Archive for July, 2015

Minibus (Part I: Welcome to Hell)

Minibus from hell

Minibus from hell

At 3 am the horn honks outside our hotel. It’s dark and cool outside. Mark and I are both packed and waiting to go. I have indulged in a glorious 4-minute freezing cold water-bucketing.

Despite the fun we’ve had in Harar, we are ready to say goodbye to her, her hyenas, her ancient walls, and her wonderful people. The driver is on time, which makes me happy. It is the last pleasant thought I will have for 12 hours.

The night guard waves goodbye and the driver points us to the minibus, which in the dark looks unassuming. Our transport to Addis Ababa. A minibus. Like every hotel airport shuttle. A bus-van hybrid, low roof, sliding door, maximum seating capacity ten average-sized people, eleven vegetarians, or twelve female gymnasts.

We swing around Harar in the dark morning picking up the rest of the bus’s passengers. There are two women near a shantytown here, a man coming out of a patch of woods there. Another man carrying quilts jumps in as the bus slows, but doesn’t stop. He is small, dark, with trim hair and a half-goatee. He leaps into the only solo seat just behind the sliding back door, instantly unrolls his quilts, stretches his miniature form out as far as it can reach and covers himself from head to toe in quilt.

Anyone else who comes in the door trips over his outstretched legs and he literally whines at them. The nerve of the old women stumbling on his legs in the doorway in the pitch black. Mark and I exchange a glance of pure hatred that can only be bred from being crammed into a minibus before 4 am: we loathe him.

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One Chat over the Line

Chat and Peanuts

Chat and Peanuts

We are in a bustling, beehive of a market in Harar, the famous walled city in the east of Ethiopia. The scene is something out of a film. There are thousands of people engaged in activity. Some are playing the Ethiopian sport of buying and selling, a constant string of words, blinks, sighs, and laughs coming and going in uncrackable code.

Others are leading oxen, sheep, cows, donkeys, or goats down the dirt and muddy roads. Some are working on their wares, cleaning vegetables, filling crude plastic jars with petrol, or holding out boards of broken sandals.

No matter what they are doing, the locals are fascinated by us, the only white faces in the crowd. Each person offers a smile and some form of greeting. This greeting can be anything from a nod and a handshake to “Hi, faranjo” to “What you need, faranjo?” to “Faranjo, gimme money,” to the more succinct “Gimme.”

Along with this is an endless string of offers to guide or transport. Everyone knows something about the city that another doesn’t and he’ll offer it to us at a reasonable price. Everyone else has a taxicab or a tuktuk, another guy knows a great place for a goat tibs.

When offered anything, we point to our guide, Gumru, who is procuring us a local delicacy. We say that we have a guide, but they continue until Gumru shouts them off or gives them a hug. Their persistence is exhausting.

After negotiations, Gumru hands me a bushel of short branches with several leaves on each. Instantly, the people stop offering us things in order to giddily enjoy this fact. They point and laugh. We are holding chat.

Chat, pronounced ket or chet, is a leafy plant which contains a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which is said to cause excitement and euphoria. It has been chewed by Ethiopian men (and various other cultures) as part of a social custom for thousands of years.

So, we just bought drugs.

The chat salesman comes around and pats me on the back. “You will be very…energy!”

“Thank you.”

“You need peanuts.”


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This Week in African Travel Headlines

Me feeding Herb the Hyena

Me feeding Herb the Hyena

The hyena approaches sideways, almost shy. His teeth are dense and short, a tendril from its last meaty snack dangles from a canine. His jaw looks strong enough to snap a parking meter pole. Its fur is gritty brown, spotted, matted, and bristled. As it extends his snout to grab the goat innards from the 7-inch stick I’m holding out to him, I realize his fur is bristled because of me.

This does nothing to calm my nerves.

I give him a cute name him in my head, a trick I developed to deal with my fear of spiders. The logic being that nothing with a cute name could harm you. The stability of this logic gets very shaky when one considers the hundreds and thousands of dogs with names like Fluffy, Cupcake, and Pookie who maul their owners. Or my cat Bella.

He is Herbert. Herbert the Hyena. I call him Herb.

A lot of thoughts go through a man’s mind as he’s holding a short stick of goat innards out to a wild hyena in the middle of the African outback at night. Despite the fact that feeding a wild hyena is a once in a lifetime experience, none of the thoughts travelling through my mind at obsessive-warp speed focus on that.

No, my mind focuses on the fact that there’s a wild hyena walking towards me and the goat kidney I’m holding. It focuses on the fact that this is just the sort of thing that ends one up on the news of the weird. A thing that people hear and say: Well, why would the schmuck feed a wild hyena in the first place? And then the headline flashes across my mind:

Man Mauled by Hyena Allergic to Goat Meat

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The Living Obstacle Course

Read, will you? I think not.

Read, will you? I think not.

If you have ever owned, touched, or been in the same room as a cat, you know that they love nothing more than to pay a great deal of attention to people who don’t want to be bothered. Cats are renowned for their ability to trip you, tangled themselves up in your legs, or be a general physical nuisance. Simple activities like reading a book or cooking pasta become obstacle course sports.

If I have to walk through my house with my laptop I do so with the care of a man carrying around a sandwich box of nitroglycerin. There’s not a day that goes by without a tangled collision in the hallway followed by an incredulous meow meant to convey: Watch where you’re going, bub!

It’s for this reason that I do my workout behind closed doors. The workout includes many exercises that would simply invite a cat’s attention and surely her interference and then probably lead to one or both of us bleeding or heading to an emergency room.

Today, as I began my workout in the muggiest room on Earth I notice a small head come out from behind my armchair. My workout is a timed thing that can’t really be paused, so I decide to risk it.

You are surely familiar with pushups, well pushups to a cat is the garage door game you used to play if you were an adventurous (and stupid) kid. Can you get out of the way before it comes down?!

The answer, by the by, is no.

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A Day of Pragueness

mulletIt’s Saturday and it’s hot. Steaming hot. To counteract the extreme unpleasantness brought on by humidity in a country with no air conditioning, we have decided to drink outdoors. We are in Reigrovy Sady, one of the great beer gardens in Prague. The mugginess sits over the place like a circus tent.

The beer is cold and the Becherovka is as hot as the weather. If you have ever had Becherovka, you know that it is best served chilled. Chilled Becherovka tastes like jolly Christmas. Heated Becherovka is like drinking a glass of cinnamon nails. Nevertheless, we drink it.

Though we originally came out to beat the heat and have a drink, it’s clear that sometime during the day we have decided to make this a day of Pragueness. It’s true that Reigrovy Sady is packed with expats and non-Czechs, but the Pragueness comes through in many ways. In the first place, Reigrovy is the quintessential summer hangout. There’s a big television showing soccer, a permanent plume of marijuana smoke, a laidback atmosphere, and grumbling bitter staff.

We have a klobasa with bread and mustard. Mark has two. The beer is going down easy and the hot Becherovkas make us wince and roll our eyes, but apparently not enough to stop drinking them.

To have a day of Pragueness is a requirement from time to time. I sometimes start in the morning with a yogurt and buttered white rolls with ham for breakfast. Then there can be soup and Svíčková for lunch and maybe a beer if you are feeling adventurous. In the afternoon I’ll go to Naplavka or sit in a pub for an hour or two and watch the Czech news with the regulars.

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For Want of a Rib

clemsThere was a contest recently on the best rib places in the U.S. The fact that I am not sitting on a council that decides these sort of things is one of my great failings in life. I love ribs. Not a simple love like you love your wife or your children. This is real love. And the only thing I love more than ribs is Clem’s Ribs.

There’s nothing about Clem’s that isn’t awesome. It consisted of two small buildings: a dining room, a smokehouse. It was run by fat men, men who look like they should be running a rib joint. Men who look like they bathe in barbecue sauce. Men who take meat very seriously. Men who respect a good gut. Men who discriminate for other fat men. Men like me.

Clem’s was 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, which sounds like a downside, but for a few reasons it wasn’t. In the first place, there was the joy of anticipation, in itself a sensory delight. Second, we had the joy of smelling it from about five miles away. Third, it became a great tradition for my friend Joe and I. And fourth, because it gave us an excuse to visit the nearby drive thru strip club ($5 a dance, you can eat in your car while watching).

Joe and I went to Clem’s once every two weeks, which meant that we would drive two hours to eat for about 6 minutes. On one such day we opened the windows five miles away and took in deep breaths to imbibe the smell of Clem’s. But today, there was a problem: there was no smell of ribs. There was no smell at mile four, three, two, or one either.

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Alternate Transportation

ATWhen one partners the words “Africa” and “transportation” a lot of pictures come to mind. I know it’s an idiotic notion, but my mental picture almost always involves a jalopy of a minibus careening down a dusty desert highway. There are lots of chickens, loud music, and people hanging off the rack on the roof.

Before you deem me ignorant or too quick to judge, I’d like to say that my other experiences traveling around Africa have resembled this partially. I don’t think there were any chickens, but there were people hanging on the side of a bus for a while.

When you travel to some more adventurous locales you have to divorce yourself from a lot of notions you have held about the way people travel from one place to another. This means you have to start thinking outside your transportational box.

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Said Waits

luxorIt’s a quiet Sunday. My travel buddy, Mark, and I are lounging around the flat enjoying the sort of hangover that comes from a three day bender in Prague. The humidity is brutal but it looks like rain. The cat is grumpy. All is well.

This lazy Sunday is surely the calm before the storm. For tomorrow we shall fly to Ethiopia and the calm ends.

By all accounts the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, is supposed to be a hectic, wild, topsy turvy town. Harrowing crosswalks, intense sidewalk crowds, a constant cacophony of car horns and street venders. One travel book suggests that to visit Addis is to be “besieged” by a variety of Ethiopians: kids, students dying to perform a (very expensive) coffee ritual, beggars, hotel proprietors.

While I am used to being besieged by my female admirers, Addis Ababa sounds relatively intimidating. If I take into account my only other experience in Africa, it does not ease my worry. That was the very definition of being besieged.

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Happy Birthday Dr. Jones

IndyThe first movie theater experience I remember is watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with my sister. We munched popcorn, slurped cokes, jumped when they fought through snakes to get out of the well of lost souls, laughed when Indy shot the sword dude, and ewwwed when the German guy’s face melted. And the whole time, I remember thinking, “Holy. Crap.”

Everything changed then.

After Raiders every hike in the woods was a search for lost artifacts, every game of tag was a battle between good and evil, every dip in the pool was a daring escape from arrow-shooting natives. This was grand for me and unfortunate for my sister, who was often being dragged into these adventures. It was even worse for my parents, who had to deal with a decade of ticks and poison ivy. And since then two plus decades of adventure travel to unsettling locales. Indiana Jones might have been the bane of their existence, but he was a bane that had a PhD. If you want to be like Indiana Jones, get a doctorate. 

If you have seen Indiana Jones through his various hair-raising adventures then you understand exactly what I am talking about. Also, if you had a child who did, you do too. Dr. Jones encouraged that adventurous side of us that was all stuffed up sitting in classrooms, keeping down cowlicks, and being forced into sweater vests.

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