I believe in speaking to strangers.
It was an August morning in Addis Ababa. I was on my return from a month long trip to Ghana and was spending several days in Ethiopia’s capital at the Ghion Hotel. I cannot recall why I was alone that morning.
But I remember the place distinctly. The outside steps were composed of stone blocks that ascended a hill. Down the midline of the walkway was painted a thick ribbon of crimson red paint. It curved its way through the opulent grounds as though a wounded animal had left behind a bloody trail.
I breakfasted in the large open dining hall. The small tables were adorned with crisp linen tablecloths and intricately folded napkins. I sat at a table near the center of the room. A waiter came and asked what I would like to drink, and I ordered a coffee. I sat quietly, absorbing the place into memory while eating crêpes. Then the waiter brought me a tiny coffee pot and creamer. It was the best coffee I’ve had.
Sitting there, I happened to notice a woman across the room by a window that overlooked the gardens. She was also alone, a white woman, probably around sixty-five years of age. She sat with perfect posture, drinking her coffee and reading the paper. She wore immaculate white. From head to toe, she was swathed in gauzy linen, like a baby Jesus. The clothing was traditional Ethiopian garb, yet it was surprising to me to see a white woman her age dressed that way. Her shash covered her hair, but the sunlight lit up her face. Though crisscrossed with wrinkles, her face seemed to radiate laughter. I heard her speak to the waiter. She must have been either American or European at one time because of her accent, but she was African now. Looking at her, I knew she must have lived here for years. Her smile was grand and jovial, and people were drawn to her.
I wanted to approach her, to sit with her for hours and know her story. But I did nothing. I was too afraid. Not a word was spoken between us.
Not talking to her, though she was a stranger, has been one of the greatest regrets of my life. She was the mystery and beauty of that place, sitting beside me, and I will never know her story. Perhaps she is the reason I have always longed to return to Ethiopia. In my mind it remains a place of mystery. I never cracked its surface.
Most likely, my life would have gone on as usual, had I spoken to that woman. But something in me is changed, is missing because I did not. I am by no means a social butterfly, introducing myself haphazardly to any passerby. But now when I see a person that intrigues me, whose presence begs me to know her life, I reach out for the understanding that only another person can bestow.
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