Sunday, June 14, 2009


Since I am now in the middle of compiling my past travels onto this blog I thought it would be a good time to create an index of all my blogging from my trip to Ethiopia last summer.This index can help anyone find a post that they are interested in. Alternatively, you can use the sidebar to check for the respective months the trip took place (June - September 2008) or use the search function for Ethiopia.

Getting to Ethiopia
Initial impressions
I pontificate about the real dangers living in Ethiopia
Ethiopian censorship
Gettingsick in Ethiopia
Movie watching in Ethiopia
Wedding Ethiopian style
Six degrees of separation in Ethiopia
back to the future and in Ethiopia the future is now
A touching story of my interaction with the children of Ethiopia
The cake is good in Ethiopia. And so is the malawa
Living the routine life in an African country
Small birds make interesting photographic subjects
Name calling
Every country has its con men
Where are all the white people at? And what do I do when I meet them?
Some educational success for me during my internship
I am just monkeying around during my stay at Mr. Martin's Cozy Place
I didn't see any fireworks on July 4
Finally took a trip out of Addis Ababa
Bahir Dar: an introduction
Bahir Dar: Are bus stations the same everywhere? Possibly. But Bus rides are not the same everywhere. But the bus ride is certainly well worth it
Bahir Dar:Eating with Obama
Bahir Dar:Photos
Bahir Dar: An overview with a photo of a monkey
Bahir Dar: Trying to get drunk on homegrown liquor
Bahir Dar: The magnificent Blue Nile Falls
Bahir Dar: Monastaries with 900 year old manuscripts and priests
Bahir Dar: A cool find
Not your typical African weather Well it is the rainy season
The developing pirated DVD industry in a developing country
Living the casual cafe life in Addis
I suppose you can say I am living in a Cocoon
The currency situation
Where I went to school in Ethiopia. And what an education it was
Getting the bull's rush in Addis
Popular children's song heard everywhere even unexpected places
I now drink macchiatos
A visit to the Mercato, one of the largest open air markets in all of Africa. Fist time: No fun Second time: Yes fun this time with marriage proposals
Another trip. This time to Shashemene
Crazy driving again. This time south.
Lake Langano photos
Harar: Hyenas. Nuff said.
Harar: watching the Olympics
Harar: Faranjo
Harar: Wasting the day chewing chat
Harar: The nighttime and interminable bus trip
Gondar: Not to be confused with Gondor. Instead of Sauron there are baboons and coffee ceremonies
Lalibela: Amazing. Just amazing.
Leaving Ethiopia.
Back in New York
Final Thoughts


Moon is a good movie. Teetering on very good. Even better than the movie I like what it represents. Moon hearkens back to a pre Star Wars period of smart science fiction rather than just action/adventure and explosions that seemingly has defined many films of that genre since. Like a lot of good science fiction Moon takes place off Earth in an unspecified future yet acts as a commentary on the current human condition. There is just something missing. While smart and engaging it lacks a cohesive element that makes it work on a level that would elevate it to greatness.

Moon does an excellent job of straightforward storytelling in what could have resulted in a complicated mess. Sam Bell ( an excellent Sam Rockwell) works for Lunar Industries, Ltd. on an isolated outpost located on the dark side of the moon. His only companion is a robot named Gerty (soothingly voiced by Kevin Spacey) and together they monitor the daily mining activities of remote machines. The mining operation is unearthing (unmooning?) a new fuel source that is delivered to Earth in three days and is now a cheap, abundant fuel source for 70% of our blue planet. Sam is coming to the end of a three year contract and is looking forward to being reunited with is wife and daughter in two weeks time. To say anymore about what happens in those remaining two weeks is to give away a nice twist that sets the rest of the movie in motion. (The trailer is spoilerific in this respect and I recommend not viewing it before seeing the film.)

What happens is interesting and sort of obvious although I didn’t guess the exact explanation for the twist. (So maybe it is not that obvious. But I mentally slapped myself when it was explained as I thought I should have figured that out.)Moon is commendable for its efforts in commenting on the human condition. It is about the effect of loneliness, the frailty of memory, and questioning the worth of an individual. I think the main problem I have is that I’m not sure which of these themes the movie wants to be about. While the story itself, especially the very end, is thought provoking, I have spent more time mulling over what different themes actually exist and how they fit together than I would prefer. My preference isn’t that the theme is obvious but that the theme is decipherable.

All in all I recommend Moon. I hope it ushers in more smart science fiction films.

On a related note I certainly hope that when humans do get to colonize or living on other planets or moons that science fiction films can influence the design and scope of such activities. Strange things are always happening in these movies or the living arrangements have crazy psychological effects. Usually the militaristic utilitarian aspects of these habitats become a hindrance. Even taking financial, engineering, and environmental constraints into mind I think that any future other world outposts can be more comfortable and less lonely for those who choose to live or work there. I don’t have high hopes. An example why can be found in Encounters at the End of the World a documentary directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. In it Herzog visits a science outpost in Antarctica and describes it as something that would be found on the moon. In fact it looks eerily like the outpost found in Moon. I’m not expecting the Taj Mahal to be built on Mars just something that is livable and not mentally deranging.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Queuing, Kids, and Gambling on Dinner

Macau is an old Portuguese colony given over to China in a similar way the British gave over Hong Kong. Macau is also a mecca of gambling with casino construction about as far as the eye could see.* For an in-depth article about Macau and all this gambling read James Fallows' excellent article from The Atlantic.**

Macau is about an hour speed-ferry ride from HK. Sister Anne worked on Macau and was heading back so Aunt Helen and some of the other nuns decided to bring me along to see it. Other than the cool town center, which was a remnant of Portuguese rule, and the Temple of AH-MA all I remember of Macau was gaudy casinos and loads of construction. The temples are more out of control on Macau than in HK. The incense sticks were bigger, the smoke thicker, the people noisier (or more devout?), and the animal sacrifices greater. There was one annoying experience, one touching experience, and one funny experience all worth recounting from that day in Macau.

You need to show your passport to get into Macau but not if you are a HK resident. All the nuns were either residents of HK or Macau and breezed easily out of the customs area from the ferry arrival terminal. I was stuck in the terminal with hundreds of mainland Chinese who also had to show passports.*** Evidently, this was before the Chinese government started etiquette classes on proper queuing for their citizens in the run-up to the Olympics. I was stuck in the middle of a mass of humanity just shoving and pushing in every direction. This sea of people swept me to and fro, the jostling as bad as the bumpy ride on the speed-ferry. I just went with it trying to keep moving forward to the five feet of metal rails that constituted actual delineation before reaching the customs officer. Once somebody in front of me stepped on a discarded puke bag from the ferry. This popped open the bag emitting a viscous substance and an ungodly odor. I promptly stepped in it and could hardly hold back my own vomit. Thankfully, the pushing and the shoving drove me away from that area quickly (and dissipated any residue on my sneaker.) After an hour of this I finally made it through and met the nuns, who had the temerity to ask what took me so long.

So I am in Macau. The Temple of AH-MA. St. Paul’s fa├žade. St. Dominic’s church. Some bones of Japanese martyrs. A couple of museums. Some gaudy casinos. Sightseeing out of the way. I venture along with Aunt Helen, Sister Ann Marie, Sister Susan, and Sister Anne to the Macau Social Center where they work. This is an area of town close to the border with China and out of the way from the casinos. Mainly poorer people in this part and the Center provides services for children. The Sisters ask me if I wouldn’t mind dropping in on the kids, as they don’t really see any Westerners other than the nuns. The kids are in an art class and considering their ages, probably from 6 years old to 10 years, old they can all draw spectacularly well. I am pointed out and then stared at with wonder. They are all wearing sports jerseys of American basketball teams or irregular t-shirts**** One little boy asks me “How are you?” Other children giggle. I answer “Fine. How are you?” To which many voices answer “Fine. How are you?” Ignoring the second part of the their response and thinking they may know English I ask about their drawings eliciting only blank faces. Apparently, they don’t know English but do know how to answer “Fine. How are you?” I spent some time laughing with them and playing a bit and looking at their drawings. It was nice.

Then we went to dinner. I forget which casino we had dinner. Maybe the Wynn. Anyway, it was an upscale restaurant within. Aunt Helen knew some vice president of the casino and managed to get us hooked up with a nice meal.***** Or so she thought. This VP never materialized; he was actually supposed to sup with us. Meanwhile, the nuns are ordering whatever they want and even partaking in a glass of nice wine. Good for them. I do the same. Now seconds becomes dessert and still no VP. The nuns begin to panic a bit. Whereas there were little jokes directed to Aunt Helen about “doing the dishes” and such, the tone now became more serious. Aunt Helen, in a near panic, keeps asking the waitress or the maitre d’ to try and find this guy. Every few minutes she is hounding some employee to track him down. The rest of the nuns visibly worry about how to pay for this meal. As calmly as I could I mention that no problem exists, I’ll put it on my credit card and, really, there is no need to worry. This does nothing to squash the sense of palpable despair coming from the nuns. Finally, Aunt Helen gets him on the horn and he apologizes for not being able to make it and gives the word that, of course, the meal is on the casino. Disaster averted. Whew! I don’t think dessert was enjoyed by anyone but me.

So that’s Macau. Photos following my addendums.

*No actual gambling occurred at any Macau casinos. In fact on my quick, brief walk through two ultra-gaudy casinos I didn’t even recognize the table games. If I saw a blackjack table and thought I could extricate myself from the nuns I may have played a little bit.

**For any Sinophiles reading, I suggest James Fallows' blog at The Atlantic website for an always interesting perspective on China.

***A funny quip from Aunt Helen that I heard numerous times during my week stay: “No Hong Kong resident has committed a crime since 1999.” This implied that all crimes and other annoyances were caused by visitors from mainland China.

****I was told that many poor people here get irregular clothes from the multitude of factories in China. When a mistake is made on a batch and they can’t sell it in a western country they place them for sale or give them away in some of the poorer regions. It is doubtful that most of them know what their shirts say. I saw a bunch of shirts festooned with sexual innuendo on very young girls.

*****Aunt Helen knows a lot of people in Hong Kong. She also knows a lot of well off people though charity work she performs. Later on in the trip a priest friend of hers asked what we had been doing and after I mentioned some of the fine dining establishments and places I have been with some of Aunt Helen’s friends he declared, “Oh, Helen is introducing you to all her la-de-da friends.”

Aunt Helen in the quaint town center of Macau

St. Paul's facade

Macau. Lots of casinos. Note the then under construction Lotus casino on the top left. Photo taken from up high in St. Paul's facade.

Temple of AH-MA

At the old Macau-China border. Me and Aunt Helen. The nuns.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Nuns, Nuns, Nuns!!!

My Aunt Helen is a Maryknoll Sister and has lived in Hong Kong my entire life, or at least as long as I can remember. She is also my godmother and even though I only saw her every few years, (if that) while growing up I always had a special fondness for her. She has a remarkable ability to get along with almost anyone and even when seeing her for the first time in years it is as if you just chatted with her yesterday. She is an excellent storyteller and has many stories to tell. Many times she throws in a “See” at the end of a sentence as if she was living in a 1920 noir novel and she has the propensity for sayings such as “She was a big woman but walked with the grace of the Queen Elizabeth coming into port.” She is losing her hearing so can’t hear you (or acts like she can’t hear you) and often keeps on talking and talking. Mostly, you don’t mind because of all the interesting things she has to say.

If there was any sense of danger in Hong Kong it had to do with following Aunt Helen around. People drive much more recklessly in HK than the US but Aunt Helen still barrels straightforward into the street. I jaywalk as much as the next person but Aunt Helen just careens right out into traffic. When I mentioned to her how she was going to be killed by being struck by an truck her response had something to do with how the Chinese respect their elders and watch out for her so she wasn’t worried. Now I had the thought of an errant automobile swerving to miss the white-haired woman and hitting me. Great.

The shock of white hair on her head and the head of most of the other nuns I met stood out the most. Especially when they are surrounded by so many dark haired people. I remember people on the street stopping her and mentioning how much they admire the whiteness of her hair.

Aunt Helen lived in a convent with three or four other nuns and an occasional priest on a different floor. The convent was difficult to get to off of a four-lane main drag with a traffic divider blocking entrance form one direction of travel. It was also buttressed behind a gas station and adjacent to a methadone clinic or maybe a mental health clinic. I’d meet Aunt Helen at the convent for breakfast and had dinner with her and some of the other Sisters – Jean, Mary Lou, Mariah, Ann Marie, Susan, and Anne – a couple times. They were all wonderful and being there with them and speaking with them made my trip to HK that much more fulfilling.

I found it enjoyable to walk around with Aunt Helen or the other Sisters, as they knew many people and commanded respect from all others. These short, white-skinned and white-haired women were of endless energy, boundless enthusiasm, and good humor*. They each had unique personalities and all were very worldly and intelligent. They do a tough job and I only have admiration for them and what they have dedicated there lives to accomplishing. As most have been away from America for a very long time they peppered me with questions and wanted to hear my opinion on the state of things, which I was happy to give. Being 2007 I provided a lot of Bush bashing that they seemed to enjoy.

I’m not sure how Maryknoll produces such nuns but I am glad they do. If your only experience with nuns is getting your hands ruler slapped in the third grade I suggest a tour of HK or Macau with the Maryknoll sisters.

*They all enjoyed the joke I came up with when I was younger and Aunt Helen was home in NY. I believe I told it over a family dinner. The joke:

A priest had consumed a bit too much Eucharistic wine and could no longer contain his amorous feelings for a Sister he knew. He brought this up to her and mentioned how he would “like something.” The Sister reproached him, “You will get none.” To which the priest replied, “Excellent. That’s what I am looking for.”

Saturday, June 06, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Arrival

It is Sunday night, August 19, 2007. It is 10:14 PM. I am sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong. The hot water is running in the shower, ostensibly to straighten out wrinkled clothes. I am told that there is a lunch appointment at a posh Hong Kong location that I am expected to attend. Shirt, tie and possibly a jacket are required. Before I left NYC, I reluctantly placed these items into my large backpack ruing the space they take up. Feeling the humid summer heat of Hong Kong in the evening I realized that the jacket will never, under any circumstances, be worn by me. (Even having had strong thoughts about this I still may have ended up wearing it. I forget but I don’t think I did.)*

It’s over 24 hours since I left NYC. I spent about thirteen of those in the air on the non-stop flight. The rest was the time difference, which sped me 12 hours into the future. I actually like getting into a new place at night after a long plane ride. Since I do not sleep well on planes it allows me to go directly to sleep. Usually after a good first night’s rest jet lag is minimal. By chance, if I don’t arrive to a far-away location at night I try to stay up as late as possible and get a good night sleep and start the next day off on local time. If jet lag isn’t minimal and lasts a few days I usually just get very drunk. This makes me sleep and I am better at dealing with a hangover, due to its more common occurrence, than jet lag. Timing of sleep, drunkenness or a combination of both is my jetlag remedy. Remember that for your future travels.

My Aunt Helen met me at the airport with a friend, Jean. We took a taxi into Hong Kong and then I think into Kowloon. If I remember correctly Hong Kong and Kowloon are on opposite sides of the harbor. I think my hotel was in Kowloon. Aunt Helen seemed especially pleased to see me. What a nice way to end a long plane ride. She was very happy for a visitor and looked forward to showing me around and playing tour guide. I have told many relatives of how gracious a host Aunt Helen is and implored them to go to HK soon based upon my experiences.

Awaiting me in my hotel room was a gift basket set up by Aunt Helen. It included some toiletries, some American snacks such as cookies and chocolate, and a book entitled “The Story of Hong Kong.” It was really too much but well appreciated by me. Aunt Helen told me that the snacks and chocolate were for when I wanted American food that may not be readily available in HK or Japan. I was only going to be away from America for 11 days and thought I could make it without such comforts. For the most part I did do without those familiar items but I did eat all that was in the gift basket during my trip.

Aunt Helen hooked me up with a nice room in a hotel run by the hospital where she works. I forget the price, maybe $75 USD/night, but it was a great bargain. It was clean and spacious.**

It didn’t have a great view but decent and I overlooked a red-tiled church. (Note the bamboo scaffolding used for construction.)

I unpacked my stuff, as I would be staying here for a week. I showered to wash the travel off of me. Which brings us to 10:14 PM, writing in my journal and steaming wrinkled clothes. As the final words in my first journal entry states: Sleep Now***.

*I did have a suit made for me by a Hong Kong tailor. I wore that jacket but just in the act of trying it on for size.

**The photo of the hotel room displays the aftermath of my sleeping in a hotel bed procedure. I remove the bedspread and untuck all covers. I can't stand how tight a hotel bed is made and I don't trust the cleanliness of bed spreads. This goes for all hotels - America or abroad.

***Underlining of those words in original journal entry. Bold added for the blog.

Friday, June 05, 2009

HONG KONG 2007: Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific is the best airline I’ve been on. For the past three years I have been taking it to Vancouver while on the way to Whistler for snowboarding. So counting back from 2009 I guess I flew it in winter 2007 which would have been before this Hong Kong/Japan summer 2007 trip. This wasn’t my first trip with Cathay but like all others it was a gratifying experience.

I had non-stop to Hong Kong from JFK. During this flight I watched two movies, read an entire novel, and slept about an hour. And it didn’t seem long or boring or stressful at all.
Cathay Pacific has decent food, attentive and pretty stewardesses, and loads of movie options for your viewing pleasure. One of the movies I watched, Fracture, I have noted in my journal as “excellent.” Which is interesting for a few reasons. One is that other than knowing Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling star, I don’t remember anything about it. Second, as could be seen during the Colbinski Chronicles 2008 Movie Roundtable Spectacular I usually really hate movies I watch on a plane. Something about the whole experience – small screen, never-ending distractions, and constant background noise – turns me negative. Not only do I always watch movies on a plane, I actually look forward to watching movies on a plane then never enjoy it as much as I probably should.* Movie watching on a plane may be a microcosm of my life in that respect.

The other movie I watched was a Japanese comedy called Bubble or Bust. It was about a plucky heroine who, after being sent back in time through a washing machine, fixes something or another in the past, learns reasons behind past hurt, and saves the future. Pretty much like any mediocre time travel movie except she was covered in suds from the washing machine. Well, actually she rinsed off fairly quickly and was sans suds most of the movie. I just wanted to highlight the fact that time travel was accomplished through a washing machine. It was a broad comedy, which is good watching on an airplane. If I was a young Japanese professional ensconced in Japanese pop culture and living a frivolous lifestyle with gobs of disposable Yen in 1980’s Tokyo I am sure I would have gotten jokes that I otherwise missed. The broadness of the comedy and the allure of the lead actress made it all OK. Give an extra half a star for the cleverness of the title.

The novel I read was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. A slender novel, to be sure, but it prevented me from sleeping as the more I read the more I had to keep reading. I am an unabashed Murakami fan and this book had me hooked. Looking back I wish I had not read it all in one sitting. I would have rather been able to reflect upon it and let what was happening simmer a bit. I do remember thinking as I read it and after finishing, while the plane landed, that in Murakami’s stories females are the real voice of the story and those characters become so easy to fall in love with and it becomes simple to see why his protagonists usually do as well. (These thoughts still resonate with me but somewhat differently after an encounter with a Japanese woman at a sake bar in Tokyo, later during this trip, who had a differing opinion concerning how Murakami presents females in his stories.) Norwegian Wood is on my list of books to revisit and after writing about it I may place it on top of the list.

The book and the movies certainly helped time go by on the trip. I was unsure how I would be sitting on a plane for over 12 hours but it wasn’t terrible and it was uneventful. The plane wasn’t full and I was sharing the four-seat middle section with a woman who lived in Virginia. She was going to visit her son who lived in HK with his father and then she was going to Thailand for a vacation for just the two of them. We had a pleasant conversation over dinner and a glass of wine. She looked really happy to be seeing her son and looking forward to their time together. It was nice. Then she slept while I watched movies and/or read Murakami.

Then the plane landed. My Aunt Helen, who has lived in HK for my entire life, was at the airport to pick me up and guide me to the hotel.

*I once watched Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein while flying on a domestic cross-country flight on my laptop. They were great and sitting on a plane did nothing to take away from that viewing experience.

Thursday, June 04, 2009



It’s been quite a while since I have blogged. Time just got away from me. After all the Ethiopian blogging I knew I would not be able to continue that pace as I returned to school. But then I finished up with my coursework in December and I thought, for sure, that I would resume blogging with a forcefulness heretofore unknown. For various reasons, mostly doing with personal laziness, it never happened. Other than the 2008 Movie Roundtable Spectacular and a few posts emphasizing the virtues of the original Planet of the Apes movies I have been AWOL. Irreconcilably AWOL.

I would like to use a recent move, from the west village to the east village, as an excuse for my slothfulness but that won’t hold water or pass muster. The move may yet have a positive effect on my blogging. (Not to mention that my current living situation should provide me with many entertaining anecdotes.) In the course of rummaging through items, to determine whether to discard or pack, I unearthed journals I kept during previous travels. These are handwritten entries either in an actual journal, a notepad, or just scraps of paper that highlight what I did, adventures I had, and thoughts and ruminations on past vacations. These are nothing like the three months I spent in Ethiopia except that the locales, the customs, and the peoples were all new to me. (So I guess it was like Ethiopia but shorter and I felt more like a visitor rather than I was living there.)

I look forward rereading my journal entries and transforming them into blog posts. I’ll be able to relive my experiences with the added benefit of hindsight and, of course, incorporating a dash of my usual pizzazz into these now electronic posts. I will begin with my 2007 trip to Hong Kong and Japan.* If this goes well and I keep it up I’ll continue with my previous trips to Europe in 2003 and 2001. Hmmm, I guess I didn’t go anywhere for four years.

*UPDATE*I did two blog posts about Japan here and here. This will just be catching up on everything that happened around these two incidents.