From Destinations

moonnm3

Another Book Update: Moon New Mexico

moonnm3Hey kids–the new edition of Moon New Mexico is out! Check it out if you’re planning a trip around the Land of Enchantment. I covered thousands and thousands of miles last year, in a dinky rental car, to bring you all the news.

There’s a new section on the bootheel of New Mexico, way down in the southwest, and a lot of other nifty little finds. I love that, ten years in to working on this book, there are still new places to explore in the state.

That link above leads to Amazon, which is not the greatest, I realize, especially now that Perseus, which owns Moon, has been acquired by Hachette. Consider the link for info purposes only–hit up your local bookstore instead.

Speaking of local bookstores, I will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque on August 17, at 3 p.m., to talk about the goodness of the guidebook, show some pics from recent trips, and generally answer questions. Mark your calendars!

Doing the tourist thing, at the genocide memorial

Kigali Genocide Memorial (and the 9/11 Museum)

A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted this essay–The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction–about the new 9/11 museum (excuse me, National September 11 Memorial Museum) in New York, and it got me thinking.

First, the whole museum seems icky, doesn’t it? Just twelve years after the event. $24 admission–what, it’s like the MoMA now? And a gift shop, for God’s sake. I have no interest in going.

Yet…when I went to Rwanda, one of the “tourist” things I did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Which is also a museum.

(One of the more bizarre moments on that trip was telling our host we’d gone to the memorial, and we’d liked the museum. “Wait, did you go to the memorial, or the museum?” Because of course there’s not just one memorial, or one museum. Our conversation went around in circles, like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell situation.)

Honestly, Peter and I were thinking we would blow it off–we’re not morbid tragedy tourists. Except the people we were visiting said it was good!

It was great. It was somber without being grossly emotional. It was very informative (Herero massacre–what?). It was well lit and professional, but with no multimedia fanciness. And it was free–though of course donations are encouraged. The “gift shop,” in a little wood hut, carried a few books about the genocide, and some crafts.

The whole thing opened in 2004, on the ten-year anniversary of the genocide. Too soon? Not if you want a genuine memorial for people who died, of course not. (Though I would be curious to know how it was discussed at the time.)

The key to the genocide memorial not seeming maudlin or exploitative or generally icky was that when we arrived, a guide greeted us and took us to one of the mass graves. He briefly explained the situation, and the efforts of the memorial center, then we stood for one minute of silence.

After that, we were free to walk around however we wanted, with our audio tour or without.

I don’t envy that guide his job, but I think this human connection made all the difference in how we saw the whole museum/memorial.

Because, honestly, tourists can suck. I’ve yawned or daydreamed at some very serious places, maybe in full view of people who had been affected by the given event. It’s easy to fall out of the moment, if you’re hungry or your traveling companion has raced ahead, or whatever.

But one real, live person, talking directly to you–that’s the key to helping you focus on the place, why it exists, and what you might get out of it.

There’s plenty to learn from Rwanda, but that’s one concrete, small thing, and I’m glad I saw their model. It makes me at least not hate the idea of the 9/11 museum.

Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
Doing the tourist thing, posing for a group photo at the genocide memorial, with Rod and our Rwandese friend Eric
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They're also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken.

Addis Ababa Food Tour with Addis Eats

Did I mention they eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia? I mean, of all the crazy things!

This only struck me as remarkable, I suppose, because the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to all have very much the same aesthetic and presentation and menu. So I assumed they were presenting a semifictional version of Ethiopia, the way a certain type of red-lacquer-and-moon-doors Chinese restaurant does of Chinese food.

But there it all was, injera rolled out on platters, dotted with different stews, and men sitting there, eating with their hands, like it was utterly normal. (Which it was, yes. It slowly sunk in…)

The grocery store was even stocked with all the ingredients for these dishes. Berbere, shiro, etc, etc. (Also lots of pasta. And, the one real surprise, loads of different kinds of peanut butter.)

So nice to see such huge bags of red chile...
So nice to see such huge bags of red chile…

After the initial surprise wore off a tiny bit, we went on a food walking tour (now officially my favorite-ever kind of tour to take, anywhere) with the excellent ADDIS EATS

I can’t recommend this tour enough! Our fantastic guide, Xavier, was up for any question, and the neighborhood we walked around was also an interesting mix of business and residence and income. We went everywhere from a really basic lunch joint to a weekend-splurge restaurant that specialized in raw beef.

In the end, the tour didn’t reveal a wildly different cuisine from what Peter and I knew (not the way, say, just walking down the street in Bangkok did the first time we went there). But it did fill in a lot of detail in the big picture we already had. It also gave me fresh respect for the Ethiopian restaurants I know, and how true to the cuisine they actually are.

Ethiopian coffee--it's real! (Secret ingredient: rue.) These cafes are all over Addis, complete with frankincense.
Ethiopian coffee–it’s real! (Secret ingredient: rue.) These cafes are all over Addis, complete with frankincense. Note businessman in navy blazer in background–he’d just stopped in for a quick sip.
Chat, aka qat, is legal in Ethiopia, and sold all over the place. Alas, no photo of the neat little to-go bundles.
Chat, aka qat, is legal in Ethiopia, and sold all over the place. Alas, no photo of the neat little to-go bundles. In this pic, I like how it’s next door to a liquor store. One-stop mind-altering shopping!
Standard lunch place, with our guide and another tour member. Please note water served in old Stoli bottles. And platter of shiro wat on injera. Just like you expect.
Standard lunch place, with our guide and another tour member. Please note water served in old Stoli bottles. And platter of shiro wat on injera. Just like you expect.
Fried fish! This is something we wouldn't have found on our own, and didn't know about from Ethiopian restaurants already. Note the scoring into bite-size chunks--easy for eating with hands.
Fried fish! This is something we wouldn’t have found on our own, and didn’t know about from Ethiopian restaurants already. Note the scoring into bite-size chunks–easy for eating with hands. And that was a great hot-fruity chile sauce.
Ethiopia has excellent beers--this is another thing I didn't know. Our guide made sure we tried them all, including a freakish non-alcoholic version of Guinness (not pictured). Ambo, the water in the middle, is delicious.
Ethiopia has excellent beers–which I didn’t know. Xavier made sure we tried them all, including a freakish non-alcoholic version of Guinness (not pictured). Ambo, the water in the middle, is some of the best fizzy water I’ve had in the world.
At the splurgey raw-beef place, you get served a huge hunk of raw meat, and a knife. How bad-ass is that? These men were happy to show off their bad-ass meal.
At the splurgy raw-beef place, you get served a huge hunk of raw meat, and a knife. How bad-ass is that? These men were happy to show off their bad-ass meal.
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They're also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken.
These guys are in the restaurant, in view of everyone. They’re also sort of hammy, and loved having their picture taken. It’s their job to cut all the fat off the beef, so when it arrives at your table, it’s just a glistening ruby of flesh.
We got the pre-cut version for our table. Comes with red chile sauce and mustard, for dipping. (We also got cooked beef cubes, which were easier to compare in flavor to American beef. Guess what--Ethiopian is much better.)
We got the pre-cut version for our table. Comes with red chile sauce and mustard, for dipping. (We also got cooked beef cubes, which were easier to compare in flavor to American beef. Guess what–Ethiopian is much better.)
Just for context, here's the in-house butcher in a different restaurant. Right?! (Both Rod and the butcher are watching the football game on TV.)
Just for context, here’s the in-house butcher in a different restaurant. Right?! (Both Rod and the butcher are watching the football game on TV.)
"Special tea": tea, ginger, pineapple juice, honey, optional ouzo. Filing with some of the best international drinks ever.
“Special tea”: tea, ginger, lemon and pineapple juices, honey, optional ouzo. Filing with some of the best international drinks ever.
Crossing the bridge by the ex-railway station.

Addis Ababa, Roughly

When Peter and I got on the plane to Addis Ababa, we were giddy about every little thing. They were playing Ethiopian music! And the safety cards were in Ethiopian letters!

OK, technically Amharic, but you know what I mean.
OK, technically Amharic, but you know what I mean.

We truly had no idea what to expect when we arrived.

We certainly didn’t expect to arrive in what was, to my eyes, Cairo twenty years ago. The airport lighting was that old-fluorescent dim. The springs in the seat of our taxi were sprung just exactly like all the taxi seats I’d known in Cairo in 1992, so that they felt a bit molest-y, but also sad. The air even smelled the same: dusty, smoggy, desert-like, even in the cold.

After we arrived at our hotel, we took a quick spin through the surrounding blocks. It was Christmas day (Ethiopian Calendar), and while that had meant near silence at the airport, around our hotel, it meant the streets thronged with drunken party people.

Mere steps outside of the hotel gate, we were accosted by a gang of four dudes who claimed to be students, and who at various points claimed not to know one another, and then yes, know some of the other guys, and then that they just wanted to have a drink and talk because it was Christmas.

This too reminded me of Cairo twenty years ago–not because Cairo no longer has charming street hustlers who want to chat you up, but because I haven’t been particularly bothered by them in twenty years.

When I wrote the Cairo chapter of the Lonely Planet Egypt guide in 2007, I took it as my chance to pour out all my love for Cairo onto the page. To help the first-time visitor take a short-cut to loving the place the way I did, maybe in a few days, instead of a few months (or never, as happens with the majority of tourists). Don’t worry, I said, basically–just relax and enjoy the chaos. People are basically nice–don’t lose sight of that.

But going to Addis was a good reminder–some might say, ah, a reality check for the blithe travel writer–of just how overwhelming a whole new rough-and-tumble city can be, one where you are very, very obviously a tourist.

I couldn’t read the signs. I couldn’t understand the language. I didn’t yet know where I was on a map, and it was dark, and half-dressed street people were sleeping in the shadows, and I didn’t know how much a beer cost, and hadn’t had time to inspect the money (only enough to notice that the bills all smell like Ethiopian food, from being passed from spicy-buttered hand to spicy-buttered hand). I was out of my depth in a way I had not been in a very, very long time. I couldn’t even blame jet lag, because we’d just flown a few hours, from Kigali.

I knew these faux-students were probably no more than a nuisance, but I could not see past my own discomfort to see how it might be informative and interesting to talk to them anyway–as I had cheerfully advised people to do in the Egypt guide. We bought the guys one round of beers (in a bar strewn with hay, to mark the festive Christmas day), and stomped back to the hotel in a mild, exhausted huff.

Daylight was better. Then I could get my bearings a bit. The corner where we’d gotten press-ganged the night before was now the site of different traffic.

In 1992, camels were often driven straight through the center of Cairo and over the bridge to the west bank of the Nile.
In 1992, camels were often driven straight through the center of Cairo and over the bridge to the west bank of the Nile.

I could walk slowly, and look at architectural details–Greek- and Armenian-style architecture in the blocks around our hotel.

Hundred-year-old balconies, roughly.
Hundred-year-old balconies, roughly.

And soon I was noticing even smaller, stranger details. Like the propensity for all the male mannequins to be so…bulging.

Is that a rolled-up sock in your pocket or...? Oh, yeah. I guess it is.
Is that a rolled-up sock in your pocket or…? Oh, yeah. I guess it is.

In a few more hours, I felt my equilibrium somewhat restored. It wasn’t that the sketchy aspects of Addis had gone. Plenty of people stared, and followed, and a street kid yoinked Rod’s cell phone (but he got it back).

Behind the rock wall was someone's sleeping nest.
Behind the rock wall was someone’s sleeping nest.

I found myself wondering about Cairo. When I was there in 2011, it seemed cleaner than I remembered, not so filled with beggars, and the hassle is somewhat less. But how much of that was due just to my perception? To my learned ability to screen out the worst, while also seeing (and knowing) the best in Cairenes? That’s what getting comfortable in any new place requires.

We were only in Addis a few days, but even in that short time, I was able to agree with what our guidebook (Bradt) said about the city: “Its bark is worse than its bite,” the author assured us. Which is a gracious way of saying, “Just relax and enjoy the chaos.”

Thus endeth the lesson. A few more photos:

Crossing the bridge by the ex-railway station.
Crossing the bridge by the ex-railway station.
Italians were here.
Italians were here.

Where the Chinese are building a metro. For now, a  pleasant (but dusty, and full of holes and rubble) pedestrian boulevard.
Where the Chinese are building a metro. For now, a pleasant (but dusty, and full of holes and rubble) pedestrian boulevard.
Italians again? Who can say.
Italians again? Who can say.

Spare chairs stacked up in a stairwell at Addis Ababa U., like some kind of art installation.
Spare chairs stacked up in a stairwell at Addis Ababa U., like some kind of art installation.
More chairs.
More chairs.
I have no idea either.
I have no idea either.
Taking the long view.
Taking the long view.