Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ethiopia: Coffee and Qat–Dispatch 2

Black crowned cranes flexing immense black and white wings in their signature flight style: necks and legs drooping in front and behind; Red cheeked cordon-bleu, a tiny flitting bundle of blue, like a plump madame garishly made up with a patch of rouge on each cheek; Malachite King fisher, a flash of iridescent blue/green diving into a papyrus marsh; the speckled mousebird, with a perky mohawk on its head and long mousey tail feathers; Black-winged lovebirds, faces ablush with carmine, a stripe of black on the outer edge of each green/yellow wing; African Paradise Flycatcher, handsome in bronze and black tuxedo, with a white slash of feathers trailing behind.


Posted in Dispatches, Ethiopia / Djibouti | Tagged | Leave a comment

Ethiopia: Coffee and Qat–Dispatch 1

I had a pedicure on the shores of Lake Kuriftu.  OK, it’s not quite as compelling an opening as “I had a farm at the foot of the Ngong hills.”  But then, I’ve been shuffling around the oil and gas-soaked dirt of local fuel stations, jumping in and out of Brunhilde to check directions, walking the cobble-stoned alleys inside the walls of Harar’s ancient Muslim town, standing bare toes to bare toes with Kalashnikov-toting Afar tribesmen, and walking a sandy hillside tamped rock hard by the splayed pads of thousands of camels.  It’s done a number on my feet. So, a pedicure is layered with infinite meaning to me at this moment.  First though, some tidbits about our trip….

Getting Brunhilde away from Djibouti port turned out to be a one-hour affair.  They know their business there and all paperwork (and possibly palm-greasing) was accomplished ahead of our arrival.

While fueling up in Djibouti town a uniformed officer wandered over, a Land Rover fanatic, of course.  Turns out he’s in the French army, posted to the Djiboutien army to help them with training.  He had his own two Land Rovers parked next door, which we were duly invited to inspect.  Then we all adjourned to our hotel for beer.  The next day he drove with us to Lac Assal, at -139m, the lowest point in Africa. We passed  through landscape of parched low hills, with occasional thorn trees abloom with blue and white plastic bags that billowed in the wind.  And we asked  ourselves “How do people live here?”  Not very well, obviously.

The desert isn’t meant to be a place where you settle down and farm, as evidenced by the sheets of ripped plastic stuck onto sticks that served people as home.  The desert around Djibouti is not a place where anyone is thriving .  That’s why most desert people were nomadic.  Better to remain mobile, so you can move to someplace better when you need to.   Close to the lake the land was  broken by fresh volcanic upthrusts of gray bithumen, while in other places black basalt-like boulders peppered the pale orange sandy hills.  The lake itself is saline, like the Dead Sea, a deep aquamarine which on this day was studded with white caps.  Parking on the sand-colored salt crust shore we walked to the water’s edge where beautiful white salt crystals and grown. From there we watched others float and bob in the waves, made buoyant by the salinity, alternately laughing and yelping in pain as the salt found their scratched mosquito bites or a recent shaving cut.  Returning to Djibouti, we drove by a rough wood corral holding hundreds of lovely tawny young dromedaries.  It’s the local equivalent of a feed lot.  The animals are destined to be shipped to Saudi Arabia, where they will be butchered for meat.

Then it was the day of reckoning.  Would we have to bow, scrape, pay bribes, plead, scold or otherwise humiliate ourselves to be allowed into Ethiopia? Would we even be allowed in at all? We drove through semi-arid desert, a landscape so bereft of anything growing, let alone green, that I had to wonder what a fully-arid desert would look like.   UNICEF has placed blue plastic 50-gallon barrels near the plastic and stick hut settlements, that are filled with water every week. Empty oil drums are used for water as well.  Those who don’t live next to a barrel depot walk for miles to get water for themselves and their livestock; donkeys carry the water in yellow cooking oil containers.  All our worries about the border were for naught. They weren’t interested in us at all. The Djibouti post at Dewelle was a shabby affair with a few sad food stalls.  The Ethiopian side, 200m further, was much larger, boasting a small clinic and a school.  Local women in brightly-patterned skirts and head scarves squatted inside the chain link fence at immigration waiting either to be seen by a nurse or to pick up their child. No one seemed pressed to go anywhere.  In both places, forms were filled and ledgers completed by competent officials who seemed glad to have something different to do for a change.

The 150km to Dire Dawa, our first night’s stop, is washboardy dirt road through harsh desert. But we’re in good spirits because, after all, we are finally in Ethiopia.  We pass camels chewing a mouthful of prickles from the thorny acacia trees, herds of sleek multi-colored tiny goats mixed with black-faced little sheep, more well-fed grey donkeys.  The road is so bad that anything loose in Brunhilde starts clanking and clattering; it’s too noisy and bouncy to talk.

Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second largest city, feels like a meld of African and European, with broad boulevards, shady trees just when you need one, and the whine of auto-rickshaws (imported from India where they know about such things), mingling with the dust of animal hooves, smoke from the small charcoal brasiers everyone uses for cooking and the soulful chant of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.  Men lounge in doorways, a plastic bag of qat close by, slowly chewing and swallowing mouthful after mouthful of tough green leaves.  On arrival I try my first Ethiopian meal, bozeno shire.  As far as I can make out, it is a tomato-based sauce with unidentified bits of meat in it, thickened with chick pea flour. The lumpy result is sploshed over a hard boiled egg which turns a lurid yellow from what’s probably turmeric in the sauce.  I would not say that I gobbled it up, but I found it nicely flavored and satisfying.  Injera, which is the Ethiopian bread, comes with it.  Injera is, for some travelers, an unpleasant necessity, but I like it..  Here’s how to imagine what injera is:  take your average soiled grey kitchen sponge. Slice it in half, so you now have two thin sponges.  Slice it again and soak your 1/8-inch thick sponge until it’s nicely soggy. Now squeeze a little lemon juice on it and eat your sponge.  That’s injera and it’s made in foot-diameter rounds that are rolled up, sliced in half and presented, six to a basket, like fat grey sausages.  Honestly, it’s not bad, but I have yet to eat more than a few inches in one sitting.

In Dire Dawa, Bernard and I are still jetlagged so we get up near dawn the next morning and wander over to a stretch of small stall near our hotel.   Things are just getting going, and there’s that “barely awake” air, of people rolling up sleeping mats, men stretching, goats being tied to a nearby tree where they will stay out of trouble, children dashing about in the fresh morning air.  At the first food stall we see two day laborers, sitting on a low bench, sipping coffee.  I stopped drinking coffee 5 years ago, but this Ethiopia, where coffee is king.  I must have some.  It’s made fresh for us, a clay water pot heated on the brasier, the hot water poured into another pot full of grounds, where it steeps until the thick black brew is poured into small, handle-less china cups.  The laborers scoot over to make room for Bernard on their bench.  The stall owner gives me his short three-legged wood stool, the sort that is so tiny that you basically put the sitting surface up against your butt and then sit down, because if you placed it first on the ground and then squatted, you’d never find it.  I ask for two deep-gold doughnuts that have been freshly fried in a blackened wok-style pan.  The coffee is rich, thick and flavorful, unlike any coffee I’ve had elsewhere.  With a heaping spoon of coarse-grained sugar it packs a jolt that I feel almost immediately; the crisp doughnut that I dunk in it a perfect sop for the intense flavor.  The laborers are brought a plastic plate heaped with sauteed potatoes which are not doing a good job of hiding the fiery green chilies that have been added. A basket of plump white flour rolls is brought over, too.  They tear off chunks of bread with which they swab up potatoes, then push the plate toward us to share.  We do the same as they do, while trying our best to avoid those deadly peppers without seeming too picky.  It’s delicious,

Driving on to Harar, considered by some Muslims to be on a par with Mecca, I start to see what I expect will be a daily sight for me on this trip:  the heavy traffic on the highway.  And it’s not made of cars and trucks.   We are moving higher, into an area where some trees grow and bougainvillea bloom.   There are huts, now, more Zebu/Brahmin cattle with lyre-like horns, bigger herds of goats.  But still plenty of camels, since the desert is close by.  Our highway is the byway for all the people and animals who need to move around the country, whether to get to water, to market, to school, to a friend or home..  There are no crowds as there would be India, just a steady, haphazard mix of people dotting the asphalt.  Women wear  brightly colored long skirts that hug their hips and swirl around their ankles.  Loosely draped over their hair is a long, boldly-patterned head shawl, one end of which is flung with insouciance over a shoulder where it flows down their back and flutters in the breeze. I’m told the fabric is made in Indonesia.  The men are in ragged trousers or a sarong of sorts that’s wound around their waist.  Kids are dressed as kids everywhere, in clothing that allows them to scamper about, play, dash after an errant goat or tug at a lazy cow balking at moving off the road.   The road is full of activity which makes driving an exercise in speeding up, slowing down, stopping and swerving.  All done in silence, because no one here honks.

In Harar I accomplish two things: I feed a wild hyena and I try qat (pronounced like “chat”, or, if you’re French “tchatte”). And perhaps I do the former because I tried the latter.  I can tell you that qat tastes about like you’d expect:  like a bitter green leaf.  I didn’t overdo it, so I cannot say that I got to the level of euphoria.  I did have quite a bit of energy that afternoon, though.  So that evening I was more than willing to kneel by the hyena-feeder, take the match size stick he gave me, hold it in my left hand as instructed, let him drape a strip of raw meat on it and then hold that out for a cluster of 5 hyenas to grab at.   Those hyenas were quite polite, considering they could have crushed my hand with a misplaced bite.  Which I did consider, and therefore held very still when the largest hyena approached within two feet of me and took that bloody bit as politely as a dog.  But I wasn’t at all nervous.  I figure any impolite hyenas, ones foolish enough to disregard what Miss Manners has to say about eating raw meat from people’s hands, have been dispatched without pity long ago.  The hyena feeder’s voice is known by these wild ones, who’ve learned to associate it with food.  He calls to them by name in a loud, hoarse shout.  “Ertika!”  he yells.  “Howah!!”    And they make their way to the Falani Gate of the old city from their den 5-6 km away.  They’re spotted hyenas, their coarse gold fur covered with ragged black splotches.  If it weren’t for their round ears and sloping, slouching walk, and, oh yes, those incredibly powerful jaws, they’d be as cute as any old cur.  These ones, being well-fed,  are big, standing about the height of a German Shepherd.  Two were there when we arrived, shortly after dark; several more came during the feeding, including well-behaved youngsters.  Their eyes glowed green in the headlights of our car.  Once in a while the feeder would take a large bone dripping with fat and gristle, grip it with his teeth, and let the hyena take it from his mouth.  Qat or no, I did not consider this option.

Next day, we walked through the 1500-year old Muslim citadel, a maze of winding narrow cobblestone lanes, some just 3-ft wide, hemmed inside the old stone walls.  We climbed grey stone steps worn smooth by centuries of feet, passing walled housing compounds built of earth and rough field stone, some smoothed over with mud, others painted lime green, turquoise, or white. Alleys empty of all but a calico cat and tousle-haired toddler gave onto busy lanes lined with Oromo women from the countryside, identified by their heavy beaded necklaces, each squatting behind a woven blanket or grass mat, selling small mounds of yellow potatoes, plum tomatoes, red onions, perhaps some black-spotted bananas, russet shallots, miniscule heads of purple-white garlic.  In the spice market were rough burlap sacks bulging with frankincense, with myrrh, with black cumin, giant cardamom pods, with mixes of berberi spices and pale gold chickpea powder buzzing with bees.  On the invitation of a shopkeeper, I licked my pinky, dusted it slightly on a mound of orange spice and put it to the tip of my tongue.  My mouth burned for an hour.   A local sheik invited us through a curtained doorway into his turquoise-painted room.  It was cool inside those thick mud walls, quiet and dark too,  as there were no windows.  A shelf holding books of the Koran took up a quarter of the back wall. The sheik was the neighborhood counselor, mediator and religious leader. A small man with smooth, copper-colored skin and a scraggle of beard, he bade us sit on one of the carpet-covered platforms near him.  He was on the highest one, we sat lower than him.  Of course.  From his platform he looked us over frankly, as if taking our measure.  His eyes were bright and struck me as kind and interested.  With a practiced flick of his hand, he gestured to a woman sitting on the floor and she began making coffee for us. We sipped the scalding black brew sociably for a while, soaking in the aura of ancient spirituality that seemed to permeate those brightly-painted walls.  Then the sheik shared some branches of qat with us;  I took some eagerly and was impressed that even Bernard, who normally doesn’t indulge in things not found in the Larousse Gastronomique, took some.  One does not, after all, refuse the hospitality of a sheik, however modest his empire may be.   We visited with him for half an hour or so. As we were getting ready to leave, he asked if he might take a photo of us.  Sure, we said, and found it fun to be on the opposite end of the camera for a change.  Digging around in his white robe, he pulled out a new iPhone, snapped our picture, and then he told us he Skypes weekly with one of his brothers, who lives in Arkansas.

And now to that pedicure:   our hotel has a lovely spa.  I walk in to the dark, fragrant spa reception, so dark that the receptionist has to bring her face within inches of the reservation book to be able to find my appointment. The place is roofed with a mat of woven reeds that sweeps upward to a point.  I feel like I’m encased inside an Ethiopian basket.  A lovely young woman, her sleek black hair highlighted by a vibrant magenta, double-petaled hibiscus, leads me to her abode and settles me in a proper pedicure chair.   Leaning back, I  feel like two of those goats I’ve been seeing along the road have butted their little horned heads into my back. This is a massage chair, but it’s broken down and the massage knobs are stuck full on.  The  knobs are immovable, poking into my scapula and lumbar spine.  There is nothing for it but try to ignore the annoying extrusions by pretending they’re an acupressure treatment.

My pedicure begins with the requisite soaking, then proceeds as it should to dealing with whatever condition the skin is in.  After a number of minutes vigorously scrubbing  my feet with a bristly brush as coarse as a warthog’s back, my attendant inspects the soles of my feet.  She flops them over and back, as if checking a dead fish before buying it.  She looks at me accusingly and says “Very dry.”  “I know that,” I want to say.  “That’s why I’m here.”  Though in the perverse way that I have when I’m traveling, I was also hoping she might not notice how distressed my feet have become after only a week of going where exposed feet never should.   Bowed, but not beaten, she dunks my feet back in water, now dirty from her scrubbing brush.

Dissatisfied, she finds a different brush, this one a slab of sandpaper on a piece of wood, and digs in.  That brush, too, goes in and out of the water.  She scrubs so hard and so long I am certain by the time this pedicure is over my feet will have been reduced half a shoe size.   Eventually, she slathers an abrasive cream on my feet and lets them steep in what I assume is a softening emollient unguent, while she gets me a cup of lemon tea.  Sipping my lemony brew,  I peek at my feet.  They impress me.  They’re pretty darn clean already. Sadly, instead of telling me I’m done, she  plunks them back into the soiled water.  As a finishing touch, she then shakes all the dead skin filings that have collected on her towel, into the water as well.  From the spa sound system comes the soothing voice of an American soul singer, crooning “Take me to the mountain top.  Love me till my heart stops.”

All this seems long ago already. I write you from Debre Zeit, an hour’s drive east of Addis.  I hope we will have some dull days in the future, or else I will not be able to keep up with all there is to recount.   And I haven’t even told you about the five hundred camels with their young, brought to the marsh’s edge to drink and bathe by those Afars with the Kalashnikovs; of the rumbling growl a camel makes when happy, or how they roll in the sand like horses, to scratch their sides and clean their hair; of the young camel, a portion of whose hump had been chomped by a hyena (obviously not from Harar); of the torrential downpour we drove into on the way from the southern edge of the Danakil to Kombolcha, and how Bernard carefully guided Brunhilde through a rushing muddy river which I am sure would have been too high to cross had we arrived some hours later; nor even of the landscape in the Ethiopian foothills north of Addis, where square, caramel-colored huts are crowned with an inverted cone of bittersweet chocolate thatch, and how scattered around them lay golden piles of hay like giant freshly baked corn muffins.

Posted in Dispatches, Ethiopia / Djibouti | Tagged | Leave a comment