Me-go Mix: Track 7
“Gondar” — Madingo Afework
Traveling around Northern Ethiopia I spent a lot of time on buses, including four days round trip to Lalibela. The long rides were always accompanied by upbeat and high-pitched music. Before I left Addis Ababa I wanted to pick up a CD of music that would remind of me of my long bus rides through the North. The music shop next to my hotel, where I rented DVDs to watch while I was in bed with the flu for three days, had a small collection to pick from. The woman working was confused as to why I wanted to buy traditional music instead of more modern imports (but she also didn’t understand why I would want to watch a movie that didn’t star Denzel Washington, her favorite actor). We weeded out anything too traditional and decided on Mandingo Afework. The music has the rhythm I heard all over Ethiopia but wasn’t played with only traditional instruments.
Gondar is a city in Northern Ethiopia famous for it’s castles and the beautiful Debre Birhan Selassie Church. In the video for “Gondar” below, you’ll see some shots of the city as well as Lalibella, Axum and a few shots of the South. Most interesting are the beautiful dancers in traditional white robes. The dancers show off Ethiopia’s distinctive shoulder dancing, often laughingly attempted by tourists. Fast forward to 5:00 in the video for a good example of an enthusiastic shoulder dance.
Below is a video I took on a bus in Northern Ethiopia. Although bus music was often more traditional, you can hear a local recording of “Staying Alive” playing. The music on each bus was usually chosen by the bus driver or his assistant from a collection of cassettes. Once I witnessed an older man, probably a farmer, insist a driver play his own tape. This incited a lot of discussion among the other passengers—most objected to the traditional “folksy” music he wanted to play.
To tide you over until I finish my post about The South Omo Valley here are a few fun facts about Ethiopia that I’ve noticed:
Ethiopians have a different calendar and the current year is 1999. The year 2000 hits this September and I’ve seen a handful of places named “millennium cafe.” Some stores are having millennium sales.
Time is also counted differently, with Ethiopian time running six hours behind international time. So when it’s 7:30 in the morning in Ethiopia it’s really 1:30 in the afternoon. This makes things difficult sometimes and leads to the inevitable “your time or my time?” conversation.
The Orthodox Christian majority of Ethiopia is much more visible than the sizable Muslim population here. Many women, even in Addis, tattoo their foreheads with crosses and their jawbones and necks with geometric designs.
Most of Ethiopia’s religious treasures have been stolen or sold off in the past. Churches still have tall crosses left, some made of gold and others of brass or silver. A gold cross weighing 7 kilos was stolen from a Lalibella church in 1997 and then recovered.
The ark of the covenant is supposedly housed in St. Mary of Zion Church up in Aksum. It is not on display to the public. Many monasteries around the north claim to have once been the resting place of the ark or possible the intended resting place based on murals and decorations. Many monasteries do not allow women tourists to enter.
The most popular American TV show here, based on posters, is Prison Break. Rental shops also have 24, Lost and sometimes Alias. I was most surprised to see the entire series of Dark Angel, which was not popular in the US. The shopgirl told me that it’s very popular in Ethiopia. It costs 5 bir to rent a DVD and 3 bir to rent a VCD.
Outside of Addis I rarely saw any women with relaxed hair, most wore their hair in tight braids.
The most popular “sport” is foozeball. Local men and boys stand around in the middle of small towns playing on the dilapidated tables.
No one is proud of the Italian occupation during WWII, but most people say “chow” when saying good bye and the macchiato is the national drink.
One of the more strange, but often repeated, comments I got from over-eager English speakers was “where are you from” followed by “is that a developed nation? Ethiopia is a developing nation.” Sometimes “developed nation” was replaced with “first world.”
Prostitution is not as socially forbidden here as in the West. Cheating (by men and women) is common. As much as 50% of prostitutes are HIV positive. Outside of Addis Ababa a women in a bar is almost always a prostitute.
My bank told me yesterday that they would re-activate my ATM card for 24 hours. They lied.
I tried my card late in the afternoon and again after dinner with no response. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that there was a delay on the Ethiopian end but in the morning I was still money-less. Before I walked across town to another ATM I stopped into a branch of the bank to see if they could use the card. The card reader printed out a tiny receipt that read “authorization failed.”
The teller suggested I try the bank next door “because they call Kenya to get authorization.” I did and the card still failed which means that the ban was never lifted by my bank. Luckily, this bank took Mastercard (maybe the only one in Ethiopia) and I was able to use my second ATM card from my other bank to withdraw money. Of course, the pleasure of using a Mastercard cost me 6.5%, not to mention the 3% my bank will slap on.
With a bag of cash I ran off to my hotel, collected my things and hopped on a minibus as close as I could get to my chair. I had to walk the last 10 minutes uphill and was sweaty and tired when I stepped into the shop where I bought the chair two days ago. They wrote up a receipt for the chair and a few other things I was sending (for customs, although it was never requested) and tied the box together with a rope. The box was put on top of a taxi and I was off to the airport.
I’ve done a little looking and for large things Lufthansa Cargo is the cheapest service—cheaper than Ethiopian cargo or the post office. There’s no sea mail because to the wars going on to the east so it has to go by air. I would much rather pay less and have it arrive in five months, but air was my only option as far as I could tell.
The customs, weighing and payment process at the airport took about 1.5 hours, which wasn’t as bad as I expected. The staff were very nice and helpful and I paid two porters 35 bir (about $4) to pack the outside of the box up properly with straps and a bit of tape. The woman checking my package for export barely glanced at the chair and commented on one of the woven mats I bought. She didn’t even open the bag of stuff I threw in there. It seems like customs is hit or miss with it’s severity.
My box weighed in at exactly 20 kilos, but the cost is based on volume, not weight. Because of the dimensions I was charged for 42 kilos—$165. Yes, it’s a lot of money but I spent only a bit less to send 6 kilos from Kyrgyzstan not so long ago. For me the cost was worth it. It’s on tonight’s flight and will be in Frankfurt tomorrow morning and in Chicago the following day.
I had my taxi driver (who had waited through the entire process) take me clear across town to the bus station but I wasn’t able to get a ticket for tomorrow and have to show up at 5am like everyone else and fight for my seat. At the merkato I ran into some high school boys who snapped pictures of me with their cell phones and blurted out names like “Jennifer Lopez, Shikira…. Michael Scofield.” The last name is the main character from the TV show Prison Break. Although I’ve seen posters all over town I’m surprised high school boys in Ethiopia rank him as high as JLo.
I’m meeting up with an Australian woman who I met in Bahir Dar in Dila and then continuing on with her to Kenya. It will be nice to have a travel partner for what will probably be a long, rough road. Because I can’t say no, I agreed to ship a small bag of souvenirs for her today so she would have one extra day in the South, since she hasn’t seen the areas I’ve already been to. So before I could collapse back at my hotel I spent some time at the post office packing a box for Australia. The staff were oddly cheerful and typically helpful so it wasn’t much of a chore other than carrying the bag around all morning.
All of my clothes besides the ones I’m wearing are freshly washed and I’m ready to leave my temporary home. I will miss the helpful hotel owner who listens to my complain about banks and the cute cleaning woman who give me a smile and a wink when I put my clothes on her line to dry. I’m still not confirmed for Madagascar and am hoping I’ll get an email before I cross to Kenya so I can buy the appropriate visa. While I’m in transit spend some time in the gallery. There’s more photos form Northern Ethiopia to come but what’s there should keep you guys busy for a while.
It’s been one of those days.
I’ve been in touch with Air Madagascar’s Nairobi agent for weeks now, planning my flight to Madagascar. I’m trying to time things right so that I can travel between Addis Ababa and Nairobi by bus (a five-day journey), pick up my ticket and leave within the confines of a seven-day transit visa. The difference between a transit visa and tourist visa is $30 so it seems like an effort worth making. I thought things would work out, I’d have my flight confirmed and leave tomorrow on the bus.
But it’s not working out, I haven’t heard from the airline in three days and I have no idea if there’s a seat for me on the once-weekly flight to Tana. Even worse—I’ve been shopping. From the moment I arrived in Ethiopia I’ve been coveting the solid wooden stools and throne-like chairs. I went through my usual “but it’s too expensive… but what would a chair cost in the US… and what would an antique Ethiopian chair cost in the US…” conversation in my head and the chair won out. So I’ve been chair shopping and picked up a few more souvenirs to throw in the box.
When I was going to buy a stool I was planning on sending it through the post office but the chair might be as much as 20 kilos so it’s going freight. With the help of the Ethiopian friend of an American photographer living here I put a down payment on the chair and worked out that I could send the chair by Luftansa Cargo. It wasn’t until last night that I discovered that today is a national holiday and most things, including the post office and probably the cargo offices, are closed.
I’m usually one to sleep in but I got up at 7:30 this morning and immediately started burning CDs of my photos to send back with the chair. My hotel has scalding hot water so I took the opportunity to was almost all of my clothes and let them dry in the sun to hopefully get rid of whatever has been leaving me with lumpy red bites all over since I arrived in Lalibela. By 9am I was close to ready, having also had a photo session with my souvenirs and sketchbook so I tried calling the cargo office. There was no answer. The hotel owner called again and again before calling information and getting more useless numbers. It was closed and I was stuck. I can’t leave Addis until I ship my chair and there’s no way to ship it until tomorrow.
So I gave up and decided to go to one of the three ATMs in town and pick up some money since I only had about $1.25 in my pocket. The ATM nearest to my hotel refused my card and I assumed the machine was out of money or broken—pretty common situations here. So I picked up a croissant and macchiato for breakfast and walked North a mile or so to The Hilton, where anoter ATM is located. No luck. The staff there are extremely helpful and a concierge called the bank for me to see what was wrong. I was told that my bank was refusing the transaction, not the Ethiopian bank.
Now, I’ve had problems with my bank before for being overjealous in suspending my card. As soon as “Tajikistan” or Mongolia” pops up on their radar they freak out and put a hold on my card. That’s usually followed by a frantic email from my mom who’s trying to sort out the problem (this is why I gave her power of attorney on all my accounts, folks). I had another option, my other bank account’s ATM card which was securely hidden away in my bag in the hotel.
At the hotel I got a message from an Australian woman I’ve been hanging out with. The ride we thought we could catch with a traveler heading in his own car to Nairobi fell through. We would have to take the bus. For five days.
Racing back to the nearest ATM, I tried my backup ATM card, only to have it rejected after the first prompt. Although it’s a Mastercard and only Visa seems to work in Ethiopia the Plus symbol on the machine had given me hope. With my remaining few bir I stepped into an internet cafe to see what was going on. I wasn’t surprised to see a message from my mom telling me that my card had been suspended after it was discovered that it had been skimmed in Jordan and someone had my account number and pin. They were issuing me a new card—a horrible idea for someone all the way in Africa.
I was faced with a couple of dilemmas. First of all I had no money and my options were running out. Only one travelers check conversion is allowed during a stay in Ethiopia (and only if you’ve flown in—my sad face allowed them to led it slide that I didn’t have the required return ticket) with a maximum of $400. I used that up to pay for my car to The Omo Valley. I have a Visa credit card but a cash advance on that would be extremely expensive. Finally, I have about $120 in US cash left but I’d like to keep that for backup, for converting at the Kenyan border and besides, today is a holiday and all the banks are closed. My best hope was that my bank would lift the suspension on my card long enough for me to get some money to pay off my hotel bill, get some food and ship my chair.
My other dilemma was how to get that new card into my hands in Africa. My mom is going to have to courier it to me, probably in Kenya or Madagascar. Considering my credit card expires in May she could send that along too. A quick look on Fedex.com and I’m seeing rates of $75 for 7-day service and $120 for 3-day service. That’s steep and I wonder if I can survive for the last few months of my trip with my Mastercard for ATMs. I know Mastercard works in Kenya but haven’t figured out if it’s okay in Madagascar or Tanzania yet.
Luckily a few internet places are open today and I sat down with my laptop to call my bank over the internet using Skype. Skype is great to use because it’s cheap and I can call toll-free numbers, all of which aren’t accessible from outside the US on landlines. My favorite internet shop is having a May Day sale for it’s members so it’s was packed when I walked in and the connection was slow. After about fifteen minutes of repeated tries I got through to Eddie in Orlando and we talked about my problem. He agreed to lift the ban but it would take a few hours because no one was into work yet. He agreed to call my mom to verify things once the right people arrived and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The connection to my mom was much better and we were able to talk for a while before the owner asked me to say goodbye. Voice-over-internet calls are apparently illegal in Ethiopia. So in about two hours I will try the ATM in the big, empty yellow business center down the street and hopefully get enough cash in hand to get me out of Ethiopia.
Just a quick post to let you all know that after two days on the bus from Lalibela (and two days on the bus from Gonder to Lalibela) I’m back in Addis Ababa. I had Nachos Ole for dinner, yum. I’ve lost a bit of weight in Ethiopia, for lack of anything I want to eat outside of the capital. That’s why it was so funny today when the man eating at my table at lunch told me (repeatedly) how fat I am. It’s funny how I’ve gotten used to being called “so fat” right to my face. I laughed and told him my pants were falling off but it didn’t quite translate.
I’m working on my Madagascar itinerary (tips are welcome!) and once I book a ticket and coordinate the inane five day drive to Nairobi I will be out of here. I’ve been slowly updating the gallery so check in if you like. I will post when everything is finally online. For those of you keeping track, my package from Egypt just arrived back in Chicago—sea mail took less than one month. My brother will be happily smoking his new sheesha soon.
Tonight is my thrid night in Bahir Dar. The minibus came to my hotel in Addis at 3am (one hour early) and after a quick rush to get things together I ended up sitting on the bus until 4:30, when we finally left town. Although the sunrise was really beautiful over a patchwork of green fields I was too tired to appreciate any of it’s beauty.
We arrived in Bahir Dar at 2:30 but I didn’t get a room until 5:15. It was so ridiculous, waiting around that long, that I thought I might be on candid camera. Add to the frustration a lingering case of flu and no sleep and you get one angry Megan. Once I was given a room someone was already in it so I was told to wait while another room’s key was found. Twenty minutes later I stormed up to the front desk to find all of the staff laying around with no intentions of giving me a key. And to top it off the shower was not only not hot, but it was ice cold.
So my time here didn’t start off well and today I was completely undwhelmed by the monasteries I saw on Lake Tana. The first was one was from the 80’s… the 1980’s! I can only assume the boat drover got a comission for taking us there. The second monastery we stopped at only allowed men so three of us gentle folk sat around for an hour while the two men on our boat saw “the most beautiful monastery ever.”
The third monastery was fairly interesting and had the added bonus of a funeral outside so our tour was accompanied by a lot of wailing and chanting. On the way back the boat driver decided to bypass the other monastery we were supposed to visit and pretended to have no idea what I was talking about when I questioned him.
I’m happy to get out of this town tomorrow morning. It might take a few hours of waiting around to secure a spot on a minibus for the three hour ride north to Gonder but I think staying in Bahir Dar any longer will only further my “mood.”
It’s been raining and gloomy for the past four days here in Addis Ababa. On the afternoon we arrived back from Southern Ethiopia I started to feel unwell and by dinnertime I had a fever and runny nose. I braved it out for a while, resisting the urge to panic and assume it’s malaria—according to my guidebook malaria presents with flu-like symptoms.
By the third day I was getting worse and dropped into the hospital to see what was wrong. After I paid 35 bir for the consultation I was told to sit and wait. After ten minutes I was called and brought into a second waiting room where fifty locals sat with their eyes glued to CNN. It was amusing being there with so many people who most likely didn’t speak English, watching the weather report for the US.
Within one hour I had my blood pressure and weight (but not temperature) checked by a nurse and was examined by a nice English-speaking doctor. After I agreed to try the local raw meat dish he proclaimed that my lack of appetite was not because I don’t like Ethiopian food… it was because I had the flu. Apparently there’s been a bad strain of flu going around here for the past two months and I’m it’s latest victim.
After a few days of medicine and sitting around watching DVDs from the rental shop next door to my hotel I’m feeling a little better. Today the sun is shinning, I had banana bread for breakfast and I found a minibus to Bahir Dar tomorrow for 100 bir less than my hotel was charging. I’ve managed a measily one gallery of photo uploads for you guys—The Mursi. Enjoy!
We arrived back in Addis yesterday afternoon among a steam of soot-spewing trucks in a traffic jam. When I first arrived I didn’t realize how poluted the air is here, but I guess it was fresh compared to Cairo.
I wasn’t feeling well last night but woke up refreshed and after a nice (hot!) shower my Omo Valley travel mates and I left for some shopping. We started at the merkato, which had little to offer but they both bought clay coffee sets. Then I sat back and watched as they raced around town buying as much as they could carry. I didn’t buy anything but did fall in love with the wooden chairs here. In any case I have an idea of what the prices are and what’s available. I might pick up something before I leave the country but I just can’t fit anything into my bag. I might have to start throwing away clothes… my Indian-made shirts are starting to fall apart anyway.
Down in the Omo Valley I bought a small carved gourd container and a Hamer headrest at the Dimeka market and a clay Mursi lip plate in Jinka. They won’t fit in my bag either. Sometimes I think that I shouldn’t buy anything but the things here are so amazing that it’s hard to resist. Everything, including the chairs, are a fraction of what they would cost at home even after shipping.
Amongst the shopping frenzy we squeezed in The National Museum to see Lucy’s bones and had a tour around the famous church which I promptly forgot the name of. The church itsel wasn’t interesting but the guide gave a demonstration of the singing and instruments used.
My two travelmates are flying up North tomorrow so I will once again be on my own. You know I’m heading straight for the Tex-Mex resturaunt. For someone who doesn’t like to experiment with food I’ve eaten a lot of Ethiopian food so far. Last night we went to a great Ethiopian resturaunt and I actually like the fasting shinto I ordered. But I admit, injera still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Before Easter it was no problem—Orthodox Christians were fasting for 55 days so I got vegetarian food. I’m not a vegetarian but I don’t eat nearly as much meat abroad. It’s usually tough or fatty or sitting out in the sun. In Ethiopia’s case much of it is served raw. Unfortunately, after Easter they get a 14-day free pass to eat as much animal products as they like so many resturaunts don’t serve the “fasting food” on Wednesdays and Fridays like usual. Easter morning we were told we would be served meat and were presented with a plate full of plain roasted meat, and only meat. I can’t say I ate much of it.
Once I feel rested I will head North to start “the historical circuit.” I plan to catch a bus to Bahir Dar first to see the monasteries around Lake Tana. You can imagine my frustration that the best ones are off limits to women. The internet connections are slow here so I’m afraid that uploading photos might not be possible until I reach Nairobi but I will see what I can do.
My Southern journey is almost over—I’ve arrived in Awasa and expect to get back to Addis Ababa tomorrow afternoon. During my trip around the South I saw zebras, hippos and massive birds. I drove by a naked boy painted white walking on stilts and was kissed by a teenage Hamer girl at a traditional Hamer night dance.
My patience was tested by kids yelling “youYouYOU!” and by others asking for water bottles. I taught two little kids in Tingri how to do one-handed cartwheels on Easter after driving around for four hours unsuccessfully trying to find a Jumping of the Bulls ceremony. At the Dimeka market I made a friend named Galteh who asked me why I was wearing so many clothes.
Overall—despite the food, crummy hotels, crummier roads, biting flies and constant request for money—it was an amazing experience. I spent well over twice my target budget but reaching these last remaining traditional tribes was more than worth it.