“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.
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!
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 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.
When the location for GAP clients was announced, I didn’t hesitate to sign up for Ethiopia. There was no thought, no contemplation, and no matrices of pros or cons. I simply used my gut and cashed in all my chips so I could work in Africa because I knew it would be an adventure.
I am an adrenaline junky. I thrive on fast-pace heart stopping moments that trigger you into fight or flight mode. In my mind, an African adventure might be going on safari or being stranded on the side of the road hundreds of kilometers from help. I learned that a true adventure is anything that just takes you along for the ride.
I knew Tuesday would be different because a few of us were flying from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa instead of making the more than 8 hour drive. I didn’t know that arriving at the small, resort town airport at 7am was the beginning of a long and adventurous day. Our first shock came in the literal sense of the word. Upon entering the airport, we had to put our belongings on a conveyor belt to go through security. As Danny leaned on the rollers to take off his shoes, he was zapped by an electrical current. OUCH! We all stopped to make sure he was ok, and then continued on our journey.
The flight was smooth, and we were all mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape below of us (not to mention grateful that we weren’t driving on the switchback road we could see from the plane). Upon landing, we easily spotted Asres, our local guide from Addis Ababa University, and piled into the truck that would take us to our lodgings for the next eleven days.
As soon as we pulled into traffic we were sucked back into our version of an African adventure. Cars were whizzing by us right and left. Pedestrians were inches from the bumper of our car. We were on sensory overload from all the black exhaust, dust and constant beep, beep, beep of coming from every direction. There was bumper to bumper traffic; trucks piled high with cargo, mass chaos in round abouts, and people using the gridlock situation to sell cookies to all of us stuck in traffic. WOW!! The adventure was back in full force and my eyes were wide open to take it all in.
After more than an hour of driving over bumpy roads, behind loud trucks and onto dirt shoulders we finally arrived at our accommodations. It was time to settle in and relax while we waited for the rest of our team. As they say, there is no rest for the weary. Our planned housing had some unforeseen issues, and while trying to decide the course of action, a teammate’s bug bite conditions became worse. We all loaded back into the truck and drove 90 minutes to seek medical intervention.
More sights, sounds and smells grabbed our attention as we waited at the hospital. Addis Ababa serves as the hub for people from all over Ethiopia to come in search for treatment of malaria and other diseases. I have never seen so many people gathered outside in waiting areas, seated on benches near patient rooms or openly weeping over a diagnosis. I didn’t know where to look or what to observe. It was the most humbling experience of my trip to Africa so far. Luckily, our teammate’s situation was quickly treated, and we left to reunite with the rest of our team after their long drive.
I thought we were simply going to pick up the rest of the group and head back to our housing. We said goodbye to the University of Gondar driver, Amara, who had accompanied us for nine days. After hugs of gratitude, the adventure tapped on my shoulder to remind me it was still there. Our accommodations had not been settled. I watched as our hosts huddled around a computer and spoke in rapid succession. I don’t speak Amharic, but I am smart enough to know that they weren’t talking about putting us up in the Hilton. They entertained us by giving us a tour of the heritage museum on campus, which is housed in the former palace of the king.
Sitting in the office of the person who would play a hand in where we would live while in Addis Ababa, I thought about taking a shower and climbing into bed. I knew we had a long day ahead of us, and all I wanted to do was stop moving. But as before, the adventure heaved me out of my rest and kept chugging for many more hours. With no real solution in sight, calls were made to Ohio to seek help for our situation. Kurt, Heidi, Wondwassen Gebreyes, and Christine O’Malley were responsive, compassionate, and instrumental in our attempt to solve the issue.
While waiting for arrangements between OSU and Addis Ababa University, the team headed to dinner near the National Museum. My body relaxed and enjoyed the sumptuous food. We all agreed that we had found the best pizza in Ethiopia. Considering we had pizza almost every day, this was a huge discovery. But wait, there’s more. Yes, that’s right, the adventure wasn’t over. Lodging was finally secured for us in the center of the city, but now we had to drive more than an hour one-way in traffic that hadn’t died down — even though it was 7:30pm — to retrieve our luggage from the very first place we traveled to after landing in Addis. All of us were weary after having started our journey at 5:30am that day. I volunteered along with Danny to get the luggage while the others handled the check-in at our hotel.
Driving at night is no different than the daylight in Addis Ababa, except it is harder to see the people crossing the street inches in front of your car. The same gridlock we experienced at 1pm was still present even though it was 7 hours later. The place we were headed to locked the entry gate at 9pm, and I didn’t think there was any chance we were going to make it in time. Just when we would finally get moving, I would see brake lights ahead. It was touch-and-go for a while, but we arrived at 8:45pm.
With the luggage on board, the last leg of our adventure was coming to an end. For me it was full of ups and downs, twists and turns, peaks and valleys. Just when I thought I could breathe, a new roadblock appeared. Though it was exhausting both mentally and physically I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe that anyone can have a normal day where things run smoothly and fall into place. But what is the fun in that? What do you learn if there is no adversity? Only by tackling what is in front of you does true adventure appear.
May 5th (Monday) is an official holiday in Ethiopia and all government offices are closed. However, a subteam of our Gondar hosts had promised to make time to meet us at 1.30p. We decided to go to explore the city and check out the local market before our meeting. What an adventure it turned out to be!
First, we went to a souvenir shop which was filled with great local craft pieces – including wall hangings, dolls, decoration pieces, clothes, shawls, musical instruments and many other interesting pieces. Even though we promised ourselves that we will window shop, seek comparisons, not fall victim to impulse decisions and try our bargaining skills, the moment of truth was interesting. The pieces were so beautiful that it was hard to resist the urge, especially since we would automatically make mental calculations of how low the dollar-converted costs would be!
Our first real adventure of the day was right outside the souvenir shop where a group of 2 young boys approached us and tried to “exchange” a 20 dollar bill for an interesting story. Their concern was that they had an “old” 20-dollar bill from 1981 which the local merchants would not accept. They wanted the nice Americans to help them by exchanging it for a newer bill since we could easily pass it on when we got back home. We had an interesting dialogue about the authenticity of the bill and in the end decided to agree to disagree.
From there we got in the van and were taken to the local market which was bustling with activity of every sort – from fresh vegetables to chickens to clothes, utensils and hardware. Almost everyone we met was extremely friendly with smiles all around. We all noticed that many of the shopkeepers spoke very good English and didn’t try aggressive approaches to sell to the visiting “freinji” (local word for light skinned foreigner). We also noticed that there were quite a few women entrepreneurs who confidently ran their shops.
During this visit to the market we happened to stumble upon John, a 10th grade student who made our day! There was something about his demeanor that put our whole group at ease with him. We struck up a conversation with him to find out about how he loved fashion forward shoes which he then converted to soccer shoes when his 5 brother team rule over other kids in the neighborhood. He told us about his dreams of becoming a doctor one day and serving his nation. We not only got great advice from him about which fabric to buy or how to avoid fast colors but also got a pleasant surprise – an offer to show us where the beautiful fabric was weaved by the locals.
We had set a deadline for ourselves to leave the market by noon so that we could head back to the hotel, have lunch and get ready for the 1.30p client meeting. However, the offer was just too good and all of us make a group decision to flex our time in favor of this unbelievably authentic experience. John took us through the market until we reached a semi-residential area where small shacks housed families as well as a cottage industry of 1-2 person manufacturing units. John showed us where a person was hard at work at a small hand-powered loom weaving a beautiful fabric from threads of cotton. John would later also show us where the raw picked cotton was sold and along with the bobbins used to convert piles of raw cotton into thread which would then be used in the weaving process.
On our way back, we were taken thru another route in the neighborhood where we saw ladies cooking the day’s lunch. John took us to one of the ladies and we were able to see how pancake type batter was first prepared and then poured over a heated plate to make Injeria – the staple of the Ethiopian diet. As we watched this process, we were surrounded by many curious and smiling children. For some reason, they found trust and comfort in the faces of Danny and Niraj—whose hands they held and started to walk thru the alleys back to the market. Only after we reached the van did they finally say smiley goodbyes and went off their way.
As we said farewell to John, he offered to take us on more experiences like this should we choose to. Since he was off school for the summer, he was willing to take time off from soccer and show us around while someone covered his shop. A definite stop that we all agreed to put on our itinerary was the visit to the Jewish blacksmiths. Knowing of the historical struggles of the Ethiopian Jewish community, this experience was a must have.
Oh how lucky we got with finding John!
We got back to the hotel recounting our many adventures (some of which we couldn’t list here) in time for our client meeting. We ended up having a 3 hour meeting with them and then a 3 hour strategy session which shed new light into how to proceed with our mission in Ethiopia. Tomorrow is a packed day and if things go well, a packed week full of work.
Fifteen hours is a long time to spend on a plane. But it makes sense when the journey you’re going on is to such a different place from Ohio as Ethiopia.
We had a smooth flight. There were many adorable yet crying babies on the plane, so sleep was limited. The arrival process was fairly smooth and quick too. Asres, our kind guide from the University of Addis Ababa, met us at the airport and drove us to the hotel.
The hotel helped us hire a driver who took us to the Piazza area, a busy center with many stores, cafes and restaurants. We had our first cup of strong Ethiopian coffee at the popular Tomoca cafe, and then walked around to find places to meet our basic needs: an ATM, pastry shop (!), and phone card for additional cell phone minutes.
Some things we noticed our first day in Addis:
Traffic: is basically organized chaos. There are few street signs and street lights, many roundabouts, tons of cars, buses and pedestrians. Yet everything flows together somewhat smoothly. Cars drive very close to each other and people, yet somehow nobody got hurt (at least not yesterday. Carla mentioned that Addis has one of the highest car accident rates in the world). Also, horn honking was surprisingly low and considerate.
Poverty: Yes, there is poverty here. We saw some small areas that looked like shanty-towns where the houses were basically concrete slabs with simple corrugated metal roofs and tarp walls, and many people begging or sleeping in the street. A few little kids came up to Danny and Niraj, grabbing onto their pants and begging them for money with their sweet little smiles and open hands. For the most part we ignored beggars, but brought little trinkets (pencils, marbles) that we will give out to kids during our trip.
Busy, bustling street life: Even amidst some poverty, many cafes were full of people drinking coffee and tea, eating snacks, relaxing and talking with friends on a Friday afternoon. People waited in long lines for buses that choked the streets. There were people working; with many active construction projects in progress and tall buildings scaffolded with long wooden poles.
Friendly and polite: We met several locals who were willing to help our clueless tourist selves navigate language barriers with bilingual assistance. One very kind shop owner helped us add minutes to our Ethiopian cell phone, and several times people helped me (Danielle) while I was waiting in line to buy something, (apparently) looking confused. Thank you, kind people!
Prices: We knew the cost of living here would be much lower than US standards, but we still experienced reverse-sticker-shock when buying things. One doughnut and three cups of tea cost about $1(total!) in a cafe, and our delicious meals at the hotel restaurant were about $3-5 each.
Style: The women in our group had been concerned about wearing appropriate clothes here, wanting to blend in and dress modestly. But I was surprised by how fashion-forward many of the women in Addis are. Skinny jeans, colorful makeup (especially bright lipstick), trendy hairstyles (braids, twists and side-sweeps), and leopard-print scarves are popular here. Many women wear stylish hair coverings made from sheer, jewel-edged fabric or with varying patterns. Cute flats and some high heels were spotted too, though I’m glad we were advised to wear comfortable shoes for walking.
Rain!: There was a very strong thunderstorm yesterday afternoon. Some of the streets were muddy.
Most strongly we have notice scenic beauty with mountains in the background, colorful flowers everywhere, lots of trees and birds… mixed with exhaust from so many cars and buses. We keep seeing hints of other places we’ve visited or lived in here. The traffic reminds Niraj of India (but minus the cattle), the beggars are less aggressive than those Alejandra has encountered in Peru, and the narrow elevators remind Carla of Tel Aviv. The beautiful landscape and flowers look like Hawaii, and the hustle and bustle, busy activity and organized chaos remind me of New York City.
Overall, we’re so happy to be here and can’t wait to explore more!