More Simien Mountain Photos

One nice feature of the free wordpress blog platform is the stats page, where I can see things such as where the readers of this blog come from. and what those folks seem to be reading. Well, by far and away, my most popular post is the one I did on my trek through Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains (here). Unfortunately, I lost the majority of my photos from Ethiopia and the trek when my computer was stolen in Goa. However, I was recently cleaning out my e-mail account when I stumbled across a few that had been sent to me by other members on the trek, so I thought I’d share them:


JD, myself and our guide looking out over a canyon on our first day.


Tea, coffee and popcorn at camp after Day 1. For some reason in Ethiopia, it’s customary to serve popcorn with coffee and tea. The popcorn also tastes a bit different there as it’s made with sugar (just a little), so it’s sweet as opposed to salty and buttery…


Dinner time in the cooking hut (Day 1 I think). Notice we’re all bundled up even near the fire… it definitely got cold.


More spectacular scenery…


Same day as above…


One thing about Ethiopia was that no matter how remote you thought you were, there were always people living nearby, which meant there were always, always, kids everywhere. Here were some kids selling baskets by the side of the road.


The young village boys were always out and about as shepherds for the animals. These boys would often sprint up and down the mountain to come say hello, ask for food/candy/money/water or to try an sell you something (usually a basket). They also would sing to each other from across the hills, which you would hear while walking from time to time.


Me taking a picture of something… animals, flowers, shepherds? I honestly don’t know. At least it must have been something interesting judging by everybody’s focus.


The morning of Day 4. Sure, it’s beautiful in this moment, but all of us (trekkers, guides and porters) spent the night in the cooking hut in the middle because it rained and hailed all night (soaking through our tents, as it had the previous night as well).


Male Gelada Baboon… one of the best things about this trek is that you can get pretty close to troops of these animals.


Nice shot of some of the mountains as well as our armed scout (a requirement while trekking here). He did have a rifle, but I could never get him to show us if there were actually any bullets in it.


Goats among the flowers. Day 4 I believe…


Stopping in a village coffee house for lunch Day 4. You’ll notice the flat metal try on the table, which is the way most Ethiopian meals are served. No utensils as everything come with a hard-to-describe spongy flat bread called injera, which is used to pick up everything else (generally meat, beans and vegetables).


You can see a bit of trail on the right of the stream. From here the trail went down the canyon, forded a river at the bottom, then went back up the opposite side in the ravine you can see across the way. Obscured from this shot, Ethiopia’s tallest mountain, Ras Dashen, is (way) in the distance.


More tea, coffee and popcorn at camp on Day 4. Despite the smiles, JD’s expression on the left sums up most of what we’re feeling because it’s pouring rain outside at the moment. We know that if it doesn’t let up we’ll be sleeping in the cooking hut for the third night in a row. The other problem is that the cooking hut is the building where we’re sitting in this picture (I’m sure you can see why we wouldn’t want to sleep there). Luckily, after dinner, the rain let up and didn’t come back all night (so we were able to sleep in our tents until morning). It’s pretty cold here, but I was saving my jeans for the evening as I knew it would be even colder then.


Some of our crew, along with some ladies from the nearby village, the morning of Day 6.


Kids selling hats and baskets on the trail (which you can see to the left). There was a constant refrain of “you want basket” most anytime we passed kids (baskets were 90% of what they were selling). The galoshes are actually a genius move considering the climate in the area. And you know it’s cold when even the little kids are bundled up.


A Farewell Salute to my Orange Backpack

Well… it finally happened… it was bound to eventually after all, but you’re never quite prepared for it when it does. You’re probably asking your computer right now… “Richard… what the hell are you talking about?” Well… I’ll tell you… about an hour into walking on my second to last day of trekking (coming down from Everest Base Camp), just outside the village of Dingboche, one of the main straps on my orange backpack broke, and a backpack without shoulder straps becomes just about as useful as trekking with a laundry sack or garbage bag, which is to say, not very useful. It was a very sad moment. I, being as stubborn as I am, walked the remaining 4 hours that day just using my hands to hold the broken strap over my shoulder. The following day, which was to be our last trekking day, I jury-rigged the strap down with a well-placed knot.



The solution for my final day... the black straps hold the blue bag to the side of the backpack and were tight enough to hold a shoulder strap for one day at least...

The solution for my final day… the black straps hold the blue bag to the side of the backpack and were tight enough to hold a shoulder strap for one day at least…

Now, normally, I’m not very attached to “stuff”, but this backpack and I have been through a lot together. I remember buying it… I was in Logrono about 7 days into the Camino de Santiago. The stitching in the shoulder straps on the cheap backpack I had bought in Pamplona (on the day I started the camino) were tearing apart. Since I was in a relatively large city, taking the afternoon off from hiking, I figured I’d get a replacement while I could. After a bit of asking around, I found a Bazar Chino (the Spanish equivalent of a 99 cent store) with a decent selection of backpacks. I found the largest model I could (Bazar Chino’s mostly sell school backpacks for little kids), and had the choice between bright orange and black. Despite the protestations of my camino companera (to her credit, she’s very, very stylish), I went for the orange one. How could I not? It would definitely be the most ridiculous looking backpack on the trail (most everyone has actual outdoor equipment)… I even, for my own entertainment, wore it straight away, all the way back to the hotel (giggling like a school kid the whole time… much to my companera’s chagrin). My decision to get a spare backpack, for once, proved to a remarkable action of foresight, as, not just a few days later, the stitching on my current bag finally gave way, leaving me with one sad strap, right in the middle of a long, hot, dusty section of the camino.

Ever since that moment my orange backpack and I have been like peas and carrots. Now don’t go thinking I’ve been travelling this whole time with just a school kid’s backpack… I just use it for treks and other activities where only a daypack is necessary… I have a duffel bag for my actual travelling needs. But, when it’s time to do something outdoorsy, I break the orange backpack out of the bottom of my duffel bag, stuff it to the limit, and go with it (leaving my duffel bag and other stuff behind to be picked up later). Despite being made in China, this backpack made it with me through the Camino de Santiago, to the top of Mt. Sinai, it survived trekking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, ascended Kilimanjaro, saw a Hindu shrine in Pachmari, saw Mt. Everest from the India, completed the Annapurna Circuit and (nearly) made it through the Everest Base Camp trek. Generally, on these treks, it was the only thing I’d carry (as I managed to fit all of my stuff in it… the only exception being Kilimanjaro, where I had porters carry up the tent, sleeping bag and a couple of other items), and I’d always get surprised looks from people exclaiming, “is that all your stuff”, or “how did you manage to bring so few things?” (to which I always wonder… what the hell did you bring to actually fill a bag that size?). So, it is with great regret that I leave the remains of my former backpack in Lukla, Nepal… it was a good run. Farewell faithful friend…


Breaking it in on the camino…


At sunset on Mt. Sinai


In Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains…


On top of Kilimanjaro…

Me on top of the hill...

At a Hindu shrine in Pachmari, Idia…

Me stopping to take a picture of a camino-like rock pile covered in snow (my picture didn't come out very well)...

Crossing Thorung La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal…

Revised Link

Sorry for the delay between posts everyone… when my computer got stolen about three draft posts went with it (I know… given the sophomore level writing style I got going on here, I’m sure you can’t believe I actually write drafts of these things), and it’s taken me a bit of time to get my shyte together and start writing again. In the meantime, it’s been brought to my attention that there’s a link to the full youtube version of the commercial from the previous post… so hear you go:

I’m pretty sure everyone can get on board with the idea that we have no idea what our own voices sound like to others… so I cringe every time I hear myself in that thing… yikes. More to come soon…

Potential New Career in Ethiopia?

Down the rabbit hole of another series of lucky coincidences while I was in Addis Ababa was an opportunity to play a white tourist in Ethiopia in a commercial for an Ethiopian Travel Agency… and yes… you read that correctly… basically me being myself (at the time, a white tourist in Ethiopia), but just in a commercial. I’m pretty sure you all can guess my response to the question of do you want to do this… a very emphatic “yes!” It turns out that one of the guys in the house where I was staying… another tall, white, guy around my age (he’s from northern Italy)… was originally asked to be in it, and had said yes, but something work-wise came up and he could no longer do it.  He asked me if I could take his place, and arranged for me to meet the production company filming the commercial, which, as you can tell by me posting about this, worked out. Now, the commercial was filmed for National Tour Operators, which is Ethiopia’s largest travel agency… and the company wants to start convince more white tourists to come to Ethiopia (and, of course, partake of NTO’s services)… so, the gist of the commercial is a white tourist couple enjoying various Ethiopian scenes/activities.  It was a nice little gig… I even got paid in Ethiopian Birr… it took about five days of filming over eight days to finish… included some nice activities (hot air balloon ride, a massage, seeing some nice lodges and a couple places I in Ethiopia that I hadn’t yet seen), and I got to meet some pretty cool new people.  Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know, stop blabbing and link to the commercial already… here you go (it’s the one labeled National Tour Operator):

I’m apparently in the other ones on the web page as well (hmmm… no mention of those in my payment contract).  And supposedly there’s a web version, but I couldn’t get the link on the company’s home page to open (someone let me know if they can do it).  All in all a good time… and maybe… just maybe… he first step on a new career path?

Some Negatives of Traveling in Ethiopia

First, let me preface this rant with the fact that, overall, I do/did like Ethiopia.  But, of course, there are downsides to everything… and the biggest downside to traveling in Ethiopia, especially if you’re white, is that when certain segments of the population look at you, all they is see is a walking ATM machine.  And for those of you non-white folk reading this, don’t think the fact that you’re not white will escape the attention of the folks here… you will still be a “farengi” and will be treated as such (especially asians… who, instead of getting “farengi, farengi, farengi” calls will get “china, china, china” calls).  Even the diaspora Ethiopians (ethnically Ethiopian, but raised in another, usually western country) whom I spoke with reported that they got some of the price discrimination hassles as well, especially if they didn’t speak perfect Amharic.

So what do I mean by this… first, when walking down the street in anywhere in Ethiopia (from the tiniest village to the capital city) people will just yell “farengi, farengi, farengi” at you from wherever they are… I’m not sure if they’re announcing the presence of a foreigner to everybody else (just in case everybody who’s stopped to stare at you hadn’t noticed you were a foreigner) or it’s a game of who can call them out first (ala the slug-bug game while on road trips) in order to see who can get money, or gifts, from them the fastest.  And while it’s non-threatening, it’s definitely slightly disconcerting.  Second, every single beggar/hustler around will flock to you like moths to a flame… when you get out of the mini-bus, someone will try and help you out the door, then ask for a tip… when you’re out the door of the bus, someone will try and catch your bag (being unloaded from the roof) or get your bag out of the bottom of the bus, then ask for a tip… when you walk to your hotel, several people will offer to walk you there (even when you obviously know where you’re going), and then ask for a tip… people in Addis Ababa will approach you and “just happen” to be going wherever you’re going in the hopes of striking up some sympathy in order to ask for some money (usually a “student” who needs “money for books” or something along those lines)… street beggars will follow you around asking for money… every single idle taxi driver you pass will honk his horn at you and ask if you need a taxi.  And note that this is all the presence of tons of other Ethiopians… getting off the bus, walking to hotels, etc… they’re are tons of other folks around who are not being approached/bothered by these people (for obvious reasons).  And, despite their cuteness and curiosity, all the children that gather around will ask for money, then pens, then candy, then food in that order.  Third thing is that every single price magically doubles to quadruples in your presence… and it’s not like you’re getting a better room or service for the price.  Hotels in most every city save Addis Ababa have a “farengi” price that is much higher than the “Abusha (i.e. Ethiopian… note that I might have misspelled it, but that’s how the word sounded to me)” price… for example, in Jinka, the farengi price was 200 Birr while the abusha price was 50 Birr (I know this because wherever possible, and in this case, I send in an Ethiopian to ask about prices for me… but note that even if you get the abusha price for something like a hotel room, the price will increase the second they see you).  Taxi drivers in Addis are also a constant source of frustration in this department… they will quote ridiculous prices for short drives, and then when you tell them you know the price, or you took a taxi here for X, they’ll still only lower the price slightly.  I still can’t wrap my head around it… I mean I get that they’re trying to get a one-off bonus basically, but when they won’t come down to something reasonable I’ll walk away (taxis are all over the place here all the time, so it’s not like these guys have too much leverage in the pricing department except late at night) and they’ll get no business… and they’ll just be sitting there with no fares… I see it happen all the time (even during non-busy times).  Even the Ethiopians I’m with don’t get it… it’s like once upon a time these drivers all really stuck into a farengi in the pricing department, and they’re still forever searching for the feeling of that first high… and now they think anything (even when it’s still more than the abusha price) below that huge mark-up is losing.

Two Examples of what I’m talking about:
Example #1: Bahir Dar.  I went to Bahir Dar before I did my Simien Mountains trek.  It’s a nice little city situated on the southern shore of Lake Tana, which, I’m sure all of you geography majors out there already know, is the source of the Blue Nile (one of two tributaries, the other being the White Nile, that eventually join in Khartoum, Sudan to form “the” Nile River).  One thing to do in Bahir Dar is walking up to see a palace built by the last Ethiopian Emperor (Haile Selassie)  situated upon a hill overlooking the town.  My guidebook mentions that it’s a nice excursion, and I manage to recruit a Canadian I met two nights before to come with for a walk.  He agrees and off we go at around 10 AM.  The route follows the main road along the lake shore, until turning right past the bridge over the Blue Nile, then it follows the river for a bit before climbing the hill up to the palace.  Being two tall white dudes, we attract a decent amount of attention from passers-by, even getting a hanger-on less than ten minutes into our walk.  This guy passed us going the other way on his bicycle… he then turned around, pulled up next to us and started with the hey, where are you from questions.  Again, this happens a lot, but usually, people are just being curious, and will go on their way after a bit of conversation, or, if they’re trying to sell something, or ask for money, will get onto their pitch.  But this guy did the usual five-minute conversation and then just kept walking beside us.  My friend I just ignored him for a bit, but after a while we asked him where he was headed…and, of course, he said that he to (coincidentally of course) also happened to be heading up to the palace (we had let slip where we were headed on about question number 3).  Alright we said, but we told him that he could tag along if he wanted, but that, in no uncertain terms, would we be paying him anything.  He said fine, but you could tell he was angling for a tip, because every time we passed a building he’d, without fail, tell us what it was… despite the fact that there are huge signs on every building telling us the function or the name of the building (that’s the Blue Nile Hotel, he’d say as we passed a building where Blue Nile Hotel was clearly written on the sign).  My Canadian friend and I mostly ignored him, but he actually loosened up after a while (i.e. stopped trying so hard) and we were able to have some pleasant chats with him.  Anyhow, the walk up to the hill the palace took about 2 hours.  When we got to the palace, we were informed by the guard that we weren’t allowed to take pictures of it… so, just imagine a large house from the 60’s behind a gate (gracelandish, for those of you that have been)… that’s pretty much it, not at all that impressive.  Now, from the main entrance, a clear path runs around the walls of the palace heading towards the back of the grounds and the view over the town/river.  The three of us (myself, my Canadian friend and our first hanger-on) manage to get a second hanger-on telling us that he can show us views of the hippos that live in Lake Tana.  Okay… is it the view from the end of this path (which we have begun to walk along already) we ask… to which he says yes, come, come.  So we walk along the path that we were already on to the views behind the house (nice… overlooking the river, the lake and the town in the distance).

Our little gang takes in the sights for a bit and then we start to head back as it’s around noon now and getting pretty hot.  As we go, hanger-on number two begins having an earnest discussion with hanger-on number one about, presumably, getting some money out of us (even though we couldn’t understand what they’re saying, when you hear the word farengi, you know they are talking about you as an ATM machine).  As we round the bend past the palace gates, hanger-on number 2 announces that he has to go.  Alright, ciao we say.  But then he asks for some money for showing us the way… i.e. the path we were already headed down to see the views and where no hippos were seen.  We, of course, refuse, to which he balks, to which we say he should of asked us upfront if we’d pay for his non-existent guide services, to which he replies that he wasted all his energy walking with us in the sun (for about 20 minutes), to which we say tough shit, piss off, to which he yells at us that we’re not human beings as we continue walking away.  Ahhh… Ethiopia.  We head back down with hanger-on number one still in tow.  My Canadian friend and I are a bit tired at this point, and it’s pretty hot out (it’s not so much that the temperature is hot, it’s really just something about the equatorial sun beating down… it’s pretty intense), so we inquire with passing tuk-tuks about rides back into town.  Of course, being white, they quote us prices that are orders of magnitude above the normal price (5 Birr will get even a foreigner one way all the way across town, and these guys would start at 100 Birr… and yes, 100 Birr is only $6.50 USD, but it’s not about the money, it’s about the principal dammit… I expect to pay more than a local, but not that much more… and yes, I should have just gotten in without talking about money and handed the guy a 10 Birr note when I got out and just walked away).  So we walk away when they won’t come down past 90 Birr all the while insisting it’s a good price… I can walk back no problem (and of course they drive off, or just sit there by the side of the road with no other customers in sight).  We walk on.  We pass some kids on the road and stop for a chat, when they find out that we’re headed back to Bahir Dar proper, they tell us that there’s a ferry across the river we just passed that will shorten the journey considerably.  They walk us back to the ferry dock… and I learn that by ferry, they mean two kids with paddles and a dingy.

We shoot the shit a bit until the ferry reaches us, at which point our new friends say goodbye (without asking for anything… they’re just being nice, which I find very common despite the what I’m saying in this post).  Our entourage gets in the boat along with several others and we go across the river.  When we reach the opposite bank, my Canadian friend and I simply watch what the other passengers are paying the ferryman and we do the same (2 Birr per person), but then the farengi greed strikes the ferryman, who insists we have to pay 15 Birr each (not our hanger-on of course).  We stand around and yell a bit, and I point out that we all saw everyone else pay and that I’m not going to pay more for the same ride.  I hand the money collector 6 Birr and just walk off the boat (for me, the Canadian and our hanger-on), a bit more yelling at us from behind but we continue walking.  We walk a bit more and finally manage to get a tuk-tuk to stop for us with a reasonable fare proposal (after some bargaining of course).  We all get in (including our hanger-on) and are whisked back to our hotel where we started this adventure about 4 to 5 hours ago.  We begin to head in the gates of our hotel, when our hanger-on informs us that he lives back where we first got in the taxi and needs to go back.  Cool we say… sayonara and good luck, thanks for your company and see you later.  He says that we don’t understand, he has to be back to his place soon, so he needs taxi money.  Well, we ask, why you get in the tuk-tuk with us in the first place (to ask us for money being the real answer)?  He hems and haws a bit to where my Canadian friend and I just give him 20 Birr (the fare we just paid… which is still about double the abusha price) to get him home.  He kind of balks with the is-this-all-face, and we tell him that we told him we weren’t going to pay him, and that he’s kind of an idiot to have gotten in the tuk tuk with us if he was already near his house, and if he doesn’t like the 20 Birr we’re happy to take it back.  To which he says alright, and then asks for our numbers… we lie and both say we don’t have Ethiopian SIM cards and wish him a good day.  So… his ploy worked somewhat, if earning 20 Birr (about $1.10 USD) for four hours of walking is your idea of worked… and he wasn’t as annoying as most touts… but still annoying.

Example #2: Gondar.  I stopped in Gondar for a day (after being in Bahir Dar) just before the start of my Simien Mountain trek.  I ate something that didn’t agree with me for lunch the day before, and could feel myself coming down with food poisoning… not something you really want to have on a week-long mountain trek… so I went off in search of a pharmacy.  Now, Ethiopia is nice in that you buy cipro (as in ciproflaxin, the most common foul stomach antibiotic) over the counter at a pharmacy without a prescription (something I found out my first week in Addis Ababa).  I walk a bit and head into the first pharmacy I see… and some dude follows me in… hello friend, how are you, what can I help you with (and no this is not the pharmacist).  I politely say hello, and then ignore him  talk to the pharmacist… I ask for some cipro, but she doesn’t speak English… I’m busy searching my bag for a pen and paper to write it down (as it says ciproflaxin on the boxes so she’ll likely recognize it when she sees it), but my new “friend” asks her about it in Amharic.  She understands him, and before I have chance to write it down she fetches a box.  Now, as an aside, in Ethiopia, drugs are sold by the pill, not the box itself… so the pharmacist will open the box and pull out a foil sheet of pills and you pay either per pill or per sheet (unless you actually want the whole box of course… then the pharmacist will get an unopened box for purchase).  Aside over… the pharmacist pulls out a foil packet of ten pills and I ask how much.  She takes a calculator and enters the figure 160 into it ans shows me… alright, 160 for ten (which seems right price-wise).  Here’s where it gets fun… my “friend” starts to speak with the pharmacist in Amharic… although it really seems like more of a one way conversation given his tone of voice… and whatever it is he’s saying, she doesn’t seem to be quite comfortable with it judging by her body language.  He then turns to me and tells me that I’m mistaken… it’s actually 160 Birr for 5 pills.  Errr… well… I’m just not buying it.  I immediately turn back to the pharmacist, point to the 160 figure in her calculator, and use my hands to say 160 for 5 (one hand up, fingers out), or 10 (two hands up, fingers out).  She doesn’t respond… just kind of stares straight ahead.  Now, I don’t really know the price of cipro, but this is just weird.  Rather than try to figure this whole deal out, I just tell her thanks (ignoring this dude the whole time) and leave.  Immediately my friend runs after me telling me that he can get me a discount blah blah blah… I tell him to fuck off (in English… I didn’t learn the Amharic word for this until later, but I would have liked to use it then and there… but he knew what I meant… btw, sounds like “tebeda” if you ever find yourself needing to use it) and keep walking.  I see another pharmacy and head for it… and another (different) guy follows me with the same hello, how are you, how can I help you lines… f-ing aye… what is it about Gondar I wonder, as I turn and immediately leave.  Later on, I found a pharmacy where no one followed me in and got some cipro… at 160 Birr for 10.  Fucker.

Incidents like these are a bit on the extreme side for illustrative purposes, but they’re an unfortunate reality of traveling in Ethiopia.  And the sad part is, I would say that positive events… the exact opposite of those described above… happen quite a lot, but many times the negatives just seem to stand out more (and believe me, much more positive happened to me here then negative)… maybe because of the constant, and I mean constant, attention (I mean, wouldn’t you want to go talk to a walking, money and candy dispensing machine?).  So, if you ever come this way, you just have to be prepared to deal with it… more so the stuff described right up front than anything as extreme as my two examples… but it is definitely annoying… even with a thick skin and the ability to ignore… especially if you’re already in a foul mood for whatever reason (say food poisoning).

Addendum: I wrote the draft of the above post just as I was leaving Ethiopia… to do some more traveling in East Africa, and eventually, India.  I had gotten used to the above experiences and simply chalked them up to something along the lines of maybe that’s just the way it is over in these parts.  I’d heard from other folks that this level of… ummm… what’s the word… interaction(?)… isn’t the norm for the rest of Africa… but since I hadn’t really seen anywhere in sub-saharan Africa at this point, I really didn’t know.  So, when I finally got off the plane in Mombasa (Kenya), it was literally quite a shock to not be constantly harangued by everybody… nobody yelling “mizungo, mizungo, mizungo” at me from across the street (the swahili equivalent of farengi in amharic), people selling me stuff would move on after a polite no, not nearly the amount of beggars, no little kids constantly asking me for money, or my shirt or anything at all for that matter, every taxi driver didn’t honk his horn at me while I walked down the street… in other words, a totally different world.  It was both nice not to be bothered, and yet somewhat saddening not to be the center of attention anymore (in Ethiopia you feel a bit like a minor celebrity everywhere you go).  The same thing happened in Tanzania…  I wasn’t bothered at all.  I posed to the question to other Africans I had met about why Ethiopia was the way it was… and generally got two answers, the first being that tourism was relatively new in Ethiopia so white people were still a novelty.  I found this one hard to reconcile, because there wasn’t a single place I’d been where there weren’t other foreigners around, and even if they weren’t around at the moment, it’s not like I was breaking new ground and going where no other foreigner had gone before… Ethiopians had definitely seen and interacted with foreigners before, so, again, this explanation didn’t seem to make sense.  The second answer I got was the Ethiopia was much poorer than several of it’s neighbors, so the people were more apt to beg and hustle than folks in Kenya and Tanzania.  Now, I didn’t realize how vastly undeveloped Ethiopia was until I saw the country in comparison to both Kenya and Tanzania… so this seems like it could be true, but I’ve also heard that foreigners don’t get the Ethiopian treatment in the equally poor, if not poorer, neighboring countries of Sudan, South Sudan and Somaliland… so this explanation doesn’t exactly work either.  I still don’t understand it, even at this point… why do Ethiopians act that way?  Although, now that I’m in India, the whole being the center of attention thing is coming back a little bit… but nowhere near the levels I experienced in Ethiopia (and in India, it seems more out of curiosity than them seeing you as a walking ATM machine).

Fun with Flights in Africa

I have no idea what it was between me and planes when I was in Africa (okay… maybe I have an inkling… and you might get that same inkling after some further reading), but I could just not seem to make anything work as planned in this department… classic cases of my impeccable timing working in reverse on multiple fronts (it’s bound to happen now and again).  For general information, you all should know that there are two particular items when booking flights in Africa to be aware of… First Rule:  It is always cheaper to buy tickets in the airline ticket office than to buy them online.  I have no idea why this is, but it was universal true… you’d save anywhere from 20% to 40% by buying tickets in person.  Second Rule:  The price of flights stays relatively the same no matter how close the departure time of the flight… so there’s really no incentive to buy tickets more than a day or two in advance unless you need to make sure you get on the plane (i.e. worried about the flight being sold out).  Okay… all set there.

Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro

So I’m in Zanzibar with my friend Shayne.  I start my Kilimanjaro climb on a Monday.  The only way to get to Kilimanjaro from Zanzibar in one day is to fly from one to the other (the ferry and bus combination would take two day, and I wanted to spend as much time with my friend as possible).  To make sure I have a seat, I buy my ticket (with Precision Air… insert slogan here) a couple of days early… mostly because I can’t really be late to start the climb.  The flight departs from Zanzibar at 8:20 AM on a Sunday, connects in Dar Es Salaam, departing at 10:30 AM, arriving in Kilimanjaro around 1:00 PM (and I start my Kilimanjaro climb at 8 AM the following day, which is a Monday).  The only hitch in this plan is that Shayne and I are spending the night up on the north end of Zanzibar (best place for Saturday night on the island), which is about an hour and a half drive from the airport.  Now we have a rental car, and despite it’s dodginess, at least there’s no problem with arranging transport… so, if we just get up a touch on the early side and make the drive I’ll be there no problem… perfectly sound logic right?  I figure we’ll be up at 5:45 AM, on the road by six, gets me there around 7:30ish, which gets me on the plane easy-peasy (it’s a tiny airport so no real worry about huge lines or crowds).  Done and done with the planning… commence with partying… which ends up with both of us finally turning in around 4 to 4:30 AM (my lovely Scottish Tanzanian friend, whom I had met that night, predicted that there was no way I wasn’t going to miss my flight… to which I responded that I’d never missed a flight in my life and that I wasn’t about to start now… note that the former statement is only partially true by the way).  I generally have no problem sleeping just a little bit and getting back up, so I set my cell phone alarm for 5:45 AM and caught some z’s.  Sometime later I woke up… not to the sound of my cell phone alarm mind you, but to the ray’s of light coming through our un-curtained window.  I immediately thought that was strange (sometimes I wake up before my alarm is supposed to go off), and went over to check my phone, which I had left on the table at the foot of my bed (ensuring I’d have to get up to turn it off and thereby help me wake up).  I pick up my phone and notice that the alarm is, virtually inaudibly, going off… and that it’s approximately 6;45 AM… shyte.  I seriously contemplate just going back to bed, but then contemplate the chain of events that would happen should I not be able to start my climb tomorrow at 8 AM (nothing good as could be imagined).  I wake up Shayne, pack and we’re on the road by 7 AM… trying to cram an hour and a half drive into an hour and ten minutes to give me some hope of getting on a plane that leaves in an hour and twenty minutes (got that?).  Shayne’s driving (as he had the foresight to get an international driver’s license) and we’re going as fast as we possibly can… given what the windy two-lane going through every village road, and this p.o.s. vehicle, will allow in terms of both speed and safety (of both ourselves and others).  Shayne does an admirable job of swerving around every villager, ox-cart, truck, bus and occasional animal herd that wanders in the road while I vigilantly scan the road for the un-marked, potentially suspension ruining, speed bumps that seem to pop up all over the place.  With this heroic driving effort and a couple of lucky guesses on which way to turn (no detailed map of helpful signs here), we manage to make it to the airport in an hour and fifteen minutes… very impressive in hindsight… but unconcerned with our driving skills at the time, I hurtled myself and my bag out of the car and into the terminal and up to the check-in counter only to watch, literally, my plane take off via the window immediately behind the check-in counter… shyte again, flight missed, and the potential of missing the start of my Kilimanjaro climb increases.  Note that the check-in guys behind the counter take particular delight in asking me why I’m so late (when it’s clear by the way I look, and possibly smell, that I’ve been up all night partying).  One guy behind the counter walks me over to the ticket office to see if they can do anything for me.  The ticket office is outside the airport, and I run into Shayne on the way there as he has parked the car and stopped to take a breather to calm down a touch after speed racing, more or less, the entire length of Zanzibar island to get here.  He joins me as I go into the ticket office to see the lady about possible ways to get me to Kilimanjaro today.  I explain my situation and the lady, with the same smirk as the other guys, asks me why I missed my l fight (to make her day more entertaining than it otherwise would have been was my response).  She checks her flights, there’s one from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam leaving at 10:00 AM, which of course, makes me miss my 10:30 connection to Kilimanjaro (flight time from Zanzibar to Dar is 30 minutes).  She tells me there are two other flights leaving from Dar to Kilimanjaro later in the afternoon, but they are sold out.  The best that she could do is get me to Dar today, and get me on the first flight out of Dar to Kili tomorrow morning, which would have me to Kili around noon… too late though, as I’m supposed to start the climb at 8 AM tomorrow morning.  Now, at this point, there’s a couple of other folks gathered around the ticket office at this point watching the interaction.  With Precision Air flights being out of the question now, I start asking if there’s any other flights leaving the airport that would be me to Dar before 10:00 AM.  The lady repeats that the only flight is at 10, but I know that’s just the Precision Air flights.  I keep pushing and asking about flights with other companies, and actually I get a bit frustrated because even though these folks speak english, they’re not 100% fluent for subtleties like this… She keeps telling me the next flight is at 10, and I keep telling her that I’m interested in flights with other companies because I have to get there today.  Finally, one of the bystanders (who works for a different company) informs me that there’s a flight leaving at 9:30 AM to Dar with another company (not his company mind you, he’s just being helpful).  It’s just shy of 9 AM at this point… so i figure this might work.  This guy calls somebody who walks me over to the other company’s ticket office and I buy a ticket for the 9:30 flight (I figure the flight is 30 minutes… I’ll get there at 10:00 and just run like a madmen through the terminal to get on my connecting flight).  Cool, I walk back over to Shayne and the lady at the Precision Air office and tell them what I’ve done, and I ask the lady if she can call ahead to the Precision Air folks in Dar to tell them about my situation and my need to board the 10:30 flight to Kili.  The lady politely informs me that what I’m planning to attempt is impossible for a couple of reasons… the first being is that I’m not checked in (and the check-in counter closes 40 minutes before the scheduled flight departure time)… so I ask her to check me in there, which she does.  Secondly, she notes (very helpfully I might add), that since I missed this first flight, I’ll show up in the system as having missed this flight, and I’ll automatically get booted from the next flight (so I couldn’t get on it even if I was there on time).  I ask her what she can do about that, and she notes that she can cancel my ticket for the first leg of the flight and give me a credit… same as if I just changed the date of my flights.  I ask her to do that, and she does… so I give her a big hug.  She laughs, but still notes (thirdly) that what I’m trying to do is still impossible because the domestic terminal (where the flight from Zanzibar will arrive) is not adjacent to the international terminal (which is where the flight to Kili departs from)… I figure it can’t be that bad and that I’ll have plenty of time (okay… not plenty of time, but thirty minutes if all goes well… ignorance is truly bliss).  So, now, seemingly good to go, I head into the terminal to get on my flight, which I naively believe is there waiting for me to get on board (it being 9:15 AM or so at this point).  I clear security and what not really quickly, and ask where this flight is… and I’m informed that it hasn’t even landed yet.  What.. how can that be?  I post up next to the a/c because it’s hot enough that, at this point, I’m sweating profusely just from my hurried walking back and forth between the ticket offices outside.  So I wait… and wait… and wait… for what seems like an eternity (even though it was only like 10 minutes).  My plane (finally) lands, people get off, bags are unpacked, and then we all get to start boarding.  Keep in mind that this is a single engine propeller plane that seats about 15 people… so at least the unloading and loading go rather quickly.  All of the passengers get on the plane, but then we have to wait for an Italian family that didn’t hear the boarding call and then spent 5 minutes trying to get there two-year old corralled enough to board… more time goes by… we finally take off around 10:45… not good, but at least I’m on my way to Dar.  Upon landing nearly exactly 30 minutes later at the Dar Es Salaam domestic terminal, I grab my bag, get off the plane and quick step my way across the 400 yards or so of tarmac that separate me from the terminal.  I blast through the terminal to the taxi stand where I yell at some taxi guys that I need to get to the international terminal ASAP.  I find a guy, agree on a price and tell him to get me there as fast as possible without killing us.  It’s only now that I realize what the lady back in the Precision Air office was talking about… the international terminal is a good ten minute drive from the domestic terminal (it seems that East Africa megalopolis’s aren’t know for their planning).  However, I’m committed at this point… and I start to work out contingency plans in case I miss my connection (which is looking increasingly probable at this point).  I get dropped off at the international terminal and attempt to run into the terminal.  Now, one thing about departure terminals in East Africa airports is that the security screening takes place before you get inside the terminal (with another one before you get to the gate)… so there’s generally a line to get into the terminal (and today was no exception).  I just charge right to the front of the nebulous gathering of people that constitute the “line”, only to get stopped by a security guard who’s directing the inflow of people to the various security lines so those lines don’t get too crowded.  He holds me up and asks what do I think I’m doing… I explain to him that I’m very late and I’m trying to catch a flight that’s about to take off.  He points to every body else in line and tells me that they’re all late too, so I can just wait inline like everybody else… I tell him I doubt that’s even remotely true, show him my ticket (and flight time) and ask him nicely if I can go through.  He, very loudly, for the benefit of the crowd, tells me that I can wait in line just like everybody else (now, I’m being a dick for trying to cut the line and being late, but now he’s being a dick by playing the “gatekeeper”… but c’est l vie).  Now, there’s not much I can do besides try and push by him, which would likely lead to much more hassle… so I go side-step my way into the amorphous blob that is the line… and I slip in about 5 people from the entrance (with some nodding and apologising to the people I’m clearly cutting in front of).  It’s moving slowly, so it takes about five minutes for me to get through and go through the rigmarole of the security dance and into the terminal.  I find a precision Air counter… my flight’s not even up on the (check-in) board anymore because check-in for my flight had closed about 40 (maybe 50) minutes ago.  Now, it’s approximately 10:30 (ten minutes past when my flight is supposed to leave).  I, again, cut to the front of the line at a Precision Air counter and get a guy to tell me if my flight has left yet (it hasn’t… phfew) and to give me a boarding pass, which he does (concurrently with me apologizing to the dude that I just cut in front of… this guy didn’t seem to mind).  I hustle up to the gates, go through the next security check point, get to the terminal only to find that my flight has not even actually started boarding yet because the plane has just arrived… thank you late flight.  So, after 3 and a half hours or so of manic hustling, I ended up making the connecting flight and arriving to Kilimanjaro with plenty of time to get ready to begin my climb the following morning (albeit a little frazzled for only having slept 2 hours or so the night before).

Kilimanjaro to Dar Es Salaam

After climbing Kilimanjaro, I needed to get back to Dar Es Salaam to get an Indian visa so I could get into the country to attend my friend’s wedding.  I arrived back to town after the climb around 2 PM on a Sunday afternoon.  I wanted to buy a plane ticket for the next day, but the offices were closed as it was Sunday (remember my rule above about it always being much cheaper to buy a ticket from the office as opposed to online).  So, I figured I’d look up the flights online to see when they were leaving, then just go early and buy a ticket at the airport.  My plan was to get to Dar relatively early so I could find a place to stay, find out where the India High Commission Office was, find out what I needed to get together for my visa application and get all the necessary paperwork together so I could submit it the following (Tuesday) morning.  The interwebz kindly informed me that Precision Air had four flights scheduled for the following day, one at 7 AM, one at 10:40 AM, one at 4:30 PM and one at 7 PM (I was assuming, because I could buy tickets for them all online, that none of the flights were sold out… also, Precision Air is the only airline with a web presence… there are other airlines that also use the airport, but you can only get tickets from their physical offices… a back-up plan of sorts).  Now, 7 AM is too early, so I arrange for a taxi to get me there at 9:30 AM or so so I could buy a ticket for the 10:40 flight.  Everything goes smoothly… and I get into the ticket office just before 9:30.  The lady in the office informs me that there’s space available on the 10:40 flight and that a ticket will be $X.  I say awesome and whip out my credit card to pay… to which she politely informs me that they only take cash as they don’t, nor does anyone in fact, have a credit card machine (I should have known this, and I should add it to my above general rules of flying in East Africa….  in fact, paying in cash is really a general rule that applies to most things).  Okay… this is an airport… where’s the ATM?  To which she informs me that the nearest one is 20 kilometers away.  Shyte.  I look at my taxi driver, who has followed me into the office to watch the interaction (another common thing here), and ask him how long it’ll take to get there… he says 20 minutes.  I tell the lady to hold on as I’ll be right back (to which she informs me that if I don’t get back by 10, I can’t check in for the light because the computers shut down before then… the whole have to check in 40 minutes before the flight’s scheduled departure time thing).  Okay I say, ignoring the implication as I always figure I can work my way around any computer issues through charming persuasion… plus I really have no choice anyhow… I have to get a flight to Dar today, and I have to pay in cash, so I have to go to the ATM no matter what (my driver informs me that, had he known about what I was trying to do, he could have taken me to the Precision Air office back in town and avoided this whole situation… thanks for letting me know guy).  We manage to make it to the ATM in 15 minutes.  Of course, I get up to the ATM, only to find out the system is down and the ATM is not working (another relatively common occurrence in East Africa).  Shyte again.  The taxi guy, who is really the hotel airport shuttle driver, tells me he has to get back to the airport soon as there’s another flight arriving in an hour or so that has folks he needs to pick up and take back to the hotel.  I run through a couple of options in my head, but ultimately get back in the car with him to head back to the airport hoping to figure something out (i.e. catching a free ride with him back to town, buying a ticket, and/or using the ATM back in town, and/or buying a ticket online, then getting another cab ride to the airport).  The driver makes one more call to the lady in the Precision Air office (I’m still not sure why they had each others’ phone numbers… if they exchanged them before I left, or if they already knew each other) and then, after the call, abruptly u-turns in the middle of the street (we were about halfway back to the airport at this point).  He tells me the lady at the office told him there was another ATM in a hotel back down the road… So we head back there… and the ATM, for which there was no sign, was in the hotel immediately adjacent to the bank with the ATM that wasn’t working.  The lady at the office didn’t bother to tell us about it because, for some reason, she only thought I’d have a debit card that worked with Visa and that I wouldn’t be able to make a withdrawal from the ATM in the hotel (which, of course, I was able to)… I still don’t know why she thought this?  As an aside, I’m finding this is a very common thing in other countries (maybe it is in America as well, but since I’m a native I know the right questions to ask in a language everybody’s fluent in)… people only tell you what they think will work without presenting all the options… like this lady and the ATM locations, or the lady in the story above who didn’t tell me about the 9:30 flight because she though it would be impossible to make the connection anyhow… people, please just give me all the options so I can decide for myself… aside over.  So i get some cash, and head back to the airport… but I can’t check in for the 10:40 flight because it’s now 10:20 or so and the computers have locked everything out.  I plead, I persuade, I contort… but she can’t override the computer (I keep asking myself if this is real or she just doesn’t know how, or what?) and I can’t get on the 10:40 flight.  So I book a ticket on the 4:30 PM flight and just sit in the airport until then (the fight did end up leaving an hour early though… another common thing in East Africa if everyone has checked in).  I ended up making to Dar with enough time to get all my paperwork together to submit my visa application the next day.

Addis Ababa to Mombasa

I’m in Ethiopia.  My friend Shayne is flying into Mombasa Kenya and out of Dar Es Salaam Tanzania two weeks later.  I’m, of course, going down to meet him.  Now, I did contemplate taking the bus… despite the actual road distance between Addis Ababa and Mombasa being only 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles), going by bus takes an incredible 5 days at the fastest, and sometimes 6 (owning primarily to the poor to nonexistent condition of the roads from the Kenyan border sotuh to Nairobi… oh, and the slight possibility of banditry on the portion of the roads near Somalia).  I thought it would be a bit of an adventure to say I’d done that stretch of road by bus, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I was struck down with a bit of food poisoning and elected to fly instead.  I booked my ticket at the Ethiopian Airlines office in Addis Ababa about four days in advance.  A 10:00 AM flight (on a Wednesday) that stopped briefly at the Kilimanjaro airport before heading to Mombasa (I bought the ticket based on an e-mail Shayne had sent me about what date he planned on arriving in Mombasa).  When I looked at the itinerary of Shayne’s flight, it looked like we’d be on the flight together as his overnight flight outta Frankfurt stopped in Addis, where he’d get on this particular flight to Mombasa via Kilimanjaro.  The day I leave I get up at 6:30 AM (despite having gone to bed at 3:30 AM or so from celebrating my last night with friends) to pack and leave for the airport early so I could spend sometime chillin’ with Shayne at the airport (his flight from Frankfurt arrived at 6 AM or so).  I pack my shit, leave my key, go down and eat some breakfast, get a taxi to the airport just fine and arrive at the international terminal pretty early.  My first problem develops… I don’t see my flight listed on the boards anywhere.  I ask around only to find out that, despite my flight going to both Kenya and Tanzania, it’s taking off from the domestic terminal, which is about a 15 minute walk away… alrighty, it’s early and not hot yet, so I head over.  I make it through security and wait patiently inline at the counter to get my boarding pass.  Once I get to the counter I make a move to hand over my passport only to find I don’t have it.  Scheisser.  I check all possible places it might be, but to no avail… i don’t have it on me.  Now, it can only really be two places… back in the room I just left this morning, or, pretty remotely, in the other room I was staying in about two nights before.  I grab my bag and hustle outside to a taxi… i tell him to head towards the place I was staying the night before and that he’s going to have to wait and bring me back to the airport.  We reach a reasonable rate for this trip rather quickly (which is surprising because the taxi driver’s in Addis Ababa are generally unreasonably greedy when they see for).  On the way back to the one place I call my other friend, ask if she’s still home, and ask her to check the room I was in to see if I left my passport there… luckily the answer there is negative (as she lives, far, far away in Addis terms).  The taxi, virtually unencumbered by traffic the whole way (a stroke of luck) drops me off back at the bottom of my street.  I run back up the street to my house and bang on the gate for the guard to answer… nothing.  I bang again… and again… and again… nothing.  So… what to do?  I jump the fence of course.  I go back to my room and search the desk where I had all my stuff… and sure, enough, there’s my passport, hidden under a shelf in the back in the shadow.  Sigh of relief.  I hustle back down to the taxi now facing the problem of running out of time and missing my flight.  Again, very luckily, the taxi flies back to the airport unencumbered by traffic (this is a rare occurrence here) and I manage to check myself in before the counter closes.  I wait through some more security check points to make it up to the gate in time to be one of the last people on board the bus that goes out to the plane.  I scan the passengers on the bus, then later on the plan… no sign of Shayne though.  Shyte… did he miss his connection?  I really have no way to check at this point… so I strap in and make my way to Mombasa.  once in Mombasa, clear that Shayne’s not on the plane… I start trying to figure out a way to get in touch with him, or a way of finding out what happened to him between Frankfurt and Addis (late flight due to a snowstorm in Germany?).  I cajole my way back into the check-in area of the terminal only to have the Ethiopian Airlines folks inform me that they can’t give me any specific passenger information… I charge my phone, but there’s no way I can call or really connect to the internet.  I check with airport staff to see if they’re any other flights arriving from Addis Ababa today… there is, one in about to hours, and another at about 8 PM.  So I plop my butt down and wait… note, I’m waiting outside, but even under the awnings, with fans, it’s summer in a very tropical country and hot and steamy as it could possibly be.  I wait and the next flight from Addis lands… no Shayne.  Shyte.  I can’t do much now, so I get a cab to take me to a couple of cheap hotels and take a room for the night.  Once I settle in and get online (I choose hotels primarily based on price and wifi availability) i check over some things… one of which is Shayne’s itinerary.  And that’s when I notice it… he arrives in Mombasa on the same flight I took this morning… but tomorrow.  The date he told me he was planning to arrive was one day before the day that he actually arrived once he booked his tickets.  Che stupido… but  at least I knew what was going on and could now go check out Mombasa for a day before his afternoon arrival the following day.  So… had I not been able to get back to the Addis airport in time with my now found passport, I likely would have been bumped to the flight the following day, and then actually been on the same flight as Shayne, which is what I was trying to do in the first place.

So… forgetting my passport, manically rushing from place to place, misinterpreting dates, over-sleeping alarms, buying last-minute flights, making ridiculous side trips just to find a working ATM, overzealous security guards, both late and early flights, computer check-in software locking me out, mechanically unsound cars and cabs, having to dig for all the options, my lack of planning coupled with my (reverse and normal) impeccable timing layered in with have-to-be-there now inflexibility and somehow making the supposedly impossible (according to some) possible… all part of my fun had while flying in East Africa.  In hindsight.. although I’d like to pretend that maybe there’s just something about Africa at play here… given this and this, maybe that’s not really the case (and, of course, it couldn’t be my fault right?).  ..

Food (and Drink) in Ethiopia

I don’t know if I’ve said this before here, but I have definitely heard this saying though, and now that I’ve been to both Kenya and Tanzania, I can confirm it’s more or less true… that Ethiopia is in Africa, but not necessarily of Africa (at least the stereotype of “Africa” that many people have in their heads).  Everything about the place is unique… and usually the opposite of what one might think.  Most of the country is lush, mountainous highlands, it’s the only county in Africa to never have been colonized, the dancing is mainly in the shoulders (if you don’t think this sounds unique you’ve got see it in person), the music is crazy and off-beat, it contains one of the oldest versions of Christianity still in existence and the people look very different compared to what one would think of as an “African”.  So it makes sense that the food would be unique as well… and it definitely is.  Here is a picture of a standard Ethiopian meal:

IMG_0528Generally, there are no utensils (they brought me a fork because they assume ferengis don’t know how to eat the food)… that’s because one eats using that bread like substance lining the bottom of the plate (it’s called injera, and has a consistency of something like a thin, spongy pancake… although the taste is almost bitter).  You peel off a piece of injera, use it to grab a pile of food and then send the whole thing down the hatch.  So, in effect, you’re eating the plate/utensils as well (every single Ethiopian restaurant, no matter who remote the place/town, has a hand washing station for both before and after… even if it’s just a bucket with a spigot… and hand washing is always part of the meal, to the point at many of the nicer places they will bring over a pitcher of hot water, soap and a basin and pour the water over your hands for you) .  The main part of the meals (i.e. the thing one grabs with the injera) generally consists of a meat stew of some sort (usually beef or goat… sometimes chicken, but note that chicken in Ethiopia is much more expensive than both beef and goat… and sometimes fish when near water), but on fasting days (i.e. Wednesday and Friday, meatless days as mandated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) it generally consists of bean stew of similar consistency.  For me, as a big meat eater, the food was great… you can generally order variations on the meat stew theme with more or less sauce, depending on how you like it.  And all that injera makes everything pretty filling.  Of course, nothing is perfect… my main complaint being the lack of variety… as what I’ve described above is pretty much it, and there is little variation in the menus from region to region… no vegetables (except on fasting days), no fruit, no salads, no sandwiches (unless you’re eating in a “western” place)… basically no nothing but meat stews, meat and injera (I did grow to not be too fond of injera… I’d ask for rice if I could get it, or eat as little of it as possible… it was just too heavy).

There are a also couple of variations in Ethiopian cuisine that I found interesting.  The first and most prominent of which is that Ethiopians love to eat raw beef.  Yes… I used the word raw to describe beef… and noted that one would eat such a thing (at least while in Ethiopia).  Not only that, it’s actually quite common.  And yes I ate raw meat… several times… and no lying, it’s actually delicious.  There are two types… one is called kitfo, and is ground meat mixed with spices… similar to steak tartar.  I only had kitfo once, and that was at the wedding I ended up at.  And it was good… but something about the idea of eating ground beef never really sat well with me.  The other type is called gored gored,  and is basically just cubes of raw steak… here’s a picture:

IMG_1136It’s hard to explain, but I’m going to use a sushi analogy… such that good, fresh meat doesn’t really taste, or smell, meaty… similar to how good sushi doesn’t really taste, or smell, fishy.  An honestly, if you eat raw fish, it’s really not that large of a leap to eating raw beef (okay… that’s a lie, it’s harder than that, as it took me a while to work up to it).  Good raw meat was generally very soft and easy to chew (minus a large gristle pieces,which were cut off with the knives shown in the picture above).  It’s generally served with two sauces (depending on the region), the red one(s) (shown above) was a slightly spicy BBQ-like sauce, and there’s a light green one similar to a light wasabi (with the sinus-clearing kick… the spiciest thing I had in Ethiopia).  Now, if raw meat isn’t your thing, you could order the meat at various levels of cooked (from partially cooked to fully cooked… each level of cooking has a different name that one has to learn in amharic), which is generally what I did.  In fact, my most common dinner when I lived in Addis was a half-kilogram of tibs (you order by the kilo and tibs is the cooked version of the raw beef cubes shown above) and a jumbo draft beer (not bad too shabby of a meal for $4.75).  Here’s a shot of the front of my usual dinner place (the hanging beef carcasses are the easy way to identify the good meat restaurants):

The meat cutting guy at my favorite restaurant near where I was staying in Addis.

The meat cutting guy at my favorite restaurant near where I was staying in Addis.

The other variation of Ethiopian food I really enjoyed was their juices… I don’t know how they made these things, but it was like they ground up about ten of any different kind of fruit one could order and distilled it down to a cool, slush like consistency… similar to, but somehow more pulpy than, a jamba juice without any of the crap or mixtures they have (i.e. if you ordered a mango juice, my personal favorite, it had nothing but mangoes in it… no mixing in yogurt, unless you wanted it, or pineapple juice, or boosts, or anything like that… just straight mangoes and mango juice).  The flavors available were generally mango, papaya, guava, hibiscus, strawberry or avocado (with availability dependent on the season… so all of these were generally listed on the menu with only about two of them being actually available).  And yes, you heard that right avocado juice… and it tasted pretty much exactly you think it would… imagine and avocado with a bit of sugar added to make it sweeter than a normal avocado… all with the consistency of a smoothie.  I know, it sounds a bit weird, but believe me, it was pretty good.  The other thing people would do is order juices spritz, which is half of one and half of another… not mixed, just layered on top of each other (you could order any liquids spritz… and most people did it with juice, or with coffee and tea, which was not the best combination in my opinion).  Since the food rarely had fruits or vegetables, the juice was a great way to get some needed vitamins.

Speaking of liquid refreshment (I think you knew this segue was coming)… Ethiopia has it’s fair share of locally brewed alcohol.  There’s, of course, the standard beers that or more or less the same as anything in the US… Giorgis (St. George’s), Harrar, Hakim Stout, Castel, Bedele and Dashen  For me, these were just okay… and I found them all to tend to be a touch on the sweet side for beers… must be some reflection on general Ethiopian taste/palate.  But delving beyond those, Ethiopia’s alcohol starts to get a bit more interesting.  First, there’s the locally brewed honey wine known as Tej (sounds like “tedge”):

IMG_0531This stuff is really sweet (tastes like there’s a lot of honey in there)… but it is powerful enough to knock you on your ass after a couple of drinks (people told me it’s actually some where in that 30% / 60 Proof alcohol range).  I was never sure if there’s any large tej breweries supplying all the restaurants that serve it (tej was available at most middle to upscale places), or if it was all brewed locally in small batches… and note that many Ethiopians can, and do, make their own supply locally:

Drinking home brewed tej at a Karo tribe village...

Drinking home brewed tej at a Karo tribe village…

They really could throw these things back... and the tej here was actually the best I had in all of Ethiopia.

They really could throw these things back… and the tej here was actually the best I had in all of Ethiopia.

Another drink that was exclusively brewed locally is tella, or homemade beer.  Tella was, literally, everywhere… it seemed every tiny village had at least a couple of tella brewers there, which were easily identifiable by their signs… the signs being a instant coffee can impaled on a stick outside a house:

IMG_0512Tella varied greatly from region to region because, being homemade, the brewers used whatever grain was available locally… so the final product ranged from blacker than used motor oil to about as white as homemade paste.  The consistency was also pretty varied, although always pretty thick… from very gritty and sandy with the consistency of a very thick milkshake to about the same as molasses.  From my experience, the darker version of tella were pretty good, tasting similar to a Newcastle Brown Ale… but the lighter (and invariably grittier) versions were pretty tough to drink, especially if they were served warm (or it was a very hot day).

Looks delicious right?

Looks delicious right?

The final locally brewed alcohol I tried was called araki (spelling?, sounds like “arah-kay”), which is homemade distilled liquor (better known as moonshine in the US).  I don’t know what this stuff was made of, but it was firewater, although not bad tasting firewater… but it definitely burned going down.  I was served it in several places outside of Addis Ababa, and the locals were generally pleased when a ferengi (foreigner) would ask for it.

Other observations… Ethiopians love to think their food is spicy.  When given the choice, I’d always ask for spicy, and they’d invariably question my dedication, to which I’d reaffirm that I do, indeed, want it spicy.  When my dish would arrive, the waiter would generally point out that it’s spicy (or people at the table would do it), and warn me about it.  Now the level of spiciness that one enjoys varies on an individual basis, and I like spicy food, but not burn your mouth and cry for 15 minutes spicy… so I’m here to let you know that if you enjoy spicy food, Ethiopian food is not spicy… the so-called spicy stuff is mild at best (and I’m sure that someone reading this could make Ethiopian food water my eyes spicy as a challenge, but in general, it’s definitely not spicy).  Ethiopians also have a tradition of feeding each other, which, as an American, is a little disconcerting at first, because who feeds strangers by hand?  Well, Ethiopians do… and refusing is a huge insult… so just do it (this happened to me several times, most prominently at the cafe/lunch stop on my bus ride from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar… I was seated with two younger guys, and they not only fed me by hand, to which I returned the favor, they also paid for the meal).  One other thing is that when orders food in Ethiopia in a group (i.e. more than one person), the plates do not all come out at the same time… they generally come out in shifts, so everybody shares everybody elses meal… so when the first plate comes out, everybody just digs in regardless of who ordered it (so if you wanted something in particular and don’t really like what everybody else ordered… tough shit).

Now, for your homework assignment… go look up an Ethiopian restaurant in your neighborhood and give it a whirl… I doubt you will be disappointed (maybe after eating it everyday for 2 and a half months… but that’s different, I was sick and tired of Spanish food after being there for so long as well).  And remember to wash your hands.