#1 Ethiopia, Jan. 9, 2011

Dear Everybody,

Here I am in Ethiopia! And in spite of three flights to get here, I still haven’t received a pat-down like they show on TV. Getting here was a hassle with big delays in Frankfurt. One security person in Frankfurt asked me how old I was. When I answered that I was 75, he said, “That’s the first time I’ve seen that—a person your age with a laptop!”

My hotel in Addis Ababa is interesting, if run down. It was built by the king’s wife, Taitu, in 1898 and is the oldest hotel in Addis. The bathroom is across the hall—-I had to prop the mop against the shower door to keep it shut. Breakfast is on the terrace of the old building, and praise be, they have good coffee instead of the usual NesCafe. This is the first developing country that I’ve been in that has, except for Laos. It’s the Italian influence—Italy colonized Ethiopia in the 19th century. Actually, since Ethiopia invented coffee, maybe they gave it to the Italians during the colonization!

Addis Ababa is a big sprawling African city with lots of beggars and touts. The pollution is very bad—I can taste the diesel fumes. It’s quite crowded for walking and the sidewalks are pretty rough—one has to look out! It’s a poor country but the people are lively and pleasant. I visited St. George’s Church, which I kept passing on my way to and from Telecom, where I was trying to buy a SIM card for the cell phone that I brought. (A quadband, unlocked phone!) This church is where Haile Selassie was crowned in 1930. He is quite a hero to the Ethiopians although, of course, the younger ones refer to him as an historical figure, but of course we older ones remember him on the throne. Do you remember that old ‘40s Tommy Dorsey “Shantytown” ditty about—”I’d be just as classy as Haile Selassi, If I were king wouldn’t mean a thing, Put my boots on tall, Read the writin’ on the wall, “ etc. In the church there were men chanting while using two big drums (a very loud and low boom, boom) and little bell-like noisemakers that they jingled. It was slow, haunting, and quite beautiful.

I spent most of the first morning trying to buy a SIM card. I walked about a mile, asking directions every two minutes; sat in line and then found that I needed two passport photos! I actually had two along, but they were in my backpack in the hotel. So back I went for the photos, arriving again at Telecom just after 12:00 noon. They were closed for lunch! The lady said they would open again at 2:00.

I had lunch, which was an Ethiopian dish with some injera over bits of meat in a hot sauce that contained many rolled up injera sheets. Injera is their bread-like food that is quite strange-looking—think a rolled up wet washcloth. I think the dish was called chicana firfir, but it wasn’t chicken. Since it was the day before Christmas, I saw many sheep and a few cattle being brought into town.

 

 

Some women were carrying live chickens too, which were probably going to be Christmas dinner.

 

 

 

OK, so back I went to buy the SIM card in the afternoon, and they were closed for Christmas, and wouldn’t open until Monday, which was four days away!

Well, how lucky can I be? I got to celebrate two Christmases this year. The Christian church in Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on January 7th. Christmas Eve on January 6th was a very special evening. In the hotel lounge, I had a beer with Magda and Cesare, a Polish couple that I had shared a taxi with on arrival, and they proposed going to a restaurant with Ethiopian traditional food plus music and dancing. We did, and it was wonderful! We started with some ‘tej’ which is honey wine served in individual round flasks. It was pleasant—more like beer but a little sweet. Then we had the buffet, which was injera with at least 15 different sauces, some of which contained meat, some vegetables. As we approached the buffet, a server held out a silver kettle of water for us to wash our hands. He poured the water and squirted some soap on our hands, then rinsed them, all the while catching the water in a basin. Actually later I saw an Ethiopian lady doing this and she only washed her right hand—oops!. We thought that the food was very good although injera is a little strange. You pull off pieces of it with your fingers and wrap it around some of the sauce. You pop it in your mouth and go on to the next. The sauces were fairly spicy and very tasty.

The four musicians played steadily. Two had harp-like instruments, one had a violin-like instrument and one was the drummer. The six dancers were amazing. They had beautiful costumes (many changes) and danced with much herky-jerky movement in a very athletic way. They were difficult to photograph as they moved so fast and so much that they were largely a blur on the photos. The music was kind of mesmerizing with a steady beat and a repetitious structure. At first there were many tourists there, but by the time we left at midnight, the crowd was completely made up of locals, a good sign!

The next day was Christmas Day with everything, except restaurants, closed. I spent some time on my balcony chatting with a young Englishman who had been to Ethiopia four times previously—he LIKES it! I had lunch at the Omar Kayham (that’s how they spelled it) restaurant—more injera.

I was invited to spend the day after Christmas at Sosena’s home. Sosena is a young Ethiopian woman who sat next to me on the plane from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa. She lives and works in Dallas, TX and was going home for Christmas to visit her family whom she hadn’t seen for five years.

I took a taxi to St. Yusef’s church as agreed, but unfortunately this was a huge complex with several gates and we were waiting at different ones. I asked a man to call Sosena’s cellphone number, and we straightened things out. The outskirts of Addis Ababa are pretty poor, although their house was middle class, I would say. I was greeted enthusiastically by about 18 family members and a wonderful buffet was served with lots of injera and about 10 sauces/meats. One of them was kitfo, which is raw ground beef, although it had a lot of hot chilli in it, which I counted on to keep me from getting sick.

 

 

 

I drank tej, the honey wine, which was lighter and not as sweet as what I had on Christmas Eve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then the coffee ceremony started. The mother brought in a charcoal burner, placing it on the living room floor. One of the young women roasted coffee beans over the charcoal burner in a clay tray, stirring them for a half hour. When they were done, she walked around the living room inviting each guest to wave the fragrance to their noses. She removed it to the kitchen and ground the beans. I didn’t see this operation but I think she must have used something like a Mexican metate. She set some water in a clay pot on the charcoal and added the ground coffee when it boiled. Eventually the coffee was served and I’ve NEVER tasted better! I had brought a torte, which was served for dessert with the coffee. Someone was about to leave so I shanghaied them all outdoors for a picture. It’s very difficult to photograph dark-skinned people in a dimly lit room so I wanted at least one outdoor picture. We returned to the living room for more coffee making. Sosena said that they make their coffee like this EVERY NIGHT, usually three times.

What a wonderful Christmas celebration! It was the day after Christmas rather than Christmas Day because Sosena’s parents had to spend that day with other relatives since he is the eldest in his family. There were two female family members (aunts?) that were too shy to come out in the living room, but when I asked to see the kitchen where all the cooking had been done (actually it was three rooms!) I met them then when Sosena showed me their electric injera cooker. Injera is made from a grain called aaf. There is some fermentation involved and then a liquid dough is spread out on the large, flat electric cooker and covered with a conical top.

When it was time to go the brother-in-law took me to where I could get a taxi, but he rejected a couple of offers for 100 birr (I had paid 60 coming) and put me on a minibus which would require a transfer to another. Many of the passengers were very interested in me and so helped me get the right transfer bus, which took me to the Piazza area, where I recognized the streets near my hotel. I will certainly remember this Christmas celebration!

Monday I’m off to the north of Ethiopia and more exciting adventures.

Carol

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