Monday, September 29, 2014

First Impressions

Walking out of the airport and into the cool Addis Ababa night, we had our first glimpse of Ethiopian life. Because our flight ended up getting in so much later than we had planned, we were at the mercy of the night shift taxi drivers to get us safely to our guesthouse. From our experiences in Tanzania, we were more than a bit cautious about this, since we are very aware of the many taxi-related incidents faced by other volunteers.

We were first approached by a woman who was in charge of “airport taxis” and she told us it was going to be 350 birr total (about $17.50) to get into the city. Steve and I knew that it should only have cost about 150 birr ($7.50) or less, so we were prepared for the bargaining. Once we told her we couldn’t afford that price she told us about the “private taxis” that looked more like minivans or “dala dalas” that can be found in Tanzania. As we were walking towards the private taxis, we were then approached by a horde of airport taxi drivers. Behind them stood very old, Russian mob-like taxis waiting to be used. Honestly, they looked too used and we weren’t even sure if they would still run.

After some bargaining with the English-speaking taxi “pimp” we were led to one of these said airport taxis. Steve and I took one look at the yellow clown car, and that was the first time we spoke in Swahili to each other to confirm whether or not we made the right decision. We didn’t really have any other choice and for some reason, we both didn’t get any bad vibes about it, so why not add excitement to our adventure, right? We shoved our bags and bodies into the back seat and we were on our way to Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place, a recommended guesthouse by Ethiopia PCVs. After our driver got to the supposed location of MM Cozy Place (because it was kind of tucked away in an alley), he asked around to make sure we arrived at the right place. Steve and I were left in the ancient box of metal in the dark, both literally and figuratively, and we hoped for the best. Even still, we were very comfortable and did not at all fear for our lives. I am not sure if it was the atmosphere, the driver’s persona, or what, but our guts were incredibly spot on. When the driver came back, he led us straight to the gate of MM Cozy Place, waited for the guard to get us, and then accepted the taxi fare with a curt goodnight.

Enjoying some free wi-fi from our Cozy guesthouse in Addis Ababa

This was my first insight into some of the major differences I would come to notice between Tanzania and Ethiopia. Though I wanted to be very cautious traveling in an African country where I didn’t have the luxury of knowing the language or local prices for things, it was a relief to see that, even in a large capital city such as Addis, I didn’t have to be paranoid about crime towards foreigners as was often the case in Dar es Salaam. In fact I found Addis Ababa to be very safe. Granted we were patted down and had our bags checked in nearly every building we entered, but this was more of a precaution against the various security issues surrounding Ethiopia as a country than an indication of the local threat level.

Addis is a large city, though much smaller than the likes of which I've grown used to in Tanzania, i.e. Dar. Walking through the streets, I definitely noticed a lot of similarities in terms of the state of buildings, typical shops to be found and local transport options (small buses similar to dala dalas). Maybe the most striking difference, other than the language and food, was the fact that people weren't constantly calling us foreigners ("wazungu" in Swahili) or hassling us to buy things/get in a taxi, which was definitely a welcome relief to both of us.

(Left) Steve with the shaggy dog at our first local Ethiopian meal
(Right) The staple injera (fermented spongy bread) with lamb tibbs – it was delicious!

It was a slight step up from Tanzania in accommodation options (there was WiFi in pretty much every guesthouse/hotel we stayed at), infrastructure (at least in Addis) and food and drink. Oh my was everything we had to drink delicious! The JUICE was AH-MAZING! Imagine freshly blended juice that was so thick it probably should have been more like a smoothie but contained just ice and the fruit. And sometimes they would even put a drizzle of chocolate sauce on the inside of the glass before they poured in the perfectly blended juice! After our first tasty glass of juice, we ordered it wherever we ate if possible - especially Steve.

For those who don't already know, I like avocados. Quite a bit in fact. Tanzania has many avocados, which are available at an incredibly cheap price (when in-season, softball size = about 10-15 cents). During my time there, I would spend many a lazy afternoon lying around, surrounded by giant, fresh, often free avocados, daydreaming about new avocado concoctions that I would like to try. Avocado pudding, avocado gravy and deep fried guacamole nuggets were a few that I had the luxury of trying throughout my three years in Tanzania. But one that I did not get to put into practice was the mouth-watering avocado milkshake. I wondered if there existed such a thing anywhere in the world which could live up to my steep expectations. Ethiopia proved to me that in fact this dream of mine could become a reality. For little more than $1, I received a tall glass of a beautifully green, thick, creamy avocado smoothie, full of rich, natural flavor and with a consistency that would put any Burger King, Dairy Queen or other American fast food royalty to shame. This was the stuff dreams are made of. Well, my dreams anyways...

(Left) Orange juice that was more like a slushy and (right) avocado and strawberry juice with chocolate drizzle

Steve's dream came true with the avocado juice/smoothie and one of mine came true when I got to see so many old castles! After Addis, we were flying off to the land of castles in...Gondar.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There are strange things afoot, at the Circle-K

Welcome to Belle and Steve's Excellent Adventure!

We are pleased to announce that since both Steve and I will be contributing to this blog, we will write in two different colors. I will write in violet and Steve will write in blue. Hope this works out and doesn't entirely confuse everyone. Anyway, let's get this party started!

Steve and I started our trip at around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, September 17th at EconoLodge in Dar es Salaam. Our bags were packed and under the weight limit, and we got in our taxi to the airport at 1:30 a.m. It was quiet on the road, not a single other car in sight, and the air was cool - not AT ALL what anyone would say to describe Dar on a normal day. Then again, this was very late at night and it was getting to be at the tail end of winter in Tanzania. We arrived at the airport at 1:45 a.m. and the waiting began.

Our flight wasn't until 5:10 a.m., but we wanted to be at the airport early for check-in (3 hours prior to departure time for international flights) and I had not anticipated it taking only 15 minutes to get there. Oh well, what's a few minutes of waiting in a nice cool airport with electricity and easily accessible bathrooms. It was better than our normal mode of transport in Tanzania - hot, crowded buses with no bathrooms. We checked in at around 2:30 a.m., bummed around for a couple hours and boarded our plane right on time. The flight path was Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, a three hour layover and a short flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, our first destination. We were tired and excited to start our trip so we didn't get any sleep before our flight, but we had high spirits once our bellies were full of fresh-ish croissants and rolls lathered in butter and jam. Little did we know that our excellent attitudes would be dampened shortly.

Once we landed in Nairobi, the nightmare started...

It wasn't the 42 consecutive hours without sleep. It wasn't the additional 5 1/2 hour layover in Nairobi. It wasn't the superfluous evening excursion to Djibouti. Heck, it wasn't even the fact that we had lost one of our precious seven days in Ethiopia to the joys of airport waiting areas and stationary plane cabins. No, in spite of all of these "highly regretted" inconveniences, the thing that really caused my first emotion carried into Ethiopia to be one of anger was the fact that there wasn't a single Kenya Airways employee at the service desk in Addis to and from whom I could complain and demand free stuff, respectively.

Anyone who's served two (or three) years in the Peace Corps can tell you that their experience has given them a heightened sense of patience and greater tolerance when dealing with adverse situations. Some of them may also tell you that while that's happening, you can still get really, really, really frustrated and annoyed at said situations. Granted, in this case sleep deprivation was a key player, and, in truth, there were some positives to be taken from the whole experience, such as:

1. An opportunity to use the 5-Hour Energy I'd been sitting on for nearly two years;
2. A chance to begin our trip-long, first-to-10,000 game of Rummy;
3. An unexpected excuse to rip off lame Djibouti puns ("There sure is a lot going on in Djibouti at this hour." ...);
4. And let's not forget our amusement of watching non-PCV foreigners getting vehemently vocal towards everyone around them.

So as we ventured out of the airport into the darkened city of Addis Ababa, I decided to check my negativity at the gate and once again open myself up to the excitement of beginning our excellent adventure.

And the crazy part of it all, as I was thinking about how we would write our first blog post, was that I couldn't help but think how strange that all of this was happening with Kenya Airways seeing as their logo is a CIRCLE K. I wish I was making this up.

For those of you who are not familiar with Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, go watch it and you will understand.