January 30, 2005

Sunday morning - lazy

Wow, it's been a day and a half since my last blog. Seems like any event that happens in a day, you want to rush out and put it on the blog. Discipline is required, or you will alienate family, friends, etc. Actually, it's kind of funny, but I had to remove some "controversial" material discussing meetings between the Prime Minister and a high ranking U.S. military official at the behest of my wife who was worried that I could get in trouble with my government. (In fact, I wanted to remove it because I was afraid she could come under scrutiny from her government.)

As has become tradition, let me now offer you a weather report. Scattered, wispy white clouds. Little bit of haze. Has the makings for a pretty sunny day. No big weather news to report. The doves have disappeared from my neighbor's water tank, but I can hear them making their noise somewhere around here.

So much to write about. The wife just left town for a five day work trip. This is not fun. I will console myself by putting every action/event on the blog. So many things to write about, I hope my brain will keep them all while I get them out one by one.

Friday, it was payday at my wife's office. We didn't have time to get to the bank Friday after work, so we went Saturday morning. Saturday is one of our workout days, so we figured we'd go to the bank on the way to the gym, athletic outfits and all.

Now my gym attire yesterday happened to be pretty below par. There's actually a culture here of wearing warm-up sweats on the weekend. It's kind of cool - a way to show you've got the money to afford the clothes and also the time/money to afford the gym. People wear matching tops and bottoms, the kind that make the swishy sound when you walk, along with new running shoes. It's acceptable to go about business on the weekend in this kind of attire.

For me, sometimes I can match that level of quality, most of the times not. I tend to favor one of my white t-shirts and any of a number of pairs of shorts. Since I assumed my wife would be cashing the checks, as they were in her name, I really didn't put any thought into my gym attire yesterday. Turns out that was a mistake, as I had on my white t-shirt with yellow dots from some kind of stain and unmatching shorts and shoes (oh the horror!), and it was me that got tasked with going into the bank to cash the checks.

Doh! Double doh! I walked in, and the bank was full, more full than even during the week. And everyone was dressed so nicely - certainly all the employees, but also all the customers. I saw one guy in his leisurely weekend sports clothes, and his were matching and covered everything, while I sat embarrassed by my hairy, white legs. To make matters worse, all of my wife's coworkers were there for the same purpose. I don't think they minded, but I wonder if they felt any reservation when I sat down next to them (Actually no, one of them jumped up to embrace me).

Well, the whole thing worked out. We cashed our checks, got our money, and got out of there without hearing any overt snickers.

Misfortune continued shortly thereafter, though it had nothing to do with my attire. Weddings here are a huge deal and at some point, I'll be invited to another one and write about for you. Suffice it to say, they are huge, of high social importance, and very often little expense is spared (of course, that's in terms of the wealth level here).

Anyway, I digress. One of the components of the wedding is the huge parade around town in the limousine/white Mercedes caravan. Yesterday, I saw the biggest one of these caravans I've seen yet, then proceeded to cut through it to make my turn. Much to the chagrin of everyone, including my wife! It all started because I was pulling to the intersection, one of the side cars, a green BMW, thought I had pulled to close and rapidly to the intersection, giving the driver a scare. He had what I assume were a few unkind words for me, but more than that, some dirty looks. That didn't sit well with me, but my reaction was to take it out on the rest of the caravan. I immediately pulled into traffic, rather than waiting the 30 seconds it would have taken for the group to pass and then squeezed my way through the caravan to make the left-hand turn towards my wife's office. That is what I call misplaced aggression or little man syndrome and I regret it.

Other than that, I've been working diligently to find the best deal on the saws I'd like to import here for a business I'm hoping will go somewhere. Interior design manufacture for export. Lots of inexpensive labour - the key. The saws are essential materials in the business. While there are actually lots of dealers here, representing DeWalt, Bosch, a number of German brands, and others, the amount they want for their service is unacceptable. By arranging everything over the internet myself - finding the companies, making the purchases, and importing them myself, I estimate I can save from 1/3 to 1/2 the cost. Most people here don't have strong access to the internet nor the capacity to do the level of research I'm doing, so that's why these middlemen can charge so much. But, boy, it has been some effort.

For one, saws in Europe are much more expensive. Saws (table and miter) with similar specifications to the kinds you can buy in Home Depot, Ace, etc., are sometimes almost double the price. I can't figure out a real strong rationale for this, other than that in Europe, I don't think there are as many Do-It-Yourselfers/small scale handymen. I think either you are a legitimate business, or you don't own the kind of equipment I want. Additionally, and this is something I have been able to piece together, the Euro and Pound are much stronger than the dollar right now, making my ability to pay that much weaker.

There's also the problem of shipping stuff to the country. I have had a heck of a time trying to find surface transport, which is obviously the cheapest. Most things come in air cargo which, for the size of the stuff I want to bring in, is darn expensive. Fortunately, I've found some cheap air cargo services, that will make this pretty close to worth it. All in all, I'm guessing I'll have to fork out in the vicinity of $1,200. We'll see. I did consult with a friend, however, and he thought our business idea was a strong one, so it may be worth it to go ahead and make the investment. Besides, if business goes nowhere, I can sell the saws and be out nothing but the cost of transport.

Speaking of driving lessons (which we actually were speaking nothing of), I gave my brother-in-law his second lesson on Friday. He's like a child in his desire to drive the car, so I'm happy to oblige. But it was a crazy lesson, and I ended up yelling at him like I don't think I've yelled at anybody before.

The problem came when, after we'd been going for a few minutes, I asked him to pull to the side of the road before turning onto the highway. It's simply not a good idea to take a second time driver anywhere near a highway, especially in Ethiopia, where drivers basically do what they want with little regard for road rules. Rather than stopping where I asked him, my brother-in-law wanted to turn onto the highway and then make an immediate stop. I lost it. Thinking about, it reminds of the time when I was taking driving lessons and almost ran a red light. The instructor laid into me - "What the #*$&$ are you doing?", or something to that effect. Must be karma, because I believe I used almost the exact language on my brother-in-law. He was a little taken aback, but I don't know how much of an impact I made on him. The problem is, when you are teaching somebody anything with something as valuable as a car, there's really no room for error. Normally, I'm a calm teacher, but with the car, I can't afford to be.

Well anyway, I'm glad he's learning to drive. If he gets his license and demonstrates I high degree of control and ability, I'd like to send him around town to do errands for business, if the need arises.

In other news, today is the big Iraqi election. I know from watching the BBC. I have no idea how the whole thing will go. Speaking of the BBC, it's kind of a shame that you guys can't get the kind of programming they put are their shows. At least, I assume that television news is of the same quality as when I left the states six months ago i.e. not so hot. The BBC is the bomb. I think one of the greatest differences is the amount of advertising. In prime time broadcast, you might get cut into two times with ads during a 30 minute segment. Additionally, the quality of journalism seems to me to be a lot higher - playing to our intellect rather than our senses (though the tsunami in Asia might be the big exception to this).

Honestly, it's thought provoking news. Sometimes they get my back up with unnecessary criticism of the U.S., particularly the reporters in the field, but all in all, it's worth it. One of the best things about BBC News are the long-documentaries, discussions, etc. that it produces and shows on the weekends. I'll take one example, because I just saw it yesterday, but it was an amazing program that I don't think you'd find the equivalent of on any U.S. news station.

The World Economic Forum I believe is the group meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Anyway, it is a meeting of major players in the global economy - business people, academics, politicians. Yesterday's discussion was on the perception of the U.S. in the world. U.S. Senators McCain and Biden were in attendance (and they seemed to take up a large part of the 1 hour segment). Also in attendance was John Howard, the Head of the Arab League, one of the Saudi princes, and a whole lot of other people. All in all, there were 250 people in the room, all high caliber.

The discussion was pointed. Of particular note were the reactions of the U.S. Senators. The first responses from them were an effort to stop the "Bush-bashing" they felt was taking place. I thought these answers were the most interesting, as both Senators McCain and Biden really had their backs up (who wouldn't). In fact, after his strong initial response, Senator Biden made a real effort to speak calmly (he has the widest, whitest smile, which he throws in between every response).

Responses from the Arab delegation were also very interesting. The Dean of one of the school's in Princeton got an applause from the crowd for suggesting that the U.S. needed to renounce torture and announce that it would strictly adhere to the Geneva Conventions, then seemed to make the room uncomfortable (or at least me) when she went after Senator McCain for something he said about the International Criminal Court.

All in all, it was riveting discussion. Unfortunately, American news media doesn't permit a discussion of this caliber. You might see a 10-15 edited version of this on 60 Minutes or maybe a PBS program (probably not - PBS can't afford to go after U.S. Senators), but it was amazing to see U.S. Senators really held to the task on a number of issues, among other things. It's a real shame, too. This kind of discussion is essential, yet absent. To go back to 60 Minutes, I think you are just as likely to see segments about serial killers on 60 Minutes as you are those excellent investigations into corporate wrongdoing or what have you. Maybe this is consumer driven, maybe not. Whatever the case, I think it's a real loss, something that American's need to address to recapture some of their understanding of the world.

Even here in Ethiopia, the local television station is often dominated on the weekends by political discussions of education, health, investment, etc. People, usually a lot of politicians, with other people mixed in between, will meet over the weekend to have an open discussion on any of a number of issues. From my experience with my in-laws, they find these discussions very interesting and always seem to be following them.

Enough soap-boxing. Hope you all are well and I will write more later. Take care.

Ken

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