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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lalibela

I have been meaning to write about our trip to Lalibela but we have been getting our shipments and have been busy unpacking, so I had to set blogging aside for a while. Our UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage – 700 lb of stuff from the U.S.) came the day before we went to Lalibela. The following Friday came our HHE (our largest shipment – 7200 lbs of stuff from India). Our Consumables (food, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc.) came the next Friday. The Friday after that was when our car made it to Addis but we didn’t get to take it home because it had to undergo a bunch of administrative mumbo-jumbo. But we did see it and we can’t wait to finally get our hands on it. Maybe tomorrow, we are told. So we have been busy unpacking a boatload of boxes. We are not completely done but the house is livable and I really need to blog about Lalibela.

So, in early February, we took a CLO trip to Lalibela. CLO is the Community Liaison Office at the Embassy and they organize various activities for the Embassy employees and their families, including trips. Since we don’t have our car yet, we have taken every CLO trip since we got here. Lalibela was our first CLO trip in Ethiopia and our first one outside of Addis.

Lalibela is located about 700 km/435 miles north of Addis but the terrain is quite rough and it takes a couple of days to get there by car, so we flew. I hear there are direct flights from Addis to Lalibela but we took the scenic route. We flew through Bahir Dar on the way there and through Gondar (not to be confused with Gondor) on the way back. A direct flight would have been preferable but flying through Bahir Dar and Gondar gave as an opportunity to see more of Ethiopia. We got to see lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and headwaters of the Blue Nile. You can see it on the map below located between Bahir Dar and Gondar.

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Ethiopia is quite mountainous and it takes seeing it from the air to understand why it was isolated for a long time and why it was never really colonized. The Italians tried but weren’t very successful. We were there during the dry season and things looked quite parched.

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There were tiny villages, made up of tukuls (traditional round houses with thatched roofs), which looked really quaint to me (that’s why I chose a picture of one for my new blog header). Life there is light years from life in Addis. People have very little and live very modestly.

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It took us about 40 minutes to get from the airport to Lalibela and we stopped on the way at a scenic overlook where girls were selling local crafts.

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We also saw a naked guy in the middle of the road. Not sure what his deal was but we saw him in the same spot on the way back two days later. Things that make you go Hmmm…

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We stayed at the Mountain View hotel, which was nice. Not luxurious but with a beautiful view of the valley outside Lalibela.

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We got to the hotel around noon, dropped our stuff off, grabbed a quick lunch and went on a tour of the town.

Lalibela was named after a priest who became a king. He ruled Ethiopia in late 12th/early 13th century right after Jerusalem was captured by a Muslim army. People from his kingdom would take the long and difficult journey all the way to Jerusalem to see the Holy sights but after Jerusalem was captured, he wanted to give his people a pilgrimage alternative closer to home. So he built a New Jerusalem in the area which was known as Roha at the time and made it the capital of the kingdom. The town has a number of Biblical features including a river Jordan, which is where people get baptized (though it was dry when we were there) and 11 churches cut out of the sheer rock. I had seen pictures of the churches before we went to visit but I didn’t really understand how they were build nor did I have any appreciation of the gargantuan effort it must have taken to build them until I saw them in person.

Lalibela is one of the most important religious sites to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Even now people from all over Ethiopia flock to Lalibela on religious holidays, especially around Ethiopian Christmas when the place is teaming with people. Many of them walk/hike hundreds of miles in order to get there. And as I said earlier, the terrain is rough, it’s elevation is roughly 2,500 m/8,200 ft, so it takes real dedication to make the long walk.

The most famous and my favorite of the 11 churches was the St. George, which is shaped like a cross and is just amazing. There is a trench which turns into tunnel that wraps around the the huge rock the church is cut out of and that’s how you get down to the entrance of the church. It looks like this (you can also kinda see it at the top right in the next picture):

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All 11 churches are active, so there were priests and pilgrims everywhere. It was interesting to observe and try to understand their culture and the way they worship. I am not going to go into a detailed description of each church because it took us the better part of two days to se them all but they were all neat. Here are my favorite moments of our time there:

IMG_1975 This pool is famous because if it is said to have special powers – if you want children, all you have to do is go to Lalibela and dip yourself in it three times. Offspring guaranteed!

IMG_2002 Young priest playing the drum.

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Pilgrims – the white cotton scarves with embroidered silk borders are very traditional and worn in the country as well as in Addis. Women have to cover their heads when they enter a church and most of them wear scarves like these. They protect women from the cold in the mornings and the evenings and from the intense sun mid-day.  The borders can be narrow and simple using just one color or wide and elaborate with beautiful, colorful designs.

IMG_2207 Reading the Bible is a very popular pastime among young and old.

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Men wear something like the scarves women wear though it is usually larger and not as fine or richly decorated.

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Priests – they often wear turbans on their heads and crosses, which can be made of wood, iron or silver. Some are small and plane, others large and with very intricate designs.

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IMG_2165 Heavy door

IMG_2184  Churches

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IMG_2249 A young artist

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The best restaurant in town – Ben Ababa

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No trip in Ethiopia would be complete without a coffee ceremony.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Adventures in Cooking and Baking in Ethiopia

We knew cooking and baking in Ethiopia was going to be different because of the high altitude, so we expected to have to make adjustments. Baking is far trickier than general cooking, especially if you have to use rising agents (yeast, baking soda, baking powder). You usually have to lower the amounts of rising agents, increase the temperature and/or increase the baking time to compensate for the lower air pressure at high altitudes. We have tried a few things now and our results have been mixed.

First, we tried making my favorite fruit muffin recipe with papayas instead of the tried and true apples I usually use. Papayas are readily available and are inexpensive, while apples are imported, very expensive and usually not very good. I don’t yet have my muffin tins, so we made the recipe in a rectangular pan, brownie style. The result was, well, suboptimal at best. The thing baked on top and on the bottom but the middle was undercooked. We increased the baking time but that just made the whole thing very hard and the middle still didn’t cook properly. It was edible but not at all what we usually get. Fail #1.

Then we tried to make our own yogurt. Yogurt is a staple in Bulgaria and we’ve made our own in Bulgaria, the U.S. and India without issues. When you make yogurt at home, it’s important to start with good bacteria (starter). We tested several different Ethiopian brands. Some were not thick enough, others didn’t taste right but we found one, which tasted good and had a nice thick consistency, so we decided it was a good candidate for our homemade yogurt experiment. We bought local milk which has 2.5% fat and comes in 500 ml plastic baggies. We heated about 2 liters of milk, added about 400 ml of the starter yogurt, mixed the starter in well, covered it and let it sit several hours. The resulting homemade yogurt is usually very similar in taste and consistency of the starter yogurt. We weren’t so lucky this time. Almost half of what we got was juice – you know the clear liquid that forms on top of yogurt. Usually, you get a table spoon or two max per 400 ml container. The little actual yogurt that we ended up with was kinda thin and had a grainy consistency. The taste wasn’t great either. It was edible but not enjoyable. Fail #2.

We weren’t going to throw it away though. Perfectly good milk and yogurt had gone into it. Plus, we are cheap. The next morning, we decided to make palachinki (Bulgarian crepes – click on the hyperlink for a recipe). I make them with milk or yogurt. You can use water instead of milk or yogurt but they are not as good, so the only time I use water is when I have no milk or yogurt. We were out of milk because we had used it in the yogurt experiment but we did have the ill-fated yogurt. So we decided that making palachinki with it was a good way to use it. We were wrong. The batter looked good but stuck to the pan and you couldn’t flip them. We added more oil hoping that would unstick them but no success again. Fail #3.

We set that batter aside (did I mention we were cheap?) and made the palachinki with water because the milk was gone and the darn yogurt was sticky. The resulting second batch of palachinki worked fine and we enjoyed them with fresh strawberries, Nutella and honey.

Then we had to figure out what to do with the first palachinki batter. After a little online research, my Mom found a recipe for these feta cheese pastries we could maybe work into the sticky batter. It was very improvisational, you know, a little bit of this and a little bit of that but (surprise, surprise!) it worked! They rose beautifully and looked and tasted great. Success was our b!+ch at last! Don’t ask us to do it again though, because we couldn’t recreate that masterpiece.

The kids helped too – they had a blast kneading the dough into “fun” shapes . They even named the final products. They called them (ahem) “poopies” (after their favorite shape in the kneading game – the height of sophistication, I know) but hey, they ate them, the name notwithstanding, so I am not going to complain:

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We have had better success with general cooking. The major challenge usually is finding the right-ish ingredients. We’ve been able to find good avocados. They are not the same as the ones we have in the U.S. but they work very well for my favorite guacamole recipe:

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I already mentioned that you can find good yogurt in the stores (though we have yet to figure out how to make good yogurt at home). You can also find nice cucumbers and they are not very expensive, which means we can make decent tarator, a Bulgarian cold cucumber yogurt soup with dill and garlic – yum!:

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In addition to the cucumbers, we have been able to find decent tomatoes (though it is a challenge to find nice ripe ones sometimes) and overpriced feta (both Turkish and Blgarian!), so we have been able to make Shopska, a Bulgarian salad made with the above ingredients (no picture – sorry!)

Between the commissary (a small store at the U.S. Embassy) and the local stores, we can get most of our basic meat needs taken care of. There isn’t a wide variety but that’s not the end of the world. Though I did see a turkey in a local store one day and got real excited. I told Paul and since we didn’t get a chance to cook a turkey of our own while we were in the U.S., we decided, we’d get one and cook it for Ethiopian Christmas. He was on board, so the next day, off we went to the store. I was a little bit worried that the turkeys would be gone, since it was right before one of the largest holidays in the country. We got to the store and to my delight, there were still four turkeys in the freezer. I took one out confidently and handed it to the sales clerk because we were buying it, right? Wrong! The dude weighed the bird and said it was 4 kg (a little over 8 lb), which meant we could take it home for no more, no less than $90!!! We were both like WTF???!!! But there was no mistake - $90, he said. We had to very quietly and gingerly put the damn turkey back in the freezer and walk away broken-hearted and turkey-less. We just couldn’t believe it. We could have paid maybe $30 for it and told everyone what big spenders we were but $90, that’s just nuts! Or we are really cheap (nah). Either way, it wasn’t meant to be…

Alright, that’s enough for tonight. Later!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

First Impressions of Addis

We have been here for 10 days now and I thought I’d sit down and document what we have seen and experienced so far.

First, let me say that before coming to Addis, I was an Africa virgin, as in I had never set foot on the continent. Our jobs here are not language designated, so we didn’t get to learn Amharic (the Ethiopian language spoken around Addis) or take area studies, which makes me feel uncomfortable and ignorant but we will try to fix that as much as we can. Paul has a leg up on me in terms of travel to Africa as he has been to Ghana, Nigeria, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa for work. So naturally, I have heard his stories. I’d also read about Africa, seen pictures, talked to people from Africa as well as others who had lived here, which gave me an idea of what Africa was like. But that’s only a second-hand idea, which is not at all the same as actually living here. Plus, Africa is so huge and diverse…

But be that as it may, ever since I learned I was posted to Addis about a year and a half ago, I’ve been trying to picture what it would be like to live here. I was intensely curious and nervous. I have to say that everything I had heard and read is true but then again not exactly. Of course, I have only seen Addis, and just over 10 days, so my experience is very limited but I want to jot down those first impressions of the place because I know as time goes by, things will become familiar and the wide-eyed curiosity about it will wear off.

So anyway, let’s start with the basics: Addis is the capital of Ethiopia, a country located in East Africa, just north of the equator. Ethiopia’s population is 80+ million, which makes it the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. Ethiopia is a landlocked country and the closest port to Addis is Djibouti. There are about 4 million people living in Addis. It’s very diverse because the seat of the African Union is here and there are a lot of diplomats and officials from all over the world living in the city. It’s elevation is roughly 8,000 ft/2,400 m above sea level, though the U.S. Embassy is little higher at about 9,000 ft/2,700 m.  Ethiopia is considered a high-threat post because of it’s proximity to places like Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.

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Physical map of Ethiopia

Despite its proximity to the equator, Addis doesn’t get really hot because of the high altitude. Right now the temperature is between 70 and 80 F (20-25 C) during the day. The sun is really intense at this altitude though and we have to be careful to avoid sun burn. But after the cold in Virginia, I just can’t get enough of the cloudless blue skies and the bright sunshine. The early mornings, evenings and nights are crisp and even chilly, so we sometimes get the fireplace going to make the house nice and cozy. fireplace1 
Another nice thing about Addis is that unlike most other places in Africa, there’s no malaria, again because of the high altitude, so thankfully, we don’t have to take anti-malaria medication.

We live in an area called Old Airport, which is close to the international school. It’s one of the nicer neighborhoods of the city where there are many embassies and embassy residences. But this is a developing country, so the streets are sporadically paved and you often see sheep and goat herds around in the neighborhood.IMG_1776
There are several small shops, restaurants, bakeries and cafes within walking distance to our house, which is quite nice since we don’t have our car yet and it probably won’t get here for another couple of months.

Our house is nice. We got a few pictures of it when it was assigned to us a couple of months ago but the pictures really didn’t do it justice, so I was very nervous about it as I wasn’t sure there would be enough space for all of us. When we got here, we found that space is not going to be an issue - we even have room for guests, so we are taking reservations. The house has three stories. The living room, dining room and kitchen are on the first floor. There are three bedrooms on the second floor. On the third floor there’s one large room with a queen bed, a couch, arm chairs, a desk and storage.

The house also has some oddities special features, such as the hobbit door into the kitchen which is about 5 ft tall. Max likes the hobbit door:IMG_1775 
The rest of us, not so much. After hitting our heads to the point of seeing stars several times, we learned to duck while going through it but boy was that a painful experience. The kitchen seems to have been an afterthought. It looks like it was built as two additions to the original house. There is no flow to it whatsoever but there is room, so we can’t complain. We have very vocal pipes – any time we use water, the pipes make a whistling sound so loud that it wakes everyone up. We have a tin roof which expands during the day and contracts at night due to the temperature difference making a loud cracking sound. We have a number of oddly placed light switches as well as switches which don’t seem to control anything. The water heaters together with all the required wiring are right above the showers, which makes me extremely nervous but we kinda have to shower, so we do it anyway and hope we don’t get electrocuted.

We have a tiny but lovely yard, maintained by the day guard/gardener we inherited from the prior occupants of the house. We love hanging out in the yard enjoying the nice weather. There are some beautiful roses, geraniums, carnations, hydrangeas and heather but also rosemary, mint and two small coffee plants in the yard. Here’s  picture of one of our coffee plants.IMG_1729

Speaking of  coffee - Ethiopians love it and drink industrial quantities. Coffee originated in this part of the world and Ethiopia exports a lot of it. There are many cafes all over town, including several near our house. The coffee they serve is divine, except for the espresso which is so short and strong that it knocks your socks off. Some of the cafes serve traditional Ethiopian coffee roasted over open fire in a special ceremony using traditional vessels and cups. It looks like this:IMG_1760 
Others serve all the fancy drinks you’d find in a Starbucks coupled with yummy fresh pastries but for a fraction of what you’d pay for them in the U.S. Kaldi’s is one of the more modern cafes, where the caramel macchiato is amazing. The logo looks familiar, no?

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Another cafe, called Billo, has pastries that are so yummy they are unreal:

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Notice the Tiramisu with strawberries? If you know me, you know that I looooooove Tiramisu, so let’s zoom in on it, shall we? Tiramisu with fresh strawberries, people!!! It doesn’t get any better than that in my book. And by the way, wonderful fresh strawberries are available year round. At $1.50 a quart, they are not exactly cheap by local standards but it’s so awesome to have them. So yeah, we will be just fine on the Tiramisu front. IMG_1766
I got a little excited about the Tirmisu, didn’t I? So where were we? Oh, yeah, Ethiopians also love their beer, as can be seen from this clever Christmas display in one of the grocery stores close to our house.

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Because of the timing of our arrival we got to celebrate Christmas twice in the last couple of weeks – once on Dec. 25 right before we left the U.S. and then again on Jan. 7, which is when most Ethiopians celebrate Christmas. Ethiopia is about 70% Christian, 30% Muslim. Most of the Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox though there are other Christian denominations as well.  Unlike the rest of Africa, which was Christianized through colonization, Ethiopia has been predominantly Christian since about 4th century A.D., so Ethiopian Orthodox Christians think of themselves as the original Christians.

Ethiopians, both Christian and Muslim, seem pretty devout and you can hear the call to prayer from churches and mosques around the city throughout the day. I had heard the call to prayer broadcast from mosques using loudspeakers in various places but this is the first place I have been to where Christian churches broadcast the call to prayer and sermons using loudspeakers. Though we don’t understand Amharic or Arabic, it’s kind of neat to hear both the Muslim and Christian calls to prayer.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast (don’t eat meat or animal products) for about 200 days each year - 40 days before Christmas, another 40 days before Easter and every Wednesday and Friday, so there are a lot of vegan Ethiopian dishes. They do eat meat the rest of the time, though not pork. The day before Christmas, there were huge markets around the city where you could buy cows, sheep, goats and chickens for the Christmas feasts. On Christmas Day we saw many piles of hides from the animals which had become Christmas dinner. Not the prettiest of sights but you knew you weren’t just going to get the pretties from me, right? The smell was not for the faint at heart either but we saw the hides being carted away the same day and are guessing they are going to be processed into leather goods.

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Paul and I started work and are trying to fit in the Embassy community. He works in the Public Affairs section on the Young African Leaders Initiative. I am in General Services working on procurement, property and warehousing. The work is interesting and our colleagues, both Ethiopian and U.S., have been very welcoming and friendly. The Embassy assigns volunteer social sponsors to newcomers to help them adjust to a new post. We got a great couple, who have been wonderful helping us set up the house, showing us around and just in general making us feel welcome. They have a little girl Max’s age and the kids seem to be getting along very well. Also, one of the DCMs here (there are two as there are two U.S. missions – a bilateral one between the U.S. and Ethiopia and a multilateral one to the African Union) served with us in Delhi and I have three A-100 classmates who have been in Addis for a while, so we have familiar faces and people to go to when things don’t make sense, which is nice. In addition to that, we have an American-Ethiopian friend from our time in Delhi whose mother is in Addis right now, so she’s been spoiling us too. She has been bringing tons of Ethiopian food, helping us find a nanny and giving us pointers and useful information about living in Ethiopia. Needless to say, life here would be much harder without these folks and we are eternally grateful to them.

The city is undergoing a lot of construction right now, so it’s very dusty. The dust combined with the high altitude is affecting us, so we have been a little under the weather. First the kids, then me, then Paul have all succumbed to congestion, cough, and runny noses but we are slowly starting to feel better. Here’s hoping we’ll be completely well by next Tuesday, when the kids start school. They have been home since we got here and can’t wait to go to school and make new friends.

I was totally expecting us to get high-altitude nausea and headaches like we did in the Himalayas in India but so far that has not been an issue. Perhaps our scary experiences in India prepared us for the high altitude here. We do have some mild nose bleeds and sleeplessness, which we think are high-altitude related. We also get winded very easily but we are told that our bodies will adjust in time. Then watch out for us because when we get back down to sea level, we’ll run like the wind, ha!

Traffic is bad, though not as bad as in Delhi. Of course, in Delhi we didn’t have to worry about the crazy traffic most of the time because we lived on the compound. Now we live across town from the the Embassy, so we are in traffic twice a day every day. We take a shuttle to work and are slowly getting familiar with the city. The commute is great for people-watching, which I find fascinating. We hear there are a couple of traffic lights in Addis but have yet to see one. There are a lot of round-abouts though and they seem to regulate traffic somewhat. Ethiopia has the highest number of motor vehicle fatalities in the world, so driving is stressful. There is a lot of unpredictable behavior on the part of drivers and pedestrians alike. We hear that a lot of the drivers chew a local narcotic, called khat or chat, which apparently is perfectly legal here (!!!) but it gets them high and contributes to their unpredictable behavior. So driving should be fun, right?

OK, I think this is enough for today. There’s more where this came from but the Tiramisu with strawberries is calling my name and I can’t resist. Ciao!

P.S. Just for the record, I know my blog header is in bad need of an update, considering we left India 4 months ago but I don’t yet have appropriate pictures from Ethiopia, so we’ll have to put up with the old one for now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Let the move to Ethiopia begin…

Suitcases

This morning bright and early, I deposited my husband, my daughter, my mother, the cats and way too many suitcases to the airport, so they can begin their 12.5 hour direct flight to Addis. They should have arrived in Addis by now but no word from them yet.

Max and I are still here but spinning our wheels. We wish we could be there already but it wasn’t meant to be. Due to a bunch of administrative mumbo-jumbo, not only are we leaving almost two days later but we also get two layovers and a total flight time of about two days. That’s way too many twos right there. But wait, there’s more. We get to ring in the New Year in the air too. Awesome, right? But I got my Unicorn Farts nail polish on, so I am ready for anything! (I know it’s messed up – I didn’t say I was good at putting nail polish on but I am definitely too cheap thrifty to go to a salon.)

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But at least Paul would have had a couple of days in Addis already. I figure by the time I get there, he’d be practically local. He’d be speaking Amharic, know where everything important is in Addis, have household help lined up, have bought school supplies for the children and everything else we need to set up our new home, have perfected high-altitude cooking and made an awesome feast for us for New Years. Oh, and rolled out the red carpet. Because Unicorn Farts, people.

I was going to write a long blog post about our transfer from New Delhi to Addis describing in great detail all the things that went gloriously wrong and how we had to move mountains to straighten things out but I am too tired right now. Mountain moving is tough. Plus, we are still in the process of ironing out the last kinks, so I don’t want to jinx anything.

What is important is that we are all going to Addis, one way or another. As in no children are left behind to fend for themselves in the U.S. parentless, which was discussed for a while, believe it or not. And no, it was not our idea, in case you were wondering.

We also managed to pack and ship all of our crap stuff without killing each other, although things were rather tense there for a while. But I am happy to report that not even an eye was gouged in the process. So we have that going for us! Because in the Foreign Service, if you can successfully weather three pack-outs and a tour in Vietnam (or a similar place with insanely attractive and aggressive women), you marriage might just last . We are half-way there, honey…

I could tell you that everything went perfectly with our pack-out and that we were one ounce below our weight allowances but I’d be lying. That’s not how we roll. It seemed like we were right on with our UAB until the packers left and we found a several largish items, we had forgotten. Plus, I failed miserably at convincing my better half to pack our suitcases before our pack-out, so we know exactly how much we need to pack and better prioritize what has to go to UAB vs. Consumables. Nah, too logical. Instead, after the not-so-smooth pack-out, we had to pack our suitcases to the point of explosion and still had a bunch of boxes to ship to ourselves in Addis, which somehow became my job. Oh, the joy!

This was our first time shipping consumables. We were able to reach an agreement (sort of) on what we needed to buy but how to go about it was a point of contention. I, the gatherer, thought we should be buying things throughout our time in Washington and get the job done gradually but methodically. My husband, the hunter, thought we should kill it (buy everything) with one stone the weekend before our pack-out, which was also two days before Christmas. His argument was that we didn’t really have the space to store the consumables for a long time. He was right about that because there were five of us crammed in a two-bedroom apartment but buying a boatload of consumables in 24 hours from a dozen different stores and virtually melting our credit cards in the process right before Christmas makes a pathological methodical gatherer like me a teensy bit edgy. But I have my Unicorn Farts, so I. AM. FINE!

Anyway, Christmas was wonderful. There was even an engagement in the family, which was awesome! The extended family, that is. A lovely niece, not Nia or me or my Mother!

But now I am in desperate need of some Zs, so I am going to call it a night. The next time you hear from me, it will probably be from Addis (Internet Gods Willing) and in 2015!

Have a fantastic New Year everyone!

P.S. For the record, putting on Unicorn Farts nail polish is a royal pain in the hiney. It took me forever and a half to position the confetti approximately where I wanted them to go. Being klutzish didn’t help either.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Well, hello there. I know I haven’t written a blog post in quite a while but things have been kinda hectic since I started GSO training. I need to put together a recap of what’s been going on over here but it’s not going to be today.

Today, I just want to say Merry Christmas. May 2015 be our and your best year yet!

Below is a very improvised Christmas card I put in a hurry this morning. Being Christmas-treeless this year, we took a stroll to the White House and took a picture with the National Christmas tree. It was beautiful and because we are leaving the U.S. in a few days, being there felt that much more special.

Hope Santa brought you all that you wished for!

xmas card 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Waterish and Washingtons

I wish I was better at writing down the cute things our kids say and do but I usually forget. Yesterday, however Max said something that I thought was quite clever, so I have to share it.

He got up in the morning and said he had a really nice dream, in which he was at a play store. He sad he wanted to go to said play store. I asked him where the play store was and he said it was close to the waterish. Hmmmm? “What is waterish?”, I asked. He couldn’t quite explain. Later that morning we drove into Washington, D.C. to go to the Spy Museum. As we were crossing the Potomac river, Max pointed to it and said that it was a big waterish, much bigger than the one close to the play store in his dream. So, we figure waterish must be a river or something water-ish. Quite logical, no?

His waterish reminded me of a similar episode from when Nia was about his age. We were talking about laundry one day when she said something about using washingtons. I must have given her a puzzled look because she proceeded to explain to me that washingtons were things you use to wash your clothes, of course!

That, and lippings were lipsticks, in case you were wondering…

What cute things do your kids say?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Throw Back India: Ladakh (Part 2 – Pangong Lake)

(This is Part 2 of a two-part series about a trip we took to Ladakh. If you are looking for Part 1: Leh, you can find it here.)

On day two of our trip to Ladakh, we got up early, showered, packed, had breakfast and hit the road to Pangong Lake. A car and driver were part of our package and we really lucked out with the driver this time. He was a young Ladakhi, unassuming but sweet, helpful and very patient. He told us he drives tourists to Pangong weekly (!!!), so he knew the road like the back of his hand, which was a very good thing. Plus, he was not a honker – a rare breed in India and a huge plus in my book!

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Pangong Lake is about 100 miles (150 km) from Leh. According to Google’s magic algorithm, it takes 3 hours and 15 minutes to get there, but don’t let that fool you – the folks at Google don’t know what they are talking about in this case because you really can’t make it to Pangong (alive) in less than 5 hours.

Why? Well, for starters you have to go through Chang La, which at 17,688 ft (5,360 m) the third highest motorable pass in the world. Going through it can be problematic for stupid high-altitude newbies like us. And the road is downright scary. It is steep and vomit-inducingly ziggy-zaggy and constantly in need of repair because of heavy snow, rain and avalanches. I just remember looking up and seeing something that looked like a road up the steep mountain because there were cars creeping up it and thinking, “OMG, that couldn’t possibly be where we need to go!” only to realize minutes later that there was nowhere else to go and that indeed was the road. There are no guardrails on the road but there is some crazy driving evidenced by the multiple car carcasses we saw which had rolled off the cliffs.

I can honestly say that this was the scariest ride of my life. But you know what’s even scarier than the drive up to Pangong? The thought of having to drive back. Your heart is in your throat most of the drive up, you are pukey and hyperventilating from the high altitude, your head is hurting like the dickens but you finally get to Pangong Lake and you perk up a bit because the lake is ah-mazing. And then it hits you: “Shi$##$#@, we have to drive back tomorrow!!! There’s got to be another way! (There isn’t.) A helicopter? A broom? A dragon? Anything but driving back…” But I am getting ahead of myself…

So we left Leh in the morning and drove southeast along a nice open road through the desert, which looked like a moonscape…

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…with occasional villages, monasteries, stupas and military bases…
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… until the road ran into a river and started following its flow. We asked the driver what river that was. He said it was the Indus. Huh? This just seemed like the totally wrong place and direction for the Indus to us but that’s just tells you how ignorant we were because the Indus does indeed originate in the Tibetan plateau and makes a sweeping curve to the north into China before eventually running south through Pakistan and into the Indian ocean. Whaddayaknow?

Hi, Baby Indus!

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We didn’t enjoy the river view for long though because we had to stop at a check-point and present our permissions to be there. While the driver was taking care of the permissions business we saw these huge piles of rocks, which seemed to have interesting drawings on them. The driver later told us that those were Buddhist mantras (prayers) carved into the stones.

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Our permissions checked, we continued on our way to Pangong. The road turned northeast and cut through a scenic valley dotted with little villages and monasteries.

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IMG_0748We reached the edge of the valley and the road started climbing up and up and up. We were approaching Chang La pass, the highest point of our journey, so we decided to take some oxygen as a precaution.

IMG_0759Nia did fine but try as we might, we could not convince Max to put the mask on, which was a problem because next thing we knew was he had to puke.

P1010021 He was a trooper though, as soon as he was done puking he said he was ready to get back in the car and go. We ended up taking several more puke breaks.

We saw groups of South Indian looking people doing maintenance work on the road. The driver told us that most of them were from Bihar (one of the poorest states in India) and were living in tents in the mountains doing road construction pretty much by hand.

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The road kept winding up the mountain and it seemed like it would never end. We could still see the valley where we started climbing up but it was so far down now you could barely see it.

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Finally, we made it to Chang La! Hello 17,688 ft (5,360 m) – the highest place we’ve ever been.

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It was kinda pretty up at the pass and there were a few tea shops but we didn’t stop because it was very cold and windy and it was starting to snow. Plus, we were not feeling well and still had a long way to go to Pangong.

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IMG_0866 We tried to enjoy the scenery as much as we could on the way down despite feeling sick. Our last puke stop happened to be in a really beautiful area with a mountain creek running alongside the road and pretty purple flowers…

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…so we asked our driver to take our picture…

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We went through many interesting areas formed by rocks, wind, and snow/water and saw wild horses and yaks…

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… until at long last we saw Pangong lake – a tiny splotch of bright blue in the distance.

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We made our way to our campground, Camp Martsemik, dropped off our stuff at our fancy tent (which had running water, a toilet and a shower in it)
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… and enjoyed a late veggie lunch in the dining tent. The food was very basic but heavy on the rice, so it helped settle our tummies a little bit.

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Then we walked to the lake, which was just as spectacular as we had imagined.

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Pangong Tzo means long, narrow enchanted lake in Tibetan and that’s an apt description. Because it is on the disputed border between India and China, there is a military base on the Indian side (as I am sure there is on the Chinese) with a huge Indian flag. The area actually saw military action during the Sino-Chinese war in 1962.

Today, the Indian side of the lake is a protected wetland area. The water in the lake is brackish but it gets so cold there during the winter that the whole lake freezes over. The passes into the area are also snowed in 9 months out of the year, so life must be pretty tough up there for the soldiers in the military base and the people living in the few small villages in the vicinity. IMG_1076 
The weather was gorgeous and the sky as blue as ever. The kids were in heaven skipping stones and playing in the brackish water. I don’t think they even noticed or cared that the water was freezing. Watching them play with such abandon was the kind of joy you want to bottle and stash away for a rainy day (or the drive back, as the case may be).

IMG_1051 We did notice that other than two local kids, ours were the only other kids at Pangong – one of those things that make you go, hmmmm…
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After a couple of hours at the lake, we went back to the camp. Our driver found us and said there was a village on the lake and that we could go see it if we wanted to. We did. The road to the village went up a high hill and the view of the lake would have been incredible but it was getting dark and there wasn’t quite enough light. We kicked ourselves for not going there earlier when the light was better.

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Back at the camp, we had dinner and settled in for the night, which was easier said than done. We were all winded and had a hard time breathing, especially Max. We finally managed to convince him to take some oxygen, which helped for a little bit but by the time he fell asleep I was quite scared because he was gasping for air. We gave him more oxygen and he finally fell asleep even though there was a wild party outside our tent and there was nothing we could do about it. There were a bunch of people who had come to Pangong on motorcycles (brave souls) in our camp and they didn’t stop singing loudly until the wee hours of the morning.

Riding motorcycles through the Himalayas is a very popular thing to do for adventurous Indians and foreigners alike. It is also very dangerous. A U.S. citizen had a horrible motorcycle accident in Ladakh when we were there and ended up dying a few days later. Unfortunately, he was not the only one. But that didn’t seem to be a deterrent. Motorcycling around the Himalayas is big business too. There are several Indian-made motorcycles (Royal Enfield comes to mind although there are others) which are very popular and you can rent them all over the Himalayas. But I digress…

It got really cold overnight – below freezing for sure because I saw ice outside our tent the next morning. There were plenty of warm blankets in the tent to keep us warm but Max, who is not used to sleeping covered, kept kicking his blankets off all night. I spent most of the night making sure he was covered because I was afraid he’d freeze. Either that or pass out because of the altitude. I kept making sure that both children were breathing, while gasping for air occasionally myself. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep again, which gave me plenty of time to conclude that we were horrible parents to put our kids in this situation.

But we lived. We woke up to a brilliant morning on the lake and things looked better. Well, except for the prospect of going back up through Chang La, that is. We enjoyed the view of the lake from the camp for a little bit. We decided to skip breakfast (less puking material that way, we thought) but got plenty of water and hit the road again.

On the way back we saw some yaks, marmots and wild horses:

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And then Max started gasping for air again. Badly! We tried giving him oxygen but it didn’t seem to help. He wasn’t complaining but just looked and sounded unwell. The driver was also concerned about Max – he kept checking on him in the rearview mirror and could hear him gasp. A few minutes later, the driver said that perhaps we should take him to a hospital. We figured he sees dumb foreigners like us all the time and probably knows better than us when one looks like they need medical help. He said there was a village nearby and he knew there was a small hospital there. This was not time to be coy or picky, so we immediately agreed although we had no idea what the hospital would be like. We got to the hospital and brought Max in.

It was a very modest government hospital with a few nurses, who were incredibly nice. There was a motorcyclist there who was also having high-altitude issues. The nurses immediately examined Max and hooked him up to a large oxygen tank. They also gave him anti-nausea medication and said we needed to stay there for at least a half hour before going back on the road. Max perked up a little while we waited. The nurses said we should keep him awake until we were on the other side of the Chang La pass and sent us on our way. We wanted to pay them but they wouldn’t take our money – not for their services, the oxygen, nor the medication. We insisted but they wouldn’t budge. Finally, we said we wanted to make a small donation to the hospital and reciprocated for their generosity that way.

We knew it would be hard to get over the pass but there was no other way back so off we went again. Max was dozing off. I tried to keep him awake but failed. He seemed to really need the sleep, plus he was breathing fine, so I let him sleep against the nurses advice, checking periodically to make sure he didn’t pass out.

Going over the pass on the way back was just as sickening as on the way there but somehow we made it to the other side, even though we ran out of oxygen. The driver saw we were in bad shape, so he took a short-cut to the valley on the other side of the pass. As soon as we got to the valley Paul felt awful and had to puke.

There were a couple of monasteries, which we wanted to visit on the way back but ended up stopping at just one of them – Hemis. The kids and I had lunch at the monastery and looked around, while Paul tried to nap in the car.

Here are a few pictures from Hemis:

IMG_1144IMG_1141IMG_1148IMG_1147I really wanted to see the other monasteries because I had heard they were really neat but the kids didn’t have the patience and Paul was not feeling well, so we skipped them and went back to Leh. Nia and I went downtown and did a little shopping but then we went back to the hotel and called it a night. Sleeping was not a big deal that night. I am guessing we had acclimated to Leh’s relatively lower altitude by then and were OK.

The next morning, we had breakfast, packed our bags and caught our flight back to Delhi.

In hindsight, the trip to Ladakh was dangerous and we should probably not have gone on it or at least not with the kids. But hindsight is always 20/20 - we really didn’t know that before we went even though we did research online and talked to people who had been there. No one had been there with little kids though. A couple of friends were surprised we are taking the kids to Ladakh but we take our kids wherever we go and truly didn’t understand the risks (the scary roads, the high altitude) until after we got there.

Am I sorry we took the trip? Absolutely not. It was rough and scary at the time but we survived and the memories from it are priceless. It was just so different from other places we have been that we will probably tell stories about it for a long time. So if you are thinking about going to Ladakh, I am not going to stop you but I will suggest that you research it thoroughly, weigh the risks and make sure you are OK with them before you go.

I will leave you with the closing scene from one of my favorite Indian Movies, Three Idiots (2009), which takes place at Pangong Lake. We saw the movie for the first time about three years ago while we were in Hindi Language training. At the time we didn’t know that this scene took place in Ladakh or that the lake was called Pangong Lake. We just knew we wanted to go there because it looked so darn awesome. So it was really the movies fault that we went there. Apparently, we were not the only ones. Pangong Lake, really took off as a tourist destination after the movie.  Really good movie, by the way and if you haven’t seen it, you should. But here is the scene:

 
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