Monthly Archives: October 2010

thoughts: addis at night

I’m riding in the backseat, trying to stifle my laughter. As a foreigner I’m sure I already come across oddly enough. I’d hate to have to explain why I’m laughing at nothing. But I can’t stop thinking, “How did my life get to the point where I’m about to go clubbing in Addis Ababa?”

Because surely clubbing in Addis Ababa are words I never thought would cross my mouth or my mind.

But here I am giggling at the prospect of a night out on the town. A town so very different than any I’ve ever experienced.

Tafe, my friend and the driver, points out parked cars. His friend is in the passenger seat. He explains that in Addis at night people first drink coffee in their cars and then move on to alcohol. I check my seatbelt.

When Tafe picked me up I thought we were simply going out for coffee. I’m wearing the only kind of clothes I brought for this trip: jeans, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt. My tennis shoes are covered in a layer of dry, dusty dirt. Even if I’d known the plan, I would have had no other options.

We still start with coffee. And fasting (AKA vegan) cookies. We are joined by three of Tafe’s friends. I seek information from all of them. How has the country changed since their childhood? What is their impression of the poverty? What do they think of NGOs? Where does real change need to come from?

We close the coffee shop down. They are turning off the lights as we leave. Tafe and his friends discuss our next stop in Amharic. I don’t bother asking where we’re off to.

I move to the front seat, and I now have a better view of Addis at night. We make our way down roads both dirt and paved. The street lights are not on tonight. Apparently a transformer is down. Has been for weeks. We come around the corner, and a dog is illuminated by the headlights. We swerve accordingly.

“Hey Tafe! I don’t flinch anymore when you almost hit dogs!” I say.

We have come within inches of many animals in the past two weeks.

Ahead a large, illuminated structure stands out among the low profile of surrounding buildings and shacks.

“Welcome to America,” he says as we cross the high security gates of the Sheraton Hotel.

We walk through the manicured gardens in the parking lot. Luxury cars are parked near the entrance. Metal detectors and x-ray machines separate the lobby from the outside. I’m in a state of shock as I gaze at my surroundings.

I think, “What the (fill in the blank) is going on?”

Because this hotel is a palace. Opulent beyond belief. Luxurious and excessive. As we make our way to the bar, he says to me, “You look like you’re not here.” And I’m not. I can’t wrap my mind around it. This great divide. From the streets to the Sheraton.

The bar is filled with both locals and foreigners. A worldly mix. Live music, an eclectic selection of American pop songs, directs everyone’s attention to the stage. Still in a fog, two men push past me, shouting their conversation.

“You gotta meet this guy. He’s a fucking high roller in Addis.”

I want to shake him and say, “You’re amped about a high roller in Addis? Have you seen the world outside these gates?!”

Eventually I settle in. We drink South African wine and laugh at the music selection. I stand out in my casual attire, but I don’t care.

When the music ends, we leave the Sheraton and head to a place that is much more my speed. A jazz club. Less than 10 minutes from the hotel, but a world away. A winding staircase leads us underground. Music fills the space. Jazz with an Ethiopian flare.

We stand at the bar, and I feel at ease. The bartender tries to teach me how to use my shoulders to move to the music. He laughs at me. Whether it’s because my interpretation is good or bad, I don’t know. But I laugh, too.

I meet about two dozen people who Tafe calls “my best friend!” It seems in Addis everyone knows everyone. When I ask how it is that everyone is his best friend, he replies, “I’m Ethiopian!”

That seems to be the answer to a lot of things.

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photo: lake hawassa

almost every day I eagerly upload photos and videos from my SD card to my computer. and almost every day I find myself thinking that the photos look so small. so small compared to the live, in-person view. looking at the fixed view of a photo, I wish it could be stretched from side to side and up and down. it is nearly impossible to capture the vast and expansive nature of this country. but I’ll keep trying.

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photo: sabana

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thoughts: snapshots of contrast

We drive to a village on a dirt road, until that road becomes grass, typically only touched by the feet of people and livestock.  Power lines run along the horizon.  But they are not accessed here.  Not in these homes.

The homes and the setting are so beautiful that it would be easy to mistake this as an idyllic existence.  A child asks the obvious questions, like “where are their beds?”  How odd to leave this place in an expensive, foreign SUV.

I hear Coldplay in a small grocery market filled with fluorescent lights and Western-influenced foods.  We search for soy milk.  But sometimes the whole country just runs out of things.  Regardless, I fill a bag for the equivalent of 10 U.S. dollars.

Outside I am confronted by beggars, some crippled by polio.  Some speak in English phrases, such as “I’m hungry,” and others simply put out their hands.

I feel like a guilty suspect as I say no, with food in my hands and a car waiting.

While shopping for souvenirs I am approached by children selling gum and asking to shine my shoes.  My canvas shoes.  But at least I have shoes.  They do not.

I write this blog post while eating shiro and injera.  A rerun of Oprah plays with Amharic subtitles in the background.  Outside the howls of dogs and hyenas are indistinguishable to my ears.  Down the block a guard sits wrapped in blankets and scarves, opening the gate for entering cars.

Sometimes the cries of children at nearby care centers are audible.  Maybe they’re scared.  They’ve all made long journeys here, and this is only a pitstop.

Oprah ends, and she plugs her “No Phone Zone” pledge.  I smile.  Because here speed limits are not enforced, any side of the road is fair game, and cows frequently plant themselves in the middle of a street.  Cell phones seem to be the least important traffic safety issue.

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photo: light

on wednesday we drove from addis to hawassa, and since then we’ve been visiting other nearby villages. it is so stunning here that everything you see is worthy of a photograph. I’ve almost filled a 16 GB memory card with photos and videos since we’ve been here.

today and yesterday were something that I don’t have a word for. I found myself saying that this is messing me up in the best way possible. because I can’t un-see what I’ve seen. and I wouldn’t want to.

today I met many people who have very little. and they were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. it left me wondering why many people where I come from have so much, but are miserable.

the very little and so much I refer to are material possessions. I’m sure this speaks volumes about my culture, in which belongings are typically tangible ones. but in writing this I’m realizing what the people I met today have. a warm community. deeply rooted traditions. beautiful surroundings.

(let me apologize here if I’m sounding like an after school special. it has been an emotional day.)

this is not to say that their situation is ideal. the severity of poverty in this country is difficult to comprehend. but it makes me think that sometimes the more space our material things take up, the less space we have to honor our most important assets.

as I snapped photos, I flipped my camera around to display the latest shot. this was the first time many of the locals had seen a photo of themselves. they laughed at the photos in excitement. despite the apparent lack of “have,” there was so much joy. so much light.

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thoughts: here

just a quick note to say I arrived here safe and sound.  it is overwhelming.  happy.  sad.  beautiful.  unimaginable.  thrilling.  exhausting.  surreal.  unreal.

I’ve actually been writing blog entries in a document every night, trying to remember all these feelings.  but in the interest of the privacy of the family I’m traveling with, I’m not sure what I’ll share yet.  and despite all the words I’ve typed, I feel that I will never be able to do justice to this experience.  not through words, photos, or videos.  only through my own eyes.

mostly only people that I know read this, so I can confidently say that I miss you.  sometimes I feel a world away, and sometimes the world feels very flat.  every day as I walk around and every night as I fall asleep I think, “I’m in Africa.”

more soon.

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photo: minnesota love

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