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...
Friday, 30 September 2016
...is 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...
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
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
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
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.
Sophie was in fine form...
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.
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.