Friday, September 20, 2013

Ethiopia: On a Roll at the Bowlarama... or Not

I hadn’t been bowling in ages, so when I got the invitation for a friend’s bowling birthday party, it was a no-brainer.

It would take place at the only modern bowling alley in town, Bowlarama at Laphto Mall.  “Twelve fully automated bowling lanes in Addis Ababa,” the advertisements boasted, “with state of the art Brunswick bowling equipment.”

“This bodes well,” I thought.

In addition to Bowlarama, I had heard tell of a second bowling alley in town.  This one was decidedly not modern, supposedly still utilizing children in the back to manually reset the pins.  I never tried this one which was frowned upon by the diplomatic community for its inherent child-labor problems.

In any case, I met up with some friends, and we carpooled out to the Old Airport district on the day of the party.

The night would turn out to be a series of hiccups, and the first happened as soon as we arrived.  Our group turned up at the counter, and finger-pointing quickly ensued.  The organizers on our side claimed they had booked ahead, and the Bowlarama staff claimed they hadn’t.  It didn’t really matter who was to blame, though, for by now the lanes were mostly full.

Gutter ball number one.

Undeterred, we crowded about 25 people on two lanes.  I don’t like bowling with more than four or five people on a lane, as the pace is just too slow, and I tried to sit out.

“Come on! It’ll be fun!” my friends pressured, and I schlepped up to the shoe counter like a good sheep and checked out a pair.

All the lanes needed some urgent care, and the one on which I ended up was perhaps the worst of all.

For starters, the lights had long since gone out on the scoring computer.  Of our entire group, only one friend and I had any clue whatsoever about how to manually score a game – and to be honest, this friend was struggling quite a bit herself.  We split up so that each of us could manage one of our lanes.

Gutter ball number two.

The lane issues didn’t end there.  My lane was permanently missing pins 6 and 7 (third row, right, and back row, left).

Gutter ball number three.

When we started bowling our first round, these missing pins immediately started a debate.  My thought was that a gutter ball should be worth zero; a strike – eight pins, in this case – would be worth ten points, and any ball between a gutter and a strike would qualify for two extra points to account for the two missing pins.  Others objected to this, insisting that the two “free” points should only be awarded in the case of strikes.   This made no sense to me, however, and since I was the one holding the pencil, I won the debate.

I was last in the line-up, which meant I had about two years to wait before my first roll.  Putting my free time to good use, though, I moseyed over to the snack bar.  The menu was pretty impressive, but when I tried to order a drink, I got some sad news.

“Unfortunately,” the attendant explained, “we are out of alcohol.”

Desperate, I gestured toward the beer tap on the bar.

“Empty,” he told me.

Gutter ball number four.

I returned to my lane with a coke in hand, and soon thereafter, it was my turn.

I selected a ball, approached the lane, and started into my run-up.  And I nearly ended up with a face full of maple.

Not only was the lane not polished and slick, it was actually sticky.  Forget about working a glide on such a rough surface.

Gutter ball number five.

Even though it ended in failure, my lane approach didn’t go unnoticed.

“Nice job there, Tinkerbell!” my colleague shouted.  “That’s some fancy footwork!”

I didn’t have time for the peanut gallery, though; it was time to redeem myself!  For my second attempt, I stood like a statue at the end of the lane and swung the ball a few feet in front of me.  It landed dead center, traveling at a decent clip.  Then, about three-quarters of the way down, it hit a pothole and popped into the gutter.  Doh!  I earned a big fat goose egg for my first round.

Gutter ball number six.

My teammates weren’t doing much better than I was, and if a stranger had glanced at our score card, it would be reasonable to assume this was a 5-year-old’s birthday, and not a party for someone six times that age.  Even worse, we were all as sober as deacons.

About halfway through the never-ending game, the birthday portion of the evening kicked off.  We sang the song, cut the cake; and someone appeared with a few pizzas.  Then we were playing with greasy balls the rest of the night.  Bowling with dirty hands is a lapse of etiquette to be sure, but at this point, we had pretty much hit rock bottom anyway.

I eventually ended up with a miserable 88 in what was one of the worst games of my life.  Sadly, though, it was still good enough to claim victory on my lane.

The birthday boy, perhaps unaware of the waning enthusiasm of the group, asked if anyone was up for a second game.  Everyone avoided eye contact; people started checking their watches; crickets chirped.

It was settled: We would change venues!  Sayonara, Bowlarama!

I pulled off my bowling shoes, and reported to the counter to collect my real shoes.  Bowlarama, it seemed, would have one more surprise waiting for me.

“Sorry, bro,” the guy told me, “they’ve already been claimed.”

“Excuse me?” I asked, very much unamused.

“Someone already got them,” he repeated.  “They’re not here.”

This was just dandy.  Gutter ball number seven!

Unwilling to go home shoeless, and in no mood to explain proper shoe safeguarding to the clueless clerk, I set out, scrutinizing everybody’s feet as I walked.

After a few minutes, I spotted my wandering footwear on a young Ethiopian man who was bowling the far lane.

“I think you’ve got my shoes,” I told him.

“Oh, really?” he replied.  “I got them at the counter.”

Apparently when the clerk took my shoes and exchanged them for bowling shoes, he put my shoes in a cubby hole.  Then someone came by later, turned in his shoes, and received my street shoes as bowling shoes.  Amateur hour!  My shoes didn’t even look like bowling shoes.   They were Converse low tops.

The man with my shoes, who was pretty much innocent in the scandal, was quick to give them up.  I hit the shoes with a generous spritz of antibacterial spray at the counter and made a beeline for the door.

I’ve said it on several occasions, but on this night it was especially apt:  Thank goodness for the after-party!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethiopia: The Nightmare Drain

The drain on my bathtub had been slowing for weeks, but honestly, I didn't really care.  Standing in a bit of water while I showered wasn't enough of an inconvenience to spur me into action.

Then one morning, the problem migrated to my sink.  As I was shaving, the water clouded with shaving cream and tiny bits of hair refused to go down the drain.

Inspiration struck, and I turned on the hot water as high as it would go.  I thought maybe I could melt whatever was obstructing the pipe.  While this approach was awesome in theory, in reality it sucked.  The sink still wouldn't empty, and now it was nearly filled to the top with murky water.

After I briefly toyed with the idea of permanently moving my grooming operations to the guest bathroom, I decided that I should stop avoiding the drainage problem in my master bathroom and try to fix it.

The first thing I needed was a plunger, so I threw on some clothes and headed for the shops close to my house.  This was my first ever shopping run on a Saturday morning at 8 AM in Ethiopia, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Much to my relief, everything was open.

I ducked into a small plumbing supply store, and they were unable to help.  Thankfully, though, half a block further down the road, a small supermarket had just what I needed.  Hanging on a hook over some papayas, there were three plungers (or toilet pumps as the store listed them), and in three fetching colors to boot.  Bypassing the lime green and hot pink models, I bought the red one for a very reasonable 70 birr (about $3.90).  And I picked up some milk since I was already at the store.

Then I headed home for a showdown with my drain.

With renewed optimism, I launched a full-out assault on my sink.  Chug, chug, chug...gurgle... chug, chug, chug...gurgle... chug, chug, chug...whoosh!  The water disappeared down the drain.

"That wrapped up nicely," I thought to myself.

Then I turned around, and, Houston, we had a problem.

Sure the water had gone down the sink, but it was now bubbling up in my tub, and worse yet, through the drain in the middle of the floor.

This was an unexpected turn of events.

I decided to move to Plan B (or was it Plan A?) and I relocated to the guest bathroom for the remainder of the day.

I had things to do with my Saturday that didn't involve sewage, so it wasn't until around 6 PM that I returned to the problem.

By now, the water had receded from the sink, tub, and floor, and other than a small rust-colored water mark, the floor looked dry and normal.

I ran the water a bit in the sink as a test, and sure enough, it started to ooze from the floor drain again.  I would need to up the ante.  Yes, friends, it was Drano time!

Before I walked out my gate on my way to the store, I briefly talked to my guard about the situation.

"You can find drain opener in all the shops," he assured me.

As I set out on my quest, I had my doubts.

I headed for Meskel Flower Road using my muddy neighborhood lanes, and at a particularly swampy intersection, I ran into one of the guys from one of my neighborhood pubs.

"Wow!" he exclaimed, "you're walking the streets just like a habesha!"  (A habesha is an Ethiopian.)

This guy was impressed that I was walking in the mud, and I in turn was surprised that this raised my street cred.  That was a nice bonus, I suppose, but my reason for walking the muddy local streets was convenience.  The alternate route, that would have avoided most of the puddles, was much longer.

On a street corner a few minutes from my house, two young ladies had opened a French fry stand.  Basically, they had a fryer on a wooden table that was powered by an extension cord that dangled over a fence and disappeared into a corrugated metal shack some 15 meters away.  Two birr (about 11 cents) bought a small paper cone of fresh fries.

This fry stand had been around for a few weeks, but I hadn't tried it yet.  Finally, I was in the mood to give it a go.

I paid my 2 birr and received a cone full of fries.  Often times, these cones are made from newspaper, but on this occasion, I had a cone fashioned from what appeared to be someone's homework.  I thought that the homework cone was a nice touch, but unfortunately the fries were terrible.  I have eaten street fries all over the city, and this was the worst batch yet.  They were greasy, crunchy, and cold.  Clearly my order of fries had been sitting around for a while.

Although they weren't very appetizing, I still gnawed on my fries as I walked down the street.

Then I began the search for drain opener in earnest.

First up was Inga Supermarket.  I couldn't see anything useful on the shelves, and the clerk had no clue what I was talking about.

Next was Target Supermarket which turned out to be another dead end.

Continuing down Bole Road, I hit New York Supermarket.  For a specialty product like drain opener, you can't just walk into most stores and ask for it.  No, you have to tell a story.  And so I told my story in all its glory - of water in the sink and water in the floor and blocked pipes and plungering.  The story was action packed and full of gesturing.  As I told my tale at New York Supermarket, there were six clerks surrounding me, taking it all in, and nodding along knowingly.  After the exciting finish, they chatted a bit in Amharic, and a young lady ran off.  She returned a few seconds later with a bottle of all-purpose bathroom cleaner.  Doh!  This crowd clearly needed an encore performance.  I acted out for them how it would be when I poured the chemicals in the sink and the water flowed down, and one guy lit up.  We had a winner!  The clerk trotted over to the shelves.

"I know which one you need," he told me, "but it's finished."  In other words, it was sold out.


Five minutes later, I reached Ethio Supermarket.  Things played out there almost exactly as they had at New York Supermarket.  After much confusion, there was understanding.  Then the staff realized their stock was depleted.

I continued trucking down the road.

I had high hopes as I entered Shoa Supermarket because they have one of the better selections in town.

I headed directly for the cleaning aisle, and there it was, on the right side of the bottom shelf: Speed drain opener.  It was a thing of beauty.

I took one of the little red bottles and headed for the cash registers.  At only 40 birr ($2.20) the Speed was worth every penny.

With my mission accomplished, I started the journey back home.  I was about 40 minutes away.

At around the halfway point, I stopped for a snack.  During the rainy season (June through September) corn comes into season, and all along the roadsides, women can be found roasting corn on the cob on small charcoal grills.

I ordered one and paid my 5 birr (28 cents), and then I had to wait.  The woman with whom I was dealing did not have any corn ready to go, so I had to cool my jets for about 5 minutes while she stoked the coals with a small fan and charred one up for me.

Once my corn was ready, I took a seat in the dining area - a patch of dirt with three cinder-block "stools".  There were already 2 ladies sitting there, so I got the last space available.

As soon as I sat down, the ladies struck up a conversation.

"You like baqolo?" one asked me.

Granted it wasn't nearly as sweet and delicious as U.S. corn, but it was still pretty tasty.

"Of course I like baqolo," I answered.  "It's one of my favorites."

The ladies were duly impressed, and they questioned me about my appreciation of other Ethiopian foods.  Then they moved on to the basic questions about my life.

When they learned that I was American and working at the U.S. Embassy, they were keen to tell me that they worked for an American NGO based in Seattle and that they were currently working under a contract with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

They rattled off the names of their CDC contacts at the Embassy, but all the people they mentioned were Ethiopian.  In the case of CDC, I only know a few of the American officers and a very few of the local staff.

When I told the ladies that I wasn't familiar with the people they had named, they both looked at me like I was a fraud - like I was only pretending to work at the Embassy.

I explained that a good many people work inside the Embassy and that it would be very difficult for any one person to know everyone.  They seemed to accept this, and we moved on to other matters.

The ladies had just finished a full day of continuing education for their jobs.

"Since we work during the week," one explained, "we have to go to class on Saturdays."

"Even worse," the other continued, "we will be back doing the same thing on Sunday."

I had to agree with them.  Attending training over the weekend sounded like a real drag.

The ladies had a dinner date in 20 minutes, and they were waiting for a third friend to join them. At one point in the conversation, they asked me where I lived.  When I told them, they were shocked that I was walking where I was.  I was only 20 minutes from my house, however, so it's not like I was on the other side of town.  The ladies were still concerned, though, so they encouraged me to take a taxi home.  Naturally, I disregarded their advice.

"Well," one told me, "when our friend arrives, we will walk part of the way with you."

I didn't really need an escort, but I didn't mind the company either.

We chatted for a few more minutes, and sure enough, their friend arrived as anticipated.

Whereas the first two ladies were dressed in professional business attire, the third one arrived wearing a short, tight dress in a leopard print.  The dress was fuzzy like velvet.

As soon as the leopard lady arrived, the other two ladies hopped up from their cinder blocks and walked away.

"Have a good night!" they told me as they pranced off down the road.

Some escorts they turned out to be!

With my escorts gone and my corn picked clean, I chucked the cob in the nearby heap of rubbish and finished walking home.

The instructions for the Speed were pretty straight forward:

  1. Pour 1 cup of cold water down the drain.
  2. Add 2 tablespoons of Speed.
  3. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the Speed.
  4. Wait 30 minutes.
  5. Flush the drain with cold water.
No problem!

I poured a cup of cold water down the tub drain and added the Speed.  Then I washed it down with the boiling water, and it started to foam and smoke.  Excellent!

Then I waited 30 minutes and flushed the drain with water, and it seemed like the clog had indeed been cleared.

I wasn't out of the woods just yet, though.

After a few moments of running the water, the floor again started to flood.  And there was something unusual about the water that was gushing forth.  It was squirming to be precise.  The drain was belching out water that was saturated with little worms - larval insects of some sort.  I had assumed that the drain was clogged with hair or soap scum deposits, but apparently something had built a nest and blocked the pipe.

I often feel like my life is a movie, and on this occasion, I felt like I was in a freakin' horror show.  For an extra ghoulish touch, my floor was also dotted with a few small pools of blood from where I had cut my foot the day before.  The blood had already dried, but when the water passed over it, it started to diffuse and delicately flow like watercolor paint.

I stared at my floor full of worms and blood-streaked water for a second, and then it dawned on me that perhaps I should stop running the water.  I turned off the tap and built a retaining wall around the flood with some dirty clothes.

Once I had corralled the water, much to my surprise it started flowing down the drain.  The Speed had worked after all!  It had sufficiently weakened the obstruction, and the water had finally managed to flush the pipe clean.

Unfortunately, as the water retreated, it left most of the worms high and dry on my floor.  They were thrashing around like dying worms are wont to do, and I knew what I had to do:  I went to the bar and knocked back some beers.

Then bright and early the next morning, round about 11 AM, I woke up and mopped up the remnants.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethiopia: St. Patrick's Day Charity Ball

Heading into a big party weekend, I was unfortunately dealing with another gastrointestinal problem.  My condition, while not dire, was not especially comfortable, and I decided I would rather stay home than go out.

I backed out of parties on Thursday and Friday night, and I cancelled lunch appointments for Saturday and Sunday. The one thing I did not scratch off my calendar, however, was the St. Patrick's Day Charity Ball on Saturday night.  The biggest reason for this was the cost.  I still felt like crap, but I didn't want to lose the 1,300 birr (about $72) I had paid for my ticket.  Plus, much like Oktoberfest, the St. Patrick's Ball is one of the biggest parties of the year in Addis.

No dress code was specified for the ball, so I decided to honor St. Patrick with some green.  Specifically, I paired a striped green shirt with black pants and a grey jacket.  I thought my outfit looked pretty cool until about two minutes before my car arrived.  At that moment, the green shirt suddenly seemed tacky.  It was too late to do anything about it, though, so I loaded up in the car and headed toward the Sheraton.

As we drove along, my driver marveled at how he had only seen me previously on one occasion in the six months I had been working in Ethiopia.  This tidbit wasn't so amazing to me, however, considering the huge motor pool we have at the Embassy.  There are more than 60 drivers, I think.

We also discussed where I might go after I finish my assignment in Addis Ababa, and then things got awkward.

"Did your wife move in yet?" the driver asked me.

"I don't have a wife," I replied.

"Really?  Why not?" he pressed.

"I guess I haven't found the right person yet," I answered.

"Yet?!?" he gasped. "You need to start taking it seriously!"

He then went on to lecture me for several minutes about the necessity of marriage.  He kindly explained how it's written in the Bible that man should not live alone and how it's everyone's duty to raise a family and how a man outside of marriage is only half a person and blah, blah, blah...

I didn't think my marital status was any of his business, but, on the other hand, I do appreciate a good rant.  I  let him continue his sermon uninterrupted, and I dutifully nodded along.

Sadly, though, we soon reached the Sheraton, and I had to bid the Reverend Dr. Driver farewell.

The doors to the ballroom were set to open at 7:30 PM, and I had arrived about 15 minutes too early.  I wasn't the only early-bird, however, and when I went to wait in the Office Bar, I ran into several friends.

After one drink, we moved over to the ballroom.

The St. Patrick's Ball is hosted by the Irish Embassy, and the embassy staff were working the check-in tables.

When I presented my ticket to the Irish lass at the desk, she was most complimentary.

"I love the shirt!" she exclaimed in her Irish accent.  "Thanks for making the effort!"

Maybe the shirt wasn't so bad after all.

As I mentioned earlier, there was no dress code specified for the ball, so it was basically anything goes.  The styles in the lounge ranged from tuxedos and formal gowns to jeans and polos and mini-skirts.  I'm sure he was just too fashion-forward for me, but one man even looked like he was wearing pajamas.

The ticket included admission to the ball, of course, but also dinner, unlimited drinks, and entry in the raffle.

I approached the bar with my little group of friends, and I started with a Guinness   This was not the right choice for my stomach.  It was so dense and bitter, I could only manage half a glass.

I decided that a gin and tonic would be more appropriate.

Nearly all of the ball's sponsors were alcohol companies, Gordon's gin among them, and there were banners all around the room promoting booze.  The Gordon's signs featured a big photo of a gin and tonic with the words, "Enjoy Gordon's gin and tonic".  So, ordering a G-and-T seemed like a no-brainer.

There was, however, one small snag.

"We don't have any tonic," the bartender told me.  "How about a gin and Sprite?  It's very delicious."

To be technical about it, they didn't even have Sprite.  He was saying Sprite while holding a bottle of 7-Up.

I took a gin and 7-Up, but the lack of tonic was astounding to me.  As I already mentioned, there were signs for gin and tonic everywhere.  Beyond that, what self-respecting 4- or 5-star hotel runs out of tonic?

The gin and 7-Up was too sweet, but it was good enough.  I choked it down.  ha ha.

After about 30 minutes, they opened the doors to the dining room.  We all filtered in and found our tables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that in the whole dining room my seat was the absolute closest one to the bathroom.  Score!

At the tables, bread was waiting on the bread plates.  Since it was already after 8:00, everyone was hungry, and people started eating the bread straight away.  One of the people on my side of the table took the bread plate on her right (which is incorrect, I think), and the rest of us followed suit.  Then someone on the opposite side of the table started eating the bread on his left (which is correct), and the people on that side followed suit.  Caught in the middle of these competing approaches, one colleague ended up with no bread at all.  There was, of course, an extra plate of bread for her on the opposite side of the table, but she insisted she didn't want it.

There were approximately 600 people at dinner, and the dining room was understandably chaotic.  When they first opened the doors, some people took their seats.  For many others, however, the cocktail hour had simply moved locations.  People were still moving around and talking, and in many cases quite loudly.  This became a problem when it was time to get the show started.  The emcee, an Irish woman, repeatedly called for people to take their seats.  Unfortunately, the din of the crowd, coupled with an anemic microphone, left the emcee completely neutered.  She tried getting the crowd seated for 5 or 10 minutes, but her pleas were falling on deaf ears.

Finally, they started the formal program despite the uncooperative crowd.

The emcee announced something that I couldn't understand, and then music started playing.  People across the room quickly rose from their seats.  It was the national anthem.

After the song concluded, the room was finally quiet and the emcee made another announcement.

"Please remain standing for the Irish national anthem," she requested.

After this announcement, there was some momentary confusion.  People all around were whispering, "Didn't they just play that?"

The first song had been the Ethiopian national anthem but being unfamiliar with either song and having not heard the announcement, many people were left scratching their heads.

Once the national anthems were finished, everyone sat down, and the Irish ambassador took the stage. He started out by telling us that he was the last obstacle before dinner was served, but that we needn't worry because he would be brief.  We've all heard that before.

Then he congratulated everyone for getting tickets since the event had completely sold out within two days.

The ambassador was soft-spoken with a thick accent, so along with the weak amplification system and the background noise of the crowd, he was harder to understand than the emcee.  He started his remarks by trying to teach us an Irish greeting.

Translated it was something like this: "God be with you."

And our response was: "God and Mary be with you."

And his response to our response was: "God and Mary and St. Patrick be with you."

"As you can see," the ambassador quipped, "Irish greetings can quickly become a litany of the saints."

Unfortunately, most of us non-Irish people were not doing justice to the Irish language, and our responses sounded nothing like what the ambassador had taught us.  Oh well.

After the greetings, the ambassador moved to the meat of his speech.  There were still people talking (someone at the next table was even rudely singing, "Frosted Lucky Charms, they're magically delicious..."); waiters were coming in and out; and there was a lot of traffic to the bar and the smoking area.  Try as I may, I couldn't focus on the remarks at all.  I glazed over and in about 20 minutes, the speech was done.

Hear, hear... it was time for the food!

The first course was Killarney salmon with mayonnaise, and it was pretty good.  It was a salmon salad served on a bed of cucumbers with a boiled egg.

I ended up eating two because my friend Louise doesn't eat seafood, and I volunteered to help her out.

My table-mates were aware of my intestinal issue and of my desire not to move around too much, so they generously hooked me up whenever they went for a refill at the bar.  On my second gin and 7-Up refill, my friend Don was handling my order.

When he returned with the drink, he brought along some bad news.

"I'm sorry," he told me, "but all they had was tonic.  I hope that's OK."

There was no need for apologies; this news was most welcome.  Apparently enough people had complained that the Sheraton staff had procured some tonic from one of their bars or restaurants.

My friend Kathy raised a toast at my good fortune.  "Praise the Lord..." she began.

        "...and pass the ammunition!" I finished.

We both had a laugh.  Sometimes a 1940's saying is just what the doctor ordered.

While I was celebrating my drink, my friend Brooke, who was about three chairs over, was lamenting hers.

"This is just awful," she groaned.

Of course we had to ask her what she was drinking.

Well, she had ordered a Jack and Coke, but unfortunately, neither of those products was a sponsor of the event, and neither was available.

Instead, Brooke was served a Johnnie and Pepsi - a different animal completely.

I was keen to try it, though, so Brooke passed it over.

"You can keep it," she said.  "I'm not going to finish it."

And so I did.  It wasn't that bad.

My friend Paul was sitting to my left, and after the first course he called the waitress over.

"Can you bring us some salt and pepper?" he asked.

The waitress assured him this was no problem, and she hurried off to the kitchen.

She returned several minutes later and presented Paul with a shaker of salt and a stack of napkins.

"Here you are, sir," she told him, "salt and paper."

Paul's salt and paper.


"Not paper," Paul replied, "pepper."

The waitress stared blankly at Paul.  We had reached an impasse.

The waitress left after a few more awkward moments of silence, and Paul flagged down the next one who passed by.  The shaker of pepper arrived a few minutes later.

Before long, the mains came out of the kitchen.  The choices were beef, chicken, and vegetarian, and I had opted for the beef - New York Gaelic Steak, to be precise.  I had high hopes for this tenderloin, but unfortunately it was dry and tough.

Where's the beef?  Here it is.

No matter, I thought to myself, they can redeem themselves with dessert.

The dessert was described as a Bailey’s Irish Cream crème brulée, but there was something not quite right about it.  The dish was basically a bland square of custard with a thin chocolate wafer on top.

"This isn't really a crème brulée," I complained to my table-mates.  "It's missing the layer of caramelized sugar [which is a crucial part of the dish].  If I'm not mistaken, I think crème brulée even translates to burnt cream."

If there was anything burnt on this dish it was barely perceptible.  Kathy, however, was keen to take up the debate.

"Crème brulée doesn't mean anything," she told me, "it's just the name of a dish."

Kathy speaks French, and I do not, but still I was inclined to argue my case.  (And I still think I'm right.)

"Just shut up and eat it before I stab you with my fork," she threatened.  She was half-joking (I think).

Meanwhile, during and after dinner, the official program continued to play out.

The first event was an Irish dancing competition.  The emcee announced the event and a few dozen people made their way to the dance floor.  Amanda, who was also sitting at my table, admitted to having studied Irish step dancing in her youth, but she wasn't willing to strut her stuff.  The prize was 6,000 birr (about  $333), but that wasn't enough to entice her.  As an American, I suspect she didn't want to outshine the Irish on their special day.  Anyhow, once the emcee was satisfied with the number of participants, the band, which Lufthansa had flown in from Ireland, started into a festive jig.  After about five minutes of fancy footwork, a winner was announced.

Next up was the Ethiopian dance competition.  To kick this off, the emcee called to the stage a professional Ethiopian dancer.  Then the band jumped into another Irish jig, and this guy danced to it in a very vigorous Ethiopian style - with plenty of shoulder flapping, chest shaking, and hopping.  This was pretty cool.

After the dancing showcase, the emcee announced that the professional dancer would be the judge for the Ethiopian dance competition, and she called for participants from the crowd.  There were many Ethiopian guests at the party, but they weren't exactly flocking to the dance floor.  So, the emcee kept pressing, and eventually the floor was filled with a lot of faranjis.

Instead of an Irish jig, they played a recording of Teddy Afro, Ethiopia's most popular current singer.

The song seemed to run quite long, but eventually a winner was crowned.  I couldn't see who it was, but my money was not on the white guys.

Several minutes after the Ethiopian dance competition, the emcee was back on the microphone.

"Is there anyone with clean underwear?" it seemed she was asking.  "Clean underwear?  Anyone at all?"

"What a curious competition!" I remarked.

Even stranger was the fact that only one guy rushed the stage.  So we had one guy out of 600 with clean underwear...  That was good for a laugh.

Maybe you already saw where this was going, but it was a simple misunderstanding.  I had not understood the emcee's accent (again), but she had been calling for green underwear.

My confusion led someone at the table to make a joke about underwear that was green, but definitely not clean - about some drawers so old they had molded and changed color.

Come on people; are we six years old or are we adults?  ha ha.

There was also a mini-conversation at the table about what color underwear people actually were wearing.  Black and white were the most popular, so no real surprises there.

Getting back to the competition, though, one guy showed up, and a lady wasn't too far behind.

Then after a judge verified their green underwear, they got their money - quite possibly the easiest 200 bucks they ever made.

Unless this event was new for this year, I was surprised that more people who had attended in prior years had not come prepared.  Like I said, it looked like easy money to me.

After the underwear showdown, there was one final bit of business remaining: the raffle.

Don had warned us earlier in the night that he was super lucky, so we were all mentally prepared for him to win big.

The first few prizes were some weekend get-aways at lodges around the country.  They came and went, and none of us won anything.

Then it was time for the grand prize: airfare for two from Addis Ababa to anywhere in Europe (within reason, I suppose), courtesy of Lufthansa.

The emcee reached into the box, and just like a Hollywood movie, she pulled out Don's name.  It was amazing!

Sorry, I was just having a bit of fun.  The real winner was a Polish guy who was sitting across the room.  Don and the rest of us were Grade-A losers in that raffle.

The raffle marked the end of the official program, and after that the DJ opened the dance floor up for dancing.

Right about that time, our colleague Scott, who had been sitting at another table, came over and invited us to smoke cigars.  About half of us took him up on the offer, a quarter went elsewhere in the ballroom, and the remaining people headed home.

Cigar smoking is still quite popular apparently because the number of cigar-smokers on the back patio must have been 30 or 40.

As we were smoking, we continued drinking, and when we all had a round at hand, we started toasting in different languages.

"Anyone know how to toast in Gaelic?" I asked.

At this, one of my colleagues made a special point to correct me.

"FYI," she told me, "Gaelic is the language of Wales, not Ireland."

I'm not sure of her source, but after a quick check on the internet, it looks to me like Irish is the preferred name of the language, but Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are also acceptable.  Furthermore, I didn't find any references to Welsh Gaelic, although it seems there is Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic.

Anyhow, not long after I was corrected, Kathy stepped in to offer an Irish toast (in English): "To Jesus, Mary, and St. Patrick!" she announced.

Close enough.  We all drank to the saints.

Once my cigar was finished, I left the U.S. Embassy cluster and walked around.  I saw several people I knew, and on four different occasions, I was introduced by a friend to his or her friends as being the funniest person ever.  This is flattering, of course, but it's also a tough introduction to own.  Without fail, I was left standing there with some stranger expecting me to break into a comedy sketch.  I can't just turn on the good times like a light switch, though, so I ended up looking a bit flat and decidedly unfunny.

"I guess you had to be there," I would offer.  And the strangers would look at me as if to say, "how sad."

Tough crowds, I tell ya!

I did have one embarrassing moment where I "recognized" a guy from Oktoberfest, but in reality I knew him from a house party.  He was quick to call out my mistake.

I also had a portly Brit swear that we knew each other, although I'm quite sure we had never met.  I got the impression, however, that some of the other people around bought his story and decided that I was the confused one.  Damn his authoritative English accent!

I left his company and scanned the room for trouble.

According to the stories that I heard from last year's ball, it had been a true case of diplomats gone wild.  There were tales of vomiting at the dinner table, of disappearing clothes, of table-dancing.  This year, I didn't see any such shinanagins, which is sad.  A bit of mayhem is always good at a party.

Then again, maybe I just left before the party kicked into high gear.

I decided to throw in the towel around 12:45, at which time the crowd was noticeably leaner.  I had had two unpleasant bouts in the toilet, but overall I felt pretty good.  Still, I decided it was best not to push it.  I left, and the party raged on until around 4 AM I would later learn.

At the entrance to the hotel, the doorman informed me that the taxi rank had been completely exhausted and my best bet would be to try to hail a cab on the main road.

As I was walking out of the Sheraton's gate, my colleague Emily happened to be driving out.  She kindly offered me a lift, and in doing so, she probably saved me a very long walk or a very long wait.  Taxis are not that common in the wee hours of the morning.

In about 20 minutes, we had reached my house.  When I walked through the gate, my guard was standing duty.

"Great shirt!" he remarked.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ethiopia: The Barber Shop: Part 3

Having decided never to get my hair cut by Richardson again, I set out for the barber shop.  I had purposely avoided passing by his shop, but on my way to find a new barber, whom should I happen to run into?  None other than Richardson, of course.  He was buying a Coke at a kiosk.

"Your hair is looking pretty long," he observed.  "Do you need a cut?"

As much as I wanted to lie, I unfortunately told the truth.  Well, I told the truth about needing a cut, anyway, but not about not wanting Richardson to handle it.

In any case, I had made my bed and now I was going to have to sleep in it.  I walked around to corner to Richardson's shop like a kid being led to the principal's office.

I sat in the chair, and he threw the sheet over me and stuffed cotton in my ears.

Then he sterilized his equipment and started cutting.

"What's your name?" he asked me.

Although he had recognized me, he apparently wasn't good with names.

"My name is Chris," I told him, and before he could introduce himself, I did it for him.  "And you are Richardson, right?"

"Yes," he replied.  "My father was from..."

     "Italy," I interrupted, "and your mother is Ethiopian."

"You are right!" he beamed.  "You have a good memory!"

I know it's a bit rude to finish someone's sentences, so I was glad he was impressed and not offended.  In any case, I was afraid he might rehash our entire conversation from the last time if I hadn't stepped in early.

While he had forgotten my name, Richardson definitely remembered at least some of our eariler discussion.  A few minutes into the cut, he walked around in front of me and leaned in.

"Please won't you teach me piano?" he pleaded.

Ugh... Being neither interested in nor qualified for this duty, I explained to him that I hadn't brought my piano to Ethiopia and that, in any case, my skills were very rusty.

Richardson said he understood, but he didn't hide his disappointment.

He continued cutting in silence for a few minutes, but soon enough he recovered.

"How is your Amharic coming?" he asked.

"Terrible," I admitted.

"I'm sure it's because you aren't practicing enough," Richardson replied.  "Start now.  Say anything at all."

I am not conversational by any means, so I started with the basics.

"My name is Chris," I told him in Amharic.

"Good, good, keep going," he instructed.

"I live in Addis Ababa... I am American... I work at the American Embassy," I babbled.

"More, more, more," he urged.

"I want two kilos of bananas...  I ate pizza on Sunday...  There is a red wolf at the zoo," I continued.

"Yes, keep going," he prodded.

"My sister is a doctor...  Do you have raw meat?...  I want coffee with milk," I blurted.

"Good! Don't stop!" he ordered.

Richardson was clipping and grinning, but I was quickly losing interest.  I threw in the towel.

"Thanks for the encouragement," I told him, "but I've had enough practice for today."  "I'm just speaking gibberish."

For the second time in 20 minutes, I had burst his bubble.

For the rest of the haircut, not much was said.  As before, though, Richardson was very pleased with the results when at last he was finished.

He stepped back to admire his handywork.

"Wow!" he exclaimed, "it's so beautiful!"  "You're like a bride before the wedding."

I wasn't sure what to make of this gender confusion, so I ignored it.  As far as I am aware, though, the buzz cut isn't that popular for brides these days.

Unfortunately, as with my first haircut from Richardson, I didn't think this one was anything to crow about.