Ethiopian Birr

Bank counterGoing into Ethiopia for my couple of days holiday I searched the web for information about changing money. I found all sorts of useful information but not the vital fact that you can’t change your Birr back at the airport. It seems that foreign currency is in short supply across Ethiopia and everyone would love to be paid in dollars.  So, just bring dollars!

Foolishly I withdrew quite a lot of Birr from an ATM on arrival at the airport. What I had not factored in, because I was ill, is that because I was ill I would not be going anywhere. However, I had a lovely stay in the comfortable and friendly Jupiter Bole hotel – mostly sleeping and sipping bottled water.

It was when I was leaving that I realised that I could not exchange my Birr. It is not an internationally traded currency so it’s no use to anyone outside the country. I took the only sensible course of action left to me –  I shopped up a storm in one of the few shops in this terminal. You might remember that the other terminal has no shops at all – or any other way to offload money. Small troubles.

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An improving situation – buses in Malawi

I have had some horrendous bus trips between Malawian cities but there is a new dawn. A new company, Sososo, came into the market a year or so ago. They offer road-worthy buses which leave on time. That is not half as amazing as being allocated a seat, which really is a seat and which no-one can take off you, no matter how much bigger than you they are. These buses book up early so you need to get your ticket a few days ahead, especially for a morning bus. As well as all the luxury of a real seat, passengers are given a snack and drink. The drink (hurrah for sparking pineapple Fanta) is in a can, which is astonishingly difficult to drink from on a bouncy bus. A road-block or three give me a chance to enjoy it.

The other bus companies are reported to have sharpened up their act considerably in the face of this hugely popular new service. The older bus companies are still a little more expensive (yes, really) and that difference of approx. £1.00 is significant for most Malawians.

Another major change on this new bus is the content of the music videos. On the Axa bus, the ‘old’ ones, the videos are religious people singing hymns – unrelentingly. The bus journeys can be as long as 12 hours. On the Sososo buses the videos are mostly of young people singing and performing modern music. You still needed to wait for several hours before seeing a woman in trousers on those videos. But it did happen, eventually. Wearing trousers, for Malawian women, is a cultural issue here. Msungus (white people) can, and do, wear whatever they like. Musing for another post.

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Pillowcases (again)

Chitenjie pillowcase!

My regular readers, all three of you, will remember my distress about the lack of pillowcases in a place I stayed last year. Well, you should be careful what you wish for because these pillowcases are my fate for tonight. I had taken the precaution of taking a chitenjie (a cloth) with me and I’ll take off these pink, nylon ones and wrap a pillow in my nice cotton cloth. It’s about 35 degrees outside  at 6 pm and that is cool for here so I can’t see me sleeping on a nylon pillowcase.

I am in Karonga, North Malawi, at the lovely Kapata Lodge, which really is lovely, though with a few shortcomings. Just now we have electricity and water at the same time – a real bonus. I am charging my devices and cooling the room down with the aircon while the electricity lasts. When it stops, I’ll go out and admire the stars. I’ve had a nice shower. Hot showers are much over-rated – a trickle of cool water is all that I needed. Off to have chambo (fish) and rice now – a treat of this area, which is so close to the lake.

Tomorrow I drive back the 220 kms that I drove today. Mostly horrendous roads. Part of the road tries to deceive you into thinking you are on a good road and then you hit the caverns at speed. In a borrowed car. Sigh. At one bend I had the option of driven over a deep hole with pointy rocks or reversing towards a precipice. I chose the latter and survived.

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Generations merging and cultures not so different

I had the honour of being at the Malawian internment of the ashes of a teacher, colleague and friend, Margaret Sinclair, who passed away almost two years ago. She had been born in Malawi in 1927, where her mother, Mamie Martin, died while Margaret was a toddler. Part of Margaret’s ashes were laid to rest in Bandawe beside her mother and baby brother.

The night before, local people whose earlier generations knew the Martin’s reminisced as if it all happened yesterday, rather than 90 years ago. They had heard about the Martins and those stories feel very current and relevant. This storytelling of past relatives and their connections reminds me of how we, Irish people, deal with the past – it just merges into the present. The funeral service itself was musical (not very Irish, that) and included the whole community. After the service and speeches, the proceedings continued at the graveside. The flask was placed in the prepared hole and workmen then filled it in with bricks and concrete, mixed on the spot, and then with the displaced earth. This was a hot and dusty business but very real.

My experiences of UK funerals is that of a remoteness from the reality and a sanitisation of death. I have never thought that to be a helpful approach and always have to stop myself from going on about ‘how we do it in Ireland’. It’s more complicated than that, for sure, but those are my musings about this moving event here in Malawi.

 

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Addicted to spending money

On this trip we transited through Addis Ababa. I have previously found this airport to be a challenging one in terms of there’s nothing there, the toilets are awful and there’s nowhere nice to wait. On this trip we muddled our way through the huge, colourful, crowds towards our gate. The gate is in the new building which is recently opened, or so it looks. Huge numbers people transit through Addis every day and the new terminal has lots of seating. It also has modern, western toilets which work. What is does not have is a single shop. There are a few vending machines for drinks and snacks and a water dispenser (yay for having keep-cup to get some of this water!).

My travelling companions and I agreed that our western, consumer minds were blown by the lack of opportunity to spend money. This terminal has focused on getting people on and off flights, not on taking their money. Shock. Horror. In the West the shops would be a priority and would probably be trading long before the departure gates were operational. Our sense of consumer starvation (not the best choice of word when thinking about Ethiopia, sorry) was startling to us all. We hadn’t realised how conditioned we are. So, I have no souvenirs of that short visit! I will be back for a couple of days, though, and hope to make up for it then.

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Africa – huge continent, huge differences

Visa headingSetting off on a trip to Malawi and stopping in Ethiopia for a few days on the way back, I am startled at the differences in how each country is able to deal with visitors. Ethiopia has a slick on-one visa application system. Malawi’s is cumbersome, both in terms of what I need to do in advance and in the four-queue system I’ll meet on arrival – check form, pay, get receipt, get visa. These were the people whose website said that Irish citizens didn’t need a visa but they explained to me that this was not updated and ‘all the other Irish people’ knew they needed a visa, so why didn’t I?

The modern hotel into which I’ve booked in Addis Ababa, in spite of urgent and kind invitations to friends’ homes, operates a shuttle service from the airport and responds to my email about that within a couple of hours. That is helpful as even locals don’t think it’s safe for me to travel by taxi on my own from the airport there.

This is not the place for an analysis of why these two countries are so different, just noting it with regret because Malawi, like Ethiopia, needs visitors and tourists and needs to make it easier all round.

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Location, location and a banana

Hiring a car from Edinburgh city centre, it seemed like a good idea to do it from a city location rather than go to the airport, where car rental is cheaper but would take longer to pick up. Wrong. My first mistake was hiring through a website other than the car rental company. The second was not reading all of the tiny small print right to the end and back.

For the information of those who think they are picking up a car at ‘Waverley Station’, an easily-found city-centre location, maybe you are not. There are only two car rental companies operating from ‘Waverley Station’, which I knew meant New Street car park. The others advertise as the station but are actually at ‘the Omni Centre’, which the folk at New Street helpfully told me. Well, that is a cinema and restaurant complex but I went there anyway. I would have been at the airport by now.

Of course there is no car rental in the cinema so I phoned the company (always a good idea to have a printed copy of the paperwork). They gave me the location address, saying that they thought that Waverley Station was ‘quite near’. Never mind my response to that. So I looked at Greenside Row for number 29. Nothing. But Baillie Gifford have an office at that corner and the man on duty at the desk there gave me directions – ‘go down that hill and carry on around the corner’. So I did and there was a car park with a sign for another car rental company. Wandering into and around the car park, I saw a vehicle with ‘Green Motion’ on the side – that was the name of the company I had booked with. Sure enough there was a little unmarked office with two young men who are not paid enough to deal with the anger of customers like me. Not having my passport (what?) we got over but I had forgotten that I needed a credit card. I had given the card details at booking but let’s not be nit-picky here.

Back home, ate a banana and got a taxi back to the hidden car rental office. I would have been to the airport and back twice in the time that it took me to pick up a car which was located a mile from my home.

Motto: eat bananas, deal only with a car rental company that you know and whose location is known to you or very very clear. The day improved thereafter.

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To see ourselves as others see us

Clock tower on old churchThe arrival in my home of a colleague from Malawi has caused me to reflect on my life and surroundings. This is her first time out of Malawi and she is astonished by my washing machine, my dishwasher, the amount of food I eat and the size of my flat. That is all reasonably predictable. What surprised me more was her astonishment at the lateness of the start of our working day. That her lost luggage had no chance of being delivered before 9 am (when they promised ‘morning’) left her speechless. That lost luggage is very common was a surprise to her.

Time-keeping, is predictably, an issue. While Malawians start their day at 5 or 6 am, they don’t rush around very much thereafter. How we can get up so late but we are breakfasted, ready and heading to a meeting within an hour seems odd to them. But we don’t have to make a fire before we make tea, nor collect water, nor wash dishes. It’s easy for us to be on time!

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Supportive Police service on Mull

Shout out to the Scotland Police service on Mull. That the Busessan Police Station looks squint in this photo is a reflection of it being on a hill and me doing this on my phone.

Following the aggressive motoring incident the police at Bunessan were very sympathetic. Because of the lack of signal I was only able to get back to them by dropping in – more like jumping up as the station is up a steep incline.  Cyclists categorise roads by steepness of course. The police officer on duty took my complaint seriously and said that she could take it much further if I had video evidence.  That’s a real incentive to get a camera thing for my helmet. Meantime I hope that their call to that murderous driver gives him something to think about when he next encounters old ladies on bikes on a single track road. I really appreciated the support from the police here.

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Not wired for sound

I am not sure that you can see this particularly well but this bike (not mine) has a bluetooth speaker in one of the water-bottle holders. The cyclist plays music from his phone as he pedals along. It’s handy on the canal towpath where other path users can hear him. I had some adventures with this cyclist. First he helped me to do a photoshoot with a banner at Falkirk Grahamston station where we arrived. He had been explaining that he didn’t like hills and was just out for a day instead of ‘sitting at home watching the telly and growing old’. If he didn’t smoke and did eat breakfast he might manage hills a bit better, but I refrained from sharing that insight.

The Avon Acqueduct

After the photoshoot I caught up with him at the top of the hill to Falkirk High (the clue is in the name). He decided he was going to cycle with me, all 30 miles back to Edinburgh. To my subsequent shame, I wasn’t too keen on that but didn’t object. We headed West and our first challenge was the very-long and very-dark canal tunnel. Happily I have integral bike lights which helped a lot and I emerged safely at the other end. My new-found friend didn’t. After waiting a bit, I went on and had a lovely ride. I sat to eat a sandwich at Linlithgow where a kayak race was starting and my cycling friend pedalled past with his bluetooth pop music. He didn’t see me then but I came upon him further along the canal, having stopped for a smoke. I stopped to chat and found, when I restarted, that I had a puncture. He very kindly did most of the repair for me. I was prepared enough to have everything I needed except wet wipes, which are environmentally un-friendly anyway. Half-an-hour later we were on our way again and I managed to get home, showered, changed and to the for a delightful concert that afternoon.

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