Saturday, August 30, 2008 – Addis Ababa to Awassa, Ethiopia
Well, it was a rough night for most of our group. Based on reports at breakfast, jet lag was rampant. Me and another fellow both got about 4-5 hours of decent sleep. The rest didn’t and were up doing various other activities. At 3am, the Muslim calls to prayer began over the loudspeaker somewhere within earshot of the hotel. I didn’t hear them until about 5am when my alarm went off. It was about that time Katrina finally fell asleep. I roused her gently around 6am. Fortunately for her, misery loves company and she was well accompanied at breakfast.
We began the 250 kM trek to Awassa, the birthplace of our daughters, around 8:20am. We were excited about seeing more of Africa and getting closer to the day when we would meet the birth mom. We headed South East out of Addis, which was different from the tour route of the previous day. The scenery was also different – a bit more industrial and a few less people. We had to stop about 10 minutes into the trip to get some rope to secure our luggage to the roof rack of the van. As I’m writing this, I wonder how our luggage was secured prior to obtaining the rope?
Anyhow, while stopped for the rope we were immediately greeted by young boys, probably 7-12 years old, selling their wares: wafers (cookies), gum/candy and other items. We were too far away from the central city to give them a meal ticket. They didn’t appear to be as destitute as some we’d seen, but nonetheless were very poor. Two of the boys were friendly with wide smiles. They also were eager to have their picture taken. While taking a photo of these two, a third joined them and promptly gave the universal sign for “you’re #1”. I missed this gesture as I took the photo, but the rest of the group didn’t. We all laughed at my “photo of the day.”
Continuing out of Addis, we drove past a military camp, air force base and a prison. We were not allowed to take photos near these areas since doing so meant we would be imprisoned as well. We observed construction in progress on several buildings, the biggest of which were probably only 4 or 5 stories. There was a steady stream of animals and people wandering both sides of the road.
After a couple of hours, we stopped in a small town to have a “mekato”, which we came to discover is like a macchiato. We pulled into a small gated parking lot of a decent, middle class hotel nestled among the shacks of the poor. Needless to say, the Ethiopian “mekato” was enjoyed by all – even the non-coffee types.
After our drinks we continued the dusty trek South. We were slowly losing elevation as Addis sits, on average, at about 2600 meters. The countryside was green with rolling hills and mountains in the background. The ride for the next hour was pretty monotonous. The roads were paved and in very good condition (no freeze/thaw cracks here). We passed through a few small villages, which all began to look the same.
About the time we were coming down from the caffeine of the mekato, our guide Alemu indicated we were entering Diebre Zeit. Diebre Zeit is the town where our girls are staying. It is also where the children of two other families are residing. As we drove through, there was a nervous tension in the van. Someone asked where the orphanage was. As we approached a “Y” in the road, Alemu pointed and said, “down there.” I felt nervous, excited and sad. Everyone was quiet for a moment, replaying that vision we have each replayed many times – the day we meet our Ethiopian children. The noise of the town and the endless honking of horns brought us quickly back to reality.
The images from the journey from Addis to Awassa are difficult to describe. As the miles passed, a heavy sadness settled on all of us. Hoards of people simply wander along the roads. Cattle, donkeys, horses, dogs and goats accompany them. We saw grass huts in for the first time while in Ethiopia. These huts were very small, typically 8ft x 8ft mud “cubes” that served as living quarters. It became common to see the youngest children, those under 3, not wearing any pants. Occasionally an older child could be seen simply lying about 5 feet from the road, head in hands, watching the traffic. Groups of men would be sitting and chatting at the mud cubes apparently having nothing to do – whether by choice or circumstance.
I found myself asking, “what do these people do?” I began to ponder how my “doing” is tied to my “being”. These people appear to be doing little or nothing. Yet, they exist, and are pleasant and smiling. Their demeanor is a sharp condemnation as I sit here in a very nice hotel (even by American standards) journaling on a laptop while waiting to fill my stomach at breakfast. My musings are more than an intellectual journey into social justice theory. This is about identity; who am I really, and where do I go to find that identity? I wonder the same for these people. What is it like to wander, traveling and sleeping with your animals, which are life to you? Our backpacks are stuffed with purified water, hand sanitizer, and a plethora of lotions and creams to make us look and feel good. As we condition our skin and pamper our bodies, Ethiopian eyes are looking. Their arms reach inside the van, and the few English words of “money” and “you buy” or “it is good” assault your ears and conscience. It is overwhelming, and at times, crushing.
Our trek into the poorest of the poor lasted several hours. At one point the sad familiar was broken by the sight of a young man dragging an 8 ft water snake across the road to a group standing nearby. The snake appeared to be a good 6-7 inches in diameter in the middle and likely made for a good meal that evening.
For lunch we stopped at a very nice restaurant (no, we didn’t eat snake). Katrina order roasted lamb and I went exotic with a plate of spaghetti. Others went ethnic. Alemu had us all try some injera bread covered with traditional Ethiopian spices. Injera is like a rubbery pancake, grey in color and has a tangy, almost vinegary taste. Traditional Ethiopians spices are slightly warm to the taste with more of a curry flavor than tomato. It’s good, but I can’t eat much of it.
After lunch we stayed at the restaurant for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. A young girl roasted and ground the coffee beans. She poured the ground coffee straight into the water and then heated the coffee until steam came out of the pot. While waiting for the coffee to heat, a large tray of popcorn was passed among our group and then around the restaurant. The coffee was excellent, as was the experience. What wasn’t excellent were the bathrooms. The dirtiest we’d seen yet. No toilet seats and just all around filthy. Ok for the men, but the women practiced their hovering skills.
As we neared Awassa, the landscape became greener and there was more agricultural activity. Corn (or maize) is the primary crop. We also recognized some soy beans and rice. There were people weeding the tef fields – tef being a valuable crop. I believe our guide said it is used in food for those that need a gluten free diet.
We stopped at Lake Lagano (about 70 kM from Awassa) for a break. Upon entering the very bumpy and stony road that went for about a mile to the lake, we were approached by several children selling their wares. These children were ill, dirty, and extremely poor. A few had noticeably rotten teeth. This contrasted with the resort on the beach on Lake Lagano where some in our group took a paddle boat ride before we had a cold drink of Fanta, Pepsi, or water.
As we left the lake resort, we decided to stop at a very small craft stand. The crafts were made by the women living there. Proceeds supported a woman’s clinic. As was typical, our van was mobbed by the children we had to shoo-away on the way in. A few in our group bought items after some hard bartering. We bought two simple stone carvings from two of the children. They cost us $1 US each. We passed on buying the live gecko on a stick that one of the children had, but only because we didn’t know how to pack him in our carry-on! (apologies to our sons back home)
We finally arrived in Awassa around 4pm. We were all very tired, but not too tired to pass on the often mentioned, and much anticipated, “hippo ride.” We drove a couple miles from the hotel to the shore of Lake Awassa. All eyes were on the “white people”, or “frenge” as we made our way through the crowd to the boats. We found out later that most of the reason for the spectacle was that Americans are the only ones who take the hippo ride.
The ride was fun, but a little nerve racking. For one, there were thunderstorms all around the lake with rain obviously falling in some areas. We left our rain jackets at the hotel as we were tired of carrying them all day inside the van (it rains a lot in the van, you know). Second, the boats we were riding in were barely navigable. The hulls flexed and the bottom was filled with a couple inches of water. At the halfway point of the ride, after assuring us that only small crocs (caimans, we believe) are in this lake, our hippo guide bailed a bit of water. We all made nervous jokes about the seaworthiness of the vessel. He seemed relaxed, but that offered little comfort to us Americans with expensive digital cameras and no lifejackets in sight.
After seeing four hippos who treated us with a couple of yawns and a pseudo breech out of the water, we made a slower than desired voyage back to our adoring fans at the boat launch. Upon reaching dry land, we once again made a spectacle of ourselves.
For dinner, Alemu took us to a popular pizza place. It was not so much a pizza place as it was the home of an ADHD Butcher and the “Dancing Fry-Guy.” Words are inadequate to describe the scene. What is certain is the FDA would have shut this place down in an instant. In brief, picture a 3ft diameter flattened wok sitting above a 3ft square pit of fire. In this wok-like pan is oil. Into the oil the “Dancing Fry-Guy” ceremonially places meat supplied by the ADHD Butcher. The butcher gets the meat from sheep carcasses hanging in a white booth next to him. Both the Butcher and the Fryer dance and flail and gyrate as part of the cooking activity. Fry Guy tosses oil on the fire to make a ball of flame while Butcher bangs and twangs his knife in a maniacal rhythm of slicing and dicing. The fried meat is combined with some peppers in a bucket and served.
All parts of the sheep are cooked – yes, all. When Fry Guy and Butcher are done, only the spine remains – which is hung trophy-like in the “bacteria booth.” It is good entertainment, and certainly a unique Africa treat. Oh, by the way, the pizza was very good, as was a green pepper/guacamole-like sauce they served with it that had a little bite and was rather salty.
As if our day had not been eventful enough, we made one last stop for “good beer” since the beer at the place that fries sheep carcass apparently had inadequate brew. We wouldn’t know…