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.