My Abyssinia

This post originally appeared in my travel journal.  During July 2012, I spent some time in Ethiopia supporting a USAID-sponsored development project.  I’m excited to share excerpts from that trip with you.  This post has been edited from its original version.

I arrived three hours late.

The company driver didn’t have the means to research my flight status before arriving at the airport, nor did he have the wherewithal to ask anyone at the airport about it…so he left.  It was chilly so I fished my fleece jacket out of my suitcase and headed back to the arrival hall.  The hotel had a desk just inside the doors and they could surely arrange a shuttle from the airport.

Except the guards stopped me because once you exit the airport you can’t re-enter.

Oops.

I repeated the name of my hotel, “Jupiter, Jupiter Hotel,” and one guard dispatched the other to the hotel desk stand to fetch the hotel rep.  I sat on my suitcase.  I’d been traveling for two days.  I was tired.  It was nearly midnight.  I started laughing.

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Jupiter Hotel, adorned with red window awnings. I often saw flocks of sheep and goats outside my window.

The hotel rep quickly admonished me for not stopping by the hotel desk on my way out of the airport; I explained I was told I’d have a driver waiting for me.  He made a clucking noise with his tongue and was on his phone calling the hotel shuttle bus.  Within a few minutes, I was packed into a large van.  Thankfully, the hotel was only minutes away from the airport.  The hotel staff, who had been expecting me for the past three hours, quickly ushered me through check-in and told me to drink down a glass of juice to “refresh myself.”  It was mango juice, and it was good.

As I headed to the elevator, a man approached me holding a sign with my name on it and a goofy expression.  The driver.

“You didn’t wait at the airport.”
“Yes.  Plane was late.”
“You’ve been here at the hotel?”
“Yes.”

Lunch the next day was Italian.  There are lots of Italian restaurants here.  When the rest of the colonial powers turned to Africa with a bright eye, Ethiopia was one of two African nations that kept their sovereignty with the exception of a brief flirtation with the Italians in the late 1930s.  They were later liberated by the British and nothing much remains of the Italian occupation with the exception of pizza and pasta.

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Russian Lada taxis parked up the main road from the hotel

After many years supporting infrastructure projects, I tend to take notice of roads when I travel.  For the most part, the roads in Addis are pretty good. The main roads are paved with few potholes; I can’t say the same for side streets which look more like what you would expect roads to look like in developing countries.  The Chinese have taken great interest in Ethiopia and have injected large amounts of capital into the country over the last 12 years.  Much of this money is put back into the infrastructure work, including roads and dams.

The latest project recently completed by the Chinese is a massive ring road which encircles the city of Addis and provides a bypass for many cars clearing up congested city streets.  In exchange for urban investment, Ethiopia imports tons of goods from China.  I bought a wireless mouse this morning – made in China.  Most of the house wares sold in the supermarket – made in China.  The street signs – albeit the majority of them laughably incorrectly translated into English – yup, made in China.

Ethiopia remains as one of the more developed and economically stable countries in East Africa.  The crime rate is far lower than in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Kenya.  Education is very important and there are a number of universities located throughout the capital.  English is widely used as the lingua franca despite the official language being Amharic.  I’ve had no difficultly communicating with our local office staff, at shops, or restaurants.

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At Kaldi’s Coffee. Which uses the same color scheme as Starbucks, and would give it a serious run for its money.

Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export and they are the largest producer of coffee in Africa.  In fact, it was here in Ethiopia that the coffee bean was domesticated. Starbucks and Ethiopia have a very contentious relationship regarding coffee rights and trademarks.  It’s a shame, really, because Ethiopian coffee is very, very good.

I took particular notice of the women’s dress which ranged from western-style clothing to the more indigenous, traditional wear.  Everyone was very friendly, lots of smiles.

Cars are plastered with “I love Jesus,” and “Jesus love me” stickers. Ethiopians are overwhelmingly Christian, with a large minority of Muslims.  It being Ramadan, many remain home until iftar (breaking of the daily fast) at which time the streets and shops become even more crowded.  The Jews largely emigrated to Israel in the late 1980s.

Maybe I’ll make it into the Merkato shopping district tomorrow and take in some of the city’s downtown sights.

If it ever stops raining.

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How to Behave on the Subway

The Tokyo Metro system has been reminding passengers on its crowded public transportation system how to behave since 1974.

The campaign got a facelift last year and continues to remind riders to turn off their cell phones, shake their umbrellas before boarding, not to play loud music, and give priority seats to pregnant women with a series of adorable posters.

Tokyo Metro poster

See the whole collection here.

Fight or Flight

The textbook definition of “fight or flight” is the body’s “…physiological reaction to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival” (Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body. United States: W.W. Norton & Company). We’ve all experienced it. That sudden … Continue reading

Visiting Israel, First Impressions

This post originally appeared in my travel journal.  During June 2012, I spent some time in Israel, West Bank, and Jordan supporting USAID-sponsored development projects.  I’m excited to share excerpts from that trip with you.  Some of the posts have been edited.

American Jews are taught from an early age of the significance of Eretz Yisrael, and above all, the iconic significance of Jerusalem. I’ve passed on the opportunity to visit this diverse, interesting, and very complex country in the past for many reasons – fear, timing, money, time and money.

I politely asked that my passport not be stamped upon entry because of my development work in other “non-friendly” countries.  This, of course, invited the litany of questions – the answers to all of which I’d rehearsed in my head a dozen times prior to landing. Why did I not want the stamp? What was my business? Who did I work for? Where would I be staying? Between the sound of the blood rushing through my ears and the feeling like I wanted to throw up, I must have satisfactorily passed their assessment that I was not a hostile threat to the country and my passport was returned unstamped with a “Gate Pass” on a separate sheet of paper for entry.

I was met by my company’s Security Manager (we will call him Mr. M) who quickly packed me into the company car and we began our 40-minute drive south to Jerusalem. Mr. M is a life-long resident of Jerusalem. He is also Palestinian. Prior to his current positions, he worked for 15 years in the Public Affairs Office for the former U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem (it’s now closed and has been relocated to West Jerusalem).

As we drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem down Highway 1, he spoke openly and freely about his experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not necessarily in political terms, but in how it personally affects him and his family in their everyday lives. The word “settlement” is a very emotional and sensitive topic – for both the Israelis and the Palestinians – in a way that I have yet to really understand and appreciate.

From L to R - Far wall to left of picture = Western Wall, black dome = Al Aqsa Mosque, Gold Dome = Dome of the Rock

From L to R – Far wall to left of picture = Western Wall, black dome = Al Aqsa Mosque, Gold Dome = Dome of the Rock

Since it was still too early to check into my hotel, he offered to take me around and show me the major sights. Needing an excuse to fight jet lag, I eagerly accepted his offer. We started by visiting the the Mt. of Olives which is home to spectacular scenic overlooks into the Old City of Jerusalem. Because it was still morning, we were well ahead of the numerous tour groups that shuttled visitors around the city every day. From there, we made our way to the Damascus gate and set off by foot within the confines of the city walls. It quickly became apparently clear that without Mr. M to guide me, I would have become very frustrated with the labyrinth of alleys throughout the old city.

Muslim Quarter, Old City

Muslim Quarter, Old City

We worked our way through the Muslim quarter stopping momentarily at Jafar’s Sweets to enjoy the warm, gooey, sweet goodness known as kanafeh before continuing on towards the Christian Quarter.

Spice Shop, Old City

Spice Shop, Old City

Arriving at the steps leading down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we found masses of tour groups – many of them comprised of Christian pilgrims – who had journeyed to this sacred spot to pay homage to the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.

Church of Holy Sepulchre

Church of Holy Sepulchre

The devout were weeping in both joy and sadness, and while I could not share the awe and wonder, I was able to understand that only such raw emotion could come from utter devotion to their faith.

Supposed site of Christ's crucifixion

Supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion

After taking the necessary photos, we moved towards the Jewish Quarter. Because it was Shabbat, all of the shops and restaurants were closed. In comparison to the Christian and Muslim quarters, the Jewish quarter was a ghost town. After wandering the streets, we made our way to the Western Wall which is the most sacred site for Jews.

This way to the Western Wall

This way to the Western Wall

I cut the line in front of a large Korean tour group and made my way down the steps toward the wall, stopping momentarily to cover myself with a blue shawl because of my “immodest dress.”

I stopped short of actually approaching the wall. Legally, only men are allowed to pray at the wall. The penalties are stiff for women who approach the main wall, including arrest, although a small section to the south has been set aside for women in keeping with Orthodox tradition.

A blue cover was provided for those immodestly dressed.  It was also Shabbat so I had to sneak this photo.

A blue cover was provided for those immodestly dressed. It was also Shabbat so I had to sneak this photo.

I spent about 10 minutes in the public areas before I decided to head back to Mr. M. I really wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel moved, connected to my Jewish identity…something…anything. I felt nothing. Instead, I felt hot and tired, and mad that I didn’t feel anything.

From there, we walked through the Muslim Quarter where I was stopped by an Israeli soldier from approaching the Dome of the Rock and its impressive gold dome. Visiting hours were in the morning, and more than that, I was female.

Having completed our general tour of the Old City, Mr. M invited me to lunch with his family. Knowing what I know of Arab culture, to say no to such an invitation would be considered disrespectful so I happily accepted. After having a chance to shower and freshen up, Mr. M picked me up at my hotel and drove the short distance to his house where I could already smell his wife’s cooking from the ground floor. Mr. M, his wife and youngest son live on the 4th floor of a 5-floor walk up.

His wife had been cooking all day to prepare a very typical, Palestinian meal called maqluba. She had prepared the chicken version steeped in safron and chicken stock.

It. Was. Delicious.

This came rounded with healthy side portions of yogurt, and baba ganoush, and cucumber salad, and olives. Soon after our arrival, Mr. M’s eldest son and family joined us for this routine Saturday lunch. Once we had cleared our plates from the first serving, family members continued picking directly from the serving the dishes. All the while conversing about the week’s events, politics, neighborhood and family gossip. It was all very familiar and natural, and they were kind enough to translate relevant topics from Arabic into English for me so that I could participate throughout the conversation.

His eldest son recently took a job with the local affiliate of the BBC, he explained to me. His son’s English is impeccable and he is well-traveled throughout the Gulf States. His wife of 6 years is almost done completing her studies at the local university, and together they have 2 adorable little boys under the age of 6. He explained to me that his wife is from the West Bank and requires special papers to reside in Jerusalem. He, however, has lived his entire life in Jerusalem and cannot take up permanent residency in the West Bank or he will lose his residency as in Jerusalem; short visits are authorized.

The wall that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.  Look familiar?

The wall that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.  Look familiar?

When each of their sons were born – in Jerusalem- it took nearly 3 years to receive documents from the Israeli authorities that not only were the children his, but that they should receive legal resident cards for Jerusalem. It was through his connections at his prior job that they were able to receive the paperwork, momentarily pausing in his story to tell me how certain Israeli connections actually assisted getting the papers sooner than later.

I listened to his story while we drank our glasses of mint tea. I assumed that his story was not unusual, and that there were hundreds of stories like his. I did not know what to say in response, nor was he asking for one. I simply listened.

Taking notice of my drained mental, emotional, and physical state, Mr. M. packed me up some fruit to take with me back to the hotel. It had been a very long – very, very long – day.

Downtown Ramallah (West Bank)

Downtown Ramallah (West Bank)

Hitting the Slopes

So here’s the thing – I don’t really like cold weather.

If I had my choice, I’d rather be on a cruise somewhere in the Caribbean.

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Catamaran snorkeling trip off the coast of Dominica, April 2013

My husband, however, prefers the snowy slopes of, well…anywhere. He took off for Utah the day after Christmas to log some time on his snowboard before the end of the year.

I’ve never skiied or snowboarded in my life, so I don’t fully understand the impulse or rush to hurl myself down a mountain side.  Admittedly, I got a little snow envy when the Hubs sent the following pictures yesterday –

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Sundance Ski Resort, Utah

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I do, however, think I’d make a GREAT lodge bunny.  I’m very good at reading, drinking hot cocoa (or tea), booking spa appointments, and napping.

The last time I was on a snowy mountain slope was in 2002 when my friend Eva took me for a day trip to the Austrian Alps.  Here’s proof:

Austrian Alps, circa Dec 2002

I don’t even remember how cold it was.