Sunday, June 30, 2013

Atmospheric Details

There's a lot of aspects of day-to-day life that I haven't spent much time on in previous posts. Below are some topics that seem to come up in any guide or introduction to Addis and/or Ethiopia. (While this draws mainly on my own personal knowledge/observations, I'm not yet at the point where I can confidently tell you what the guides tend to get wrong.) 
  • Weather: Despite being just north of the equator, Ethiopia does not have the "tropical" climate that one reflexively envisions. The altitude of Addis, and perhaps some macrogeographic features that I'm not familiar with of the country as a whole, mean high's more-or-less in the 70's year-round. And the "less" is actually around this time of year: despite being in the Northern hemisphere, we're heading into Ethiopian "winter"--the rainy season. In recent weeks, brief torrential downpours have become more common, occurring nearly everyday, often in the mid-afternoon. I've been told July is the worst, so things will get worse before they get better. Nonetheless, it's been sunny almost every morning, so I am not yet experiencing the Vitamin D deprivation of, say, a Boston winter.
  • Calendar: Ethiopia has its own calendar which, if I understand correctly, is more or less equivalent to the Julian calendar rather than the more recently adopted (e.g. circa 16th century) Gregorian calendar. By this calendar the year is something like 2006 -- which can make figuring out which calendar is being used confusing when one sees a date in, for instance, government documents. The calendar also has 13 months which has been used as a basis for the tourist slogan "13 months of sun" -- conveniently ignoring the above-mentioned rainy season.
  • Food: The staple of Ethiopian food is injera, a spongy pancake made from tef, which is a grain grown basically only in Ethiopia. (When agriculture people talk about tef, there is a tendency to mention that it's now grown in the Netherlands--and I've once heard even Ohio--and that it may have growth potential in the west by virtue of being gluten-free). Injera is gray and slightly sour, and the other components of a meal are served on top of it, with the injera used to pick and sop them up without the help of additional utensils. Injera is seen as a piece of the Ethiopian soul--jokes are made about its supposed addictive qualities, and Ethiopians will often assume that as a foreigner you might miss your own customary bread and want to eat it at each meal. Common dishes to go on top of injera include shiro, an orange paste made of powdered chickpeas; tibs, basically chunks of cooked beef; and bayonetu, an assortment of vegetable dishes. Ethiopian Christianity calls for "fasting" -- meaning no meat/eggs/dairy on something like 40% of the days of the year, including an extended lent as well as most Wednesdays and Fridays. On these days bayonetu is easy to find, and on others not so much (as with non-vegetarians in India, when meat is both allowed and something that one can afford, the assumption seems to be that one would desire little else).
  • Language: Amharic is written in its own destinctive script and is a Semitic language -- which apparently makes it easier to learn for people unlike me who have studied either Arabic or Hebrew. My employer sponsors lessons -- one a week individually, or more if you combine with others. So far I've managed to have two, and can do little beyond greet people.
  • Transport: The typical ferengi (foreigner) transport option here are the ancient blue and white cars which serve "contract" taxis. No fuel subsidies in Ethiopia (part of what keeps taxi rates in other parts of the developing world low) mean that the price you might pay over a given distance is half--and not some fraction of--what you'd pay in the US, though an Ethiopian will also tend to pay less. That said, a much more common transport option for locals--and also refered to as "taxis"--are the (also ancient, also blue and white) minibuses following fixed routes between central points in the city. Along these routes, minibuses will slow at the sight of potential passenger, swing open the sliding door, and the ticket-taker will barrage you with the name of that line's destination -- "Bole bole bole bole". A minibus costs under 2 birr (10 cents) for a distance that might be 50 birr in a contract taxi. Beyond the minibuses, public transport options are limited: red and yellow full-size public buses follow a few routes within the city center -- they conspicuously lack in emissions control mechanisms and I've been told led their first lives in 1970's Holland; a light-rail line is apparently under constructed as well, contracted out to a Chinese firm. But most locals walk. Often, given the frequent lack of sidewalks, this means walking in the road. Some transport options I'd expect to see are actually uncommon: Three wheelers (auto rickshaws/tuk-tuks, called Bajaj here for their Indian manufacturer) are banned from most of Addis, and one rarely sees bicycles of motorcycles either -- Ethiopians I've asked say they wouldn't feel safe on them, but I wonder if there's a more structural explanation as well.
  • Women: Ethiopia and those who describe it often makes a claim to have "the most beautiful women in the world." This is obviously a matter of personal preference, but I wouldn't say its baseless. Ethiopians in general, while their appearance is clearly African, perhaps show some Middle Eastern traits as well (which would certainly be in accord with the cultural sphere). These two statements are probably as far as I want to go either on the topic of attractiveness or in making generalizations about appearance at the national level. In terms of clothing, women in Addis appear to follow a relatively conservative dress code, with flowing white scarfs and a generally more traditional impression, while men are more westernized in appearance.

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