Friday, 30 September 2016

Mysteries of Ethiopia: #1 of a potential series of 23,547,902

Ethiopia is a land of mysteries. I'm not talking about the big ones, like: Is the Ark of the Covenant really hidden inside a small chapel in Axum? Or, how did medieval Ethiopians carve vast churches out of solid rock? No, I mean the little things that baffle me every day and for which I can find no rational explanation. For example, near Shane and Brukty's home is a large pile of gravel. Almost every time I walk past, day or night, a man is seated on a cinder block on top of the pile, wrapped in a purple robe. (When I snapped this photo he had company but he's usually alone.)  Is he guarding the gravel? Does he just like the view from up there? Is he one of the city's many thousands of homeless? So far no one has been able to answer my questions...

Getting around in Addis Ababa... something of a challenge. It's a sprawling, fast-growing city with very few street signs and locals don't use official street names anyway. There are no set bus routes or timetables and buses aren't marked with route numbers or destinations. Instead, the fare collector hangs out a window shouting the destination as the bus roars past; you have a split-second to recognise the garbled place name then wave down the driver. When people give you directions they do it in terms of landmarks; I have to do the same when asking around for the right minibus (I ask to be let out at the Ambasa bus garage, around the corner from Nexus Hotel). Sometimes the buses or the new Chinese-built light trains are so packed you physically can't get on (or off, once you've managed to squeeze on). The first time I tried to get from the centre to Shane and Brukty's place by public transport it took three hours, sparking fears that I had been abducted or was hopelessly lost. Now, just as I'm about to go home, I have it down pat and can do it in half that time. Oh well...

Ethiopia's old soldiers

The best thing about travel is the unexpected, the chance encounters that happen as you're just wandering around. For example, I was checking out St George's Cathedral in Addis Ababa - built to commemorate the victims of Italy's 1930s invasion of Ethiopia - when a bunch of war veterans turned up for an official photo session. The Italians killed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, including with poison gas, and the country's war veterans are revered. (The invaders were eventually pushed out, just as they were in the 1890s). I'm not sure if these old soldiers are old enough to have fought in the 1930s but there was no mistaking the respect Ethiopians have for them. It felt a bit like being at an Anzac Day service in New Zealand. I didn't know enough Amharic to say anything to them but I'm sure they understood my salute.

Amani's 5th birthday

My visit here coincided with the 5th birthday of Shane and Brukty's youngest, Amani. Okay, it wasn't his real birthday but his cousins were out of the country at the time so he got to celebrate a second time, with a giant green birthday cake and a cousin in a purple unicorn suit. Happy birthday Amani!

A hyena back massage

 A tourist is treated to a hyena back massage

Every night for six generations a family in Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, has fed the hyenas that scavenge the city's streets and rubbish dumps. The family started offering the hyenas scraps of meat for spiritual reasons and as a way of discouraging attacks in times of drought, but when tourists started turning up at feeding time they realised it was good business too. 
I was very keen to see the "hyena man" in action but it took me three attempts. On the first night I discovered the feeding site had been moved from its traditional location by the city walls so I needed to hire a guide and/or transport to find it. Trouble was, every bajaj driver (a bajaj is a motorised rickshaw, called a tutuk in Asia) quoted me an exorbitant fare. I had better luck the second night but by then the hyenas weren't interested in free handouts because two feast days in quick succession meant they'd been gorging themselves on offal from slaughtered sheep and goats. By the third night I'd learnt the location and the hyenas were hungry. It was about half an hour's walk outside the city on the edge of a pungent rubbish dump. I soon found the hyena man - I just followed my nose, plus I could hear him calling his furry friends - and the hyenas soon found him.
The current hyena man (real name Abbas) knows the animals by name and feeds them chunks of meat he holds on a stick (they don't discriminate much between live fingers and meat scraps) or sometimes in his mouth. Any tourists that show up are given a chance to feed them too, but Abbas' special trick is to encourage the hyenas to climb onto tourists' backs as he feeds them chunks of meat. Abbas calls it a hyena back massage. I also had my shoulders massaged, not the most tender masseuse I've known but my only real complaint was that hyena paws smell so fetid I had to wash my clothes afterwards. I guess that's what happens if you spend all night wandering around a rubbish dump.

A hyena by torchlight

Seven hyenas showed up that night. It's eerie the way they slink around noiselessly but even eerier their distinctive whooping howl. They were skittish but didn't seem afraid of humans, happy to approach within centimetres if a free meal was involved.
It's a testament to the basic decency of rural Ethiopians that I was able to walk at night through unlit countryside and poor villages to the feeding site without feeling threatened. It did feel uncomfortable but that's because you attract so much attention as a foreigner here - much of the way I was accompanied by groups of children shouting "faranji!" (foreigner) or "you, YOU!". At one stage I wandered by mistake into a Muslim cemetery; instead of telling me off, a lovely old fellow took me by the hand and led me back to the proper path.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Hyena dinner time

Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia, is famous for the hyenas which prowl its back streets and scavenge in its rubbish heaps by night. A couple of "hyena men" put on nightly shows in which they feed the beasts chunks of meat from their hands and mouths. Alas Harar's hyenas are too well-fed at the moment to be bothered with free handouts. Two feasts in the past week - the New Year plus a Muslim feast day - mean the city's rubbish dumps are piled high with the remains of slaughtered sheep and goats, and the hyenas just aren't interested in eating more. Still, I did see a few last night (one of which is pictured above), and I could hear their eerie, whooping calls all night. 

Colourful Harar

Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia, is a fabulously colourful place. As in Rwanda, people here are not always keen to have their photos taken but I was allowed to take one picture of this ladies' wedding party when I ran into then in a back street. I think they were on their way to get some official photos taken before the big day. Thank you ladies! 

Happy New Year 2009!

No, that's not a typo. September 12 was the first day of the year 2009 in Ethiopia. The seven-and-a-half year discrepancy with our calendar is, I'm told, the result of a different calculation for the birth of Christ. The New Year was marked by a midnight fireworks display in Addis Ababa but otherwise it's a fairly low-key, family-oriented celebration here. I joined Shane and Brukty on a trip across the city for dinner at Brukty's mum's house, where her sister performed a traditional coffee ceremony. From washing and roasting the beans (pictured) to drinking the third and final round takes a couple of hours; it was the kids' bedtime so we only got as far as round two. It was great to experience a genuine coffee ceremony this way. 
The calendar is not the only unique thing here. Ethiopia has its own, ancient, 276-letter alphabet, which I'm told is not as impossible to learn as it sounds - the letters are made up of combinations of the 33 consonants and seven vowels. Still, it helps to explain why I've made little headway with Amharic, the national language. 
Ethiopia also has its own system for telling the time. The clock starts from zero at 6am our time, the start of the day; at 6pm the time goes back to zero for the start of night-time. So, when I turned up at this internet cafe this morning and found it was still locked, I was told it would open at 4 o'clock. That meant 6 + 4 = 10am in our system. To make it even more confusing Ethiopians often use the western system of telling time when dealing with foreigners like me, so I always have to triple-check what time they really mean... 

Friday, 16 September 2016

The most exotic place yet?

After just over a week with Shane and Brukty in Addis Ababa - playing nanny to their kids, welcoming in the Ethiopian year 2009 (more about that later) and getting over some health issues - I'm now in Harar, a city in the east of the country. Time is running out so I flew to the nearest big city, Dire Dawa, instead of taking a 12-hour bus ride. Harar couldn't be more different from Addis Ababa. While Addis is green and wet, especialy now at the tail end of the rainy season, Harar is hot and surrounded by dry scrubland. The people here are Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian, and I have to learn a whole new bunch of phrases - people here speak Oromo, which is unrelated to the Amharic spoken in the capital. But mostly this place feels totally different. With its twisting alleyways, spice markets, pastel-coloured houses and brightly dressed women like flocks of tropical birds, it feels more like Morocco than anywhere I've been in sub-Saharan Africa. Plus the coffee is reputed to be the best in Ethiopia - and that's saying something.
I spent my first night in a hotel overlooking a fantastically chaotic, busy market - I could have watched from my balcony all day - but was chased out by bedbugs. Now I'm in a guesthouse in a lovely traditional home in the middle of the old city. There's no street names or signs here so I have to memorise landmarks if I want to find my way back tonight...

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Dinner in Addis Ababa

I haven't been out much since I arrived in Ethiopia, thanks to a flare-up of a long-standing medical condition, so mostly I've been hanging out with Shane's kids, drinking coffee (Ethiopia is its birthplace) and eating injera (a flat, slightly sour bread Ethiopians eat with meat or chickpea stew as often as three times a day - that's it in the foreground of the photo). This was my first dinner in Addis Ababa.  In the photo are Shane, my old flatmate in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s; his wife Brukty, who has won international acclaim for her TV shows which use puppets to teach children the basics of health, hygiene and good behaviour; their kids Justice, 8, and Amani, 5; and a couple of visiting Mursi tribesmen from the far south of Ethiopia. They have been fascinating to watch because they are as confounded by the trappings of modern life (light switches, door locks, lifts, the cuddly toys I gave Shane's kids) as I am by many things here in Addis Ababa.

Hello Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is a vast and confusing city so I was very pleased that my old flatmate Shane Etzenhouser - I shared an apartment with him in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s - was there to pick me up. Apparently I arrived on the first sunny day after a two-month-long rainy season. From the plane northern Ethiopia is a patchwork of deep green fields and densely packed villages; booming Addis Ababa is a forest of half-completed buildings, a vast concrete jungle ringed by green mountains. It couldn't be more different than the dusty haze of Dubai, where I changed planes, and the barren, dun-coloured coast of Somalia, which we flew over.

Dubai from the air, complete with ever-present haze, window smears and the world's tallest building (for now anyway), Burj Khalifa. 

The Somali coast. Not even a pirate to be seen. 

It's time to say goodbye

Alas my time in the Netherlands is coming to an end... I've spent my last week making one more circuit of the country to say goodbye to some of my favourite cousins and aunties. Visiting Tante (Aunt) Do - that's her in the selfie above - was especially poignant. Given that she's 93 and I only get to Holland on average once every five years I probably don't need to explain why. I told her about my travels so far and she told me some more stories about the family's experiences in World War II.

I also went to Arnhem to say goodbye to my cousin Sophie and her boyfriend Philipp, who live in the city centre above this bright pink cafe. Here they are at the start of a night out in a superb pub called 't Moordgat ("The Murderhole") with fellow students of the Arnhem music conservatory, Yannick and Daria.

Sophie was in fine form...

In Eindhoven I said goodbye to cousins Laura and Eric. Eric took me on his motorbike to a Trappist monastery just across the border in Belgium. Eric is a street racing enthusiast with a 900cc Kawasaki and an apparent immunity to G-forces. I still can't decide if the ride was exhilarating or terrifying. My mum reads this blog so I won't say what our top speed was....

I then visited cousin Sanne and her hubby Erwin in Limburg (see separate post) and spent my last evening with cousin Ted, his wife Angela and son Erik just outside Amsterdam. My last few days in Holland were a bit stressful thanks to a nasty flare-up, with the worst possible timing, of a long-term health condition. Ted and Angela kindly helped me to a doctor who prescribed some emergency medication just hours before I had to be at Schiphol airport for my flight to Ethiopia. Phew.

Opa and Oma's grave

My maternal grandparents are buried in a village called Best, not far from Eindhoven. My cousin's husband Erwin and I stopped by to pay our respects on our way to the southernmost corner of the Netherlands. Rest in peace Opa and Oma.

The least Dutch place in the Netherlands

Before I left the Netherlands I had a promise to keep to my cousin Sanne and her husband Erwin - to visit them in Limburg, the least Dutch place in the Netherlands. Their apartment, in a village close to the point where the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet, looks out over rolling hills, fields sprinkled with cows, forests, monasteries and half-timbered farmhouses. Even the language is different and, for me anyway, incomprehensible. Together we walked in the hills (not something you can say often in the Netherlands), went cycling, watched cheesy movies and played Scrabble in Dutch. We also visited a Hundertwasser building originally designed for New Zealand but built in Limburg instead - you can expect a news story about that at some time in the future.

It turns out that climate change is not completely bad. It means, for example, that the Dutch now make a palatable white wine - which Sanne and I are sampling here - because the climate of Limburg, in the southern Netherlands, now resembles that of northern France.

A Dutch Czech

When some of my former students organised a 20th anniversary reunion in the Czech city of Ceske Budejovice a couple of months ago, one ex-student came all the way from Rotterdam just to take part. So, once I was back in Holland, the least I could do was visit him in Rotterdam. I have great admiration for Jirka, who has a Dutch wife, Nelleke, and two kids. In a few short years he has really made the Netherlands his home and mastered the Dutch language to the point that he now occasionally uses Dutch word order when he's speaking English. Very entertaining for me. He has studied full-time in Dutch and has a job working for the government in The Hague.
To visit him I took a train to Dordrecht, then a water bus down Europe's busiest water way to Rotterdam, arriving an hour late (sorry Jirka!). He took me to the city's most famous bar strip, Witte de Withstraat, his favourite cafe, Hotel New York, and finally to a microbrewery in a once derelict wharf area, now the place where Rotterdam's cool kids hang out. Had far too many beers then still managed to get back to my bed halfway across the country before trains stopped for the night.

A wartime treasure trove

Regular readers of this blog may recall how I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam a few months ago. I was hoping to find a copy of the underground newspaper my Uncle Frans helped produce during World War II, at great risk to himself and the rest of his family, to counter the Nazi propaganda in official newspapers of the time. Alas, I left the museum empty-handed - but a few weeks ago my cousin Pim was looking for something in his attic when he stumbled on a wartime archive left by his father, my Uncle Frans. It turned out to be a real treasure trove. Not only does the archive include copies of his newspaper,  De Kroniek (The Chronicle), it also contains letters from fellow Resistance members and Nazi documents (probably forged by the Resistance) such as a form stating German soldiers were forbidden from confiscating Frans' bicycle because he needed it for carrying out essential services. There's also a letter in which he is reprimanded by his friends for being seen in public when the Germans were looking for him. I've photographed part of the archive so I can study it at my leisure and translate it for family members in New Zealand.