Archive for December, 2008

The Best Laid Plans…

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. He must have been a bicycle tourist. Whether due to mechanical failures, health problems, uncooperative governments, police or military rules, weather, terrain, roads, or just a grumpy attitude, I’ve had to adjust my plans countless times during this trip. The last week was no exception.

With no Sudan visa in sight and no other practical way around the country, I decided to fly to Ethiopia. So the day after Christmas I boarded an Egypt Airways flight to Addis Ababa, arriving at 3:00 am.

My first couple days in Addis were a bit surreal. Firstly, their calendar is based on the older Alexandrian calendar which itself is based on the even older Egyptian calendar. So their dates are more than seven years behind the Gregorian calendar we all use. I bought a map there and the date on my receipt was April 4, 2001. Can you believe it? I was wondering what I would do for New Years Eve until they explained that their new year was was four months ago. There is only a small celebration December 31 for the expat community. Curious about this phenomenon, I did some research on the Gregorian vs. the Julian calendars. If you are interested, read on.

The Gregorian calendar resulted from a need to reform the method of calculating the dates of Easter. Reform was required because too many leap days are added with respect to the astronomical seasons with the Julian scheme. On average, the astronomical solstices and the equinoxes advance by about 11 minutes per year against the Julian year. As a result, the calculated date of Easter gradually moved out of phase with the March equinox. The Romans were aware of the discrepancy but it was evidently felt to be of little importance at the time of the Julius Caesar. However, it accumulated significantly over time: the Julian calendar gained a day about every 134 years. By 1582, it was ten days out of alignment from where it supposedly was in 325 during the Council of Nicaea. It was than that Pope Gregory XIII convened a commission to consider reform of the calendar.

The recommendations of Pope Gregory’s calendar commission were instituted in 1582. Ten days were deleted from the calendar, so that October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582, thereby causing the vernal equinox of 1583 and subsequent years to occur about March 21.

It took a while for everyone to adopt the new calendar. Can you imagine the confusion? Workers demanded to be paid for the missing days. How about my rent? Will I have to pay again at the first of the month?

How Ethiopia manages international commerce with this system is beyond me. I guess they are used to both systems.

OK, enough digression.

The Poorest of the Poor

The other thing you notice about Addis Ababa is the poverty. It’s not something you just observe, it comes right up into your face and hits you in the gut. You can’t breath, you can’t escape it. Every few feet there’s a filthy beggar with their hand out croaking for a few coins. The breadth and depth of it is overwhelming. There are blind people, legless people, deformed people, old men and women who can’t even stand up, mothers with their filthy babies in their arms, dirty kids running barefoot. One woman had like elephantitis in her leg. It was swollen to the size of a tree trunk. I wanted to just run away. You try to give a few dollars but then you run out and still there are more. Finally I decide I must ration my charity. I only give out a few pennies each time, and then only to the most awful, the really deformed or decrepit. I saw one guy with no legs and only one arm. He was dragging himself around. Another old man was half dressed in rags lying on the ground eating grass.

The lack of decent health care, preventive medicine, insurance, and nutrition, as well as  ignorance about health in general, all play a part in this tragedy. No wonder the life expectancy here is only 48.8 years. That’s about my age now.

I will return to this topic in future posts I’m sure. But for now a thought: no matter how awful you think your life is, you’re infinitely better off than the poor of Ethiopia.

Many of the beggars seemed to congregate around churches. Here are some people praying at St. Marys church and a typical scene: a begging mother with child.

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Ras Tafari

Its remarkable how little you know about a place until you visit it. I had never been to Ethiopia. In fact, I didn’t even know anyone who had been there. All I knew about it was long distance runners, famine and Haile Selassie. I spent some time with Rastafarians while in the Caribbean a few years back. But I did not realize that their religion was based on the ruler Ras Tafari, who became Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930. In Jamaica, where Marcus Garvey’s ‘return to Africa’ movement was established, many saw the emperor’s coronation as fulfillment of the ancient biblical prophesy that ‘kings will come out of Africa.’ Apparently Selassie was a bit embarrassed to have a religion named after him, although he did allow a Rastafarian community to be established in southern Ethiopia.

Here is the crown of former emperor Haile Selassie, aka Ras Tafari.

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I visited the National Museum, where the skeletal remains of Lucy are kept. Lucy is one of the oldest bipedal hominid skeletons ever found. She lived around 3.3 million years ago and was discovered in northern Ethiopia. Fully grown, she was just over a meter tall.

Here is what she might have looked like.

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Finger Lickin’ Good

One surprise about this place is the food. It is cheap and delicious. I immediately fell in love with something called buzeno. The food is served on a large thin pancake called injera, something like a cross between a regular pancake and a crepe. Then they just pour piles of ground up beans, veggies or a chili-like substance on the injera and you tear off pieces if of it to wrap around the bits of food and mop up the juices. It is filling and cheap: a full meal with a beer costs about $2.50. There’s no utensils to wash up, but your fingers get a bit messy (or maybe it is just my ineptitude).

Here is a waiter ladling out the buzeno onto my injera.

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Coffee is big in Ethiopia. It is their biggest export and with good reason. Here is probably the best macchiato (espresso with milk) I have ever tasted.

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Here is an ironic sign posted at the entrance of the National Museum. The “Ethics of Public Service.” It seems out of place in a nation where corruption, nepotism and incompetence are rife.

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Here is a photo I took in a restaurant of a woman and child.

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Well it is time to start riding again. I have not pedaled once since rolling into Cairo on December 13. That’s over two weeks! I will leave Addis on Jan.1 assuming I have a manageable hangover. My plan (hehe) is to work my way south and cross into Kenya in about two weeks.

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