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Trip 16 -- Inner Indochina and Japan

Prologue: Addis Ababa
24 May 2014

Charlie and I may be the only two people to get from midtown Manhattan to Bangkok via the subway, two taxis, a flight from Newark to Washington, D.C., and a 41-hour layover in Ethiopia.

Going from Manhattan to the Newark airport for a 6:06 a.m. departure isn't easy these days. The Penn Station trains are suspended this spring, and the buses don't run early enough. We just missed the PATH train at the World Trade Center, so we took a taxi back up to midtown to catch the first airport bus, at 4:45. But with no sign of it by 4:55 and a 45-minute check-in cutoff, we could have been in trouble.

The driver of taxi 8H96 came to the rescue, offering would-be bus passengers a $20 taxi ride. We shared the cab with two others, and the driver, cutting through the closed lane and hitting 80 miles per hour, made it in under 20 minutes. Onto the plane and off to Dulles Airport.

We had almost four hours in Dulles, leisurely strolling the corridors and having breakfast in the Lufthansa lounge. As we dined on cold meats, yogurt, granola, and croissants with Nutella, we watched two TVs. The left one, with the sound on, showed pop-culture feature stories and bands.

The right one silently showed CNN with the caption, "Thai army declares martial law."

When we planned the trip in February, things had been quiet in Bangkok for months. I'd been unaware that earlier in May, the prime minister had been ousted for dissolving part of parliament and otherwise abusing her power. The military had taken control in order to suppress any protests by government supporters. From what I could garner by reading reports of people in Bangkok at the time, however, things were calm and under control.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight landed in Addis Ababa at around 7 a.m. We were originally to have had just 18 hours there before heading onward to Bangkok, but a few days before we left New York, Ethiopian Airlines canceled our flight and rebooked us for the following day. They put us up at the Hilton for the night. I didn't mind the extra day there; it was nice to reconnect with the Ethiopian capital, where I'd been six years earlier, and enjoy the country's wonderful cuisine. Addis Ababa isn't the most charming city -- as a foreigner you get tugged on by street kids, you breathe in dust and bus fumes all day, and, especially if you're a tall woman such as Charlie, you get stared at a lot -- but it does have its rewards.

I had just two main activities to accomplish there: drink tej (honey wine) and eat kitfo -- raw ground beef marinated in clarified butter and served with collard greens, cheese, and the bark of the enset tree. In New York, I go to one restaurant for both, but in Ethiopia, they're served in different establishments.

We had a nap at the Hilton and took a walk out along Haile Gebre Selassie Road toward the Topia Tej House. When I took this walk six years ago, it was an easy stroll along a major thoroughfare. Now the street is all torn up as they're installing a new light-rail line; we walked along shards of slate, climbed over dirt mounds, and hopped a fence -- the makeshift ladder was snapped by a passing truck seconds before we might have used it.

I was glad to be heading to Topia with someone I knew. Six years before, I'd met someone at the Teshomech kitfo restaurant, and she'd invited me to Topia. To confirm that she wasn't luring me into a kind of extortion scam, I'd gotten there early and inquired at the nearby Axum Hotel to make sure Topia was a legitimate place.

Charlie and I found Topia and had a couple of carafes of the orange tej. In the United States, tej looks like white wine and comes in bottles. In Ethiopia, it's opaque and bright orange, slightly fizzy, strong and sweet on the palate and with a light aftertaste, sort of like a sweet draft beer. We drank and had a lunch of tibs, grilled beef with a spicy, cold accompanying sauce.

The Yohannis kitfo house was down a side street across the construction and opposite the Axum Hotel. Their version was plentiful, less buttery than what we get in New York, and served with rich collard greens and two kinds of creamy cheese: one plain and one mixed with greens. As with all Ethiopian dishes, it was to be scooped up with the spongy sour bread called injera, made from teff (the world's smallest cereal grain); they also provided three kinds of kocho (enset bark): a gelatinous, woody raw version, a hard-as-rock toasted version, and the only one I found palatable, a lightly warmed version that was slightly malleable.

The extra day in Ethiopia gave us time to enjoy an additional dinner at the Habesha restaurant, with live masenqo (one-string bowed lute) playing, singing, and dancing, and spend some time in the bustling Piazza market area, overlooked by the church of St. George. The church's museum, lit only by the candle I held as I walked through its narrow hallways, was full of ancient crosses, priestly robes, and Bibles, some of which were brought down from Lalibela, Ethiopia's most famous cluster of rock-hewn churches. The caretaker let me climb the bell tower, and he brought me into the church itself to see the drum and sistrum (small handheld bell-like instrument) and the very realistic paintings of the victory against Italy, which the church was built to celebrate.

Just before we flew to Bangkok, I learned that the Thai army had declared a coup and imposed a nightly curfew. Reports from people in the city suggested that all was still peaceful and life was going on as usual. We took the train from the airport into the city and then a taxi to our hotel, a short walk from the Grand Palace -- and the driver said he preferred life under military rule because there was much less traffic. And we were dead tired, so we dined around the corner from our hotel, pondered a snack being sold at 7-11 with the description "Potato French Fries Snack with Milk Chocolate Dip & Milk Strawberry Sauce" -- what had its creator been smoking? -- and went to bed at 10 p.m. with the rest of Thailand.

Go on to part 1: Playing with pachyderms