As I boarded my Ethiopian Airlines flight at Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC, I got a small preview of Ethiopian travel culture. The vast majority of my fellow passengers were Ethiopian, and everyone seemed to have an excessive amount of carry-on baggage. There was so much cabin baggage that after the third boarding group, only cabin bags that could fit under a seat were permitted; the rest of the bags were checked as cargo planeside. I was in the fifth and final boarding group, so my backpack had to go under the seat in front of me. Legroom is overrated anyway.
As we were queued up for boarding, I commented to the man in front of me about the overflow of carry-ons.
"This is nothing," the man laughed. "You should see how West Africans travel."
As a U.S. Government employee, I am required to abide by the Fly America Act which requires federal employees who are traveling on official business to use American carriers (or U.S. code-shares) when entering and exiting the United States. There are exceptions to the Fly America Act, however, including one that allows a federal employee to use a foreign carrier if the foreign carrier reduces the travel time by six hours or more when compared to the fastest routing by a U.S. carrier. Using this six-hour rule, I got special permission to depart the U.S. on Ethiopian Airlines.
When I finally got on the plane and took my seat, I noticed something peculiar: The air vents were blasting hot air. To make things even more awesome, boarding had taken so long that we missed our departure window and had to wait for a new opening on the runway schedule. As I was sitting through the one-hour delay, with no legroom and what felt like a hair dryer blowing in my face, I thought to myself, "Great work on getting that Fly-America waiver!"
I asked one of the flight attendants if the heat would stay on for the duration of the flight, and she insisted that the problem was temporary. And sure enough, when we finally took off, the air became much cooler - almost uncomfortably so.
Once we were airborne, everything was great. The flight crew was attentive; there was no turbulence to speak of; there was on-demand entertainment in economy; the food was passable and served with alcohol, and the swarm of babies in my area was surprisingly quiet. I watched several forgettable "blockbusters", a bad Bollywood flick, and a depressing movie called Detachment. If you ever considered being a teacher, this film might give you second thoughts. Then I watched all the sitcoms and documentaries that were available and listened to some radio programs. And still there was time remaining in the flight.
I switched over to the games and started playing Sudoku. The high scores for the whole plane were listed, and they weren't very impressive. I played a dozen games straight just so I could knock everyone else off the score board. Once I accomplished this, I clicked into multiplayer mode and waited for other people to join so we could play head-to-head. After a few minutes, passenger 20G joined the party. Unfortunately, he (or she) was no daisy. The games were timed, and even on the easiest level, 20G never completed a puzzle. We must have dueled twenty times, and 20G didn't earn a single point. I quit undefeated, but my victories were a bit hollow. I was curious to see who my challenger was, but, at the same time, not curious enough to follow-through. Perhaps 20G was a little kid.
Thirteen and a half hours and two meals later, we touched down in Addis Ababa. I hadn't bothered to sleep a wink, but other than some very dry contact lenses, I felt pretty good.
It took me a while to get through the substantial line at passport control and to collect my bags, but when I finally emerged into the arrivals hall, my Embassy sponsor and a driver were waiting for me.
In no time, we reached the house that will be my home for the next two years. It's a two bedroom, two bathroom, single-level house with an out-building that has servant quarters, a storage room, a laundry room, and a room for my guards. There are some funky fixtures throughout the house, and the master bathroom is the hippest thing since 1955 with its pink bathtub, pink tiles, pink toilet, and pink sink, but the house will be cool once my household effects arrive. I also have a small yard with a variety of plants, including at least one avocado tree and several banana trees. I think I might have a guava tree too, but I'm not sure. Many birds live in my yard, but I haven't seen any monkeys, baboons, or hyenas, which some of my colleagues have on their properties.
The Embassy provides me with night guards, and both of mine are cool. The Embassy does not provide a day guard, but it is recommended to hire one, so I probably will. I don't intend to hire a housekeeper or any other household staff.
A few houses down from my house is the Greek Embassy, and the other direction, there is a popular Greek restaurant. As I was walking by the Greek restaurant the other day, I noticed that they have a pet tortoise, a species which is indigenous to Ethiopia.
"He's a young one," the guard told me, "only 150 years old!"
There are several main streets around my house with little shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, and on my actual street, there are several kiosks where you can buy anything from beer to soap to light bulbs to fresh eggs.
I arrived during rainy season (which lasts roughly from June to October), so it was raining off and on throughout the day. When I was walking barefoot through my house, I noticed that my carpets were damp. My bedding was also damp, and my towels were not drying between uses. I understand that all this will change in two weeks when rainy season ends and dry season begins.
I arrived on a Thursday morning, and after my sponsor dropped me off at my house, I unpacked a bit, showered, and slept for a few hours. Then I decided to make an appearance at the Embassy even though I wasn't expected to report for duty until the following day. I arrived toward the end of the workday, and as luck would have it, there was a small party in progress to thank the staff for their good work with some recent high level visitors. So, I met my new colleagues over cake and Cokes. Roughly one thousand people introduced themselves to me, and I remembered roughly three of their names.
That evening, I set out in search of groceries. I walked down to one of the main streets close to my house, and eventually I found a mini-market. Mini was a good description, as this place had two small rows of products. Most of the items weren't priced, so I had to bother the cashier several times for prices. I found some flour, rice, vegetable oil, salt, sardines, and lentils. The last thing I was looking for was sugar, but the cashier told me there was none to be had. She did have honey which is pretty much as good as sugar, so I picked up a jar. This particular jar had two resident roaches on it, and they started galloping around when I disturbed them. I knocked them onto the floor, and I had to laugh as I thought about my roach-phobic friend, Kim.
After I dropped off my groceries at the house, I decided to go out for a few beers. Near to my house there were three dive bars in a row. I went to the first one in line and ordered a local favorite, St. George beer. It cost me the princely sum of 10 birr (about 56 cents). At the table adjacent to mine, there were four guys drinking something from a pitcher. When they ordered a refill, I observed the recipe as they mixed it at the table. Their drink of choice was made by combining a bottle of white wine, a pint of beer, and a bottle of Sprite. I stuck to my beer, but maybe I'll try this mutant shandy one day.
I had three beers and called it a night.
Unfortunately, I didn't sleep well at all. I'm a light sleeper as it is, and there were plenty of distractions. The airport is really close to the city, so I heard several jumbo jets flying over. There must also be a mosque near my house because I could hear the call to prayer a few times during the night. Toss in a few loud fights among the street dogs, sprinkle in some standard house creaking, and top with chirping birds from 4:30 AM onward, and you get the idea. I think I got about four hours of sleep in total that first night.
When I mentioned this to some colleagues, they decided that my poor sleep was probably the result of jet lag and the high altitude of Addis. Addis Ababa is at 8,000 feet, and the Embassy itself is even higher at 8,400 feet. I agree that jet lag was probably a factor, but I think that the newness of everything was an equally important factor. My brain was too keyed up to shut down and sleep. I personally don't think the altitude played a very large role because I haven't noticed any other altitude-related symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath on exertion, increased tiredness, and so forth. Besides, I haven't had a great night of sleep in years, so my bad night in Addis wasn't so unique.
My sleepless night was followed by a misstep the next morning as I managed to miss my ride to work. The day before, I had been told by the driver who took me home after work that the morning shuttle would pick me up at 7 AM. In reality, the shuttle came to my house at 6:45 and when I didn't appear, the driver left me. As far as I know, he didn't even bother honking the horn before he left. I did get another ride sorted out, but I ended up an hour and a half late to work on my first day. My supervisor and workmates took it all in stride, which is good, but it was embarrassing nonetheless.
At the Embassy here in Addis, Fridays are half-days, so I spent a few hours meeting people and checking-in, and then my supervisor treated me to a nice lunch at her residence. Before I headed home that day, one of my colleagues invited me to a happy hour later in the evening.
After killing a few hours at home, I decided to go check out the happy hour which was at a bar called the Black Rose.
I knew the name of the building and the street where the Black Rose was located, but I basically had no clue where it was. Hoping that ignorance truly was bliss, I set out blindly walking.
The Black Rose is located on Bole Road, which is a main road in Addis, so when I asked passersby for directions, they could point me in the right direction. I walked a good stretch of Debre Zeit Road, reached Meskel Square, and connected to Bole Road. Then I just had to find the Black Rose. Of course, it happened to be at the opposite end of Bole Road. An hour and a half later, I reached the happy hour.
There were eight of us at the happy hour, and my colleagues were a bit bemused that I had walked all the way from my house.
"You could have taken a taxi for 6 bucks," one told me.
Sure, I could have taken a taxi, but that wasn't the point. I can't think of a better way to get to know a city than to walk it.
After a few hours, a member of our party proposed a change of venue, so we loaded up in a few taxis and headed to another part of town. Of course I didn't walk this time since it would take too long. Plus I had no idea where we were going.
At the new place, we had some more drinks, and some of the others had dinner. Then the group started to splinter. It was only about 10 PM, but I left with the first wave of people. Everyone had been very nice to me, but sometimes as the new guy you just feel like a third wheel.
The people who left at the same time as me got taxis, but yet again I decided to walk. It was still pretty early and I had nowhere to be, so walking seemed as good an option as any. Since we were in a different part of town, I picked the direction that I thought would lead me homeward and started walking with conviction. My guess turned out to be correct, and soon enough I reached a bigger road where people helped confirm the route for me.
Based on my walks around my neighborhood and to the Black Rose, it struck me that the Ethiopians you meet on the street are not the friendliest. Of the people that I encountered, most would stare at me with a mix of caution and curiosity. They rarely smiled or spoke to me. They would just watch me like a hawk. A smaller group of people would approach me for money. Lastly, some people - usually young guys - would yell at me. They would either yell "farangi" which means foreigner, or they would come up to me and say, "Hello. How are you? Fine?" in a rapid and aggressive manner. For the beggars and the yellers, I would just ignore them and walk on.
Lest anyone should take offense to my characterizations above, let me clarify a few things. Firstly, I'm talking about walking in the city. When you walk in the countryside and villages, the reaction you get is different. I also realize that the reactions I received while walking through the city were partly a result of my own bearing. I'm sure that it was clear to everyone that I was a newcomer, and over time, I'm sure I will start to blend in better. Once this happens, the reactions I get should evolve as well.
Of course, even as a newbie, I also met many approachable people on my walks, and these were the ones that I asked for directions. I would try to pick the people that I approached carefully, and I did pretty well. I did pick wrong a time or two, however, and got mocked instead of helped.
As I was walking home from the bar, the streets were pretty dead. I made my way to Meskel Square, attracting a lot of attention, but no trouble. Then at Meskel Square, three beggar boys zeroed in on me. The youngest one, who I estimate must have been 8 or 9 years old, was trying to sell me packs of tissue. He was accompanied by two older boys, who I'd say were about 11 or 12. The two older boys weren't selling anything. One of them, however, kept shouting at me, "mama dead; papa dead," and grabbing my arm. He may very well have been an orphan, but his aggressive manner was certainly not endearing.
I couldn't understand what the third boy was yelling, but he was creating a racket of his own.
I continued walking and tried to ignore these three boys, but they were pretty relentless. As they hovered around, yelling and poking at me, I must have looked like a horse plodding along with a cadre of horseflies biting it and no way to fend them off.
Then an interesting thing happened: Other Ethiopians started to intervene. And these people running interference weren't who I expected. They were guys around my age, in their 20s and 30s, not older people like I would have thought.
The way it happened was that I would be walking with my three satellites, and then a young man coming in the opposite direction would assess the situation and chase the boys away. Sometimes there would be a heated exchange in Amharic where I presume the young man was lecturing the boys and they were sassing him. Whenever someone would intervene, the boys would disappear for a period. Then five minutes later they would return. One of my colleagues would later tell me that it's perfectly acceptable to hit street kids in such situations, but I don't anticipate ever doing that.
Three times the boys swarmed me, and three times they were dispersed. Then they swarmed me a fourth time, and there was no one around to chase them away. While the two older boys continued to yell and grab my arms, the young boy with the box of tissue packs pushed close and started going for my pockets. As he latched onto my digital camera, I gave his hand a firm, but not bone-crushing, squeeze and he released the camera. Then all three boys ran away. I kept waiting for them to return, but they never did.
The rest of the walk was uneventful, and 50 minutes after I left the bar, I was home.
Once I was safely at home on my second night in Ethiopia, a new problem was percolating. Yes, friends, diarrhea made an appearance. At least I lasted longer than in Pakistan, where I managed to get salmonella poisoning on my first day in country.
As in Pakistan, we are instructed not to drink the tap water in Ethiopia. Instead, we are supposed to drink distilled or bottled water, which I do. The problem for me, I've concluded, is in washing. When I shower, I wash my whole body, including my head, in untreated water. That's not necessarily a problem, but I realized the other day that I have a tendency to lick my lips when I shower. Doh! I guess I need to unlearn that behavior. I'm not in any great discomfort, however, so I'm gonna let this digestional issue play out for a bit longer, and I suspect it will go away on its own.
After another restless night on Friday, I had a very nice day on Saturday. My friend took me on a driving tour of the city, with stops at a proper grocery store, a produce store, and a bakery. Then we had a fine lunch at a Yemeni restaurant. Later that night I met up with another group for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. The dining scene here is surprisingly good and varied.
Sunday was also a good day. I slept late, did some cooking, and did some chores. For some reason, washing clothes and dishes is sort of fun when you do it for the first time in a new house. Now that that first time is out of the way, though, these chores will be drudgery hence forth.
That afternoon, there was a wedding at the guesthouse near my house, so I got to enjoy the very hearty singing that was permeating the neighborhood. I also ventured out and found a belt and some Ethiopian CDs which have really livened up my quiet house.
I also had a pretty decent sleep on Sunday night.
So, after four days in Ethiopia, life is good. There is just enough hassle to keep things interesting, and I'm sure there are more adventures around the bend.