Breakfast a good start, found my favourite food to start the day – fresh fruit, smoked salmon and fresh juice, with grand macchiato and croissant. How very spoiled western of me! Morning full of errands – working out the trip to Lalibela to see the rock-hewn churches, changing money, checking out hotel’s shops for what’s worth getting and how much it costs… surprising fair prices… checking emails at hotel’s business centre – fast but expensive. Bought tickets to Lalibela for Thursday, coming back Friday… surprisingly expensive $242 for return flight. Tour operator in the hotel quoted $174 per person(!) for transfers, guide and entrance fees to the churches. Worked out with my brother we can do it for $100 for all three… some mark-up! Going online at the hotel far less frustrating if considerably more expensive. 109 birr per hour at Hilton business centre compared to 10 birr per hour at a shed-like ‘internet cafe’… the hotel connection speed makes it seem a good deal. Discovered will miss being on CNN morning news show about the cult of the amateur – the book by a professional troll Andrew Keen who continues to make waves, no doubt to the great delight of his publishers… the whole thing couldn’t be more surreal from where I was standing today.
Didn’t get out of the hotel until after 3pm. A taxi for local rides just outside the hotel, used the technique my brother showed us… set the price at 20 birr (fair price for a short ride within town) and walk down the row of cabs until one agrees to the price. Went to a shop with fixed and fair prices – good way to find out what to negotiate at markets. Good quality items, silver jewellery, traditional clothing, icons, carved wood, baskets etc. On the way driver points out a row of corrugated iron stalls… apparently worth looking at too. The landmark was post office…just because couldn’t see anything resembling it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Seasonal rains have started, usually mid-afternoon, an hour or so. In the deluge the cab stalled mid-hill, in front of a minibus stop… well, not really a stop but a space where people cluster waiting for clapped-out blue and white mini-buses. No signs or timetables – a guy leaning out of the window shouts the destination… passengers get on when heading their direction. Used to be three passengers allowed on a two-seat row, after oil prices increase, they pushed it to four. Government’s keeping quiet about it for now… this is the transport for the middle-classes. Much cheaper than taxis… not as cheap as buses – orange and red and bursting at seams – those are for the poor people.
Driver points at a Shell petrol station 100 yards up the hill…dashes out to the rain for petrol, the reason for car’s asthmatic halt. Managed to take pictures of the car and an amazing picture of people outside.
Drenched driver back, refills the petrol tank, opens the hood to hand-pump the petrol back into the engine… car starts fine and we are on our way. Have a pleasant conversation with him…as most Ethiopians he is friendly, intelligent and helpful… parks in front of the shop and settles down to wait for an hour. Then meeting my brother, going to his lecture about theory of international political systems at the technical and business college.. couldn’t miss my little brother lecturing on serious matters of international relations. Picked up by his friend… a taxi ride well out of the centre, past the (in)famous Merkato… the largest market in Africa. Same tagline as Harrods – you can buy anything and everything there, including kalashnikovs and camels. Unlike in Harrods, you are likely to be relieved of anything and everything you have with you, including your cash and contents of your pockets. Drove in a clapped out Lada… a car favoured – using the term loosely here – by most cab drivers in Addis Ababa. Five of us in a car…
Led to the college’s Vice-President’s office for a chat… turned out to be one of the most intelligent, educated and dedicated people I encounter. The President joined us shortly.. also very genuine. My brother tell me that president subsidises a third of the fees for poor students out of his pocket. Sure he’s not rich himself… unbelievably moving and heartening.
Ivan’s lecture very good, interesting clash of an abstract international systems theory about hegemonic and non-hegemonic states and war as state formation etc and the audience’s desire to understand their own situation. Specific examples needed. An interesting discussion develops.. continue to a local place with our hosts for a round of juices and some sandwiches. Deep in conversation about state, society, individual and the nature of liberty. Was told Ethiopians too much defined by their families… not much room for individual self-determination.
Went to an Ethiopian household…Ivan’s friend Emishaw invited us to meet his family and witness a coffee ceremony. Refreshingly fluent in English with colloquialisms and sense of humour included… works full time at the Foreign ministry… also lectures part time at the college… seems more like labour of love and dedication… trying to get a scholarship abroad. Can’t blame him… he deserves it and would do very well…
Got to the house in a street… well, a crude stone-paved path with no street lighting. No street name or numbers…. getting out of the cab – the most clapped out so far – Emishaw used a tiny torch in his mobile phone. Got out facing a long wall of corrugated iron.. He knocks on a piece… opens to reveal a neat front yard with a tree, brazier, and welcoming frontdoor light… fragrance of freshly roasted and ground coffee overwhelms us… Led to a front room, three sofa arranged around a coffee table. A fridge in one corner, a TV in the other. A beautiful piece of furniture – an enormous cabinet with neatly stacked dishes, glasses and crockery behind glass doors. Emishaw’s mother started the coffee ceremony, a grass-like rug, a brazier with hot coal, a tall necked jar for boiling the coffee, a smaller brazier for the incense and a tray with a row of tiny coffee cups. Ceremony takes about 30 minutes, deliberate as it is a social occasion for the family. Normally performed 2-3 times a day. The coffee is excellent, not at all bitter or acidic… don’t drink coffee without milk unless it’s Lebanese but enjoyed mine very much. No doubt rather strong, which is why typing this at 2.20am.
Emishaw’s family don’t speak English…. but we notice his father grin knowingly when something amusing was said… suspected he understood more than he let on… A marvellous evening, feel privileged to have had the opportunity. Emishaw understands the world out beyond his wildest imagination… extravagant, opulent, wasteful and indifferent… his desire for education and knowledge is burning.. clichéd but true. His words about the internet were touching… “so painful to know that there is so much out there and not being able to reach it”. He is ‘privileged’ enough, has a Dell laptop and a dial up connection in his house. Tried to connect while there… alas, his laptop disabled by a virus… his anti-virus subscription expired, can’t afford to renew it. Not aware that 5 minutes without a firewall, anti-virus protection his computer’s life expectancy equals that of a snowball in hell. Promised to ask around for a free anti-virus software – suggestions welcome. Recommended Open Office 2.0 to replace outdated and unstable dodgy copies of MS Office… so delighted to hear of free and functional software, here it can solve so many IT problems.
After an hour or so got the clapped out taxi to Taitu, my brother’s hotel. The driver not clear about Hilton but got us there in the end. Had a meal at the restaurant there… no food the whole day. A western imitation restaurant, food costing more than what locals spend in a week…. the first time their reality felt more real that this one. People make everything go further, hard for them to understand our way of life, extending their approach to life and its harsh realities to our life of variety, choice and redundancy can make their head hurt… also looks like an unnecessary excess and extravagance. Of course, there is virtue in making the most out of what you have but there is virtue in new possibilities created out of abundance or speed and stability out of redundancy. That virtue comes from the individual’s mind… regardless of the reality it faces… without the mind, there is only poverty and ignorance or surplus and indulgence.
Thanks to meeting those people tonight was reminded and reassured about individuals ability to transcend one’s environment. Their understanding is nothing short of astounding, given the limitations and obstacles in the way. They are also aware that improvement comes through individual people not top down changes.
Pictures of second day on Flickr.