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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Five Great and Five Not So Great Things about Serving in Addis

This post is long overdue and it is similar to the one I wrote about India five years ago. My family and I arrived in Addis in January, 2015. My family left in July, 2016, while I had to stay until April, 2017.

Before we moved to Addis, we did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people who had lived there. Many of them told us Addis was Africa light. We and the majority of our colleagues, who lived there around the same time as us, did not find that to be the case. That is not to say that there are no nice things about Addis or that we didn't have good experiences there. We just found it hard for our family. We also had friends who had lived there years before and came back when we were there. Those friends said it had changed a lot, and not necessarily for the better. There was so much rubble and new construction, that the place was almost unrecognizable. Perhaps it's these growing pains that made it a hard place for us but without further ado, here are my five faves and five not so faves about Addis.

On the plus side:

1. The coffee (and the sweets that often go with it) - Yes, it's true, Ethiopian coffee is amazing. You can find anything from Ethiopian style (sweet or salty) to fancy caramel macchiatos all over town for a fraction of what you would pay in the US. We actually lucked out and had two trees already growing in our yard, which was pretty fantastic. We got to harvest, roast and drink our own coffee. How cool is that?

2. The school - The International Community School in Addis is very good. Both Max and Nia liked it, as did the children of most of our colleagues. Because Addis is the seat of the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, there are a lot of expats in the city, so the school is truly international. It has nice grounds with a decent amount of green space. The teachers are generally attentive and caring and the community tight-knit. There are many activities associated with the school during the school year and that is one way to meet people. Because there are not a lot of other nice places for children to hang out in Addis, we often went to the school - it's clean and has nice playgrounds for the kids to run around, and reliable internet for the parents. The school was experiencing a lot of growth and there was an expansion/construction project going on around the time we left.

3. The weather - Addis weather is wonderful, for the most part. It never gets too hot or too cold (rarely more than 25 C or down to freezing). There are a couple of rainy seasons - little rains and big rains, they call them, but the little rains usually only last about two weeks or so. The big rains are usually between May and late October and can be gloomy and cold-ish but even then there are usually a few hours of sunshine during the day.

4. Culture and places to visit in Ethiopia and beyond - Ethiopia has a long and interesting history. It is predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox (though there are Muslims as well as a few other religions) and that permeates all aspects of life. The majority of Ethiopians fast (eat a vegan diet) more than 200 days a year. Ethiopians are very proud of the fact that Ethiopia was never colonized and that it is the only country in Africa with its own alphabet. There are many different ethnic groups in the country, each with it's own language and culture, so it is fascinating to travel and see them. The geography of the country is pretty diverse. It is land-locked but some of the lowest and hottest areas of the world are in Ethiopia as well as some scenic mountains. We got to visit Lalibela and the Lake Langano area as a family. Then I travelled through the Blue Nile Gorge to Bahadar and Gondar for work and had the rare chance to visit the Danakil depression and see the Erta Ale volcano and the Dallol salt flats too. Addis also happens to be an airline hub for Africa and beyond. Ethiopian Airlines is a government-owned airline but they are investing in it, so they have newer planes and are constantly developing new routes. This means you can fly direct to most places in Africa and Europe but also the Middle East, India, China, Japan, Thailand, etc. We took advantage of that as much as we could and went to Turkey, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Seychelles. I also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point of Africa and had an incredible experience. I have only blogged about our trip to Lalibela so far but am hoping to blog about the other trips in the near future.

5. No Malaria in Addis - Not having to worry about malaria is great but that's only in Addis, because it's high (8,500+ ft above sea level). Most other places in Ethiopia have malaria, so we had to take malaria medication when we travelled outside Addis.

On the minus side:

1. Political issues - I am not going to spend a lot of time on this but it does put a damper on life. While I was there, we experienced unrest, clashes between protesters and the government, which culminated in the government declaring a state of emergency, during which there was heightened military and police presence and for a couple of months we (diplomats) were not allowed to leave Addis.

2. Internet - If you live in Ethiopia, you get to experience some of the most expensive and unreliable internet services for in the world. This is not an exaggeration. The company that offers it, Ethiotelecom, is a government-owned monopoly. Assuming you will have enough connectivity to work from home is not realistic. Leading up to and during the state of emergency, there were periods when we had no phone or internet connections. We had internet outages that lasted weeks, some colleagues had to go without for months. And the Ethiotelecom kept billing us... You learn to deal with it but it is far from ideal.

3. Driving in Addis - Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of motor vehicle fatalities in the world. I drove to work every day during my last year at post and it was nerve wracking. Addis has the hardest driving conditions I have ever experienced. Admittedly, I did not drive in Delhi because we lived on a compound, which was across the street from the Embassy, but I found traffic in Addis to be worse. Sure, there were more vehicles, people and animals on the roads in Delhi but there seemed to be more of a method to their madness there. Addis traffic is a crazy free-for-all. There's just so much unpredictable behaviour on the part of both pedestrians and drivers, it's uncanny. Many of the drivers use a mild narcotic, called chat or khat, which is legal in Ethiopia, and their driving gets progressively worse throughout the day. Most Ethiopians do not consider beer or wine alcohol and that definitely contributes to the insanity. The pedestrians are unbelievable - they often run into traffic without looking and with their backs towards traffic. They often exercise, play, sleep, make out in the middle of the road. The streets are poorly lit at night and it is almost impossible to see what's going on. When we got to Addis, there were only a couple of traffic lights. They installed quite a few while we were there but they didn't work quite right. The timing was always off and they created more problems than they solved. Ethiopians treated traffic lights as optional, especially at night when I was usually the only one waiting for the light to change. Everyone else just kept going. I really tried to keep my cool while driving but have to admit that driving in Ethiopia made me a honker (and I hated honkers with a passion prior to that!) and a total potty mouth. I am still in disbelief that I left Addis without getting into a car accident - that is rare!

4. Health Issues - you have to get quite a few shots before you move to Addis but still, the first six months of living there can be rough. It took us a while to get used to the altitude - we had some breathlessness, sleeplessness, respiratory and other similar symptoms. Gastro-intestinal issues were common. You could get sick even at some of the best restaurants in town. Only one lake in the country (Langano) was safe-ish to swim in. The rest all had shisto and/or crocodiles and other interesting creatures living in them. There was intermittent cholera in Addis and around the country but even without cholera, the tap water was unsafe to drink or cook with, so we had to distil it for drinking and had to wash fruit and vegetables in bleach before consuming them. Pollution in Addis is not as terrible as it is in Delhi but then again Addis is about five times smaller than Delhi. Most of the vehicles on the road are old (including a huge number of 1980s Soviet Ladas, which was quite surreal!) and spew an inordinate amount of exhaust in the air. One of the projects I worked on while I was in Addis was procuring and installing air quality monitors for the embassy and the school to measure exactly how bad the air is and it is not good. If you are curious, you can check current air quality readings in Addis here. Sometimes, there are no readings because the internet is so unreliable. In addition to old polluting vehicles, there is a lot of dust in the air from all the demolition and construction projects all over town.

5. Safety - the housing in Addis was not great. Our house was not new and needed work, so we often had plumbing, electrical and other housing related issues. You may think, the government is providing her housing and maintaining it and she is complaining, while a lot of people in Ethiopia live in shantytowns. While that is indeed very true, our housing elsewhere is substantially better. But because the African Union and UN Commission on Africa are in Addis, there are a lot of expats competing for the same limited pool of adequate (and overpriced!) housing. Most of the roads are bad and deteriorate significantly during the rainy season. You just learn where the worst potholes are and try to avoid them as best as you can. We were not allowed to drive after dark outside Addis - it was just not safe. In Addis, you never went anywhere after dark where you hadn't been during daylight because you could destroy your car, that's how bad some of the potholes were. While the country was otherwise safe-ish, there are pick-pockets and scam artists who prey on foreigners. Several of my colleagues had their phones and purses stolen in broad daylight.

So there you have it - the five highlights and lowlights of living in Addis. Agree, disagree, have something to add? Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Happy Holidays from the Worst Blogger Ever!


I know, I know, I know - I haven't blogged in forever. It was a very long, unplanned, unannounced hiatus, I guess. If you were one of my few readers, I am sorry! Of course, I have excuses but who cares, right? The point is I missed blogging and have been thinking about going back to it. But the longer you go without blogging, the harder it is to go back. I have started many posts in my head that never saw the light of day for one reason or another. It has been so long now that I am not sure where to begin. Perhaps one way would be to write a catch up post (or two) and then maybe a few retroactive ones to bring us to today somehow and then move forward from there. 

Sounds like a halfway decent plan, no? I have nothing better, so we'll have to go with that for now.

But today, I just wanted to say Happy Holidays! Here's hoping you and yours are well and that your 2018 is so awesome that it blows you away!



Friday, April 10, 2015

Love and Marriage

So we are watching Wall.E, the movie tonight. Max and I are snuggled on the couch and Nia and Paul are sitting in the armchairs nearby. Max is starting to understand that Wall.E is falling for EVA. All of a sudden he says to me:

I love you, Mommy!

Me: I love you too, Sweetheart!

Max: Mommy, will you marry me?

Me: But Max, I’m already taken.

Max: OK, maybe tomorrow…

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ya Bunna (Coffee)

Yesterday, I visited Ya Bunna, a small specialty coffee company in Addis. The trip was organized by the Community Liaison Office of the Embassy (again) and I almost missed it. My ride didn’t show up and Paul is in South Africa for work, so I had an uncomfortable decision to make. Do I give up and stay home or do I drive?

You see, we had just gotten our car the previous weekend and had driven it twice – once to bring it home and another time to take Max to the doctor because he was sick. Paul drove both times. But now he wasn’t home, so I couldn’t get him to give me a ride. I had contemplated driving in Addis, some day, maybe but not for a while. Because driving in Addis is a total free-for-all and because I am a chicken, that’s why. All of a sudden I had to drive or I was going to miss this trip and I really wanted to go.

“Do one thing every day that scares you,” I remembered reading somewhere. Driving fit the bill, so off I went. I took the ring road, which is pretty much the only route I felt somewhat confident about. It’s a highway, kinda, except people do crazy stuff on it like jumping the fences and crossing without looking, exercising, sleeping (that’s right, often with body parts sticking out in the lanes), driving their donkeys, sheep, goats or cows down the road, playing soccer, driving with unsecured cargo or cargo three times as high as their vehicle  - you know, fun stuff like that. So yeah, driving was a white knuckle, nerve-racking experience but I am happy to report that I didn’t wreck the car and I didn’t kill anyone, so I call it a success. Plus, I got to do go on the trip, which was pretty cool.

Ya Bunna is a relatively new husband-and-wife operation. The company is very small but they are truly passionate about coffee in general and especially about Ethiopian coffee, so it was fascinating to talk to them and taste their coffees.

IMG_2560 The owners of Ya Bunna

I have to admit I had a very selfish reason for going. There are two coffee trees in our back yard and we have been harvesting and roasting the coffee but didn’t really know what we were doing, so I wanted to learn to do it right. And learn I did. A lot. So I thought I’d share what I learned here:

Apparently, the only coffee variety you are allowed to grow in Ethiopia is Arabica. This is where Arabica originated. Robusta, the other well-known coffee variety, is grown elsewhere in the world and in Africa (in places like Sudan and Rwanda). Robusta is hardier and has a higher caffeine content but its flavor is not as good, so Arabica is often added to it to improve the flavor. There are many different types of Arabica grown in Ethiopia and their flavor varies depending on which part of the country they are grown in.

You harvest the coffee berries when they are bright red. If they are not quite ripe enough, the coffee will taste bitter, if they are over-ripe, it will have a sweeter fermented taste. People who can’t afford to buy actual coffee, make “coffee” out of the dried fruit (or even the leaves) instead which costs a lot less than coffee but also packs a caffeine punch. I recently tasted the the coffee berries in our back yard and they actually taste very good. They are sweet but not overwhelmingly so. They taste kinda like cherries but not as sweet. I am going to try making “coffee” out of the berries with the next batch of coffee I pick in my yard. But I digress…

So, after you harvest the coffee berries, you either peel the fruit pulp, wash the coffee beans and sun dry for about two weeks or you sun dry it without washing, (fruit and all). The washed coffee is more expensive than the dry coffee but the dry coffee is a little sweeter because it dries with the fruit pulp on it. Most of Ya Bunna’s coffee is dry.

Coffee is harvested between November and March to avoid the rainy season, which makes it impossible to properly sun dry the coffee. It takes an average coffee plant 3-5 years to bear enough fruit to be viable and the coffee is the best  around the 6th-7th year. Coffee is a tropical plant. It likes shade and high altitude but it doesn’t like frost (which happens sometimes in the highlands of Ethiopia).

Apparently, with coffee, as with other things, size doesn’t matter, ha! A lot of manufacturers worldwide sort coffee beans by size but size has nothing to do with the quality or flavor of the coffee. It’s where and how it’s grown and how it’s roasted that matters. Also, dark roast makes all coffees taste pretty much the same (burnt). In order to appreciate the flavor of coffee or taste the difference between the various different kinds, you have to get medium roast. Coffee manufacturers sometimes dark roast their coffee and/or add cardamom and other spices in an effort to improve/mask its flavor.

In Ethiopia, you have to have an export license (which is hard to get) to export coffee. The best coffee is grown for export and is used to generate foreign currency. You are not allowed to sell export grade coffee in Ethiopia. There is a concern in Ethiopia that chat (khat), a mild narcotic, may displace coffee cultivation because it pays better and the demand for it is growing faster than that for coffee.

What Ya Bunna does is not rocket science but they do have a scientific approach to it. The husband immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the end of the Derg Regime (a totalitarian government which ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1987). He finished high school and got his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the U.S. He is a biochemist by training and brings that background to the making of coffee. Ya Bunna buys coffee from Ethiopian growers and then sorts it meticulously separating under-ripe beans and beans damaged by frost or pests. They end up with three grades coffee.

IMG_2523A Ya Bunna employee sorting raw coffee beans from a farm in Wollega.

The lowest grade coffee (the under-ripe, frost- and pest-damaged beans) they never even roast. They sell it raw on the local market where there’s a lot of demand for it. Ethiopia is a poor country but coffee is so ingrained in the culture that everyone drinks it all the time. There are coffee stands all over the Ethiopia, where the raw coffee beans are roasted in a pan over a brazier, ground by hand and made in special clay pots over the brazier. Of course, there are also fancy cafes with expensive espresso machines and high-end grinders but the vast majority of people drink brazier coffee made either at home or on the street. They are not as concerned about the quality of the beans – they need the caffeine and even the lowest grade coffee provides plenty of that for very little money.

IMG_2526 Ya Bunna’s three grades of coffee (raw) – first grade loose in the bucket, second grade is at the top of the picture and third grade in the bottom left (the picture is not great but you can kinda see the dark and imperfect beans).

The second grade is good coffee but not great. It may have slightly under-ripe or over-ripe beans. It is usually bought by the hotels in Addis. The first grade contains only the very best beans and it goes for export. While other coffee companies in Ethiopia make coffee blends, Ya Bunna specializes in single-origin coffee. They are all about flavor and get really excited about the mocha flavor of the highly-prized Harrar coffee (which is hardest to get), the slightly spicy and citrus-y profile of Sidamo coffee, and the creaminess of Tepi cofee. And because flavor is so important to them, all their coffees are medium-roast.

IMG_2546And this is what medium roast coffee looks like (sorry the picture is a little blurry).

Ya Bunna roasts their coffee in a gas coffee roasting machine from Turkey. Gas heats the beans evenly and the result is uniformly roasted beans. They have their eyes on a U.S-made roasting machine but it is substantially more expensive and for a larger scale operation, so they will have to grow the business before they can afford it. Their current machine has a spinner, so the coffee is constantly moving while it’s being roasted, which also helps roast the coffee uniformly. Coffee expands when heated and makes a popping sound similar to popcorn. Each bean pops twice - once at about 172 – 174 Celsius (which is the beginning of the medium roast) and a second time at around 187 Celsius (the beginning of the dark roast).

IMG_2567 Checking the coffee to make sure it’s not getting too dark.

I have never been a coffee snob but I am afraid I will become one after my tour in Ethiopia. I still drink my giant cup of instant coffee with milk (no sugar, no water) in the morning but I have grown to appreciate the awesome coffees offered at the nicer cafes in town. I was never a dark-roast fan but now I am definitely a medium-roast convert. Something that I sort of knew but Ya Bunna reminded me is that it’s best to buy beans as ground coffee doesn’t last very long (only about 3 months). Beans last about 6-9 months, if stored well.

If you want to roast coffee at home, you can do so in a pan over a burner but you have to stir the coffee constantly and watch it closely to make sure it doesn’t burn. I have some of my home-grown coffee drying right now and am looking forward to roasting it in about a week. I get to grow, harvest and roast my own coffee and now I know how to do it right. How cool is that?!!!

So, all in all, I had a wonderful time at Ya Bunna. They were preparing to go to the Specialty Coffee Association of America trade show in Seattle in a couple of weeks and are already talking to U.S. companies about exporting to the U.S. They are thinking about solidifying their brand and eventually buying a coffee farm. I am excited about their future and look forward to seeing their coffee in the U.S.

I will leave you with one parting thought. I asked the owner what’s the best coffee in the world. He said it depends - some people like earthy flavor, others like spicy and citrus-y. Some, like many Southern Ethiopians like their coffee sweet, while the highlanders like it unsweet. He said his personal favorite is Bale coffee but again it’s in the taste buds of the drinker. He said that to determine if a coffee is good, you should order a single shot of espresso. If you taste buds get excited, it’s good coffee. (He also said that in a good shop espresso, will never be dark-roast).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lalibela

I have been meaning to write about our trip to Lalibela but we have been getting our shipments and were 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. We did see it though 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 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 didn’t really understand how they were built 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 for Ehiopian 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 hundreds of miles to get there. And as I said earlier, the terrain is rough, its 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 a 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 see them all but they were all neat. Here are my favorite moments of our time there:

IMG_1975 This pool is famous because 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.

IMG_2204Pilgrims – 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 also wear scarves though theirs are usually larger and not as fine or richly decorated.

IMG_2214  This young mom had the most beautiful smile.

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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

IMG_1915 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.

 
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