The Ras Hotel, near the gates of the ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, ranks among the worst hotel stays of my travels. But this statement must be taken in the context of the perils involved in getting there.
We arrive late in the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa and finding a 50km onward ride to Harar is problematic as no one wants to leave town at sundown. But we have rooms booked at The Ras and our schedule is tight.
By flashing enough cash we flush out a driver called Desta who takes our money while warning of roadblocks by both army and local brigands. My travel companion Michael is battling a stomach ailment and hardly cares. He collapses onto the taxi’s back seat.
“Okay,” I say jauntily, feigning Dutch courage as I climb into the front. “I’ll stay awake and see who kills us.”
The ramshackle Peugeot 404’s headlights cast a woeful beam on the dirt road ahead. Desta ignores my attempt to chat and instead stares ahead in deep concentration. I hear Michael muttering in feverish sleep. Suddenly a group of men appear from the surrounding darkness, straddle the road ahead and wave us down. They’re wearing civilian clothes and a few have AK47s slung over their shoulders.
Three of the men approach our car and glare through the windscreen, no doubt surprised to see a foreigner. Winding down his window Desta leans out and starts chattering nervously as the men encircle the car. One of them opens a rear door to study a comatose Michael. There’s more talk from Desta before he hands over a fistful of local currency. Soon as we’re on our way again. He gives me a dark, angry look. “Very bad,” he says. “Very lucky”.
Twenty minutes later we hit another roadblock, this time manned by guys in tattered khaki shorts and threadbare shirts. I see a couple of ancient rifles and, more chillingly, hefty pangas glinting in the beam of the headlights.
I sit frozen as this group surrounds the car. There are shouts and Desta kills the engine, then steps out of the car. There’s a clammy sweat on my face and a prickling down my back. Michael is still prone but now wide-eyed. He asks where we are. In deepest shit, I reply grimly.
Desta gets back in the car, gestures that I must open my window and a grimy, brutal-looking face appears before me. My heart is racing. The man studies me for a moment then barks, “Twenny dollar!” There’s no argument from me. I fish a couple of $10 notes from my pocket and hand them over. “Him too,” he says, flicking bloodshot eyes towards Michael. More cash is handed over and the face disappears.
Immediately Desta starts the car, guns the motor and we hurtle into the Ethiopian night. I feel lightheaded at our narrow escape. Desta is shaking his head, muttering to himself.
We reach Harar without further misadventure. Checking into the old, ramshackle Ras Hotel I don’t care one jot that Michael gets the best room or that mine is tiny and grim in comparison, lit by a solitary naked five-watt bulb. Neither do I care there’s been no water for several days and all the toilets are blocked. Who gives a damn about five star? I’m just glad to be alive.