Sunday, January 11, 2009

Balkan Beauty and the Beast

They were just a bunch of kids playing football in a misty mountain town outside Sarajevo when a sniper opened fire, killing three of them before they were able to take cover.

"He was professional," the Bosnian bartender said with a shrug of his shoulders, referring to the speed and accuracy of the shooter. The first victim, shot a few meters away from him, had been his cousin.


We left for the Balkans one morning in early September. After just arriving from the States the night before, I woke with difficulty at 3:30 a.m. and cabbed it back to the airport with my Polish flatmate Julia and her friend Dan, a tall Czech with a shaved head and pigment-loss rings around his eyes. We flew out on a 6 a.m. flight to Split, in the southern part of coastal Croatia. They were looking forward to lots of beach time. The main attraction for me was further inland, up in the mountains.

For our first night, Julia had reserved a room for us in Trogir, a little coastal village on the other side of the bay from the large city of Split. We hailed a cab at the airport, and I chatted up the driver during the ten minute ride. With broken English, he threw some complimentary adjectives at us in response to a question about Trogir. I also asked him about Croatia's path to EU membership. With its coast, the country and its economy have fared better than most of the other former Yugoslav Republics, and so EU membership is on the horizon. But the cabbie was skeptical of what the Euro would do to the economy and the autonomy of the country. After the breakup and wars for independence and control of Yugoslavia, he was tentative to give up any hard-won freedoms.

Days in a Daze
Like any ancient coastal city, Trogir had to be ready for naval assault. Parts of the walls and fortresses of the old city can still be seen, and are well preserved for us tourists. Wandering on the narrow whitish stone streets through the maze of whitish stone buildings, we eventually found our house and were shown to our room by the owner. He spoke a little English, but had to think hard to express himself. Julia asked him about beaches, and he pointed a few out on the map.

"Please, please," he responded to our thanks, nodding and smiling sheepishly.

Jet lagged and tired as hell, my body wanted nothing more than to crash, but I fought off the urge as it was still late morning, and followed my travel companions on their search for the beach. Staying clear of the cars, we walked along a garbage-strewn road passing a slab of concrete along the water before turning back when we realized that that had been the beach. The two Slavs unfurled their towels on the cement and caught some rays while I sat on the wall, my toes splashing in the sea. Vehicles whizzed by on the road behind us, and there was trash everywhere, but I was comforted to see a lot of life in the water. Schools of small fish lazily drifted near my feet before jerking in another direction, shrimp dashed along the bottom, and a crab crawled up the side of my wall. The water was cool and clear and I popped in for a quick dip, then returned to my seat again to dumbly watch the sea creatures. My head perked up when a busty young blond laid out her towel aways down from us, and Dan's did too when she took off her top. We looked at each other, then suggested Julia to do the same. She ignored us.

After awhile, I left the Slavs on the beach for a nap in our flat, and awoke groggily several hours later to find Dan on the balcony, quietly rolling a joint.

"Where the hell did you get that?" I asked.

Not taking his sunglassed-eyes off his work, he nodded at a small tub of Nivea skin cream. Inside sat a little bag of weed that he had hidden in the cream. The fucker had flown with illegal drugs in his bag.

"What if there had been dogs, dude?"

He shrugged. Czechs.

The night was spent exploring the fishing boats and lit up stone buildings of Trogir, but I remember very little due to my sleep deprivation, and walked around in a daze.

SPLIT, Croatia

The next day we bussed back around the bay to Split. To keep myself occupied during the long ride, I sipped from a nearly empty water bottle and blew in it a low tone to alert Dan whenever a smoking hot Croatian chick (of which there were several) entered the bus. The system had been devised the night before at an outdoor restaurant, and would serve us well for the trip.

Split is a nearly 2000-year-old city located in the Dalmatia region of Croatia. With its white stone buildings and fortresses, it looks like Trogir, though on a much grander scale. The old town and surrounding areas are uniformly built from dirty white stone, and then encircled by a wall. Though unimpressive on the outside, from within it was something else entirely, bringing to mind images of Minas Tirith, the besieged "White City" in the Lord of the Rings movies. The streets again were a narrow maze of whitish stone walkways between whitish stone buildings. A large tower protrudes from the ruins and provides a view of the water. Marching up some steps within the city walls, we came upon a bar and took one of the few small tables against the opposite building outside, which stood only about ten feet away. As the night progressed and the bar filled up, people spilled out to the walkway, and pedestrians had to wade through the crowd of young people just to pass through. I blew my bottle several times, but we never worked up the courage to talk to anyone. Instead we drank a lot and blamed our cowardice on the presence of Julia. With Dan hiccuping loudly and uncontrollably, we retreated late to our rented room just outside the city walls, and slept hard.

Leaving for the beach the next morning, we greeted our landlady, a pleasant and friendly-looking old woman with toes jutting out from her sandaled-feet at a 45 degree angle. The day before she had given us a tour of the room completely in her native Croatian, describing features such as the curtains and the air conditioner remote. I smiled at her blankly, but as she was speaking a Slavic language, my Polish and Czech companions told me later they had understood some of what she'd said. Apparently the last guys in the room had nearly frozen themselves by inadvertantly cranking up the AC.

We followed our city map to the sea, passing numerous mangy cats along the way. They blinked slowly in the shade of trees and flipped their tails. The beach was on a cove with two long peninsulas curving inward on both sides. I sat on my towel for a bit and stole glances at a American girl in street clothes gradually work up the courage to undress and sun herself in her underwear. I blew in my bottle for Dan, redundantly as he had already noticed, then took a splash.

Early that evening we caught a boat to the island of Brač ("Brahtch"), just off the coast. Sadly there was no outdoor seating, so I grabbed a place by the window for the hour long cruise. They pumped a hits radio station into the cabin, but I tried to ignore it and with my head pressed against the window, gazed at the sea. The waves lulled me into a dreamy and relaxed state, and I was about to doze off when a black dorsal fin directly in my field of vision broke the surface of the water. Half asleep, I thought I had imagined it, but the fin again curled up above the waves and then fluidly sliced down. Julia, sitting behind me, gasped and pointed it out to Dan, and I followed it with my eyes. The dolphin swam past us, rising and submerging in the water, a wave pattern through the waves.

the Island Village of Bol
We arrived at the island town of Bol just before sunset. A massive green ridge rose from behind the light-colored buildings, grouped together along the shore. The anchor chains of the sail and rowboats were visible through the shallow blue water, and a few screeching seagulls hovered above the beach. It was a pretty little place.

Hauling our bags, we left the commotion on the dock but were stopped by a man with wind-tussled orange hair and a half-buttoned shirt. He barked a few words incomprehensibly at us, and we looked back blankly until Dan realized he was offering us accommodation in Croatian-accented German.

"Dri nachts?! Zwei!?" he said, holding up thumb and forefinger. "Achtzig Euro!"

We agreed to look at it, and he walked us to his house, pointing out his boat along the way. Upon arrival we were pleased to find a nice three room flat and a balcony with a view of the sea. Not a bad deal for 80 Euro. We played a three-way variation of paper-rock-scissors using ones and twos to assign the two bedrooms, and Julia won her privacy. Dan and I looked at each other and shrugged.

That night on the way back to town, we passed a mongrel dog sitting outside a shack. The makeshift door, which was closed behind him, didn't completely fill the doorway and light poured out of the wide cracks. He glared at us through the darkness and sniffed the air. On our walk home, feeling the courage of a few beers, I approached and tried to pet him. His eyes were foggy, but he bared his teeth when my hand was close enough, and I snatched it back before he had a chance to bite. Mean ol' blind dog.

My Slavic travel companions were anxious to hit the beach, so the next day we went to a pointed and stony peninsula that cuts into the sea, aptly named Zlatni Rat, meaning "Golden Scythe." We laid out our towels on the slant of the embankment, and with hands extended out to my sides, I waded into the clear water. A few big yachts had come about and anchored only a few hundred feet away. My feet sank beneath the water-worn stones with each step.

I tried sunning myself on the beach, but got restless and went for a lazy walk inland along the peninsula. The pebbles crunched beneath my feet and the wind and waves tickled my bare skin. I was completely relaxed, so much that I failed to realize when I first entered the nudist section of the beach. My initial surprise quickly changed to curiosity though, and I tried to look around discretely for some talent. But it was mostly old couples, so I returned to my towel.

When vicious dark clouds began moving in from the west, the peninsula started to clear out. Dan and Julia retreated with the others, but I stayed behind to witness the full force of the rainstorm.

"Pussies," I said to myself smugly, but the temperature fell drastically as the first few drops hit, and I had to leave as well.

That evening the three of us sat on the patio with our orange-haired landlord and his wife over a few glasses of red wine. The man spoke to us in simple German, and his wife spoke to us in simple English, and when they found out my travel companions were fellow Slavs, they switched to full-on Croatian. I spaced out while Dan and Julia struggled to keep up. They asked what brought us to their country, and related stories of their war for independence, from a certain point of view. The wife mentioned the Croatian city of Vukovar and Hiroshima in the same sentence. Vukovar is located deep into the Balkan peninsula, far from the sea and almost on top of what is now the Serb-Croat border. It was there that a self-organized army of 2,000 Croats held off the Serb army for 87 days before being overrun. Most were killed. The woman shook her head in silence, and with my head buzzing a little from the wine, I heard the sound of the waves.

the Long Road Up the Mountains

I awoke early the next morning and leaving Dan and Julia behind, caught a boat back to the mainland. Once in Split, I boarded an international bus for the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The ride was long, and breathtakingly beautiful. The driver first took us south on a two lane highway along the coast of Croatia. The blue ocean splashed softly against the beaches far below, and the land rose quickly and steeply into the mountains where we drove. Up ahead I could see another mass of rain clouds attempting an assault on the Balkan Peninsula, but they were repelled by the high mountain walls and curled upward and back towards the sea. We passed by circular green coves, and I noticed places where the flat water was rippled by rogue gusts of wind.

Halfway through the nine-hour ride, we turned inland along an east-bound road which led us higher into the mountains and into Bosnia. The temperature swiftly dropped as the elevation rose, and the craggly gray cliffs changed to green hills and then smooth white stone and then back again. I saw a whisp of white cloud laying against the face of a dark mountain like a long mustache, and dozed off.

The woman on my left snapped me back to attention with a poke in the shoulder and some chattering that I didn't understand. She had a problem with her phone, and was asking me something. I shrugged blankly, and handed her mine, which didn't work for her either. Later when I wasn't able to get through to my hostel on my phone, she kindly lent me hers.

"Hlava, hlava," I said, mispronouncing the Croatian thank you of "hvala" and nodding like Rainman.

We stopped briefly in the Bosnian city of Mostar nearly seven hours into the ride, and I noticed not only a large Crusifix on a hill but also several mosques with their skinny rocket-shaped minarets poking above the low skyline. As it was our first stop in the new country, I hopped out to pull some Bosnian Marks from an ATM, collected my new money, then promptly forgot to take back my bank card. Luckily an Australian woman from the bus found it and ran me down waving the card in her hand. Disaster averted.

During the Balkan wars in the early 90's, the Croatians massacred the entrenched but poorly-equipped Bosnians in the battle for control of this city. According to Wikipedia, the Croatian commander Slobodan Praljak is currently on trial for war crimes committed there, including the destruction of the 16th-Century Stari Most ("Old Bridge"). It has since been rebuilt, but I didn't see it. After looking at this picture, I wish I had.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In case you don't know, Sarajejvo was the sight of a great battle in the early 90's, the longest siege in modern warfare, again according to Wikipedia. From April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996 the Bosnian-held city was attacked by superior-armed forces, this time Serbs, who shelled and sniped from the surrounding hills and buildings, but refrained from an all-out invasion fearing the costs of urban warfare. In that time, 12,000 people were killed (mostly Bosnians), a lot more were wounded and the city's population decreased by 36%. Many more certainly would have died had it not been for arms and supplies brought through the Tunnel, which ran from a Bosnian-held part of the city to the Sarajevo Airport on the outskirts, secured by the U.N. (which did little else until the ceasefire).

Upon reaching our destination, I threw my bag over my shoulder, withdrew my map and plotted a course to the city center. I had secured a hostel for the following day, but that evening I was bedless. A dweeby kid from Vancouver had the same problem, so we teamed up and started off through the parking lot. I ignored a slightly grungy dude's offer of "accomodation?" but the kid stopped to hear more. He proposed driving us to his cousin's place, which sounded a bit suspect, but the price he quoted was decent and I figured if the shit went down, the Canadian couldn't outrun me.

As he drove, he explained in broken but understandable English that we had to pick up his cousin, and I raised my eyebrows, ready to do battle if the dude was springing a trap. But after waiting a few minutes outside an apartment complex, a middle-aged woman came running out and got in the car. She didn't speak English, but excitedly yelled back to us in German from the passenger seat.

We got dropped at a surprisingly nice house near the river that cuts through the center of town. The driver asked for a tip, and I gave him a few coins. He had earned it. The woman showed us to our separate rooms, which were clean and cozy. Jackpot, all for the price of a bed in a hostel. Good job Canadian and Bosnian dudes.

It was incredibly colder up in Sarajevo than it had been on the coast, and I bundled up with the few clothes I had before setting out to explore. The western half of the city is surrounded by a green bluff, and houses poked up from among the trees. I crossed the shallow but wide river and watched an old tram roll by in the darkness. The streets were fairly narrow for a larger city, and as the city marked the place where the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empire rubbed up against each other, the architecture varied from a Turkish style to a more traditionally European one. I passed several pretty churches, both Serb Orthodox and Croatian Catholic, and in bed that night I was lightly roused as an iman through a PA system quietly sang the Call to Prayer.

The next morning the woman provided us with a light breakfast in her dining room, and we comically tried to make conversation.

"Will it be cold again today, or warm?" I asked her, speaking loudly and slowly.

She looked back blankly.

"Cold?" I said again, rubbing my shoulders. "Brrrr!"

"Ah, kalt!" she said. "Ja, ja, kalt! Nein varm."

We paid and left. A light drizzle rudely complimented the cool air. I parted ways with the Canadian kid and left to find my hostel. Again I was lucky, as it was not only close to the woman's house, but also directly in the center of the city. After checking in I perused some guide brochures, plunked my bag down under my bunk and took another stroll around the city, this time with the benefit of daylight. I noticed lots of hot young women always in tight jeans, many of whom surprised me by boldly holding my eye contact. I guess when you're born into a war zone, the opposite sex isn't very intimidating. The Bosnians are Muslims, and some wore traditional garb. One stylish woman's burka matched her purple, high-heeled pumps. After a late afternoon nap and a tasty and traditional dinner at a cafeteria-style restaurant, I was in the mood for adventure.

the Club
I half-heartedly looked around the hostel for a drinking buddy, but didn't come upon anyone promising, so I started out on my own. I had read about a place with Tuesday-night live music in the tourist brochures called the Club, and found it after a brisk walk through town. Once inside, like a moth to a light bulb, I wandered towards a TV in a side room playing an English football game, but a young waiter with a shaved head cut me off and said something in Bosnian. Seeing my blank reaction, he immediately switched to fluent English and saying something about a private party, steered me towards the hallway, where I could see the TV through the double-sided bar.

Elbows on the counter, I gulped my beer and watched the little players in bright jerseys run around the pitch. When the bartender, a lean fellow with rolled up sleeves and an apron looked over at me while drying a mug, I asked him a generic question about the game to make conversation. Shy and a little standoffish at first, he told me his name was Mirnes after we had chatted for a bit, then relaxed and opened up. As a kid, he loved wearing his Michael Jordan jersey and Bulls shorts. After the Balkan Wars, President Clinton came to his village and shook his hand, along with many others in the crowd of grateful Bosnians. Cops in Sarajveo are stupid, and after being pulled over, he was once able to talk his way out of a DUI, though he was hammered. And when he was a boy, his cousin was shot dead a few meters from him by a Serb sniper while they played football.

I asked him what he thought of Serbs, and he shrugged. But another waiter heard my question and angrily barked something I couldn't make out on his way past. He may have said the f-word

"They killed his father," Mirnes said. "He doesn't like them."

When I asked him if he had Serb co-workers, he nodded over to a man in a bow-tie, the head waiter and his boss. I asked him if he had any Serb friends, and he said no. He added that he didn't have any problem with them, as long as they left him alone.

"You touch me, I touch you," he said, this time with a little life in his eyes.

The band started filing in, carrying their instruments, but otherwise the place was empty. Two tall and hot singers followed, both wearing tight jeans, dangly earrings and pony tails. Mirnes poured me a shot of something called "rakkia," and it took us a few minutes of questions and clarification to agree that the English word for its main component was plums. He urged me to try other flavors, and bought me a few more shots, but when I offered to return the favor, he politely declined. It was Ramadan, and he was abstaining from alcohol during the month-long religious observance. I guess the rest of the "Bosniaks" (Bosnian muslims in Sarajevo) were too, based on the lack of attendance at the Club.

Fairly sloshed now, I half-listened to Mirnes tell stories of drunkenly dancing with girls behind the bar, and beating unruly customers on the doorstep. Apparently the Club is rocking on weekends. A short man appeared to my right, and on his phone showed me a video of himself flamboyantly juggling and pouring flaming drinks behind the bar. I asked him some questions in simple English, and through Mirnes he explained that he could understand everything I said, but couldn't speak the language. He mentioned Amsterdam and black prostitutes with a smile, and looked just like Dave Attell.

When the band started its second set, I left my friends behind at the bar and caught some surprisingly good versions of "Hound Dog" and "Black Fire." When the band wrapped up, I put on my coat and visited Mirnes on the way out to shake his hand and loudly promise to come back tomorrow night. He smiled and went back to washing glasses.

Haris and the Tour of the City
My head was thumping when I awoke the next morning. But I had made a reservation for a tour of Sarajevo, so I cleaned myself up as quickly as I could and headed out. The guide was a little dude named Haris. He had squinty, Asian-looking eyes, and dark hair trimmed short on the sides but left longer on the scalp from front to back. Reminded me a bit like a rooster. He had a friendly face, a nasally voice and said things like "twelve thousands peoples, including many childrens, were killed." He and another non-English speaking Bosnian drove our group in two large vans around the city, taking us to Sniper Alley, the Olympic Village from the '84 Winter Games, the Tunnel, a traditional Bosnian restaurant and the UN-financed and newly-reconstructed parliament building. A dark sedan pulled out of the underground garage, and Haris pointed out the Bosnian president, Dr. Haris Silajdžić, sitting in the back seat.

"He designed the Tunnel," he said. "Engineer."

On the outskirts of city, the Tunnel opens up into a little house next to the airfield. We walked through the surviving twenty meters of the 1.5m x 1.5m passage, crouching under the beams on the ceiling and high stepping over the rails on the floor. An estimated 20 million tons of food entered through it, and over a million people passed in or out of it. Without it, the city would have fallen.

At Sniper Alley, a street which provided no cover from the excellent shooting positions in the hills above, the guide sadly recounted the horrors of the siege. There were still bullet holes in some of the buildings, and Sarajevo Roses on the sidewalk -  mortar scars in the concrete filled with red resin. They look like splatter patterns, which in a way, they are. I noticed several others while walking around the city. All were faded and chipping away. I hope they find a more lasting way to preserve the roses.

The bus ride out of Bosnia and Herzegovina was shorter but no less beautiful than the one in. Driving through a coastal village, I noticed a large warship flying an American flag and floating quietly near the shore. At the border a Croatian soldier boarded the bus and briefly flipped through my passport, and I was back in.

At the southern tip of Croatia, the walled center of Dubrovnik made Split look dirty and cheap by comparison. The bright white stone buildings, walls, and fortresses contrasted incredibly with the orange roofs and clear blue water. I met Dan and Julia at the clock tower within the walls, and we caught up on the last few days while walking up the steep stone steps of the city in search of food. A waiter with bad teeth and a navy and white striped shirt convinced us to sit at one of his outdoor tables in the narrow passageway, and entertained us by hassling other passers-by to do the same. When one tourist told him "not yet," he scoffed.

"All day people tell me the same thing: 'Not yet'."

A dude who can aptly be described as tall, dark and handsome sat alone at an adjacent table. We rebuffed his initial attempts to inject himself into our conversation, but after a few glasses of wine we became friends. He told us he was a Dutchman touring Eastern Europe for a month, and that he operates high-tech digging equipment, a job lucrative enough that he can work when he wants. He was alright, and we invited him to come along with us.

The sun was setting and we were merry with wine, so we went to the sea. Dark by the time we arrived and devoid of people, we luckily found a tiki bar still serving drinks, and kept the party going. Standing on one foot on the stony beach, I wobbily pulled off all my clothes and changed into my swimming suit. The night was cold and the surf colder, but I awkwardly ran through the water until it cut me off at the knees. It hit my face and torso with a smack and I got a mouthful of saltwater. As a child of the Midwest, the taste of the sea will always be a surprise to me. Julia stood on the beach, nagging maternally for me to come back in, and I did after my dulled nerves regained their senses and alerted me to the temperature.

Wrapped in a towel, I took a seat next to Dan at a plastic table. The sea washed gently on the beach and we had to speak up over the hiss of the waves splashing the pebbles. The Dutchman, chatting up Julia at the bar, shrewdly brought bottles of beer for us and continued to do so for the remainder of the night. Satiated with Croatian "pivo" and ignoring Julia's polite requests and then demands to quiet down, Dan and I leaned back in our chairs and told increasingly loud and dirty stories, and slapped each other on the back as we cackled hysterically.

The next day after a light breakfast, we hit another beach for a few hours and watched a school group attempt to construct sea-worthy vessels out of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting. Most failed, but one of the boats made it out aways and back without taking in much water. I watched from a floating raft ten meters from the shore, then cannon-balled back into the sea.

For the final afternoon of our holiday, we bought a ticket and dodging families of Germans and Russians snapping constant photos, walked on the wall which encircles the entire city. At the corners sat raised stone forts, and I peeked through the small arrow-shooting holes down at my friends on the wall, and the beautiful clear water below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the Language of Football

The ball arcs through the air toward me.

With the rain falling in my face, I time my jump well and snap my neck, intent on bashing it back into the opponent's half with my forehead. But I close my eyes too early, and the ball splats off my face, then hits my hand before weakly spinning towards an opposing player. Another player yells for a handball, but his team is already on the attack, and the ref ignores him.

I've never been very good with my head while playing football. Ironically, my brains have always been my greatest asset on the field.

I play for the RWE/Trans Gas team, basically an after-work collection of the utility company's employees here in Prague. I've taught English at RWE for over two years now and had Tomaš, the team captain, as a student. When I not so subtly mentioned that I was looking for a team to play on, he invited me to join.

"You play...with us," he said.

I'm a great teacher. I've played with them for two spring and two fall seasons now.

When meeting for the first time, I find Czech people to be quiet and shy, almost to the point of rudeness. At first I was put off by this, angered even, but I've come to accept it as a cultural reality. Some of my students, tourist guidebooks and I put most of the blame on Communism, which encouraged people to rat on each other and had informants everywhere, thus discouraging conversation with strangers. I think it's also fair to say that Czechs are naturally a more quiet people, compared with say Greeks or Italians.

I mention this because the RWE team is made up almost exclusively of middle-aged Czech men. Most don't speak much English, and this further limits our interaction. Another negative effect of Communism in this country is the low quality of the English language, compared to Western Europe. It's logical, since most of the older generations studied Russian in school. But now that the kids all study English, the general rule is the younger the Czech, the better the English. So this is a problem with the older guys. We don't talk much, mainly because we can't. At first I thought they were a bunch of jerks, but then realized I wasn't making much of an effort either. I studied the language for a year, and can speak at a very low level, but in the locker room, I usually don't bother.

Though we don't talk much, the team has become comfortable with my presence, and I in theirs. At first I was referred to as "anglický lektor" ("English teacher") but now I have been promoted to "Peter," with the r rolled at the end. On the field with 22 players, communication is a necessity, and since I can't understand a lot of things, especially not instantly, the team resorts to calling my name a lot.

I do try to use my Czech in the field as much as possible, but I sometimes make mistakes conjugating verbs, i.e. instead of asking "mužes?" ("Can you?"), I will say "Mužu?" (Can I?). It's all very confusing.

The players can be broken down into two types. There are those who speak nearly no English, and we greet and bid farewell with a simple "ahoj," but mostly ignore each other quietly. Some of the more notable guys in this group are Gray Jirka, the left back, a big horsey-faced man with combed-back gray hair. He's a policeman, and rides a motorcycle to games in black leather chaps. There is also Pepa, the right back, a solidly-built short man with a round face and a pointy nose. He looks like a hobbit. What these two lack in speed, they make up in toughness.

The second type is made up of those who also speak little of my language, but at the same time sheepishly acknowledge me. Using my limited Czech and whatever English words they can conjure, we'll struggle through a bit of small talk.

"You play...good today," they'll say after a game.

There is Tall Jirka (Czechs have a limited amount of first names), the striker, who stands at a skinny 6'3'' and is surprisingly agile for a man with the body of Walter Mathau. I've seen him lash a few goals, catching the keeper (and myself) off guard with an unexpectedly bendy shot. Long Honza has a similar frame but is stronger and more athletic. He gives us speed out on the left flank and delivers good crosses and corner kicks into the goal box. "Hi Peterrr," they usually say when I first arrive, and I'll usually respond with a "Jak se mas?" ("how are you?"). Rounding out this second group is Gala (first name actually "Honza"), our sweeper, a powerful and big man with straight black hair which he holds back with a bandana. He has small eyes and a big smile. He speaks the most English of anyone on the team, and I receive most of my direction from him.

Somewhere in between is a guy I like to call Martin the Mole. Martin (pronounced "Mar-teen") has a big nose and a large brow which hangs over his small eyes, hence the nickname. I don't think he speaks hardly any English, but he is very bubbly and always chirping at his teammates and opponents. He plays striker, and despite the fact that we all have matching jerseys, shorts and socks, he likes to wear green and purple sweatpants which clash horribly with our orange or blue uniforms. "Superrr Peterrr" he says to me when I make a good pass.

My preferred and most-natural position is central midfielder, and sometimes I am allowed to play there, but I'm low in the pecking order so I'm often moved around. And because this position is very important for organizing the attack, it is fairly important to be able to shout furious commands to your fellow attacking players, which obviously I can't do. Consequently I'm often pushed out to the right flank, but once had a disastrous half game at right back when Gala needed an extra defender. My first pass, foolishly knocked across the the top of the goal box, was intercepted and led directly to the other team taking an early lead. On several other attacks from our opponents, we seemed to be out-numbered, and I advanced on the ball carrier a few times and was burned when he passed ahead to another player I had allowed to pass me.

"Peter!" Gala yelled to me. "You must stay here! This is the biggest mistake!"

I was moved to midfield at halftime. To be fair, I wasn't getting much assistance from anybody, and my lack of experience at defense compounded the problem, along with my refusal to simply boot the ball and give away possession. If I had been playing with Americans, I would have screamed at my teammates to fucking help me, but as the foreigner, I mostly keep my mouth closed.

Our home field is on synthetic turf in a part of Prague called Stěrboholy. There are also lights. The turf is not the old stuff, rough carpet rolled over cement, but rather the hi-tech fake blades of grass covered with small pieces of black rubber. It rained in both games I played in this fall season, so it was nice not to have to run through cold puddles and mud.

RWE pays all the fees, and provides the uniforms. We have ID cards to verify our place on the team. Once I asked Tomaš if a friend of mine could play with us. When he said yes, I pointed out his lack of an ID card. Tomaš replied that we'd just use someone else's card and say it was him.

"On je černoch," I told Tomaš, meaning "he is a black man."

"Oh," he said, chuckling. "He probably can't play then."

In my first game this season, at night under the lights, we had only the minimum eleven players (we've played 8 vs. 11 before; it was a long and shitty game), and so I was allowed to play at central midfield. There are usually two players in this position, and they must divide up the attacking and defending duties, and generally need to stay on the same page. Right before kickoff, my fellow central midfielder, a guy I'd never seen before, spoke a few Czech words to me in what I believe was an attempt to straighten out our assignments. I didn't understand anything, but nodded my head and said "jo."

I got off to a bad start turning the ball over a few times on the fast, wet turf, but got myself together midway through the first half and started sending both Long Jirka and Tall Jirka on a few long runs with some nifty through-balls. Football has always been my game, as I have very good spatial skills. I can almost always see where I need to put the ball in order for my running teammate to gather it while still avoiding the defense.

Down 2-1 late in the game, we were on a promising attack in the opponent's goal box when the ball came up high and hit me in the hand. Embarrassed, I shrugged and made a move to walk back towards our half, but when no one else started in the same direction, I stopped. The ref was explaining the call to everyone, and while there was some dissension, it was generally accepted without fuss. Our team was given a penalty kick, where one player is given a point-blank shot with only the goalkeeper standing in his way. It nearly always results in a score, and when our player converted, we escaped with a draw. I was told later that a hand ball had been called on the other team, and because it was in their box, we were awarded the penalty. Maybe the ball hit an opponent's hand before it hit mine, since there was no real argument from their side. Whatever happened, I'll take it.

While my first was played in a drizzle, my second and last game of the season took place in a downpour, speeding up the ball on the turf even more. Again played under the lights, the game was a shootout, ending with Gala and our defense screwing up and giving away a late lead. Granted, I was sucking air at midfield, and watched it all happen rather than getting back to help. We drew again, this time 4-4.

We fell behind early, but I continually attacked hard from my position on the right flank and was rewarded for my efforts. After a nifty back-heeled pass from Martin the Mole sprung me in the opponent's box, I absorbed a hard shoulder from the defender, pushed the ball to the endline, then put in a nice short cross on the ground, far enough from the goalie but close enough for my sliding teammate to knock it in. The defender got their first, but couldn't hold up his momentum and the ball caromed off him into the goal.

"Krásný gól!" Gala yelled from the midline. The goal was "beautiful."

Unfortunately, we had another 70 minutes of football to play, and a few leads to give away.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Česko Hollywood a Moravska Napa Valley

The Czech Republic is a small country. It's total area is slightly smaller than that of South Carolina. But relative to its size, there are some good things to see and do outside of Prague. After my school year finished in June and while waiting for my flight back to the States at the end of July, I took weekend trips to the villages of Russian-owned Karlovy Vary in the western half of the country, and wine producing Znojmo in the eastern.

Karlovy Vary
The biggest film festival in the Czech Republic takes place every year in the middle of July in Karlovy Vary, a nice little city of around 50,000 west of Prague and very close to the German border. High green bluffs surround it, and a lazy river cuts it in half. Newly wealthy Russians discovered it in the 90's and started buying up land and houses, to the dismay of the Czechs who were outpriced. The airport provides one international flight: Moscow. Fancy restaurants, some offering Russian pelmeni (dumplings) line the river, and a shopping district with expensive clothing stores has popped up in the last ten years, as well as a Russian Orthodox Church. Street signs are written in three languages: Czech, Russian, and German.

Young people from Prague exodus to Vary for the festival, and my Polish flatmate Julia, my American missionary bud CJ and my Czech friend Jana were all going independently of each other, so I decided to tag along.

Julia and CJ both took public transportation, but with everything sold out for the weekend, I was able to hitch a ride on Friday afternoon with Jana and her friends Liba, a Czech girl in her mid-twenties and Jaap, her 30ish Dutch boyfriend. The couple bickered childishly in the front seat, and when they took a breather Jana would radid-fire questions to Lipa in their native language. My attempts to make conversation were politely and quickly answered, so I gave up. Since Jana and I are not romantically involved, it felt like the start of a double date weekend with all of the bad stuff and none of the good. I reminded myself of the movies and fun to come, and stared out the window.

Cars full of young Prague people passed us on the two-lane highway, and the ninety-minute drive took us through farm fields and rolling hills and past small country hotels. Upon arrival, the Europeans dropped me near the center to go find their lodging, and I walked into the thick of the festival.

The Hotel Thermal, a big, Soviet-era monstrosity has the biggest theater in Vary, and served as the focal point. Not a red, but a green carpet led up the front entrance, and a big screen hung from high up on the hotel flashed clips of the opening ceremonies, including one of a tuxedoed Robert DeNiro on the carpet waving to the crowd. He was there to promote his new movie What Just Happened (which I didn't see). Danny Glover would also be making an appearance at some point. Huge movie posters were hung on tall polls, and wading through the crowd outside the hotel, I read the titles as I passed.

CJ was in a movie, so I took a seat in the outdoor section of a pub next to the river, away from the hubub. I sipped a $5 beer (ridiculously expensive by Prague standards) and read my magazine. It was a bit chilly, and I was the only patron outside. After the sun had set, the waitress began to take in the place mats and tablecloths from the surrounding tables, but I stayed firm. I had bought not only a beer, but also time goddamit. A small group of people stopped as they passed, and an older man asked me a question in Russian. Though I do not speak any of that language, I shook my head and said "no." Fucking Russians.

Eventually the waitress told me in broken English to bail, so I killed time walking around the Thermal before meeting my friend CJ, the missionary. He was with his colleague Barbara and a group of university kids on a sort of informal mission trip. Hangin' out, talkin' about movies and not necessarily talkin' about Jesus. One girl in the group said she was an atheist.

"At least we got her talking about it," Barbara said.

The least pushy missionaries I've ever known. We found a big corner booth in a basement pub and plumped down with a round. I took a minute to check out the girls and found one to my liking, but turned my attention to the movie on the bar's TV after she showed everyone a picture of her wedding dress. The girls talked about their husbands and fiancés, and I watched Resident Evil. The night ended without fanfare, and CJ, Barb and I crashed in their temporary apartment.

Ticket Adventure
Saturday morning I arose early to get myself some movie tickets, as CJ and co. had already secured theirs the day before. I spoke English slowly to the cute chick at the register, but she became confused when I asked for her recommendation.

"Nevadí," I said in her language. "Nevermind."

Though I had secured seats for three shows on Sunday, I was still ticketless for the current day. After a stop at the supermarket and a return to the apartment, I went back to the ticket office to hook myself up when they released the last-minutes. The girl at the register this time spoke even less English, so I used my limited Czech to tell her what I wanted.

"Chci tento," I said, pointing to one particular film in the program. "Ale jestli nemaš, uhhhh, tak chci... tohle," I said, pointing to another.

The girl nodded and machine-gunned a line of Czech at me. I threw up my hands.

"Whoa, whoa," I said. "Mluvim trochu cešky. I speak little Czech." She looked at me dumbly.

"Pomalu, prosim," I added, asking her to slow down.

Every half hour they released new tickets for that day, and my name was put into the computer lottery system three different times before I quit. I think the girl was a ditz.

Dejected, I walked back out to the green carpet and ran into my flatmate Julia and her friend Geisha. They were on their way to an Italian film for which Julia already had a ticket, so she gave me the pass hanging around her neck. It allows you to go in last if any seats are still available. Geisha had a pass also, but no ticket. When we arrived, a mass of people were waiting around the doors. Julia went straight in. Geisha and I sauntered to the front of the room and wedged ourselves between the head of the crowd and the wall when the doors opened (a shitty move, I know). As we scrambled before the ushers in suits and ties, Geisha then decided it would be better if she wore my pass, which featured a picture Julia's female face, and I wore her picture-less tag. We exchanged directly in front of the ushers, who did nothing except pull a standing gate closer to the wall to prevent others in the surging crowd from following our shortcut.

Italian to Czech to English
The Grand Hall seated nearly 1200 people, so Geisha and I had no problem finding spots. After awhile, a couple of youngish men came out onto the stage and stood in front of a three-pronged microphone. Two women followed them and also took up places behind the mics. The two men looked at each other and smiled sheepisly while the women waited. Finally one leaned into the microphone and said something quickly in Italian. One of the women said something quickly in Czech. Then the second woman spoke.

"Welcome to our movie."

This continued for a few minutes. A typical exchange:

Something in Italian. Pause.
Something in Czech. Pause.
"We would like to say..."
Something in Italian. Pause.
Something in Czech. Quiet laughter.
"...thank you."

It was unclear whether both the translators spoke Italian. Not much of substance was said, or perhaps conveyed, but it was funny to watch the filmmakers and translators giggly stumble through the introduction of Il mattino ha l'oro in bocca, or Ranní Ptáče Dál Doskáče, or The Early Bird Catches the Worm.

The movie was about a radio DJ who gets in trouble when he borrows money from different shady characters. It left us underwhelmed. C-.

We rendezvoused with the girls' friends, another gaggle of Czechs, and indecisively walked around before they settled on the same pub I had been the night before. Not making the effort to talk to the strangers, I nursed a Pilsner Urquell and watched a movie on the TV again. Striking Distance with Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The Tent
When that group retired and with CJ again in a movie, I walked back to the Thermal and into the adjacent Captain Morgan Tent. The music was loud, the lights were low, the people were attractive, and I was surprised they allowed me to enter, dressed in cargo shorts and sneakers. I noticed one amazingly beautiful brunette with huge fake breasts in a small black dress. Seemed redundant to me. With a beer, this time a Gambrinus, I leaned against a tall circular table and took in the party. It was like velvet-roped club crashed by a group of college kids. Young, sloppily dressed dudes mingled with some of the best looking women I've ever seen. A few drunken bums walked around also, mumbling to themselves, and several couples consisting of young hotties with significantly older men flashed smiles around the room. Though I've never been there, I got a strong impression of Los Angeles. There were probably some Czech celebrities in there, but I didn't recognize them.

Needless to say, I wasn't able to attract anyone in the Tent. Next time I'll bring a suit.

Two More
The next morning on the way to the smaller theater outside of town, I bussed past the fancy and prestigious Grand Hotel Pupp (pronounced "poop"), which along with the Thermal bookends Vary's center. The Pupp's external was used in the recent Bond film Casino Royale.

My first movie of the day was
a Belgian flick called Aanrijding in Moscou, or Moscow, Belgium. It's a funny and slightly sad movie about an abandoned middle-aged housewife and mother of three who starts a romance with a younger truck driver. I give it a solid B.

At about noon I walked back into town for my second feature of the day, a "silent," Spanish film titled En La Ciudad De Silvia. It featured long shots of people sitting in a
café and walking through European streets, and a soundtrack consisting mostly of running water in fountains. Very little dialogue, and very relaxing. When I say the film nearly put me to sleep, I mean it in a good way. C+

Jana and her friends never were able to get tickets to anything, so I had to leave early with them, missing my final movie, a Russian joint by the name of Gruz 200. "Gruz" means "cargo." If you ever see it, let me know how it is.

Since both of us were leaving the country soon for an extended period, CJ and I took a romantic little trip to Moravia, the eastern half of the Czech Republic. Znojmo sits near the Austrian border in an area known for wine-making. After a three-hour-plus bus ride from Prague, CJ led us to the the lodging he had procured over the phone using his Czech, which is limited but stronger than mine. The "chateau" turned out to be the first floor of the owner's house in an unremarkable subdivision, but it was clean so we plunked down our bags in the bedroom, peeked into the kitchen and headed out to explore.

We made a brief stop at Znojmo's big cathedral ("seen one you seen 'em all,"), admired the rotunda which was all that remained of the town's medieval castle, and got a nice view of the village and surrounding trees and vineyards from atop the town hall tower. The girl in the visitor's center spoke only Czech and German, so I fumbled around with the former to get information on walking trails in the woods.

"Chci...jit...ven. Kde je...," I said, then turned over my shoulder. "CJ, what's the word for "nature"?"

"I dunno."

We left with a map but little information.

A short walk through town led us to a long and narrow park, a tree-lined grassy area which cut through the center of Znojmo. With my cribbage board in hand, we sat down at the outdoor patio of a bar/restaurant in the green strip and played a game over a couple of 11 degree beers. Other patrons sat at a few of the other picnic tables around us, but the patio was mostly quiet. People walked by through the park with their dogs and kids, and the wind lightly rustled through the leaves in the trees.

Afterwards, CJ continued exploring and I retreated to the "chateau" for a midday nap. When I got up we headed to a cellar pub for a so-so Czech meal of pork and potatoes, then returned to the patio in the trees for another 11 degree. And another. And another.

At midnight, we trudged into the park, and with my head buzzing, CJ pulled out a little yellow flyer he had grabbed from the visitor's center. "Znojmo Music Club," it said.

Mingling with the Locals
The "club" wasn't the big disco we were expecting. Really more of a dingy bar for young people. We ordered two beers from the dreadlocked, obviously high bartender, and sat down at a table next to a group of locals.

As we sipped our beer and chatted quietly, the bartender sauntered over and joined the table next to us. Hearing our English, he turned to us and grinned, flashing a pair of crazy eyes. We looked up, then went back to our conversation. A few minutes later he turned again and asked CJ in Czech if he had any weed.

"Máš travu?"

"Ne, ne mám," CJ said.

This caught the ear of another guy sitting at the table. Around twenty years old, he wore a flat-brimmed baseball hat pulled slightly to the side and a baggy basketball jersey, and excitedly asked us if we spoke his language. When CJ responded in the affirmative, he came over and talked with his new friend about Kobe Bryant and the NBA. I stayed quiet until his English-speaking girlfriend joined us. Cute but a little tubby, she told me in English about her job working on the border between the Czech Republic and Austria in a duty free shop. We chatted a bit about her job until I inadvertently made a short comment in Czech, as I'm prone to do when speaking with a local.

"To je škoda," I said, meaning "pity."

She looked at me, confusion turning into curiosity. When she asked if I could speak her language, I shrugged.

"Dělám si prdel," I told her. Literally, "I do an ass,"but meaning "I make a joke."

For the rest of the night she watched me warily, unsure of how much Czech I spoke. I didn't say much until I noticed her pretty Moravian friend at the other table. She eventually came and sat near us, and when the boys got up to play foosball, I convinced her in rudimentary Czech to be my partner. Translated, it would sound something like this:

"You play with me. We go. We win. We go."

She girlishly told me she wasn't good and some other things I didn't understand, but I grabbbed her by the arm and she came along. There was only one spot open, so she went back to sit with her friend. After CJ and I beat up on our baked opponents, I chatted up the Moravian some more, trying to to get her to come to the Music Club again the next night, or to come dancing with us, and while shaking her head, she giddily exclaimed her surprise that I could speak Czech. Then she told me she had to get back to her five-year-old son, and I gave up. Disco lady's gots kids...

Tastes of Moravia
After a late breakfast the next morning, we set out to find "the nature," but ended up on the side of an outbound highway after an hour and quit. On the way back, we stopped at a vineyard outlet and I bought a bottle of Znovín Znojmo, an award-winning white for my parents. The rest of the day was spent sleeping in the chateau, reading in the park, and playing cribbage at the outdoor bar in the park. They have a pig roast there on Friday nights, and CJ and I devoured the deliciously slow-cooked meat and accompanying potatoes, then went back for seconds. My mouth is watering just thinking about the pig, rotating on the spit.

That evening we walked along the river until we came to the dam, which had been covered on one side with sod and grass. On the other side of the river we could hear a band playing. The dam was fenced off and locked up, so we went back the way we came and crossed a bridge in search of the music. Our ears lead us to another outdoor pub, this one on the water. After a few beers, some more cribbage and a couple Dylan and Clapton covers translated into Czech, we walked back into the center and found a surprisingly bumpin' dance club called Chavignon or something along those lines. The crowd was pretty young, and CJ and I made an effort to hit the floor for a bit, but crapped out and headed home early.

After another late wake up and breakfast, we packed up our things and left the chateau. In the park we shook hands and parted. CJ was staying an extra night, so he needed to find his hostel, and I had time to kill before my bus left. I sat down at a bench under a tree and read my book, but had to move when I realized I was covered in mating bugs. They were connected from behind, as though they had backed into each other, and their legs walked in sync, like one long animal. Gross.

My New Friend
Anxious to get out of Znojmo and back to Prague, I made sure to get to the bus station early. But there were several postings of departures for Prague, so I checked the schedules at each place and wandered between them, confused. A man came up and checked the schedule with me, talking to himself as his pointer finger slide down the paper. He said something to me and then motioned to follow him across the street. On the way, I asked him if he spoke English, and he shook his head, then said something I initially took as a request for money. I narrowed my eyes at him, but he continued to explain himself until I was able to pick up enough words to realize he was talking about American coins, and asking if I had any for his collection. I wish I'd had some, but told him I didn't. On the other side of the street, people with bags were standing around, and a woman there told him the Prague bus would be along soon.

Once it came, I found my seat number and sat down, and the guy asked to sit next to me. I was afraid of having to listen to him talk the whole time (even if I didn't understand what he was saying), but he had done me a favor, so I nodded my head. He saw my book and asked me to describe it to him. I made a valiant effort, but I just don't have the vocabulary. He was a nice guy, in his late 30's or early 4o's, and I asked him about himself and his job (I think he said he worked at an airport), and nodded my head at his answers, even though I didn't understand much. Though he spoke no English, he was curious about me and so I told him where I was from and that I had been teaching in Prague for the past two years. I nodded off at some point during the ride, and before he got off at a little Czech village, he lightly prodded my arm and said goodbye. I was sad to see him go.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


In April of 2008, I went to Ethiopia, both to see the country and to visit my bud Zayn. I am not really an adventurous person, but I do like to see different parts of the world, and having a friend there made things easier, as did the fact that Ethiopia is "Africa" without being Kenya, Nigeria, the Sudan, Rwanda, Somalia, etc. Not everything was sunshine and rainbows though. There were a few fights along the way, and of course the time I was preparing to take on a few Ethiopians I was sure were about to rob us while we rode in the bed of a grain truck...

Some Background for You
Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa (behind Nigeria) at just under 80 million, is the second oldest Christian country in the world (behind Armenia) and in 1991 a brief period of authoritarian Communism was ended by a civil war. The victorious rebels set up a democratic government, which is stable and somewhat free, though most media is state-controlled and independent journalists are harassed and intimidated and probably subject to worse by the government. Ethiopia has multi-party elections, but both the Carter Center and EU election monitors have expressed dissatisfaction with them, to varying degrees (according to wikipedia).

The biggest pop star in Ethiopia is a guy named Teddy Afro, who sings a catchy amalgam of reggae and Ethiopian folk, and while many of his songs are about freedom and love, he occasionally runs into trouble with the government for not towing the party line. While riding in a van to see the Blue Nile Falls, a Teddy Afro song came on the radio and our guide told us he was in prison that week for singing an anti-government song. Later this same guide was accused of being a thief and revealed to us that he was a bit unstable (more on that later), but the information seems consistent with other things I have heard and read. All I can say to Teddy is, fuck yeah, buddy. Live free or die. Click here for an NPR story:

That being said, things seem to be improving within the country. From the eight days I was there (I know, I know, I'm an expert), I seemed to get glimpses of the government working for the people, and of an improving standard of living. Roads and bridges are being built (a lot by Japanese and Chinese engineers), people have access to mosquito nets and cheap malaria pills (a serious threat during the rainy season, when mosquitoes reproduce in huge numbers), and the country does have some valuable exports, mainly coffee and fresh water from Lake Tana and the Blue Nile River. Coffee is originally from Ethiopia, and Starbucks gets a good portion of its beans from there. In early spring of 2008 the government trademarked Ethiopian coffee. The motivation being to protect farmers by getting them a bigger percentage of retail sales.

Getting My Feet Wet (If There Was Any Water)
After a budget flight to London and staying there with a friend for a night, I killed the next day at the Camden Market while she was at work, then boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane at Heathrow that night and flew to Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. I wanted to keep it as real as possible on this trip, hence the use of the local airline, but there weren't any chickens running around on the plane or people packed in like sardines as I had half-hoped (that came later). I sat between a big fat-cat Nigerian with a gold cell phone and a messed up face, either from shrapnel scars or just bad genes, and a stuffy woman with an active baby on her lap that kept grabbing my ear and kicking me with it's little froggy legs while I tried to sleep. I touched down in Addis Ababa that morning, groggy and disoriented, hoping Zayn would be there to meet me.

Zayn Dollie is from Sydney in Australia. His father is ethnically Indonesian and his mother is from Taiwan, so his look is distinct. He has an enormous reservoir of enthusiasm and positivity, a real can-do attitude. It can be really annoying. We met and taught together in Prague last year, and I found myself missing the son of a bitch this year (I had told him to stay and party). Through a friend, he found a volunteer job teaching young kids in Addis Ababa, and with his savings from Prague, some financial help from his parents, and a bit of monthly compensation from the school, he's been living and working there since September.

I gave my $20 and two passport-sized photos to the visa people, but the woman there waved off the photos and stuck the visa into my passport, smoothing it down with her hand. I came to customs with my entry card already filled out, excepting Zayn's address. My phone didn't work on the Ethiopian network, so the man kept my passport and waved me through to get him so we could complete the card. Squinting my eyes into a group of Africans, I found Zayn's brown face among the black ones. Soldiers in baby blue camouflage fatigues sitting lazily at the checkpoint initially stopped him from crossing into the luggage area, but allowed him to pass, or rather didn't try to stop him, after he explained our situation using a little of their native language, Amharic.

The parking lot was a sea of blue and white taxis and minibuses, and it was here I got my first taste of the way Ethiopian business was done, especially when foreigners are involved. My white skin being a signifier of money, the drivers waiting around came to life, excitedly offering us rides. We settled on one, and while the guy went to get his car, another tried to escort Zayn into his van. Then the taxi driver came back and got into a brief spat with the van driver before ordering us into his car. I stood wearing my large backpack and watched dumbly from behind my sunglasses.

Addis Ababa doesn't have many tall buildings or much of a city center, but it does have somewhere between three and five million people, depending on what census you believe. The roads were covered with the blue, private taxis and the blue minibuses which serve as the cheaper, public transportation. People, livestock and trash along the roads everywhere. It being the dry season (the rains come in summer), it was very dusty. Not a beautiful place by any means, but teeming with life.

Zayn lives in a complex, a few houses surrounded by a spiked fence. People walking by openly stared at me as Zayn fiddled with a key. We walked around the landlord's house in the middle of the complex, past the sleepy but growling guard dog. The mangy-looking mutt was tied up during the day, but I was still warned to stay away from him. He had already attacked Zayn's roommate Kim once, giving him a nasty bite. Behind the landlord's house was the servant's quarters, and Zayn and Kim lived in the third house. I emptied my bag, and gave Zayn his present, a purple t-shirt with my hometown of Waunakee written across the chest in white. I was pleasantly surprised to find they had running water and electricity. They also had a little puppy named "Machiatto," which Kim found as a stray in the road. I slapped at her head playfully, and she returned the favor, clawing and gnawing at my arm, eventually breaking the skin a little. I had decided to try and keep as clean as possible on this trip, and thirty minutes in I already had a nip from an unvaccinated dog (the guard dog is vaccinated). That plan came to an end quickly. For what was in store, it was just as well.

Zayn's school was only a few minutes away. We crossed a four-lane highway to get there, jumping a concrete divider and then walked past the frame of an under-construction multiple story building and some tiny shanties with dark feet sticking out. The school, like Zayn's complex, consisted of several buildings surrounded by a fence. A couple of friendly guards stood at the entrance. One wore a bandana over his mouth. The two teaching rooms were pretty standard, childrens' drawings on the wall, desks in rows, a blackboard, and a globe. I quickly met most of the teachers, and even more quickly forgot their difficult-to-pronounce names. There I met Zayn's friends and co-teachers. There was his roommate Kim, a half-Chinese, half-white from Sydney, his Ethiopian girlfriend, Bezabish, also a teacher at the school and Parya, a teacher from Germany but ethnically Persian.

Crossing back to the other side of the highway with the foreign teachers, we passed by some kids in school uniforms who excitedly squealed the word "ferengi," which means "foreigner" in Amharic. I would be hearing this a lot. There was a restaurant on the other side of the street, and we grabbed an outdoor table. Ethiopians do food by cooking a thin, flat, round peace of spongy "injera" bread and then dump "wot" on it, a spicy red stew. You tear the bread and use it to pick up the stew. The first time I had it: terrific. The 17th time I had it in a row: shit. Quit literally (again, more on that later). We sat next to the road drinking Cokes and watching skinny kids drive even skinnier cows across and sometimes along the road, glancing over their shoulders for oncoming traffic.

After lunch, Zayn and I set out in a blue mini-bus to find an internet cafe and a place to exchange and withdraw money. This was harder than you might think, but after few ATM/debit card rejections, and a couple more from bank guards holding rusty Kaleshinikov semi-automatic rifles (it was closing time), we headed up to the Addis Ababa Hilton and I exchanged my dollars and pulled out some more, which came to 2500 Birr (the Ethiopian currency), the equivalent of $250. This would prove to be more than enough for my seven days on the road in Ethiopia. We found a functional internet cafe in a mall, so I sat down at a computer station while Zayn went to get a Coke at an adjacent mall restaurant. The power cut out halfway through my "got here safely" email to mom, but the cafe had generators and the comps popped back on. I finished up and found Zayn sitting with two Ethiopian acquaintances by emergency candlelight in the restaurant. For the waitresses, who were quickly setting up small candles at each table and using flashlights to tally bills, it was just another working day. One of the Ethiopians at our table was tickled to hear that I was, like him, an Orthodox Christian.

"I think I've found a new friend," he said, smiling brightly.

Orthodox Christianity is the main religion there, and mine too, my mother being Greek. I had come during Zayn's spring break, which ran during the Holy Week before Easter Sunday. I would have rather stayed in the city a bit longer, but because it was one of their few breaks, the foreign teachers were all itching to get out of Dodge. We had to wake up at 4:3o the next morning to be on the road by 6:00. I groaned internally, but said nothing. Go with the flow. We smoked a little before bed, then crashed for about five hours.

First Leg
Waking and showering on schedule, we waited for Parya to arrive, then left the house. In passing, we saw the guard dog sitting under the car in the garage. I eyed him warily, but he stayed put until Kim, following behind the three of us, took the house garbage to the can near the garage. Snarling, the dog charged him. I stood frozen, again staring dumbly and groggily with my big backpack slung over my shoulders. Zayn was quicker to react, and I followed as he ran into battle. Kim yelled at the dog and dropped the garbage on his head, and the rest of us running toward the scene scared him off, but not before it took another bite out of Kim's leg. Zayn jokingly said that the dog had developed a taste for Kim, who was furious. I kept quiet.

The "bus station," if you can call it that, was madness, really just a street where hundreds of people had gathered around vehicles. Children played football on the cracked pavement. And it was still very early. Full-sized buses packed with people were pulling out when we arrived. I could see white eyes peaking out from inside and dark calloused elbows hanging out windows. Kim's girlfriend Bezabish arrived and with her native tongue she found us a man who would take us north to our destination. The man was a little guy in a small gray hooded sweatshirt. He had the hood pulled over his head, which covered everything except his silly, smiling face. While waiting for the van, I noticed a commotion to my right, and turned to see two guys locked up. A few others got involved, and observers yelled as it intensified. Someone threw a punch, then a few more were thrown. Our guy in the hoodie noticed the fray and jumped in, I thought, to play peacemaker. Instead, he grabbed another dude, seemingly at random, and popped him in the face with his little fist. It ended as quickly as it started. Zayn and I nervously emptied our bladders between a van and a wall, and we all gathered to say a prayer before departing. I started with the Lord's Prayer, but my mind went blank towards the end, and I trailed off.

Our destination was the town of Bahir Dar. It lies on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, which exits the lake at the bottom and then curls east and north to meet up with the White Nile in the Sudan before flowing further north to Cairo. Though I didn't know it at the time, our first travel day would be the most pleasant. The roads from Addis to Bahir Dar were quite good, and thus we were mostly able to travel at a good clip. On the outskirts of Addis, loads of Ethiopians were out running alongside the road, training for long distance competitions. We pulled over several times to get checked by soldiers standing on the side of the road, though I'm not sure why. At one of these stops, a group of kids came out to see us. They giggled and stared, and I took a picture of them with my digital camera, then flipped it around so they could see the image on the camera's screen. They elbowed each other out of the way to see, and excitedly pointed at themselves in the picture. Then their parents told them to beg and they grabbed at me and said "money, money, money!" as I got into the car. Brats.

Along the roads we would see the occasional military tank. They had been stripped, at least as much as a tank can be, but sat with their cannon pointed in some random direction. In 1997, the Ethiopians fought a war against their Eritrean neighbors to the north over a border dispute. The war killed around 70,000 people, and the machines had probably been left by soldiers heading to the front.

When we came to villages, the driver would slow his frantic pace slightly and lay on the horn. People and animals crowded the road, and they parted slowly, annoyed by the disturbance in their path. We had a few close calls, and eventually did hit a goat lightly. Our driver slammed on the breaks and we bumped the dumb animal in the rear, sending it skidding across the asphalt until it regained it's footing and hobbled off into the grass.

Sitting in the middle of the van, a man had a small bundle of green-leafed branches. Zayn got one and dropped it in my lap, telling me to chew. Bezabish said "Nooo!" and I was suspicious, but the man in the gray hoodie nodded his head at me, and pulled some of the smaller leaves off for me. I popped it in my mouth with a piece of gum, and chewed until the flavor was gone and I was left with plant matter. Out the window it went. Apparently the leaves, called "qat," are an amphetamine, and drivers chew it to stay awake. I didn't feel anything.

Bahir Dar
We arrived in the early evening. The bus station in Bahir Dar was also crazy, but on a smaller scale. Several guys with unclear affiliation approached us and took us to a couple hotels before we found one we liked. It had running water and a double and a single bed in each room, and a mosquito net above the double. I called the double.

While the girls did whatever it is girls do when together, the three men walked through the town, stopping at a pharmacy to pick up some dirt-cheap malaria tablets, then moved on to sit by the lake with a few glass bottles of Fanta. A nice place. Saw a few white people too. Surprised, I stared at the ferengis.

We sat for awhile until one of the the hotel escorts spotted us and began pitching a ride to the nearby Falls the next day, as well as a ride in his boat. He wore a white Kangol-style beret backwards to show the logo and though he was sellin', he seemed like an alright dude. The price he quoted was more than what we had paid for our whole day of riding, but we accepted and agreed to go the next morning to the Falls. Back in the hotel, I offered to sleep with anyone in the double, but took up a spot under the covers and refused to move. I had Zayn put the mosquito net down over me, and though he called me a "pussy," I felt good. He took up the single bed next to me, and as we prepared for bed Parya entered our room and jumped into bed with Zayn. I slept like a baby, safe in my net.

Brawl at the Falls
We woke early, and the dude with the beret was there with his van. The ride was uneventful, but the arrival into the Falls town was an eye-opener. The "town" is just a bunch of dirt-floor tin shacks lining the dirt road. Sad-eyed donkeys pulling carts walked by, and children mostly dressed in worn football jerseys ran out to look at us. Kangol hat guy got out as we first pulled into town and told us he'd meet us later. I was slightly confused but didn't ask questions. At the end of the town we came to a little ticket office, and while Kim and Bezabish went in, we were descended on by men with ID tags who apparently were "official" guides.

While Zayn negotiated, I strolled over to a hut where a man was selling white linen with pretty Ethiopian designs. The man quoted the price at 60 Birr, but I scrunched up my face and gave a thumbs down. He came back with 40 and I picked up a nice white and blue head scarf for mom.
While I browsed, I noticed a child sitting under the hanging cloth. I looked closer and saw he had flies in his face. His eyes were full of life, but also insects, so I waved a hand close to his nose. Most didn't scatter. The boy smiled up at me. I walked away with the scarf, and glanced at him again over my shoulder.

Kim had tickets for us, and Zayn had found an "official" guide, a stocky little guy. We started walking. On the path, the guy in the white beret was waiting for us. When the new guide saw him, he grabbed him by the shirt and told us he was a thief. The shorter man brought back his hand to strike the "thief" in the face, but Zayn, Kim and Bezabish got in-between and tried to explain to the new guide that he was cool. He took out his cell phone and threatened to call the police.
Young locals surrounded the conflict, like kids watching a playground fight. I observed from a distance, and took the break to look around, glancing into huts and avoiding skinny cows. The guide calmed down when the guy in the white beret walked off, and we proceeded.

The Falls were pretty amazing, and it was still the dry season. I wonder what it looks like when the rains come.
On the walk back, the local kids pushed goods on us, including gourds hollowed out to hold water, necklaces, and more linen. Even I thought they were adorable, but we didn't buy anything. When, wet from splashback, I took off my shirt so my body would dry, Zayn quickly found out from Bezabish that the Amharic word for "ghost" is "memfas." It became my nickname for the rest of the trip.

The fireworks started at the end of the path. There the guy in the white beret was waiting for us with his van. Others were there as well, seemingly some with our first guide, and some with the "official" guide. This time, the guy in the white beret was furious for having his customers tampered with, and his voice raised to a high-pitched squeal. Zayn told me this is what Ethiopians do when upset. The stocky guide remained calm, waving the guy off. Things were said between the two groups, and White Beret came hard after the guide, but was held back. The confrontation inexplicably calmed down, and I got bored and walked away from the group again to look around. A kid in a Ronaldinho Barcelona football jersey followed me around, telling me "Give me 10 Birr." I gave him an "I don't think so" look, and he thought for a moment before saying "Okay, 5 Birr." Amused by his "haggling," I gave him one. He wasn't thrilled with it, and I made a motion to take it back. Brat.

The fight heated up again, and I looked over to see White Beret violently swinging a long walking stick at someone, though I'm not sure who. He was shrieking angrily, but didn't hit anything. It was then we decided to abandon him, and headed back to the road. There Kim and Bezabish went to file a police report with the official guide against the original guide, and Zayn chatted up some locals at a little stand that sold drinks. They talked about Australia, and Australian women. One man said that Parya was beautiful, and Zayn asked the others if they liked her.

"We are Africans," one of them said, pointing at his forearm. "We like chocolate."

Another man, unprompted, looked at me and said "You look like a redneck." Zayn and Parya burst into laughter and I looked at him quizzically. "I'm serious," he said.

My neck had burnt a bit since I'd been there. "Is that good?" I asked, amused.

He said yes, backtracking a bit. I asked him what a "redneck" was, to see if he actually knew.

"They drive pick-up trucks, shoot guns. But they don't learn."

é buddy.

Little Guide Boy
That evening, back in Bahir Dar, a bare-footed, English-speaking kid starting following us around. We took a boat trip on Lake Tana, in search of hippos, though we didn't find any, and we let the kid come with us. He spent a lot of time sifting through pictures on the screen of my digital camera, and got excited when he came to the shots of the Slavia/Sparta football game. The boat driver also took us out into the mouth of the Blue Nile. This, mind you, was not the boat of the "thief." We left him and his van behind at the Falls. The public bus we returned in cost a fraction of what he had charged.

After the sun had set, we asked the kid to show us a place where we could eat fish. He led us through the dark to a building no different from the surrounding shacks, and we entered to find a fairly modern-looking restaurant. The kid sat with us, and we bought him dinner as a finder's fee, which came to something around three bucks extra. It being Holy Week, the boy got a fasting dish, beans and whatnot, and a Miranda orange soda. We feasted on lake fish.

When we said goodbye to the kid, he told us about his mother, that she needed 30 Birr (about $3) to pay for a doctor's fee at the hospital. We had been expecting this, and rolled our eyes a bit, but gave him a tenner. In retrospect, I wish we had given him the 30. Maybe he was telling the truth.

the Castles of Gondar
The next morning, Parya, Zayn and I left the other two behind and took a three hour mini-bus ride to Gondar for the day. The roads were good, and scenery was mountainous and beautiful as we drove north to the top of Lake Tana. People standing beside the road held up baskets of fruit and flapping, upside-down chickens by their legs as we passed, and at one juncture the man behind the wheel had to screech the brakes to avoid hitting a yellow-tailed monkey. This being our second experience in a mini-bus, we were slightly better prepared for the aggressive and fast driving of the qat-chewing driver, but being in the shotgun seat and noticing an actual seat belt there, I still buckled up.

We found the city center to be much more modern than in Bahir Dar. Here the roads were paved, and big Italian-style villas which housed a cafe and a large post office circled the roundabout. They were built during the Italian occupation in the 1930's before being driven out by the British. I had brought a small towel with me which I wore over my head. The sun had burned me up the previous day at the Falls, and I needed all the protection I could get. Redneck indeed.

The castles were impressive. They were built in the 17th century by the Emperors of Ethiopia when Gondar was a great and populous capital city. We had fun climbing the stairs of the ruins and peeking at each other through holes in the wall, or in some cases, absences of wall. The Italians had taken up residence here during their brief occupation, so the RAF rained bombs down on the castles. An Ethiopian flag now flew from the tallest building, the former palace. Suffering from the sun, I tired quickly. After walking around in the biggest structures, I found a bench to lie on and draped the towel over my face while Zayn and Pariah continued their exploration of the other buildings. I spent most of the rest of the day in this position.

"Memfas," Zayn called.

The Long Ride to Lalibela
We left Bahir Dar early the next morning, but had already missed the bus to our targeted destination, Lalibela, so we got on one heading in that direction. The five of us plunked down on the back seat of a full-sized bus, and thus felt every bump in the "road," really just an uneven dirt path wide enough for vehicles. At one particularly vicious spot, the back-end was bounced violently and the small spiderweb of cracks in the rear window doubled in size. I slept lightly with my head bouncing around on my neck like a bobble-head doll.

We came to the dirt town of Gaynt after a half day of travel. The bus station was a dirt lot filled with dirty beggars and vendors. I saw a small, dirty child with a blanket over a hump on his back. When I got closer, I could hear a baby cooing under the cloth. Later, another slightly bigger and dirtier kid attacked the one with the baby on his back, throwing (and landing) a few punches at his head before an adult pulled him off. We asked the driver and door man about leaving, and reaching our destination.

"Bus to Lalibela? Tomorrow, tomorrow..."

Shit. Though none of us were eager to stay in Gaynt for the night, there was a "hotel," and I was too carsick and tired for anything drastic and adventurous. Zayn had other ideas. A few English-speaking kids came up to us, wanting to talk to the "ferengis," and Zayn sent them on missions to find us a ride to Lalibela. Wherever I went, I felt every set of eyes was on me. I'm guessing they don't get many pale faces in Gaynt.

The kids came back, saying they had a ride for us on a truck which would take us halfway. The "truck" turned out to be a big-rig with a full-sized, scooped-out trailer carrying hundreds of man-sized grain sacks. Zayn volunteered to ride on the back, and not wanting to be shown up, I went too. The girls and Kim were to ride in the cab with the driver, and the luggage went back with us. While we waited for our lunching driver, Zayn argued with the kids over the amount of the finders fee. Snarling in Amharic at the kids, he would occasionally turn to me and calmly say something like "Be sure to get into a crevice in the sacks, so you're not thrown from the truck" or "Sit close to this bar, but not so close that you bash your head on it."

I imagined our bus ride, only this time in the back of an open truck, and started to have second thoughts. I told him so, and he called me a pussy, or perhaps something stronger. Kim expressed similar thoughts to mine, so I started throwing our bags down to him. Then the driver came, Zayn took charge, up came the bags and we took off.

"Keep it real," Zayn said.

On the slow drive out of town, a little dude in a green camouflaged, military fatigues hat jumped up on the back of the trailer bed with us, and another hopped onto the step on the cab next to the driver. For the first (and only) time on the trip, I panicked and told Zayn we were going to get fucking robbed and left in the wilderness, possibly with bullets in our heads. As my friend Scotty said after I told him this story back in Prague, "No one would ever find you." That was my thinking also. With my heart racing, Zayn again called me a pussy and told me to enjoy the scenery. I growled but didn't respond, and started running scenarios in my head on what to do if the little guy pulled a pistol. There wouldn't be any "I told you so's" when we were all dead.

As we got to the outskirts, the guy hanging on to the cab jumped off and I relaxed a bit. We drove past a large group of people who appeared to be taking part in some sort of food dispersal program. They were receiving grain from large burlap sacks, not unlike the ones we were sitting on, but the ones on the ground had American flags stamped on the sides.

I felt like shit. I wanted to sleep, and though I was fairly comfortable, I was still too scared to do it. Scared of the guy and scared of getting bounced from the truck. Gaynt is up on a mountain, so the first part of our trip was a long descent. The scenery was beautiful, and though I was furious and sick, I noticed. Zayn, in an attempt to cheer me up, pointed out particularly eye-pleasing views. I ignored him, but did try to enjoy it while keeping one eye on the little guy in the Castro hat.

Once off the mountain, we came to a half-built road. Someday it would be two-laned and paved. But I was thankful it wasn't now, because the driver had to move slowly to keep from destroying his truck on the rough ground. We slithered around construction vehicles and piles of dirt. Coming upon roadside villages every now and then, children would catch sight of Zayn's Asian face and my white one. We heard a few "Hey China!" calls, and a lot of "Ferengi! Hello! Hello!" Though my head was throbbing and I wanted to ignore them (or if anything, give them the finger), I kept waving like the Queen of England.

When the sun went down, I stretched out on the sacks and looked up at the stars. Through holes in the clouds, they were brilliant, and I thought of the line from Paul Simon's Graceland: "And he walked his days under African skies..." Of course, I wasn't walking, but the Ethiopians sure as hell were. I could make out the occasional silhouette in the darkness as they moved along the side of the road.

We arrived at our destination approximately four hours later. Gashena is a crossroads town, and though there isn't much, a relatively big hotel can survive. It was an L-shaped building, with the rooms facing inside towards a dirty courtyard where a thatched-roof gazebo sat. A primitive satellite dish the size of a kiddie swimming pool was attached to the tin roof, there was no running water, and the toilets were "squatters," i.e. stalls with holes in the ground. It was heaven. A few women lounged in the dark by a fire. After showing us our rooms, they brought us some shinto, a fasting bean dish with, of course, injera bread. It was the only thing on the "menu" (which actually didn't exist), and was quite good. Ignoring the sleeping bag I had been using as a buffer between myself and possible bedbug or flea infestations, I climbed right into the bed in our room, burrowed deep into the covers, and was out in seconds.

While the rest of us slept late, Kim and Bezabish set out the next morning to find a bus to Lalibela. They returned with the info that one would eventually come, but weren't sure when. We hunkered down in the courtyard, had another order of shinto, and waited. At lunchtime, truck drivers came in, sat down and ate on small blocks scattered around the courtyard. A couple of donkeys with empty boxes on their back sauntered in later and nibbled at some left-behind injera before being shooed away. A little girl, one of the hotel women's daughters, played on the long support bar for the satellite dish, singing as she swung. Underneath the roof where the dish was perched, a television sat in a sparse room. I pictured all the poor and undeducated goat herders, farmers and vendors in Gashena crammed in there to watch a Champions League game or the World Cup final, beamed to them from the sky.

Anticipating the arrival of the bus, I was sure to keep my bladder clear, making frequent trips to the squatter. Luckily I didn't have to deuce. I was planning out my eating and shitting, and had not yet gone using anything less than a toilet. And I aimed to keep it that way.

We made a mad dash for the bus when it pulled up on the street outside the hotel, around midday. Our bags were tied down on the roof, and the bus was half empty when we left. After a short three hour ride, we arrived in Lalibela, home of the rock-hewn churches.

In one of Parya's guide books, Lalibela was said to be a "must see" in northern Ethiopia, thus we paid the day and a half to get there. Upon arrival, I noticed the town was full of energy, no doubt boosted by the tourism drawn to the churches. There were lots of shops, mainly with hand painted signs. I noticed one said "Richard Barber." Next to the name was a pair of scissors.

A few young guys and kids again approached us as we exited the bus and took us to see hotels. Some were nicer than others, and we choose the cheaper one with the toilet. My streak would remain intact! The owner didn't budge when we tried to haggle the price down, so we paid him the 160 Birr for one night in two rooms (about $16).

It was around 3:30pm by the time we settled in, and the viewing of the churches stopped at 5:00. We had to hustle. Finding a guide, we hastily negotiated a price for the five of us, and set off. He was a nice, soft-spoken guy named Addis Alam, which means "New World" (Addis Ababa means "New Flower"). The fingernail on his pinky was very long, which may mean he's a coke dealer. If true, he's the nicest coke dealer I ever met.

The Lalibela churches, named after the Ethiopian Emperor who had them built, were incredible. Large structures the size of a medium-sized house, not built but carved out of the red-brown bedrock. Addis Alam told us it took only twenty-some years to complete the thirteen buildings, because angels would come down and continue the work at night. Those angels did some nice carvin'. All were multiple stories high, and the bases of the taller ones were thirty or forty feet below ground level. Cross-shaped windows were cut out of the buildings, and worshipers prayed inside. Parya, wearing a spaghetti-strap dress, was originally told to go change, but they let her enter when she wrapped a sweater around her shoulders. As we walked between churches, children ran out with woven leather crosses on strings hanging from their little hands. Without breaking stride, I took a closer look, gave the girl a 10 Birr note, and put the cross in my pocket.

The last church of Saint George was the most impressive. Cut out of the top of a hill, it is hidden to the eye as you climb, then the hole opens up when you reach the top and with your toes sticking over the edge of the pit, you can see the cross-shaped church below you. A priest sat inside and watched us silently as we looked around. After consulting with Addis Alam, I took a small, gnarly candle and left a few Birr. Outside, I saw another kid with flies in his face. They particularly like the corners of his eyes, next to his nose. Waving a hand again did no good, so with the candle wick I tried brushing them off. The boy giggled, and I gave up.

Towards the end of tour, Addis Alam said it would take two eight-hour days to get back to Addis Ababa by bus. It was Wednesday evening. My plane back to Europe departed late Friday night. Ethiopian Airlines did fly Lalibela to Addis Ababa, and though it cost about 1200 Birr (more than 10x the cost of a bus ticket), it only took an hour. But after a phone call to the carrier's main office, we were told that everything was sold out. In order for me to be back in time to make my flight, we had to leave the next morning, about sixteen hours after arriving, and ride sixteen hours to get back.

A dust storm blew through the town that evening, forcing us to retreat to the hotel. The power had also been cut as part of the town's energy conservation plan, so we waited it out in our darkened room. To pass the time, Parya sang a few Persian songs, and Zayn and I took turns writing dirty words on the ceiling with a flashlight while the other tried to guess. A response of laughter signaled a correct answer.

When the storm subsided and the power came back on, we headed out to find some grub. I enjoyed our self-amusement, but was also very hungry. Because it was Holy Week, the first restaurant we found only had one thing. You guessed it, shinto. Kim and Parya kept looking, but Bezabish, Zayn and I sat and devoured. Our third meal in a row.

We went to bed at about midnight, and I awoke two hours later to a growling stomach. Only Kim and Bezabish's room had a toilet, so I stayed in bed and tried to calm my bowels. In between deep breaths, I heard high-pitched cackles and growls coming from a distance. I think they were hyenas, which are native to Ethiopia.

At 4:00am I no longer had the luxury of waiting. Not wanting to wake our friends in the other room, I planned to drop trough outside, but a man, apparently some sort of guard, was sleeping near the door in an elevated tin box with the side cut out. Waking up the couple and apologizing profusely, I headed into their bathroom and closed the door. I tried to do my business quietly, but eventually gave in to desire and completely released. The feeling was priceless, and the noise deafening. Kim and Bezabish, no longer even half-asleep, giggled, and I finished my shinto dump into the toilet. To lessen my shame, Kim told me Bezabish had also been sick.

the Last Part is the Worst Part
Completely awake now on Thursday morning, I packed my bag, woke the others and headed to the station to get seats. The bus was nearly full when I arrived, and more were trying to buy tickets, but the doorman came directly to me when he saw my face. Ferengis pay more, and that's fine by me. After some wrangling and help from a young English-speaking man on the bus, we were able to secure two bench seats for the five of us. A brief spat erupted in the aisle between the doorman and another guy, who slapped the bus employee loudly on the shoulder. The two men were quickly separated by the passengers. I watched it in a daze. Apparently Kim and Bezabish had taken his seat.

The following two days were awful, one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life. Buses in Ethiopia must leave very early because the unfinished roads are so rough they need daylight to drive. We were tired from the early start, and there was no sleeping on the jerky bus. Whatever bug I had caught from the bad shinto attacked my stomach, and didn't let up until well after I was home. At every stop I ran to the nearest hole and emptied my bowels. The first came at the crossroads hotel back in Gashena, and my streak ended when I was forced to use the squatter there. I carried several packages of tissue paper in my cargo pants pockets, and over the next 36 hours used most of it. On Thursday a kid two seats ahead of me puked out the window. We quickly closed our own window to stay dry. On Friday I sat next to two guys with shirts draped over their hanging heads. I glared at one when he started to encroach on my space, but then noticed he was spreading his legs in order to vomit onto the floor and not himself. I stood up and took a few breaths, blinking my eyes.

It was very close to Easter now, and on our two-day trip back to Addis, many animals accompanied us. People were taking their Sunday feasts home with them. A rooster held under a seat in the front of the bus crowed to a rooster in the back of the bus, who responded with a call of his own. This continued for hours. An adult male sheep was tied to the top of the bus, and somehow managed to stay up there the whole time, despite the rough roads and lousy shock absorbers. I could hear his hooves clomping on the roof. A flock of chickens were also tied up there, and as we pulled into our stop in Dese on Thursday night, I saw one fall off the side. The bus stopped and the doorman ran out to retrieve it. Removing the sheep required three men. One on top grabbed hold of the animal by its front legs and handed it to a man perched on the ladder on the back of the bus, who quickly handed it off to another man on the ground. The sheep landed in the dirt roughly and shook its head.

Dese, like Gashena a few days before, was a Godsend. We found a nice hotel and I splurged for my own room, with my own toilet. The plumbing wasn't working, so water was taken from a big container next to the toilet and poured into the bowl after. We took bucket showers, pouring a pitcher over our heads, lathering up, then repeating. The water was icy and refreshing. I hadn't bathed in awhile, and was caked with dust and sweat. Sitting on my bed, clean and comfortable, I said to myself, "It feels good to feel good..."

We headed out for a bit that night, trying to make the most of my last night in the country, but faded quickly. We ordered some delicious carbonated mineral water called Amboe (seriously, it was fantastic) to settle our stomachs. Zayn was starting to feel the effects of the bad beans, and Bezabish was having problems as well, but she was a native, and Zayn had built up some resistance. As the rookie, I was suffering. I made multiple trips to the toilet that night. Due to exhaustion and it being our final night, we got a little silly. Zayn became downright giggly, and started imitating the way I dance. With elbows locked to his hips, and forearms and pointer fingers extended at a forty-five degree angle, he laughed hysterically and jerked around the room. I don't think I look like that.

The Friday ride was more of the same. I did gain strength and enthusiasm as we got closer to Addis, but stilll wasn't in the mood for games. During our stop for lunch, a group of young teenagers came up to me when I walked a little ways from the bus. One guy got a little too close for comfort and mockingly rubbed the hair on my forearms. I stood there passively, and after he'd finished did the same to his hairless arms. Then, noticing the leather cross hanging from my neck, he took it in his hand and "blessed" me the way an Orthodox priest would, pressing it to my forehead, chin, then both cheeks. With his boys laughing, he tried to do it again until I gave him a light push. I wanted to bless him back to give the prick some more of his own medicine, but he had a few sores on his face which I didn't want to touch. I got back on the bus.

On the outskirts of the capital city, we pulled to the side of the road and emptied the bus to be patted down by soldiers. We were blissfully dropped off five minutes walk from Zayn and Kim's complex, and I collapsed onto their living room mattress immediately after entering the house.

I wasn't able to sleep, so we all shat and showered up, then headed out to do some shopping. Zayn insisted I take two heavy fucking jars of Ethiopian peanut butter home with me, and I carried them around with me in a bag for 24 hours until they were confiscated at the London airport. He also loaded me up with some gifts of coffee and scarves for his friends back in Prague. I carried similar gifts of my own.

Returning to the complex from our shop, we noticed for the first time a sheep, which hadn't been there when we left, was tied up between servant's quarters and the landlord's house. He was a friendly ram, and Zayn and the rest of the complex ate it two days later on Easter.

For my last taste of Ethiopia, we went to a Lebanese restaurant and ate neither shinto, nor injera. I picked up a Coca-cola bottle with Amharic writing on it as a final souvenir, but accidentally left it at the airport anyway. From Addis, I flew to Rome. On the three and half hour flight, I used the toilet four times. On the connecting flight from Rome to London, another three. Exhausted and sick, I stayed with the friend in London that night before arising early to get my flight to Prague. Due to bad decision-making and bad luck, I missed my flight out, and had to wait for the next one twelve hours later. A good trip, and good to be home.