Thursday, February 28, 2013

Live, Love, Beirut

Well, here I am, back in Beirut. Five hours on a plane and I have returned to the land of H & M stores, Mcdonald's, a variety of available foods, sidewalks, hot showers, running water, fancy shops, pita bread and hummus and, best of all, smoky sheesha bars. Maybe I am indeed a spoiled westerner, but truthfully, I like these things and am not ashamed to admit it. Minus the occasional power outage and suicide bombing, and it's just like being back in Canada! Sort of.

Today, after spending a few bucks on some new shoes and leggings and shirts (Oh, how great it is to be able to buy some new clothes while traveling!), and a few hours wandering the busy Hamra district, my "servicee" taxi took me on a long, scenic drive back to my hostel in Gemmayzeh. It was almost like having a grand tour of Beirut - all the gorgeous, dilapitated old buildings with their ornate iron details and yellow and baby-blue peeling paint, these half bombed out relics shakily standing next to colourfully graffiti-ed concrete flyovers; glossy new apartments and shopping complexes watching over, the contrast of new and old, worn out and half destroyed, completely rebuilt and still under construction. Street sellers hawking roasted pistachios, neon hotdog stands, the smell of falafel and car exhaust and processed meat; an old pickup truck full of sapling orange trees, old men in suits drinking coffee at dunkin' donuts while hijabed women in high heels talk on their smart phones- the wonderfull fusion of cultures that is modern day Beirut.

I think why I personally like it here so much, even with all its frustrations (a woefully non-existent public transit system, European prices for Middle East inconvenience and chaos, insane drivers, a seeming obsession with wealth and Louis Vuitton chic), is that is seems to best embody to me the resilience of the human spirit. Cities may be bombed, suffer through wars, chaos, and unthinkable horror and destruction, but people will always rebuild, find the positive even when everything has gone to hell, have fun, eat, drink, be merry and carry on. There really is no other choice, and it is nice to be reminded of this, especially coming from Canada where we have it so easy. The traces left by the civil war, and subsequent attacks by Israel are seen constantly here - and yet there is life everywhere to be found, people constantly out and about, enjoying food, drinking until the wee hours, talking non-stop and generally just living it up. There is something inspiring about it, as well as the fact that despite some tensions in the suburbs, there seems amongst the general population, a peaceful coexistence of religion - for now. The saying goes that Lebanon is completely safe - until its not, and that change can happen literally overnight, and without warning.

I think of all the destruction going on next door in Syria, and it makes me feel somehow slightly better, imagining the cities of Aleppo and Homs one day perhaps being like a Beirut - the old souks will have to rebuilt, the historical buildings replaced with second fiddle new structures, the Citadels repaired- but life will go on, because it has to. It has no other choice. Of course no amount of rebuilding can ever replace all the lives lost, and it still pains me to think of how quickly countries can be ruined for nothing, (all because of Religion and sectarianism, and the trappings of the typically human impulse to fight and kill people in the name of some greater cause), but, as it is demonstrated in Beirut, it is the people that really make a place, not just old buildings, relics, historical sites. And the people of Beirut are wonderful, truly, just as in neighbouring Syria. I hope that this is the path of Syria, to be like a Lebanon, and not an Iraq...I suppose only time will tell, and I really don't know enough of the complex details to make any predictions - I am just stating my hope.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hyena Love

Last night I fed a wild hyena rotten camel meat from a 4 inch long stick, and then again out of a little basket which he nearly got his head stuck in. !!!!! It was pretty much the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

Here in Harar, 2 different "Hyena men" have established a truly bizarre ritual of nightly hyena feedings, just outside the ancient city walls. It isn't entirely clear when or why they began doing this, but unlike some other places in Eastern Ethiopia (Dire Dawa, for example), locals are never killed by hyenas in Harar and it is thought it is because they are happily well fed. Apparently there exists an old myth of leaving bowls of porridge out for the creatures, so that babies and livestock wouldn't be targeted - a sort of spotted scavenger goldilocks tale; regardless, here in Harar exists probably the only chance in the world to go nose to snout with Africa's second largest predator, feel its breath in your face, and not get yourself killed (Hyenas having the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom, capable of crushing skulls in a single chomp.)

It began at dusk with the Hyena man sitting on a rock overlooking the valley, and calling out for his misfit friends...minutes later I found myself watching in astonishment as this amazing, awkward creature skuttled out of the shadows, green eyes blazing and silly grin smirking, bobbing up and down up the path, while small children watched from nearby, and stray cats took little notice. It actually seemed like he was rather shy, and hid out in the dumpster for a bit, until he smelled the basket of meat and skurried over towards us.

After an hour or so, (and after a whole gaggle of American army troops had thankfully had their fill of guffawing and ogling and had left), I was able to crouch down and feed one myself, as several other Hyenas looked enviously on. A friendly dutchman happened to take a picture of the basket feeding portion of the evening (many of the other photos didn't turn out, it being dark out and all), and it is truly the greatest photo of me EVER taken and I am eager to get back to Addis Ababa (where there exists wifi), and uploaded it from my laptop. So cool. Admittedly, I was slightly terrified at first...just because these creatures are used to the feedings and generally behave themselves like a pleasantly well-fed dog, doesnt mean they arent completely wild animals, and really, I have never been within inches of a wild predator before. Unlike some of the Americans who seem to have an invincibility complex ("I'm gonna feed that bastard with my BARE HANDS" etc etc), I am well versed in things going wrong (see: the sprained ankle incident, the malaria test), and as romantic and Rimbaud-esque as it might sound to be killed by a Hyena in Harar, I didn't particularly want to have to come to such ends.

It may sound ridiculous, but Hyenas have been one of my favourite animals for years, so this feels like a life goal accomplished, haha. Kneeling down and giving sour raw meat to a Hyena. What insanity.

I might just have to go back again tonight...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I am writing this from my room in Ethiopia’s oldest hotel (the empress Taitu), having returned to the chaos and mayhem of the capital after 2 weeks spent wandering in the beautiful north. Despite this hotel being one of the most popular budget traveler lodges in all of Addis Ababa, internet here is still incredibly frustrating and woefully temperamental, so I am writing this in Word document form to be uploaded later. (Maybe it’s my Italian ancestry, but being the incredibly impatient person I am, internet that takes forever to load, quits sporadically on me, etc etc, tend to put me in an incredibly pissy and critical mood….so you have been warned,  before reading any further, haha.)

I think of how Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the impasse that having things like such poor internet connection means: without a stable fast, connection, a country can in no way possibly compete with the world economy or stay relevant in a world where e-commerce is everything, and yet, without the initial money to make high speed internet possible, they cannot have the connection that the 21st century demands and thus create wealth in any way for themselves (through online start up business’ or otherwise).. This type of frustrating catch-22 is what Ethiopia seems to embody most for me, maybe demonstrated most by the never ending parade of beggar children demanding money, pens, sweets on every corner (sometimes fairly aggressively) and the conflicting desire to help them by giving, what to my pocket is a mere pittance, or knowing that in giving at all you are creating a terrible precedent for future travelers, as well as not contributing whatsoever to a sustainable solution, and encouraging the begging, aid-driven mentality.

Don’t get me wrong…I think traveling to Ethiopia is rewarding for many reasons, there is certainly beautiful  historical sites, unique culture, and the eye opening experience of seeing what life is actually like for a huge amount of the world – a day-to-day struggle so far removed from the western decadence of smartphones, facebook, and 24 hr conveiniece that you cannot help but feel completely spoiled and out of touch. Is it a good place for an easy vacation? No. Certainly, if you have the money, you can stay at European style Hilton hotels, fly from site to site, and pay someone to shelter you from actual gritty Africa, but I hardly see the point, especially since the real risks (Malaria, common food born illness, etc) are still very present, no matter what your financial status. (Speaking of which, getting tested for malaria in a country with an 8% HIV rate is another eye opener – something that would be routine in Canada becomes stressful and requires you to actually make sure that a fresh syringe and gloves are used – things we would take for granted in the west, and, spending all night vomiting in your filthy bathroom in Lalibela just plain sucks). I think that Ethiopia is a good place for an experienced backpacker to travel- or just a slightly insane person who really doesn’t give a damn what risks they are putting themselves through, haha. 

Tomorrow I take the 10 hr bus to the eastern city of Harar, which involves getting up at 4 am, being ripped off in a taxi, to reach the absolute chaos of the local bus station, fighting off touts and pickpockets, claiming a seat, and putting up the thorns of travel defence – basically grinning and bearing it. And while it might sound like I am complaining, I’m really not…I just don’t see the point in sugar-coating the actuality of my experience, or glossing over the realities (like certain writers of the Lonely Planet guide seem to enjoy doing). Will it be worth it to see the house that Rimbaud lived in (supposedly), or feed a wild Hyena from a stick, after dusk outside the haunted city’s crumbling walls? Certainly. And that is why, despite the challenges, despite how eating Injera every single day is making me loathe the food I initially liked so much… I am still here. Just like today, when I looked close up into the eyes of an Abyssinian lion at the Addis Ababa zoo – an experience that one could only have here, being that this is the only place in the world which has any in captivity-, or like last week when I ate lunch in the mountains, mere inches from a gaggle of dozens of endemic Gelada Baboons, I felt lucky to have the chance to see this country, in all its dirty, chaotic, conflicted glory.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

curse of the itchy foot

I was thinking about all the random, stupid maladies that have afflicted me whilst traveling, and maybe i'm just feeling particularly sorry for myself, after days spent holed up in this hotel room...but sometimes I feel like I am cursed. Obviously I have incredibly good fortune in many ways, the fact I have been able to go on all these trips, I know I am incredibly lucky...but the amount of freak accidents I have suffered in my journeys seems somewhat unfair.

My first time ever traveling outside Canada or the United States, and I got into a major car accident (the car having to be written off) the DAY before my flight left for Cancun. Throughout the beautiful Jungles of Chiapas, and the highlands of the Central Yucutan...I had whiplash and bruises and a minor concussion.

While I was in Turkey, I developed an abscessed tooth and had to have a root canal done in the Southeastern port town of Mersin, where I was staying at the time. The dentist spoke not a word of english, and made me swish my mouth with some horrid tasting chemical to "kill the infection". (I had to have this tooth re-root canaled in Canada this past year, because, surprise surprise! - he didn't do a correct job and toxic chemicals don't, in fact, do the trick.)

And now, I am in freakin' Ethiopia with a severely sprained foot, that due to enough time spent on the internet in my "restful state", I am worried might actually be a fracture. I am going to seek out a hospital tomorrow, here in Addis Ababa...of all the things I didn't anticipate having to do on this adventure, this certainly takes the cake.

I know things could be worse, and I know its important to have perspective, and I know that all of my adventures have still been amazing despite the setbacks...but really....I'm getting sick of this!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Staying afloat on a drunken boat

Decadent French poet Arthur Rimbaud came to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) in 1880, settling in the eastern city of Harar. There, in the walled maze of crowded alleyways, he worked as a merchant, trading such fine exports as coffee, weapons, and infamously- slaves. He mysteriously gave up his bohemian french poetry scene and his tumultuous relationship with Verlaine, with the hopes of striking it rich in a city that was certainly even more chaotic then, than it is now. Rimbaud spent over 10 years in Abyssinia -having little contact with anyone back in France, until he developed a tumour in his leg, which he eventually died from after a failed amputation on Nov 10th 1891, at the ripe old age of 37.

Now, I'm no Rimbaud, (despite my teenage obsession), but the similarities of my own current state to that of Rimbaud's in Ethiopia are somewhat distrurbing. One might say that I gave up on Calgary's poetry community ages ago, without even actually having been a part of it. I certainly have had my own share of screaming bohemian relationship dramas -as Bob Dylan would sing, "Oh, mine have been like Verlaine's and Rimbauuuud!". And, let's not forget the crucial similarity, that here I lie in my very own little worn and weathered hotel bed in Ethiopia, with a large lump on my ankle, bruised foot, alone and somewhat immobile, much like Rimbaud at the end of his days.

Though I'm certain Rimbaud (who due to his respect and influence within the Harari community at the time, was chummy with the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen, -father of future Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, better known worldwide as the dude who Rastafarians worship and sing songs about while smokin' Ganja), had a bit more of a crazy decadent time here; housekeeper/concubines from the Somali coast, most probably a pet Hyena or two (perhaps that's an exaggeration), endless Qat plants to chew on and become psychotically intoxicated with -while I have spent most of my time simply drinking coffee and eating alot of sour Injera bread, alone.

Still though, I like to keep the flame of inspiration alive, and pay homage when I can - even if its unintentional (the lame foot, and all). Tonight I think am going to drink some 80 cent beer and read Rimbaud, cursing the world for not appreciating my genius. Or something. Yes. Or, better yet, try and download a copy of "Rimbaud in Abyssinia" ( a biography of our decadent poets life at that time), onto my Kobo (which is certainly far more bourgoisie than anything Rimbaud would have done). Also, I'm fairly certain that I won't need any amputations for my sprained ankle, touch wood (or the services of any concubines) while I'm here, so maybe this whole comparision is downright absurd.  Also, I am in the capital of Addis Ababa, not Harar. Also, I have no plan of making money here.

Maybe I just really am getting bored of laying in bed, and am daydreaming myself into frenzy, because I have nothing else to do.

"And from that time on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,
Devouring the green azures; where, entranced in pallid flotsam,
A dreaming drowned man sometimes goes down;

Where, suddenly dyeing the bluenesses, deliriums
And slow rhythms under the gleams of the daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than music
Ferment the bitter rednesses of love!

I have come to know the skies splitting with lightnings, and the waterspouts
And the breakers and currents; I know the evening,
And Dawn rising up like a flock of doves,
And sometimes I have seen what men have imagined they saw!

I have seen the low-hanging sun speckled with mystic horrors.
Lighting up long violet coagulations,
Like the performers in very-antique dramas
Waves rolling back into the distances their shiverings of venetian blinds!

I have dreamed of the green night of the dazzled snows
The kiss rising slowly to the eyes of the seas,
The circulation of undreamed-of saps,
And the yellow-blue awakenings of singing phosphorus!

I have followed, for whole months on end, the swells
Battering the reefs like hysterical herds of cows,
Never dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys
Could force back the muzzles of snorting Oceans!

I have struck, do you realize, incredible Floridas
Where mingle with flowers the eyes of panthers
In human skins! Rainbows stretched like bridles
Under the seas' horizon, to glaucous herds!

I have seen the enormous swamps seething, traps
Where a whole leviathan rots in the reeds!
Downfalls of waters in the midst of the calm
And distances cataracting down into abysses!"

- Arthur Rimbaud, "The drunken boat"

Arthur Rimbaud, on the far right

Me... pretending to be Rimbaud.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

the right side of east Africa

I have woken up on the right side of the bed today. Miraculously. As far as I can tell, bedbug-and-flea-bite free, too.

In my little skanky hotel room in Addis Ababa, which totally terrified me yesterday....but today, with the window open and the sound of literally dozens of different birds chirping away (and the occasional meowing cat-in-heat), after having an impossibly restful sleep....I do not completely regret coming here, to Ethiopia, like I did yesterday. I have given up the fear of spiders (saw one already), malarial mosquitos (had a duel with one last night, me smacking the walls until I think he was at least injured, if not dead), and basically am coming to the conclusion that being scared doesn't help so I might as well at least *pretend* to be brave.

Yes, my ankle is still swollen and sprained and sore. Yes, I am procrastinating on taking a shower because the bathroom seems like one giant hazardous material room - the hazard of hitting my head on the low ceiling and protruding pipes, the fact the toilet is on a little wobbly ledge, or the simple state of caked-on-grime.

Yes, walking the streets is still a somewhat shocking and humbling experience - a man yesterday "befriended me" (played friendly for an hour to ask me for money afterwards to help him buy a book), taking me into literally a shanty/corrugated metal/tin roof decrepit basement to chew qat (which I declined, feeling wobbly enough as is). Yes, I am in over my head and having to swim twice as hard to stay afloat...but today I am feeling a lot more optimistic.

I met a girl last night from Colorado, who took me out for peanut butter tea - the local specialty. (a bit like a hot peanut butter milkshake, but better then it initially sounds). She had returned from traveling India and was heading back to Uganda where she had spent 5 months working. She said those places were easy to travel, compared to Ethiopia. Even Kenya, she thought was much more "user-friendly", but she gave me a bit of much needed encouragement, seeing as she had spent 2 weeks here already. She talked about how Ethiopia really makes you confront your own issues, and if you are up for it, can be an incredible adventure.

 So here I am, in East Africa's most challenging country, feeling a bit terrified but at least slightly better than yesterday. Nobody comes to Ethiopia for an easy vacation, and its not because the sights and tourist draws arent there (Gondar Castle, and Lalibela could easily be the next Petra), but simply because it is so extremely poor, and ramshackle, it hasnt the infrastructure to support it. Which leaves me, the traveler with a genuine sense of between biting my nails and getting an ulcer stressing out on just how this.

At least the food is delicious and cheap!