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!

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