Category Archives: Ethiopia

Dubai and Brussels

One sunny day, the government of Ethiopia decided to cut off the entire internet. It was only for  ten days, so that was alright. The reason were the upcoming exams and the fear of exam papers being spread on the social media as had happened last year.

One woman in the hotel, with an Eastern European accent, said she would leave Ethiopia. She couldn’t live without internet she said and I had to admit that she looked pale, as if life was leaving her quickly.

From Addis Ababa I flew to Brussels with a long layover in Dubai. Although it was after eight in the evening, it was still 40 degrees and stifling hot. Besides the debilitating heat, there are several more reasons why the city is such a popular travel destination, but I can’t really think of any at the moment. Shopping  malls apparently….

The airport is not a bad one when it comes to lengthy layovers. There are many vending machines that sell cheap snacks and coffee for under a dollar (3 to 4 dirhams). Drinking water is freely available as is wifi.

In Brussels I entertained myself with a short walk in the surrounding countryside and this is where I saw a cow. It looked very peaceful and I made a photograph of it:


It made me think of lunch.

Another highlight of Brussels was a visit to the Magritte museum:

Magritte was an artist who made beautiful paintings of a ball (top left) , a woman (bottom left) and some creatures that seem to have come in peace even though the subcontractor had goofed up the windows of their hotel (right).



Ethiopia wrap up

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I am happy to report that I still have all my teeth and most of my money. I am sitting on my balcony and on good days the wifi reaches to here and I can watch YouTube videos.


Coffee in the Trianon (watercolour)

It’s difficult to ignore injera. They are the spongy, fermented pancakes that form a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. Injera is used to wrap up the food (mostly spicy meat) and eat it with your fingers, I mean, with the use of your fingers.
It’s okay to clap your hands in Ethiopian restaurants to call for attention. Waiters sometimes look ugly if you do, but that’s just because they make very little money.
Fasting days are Wednesdays and Fridays, on which days Ethiopians traditionally indulge in  Spaghetti and ‘Talitelli’  with vegetables. [It’s my theory that the spelling of  ‘talitelli’ is simplified because it is written in four letters of their abugida].
Sometimes you find a lot of grass on the floor of a restaurant. Don’t bother, it’s meant to pleas the spirits or ‘zars’. They don’t exist anyway.


Preparing injera (photo National Museum)

The dominant religion of the Highlands is the Ethiopian Orthodox church, which, interestingly, is a pre-Chalcedonian church. You can read all about it on Wikipedia.

An interesting story that harks back to biblical times when The Queen of Sheba (who, according to legend, lived in present day Axum) visited King Solomon. Their son, Menelik, nicked the Arc of the covenant and took it back to Ethiopia. It still resides there but you can’t see it. Nobody can see it except to the appointed guard


Queen of Sheba (watercolour)

The above is an artist’s (i.e. mine) impression of the Queen of Sheba. It’s actually a watercolour sketch I made after a still in Tina Turner YouTube video where she’s singing River Deep, Mountain High.

The Naional Museum


The museum is most famous for Lucy. The young Australopithecus afarensis found in the Afar region. She was looking for her make-up mirror when she accidently slipped, died in a river bed and fossilised to the merriment of future anthropologists.


Self portrait (watercolour, not in the museum)

Above a self portrait of Homo sapiens sapiens, a slightly more intelligent creature.


An Ethiopian version of the Last Supper. It is very similar to the famous interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci. The food looks yummy. Well, no injera at least….


In 2010 the Mexicans gave an Olmec statue to the People of Ethiopia. The People of Ethiopia said a polite thank you and put it in the garden of the National Museum.

On the top floor of the museum were some ethnographic knick-knacks on display which included some old black and white photographs. They provided me with an opportunity to try something else besides self portraits….


Sketch after photograph in the National Museum

When I approached the shared toilet of the hotel I met an Ethiopian man leaving.
I smiled.
I am fine, he said.
Good to hear that, I said. I am fine too.

Next post will be from Europe to where I escaped after my long exile in Addis Ababa….

Coffee and art

While developing my skills in sketching and painting I have naturally become more interested in art and the history of art.

Reading up on modern art I decided to experiment a bit with abstract art and got inspired by the work Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III by Barnett Newman. The painting has an interesting history in that it was damaged by a deranged man and was later restored but under circumstances that sparked a huge controversy. The restoration cost 400.000 US dollar.

The technique I used for my modest reproduction was of course watercolours with my crappy Russian paint set and cheap paper. In the process I made two separate watercolours, one of the painting and one of the silhouette of the art lover. Then I made photographs and used GIMP for digital choreography.
I think I call it:  Who’s Alfred? Mad fellow, no clue?

The digitally enhanced renderings I made represent a watercolour of the original, before the damage (left), and one after the resto ration (right). There’s not much difference apart from a slightly bigger audience.

The dimensions of the original work are huge: more than 5 metres in length with a height of more than 2 metres, and since museums have limited exposition space, it might not be permanently on display. [not sure if it’s on display in the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam right now]. My watercolour reproduction was roughly 5 cm by 2 cm because I didn’t have so much red, yellow and blue…

The value of the work is not known [as far as I know], but similar works of this artist are sold for 40 ish million dollar. Instead of roughly 10 square metres of red paint, you could also buy your own super yacht, somebody else’s private jet or you could buy all the tickets for a major football match (and not show up, if you wished to be really decadent).

After this difficult (and expensive) art, I decided to do something easier and embarked on a series of self portraits.
The reason was because I am always there and it’s easy to have a model that’s always there.

The first (left) came out very well as a sketch, but I messed up with the paint job. It was quite a bit more difficult than painting Red, Yellow and Blue….. Fortunately, I had made a photograph of the sketch and used that to digitally enhance it. This worked so well, that I am now afraid that people will think I simply digitally altered the original photograph… The second (right) is not as good, but I might try and see if I can use it as a passport photo for my next visa application. It has the right number of eyes and it could be me on a serious day.

I still drink a lot of coffee. With sugar, admittedly, and I know that many coffee aficionados recoil from this practice. The first recorded coffee drinkers, who lived on the Arabian peninsula, apparently drank their coffee black with no sugar, but they did add spices. The Egyptians are reputed for having first added sugar to their coffee at around 1625. They are also credited for having invented the traditional Middle Eastern way of making coffee, in which fine powdered coffee is boiled together with sugar. The result has become known as ‘Turkish coffee’.

As for the use of milk, which is also optional, it was Nieuhoff, the Dutch ambassador to China who first tried coffee with milk in 1660, possibly inspired by the more widely spread custom of drinking tea with milk. This innovation did not become widely accepted until Franz George Kolschitzky opened the first café, Zur Blauen Flasche, in Vienna in 1684 where he served coffee with milk and honey. People liked it and kept coming back the Blue Bottle for more.

I’ve been in Addis now for more than a month. I have stopped travelling and now just live in the city for a while. The food is tolerable, the grounds of the hotel are reasonably quite, it’s not expensive, the weather is mellow. But most importantly: there is a steady flow of interesting people to talk to.

There’s a lot of abject poverty in the city. Many beggars live under appalling conditions and I have found that they influence the standards of what you find acceptable. You see a beggar and  think: This one’s alright, he’s got shoes on….

I am reading L’Abysin by Jean-Christoph Rufin. In the beginning my French was a bit rusty so while reading the first paragraph it took me a while to figure out that the author was describing a painting of Louis XIV and that when he described it as having leprosy, it was the painting and not the Sun King himself who was afflicted. I was halfway reading a Wikipedia article on Louis XIV when I found that out….

The rains have come. But it’s not the time yet and it leaves the locals confounded. It leaves me, occasionally, wet.

In an attempt to improve myself I am now trying out new habits.

Three habits I am trying:
1 Making my bed after I get up. It’s a nice idea to start the day with something positive. It needs to focus on a little chore that makes a difference. Living in hotel rooms means that the bed is the main furniture in the room. If the bed is a mess the room is a mess. Making the bed tidy immediately lends a tidy atmosphere to the room. Nice and I need more nice in my life.
2 After a hot shower briefly switch to cold. Very invigorating. Not sure yet what the effect is on my creativity. Hot showers always seem to have a  stimulating effect on me when it comes to creative ideas. Obviously, when I switch to cold, the only thing I can think of is: AAAAARH. Expressive, yes, but hardly creative.
3 Doing something creative every day. This could be either writing, drawing or sketching (sculpting, architecture, arcane poetry). The rule is that I produce something every day, no matter how little, good or bad. I want to become a creative person which is difficult if you don’t do anything creative.

I am also thinking of adopting the habit of changing one habit ever month for a better habit. But that’s a tricky one, so I have to think about it….

Birds and coffee

In the garden of the hotel I had taken a photograph of a weaver bird. They are typical African birds and are called weavers because the male weaves a spherical nest and then, when finished, invites the female to inspect it. If she doesn’t like it, she destroys it and the male can start all over again.


The painting was not a great success. No preliminary drawing this time because I thought it’s only a bird. What could go wrong? Still, a good exercise, especially colours. After I finished it (and when is a painting ever finished?) I tried to photograph it, but that was harder than expected. The camera I use is a small Panasonic digital camera and it has a choice of ‘scene modes’: portrait, mountains, sunset, night sky etcetera. For some reason the bird was best photographed as ‘food’. So be it.

The portrait of the girl gave me grief and an earlier version, carefully drafted, came out horrible and looked like Michelle Pfeiffer. Not that Michelle Pfeiffer looks horrible, on the contrary, but there was, obviously, no likeness. Then I decided to simply put paint on my crappy sketch paper and try till I got it right. That was with the first attempt, so another portrait on crappy crumpled paper…
The portrait of the boy went fine, the blue is accidental, but I decided to leave it that way. Serendipity in art?

As always when absorbed in an interest, I read everything to further my knowledge and skill of that subject. From paints to colours to composition, van Gogh, Da Vinci, Neolithic cave drawings and Andy Warhol.

After I read something about the materials that artists use, I thought to have a look at my paint to see if I could learn something from it. It’s a small set of 14 colours for children (age 3 and older). It even came with a small brush that I’ve rarely used. I had bought it in Uzbekistan for a dollar and it is Russian made. It does have however, a small text in English: Recommended for kids and artistic creative works [Ha!]. Ingredients: drinking water [sic], dextrin, sugar, glycerin, organic and non organic pigments [when lost in the woods, you can always eat your paint]. Safe if use at purpose. Warning! Small parts. Best before end. Made in Russia.

Lately, I have most of my breakfasts in the Trianon, a beautiful coffee house in Piazza with high ceilings and a good atmosphere. It’s wonderful sitting there, framing compositions, studying skulls and drinking coffee.

Reading Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. On the cover there was a picture of the author and I thought I’d sketch it.


I was really happy with it because of capturing the essence of the photo in just a few strokes. Looking back on it, there are tiny improvements possible but that takes away from the spontaneity and I’d rather leave it as it is.

Eating at a cheap restaurant I moved outside because the only table inside was close to the smelly toilets. After I was done with the food I turned to my book while I was finishing the beer. When I looked up I saw that three street kids had approached me and were staring at my leftovers. Almost imperceptibly I nodded and the three flew at my table. Two tore the injera apart and scooping up the rich gravy. The third grabbed the three tiny bones. Then they ran with it. The waiter walked on the street and shouted after the kids. It’s shameful, he said to me, shaking his head. It certainly is, I thought.

Back in the hotel I made a sketch of David’s nostrils.


Then I thought to give them some more context. That was the really hard part.

The Ethiopians claim, naturally, that coffee was first discovered in their country. The history of coffee is an intriguing one and entire books are written on the subject. The buzz of coffee was first discovered by goats nibbling on the berries of the coffee tree. According to legend, a ninth century goatherd, Kaldi, noticed the capricious (pun intended) behaviour of his animals after eating the berrries and decided to try some himself. He sensed an unusual excitement as ninth century goat herding was as a rule not very stimulating in itself and so he went to a nearby monastery and presented his findings to a monk. This monk dismissed his discovery and threw the berries in the fire [reminiscent of the record company dismissing the Beatles: guitar bands are on their way out….], but the ensueing delicious smell attracted the other monks and they retrieved the roasted beans from the fire. Voila, a new brew was born! One lump or two lumps? Steamed milk anyone? Macchiato perhaps?

As a small follow up on the discovery, it is interesting to contemplate the effect of the use of coffee on civilisation. It has been argued that the shift from an alchohol dominant culture to a coffee dominant culture could have had a determining effect on the rapid developments during the enlightenment. During much of early European history it is believed that the majority of the population was in an almost constant state of intoxication, and yes, this includes children. I was reading Dickens not long ago and young David Copperfield drank ale at a precious young age.
Coffee first spread through the Islamic world and the beans were left by the Turks after their siege of Vienna. Shortly after that the first coffee houses were openend in that city.

I couldn’t have written this blog without coffee…

Coffee and birds

After my portrait of the Ethiopian priest (in my last post), I tried my luck with an Ethiopian coffee pot, the gabana. This pot is used to pour out the traditional Ethiopian coffee as I have drunk it many times. It’s generally served with some herb and way too much sugar. The herb is said to be good for the stomach.


Most of my try-outs turn out to be better than expected and then I regret having used my crappy sketch paper. I have to become more confident and start using my thick paper for watercolours straight away. In the above case for example, the pot needs to be darker, but I’m afraid that if I paint an extra layer, the paper would buckle and warp too much.


The above watercolour is a Turaco, but it’s hard to see because of the lack of colour that makes this bird so spectacular. So, why no colour? Because it was  my first commission! On the terrace of the  hotel I had met a Danish guy who is working on a website for birding in Ethiopia. When we looked at his photos I said that it would be nice to make a watercolour of one. He said he actually wanted a logo for his website and so he asked me to make a watercolour of a photo he liked. That afternoon I made a draft and put some watercolour in it to see if could do it and when I showed it to him he was very excited. He said he couldn’t believe I had done that in an hours work. I made a few tiny adjustments and then he said it was perfect, even though it was only the draft on the crappy paper! He offered to pay me, but I said I was happy to accept dinner in the restaurant next door.

After the bird I  made a study of a girl, but near the end I realised I had forgotten the background, so I repaired that with GIMP. I am not so sure if that improved the painting at all, so I have uploaded both versions for the reader to judge.

Living in the hotel for quite a while now, I’ve become familiar with quite a few characters that surround the place and I’ve come to fear the greetings that involve meeting these people: I never know what kind of handshake is coming and exactly what to do. Some come in with their hand in a high position and some as if they go for a regular handshake. What follows is a kind of judo: they jerk your hand down and lean over to touch shoulders. Embarrassing is not knowing the number of times: often one time, but one guy said three times is good practice among good friends to which position I was apparently just elevated. Besides these common manoeuvres, there exist a number of cool hip-hop style (what do I know) shakes, sometimes a normal handshake is unexpectedly changed in an overhand shake. Sometimes people merely caress the palm of your hand rather than shake it. And so forth. It is complicated.

Addis Ababa

It was as short walk from the Taitu Hotel to the church. The area around the church was swamped with beggars and they looked, conform their profession, deplorable. It much resembled a nineteenth century leper colony. Some of them bundles of rags and filth, hardly recognisable as humans, apart from their oblong shape. So far I had been distributing one birr coins liberally among the beggars, but now I found myself in a situation where I found it difficult, because it felt unfair to pick a single destitute being and in the end I simply kept my money in my pocket.


Amharic in its colourful script

The cathedral was built in 1896 and dedicated to St George, whose relic was carried to the Battle of Adwa, which was fought against invading Italians. The Ethiopians unexpectedly won the battle.

The church was closed and I had to come back another time.


St. George killing the dragon

Ethiopian coffee is a legacy of the Italians. In 1941 when  they fled the country they left an old battered espresso machine and the Ethiopians found it in their headquarters. They took it apart to see how it worked and once they had figured it out, they started to make good coffee themselves. Mille grazie Italia! And you haven’t been in Ethiopia if you haven’t eaten an injera and so I had some spicy ‘tibes firfir’ for lunch with some cold beer.


Ethiopian priest (pencil and watercolour)

After Egypt, the traffic is perfectly congenial and a taxi even stopped to let me cross the road, something which was unheard of in Egypt.

Another positive note is that the weather so far is very nice. When I booked my ticket I checked the weather forecast and it looked bad enough with ‘thunderstorms’ basically every day, but for the time being it’s been wonderful. Not too hot, not too cold. This time I had flown with Ethiopian Airlines and 24 hours before departure they had confirmed the necessary information and it had also included a weather forecast. It hovered around 39 degrees for the next couple of days and I do not know why. The average mean temperature I estimated to be some 15 degrees cooler than that… Or could it be that in temperature scales Ethiopia deviated from the standard as they seem fond of….(clocks, for example, all seem to be broken until you realise that their clock is six hours out of phase, that means it’s always 6 hours off from our time notation; that is, after  correction for the time zone. The Ethiopian clock is simply repaired by adding 6 hours; for  example 8 o’clock is 14 or 2 o’clock, alternatively, you can also subtract 6).

My first days in Ethiopia I rested a lot. The overnight flight had been unusual exhausting and I was possibly battling a cold.
I met Jim who invited me for coffee.
Addis Ababa is more expensive than the rest of Ethiopia, he said. It’s possible to get a room here for 10 dollars, he said, but you wouldn’t want to have it for your donkey, I mean, the rooms are awful.
Um, I said as a resident of the donkey class.

I had many coffees at the terrace of the Taitu Hotel. The prices weren’t cheap, but the location was really nice and it is almost a historical site in itself. It was the first stone structure in the city and built by princess Taitu. It was also the location where foreign journalists were housed during Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930. One of these journalists was Evelyn Waugh and Taitu is the location for his novel Scoop.

Ethiopians at the time were not familiar yet with the concept of a hotel and had to be told that they had to pay for their consumptions.

Unfortunately, I had to buy internet in megabytes, not expensive, but it made me wary of lengthy YouTube videos about quantum mechanics that I don’t understand anyway. But reading the internet was cheap enough..

In the evening after having dinner, I walked back to the hotel. A woman with a child sat on a piece of cardboard and I crossed over to give her some change. But when I got near I wasn’t so sure; her clothes weren’t quite the rags I’d seen with other beggars…
Um, excuse me, I said, you, um, want some money?
Possibly the dumbest question the woman had ever heard.  She stretched her hand out and I gave her a few coins.
It’s not always easy to be the experienced world traveller.

Africans are Dionysian in nature I believe. They are life affirming creatures. Sometimes a bit too much as last night when a drunk prostitute with a blond wig blundered on her high heels through the corridor yelling where the toilet could be. Ear plugs come recommended when travelling in Africa.

Even within the capital I’ve seen two interesting birds. I am not a birder, but I sympathise with the guild.
The wattled ibis makes an awful noise and is, according to an old Lonely Planet guide I found, semi-endemic. What is semi-endemic? Are there some birds escaped to New York’s Central Park and thriving there, and is the species therefore no longer fully endemic??
Not endemic in the least was the red-billed firefinch, a pretty bird fluttering around in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Inside the church of St George were carpets laid on the ground like in a mosque. This possibly comes with the no-shoe policy. The floor plan of the church was octagonal. At the outset, churches were circular as were Jewish synagogues. Prayers seem to be performed in a similar fashion as muslims are wont to. On the walls I noticed a mixed iconography, in the museum were some Russian icons, in the church a rather black St George, but for the rest  predominantly white depictions of Jesus and Mary. One wall had pictures of Haile Selassie and among them one in which the emperor stands with some other dignitaries devote at an enormous machinegun.  In the church men (segregated from women) in white shrouds are chanting in a repetitive and rhythmic, – polyphonic – manner . It had an African sound. Devotees seem to circumambulate in a clockwise fashion and kiss and touch the black stained wall underneath the pictures.

Close by was a small museum with liturgical material, some dresses and two small thrones which were used at the coronation of Haile Selassie. I have had better furniture in budget hotels.