Ethiopian horse in the middle of the highway. Julia Hubbel

You Never Know What You’re Going to Get

On animals, showing love, and teaching gentility in a new country

I had to get out of the small, crowded Ethiopian restaurant. The spices were too strong. In seconds I was out on the busy street. Here out in the country, vans full of white tourists are common, and the kids gather daily to harangue us for gifts, toys, pens and money. The streets, as they are all over the country including in teeming Addis Ababa, are lined with animals. Mostly sheep and goats (which have largely replaced wildlife as they have all over this continent), domestic and feral donkeys, and the odd horse standing quietly in the middle of the road as traffic whizzes by, inches away.

Like most villages and small towns I’ve seen in developing countries all over the world, the ancient and the struggle towards the new coexist, not always easily.

Peering into the Danakil at night. Julia Hubbel

Our group was on its way to see the Danakil Depression. This small town was the midday point of a long, long drive through the country, dropping us to more than 100 feet below sea level as the road wound us past tiny stick and tin huts and broad, dry washes.

We had the use of a small room with tables and chairs where the cook who traveled with us served us our lunch. The white-hot scents of Ethiopian chilis and spices sent me running for the open air, where my nostrils were met with the dust and dung smells of rural Africa.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get when you leave the relative comfort of your kind (if you consider your tour group of fellow Westerners your “kind,” that is) and go wander.

Typical home. Julia Hubbel

I was looking for animals. I’m always looking for animals.

There was a small reddish dog of indeterminate heritage two doors down. His owners were making small bundles of herbs to sell while also chasing off the goats and sheep who wanted to eat the bundles. I squatted next to the dog and quietly rubbed his ears, once he indicated I had permission. Most don’t.

He leaned into me, eyes closed, at the uncommon affection. It’s my experience in most developing countries that people’s attitudes towards their animals don’t typically include either love or regard. As this dog would demonstrate, his job was to keep the goats away from the source of income. He would bark at and chase an investigating goat, then return to my hands. Most dogs in Ethiopia avoided people, thinking (reasonably) that they were about to be hit or kicked. A friendly dog is a rarity and I like rewarding that behavior.

His owners were intrigued. A white tourist was playing with their dog. As with so many other observations about the strange white folks who daily visited this small, green-painted restaurant, they considered whether to charge me money for the right to touch their animal. This is what people here do, anything to find a way to make a few Birr (their currency). Can’t blame them.

After a few minutes of tending to the small dog I noticed someone watching me. She was huge, her horns nearly a yard long. Ears forward.

I’m watching you. Can I have some? Julia Hubbel

Well, hello you.

I stood slowly, approached my observer, and placed my right hand on her forehead. Gently smoothed her warm skin and fur. She lowered her head, eyes closed in pleasure.

You don’t have any idea what any animal is going to do at any moment. For my part, huge animals intrigue me. I love them, am not afraid of them, but have great respect for their ability to change their minds, start out of fear and do terrible damage. That has yet to stop me from touching them. And I’ve yet to be disappointed.

OOOHHHHH yep, right there….Julia Hubbel

I continued to work on this huge animal. After a while she walked closer to me. I scrubbed her ears, head, chin, neck and her back hump. By this time I’d drawn a crowd. The locals are more likely to kick a cow for being on the sidewalk than take the time to soothe one. The spectacle of a white woman tending to, and getting a caring response from, an animal that they usually whack with large sticks was something else again. Our guide, Salomon (he named himself after someone’s ski jacket, and no I didn’t make that up) filmed, shot pictures and kept telling me to watch out.

Yeah. Dangerous. Julia Hubbel

Be careful.

I have a lot more to fear from people on the street than I do these animals.

I pet the cow for about three minutes, then moved my hands away. She promptly dropped to her knees and lay down right at my feet, whereupon I cradled her great head in my hands and kept on working on her.

When it was finally time to go, I stood slowly and left the cow sleeping peacefully with her head on the sidewalk, surrounded by a gaggle of Ethiopians and my fellow tourists, who had been taking photos and videos while I worked.

As soon as I got in our guide van, I saw several people kick the cow. Hard.

Of course they did.

Affection for animals is a luxury. Just like conservation, and sustainable fuel stoves (for which fuel is too expensive and the stoves too small for the average family’s meals), and environmental awareness.

Taking the time to love an animal is laughable to these people, who think nothing of leaving a horse to starve to death at the end of its life, standing in the middle of a highway, above. Because horses have to be fed, and a horse that isn’t working costs too much. We passed many a carcass left in the sun to rot, carrion for scavengers, of which there are many.

This isn’t a condemnation. If you have a bleeding heart, don’t travel to Africa. A friend told me a story about being in the Peace Corps and being utterly unable to watch people kick, abuse, run over and kill stray dogs that they refuse to spay for religious or financial reasons. They are far more concerned with feeding their own families. Taking care of non-working animals costs too much money.

It’s perfectly understandable. I have a hard time with it too, but it’s not my country, not my culture. It’s thoughtless and naive to dictate to others how they should behave around their animals, particularly if you and I have the luxury of being able to be kind to ours.

Ethiopian horse with bad saddle sores. Julia Hubbel.

If you judge their behavior brutal, you may be right, but you’d be wrong, at least to my mind, to judge the people. Western values around our pets are incomprehensible to people for whom home is a piece of tin lined with cardboard. You and I spend more money on our animals that most of these folks will see in a lifetime. One shampooing of a puppers is more fresh water than most will ever see at one time. Or ever, for that matter.

But people do shift. Later at our camp, Salomon approached me with a bit of awe. He admitted that the only thing he knew about cows was to hit them with sticks. He’d never seen anything else.

“Now I know,” he said, smiling at me. I smiled back. That’s a maybe, but it’s hopeful.

When we went back through the following day, four little kids brought cows to the restaurant that they wanted me to pay to pet.

Nope. But here’s the thing: they were stroking them. The cows looked pretty happy to me. For a change.

I walked down the street, found the black cow that I had petted the day before, and spent a few minutes with her and another cow who pushed her big wet nose into my face when I stroked her face.

I don’t know that they will get better treatment from the kids who watched me. But they might. And sometimes that has to be enough.

Saying goodbye to my big happy girl. Julia Hubbel

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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