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!


Anonymous said...

Nice story! Loveu! dad

Anonymous said...

Nice experience, but any turrist visiting ethiopia should also visit the south. Very diversified culture, friendly people,natural beauty and different food tests. And you've missed "lalibela" (the rock hiwin churchs), and the "axum" oblisks, which are the most visited places on the north. But you're experience was also one not to miss specially bahir dar and lake tana. "Selam" peace!

Chris said...

Thanks for your feedback. I have in fact visited other places in Ethiopia, including Lalibela and Axum, but I haven't blogged about these trips yet. I haven't visited the south yet, but I hope to do so soon.