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November 22, 2017

Bale Rejim Rejim Tse’gurua Setyo - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post - no 32

The problem with the pink house was that it was not the way we expected. The kitchen was not yet given to us and Padma was forced to cook in the drawing room. And it was quite tough as we did not have the adequate utensils. We decided to go to the main market.

We came out and took the blue and white mini bus. The fare was 55 santims (Rs 2.75). But there was a problem with the mini buses. They would be full of students of PEDA and inevitably there would be at least two or three of my own students. The students would be overcome by awe and shyness but would giggle and stare at Padma. Immediately they would whisper “bale rejim rejim tse’gurua setyo” (thanks are due to Elefachew Mossisa for making me get the term and the spelling correct).

We thought it was quite offensive. But any how there was nothing that we could say or do, we could only grin and bear with it. We got off at the market and went on a shopping spree.

We bought a kerosene stove, kitchen utensils, plastic buckets, mugs and then kerosene. It was refreshing to buy kerosene without a ration card. Then the trouble started. All the earlier shops where we bought were big and the shopkeepers  were polite and would speak a smattering of English. 

The interior shops were manned by Ethiopians who would not speak English. Padma and me started showing them what we wanted and then started buying them in quantities that we wanted. We were getting zipped (over charged) but we had no other way.

And the crowd, they would rally around and imitate our voices and actions. It was a riot. The situation was so desperate that we wanted to give up. Then a voice spoke out “Sir, can I help?” and that too in English! I spun around violently. It was a sight just like seeing an oasis for a person who did not have a drop of water for many days! I gaped at the English speaking Angel!

The person who spoke was Tigist (unfortunately I don’t remember her full name). She was a Marketing Diploma student from PEDA and I was teaching her Sales and Marketing course. She quickly grasped the situation and swung into action. From then on the shopping was smooth as silk.

We would tell her what we wanted and show her the items and Tigist would ask, haggle and buy. I could see the difference. I started spending less and less. What we thought would take us hours got finished in a jiffy. I learnt the magical word “sintenum” (how much) and say ORRO nasally which meant ‘oh no” in a slightly annoyed way. Later I learnt to haggle and say “Habesha, Faranji yellam which meant I am a local and not a foreigner”.

We were feeling thirsty and wanted to have a tea or coffee. I had tea, Padma and Tigist had Avocado juice and it was a herculean task trying to stop Tigist from paying the bill. My extreme big built and the Ethiopian traditional respect to teachers finally made her accept my view point that I should be allowed to pay the bill.

Then the real drama started. Tigist started picking up all our bags! She effortlessly picked up bags weighing well over 20 – 25 kgs. At the same time, she looked expectantly at Padma. We did not understand what was happening.

I tried taking the bags but Tigist would not budge. I got rattled and asked “what is the issue, Tigist? Why are you not allowing me to carry the luggage?”. Tigist wailed “oh teacher, how can I let my teacher and that too a man to carry the bags. That is the work for the women folk”.

I was getting a flicker of an idea! I knew what was happening! In traditional Ethiopia, it is the women who carry the load and the man would saunter ahead and take-in the scenery. She thought it was her duty and was getting puzzled why I was so insistent.

I explained to Tigist that in India it is the man who carries the loads and that woman would walk happily behind and may be help with a small bag or two. But Tigist would not budge. She was adamant. It was a stalemate.

There was no getting around Tigist. The omnipresent crowd materialized. It was a scene from a bollywood movie. It was so dramatic and that too it was between a Faranji and a local Ethiopian girl. 

They must have thought that the Faranji was fighting or harassing the local girl, that too a university student! Some of the young men in the crowd I am sure would have started flexing their mental biceps. They were spoiling for a fight.  The situation was getting out of hand!

We started walking to the bus stand and someone suddenly blurted out “bale rejim rejim tse’gurua setyo”. That was absolutely the final straw. I looked at the crowd and yelled “why are you being so rude, why can’t you leave us alone?”

The crowd fell silent but Tigist was puzzled “why are you shouting at them sir?” I was upset but controlled myself and said “This has been happening all the time since we arrived. We know that foreigners are fair game but this is really too much”.  

Not Padma's Picture 
Tigist’s face broke into one of the most beautiful smile “bale rejim rejim tse’gurua setyo is not making fun sir. They are complimenting your wife. The phrase means lady with long hair. They simply love your wife’s dark black hair”.

Padma at that time had very long and luscious hair that would at least be 4 - 4.5 feet long. For Ethiopians who are used to seeing short and curly hair, long black hair would have appeared lovely and exotic. Not understanding the language can lead to so many problems. So after that whenever someone yelled “bale rejim rejim tse’gurua setyo”, I would grin and laugh but Padma somehow could never get used to all that extra attention. 

November 21, 2017

Milk maids and Tom cats - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no - 31

The next day dawned bright and we got up to loud banging that jolted us from our sleepy slumber. The banging was coming from the front yard gate. I opened the main door and was bowled over by what I saw! Two impish eyes and one very cute nose and a grinning smile peeping from under the space of the gate itself. I flung open the front gate and was stunned by the charade.

Bottle Gourd container  
There was a crowd of nearly four or five kids all trying their best to get inside the house of the firanj! The head girl, the leader may be all of 5 -6 years, held out her right hand. In her hand was one of the cutest article I have ever seen. It was a container made of bottle gourd. She mimicked the action of milking a cow.

Then it struck me, the enterprising local milk man had send me home delivery of fresh cow milk! I took the delivery of the cow milk taking care to ensure that the herd (of children)  does not over run our new house.

Ethiopia is a totally cow country and there were no buffaloes. It was quite tough initially to drink tea or coffee with cow milk. Cow milk has a different colour and texture and a slight smell. The curd too had a sticky feel and did not set into nice chunks like the curd made from Buffalo milk. And yes like in many countries, Ethiopians do not consume either curd or buttermilk. The cold climate made the setting of curd, a culinary challenge in itself.  

Even after shutting the front main door, we could hear the children giggling and whispering for a long time. It was daily chore for almost 15 to 20 days before they gave up. They thought it was very unsporting of the firanj not to allow them a free run of the front yard.

It was a Saturday and a holiday. I took a leisurely walk along with Sahithi in our new colony, Kable 7. Three houses away, I ran into my PEDA colleague, an Ethiopian English faculty. He gave me a wide grin and said “Good morning Dr. Aneel”. I wished him too.

“So, How was your first night in Kable 7?” he enquired. “fine, fine” I assured him “but the noises in the night were disturbing” “Noises!” His eyebrows shot up and almost touched his fore head “what noises?”

I explained the noises to him. He was silent for few seconds. Then he gave out a loud shout “DR.ANEEL. You are totally mistaken. Let me assure you, that Kable 7 is very safe and there are no ghosts or spirits that dislike foreigners or people writing in the night. I am sure that the noises were caused by tom cats settling their arguments over queens (female cats) the only way they know, with their claws and curses.

I am sure that the local monkeys would also have participated in the argument and added to the racket. As the roof was made of tin the sound would have been muffled”. “Spirits” he roared with laughter “The only spirits that most Ethiopians love is Tella (a locally brewed drink like our kallu) and Dashen Beer” he added with an all-knowing grin on his face. 

Dashen Beer 

November 20, 2017

Man Proposes and God disposes – Ethiopian Journey – Blog Post – No 30.

Many a times we plan and plan and then the event is snatched from our hand. That is what happened on 22nd November 2002. I really don’t know what transpired, but I was called to the administration department and told that I have to take the pink house and I was given the TINA! Before readers jump into fancy visions of who or what is TINA, let me pour water on any fancy romantic theories. TINA stands for There Is No Alternative. I had to take the pink house.

I rushed back to Ethiostar and told the breaking news to the bewildered and incredulous Padma. It almost broke her down!  She received the news with a wide opened mouth. “When do we have to leave?” she enquired anxiously.

“Anytime” I answered flippantly “the university bus has already started from PEDA”. Giving me looks that could have burnt a person to ashes, she rushed inside muttering something ominously.

The university bus landed at Ethiostar and we somehow rushed all our suitcases into the bus and off we went to the PINK house. PEDA staff had already put an eight seater sofa in the house. They also had given some very skeletal kitchen utensils, a huge centre table and two single cots in each of the bedrooms. There were light bulbs. But they were incandescent bulbs of very low wattage. Like the cane partition they seemed very tired and apologetic.

The Electric oven and the refrigerator were not delivered. The house had a wooden almirah but without any racks. The entire house was full of our suitcases. After dumping the luggage I rushed back to the university.

In the evening Annie Clara came along with me. She wanted to see our new house. She gave a start when she saw the house. “Sir” she exclaimed “this is the house that I wanted to move in. I am sure that I was not granted these houses as independent houses are not given to single employees”. Checking herself, she added “any how I am happy that it has been allotted to you”. Seeing that we did not have any appliance to cook food she generously offered us her electric stove.

Seeing the commotion our neighbour Chidambaram and his diminutive wife Usha came over. They invited us for dinner. Dinner that day was a gala affair. It was almost ten days since we had some genuine Indian food and the children enjoyed themselves immensely.

Once we got back home, it hit us hard. This is going to be our house for the next two years. We need to adapt and make it our own.    

That night Padma packed us off to the bedroom and started to write a letter.   She was sitting on the sofa in the drawing room. Bahirdar shuts down quite early. It was definitely spooky and it was hardly 8 p.m. but the night was loud with squeaky sounds made by crickets. The effect was accentuated by the huge glass panes and the cold wind that was blowing through.

Later she told me that it was very eerie sitting in the dim light and staring out into the darkness. Her imagination was playing wild tricks on her. She could almost see figures floating about in darkness. She could not shut out the view as curtains were not provided.

She wrote paused and wrote again. Next time she paused, she realized that it was not her imagination, there was something moving scurrilously about, very slowly and with very little noise. Shocked to the core, she tried to identify the source. To her horror she discovered that the noise was coming from the roof right over her head!

The more she wrote, the more was the noise. And after some time it became unbearable, the sounds were increasing in intensity and it was perplexing. What was causing the noise? Where there spirits that did not like people writing letters in the night?

Gathering all her wits, she mustered enough courage to switch off the light and rushed to the bedroom. She got into the bed and covered herself with a bed sheet. But the noises were relentless and some-how she lulled herself to sleep.

November 17, 2017

The Pink house in Kable - 7, Bahirdar, Ethiopia - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post No - 29

Wooden Gate, Pink House, Kable 7, Bahirdar 
The first to get a house were Bala and Vasavi. They got a nice house in Kable 13, a good four kilometers from Poly. We were getting desperate as we were not used to living out of a suitcase. And with two kids who had all the time in the world, it was a nerve wracking experience.

Accommodation was not available in the university and even if it was available, it was not being offered to the Indians. We Indians have a very good way of trying to cut each other’s throats. Like the saying goes “we are not worried when we have power cut in our house, we only get worried if there is no power cut in our neighbor’s house!”.

Then it happened! the university officials called me. There was a house available in Kable 7 (Sabat). And it was just a kilometre away from PEDA, my place of work. Excitedly we rushed to the house. At the first look, the house was pretty disappointing. It was a pink coloured house with a tin roof. It had false ceiling made of thermocol sheets. Approximately it would be around 300 square yards in size.

Front door
The house had a quite alarmingly sharp tin gate which had wooden supports and the boundary wall was made of rough stones mounted onto each other rather haphazardously. There one house on its left and it was occupied by an Indian teacher Chidambaram from my own management department and the boundary wall between his house and this house again was a very “you push, I fall” type of apologetic cane partition that was thoroughly soaked in rain and it had a woebegone expression on it.

It was as if it was sorry that it was a boundary wall. In its own view it was not a great boundary wall at all! But it had great pride. It draped itself with a creeper of unknown variety and it always reminded me of a shy maiden peeping behind her green veil.

And the cane wall boundary was tilted and had a huge gap and through it we could see almost the entire portico of the next house!

Padma the ever witty exclaimed “it just looks like our own tadika!’ (a thin a cane  sheet used to protect one from sun and rain in India). She waved an accusing finger at Pranav and said “Young fellow, you better not get rough and fall on it. One fall and it would get smashed. As it is university property, we are not even very sure as how much will be charged from Nanna’s salary as damages”. Even though said in jest, Pranav was suitably impressed. He whispered “amma, I would be careful”

On the right was another house and again the boundary wall made of rough stones and it had many holes and trouble was already brewing. There were at least 3 to 4 kids welcoming us the Ethiopian way – loud shouts and babuji’s were flowing freely. Internally I heaved a huge sigh –the unwanted attention can wear one down. It was so relentless and loud too!

The entire front yard had big rocks and small boulders and there was no garden at all. It was hot and dusty. It was not what we expected. It looked as if we were in rural India and not the idyllic African setting we wanted.

The house had a small L shaped portico and an Iron door. The drawing room had huge glass panes. The house had a decent drawing room and it opened into a small kitchen. The kitchen was occupied by Mulugeta the Kable 7’s watchman. He had his bedroll in the kitchen. The drawing room had a rest room to one of its side and two bedrooms on both sides. It was a small and passable house but we did not like it. The floor of the house was not smooth and it was covered by a synthetic sheet and it had a rough and ready look. And with no furniture it was not a house to look forward to.

We did not like the house and told the puzzled university official the same news. Like most Ethiopians he took the news stolidly and grinned. I understood that he would convey our feeling to the administrative head of the university. 

November 12, 2017

Memories, memories and memories - Ethiopian Journey - Post Blog no - 28

I am getting many queries as to how I am able to remember so many details and that too so graphically. I am letting ‘the cat out of the bag’. Right from my childhood, I was fascinated by things and had a gifted memory to remember and reproduce the same dramatically.
Muscat, Oman 
During all my trips I had maintained a diary of some sorts and even for my Oman trip (my first foreign assignment) I have copious notes. These are not notes parse but very elaborate letters that were written to my wife and parents.
Letters were a life line to sanity in those days. I was a forced bachelor and talking on phone was exorbitant, so sending and receiving letters were the only way to get connected with near and dear.
It was quite frustrating when our man Friday (the person who got us the letters from the Post box) pass my cabin and look at me and say “Anil Bhai, aaj aap ke liye letters nahi hai”.

I used to type out my letters and send them to India. During one of the phone conversations my sister Dr. M. Uma whose family was staying in Yemen wanted to know about Oman and its culture.  I took a copy of one of the letters and posted it to Sana'a, Yemen. She liked it very much.
Sanaa, Yemen 
I started posting all my earlier letters too, starting from the first letter to Sana'a, Yemen. To make it exciting for her family, I posted one letter per week. Later my sister told me that this gesture of mine made her family the cynosure of the entire medical fraternity in Sana'a, Yemen.
Non Resident Indians very rarely get letters and even if they receive they are mostly aerograms and that too very irregularly. Getting a letter in a month itself was very rare. Sana'a hospital had a huge display board where the letters would be displayed and all the Indians would eagerly go and check if they had got a letter.
So a thick cover that arrives every week and that too with the name of M. Sandeepthi (My niece and now a budding Cosmetologist) made my sister’s family and especially Sandeepthi a minor celebrity of sorts. The medical fraternity were quite envious about the entire thing.

But the real chronicler of our journey is my wife M. Padmavathi. Padma with all her busy schedule of being a full time home maker, managing the kitchen with only one Kerosene stove for nearly four months, no maid (she was scared that the local maids would be of an inconvenience), a small kid of two years, taking care of all the washing and the cleaning, trying to home school a very naughty seven-year boy, taking care of the garden and writing laboriously for hours together late into the night, OOF! I think it was a super human effort – Padma a one woman army, a virtual super woman.
Padma wrote so many letters and that too, with so much detailing that it makes for stunning reading. The letters remain fresh, even after fifteen years! So much of history and memories captured on paper. Reading these letters is an amazing experience.  We had completely forgotten some of the incidents. The detailing is helping me make the journey more accurate and getting my time lines more in sync with reality.
The letters that we have sent both to India and USA were lovingly preserved both by my father Sri. M.C. Anjaneyulu and by my mother-in-law Mrs. Anasuya Devi in USA. These letters which were preserved over 15 years-time are worth their weight in gold. They arrived from USA and we eagerly received and we read them with anticipation.
To our utter dismay the prima Donna, the first letter from Ethiopia was missing. The entire set of Padma’s travelogue came to a whopping 440 pages (A4 size paper, written very closely and compactly to squeeze in as much matter as possible). We consoled ourselves saying “it is all right if the first letter was missed, we have all the rest”!
The next day, there was an email from M. Sai Prasad, (Padma’s brother who stays in USA). He has send me a scanned PDF of the first letter and it was 28 pages long! Apparently Padma’s mother by mistake did not send the first letter and asked her son to scan and send us the same! Knowing us, she was pretty sure that we would be doubly anxious.
Nannagaru (my father Sri M.C. Anjaneyulu), Mrs. M. Anasuya Devi (my mother-in-law), M. S. Sai Prasad (Padma’s brother) and Padma, I owe you people. You were instrumental in clearing some of my mental cobwebs.