Djibouti: So Many Abdis, So Little Time

I am a map person. I can spend hours exploring the geography of a hemisphere, examining borders, learning capital cities, etc. Certain places on the African continent have always captured my imagination. There were the usual suspects, of course, like Cairo, Timbuktu, Marrakesh, Cape Town and Kilimanjaro. But there were also places with more unique names, like Kinshasa, Bujumbura, Kigali, Ouagadougou (Jenny’s new favorite) and – for some reason – Djibouti.

Why the attraction to Djibouti? Good question. I suppose part of it was the whole “dj” thing. You just don’t see many words that begin with “dj.” And, indubitably, it had something to do with the fact that the word Djibouti is an all-too-easy setup for my penchant for sophomoric humor (see Djibouti Call, et al.).

Never in a lifetime of lifetimes, however, did I think I would set foot in Djibouti, unless, dare I say, I was kicking your a**, in which case my foot… (wait…sorry…there’s my predilection for puerility again).

But, seeing as Djibouti is just north of Ethiopia (wedged between Eritrea and Somalia), and figuring the odds of ever again being so close, Jenny and I made plans for a quick trip to this tiny nation. More to the point, we made plans to sit on a tiny beach on a tiny island off the coast of this tiny nation.

Flying from Addis to Djibouti City was a breeze, once the plane arrived from Kenya. When we boarded, there were already several passengers from the flight’s origin in Nairobi, including a 7-foot tall gentle giant from Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, who was occupying my aisle seat. (Occupy Aisle Seats!) At barely 6-feet tall myself, I decided the additional legroom would be better appreciated by Thok Pal than Ryan Kilpatrick. He was on his way to Djibouti for a conference on reproductive health, so we chatted briefly about that, about my previous experience in education and advocacy for Planned Parenthood, and about consulting opportunities in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. (Hey, stranger things have happened.)

The Djibouti International Airport is an international airport in the same way a Lada taxi is a real car. They both (seemingly) have all the necessary functions, but possess none of the typical amenities. Where there may be only one window crank in the Lada, there may only be one toilet seat in the airport. And so on.

The Djibouti International Airport (by default only)

If there’s one constant about immigration procedures, it’s that they’re different at every airport. In Djibouti, each passenger was instructed to present his/her passport and completed immigration form to an officer in a small box made of glass and wood. There were three boxes, so the small number of passengers was processed relatively quickly. Except not really. As only makes sense, the actual tourist visas were processed by a single man in a tiny office.

And so the wait began.

Working nationality by nationality, we two Americans were among the first called into the office. After a brief interrogation about why we were in Djibouti and where we were going, the officer started printing our visas.

“How much?” I asked, thinking that we would be charged $40 USD each, as we had initially paid at the Djiboutian Embassy in Addis Ababa.

“Uhhh…,” he thought aloud, “Give me sixty.”

I handed him three $20 bills.

“No,” he said curtly, but with a sly smile. “Each.”

Welcome to Djibouti, an African country.

Once we cleared immigration and customs, we were whisked away by a man named Abdi, with whom we had somehow managed to make the hotel booking and secure transport, even though our various email exchanges were in broken, befuddling bits of English.

OUR QUESTION: “Do you have a phone number in case we miss each other at the airport?”

HIS ANSWER: “Hi Let me tell you to December 13, as I was not a departure 14h I will put at your disposition a private boat and the price is: XXXXfd or XX$ (go and  back).”

Right. Gotcha.

Abdi drove us into Djibouti City, past the Presidential Palace and to the Port of Djibouti, where a definitely-too-small-to-be-seaworthy speedboat and its captain, also named Abdi, awaited to transfer us to our destination: Moucha Island.

Moucha Island is a wee spit of land off the coast, where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Aden. Popular with members of the multiple militaries stationed in Djibouti (including the French, Japanese, Germans, Dutch, Russians, Chinese and Americans), the island is known for its diving school and center, and the Lagon Bleu Village, our home for the next two days.

During the 25-minute boat ride to the island, we passed numerous container ships heading for the Port of Djibouti, where they would offload goods destined for all corners of East Africa. Though it was really too loud to talk, Jenny and I did exchange looks loaded with language, such as “Wow, can you believe we are here?” and “What the hell are we doing here?” and “What the hell will we do if this speedboat capsizes out here?”

Leaving the Port of Djibouti on a speedboat, headed for Moucha Island

Once safely on land, we met the lovely Gassira and the rest of the staff, ordered tuna sandwiches and took in the landscape…

…which, aside from the beautiful seashore, looked like it could have been used by NASA to stage a fake landing of the Mars rover. Dry, rocky, broken, desolate. With private bungalows.

Private bungalow on Moucha Island

Whatever. There’s a beach. And we’re in Djibouti!

The next day, we woke early to go snorkeling off of a boat ferrying scuba divers out to a nearby reef. We were fitted for masks, snorkels and fins at the dive shop, and waited for the boat to arrive. When it did, more than a dozen French-speaking divers jumped off and ran up to the shop to ready their tanks and equipment. No one said a word to us, other than a passing “Bonjour,” until the boat was ready to leave. That’s when we learned that we were not invited.

Apparently, the boat was going out to a deep dive spot, not the reef, so they thought it was too dangerous (and probably not very exciting) for us. Djerks!

A beautifully rocky beach on Moucha Island, Djibouti

Whatever. There’s a beach. And we’re in Djibouti!

Moreover, that night, there was only one other couple staying on the island (all the divers come from the mainland for day trips), so the hotel staff prepared separate candlelight dinners for us on the beach. And by “candlelight” I mean battery-powered fluorescent lamps. Even so, it was quite nice.

The following morning, our last on Moucha Island, opened with perfectly French crepes for breakfast. Unfortunately, that may have been the highlight, as there was barely enough time for a nap on the beach before it was time to meet Abdi #2 (aka “Speedboat Abdi”) for our return to Djibouti City.

Instead of taking us all the way back to the Port of Djibouti, however, Abdi #2 dropped us at the jetty adjacent to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel. Apparently, we were either waiting for another boat to take us to the port, where we would be met by a car and be driven to the airport, or there would be a helicopter. It was a bit unclear. Abdi #2’s English was at the same level as that of Abdi #1, we didn’t speak any Somali, and the six words I remember from my 4th grade French classes were of no use in this particular situation.

We waited.

After about 20 minutes, an older man and two tourists walked up the jetty from the hotel side. The tourists said, “Bonjour,” and apologized for being late. The man introduced himself as…wait for it…any guesses?…That’s right, Abdi.

Number Three.

Now in Abdi #3’s care, we tugged our suitcases by their broken handles across the jetty towards the Kempinski. [Before we left South Africa for this trip, we picked up some super cheap luggage called Eco Earth at a grocery store. There was nothing eco, earth or quality about them. Unless they are recyclable.] If we were getting on another boat, it seemed strange to walk further inland towards the hotel. Confusion reigned.

Long story short, after walking around the hotel to an employee parking lot, we all crammed into Abdi #3’s little truck and drove to the airport.

It was time to say goodbye to Djibouti, a strangely named place on the map we never imagined we would actually visit. A place busying itself both fighting and catering to Somali pirates. A place with such extraterrestrial terrain, a newly landed Martian may think he had taken too many left turns. A place with so many Abdis, they need to be called not by their names but by their numbers.

Whatever. There was a beach. And we were in Djibouti!

Ethiopia Part 3: How to Say “Bajaj” in Five Languages

We truly did not know they were waiting for us, the hundred-plus kids standing in front of the three school flagpoles, in the increasingly hot morning sun. Had we known that they would delay the flag ceremony until we arrived, we wouldn’t have savored Peggy’s homemade pecan rolls for so long. Had we known how difficult it was for them to remain still and keep their hands to themselves for so long, we would have slurped down our coffee more quickly, heartburn be damned.

But, on Friday morning in Ziway, Ethiopia, we were clearly late for a very important date.

Like circus clowns, the four of us – Jenny, Peggy, Gary and I – extracted ourselves from the Ifft’s tiny motorized rickshaw, or bajaj, in local parlance, and rushed to the flagpoles. The American flag was already flying high, but the flag of Oromia and the national flag of Eithiopia were flapping patiently, each waiting for its turn to be raised by the two earnest and reverent students entrusted with their care.

Slowly, the flags ascended into the blue sky and the assembled students sang belted out the Ethiopian national anthem. The school principal, Solomon N., addressed the classes and spoke about the flag, nationalism and the constitution. At least that’s what we think he said. It was entirely in Amharic.

Then, it was Jenny’s turn.

Jenny speaking to the students at Flag Day ceremony

With Solomon N. translating, Jenny implored the students to study hard, be good to each other and make their communities and country proud.

And, with that, we were off to Bochessa.

Bochessa is a small village on the shores of Lake Ziway, approximately 15 minutes by bajaj from the primary school. Most of the route follows dusty, bumpy roads that hug both the lake and the giant, industrial rose plantation operated by the Dutch company, Sher Flowers. Sher employs roughly 12,000 Ethiopians at this facility, and runs a health clinic on one end of the property. Despite these positives, there are increasing reports that the chemicals used to keep the flowers beautiful and pest-free are causing respiratory and reproductive health issues for the workers.

For years, reaching Bochessa from Ziway required either “going the long way ‘round” or crossing the river that spills from Lake Ziway by small wooden boat. Not only were both routes inconvenient, the boat crossing was often dangerous. With pods of hippos living in the lake and river, the boat was sometimes tipped over by an emerging beast, resulting in drowning, or – as happens too often on the continent – the hippos actually trampled people.

Now, however, thanks to Gary and Peggy’s efforts, there is a bridge over this river that has changed people’s lives. On this day, the bridge allowed the blue bajaj, impossibly stuffed with the four of us, plus a friend of theirs who grew up in Bochessa, to cross over and make for a government-run school on the other side. When we arrived, we learned that while most of the kids showed up, but most of the teachers did not.

It was par for the course, apparently, at many government schools. Same goes for the woeful conditions.

The kids want to learn, but the teacher(s) just didn't show up for work today...

A classroom at the government primary school in Bochessa

We spent about 30 minutes at the school, speaking with the principal (who did show up for work that day), obliging the kids requests for photos, and watching the older students teach the younger ones the English alphabet.

From there, we sped off in the bajaj toward some land Gary and Peggy purchased on a small foothill nearby. We saw grazing cattle tended by little boys, cattle egrets and Egyptian ibis foraging for worms in the grass, and several other birds feeding in the swampy areas closer to the lake. Since we needed to cross through the swampy areas to reach our destination, we got good quite a good look at them. Until we got stuck.

The weight of five people on the three-wheeled bajaj was just too much for the patch of wetland we accidentally found. Fortunately, the bajaj itself is only slightly heavier than Snooki at her full fighting weight, so we managed to free it fairly quickly, but not before getting a bit muddy in the process.

Peggy & Jenny sport some muddy feet after getting the bajaj stuck in the marsh

Abandoning the trip to the Ifft’s property, we retreated back towards Bochessa and Ziway. On the way, we came across a group of men winnowing tef (or teff) with just a pitchfork and two makeshift brooms. It was a fascinating process.

Farmer winnowing tef in Bochessa

The tef grain is so small (the word tef reportedly comes from an early Ethio-Semitic word meaning “lost”) that just a slight breeze can separate the grain from the chaff.

Notice all the tef specks in the foreground -- they all ended up in my hair

Men winnowing and sorting tef in Bochessa, Ethiopia

Spotting the ferenjis, a group of kids caring for kids wandered over to check out the new attraction. We played a quick game of net-less volleyball with the bundle of plastic bags and rags someone had sewn together as a ball before jumping back in the bajaj and driving to Ziway. It was time for the second part of Flag Day ceremonies at school.

Some children who greeted us in Bochessa

We arrived just in time to watch a presentation of handmade flags representing the nine regions or states of Ethiopia, as well as a couple of familiar looking ones.

Jenny and I, and Gary and Peggy, received our very own American flags fashioned from yardsticks and construction paper. They even had all 50 stars.

Students presenting American flags

After lunch, it was time for a macchiato. Make it a double.

Refueled and recharged, we returned to the primary school for yet another VIP appearance. This time, we were to shake hands with the members of Team Lucy (named for Ethiopia’s most famous girl) and Team Baboons before their high stakes soccer match. Even though we were clearly seen to be impartial ambassadors, once we left the field supporters of both teams lobbied us to cheer for their side.

It was quite a lot for one day, but we were in for much, much more.

The plan for that evening was to attend a barbecue at the home of one of Gary and Peggy’s friends. Many people were invited, and they would slaughter a sheep for the occasion. How could we refuse?

In addition to the many cuts of grilled sheep and injera, our hosts also served a dish that we thought might be kitfo, or minced raw (sometimes cooked lightly rare) beef. No. Not quite. It was actually dulet, made from the sheep’s stomach, like tripe. Either way…

The highlight of the night, beyond the food, homebrewed tej and a selection of wines from the Castel Winery (the chief winemaker was among the guests), was the multilingualism. At any one point, there could be cross-conversations in English, Amharic, French, Spanish and Arabic. Fine food, fine wine and five languages. Quite a night.

Saturday: Headshots and Hot Spices

The next day, Jenny and I each had separate tasks. While I worked on a digital template for displaying headshots of the school teachers and staff, Jenny joined Peggy and several women from the school kitchen in the preparation of an important Ethiopian spice called berbere.

Red chiles drying in the sun, the first step in the berbere process

After drying thousands of red chili peppers in the sun for several days, the women use giant mortar and pestles to crush the peppers, garlic, rosemary, ginger, black pepper and basil together. The paste is left to dry again before it is taken to a mill in town to be ground into the powdery spice used to flavor many traditional Ethiopian dishes. Making large batches of the spice enables the school to keep its feeding program costs exceptionally low.

Sunday: Going to the Chapel

On Sunday morning, we went to church. For a wedding.

One of the teachers at the Adami Tulu school was getting married and had invited several colleagues, including Gary and Peggy – and, by extension, us.

Upon arrival at the church in Adami Tulu, we immediately jumped into a throng of singing, dancing wedding guests, leading the bride and groom into the church.

Mamit's wedding in Adami Tulu

By tradition, the bride is not allowed to smile at all during the ceremony. This is meant to symbolize her sorrow at leaving her family’s home to join her husband and his family. While many American brides may show their nerves on the altar, most of them at least flash a furtive, if not truly genuine, smile now and then…

The bride may not smile...

It must have been especially difficult for her during parts of the ceremony where the choir and congregants burst into spirited song and dance. It was raucous at times. Almost as if the reception had started before the “I do’s” were said.

We were especially lucky to witness such an event, as it offered yet a deeper look into part of the culture of Ethiopia.

With the newlyweds ensconced in their “Just Married” mobile, we left the party and set out for lunch at Lake Langano to the south. Relaxing.

Monday: Our (Almost) Last Day in Addis

Looking ahead to an early flight to Djibouti on Tuesday morning, combined with Gary and Peggy’s need to do some business in Addis, we left early Monday morning for the city, where we checked into the Danish Guest House. Det er fint! Unfortunately, there were no real Danes staying there on whom to use my four words of Danish (not counting my usually hilarious pronunciation of rødgrøde med fløde).

It was the start of a largely “non-Ethiopian” day: Mexican for lunch, an afternoon movie (starring Antonio Banderas as an Arab Sultan), and Italian for dinner. The only quasi-Ethiopian moment, aside from the macchiato at Kaldi’s, was the malfunction of the van key, locking us out of our vehicle in downtown Addis. Don’t ask me why I qualified that event as “Ethiopian” – it just was.

And so ended, more or less, our first visit to Ethiopia. Our second visit would come after our djaunt to Djibouti, which we will djescribe (briefly) in the next post.

Until then, please have a look at the rest of the photos, and try to think of as many jokes involving the word Djibouti as possible.

Ethiopia Part 2: Haile Selassie Slept Here (plus, Donkey Business, Macchiatos, and Parts of the Body)

I believe we left off after dinner at Jewel of India. Yes.  Well, from there, things started to get even wilder, if you can believe it…

As we strolled up Gabon Avenue to Bole Road (also known as Africa Avenue, because…well, why not?) and back to the Damu Hotel, we reconfirmed our plan to walk to the Djibouti Embassy early the next morning to apply for tourist visas. With only two short days booked on Djibouti’s Moucha Island, and after our three-hour tour of the immigration queue at Bole International Airport, we wanted our arrival in Djibouti to be as smooth as possible.

This plan, combined with the spicy dosas and the dirty wine, gave me crazy thoughts. As I fell asleep, two famous – and unquestionably relevant – quotes ran through my head:

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”

– George W. Bush

“Look, man, I ain’t fallin’ for no banana in my tailpipe!”

– Axel Foley

I think I could have slept for 48 hours, actually. But we had a mission to accomplish.

The next morning, during the 10-minute walk to the embassy, Jenny and I wondered aloud what a person from Djibouti is called. A Djiboutan? A Djiboutian? A Somali? (As you will learn in a subsequent post, the correct answer is Abdi.)

The visa application was easy, just a single form and $40. There was a space on the form for photos, but I asked the representative if we needed them and she said no. She lied. When we handed in our passports, completed form and cash, she said, “Photo?”

And, of course, we left our passport-sized photos in the hotel room. So, I ran back up Bole to the hotel, returned to the embassy and tried again. “OK, tomorrow at 2:00,” she said. We should have known.

Since we would be 100 kilometers (and several decades) away by tomorrow at 2:00, we decided to cancel the application and get our visas on arrival in Djibouti. Did we fall for the banana in the tailpipe? Reinhold be the judge.

We hoped not, but to make ourselves feel better, we went back to Lime Tree for breakfast and Macchiato #1.

From there, we hailed a Russian Blue (the word I just made up for the blue, Soviet-era taxis choking the streets of Addis) and bounced our way up to Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum.

Once inside the gates of the university, my first priority was to offload some books I carried from the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria about the 30th Anniversary of the African Charter. Fortunately, one of the first buildings we saw was the John F. Kennedy Library. They were confused that I didn’t have a letter explaining who I was and what the books were, but they took them off my hands, anyway. [SIDE NOTE: In case you’re planning a semester abroad at AAU, you should a.) bring your own sidewalks and toilets,  and b.) check out one of the books.]

Though an admittedly dorky pose, the Scared Panda tee makes me look cooler

The Ethnological Museum, further in, is a magical mystery tour if I ever saw one. First off, it’s in Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace. There’s a staircase outside, built by the Italian occupiers, that has a step for each year of fascist rule and spirals up to nowhere. One of the exhibits is Haile Selassie’s bedroom and bathroom (he had a less-than-opulent throne, shall we say). Still, the museum was quite nice. We especially enjoyed the exhibits of folktales and histories of the diverse peoples of Ethiopia. I think it helped us gain perspective and understanding that would be useful later in the trip.

Later, after a brief return to the Sheraton, we were off to yet another bathroom – this time at the Addisu Filwoha Hotel. The Addisu Filwoha is actually known more for its hot springs than its bed springs, and we, like several dozen Ethiopians that day, wished to bathe in them.

First, though, with the help of Birhanu, who just happened to be nearby, Jenny and I booked massages for the special “Foreigner Rate” of 125 birr ($7.23) each. When it was our turn, we were led into adjacent chambers separated by heavy curtains. For Phase One, we were each instructed to remove all our clothes and get into a massive, paint-chipped tub that was being filled with water from the hot springs. Phase Two involved a man (for me) and a woman (for Jenny) coming in and standing over the tub (where we lay naked) and using a high-pressure hose to massage our legs, feet, torso and arms. Though we couldn’t see or hear each other, we each thought the massage ended there.


Phase Three was behind Curtain #2. Walking naked out of the tub, we were led to individual massage tables and told to lie face up. We are still separated, and therefore unable to give each other the silent “OMG” faces for which the situation desperately called.

Once appropriately covered, a more traditional, if somewhat hasty, massage ensued. In the wake of all that had stressed us thus far, it was nice to find some relaxation.

However, we were now covered in oil and needed a shower. No problem! Our 28 birr ($1.61) entry fee included a hot springs shower in a separate building. Since we booked in as a couple, we were given a private “family” room with a shower and separate bath for 55 minutes. I think we stayed for five…

Shower in the "family room" at Addisu Filwoha Hotel/public baths

Later that night, we rejoined Birhanu for dinner. Pizza. With garlic chili sauce. Nice. And Macchiato #2? Not tonight. We had an early wake up call the next morning for our departure from Addis and drive down to Ziway.

Wednesday: Get Me to the Greek

On Wednesday morning, we made a discovery that was equal parts pleasing and frustrating: our hotel had free breakfast. All that angst the previous two mornings was unnecessary. There were eggs and pancakes and yogurt and orange juice every day. We kicked ourselves while sipping Macchiato #1.

After breakfast, we hauled our brand-new-but-already-broken-grocery-store-luggage down to meet our driver to Ziway: a half-Ethiopian, half-Italian, half-Greek tour guide/Volkswagen mechanic/Beetle racer named Lucca. Thank goodness he was an excellent driver. I stopped counting after the thirteenth time we almost hit a goat, cow, dog or donkey on the highway. One time in particular, as a half-dozen donkeys were crossing the road, two of them decided to “get a room” right on the center line. *Blush.*

Descending from approximately 8,000 feet in Addis, the landscape heading south out of the city was breathtaking. Expansive fields, incredible acacia trees, timeless rivers, ancient mountains and colorful people whooshed by for about two hours, until we rounded a corner and Lake Ziway came into view.

On the road to Ziway

In Ziway, we went to the home of Gary and Peggy Ifft, an American couple from Bloomington, IL (Gary was Jenny’s boss at State Farm Insurance) who have lived in Ethiopia for more than a decade. After lunch with them, and a strong cup of coffee (in place of Macchiato #2) brewed in a jebena, we toured a couple of the primary schools Gary & Peggy built and administer in Ziway. After introducing ourselves and hearing some songs, we could tell that the next few days would be really special.

Thursday: Injera, Obama, and Head! Head! Head! Head! 

Thursday began with breakfast at the hotel, which included Macchiato #1. We would need the caffeine, as Gary was taking us to school.

At the primary school in Ziway, we met the kitchen staff, learned how they were feeding students breakfast and lunch for $0.25 per child per day, and watched Jenny try her hand at making injera on a mitad. Let’s just say practice makes perfect.

Jenny making injera

This is how it's done...

Soon, it was time to introduce ourselves to the 2nd and 6th graders. As usual, Jenny was a star. Not only is she a professor, she’s a lady professor. That’s a big deal. And it was important for the students, particularly the young girls, to see what a woman can accomplish. The boys, however, did not seem to appreciate the fact that I quit my job to move for my wife’s. So it goes.

During each introduction, Solomon N., the school principal and our translator, opened the floor for questions. One student, who we later learned was Solomon’s own kid, tried to pin the professor down.

Hand up. Question. Translation. Solomon: “He would like to know, what is a noun?”

I whipped around to look at Jenny, her eyes big, her mind backpedaling into left field to catch the question and throw the answer back towards home plate before the runner tags.

“A person, place, or thing!” Jenny retorted, proudly. You just can’t get one past her. Who do you think she is? Bill Buckner?

After successfully answering all questions, and amazing the kids with the fact that Jenny and I have met Barack and Michelle Obama, it was time for lunch and Macchiato #2. Like our man Prufrock, we were beginning to measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

We returned to the school, sated and refueled, just in time for “Question & Answer.” This time, though, the students were on the spot. It was like a trivia/game show competition and there were only four contestants left. Final Jeopardy!

In the end, the winners received not only a gift-wrapped book, but a photograph with a couple of pasty ferenjis. What a prize!

As the celebrity ferenjis, we were honored to help award prizes to the winners of the Q&A contest

Considerably more impressive is the magnitude of incredible work Gary and Peggy are doing in Ziway and neighboring Adami Tulu. In addition to multiple schools and feeding programs, they also established a small home for vulnerable children. Samuel’s Home is just down the street from the Ifft’s home, and we visited the kids who stay there just before bedtime. The highlight of the night was the multiple performances of “Parts of the Body” – apparently an exercise the kids learned at school.

It begins with a child leading the other children in a recitation of parts of the face, working down to the feet while pointing at each part along the way. Eyes. “Eyes!” Nose. “Nose!” Lips. “Lips!” Chin. “Chin!” One little boy really wanted to capitalize on the rote memory aspect, and got stuck on Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” Head. “Head!” for a hilariously long time.

Speaking of which, this post has been going on for a long time. The next one will take you to a ramshackle government school, get a bajaj stuck in the muck (watch out!), treat you to a feast of sheep stomach and assorted wines, and invite you to a wedding. Do you want to come along? Please, say “I do.”

Ethiopia Part 1: From Immigration to Imitation in Addis Ababa

When attempting to describe a visit to Ethiopia, one would do well to avoid the whole “We are the World” thing. As indelible as the old images of pleading, fly-pestered eyes, distended baby bellies and drought-stricken fields may be, there is much more to the country than can neatly fit into one news clip, one irreverent cartoon episode or one music video.

This much should be obvious.

After all, Switzerland is more than chalets and chocolate; Japan is more than sushi and sake; and the U.S. is more than Big Macs and bad manners (or, is it?). Ethiopia has a rich, complex history; diverse and dynamic cultures; and, according to some, a promising economic future.

Ethiopia’s greatest asset, according to me, may be its attitude. Or, more specifically, Ethiopians attitudes. The people we met along the way were so friendly, so welcoming, so positive, so genuine, so compassionate – it almost makes me wish Ethiopians were the world.

But, one would do well to avoid such a trite narrative.

Instead, one should simply offer a snapshot of on-the-ground experiences, which in our case were among the most unique, most challenging and most rewarding of our lives.

And it all started with a 30-foot walk. That took three hours.

After a smooth flight from OR Tambo to Bole International Airport, we walked quickly towards immigration while discussing what type of food we should seek once we reached our hotel, the Damu. At the top of the escalator, we could see that our plans would be thwarted. A sea of people, mostly delegates of the massive ICASA conference, as well as several American couples in the process of adopting Ethiopian children, were sardined into a narrow passageway, jostling to and fro, as if riding an invisible wave. It was the queue for obtaining a visitor’s visa. It was 8:50 pm. We were doomed.

Now, you may remember that I attempted, on two occasions, to obtain visas at the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria. The first time, I was turned away for not having a “letter of support” from my government; the second time, a different man told me not to “waste my time” at the embassy…I could simply get a visa at the airport. It would be cheaper and easier, he said.

Hindsight, thou art 20/20.

Without belaboring the point, or wasting your time with a synopsis of the three hours spent in line, I will simply say that three visa workers is not enough for hundreds of arriving passengers. I mean, come on, Bole…Addis is home to the African Union, several UN offices and a host of other international NGO headquarters (at least for the time being). You can’t plan better?

Deep breath. Deep Zen. Deep into the night. Finally, at 12:30, we were in a cab, visas in hand, heading for the hotel…

…where there was no food. There were also no hangers or hot water, but tomorrow is another day. Right?

Sunday: Brunch, Banks and Birhanu

To clear the early let-downs from our minds, we decided to walk to a restaurant called Lime Tree for brunch. Lonely Planet hyped it, and they were right on. A hot brunch definitely made up for a cold shower. And what was to be the first of about 500 macchiatos went down like golden elixir. Let’s go.

Let’s go find an ATM. That works. That works and accepts our cards. Or, not. After two strikes on Bole Road, we jumped a taxi to the Hilton for 100 birr (about $6.00), a price we later learned was stupid high.

The four (4!) ATMs at the Hilton denied us, the bank branches inside were closed and the system for obtaining an Ethiopian SIM card was down. We were batting, like, 1-for-13 at this point. Send us down to AAA Durham. We need a pep talk from Susan Sarandon.

So, we walked to the alternate universe that is the Sheraton Addis Ababa. It’s like a fortress. With habeshas in colonial guard uniforms (pith helmets and all), even though there’s no real history of colonialism in Ethiopia, one can sense the vibe of the place before even entering the gates. The dichotomy is palpable: outside is squalor, inside is Saks Fifth Avenue.

Was there a working ATM there? No, but there was a Dashen Bank branch that hooked us up with a fat stack of birr. And, I got a SIM card. We were in business.

Soon, we connected with Birhanu, a friend of a friend who lives in Addis (and works as a chef at the Sheraton, ironically) and made plans to meet at Kaldi’s, which is like saying we made plans to meet at Starbucks. Not only are there several Kaldi’s in Addis (though no Kaldi’s has yet opened in the bathroom of a Kaldi’s), their logo, colors and branding are complete Starbucks rip-offs. Whatever … Jenny had a nice latte and I had macchiato #2 and we chatted with a second-generation Indian Tanzanian while waiting for Birhanu. As one does.

With Birhanu, we got our first introduction to the ubiquitous minibus taxi. The minibuses are operated by two men: the driver, obviously, and the weyala who announces the taxi’s route and destination, and who is responsible for collecting fares. We took one up Bole Road and all the way to Trinity Church in Arat Kilo for 4 birr each, 12 total. For those scoring at home, that’s 69¢ for three people. Total.

After touring around the church, which was in the middle of an outdoor service, we hopped another minibus, transferred to another, and ended up back in the Bole area for dinner at Yod Abyssinia, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant.

We enjoyed several kinds of wat, shuro, beef tibs, tej and, of course, countless handfuls of injera. After dinner, we drank buna (coffee) and munched on popcorn while watching performances of traditional song and dance. We ate and drank until we nearly burst. (And, unfortunately, a little girl at an adjacent table did burst, more or less in the direction of my bag…) We were too wiped to stay out late, though, so Birhanu guided us to another minibus and for 6 birr (35¢), we were back at the Damu Hotel by 9:00. At least they had Wi-Fi. In the lobby.

Monday: Money, Minibuses and Merkato

Early the next morning, Jenny had a meeting with the Center for Creative Leadership, a US-based organization with a branch in Addis. I used the time alone to go off in search of breakfast, not realizing that Jenny had all our cash. One hour and seven uncooperative ATMs later, I was back at the hotel, hot and hungry.

One of the many minibus taxis in Addis Ababa

As it turns out, Jenny was roughly in the same shape, the strong cuppa buna from her meeting not enough to sustain her. So, we put our newfound minibus expertise to use, listened for the weyalas calling for Piazza and climbed aboard.

Piazza is an older neighborhood, but has some influence from the more recent Italian presence in Ethiopia, as evidenced by the name “Piazza.” We found a decidedly non-Italian restaurant (and a decidedly non-friendly waitress) for lunch. Yes, lunch. Breakfast was long gone. As was the crisp on my French fries.

Following a mediocre meal, we walked down Churchill Street to Tomoca Café for some quality coffee. Tomoca is a tiny little shop, with stand-up tables and bins full of freshly roasted beans, popular with locals and tourists alike. With no time to stop for a macchiato, we just bought two kilos of coffee and went on our way.

The damage for 4.4 pounds of Ethiopian coffee? About $15.00.

Next on the list: Merkato.

After saving at least 100 birr by taking the minibus to Piazza, we splurged and hailed a regular taxi to Merkato. When I say, “regular taxi,” what I mean is a blue-bodied, white-roofed, Russian-made, Cold War-era box on wheels. Typically, most of the interior door paneling is missing, the dashboards and rear surfaces are covered in fur (not sure if they are real or synthetic, but my immune system told me not to look too closely), there is one window crank for all four windows (the driver has it), there is a giant flag or plastic bird or strand of beads hanging from the rearview mirror, and the steering wheel has more play than Law & Order reruns on basic cable.

In short, each ride is an adventure.

As is Merkato.

Merkato is, as you deduced, a massive market where one can find anything from mattresses to microwaves, Nikes to necklaces (both would be fake), t-shirts to textiles, and likely just about anything else you desire. It’s even said that you can buy camels and Kalashnikovs (AK-47s) in Merkato, though we didn’t stumble across any such deals.

Oh, the other thing about Merkato: everything is a negotiation. Jenny was back and forth about five times with three people in one shop trying to sell her two scarves. My head was spinning. One merchant saw me eyeing an Amharic t-shirt and before I knew it I was bargaining. And buying.

Stepping out of the stall and back onto the street, we found ourselves dodging buses, donkeys, goats, and men carrying insane amounts of boxes on their heads. It was overwhelming. Not even the narrow souks of Fez or the chaotic bazaars of Kathmandu can compete.

We needed to get out of there. We needed cash. We needed a nap.

Later, we needed dinner. Navigating the dark side streets off Bole Road, on foot this time, we located another Lonely Planet pick: Jewel of India. Because, well, when in Rome…

Actually, the food was great. We hadn’t eaten South Indian in a long time. And the restaurant had South African wine! We didn’t order it, necessarily, but we did enjoy it. Jenny tried to order a wine spritzer from the menu (a fact that may require merciless teasing on Facebook) and the next thing we knew a dirty bottle of Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc was on our table. As polite patrons, we could not refuse.

However, I must refuse to jam the entire Ethiopia tale into one blog post. Part 2, which includes a visit to Haile Selassie’s bathroom, naked massages in a public bathhouse, and amorous donkeys in the middle of the highway, is coming soon. Here’s hoping that sex sells.