Sunday, February 8, 2009

Arie in Ethiopia: The Merkato

I was on a plane for Obama's inauguration, so I didn't get to see it. But I didn't miss his speech. For days afterward, vans were driving around Addis Ababa with loudspeakers broadcasting it. OK, so I didn't hear it all at once, but I got the gist. There isn't as much Obamania here as there was in Kenya or Uganda, but he's still everywhere. Even the local news (or is that Al Jazeera?) -- "something something something OBAMA something something GAZA something something OBAMA something ISRAEL something something". One evening late at night I was standing on the balcony of my hotel room looking over the city and suddenly from a PA system I heard "PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA!" And then silence. Here's a photo of a street in Addis.

I stopped by the Sheraton today. It was pretty amazing. I'm used to thinking of the Sheraton as a mid-range hotel -- nice, clean beds, but nothing fancy. Not in Addis Ababa. In Addis, the Sheraton is a massive compound in the middle of the city. Once you get through the gates (and they don't let taxis in), you get to beautifully manicured gardens and an enormous building. The lobby is beautiful. I didn't get to see a room -- $300/night is slightly out of my price range -- but I'm sure they're amazing. I think it's a hotel for rich first worlders who really aren't interested in being in Ethiopia. I heard from a female friend that it's an uncomfortable lobby in the evenings -- there are basically only Saudi businessmen and prostitutes. And she wasn't wearing a turban. No wonder she was getting dirty looks.

From the Sheraton we walked to the Piazza, a neighborhood in the northern part of Addis that has a strong Italian influence. Addis is a very hilly town, and it's about eight thousand feet above sea level. Even coming from Kampala, which is 4000 feet up, I had a bit of altitude trouble. Not outright altitude sickness or anything, but I was often out of breath at the top of a hill. Also I had a sore throat, which is apparently an altitude thing.

Anyway, we made it to the Piazza (shown), which is just a little place where a bunch of streets meet and there's a tiny little green space, a few bushes and trees. A homeless man lying in the bushes saw us walking by and yelled pretty much every obscenity in the English language. I was impressed with his English, honestly. Most people here don't have such good accents.

The Piazza is the upscale part of Addis -- the more expensive stores and restaurants are around here. It's also the area that bears the most obvious Italian influence, with coffee shops scattered around.

Our first stop was the St. George Cathedral, coronation site of Haile Selassie (and a pilgrimage site for Rastafari). Saint George is the patron saint of Ethiopia. His relics were carried into the Battle of Adwa against Italy in 1896, the only time an African army defeated a European one in a large-scale conflict (although it was Italy, so it barely counts). Italy burnt it down in retaliation for an attempt to assassinate the Italian viceroy during the occupation, but it was rebuilt in 1941.

After seeing the church, we decided to get some coffee. Although coffee is now grown all over the world, it's native to the Kaffe region of Ethiopia. Allegedly a shepherd (named Kaldi) noticed that his sheep were more energetic after eating the beans (you could read the Ethiopian Legend of Dancing Goats). Traditionally in Ethiopia it was used for religious ceremonies -- until the early part of the twentieth century, it wasn't legal to drink it in a secular context. It made it to Europe through the middle east -- the Pope was asked to ban it because it was a "Muslim drink", but in 1600 he said it was fine. (It was also repressed by Islamic authorities at various times, and the Mormons still ban it.) To preserve their monopoly, Arab states prohibited the export of unroasted beans or plants, but Dutch smugglers brought plants to Europe.

Coffee is one of Ethiopia's major exports. Something I didn't know is that it takes about one hundred and forty liters of water -- eleven hundred and twenty cups -- to grow the beans for one cup of coffee. It was actually banned by Ethiopia's Christian community until the late nineteenth century, being seen as a Muslim drink. It's a big export of Uganda, though something that surprised me is that it didn't come to Uganda directly from Ethiopia -- Europeans brought it there from Brazil in the nineteenth century.

Anyway, we went to a little coffee shop and I had some. I don't normally drink coffee, but this seemed like the time to start. After coffee, we had a traditional Ethiopian lunch, then went to the Merkato.

The Merkato is a gigantic market. It got its start during the Italian occupation, when the Italians wouldn't let Arabs use the primary market, so they relocated to the west of the city. Over time local merchants moved in as well, and now it's this enormous market -- it covers several square miles and more than ten thousand people work there. It's the largest market in Africa. (The primary market grew up into the Piazza.)

The Merkato isn't like the other markets I've been to in Africa. In Uganda, the markets were sort of large makeshift structures made of wooden planks and plywood sheets and whatever else they could find, with the interiors roughly divided into cubicle-type arrangements for individual vendors. (The markets in Cambodia were similar.) But the Merkato is more like a western strip-mall for pedestrians -- the individual stores are real buildings and there's no real center. Instead, it's just store after store after store.

Like other markets, though, there are districts. We approached through the electronics district, which was basically a lot of guys selling all sorts of little mechanisms and devices. There were also lots of people selling DVDs. We wandered around for a while. There were roads through most of the Merkato, and occasionally cars would drive by, but most of the traffic was pedestrian. As you can see, the roads aren't in good condition.

One of the striking things was the people carrying enormous loads. It's routine to see people bent half-way over with a gigantic package on their shoulders as they walk very quickly. Sometimes children, but generally adult men. The stuff looked very very heavy. I guess that's the primary mode of transport.

Unfortunately, the Merkato is a hotbed for pickpocketing. Prepared, I had left most of my valuables in the hotel safe and kept a close eye on the rest.

We wandered into the khat district of the Merkato. In the road was an enormous pile of plant stalks (shown). I guess the plants are brought into the neighborhood whole and the sellers strip the leaves off. Khat is a shrub that likely originated in Ethiopia whose leaves and stems contain an amphetamine-like chemical. Ancient Egyptians believed that it unlocks divine energy when chewed. It's not incredibly potent -- on the contrary, it's considered less harmful and less habit-forming than tobacco and alcohol.

I'd heard little about khat before coming to Africa, but in this part of the world it's very popular. Major growth countries include Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Some estimate that forty percent of Yemen's water is used to irrigate khat. Somalia banned khat during Ramadan and there were street protests. A majority of Yemenis chew khat. Saudi Arabia, however, vigorously enforces a ban on it.

Kaht is only potent when fresh (the active chemical breaks down within forty-eight hours) and only grows in this region, so for most of history it was only used in this area. Air travel has brought khat to other parts of the world. The WHO has not scheduled khat because it's viewed as a regional problem. Khat was banned in the United States in 1993. Here's a photo of a sheep skull that was sitting in the road near my hotel.

The Merkato is also the site of an enormous coffee auction every morning, but we had missed that by many hours. Also I don't buy coffee by the kilogram.

More of my trip to Ethiopia coming soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ethiopia: No Puns Come to Mind

My first full day in Ethiopia. I woke up, had some hotel breakfast, and walked along the road into the city center. Like much of East Africa, there are no sidewalks here -- there are sidewalks in some parts of the downtown area, but not on this road. People walk in the road mostly, or on the dirt near the road if there's 1) room and 2) no giant drainage ditches and 3) no cars parked there (rare to get all three).

I came to a Dashen Bank branch, ducked inside, and tried their ATM. It worked fine. I took out some cash. Lonely Planet was wrong, there are plenty of ATMs here that take foreign cards. Liars.

Entering the city, I first came to Meskal Square, a large open area. To me "square" involves some kind of public pedestrian space, not road, but Meskal Square is just a very large intersection. As you can see, they have some decorations left over from their millennium celebration. But they're not that old -- Ethiopia celebrated the new millennium last year. The Ethiopian calendar, based on the Coptic calendar (which was based on the Egyptian calendar), is about seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar because of different calculations as to the date of the Annunciation (when Gabriel told Mary she would conceive Jesus). They add a leap day every four years without exception (we omit it on even 100 years like 1900, except if the year is divisible by 400, like 2000).

The Egyptian calendar consists of twelve months of thirty days each, plus a thirteenth month of five or six days depending on whether it's a leap year. This millennium, their year begins on our September 11 (or September 12 in our leap years). It is now 2001. The rest of the world has more or less switched to the Gregorian calendar, but not these guys. I mean, you go to buy a plane ticket, it's 2009, sure, but someone writes out a receipt for you, it's 2001. Weird stuff.

I was once having lunch with a bunch of people from various parts of Africa, and they were all teasing these two Ethiopian guys about how Ethiopia does everything its own way -- has its own language, alphabet, calendar, etc. They were right, these dudes are fiercely independent. Ethiopia even has its own time -- their day starts at 6am, so when someone tells you that they don't start serving lunch until "six", they mean noon.

Once in the city center, the sidewalks were in much better shape. I walked up through a nice park area and over this river -- lots of green space in the east part of the city. It's a large city -- no skyscrapers or anything like that, but it's dense and spread out. Well, not dense like New York is dense, no one builds up (my hotel, at seven stories, is one of the tallest buildings in the city), but dense like no one wastes space.

I walk through the city a bit. There are a lot of green spaces in Addis, which is nice. There are also a lot of sheep. I'm not sure exactly why. I guess people have herds of sheep even though they live in the city, and either graze them out of town or, maybe, graze them in the city's parks. Maybe? I have no idea. Central Park in New York has Sheep's Meadow. Anyway, there are herds of sheep moving through the city. Here's a photo of one of them. I thought the boy was a bit aggressive with the stick, but what do I know about herding sheep?

I come to this church, which houses the Beta Maryam mausoleum. There are a lot of people standing or sitting around the church, either relaxing and socializing or praying, but no one seems to be going in or out. I stand there looking at the church for a while and a guy standing in front of the door waves me over and asks if I want to see the mausoleum. I do. We discuss a fee and we remove our shoes and he unlocks the door.

He leads me inside. The inside of the church is beautiful -- giant stained glass windows, ornate carpeting, no electric lighting. I linger a bit, taking various photos. The church itself is empty, no worshippers at all. I'm still a little confused as to why everyone is praying outside the church instead of inside it. This is an aspect of Christianity that I don't understand. Although the weather is very nice here -- mid-70s and sunny.

Anyway, he leads me through the central area and unlocks a panel in the floor, and we walk down the stairs into the mausoleum. It's dark and dusty, of course, though there are lights. It's a large vaulted room with still air and four very large coffins. The guy and I talk a bit about why I'm in Ethiopia and where I live and so forth, and then he launches into his guide spiel.

The coffins house the body of Emperor Menelik II, as well as various other imperial figures. Menelik II ruled in the late 19th-century and played a key role in modernizing Ethiopia. Good story: In the 1890s, he ordered three electric chairs so he could modernize executions. Sadly, Ethiopia had no electricity, so they didn't work. Not to be discouraged, he used one as his throne. Reuse, reduce, recycle.

The room also has various things that belonged to them -- their chairs, their parchment books, etc. My guide felt that it was very important that I photograph the chairs.

Anyway, that was the mausoleum. For unknown reasons there were giant tortoises hanging out outside the church. I guess maybe people feed them?

There are a lot of homeless people in Ethiopia. A lot. On every block there's at least one person sleeping in a bundle of clothing. I haven't been anywhere with so many street people -- I'm not sure if that's because other cities don't have the social conditions that lead to the problem, or if it's just that other cities chase them away and Addis doesn't. Many of them are begging, with sheets of cloth covered in small coins, and I see people give to them. Possibly there are homeless people here because there's a culture of charity, so it's possible to survive on the street.

Everyone knows about the famine here in the 1980s. The thing I didn't know about the famine is that it was caused by a totalitarian government, not bad weather. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and replaced with a Communist group called the Derg headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu's reign of terror involved the direct murder of thousands of suspected enemies of the state, but its most insidious aspect was its use of starvation to suppress insurgency. Mengistu prevented food from reaching regions of the country that opposed his government. More than one million people starved to death.

I remember as a kid having to sing We Are the World every morning in school. They told us there was a terrible food shortage, but forgot to mention that the shortage was engineered. The West sent millions of dollars in food aid, but Mengistu used it to strengthen his regime and prevented it from reaching his enemies. Mengistu's government collapsed in 1991, and Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he still lives. After a trial in absentia that lasted more than a decade, an Ethiopian court convicted him of genocide.

Ethiopia's economy has a lot of problems, largely because of vestiges of Communism. The government controls telephony, so unlike the rest of Africa (and the world), there isn't much of a cell phone system. I tried to get a sim card for my phone (fifty cents in Tanzania) but foreigners cannot purchase them, only rent them, and they're unreasonably expensive. Here's a photo of a slum by a river -- strangely, riverside property is not reserved for the wealthy in Addis Ababa.

The banking sector is similarly restrained by the government -- foreign banks are not allowed in Ethiopia. Period. And Ethiopian banks aren't exactly brimming with capital. Land cannot be owned by private citizens, only leased from the government. Taxes are high, unemployment is high, dissatisfaction is high. The current government has begun privatization reforms, but it'll be slow going.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. On the Human Development Index, Ethiopia is 169th out of 179. (The United States is 15th. Iceland and Norway are tied for 1st.) Here are a few statistics about Ethiopia, and Uganda, the United States, and Norway for comparison:
Population growth3.2%3.6%0.9%.35%
Infant mortality (per 1000 births)82666.33.6
Children born per woman6.
Median age17153739
HIV prevalence rate4.4%4.1%0.6%0.1%
Literacy rate42%66.8%99%100%
Life expectancy55527880
Education (% of GDP)6%5.2%5.3%7.2%
Per capita income$800$1000$45,800$53,300
National debt (% of GDP)34%21%61%83%
Military expenditures (% of GDP)3%2.2%4%1.9%
Wealth distribution3045.746.328

A few things on the table jump out at me. Ethiopia spends more money than we do on education, percentage-wise -- that's nice for us. They're poorer than Uganda, which is hard to do, but they still manage to spend more of their budget on their military. Although they are a poorer nation, the wealth is distributed much more equally than it is in Uganda, so there are probably fewer desperately poor people. That's probably a big part of why life expectancy is higher. Their HIV rate is allegedly higher, but no one believes that Uganda's HIV rate is as low as they say.

Anyway. The mausoleum was under a church that was in the middle of the city, but set in a large park-like area. I walked out through the park area, on the way seeing a few more Christian things that I didn't really understand, including a large model of Jesus on a cross inside a glass case that I thought it wouldn't be a good idea to photograph, and this mural.

I also saw some soldiers in an observation tower eyeing me. There are a lot of soldiers around Addis Ababa. Most of the government buildings are protected by the military, I guess.

I walked out of the park area and continued north to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, considered the most important church in Ethiopia after St. Mary's in Axum (which houses the Ark of the Covenant). Before I looked at the Cathedral, I looked at a monument to the ministers killed by the Derg. The monument was next to the Prime Minister's residence, so there were two military guys sitting there to make sure that no one took any photographs. The punishment for photographing government buildings is three months in jail, so I decided not to chance it. Instead, here's the cathedral.

The Cathedral was built in 1942 to celebrate the liberation of Ethiopia from Italy. Like every other church in Addis, it's surrounded by worshippers who don't go inside for some reason. I went to the office outside the church and bought a ticket, which the man assured me included a free guide. I entered the church. It was beautiful inside, with stained glass windows, frescoes on the ceiling, etc. No guides though.

I wandered a bit on my own and then a man approached and explained that he would guide me. I was skeptical and asked if he was the official guide, he said sure. I asked if he was expecting any additional money. He said yes. We negotiated ten birr (ninety cents) and he showed me around. Of course, halfway through the tour, the official guide showed up and they started to argue. I interrupted by paying the first guy ($1) and sending him away.

Not only is it a giant cathedral with lots of fancy religious art, but it also houses the bodies of Haile Selassie and his wife. Allegedly (the Rastafari don't believe that he's dead).

After the church, I went to the National Museum. I was underwhelmed. In the basement was a cast of Lucy ("Dinkenesh" to the Ethiopians -- "you are beautiful"), the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis from three million years ago that was found in Ethiopia. Lucy's noteworthy because she has the small skull of an ape but the hips and bones of a modern human -- a step on the evolutionary chain. Fine, but it's just a cast. The original is on a controversial tour of the United States -- apparently the Ethiopian government likes it because they get a share of the profits (allegedly to modernize Ethiopia's museums, which they desperately need), but various anthropologists say the bones are too fragile to truck around the country. The Smithsonian refused to exhibit them for that reason. Some anthropologists support exhibiting them in America to " raise awareness of human-origins studies", which I think is code for "stop being creationists".

The upper floors were mostly filled with artwork and handcrafts. Lots of paintings. This one, Victims of Famine (1974) by Eshetu Tiruneh, shows one of the earlier famines from when Haile Selassie was Emperor. The museum also had various sculptures, including a nice one of Selassie himself on a horse, and one of his thrones. And lots more paintings. One room had a bunch of giant flatscreen TVs that were showing a video about how we're all one race and people should try to get along. If only we had more videos.

On the way to the museum, I passed this banner. The Italian influence in Addis is a bit strange. There's a neighborhood in the northern part of the city called the Piazza that has a bunch of Italian restaurants and lots of coffee shops. Drinks like macchiatos (macchiati?) are popular here. But it's not like the rest of Africa -- because Ethiopia wasn't colonized, just temporarily conquered, there's no fundamental Italian sense to the city. It's not like France and Kigali or Britain and Kampala. No one speaks Italian, the cuisine doesn't show Italian influence, and the city looks nothing like an Italian city. There are few Italians visiting Addis (I saw two my whole time -- not like Brits in Uganda).

And despite the banner, I don't think they're really friends. I'm told that this banner actually commemorates Italy's return of some important stone obelisk that Mussolini had stolen from Ethiopia.

Anyway. After the museum I walked to a restaurant that served Ethiopian food that Lonely Planet felt was excellent. For once they were right on. I was a bit concerned when I walked in because I was the only foreigner, but the menu had some comical English translations and the food was excellent. There was a woman sitting in the foyer with a bunch of cups, I think for a coffee ceremony, and she was burning a giant thing of incense, and the restaurant was filled with incense. Most tables were sipping tej, a local honey wine -- the restaurant had its own brewery. I had chunks of lamb in berbere with injera, and it was delicious. I tried to take a few photos unobtrusively but was not especially successful.

I was going to walk over to the Ethnological Museum, but then I saw a sign for LION PARK. Had I had enough lions in the Serengeti? No.

Lion Park is a zoo in the center of Addis Ababa. I paid my admission and camera fee and walked in. The zoo was filled with teenagers and a few adults, mostly couples, sitting on the grass talking or looking at animals. A man was sitting on a bench covered in monkeys, but he didn't want to be photographed. Addis is big on lions because they're the official symbol of something or other. There are lions everywhere, and Haile Selassie was crowned "Lion of Judah".

I walked over to some cages where a large number of teenagers were crowded around a large, angry primate -- I don't know what kind. The kids had some candy and were teasing the little guy, and he kept opening his mouth and reaching for it. One of the boys also discovered that the guy got angry when the boy touched a certain girl, and so of course it became a good excuse for him to grab her. I guess the thing thought it was the alpha male with exclusive mating rights. The whole scene reminded me of the zoo in Hanoi, where teenagers also crowded around monkeys in cages and taunted them with candy. I guess some things are universal.

Anyway, all of that is beside the point. The best part of Lion Park is, of course, lions. There were a lot of them in cages on the side, but the best were in a large round pavilion in the center of the park. They were fenced in by a chain-link fence and by iron bars. For some insane reason I was allowed to walk around the pavilion inches away from the lions. Most of them were clearly accustomed to people and were sleeping or sitting around.

I don't like seeing lions locked in little cages, but these guys didn't seem to unhappy. They were clearly healthy, with big dark manes, and they looked well-fed. They weren't all alone, most were in couples. One of the lions who was isolated was trying to mark his territory by urinating on the crowd. Or else he was just annoyed with them. Either way it was funny.

Safari notwithstanding, this is the closest I've been to a lion. I was going to try to pet one -- this one -- through the fence, and reached out to do so, but then thought better of it -- those things are fast. When I pulled my hand back, the crowd indicated that I'd made a good decision, though one that deprived them of some entertainment. The kids were disappointed, the adults nodded sagely.

I knew the bars were safe, but when one of the lions growled at me and started to lunge, I felt some primal instinct kick in. Lions are really big. I left the pavilion and went to see some of the lions on the side -- a bunch of teenagers were there, and one had discovered that if he ran quickly back and forth, the lions would follow him. He seemed amused.

Anyway, Lion Park was awesome.

After the park, I went to the Ethnographic Museum, which Lonely Planet raves about. Yawn. It was located inside Addis Ababa University (main gates shown here), which was interesting, and a few students struck up conversations with me while I was walking around. The museum occupies the upper floors of the main building, which used to be Haile Selassie's palace before he donated it to form the university. It was founded in 1950, renamed the Haile Selassie University in 1962, and then received its current name from the Derg in 1975. On the first floor was a little exhibit on the history of the building and some paintings. The museum was on the second floor.

The museum itself was dull. There were tons of exhibits about traditional life among the tribes and lots of stuff about Christianity -- there was a whole area for the evolution of processional crosses. One interesting bit was myths and stories from different cultures. There was also a very fancy room with various musical instruments. Sadly, photography was not allowed inside, so here are more lions. Also, the building is also an administrative office, so sometimes there'd be a door in one exhibit that would lead to four guys sitting behind computers and you realize, "oh, this is not an exhibit about university registrars, this is the university registrar."

The best part of the museum was the preserved bedchambers of Haile Selassie and his wife. Seeing things like that always reminds me of how fortunate we are to live in the developed world -- the average American living below the poverty line probably has a nicer bathroom than that of the Emperor of Ethiopia only forty years ago. It looked like a plain institutional bathroom -- so much so, in fact, that there were signs explaining that the sink and toilet was Haile Selassie's and we weren't allowed to use it. If I were emperor of a country, I'd have a hot tub or something, but he had a tiny bathtub.

Outside the university is a memorial to some of the people killed by Italy. In 1937, shortly after Italy invaded Ethiopia, the Italian viceroy was holding a celebration at the imperial palace. Two Eritreans threw hand grenades at him, wounding but not killing him. Italian police immediately fired indiscriminately at the crowd. Once the Italians calmed down, though, cooler heads prevailed. No, just kidding -- as collective punishment they instituted three days of horrible violence, burnt churches and other buildings, and murdered thousands of Ethiopians. Many people fled the city and joined the resistance.

I went back to my hotel, relaxed a bit, then took a taxi to dinner. Despite my limited Amharic and the driver's limited English, we seemed to be getting along well, and I commented positively on his substantial cassette tape collection. He responded, "Many tapes. Very good, yes? I have American tape." He ejected the Ethiopian music and popped in a tape and his radio started to blare: Kung Fu Fighting. No joke. Here's a painting from the museum entitled "Pharaoh of Egypt".

So that was my first day in Ethiopia. Busy. The next few aren't as hectic, coming soon.

Haile Selassie

Much of the recent political history of Ethiopia is the history of Haile Selassie. Selassie, or "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God", was a fascinating figure. He became fascinating early on -- as Crown Prince he furthered the modernization of Ethiopia, distributed lions to Western European leaders, and adopted forty Armenian orphans following the Armenian genocide and had them trained to form a band.

He was crowned Emperor in 1930. He immediately moved toward liberal democracy, establishing Ethiopia's first written constitution and creating a bicameral legislature. Of course, Europe couldn't allow this to continue, and in 1935 Italy invaded. Selassie mobilized his army, famously reminding them that they were going to die anyway, probably of "cough or head-cold", and it was better to die fighting Italians. Italy's modern army had no trouble defeating Ethiopia, especially after they began using chemical weapons and targeting hospitals.

On May 5, 1936, Selassie fled to Geneva via Israel to plead for help from the League of Nations. His speech there is a famous event in Ethiopia, and Wikipedia describes it as "a speech often considered among the most stirring of the 20th century." He was named Time's Man of the Year (the first black guy to appear on the cover), but the League decided not to do anything to help. (This episode inspired the ineffectuality clause in the UN charter.)

Selassie spent five years in exile, mostly producing counter-propaganda to respond to the Italians' stream of regular propaganda. Italy responded by executing several of his family members, looting Ethiopia's churches, and stealing its monuments and obelisks. Finally, during WWII British forces liberated Ethiopia. Selassie returned to Addis exactly five years after he fled.

Restored to power, he continued democratic reforms. A new constitution in 1955 provided broader public participation. He also sent troops around the world to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, saying basically that it would have been nice if someone had done the same for Ethiopia in 1936. But dissatisfaction with his rule accumulated, and there were unsuccessful coups. Communism became popular. Severe famines in the 1970s caused further dissatisfaction, especially when it appeared that Selassie (by then in his 80s) was unaware of the magnitude of suffering.

Finally the military revolted over salary issues. Selassie promised a pay increase, but the Derg ("sixty"), a committee appointed to investigate their grievances and led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, instead staged a coup. They imprisoned Selassie, executed a bunch of people, and then executed him.

Or did they?

Before his coronation as Emperor, he was known as Ras ("Lord") Tafari. The Rastafari believe that God ("Jah") manifested as Jesus and gave the world his teachings, but they were corrupted, so God manifested as Haile Selassie to reform the world. God cannot die, so the alleged execution of Haile Selassie by the Derg must be a hoax; Selassie lives on in hiding and will reveal himself and redeem humanity.

Rastas divide the world into Zion (Ethiopia or possibly all of Africa) and Babylon (everywhere else, but especially the developed world). Babylon has revolted against God, but God will redeem humanity and create paradise on Earth in Zion. Rastafari has strong elements of Afrocentrism, teaching that history is the story of whites harming blacks. The Back to Africa movement is looked upon favorably (since it calls for a return of blacks to Zion), and Marcus Garvey is believed to have been a prophet. For some time there were elements of black supremacy in Rastafari, but they largely disappeared after Haile Selassie condemned racism in a speech to the United Nations.

Many Rastas believe in eternal life -- apparently Bob Marley refused to write a will when he was dying of cancer because that would be giving in to death. Some feel so strongly that they will avoid saying words with "die" or "death" in them, for instance substituting "livication" for "dedication". At the paradise that God will create in Zion, everyone will speak Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, and some Rastas study Amharic now. Rastas famously smoke marijuana in a ceremony called a "reasoning", where they discuss social and political issues. Many Rastas follow the kosher dietary restrictions of the Torah. Many prefer to avoid the word Rastafarianism because they believe they have evolved above "-isms".

You don't actually see many Rastafari in Ethiopia, at least as far as I could tell. I guess Jamaica's a bit more pleasant.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Christianity in Ethiopia

There are lots of churches in Ethiopia. It was the second country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, after Armenia. Connections between Ethiopia and Judeo-Christian society officially began in the 10th century BCE. According to the Torah, the Queen of Sheba heard of the wisdom of King Solomon of Jerusalem and traveled there to meet and test him. She was impressed, blessed him and gave him four tons of gold, and he bestowed upon her "everything she desired". The Koran has a similar story, with the addition of a genie. Scholars disagree about the location of Sheba, but Ethiopians believe that it's, well, Ethiopia.

And in Ethiopia, the "everything she desired" line has been interpreted to mean that Solomon seduced the Queen. She had a son, Menelik I, who was the ancestor of the Ethiopian imperial line down to Haile Selassie. Thus, the rulers of Ethiopia through the modern era are believed to be the descendents of King Solomon. (The imperial line is still extant, though no longer in power.)

The Ethiopian tradition holds that Solomon served the Queen a very spicy meal but no beverages and then invited her to spend the night in the palace. She agreed on condition that he not "take her by force" (these were classy times). He promised on condition that she promise not to take anything in the palace by force. (She knew what was happening but thought she could go the night without water.) She awoke in the middle of the night unbearably thirsty and reached for water that had been set by the bed, and the King warned her that water was the most valuable possession in the kingdom and by taking it she was breaking her oath. When she took the water anyway, he was freed from his oath.

Allegedly, Menelik I returned to Jerusalem and started telling people that he was Solomon's son. To test him, Solomon had one hundred and ninety-nine other guys stand in a room with him and then had Menelik sent in. Menelik immediately identified Solomon (despite never having seen him) and Solomon accepted him as his son. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Solomon, Menelik's men were stealing the Ark of the Covenant. They took it to the Church of St. Mary in Axum, Ethiopia. I couldn't go check due to flight problems and also they kill you if you try to sneak in.

Ethiopia allegedly wasn't always Christian. Tradition states that in the eighth century BCE, immigrants brought Judaism to Ethiopia (this was the time period for the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of Jews). For the following period Ethiopia was a Jewish state. The Aksumite Kingdom in modern-day Ethiopia converted to Christianity in the fourth century CE. A century and a half later, some monks arrived and began a strong tradition of monasticism that continues today. The kingdom fell and a new one arose, same as usual, but the Christianity never went away. Because they converted so early, they follow the Christian Orthodox tradition. Portuguese missionaries converted one king to Catholicism, but there was a revolt and his son switched back to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and expelled the Jesuits. A guide told me that Ethiopia's long history of Judaism explains the Jewish symbols mixed in with Christian ones, such as the star here on the roof of a church.

Arie Goes to Ethiopia

So I decided to go to Ethiopia. I didn't know much about it before I started planning the trip. I knew it was land-locked, Christian, had delicious food, and was poor. And it's in the Horn of Africa, which is the little part that pokes out where all the wars are. And they had a bad famine in the 1980s, and a big war with Eritrea. I was to discover that that was, well, largely accurate. Especially about the food.

I was coming from Arusha, in Tanzania, where I went on safari. In Arusha, the day of my flight to visit Ethiopia, I read through Lonely Planet: Ethiopia to make sure I had everything covered. That's when I spotted the little warning that there were no ATMs in Ethiopia. Uhoh. I had some U.S. dollars, but to be safe I took out some money from the ATM at the airport. Of course, that was Tanzanian Shillings. (Spoiler: There are plenty of ATMs in Ethiopia. Lonely Planet has no idea.)

My flight was on Ethiopian Airways, an excellent airline. We landed first in Nairobi, where we sat for a while, then in Addis Ababa. On the plane I got to talking to the girl in the row behind me -- she was from Arusha and it was her first time on an airplane. She was flying with us to Nairobi and then to Addis, from which she would fly to Dubai, then Houston, then some local flight to a U.S. university where she was starting college. She seemed a bit nervous about the Dubai to Houston leg, which she said was her longest flight, six hours... I took a look at her schedule and sure enough, the flight landed six hours after it took off. The look on her face when I explained time zones...

I spent much of the flight learning a few phrases of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. It's written using the Ge'ez (or Ethiopic) alphabet, a complex alphabet that has minimal connection to the Roman alphabet. I didn't even try to learn it. Amharic has a bunch of sounds that aren't in English, but I decided not to worry about that. Two of the six or so vowels are close to schwas, and I can't really tell them apart, but it turns out I'm hard to understand because I can't get them right. Oh well.

Ethiopia has visas on arrival for people from "tourist-generating countries", including America. I was a bit concerned because their website says you can only have a visa on arrival if you are arriving from one of those countries, but I figured I was, indirectly. I got off the plane pretty quickly -- I was sitting in the first row behind first class, so they let us off first, so I was the first off and the second guy to arrive in the visa room (some businessman dude pushed past me). I got my visa with no trouble, got stamped in, and I was in Ethiopia.

Before I left the secured area I tried to exchange my Tanzanian shillings for Ethiopian Birr. They didn't take Tanzanian shillings. I got a bit more worried about the currency situation.

I had reserved a room with the dubiously named Z Guest House (which was full, so they set me up with the D Guest House), but despite their promises there was no one waiting for me at the airport. I hunted around for a bit, no one showed up. A few touts saw me looking around confused and tried to talk me into staying at their hotels, but I resisted. After checking out an ATM that clearly did not take foreign cards, I went to a booth for the Global Hotel, which promised to take credit cards.

Global Hotel is a luxury hotel -- not on the level of, say, some of the absurd places I stayed while on safari, but pretty damn nice for under $100/night. The only drawback is that it's half a mile from the city center, but cabs cost $2.50 to anywhere in town (and shared taxis cost 15 cents). I checked in, dropped off my stuff, and went down to the hotel restaurant (it was pretty late).

The menu was western food, which disappointed me. But then I spotted "traditional dinner" in the corner and ordered that. It was amazingly great. Giant plate of injera, big thing of lamb meat sautéed in berbere, another little dish of very thick berbere, delicious. It was served with these two giant rolls of injera. It was my first Ethiopian meal in Ethiopia and I was very happy with it. Also, it cost $3. Something odd about this city is that accommodation is expensive and everything else is dirt cheap. I think I had one meal that cost more than $6 my whole time there, and that was in a western hotel.

Ethiopian food is amazingly wonderful. The core of the cuisine is injera, which is spongy sour bread made from an Ethiopian grain called teff that substitutes for plates and silverware. A typical meal might be a large (pizza-sized) piece of injera covered in various types of stews. A stew would normally be made of chunks of some meat soaked in lots of onion and berbere (a sort of paste made from chili pepper and many other spices, very strong). You usually get additional rolls of injera to use as silverware. It's not like the food in any other part of Africa (or the world, really). Although there's a lot of butter and fat in the food, every single Ethiopian I saw, regardless of how wealthy they were, was very thin.

Stuffed with lamb and spongy sour bread, I was sleepy. More coming soon.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Arie Goes to a Crater

This is the last day of my safari. You might want to start at the beginning.

Today was our only day in the Ngorongoro Crater. We woke up early and piled into the car. The gates to the Crater are supposed to open at 6:30am, but we were told that the rangers arrive at the park around 6:30 and then go around unlocking the gates. It's about a twenty minute drive to the floor of the Crater, and we were there around 7, not bad. For some dumb reason our resort didn't start serving breakfast until 6:30 (geniuses: your raison d'etre opens at 6:30, try serving breakfast before that), so we took a packed breakfast.

This and many other buffalo were waiting for us. Apparently the park service has been putting out fires for many years here, and fires tend to destroy taller grasses and allow shorter grasses to flourish. The increasing quantity of tall grass has led to more buffalo and fewer wildebeest and gazelle. These things are pretty damn big, that's for sure, no wonder they need all that grass. Most people say hippos are the most dangerous mammal here, but our guide thinks it's buffalo.

The African buffalo is one of the "big five", the five animals that Europeans tried to drive to extinction. The others are lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos. Wealthy white Europeans (and Teddy Roosevelt) swarmed all over this region a century ago trying to kill as many as they could. With its macabre history, you'd think we could let the term die, but instead it's been reimagined as the five animals that the current generation of rich white people who show up here should try to view. This seems stupid to me -- the five were chosen because they were ferocious, not because they were rare or beautiful or interesting (giraffe > buffalo). But that's how it is. Our lodge gift shop sold "Big Five" t-shirts. (This here is a wildebeest, but you can't tell, right? I couldn't either. I think the key is the beard.)

Buffalo can weigh up to a ton. I just finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, which makes a big point about how there were no friendly animals like cows for sub-Saharan Africans to domesticate; apparently the African buffalo is dangerous and unpredictable and not amenable to pulling plows and being milked. Lions can kill buffalo if they work in teams, but other than that, even crocodiles will leave the adults alone (once in a long while hyenas will take down an adult). Unlike other prey, buffalo will sometimes fight back. There are instances where after lions have killed a buffalo, the rest of the buffalo will charge the lions and harass them for hours, even chasing them into trees (and not just the tree-climbing lions either).

We saw some zebras and some other animals, and then came upon a family of hyenas. I'm against hyenas, mainly because I'm a big fan of lions and you gotta support your team, but baby hyenas are pretty cute. This family only had one baby, and they had a little burrow and he kept poking his head out of the burrow. The hyenas were very close to various prey, mostly buffalo and zebra, but the prey wasn't scared -- I guess there weren't enough hyenas to pose a threat.

Next we saw some lions with a kill on a hillside. Unlike the Serengeti, you can't leave the roads in the Ngorongoro Crater, so we couldn't get too close. Using binoculars and zoom lenses, we watched as a lioness and her cubs polished off the kill and then trotted down the hill to join the dozing male. On the way they were joined by another lioness with two more cubs. As you can see, these cubs looked pretty happy.

One of the baby cubs had a feather in his mouth for some reason and he really wanted to keep it -- he kept dropping it, stopping, picking it up, and then running to catch up with the others. It was adorable. The lions curled up in the shade near the river and started to nap. I guess the whole pride had eaten, so they were content to lie around for the day.

We also saw a couple of buffalo lumber slowly away from the lions. They probably were too big to be in any danger, but why take chances? For some reason, each buffalo had a little white bird who seemed to be his friend. Each buffalo's bird stood near him while he ate grass, and when they lumbered away from the lions, the birds hopped alongside. On these lions you can see the faint rosettes -- cubs have them, and they're visible sometimes on females' bellies, but they fade entirely on adult males.

We ate breakfast and then drove for a while looking at the wildlife. Buffalo when they're grazing tend to form these long single-file lines. I'm not sure why. One possibility is that they can see more of their surroundings that way, so it's more likely that one will spot an approaching predator. But buffalo are so big that they don't have too much to fear from predators (only certain lion prides can hunt the adults). Not sure.

There were a lot of zebra, especially a lot of baby zebra. One thing I found interesting is that some (but not all) of the baby zebra are brown and white instead of black and white. And as this picture shows, it's not just the color of the fur -- the brown fur is very different from the white fur. It's much longer and puffier. The white fur looks like short hair, the brown fur like shag carpeting. Most brown zebra apparently turn black with age, but a few don't.

We also saw ostrich and warthog. I don't have a lot to say about these warthog. They have big teeth, they enter their burrows backward so they can spring out at predators that attack, all the big cats eat them, people carve their tusks like elephant tusks only smaller, and when they eat they kneel down so it looks like they're praying. Or possibly when they pray they muck around in the dirt so it looks like they're eating. Who can say?

Next we drove to the hippo pool. At first we thought there was a large rock in the center with hippos around it, but then we realized that the large rock was in fact the backs of dozens of hippos. It was still cool enough that many of them hadn't yet fully submerged and their backs were dry, making them look like grey rocks. As we watched, the day heated up and one by one the hippos did barrel rolls, getting themselves wet.

There was tasty-looking grass around the pool, but none of the grazers were anywhere near it. Maybe it's the wrong type of grass. More likely, maybe the hippos don't like zebra company. Hippos are mean and I don't know how well the tolerate other animals. Well, there was this black bird that was hopping from hippo to hippo pecking their backs and they kept trying to roll him under, but he'd just hop along like a guy on a log in a river. They had to tolerate him. In this photo are what look like ducks. The hippos tolerate them too.

There were also a tall white bird. The hippos didn't seem to care about that guy either. Down the river a bit, zebra were drinking from the pond. The hippos didn't mind them, or if they did, they didn't give any indication. Like, for instance, one possible indication would be chasing the zebra down, drowning them, and devouring them. They do that sometimes (rarely), but not today.

One hippo was on the riverbank walking around -- a fairly rare occurrence during the day. He didn't seem to be eating, though. We watched as he sort of lumbered around for a while and then walked over to the riverbank. I got my camera ready for the swan dive (or the hippo dive) but it was more like watching someone get into a very cold pool -- he stepped up to the bank, his hind legs kept walking while his front legs stayed still until all four were perched at the end, and then he sort of slowly stepped into the river. Pretty soon he was swimming along happily.

Here's a photo of the most punk zebra I've ever seen -- the kid dyed his mane to match his stripes. Well, he's too young to have dyed his own mane, his parents probably did it for him. What am I saying, this dude's parents don't get along. Probably he lives with his mom (most zebras are nursed for a year), but his dad gets to see him on weekends and one weekend his dad helped him dye his mane so the kid would think he was "cool". Probably also to piss of his mother, and when he got home on Sunday night she was all "what have you done to your mane?" and he said "what's the big deal?" Whatever, this zebra totally pwns. He'll probably grow up to be a stockbroker, if he isn't eaten by lions.

Near the hippo pool was the flamingo lake. There were no roads near it, but from what I could see, there were roughly one trillion flamingos. This is a really bad place to be a brine shrimp. Assuming that's what they eat. I don't really know. We also saw some zebra eating grass right next to a zebra skull. Personally if you put a human skull next to me at the sushi bar, it might temper my appetite, but not these guys. Photo below.

Next we found elephants. Although this isn't really impressive -- when your target is fourteen feet tall, weighs six tons, and walks around smashing trees that are in his way with his enormous tusks as he stamps around, you don't get much credit for finding him. Anyway, we found some elephants and watched as they ate lots of plants.

We stopped to use the bathrooms and left the car roof and door open. This proved to be a mistake. As I was walking back toward the car, I saw a vervet monkey jump onto the roof and then swing into the vehicle. I knew what was coming (because in Cambodia a monkey stole my driver's food from our tuk-tuk) and I ran over and tried to kick some monkey ass, but I was too slow -- the monkey found our lunchbox, pulled out a bag of crackers and a pastry, and jumped out and climbed a tree.

Another monkey landed on the roof, so I grabbed my cameras and slammed the door. The noise scared him off the car, and I got in -- the rest stayed away while I was in there. Our guide came back, secured the rest of the food, and closed up the car. Then we stood and watched as the stupid monkey slowly devoured our crackers.

Our guide told me that when a monkey wants food, you have to let him have it, because otherwise he'll either bite you or take a camera, climb up a tree, and then drop it. My feeling is: Whatev, Chamberlain, I don't negotiate with terrorists. I wanted to throw rocks at the vervet until he gave our crackers back, but apparently some pansy law says you can't throw rocks at wildlife inside conservation areas. And it doesn't have an "unless they steal your crackers" exception. Here's a photo of the zebra and skull that I couldn't fit above.

Anyway, after the stupid monkey ate our crackers, he tried to eat the pastry, but evolution has not yet taught him about plastic wrap. He couldn't pull it open (in fairness, I can't most of the time either) so he ended up trying to eat the plastic wrap. That was at least somewhat satisfying. There was a big sign saying not to feed the animals, but it's not like we did it on purpose. We got back in the car and drove on.

Next we saw another lion with another kill. Again, though, she was far from the road, so we didn't get a good look. I think it was a wildebeest. Also there were some elephants in very tall grass. One of them was giving a bunch of white birds a ride around the grass. I assume that they switch off, and soon the little birds will fly the elephant around the Crater (I envision one supporting each foot). Also there were hartebeest and ostriches.

Lunch time. We pulled up to a large lake at a site that's been set aside for people to eat at, though I'm not sure if the animals know that. There were a ton of other groups, some of which were very large. We ate sitting in the car -- the actual picnic area had a ton of marabou storks and kites and we watched other visitors guard their food. After lunch we walked a bit and saw another few hippos in the lake, but we didn't walk too far because of lions. Then back in the car. Here's a photo of that other hippo I mentioned above getting ready to dive.

This photo is from the drive out of the Crater. The Crater gets a lot of rain but the surrounding area doesn't -- somehow the Crater traps rainclouds. So the land looks very interesting sometimes, with lots of clouds and then sunny land right in front of it. I took a lot of photos and I'm putting them anywhere where I don't have appropriate wildlife photos (like the first photo).

So we'd seen all the major fauna except rhinos, and there were rhinos somewhere in the Crater, and we'd been looking all day. So had everyone else -- every time we passed a car, the guides would ask each other (in Swahili) if they'd seen any rhinos, the answer was no. We were beginning to get pessimistic when we saw a bunch of cars clustered in a spot on the road. We drove up to them and followed the lines of the lenses and binoculars to two large grey blobs. Not the ones in the picture, those are hippos.

Sure enough, these were rhinos. A mother and her baby. At first they were just resting on the ground, but as we watched they got up and walked around a bit, and then the baby started to nurse. I bet rhino milk is tasty. They're called black rhinos but they're not really black. It turns out they're called black rhinos only because white rhinos are called white rhinos (and "white" might be a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word "wijd", meaning "wide" as in the lips -- white rhinos have broader lips). In real life they're the same color.

The Crater is one of the few places where black rhinos live. There were once hundreds, but during the colonial era, Europeans hunted them for sport. Now there are fewer than two dozen left. I'm not sure what kind of jerk can look at one of these and think it would be fun to kill. Poaching continues, of course, thanks to ongoing demand for rhino horn, used for dagger handles in the middle east and in traditional Chinese medicine (it's not an aphrodisiac, it's used for fever). It's such a problem that some countries tranquilize rhinos and remove their horns so that no one will poach them. If it were me, I would tranquilize and remove the poachers.

At one point a bunch of wildebeest walked over, and four of them lined up in front of the rhinos and four behind. It looked like a formal honor guard. There were a few hyenas around; my theory is that the mother rhino said to the wildebeest, "if my baby gets killed by hyenas or poachers or Germans or whatever, basically I'll just rampage and kill every wildebeest I see" and they decided they'd better guard the little guy for their own safety.

Rhinoceroses, or rhinocerim, are pretty awesome. They're really big, weighing more than a ton, they live a really long time, and they have those cool horns. Their brains are small for their size. They can live to be sixty years old and they have a great sense of smell, though poor eyesight. A group of rhinos is called a "crash", though I don't know who makes those up. I think it should be me. Rhinos have an ancestor who was twenty feet tall; too bad that dude's not still around. Here's a river that runs through the Crater.

Black rhinos have eighty-four chromosomes, the most of any mammal. They stole the extras from giraffes, who are miffed about it but can't do anything because rhinos have those sharp horns. Maybe the giraffes would try something if they knew that the horns are made of keratin (the protein that makes hair and teeth), not ivory, but they don’t and it's important for conservation purposes that no one tell them. Black rhinos mostly have two horns, a big one in front and a smaller one in back, though some black rhinos grow a third horn behind the other two. They can weigh up to two tons. The rhinos, not the horns.

We watched the rhinos for a while. Once they settled down, we drove a bit more and passed another lion resting in tall grass. We also checked on the lioness with the kill, but she was still doing her thing. Next we saw a couple of elephants, one of which had enormous tusks. I mean, tusks can get to ten feet long, and these weren't ten feet, but they must have been four or five feet long. As far as I'm concerned, that's a lot of tusk.

Some more lions, some zebra, and then it started to pour -- horrible downpour all of a sudden -- and we decided to call it a day (well, our guide decided that and didn't tell us, but I was ready to go so I didn't protest). I took this photo while it was pouring, strange to be in heavy rain and see the sky. Couldn't spot any rainbows. We drove up the steep access road and back to our absurdly fancy lodge to relax for the rest of the day.

So that was pretty much it. The next morning we checked out, piled into the car, and drove back to town. On the way we stopped at a souvenir store, called a "curio" store -- the word's everywhere here. The store was stuffed with ebony carvings, but we managed to find a few things whose creation didn't require the destruction of endangered species.

Next stop was the place where we had our first night, this time for lunch. Again, lunch was comically fancy. After lunch, our guide gave me a lift to Arusha, where I got a little hotel for the night -- back to traveling on a budget, sadly.

The hotel was a decent place, with internet and hot water. What it didn't have was cold water -- the power kept going out, and the cold water tank was uphill and served by a pump, so it was empty. The hot water heater, though, was fine. So I took a very, very hot shower. The next morning, our guide picked me up and drove me to Arusha airport (for $50, allegedly the standard taxi rate for a car to the airport -- I think that's right), and I was off to Ethiopia.

So that was my safari. Good times. You could go on to read about my trip to Ethiopia.