Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer Vacation

Road Trip!

The most anticipated event of the Miller Family’s summer was the 11-day northern Ethiopia driving trip. Check out the drive! After much research we decided that to save our sanity, our marriage and maybe our lives we would hire a driver and a car to take us on this journey. We began our trip the day after school let out and we used the same travel agency that the embassy used to execute the Harar trip. Our driver was a pretty awesome guy named Bahaftu. I’m sure that I’m totally botching his name but that is what it sounded like to me. The drive the first day was about 6 hours or so. Our first stop was in Kombulcha.
Kombulcha is nothing to write home about, all that I saw of this city was the hotel we stayed in. It was a hotel that I wish that I could forget. While it could have been worse, it was not wonderful by any means. We had three twin sized beds for the 5 of us to sleep on. Each bed had a bed net hanging from the ceiling. Outside of Addis malaria is a concern so you really need to sleep inside the bed net! We have all been on prophylactics since before we went to Harar this meant that we were safe on the medication side, however just to be extra safe we made sure that everyone was inside a net when they slept. The other weird thing about this hotel was the bathroom. I know! You are all so tired of hearing me talk about bathrooms! The bathrooms are always so crazy though. So at this hotel the shower was a shower container that you could move easily into and out of a room. In theory it's awesome. The shower cubicle has like 3 shower heads and can spray from the wall and the floor and in all directions, it does steam and all kinds of stuff! We were kind of excited to try out the cool shower cube. Before we showered the Hubs took Jake to the "park". This park looked like a set for a scary movie. It was a little run down and some of the seats for the merry-go-round were missing. Just a little on the creepy side, Jake did not care. He LOVED it. He played for a long time before the Hubs came back and said that it was time to switch. I did my time at the house of horrors play ground while he took the older boys to dinner. As I've mentioned in a previous post, taking Jacob out to eat is usually always out of the question. So I stayed with Jake while the Hubs took the older boys to eat at the hotel restaurant.  

The park, not to bad looking in this picture

This slide went at warp speed, Jake loved it though

That is the merry-go-round, some seats are missing.

View from the park (there is a swimming pool, no water in it though)

View of the room from the "park"

This was our room after we spent the night. 

So the kids and Hubs get back from dinner and then I head over to the restaurant. I had a wonderful 35 minutes to myself where in no one asked me anything except what I wanted to eat a drink. It was wonderful! The feeling of peace and well being that I enjoyed was stamped out upon entering our room. As I walked in I was informed that Brenden took the first shower. He used every feature that the shower cube had to offer and every drop of water leaked out of the shower and onto the floor. There was so much water that it flooded out of the bathroom and into the sleeping room! Our remaining towels were used to mop up the mess. I chose not to shower that night! There was a tv in our room but I don't believe that it worked. That is often the case here. They have tv's in the rooms but they don't always function. The night was long! I hardly slept at all, Jake had a hard time relaxing. In the end James, Jake and I slept in one twin bed, while the Hubs and Brenden slept in their own beds! Don't ask me how that happened. We left fairly early the next morning in order to make it to Lalibela at a decent hour. 

The drive to Lalibela was about 5 hours. We checked into a nice hotel where all of the rooms are in Tukuls. There was a queen sized bed and two twin sized beds. They had a nice restaurant and a very helpful staff. The staff at this hotel was so helpful that they spent much of their time trying to help Jacob to catch one of the 20 ferrel cats that lived on the premiss.  He never actually caught one but the staff was always there to help him when he wanted to try!

The first day that we arrived at Lalibela we were fortunate enough to see a few of the many rock churches that are in the city. These churches are AMAZING! I was in shock when I first saw them. The major buildings and layout of the city represent the holy city of Jerusalem. The buildings are cut out of the living rock! It took thousands of volunteers (and angels so the legend says) 23 years to build the 11 rock churches. Can you imagine chiseling out 11 churches in only 23 years? It’s crazy!

I have one tip for you if you intend to visit Lalibela, where easily removable walking shoes. There is A LOT of walking but at every church you must remove your shoes. Tying and untying laces becomes tedious quickly. We had a guide who was from Lalibela that took us to each church and explained each church's unique history. On top of having a guide we also had a shoe guard. That is right, a shoe guard! Just incase some one decided to go shoe shopping outside of one of the churches she was there to beat them off. Our shoe guide was AWESOME! She not only watched our shoes she helped us keep Jake under control, moved our shoes from one door to another and helped the boys and I up and down the rough terrain. I was told that she served in the army at one point and you could tell, she was a tough lady who really took her job seriously.  We saw all of the rock churches inside and out, well the Hubs and the boys did. There was one church that I was not allowed to see all of the rooms because there was one place that was “no girls allowed”. Luckily I heard the priest tell us that and didn’t follow the boys in. There was another woman who didn’t catch that small piece of information and was kicked out!

After we visited the churches we visited a museum where in were held ancient crowns of kings, crosses, and VERY old and beautiful bibles. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in the museum so you will have to use your imagination. Needless to say it was amazing. The funny thing about museums in Ethiopia, and I have been to a few now and they are all the same, is that they place these ancient artifacts in glass boxes and that is the extent of the “museum”. In the USA the pieces would be climate and humidity controlled with advanced alarm systems protecting them. I worry a bit about some of these pieces but they have survived for centuries so perhaps I have been brainwashed into believing that in order for anything to survive for any amount of time it must be in a special box with special air.

Of course the Hubs and I are not able to enjoy ANYTHING together when Jake is with us, the museum in Lalibela was no exception. The Hubs and the older boys went first while Jacob and I waited outside. In the grass outside of the museum 2 goats were tethered to trees. My son Jacob LOVES anything with fur, so naturally he gravitated to the goats. The goats did not exactly care for this tiny human trying to touch them and kept moving away and baaing at him. One of the priests watched Jake for a while and then walked off down the hill. Jake and I continued in our quest to befriend the unwilling goats. The priest soon returned with two big handfuls of some kind of herb from a garden down the hill. He and Jake were soon happily hand feeding the goats, who were suddenly warming up to the tiny human. The priest returned to the garden three times to replenish his supply of goat-nip.

On the second day that we were in Lalibela we saw the rest of the churches and headed out to a church that was built in a cave not to be confused with the churches that are carved from rock. The name of the church is Yemrehanna Kristos and was built around the 11th century.
I saw this church on the travel channel and was really excited to get to go there in person! The drive to Yemrehanna Kristos is about 1 hour out side of Lalibela.  We took our guide with us but the shoe guard was not needed so we said good-bye to her and tipped her very well for all of the help she gave us!

After arriving at the small village near the cave church we pulled out our handy Kelty Baby Back Pack. Jacob HATES this thing. My other children would sit in it for hours; Jake has about a 45-minute time limit on a good day. We were able to convince him to get in and we followed our guide up up up. It was a little bit of a hike to the church but not bad. Maybe a 15-minute walk, the altitude is what gets you here, but we made it just fine. At one point during the walk we past an old nun. She was sitting outside of a little hut and she was cooking over a charcoal fire. She watched us as we approached. Her grey eyes swept over our little party but rested on Jacob in his backpack. She smiled a wrinkly smile and she imparted this piece of wisdom on our party “You know, all things are nice when they are small, goats, cows, sheep, babies. Yes all things are nice when they are small, except for lunch”.  The old and wise nun then went back to her work and we were left to ponder this wisdom that she had bestowed upon us as we continued up the hill. 

The cave church was small but beautiful. Besides the church there was also a small palace as well as a resting place for some 2000 human remains. The remains are not buried. They are just lying in the back of the cave. The remains are roped off, in case you were wondering. We spent quite some time looking in every nook and cranny of the cave. We did not leave until we had seen every inch of this holy place. The walk back to the car was fairly uneventful, there was a stop at a bathroom but I will not terrify you with another account of scary bathrooms. I’m sure that by this point you have discovered, as have I, that bathroom use outside of my home is often less than ideal.

 After we returned to our hotel the Hubs and I decided that we should take a look at some of the souvenir shops that speckle the city of Lalibela. James and Brenden did not want to go with us on our shopping excursion so we left them in the room and headed into town with Jacob. Jacob is a less than ideal shopping companion, after the second shop the Hubs and I were forced to explore separately. Not only did we shop alone but it also began to rain! Jake and I trudged through the rain and mud as I attempted to shop.

One of the funniest things about Lalibela is all of the people who attempt to scam you. On the first day some boys told me that they had a coin collection and the only coin that they were missing was an American coin. They then proceeded to show me all of the coins that they had collected, Russian, British, Canadian and Swiss etc. I happened to have a quarter on me and gave it to the kids who I’m sure had a stash of American coins safely out of sight. A quarter to you and me is not much but in Ethiopia that is 4.50 birr! While walking with Jake a group of teenage boys began the scam by asking me if Jake liked football (soccer) I said, 
“Sure, what little boy doesn’t”? They then told me that they were a soccer team. 
“Cool, that is great!”
“But, we don’t have a ball to practice with”. (Sad faces)
 “Oh, that is too bad”, I said.
 “We have a tournament coming up and I know that if we could practice we would win”.
“Will you buy us a ball? Right there, at that shop, they are selling balls, please! You can help us to win!”

They were very convincing! I, however, told the boys that I would have to ask my husband what he thought. I figured that I could pawn these kids off on him! Some how they had not only figured out who my husband was but also which shop he was in! So, I went into the shop and told the Hubs that he had an audience waiting for him. We both decided to hide out in the shop until the boys gave up and found some one else to beg off of. We later found out that the scam is this.

The boys convince you to buy the ball and take you to a shop where the ball is being sold. You purchase the ball for 500Birr and give the ball to the boys. They thank you and run off to “practice”, meanwhile you carry on feeling like you’ve helped out the next generation of world cup champions. After you are out of sight the boys bring the ball back to the shop and the shopkeeper gives them 300birr and tomorrow they sell the same ball to someone else! Apparently kids do this scam with all sorts of things, “ I am a student and I need a dictionary". You buy the same dictionary that countless other tourists have bought! Pretty darn sneaky! 

I would love to tell you that our last night in Lalibela was a peaceful one where in we all had a full nights sleep and woke refreshed and ready for another long day of driving, however that would be a lie, our last night was traumatic! Jacob did not sleep a wink. I did everything I could think of to help him sleep short of drugging him! I rocked, read and sang. I even took him to the kitchen and procured some warm milk for him. In the end he did not fall asleep or stop crying until after he had successfully woken everyone in the room up and ensured that when he did pass out the rest of us were too shell shocked to sleep ourselves!

At breakfast I introduced myself to a group of Americans that I had seen at dinner the night before. They were in Addis doing some non-profit work and having finished their work were enjoying some of the sights that Ethiopia has to offer. It turns out that these people belong to the same religion as me and know some friends of mine! Small world!! There is much more to say about this trip but for now I will leave you. Until next time friends and family!

Survival Tips for visiting ancient cities

1.    Have a back up battery for your digital camera!
2.    Have food to feed the goats!
3.    Hire a shoe guard
4.    Tip the shoe guard
5.    If you are a woman, make sure that you know which churches do not allow women!

Top of St. George 

St. George

Many of the churches are beautifully painted.

The hotel that we stayed in.

You can see where this one was repaired. The original church was cut from one stone!

Jake playing the church drums

Yemrehanna Kristos
Yemrehanna Kristos

Yemrehanna Kristos


Priests sleeping holes


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the Road Again

On the Road Again

I know what you are thinking, “You have given up on this blog and we will not be hearing from the Miller family anymore”. Well friends and family that is not true. I do apologize for the weeks of silence that you have endured. I am back now and ready to give you an account of all of the crazy adventures that we have experienced in the last month. We have visited 5 Ethiopian cities in the last month and each one of them was uniquely beautiful. The beginning of June we decided to take a trip (sponsored by the embassy) to Dire Dawa and Harar. These cities have been off limits to embassy employees for several years do to their proximity to Somalia, because we may not be aloud or able to visit again in our life time we could not turn down the opportunity to see these amazing cities.

We began our journey on the 7th of June at 5:00am. That is right, 5:00am! So early! We flew to Dire Dawa and arrived around 9am. The flight was only an hour long, the funny thing is that Ethiopian Airlines does a beverage and food service for this extremely short flight. I literally didn’t even have time to finish my food and drink before they came back around to collect the trash and announce that we were descending into the city of Dire Dawa. The airport was tiny but pleasant and clean! The travel agency that the tour was booked through was at the airport to pick us up in a small bus. There were 21 of us on the trip Brenden and James were especially happy because there were kids from school on the tour with us.

We piled into the bus and began the two-hour drive to Harar where our tour would begin. We arrived at the hotel where we took a short break to unload our luggage and relax before the real tour began. The hotel looked nice enough from the outside but inside….well, I felt like I was fine as long as I didn’t sit on the furniture, lay on the bed or take a shower. The biggest question in my mind was “Do I sleep on top of the comforter or under it”? Shudder!
Jake took a short nap (on top of the comforter) then it was time to meet for lunch. We had a catered lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was great! The Ethiopian food was DELISH! The problem with eating out for our family these days is Jacob. Jake is a feral wild child who insists on running around during the entire meal. Out of all of my children Jake is the most difficult to take out in public. Luckily Ethiopians love children and forgive even the worst and most unacceptable behavior. And so three weeks of the Hubs and I eating in shifts began.

From the restaurant we took a walking tour of the city of Harar. The Hubs wrote a nice article on Harar at The Hubs Corner if you are interested in the history of this city. Harar is different than much of the rest of Ethiopia because it is predominantly Muslim. There are Mosques everywhere and more than 100 shrines. Harar is the 4th holiest Muslim pilgrimage city in the world! The funny and ironic thing about this is that beer is the number one money maker for the city of Harar…..

As we walked through the streets and markets of Harar it felt more like we were the ones being visited. The Hubs carried Jacob in the Kelty backpack for the foot tour of the city. This backpack is a Cadillac in the USA, in Ethiopia this thing is like a rocket ship! What made the spectacle worse was that a man was carrying it. In Ethiopia you never see men carrying babies. People were staring, shouting, pointing and laughing out loud at the Hubs and Jacob as they made their way through the market.

 Harar is an ancient gated city. We were able to see one of the original gates and walk through it. It was amazing! We also saw a 400-year-old Harari traders home as well as Haile Selassie’s home. Jacob refused to go into the trader’s home because there was a cat outside. Some how his intense cuteness convinced 3 grown Ethiopian women and our guide to chase and catch the cat so that he could “a-pet him”.

We had dinner at the hotel, it was catered just like lunch had been, the real craziness happened after dinner. In Harar there is an insane family that decided to begin feeding the huge, wild and terrifying hyenas. I’m not talking about chucking meat at the hyenas from a safe–ish distance. These people feed the hyenas from their mouths! Yes seriously! I have traveled all over the United States and have been repeatedly warned about the dangers feeding the wild life, and by wildlife they often mean ducks and swans, here the tour company not only provided us with the opportunity to watch a man feed these wild beasties they also encourage us to feed the beasties. Of course my animal loving feral African baby could not resist. These animals are not cute, they don’t look like cuddly puppies. They are huge ugly beasts! Jake really wanted to feed them, so against my better judgment I let the Hubs carry Jake on his shoulders to the hyenas and feed them! I was terrified! Then James walked up to the creature and held the meat up high so that the animal had to jump to reach the food! Next Brenden appeared in front of the beast and proceeded to feed it several large pieces of raw meat. I believe that this incident shows that I am the only sane person in my family because I was the only person not to feed the extremely dangerous wild monsters.  Luckily we all survived the hyena feeding and avoided being mauled!

That night, back at the hotel all I wanted was a shower. Not much to ask right? WRONG! First off the hot water heater didn’t really work that great. I can handle taking a cool shower no big deal, the real issue was when I turned the shower on nothing came out of the shower head! There were maybe a few drips coming out of the shower. I ended up in the tub squatting under the faucet (luckily the faucet was about 3 feet from the ground) trying to wash my hair and body. I felt so grimy there was no way that I could not shower but the idea filling the tub and soaking in it…… kind of grossed me out. So, that left me showering under the faucet. AWESOME! I did get cleanish and tried not to think about how dirty the bed might be as I climbed in a tried to fall asleep.

The next day we traveled back to Dire Dawa. Dire Dawa is a beautiful city. On the way to Dire Dawa we stopped at the largest chat or kat market in Ethiopia. In a previous post I said that chat gave a high similar to marijuana. This statement is entirely false. I don’t know why the nurse told me that. Chat is a stimulant. People who chew it act CRAzY! They can’t sleep and come up with all kids of wild grand ideas that they never carry out once the high wears off. When we arrived at the market the kids decided to stay in the bus with the Hubs, good choice. This place was insane!!!! The energy was palpable and out of control. People were buzzing around all over the place, they were grabbing me and touching my face and hair. It felt kind of like wal-mart on black Friday! Even the goats were eating the leaves and they were crazy! It got so bad that our guide led us up some stairs on the side of a building just so that we could get away from the people. We were up on a balcony and the people below formed a crowed and were shouting and pointing at us. They were taking pictures and making gestures that I probably don’t want to know the meaning of. I have never seen people in this country behave this way before. Eventually we pushed our way back through the throng and to the bus. The people who stayed in the bus were not unmolested. People outside were trying to sell chat to Brenden through the window! They were asking for money and making faces and talking to Jacob. It was insane!!!!! I’ve since been told that chat is more like cocaine or methamphetamines than it is like pot.

After the chat market we visited the old train station. About 5 years or so ago the last trains stopped running. The station was more like a train graveyard. It was sad to see the station just sitting there not running. We were able to go into the old train cars and climb around on the tracks and visit the station. After the train station we had lunch and then visited a camel market. The camel market was pretty much the same experience as the market in Harar. People were everywhere and crowding around Jacob. People loved Jake and the Hubs! One lady realized that Brenden and James were our kids as well as Jacob and she actually asked the Hubs if she could take Brenden! She said that she would give us one of her kids. We decided not to take her up on her offer of a trade.  
The last part of our tour was to see some cave paintings that are located outside of the city. The itinerary said that the paintings were 3 kilometers out of the city. After driving for an hour on a dirt road we realized that there was probably a typo. 30 kilometers was more accurate. At one point on the drive we had to stop in a small village in the middle of no where, people crowded around the bus and were asking me to hand Jake out the window. I was like “really?” has that ever worked for you? Sure I will just hand my 2 year old out the window to you!
 So we arrive at the cave painting site. Well we drove as far as the bus could make it. The rest was on foot. The walk wasn’t far, maybe 15 minutes or so. Of course we had an entourage of people escorting us. They asked for money and pens (they always want pens) but I didn’t give them anything. We got to a fence and we went through but the escort had to wait outside the fence. The paintings were really neat. Some of the more jaded embassy employees with us didn’t believe that the paintings were 7000 years old like the guide said but I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Before we began our walk from the bus to the cave paintings, I looked at the bus and wondered "how the heck are they going to turn the bus around"? There was a mountain on the right of the bus and a cliff on the left with a tiny dirt road underneath the bus.  As we walked back down to the road to the bus and I noticed that there had been no movement the entire time that we were at the paintings. The Hubs and I decided that it would be best to watch the turning of the bus from a safe distance. It was hilarious to watch. It reminded me of a scene in Austin Powers where he can’t turn his car around. They had to move boulders and rocks out of the way and inch forward and backward for what seemed forever! It was actually about 45 minutes before the bus was facing the right direction!

We began the 2 hour drive back to town through the hills, mountains and villages. The drive was fairly uneventful until our bus got caught on a string or rope that was strung across the road. I’m not sure why the people of the villages do this but there are strings hung up on all of the trees all over the sides of the road. We think that it might have been to pull the fruits down but we don’t know. Anyway, there was a rope strung across the road pretty high in the air, it was not however high enough and we got caught. Another 15-20 minutes of people climbing on top of the bus and the bus backing up and moving forward! We did eventually free ourselves from the booby trap and continued on our way.

The hotel was CLEAN! There was also a pool at this hotel. The pool was pretty substandard. I don’t think that there was any chlorine in it and the bottom felt a little slimy. I had no intention of swimming but the boys were dying to try it out. I don’t know what it is with kids. It doesn’t matter if the body of water is freezing cold or disgustingly dirty they want to fully immerse themselves in it. Honestly, my children would sit and play in a mud puddle if I would let them (yes, this includes the 11 year old). So after much whining and begging and complaining I allowed the children to swim in the pool. There was a kiddie pool and a large swimming pool. I tried to keep Jake in the kiddie pool but he wanted, “a big otter” (water). It was awful. Then there was this kid that was employed by the hotel (I have no idea if he was a life guard or what) he was freaking out that Jake was running around and jumping in the small pool and gave me a crappy blow up life vest and then tried to charge me 20 birr for it! When I told him I had no money he said 10birr! WTH? No I don’t want your crappy broken life vest! So I gave it back, he then tried to give it to me for free but Jake wouldn’t use it anyway. 

We had dinner poolside that night and it was really great. The hotel had a DJ and there was music and food and drinks. A member of our tour group had her birthday and they brought cake and the DJ announced her birthday to everyone and played a song for her. It was really fun! We turned in fairly early, around 9pm but the party lasted well into the night! The next day was just relaxing until it was time to go back to the airport. I wish that I could say that I relaxed but relaxation is just something that doesn’t happen with Jake around.

For some reason we ended up waiting at the airport for EVER it was so annoying! Jake running around terrorizing everyone, James fighting with Brenden, AWEsome! Eventually we made it out the door and onto the plane. The flight was short and we arrived in Addis. When we got to Addis we left the airplane and piled onto an airport bus that was supposed to take us to the terminal. It dropped us off and drove away. We quickly discovered that we were taken to the wrong terminal. This was the international terminal. We didn’t want to go through there because that would mean going through customs so we decided to walk to the next terminal with out going inside. Well the security did not like that idea! They made us wait around until they could call the bus back for us. We did eventually make it home! All in all it was a great trip. I learned a lot and saw some wonderful things.
Until next time friends and family!

Survival Tips

1.    If you let men carry babies in Ethiopia be prepared for a good amount of staring and pointing
2.    Kelty backpacks are a double-edged sword. The kid can’t run away but you might have to!
3.    Bring your own linens when you stay in hotels, just in case.
4.    When driving a tour bus be sure to have a plan for turning it around!

First Hotel in Harar. It doesn't look bad in this picture but it felt grimy

Shrines in Harar 

Drying chilis to make Berbere 

Women selling fruit at the market

Ancient gate of Harar

Harari trader's home

One of our guides with Jake and the cat

camel market