Monday, February 28, 2011

Ethiopia: Awassa, Day 1, Monday

I am in Awassa and I think I am in heaven. After a dismal look-see at three rooms at the Beshu Hotel, I walked down the street to the Blue Nile Hotel. A shower that works! Water comes out! The toilet flushes! A TV! And God-in-heaven -- an in-room mini-refrigerator, in which I immediately popped my bottled water. What luxury. For 150 birr (about $10).

And there is purportedly an ATM in Awassa!

After kicking off my shoes, stretching out on the bed, and watching a little television, I went down to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch. Pretty courtyard. Many round tables, most shaded by palms or other trees or a woven hut roof. A sweet breeze. The fragrant smoke of frankincense wafted nearby. A cold Ambo.

The menu was pricey, but for the moment, I didn't care. A little yellow bird even landed on one of the chairs at my table and tweeted at me. The waitress welcomed me to Awassa.

So let me move back to the beginning of the day, at the Bale Mountain Hotel in Dodola.

Got up a little before 7:00 a.m. Did the usual things. "Soft" paper a bit of an issue - the hotel doled out a small, nicely-folded ration, and I had used the last of the roll I'd purchased before going on the Bale Trek, and I had only a couple of kleenexes from my last little packet of soft. Three days of shiro, albeit delicious, had had an effect on things.

Got packed up and went out to the restaurant patio for a good cup of black coffee. My plan was to take a bus from Dodola to Shashamene; numerous buses work this route in the morning, so there was no urgency to leave super-early.

I was almost finished with my coffee when three faranji men passed through the patio area. They were all from Belgium; they had flown in to Addis with their bicycles, and were on a bike trek through Ethiopia. On average, only one to two faranji come to Dodola in a day. Indeed, one of the Belgians said I was the first tourist they'd seen since they left Addis on their trek. One asked what to expect next on the road through the Bale Mountains. Easy --> rocks and dust until you get out of town. Get a bandana. The Belgians assured me they'd already eaten a lot of dust and covered a lot of rocks.

At Lake Ziway, they took a boat across the lake to a "road" that was so deep in dust they couldn't ride on (in) it. They had to push their bikes through.

I mentioned my stay in Gorgora (can't remember why) and about the British couple who fell into the hole. One of the Belgians exclaimed immediately: "An Ethiopian tourist trap!" I loved this.
Example of a typical Ethiopian tourist trap
Finished my coffee, collected a small ration of soft from the manager, and returned to my room for that final trip to the bathroom before a bus trip.

One of the restaurant men offered to escort me (and lug my bag) to the bus station, which I accepted. He got me directly to the right bus, pushed my bag up into same, and saw me on my way. A gratuity was graciously offered and accepted.

Pleasant ride to Shashamene, where I got off to pick up a connecting bus to Awassa.

Shashemene really drives home how many Ethiopian boys and men there are without enough to do. The girls and women are, generally, behind the scenes. At homes, I guess. (In the rural areas of Oromia, at least, married women do not even go to a restaurant unless accompanied by their husbands.)

Over and over I hear about students who graduate from university, but there are no jobs for them.

So there are all of these boys and men who are un- or under-employed.

I got off the bus at Shashamene and there was young man after young man after young man who hoped for money from me in exchange for carrying my bag or getting me to the bus I seek. Nobody got anything this round. One guy mentioned to me he needed money for school, but it seemed mostly out of habit that he said this and not out of any belief he'd get anything. It must be so demoralizing. All of this pent-up talent and energy, with no place to go. A bleak future of one day after another, each the same. A dangerous situation for any regime.

It ended up that some women helped me find the bus I wanted. This was one of those bus boarding situations where it was every man for himself, and I tried to get myself in front of the johnny-come-latelys, giving them the evil eye, while making way for those who were before me. I was lucky -- a friend of the bus driver saved me a seat. A completely undeserved break, merely because I was faranji (I assume). The yin and yang of faranjidom in Ethiopia.

Back to the Blue Nile Hotel, a few hours later. OK, the refrigerator light came on, but that was all the work it was able to accomplish. The electricity went off a couple of times in my room, but resumed.

Bajaj in Awassa. Photo credit: Jirenna
I took a blue bajaj (tuktuk) to the Dashen Bank in the piazza. Flush with cash from the ATM, I started walking back to the hotel and went by a supermarket. Wow! Grapefruit juice! Nescafe coffee! Cheese! (Alas, this was before I knew the refrigerator really didn't refridge

I brushed off some aggressive beggars (who grabbed my arm, a first for me in Ethiopia) on my way back to the hotel. [Given the paragraph preceding and following, I'd like to just delete this statement, as the contrast between my life and theirs is galactic. But it is the reality, so I let it stand in its discomfort. Life just plain isn't fair.]

Upon my return, I relaxed the rest of the day and evening in my hotel room. Had dinner from the hotel restaurant. As with the earlier lunch, only very ordinary.

Ethiopia: Bale Mountains, Day 3, Sunday, Part 1

Day 3, Part 1.

Got up at 6:00, went to the bathroom, and crawled back into my cozy tent for some more sleep.

Eventually, I did awaken for the day, got dressed and otherwise organized things in my tent, then emerged into the daylight.

Ayano fixed coffee and I had some of the barley-wheat flatbread, but other than that, I declined breakfast out of respect for my discombobulated intestinal situation. Shiro. Delicious, but .... it's like eating a lot of beans.

I lazily got ready for our descent back to Dodola. The French couple pulled themselves together and took off with Ismael, their pack horse, and horse handler, continuing into the forest.

Kate, Pam, and me - Ruins near Tlaxcala, Mexico
I took care to look again at the mountains and valleys around Camp Changeti before our little company left. I knew the walk back would be easier than the walk up because we'd be dropping some altitude. (On the walk up on Friday, I remembered that herculean hike that Pam, Kate, and I made outside of Tlaxcala, Mexico between the two pyramid ruins. Dusty. Hot. Endless.)

When we were in the forest yesterday, it was easy to feel the romance of the place -- that fairy tale, back-in-time quality. But Ayano had told me how forest-dwelling women, during a difficult childbirth, must be carried down to the clinic on a litter. In one case Ayano remembered, a woman was carried about 20 kilometers before she could be transferred to a horse-drawn wagon.

In this season, too, the fields are dry, making it tougher for livestock to find grass to eat. Some farmers turn out their working dogs to fend for themselves because the farmers don't have enough to feed them. Ayano has seen dogs eat juniper berries. Needless to say, it is mighty difficult for the farmers to feed themselves during these times.

The forest itself is besieged by those who need wood for cooking. Very few people in the area have electricity; kerosene is more expensive than wood. The government has tried several schemes to protect the Bale Mountain forest, but it is a tough go. The Bale Trek organization itself is an attempt to conserve the forest via sustainable tourism.

Ayano has assisted foreign academics in research related to sustainable forest use. His activities have included counting trees, measuring the amount of heather versus an invasive plant after regular burns by farmers (who erroneously believe the heather harms their livestock, among other bad qualities when, in fact, it signifies a healthy habitat that animals can consume, versus the invasive plant, which nothing can consume), interviewing forest dwellers about their perceptions of current and past quality of economic life, surveying forest dwellers and calculating their annual expenditures v. income, and even facilitating games designed by a scientist to gauge human behavior related to sustainable forestry practices.

Even this weekend, Ayano wrote up the last of some data he'd collected for a Swedish researcher. These research projects provide some additional income to Ayano.

Ayano's wife is a health care worker. Like Ayano, she has walked over these many valleys and mountains, delivering vaccines or educating people about topics such as hygiene and family planning. (Birth control, by the way, is free in Ethiopia. For those people who can watch TV, there are also public service ads related to the benefits of small families versus large families.)

Ayano did not start school til he was 10 (and then starting at the kindergarten level), a common starting age in the rural areas when the school is too far away for the parents to feel comfortable with their young'ns walking to school at an earlier age. Also, before age 10, he and other boys tended livestock. Along our way up on Friday, we stopped under a tree nearby grazing cattle. Four or five young cowherds stretched out on the dry grass close to us, just watching us talk and exchanging their own commentary among themselves. I asked Ayano if he was still friends with his own companion cowherds, and he said yes. He pointed to a hard, tomato-like fruit (though inedible for humans) on the ground next to us and said they'd used that fruit to play soccer in the pastures. Yesterday, we walked up a steep incline on the way back to camp from the forest. He said when he was a child, he and his friends would slide down this very hill on a board. It's different now, he said, because there are far more farmers these days, there is now a fence running down this hill, resulting in a rutted, rocky cow path on either side of what used to be a smooth, grassy surface great for all-day sliding.

As Ayano, the horse-tender, the horse, and I made our way down the mountain this Sunday morning, we came across various walkers, almost all men. We passed by one of Ayano's half-brothers, tending his yard. We encountered three men walking toward us, two with the usual sticks and the third with, yes, a spear! And a long, sharp, no-nonsense spear it was!

The three men were clansmen of Ayano's, all related n some way to his paternal grandfather. (And like most Oromo, Ayano can recite back many generations of his ancestry. That is, his paternal ancestry.)

After we parted from the three men, I asked Ayano about the spear. He explained that in the past, it would have been used during war or for hunting, while now it is more likely to be used to protect oneself from wild animals at night. (There are leopards and even the odd lion in the area, plus wart hogs.)

To be continued ...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ethiopia: Bale Mountains, Day 3, Sunday, Part 2

Ayano and I picked up an earlier conversation about traditional Oromo marriage customs. There are primarily four:
  1. The boy's and girl's families arrange the marriage. An example: A boy's family approaches a girl's family about the prospect of marriage. Discussions begin, taking into consideration the reputation, character, and wealth of the families. If the girl's family agrees in principle to the idea, then a discussion begins regarding the transfer of some wealth from the boy's family to the girl's family, much of which will end up with the couple. Once the families have agreed on economic matters, the girl's family will consult the will of God. This is when omens become important. I regret that I can't remember Ayano's examples of good and bad omens, but suffice it to say that the universe has the final word.
  2. An Oromo boy might kidnap a girl he desires, perhaps with the help of his friends. About 24 hours or so after this event, the boy's family will contact the girl's family. The boy's family will apologize for the boy's bad behavior, prepared to pay a financial penalty. Once the families agree on the penalty, the boy's family will then have to pay the customary marital price on top of that.
  3. Sometimes a girl will approach a boy's family, most often after she succumbed to a boy's claims of love, and sometimes when she is already pregnant by him. She will make her case for marriage with this boy, praying the family will approve.
  4. In Ayano's case, he identified his future wife as the girl he wanted to marry. He then asked his family to intercede with her family on his behalf. Much discussion ensued, with the result that his future wife's family agreed, only if Ayano was willing to wait for two years before proceeding further and also to support her in completing her education. Ayano and his family agreed. After the two-year wait, Ayano and his future wife (I can't remember her name, so I'll call her Alemnesh) began to meet (let's call it "dating") and talk about their future together. They spent many hours negotiating their wedding. Ayano wanted a quiet, simple affair, while Alemnesh wanted something more elaborate. My take was that Ayano wanted to save the money they'd otherwise use for a wedding and apply it toward their future in other ways. I got the impression these conversations were sometimes quite difficult, but in Ayano's belief, the result was that they have few disagreements today.

Also, Ayano feels good that he respected Alemnesh and her family's expectation that he support her completion of her education after they married. My understanding is that this included his taking a very active role in child care.

We continued our walk back to Dodola, leaving the mountain, skirting foothills, walking by rolling pastures. Occasionally, we (I) rested beneath a shady tree, and then moved on again.

I'd asked Ayano what his dreams for his sons are. A difficult question for many to answer in Ethiopia. An education, certainly. Some Ethiopians do get a free university education, but only the top 5-15 percent in test scores. Ayano himself was not among the few, and paying for a university education was beyond his or his family's means. (And as noted in a previous entry, there are very few jobs for university graduates.)

Ayano and his wife have a long-term plan toward financial stability that they began to execute some time ago.

Throughout the weekend, we'd engaged in some interesting conversations about organizational development, customer service, and risk management.

In this context, I shared this with him: 
  • How do you know who is the change agent in an organization? 
  • That's the person lying face down with a knife in his back.

A concept universally understood.

I'm guessing that change is much riskier here than in many other places in the world. For one, for the vast majority of Ethiopians, if you lose your job, there is no safety net, including perhaps, your extended family, for whom you may have served as their net. There is no guarantee you'll find another job any time soon.

Second, in the rural areas, there seems to be an intricate web of relationships: immediate family, clan, friends, local government officials, the community, and regional and federal government officials. So to effect change, one must weigh personal financial risk and complex relationships against the benefits of changing the status quo.

In America, if I take a risk and lose, I can, in most cases, brush myself off and move on to something new. In Ethiopia, taking a risk and losing might result in unrecoverable devastation.

Reaching the outskirts of Dodola meant leaving my bucolic dream and getting onto the dusty rocky streets. My God, the dust is just too much! Some day I am confident there will be trees planted along these roads, which will both quiet and trap the dust, but until then, it is maddening.

I became rather grumpy as we neared the end of today's walk. When Ayano began pointing out to me the different designs of mourning shawls (including the way a woman wraps one around her), I responded in monosyllables, thinking "I don't give one shit about this; I only want to know when I'm going to get off this godforsaken, dusty, rocky, miserable thing that passes for a street." In truth, the information was interesting, but I just didn't have any room in my brain to appreciate it. Vacationing can be hell. ;-)

About 4:00 p.m., I was out on the restaurant terrace. Hussein, another Bale Trek guide, dropped by, and then Ayano joined us. We had coffee and chatted about various trek-related things, including the good things about Camp Changeti and a couple of things that might be improved.

I had told Ayano about Belay's (Gonder guide) desire to find someone interested in the medicinal qualities of plants in Gonder. Ayano had told me there was already a book in Amharic on that very subject, and he brought it with him to the cafe this afternoon. The writer, Bekelech Tola, as of five years ago when the book was published, lived in Asela, not very far from Dodola. I considered going to that town and seeing if I could track her down, just for the heck of it.

While the three of us talked over coffee, I could see and hear the BBC on the TV. The TV hung inside a cabinet under the protection of a roof overhang, on the restaurant patio.This Sunday afternoon, quite a few Dodolans sat outside and watched the news.

The Oscars were the news of the moment on this BBC broadcast, and what should I hear, but mention of the movie, Winter's Bone, filmed, of course, in (and about) Missouri. I laughed and said loudly to no one in particular, "Hey, that's where I'm from!"

I was getting tired and hungry, so we split up and I later took pleasure in a solitary and simple dinner served on my private little porch outside my room. Fresh air. Pretty pines. Birdsong.

Ethiopia: Baboons in the Bale Mountains, Day 2, Saturday

I saw baboons! Three times!

Ayano and I left camp some time between 8:30 - 9:00 a.m. to take a walk in the forest. Beforehand, he made us coffee and an excellent shiro tegamino that we ate with bread we'd brought with us. Shiro, made with dried, powdered chickpeas, is mixed with tomatoes, onions, spices, and water. There are different consistencies, from very thin to the very, very thick version we had for breakfast. It's quite delicious.

For a little while, a colleague was present, as well. The two walked ahead of me, chatting. I looked over to the my left and saw a movement. Looking more closely, I saw that a baboon had walked out from behind a tree and was now looking at me. He paused, motionless, for a few moments, then retreated in the opposite direction with some of his companions. Extremely exciting.

We walked across a pasture, and I reminded Ayano about the story I'd told him of cattle's antipathy toward my mother. I said, "Thank goodness my mother isn't here. See all those cattle over there? They'd be running toward us right now. And not to say hello."

Presently, we entered the forest. My, it was like a fairy tale wood with giant junipers, the lights and shadows, the rutted thoroughfares that supported pedestrians, livestock, and troops of baboons. It surprised me how active the area was with farmers passing through, some barefoot, some shod. Oromo farmers, men and women, rode through on horseback.

It was easy to imagine the same scenes centuries ago.

While Ayano and I sat by a sheltering tree (he in the sun and me in the shade), we swapped stories about our respective death and marriage customs. The day before, I had learned Ayano's father had had several wives, resulting in about 40 children, three of whom were Ayano's full siblings. Thirty-two years old, Ayano is married with two sons, ages 6 and 2. His parents' marital arrangement was typical of the traditional Oromo culture. Ayano's mother is Muslim; his father was Christian. There will be only one simultaneous marriage for Ayano, based primarily on his and his wife's religious belief (a Protestant denomination), which prohibits multiple spouses.

Again, I saw a troop of baboons walking through the woods. A couple of juvenile baboons stepped onto a low branch and looked at me. I waved.

I was sorry to leave the forest, but eventually we had to, and thus returned to camp.

We had a late lunch, again shiro, but this time with freshly made "country bread" made by the hut keeper wife. Very flat and thin like a tortilla, but heavy, it is comprised of barley and wheat grain. It has a dense, whole-grain flavor.

In late afternoon, a French couple, on their honeymoon, joined our camp, along with their guide, Ismael. About the same time, Umar the guard (again with his gun) arrived for the night.

The previous night, Ayano had asked Umar about the gun. Umar wasn't even sure it worked anymore. I don't know if Ayano ever received a satisfying answer as to why Umar brought the gun. Normally, he said, a guard would bring a large stick. (The sticks -- or canes -- are ubiquitous in the Ethiopian countryside. You see men walking with the sticks across the top of their shoulders, with their hands hooked over the top of the stick on either side of their shoulders. A man might use a stick for animal herding, for hiking, or for defense from or attack of a human or animal threat.)

Ayano explained the consequences of shooting a person with a gun, even (perhaps) in self defense. If Umar, for example, were to shoot and kill Ayano, he would not only go to prison, but his clan would have to give Ayano's clan 100 cows, a huge payment. Thus, not only is the individual held to account for his actions, but his entire clan. So, truly, Ayano felt very surprised that Umar would have brought a gun.

After our respective dinners, by a fire in the dining hut, all of us talked about things Ethiopian, French, and American -- immigration, opportunities for economic advancement, cultural impingements by and from ourselves and others, and the universal tradition of making fun of our neighbors, such as Missourians' jokes about people from Arkansas, northern and southern French people mocking each others' accents, and Ethiopians making fun of each other's ethnic origins.

Eventually, the French couple and I retired to our beds, leaving Ayano, Ismael, and Umar to continue talking by the fire.

Before I entered my tent, I looked up at the sky; I could see the Milky Way.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ethiopia: Bale Mountains, Day 1, Friday

Up at 6:30. I really like the surroundings of the Bale Mountain Hotel. When I opened my door, I saw the pine trees on the other side of a strip of grass. Through the trees, I could see a small outbuilding. It reminded me of a nice campground in the woods in the U.S.

Opted for the continental breakfast in the hotel cafe. Coffee good. The bread, honey, strawberry jam -- eh. Also, it's best not to look too carefully at how dishware is cleaned here.

Ayano, my Bale Trek guide, arrived at 8:30 as planned. We proceeded to go food shopping. Not much to choose from. Ended up with spaghetti, fixings for a spicy tomato sauce, shiro, some bread, coffee, water, some cookies -- oh yes, and popcorn!

I tripped on a large rock in the "sidewalk." It was funny -- I could feel myself falling and I took quite a few faltering steps thinking I was going to recover my balance without falling -- nope, I took a tumble. Fortunately, just bruised a knee a bit.

Fast forward to after Ayano and Defu (the horse handler) loaded the pack horse with my gear, and after a disappointing detour through some rocky and dusty Dodola back streets (long and dull story) -- to stepping "into" that old National Geographic photo I kept for eight years.

Bale Mountains forest. Photo credit: Bale Trek

Some things you anticipate and the reality doesn't meet your expectations. In this case, walking in the Bale Mountains met every expectation. It was exactly as I'd imagined it. It was an emotional experience.
Photo credit: Currently unknown
The hike from Dodola to the camp is about 6.6 miles. Ascending altitude (beginning at ~ 8000 feet). Not a hiker, it was tough going for me, but I achieved it, which is the only thing that mattered.

We arrived at Camp Changeti around 3:00 p.m. Defu, the horse handler, unloaded my gear, then returned to Dodola with the horse. I took a nap for about an hour. Luxurious.

Camp Changeti is atop a mountain, albeit a junior one, surrounded as it is by higher, forested mountains. Below this mountain are patchwork farms in the lower hills. The camp is almost entirely grassy, cropped close by the cattle of nearby farmers. The terrain seems moraine-like to me, replete with many small folds. There are four tented dormitories, a kitchen hut, a dining hut, and a latrine and shower building. The latrine is the hole-in-the-floor, squatter type, but it was very clean.

It felt tremendously satisfying to look at "my" mountain panorama. I am definitely a mountain girl and not a beach girl.

Ayano, the guide, made popcorn (!), followed by a delicious pasta with a sauce made with tomatoes, onions, bebere, and garlic.

After dinner, Ayano built a fire and we talked about this and that for a couple of hours. The sky was black and starry.

I went to bed in the snug tent Ayano had pitched for me earlier. One of the hut keepers had inserted a mattress, and made it up with sheets. Ayano added a couple of super-heavy blankets. It was cozy.

Ayano and the guard slept in the old-fashioned, military-style, large tented dormitory close by. (When the guard appeared in early evening with a gun, Ayano had laughed, bemused, saying, "I have been with Bale Trek for 11 years. This is the first time I saw a guard bring a gun."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ethiopia: Road to the Bale Mountains

Got up this morning at 4:00. Groan. Ready for the taxi's arrival at 5:15. The night-time clerk at Ankober Guest House had arranged for it -- too high a price, but because past taxi drivers to bus stations had found the correct bus and managed my luggage, I was fairly OK with it.

However, the taxi driver just stopped in front of the bus station and waited while I took my luggage out of his back seat. Good thing his hand wasn't in the door when I slammed it shut.

Credit: Ethiopia and Eritrea RPCVs
Hoo, what a puzzle! Many, many buses! In the dark! I was looking for bus 2007 going to Dodola. "Dodola?" "Dodola?" "Dodola?" Glad I had my flashlight, so I could shine it on the bus numbers. Several times, a person would ask me where I was going, look at my ticket and attempt to help. One gentleman figured out that I should be asking for the bus to Adaba. (I later pulled out my guide book map and saw that Dodola
was en route to Adaba.)

Then another man told me that I needed to go wait in the cafeteria as my bus wasn't at the station yet. This required me to get past a guard, who really wasn't eager for me to get into the main terminal, but I persevered and found an office with two officials in it. From there, I believe 5 or 6 employees had my back in re: getting on the right bus. This was good news -- I knew I'd be OK. Unfortunately, I learned that my bus was "late." Well, actually, I learned that it normally wouldn't be at the station until 6:45.

Photo credit: Jacob Eliosoff

Uh, oh. This presented a bathroom problem. Given that it was only 5:30 or 5:45 at present, that was a long wait to just hold things before the bus even got underway. I knew the toilet situation would be bad ..... and it was worse. Plus, it was co-ed. But, you know, one of the employees took me there and solicitously identified the best stall of the lot.

Soon I was back in my little corner where I'd been instructed to stay. Eventually, a man came to me and said in typical perfunctory Ethiopian fashion, "Come!" I followed (as I so often do here) him to another corridor and another office, where he took my ticket and transacted some business mysterious to me. When he emerged, he had a pink ticket for me, with a new bus number. I saw immediately there was no seat number, which I knew would present a problem. The man led me (quack, quack as I followed behind) to a bus parking space, and told me the bus would come here. He asked the destination of another man who was already there. When that man said he was going to Adaba, my "handler" pretty much left me in his charge.

I kept an eye peeled for my new bus 8122, as I knew it might be a dog-eat-dog affair getting a good seat on the bus. Plus I had already seen clumps of people following "their" buses as the drivers sought out a parking berth. So I was alert and ready to move!

Aha! I did see 8122 roll in. I alerted my babysitter to this fact and then followed a couple of men who were also to be on the bus, as they were proactive in getting to 8122's slot (which differed, of course, from the one where we'd been waiting).

Someone hefted my bag up into the bus and then, seeing that other passengers were looking for seat  assignments, I headed for seat number 3, which had been my assignment on my original bus. Of course, someone else was already there -- not that they'd taken mine, but that my old ticket simply had no validity in the current bus reality. So some confusion reigned for a bit as I took one seat, another claimed it as his own, etc. But it worked out OK. Then I saw two other faranji board the bus, and they, too, experienced some seat confusion. The other bus passengers had a little fun at our expense, which was fine -- it was all good-natured.

I shared the last of my Altoids with my neighbors and one woman shared a little bread with me, and we were happy campers.

I will say, though, it was an uncomfortable ride. This seemed to be the case for just about everyone -- not  enough legroom, mainly. And though I was next to a window, it had been fixed so that it was impossible to open. Fortunately, the heat wasn't too bad, and only a couple of people vomited discreetly.

I slept for a fair bit of time.

We stopped for lunch in some small town. The toilet was something better not even discussed.

I bought an egg sandwich and sat with the other faranji, Tim and Caroline -- very nice young German couple who spoke English fluently. It turned out that they had also bought tickets yesterday for bus 2007 and their seats had been 1 and 2! And they'd been at the station since before 5:30, just like me. We had a laugh over that.

All three of us had the same destination, Bale Trekking, in Dodola.

They had stayed at the Taitu (in the Piazza area, as is the Ankober) and we talked about the crime issues plus my learning about that special tourism niche for some women who visit Ethiopia. Tim said, "Oh yeah," as it was already known to him, and Caroline added, "But we thought it was mostly in Kenya and Tanzania. That's where we saw it mostly. Women come to Africa. Men go to Asia." Then she said, thoughtfully, "But we saw a lot of couples checking into the Taitu Hotel - young men with older women." 

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, I'm done with this subject (well, except for my backlog journal entry about the pirate Tilahun in Gonder), but it just goes to show how clueless I'd been. This information really should be in the guide books. Seriously.

OK, back on the bus!

I enjoyed the scenery. As we entered the Bale Mountain region, some sections were exactly like the photo from National Geographic that drew me to the Bale Mountains -- so cool to see it for real!

Photo credit: National Geographic

There's also something special, no matter where in the world you are, about riding in a bus with local music playing loudly on the bus speaker, as a soundtrack to the conversations of fellow passengers and the visual feast unfolding outside.

I especially enjoyed a song by Betty Tezera:

I saw single and double lines of young people, all dressed in their school's royal blue, walking up a  bridal-gown white, sandstone ravine.

The contrast in color was beautiful -- a living ribbon.

The woman in seat 3 (who'd shared bread with me, and I Altoids with her) turned to me after lunch and said, "I love you." This happens sometimes. Sometimes it is just genuinely friendly, like this was, and I respond in kind. Other times, it is a prelude to a request for money.

The scenery passed by, and I enjoyed it between dozing. It was a long trip.

Photo credit: Carole Rich
We arrived in Dodola about 3:00 p.m. A bunch of us got off. Tim, Caroline, and I proceeded immediately to the Bale Trek place, where Tim and Caroline decided to start today on their 5-day trek and I decided to leave tomorrow for my 3-day trek.

My main objective for the rest of the day was to enjoy a relaxing evening with a cold Ambo.

Hussein, the Bale Trek guy, got me to Bale Mountain Lodge, which surpassed my low expectations. I opted for the cold-shower room for 50 birr (about $3). My room opened onto a roofed porch with chairs. It
looked out to a private, shaded area. There is a pleasant cafe area, too, which I escaped to as soon as I dumped my stuff in the room and went to the bathroom. There, I had two coffees, not having had any yet
today because of the bus ride.

Hussein. Photo credit: Carole Rich
As arranged, Hussein came by with the guide who'll help me buy food for the trek and accompany me on same. We'll use a pack horse to carry my gear.

My plan is to walk the 6+ miles to the 1st camp tomorrow (Friday) night, spend the night there, then walk toward the second camp Saturday through some forest land as far as I want, then return to the 1st camp for the second night. On Sunday, I'll return to Dodola.

After that, I'll decide if I want to go to Sof Omar Cave.

Had a so-so dinner--a very plain spaghetti with tomato sauce. Bread was pretty good, though.

Retired to my room for a cold shower with nice water pressure. Captured the water that would have otherwise gone down the drain into the bucket that one uses to fill the toilet tank when you want to flush.

Did my usual hand-washing of underwear and hung it on the line I stretched out between two nails in the bathroom doorway.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ethiopia: Wednesday in Addis, Day 5: Ethiopian Yin Yang

Wednesday. Got up fairly early, had a stupendous shower. Had just put the finishing touches on my morning routine before heading out for breakfast, when there was a knock on the door.

"Hello!" A decidedly American voice called out.

It was Betty. We ran into each other again last night at the internet cafe. As promised last night, she'd come this morning to give me the lowdown on places she's been and where I might go in the coming month: Harar, Gobe, Roba, Arben Mincha, Jinka, Awassa. Bless her, she also bequeathed me her large
spray can of insect killer, as she will return to Nepal late tonight. 

It was about 10:00 a.m. when she left to lodge her complaints about her Ethiopian experiences (especially the fracas at Arba Mincha) at the Ethiopia Tourist Bureau downtown. We agreed to meet for dinner at Queen Taitu Hotel.

I went to breakfast for my usual egg sandwich and coffee at K Corner.

I had tasks to complete before leaving for Dodola (in the Bale Mountains) tomorrow morning.

First, I finished the final installment of my January 23 "Glory Road, Elephant Ears, and Culture Wars" story, and emailed that to the usual suspects.

I pulled out cash from the Dashen Bank ATM, and traipsed home to stash it in various hidey-holes. Paid for my room tonight.

I emptied out some things from my bag in preparation for a minibus ride to the Autobus Terra, a bus station next to the Mercato. The Mercato is notorious for pickpockets.

I asked Saba where I should catch the minibus for the Autobus Terra, and how much it should cost. She told me where, that it should be 2 birr, and admonished me to "watch your bag! Lots of pickpockets by the Mercato!"

Saba is the daytime clerk at the Ankober Guest House. She is pretty and funny and gracious. And she loves to watch the Simpsons.

I bumbled around for a bit finding the minibus, and eventually succeeded. With the serial assistance of many kind individuals, I made my way to the correct ticket window and bought my ticket to Dodola. (I need to be there at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow.) Then another solicitous person helped me get to the right area to catch a return minibus. And yet another helpful person, also looking to go to the Piazza, helped us both get a minibus. This last, Mahmie, was on his way to an English class. An investment in his future.

When I gave the minibus assistant 2 birr, he gave one back, and he and the passenger next to me let me know the fare was 1 birr and 10 cents on this return trip, rather than 2 birr.

Got off the bus (thanks to my seatmate, who said, pretty much, uh, this is the last stop). I was "met" by a VERY helpful man named Joe. In truth, he WAS helpful, escorting me to directly to the places I needed to go to replenish my anti-diarrhea meds stock plus paper and pen.

He assured me several times what a good person he is, to which I agreed, and then it all kind of veered over into the .... well ...."I'm 35 years old, which is a very good age. I spent six months with an American woman here and I did everything for her. I did everything for her. I did ... everything ... for her. I am 35 years old, a
perfect age. You know, Africans are strong and we are fast and we can go long distances. I would like to accompany you on your trip to Dodola. ... I am also very smart. I am 35, which is a good age for a man to be with an older woman. ... " [Hey, didn't he know I was only 30? It's in the police report!]

I had previously offered to share a coffee with him in thanks for his assistance, but it turned out he sought something more green (not to mention his, um, "upselling" of services). I expressed my sorrow that his claims of being a good person were empty, and brushed him off.

I ran into the two Brits who'd had the Ipod stolen. It turns out they knew the thief from a visit a few years back, which is why they'd trusted him to "borrow" the Ipod. After going to the police, they went to the guy's house. He'd already sold the Ipod and could not retrieve it. Current status: The Brits are giving him time to pull more money together to compensate them for the theft or they'll let the police do what they will with him. The thief is feeling very uncomfortable right now.

Today's experiences reflect the stark yin and yang that is Ethiopia.

I met Betty for dinner, as planned, at the Taitu Hotel. Indifferent dinner, and rather pricey. It did have sugar-free Coke, though, a rare treat. Betty did make the rounds today at the Tourism Ministry, Transportation Ministry, and somewhere else to lodge her complaints about how tourists are treated in Ethiopia. She can't wait to get back to Nepal. She gave me two colorful pens. (No begging required.)

We laughed about the assumptions about why some women come to Ethiopia; when she arrived at dinner, she told me she remembered reading a magazine article about this very thing. It said that the most common country for women to go to for this form of tourism is Kenya, and the nationality of most of the women is American.

Gee - I'm just a simple girl from Missouri.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ethiopia: Saturday in Addis, Day 2 - Camera Gone!

Credit: Home Owner Care
This morning I had a killer shower at the Ankober Guest House! Tremendous water pressure! Hot water! It was a sensual experience!

Later, I walked across to the Wutma Hotel Restaurant. Although the food is only so-so, it is close to my hotel, the ambiance is nice, and the staff are cheerful and friendly. Rahel, one of the waitresses, greeted me with a surprised and welcoming smile when I walked in.

I settled down to a leisurely breakfast and coffee, along with writing and a little reading. (I borrowed a book from Stephanie's library, The Ghost, by Robert Harris.) And who should appear? British Mike! Still here! He reported his new departure date is March 7. He did finally get his "paper," which I think is the affidavit from the police. I get the impression this paper is being processed by the British bureaucracy. In the interest of fairness to British Mike (seeing as how I've mentioned him in a public venue via my blog), I told him that I'd shared his story with a fellow Brit (Stephanie) and that she could not believe it! (OK, one can take that statement several ways.) Mike indicated that this is just the way the British Embassy is. At any rate, he said, it hasn't been all bad. He put on a Valentine's Day event at the restaurant and it was a grand success. He said he's been working to help the manager build new and repeat business.

I returned to the Ankober, as I needed to change rooms because mine had been previously reserved by another party. Once the transfer was complete, off I went for lunch - an egg sandwich at K Corner, a nice little place with jazzy bluesy music, a shady, cool terrace that provides a quiet escape from the hurly-burly bustle on the street. I smiled as I reviewed some of the photos on my camera.

After lunch, I walked around the corner to the Dashen Bank, in hopes the ATM was still accessible on this Saturday afternoon. It was! Flush with cash, I bounced brightly along the sidewalk, feeling good. I stopped to take a picture of a large building with a rooftop terrace on which colorful table umbrellas fluttered.

Omar Khayam Restaurant in Addi Ababa
I continued back toward my hotel, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells on this sunny day. I'd take a little break in my room, then go to the internet cafe to upload my new pics from the school and get caught up on more journal entries. A teenager offered me gum or "soft." At first I declined, but as he walked away, I changed my mind and bought a package of "soft" for 2 birr. While I was completing that transaction, another teen approached me with his tray of gum and soft, which I declined. Then darned if the first teen didn't ask me to buy a second item, which I declined.

I got back to my hotel, unloaded my gear onto the bed and realized, hell, my camera wasn't in its case! I searched my pockets, turned out my bag, looked all over and around the bed. No camera! Oh no, I left it at the K Corner Restaurant! Nope - I took the picture of that building with the umbrellas.

With a sinking feeling, I determined to retrace my steps in case the camera fell out of its case and it was laying on the ground. It was entirely possible that when I returned it to its case, it fell out if I didn't latch the case properly. On my reverse trek, I ran into Rahel and her fellow waitress from the Wutma Hotel Restaurant. I  explained the situation, and the two were confident it had been stolen. Bummer. However, I expressed faith
that it could turn up and that I intended to give it a go. I did retrace my steps, then reversed again. I thought I might make a sign in Amharic offering a reward for finding my lost camera. I did broach that subject with
two men sitting by the magazines-for-sale section of the pavement. They recommended I go to the police station. They gave me directions.

Not having much faith in that plan, I nevertheless started in that direction, and went by two security guards, one man and one woman, in front of a building. I starting explaining my quest to both, and saw that the woman had begun to laugh, at which point I said there were pictures on the camera of school kids from Nazret, and I needed them to help gain donations to their school. She kind of sobered up a little then, and about then a man walked by, and asked what the problem was. I explained it all again, noting the important thing was the photos. He also suggested I go to the police, and accompanied me to the station. Along the way, I learned he was a member of the Addis Chamber of Commerce!

This gentleman delivered me to the police station, gave a policeman a synopsis of my predicament, got my phone number, and then went on his way.

My first impression of the police station, sorry to say, was the walloping stench of urine. It was horrific. Otherwise, I noted men sitting on a couple of benches. I was invited by one to wait my turn on a bench as well. I also saw two Brits standing in the open-air corridor. Eventually, I asked them what their deal was, and one said they were at the station regarding his Ipod. I inquired, "Stolen"? He replied, "Long story," so I took that as a signal that he really didn't want to talk about it.

At one point, one of the "bench men" asked what I was about, and I mentioned the camera. He invited me to follow him, which I did, and we walked across the street to a car with two men in it. He briefed them on my deal, and the guy in the passenger seat asked me, "Did someone sell you 'soft'"? Whoa! "Yes!" I exclaimed. And the guy asked if the vendor was a skinny dude, to which I was noncommittal -- the teen had a t-shirt and an over-shirt on, so it was tough to remember his build.

Inexplicably, this exchange seemed to go nowhere further, as the "bench man" returned to the station across the street and I followed. I resumed my place on the bench, waiting my turn for an audience with the investigator, who was closeted in what was evidently the station's action room.

In time, the investigator came out of the action room, approached me, and said, improbably, "What's up?" I kind of smiled, maybe even repeating what he said, then he said, "Come on!" and went back into the action room. I followed.

The investigator had me take a seat. The only nearby chair was impossible; it looked like the seat cushion had once been bound in leather (or a facsimile thereof), but it had been chewed through to the point where only the barest layer of stuffing remained. I sat on it gingerly and surprisingly, it held.

The investigator was a tall, handsome man with a big smile and a blue and white striped shirt.

I told him my sad tale and he asked a few questions related to when and where. Then he grabbed a police officer and gave him some instructions. Obviously a man of few words, he instructed me, "Go with him."

I ended up with two escorts, a uniformed officer and a plainclothesman. I asked the uniformed officer about the other, "also a policeman"? The guy in street clothes laughed and said, "CIA. FBI." Along the way, the uniformed officer asked my religion (a very common question I receive). We three chatted amiably, I  showed them the area where the camera disappeared, and we returned to the station.

Upon our return, I was invited again to take a bench. The two Brits were still about. A Muslim "bench man" stood up, carefully laid his jacket on the cement porch where we sat, then stepped down to a water
spigot at the bottom of the steps, and washed his face, hands, and feet. Meanwhile, his companion prayed standing, then knelt on the jacket and prayed. The first man completed his ablutions and then conducted his own prayers on the jacket.

Photo credit: The Telegraph

Eventually, the investigator summoned me back to the action room. He had paper with carbon between pages and commenced to write a report. He asked if I had insurance and, surprised, because I'd forgotten that I DID have insurance, I said yes. The investigator asked the value of the camera, then said, "Do not file insurance for the camera" because he was certain his people would retrieve my camera. This was great
news to me.

The investigator asked me my full name, where I was staying, and then asked my age. Wha?! "Do you really need my age"? I asked. He indicated yes. I wondered aloud if it needed to be the true age and his response
was more or less a shrug. I looked him square in the eye and said, "30."

As I sat chuckling gleefully to myself about my outrageous response, he asked some more questions, ending with "What is your identity"? Huh? I told him I didn't understand the question, the realized he was asking my national origin. Oh, got it.

His report complete, we chatted awhile informally, and then I left, returning to my hotel.

Although I felt very hopeful about getting the camera back, it was a depressing loss in the moment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ethiopia: From Nazret to Addis, Part 2: Immigration Hell

Ah, the visa extension process. Forget everything the Ethiopian Embassy says on its U.S. website. A three-month visa at Bole Airport? Forget it! A three-month visa at the Immigration compound in Addis? Forget it!

Source: Ethiopian Embassy (US) website

[Note: I've sent an email to the Ethiopian Embassy in D.C. asking that it provide correct information on its website. I'll update the outcome in future.]

The extension process is a little like an old Twilight Zone episode where it turns out Hell is where one spends an eternity in a waiting room.

First, I climbed a wide cement staircase, noting two entrances to the compound: women on the left; men on the right. A woman guard at the top of the steps, when I asked where I needed to go to extend my visa, waved her baton, and said "end of the line." I explained, yes, that's fine, but I wanted to know about where to go for my visa extension. "I know. End of line." Yeah, OK. To the end of the line I went.

The women's line moved fairly quickly, and I met my friendly guard again, and she pointed me to the immediate left through the gate. There, an attendant logged my name, passport info, and a painstaking description of my camera into a large ledger. She took my camera, gave me a laminated card with a number on it, put a similar card in my camera case, and put it into a drawer. I understood that I'd use the card to reclaim my camera when I left the compound.

Next stop: Body pat-down.

Photo credit: Kigaliwire
Then to the adjacent glass building where I entered a largish waiting room with a table in the front of the room. Another waiting person obligingly gestured to me to take a seat. I asked "Do I take a number?" He said, no, there weren't many people at present, so shouldn't be a problem. In short order, I was called to the table, and a pleasant man gave me a form to complete, and instructed me to go outside the compound and have my passport pages photocopied (the page with my main info plus the one with the E. visa pasted onto it). I asked rather incredulously, "I go OUTSIDE the compound to get a photocopy. And then I bring it BACK?" Yup.

I left the compound (I realize now I likely left by the men's entrance. Oh well. No lightning struck.) I asked the woman guard where the photocopy place was, and that happy person gestured with her baton to a stone outbuilding immediately below her. I saw a clutch of humanity hovering round a barred window. I asked a man if he was in line for photocopies, and he said, yes, but then he said, no need to stand in line, just go to the window. So I presumed this was one of those dog-eat-dog situations where the assertive bird gets the worm (the early bird be damned). Then I learn, "no photocopy." Well, hell.

So I cast about for an alternative, feeling irritated with this stupid system, and tried to ask the male guard, whose first concern was that I NOT walk through the men's entrance, but once he understood my question, he pointed in a general direction to the left, where all I saw was a phone booth. So, to the air in a rather loud voice to anyone who might hear and know the answer, "Where is the photocopy? That guard over there [and I pointed to the woman guard] told me to the right, but there's no photocopy there!"

Thankfully, a man pointed me to the precise location, and said, "one birr" per copy, and then, "watch your bag."

Much appreciative, I walked down the rest of the steps, only to have one of the circling wolves glom on to me. "Do you know where the photocopy is?" "Do you have the $20 for the visa"? "Do you .....?" I curtly said I had all I needed and made my way to the copy store, with him glued to my side. While he stood at the doorway, I successfully negotiated the photocopy process and picked my way back through the wolf pack and back up the steps, through the women's entrance, through another body pat-down, and back into the glass building. I found a seat to wait my turn again.
Photo credit: Excel Math

I noted a woman, possible Ethiopian, at least in origin, and a large, Caucasian man, perhaps Italian, enter. The woman was rather sour-faced with an imperious air; the man smiled and mumbled. Both were in their 40s or 50s.

Presently, the pleasant official called me back up to the table, jotted some notes on my form, and instructed me to go to Room 77. Next building.

I walked to the next building and found Room 77, encountering a lot of people sitting on chairs and a bench outside the room. Clueless, I raised my eyebrows in a universal Ethiopian sign that can mean: "Hello!" or "I see you and acknowledge your presence" or to wait staff, "Please come here." Or in this case, "What do I do now?"

The same kind man who helped me out in the glass building indicated I should just take a seat, which I did, trusting that the process would be revealed to me. At first glance, though, there was no apparent system for people getting to the next immigration official in an orderly fashion. But soon I saw there was a woman in charge of tending us sheep, keeping us moving from one seat to the next, when, as a lucky petitioner came before an official, s/he created an opening at the "head" of the chair line. How quickly we became trained to the system.

When I finally got into Room 77, that imperious woman and her mumbling, smiling companion waltzed straight into the room! She walked right into the middle of the room and the large mumbling man plopped himself into a chair! The chair I was to sit in, as a matter of fact! I told him, basically, "Hey! All of those people out there (gesturing to the corridor) have been waiting a long time! They're in front of you!" He just smiled and mumbled at me ineffectually as if to say, "Gosh, I'm just doing what I'm told. What can I do?" I made a similar comment to the woman that I'd made to the man, and she just looked at me unblinkingly, without apology or movement.

Photo from Manchas: Espectador emancipado
Anyway, it was presently my turn at one of the official's desks, where a behemoth CRT monitor served as an excellent barrier between me, one of the unwashed, and her, the official. And that damned imperious woman attempted to inject her business in front of me, at which I presented her with another raised brow, Ethiopian-style, this time meaning, "what the hell do you think you're doing?" Same response from her as she'd given me before.

The official talked on the phone, looked at the monitor, looked at my passport, repeated the above, then said, "Inside!" Fortunately, I had observed another official give the same command to another petitioner, so I knew this meant, "Go inside the draped area next to me so I can take your picture." So I hopped to it. I walked inside and sat on the chair in front of the camera, just as I heard her disembodied voice command, "Sit down." I looked up at the camera, and I heard the same disembodied voice say, "Down." So I obediently lowered my chin. Snap. I figured it was OK to emerge from the draped area and sit again by her desk. She informed me that new regulations meant I could only extend my visa for 30 days at a time. Because my departure date is March 23, this would require me to go through this laborious bureaucratic process again just for two days extra time in Ethiopia. Not to mention having to pay another $20 for the privilege. I tried to explain this to the official, but she was immovable from the policy. She told me to proceed to Room 78.

And so I went. Fortunately, only a handful of people was there. Being now broken in to the ways of immigration, I slid into the appropriate chair and moved into one closer to the "head" as each person before me was processed and moved out. When it became my turn, I explained again about the mere two extra days over 30 that I needed on my extension. The official appeared empathetic, but expressed powerlessness. Luckily, another petitioner (I think a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Ethiopia) helped me out, saying basically, "Wow, this makes no sense!" He suggested I go to a manager who would have the authority to exercise flexibility. To Room 80 I went!

By this time, I had a headache. From the shortage of caffeine thus far today, the return to some altitude, the bureaucratic web I was in, or all of the above, I don't know.

Daoist Hell: Feudal Government. Photo credit: This Trolleybus Goes East
I entered Room 80, where I encountered a number of seated men,and an unoccupied executive desk. I sat in an empty spot on a couch by the wall, and attempted to gain a sense for the process in this room. Gleaning no hints from the men, I asked generally, "Will the manager return"? Yes. Good. I continued to wait. When the manager did enter the room, the men in the two couches immediately in front of the desk stood up, ready to make their petitions. Once one left, a man from "my" couch moved to one of these couches. OK. I've got the hang of it now. I watched the other petitioners closely to get an idea of how I I should best present my case. In fairly short order, I made my own way to a couch in front of the desk, and awaited my turn.

Meanwhile, damned if that woman and her mumbling man didn't show up in Room 80! Jesus!

When it came my turn in front of the manager, I attempted to dazzle him with my tiny bit of Amharic, a dash of obsequiousness, and a pretty smile. Of course, as an experienced problem solver who deals with plaintive petitions all day and every day, he wasn't fooled for one moment. At first, he took the hard policy line, but as I pointed out my flight itinerary and appealed to his reason, he took my passport and left the room. I followed, but quickly lost him, thinking he went down the hall to Room 77, but not finding him there, I retraced my steps and encountered a woman in the corridor (a fellow traveler "in the rooms" this afternoon) who gestured toward an entirely new room. I entered that room, where I found the manager, still holding my passport, engaged in a lively discussion with a sturdy woman official in uniform. He completed the discussion, left the room, and I followed him like a duckling back into his office. He wrote a note on my paperwork, told me he approved a visa extension of 35 days, and told me to go to Room 77. Thank you, thank you!

I walked briskly back to Room 77, found my appropriate place in line, and commenced to waiting again. When I saw a couple who had been in Room 80 bypass the seated queue and enter directly into Room 77, I ventured the same, showing my note to the "sheep herder." Merciless in her sense of order, she directed me back to my place in line.

In this go-round for Room 77, I sat next to a Sudanese man. We came to a tentative philosophical agreement that Life is About Waiting. He suggested the two of us swap passports. A Rwandese man on my other side had questions about replacing a woman's visa (presumably his wife's). I asked the Sudanese man to save my seat while I walked the Rwandese man to the glass building where one gets the form (before getting the photocopies), but we found it closed, so we returned to our places in line outside Room 77. I allowed as how there is a tiny chance I might go to Rwanda in July. Sadly, this man probably was unable to complete his business today, as an immigration official seemed pretty insistent the woman needed to present herself in person, even though the man stressed that she was very sick.

[We meet in these bureaucratic halls and our lives connect for moments, each with our little sagas, but then, like molecules, we bounce off again, never to know how things end up for others.]

Finally, I got back into Room 77, and holy hell! That imperious woman and the smiling mumbler marched right into the room again! I gave her a hostile look, which slid off her customary unblinking, stolid stare. I got to the same immigration official I had before. She perused my stuff and eventually instructed me back to Room 78 for payment.

For the second time, I entered Room 78, and took my place after the Sudanese man, who preceded me. We chatted again, practicing how to say "no problem" in Amharic (chiggray-yellum, sort of). We watched one of the officials insert a $20 bill into a machine that seemed to check it for suitable crispness. (Ethiopian officialdom does not like worn dollars.) Looked like this one was rejected.

In time, I sit again by the immigration official. I paid my money, she kept my passport (!), and told me to return Monday afternoon (at 4:00 p.m.!) to pick it up.

I left the building and stopped at the pat-down vestibule to retrieve my camera. The attendant got it out of the drawer, carefully checked the camera, the reclaim card she'd placed in the bag, the reclaim card I gave to her, and the ledger entry, then returned my camera to me. In a friendly way, she repeated my first and middle names, and we exchanged thanks and goodbyes.

I left the Immigration compound, walked down the steps and into the thick of the wolves, all eager to sell me something. As I negotiated a taxi fare, twice someone touched my butt about where my faux rear pocket is. OK, the first time could have been inadvertent, but the second time it happened, I exclaimed, "Hey!"

The taxi took me back to the Ankober, where I relaxed, although I still suffered that headache. Later, I went out for a take-away pizza and bottled water.

When I asked for napkins to take with me, the waitress helpfully told me that in Amharic, this was "soft." Ah, so now I know "soft" can mean napkin, kleenex, or toilet paper. I'm glad to add this bit to my little repertoire of Amharic knowledge.

I was happy to end the long day in a spacious room, cool air coming through the window, water in the flush toilet, and the BBC and familiar American shows on the television. I went to bed, I think at 7:30!

Ethiopia: From Nazret to Addis, Part 1

TMy last day at the English Alive Academy. I wanted to say goodbye at both campuses. Stephanie, Dawit, and I tooled to the Grade 1-4 campus in their cute blue minivan. I said thank you and goodbye to each teacher and administrator --Adenech, Eshet, Chibarey, Lema, Helina, Birkutan, and Bekolech. I received many child hugs and kisses and "I love yous!"

Bogalech, English Alive Academy
This morning, I saw that the creation of the "computer room" via the insertion of a new wall in the grade 2 classroom was almost complete. (It was started yesterday.)

[It's really pretty amazing what Stephanie and Dawit have created and maintained for the past five years. The maintenance of such an ambitious endeavor as this school being remarkable in itself.]

Next week, the grade school's two computers (one bought used and one donated by a previous volunteer teacher, Frazier) should be up and running.

Back to the present - Dawit became involved in the partition completion, and as the morning began sliding away from us, Stephanie and I walked to the KG campus.

Eshetu, English Alive Academy
More bittersweet goodbyes to the teachers and other staff there - Mekdes, Seble, Freiwot, Sennot, Membre, Kidust, Belynesh, and (I'm forgetting one of the teachers). I felt touched when the teachers said they wanted to have a coffee ceremony for me, and sad that I didn't have time to do so, as I needed to get to the immigration office in Addis before it closed today, to extend my visa.

When I told Sennot (KG2 teacher that my next visits would be to Awassa and the Bale Mountains, she said her hometown was in the Bale Mountains, and how beautiful it is there.

With no sign of Dawit joining us, Stephanie and I walked to Azeb's to finish pulling our gear together for the drive to Addis. We piddled about, still awaiting Dawit, who phoned three times to say he was "on his way". An hour or so later... Well, it had turned out that a very difficult administrative problem had manifested itself, which required Dawit's immediate, full attention, and which will require additional action in the coming days.

Helina, English Alive Academy
At any rate, once Dawit arrived, we all moved quickly -- and Azeb decided to join us on the trip to Addis. I was very happy about this, as I knew she wanted to spend more time with her visiting brother and other family members this weekend, but she had originally thought the partition wouldn't go up til Saturday, and she'd have to stay and oversee that operation. (Azeb, like Stephanie and Dawit, receives NO financial compensation - other than food money from volunteer teachers - for all the work she does at and for the school. I'm hoping that with the realistic student sponsorship amount, at least Stephanie and Dawit will, in the near future, actually get paid for the work they do. Currently, they worry every month about meeting payroll, and it is not uncommon for Dawit to make a trip to the bank to withdraw funds from their meager personal account to pay the teachers' salaries.)

Chibarey, English Alive Academy
So we all piled in the vehicle and were on our way. In Debre Zeit, we stopped at the Genesis Farm market and bought yogurt and cheese (delicious!). We stopped at the Ankober Guest House long enough for me to drop my luggage, and then they dropped me off at the Immigration compound so I could extend my visa. This was a huge help to me, and I didn't have to trouble about finding my way there on my own.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ethiopia: Nazret, Day 9, English Alive Academy

Spent the morning at the English Alive Academy grade school campus, teaching.

During the morning break, there was a great bustling as the 2nd graders moved all of the contents of their classroom into the grade 4 classroom, while the 4th graders moved their room's contents into another room. It took all of about 10 minutes, the children moved so quickly. I no sooner picked up an item to carry than it was whisked out of my hands by a child's hands. Eventually, I just got the hell out of the way.

This activity occurred so a carpenter and an electrician could install a new wall and wiring into the grade 2 room, creating a space for the new "computer room."

At lunch, I went to Azeb's as usual, and Stephanie and Dawit had arrived with their two little ones. (Dawit had called me earlier in the week to say they'd come in to Nazret on Thursday and bring me back to Addis rather than my taking the public bus back. This also gave the young'ns an opportunity to visit with their "Nana," and for S&D to check on things at the school.) Stephanie and I talked the entire afternoon about the school, fund-raising, planning, etc.

Stephanie and Dawit have somehow kept the school afloat for five years, at great sacrifice to themselves. To make their school dream a reality, for example, Dawit actually left his job at an embassy in Addis, a good job that would have provided him with lifetime financial stability. They lived on Stephanie's income at another school so Dawit could devote full time to their vision of a good education for poor children.

For five years, Stephanie and Dawit have used their own Spartan resources to cover gaps in payroll, respond to financial emergencies that come with building, vehicle, and regulatory maintenance; and provide school supplies. (An example of regulatory maintenance: When the government tax people saw that S&D did not operate the school in the black, the tax official said they must be hiding something, because anyone who didn't make money would have closed the school. S&D were assessed 6000 birr for taxes, which is the equivalent to 361 dollars US. This is a huge amount of money to S&D, but to keep the school open, they had to find the money somewhere from their own pockets.)

I talked with Stephanie about how she and Dawit need to at least establish a salary for themselves on paper, even if the school doesn't yet generate any money to pay for it. I used friend Pam's experience as the director of a not-for-profit adoption agency, where even though she only could pay herself if an adoption went through (and one never knew when or how often that might happen), it was important for Pam to establish a monthly salary. This has application at tax times, when applying for grants, for planning, etc. I advocated that this salary needs to be averaged across the 200 student sponsorships so that when there are sponsors, Stephanie and Dawit could actually pay themselves for their work. Besides, their two kids are young and easy maintenance now, but as they get older .... (Currently, Stephanie home schools the two kids. They call her Miss Stephanie during class.)

So Stephanie and I worked out a salary for her and Dawit, currently at half time, as administrators (Stephanie as the academic manager and Dawit as the operations manager), that will provide them with a sustainable income. The amount is so low by Western standards, it is shocking -- less than $200 for BOTH of them together! It adds only 90 cents to the monthly student sponsorship amount.

We also added some bits to the monthly student scholarship fee to start up a reserve fund (with a goal, at minimum, of three months' expenses to operate the school) and also a short-term emergency fund (e.g. building and vehicle breakdowns, etc.) The monthly student sponsorship will be $19.00 per month or $228 per year. Having the reserve fund is an organizational best practice and that, plus a short-term emergency fund will alleviate much current stress the two feel about the school's constant living-on-the-edge existence.

Another funding stream will be through teacher sponsorships, which will eventually cover the teachers' salaries (also shockingly low!), a protective lab coat, teaching supplies, and professional development. Currently, the teachers' salaries are NOT where S&D want them to be, but they can barely pay them now as it is. If the teachers get sponsored, then S&D can increase their salaries to above the going market rate, plus create a stable payroll safety net that does not depend solely on student scholarships.

Eventually, there will also be a building campaign. The Ethiopian government promised S&D to give them free land if they collect the money to build a school on it. S&D are in the process now of pulling information together to estimate the cost to build a school. One dream here is to have dorms so children who live too far from a school can live on campus during the school week.

In a meeting with Adenech this evening, Dawit and Stephanie and she made their decision to add grades 5 through 8 next year! Whew! They are fearless in their dreams. They just do stuff and assume it will work out OK.

And so far, it has.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ethiopia: Nazret, Day 8, English Alive Academy

Two English Alive Academy teachers
I took pictures again today at the English Alive Academy to finish up. I regret that I probably missed a few children, so their parents won't get a photo, but I did the best I could. I also took photos of the teachers, the administrative staff, and the cleaners.

Enjoyed three great classroom teachings at the grade school. I love how the teachers laugh (and then the children) laugh when I push my mouth into various contortions to demonstrate proper English pronunciation. Amharic has the lovely rolling r's like Spanish and the charming "z" sound, like French, when pronouncing "th." Nevertheless, I must insist on the plainer English r's and th's.

An English Alive Academy teacher
After school, I had an appointment with school administrator Adenech, who'd invited me to her house for a coffee ceremony. We walked to her compound, which was a pleasing shady oasis providing relief from the throat-closing dustiness of Nazret's side streets. Adenech lives there with her husband, son, daughter, mother, and maid. Because of the ever-rising cost of living in Ethiopia, Adenech and her husband have rented one of the compound's outbuildings to a woman. Inside the compound are a couple of coffee shrubs, fruit trees, and flowers.

The maid was making injera, and that was fun to see the entire process laid out before me: the large container with the grain teff in it, a bucket with the teff/water mixture that had been fermenting for three days (like sourdough), the maid scooping out the teff dough and placing it on a hot skillet, and a completed injera cooling atop a holder.

An English Alive Academy teacher with students
Adenech had prepared a charcoal brazier over which she placed green coffee beans. She used a special tool to continuously move the beans over the heat, roasting them til they darkened and the coffee oil emerged to the surface, making the beans glisten. Habtom, Adenech's son, then placed the roasted beans into a special container and ground them with what looked like an immense, heavy flat-top screw. Pound! Pound! Pound!

When Habtom completed the coffee grinding (pounding), Ruth finished the coffee-making process by adding water to filter through the coffee, using the traditional jabena.

A large platter of popcorn appeared (now we're talkin'!), and I was instructed that one does not eat the popcorn until after the injera. Injera? Appeared before me fresh, fresh injera, followed by shiro and gomen (cooked greens or cabbage). I wasn't hungry, but ate anyway. THEN the popcorn! The coffee was delicious!

Joining us in the coffee ceremony were Adenech's best friend, a high school chemistry teacher at the public school named Abebesh; the renter, Addedesh; Adenech's mother; Ruth, of course, and Habtom; and later, Adenech's husband, Haile Gyorgis.

An English Alive Academy teacher

I learned that this late afternoon meal-coffee is called mextus (or mexta?). I think it is akin to a British high tea. Anyway, we enjoyed a lazy, pleasurable chat in the breezy shade on Adenech's veranda.

Replete with coffee, injera, and popcorn, I made my way back to Azeb's, where I said I couldn't possibly have any dinner.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ethiopia: Nazret, English Alive Academy

Lazed about all morning, reading mostly, on this school holiday.

After lunch, I walked up to Dire International Hotel for a marathon internet session, uploading more than 100 photos (only 5 at a time possible) and catching up on almost all of my written logs. Ooh, and I paid the price, too! I pay a premium at Dire, for its privacy, proximity to Azeb's, and its comfortable set-up.

Nazret street scenes: 

Imports from Sudan

Juice shop on Nazret's main drag

Tire advertising

Ubiquitous stalled construction - major cement shortage in Ethiopia. Note the garis.