Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tourist attractions of Lagos, part 5: Olumo Rock

Happy last week of August!

I realize that it's been a million years since the last time I wrote about a tourist attraction in Lagos. Turns out there aren't that many and I'm not very good about getting to them. But thanks to a few intrepid friends of mine a trip was organized to the city of Abeokuta in neighboring Ogun state and I got to see the famous Olumo Rock. It's a lot like what it appears to be - a big rock on top of a hill - but it has an interesting history and standing on top if it offers a nice view of the area. It's only really interesting for about an hour but you could spend the day in Abeokuta checking out the market as well, and we heard about but did not visit a local museum.
To be brutally honest there isn't much to see at the rock, but I am really glad I went anyway. It was nice to be surrounded by rocks and grass and trees rather than concrete and trash and people.

Beyond just the novel 'back to nature' enjoyment of climbing the rock, it offers a nice view of the city of Abeokuta. We see so little of Nigeria outside Lagos that it's good to have these occasional trips to remind us that 1) there's a whole real country out there, and 2) it doesn't all revolve around US visas. Driving through the city reminded me of everything I love about Nigeria - the busyness, the entrepreneurial spirit, the beautiful forests and hills. I also just love the intangible texture of the place; everywhere you look there's such a density of interesting things to see that it's both fun and overwhelming.

In true developing world fashion, safety was more of a suggestion than a rule. We climbed up one very steep section of rock, with a very long drop should we fall, only to turn around at the top and see this line. Oops! I guess we went up the wrong way! Maybe guard rails would have removed from the view?
Anyway, if you're in Lagos and the security rules allow it's worth a day trip.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Scratch off map

While in Italy last year my parents bought me a scratch-off map to record all my travels. Since then I've done what felt like quite a bit of traveling within Africa, so I've made the map part of the post-vacation tradition (along with retrieving my half-dead plants from the plant sitter and doing a hundred loads of laundry).  Until I bust out the map I always feel well-traveled, but once I unroll it, well...

I'll let you be the judge.
Kind of pathetic isn't it?
I realized pretty quickly that if I want to make some progress on this map I need to get my priorities straight. Bigger=better and colder=bigger. When I go home on R&R I really have to visit Canada. Look how much space I could scratch off! And maybe while in Italy I can do a weekend in Moscow. I can't lie - it's tempting.
And I'm definitely going to have to serve in Africa again because that part of the map is frustratingly bare despite my best efforts.
And hey! It looks like I forgot to scratch-off Liberia. Epic win of the day. It's a little bit sad how happy that makes me. Maybe this is the wrong gift for someone with a touch of OCD. Or maybe it is a maddeningly perfect gift. :)
Speaking of perfect gifts, what does one purchase for a parent's milestone birthday? The parent or parents in question can feel free to leave some hints in the comments section.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ethiopia - more impressions

I'm getting a bit sick of 'travel posts', even my own. You know what I mean, the blow-by-blow overshare that's more of a diary entry than anything else (first I ate a donut for breakfast and then the taxi was five minutes late and...).  So in an effort to avoid oversharing I thought I'd just intersperse my random observations about Ethiopia with a few pictures (what we're all more interested in anyway, right?) Hopefully that counts as meaningful writing.
Taken in the mountains right outside/above Addis.
Addis Ababa: I'd heard really good things about Addis from other people in the Africa bureau. Namely that it was very livable and developed. It was fine, but honestly it seemed kind of bland as a city. It's entirely possible that I just saw all the quiet, unexciting parts of the city but it felt a lot like...everywhere else I've been in Africa. I will say, though - the green space in Addis was much appreciated and I liked how there were actually some hills in the city. Lagos needs hills. 
Impromptu checkers game while waiting for my flight.
Begging: Oh my goodness - I have never had that many people ask me for money. And I don't mean in the 'I will wash your windshield for 10 cents' sort of asking. I mean more of the 'Excuse me, I saw you standing there and thought "I would like some of that foreigner's money" so I just came over here to ask for some now' kind of way. It was awkward, but I'm not the pushover I was before I started consular work, so I broke a lot of hearts.
Every single place was this scenic. It was kind of ridiculous.
Rainy season: Best time of year to see Ethiopia. All the crowds were gone, I had my pick of the best hotel rooms and restaurant tables, I didn't have seatmates on most of my flights, and the air was perfect and cool. And as a bonus, everything was green, green, green.
Stone church in Lalibela (one of many - each completely awesome)
Money: Ethiopia was WAY cheaper than Nigeria. A typical meal out in Lagos costs $40 a plate and I've had $60 a plate meals that were certainly nothing fancy. We ate burgers at a great little place in Addis for less than $5 apiece. $20 a day would probably be a good estimate. Epic.

The Blue Nile falls. Now I've seen both sources of the Nile (saw the White Nile source in Uganda).
I also owe a shout out to...
GETTS (tour company) - they planned every single step of the vacation so all I had to do was give them my flight information and show up with a wad of cash and they did the rest. They booked flights, hotels, and ground transportation for 5 different locations throughout Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, Axum, Lalibela, Gonder and Bahir Dar). They met me at each airport, drove me everywhere, provided the guides, and answered every question that I had. The service was pretty cheap and their customer service skills are fantastic. Highly recommended.
Also highly recommend the Ben Abeba restaurant in Lalibela. Great food, wonderful service, some of the best views in the world.

I think these are weaver birds.
Ethiopia is certainly still a developing country. The roads are full of people walking or herding cows, sheep and donkeys. None of the hotels I stayed in (or even the house of a fellow FSO!) had central heat. And most poignant of all - a moment I had near the end of the trip. I checked in for my flight at one of the regional airports north of Addis and started to get hungry. I asked if there was a place to buy a drink or a bag of chips or something. Sorry, the staff said, but no - there wasn't even a snack kiosk or a vending machine. Instead, the staff pointed me across a muddy field where there was an abandoned looking garage. So I traipsed across the field, my rolly bag rolling behind me and sure enough, the porch of that little shack was set up with tables and homemade chess sets (the one above was from this place). I had coke in a bottle (I love coke in a bottle) and some of the best food I've had in Ethiopia on the porch while I watched my terrifyingly small prop plane land and taxi around the airport. It was charming and inconvenient and reminded me why I love traveling so much. Who wants a burger from the airport McDonalds when they could have a mini-adventure?
So, thanks Ethiopia for getting my head back into a good place for the last few months in Africa.
Airport McDonalds - rural Ethiopia style


Saturday, August 9, 2014

back in town

Just got back from Ethiopia - it was absolutely great and I really enjoyed catching up with my A-100 colleagues.

I'm too tired to post much about the trip now, but here's a photo to get the recap started.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Ethiopia (gasp!)

Greetings from Axum, Ethiopia!

I'm here on what will probably be my last Africa vacation (though I still have one R&R left) while living in Nigeria. I can't quite explain what it was that inspired me to plan a vacation here. After all - there were a lot of choices. Kenya and Tanzania were big draws - I could have done a 'real' safari and Zanzibar looks like the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could ask for. I heard good things about Senegal and I have another colleague who has traveled there. And I've always dreamed of going to Morocco and Egypt. So I was a little bit surprised myself when I decided to come to Addis. But there were a couple of good reasons that it won out. I have two colleagues here, and I've been anxious to actually meet up with my A-100 colleagues, most of whom I haven't seen since December 2012 (none of the dirty buggers seems to want to visit Lagos). I also had a coworker who traveled here a couple years ago and spoke highly of it. And I think the history was a good way to round out my Africa travels. I've done beaches, I've done animals and nature, I've done 'outdoorsy' and big city, but I haven't really seen much history. And Ethiopia had tons of that.

Decision made, I booked a ticket and scheduled my leave (thanks a million to the officer who's covering for me this week!)

I spent my first day in Ethiopia with the colleagues mentioned above. We had a great time. I bought some coffee, we drove past the embassy (insert the inevitable moment of jealousy here when I realize that all the other missions around the world are new and shiny and look like places where professionals would work). We also took a very cool trip up the mountain that overlooks Addis. It was gorgeous and so incredibly peaceful. Addis is definitely much greener than Lagos. There seemed to be parks and gardens all over the place. There are a lot more expats and the vibe was more laid-back. It felt like normal life in a way that Nigeria just sometimes doesn't. There was room for jealousy on both sides though - my colleagues got a bit wistful when I mentioned the American chain restaurants we have in Lagos and my weekly sailing hobby. And I think they'd be jealous if they got to see our housing. 

I also got a chance to visit the little girl my parents are sponsoring outside Addis. This was really a privilege (how often are you invited into a local person's home on your first day in a new country?). She's a confident and smart young lady and I think she'll end up doing great things one day. She wants to be a cardiologist when she grows up (see? what kind of 12 year old knows what a cardiologist is?) and her English was pretty good. She also introduced me to the Ethiopian gasp. As I was talking to her through a translator I noticed that she kept gasping. After each question would be a gasp - then an answer. It was the strangest thing. Talking with the driver on the way home I noticed he did it too and asked my collegues to explain. Sure enough, a gasp = yes in Ethiopia. Disconcerting at first, but kind of original, right?

Anyway, I am in the middle of a 5 day whirlwind tour of northern Ethiopia now. My hotel here is pretty awesome (shout out to Sabean hotel!) and I had to take advantage of the free wifi to update the blog in my downtime between seeing and eating everything I can find. 

More updates will probably happen after I get back. In the meantime, here's some pictures of the trip so far.
Ten or twenty minutes out of town found us in this lovely, quiet forest on top of the mountain. I don't know what these trees are for (it seemed like there was some agricultural purpose) but they were beautiful. And it really was a trip to be somewhere cold after Lagos! It felt like the Pacific Northwest, or maybe Colorado and I loved the fresh smell of the air.

Wish I could upload a video - but this kid has an amazing whip that sounds like a gunshot. Naturally, he was running around whipping thin air to enjoy the sound of it. Boys are the same everywhere I guess. 

This is a deacon at the church in Axum. He played and chanted for us - very cool.

Incense at the mini-traditional coffee ceremony I enjoyed on the side of the road. The total cost was 50 cents for the whole thing and it was a great little glimpse into Ethiopian culture. Also - I don't think I will ever need to sleep again based on how much caffeine I must have consumed. That stuff was strong!