Harar and Hyenas

Lying in the in the eastern corner of Ethiopia is the walled city Harar. In close proximity to Somalia, Somaliland and Djibouti, only good could come from this foray into uncharted territory.

The first European to enter Harar was the famed explorer Richard Burton, who penned an account of his disappointment with the mysterious city.

Had Burton joined us on our two day stint, I'm sure he would have written an entirely different story (and if he had a time machine).

Harar, in all its noisy, crowded, colourful and intoxicating majesty, is a city of contradictions. 

In a robustly Orthodox Christian country, it hosts a predominantly Muslim populace. It is the fourth holiest city in Islam, yet boasts a large number of watering holes and even its own (amazingly good) brewery.

People chat on cellphones while passing the hundreds of years old ages of the city, and satellite dishes are nested on houses that predate the concept of electricity by hundreds of years.

While drugs are strictly forbidden in Islam, men lay sprawled out in shops and in the streets, with the green leaves of 'qat' (or chat) at their feet as the telltale sign that they've been chewing the narcotic plant. It induces a feeling similar to drinking 5 or 6 cups of strong coffee, but the men all look as though they're about to sleep.

The roads so windy you can lose both your thoughts and yourself, and colours are so rich that your wanderings take on a dreamlike feel.

If only Harar's uniqueness ended there... 

The city also has small holes in the walls for wild hyenas to enter at night; invited guests that roam the old city in the dark.

Youssef is the local hyena feeder. Each night, as his father did before him, and his father's father before that, he calls out the names of the local hyenas once the sun is safely gone. Timid at first, they emerge from the dark, lured by the prospect of fresh meat. The few tourists that do make it to Harar come to watch, but he still performs the ritual if there aren't any 'frenjo' (foreigners) in the city.

Harar's chief exports are meant to keep the world spinning: much of the world's 'Arabica' coffee beans come from that area, and 'qat' is said to have originated there. Yemen and Somalia are so hungry for the Harari qat that the trucks carrying the plant are locally referred to as 'Al Qaeda', since so many people are killed in high-speed accidents with these vehicles rushing to keep the 'qat' fresh.

Shockingly, only an estimated 2,000 tourists make it to Harar each year. In only two days, we found ourselves consumed by the life emanating from the old streets.

A big thanks goes out to our awesome guide Abdul, who navigated the labyrinth of the old city with an intuitive expertise.

Enjoy photos from a city that let's you live the past in the present.

 An impromptu street market forms. Oh colours, how I love you. 

An impromptu street market forms. Oh colours, how I love you. 

 Sometimes, the old part of the town didn't even feel real.

Sometimes, the old part of the town didn't even feel real.

 Claire demonstrate proper coffee consumption in a traditional Harari house. All of the ornaments on the walls are actually bowls and plates to be used during wedding festivities. Practical, and definitely not understated.

Claire demonstrate proper coffee consumption in a traditional Harari house. All of the ornaments on the walls are actually bowls and plates to be used during wedding festivities. Practical, and definitely not understated.

 Harar may be the fourth holiest city in Islam, but it's definitely the Mecca of great coffee.

Harar may be the fourth holiest city in Islam, but it's definitely the Mecca of great coffee.

 An all-too-familiar sight. There was one man who rarely left the corner near our guesthouse, and every time we passed by, a handful of green leaves were at his side.

An all-too-familiar sight. There was one man who rarely left the corner near our guesthouse, and every time we passed by, a handful of green leaves were at his side.

 Qat is used by both shopkeepers and students alike- the effects mimic caffeine, and concentration ability spikes.

Qat is used by both shopkeepers and students alike- the effects mimic caffeine, and concentration ability spikes.

 This is kind of scary. And amazingly cool, at the same time. Wild hyenas are way bigger than I had imagined, but also much more timid.

This is kind of scary. And amazingly cool, at the same time. Wild hyenas are way bigger than I had imagined, but also much more timid.

 Youssef is fearless in his interactions with the hyenas. Which is a tough feat, when being circled by hyenas looking for a meal.

Youssef is fearless in his interactions with the hyenas. Which is a tough feat, when being circled by hyenas looking for a meal.

 Claire demonstrates how to allow wild hyenas to climb up on you while they tear apart strips of meat. Well done.

Claire demonstrates how to allow wild hyenas to climb up on you while they tear apart strips of meat. Well done.