Title: The Watermelon King
Author: Daniel Royse
Genre: Literary Fiction
After being laid off from his job at a prestigious consulting firm, Dean decides to embark on a journey across east Africa with his younger brother. Unknowingly, the two travel into bandit territory through Northern Kenya where a medical emergency forces them to choose between their safety and their health.
Inspired by true events, The Watermelon King follows the journey of two brothers as they backpack across one of East Africa’s most inhospitable regions. As they endure endless days of difficult travel, a series of short stories written by their father begins to uncover some of their deepest motivations and brings to light their connection to the past. Along the way they begin to understand the beauty and frustration of life in Africa.
The Watermelon King
It wasn’t long before we reached the edge of the Mercado. At the end of the road we could see it in front of us, a dense mass of humanity seething with commerce. Like an open plain leading up to a dense forest, there was no uncertainty as to where it began.
“Come. We can see the shops,” said Staven.
The four of us successfully managed to “Frogger” ourselves across the heavy traffic without a single man down. Once on the other side we cautiously stepped into the madness of the Mercado. Staven and Abdi walked in front leading us through the tiny winding alleyways while pointing out the various aspects of the market that made it unique.
On every side of us were shopkeepers selling all types of products. Some new some recycled. Some local, some shipped from across the world. Some of the goods were familiar like lawn chairs and pots and pans. Others were strange to see like old boom boxes and wicker baskets over flowing with exotic spices. The walkways became smaller as we hiked deeper into the heart of the commerce and with every step we took; more eyes began to focus on us. It appeared that we had entered a part of the Mercado that few foreigners visit, thanks to our new “friends”.
Staven explained to us that within the madness there was an order that lay beneath the surface. Despite the chaotic appearance, the market was arranged into sections, each one focusing on a specific product or category. Food stuffs, electronics, aluminum, spices, plastics…all organized into their own sections.
After about 15 minutes into the Mercado we had reached an obstacle in our path. Before us flowed a slow moving river of sewage at the bottom of a six-foot deep ravine surrounded by trash on all sides. With only a pair of two by eight inch boards laid across each bank for a makeshift walking bridge, people crossed effortlessly from side to side. One wrong step and it suddenly became a horrible afternoon. Staven and Abdi crossed along with everyone else without a second thought, while Ethan and I needed a minute to assess the situation.
“Holy shit!” Ethan’s eyes grew large. “What the hell is this?”
“This, my friend, is a river of shit.”
“You’re not kidding.”
We both paused for a moment staring at our only option across. It was either cross the wobbly 16-inch bridge or turn around and admit right then and there that we were no match for even the simplest Ethiopian obstacle. With dozens of eyes staring at us, our pride was now on the line. There was no other choice. With a sudden acceptance, Ethan simply shrugged his shoulders and walked across the bridge. In many ways he was more daring than I was, and this time it showed.
“Come on man, it’s easy. Get over here!” he shouted from the safe side.
Being the last man standing, I had no other alternative but to cross the bridge. As I cautiously made my way forward, the two wooden planks wobbled uncomfortably beneath my feet. The six feet of distance across felt like twice that. With hands stretched out like a gymnast, I slowly started on my way to the other side. With each foot carefully placed in front of the other, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there were now people on both sides waiting for me to get off the bridge. The pressure didn’t help the situation. For a second as I focused on the bystanders instead of the wobbly planks, I began to feel myself leaning too much to my right. It was too late. I couldn’t catch my balance. In one swift move I jumped from the plank with my left foot and landed on the other side. With a deep exhale; I stood there relieved that I didn’t fall into the river of shit below.
Despite my inner turmoil no one else seemed to notice; after all, it was only a six-foot crossing. Within seconds a woman with a basket on her head nudged me aside and crossed the bridge without the slightest inconvenience.
As if he had no idea why I was taking so long, Staven simply said, “Come, this way!”
The dynamic between our two new friends was slowly becoming clear. Staven was the talkative one, and the obvious leader. He had an aura of urgency about him, something that made his movements seem slightly aggressive. Abdi, on the other hand, rarely said a word and was perfectly content being led. He seemed to be an observer of life, satisfied with simply keeping to himself the things that transpired in his mind. If they weren’t so different they would have never gotten along so well.
We turned a corner to reach the end of an alleyway. Before us, it opened up to a large expanse where hundreds of people worked diligently in chaotic harmony. This was the “recycling center” of the Mercado.
“My friends, this is where we make old things new,” said Staven.
“Old things new?’ Ethan replied.
“Yes, unlike in your country we recycle everything we can. What you call trash, to us can still have good use.”
There, in the open expanse of the Mercado was the most unique aspect of any market I had seen anywhere. It was where trash came to be reborn. There were sections where people sat diligently pounding bent rebar straight again. Women sat on crates in the dirt in long rows viciously scrubbing old pots and pans to a like-new shimmer. Old electronics like 1980’s style Boom Boxes were carefully being repaired and old plastic bottles were rounded up for re-use. For people who have so little everything that can be reused, is reused. Our wasteful culture back home would be wise to take notes.
Despite the uniqueness of the area, we made our way through it fairly quickly. There was so much chaos occurring all around us that it felt odd to be standing in the way of it all. When we reached the edge of the Mercado it was obvious that the commerce jungle had ended abruptly. From where we stood, the rest of Addis began again.
“My friends, that was the Mercado. As you can see it is quite large!” said Staven.
“Pretty cool, should we grab a drink?” Ethan said as he surveyed the streets in front of him.
“Okay, now we drink!” exclaimed Staven, like a man on a mission.
He led and we followed. And as we followed, we made our way down the main thoroughfares of Addis slowly approaching the neighborhoods in the outer areas. The roads changed from wide lanes with partial sidewalks to narrow lanes made of dirt and gravel. On the sides of the road, the partial sidewalks slowly morphed into ditches that collected rainwater and trash. The further away we progressed from the city center, the more people began to stare as we passed by. We were approaching areas that saw few foreigners. As the dirt roads began to change into alleyways, I began struggling to keep my sense of direction. Winding and turning, dodging kids on bikes and potholes…we kept moving until all of a sudden, we stopped.
There, to the left of us was a small gap about four feet wide between two cement houses, both of which appeared to be abandoned. It was nearly pitch black now as we were well beyond the parts of town that had streetlights. As we walked single file into the space between the two houses, we could hear the noise increase as we approached. We followed Staven and Abdi through an opening and down a set of cement stairs that led into a small dimly lit room. At its entrance, an overweight woman was sitting in a chair guarding the door. It appeared as if she knew Staven and immediately granted us passage by simply exchanging a few words and nodding in his direction.
Through the smoke and haze we could barely make out the faces looking back at us but it seemed as if many of them were under 18 years old. Before we had arrived they were all drinking and speaking loudly in Amharic, but nearly instantaneously the conversation stopped and all eyes focused on us.
Staven began to speak to a few of them in Amharic and smiles slowly began to creep across their faces. Within moments, the drinking continued and the gathering was back to its original intensity. While he spoke the women at the door had turned around and began to fill up four small glasses with a clear vodka-like drink. She passed them to Staven.
“Here!” he said. “This is arak.”
“Arak?” I said confused. “What is it?”
“Alcohol,” he said as if he was speaking to a child. “It will be 20 Birr.”
We paid, of course. It was simply unspoken that we would pay for every cost incurred that evening. After all, we made more in a day than they made in a month and things were cheap…. really cheap.
Without hesitation Staven and Abdi began to drink, then Ethan, then me. Forcing a look of disgust into one of acceptance, I slowly choked down my beverage. It burned like any liquor but with a distinct flavor of rubbing alcohol. It turned out that it was a standard homemade rice wine concoction. Here they call it “arak”, in other regions “roxy”, but in most places it’s just referred to as “rice wine”. I’ve even seen it come in little plastic bags while in some countries. But let me tell you, when you start drinking liquor out of a little plastic bag, you know that you’ve reached a new stage in life.
With any homemade rice wine I knew there were inherent risks involved, but sometimes you just end up putting trust in people, smart or not. A few years back I had been traveling in Cambodia when a batch of bad rice wine had killed off an entire village of men. The problem is that there’s no regulation on this stuff, so it’s up to the guy brewing it in his bathtub to not add anything deadly to the mix. Luckily for us, this was a good batch.
As we drank we made small talk with those who were able to work up the nerve to mingle with us. And the more we drank the more the overweight lady in the corner would refill our cups. As I looked around the cramped and dingy room, I realized that even on the other side of the world in a place so far removed, kids are all the same. Whether they live here in Ethiopia, North Dakota or California, kids everywhere are just trying to party.
It didn’t take long before our group got anxious and it was time for us to make our way to our next destination. We said our goodbyes, paid our bill and thanked them for their hospitality. At this point the sun was beginning to go down and we were starting to feel good. We made our way back to the alley outside of the two abandoned-looking houses and began our walk back towards town.
“So now what?” said Ethan, clearly ready for the evening to get into full swing.
Ethan was an instigator. He was that guy who always kept the party going or was pushing for the next one to start. Every crew needed an “Ethan”.
Staven chimed in, “We can do anything! We have bars, whore houses, chat houses. There are many things in Addis. What do you like?”
It was becoming clear that Ethan and Staven were feeding off each other’s energy. And to top it off, their motivations complimented each other. Ethan was looking for a good time, which Staven could provide and Staven was looking for a free night out, which Ethan was more than willing to cover. They were unstoppable.
“Chat house? What’s that?” Ethan said.
“It is a place where people go to chew chat together…like a bar or a restaurant but for chat,” Staven explained.
“And what the hell is chat? He said as he looked at me to see if I knew what this stuff was.
“Oh sorry,” I said. “It’s local plant that people chew to get high. It’s a stimulant but it takes a while to kick in. It doesn’t mess you up but it does wake you up!”
“So it’s like coke?”
“Eh, not really. I’d say it falls somewhere in between cocaine and coffee…but it’s legal here.”
“Oh, we’ve got to try this!” he said with excitement. “Have you tried it before?”
“Yeah, a few times. It’s alright,” I said, as if I was a veteran chat chewer.
“Well, how to we find it?” Ethan exclaimed.
“You want chat? We can get that. Come! My friend will sell to us,” said Staven.
Staven had a friend for everything.
As we walked in the direction of Staven’s “chat guy” we made our way out of the small alleys and dirt roads and onto an area closer to the city center. We were still on the peripheral but now much closer. From where we stood in the darkness, I could see the glow of Addis in the distance. So at least I had a general direction of how to get back if needed.
The streets were still dark without public lighting and the only light that filled the air came from small fires or individual light bulbs hanging from private residences. People walked through the darkness chatting as stray dogs scrounged for food in the stillness. It was hard to picture a chat house in a place like this but what did I really know. This was a local area.
“You will like chat,” Staven assured Ethan. “It is very nice for staying awake and fucking a long time!…hahaha!”
Awkwardly, Ethan just looked at him and smiled, “Haha, okay.”
Within a few moments we had reached our destination. It was a rickety looking house with the front door closed. Beams of light broke through the cracks in the door, illuminating the street in front of us. With a knock and a push, Staven opened the door and a bright neon light shined down on us from the open entrance of the chat house. We walked in single file.
The room was painted bright pink with eight chairs positioned in a semi-circle and a small blue table set in the middle. As we entered the room I could see we were in the right place. There were already three guys sitting there sharing a bushel of chat. They glared at us with beady eyes and eerie smiles as they continued to chew chat and smoke cigarettes. The smoke in the air was thick and ventilation was non-existent.
“Please sit. I will speak with the manager,” Staven instructed as he walked off.
We pulled up three chairs in a row across from the first three chat-chewers in the semicircle. Abdi sat closest to them. For a moment we sat in silence as we waited for Staven to return. The guys across from us smiled with ever more welcoming gestures as Abdi began to make small talk in Amharic. Perhaps he was vouching for us.
I could tell that Abdi was a quiet yet friendly guy. He had a slightly nerdy or analytical vibe about him. If he had been born in the states I could see him being a software developer in Silicon Valley. He reminded me a lot of the people I used to work with in that area.
It wasn’t long before Staven returned with two bushels of chat, each in a black plastic bag and two glass bottles of Coca-Cola. He shut the door behind him and sat down in one of the vacant chairs.
“Okay my friends!” he said in excitement as he placed the bushels on the blue table and pulled the first one out of the black plastic bag.
He and Abdi began to dig into the first bushel as if they couldn’t wait. Ethan and I sat watching cautiously. Staven carefully pulled the tips off each of the leaves and proceeded to roll them into a tiny ball. He handed the first ball to Ethan.
“Here, try this,” he said.
“So how do I do this exactly?” Ethan replied in amusement.
“Just take these leaves and chew them. You can swallow the juice. If the taste is too bad for you, you can take some Coke,” he said as he handed Ethan the first bottle of Coke anticipating a negative reaction from the chat.
“Some people like to eat the whole leaf and the stem, but they are savages! We only eat the tips of the leaves because they are the best!
Staven then glanced at me, “You have had chat before, yes?”
“Sure. I’ve tried it a few times since I’ve been here,” I said.
“Excellent! Please, help yourself,” he said with a smile.
As we sat there chewing our chat our heart rates began to speed up, our pupils dilated and the room slowly began to get more and more friendly and vibrant. I could feel my mouth getting dry but I was slowly getting used to the taste of the bitter chat leaves. Still, my Coca-Cola consumption remained constant. The room was filling with cigarette smoke as the chat-induced adrenaline surged through us. Our group had merged with the one next to us, although Abdi sat in the corner not saying much as usual.
Whenever we didn’t chew the chat fast enough, Staven would roll us a little ball of leaves and give it to Ethan or me. It was hard to keep up and my cheeks began to become full of green leaves. The bottles of Coke made their way around the room but Ethan and I drank the majority, as we were new to the harsh taste of the leaves.
As the minutes passed and the first bushel made way for the second, we kept chewing and kept on talking. But the second bushel went faster than the first and soon, through the smoke and conversation, it was evident that our stash was nearly depleted. Energized and ready to hit the town, we all agreed that it was time to head to the bar. Before we could leave, however, we had to pay our bill. Again, this fell on us. And I knew from experience that when you don’t get the price up front, you end up paying for it in the end. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.
After a few moments of sitting there chat-less, a small boy approached us with a yellow post-it note sized piece of paper and handed it to Staven. He looked at it and immediately came over to explain it to me.
“The price is 700 Birr, 300 for each bushel of chat and 100 for the Cokes,” he said cautiously as if he was expecting some push back from me.
“Ohh okay. That should be no problem,” I said.
He was in luck. I was feeling generous from the chat and actually I was expecting it to be higher. The total cost came to around $30 USD, much more expensive than it should have been but nothing that would break the bank.
Once paid up, we were free to leave and from the comfort of our cozy little chat den we made our way into the dark desolate side streets of Addis Ababa toward the more lively area of the Piazza. This, the historical Italian area, was now known mostly for pickpockets, hookers, drinking and all types of general debauchery.
Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics. The Watermelon King is his first full-length novel.
Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places.