Friday, October 26, 2012

Ethiopia: The Colony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think the ant conversations must sound something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, well... their loss.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Djibouti: Are We Having Fun Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice safety signage in the Kempinski

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

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

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

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

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

Then I reached the bustling heart of the city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he continued pleading.

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

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

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

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

I ignored him and pretended to study the menu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey there, handsome," they greeted me.

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

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


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

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

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

lanterns in the Kempinski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ethiopia: The Post Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thanked her and walked home.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethiopia: Oktoberfest at the Hilton

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

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

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

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

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

The following morning, Jobie was back.

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

“on your own…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got an enthusiastic welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

“None,” I replied.  “I’m a tourist.”

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

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

“Follow us,” they instructed.

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

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

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

“Would you like to try our kellerbier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once everyone was seated, the program started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s it going, mate?” he asked me.

Everything was fine, and I admitted as much.

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

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

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

William was visibly surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought I did,” I told him.

“No, you don’t,” he insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia: Jewelry Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Cool," I responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 08, 2012

Ethiopia: Dining Out: Addis Rodeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either that or Getachew was trying to play me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rodeo special salad

Then it was steak time, baby!

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

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

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

The main course

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

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

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

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


The bottom line on Rodeo Addis:


    Mediocre ü


    Average ü

Overall Experience:

    Forgettable ü

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Ethiopia: Addis Ababa Hash House Harriers

On yet another fine Saturday morning, I set out once more to see what I could see in the city.  Just outside the gate at my house, my resident pack of street dogs was dismantling a sheep head.  The four dogs - Coyote, Spot, Mutt, and Jasper - seemed to like lounging at my gate, and one day I found out why: My guard was feeding them bread so they would hang around and thereby provide an extra layer of security for my house.

"They recognize you, me, and Bakura [the other guard]," Yonas told me, "and they growl at everyone else."

"I've been training them," he proudly announced.

I'm not sure the dogs were augmenting my security that much, but at the same time, they weren't causing any trouble either.  I was happy to have them sleeping at my gate.

Keeping the dogs sufficiently interested, however, did have its challenges.

One evening, I came home to find Yonas grousing, and it didn't take much prompting for him to tell me why.

"Those ungrateful dogs refused to eat the bread today," he told me.  "They only sniffed it."

In Addis Ababa, street dogs are fed very well. Besides receiving animal heads and other scraps from the butchers, they also receive many hand-outs from restaurants, cafes, and private residences like mine.  Given the choices, I think my pack was able to be picky.  Why fill up on bread when goat is on the menu?

The fact that the dogs were enjoying a sheep head at my gate on this Saturday morning seemed to validate Yonas's training.  Even if they didn't want any more bread, they were still comfortable chillin' at my house.

The dogs barely noticed me as I walked down the street.  I hit the main artery and headed north for Meskel Square.

My destination on this occasion was Piazza, a neighborhood in central Addis, so I wandered in that general direction.

After an hour or so, I reached the Derg Monument.  The Derg was a military junta that followed communist ideology, and during their reign of power in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died as the result of direct executions, civil war, forced resettlements, and famine.  Many scholars credit the Derg with kick-starting the Great Famine of 1983-5 (even before drought struck) due to their agricultural policies.  In its heyday, the Derg was supported by its like-minded comrades, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba, and North Korea.

One of my Ethiopian friends once recounted to me his role in Fidel Castro's visit to Ethiopia in 1978.  As a child he was made to stand on the roadside, waving a Cuban flag and chanting words in Spanish for which he didn't know the meaning.

Around the Derg Monument, there were hustlers of all ages patiently waiting for a sucker like me to come along.  As I drew near, the kids were the first to spring to action.  Under the guise of selling tissues, chewing gum, and cigarettes, they swarmed, intent on grabbing my phone or wallet.  Wise to that trick, I was walking very overtly with my hands in my pockets.

I pushed through the kids, and around the monument itself there was a small green fence.  I passed through the gate, and the kids dispersed.  I had crossed the threshold into the realm where slightly order guys ruled the roost.

I didn't get far before a young man caught my attention.

"Stop right there!" he yelled rather sternly.

Then he continued with a softer tone and a creepy smile.  "You have to buy a ticket first."

I would later read on the internet that the ticket was a scam too, but I ponied up a few dollars as requested (including a supplemental fee for my camera), and the young man issued me a receipt.

Next, several other young men approached me, offering their services as guides.

Unfortunately for these guys, I had two problems.  First, I had my doubts as to their legitimacy.  And second, even if I they had been legit, I wasn't interested in making this a full-on learning experience.  That might sound bad, but sometimes I just feel like looking around on my own.  I wasn't interested in hearing a narrative.

With the formalities out of the way, I had a look.

Derg Monument

The entire monument filled a small plaza.  The centerpiece was a tower with a gold crest about a third of the way from the top and a red star on top.  In front of the tower, some glorious revolutionary fighters were immortalized in bronze, guns proudly displayed.  The central tower with the red star was flanked on both sides by brick walls, and each brick wall had a metal relief affixed to it.  The one on the left was of toiling peasants, and the one on the right depicted more soldiers.  A few meters from the end of each brick wall, there were two gardens with a fountain in the center.  Both fountains were dry, and homeless men in various states of undress were sleeping in the garden on the right side - on benches, in the shrubbery, and on the lawn.  The garden on the left side was the prime hang-out for the guides - young men who looked to be in their teens and twenties.

I quietly walked through the gardens on the right to avoid waking the homeless guys, and then I went to see the gardens on the left.  The guides were happy to see me, and we chatted for a few minutes.  One also requested to have his photo taken.

Then I continued on my walk through the city.  There is a small debate surrounding the Derg Monument, and I thought about it as I left.  The Derg years are by most accounts a dark period for Ethiopia, and some people advocate destroying this monument which glorifies the regime.  This is the same sentiment that led many of the former Soviet states to destroy their communist monuments once they broke away from the USSR and gained independence.  On the other hand, there are some people who feel the Derg monument should remain standing as a reminder.  As for me, I didn't bother to formulate an opinion on the matter.  This is obviously an issue for the local people to consider, not outsiders like myself.

From the Derg Monument, I walked up Churchill Street and checked out the souvenir shops.  I tried on a few pieces of traditional clothing, and I found a few trinkets that appealed to me - some silver items and a goat-skin shield from the south.  This trip was strictly for looking, though, so I left empty-handed.

I continued heading north up Churchill Street and after a few minutes, an establishment caught my eye.  It was the Obama Café and Restaurant and Hotel.  There are Obama joints like this sprinkled all around Africa, but still, I appreciated the novelty of it.  I decided to stop in.

Immediately inside, there was room for maybe a dozen people to sit, and at the back, in an elevated area, there were a few more tables.  Besides me, there were three other patrons.  Premier League football was blasting on the television.  Hanging from the ceiling were laminated photos of famous black people.  There were a few photos of Obama, of course, including one that he reportedly doesn't like: a photo of himself smoking a cigarette.  Condi Rice and Colin Powell were there too, as were Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Ray Charles, Michael Jordan, Haile Gebreselassie, and many more athletes, politicians, and entertainers.  The photos were laminated as pairs (mounted back to back), and hung by string, so they spun around freely in the breeze.  Of all the portraits, I only spotted one that wasn't of a black person, and that one was of Gandhi.

familiar faces in the Obama Café and Restaurant and Hotel

I took a seat at the back of the lower level and ordered a beer.  The waiter was quick to return with a frosty mug of St. George.

"Would you like anything else?" he asked me.

"Can I see the menu?" I replied.

"We don't have one," he answered.

"OK," I pressed, "Can you tell me what food you are serving?"

"We don't serve food," he explained.  By now he was looking at me cockeyed.

"My mistake," I responded, "but your sign does say this is a restaurant."

"Oooohhhh, right!" the guy answered.  "Why don't you tell me what you want to eat?"

As I pondered this reverse ordering technique, the waiter chimed in again to help me out.  "How about a burger and fries?" he asked.

His suggestion was actually right on the nose, so I ordered a burger.

In case you haven't figured out what was going on here, allow me to explain.  The Obama Café and Restaurant and Hotel was in reality not a restaurant at all.  It was a bar with a food-fetching lad.  The waiter had dispatched the boy to a nearby food stall to get my burger.  I could have ordered any type of food that was available within probably a one-kilometer radius from the Obama Café, and the boy would have retrieved it for me.  This type of service reminded me of Lahore, Pakistan, where on Food Street, you could sit at any of the restaurants and the waiters would happily serve you items from other establishments.  It's a pretty handy system.

While I'm spilling all the secrets, though, I might as well tell you one more: The Obama Café and Restaurant and Hotel was not really a hotel either.  I'm sure you didn't see that one coming.

Anyway, my burger and fries arrived after five or ten minutes, looking like a small football wrapped in aluminum foil.  The burger was respectable, and happily, it was also bone-free.  (Bone content is a new evaluation criteria for burgers I've adopted since moving to Ethiopia.)  The fries were also decent.

I was having a good chill time, but I finished my food, downed my beer, and hit the road again.

When I had left my house in the morning, I had one thing in the back of my mind.  I wasn't going to build my day around it necessarily, but if the timing worked out, I was interested to try out the Addis Ababa Hash House Harriers (A2H3).

The idea of Hash House Harriers was hatched by a group of British soldiers in Kuala Lumpur in 1938.

According to Wikipedia, these were the early objectives of the group:

--to promote physical fitness among group members;
--to get rid of weekend hangovers;
--to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer;
--and to persuade the older members they are not as old as they feel.

Noble and worthwhile goals indeed.

The Hash is a running and social club, and in the case of the Addis Hash and many others, the group meets weekly.  The run is the first part of the program and for that certain members of the group go out in advance and lay the trail.  These members are called hares, and they mark the trail by periodically dropping clumps of shredded paper.  A good hare will be creative, laying false trails, forking trails, and dead ends.

Then on the day of the run, all the non-hare participants, who are called hounds, follow the trail that the hares have put down.  When a hound is on the trail, he or she yells out, "on-on", so you often wind up with a whole line of people shouting this.

When the group reaches a fork or loses the trail, hounds will fan out in different directions trying to pick up the correct trail again.  In these situations, people shout back and forth, "Are you...?".  And if a hound has found the true trail again, the response to this question is, of course, "on-on".  Once this is heard, the pack reunites on the trail and everyone starts shouting "on-on" again like a gaggle of birds.

When the run is finished, the social part begins, and this usually involves a lot of beer.

The whole group will go straight from the trail to a bar or to a residence to drink beer, maybe eat something, and socialize.  This part of the program also involves "The Circle" where the group gathers up, drinks, discusses business like upcoming runs and special events, sings silly songs, harasses newbies, and so forth.

I had hashed during my assignment in Pakistan, so I pretty well knew the drill.

The Addis Ababa Hash meets every week at the Hilton Hotel at 2 PM, so I headed that way from the Obama Café.

When I reached the Hilton, I had no trouble finding the group.  The mob of foreigners in runner gear was a dead give-away.  Many people from the Embassy were there, so I recognized a few faces.  In addition to the expat contingent, there were also many Ethiopians participating.  I'm not that good at estimating crowd size, but I think around 50 or 60 people had shown up.

As I would soon learn, this was no ordinary hash.  On this particular day, the group was celebrating its 30-year partnership with St. George Brewery, its corporate sponsor.  The notion of a hash with a corporate sponsor was new to me.  The hash in which I participated in Pakistan had no such luxury.  As the sponsor, St. George logically provided the group with free beer.

There are expenses to running a hash, even with a corporate sponsor, so participants are charged a fee.  I paid the few bucks of "hash cash" and mingled with the others.

Since this was a special event hash, a few people had come in from other countries for the occasion.  There were people who had flown in from both Kenya and Uganda.  In these cases, these hashers were former members of A2H3, but they had since moved to other countries for their jobs.

While we were all standing around, the first "special" thing of the day happened: the brewery donated some t-shirts.  A few of the senior members of the group started passing out the shirts, which were packed into a large plastic bag, and all civility flew out the window.  People were pushing, shoving, gouging eyes, and pulling hair for a shot at a $2 piece of clothing.  A sorrier display I can't recall since the Teddy Ruxpin riots of 1985.  With so many people blindly grabbing for shirts, it was a wonder anyone got one that fit.  Several people weren't very lucky in this regard, but they proudly donned their shirts all the same - whether skin-tight or billowing tents.

I couldn't be bothered to enter the fray, so like at the souvenir shops, I left empty-handed.

Shortly after the scramble for shirts, we were ready to get the show on the road.  The day's run would take place outside the city, so drivers were paired up with passengers until all the vehicles were full.  At that point, about a dozen people were left without transportation.  This had been anticipated, however, and a mini-bus had been hired to ferry the remainders.  I ended up riding with a German diplomat named Klaus, an Ethiopian woman, and her 14-year-old son.

It took us about 45 minutes to drive to the site, over roads and dirt tracks of varying quality.  About two-thirds of the cars in our convoy were sturdy SUVs, and they had no problems.  The remaining cars with low clearances, however, were really struggling.  Everyone managed to reach the site, though.

The setting for the run was quite pastoral.  There were fields of meskel flowers, a small river, grazing cows, and a pine forest.  The air was also cool and crisp.

Once everyone had parked, we divided into two groups, the walkers and the runners, and hit the trails.  I opted to walk, like the majority of the other people.  Only about 15 people elected to run.

Each route was designed to take about an hour, so the runners' course was longer and trickier than the walkers' course was.

I had been having brief conversations throughout the day, but during the walk, I had a lengthy chat with two young ladies, Bente (a Norwegian) and Agatha (another German).  Having recently moved from Norway myself, Bente and I naturally discussed the land of the Vikings.  We touched on everything from polar bears to fjords to Grandiosa frozen pizza.  Bente's story was a bit strange to me.  Whereas many people move abroad for work, Bente had moved to Ethiopia with nothing in the hopper.  Her plan was to move first and find work later.  She was only a few weeks into her stay when I met her, but at that point, the job search had yet to turn up anything.

Agatha, on the other hand, did have a job.  She was an expert on plastics and she was in Ethiopia as an industrial consultant.  Basically, she would visit factories and show them how to implement and improve their plastic recycling operations.

Once all the introductions were out of the way, Agatha asked me what is simultaneously a very simple question, but also a loaded one: "How do you like Ethiopia?"

Depending on my mood and the audience, my answer to this question ranges from enthusiastic to tepid.  On this occasion, I was leaning more toward the latter.

"There are good days and bad days," I replied.

Such is life, and I didn't think my statement was very shocking.

For some people, however, anything short of "It's great!" is cause for concern.  Both Agatha and Bente fell into this camp, and they were keen to hear what I considered to be the downside of the place.

I spend hours every week walking the streets of Addis, and this is where I started my explanation.  While I pretty much haven't met an Ethiopian I didn't like, it's the fleeting encounters that bother me.  When a person walks down the street among other people, there is always a certain amount of social interaction that occurs.  People notice other people.  In my case, when someone makes eye contact with me, I always feel inclined to acknowledge it.  I say "salam," wave, give a head nod, smile, or offer some similar gesture.  When I do, the reactions I get vary tremendously.  Some days I get damn-near 100% positive feedback, and other days, I probably get only a 30% or 40% favorable response.  The responses seem to depend on a number of factors, including the time of day, the day of the week, the area in which I'm walking, whether I'm with other people or alone, and how distracted I am.  Of course, I do also realize that my own attitude on any given day has a major impact on what I get back.

When I have this discussion, many people assume that I'm talking about beggars, but that's not the case.  I consider them in a separate category - along with hustlers, mentally disturbed people, prostitutes, homeless people, and hawkers.

No, I'm talking about regular people.

So what then specifically bothers me?  Here's a run-down:

  • I don't like being laughed at, but this obviously depends on the context.  Is it kids or adults?  Is it nervous laughter?  Did something funny happen?  Or is it mean-spirited?
  • I don't like getting the stink eye or other attitude when I'm just walking by minding my own business.
  • I don't like being shouted at.  Sometimes, for example, a dude will walk up and shout "whazzup?" or "are you fine?" in my face, and walk away.  This is not communication.  This is boorish behavior.  I also don't much care for "Hey, faranji!"
  • I don't like the mooches, who are different than beggars.  The other day, for example, an old man hit me up for a cigarette.  "Sorry, I don't smoke," I told him.  "So what," he replied, "there's a kiosk right there."  Other times, I've been approached by young men with this charming line: "Hey, faranji, give me 5 birr for coffee."  Sure, random stranger, why don't we make it 15 so you can get a pastry too?
  • I don't like the people who chide me for not donating to beggars.  The average joe on the street knows nothing about my charitable contributions, so it's no one's place to harass me for not giving money to a lady sitting on a blanket with a baby.  To these people, I say make your own donation and worry about your own karma.
  • And finally, I don't like malicious behavior.  This one is a no-brainer, but for example, a friend of mine used to go jogging, and people would do things like open car doors in her path to try to knock her over.  In other instances, people have shouted "F**k you!" at me without provocation.  That's no way to behave.
Of course, there are also many charming, warm, and friendly people that I encounter everyday, so this list of annoyances is not meant to paint everyone with the same brush.  I just offered this explanation to Agatha and Bente to illustrate my point that life isn't always rosy in Addis Ababa.

As I should have expected, they didn't agree with me.  Apparently I had it all wrong.

"Oh, they're just having fun with you," Bente told me.  "It's nothing personal."

"Yeah," Agatha chimed in, "I've had nothing but wonderful experiences here.  Try not to be too sensitive."

"Imagine what their lives must be like," Bente continued.  "We have it so easy."

Maybe the Ethiopians were just having fun.  Maybe I did need a thicker skin.  And sure I had an easier life than the average Ethiopian.  At the end of the day, though, people are people.  One person generally knows when he is making another person uncomfortable, even if their backgrounds are vastly different.

There was no convincing Agatha and Bente of this, however, so we had to agree to disagree.

All the while we were talking, we were walking through the countryside.  We had attracted the interest of the local people from the moment we had arrived, but when we passed by a small village, we suddenly acquired a gang of children.  The group was mostly young boys, probably about 6 to 12 years old, but there were also a few girls.  One young girl was running along with us, carrying a baby on her back, and the baby was nearly half her size.  This was simultaneously touching, comical, and downright impressive.

field of meskel flowers

It didn't take the kids long to figure out hashing, and after only a few minutes, they were running ahead of us yelling "on-on".  We crossed a few wooden bridges, passed through a grove of pines, climbed up a terraced hillside, and round about the one-hour mark, we reached the vehicles again.

The kids were still in tow.

I drank some water from my water bottle, and one of the little boys asked me if he could have it.  I gave him the bottle, which was half full, and he was ecstatic.  I didn't need it anyway because some hashers had pulled out some huge coolers full of beer and sodas.

As everyone enjoyed a beverage and the runners cooled down, the leaders revealed the plan for the rest of the day.  First, we would head to the pub at the St. George brewery for some beer.  Then the brewery would provide dinner for everyone at a traditional restaurant.  And finally, St. George's was going to sponsor all the hashers on a pub crawl through the city.  Somewhere in there, we would also have a Circle.

It sounded like we were in store for a fun evening, and everyone cheered for our corporate sponsor.

Fifteen minutes later, the coolers were stowed, and people started heading for their assigned cars.  I was on my way to Klaus's car when I noticed a commotion off to the side.  Two of the men from the hash were being swarmed by the pack of children.  The reason for the frenzy was candy.  As these two men each emptied out a fanny-pack full of treats, showering them over the kids, I cringed.  Sorry to be a kill-joy yet again, but giving anything - from coins to pens to chewing gum - only conditions kids to ask future visitors for hand-outs too.  I'm sure these two guys felt like heroes for a moment, but I, for one, didn't think the trade-off was worth it.  I especially didn't support giving sweets to village children.  These kids would probably never see a dentist in their lives, and they didn't drink fluoridated water.  I'd wager that for most of them, the only option at all for oral hygiene was cleaning the teeth with a small stick with a frayed end.  What the heck, though: toffees for everyone!

With the candy distributed, we loaded up and moved out.

Before long, we reached the brewery, and all the vehicles parked inside the gate.

Then we walked around the corner to the brewery's pub, which turned out to be quite a popular watering hole.  As we entered, the place looked pretty well packed, and considering our group size, the chances of us finding space seemed pretty dismal.

Still, not knowing what was around the corner, our entire group snaked through the pub to see if there was room in one of the alcoves we couldn't see.

When we reached the back of the place, it was painfully obvious that there was no room for us.  What incredibly poor planning!

As we stood there for a moment, collectively dumbfounded, some young guys called me over to their table.  They were having St. George's newly introduced amber beer.

"Why don't you join us?" they asked me.  "We have room for one more."

I decided to stick with the hash, for now, so I politely declined their offer.

Determined to be hospitable, nonetheless, one of the guys hoisted his stein in my direction.

"At least have a drink!" he told me.

And so I had my first taste of St. George amber.  It was good, but I still preferred the original pils.

By now, the hashers had realized that things were hopeless at this pub, and we started slinking our way back toward the entrance.  I'm sure we looked ridiculous in our running clothes, but what happened next was a bit unexpected.  Everyone started laughing and heckling us.  We were being jeered!

When we finally reached the doors, a man even came out of his way to rub it in.

"So!" he shouted at us, "you thought you could come in here and magically find seats just because you're white?!?!?"

"You're outta luck!" he taunted.  "Take a hike!"

Then he pretended like he was sweeping us out the door, much to the delight of the other patrons.

We filed outside, and I imagined how satisfying it would be to respond to the taunting.

"Hear ye, hear ye!  Attention, dumb-asses!" I thought to myself. "Do not mock and despise us, for we were invited here by the manager of the place.  Would you also not have assumed that he would have reserved space for his guests?"

In reality, of course, I spoke not a word.  I did, however, briefly consider going back inside to join the guys in the back of the bar who wanted to drink amber beer with me.

As we stood outside on the sidewalk and the larger group concocted a new plan, I noticed that Bente looked a bit distressed.

"I'm gonna go home," she told Agatha and me.  "I've had enough for today."

"Ah, come on," I replied, "don't be sensitive!  They were just having a little fun!"

The look I received said it all.  Bente understood very well that I was tossing her own words back in her face, and she shot me daggers.  As she hopped into a taxi, I knew I wouldn't be hearing from her again.  Oh well.  It was totally worth it.

With the pub a complete failure, the group migrated back to the brewery.  Some workers wheeled out a trolley of beer, and we formed a Circle in the parking lot.

As I mentioned earlier, the Circle is part of the hash ritual.  The group sings songs, discusses the run, and welcomes newcomers.  To be honest, I don't enjoy the Circle that much, but I do realize that it's an important part of the process, and I participate accordingly.  The same couldn't be said for most of the other people.  At this particular Circle, about a dozen people were participating and the rest were completely oblivious.  It was the worst organized and rudest hash circle I had seen in my life.  As a matter of fact, a good many hashers couldn't even be bothered to join the circle.  Instead they dispersed and drank their beer like they were at a house party.

The talking from the non-participating members was quite loud, to the point of drowning out the activities in the Circle.

The old-timers kept yelling, "Hash respect!  Hash respect!" but it fell on deaf ears.  The crowd roared on, completely unabated.

Since it was the special 30th anniversary hash, a portion of the Circle was dedicated to thanking St. George Brewery for its support.  The hash leadership called the manager from St. George's into the Circle for a special presentation.  After a few brief remarks, the elders presented the manager with a certificate.  When I saw it, I was embarrassed for the entire group.  St. George had provided the hash with free beer for 30 years, and to show its appreciation, the hash gave St. George's a flimsy certificate that looked as if someone had printed it as an after-thought.  In Addis, framing is not expensive.  They could have gotten a custom wooden frame for the certificate for 8 bucks.

The manager from St. George's accepted the humble certificate graciously, and we raised a toast.

Next on the agenda was to welcome the new people.  Although I technically should have entered the Circle, I declined.

"You're new to the hash, right?" someone asked me.

"No," I told him, "I've hashed before."

While this was true, I had never done the Addis hash before, and I should have joined the other newcomers in the circle.  But, I didn't feel like it.

The guy introduced himself.  "I'm Teacher's Pet," he told me.

"I'm Jobless," I reluctantly responded.

In the hash, anyone who's been around for a while is given a nickname, and it's not uncommon to not know the true names of fellow hashers.  The hash names are often witty, vulgar, and comical, but mine was simply lame.

The story of my naming ceremony follows, if you are interested.  I've tried to disguise the text, so if you are easily offended, skip over it.  Otherwise, if you want to read it, you should be able to highlight the text with your mouse.

After I had done a respectable number of runs with the Margalla Hills Hash House Harriers (the MH4) in Islamabad, I was called into the Circle for naming.  The master of ceremonies asked me a single question: "What brings you to Pakistan?" he shouted.

"I came for work," I told him.

"Work?" he sputtered.  "You have no job!  I doubt you could even get a blow job!"

And then the light bulb illuminated over his head.

"Henceforth," he announced, "you will be called Jobless!"

And thus, I was named.

I didn't find the name to be terribly clever, but on the other hand, I kept it for fear of going back into the Circle and coming out with something even more stupid.

Once Teacher's Pet and I had become properly acquainted, he accepted that I was legit, and he didn't bother me about going in the Circle again.

There were 5 new people who did enter the Circle, and they introduced themselves and drank a beer.

Shortly thereafter, the Circle concluded.

With the formalities out of the way, we loaded back in the vehicles and headed for dinner.  The chosen venue was a cultural restaurant across the city, so the drive took us 20 minutes.

Inside the restaurant, our group fanned out across the lower level, and even though the area was still open to the public, we took up most of the space.

I was sitting with Klaus, Agatha, and the Ethiopian mother and son with whom I had ridden out to the run earlier in the day.  Their names were Seble and Chane.

We chatted at our table while we enjoyed some drinks, and then the fun resumed.  The hash leaders called all the hashers up to the stage to perform a hash favorite, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.  This special occasion was even being broadcast live on a local radio station.

I tried to weasel out of the stage performance on account of my newness to the group.

"Such a special honor should be reserved for the real members," I lamely offered, "not the new ones like me."

The others weren't having any of that, though.

"Don't be silly," Slippery told me, "we're all in this together."


I went up with the mob and stood in the back.  Then after a stirring rendition of the song in question, we sat back down.  The others were tickled with the performance, but I was just happy it was over.

After the singing, the leaders made a few more announcements, and then the traditional dancers took the stage.  I've been to several cultural restaurants in Ethiopia, and while the dancers are good, they always remind me of a Disney World parade.  The smiles and movements seemed a little more theatrical than I suspect one might see at a traditional wedding, for example.

There were three young ladies and three young men in the dance troupe, and they danced the dances from the different regions of the country.  Some of the older hashers also joined them on stage for a few songs.

The best performance for my money, however, was a solo dance by one of the women.  In this dance, the lady stood in the center of the stage and whipped her long ponytail in all directions.  She did this to the beat of a drum, and as the pace picked up, she mirrored it.  By the end, her neck was flopping around like it was made of rubber and her hair was flying around like it was caught in a blender.  It was hypnotic.

"That's very bad for the neck," Seble told me.  "These ladies can only manage this dance for a few years."

"By the way," she added, "that hair is fake."  Meeeeow!

While the dancers were performing, the food arrived.  Each table received a heaping bowl of kitfo with all the fixin's.  Kitfo is a dish of raw ground beef with melted butter and spices mixed in.  We all started eating except for Agatha, who flatly refused.  She could have avoided the raw meat and nibbled on the cheese and injera, but that would have been too easy.  Instead, she raised a ruckus with the wait staff.  She wanted to send the kitfo back to have it cooked, but the staff wasn't willing to assist in this desecration of a cherished dish.  Eventually Agatha prevailed, but not before the manager got involved.

After 5 or 10 minutes, our newly cooked kitfo arrived.  Agatha dug in, but I think the joke was on her.  I could still see blood around the bowl, so the potential for contamination was still very much present.  I think that the cook had just dumped the raw meat in a skillet, fried it for a few minutes, and then served up in the exact same dirty bowl.

Before long, we finished our food.  The dancers also finished (or else they took a break) because they cleared the stage and a DJ started playing Ethiopian pop.

People all across the room jumped to their feet, including my tablemates Agatha and Chane.

"C'mon," Agatha implored, "join us!"

I remained seated, chatting with Klaus and Seble.

"You are so lame," Agatha told me.  "Americans are so worried about looking foolish they never dance."

"I would hardly classify this as an American phenomenon," I replied.  "I know plenty of Americans who love to dance, and plenty of non-Americans who don't."

My table was a perfect illustration of my point.

"If dancing is so important," I asked Agatha, "why aren't you bothering Klaus and Seble?"

With no intelligent answer to the question, she fell back on her original stance.  "You're lame," she told me.

She continued dancing and criticizing, and I talked with Klaus about the upcoming Oktoberfest celebration at the Hilton.  He thought it was overpriced, and recommended I skip it.  I was planning to attend despite his recommendation, but I kept that bit of information to myself.

Around 10 PM, I decided it was time to go home.  Sure the pub crawl was still waiting in the wings, but I didn't want to spend any more time with my fellow hashers.

"I'm sorry I can't give you a ride home," Klaus told me, "but I'm staying here.  As much as I hate St. George beer, I'll choke down a few more.  I don't want to offend our hosts, after all."

It was kind of him to mention giving me a ride, but to be honest, I wouldn't have accepted even if he had been willing.  Klaus was three sheets to the wind.  For someone who hated St. George, he was putting down a heroic quantity.

I headed outside to catch a taxi, and Seble and Chane joined me.

Being a local, Seble had an idea of how much a taxi should cost to the places we wanted to go, but as soon as the driver spotted me (the faranji), the price compounded a few times.  After several minutes of bickering, Seble lost the battle, and she and I split the fare that the driver had quoted.

I got out of the taxi first, and Seble bid me farewell.

"See you next week!" she yelled as the taxi alighted.

"Then again," I thought to myself, "perhaps not."

It had been an interesting day, but the A2H3 didn't really do it for me.