Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blue Nile Falls & 1950s Bus Breakdowns

We headed out on a bus that easily must have been from the 1950s, beginning the most hilarious bus ride ever. This thing was decked out on in the front with fake flowers and curtain trimmings, but otherwise was gutted. It needed to be push started by about 10 guys to get going. As the bus left the lot some of the push starters laughed, caught my eye, and gave me a thumbs up, probably because I was the only non-Ethiopian on the bus. After only a few minutes, the road turned into a rural dirt road the rest of the way, full of massive bumps and ruts. The whole bus was rattling, earplugs would have come in handy here. Even some of the Ethiopians thought it was kind of funny. This bus must have been one of the first buses ever in Ethiopia.

Stylish interior:

That's a bus on its last legs:

The pavement ceases:



Halfway through, there was a smell of petrol inside, the driver pulled up the cover on top of the shifter gear box to begin the investigation, and everyone piled out on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with only a few horses and donkeys in sight. A seemingly regular occurrence, less than 10 minutes later, we piled back in and the bus rumbled onwards.

After getting the Blue Nile village and being harassed per usual by people wanting to give a tour, Netsanet & I walk off with 4 other Ethiopian tourists on the path to the falls. A few of these tour people were persistent as hell, and basically just followed us as we walked, so I relented. They guided us for about 30 minutes to the falls, which was mostly through grassy/swampy/marshy area and not really on any trail, stepping on small rocks half of the time to avoid the water. The hike to the falls included a quick traverse across the Nile in a dingy. The falls were incredibly beautiful, the scenery in general was a lush green and very mountainous. Luckily it is the rainy season here, which makes the falls much more impressive. On the way back, of course, even though we didn’t want them to guide us, they did, and I tipped them a whopping $2, which was actually too much by Ethiopian standards (the Ethiopians tipped even less). However, they are used to foreigners giving at least 5 or 6 dollars, so the guide made sure to complain, ask for more money, and tried to make me feel guilty. I didn’t buy his pitch.

A shot from the dingy:

Nester is laughing cause he can't swim!

The falls:


The real fun began on the way back. Basically, we missed the last bus back to Bahir Dar at 530 by about 10 or 15 minutes and were thus stranded in this podunk town. We were walking along the main dirt road of the town trying to decide how to get home, when it began to rain. Then one of the four other Ethiopians (three girls and one guy) began to talk to me. She was a really beautiful girl from Addis Ababa and so she offered to share her umbrella with me and was being really friendly and talkative. When all of us went under the shelter of some tin can roadside shop to try to find out a solution on getting a ride home, she offered to sit at a table. Not being able to take a hint, I declined and instead proceeded to talk to 5 or 6 10-15 year old Ethiopian kids! Netsanet and his wife made fun of me a lot for this after. Actually anyways, it was quite entertaining talking to these kids cause they had pretty good English, and I was making some jokes, letting them wear my hat, and stuff like that, so they were also having fun. They liked to make Obama jokes. And then we practiced our Spanish/Chinese/Japanese/French/Swedish as the next hour passed while the others tried all possible ways to avoid having to be stranded for the night.

Beginning to rain on the towns main road:

New friends:

After failing to get a hitch with some Spanish tourists who had a rental vehicle, our last option was to pay a driver for a ride in the bus owned by the park. But not for cheap of course, since they were going out of their way to do this for us. The offer price was 250 apiece for Netsanet & I, which is around 15 dollars each. Consider that on the way there, we paid 13 birr each, less than a dollar! Netsanet had a friend in the town that he was thinking of calling, but I didn’t really feel like staying there (it was thunderstorming, the houses were made of sticks with tin roofs and dirt floors, and I was already a bit cold/wet). So I took their outrageous offer up. The 4 Ethiopians got the usual Ethiopian price of half or less of tourist price.

After driving about 10 minutes in this rickety bus, and with the sun setting, the driver passed a tuk-tuk that was broken down and so it stopped. There were 3 italian tourists inside. So we offered them to get in the bus and have a ride home. That began a huge 20 minute ordeal, though. There was a dad, a mom, and a son. And the mom was a real honest to god bargainer and screamer. The driver of the tuk-tuk was demanding 250 birr from the tourists, and they really only owed somewhere between 150 & 200 (like a measley 2 euro difference for these Italians). But the mom would not relent and pay 250, and a shouting match broke out. I think the dad was embarrassed for his wife. She was screaming and refusing to pay (which is good, he wanted to rip them off, but she was going nuts). Then, the 4 ethiopians in the bus were also going to charge the Italians 100 birr each to get on the bus, which was fair since we all paid a lot more than that in the first place to even get the bus. But the Italians argued like hell on that one too. Which is ridiculous, because basically they were stranded and doing them a favor by stopping in the first place. In reality, the truth is that the tuk-tuk driver could have been faking the break-down of his vehicle to rob the Italians. Sometimes a driver of these tuk-tuks will fake a breakdown, ask the passengers to get out to help push start the vehicle, then zoom off with all their possessions inside leaving them stranded. The Ethiopians knew that and wanted the Italians to get in the bus so they wouldn’t get robbed. But the tuk-tuk driver also jumped into the bus and wouldn’t get off until he got his money. One of the Ethiopian girls started screaming at him after awhile, and finally he got only 150 birr (which was about right), and actually she spit on him as he jumped out of the bus!

After all this, it had now become completely dark, the rain had stopped, but there was lightning to be seen in all directions and it seemed like a huge storm was coming. So the driver turned the interior lights off and it was time to head home on this bumpy, lightless road. But, 20 minutes later, we heard the screech of a cow, and then the bus abruptly stopped and engine shut off. The bus hit a cow! Two guys jumped out the door to analyze the situation. They looked underneath the bus, then the bus started up again, re-reversed over the cow to free it or something like that, then the driver quickly put it back in forward and the guys hopped in as the bus sped off, leaving the owner of the cow running and waving his walking stick at the bus. Cows are expensive and cost a lot of money, so I guess the driver sped off. But the owner can probably sue the driver if he finds him, and get a lot of money out of him, since the government is a big supporter of farmers.

An awesome adventure.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A toothbrush

The bus stopped in a town on the journey from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar. I bought a toothbrush from this little boy for 5 cents, which he cut to length on the spot and carved the bark off with his knife. Many people here clean their teeth with the end of this plant.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Women carrying things on their heads

Here in Bahir Dar, Ethiopa, the women are quite admirable. STRONG people. The quantity and variety of things they are carrying on their heads is mind-boggling. Without a doubt, the Ethiopian women can probably give the men a nice ass kicking.

That is a lady who had to put her stuff down to re-adjust the baby on her back!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Buying a Goat, Ethiopian Style

1. Go to goat market.
2. Browse herds of goats brought by rural people to the market. Feel how fat or sturdy each goat is before deciding by placing your hand on the back and patting the side and bottom. For good assistance, the guy in the red jacket will find you. He is a butcher which you will pay, but will also help you find the right size for the right price. Find goat. Negotiate. Buy.

3. Give goat to butcher. Butcher loops rope around goats neck as a leash and brings him several blocks.

4. Goat resists, knowing it has been separated from the herd, makes lots of noises, even sits down a few times, but butcher persists and drags him until he gets up and continues.
5. On the corner, goat lies down. Butcher places the four legs together then ties the legs together with a rope.
6. Butcher picks up goat by legs/rope, loads it on its back in front of his feet on a minibus (filled with people).
7. Head home with the butcher/goat.
8. In front of the apartment building there is a spot which is regularly used for the butcherings.

9. After getting situated, first, he cuts the neck. After about 10 seconds of movement, it is done.
10. Then, he ties the goat up on a rope so it is hanging in the air.
11. He begins to remove the skin and makes extremely quick work of it. He will keep the hide as a tip, which he can sell and it will be turned into leather. This is why sometimes around the city you will see a horse-drawn cart full of tens or hundreds of goat/sheep skins.


Just about there:

12. After removing the skin and cutting the head off, he butchers the rest of the goat. Removing the insides (stomach, liver, intestines, etc), then chopping into various pieces ribs, legs, backbone, etc.
There goes everything inside:

13. That’s about it, the whole goat is butchered in about 10-15 minutes. This guy is a real pro. Then cleans out the stomach, which smells like hell, and washes it with water.
Cleaning the inside parts:

He's cutting out the eyeballs and removing the skin from the head.

14. We bring the pan of goat parts upstairs and within 15 minutes Netsanet’s wife has some tibs prepared. Must be the soonest I've eaten something after it has been killed.

Making a dish with liver and kidney:
Preparing the head for a soup dish by removing the nose:

This way is much better. At least you see the process instead of just buying a steak in plastic wrap from the supermarket, which takes all the sensitivity away. It is good to know where your food comes from. And here, you know these goats have not been fed some crap to make them huge. They are living with rural people and when they are not at the goat market up for sale are probably foraging for grass and have space to move around, not living in a shoebox with 100 other goats.

Oh, and some people enjoy the head of the goat. Netsanet’s wife placed it in soup. The meat on the jaw is really tender. And, it was my first time eating brain. I’m not sure I am a fan of it, it is a soft texture. I compare it to eating crab, fishing the brain out of the skull with a fork instead of picking crab meat out of the legs. Regrettably, eating brain doesn’t actually increase your IQ.

Friday, August 19, 2011

From Dubai to Ethiopia

Going from Dubai to Ethiopia is probably the biggest change in wealth and most contrasting thing one could ever see.

In Dubai, I seriously felt like I was part of a problem. Dubai (plus the rest of the UAE, and Qatar) are wreckless. The spending in Dubai is unchecked. The wealth is insane. The place is simply unsustainable. All buildings and malls are massively air conditioned from 100 to 60 degrees (40 to 19 C). The things that they create are beyond anything one could ever deem necessary in imagination and size. The malls contain things like aquariums, four story waterfalls, ski slopes, ice rinks, and whatever else you could imagine that serves no useful function except to simply drop your jaw. Water is desalinated. Petrol is 30 cents/liter or 1.20 per gallon. Food is imported because nothing except dates grows. 3 million people simply should not be living in a desert under such conditions. I don’t care if you are here on a 1 year contract to work for some bank or an engineering firm and you will be making 100,000+ tax-free and rent free dollars, or if you will be building the world’s fastest elevator or most technologically advanced amusement park. The migrant workers are treated like crap only to contribute to the Sheik’s game of building a city worthy of The SIMS computer game. They don’t even give them any reasonable exceptions to allow them to eat or drink during the government imposed Ramadan while they are busy working on the 60th floor of some new building in 100 degree heat. This place only shows slivers of real culture which evaporated after they discovered oil in the 60s. A manifestation of capitalism in a more or less dictatorship (they say everyone is happy with the Sheik and he provides to all which is crap… they gave up all their rights when they crossed the border…beggars even get arrested here..) taken to some extreme with blatant disregard for many basic, common ethical and moral principles. After a few days, I was simply looking forward to leaving. Spending any more of my money and time there simply made me feel like I was a part of something that should not exist, period.

Then, in Addis Ababa, I got sick to my stomach. The poverty there makes the poverty I saw in Brazil, Paraguay, or simply anything in Eastern Europe look like the people are kings and their living conditions are palaces. One day, in the big market, I saw a boy about 8 years old, hunched over on a piece of cardboard in the middle of the street with no shirt on, with boils of all sizes covering his entire body. And hundreds of people walking by like its status quo. It is the most horrific thing I have ever seen and without a doubt it may give me nightmares…I can’t rid of the image from my head. Guys with no legs walking along the road with their hands, sans wheelchair. One guy with his left foot bent at a perfect 90 degrees pointed directly at the center of his right food. The list goes on. The faces here you see walking the streets show wear and hardship. People sleeping in dirt in the sidewalk or center dividers in many parts of the city. Washing themselves in pooled rainwater or cleaning their face and feet with the remainder of a plastic bottle of water. Plenty of rickety bundled up old blind people hunched over wooden canes begging, coming up to the minibuses and sticking their hand inside while it is stopped, or simply just standing in one spot for hours. I don’t usually give money out to homeless people (especially in US/Europe) unless they are doing something or at least trying to sell something (for example, the 10 year old girls here selling gum), but here, it almost feels like these people are completely helpless. The system is completely screwed, and most likely nothing can save them from begging at this stage. Any external initiative to help seems as if it would not put a dent in the sheer mass of poverty here. After seeing some of those people, then I even feel ok for the guy carrying 15 mattresses (for real!) on his back or 9 coffee tables on his neck or 5 televisions on the top of his head, or 100 pounds of onions on left shoulder and 50 on his right, cause at least he is working and getting paid by someone, somewhere. So I’ve given some change to those blind people and children gum sellers here and there, because they are probably just f-d for life anyways and a noble effort of ‘not contributing’ to the horrible system seems useless.

So what do I recommend. One, never go to Dubai or any of those Sheik-dom oil producing countries. I plan on discouraging people from now on from not visiting this wreckless place and being a part of what it is, or at least letting everyone know what the true story is. Two, either be grateful that the stars aligned and you were born in a first world country (instantly making you a millionaire in Ethiopia), or two, maybe donate something (ok, that is extremely cliché haha…). I gave only 10 bucks to UNICEF the other day for the ridiculous famine in Somalia. They say that 1 dollar can feed 1 person/day (consider that one can buy a goat here in Ethiopia for 10 to 15 dollars, which can feed a ton of people), so even if half of that $10 is siphoned off by some cronies maybe some of it will make it through.

Seeing this stuff in person, hearing the sounds, and feeling it first hand, is a heck of a lot different that witnessing it in a BBC or Discovery Channel documentary. How about them apples?

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Genuine Ending

Here in Dubai I am staying with a doctor from Panama, working at the American Hospital. Last night, we went out for Yemeni food (a first), and joining us was one of his co-workers, Ron, who is an American.

Ron has an interesting story. Probably in his mid to late 40s, he grew up in Chicago, lived and worked as a doctor in Seattle, Virginia, Arizona, a few other places in the US, then lived in Saudi Arabia for 2 years (from which he has some fascinating stories), and has been in Dubai now for 6 years.

So over a bottle of wine our discussion gravitated mainly to negative things such as problems in the US, discrimination here in Dubai, and other things that are quite easy to sit back and criticize while doing the whole sitting at a dinner table and drinking wine thing. Fed up with all the negative talk, I had the discussion switched to more positive things, and so Ron busts out the most feel good story I've probably ever heard.

Ron's parents are from a small island in the Philippines. When he was working at the University of Chicago in the 80s, by some miniscule chance, he met a girl from the same island that was also living in Chicago. They dated for awhile, he had to move to Seattle, so it ended there and he never really looked back.

Early this year, his mom passed away, so he went to the funeral which was on his home island in the Philippines. Low and behold, and unbeknown to him previously, when he showed up, his girlfriend from 18 years ago was also at the funeral. He said when they saw each other they embraced and it felt like 18 years ago (people from this small community were staring uncomfortably at their hug, as he said).

Anyways, he went on to tell how a few years after they broke up in Chicago, that she went back to the Phillipines due to a death in her family, and for various reasons, she never returned to the US. She ended up opening a shop on the island. Since it is such a small island, this girl was actually a good acquaintance with Ron's mom, but Ron's mom did not know that they had ever dated or even knew each other. In fact, in several trips Ron made to the island in the 2000's, Ron's mom took him to the girl's shop twice in an effort to introduce the two (since she knew they were both single) but both times her shop was closed so the connection was never re-established. So, however, in the end, his mom did succeeded in re-uniting the two, but at her funeral.

Anyways, it gets even cheesier. She goes on to tell him how she never really loved anyone since 18 years ago, and had been thinking about him. He brushes it off a bit, goes back to Dubai, but then they start communicating by email for about 4 months after the funeral. I guess they hit it off again, and so he proposed to her and they are getting married soon. He even extended an invitation to me to the wedding in the Philippines in September (guess I won't be going haha).

Now there is a positive story worthy of telling.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

That crazy place called Qatar

Doha (which pretty much IS Qatar) quite a strange place. Normally not the most interesting place in the world, Ramadan truly makes it a real bore. Otherwise, there are tons of cultural and social oddities in this tiny peninsula country:

Predictably, most money comes from natural gas and oil. Oil will probably run out within 50-100 years.

All Qataris can get educated in the US or UK. Qataris choose from a list of about 400 Universities in about 40 countries. Students apply to those Universities, and if they are accepted, the government pays. If it is in a country with a foreign language, the government will pay for 2 years of hanging out in that country before school to learn the language properly. Also travel tickets and food expenses are covered. Last year about 450 students went abroad (small Qatari society).

Everyone is employed here (which is why you can see security guards walking around primped parks full of joggers at night sitting on their lawn chairs patrolling nada).

Even today most marriages between Qataris are arranged. First, due to tradition, second, because the society believes parents best know who suits their child (and often the spouse is found through networking through the Qatari society) (ugh….). So thus they believe in love coming after marriage, not before. Marriage between cousins is acceptable. The man must give the woman a sum of money (say average $30,000 or more) and an expensive jewelry set as a gift the woman. Weddings are separate, men have their own celebration, all the women have their own as well. For just a few hours, they can spend up to $150,000 for only a few hours (not even including a meal!).
The Muslims here are Sunni and it doesn’t appear they take so nicely Shia’s (or Iran for that matter). At least the few Qataris I talked to.

There are plenty of websites that are blocked here.

If you go 30 km/h over it is at least an $8,000 ticket!!

Parking ticket is 135 dollars.

Red light ticket is 8000 dollars!

Loading a vehicle (including not closing trunk properly or being in wrong place) in dangerous manner is also 135 dollars.

The high ticket prices are because tons of people have died due to reckless driving in the past. They say Qatar previously had the highest rate of accidents in the world. Someone I met who manages a Toyota service center said business is always booming.
There is no crime. You could probably leave your wallet on the street and it would be ok.
There are zero taxes. No business, not personal, no sales.

I must say there might actually be a higher rate of SUV usage here than in the US. Most Qataris own a Land Cruiser. They are everywhere. And definitely a few Ferraris and Bentley’s here and there.

Plenty of Nepalese come here to work as laborers for $300/month. They live 4-6 in a room.

Qatar is more conservative than Dubai but less conservative than Saudi. It is also very traditional. You can see this in the high number of people wearing traditional clothing here.

Music is ‘impure’ so during Ramadan there is not much music on the radio. Some stations from Bahrain come in here, since Bahrain is more liberal.

At the Carrefour grocery store the Koran is sung during Ramadan instead of elevator music.

This place is incredibly clean. Palm trees and public green space is manicured perfectly. Probably the pigeons on the front lawn of the state building were put there for show since pigeons don’t actually live here (though the pigeon is actually revered here)

All the buildings are made in the color of sand. If they weren’t I am sure they would look like sand pretty quick.

People are wreckless with energy use. Supposedly the highest per capita consumption in the world. Which goes hand in hand with the highest per capita income in the world. Guess that’s what happens when you hop from AC mall to AC mall to AC house.
40 years ago this society was entirely different and one street in Qatar had electricity.

Don’t find yourself in the Qatari jail. Probably you will be in a really tiny cell.

Surprisingly, execution is illegal here. Though, I heard there are some sorts of agreements with Saudi Arabia and people can get sent to Saudi to be executed. For example, in the following story that was told to me by a Qatari: Guy drives car at 100 mph, crashes into something, flips a bunch of times. Catches fire. Guy is still alive. Some laborers just stand there and don’t try to help, even though the guy is actually ok. Guy burns alive. Laborers are charged as criminals and may be sent to Saudi for execution.

People (Qataris) seem to look down on the immigrants, such as Nepalese, Filipinos, etc.

The government pretty much monitors all phone conversation. It is not legal to say bad things about the Sheikh (ruler). Though everyone does actually seem to like him because everyone has a place to live, no violence, and things are provided to the people in general. Rules are strict but life is decent (works withstanding I suppose…)

It is quite a diverse place in comparison to many countries in the middle east. Going to the supermarket you easily see Americans, British, Europeans (all the former probably here for business..), Indian, Nepalese, Philipinos (workers for the most part), people from around the gulf (business..), and lots of people from Sudan.
My clothes air dry within an hour or two when I put them outside. It’s great.

Alcohol is served only in hotel bars. There is one liquor store, but you need to buy a license (therefore you must be an expat and not a Muslim).

Men and women are segregated in Universities here, high schools, etc. Plus you can get a ticket for walking in public with a woman who is not your relative or spouse if you are a man (if you are a Qatari).

7 years ago satellites were banned.

Here I have seen more American chains than anywhere ever. Dairy Queen, Chilis, Toys r Us, Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut, McDs, etc.

Most public places gotta have a mosque. Like the mall, for example. I think a prayer room suffices.

To me Qatari society seems quite closed, you really must be born into it unless you are a man who has taken a foreign wife. There are plenty of expats & workers, certainly they intermingle and are friends, but they still are not exactly part of this society.

Straaaange place.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Nessebar, Bulgaria

Here is a place I can say I went to, didn't like, and don't plan on returning.

During the summer tons of Bulgarians flock to the Black Sea.

I didn't know they all went to the same place.

The beach was so mobbed that I could barely see the sand. The town is known for having some very nice old churches, however people were selling junk everywhere leading to a highly unpleasant experience.

Not my cup of tea (but otherwise a very beautiful place).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Ultimate Food Compliation

I've had a lot of amazing food over the last few months. Hands down Turkish food wins with the widest variety and richest of food flavors, smells, and ingredients, and spices, but nonetheless every place had some pretty good stuff in one form or another (haven't made it to Ethiopia, which may just take the crown...if I escape with my internals intact).

Delicious pistachio baklava. So rich and sweet tasting:
Love dolmas:
I forget what this is called, but it was filled with some ground meat and pretty good:

The corn carts of Istanbul selling grilled and boiled corn (loaded up with salt):
Pottery kebap in Cappadocia, Turkey. They cook it in sealed clay pots and break it after. Very stew like with lots of onions, tomatoes, spices, and small chunks of shredded meat:

A cappy orange soda and the salty yogurt drink which I really don't like:

Well it's not food but definitely a part of Turkish culture and accompanies tea and snacks likes dates and fruits quite well. Cappuccino flavored was the best:

Purchasing a nice kofte sandwich from a cart in Istanbul:
One of the best dishes of my entire life in Istanbul. Literally. Something similar to baba ganoush. Mashed eggplant which was so incredibly rich with flavor that the small amount served was just perfect. And the meat was simply perfect. Only 10 bucks for this plate.

Spice Market, Istanbul:

Sesame seed pretzels in Istanbul:

Kofte sandwich. $2. Stuffed also with paprika, chili, tomatoes, onions. Yum.

Nut assortment and tea seasonings, Istanbul:
Really really love Turkish tea:

Figs from the backyard and marinated in some thick sweet sauce, Nis, Serbia:

A trip to Serbia would not be complete with some home made Rakia for breakfast (50% alcohol!), that puts some hair on your chest!

Fish market for fish sandwiches, Istanbul:

Serbian grillables:

Cream and a cream stuffed sweet yellow pepper (Nis, Serbia):

Going to the butcher in Nis, Serbia

Cevap in Belgrade (meat, some carbs, and a sliver of onion)

Fried and super salted anchovies, good with beer (Bulgaria & Serbia):

Cevap Sarajevo. Kebap. Macedonia. Again, they know how to cook this stuff perfectly.

Freshly boiled milk in Slovenia:

Seafood platter on Slovenian mediterannean:

Tender chicken wrapped in bacon in Bulgaria. A bit of an overload but damn was it good(the bacon wasn't covering up poor performing chicken either, it was simply an excessively delicious complement):

Polish pierogis from Warsaw!

Polish bigos, stewed meat, sauerkraut, potatoes:

Dad enjoying some German beer in Berlin:

Currywurst (somewhere underneath the fries):

Lastly, delicious summer fruits everywhere:

Notables without photos are spectacular Sri Lankan, Egyptian, and Pakistani food in Qatar.