“Ahun yerso tera dersual,” she says with a genuine smile looking in my direction.
“Eshi, eshi …” I quicken my steps afraid they’ll cancel the appointment unless I do exactly as I’m told. My dear childhood friend had informed me it took her some serious sweet-talking, softly hinted promises and ye’emeye mariam intervention to make this appointment happen in such short notice.
My friend, who’s an advocate of avocado face-masks, perfect looking toenails and 60 birr macchiatos drove me to the location herself. “Minem atasebi, betam gobezoch nachew, teru yinkebakebushal,” she says, since the condition of my hair and nails is what keeps me awake at night. After parking her perfectly air conditioned car, which has miraculously managed to stay dust free under the Addis sun and abuara, she gets out and heads towards a mid-sized modern styled building which looks like it was designed by a newly minted millionaire whose idea of luxury is gulping down a 4000 birr bottle of whiskey along with the soul of a 20 year old girl on Thursday nights. My friend leads us into the building, walking with so much ease and confidence I wonder for a second if she has some shares in the establishment.
“Hi yene konjo,” she says to an oval faced receptionist with an almost-fashion-model look who has been disappointed one too many times by the “industry” and is now forced to smile at women who spend the same amount on 60 minute massages that she earns in a month. Afer yiblu.
“Hi, tena yistelegn,” the receptionist smiles at us politely.
“Dagi, Dagi yetale?” my friend quickly inquires.
Before she has a chance to continue her sentence, Dagi has already arrived, “hi, enkuan dehna metachu!” he almost yells and gives my friend a hug. Dagi is a good looking young man who you can tell feels like he is too good even for this establishment. The kind of man who watches Senselet on Youtube to prepare himself for his inevitable departure to his true home. But based on his smile and general enthusiasm, he seemed to be tolerating his current existence, which included flattering upper class women and overexaggerating the mundane, well.
After some kisses and pleasantries are exchanged. My friend says, “Dagiye, esua nat guadegnaye, n’gereh neber aydel? beka full service endet’setuat new yemifelegew.” She says with a hint of both authority and sweetness in her voice.
“Wow, echin konjo keyet yizeshelegn metash?” Dagi shakes my hand and then pulls me in for a kiss on both cheeks.
“Selam selam” I stuttered with an awkward smile, uncertain of my role in the conversation.
My friend is what you might call a total-boss and both Dagi and I understood this fact. Which is why he quickly turns his face back to her to ask how she likes her recently dyed hair. It is clear she is the real customer and I, the temporary friend. “Dagiye, atayegnim model asmeselehegn,” she pushes her hair to the side, go-back style. They both laugh.
After conveying detailed instructions about what it is that I need – a Moroccan bath, a deep tissue massage, hair treatment, hair straightening, a manicure, a pedicure and a constant eshuru’ru throughout the many hours this will take – my friend bids us all adieu and leaves.
Dagi takes me down golden, swirling flight of stairs that seem to lead straight to heaven, if heaven was down a staircase. Soft music is playing in the background – the kind they play in movie-heaven. We leave behind the natural light that lit the upper section of the building and enter into a space where dimmed and elegant lights have given it a kind of ambiance where you feel, not just relaxed but somehow automatically important. I almost start wondering for a second where the slaves were to carry me down these golden stairs.
Dagi hands me white towels, slippers and two bottles of cold water.
“Hode, beka libseshin awelalki’na relax adregi. Aster meta tewesdeshalech.”
“Eshi, eshi Dagi,” I oblige.
Dagi rushes away to cater to the next customer and leaves me be.
I sit on one side of a big, elegant, semi-circle sofa that can fit 15 fashion models or 10 wives of state ministers. As I sit, I politely smile at two noticeably beautiful women sitting and chatting on the opposite side of the sofa drinking avocado juice, the fruit that apparently nurtures your whole body to not only prep you for a nice date but for the coming of the messiah himself. They continue their conversation without giving me much notice, which was good and well by me since I was about to carry out Dagi’s instructions and strip.
After having slipped into the towel that barely covered my thighs, I sit on the couch and keep an eye out for Aster. It didn’t take long for Aster to come get me. “Ye’erso tera dersual” she says with a genuine and charming smile looking in my direction. It looks like I’m an erso while in skimpy towels.
Aster, I came to later find out, was a thirty something year-old mother of two, who has been trained as a masseuse and who enjoys her job, even if she has recently been struggling with varicose veins and a greedy old landlord who seems to be adamant on making her family homeless through incremental monthly price increases. I automatically liked Aster: she had a no-nonsense attitude, was good at her job and could crack a good joke while rubbing you down with overpriced goo and butter.
We walk into the room where I’d spend an hour being scrubbed with what looks like Kaldi’s goat poo, followed by a lavender scented soup-rub to wash off said poo – three rounds. Thankfully, to then be finished off with a lathering session with oil that smelled so divine, you’d think it should have been exclusively reserved for Etege Tayitu herself. Maybe heaven really is down a flight of stairs.
It didn’t take Aster and I too long to become intimate. There really isn’t much reservation left between two people after one has responded to the other with an obedient eshi, as the other instructs them to take off their underwear to ease the process of body rubbing. After the second round of Kaldi’s goat poo rub, Aster was no longer calling me antu and was comfortably passing on gossip about her other customers.
The two women who were on the sofa earlier, she tells me, have rich boyfriends who lavish them with love and presents, including trips to Paris, Dubai and Thailand. One of them had brought Aster a beautiful silk top during one of her trips – “yesua bale’ma siwedat, besmea’b” she tells me “gen bale’tidar new alu. Bale siltan sayhon aykerem – be’tilik mekina new yemitmetaw… endet teru lij nat meselesh.” She also tells me about the professional women – mostly UN, ECA and other various NGO employees – who have their weekly massage schedules and never miss their appointments – “enesu keld ayakum, beza lay arif tip yadergalu. Gen cheb’et yalu nachew… yetemare sew neger…” She giggles.
Asters and I cover topics ranging from massage parlors that provide happy endings to her worry about the rising cost of living in the city to a personalized weekly regimen for my hair that she finds worryingly dry. I listened attentively, especially to the hair treatment recommendation – a dry scalp and hair is a serious matter. As soon as she finishes slathering Etege Taitu’s oil all over my now baby-soft skin, she takes me to the massage room and spends the following 30 minutes cracking my bones and tearing apart my muscles along with my first world problems – total relaxation. I thought, this must be the state of mind our policy makers must be in when they pass policies – free of all discernable thought.
By the time I land at Dagi’s chair for hair straightening – after having gone through a wash and blow-dry for my hair, a pedicure and manicure for my nails and 2 cups of double macchiato for my soul – I am surprisingly ready for his enthusiastic chatter. I was right, Dagi loves his job. He starts me off with a scalp massage describing the science behind why it was so essential. He demands he trim my hair to get rid of my split ends and then insists I allow him to pick a hairstyle for me, which I graciously grant. By the time I am finished, I have transformed from a tired and average diaspora into a macchiato-sipping, 200 birr avocado-toast munching, designer heels-wearing Addisababian who’d prefer you don’t look directly at her. Where are my slaves!?
As they say all good things must come to an end and it was finally time for me to ascend to the space of natural lights and unsuccessful models. I walk to the register to ask for my bill, which I anticipate is enough to install a decent toilet in the valleys of Birginet. The receptionist informs me that my friend has already covered all my expenses and that I am free to go. This leaves me with plenty of money to pretend to be a mini-millionaire with the free mental space to agonize about the state of her toenails. I tip everyone generously.
As I step outside back into the Addis sun onto the bustling street filled with weyalas yelling, elderly mothers carrying overweight shopping bags and 10 year olds selling tissue paper and gum, I couldn’t help but be perplexed and saddened by the nature of my beloved city. How have we come to accept such a state of affairs, where we’re able to design artificial heavens for a few while we consistently fail to design basic dignified survival for the millions?… If heaven does exist, I certainly hope its stairway is neither golden nor exclusive.
I quicken my steps and decide to hail down a lada taxi, old school style.
“Hode, wede Piassa tiyedaleh?”