Category Archives: Living abroad

Luxury Huts

My plan was to get a fantastic night’s sleep before flying to Lalibela.  There was no internet, so it was easy to crash early.  I awoke at 3am to a donkey braying. Wow, they really sound pathetic, like they are being squeezed to death in a vise—it’s a cool sound.  I fell back to sleep.

I woke up to a rooster crowing.  It was still dark, so I was mildly irritated but also amused to hear a noise I associate with the country, since I am such a city person.  I fell back to sleep.

Then the chanting began.  It was 4am. Must be the call to prayer, I thought.  Half of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim.  I knew the call typically lasted 10 minutes, so I laid there and listened; if you don’t know the words, it sounds exotic as it wafts from the loudspeakers.  It’s beautiful.

But this call sounded different from other places I’d heard it, like Dubai, Jordan, or Turkey.  It didn’t sound Arabic.  Could they be chanting in Amharic?  It went on for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30.  I wondered if it was a religious holiday as I screwed in earplugs and feel asleep again.  When I woke up at 8am and took them out, the chanting was still droning on.  Mysterious.

I waited on the steps of my hotel for the driver.  The steps were in an alcove, so people walking by didn’t see me until they were right there, then they did a double take.  Ferenji!

I was weirded out that some men across the street were staring at me.

Until I realized they were mannequins.

A young man approached me.  “Seebeetee?”  I smiled uncertainly and said “no thanks” to whatever that was.  He came back a minute later with another guy who said “C-V-T?” My employer.

“Oh!  Yes!” I answered, and hopped into his truck.  He spoke no English.  There was a boy in the back seat who appeared to be about 12.  His little brother?  He spoke no English either, so I sat back and watched the scenery for the hour-long drive to Axum.

The flight was the same as the previous day’s flight—there were muffins and a selection of three beverages.  But you know that background music they play when passengers are boarding a plane?  On this flight they played really loud, schmaltzy music for the whole flight.  I thought about asking someone to turn it off, but figured some of the passengers considered it a benefit.

We landed at the same time as a charter plane of Chinese tourists.  They stared at me—and I mean stared hard—they must have never seen a real white person before.  I hope I didn’t disappoint them.

Maki had arranged for a guide to meet me, Tesfaye.  He had a driver lined up to take me to my hotel, and there were three kids in the back seat.  Did kids just go along for the ride in Ethiopia?

As part of our small talk, I asked Tesfaye about the chanting I’d heard in the morning.

“Is it a Muslim holiday?”

He laughed.  “No, it’s our crazy Ethiopian Orthodox church.  The priests do that every day.”

Note to self: Buy more ear plugs.

We arrived at the Tukal Village Hotel. It was so nice I was tempted to tell Tesfaye I would just stay there for the day.  It was a series of “luxury huts,” with a nice restaurant too—and wireless.

This was the first time I’d been able to get online since Frankfurt.  Maki had told me that the government of Ethiopia had shut down the Internet in the entire country the week before to prevent students cheating on their standardized exams.  Now it was back to its usual state of extremely weak and unreliable.

I threw my things in my hut and Tesfaye and I began a long hike up through the town of Lalibela to the site. “Children will call you ferenji,” he told me.  “People will try to sell you things.  Do not talk to the”

Well then, how was I going to get any souvenirs, I wondered?

Not Again

I wrote three posts about Ethiopia while I was there.  Night of the Rat was about, well, the rat in my bathroom and other unpleasantries I encountered.  Happy to Be Here was about the positive stuff, like meeting my colleagues and seeing our program first hand.  Beasts of Burden was about the endless streams of people and animals that trudged along the roads  carrying burdens no one should have to bear.  The post before this one was Frankfurt to Axum, which described traveling on Ethiopia Airlines.

After traveling for nearly 18 hours, Maki and I were seated in her office in Shire.  I was exhausted and felt that special griminess that only comes from air travel.  It was Friday afternoon and I just wanted to go to my hotel, take a de-grodifying shower, and sleep.

“What are you doing this weekend?” Maki asked.  I shrugged.  How did I know?  Everyone had told me there was nothing to do in Shire, and a few stabs at proving them wrong on Trip Advisor had proven them right.

“You should go to Lalibela,” Maki said.  “You’ll have to get up really early tomorrow and drive back to Axum, then fly to Lalibela and come back the next day.”

Drive?  Fly?  Again?  That was the last thing I wanted to do.  But a co-worker I trusted had urged me to see Lalibela if I could.

“Can’t I hire a driver?” I whined.

Maki laughed flatly.  “You can’t drive there.  Let’s have the driver take us to the hotel now, before everyone comes back from the camps.  The travel agent is in your hotel.”

The Gebar Hotel was the tallest building in Shire.  To get to reception, you walk up a flight of stairs, then walk up another flights of stairs, and then another, and another.  There was no elevator.  Luckily a young man came along and hoiked my suitcase effortlessly up the countless stairs for me.  I gave him one of the filthy, ragged 10 Birr notes I had wadded in my pocket, then groaned inwardly as I calculated that I had just tipped him 42 cents.  He smiled anyway.

The lobby walls and floors were covered in faux-marble tiles.  It was cavernous and dark.  I wondered if they kept the lights off to conserve energy, to keep it cool, or both.  We left my bag behind the desk and schlepped down the stairs to the travel agency.  Maki did all the talking.

“The flight will be 1,817 Birr,” she repeated to me after the agent told her this.

“I don’t suppose they take credit cards, do they?” I asked weakly.

“No, of course not,” she said in her matter-of-fact fashion.  “There’s a cash machine in the lobby but they often run out of money on the weekends so you might have to run around to others.  You can take a mini bus to Shire and it’ll cost you 100 Birr, or you can hire a driver and pay 1,600.  Then there’s the hotel—I can recommend a good one—that’ll be about 1,200.  The guide will want 500 and it’s 1,200 to get in.”

I can usually do math in my head, but I was tired and doing the conversions plus adding it all up was beyond me.  All I knew was, it sounded like a lot of money to get up really early and knock myself out all over again with road trips and flights.  I was not committed. Then Maki took a phone call and I did the calculations on my phone.  The two hour-long drives, flight, taxi to the hotel, the hotel itself, the Lalibela entrance fee, and personal guide would all cost me less than $200.  Okay then.

I was finally in my hotel room.  Here was the shower set up.

The combo electric-plumbing made me nervous, but not enough to skip a shower.  I went up to the restaurant and drank a beer while I pondered the menu and napkin holder.

I enjoyed the view from the balcony.  The little three-wheeled vehicles are called Jijigas.

I went back to my room, washed some underwear, watched a dust storm roll in, then crashed.

Frankfurt to Axum

The next day, Ingrid left on the train to go home to the Netherlands, and I stayed at the hotel and sat in the breakfast bar for hours catching up on work, emails, and blog posts.  Then I caught a cab to the airport.  On the way, the cabbie and I both had a laugh at this doggie on a bike:

At the airport, I splurged and spent $1 a minute to call my mom.  Phone service was by far the most complicated, difficult aspect of going abroad.  I must have research 10 different options, and none of them were good.  In the end I paid $40 for a month of unlimited texting, $1  minute calling, and 1 GB of data with ATT.  Unfortunately, the texting didn’t work.  I would send a text and not hear back from the recipient for four days, when they would say, “Just got your text!”  There was no data in Ethiopia, let alone texting or calling.  So I let the plan drop at the end of the month.

My mother and I spoke for 10 minutes.  She’s never been much of a phone talker, and at 82, I think she still believes that international calls cost hundreds of dollars.  As I said goodbye, she started to cry.  I felt terrible, but what could I do?  I told her that the UK was a lot more dangerous than Ethiopia and hoped she would forget that by the time I got to the UK 10 days later.

Flying to Ethiopia from the global north is arduous.  There is no option but overnight flights arriving in Addis at 6:00am.  I’ve already written about all the flights and jeep rides it took to get from Europe to the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. There were so many “Huh?” moments along the way.

On the flight from Frankfurt to Ethiopia, I shared my row with an Eritrean guy who now lives in Canada who was going back to visit his sister, who he hadn’t seen in 12 years.  I felt rude, but I smiled as I donned my sleep mask and told him I wanted to get some shut eye.  He smiled back and said, “I don’t think I will sleep all night; I am so excited.”

When the plane landed, everyone applauded.

“I didn’t get a visa before coming,” blurted out my seat mate.  “I’m sure they’ll give me one on arrival.”

I smiled but had serious doubts.  When I told Maki, our country director, this story, she groaned and put her face in her hands.  “They won’t have let him in,” she said.  “They’ll send him back.  Oh, why do people do that?  I think they believe their chances are better in person, but they’re definitely not.”

On our flight to Axum, the flight attendant offered a tray of plastic cups with clear, brown, and yellowish beverages.  I reached for the clear one and she said anxiously, “That’s water!”

“Yes, I know,” I replied.  Could she just not imagine that someone would choose water over a free coke or beer?  She came back a minute later with a tray of muffins wrapped in plastic.  When I said no thanks, she exclaimed, “Why not!?”  I said I didn’t like sweet snacks, and she looked at me like I was nuts.

Maki was seated in a different row.  I looked around and noticed the other passengers were eating their muffins with their fingers.  I have eaten with my fingers in Ethiopian restaurants many times but hadn’t realized they eat everything with their fingers.

I flipped through the inflight magazine.  The flight attendants were all as beautiful as the one in this ad.

Because of Ethiopia … what?  I had no idea what this was advertising or why these blokes were drinking out of laboratory beakers.

I assume this guy must be a famous marathon runner.

I often get passionate about packaging, especially when it involves gusseted stitched sacks.

I wasn’t going to learn Amharic on this flight, but I could pretend to try.

Here’s Ethiopian Air’s route map.

I found this sign in the bathroom puzzling.

Isn’t poop solid waste?

I was so entertained, the flight went fast and we soon landed in Axum.

Things with Strings

When Ingrid and I hopped of the Hop On Hop Off bus back in Salzburg, we had a few hours to kill before our marionette performance.  We stumbled upon a very good Indian restaurant.  I ordered my go-to favorite that I boringly get every time I go to an Indian restaurant, palak paneer.  But you know what?  I really like palak paneer, and I don’t go to Indian restaurants that often, so sue me.

We walked around the big garden called the Mirabell.  A statue depicting the rape of Persephone attracted my eye because I had seen another one like it in Rome last fall.  Then I did a 180 degree turn and it appeared that all the statues depicted a rape scene.  It wasn’t my imagination: “In the heart of the garden, you will see a large fountain, with four statue groups around it: rape of Helena, Aeneas and Anchises, and finally Hercules and Antaeus. These statues were made by Ottavio Mosto in 1690.”  That was pretty unclear, but the point is, someone thought it was a great idea to design a garden full of statues about rape.  Yuck.

On a lighter note, there were also statues of my favorite animal:

Then we were off to the marionette theatre, where we spent some time in the lobby looking at the exhibits and reading the history of the place.  My favorite past performance was hands down The Little Prince.  I don’t know what the one with the geese was, and there were many more involving princes and princesses, fairies and witches, and animals both real and imaginary.

When our concierge booked the tickets for us, she said they were great seats.  We were in the second section in back, which made me question her judgement.  How would we be able to follow what was going on?  The marionettes were only about three feet tall.

As soon as the curtain rose and the show began, we realized it was ideal to be a little further back.  The marionettes’ mouths don’t actually move, so being just far enough back to not be distracted by that helps to suspend reality.

It was a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, and I have to say it was magical.  The sets, the costumes, the music—it was all spectacular.  Subtitles were projected on the walls on either side in German, English, Spanish, French, and Chinese.  But you could have enjoyed it just as much without them, since the plot was a typical opera involving unrequited love, a quest, and comical misunderstandings.  All operas either end with everyone dying or everyone living happily ever after, and thankfully this was the latter.

As we walked back to the hotel, we spied this on the wall of another hotel:

Rooms, camera?  No thanks, I like my hotel rooms without cameras.

We came across a building we could see from our hotel room window and which I had wondered about.

“What is it?” I asked Ingrid.  “At first I had thought it was an Indian waffle house.”

“Waffen means force, like luftwaffen” Ingrid replied.  Luftwaffen, the World War II German airforce.  “But I don’t know what Sodia means.”

“Ah, the third name, to the right in red, is a store with a location near my house,” I observed.  “I don’t know how to pronounce it, and they wanted $250 for a pair of hiking pants so I’ll never step foot in one again so it doesn’t matter.”

“Let’s go find out what it is,” Ingrid said in a hushed voice.

We rounded the corner of the building and realized it was a gun store.

“Do you want to go inside?” Ingrid asked.


In real time, I am running off to meet my friend Heidi at Wimbledon.  I was going to work all day so I said no at first, then thought, “What am I thinking!?  When will I ever get a chance to go to Wimbledon again?”

I can always work tomorrow.


Ingrid and I were in the quiet resort town of Fuschlsee in the Austrian Alps.  “Quiet” is an understatement; it was completely dead.  We kept walking along the lakefront, hoping to find one place open where we could get a cappuccino.  We found one resort that was open but wasn’t serving anything.  They graciously let us use the bathroom, and gave us directions to another resort that they thought would be open.

We walked through the resort to get to where they had pointed us.  It was sprawling, with multiple restaurants and bars, a spa, gardens, and a game room for kids.  It reminded me of one of my travel dreams.  One of my favorite writers is Somerset Maugham, and he used to spend weeks at a time in resorts like this in the Swiss Alps.  He would sleep late, eat a big breakfast, take a long walk, read the paper, write for a few hours, take a nap, then proceed to happy hour, dinner with fellow sojourners, maybe a spin at the casino or a show, then early to bed—all done among beautiful lakes and mountains.

We walked up the foot of the mountain to the other resort and it was shut tight, so we gave up and walked back to the bus stop.  This taught me an important lesson: When a Hop On Hop Off ticket seller tells you to only hop off at certain stops, it’s for your own good.

The next stop was a scenic overlook where we could all hop off, take a photo, then hop back on and be whisked away to the next stop.  When I used to live in Oxford, it was common for tour buses to do this in front of some of the most famous sites, and I sneered at the practice.  But hey, in this case there really was nothing to do except take a photo since it was basically a cliff.

Here I am, overlooking Lake St. Wolfgangsee.

Yes, there was a St. Wolfgang, and yes they named a lake and a town after him.  The bus took us into the town, where the first thing was saw was gondolas.

“Do you want to ride one to the top of the mountain?” Ingrid asked.  I really didn’t but if she wanted to, I would.

“Let’s see how much it costs, and what’s up there,” I suggested, stalling.

“Twenty-two euros—that seems like a lot,” Ingrid commented as we looked at the prices.  “But I’ll do it, if you really want to.”

“No, I don’t!”

“Oh, good!” she responded, sounding relieved.  “I’ve done it with Chris and the kids, but I never need to do it again.”

“Me too—I did it in the Canadian Rockies once and that was enough.

We walked down to the lake.  The town and the lake were very pretty despite the dreary weather.

We found a restaurant called Papagano, which is the name of a character in the Magic Flute, which we would see performed by marionettes that evening.  I had ratatouille, and it was the best meal I had in Europe.

On to the next stop—Mondsee, or Moon Lake. This town was not nearly as pretty as the first two, but the wedding scene from The Sound of Music had been filmed in the basilica there.

First, we stopped for “a little cake” and the long-anticipated cappuccino—to give us energy.

The basilica was beautiful; I could see why they used it for the film.

I dropped a coin in the slot and lighted a taper for a friend who had just had surgery.

I also loaded up on some free bottles of holy water; these would make great little gifts for Catholic friends and family. But wait!  What did that say on the side?  Jagermeister?

How did that happen?  There were hundreds of these little bottles.  Did Jagermeister donate empty bottles?   Or was itholy water” (wink wink)?  Maybe the church paid the local teenagers to drink all the Jagermeister, then fill the bottles with holy water?  If so, I wondered if the maker of Jagermeister knew that their brand name was being used for purposes not originally intended?

More Sisters, and Sissi

After coming across two references to Mozart marrying the younger sister twice in one day in unrelated sources, Ingrid and I talked about other eerie coincidences and whether they meant anything.  We didn’t think so, but it was hard to accept that they didn’t.

“So if it is some kind of ‘sign’,” I said, “Of what?  You don’t have a sister.  I have a younger sister—does it mean she’s meeting her future husband right now, and he’s someone I wouldn’t be interested in?”

“Yeah,” mused Ingrid.  “What would be the point of that?”

We talked about Hitler and his siblings some more after turning out the lights.

Ingrid’s voice came from the darkness, “Do you think Eva Braun was a younger sister?”

I groaned.  This could be a night of really weird dreams.

The night was uneventful, but when I woke up, got in the shower, and looked down, I gasped.  My left foot looked gangrenous. Or at least, what I imagined a gangrenous foot would look like from old accounts I’d read of civil war injuries.

The top of it was a dark, ominous green from toes to ankle.  Maybe I’d spilled something green on it?  Nope, it didn’t wash off, and it was very tender.

Then I remembered that four days earlier I had dropped my suitcase on it at the Copenhagen airport while desperately trying to get on a plane to Amsterdam.

That first night, when a green egg had emerged from my foot, my mind had galloped ahead to the dramatic hospitalization, circle of concerned doctors and surgeons (all extremely tall and handsome) surrounding my bed, amputation, learning to walk again in a Dutch rehab unit (preferably in the countryside, with a canal nearby with swans), and of course marrying my surgeon, who fell in love with me because of my bravery and perseverance.  I would not invite my sister to the wedding.

I was so distracted by being with Ingrid and sightseeing that I hadn’t given it a thought since it happened.

I showed my foot to Ingrid, who recoiled, then helped me think it through.

“Can you move everything?” she asked.  Yes.

“Do you have numbness or tingling?”  No.

“Can you feel any broken bones sticking out?”  No.

“Can you walk on it?” Yes.

“Then let’s go.  We’ve got to catch the bus at nine.”  Then she added, “I’m sorry.  Do you want me to help you find a doctor?”

“No! It’s just bruised.  I don’t want to sit in the hotel.”  So off we went.

I have written about Hop On Hop Off buses before.  Sometimes they’re not worth it because in some cities, the streets in the most picturesque part of town are too narrow for them.  Or, like in Malta, they have no signage and you can’t find your way back to the bus stops.

But outside of Salzburg, the HOHO—for around $20—was a fantastic value.  We bought tickets for the Lakes and Mountains circuit and had a splendid day … hopping off and on.

“We recommend you get off at stops seven and nine,” said the ticket seller.

Did we take his advice?  Of course not.  We got off at the first scenic spot, a resort town called Fuschl am See, after Lake Fuschl (pronounced foozle).  It was beautiful, but utterly deserted.  We walked down the main drag and there were no cars, no people, and most distressingly, nowhere to get a cappuccino.

As we walked, Ingrid told me the story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.  There was a movie made about her life called Sissi (her nickname), and Ingrid thought it might have been made in Fuschl.

Suddenly she stopped walking.  “She was the younger sister.  Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister!  It was all arranged, then he met Sissi.”

“Oh my God!” I couldn’t help exclaiming.  “It has to mean something!”

We walked on and Ingrid told the whole story, which was pretty interesting and which I knew nothing about.  It highlighted for me how limited we are by language.  I can list many of the English kings and queens but my knowledge of European royalty is nil.

Thunder and Rain

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I am really good at getting lost.  I can study a map for half an hour, even write directions on the palm of my hand so I don’t have to take out the map in public, then I walk out the hotel door and will be deeply, hopelessly lost in five minutes.

Ingrid, thankfully, has a well-honed sense of direction.  We came out of the underground station in Salzburg—the worst for getting lost because you don’t know which direction is north, etc.—and she pointed, “Our hotel is that way.”

“Um…I think it’s the other way,” I suggested tentatively.  Why was I even bothering to trust my “sense of direction?”  Ingrid had us to the hotel in no time, with no detours.

As is unfailingly the case in Europe, the room was on the top floor and there was no elevator so I had to lift and drag my suitcase up six flights of stairs, one step at a time.  The hotel, Pension Elizabeth, was basic and functional.  When I booked it and requested a room with two beds I had received a message, “We will do our best to accommodate your request.”  And they had.  The room had a queen sized bed with a folding cot right next to it, which was quite comfortable, according to Ingrid—who made the sacrifice of sleeping on it.

It was early evening on a public holiday, so the city was quiet.  The holiday is called Whitsun, or Pentecost, which for most Europeans is now just a Day Off.  We ran across the street toward a neon sign that flashed Pizzeria.  The place was run by Bangladeshis, and the only other customers were half a dozen motorcyclists with Bison Thunder emblazoned on the backs of their black leather jackets; they were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at an outside table.  I thought they might be a gang, although they appeared to have escaped from a geriatric home.  Turns out that Bison Thunder was an Austrian motorcycle made in the1920s, just like the geezers riding them.

Ingrid and I took a table inside and ordered.  I got a panini and she got schnitzel, which is a breaded meat dish.

“The sky is very dark,” announced the owner from the doorway.

Suddenly the heavens opened up and buckets of marble-sized hail thundered down.  The bison thunderers scurried inside as the cafe umbrellas pitched over.  Cars stopped in the middle of the street, then crawled onward slowly.  We all oohed and ahhed and ate and drank from inside the restaurant as we watched the show.  Then Ingrid and I and the bikers retired to Pension Elizabeth for the night.

Salzburg is the city of Mozart.

I never listened to classical music until about five years ago, when I became serious about meditating.  I had a score (ha, ha) of meditation CDs, and my favorite was called Zen Garden.  It was a collection of classical hits overlaid with chirping crickets and birds.  Sounds woo-woo, I know, but it helped me fall asleep many nights.  Eventually, I quit meditating, gave my old school CD player and CDs away, and had music only on my phone.  I did it because I thought everyone was doing it and it would simplify my life, but I regret it.  The quality of music on an iphone is just not good.  If and when I settle down anywhere again, I’m going to go all the way back to my first gen of music and buy a record player.

Anyway, meditation was my gateway to classical music, which I listen to instead of the news, especially since November 2016.

The next day, Ingrid and I walked into the city center and spent hours in the two Mozart museums—one a house where he lived with his family as a youth; the other where he lived as an adult with his wife and children.

Mozart was composing by the age of five and performing for royalty at 17.  There were numerous references to him being “childlike,” and “in his own world.”  Was Mozart special needs?  Was he an 18th Century rain man?