Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part IV: In the Poor House

I didn’t see many movies this year and unfortunately the ones I did see were mainly mediocre. This was partly due to not going to see movies but also to what was available to me as I spent three months of year in Ethiopia. (Ethiopia doesn’t get too much arthouse fare.) But a couple of flicks stood out as really rotten.

The worst movie of the year was The Happening, which I reviewed while in Ethiopia. I’ll preface my bashing of the next two terrible movies by mentioning that I watched them during a long plane ride. So watching crappy movies during a long (sometimes crappy) plane trip isn’t the best way to gauge quality. Alternatively, I think that a halfway decent movie would actually seem better during a long trip just as a crappy one seems ever the more crappy.

Cloverfield ranks in the poor category because I don’t remember it at all. I remember the stupid trailer that everyone was a-gaga over. The film itself? No. I don’t even remember the monster. And I am very keen on movie monsters. Couldn’t tell you how tall, what color, how sharp teeth, if he had cool plates or sails on his back, or what sound he might have made. After first seeing it I wasn’t impressed but the quickness in which I forgot everything about this movie astounds me and makes me regard it as a horrible piece of pop culture. It doesn’t even achieve what the worst pop culture does and stay ingrained in the consciousness for any period of time. Speaking of forgettable, don’t get me started on the bland actors and actresses. They should immediately return to whatever WB family drama (that most likely stars Treat Williams) they emerged from and never grace the big screen again. This signifies the problem for a movie like this. If you are going to have stupid characters doing stupid things and placing their stupid friends in stupid situations then at least make them interesting. A prevailing theory in Hollywood today seems to be that we should care about these people only because they are pretty enough to star in a movie. Boo! So don’t waste your time on this one. Rent the original Godzilla to see how city trashing monster movies are supposed to be.

This uninteresting characters yet pretty actors in a bad movie brings me to The Strangers. I watched this one on a laptop from a pirated Ethiopian DVD rather than at 30,000 feet above in a metal hull flying across the sky. At least there is an attempt to go inside the characters a bit but it doesn’t work. Then the usual starts happening. False suspense and loads of scenes where people in creepy masks appear behind the character we don’t care about and then disappears again undetected. Just like movie monsters I am also keen on slasher films. But this new wave of horror/slasher flicks that have cropped up in the past few years have me either bored or disgusted. By disgusted I mean that in a “I can’t believe I am watching this crap” type of disgusted. The type of disgusted the people who make slasher films do not want you to feel. A couple spends the night at a remote family cabin. Some people come to kill them. Stuff, mostly uninteresting stuff, happens before they die. Ho hum. You’ve seen it before and better done.

For bland, pretty, uninteresting stuff happening look no further than 10,000 B.C. Another plane movie but for some reason I remember all the laughably bad scenes of this movie. I think when I was five years old and making up stories with action figures I came up with a more plausible and historically correct plot than this movie. Did any screenwriters even do the most basic of research to see what the prevailing theories are for how life was at that time period? After watching this movie the overwhelming answer is of course not. In the span of less than 90 interminable minutes the story goes from an arctic setting to the desert where, inexplicably, the wooly mammoths hang out to assist in pyramid construction, and then back to the arctic. The sabre-tooth cats live in the swamp that separates these two geographical areas and then there’s some slave revolt and a journey to find a kidnapped love thrown in for good measure. I make it sound much more interesting and involved than it really is.

Those were the worst of the worst. And I got to rant a bit, too. Nice.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part III: Jason Stratham Discussion

Based upon an actual conversation:

Nimero: Did you see Transporter II?

Colbinski: Yes

N: Um...did you like it?

C: The car flipped upside down and the crane took the bomb off the bottom of it...(laughs)...(laughs more)...

N: I know...

C: ...That was great!

N: I guess that was great...

C: That was great.

N: It's amazing how such a preposterous scene can really make a movie.

C: It made the movie.

N: Did you like the fight in the oil slick?

C: That was in the first Transporter, I think.

N: Oh.

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part II: Fine Performances in Limited Viewing

Click here for Part I of this discussion

As Nimero noted, 2008 proved to be an off year for movie-going and for movie-blogging for myself. I managed to sneak to the cinema to the latest Indiana Jones, the latest Batman, a Genghis Khan movie, and a wrasslin' flick, while only finding the time to do a write-up for Mongol. The other 2008 releases I caught on cable or DVD. Many fulfilling activities, I'm sure kept me busy this year but, suffice to say, my film-going schedule took a back seat. So, without further interruption, here's Colbinski's official (short and none-to-exciting) 2008 Year in Film Recap:

Highly Recommended
The Dark Knight

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The Wrestler

The Visitor
The Bank Job
Boarding Gate
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Now, about this "rating system." It's been clearly stated that Nimero need not abide by these categories. Since I haven't even seen 10 movies released this year, making atop ten list is out and so these broad-range markers will have to do. Though, like Nimero, the wiggle room within the "Good" category is vast. Mongol teeters on the Recommended/Good scale and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull teeters on the Good/Disappointing scale. I enjoyed enough after seeing it, but I think it was more the anticipation of another Indy movie that carried that feeling. It lacked real thrills and brought out many of Spielberg's worst instincts as a director. But, as Nimero stated, it was another Indy movie and, well, that is enough. Side note: strange how I'm more forgiving of bad Indy movies than of Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars. I think it was the re-visiting of a great character that made the difference versus the introduction of paper-thin characters in the second Star Wards trilogy.

Of the movies I saw, the performances truly carried the way. Of these, Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt was the best. Of course, I'm a sucker for characters that calm, stoic idealists trying to get by, made difficult by external forces, stays true to himself and doesn't waver in the face of increasing adversity. Unlike Nimero, I found the ending cathartic (if not somewhat preposterous in the best possible way). Like many David Mamet movies, the con within the movie doesn't make much sense with one viewing - how deep did it go, when did it really start and why did they even bother to rope in a small-time judo instructor in the first place? - is the only reason why it didn't make the recommended list.

Other notable performances include Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, and Tadanobu Asano in Mongol. Like Ejiofor, all have a quiet center and more is done with what is not said. Outside of Rourke, none of these performances have any buzz, but I think I can safely say that it would be difficult for any other performances to top these 4. And I haven't even mentioned Heath Ledger's tour-de-force as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Speaking of which, it's funny to think that Tim Burton's Batman was once considered the gritty dark antidote to the 60's cornball Batman TV show. That version seems so cartoony 20 years later. Christopher Nolan, however, understands where the darkness in the Batman mythos comes from and in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he deftly coils the tension between Batman's sense of justice and Bruce Wayne's keen sense of loss. He also understands that Batman represents order. So, in stark contrast to Tim Burton's Joker, who, unforgivably, was responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, Nolan tosses in a wild card, a Joker, into Gotham City, with no origin and no real purpose. Bruce Wayne became Batman due to a random act of street violence. The Joker exists, it seems, to balance the scales of Batman's purpose. I've just oversimplified these heady themes that have been playing out in Batman stories for decades, but Nolan manages to pack The Dark Knight with ideas that are quite subversive to the mainstream superhero movie. And he does it without sacrificing some amazing set pieces and action sequences. The Dark Knight is a thrilling, smart two-fisted tale.

I'll leave it here for now while I work out further thoughts about The Joker and Two-Face, as well as my enduring fascination with Jason Statham.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part I: Not much to say but dagnabbit we are going to say it anyway

Welcome once again to the Colbinski Chronicles end of the year Movie Roundtable Spectacular!

I am leaving spectacular in the title for dramatic effect although this past calendar year Colbinski has seen less than a dozen movies and I have seen less than two dozen. Apparently, Colbinski now lives a life chock to the brim with fulfillment and happiness and does not need celluloid escapism as much as I do. But it appears that end of the year movie rhapsodizing and trips to Ethiopia are the only times this blog sees any action so we’ll do what we can.

The movies we did see will be placed into categories:

Highly Recommended

These categories are Colbinski’s preference although I don’t see any difference with this and the normally used four-star system with zero stars substituting for our Poor category. Colbinski claims to like the leeway the Good category provides but there is also an advantage to offering half stars. Regardless we will use these categories*. So here’s a breakdown of movies I have watched this past year in those categories.**

The Best
Let The Right One In

Highly Recommended
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 days
The Dark Knight
Man on Wire

Iron Man
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The Wrestler
Sayuki Western Django
The Visitor
Gran Torino
Wendy & Lucy
Milk (Good/Recommended)
Tell No One (Good/Recommended)

Be Kind Rewind
The Incredible Hulk
Get Smart
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Red Belt
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

10,000 B.C.
The Happening
The Strangers

*I see certain limitations already with these categories. Red Belt was a better movie than some on my Good list but I was severely disappointed with it, especially the ending, which I found to be incongruously out of place. By contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crsytal Skull was disappointing but it was still an Indiana Jones movie for chrissakes. That makes it good just because. Also, Get Smart and Be Kind Rewind are fine for what they are and while not exceptional in any way and almost forgettable (more in the case of Get Smart), are mundanely good.

**I plan on seeing more 2008 movies over the next couple weeks so this list will be added to as necessary.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Final Thoughts

I had an incredible time in Ethiopia. Despite being sick on and off for too much time during my first month I still enjoyed my entire time immensely. It’s a great country with great people. Although I have written plenty about the annoyance of people yelling stuff at this faranjo it was never done with any malice. I really only had positive experiences with all the people I met. From those I worked with, especially Meron to Serkie from Cocoon Burger & Juice to Dawit and Mahi at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place to my interactions with taxi drivers and people who just want to talk to a faranjo were all great. I hope to return to Ethiopia some day and see those people again.

Some other thoughts:

I am happy to report that I took minibuses more than taxis but walked most of all.

Bahir Dar will always hold a special place for me. It was my first trip outside of Addis. It was a weekend that I needed at that time. I remember feeling like the Morgan Freeman character from The Shawshank Redemption while riding on the bus. I was entranced by the countryside and alternatively excited and nervous about the trip itself. But, like Red in that movie, I felt a hopeful anticipation for what lay ahead.

Ethiopia is a country with so much to offer. It’s culture, it’s history, it’s beauty. This is a place that more people should visit. The Ethiopian tourist department should do a much better job of advertising. Especially Lalibela but also places like Harar. And I am sure there are many more places that I never got to that are worth going as well.

So that’s it. That’s Ethiopia. Or more correctly, this is my impression of Ethiopia from three months of being there. It doesn’t tell the whole story of Ethiopia but it’s my story. Maybe it will continue some day.

ETHIOPIA: Lalibela

Lalibela is amazing. I’d say that Lalibela is probably the second most amazing place I have ever visited. The Grand Canyon takes first place in my amazing rankings. I don’t think I can even do justice to how amazing it is with my description or photos. Lalibela has rock churches built like 900 years ago. Not just churches carved into rock but churches entirely freed from the rock. Think of a rock face you can walk over. All rock all the way down. The churches are dug out of the rock so what you are left with is a quarry with a church standing in it. I can’t describe how amazing it is and it is more amazing when you realize that there are 11 of these churches within 42 km of Lalibela and they were all supposedly built within 23 years. Scholars still argue over how they were exactly made although the locals just say that god and angels helped out or that god made the rock like mud so it was easy to make the churches. Regardless, it is still amazing. We only saw the three groupings (5 or 6 total churches) that are within Lalibela itself.

Iris was still hobbling along on her “sick foot” so we went nice and slow through the churches. I think this slow down allowed me to enjoy it all even more. I was able to soak in how incredible it all was and appreciate it that much more. I give Iris a lot of credit for continuing on through all the churches as the ground was rocky and uneven and must have been extremely difficult for her to transverse. I’m not glad that Iris was injured but I am happy that we went through the churches at a snail’s pace. Really amazing.

Lalibela isn’t much of a town. It’s more like a large village. But nice to walk around and buy souvenirs. I got a nice scarf supposedly made by some local monks. A restaurant had some very tasty local honey. Thick and raw it was great spread on some fresh bread. I also visited a tej beat and upon the waiter’s instructions had the medium tej rather than the strong. The medium was strong enough. At the tej beat I met a couple from Sweden that knew a friend I work with and her boyfriend. So the small world continues in Ethiopia.

Although I was still called a faranjo in Gondar and Lalibela Iris took almost all of the attention away from me. Iris is Filipino and very pretty. While walking around with her I didn’t get stared at like I usually do as all the focus was on her. “Konnichiwa!” or “Hey, Chinese!” were the most common shout-outs to her. Her response was always the same: “I’m not Chinese/Japanese/Korean” or whatever other country they shouted at her. No one ever got Philippines, though. Iris said she was determined to put the Philippines on the map in Ethiopia and that’s why she responded to everyone who yelled something at her. Conversely, I kept to my unwritten rule to ignore shout-outs. But in Lalibela the tendency was to yell the country of origin. (“Hey Chinese!”) There seemed to be many tourists from Spain in Lalibela at the same time. I laughed as I heard “Hey Spanish!” followed by “Hey English!” and finally “Hey American!” after ignoring the first two. But this was only shouted at me when I was alone.

I can’t recommend Lalibela enough. Ethiopia needs to conduct better marketing. These churches should be must see for traveling people interested in different cultures and history. Amazing.


Gondar, which I constantly mispronounced as Gondor (from The Lord of the Rings), was nice but the two days we spent there was too much. Gondar was the place everyone said you had to see along with Lalibela. I suppose I was just expecting so much more. It’s a nice town with a center piazza and it was very walkable. We arrived in the morning and by early afternoon we had seen most of the big highlight sights. The castle ruins were excellent and gave a great perspective to the vast history of Ethiopia. It was certainly worth visiting but didn’t live up to all I heard and pales in comparison to Lalibela as a place to visit.

The above photos courtesy of Iris as my camera was acting up.

Gondar is used as a staging town for people who are going to spend a few days in the Simien Mountains. As a result every person with a taxi or minibus wants to take you to the mountains. When informed that I was only staying for another day the offer changed to a half-day trip to see baboons. I was told by another faranjo that the half-day trip would not bring me close to the Simien Mountains but that it was probably worth going out there. So the next morning I went on a half-day trip. Iris had a “sick foot” as she injured it before arriving in Ethiopia. As a result she didn’t join me on this trip which involved a hike to see baboons. I talked them down to Birr 250 for the hour drive out to the area and back. I paid an extra Birr 50 to the herdsman that led the way through game trails until we got to the area where the baboons hang out. I had a fantastic time hiking through the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous. I can’t say enough about what a beautiful country Ethiopia is. I am disappointed that I was there only during the rainy season as I would like to compare the lush landscape I viewed with how it looks during the non-rainy season. I did see baboons but never got close enough to see their “bleeding heart.” Gelada baboons have a unique red marking on their chest. So I am told as I couldn’t verify based upon the distance and my inadequate camera. All in all it was a nice trip.

You need to play "Where's Waldo" to find baboons int he above photos.

After this trip I returned back to Gondar. The same people who offered me the half-day trip all wanted to drive us to the airport the next day. It seemed like everyone in Gondar knew Iris and I were leaving the next morning. Everywhere I went I ran into someone wanting to set up a taxi to the airport for the next morning. My negotiating skills still aren’t anything to write home about. But because I still haven’t met up with Iris yet after my side trip I held to my guns and didn’t commit to anything. I figured if I was getting asked every 10 minutes if I needed a ride then Iris may have been also. I wanted to speak to Iris before I did anything. I still hadn’t seen Iris by the time evening came and by this time the offers for an airport taxi had gone from Birr 80 for both if us to Birr 40. I didn’t think we would ever get lower than Birr 20 each so I made the arrangements and gave Birr 20 as a down payment. As it turns out Iris didn’t make any arrangements. The next morning the taxi was a little late and the guard at the hotel laughed when I told him that I gave some guy Birr 20 as a down payment. “Do you think they’ll show?” “You never know.” Was all he would say. Another taxi passed by and said he would take us for Birr 70 and incredulously claimed that no one in their right mind would bring us to the airport for Birr 20 each. Then our taxi showed and I paid the other Birr 20 and off to the airport and then Lalibela.

One highlight of Gondar was a coffee ceremony that Iris and I went to. A young man had taken a shining to Iris and followed us around quite a bit. He invited Iris to a coffee ceremony at his mother’s house and I tagged along. We ended up at his older sister’s house. Along with her two little precocious children (the two year old called me faranjo non-stop and they both sung and danced to whatever pop songs came on the radio.), and grandmother we had a traditional coffee ceremony. The coffee beans were roasted, then ground and then we had three cups as called for in the ceremony. I really had a great time playing with the kids and interacting with the rest of the family. It was one of those events that I wasn’t looking forward to (it was raining fairly hard and I really didn’t want to walk the 10-15 minutes from the hotel to the house) but turned out to be very enjoyable. I’m glad I went.


After a long plane ride I arrived back in New York just over two weeks ago. Just two weeks. It seems so long ago that I was in Ethiopia. Work and school began again almost immediately after I returned. I must have said a million times “Did you read the blog?” to people who I thought were reading the blog but asked me questions explicitly answered within it. Because of work and school and catching up with family and friends since my return I haven’t written about my last week in Ethiopia or any other parting thoughts. So here goes.

Due to time constraints in my last week I had decided to fly to Lalibela and Gondar rather than taking a bus. I had booked tickets from Addis to Lalibela and then to Gondar and back to Addis. I was traveling with my friend Iris who stopped by Ethiopia on her way to Uganda and then Tanzania. Iris tried to book the same flights but the flight from Addis to Lalibela was sold out when she went to confirm. So we both spent quite a while in the Ethiopian Airlines office and were able to switch flights around and ended up going to Gondar first then Lalibela. This worked out better as Lalibela was so much better than Gondar and I think if we had done Lalibela first Gondar would have been even more of a disappointment. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines does not charge change fees so I was able to change all my flights. I did have to pay the 5% I saved by initially booking on-line, as I had to go to the office to change. The flights were quick and easy and worth doing even though you miss out on seeing the countryside. The flights were also more expensive than I was expecting but Ethiopian Airlines charges faranjo prices. Ethiopian residents pay about 50% - 60% less for flights.

The trips to Gondar and Lalibela will have their own separate posts.

Friday, August 22, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Departure

In all likelihood this will be my last post from Ethiopia. I will be traveling in Lalibela and Gondar with my friend Iris who is stopping in Ethiopia after traveling extensively through Asia and before she continues to other African destinations. Then next Thursday at the ungodly hour of 4:20 AM I will embark on my journey back to NYC. I make no promises but I will attempt to post about the last week’s worth of traveling and any other thoughts from being in Ethiopia for the past three months. I figure I can organize my thoughts during the plane ride. But I begin work and school almost immediately upon returning so I’ll try to continue posting once back. That’s all I can say.

Addis is an extremely frustrating yet eminently likable city. I am going to miss it when I leave. I’m even going to miss being called farangi. Ethiopia is a great country. Such great sites to see, such long history to absorb. The people are friendly and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit here again. I had a fantastic time.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

ETHIOPIA: More buses

During my first or second week in Addis I met a German man, Guenter, was on his way out of Ethiopia, to visit Yemen for a couple months. Guenter worked in Harar and told me to call him the second week of August as he would be going to Harar and if I wanted to visit I could get a ride with him. I tried to call Guenter this week as I penciled in visiting Harar on my schedule. But no go. His phone was turned off and I couldn’t reach him. He must still be out of the country as I am sure he would have stopped by the Cozy Place if he wasn’t. This left me with no choice but to take the bus again.

The bus station wasn’t nearly as chaotic as the trip to Bahir Dar. Colleen went and purchased the tickets the day before and when we showed up just before six in the morning they ushered us directly onto a bus that had three empty seats and the bus began moving almost immediately. There was a reason the three seats were empty. The cushion on the bench was completely wet. It was disgusting and I hope (and think) it was just water. I placed my trusty rain jacket across the seat so it wasn’t too bad. Still disgusting. Eleven hours later we were in Harar. The drive wasn’t so terrible. I was able to doze a bit and otherwise enjoyed the scenery. I think the time moves quickly when you are seeing the landscape for the first time. When anticipation mixes with wonderment, the newness of that experience can make even the longest of journeys seem short.

Our seats we toward the front of the bus and behind driver barrier so I couldn’t see in front of me. This may have been a good thing but this driver was not as impatient or fast as the previous driver to Bahir Dar. This also limited and took from the normal panoramic view I might have gotten from the bus. Except the driver getting into a shouting match with someone in some village we stopped for lunch the ride was uneventful. And uncomfortable due to the wet seats although my rain jacket performed wonderfully in this regard.

Getting back to Addis from Harar was a bit more eventful. For various reasons - hotel rooms hard to come by for Saturday night, the ability to see all of Harar in a day, the nice thought of having all day Sunday in Addis rather than being on a bus – we chose to come home by an overnight minibus. I wasn’t thrilled with this thought but we did it. The minibus is twice as expensive, twice as uncomfortable, and not really that much faster than the normal bus. We left Harar at 8:00 PM and arrived in Addis at 6:00 AM. The minibus driver didn’t go too crazy and I wasn’t nervous even when it was raining cats and dogs on the mountainous roads.

The minibus was packed to the gills. You couldn’t fit another person or piece of baggage into it with a shoehorn. Amharic music played loudly the entire time with many of the men singing and clapping along to it. Thankfully, no one smoked on the minibus. A lot of chat chewing so at times the bus smelled like chat and peanuts. The driver stopped briefly in many villages as people purchased chat or food. Even in the middle of the night you step off the minibus to stretch your legs and there is a kid with hand out “Give. Money.” Don’t these little scamps ever sleep?

A huge annoyance was constant checkpoints. We must have had to pull over 5-6 times and have customs go through the minivan. The customs official would be talking with the driver or the assistant and see me, Anita, and Colleen and invariably I would hear farangi enter the conversation. This always made me a tad nervous as I was never quite sure what they were talking about. It was raining most of the drive and the driver and assistant would have to undo the tarp and take down some luggage for customs to check. If I owned any of those boxes that were now getting soaked I would have been hopping mad. These checkpoints did allow for pee breaks on the long journey. This may have been their only redeeming quality.

Between the loud music, the uncomfortable seats, the pouring rain, and constant honking (I think the sure fire way to pass the driver’s test in Ethiopia is to honk a lot) it is a wonder I was able to fall asleep at all. But I caught 20 winks along the way and it was nice to be in Addis all day today.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Chat chewing is done by many in Ethiopia. Chat is a mildly intoxicating plant that contains the same active ingredients as the cocoa plant albeit in much smaller quantities. Ethiopia is a major exporter and consumer of chat. Most of their chat goes to Yemen and United Arab Emirates and other Muslim countries that have outlawed alcohol and other agents of pleasure but not yet chat. (No alcohol is sold inside the walls of Harar as the old city is still Muslim, although an Ethiopian Orthodox church does exist within the walls. Come to think of it I am not even sure if chat is sold within the walls. The market where we bought our chat was just on the other side the wall. But Harar does have its own beer and a brewery in the “new city” that expands outside the walls.*)

Harar is known to grow some of the best and most sought after chat in the world. They say the same thing about the coffee so it may be local pride. One question asked before I left for Harar was “Are you going to chew chat?” and after I returned was “Did you chew chat?” The answer to both questions is yes.

I can’t say it was that great. You buy chat by the kilo. It comes in branches. You pick off the soft leaves and place them in your mouth. You chew it or suck it. Many people find the taste too bitter and therefore eat sugar or peanuts with it. I didn’t think the taste was bad. I just didn’t really like having the plant matter in the side of my mouth. The Ethiopian chat chewers place leaf and stem in their mouth and chew and swallow it all. Some of the old timers chew on the branch as well. I was told by other faranjo that swallowing the leaves could cause stomach issues. I didn’t wish to risk bowel problems with a long bus trip ahead of me so I kept a wad of leaves in my cheek and when the juice ran out I emptied my jowls and refilled.

I was told that you need to chew chat all day to feel any effect. In fact, we were chewing with our guide after the tour of Harar and he set up a little space at the hotel with mats for us to lounge around on while we chewed, which is how serious chat chewers approach an afternoon of chewing. Chat chewers need to put aside a good part of the day to indulge. I chewed for a couple hours. I felt lightheaded but didn’t know if that was from the chat or being in the Harar sun. (Harar was warm and sunny; quite different from the recent Addis weather.) I had a Harar beer afterward and felt good so perhaps there is a synergetic effect going on. I don’t really see the point of chat but I guess people say the same thing about alcohol. If I lived in a repressive country that did not allow alcohol I could see taking up chat chewing. Maybe. Anyway, the locals seem to think a bit higher of faranjo when you have a wad of chat in your cheek.

*Harar beer is excellent and may be my favorite Ethiopian beer. In general, Ethiopian beers are very good. The stand-by beer is St. George**. Almost everywhere will sell it. In Bahir Dar I drank Meta which many don’t like because it is sweet. “It tastes like apple juice” one person said. I really like Meta although normally I like my beers bitter (you are what you drink). Meta and Dashen beer are brewed in or near Gondar in the north. Dashen is my least favorite. Dashen, while still passable as a beer, has an aftertaste I don't particularly like and so I prefer the other Ethiopian beers. Other Ethiopian beers include Castel (“The Queen of Beers”) and Bati, both of which I have only had once or twice. I’ll have to figure out where I can buy Ethiopian beer in NYC. I know that Awash Restaurant in the East Village serves Harar beer among others.

**I still haven't gotten a good answer as to why St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia. I was told that the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians kicked Italian butt, occurred on St. George's Day and he was made the patron saint shortly afterward. But that seems implausible because in museums and monastaries there are prominent mentions and paintings venerating St. George that go back centuries and the Battle of Adwa occurred in 1896. I think I really just want to hear a story about how St. George, after vanquishing all the dragons in Europe, came to Ethiopia to take on some rogue flying lizard that was terrorizing the countryside. The Ethiopian people, glad to be rid of this fire-breathing scourge, honored him after his death by saint patronage. I mentioned this theory to the person that provided me with the Battle of Adwa story and all I got in response was a sober sounding "There are no dragons in Ethiopia." To which I responded: "That's because St. George killed them all!" Regardless, you have to give props to a religous country that names a beer after it's patron saint.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

ETHIOPIA: faranjo

A twist on being called farangi in Harar. They don’t say farangi but faranjo. And use of this word takes on comical proportions. Everyone says it. Everyone. They see a westerner and faranjo comes popping out. This isn’t only street kids and beggars. Everyone. It’s like an instinctive response: eyes see white skin, mouth says “Faranjo” It is such an automatic response that it takes the street kids and beggars a moment or two after its utterance to realize that they have business to conduct and to follow up with “Give. Money.”

You walk down alleys and hear faranjo echo from seemingly empty doorways. You go into a shop and the shopkeeper calls you faranjo before saying anything else. The entire time in Harar, “Faranjo, faranjo, faranjo.” It’s quite unreal. I think if a western doctor assisted in a pregnancy the infant would call him a faranjo before it began squawking.

It would have been much worse if we weren’t walking the city with a guide. The kids would run toward us screaming “Faranjo! Faranjo!” Then they would see our guide and be quiet. Times when the guide wasn’t immediately visible the kids would circle you saying “Faranjo” over and over jumping up and down around you. This caused the guide to yell at them and feign kicking them or chasing them. I can’t imagine how high the hassle factor would be if we didn’t have the guide. Actually, I can imagine it, which is why we got the guide in the first place.

I’m not sure if it was because everyone in Harar says faranjo with a smile or because the “o” on the end makes it seem softer but hearing farangi upon returning to Addis seems more unfriendly and distant.

ETHIOPIA: Ethiopian Gold

Other than reading the occasional headline and seeing the medal counts I haven’t been paying too much attention to the Olympics. By happy accidents though I have ended up in cafes with big screen televisions on during the women’s and men’s 10,000-meter races. I was in Harar during the women’s race and it was nice to see and hear everyone clapping and cheering when the Ethiopian winner impressively pulled away from the rest of the pack during the final lap. I was back in Addis to witness the men’s. Very similar finishes as the Ethiopian looked to be running easy and then when the final lap bell was rung he took off a won, once again, in impressive fashion. In Addis, moments later all the cars driving down the road were honking and flashing their lights. People lined up on the sidewalk cheering on the celebrating vehicles. This went on for over half an hour. I left the café and was walking to Cocoon Juice for a fasting sandwich (grilled vegetables and it is so good) and it was exciting to see and hear all the cheering during my walk.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Visited Harar this past weekend. Quick trip. Spent more time on a bus than actually on ground in Harar. But worth it. I visited with Anita, a German who is studying at University of Chicago and is in Ethiopia to figure out a dissertation topic, and Colleen, who is from New Jersey, resides in Brooklyn when in the U.S., and came to Ethiopia to find a job. Both are also staying at the Cozy Place.

Harar is a 16th century walled Muslim city. Very old and very cool. In the 19th century, Richard Burton, the English explorer was the first westerner to enter Harar as it was closed to non-Muslims for a long time. Arthur Rimbaud, the famous French poet also lived in Harar for about 10 years. Hailie Selassie had his honeymoon in Harar and was provincial governor before becoming emperor. Our guide told us that Harar is the fourth most important Muslim city behind Medina, Mecca, and Jerusalem.

There is a new town built on the outside of the walls. I am told that new town is mainly populated by Orthodox Christians and inside the walls only Muslims live. Small alleys and crowded houses just like it was hundreds of years ago still exist inside the walls. Improvements to the sewage system is under way but in some ways that is like it is hundreds of years ago also: open drains running along the alleys or sides of buildings. We took a guide and it was worth it to be shown around.

Every night outside the walls hyenas come prowling in from the outskirts. Hyena men sit down with baskets of raw meat and feed the hyenas. The hyena men sometimes places the raw meat in their mouth or yell at the hyenas as he feeds them. I was standing less than 5 feet from these animals at certain points.

In the darkness beyond the feeding spot you can hear other packs of hyenas yelping or growling. Since the packs don’t mix it is first come first served although the guide said that the hyena man knows all the packs. For some extra Birr you can take a try at feeding the hyenas. I was going to but everything was happening so fast. I am happy enough with just the pictures and experience. At one point a large hyena stealthily dumped his head in the meat basket gorging himself on the delicacy contained within. It took a few minutes for the hyena man to cajole it out of the now empty basket. The hyena man went through about three or four baskets before we left. Apparently, hyenas roam the countryside in this area of Eastern Ethiopia. On the bus ride back to Addis the driver noisily honked at a few causing them to slink off the road and back into the wilderness whence they came.

Friday, August 15, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Donkey Riding

The ride south of Addis towards Shashemene was nice but very different than the ride north to Bahir Dar. Many lakes a few hours south of Addis but not many streaming rivers and no Gorge. The land is still mightily cultivated. My understanding is that in the north everyone mainly grows teff. While teff is grown in huge quantities everywhere in Ethiopia there was more diversity of crops in the way south. The most jarring scene were the cut flower quonsets. These were set up on the side of the road and continued outward toward the horizon. A sea of light colored tents propped up by long bent poles housing flowers to be sent to Europe. Big business in Ethiopia now. Driving through this area I noticed many signs declaring an agri-industry owned the plots of the land behind it. This was for many crops and not only cut flowers. I’m not sure if this is an improvement or not. I find it interesting that two of the major exports from Ethiopia – chat and cut flowers – are both highly perishable items. I’m not exactly sure why but hanging your economy of items with a very short shelf life is interesting in some way.

One thing about Ethiopia is that people are everywhere. The road down south (“the death road”) was chock full of people. Actually, chock full of everything imaginable. People walking, cars, trucks, livestock, and donkey and horse carts. These latter two abounded throughout all the towns and villages. The horse carts used as taxis and the donkey carts used to carry goods or people or any burden imaginable. The poor donkeys are loaded down with burlap sacks and maybe a young boy brazenly riding on its back. Or pulling a cart piled with firewood or crops. Watching these donkeys dutifully carrying on I began to recite the lyrics from “Donkey Riding” in my mind. I would have sung out loud but then I would have to explain to the Ethiopians I was with why I was singing about “stowing timber on the deck” and about being in Quebec so I forwent that and just sung it in my head. “Hey Ho Away We Go!”

Really, people were just everywhere. The young men signaling wildly with their arms to every passing vehicle, secretly indicating that they can sell illegal charcoal. The woman with baskets propped on their heads walking to and fro the village. The bare-bottomed children in only a ratty shirt playing in the muddy waters of the roadside ditches. But the donkey carts really stood out. Not just because I got to sing “Donkey Riding” to myself. They were everywhere and this was in stark contrast to driving up north. For as many people walking there was one or two on a donkey cart. Going north I only remember people walking.

All in all an educational and enjoyable experience. Not as spectacular as driving through the Gorge but very nice. The lakes peeked out from behind hills and grabbed your attention. A massive sugar cane plantation could be seen from any high spot. Koka dam prevented the Awash River from chugging along backing it up to create a massive reservoir. The area around some of the lakes was closed off to farming and formed a national park. I was able to spy ostriches, string-necked and crooked-legged, strutting through the acacia trees. The acacia trees were a constant sight on the landscape. Large trunk rising from the ground until the crown spread out, reaching fantastically to the sides, the top flattened as if the sky was a heavy weight pushing it down. This perpetual struggle between tree and sky creates some of the only scraps of shade to be found. I imagine hyenas gathering under the acacias at dusk, waiting for the sun to set, planning that night's adventures.

Speaking of hyenas, this weekend I will be in Harar hanging out with them. Next week I finish up with my internship. Then a few days in Lalibela and Gondar before heading back to New York. A lot to do in the next two weeks.

ETHIOPIA: Lake Langano

Lake Langano is a popular resort spot for farangi and Ethiopians alike. Dawit and Mahi, the managers at the Cozy Place, whose wedding reception I attended had their honeymoon at Lake Langano. Fortunately, the driver who had previously not wanted to go to Awasa was compelled to stop in Lake Langano. Unfortunately, it was raining while we visited. The brown water and gray skies did little to dampen my enthusiasm. It was nice to be on a sandy beach looking out at a large crater formed lake with jutting hills surrounding it. Lake Langano is popular for many reasons, one of them is that is free of schistosomiasis. The rain didn’t stop Amir, one of the employees at the Center or a bunch of others camping out in tents on the lakeshore from swimming. Because I didn’t realize I was even going on an overnight trip before showing up at work that day I failed to pack my swimming trunks and could not enjoy the water. But I took photos.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ETHIOPIA: More Driving

The drive south from Addis through the “Death Triangle” on the “Death Road” was done with an SUV. This is a different experience than the bus ride to Bahir Dar. But where I began to trust that the bus driver would get us to Bahir Dar in one piece my respect for the handling of the SUV by our driver waned the longer I was in the vehicle. A few words about driving in Ethiopia. First, passing is done regardless of road conditions or even oncoming traffic. I don’t know why they even bother to paint solid lines or hash marks on the road to indicate OK or Not Ok for passing. No one uses them. No one. Unlike elsewhere in the world where traffic slows when people and livestock are in mass quantities the villages are places where you speed up to make up for lost time. Also, you never stop for animals in the road. You expect that they understand the horn means for them to move faster and then you guess in which direction your horn will send them while you swerve in the other direction.

Our driver tried to pass all the time. When he saw he couldn’t he would just sort of glide over the center line in the road forcing the oncoming vehicles a bit onto their shoulder side to pass him. He loved just floating in the middle of the road. It was maddening. He also drove with a heavy foot both on the gas pedal and the brake. Start, stop, start, stop. Arrghh! His worst habit was just stopping in the road. Not pulling off the shoulder but stopping directly in the road. Full stop. Then he’d get out and check some phantom noise or kick the tires or something. It was never for some real reason. One time he just stopped he caused quite a back up of trucks that had to wait for oncoming traffic to go by before they could pass. Then they all passed quite angrily and noisily, the passenger sticking his head out the window, arms wailing, and pointing to the unused shoulder. So this stupid stop for no reason just caused us to be behind like five trucks. Five trucks, all angry at us. Naturally, being in an SUV he tried to pass the trucks. Traffic was beginning to get heavy in the opposite direction. Under normal circumstances passing would be precarious. Every time he tried the truck directly in front of us, the last to pass us as we stood motionless in the middle of the road, would veer to the center for the road and not let us pass. It may have been my imagination but I think the truck driver was playing a little game. We would try to pass and he would prevent it. After miles of this and me beginning to think that our driver was oblivious to what was going on I just figured we’d become another statistic on the death road. Eventually, the truck driver relented and we passed. No other trucks attempted such chicanery and we safely leapfrogged all the other trucks in front of us.

I have been trying to make an apt analogy for Ethiopian driving. I was looking to convey how stupid the risks are compared to the immediate and not always positive gain. I came up with a few but not sure if they are adequate. If driving in Ethiopia where a circus act it would be walking the tightrope without a net. If driving in Ethiopia where a science it would be alchemy. If driving in Ethiopia where a financial market it would be day trading. If driving in Ethiopia where an art it would be pop culture trash. If driving in Ethiopia were an animal it would be a….damn, I can’t think of a good animal comparison.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ETHIOPIA: The Death Road and the Rastas

Contrary to popular myth or maybe just excessive farangi talk I did not see crushed or crashed vehicles littering the side of the “Death Road.” It was crowded and I could certainly see the potential for serious accidents. In fact on the ride home we passed an overturned piggyback trailer that spilled its contents of salt all over the place. One thing to understand about Ethiopian driving is that a semi truck turned over on a two-lane road with heavy traffic from both directions does not really slow you down much. This is even with the presence of the Federal police and a clean-up crew on the road. No more than a five minute delay. We just followed all the other vehicles and breezed in between the men with shovels and the overturned truck and the vehicles coming from the opposite direction. Driving in Ethiopia seems to consist of using the horn and steering wheel often and the brakes seldom.

OK, so the trip. I knew we were going to visit malaria labs but for some reason it never occurred to me that it was an overnight trip. I showed at the office and everyone started taking about hotels. I was unprepared and ended up having to buy toiletries in Shashemene and wearing the same clothes for two days. Nothing I haven’t done before. The first day we visited labs and health posts in Debre Zeyit and Adama. Then we made our way to Shashemene for the night. The next day we made our way back to Addis stopping at labs in Shashemene, Ziway, and Meki along the way. In between the labs we spent some time at Lake Langano, which was nice but it was raining the whole time we were there. I also suggested we spend the night in Awasa which is supposed to be a beautiful small lake town. Awasa is only about 20 kilometers from Shashemene but our driver nixed that idea so we stayed in Shashemene instead. Which was and is too bad. I wanted to see Lake Awasa. But I wasn’t driving and don’t think I would want to drive in Ethiopia.

Shashemene is listed in the LP guidebook as “a grubby and raucous” town. I don’t disagree and not only because I would have rather spend the night in Awasa listed as a “more pleasurable stop.” Shashemene has loads of truck traffic as roads go in all directions from it. It is also the home of Ethiopia’s Rastafarian population. The former Emperor Haile Selassie, who’s given name was, get this, Ras Tafari, gave land just outside of Shashemene to the Rastafarians, who I think believe he was some sort of god or something. I don’t listen to much reggae but I hear that Bob Marley mentions Ethiopia and the former emperor in his songs. Apparently, the influx of Jamaicans was difficult to take at first but over the years an uneasy truce has developed between the native Ethiopians and the Rastas and everyone is tolerated. I don’t know. This is what I have been told. Other than seeing many buildings with Rastafarian colors and a few people that I could identify as such if I didn’t know that Rastas were supposed to be in Shashemene I don’t think I would have been like “Oh, boy there’s a lot of Rastafarians there.”

Overall, Shashemene was a charmless town and I would have preferred Awasa. The constant rain during my time in Shashemene added to the lack of charm. But while walking around Shashemene I realized that many Ethiopian towns and villages lack, not necessarily charm, but an individual personality. Just like the villages that dot the main roads, towns like Shashemene all seem the same. The same type of buildings, the same small shops, the same corrugated metal constructions. Towns like Bahir Dar or Adama have wide palm treed main roads and are great places to visit but the outskirts are all the same. Someone told me that when one person opens a hotel or restaurant or a store in one part of Ethiopia they usually open the same thing in another part. Hence, the similarity between places. But the people act the same also. Whether it was Bahir Dar or Adama or Shashemene or Addis. The same “You!” “You!” The same shoe shine boys. The same kids selling chewing gum and cigarettes from wooden trays. The same women grilling corn on open flames on the corners.

Admittedly, my time around Ethiopia has been limited but this sameness surprises me immensely. I know that the various tribes in the South have local customs that differ widely but I was expecting to see some local variation in architecture, occupations, and even the type of hassles and cons being run. Ethiopia must have a very good communication network between towns because everyone and everything seems the same.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Mosquito University

A couple weeks ago I got out of Addis again. This time it was a work visit to five malaria labs and a few health center posts in the East Shoa Zone. Since this work a work related excursion there was no need to take the bus. We had an SUV and a driver. We traveled down the road I described earlier as the “death triangle” or something similar, the most dangerous road in the world! It’s the road south of Addis and very crowded and hilly. It descends out of Addis and into the Rift Valley. I’ll talk more about the drive in a future post.

It was a fantastic experience to see the malaria labs. The labs are located in Debre Zeyit, Adama, Ziway, Shashemene, and Metahara. We didn’t get to the lab in Metahara but did see a sub-lab in Meki. I was able to see where all the data I have been looking at is coming from. I saw their bare-bones facilities usually consisting of a computer, a lab table, and a microscope, and a dedicated but understaffed crew of people actually doing the work. The five malaria labs in this district serves over 500 villages and 2 million people of which 95% of them are at risk for seasonal transmission of malaria. The labs are free for people with malaria symptoms to come and get checked out. A blood sample is taken and placed under a microscope and the trained technicians can determine a positive or negative for P. falciparum or P. vivax. If positive, treatment medication is dispensed also free of charge. During high transmission season the malaria labs do brisk business. They have been in existence for over 40 years so they are well known and the hospitals will charge for a visit. The lab in Adama has been doing some very interesting research on the main mosquito vector species in Ethiopia, Anopheles arabiensis: detecting biting rates and biting patterns. Great stuff. This was where Mosquito University was located.

In recent years Ethiopia has implemented a Health Extension Program where trained females from the villages go house to house to assist with health issues people may have and provide preventive measures to them. Among other responsibilities, this includes conducting a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) for malaria and dispensing treatment as necessary and also giving out Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs). This slows some traffic to the malaria labs and saves people the trouble of having to travel long distances. As there are only five malaria labs for the entire zone some people may have to travel a couple hundred kilometers to reach the closest one. One of the many positives of Health Extension Workers is that they bring the health care to the people.

As it is currently low transmission season for malaria (high transmission season begins in September or after the rainy season ends) the labs were averaging around 25-35 patients a day (as opposed to a few hundred/day during high transmission season) with anywhere from 3-10 coming up positive. Interestingly, the labs say that they have been seeing much more vivax than falciparum. This is part of my research also. I am looking at whether there has been a change in distribution of vivax or falciparum. We’ll see if the statistics prove out what is being seen anecdotally.

I was very glad not only to get out of Addis once again but to get to see where and how the data I have been working on comes from. It was great to talk to the people in the labs and a few health extension workers about their feelings about what they are doing. It is heartening to see people working hard to help others and attempt to improve the health of their fellow citizens.

Monday, August 11, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Bizarro Marie Antoinette Edition

I have stopped eating cake for breakfast. This happened quite a while ago actually. The main reason was that when power outages were occurring seemingly every other day the small café where I had my cake didn’t have power. Thus no hot beverages. Since I couldn’t get my morning tea or shai there I switched to a café right next to door to my office. This café runs their coffee machine on gas so no power, no problems. I ended up liking this café better so even now with power back (almost) everyday I never returned to the old one. This new café had a smaller selection of cakes. In fact they really only had donuts. So I started having a chocolate glazed donut with my tea. Then one day I saw someone eating some fried bread concoction. It caught my fancy and I inquired about it. It is called malawa and I am told is an Arabic food item as opposed to Ethiopian. I decided to start eating malawa.

The transition to malawa wasn’t easy. The waitress at this café speaks and understands very limited English. During my first visits, to make things as easy as possible I asked for shai and just pointed to the donut on display. She was used to me having shai and a donut every morning. Now I wanted to switch up and for days in a row I would order “Shai and malawa” but always got a donut. The shai was always good though.* I asked a guy at work whether she can be confusing my pronunciation of malawa for whatever a donut is called. No way, I was told. To add to this constant miscommunication is the fact that their menu is entirely in Amharic so pointing to what I wanted was a no-go as I can’t read Amharic. I think she was just so used to me eating donuts that she wasn’t really listening to anything I was saying.

This difficulty in getting an order of malawa culminated one rainy morning. I noticed that the bin the donuts are usually kept in was empty. I ordered my shai and malawa figuring that she would realize that I know there was no donuts and by saying malawa she would know I was talking about something other than donuts. But then she went and spoke to another worker and they both kept looking over at me.** Then she grabs an umbrella and goes darting out into the rain. In about 10 minutes she returns with a tray of donuts. Great, now I am sending waitresses out into the rain to fetch me breakfast. At this point I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t want a donut. I just ate it. I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t get me some malawa.

The next morning, after the rainy donut fiasco, I stopped her as she was making her way to the donut tray with a loud “No, No, No.” She looked at me quizzically. “Malawa” I repeated several times. She smiled and said “Malawa?” and then she shook her head while laughing as if to tell me “Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?” We now have an understanding. Thank goodness. The malawa is very tasty. Better than the cake or the donut. I don’t even have to order anymore. I walk in, she smiles at me, I smile back, I nod my head affirming her unspoken question of my breakfast. She places in the order. It seems so simple now.

*Ethiopian tea comes spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. I think that is what it is spiced with as that is what my discerning taste buds decipher. It is an altogether excellent tea. Another reason to recommend this new café is every time I ordered a shai I received this spiced tea. Other cafes would bring me a teabag of black tea and hot water instead of the spiced variety that I prefer.

**I notice Ethiopian wait staff talk amongst themselves and look conspiratorially over at me after I place an order. It happens all the time. I really don’t like it. One of the listed side effects of the malaria medication I am taking is paranoia so I just chalk up my negative feelings to this as “being on my meds” and try to wipe any thoughts of intended malevolence out of my mind.

Friday, August 08, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Farangi Rules of Etiquette

Lately, I have been spying more farangi roaming the streets of Addis. I’m not sure why now and not when I first arrived. I don’t know if they are getting out more, I am getting out more, or there are just more of them here. I have been having a difficult time determining whether these farangi are American or European, or any other type of white. Everyone seems to wear the standard Addis rainy season clothes: fleece and hiking boots.

In my own awkward way I am unsure how to act when I run into them. Do I acknowledge them? Am I supposed to acknowledge them? Does acknowledgement require a “Hello” or is a head nod appropriate? I have been going with the head nod with the thought toward saying a “Hello” if I run into them a second time. No need to rush things. Also, I would rather not be drawn into some unwelcome conversation in which I can’t easily dislodge myself.

What I am talking about is when I am walking through the city or on my way to somewhere. If I end up in a minibus sitting next to another farangi (which has never happened) or some other similar situation I would have no problem exchanging pleasantries. The same goes for bars although in certain farangi bars it seems as if everyone already knows each other through some farangi network and introductions are made for me without me having to think about etiquette.

Ah, well. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be gone from Ethiopia in a few weeks and back in NYC. There I can go back to ignoring everyone on the street without a second thought.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

ETHIOPIA: The Merkato Redux Part II

As mentioned previously, Meron has helped me with some Amharic words. There are some words and phrases I have picked up on my own and while out at the Merkato she got to hear me use a few of those. She was duly impressed. As were many shopkeepers. This is not to say that I know Amharic. Not by a stretch. But enough to impress, I suppose. Walking into a shop in the Merkato I would greet the employees in Amharic, “Tenastëllën.” Then while looking at something I would ask an employee, “ Sëntë nõ?” (How much?) If I happened to be holding onto an item which I was familiar with I’d ask how much while identifying said item, “Sëntë nõ, agelgil?” Then to top it all off, for negotiating I’d say “Mecherasha,” which means I am asking them to just tell me their best/lowest price? Sometimes, like when using agelgil and mecherasha, Meron wouldn’t be able to stop laughing. “Will you stop laughing at me while I am speaking Amharic?” I had to say more than once. This would result in an Amharic conversation between her and the shopkeeper ending with her telling me they like my Amharic. The downside was that after asking “Sëntë nõ?” I was usually answered in Amharic and had to look at Meron for help. This caused more laughter and Amharic conversation with shopkeepers and employees.

For the young female employees who seemed especially bowled over by my vastly improved Amharic I’d follow up all this with “Sëmësh man nõ?” which is asking their name. This delighted them to no end although it would result in me trying to pronounce a difficult Amharic name. One girl’s name was Honey, which has a certain intrigue to it. This newfound inclination for Amharic garnered me two marriage proposals, one from Honey. Truth be told both times the proposals came after it came out that I was from New York. They really only wanted to marry whatever romantic notions of New York City they have. I have found that Ethiopians are fascinated by New York City. Not only that I live there but that I was born there. I usually say that I was born in Queens but other than one person who said “like ‘The King of Queens?’” no one is quite sure what I mean by that and I just don’t have the patience to get into a five-boro discussion. (In fairness to Ethiopians explaining Queens to some people in the U.S. can also be a chore.) I just agree with their notions about NYC even though any fanciful ideas I once had about my hometown have been long erased by reality. I do find it nice that even with all that George Bush and the Republicans have done in the past 7-8 years to tarnish the good name of America that it still has a hold on the imagination and portends promise and opportunity, as exemplified by New York City, to so many people.

Meron and I leave the Merkato, still attracting attention, and go to another part of Addis, where there are more shops. We look at more traditional stuff and Meron somehow convinces me to buy a cultural shirt despite me repeatedly saying “I’m never going to wear it.” Maybe she would have listened if I learned that phrase in Amharic. Coincidentally, or not, this is the shop where Honey worked. Meron gets her shoes shined and we go to lunch. Somehow we end up eating at a Muslim restaurant. Meron is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and apparently the dietary laws of these religions do not mesh. It was worse than eating with the vegans. All these rules to just eat. I tried and failed to get a reasonable explanation on why she needed a new bread after I touched a loaf to break off a piece. At least with the vegans I understand the rules. I don’t even know how she knew we were at a Muslim restaurant. The woman at the register was wearing a headscarf but Meron had a conversation with her and it turns out she was Christian. But she still needed to get bread all for herself and separate serving utensils. Maybe she doesn’t know that I’m not Muslim?

My second trip to the Merkato was much more pleasant than the first. I owe that to Meron who was a great guide through the Merkato and then through other parts of Addis. Having someone familiar with the culture and language makes a big difference. Now I believe what they say about the Merkato. If I can almost get married than you really can get anything there.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

ETHIOPIA: The Merkato Redux Part I

I went back to the Merkato to meet my friend Meron, who works at the same Center I am interning for the summer. Meron has also been my semi-tutor in Amharic. When I first arrived I asked her to teach me a word a day. This didn’t work out, as I couldn’t learn a word a day. So I would get a word from her, practice it and everyday ask her if I was pronouncing it correctly. This went on until I did get it right. Speaking Amharic takes some time for me.

I arrive at the Merkato at our designated time. Meron is late. It begins to rain. In and of itself the rain isn’t terrible. But it causes me to have to find a place under an awning of the building that was our meeting spot. This is a problem because a white man standing still in the Merkato attracts loads of unwanted attention.* “You!” “You!” In other places around Addis the shoe shine boys, taxi drivers, and occasional beggar call out to you. The Merkato is like a free-for-all. It’s all hassle all the time. Maybe because it is so crowded and transactions are always going on. I don’t know but people take a real familiar stance with each other. Especially toward the farangi. Although I have only been there a few times the Piazza area of Addis is similar to the Merkato in hassle factor.

Eventually, I decide to move. I go to a shop and borrow the phone to call Meron. “Is your friend Ethiopian? You know we are not very punctual.” The shopkeeper told me. “When you meet your friend you come back to my store,” he added. Meron finally shows and insists that she was there at the appropriate time walking around in the rain. I’m not so sure I believe her but that’s fine. She’s here now and I see new and different parts of the Merkato. It is so big. It’s crazy really. There’s no way to get through it in one day. But after walking through with Meron I see its benefit and what it has to offer. We went through the used area where everything is recycled. Just piles of old stuff either being fixed up or made into something entirely different. Old shoes become a new style of shoe. Used keys are ground down and re-keyed. Plastic, tires, metal, you name it. There was a pile of something used with people around it working, molding,shaping, cutting, repairing. Then we went through the traditional area and looked at cultural clothes and baskets and other goods.

Walking through the Merkato with Meron, who is a very attractive young woman, brings its own sort of attention. This time it was because of me but directed at her. The men would just blurt out things to her in Amharic and then start hooting and hollering. Sometimes they would come up to me and shake my hand and pat me on the back. Very familiar. Meron said they were asking if we were together or married or if I was her man. She answered in the affirmative each time and then those reactions occurred. Meron seemed to enjoy all the attention being lavished on her. Meron also has a very familiar relationship with other Ethiopians. When we were done with the Merkato we went to another area of Addis to have lunch. As it was raining that morning the Merkato was awfully muddy and Meron’s shoes were a mess. She stopped for a shoeshine before lunch. While getting her shoes shined she bought some chewing gum from another young boy. This boy promptly walked awaywith a Birr 5 bill Meron had given to purchase the gum. She went after him, grabbed him by the ear, and dragged him back to resume her shoeshine, all to the delight of the shoeshine boys gathered around. With one hand on his ear and the other pointing in his face she admonished the little boy. While this was all happening I just stood around and ignored all the demands being made to me by the other shoeshine boys and the beggars in the vicinity.

*Here is an unrelated story of unwanted attention. Last night I was dining at a Chinese restaurant. An elderly Chinese man passed my table while walking with a group of 5-6 other Chinese people. Loudly he points at me and all I get of what he is saying are the words “lefty” and “chopsticks.” This causes everyone in his party plus the other patrons in the restaurant all turn around to gape at me while I eat Chinese food using chopsticks with my left hand. I don’t recall if being left-handed was remarked upon when I visited Hong Kong or Japan.

Monday, August 04, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Leo Monkey Pants

Early Saturday morning I once again took a trip to the Mercato. After explaining my previous, unpleasant outing there to a young woman at the office she offered to show me around. I took her up on her offer. I jump on the Mercato bound minibus. It had just started to rain (have I mentioned that it is the rainy season?) and the minibus was already crowded. As I sat down I thought the man sitting across the aisle looked at me askance. This reminded me of what two German girls staying at the Cozy Place said recently. They take the minibus everyday and have claimed that Ethiopians have refused to get on the bus with them onboard and have otherwise suffered hostility. I told them that they were nuts. But now was I sensing some hostility? Could it be that in the past I never noticed it? I scan the other faces around me. No hostility. Just the usual early morning despondency of commuters everywhere. Good, the German girls are nuts. That guy wasn’t directing any hostility towards me. I’m not some snooty bourgeois slumming on the minibus as part of some sociological experiment. I am down with the people. With this thought I settle into my normal commuting obliviousness.

This particular minibus was more of a pick-up truck with a housing set on the back bed. In the housing there are two benches that face each other. You can squeeze in 10-12 people along these benches while the money-taker sits on a small improvised seat on the entry door at the back of the truck. The driver is up front and you can fit two more passengers next to him. There were speakers set up in the back housing and Amharic music was being pumped in. One Amharic song blends into the next. All of a sudden I realize that the Amharic music has stopped and I hear a female sing-song voice. The lyrics are in English and seem familiar. She is singing about five little monkeys who jump on a bed. One by one each monkey falls and hits his head. Every time this happens the mommy calls the doctor and the doctor, in a very doctorly way, orders the mommy that under no circumstances should the monkeys be jumping on the bed. Monkeys being monkeys they continue to jump on the bed and continue to knock their heads. What begins as five little monkeys becomes four little monkeys and so on. This was the exact same monkey song that my brother Tom would sing to his son Leo. The book the song was written down in also came with five small monkey figurines that Tommy would use for dramatic purposes in acting out the song. Tommy’s version was decidedly more exciting (and out-of-tune) than the one I was listening to now. A small smile crept onto my face as I thought of Leo laughing at the monkeys jumping on the bed. I wondered what was the possibility that as I was listening to this monkey song in a minibus in Ethiopia Tommy and Leo were acting it out at the same time. Actually, it is very doubtful that this could have occurred. It was around 1:00 AM New York time. Also, Leo was enjoying this monkey song a few months ago. I’m sure he finds it passé now and has moved on to newer monkey songs.

I just don’t see how can people be hostile when the five little monkeys song is played in a minibus.

Friday, August 01, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Another Day in Addis

I am sitting on an outside patio of a small café enjoying my afternoon macchiato. I am gazing southward down the street for no real reason. As my eyes turn back in front of me I see a few oxen loping slowly down the middle of the street. A few feet behind these lead animals are a whole lot more oxen. They take up the entire street and in their measured ambling they separate themselves around the parked cars on either side, occupying the sidewalk. If I was inclined to do so, and with a bit of effort, I could almost reach out and touch one as it passed by. There must have been 30 – 40 in total. One lone man, brandishing a short, stout stick was running loudly behind them from one side to the other. I imagine him like a gymnastics coach of young girls. Cajoling them to do something they don’t really see the sense of doing and something they normally would never do. The oncoming traffic stops in the face of these beasts although they don’t seem the least bit perturbed by the honking and yelling they are causing. They walk slowly past these metal machines. Behind them traffic is snarled. I crane my neck and can’t see the end of the stopped cars and minibuses. I briefly wonder where these cattle came from and where they are going. But then they are gone from my sight. I return to my macchiato. A few minutes later a donkey comes careening down the sidewalk with a different man in pursuit. Just as they pass the café the man thrusts out an errant hand and grabs hold of the harness and slows the donkey down. With a smile on his face he leads the donkey back in the direction it had come. I figure the oxen scared the donkey into running, as that was the fastest donkey I have seen in Ethiopia. By now my macchiato is finished and so is any animal related excitement. I pay my couple Birr and return to the office.

ETHIOPIA: I am a student at...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Dirty Money

Ethiopia needs its money laundered. Literally. Sometimes you get bills or coins that are so grime covered you can hardly tell the currency. I need to sanitize my hands after puling out some of these bills. And they smell also. Stinky, dirty money.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Fast Food Metamorphosis

Smaller than cafes and occupying their own niche throughout Addis are the Snack, Juice or Burger places. These places, of which there are a rash of in certain neighborhoods, claim to serve snacks or fast food: juices, burgers, French fries. But everything is made fresh in front of you and, in the laidback Ethiopian way, it takes some time before you receive your order. Not exactly fast.

I found one little place, Cocoon Juice and Burger, that is great. I went there after my first bout with traveler’s illness for a fresh fruit juice and have been a regular customer since. They make a mean fresh juice. Mainly I was I just ordering fruit juice there. This caused me to be exhorted by the manager (possibly owner) to actually eat food. They make a “humburger” which is a burger with a slice of ham added. Really. Not to be confused with their beefburger. So it’s a hamburger with bad English translation but still taken literally. They place a homemade mayonnaise on it, add a grilled bun, along with the typical toppings (no pickles thanks goodness) and you are in business. A friend, who lives on the other side of Addis, recently told me that he heard the best burgers in Addis were made at Cocoon. Making a good burger is rare in Addis and they do make a good one.

It is a small shop, painted with pink trim inside and outfitted with tall tables and uncomfortable blue swivel chairs. It seems to be doing good business. The girls who work there are great and friendly and one, who seems to always be there, has a wonderful smile that greets me every time I enter. (This smile also made me think she was making fun of me for my pronunciation of mango. During my last visit there the power went out just as I arrived. That meant no juice but they still made me a “humburger” as the stove is natural gas. So by candlelight I watched as she prepared my food, smiling wonderfully, the whole time.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Café City Blues

One thing that Ethiopia does not lack is restaurants. They are all over the place, around every bend, and run from small ramshackle to large ramshackle. Actually, there are a lot of good and nice eateries here. Many of differing cuisines and of varying quality. One thing they all share is a distinct lack of napkins. For a culture that eats with its hands, it is certainly chintzy with the napkins.

The traditional or national food places have a more homey and rustic feel and usually include a large outdoor patio area where hungry patrons spill out into the sunlight to enjoy their fare. More modern are the cafes. Addis is rotten with these European style establishments and the Ethiopians have readily adapted the European café culture in that they sit around for hours enjoying a small cup of macchiato or coffee. Oftentimes they just sit in their car in the small parking lot or by the street side curb and drink their coffees. These cafes all seem to be named after cities. Just off the top of my head I have been to or seen London Café, Café Paris, Beirut Snack, and Café Cincinnati. And I keep hearing talk of one named The Parisian Café as the café to visit while in Addis (supposedly this place has the largest parking lot and many days the café is empty inside while the parking lot is full of people drinking coffee in their vehicles.). I can understand London and Paris, possible even Beirut, as it is a capital city of a country, but naming a café after Cincinnati stymies me. The Paris café has pictures of the Eiffel Tower on display, the London Café has some English paraphernalia, (and an aeroplane, for some reason) and the Beirut café has bullet holes (not really). I haven’t seen anything in the Cincinnati Café that reminds me of Cincy. No Venus Flytrap, no Jerry Springer. (Actually, there is a nice framed picture of a steam ship navigating a river by an old stone bridge on a perfect sky blue day. The picture is captioned “Cincinnati” although, having never visited the place I have no idea if that is what Cincy looks like.)

These café’s do have a few national food items on their menu but mostly serve up western style dishes. By western I mean they all serve sandwiches, pasta, a variety of egg dishes, and depending on the size, maybe pizza. The sandwiches are all similar, hamburger, club, etc. but not the same. A huge fluffy roll or small white bread is what is found surrounding modest helpings of whatever has been ordered. Twice, in two different places, I ordered a club sandwich and twice I was given an egg sandwich. At a third place I ordered a club and was served something between three slices of bread but I’m not sure what it was. I am very interested in what constitutes a club sandwich in Ethiopia. (I think it is a mixture or combination of egg salad or chicken salad.) While sitting in a café you see some people just with a coffee or tea drink, others eating national food, others eating western, and others eating western food but like they are eating national food. This is to say that they were eating with their hands.

I observed an Ethiopian family dive into a platter full of spaghetti with nothing but their right hand, which occasionally held some bread. Either they brought the strands straight into their mouth or scooped it up with the bread. Watching this brought back fond memories of me as a youngster, taking the Italian bread from the table, loading hearty amounts of spaghetti on it, making a spaghetti sandwich, and stuffing it into my gaping yaw. I did this over the repeated protestations of my parents. To this day I still enjoy me some spaghetti sandwiches.

Friday, July 25, 2008


In a quest to see more hippos and possible crocodiles, we took a minibus outside of Bahir Dar a few kilometers. Here there is a bridge that crosses the Blue Nile and every con man in Bahir Dar wanted to charge us for the privilege of taking us to this bridge to look at hippos. We never got as far as negotiating a price for that ride but I don’t think it was cheaper than the Birr and a half the minibus cost.

So we get out to the bridge and underneath on all sides are vehicles being washed. There is a large bus submerged halfway into the river with people on all sides scrubbing it down. I thought it was photo-worthy. I snap a picture and all of a sudden an army guy in camos comes running over to me yelling. Apparently you can’t take any pictures in the vicinity of a bridge in Ethiopia. It makes no sense. Vehicles can go park under the bridge to be washed but for security reasons I can’t take a picture of those vehicles being washed. Anyway, the army guy wasn’t happy and I had to erase the picture from my camera as he looked on. To lighten up the situation I inquired about hippos. Pointing to the water I just start saying “Hippos. Hippos.” He begins laughing like a madman and says “No hippos.” I assume he sees farangi come out to this bridge all the time looking for hippos.

We walk across the bridge and ask the army guy on that side about hippos. He confirms that we’re not likely to see any hippos. But something catches my eye. Back across the other side of the river is what appears to be colorfully made tree houses. It looked interesting. We walk back across the river and head in the direction of the tree houses. We pass through some houses and little kids come streaming out. They were so happy to see some farangi. They each shook our hands and spoke what little English they knew and, all in all, were a lot if fun. Not one of these kids asked for money either. That was a nice change.

So past the kids we walk and we are now in the vicinity of the tree houses. These houses are made of painted wood and there’s ladders going up to them and walkways to access different houses. Some are high in the trees while others are at a more safe distance form the ground. They have tables and benches in them. The tree houses overlook the river and behind them, closer to inland from the river, are a collection of real houses. I begin to wonder if we are just standing in someone’s yard. A teenage girl comes from one of the houses. “No English,” she says. Her approach to us made me assume that this wasn’t just someone’s yard. “Bira?” I inquire. She nods in approval and returns quickly with beer. We take the beer and start investigating the tree houses. Although the construction is rickety it was fun to be there and climb around.

While sitting in a tree house and watching the river flow below us the owner came up. He asked how we liked the place and told us he just built it a year ago. The place is named Mahlek, which is the Amharic word for anchor, as he served in the Ethiopian navy for twenty years. Navy? He explained how that was when Eritrea was considered part of Ethiopia and Ethiopia wasn’t landlocked then and thus had a navy. Eritrea not being part of Ethiopia anymore didn’t seem to be a subject he wanted to dwell upon so I asked about hippos.(For some reason, on this day, repeatedly saying “hippos” became my way to get out of awkward situations.) He said that hippos do come ashore, usually at night to eat the grass. So, hippos do exist in this part of the river! He said he dug a huge hole and was going to use it as a hippo trap. After finishing the beers and searching the grounds I saw a huge hole full of water. The hippo trap existed. What he wanted to do with the hippo after trapping it, I have no idea. I am still perplexed by this whole hippo trap. He went to a lot of trouble to dig a huge hole, a hole that could conceivably trap a hippo. It just seems so odd to not only go to the trouble of digging such a hole but to use said hole only to trap a hippo.

Regardless of the puzzling hippo trap, this tree house is a highlight of my trip. While traveling, there is nothing better than to stumble across a little gem like this. The rest of the trip to Bahir Dar came right out of the Lonely Planet book. (Even the bakery I claimed to “find” in an earlier post came from LP.) This tree house was found on my own. What started as hippo hunting ended sitting in a colorful tree house drinking a beer while looking out at the Blue Nile River. Excellent. Just excellent.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Lake Tana Monasteries

Lake Tana has tons of monasteries. Old monasteries. Each has its own history or story. But as I found out each looks kinda the same and the paintings inside all tell pretty much the same story. After three of them I was monasteried out. Each monastery charges Birr 30 to enter. It had also started raining. The boat ride back to the hotel was over an hour. Lake Tana is a big lake and I didn’t realize we had gone that far visiting the outlet for the Blue Nile and the first island. Now we were at a peninsula and a long way from where we had to go. It was a long, cold, wet ride back.

The first monastery claimed it and everything in it was over 900 years old. I’m including this wizened old monk in that age assessment as well:

Another monastery had a decent English speaking guide who explained the story behind all the paintings. Most people know the basic story: Jesus born, Jesus dies, Jesus rises. Somehow, Moses and Noah get thrown into the paintings along with many heads with wings representing angels. St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia and you see paintings of his dragon slaying exploits over and over. Ethiopian Orthodox religious art is similar to the European medieval art with its portrayals of hacked martyrs and a fiery hell. The main difference is that Ethiopian Orthodox art is more cartoonish and colorful and it takes a few minutes of looking at it to realize how morbid it actually is.

Here’s the fisherman in the papyrus canoes or tankwa:

By the outlet of the Blue Nile we saw some hippos. We didn’t get that close and my camera isn’t that good but, by god, there are some hippos there. Right in the middle. Look at the one hippo’s back. Look at the other hippo’s ears. Hippos.