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Sep 30, 04 09:55 AM

It's Raining Men.

R.I.P., Izora Armstead, 19?? - 2004, dead of heart failure in San Francisco. She was a member (along with Martha Wash) of the Weather Girls (credited as Two Tons of Fun when they did backing vocals on Sylvester's "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real"), the original singers of "It's Raining Men."

She had 11 children.

Posted by Mike at 9:55 AM | Comments (3)

Sep 29, 04 10:06 PM

Amesegenallo.

My iBook died. I took it to the Apple Man, and he sent it to the iBook Patch for eleven days. Eleven emailless days = fabulous and terrifying.

Last Friday, I went out to San Francisco to open for Karl Denson at the Fillmore. I hung out with my good man Frank Riley at a Peet's, talking about Diane Arbus, and his days on the barricades in the 70's. Then I walked back in the cool foggy night, ambled onstage, and played a 45-minute set during which my guitar shat the bed. I stumbled through to the end.

After, I was selling CD's in the lobby (where they still offer free red apples to concertgoers, a tradition dating from the heyday of Bill Graham in the 60's), talking to a couple fans. A guy walks up just as I'm telling two dudes about Ethiopia. "Oh yeah, you were in Bahar Dar, right?" says the guy. He speaks with an accent, and says "Bahar Dar" correctly--like "Bar Dar," with big rolling R's, so I say, Hey, are you Ethiopian?

"Yes." We talk for a little while. "So, you enjoyed the Azmari, he sang about you?" He makes casual mention of a few other details from my journals.

You mean that you read my blog?! "Yes, I enjoyed it." He says he's from Sacramento, that he's been in the US since 1999, and that he drives to San Francisco with friends for concerts occasionally.

So, are you a Karl Denson fan? "No, I've never heard him. I Google Ethiopia every once in a while, and I came upon your site. I saw you were playing the Fillmore, so I drove here."

!!!

It turns out that if you Google "Ethiopia Bahar Dar" I'm on the first page! And, incredibly, if you Google "Ethiopia Azmari" I'm NUMBER ONE.

Posted by Mike at 10:06 PM | Comments (8)

Sep 16, 04 03:11 PM

ETHIOPIA: Something I Forgot.

At the Gary Bar, my last night in Bahar Dar. Lul and Sikataw are freaking it on the dance floor to that Aster Aweke song in 3.

Suddenly, what comes on? A HOUSE REMIX OF JOHN DENVER'S "COUNTRY ROADS." (sang by what I would sonically identify as Germans)

And the place EXPLODED. I mean, crazy crazy. Everybody in there was on the dancefloor dancing like a maniac.

Posted by Mike at 3:11 PM

Sep 15, 04 12:19 PM

ETHIOPIA 13: London Interlude

I land in London at 8 am. I hotfoot it to a place called S&M, an English comfort food joint located UNDER the Westway, where it passes over Portobello Road. S&M stands for Sausage and Mashed.

I eat an English breakfast--fried egg, mushroom, Cumberland sausage, bacon (UK bacon is a kind of midpoint between US bacon and Canadian bacon), toast, black pudding, baked beans, and LOADS of H&P brown sauce--the pinnacle of British civilization.

I ate there four times in the two days I was in London. Two breakfasts, two big plates of bangers and mashed for lunch. I am the guy who goes to England for the food.

The weather was incredible. The Londoners were all in the streets, relaxed, strolling, just chilling. I adore the English. The sky in London, the air, has some individual beauty that I can't really describe. I was so happy to be there.

What do they have in London these days? Very small cars. I mean RIDICULOUSLY small cars. The Smart car, which you may have heard about. A tiny Mercedes, which is baffling to see. It seems like every car company is falling all over themselves trying to make a tiny car, one-upping each other on smallness. These cars make a Mini Cooper look like a '76 Oldsmobile. And as always, there's lots of original Mini Cooper from the 50's and 60's, which are so small you could fit two of them into the new Mini.

I spent the day wandering around looking at small cars, and then I went to the Tate Modern and saw the Edward Hopper exhibition, which was great, but really crowded. The Luc Tuymans show was nearly deserted, and fascinating.

What a fantastic museum; I was sighing with joy in every room. So beautifully curated, such a great mixture of old and new. I felt like I did when I was a kid going to amusement parks, when I would think: surely this is what real life should be like.

I wandered along the river after dark, past St. Paul's, and the London Eye, and Parliament. What a gorgeous city.

I have this persistent problem when I'm in places I love; I obsessively plot how I'm going to move there. I get so wrapped up in plotting that I have to tell myself, Easy, Mike: we're here NOW. Let's enjoy it RIGHT NOW rather than obsess on how to enjoy it in the future.

I went to Muji and stocked up on pens and notebooks, went to Tesco and bought two liters of English lemonade, and then I flew home.

Posted by Mike at 12:19 PM

ETHIOPIA 12: Return to Addis

Daniel drives me to the airport. When he drops me off, I say, "Coke and wine!" And we dance the boxing-cabbage-patch together, me on the curb, he behind the wheel.

I'm flying to London that night at 11 pm. So, I plan on hiring a taxi for the entire day, doing all the stuff I have to do before I leave Africa.

Principally this involves souvenirs. I go and buy a bunch of nickel Ethiopian crosses for friends back in the US. Then I go to the National Museum. By law, you can't take souvenirs out of the country without a permit, so I go to an office where they examine all these rather rinkytink souvenirs, fill out a form, wrap them and tape them up, give them official stamps.

It seems like a bizarre formality, but it makes sense; all those ancient crosses, crowns, and books kept out in the open, or in shacks behind the churches. A Belgian tourist almost got out of the country with a golden cross from Lalibela a few years ago.

Apparently UNESCO keeps complaining about the sorry state of security and artifacts in Ethiopia. But I think it's very cool. Priests are still reading those books. How great that my guide in Lalibela tells me a cross was made 800 years ago, and then leans down to kiss and be blessed by the same cross? It's a living tradition. People have been kissing that cross for 800 years.

I go buy some books, I eat some lunch. I have so much time to kill that I end up tagging along while the taxi driver takes care of some errands. At dusk, he drives me up a hill to the north of the city, past the US Embassy, which is a fearsomely guarded, walled, prison-like behemoth.

He parks up on an avenue overlooking Addis Ababa, and I take a walk. Past a church, singing voices emanating from a loudspeaker, a painting of the Selassie--the three identical bearded men--presiding. Children run up yelling, "Faranji!" wanting to shake my hand. College-age girls smile at me, and when I smile back, they erupt in laughter.

He drives me to the airport and I fly to London.

Posted by Mike at 11:49 AM

ETHIOPIA 11: Return to Bahar Dar

I fly back to Addis Ababa, sleep a night, and then fly back to Bahar Dar, where again I'm on the lake, with Lul, asking me, "Mike! Are you fine?"

I hang out by the lake with a guy from the hotel named Genanew, a high school history teacher who gave that up for a more profitable career in guiding. He asks me about "the sisterly buildings." The sisterly buildings? Oh. He means the World Trade Center.

I ask him if the Tigrinyans in Axum and the North of Ethiopia feels a kinship with Eritrea, due to the common language. I get a 45 minute history of Tigrinyan resistance movements, and a highly biased account of the Eritrean war, in which he glosses over Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea in the 60's, and depicts the Eritreans as the aggressors in the 90's. "They are like Nazis," he says. "They want to be the master race of the Horn of Africa."

"Eritrea think you can make a country with blood and iron," Genanew says, "but Ethiopia know you can make a country only with loving."

I meet a guy on the verandah named Hunachew, a man in his sixties who lived in Sweden for 33 years. He moved back to Ethiopia due to an old injury that would flare up in the Scandinavian cold. He lives on his Swedish pension, a pretty sweet deal in impoverished Ethiopia.

We talk about the time he saw Jimi Hendrix play, in Malmo. I meet his wife--his third, two Swedes divorced him--a younger woman with traditional Ethiopian cross tattoos on her cheek and forehead. He talks about Aretha Franklin, the certainty of life on other planets, cyclical famine, his job as a clerk in the Physics Department of a Swedish university.

"My life today is nothing but reading, smoking, having coffee," he says. There is a tattered paperback in front of him; an Amharic translation of Chekhov's short stories. "I've read them in Swedish and English already."

That night I go back to the Azmari bar with a lovely guide named Sakitaw, and Genanew, Daniel the driver, and my beloved Lul. The place is packed. There are a couple of hottie African-American girls in the house, actually; they just came to Bahar Dar to speak English. They're from Brooklyn, and they dress like Williamsburg hipsters. They're not shy about dancing; they're wild and totally unselfconscious, and clearly the guys I'm with are transfixed.

Lul is holding my hand. That's what you do with a friend in Ethiopia. OK, it's weird. I go along with it.

The Brooklyn girls have brought a wild energy into the place. Everybody's dancing. Even Lul, who claims he doesn't dance, but two seconds later is on the floor dancing like a madman. The place is absolutely going off.

We go to a place called Gary Bar, a few doors down from John Bar. Daniel the driver orders a wine--it comes in a beer bottle--and a coke. He mixes them both in a glass. Everybody laughs at my expression of horror.

I've worked out a good imitation of Daniel Coke-and-Wine's boxing-cabbage-patch dance. I do it for the fellas and they are amazed by its accuracy, rolling with laughter. For the rest of the evening, I would point to Daniel, say, "Coke and wine!" and then the two of us would do the boxing-cabbage-patch together.

Everybody gets shitfaced but me and Genanew. The dancing is getting crazy. Sikataw and Lul are losing their minds on the dancefloor. They play 50 Cent, Aster Aweke (a sexy tune in three, with undulating Rhodes piano and brilliant stabs of electric guitar leads). Minute by minute, the place gets drunker, more crowded, wilder.

A kid sitting near me, that I don't know, taps me on the shoulder. He says: "I HATE MOTHERFUCKING WHITES. But, I think I like you."

Thanks, man.

It's the single incident of racial tension in my entire trip. And it has an almost touching quality. It feels insincere. It sounds like the kid heard it in a movie, and is trying it on like a kid tries on a new identity, trying to be cool.

We pile into a car and they take me back to the hotel. In the backseat, I'm between Lul and Sikataw, and they are hanging all over each other, and me; arms around my neck, holding hands, hands on knees. If he hears something funny, Sikatew laughs and gives me this very tender kiss on the neck.


Posted by Mike at 11:34 AM

ETHIOPIA 10: Axum, drumming girls

At the airport in Axum, all the clocks are stopped at 4:41. Not just one or two clocks, but ten, fifteen, throughout the terminal.

One odd thing about Ethiopia is how they do time. The day starts at 7 am, which is 1 in Ethiopian time. (whenever an Ethiopian asks me the time, or tells me to meet him someplace at some time, it's an intricate negotiation) It seems perfectly sensible, actually, that one would wake up at one and the day would proceed from there. Rather than the sort of arcane Western system.

I have arrived in Axum on a day called Ainwari. (Eyen-WAH-ree, I have no idea what the actual spelling is) In the streets of Axum there are packs of seven to twelve year old girls, in traditional Tigrinya white dresses, prettied up with hair braided and hands dyed red. They rush out into the street banging on drums and singing, not letting strangers pass until they give them some coins.

Being a Faranji, I'm a natural target. When I go to the bank to cash traveler's checks, I get a bunch of one birr notes to give out. It's a little easier to get my head around, as the packs of drumming singing girls are stopping Ethiopian guys, too. There are some disconcerting moments. One pack of girls begin singing a traditional song, and then devolve into a chant, in English, of "GIVE ME MONEY! GIVE ME MONEY!"

I've had really good experiences with guides in Ethiopia. But I don't want one today. I just want to see a couple of the historic sites, stroll around a little. I am beset by potential guides at every turn. "You need guide? There are seven historic sites in Axum..." No, thank you, I'm just going to walk around, I say.

This is confusing to the potential guides. I'm not sure if it's the notion of the guides, or just the way tourists tend to operate, but when you get a guide it's assumed that you want to see ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THERE IS TO BE SEEN. Sometimes at breakneck pace. I've done this in Gondar and Lalibela; I don't want to do it in Axum. I want to see the Stelae (obelisks), which are walking distance from my hotel (the OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive Yeha, $37.50 a room--it shocked the Belgian solar engineer that I shared an airport taxi with that I'd shell out such a sum) and some of the ruins, but mostly I'm interested in walking around this ancient, fasctinating town, watching the activities at Ainwari, and, above all, just smiling at Ethiopians and being smiled back at.

But the guides are relentless. "You need guide?" No, thanks. "I am guide. There are seven historic sites in Axum." No. "I will come back later, maybe we go to see the..." NO. NO. NO. Finally I get really mad: GO AWAY! I yell.

I'm standing outside a church, watching women dolled up like the drumming girls are, in white dresses, walk up and kiss the doorway. There's a hundred like-dressed women surrounding the place, for the festival day.

An old man approaches me. He's wearing a very funky check-patterned shirt with a butterfly collar. "Give me one birr," he says.

"You're going to give me one birr?!" I say. "Wow! That's great! Thank you! Give me one birr!"

An old woman behind him gets the joke and cracks up. But he persists. "I want a drink," he says. "Give me one birr."

"Wow, that's SO NICE of you," I say. "One birr for me? AWESOME."

The old woman is guffawing.

I sit down beside a reservoir that apparently's been in use since the days of the Queen of Sheba. A group of teenage boys surround me. I am suspicious and grumpy; they ask me questions and I give them grunted monosyllables. But they just want to talk. Really nice guys. I feel a little ashamed.

They are draped all over each other, hugging, holding hands. This is how male Ethiopian friends interact; lots of really intimate touching. It's really heartwarming, actually.

We talk about their school, Arsenal, 50 Cent, New York, playing music for a living, the difference between Tigrinyan culture and Amharic culture (Axum is Tigrinyan, the same language as Eritrea).

"I like George Bush," one of them says. I assume he's trying misguidedly to win my confidences. I don't like George Bush, I tell him. "I also like George Bush," says another boy. "He is tough on terrorists." Wow.

Posted by Mike at 10:49 AM

ETHIOPIA 9: One Birr, 50 Cent

I fly to Lalibela. When I land, there's an Ethiopian guy waiting with me at the luggage carousel with a t-shirt that says: "GEISHA Perfumed Family Jelly."

Lalibela is astonishing. A tiny town clustered around the spectacular rock-hewn churches that King Lalibela built in the 13th Century. The town feels ancient; half the structures in the town are tukuls, cylindrical thatch-roofed huts, half the people walking around are in shawls and headwraps, with staffs.

I drop my bag and guitar off at the Lal Hotel and go to a market where robed farmers, many of whom walked miles from the countryside to get to this once-a-week-event, sell brick-like blocks of salt, red honey glopped in clay jars, and tef, the grain that injera's made from, in numerous grades, brown, red, beige, the lighter color indicating higher quality.

I hire a guide, Abaye, who takes me to the churches. "The book says it took 40,000 people to build these, but it's not so," he says. "These churches were built by angels." He says it in the same matter-of-fact, scholarly tone he uses to describe dates, heights, widths, and the symbolism of the number of points on the crosses.

In each church, a priest sits patiently waiting for each tourist to be shown the facets of the structure, and then, after you tip him maybe ten birr, he brings out a couple of ceremonial crosses. Abaye is blessed by the blessing-cross in each church--a necessary religious formality--the priest touches his head with each end of the cross, and then Abaye kisses each end. Then Abaye rises to describe the crosses, and it's invariably, "This cross was made by King ________ in the 14th Century...." !!!!

The churches are set in trenches lined with cubbyholes that used to be the graves of aristocrats. Monks sit in the empty cubbyholes now, reading, praying, contemplating. One asks me to change $1 US into birr; he was tipped that by a tourist that took his picture.

On the way to Bet Gyorgis, the most famous, cross-shaped rock-hewn church, there are children waiting to beg. "One birr," each of them says.

"Not two birr," jokes Abaye. "Ten birr--no good. Only one birr."

I give out a lot of one birr notes, and pens. By the time I get to Bet Gyorgis, I'm out. An eyeless, disheveled man staggers towards me. "Hello. I am blind," he says. He says it over and over again. I'm out of money, so I ignore him. He keeps staggering towards me. "Hello. I am blind. Hello. I am blind." Terrifying.

That night I go to a restaurant that serves Faranji food--look, I like injera, but three times a day, seven days a week--it's a little much. I order french fries which are, weirdly, served not with ketchup but what seemed to be tomato paste.

I'm sitting with a kid named Andalam, a high school kid, who keeps trying to get me to give him money, and I keep cheerfully refusing. He's a gentle, sweet guy, though--that common Ethiopian dichotomy. He says there's a contest at his school to collect foreign currency. And, quite convincingly, he pulls out a sheaf of foreign notes--Eritrean, Kenyan, Italian, Uganda. "I need US $10 and $20 to win," he says, quite sweetly. Nice try.

I give him $1 US. "Who is this?" he asks. George Washington. "Father of George Bush?" he asks.

He talks to me about Arsenal--the English soccer team that, incongrously, all Ethiopian boys seem obsessed with--and 50 Cent. "Black American English is difficult for us to understand," Andalam says. "He sings; Gasharby, Eezabirfay."

What? Oh, "Go Shorty, It's Your Birthday." I see.

Posted by Mike at 10:21 AM

Sep 14, 04 06:41 PM

The 24

Kurt Gardner, one of the producers of the 24 Hour Plays, calls me at 10 am Monday morning, as I'm shaving. "I've got the curveball news of the day," he said. "You've been written into one of the plays."

So I hotfooted it to 42nd and 7th, where I was to appear with Sam Rockwell, Maria Bello, and Fisher Stevens in a ten minute one act written sometime between eleven last night and six that morning.

It was intense. I really felt like an outsider at first. I was actually IN the script, as in "Sam Rockwell enters with a guitar player." I thought I was meant to just be a sort of disembodied musical entity, but suddenly I said, Wait. I'm actually, like, CAST in this play, as a PERSON, aren't I?

Yep.

So I was acting with Sam Rockwell. What an experience! He was pulling me aside, conspiring with me. "OK, so I'm going to sort of slide out, and I want you to make this motion as if my tie isn't tied...what do you think? Sounds good?"

Um, yeah, sounds good. I was awestruck to be actually working with this guy, who is just a killing great actor, top of his craft. The 24 Hour Plays traditionally just uses whatever set happens to be in the theater, and this case it was the set of After The Fall--the JFK airport lounge circa 1966. Big curving modernist white forms.

Sam and I were up on a balcony, waiting to enter and walk down an elegant staircase. The story was that he would enter with a guitar player hired to woo Maria Bello, except Maria Bello was kissing Fisher Stevens, as a lark, and Sam exits, despondent. Then we reenter, and I play a waltz while Sam and Maria dance.

So we're rehearsing on the stage, and we enter, Sam sees the kiss, he exits, I follow. And we're off the stage, in the wings, and Sam is STILL ACTING. Staying in character, improvising dialogue. I don't know what to do! We're in the dark, nobody's watching, and he is just KILLING with this art and energy. I fumbled along. It was really wonderful.

What was truly impressive was the intensity of performance in light of the tininess of Sam's role. He had two entrances, a dance, and just two or three lines of dialogue. (Nearly every other actor in the show spent the whole day sweating bullets, running dialogue obsessively) Nonetheless, the guy worked his ASS OFF all day long; pacing, psyching himself up, digging deeply into his character. Very cool. True artistry.

I also got buttonholed by a guy directing a play with Anna Paquin, Matthew Lillard, mUMs (from Oz on HBO), and Gaby Hoffman. He wanted me to be kind of Doughty-Ex-Machina, sitting on the airport balcony above the actor, playing bits of music here and there. The cues were pretty complicated. I cut up the script and scotch-taped the cue-lines to the back of my guitar.

The performance was exhilarating. It's always amazing to do the show--playing my tunes to a Broadway house--but actually appearing in a couple plays--awesome. The extent of my Broadway acting début was signalling Sam Rockwell that his tie was crooked (his idea) and that there was a crumb to be brushed off his face (my idea!). Still. I was completely adrenalized.

After the show I went up to Matthew Lillard, and he said: "You know, when I saw you playing and singing, you were really calm, and I was really freaked out and nervous, and I got this great sense of inner calmness watching you." I get flustered by compliments, so I kind said a blank Thank You.

Then I told him: I believe SLC Punk! is the second greatest story ever told. And he, in turn, got flustered and said a kind of blank Thank You.

My girlfriend arrived, I took her backstage, introduced her to many movie stars (an amazing experience to do so.) Then we went to the afterparty and danced to "Outstanding" by the Gap Band.

Posted by Mike at 6:41 PM

Sep 13, 04 12:12 AM

Before the 24

Tomorrow's the 24 Hour Plays. It's the celebrity version. As I have since 2001, I'm playing songs between the plays.

There's always a meeting the night before, at 10 pm (the 24 hours runs from the meeting at 10 pm, the writers write 'til 6 am, each coming up with a ten minute one-act, the directors show up at 7 am and read the plays, the actors show up at 8:30; they rehearse all day, the show begins at 8 and is done by 10 pm)

So we all met at the American Airlines theater, a very swank Broadway house. There I was in a room full of celebrities.

A bunch of the actors have done the 24 in previous years; it's great to say hi to, and be recognized by Rachel Dratch (I'm a huge fan), Rosie Perez, Billy Crudup. Although Billy Crudup actually went to school with my friend Matt Saldivar, and was apparently at a party at our apartment on Second Avenue in 1992. I should've been starstruck in advance; I'm such a fan of his performances in Jesus' Son and Almost Famous. (At any rate, a guy got drunk at that party, and crawled out our window and tried to party on the ledge. It was a bad environment in which to be a showbiz Nostradamus.)

(Actually, a few months ago, I was walking down the Bowery and a Land Rover pulled up to me. "Hey! Hey!" I squinted to see who was driving. "It's Rosie!" And so it was. Rosie Perez gave me a lift home. AWESOME.)

Matthew Lillard is doing them this year; I love the guy for his performance in SLC Punk!, the greatest punk rock story ever told. Very poignant for those of us who grew up in, or in the margins of, the 80's hardcore scene.

Also Marisa Tomei, Christina Ricci, Anna Paquin, Lili Taylor, Adam Goldberg, more...a bunch of famous people, basically.

Everybody brings a prop to potentially be used. I brought my zhong ruan--a Chinese tenor lute that I bought in Shanghai a couple years ago. I played a few chords and the celebrities cooed impressedly.

So I'll report in full when I return from the show tomorrow.

Posted by Mike at 12:12 AM

Sep 11, 04 02:37 AM

Le Concert pour la Change.

I just got back from a surprise guest spot at one of the "Concerts for Change." Did my heart good. My friend Bill, who books Sin-é, called me at 10 pm last night to invite me. I called him back at 2 pm today. What time do you want me onstage tonight?

He said, "Really?!"

It makes me happy to do something, just a small something, of meaning in this dark, dark time for our country. Just a very, very small something.

And it was great. Bill's a spectacular guy. The gig's right in my hood, too, and it's so much fun to saunter over to a show, rock a few tunes to some good neighbor people having some beers. There were a couple people who knew my shit, and, amusingly, some old Soul Coughing fans that had no idea what I had been up to, and were astonished to find me, randomly, in a bar on Attorney Street.

Someone called for "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago." I said, On September 10th?! You're out of your mind!!

But I was mistaken. It was, in fact, 12:30 pm, on September 11, 2004.

Posted by Mike at 2:37 AM | Comments (15)

Sep 8, 04 10:00 AM

ETHIOPIA 8: Gondar, Baboons, Dogs

I am in love with Bahar Dar. But I have to go; I have to see the historical sites up north. Before I split, I head to the Ethiopian Airlines office and change my ticket so I come back to Bahar Dar after I visit Axum.

I fly to Gondar, just 20 minutes, over Lake Tana to its northern shore. At the airport, a nice 24 year old kid named Nege approaches me, says he's a guide. "I'm in the book," he says. The book? He motions to my Lonely Planet. "Page 151," he says.

And there he is. I hire him.

He takes me to the Royal Enclosure, where there are castles built by King Fasildas and his descendants. They look more Moorish than Ethiopian. Fascinating. And Nege is great, smart and informative.

We go to the baths that one of the kings built to re-baptize his subjects, who had been converted to Catholicism by his predecesor. Every year, for the festival of Timkat, hundreds of Gondarians leap joyfully into the waters to cleanse themselves.

Nege and I sit on the edge of the big, now-empty pools, and talk about his schooling, his ambitions, New York, what it is to be a musician, Azmaris. This is just as interesting to me as any of the historic sites. Truly, the sightseeing is just something to do in between meeting Ethiopians and having conversations.

I go back to the hotel, the Goha, which is the most expensive hotel in town, at $37.50 a night. It looks out commandingly from a hilltop over the town of Gondar. A spectacular view, well worth the big-bucks room rate. There are two high school girls shivering in the cold mountain air. Whores? Nope. Whew. Just high school girls in Adidas shirts who climbed up the hill to admire the view and gossip.

They pester me with questions about my girlfriend--"Can we see her picture?"--and Dallas. Dallas? Yeah, one of them has a relative there. She dreams of winning the visa lottery, so she can go live in Dallas. I tell them that Dallas is the plastic-surgery capital of America. They don't quite understand.

Night falls, and I'm looking out over the lights of Gondar. There's the sound of Amharic pop music in the distance, and dogs. Seems like dozens of dogs, barking in the darkness.

The next day Nege takes me to the foothills of the Simien mountains to see baboons and monkeys. We are accompanied by a bunch of shepherd boys--none older than maybe nine--as we walk to the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Sirage made me buy a box of 100 pens when I was in Bahar Dar. I was completely confused. "You need them to give to children," he said. Huh?

Nege asks me: "Do you have some pens?" Yes. I hand him a bunch. He hands them out to the frantic, grasping shepherd boys.

On the way back to town, we stop at the Falasha village. The Falashas are the Ethiopian Jews, who were airlifted to Israel in 1991. "There is nothing to see here," says Nege. "We only come here because it's in the book."

Posted by Mike at 10:00 AM

ETHIOPIA 7: Birds, Whores, Dancing

At breakfast I am approached by these beautiful yellow birds with black faces. The bird scene in Bahar Dar is just amazing, in general. I am tickled to be hanging out with these four or five birds.

One of them hops right between my coffee cup and my eggs, and starts munching furiously at the sugar bowl. Whoa, aggressive bird. So I tear off some toast fragments and put them on the edge of the table. Instantly there's twenty birds battling furiously for a little bread, right there on the same table. Unnerving.

I shoo them away and put the bread on the ground. Suddenly more birds swoop down--maybe fifty birds!--and fight like devils for a bite of the bread.

I spend the day bicycling around the town.

That night, in the restaurant, two college-girls are hanging out at the restaurant on the verandah, looking out at the dark lake. They say hello and beckon me to sit with them. We have a fifteen minute, very stilted conversation, mostly about their school and injera. Always injera.

Could these be whores? Naw. They were dressed conservatively, arms and knees covered, as the proper Ethiopian woman's always are. Then one of them asks, "Mike, when do you sleep?" Hm.

Lul, waiting tables that night, comes by. "Mike! Are you fine?" Yes, Lul, just fine.

Sirage takes me out to see another Azmari, a local celebrity named Wainyo. Again: great dancers and singing, and clapping along that is a master class in subverting and shaping rhythm. Wainyo sings a few very sad songs (seemingly), and then gets out a krar and hands it to be. Oh, boy. I pick at it, tentatively--though it sounds like an electric guitar, in practice it's like playing a cross between a diddley bow, a lute, and a Chapman stick. As I pick out a cautious rhythm, EVERYBODY IN THE BAR STOPS AND STARES AT ME. Ulp.

We walk through the dark, romantic, puddled streets of the Ethiopian town, Amharic pop blasting from the doors of the bars. We go to a place called the John Bar, down the street. A couple guys from the hotel, another guide, Mulgeta (a sardonic, very lovable guy), and a driver named Daniel, are dancing. Daniel is a very sweet MANIAC. He dances a dance that's like a boxer's version of the cabbage patch. He keeps reaching out to me, dancing with me, shaking my hand, grabbing my arms. Ethiopian men are extremely affectionate, physically, with one another. You see guys walking down the street, hand in hand, or draped around each other like only lovers do in the West.

They have a friend with them, the only woman in the bar who's not a whore. Whoring is par for the course in Ethiopia. The Lonely Planet says, "It's not exactly a respectable profession, but it's considered a viable way for a student to make ends meet."

We dance to Aster Aweke, Soweto pop, and "Show Me Love." There are posters of Jay-Z and P. Diddy on the wall.

A big fat whore with blonde extensions and a missing tooth keeps vying for my attention. Raising her eyes and smiling and touching her mouth to signal that she wants to me to buy her a drink. When I head to the bathroom, she follows and corners me. "What your name is?" Mike. "I, Hanna." she says shaking my hand in a very businesswomany manner. "It's nice to meet you, Hanna," I say, and hightail it back into the bar to dance with my friends.

I feel so unselfconscious, dancing in the John Bar. It's wonderful. A balm for a loneliness I barely knew I was suffering.

I return to the Ghion, and go to my room. Undress and get in bed, lower the mosquito netting around the mattress. There is a knock. I get up, in my glasses and boxer shorts, and open the door to find one of the college girls from the verandah, smiling at me expectantly.

"Do you sleep now?"

Yes, I was just about to. She looks at me with a clearly implied question.

OK, I'm going to bed now. Goodnight. I say pleasantly.

"Give me 20 birr for a taxi?" she says.

Suddenly I turn into a suave rat-packer. Sorry, baby, I say, I can't do that. And I give her a peck on the cheek and shut the door.

Posted by Mike at 9:35 AM

ETHIOPIA 6: the Azmari, Lul, Sirage

That night, I pull a chair down by the lakefront, and play guitar to the darkness. All these waiters came down and surrounded me, very freaked out and enthused by my music.

One sang me a song he wrote for a girl he's infatuated with that isn't reciprocating his affections. He then proceeded to ask me advice for the lovelorn. "Mike, I love her! Tell me what do I do?"

So then it was about ten pm, and I was just hanging out outside the gate of the Ghion, looking down the empty streets. One of the waiters, this guy Lul, came out, on his way home. "Mike, what are you doing? Do you not enjoy? Come with me!"

Wow. So he took me through the streets of Bahar Dar to a club where an Azmari was playing--an Azmari is a guy who sings and plays a masinko, the one-stringed fiddle, improvising verses about the patrons hanging out drinking. It was FANTASTIC. It sounds like an Islamic James Brown playing square dance music.

Everybody was laughing their ass off, and of course I didn't know what he was singing; Lul did some interpreting. "He sings: I am Azmari. But when my girlfriend ask what I do, I say: I am pilot."

Lul keeps asking me, with this look of supreme concern, "Mike! Are you fine?" Yes, Lul, I'm doing great. A few more minutes. "Mike! Are you fine?" Yes, yes.

It reminded me of my friend Skip Gill, from the seventh grade, circa 1983, who tried to sell me on a foolproof pickup line. Ask a girl: How are you? She says: I'm fine. You say: I know you're FINE, but how are you? Needless to say, Skip Gill had a really, really unbelievable amount of hot sex in middle school.

I won the hearts of the bar patrons because one of the dancers came up and started wiggling in an incredibly acrobatic way. "Mike, he wants you to dance with him. Will you do it?" Um, OK. So I stood up and did a rough imitation of his wiggling, which was quite extraordinary, better than in Addis, I didn't know human beings had muscles in the places he was moving. But everybody laughed.

"Mike!" said Lul. "You are WONDERFUL!"

And then the Azmari came over and asked Lul, in Amharic, what my name was. He then started singing verses about me.

Lul translated. "He sings: America is nice! Germany is nice! I like Mike! He will live here in Bahar Dar forever!" And: "He sings: driver, be safe when you drive Mike back to Addis! Pilot, be safe when you fly Mike back to New York!" And: "This one drinks beer! This one drinks whiskey! Why does Mike drink only water?"

There were lots of references to Washington, D.C., where apparently there's a huge Ethiopian immigrant community. To one girl, the Azmari sang, "Your teeth are white like the snow in Washington, D.C.!"

Washington, D.C. was a point of constant reference everywhere in Ethiopia. Sometimes I'd say, I'm from New York, and a guy would say, "So, where do you live in Washington, D.C.?"

The next day I was taken around Bahar Dar by this guy Sirage. Very cool; I called him the Mayor because every five feet he was saying hello to somebody.

I went to an Orthodox service--Sirage was utterly baffled that this was what I wanted to see--which they let me actually take part in--they gave me a prayer stick and a ceremonial shaker, and I followed roughly along. The singing was beautiful--and the environment was positively Medieval, all these guys in robes. This 12 year old kid in the service showed me this amazing prayer ritual where you count the segments on your fingers and name the apostles.

I'm fascinated with spirituality, and the power of prayer--whatever the source of the power is. Here, the spiritual energy was like WHAM! Huge.

He took me to his village outside Bahar Dar, and his neighbor, a singer who gave me her cassette, did a coffee ceremony for me; the beans are roasted in a pan over coal, crushed in something resembling a mortar and pestle, the smoke is fanned over our noses, incense is lit, popcorn is popped and served, boiling water is boiled, and the coffee is added. We then have to drink three cups. Of course, this being Ethiopia, the coffee everywhere is just incredible.

Sirage took me to buy CD's of Ethiopian music, which again was completely perplexing to him. The shopkeeper would disappear into the back, bring out a few pirated CD's, and I'd listen to them on a CD walkman. A bunch of Ethiopian guys crowded around me. I bought an armload. "Sure, if nine is good, ten is better," said Sirage, completely confused at the weird white guy with the accumulating stack of music.

There was a Jeff Buckley CD there in the shop, sitting on a shelf behind the counter. Wow. So I told Sirage; that's my friend. He died several years ago. And I explained to him how he died. Sirage then actually bought the copy of "Grace." There was a very surreal moment when Sirage was describing Jeff's death to his neighbor during the coffee ceremony. She clucked, dismayed, as Sirage described the boat's trail that submerged him, and the drowning, and the finding of his body a few days later. "She says she is sorry about your friend," Sirage said.

I played him some of my music, later, on my iPod. I am relieved to tell you he was not scared off by my voice (I'm scared to sing for Africans, though all the waiters begged me to when I played by the lakeside); he loved it. He was amazed, in fact. (the new mixes for my upcoming record are pretty damn good, thank you, Dan Wilson) Not to mention astonished by the iPod.

The next morning at breakfast they were playing a Charlie Rich CD over the speakers. Do you like this? I asked Sirage. "Oh, I like country music for all my life," he said.

Posted by Mike at 9:14 AM

ETHIOPIA 5: Bahar Dar: Awesome

The next morning I fly from Addis to Bahar Dar. En route to the airport I pass an Ethiopian cinema with hand painted signs for BRITNEY SPEARS CROSSROADS and ROB SCHNEIDER THE HOT CHICK. And guys in Eminem t-shirts herding donkeys laden with firewood.

Fifty minutes' flight, and I land in a lush, green, chilled-out place. Whew. I am relieved to be in a small city. At the airport, there's a desk for the Ghion Hotel. A guy named Billy offers to transport me there. He looks exactly like Nate Dogg.

I go the Ghion. It's great. It's right on the shores of Lake Tana; boats are putt-putting along, pelicans are strafing the water. My room costs 105 birr--that's about $12.75.

I rent a bicycle and pedal around the town. So pretty. Wide boulevards, magnificent trees hanging over the roads. It's just about dusk, the light is amazing. Donkey carts clip clop along, jostling with taxis and other bicyclists. The same astonishing mix of guys in ersatz hip hop gear walking next to guys in traditional shawls with staffs, herding goats.

Children keep yelling out to me. "Faranji! Faranji!" I shout back, Habesha! And they laugh. Some of them shout out, "You! You! You! You!" It's the colloquial way of getting somebody's attention. Charming and unnerving simultaneously. Abraham--that pleasant, informative guy who tried to con the hell out of me--told me in Addis, "Children have only seen white people in movies."

My favorite thing in Ethiopia, and in the small towns outside Addis especially, is the smiling. Everybody with these huge toothy grins. I smile at old men, and goatherds, donkey cart drivers, taxi drivers, groups of teenage girls that convulse with giggling. It makes my heart feel so good to be here, smiling at everybody, and them smiling at me. Worth the trip on its own.

The next day I wake up and get on a boat, going out to see the monasteries on Lake Tana. My guide is a chilled out guy named Yohannes. He brings a big pot of injera and shiro to eat on the journey. It's 3 hours to the middle of the lake to see the first place, Narga Selassie.

We creep up on an island isolated in the water. A crumbling stone gate stands on the edge of the very old dock. We climb up a hill. It's like walking into the 17th century. Old priests in robes are standing around the circular church, staring at me, friendly and perplexed.

Inside there are spectacular paintings around the holy of holies--Moses drowning the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea, their helmets and rifles (?!) poking out of the drink. Afroed Saints Gabriel and Mikael at the doors shielding the replica Ark. African Mary and baby Jesus. Belai the cannibal, consuming his relatives.

OK, says Yohannes. Now we go to the museum.

The "museum" is a mud and straw hut behind the church. The priests go in, and come out with ceremonial crosses, which they hold out for display. "This was made in the 17th century..." !!!!

And hand-painted books with Biblical scenes and ancient Ge'ez script. And a crown from a 17th century bishop. This will be repeated over and over again in Ethiopia; priceless artifacts kept in the most casual manner. Priests hold them openly in direct sunlight, beckon me to touch the ancient pages. Again: astonishing.

We go back to the boat. We're being approached by two men in papyrus canoes, paddling slowly towards us. They too look to have been transported from centuries ago. They're saying something, over and over again, smiling. I can't quite hear them.

They come closer. They're repeating, "Money. Money. Money. Money. Money."

We travel another couple of hours and come to another monastery. There are images of the damned, blue-skinned, in Hell. Yohannes points out that good people in the paintings are depicted in full face, evil people--Romans, Pagans, Egyptians--in profile. Though the devils tormenting them are in profile, the sinners themselves are full-face. A curious empathy for the damned.

There is a guard, an old guy in robes with a rifle that seems to be vintage 1940's, watching the church's grounds. He says: "I am the guard. Give me money."

I give him a few notes. He says again: "I am the guard. Give me money. I am the guard. Give me money."

Posted by Mike at 8:52 AM

ETHIOPIA 4: the Donald

I saw an Ethiopian band and dancers at the hotel; a drummer, a guy playing a one-stringed fiddle called a masinko, and two guys playing these lute-looking, guitar-sounding instruments called krar. The guy playing the bass krar sounded for all the world like the bass on the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Sonically, I mean.

They were extremely out of tune; after every song there would be a long tuning pause, that was never particularly successful. Then they'd start playing, these great African grooves, sometimes in three, sometimes in four. Fantastic. Though it was effectively an Ethiopian version of a Ramada Inn lounge, they would go into these great, fevered jams. The energy just got more and more intense.

As Canadian tourists picked tentatively at their shiro and injera, at traditional basket-tables. Served by stoic waitresses in bowties, and nameplates that read "TRAINEE No. 35" or "TRAINEE No. 8."

The dancers came out and jacked their necks and chests in astonishing ways. I could barely comprehend how a human being could move their muscles like that. Occasionally they'd fade back and just clap along to the music. What was fascinating was that they would switch the beat they were accenting with their claps--the two and the four, and then all four, and then the one and the three--though the band jammed ever onward in the same rhythm, the clapping made the accent of the beat switch, sometimes fluidly, sometimes abruptly. Just great.

I finish dinner, the band finishes up, and I want to hear more. I get into a taxi and tell the guy that I'm looking to hear some Ethiopian music. He takes me to a dim bar where a guy in a suit is crooning into a wireless mic in front of a guy playing a Yamaha keyboard, with drum machine and automated bass line.

Uh, perhaps a more traditional kind of music? He takes me to a place called the Concorde Hotel. I walk into the bar--the uniformed security guards salute me quite formally, as uniformed guards do, disconcertingly, everywhere in Addis--and there's a band like the one at my hotel, and dancers, finishing up a tune to much applause.

I go to the bathroom. When I return, the band is gone, the dancers are gone, R. Kelly's "Step In The Name Of Love" is playing, and the bar is filling up with whores.

One of the whores corners me on a bar stool and asks me to buy her a drink. Yeah, OK, why not. Big mistake. She essentially stands guard over me for the next half an hour, giving nasty looks to the other whores that pass by.

OK--here's the odd part--I think I was drugged.

I was drinking a bottled water. My heart started to beat kind of fast. I started to feel a little shaky. Oh FUCK. I recognized the feeling. This was the Donald.

The Donald is the feeling one gets when one takes Ecstasy, just when the drug is coming on, but before the euphoric effects. An anxious, panicky feeling. The origin of the notion of the Donald was this one time when I was playing a Dutch Summer festival. My guitar tech, Heinz (an English guy nicknamed for love of the beans) had these E's with imprints of Donald Duck's face on them. I downed a pill, waited a while, started feeling nervous and agitated. My girlfriend called, and I described my state of being. She said, "Is it the Donald?" YES! The DONALD! That describes this feeling EXACTLY. But she just meant, was it Heinz's E's with the Donald Duck on them.

So I was freaking out. I haven't been on any drug since the year 2000. I didn't know what to do. I kept looking at the red-lit Red Bull sign in search of psychedlic effects. How was I going to sit this out?

As it turned out, I wasn't on E. I don't know what it was. Maybe chat, the local speed-like leaf. I briefly considered hiring a whore to give me a backrub and wait out the drug with me. Then I just jumped into a cab and split, and whatever the feeling was wore off within the hour.

Posted by Mike at 8:14 AM

Sep 7, 04 08:54 AM

ETHIOPIA 3: the Siren Scam

All night there was singing through a loudspeaker at a church by the hotel; it's the end of a fasting period (during which they don't actually fast, but abstain from meat other than fish, as well as dairy). So tinny, ululating melodies unspool as I lay there trying to sleep. I get out of bed and turn on Ethiopian national television, which is broadcasting the Brendan Fraser vehicle, Blast From The Past. It cuts inexplicably to Olympic footage, and then cuts back to the Brendan Fraser movie as if nothing happened.

The next day, the religious loudspeaker singing is still going. And there's different rhythmic chants going on in the hotel's gardens. I go out to my balcony. There are no less than five wedding parties in the gardens; a bride in a Western style white dress, bridesmaids in matching pastel prom dresses, and well dressed relatives singing and chanting, stepping in circles. In the parking lot, one wedding party is circling a white limosine, clapping and singing.

I go out to watch. It's raining.

A guy sidles up to me. "You like this?" Yeah. Isn't it a bad omen to have rain on your wedding day. "No, no. It's very lucky. That's why so many weddings in rainy season, like today." Oh.

His name is Abraham. Nice guy. He invites me for a cup of coffee in the garden's café. The rain intensifies, and the café fills up with drenched wedding attendees, many of whom gather around a TV for more Olympics.

"You know," says Abraham, "today is end of sixteen days of fasting. So, many cultural activities. Some students near to this place are having a cultural day at their house."

Really? Interesting. Do you think I could go there?

"You want to go? OK, let's go."

On the walk there, Abraham is wonderfully informative. The wedding parties were chanting, "Oh, tef, tef," after the grain that is the primary ingredient in injera, the spongy bread that serves as staple and utensil. He tells me that "faranji," Amharic for foreigner, is actually a perversion of "French." He tells me that when Ethiopian kids yell "Faranji! Faranji!" at me (which they do, everywhere, near-constantly) I should say back "Habesha!" (Ethiopian). He points out cut grass strewn on doorsteps, and says this is an Ethiopian signal of welcome.

We go up a hill, and into an Ethiopian shanty town. I should mention that, despite the environment of poverty, and the dilipated, jerry-rigged housing, I almost never feel any kind of weird vibe. Ethiopia is an extremely safe country. There will prove to be many annoyances on this journey, but I will never feel truly threatened.

Eventually we reach a private house behind a wall of corrugated metal. At this point I'm feeling uneasy. There is a con described in the Lonely Planet guidebook called "The Siren Scam." It involves being taken to a private house, given a "cultural show," plied with food and drinks, and then presented with an outrageous bill for the proceedings. I can't imagine that's what's going down--this guy is just too cool. I want this to be a genuine experience.

We enter the house. We're in a small room lined with beige pleather couches. There are Ethiopian tourism posters on the walls. There is a big Bob Marley poster. Now I'm certain--the Siren Scam. That is EXACTLY what's going down.

We sit, and a stream of college-age girls file in, each shaking my hand as they pass. The room fills up with twenty girls, filling the couches, sitting on the arms of the furniture. "Would you like to see a traditional coffee ceremony?" One asks. Um, no no, that's OK. "Are you sure?" Yes. "We will show you traditional Ethiopian dancing." They turn on a boombox and dance uninspiringly (I saw traditional dancers at the hotel restaurant last night, and they were the most spectacular dancers I've ever seen in my life. Really. Though I'd see better ones later in this journey)

They try and get me to dance with them. One of the girls drapes over the arm of my chair and tries to engage me in conversation. What is truly weird is that the room is filled with twenty girls, and they are all staring at me; no conversation amongst themselves. "Will you buy us a drink?" Uh, how much? "Don't worry, we'll give you a bill at the end." HOW MUCH. "We'll get you a bill, OK."

But instantly there's four bottles of honey wine on the table. "Drink some with us!" I'm sorry, I don't drink alcohol. "There's no alcohol in this!" I sniff it. Lies.

I have a coke. There's more half-assed dancing, they ask if I want to try some injera. I'm trying to figure out how to get out of here. And yet, I still want to be polite; I want desperately for this to be a genuine experience.

Finally, a labcoated waitress brings a bill on a silver plate. It's for 453 birr--that's fifty bucks. My overpriced dinner last night at the hotel cost 50 birr.

I stand up and make a big show of outrage. I'm not really angry, but I think it's the only thing that will get me out of there. I pull a ten birr note out and throw it on the silver plate, That's for my coke! I'm leaving!

An older guy comes in, looking kind of mean. "Is there a problem here?" YES. The problem is I'm not paying you 453 birr!

"Don't worry, that's Ethiopian, not US Dollars!" one of the girls chirps. "Don't worry!"

Yeah, right. I storm out. One of the girls follows me. She looks genuinely baffled. It's another one of those ambiguous Ethiopian moments; clearly they were trying to con me, and yet they seem truly confused and disappointed. The labcoated waitress follows me, too, pointing to the figure on the bill and holding up the ten birr note like she doesn't understand.

I realize I've left my umbrella in the room. Oh, shit. I turn on my heels and walk back in there. One of the girls hands me the umbrella, very politely.

I get in a taxi and I'm out of there. I go back to the hotel, and the wedding parties are still dancing around the gardens. They sing and clap their way from a gazebo, to in front of a fountain, where they take a bunch of pictures; the bridesmaids, the brides, the thumbs-upping suited men. One party even gets a trio of Japanese tourists with cameras and fannypacks in on the photo session.

Then they dance and sing their way to the limosines. The bride gets in. (Abraham told me they go to the bride's house after the garden-singing, for a reception) The party dances its way around the limosine a few times, circling and then switching direction. Then the limo pulls away, to cheers and applause, and the wedding party disperses to waiting minibuses.

Posted by Mike at 8:54 AM

ETHIOPIA 2: Gyorgis, Alleluia

I go to the St. George cathedral, an octagonal building in a part of Addis they call the Piazza. It's closed. Men keep walking up to the doors of the church, pressing their heads against the doorframe, kissing it, and mouthing words.

A deacon, a dignified, graying man in a blue blazer, offers to let me in, and gives me a primer on Ethiopian Orthodox Churches; there are separate doors for men, women, and priests; there's a part for praying, a part for chanting, and a central holy-of-holies in which a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

He shows me the ceremonial instruments. There's a big drum, a kind of shaker--a metal tamborine on a Y-shaped stick--called a sistrum, and prayer sticks with arm rests, meant to lean on during marathon 12 and 20 hour praying sessions.

He sings me a couple songs, banging on the drum very slowly, and singing, "Gyorgis...Alleluia...Alleluia..." He does this with the sistrum and the prayer stick as well, waving the latter in the air, as a kind of conducting to no one, as he sings. The rhythms are hypnotically slow, and switch time signature. As he sings and plays, he walks backwards in a methodic circle.

I ask him to sing them again, and he's a little perplexed, but he does.

He shows me the little museum, and then says, OK, now you must tip me. At this point I have no perspective on the value of the Ethiopian birr, so I pull out 50 birr (roughly six bucks) and hold it up, and he kind of sighs. So I pull out 100 birr and he nods. OK.

This is an experience I'll have repeatedly in Ethiopia: a fascinating experience followed by a craven request for dough. Not always in that order.

I go to the National Museum. The crowns of Menelik, Zewditu, and Haile Selassie are kept behind flimsy plexiglass, secured with a hardware-store lock of the type they used to use on the cassette cases at Sounds on St. Mark's place.

I go to the Selassie Cathedral. (The Selassie is the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, represented with an image of three absolutely identical bearded men in a row) The throne of Haile Selassie is strewn with plastic coffee cups.

I return to the hotel. I sit in the restaurant, drinking coffee with milk, which the Ethiopians call "Macchiato." The coffee is absolutely incredible, almost across the board in the entire country.

There's a ferocious hailstorm. The restaurant sounds as if it's being riddled with gunfire for an hour.

It's the rainy season in the Horn of Africa, which I kind of dreaded (a man I sat next to on the plane told me--"Now, two months of rain. But after that, beautiful!"). But, in fact, there was gorgeous blue sky most of the day, as there will be every day I was there. The sun is intensely bright, but it rarely got above 65 degrees, and down to 50 at night. That, despite the stereotype of Africa, is pretty much the temperature in Ethiopia year-round.

Posted by Mike at 8:11 AM

ETHIOPIA 1: Leaving

I saw an Olsen twin deplaning as I sat in the departure lounge. She wore chic, frayed clothes, and big sunglasses, and she was flanked by big, matronly handlers. The airport newstand was blanketed with an issue of In Touch magazine. An Olsen twin on the cover--"Is She Out Of Control?"--something like that. People in the lounge with me were reading it. And yet I think I was the only one who saw her.

I flew to London, and then connected to Frankfurt, and in Frankfurt flew to Addis Ababa. We flew over Athens (and the Olympic Stadium). I looked out the window at the Mediterranean, waiting for Africa to show up.

We land in Addis. Addis is sprawling, dusty, and chaotic; donkeys and goats jostle with taxis on the streets. There are big neighborhoods of tin and mud shanties beneath high rise buildings; sophisticated urbanites in Western dress walking by guys in Gandhi-like shawls, with head wraps and walking staffs. Everywhere there's the sound of Amharic music, a warped-sounding, cheesily orchestrated, careening, fascinating sound, mostly in 3. Also everywhere: the gorgeous, alien Amharic alphabet.

There's an Ethiopian Airlines billboard over Meskel Square, a vast intersection of multilane roads, nearly without traffic lights, in which minibuses, taxis, and SUVs battle for lane changes and turns--"STOCKHOLM: Savour the Old World charm." This, in Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity.

I arrive at the hotel after dark. In the lobby, people are hunched around TVs, watching the Olympics. I go up to my room and watch the American weather forecast on Al-Jazeera.

Posted by Mike at 7:37 AM
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