Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Road to Aksum

I left my alarm clock at home since I hadn't needed it on the last few trips, then I gave my phone (which had also served as an alarm clock) away to Karla from NL TZ, who had her phone stolen when she was attacked and would be traveling in Tanzania and Uganda, which I had plenty of helpful numbers. I had searched for an alarm clock in Merkato, but hadn't found any. So these 5am buses have been proving extra tricky without an alarm clock. Thankfully I have a good internal alarm, and also the hotel night clerk banged on my door at 4:30am to wake me as requested.

Bleary-eyed, I grabbed my stuff and walked out of the hotel and into the empty dark night. I walked down the block to the main circle and caught a bajaj to the bus station. I arrived to the bus station at 4:45am for my 5am bus. Already people were waiting outside the closed gates. But the guard would not let anyone in. At 5am, he began to let all the people who worked on the buses and in the station in through the gates. I just stood, locked out and annoyed at Ethiopia for its strange bus system. Finally around 5:30am, they opened the gates for passengers, and immediately there were chants from the bus workers previously let in: Addis, Addis, Addis; Bahir Dar, Bahir Dar, Bahir, Dar. It was a bit of a clusterfuck for this tired, uncaffeinated soul.

But I found my bus and ran the gauntlet to get on. The seats were basically small cramped metal bench-seats on a small cramped bus. It took us almost another 45 minutes to leave while all the seats and luggage got sorted out. Finally we were off as the sun was almost up.

I slept a little bit, only to wake up as the bus broke down maybe 30 minutes out of town. Something was wrong with the engine and the water valve. We stopped and a crew of people stood around watching the bus people try to fix it. It was 7:20am, and I decided that if the bus was not moving by 8am, I probably would not make the connection to Aksum, so I would turn around and go back to Gonder and skip Aksum and Tigray and head on the Lalibela. The bus was 124 birr, about $6 so I felt I could scrap it, and either walk, catch a minibus or hitchhike my way back into town, and maybe catch up with Samme and Fita to head to Lalilbela, or go on my own.

At 7:50am, I had enough and decided things looked hopeless so I started trying to climb to the roof of the bus to get my backpack. Someone told me to hold on, and that the bus was fixed. I didn't really believe it, so I walked around front. Sure enough, it was working again. I was a bit worried we wouldn't make it through the Simien Mountains pass that we would need to cross, and thought maybe it was best to turn around, but figured I would see how far we got and figure out the rest.

So back on the small cramped bus, and I napped for a bit on the metal poll in front of me, as I used my sweatshirt to soften my knees against the cramped metal seat in front of me. And just my luck, for the second straight time, I was right under the speaker blaring music. But I did sleep for a bit, and woke up just before we arrived in the town of Debark, just before the Simien Mountain park (I'm kinda convinced that Debark is named for “de p-arrrk” ie the park).

We stopped for breakfast, and a fellow sitting next to me and I went to little local restaurant that served spaghetti and sauce in injera. I had a fun time eating pasta with my hands and the sponge bread. My friend did not eat, because he said he got sick on trips.

After some traditional coffee, we got back on the bus. I broke out the Polaroid camera I had leftover from NL Tanzania, and snapped a few of the leftover pics I had of the bus mates. People were amazed by the Polaroid, and the few people I was able to take pics of were beaming. An old couple thanked me with some of their bread crumb snacks.

We were off again through the Simien Mountain pass. And it was beautiful. We drove along the narrow mountain roads with the clouds hanging on the peaks and settling low below. We drove around tight curves and through the mountains, as we passed mountain goats and monkeys swinging. My seatmates switched with me, and I had a window. And I stuck my head out the window like a dog in the car, taking in the cool mountain air, and thinking how lucky I was and how glad I was that I hadn't turned around.
As we drove through mountain roads, the kids in the little mountain villages waved to me. We passed pastoral life of mud and stick-thatched villages with goats and cows. The drove through the beautiful mountains and on down. At some point my neighbor had to switch with me because he got sick. Just my luck, the fellow next to me started yakking. I moved into the aisle. Thankfully, I was able to move back to my seat in the aisle, and the guy in my seat took his middle seat back, while the sick guy got the window.

We continued the long trek through the country, through hills and river passes. We crossed into the Tigray Province, and the landscape shifted a bit. It was a bit hotter and drier, and we saw a few camels on the road. I was struck by the villages of stone houses that we passed. They struck me as something so ancient, as if relics of millennia past yet somethings never change even over thousands of years.

We continued the long journey on, and finally arrived to the dusty town of Shire (“She-ray”). Thankfully, it was about 4pm, so I could still catch and onward minibus to Aksum. After being in transit for 10.5 hours, I did not relish the idea of traveling another 1.5 hours, but it was a better prospect than getting stuck in the dusty Shire. So I caught a minibus on to Aksum, ahead of darkening skies. We drove into higher elevation, alternating picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. The minibus was kind enough to drop me in front of my desired Africa Hotel.

I settled into Aksum as the rains started coming down. The power in the hotel quickly went out, so I went across the street to an internet cafe with a generator. When the power at the hotel came back on, I went back over. The rains started again, so I opted to have dinner at the hotel. No sooner had I ordered some tomato soup and a burger, but the power went out. I ate my dinner by the romantic light of candles. The tomato soup was actually pretty good. Ethiopian tomato soup has been a pleasant surprise with lots of cooked garlic thrown in. The burger was as lackluster as expected. Not sure why I ordered it other than I had pasta for breakfast and needed a change from Ethiopian food.

I returned to my darkened room to continue watching Star Wars, and passed out early after a long day.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


The Ethiopian Riviera; The Ethiopian Camelot

Tuesday was a quiet day, and I just sat around the hotel, finishing up some work. I rewarded my hard work with a Swedish massage—1 hour for 200 birr ($10). Later in the evening, I caught up with Julie and Clement, who had been on a tour of the Blue Nile and waterfall. They had met an Ethiopian fellow named Sammie and his friend, who had invited them out for some traditional Ethiopian music. We all piled into Sammie's car, and drove over to a local music spot, and were met by some Belgians who had also been on the tour.

The place was a bit of a trip. Ethiopian men and women danced in shoulder-gyrating forms of traditional dances. What impresses me is that every time I visit one of these music and dance cultural centers, everyone in the audience is Ethiopian; normally it would be some touristy spectacle, but it is nice to see that the locals really enjoy and support the local music and dance culture.

Anyway, we ate kitfo (raw spiced meat) and sipped St. George while the performance went on. Of course, a bunch of faranji in the crowd meant that we were going to be part of the engagement. Clement got selected to come on stage, and he shook his shoulders and gave some nice stabs at pronouncing the local dances. The crowd loved it.

Later, one of the dancers came over to a Belgian guy, and tried to get him to follow along with the shoulder and head gyrations, and he followed along amazingly well.

Sammie and his friend were also heading to Gonder, so rather than take a minibus, I got a ride there the next morning. We left around 9am, and headed out of town in the drizzly morning to Gonder. I chatted with Sammie, who works for the UN in Entebbe, and also his friend (whose name escapes me) in Arabic—as she lives in Saudi Arabia. We drove through small towns, filled with people in white turbans and shawls and past sheep, cows and goats dotting the side of the roads. We got pulled over once by the police for some baksheesh, and broke out the Polaroid to take shots of some of the kids walking along the highway. Of course, the policeman wanted two polaroid pics.

We arrived a little after noon, and pulled into the L-Shape Hotel (yes, that's the place's name), where my friend Phil was staying. I got a room as well, and headed over with Phil to visit the ruins of Gonder.

With its location straddling three major trade routes, and strategic value in the mountains, Gonder (“The Camelot of Ethiopia”) served as capital of the Ethiopian Empire from 1636 for a couple centuries. Phil and I visited the Royal Enclosure, where Gonder royalty once resided. As recommended by the guide book, we hired a guide to take us around the giant stone enclosure. The huge stone castle, Fasiladas Palace, had different parts Aksumite, Moorish, Indian and Portuguese influence, as well as the touches put on by the Italians during their occupation.

We walked through the ruins in the area, hearing about the different ways the royalty interacted with the once-flourishing castle and the tales of intrigue associated with the place. We visited the building that had served as the dining halls, the old baths and there was even a lion house enclosure. We saw what remained, and what had been destroyed by the British in 1941 as they bombed the Italians to dislodge them from Ethiopia.

After the tour, I returned to the hotel for a nap, and later sat out with Phil, Sammie and company, and we sipped amber beer and ate decent pizza at the hotel. Later,Sammie and I went for some more traditional music and shoulder-shaking dance, and we sipped the tej—fermented honey wine, which had equal parts sweet and soury/yeasty flavor.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


In a traditional
Amhara music club,
with thatched walls
and straw strewn
on the ground,

the singer sang to me
Amharic poetry
while the
the krar player
gave melody as
he played the
single-stringed lute
with his bow.

your mother
is lucky
to have you 
as her son,

they sang in polyphonic tones

you are blessed
for the life
you live.

Analogue Diplomacy

Screw digital diplomacy, I could revolutionize public diplomacy with a Polaroid camera, a George Foreman Grill and a stack of blank cds.  The last three feet (last meter) is best traversed in analogue, sayeth this PD Luddite. 

Ethiopian sushi

Eating Ethiopian sushi, aka gored gored-- chunks of raw meat dipped in wasabi mustard sauce and  berbere pepper. My new best friend is gonna be the parasite in my tummy.

It tastes a lot like you would expect--chewy raw meat with a bit of wasabi and pepper. I have had worse things, but I can't say I would care to try it again. However, kitfo (raw minced meat with pepper) is pretty good. That is closer to steak tartare

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lake Tana

I was awoken at 6am by the undulating tone-deaf chants of local priest at the nearby church St. Michel's. It was awful. I was transported back to Bukkittingi in Sumatra (Indonesia), where the local mosque would let child get on the microphone at the crack of dawn to sing their prayers in the shrillest of fashions.

Thankfully, the hotel switched my room to the other side of the hotel, and I have never been so pleased to face a parking lot.

I had negotiated for a tour of the Lake Tana monasteries—some dating back to the 13th century. I met the group of faranji at the boat dock. I was joined by a cute French couple, Julie and Clement, who I later found out were on their honeymoon. Also, two Germans who were also staying at my hotel, and a third German fellow named Phil—who I recognized from my stay at the Taitu Hotel in Addis.

We sped along the placid lake until we reached the first island Debre Maryam. We walked through papyrus marshes, as colorful thrushes darted through the papyrus. The monetary had a lackluster review in the guide book, and none of us wanted to pay the faranji price of 100 birr ($5) to enter, so we all chatted near the boat dock.

We boarded the boat to head to the next stop on the Zege Peninsula. I was chatting with Phil, and quickly made a friend: he had been to more countries than me! He had been traveling for the last two years, and was at 84 countries—besting my own tally by 6. It is very rare that I meet anyone who has been to more places than me, especially someone younger than me (he is 31). We got to talking about the world we both knew--the Road and all its trials and travails.

We arrived to the Zege Penninsula, and walked past coffee and lemon trees to the  Bete Maryam monastery. This round, thatched monastery had bright, colorful scenes from the Bible. Usually, visiting a church is the “seen one church...” mantra, but this was quite different. The passage of scriptures were illustrated in vibrant hues—in the affective Ethiopian Orthodox style.

Julie, Clement and I got the young guide to give us a tour around the monastery. It was quite fascinating learning about the different areas, and how to read the pictures (two eyes meant they were a “believer”; one eye shown meant they were not). The pictures had scenes from the Torah and New Testament, as well as from books holy to the Ethiopian Orthodox church like the Book of Mary. Julie was a relatively-devout Catholic so we had an interesting interchange going on through the scenes between the perspectives of Jewish, Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox. It was a very engaging tour.

After touring around the monastery, we visited a small museum of religious artifacts including the lattice crosses and holy umbrellas.

We met the group back down at the port and set off again down the lake. Phil and I chatted more about The Road, and those we had met who truly impressed us in their journey. I mentioned Charlie Walker; he spoke of a fellow named Isaac, who was holed up at the Taitu Hotel who I will go track down on the return to Addis.

We arrived at the next island, but it was underwhelming. There was a museum but it was closed, and the young monk wouldn't let us walk around the island without a little baksheesh that seemed unwarranted. We all sat around eating pumpernickel bread and waited to head on.

The next island was also a bit lackluster. There was a monastery, but it was a new one, and we couldn't walk anywhere on the island without paying 100 birr. But I had a great time sitting on a log, helping a young Ethiopian read. He asked to see my guidebook, and picked out a page and started reading aloud in English. He could sound out most of the words, and we went through the passage on the nomadic nature of medieval Ethiopian royalty. The other monks gathered around, smiling as we went through the text. I had so much fun, I gave him the book I was reading: Herodotus on “The Madness of Cambysses.” It was a brief little pocket book I had picked up at the Jo-Burg airport. While the content was difficult to understand, the words were not complex so he could continue to practice sounding out the text. I can only imagine what Herodotus will mean to this little island monastery.

We returned back to land, and Phil, Julie, Clement and I went for lunch at a place called Desset Resort. Perched on the banks of Lake Tana, I had been looking for the spot the day prior but was unable to locate it. We ran into an Ethiopian couple who had been on the tour. They were eating kitfo—raw spiced meat, the Ethiopian steak tartar. They let us try some, so we decided to get our own. We sat around the lake, eating kitfo and shiro wat—a chickpea stew, with the fluffy injera. Julie and Clement headed back for a nap, and Phil and I sat chatting and sipping beers by the lake until the rains came.

We all re-grouped later near Phil's hotel to hang out with some young Ethiopians that he had met. They got us some araki, which is Ethiopia's version of rakije. It was pretty good, and already I was having dreams of Serbian rakije diplomacy to Ethiopia. We got into an interesting discussion on religion, the ability to discuss religion and politics in various places and of views on homosexuality in Ethiopia and the west. Ethiopia is a very Christian country, and can be a bit conservative in such regards but it was an enlightening conversation nonetheless.

More importantly, it was quite nice to have a group of friends to hang out with. I love the exchange of ideas with the French, Germans and Ethiopians. One thing that Phil and I discussed was that in the more remote places, you find a better class of traveler. Unlike the touristy gringo spots where the young backpackers come to party, you can often find very interesting fellow nomads in places like Central Asia or the Horn of Africa.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Road to Bahir Dar

I left Addis in the middle of night because for some strange reason, Ethiopian buses are not allowed to drive at night so all start their journeys at 5:30am.  I had been unsuccessful in finding an alarm clock, so I was a little concerned about getting up for the bus.  The hotel said that the night watchman would come to my door at 4am as requested.  I found the fellow to confirm it, so he knew who I was and would remember.  In any case, I woke up around 2:30am, since I knew I was leaving early.

I had arranged with a taxi guy the night before for a 4:30am pickup, but he was late or didn't show so I grabbed another that was outside the hotel--who actually gave me a better price.  We sped threw the empty streets of Addis and down to Meskal Square, where the buses leave from.

Meskal Square was filled with pre-dawn commotion for all the departing buses.  My bus had not arrived yet, but came shortly thereafter.  The bus was full, and I had a 6'4" fellow sitting next to me.  We chatted a bit--his name was Degu, he was a chemical engineer on his way to Bahir Dar for some work with a paint factory there.  We chatted a bit, then I fell back asleep.

At 6:45am, I was awoken by Ethiopian smooth jazz elevator music blaring from the speaker above me.  In short: hell.  I haven't been subject to such torture since the Lhasa-to-Shanghai train, which would blare Kenny G on the loudspeakers at 7am to wake all the passengers.  I tried to get the bus to either turn it off or turn it down, but it was lost in translation.

But on the upside, it woke me to catch a beautiful perfect rainbow across the horizon--a sign that portends well for my journey.

Once I got over my annoyance at the music, the ride itself was beautiful.  We drove through mountain passes with clouds hanging in the distance and down a winding mountain road into the valley below.  We pushed on past fields with low-hanging clouds sitting just above.

But on the upside, it woke me to catch a beautiful perfect rainbow across the horizon--a sign that portends well for my journey.   Once I got over my annoyance at the music, the ride itself was beautiful.  We drove through mountain passes and down a winding mountain road into the valley below.

We crossed the wide, turbid Nile River, and into the pastoral life of northern Ethiopia. We drove through lush fields filled with cows, sheep and goats and shepherds watching their flocks.

We past onion-domed Ethiopian Orthodox churches with lattice crosses pointing towards the heavens. I love just staring at the window into passing life for hours.

The red clay of the rich soil offset by the green fields and blue skies above; huts of red clay mud with corrugated tin roofs, with Ethiopians in white shawls carry white umbrellas walking by villages.

 The only frustration for the trip was that I ended up stuck under the speaker for the bus, so I had the soundtrack to Ethiopian movies blaring above my head all the trip. But otherwise, it was a fine journey.

 I arrived to Bahir Dar after 11 hours of transit, and pushed past the touts to find a place to stay. Degu insisted on coming with me to help me find the hotel, but I finally explained that I didn't want to drag him around from hotel to hotel while I was looking and bade him farewell. I had been trying to find a hotel that sounded good in my guidebook called the Ghion Hotel. I had a few touts try to tell me it was closed, but I refused to fall for that trick...except it wasn't a trick and it was really closed.

I was getting a little frustrated as I was tired, and kept having touts bother me but finally I found another place that was decent enough called Deb Anbessa Hotel.  I bargained down the room from to 350 birr  ($17) with breakfast and a hot shower.  After settling in, I found my way down to the "Ethiopian Riviera" to watch the day's light fade along the shores.  I sipped tea under a tree of a little peninsula cafe and enjoyed the cool night.

Around Addis Cont.

I weathered my food poisoning storm on Friday and by Saturday was back up on my horse. I walked my way down to the Holy Trinity Cathedral—Ethiopia's second most important worship site. The cathedral had a large copper dome with the intricate Ethiopian Orthodox cross affixed to the top and spindles across the roof with various statues of saints. The church had some interesting aspects, like the carved imperial thrones of white ebony, ivory and marble. The church also head the final remains of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife in giant black Aksumite granite tombs. Above the alter area where some interesting murals of Emperor Selassie addressing the UN after the Italian invasion, and his return to Ethiopia after the Italian defeat. There was also a large, colorful mural by Afewerk Twerkle (a famous Ethiopian artist) that gave a bright depiction of the trinity.

I made my way back to the hotel, and then down to the area of Merkato. I crossed a veggie market filled with cabbages, potatoes and onions stacked on high, and a sea of fetid mud below. Not the most appetizing place to buy veggies. Merkato is said to be the outdoor largest market in Africa, but it really isn't much to speak of. It is just a giant sprawling maze of wares without much charm. I spent the my time unsuccessfully looking for a cheap alarm clock. Apparently no one uses an alarm clock anymore because it is on their phone.

But wandering in Merkato, I did get to try the drug of choice of the Horn of Africa: khat. Khat ("the flower of paradise") is a mild stimulant that men in Ethiopia and Somalia chew all the time. Kinda like the coca leaf of Eastern Africa. Honestly, I didn't feel anything whatsoever, and just had the bitter taste of chewed leaves in my chaw. Dunno, maybe it is an acquired taste.

In the evening, I didn't have much to do so I walked down from Piazza down to Bole Road to find a restaurant called Sa'ana for some Yemeni food. Strange thing about Addis—I don't think I have ever seen so many people just splayed out on the street. As in people passed out in the middle of the street, looking like they could be outlined in chalk. Someone could die on the streets of Addis, and lay there for days before anyone noticed.

Anyway, I walked down a few km to Sa'ana and had the international equivalent of “Lemme get one rib.” The restaurant was supposed to have incredible grilled chicken, but the largest portion they would serve was a half chicken. I tried to get the waiter to simply give me a quarter chicken since I was just one person, but that was not possible. So instead, I got salta—a traditional Yemeni meat stew with potatoes and onions that comes bubbling in a clay cauldron pot. Also a large portion, but more manageable. I ate the stew with the delicious large flat Yemeni pita that comes covered in black seeds.

The restaurant had a wonderful case of baklava, so I asked for a piece for dessert. “Do you want a kilo (2.2 lbs) or half-kilo (1.1 lbs)?” was the response. No, I simply want a piece. Maybe a quarter kilo at most. No, that is not possible. Just the huge portions. I tried pointing to the display case for just a small loose piece of baklava, but they wouldn't sell anything less. I gave up.

I returned for an early night before an early bus ride the next morning. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Around Addis

I woke up early--as I am oft to do, and went wandering the quiet streets of a waking-Addis.  I meandered down Churchill Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Addis and grabbed a bambolino (an Ethio-Italian donut) and macchiato as I passed construction sites and funeral homes.

I stopped in to see the monument built by the Derg--the Communist military rulers of Ethiopia from 1974-1991.  The monument was a giant communist red star with hammer and sickle over North Korean-designed socialist-realism series of statues of Ethiopians with weapons.  Some other Deg propaganda about overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie and the people supporting the army as Mengistu guided them towards the socialist revolution or some other bollocks.  As befitting good Commie-era, the security guard wanted a bribe for taking pics, which I didn't pay and furtively snuck one anyway.

I wandered down to a hot spring bath, but was sans suit so I caught a cab back up to Piazza.  Btw, cabbies in Ethiopia are some of the biggest cabbie thiefs I have ever encountered on this planet--and that is saying something.  They generally ask for about twice to three-times the price of the fare.  I just laugh in their faces and offer a more modest fare, which eventually they agree to after feigned indignation.

I visited the St. George Cathedral and museum, which I mentioned the entry prior.  The museum was interesting, with different Ethiopian orthodox crosses, bibles and robes of coronation of the imperial Selassie line.  I visited the church, watching worshipers wrapped in white cloth prostrate and kiss the walls or make signs of the cross.

After St. George, I walked back down Churchill Avenue, stopping at a juice bar for a layered concoction of mango, pineapple, avocado and other juices, before reaching the Lion of Judah statue.  This particular statue has some interesting history--it was constructed for Selassie's coronation but stolen by the Italians after their conquest and placed in Vitorrio Emmanuel.  Around 1936 or so, an Eritrean in Italy saw it during a procession, and bowed and prayed in front of it as police heckled him.  When he finished his prayers, he grabbed a sword and started stabbing the police, screaming "The Lion of Judah is avenged!"

From here, I walked across Meskal Square and on to Red Terror Martyrs Museum, which honors the victims of the Derg regime.  The museum weaves a history through the unrest during Selassie's regime, including the 1960 coup on to his overthrow by the Derg.  It then chronicled the atrocities of the Derg regime, including the torture, resettlement and famine inflicted on the Ethiopian people.  It was a moving exhibition, and included a somber grave of the bones and skulls of those tortured by the regime.

From here, I headed back up to find some lunch--a wonderful plate of "fasting" food.  In Ethiopian Orthodox traditions, they "fast" on Wednesday and Fridays--including no meat but fish is okay.  I chatted with a doctor and a professor of medicine who worked at the Lion of Judah Hospital.

I returned to the hotel to chill out for a bit and drink tea on the verandah as the rains came and went.  Later that night, I went out for dinner at a restaurant called Wutma, and had some firfir.  Kinda like meat and tomato sauce cooked with injera.  It was delicious although I think I got food poisoning from it [I was felled all day yesterday with a nasty bout of food poisoning].

I wandered down to the Ghion Hotel for some EthioJazz--a wonderful combination of jazz and traditional Ethiopian music and melodies.  I sipped scotch and listened to the rich music fill the night.  I caught a cab back--the driver wanted 300 bir; I gave him 100 birr.  I ducked in and went to bed as the rains started to come back.

Yesterday, as I mentioned, I was sick all day with food poisoning.  I have dealt with this malady before, in India, Taiwan and Tibet, so I knew I would just have to wait out the chills and sweats.  I watched the Star Wars trilogy all day and slept.  Not gonna lie, I missed my mommy and wish I had someone to take care of me.  But the ladies at the hotel were nice and made me ginger tea.  Thankfully it all passed, and I am feeling better today.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


NL Tanzania was a tad too busy for any kind of updates so I will pick up at the end on my flight out from Dar to Addis. I left Dar on a 4:30 flight to Addis, with little to report on the three-hour journey.

I arrived to the Bole Airport in Addis, with a visa already purchased. I had been debating if I would travel up from Tanzania through Kenya to Ethiopia, which would require a visa prior for entry into Ethiopia. In the end, I decided to skip Kenya for now because I was more excited for Ethiopia. The visa prior cost me closer to $150 but if I had just got it on arrival it would have been $50. I wanted to keep my options open—so it goes.

Addis is a relatively new capital of Ethiopia.  The country has a number of capitals that date back much earlier, but Addis Ababa ("New Flower") became the capital in the 1890s because Emperor Menelik's consort Teitu had a house built in the area in 1886--outside of then-current capital Entoto north of Addis.  While Addis lacked the political or strategic value of Entoto, it was pleasant enough and Menelik was powerful enough to move his court to Addis.  He almost moved it out to a new capital he was building because it lacked enough firewood for the burgeoning population, but an adviser suggested planting eucalyptus trees and solved the problem. 

These days, Addis is considered the "diplomatic capital" of Africa since it hosts both the African Union (formerly "Organization of African Unity") and the UN's Africa division.

For starters, it is cold here. Probably in the low 70s or colder (thanks Mom, your Hanukkah gift still keeps your boy warm). Also, apparently I have come in the rainy season so it is quite wet and drizzly. Since I was arriving later in the evening, and didn't want to start fussing with transport and finding a hotel, I used a free night I had with for a nice place called Trinity Hotel not far from the airport, which had free airport transfer. The place was fine, although a little expensive for what it was—not that it mattered since it was free for me.

I checked in, and ventured out around Bole Road to find some dinner. I found a little restaurant and bar that had some delicious tibs (sauteed beef cooked with peppers and onions) on some spongy injera bread that I washed down with a cold St. George Beer—the patron saint of Ethiopia (prob both saint and beer). I ventured back to the hotel for an early night after an exhausting few weeks on the NL program.

I woke up early the next morning and had some breakfast at the hotel. I checked out, and grabbed a cab over to Piazza—the area I planned to stay in. I asked the hotel staff how much they would pay for a cab over there. Not more than 150 birr ($7.50), so I began my bargaining. The taxis are all old Soviet ladas that definitely show their age. The taxi wanted 300 birr, but I wouldn't budge past 150. Finally he agreed and I was on my way north across town. I chatted with the driver a bit, who was an amiable fellow. He was convinced I was Mossad. He told me how he was a soldier in Mengistu's army when he was 17—but not the serious sort of soldier but rather the kind that when fired at, would toss his rifle and run.

We found our way over to the Piazza area, and I spied the Itegue Taitu Hotel. The Taitu Hotel was Addis' first hotel—built in 1907 on the whims of King Menelik's wife Itegue. The guidebook had said it was surprisingly affordable, so I decided to check it out. It wasn't bad at 300 Birr ($15) a night for a room with hot shower, but no breakfast. I splurged the extra 100 birr ($5) for a private shower (such luxuries, I know....) The rooms do look a bit from a century prior, but comfy enough.

I dropped my stuff, and wandered around for lunch. I found an alley way of blood and carcasses, and wandered down until I found a butchery with a restaurant attached to it. It was a lil halal butchery that I wandered into—and stood out just a tad. But I dived in, and took a seat and got some tibs. The place gave me a small bowl of carrot-ginger soup to have while I waited, then brought out a fresh plate of tibs that was delicious.

After lunch, I wandered over to St. George Cathedral, which was built by Emperor Menelik II after his victory in 1896 over Italy at the Battle of Adwa.  However, the place was packed because it was a festival day.

Instead, I headed over to Addis Ababa University, which was formerly the grounds of Emperor Haile Selasie.  As I walked through the gardens, I saw a set of concrete stairs with a small Lion of Judah on top.  Turns out it was built by Fascist Italy to mark the rise of fascism and the takeover of Italy.  Inside the old palace now resides the Ethnological Museum.  The museum discussed its history as palace for Emperor Selassie until its present status.  The exhibits were interesting, chronicling Ethiopian cultural traditions in a different manner--from Birth until Death.  There were children's tales, and birth rites, on through different cultural traditions.  It was an interesting space, where I learned a lot about the "Land of People with Burnt Faces," as the Greeks dubbed the "Aethiops."  Funny how it is often others' definitions that stick--like Japan as the Land of the Rising Sun--to China.  

On the second floor, there were the old furniture of Emperor Selassie and his family, including a mirror that bore a bullet hole from the 1960 coup.  There were also exhibits of Ethiopian crosses and iconography, as well as musical instruments.

As I left the museum, I ducked into the student cafe by double-decker buses brought from London to Addis by Selassie.  I sipped traditional coffee as I perked up onto the next museum.  

I walked down Algeria Street until I reached the Ethiopian National Museum--home of Lucy.  I wandered through the centuries-old artifacts, and past the royal belongings.  I found my way down to an amazing exhibition on evolution.  There were bones of extinct animals like sabre-tooth tigers and savannah pigs. And of course, Lucy.  There were models of Lucy, whose actual bones are kept stored. Lucy happens to be our 3.2 million year old biped cousin, who shattered previous conceptions that only after our brains grew bigger did we walk upright.  Nothing to make you feel insignificant than trying to fathom a distant relation of 3.2 million years.

After the museum, I literally got caught in a downpour.  I ended up taking refuge with some teens under a blue tarp on the side of the road.  I just smiled as the heavy rain pellets beat out a percussive melody to follow the music on one of the teen's phone.  As the rain let up, I caught a cab back to my hotel but was subsequently hailed upon.  HAIL!  In Africa.

I spent the evening relaxing, eating doro watt at the hotel.  I had hoped to catch some jazz at the hotel, but the jazz club closed 6 months prior after a fire.  So I ventured out and found some Ethiopian baklava before retiring for an early night of movies.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


What up, 2007?!?! Here is Ethiopia, it is considered Y2K7 because of the difference in the solar Ethiopian calendar.

I am happy to be 27 again!

And they also celebrate Xmas on the correct day: Jan 7.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wait, what?

Filed under: helpful in the MOST unhelpful of ways:

I was checking out of my hotel this morning.  I was still wearing my flipflops, and accidentally left my shoes in my now-departed room.  I was down in the lobby killing time before my flight when I realized I had left them in my room.  So I told the staff.  They went looking for my shoes, but someone was in my old room.  Then one of the maids said they were with housekeeping.

My shoes were shortly returned to me...sopping wet.  The kind housekeeping staff decided to wash my dirty shoes.  My only shoes.  For no reason, and unasked for.  I only have one pair of shoes, and now they are wet (and clean).


Abyssinia bound. I'm about to eat Ethiopian food every day for three weeks! My fingers are going to be stained with spices.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Aloha Peru

Aloha Peru May 2016! Pisco tiki drinks! Can you luau a guinea pig?!?!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Slip sliding Slipway

Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing-- food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as we industrious enough to ascend the pole.
Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness”

In Dar es-Salaam, I sip morning Savannah cider on the Slipway peninsula

Cider, Cinder and Smoke in my ear.

And Matuto in Maputo

A raven talks to me, but he neither has three eyes nor understands my Mom's crow-speak. "Caw."

Searching for Kurtz at the moment, somewhere in the heart of darkness.

I looked around, and I don't know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. 
Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness”

Arabesque almond awnings and white ferro-concrete veils next to art deco arches of pastel hues.

Lost in a Dar daydream.
Slipsliding away.

This is what I do

I can't rap.  I can't sing.  I can't DJ.  I can't dance.  I can't make beats.  I can't play mbira, guitar or even triangle.  I am pretty non-musically inclined.

But what I can do is build the space for different cultures to connect through music.

This is what I do: I play architect for quixotic cultural diplomacy.

As any good public diplomacy knight-errant should.

From Teao (aka DJ Offerings) of Audiopharmacy, who recorded this cultural diplo session:

"Meditation Prescription: This was a live 18 minute jam we did at the main stage at the Nafasi Art Space in Dar Es Salaam, Africa 2 nights ago. All beatbox, scratches, electronic drums, keys, and some percussion by duo- Yako 440 and Dj Offerings (aka Teao Sense), Live traditional African instruments by Msafiri Zawose and his family of musicians. (Percussion, Vocals, Marimba, Bass, and 3 ilimba's (thumb pianos)) Thanks to "Next Level" for bringing us out and thank you for listening. One!"

Public diplomacy is the…projection in the international arena of the values and ideas of the public…. the aim of the practice of public diplomacy is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen. Public diplomacy seeks to build a sphere in which diverse voices can be heard in spite of their various origins, distinct values and often contradictory interests. 
-Professor Manuel Castells, University of Southern California

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sonnets and donuts

O say can you see

"To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent."
-Roger Cohen, "Incurable American Excess"


Sunday, August 09, 2015

Back in the Day

I live a rather quixotic existence.  A little more different than most.

Tonight was one of my more quixotic nights.  It all started when I recruited Ahmad for American Music Abroad.  I listened to Ahmad back in the day, to make a bad pun.

When I was in grad school, I remember being at my cousins' place in Hermosa Beach, and opening the LA Times to a story about Ahmad going to Stanford to focus on social activism.

Years later, as I was recruiting for AMA, I found him online and I sent him a tweet.  We connected, but he didn't end up applying because it was late in the app season.  When I moved over to Next Level, I sent him an invite anew.

So Ahmad is here in Tanzania because I remembered him, and wanted to work with him.  And there are some funny and strange stories for the rest of the group, and why they are here as well, but I won't digress in this instance.

The short of it is that I have some crazy, wonderfully-talented multi-instrumentalists with Teao of Audiopharmacy and Yako440 of SoulInscribed, both of AMA past and future.

And on my pre-tour, I found out that a sibling cultural diplomacy program, called Center Stage had chosen an artist from Tanzania--to have them do the converse of what I do: send a Tanzanian back to Middle America.  Tanganyika, meet Nebraska.

So before they got sent off, I connected my artists with Musafiri Zawose and his group.

And they jammed.

Tanzanian go-go (not the same as DC) mixed with hip hop.

These musical talents jammed like no other--it was one of the best collab sessions I have seen and heard on the NL program, and I had a personal concert.

Sitting in the lone chair in the middle of the stage, sipping a cold Safari and smiling at my handiwork connecting. It was a Happy Paul.  My own quixotic concert in an art space with a giant white elephant, and a hyena and vulture picking over the carcass of a dead buffalo.

And the night ended with Ahmad performing Back in the Day.

Back in the day

when I was young
I'm not a kid anymore
But some days
I sit and wish I was
a kid again

And Paul says:
I remember way back when. 
Back in the Day 
Back in the Day.

 Yes, I had my own personal chorus and I was beaming from ear-to-ear as I sang the chorus I knew from 2 decades prior.

But the epilogue is that I knew Ahmad even before that.  From You Gotta Be.  And I remembered it better than he did.

Cause you gotta be.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Ethiopian JDate

I'm off on my next adventure to run the Next Level Tanzania program in Dar es-Salaam and Zanzibar. I am excited for what will be an amazing program.

But more importantly, I am excited for where I am going after: Ethiopia.  I have been dreaming of Ethiopian Jewish girls since I first heard about such kosher delights.

Ethiopian JDate, sign me up.  Queen Sheba, your King Solomon is on his way.