Touring Addis Ababa

After I ate a breakfast of tea, eggs, and toast with marmalade at the hotel, Paulos and I met for a bit of sight-seeing on Sunday. Sunday is the weekly holiday in Ethiopia, although just like on weekends in the U.S., some people still have to work to keep things going.

Construction With Wooden Scaffolding My Friend Paulos in Addis Abbaba African Union Hall in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
We walked past the heavily guarded and high-walled Presidential Palace over to the United Nations building near Menelik II Square, then past the African Union headquarters, and to the Kidus Istifanos (St. Stephen’s church) where my guidebook says there is a mosaic over the entrance of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. Actually, the mosaic is of the stoning of Mary Magdalene (known here as Miryam), but there is also a painting of St. Stephen’s martyrdom on the front wall of the church covered with a lace curtain. His martyrdom is not, however, depicted with arrows in the traditional European fashion.

Kidus Istifanos Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sewer System in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Update: Thanks to my friend Steve who points out that St. Stephen was stoned and it was St. Sebastian who was martyred by arrows.

Early Days in Addis Ababa

Written at Finfine Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

After leaving the Internet cafe on Saturday, I walked just around the corner and sat down on a little chair at the end of the chained-off drive in front of the the Ethiopia Hotel. One of a couple of Sudanese runner girls who I saw out in front of the Internet cafe said “hi?. I responded and we chatted a bit until some other guys came along. They explained that runners from Sudan often go to Ethiopia to train in altitude so they will have higher tolerance.

I Think I’m Turning Ethiopian

I learned that Ethiopians are different from those of us from the U.S. and Europe in another way. That is, their 12:00 starts at our 6:00am and our 6:00pm.

At first, I thought it crazy. But this morning I woke up realizing how much more sense it is for the time system to reflect and reinforce the behavior of starting the day when most people wake up. In the case of urban Ethiopians, the wake-up call comes automatically each morning from the local muzzeins who chant from the minarets. That wake-up call comes at 11:30 Ethiopian (i.e. 5:30am under the U.S./Euro time system). Then, they chant again 12:00 or 6:00am to wake most people up, to pray or perhaps at least to get ready for work. The next time 12:00 rolls around, it’s basically time to kick off work and eat some dinner.

Contrast the Ethiopian method with our method based on the astronomical notion of the maximum darkness or distance from the earth and the maximum lightness or minimum difference from the sun. We’re constantly messing around with daylight savings time schemes to make the time system more practical and energy-conserving. Which system is more practical really?

So, another weird thing about Ethiopia is that they never switched to the new Gregorian calendar which we currently use. So, most Ethiopians are getting ready to celebrate the new millennium of the year 2000 still. They are about seven years behind us, and their months only partially align to ours.

Moving to the Finefine Hotel

I tramped over to the Hotel Finfine to see if they had rooms available. The reception lady shows me the only room available. This hotel is still a bit old and perhaps drab, but the rooms are gigantic and the bathrooms offer hot water from local thermal springs. The open courtyard reminds me of some fairly well-off Indian hotel. The guard half-heartedly waves his security wand over whatever I happen to be carrying with me when I walk in. Of course, the wand detects problems (i.e. metal I’m carrying with me), which the guard promptly ignores, exchanging a smile with me. I make a reservation for the following day, Sunday.

Delicious Fasting Food at the Finfine Hotel Restaurant Tables in the Finfine Hotel Restaurant

I had my first meal of Ethiopian food in Ethiopia at the Finfine Hotel. I like the food – various heated and delicious vegetable dishes on the traditional injeera bread. The portions of food are so much food I can’t eat it all for under US$4 dollars.

Cruising the Piazza for Cockroaches

To liven up my evening after returning to the Ethiopia Hotel for my last night there, I decide to check out the Piazza neighborhood of Addis Ababa. On my way to check out the National Theater and the Mega Theater on the way to the Piazza, one of the guys in Andinet Square starts his hustle. “Where are you from?? “You want to see this or that?? etc. This one keeps walking with me up Churchill Ave. asking again and again if I want to meet this person who speaks French. Luckily, he clarifies that he wants no money, although I still don’t feel I can trust him.

When I see Satan Bet (Satan’s Theater) closed on the way, I stop to ask a fellow who is leaning against a rail in front of the theater what is going on. He explains that the theater doesn’t show anything in the evening. We admire the beautifully sculpted doors, including a instrument called a kerar in relief on one door. We introduce ourselves. His name is Paulo. After chatting a bit, I let him know I’m heading toward the Piazza.

He accompanies me and I feel perfectly comfortable with him. We stop by the Baro Hotel to see if they have rooms available, but they don’t. We meet a couple of Brits driving their vehicle throughout Africa… they started in West Africa and seven months later are now on an itinerary similar to mine through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

Paulos and I look around the Piazza area for a place to buy a draught beer. The first place we enter has run out of draught. Paulo brings me to another one where we climb the rickety spiral stairs. The DJ is playing other music upstairs, mostly from the U.S. After I comment on how I’d like to hear Ethiopian music, Paulos asks the DJ and he plays some famous Ethiopian music. Paulos tells me the most popular singer is Ethiopia is Laun (?) Desessa (?). I’ve heard a bunch of Ethiopian music I really like since I’ve been here, although I’ve had trouble idenitying which is which.

Paulos orders “two draughts? in Amharic as we had agreed. The waiter brings back two drafts each, double what we could possibly need. Near the bottom of my second draught, I found something really gross: a cockroach. I felt something in my mouth and spit it out. Luckily, it was dead. I couldn’t get the gross feeling out of my gullet for a couple of hours after we left that place. Plus, I couldn’t help suspecting the wait staff of planting the roach in there purposely. Perhaps the cockroach in Ethiopia is similar to the larva in certain special Mexican tequilas? ;-)

Ethiopian Religious Acceptance and the Star Trek Connection

I awoke in the morning to the calls from the minarets. It happens five times a day to call the faithful Muslims to prayer. For a country that is so Christian, it is amazing how well the Christians and Muslims get along. I saw Christian construction workers chatting and milling around casually while the Muslim workers got down on their mats to pray.

Star Trek fans will be delighted to learn the origin of the use of the words ferengi, negus, and perhaps also krar, which mean “foreigner,? “king? (archaic), and a kind of stringed instrument. in Amharic. I used to think ferengi came from the Hindi word for foreigner, but Hindi doesn’t have negus or krar as far as I know. Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language. Of course, there are dozens of other languages spoken regionally in Ethiopia.

Landed in Addis Ababa

Now I’m here:

Map of Arrival in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I’ve landed safely in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, after about 30 hours of travel. I found that after this much time on a plane, I felt like I was in the air even when the plane wasn’t moving on the ground. I also discovered the concept of “air legs” kind of like sea legs, where I felt like I was still walking in an airplane aisle long after I landed at the airport in Addis Ababa.

The passport control and customs process went smoothly at around 2:30am Addis time. I changed some money (1 US$ to 8.8 Ethiopian birrs) at the airport so I could grab a cab to the Hotel Ethiopia.

Although I heard in advance the fare would be no more than 70 birrs even this late at night, I found that all the yellow taxi drivers had a “published” rate of 80 birrs for this time, so I ended up paying that rate rather than risking a ride with all my luggage on a less dependable blue taxi.

When I arrived, the guy at the hotel desk told me and the taxi driver that the hotel had no rooms available. For some reason, I didn’t panic and just persisted. Eventually he called another guy who handled the reservations who was probably sleeping somewhere in the hotel. When that guy showed up, he recognized the reservation immediately and sent me up to my room with two porters rolling my bags. I gave them each 2 birr tips. The hotel is old and worn down. My room is on the third floor overlooking the entrance. The toilet seat is broken and the dirt is worn into the room so it would be real hard to get it really clean again. I tried to plug in my laptop, starting with the plug adapter and the surge protector – I heard and saw a spark. Oops, I shorted out all the power in the bedroom, so I had to make do with the hall and bathroom lights.

View From Room at Ethiopia Hotel

This morning, I looked down from the hotel window for some people watching and to get the lay of the land. The entrance of the hotel is chained off and security guards keep random people, cars, and taxis kept clear. I saw a tall man with very thin legs wearing a tourquoise cloth wrapped around his shoulders and women apparently begging with their children on the street. What appeared to be a police officer chatted with one of them and seemed to give her some cash, then she moved on for a moment. She returned to give some money to her friend or possibly husband. A brief heavy downpour scattered everyone for shelter from the rain.

Leaving the hotel on my way to this Internet cafe, I reported the electrical problem to the hotel front desk. For this, the Lonely Planet Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook came in very handy!

The Internet cafe is functional, although web page loading is sometimes very slow (up to 3 minutes). Most of the time it’s just slightly slower than what I get at home though.

Next I’m off to try to contact human origins researchers at the University of Addis Ababa, to scout out a better hotel, and to eat some fabulous Ethiopian food. It turns out the trick to getting vegetarian food here is to request “fasting food.” Many Ethiopians apparently “fast” on certain days and eat no meat on those days.

Airborne (Airsick?) Between Alexandria and Addis Ababa

I don’t know how many hours of air travel I’ve endured now but at moments I really feel at the end of my rope.

When I went to the bathroom on the last flight segment, we encountered some turbulence. That situation brings up some fears about getting shake, rattle, and rolled in an aerated cloud of everyone on the plane’s excrement along with the blue juice used to wash it all down into the gullet of the plane. My heart rate rose rapidly and I panicked, so I tried to finish my business quickly while clinging onto the handle on the bathroom wall. I take some slow deep breaths to calm down. I wash my hands and use the paper towel from drying my hands to dampen my brow as a little refresher. I try not to touch the walls or door handles to avoid catching whatever nasty diseases the other passengers have carried on board.

Back in my seat, I notice bizarre things like the amount of frost that builds up on the outside and inside of the outer window pane and on the outside of the middle pane and how fragile and flexible the inner pane seems. A strange little cylinder, perhaps made of metal, seems to prevent the outer window from collapsing against the middle one, or perhaps it’s a little airhole to relieve excess pressure between the outer and middle windows? Extra frost forms on the inside of the outer window just opposite the cylinder.

I notice the beauty of the clouds, so many different textures from wispy to fluffy, but when they billow tall and dark, I feel their menace in the bumpiness of the ride. We encountered the most

Lift-Off for Africa

Written about 29,000 feet above the Bitterroot Range of Montana moving east at about 651 miles/hour…

OK, so far so good. Andre dropped me off at San Francisco airport almost three hours before my flight’s scheduled departure. What a great friend! He held my hand through the final pre-departure errands: the Malarone anti-malarial from Costco I had to purchase in three batches so the insurance company would cover at least two of them and the giant stack of library books on human evolution and ancient Egypt I had to return to the library before the trip.

I’m flying through London to Addis Ababa. I chose British Airways because their special post-strike fares were less than half those of the other airlines. In the San Francisco airport international terminal, British Airways check-in had a bizarre system of lines where multiple agents served multiple queues with chaotic results and irritated passengers, including me. I managed to get served by hanging out behind the other people the agents were currently serving. I had to sit on the ground to fire up the laptop and check for the hotel contact info in Addis Ababa to put it on the luggage tags. This after I had already checked in online the day before and tried to choose another seat. The system wouldn’t let me change my seat and decided I had checked in even though I hadn’t confirmed my intent to do so. A call to BA customer service didn’t help because apparently once you are checked in the reservation moves to an airport system over which the customer service people have no further control.

The security screening was relatively painless, much easier than the long lines in Portland on the way back from last weekend’s gathering. I purchased a bottle of apple juice at a restaurant past security for a whopping $3.52, basically $4 with a tip. I ate the roll and tofu spread I had purchased at Rainbow Grocery the day before along with the precious apple juice.

The gigantic windows of that part of the terminal overlooked a Virgin Airways plane whose service crew was unloading cargo from the cargo hold of the plane. They have this amazing system of rollers propelled by a guy sitting at a control station while a steady stream of specialty vehicles with rollers onto which the cargo blocks slide when propelled off the portable elevator snugly fit against the cargo hold. The cargo was rectangular and wrapped in plastic on pallets apparently specially designed for air transport.

The most interesting moment so far was a conversation with a young British guy while waiting to board the flight. He was at the tail end of a trip through Australia, Fiji, and the U.S. He talked about changing careers from accounting to perhaps the restaurant business. He asked about my trip to Africa and the book. He had traveled to Kenya and Tanzania last year as a volunteer. He also saw some of the animal wildlife, including his favorite sighting – a cheetah mother with her five cubs. I recounted my travel story of the Esteros da Ibarra in Argentina with the capibaras and the baby alligators. He said he had also traveled to Bangkok. I mentioned I am gay and loved Thailand for the openness and acceptance I found there. I guessed he liked women and he confirmed my impression. Then, as we were boarding the flight, he invited me to come to his row and I chat if I wanted during the flight.

We had a picture-perfect takeoff from San Francisco, with tremendous views of the city from over the ocean. Just a wisp of the traditional fog enshrined the Golden Gate Bridge. And perhaps I spotted my home on Bernal Heights – hard to tell from this height.

Now that we are up in the air, I’m trying not to indulge all my disaster planning tendencies. You know, like what would happen if one of the engines of the plane went out? Or if the plane cracked and the air pressure dropped and it got freezing cold very fast – according to the video unit it’s -58 degrees Centigrade up here! At times like that, and when the turbulence gets nasty, I try some deep breathing, or perhaps white-knuckled armrest grabbing. ;-) With takeoff and landing, I sing a faerie song called “Wearing Our Long Green Feathers As We Fly.?

I’m reading the Bradt guidebook for Ethiopia and I suppose I should be trying to listen to that Amharic CD I brought along. Not to mention writing the novel, the main purpose of the trip.

OK, so I tried listening to the Colloquial Amharic CD created by David Appleyard, Without the accompanying book, I’m having trouble learning using the CD. In fact, I might have problems learning even with the book. He doesn’t seem to follow some obvious methods for learning the language more easily. The Pimsleur series of language learning materials are much better about introducing the basic sounds and phrases of spoken language, although their weakness is the written language, and I don’t know if they even have a CD for Amharic.