Seeking Discomfort in Harar, Ethiopia

Two kids rolling a tire down an alleyway in Harar, Ethiopia

As experienced travelers, we seek places that impact and transform us – novel experiences that transcend the physical location of where we visit. Places that are off-the-beaten-path, places that challenge us to grow, places that push us out of our comfort zone. 

For better or worse, our search for novel off-the-beaten-path destinations leads us to a wide range of experiences on the spectrum of discomfort.

As for Ethiopia, our desire for novelty led us to an ancient city near the border of Somalia – a place with a turbulent past and present… Harar.

In a nutshell, Harar was one of the most challenging places we’ve been to – a place of highs and lows. From mouth feeding wild hyenas to the hyena man trying to rob us…

For us, Harar was a certified shit-show – an odd form of Type 2 fun. Being there was miserable while it was happening, but our discomfort was worthwhile in retrospect. 

With that being said, there are a few idiosyncrasies we wish we knew about Harar before arriving: (1) khat zombies, (2) aggressive locals, and (3) recurrent despair.

Harar, Ethiopia

The Khat Zombies

“Manic and delusional behavior, violence, suicidal depression, hallucinations, paranoia and khat-induced psychosis have also been reported,” – 2009 study from the Austrian medical journal Wiener klinische Wochenschrift.

Khat consumption can be traced back to Sufism, a branch of Islam widely practiced in Harar since its arrival in the 11th century. Since its introduction, Harar has slowly become ground-zero for the regional Khat trade. Even most coffee farms have been repurposed to grow this year-round bloomer and much more profitable crop. 

Morning through afternoon, vehicles full of AK-47 laden militias shuttle this drug from Harar to Somalia (where its sold ~8-10x its Ethiopian price; a fine example of arbitrage). 

On the streets, you’ll find them lined with addicts – morning, day, and night.

You’ll also find the streets lined with khat sellers – ones that deliver to the armed militias. 

All over the city, they wait patiently with large white bags filled with khat until a militia truck makes its rounds…

Khat… a drug so good, so addictive, even the street goats can’t resist.

Harar at night is the peak of Khat zombie behavior. When going from Old Town to New Town, so we could get dinner at night, the streets were filled with locals experiencing khat-induced psychosis – with eyes rolled to the back of their heads while foaming from the mouth, non-stop screaming while punching walls and throwing objects, gangs of teenagers flashing their knives, etc.

Our guesthouse and even the local police warned us that the khat zombies regularly attack and rob travelers. And not just at night…

Even during the day Harar’s Khat zombies are so prevalent that is was difficult to get a shot of a nice and normal local, without getting photo bombed. Not to mention, they’ll begin to harass you as soon as they see you (word of advice: yell back at them and they’ll most likely leave you alone).

Harar, Ethiopia

The Aggressive Locals

“Faranji! Faranji! F*ck you!” 

If we had a nickel for every time we heard a local scream that and then hand-sign a gun shooting at us… well, then we’d have too many damn nickels. 

Harassment, threats and botched pickpocketing were a common theme whenever we weren’t with a guide (which was 95% of the time).

And it wasn’t just us, the very few travelers that we met over the five days we were in Harar experienced something similar. Funnily enough, these experiences would only happen whenever a guide wasn’t present. Therefore, Harar’s Old Town is a place that must be explored with a guide. No excuses, no exceptions. Otherwise, you might have an unpleasant experience.

To throw gasoline on the fire, “Tourist Price Inflation” was also the worst we’ve experienced – anywhere in the world. For most items, we were asked to pay 10-20x the local price – and yes, that’s not exaggerated. 

Plus, some shops outright refused to sell anything to us because of the color of May’s skin. Just because she’s Asian (Thai), some shop owners would point at her and repeatedly yell, “China, China, China!” And then yell at us to go away…

Harar, Ethiopia

The Recurrent Despair

Staying with locals in poverty-stricken villages has been something we’ve done dozens of times in our travels. Naturally, this has led us to witness some amazing feats of humanity, while also exposing us to the darker side of human behavior.  

However, none still break our heart as much as a little girl that we stumbled upon in an alleyway, all by her lonesome. No matter how hard we try, we still can’t forget her…

We can’t forget her pain as dozens of flies moved freely in-and-out of her mouth and nose. And since she only had one arm which was tied to her leg (restricted on purpose), she couldn’t swat the flies away. 

When we tried to go help her, we were forcefully stopped by the locals. Why? Well, they believed this little girl was “possessed.” 

Her body was “inhabited by an evil spirit” and couldn’t be trusted… 

All we could do was take a photo to document the injustice that was happening… no amount of logic or money was going to change their mind. Unless we resorted to violence, there was nothing we could do to help her…

And this wasn’t the only time we witnessed a child in need, there were more…

Within the context of a general happiness index, Harar’s Old Town was the least happiest place we’ve ever been to, bar none. 

Ethiopia Travel
Our Thoughts on Harar

While the nature of your travel experience will be impacted by where you decide to travel, your quality of mindset is the primary determinant.

Yes… Harar was a certified shitshow, but there were some contrarian moments that ultimately defined our experience. 

From little kids running up to us to hug our legs, to random acts of kindness by strangers, to thought-provoking and insightful conversations with locals. 

In these moments we found peace with Harar and wouldn’t trade our experiences or give it up for the world. All of the discomfort we had pushed through, was somehow beautiful. 

After years of traveling, we’ve learned that contrarian moments run the risk of becoming “fleeting” – a shallow memory of positivity lost in the abyss of perceived chaos. And it takes a strong and calloused mind to not fold, to see hope, to flip the narrative. 

Remember… it takes darkness to know the light. 

You must learn to (re)focus – turn on your mind’s high beams and illuminate the memories and experiences that matter. Because whatever your mind focuses on, grows. 

With that being said, would we go back to Harar???

Absolutely not! But in retrospect, we’re happy that we went and got to grow as both individuals and travelers as a result.

“Hardship may dishearten at first, but every hardship passes away. All despair is followed by hope; all darkness is followed by sunshine.” – Rumi  

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