Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ethiopia (final)

I keep forgetting to post the rest of these, so here they all are at once. Sorry for the long read. Enjoy!
Our third and final stop was in Gonder. Gonder has been called the Camelot of Africa because of its castles. The castles look very similar to European castles. Why castles here? Because it too was once the seat of the monarchy. All three cities on our tour were once seats of power in Ethiopia. A special church in Gonder was constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant, but at some point in time it was decided not to move it after all.
It was here that we ran into a problem with the locals. On several occasions we hired small, three-wheeled "golf carts" called tuk-tuks to go from one place in the city to another. The locals seem to think that if a foreigner is paying for the tuk-tuk then they can get a free lifti. We soon caught on to their scheme and started paying less when this happened or demanded immediately that they foot some of the bill. In most cases the free-rider quickly got off. Also in Gonder was the first bank that accepted my Visa card - at last I could pay off my debt to J and S!
-Addis Ababa
Back in Addis Ababa we grabbed some delicious coffee. Oh, did I mention that Ethiopia has a wonderful coffee ceremony? Yes, an entire ceremony just for drinking coffee! The place we got the coffee was called Kaldi's Coffee. The word on the street is that this woman Kaldi tried to purchase a Starbuck's franchise. It was only fitting since Starbucks is a major customer of Ethiopian coffee. They refused her. So she stole logo, branded it with her name, increased the offerings on the menu to include delicious french fries (no sorry soggy chipsi here!), ice cream, and other tasty treats. She is doing a BOOMING business.
On an escapade to the market, billed as the largest open air market in sub-Saharan Africa but really it isn't, three times I was the subject of an attempted pickpocketing. Smarter than the average pickpocketer though, I put all of the few things I had into a zippered pocket and left the backpack at home. FOILED!!! They were pretty dumb pickpocketers though and not very adept. It was more annoying than anything. The funny thing was that J and S were behind me a few steps in each case, they had more valuables than I did, and no one tried to pickpocket them!
I saw J and S off at the airport and then met up with a friend from my former job in the States. She is working in Addis as a support person to the staff at SIL (SIL does translation and linguistic work). She took me to a wonderful restaurant where they feature traditional dancing and skits from all over Ethiopia. Oh, and the food was magnificent as well. I love Ethiopian food. And Ethiopia was very cheap; in a week of traveling through the country I didn't spend more than 300 dollars! (minus the internal air ticket)

Since Dubai is the talk of the town these with their crazy development projects (Burj Al-Arab, The World Islands, Palm Jumeirah, Palm Deira, Tallest building in the world, indoor ski slope) I thought I might as well see it for myself. So my itinerary took me from Addis Ababa to Nairobi (saving 200 bucks to go south before going north!) then to Dubai. I cannot recommend Kenya airlines; the service was good but hardware less then great. Dubai was a mind trip after living in a developing country and then traveling through a developing country. Dubai is like San Diego - except richer, cleaner, better customer service, and people are nicer. The great American chains are all there too - Cinnabon, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, McDonald's, Speedy's (Carl's Jr), Burger King, and more.
It isn't great for pedestrians though. There is a major highway transecting the city parallel to the beach. The Mall of the Emirates is on the side further from the beach, but to get there you must be in a car - there are no pedestrian walkways to cross it. Not wanting to spend 10 bucks just to cross the dang thing in a taxi, I finally found a bus to take me there for just 75 cents. It took longer, but I didn't have anything else to do. Yes, I saw the indoor ski area. No, I did not go inside because they charge for that pleasure. I did, however, have Haagen-Daas and watch a movie. (I saw Twilight. No one warned me it was a teenage vampire love story.)
When I first was exploring the city, I got on a bus and just stayed on it until I reached the end of the route. I was walking around a shopping complex still partially under construction and ran into a security guard who though I was lost. After telling her I was just exploring (I was attracted to the second story view of the beach and the Palm Jumeirah), we had a short conversation in swahili because she was from Kenya. She was very pleasantly surprised that I knew it, but since she was from Kenya she didn't seem very keen on continuing in Swahili. Looking out at the Palm Jumeirah from the shore, you get a better idea of just how huge a construction project it is. It is awe inspiring to see the huge luxury resorts out at the end and you know that they are two miles away. All of that rock and sand had to be placed there. And they are building an even larger one called the Palm Deira! Find it on Google Maps.
After spending 2 days in Dubai I finally caught my flight home with a small layover in Doha, Qatar. In the airport at Doha I had my first root beer in more than two years - there was an A&W franchise in the airport! Qatar airlines has great, amazing service. On my non-stop flight between Doha and Washington DC I had two full meals, complete with a small bottle of wine. Plus there were sandwiches and drinks between meals. The entertainment screens were loaded with plenty of movies, tv shows, games, and music - a good thing since the flight was thirteen hours! The route took us over Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. Because of the extreme northern route, we hovered in sunset twilight for about five hours of the flight.
-Portland Rentry
My luck with travel stopped at DC however. After arriving I discovered that Southwest (for my next flight) doesn't "do" transfers with other airlines. And because my flight wasn't for twelve hours I couldn't check my luggage (stupid TSA. I hope Obama does away with them). So if you are traveling internationally, do not connect with Southwest. Fortunately (or unfortunately for both of us) there was another traveler in a similar predicament with United. So we grabbed a light meal (and I had my first non-lager since I left) and sat up through the night looking at each other's pictures and comparing experiences. She had come from Nepal where she works with an NGO trying to find markets for handicrafts. I was also getting antsy about the weather. As it turned out, I was safe by about 36 hours. In seven flights (Dar es Salaam--> Addis Ababa--> Nairobi--> Dubai--> Doha--> DC--> Chicago--> Portland) on four carriers (Ethiopia, Kenya, Qatar, Southwest) through six countries (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, UAE, Qatar, US), it was Southwest who lost one of my bags. I blame TSA though; at Dulles airport in DC, you, the passenger, are the one who must carry your bags from check-in to TSA. I had put my large backpack on the ground amidst all the other luggage, but I put my smaller duffel on a chair sitting next to all the luggage. I got it back the next day though. In Portland I was greeted by a wonderful site: SNOW!!! and ice. Lot's of ice. Even though I didn't have the proper cold weather clothes, I happily suffered through it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Axum (4 of 10)


The following day we flew to our second stop - Axum. Axum, or Ahksum, was the supposed residence of the Queen of Sheba. There is an old reservoir bearing her name which is still used by people to fetch (Yes, fetch, where do you think we were? This is a developing country and many people have no plumbing or electricity.) water. The big thing in Axum is to view the single-piece, stone stellae. These things are huge and were transported from tens of kilometers away in an age without diesel engines.

At the onset of World War II Mussolini’s troops briefly over-ran Ethiopia and captured (ransacked) the city of Axum. The troops broke one of the largest still standing stella into three pieces and pilfered it away to Rome. Once in Rome, Mussolini had it erected in St. Peter's Square as a glorious monument to the powerful nation of Italy. It stood there until just a few years ago when Italy decided to return it in a good-will gesture to Ethiopia. The return and resurrection of the stella coincides with Ethiopia's millennial celebration.

Ethiopia uses a calendar based on the Coptic calendar which figures the date of the birth of Christ to a later year then the Western European calendar. Also in Axum is supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant. Since the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia (once a part of the Coptic church) won't let any scholars verify its presence, it's a case of he said, he said (only men are priests). The topography and climate of Axum is much like central Oregon, especially Bend, but without the snow.

Friday, January 16, 2009


J, S, and I chose to fly to our three destinations instead of taking the bus by land. Hey! It's a big country half twice the size of Texas without the paved roads! So to avoid spending 4 of our 8 days just staying on a bus (we spent plenty of time on buses and Tanzania so we were just, "Ehh" to the buses) we flew. First up was Lalibella, home to some very large rock cut churches. These churches were carved into the side of a mountain. It was very impressive. There are actually 11 different churches. Some were carved completely freestanding with four walls and a roof. Some were simple carved rooms into rock walls. We also visited the local market, you know, to compare it with what we were accustomed to in Tanzania. It was not surprisingly very similar. There were a lot more spices though, something Tanzania needs more of. And speaking of spices, the food was wonderful. Ethiopia was fasting from meat during our time there, but we discovered we really liked the various vegetables with the thin, pancake-like bread called njira and a sauce made of mashed yellow lentils (shiro). We found a wonderful little local joint where it was only 6 birr per meal, but we only needed 2 meals for the three of us. Add a 3 birr soda and a 1 birr tea or coffee, and lunch came out to just 8 birr each. But get this - the conversion rate was 10 birr to the dollar! Our hotel was equally cheap at just 40 birr per person (common shower and toilet).

We arrived in Lalibella on a Saturday and had all of Sunday for sight seeing. We started the morning off bright and early before sunrise so that we could catch the Sunday church services. We walked the couple kilometers from our hotel to the rock cut churches listening to the call to prayer (what a nice change from the Muslim call to prayer!). Before the sermon, people seek out priests for blessing which involves kissing and touching ornate gold and silver crosses. During the blessing time there is drumming and singing. Shoes are removed before going into the churches, however it is acceptable to carry them inside and stash them under a bench. Many people kiss the doorstep and/or the doorways. People wear white sheets and wrap them in such a way that the fabric crosses in front of them. During the singing and preaching people are standing or sitting wherever they wish because the service is broadcast over loudspeakers. Priests often use very colorful cloth umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun and rain. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable as he was a deacon before he married.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ethiopia (2 of 10)

On to some lighter things! On 5 December S, J, and I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to start a week of sightseeing. J hooked us up with a friend of a friend living in Addis so we had a free couch and mattress to crash on. Free. I like the sound of that! I'd sleep on the plain floor if it were free. At first Addis makes you think that they are wealthier than Tanzania - more cars, a DIVIDED HIGHWAY with ONRAMPS!

Right away I ran into an issue with money. I had changed some Tanzanian Shillings into American dollars, but not that much. This was supposed to be partly for safety reasons - less cash on hand means less money could be potentially stolen. Also, it is expensive to keep changing money into other currencies because everyone wants their cut. By the time I received Ethiopian birr my cash would have gone from dollars to shillings (ATM) to dollars (money changer) to birr (money changer). I naturally wanted to skip the two middle men. In my time in Tanzania my own small podunk town went from one bank without ATM to two banks WITH ATMs one of which accepted VISA. Also, during my trip to Zambia there was no problem with ATMs. So I assumed Ethiopia was probably similar, and we were going to tourist hotspots where banking is usually excellent. WRONG! My first clue was at the international airport where I couldn't use my VISA or Mastercard in the ATM or at the money changer!


Tomorrow: Lalibella


Monday, January 12, 2009

Leaving Tanzania (1 of 10)

This is the first of ten parts to conclude my Peace Corps experience. I will try to post one new part each day so that you don’t have a novel to read.


I'm safely back in the states now and enjoyed a very Merry Christmas with my Mother and Aunt and Uncle. I want to thank everyone who prayed for me, sent good wishes, and sent letters and packages. I'd be happy to sit down and talk about my experience with you and show you pictures, but unless you want a two hour slide show, give me a couple months to get my pictures organized and pared down. Following is an account of my travels since leaving my home in Korogwe Tanzania.


On my last day in Korogwe, I woke up very early to hike to the top of a small hill overlooking the town to watch the sun rise. It's a very beautiful time of day and peaceful. I had told my students that they were welcome to join me and to meet me in front of the college at 5:30. I was disappointed that none were waiting for me. The sun waits for no man so my friend and I went to the hill to watch the sun rise. It was indeed beautiful as always. On our return we met one of the students who I had expected to join us earlier. It turns out that he was a little late and had tried to find us but had failed. However, he returned with us to my house to wait for my eventual departure. He was shortly joined by another student. These two students stayed with me and went on errands for me and with me throughout the morning and escorted me to the bus at 2:30 in the afternoon!


-Dar es Salaam

I left my home in Korogwe on 1 December heading for a short stay in Dar es Salaam. In Dar es Salaam I was poked and prodded by the nurse at Peace Corps to determine my health status - prognosis is good. I also had miscellaneous paper work to finish (bureaucrats - gotta look good for Washington!) and my exit interviews. In an exit interview, the fatal mistake of the interviewer was to ask, "What could we do better?" So I told her - her being the country director, aka the head honcho of Peace Corps Tanzania. Things got icy very fast. It was only mild criticism too; she got completely bent out of shape over it.  Maybe because she was new (only arrived a few weeks before).


My criticism with Peace Corps is this: they don't truly support the volunteers. The health care is touted as such a huge benefit, but in reality it is not very good. They are not required to have a doctor on staff so we had Nurse Practitioners. One of these argued with western trained doctors about diagnoses! They also prescribed medicine without consulting charts. I would describe the health care as adequate, but not superior. As an organization, Peace Corps treats "volunteers" like a fraternity on misbehavior suspension. While other organizations similar to Peace Corps have a hostel for their volunteers to stay in Dar es Salaam, Peace Corps does not. This is a world wide Peace Corps thing with exceptions where Peace Corps feels the other options are unsafe. But I ask why? Also, the other volunteer organizations are compensated three, four, and even five times as much as Peace Corps volunteers. Why not the "elite" organization of Peace Corps? If you adjust into today’s dollars the end of service compensation of volunteers from 1961, that would be more than 900 dollars per month of service; today volunteers receive a paltry 225 per month. One of the guiding principles of the designers of the Peace Corps program in the 60s was that volunteers, who all have a college education, should be compensated about the same as a low level enlisted serviceman not serving in a war (as according to one of Peace Corps own pieces of literature). Remember that enlisted servicemen typically only have high school education. I think it is very fair that we be compensated about the same, plus some money for college loan repayment. It is degrading that Peace Corps basically expects college graduates in their mid to late twenties to move back in with mom and dad after their Peace Corps service.


Tomorrow: Ethiopia


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

dubai and doha

Ethiopia is all wrapped up. So is Dubai. Now I'm waiting in Doha for my flight to Dulles (free internet!).
Dubai is freaky. Think San Diego without any trash along the roads, no beggars, but everything is Arabic and English. I had Cinnabon, Haagen-Daas, Carl's Jr (okay, Speedy's, but dang close), and could have had McD's, Burger King, and more. And here in Doha I had A&W root beer!
Assuming the bad weather isn't a big problem, I'll be home in 24 hours!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leaving Ethiopia

After a week of delicious Ethiopian food, including two dishes of raw meat (more later), I am off soon to Dubai! Communication in Ethiopia is a bit behind the reset of the develop(ing) world and I am looking forward to getting back to some modern civilization. Yes, even Tanzania has better communication infrastructure. And better banking. But it has been great to see some Christian history firsthand. Here's to building a better Ethiopia, Cheers, Me.