Sunday, December 28, 2008

Never Returning Home

It's too long and complicated a story to cover in depth, but you can get an overview of Eritrea's war for independence from Ethiopia here (as well as the ongoing border dispute).  Saudi Arabia has the largest population of expatriate Eritreans in the world (around 50,000), and there are a lot of Eritreans working at the embassy, almost all of whom grew up in what was then Ethiopia.  Word evidently got around about my trip to Ethiopia, and I had all of these older men whom I had never met come up to me and ask me about Addis.  They all had this sad, wonderful expression on their face, as they asked me about their favorite restaurants or neighborhoods or sights in a city to which they have no hope of ever returning.  All of them seemed so excited to hear me talk about how much I enjoyed my time in the city, and these older men, many of whom work menial jobs and never really talk to the Americans that much, bubbled with excitement that I would willingly visit the city they love and would be happy about it.  It was one of the saddest things I think I've ever seen.  

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Ethiopia Should Be Your Next Tourist Destination

Well, I've been lax on the updating front of late - sorry!  Ever since I got back from Ethiopia, work has been a bigger nightmare than normal, so I haven't had the energy or the inclination to be creative.  So let's catch you up through the end of my vacation in early December, shall we?

I left you as I was sitting at a cafe in Jerusalem.  I found out later that night that, consistent with my Middle East travel patterns, something screwy happened when I got to Jerusalem.  When I was there in 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed in the middle of my trip.  This time, right as our minibus was climbing out of the Jordan river valley, the IDF evicted some of the more toxic West Bank settlers from a building they'd claimed in Hebron.  I managed to dodge all of the fallout from this, happily, since I didn't spend much time in the Old City, where there were demonstrations but nothing too bothersome.

The last time I went to Jerusalem, the trip solely revolved around the city's historical and cultural fabric - we paid the barest of lip service to everyday life there, and we spent every waking hour seeing any site with any historical significance (in a city continuously settled for over three thousand years) - so we didn't have much time for creature comforts in Jerusalem.  This time, I did nothing historical, nothing touristy, nothing that required a tour guide or a translator.  It was my first time out of the Kingdom since I got here in August, and I honestly can say that in the intervening three months I had forgotten what it was like to hang out for fun in a bar with friends.  For those of you who've been worried about my sanity, Jerusalem was a good tonic for me.  It was good to see my friend Cyndee, whom I hadn't seen since we left DC in August, as well as meet other people posted to the consulate in Jerusalem.  Since everyone in my bureau (Near Eastern Affairs) just bounces from one neighboring country to another, I ended up meeting a lot of people who have mutual friends with me.  In short?  I had fun.  I hadn't had that in months.

Ethiopia was a different sort of fun.  It was the first time I had spent a few days in a country that is clearly in the third world; poverty is very apparent there, especially in Addis Ababa, where we spent most of our time.  Begging, shanty towns, and a near-complete lack of infrastructure plague the city.  With that being said, the people are phenomenally kind, the city is quite safe, and the ever-present cafe culture blends the best that Ethiopia has to offer: coffee, music, food, and friendliness.  If you're looking for a cheap and unusual vacation, I can't recommend Ethiopia enough.

I and a friend of mine from Embassy Sanaa spent five days in Ethiopia, with two days spent outside of Addis and the rest of the time roaming the city.  We went to Wenchi Crater, a lake in the cone of a dormant volcano.  For about fifteen dollars each, we got a horseback ride down from the edge to the lake surface, a boat ride to the monastery on an island in the middle of the lake, and a guided hike/horseback schlep back up to the top of the volcano by way of a small rift valley filled with green pastures, small springfed watermills, and hot water springs and mud vents.  File this one under things you can't do in the States!  

And now for the obligatory photos.  Again, there's some overlap with Facebook, but I'll try to go a bit more in-depth here.  Most of the photos from our days out in Addis are with my friend David now, because my camera was dead for part of the trip, but I think the more interesting stuff is from our trip outside the city anyway.

My friend Cyndee, from US Consulate Jerusalem.  We are standing in an honest-to-God bar.   Just before this I had pork for dinner while sitting between two men.  Amazing!  

Addis from above.  If it doesn't look very distinct, well...  it was a hazy day from the car pollution, and the city really isn't all that developed.  Some of the women who live on the edge of town hike all the way up this mountain every morning, cut down a hundred pounds of firewood or more, and then hike down to those far-off buildings with the bundle strapped to their back.  They then do it again in the afternoon.

Wenchi Crater lake, from the very top of the crater.  It's a long way down, folks... luckily, we had horses to ride for the worst parts of the trek down to the lake and back up again.  Unluckily, the horses were tiny, the saddles were jerry-rigged, and stirrups were a suggestion - suffice it to say that we were walking in pain the next day.  

The intrepid explorer on the lake, also known as David, my friend from months of Arabic training in DC.  

The edge of the crater and the lake.  The people who live in the village on the lakeshore grow bananas, coffee, and wheat on the slopes of the crater.  I can't help but wonder how frequently they lose their footing and roll down into the lake.

This church is on an island in the middle of the lake.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has to be one of my favorite Christian sects, if only because their churches are so much more colorful than everyone else's.  I mean, a church on an island in the middle of a lake in a dead volcano?  Why wouldn't we paint it the same colors as the Ethiopian flag?  Rock on, Ethiopian Orthodoxy.  Rock on.

There are tilapia in this lake.  No one seems to know how they got there, but one would assume they were brought in, right?  I mean, tilapia don't just emerge from lava, do they?

One of the small fields beside the lake.  My inner farmer wonders how much better the crops grow in the soils on top of a dead volcano.

This little valley started with just one tiny spring...

...but it started to open up as we rode on.

Eventually the valley got pretty wide, but as we progressed, we noticed that the landscape was acquiring a distinct resemblance to the set of The Lord of the Rings.  No hobbits were harmed in the process of capturing these photos.

Our noble steeds, or as we call them in Arkansas, "nags."

The landscape became closeer to a moonscape as we progressed.  I'm shooting down into the mud vents in the valley from its eastern wall now, which I climbed up to see a sulfourous waterfall/spring up close.

A sign at our hotel near the lake.  Regretably, we saw no monkeys.  (Seriously, I was heartbroken.  What the hell, Africa?)

Moonrise in Addis, the view from our hotel balcony.  Amusingly, that's a Baha'i center across the street from us.  Praise globalism!

That's it for my early December trip.  Later this week I'll write up Christmas in Bahrain, a 48-hour extravaganza of drunken British expatriates, culinary gluttony, and the worst cover bands I've ever heard.  Cheers!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Riyadh to Jerusalem - a Travelogue

This was written yesterday while I was on the road.  I didn't get a chance to post it until today, though, due to my laptop's battery crashing.  Enjoy!  I have all sorts of fun things to talk about in Jerusalem, and I've not even been here 24 hours yet.  I'll be back with you soon with more updates.

I'm not sure when I'll find a wireless network in order to post this, but I might as well keep a log of my travel adventures today.  I'm flying from Riyadh to Amman, Jordan, and from there I have a few options for how I will get to Jerusalem.  I have a feeling that at least one will not work, so today will require flexibility, creativity, and a good sense of humor.  More sleep last night would have helped, as well.  

It's 8.30 AM on the first day of Eid, and I'm sitting at my gate in the international terminal at the Riyadh airport.  I have an hour and a half left until my flight leaves, but I'm glad I got here when I did - the place is packed, as the entire city empties out over the nine-day holiday.  When I got here at 7.45, there was a line about 200 meters long on the sidewalk outside, waiting to get through the doors.  I panicked, but I then realized that every single person in it had a cart with boxed-up luggage, and they all appeared to be South Asian of one flavor or another.  Thank God I'm not flying Pakistan International Airlines today!  I managed to hop in front of them, get my boarding pass, and breeze through security and passport control in record time.  Right now I'm surrounded by older African men, probably headed home to Sudan or Somalia - there's a flight before mine from this gate, but I'm not sure of its destination.  At the next gate over is the 9.15 flight to Beirut.  It's quite a contrast - you can always pick out Beirutis wherever you travel in the Middle East, because their clothing is more fabulous, their hair is more perfect, and their attitude is more cosmopolitan than everyone around them (and they are very conscious of this fact).  I got a bit of a shock at first to see so many women not wearing abayas.  I'm not sure what the protocol is on when you can drop the abaya as you're leaving the Kingdom.  Is it at the flight gate?  Once you've taken off?  Once you cross into another country's air space?  I think I'll wait and watch the Jordanian women on my flight - following the Beirutis' lead in the airport would probably get me into trouble.  

I will say that this is the first time I've gone out in Riyadh on personal travel without a veil over my hair; I just didn't want to deal with it today.  I guess in an airport it's more acceptable than if I were wandering around a mall downtown (although even there most American women won't cover their hair).  I can't wait to wander around Jerusalem and Addis in just jeans and a sweatshirt, without the obnoxious layers of black cloth enveloping me.  It's hard to believe I've been here for three months...  If Jerusalem ends up being a shock to me, I can only imagine how strange things will look in the States when I go back in April.

Okay, a cute little girl, maybe two years old, just came over and tried to type on my laptop.  I'm not sure where her parents are and why she's running around by herself, but she says hello to you all from Riyadh!

5.45 PM, Ben Yahuda street, Jerusalem

I made it from my front door to this shawarma stand in ten hours - this must be something of a record!  (To be fair, I'm not sure how much competition there is on the Riyadh-Jerusalem route.)  I manage to take the easiest route here - hiring a car to take me to the border crossing nearest Amman, which empties into the West Bank, 45 minutes away from Jerusalem.  The potential wrinkle was that the border closes at 2.30 PM - if my flight were delayed, if I had trouble finding a car, or if there were traffic problems, then I would have gone to the northern border crossing, two and a half hours away, or gone back to the airport to wait for the 9 PM flight to Tel Aviv.  Luckily, everything worked out okay.  Travel in the Middle East is never easy, and getting from anywhere into Israel is even harder.  At this particular crossing, travellers are dropped off at the Jordanian exit control, get their passports stamped, and then file onto a bus that will ferry them across the border.  However, travellers have to wait until the bus fills up, because why make the trip with half a load?  My bus was fillled with European backpackers, the ubiquitous Japanese tourist group, and Palestinians who go back and forth every day to work or to visit family.  When our creaking bus finally filled, we set off across the four-kilometer no man's land and finally reached checkpoints where the warning signs were in Hebrew first, not Arabic.  (An aside: we did technically cross the Jordan River in this process, although I would call it more of the Jordan Drainage Ditch, or the Jordan Stagnant Puddle.  The Japanese tourists were heartbroken when they realized how unimpressive it is.)  

Once you go through the numerous Israeli checkpoints, security screenings, and interrogations, you collect your bags and arrange for transportation to wherever you want to go.  I caught a minibus to Jerusalem, and it dropped me off just outside the Old City an hour later.  Of course, we had to go through one more checkpoint when we left the West Bank and headed into Jerusalem proper; I was the only person on the bus who wasn't pulled out to be patted down or interrogated.  (Sometimes, an American passport is a really, really useful thing.)  The Palestinians evidently all thought I was a Jordanian, and they couldn't figure out why I wasn't searched too.  At least they laughed about it, once I explained.  The short drive was pretty uneventful, and the other passengers were very quiet during the trip.  I guess they're used to seeing the "DANGER: MINES" signs in the Jordan River valley, relics that predate the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and to driving underneath Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, perched atop the hills east of Jerusalem.

So, here I sit at the big pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, waiting for my friend to get off work.  I'll write in a few days, probably while I'm waiting on my plane to Addis Ababa.  Cheers!

I forgot - the appropriate time to unveil and de-abaya when leaving the Kingdom is the moment you set foot on the plane.  I got a physical shock when I looked around right before takeoff and saw only three veiled women on the entire flight.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I was chastised yesterday by a friend for not posting enough photos, so here are two photo essays for you to enjoy.  Neither contains photos I actually took, but they present two interesting aspects of Saudi Arabia, its massive building boom and its attempts to reign in extremism.  

I'm leaving tomorrow morning for vacation.  Happy Eid to you all!