Friday, December 21, 2012

Ethiopia: The End of the World As We Know It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no she didn't...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then having indeed gone big, we went on home.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Madam, madam!" he was hollering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he went on to explain.

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

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

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

"What year?" Yonas continued.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, brother!

We both had a good laugh over that one.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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