Archive for March, 2007

The Hospital Hotel

March 31, 2007

I called a taxi early one Saturday morning in Nairobi to take me to the hospital for some standard, but recurring, gastrointestinal issues.  I felt pretty sick, and probably looked pale and weak, but it was something of a shock when, as we approached the hospital, the driver said “You want to go to Casualties?”

“You mean the morgue?” I said.  “No, the Emergency Room is fine.”

A few hours later I was admitted for the night, largely because they wanted to give me some fluids.  Worried about whatever dingy room full of tuberculosis patients they would assign me, I thought of refusing to stay.  Then an administrator said to me, “We called your health care provider.  You are entitled to a Princess Zahra Pavilion suite.”

I learned that evening that Marriot runs the Princess Zahra Pavilion of the Aga Khan hospital in Nairobi.  The first thing I noticed was the flat screen television with digital satellite service.  Then, just minutes after I “checked in,” room service came to take my lunch order.  Being genuinely sick at this point, I decided to be conservative.

“I’ll have the grilled chicken breast with rice please.”

“Starters are on page 1 and desserts and beverages are on page 4 sir.”

“Ok, can I have the vegetable soup for a starter and, if it’s ok with the doctor, the fresh strawberries and cream for dessert please?  And I’d just have some tea to drink, with milk please.”

“Would you care to order dinner too please sir?”

Counting on at least a little healthy progress throughout the day, I decided to be a bit bolder with my dinner menu.

“I’d like to start with the prawn cocktail and maybe the cream of asparagus soup please.  For my meal, let’s do the steak au poivre with blue cheese sauce on the side.  And maybe some mashed potatoes with that.  Dessert?  The black forest chocolate cake sounds good, but can I get that with the fresh cream instead of the vanilla ice cream?  And I’d like the red wine to drink please.”

“Very good sir.”

“And could you please tell someone that my remote control isn’t working?  Thanks.”

Later that night, to my utter delight, I learned that The Daily Show is carried internationally on CNN.

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Shopping in the Milan of Africa

March 31, 2007

In the outback shags of rural Ethiopia, I felt comfortable, even kind of cool, in my Patagonia and North Face hiking gear. A week later in the capital, the exact same attire made me feel decidedly unfashionable. Addis Ababa could be called the Milan of Africa. Baristas pull macchiatos from antique espresso machines. Pizzerias and jacarandas line the wide boulevards. And chic young couples stroll the evening streets, arm in arm in their black leather jackets. I was clearly out of place, something like a Kentucky boy in Beverly Hills.

It did not help that because my luggage was lost by Ethiopian Airlines I was still wearing the same dirty, stinking camping clothes that I wore for a week of hiking in the Simien Mountains. I had no choice but to buy some new clothes so I went to an area of town known as Piazza, a shopping district of small kiosks and boutiques selling the latest street fashion and the usual assortment of knockoff imports.

At the first place I stopped, an outdoor stall not unlike a shanty, I found two pairs of pants that I wanted to buy. For the first, apparently manufactured by a label called McDaddy, I was asked to pay 450 birr, about $60. For the second, I was quoted a considerably higher price because, “my friend, they are Gucci.”

“No, they are Guggi.”

“Yes, Gucci.”

“This is a g not a c. It’s Guggi, not Gucci.” I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to con me or whether he genuinely believed that it’s supposed to be Guggi with a double g not Gucci with a double c. I left without attempting to bargain.

Moving on, I stopped at the shanty next door. Again I wanted to buy two pairs of pants. I was told they were 200 birr each. I asked the vendor “why so much?”

“They are Gap. They are quality. They are from the United States.”

I took another, closer look. There was indeed a Gap label on the waistline. It said “Size 38” and “Made in Malaysia.” However, there was another label on the inseam, this one from Dockers. It said “Size 29” and “Made in Philippines.” The Dockers label also provided washing instructions, “WASHININSIDEOUT,” all oneword, all capitals, and all wrong. Oddly, and fortuitously, the pants fit my size 32 waist perfectly.

The salesman smirked, knowingly, as explained these inconsistencies. I left there with both pants, for a total of 200 birr.

I continued walking and browsing for the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to buy a blazer at one boutique but I didn’t want to pay the 900 birr that was being asked. At the store next door, I bought two for 600 birr. After years of looking, I finally found a denim jacket that I like. I bought some socks because Thorlo is definitely not cool in Milan.

Towards the end of the day, I tried on another pair of pants. They were generic, by a label that calls itself The Dude. The salesman said they were 200 birr.

I reached into my bags for the pants I had bought earlier that afternoon. I decided to turn fraud in my favor: “Do you see these, I paid half that for these. And they’re quality, they’re Gap, they’re from the United States.”