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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Ethiopian government, apparently due to great demand for hydroelectric power built a dam on the Blue Nile River. Understandable. Everyone needs power. The routine power outages throughout the country indicate that they need even more power. But, why, oh why, in their infinite wisdom, did they place the dam directly upstream from the Blue Nile Falls.
I liked the falls. Liked it a lot. I had a great hike to the falls and then across the river, meeting with villagers along the way. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in Ethiopia. Many people told us to just expect a trickle due to the dam. But these were still genuine waterfalls. Nice. But as the guide told us, before the dam they were waterfalls to behold. The water rushing rapidly over the cliffs as to block all other sound, the forcefulness sending mist upwards and outwards to deter sight. I liked the falls but wish I could see them in their natural state. They are supposed to run strong at the end of September, which is the end of the rainy season.
That damn dam:
When looking at the falls imagine all the exposed rock covered by falling water. Picture the mist rising and obscuring the view. That would be the falls sans the dam. But, alas, all I have are these photos of the Blue Nile Falls:
Within the area of the Blue Nile Falls are villages. The village children come out and follow you for a bit attempting to rent you walking sticks or making deals for you to buy a scarf from them. “My name is Marta. You remember me.” “I’ll remember you.” “You buy scarf from me.” “I’ll look at your scarves. I may not buy.” “You remember Marta and you look at my scarves.” “Yes.” Marta was a precocious little thing who spoke the best English I’ve heard from a child her age.* She was quite the young businesswoman too. Because we decided to cross the river after viewing the falls we didn’t backtrack through Marta’s village and I never did see her scarves. I think she would have convinced me to buy one.
The river crossing would not add to a view of the falls but just make the hike longer and more interesting. We get to the crossing and there are loads of villagers. All asking to assist you as you as you cross. I wanted to go it alone and said so repeatedly. A little girl had a walking stick that she kept sticking in my hand and I kept refusing to take. The water was flowing fast and about knee high. I slipped off my shoes and socks and unzipped my pants. (Unzipped them on the legs and this releases the bottom part of the pants and leaves me wearing shorts. Did you think otherwise?) I looked again at the flowing water, decided I could use the walking stick, told two boys I didn’t want their help, and proceeded barefoot into the river. Right when I touch the river the two boys grab me on one arm each. They were going to get their Birr no matter what, I guess. Actually, it was good that they were there. The current was strong, the riverbed slippery, and I may have fallen into the drink if not for them. But, really, the most difficult part of the crossing is because of the villagers. They are always there hovering around, asking to help, walking right in front of you, handing you unwanted walking sticks. They only get to help you because they make walking through their land so arduous that you need their help.
So we get across. Now the two boys and the girl whose walking stick I really didn’t use because I had Ethiopian boys on either side of me are asking for Birr. I give the two boys a Birr 10 to split. “Birr 10 each,” they proclaim. I give the walking stick girl her stick back and Birr 2. “Birr 5,” she proclaims. It never ends. The boys realize that they will split the Birr 10 and decide a different tact. The bill has a slight tear in it. They harangue me to give them a new bill. The walking stick girl keeps it up. “It’s a good stick. Birr 5.” She eventually goes down to just asking for one more Birr. I ask our guide if Birr 10 for the boys to split and Birr 2for the walking stick is fair. He says yes. Their subsequent requests for more Birr falls on deaf ears.
We hike a bit through some nice pastureland passing the young shepard boys cracking their whips noisily in a show-off manner. You’d hear a sole crack and turn your head in its direction. Once the Shepard boy sees that you are looking at him he goes crazy with the whip. Crack! Crack! Crack! It was cool. Then we reach a wider part of the river and pay Birr 10 to cross in a boat. This was a fare we knew of and agreed to beforehand and had to be done in order to complete the full hike. It was great hike through some beautiful country. By the time we completed the hike my shoes were a muddy mess. I needed a shoeshine boy. For Birr 3 it was as if I was wearing new pair of shoes.
Supporting the local economy:
*I have noticed that village children speak much better English than their urban counterparts. My first assumption was that foreign aid concentrated on building schools in the villages and this was a positive result from that endeavor. Someone else’s more negative assumption is that it is economically beneficial for them to know English to sell scarves and they only know enough of the language to make a sale. I don’t know. It seemed to me that Marta and the other village kids actually knew English, could answer questions intelligently with English, and weren’t just parroting certain memorized words.
The international pirated DVD network is not what it is cracked up to be. Five days after opeing in America I can't find The Dark Knight anywhere in Addis Ababa on DVD. C'mon!
I have been jonesin to see this movie ever since my brother saw a premier a few weeks ago and "Wow!" was his main repsonse. I didn't feel like waiting for it to hit the screens here (hopefully soon) so I checked out all the known haunts for DVD bootleggers. Two main disapointements ensued:
1) The Dark Knight is just not available. No one has it.
2) The bootleggers didn't even know what I was talking about. "New Batman." "Dark Knight." Nothing. No recognition. I had Iron Man and Hancock pushed on me quite a bit though, so they relaized it was a superhero movie. Way to have your finger on the pulse of current hot movies, DVD bootleggers. TDK is a huge movie and you don't even know what it is? Not knowing how this global illicit DVD ring runs I am unsure to blame the guys on the street or whoever is behind the scenes in getting movies out there.
A third and a slightly less disapointment was how once they relaized they didn't have what I was looking for they all resorted to "Have sex movie. Good sex. Good girls." in order to possibly salvage a sell.
Well, actually, I would probably be more disapointed if they didn't offer me porn as I was walking away.
There are still some more posts from my trip to Bahir Dar forthcoming. Just wanted to provide an Addis Ababa update. The heavy rain season appears to be upon the city. The last few days have seen more frequent and heavier rains and a precipitous drop in temperature. It's been downright cold. When it is not raining it is overcast. The temperature is somewhere in the 50's and seems colder when you get stuck in a shower. Not the type of late July weather I am used to.
The Lonely Planet book had a listing for araki bars in Bahir Dar. Araki is a potent grain alcohol, made from tef I am told, the same grain that is the basis of injera. So off we went to find some araki. We went o the area as indicated in the map. No araki. One bar came over with bottle of gin after we ordered araki. Gin! Phooey, who wants gin when you are searching for araki? We asked a bunch of places if they could lead us to an araki bar. Finally, a patron of one establishment provided us with some obscure directions that included a shady hotel and a dark alley. We followed the directions and ended up looking down a very dark alley. A man was loitering outside the alley and we said hesitantly “Araki?” He indicated that we should follow him down the narrowest, smelliest, darkest alley I have ever been down. Of course, we followed. After a few minutes, the alley intersected with a muddy road and our impromptu guide pointed to a small hole-in-the-wall building that we had to walk down a few steps to get into. We would have never found this on our own.
We enter and there is a front room with some men sitting around a low table. The dirt floor is covered with straw and there is a log to sit on. There are lights on in the back room and there appears to be a bar. I poke my head in the back and see a woman and a man behind the bar. The men at the front table heartily greet us and we say we are looking for araki. They lift their shot glasses telling us that, yes, we arrived in the correct place. A waitress comes out, they speak some Amharic. She looks at us wearily, leaves, and returns with a bottle of clear liquid and fills two shot glasses. araki smells god-awful. Like when you open up the gas tank of a really old car that hasn’t run in a while. Old petroleum smell. Not as bad going down. Cleans the sinuses pretty well. Although served in a shot glass it is a sipping drink. At least I sipped mine. One was enough. Upon finishing we asked how much. Two birr. I gave the waitress a Birr 10 bill. The men at the table were saddened to see us go. “At least buy us a round,” they implored. At Birr 2, what the hell? I told the waitress to load them up with another round. I even did the “another round” hand movement with my forefinger making a circle in the air. There were three guys drinking araki at the table. The Birr 10 covered everyone and paid my tab. Where else can I buy a round of shots for about $1 USD?
For those wondering how I justify denying homeless children fresh bread yet buy a round of alcohol for drunk men, I’m not sure I can. But I’ll try. The Ethiopian guidebooks and the official tourist brochures all explicitly state not to give to begging children. Not money, not food, not empty plastic bottles. Nothing. The rationale is that giving only encourages this behavior and it keeps them out of school if they know every farangi will slip them a Birr note. On the other hand, buying drinks for locals while visiting their country is only common courtesy.
Bahir Dar was a pleasant respite from Addis Ababa. It was small and walkable. The main drag is wide and lined with palm trees. There was a nice little café that I seemed to be in a few times a day drinking tea, eating pastries or buying cookies. I found a bakery that had loaves of bread coming directly out of the oven and the bread steamed the plastic bag it was placed in and warmed my hand. The market, while large seemed more homey and welcoming than the Mercato in Addis. The young man who began walking with us through the market insisted he didn’t want money but only to practice speaking English. It was win-win. He showed us some real nice hand-woven goods and talked his head off in the bargain. (Interestingly, he was not the first person on our trip to say he enjoyed speaking English with Christian better than me. They claim it was that Christian was easier to understand because English isn’t his first language. Maybe they just didn’t like me.)
But then you turn down a side street and it is still Ethiopia. The street kids want to hassle you, “Mister!” “Mister!” “You!” “You!”, the beggars are everywhere, and the streets are muddy. Coming out of the bakery two kids walked next to me for three blocks saying “Hello, bread” over and over and over. I couldn’t stop laughing. “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” All while pointing at the bag of bread in my hand. “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” “Hello, bread.” In its way, it was sad that these kids just wanted a piece of fresh bread to eat, bread which I wasted no time in eating once they grew tired of walking next to me. Sad, but them saying “Hello, bread” over and over was still funny.
Overall, Bahir Dar is a town with such great potential. It sits right on Lake Tana. The Blue Nile Falls are nearby. The Lake is full of old, historic monasteries. It could be a great town. I don’t mean a cheesy lake resort town. I just mean that some investment into the infrastructure and surrounds could make it a real jewel. We stayed the Ghion Hotel right on the lake. The hotel is placed within an old Italian officer’s compound. The grounds are great and there are rooms directly on the lake. But the hotel is government owned and run and I don’t think any cleaning or maintenance has take place since the Italians left. The place is rundown and dirty. You forget all that when you are sitting below a huge tree, looking out at the lake, enjoying a beer. You remember when you have to go to the bathroom in the morning and walk on the dirty floor to the worn-out toilet. Just so much potential.
Here’s a monkey that came onto our table as we were eating breakfast at the hotel.
Here's some photos to go with the previous posts. I'll try to add photos to my posts as relevance allows.
It was hazy over the gorge but I think these two photos still show its natural beauty.
Here is a road sign warning about dangers while driving on the switchbacks and through the construction area. I don't think our bus driver paid any mind to the skull and cross bones.
Here's the village we waited in for a few hours. Look at the line of parked vehicles.
I snapped this photo while we buzzed past a head of cattle. The speed of the bus and the sound of the horn managed to push them aside. There were more cattle on the other side of the bus and still some in front. But we never slowed.
Lake Tana. Another hazy day. That's me standing on the volcanic rocks.
The best part of taking the bus was seeing Ethiopia outside of Addis. What a beautiful country! It was fantastic to see the countryside and the villages and the people. Directly outside of Addis the pollution and shantytowns give way to eucalyptus forests. Acres and acres of eucalyptus trees. These trees are fast growing and have acclimated to Ethiopia very well. The eucalyptus is a lifeblood of Ethiopia providing building material and firewood, thus playing an integral part in both shelter and food for many, many people. Because it is the rainy season growing of crops was under way. The fields were either lush green or the rich, dark moisture of a newly tilled plot. All of this cultivation was peppered with the slate gray or pale brown of upturned stones, which either lined the crop rows or were collected in piles around the perimeter. In between theses large swaths of open farmland were the villages, which maintained close proximity to the roads to make transport and mobility easier.
Then we made our down into the Blue Nile Gorge and back up again. How magnificent! The land cut deep by its namesake river, even in its origins showing the greatness it will become as it winds its way out of Ethiopia and northward to become part of the mighty Nile. The deepness of the Gorge is told by the steepness of the roads and the multitude of switchbacks that forces our bus driver to heed just a bit. Objects in the road, living or inanimate, moving or fixed, couldn’t slow his bus down. But the Gorge did. Yes, the Gorge did. A new bridge, the only suspension bridge in Ethiopia, is currently being built across the Gorge. The modernity of a new suspension bridge spanning this magnificent, historic Gorge is a testament to, and, perhaps, a harbinger of, the changes occurring in present day Ethiopia.
Terrace farming dominates in the hills around the Gorge. The upturned stones, released from the earth by the agriculture it now supports, are entrapped in a different bondage, holding the soil in place rather than lying buried within it. Coming out of the Gorge, cultivated land gives way to evergreen forests and then once again it becomes cultivated. Now the soil seems more clay yet the land still fertile. It’s not this way during the dry season, I am told. The land is brown and uncaring. I begin to appreciate the life and livelihood rain provides in this part of the world. I tell myself to stop thinking of downpours as only nuisances, of the mud as only to be disdained. When that happens, before I curse the skies and damn the unpaved roads, I will tell myself to remember the land, to remember Africa.
We pass smaller rivers and streams. These flow fast and hard due to the abundance of rain. Depending on the amount and type of clay, the water is either the color of chocolate milk or burnished a deep orange as if it first flowed through the sun before entering Ethiopia. Day becomes night. The headlights of the bus search the landscape. It spots the lonely trees standing vigil in the middle of fields or the groups of trees acting as windbreaks near the side of the road. These trees now appear as apparitions, illuminated like film negatives, imprinted against the darkened background. Heavy clouds prevent the stars from speckling the sky. I am left with ghost trees and a faint trace of starlight. Onward we move, through Ethiopia, through Africa.
The next morning I wake up in a lakeside hotel. Under gray skies I walk down to the shore and stand on blackened, volcanic rocks and look out over Lake Tana. Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. These waters will cascade over the Blue Nile Falls on its way to deepening the Gorge before joining the Nile and spilling out of Egypt, passing through the mouths of crocodiles and the annals of time, until finally, it reaches its destination in the Mediterranean Sea. With this thought enveloping me, I view the expanse of the lake. I observe the fisherman casting their nets from their papyrus canoes and watch the pelicans conduct their morning rituals. I stand privileged on the lakeshore and I breathe in more of the beauty of Ethiopia.
Two buses go to Bahir Dar, a large “autobus” or a small minibus. The minibus takes an unpaved road, which is shorter but bumpier and gets there quick. The autobus takes a longer, smoother route and is officially listed as a day and half trip. Christian and I wanted to waste as little time as possible with traveling so we were going to take the minibus route. Almost everyone we spoke with told us what a terrible idea it was. Minibus drivers go too fast, pass without looking ahead, and crash constantly. We heard so many minibus horror stories. People kept telling us how Ethiopia is third in the world in automobile fatalities even though there are only around 250,000 vehicles for a population of 80 million. There is a road to the south of Addis that a loose translation of its nickname has the words “death” and “triangle” in it. Named so due to the amount of vehicles that never return after driving on it - a clever homage to the Bermuda Triangle. I imagined becoming part of one of those “bus plunge” headlines if I took a minibus for a trip like this. After all this we decided to take the autobus. We were guaranteed that we would arrive in Bahir Dar in one day. That’s because our bus driver must have been a minibus driver at one time.
For as long as the trip was it was never boring. It was quite the experience. The driver was young as was the two bus assistants on board. The assistant’s job was to, well I’m not sure, but they collected tickets and walked back and forth quite a bit, and distracted the driver occasionally. They were all having the time of their lives though. We found out that this is all they do. They drive to Bahir Dar and spend the night. The next morning they drive back with people bound for Addis. Then back to Bahir Dar and so it goes. They acted like it was the best job in the world. They laughed and smiled the entire time and it was as if nothing could be better than being on this bus.
The driver never slowed down, or hardly slowed, but it seemed like never. We were never passed by another vehicle the entire time on the road yet he passed everything and everyone. Large buses, minibuses, pick-ups, SUVs, cars, horse-drawn carts, roaming livestock, walking villagers. He barreled past all, blaring the air horn as loud and as long as possible. He did this on the open road, on uphills, going downhill, while in the passing lane, while in the passing lane with oncoming traffic. He never slowed going through crowded villages where people dallied in the road, livestock stared dumbly, and other buses were stopped and partially blocking the road. He leaned forward, with one hand off the wheel, sounding the horn, and kept going. Occasionally he swerved to avoid vehicles, people, rocks in the road, or animals. But he kept going and kept sounding the horn. At first it was ridiculous then it was just unbelievable that this was happening, and then it was normal.
It seemed like we going very fast. But I couldn’t really tell just how fast and either could the driver. All the instruments on the display panel were out of order. The speedometer needle hung limply no matter what speed we were going. The engine and the horn seemed to be in perfect condition.
The bus driver talked on his cell phone occasionally. Sometimes he would be texting messages while swerving and never stopping. (I’m not sure who handled the horn while he was texting but it kept on blaring as well.) Mostly, one of the assistants sat next to him and they joked and lived it up and the driver was the type who has to look at the person he’s talking to while driving so his eyes weren’t on the road. Yet, he kept going, horn blasting, passing every other moving thing on the road, and swerving the large bus as circumstances dictated. Occasionally, after a sharp swerve or when we hit a pothole going too fast, the driver would turn his head, smiling as always, and catch the assistant’s attention. The assistants would peer throughout the bus and catch eyes with any worried passengers and place their hands in front of their body, slowly fanning the air, letting the passengers know everything was alright. To the only two farangi on the bus he would just glance over with a sly smile as to say, “I know you guys are enjoying this.” At first, I just stared out the side window to avoid knowing what was in front of us. Then my curiosity got the better of me and I had to look out the front windshield. There were a couple close calls with oncoming buses but mostly it was people or animals on the road that had to worry.
At one point we were forced to stop. Road construction started at 10:00 AM and we were held up in a village from 10:30 AM until 3:00 PM. (The wait in the village is another story. This one is just about the bus ride.) During the wait I spoke with the assistants. One said, “It’s a fast bus.” I replied, “Maybe it’s a fast driver” He laughed and implicitly agreed. I asked if he was only driving like that because he wanted to make it through the construction site before the road closed. The response was “No.” Apparently, he always drives like that.
During the break in the village the two assistants began monkeying around with the engine. This did not instill confidence in me. When one of them took out a Pepsi bottle containing transmission fluid and began dumping it in while the other assistant kept saying “More, more” I just walked away. Then at about a quarter to three the bus driver, in a rush as always, was in the bus, starting the engine, and yelling for the assistants to round everyone up. No other vehicle had started their engine but our driver was raring to go. He pulled out into the road and then onto the opposite shoulder to get to the front of the construction line. Federal police placed him back into his spot in line. He reversed off the shoulder back into the busy road while holding his cell phone in his hand. Once they allowed us to begin moving he was off passing everyone again. He did slow down a bit through the actual construction site and through the Blue Nile Gorge but still passed when he could. Through the construction and then the same: speeding, honking, and passing. Enjoying every minute of it.
I never saw him eat or drink. He was off the bus during the unanticipated layover but otherwise he was firmly planted in his seat. Christian and I began to make up superhero stories about him and his bus driving ability. He handled the bus like the Batmobile. He had an uncanny sixth sense to anticipate impediments in the road. Or he was able to telekinetically repel anything in his way and place it safely aside. No kryptonite has yet been found that could slow him down. I swear, that blasted air horn had super powers of its own.
By this time we were used to the way he drove and knew what to expect. The assistant and his sly smile were right. I began to enjoy it, to look forward to the next village, wondering how crowded it would be, how many near misses we would have. I tried to sleep some but the constant horn kept waking me and forcing me to see what was in front of us to cause such a racket. Our biggest concern became whether or not we would make it to Bahir Dar that night. We had over a 4-hour delay. Never, we thought. The assistants guaranteed us we would make it. Other passengers told us how dangerous it is to drive at night: can’t see a damn thing, robbers on the road, large potholes, etc. It became dark and the assistants announced that anyone who wanted to could get off the bus at the next village but the bus would be going through to Bahir Dar. No one got off and we made it to Bahir Dar around 10:30 or 11:00 PM. Safe and sound. Not a scratch on the bus but maybe some fur from grazing an ox or a mule on the way.
These aren’t modern buses. No bathrooms. Because of the delay there were no rest breaks (I suspect our driver forbade it.) One time there was a pee break. The bus stopped and male and female jumped off and started urinating directly outside the bus. I had to go but my shy bladder prevents me from partaking in such public activities. The driver didn’t get out. After about a minute he honked the horn and started moving. Guys were zipping up, still pissing, running to catch up to the departing bus. Man, was the driver in a rush.
I was hoping to get the same crew for my bus ride back on Sunday morning. I knew I would make good time back into Addis. I knew it wouldn’t be boring. In fact, for all the craziness it was really quite a bit of fun. Then I met a couple from Chicago who are in Addis for the summer. Her sister was visiting and they had rented an SUV and a driver to go to Bahir Dar for the weekend. They had an open seat available and I joined them. The trip back to Addis was quick, comfortable, and pleasurable, albeit much less eventful.
Alright, the Addis bus station may be one of the craziest places I have ever been. Because the bus was full, we were told to get to the bus station at 5:30 AM to ensure passage. It is still dark out and just throngs of people already milling around the station parking lot amid the ever-present, noxious diesel fumes. We can’t tell who works for the bus station or is just out to get some Birr by being helpful. Regardless, everyone keeps pointing to the far end of the lot when we say Bahir Dar, and there we proceeded. We also kept being told that the bus would leave in 30 minutes and just look for the 4-digit number written on the ticket. Our bus didn’t leave until about 8:00 AM, the bus number changed once, and during the wait we just watched the spectacle all around us.
I was traveling with my friend Christian, who was going for a 2-week historical circuit trip beginning in Bahir Dar, whereas I was just going for a long weekend in Bahir Dar. Also present was my friend Tori, who was taking a different bus to Harar for the weekend, and Christian’s roommate and a German documentary film crew (two people) who had no real reason to be at the station other than to witness the chaos and watch us get on board.
I am not sure I can adequately describe the chaos about bus travel here. The confusion was magnified partly because I didn’t understand all the Amharic yelling going on around me. Granted, this is my first experience with developing world land transport. But other farangi, who have been in other developing countries including other African countries, claim that the bus station at Addis is one of the craziest scenes they ever witness while traveling. It is a huge parking lot filled with old buses. Some seem in quite the state of disrepair while others don’t seem bad at all. People are just standing around or sitting on their luggage anywhere there is free space in the lot. Buses just come and go, honk their horn, while never stopping. This causes constant mass migrations of people from one spot to another. It was non-stop: buses just reversing, buses making wide turns into crowds of people, buses just idling and burning everyone’s eyes as you got stuck in a plume of pollution.
Loading onto the bus was the craziest of all. An empty bus would come into the parking lot and make its way to its loading spot. People would be running alongside the bus hanging onto the doorknob at the front and rear door. Up to a dozen people all jockeying for that doorknob. The bus stops, the doors open and, holy shit, people just start climbing over one another to get into the bus and get a seat. Pushing, shoving, yelling, climbing, it didn’t matter. Whatever it took to get on the bus. Then the bus fills up to the tipping point. Around 10 minutes later someone gets on the bus and starts kicking people off so it’s still full but not to the brim full. Imagine this scene going on at around 10 separate buses at the same time. Just mobs attempting to funnel into the small bus doorway. While watching this Christian and I looked at each other with “What the fuck?” looks. Christian then stated how he had to make sure his large pack made it onto the top of the bus so I needed to fight for the seats by myself. Great.
But it wasn’t so bad. Eventually our bus did come, with the people hanging onto the doorknobs as it pulled into its designated spot. I ended up at the front door but that didn’t open. (“The door is sick,” one of the bus assistants yelled out the window.) So the mad rush was already underway at the back door. I did jockey for position and was shoved more than I shoved back. I held up getting onto the bus to allow an older woman to get ahead of me, which meant three men also squeezed in, elbows first, ahead of me. But the man who sold us our bus tickets and told us to be there at 5:30 AM was sitting in prime seats in the front of the bus. He saved seats for us farangi. After I was seated he went and found Christian still trying to ensure his pack ended up on the bus and not in someone’s arms running out of the bus station. He asked Christian for Birr 20 for getting us seats. Christian gave this up grudgingly and spoke about it quite a bit the rest of the trip. (I notice that many Europeans I meet are outraged by this sort of thing. I think Birr 20 was cheap for us to get good seats up in the front of the bus. It’s one thing for people to charge farangi prices, which happens often, and another thing to pay for someone saving a seat. At least I see a difference.) To not give the sole illusion that getting on the bus was a survival of the fittest exercise, it also seemed that other prime seats in the front were saved or left open for some elderly women who entered the bus at their leisure. I felt bad for a minute that we had such good seats when a woman had to sit on a folding chair in the middle of the aisle. Not bad enough to actually give up my seat but still felt bad.
While all this was going on the German documentarians began filming. Filming and photographing in Ethiopia is dicey. People want Birr to be photographed and the government has made many objects around town off-limits to be shot. Once the camera came out people started asking for money to grant permission to film. Not government people or bus station people just random people, especially the beggars. I had just gotten seated and looked out the window and saw a young man, smiling widely, standing in front of the camera holding his hand in front blocking the lens. He apparently was telling them they couldn’t film, but in a jovial way. This young man turned out to be our bus driver. Since I was on the bus I am unsure what if any kind of footage they ended up with. So now everyone is seated. Two beggars get on and make their way through the bus, hands out. One of them is one who was asking for filming money. He stops next to our seats and begins talking loudly. We hear “farangi” and people begin laughing. He was talking about us. Later on, during a stop in our journey, an Ethiopian translated what the beggar said. Something about how farangi think they can come to Ethiopia and film and photograph and not pay money. Why do farangi think they can take photos for free. Ethiopia is weird with the photographs.
So now we were ready to leave. Bahir Dar is officially listed as a day and half trip although we were assured we would get there that night. About 16 hours later we arrived in Bahir Dar. The bus ride itself was crazier than the bus station.
As mentioned in the first post concerning my arrival to Ethiopia I did not bring a watch with me. For a few days I didn’t mind. I was someplace new, feeling the wonder of it all. The hell with knowing what time it is. After a while I decided there was a certain benefit to actually knowing what time it was. The benefit being that I knew the time. So one day during my wanderings I saw some watches on a stand outside of a small shop.
ME: (Pointing at watch)How much is this watch? SHOPKEEPER: Birr 20, I mean Birr 100. M: You said Birr 20. S: It’s Birr 100 M: But you said Birr 20. S: It’s Birr 100 M: (pointing to a different watch) OK, how much is this watch? S: Birr 120 M: (audible sigh) S: (Silence) M: (shaking my head in annoyance) What’s the cheapest watch you have? S: (Picking up a cheap watch) Birr 65.
I am a terrible, terrible haggler. I paid the Birr 65 and asked the shopkeeper the time so I could set it correctly. His cell phone said 11:57 and he told me “Just before six”. It was six in the evening at the time of purchase. In addition to keeping their own calendar, Ethiopians keep time differently as well. In Ethiopia, 6:00 AM is twelve o’clock. The time progresses hourly until 6:00 PM is also twelve o’clock (as indicated on the shopkeeper’s cell phone) and then the evening hours progresses until 6:00 AM is once again twelve o’clock. I was told a formula to use in case I get told Ethiopian time. During the day add six to the time, during night subtract six form the time. That should straighten you out. The rationale is that the sun begins its rise at 6:00 AM and begins setting at 6:00 PM. So time goes with the sun. Not that kooky, really.
Two days later my Birr 65 watch stopped. I haven’t worn a wristwatch in years and I felt as if this low-tech item would be my unraveling. I am embarrassed to say that it took me much longer than it should have to figure out how to wind it. But figure it out I did. It’s still ticking.
I have found that once an Ethiopian realizes I am an American they ask about Obama. Am I supporting Obama? Do I think he will win? What does America think of him? (My favorite was the taxi driver who angrily punched his steering wheel. “Bush is for dictatorship. Obama is for democracy. Obama must win.”) I have yet to meet an Ethiopian who is not for Obama and they all seem very happy when they find out I also support Obama. I do not tell them I am upset at his recent capitulation on the FISA bill he voted in favor of last week or that I have grave reservations about who he will choose as VP. I just say that I do, indeed, support Obama. This seems to be enough.
On a recent bus ride to Bahir Dar I was speaking with Masrasha, an Ethiopian, about Obama. He was visiting Bahir Dar for his brother’s graduation from university. We got off the bus in Bahir Dar together and met with his brother and a friend. One of the first things they said when they saw us was that a new restaurant opened in town named after Obama.
My first reaction was to ask if it was named after Barack Obama or just coincidentally named Obama. They excitedly assured me that it was named after the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Here’s the sign for the restaurant and you can see for yourself:
I had dinner there. The service was slow, the food was so-so, and ambience was lacking. I only hope Obama’s presidency fares better than his namesake restaurant.
I visited the Mercato, which is considered by some to be the largest open-air market in all of Africa. Other than reading about how you can buy anything from “camels to Kalashnikovs” and making a mental note to visit while staying in Addis I really didn’t give it much thought. It seemed whenever you mentioned Mercato to anyone, especially tourists of a pale complexion, the response always was “Don’t bring your valuables.” I just figured precautions are necessary as with any large gathering of people. So off the Mercato I went. I jumped on a mini-bus, which I am utilizing to various degrees of success, and 45 minutes later I was there. I think, in some corner in the recess of my mind, the recess influenced by romantic notions of other cultures, fueled by comic books and movies, I was hoping for a bazaar like the one Indiana Jones visits in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only on a grander scale. I was hoping to see exotic people selling exotic wares. I was hoping to return with an armload of exotic items deemed necessary to have by the sheer existence of the market itself. Boy, was I sorely disappointed. It’s just a big, dirty, impossibly crowded flea market. Blocks and blocks of stalls and shops selling the same knock-off junk you can find in any shop anywhere in Addis. Rain prevented me from exploring all of the Mercato, so I am giving it a short shrift here but I never did see any camels or guns for sale. (I am told that there are things in the Mercato you can’t get anywhere else you just have to know where to look.)
I was supposed to meet my friend Christian, who I mentioned as being scammed upon his arrival in Addis. We decided to meet at the bus station as it was thought to be a central location and we are taking a trip this week that includes bus travel so it would also act as a recon mission. While walking through the Mercato towards the bus station it began to rain. It was then I found out that there are two bus stations, one for long-distance service and one for short distance. I reached one of them (I could never get a straight answer as to the one I was at), as the rain became a downpour. After a quick walkabout to determine that Christian was not there I took shelter in the bus station for about a half-hour. A bus station in Addis attracts the same sort of people any bus station anywhere attracts. Just think Port Authority in a developing country. The downpour was so great that it was difficult to get away from the spreading puddles. My shoes and the cuffs of my pants became soaked. The rain started to dissipate and I set out anew to locate Christian and explore.
Walking through the Mercato, I encountered a new refrain targeted at farangi, “YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!” with a miffed “HEY!” thrown in when ignored. This is every bit as annoying and obnoxious as the caps indicate. Blocking the never ending YOU’s from my mind I stopped in a pastry shop for some tea and cake (mmmmm, cake), then used a phone at a neighboring shop and called Christian on his mobile. He was at a different pastry shop, which he said was by the bus station. I ventured back to the bus station not realizing, until informed later on, that he was at a different bus station, popping my head into every pastry shop as I passed. A downpour began again. I decided to cut my losses and catch up with Christian later. I was overconfident from the little time I spent in the Mercato and my two trips to the bus station. I thought I could take a short cut back to the minibus stop. The cobblestone path I was following curved to the left and opened to a terribly muddy road. The rain caused filthy water to stream down this road. My already wet shoes and pants became ever more wet and disgusting. I mean really disgusting. I followed this muddy, filthy road and then realized that there were no more shops. I ended up in an alley in the back of the shops. There was a lot of activity: hammering, welding, chat chewing in the doorways, normal Ethiopian loitering, all done in the rain in the muddy road. I really didn’t belong here. The looks I got while walking through weren’t the normal farangi looks. These were bewildered looks. “What in the world are you doing here?” the looks asked. I could only provide them with a look back indicating that I was as surprised to be there as they were to find me. (I was thinking of the Dave Chapelle joke where he ran into another black person at a hotel in Aspen, CO while this was going on.)
Eventually, I saw some hustle and bustle in front of me and was unloaded from the mud to the Mercato. This wasn’t much of an improvement. While some of the roads through the Mercato are asphalt this just causes fast flowing rivulets of dirty water to race down them. Other than my upper body, shielded from the elements by my trusty rain jacket, I was soaked. Swamp foot was beginning to settle in as my Montrails are not waterproof. Great shoes just not in the rainy season. (My shoes are still filthy. I need to let them soak in a bucket of Purell to clean and sanitize them.)
I left the Mercato on the first minibus I was sure was going in my direction. It wasn’t the route closest to Mr. Martin’s but it was close enough. The downpour picked up on the drive back. Bole Road was like a river. Traffic was snarled as vehicles were stalled in the middle of the road due to the high water. Minibuses just plowed through angrily honking at the unfortunate victims of nature’s wrath. I looked through the fogged up windows and noticed white stuff on the ground. I wiped the glass clean to gain a better perspective. It was now hailing out. The hail was piled high. (12 centimeters high as it was reported on the news. An Ethiopian friend, who was out of town, asked me to confirm the 12 cm measurement. I just said, “Yes” without getting into the fact that off the top of my head I don’t know how high 12cm actually is. He knows I don’t do metric) I get to my stop but I am on the wrong side of the street. It is still pouring out and there is no way I can cross without wading through up to my calves. I stopped in a restaurant and got some lunch. By the time I was done eating, the rivers stopped flowing down the road and the sun was out. I walked back to the Cozy Place and showered the filth of the Mercato off of me.
Photo from minibus. Notice the hail in foreground:
I just returned from a long weekend in Bahir Dar. It rained quite a bit but that did not dampen any enjoyment. It is colder in Addis than i left and I might have caught a cold. Damn. It took a 16 hour bus ride to get to Bahir Dar but was worth every second. I had a fantastic time. I'll have to get some posts together to describe everything starting with the bus ride, which was quite the experience. It was great to see the countryside and some villages and get out of Addis. As the bus left Addis, the air cleared, and I saw the expanse of mountains around me I felt like Morgan Freeman's character Red in The Shawshank Redemption as he broke parole and crossed state lines in a bus. My head was sticking out the bus window (although it could easily have been) but my journey provided me with the same feeling of elation.
Until I get my thoughts together about this past busy weekend I'll post some filler musings of mine that have been sitting in the docket. To start with here is my trip two weekends ago to an outdoor market place in Addis, which I did not get a chance to post last week.
Leaving for a 12-hour bus ride to Bahir Dar early tomorrow morning.* First time I will be leaving Addis Ababa since my arrival. I am looking forward to it (not the 12-hour bus ride but getting out of Addis.) I will spend the weekend visiting the monasteries on Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. The Blue Nile Falls is one of the cited sources of the Nile. It seems that every African country in this region claims to have the source of the Nile. Since I am in Ethiopia I am going with its claim. I will see the source of the Nile. Since it is the Nile I was hoping to glimpse some crocodiles but that appears doubtful.
Be back blogging next week.
*I think we are leaving then. I went to buy a bus ticket this morning and was told that the bus is full. The agent sold us tickets, gave us his cell phone, ordered us not to show anyone the ticket because he is telling everyone else that the bus is full, and to call him tomorrow morning when we arrive at the bus station so he can get us passage on a full bus. It seems very fishy but locals say that is the way the bus station works. I expect to get on a bus tomorrow but also expect I may be surprised where I end up after 12-hours.
On July the fourth I was out with some other Americans. The subject of American indepedence came up and someone commented how the United States is doing pretty good with 232 years under its belt. This statement made us reflect upon Ethiopia and how they celebrate no independence day because they are the only African country to not be colonized. This is a fact that many Ethiopians mention frequently and of which they are very proud. Since Ethiopian history goes waaaay back they have been a country for much more than 232 years.
For several years during WWII Ethiopia was occupied by Italy. Resistant fighters prevented the Italians from taking over the entire country and self-rule was returned in the aftermath of the war. (Well, self-rule in the form of an emperor and the royal family.) Other than Ethiopia being an independent country in between Somalia and Eritrea, two Italian colonies, there was no strategic reason for Italy to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Many Ethiopians call the invasion and occupation "Mussolini's Revenge" as it is widely believed that the main reason to invade was to put the Ethiopians in their place for thier stinging defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Adwa.
The Battle of Adwa occurred in 1896 and is widely considered one of the greatest triumph's of Africa against colonial Europe. The Batte of Adwa is celebrated nationally with days off just like the Fourth of July in the U.S. During the battle Ethiopian forces routed an invading Italian army preventing any further encroachment of the Italians into Ethiopia from Eritrea.
A couple of Ethiopians have told me that the Battle of Adwa still resonates today as some of the reason for bad blood between Ethipia and Eritrea. After acheiving victory at Adwa, the Ethiopians allowed the Italians to retreat back to Eritrea. They seemed happy enough to win the battle and not give chase. Then later on Emperor Haile Selassie declared Eritrea part of Ethiopia resulting in a "Where were you in 1896?" response and Eritrea's determination to remain independent.
One reason Ethiopia may want Eritrea to be part of them is contained in another oft mentioned fact you hear from Ethiopians: how they are a landlocked country. Having Eritrea within Ethiopia would solve that problem. But due to the obstinance and intransigence of both countries the borders between them are closed (and under dispute) and Ethiopia is still landlocked and with no access to Eritrea's port.
Rudy is a monkey kept at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place. It can be looked at as the Cozy Place mascot, Mr. Martin’s pet, or if you are so inclined, a monkey companion. A couple years ago, Dawit, the manager, who was recently married, found Rudy on the street a couple blocks away from Mr. Martin’s. He noticed a commotion with some kids and upon investigation saw them teasing a two-month year old monkey. Dawit rescued Rudy from these young tormenters and brought him back to Mr. Martin’s. They built him his small compound on the Cozy Place premises and he has been there ever since. Dawit doesn't like keeping him in a cage but feels it is better than living on the mean streets. He’s a rambunctious little guy and I don’t think he likes me much based upon his clawing at me during petting attempts.
After a month of poring through boatloads of data, learning how to use two databases (kinda how to use), and conducting research on previous literature that used similar variables, I have finally, finally, narrowed my focus and know what I will be working on for the remaining two months.
I will be analyzing malaria data collected through a 10-year retrospective study of 20 kebeles (villages) looking at the impact of indoor residual spraying (IRS) and climatic factors on malaria transmission. Specifically, to see how effective IRS has been over that time period and determine the best time of year to apply IRS in regards preventiveness of malaria. Along with the timing of IRS is the impact of climatic factors (rainfall and temperature) on overall transmission rates. I also want to look at climatic factors for its effect on transmission coupled with IRS and as independent variables. For example low nighttime temperature has been shown to decrease transmission due to nighttime biting behavior of the mosquito vector species, Anopheles arabiensis.
There are still some confounding factors that need to be controlled. But within the data I believe it can be controlled. And I am hoping to be able to include a kebele-kebele comparison as well as a 6-month/6-month single kebele comparison as the IRS protectiveness lasts up to half a year.
I found a good model to follow from a study a conducted in Eritrea that did show a decrease in transmission following an effective vector control program. The difficulty lies in keeping the focus of the analysis manageable and narrow. There is so much data that there is an urge to add in more variables in an attempt to conduct a “complete” study. (I have that urge, anyway.) This only makes the study unwieldy. Already, I am unsure if I will complete the analysis I want to in the next two months. But it is certainly exciting to try.
The set-up of The Orphanage, a gothic horror chiller from Spain, follows many standard gothic tropes of character, place and atmosphere: a woman returning to her childhood home unearthing lost secrets from the past; a defunct lighthouse sitting atop a dark cave on a beach; doors windows and playground rides shutting and moving on their own volition; a young boy with imaginary (or ghostly) friends; and a menacing child hidden under a burlap sack (OK, that may not be a classic Gothic trope, but it should be). The bumps in the night and the jarring misdirection scares are aptly played here and the execution is familiar but refreshingly unpredictable (refreshing in that it doesn’t rely on gimmicky twists).
In fact, The Orphanage is matter-of-factly straightforward: Laura, an adopted orphan returns to her orphanage as an adult with her husband, Carlos, and son, Simón, to re-open it as a home assisting children. Her son quickly makes friends with children not seen by anyone. Then, during an event on the grounds of the orphanage, Simón disappears. Laura spends the rest of the film investigating what happened to Simón and the spooky circumstances behind it. The power exists in how many scenes from the first half are mirrored in the second: a flashback to a childhood game at the orphanage morphs into an act of desperation; Laura’s motherly interactions with her son become vital memories as she closes in on the mystery.
What truly drives this movie is the focus on Laura. Many scary movies get lost in the plot of supernatural malfeasance and how characters are affected. The Orphanage, however, focuses on how Laura deals with these possible otherworldly circumstances. A new level of psychological allegory is revealed that sends a shudder down the spine better than any shutting door or creaking seesaw. Highly Recommended.
A friend recently made the comment that while Addis seems to have a bustling ex-pat community you rarely see them out and about. This proved true after visiting some farangi bars over the weekend and a recent visit to a relatively upscale restaurant. While wandering the city you can feel as if you are the only white person in Addis. The locals also act that way. After a while the cacophony of “Mister! Mister!”, “Hello! Hello!”, “Clean shoes?”, “Taxi ride?”, and “Money! Money!” blends into the rest of the din of Addis. It becomes not unlike the horn honking, the hawking vendors, the animal noises: it’s just something heard but not listened to.
Then you step into a certain restaurant and you realize that there are more white people in this single room than you have seen in all your wanderings. You wonder where they are all day. Do they ever leave the familiarity of western establishments; do they ever leave the security of their housing compounds? Then again, they are probably wondering the same thing about me.