Monday, June 30, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Scamithopia

I have been attempting to get cultured in Ethiopia. During my first weekend, while wandering around trying to orient myself, I ended up at St. George’s Cathedral and Museum and a couple weekends ago I went to the National Museum.

Going to St. George was not so much my destination as it was trying to avoid some guy who sidled up to me and walked alongside for way too long. I was headed to the National Museum that day when this guy sidetracked me, chattering in broken English about such inanities like Hollywood stars and gossip. At first I politely responded to his queries: “I really don’t know anything about what Paris Hilton is up to.” Then I realized that eventually he was going to ask me for money. I just stopped responding to him and even walked ahead of him and crossed a street or two without him knowing. But he always ended up next to me spouting some idiocy about America he gleaned from some bad show on satellite TV. He was like a bad rash I couldn’t get rid of. Finally I told him “I am walking the city alone because I want to be alone.” That didn’t deter him. I saw St. George’s across the street and crossed over to it. He followed. I reached the entrance and he realized that I wasn’t about to pay his fee into the grounds. He went on a spiel about how he lives with his grandmother and how he showed me so much while walking that I should give him some Birr. I just left him behind. He was a real birr under my saddle.

This is one of the real nuisances about Addis Ababa. If it’s not shoeshine boys or taxi drivers compelling you to take their service there is always someone who just walk next to you talking, hassling you, trying to entice you to part with your money. This isn’t event he beggars. Three times it happened during my last constitutional through the city. This time I was returning from the National Museum and enjoying a long walk on a sunny afternoon. Because the roads are all over the place and the street signs suspect I often reference the map in the guidebook. Taking the guidebook out of my bag is like chumming the waters. Out of the woodwork people come up to me wondering what I need, how they can be of assistance, what can they show me for some Birr. And once they get next to you it’s impossible to get rid of them. Their leech-like abilities are remarkable, which is why I am now remarking upon them. So since my first run-in with the guy at St. George’s and a story told to me by a German named Christian, staying at Mr. Martin’s I am not very polite or talkative to these hangers-on. Incidentally, on this same day, I noticed the first guy from St. George’s, his mouth endlessly yapping, walking with another white guy.

So Christian’s story. On Christian’s first night he went out to walk around or get a bite to eat. A man approached and said he was from the tourism board and that he noticed Christian just arrived. He welcomed Christian and asked if he would like to see some “cultural show” with “traditional dancing.” (These words are in quotes, not because of my love of quotation marks but because this is classic Ethiopian scam talk.) Christian agrees that this may be a fun opportunity and follows the man. As they are walking more men join the group. Soon they are in a shantytown. They ask Christian if he can purchase soft drinks. Christian agrees. Next thing they are in a shanty and liquor and soft drinks are being served and dancing, not very traditional as it is described to me, occurs. The dancing and music stop and Christian is presented with a bill for Birr 1000. He ineffectively argues about the bill and ends up paying Birr 800.

Now, as Christian was explaining this to me, I interrupted at the point they were entering the shantytown. “This sounds like…”
“Yes, just like it is in the Lonely Planet guidebook.”
“I read it too but realized too late. I was in a shantytown. What was I supposed to do?”

I should have just copied and pasted the Lonely Planet description of this scam, which they call the Siren Scam. It happened to Christian exactly as described in the Lonely Planet book down to the mentions of “cultural show”, “traditional dance,” and a Birr 1000 bill. I have some sympathy for Christian, as I am not sure what I would have done if I ended up in a shantytown hovel being asked for exorbitant amounts of Birr. I don’t even carry that much Birr on me so I probably would have just shrugged my shoulders. “I have Birr 10. Does that cover soft drinks?”

Two of the hucksters who approached me recently brought up “traditional dance” and “cultural show.” The first guy was smooth talking and nicely dressed (a key player in the scam as mentioned in Lonely Planet) and after he described the dancing and culture I could see how someone could be enticed. If I wasn’t forewarned I might have gone with him. But don’t they realize that with the limited amount of white people in Addis we might talk to one another about scams like this. I think it is a decent scam, though. Partly due to wanting to trust strangers in a foreign land as well as not wanting to miss out on anything real cultural or traditional while in that foreign land. This can make one gullible. What if there really was a cultural show with traditional dance put on for charity? Wouldn’t that have been great to see? A couple blocks after telling one guy I was not interested another guy came up and offered the same traditional song and dance routine to me. “Another guy just told me about that. I’m still not interested.” He beat a quick exit.

These scammers sidetracked me from talking about the museums. Some other time.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

ETHIOPIA: farangi

I think I am growing weary of being referred to as a farangi. I mean, I am a farangi. But still.

Friday, June 27, 2008

ETHIOPIA: For The Boids

One day on my way home I came across hundreds of small birds. Some were muddy brown all over and others were red breasted. They were all over the place, taking over the road and forming a dirty brown carpet over it as they flew low to ground looking for safe haven as anyone or anything approached. It was difficult to get a photo as they scattered if I got within 20 feet. I did manage to snap a few pics. Unfortunately, due to their evasive nature, the photos do not adequately portray their density in the road or how awfully tiny they were. Their diminutiveness and sheer quantity intrigued me. This photo taking did draw the curiosity of some neighborhood kids who came running up to me to see what the hubbub was about. They didn’t seem too impressed that I would be taking pictures of birds. I haven’t run into the birds again. I have run into the kids again.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I have fallen into a routine. This should have been expected. I am living here for three months rather than just visiting for a week or two. I am working everyday. I wake and get ready to leave the office. I grab some tea and cake. I spend a day reviewing malaria data. I leave the office. Sometimes I wander around. Sometimes I get something to eat. Sometimes I grab a drink.

I partly blame my stomach ailment as that tired me and due to a shaky digestive system I didn’t want to wander to far for a few days. So I got used to taking it easy and not exploring as I should. Most of the blame is my own apathy. I am treating Addis Ababa just as I do NYC, where you end up in your own little world and don’t take advantage of anything outside that world. Maybe, as my time nears its end, I’ll feel more pressure to do something exciting, if only to not have to explain why I lived in Ethiopia for three months and didn’t do much of anything.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mongol Talk From Ethiopia

I certainly hope that Mongol begins showing in Ethiopia. I am looking forward to seeing it. For more information on Genghis Khan I highly recommend the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. One the reasons the movie may have felt sparse in terms of Mongolian culture is that, according to the book, so little is known about it during that time period. The books scraps together young Temudgin's story from bits and pieces and many of his future exploits come from the horror stories of those conquered. After reading this book I was convinced that Genghis Khan was the greatest militaty leader and emperor in history surpassing Alexander the Great or the Romans. What he accomplished by ruthlessness and then fairness after conquering is unbeleivable. The story of the Mongol army arriving in Turkey and telling the city to surrender or perish is riveting. How Khan aopended the Silk Road to trade and accepted other cultures as long as they paid him fealty shows how canny he was. It's a great story that I am glad more poepl will get to see it in motion picture format.

As for adding a rating sytem to my movie reviews? Probably not. My perception of certain movies changes over time and I would rather just save my ratings for the end of the year. You can tell how I feel about a movie from my review which comes directly after viewing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Mongol, the first of a proposed trilogy about Genghis Khan, tells the story of Temudgin, the boy, and then man, who would become the conquering Khan. It follows a story arc familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of heroic tales: fate combined with noble sense of duty creates the asphalt on Temudgin’s road to infamy.

As a boy Temudgin chooses his bride only to have an enemy clan break traditional Mongol rules of warfare intervene and interrupt. Later, his blood-brother and boyhood friend, Jamukha, becomes an enemy by also ignoring Mongol traditions. One interesting aspect is that as Temudgin rises into a Khan, he reinstates these traditions (such as no killing of women and children) while also adding more modern and authoritarian aspects to his rise (no betraying of your Khan, which if your goal is to be the one Khan, is a pretty good idea). These edicts are viciously enforced and as Temudgin rises in power, he trades some of his earlier nobility for ruthlessness, most notably on a battlefield where his cold-blooded strategy against a superior force should clue viewers in for the type of conqueror he will become.

Sticking to the hero story, but discarding Mongol tradition, Temudgin also goes to war after his wife is kidnapped by another clan (Jamukha flatly states that no Mongol has ever gone to war over a woman). This is a clever jab at many traditional hero stories from the West – from Homer’s Iliad to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – where the hero’s quest begins with a damsel in distress. It seems that before Genghis Khan would try to conquer the western world, he must first be fitted into the western template of a hero.

Yet, in following this traditional hero story formula, Mongol also seemingly omits plenty of information. Years pass, struggles are overcome with little mention, and, most telling, little insight into eleventh century Mongolian society is revealed. I’m extremely uneducated on Genghis Khan and his society, and, while I’m interested in now reading a definitive book about his life, the story sticks to evaluating the Temudgin’s character rather than his society. This is, of course, important to the movie, but just a bit more about the clan differences would have been helpful to fully appreciate the accomplishment of united the Mongolian clans into the fierce conquering force it would soon become.

This is not to dismiss Mongol though but rather to point out that the movie left me wanting more. The story is engaging, the direction is fluid, the acting superb, and the locales extraordinary. Plus, I’m a sucker for the hero story, so I sat back and watched with complete satisfaction as Temudgin overcame one set-back over another to fulfill his fate. I’ll certainly be back for the next film. Good But Flawed*

*I’ve decided to begin using the rating system I used for my end of year reviews for all my reviews going forward. To recap the designations are: Highly Recommended; Recommended; Good But Flawed; Disappointing. Nimero may choose to use this system (or one of his own) for his seemingly daily visits to the Ethiopian cinema, but I am no Genghis Khan and there will be no “use colbinski’s rating system” edict enforced here.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I remember as a kid being enthralled by The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. By the time The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out as a film I had forgotten what exactly happened in those books. I was pleasantly surprised when watching TCN:LWW that many plot points and strong feelings I had while reading as a youngster came back to me. Particularly, the movie captured my visceral dislike I had of Edmund. Boy, I hated Edmund as a kid. I found the film version of TCN:LWW to be a disappointment, though. I liked the special effects and thought the kids were good but the pacing was off and the film seemed to lag.

Prince Caspian is a better film. But no memories of the book were reignited while watching Prince Caspian. I don’t know if the movie veered far from the book but I didn’t recall a thing. Prince Caspian starts as many stories do. A son is born to a scheming evil man, portrayed with sullen eyes, a pointed beard, and a predilection to wearing black, as many evil men are in the movies. The evil man, who happens to be Prince Caspian’s uncle, wants his son to be heir to the throne and this sends young Prince Caspian into exile. Prince Caspian, who happens to be a dreamy heartthrob of a prince, and his scheming uncle, are both Telmarines. As we find out after Prince Caspian meets the remaining, also exiled Narnians in the forbidden woods, the Telmarines are a human race that hundreds of years ago thought they wiped out the Narnians. The Narnians, if you remember are made up of talking animals, centaurs, minotaurs, fauns, dwarves, and other fanciful creatures. The arrival of Prince Caspian along with the four English kids from TCN:LWW galvanizes the Narnians and off to war against the Telmarines we go.

This is where I begin to have some problems with the story. A man full of hubris beginning wars for selfish reasons with no concern for all the deaths he is causing is an old story and one that keeps repeating itself. So I have no real grievance with that part. My issue is when there is a meeting of Narnians and a dark-skinned centaur states that Narnia can only be ruled in peace by “Sons of Adam” (re: white men) and in order to get peace the same “Sons of Adam” (re: white men) needs to go to war, total war. And here is dreamy heartthrob (and incidentally white) Prince Caspian waiting to go to war, collect his rightful throne, and bring peace to the Narnians, who cannot or will not do it for themselves. Perhaps, it is because I am now currently living in Africa or because the Iraq war has jaded my sensibilities that I don’t really think that civilized, western, white men can rule anyone let alone rule in peace.

Another aspect worth mentioning is the treatment of Aslan the majestic lion. I remember some kerfuffle about how the crazy Christians liked TCN:LWW because of the portrayal of Aslan as Jesus and the studio was denying it and the crazy Christians blamed liberal, evil America for the denial. I don’t remember hearing anything like that this time around. But if Aslan was Jesus in TCN:LWW he is in full God-mode in Prince Caspian. When asked why he didn’t rush to the Narnians aid sooner Aslan provides some mumbo jumbo indicating how he works in mysterious ways. Some characters catch sight of him, if only for a moment, while others doubt he exists anymore. Then, despite his self-help and mysterious ways talk, when necessary, and with a mighty roar, he can call on all the destructive forces of nature against the enemy. You’d think there was a gay pride parade going on in Narnia based on the torrential force brought down on those bad Telmarines.

Despite, or perhaps, because of these misgivings it was still an entertaining movie. While there never was any real suspense or high drama, the special effects were excellent and the battle scenes were good. [I like battle scenes. I’m not against war per se, I’m against the glorification of white man’s ability to wage war to bring peace to other species (or races) who have nothing better to do than wait around for white men to bring them war and peace.] The English kids do a decent job of having you believe they are mighty kings and queens in Narnia. While there is less to the story here than other chapters in The Chronicles of Narnia it still translates well to film.

Monday, June 23, 2008

ETHIOPIA: The Hand Not Shaken

I have been reticent in writing about the people I have met and observed while in Addis Ababa. One reason is that any observations I have to make will be highly subjective and knowingly superficial. A larger reason is that I am in an African city in a developing country. I don’t want to reinforce any stereotypes of the worst part of urban Africa with my observations. Whenever I do think of writing something about the people my mind tends to focus on the disparity between rich and poor which invariably leads me to the beggars and street urchins. I feel writing about these elements will not do justice to all the people of Addis Ababa. Therefore, I am going to do my darnedest to concentrate on the positives. Subjectivity, superficiality, and stereotypes be damned.

The people of Addis Ababa are very friendly in general. They smile easily and many nod their heads or say “Hi” or “Hello.” Usually this is said loudly and in an exaggerated fashion. Like how a bad sit-com would have a foreigner say “Hello.” And it always takes me by surprise. This happens a few times each day. It took some time for me to decipher a sincere “Hello” from one that would just be followed up with a call for cash. That happens as much as the sincere greetings. When a sincere “Hello” is given, I keep meaning to respond with “Tenastëllën” (Hello/Greetings) but don’t feel confident enough yet in my pronunciation to do so. I have been trying out “Tenastëllën” and “Ameuseugënallõ (Thank You) on shop owners and waitresses and they always seem pleased that I am attempting to speak Amharic. So I should just give it a go despite my mangling of their ancient language.

I think a lot of the friendliness comes from Addis Ababa being a very service oriented place. There are so many restaurants and shops and everyone else is out on the streets trying to do something for someone to get a Birr or two. The shop owners, the maitre de’s, the service staff, even the shoe shine boys are always overly helpful almost to the point of embarrassment. They will do everything for you.

While still friendly, I have noticed one idiosyncrasy about wait staff that needs to be addressed. This has happened many times to me and has been corroborated by other foreigners. If you order something and the restaurant does not have it they just walk away like they just took your order. After some time you ask where whatever it is you ordered and then they tell you they don’t have it. It is ridiculous. It happens most when ordering a drink. “I’ll have a Coke.” They leave and never bring you a Coke. You ask what happened to the Coke and then they inform you that they don’t have Coke, only Pepsi. You ask for a Pepsi and they bring it to you. I don’t understand why this conversation didn’t occur when you initially ordered. Now I try to hedge my bets when I order. “Can I please have a Sprite or 7-Up?” Or I just go to the cooler and point out what I want.

Ethiopian kids are also very friendly and a joy to behold. Always smiling, always playing. They seem most enthusiastic about seeing a white guy roaming about their city. (I am talking about the non-street urchin kids. The street urchins are enthusiastic about seeing a white guy but for different reasons.) These kids enjoy themselves like kids should. They run around more than 10 feet from their parents, not always looking for some implied permission. They jump around, they show curiosity. They seem so free, so innocent, so child-like. I noticed similar behavior in children in Hong Kong and Japan when I visited last summer. They make American kids seem repressed (or, perhaps, suppressed) by comparison.

On most days, when walking to and fro the office, I pass a little girl, who I would guess is about five years old. She usually runs out of the shop she is in and, armed with a smile a mile wide, waves enthusiastically at me. The first time I walked past, she ran over to me, smiling and waving. As she neared, she then placed out her right hand in front of her with the left hand held below her right elbow, which is a customary show of respect when shaking hands in Ethiopia. Due to a recent run-in with some street urchins, who walk next to you for blocks, hands held out, repeating “Money” over and over again, my immediate thought was she was doing the same with her hand and looking for some Birr. I just smiled wanly at her and waved and kept moving. I didn’t realize until too late what she was actually doing. I am extremely disappointed in myself because I didn’t take her proffered hand. Despite my initial rudeness she still produces that smile and vigorously waves every time she sees me. I return a smile and wave back, not as vigorous as she does but with some feeling. It’s the least I can do. I have since come to believe she doesn’t posses an ounce of guile and I regret not returning the friendly gesture to her on that first day.

Occasionally I feel like a zoo specimen with the way I am stared at while walking around. It’s not that I feel it is unfriendly but it is uncomfortable. I don’t know what they are thinking when they see me. My first weekend I thought everyone was making me out to be a mark for some crazy scam. Which may be true for some people. I’m not sure what it is. It’s not threatening and Addis appears to be a safe city. Most people pay me no heed but there are everyday hassles you need to put up with. People just calling out to you, whether it is taxi drivers or shoeshine boys. The worst are the ones who just walk alongside you talking and then expect money for showing you around. The beggars and street urchins can be fairly aggressive in their pestering. But I’m getting to the negative now. So I’ll stop and save them for another day.

Friday, June 20, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Time Travel

One of the slogans of Ethiopia is “Thirteen Months of Sunshine.” I first thought this was a marketer’s gimmick, implying that it is so sunny in Ethiopia we have metaphorically added another month to contain it all. I am here during the rainy season and, therefore, vehemently disagree with this always sunshine sentiment. But the thirteen months part is true. The Ethiopian calendar has thirteen months and no leap year. This makes them literally behind the times. In fact, Ethiopia celebrated the Millennium last year. So it’s really 2001 in Ethiopia.

If I was an end-of-the-world prognosticator I would always have the Ethiopian calendar in my back pocket. “I know I said the world was going to end last week. My mistake. I was using the Ethiopian calendar.” You would never be wrong.

There’s a new found freedom to be had by living in 2001 again. This allows me to look back seven years and see how it compares to current 2001 I am experiencing. Where was I in the old 2001? I think I was living in New Jersey. Advantage Ethiopia 2001.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Marie Antoinette Edition

I have been eating a lot of cake. Sometimes just as an afternoon snack with a cup a tea but mostly for breakfast, also with a cup of tea. There is a small café on my way to the office that has good cake. The cake I have been indulging myself with is a small pound cake. Just plain looking cake shaped like a small yellow brick, although occasionally there may be the faintest trace of powdered sugar. Not enough sugar to be a tease. The amount that makes you wonder why they even bother. How much time was spent trying not to place any sugar on the cake? There are different types of cake available and also other pastries and donuts. But I have been sticking with the pound cake.

The first time I ordered a pound cake the waitress went to place it the microwave. She glanced at me and paused. I must have had a quizzical look on my face. She feigned placing it into the microwave indicating she needed my approval before doing so. I gave her a glance telling her I don’t know why she is doing that then followed quickly with a shrug of the shoulders that said that I didn’t really care. This is how I communicate in Ethiopia. Through nods and gesticulations. I’ve tried to learn some common words but I butcher Amharic too much. I butcher it so it is completely incomprehensible that I might as well be talking a different language. I am not even understandable when I say something like mango. I pronounce it as the month of May. They pronounce the “a’ sound as in mama. So I am in a juice bar and I order a mango juice. Blank stare back at me. I ask what type of fruit they have. The waitress goes down the list and comes to mango and pronounces it in the Ethiopian way. I repeat their pronunciation with an affirmative. She turns to the other waitress, saying something in Amharic but I distinctly hear “mayng-o” just like how I first said it. They smile at each as if this was the craziest thing in the world they have ever heard. Ambo is the common term used for mineral water. Just look at that word. Not many different ways to mispronounce it. But I have been though them all. I still can’t get it right. So if I am butchering mango and ambo you can just imagine me with the 5-syllable words they have in Amharic.

But back to cake. Interestingly, the microwaved cake had no discernable difference in taste or texture that the subsequent non-microwaved cakes I have had. It was hotter but that’s it. No more or less enjoyable. I haven’t been back to the microwave pastry shop since I moved to a new place and it is no longer that convenient. The new café I have been going to does not microwave. I kinda miss it. Not because it added anything to the cake but because of that first experience I had with microwaving cake. What started as a peculiarity I had hoped would become commonplace. The cake itself, heated or as is, is good. I can’t explain why but I look forward to my morning cake. It is crumbly without being stale. It is by no means moist but I am hard-pressed to describe it as dry. It is not sweet yet tastes like cake should. When the fork goes through the outside it gives off like it would be crusty yet it still possesses a certain buoyancy. I ponder all this while eating my cake and drinking my tea. Take all these parts separately it should be bad cake. It is tantalizing how it all comes together into an enjoyable snack. Perhaps that is why I continue to eat my cake. I hope the next forkful to enter my mouth will elicit its secrets unto me.

ETHIOPIA: Small World

Before leaving on my trip, my friend Shizuka suggested that I contact her friend Christoph. Christoph has been in Africa many times and was currently driving his Land Rover from South Africa to Germany. (You can follow his exploits at I emailed Christoph, not expecting a quick response as he was driving through the hinterlands of Africa. Soon after arriving I noticed on his website that he had just been in Ethiopia and on his way to Sudan. We just missed each other. Then a Dutch couple show at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place in a Land Rover. They have been driving from South Africa to Holland and ran into Christoph on the road a few times. A couple days after this I get a reply from Christoph stating he was in the Sudan and providing me with some helpful tips and information about Ethiopia. I think the Dutch couple is leaving for Sudan today.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Dawit and Mahlet, two employees at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place, were married earlier in the week and had their reception in the guesthouse courtyard Sunday night.

It was as joyous and fun an event as any wedding. Family, friends, and those who happened to be staying at the guesthouse Sunday night were all in attendance to celebrate and wish these two well.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony occurred, a DJ was brought in, two goats slaughtered the previous day were cooked on an open fire and served to the guests along with other fare. Some fireworks and much dancing ensued.

The wedding reception:

The happy couple:

Dinner being prepared:

The dance floor:

MOVIE REVIEW: The Happening

The biggest problem, among many problems, in The Happening is the two leads. Mark Wahlberg is not leading man material and Zoey Deschanel is just terrible. Wahlberg is such a non-presence, perhaps not as much of a zero screen commodity as he was in the awful Planet of the Apes remake but close. Deschanel should just stick to goofy comedies like Elf where any semblance of acting is not necessary. These two are supposed to lead us through a flat, not suspenseful, not frightening, not going anywhere movie.

I’m probably being too hard on it. It’s not so much that it is a bad movie, although it is by no means a good movie. It just has no purpose. It’s just there like a still pond, nice to look at for a bit but then walk away with no impression made. Having no purpose it should at least be somewhat involving. By the third time someone states that nature can never be understood you feel bludgeoned by this fact and realize how empty the premise is. Something happens, as indicated in the title, and we are not to understand it. Fine. Just make it interesting.

But interesting it is not. There are some decent shots and some ingenious ways of people dying (which the Ethiopian audience I saw it with found more amusing than gruesome). There is some commentary on the use of terrorists as blame for mass problems that arise that could have been interesting as social commentary. I also liked one scene where people were running from “The Happening”, away from a suburban housing community and passed the large “Welcome” sign displaying all the amenities and benefits of living in such a place. These themes, which are more complex than the actual “Happening” and subsequent happenings in the movie, are never explored. I can appreciate the subtlety of this but wish for more because of how empty what is left actually is.

I saw The Sixth Sense long after everyone else did and had the ending spoiled for me and still enjoyed it immensely. Unbreakable has grown on me in repeated viewings although my first impression of it was negative. I actually liked The Village and Signs. Maybe Shimalayan’s technique is becoming old hat. But with these other movies I was actually moved along with the stories, felt like I wanted to know what would happen next, and while not utterly surprised at the endings, always mildly entertained. This movie lacks twists and offers no surprises or suspense.

ETHIOPIA: At the Movies

Visited the multiplex today. Earlier in the week I noticed Iron Man was showing and was hoping it would last into this weekend. Unfortunately, Iron Man was displaced by The Happening. Most others living in the guesthouse were amped for Indiana Jones, which I have already seen. So The Happening was what was happening for me. Other Hollywood movies playing were that Vegas crapola with Ashton Kuchter and Cameron Diaz and something titled 21. I saw posters claiming that Prom Night was coming soon all over the place. Maybe prom is a big deal in Ethiopia.

Interestingly, I was frisked twice – once while entering the multiplex mall and again when entering the theatre. The show cost 30 Birr (20 Birr on weekdays). The theatre is spacious and new looking with a big screen. When you purchase a ticket the computer screen swings around and you choose a seat. Upon entering the theatre, after frisking, the usher sits you down in the assigned seat. I would love this system for NYC theatres but I don’t think it would fly. How great would it be to go on Fandango, order a ticket, choose a seat, then show up 5 minutes beforehand and sit in a prime location. But this means theatres have to pay ushers, theatres would lose advertising money by not having people sit around for 20 minutes, and I foresee jerks taking other’s seats.

Three previews, preceded by two commercials for Ethiopian Airlines, and then the main event. No pre-show advertisements or trivia but there was hip-hop blasted through the theatre while waiting. The Indiana Jones preview was subtitled in two languages while the rest had no subtitles. It was actually less of a hassle than seeing a movie in New York.

I paid more for a bottled water and donut at the theatre than anywhere else in Addis. So gouging is the same in movie theatres no matter where you go.

Friday, June 13, 2008


What was I saying about “national food”? Forget all that. I am just getting over a bout of food poisoning or “traveler’s diarrhea” as it is known in the third country. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and cramps. Yup, I had the whole magila. It was the most miserable agony I have ever been through. And it’s only one week into my trip. Goddam, this better not be a weekly occurrence.

It may have been caused by a combination of altitude sickness (Addis is about 8000 ft above sea level), dehydration, and bad lamb. I’m fingering the lamb as the main culprit. (Yeah, vegans, I know you are saying I get what I deserve. Wednesday is supposed to be “fasting day” where restaurants have vegetarian options. I asked and they did not – in fact all they had was lamb or raw meat. But I am staying away from lamb from now on. Baaaaaa-d news.)

So Thursday morning I wake around six and have it coming and going. I took some Imodium to plug up one orifice, which worked fine, but this seemed to make the vomiting worse. I was doubled over; my gut felt like a clenched fist tightening and tightening its grip. Now, I am staying in Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place, a guesthouse, or a single room hostel, with shared bathrooms. It’s $12 USD/day and run by a tall, bald, genial German man. (“Hello, I am Mr. Martin” is how he introduced himself. Say that to yourself with a stereotypical German accent, like the Germans who bought Mr. Burn’s nuclear power plant, and you have him down cold.) Needless to say, a shared bathroom is not ideal for these circumstances. Added to the agony is now a worry that when I run out of my room across the hall, the bathroom will be occupied. Which did happen once much to my chagrin. Also, I felt that, as a shared guesthouse, decorum demanded that I be properly dressed when I scurried to the bathroom. So I’d have to put on shorts or pants before skitching out the bedroom door. This all made my agony worse. I am tempted to go into more detail about that agony but will not. To read other stories that highlight my preoccupation with toilet blog stories see here and here.

As can be seen from the repeated references to my agony (and there are more to come) I’m a big baby when it comes to this type of sickness. I lay in bed for hours, when not in the bathroom, curled up in the fetal position, wishing my mommy were nearby. At one point I realized, simultaneously, that I needed to fill up on fluids and that my lower back was killing me from lying in bed so long. Due to the location of the back pain and the worry of excess dehydration, immediately I had a vision that, perhaps, I would succumb to renal failure. This then led to a cascade of thoughts about what would happen if I did: Who would find my body in my room? How long would it take for my family in NY to be notified? Would the airline honor my return ticket or would new passage for my corpse need to be arranged? Maybe I would be cremated in Addis and my remains placed in a tight-lidded, handsome, Ethiopian pottery piece, as that may prove cheaper than sending my body back. If my ashes were disposed of this way, where would my parents place this pottery in their house or would they just dig a three foot hole in Calvary cemetery, and dump my ashes in, all the while hoping that it is not a windy day and my ashes don’t spread everywhere like in The Big Lewbowski.

This is just to point out how much agony I was actually in, that perishing from renal failure was more of a comfort to me than dealing with my immediate suffering. But these thoughts did make me uncurl from the fetal position and in the slow deliberate manner that only drunks and the sickly can manage, I rousted myself. After more agony in the bathroom, I drank some sugar-laden tea and an Orange Fanta and a bottle of water. I then took my prescription Cipro, which I did not want to use so early in my trip, to alleviate my agony. I slept again. Upon waking I felt slightly better, in that I did not run to the bathroom, and then drank some more tea, another Orange Fanta, and ate two bananas, which blessedly stayed down. (The bananas were recommended by a “traveler’s diarrhea” brochure, although in the back of my mind I thought the potassium would also stave off my impending renal failure.)

I’ll say this, Orange Fanta never tasted so good. In fact, the Fanta girls came and danced in my dreams that night. For those who have seen the annoyingly, cheesy commercials featuring the Fanta girls, you realize that this is only a slight upgrade from wishing for renal failure, but it was an upgrade I was willing to embrace at that time.

Day 2. Woke with a super duper headache and an empty stomach. Continuing my Cipro treatment. I had a breakfast of bananas and rolls, which I considered safe food. Still feel wiped out. Whatever I had took a lot from me. Then had a lunch of spaghetti with tom-ah-to sauce, a very spicy sauce and some bread. The Traveler’s Pocket Doctor book mentions carb-loading in these situations. And thanks to Mussolini’s Revenge, where Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia in 1936 there are many fine pasta places around Addis. Soon after lunch my headache subsided somewhat and I feel I am on the way to a full recovery. I can live with a headache better than having my stomach buzzing like a junebug trapped in a burlap sack. Just have to remember to continue my fluid intake. So I think the agony is behind me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Pressing Questions Answered

There have been two questions concerning Ethiopia that I have had. One has been long-standing and the other popped up after I arrived.

The long standing questions has been: Why is the Ethiopian audience for The Colbinski Chronicles so few?

The newer question is: Why do I have so much trouble accessing this blog from Addis?

Well, apparently the Ethiopian government has kept the enjoyment of Colbinski from it's people. See here and here.

ETHIOPIA: A Dangerous Place

The exchange rate in Ethiopia is $1 USD = 9.5 Birr. A Birr goes a long way.

I have been eating filling, flavorful meals of “national food” including a drink (coke or water) and an after meal tea for less than 30 Birr. Bottled water is anywhere between 2 and 5 Birr. (I notice prices vary wildly) And I haven’t bought a beer for more than 10 Birr. So mostly I have been paying a buck or less for a beer. For an honest-to-god tasty Ethiopian beer. Less than or around $1 USD.

Forget all you hear about the perils and hazards of urban Africa. It seems to me that real danger lies in wait for someone who enjoys a cool, refreshing beer and has a pocketful of Birrs. Someone like me.

Monday, June 09, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Random Observations

Been in Addis Ababa for about five days. Beginning to go through data related to the malaria study but running into Mac compatibility issues. I may end up having to buy some statistics software to be able to actually work here. Otherwise all is well.

Some random observations:

• Most guidebooks and travelogues about Addis Ababa describe it as a dusty and noisy city. And there is no other way to describe it. Shops blast music and automobile horns honk incessantly. Vehicles and shoes are constantly washed. On almost every corner is a bunch of shoeshine boys. “Mister, clean shoes?” “Sir, shoe clean?” I hear every time I pass by. Dress shoes or sneakers, male or female, it doesn’t matter, everyone seems to be getting their shoes washed constantly. I’ll probably get a shine myself one of these days.

• Almost everyone here was unsurprised about my luggage delay. Even my African sources in the U.S. (Morgan, I’m looking at you) belatedly told me that lost or stranded luggage should have been expected.

• I spent a good portion of the weekend wandering the city. My goal was to become oriented but I failed. The street system seems incomprehensible. What street signs exist are untrustworthy and the streets themselves zig and zag in unfamiliar ways. The main roads are paved but the side roads are dirt and become messy after a rain. I am never quite sure if I am going down a dead end or a passable thoroughfare. All I can do is continue wandering.

• Not many white people in Addis Ababa.

• Here’s a picture from the hotel I stayed at for the first five days:

• Here’s a picture of one of the side roads:

Domestic animals traveling the streets or sidewalks are a common site. More common than the cattle seen in this picture are goats or mules. Although I was expecting to see the city shared with animals, it was disconcerting at first to witness a closely bunched group of goats walking the sidewalk in perfect formation. A man brandishing a stick walked about 10 feet behind them but they still seemed to be some well-behaved goats.

• Two mini-goals:
1. Figure out the mini-bus system. Blue and white min-vans travel around with a person sticking his head out the window yelling something – the bus route or destination I assume. They are always jam-packed and appear to be an easy, cheap way around the city. It’s just too chaotic looking right now. I need to figure it out before I jump onto one.
2. Figure out what shop fronts actually sell inside from how they look outside.

• Speaking of shops, whoever runs the corrugated metal business in Addis must be an Ethiopian fat cat. It is the construction material of choice.

• On my first visit to a restaurant by myself the waitress visibly smirked when I ordered.
“What’s so funny?” I asked innocently.
“You like Ethiopian food?” she asked still smirking.
“Yes, I know what I am getting into” was my response.
The food comes in a bowl with injera on the side. I thought they did this because I was a westerner (and because she was laughing at me for ordering “national food.” But afterward I asked around and on subsequent visits to restaurants this is, indeed the way it is often served, depending on what is ordered. You either grab right from the bowl or pour from bowl onto laid out injera.

• I feel like a real slob eating national food. My hand is filthy and I become very conscious that I have food all over my face. Especially the stew like dishes. I feel like everyone is watching me eat all the time. From my observations everyone seems to be able to dig in more and stay clean. Put that down as another goal of mine.

• National food is great. It is all I have been eating. The injera is more tangy and the food more spicy and flavorful. I’ll be an Ethiopian food snob by the time I return.

Friday, June 06, 2008

ETHIOPIA: The High Spirits of Those Returning Home

(Nimero has traveled to Ethiopa for the summer to assist in malaria research. His internet connection, so far, has not been very good, so he has relayed his first impression to me to post.)

Arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia about 24 hours after leaving JFK airport. It was 4:00 AM, Thursday morning in Addis and I was without my luggage, which was having an unplanned extended stay in London.* The money exchanges were closed so I paid a taxi driver good old American greenbacks to take me to a hotel where I woke up the receptionist and got a room to sleep for a few hours. Only a few hours. I awoke around 9:00 AM (I think, I do not wear a watch and rely on my cell phone or the ubiquitous time pieces constantly on display in New York to know what time it was. As far as I can tell public clocks are not prominent in Addis.) Before those few hours in a bed I had about 3-4 hours sleep in the past 40 hours and that was just snatching snippets of uncomfortable, unrestful sleep while in an airplane seat.

The trip was long but the last leg from Amman, Jordan to Addis was enjoyable and vitalizing. In Jordan, the plane let out about three quarters of the passengers. The near empty plane, late at night and on the last leg of a long journey, brought people together. Returning from the back of the plane with a drink, I entered a chat with some people sitting around me. College-aged and excited for Ethiopia, they buoyed my spirits immediately. A strong camaraderie was built during a midnight beer, thousands of feet above the ground somewhere between Jordan and Ethiopia, in a darkened coach section of an airplane. I heard their stories, took photos with them, exchanged email. One was orphaned as child and adopted in the U.S. and returning to Ethiopia for the first time since she was four years old. Two brothers left Ethiopia years and years ago with their family and were returning to visit relatives. A young Somalian woman from London was making Ethiopia her first trip to Africa. They asked some of the older Ethiopians on the plane about their lives and experiences. I found their excitement contagious and comforting. They expressed envy that I was staying three months and all they had were one or two weeks. They cheered and whistled when we landed and walked joyously through customs.** I was waiting at baggage claim, reflecting on their excitement, how I was excited for them, wondering how excited I should be for myself over the next three months, when word of my stranded luggage came to me.

I credit that shared experience on the plane, that renewal of life force that comes from positive experiences with strangers in strange places to my muted reaction to the lost luggage. I really should have been more cross and frustrated with the whole situation. But I wasn’t. I was in Ethiopia and that seemed enough.

Or maybe, I was just too bloody tired to care.

*Picked up luggage next day. No worries.

**My visit through customs:

“Where are you staying?”
“I don’t know. A hotel tonight.”
“Do you have a phone number?”