Why not? A potentially hazardous motto to live by, I admit, but when adhered with at least a few carefully determined boundaries in place, it can make for one heck of a weekend!
Thursday night we FINALLY moved into our new home! From passed blogs you can tell that Addis real-estate is a frustrating market. 3 fundamental rules to shop by:
#1 Ask the right questions
-Is there running water?
-Is there hot water?
-Is there electricity (except where there are blackouts)?
-Will you sign a contract saying that the price will not increase?
-How much commission do you expect?
-Does anyone else have a key to the home?
-Who else lives on the compound?
-Is the area safe?
-How much needs to be paid in advance?
-Does ‘this’ work? / Will you fix this now?…
#2 Trust no one
-If a broker says to you in response to the commission question: “let’s see if you like it and then I will be happy to discuss my fees with you” stop dead in your tracks until he gives you a straight answer.
-If a home owner says it’s just her living on the compound, it’s not.
-If you are told you have a day to think about it, you don’t.
#3 You are paying the foreigner price – bargain.
So after learning each of these lessons one painstaking step at a time and sleeping on the floor of a hostel for two nights (Martin’s Cozy Place – nothing fancy but clean with great staff and super cheap!) myself and two other girls most commonly referred to as “The Frenchies” moved into our new place. There is nothing quite like packing up your bags for the weekend by candle light, seeing the biggest cockroach of all time crawl out of your kitchen sink, and waking up to a cold shower to make you feel right at home. When we got back from the weekend trip, there was a major storm in Addis and our floors flooded. All I could think about was: “good, maybe it will kill a few roaches.” If you’re thinking: “Mandy, why would you ever pay money for this place?” The answer is: because relatively speaking, our home is a palace.
Selazie! (So!) Woke up Friday morning, signed the lease in my pj’s while eating knock-off Nutella on fresh bread, threw a few of the harder-to-see-by-candle-light objects in my hiking pack and headed out the door with Parag, Justine, and Latetia. P’s company driver, Kassu took us to the bus station across from Merkato. For information’s sake he told us that this drive would probably cost 80Birr by private taxi, a statement which from experience I know to be true, but which we managed to get for 50Birr from a young driver on the return. As soon as we stepped out of the taxi a slew of drivers swarmed around us asking us where we were going and pulling us each in different directions, urging us to choose their bus. With no time to even gulp down a Macchiato, we jumped on the first one that said “Awosa!” that had 4 seats available. Silly us. There were 4 seats available in all of them! Why there was a seat on the step, a seat on the floor, a seat next to the driver, a seat wedged up against the window… That last one was mine. I would like to tell you what it was like to be smooshed up against a window next to three big sweaty guys with a screw digging into your shoulder for 5 hours, but I shudder at just the briefest thought of it.
You know that saying about the best laid plans? Well, what if they were just better laid plans? We were dropped in Awosa just around 12 (Ethiopian time) right across from Beshu Hotel, described as “functional” by our guide books. While the Sidama huts in the courtyard where lots of people were sharing drinks did create a nice traditional ambiance and made a good place to relax after the trip, the rooms did just the opposite. Even the blackness caused by a lack of electricity could not hide from us that night just how many cockroaches were nesting in the walls of this place. The bathrooms were so nasty that we opted not to shower at all and brushed our teeth with what little bottled water we had remaining. To top off a night of “mind-over-matter,” in the morning we were informed that Justine and I would have to pay another 10Birr because we were “of the same sex” in one room. Well, each of us just about lost it. We have respect for tradition and culture, but not outright discrimination. According to them, we owed 170Birr total for use of their facilities and services. We gave them 140 and said take it or be publicly trashed on TripAdvisor. That was just enough to draw the attention of the manager who agreed with apologies. This isn’t TripAdvisor.
The time in between our arrival to Awosa and when we reluctantly shut our eyes that night was actually great! We walked down to Lake Awosa under a canopy of vultures towards a row of brightly painted wooden rowboats moored among some rocks. We hired one to take us 30mins along the shoreline to a waterside resort where we shared a glass of local red wine, Gouder, which will run you about $6CAD, before carrying onto Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita is an Italian restaurant that is actually run by a charming Italian man and his glowing Ethiopian wife set up in a garden that twinkles with white lights. Our meals were absolutely delicious – well worth the wait for a table to open up. After that, we did what we do best; we followed the noise to a rooftop bar which was pumping an eclectic mix of local and international tunes over the city.
Saturday morning we ended up on yet another bus in much the same way we ended up on the first – in a hurry with empty bellies. 4 bumpy hours later we were in Soma in the district of Wailetta. For a town that doesn’t even make the map, it was bustling with activity. We were directed to a hotel restaurant (note: take directions, not guides because they charge even if it seems like there are just providing help as a friendly gesture) where the bathrooms again were quite disgusting and the injera was stale. I learned my lesson with stale injera a few vomits ago, so I ordered a side of spaghetti instead. A few hours into our next bus trip, we pulled off the road in a hurry and Latetia learned that same lesson the hard way.
Before departing we sat and had a coffee at a little blue hut right across from the bus station. If you ever happen to be in Somo, Wailetta (haha) I recommend you take a few minutes to enjoy the company of the wonderful woman that made us these drinks for just 2Birr ea.
This next bus trip accounted for the WORST 5.5hours of an estimate total of 27.5hours spent on busses this weekend. Uncontrollable upchuck reflexes of one of our group members aside, the bus was so crowded that at one of the many checkpoints which straddle each town (set up to make sure that people aren’t moving large quantities of taxable goods around the country for free) the driver was forced to unload the bus and abandon each passenger who had joined outside of Soma on the side of the road. Of course they just ran down the side of the road and hopped back on a kilometer later, but if that doesn’t give you a good enough idea of how crowded this bus was, then maybe this will: at some point, I actually had two bags, neither of which were mine, on my lap and a man sitting ON my feet while the guy next to me tried to pull my Live Strong bracelet right off my wrist.
To this point there had been some highlights, but undeniably, an overwhelming amount of crap… in a lot of cases, literally. We just kept hoping that the next two days would be worth those 15+hours and thinking that, if they weren’t, the further south we went, the further north we had to come back. Thankfully, the next two days did not disappoint.
Before carrying on with tales from the Great Rift Valley, I would like to insert a little note which some of you will find particularly entertaining. I managed to catch a few minutes of sleep on the bus in the morning. When I woke up I could hear P and J chuckling behind me. I turned around and found them wiping tears from their eyes while looking at pictures on Justine’s camera. Next to my family members, Mon, my uni roommate, may know this better than anyone: I am a HORRIBLY ugly sleeper. If I’m truly exhausted, my mouth gapes open, sometimes I drool, and I even have a tendency to flail about a bit. It’s not pretty. So if that picture, or any number of the other ones that have been taken of unconscious-me over the years for that matter ever surfaces, please be kind!
Arba Minch, meaning “Forty Springs,” is not a tourist friendly town. We were advised by multiple people en route that it was unsafe to go out into the town at night or even to take a walk down the street. That in mind, we decided to ‘shell out’, and by this I mean 75Birr ea. ($6.25), to stay at the Rift Valley Pension, a home away from home conveniently located near a number of highly recommended restaurants in the Schecha area. This allowed us to enjoy our evenings without taking on a serious risk of being “violently mugged” or “pulled into a brawl” in the streets (those were the warnings that stood out in my memory). The woman that owns the Pension is sweet to her very core! Speaking only Amharic, but with a bright youngster kicking around to translate when needed, she did everything in her power to make us as comfortable as possible. She mopped up the floors when we came home with muddy boots, gave us extra toilet paper to take on our treks, and if there wasn’t any water flowing into our showers, somehow she managed to make them gush hot rain! We enjoyed our stay so much here that we took her on as our temporary mum for the next three nights!
We were also very fortunate here to meet a woman and who is doing research in the country before starting up her own travel agency back in France. We were able to take advantage of her expertise as well as her hired car for the next few days and also to split the cost of entrance fees into Nechisar National Park. Our first night at RVP was designated “a night of recovery.” After we had each enjoyed a nice hot shower, even after we had all had a good laugh when a goat bolted out of the kitchen at Soma Restaurant baaaaahh-ing madly all the way that night, we were all still pretty cranky and in need of a good night’s sleep before a 7:30am start.
7:30 came early and it came with rain. I’m sure the line, “bless the rains down in Africa,” has hit truer and run deeper to millions of people millions of times in millions of different ways, but on this morning we were nonetheless grateful to have a few hours to sleep in and enjoy a full breakfast before heading to the National Park for the day. It was around 9:30am when made our way slowly through the mud in a 4×4 towards Lake Abaya. We hired a boat to carry us all across the lake for 1200Birr (approx. $14 ea), and along the Bridge of God, a range of lush green rolling mountains that line the shore, to the Nechisar Plains. A variety of birds glided gracefully over the heads of the hippos and crocodiles that inhabit this lake as we crossed. Once the boat was beached, the driver led us on a trek into the park, appropriately named “white grass plains,” where we saw some gazelles and 2 zebras! The guide told us that you can usually find large herds of zebra on the waterfront, but because it had rained so much they were able to disband and find water elsewhere on the plains that day – further away from the crocs. I was thrilled just to see two. Somewhere recently I read that if the world were black and white, the only things that would remain unchanged would be zebras. As it is not a black and white world in any sense, this beautifully patterned pair was easy to spot among the green, blue and golden hues of the plains.
We made the approx. 45min journey back across the lake to observe an inlet which was absolutely covered in sun-bathing crocodiles and pelicans, two species which counter-intuitively coexist in complete harmony. Unfortunately, the same truce does not exist between the crocs and humans. Just a week prior to our visit, a fisherman was killed by a croc. When you see the dugout logs which the fishermen commandeer with a long wooden pole around the lake to tend to their nets, you can almost understand what it is about these strong men that the crocs find so instinctually tempting. In a region like the Great Rift Valley, it would be ignorant to think that humans are above the animal food chain.
Back on the Arba Minch side of the lake, as we were walking along the surprisingly sturdy log bridge to solid ground, I looked at P and said: “we should ride out of the park on TOP of the minibus.” To my surprise he said: “Why not?” And so we did. We rode, on top of a blue and white public mini bus, through the mud, at eye-level with the monkies, out of Nechisar Park. Back on the pavement where traffic picks up we of course got back inside; it was a good thing too because it started to hail just a few seconds later.
That night we trudged out in our muddy shoes into the muddy streets towards Swayne’s hotel where the floors of their on-site Western restaurant were slicked with mud. We ‘sampled’ another Ethiopian wine called Kemila and ate a satisfying meal before switching on our flashlights and mucking back to the RVP where we sat and chatted outside with some of the staff for a bit.
Over the course of the weekend my shins had been eaten by some sort(s) of insect(s). While sitting outside, the bites became unbearably itchy and my scratching drew the attention of the woman we had been traveling with earlier in the day. I told her that I thought that some sort of jumping bug or mosquito was responsible but she said they looked more like flea bites. FLEAS??? Combine that with the fact that two young boys sang “Who Let the Dogs Out” and then shouted “hey baby! Forenji forenji! *bark *bark” at me as I walked down my street this morning… I’m feeling a bit like a mangy dog today.
Just in case you are wondering how it is that none of us had to work for nearly a week, it is because Friday was a Muslim holiday and Tuesday a National Holiday to celebrate Ethiopian victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Yes, so we woke up on the Monday at 9am, some a little worse for wear, and piled into a 4×4 once again to go to Dorze village. The drive from Arba Minch was not very long at all, maybe 40minutes by car as opposed to public transport. All along the road small children and young women stepped out in front of our car to dance. The women did the traditional “booty-shake” while the boys perform more of a whole body wave in hopes that we would stop to take pictures (and pay for them) or toss a plastic water bottle or a few birr out the window as we passed. Only once did one of us actually step out of the car to take a video of a girl who was particularly talented – even with a heavy load from market on her back — and so many people came running and swarming the car that it was difficult for him to shut his door and for our driver to start the car moving forward again.
As we continued to wind steadily up the red dirt roads, we came across the most colourful natural collage of patterns and colours I have ever seen – an outdoor scarf and fabrics market. This is one of those cases in which a picture really does speak a thousand words. See for yourself. After putting a significant dent in my Birr reserves, the driver practically had to drag me back to the jeep!
After this too-short pit stop, we carried on to Mekonen Lodge, a Dorze village converted into a tourist ‘hot spot’ in the region by a Mekonen, a Rastafarian entrepreneur who’s grandfather built the family’s hut nearly 100 years ago in the shape of an elephant out of interwoven false-banana leaves and bamboo. In 94 years, that hut, once standing over 12 meters tall, is now about half that size due solely to termite damage and is now used for storage. A new hut (pictured in this blog entry) was built in its place. After a demonstration from a local craftsmen on how cotton cloths are died and woven (men’s work in the village), Mekonen welcomed us into his home. The base of the hut was probably 6m wide. Our eyes quickly adjusted and we were able to take in this impressively utilized space: the entrance was lined with cow-hide/bamboo chairs; to our left was Mekonen’s bed, styled in the shape of a bunk, the top portion of which was used as shelving; to our right were the family’s three cows; in front of us we faced the fire pit where meals are cooked and a small closet which Mekonen referred to as the “brewery” where many different local alcoholic beverages are made – including tej of course; the walls were covered in hallowed out gourds which are used primarily as cups or as containers for homemade butter.
After enjoying some ‘Rasta culture’, I asked to be pointed in the direction of the toilet or a well sheltered bush if need be. Mekonen simply pointed to a pathway around the back of the hut leading to a short wooden doorway. I passed through the gateway into yet another feast for the senses: there were kids beating bongos in one corner, another wall of beautiful fabrics, a woman just laying fresh grass in preparation for a welcoming coffee ceremony, and an open-air hut at the center of it all where a couple of Rastas were enjoying some unlabelled liquor and traditional bread made from enset with delicious fresh honey. When I returned from the facilities, the boys taught me a traditional dance of the Valley and I gave it a good go to the accompaniment of “Right ‘Round” by Flo Rida! The others soon joined us for a coffee, brewed with spices straight from the garden and served with kolo/enset/honey, in the hut where the mood turned mellow with the aid of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.”
To this point, I would argue that this was one of the best days I have had in Ethiopia so far. What we did next doesn’t really fall under the headings “cool” or “fun” but the trip wouldn’t have been the same without it and if you are going to experience The Rift Valley, you would be remiss to neglect experiencing real, unaltered, village life. Just down the hill from Mekonen’s Lodge, market-days are held every Monday and Thursday. I wasn’t submerged in the crowds of shoppers and venders for even 2 minutes when a little hand slipped into mine. There, barely reaching the height of my waist, standing in the mud with no shoes on, wearing a pair of ripped brown shorts and a tattered and stained red unbuttoned shirt with a wooden cross dangling from his neck was a little guy telling me: “I am a poor student and I have no shoes.” He told me this many times for next half hour or so never letting go of my hand.
While he was by far the most persistent, he wasn’t the only one who quite literally latched onto our group. Do you know the rotating metal gates that you pass through to get into Toronto’s Union subway station? Well, walking through this market was sort of like passing through dozens of those, one after the other – only they weren’t metal bars hitting you mid-thigh, but tiny extended palms.
Each of us felt terrible, frustrated, irritated, sad, overwhelmed and exhausted and angry with ourselves for feeling that way when clearly we were on the better side of every single one of those turn-style gates.
When we started trying to take photographs of this market, we realized that that was virtually impossible without somebody jumping into the frame and asking for money. Any items we did linger on were offered to us at “Ethiopian price.” That terminology is just clever trick that venders have picked up thinking that foreigners will think it’s a great deal (it probably does work on some), but when you start to bargain and the price drops 100Birr right off the bat, the truth quickly starts to come out. It was getting late and we were, as I said, exhausted, and getting hungry, so we flagged a bus down and rode in silence back to Arba Minch.
After some much-needed hot showers, we went for dinner at the Arba Minch Hotel. For the sake of convenience, we popped into the reception office just to ask if the minibuses ran as early as 4:30am (we had found out earlier in the day that to get a spot on one of only 2 busses bound for Addis, you had to get there before the station opened at 5am). They didn’t, so while we were waiting for our mediocre meals to arrive, I called the Pension and arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 4:30 in the morning. I have never been so concerned about my understanding of the Ethiopian clock. Asking for a taxi to arrive at “asir selassa Ethiopian geezé, niga tewat” (10:30 Ethiopian time, tomorrow morning) and negotiating the price was about all I managed, but that was enough. It almost came off like a real phone conversation where my end of the call was mostly just “eshi… eshi… eshi… awon… eshi… ammesegnallehu… eshi… ciao… eshi… ciao ciao.”
We hopped in a three-wheeled rickshaw back to the Pension, back to our happy selves and laughing about which of us would get sick next and in what way. Pathetic, I know, but as always, bodily function humour is my Achilles heal when it comes to comedy and had me all but falling out of the rickety rickshaw all the way home.
The hundreds of people lit up by the headlights of our taxi at the bus station just before 5am the next morning were much less funny. With no idea of where we were going, we split into teams of two, and once we were all shoved through the gates we took off running, listening and praying to hear the words: “Addis Ababa!” We did find the buses, and fairly directly, but we were still too late. Thankfully, some nice guy saw us standing in the middle of the station looking defeated and guided us to the far corner of the lot where another bus to Addis was waiting, virtually empty. The reason it was not filled yet was because it was about 30-50Birr more expensive than the other two buses (less than $5CAD). It filled up to capacity – no more – and was rolling out by 6:30am.
Just after 11am (if you do the math you will realize that none of us had had breakfast nor had we had access to a washroom in about 7hours), we entered the town of Hosaina, where we had a 20min break to scavenge for food and facilities. We solved the first problem with peanut better and fresh-backed bread from a bakery up the road. The latter issue was a little bit trickier to resolve. We ended up at a restaurant that looked half decent where a waiter guided us around to the back of a decrepit looking building and pointed at a latched wooden door then looked at me and told me to “get in.” WHY did I go first?
I warily pulled the door open to reveal two stalls, not bathroom stalls, but GOAT stalls like you would find in a stable. And then the STENCH hit me. I didn’t even try to contain my disgust! The waiter grabbed a nearby bucket of water, tossed it across the floor and then actually pushed the crap (sorry) across the floor into the corners with a shovel. Once again, he looked at me and said: “c’mon!” I have my limits. I told him thank you, waited until he walked away and then, with my friends on guard, latched that door back shut choosing instead to pee on a pile of goat horns, trash, and mud.
I don’t want to end yet another blog entry with talk of toilets so I will say a little blurb about the Addis sky. It really is quite a dirty city, but if you just look up… The other day I was walking along Tele Bole and a man interrupted my stride and asked me: “have you observed the sky?” We both stood there in awe for a number of minutes, staring at the glaring sun which had two wide vivid rainbow rings around it. The night we got back from Arba Minch (an 11hr trip) there was a severe storm in Addis which lit up the sky with shades of red and purple. Then again, last night, as we were beating the rugs and cushions from our living room out on the compound wall, we looked up out of the clouds of dust and noticed the twinkling African sky. In the middle of a clear night is about the only time that you will be thankful for a city-wide electrical blackout.
And so starts another week in Addis! I am working on getting a presentation together for the consortium next week, all the while crossing my fingers that the two big meetings set for early in the week do not get pushed beyond Wednesday so that I can get in on a 5-day trek through the Simien Mountains and Gondar next weekend! Stay tuned!
Enhid – Lets go!
Techawech – Enjoy!
Indetnesh – Have a good day!
Ahun – Now
Bohalla – Later
Zaré – Today
Niga – Tomorrow
Ode(hallo/shallo) – I love you (m/f)… and hope you are all doing great =D