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Friday, April 2, 2021

I Left My Heart in Pretoria


Looking across the Union Buildings Garden towards the Lukasrand Tower

Well, no, I didn't - my heart is still firmly ensconced in its chamber, but it was because of my hollow muscular organ that I found myself spending the past six days in Pretoria, the seat of the executive branch of the South African government. The tale unfolded late on Wednesday last week. On a night when I was having difficulty falling asleep, I got up from the bed to walk over to the dresser, where a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping tablets was kept. The problem was I rose too quickly. I passed out, hitting my head and right shoulder on the dresser as I fell to the floor. I'm not sure how long I was lying there (it could've been seconds; it could've been minutes), but when I came to and made my way back to bed, my heart was racing at a breakneck pace.

Despite the pounding in my chest, I eventually fell asleep, but the next morning I was feeling winded. Arriving at work I went straight to the health unit to be examined by the physician, who confirmed I had an irregular heartbeat. From the embassy I was taken to one of the better hospitals in Addis Ababa, where after a series of tests I was diagnosed as having atrial fibrillation. I would end up spending Thursday night at the hospital - due to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia's capital, all the beds were filled and so I ended up spending a long, noisy, stressful and sleepless night in a bed in a corner of the emergency room.

The decision came down that I was to be medevaced to South Africa, which is how I found myself strapped to a gurney inside an air ambulance that departed Addis Ababa just before midnight on Friday. Following a refueling stop in Kampala, we arrived in Pretoria around dawn. From the airport an ambulance transported me to the hospital where I would stay the next three nights, hooked up to a heart monitor in the Cardiac ICU.

As you can imagine, it was far from an enjoyable stay, though I did seem much better off than some of my fellow patients in the CICU. I was confined to the bed most of the time, reading a book or watching TV. I was allowed to get up and take walks around the hospital floor, even though it meant having to unplug myself from the heart and blood pressure monitors (followed by having to reattach myself when I returned from my corridor strolls). Boredom was relieved with the 4:30 a.m. blood drawings, and morning anti-coagulant injections into my stomach. I was examined by a cardiologist, who had me undergo two CAT scans (one for the head, the other to map my heart), and an EKG. The most unpleasant experience was by far the tilt-table test. This involved being strapped down on a table, then having it tilted upward until I was almost vertical. The intent was to measure how one's heart rate and blood pressure respond to the force of gravity - in my case, I lasted around 15 minutes, feeling dizzy and finding it hard to breathe before the nurse took pity and mercifully ended the test.

In the end, it was a relief to learn that my heart is for the most part healthy, and that the atrial fibrillation won't require a long-term medication regimen or major changes in lifestyle (though I do need to watch the cholesterol levels). I was discharged on Tuesday morning and put up in a hotel in Pretoria's Menlyn Park area. Following a final consultation with the cardiologist on Wednesday morning, and a Thursday morning session at the embassy, I had some time to myself until my 11 p.m. Thursday commercial flight back to Addis Ababa. I arrived in Ethiopia at 0525 hours this morning, so if this post doesn't meet its usual high standards of erudite insights, it's because I'm having trouble staying awake as I write this on a Friday afternoon.

The hospital where I stayed in Addis Ababa. It's a good facility, but it's located in a neighborhood of potholed and/or unpaved roads and crowded market streets, which must make it difficult for the ambulances to reach the ER:


The air ambulance on the tarmac at Bole International Airport. You can see the gurney inside the doorway:


Breakfast in bed at the CICU in Pretoria. The food wasn't bad, actually, and I was well taken care of by the staff at the hospital there:


Having been driven from the airport to the hospital in the early morning hours of Saturday while lying down on a stretcher, my first view of Pretoria came when I got up and walked the floor where the CICU was located:


Notice the bilingual sign in the background. Afrikaans was widely spoken among the (white) patients and staff at the hospital:


When you're hooked up to an IV but still have that craving for nicotine first thing in the morning:


Each bed in the CICU had a TV, but earbuds or headphones were needed to listen to the programs. Having neither, and with a lot of time to kill while lying in bed, I became addicted to watching local soap operas, as many of them were subtitled in English:


Catching the sunrise between having yet more blood drawn (my right arm is badly bruised), and before breakfast was served:


What lies behind the door in Ward 1D?:


Waiting for a taxi to take me to the hotel on Tuesday morning after being discharged from the hospital:


My room at the Capital Menlyn Maine was more like an apartment, as it came with a small kitchen, plus a washing machine and dryer:


The view from my 6th-floor (or 7th-floor, if you prefer counting things the American way) balcony. Several restaurants and the Menlyn Maine Central Square shopping mall were the proverbial stone's throw away:


The Time Square Casino was located across the road:


My first post-hospital meal was at...McDonald's. It had been a while...As was the case with many businesses in South Africa, I had my temperature checked upon entering, then filled out a form with my name, cell phone number, the time I arrived and my temperature reading. The seriousness with which South Africans appear to be taking the coronavirus (face masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing and so on) is in stark contrast with the situation here in Ethiopia (or in parts of the U.S.), where things appear to be spiraling out of control. The big news in the country during my brief stay came on Tuesday evening when President Cyril Ramaphosa in a televised address announced new restrictions for the upcoming Easter holiday weekend:


Seeing the name of this bookstore brought out the sniggering schoolboy in me. It turns out CUM is a Christian bookshop chain! The name comes from the Afrikaans Christelike Uitgewersmaatskappy, meaning "Christian Publishing Company":


There were a number of sculptures in the area around the hotel and shopping mall:



The casino lit up at night:



The view from my balcony in the early evening. The restaurants and bars were busy and lively...up until the COVID-19-mandated curfew. It was dark and quiet as I prepared to get into bed around 10 p.m.:


The Menlyn Park Shopping Centre is an even larger shopping mall around 15 minutes on foot from the hotel. It's where I spent most of Wednesday afternoon following my morning consultation with my cardiologist back at the hospital:


Local language reference books for sale at the mall's Exclusive Books outlet:


Thursday morning started off with the "Farmhouse Breakfast" - two eggs, chili mince, lamb wors (sausage), rocket (a salad leaf) and ciabatta bread:


While I was missing my family, I did wish I could've have had some time to explore my surroundings. Had it been necessary to stay through the weekend, I would've hired a taxi for a day to take me on a safari tour. I had to visit the health unit at the embassy in Pretoria on Thursday morning, so afterward I had the taxi driver take me to see the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government and where the official office of the country's president is located:



The grounds are famous for the large statue of Nelson Mandela:



General Louis Botha, the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa:



My final proper meal in South Africa was a late lunch at Turn 'n' Tender. I sat outside, facing the hotel - that's my balcony on the top floor on the left (above the umbrella):


Things started off with a Castle Lager:


I had the 300 gram fillet, "a prime cut so tender it melts in your mouth", according to the menu, and the menu was telling the truth. It came with a side of mash, and a spicy traditional African sauce called Peri Peri:


For dessert I had malvapoeding and ice cream, and washed down in a lime-flavored milkshake. Decadence never tasted so good:


And if my waistline wasn't already taking a lot of abuse, I bought another milkshake from a stand in Menlyn Maine Central Square to enjoy on the balcony while waiting for the taxi to arrive to take me to the airport:


A nightcap at O.R. Tambo International Airport while counting down the remaining minutes in South Africa:


And so I'm back "home" in Ethiopia, even though the familiar-looking roads and shops of South Africa feel a lot more like North America than anywhere I've seen in Addis Ababa. I only wish I had been visiting under better circumstances. It's been a stressful and uncomfortable week-and-a-half - I've lost much of my chest hair from having the stickers that connected the electrodes to the heart monitor applied, removed and replaced so many times. But at least it was reassuring to learn that my heart is in decent shape, atrial fibrillation aside. 

I just have to train myself not to get out of bed quickly from now on, otherwise I may be paying another visit to the local CICU...



Sunday, March 14, 2021

I Feel Your Pain


It's great being white, and having the sense of entitlement that comes with it, especially while overseas. This appeared in my Facebook feed a couple of days ago:


Posted by a longtime Canadian expat residing in Taiwan, it was captioned:

The editor in me wants to rip this off the wall in our elevator every time I see it. There are a number of fantastic Chinese to English translators living in our complex. You'd think they'd ask someone to see if it's correct. Dear Building, please to correct now. 

The comments from fellow expatriates, of course, were all supportive:

Taiwanese just don't edit.
How long does it take to correct a poster?
I hate this kinda stuff so much.

The thing is, while the poster's attempt at English is amusing ("reinniciating"?), it isn't that badly written, and the message it's trying to get across is actually pretty clear. What the expat seems to be overlooking is that signs like these are a courtesy, and should be approached as such (i.e. withouth the carping). Apparently, there are waiguoren 外國人 (foreigners) living in this particular apartment complex, and the building's management chose to include an English translation to go along with the Mandarin Chinese announcement to ensure that all the residents were aware of a change in coronavirus-related procedures. They didn't have to do this, but they did, and in return they're criticized and ridiculed for not having an editor look it over before it was posted on a wall. Spare a thought for the poster (the expat, not the announcement in the photograph) - it isn't easy living in a society where your language isn't widely spoken, but you must have information in English because...well, that's the language you speak. And it gets so tiring on the eyes having to read mistakes made by non-native speakers of English who should've taken the time (and possibly the expense) of getting someone to proofread it before dissemination or publication. I feel the pain...

This reminds me of the great romanization debate that took place among Taiwan's foreign (read English teacher) community in the early oughts, where the consensus that finally emerged was that the Taiwanese government should adopt Hanyu Pinyin because that's how many of these waiguoren first learned to read Romanized renderings of Mandarin names and vocabulary words (I actually was taught Wade-Giles, but that was before the dawn of recorded history). I remember one American, in particular, who not only insisted on Hanyu Pinyin because otherwise he wouldn't be able to stop himself from pronouncing "Kaohsiung" 高雄 the way it is customarily written (instead of as Gaoxiong), but in all seriousness also wanted the Taiwanese government to spend taxpayer money on putting tone marks on all street signs, so he could pronounce names like Gāoxióng properly! The fact that Romanization on street signs was more or less a courtesy to foreign residents and visitors was apparently lost on those who expected the locals to provide for all their needs. Western privilege - it makes life that much easier once you stop whining about trivial matters. 

This week marked the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake 東北地方太平洋沖地震 of March 11, 2001, the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that led to the deaths of over 18,000 people, and the evacuation of over 150,000 from the area around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant 福島第一原子力発電所. Numerous stories have appeared in the international media to mark the occasion, with this Japan Times piece doing a good job of summarizing the struggles faced by survivors a decade on from the tragedies. I was in Taiwan and not Japan on March 11, 2011, and so did not personally experience the shaking, the destruction and the fear of a nuclear catastrophe - the closest connection I had to the events there was what a student of mine from my teaching days in Yokkaichi 四日市 went through. He was training to become an airline pilot at a school at Sendai Airport 仙台空港 when the tsunami came roaring through that Friday afternoon. He had to be evacuated by boat from the third floor of the school building, and lost his car to the maelstrom, but otherwise he was unscathed. 


But while I wasn't on the ground in Japan, being in Taiwan meant I was in the next time zone over, and all the Taiwanese news channels were running live feeds of the destruction being caused by the tsunami. I actually had plans to travel in the Tōhoku region 東北地方 that summer, including a stay in Ishinomaki 石巻, which was one of the hardest hit municipalities on 3/11:


I was going to use the city as a base to visit the island of Kinkazan 金華山, accessed by ferry from the fishing port of Ayukawa 鮎川, but nature had other ideas:


I ended up going to Okinawa 沖縄 instead that year, as far as you could get in Japan from the disaster zone while still being in the country, though I eventually did make it to Tohoku in September 2013 (remaining inland during my travels, however). Over the years I've watched numerous documentaries and videos of the disaster on YouTube, and read the excellent but very sobering Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry, with its harrowing depiction of the needless deaths of 74 students and 10 staff of Okawa Elementary School, and the struggles faced by the family members in coping with their losses. Speaking of the latter, a friend of mine posted on Facebook the other day a quote from a book called The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsuanmi, in which the author claimed:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. It is...a faith that...has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead.

My friend is sincere in his Christian faith, but to me the above quote is disgusting. I don't believe in God (or Allah, or Jehovah), but if I did, I would hold He/She/It solely responsible for the death, pain and sadness in this world, and most especially the sufferings and deaths of children. To paraphrase graffiti left on the wall of a Nazi concentration camp, any supreme being that may exist has a lot to answer for what happened in northeastern Japan ten years ago.

Here in the present and halfway around the world, we're counting down the days to when he leave Ethiopia, now penciled in for early July. I've already lined up a place for us to live in Falls Church, Virginia (for what will be the fourth time around) and will start soon on getting my daughter enrolled for the 10th grade there. Which means the waiting game begins, for the wheels of the State Department bureaucracy turn very slowly, and I have no idea when my proposed itinerary for our transfer from Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ to Beijing 北京 by way of the Washington, D.C. area will be approved by those paper pushers who make the ultimate decisions. Meanwhile, the move to split our section at work into alternating teams (taking turns going into the office and teleworking from home) may have reduced the chances of coming down with COVID-19, but has resulted in a backlog of work that can't be done from my laptop in our third-floor study. At least my wife and I are halfway through the process of getting vaccinated for the coronavirus, though Amber will have to wait until she turns 16 next winter.

And has been the case for months now, the combination of COVID-19 and the deteriorating crime situation in the capital has meant that we continue to stay at home for the most part when not going to school or work. Which is my go-to excuse for the paltry and uninteresting collection of photos being shared on this post, starting with this picture of a bajaj ባጃጅ, the Ethiopian version of a tuk-tuk. Bajajs are a common mode of transportation in the countryside as well as in some areas of Addis Ababa, but they're rarely seen in our neighborhood, so I took this photo of one which was parked across the road one morning:


A view of our southeast-facing balcony. When I showed this picture to a friend of mine, he remarked on the contrast between our affluent-looking terrace with the shantytown in the background. Welcome to the reality that is much of today's world:


My daughter has learned the hard way that she isn't allergic to bee stings. I'd purchased some doughnuts from a local shop, thinking nothing of the bees that were buzzing around the offerings in the display case because, well, this is Ethiopia. The following morning Amber bit into one of the donuts while getting ready for school, not realizing that there was a poor bee that had gotten itself stuck in the glaze of the underside of the pastry. I had to remove the stinger from her lower lip with a tweezer, and there was a bit of swelling, but fortunately that was the extent of her distress. It's a good thing that in this respect she takes after her father, who was stung several times by bees without any adverse affects during his childhood (and even survived being swarmed by hornets on one memorable occasion), and not her mother, who is allergic to honey makers:



A subsequent visit to Donut Stop showed that there were now what could best be described as "bee catchers" inside the display cases, which seemed to be keeping the insects away from the treats (one only hopes the trapped bees are later set free in a case of "catch and release"). Nevertheless, Amber says she will thoroughly examine her doughnuts from now on before eating them.

The ongoing construction work on Pushkin Street has turned the once-quiet road in front of our house into a busy thoroughfare during the weekday morning rush hour, as commuters seek alternate routes to avoid the roadwork:


On one of our semi-regular shopping excursions to the China market, I had my first truly unpleasant encounter with a local denizen (and that includes being the target of four separate pickpocket attempts!). Entering the market by car, I was driving down a lane wide enough for just our vehicle, thanks to parked cars on both sides of the road. While halfway down the street, the driver of a van parked up ahead on our left decided that was the appropriate time to pull out into the lane and head in our direction. With a taxi behind me, I couldn't go in reverse, yet the van driver would not yield, going so far as to get out of his vehicle and yell at me for my "bad driving". With a crowd gathering, he finally realized that it would have to be up to him to make way and let me pass. In true Ethiopian fashion, passersby took it upon themselves to guide me through an extremely narrow gap, and I was eventually able to squeeze through without damaging our Honda Accord. The shopping outing ended on a positive note when Shu-E found a hotpot restaurant there to her liking:


Notice the lack of social distancing and face masks at the restaurant across the road. The true extent of COVID-19 isn't known in Addis Ababa, but no doubt it's very widespread and infection rates are not slowing down:



Amber and Shu-E discussing which parts of the cow they had for lunch:



My wife had to pick up some chicken feet before going home:


I was surprised to discover bags of betel nuts 檳榔 for sale in the same shop where Shu-E bought her chicken feet. In Ethiopia the stimulant of choice is khat ጫት, but with the right marketing strategy, I'm confident "Taiwanese chewing gum" could make inroads into the local market. Imagine attractive, young scantily-clad Ethiopian women sitting in glass booths situated along busy roads, pushing betel nuts to truckers and taxi drivers. A fortune in birr ብር waits to be made here:



The rainy season is still a couple of months away, but we recently went through a "mini-rainy season", which lasted for a few days. Here is a sudden downpour during that time as viewed from the rear of our house:


On weekends Amber and I often go out for lunch or snacks. One place we like to frequent is an Ethiopian establishment called Temselet Kitchen, where we both enjoy the iced macchiatos:



Lunch at the Laphto Cafe at the Laphto Mall ላፍቶ ሞል: 


Relaxing by the swimming pool at the embassy, where my daughter and I try to go swimming every weekend. I'm checking out my newly-arrived Maximum the Hormone マキシマムザホルモン CD, which came with its own manga 漫画:



The embassy grounds are a popular stop for Wattled ibises, a species endemic to the Ethiopian highlands and found only in Ethiopia and Eritrea:



Another meal at the Laptho Mall, this time for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant called Kategna


Lamb tibs ጥብስ...:


...and Shiro wot ሽሮ ወጥ:




I came down for breakfast one weekend morning to be pleasantly surprised when presented with danbing 蛋餅, a Taiwanese favorite, courtesy of my wife:


Standing in front of Pizza Hut and Cold Stone Creamery, the only Western fast food franchises operating in Addis Ababa. Burger King was supposed to have set up shop last year, but plans have been postponed, presumably due to the pandemic:


In an effort to expand my knowledge of Ethiopian beers (and because it was all the supermarket had), I'm currently enjoying Doppel, a local brown beer, with my evening meals: 


Traffic here can slow to a crawl at times, but not usually because donkeys are crossing the road at a busy traffic circle:



Another Saturday, and yet another drive to the China market with the girls (Shu-E maintains this is the only area in Addis Ababa where she can find decent produce). I was appropriately decked out in my Shenhua F.C. 上海申花足球俱乐部 jersey and Taiwanese temple baseball cap:


Chasing tail. Shu-E bought some beef, but passed on this part of the animal:


As noted above, the previous time we went to the China market I was yelled at for being a bad driver This time we approached the market area from the opposite direction to avoid the narrow lane. After parking the car, I was excited to catch a glimpse of a white van with a No. 68 diplomatic license plate driving away, indicating it belonged to the North Korean embassy, my first sighting of anything related to the DPRK in this city. I was hoping to get a photo as it sped off, but the driver was too quick, foiling my imperialist scheme. I've long been fascinated with North Korea and would welcome an opportunity to visit the country one of these days, either in an official or personal capacity. In fact, while living in Japan in the late 1990's, I seriously considered joining a tour run by Koryo Tours, but had to abandon my plans when I learned the DPRK wasn't allowing American visitors at that time. My professional dream is to work in a liaison or representative office in Pyongyang, but the chances of one opening there, and of my successfully bidding on the post, are less than I would have of completing a marathon, as I would drop dead of heart failure before the end of the race. The best I could ever hope for is to work in South Korea, which is also virtually impossible, considering my inability at properly kissing well-connected posteriors. 

But I digress. Back in the China market, I avoided getting caught in a traffic squeeze, but what I couldn't get away from was a gang of street kids. One of the saddest sights that comes with living in Addis Ababa is having to deal with child beggars at traffic lights, or with having to walk past (and trying to ignore) kids peddling trinkets on the streets. At the China market we were followed around by an aggressive group of urchins who kept asking if they could clean our shoes. Usually, the kids will move on to other targets when it becomes clear we aren't interested, but this boy band trailed behind and beside us as we went from store to store, buying vegetables. They were on our heels as we finished shopping and returned to the car, whereupon they surrounded our vehicle. It was at this point I decided enough was enough, and got out the pink, child-sized Hello Kitty aluminum baseball bat that I keep next to the driver's seat. This did the trick, as the boys ran off, learning a valuable lesson that you don't fuck with キティちゃん:


Unfortunately, our encounter with the adorable tykes meant that we couldn't risk leaving the car unattended while we ate inside one of the Chinese restaurants in the area. So we drove back across town to our reliable fallback favorite, the Ari Rang Korean Restaurant, to have lunch. At least I was able to console myself with a Taiwanese-style milk tea 奶茶 my wife bought for me from the same shop where she gets chicken feet. Just another family outing in Ethiopia's capital city:


This Sunday was taken up with yet another weekend dip in the pool, with yet another Wattled ibis searching for food nearby:



Swimming in an embassy pool is a very expat thing to do. Afterward, Amber and I tried to keep up the privileged pretentions by checking out a "Designers & Artisans' Bazaar" at the Addis Ababa Golf Club, where "more than 150 different artisans" were showcasing their work this weekend. But while we found the road leading to the country club, the narrow street was clogged with traffic going in both directions. Rather than struggle yet again to prevent our vehicle from getting scraped or scratched, we decided to pass on the bazaar (COVID-19 concerns also played a part in our decision-making), and returned to Coffee.com, where we had lunch last month. My daughter ordered a chicken cutlet, I had a tagliatella alla carbonara, both of us started off with bowls of minestrone soup, and the meal was finished off with a shared tiramisu. Which come to think of it was a very expat lunch to have:


I'll end this post with a blast from the (very) distant past, courtesy of my good friend Steve, who lives and works in Taiwan. He's the stud muffin on the left, with your humble scribe on the right, back in the days when I had a lot more hair and a lot less weight. The identity of the woman in the middle is lost in the mists of time, as is the location, though if I had to make a guess, I would pick Folsom Lake. Until next time...