Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ethiopia: Land of Coffee and Some Good Food

Even a news conference at a rural health center
included a coffee ceremony
Almost everywhere I went in Ethiopia, someone was handing me a tiny cup of high-intensity coffee. According to legend, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia when a herder near the town of Kafe noticed his goats got really excited from eating the berries of a certain plant. So he tried it and felt the caffeine buzz. Local monks condemned the coffee beans as "the Devil's Fruit," but after flinging them into the fire, the aroma of the roasting beans changed their minds. In the 15th century the beans were exported to Turkey, where the drink we know today was invented.
Oromo villagers prepare traditional food at a health post.
Our group of American journalists experienced several abbreviated versions of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, in which grass is spread on the ground to bring in the outdoors. The beans are roasted and then served along with popcorn or a giant loaf of bread that is traditionally cut up by a man.
Traditionally, a man cuts the bread.
A journalist from French-speaking West Africa does the honors.

The coffee tent at the International Family Planning Conference
at the African Union in Addis Ababa.
Outside of the family planning conference in the African Union center was a "village" of exhibits, but we never got past the coffee tent, complete with a basket of coffee flavored condoms!

A barrista at Tamoca. Starbucks, watch out. 
Unlike most of Africa, Ethiopia was never colonized. Italy occupied Ethiopia for a while, and as a result the Ethiopians do a good job with macchiato and cappuccino. I can honestly say I had the best macchiato of my life at the 1920s vintage Tamoca coffee shop. Unfortunately they had run out of beans for sale to take home as gifts.
A tradition of great coffee at Tamoca but little of it was for sale to take home.
An excellent Italian restaurant, Avanti, was around the corner from our hotel. Caprese salad anyone?
A fresh and tasty Caprese salad at Avanti restaurant.
Visiting US journalists enjoy traditional food at the
"cultural" restaurant Yod Abyssinia.
Traditional Ethiopian food is served on a giant pancake of spongy sour bread called injera. It's used to scoop up a variety of tasty mixtures. Most are meat-based but there are good choices for vegetarians as well. Read my review of a cultural restaurant here. I skipped the raw meat dishes like kitfo, but judging from the open air butcher shops all over the city, it's the local treat.
Open-air butcher shops are everywhere in the capital city.
Vegetarians can ask for a meatless "fasting plate." Orthodox Christians have long lived side by side with Muslims in Ethiopia. Although the local wine did not impress, you've gotta love a beer named after a saint!
St. George beer was perfect with the spicy food.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting Around in Addis Ababa

Another endless traffic jam.

You think Los Angeles has traffic? A sigalert on the 405 is a first world problem. Here in the capital of Ethiopia, the sigalert on weekdays never ends. Getting anywhere involves inching through traffic in a wheezing Soviet-era Lada taxi. 

When old Ladas die, they become taxis in Ethiopia.
The congestion is widely blamed on construction of a light rail system that is supposed to be finished in less than two years. Watching workers chip away at the project with hand tools and the occasional earth mover, you get the feeling that 20 years would be more realistic. 
Construction here moves as slowly as the traffic. Except for the main arteries, few roads are paved. Cars and trucks compete for space with herds of sheep and goats, and donkeys hauling cement to endless blocks of half-fisnished apartment buildings. In the downtown area, the unfinished buildings are taller. People cram into buses or line up to fill private vans that ply the main routes. It's the commute from hell.
On one side of the car: aggressive young salesmen.
On the other side, a cop saying he'd give us a ticket if we bought anything.

Finally at my destination:
the African Union Conference Center, site of the International Family Planning Conference.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On assignment in Ethiopia...

After traveling for two days, I've arrived in Addis Ababa with a group of American journalism fellows, covering the International Family Planning Conference. First order of business: picking up our media credentials and a briefing on the agenda for the week ahead.

We also got our first taste of the country we'll be visiting this week at a cultural Ethiopian restaurant, filled with local families, wedding parties and visitors like us.

Slow internet prevents me from sharing all the details right now, but let's just say the music was so captivating that one of our fellows couldn't resist the temptation to join in the dancing on stage!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Italy Without the Crowds

Imagine standing all alone in the footsteps of gladiators at Rome's Coliseum. Or being almost the only car on the spectacular road that winds along the Amalfi Coast.
It may sound impossible. Tour groups tend to mob the major attractions during high season. But come to Italy during the winter and you'll have the place to yourself, except for the people who actually live here.
Lunch among the wine bottles at an enoteca.
Our family decided to meet in Rome during our son's "spring" break from grad school in Europe. It just happened to be the first three weeks in February. There are two major problems. Temperatures hover between 35 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets dark by 6 pm. So forget the warm nights of strolling past the Fountain of Trevi for a gelato. It's too cold for ice cream. You'll need to dress in layers. My hooded ski parka and long silk underwear kept me from freezing more than once. And we spent some evenings with wine and cheese in our apartment or hotel room rather than braving the nightly chill. But you can pack in a lot of sightseeing during the warmer daylight hours because you don't have to compete with endless tour groups for tickets and photo opportunities. A word about how we roll: we're a fit American couple traveling with a 20-something son, and we take the position that we can see the major sights of any city in about two full days. In Italy, the entire country shuts down for lunch between noon and 3 pm, so we planned our big meal for mid day and snacked for breakfast and dinner most of the time. We're also into stretching our weak US dollars as far as possible. We purchased a 3-day Roma Pass, which included admission to two major attractions, reduced admission to others, and unlimited rides on Rome's metro and bus system.
Almost alone with the ghosts of ancient Rome.
First stop, the Coliseum in Rome. It was only a two-block walk from our apartment near the Cavour metro. If you arrive before 9 am, you might have to ask directions to the ticket booth because it's not obvious when you're the first people to show up. Combined with the Forum on Roma pass, admission was free.
The baroque town of Scicli in Sicily. Everyone is sleeping in.
Again, we had to hunt for the entrance to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatino, but wandered the ruins at leisure until lunch time when groups began to line up. It was a brisk walk to other major sights including the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. On Day 2, we reserved a tour at the Villa Borghese (also included in Roma pass) and saved a third day for Vatican City and its Museums. The only place we encountered anything that could be called a crowd was the Fountain of Trevi. I suspect it would be impossible to get near the place in the peak tourism season. We also learned to avoid the jam-packed metro trains during the evening rush hour.
Elsewhere in Italy, we found another downside: some attractions, as well as a lot of hotels and restaurants, are closed in the winter. This worked in our favor at Villa Quartarella, a restored farm near the UNESCO baroque towns of Modica, Ragusa and Scicli. The owner, Francesco, says his five rooms are fully booked from March until September. In February, we were one of just two bookings. It was too cold to lounge by the pool, but there's plenty to do.  Admiring the scenery and architecture was fun  but frustrating at times, like when the baroque cathedral we had hoped to see in Ragusa was closed. The entire town seemed to have rolled up the sidewalks on a brisk Saturday afternoon. Forget about tour groups, there were virtually no people anywhere. We had better luck in nearby Modica, where Francesco had recommended a restaurant, the churches were open, and people were friendly. We hit Scicli first thing in the morning, when most of the local residents seemed to be sleeping in. So, again, we had the place to ourselves.
A peaceful apartment in Sorrento's citrus groves. 
We were fortunate to find a unique holiday apartment in Sorrento, as a home base for visiting Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. Just about every hotel and restaurant along the coast road appeared to be closed, and any available parking was reserved for local residents, except in Amalfi, which has a large public lot. There, the cathedral was closed but we admired the exterior and hiked the steep staircases for unforgettable views and wood-fired pizza from a place that seemed to be doing a brisk takeout business with neighboring merchants.
The hairpin turns make the coastal road a nail-biter in the daytime because it's barely wide enough for a car, and we got lost trying to find our way back to Sorrento at night. Trying to visit this area when it's packed with tour buses in the summer must be an exercise in gridlock, even if you take the bus.
Italy is lively in the winter with festivals like Carnevale. We arrived while Sorrento celebrated the annual holiday of its patron saint with a street party and fireworks.
Throwing a coin in the Fountain of Trevi to ensure a return to Rome. Good luck getting this close in the summer!
Restored stone buildings can be extremely chilly in the winter, so join the Italians in bundling up and cranking up the heat. You'll be rewarded with an authentic experience no tour bus could deliver.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hearts and minds

It's hard to get a handle on the dollar amount of US aid to Pakistan. US AID's website puts it at $5.1 billion since 2002. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill increased funding levels to $1.3 billion per year when it passed in 2009. A recent trend has been for the US to fund reliable partner organizations in Pakistan, rather than filtering huge grants through Washington DC's "beltway bandits."

One success story is AURAT, a civil society organization that is focused on the empowerment of women. Larisa Epatko of the PBS News Hour posted this summary of AURAT's mission and accomplishments.Read it here.Our group of journalists met with leaders of the organization in Islamabad, as well as several women who were brought in from remote areas to tell their personal stories of how US aid has helped them. A few of them are pictured, above.

 The big picture, according to AURAT, is that public education has increased awareness of domestic violence and made it more acceptable for women to receive education and vote. Grants for recovery from the floods that have devastated Pakistan in recent years have been channeled through the female in the household, as well as micro-business grants that help women become self-supporting so that they can send both their daughters and their sons to school. For me, he most memorable story came from Saima Anwar, a young woman who is the first practicing female attorney in the troubled Swat region, with legal training made possible by US aid.  She helps women assert their land rights and file complaints about domestic violence. I asked her why such a progressive woman would continue to cover her face in traditional Muslim fashion. I saw the fire in her eyes as she replied," I wanted to show you can do anything, even if you cover your face."

Our Pakistani journalist colleagues had mixed feelings about the impact of US aid. Islamabad broadcaster Aneela Khalid Khan said the challenge for the US is to "win the hearts and minds of the people." Geo TV's Mehboob Ali, who covers the Swat region, said flood victims in Pakistan are grateful for the US aid they have received. "It does work," he said, "it does change the opinion of the people." Karachi-based Dawn TV producer Hafsah Syed complained, "Pakistan is a country of beggars." Like many Pakistanis, she called for an end to the "transactional relationship" in which the US rewards Pakistan for good behavior and takes away aid for behavior the US doesn't like. As I write this it's happening again: the doctor who aided the CIA in confirming the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison; in response, the US congress has cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million. Another tricky issue is the requirement that any US aid project must be identified with the logo identifying the contribution of "the American people." There have been instances of Taliban fighters targeting brand new clinics or schools because of the logo. On the other hand, how can the US win hearts and minds with beneficial projects if no one knows the US taxpayer is footing the bill? Finally, there's the confusion between military and humanitarian aid. If the US helps build a road through a strategic area, does that benefit the military or the villagers who can now get their products to bigger markets? Probably both, but the Taliban targets the road anyway.

The United States has been a huge contributor to the Benazir Income Support Program, or BISP. US taxpayers have paid in more than $2 billion since 2009. The money is parceled out to Pakistan's poorest families, who would be scraping by on about a dollar a day without BISP benefits. Our group took a tour of the program headquarters in Islamabad, with vast rooms of clerks and computers to take registrations and handle complaints.
We were welcomed by BISP chairwoman Farzan Raja, a former press secretary to the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Raja uncannily mirrors her mentor in appearance and speaking style and serves in Pakistan's national assembly. She is a politician who also plays a direct role in distributing public aid.

She told us that BISP benefits have reached 6 million families, with the goal of registering them as voters and sending their kids to school. Critics told us that the program is heavily tilted toward people who support the PPP, the current ruling party associated with the Bhutto family. We moved on to Karachi, with no way to know for sure which side is closer to the truth.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hope and Change?

Put together the "Hope and Change" promise of President Obama with the action hero quality of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and you would get someone like Imran Khan, the cricket  star who is trying to make a difference in Pakistan's politics. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis told us he's perceived more like Texas Congressman Ron Paul; voters may be intrigued by his ideas but they feel his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party has no chance to form a winning coalition. Winning is important to the man who led Pakistan to its only World Cup win in 1992. But in trying to break the hold of widespread corruption, family dynasties, military dominance and tribal customs in Pakistani politics, he may be taking on an opponent that will be tougher to beat.

Pakistan's political parties tend to decorate the landscape with oversized pictures of their leaders and there was no shortage of Khan posters, like this one in Saidpur Village. But when our group of visiting American journalists interviewed Khan at his home in Islamabad, we met a politician who gives the physical impression of being larger than life.
The spacious villa with its commanding valley view would not have been out of place in an upscale Florida country club, and it was tastefully decorated in the British colonial style. Even the dog, Sherni, gave the impression of steadfastness, except for the occasional howl.

Khan, the 59-year-old divorced father of two, welcomed us to a veranda and explained his bold promise to end corruption in Pakistan within 90 days of taking office. Larisa Epatko of the PBS News Hour posted some audio from our interview. Listen here.

 Khan speaks with understandable pride of his charitable endeavors, reflecting the belief of many Pakistanis that private citizens can accomplish things that the government cannot. And when speaking with college students in Karachi, we could tell that his ideas have planted a seed with his supporters in the younger generation. It's too early to tell if he score with voters when the next elections take place later this year or next year, but I wouldn't bet against him. It will be fascinating to watch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Did Pakistan know about Osama bin Laden?

Since 9/11 most Americans have come to accept additional security checks and other restrictions on their privacy as part of the war on terrorism. But submitting to a TSA body scan at the airport is a small thing compared to the way the war on terror affects everyday life in Pakistan. According the the Sustainable Policy Development Institute, Pakistan spends 65% of its budget on the military, leaving only 35% percent for energy, education and other needs of a developing country.
Armed guards are not just for government buildings here, but a necessity for offices and factories and even some homes. It's an environment that scares away badly needed foreign investment. Even Pakistan's national sports pastime, cricket, has suffered because of a terrorist attack on a visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009; international matches can no longer be played in Pakistan. One analyst explained that "terrorism damages the brand name" of the entire country.

Pakistan's brand was further damaged by the revelation that Osama Bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in Abottabad, a city near the capital that is also home to a major military academy. When Navy Seals raided the compound in May 2011, killing the man believed chiefly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, many Americans saw it as proof that Pakistan can't be trusted to track down even the most notorious terrorists. Our group of visiting American journalists had a number of opportunities to question what the Pakistanis knew about Bin Laden's whereabouts and why they didn't do more to help bring him to justice. Riaz Khokar, a former foreign secretary and ambassador to India, China and the U.S, said it was unlikely Pakistani intelligence knew of OBL's hideout: "If you look at the house, remember the first story was that it was a $20 million mansion but it wasn't even worth $20,000," he said. "Believe me, the man was living there in squalor and penury. You just had to see the pictures of the filth and dirt. He had no security, no men with guns and rifles. I'm not justifying it, I'm just saying that if he was a guest of the government of Pakistan I can assure you he wouldn't have been living like that." Listen to his comment here.

Other officials insisted on being "off the record" so they could speak more freely about the US-Pakistan relationship. We didn't speak with any Pakistanis who felt the need to apologize or explain how Pakistan could fail to notice the presence of the world's most wanted terrorist. Instead, there was a feeling that the US should apologize for violating Pakistani sovereignty by conducting the OBL raid. It was just part of an often repeated wish list that included:
  • a formal US apology for the deadly Nov. 11 airstrike on Pakistani troops;
  • multi-billion dollar reimbursement for Pakistan's expenses in the war on terror;
  • energy considerations, including civilian nuclear power and a possible gas pipline from Iran;
  • end to drone strikes;
  • more non-military aid from the US without strings attached.
On the American side, it was no surprise to hear that Pakistan's wish list is "not happening." American military analysts acknowledge the difficulties Pakistan is facing in trying to gain control of the tribal areas where Taliban fighters move back and forth across the Afghan border. Extremists sometimes take refuge in villages that straddle the border, making it difficult to say for sure where Afghanistan ends and Pakistani sovereignty begins. "It's their Vietnam," said one military expert, describing the frustration of battle-weary Pakistani troops and their families. Conspiracy theories thrive in Pakistan, including the possibility that the military is in on the drone strikes on terrorist targets, but allows the US to take the blame. Another unproven theory holds that the US wants to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Pakistan responded to widespread anti-American public sentiment by closing supply routes to NATO coalition troops in Afghanistan, forcing the US to find "another way to do business"  with 1,000 truckloads a day. A briefing from a top army general revealed Pakistan's pride in its military, from actions against Al Qaeda to the role of women in a variety of key assignments. Americans, on the other hand, describe Pakistan's armed forces as "professional but not modern."

One American noted that the US tends to focus on what's happening today, while the Pakistanis feel the pent-up resentment of history. It's impossible to discuss US-Pak relations for very long without someone invoking the name of Richard Holbrooke, the influential US diplomat who was serving as a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time of his death in 2010. Holbooke raised expectations of a fresh start in US-Pak relations, and Riaz Khokar is among those who hope for better days. "We have been friends, allies," he said. "We have shed blood together."

Update: In July 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was "sorry" for the raid that mistakenly killed Pakistani troops last year. Pakistan reopened the supply routes. However, drone strikes continue to strain US-Pak relations.