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.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

I love Ethiopian know, the kind you get at the local coffee shop that says ETHIOPIA in big bold letters.  I was intrigued to hear there was a special coffee ceremony.  I might also add that lots of people don't drink coffee in Africa overall.  They are tea drinkers, probably due to the European influences of the countries that dominated them before they gained their independence.  I asked an Ethiopian why he didn't drink coffee and he said because it makes you all crazy.  Hmmm...interesting perspective on things.

So what is the coffee ceremony all about?  You can find them everywhere: at fancy hotels, roadside stands, in neighborhoods, coffee houses, and in the marketplace.  The first one we saw was at Axum, the city where the Ark of the Covenant is supposedly stored.  It involves roasting beans over a charcoal fire, grinding and brewing the beans with boiling water and making it into a thick dark coffee, served in small cups.  If you are welcomed into someone's home, it's customary to be offered some coffee this way and it can go on for 2-3 hours.  There's a religious connotation to the ceremony too.  There are 3 rounds of coffee and coffee is considered to have spiritual properties.

First the woman doing the ceremony lays aromatic grass or flowers on the ground.  She burns incense to ward off evil spirits, and continues to burn incense throughout the ceremony.  She will fill a round-bottomed, black clay coffeepot, called a jebena, with water and places it over hot coals.

Then the hostess takes a handful of green coffee beans and carefully cleans them in a heated, long handled, wok like pan.  Holding the pan over hot coals or a small fire, she stirs and shakes the husks and debris out of the beans until they are clean.  Once the beans are clean, she slowly roasts them in the pan she used to clean them.  During the roasting, she keeps the roast as even as possible by shaking the beans or stirring them constantly.  Once the beans are medium brown, they are ready, though they can be roasted much darker until they are blackened and shimmering with essential oils.  The aroma is an important aspect.

She grinds the beans with a metal cylinder in a heavy wooden bowl until they are crushed into a coarse ground.  By the time the beans are ground, the jebena is usually ready for coffee.  The coffee is added to the water in the jebena and brought to a boil, then removed from the heat.  During this time, she's usually setting out the small handleless cups on a tray.

The coffee is poured from almost a foot above the cups, filling all the cups without breaking the stream. The dregs remain in the bottom of the pot.  Sugar is offered but not milk.  Though we only stayed for one cup (for 23 cents), it is typical to have two more cups, each are weaker than the first.  The third cup is supposed to be the blessing.  It was really delicious, though I can't say it was much like what I've had at Starbucks.  We sat underneath a shade tree and enjoyed it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

African Poor

You can't spend half the summer in Africa and not come back changed by the experience.  I've been examining my lifestyle and feel so blessed, but on the other hand, I can't believe how superficial life can be when you have all your needs being met.  I look at our overstuffed closets and cabinets and know that there was a time we could have made better decisions.  We really don't need a lot of it. I don't need so much stuff.  I can make changes for the better.

There is poverty in America, and I once considered myself among them growing up in a single family home where my mom worked 2 jobs so that we had food to eat and a warm house in winter.  There were always glitches, like when the plumbing had a leak and we used the outdoor garden hose to shower for a summer. We had rats and sometimes my brothers would shoot them with a bb gun.  I can remember many times taking crackers with jam for a school lunch.  I was always happy for hand me down clothing from relatives (sometimes it is good to be the youngest).  I was lucky that by joining the Air Force, I could go to college and know that my future family would always have enough to eat and a place to live.

African Poor is something totally different.  Rural homes are made of mud and sticks.  Homelessness means no help at all.  You have to sleep on the streets or under a tree.  Any money you get is from the goodness of strangers.  There isn't a welfare system or social security in most countries. Drought kills people.  Starvation is real.  Too many people live hand to mouth, which is more distressing than our paycheck to paycheck. Kids have health concerns.  Flies are everywhere.  Not everyone is poor.  My husband was lucky enough to grow up in a household with plenty, but then the civil war came and an entire country became refugees.  You can see how that's working out with Syrians now.  America is part of a campaign spending 9 million per day on bombing Iraq and Syria. Imagine the good we could be doing with that money.  

I'm trying to find a way to balance my life here in the US and still find help for those I met on our African journey.  It's impossible to help everyone.  The needs are too great.  I'm writing daily to several Ethiopian young men.  One is in middle school and needed a new place to live because the roof was leaking and his landlord would beat him if he couldn't make enough money shining shoes or carrying bags.  Just $100 allowed him to find a new place and purchase a little stove so he can cook cabbage with his friend.  He is always happy and grateful.  Another is hoping to go to college but the expenses of a room and food aren't covered.  Our tour guide is supporting orphans with the money he makes, but needs a vehicle so he can expand his business to bring tourists to outlying places and not just walk within the village. I set up a funding campaign where you and your friends can donate to help make this happen.  I hope you'll take a look and give generously if you can.  I found that if I gave up buying new clothing and fancy coffee drinks, I would have enough to share.  There's something about sharing with someone on the other side of the world that makes me feel better than any stuff I might buy.  Maybe you'll feel the same.