Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

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Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Ethiopia Part IV: Today’s Situation

As I become more and more enamored with the people, history and culture of Ethiopia, it is heartbreaking to learn that the current outlook isn’t so rosy.  The major issues that stuck out for me were the political situation, the social issues (education, women’s rights), clean water, and the famine and resulting border tensions with Kenya.

First, the political situation is stable, but not ideal.  There isn’t freedom of the press.  It will be interesting to see if the death of the Prime Minister in August (2012) will lead to more or less freedoms.  And although there are elections, I was told they are basically just for show since 85% of the population lives in the countryside and all the land belongs to the government.  They need to vote with the government to keep their homes.  I also learned that in 2010 international observers said the elections didn’t meet international standards since government funds were used to campaign for the ruling party, which won 545 of the 546 seats in the parliament.  Looking back a bit further, the 2005 elections resulted in 200 people dying in election related violence, and dozens of imprisonments of demonstrators and opposition leaders.

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Second, there are major social issues, especially concerning women and education.  The key problem for women is forced marriage at a young age, at times, as young as 12 years old; marriage, and womens’ rights, in general.

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

In one village, Dereje was hoping to show me a cow jumping ceremony, a formality prior to marriage where a man has to prove he is worthy to marry by jumping over a cow.  That day, there wasn’t one.  And at first, I was disappointed because he had told me how entertaining the music and dancing are.  But then I realized I was fortunate, because he also said the bride to be is whipped by her mother in law to be so she is bloody — it is “willing scarification”.

I don’t think I could have watched that.  Dereje said that first wives in a lot of these tribes are basically slaves because the husband pays such a large dowry to her family.  For example, after they serve their husband dinner, they have to sit facing the wall, waiting for him to finish.

In general, it seems hard to be a woman in this area.  Female circumcision is common in some tribes.  And while a growing percentage, still fewer girls than boys are sent to school.

In these conditions, it is hard to be a first wife; you are a virtual slave.  But, families rejoice when they have girls because it means they will be able to get bride prices for them — especially if they are first wives.  If you are a first wife, your family does very well by you.  But, if you are a second wife, your life seems easier, but your family doesn’t do as well. The same story goes even more for a third wife, and onward.

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It’s hard to imagine having to think about these things.  What do I pray for: would I want to enable my family to be significantly better off but have an unpleasant life, or screw my family and live more easily?

I learned about the education problems anecdotally when I was trying to give pens I brought with me away to the kids.  We had very limited success handing them out the last couple of days, as we only wanted to give pens to kids who attended school, and it seemed that not a lot of kids were doing that.  Sad.

One day we gave pens to five boys who were walking back from school.  We found out that they walked all the way there to find out that, as usual, there wasn’t a teacher.  I was impressed that they kept making the (laborious) effort to get themselves there every day.  I wished I could have given them a teacher to go with the pens.

Clean water is another huge problem in Ethiopia.  Every time we passed a well, there were people lined up with their yellow or blue plastic containers.  And at every stream, people were filling up their containers — the problem was that they were collecting the water directly next to other people bathing or doing their laundry.

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People want containers for water.  When we drove past kids (children who seem to be as young as 5 in charge of herds of animals) on the roads, they asked for our empty water bottles to reuse them.  Some of the kids were really inventive with dances to try to differentiate themselves from everyone else, doing froggy jumps, or looking like Greeks, or doing the funky chicken with their legs.

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As we got closer and closer to the Kenyan and Sudan borders, we started to see more guns.  I guess these tribesmen can have hundreds of cows to protect, and they trade cows for guns with the Kenyans.  Plus, there was growing animosity due to the worsening famine in the area of Kenya that is across the border from Ethiopia.

In rereading everything I just wrote, I realize I haven’t painted a very rosy picture of Ethiopia.  So, let me clarify a couple of things.

First, I was awed by my visit there.  The people, the food, the culture, the sights.  I loved every minute of my trip (ok, there were a few minutes I could have skipped, but, you get the point).  Second, because of its history and the role it played in the history of civilization, it has endured many worse moments in time, and come back strong again.  Third, a lot of things are improving there on a day by day, and decade by decade basis.  They have a new prime minister, and the IMF raised the economic growth rate from 5.5% to 7%.

As a travel destination, I was blown away.  I just want its people to have the same sense of awe about their future as I have about their history and culture.

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Live There, Or Travel There?

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Whether you travel somewhere or live there, I don’t think it makes the experience any more valuable, one way or the other.  It is just different.

For me, it is a “calling” of sorts to experience new parts of world, and acquire appreciation for diversity; it gives meaning to my life.  You could even say it’s my religion, as trite as that sounds, I realize.

While you walk away from travel with both positive and negative impressions of the place you visited, it is that greater understanding of the place that makes it so rewarding.  Every place is good and bad for different reasons, but you respect that, because these people are simply different from you.

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Travel also forces you to experience various levels of adversity, so that when you return home to your “comfort zone”, you are, in my opinion, better equipped to handle the stresses of everyday life.

I live in France, and living abroad here has involved much of the aforementioned definition of travel, but in a much deeper, more multi-layered, and, at times, confusing way.

For instance, when you’re visiting Paris, you’re curious about the cultural differences.  But when you live here, those cultural differences arise in every relationship you have, both personal and professional, and it’s easy to question whether you chalk something up to the person, or the fact that they’re French.

That said, I can’t sit here and decree something like, “If you haven’t spent xx amount of time in a place, you haven’t really experienced it.”  That’s bullshit.  And you’re talking to someone who has done a lot of both.

Really, you’ve just experienced it differently visiting there than if you had lived there.  The point is to experience it somehow.

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But one thing is certain: I believe everyone who has the means should make an effort to get out of their comfort zone, and see the world, whether it be by traveling or living abroad.  Millions of people cannot afford to do either one of these; it is an untouchable luxury.

So to all those who have the means and the flexibility to do it, I urge you trade in that Caribbean beach vacay, and go somewhere truly exotic, truly different from what you know.  And once you travel there, who knows, maybe you’ll live there one day.  But in either case, the reward is precious and, unequivocally, invaluable.

I’ve Never Been To Yemen…

But I feel like I have. That’s how good a job Jennifer Steil did introducing me to the country in her book, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.”

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Her writing is masterful, and intoxicating. As she reveled in the sights, tastes, and sounds of the country during her one-year stay there, my senses lit up. As she lamented the role and status of women, my sense of justice was inflamed. As she fought to adjust to working in a non-U.S. (a VERY non-U.S.) environment, I felt her frustration. As she fell in love with the country, I started to develop an infatuation from afar. As she explained the countries political issues, I started to worry.

I have written before about how reading news stories about places I’ve been to affect me differently (more deeply) than stories about places I have yet to see. And, for the most part, that’s true. But indeed, there are some places I haven’t physically visited, that I still feel a kinship with: these are the places I have visited in books.

I read Steil’s book in the fall of 2011. And, since then, Yemen has been reported on regularly. I am not sure if this has always been true, and if I just glazed over these news stories prior to my completion of the book, or if Yemen’s dubious celebrity is a new thing. My sense is it’s the latter.

I always take a deep breath before clicking on an article about Yemen; it is rarely good news. The reports are about accounts of human rights abuses, poverty, and a country moving decidedly in the wrong direction. If it weren’t for Steil’s book, I wouldn’t even really bother reading. There is enough depressing news in the world — why does it matter about what is happening in a tiny corner of the Arabic Peninsula?

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It matters to me now because Steil made me care. That, quintessentially, is the power of books. I care about the people of Yemen, even though I have never been there because I met them through a book. I care about the future of Yemen even though it is uncorrelated with my future, because I started to hope for a brighter future while reading a book.

While I will likely never visit Yemen, I did the next best thing by watching the quiet and quirky film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”.

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While this movie only skims the surface of the issues of corruption and violence that Steil explores, it did a wonderful job of satisfying my curiosity about what the country looks and sounds like.

I’ve never been to Yemen…but my spirit rallies with hope and sinks with disappointment as I follow its developments from home.

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part V: The Summit

When we reached the summit camp a day early, our team was impressed with how fit I was.  They actually asked Frank if I was some sort of athlete.  Porters and camp crews from other groups came by to meet me because my team was bragging about me.  They wanted to meet “the girl with all the power.”

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Most people start the summit at 11pm, and summit overnight.  That way they get to see the sunrise at the top – plus, it’s too dark to be intimidated by the long path ahead of them during the ascent.

Because we were on a slightly different schedule (and because Frank preferred it that way), we decided to summit during the day.  It was hard to argue with Frank’s reasoning: warmer, safer and less crowded.

So, we were up at 5am, ate breakfast at 5:30, and set off at 6am.  It was Frank, Andrea, and me.

It was a hard and grueling six hours up to the top.  Physically, mentally and emotionally challenging.  Most of the way was very, very steep with differing terrain, including rocks, very loose and slippery gravel, and dirt.  We kept passing groups on their way up, but no one passed us, which was encouraging.  However, that encouragement only helped a little.

I was pushing and pushing myself.  At different times, I wanted to cry, quit or die.  But, I promised my sister I wouldn’t die in Africa.  And that was the option that involved retaining the most pride.  I simply couldn’t break down and cry or throw the towel in, in front of Frank and Andrea after they had been bragging about me with such pride.

So, we slogged on.  And then people began passing us on their way down the mountain.  Most of them looked beaten up; only one woman took the time to say something encouraging to me.  Everyone I passed on my way up, I said something friendly and encouraging to.  And, later when I was on my way down, I was very friendly and encouraging.  I didn’t understand these other people.  But, Frank said as hard as my climb was, the people that summit overnight had it ten times worse because of the cold and exhaustion.

Somewhere along the way, I was getting extremely demoralized by the seemingly infinite distance I needed to climb.  So I created an alternate reality where I was on some kind of a quest, and there were ten checkpoints I needed to report to.  I asked different rocks if they were a checkpoint, and only certain ones said “yes”.  The rest were still very encouraging, and sometimes they even told me the next checkpoint was in 500 steps, or 1,000 steps.  I knew the rocks aren’t actually talking to me, but this mental scenario I created helped beyond belief.

That, and singing songs.  Somehow, I couldn’t remember the words to any single song except for “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, “Amazing Grace” and “When The Saints Come Marching In”.  And, I didn’t know all the words to these, but I sang the chorus in my head for, I don’t know, an hour each.  Then I created a medley of them all.

The last 60 feet to Stella’s Point were pure grit.  It was a very steep grade of loose gravel, so it felt like we were losing ground with every step.  But, we could see the ridge.  Keep going, keep going, keep going.  My Achilles were burning like I’d never felt.  Push, push, push.

Then, we were there.  I gave Frank and Andrea the biggest hugs in the world.  And we stopped for a celebratory chocolate bar.

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Then it was another hour onto the summit — Stella’s Point isn’t the actual summit.  But, the walk to the summit wasn’t as bad as what we had just done, and it offered heart-stoppingly beautiful views of the glaciers.  It was dangerously slippery on the ice, but there were no thoughts of quitting or crying now.

And before long, we made it.  We were completely alone, on top of the world, sitting on the ice.

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I couldn’t get my (oxygen-deprived) head to accept the awesome beauty around me.  And, I couldn’t get my (racing) heart to accept what I had just accomplished.

I will forever remember Frank and Andrea.  They buffeted me through this.  And they experienced the sheer pain and joy with me.

But, for the most part, they left me alone.  Alone to soak it all in.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by data, and calls, and texts, and meetings, and appointments, and HAVE TOs and SHOULD HAVEs, it was startling to be so alone.  It was one of the biggest moments of my life, made even more profound because it was only me there.

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After we all caught our breath, we headed back down.  It took two hours for the descent to the base camp.  And, while it was cardiovascularly no longer a challenge, physically I was tired.  And it was still hard work on my quads and abs to keep the control and not tumble down the mountain.  My hiking poles helped a ton.

After a very dusty descent, we were back at camp for lunch.  Then, we had to pack up, and hike downhill for another two hours to where we were camping for the night.

I did not want to continue on, but once we got going, it was actually not so bad.  Although at one point, for my pee break, Frank told me to go over a ledge.  For nearly the whole trek, whenever I had to pee, I told Frank, and he told me where to go.  So, when he told me to climb over the ledge, I just did as instructed.

“I need to pee.”

“OK.  Go over there.”

“Over there?’

“Yes.”

“OK.”

So I climbed over the ridge, and lowered myself down to the next ledge.  And peed.  Then I tried to climb back over the ridge.  I couldn’t do it.  I had no oomph left.  I felt defeated.  Demoralized.  I crouched down against the cliff wall, with my hands over my face.  And then shook my head, stood up, and was determined to scale the wall.  I gave it every single thing I had left.  I pulled with my arms.  I pushed with my legs.  And I was over.  Huffing and puffing, but over.

“Why are you out of breath?  Where did you go?”

“I went where you told me.”

I pointed and he laughed.  He had meant to go behind rocks by the ledge, which made a hell of a lot more sense!

Over dinner we agreed to skip the next night’s camp, and just to hike all the way off the mountain the next day.

One last breakfast, one last packing, one last use of my little toilet, and we are off.

When we make it to the parking lot, The Hottie Driver is there waiting with champagne from The President.  It is wonderful to get my certificate, then get in a car, and drive the hour back to Rivertrees.

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I felt invincible.  And reborn.

Temazcal

Guest post by Rebekah Marcano (|| http://www.facebook.com/lazytrainer ||)

My good friend Cindy (also known as Cynthia), invited me on a fantasy island, magical, dream, spa vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico at a very luxurious hotel: Maroma. The moment we stepped onto the property, we were greeted with fresh mojitos, music playing in the dining room, the ocean just footsteps from our duplex suite named “Cuarenta”.

Our daily routine was simple. We lounged on beds on the beach as we ate guacamole, contemplated life, read books and soaked up the sun. We got facials, four hand massages, took yoga classes, pilates, and ran on the beach! Occasionally we would leave Maroma on excursions like swimming with dolphins, kayaking, swimming through caves, swinging from trees on ropes and landing in waterfalls!

We even drove one day to see the Mayan ruins in Ixtapa!

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Life was bliss. Looking through the spa menu, we thought we might try a “temazcal”, a health and spiritual ritual to cleanse the mind, body and spirit using a cement dome-like sweat lodge and volcanic rocks.

It was our only “to do” for the day. So when our wonderful waiters asked if we would like to sample tequila after breakfast, explaining some were aged this way and others that way, we thought, “Sure, why not?” Or maybe we asked them about the tequila, and why there were so many and how they were different.  Not sure of the order, but we started sampling tequila after breakfast.

tequila tasting

I could actually taste how they were different. Some were spicier. Smoother. Some burned your throat more. Others went down like water. We sipped soda water in between tastings. And when the room started spinning as I stood on a chair in the very quiet, peaceful, highend boutique-y, exclusive gated resort at 11:00 in the morning, I realized…tequila is NOT wine. And you do not have tequila tastings.

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After dropping my phone in the toilet and “falling asleep” on the floor, I woke up debating if I should still attend the Temazcal spa ritual. “Well it is heated, so it should get the toxins out like a sauna,” Cindy and I rationalized.

Stumbling over to the little hot box, we were greeted by many other guests. Somehow we were going to all fit in this tiny triangle hut.

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We squished inside as the leader added burning coals to the center, making the tent hotter and hotter. She chanted and sang. Added more coals. This tent was really, really HOT. And it was getting hotter. But it felt good. She passed around a bucket of water to dump over ourselves, drums to play, and fruit to rub over our bodies. We chanted. We sang.

At first I was timid, only whispering the words. Then I could feel them in my throat, then in my belly. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid of what others would think of my voice and the words sort of took over my body and I could shout them – scream them! Even though I didn’t know what the words meant, I felt what they meant. I could feel the words’ feelings and power. I LOVE WORDS! I LOVE THE OCEAN! I LOVE LIFE!

And suddenly I wasn’t drunk anymore! I cried tears of joy and felt a sense of oneness with the universe, and a love for all around me. I was just so happy. Blissful. Euphoric. I was a blank slate ready to paint my life as the portrait I wanted…

Or maybe I was still drunk. Either way, this was pretty cool.

Could tequila plus a Temazcal lead the path to some sort of spiritual enlightenment? I really believe it was a special combination!  Perhaps the waiters were in on the magical ritual, and the tequila was just what we needed to complete the mind-body-spirit! One things for sure: Maroma was a magical place!

Ethiopia Part III: The Famine

Dereje, my guide, and I talked a lot about the politics and culture of Ethiopia.  One of the topics we discussed, in depth, was the famine in the 70’s and 80’s.

A quick summary for those of you who remember the famine in Ethiopia that climaxed with thousands of deaths in 1984-1985, but don’t really know much more than that…

There were basically two reasons for the crisis: a drought in Northern Ethiopia, and disastrous government policies that contributed to the famine, which were then deliberately covered up.

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In North Ethiopia, people were told to relocate to the south where there was more food.  But, the people didn’t want to leave their churches; they are zealous church-goers, and attend every day.  They firmly believe that their religion is the most important part of their lives.  So, they didn’t move south.

It seems to me that the priests should have done a better job leading their congregations.  Church services can actually be held outside the churches, themselves.  Of course, I know there were many other political factors at play and I’m oversimplifying things, but it is still seems the priests hold some of the culpability.  And actually today, many of the humanitarian organizations working within Ethiopia to stop child labor and marriage for young girls, feel the only way to make progress is to work through the churches, precisely because of the sway they hold over their villages.

Dereje explained the role Haile Selassi (King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia) played in the famine.  Selassi reigned from 1930 to 1974, living in opulence and ceremony while his country starved.

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Captivated by the whole discussion, I have since read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Emperor”, and now understand the event more clearly.  His book is a masterful account, engrossing and informative – a fascinating ride.  Kapuscinski does a fantastic job painting as balanced a picture as possible of this horrific period of history.

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In addition to being responsible for unimagined corruption and harsh brutality, Selassi also defeated the Italians under Mussolini, made Ethiopia a global political player, and invested heavily in modernizing his country’s infrastructure.

The more I learned about Ethiopia’s history, the more fascinated I became.  Stay tuned for my summary of the current situation as I understand it…