Friday, December 21, 2012

Ethiopia: The End of the World As We Know It

A few weeks before the end of the world (as allegedly predicted by the Mayans), some of my friends decided we should go out with a bang.  And thus was born the idea for the Epic End-of-the-World Party.  I made the cut for the guest list, and before long I received an e-mail with all the details.

To summarize, my friend DJ Doublewide was set to provide the music; there would be drinks and food provided (but donations would be appreciated); we would uncork the bubbly at midnight; and guests should dress in a manner befitting of the apocalypse.  I do enjoy a good theme party, and it sounded like a helluva lot more fun than being incinerated at home.  I was in!

A few days before the party, I was in Amharic class.  To practice my conversation skills, my teacher Dil asked me to talk about my plans for the weekend.  When I mentioned the party, however, he was perplexed.

"If it's the end of the world," he asked me, "wouldn't you rather spend your last hours praying?"

Dil clearly didn't get it.  I explained to him that none of us actually believed the world was ending on December 21.  And even if it did happen to end, would a few hours of prayer really make a difference?  Surely for most people, I postulated, the sum of one's life's deeds would already be pretty well set when the 11th hour drew near.  Dil wasn't convinced, however, so we spent the next 10 minutes discussing theology (but no longer in Amharic).  We had to agree to disagree.

A few days later, the big day arrived.  The water in my tap was running blood red; the morning sky was black; and a plague of locusts had descended upon my humble home.  "Another day in paradise," I thought to myself.

Then something truly disturbing happened: My internet went down.  Honestly, this happens every other week, but this time was different.  It was as if the rarely mentioned fifth horseman came bearing service disruptions.

I tried to put this unpleasantness out of my mind.  I went to work and put in a solid effort.  Then I came home, slept for a few hours, and woke up more tired than when I had gone to bed.  It didn't matter, though: It was party time.

Having failed to give it much thought beforehand, I poked around my closet trying to find something apocalyptic to wear.  In the end, though, I didn't get too creative.  This was mainly because I hadn't arranged for a ride, and I wasn't interested in walking across town in some outlandish get-up.  The second consideration was that I didn't feel like ironing.  So, with these two factors in mind, I decided to wear some black pants and a black t-shirt.  I figured this was a sensible choice because even if someone spilled a drink on me, I could still look presentable at the Pearly Gates.  I finished off my outfit with some Papua New Guinea bling - my necklace made of dog teeth - and then I hit the road.

I encountered the usual cast of characters on my stroll.  There were a few beggars, a handful of drunks and punks, and plenty of people minding their own business.  After about 20 minutes, I reached Bole Road, a major road undergoing a major renovation.  I always like walking down Bole Road because unlike in the U.S., the construction site is completely unsecured.  You get to negotiate craters; mounds of rocks, dirt, and bricks; puddles; stacks of sheet metal; concrete pipes.  You get to dodge dump trucks, cement trucks, diggers, and other massive machines, and this is all very fun for some reason.

When I was about halfway down Bole, three Ethiopian guys stopped me.

"Do you know how to get to Z?" one asked me.  "It's a popular music club around here."

"I'm sorry but I don't," I told him.

"Are you sure?" he responded.  "It's near the Mega Building."

This additional landmark also wasn't familiar to me, so I wasn't able to help.

Admittedly this exchange wasn't that noteworthy, save for the fact that these guys spoke with proper English accents.  I hadn't encountered that in Ethiopia before.

From Bole, it wasn't far to the party venue, and I found it without any problems.  Door-to-door it had only taken me forty-five minutes to walk, which wasn't too shabby.

The party was being hosted by DJ Doublewide, his wife Elena, and another friend Oksana, and it was Oksana who offered her house for the cause.  When I arrived, her guard ushered me through the gate, inside the house, and up the stairs.  The house was quite large, and after hiking up three or four stories, I emerged on the rooftop terrace.  I was fashionably late - by about an hour and a half - so by the time I arrived there was already critical mass.  I started out by hitting the food table which featured mini meatballs, big meatballs with deviled eggs cooked inside, fried mashed potato balls, mini cheese pizzas, and chunks of roast beef, and I washed it all down with an ice-cold Coke.  Then I poured myself a glass of Jack and entered the fray.

People were coming and going throughout the night, but I'd say there were about 40 people at the party's peak.  And while many people had opted like me to wear normal party clothes, others had gone all out.  DJ Doublewide was wearing overalls and a tin-foil covered baseball cap.  I think he was a redneck in fear of an alien invasion.  Elena was wearing a toga fashioned from one of those metallic emergency blankets.  She thought it would come in handy if we woke up in a post-apocalyptic world.  Two other friends, Natalya and Alexei, had decided to leave this world as they had entered it.  They were wearing flesh-colored body suits with leaves glued over their private parts.  Another friend, Svetlana, had a more complicated costume.  She was wearing a silk Chinese dress, a diving mask and snorkel, and running shoes.  According to Svetlana, the Chinese do not believe that the world will end, but they do believe humans will be taken away at some point by a sage old man.  She was dressed like a Chinese woman in hopes that this old savior guy would mistake her for Chinese and spirit her away from the smoldering Earth.  The mask and snorkel were in case the end of the world happened by another great flood, and the running shoes were a last resort so she could literally run for her life.  My friend Vitaly decided he wanted to meet his maker wearing his kilt.  He also brought binoculars, assuming meteors and asteroids would soon fall from the heavens, and a small horn, which he was going to blow three times as a warning for the rest of us when the end was at hand.  Tatyana, originally from the Philippines, took the dress code quite literally.  She wore a white traditional Filipino dress that is used to dress the dead body at a funeral.  Valentina and her man, Sergei, had good costumes too.  They were dressed as sidewalk religious fanatics, complete with cardboard signs offering the warnings "REPENT!" and "THE END IS NEAR!".  Other people wanted to meet the end in random costumes, so we had a few cowboys present, and my friend Ruslan was wearing a hooded black cloak.  I assumed he was supposed to be a druid or something, but in fact he was meant to be a ninja.  Hilariously, he stalked off and changed clothes after several people asked him if he was dressed as a hobbit.

Initially, there were eight or ten people dancing and everyone else was on the fringes talking and drinking.  The two fire pits were especially popular places for congregating.  I took a place on the wall and spent time talking with several different people.  Oksana's terrace has an awesome view, so I also watched several planes glide in to the airport.

At one point, I was talking to my friend Yakov about a range of interesting topics from frequent flyer miles to reindeer steak, when we were interrupted by another friend Anastasia.  Of the guests at the party, Anastasia was on the older end of the spectrum, and this was very much evident in the request that she made.

"Do either of you jitterbug?" she asked us.

"I would've been down with a good Lindy Hop or Charleston," I told her, "but I just don't care for the jitterbug."

"Real funny, smart ass," she chided.  "I think you're just scared."

"Bingo," I freely admitted, "I'm doing good just to sway back and forth to the beat."

Yakov also refused to jitterbug, so Anastasia left us in peace.

A few minutes later, she and Alexei danced by, and it was pretty clear that one of them was having more fun than the other.

"Look what you missed out on," Yakov laughed.  "That could've been you out there."

He's right, of course.  I'll have to live with the regret.

DJ Doublewide played a variety of hits from Livin' on a Prayer to Cotton-Eyed Joe to Gangnam Style, and the crowd on the dance floor ebbed and flowed accordingly.

At one point, he played LMFAO's I'm Sexy and I Know It, and Yakov starting breaking it down solo.  For maybe 20 or 30 seconds, the other people on the dance floor encouraged him, but everyone gave him space to do his thing.  Then an Ethiopian guy stepped up and started dancing across from him, mirroring Yakov's style.

American guys have a particular hang-up, whereby most refuse to dance with other guys unless a lady is present.  On the other hand, guys in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America generally do not have this problem, at least not from what I've observed.  For many of these foreign guys, there doesn't seem to be a stigma for two guys to dance together or for guys to dance together in a group, because it doesn't mean anything. (Obviously, I'm talking about dancing at a respectable distance, without any contact.)

Being American, however, Yakov wasn't having it.  When the Ethiopian guy started dancing across from him, Yakov became considerably less animated and you could tell he was about to leave the dance floor.  Then, at that instant, one of my favorite moments of the night occurred.

Just as Yakov was about to split, my friend Liliya appeared out of nowhere and inserted herself in the middle of the two guys.  Everyone saved face, and the dance floor crisis was averted.

For me, Liliya's timing had been the most impressive part.  She had obviously seen what was happening and jumped in at the perfect moment.  Short of cartwheeling out on the floor, she couldn't have done it any better.

Another favorite moment for me was when DJ Doublewide played Billy Jean.  A few Ethiopians immediately took center stage and were channeling some impressive MJ moves.

Eventually, it was down to only one guy on the floor, and everyone else was encouraging him from the sidelines.  It was at this point that Elena joined the lone dancer, and she made her grand entrance by roping him around the neck with a strand of silver tinsel.  This could easily have ruined the moment, but Elena worked in seamlessly and with plenty of class.

On the night's agenda, there was more than just dancing and drinking in store.  There was also entertainment in the form of a circus troupe.

At around 10:30, Doublewide summoned the party-goers from the far reaches of the patio, and we all circled around the dance floor.  Then the Ethiopian circus performers started their set.

First up was a stilt-walker.  He kind of stumbled around to some top 40 music, and then some of the ladies from the crowd danced with him and weaved between his 8-foot legs.  Then two young ladies from the circus group bent their bodies into several different poses showing a lot of strength, flexibility, and balance in the process.  After that, one of the ladies did a solo act where she spun squares of fabric on her head, feet, and hands.  Eventually, she got 5 squares spinning at once (while lying on her back, she had one on each hand and foot and one twirling on a stick in her mouth).

The fabric spinner was followed by a hula-hooping woman.  She started with one hoop, and Svetlana, who was standing near me, was not impressed initially.

"I can do that," she told those of us near her.  "Just yesterday, I was showing my son how I can move the hoop from here to here," she explained, as she indicated the area from her waist to her neck.

As the hula-hoop performer kept increasing the difficulty of her routine, people kept asking Svetlana if she was still on par.  It turned into a bit of a running joke.

In the end, the circus woman was gyrating with 5 or 6 hoops across her body, and Svetlana declared her the champ.  As you may recall, however, Svetlana was wearing a snorkel as part of her costume, and that soon became another joke.  For a grand finale, Svetlana was saying that she'd like to see the hula-hooper spin a hoop on the snorkel.

With such a well-hydrated crowd, I guess a bit of heckling is to be expected.

After the hula-hooper, one of the guys did a unicycle routine.

Then for the big finish, they turned up the heat - literally.  The two ladies danced around with flaming batons, and one of the guys did a fire-eating routine.

The whole show was nice, and no portion lasted long enough to get tedious.

After we showed the performers some appreciation, DJ Doublewide opened the floor for dancing again, and the majority of the crowd retreated once again to the periphery.

Before long, the midnight hour arrived.  We were supposed to vote on a winner for the costume contest, and this winner was going to have the honor of leading the final countdown for the end of the world.  We didn't get around to the voting, though, so DJ Doublewide led the final countdown, while at the same time we were actually listening to The Final Countdown.

We had a champagne toast and fired off some confetti rockets.  (One jammed, actually, but it fired off a few minutes later.)

Then when it appeared that we weren't going to be destroyed after all, Doublewide cranked up the music and the party resumed with renewed vigor.  Naturally, first up was It's the End of the World as We Know It, and as in the song, we all felt fine.

I had been mostly standing around talking up to this point, and Elena felt that I had avoided dancing long enough.  She forced me to take a massive shot of Captain Morgan, and then we hit the dance floor.

After midnight came and went, the crowd started to dwindle.  There were about 15 or 20 of us remaining, and we had a fun time dancing and sloshing beer everywhere.

At one point, Doublewide played Like a G6, which compelled me to make a joke.

"I party like a GS-6," I announced.  On the U.S. Government pay scale, the GS-6 series is approximately $30,000-$40,000 per year, so it's not exactly the champagne and caviar lifestyle the song Like a G6 is talking about.

Unfortunately, my excellent (if I do say so myself) joke led to some bickering.

One of the ladies on the dance floor responded to my joke.

"Did you know that a G6 is a type of speaker?" she said.  "That's what the song is really about."

Upon hearing this, however, another lady begged to differ.  "Actually, a G6 is a private jet," she corrected.

Then she took it one step further.  "If you had ever seen the video," she continued, "you would know that."

Oh no she didn't...

Naturally, the first lady wasn't keen on being disrespected, and she shot back.

"I have seen the video," she answered.  "Yeah, there's a jet, but what's in the jet?  There are speakers! G6 speakers!"

Things were getting ugly, and I'm sure I heard a choice word or two being muttered under the breath.  I stepped in to clean up the mess.

"Ladies, ladies... there's no need to fight." I interjected.  "Maybe you're both right."

"I don't think so," the first lady snapped, and then she stomped off the dance floor.

This wasn't the greatest mediation job in history, but at least the tension was gone.

As the group got smaller and smaller, Elena and I danced several more times.  And as we danced she would periodically crack up.  Apparently, my dog-tooth necklace got funnier and funnier to her.

For my part, I was enjoying the fact that her emergency-blanket dress was crackling as she danced.  It was almost like a musical instrument.

Finally around 3 AM, they pulled the plug on the party.  I voiced a small complaint because we had not yet heard Prince's 1999, and love it or loathe it, that's an end-of-the-world standard.  Doublewide agreed, and I was honored with the last song request of the night.

Then it was time to go home.  Since I was catching a plane at 11 AM, I didn't need to stay out much later anyhow.

My friend Valeria offered to give me a ride home, and I accepted.  She had bird feathers attached to her eyelashes, which was pretty cool.

I got in her car, and as we were pulling away, our friend Boris was sitting on the curb with a few ladies from the party.

Valeria decided to linger a moment, so we pulled over, rolled down the windows and started talking to Boris.  Then Valeria turned on some music in the car.  It was Jewel or something, and Boris didn't approve.

"That song sucks," he announced.  "And why are you still sitting here?"

We stayed a second or two longer, and then we finally left.  As we pulled away, Valeria wasn't quite sure of the way out of the neighborhood, and sure enough we came to a dead end.

"Damn," she remarked, "now we have to drive past Boris again."

In line with the saying, "go big or go home," we corrected our course and drove by the party again, and Valeria had the windows down and Jewel blasting louder than ever.  While I wasn't crazy about the song myself, I respected the obnoxious sentiment.

Then having indeed gone big, we went on home.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Ethiopia: Sometimes It's the Little Things...

For new arrivals to post whose vehicles are still in transit, the Embassy provides a shuttle service between home and the office.  There are several different routes which cover the different areas of town, but the employee residences are not evenly distributed around the city.  As a result, the shuttles to the Bole and Old Airport neighborhoods routinely serve a dozen or more employees each, while my shuttle down Debre Zeit Road has never had more than three riders.  Living in the unpopular part of town has its advantages.

There is one shuttle each morning heading to the office, but two in the evening heading home.  Because of the two evening options, the Debre Zeit Road shuttle rarely alights with all three of its passengers.  I often ride home by myself, or with only one other person.

One evening, I was riding home with my colleague, Rosemary, and the driver elected to go to her house first as he often did.  As we neared her house, Rosemary stopped the driver.

"You don't need to pull in," she told him.  "I'll get out here."

This was a move we all employed because it was much faster to get out of the car on the street and walk through the pedestrian door in the gate than it was to wait for the guard to open the whole gate so the car could drive inside.

Rosemary hopped out of the car, pulled out her keys, and walked over to the gate.

Our driver Elias was waiting until Rosemary was safely inside the gate before driving away, so naturally he and I watched her every move while we sat in the car.

It took her only a few seconds to reach the gate, and then for a few seconds more she fumbled with her key in the lock.  In an attempt to help out, Elias bumped the horn a few times to try to get the guard's attention so that he might open the pedestrian door from the inside.

Then Rosemary stopped playing with the lock, scrutinized the gate once more, and turned to face the car.

"This isn't my house," she sheepishly announced.

We were one house off, and just next door (at Rosemary's actual house) her guard had heard Elias honking and was standing halfway out of the gate trying to get her attention.

"Madam, madam!" he was hollering.

Rosemary walked the short distance down to her house while Elias and I drove slowly beside her.  We both understood how embarrassing this situation was for her, so we maintained complete composure.

Once she was safely inside her compound, we pulled away.  Then for about 10 meters, we drove with an awkward silence in the car.  It was as if the sound of smiling permeated the air, and what happened next was unavoidable: Elias and I lost it.

We were laughing so hard Elias had to pull the car over.

Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate this, but the whole sequence of events was hilarious to us - Rosemary's confident leap from the car, her subsequent confusion and sheepishness, her guard flagging her down from next door...

When the laughing finally started to subside, Elias had a thought.

"Imagine if the residents at the first house had opened the gate," he tried to say, but he was in tears before he could finish.

A hardy laugh is contagious and almost intoxicating, and the two of us laughed uncontrollably for what seemed like several more minutes.  Then Elias started driving again.

We didn't get far before the laughter returned, but soon enough I was home.

And for the next few days, Elias and I couldn't make eye contact without cracking up.


At all the employee residences in Addis Ababa, the Embassy provides night guards (well, for the American employees, anyway).  Beyond this, many people elect to hire additional household staff including mamitas (ladies who cook and/or clean inside the house), gardeners, drivers, day guards, and nannies.

While initially not wanting to hire any household staff, I decided to retain the gardener/day guard, Chane, who basically came with my house.  When I drew up his employment contract, I opted to use a fill-in-the-blank form available at the Embassy.  This contract template had blanks for salary, paid holidays, bonuses, working hours, and other employment particulars, and there was also a biodata section to fill-in.

My gardener speaks very little English, so I decided to complete the biodata section during the guards' shift change at 7 AM.  That way, I could enlist my night guard, Yonas - who was going off duty - to translate.

Yonas was more than happy to help, and he started conversing with Chane in Amharic to collect the requested information.

After a minute or two of chit-chat, Yonas had recorded Chane's address, phone numbers, and date and place of birth.  Then I looked the form over, and something caught my eye: Was Chane really born on June 10, 1937?

By now my shuttle had arrived, so I didn't have time to delve into the issue any further.  In any case, assuming that this was his correct birthday, I wasn't going to not hire him just because he was old.

That day at work, Chane's age was on my mind.

I showed his contract to my colleague Julia to get her opinion.

"Are you sure you want a 75-year-old man for a gardener?" she asked me.

Chane actually looked to me to be in his 50s, so I wasn't convinced that he was 75.  Still, Julia got me thinking.

A few days later, I broached the subject with Yonas.

"Oh, that birthday is totally wrong," he told me.

Then he went on to explain.

Apparently when he asked Chane what day he was born, Chane had no idea.

"It was during the rainy season..." he started to explain to Yonas, and then he continued his explanation with some other agrarian references.

"We don't have time for this," Yonas told him.  "Your birthday will be June 10."

"What year?" Yonas continued.

Again there was confusion.  Since the Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic calendar, and the Western calendar is Gregorian, the year in Ethiopia is always 7 to 8 years behind the West.

As with his day of birth, Chane wasn't sure about his year of birth, but he guessed it was 1937.  Assuming his guess was based on the Ethiopian calendar, however, that would make his year of birth 1945 on the Gregorian calendar.

So, Chane was possibly 67, 75, or more likely, none of the above.  That's the tricky thing about being born in a rural village, I suppose.

Realizing that his date of birth was completely meaningless, I didn't bother including it on the final contract.  At least the whole experience had been good for a laugh.


One day on the ride home from work, I was talking with my driver, Feseha.

"Where's a good place to take a girl for a drink?" I asked him.  Specifically, I was interested in a lounge, as opposed to a club or a bar.

Feseha was very eager to help and started throwing out ideas.  After mulling over several options, he decided that the best choice would be a place called Radio in the Bole area of town.

His suggestion was very helpful already, but then Feseha took the helpfulness up a notch.

"Do you want me to drive you?" he asked me.  "It would be no problem; I live only 10 minutes from you."

Obviously Feseha was a paid professional driver at the Embassy, but he was offering to drive me in his personal car on his personal time.  This was exceptionally generous.

Before I could respond, however, he interrupted me to sweeten the offer even more.

"Wait, I have a better idea!" he exclaimed.  "Did you get your Ethiopian driver's license yet?  In that case, you can borrow my car.  You need to make a good impression after all."

This was off-the-chart generous, and I was touched by his offer.

In the end, though, I didn't accept for a few reasons.

For starters, the woman I was meeting had a car and would be handling the driving herself.  Also, I hadn't yet gotten my Ethiopian driver's license.

So, I thanked Feseha and explained to him why I wouldn't accept his offer.  Besides the two reasons I mentioned above, there was of course one more thing:

"If I go out for drinks," I explained, "I really shouldn't be driving."

Just at that moment, we had to swerve to avoid colliding with a kamikaze mini-bus.

"Maybe a few drinks wouldn't be such a bad thing," he joked. "I think half the people on the road are drunk already."

Amen, brother!

We both had a good laugh over that one.


My colleague Diane threw a great garden party one weekend, so fittingly we were standing in her yard admiring her garden.

In the center of the yard was an evergreen tree of some sort, and it was trimmed in a most unusual fashion.  Basically, all the branches on one side had been cut off.

"That's an interesting way to prune a tree," I remarked.

Well, my comment touched a nerve, and Diane proceeded to give us the back-story.

If I understood correctly, another tree in the yard collapsed one day and slightly damaged the fir tree.  In hopes of making the damage less noticeable, Diane's landlord hired a professional tree service for a touch-up grooming.  When the professionals arrived a few days later, however, Diane's gardener sent them away.  He thought it was a waste of money to pay these so-called experts when he himself was quite capable of grooming a tree.  Needless to say, both Diane and her landlord were less than impressed with the results.  Ha ha.

Once my tree comment got her started, Diane continued discussing her ongoing challenges with her gardener.    As she swept her hand across her garden, she delivered one of my favorite lines in recent memory:

"I keep trying to explain to him," she told us in her Boston accent, "the goal is not to have one rose that's nine feet tall!"

And throughout her garden, there was ample evidence to support her frustration.  The roses were indeed long and lonely; different varieties of ground cover had been allowed to grow tall and spindly, and a few of the shrubs could have used a trim.

I had a good laugh.  To be fair, though, while it wasn't quite ready for Better Homes and Gardens, Diane's garden wasn't too shabby.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ethiopia: The Barber Shop: Part 2

When my hair began to overtake my ears again, I ventured out for another trim.  My first barber had done well enough, but I decided to try a new shop in hopes of finding a barber with a touch more personality.

There were plenty of barber shops to choose from, but I opted for one that I had passed several times in my neighborhood.

Featuring three chairs, this shop was bigger than the first one I had tried.

I walked in, and the young barber ushered me to the center chair and draped a smock over me.  Then he wadded up a few clumps of cotton and shoved them in my ears.  I assume this was to keep the hair clippings out of my ears, although it seemed a bit unnecessary.

"How do you normally comb your hair?" he asked me.

I've been asked this before, and I always think it's a stupid question.  Is the implication that my hair looks completely unstyled?

"This is how my hair normally looks," I answered.  "I just need it shortened a bit."

The barber nodded and started preparing his equipment.  Unlike the first barber who sterilized his equipment over an open flame, this guy had a sterilizing machine.  After a few moments, he was ready to begin.

"What number do you normally use?" he asked me, referring to the guard on the clippers.

I couldn't recall, so he selected a 2 and went to work.

I had arrived to the shop quite late in the evening, so I was a bit surprised that it was still open.

"What are your hours?" I asked him.

"This shaver cost 7,000 birr," he answered.

"Sorry," I responded, "but I was asking when your shop is open."

"You want to know about the other shaver?" he replied.

"No," I answered.  "What time do you go home at night?" I rephrased again.

"Oh, I close at 7:00," he told me.

I think the real answer was that he closes the shop whenever he feels like it, because I hadn't arrived until 7:30 and the shop was clearly still open.

After the confusion over his hours of operation, a real conversation began to take shape.

"What's your name?" he asked me.

"Chris," I told him.

"Crist?" he repeated back to me.  The word he was saying rhymed with "wrist".

"Not Crist," I answered.  "Chris."

"Crist?" he said again.

"Close enough," I replied.  "What's your name?"

"Richardson," he announced.

When I told him that I hadn't heard that name in Ethiopia before, he sheepishly tried to explain.

"Well, my mother was Ethiopian and my father was Italian," he told me.

This explanation didn't make much sense to me since Richardson didn't sound any more Italian than it did Ethiopian, but I didn't pursue it any further.

"Have you been to Italy?" I asked him.

"No," he answered, "my father is dead."

Again, this answer gave rise to more questions, but as before, I decided not to follow-up.

The conversation dried up for a few minutes while Richardson struggled with the haircut.

After a few minutes, he broke the silence again.

"How long were you living in Ethiopia?" he asked me.

I gave him my standard response: "I have a two-year contract, and I've been here about two months so far."

Richardson thought this was most excellent.  We discussed how nice Addis Ababa was, which local foods and drinks I preferred, and how my family was doing.  Then he asked me about religion.

No matter how I pronounced it, he couldn't understand the word "Catholic", so we left it with me being a generic Christian.

Richardson, on the other hand, was Lutheran.  With the strong Norwegian influence on the Lutheran Church, I wondered if this might explain his name.

Not only was Richardson a member of his congregation, he was also the organist.  When I told him that I used to play piano (and still do, albeit poorly), he became very excited.

"It's my dream to play a piano," he told me, and he was blushing as if he had revealed something scandalous.

Richardson was saving to buy a new keyboard, but they are apparently very expensive in Ethiopia.  We talked a bit about the price of keyboards in the U.S., although I didn't really have any figures at the ready.  Nonetheless, Richardson was sure he could get a much better deal in the States, and I'm inclined to agree.

As he worked on my hair, Richardson kept leaning on me which was a bit annoying.  I guess he wasn't comfortable standing behind me and using the mirrors.

"I know you will come back again," he proudly announced, "because I'm giving you the best haircut ever!"

His enthusiasm was admirable, but I had my doubts that this would be the best cut ever.

Richardson continued cutting, and then we had a déjà vu moment.

"So how long have you been in Ethiopia?" he asked me.

Slightly perplexed, I gave the same answer as I had before.  "I have a two-year contract, and I've been here about two months so far."

I'm not sure how we came to have this loop in the conversation.  Perhaps Richardson's English comprehension was worse than I realized.  Perhaps he was forgetful or nervous.  Or perhaps it was simply a glitch in the Matrix.

Thankfully, he finished cutting shortly thereafter, so we avoided repeating our entire conversation a second time.

"Lean your head back," Richardson instructed me.

I complied, and he began vigorously massaging my scalp and shaking out the loose scraps of hair.  He was so aggressive, it felt like my neck was about to snap.

After this final bit of torture, he brushed me off once more, removed the smock, and extracted the cotton from my ears.

"Would you like a wash?" he asked me.

I skipped the wash and paid.  The damage was 20 birr (about $1.11) plus tip.

As I walked home, I thought about my two barbershop experiences thus far.

Of the two barbers, Richardson had more personality, and while the conversation wasn't the greatest, he had made a good effort.  On the downside, though, he took a long time; he had no concept of personal space; and he tried to break my neck.

And what about the cut itself?  Well, when I got home and had a good look in the mirror, I thought about what my father would say.  I can't be sure, but I think his assessment would have something to do with me losing a fight with a lawnmower.  (He has a way with words.)

Richardson had basically cut my hair so that it looked respectable exactly as it sat.  Once I disturbed it a bit, though, it became clear just how uneven it was.  There were rouge tufts of hair jutting out all over the place.  I like to occasionally spike my hair when it's short, but with this cut, that wasn't going to be an option.

This wasn't a huge problem, though, because in a month it would be time for another cut.  And having seen what was behind doors number one and number two, I think I'll be trying the barber behind door number three when the time comes.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ethiopia: The Colony

My kitchen here in Addis Ababa came complete with a small colony of tiny black ants, and I must say we are getting along just fine.  I had some resident ants in Pakistan too, but my Ethiopian ants are much more discreet.  They live in the cracks around my kitchen sink, and they know how to keep a low profile.

At the most I wash dishes once a day, and the rest of the time, dirty dishes are sitting in the sink. Usually, I fill the dishes with water, but there is almost always an exposed portion with some food residue on it. Such morsels never escape the notice of the colony, and in no time there's a little ant highway snaking across my kitchen counter.

As soon as I come near, however, the ants clear out. In only a few minutes, they're gone without a trace. From time to time, I do wash a few down the drain, but the others seem to understand that it's nothing personal.

It has been interesting to see the ants' preferences. In terms of fruits and vegetables, they had no interest in garlic, onions, cabbage, apples, peppers, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, or oranges. They were mildly interested in bananas, but what really got them hot and bothered was a surprise to me: These ants love some fennel!

Another interesting thing to me is how the ants went bonkers for honey but seem indifferent to white sugar. They also enjoy flour, bread, beans, and peanut butter.

As we all know, cooked food is more than the sum of its ingredients. The ants know this too. I saw a surprising example of this when I was making kimchi. The ants didn't give a hoot about any of the raw ingredients - salt, cabbage, assorted vegetables, chili, and fish sauce - but once I mixed them all together, the ants suddenly wanted a piece of the action. This particular kimchi contained so much chili it was barely fit for human consumption. The ants, however, had no problem taking the heat.

Another time, I made hummus, and the ants thought it was great. In the process of making it, however, I had splashed tahina in the sink, and I couldn't be bothered to clean it up before going to bed. The next morning, I expected every ant in the tri-state area to be rushing the scene. I couldn't have been more wrong, though. Instead of an orgiastic ant feast, the ants were all on the opposite side of the sink from the tahina. Some even went so far as to spell out "WTF?!?" with their bodies. Ha ha.  Message received, guys.

I've heard horror stories of ant take-overs before, where ants have run amuck and have even managed to defeat seals on airtight containers. Well, so far my ants seem to lack the motivation or know-how to cause such mischief, because I haven't had a breach yet. Maybe they can't be bothered to get creative because I'm already feeding them so well.

I think the ant conversations must sound something like this:

"Hey, Bob, I think I could squeeze under the lid of that plastic box full of sugar if I suck in my gut."

"Well, aren't you special. I'm gonna wait for the oatmeal bowl in the morning."

"I guess you've got a point. Can I bum a smoke?"

A perfect example of this lazy ant attitude is my bottle of local pineapple booze. If I ever leave a glass out with pineapple liquor residue in it, the ants go wild. Little ant bartenders mix drinks with just the right amount of flair; the little ant DJ plays a solid set while that one really drunk ant attempts to dance; and little ant couples make out in the little ant toilets.

When there is no glass of pineapple booze on offer, however, the club shuts down. Meanwhile, the bottle of booze is sitting right next to the sink. Sure the cap is on, but since the contents are so sugary, there is a ring of crystalization on the neck. I would have thought the sugar crystals would be worth the trek up the side of the bottle, but the ants apparently surveyed the situation and uttered a collective "meh".

Oh, well... their loss.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Djibouti: Are We Having Fun Yet?

"You should call the Embassy travel office in Djibouti," my colleague told me.  "They can get you a sweet rate at the Kempinski."

After mentioning my intention to spend a weekend across the border in Djibouti, this was the second time I had received this bit of advice in the span of about 10 minutes.

People seemed to think pretty highly of the Kempinski, so I did in fact contact the Embassy travel office for information.

Soon thereafter, I received a confirmation e-mail.  The travel office had reserved a room for me at the special Embassy rate of 40,350 Djiboutian francs (about $230 U.S. dollars) for one night.  Just for kicks, though, I decided to see just how special this "Embassy rate" was; I turned to the internet.  Oddly enough, I found the exact same rate on several websites, including the Kempinski's own, so this rate was nothing too exclusive.

Still, all things equal, I decided it was better to deal directly with a person than with a website; I kept the booking the travel office had made.

The price was a bit more than I normally care to spend for a hotel room, but the Kempinski billed itself as a 5-star property and I decided to splurge.  Furthermore, the flight from Addis Ababa was relatively cheap, so I justified the situation by applying the airfare savings to the hotel.

The day of my trip, I headed to the airport, and after a flight of just over an hour, I landed in Djibouti at 10:30 AM.  I cleared passport control and found a taxi, and I arrived at the Kempinski with a herd of other guests.

When I reached the desk, the clerk pulled up my reservation and asked for my credit card for incidentals.  I handed over my card as requested.

"I'm sorry, sir," she told me, "but we don't take Mastercard."

I was a bit perplexed at this since supposedly my booking had been guaranteed using my Mastercard.  Apparently, the Embassy travel agent accepted Mastercard, but the Kempinski itself did not.

Knowing very well that they didn't accept it, the clerk took my Mastercard and swiped it across her card reader anyway.  It promptly spit out a rejection notice from the bank.

"Do you have another credit card?" she asked me.

As luck would have it, only a week before my trip, I had received in the mail my new card for my new Visa account.  Without this happy coincidence, I would have been left scrounging for a new hotel.  Other than my Mastercard, I had some U.S. cash on me (but not enough for the room) but no ATM card.

My inaugural Visa purchase went through without any problem, and in a matter of minutes, I was watching TV in my king-sized bed.

Nice safety signage in the Kempinski

As I rolled into a more comfortable position in my nest of blankets, something caught my eye: There were dried blood stains on my pillow case.  The stains were brownish in color, so I had no doubt that the pillow case had been laundered after the bleeding had occurred.  Even if the pillow was technically clean, though, I didn't think this anomaly was very 5-star.

I turned the pillow over and watched another movie.  Then, deciding I should probably see something of Djibouti town besides the hotel, I set out on foot for the city center.  It was about 1 PM.

The Kempinski is on the edge of town which is why most normal people take a taxi when they need to go anywhere else.  I, however, decided that a walk would be a nice diversion.

As I set off down the road, flanked by desert, sea, and houses, I started to second guess my decision after only 10 minutes.  The temperature was allegedly in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius), but it felt to me like it was at least 150 degrees.  My coming from Addis Ababa, where the temperature is consistently in the 60s and 70s, didn't help matters.

Before long, I passed by a Big Boy restaurant, which was closed and looked completely out of place.

Then I reached the bustling heart of the city.

It wasn't long before street kids started hounding me for money.  In the heat this was even more annoying than usual.

With the help of my guidebook, I strolled through the European and African quarters.  I didn't come across any sights that were too amazing, but the walk was pleasant enough.  I encountered plenty more beggars plus dozens of would-be guides.

"Where are you going?" these guys yelled at me.  "We can show you the way."

Most of these guys, mirroring the rest of the population in Djibouti, were chewing on chat (khat) - a mild stimulant - like stoned cows.

It was around 5 PM that I felt a rumbling in my stomach, so I consulted my guidebook for a restaurant recommendation.  Le Pizzaiolo looked promising.

On my way to the pizzeria, one of the street guides asked me where I was going.  I made the mistake of telling him.

"I'm going to Le Pizzaiolo," I told him, "but I have a map."

"I will take you there," the man said.

Well, try as I may, I could not get rid of this guy.  In twenty minutes, we were standing together outside Le Pizzaiolo.

Although he had provided me with absolutely no assistance, this guy made his pitch.

"I helped you," he told me, "now you help me."  "Give me money!"

Then he continued pleading.

This would have been comical if it hadn't been so annoying.  I had followed my map to Le Pizzaiolo and this guy had orbited around me pretending to help.  In reality, he had added no value whatsoever.

"You didn't help me," I explained, "and I'm not paying you anything."

I went inside the restaurant, and the hostess seated me.  Two minutes later the annoying guy came inside and sat at my table.  He definitely had chutzpah.

"You owe me," he insisted.  "If you won't give me money at least buy me a beer."

I ignored him and pretended to study the menu.

After a moment of this routine, one of the workers walked over.  I thought he was coming to take my order, but I was wrong.

"You are disturbing the other customers," he told us.  "Please keep it down."

This was the last straw for me.  I promptly left the restaurant with my annoying friend in tow.  He perhaps thought he had broken me down, but he could not have been farther from the truth.  I was more determined than before; he was not getting a cent from me.

Once we got outside, I flagged the first taxi I saw and drove off.  For all I know, my "guide" was shaking his fist at me as I departed.

I finished my day with a burger and some beers back at the Kempinski, and then I watched more TV.

Before I went to bed, I hit the shower, and - son of a gun! - there was no hot water.  Granted we were in the desert, but still, the water was chilly.  I was not impressed with this place.

The next day I made a pig of myself at the breakfast buffet and pondered how to spend my final day in Djibouti.  I had had such a stellar day hitting the highlights the day before that I decided not to leave the hotel again until it was time to go to the airport.

After breakfast, I checked my e-mail at the business center, bought a dagger in the gift shop, and booked a massage at the in-house spa.  My massage wasn't until the afternoon, so I decided to hang out at the beach or the pool while I waited.

I went to my room to get my swim trunks, and as I was walking toward the pool, I passed two young ladies in the hallway.

"Hey there, handsome," they greeted me.

These two chicas put the booty in Djibouti, and they were doing their best to look seductive.  Unfortunately, however, they couldn't cover up the skank.  They were prostitutes, and at the Kempinski, they definitely weren't the only ones.

As my friend Kevin would later point out, "Djibouti is dominated by a military base and a port; of course the place is crawling with hookers!"


Talking only briefly with the ladies, I went out the back of the hotel toward the beach.  Unfortunately, the boardwalk was under renovation and the hotel's stretch of sand was closed.

The pool was still open, however, so I took a seat on a lounge chair and ordered a beer.

I barely took a sip before the sky opened up.  Since I had intended to swim anyway, I figured there was no harm in a little rain, and I didn't bother to seek cover.  I thought the rain would subside fairly quickly, but after 20 minutes, there was no end in sight.

lanterns in the Kempinski

I returned to my room and watched a Jackie Chan movie.

When I had booked my massage, the reservationist had told me I should report to the spa at least 15 minutes early.

Having nothing better to do, I arrived half an hour early - at 3:30 for a 4 o'clock massage.

I checked in and the spa receptionist told me to have a seat.  Twenty minutes later she finally got back to me.  She gave me some forms to fill out, which I did, and then she gave me some jasmine tea.  After that she gave me a robe to wear, and I changed and met my masseuse.  By the time she actually started on my Abhyanga massage, it was 4:15.

Abhyanga massage uses hot oil and light pressure, and it was relaxing.  I was surprised, however, when the masseuse stopped rubbing promptly at 5 o'clock.

"I'm finished now," she told me.  "I hope you enjoyed it."

I pointed out that I had paid for an hour, not 45 minutes, but the masseuse didn't care.

"Your booking ends at 5," she told me.  "We can't be held responsible that you started late."

"That I started late?"  I rolled this phrase around in my mind for a moment.  I had arrived 30 minutes early and I was completely ignored for much of that time.  The spa was totally responsible for the late start!

Being completely conflict-averse, however, I only argued my case in the weakest way imaginable.  My complaints naturally fell on deaf ears, but I did get a small measure of revenge: I left without giving a tip.

Shortly after my massage, it was time for me to head back to the airport.

I was one of the first people to arrive for my flight, and the terminal was not yet open for business.  After half an hour, though, the doors opened and I checked in.

I was the first person through passport control and the first person in the departure lounge.

I ordered a beer while I was waiting, and as I was minding my own business playing sudoku, a uniformed security officer of some sort came bounding into the room.

"I'm looking for Christopher Coal," he announced.

I figured he was talking about me, so I identified myself.

"Get your bags," he instructed, "and follow me."

I was naturally a bit curious as to what the problem was, but in the end it turned out to be nothing at all.  The guard led me all the way back to the check-in counter so the ticket agent could verify the credit card I had used to purchase my ticket.  Then the guard hurriedly returned me to the lounge.  It was fun on the way back because we got to cut both the security and the passport queues, and I'm sure the other passengers were wondering what was happening.

As my plane lifted off, I thought back on my weekend in Djibouti.  "Meh" pretty much summed it up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ethiopia: The Post Office

I needed to send some photo books to my good friend Marcella, so I packaged them in a box and took them to the Embassy's mail room.

The Embassy does not offer personal package-mailing services, per se, but the Embassy's Employee Association does provide an option.  Under the EEA's scheme (known as the Homeward Bound program), packages are sent by DHL to a sorting facility in Washington, DC, and there, they are handed over to the U.S. Postal Service for delivery to the final destination.  The cost for this service includes the DHL charges from Addis Ababa to Washington and the USPS charges from Washington to the final destination.

The package I had prepared weighed in at 2.3 kilograms (about 5 pounds), and when I got the shipping estimate at the Embassy, I nearly choked.  The door-to-door price was more than 50 dollars, with the bulk of that going toward the DHL leg.

The mail clerk who told me the price was an Ethiopian man.

"That's very expensive," I told him.  "I think I'll try Ethiopian Post instead."

"I don't recommend it," he replied.  "They don't provide a good service."

I was a bit surprised at the negative feeling he had toward his country's own postal service, but at the same time, I was not dissuaded.  I also asked the clerk about the EPS rates, but he wasn't able to provide me with any information.

I decided to get a few more opinions, however, so I asked some of my American colleagues if they had tried EPS.

While none of them had actually tried it before, all of them were very cool to the idea.

"Go right ahead," one colleague warned, "but don't be surprised if your package disappears!"

Others had similarly negative things to say.  Everyone was quite sure my box would be looted.

Some of my colleagues also took the opportunity to chide me for being cheap.  "Just pay the 50 bucks already," I was told.

It had been a bit pointless for me to ask my colleagues' opinions, I suppose, because in the end, I disregarded all of their advice and made my own decision: Ethiopian Post it was!

The notion that the systems of developed countries are guaranteed to be superior, and that those from developing countries are destined to fail due to corruption and incompetence is ridiculous.  It's difficult to give exact numbers since methodologies for counting differ, but there are around 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants (and probably twice as many Americans with Ethiopian ancestry) living in the United States.  With this population approaching half a million, there must surely be a robust postal exchange taking place between the U.S. and Ethiopia.  If so, I had nothing to worry about.  I had faith that EPS could do the job, and I was willing to put my money where my mouth was.

The following Friday afternoon, after the workday had finished, I went to the Post Office.

The guard at the door scrutinized me for several seconds, decided that I was legit, and allowed me to enter.

Inside, there was controlled chaos.  There were two service windows open, and there were many people hovering around each like a swarm of bees.  There was definitely no queuing.

I stood in the back of the swarm and waited for my turn.  I must have looked sufficiently out of place, though, because soon a woman opened a third service window, and she called me over.

I showed her my box, which I had sealed and labeled at home, and she started shaking her head "no".  Apparently, I was not allowed to use my own packaging.

I purchased a standard EPS box from the clerk, and then the guard from the door magically appeared to offer a hand.  He sliced open the box I had prepared and began to repackage the contents in the new box.  Basically, he took over the whole operation, and I was pushed to the side.

As the guard was working on my package, the clerk walked around the counter to have a look.  In Ethiopia, postal clerks are also customs officials, so she flipped through the photo books and conducted a brief inspection.  Once she was satisfied that I wasn't shipping anything suspicious or dutiable, the guard taped up the box.

When he finished taping, I wrote the shipping address on the box and handed it to the clerk.  She set it on her well-seasoned scale, noted the weight, and pulled out a hefty book of postal rates.  Then she turned to the back of the book and ran her finger across a page, stopping on the price that corresponded to the weight of my box.  There was just one problem.

"Excuse me," I interrupted, "but I think you are on the wrong page."

When she realized that she was on the page for the United Arab Emirates, she laughed.  I laughed too.

Once we got that sorted out, the clerk gave me three forms to complete.  She needed these in triplicate, however, so she had to rig them up.  For each form, she layered three blank copies with sheets of that bluish-purplish carbon paper sandwiched in between.  She held the stacks together with straight pins.

Throughout this whole process, the swarm of bees had gradually shifted over, so that my window was now engulfed like the other two were.  As the clerk was dealing with me, other people kept reaching around me to pass her envelopes, parcels, and money.  In turn, she was weighing things for them, returning envelopes and parcels, and passing out forms and stamps.  This system is both simultaneously efficient and inefficient, I suppose, and it reminded me of a mother bird feeding her chicks.  The clerk was giving everyone just enough attention to keep the majority of us quiet.  By serving ten people at once, she was able to keep things moving.  Such a system, however, favors those with simpler requests.  The people who weaseled in front of me to mail small letters and postcards were finished and out of the way quickly.  There were so many of these small intrusions, however, that I think my total time at the window was doubled as a result.

Since my window was overtaken by the swarm, I decided to vacate the area while I completed my paperwork.  I relocated to a table off to the side.

A few minutes later, I was back at the window.  I was in the home-stretch!

The clerk unpinned my forms and pulled out some rubber stamps.  Each form got several stamps, and the box got some ink as well.

Finally, the clerk attached a bar-coded tracking number to the box (and to my receipt and to her file copy), and I was finished.

The whole process had taken one hour, and the price was 829 birr (about $46).

"It should reach the U.S. in about a week," the clerk told me.

I thanked her and walked home.

The status of the package was unclear for a few weeks because the tracking number I received seemed to be worthless.  Whenever I entered the number in the EPS online tracking tool, my package could never be located.

Nonetheless, one month and two days after I had shipped the books, I got a message from Marcella.  The package had arrived in perfect condition.  I'm not sure how long the delivery actually took, though, because Marcella had been on vacation when the box arrived.

I should mention that Marcella was working in Afghanistan at the time, so the box I sent from Addis Ababa traveled first to the U.S.  Then it was passed to the Military Postal Service and shipped to Kabul.

That's a lot of traveling for a package, so even if I had opted for the EEA's DHL shipping option, I doubt the process would have been substantially faster.

And even if I had picked the slower horse in the race, it didn't matter.  Ethiopian Postal Service had done me proud.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethiopia: Oktoberfest at the Hilton

The Hilton Hotel’s Oktoberfest is one of the premier events of the Addis Ababa social calendar, so when the date for 2012 was announced there was a certain buzz around the Embassy.  The event was highlighted in the Embassy’s internal newsletter, and I had pinned the announcement to my bulletin board to remind myself to buy a ticket.

The day after I had posted the announcement on my cork board, my colleague Jobie noticed it.

“Hey, man,” he told me, “my driver is going to pick up tickets this afternoon for the people in my office.”  “Want him to grab you one?”

Since I was planning to attend anyway, this was a no-brainer.  I accepted Jobie’s offer and gave him 500 birr (about $28).

“I owe you 5 birr,” he joked.  The ticket only cost 495, but the 5 birr was negligible.

The following morning, Jobie was back.

“Here’s your ticket,” he said.  “Oh, and by the way,” he added, “we couldn't reserve tables, so you are on your own to find a seat.”

“on your own…

Call me overly sensitive, but this last bit did not sit well with me.  Even if it was not possible to reserve tables, I had no doubt that Jobie and his friends still planned to sit together.  Being fairly new at the Embassy, I had not developed any strong friendships with him or his colleagues, and I understand and appreciate why I was excluded.  I just didn’t care for the method.  It was as if he had said, “Here’s your ticket, and this completes our transaction.  Don’t bother trying to sit with us.”

I am fully capable of having a good time on my own, however, so after my moment of sulking, I got over it.  I was going to go without a crew and meet new people and enjoy myself.

When the big day arrived, I noticed that my ticket did not indicate the starting time.  I set out walking and after about 45 minutes, I reached the Hilton.  It was 6:30 when I arrived, and there was a substantial queue of people waiting for the doors to open.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one unclear about the start time.

I took my place in line, directly behind a young Ethiopian woman.

“I guess the doors don’t open until 7,” I remarked.

“I hope you’re right,” the young lady answered.  “It’s cold out here.”

We started talking, and it turned out that she was alone as well.

She had on a sleeveless black dress, but I could offer her nothing to block the chill since I myself had only a short-sleeved shirt.

Her name was Sara, and she spoke excellent English.  A few years ago, she had spent a year in Saudi Arabia working for Shell Oil.  While there, she lived and worked on a compound, mostly with Americans and other foreigners.  This helped her to hone her English, as well as her self-taught Arabic.  She enjoyed both her job and her American colleagues.  (The Yanks apparently produced bootleg spirits that would really put hair on your chest.)  Life wasn’t all fun and games, though.  Sara hated the heat in Saudi Arabia, and she faced religious persecution.  She would meet with other Christians in secret for Bible study, and more than once they were raided.  Thankfully, they weren’t subjected to prison or the lash.  Instead, they had to pay.  It wasn’t clear to me if Sara was talking about legitimate fines or bribes, but she indicated that the payments were pretty hefty.  In any case, she had no desire to ever return to the Kingdom.

Now days, Sara was selling cosmetics to make ends meet.

I shared some stories as well, and as we were talking, guess who should arrive.  It was Jobie and about eight other people, and they were right behind me in line.  Jobie was decked out in lederhosen.

I got an enthusiastic welcome.

“Chris, what’s happenin’!?” Jobie asked me.

We shook hands, and he introduced me to his wife.  And then after our brief exchange, I turned around and continued talking to Sara.  It was an obvious and awkward snub, but I was supposed to be on my own now wasn’t I?  (Remember earlier when I said that I had gotten over being excluded… well, maybe that wasn’t entirely true.)

For ten or fifteen minutes more, I talked to Sara with my colleagues behind us.  Then the doors finally opened.

The celebration was taking place in a tent set-up on the back parking lot.  Sara and I presented our tickets and each received a voucher for one beer.

“Which company are you with?” a man in a suit inquired.

“None,” I replied.  “I’m a tourist.”

When they heard this news, two young Ethiopian ladies wearing flashy red Bavaria-inspired beer-girl dresses stepped forward.

“Tonight,” they announced, “you will be a guest of Meta Brewery!”

“Follow us,” they instructed.

The Meta tables were on the far side of the tent, so we weaved through row upon row of wooden tables and benches.  Three rows from my table, we passed by a stretch of tables reserved for the U.S. Embassy.  Interesting, indeed.  Maybe Jobie wasn’t aware of any reserved tables, but there they were.

Sara and I were the first people at our Meta table, so we sat on the end.  There were thick pretzels stacked on wooden stands on the table, but unfortunately (for me anyway), no mustard.

Once we were seated, a different beer girl came to take our drink order.

“Would you like to try our kellerbier?”

“That means ‘cellar beer’,” she explained.

Beer was available by the glass or in a 3-liter tower.

Before I committed to either, I requested a sample.  The beer girl returned with glasses about a third of the way full for Sara and me.

After a few minutes, two other couples joined our table.  The two guys were field reps for Boeing, and their wives had accompanied them on assignment.  One field rep was in Ethiopia for a few months as part of the roll-out of the 787 Dreamliner, and the other was the permanent rep whose assignment will range from 4 to 7 years.  Ethiopian Airlines, by the way, operates an all-Boeing fleet and was the third airline in the world to get the Dreamliner (after All-Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines).

Besides Team Boeing, Sara and I were flanked by groups from the Germany Embassy, the Czech Embassy, Hilton Hotel management, and the UK Embassy.  As I was looking around, I also noticed a man wearing a lusekofte (a Norwegian sweater) a few rows over.  Sure enough, he was part of the Norwegian Embassy delegation.  The Russians were near the Norwegians.

Sara and I enjoyed the kellerbier samples enough that we used our free-beer vouchers to get full glasses.  The Boeing guys, meanwhile, started with the 3-liter tower.  One of the ladies in the Boeing group didn’t drink alcohol, however, so she asked the beer girl for a bottle of water.

“We don’t serve water,” was the surprising response.

There were several breweries and beverage suppliers with stations at the event, so the teetotaler set out to try her luck beyond the Meta realm.  Her quest was eventually fruitful, but it probably took her 20 or 30 minutes.  The take-away lesson: you don’t come to Oktoberfest to drink water!

Once everyone was seated, the program started.

The emcee welcomed the VIPs, and then started acknowledging the different groups in attendance.  The first group he announced was the U.S. Embassy, and my colleagues barely made a sound.  This was somewhat embarrassing since all the embassies and companies announced afterward, many of them with much fewer people, made a much bigger racket.  The last group announced was the German Embassy, and everyone roared out for them – and rightly so since it was their night.

Then the oompah band, which had been flown in from Germany, led us in the first of many rounds of “Ein Prosit”.

The program was short and sweet.  Then it was time for the feast.

With such a massive group of people descending on the buffet, there was a major log jam.  It was definitely worth the struggle, though.

Like the band, the food had been flown in from Germany.  There were sausages, various salads, pickles, red cabbage, white cabbage, potatoes, a roast-pork carving station, roast chicken, sliced meats and cheeses, some fish nuggets (which seemed out of place to me), breads, and several other items.

My plate looked ridiculously overloaded, but this was par for the course.  Nearly everyone had a mile-high portion.

I’m no expert on German cuisine, but the food tasted great to me.  And the beer was tasting better and better.

Sara turned out to be a light-weight, and in the end, she couldn’t even finish her sampler beer.  She ended up giving me the beer she got with her voucher.

She had driven to the party in her family’s car, and her brother called her several times to check on her.  I think he wanted to use the car too.  She hit the dessert table with me and then decided to head home.

Before she left, we exchanged cell phone numbers.  I still have the policy of exchanging numbers with anyone who asks, but this was the first number I plan to use.

It was only 9 PM when Sara left, and the party was just getting started.

After dinner, the drinking continued, and the emcee opened up the floor for dancing.  The first song was Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”.  It’s hard to believe, but that was about as modern as the music got.

Meanwhile, the Meta beer girls (and the St. George beer girls and the Castel beer girls and the Harar beer girls) started passing out swag.  I only got a straw hat with a Meta beer patch sewn on it, but there were also branded t-shirts, polo shirts, beer steins, baseball hats, wallets, and bottle openers.

It wasn’t until after dinner that the fifth member of Team Boeing showed up.  He was the team leader, I think, and he was Japanese American.  This guy was a real one-man party.  He was singing, dancing, jumping around, striking poses from Saturday Night Fever, and when he started drinking he got even more wild.  We were dying laughing.  A lot of people from other tables came over to see this guy – to shake his hand or to snap a photo.  At one point, two guys came over and started grinding on him.  It was like the stunt from Jackass where the two party boys start gyrating against someone who doesn’t expect it (like someone waiting at a bus stop, for example).  These guys were trying to be cool and funny, but it backfired.  The Boeing guy took the bait and started acting crazier than ever.  When he started mock-humping a hat, the two party boys evacuated.

Later the crazy Boeing guy stood on a bench and started shouting, “U! S! A!   U! S! A!   U! S! A!”

He was not only crazy as a loon, but also patriotic.

By now, everyone was up and moving around.  I went over to talk to my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy table.

“I think you made the right choice not to sit here,” my friend Connie told me.  “I see these people every day at work; I don’t need to see them after hours as well.”

Another colleague was of the same opinion.  “You certainly didn't miss anything,” he told me.

All across the tent, there were towers of beer rising up from the tables like chimneys.  If you had a glass in hand, you were never far from a top-off.  To further hydrate the crowd, shot-girls also started working the floor.  They were doing a brisk business selling schnapps and vodka.

After I had talked with my fellow Americans for a while, I migrated back toward my original table.  I chilled a bit longer with the Boeing crowd, and then the group started to fragment again.

At this point, a drunken Brit named William entered the scene.

“How’s it going, mate?” he asked me.

Everything was fine, and I admitted as much.

Then we started talking about what each of us was doing in Ethiopia.  He was working at the UK Embassy in a military capacity.

When I told him that I was at the U.S. Embassy, he had another question:  “Is this your first time abroad?”

“Actually, I’ve been out for ten years,” I replied.

William was visibly surprised.

“No offense intended, mate,” he fumbled, “but most Americans don’t travel.”

His point was valid, but his question had also been a touch condescending.

We got along fine, though, and had several laughs and one or three shots.

I met another of William’s colleagues, Niles, and they were both the “I’d-tell-you-what-I-do-for-a-living-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you” kind of people.

“I’m sure you understand,” they told me.

“I have the opposite problem,” I countered.  “I’ll gladly tell you the details of my job, but then you’d probably want to kill yourself.”

This was a joke, of course, and they appreciated it.

As the conversation was moving along, something else crossed William’s mind.

“Say, if you’re American,” he asked me, “how come you don’t speak with an American accent?”

“I thought I did,” I told him.

“No, you don’t,” he insisted.

Maybe he was right that my accent has become watered down.  It reminded me of when I had checked out of my hotel in Washington and was about to go to the airport to catch my flight to Ethiopia.  The doorman at the hotel called me a taxi, and we were chatting as I waited.  “So, are you flying back to your home country now?” he asked me.

My time with the Brits had been good fun, and they invited me to come to an after-party at Club H2O.  Having never been there before, I was intrigued.  At the same time, I realized that I was in no shape for more partying, and I declined.

They understood, and we agreed to meet up some other time for drinks.  We didn’t exchange contact details, though, so if we do meet up, it will likely be by chance.  The same goes for the Boeing delegation.  We all talked about meeting again but never got around to swapping digits.

At around 1 AM, the band capped off the night with a lively rendition of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”.  And simultaneously, all decorum left the building.  People were spilling drinks; a conga line precariously perched on a row of benches collapsed and left a dozen people hugging the floor (still laughing, of course!); young men were popping the balloons used to decorate the tent; and many people looked like zombies.  There were red eyes, stained clothes, and matted hair.  (But enough about me, ha ha!)  All around the tent, you could hear the sound of breaking glass.

But before the band packed it up for good, the emcee had one more trick up his sleeve.  He called the German Defense Attaché to the stage, and the attaché closed down the party with a Sinatra song.  Quite possibly it was “My Way” but I can’t swear to it.

As he was singing, the Hilton waiters scurried around the tent clearing tables and stacking benches.  The party was officially over.

I was prepared to walk home, but one of my colleagues kindly offered me a ride.

Fifteen minutes later, as I came waltzing in through my gate, my night guard was keen to hear about the happenings of the night.  We talk most evenings for a bit, but the play-by-play from Oktoberfest took an hour and a half.  Since he is required to stay awake until 7 AM and has very little with which to occupy his time, my guard was hanging on every word of my story.

When I headed to bed at 3 AM, I was well and truly exhausted, but I had no complaints.

I had alienated a few colleagues perhaps, but overall, it had been a choice night.

Ethiopia: Jewelry Shopping

Ethiopian jewelry is apparently well known (at least in some circles) because two of my Pakistani friends independently contacted me about this very thing.  They were both keen to get a few pieces for themselves, and I, of course, would be their middleman.

When finally I had a Saturday to spare, I headed down to the jewelry district in the Piazza area of Addis.  My Ethiopian friend Yared tagged along.

As we walked down the street, Yared took an active interest in my elementary Amharic skills and was challenging me to read all manner of printed materials - store signs, magazine covers, food wrappers, and so forth.  I could struggle my way through most of the words Yared pointed out, but since I didn't know much vocabulary, I understood probably only 2% of what I was reading.

I'm sure I must have looked like a character on Seasame Street as I painfully sounded out every syllable.

As I was trying to decipher a billboard near the football stadium, several boys ran over to investigate.  When they figured out that I was trying to read Amharic, they gave me a lot of support... or maybe mockery is the word I'm looking for.  Once they finished laughing, the boys quickly read all the text on the billboard to show me how it was done.  I decided to give the Amharic training a rest after that.

Snap peas were in season, and there were numerous people selling them from wheel barrows and baskets.  Yared and I paid a few birr and got a handful to snack on while we walked.  Sweet and fresh, these peas were a real treat.

When we reached Piazza, it didn't take us long to find the jewelry quarter.  The gold and silver shops were lined up one after another, and the window displays sparkled with treasures.

"All the jewelry in the windows is real," Yared told me, "protected only by a piece of glass."

"In most other places around Africa," he continued, "only fake jewelry can be displayed in the windows and the real pieces are hidden inside the shop."

silver earrings
I wasn't sure about the veracity of his assertion, but I understood that he was trying to present Ethiopia as a safe and peaceful place.  I agreed with him that Ethiopia was special.

Decorative crosses are a popular theme in Ethiopian jewelry, but my Muslim Pakistani friends were not looking for Christian-themed pieces.  With this in mind, I shifted my focus.  Many of the designs in the shops were from Tigray in northern Ethiopia.  The Tigrinya jewelry featured a fair bit of filigree, and a popular style was a dome-shaped design that reminded me of a tiny, elaborate hubcap for a chariot.  Some of the jewelry was in gold; some in silver.  Some pieces were set with stones, and many pieces were parts of sets that might include necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets, hair combs, broaches, and even tiaras.

silver crosses
I took out my camera to photograph some sample pieces, and at every shop, I was promptly chastised.  Then when I explained that I was shopping on behalf of my friends in other countries, the jewelers lightened up.  They encouraged me to take pictures, quoted me prices, and slipped me business cards.  The going rate for silver (pre-haggling) seemed to be around 30 birr (about $1.55) per gram.

silver set
Yared and I went through a few shops documenting their wares.  Unsure of what exactly might appeal to my friends, I even photographed the ulgiest pieces just in case.  At the first four shops, nothing much caught my eye personally, but at the fifth, a ring called out to me.  It was a silver job with a square black stone, and set in the stone was a silver lion - the Ethiopian imperial lion.

"chariot wheel" style
I inquired about the price of the lion ring, but all the clerks were busy with other customers.  While I waited to be served, the shop assistant led Yared and me to the back corner of the store where we were given coffee and popcorn - the much loved Ethiopian combination.  After 10 minutes of snacking, we were summoned to the jewelry counter.

The clerk dropped my ring on the scale and began typing figures into a calculator.

"It comes to 700 birr (about $36)," she told me while holding up the calculator for me to see.

Since I hadn't intended to buy much on this outting, I wasn't carrying much birr.  I didn't have enough, so I would have to come back another time to make the purchase.

While I was pricing my ring out, Yared was following the action with great interest.

Inspired by my choice, he walked over to the counter and selected a ring for himself that was nearly identical to mine.

The clerk popped it on the scale, and at 650 birr (about $33.50) it came up slightly cheaper than mine.

"If I save some money from my next 3 paychecks," Yared told me, "I can get the same ring as you!"

"Cool," I responded.

Truth be told, though, I didn't think it was that cool.  For starters, I didn't think we had a "matching jewelry" sort of relationship.  Beyond that, I felt a bit guilty.  For Yared, this ring was a much bigger purchase than it was for me.  He was going to save money for 6 weeks to afford a $30 ring, and for me, as pompus as it might sound, that was basically pocket change.  I truly felt like a bad example because before he met me, I seriously doubt he had ever fancied a silver lion ring.  On the other hand, Yared was an adult, and it wasn't my place to fret over his financial decisions.  I gave the matter no further thought.

We both left the store empty-handed, and then we checked out the remaining stores on the block.

Later that week, I compiled my photos and research and sent them off to my jewelry-hunting friends in Pakistan.

As I eagerly awaited their responses, the days turned into weeks.  Crickets chirped, and tumbleweeds drifted by.

I'm not sure if they were put off by the designs or the prices, but neither one ever did place an order.

At least I did eventually purchase the lion ring, so the scouting expedition hadn't been completely for naught.  Not to mention, I came away with a new ring-buddy.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Ethiopia: Dining Out: Addis Rodeo

New arrivals to the Embassy are given a community guide, and part of the guide is a list of recommended restaurants.  Always up for a good steak, the entry for Addis Rodeo caught my eye.  "Good American-style steakhouse," was the promising description.

I decided that I would give Rodeo a try, and a few days before I was planning to go, quite by chance the eatery came up in a conversation.

"My family loves Rodeo," my colleague Buck gushed.  "It's just like being in the States.  My son calls it a little slice of Texas in Ethiopia."

With Buck's hearty endorsement, I allowed my expectations to climb a bit.  It sounded like I was in for a treat.

After spending my Columbus Day holiday doing absolutely nothing, I headed out for dinner around 5:30.

I made my way through my neighborhood alleys and popped out on Meskel Flower Road.  Then I continued on toward Bole Road.

Near the Dreamliner Hotel, I passed an Ethiopian man leaning against a stone wall.

"How do you like the place?" he asked me as he gestured toward the hotel.

"I don't really have an opinion," I told him.  "I've never been inside."

"Oh," he responded, "I work there, and I thought you were one of our guests."

I had been to the Dreamliner's connecting restaurant, Zaika, once before, so I mentioned this and gave him an out.

"That must have been when I saw you," he remarked.

I think it's more likely that he had never seen me at all prior to our conversation.  I think he saw a foreigner walking in the vicinity of a hotel that caters to foreigners, and based on that alone, he assumed that I was staying there.

In any case, I continued walking, and this man, Getachew, walked along with me.

We covered all the usual bases about me and my time in Ethiopia, and then Getachew took the conversation to an unexpected place.

"I can see that you do a lot of training," he told me.  "What's your sport?"

Although only the briefest of moments passed before I answered, I ran through a few different responses in my mind.

I thought about giving the honest answer.  At the time, I had not set foot in a gym or done any training whatsoever for more than five months.  There was no Soloflex at work here... no PX90, no spinning, no pilates.  Nope, my "training plan" could be summed up in two words: parasites and walking.

Honesty is not always the best policy, however, and this conversation was the perfect example.  I knew for Getachew's sake that I needed to come up with an exciting alternate reality.

I looked him straight in the eye and told him about my sport.

"I'm a fencer," I told him.  "I train with the national team down in Bole."

"What?" he asked.

"Fencing," I repeated slowly.  "It's sword fighting, like in the movies."

"Really?" he replied.  "I didn't know we had a training center for that."

"Yes," I confirmed.  "It's on the backside of Friendship Mall."

Naturally Getachew was fascinated, especially when I told him that fencing tournaments were generally conducted in castles and that participants could earn bonus points by swinging on a chandelier or by doing a flip off a balcony.

No doubt about it: The sword-fighting story was way better than the truth.

All this talk of sports had consumed a bit of time, though, and Getachew and I were now very near to my cut-through to Bole Road.

I had already told him that I was headed for Rodeo, but Getachew decided to make me a counteroffer.

"Today is very lucky for you," he told me, "because there is a very big party starting right now.  Only two times a year all the people come in from the villages for this.  There will be ladies from every part of the country!  You must come!"

So twice a year, there's a huge party in Addis, and it just so happened that it was taking place on the very day I met Getachew.  And on a Monday, no less.  Indeed it was my lucky day!

Either that or Getachew was trying to play me.

Maybe there was no party at all, and he wanted to rob me.  Maybe there was a party, but it was nothing as glorious as he described.  Or maybe it was legit and off-the-chain.  Even if it was, however, I still wasn't interested.  Given the choice of enjoying a good steak or dropping into a party where there was a strong possibility I would stick out like a sore thumb, the decision was easy.

"I'm gonna go on to Rodeo," I told Getachew. "That will leave more ladies for you at the party."

Getachew made a final plea for me to join him, but I walked on and left him standing on the corner.

Twenty minutes later, I reached Rodeo. I arrived around 6:30 (still a bit early for dinner), and I had the whole restaurant to myself.  I actually wasn't sure if they were open yet, but the host graciously ushered me to a table.

The place was gussied up in cowboy style with leather and rope everywhere.  There were cowboy pictures on the walls amid a sprinkling of spurs and horseshoes.

My table was near the wall-mounted TV, so I studied the menu while I watched Al Jazeera.

Several dishes looked promising but I settled on one of their signature salads and the beef tenderloin.

When asked how I would like my steak cooked, I requested medium-rare.  Then there was one final matter to decide.

"What kind of soup would you like?" the waiter asked me.  "It's complimentary."

I didn't really want soup, but I rarely turn down a freebie.  I selected the cream of chicken soup over the other two choices: cream of mushroom and cowboy soup.

A few minutes later, my beer arrived and I continued watching TV in the empty dining room.

Before long the soup arrived, followed closely by the salad.  The soup was pretty good, and the salad, well, it was an interesting one.  The salad consisted of julienned vegetables mixed with shredded white cheese and strips of cured meat, topped with citrus dressing.  The novelty of the flavor combination wore off pretty quickly for me, but I cleaned the plate nonetheless.

The Rodeo special salad

Then it was steak time, baby!

The waiter delivered a piping hot plate with a flourish, and his delivery was perhaps the highlight of my steak experience.  The steak was well-done as opposed to medium-rare, and it was bone dry.  This was understandable, however, since the cut of meat was only a few millimeters thick.  It would be damn near impossible to retain any pink inside such a flat steak.

The steak was covered in gravy and accompanied on the plate by rice, green beans, and carrot coins.

As with the salad, I cleaned the plate, but also like the salad, I wasn't left clamoring for more.

The main course

The waiter collected my empty plate and offered me coffee and dessert.  There were several sweets available, but I decided to cut my losses and get the check.

While I was waiting to pay, I recalled the recommendation in the community guide.  Some people claim that when you live overseas for a while, you start to lower your standards for the foods and other comforts of home.  So often you can't get the real thing, you naturally start to settle.  Well, I've been overseas for more than a decade now, and I gotta say, "good American-style steakhouse" was a bit of a stretch.  This place made Denny's look like haute cuisine.

I settled my tab and hit the road, and I wasn't yet halfway home before my stomach started to reject my meal.

"This is just ducky," I thought to myself.  Maybe I should have gone to Getachew's party afterall.


The bottom line on Rodeo Addis:


    Mediocre ü


    Average ü

Overall Experience:

    Forgettable ü