The Great Chat Scam of Ethiopia

I know all the scams. I see them coming a mile away and am often amused that people fall for them in their travels. There’s a million of them, but they’re all centered around separating a tourist from his money. I’d been taken years ago in Thailand in a gemstone con and since then, have made a point to distrust most any stranger I meet. There’s  been a dozen attempts to trick me, with most going sour for the scammers.

I’d had an amazing first day in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. I was sitting with some locals in a corrugated metal shack in the back of a ramshackle shop where women were making injeri, the local staple. We were drinking coffee and talking about how it is to live in Ethiopia. We were in our ninth bag of chat, a mild stimulant leaf that is slowly chewed on the side of your mouth with a handful of peanuts. As we sipped down the last drop of coffee and tossed away the empty stalks, a bill was placed in front of me. It was for nearly $100. $100 for some Ethiopian coffee and a few bags of leaves? It couldn’t have cost more than $10 to buy something like this in poverty stricken country such as Ethiopia. I had to laugh. I’d never seen it coming.

I had just arrived in Addis Ababa Ethiopia and I did what I normally do when I don’t want to do a lot of research. Look up Trip Advisor and see what all the tourists like the most. It was the Red Terror Martyrs Museum… that sounded fun. Catchy name. I would go to the Red Martyrs Museum and then walk to some of the other sights.

The Martyr museum was very dimly lit and mostly a collection of enlarged photos, guns, and clothing from the Russian backed military coup in the 70s that wiped out over half a million people. It’s a little difficult to navigate because of bad or no translations, but the photographs showed hundreds of victims, starving children, dead animals and other such atrocities. The most photographed room is a couple walls of glass cases filled with human skulls and other skeleton parts. Why we are so fascinated with seeing dead people is beyond me, but I was snapping away with everyone else.

I decided to make my way to the Menelik museum and started to cross the road when I was approached by 2 twenty-something men commenting about my cowboy hat and asking where my horse is. I get that a lot, so I always point behind them, they look, and then I laugh and then the joke is in them. They continued talking to me and didn’t seem threatening or like they wanted anything, so I just went with it. I was told that it was a holiday and that they weren’t busy with school so they’d walk with me. We talked about Ethiopia, music, drugs, Bob Marley… the normal stuff twenty year olds like to converse about. They were pretty good at speaking English, so I let them do some camera intros for my video. We arrived at the museum, took off our shoes and entered what looked to be a church.
It was a church, the Ba’ eta Le Mariam Monastery to be exact. Women clothed in white with scarves lined the halls burning incense and chanting. There was almost a Buddhist feel to it or maybe Turkish with carpets piled the floor and the smell of smoke and myrrh. We entered into the main chapel with its ceiling paintings featuring camels and dark men with umbrellas. It was difficult to tell what the church was really about. I was asked if I’d like to see the underground tombs. Of course I would! The guide rolled back one of the carpets and pulled up a trap door. No one would have ever guessed that there was something below. At the bottom of the stairs we’re three giant marble tombs: Menelik II, his wife and daughter. Menelik is considered to be the father of Ethiopia, the equivalent of our George Washington, or perhaps even greater. He modernized the country and united the various tribes throughout the nation. Even George couldn’t do that.

When my new friends had walked back up the stairs I thought they were having a smoking break, but when I walked outside the church, they were nowhere to be found. Maybe they were scammers and had seen my small wad of bills that I purposely kept in a different place than my wallet. Maybe there was a family emergency. As I looked around, I heard a strange grunting found behind me. I looked to see a giant tortoise, as big as a Galapagos turtle perhaps making his way across the lawn. The source of the noise was two more of the creatures locked in conjugal embrace. The male was on top and was obviously enjoying himself. The female maybe not so much. She had her head inside the shell, perhaps embarrassed about the public display. I counted half a dozen more of the giant tortoises.

I started walking toward what I thought was the famed Trinity Church and ended up in a few back alleyways full of more devotees. Eventually I had enough of the rocky paths and I hailed a taxi to take me to the National Museum. It is here, where you can find Lucy, the world’s most famous and oldest humanoid remains. As I walked toward the entrances my friends suddenly appeared. By their account I had exited through the back of the church and missed them completely. The museum was three levels of dusty glass cabinets with some interesting clothing and furniture of former rulers, some ceramics and mediocre art work.

Lucy was to be found on the lower level. She had gotten her name from the archaeologists who had discovered her when she was unearthed in the northeast part of the country. They had been listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds at the time of her appearance and the name fit. The display was another glass case with bones considerably smaller than any person. She was the missing link. It seems, a bit of evidence to support that humans evolved from apes. It was quite a leap of faith in my opinion and a little disappointing compared to seeing a T. Rex or mastodon skeleton. My friends handed me a coke that they had bought for me. Rule number one: never take a drink from a stranger that has been opened or you haven’t seen prepared. There was clearly a broken seal and two inches of soft drink missing. I didn’t want to wake up the next day with no money and a missing kidney.

They insisted on showing me the old train station which hadn’t worked in years and some weed covered statues. The sidewalk was full of deals being made on skinny religious candles and bright red umbrellas. It was apparently 55 days of fasting, which in Ethiopian terms means going vegan and not eating until 3pm. It’s enough of a lifestyle that most restaurant menus have a fasting or non-fasting section to choose from. We ended up at a little ramshackle bar/restaurant they was good enough for the flies that circled overhead. They ordered two Injeras, one fasting version, the other with lamb. It turns out one was Christian and two weeks into his fast. The other, a part-time Muslim who only drank beer when everyone else was having one. It was every man for himself as we scooped up the meat and vegetables with the hunks of spongy sour injera. There are no forks, spoons or napkins.

I must admit, it was pretty good for such a dive, and the cold Ethiopian beer took off the edge. We walked to a back alleyway and then down what seemed to be a dirt dead end between shacks. There was a room with wooden stools and plastic bags concealing the corrugated metal material that made up the room. It was a kitchen of sorts, with three women making giant 24-inch injeras and stacking them in piles to sell to restaurants and individuals. Injera is a big deal here. It is only made by women and it consumed at every meal including breakfast. No one seems to ever tire of it and as far as I know there’s no one else in the world that eats it other than the Ethiopians. It’s made of a grain called teff, which is grown only in this part of the world. As the women continued to work, some cokes appeared, some coffee, bottled water and the real reason we had stopped, bags of chat.

Chat is a mildly narcotic leaf that is chewed socially by the people that live on the Horn of Africa. You pluck a few leaves, fold them into a small packet and chew them on the side of your mouth with a small handful of peanuts to cut the bitterness. It’s not terribly exciting and takes a while to feel a buzz, but if you do sort of feel like you’ve taken a Ritalin after a while.

I noticed a bit of uneasiness with my hosts as they took turns leaving and coming back. They had been very friendly. Suddenly they seemed troubled. They started explaining how they had been sleeping in a church because they couldn’t pay their rent and that the place where they had been staying had all their possessions. Bottom line: they wanted a loan and would pay me back when I returned to Addis. They wanted about $150 to fix everything. That was never going to happen. Were they telling the truth? Who knows? I had had a wonderful day with them, they had paid for my lunch, transport and spent hours of their day. I could part with $50 and just consider it the price of my tour. No, they needed it all. I wasn’t budging because I wasn’t getting scammed. This was in my terms. Not there’s. Then the bill came.

I looked at the bill and had two reactions. First, shock. Second; I had to laugh. They were running two scams on me and I’d never seen the second one coming. It was a variation of the famous Chinese Tea Scam- but with Chat, not tea.

In the Chinese tea scam, you’re approached by two pretty Chinese girls in a place like Tiananmen Square who are students and wish to practice English. They engage you, entertain you and invite you for tea. You don’t see the prices until you’ve ordered and they have sneaked out the back. Your tea ends up being as much as $100/cup and you have to pay for theirs as well. There’s a big guy there to make sure you settle your bill and you’re outnumbered.

There were no pretty girls, no tea, no big guy- just overpriced Chat leaves. They had ordered nine bags as well as drinks and the tab had soared to over $100! For leaves! No one in Ethiopia spends that kind of money for anything, least of all chat. The whole reason anyone does chat at all is that they can’t afford other types of stimulants like alcohol, hookahs or drugs. They had forgotten to mention that I’d be the one paying as they kept ordering things. When the bill came, they seemed as surprised as me. They were extra-special-reserved-for-special-occasions leaves they explained. Not those cheap ones everyone else chews. Oh.. yeah. That makes sense.

Arguing in these cases rarely does any good. The best strategy is to not have enough money. I purposely had a pocket of “small money” and everything else tucked away. I had about $25 of birr. I pulled it out, pocketed $4 for the taxi to my hotel and gave the owner the rest and explained to him that while I appreciated the fine acting on everyone’s part, this was the last of my birr and I had no intentions of walking home. It was apparently enough to cover expenses, but not enough to pay off the men who’d brought me here. The scammers work with the owner, and then get a large portion of the “dumb tax” the victim has paid.

I explained to them that I had a wonderful time, I wasn’t mad, but their hopes of getting the $50 from me was forever lost, because I no longer trusted them. They followed me, insisting on their innocence. I walked back to the main square where I’d met them and when they realized I was about to leave, that’s when they decided to come clean. They apologized and said they had mixed feelings about scamming me, because I had been resistant to the normal dialogue they used and seemed to be a little more aware than most of their victims. They’d really liked being in my videos and were sorry about everything, but that is just how they made a living.

Honesty goes a long way with me (or at least improv scamming) and I was extremely curious how all of this worked anyway, so I came up with a proposal. If they wanted to meet for dinner, I’d buy and then give them some money in exchange for their secrets. I felt like I was paying off an FBI informant. They reluctantly agreed.

At 7pm, they were skulking outside my hotel. The Ethiopians are very polite, well-mannered and very nervous about any confrontations. We walked down the street to a tourist restaurant and I could feel their nervousness. A meal at such a place is very reasonable by western standards but expensive for locals. We sat down and ordered some beer, some local spirits and a giant injeri to share. After they’d had a few drinks, they spilled their guts. I felt like a priest at confession as they explained the steps they use to build confidence with a potential victim. The first scam involves taking the mark to a music store where they sell bootlegged CDs for ten times what it costs them. Okay, no big deal. That’s how the music industry works every where else. Then there’s the travel agent referral. They take you to one of their friends who helps you book some things for a premium price and then shares the proceeds. The music one didn’t work on me after I explained I had access to any music in the world with my DJ experience.They confessed that when we’d gotten separated at the church, they were running to borrow some money. Otherwise they couldn’t pay for lunch and museum entry. Then they’d never get me to the last place so they might make some money.

I had asked them about chat when we had first met, so they thought I might know their plan and just be toying with them. Most tourists have never heard of it. Later, when I paid the owner, they explained that what I paid was almost EXACTLY the real price before they marked it up- the fact that I pulled out the right amount made them think I was playing them, not the other way around. They shared a few stories about other people they’d conned and how much money they usually got. In a good day, they could usually make $100-150 between the two of them if the tourist was compliant. With me, they had lost money because they paid for everything.

The whole thing was very entertaining and I had come out ahead. Hanging out with suspicious con men is like visiting a casino. You expect to lose money and you justify it as entertainment, but this time I HADN’T lost. I was only out $20 for the whole day and it had been chocked full of great places and fun times with my grifter friends. They had bought lunch, paid for transport, shown me the sights and that was worth something!

I gave them $60 for their time and true confessions and paid for dinner. It was a good day for me- maybe not quite what they had been hoping for, but we bonded in spite of their earlier deceit and no one really lost out. That’s as happy ending as you can expect in Ethiopia.

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