Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Search of Bathing Suit

It's become second nature to shop on line.  Though I love supporting local retailers for hand made gifts, I hate the trek to the mall, dealing with crowds, parking etc. for something like clothes shopping.  The idea of going out on black Friday makes me cringe.  I have a few sites I go to regularly, but I came across a new program that Groupon is doing. Groupon Coupons.  I used to check websites like "retailmenot" when I thought I'd found a bargain to see if there was a coupon, but this is just as easy to use, but a bit more helpful when looking for specific bargains.  The best part was knowing that I wouldn't go through a slew of expired deals before finding one that worked.  

In search of a bathing suit for our upcoming Bali trip, I thought I'd see what I could find.  I have actually checked out a few local stores and was not really too surprised that you can't find a bathing suit in stock this time of year.  I was pleased to see that many of my favorite stores have coupons with groupon- Macy's, Nordstrom, Kohl's, and even Land's End! You can see the favorites listed at the bottom of the Groupon page, but definitely do a search if you have a store in mind.  Most large retailers are there.

Once I found Land's End, I checked out the list of deals and clicked on the best coupon for me.  It copied a code that I could use at checkout and took me directly to the Land's End website.  There was a slight glitch on this particular one.  You have to copy it, but it had a word and a pin, so I ended up going back to the original link to find out what to put where.  Anyway, I found a bathing suit and saved $30.  Not a bad deal.

I might also mention that it's not just clothing here- you can buy almost anything.  I saw vacations, electronics, food, and a lot more.  Most do require ordering online. Check it out to see how you can save some money. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans Day

Basic Training photo

Veterans Day is fast becoming my favorite holiday.  I love the attention the nation gives to veterans, which is quite different today than from the Vietnam era.  I'm proud to be a veteran, though I don't feel I have done anything significant.  I think most of my military friends feel the same way.  It's a quiet profession.  Few civilians actually know what it is you do.  Nevertheless, we did a job for little pay for many years, and it's great to feel appreciated.

I served in the US Air Force.  I joined during my senior year of high school and graduated early.  I could have gone to college on a scholarship, but I had plans to see the world!  I spent 6 weeks at basic training in very hot summery Texas, then 8 more weeks at Denver.  My first posting was to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.  I found it on a road atlas.  Then I cried.  Tumbleweed and desert for miles.  My job was chosen based on aptitude.  I had done really well on the entry exam, so I was told I could choose any job, but a wise recruiter (much wiser than me) suggested I go into electronics where I had a minimal score to get into the field.  I'd get a bonus, and I'm pretty sure he did too.  There weren't many women in that field.  I found out I'd be working on F-111 aircraft.  I had never been interested in electronics or aircraft, but I've always approached life with a certain curiosity, as I did with this endeavor.  This was 1980 and women working in "men's jobs" were few.  I learned that we wouldn't have to wear skirts and blue uniforms that women just a few years earlier had been forced to wear.  We could wear the same green fatigues that the men wore. I was now just one of the guys.

Nothing can really prepare a young woman for what happens when you join a force of mostly men. First there's so much attention.  Then you become one of the guys.  Once you're considered a sister, nothing is off limits- farting, belching, lewd stories. I heard it all.  Some of those "brothers" are still good friends today. I did eventually see quite a bit of the world while in uniform.  Both of my kids were born in military hospitals where I paid only for my meals.  Everything else was covered. My college education was mostly free. It was a good deal.

I went on to have a 21 year career- most of it active duty, but I retired as an officer with the Air Force reserve in 2001.  I met a lot of great people.  Some of them died doing what they signed up to do.  A few committed suicide.  Many are growing old,  still full of great stories about the past...which tend to get a little more embellished each year. Divorce is very common.  Of all the military couples I know, just a handful are still married to the first spouse.  I'm no exception.  The sacrifices are great.  There were a couple years where I saw my husband for 3 months.  It's not an easy life, and that's why it's refreshing to see so much community support now.  We needed it.  They still need it.

This morning I attended the annual Veterans Day service at the local Veterans Hospital.  It's always a moving occasion.  This year was no exception.  The speaker had been a refuge from Sri Lanka and went on to join the service, become an American citizen, and now works at the Veterans Hospital.  He said in spite of America having its problems, it is still the greatest place on earth, in his opinion.  That's good to hear.  Sometimes I think we all get stuck in the political rhetoric and forget that there's  a lot of good stuff going on here.
Roshandran Mahendran- guest speaker from the VA, but originally from Sri Lanka
The color guard from the American Legion was amazing, in spite of all of them being 70+ years old...and those are the youngest men.  I do wonder if young veterans will ever fill their shoes.  It has always been an old person's organization in my mind.   They not only posted the flags, but they did a 21 gun salute (which is actually 7 guys doing 3 shots of the gun each) and played taps to honor the dead.

There was a cute little boy who led the pledge of allegiance.  That took some courage!  He did a great job! The band was also rousing and fun.  They played the typical band marches one considers patriotic, as well as the service anthems from each branch while members of that branch stood up for applause and recognition.  There's something about those military bonds that are never severed.  You always feel like family.  Everyone who spoke today talked about it.

After the ceremony, I drove over to Wood Cemetery on the VA grounds.  It's always a good reminder about the sacrifices made in the name of service to our country.   I like to walk the grounds and read the headstones and thank them for their sacrifices.

I spent the day feeling appreciated.  Starbucks gave me a free coffee.  Applebee's bought me lunch.  The Harley Davidson Museum invited me in for a free admission.  Dinner is on California Pizza Kitchen.  How lucky am I to have so much given to me?!  Happy Veteran's Day to all who have served!
Starbucks had free coffee

The military sidecar was popular during WWII

One of the military bikes at the HD Museum

They have this photo machine that takes your very own "deer in the headlights" photo

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit to the United Nations

I've always been interested in visiting the United Nations.  It was my idea of a "dream job" when I was a kid.  I thought it would be great to be able to meet people from all over the world just by going to work each day.  I never got that job, but I finally got to visit the building.

We arrived about 1130 AM on a Monday and the line was nearly a block long to get into the gate.  I was glad I'd made a lunch reservation on-line, and took out my ticket to check instructions before we got into the long line.  Turns out if they are expecting you for lunch, you give your name to the security people at the head of the line and they make a phone call.  We were in about five minutes later, though we still had the mandatory bag check and security stop that everyone goes through. Our reservation was for noon.

Once you're inside, you present a form of identification in exchange for a badge.  If you have a passport, bring that, even if you're an American and you don't expect to leave the country.  The United Nations has an office in the basement where you can get a special stamp for your passport because technically it is international soil. How cool is that?!  We had our badges and a personal escort who took us to the Delegates Dining Room upstairs. You can read about making a reservation at their website.  You won't pay in advance, so bring a charge card or cash to pay for your lunch.  It's a flat fee of $34.99 per person for a buffet with three courses of international cuisine.  Your drinks are extra. You must wear business attire or you won't be allowed.  This is the space where visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and tourists meet to enjoy a meal prepared by some of the best chefs in New York...maybe even the world! Our lunch that day consisted of foods prepared from six different countries.  The escort said the menu is never repeated.
The place you swap your ID for a visitor badge
A waiter brought us drinks and a bread basket which was filled to the brim with a variety of tasty breads and crackers.  The white breads were fluffy.  The dark breads were dense with flavor, and the baked crackers with browned cheese were simply amazing. Be sure to go hungry!  First we tackled the table of salads.  There were selections of veggies, greens, pickles, fish, cheese, beans, and fruits. Omar is a picky eater and only 10 years old so he skipped this table completely.  He wasn't much happier with the table of main course items because there was no pizza or plain pasta.  I, on the other hand, was excited to try roasted lamb, eggplant dishes, kebabs, potatoes cooked a variety of ways. Not only were the foods cooked to perfection, but they included sauces which kicked it up a notch.  The ultimate destination though was the dessert table.  Actually Omar ate only bread and desserts and somehow lived through the experience.  Cheesecake, truffles, pecan pie, OH MY!  This was a great deal for the price.  I would recommend it to anyone with an appetite.  The views from the dining room were pretty nice.  Be sure to check out the toilets too- the toilet paper is readable!  Whoever thought you'd get a lesson in economics, better health, etc. from reading a toilet paper roll?  Great call!

After our lunch we had about a half hour before our tour so the dining room cashier called us an escort who showed us to the gift shop, where they had a mini replica of the United Nations done in Lego bricks!  Omar found a really nice travel coffee mug for his teacher, but the selection is good with toys and books too.  You can buy a tour on the day you visit, but it's easier to buy on-line so you are sure to get in.  Children are half price, but no one under the age of 5.
All done in Legos

We joined a tour with about 15 people.  There were 3 tours at the same time in various languages.  We had to strictly follow the guide.  The artwork in the building was really interesting, but the rooms were equally as nice.  We saw three of the meeting rooms and Omar tried out one of the earpieces, used to translate the meetings to a different language.  Of course, there was no meeting at the time so there was no talking- just white noise.  Most of the displays focus on the international mission of peace.  I didn't realize that anyone representing the military for the UN just wears their own uniform. There isn't a special military force just for the UN.  There are 193 member states and the organization is 70 years old this year, formed just after WWII to prevent all future wars.  You can read all about it at this link for the United Nations. The tour took just about one hour, and then we were free to visit the public areas and walk the grounds outdoors.
Our tour guide with a selection of landmines

Omar trying out the translating listening device

One of the assembly rooms

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Would I do this all over again? Are we still together?

Often I get messages from people thinking about marrying Muslim/Christian and they want to know if we are still together and are we happy.  Did it all work out? Back in 2003 when we had the Islamic marriage ceremony, I was so naive.  I had no idea what lay ahead.  The family struggles. The conflicts because of being raised on different continents- even the foods we eat are so different. The class differences because he was raised as a privileged kid with a house full of staff, while I was poor with a single parent home where my mom always worked 2 jobs. Though I no longer practice a specific religion, he's incredibly disciplined and prays 5 times a day, which sometimes causes me to lose patience because we are always leaving something in a hurry so he can get back to the house where he prefers to pray. I still hate ramadan, or at least the inconvenience of what it does to our family for a month, which I admit is rather selfish on my part.  Then throw in our differences like race, language, social norms...and the list goes on...and on.

I won't say it's ever been easy.  It's been more of an adventure.  I still work on trying to see things through his viewpoint, but rarely do I feel he does the same.  I have to be twice as accepting because he is rigid.  When I married him, I gave up my familiar home, moved to Milwaukee, quit working and had a baby.  He then had a domestic partner who would take care of all his family needs so he could concentrate on growing his passion- an engineering business. He gives me an allowance nearly equal to what I was making when I was working, if you consider he pays the bills and lets me live here for free.  I wasn't on the fast track to being a CEO but I always had jobs I loved.  I had been a military officer. I managed programs at the Dept. of Transportation and had fun doing it. I often feel bitterness well up because of what I may not have, when I should be concentrating on the blessings I do have.  It's crazy in this age, that we still have division of the sexes.  Women still don't get the same things as men.  I will never know what I might have achieved, but he's convinced what I have now is nirvana.

He created this wonderful, mostly successful business, but I am not entitled to claim any portion of that success.  It's hard to explain this, but when he wanted to create a will, he asked me to sign away my Wisconsin rights to marital property (the business and home), because he believed the Koran should take precedent and I should be allowed 1/16th of his property, and he believes that everything we have is 100% his, not 50/50.  Even the lawyer who met with me on his behalf was taken aback, yet according to Muslim rules, my husband felt I was being unreasonable.  Recently we had a discussion about debts.  I acquired a lion's share of debt, thinking that I would one day return to the workforce, and it still hasn't happened.  He said he would pay it if I would agree to give up my rights to the business and home as marital property. I wouldn't so he didn't. Neither of us see the other viewpoint as being fair to our own way of thinking.  We've talked about divorce dozens of times and I almost went through with it, but quit after spending $10,000 in legal fees, because I still felt there was something in our relationship. Anyone who has been through divorce knows how much pain and bitterness is there.  It's very hard to forgive and move forward.  Someone once told me divorce is about selfishness and I believe it is.  There comes a time where you just want to call the shots, have it your own way, go it alone.

It's both enlightening and antagonizing when you pair up with someone who is so very different.  If I had to give us animal selves, I'd say he was more like a hardworking, incredibly focused earthworm, and I'm a butterfly.  He keeps his nose to the ground creating highways and bridges.  I'm floating about meeting people, experiencing art, music, culture, and creating things. We are so incredibly different that sometimes I don't understand why he worked so hard to capture my attention.  We were never meant to be together. Given our own devices, we should never have met. He enjoys sports while I never watch a game.  I enjoy writing and he rarely reads a book (and has
never read my books!). He unwinds with TV.  I go for a walk in the park or do some gardening. But we both love our 10 year old son and that brings us together for common good now that we are together.

Where will the future take us?  Who knows? For the time being, we are still together and still struggling to find our place in the sun.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How Travel to Africa Changed Me

Children near the Kibera slum at Nairobi

I've done a lot of traveling in my life.  From humble beginnings in a Chicago suburb to being an exchange student in Denmark, to an Air Force Career, and then marrying a man born on another continent.  It has served me well. When we planned trips in the past, I always tried to make the most of every day.  Find adventures.  Meet people.  Share stories.

The thing about travel is that you tend to lose your innocence at some point.  That's usually a good thing.  The more you travel, the more your mind is open to new experiences.  You lose ignorance, idealism, misconceptions and gain an understanding about your fellow man.  When you travel, you consider other people and their contributions to the world.  You feel a responsibility to the global community.   I have found that the more I venture into new situations, the more my heart and mind are open.  I've become more curious about the world around me.  I have more compassion.  I appreciate what I experience and know I have more to learn.  I've realized I really don't know much.

I remember a few years ago we visited Uganda.  I'd ride in a nice car through the shacks on dirt roads watching road construction being done by men with shovels, but sleep in a gated luxury hotel where we had a huge buffet waiting for us every morning. Or we'd visited schools in South Africa where the kids walked for miles without shoes, feeling it was important to get there because it was the only meal they'd eat all day.  They were being raised by an older sibling, who was maybe 12, because their parents were dead from AIDS. There were women sleeping on sidewalks with babies crawling towards traffic.

I've been face to face with poverty. Heard horrendous stories about escaping war.  Lived in some shabby places.  I always felt I was on the outside looking in.  I wasn't feeling a part of it.  I did as the tour books advise and walked past the beggars.  I could sleep at night dreaming about the comforts of my own home, knowing I'd return to my own life, pretty much unchanged.  Most of the time, we sleep in some pretty nice hotels with all the comforts of home. And in many cases, the hotels are better than we have at home.  Going to Ethiopia this summer was a life changer for me though.  We lived in a neighborhood where we saw how real people lived.  I experienced life as they live it.  I lived with people who had escaped war in Somalia with just their lives.  They lost loved ones and all their material possessions. Somehow they felt blessed and were moving on in life.  Omar befriended the gate guard for a gated community who was living in the small guard shack with no blanket.  He didn't even have shoes that fit.  It's a tough existence.
Omar with the gate guard and one of the local boys

We visited the mountain top village of Lalibela where we spent a day with a local man meeting people and just seeing how they lived.  It was like going back 600 years.  The ancient rock hewn churches were still being used by priests today. The people lived in huts made of sticks and manure.  Donkeys and goats shared the streets with tuktuks. Women carried large bundles of firewood on their backs.  Men shined shoes and carried the luggage of tourists.  Life was very simple.
Desale, our tour guide in Lalibela

I did something different this time.  I made connections.  These people I met at Lalibela came home with me in spirit.  I remembered their stories.  The internet has made it easy for us to write to each other every day.  Our lives are enmeshed now.  I know about the struggle to find food.  I know how the weather affects what they do.  I hear first hand how their poverty affects choices for education and future jobs.  I hear about how they lost family to massacres and drought. And I have to act.  I can't sleep if I don't do something.  Now it's on a personal level.  I realize I can't fix the entire world, so I have chosen just a few and do what I can to help them, but they are helping me too.  Having a real friend who treats you like a mother or sister on the other side of the world is so enriching.

There are two guys I hear from nearly every day.  Eyayaw is a student at an elementary school who lives with a friend, like himself.  They came to the village to attend school but they are from very rural homes.  His choice would be to continue school but his family wants him to come home and take care of the farm. His needs are few, so I can help him by myself.
Eyayaw, the student who calls me mother

The other is a young man Desale - our tour guide.  Omar loved him.  He was like a son to me immediately. I want them both to see success in their lives, so I help them when I can.  I started a Crowdrise account to raise money for a used vehicle for Desale.  He is an excellent tour guide but needs a vehicle so he can take tourists outside of the village and earn a living for himself and the village orphans.  Desale's name means 'happy' so his new travel agency would be called Happy Day Travel.  I hope if you've read this far, you'll click on the Crowdrise account and add your donation to the fund.  Every little bit helps.

I find now that all the stuff I have means nothing.  I want to live more simply.  So much of what we do in the first world is superfluous.  I want to live more authentically.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

So You Want to go to Africa? Packing and Travel Tips

So you want to take a trip to Africa?  Africa is a large continent- much larger than most people realize.  But since there are similarities among developing nations in Africa, I've lumped them together for simplicity as you pack your bags.

You will need to check weather for your destination to determine clothing needs.  Remember seasons may be flip flopped according to proximity to the equator and in spite of what we see in TV, it isn't hot there all the time. We went to Ethiopia during their summer and it was cool and rainy every day. Someone on another blog said I should bring rubber boots, so I did.  I never wore them.  Everyone was wearing sandals, so I did too.  That blogger was pretty wise as it turned out.  I had to have an industrial size pedicure towards the end of my stay because the bacteria from the mud/manure/rainwater mess had come through the soles of my feet and created cracks.The lady who did it used something like a brick of lava stone.  I've only seen them that large in construction projects!  She said there are lots of feet problems related to bacteria in the soil in Ethiopia and Sudan. Keep that in mind when you choose your shoes.  After that I put on sock and shoes every day.  Lesson learned.

You probably need fewer items than you prefer to pack.  You can wear your clothing for several days if you don't get too dusty or dirty.  I took way more than I needed.  I could have gotten by with 3 complete outfits.

windbreaker/waterproof jacket
wool jacket or sweater
comfortable walking shoes
headscarf for ladies if traveling to Muslim countries
undergarments- you can wash these daily in the sink so microfiber is preferable to cotton
shirts that are easy to wash
maxi skirt for women
pants - you're better off leaving shorts at home. People tend to dress modestly and if you're hiking, there are plenty of ants, centipedes, snakes, etc. that will have access to your legs so better to cover.  lightweight fabrics are easier to dry than jeans.
microfiber towel- takes up less space and dries well

laundry bag, clothesline, and laundry soap.  I brought washer sheets only to discover that no one where we went used a washing machine.  All laundry was washed by hand.  You will not need dryer sheets for the dryer (because there aren't any dryers), though I have seen it on so many packing lists just to keep your clothing fresh in the suitcases.  If you stay at a hotel, most will have a same day or next day laundry service. Sometimes we used it but usually I just washed in the sink and hung in the bathroom or on the patio to dry.

A medicine bag with a minimum of Benadryl, alleve, cipro, and band-aids. Actually that liquid bandage stuff was a good idea, if I had just remembered to take it.  I took essential oils also- peppermint, lavender, and tea tree oil which worked for burns, bug bites, upset stomach. A good probiotic and daily vitamin are helpful too. We still ended up with tummy problems, but I think it made it easier to get over.

Bug repellent- I found that the skin so soft from Avon worked well and it wasn't so unpleasant we could put it on at bedtime when the majority of bugs were biting. They have moistened towelettes in individual packets, which was very convenient.

Sunscreen, lip balm, cetaphil soap, tea tree oil shampoo (great deterrent for lice- I know that now because I did get lice and I wasn't using tea tree oil in my shampoo), toothbrush & toothpaste, wipes (these are good to have at all times because running clean water is often not available when you need it).  Don't ever use your toothbrush under tap water.  I forgot once and it was all it took to give me diarrhea for a couple days.  Use bottled water for everything.

Pen & paper/journal- you will want to write down something.  I was surprised that I filled nearly an entire journal over the summer. We used paper to share our email addresses with those we met too.

Travel guides.  I had downloaded trip advisor's city guides for Addis Ababa and Nairobi in my phone too, but so many times there just wasn't Wifi access or electricity so we used the paper copies more often.  I often took screenshots of the maps in the paper books and used those to get around the city. Screenshots are helpful when there's a language barrier to ask people how to get somewhere, and can help you remember hotel names, street names, landmarks, etc.

Passport, Yellow Fever/Immunization Record.  Take photos of these and keep them in your phone or camera if possible.

Phone, camera with an extra battery and cards, chargers, adaptors, and a flashlight.  I needed a charger for my camera battery and figured I could just find it in Kenya.  I did, but I paid dearly.  It was $60 for an item I could have gotten at Amazon for $10.  Most chargers are available with dual voltage so check before you go.  We used the flashlight nearly every day.  There were many power outages.


Credit cards with a chip.  Know the code before you go.  Take more than one and just leave American Express at home.  Nobody we saw wanted to take it due to the fees.  When you pay by credit card they will charge a fee on top of the purchase.  Even though I had 2 credit cards and a debit card, it was good to have choices because some ATMs and stores only use a certain bank.  Most of the time, cash is preferred.  Especially if you're going into a rural area, you will need to have cash in the country's currency, though we were able to use American dollars in a pinch.

Snacks- I took Clif bars, gum and mints.  They were handy when we were traveling or thought the food was questionable.

When you consider what bag to pack, just remember that roller bags may not be as easy to use depending on your destination.  Sidewalks were pretty much nonexistent in Ethiopia.  Pack light enough that you can easily carry your bag a few blocks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Africa's Largest Market at Addis Ababa

The merkato is something not to be missed, though after being there, I think it's much more for locals than for tourists.  You can find anything.  My husband went there in search of a camera battery.  The locals shop for their daily food.  It covers miles and employs thousands of people.  Anywhere there's an empty spot on the pavement, you'll find a vendor hawking something.  And it doesn't seem to matter that there are dozens of the same identical products just beside a vendor. You would think they could co-op and have some time off while making more money, but who am I to question a market that has been doing this for decades?
a lady mixing spices

and right beside her is another woman with the same ingredients

It is loosely divided into sectors of goods, though it is sprawling.  I was in search of coffee and sticks used to clean your teeth in Africa.  My husband grew up with them and in spite of using an electronic toothbrush, he believes they do a great job of whitening and removing plaque.  He asked the wife of his business partner to take me there so we had a ladies morning out. We found coffee almost immediately, but what I hadn't counted on was that the beans are not roasted.  They are divided by regions so you know the type of coffee you're getting.  Ethiopia is the home of coffee, and they export huge quantities.  This coffee is more what the locals buy to roast and prepare in their home and for coffee ceremonies.  Rather than try to roast at home, I ended up buying a few roasted, ground bags at our hotel.
coffee beans
It would be fun to walk around unnoticed at the market, but it's impossible when you're a white person.  I stood out and it made it difficult to enjoy just looking.  Everyone wants to sell you something and they are persistent.  If you find something you want to purchase, you're expected to barter.  I'm not good at that so it was nice to have a companion willing to translate and get the best prices.  We found some great looking spices and a multitude of other goods.
a variety of spices used in preparing meat and vegetables

baskets used for injeera

Industrial sized pots
Though this market is every day, there are some markets that only happen weekly.  Once you do your purchasing, it's a daunting task to get your stuff home with you in a country where few people own vehicles.  There were donkeys, scooters, taxis, and sometimes just ingenuity and a strong head.
heavy bundles on neck and head

strapping goods on the taxi roof

I was wondering how heavy those would be if they were full
If you want fresh meat, you visit a butcher who will cut the piece of meat you need and put it in a small plastic bag.  If he doesn't have what you need, he finds the goat, chicken, or whatever and kills it to order.
I eventually found the sticks my husband had requested.  You could get a handful for about $1, but there were so many choices.  What type of wood?  Any particular cut?  It was all here on trays like a cigar vendor brought to your car window. My friend picked out what she thought would be good and paid cash.
Though much of this market is still in open air stalls, the government is fast replacing this area with buildings and regulation.  Maybe it's for the better good, but it will be sad to lose the character of the place.  If you decide to go, bring cash and plan on several hours to see a big chunk of it. I doubt anyone sees it all in one day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Addis Ababa with Kids

When my husband announced we'd be spending up to a month in Ethiopia, I was a bit taken aback.  There isn't a lot of information about traveling with kids there and we were going to be living in a family home- not a hotel.  The Somali Ambassador's family was generous in allowing us to stay in their Addis Ababa home, in spite of the parents being gone for the duration.  They left behind a staff of three, a driver, and a few family members- including two boys close to my son Omar's age.  Other than the two boys, they spoke very little English.  My husband was traveling nearly every day for meetings related to his work, so we saw little of him.  It was a culture shock. It rained every day.  The power would go out for hours at a time, but never with predictability. There were mosquitoes that would bite us every night if we didn't slather on repellent. The water was not safe to drink or even use for toothbrushes.  The family was fasting so they would eat breakfast at 5 and not eat again until late in the evening. I was glad I'd taken 2 cases of Clif bars with me because I felt like we lived on them at times.  Even though the cook was a very good Somali cook, I was missing the familiarity of salads and whole grain bread.  When the water isn't safe, you just have to eliminate salad from your diet.

The city itself was very safe.  I never felt threatened and no one tried to take my purse. People were cheerful.  There were pockets of extreme poverty.  Traffic was horrendous.  There isn't really any traffic control.  Somehow it all works though. As your car stopped, people would come to the car windows begging.  It can't be an easy life.  It was difficult to walk many places because there weren't sidewalks.  Many streets are paved but the shoulder just becomes mud combined with donkey and horse waste, trash, etc. I had never seen anything like it.  

I could have spent the entire summer in self pity, but I had a guide book and a downloaded trip advisor guide for Addis that gave some ideas about what to see and do, and the driver was an immense help in entertaining all three boys. As it turned out, we were there just over 2 weeks. Kids in Ethiopia don't have toys.  Children of ex-patriots and dignitaries have tutors and the focus is on education.  There might be some books and if you're lucky a TV set. Omar learned to play soccer with the neighborhood boys but we also scheduled outings just for a change of scenery. The boys became like brothers...and sometimes fought like them too.

Since we stayed at a home, I have no hotel recommendations, but here is a blogger with a pretty concise list that will help you.  There's also some good advice I used to get ready for our adventure.  We still ended up using antibiotics for traveler's diarrhea, but maybe you'll get luckier.

Here's what I'd recommend for activities if you find yourself in Addis Ababa with kids:

In spite of having so many wonderful Ethiopian restaurants, Omar really just wanted familiar foods and we could easily find them. There are plenty of burger and pizza places.  We tried a few, mainly to keep the kids happy, but at cafes I could get wifi every couple days. You can find these just by looking for pictures on the front window of the cafes. There is also a good coffee chain, Kaldi Coffee, which reminds me of Starbucks.  Club Juventus was a good pasta place with a gym where the kids could play basketball or volleyball, but you need to bring your own ball.  We only went out for dinner one evening and it was to a cultural show at 2000 Habesha Cultural Restaurant.  The food was traditional Ethiopian and the dancers and music gave a wonderful representation of culture from around the country.  Sit up close if you want to make videos or take pictures.

There are several museums and we hit all of them.  Most don't have independent websites, so if there's a link, it will probably be Facebook or Tripadvisor. You may hear about the Red Terror Martyr's Museum but I don't recommend it for children, and even adults may have nightmares after visiting.  There are some extremely graphic photos and torture devices.

I think you need to visit the National museum because it has the skeleton of Lucy.  This museum has some really good artifacts, but unfortunately the lighting isn't great and they lack the resources I've seen other places.  Still, kids might enjoy seeing the lion's mane hat and the leather chairs. We were there less than an hour.

The Ethnological Museum has children's toys and musical instruments.  It's a bit tricky to find as it is on the university grounds.  You can see the bed and living quarters of former ruler Haile Selassie.  This used to be his palace.  Definitely use a guide-these are students who can help you get more out of the exhibits and will answer questions.  They work for tips.  I can't believe we went in one room where someone was using very old religious books filled with amazing paintings and we were allowed to look at them.  They weren't even being encased in some protective plastic. Again we were there less than an hour.

The Lion Zoo is pathetic for the conditions of the animals, but it is a kid destination if for no other reason, the lions here are unique to this part of Africa. Expect lots of vendors coming at you with balloons and toys.  The grounds are landscaped like a park, and it's a big weekend destination for the locals. We spent maybe 20 minutes here.  It's not a big place.

The boys all enjoyed visiting the malls most of all.  We didn't go there for shopping- just for activities.  Outside everything looks distinctly Ethiopian in terms of culture.  Once you're inside, you really can't tell where you are.  You'll see typical western dress and find people visiting from all over. Edna Mall has games and even a bull ride.  Laphto Mall has a fitness center that includes swimming and bowling.  You can use the lanes whenever they are open, but a coach may be available to help you do it better.  You can swim during open hours, but for a small fee you get a private instructor/lifeguard.  Nearly every mall will have some kind of movie or game place so don't be shy about checking what's nearby your lodging. Hoping you have a great experience with kids if you end up making Addis a stop on your ride through life.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Amazing Churches of Lalibela

Before we went to Ethiopia this summer, I didn't know much about the country so I looked for blogs on the topic and mostly found humanitarian trips people took where they went to meet the locals and do some kind of project.  I learned that the people were friendly, curious about life in foreign places, and generally looking for a way to feed their families while sharing whatever they had with whomever visited. Ethiopia has one of the largest populations in Africa and has suffered with drought,  civil war, and a lack of services to its population (like clean water).  Not an easy life.

Our first day in Addis Ababa we went to a travel agency to see what they recommended for a few days of touring.  We only had 4 days before the fasting of Ramadan began and my husband prefers not to travel during that time. He recommended flying north to Axum, Lalibela, Gonder, and then driving to Bahir Dar to fly back to Addis. There's a cheaper way to fly to various points within Ethiopia.  Buy your international ticket with Ethiopian Airlines.  It was amazing how much the cost went down when we purchased a ticket between Kenya and Ethiopia with them (like from $1100 to 400!).  The airline had great service and the prices were reasonable.  We made no hotel or guide reservations, preferring to just show up at the airport and select someone.  It worked out well, so don't be afraid to try this yourself if you plan to visit.  You'll have options. I might also add that since all of these cities are in the highlands, you won't need to take malaria drugs.  We only saw mosquitoes in Axum anyway, in spite of this being the rainy season.

Axum is the storage place for the ark of the covenant, though no one except for the priest who guards it has ever laid eyes on it.  It's a job for life for that priest. The other cities- Gonder and Bahir Dar have natural beauty, while Gonder also has historic castles and churches. They were all interesting, but Lalibela stood out.  It's a UNESCO heritage site due to the number of rock hewn churches, which are built from one individual stone.  When you consider these buildings are enormous and 900 years old, it is a modern marvel and I'm surprised they aren't included on the Great Wonders of the World.  Perhaps if they had been more accessible.  This is a rugged, mountain top village which only got paved roads in the past 20 years.  It had been pretty isolated. The churches recently had coverings placed over them, that although unsightly should help protect them so they survive a few hundred more years.
A well for holy water in the front of the church.  Notice the protective covering.

There are 11 churches.  Considered to be the Jerusalem of Ethiopia, orthodox Christians come on foot traveling days or weeks to get here and up to 100,000 people per year visit. They are all looking for blessings that come from being at the churches, which were built from the top down.  Priests are always on hand to pray with you, for you, and give blessings with holy water.  People want to touch the walls of the churches and pray inside.  If you're a tourist, it costs $50 for a 3 day pass to see all of the churches.  You'll need your passport to purchase and it's half price for children.  We spent our first day meeting the people and seeing the village with a guide, which you can read about here, which I think was a good introduction.  I believe otherwise, they would just have been these amazing buildings, but now I understand why they are still used and how the people live according to religious principles, in spite of having next to nothing.

Holy water here which was splashed on people who were blessed
We only had a half day left, so we opted to see just the few located in the village.  They are truly spectacular, but what makes them even more interesting is seeing how they are still in use after all these years.  When you arrive at the office, you make payment. Then we had a guide take us through.  You can do it alone, but you get more out of it having a guide.  Shoes must be removed to go inside and there are shoekeepers who will move your shoes from one place to another and watch them for you.  It's customary to give them a tip.  These are very poor people who rely heavily on tips to feed themselves and their families, so carry some smaller bills for this purpose. You keep moving forward through the churches, so you won't return to the entrance.
St. George church is below ground

This was one of the few that had supporting columns made of bricks

Detailed carvings and paint are present inside the arches and often on the ceilings

A group of prayerful visitors

Notice how the church just grows out of the stone
I was lucky to receive photos from one of the shoekeepers after we returned home again.  They have religious celebrations after the fasting, and these are photos from the village at that time. This is a day called Ashenda. You can read more about it at the link.  It's apparently only done in the northern part of Ethiopia.  The skirts are made from the grass that has grown during the rainy season.

Overall, this was an amazing experience.  It's right up there with the pyramids of Giza, with the difference being these are alive with people.  They aren't just tourist attractions.  While you're there, you feel like you're experiencing something from another lifetime and you can imagine what it must have been like when they were first built and filled with prayerful followers of the King who had them built.  King Lalibela has since been named a saint by the church, by the way.  Go see these in your lifetime.