Back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

hi, just a quick message, managed to make it into israel yesterday, after more than four hours at the border crossing. it was nuts, but an amazing experience… and as usual the latin connection followed me, i met a Brazilian / Palestinian girl in the immigration hall, she had traveled through Dubai and Amman to get to where we were and was going to a little outside Ramallah in Palestine to visit her family.

As for me, following the border crossing, it took me almost as long as the crossing itself to get from the border to Tel Aviv where I met up with my friend Joey Seroussi.

I took two taxis from the border to the Jerusalem bus station (one was a shared taxi costing me the equivalent of US$22 or 75 shekels), then a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (18 shekels), and then a shared taxi from Tel Aviv to Joey’s place (50 shekels).

When I showed up at Joey’s place I was informed that it was the first night of Hannukah! Could i have picked a better day to arrive… a traditional meal of egg salad, eggplant salad, omelette, bread and cheese was on the table along with a fried jelly doughnut..!  Happy Hannukah to my Jewish friends all over the world!

Later in the evening, Joey took me around the city and I have to say that this place is a somewhat like a mix of Montreal and Rio de Janeiro. It’s a very “green” city (at least in the wintertime) with vibrant street scenes filled with lots of individual little store fronts, selling newspapers and magazines and pastries, coffee shops, juice bars, clothing stores, pizzerias, bagel shops, pharmacies, etc… plus from what I’ve heard it’s got an amazing nightlife.

The club Joey took me to was a private lounge he has a membership at called Shmone, which means “Eight” in English.  Eight is also meant to be Infinity (if you turn the figure eight sideways), and eight is the number of candles on the menorah, the candles that burned without going out thanks to a miracle from God (according to the Jewish religion)… in fact while we were at the club, the singer at the front of the live band and did an impromptu lighting of the menorah ceremony on stage… It was quite cool.

I’ve been told it’s a must to come back in the summertime and hit the beach and visit other parts of the country.  Perhaps a 10-day jaunt is in order for summer 2009?  Hmmm I can see the itinerary now, I’d do a couple of days in Petra which I missed this time around, as well as see the holy sights in Jerusalem which I won’t be able to see comprehensively on this visit (given the scarcity of time and the fact that I am staying with a local family in a different town).

This afternoon I went to a bookstore and picked up a Lonely Planet for Israel and the Palestinian territories.  It may sound silly, but I feel naked without.  They are great books to guide you when you’re unsure of what to do next… and they certainly help save a few shekels, pesos, or yuan or whatever the currency is onf the country you’re in!  Walking back to Joey’s place from the bookstore, I walked through suburban Tel Aviv, I came upon five Orthodox Jews (Hasidic Jews) in a children’s playground, using the swings, the merry go round and the see-saw. It was the funniest sight and I so wanted to get a photo of it, but they are very touchy about photography.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask but they turned me down…

An interesting point in Orthodox Judaism, at a certain point in their lives, they will go to study in a communal setting called a yasheeva, where some of them may stay for their entire lives, becoming religious scholars.  But these scholars don’t go on to teach at mainstream universities, they will pass on their knowledge to other Orthodox Jewish students…  Some of them may choose to be in the real world.  Note to self to read up more on the topics they study, and whether they share their learnings with the outside world so as to gain new perspectives.  Another interesting point of note – apparently there is a sect of Orthodox Jewism called Magna Carta, they are based in New York and are still waiting for the “promised land”, basically they do not feel that Israel is that place and they are opposed to the existence of Israel as that promised land for all Jews, everywhere.

At the moment I’m now back in Jerusalem, waiting for a bus to the Bethlehem checkpoint (7.9 shekels) at which point I will cross on foot at the Damascus Gate and try to grab a shared taxi into town.  I haven’t been able to get in touch with the guy who arranged my accommodation and am hoping I won’t have a problem once I arrive in the town.  My mobile phone is not working here (as it’s a UAE phone with provider Etisalat which not surprisingly doesn’t have a roaming agreement with the Israeli providers).

I will then be in Bethlehem for the next three nights, which is Palestine-controlled territory.  I will be staying in a little town called Douha Town (or Doha Town) with a Muslim Palestinian family.  This was all organised by a fellow I know through a girl I met when I was in Uganda in August 2008.  He works for an organisation called the Lighting Candles Organization and he set up the family stay for me. I figured it would be an amazing cultural experience to stay with a local family and also give me a better understanding of what these people go through on a day to day basis.

apologies for the somewhat disjointed nature of this posting… just some scattered thoughts I wanted to get down in writing…

Signing out for now…

From inside the Israeli border crossing at King Hussein Bridge

At the King Hussein border crossing between Jordan and West Bank going thru Israeli border control.

I’ve been here now for three hours and counting and no telling when I’ll be done. Others have been here for longer than I have. One Dutch girl arrived at 8am this morning and just went through now, almost six hours later.

The scene here is quieter now than it was when I first arrived, I think because the border is closed to new travelers. There are ppl of all nationalities, Japanese, French, American, Jordanian.

The immigration officers here seem to treat everyone here pretty equally.  They are stern, professional and totally uncaring – this seems typical of most border officers I have seen in my life. No visual indications of discrimination although I am sure the immigration officers do racial and ethnic profiling for obvious reasons and they appear to do extensive background security checks. Remember that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency is one of the most highly sophisticated in the world.  There are people here who make this trip on a regular basis but still get stuck for hours waiting to be cleared for entry.

They’ve taken my backpack away. Don’t know when I’ll see it again. I also went through some type of biometric scanning device which blows high-velocity puffs of air at you. Apparently to see what you have under your clothes. Something called Sentinel Express I think.

I haven’t dared to take any photos, mostly because I don’t want to risk having the camera confiscated.

There are paramilitaries here, some of them with huge looking machine guns and dressed in plainclothes and reflective sunglasses. Maybe they’re settlers?

Most of the security / immigration officers here are early twenties, maybe 17-18-19… Regular people just doing their jobs, most of them are probably Israeli Defense Forces doing their two years of mandatory military training. Most of them are women too, many of them extremely attractive, the Eastern European heritage very apparent (i.e. Descendants of WWII immigrants). It’s almost closing time now and getting quieter in here.  Everyone thats still here is waiting for their passport to come back and get cleared for entry. Some of the immigration officers are walking around with walkie talkies and clipboards, and when they’re not busy they stand around just like 19 yr olds do, laughing and talking with each other looking at their mobile phones and probably looking forward to finishing work, hanging out with their friends and going out for drinks.

Youth all over the world, we all think of similar things, across religious lines, ethnic lines, youth everywhere have so much in common (sports, romance, television, parties) it is interesting how some become fanaticised, even the well-educated, the well off, (am thinking of the recent cases of US Somali youth who have fled to join the Islamist rebel cause in their homeland).

I wonder why it happens.

Being here, stuck at the border, probably being scrutinised at this very moment (maybe they are even googling my name and are coming up with, I don’t have a problem with it. It is part of the experience, of learning to appreciate the things that people go through here, on all sides of the conflict. And I don’t want to take sides, I am here to learn and understand, to speak with the people.

Signing out for now…

From no frills hostel to 5 star resort and spa

If you’ve been following, you’ll know I’m in Jordan at the moment. My journey began yesterday in Amman (Jordan’s capital) and before it ends six days from now, I plan to travel to both Israel and Palestine (West Bank).

Coming in from Amman’s airport on the bus yesterday evening, I chatted up a friendly-looking Hashemite University student. We discussed briefly his studies in risk management and his brother who had spent time working in Abu Dhabi. I told him of my plans for a trip to Palestine (omitting any mention of Israel since I am unsure of general sentiment here towards that country). Indeed he told me that he was pleased that I referred to Bethlehem as “Palestine” and told me that he himself was Palestinian (with a Jordanian passport) having been born in Ramallah. He also told me that approximately 35% of Jordan’s population consists of Palestinians (migrants or refugees depending on how you look at it) and another 20% of Iraqis. Egyptians and Syrians are another large chunk too. I find myself wondering generally about the attitudes towards Israel in this country and I wonder if Israelis ever visit Jordan for tourism. Note to self to find out what bilateral trade amounts to Israel – Jordan.

Last night, my hotel (see Last-minute booking in Amman), the Sydney Hostel, was right in the heart of Amman in an unimpressive building with fluorescent lighting at street-level. Climbing a flight of stairs I entered a warm-looking hotel lobby with a friendly (and very gay looking) front desk attendant. A computer with Internet access stood at the ready and two other hotel staff sat in a common area watching television. One of them, the hotel manager, enthusiastically promoted their US$60 tour to the Dead Sea.

Before going to sleep, I did a bit of research on the web and quickly discovered that the Dead Sea beach the hotel was planning to take me to (Amman Tourist Beach) is actually quite dodgy (strewn garbage on the beach, dirty toilet facilities, poorly maintained and inadequate refreshment facilities). Basically – stay away!

A bit annoyed that the hotel would charge 60 bucks and pitch it as great I headed to my room thinking about alternative plans,

Two days in Petra? Tour around Amman? Head straight for Tel Aviv? Or splurge and stay at one of the famous Dead Sea Resorts and spas (i.e. Kempinski, Marriot or Movenpick)? I would sleep on it and decide in the morning.
Unfortunately their rooms left a lot to be desired – I was shown to a simple room with a minimum of furnishings. The bed linen was threadbare and on closer inspection, I found stray hairs on the sheets.

Totally disgusted and ridiculously tired (it was half past 1am at that point), I decided to sleep in the clothes I wore on the plane and use my backpack and a sweater as a pillow to avoid being dependent on the linen to keep me warm (no central heating either). At 4am, I awoke to the sound of traffic whizzing by outside my window and being totally frozen from the Amman early morning cold; I woke up the night manager who gave me a heater which was barely capable of heating up a radius of one square metre around itself.

At 10am, having slept fitfully and still very tired and already needing a break after one night of backpacking in Jordan, I decided to book myself into the 200$ a night five-star Movenpick Dead Sea Resort and Spa complete with pick up in Amman by a hotel car. :)

Generally speaking, my assumption is that, when traveling off the beaten path, cheaper is better IF you want to get to know the locals and get a real sense of a country and its culture. Reason being that you’re forced to do more on your own rather than have a hotel concierge arrange it for you. Breakfast at the shawarma place on the corner, shopping for souvenirs at markets rather than in a hotel gift shop, watching the locals shop for groceries or chat on street corners, etc etc you get the point. :)
But I have foregone that for a day or so. I’ll tell you about my day of so-called “luxury” in my next post. :)

Learning from a Jordanian taxi-driver

So I checked out of the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort and Spa this morning, deciding to head for Tel Aviv, Isra*l via the King Hussein border crossing.

My driver, Amar, another friendly Jordanian, pulls away from the hotel parking lot and we begin talking. He says he leads a simple life and is happy. He asks where I’m from. “Canada”, I say, “but I live in Abu Dhabi”. I’m sometimes shy to admit this, since I’ve lived there two and a half year and speak barely any Arabic. Amar tells me he’s been to Qatar (his cousin lives there) and has visited Kuwait and Dubai as well. He says he doesn’t like it. “Why?”, I ask, “is it because they are not “really Arab”?”. I’d heard this expression from another Jordanian I’ve met here. “No”, he says explaining that he doesn’t care whether they’re Arab or not. “They’re all so fake these countries. It’s all about money and business. I don’t want to worry about those things. I have a good wife, and three kids: Khaled – 11yrs, Youmna – 13 yrs, Massa – 4 maybe 5 years old – this is all I need.” I ask him if he’ll have another. “Maybe”, he says with a laugh, “we’ll see.”

Amar holds a pharmacist diploma but is unable to find a job in his field so he has spent the last eight years working as a driver for Hertz Rent a Car. He says its a “not bad job”. Although he finds it difficult to scrape together the funds to put his children through school he still manages to do it – he understands the value of education. It is really the most critical foundational element for development, for without it, a country’s citizens and industry inevitable become less competitive against other countries.

As we drive through the countryside, stray donkeys wander along the shoulder of the highway, flatbed trucks chug along, piled high with fruits and vegetables from the country’s farms. Tomatoes, lemons, olives, eggplant, this is how the rural communities make a living, irrigating their crops from underground aquifers, and using huge tent-like structures to cover their fields, presumably to protect from the elements and create a greenhouse effect. Jordan is one the most water-scarce countries in the world and of course, water is an integral part of the conflict in the Middle East.

Occasionally I see someone on the side of the road with a herd of sheep or goats or camels. “They’re the rich ones”, Amar explains, ” the ones with the animals can produce milk and meat”. I tell him about the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda and how they were divided up generations ago on the basis of how many cows one had. Those with ten or more were a Tutsi and the rest were Hutu.

He points out gypsy camps in otherwise-empty fields and says they are from Turkey. “They beg and steal and we don’t like them”, he says. “They stay in the countryside during the winter and return to Amman in the summertime.” I see them everywhere….

This is the Jordan I really came to see… and when we finally arrive at the border crossing and discover it is closed for the rest of the day, I am not disappointed to return to Amman and enjoy the opportunity to see the city I missed the first time around…

And here I am now, in Amman’s City Centre eating another delicious beef shawarma meal and wandering the streets..

Thankfully I have a better hotel lined up for this evening… The Firas Palace Hotel at 30 dinars a night and working heating system.
Until next time….

Ethiopia inspires so many different feelings …

This visit to Ethiopia has been absolutely amazing, inspiring, saddening, heart-wrenching and humbling all at the same time. It’s hard to describe these experiences, but I’m going to try my best.  Telling you how I feel about these is even more difficult, I need to reflect before I can try to share those….

So where do I start? The last couple of days here in Addis Ababa have been pretty intense… Our local crew (see this recent blog post) have been showing us around the city, taking us to spots both well-known and off the beaten path.

Yesterday morning we met up with Abraham for a journey to the top of Entoto Mountain.  It started out as a short walk from the Piazza area of town, just in front of Castelli’s Restaurant (which has become our meeting point).  We trotted up Cunningham Street, stopping for a late hamburger brunch at La Coquette, located across from a local cinema and at a major intersection making for great people-watching.  We continued on down the road to an impromptu bus stop, to begin our planned journey to the top of Entoto Mountain.

Ethiopian mini-buses are a common sight on the roads of Addis. Blue side paneling with white roofs, they are converted cargo vans with ten to twelve seats, and a capacity of about 25. The driver will usually decorate the bus with various religious articles, bumper stickers and other assorted paraphernalia. A ride in one of these typically costs between 0.50 and 1.00 Birr (about 5 to 10 cents US). As we boarded, the bus parked in front of it began to reverse and hit our vehicle. The drivers of each bus yelled at each and other this was When Cornelia noticed the Norwegian sticker plastered on the rear windshield which said (in Norwegian) “PLEASE KEEP YOUR DISTANCE”.   Since the buses remained parked about 6 centimetres from each other, we were close enough to get a good photo of the sticker, which will be posted in due course. The bus we boarded was one of six we took that day to complete our journey to the top of Entoto. :)

Along our journey I saw a number of things, all of them interesting, some of them sad, some thought-provoking, and others just typical images of daily life in Ethiopia:

– A barefoot boy of about seven years of age eating discarded fruits out of a rubbish bin on the side of the road

– A woman with no eyes begging for money

– An artist friend of Abe’s dressed Rastafarian-style, showing off photos of his artwork (one of them I am considering buying – a v v cool mirror/painting combination)

– a road built by the Chinese, presumably as part of their bid to extend their sphere of influence to emerging markets in Africa (Ethiopia being one of the few African countries which has natural resources to offer China – Ethiopia’s main exports are coffee, flowers and qat – the last an edible narcotic illegal in the US but legal in the UK).

– elderly women carrying huge loads of dried grass, branches and other underbrush on their backs, hobbling down mountain roads while groups of five or six men lounge on the roadside in the shade)

– panoramic views of the city of Addis from a curving mountain road

– plantations of eucalyptus trees which apparently are water-intense and were introduced by Australians in 1905. The heavily forested mountain-side is now an important source of firewood for the city.

– a long line-up of people sitting on the ground with piles of jerrycans (gasoline cans) around them – they were waiting to fill them up with water at 0.25 Birr for 10 litres (about 2.5 cents US).  That may not seem like much but in a country where those who work, do so for about a dollar or two dollars a day, and many don’t work at all and resort to begging or making money from unstable means (such as working as an independent tour guide), the plight of Ethiopia’s poor begins to dawn on you.  A new friend here who is doing a fellowship with the Ministry of Water told me that NGO estimates are that about 30% of the country is covered by the water distribution network.  The government estimates it at about 50%.  The lack of access to clean water by the local people of course exacerbates the existing problems of disease, poverty, and famine.

On our sixth and final bus change, I got outside of the bus to stretch my legs and began talking to a group of local men in their late teens and early twenties.  One of them introduced himself as Maradona. :) Another, who spoke broken English and had a bright but wary smile, approached me and introduced himself as Samuel.  He told me that they were a group of friends but he was the only one who spoke much English at all.  He recounted how he had learned his English from giving impromptu tour guides to foreigners that he would encounter randomly in the city.  At twenty years old, he had just finished a technical course in baking and confectionery and was looking for work and seeking to expand his skill base.  He seemed like someone with a bright spirit and a good heart, so I introduced him to Abraham who I felt might be a good role model for him.  The two of them immediately hit off, so we invited Samuel along on our journey and began our final ascent to the peak.

Entoto Mountain overlooks the city of Addis and is situated at 3,200m above sea level (Addis itself is at 2,500m above sea level) and is home to the former capital of Ethiopia, Entoto.  Emperor Menelik II and his wife Empress Taytu lived at the top of Entoto over 100 years ago and ruled the country from that naturally defensible location.  It is now the site of a museum and a monastery and the emperor’s former palace.  More recently it has become famous among Ethiopians as the source of a “holy water” which can cure people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  Today there is a small community of sick and disabled people who live atop the mountain.

At the top of the mountain, we visited an HIV-positive boy of 8 years old, who lived in a hut made of branches and mud and covered with a blue tarp to keep out the rain. It had no running water and no electricity and it was a small room about the size of a bathroom.  At least three people lived there, consisting of the boy, his mother, and another woman (who was HIV+).  None of them work and depend on begging to pay the “house rent” of 65 Birr a month (6.5 dollars US) and buy food and water. HIV medication is provided free by a local aid agency. The boy, who was diagnosed with HIV five years ago (it was not clear during our visit how he contracted it) cannot speak apparently due to permanent complications from spinal meningitis. Oe of the consequences of spinal meningitis is deafness.

Meeting the boy and his mother was the objective of our visit to the top of Entoto Mountain. Our other activities while we were up there included a two-hour hike through mountain-top farmland, playing soccer (football) with local schoolchildren, a visit to local artist Wasihun Amake (sp?), a tour of the museum and palace hosting artifacts from Emperor Menelik’s reign.

There’s so much more I could write about… the dinner out at Zebra Grill with Will Davies and Bryn Saxe last night, the nightcap at Harlem Jazz, our visit to the Merkato (one of Africa’s largest markets) today, the time spent with Abraham, Solomon and the newest member of our local crew – Samuel… but will save some of those memories for my next update and others for my grandchildren.  Until next time… :)

The local Ethiopian crew

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog and I’ll mention it again… more and more I find myself becoming a traveler intent on socio-cultural experiences rather than historical, political and geographical ones. Essentially I find my travels are becoming less about visiting touristic sites, or touring the country, or hitting all the “must-see” destinations listed in a travel guide and more about meeting local people, spending time with them, learning a bit of their language, their culture, their thoughts and ideas, and trying to open myself to new perspectives.

A great book I read recently – “Shantaram” – tells the story of an escaped convict who flees to Mumbai, India. On his first day in the city, he meets a local named Prabaker, who offers to guide him around the city, and ultimately becomes one of his closest Indian friends and confidants. This story came to mind after a day spent hanging out with three Ethiopians we’ve come to know through a good friend who has traveled here twice before.

Solomon, Abraham, and Sable are three twenty-something locals and today, they spent the afternoon and evening hosting us in Addis Ababa. It started with Solomon taking us on a walking tour of the Piazza area, which included a visit to the beautiful St George’s Church and Museum (where we learned about the religious history of Ethiopia). Did you know that Ethiopia was one of the earliest Christian countries? It is an immensely religious country and to visit St George’s is a solemn and memorable experience. Ask around for the Arch Deachon Mrabato who can give you a guided tour of the grounds. Personally the 60 minutes I spent with him left me feeling as if I had just gone through a session of intense meditation.

Following our visit to the church, Solomon took us to a local restaurant where we had some delicious pizza and tea. We treated Solomon to a vegetarian spaghetti (he is fasting at the moment and is avoiding meat products – an Orthodox Christian rite) and enjoyed chatting with him and sharing our contrasting ideas (Europe, North America and Africa). He mentioned at one point that he felt that anyone who was not a Christian would by definition consider themselves to be above God and sinless. My thoughts on this is that one need not be religious in order to be able to distinguish right from wrong and good from bad. Ethics and moral values need not be dictated by religion… I wanted to talk about this with him but wasn’t sure how he would react.

Solomon is a friendly fellow, 22 years of age, and about 5′8″ in height. He was wearing baggy blue jeans and an oversized long-sleeved shirt, untucked and looking comfortable. Complimenting his mini twigs (I can’t think of a better name to describe his cool hair style), he has a tough-looking face, with a kind heart and a nice smile, making him someone you’d feel very comfortable having as your guide in a strange city like Addis. To add a bit of colour to this description, Solomon is in his first semester of studying nursing at the local KEA MED college, along with his best friend Abraham. Tomorrow they will take us to visit the school.

Our next stop was the Naremud Cafe, across the street from the Castelli restaurant (one of the more famous restaurants in Addis), where Sable works as a waitress. She is a tiny little woman of 25 years of age with a beautiful, broad smile and a sweet disposition. She speaks only a handful of English words, so we relied on Solomon to translate for us. She will be starting English and French courses in a couple of weeks and is looking forward to broadening her skills so that she can improve her economic position in society….

Abraham joined us at the restaurant after a little while. He is slightly taller than Solomon, with a head of curly hair of which used to be a massive cool-looking ‘fro! (he showed us photographic proof). Abraham is a soft-spoken fellow of 26 years of and hails from a town called Dessie, north of Addis, in the countryside. He shared with us many of his views of life, a number of which I shared and others which I liked so much I have written them down so as to remember them.

After a few macchatos (a type of coffee very popular in the local cafes around town), Cornelia and I were a bit sleepy (and cold as the night-time temperature in Addis at this time of year is about 15 degrees) so we adjourned our get-together and headed back to our new hotel, the Weygoss Guest House, a couple of steps up from where we stayed last night. We agreed to meet with our local Ethiopian crew later on in the evening.

Later on, Abraham and Sable (Solomon had to take a night of studying) they took us to the Addis Ababa restaurant where we tried injera cuisine and honey wine, two local Ethiopian specialties. They taught us Ethiopian phrases and shared stories relating to culture, cuisine and city life. We took photos and shared laughter and smiles. And we promised to meet up again tomorrow for another day of hanging out in Addis.

Does traveling get any better than this?

First Ethiopian experiences

Hello folks, I’m writing to you from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where I’ve decided to spend the UAE National Day / Eid-al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice of the lamb) holidays with my girlfriend.

Due to a fortunate coincidence of the UAE’s 37th birthday on the 2nd of December and the celebration of the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, I ended up with six public holidays with only one working day in between (tomorrow – Thursday). I’ve taken it off and we have booked last minute tickets to Addis Ababa from Dubai with Ethiopian Airlines (total cost for two round-trip tickets US$958, plus the taxi transport to and from Dubai, which is approximately US$130). Tickets were last-minute because the holiday schedule was only announced by the government earlier this week (Monday), 24 hours ahead of time. This generally happens around holidays which follow the Islamic calendar and so are determined by the lunary cycle (such as Eid-al-Adha).

My first impressions of Ethiopia began in the Dubai Int’l Airport before we even boarded the plane. As we approached the check-in counter, we groaned on noticing a long line of colourfully dressed people with half a dozen suitcases, boxes and bags each. After waiting a couple of minutes I noticed that several counters were staffed by Ethiopian Airlines crew but only one had a long line in front of it. We moved lines and were served in less than 15 minutes. And as soon as we changed lines so did everyone else. Strange…. What an arbitrage opportunity!

I happened to notice in line that many passengers-to-be had huge boxes to check in. I couldn’t figure what all of the luggage might be (gifts to take home to the family?) until a fellow sidled up to us in line and slyly slipped around in front as if to take his turn ahead of us. Cornelia (my girlfriend) promptly informed him that we were ahead of him following which he said he’d just been making sure?? He told us that he’d traveled to Dubai on business and was bringing back boxes of mobile phones for resale in Lagos, Nigeria! Who needs free trade agreements huh? I wonder what the markup on the phones has to be to cover his plane ticket, hotel and food in Dubai and the excess baggage charges!!?!?

On boarding the plane, it was fairly orderly, until a gentleman in a pimpin’ shiny light blue suit and rose-coloured sunglasses began shouting at the cabin crew when they informed him he wouldn’t be able to travel to Ethiopia without a visa in place (I believe he was a Congolese national). He made sure that everyone on the plane knew he had a diplomatic passport, while holding up the take-off and insisting that he didn’t deserve to have to spend the night in the Dubai Airport while waiting for a visa…. they finally “off-loaded” him (air travel industry term) and we set off for Ethiopia only 30 min behind schedule. I was surprised though, in all my travels, I have never seen someone become so irate on a plane.

Another surprise was the rap music playing during boarding and during takeoff and ascent. Snoop Doggy Dogg baby…. hahaha. Cornelia and I felt like getting up and dancing in the aisles. :) Very amusing.

We’re now on the ground in Addis Ababa, staying in an ant-infested but otherwise nice and cozy hotel known as the Edsonatra Lodge and Catering Services. THe internet is bloody slow and there is a bar next door playing very loud music (just before some latin style tunes, I can never seem to get away from the latin influence :)) but otherwise we are very happy. We are paying 350 Birr a night (about US$35). The staff here are extremely friendly and except for the ants (and the fact that there is no bathroom en-suite, we are ok with it).

On our way in from the airport, I remarked that in comparison to Rwanda, it felt more secure, safer, somewhat more sedate, despite being a country with a population 10x larger, and a much larger capital city than Rwanda’s Kigali. My impression in those first 10 or 15 minutes was that Rwanda has such a horrible past that it conjures up images in one’s mind and causes one to assume that the people who have suffered such depravity must also be somehow affected in a similar way (though that isn’t the case at all – Rwanda is a fantastic country and has affected me deeply in a way somewhat like Colombia – it really touched my heart). In comparison it is Ethiopia’s reputation for poverty, starvation and disease that dominates my mindset here, not violent crime or war (though it does sit in a rather precarious geopolitical position with Somalia and break-away province Eritrea as its neighbours and had a 30-year civil war).

Other observations is that there appears to be a large Italian influence here, most immediately visible in the form of Italian restaurants and names all over town. But did you know that Ethiopia is the only African state never to have been colonised? There were periods of Italian influence in the late 1890s and 1930s and attempts by Italy to take sovereign control over the country but were never fully successful (there was a brief occupation by Italy in late 1930’s but that’s it).

OK, thats it for tonight. We’re here until the 9th of December. More updates to come.