Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The Merkato, or open air market, in Addis Ababa is supposedly the largest in Africa. The first couple of pictures are from the market in Bahir Dar, a city 1/20th the size of the capital. It seemed plenty large to me and I felt pretty overwhelmed. There was a large covered area near the center with a lot of people selling grain, rice, pasta, coffee and spices. Surrounding this were smaller vendors selling charcoal, wood, pots, utensils, tools, hardware, and you-name-it. If you really wanted something "special" then you probably wouldn't be able to find it but it was probably there somewhere.

This vendor was selling sugar cane but I wasn't sure if individuals were buying or companies. There was a lot there and it was being hauled off by the wagon load. This was right across from the egg vendor that I had pictured in the last post and there were a number of kids hanging around chewing on sugar cane pieces. While we were standing there, a ~10 year old boy was gnawing on his cane when an older teenager walked by, broke the boys piece in half and took half. The younger boy didn't say anything and just started gnawing on the leftover piece again. Weird...

There was a line of men operating treadle sewing machines and I'm guessing that this is where you brought things to be mended. After all, every household couldn't afford their own sewing machine. All of the machines were old Singer branded machines. I believe that the original tooling was shipped to South America and new treadle machines are still being manufactured under a different name, these are all the older originals. Pretty cool that they are still being used and still working.

This is a spice vendor. These little closet sized shops are lining alleys barely wide enough to walk through. And there was usually a deep gutter in the middle to deal with the torrential rains that come every afternoon in the rainy season. Many of these small shops also sold imported goods such as candy and packaged food. I looked for some locally made candy to bring back but there wasn't anything odd. Just some hard candy that tasted like blocks of sugar. One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that all transactions are done with cash. No plastic accepted anywhere except places like the Hilton and Sheraton. All of the shops deal only in cash and some were even prepared to deal in dollars. The air in this area of the market was heavy with the smell of the different spices and it was somewhat overpowering after a while. I was looking for green cardamom but everyones eyes were burning from the spices floating in the air.

We got around to the different areas of the market in a chartered mini-bus. This picture and the next may give some indication of the traffic you would need to deal with on your weekly grocery run. Boy, I feel so spoiled being able to run to the local grocery or hardware store to find the things we need. This is in the hardware section of the market and we were looking for something resembling dry wall screw. All screws were slotted, no phillips flat head screws were seen at any of the vendors. There was quite a bit of hand made hardware such as hinges and latches which I would have liked to bring back but that stuff tends to be pretty heavy.

The blue and white mini-buses were everywhere we went and seem to be the most popular type of public transportation. Some called them weits but I couldn't find an Internet reference for that word. We were told that weit referred to a different type of shared ride vehicle that has pretty much been phased out. They were small pickup trucks with benches on both sides of the bed. There was someone who communicated with the driver calling out stops and yelling at pedestrians letting them know where they were headed. In the mini-bus, that person is standing by the sliding door performing the same function. Running a mini-bus is a hard way to make a living with the current price of diesel fuel.

This last photo is of a woman tossing coffee beans to get rid of any small stones that may have been picked up as part of the drying process. As I mentioned before, most of the coffee is sold unroasted. The only roasted coffee was sold pre-ground in bags in the tourist gift shops. Our hosts recommended not buying these packages as we wouldn't know where the beans were grown nor who did the roasting. And I thought that folks around here were coffee purists. We followed their advice though I have yet to try any of the beans I brought back.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Food

This is one of the fresh vegetable and fruit stalls at the Merkato, the largest open air market in Africa. All of the fruit and vegetables that we had were wonderful. It's amazing what a difference when things are picked and sold ripe. The carrots were especially sweet and we enjoyed bananas, watermelon, mangos, papayas, oranges (the peels were green but the fruit was ripe), beets, cabbage (multiple varieties), potatoes, onions and squash. Since you couldn't drink the water, all of the produce was soaked either in a mild bleach solution or potassium permanganate solution to disinfect them. Then allowed to dry completely before eating.

Eggs are a common form of protein and were generally available in even the small shops along the road. Like most protein, they were kind of expensive at 2½ birr (15¢) each. I thought it was interesting that when we were buying 15 eggs here, the proprietor got out her smart phone to figure out what we owed. She packed them in a plastic bag cushioned with straw.

Coffee is one of the major exports from Ethiopia and there were a lot of coffee vendors. One of the local staff went with us to look for beans to bring back and we ended up visiting a lot of stalls before he found some that he was satisfied with. The beans are sold unwashed and unroasted. He was looking for beans from a certain area with a certain moisture content. He also tasted the unroasted beans looking for a certain flavor. Before coming back, we had a local family wash and  roast our beans since we'd probably screw it up.

When visiting a family for dinner, their daughter did a traditional coffee ceremony for us. All of the cooking for this ceremony is done on a small charcoal burner. Here, she is roasting the coffee beans. After roasting, the beans are pounded to a fine powder before being carefully measured into a special coffee pot. The coffee is brought just to a boil three times then allowed to settle before being served in dainty ceramic cups. All of the coffee I had there was better than anything I've ever had at a coffee place like Starbucks. There was never even the hint of any bitterness.

The coffee ceremony was repeated for us at many of the homes we visited even in the poorest areas of town. It takes time to do the preparation and serving so there is plenty of time to visit. This is a shot of a coffee shop that we stopped at before breakfast. The charcoal burner is on the left of the small cups. The one in front was for incense. The grass was spread to make it feel more inviting and added a nice aroma when you walked on it.

The rolls of flat pancake-like bread are called injera and it is the national dish of Ethiopia. It is made from a grain called teff and had a wonderful sour taste like a good sourdough pancake. At this meal, it was served with meat in a spicy red sauce with the color coming from the spice mixture called berbere. This mixture of spices can vary from cook to cook and family to family is is made of paprika, chili, garlic and maybe 10 to 15 other dried spices. Most of the rest of the items were vegetables such as beets, kale and squash. All very good. I had to really limit myself especially with the injera and sweet vegetables and fruit.

While we were in a much more remote part of the country, the only protein readily available in one restaurant was eggs. This is scrambled eggs with peppers and onions served with injera and rolls. To eat, using only your right hand (even if you are left-handed), you get some bread or injera and scoop up a bite. No utensils. Before and after eating, they bring by soap and water so you can wash your hand (singular). This dish was very good and was lunch for five people.

On the way to the airport, we stopped at a hotel and had a traditional dinner. This basket/table was about 0.5m across and had about eight different items in it. Including chicken, ox, fish, goat, eggs, goat cheese, carrots, potatoes, kale, and more stuff that I didn't recognize or remember. This was dinner for eight though some in the group had started to grow tired of the taste of the food. I like spicy and rarely get a chance to try things like ox and goat at home. I must admit that most of the meat dishes generally tasted very similar.

I was surprised to see spaghetti on the menu. I guess pasta is a popular dish here as it is in other parts of the world. And dried pasta was sold in many of the stalls in the market. I did try the spaghetti with tuna and it is, as it sounds, spaghetti pasta with a spicy red sauce with canned tuna meat on the side. Since I like canned tuna, I would call it good but others in our group didn't care for the concept. If you look at the meal prices, please remember that the exchange rate is 17.3 birr to the dollar so most of these meals were just over a dollar. A real bargain.

Just in case you aren't wowed by the coffee, Coca Cola is readily available in the familiar bottles. The bottles are refilled at a local botteling plant. I can't vouch for whether the flavor is any different than what is locally available but it does seem to be popular. Diet Coke or any other sugar free product is just not available so I usually enjoyed mineral water. None of the beverages are served on ice. There were no restaurant chains though we did have lunch at Kaladi's Coffee though there was no tie to Kaladi's Brothers Coffee.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ethiopian Housing

I should probably begin with my overall perception of the trip. I had an absolutely wonderful time in Ethiopia. Everyone I met was kind and generally, in a pretty good mood. The weather was clear and sunny for just about the entire time we were there, and the food was wonderful. Especially the fresh fruit.

While we were in a suburb of Addis Ababa, we stayed at a guest house where for a very modest fee (by western standards), you had a warm bed, some running water, electricity and meals. The green shacks along that back is housing for the guards. The food was outstanding. Something that I didn't expect were the walled compounds with 24 hour guards watching the building. The guest house was a fairly modest 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home with a large dining room/family room and a small kitchen. The courtyard is large enough to bring in a couple of vehicles if you so desired. You are continuously reminded that you were in a third world country by water and electrical outages.

There were a large number of condominiums built by Chinese investors and they all look identical and very utilitarian. They are located on the same land that used to house a refuge camp and the 15k refugees had to move elsewhere. Barbed wire fences seem to be really common and seem to be aimed at managing people rather than animals. Large multi-lane streets are being put in to handle the anticipated traffic from the new middle class.

Just to the north of the condominiums is a refugee area adjacent to the hospital and the housing here is mud mixed with straw with corrugated steel for the fences and roofs. In the city, there are a lot of beggars on the street and this is the area where many of them live. Even in these areas, the concept of a compound existed to limit access to the living areas. We visited several families in this area some of whom were HIV+ and in most cases, six or eight people lived in about 80 ft² with no limited utilities. Sometimes there was a tap on the electrical wires up on the pole supplying power to a number of homes.

Many of the compounds have concrete homes and are surrounded by an eight to ten foot tall wall usually topped with razor wire and in some cases, broken bottles. All to keep out thieves.

This is the wall surrounding the guest house where we were staying. Upon arrival at night, there were packs of dogs and the occasional hyena running around and they are considered pretty dangerous. Adjacent to the refugee area is the dump and there were quite a few wild animal sounds from that direction at night. Whenever that was a power outage, the guards seem to get pretty busy circling the compound aiming their flashlights at the top of the wall. Supposedly to let people know they were there and watching.

One of the goals for the trip was to help construct some additional classrooms behind the church. The group sort of had the idea that we would be showing up and actually building foundations, walls and roofs. The reality is, we westerners (including a couple of engineers), were completely clueless on how they build using locally available materials and labor. I learned quite a bit from the skilled laborers doing the construction. Here are a couple of the new exterior walls being painted. The framework is steel square tubing welded together and the steel skin is spot welded to the frame. I will go into the foundation construction in a future post but it was a lot different than we do around here...

Next post - Food

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ethiopian Vehicles

I really had no idea what to expect upon landing in Ethiopia. All I've seen is the little blurbs during the Olympics leading me to believe that everyone is tall and runs fast. We flew into the capitol city of Addis Ababa, population 3.4 million, and my first impression was a very urban. modern city with crazy traffic. Mini-buses running around all over the place. Shortly after arriving, we then flew to Bahir Dar, population 200,000. After Addis Ababa, it felt wonderfully "rural". A much better location for me to get acclimated.

One of the most popular vehicles in this area are the three-wheeled, two cycle bajaj. The local names for them are the words for "virus" and "mosquito" since they appeared all of a sudden and seem to be everywhere. The drivers seem to be pretty fearless. These photos are a quiet road at the outskirts of town and the donkey carts were almost as numerous as powered vehicles. Very few individuals would be able to afford a private vehicle as a gallon of fuel is a significant portion of the income for the average laborer.

Westerns seem to all drive Toyota Land Cruisers. Not the ones that were typically sold in the U.S. but they sort of looked like older models. The station wagon and pickup versions are both popular and all are diesel and naturally aspirated. No computers, turbochargers, automatic transmissions or anything that can't be repaired with basic tools. Diesel Toyota crew cab trucks with really short beds also seem to be pretty popular. When we asked about the going rate for a used Land Cruiser, I was floored by the answer... $48K USD! I guess the import taxes are horrendous on anything brought into the country.

This is in a more rural area about 150 km northeast of Addis Ababa and there were very few vehicles of any kind. The cart was the most common form of wheeled transportation. The reality is, most people walked anywhere they needed to go. There were a lot of donkeys carrying plastic water jugs and bags of grain. Goats and oxen seemed to wander the roads freely. I don't know how people manage to keep track of their livestock.

Out here, I saw my first camel that wasn't in a zoo. They seemed to be able to carry much larger loads than the donkeys though there weren't very many of them. They must be more expensive. Once we ventured off of the main road, we encountered very few vehicles and very little pavement. When we arrived at the small rural church, the right torsion bar mount had broken and the radiator had sprung a leak. The driver did get both fixed by that evening but it may indicate how rough the road was.

This is back in downtown Bahir Dar with horse drawn carts delivering 55 gallon drums of something. Beautiful paved roads and located on the largest lake in Ethiopia. On any of the roads, all of the vehicles are mixed. Carts, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, etc. Lots of horns honking but no anger. I don't know if it was cultural or not but even with the crazy traffic, I never saw anyone loose their temper. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Almost Home

Three flights down and only one more to go! We arrived at the Addis Ababa airport about 37 hours ago and haven't gotten much sleep since then. Lots of security checks, delays in customs and lost baggage.

This was one of many motorcycle based vehicles. Lots of small single-engined bikes, lots of three wheelers that the locals call "virus" or "mosquito" since they showed up all of the sudden and appear to be everywhere. Only one BMW spotted on the whole trip and that was an RTP being ridden by military police. Lots of small engined dirt bikes, no cruisers, no Harleys, no hacks, no chrome... One tourist on a fully farkled KTM dual sport bike. The vehicle traffic was horrible to my western eyes.

More posts and pictures later.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Finally On My Way

We have a 6 hour layover at the Seattle airport so there was a lot of opportunity to wander around the airport and I noticed that they had the Rutan Voyager on display. This was the first plane to circumnavigate the earth without refueling. The next leg of our flight is ten hours to Amsterdam. Hopefully, the flight will be on time as we only have a 1½ hour layover before our next flight. I'm not at all sure what the Internet availability is but I will try to occasionally post pictures. There is no way I was going to try the 29 picture challenge but am enjoying seeing the new additions.