Round Two


Imagining a "Planet of Slums"

The London Review of Books sez: "If there are countries in the South where more people live in slums than live in cities proper, and if by 2020 half of the world’s urban population will exist in poverty, then the slum deserves more attention than it’s getting from planners, sociologists, environmentalists, epidemiologists and demographers."

And so the last few months I've spent a lot of time thinking about Mike Davis' book Planet of Slums. Its got a little bit of something for about everyone, especially apocalyptic types. Though I don't often find myself among their numbers, the book really poked at my imagination. I have some quibbles with it, but the overall thrust is a fresh and urgent view on the future of the developing world's cities and their inhabitants. Since Cairo is one of the many cities Davis cites, its helped me to reposition my own interests in human rights and to consider tentative ideas about a thesis.

An interview with Mike Davis from ZMagazine. And UN-HABITAT is on a parallel track with some of Mike Davis' concerns.


Spring Break in Ethiopia

It was that rarest of spring vacations: no MTV cameras and no BBQs on the beach, as Ethiopia is landlocked. My friends Aidan and Dalia and I took ten days in Ethiopia; we flew from Cairo into Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, and from there bussed to Bahir Dar, a regional capital next to Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile begins. We took a day trip to Awra Amba, an atheist weaving cooperative in rural north-central Ethiopia. Then we came back to Addis and flew back to Cairo. Politesse and poor lighting in music-rich bars meant that I wasn't able to come away with all the photos I wanted on this trip. But what's below is partly from Dalia's collection as well, so thanks, Dalia.

Westerners spending a few days in any part of the country would very quickly lose any expectations of a dry, arid place where drought might be common. We saw a rather green country with lots of lakes and rivers. According to Robert D. Kaplan's book on the Cold War in this region, Surrender or Starve, it took the Western media years to reverse initial incorrect reports that Ethiopians were dying by drought during the 1970s and 1980s. Kaplan writes that famines were actually created by the Derg (or "committee" which ruled the nation after Selassie), to harm targeted sections of the country's population to the point of forcibly displacing farmers at harvest time. In our travels, we saw some evidence of the civil war in the form of the occasional defunct tank, long abandoned, and never cleared from its position near a country road. Today, the Meles Zenawi government may again be trying to trigger a famine in the Ogaden region, according to CNN and other sources. The government continues to enjoy significant support from the United States, despite numerous human rights problems and various tensions in different regions of the country. A short article on recent fighting in Ogaden was printed in the Guardian.

Addis Ababa is the home of the African Union and was home to its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, beginning in 1963. Today the city is possibly as large as 1.5 Million people, and as ever, is stable, hilly, rather pretty, and full of interesting restaurants, bars, markets and other sites. Addis is large but manageable for the layperson because it is walkable throughout and relatively quiet in the downtown areas. Travel books we read warned us of pickpockets and con men, but we fortunately encountered none of this, just very kind people (and the occasional "tourguide"). Many tourists come as Ethiopia is known as a birdwatching paradise with good national parks, and its wonderful food is very popular, as exemplified by this adjective-laden tourism article from the New York Times.

Despite the discouraging political situation in Ethiopia, we had a wonderful trip, learned a lot, ate very well, and met interesting people. The trip made a big impression on me and I hope to return some day.

Perhaps 80% of Ethiopians live in rural areas and small towns, which is strikingly rural in comparison to most African countries. Here's a glimpse of a small village we drove through not far from the Blue Nile Gorge.

I took this picture of the moon going down when the sun came up from our window at Addis Ababa's wonderful Itegue Taitu Hotel.

Dalia and I dressed to blend in with the law department building of Addis Ababa University (note the Lion of Judah).

A juice bar window made the difference between chiarascuro and just a mediocre picture of Aidan. The juice bar was on this rather typical street in Bahir Dar.

These pictures are from Awra Amba, an atheist farming and weaving cooperative in central Ethiopia between Bahir Dar and Woldiya. Note the bicycle wheel wool spinners.

While staying in Bahir Dar, we took a day to cross Lake Tana by boat and visit this church. The priest pictured here showed us illustrated scriptures on goat skin, written in Ge'ez, a language now only used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Blue Nile, 300 kilometers into its 2,750 kilometers to Cairo.


Food & Drinks in Ethiopia

I finally, finally, finally got a chance to update the blog and so as to remain somewhat chronological, I begin here with some reflections on my trip this spring to Ethiopia. Here are some notes on Ethiopian gastronomie without any real method of organization other than the photo-caption-photo-caption kind.

My friends Dalia and Aidan are sitting here at the friendly Itegue Taitu Hotel in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa. This city of 4.5 million or so is the capital of Ethiopia, and Piazza is kind of its uptown. This little patio is a terrific place to start the day with really good coffee and oatmeal. The hotel features posted prices, BBC on satellite, and a phone for customers that is dialed out by a switchboard operator on the hotel staff.

Delicious machiattos and donuts at the Tomoco Coffeeshop, also in the Piazza region of Addis. A kilo of freshly roasted beans (Ethiopian) would cost you less than $5 here. The place was apparently founded by Italians in the 1930's.

This is a photo of macchiato in a brown mug on a white tablecloth with blue stripes on it.

I don't remember what this coffee drink was called but it featured condensed milk or something like it.

This is spriss, from a small juice bar in Bahir Dar. The top 1/3 is a mix of banana puree and lime juice, and the bottom 2/3 is avacado puree. Totally fresh, brilliant, healthy, awesome. Also comes in squash and orange.

My apologies to this German girl whose name I forgot. I selected this photo because she kind of snaps the Ras Dashen beer into the territory of 70's magazine advertising. This was at the Ghion Hotel in Bahir Dar, on the bank of Lake Tana, the headwaters of the Blue Nile. Ras Dashen beer is a welcome and robust counterpoint to any spicy Ethiopian dish. Cheap by Egyptian standards, it is far better than Egypt's Stella, and features a pleasing label around a classic brown bottle. There is basically no reason to drink imported beer in Ethiopia.

While walking around and checking out some churches in Entoto Hills, north of Addis Ababa, we took a break at a wonderfully restful little dining room that was kind of an extension of a small bar. The owner of the place was kind enough to bring us some tasty wat with huge chunks of homemade western-style bread as well as some beer. This is St. George's, which is simply awesome. Its label matches the matches label. It started raining quite hard after we took this photo but we decided to leave anyway and got soaked on our way back to the bus station. Delicious rainy day food and drink, but no photos of the wat.

This was taken in the aptly titled Addis Ababa Restaurant. There are a variety of little gravy-like dishes here, many of them vegetarian, but some from lamb or beef, laid out on injera. That's like a floppy pancake made out of something called tef flour. I think Ethiopian cuisine is simply awesome, its very healthy and filling, and its great for cheapskates who eat in a group. Some of my friends occasionally hire Ethiopians living in Cairo to cook and I need to look into this.

Tej, or honey wine, brewed by the aforementioned Addis Ababa Restaurant. Usually you get tej in a place called a beat, but this is a rare exception. I can't really describe the taste, a bit . . . waxy?


Imagistic Homesickness

Over the last few weeks I have begun getting a little inkling of what it will be like to be home this summer for a while. It does not exactly feel like homesickness but it has that form. It consists just of images:

visiting friends at their apartments
green plants in parks with lakes
miracle whip
fried tofu
iced tea
lemoncello and wine in the back yard
lighter fluid smell from the neighbor's grill
baseball on the radio
college radio
the public library
news hour
street fairs
bicycling and drinking out of my water bottle
internet at home
drinking beer at concerts
free thursday nights at the walker art center
monday movies at loring park
listening to tapes in the car
talking with mom and dad about politics
mowing the lawn
ice cream from grand old creamery
the errand trifecta: groceries, post office, library