Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kenya: Mombasa

For my first trip out of Ethiopia, I booked a trip to Kenya on a whim.  Destination: Mombasa.

A few days before my trip, I was talking about it with my guard Yonas.  Kenya has a reputation for having a serious crime problem, and Yonas touched on this.  Nairobi is often jokingly referred to as Nai-robbery because of the crime situation there, and Mombasa is considered nearly as bad by some people (like junior Nairobi).

Yonas first told me the story of his friend - a fellow Ethiopian - who had traveled to Mombasa.  This chap managed to get robbed, midday, in what should have been a safe area.  Bruised and shaken, he found a policeman not far from the scene of the attack, and as he was telling his sad story, the cop interrupted him.

"That's a nice jacket," he told the robbery victim.

"What?" the man asked.

"I said, 'That's a nice jacket'," the cop repeated.  "Now take it off!"

And so to add insult to injury, Yonas's friend was separated from his leather jacket by a policeman right after he had been separated from his wallet by a street thug.

To further drive the point home, Yonas told me another story.  Once upon a time, some of Ethiopia's elite runners had gone to Nairobi for training.  On their last day, one of them went to the hotel swimming pool (or maybe it was the sauna), and while he was away from his room, he got robbed.  The theif took all his luggage, including his shoes and clothes, leaving him high and dry.  The runner showed up to the airport wearing hotel slippers and some clothes he had borrowed from his training partners.  This guy was a celebrity back in Ethiopia, so there was outrage when the story broke.  According to Yonas, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs even filed an official complaint with the Kenyan Government.

Yonas's message was pretty clear: Watch your back!

When the day for my trip finally arrived, I reported to the airport a bit after 8 AM for a 10:20 departure.

We took off on time, and they fed us a modest lunch.  Malcolm in the Middle was playing on the big screen.  Then, after a lay-over in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, we landed in Mombasa around 3 PM.

I hadn't gotten a visa beforehand, so I paid 50 bucks and got one on the spot.  Then I collected my bag and left the terminal.

There were a few signs in the terminal advertising a new airport shuttle service.  It cost only a few bucks to get to the city center, so I decided to try it out.

Once I got outside, however, I found the shuttle, but I couldn't find the driver.  After waiting for a few minutes, I decided to go for a private taxi instead.  At 1,000 shillings (about $12), it was also a good deal.

My driver was a man named Fidelis, and we had a nice conversation on the way into town.  I mentioned Yonas's stories to see what his reaction would be, and naturally Fidelis was keen to downplay them.

"Sure we have a few incidents like this," he told me, "but this is a peaceful place."

We talked about many things, and as we drove along, I was struck by two things.  First, the driving is really slow in Addis Ababa, so it felt like Fidelis was flying.  In reality he wasn't going that fast, though.

The second thing that I couldn't help but notice was how much more developed Kenya appeared to be than Ethiopia.  It seemed like there were many more shops and businesses in Mombasa, and somehow the quality seemed better.

We drove past the dump, past the railway station, past a craft village, past "Ethiopia street" where there were some Ethiopian shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, and then we arrived at my home-away-from-home: the New Palm Tree Hotel.

I had booked the "small single", and it lived up to its name.  It was big enough, however, to hold a bed, a TV, a small table, a wardrobe, and a simple bathroom with a cold-water shower.  And all this for only 1500 shillings (about $17.60) per night, including breakfast.  I couldn't complain.

I checked in and dropped my bags in my room.

On the table, there was a magazine from the tourism commission, and the headline on the cover caught my eye.

"Kenya - above all, a safe destination for tourists," it read.

the welcome magazine in my hotel room

I found this slightly amusing.  After all, if you have to convince people that you don't have a security problem, then maybe you actually do have one.

I couldn't be bothered fretting about security, however; I was ready to explore the city.

I left the hotel and headed east toward Old Town.

In a few minutes, I reached Treasury Square, and I took a few photos of some buildings and statues there.  As I was photographing the sites, a man came up to yell at me.

"You can't take pictures here!" he bellowed.

He appeared to be a taxi driver, so I had my doubts about his authority in this matter.  Still, I put my camera away to be on the safe side.

Nearby, there was a wooden sign with a map of Old Town on it.  The man called me over.

"We are here," he pointed out.  "Would you like a city tour?  I can offer a half-day or a full-day program, or we can go by the hour."

I knew this guy was fishy.  He was just harassing me about taking photos because he wanted to intimidate me into hiring him as a guide.

I told him I wasn't interested, and another guy magically appeared to lend support.

"You should take his tour," the second man assured me.  "He's a true expert on this place."

Expert or not, I wasn't interested in a tour.  I just wanted to walk around.

I told the guys once more that I didn't want a tour, and I walked away.  They made a point of loudly complaining about me as long as I was in earshot.

After a few more minutes, I reached Mombasa's biggest attraction: Fort Jesus.  Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593, predominantly out of coral, and it's an UNESCO World Heritage site.

As I approached the fort, a young man walked up.

He introduced himself as a university student and offered his services as a guide.

Things started out friendly enough, but when I told him 'no thanks' my would-be guide started melting down.

"Think of the local economy!" he hissed at me, as I bought a ticket and slipped through the turnstile.  "I need to earn a living too!"

This argument never moves me unfortunately.  He has ended up as a tour guide through whatever twist of fate, and somehow it's my responsibility to support him in this endeavor?  If someone is providing a service that I don't want, I'm not going to hire that person.  It's as simple as that.

Since I had elected not to hire him, the angry guide was not permitted to enter the site with me.  Just like the taxi driver / tour guide at Treasury Square, he stayed outside the gate muttering loudly.

I ignored him and admired the fort.  Much of the structure was accessible, so I walked along the walls, climbed into the guard booths, checked out the cannons, and explored most of the stairwells and passages I found.  There was also a modest museum in one of the buildings and a few souvenir stores.

My favorite part, however, was the room full of original drawings from the Portuguese sailors who were posted at the fort.  This graffiti spanned the full range of artistic ability.  Some of the drawings were expertly rendered, and some looked like the artwork of a five-year-old.

After I had seen all that there was to see, I headed for the exit.  I was half-dreading that the guide would be waiting for me, but thankfully he was nowhere to be found.

From the fort, I continued into Old Town.  I didn't get far before an old man latched onto me.

He was determined to be my guide, whether I liked it or not.

I was walking down the street, and he was shadowing me very closely.  As we walked along, he pointed out things, and I mostly ignored him.

There was one funny moment, though, in his unwanted narrative.

"I'm sure you've heard of this place," he announced as he gestured toward a white building.

"You know Corduna University, right?" he asked me.  "This is their office."

Maybe I misunderstood what he was saying, but it definitely did not ring a bell.

"I've never heard of it," I told him.

"Really?" he replied.  "It's an American university.  There are many American students studying here."

I don't doubt that, but with literally thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S., I can't be expected to be familiar with all of them.

That was the only moment of amusement I got from my time with my elderly guide.

I ducked into a few shops to have a look, and every time I emerged, he was waiting right outside for me.

Even when I told him directly that I wasn't going to hire him, he still didn't get it.

"Only 500 shillings," he replied. "It's very small money."

We continued on a bit further, and he continued his forced guiding.

"Follow me," he instructed.  "I'll show you a great view of the port."

"Actually, I'm going home," I told him.

"Why?" he asked me.  "Are you afraid?"

"No," I responded, "just annoyed."  "Bye."

He went away, but again not quietly, and I did in fact go back to the hotel.  Along the way, I passed several aggressive beggars.

When I had arrived in Mombasa, everything was great.  The city seemed exciting; the weather was perfect, and I was content.  As the day progressed, however, I was enjoying myself less and less.  The people were very needy, and sometimes you just aren't in the mood for it.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV.  There were a few stations to choose from, but I settled on NatGeo, or maybe it was Discovery Channel.  In any case, it was Big Cats Week, so I spent the rest of the afternoon learning about lions, tigers, cheetahs, and leopards.

Around 6:30, I left for dinner, and after struggling to pick a restaurant, I opted instead to have a street shwarma.  It was good.

On the way back to the hotel, an ice cream parlor caught my eye.  I went inside and ordered a cone with two scoops.  The ice cream was weak, honestly, but the shop had a certain curiosity factor that really took me by surprise:  All of the employees were wearing checkered orange and white University of Tennessee shirts.

At first I thought I had not seen correctly, and I did a double-take.  They were definitely wearing UT apparel.

UT uniforms at an ice cream parlor.

I was the only customer in the house, so I walked over to share my amazing discovery with a woman sitting behind the counter.  She had a look of relevance about her like she was the owner of the place.

"These uniforms," I told her, "they are from my university!"

The woman's response was strange.  She seemed flattered at my observation, while at the same time denying it.

"Oh, no," she blushed, "I designed these shirts myself."

This made absolutely no sense.  Why would a place called Ahmed's Ice Cream have a uniform shirt with T's all over it?  And what a coincidence that it was also in UT colors!

I think that she got a box of surplus UT polos from a factory outlet or something and then had a little ice cream cone embroidered on the chest.  To call this designing the shirt was a bit of a stretch in my opinion.

Anyhow, after my ice cream I walked back to the hotel.

The streets were pitch black by now, and I had crime in the back of my mind.  I also had Big Cats Week in my mind, which led me to imagine the catlike hunting strategies a person might use to mug me.

I reached the hotel without incident, but I was thirsty.  The neighborhood where I had dinner was predominantly Muslim and was therefore dry.  My hotel also didn't serve alcohol, possibly for the same reason.

There were several bars listed in my guidebook, but I wasn't interested in going across town for a drink.

I sought assistance from the guard at the entrance to the hotel.

"Are there any bars close by?" I asked.

"Sure," he responded, "just follow me."

So off we went.  I was a bit surprised that the guard so readily abandoned his post, but I guess it is expected that he will leave periodically to use the toilet and whatnot.

We walked about 10 minutes through several dark alleys, each one more sketchy than the one before.  Given the situation, I thought it was handy to have someone else with me, and a guard no less.

Soon enough, we emerged near an empty field and there were a few bars on the far side.

Before I went inside, the guard hit me up for compensation.

"Can you buy me some chapatti?" he asked.

His request seemed reasonable to me, so we walked about a hundred meters past the bars to a strip of chapatti stalls.  Swahili culture is a blend of the Indian Ocean cultures, so there are African, Arab, and Indian influences.  This explains how chapatti became such a popular Mombasa snack.

I paid the few shillings for the guard's dinner, and then I entered the bar.

This place was divey.  The air was smoky; the music, distorted, and all the women had a certain lustful look about them.  The main room was about half full of patrons, roughly equal measures of locals and expats.

I ordered a Tusker beer ("Tusker - Together Forever"), and it was refreshing.  After three of these and a trip to the bathroom in the alley, I was ready for bed.

As I was leaving the bar, I thought about that walk down the corridor of darkness that was separating me from my hotel.

Before I started walking, however, I noticed a less ominous route.  While still very dark, at least this alternate way was not as deserted as the alleys had been.  I took this new way - walking in the presence of other humans - and I reached the hotel in about the same amount of time as it had taken me to reach the bar going the other way.  Since there wasn't any time savings to speak of by going the first way, it made me wonder if the guard had purposely taken me the more intimidating way to make himself seem more indispensible.

By the time I reached the hotel, the guard had finished his chapatti and was back on duty.

It had been a full day.  I had a nice cold shower and hit the hay.

The next day, I had my free breakfast at the hotel - omelet, toast, and fruit - and set out to see more of the sights.

I walked around some of the market streets, and it didn't take long before I met my first friendly chap.

"Hello.  How are you?" he asked.

"I'm fine, thanks," I responded.  "How are you?"

"I'm fine," he continued.  "How do you like Kenya?"

"Fine," I told him.  Everything is always fine.

"Cool," he told me.  "I just want to talk with you.  I hope you don't mind."

"Where are you from?" he went on.

"The U.S.," I answered.

"America!  Barack Obama!" he replied.  "In Kenya, we love America!  We love Obama!"

Then he started pestering me to come to his brother's sandal shop - just to look, mind you.  He supposedly didn't care whether I bought anything or not.

Allowing myself to be gullible, I did indeed go to his brother's shop.  Between his brother and his two assistants, they pulled out dozens of sandals in my size.  The floor of the small shop was littered with shoes.  I picked a pair that interested me and held them up.

"How much for these?" I asked.

"How many pairs do you want?" was the response.

Hmm... let's see.  I was holding up this lone pair because really I wanted to buy half a dozen.

"Just this one," I answered.

"None for your family?  Your wife?  Your friends?" he asked.

"No," I told him, "I don't know any of their sizes."

He asked me to show him with my hands how big my friends' and family members' feet were, and he would then accurately estimate their sizes.  This guy was funny.

After wasting considerable time trying to get me to select multiple pairs, the brother finally told me the price for the pair I wanted.  Of course it was high, so we started bargaining.

Ten minutes later, I walked out with my new sandals.

I walked around the vegetable market, the traditional clothing market, the tires and car parts market, and the craft market, and I met many more friendly young hustlers.

Every last one of them parroted the same dialog as the first guy had - "How are you?" "How do you like Kenya?", "We love Obama!" - with the only difference being the type of shop to which they wanted to lure me.  I was harassed to see sunglass shops, perfume stores, souvenir stands, CD shops, luggage shops, watch shops, and many more small businesses that were of no interest to me.

After about the fifteenth guy came up to me with the same shtick, I decided to save us both the trouble of the fake conversation.

"Hello. How are you?" random guy number 16 asked me.

Without pause, I rattled off my response: "I'm fine. My name is Chris. I like Kenya. I'm from America, home of Barack Obama!  And I don't want to buy anything from whatever shop you have."

"How are you?" I added on the end.

Perhaps this guy was the one guy who truly did just want to talk, but with my rude response, he got the message and left me alone.  So did those who followed.

While I skipped the shops of these how-are-you guys, I did stop (without being pressured) at a clothing store where I snagged a Tusker beer t-shirt.

By now, I had spent hours walking, and one thing that I was enjoying was the street food.  I had some nice samosas, rolls and cakes, roasted peanuts, donuts, fruit cocktail, sugarcane juice, and meat skewers.

And as I was grazing my way through the city, I found myself at the spice market.

I walked through to see what was on offer.  One thing I always appreciate is a good chili, so I stopped at one spice stall and asked the vendor if he had anything spicy.

He insisted that he had the hottest ground chilies around, and as we were talking he sent his errand boy running. The boy returned in a few moments with some small red peppers in hand.

"Here is the fresh one," the clerk taunted.  "Can you take the heat?"

"No problem," I answered.

Then, not knowing what was in store, I ate all three peppers at once.

A small crowd of wide-eyed Kenyans had gathered by now, and they collectively winced as I ate the chilies.

I had nothing to worry about, though.  These chilies were medium hot at best.  Child's play!

As I thought about it later, I had to laugh about this chili incident.  The bigger danger was probably not the heat, but rather eating unwashed produce in an African market.  I didn't notice any digestional discomfort, though, so I guess the peppers weren't contaminated.

I bought a small bag of the chili powder and left the spice market.

Despite all the street food, I decided to stop for lunch.  I went to a small restaurant and pondered the menu.

"Try this one," the waitress recommended.  "It's traditional."

I took her suggestion and ordered the beef stew and a Coke.

The restaurant was packed, and I was the only foreigner in the house.  I watched the other diners and the people walking by on the street, and then after about 15 minutes, my meal arrived.  It wasn't exactly what I expected.

The beef stew was very thin, and there wasn't much meat in it.  It was mostly bones.

As I looked around the dining room at what everyone else was eating, I realized that I had chosen poorly.

There was no use crying over spilt milk, though, so I gnawed on the bones, sopped up the broth with some bread, and moved on to other things.

After lunch, I walked to the double pairs of tusks stretching across a road - a Mombasa landmark.

Then I dropped in at a tourist agency to look at options for my final day in town.

The agency was advertising several daytrips, but in reality most were not available on the day I needed.  The problem was predominantly that the minimum number of participants hadn't been reached.  On the other hand, some that were available seemed a bit too rushed.

Forgoing the day safaris and the elephant sanctuary and the village cultural tours, I decided to go for a coastal experience of the nautical variety.  There were a handful of operators offering "marine safaris", and they all looked about the same in the brochures in terms of price and program.

The tour agency recommended a company called Charlie Claw's.  Their package consisted of a 7 AM pick-up, a 2-hour drive south to Shimoni, cruising around the Indian Ocean on a traditional dhow, snorkeling in Kisite Marine National Park, lunch on Wasini Island, a visit to a coral garden, a 4 PM return to Shimoni, and a 6 PM arrival in Mombasa again.  Plus, according to the tour agent, Charlie's provided unlimited beer, wine, and soft drinks for the entire day.  It was good enough for me; I signed on the dotted line.

With my tour booked, I headed for my hotel.

Along the way, I passed several beggars, and uncharacteristically, I actually gave one man some money.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, and this guy hopped up from his cardboard box and followed me down the street.

"Please, I have six children," he pleaded.  "Give me more!"

I continued walking, and he kept following me.  And while annoying, I was OK with this arrangement.

When he started pulling on my arm, that was enough.  I told him to go away, and he could tell that I wasn't playing around.  He vanished.

When I reached the hotel, I got another annoying surprise: After cleaning up, the housekeeping ladies had left the shutters to my room wide open.  These shutters opened into a central courtyard.  Were they trying to get me robbed?

Nothing seemed to be missing, and I had been carrying most of my valuables, but still, this was sloppy work.

With so many annoyances, I was ready for more Big Cats Week.  I switched on the TV and killed the rest of the afternoon.

Around 7 o'clock, I was ready to eat again.  As I left the hotel, the same guard was on duty as the night before.

"Is there anywhere you need to go?" he asked me.  "I sure could use some chapatti."

I didn't require his services on this night, but at least he was honest about his intentions.

I found a restaurant on my own and had some kebabs, red beans, and Tusker.  Then I called it a night.

The next morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn and waited on the curb for Charlie Claw's mini-bus.

It arrived on time, and I piled in.  I was nearly the last person to be picked up, so there were only a few seats left.  As I climbed in, I assessed the crowd.  "Germans and French," I thought to myself.

We made some brief introductions as we drove out of the city, and I had guessed the nationalities of my fellow passengers correctly.  It was only fitting, I suppose, since I am most often mistaken for being French or German when someone fails to recognize that I'm American.  After French and German, the other, less common guesses I've heard for my origin have been all over the map: Spanish, Lebanese, Canadian, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Chinese (???), British, Greek, and so forth.  Perhaps the take-away message is that we are all a lot more similar than we are different.

Just outside Mombasa, we had to make a water crossing (over a finger of the harbor or something).  Looking very solemn indeed, our driver warned us that photography was strictly forbidden on the ferry.  There was a tuk-tuk parked next to us, however, and the two people in back were taking all sorts of pictures.  I was half-expecting to see a man with sunglasses and an earpiece take their cameras and smash them, but this didn't happen.  Alas...

Once safely on the opposite shore, we drove a few hours more.  We passed through several villages, but we also spent a fair bit of time on the open highway.  Then we reached Shimoni.

As soon as we unloaded from the van, there was a cadre of hawkers surrounding us like vultures around a carcass.  One group was selling straw hats, shells, sunglasses, cold drinks, and other things tourists might appreciate.  The other group was selling bags of candy, packs of ink pens, and other things we would "need" for our village visit to appease the children.  None of us bought anything.

At the end of the pier, we met the dhow staff and they divided us into two groups: the French were in one group, and the Germans and I in the other.  In the smaller group, they went over the day's itinerary and confirmed our lunch selections.  The choices were seafood, chicken, or vegetarian, and I chose seafood almost as a reflex.  I love a good crab, and since the company was called Charlie Claw's, I assumed it would be on the menu.

After the mini-briefings, we all joined up again and loaded on the boat.  Another mini-bus also funneled some passengers onboard.  These passengers were Kenyan.

Then they gave us a snack and tea and we were off.

As I looked in my bag, I realized that I had left my sunscreen at the hotel.  Doh!  It was still early, though, so I thought I would be fine if I kept to the shade.

We cruised through the Indian Ocean for a few hours, and aside from our boat's noisy engine, it was a serene journey.  There were a few other tourist dhows on the water and a few local fishing boats.  There were many small coral islands, low and flat as pancakes, dotting the coastline.  The waves were negligible.

I was sitting next to the German couple, and we talked for much of the journey.  We had all signed a guest book at the start of the boat ride, and I signed before the Germans did.  As such, they saw my name in the book, and addressed me as such.  I didn't see them sign the book, so I didn't have their names handed to me on a silver platter.  I never bothered to ask either, so I spent the whole day not knowing.  You can have a fine conversation without knowing names, though.

While we motored out to the reef, the crew offered us Coke and Sprite.  So far, there was no sign of the unlimited beer and wine that had been advertised by the tour agency.

When finally we reached our snorkeling destination, everyone changed into their swim suits and donned their masks and fins, and the crew gave us a short briefing.  One thing that really surprised me was the number of people on this cruise who didn't know how to swim.  The ranks of non-swimmers included a few of the French and pretty much all the Kenyans.  I admired their enthusiasm, however, as many of them jumped into the sea alongside the rest of us, armed only with life jackets and foam water noodles.

The reef itself was nice, and I became the hero of the moment when I spotted a sea turtle and shared my discovery with the group.  Beyond the turtle, there were abundant corals and fish to contemplate.

After we had snorkeled for a while, the crew corralled us back on the boat and we moved to a new location.  It was beach time.  Some people spent their time lying on the sand, but the Germans and I ended up walking the circumference of the small island.  I got to be the hero a second time when I discovered a group of eels feeding on a dead fish.

As we walked along the beach, we noticed some interesting shells and corals.  We debated whether or not it was illegal to collect red corals, and reaching no conclusion, I decided to ditch the piece I had found.

When our beach time had concluded, we all swam back to the dhow and headed for lunch.

As the captain directed the dhow toward Charlie Claw's base on Wasini Island, we were soon flanked by a spirited group of dolphins.  At its peak, I counted 12 members in the pod.  They followed us for a good while, putting on quite a show.  They were leaping from the water, standing up vertically, and ducking and diving under our boat.  The dolphin is one animal that really looks like it's having a good time.

awesome dolphins

Lunch was pretty good, and indeed they did serve us crab - well, those of us who ordered the seafood meal.

After lunch, we were given a choice:  We could either hang out at the natural swimming pool (a small lagoon on Wasini) or we could tour the coral garden.

I opted for the coral garden, and only one other guy joined me.  We hiked for about 15 minutes before we reached a village.  On the edge of the village there was a school.  It was a Muslim school where the youngsters spent the entire day learning to recite the Quran.  The kids at the school regarded us, but did not approach us.  When we reached the heart of the village, however, the kids there rushed us.

"Jambo, jambo!" the shouted at us.  Jambo is hello is Swahili.

The jambos soon gave way to begging, however, and there were outstretched hands radiating from all directions.  I don't support giving candies, coins, trinkets, and pens to village children, so I had purposely arrived empty-handed.  The other guy, however, was scrambling to curry favor with the kids.  Nearly empty-handed as well, he started giving the kids one Tic-Tac each, until he ran out.  Fresh breath - just what these begging kids wanted, I'm sure!

Once the Tic-Tacs were gone and the kids were getting restless, our guide stepped in and shooed them away.

On the opposite side of the village, we reached our objective, the coral garden.  The coral garden was a shallow lagoon that contained many large lumps of brown coral.  I assume that these coral "sculptures" were completely natural because recognizing their shapes took a good imagination.

"We call this one 'The Lion'," our guide explained.  "Can you see his head and paws?"

Hmm, maybe if I squint real hard...

"As you could probably tell this one is 'The Shark'," he continued.  "See the tail wrapping around?"

If you say so...

Our guide explained at least a dozen sculptures to us, and the other guy and I nodded along.  It was like identifying shapes in clouds.  I was curious if the other guy was really seeing anything or if he was just being polite.

The nice thing about the coral garden was that the sculptures were accessible by an elevated wooden walkway which we were told had been built by impoverished women as a means to earn money.  Some of the planks had rotted away, but I thought this was a nice initiative all the same.

the coral garden

We didn't get to finish looking at the entire coral garden, however, because we ran out of time.  We stopped midway and hiked to another area where a dinghy met us and took us back to the dhow.

Then it was back to the pier at Shimoni.

The vendors were waiting for us, but this time a few people in our group were interested in shopping.  They provided a perfect shield for those of us who didn't want to shop.

On the way back to Mombasa, I was chosen to ride in the front passenger seat since I was traveling alone.  Score!

We returned the same way we had come in the morning, and by 6 PM, I was back at the New Palm Tree.

For my final dinner, I had some kebabs and biryani.  I didn't linger very long at the restaurant, however, because not too surprisingly, I had developed an uncomfortable sunburn over the course of the day.  My back and legs were throbbing.

My nightly cold shower provided some measure of relief, however, and I spent my last evening watching grainy football on the television.

The next morning, I had breakfast and checked out.  There was a church service in the hotel's multipurpose room, and the congregation was singing the Lord's praises with gusto.

The hotel's driver took me to the airport, and the first half of the ride was slow indeed.  We were stuck behind a truck carrying an oversized load, and there was no opportunity to pass.  Even so, I reached the airport in plenty of time, checked in, and moved to the departure hall.  There were several shops in the hall, but most were closed.  I took a seat and started working on Sudoku.

Half a dozen puzzles later, we were airborne.

On this flight, a movie about a show horse was playing on the big screen.  I was sitting next to an aging hippie couple, and they were intently watching the show.  Most of the people around them, myself included, were not watching.

This man and woman were not using their headphones, however, and they seemed to be struggling to understand what was going on.  I wasn't sure if they were trying to guess the plot intentionally, or if they just didn't realize that headphones were available in the seat pocket.  In any case, it was a bit comical watching them.

Once I got home, I had my memories, my sunburn, my photos, my sandals, and my Tusker t-shirt by which to remember Mombasa.  And a few days later, I realized I had one more memento: a bevy of bed bugs.  The biting and blood-sucking weren't so bad, but when that first bed bug whispered in my ear, "We love Obama!" I started to get concerned.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ethiopia: Meskel

A few hours before the festivities were to commence, Addis Ababa was humming with activity.  The roads were choked with traffic (more so than usual), and there were many pedestrians.  The Ambassador had granted the Embassy staff early dismissal so that we could get home before the streets became completely unmanageable, so by 2 PM, I was homeward bound.

Meskel had arrived.

Meskel is an Amharic word that means cross, and Meskel holiday commemorates the finding of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) by Saint Helena in the 4th century.  Then-Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, went on a journey to the Holy Land to recover holy relics, and finding the Cross was one of her main objectives.  Following a vision that she had in a dream, Helena had a huge bonfire built in Jerusalem.  She added frankincense, and the fragrant smoke drifted on the air but did not dissipate.  Then the smoke settled on the ground at the exact spot where the Cross was buried.

Helena found three crosses at the place indicated by the smoke, and she was able to determine which cross was the True Cross by a miraculous healing.  A woman on her deathbed was allowed to touch wood from all three crosses.  The first two crosses, presumably of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus, had no effect.  When she touched the wood of the third cross, which turned out to be the real deal, the ill woman immediately recovered.

As much of the Cross as possible was excavated from the site, and most of the wood was stored in Helena's private chapel, which later became the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.  Some portions of the Cross did find other homes, however, and after a journey through Egypt, one piece came to reside in Ethiopia, at Amba Geshen.

In addition to the True Cross, Saint Helena is credited with finding the nails of the crucifixion, Jesus's tunic, and a piece of rope that was used to help secure Jesus to the cross.  Not a bad day's work for a woman in her late 70's.

On my ride home through the city, we passed several choir groups on their way to Meskel Square, the site of the main celebration.  These young men and women were dressed in white embroidered robes with colorful sashes.  We also passed several small neighborhood celebrations in the final stages of preparation.  At these smaller ceremonies, people had hung streamers across the road and built small bonfires which would be lit at sundown.

It was nearly 3:00 by the time I got home, so I didn't have much time to waste.  I changed clothes and started walking toward Meskel Square.  It's about half an hour from my house.

Along the way, I stopped for a shoe-cleaning.

I was wearing canvas shoes, and they were completely saturated by the time the shoe-shine boy was finished.  At least they did look cleaner than they had before, and the service only set me back 15 birr (83 cents).  As has happened before, though, some of my Ethiopian friends would later tell me that I had totally overpaid.

At Meskel Square, an endless stream of people was flowing into the amphitheater.  I joined the heaving masses and realizing that I wasn't going to find anything better, I wedged myself into the first opening I could find.  The place was so packed, there wasn't even room to sit.  So like everyone else, I squatted down on my precious patch of real estate.  If you are not accustomed to squatting for long periods of time (which I am not), it can get real old, real fast.  I knew right away that I was in for a long night.

Each row of squatters was flanked by a small aisle in front and one in back which allowed for people to continue passing by.  As time wore on, however, even the aisles filled up.  This meant that late-comers had to carefully worm through the solid block of people, and many were not successful.  It's a pretty universal reaction to get angry if someone kicks you, elbows you, steps on your hand, or pushes you, and I saw a lot of heated exchanges in my area.

In addition to the spectators weaving through the crowd, there were two other groups of people in the mix: the vendors and the beggars.  Of the first group, there were men selling religious articles and books, and also some selling food and drink.  The beggars on the other hand were predominantly people with medical issues, but there were also several mothers with babies seeking alms.  There were people with missing limbs; people with rashes, sores, and open wounds; blind people; people with growths and other deformities; and people with a range of mental illnesses.  The donations from the people in the crowd were flowing relatively freely because we were at a religious ceremony and charitable giving was the pious thing to do.  More important, however, were the close quarters we were sharing.  When confronted with an up-close-and-personal view of an oozing skin ulcer, most people will pay a few birr to make it go away.

Yes, there was plenty of drama all around me, but the main event, of course, was unfolding in front.  With the roads blocked for the evening, the 15 lanes of traffic that pass by Meskel Square made an ideal stage.  In the center of the stage, political and religious leaders were gathered.  The church choirs were gathering in front of them.  Off to the right was the bonfire.  A tall cone-shaped structure covered with pine branches, it looked very much like a giant Christmas tree.  There was even a star on top, in the form of a bouquet of meskel flowers (a type of yellow daisy).  A ring of soldiers stood guard around the base of the bonfire, and various holy men and women were milling around.

Against this backdrop, a few floats were tooling around with priests and deacons riding on top in their finery.  There were men walking around with religious paintings and banners.  There was even a Saint Helena (something akin to Miss Meskel) on one of the floats - or so I was told; I couldn't see her from where I was squatting.

Then the formal program started.

The mayor kicked off things by welcoming everyone.  Then he addressed the diplomatic corps directly, requesting support from the diplomats present for Ethiopia's bid to get "World Heritage" status for the Meskel celebration.  I guess that means Ethiopia wants to have Meskel inscribed on UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Then the mayor continued into a full-blown speech.

He was followed by a few more speakers, whom I could not understand since they were speaking Amharic.  We, the people, had devoted a fair bit of time listening to these speeches, so when the last one concluded, I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Then the emcee delivered a crushing blow.  "Now we will offer an English translation," he announced.


I realize that this was for my benefit, but my haunches were already killing me.  Rehashing the speeches in English was only prolonging the pain.

After what seemed like half an hour more, the translations were finished.  I had survived!

I wasn't out of the woods yet, though.  The next part of the program was the liturgical music showcase.  One by one, the church choirs took center stage and danced, chanted, and sang.  Each group got 5 or 10 minutes to perform in the center, and there seemed to be an endless number of choirs waiting in the wings.  The people around me were digging this.  Everyone was singing and clapping along.

When a choir would finish in the center, it would move to the periphery and continue singing and dancing, and before long, the square was filled with choirs.  Interspersed among them were a bunch of camera-toting "VIPs" who had been sitting in the box seats up front.  This whole set-up reminded me of Papua New Guinea where at cultural festivals a handful of VIP foreigners would be prancing around with the dancers and all the local people would be relegated to the cheap seats behind the fence.  This never did seem right to me.

Anyhow, once all the choirs had their moment in the spotlight, we moved to my favorite part of the celebration: the part where we got to stand up!

While the choirs continued singing, the entire crowd rose in unison to cheer them on.  And after an hour and a half of squatting, I was ready to cheer too.  The joy of stretching my legs was reason enough.

By now it had gotten dark, and things turned kinda magical.  Everyone (except for me apparently) had brought a candle along, and now was the time to use it.  Passing the flame from person to person, soon the entire amphitheater was filled with thousands of flickering candles.  People were singing and chatting and laughing.  Some people launched fireworks.

Meanwhile, following a few prayers and ceremonial flourishes, the bonfire was lit.

So there we were...  the bonfire was roaring; the candles were twinkling; fireworks were popping; and ladies were ululating.  It was pretty cool.

Although I never did get the full story, I was told that there is significance in both the direction the smoke travels from the bonfire and in how the logs eventually collapse.  For example, maybe it is fortuitous if the fire collapses to the west, and ominous if it falls east.  I never did get the exact explanation, though.

One other tradition worth noting is that after the fire completely dies down, the faithful draw a cross on their foreheads using the ashes (similar to the Ash Wednesday tradition in the Catholic Church).

I didn't stick around to watch the fire collapse, however, nor did most other people.

As we all slowly moved toward the exits, packed in like sardines, I felt a little hand in my pocket.  Yes, it was a boy who looked to be about 6 or 7 years old searching for treasure.  Unfortunately for him, though, I was not carrying anything worth stealing except for my camera, which was in my hand.

Once I extricated myself from the square, the crowds thinned out and I walked on home.  All along the way, the celebrations continued.  The pubs were full, and firecrackers were flying across the road.  Some of the fun was a bit ill-conceived, however.  Caught up in the moment, young men had lit several fires right on the sidewalk.  Unfortunately, most of these fires were within a meter of either storefronts or parked cars, and I had a feeling that a Meskel beat-down was imminent.  As entertaining as that sounded, though, I decided not to stick around.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ethiopia: Out for a Stroll: Part I

Ready to see more of the jewels in Addis Ababa’s crown, I decided one fine Saturday to visit the city’s modern art museum.  The museum is clear across town from my house, close to the Embassy, so I had a long walk ahead of me.

As I walked up Debre Zeit Road to Meskel Square, nothing much interesting happened.  I got some smiles, some glares, some shouts, some winks, and some hellos from the passers-by.  I got approached by a few beggars, of course, and probably 50 shoe-shine boys were dying to give me a polish.  Actually, I was wearing canvas shoes, so they wanted to give me a cleaning.  There were also a few street food vendors: two guys were frying and selling samosas, either filled with lentils or rice, and an old woman was frying donuts.  I was tempted by both options, but my stomach was still squirrely.  Since I wasn’t sure when I’d next have access to a toilet, I decided not to risk it.

Just short of Meskel Square, I met two young men.  They gave me the old “hey faranji”, and one moved in to shake my hand.  As we shook, he took my hand in both of his and held tight.  Was I being greeted or restrained?  It was hard to tell, but I started to think that it was the latter case.  As the first guy immobilized my hand, the second guy started walking behind me.  I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; it was time to extricate myself.   In case this was all just a misunderstanding, I didn’t want to look paranoid.  I started gesticulating as we chatted, and my hand popped free.  I’m sure I looked like an Italian on speed, but it got the job done.  Once I was free, I subtly turned so that both guys were in front of me.  Then we had a few minutes of light banter, and I excused myself.  Besides the fact that I didn’t fully trust these guys, there was further motivation not to linger:  We were standing right near a retaining pond that was like a huge outdoor toilet.  In the few minutes that we had been standing there, half a dozen men had relieved themselves.  The air was heavy with the smell of urine.

I continued on through Meskel Square and made my way across all 15 lanes of traffic.  Motorists give pedestrians very little consideration, even when using the cross-walk, so you inch across the highway at your own risk.  It’s fun, though, like a real-life game of Frogger.

Just after Meskel Square, I happened upon three lads selling qollo.  Qollo is Ethiopia’s national snack.  The bulk of it is usually toasted barley, and mixed into this you often have some combination of toasted wheat, toasted chick peas, and peanuts.

About half a cup, served in a cone fashioned from newspaper, cost me 1 birr (about 6 cents).  I figured a few dried grains shouldn’t exacerbate my stomach condition.

When I bought the qollo, the boys were cracking up.  I assumed it was because I was a foreigner, but my guard thinks it’s because I was overcharged.  Maybe the going rate is 50 santim (half a birr), but I’m not going to sweat a 3-cent overcharge.

Continuing north, I crossed the bridge over the Bantyiketu, a river in crisis.  Like other rivers in Addis Ababa, the Bantyiketu is highly polluted with thick piles of rubbish along the banks.  When I crossed the bridge, my eye was drawn to some activity a few hundred meters upstream.  It turned out to be four guys washing clothes, slapping wet garments against stones like the dhobis I had seen in India.  Unlike the Indian dhobis, however, these men were completely naked.  I guess they were cleaning their one and only set of clothes.

My route was entirely uphill, so I climbed onward and upward past the President’s Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Mapping Agency, and the Prime Minister’s Palace.  Then I reached the round-about at Arat Kilo.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop at the Post Office to get some information on international shipping.  The guard at the entrance was skeptical when he saw that I had nothing to mail, but soon enough he allowed me inside to talk to a customer service rep.  While the woman at the window was looking up the United States in her book of postal rates, I noticed something funny behind the counter:  There were several plastic U.S. Postal Service trays and boxes.  It reminded me of Papua New Guinea where I also saw USPS boxes at the local post office.  It seems like the U.S. Postal Service is always going bankrupt and restructuring and raising prices.  I realize that the rise of the internet has seriously decreased the volume of traditional mail, but providing plastic boxes for all the world’s postal services can’t be helping the USPS’s bottom line either.

From the Post Office, I continued climbing north.  One block later, another guy intercepted me.

“I used to have those same shoes,” he told me.  “Are they Vans?”

I was actually wearing Converse, but close enough.

Since our shared bond was the shoes, this guy told me about his former prized pair.  There wasn’t that much to tell actually.  He had received them from his uncle who had visited the States.  Then they broke apart one day while he was playing soccer.

That said, his shoe story was way better than mine.

“What about your shoes?” he asked me.

“Well, I ordered them online a few months ago,” I told him, “and they are still in good condition.”

Admittedly, this was the lamest story ever, but my new friend didn’t mind.

“That’s cool, man!” he exclaimed.

Then we discussed more fascinating shoe topics like how this kind of shoe didn’t offer much cushioning on the sole and how the canvas upper would saturate quickly in the rain.

It was an engrossing conversation to be sure, but I just didn’t think it was sustainable.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

This guy was wearing a few hats.  Primarily, he was a DJ, spinning vinyl 5 nights a week from 10 PM until 4 AM.

“Do you play traditional music?” I foolishly asked.

“No, man,” he replied, pointing up at his dreads with a huge smile.

Yup, he was a reggae DJ.

He invited me to his club, and I wasn’t opposed to checking it out one day.  Unfortunately, however, my mind could not grasp the Amharic name.  He would say it, and I would repeat it.  Then I would forget it two seconds later.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  I was having a serious mental block.  I suppose I should have entered the name of the club in my phone, but I didn’t.

This guy was also a student in a tourism and hospitality program, and closely related to that, he was a tour guide.

We started talking about tourism in general in Ethiopia, the dearth of licensed guides, and the abundance of opportunistic, untrained guides.  During this discussion, I brought up my trip to Ethiopia five years ago, when I had hired an unlicensed street guide for a trip to Awassa.

My street guide for the Awassa trip did have some short-comings, but he did well enough.  Then after the touring was over, we went bar-hopping.

"What was his name?" my Rasta friend inquired.

"Nebyou," I replied.

This caused a moment of confusion because it turned out that my new friend had the same name.  At first he thought I was addressing him.

Unlike my Awassa guide, the DJ spelled his name Nebue.  This is just an artifact of transliteration, however, and they probably both spell their names the same way in Amharic.

Nebue was blown away that I knew someone else with the same name as him.  It was a fun coincidence, but at the same time, it wasn't that unusual.  It would be about like meeting two Marks in the U.S. or something.

We continued walking and talking, but soon we reached the proverbial fork in the road.

It was less than a week until the Ethiopian holiday, Meskel, and Nebue was ready to start celebrating.

"Today is really the first day of Meskel," he told me.  "It's when you get together with your friends and talk and chew chat and drink beer."

"Wanna join us?" he asked me.

Under the right circumstances, I would have been more than happy to join him and his friends.  On this occasion, I was not.  My hesitation was four-fold.  First, there was my intestinal problem.  Second, I still wanted to see the museum.  Third, I didn't feel like being the curiosity for his circle of friends, and finally, I had plans to meet some colleagues for dinner.  It was only about 11 AM at the time, but I had a feeling that this hanging out might consume the whole afternoon.

When I told Nebue that I had other plans, he pleaded with me a few more times.  I held firm.

With that settled, Nebue asked if we could exchange cell phone numbers.

As always, I obliged.  So, if you are ever in need of a reggae tour-guiding DJ, I know a guy...

Nebue went his way, and I went mine.

Finally in the home stretch, I turned down the road where the modern art museum resides.  About halfway down, a guard stopped me.

"Where are you going?" he asked me.

When I told him I was going to the art museum, he told me there wasn't one.

This was hilarious because the entrance was 20 meters away, as plain as day.

"It's right there," I told him.  "I can see the sign."

"Oh, that art museum," he replied.

I was allowed to pass, so I walked up the stairs and into the museum doors.

I would only get as far as the lobby, for while the museum was technically open, I had arrived on the day that a new exhibit was being installed.  Doh!

I walked back out, and the guard was confused.  I tried to explain that a new exhibit was being installed, but my efforts were for naught.  All I got in return was a blank stare.

As I continued down the road, I passed a group of trash collectors.  The group consisted of six women who seemed to be in their 40s and 50s.  Their heavy dresses were fashioned from trash bags, which in their former life had been woven plastic grain sacks.  They were pushing a cart, shoveling piles of trash off the street, and emptying trash cans.  A few street dogs were following them in hopes that the ladies would uncover some tasty morsels amongst the rubbish.

The work in the hot sun was clearly strenuous, but just around the corner, there was a group of ladies with a more grueling task yet.  This second group of women was engaged in road repair.  Without the benefit of modern equipment, these ladies were opening a sizeable hole in the pavement using pickaxes.

I've heard it said that societies develop on the backs of women, and it's true.  Of course, they also develop of the backs of men and children.  It seems that very few people get a pass from the toils.

The Embassy is about 15 minutes past the art museum, so I decided to walk this final bit and then go home.

On the property adjacent to the Embassy, a soldier was guarding an old house.  He called me over, and we sat down to chat.

This guy was named Abebe, and he spoke very little English.  After a brief, confusing, and goofy conversation, we both just sat on the bench in silence.  Abebe didn't want me to leave, but we had reached the limits of our communication.

Silence was not golden in this case, however, and after a minute or two, things were awkward.

"OK, I'm gonna go now," I told Abebe.

He understood, so we stood up from the bench and shook hands.  In Ethiopia, one of the most common styles of hand-shaking between friends is to grasp hands while leaning in to bump shoulders.  A second style is for two people to bump their wrists together.  This is used especially when someone has dirty hands or is eating.  A third variation is fist-bumping.  You bump fists on the top, on the bottom, and then straight on, knuckles-to-knuckles.  And lastly, there is the variable grip shake, where you go for 3 or 4 different holds in one shake, possibly capped off with fist-bumping.

Abebe went for a combination shake.  We started with some grip work, and then ended with a shoulder bump.  Then I continued walking.

By now, I had reached the Embassy so I turned around and headed home.

One side mission for the day's walk had been to study the bus routes between my home and the Embassy.  To this end, I noted which buses stopped at the bus stops I encountered.  For direct service from home to work, only one bus fit the bill: the 56.  The trip cost 2.40 birr (about 13 cents).

I passed various characters on the walk home, but it wasn't until I reached the Prime Minister's residence that the next person struck up a conversation.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he asked me.

"Nein," I replied.

"Italiano? Français?" he continued.

"No and no," I answered. "Do you speak English?"

And of course he did speak English, for I was dealing with a language wizard.

This young man's name was George, and we covered all the usual introductory topics.  Then he made his pitch.

"How's your Amharic?" he asked me.

At the time, my Amharic was non-existent, but I told George that I was scheduled to begin classes the following week.

"I'm a certified language instructor," he informed me.  "I can give you private lessons at a fair price."

Then he produced some letters of reference for my review.

After I reiterated a second time that I had already enrolled in the Embassy's language program, he tried a different approach.

"Maybe I could be the Embassy's language instructor," he surmised.

"We have one already," I answered, "and I don't think we are hiring a second."

When he finally accepted that I wasn't going to hire him, we did the usual phone number exchange.

So, if you are ever in need of an English-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking, French-speaking Amharic instructor, who also does tour-guiding on the side, I know a guy...

I was now halfway home.  Down the hill, past the Hilton, and over the river, and I was back at Meskel Square.

As I was just about to start my way across the 15 lanes of traffic, a young man said something to me.  In Amharic, he had asked me my name, but at the time I did not understand.

This guy was named Yonatan, and he had an attitude problem.

"This is Ethiopia!" he yelled at me, "We speak Amharic!"

Then he began to aggressively tutor me.

"When I say 'Seme man noe?' that means 'What is your name?'!!!"

"When I say 'Salam noe' that means 'Hello'. That is our greeting!!!"

The "lessons" continued through several more phrases, and I dutifully parroted as I walked through traffic.

I didn't care one bit for his approach, though.  It would have been different if I had initiated contact with him by asking him something in English.  Then maybe his fierce defense of Amharic would have been understandable.  But to pounce on me just for walking by?  Nonsense!

I suppose my humility paid off, however, because by the time we reached the far side of the road, Yonatan and I were fast friends - or at least he seemed to think so.

We met up with one of his friends, Tesfaye, and like Nebue, he had a thick mane of dreadlocks.

"Are you a Rasta?" I asked him.

"Yah, mon," he answered with a smile.

Then I told him about how my guide in Bahir Dar, Des, had admitted to liking the Rastafari lifestyle while not subscribing to all the tenets.  According to Des, this made him a rasco.

When Tes heard this, he cracked up.

"I also don't follow Rasta completely," he told me, "but I'm no rasco!"  "I'm a Christafari."

As had Nebue, Yonatan and Tes focused their energy on getting me to join them for their pre-Meskel festivities.  They had more on the menu, however, than Nebue did with his beer and chat.

"We have the best ganja around," Tes proclaimed.  "It will really relax you."

For the same reasons that I hadn't wanted to go vegetate with Nebue earlier, I also didn't want to go with Yonatan and Tes.  And there were two additional reasons: Yonatan had made a terrible first impression, and I don't smoke pot.

Only after I lied and told them that we had routine drug testing at the Embassy did they stop pestering me to join them for marijuana.

When I parted ways with Yonatan and Tes, it was the second time that day that I had done so without exchanging contact information.  So, if you are looking for the best weed in town, I don't know a guy.  Go ask someone else.  Ha ha.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ethiopia: Dining Out: Santorini's

I had been to Santorini's twice before, but never for a meal. Those first two times, I had only a drink and an appetizer. In this case, the third time was the charm.

I arrived around 6:30 PM, at which time there were only two other diners: a couple of young ladies. I sat at the opposite end of the dining room, but I was facing them, so it was almost like we were sitting together.

To start things off, the waiter brought out some ouzo served in a hand-painted miniature bottle, a basket of bread, and a dish of what looked like hummus. And this was all complimentary. At Santorini's they make great bread. In the basket, there was a plain roll, a breadstick with red pepper inside, and my favorite, the onion breadstick.

For my starter, I ordered fried eggplant, and for my main I tried to order stuffed cabbage. It was sold out, however, so I opted for the biftekia. I wasn't familiar with this dish, but it was described on the menu as two large meatballs served with potatoes and tzadziki.

Once I placed my order, I ate my bread and hummus and enjoyed my ouzo.

As I was sitting there, I noticed the owner's son heading out the gate with his scooter. I'd guess this kid was about 6 or 7 years old, and he had the curliest hair ever.

As he headed out on the street, I thought to myself, "Helluva place to ride a scooter!"

The road was an uneven, cracked mess of rocks, mud, and potholes, and in the short time before the kid passed from my view, he had to dismount and walk around several obstacles. He needed a four-wheel-drive scooter, but alas, he only had the standard two-wheeled model!

It was just getting dark as the kid rode off, and I wondered if that was the best idea. But if he and his parents were comfortable with the notion, I decided it was no concern of mine.

Soon enough, my fried eggplant arrived. Thin-sliced, crispy, and with a squeeze of lime juice, these were done to perfection. Unfortunately, however, my main course followed my appetizer after an interval of only 30 seconds, so I had everything at once.

After I polished off the eggplant, I turned to the biftekia. It was just as advertised in the menu, only better. The meatballs were indeed large, and they were flattened into patties. Each one was topped with a slice of tomato. The combination of spices and bread crumbs inside the meatballs reminded me very much of American meatloaf, and I had a real hankering to douse them in ketchup. But I resisted the temptation. I doubt ketchup was even available.

The potatoes too were more than just potatoes. They were kicked up a notch with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs.

And the cool and creamy tzadziki balanced out the salt of the meat and potatoes very nicely.

When I was nearly finished with my meal, I noticed a few of the restaurant staff talking to the owner, and shortly thereafter she walked down to the gate. A few minutes later, two guards with reflective orange vests appeared. One was holding the little, curly-headed boy by the hand, and the other was carrying his scooter. The boy looked pissed off, and when he saw his mother he started arguing. Then he stormed off into the area of the compound where his family lived, and his mother came back to the restaurant. I'm not sure what had transpired, but it seemed like little man was in hot water.

I was too stuffed for dessert, but after dinner and a show, I left satisfied.


The bottom line:


    Tasty ü


    Average ü

Overall Experience:

    Enjoyable ü

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ethiopia: Tales from the Bar: Gaminiwari Grocery: Part II

Coming freshly shorn from the barber, I decided to stop in at Gaminiwari Grocery for a pint.

The staff recognized me from the week before, and they were very smiley as I entered. Most of the patrons were different this time, but there were a few familiar faces in the crowd.

I ordered up a beer and took a seat on a bench. This time there was news on the TV instead of music videos, and no one was really watching.

During my first beer, not much happened. The guy sitting next to me was talking to me, but the conversation wasn't terribly interesting. He was explaining how he preferred a drink called red aperitif, which was basically non-alcoholic. The drink consisted of a shot of 4.5% alcohol mixed with tonic, so the entire drink was like 1 or 2% alcohol. He liked the taste, and it allowed him to be social in the bar without fear of intoxication.

After the discussion of red aperitif, we discussed the basics of where I came from and why I was in Addis Ababa.

Then the man's attention was diverted to buying a bootlegged DVD from one of the young men who walked the sidewalks and popped into bars and cafes to sell their wares.

While he was perusing the DVD selections, I ordered my second beer.

Then something fun happened: the electricity went off.

The power goes off frequently in Addis Ababa, but since my home and office both have back-up generators, I'm largely shielded from the inconvenience of black-outs. Well, there was no back-up generator at Gaminiwari Grocery.

When the power went out, the bar went black. And the funny thing to me was that nobody cared. People still came in and out like normal, and drink service was uninterrupted. One chap did have a bit of bad luck when he managed to spill the contents of his pocket out on the floor. As he was crawling around on all fours, using the light from his cell phone screen to collect coins and keys, I was thinking what I'm sure everyone else was too: "Sucks to be you!"

His friends were really razzing him, but he was laughing along.

Only after about five minutes of darkness did the staff produce a single candle. They placed it on a table near the door, and it brightened the room slightly.

About ten minutes after that, a waiter fired up a kerosene lantern. He placed it on one of the tables, but, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. All the guys started complaining that the lantern was too bright, so the waiter relocated it to the top of a refrigerator. This new location definitely cut down on the glare, but it also rendered the lantern useless for it now cast very little light on the room. It's the thought that counts, I suppose.

I had a feeling that the black-out was going to be highlight of the night, so I finished my beer, fumbled around in the darkness to pay, and headed home - back to my generator-powered cocoon.

Ethiopia: The Barber Shop

During my second week in Ethiopia, my hair had become too shaggy to ignore. It was time to venture out to the barber shop.

There are plenty of barbers to be found in Addis Ababa, but I decided to try the shop closest to my house. It was about half a block away.

The shop had two chairs, but only one was in use. The second chair was holding a pile of laundry. There was a handy poster on the door showing a variety of hairstyles, but alas they were all for African hair. Just outside the door, there was an old woman roasting some type of grain on a small clay stove.

When I entered the shop, the barber motioned for me to take a seat. Then he covered me with a drop cloth and secured the neck opening with a strip of paper. He then began to ready his equipment. All the while, neither of us had spoken a word.

For his preparations, the barber pulled out his shaver and laid out several guide combs of different lengths. Then he squirted some purple fluid in a small metal trough and lit it on fire. At first I thought he was lighting incense or something, but that wasn't the case. The fire was for sterilizing the shaver. For the better part of a minute, the barber ran the head of the clippers back and forth through the flame. Then he extinguished the fire, attached a guide to the clippers, and started shaving the side of my head. Still, not a word had been spoken.

Once he finished the right side of my head, he broke the silence.

"Is that short enough?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. I'm a pretty easy customer.

"Make the rest the same?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "Let's leave the top a bit longer."

"OK," he answered and went to work.

He shaved the left side to match the right, and then he attached a longer guide comb to use on the top. Before he continued, he pulled out an old toothbrush and cleaned off the shorter guide and put it away. This guy was meticulous about keeping his work space clean.

Not long after he started on the top, he stopped and changed guide combs again. Personally, I couldn't tell any difference between the two guides, but I'm no expert. As before, he cleaned the one he had finished with and put it away.

He must have spent ten minutes shaving the top of my head, and he changed guide combs probably ten times. I got the sense that he wasn't used to cutting "European" hair, and he was learning as he went along. After our initial brief conversation, he didn't say anything more. Language barrier aside, I think he was too focused on the haircut for chit-chat.

Once he had clippered my hair down to his liking, he switched to scissors. He used them to cut individual hairs that had eluded the clippers.

When he finished with the scissors, he went back to the clippers and started working on the top again. Very little hair was being cut at this point.

By now, another customer had appeared, and the old woman had set aside her grain roasting to watch the action. She was leaning in the doorway.

When the top was finally ready, he started the trim work. He removed half my sideburns, as I requested, and cropped the front of my hair short. Then he shaved around my ears and the back of my neck. For the final touch, he squared my temples with hard corners.

Then he dusted me off and removed the drop cloth.

"I wash, or you wash at home?" he asked.

"I'll wash at home."

All that was left now was for me to pay, so I asked him the price of the haircut.

I could see the wheels turning in his head as the barber conjured up the price.

"25 birr (about $1.40)," he announced.

A few days before, I had popped into a different barber shop and asked the price of a haircut. That barber had told me 15 birr, which meant that my barber was most likely tacking on a 10-birr faranji mark-up.

While I was aware of the mark-up, I didn't really mind. It was a small amount of money, and besides, he had done a pretty respectable job on the haircut. I gave him the 25 plus a tip.

That said, I will probably shop around next time in hopes of finding a barber who isn't such a man of few words.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ethiopia: Bahir Dar

Working on about 3 hours of sleep, I woke up at the crack of dawn for my first trip out of Addis Ababa. I was heading north to Bahir Dar for the weekend.

I packed my bags, ate breakfast, and right on cue at 5 AM, my car arrived. As we drove to the airport, the city was pretty well deserted. There were, however, a few people out and about, and they were doing the darnedest things. On major, multi-lane roads, which were now nearly devoid of cars, there were several people exercising. Some of these people were jogging, which is somewhat normal, except for the fact that they were in the middle of the road and not on the margins. Stranger yet were the people who were standing in the highway stretching and doing calisthenics. And strangest (and stupidest) of all, was the guy who was apparently sleeping on the highway. I have to assume that alcohol was involved in that last one.

The curious thing to me is that so early in the morning, the broad sidewalks were as empty as the roads were, so these people could have just as easily done their exercising and sleeping on the sidewalks and out of harm's way.

My driver did a fine job of honking and swerving his way down the road, avoiding these people as well as a random donkey or three, and in 15 or 20 minutes we reached the airport.

There was a long line of people waiting to get inside the terminal building, so I joined the queue. The bottle neck had formed because there was a security checkpoint right at the entrance to the building, and it wasn't very efficient. Luckily, it wasn't raining at the time, even though we were in rainy season.

Soon enough, I passed the security checkpoint, got my boarding pass, and made my way to the departure lounge. Inside there were a lot of shops, but not a one was open. So I had a cup of tea, went through a second security check, and waited at my gate. While I occupied myself with some Sudoku, I overheard a young Italian woman's touching story of overcoming adversity with tears. She had apparently shown up for my flight with a ticket dated for the following week. And instead of taking any responsibility, she put all the blame on the ticket agent and turned on the water works. The tactic was successful, and the desk agent rebooked her on the correct flight without charging her any penalty. Her story inspired all her friends to recall the times that they had cried their way to success.

When it came time for boarding, we loaded up on a bus and drove out to the plane. The flight attendant greeted me, and I started walking toward my seat. Everything was pretty routine, I must say.

Then I reached my seat and found that a small boy was sitting in it. I told the man seated next to him that the boy was in my seat.

"I have 13A," I told him, as I showed him my boarding pass stub.

"No," he insisted, "it's my seat."

Then he pulled out a set of boarding passes to prove his point. He had four total, including 13B and 13C and D across the aisle. The fourth boarding pass, which was the little boy's, did not say 13A; it said INF for infant.

As I was trying to explain to the man that his son only had a lap ticket, the line of passengers behind me was starting to back up. It wasn't long before people started to shove past me down the narrow aisle. The two ladies in row 14, who I think were German maybe, gave me a sympathetic look, but most of the other passengers were shooting me daggers like I was a troublemaker.

As people were grumbling their way by me, I noticed a familiar face: it was a colleague from the Embassy.

"Is there a problem with your seat?" he asked.

I think it was pretty clear that there was a problem, but I didn't feel like bothering with an explanation.

"Yeah," I told him.

He continued on to his beautifully vacant seat, and I tried one last time to reason with the man in 13B.

"Your son doesn't have a full ticket," I told him. "You need to hold him on your legs."

And the guy came back with an emotional reply, almost in tears.

"That's my boy; he's just a baby!" he pleaded. "You can't separate me from my boy!!!"

I had no intention of separating them. If the father had held his son on his lap they would have been closer, not farther apart, but this was a concept the father refused to grasp.

By now the other passengers were clicking louder with disapproval. It was madness, and I was through dealing with it.

The flight attendants had been no help, so I shoved my way back to the front of the plane and sat down in an empty seat on the front row.

It was good to be out of the fray, but I secretly hoped that the flight would be full so that I would get booted from the front row and the flight attendants would be forced to deal with the problem in 13A. There were still passengers boarding, so it was a possibility.

In the end, there was one spare seat, and I had found it. There would be no more drama.

Flight time to Bahir Dar was only 45 minutes, yet the crew still served us sandwiches and drinks. I thought that was pretty impressive.

I had hired a guide through a tour agency, and he was waiting for me at Bahir Dar airport. His name was Desta, but he went by Des, and his sidekick, my driver for the weekend, was Endale.

We loaded up in a minivan and headed for the hotel, the Abay Minch Lodge.

As we drove through Bahir Dar town, Des pointed out the contrasts to Addis. Bahir Dar was flat, and its wide streets were clean and orderly. This was in contrast to hilly, dirty, noisy, chaotic, and congested Addis. Because it was so flat, Bahir Dar was well-suited for tuk-tuks, which were everywhere. Tuk-tuks, meanwhile, are banned inside Addis Ababa city limits.

The hotel was on the far side of town from the airport, but soon enough we arrived.

"Welcome to paradise!" Des declared as we entered the grounds.

The Abay Minch was nice enough, but paradise was a bit of a stretch.

The sleeping quarters were in tukuls, which are traditional round houses, and they were clean and comfortable. The room had a TV, a bed, and a desk, but the most interesting feature was the shower. It featured several jets and nozzles and sported a control panel; the hotel directory even instructed guests to get shower training at the front desk before attempting to use it.

When I asked the front desk clerk for shower training, however, I'm sure he rolled his eyes. Nonetheless, he dispatched a bellboy to my room for instruction.

The shower wasn't nearly as high tech as it looked. There was a showerhead directly overhead, another at face-level, a 6-pack of nozzles at back-level, and a 4-pack at calf-level. However, you could only use one showerhead (or nozzle cluster) at a time, so forget about a full body experience.

And what about that control panel?

As the bellboy explained, "This controls the lights, fan, and radio, but it doesn't work."

Oh well... at least there was hot water.

Des had left me at the hotel for an hour to relax, so I didn't have much time to kill.

I walked around the gardens and looked at the colorful birds and flowers. Then we headed for the Blue Nile Falls.

The falls were some 30 kilometers outside of town, and the road was unpaved and patchy. The ride took over an hour, and I had a nice time talking with Des. As we drove by field after field of corn, sugarcane, teff, barley, chat, hops, and a type of succulent used to make baskets, Des sang the praises of USAID, the aid-administering branch of the U.S. Government. Through USAID programs, local farmers had learned better irrigation techniques and the importance of crop rotation, but the biggest game-changer had been the introduction of three growing seasons in a year.

"With three harvests per year," Des speculated, "I don't think Ethiopia will ever face famine again."

Let's hope he's right.

Des's praise of USAID was not without criticism, however. His chief complaint was that too often USAID dumped money on projects and never followed through. So, bureaucrats pocketed the money and nothing was accomplished.

"It's better to give training," Des continued. "Education is the answer, not money."

"You know," he told me, "we have a saying in Africa: 'If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him forever'."

"Yeah," I replied, "we have the same saying in the U.S."

Des was pleasantly surprised to learn of this commonality.

We talked about a variety of things as we drove along including livestock, religion, family, politics, dating, personal ambitions, travel, work, and life in Bahir Dar, and Des appreciated my interest.

"So many people come here," he complained, "and they don't want to learn anything; they just want the photo. The Asians are the worst."

I did point out that many Asians don't speak much English, which would hinder conversation, and Des agreed that this was part of the problem.

Before long, we reached the Blue Nile Falls Park, and Des went inside the administration building to pay the entry fee and to get our mandatory guide for the falls. We ended up with a guy named Yared.

While Des was inside the office, a swarm of vendors surrounded the minivan trying to sell me scarves, straw hats, bottles of water, chewing gum, and assorted other treasures. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how unaggressive they were. When I would tell a vendor "no thanks" he or she would generally say "ok" and leave. There was no badgering, no pleading, and no pressuring. It was refreshing.

With Yared onboard, we drove 10 minutes more to the trailhead for the falls. Then we started hiking.

After a few minutes we crossed a stone bridge that I believe Des told me was 400 years old. Then maybe 15 minutes later, we reached the falls. Along the way, we passed several girls and young women selling scarves, several boys and young men tending goats and cattle, and a few ladies selling coffee and cold drinks.

We had arrived relatively early in the day, so there was only a handful of other tourists there.

The falls were impressive, and by coming at the end of rainy season, I got to see them at their most robust. As we were taking in the scene, I pointed out that for a river called the Blue Nile, it sure was brown. I asked Des and Yared if the river was so muddy because it was rainy season, but they told me it was like that year round. Then Des explained that when some early explorer had been mapping the Blue Nile, he named it as such because he supposedly noticed blue stones in the water. We all had a laugh about that because it would be very difficult to identify anything in the chocolate milk that we were looking at. From then on, Des and I starting calling it the Brown Nile.

An obvious comparison for me to the Blue Nile Falls was New York's Niagara Falls, so I asked Des if daredevils had ever tried to survive a trip over the falls. And interestingly, they had. According to Des, a group of Americans had ridden the falls and made a film about it a few years back. Several people had also used the falls to commit suicide.

In local language, the falls are known as "the smoking water" because of the massive clouds of mist that they generate. This mist, while picturesque, did cause me a minor problem as I would later notice that 90% of my photos of the falls were marked by water droplets on my lens. Oh well.

After we had admired the falls for several minutes, we started hiking back toward the van, and then Des suggested that we stop for coffee. I didn't mind, so stop we did. The coffee break was a bit awkward, however, because Des and Yared wouldn't take anything even when I offered to pay. If I had known this would be the case before we had stopped, I would have skipped it. Anyhow, I drank a cup of coffee while they both sat and waited.

One thing that I thought was funny at the coffee break was the young son of the woman serving coffee. He was only about 2 years old, I'd guess, but he was already learning the business. He didn't have it quite right, however, because he kept carrying bottles of water and bags of chips over to Yared. Unfortunately, he was barking up the wrong tree. The game, which I'm sure this kid will learn soon enough, is to offer products to the tourists, not the guides. The current arrangement suited me fine, though.

Once we reached the car, I gave Yared a tip and we dropped him off back at the office. Then Endale shuttled Des and me back down the bumpy gravel road toward Bahir Dar.

Along the way, we were momentarily delayed by a herd of cows crossing the road, and like all the cows I had seen thus far in Bahir Dar and Ethiopia in general, they looked pretty ghastly. On most of them, the entire rib cage was protruding. The skin was saggy, and some even had droopy horns.

"I don't get it," I told Des, "It's been raining for more than three months now; the valley is green, and there is grass everywhere. Why are these cows so skinny?"

His explanation, which I'm sure is probably correct, was that the cows weren't cared for properly by the herders, most were infested with parasites, and they were being driven too far without rest.

"This herd, for example, is probably marching to Sudan," he told me.

Sickly or not, though, Ethiopia is apparently the leader in all of Africa in cattle production and exports.

As we got closer to Bahir Dar, Des asked me where I'd like to have lunch. I told him that I was leaning toward skipping because my stomach felt a bit screwy. Des totally understood because he too was suffering. Before I had hired him, Des's previous job the weekend before had been guiding a group of 39 seniors from Chicago. In parting, they had given him some sort of cheese that had been produced in the Chicago area.

That was the first time Des had eaten cheese, and he got sick from it. I thought it was strange that he had never eaten cheese before, considering the fact that in Ethiopia there seems to be a pizzeria on every corner (a relic perhaps of the Italian occupation of the 1930's). But I guess there are many Ethiopians like Des who don't eat at such places.

"That was the first and last time I will ever eat faranji food," Des concluded.

Since I opted out of lunch, Des decided to take me to the main market. It was a nice place, with sections for cereals, fruits and vegetables, spices, chickens and eggs, plastic wares, cloth, and traditional gift items. Larger animals like goats, sheep, cows, oxen, donkeys, and horses were traded in a separate market.

In the cereals section of the market, Des showed me teff, a grain which is the main ingredient in the Ethiopian food staple, injera. Teff comes in white and brown, and as Des explained to me, people preferred the white because white is associated with cleanliness, purity and holiness, while black is associated with dirtiness, contamination, and evil. As Des also pointed out, this grain "racism" is ironic because the dark teff actually contains more nutrients and is thereby healthier.

After the market, I changed my mind about lunch. I realized that if I skipped, I would just end up with an hour to kill elsewhere. And since the touring program was finished for the day, I already had hours of free time on my hands.

Des dropped me off at a place called the Desset Lodge and told me he'd retrieve me in an hour.

The Desset Lodge was right on Lake Tana, and the outdoor dining area had great views.

The menu was typical of many places in Ethiopia in that it featured several different types of food. There was pizza and pastas, sandwiches, fish, Ethiopian food, burgers, soups, and salads. I decided to go for shero, an Ethiopian dish made from ground chick peas, and when I ordered the waiter was tickled for some reason. Maybe he didn't expect me to order Ethiopian food, because when I did, he sure started grinning.

The shero was good, and my stomach didn't seem any worse off for having eaten it.

Soon Des returned and dropped me off at the hotel. It was still early - 3:30 in the afternoon - so I decided to take a nap. When I woke up at 6, I thought about walking into town to poke around. That thought passed quickly, though, and I spent the rest of the evening using the wifi in my tukul and watching TV. I wasn't especially hungry, but if the need had arisen, I planned to hit the hotel restaurant or bar for a bite to eat.

My night in the hotel was not especially comfortable. On the trip to the Blue Nile Falls, one thing that Des and I had discussed was malaria. Bahir Dar is in a malaria zone, and Des confirmed that free mosquito nets were available and that everyone used them. Well, there was no mosquito net in my tukul, but there were definitely mosquitoes. Even if you take malaria out of the equation, it is super annoying to have mosquitoes humming in your ears all night long, and that was my reality at Abay Minch. Faced with the choice of roasting all night or being harassed by these mosquito menaces, I chose the first option and pulled the blanket over my head for the duration of the night. When my alarm went off in the morning, I was none too happy to get out of bed. I hate to be hot while I'm trying to sleep.

At 9 AM, Des picked me up, and we headed back to Lake Tana. Two other people joined the group - an Ethiopian-Dutchman named Paul and an Ethiopian woman named Mimi - and then we set out by boat for the Zeghie Peninsula. According to Mimi, she and Paul were just friends, but Paul walked with his arm around Mimi's back which seemed to imply something more.

As we boarded the boat, Des warned us to be careful and avoid falling into the water because it contained schistosomiasis, a class of parasitic worms. Des knew a lot about schistosomiasis because he had studied it in his epidemiology class. He was in veterinary school.  As he was talking about the worm, he made a comment that I didn't care for.

"I guess we'll be dealing with schistosomiasis for a while because it's not glamorous enough for CDC to focus on," he said.

I didn't say anything, but I thought it might have been more appropriate to focus the frustration on the WHO or some other international health outfit. Besides, the CDC may very well be working on eradicating it.

Like the Blue Nile, which it feeds, Lake Tana was brown. And according to Des, it's the size of Virginia, and is the second biggest lake in Africa, bested only by Lake Victoria. Paul wasn't convinced of this second stat, however, and he countered that Tana was the third biggest in Africa, with Lake Malawi in second place. I researched it later, however, and I'm not sure that either of them are correct.  For starters, at approximately 3,000 square kilometers, Lake Tana is smaller than Rhode Island, much less Virginia, and as far as the African rankings go, I'm not sure that Tana even makes the top 5.  Anyway, it was big enough for a nice boat ride.

Once we were in the center of the lake, Des asked me if I wanted to go for a swim.

"I think I'll pass on the schistosomiasis," I told him.

But Des clarified that schistosomiasis only resided on the water's edge.

I still wasn't interested in the swim, though, and Des was only joking in any case.

I asked Des if there were any monster legends associated with the lake, like the Loch Ness monster or similar legends in other countries (Norway and Vietnam, for example). At first he told me there was nothing like that associated with Tana, but then he reconsidered. Apparently some people believed ghosts lived in the lake. There were real monsters in the lake as well, in the form of hippos, and on the shore, pythons.

Before long, we were parking at the dock for Ura Kidane Mehret Church, a 14th century Ethiopian Orthodox church famous for its murals.

At the dock we were met by our church-specific guide, whom I'll call John.

The church was about a 20-minute walk from the lake, and we set out. Almost immediately, we ran into a girl selling scarves and jewelry.

"Would you like to buy a scarf?" she asked. "Cheap price."

None of us was interested, so we continued walking.

"Maybe on the way back?" she called out. "My name is Maria. Remember me."

And all the way up the story was the same. About 15 women and girls introduced themselves and implored us to remember them.

On the path to the church, there were also two artists who specialized in the old style of painting using natural pigments on goat parchment.

At the top of the path, we entered a compound. The compound contained the church, a garden, a dining hall, a museum, and a few other buildings. The museum, which wasn't open, was another USAID project, and it would eventually house relics, manuscripts, and artifacts that were hundreds of years old.

"We call it 'the prison'," Des laughed.

The museum was a squat concrete structure with a few small windows, so the nickname was fitting.

As the only member of the group who wasn't Ethiopian Orthodox, Des told me that he was sure I would want to convert once I saw Ura Kidane Mehret Church. The conversion would be no problem, he explained, and it would start with me drinking beer with the priest.

Des waited outside while Paul, Mimi, and I entered the church with John. Before we could cross the threshold, however, we had to remove our shoes. There was a brief moment of drama because Mimi didn't want to go barefooted. She eventually cooperated, but I didn't see what the problem was in the first place. There were mats on the floor, after all.

The murals inside the church were phenomenal. The oldest ones dated from the 1300's, but there were more recent ones as well, up until the 1800's, I think. The murals themselves had been painted on fabric and stretched across the walls which were made of mud and straw.

The murals were made at a time when most people were illiterate, so it was through these paintings that the priests taught the people Christian principles and Bible stories. There were many familiar themes to me like the Christmas story, the Passion, the stories of the martyrs, Moses parting the Red Sea, and St. George slaying Satan in the form of a dragon. And some of the small touches were really cool. For example, there was a series of paintings showing the holy family fleeing from Herod across the desert, and one of these paintings showed Mary in distress with a thorn in her foot.

There were some stories that were unfamiliar to me like the punishment of Jesus. In this painting, Mary is shown preparing to lash young Jesus with a rope. As John explained, this was punishment for Jesus breaking a clay pot.

There was another painting showing the story of Belai the cannibal, which was also new to me. He ate something like 87 people, and did only one good deed in his life: He gave water to a leper who had requested a drink in the name of Mary. When Belai died, St. Michael appeared with the scales of justice, and the cannibal's good deeds were weighed against the bad. The bad far outweighed the good, but in the painting, Mary is shown using her hand to tip the scales in the cannibal's favor, saving him from hell. I think this story sends a bad message in a way since the cannibal was so deplorable and escaped hell on a technicality, but on the other hand forgiveness of sins is the cornerstone of Christianity. In any case, it was an interesting painting.

Some of the newer paintings among the murals were of Ethiopian saints, including the founder of the church, and this prompted an interesting question from Paul.

"Why are the Ethiopians white?" he asked. "I would never guess that these were supposed to be black men."

And the explanation brought me right back to the white and brown teff in the central market.

"It's really the artist's choice," John explained, "but white is associated with goodness and black is associated with evil. That's why they are painted white instead of black."

That's a pretty sad statement when skin color is considered evil.

After the tour, Des picked up where he'd left off.

"Are you ready for your conversion now?" he joked.

"I'll decide after I've had that beer with the priest," I replied, "but I might decide faster with some tej [Ethiopian honey wine]."

We all had a laugh.

Before we left the compound, the priest showed us some ancient books and artifacts that were basically kept in the open air. These are the items that will one day be displayed in the USAID "prison" museum, where they will be protected from the humidity, bugs, and dirt.

Des also showed us the Church's stone bells, which were cool. These were slabs of volcanic rock (high in iron, I think) that were suspended by wire, and when struck with another stone, they did indeed chime like bells.

On the way back down the hill, Maria, Leli, Liya, Rahel, Wini, and the rest of the vendors tried to sell us their wares. Mimi bought a shell necklace, but that was our group's only contribution. I was actually on the verge of buying a goatskin painting, but I didn't have enough birr with me. Ethiopia is basically a cash economy, but the largest bank note denomination is only 100 birr (about $5.53). So, if you go away for the weekend and you want to bring, say, $200 for spending money, you have to carry 37 bills. On top of that, most people fold their birr in half, so you end up with a bank roll like an inch thick or more. It's slightly comical.

In any case, I hadn't budgeted enough to get the painting; I think it was overpriced anyway.

One of the artists had dreads, which led Des and me into a conversation about the Rastafari movement.

"You look like you have some small dreads," I told Des.

"Yeah, I do," he said, "very small."

It was a sore point because he had been forcibly shaved by the police after they accused him of being a pot head (falsely).

But, by his own admission, he wasn't a true Rasta.

"I like the Rasta lifestyle, but I'm no Rasta," he declared. "I'm a Rasco!"

I didn't really understand what that meant, but I sensed that I should laugh, so I did.

When we got back to the boat, we tipped John and set out for the Kibran St. Gabriel Unity Monastery. On the way, we passed the public ferry that serviced Lake Tana. It was packed to the gills with people.

The monastery was on a small island in the lake, and we reached it in a few minutes. Women were not permitted at the monastery, so Mimi had to stay behind with the boat driver. The rules were so strict that she wasn't even allowed on the island. She had to stay on the boat or the dock.

As Des explained, women were forbidden because they could lead the monks into temptation.

With Mimi sidelined, Des, Paul, and I hiked up a steep hill to the monastery. The monastery itself was off-limits even to us, but there was a small museum we could visit. In the museum, a monk showed us a 14th century book that was made with goatskin and elaborately painted. Only the best skins were used, and I believe the monk told us 900 goats were killed to produce the book. The paintings were vivid and detailed, and it was amazing to me that the monk was handling a 700-year-old book with bare hands.

After we finished at the small museum, our trio started walking back to the boat. As we were walking, I asked Des if Ethiopian Orthodox monks ever had businesses to support their ministry. For example, Catholic monks sometimes have bakeries, breweries, wineries, publishing houses, and so forth, which generate money to cover expenses.

Des bristled at this suggestion.

"In the Orthodox church, we don't mix money and religion," he asserted.

Then he went on, "That's one of the two reasons I don't like the Catholic Church. You can buy forgiveness from sins."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"For example," he explained, "if you kill someone, you can pay your priest some money and he will pray for your forgiveness."

I told him that this wasn't true. Then Paul joined the conversation.

"I think their system is basically the same as ours," he offered. "You confess your sins to the head priest and do penance."

And Paul was right, of course.

Des didn't seem completely convinced, but I moved the conversation forward.

"What's your second problem with the Catholic Church?" I asked.

"They support gay marriage," he replied.

Strike two! Unless I've missed some major announcement from the Vatican, this is totally wrong, and I told Des as much.

By now we had reached the boat, and Mimi was happily listening to her iPod.

We loaded up and half an hour later we reached the van. We dropped off Paul and Mimi at Desset Lodge, and then Endale took me to the hotel so I could check out.

After I checked out, I had lunch at the hotel restaurant. I ordered something called a hamburger sandwich, and I assumed it would just be a hamburger. But it was indeed a hamburger sandwich. There were three sliced of bread; in between two was a hamburger patty and in between the other two, was lettuce and tomato, kind of like a club sandwich.

The burger sandwich was tasty, but this was the first time I can ever remember finding bones in a hamburger.

I played around on the internet until Des returned, and then we set out for the last item on the itinerary: viewing the sunset from the hill near Emperor Haile Selassie's palace . We set out at 4 PM, but Des assured me the timing wasn't important because during the rainy season there would be no sunset.

As we drove out to the sunset hill, we left the city limits. Out in the countryside, we passed a few big houses which Des told me were built by an Ethiopian American who was planning to retire there. One house was for him and his wife, and the adjacent one was for his son.

"For only $10,000, you can build a house like that," Des told me, "and I'll watch after it for you when you aren't around."

I told him I'd think about it.

At the top of the hill, there was indeed a great view of the town, the valley, and the mountains, and, of course, the bloated Nile.

There was a park on the top of the hill, and Des explained that it was THE place to hang out with your mates or your girl in the evening. People came there to picnic, to play cards, to drink alcohol or coffee, and, as indicated by the condom wrappers, to have sex.

As we looked over the town, Des pointed out different features. Several things were being built by the Chinese, and Des voiced concern that they were taking over Bahir Dar.

"Already there are 16,000 Chinese people living here," he told me, "and more are coming."

After a few photos, we drove back to town. Along the way, we drove down a road that was completely shaded by an arch of trees. This was another popular spot to stroll with your girl.

When we got back to the town, I still had about two hours until I needed to go to the airport.

"Do you want us to drop you in the center of town?" Des asked me.

I had no better suggestion so I told him sure.

When we got to the center, though, Des got out with me. I thought he was just going to kick me out, but instead he intended to keep me company. This was unexpected and appreciated.

He showed me a souvenir market and a mosque, and then we just walked around the back streets of Bahir Dar. Of course we continued to talk as we walked, and I brought up my trip to Ethiopia 5 years ago. I told Des that I was really amazed at how much things had changed. On my first trip, I had attracted much more attention. The adults would yell "faranji" at me, and the kids would yell "you, you, you..." while pointing. And a crowd would form around me at the drop of a hat. But 5 years later, most of this behavior had ceased. Des told me that the reasons for this were twofold. First, more foreigners had come to Ethiopia and the novelty had worn off. And second, parents were finally telling their children not to harass foreigners. Thank goodness for small favors!

I also brought up how on my last trip I had ended up using the same driver as a man from Dubai who was in Ethiopia as a sex tourist. Des had seen his share of sex tourists, and his observation was that the bulk of male sex tourists came from the Middle East. Oddly enough, he also said that Norwegian men were frequent sex tourists in Bahir Dar. In addition, he knew of one long-term Norwegian resident who had a very hearty appetite for prostitutes, while his wife stayed behind in Norway.  I'm sure Des mentioned this because he knew that I had recently been living in Norway.

Regarding the fairer sex, Des informed me that there were also women sex tourists. Apparently single French women traveled to Africa with one thing on their minds. Des had a serious girlfriend, but he admitted that when the tour company assigned him to guide a single French woman, he would call all his mates to arrange an evening escort for her.

This led to a discussion of the erosion of traditional society.

By now we moved to a hotel café and were having refreshments. I was having a beer, and Des opted for a coffee. He preferred his coffee with sugar, like Westerns do, but he said that when he grew up, coffee was always served with salt. Pretty crazy, huh?

There was another guy lingering around the patio where Des and I were sitting, and when Des excused himself to take a phone call, this guy started talking to me. He worked at a neighboring hotel, so his English was good.

We talked about what I was doing in Ethiopia and so forth, and then the guy paid me a compliment.

"You are looking very smart," he told me.

This reminded me of Pakistan where I'd hear this often from the gracious people. I hadn't heard it in years, though.

"Thanks," I told him, "but I'm pretty sure I'm the worst dressed person in this whole place."

And it was true. I had on a t-shirt and jeans, and everyone else was wearing button-down, collared shirts and proper pants. They looked much more stylish than me.

"Not in my opinion," the guy countered. "Your face, your hair, your clothes... everything is very smart."

It would be stupid to debate whether I was or wasn't looking smart, so I told him thanks again and let it drop.

When Des returned, I asked the complimentary guy to take a photo of me and Des. He was happy to assist, but it was clear that he didn't have much experience using cameras - or SLR's anyway. Des was laughing at him because it was clear that he was pointing the lens over our heads. Then he tried again and cut Des in half. Finally, he got us both in the shot, although Des was cut slightly, and the photo was crooked. Plus Des felt that he looked too fat. But he said it was good enough, so we didn't bother to take a fourth photo.

When it was time to head to the airport, Endale picked us up. As we drove down the road, I thanked Des for hanging out with me, even after my program had finished.

"No problem," he told me. "I was just thankful you weren't old."

He explained that when he had older guests with extra time in their schedules, he never knew what to do with them. Most of them weren't interested in randomly walking around for two hours, for example, so he'd usually just leave them at their hotels. Then he would worry that they would get bored.  I could see his point because there wasn't much to do at the hotel besides watch CNN.

There was one last piece of business we needed to handle before we reached the airport.

"What do you think is fair for your tip?" I asked Des.

"I'd said 100 birr per day," he answered.

And this made me very happy because it was exactly what my colleague had told me I should pay.

"Thanks for your honesty," I told him. "And what about Endale?"

"A quarter as much," he said.

With the tip settled, we arrived at the airport and they dropped me off at the vehicle barrier. From here, I had to walk down a pitch black street to the little terminal building. It was a bit creepy actually.

I checked in, waited, and soon enough it was boarding time. And this time, no one was sitting in my seat!