Friday, July 2, 2010

Ethiopia Part 1

Blogging has been slow lately, since while internet cafes abound here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there usually isn’t actual internet available in most of them. What with slow connections, electricity blackouts, and medieval computers, it’s been a struggle to get online just to find where I need to be for my research, much less upload pictures. Also, apparently neither my hotel nor the nearby cafes pay their bills on time so when the first of the month comes around what internet there is gets cut off. Or maybe Ethiopia’s national internet-telecom monopoly just gets cranky from time to time.

Anyway, this is my last full day in Africa and my trip has been incredible. Mombasa was a ton of fun and doesn’t need much more description, mostly involved exploring Mombasa, hanging out at the beach with Wossen, Zach, and other Yale kids, and hearing increasingly wild stories and political theories from my host Arfan. When I get back to the land of freedom and real ketchup on July 4 I’ll upload some of the pictures I took. For now I’ll try to run through what I’ve been up to in Ethiopia.

After a warm good-bye from Arfan’s household, I got on my turbo-prop plane headed for Addis Ababa. The plane was mostly empty, and of the few passengers almost all were transferring to Dubai or Europe. This brought to mind the stern warning of the Ethiopian expat mother who sat next to me on my initial flight from DC back on June 8: “Don’t go to Ethiopia!” I arrived at twilight and made my way to the Bole Rock Hotel in the up-and-coming Bole neighborhood of sprawling southeast Addis. I had booked a room there that same day at the recommendation of a Yale classmate who had stayed there recently. (I later noticed with interest and amusement that the documents saved on the guest computer were all drafts of blog posts written by the Yale students who had been there in May on a Reach-Out trip). The neighborhood is experiencing a massive construction boom; my hotel, on a still unpaved road off the main avenue is comically surrounded on every single side by a noisy construction site, each featuring the most primitive and dangerous-looking scaffolding I’ve ever seen. If the simple lashed-together logs weren’t leaning precariously on modern reinforced-concrete office high-rises, I would have guessed they were building Egyptian pyramids. The atmosphere inside the Bole Rock is similarly lively and cacophonous. The hotel includes a popular restaurant/sports bar that doubles as a dance hall on weekends. My room is right above the enormous and packed hotel gym, which pumps American club hits (Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night…) on a loop during its round-the-clock aerobics classes.

My first day, I explored Addis by foot, seeing such attractions as the bewildering, dirty, exciting Mercato (market) neighborhood/slum, where people aggressively tried to sell me everything from sheet metal to donkeys to a shoe shine (I was wearing flip-flops); the grand Orthodox cathedrals of St George (the patron saint of Ethiopia) and Holy Trinity, which houses the tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie (of Rastafarian fame); and the Museum of the Martyrs of the Red Terror, commemorating Ethiopia’s ill-advised flirtation with Soviet-style Communism in the 80s. I elicited laughter from one street corner full of people when I left a café carrying a half-finished Coke bottle. Somebody about my age grabbed me and determinedly tried to get me to return to the café for some reason that I could not discern from his excited Amharic (the local language). Thinking it was some scam like those I encountered in Mombasa, I kept walking, getting increasingly annoyed at the similarly exasperated dude tugging at my arm. Finally, to my intense embarrassment and everyone else’s equally intense amusement, a local passerby explained in English that the price of the Coke did not include the bottle, and it would be the right thing to do to return it.

It was mostly nice out during my walk, with only three half-hour afternoon deluges that came and went with no warning to dampen my day. Such is the rainy season in Addis, where the rains get heavier and heavier as the summer goes on until by August every day is a steady stream of precipitation. As the streets here already flood alarmingly at every downpour, I cringe at the thought of what they’ll be like at the end of summer. Keeping the rainy seasons straight in all the places I’ve visited is very confusing since they’re all at different altitudes and distances from the Indian Ocean monsoon winds. Addis Ababa, at 8000 feet above sea level, is the highest capital in Africa (I think).

I concluded the day with a delicious dinner of tibs, the national dish. I have fallen in love with the cuisine—piles of spicy meat and bread with no utensils or vegetables to get in the way. Like almost everything else in the city, it was startlingly cheap. Indeed, I’ve been getting terrific steak and veal dinners at my hotel for a little over two bucks a pop. My pro-quality street-kid shoe shine yesterday set me back about 20 American cents, and a mini-bus taxi across town is something like 7 cents. Unfortunately, as virtually the only Faranj (whitey) to be seen outside the fortress-like Western embassies or NGOs, I am accosted constantly by Addis’ staggering population of hawkers and tragic beggars—little kids selling gum, bootleg DVD peddlers, sad-eyed mothers with infants in arm, and one heart-rending maimed or blinded guy after the other. I am scared to give out money to all but the most crippled beggars here because once money comes out the street kids swarm. I’ve taken to buying really cheap Yemeni cookies and giving them away to beggar-kids in lieu of cash; the kids instantly light up and I don’t feel like a totally callous jerk

I can see out the window here that the latest downpour has stopped, so I’m going to leave off here for now. More to come soon, and lots of pictures when I get back to the States!

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