That Time In Ethiopia When I Almost Wound Up In Jail Over A Picture Of A Traffic Cop


Note: This is not the image of the traffic cop that almost got us arrested. That image is long gone. This is another image of another traffic cop that I took, simply because I admired his uniform. I’m lucky he didn’t arrest me. 

Note 2: This is a long read. Bear with me.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been on a trip to Ethiopia for my college roommate’s wedding. A lot of people’s first reaction has been “why is he having his wedding in Ethiopia?” Uhh, because he’s Ethiopian. He and his bride were both born in Ethiopia. He came to the U.S. when he was 15 and lives in D.C., but it’s not as if it was a destination wedding, like it was a an all-inclusive in Cabo or something. It was some real Ethiopian shit.

The wedding was a crazy, deep, detailed process. Three ceremonies, a day apart, all in different cities. As long as I was away, we didn’t make even make the third ceremony. They were very traditional processes and apart from the pocket of D.C. people, we were the only people who didn’t speak Eritrean (their language), let alone the only whites.

The communication barrier was thick, but luckily we were at a wedding, so everyone was pretty eager to get along with us.  So far.

The first ceremony started in the capital city of Addis Ababa, then made its way down to a resort on a lake two hours south called Bishoftu.  We got up at 6 and partied til 5 in the morning so it was damn near a 24 hour day. That, added to the fact that the wedding party drank only Johnnie Walker Black Label (seriously, they ordered hundreds of bottles that the hotel staff wheeled in on luggage carts) made for one gnarly hangover. So the day after the wedding was the perfect day to chill out and try the worst drug of my life.

Generally, my philosophy on drugs is that if someone has done it before me and survived, I’m probably ok with trying it. I’m not going to be the guinea pig plucking berries off of mysterious bushes, but if it’s a drug people do, I’ll give it a shot. Which lead me to Khat.

Now in the United States, Khat is a Schedule 1 drug, on the same level of illegality as heroin. But in Ethiopia it’s fully legal. They sell it in stores and it’s a huge part of people’s lives, as they ritualistically do it every day. When it was first described to me by my college roommate 12 years ago, he told me it was like a combination of weed, Adderall and Viagra. When it’s put like that of course I’m in!

In reality, it was much different. First of all the drug is disgusting to do. You are chewing raw leaves that are about the shape of spinach and have a very earthy taste. It’s like chewing a bunch of grass, but you do it for hours and you cant swallow it. Then you wad it up like packing a lip, but if you had to process the tobacco into Skoal in your own mouth. As it cycles through the mouth it leaves a shitty, filmy, grass shrapnel throughout the mouth, regardless of how well you pouch it. It’s an absolutely awful 0/10 user experience.

The high was no better. We chewed it into a pulp, sucked the juices, chewed more and NOTHING. Hours more of chewing. NOTHING. The taste got no more tolerable. They told us that drinking alcohol would ruin the high, so Black Label was off the table. The entire experience felt like a punishment.

At around midnight, with a buzz equal to a medium strength cup of coffee, we took out the mush and got to the whiskey. The only redeeming quality about the Khat was the vibe around the experience. It was all about creating a chill space that facilitates conversation, joking and general relaxation, so we lined the floor with mattresses and shot the shit for hours. Once the booze came out it was story time.

We told stories about college, like that time we found a guy on the street leaving the bars, brought him home and smoked salvia with him, shaved his head, then chased him off our deck screaming “show us your dick!” We told stories from after college, like about how that one guy got a girl pregnant at a pool hall and the woman’s white boyfriend only found out once she gave birth to a mixed child. We told stories that had happened earlier on this trip, like how the groom took video outside a soccer game and was accosted by police for the very fact that he had even taken a video.

It was a hearty night of hanging out with the people closest to me, thoroughly satisfying time, that included several more bottles of Black Label. The next morning resulted in a second straight soul crushing hangover. We left to check out, stepping over my dried throw-up on the beautiful room’s deck, and piled into the tin can of a van on to make the 2 hour drive back to Addis. I felt terrible.

As the van chugged along, we rattled violently at every pebble we hit on the unpaved road. It was me, my girlfriend, two of my gringo buddies and another couple from Penn State, the bride, the groom, the grooms brother and his girlfriend. We tried to combat the hangover with halfhearted recounting of the previous night but there was little we could do to make that drive bearable. It was about to get much worse.

About 8o minutes into the drive, just after the road had transitioned to solid highway, we went through a toll both. On the other side of the toll booth, a traffic cop who was parked on the side of the road waved us down. It was weird because he wasn’t in his car, so it seemed that if we wanted to keep on driving, we easily could have.

The Ethiopian passengers assured us that it was a standard stop. He would check our papers, make sure that we were authorized to be traveling with 10 passengers, then send us on our way. They made it seem like it would be an easy, stress-free transaction and with that news it even seemed like a kind of cool cultural experience.

Apparently my buddy from Penn State in the front seat thought the same thing. As the officer approached the side of the vehicle, he took out his GoPro to get a quick, innocuous shot of the traffic cop pulling us over.

He should not have done that.

It got really tense really fast. The officer went off, screaming in Amharic. He started yelling at my pal with the GoPro, but my unambiguously white friend clearly was foreign to Ethiopia and couldn’t speak a word of the language. Still, the officer made furious demands at my friend. He was pissed.

The groom, who is a quick talker and shrewd negotiator, was sitting in the second row of seats. He flung the window open and started talking a million miles an hour. He fired back angrily at the officer, but again, we had NO IDEA what anyone was saying. At this point, my hangover reached a new gear, a degree of shittiness I hadn’t before considered possible. There was a whirlwind of furious, intense language whipping around me. It was clear the what they were arguing about had very high stakes.

My mind immediately jumped back to the night before and the story the groom told about getting in trouble for filming on his cell phone outside of the soccer game. Whoops. Guess we should have listened to that more carefully.

Ethiopia had recently undergone a fundamental shift in government, transitioning from a time when journalists were persecuted and certain media were limited to a more open, ideologically-empowering era. Big changes like that move slowly and this cop wanted to protect the country’s image. They were after the camera.

The groom leaned out the window, jutting his chin out and vehement arguing in his dark sunglasses. He argued hard. His new bride urged him to calm down. My other friend, who was still nursing a hangover with a road soda, started getting wild ideas. “Tell them we’re politicans.” What? “Tell them we’re all senators.” We let that thought fizzle out as the rest of us sat in tight silence, waiting to see what would happen.

Then the unthinkable happened. The cop started crying.

While we couldn’t understand the words, the grooms tone let us know that he had been berating the cop mercilessly. Between yells he turned away with the cry face, eyes wide, distraught. The groom’s brother was sitting behind me. “Your man’s about to start bawling.” The more upset he got, the more embarrassed he got. The more embarrassed he got, the angrier he got. He yelled more.

To their credit, my friends were adamant about not giving up the GoPro. The front passenger passed it to me, I passed it to the groom’s brother in the back and we pretended that the footage had been on a camera, which we deleted.

The officer wasn’t buying it. Angrier than ever, he told us to put the van in reverse and to take it back toward the toll we had just passed. We wheeled next to the bottom of a bank, which I guess was near a town, because it was a highway, but there were a bunch of people kind of milling around. The groom had been asking to talk to the boss, so maybe we were there to find him.

Then suddenly a wave of officers appeared at the top of the hill and came bounding down the bank. The officer at the far right of the line was dressed not in traffic cop blues, but in a military green, and was carrying an AK-47 under his arm with his finger on the trigger. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.

The reasoning continued, now with more voices in the mix. My friend who had fancied us all to be politicians tried to slide open the door and get out to put himself into the mix of the conversation. We all yelled at him to sit down. “I was going to tell them we were George Bush’s kids.” How would they know who George Bush is?

The officers told us to get out of the car. We started to get out. Then they told us to get back in the car. We sat back down. We were getting conflicting information from multiple officers and it was hard to tell if there were plainclothes cops there too or if there were just townspeople who had inserted themselves right in the middle of the investigation. Finally the military gear officer told us to get out of the car so we nervously scuttled out onto the roadway.

At that point I had no idea what to think. I didn’t think we were going to get mowed down by a machine gun, but my mind started whirring through mad-dash escape routes/heroic savior options. Even if it’s crazy, you have to have a plan, right?

Eventually, with the big-boss gun-wielding officer in play, the groom changed his tone to a more conciliatory one. Machine gun talking doesn’t work against an actual machine gun. We conceded that we had the GoPro and the perpetrating cameraman deleted the footage. Slowly, the tension began to ebb. After some final bubbling of indistinguishable conversation, the officers let us back into the car without searching us or the vehicle.

Whew. We each exhaled. As we pulled off we nervously half-laugh, part relieved and part pissed and all the way shaken. There were still a lot of questions. Namely, what had made the cop cry? We asked the groom.

His defense of us had been a beautiful one. He told the cop that we were tourists, not journalists. That we were in their country as westerners, as tourists. We weren’t here to paint the country in a bad light. He was showing us around, trying to highlight the beauties of the country and now we were getting harassed?

The groom had called into question what the officer was doing for his country, which was a duty the officer took very seriously. The groom told us that talking to the officer in his sunglasses was further disrespectful, but that he had to focus on not letting any English slip into his Amharic, which would have been seriously disrespecting the traffic cop. When the other cop came over, he realized shit was serious, so he had stopped jutting his chin out and conceded that we should have known the rules.

We were relieved to have escaped but a little excited that we finally had a fun story from the trip. Especially getting hearded out of the car by the AK toting cop. It was a hell of a mental image.

As we drove off towards Addis, my buddy with the GoPro agreed. “I kinda wanted to take a picture.”