Sunday, May 6, 2012

It's like a jungle sometimes....until you leave: Back to Addis

Up at 6am to catch a ride to the busyard!
Well, my time in Kololo came to an end two days before St. Patty's day. Cien and I decided to head back to Addis Ababa for some R&R, as well as to attend a big ole St. Patty's Day Gala at the Sheraton Addis. It was sure to be a treat, with premium steaks, and an open bar stocked with Johnny Walker and Guinness. As we are two birds who like to shake a tailfeather, we were quite happy to trade in our work gloves and muddy boots for some dancing and libations!

We packed up and hopped on the "chicken buses" home. After a "nice" 12 hour ride, including a run-in with Samuel Jackson....or his hilariously ridiculous look-alike who haunts the bus yards of Hosanna in a cut off t-shirt and a Pulp Fiction-esque Jheri Curl....we arrived back in Addis just in time to grab some burgers and enjoy some good conversation.

The next morning we headed to Sichu, the local foringe hangout with superb food and a fabled double bacon cheeseburger. Well the stories were all on-point: the burger was in attendance...and it was DELICIOUS! We also had a fantastic tomato toast appetizer and a nice tart for dessert. I was very happy with my 24 hour period since our return to Addis. That is, until I got food poisoning later that night. Bah! Of course I went 3 weeks in the jungle, but can't survive 2 days in the city! Well, as Senor Cien put it, "Suck it up fool! We gots dancing to do! The Captain (Morgan) is waiting!" I sucked it up, ironed my shirt and slacks and went a-strutting out to the Ball du Jour, where I met many new friends who would eventually become some of my closest friends in Addis.

We spent the night sitting and laughing mostly. The band was a traditional Irish band, and when I heard their unfortunate rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" I felt I'd had enough and wanted to call it a night. Their horrible singing even sent Senor Cien out of the ballroom to refresh his cup a few more times than we planned. Well, I told him I was ready to go and to meet me out in the lobby. I sat there for about ten minutes, until Cien said something I will never forget. He walked up smiling, put his hand on my shoulder pulling me back toward the ballroom and said with a slightly slurred speech, "Dude, they're playing Fergie! Lets go dance!" Ha! Well, I can't refuse such an invitation. Sure enough the music changed and we were a-dancin' till 4am. Apparently they haven't seen two guys cut a rug like us, and honestly, I haven't had that much fun out dancing and just gallivanting about in a long time.

This pose was in honor of our favorite youngster out in Kololo, Gazan.
We dragged our heels home around 4am, laughed at several cabbies who tried to charge us 200 birr to get to our house (which was only about 1km away, and shouldn't have cost more than 60 birr), and called it a night. Various events happened over the course of the next hour, including Cien's restored faith in the Ethiopian people, us both running down a dark alleyway in our undershirts, two lost cell phones, Cien's epic loss to a rock that was sitting on the ground, and our realization that Ethiopian pay phones never work. Thats a story for a cold night and a good glass of wine, so feel free to ask about that later :) I was happy to be back in Addis. Now the city-boy's adventures begin!

The Partaaaaaay before the Party! At the house :)

And Score!

We shoot.....

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why this Blog is called "Pensive Rambling Man"

Well, mostly, because if you know me well, you know I'm a rambler. Give me a soapbox and I will boringly entertain the masses ad nauseum. But to be an effective rambler, one must also be pensive. A thoughtfulness and desire to deliberately observe the world from the viewpoint of the proverbial fly on the wall is paramount to the success of a pensive rambler.

That said, I went on this trip to not just help others, explore the world, look for some semblance of a solution to the many problems in my home city of Chicago, and eat mangos....I also came to have some much needed alone time. I've spent the past 3+years working at a non-profit in North Lawndale: fundraising, marketing, running and evaluating programs, and mentoring dozens of kids who are growing up in the same rough neighborhood I did. Ive also spent the last 20 years (yea, 20 years) living in the middle of many worlds. I find myself to be a broker of people and situations, or a middleman if you wanna use bad language. I have friends from every income bracket, social background, racial group, and geographic location one could dream of. And somehow, I can blend in with any of them, even if they would NEVER meet of their own accord. Thus, I broker. I create situations where they would meet, if only to show each other that their lives have been built upon assumptions of the "others" and that the world is a better place not only if you love people, but if you ACT on that premise.

So, I bring the hood (North Lawndale) to Oz (Lincoln Park). And I bring Oz to the hood. I call Lincoln Park Oz in honor of my mentor, Mike, who explained to me while I was living there for 6 years how atypical and unrealistic my life in Lincoln Park was in comparison  to 90% of the rest of the world. I call North Lawndale "the hood" because that's what every person I know calls it; so just like Obama says despite his bi-racial background, the world SEES him as a black man so that's what he considers himself. I dont believe that we are the sole creators of our reality, but because we live in a world of many people, they also have a role in forming and defining our reality.

This "brokering" led me to a lifestyle of being the horrible messenger (who is often shot), and the need to get away from it all. One sees far too much of life from the middle. I think of it as standing in an art gallery, with people standing all around, looking at various masterpieces. Often, they are too close to really see what the painting is, and even if you told them, because they have always stood that close, it is their reality and they will fight to keep their unfortunate distance because to move away from it would mean reforming everything they believe and have built up over their lifetime. Our actions are based off of perception, so to change our actions, we must change what we see...or as i am coming to find, HOW we see. From my vantage point, I can see them all and what they are looking at. Unfortunately, I often see problems. And nobody wants to hear a message that they are doing something wrong, including myself sometimes. That's why the books I am reading are so important to my development as a person.

I was blessed to be given a Kindle to borrow on this trip. I filled it with all the fancy titles I've heard of, and mused about all the books I wanted to read but just never had the time or moment of clarity to give them their due justice. Well, Kololo gave this to me.

Over the course of three weeks I devoted about 3-4 hours a day to reading. I downloaded a slew of history, political science, African American classics, and other nonfiction books when I left Chicago. On my list for Kololo were:
  1. "The New Jim Crow: The Mass Incarceration of the African American Male" by Michelle Alexander. 
  2. "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau 
  3. "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
  4. "The Prince" by Nicholi Machiavelli 
  5. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  6. The Bible. 
I didn't get to "The Prince" and only got through some of "Walden" out there, but managed to finish all the rest of the books, including many of the prominent passages I've wanted to read more of in the Bible. 

"The New Jim Crow" rocked my world. It was nothing new to me, but it was the comprehensive detailing of a fight I have spoken to many of my friends about as the skeleton in my closet that darkens every good moment of my life. This book put a light on the "ghost" I have spoken about fighting for the past 5 years. Over the course of several hundred pages, Mrs. Alexander details the systematic and horrible way the American democracy has created a new, and highly effective caste system comprised solely of black males. I, and most black people I know, have always known about the existence of this system, and our families and friends are all touched by our nation's deliberate actions from the top of our country, and the pervasive ignorance of the common people. I have never seen the issue put into such words, however, that I feel it could be fully understood by people who are not living the nightmare. This is a must read. 

"Civil Disobedience" started off as a book I was ready to throw out , mostly due to my dislike for Mr. Thoreau's light and fanciful tone with a serious issue, but his argument won my heart. I feel we have many similarities in our philosophies, though he is certainly willing to go further than I to maintain justice and keep his moral compass straight. If you've never known what you had to fight for, this is a book to get you thinking. This book details why I know my life will be a tough one, because like Thoreau, I refuse to not confront ignorance and injustice when I am privy to it. 

"Uncle Toms Cabin" was a book that actually brought me to tears. It is over a hundred years old, and I've wanted to read it for years, but somehow, I had to come to an African jungle to finally sit down and read it. This book, an echo of the movie "Clash" that came out a few years ago about the lives of numerous people all caught in the inextricable web of life. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was NOT what I thought it would be. I thought it would be about the metaphorical "house negro" making life miserable for all the field negroes in the pre-antebellum southern states of the US, and how eventually all his deeds caught up with him. Instead, poignant arguments against slavery, and the deeper issue of human respect are brought to light in a tear-jerking manner that hit a little too close to home for this descendant of slaves. When I came to Africa for the first time, I went to Ghana, and my mentor Mike had me go to Cape old slave castle that still had blood on its dungeon walls, and smelled of something horrid. He had me walk through the "Door of NO Return": a door that thousands of people who looked like me went through as they were catapulted into the triangle trade that dominated world trade for 400 years. I walked back...I returned. My father reminded me that I was the first Ramey man to return to Africa since our people were brought to the US. Its a harrowing feelings, and I cant say my shoulders don't feel the heavy weight of legacy every time I remember that moment. The plight of those who love people, and fight with that love is a terrible and wonderful story. I saw so many people I know today represented in this book. Its a VERY tough read, but well worth it. 

"The Bible" is something that people either love or hate. I happen to love it, but I am also wary of it. It represents the central issue to my life: When confronted with truth, you either adapt to it, or live as a hypocrite. It is tough to live up to its standards, but my friends, my grandmother, and my mentors all make sure that I am voraciously in search of a life dedicated to truth, love, and a search for God. This trip has been tough with that last one. There is little surrounding me that seems like it is in search of Him, so I realize that my spiritual journey will be a singular one here in Ethiopia. My grandmother gave me several great passages to start with, and my wonderful friend Randy sends me a daily devotional by email. This book has left the greatest impression on me, and shows me how much work is yet to be done. 

These books are impossible to walk away from without wanting to take up a baton, a torch, a pen or a gun and going out into the world to fight. Either fight or ramble. This blog is the verbal representation of my search for understanding in this world, and may take the form of a ramble. My life, I hope, is the physical representation of all of the ideas, people, events, and atrocities that spur this lanky guy to action. I came to Ethiopia to escape the cloud of things that were blurring my view, invest in the lives of others, and figure some things out about myself that NEED to change if I am to be the man I know I need to be to do the things that I feel NEED to be done. 

We cant be a better person tomorrow until we are disgusted with who we are today. Reading helps to change perception. When that is changed, you ACT differently. 

With that said, ramble on!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jungle Living

My job in Kololo is pretty simple: immerse myself in the work the Tesfa and Ethiopia Reads are doing to build schools in the Kembata region of Ethiopia and survive while doing it. I am immersing myself so that I can eventually create a captivating and motivating video and project resume for their efforts here in Ethiopia, to drum up support to finish 3 more schools. To immerse myself, I spent my first week working with the crew. This entailed:

  1. Hauling boulders: using either a barillo (a sort of all-purpose carrying tool made of two long wooden sticks with a flat surface nailed in between to rest some object(s) on top of the surface), or by hoisting a rock on my shoulder and scurrying it over to the school building. We hauled boulders because there is no heavy machinery out here, and we needed to create a floor for the school rooms, so each stone (easily over 20,000 in total) had to be carried individually by a worker/volunteer. The drop site where the trucks left the boulders was on the top of the hill the school sat on, and we would carry them down to either of the three buildings. This lead to very dusty clothing, sweaty faces, strained muscles, and tired knees each day.
  2. Breaking rock: using makeshift hammers, we break down the hauled rocks into tinier pieces to create a more level surface. We had to raise the mud floor 30cm, so this meant bringing in enough large boulders and breaking them down to create a level plane covering a roughly 12'x15' room 30cm deep in rock.
  3. Digging: We had to dig down to create a level surface to lay the boulders. This was the toughest part since the ground was dry, making it very difficult to rip it up. This is how you build up them there arm muscles!
  4. An excavated room before boulders are brought in.
  5. Loafing: I'm a lazy American. I figured I should spend at least half the day in my hammock back at the hut reading and broadening my worldview through literature :)
The work is tough, for sure. And I realized after the second day of hauling rocks that I was perhaps not being considerate of the local workers. The guys who would carry the other end of the barillo with me often ended up carrying the biggest rocks, since I put into the contraption what I could carry, not factoring in that I was about twice the size of every person there. But they were quick to forgive, and everyone was always in good spirits. 

I usually spent the second half of the day rocking in my WONDERFUL hammock. Its a ENO Doublenest hammock, so its made to fit two people...or this leviathan who loved to curl the sides up so no flies would get in, put on some Jack Johnson music and read for a few hours while munching on a mango or a couple local cookies. 

As for food: we eat mostly the same thing each day:
  • Breakfast consists of a few avocados smothered in the Cholula hot sauce I brought for Cien, a mango or two, and maybe a few scrambled eggs and dabo (bread). Top it off with a glass of tea and we're off to work. This is typical if we dont have leftovers from the previous night  (which I don't entirely trust since they are just sitting out on the table all night where the roaches and ants commune and plan their big attack on the fruit basket, which is thwarted by the courageous Lt. Dan).
  • Lunch is simple: mangos and avocados and lots of water. 
  • Dinner is usually pretty fancy: It includes cooked food like rice or gomen (what we would call "Greens") or potatoes, bread or injera (the local crepe like, sourdough tasting bread that I dont really like), and tea. 
You can only eat so many avocados before you flip out. I did eventually, especially when the Cholula ran out and I tried to pour water in the little bottle to make it go further. This was a horrible substitute. You can only have so many bananas, and so many mangos before you go mad. 

This lead to an interesting investment over the course of two events involving our only episodes of meat consumption. One day where I snapped, which involved Doro (chicken), and one involving a homemade stove that nearly killed me from smoke inhalation and a bag (yes a bag) of beef. To be continued.....

My main man Ermeus hauling a boulder on a barillo.

A quarter finished!

Andiso moving rocks around
I do my part too!
A lot of the ladies did mud work 

Temescan hauling a massive rock to lay it on the barillo.

Ethiopia Reads 2012 Book Week Celebration Video

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kololo...The First Glance

Lt. Dan (Our trusty Guard Dog) and a mountain panoramic
My first day in Kololo was great. In short, I met the work crew: Cien's top 20 workers that he weeded from a pool of about 50 people who he began the project with. I met the kids. I got a tour of the school build site. I had some local food. I slept in a mud hut. I got to bathe in a pool just above a waterfall, after a 30 minute hike up a mountainside.

When we arrived, Cien let me know about a few things: 
  1. There are hyenas in them there hills! The locals call them "jib" and they are massive beasts with one of the strongest jaws in the mammalian kingdom. They sleep in holes during the day near the top of the mountain, and come out after dark to feed. 
  2. There are leopards in them there hills! They live in caves along the side and bottom of the mountain.
  3. There is no shower. Or sink. Or running water for that matter. Or wired electricity. Or a stove. Or a non-dirt floor. Or meat to eat. Or other people fluent in English. Or candy. Or local store. Or people who have seen an African American. Or bathroom that doesnt consist of an assortment of heavy sticks strewn across a hole 10 feet deep that you have to balance on while hiding behind other sticks and leaves without falling through into a slippery and utterly disgusting demise. Or toilet paper. But we did have two solar batteries that could power our cell phones, and two lights. Not bad, eh?
  4. People will stare. I am tall for this place. And Cien is white. Together we will be known as "TV" or "The Polar Bears"....TV since people have nothing else to watch, and "foringies" are curious creatures to watch, and The Polar Bears since people have nothing else to watch, and "foringies" are curious creatures. 
  5. Don't give away money. And Cien no longer helps people publicly. Apparently he is known as "the magical white man" because he helped send a kid with a chronic illness to the hospital, and the kid was healed...."magically." He then was flooded with dozens of people walking hours to find him in search of a cure/treatment/Jesus or Midas touch. he advised them to spend the nickel on worm medicine and to wash their bodies which many people laughed. He remains "the magical white man."
  6. Tinish Tinish (slow slow, in Amharic): your body, your spirit, and your health will all suffer if you try to do too much too soon. Whether that is hauling rocks, eating avocados, or running up a hill....Africa will always win. 
Lieutenant Dan (Beige) and Flea Bite (Black Dog)
await our breakfast scraps!
After my pep talk, we began my first day of work. The villagers greeted me enthusiastically at the worksite. Everyone was all smiles and "Salomno!" (Hello! in Amharic) for hours, then Cien "da Boss" showed up. Cien don't take no guff, and he don't take no lazin' on the job neither! He runs a tight ship, and things get done efficiently when he oversees them. We found upon our arrival that some major decisions had been changed that he had explicitly requested not to change while he was gone, so he spent the first day asssessing the damage and fixing it. 

View of the waterfall where we
found our makeshift bathtub
The job he does here in Kololo, and other rural areas across Ethiopia, is tough. He builds schools. That's fine in America, but try getting raw materials, creating employment contracts, negotiating fair prices, and developing leadership in places where they have traditions and customs that have been ongoing for decades, if not centuries, do not speak English, and have very little in common with Americans in ....yea. Tough. Kololo reminds me so much of North Lawndale. Cien's first hill to climb was the design of the 3 buildings. he went around to various huts, homes, and businesses looking at their construction and taking notes. He then took the best of what he found and added in his own extensive experience in construction as a contractor in America. He designed what now looks to be the sturdiest building in the region. Nobody was on board. They all told him it was wrong, and his dimensions were off, etc. But he went on anyway. Well, by the time Iarrived, it was 4 months intot he project, and it was only about 6 weeks from completion. When people SAW the design off paper, and rising up along the mountainside, they all agreed it was a fine building. It will last for at least 15 years, as opposed to the traditional 5 for most buildings built there. He cuts no corners, and accepts nothing less than perfection. I was amazed at his aesthetic detail, as most people who build things that I have met just want the damn thing up...caring less about exact symmetry and "the look of it all." Function over form, as they say. Well this school not only is sturdy, it is also pretty! 
Lt. Dan and Flea Bite, looking Magestically vigilant
as he guards us from the....fleas....that he cant guard
from himself

It reminded me of the importance of visions in visionary people. Everyone cannot see what you see, but that doesn't mean you should stop pursuing your goal. Seeing is believing for most people. Odd how many parallels this has to my own life and struggles in low income community development, my faith, and my trust in people. In some ways, I guess I am a visionary leader, but in many others, I am the doubtful follower.

As the good book says, "Know thyself." This journey is an attempt at that, and it is coming along nicely.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Addis Ababa and the Jungle...Uhhh...This is Different

Cien and his Seratana in our new house in Jan Meda. That bag on the left is my Platypus Water absolute necessity for visitors with persnickety stomachs. 
I'm a pretty particular guy. And by particular, I mean an admittedly fastidious and possibly overbearing taskmaster of all things organizational and/or system-related. not. You get in where you can here. First day in, and I learned that quickly. If you like steak cooked a certain way, this is not the place for you. If you like people to use turn signals...this is not the place for you. If you think that you should be able to order a cup of coffee without a hair in it, and report it to the manager and receive some sort of justice....yea........this may not be the place for you. In Ethiopia, you get what you're given...especially if you don't speak the language....and look like you can afford to buy more of what you've already bought once and expected to work.

Aside from this caveat emptor, feel free to visit! There are so many wonderful things about this city. From the fruit and veggie stands on EVERY CORNER, the uhmaaaazing coffee at nearly every restaurant, to the posh hotels that offer free wi-fi (where I conveniently go to update my blog!)...Addis has a little bit for everybody.

Cien eating a dessert we mooched on the rooftop deck we couldn't afford to swim in
Alas, I was only to be in Addis Ababa for 3 days. I arrived on a Saturday night, and left back out on Wednesday morning to catch several buses over the span of 14 hours. While I was in the city, I got to meet our Seratana, go to a few restaurants, get a verbal tour of the city, checked out the Tesfa Office and met some of the staff like Mena and Galilah, and even hung out on a rooftop pool at a swank hotel mooching off of the food at a private party Cien and I crashed our last day in the city. The food wasn't that great, but beggars cant be choosers!

Cien and Tananaya, our Seratana

Dinner, Day 1: Two bags of Ramen Noodles and a piece of bread :)

Cien and I left for Kololo, a small village in the Kambata region of Ethiopia just south of Addis, early Wednesday morning to get a set on the first bus. If you have never been to an African bus yard, you need not rush. It is quite an experience. Imagine 2000 people clamoring for several seats, hundreds of young boys or teens scurrying about trying to match up people with the buses headed to their destination (and earning a Birr or two in the process), random people just looking angrily at you, 50 large buses with 60 seats and 120 passengers in them, and several minibuses crammed with tired looking people and decked out with luggage on the roof of the vehicle. Yea.

Our journey was somehow miraculous, although unbeknownst to me. It apparently is customary to have significant lag times between buses, as well as to be on the bus with about 3 people per seat. We waited for VERY little time, and aside from being stranded in Hidero and having to pay a guy with a pickup truck 300 Birr to drive us the 15 minutes to Kololo, traveling was as smooth as eggs! Cien has often told me since that I am magic. Every trip we have taken has been extremely smooth and easy....apparently he has lived here for two years suffering things I have yet to see from Ethiopian transportation! Cien warned me to wear my shiny new raincoat on the bus and to bring headphones. A raincoat because people here in Ethiopia are not used to traveling in cars and get motion sickness...leading to massive amounts of vomit; and headphones to drown out the many sounds of Amharic radio music and people yelling to each other. No vomit, and the headphones kept me occupied for hours as I listened to Chris Tomlin's new album and Jack Johnson watching the countryside. I should have brought a small pillow for my butt. The roads here are in terrible condition and 14 hours of bump-bump-bump is tough on a skinny man. We went from Addis to Hosaena, to Hidero, to Kololo...a tiny little mountain village set up in a jungle area. It's a 30-45 min walk to any town with a market, and has quite a few hyenas, but it was to be my home for several weeks.

From Left: Ichigu, Andiso (Village Minister), Andiso's children, Sallomnesh, and Shoa
Several bus yards, and a few hundred miles later, we arrived in Kololo to meet Ichigu, Andiso and Sallomnesh. Ichigu is Cien's partner in crime and fellow Program staff for Tesfa (the NGO I came to Ethiopia to work with).  Andiso is the local minister, chicken wrangler, mud layer, wise words sayer, late night hyena fighter, and the man who gave us him own home to live in while Cien and Ichigu oversaw the building of the primary school in his village. Sallomnesh is our Seratana. A Seratana (pronounced like Sarah-Tahn-ya) is a general cook/handy person that most middle class+ households keep around to handle the day-to-day operations of the house. We have a Seratana back in our home in Addis as well, and she comes in at 7am each day to fix our food for the day. As we were in a mud hut on loan from the local village minister, this meant that she would be making sure we got our 3 meals of local fruits and veggies, as well as kinda kept the place clean.

As far as cleanliness goes...I'll get to that in a later post. It deserves its own post.

Cien's bed in Kololo
But as for this gent, he was happily settled in, nestled under his mosquito net in his little cot. It was simple, and I was happy to have a place to rest my head...even if the sheets did smell like puppies.

Tomorrow was to be my first full day of jungle living! The adventure begins!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Arrival in Ethiopia...Let it Begin!

Well, after a long flight from Europe, and what seemed like an eternity in Lufthansa's tiny little seats sitting with my knees in my mouth, I arrived in Addis Ababa. Twas about 9pm, and I had no idea what to expect. Somehow I lucked out at customs, and went to get my visa first. Most people went to the customs line, but eventually were redirected to the visa line. When I arrived at the visa door, there were about 6 people in line. When I left, there were about 150. #WINNING! I breezed through customs and went to the place where Cien, my beloved friend from DePaul who I never really hung out with but who is my current host in Ethiopia, told me to wait. After about 20 minutes of no Cien, I decided to look for a phone to call to see where he was. Turns out, he was outside the airport, standing in a swarm of people, and security was not letting anyone into the airport. Thus, I came out and greeted him with a smile

Navigating the throng was simple enough, so we went to hail a cab. This is where I got a taste of what was to come. After entering the cab, full of smiles, I proceeded to attempt to roll down the window. Well, after grasping in the dark for a few seconds, I found what I thought was a lever to roll it down. Then the door opened. Bah! As there are no seat belts in any cab or bus in Addis (as Cien informed me while laughing as I tried to close the door as it swung about in moving traffic), I nearly fell out of the car going about 40 mph.

Well, I made it to his house. He lives in Arrat Kilo (Amharic for Four Kilometers, one of many "Kilo" neighborhoods, denoted by how many km they are from the city center I suppose), in a subsection called Jan Meda ("Jan Field" in Amharic). He lives the same sort of residential life that I do in Chicago. Arrat Kilo/Jan Meda is a neighborhood where few of the well heeled go, but a place that he finds people who care about him and who make some semblance of community despite their lack of resources. I like it too :)

A dual hot plate, a bath tub, a couch, hilariously wired electricity, water that sometimes works, and a big wonderful spider named Phil in the bathroom window who eats the flies for us...well its home for 3 months. There is no toilet seat, so make sure you have strong legs for the squatting, but otherwise its no different from the Rote Wand I left 12 hours earlier in Austria!

We spent the night laughing and catching up, and soon became the best of new-old friends. 

Part One: Europe!

The Europe plan came about because a dear friend of mine, Jan, invited me to come skiing with his family in the Austrian Alps. There was a TINY window for this excursion, and since I hadn’t been to Europe before, I jumped at it. It was a little last minute detour from my Africa itinerary, but a very welcome one!  The plan was to fly from Chicago to Frankfurt on the 15th, then fly from Frankfurt to Innsbruck, Switzerland after a tight plane change. I then had a car waiting for me in Switzerland (of course Jan booked the VW Mini just for laughs!) which I was to drive to Lech, Austria to meet Jan and the crew for 2 nights of fun. What actually happened was the plane rides went as planned, but then an avalanche blocked me from getting to Lech via car for a day. I also realized in Innsbruck that Europeans only drive manual transmissions, so I had to get upsold to the “Luxury” Ford minivan (the VW Mini joke was a bust) they had with an automatic transmission....which ran out of battery the next day, so Jan had to drive out to escort me the 25 km to Lech from my hotel on the other side of the mountain after jumping my car. That sucked. And it cost an extra 100 Euro. Bah. But it was the only auto-trans they had so I couldn’t be choosy.

 I was supposed to be in Lech, Austria with Jan and the fam for about 36 hours: from 1pm on 2/16 to 6am 2/18.  That turned into a roughly 12 hour stay due to an avalanche. The avalanche in Austria on the 16th postponed my arrival into Lech, so I had to stay in St. Anton for the night while they cleared the roads of snow. We stayed at the Hotel Rote Wand in Lech, Austria. It is an amazingly swank multi-building complex set up in the mountains. Look up for some pics and such. Swank really is an understatement, and if it weren’t for Jan and his family’s generosity, this wanderlust gent would not have ever even seen the place. I arrived too late on the 17th to go skiing, so I went sledding with his 2 wonderfully funny preteenie-weenie kids and their buddy. If you have never done Alpine sledding…..yea, think about it. It sounds like a great idea, but it really is just an expeditious way to break your coccyx, get several mouthfuls of snow, and practice your German swear words.

I decided to check out the outdoor pool before dinner. The indoor pool was nice…the outdoor pool was pimptastic. Yea, I said it. In 2012. I said “pimptastic” *cue playing of Nelly’s 2004 ‘Pimp Juice.’ Imagine the Alps in the background,  blue led-lit heated pool, with walls of snow 10 feet high on either side…all to myself! It was amazing.

I spent the evening in the hotel restaurant, enjoying a ridiculously amazing 8 course meal. The Europeans know how to take their time when they eat, and they have an impeccable attention to detail in their epicurean affairs. Imagine small plates of intricately crafted delicacies, paired with amazing service and a great ambience…..later you will see why this is the last time I experienced this for some time.

Following this dinner of over 30 cheeses and preserves, lemon pie, fish, lobster bisque, pasta, and wine (LOVED IT!), Jan and his coterie retired to the hotel bar to have some very fine liquers to see me off. Good conversation, great drinks, and many laughs at the precious little Emma (Jan and Frauke’s littlest baby who spent the evening regaling the pub crawlers with her version of a jig…as only a 1 year old can!).  I decided to drive straight to Innsbruck to make my 6am flight to Vienna, then back to Frankfurt, then off to Addis Ababa. It was 3 am, and I had only about 10 hours of sleep over the past 3 days.

My first trip alone on the Autobahn was fun! I dont recommend driving in foreign countries, after an avalanche, at 3am, going 160 in a rental car.....but if you have to, it can be fun! Just dont play Coldplay like I did at puts you to sleep. I changed it to a new Anthony Hamilton album I picked up and was jamming to a duet he had with Keri Hilson to keep me up. If you have never driven with me, then you should know that I sing at the top of my lungs when I drive. Life is a party, after all! I was definitely doing about 160km/hr on the way there, as I couldn’t tell which of the German signs were speed signs, parking signs, or street names. I figured as long as I went slower than the guy ahead of me and faster than the guy behind me I was fine. I made it to Innsbruck (after a quick stop for some last minute german chocolate wafers to accompany me to Ethiopia) with about 30 minutes before takeoff. Bah! After some loud complaining and looks of bewilderment as I saw over 200 people in line to check in, I made it to the front with 5 minutes to takeoff….this was not good! I had a security agent escort me to the front of the baggage clearance line, and ran to the gate, then out of the airport across the airstrip with my bags to board the plane. After a cup of espresso and a delicious chocolate Manner wafer from the flight attendant, I was back on my way to Frankfurt to begin the second leg of my journey! Ethiopia bound!

So the Travels Begin!

Ah, so the travels shall commence! 

8 flights, 7 airports, 4 different climates (including being right on the equator in shorts and a tank top, a day in a temperate region, as well as 12000 feet up a mountain covered in snow), 3 hotels, 3 continents, 1 rental car, both sides of the Equator and Prime Meridian……and all to be done over the course of 7 days. My Grandma thought I was nuts.

After a splendid weekend in LA gallivanting about Hollywood, South Central, and Rodeo Drive realizing that I lack both the means and desire to live in such an atypically decadent and unabashedly superfluous city, I returned to Chicago to pack up my things, finalize the closure of my domestic life, and say my final farewells to my loving family and friends. Parting IS such sweet sorrow, but then again, saying hello after a long time away is sweeter still!

Lets arrange this to paint the picture of why I was so discombobulated when I reached my final destination of Ethiopia:

2/10: 6pm-2am: Going away party with YMEN and Friends
2/13: 1pm LAX>SanFran, 4pm SanFran>CHI
2/15: 3pm CHI>Frankfurt, Germany,
2/16: 8am Frankfurt>Innsbruck, Switz. 11am Pick up rental car and drive from INNS to Lech, Austria
NOTE: Avalanche in Lech caused me to get stranded there, as the only road into Lech was blocked by 14 feet of snow. I stayed at the quaint Hotel Tierolerhof at the base of St. Anton, about 75km from Innsbruck, had a macchiato and some fish, and rested my weary bones for a night. It was the EU equivalent of a Holiday Inn. I was just happy to be sleeping horizontally for a spell.
2/17: 11am St. Anton>Lech  (1pm arrival in Lech, drove out to return to INNS at 3am that morning)
2/18: 6am Lech>Inns (Driving at 3am to make a 6am flight); INN>Vienna (layover); VIE>Frankfurt; Frankfurt>Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Arrived in Addis at 9pm)
Addis for 3 months!