“Ayzo” is an Amharic word we learned in the middle of our stay here. It was described to us as something you would say to a person who has fallen down, to encourage them to get up, to soothe them that it would get better, and to empathize that you have fallen down before too. I look at it as the Amharic version of “Keep your head up.” It was a useful word to know for Saturday.
Saturday, May 24th was our last day in Ethiopia. The plan was to finish up the final touches of our paper for the client, visit a local coffee shop, and perhaps get some spa treatments. Low-key, relaxed and minimal planning so we could pack up and get to the airport in time for our 10pm flight back. But as the saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.”
Carla woke up painfully sick. The rest of us decided to call the HTH Insurance plan which covered us during our travel, determine which local health clinic or doctor we could use, and then go visit. But unfortunately, that wasn’t so easy. Internet was still out (since Addis had been experiencing ongoing blackouts since Monday) and we had limited phone credit to call the international hotline.
While Alejandra and Danny went to the local internet cafe to research doctors within network, our guide (and really, guardian angel) Tigist came to the rescue, calling friends to get information and eventually picking us up from the hotel and driving us to first one, then another medical center that would treat our sick friend without demanding extraneous paperwork. Due to distance and hideous Addis traffic we were in the car for hours, but eventually Carla was able to see a doctor who could treat her and prescribe her some helpful medicine.
We are so thankful that Carla was able to get treated and we were all able to get on the plane back home. We are also immensely grateful for our extraordinarily hospitable hosts, and for the opportunity to explore such a different and vibrant culture these past three weeks.
I’m including here pictures from street scenes in Addis, taken from the car as we were driving around on Saturday.
Thursday 5/22 was an interesting day. Niraj and Katie had already left the day before and it was my last night with the gang as I was leaving the next afternoon. It had been the desire of several of us to check out a Korean restaurant that had come highly recommended to us. After Ale and I came back from the Red Terror Museum, we really wanted to share a cup of coffee with our driver, Tikelun and Madame Mebrat. Protocol was such that all of our previous attempts at invitations had failed. Tikelun was the hardest to crack. This time, we asked him 3 times but then gave them no choice as we opened the driver’s door and forced the invitation. We were so happy to share the warm sips of coffee with our hosts and knew we made a connection when the driver refused the hotel-made pastry and accepted to partake from Danny’s stash of kollo – the genuine local article!
We set out a little after 5 for dinner and so began a 2.5 hour search for the Korean restaurant Rainbow. Earlier Carla had pulled out a rough sketch from Google maps and our hosts had politely informed us that they knew what the map was pointing to. Either the map was outdated, or way out of scale, or our hosts misjudged. Either way, thus began an interesting and somewhat comical search for Rainbow. We must have stopped in 3 different neighborhoods and taken several u-turns. We stopped policemen, people on the street, and even rival restaurants for directions. Each one was wrong and we almost gave up the search were it not for the finding of another Korean restaurant and discovering that the same owners owned Rainbow as well. We finally reached the address only to find a closed gated with inside lights turned off! Hoping against hope, Danielle got out and rung the doorbell. A person off the street confirmed what we suspected by now.
What a treat this turned out to be! We had spotted the Armenian restaurant, Aladdin, a few turns back and knowing it was recommended in the guidebook, set out for it.
Food was great. No question one of the best meals we had in Ethiopia. But even greater was what happened during the meal; we really broke the ice with the former soldier in Tikelun. We found out that he was really into action movies – especially Rambo and other Stallone/Schwarzenegger flicks. Just then a familiar tune hit my ears and a few moments later, a startled me started telling the group that this was a pop song from Pakistan – the 1st one to introduce the genre to that country! Mebrat told me that it (Nazia Hasan’s “aap jaisa koi”) was still a popular song in Ethiopia. An obscure song from the 1970s from a country thousands of miles away… what are the chances of that?? Thus began a sharing of commonalities. We asked our hosts of what music they listened to and the movies they liked. A group of us broke into choruses to several songs that they would hint at and we would get nods of approval if the mark was right. The song “Jolene” and other country westerns were definitely in. Michael Jackson was a veritable African son whose death was mourned greatly in Ethiopia. We were the only table singing, clapping and laughing ourselves silly with abandon.
Ale and I went sightseeing on my last full day in Addis. Our guide whom we affectionately called Madame Mebrat accompanied us. We didn’t really have a plan except that we wanted to see the unseen Addis. Oh, what a great day it turned out to be.
First, we went to the Ethiopian version of the local convention center, which was set up in a few large tents in what seemed like an open garden. This was a total chance discovery. Only later was my initial surprise to be revealed of having been frisked lightly at the entrance of the garden. We heard a band playing in the distance and we headed towards it to see a small crowd of people lining up against a red carpet. There were dance troupes representing the welcoming party dressed in the different ethnic outfits of Ethiopia. Large 4x4s would come in every few minutes and well dressed people in suits would disembark and head towards another tent of suited people sitting in front of a make shift stage. Later we found out that these were actually ministers of the state and the whole wait was for the prime minister himself to show up! They were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the liberation from the brutal Derg regime of communists.
We milled around for a while and then headed out of the garden towards the Red Terror Museum. I didn’t know what to expect and was totally unprepared for the scenes and emotions which lay ahead. Right at the entrance was a statue of an old woman, flanked by 2 younger ones with anguished expressions and tears on their faces. The plate read “NEVER, EVER AGAIN!”.
At the entrance was a most touching quote from this same old woman whom we found out had 4 sons slaughtered by the Communists in their prime, on a single night! The haunting quote read, “As if I bore them all in one night, They slew them in a single night!” Being a father of 3 myself, I knew what this quote meant as a parent and shuddered at the words which were a reality for this old woman.
As we got further into this rather modest but well-curated museum, we were quite shocked by the sheer capacity for barbarity in man. We discovered how over 2.5 million Ethiopians perished in the Derg period – some from a callously managed famine and others slaughtered at the hands of the army and citizen thugs. We were shown how people kept hope alive in the midst of unimaginable misery. We discovered how the students and the intellectuals were specifically targeted for barbaric torture and inhumane conditions during confinement to break their spirits and those of their fellow citizens. The “lucky” ones found a quick death.
We were shown the favorite “harsh interrogation” (aka torture) techniques that the regime had mastered in a particularly harrowing display of a hands-on human model sculpture. Many a time during the tour we almost ended our visit. The museum was too much for not just us but was even more so for Mebrat. Every few minutes, she would slip into a corner sobbing, letting her tears flow and getting a hold of her emotions. I first thought that this petite woman had an especially sensitive heart. Later I was to discover that hers was the strongest heart of us all. She shared with us that the horrors we could only imagine in faded pictures and descriptive words were actually hers in real life. Her own husband had suffered the brutality first hand. She had lost many a smiling friend to the 17-year-long horror of the Derg regime.
Another particularly harrowing exhibit was that of several glass cabinets filled with the remains of mass graves – tattered blankets, clothes, shoes, watches, rings, etc were the personal belongings of the victims. Another room had cabinets filled with human remains – skulls, teeth and bones. We were told that these represented a tiny fraction of mass graves that actually existed. Our wise tour guide made a decision to tactfully steer Mebrat away from this room as it might have been just too horrific of a memory for her.
We left the museum and walked in solemn silence for a while. We hugged each other and thanked Madame for sharing her sorrow with us. We made a real connection of humanity amongst us. Our hearts felt heavy but our spirits felt strong. I felt the weight of the resolve from the powerful words of the statue: “NEVER, EVER, AGAIN!”
PS. the Derg were toppled with US help to the rebels in the early nineties. Our visit happened to mark the 20th anniversary of this. That is why the Prime Minister was visiting the garden earlier!
Danny and I went out to get some phone credit in Addis after having had a rather long day with client meetings and some sightseeing. We were requested to also bring back a piece of home if we could find some … Snickers!
It was dark outside and our part of town had been suffering from a constant electric and internet blackout for the last 4 days straight. Thankfully, we were on backup generator power and didn’t have issues inside the hotel. However, outside the hotel it was a little different story. We couldn’t find the revered chocolate bar on our first 2 stops. However, we found something much more important – kindness and generosity! We found BinYamin.
BinYamin was the owner of a small beverage shack, but an owner of a VERY big heart. After pondering for a little while which way to send the lost foreigners in the dark night of a blacked-out Addis, he finally said, “Come with me.” We were taken aback by this and we insisted that this was not that important and he shouldn’t leave his business to help us find a 12-ounce bar. BinYamin didn’t take no for an answer. We followed him for several city blocks during which he made sure that he protected us from the unruly traffic crossings and open holes in the side walk that could have made for a sewage laden mess at a minimum. We had great conversations in his broken English and our very broken Amharic. We tried our best to communicate with each other with words, gestures and facial expressions and shared a few laughs. We felt at home with this unknown person we had just met 20 minutes ago! However, the best was yet to come!
After reaching another small but well stocked shop, we discovered the Snickers bar we wanted, but we also found out that neither Danny nor I had any cash on us!!! We laughed at the silliness of our situation and tried to figure out the most polite way to break the news to our host as well as the shop keeper. Strange things started to happen. First, BinYamin’s determination that we get the bar and second, him emptying his pockets in search of cash – cash for us! However, his pockets came out just as empty as ours. But, this was not to deter a determined Ethiopian bent on kindness. He had been holding 2 phones (the old Nokia types). He put one of the phones on the counter and we finally realized what he was doing – he was putting security down in exchange for the bar and promising the shopkeeper to return with cash!!!
Here we are in Ethiopia and this unknown stranger wants to part with one of his few precious belongings to help some strange foreigners!! Oh, how overwhelmed we were with the feeling!
After some trying, we finally convinced BinYamin that we didn’t really need the bar that bad and he took his phone back. His kindness extended all the way back until he brought us back almost to the footsteps of our hotel, making sure that we got a safe escort back in the still dark night.
Forget the Snickers. We found something much more precious. We found BinYamin . There is hope for a better world because there are people like BinYamin in it!
On Wednesday morning we met with Dr. Hailu for our final presentation. He offered helpful suggestions for improvement, and we all felt satisfied by our work and his feedback.
In the afternoon, Dr. Hailu accompanied us to Entoto Maryam Church, a beautiful old building located up a winding forested road at the top of Addis. This is where original capital was, since it served as a strategic overlook, and where King Menelik II was crowned in the late 1800s. We saw many women carrying large bundles of firewood on their back up the hilly roads.
Afterwards, we did some shopping at the wholesale market Shiro Meda, where Danny and Niraj finally bought their Ethiopia soccer jerseys at a reasonable price.
We ate at the Lime Tree Cafe for dinner, a popular place with expats. We were excited by the sign reading that they wash their vegetables in bleach water, hurrah! Because then we could finally eat a salad, which we shared with gusto. It was the first time we’d eaten raw vegetables in almost three weeks. (Because the water they wash vegetables with is not safe for us to drink, we’ve been avoiding raw vegetables since arriving here.)
Finally we dropped Katie and Niraj off at the airport, who are leaving early for prior commitments. The trip is really beginning to wind down!
The power outage continues on Tuesday. Internet is still out, phones seem to be working, and the hotel is still powered by the generator. This morning there’s no hot water, however, since apparently the water is heated by electrical power.
Javed and Niraj went to client meetings while the rest of the team sought out internet to let our family, friends, faculty advisor and GAP leaders know of our situation. The hotel kindly provided a shuttle to take us to the nearest internet cafe, but only two minutes after our arrival, the power cut out there too. I asked the young man next to me how long the outage might last. He said it could return almost immediately, or it could take quite a long time. We waited several minutes, everyone else left the place, and then we did too. The kind proprietress didn’t charge us for our time there.
We decided to go to the Sheraton Hotel to use the internet there. Again, the hotel driver took us down the winding road to what might be another world. As we entered the gleaming gates of the hotel, I couldn’t believe something like this existed in Addis. We went through a security check and metal detector, and entered perhaps the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever seen in my life. A gurgling fountain greeted us in the front lobby, while sumptuous brocade-covered couches and arm chairs filled the wide lobby and cafe seating area. Coffee and cakes at American prices were for sale from a sparkling clean glass case, while diplomats wearing pressed suits and speaking many different languages spoke with each other at the cafe tables.
Rooms cost $700/night. Considering that the average Ethiopian earns $400/year, this is where the 0.0001% of Addis resides. It was a strange slice of reality to experience, however briefly.
On Monday morning 5/19, we woke up to no internet. The city was in the midst of a rolling blackout, which apparently happens quite frequently. Our hotel was powered by a back-up generator, so our lights and water were (for the most part) working, but the internet was out and the phones were also spotty. Ethiotel, the country’s only landline and cell phone provider, was also experiencing intermittent outages. Even so, we were luckier than most, since many people have no backup power supply.
We met with our Addis client, Dr. Hailu, at 11am to present a rough draft of our proposal. With water, coffee, tea and kollo, we shared our ideas and listened to his suggestions. Overall we are satisfied with the progress we’ve made and will make time to incorporate Hailu’s suggestions before we leave.
In the afternoon, some teammates stayed at the hotel to complete their section of the project, while the rest drove into the city center to do some shopping. We bought some roasted coffee at Tomoca and green coffee at the local supermarket chain Shoa. It was our first time inside a grocery store here and we were excited to see what people buy here on a daily basis. We were also excited to stock up on some essentials, like bottled water and Mars candy bars.
During the drive back, we hit rush hour traffic, which is unlike any other traffic I’ve ever experienced. Think LA-level gridlock, but with all cars spewing diesel exhaust, and streets without painted lanes, and huge potholes, and tons of people waiting in lines 2-3 people thick for the next bus or taxi van. Pedestrians are also quite bold and usually walk right in front of cars, while cars themselves drive quite closely to each other. It’s amazing we haven’t seen any accidents yet.
After dinner we did some more work and then got ready for bed. Somehow even in the midst of the blackout, the club across the street was still well-lit, with loud music blaring through the night.
Sunday we worked for a few hours in the morning because our deliverable to the GAP office was due today. By the afternoon we felt ready for a break, so most of us went to the National Museum of Ethiopia, where the fossils of Lucy and other early hominds are kept. The Awash region of Ethiopia is home to many ancient fossil discoveries, and we were lucky to see some of them.
After the museum, a few of us went to a cafe across the street and ordered some coffee, tea and pastries. The doughnut was one of the best we’ve ever had!
After yesterday’s excursion to the textile shops, the guys wanted to do a little masculine shopping, so off to Churchill Avenue we went in search of some swords and wooden objects. We pulled up to a small stretch of vendors which had many poor people asking for money outside of them. Several of the people were tiny children. After two weeks here, I still can’t get used to that, and my heart goes out to every kid. They touch their hands to their lips, indicating, “Give me food,” and hold their palms open, ready for us to place something in it. But we don’t, because we don’t really have food with us, and if we give anything, we will immediately be swarmed.
And that’s exactly what happened. After about 45 minutes of shopping and haggling prices with the help of our local guide Mebrat, we got in the van and all the beggars pressed up against the sides of the vehicle, talking through the windows, asking for food, or to sell us one more item. I closed my eyes, I could not look at them. I had to look away.
We drove off to dinner, to a comfortable night in our lovely hotel, to a night full of dreams.
On Saturday we worked for a few hours in the morning, since we have a deliverable due Sunday, and then went out to explore in the afternoon.
Carla and Alejandra have made a connection with a local blogger named Sara, who gave them all sorts of suggestions on where we could go for shopping, food, and other delights. The area we concentrated on is Bole, an expat neighborhood.
We first stopped at an out-of-the-way workshop (which we definitely wouldn’t have found on our own) called Sabahar that produces handwoven scarves and placemats. The factory was open and light-filled, and we went to the attached store to buy some of the colorful goods. Some of us were particularly inspired by the owner and manager, Kathy, who expatriated from Canada for her husband’s work, and 14 years ago started this business on her own. She employs over 150 local people and teaches farmers how to raise silkworms to produce the silk used in some of the scarves. It’s the kind of sustainable business that some of us want to develop after business school.
Next stop was ice cream at Igloo, which Kathy recommended as the best in Addis. We were really excited to try it, since ice cream is super rare in Ethiopia, due to the limited cold chain (something we’re learning a lot about with our project). The flavors were very bright and we’re already planning to return!
We visited another handicrafts store called Salem, owned by a kind proprietress by the same name. The inner courtyard had a puppy and kitten romping around, who Katie quickly befriended.
Our money all spent and our bellies full of yumminess, we retired to the hotel where we ordered pizza for dinner and talked for awhile. It was a cozy and relaxing evening.