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October 31, 2017

Manchester United, Arsenal, Tezer and Foosball - The heart of Ethiopian Games - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no - 21

(Continued from Blog post no - 20)

watching EPL match in a hotel
What do the Ethiopians get in return for the two birr they paid. They get to watch the live telecast and also get a free chilled coca (Coca-Cola). The regular price of the coke in the market too is two birr. So how do Ethiostar or the other hotels that extend the same service get benefited? Simply it’s the hotels’ way of paying back to the society. Most of the youngsters watching the live telecast are from the local community and they are literally the ears and eyes of that area.

And as we know that it is always better to be in friendly terms with the immediate environment in which a business operates. Coca-Cola missed out on building more good will. If Coca-Cola had added some Kolo or a Dabo Kolo, the good will would have increased by leaps and bounds. Delight the customer and make him the brand advocate for a life time!

Manchester United Fans, Ethoipia
But the rivalry that generates the maximum fun, enjoyment, and ribbing and sometimes even clashes and scuffles are the bi-annual matches that involve Manchester United and Arsenal. Manchester United and Arsenal are top notch Premier clubs that boast of fierce fans who are ready to do anything for their team.

Arsenal Fans and Flags 
Come Sunday and we have supporters coming with huge towels or flags with their team colours and logos  and they would boisterously support their own teams. The support for both teams was uniform and other wise close friends almost come to blows over a penalty missed or some injustice meted out to their teams. Arsenal was more popular than Manchester United as Arsenal had more black and players of African origin. Once I watched a Manchester United Vs Arsenal match in BDU auditorium and it will remain as one of the most enjoyable interactions with the football crazy Ethiopians.

Another interesting ethnic game that I saw being played is ‘Tezer’. In this game first a suitable pole is chosen. A long rope may be of two or three feet is firmly tied to the middle section of the pole. At the other end of the rope a small round ball made by a roll of plastic sheet shoved into socks is fixed. The rule of the game is that the players should not touch the rope to which the ball is tied. Also the ball should not touch their clothes. When kicked, if the ball finishes revolving around the pole unchecked by the player in the defender position, the player who kicked the ball will be a winner. I found the acrobatics involved in the game to be of very high calibre!

I should thank my student and now a distinguished faculty at department of accounting, BDU,  Dr. Elefachew Mossisa who has guided me in identifying this game and telling me its name. Betam Konjo (very Good) and ahmesugenalew  (thank you) . Also I should also thank Hider Ali, who has sent very old and rare photos.I will be use them later Hider. 

Of course fun loving Ethiopians also play the loud and very boisterously ‘foosball’. Ethiopians call it Joteni (thanks to Dr. Elefachew Mossisa again) Table football, also called fuzboll and sometimes table soccer. Foosball is a table-top game that uses figures representing football players, fixed on rotating rods.  To begin the game, the ball is served through a hole at the side of the table, or simply placed by hand at the feet of a figure in the centre of the table. The initial serving side is decided with a coin toss. Players attempt to use figures mounted on rotating bars to kick the ball into the opposing goal. Expert players have been known to move balls at speeds up to 56 km/h (35 mph) in competition.

It is a very engrossing game, but tends to get very noisy. In the chilly evening breeze slightly tipsy Ethiopians and sometimes even foreigners engage and enjoy this maddeningly intoxicating ‘foosball”.

The world most beautiful game - Football and Ethiopia - Made for each other - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no - 20

Ethiopian Kids Playing Football

But the game that all the Ethiopians love is Football. For the slim built Ethiopians, playing football comes naturally. They play with anything including cloth rags rounded up as a ball. They can play football continuously and with great √©lan.  It was a truly fascinating seeing the agility, the body feints and dodges. Football and Africans are made for each other.

Waiting to Get inside 
The passion for football cuts across all demographics like age, class, ethnicity and gender. Ethiopia at that time in 2002 had a magic wand that made it popular with the football crazy Bahirdar residents. Ethiostar had a dish antennae that could beam Super Sports channel. 

EPL, English Premier League
Super Sports has the rights to beam live EPL (English Premiership league) matches. English Premiership League is an England based soccer league that features world class football stars who play for legendary football clubs. EPL is the 4th most watched sports league in the world.  EPL matches are usually played on Saturday, Sunday and sometimes on Thursday.

IPL, Indian Premier League
According to the same post IPL (Indian Premier League) stands sixth in the list of most watched sports leagues in the world. And Indians should be proud of the fact that IPL is only ten years old whereas the other sports leagues have had a head start. If sheer number of people watching the sport on Television is taken as measure, IPL would be head and shoulder above the other leagues.  Millions of viewers watch matches across India and in many other countries. Many leading cricket players from other countries play in IPL and this had generated lot of spectator interest for IPL across the world.

One advantage India has is its population. Only China could have given it a run for its money. But China has wisely opted out of the race. India very soon will have the dubious distinction for being the most populous country in the world.

The per capita income of Ethiopians in 2000 was around three birr/day. That is slightly less than eighteen rupees. But most poor and underprivileged, earned between one and two birr per day. Before we all become teary eyed and sentimental, let us look at hard facts.

Let me work out the math for you. One birr had lot of purchasing power (one birr = 100 santims). For sixty santims one could get an Injira, fifteen santims could buy a Shai and at the end of the day with the 25 santims remaining, one could buy a glass of Talla (a yellow frothy ethnic Ethiopian beer)! Not bad!

So from an Ethiopian view point, a birr is a lot of money. On Saturday and Sunday, the locals come in hordes to Ethiostar. They dress nattily and are in joyous mood. They pay two birr (that is their one day salary) and get into the dining area and settle into the chairs. They patiently wait for an event that they anticipated for an entire week. Then the TV set flicks on and their favourite EPL match comes on - and it is LIVE. They start screaming, hollowing and enjoying themselves. This continues for the entire duration of the match.

October 29, 2017

"Shall we Go to New York Sir?" - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no - 19

Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that does not consume sweets. Coming from a civilization that celebrates everything with sweets, that comes as a great shock. In India everything starts with sweets and ends with sweets, there are terms that have sweets in build; ‘you are such a sweet person, he has a sweet tooth, Mu Meeta karo (have a sweet), sweet nothings, your son is nice like a laddu (nice and round, like the Indian sweet), as sweet as a pie, sweet memories’. Cakes and pastries are the only sweets that we could get to eat in Ethiopia. Rest was all fruits and fruit juices.

Ethiopia had great relations with Erstwhile USSR (now Russia) during the Dreg Regime. Many Infrastructure projects were built by the Soviets. POLY and PEDA too were built by them. There are remnants of that Soviet influence still lingering on. Our management faculty room had very strange electric switches. The on and off positions are exactly in the reverse direction. Our OFF position is ON for the Soviets and vice versa. Initially it was quite confusing.

Ethiopians frankly considered sweet loving Soviets as sissies. They could not comprehend anyone having anything that is similar to eating raw sugar. Even my colleagues when offered traditional Indian sweets would take a little bite and then exclaim “oh it is just like sugar”.

But just like any other new thing, even eating sweets too can become an acquired taste. Most maids who worked in Indian teachers’ houses became very fond of sweets. Ehteh Maskaram who worked in our house had become very fond of Bobbattu (an Indian jaggery filled delicacy that is made on special occasions, like telugu new year).

Author playing Table tennis en-route to Lalibela in 2003

There are other things that the soviets taught the Ethiopians. One of them was love for table tennis. Played indoors, in Ethiopia it metamorphosed into a rustic outdoor sport. It was quite common to see very rustic and crude tables laid out in the open and children enjoying themselves.

Being a good table tennis player myself, I played this form of rustic open road side table tennis many times and came out second best in some occasions. The sight of an Indian playing table tennis in full gusto would attract many bystanders and cause small traffic jams. Obviously the crowd would support their own local boys and getting booed and jeered was par for the course.  

That evening Dr. Naidu came to the hotel. He said “Sir, shall we go to New York”. I was quite excited! “But sir” I said “we just landed in Ethiopia. I am not very sure if the ministry would give permission. What if they ask us pay for the travel expenses and also ask for three month’s pay? I want to come but I don’t think it is possible at this point of time” The practicality of the situation kicked in.

Dr. Naidu was puzzled. He gave out a huge guffaw “oh Sir” he said rocking himself front and forth “I am not taking about real New York. I am referring to New York, the most modern and trendy super market in Bahirdar”. It was now my turn to look sheepish. We went to New York.

According to Bahirdar standards, New York was quite trendy. The owner had a sister who lived in New York and as a mark of respect and love he named his store as New York. New York was a boon for the expatriate population. It had products that were not available anywhere else like chocolates and had some stuff that Indians really loved, basmati rice and vermicelli. Of course the products were costly but once in a while, a visit to New York lightened up our otherwise quite mundane lives. 

Chao, Chao - Cross Cultural Communication - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no -18

Stunning Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church Mural Painting 
Italy occupied Ethiopia only for five years. Even in that short time, they left their impression. There are many words used which have Italian origin like Makeena (automobile) and Macatho (tea with milk). Readers should not get confuse Macatho with Mercato. Mercato is the Latin word for markets.  The world’s largest open air market operates in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. No prizes for guessing the name of the market! What else but ‘Mercato’. A visit to Mercato, Addis Ababa is a practical lesson in selling, marketing and the art of charming negotiations, executed with a disarming smile.  

Chao, chao, (bye, bye)
Ethiopian greeting for bye-bye is ‘Chao Chao’. It is easy for the Indians to pretend that they have quickly assimilated themselves and that they are one among the locals. I remember one Telugu teacher calling his wife and having a lengthy conversation. At the end of the conversation my friends said “okay take care, chao, Chao’.

Next day, my friend received an urgent communication from Dr. Naidu. My friend was received by Dr. Naidu, who told him that my friend’s wife had called. She was very upset and concerned. She had asked Naidu sir “What is the issue with my husband? Why is he so angry? Is he not happy in Ethiopia? Why is he so upset with me? Why did he want to wish me death?” The poor lady was in tears.

Dr. Naidu was concerned. He asked for an explanation from my friend and then his face lit up in a grin “oh, oh, oh” he said “you wanted to impress your wife by saying Chao chao. You wanted to sound and act like an NRI who has settled in a foreign country for 20 years. You have forgotten that your wife does not know the meaning of the phrase ‘Chao Chao’ which sounds very much like Chavu chavu (the telugu word for death). And, at the speed at which you talk during an international call, it must have sounded like chavu chavu”.

Dr. Naidu made my friend call his wife and made him tender a proper apology. Pray, tell me which wife would like her husband to call her from thousands of kilometres away and wish her death?  

Buna, Black Coffee  

Early morning starts with a cuppa. It can be Buna or black coffee served hot and very strong. It can be added with milk in which case it becomes Macatho. 

Shai, Black Tea
Shai is tea served without milk (black tea). Tea with milk is unheard of and if requested, is met with blank stares and amusement!

Ethiopians are fond of sugar. Their morning Shai or Bunna is full of it. It was quite common to see a small glass having at least two large spoon full of sugar in it. It makes sense. For a hard working farmer who would not have a breakfast, that morning Shai or Bunna with the sugar intake would give him that critical carbohydrate shot that will sustain him till he has his meagre afternoon lunch. 

October 27, 2017

Injira the Ethiopian Dosa - Ethiopian Journey Part - Blog Post No - 17

Making the National Dish of Ethiopia, The Injira 

Next day morning, there was a knock on the door. I opened the door and standing there was a small, petite and bubbly woman. She barged in “My name is Annie Clara; I am from Tamil Nadu”. She announced, “I am a lecturer in the accounting department of PEDA, Bahirdar University. Addis told me that you had come and I came to welcome you”.

I was touched. Here we are, thousands of kilometres away from home and we are being received so warmly. Clara assured us that she would help us for anything that we need.   I thanked her for her visit and generosity.

The texture of an Injira 
We were not getting our food, so we volunteered to try the local food. The local Chapatti or the staple food is the Injira. Injira is like a huge flat bread or like a very gigantic dosa. Injira is made from one of the tiniest grain in the world. The iron rich grain is called Teff. Injira is a dough risen flat bread with a sour, unique spongy texture. Injira is the national dish of Ethiopia.

The first time we had Injira, it was a huge let down. It had a very sour taste and it was very huge. The quantity would be enough to make 6-8 Indian dosas. Injira is round and is twenty  inches in diameter. The interesting part are the side dishes that are put on the top of the Injira. The nearest Indian equivalent of the Injira is an Uttapam but fermented many times over.

Teff flour is mixed with water and the mixture is allowed to ferment for several days. As a result of this process, Injira gets a definite sour taste. The Injira is then baked into large, flat pancakes.

Injira is never eaten alone. It is always served with several kinds of wats (dals) or curies or stews. There can be two or three different types of wats made of meats (mutton, chicken or beef), egg, many types of salads and a little rice. The amount of rice eaten by an average south Indian would feed atleast fifty Ethiopians. Typically, spoonful of rice is served along with the Injira.

As the Injira is spongy and granular, the wat soaks it thoroughly and that makes the Injira very tasty. Initially it was quite difficult to eat an Injira. But later on we started enjoying it and Padma often says that she misses an Injira. We did have Injira in California, USA. No doubt It was tasty but to experience an authentic Injira one needs to taste it in Ethiopia.

Usually Injira is eaten with different types of meats like Dora (Chicken) wat, Tibs (pieces of fried meat pieces). There are many variations of the delicacy, depending on type, size or shape of the cuts of meat used.

But during the lent and on Wednesday and Friday a vegetarian Injira is eaten, my favourite called the Beyeyanetu. Whenever I went to the restaurant in Ethiostar and proudly ordered a Beyeyanetu, the waitress would giggle. Annoyed and irritated, I complained to the Manager of the hotel. He came back to me beaming “Sir, the girl is actually very flattered that you are ordering an Ethiopian dish and that too in Amharic. But your accent is that of a very small child just learning Amharic. She finds it very cute”. I don’t know whether it was a compliment or an insult to be compared with a child.  

Fit-Fit or Fir-fir is a common Ethiopian breakfast dish. It is made from shredded Injira, stir-fried with spices or wat.

Another popular breakfast food is Fatira. The delicacy consists of a large fried pancake made with flour, often with a layer of egg. It is eaten with honey.

The Most Popular snacks are Dabo Kolo (small pieces of baked bread). Ethiopian Kolo (roasted barley mixed with other local grains). 

Kolo made from roasted barley, chickpeas and peanuts is often sold by street vendors wrapped in a paper cone. Popcorn is also popular as a snack. 

Surprise of surprises, a delicacy called Sambusa (Indian Samosa) is also popular in some parts of Ethiopia. But the filling is not potato, instead mashed lentil (green gram) is used! Talk of globalization of Indian food.
As the Injira is rich in Iron and not in Carbohydrates, Ethiopians are typically thin and wiry. African athleticism and high altitude climate, makes most Ethiopians have good physique. In 2002, it was very rare to see a fat Ethiopian. So whenever they see a very a large man or woman they would get fascinated and follow that person. Of-course the obvious ribbing and ragging would automatically follow.
Due of their easy going nature and their natural good genes and healthy eating, incidence of Heart attacks are very rare in Ethiopia (166th rank out of 172 countries surveyed) whereas India is a high risk country with a global rank of 39.
One-day right in front of Ethiostar there was a head-on collision that involved two bicyclists. In India it would have led to an altercation where all the bystanders would join in merrily, create a huge ruckus and finally it would lead to a massive traffic Jam. The aftermath of the crowd disturbance in many cases would be many times more severe than the accident itself.
But here both the Ethiopians who were sprawled flat on the ground got up, dusted themselves and hugged each other. There was exchange of pleasantries and after checking each other’s bicycles they went on their respective ways. Such a charming way to solve minor problems.

Ethiopians tend to wear lots of clothes. A typical Ethiopian would wear many sets of clothes and wear a coat and cover their body with a white cloth. Most of the Indians were initially skeptical of this habit but quickly realized that it was a very wise decision. In a country where the climate is variable and the temperature fluctuates by as much as 20 degrees centigrade in a day, it is better to cover the body with protective clothing so that the body does not get too cold and suffer from debilitating diseases. Even in a city bus the locals would keep all the windows shut and would rather suffer the suffocation rather than let the cool breeze come in. Perhaps they were also protecting themselves from the dust rising out of the metal roads. 

October 25, 2017

Bahirdar - By the side of the Sea - Ethiopian Journey - Post 16

Bahirdar City, Gojjam, Amhara region, Ethiopia 

By the time we settled down it was almost 6 p.m. We set out for a walk. It was cold. We had taken precautions and were wearing woollens. Ethiostar was in the heart of the city. Right in front of Ethiostar was the Amhara Parliament building. It was an imposing building with many beautiful statues on the front facade.

Very close to Ethiostar was POLY, the engineering division of Bahirdar University. PEDA, to whom I belong was around two kilometers away. Walking on the roads was a very pleasant experience. Not many people but lots of love birds. We quickly came back. Dr. Naidu, Associate Professor from the Mathematics Department had dropped in for a visit.

Dr. Naidu was a legend in Ethiopia. By 2002 he had already finished three contracts. He could speak Amharic quite well and was quite adapted to the local culture and customs. He would become our community elder – someone like Peddarayadu.
Addis Gedefaw, HOD Management Department 
The next day morning, we decided to take things into our own hands. Dr. T. N. Murthy, Dr. Srinivas Inguva and me headed out to PEDA. The way to PEDA was quite dusty and we had to take a short cut to reach the University. It was a nice stimulating half an hour walk. We made our way to the Management Department/Accounting department.  Dr. T. N. Murthy and I, met Addis Gedefaw, the Head of the Department. She received us very warmly. She said “You came in quite early. We were not expecting you for atleast another week”. She told us subject allocations will be done shortly and that she will inform us when they are finalized. She directed us to the admin department so that we could get our University identity cards and start working.

We came back to Ethiostar and headed for lunch. It was more of the same! All Ethiopian cooks appear to cook the same way. We ordered for rice and after lots of gesticulations and mime asked for  some tomato curry. One hour passed and we were not getting any food! Luckily for us Suresh dropped in and went to the kitchen to investigate. He came back and told us that there was only one cook who could prepare ‘Indian speciality of rice and tomato curry’. He has gone out and there was nobody else who could prepare our dishes!

We either have to wait or lump it! Out of desperation we ordered Inkulal curry (Omelette) and Avocado juice. Avocado juice was tasty and very filling. Pranav finished the Avocado juice and wolfed down the Omelette. Suresh was watching on with his mouth wide open in astonishment “Sir” he whispered in a low tone “that omelette had six country eggs! It was meant for the entire family. Do you think, he can digest it?”

I assured “I don’t think we need to worry. He washed it down with avocado juice”. Suresh was almost wailing “that is the problem sir. Avocado juice is very filling. And your son had an ample dose of both. Avocado juice is not like butter milk that will lighten the stomach. It will make it even more heavy”.  I started watching Pranav from the side of my eyes. He did not appear any worse for the wear. He was happiness personified.  

I went out and ordered thumb nail photos for university ID card. “Mister” the owner told me “come at 12 o'clock in the evening to collect your snaps”. My Blood Pressure shot up "what do you mean 12 clock in the night. I will definitely not come at 12 o'clock in the night to collect my snaps’. I could picture myself sliding and shuffling along fugitively, giving sneaky looks on all sides and collecting snaps dead in the night.

The owner was puzzled. He gave a quixotic look “Mister, I said, 12 o’clock in the evening" He glared at me.

I gave up. As I was returning from the photo shop, I saw a poster “13 months of sunshine and below, it was written, welcome to 1995!”. Then it struck me. Oh yes, Ethiopian calendar was seven years behind the English calendar that we follow.

I burst into our hotel room. My family was startled at my excitement. “is everything all right” Padma enquired anxiously “rocking, rocking” I assured her. “Nothing to worry. Do you know Ethiopia makes you younger? Now both of us are seven years younger, and we are back to 1995!”. I Looked at Pranav, gave him a-all-knowing wink and added “Pranav you are back in 1995, that will make you a seven-month old boy. Better behave yourself kiddo”

I and Padma walked out to the balcony and were admiring the scenery. Suddenly we heard loud shouts and then a steady wail coming from the hotel room. We rushed in ashen with fear. The scene inside stunned us. Pranav was seated in a chair and there was a 'cat who had all the cream' look on his face.

He looked smug and contented. On the bed was my two-year-old daughter Sahithi. She was  sobbing inconsolably. After lots of threats, inducements and cajoling, she stopped. We asked “Sahithi, what happened?”. Still sobbing she replied “Anna told me that all our ages go back by seven years. I am born in 2000. What will happen to me? I don’t even exist. Will police arrest me? Can I ever go back to India? If I had known that, this was going to happen, I would have stayed back with nannamma and tatagaru”. She was hurt and disgusted!   We kept a straight face with lot of effort. We dare not burst out in laughter. The poor girl was already in lot of trauma.

I went to the hotel receptionist and complained that the photo shop owner wanted me to come at 12 o' clock in the night. “Oh sir” he burst out. But he must have said 12 o'clock in the evening”. I was getting fed up. “what 12 o'clock in the evening?  how can you have 12 o'clock in the evening”?

The hotel receptionist explained to me “Sir, Ethiopia follows the sun as the criteria for setting the time, Unlike Europe where the day starts at 12 o'clock at the stroke of midnight, In Ethiopia time starts with the sunrise. So when the sunrises it is zero hour. So when it is European 7 o’clock in the morning it is 1 o'clock for us Ethiopians. So when it is 6 o'clock in the evening for Europeans it would be 12 o'clock in the evening for Ethiopians”.

“Oh boy” I said to myself “This really takes the cake. Now I have to struggle with three times. The Indian standard time which is 2.5 hours ahead of the European or GMT and also this new Ethiopian time”. I Sincerely hoped that I could manage so much complexity.

I brightened up and asked the hotel receptionist “I heard that there are thirteen months in a year in an Ethiopian calendar. That is nice. I can work for twelve months and get thirteen months’ salary”.

The receptionist gave me a strange look "oh, the thirteenth month is only a book adjustment. Those five or six days are only to bring the calendar back to normalcy” He gave a very broad and toothy smile “I assure you sir, you will only get twelve months’ salary”.  

October 24, 2017

Reaching the destination - Searching for roots - Blog post no - 15

Ethiopian Music, soft, haunting and unforgettable 

On the fourth day morning the good news that we have been anxiously waiting for, arrived in the form of the representative from The Ministry of Education. He told that our flight was on the next day. We were elated At the same time, we were sad as we would be missing the other sixty eight fellow Indians who travelled with us from Mumbai.

The next day morning, the ten of us who had to fly to Bahirdar were taken to the airport. We boarded a smaller fifty  seater plane. There was no beautiful air hostess on the plane. Instead we had a hefty, strong and a silent air steward. The air steward gave us a customary nod, served us some cake and coke and went off, never to be seen for the entire flight duration of one hour!

Small  planes for Internal Travel
As we were waiting for the flight to take off, our ears were filled with the traditional Ethiopian music. Ethiopian music is very lyrical and has that soft soothing touch that would mentally relax frayed nerves. Ethiopian Music when played in its rawest form in the rustically beautiful Ethiopian country side back drop is an experience that has no parallels anywhere in the world.  

Later we were told that whom we thought was a steward was not an air steward! He was an air marshal or a security Officer! There was an attempt to kidnap an Ethiopian plane on 9th June 2002 just six months before and the Ethiopian airlines hit upon an innovative idea. They hit two birds with one stone. They appointed air marshals and at the same time took off the air hostesses. This would not only mean less pay out as salaries but also meant that the weight of the air craft would be optimal. 

One caution with air travel in Ethiopia. It is always better to be in an airport much ahead in time. Ethiopian airlines is known to take off ahead of scheduled time if all the passengers arrive and board the plane. That would ensure time saved for each flight and that could mean that they schedule an extra flight and get extra revenue. Smart thinking Ethiopian airlines!

Usually the air-hostesses are the ones who are friendly and chat with the passengers. The pilots are silent and talk only if it is absolutely necessary. They would talk in a dry terse clipped tone. They bark into the microphones that have a strong static “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to ……… airlines. Right now we are at 30,000 feet from the mean sea level. We should be landing at our destination in 55 minutes”. Regretting their eloquence, they would lapse into silence, never to be heard again. Some of them would honour us by mumbling “we have reached the destination and we at ………….. airlines thank you for your patronage and hope that you will give us a chance to serve you again” He would end his speech grudgingly. Clearly communicating with the travellers is not their cup of coffee!

Scene from Air!
But in our flight to Bahirdar the air stewards were totally silent. But the pilot (I suppose this guy was just out of training school) was chirpy. He kept talking to us. He would suddenly say “ladies and gentleman look at the beautiful carpet of greenery from your windows’. He would cheekily add “of Course we will not be landing but enjoy the view”.

Nile Gorge 
He told us to watch out and observe the crossing the spectacular Nile  gorge and also asked us to look left to see the best waterfalls in Ethiopia – The Tiss Abay (Great smoke) waterfalls. He ended the narrative with a speech that I can never forget. It is still etched in my memory. The pilot said “ladies and gentleman and kids. We are coming in, to land at the historic Bahirdar city. As we go down for the landing observe the lake that will appear. This is the Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia. It is also the place from where the great Nile river starts. I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed your journey and hope that your stay in Bahirdar would be great and eventful”. Yes, Sir, It was a great trip and thanks for making it so memorable.

Tiss Abay Water Falls
With that we landed in one of the smallest airports that I have seen. ‘Ginbot Haya’ or May 20th Airport. It was maybe quarter the size of Begumpet airport (Begumpet airport itself is a very small airport).

The scene was typical of the movie ‘Gods must be crazy’. There was skeletal staff and ours was the only flight, may be for the day!

Suresh Makkena
We were received by Suresh Makkena, Bala’s friend. Suresh would be our life line as he had come a year before and knew Bahirdar like the back of his hand. All ten of us were bundled into a Bahirdar university bus and we headed out to the city.

Bahirdar Country Side 
The scenery outside was out of a national geographic African documentary. There were metal roads and we could see vast lands, small huts, villagers, many children and small and quite dilapidated houses and many small shops. The city it seemed, had very few vehicles. People were either walking, riding donkeys, or simply herding their cows. We could not even see one buffalo. As we started approaching the main city there was a proliferation of bicycles. Seeing our bewildered faces, the driver burst out “Ethiopian helicopters”. The locals refer to their bicycles as helicopters!

We were dropped off at Ethio Star, a three star hotel in Bahirdar. My heart sank at the sight of the hotel. It was a very pretty hotel but it had no lift. My worst fears were realized when the receptionist announced “Dr.Aneel and family (This doctor term seems to be haunting me, It has made its ghostly appearance in Bahirdar too) room no 401, fourth floor”.

Ethiostar, Bahirdar
We had four suitcases weighing 40 kgs each and 4 hand baggage weighing 20 Kgs each. How do we get them to the 4th floor? My heart sank! Suresh our saviour had a great idea. He went outside and brought in 5 grinning Ethiopian boys! Any guess as to who they were? Who else but the omnipresent Ethiopian Shoe shine boys.
Omnipresent Shoe shine boys
These wiry boys effortlessly carried all our luggage smilingly to our room. They would have been happy with 10 birr but I gave them 50 Birr. 10 birr I was sure was their daily income but I liked their attitude. They wore their heart and smile on their sleeves. That 50 birr was a great investment. It made me quite famous in that locality and I would get huge smiles and extra “Firanj and babuji” ribbing by the very sporting Ethiopian kids. I was branded fair and easy game! 

October 23, 2017

Man is a creature of his own habits.. The reality check! - Ethiopian Journey - Part 14.

By the third day morning the spirits were down and tempers were fraying. People were snapping at each other and we could cut the tension with a butter knife.  By that time, we had mastered our way in and around the hotel. We found a place where we could make phone calls. But International calls were exorbitant and costed around 14 birr (70 rupees) per minute. At that time, it was quite expensive. We had an old couple who had come to Ethiopia post their retirement. The husband coached his wife. He told her what to speak, and what points to cover during her rapid fire international phone call. And she had one minute time to do it.

The lady was overcome by the situation. She blurted out something and may be the connection was not good. She took four minutes to finish what she had to say.  This somehow triggered her husband. He started shouting at her “you made me spend, 60 birr. This was we will not be able to save anything”. Overcome by emotions the old lady burst out crying. It was heart rendering to see the her cry so profusely. But the man was unmoved, he had spent 60 birr and that was too much for him.

I had read that the most selfish and the most self centered only venture out of their comfort zone to go to foreign countries and become NRIs. The main objective is to scrooge and save as much money as possible.  I was seeing a live demonstration and didn’t like it one bit. I took a vow. I will save but will not be stingy!

By the third afternoon people were starving. There was a local Indian restaurant called ‘Sangam’ in Addis Ababa. But it was in Bole road and we have to take a cab. We were told that cab drivers fleece the tourist and charge around 100 birr for one journey. So that is 200 birr just for the journey and we were also told that a nice Indian meal at the Sangam would set us back by at least 500 birr. 700 birr for a meal sounded exorbitant for all, including me.

There was a knock on the door. It was Vasavi, Bala Krishna’s wife. She was down for the count. She said ‘Padmakka, I don’t like this place at all. It is too cold. We can’t go out. I simply hate the food. No rice, no dal, no sambhar and no curd. I feel miserable” Overcome by the situation, she wept uncontrollably. She said “I will tell Bala. I want to go home”.

Padma was touched. She could not bear her pain and anguish. She consoled Vasavi. She told her to be brave. “Nothing to panic” Padma added “we are all with you. Look at us. We have kids. They don’t like it either. They are surviving on bread and jam. And on biscuits”. Seeing the logic of the situation, Vasavi brightened up.

Me and Bala swung into action. We hunted for hotels and restaurants that serve rice. There were many restaurants but they all served either Ethiopian food or European food. We had problem even explaining what rice was or how it looked.  

The present generation have it good. They can just google rice and show the hotel owner what is rice and how it looked. But we were in 2002 and it now appears like pre-historic time!

After a good two hours, WE FOUND A CHINESE HOTEL. The owner was sour and non-communicative. He showed no surprise or happiness when we almost jumped in joy when he said “yes we have rice’. We rushed back to the hotel and four of our family, Vasavi and Bala, Dr. Srinivas Inguva and T.N. Murthy rushed to the restaurant.

After an agonizing wait of forty minutes our RICE arrived. There was a very watery looking tomato paste/Puree/tomato curry as a side dish. The rice was not rice. It was a watery goo. The tomato curry was something of a culinary puzzle. But boy, we were as excited as Ali Baba when he saw the treasure in the cave. We fell on the rice and tomato goo and finished it off in a gusto. The cost was 12 birr. At that price it was a steal. We explained the issue and told the sour owner that the rice needed to be more dry and that he better spice up his curry. He gave a grudging nod. We hoped that we would get better service the next time around. 

October 22, 2017

Getting a first hand taste of the rough and tumble of Ethiopian street life - Ethiopian Journey - Post 13.

God's own "Sun Burnt People"
Watching us from the side was Tadesse Getahun the hotel Manager. He was very friendly. During one of his conversations he told me that he had visited Delhi, India. I asked him what he liked and disliked. Tadesse gave it a serious thought “Most things I liked, population is very big, very crowded and people are very smart. Every one appears to be busy and Indians are hardworking”.

He took a deep breath and blurted out “Delhi was pretty rude to us. They called us Darkies!”. “Darkies” He sputtered “We Ethiopians are not uniformly dark. Some of us are fairer than you Indians. In fact I find many Indians darker than us” It was good reasoning. He also added “Indians call our Country Ethopia or even worse Utopia. It is  not either. Our country is Ethiopia and we are extremely proud of it”. He stood tall and was strutting like a peacock, I liked his attitude. 

Tadesse told me a story that was both amusing and illustrative at the same time. God was busy baking human beings.  The first set of people came out pale and very light skinned. God did not like these people and in a fit of rage threw them on earth. The fair skinned landed in Europe and USA and they became the modern fair skinned Anglo Saxons. God baked a second set and it was over cooked. They were very dark skinned, had squat features, thick lips and were a thick set of people. God in fury threw them on earth and they landed in Africa.

The third time around god was extra careful and lovingly baked a third set. They came out perfectly. “These are the perfect human beings” God exclaimed.  He searched an area on earth to place them. The high lands meant that the second set of people could not fall in Ethiopia. So god lovingly placed the perfect set of people in Ethiopia and fondly called them “Sun Burnt people”. Not too dark not too fair! I think that was a wonderful tale from a crafty and skillful story teller, Tadesse Getahun!

Getting bored in the hotel, I stepped out. Outside the scene was crowded and quite chaotic. There were many small children and young men loitering around. There were at least twenty to thirty shoe shine boys and they all had customers ready. Getting Shoes shined, it looked was the national pass time in Addis Ababa!

Shoe Shine Boys 
The minute the children and the young men saw me, they got triggered. They hollered “Babuji, Hind”. This was repeated with deafeningly increasing decibel levels. Others were not to be put down. They kept screaming “Firanj, Firanj, Shah Rukh Ka, Rani”. I tried to ignore them. The small ones knew their game, They kept saying “You, You, You, You,……..”. It was disheartening and very irritating. I tried to get used to it but these kids were on, continuously. The attention was totally unwanted and unwarranted. Now I know how the celebrities feel when they are chased by the paparazzi.

I came back to the hotel and asked my friend what it all meant. Tadesse heaved a deep sigh “Ethiopians are very poor. We have very high rate of unemployment and even when both the parents work, it is difficult to make both ends meet. Government School system is not very robust and most private schools are unaffordable. All this means that the children are left to themselves and they get amusement by teasing the foreigners.”
Ethiopian kids and Foreigners 
I asked him what all the terms meant. Tadesse explained “Babuji is from Indian movies and even could be a reference to Mahatma Gandhi. Hind is a short form of Hindustan. Firanj is an Amharic word for a foreigner”. According to Tadesse, Hindi movie blockbusters had a huge impression and they would refer to Indian men as Shah Rukh Kha and Indian women as Rani as in Rani Mukherjee.

shah Rukh Ka and Rani 
“Wow” I said  “Not bad to be compared with Shah Rukh Khan” I started preening myself. Tadesse brought me to earth with his crushing reply “My friend. For these kids all Indian men irrespective of age, colour, hairy or bald, lean or fat, all of you are Shah Rukh Kha and all Indian women are Ranis”. I was truly deflated.

Foreigners in India are treated as demi gods. We ogle at them and go out of our way to please. We accost them and ask questions like “Where are you from? Are you married? How many children do you have? Is this your husband/wife? What is your salary?” We go out of our way to make them feel important. Their fair skin makes us feel that they in some way superior to us.

Ethiopian behaviour is exactly in reverse. As they were never colonized they harbour a healthy dose of distrust and skepticism for foreigners. Foreigners are not put on a pedestal. They are infact teased to no end. It is as if to say “You came to my country as you did not get good opportunities in your in own”. Even after four years, the constant ribbing on the roads was a big pain. You get used to it but the attention is never wavering and we always had a set of children following us and yelling “You, You, You”. All the time!

Blue and white taxis
Local transport is very unreliable in Addis Ababa. Most people rely on mini taxis or minibuses. These minibuses can seat at most twelve people but enterprising owners can squeeze upto fourteen by using small stools. Most travelers bear with the discomfort as the distances are short and city buses are overcrowded and are quite irregular. Two people are responsible for each taxi, the driver and a Weyala who collects fares and calls out the taxi's destination. The Weyala would hang out precariously from the mini bus and scream “Arat Kilo, Arat Kilo” a land mark in Addis Ababa. He would briskly spell out the fare “hamsa ammest” or 55 santim. (One birr = 100 santims).

The blue and white mini taxis or mini buses were beat up trucks that were imported from the Middle East. Most of them were past their sell by date, needed lot of servicing and frequently broke and caused trouble and heart burn to the bus owners. Luckily by 2009, 2010, local entrepreneurs introduced the three wheeler autos from India. As they have never seen three wheeler autos the Ethiopians started calling them ‘Bajaj or Bajaja’ after the company that markets them – The Bajaj company!  

Bajajas are so popular in Ethiopia that they are slowly but steadily replacing the aging mini buses and they are now the life line of Ethiopian local transport. The Bajaja drivers are a grateful lot as Bajaj three wheeler autos are maintenance free and give good income to their owners. India should be proud for providing these three wheeler autos and help solve the transport problem of Ethiopia. At the same time Bajajas are providing livelihood to many Ethiopians. The only thing that I would miss is the lively, impish and cheeky Weyala!