Diarrhea + Ethiopia = Worst Day Ever

A fellow traveler once told us a story of wetting herself on an Indian train for fear of losing her seat and all her belongings. Another traveler recounted a tale of two horrendous days on a bus, stopping the driver every hour to relieve himself. He was later diagnosed with cholera.

IMGP1165This is that type of story, the type that takes time to be able to tell; to see the humor in what was both extremely dangerous and embarrassing all at the same time. This is the kind of thing that happens to all of us on the road, the memories we loathe and relish at the same time, but can almost never ever talk about. It has taken me a few months, but this is my travel illness story.

Disclaimer:  This story should is long and should not be read by anyone with an affinity for plant life, or over any meal.

During a brief excursion to the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar, Jill and I hired a local guide who we invited to eat with us after our tour. We asked him to chose a very authentic restaurant. To order, Jill walked to the front of the shop and actually select the cut of meat right off the actual slab of meat. As she ordered, I held the table and ordered 5 cent beers. The men sitting next to me offered me some of their meal, uncooked beef, I politely declined and opted instead to share a drink.

Several hours later I felt a rumble in my tummy. This is nothing uncommon in Africa, especially not in Ethiopia, and I went running (but with clenched cheeks) all the way back to the hotel. Jill, in close pursuit, saw the humor in the situation and laughed as I paused periodically to ensure no ‘leakage.’ To be fair, this sort of moment isn’t exactly infrequent on the road. We made it back to the room safely and as I flushed the toilet I became aware of two realities: both the water and the electricity were out of service. TIA, I thought, this is Africa.

IMGP9340Over the next few hours things got much worse and I went far beyond the usual roto router pipe cleaning. At first I only went to the bathroom once or twice, nothing major, but then I crawled into bed and simply could not get out from under the covers. I was shivering and thrashing about so violently that my body was actually getting ‘air’ off the mattress, enough to make both Michael Jordan and Ron Jeremy jealous. As luck would have it, we had left most of our belongings, including antibiotics and our assortment of fever reducers and stomach drugs, in Addis Ababa with friends, figuring we wouldn’t need much more than a change of clothes for the two day trip to Harar. All I had to do was make it through the night- we were already booked for a bus back to Addis Ababa the next morning at 5 a.m. We both decided that unless the fever didn’t break, which it did soon thereafter, we would avoid the local hospital and seek help back in Addis.

Intermittent utilities are not all that uncommon in Africa, especially away from the capital cities and we had been warned about the possibility by the front desk upon check-in. By all accounts it hadn’t been lunch with the guide that made me sick (Jill was perfectly fine), rather some undercooked chicken from the night before that I hadn’t been able to see. That’s right, the electricity was out.

IMGP2337Somehow I managed to drink some Sprite and water and rather quickly the high fever subsided and I was left with only some awful diarrhea. Eventually I was able to get out of bed and spend two minutes out of every 20 on the can. A good thing for sure as ‘getting it out’ is generally viewed as progress in these sorts of things and ‘getting it out’ somewhere other than your own bed is generally viewed as success. By these simple measures I was suddenly a very successful man; but success, like all things, wanes with time. I was feeling much better though, and it was clear the worst of it was over. The fever had largely broken, I wasn’t shaking violently, and I managed to send Jill against her protests to feed a few hyenas.

By the time Jill returned to the hotel an hour later, power had returned and we were in the daily 2 hour window of running water which allowed her run a few laps up and down the hall with a 20 gallon bucket of water to “force flush” the toilet. Ahhh, good times. Eventually she went to sleep but I did not. I was awake and in and out of the bathroom about every 5-10 minutes and even with a ‘full bucket,’ water was still in limited supply and I actually had to ration my flushes, eventually settling on a ratio of 2-3 bathroom trips to one flush. Thanks to the returned electricity I was able to occupy myself while in the bathroom by playing ‘wack-a-mole’ with cockroaches when they came within striking distance. We had actually chosen one of the nicer places in town, it had a front desk and even a restaurant. This was one of the most expensive places in town….and government run as well.

It was a restless night but eventually it was time to get to the bus. I changed into the only fresh set of clothes I had with me before spending another 20 minutes making sure the pipes were clear. Feeling confident, we headed out down the ‘main’ street to the departure point. Luckily we had purchased tickets for the nice bus, we did that even before I got sick, and it had a bathroom. I just had to make it the 20 minutes to the bus and I was in the clear.

As we were walking, my previous success began to wane. At first I thought it was nothing but then the familiar rumble in my stomach got strong and the fart that I thought I was having quickly grew legs. As I dropped my pants the stream of water continued to flow unabated, as if Lake Meade was suddenly freed of the Hoover Dam. It was a powerful force of nature destroying all plant life in its path…..in this case some nice grasses planted as the road’s median. Luckily there was enough darkness to hide me, practically naked, from the runner enjoying his morning jog a mere 30 meters away. My success was gone, my internal housing bubble had burst, and I had foreclosed on any amount of pride I had managed to collect for myself.

We made it to the bus a few, very short and red-faced minutes later. I climbed on and went straight for the bathroom. Locked. Ethiopia strikes again. It was as though I was 14 and I was turned down by a girl for the 8th grade dance. Part of me knew I would survive but it felt like the end of the world as I knew it. Instead of praising love’s sweet sorrows however, my body was so physically exhausted and drained that, miraculously, I fell asleep.

I was doing much better though, able to last several hours between each rest stop. At lunch I found that I was thankful for having already had so much practice with squat toilets, having an easier time ‘aiming’ at the squatter despite the fact that I was aiming in sheer darkness. At one of several ‘side of the road’ bathroom breaks however, I took a little too long and it was Jill, clearly the hero of this story, (she handled the hand-laundry with us back in Addis with me sound asleep) who managed to stop the bus and have it wait for me to finish. I was already walking back to the bus but was moving a bit slower than might have been expected.

The reason for that slow movement was actually our first bathroom break from the bus. Another ‘side of the road’ with a cliff-side replacing the the usual privacy of trees and rocks, I walked from the bus as far as I could, knowing that I’d be having the same Number 1 as everyone else….just out the wrong end. As the flood gates opened, I inched myself forward, away from the carnage behind me until I could not ‘inch’ anymore as a thorn bush had completely engulfed my pants and underwear from all sides.

For the remaining 6 hours of the ride, I sat with burs piercing my butt….because I clearly hadn’t had a bad enough day as it was. I’m not sure exactly how that ending of this story becomes a moral, but I’m pretty sure the moral is in there somewhere.

Foodie Friday: A taste of Italy in Ethiopia

Although the Italians were pushed out of Ethiopia after only a few years, their influence remains in the cuisine and coffee crazed culture of Ethiopia. Nearly every local restaurant or cafe serves pasta, usually spaghetti bolognese or marinara, and certainly every bar has a true ‘Made in Italy’ espresso machine.

IMGP2271That’s not to say that Ethio-Italian is true Italian. Trust me, I lived in Florence, I know real Italian. This is not, it’s distinctly Ethio-Italian, which as you may have guess means berbere spice. Some places the pizza was so heavily ladened with berbere that we had to take breaks for water between bites. Other places had a delicious blend of berbere and tomato sauce that wasn’t exactly Italian, but tasted great none the less.

Ethiopian coffee is world famous, and the Ethiopians have definitely overstepped the Italians in the presentation of coffee. A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony starts with roasting the coffee beans before preparing and serving the coffee. Having only started to drink coffee in Mexico, Danny was shocked at his first Ethiopian coffee, which resembled a strong espresso rather than the nescafe instant coffee we’ve become accustomed to.

The biggest problem with Ethio-Italian was the carbo-loading that we put our bodies through. At some point we simply lost the ability to eat injera. The locals here eat that spicy mix of meat as many as three times a day and we just couldn’t do it anymore. Pizza and pasta carried us through!

Entering Sudan

The time had come to leave Ethiopia so after a few days touring the monasteries and Lake Tana in Bahir Dar and the castles in Gondar, we headed towards the Sudanese border.

After our introduction to Ethiopia, we were expecting the worst at the Metemma/Gallabat border, but despite a few aggressive money changers on the Ethiopian side and a small trek to find the mud walled immigration office, all went well. As we entered Sudan we were met by the first of many military officers, who inspected our passports and visas before letting us pass through to customs and immigration. Although time consuming, the border formalities on the Sudanese side were easy, although the TV blaring E! True Hollywood Story – Scream, made for a somewhat bizarre experience.

Pulling into our last check- the “security” check, we followed the instructions and mistakenly pulled into a small concrete walled compound filled Toyota Land Cruisers, fitted with large machine guns, (Did I say large, I mean HUGE!) Their drivers were asleep in the shade underneath the vehicles and moments later an official poked his head out the window and motioned for us to go to the right area and not the scary one. Fortunately they were good humored about it and as they took down our details for the third time since crossing the border, we learned a few words in Arabic.

As we only learned a few quick words in Arabic we were still in need of some serious help in doing pretty much everything. A normally quick and easy task to buying a new SIM card for the cell phone proved a bit difficult as it took a team of locals walking Danny from the provider’s office across the street to buy some airtime, working together to understand how much to purchase and then loading it into the phone for me. The numbers here are written differently and aside from a few more words in Arabic we can almost write the numbers 1-10 in Arabic as well. The amazing thing, considering where we’ve been recently, was that everyone just wanted to help us and no one was looking for any money whatsoever. We were foreigners, their guests, and they our hosts.

On our way at last, we drove through flat pastures and grazing land on the way to Gedaref. At each check point along the way, the military officer greeted us, asked where we were from, welcomed us to Sudan and sent us on our way. Big guns and big smiles actually made us feel rather welcome and as we feasted on falafel and salad that night (for all less than one US dollar) we were thankful for the change of scenery.

The Ethiopian Way

Ethiopia is by far the most unique country we have visited thus far. Because it was never conquered (except briefly by Mussolini as part of World War II) it has maintained many of its own traditions in the face of modernity. We may have struggled with the food, with some of the locals, but much of this modern day culture, steeped in ancient tradition, is downright fascinating.

Religion: Ethiopia has it’s own brand of religion, where the practiced Christianity is far older and more closely aligned with the Old Testament. The Emperor’s of Ethiopia are believed to be descendant of King Solomon and so the familiar Star of David (that’s the Jewish Star) is literally everywhere. When walking through the churches of Lalibela the chanting of the priests made me feel as though I was touring parts of the old city of Jerusalem rather than a church. The best part was when I purchased two Stars of David and the men just referred to it as the Axium (an ancient capital city) cross.

Time: This is just downright confusing to Westerners. In Ethiopian time the day begins at 6am on our clock rather than midnight on our clock. That means that the sun rises at 11pm or 23:00. Most buses leave at midnight (6am our time) but you need to be there by 11:30. So basically you need to know that your morning bus is actually 6 hours earlier than the time written on your ticket.. Noontime is 6 and sun sets around 12. The nice thing is that the clock counts up all day long and one you’re used to it, it actually makes things easier as the entire day is AM and the entire night is PM, not that the Ethiopians actually use AM or PM to distinguish, however.

Date: Yup, they do that differently as well. They are 7 years and eight months behind us. It was 2002 the entire time we were there because their new year doesn’t come until September. (Remind anyone of Judaism?) Naturally they use differently named months and as well but the difference between the two calendars is that when the rest of the Western world switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which periodically has been edited by popes for various religious purposes, the Ethiopians stuck with their Coptic (based on an Egyptian system) calendar. This means that there are 12 months of 13 days with a 13th month added every four years without exception. (You might remember we skipped a leap year in the year 2000 meaning my cousin who was born on leap year had to wait 8 years between birthdays.)

Every time we did anything here we did so with a bit of a double take. Never sure if we were right or wrong we always needed to find someone bilingual to ensure we did it right. It was confusing and it was different and that made it all part of the adventure. Having said that, if I see another injera before the 2011 I, well it won’t be pretty.

Sudanese Visas

Sudan can be an incredibly difficult country to get into,which considering the current political situation is understandable. Traveling on American passports we figured there was no chance of us ever being able to get in. It wasn’t until an Italian couple waiting in line with us for Ethiopian visas told us that they’d heard of a “transit visa” with only a 24 hour processing period.

IMGP5266Fast forward two weeks to Addis Ababa where we were told by the Sudanese embassy that the transit visa is $200 for Americans,and yes, 24 hours to process, but we’d need our Egyptian visas first. Applications in process for Egypt, we went on our way touring the country, only to return to Addis 10 days later to process our Sudanese. Filling out the form we noticed a fill in the blank that we’ve never come across before on a visa application- religion.

To say Sudan and Israel don’t get a long is an understatement. Sudan doesn’t recognize Israel and in fact until two years ago Sudanese passports stated that it was not valid in Israel. If you have an Israeli stamp in your passport Sudan immediately denies your visa application. So what, we wondered would they say if we wrote Jewish? Asking at the Egyptian embassy, the receptionist told us just to lie- you’re from America, just say you’re Christian. An Israeli in the waiting room agreed- why create problems…you’re American so maybe you can just write Capitalist!

IMGP1787Sure it would have been easier, but neither of us were comfortable denying who we are. After much debate, we asked the Consular Officer at the Sudanese Embassy on the day we applied for the visa (but before we handed over the money!) if our being Jewish was a problem. His answer: “No problem.”

Thankfully it was no problem, and 24 hours later we had our Sudanese transit visas in hand. We are nervous heading into a country who’s president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the worst humanitarian crisis (Darfur) in the world while the recent (corruption laden) elections threaten civil war…but we are cautiously optimistic that this is the right decision…to see a country as it is rather than as CNN portrays it.