Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ethiopia Trip Journal Feb 25 - Mar 1

Hi everyone. I have found some internet access here in Addis Ababa, so I thought I'd post up my first few days of journal entries and a couple photos.

Ethiopia Trip Journal

February 25
I've made it as far as Chicago at this point. That's as far as I'll go today. By tomorrow, I'll be in London and hopefully in the company of Ryan Broersma, my partner in the efforts we will put forth in Africa. Let me back up a little...

A month ago, Ryan contacted me and said he was possibly looking for a filmmaker to accompany him to Ethiopia to do a short film about clean water and the improvement it can make to people's lifestyle who have not had access to clean water. At the time I wasn't sure if it would work with my schedule... I was excited to participate but I didn't want to compromise any of the follow-through for my film Pure which was due to premiere just five days before I would depart for Africa with Ryan.
Needless to say, we sorted out the scheduling and I'm excited about the trip ahead and the prospect of effecting some tangible change with my video camera. Making climbing films and granola bar advertisements is rewarding, don't get me wrong, but ultimately it's a very selfish pursuit, and at this point in my life I'm unattached and willing to work on behalf of others.
The project in Ethiopia (and I'll learn more as I go) is simple: I'll make a short film about the effect clean water can have on a village of people who do not currently have access to clean water. This film will be used in a variety of ways, mostly to gain support for the wells and other needed infrastructure to bring the clean water to the villages we will visit. If all goes well, the villages will be receiving new wells and related equipment soon. But there's no guarantee things will go as planned. From my perspective, we have several challenges facing us:

1) We may not be able to bring any / all of our camera gear into the country. The Ethiopian government has a reputation for locking up camera equipment and not giving it back until the owners leave the country. The government fears any media that may make them out to be corrupt or irresponsible. Our proposed film really has little to do with the government, but it's going to be hard to convince the customs agents of that fact if they decide to cause a problem. I've broken up my gear across my duffel bags and carry on bags, but it's still a shit ton of gear, and if they stack it all next to each other in a pile it's going to be hard to hide the fact that I'm a professional.

2) Ryan and I will be very jet-lagged when we arrive. Sometimes I have a hard time being 'on point' when I'm fighting jet lag, and I have a feeling that we will need to hit the ground running and stay that way for both weeks. This is not a huge problem really.

3)We are very likely to fall victim to either real or fake red tape. It is very common for even well-respected 'guides' to try to extract money from their 'clients' by faking troubles that don't really exist, or that are created in collusion with corrupt authorities. I'm not expecting much of this but I would be surprised if we didn't see any.

4)Equipment malfunction. If our equipment dies, we're a long way from the service department.

5)Environment. I don't really know what sort of weather to expect, but if it gets nasty we're going to be right out there in it, with fragile equipment.
Crime. We're not spending too much time in Addis Ababa so pick-pocketing and mugging is not a huge concern. Plus, we're insured so we don't have to put up a fight if they want to take our cameras.

6)Emotional stress. I picture that we'll be exposed to some quantity of abject human suffering on the trip, and for me this will be my first hands-on interaction with the desperately poor of planet earth. It may be tricky to keep focused on color and composition when the people around me are... literally... dying.

7)The unforeseen. There are a lot of unknowns about this place and any time I go into a film shoot without a clear idea of what the end product will be I get a little nervous. My preferred style is a combination of planning and run&gun documentary, so this project should be a good fit for me. I have some stylistic ideas I'd like to implement but we'll have to see how practical they are when we actually set foot in the country and figure out exactly how much creative freedom (vis a vis time) I can have to try and get artsy. Ultimately I would like to maintain a high level of cinematic appeal with this project in addition to conveying the information we need to convey.

I'm looking forward to the chance to see a new landscape, meet some new people, and try to accomplish some good with my camera. Simply being able to shoot without having to worry about sponsorship conflicts and logo placements and industry politics will be a relief. If we accomplish our goal and we are able to bring clean water to the ten villages we will visit, then this will likely be the most meaningful project I've ever shot.

Once again I've had to leave my beautiful girlfriend Sarah in Golden. This is after quite a lot of stress on the heels of 7 months of filming Pure. I love her and I hope she doesn't take it personally that I always seem to be going away. One of the reasons I have the bravery to take on international projects is that I know I have an amazing, loving human being at home to return to, no matter what.

We're leaving Chicago now, time to turn off the computer. See you in London.

February 26th – London

Ryan and I connected at the airport without problem. The same guy who stamped his passport also stamped mine. He asked where I was going and when I said 'Ethiopia' he said I was the second person in the last half hour to say the same thing. Ryan and I found our hotel in London without too much issue. We rode the tube a couple stops too far and then had to ride it back towards the airport a ways, but we're at the hotel now, being tempted by all the crappy things hotels leave in your room that appear to be hospitality but in fact are extortion.

I've been to London before so it's mostly up to Ryan what he wants to do today. Fish n' Chips is on the agenda, and maybe a show tonight. I saw a cool show the last time I was here so maybe we'll check something out.

Ryan and I just returned from a long walk around downtown London. We saw a few sights, got Big Ben ticked off our list, and found out where we might like to visit tomorrow. Ryan is from a small town in California and the 'bigness' of London seems to be overwhelming at times. I have an easy time here because it's English speaking so things are easier here and you can just ask any passerby for directions. We're fighting the inclination to sleep because the best way to beat jet lag is to get through the first couple days and try to get on schedule.

February 27th – London

I had about four cups of coffee this morning and read from my new Anthony Bourdain book. His misadventures will (hopefully) outweigh our own. Today we are going downtown to take in some more sights, and we also have a mission: to find the Ethiopian Embassy and contact the ambassador. In order to guarantee our camera gear safe passage into the country, it may be helpful to have a letter from an authority. Ethiopia is a bit picky about allowing professional gear (especially video gear) into the country. Even though my entire kit can be distilled into a fairly small package, there's no doubt we aren't tourists. Ryan seems stressed about the possibility of not getting our gear into the country. I'm not too concerned, but we have heard tales from other travelers about nightmare quantities of red tape, fines, and long delays incurred while waiting for camera gear to be released from government limbo.

As I write this, passengers are filing onto the plane. We are seated in an exit row near the front of the plane, and we'll probably get underway soon. There was a bit of stress because the check in agent took our passports during check in and disappeared for several minutes, then returned. Then she asked for our passports again a few minutes later, and disappeared for a second time. She asked to weigh our carry-on bags which is a first for me. My carry-on was well over the proposed 7Kg limit. On one of her trips away with our passports I popped my camera bag on the scale and it read 20Kg. We decided to risk it and just head to the gate without letting her weigh the bag, and there was no issue with getting it onto the plane. Crazy how that works. Now that we're on the plane, we're breathing a little easier. I wonder what kind of beer they serve.....

At current count, there are two crying babies within ear-shot. They seem to be having a contest to see who can cry the loudest.

I'm not sure how to classify the music playing on the plane at the moment. Sounds kind of like the music from the bar scene in Team America when they infiltrate the terrorist hangout in Egypt. Lots of wind instruments and something that sounds like an accordion.

Saturday, February 28th

We arrived into Addis Ababa this morning, a little behind schedule but I understand that's par for the course when you're flying Ethiopia Air. The airline has a terrific safety record but not such a good record for timeliness. As usual, things here are more mellow than my previous perception. The airport is clean and modern, quiet, with good signage in English directing you where to go. We bought a visa at the airport for US$20. I had a moment of panic because I saw the size of the visa stamp, and it is as large as a whole page of my passport. Unfortunately, I don't have any pages of my passport that are clean, and the officials are not allowed to cover up any previous visa. In south Africa they would have put me right back on the plane, but here they just tacked the visa onto one of the 'amendments' pages and said I was good to go.

I cleared customs with a large amount of pro video gear, which is, as suspected, not allowed into the country. I layered as much stuff as I could and then put the pack through the x-ray vertically, so none of the cameras would appear in profile. I grabbed the bag off the other end of the x-ray machine and exited the area quickly, not looking back. Leaving the customs area, I was greeted by about 100 dark faces, waiting for family or friends to show up. A contact from a different charity met us, and I saw my name on his sign: Mr RyBurger.

Ryan came out just a minute later and said that he had been asked whether he had any video equipment with him. He said no, and they bought it. So we were into the country with all our gear intact. Exiting the airport, I noticed the climate is not entirely different from Denver. Addis Ababa is pretty high... about 6000 feet above sea level. The sunlight seems the same, the sky is the same color, and just like Denver in May there is a cool breeze blowing through the city.

My first indication of the economic situation of the country came from the powerful, hauntingly vacant stares aimed in my direction from the passengers of other cars. Unabashed, they have no problem staring straight into your face.

There is a lot of construction happening near our hotel. Somehow, they build precision concrete buildings by using a strange scaffolding technique based on thousands of wood sticks. The buildings seem to be held up temporarily by a chaotic latticework of improvised framework. On closer inspection, the crews are using simple tools like string and plumbs to erect the buildings in a very precise and modern manner. Working conditions seem okay at first inspection. I'd say in comparison to the imported work force in the Middle East, the native Ethiopian work force is doing well.

Our driver will come back to pick us up in a few hours and take us on a brief sight-seeing trip through Addis, and then to dinner somewhere. The bar in our hotel is... believe it or not... a micro-brewery. Comparable in size to the Tommy-knocker in Idaho Springs, it's one of the strangest things I've ever seen.

We are back at the hotel this evening after a few hours in the market downtown. The central market is really busy... okay, really REALLY busy. Thousands of people all jammed into a space about the size of lower downtown Denver. The market is huge, consisting of several large building complexes, outdoor areas, bus stations, and thoroughfares for all sorts of traffic from buses to donkeys to SLR-toting tourists. Part of the reason we went to the market was functional... I needed a backdrop for my video shooting. I purchased one in the US before we left but opted not to bring it because of its large size and obvious 'pro-video' give away to the customs people.
On arriving at the market we honed in on the textile area and had about a hundred choices of where to purchase our material. We settled on a nice raw cotton backdrop and paid a tailor 50 Burr to (about $5) to stitch it all together for us. We shopped for tourist stuff and then came back an hour later to find a well-made studio-caliber video backdrop, custom made for our shoot. Things can happen fast in these closely connected webs of humanity and it's cool to be able to sort out a key component of the shoot for such little money and with little time wasted.

We also did a little tourist shopping. The question in my mind is always: do you pay the tourist price? And if not... how far down should you haggle folks who may be living in abject poverty? I usually haggle for about five minutes or so and then pay whatever price we've arrived at after that time. I put about US$40 into the local economy today and I have some nice souvenirs to take home.

The poverty here is not as prevalent nor as severe as I had imagined. Certainly, there are some bad cases out there on the streets... cripples, mentally ill people, blind people, people with strange afflictions I cant even begin to describe. Compared to the USA it's pretty bad, but compared to other places like Oman or South Africa or Mexico, it's only slightly worse. Our guide, Eric, was informtive and hospitable, and he dropped us back at the hotel in time for dinner and a little down-time. Tomorrow we plan to visit a water project that was recently completed to get some footage of what the future holds for our ten chosen villages.

I tried calling Sarah tonight. The international operator reported that my house line was not working, but we eventually contacted her on her cell phone (she was at home after all) and we had the chance to chat for a few minutes before the line went dead and was disconnected. The internet and phone service here is amazingly expensive... about $2 per minute.

I've tested all my equipment and it is all functioning fine, so tomorrow we should be up and running, making the film we came here to make. It will feel good to start working and maybe think less about the 73 million people in this country, most of whom do not have it very good at the moment.

Sunday March 1st

Ryan and I are back in Addis Ababa after our first day out filming. We had a casual breakfast and then Erik,our driver and guide / assistant producer / fixer came by and picked us up. We headed towards the outskirts of Addis and made our way towards a big water project that has been recently completed but is not yet functioning yet, as the concrete is still curing. This project was organized by A Glimmer of Hope which is a large organization building schools and clean water infrastructure throughout Ethiopia. We visited one of the schools briefly. It consisted of 8 rooms, about 20' by 20' each, and we learned that 1300 students attend classes there.

After that, we visited a site that has been selected to receive a new water system. The current system is a reservoir about 50' across that collects runoff during the rainy season and holds it until it dries up each year. The reservoir is full at the moment, but even now the quality of the water is poor, and the water is diseased. During the dry season when the level of the water goes down the water becomes covered in algae and the residents have to take turns carefully scooping water from the puddle so as to get more water and less mud. 3000 residents of the nearby village rely on this water source. After a brief visit, we sat down in a town closer to Addis and had some traditional Ethiopian food, which is quite palletable and not really all that strange. Simple, spongy flatbread called Injeera is served in rolls, and you carefully tear off pieces (using only your right hand, as in Muslim cultures) and then pick up pieces of food or sauces with the bread. It's important to place the food in your mouth without touching your fingers to your lips. To do so is the Ethiopian equivalent of double dipping chips and salsa... not a major no-no but enough to get funny looks from whomever you're dining with.

We returned to the water reservoir after lunch in time to film some of the people coming out to collect water. Slowly, people came over the hill from the village, bringing empty 'jerry cans' (yellow plastic containers), some of which were fitted onto special one-per-side holders for donkeys to carry. Those are some pissed off donkeys. As the villagers filled up their cans of water, we asked them to come over to where we had set up a neutral white backdrop and we filmed them. Some of the people we asked questions to and they seemed happy to answer. Interviewing takes a long time, because each statement has to be recorded effectively twice. First the image of the person talking, and then the audio of the translator speaking english.

On the way back from the town we paused briefly to film a typically African tree that was in a beautiful location on a hill. As if on cue (and this happens pretty much every time we stop) some kids appeared and started climbing on the tree, providing an interesting bit of action to what would otherwise be a pretty plain looking scenic shot.

We're back at the hotel now, looking at footage and photos from the day. The footage is looking good overall but I need to try to slow down a bit more especially when things get chaotic. The fact remains though... this is Africa... maybe the footage should have a little chaos here and there.


flouSH said...

great post :) it was very interessting to get some impressions from your latest trip.

thanks for sharing!

best wishes & good luck on your mission. cheers,

florian, germany

Blackford said...

Awesome post. Keep updating, sounds like an incredible and amazing trip.

sock hands said...

wow. posting link to spread.

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