Petanque getting serious
When Pilar and I were leaving on the bus the next morning at 5 am back to Addis we were in for a surprise. We had bought so much fabric, we could barely carry it. It was still dark when we got to the bus station. We put our bags of fabric in line to be loaded into the luggage, and the bus company staff started rifling through. Girum, our cheerful buddy from the bus company, came over to us and said— you have to leave this stuff. They told us there were two customs checkpoints between Dire Dawa and Addis and that they would confiscate our bags of fabric. This made no sense to me. But Girum had been cool since I first met him when we first bought the tickets. He said leave the bags here in the bus ticket office and ask a friend to swing by and pick it up. I hesitated to do so since I didn’t understand why, but I kind of trusted Girum so we went about counting all the pieces of fabric to keep track of it all no matter what happened. But since I really didn’t get what Girum was talking about, I wanted to take some of it with us. So we stashed some in Pilar’s suitcase, hopped in the bus, leaving two giant bags with Girum back at the station.
About three hours in into the drive, the bus was pulled over and searched by officials. All the passengers took a seat on the boulders overlooking the vastness of Ethiopian mountains, the endless layers of silhouettes. The officials took their time. Finally they walked right over to me and Pilar, with a floppy pile of our precious fabric that we had carefully chosen and fallen in love with one by one.
“ What are you doing with all this?”
“We bought it in Dire Dawa”
“You can’t take this stuff. Its contraband.”
“But we bought it from well-established shops right in the middle of the city!”
“Do you have a receipt?”
“No they didn’t give us any receipts.”
“We will have to confiscate it all.”
“We are innocent tourists, how could we know?”
“You have to know how things work here”
“But how would we ever know to ask about that?”
The last two lines were looped about 15 times, everyone gradually getting more wound up. Finally I tried just to say we are really sorry, and he was like, “Ok you can take your stuff just this once.”
We heaved big sighs of relief and filed back on the bus. All the other passengers were kind of glancing at us. I was nervous because Girum had mentioned 2 checkpoints. We lucked out at the first one, but the second one could be more difficult because it is a junction closer to Addis where more roads convene.
The second checkpoint was a hot dusty field, with huge intimidating trucks parked every which way. I didn’t like this place one bit. Devoid of charm. Seemed like a place that hosted lots of bribery, lawlessness and draconian rules that make no sense. This time, I walked around to watch them rifle through our stuff, and noticed that every single suitcase contained at least like 2-5 pieces of the exact same fabric we had bought– Some of our same prints even! We made it out of there by the skin of our teeth too, after some public scolding and intimidation.
We got back to Addis safely with all the fabric we had brought, but still had to figure out how to get our other two bags back. Anyways …. Ive kind of figured out what happened. i think that Dire Dawa is kind of an unofficial duty free zone for merchandise coming from Djibouti (which is basically everything). It seems that even though there is no official separate zoning law regarding buying and selling in Dire Dawa as opposed to other places, things bought in Dire Dawa are not taxed the same way. And its fine for consumers in Dire Dawa, but as soon as individuals try to meddle and buy things in bulk in Dire Dawa with the plan of bringing them to Addis, this is where you get into trouble. Seems like this is how it has always been and its accepted and know by everyone.
After all the shenanigans with the fabric though, we just wanted to chill and luxuriate a bit. So I suggested we do a day trip out to Nazreth, a small vacation town about 150 kilometers away. My favorite hotel, called La Residence is a beautiful place owned by a a French and Ethiopian couple. The style is influenced by Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian aesthetic, but they actually do a pretty good job with all those influences. They have an infinity pool with a swim up bar, surrounded by a beautiful garden of bougainvillea of every color. Every room is unique and had outrageous tiled bathrooms and unique verandas. The place is like a masquerade ball background, but also very private and relaxing. Mornings are fresh croissants ( few and far between in Ethiopia!), birds chirping and making nests. Nobody is ever there when I go too! It’s so undiscovered.
our room at la residence
I’d love to rent the whole place out for a party and invite all my friends! I’m a person that really responds viscerally to architecture, and this place just really works.
We made it back to Addis in good time, Pilar packed her stuff, we had a delicious Italian dinner at this weird Italian club. Meanwhile (and we had no idea to what extent) our friends were running around trying to get our fabric. We were hanging out enjoying the meal but suddenly things got urgent and we had to dash around the city picking up the fabric. We made it to the airport just in the nick of time!

Kaethe Hostetter
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