Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?


My adventure travel year: a look back and a look forward

adventure travel, Harar
This was a strange year for me. I didn’t see any new countries but I still had some great adventure travel. I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia, writing a series about it for all you fine folks. I’d visited this fascinating medieval walled city back in 2010 during a road trip in Ethiopia and passed through on my way to Somaliland. The three weeks I spent in Harar in 2010 convinced me I had to come back and learn more.

This time, however, I came to settle in for a while. My colleague–local historian, author, and guide Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com)–helped me explore Ethiopia’s Somali region and meet the Argobba, a little-visited tribe. Other highlights included feeding a pack of hyenas and meeting a traditional African healer. The best part of my stay, however, was the day-to-day life of visiting friends and making new ones. Harar is a small town and it seemed that by the end of my two months there everyone knew me.

Sadly, that was my only adventure travel in 2011. I didn’t get to do my usual long-distance hike, scheduled in late August right after my birthday. I like to do these to prove to myself that I’m not old yet. In previous years I’ve blogged about hiking the East Highland Way and Hadrian’s Wall. Hopefully I’ll bring you another long-distance hike in 2012.

My main adventure travel destination this coming year is the Orkney Islands. My family will be along for this one and we’ll be exploring these rugged isles far to the north of Scotland. I’ve always wanted to see the Orkneys for their bleak grandeur and archaeological sites such as the mysterious brochs and stone circles like the Ring of Brodgar, pictured below courtesy flickr user joeri-c. Last summer I checked out an Ordnance Survey map of Orkneys and found that the farm right next to it is called “Sean”. Looks like I’m fated to go.

Other plans include a short trip to The Gambia and another trip back to Ethiopia. I need to get some funds for both of these adventures so I can’t guarantee they’ll happen. If they do, you’ll certainly hear about it!

Of course I wasn’t the only Gadling blogger to have adventures. The one that made me most jealous was Alex Robertson Textor’s series on Far Europe, and of course Jon Bowermaster is always doing something cool.

What were your adventure travel highlights for 2011? What are you plans for next year? Share your adventures in the comment section!
adventure travel

New Book celebrates 10 years of the Tour d’Afrique

The Tour d'Afrique celebrates ten yearsThe Tour d’Afrique is a legendary cycling event that runs from Cairo to Cape Town on an annual basis. Covering more than 7500 miles, and requiring four months to complete, the Tour is a popular “bucket list” item for adventure travelers and cyclists the world over. This year, the Tour d’Afrique commemorates its tenth anniversary, and to celebrate, the company behind the epic event has released a fantastic coffee table book entitled 10: Celebrating Ten Years of the Tour d’Afrique Bicycle Race and Expedition.

The book begins with a forward written by Tour founder Henry Gold. A decade ago, when he first pitched the idea of a bike ride across Africa, Gold was met with skepticism to say the least. Many thought that it simply wasn’t possible for an event like this one to exist and he was regularly told he was crazy for even considering it. Ten year later, Gold has turned his idea into a yearly event, and his adventure travel company produces similar cycling tours in a host of other locations across the globe.

10 is filled with stories from the road, as riders share tales, quotes, and anecdotes of their own experiences from the Tour. For some, it was a life altering experience for others an adventure of a lifetime, but no one who has taken part in the journey has come away unchanged. Their words are likely to inspire readers to want to join Tour as well, and even if you haven’t been on a bike in years, you may find yourself dreaming of pedaling under African skies. The book doesn’t try to hide the challenges of the ride, which range from oppressive heat to unexpected downpours, not to mention ever changing road conditions, but the amazing beauty of Africa and the camaraderie that is formed amongst the riders, will have a universal appeal all the same.

If the words of the riders don’t inspire you than perhaps the amazing photographs contained in this book will. 10 is a visual love letter to cycling, adventure travel, and most importantly, Africa itself. The 252 page volume is packed with breathtaking images that have been compiled over the past decade and capture the spirit of the Tour very well. Not only do those photos show the day-to-day experiences of the ride, but they also manage to convey a sense of wonder at the countries and environments that the riders pass through, as well as the people that live there.

If you have a cyclist or adventure traveler on your holiday shopping list, than this book is sure to be a hit. Just be warned, after reading it, they may feel compelled to join the ride themselves. Africa is most definitely calling.

The best Italian restaurant in the world?

The best Italian restaurant in the world? Prego,” said the Italian woman sitting behind an elevated counter. She waved me into one of the dining rooms, bedecked with rich wood paneling and white tablecloths draped over the half dozen tables. I was given a menu, which listed the canon of Italian cuisine: sausage and polenta, spaghetti alla vongole, and a colorful and fresh-looking anti-pasta bar, among others. It would be perfectly understandable if you thought I was dining in Rome or Ravenna.

But I was, in fact, about 3,000 miles from Rome. The chaotic, but intriguing miasma of concrete, steel, and car exhaust known as Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, dwelled just outside the window of Castelli. The restaurant, opened, according to Rossella Castelli, the woman at the counter, in 1957 (though many reports have suggested 1948). It’s a relic of the failed Italian occupation. The Castelli family opened the restaurant and stayed here instead of following Italian troops back home.

I didn’t come to Ethiopia to eat Italian food. In New York, where I live, there’s an Italian restaurant on every block, many of which are sub-mediocre quality. I lived in Italy for a few years, where I ate the cuisine every single day. Italian cuisine has managed to conquer the world, to borrow the title of a recently published book. But when I’m in a place like Ethiopia, I’m going to eat the local fare.

It wasn’t until I read that Bob Geldof, member of the rock band the Boomtown Rats and the man behind LiveAid and other benefits to help eradicate famine in east Africa, said Castelli was the best Italian restaurant in the world that I decided I couldn’t leave Addis Ababa without trying it.
Besides Geldof’s superlative language about Castelli, Bono, ever the hyperbolist, has also reportedly chimed in, though tamping down his enthusiasm by relegating Castelli to the best restaurant in Africa. Brad Pitt and former U.S. President/peanut farmer Jimmy Carter have also twirled their spaghetti here.

As you know, celebrities, the great arbiters of taste and style in the 21st century, know what they’re talking about. Because they’re famous they have a superior sense of taste and style that seems to allude ordinary people. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. We rely on celebrities to tell us what to like. Especially when it comes to food. If it’s good enough for Bono or Brad, it must be great. Right?

I ordered a bottle of Ethiopian wine–called Gouder, which could have passed for rancid Kool Aid–and a couple pasta and secondi dishes. I’ve never experienced this before in a restaurant but the penne of my penne all’arrabbiata was actually under cooked. Al dente to the enth degree. The spaghetti with spicy saffron sauce was not overcooked, but the flavor managed to be bland. The skirt steak in a red wine reduction, though, was egregiously overcooked. The baked lamb, much to my delight, was tender and juicy and just about right.

Maybe the chef at Castelli was having an off day. Maybe she or he wasn’t even there. It was far from the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever been to (though, full disclosure, I’ve never been to another Italian restaurant in Africa, so Bono could still be right). If you’re in Addis, go to Castelli–not necessarily to eat well but to eat in a place that represents part of Ethiopia’s history. (It’s the only country in Africa that managed to rebuff European colonialism.)

Just don’t say that Bob, Bono or Brad sent you.

Culinary Cab Confessions: where to eat raw meat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Culinary Cab Confessions: where to eat raw meat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The cab driver didn’t blink when I told him what I wanted. It might have been one of the most unusual requests he’d ever had. But he didn’t even look back at me or take a glance in the rearview mirror. He pointed his diminutive blue taxi up the wide boulevard and asked where I was from. As we turned on to Chechnya Street, named because of the apparent anything-goes debauchery that takes place here when the sun goes down, he turned into a de facto tour guide, pointing out the places where one might encounter a prostitute.

But I wasn’t seeking thrills of a sexual nature. I wanted to eat. And to eat at a place I may never find on my own. Welcome to Culinary Cab Confessions, a short series about letting cab drivers decide where I’ll be eating. There’s a long-standing belief that taxi drivers hold the secret to a city’s best eateries; not the upscale variety, but the affordable, no frills type; the places where we may never think of going and in neighborhoods where we might rarely venture. Wherever I’m traveling in the world or if I’m home in New York City, I’ll be hopping in cabs and telling the driver to take me to wherever he–or she–likes to eat. And then I’ll be writing about it. If the driver is hungry and inclined, I’m always happy to have a culinary guide to the restaurant. Lunch is on me.

Today I’m in Addis Ababa, the chaotic capital of Ethiopia. I walked out of my hotel, the Hilton, and jumped in the first taxi I saw. I got lucky. Fekadu Kebede, 27 years old, said he had a special treat in store for me. He looked excited. I’d been here already for almost two weeks and was slowly tiring of the usual local fare. I hoped he had something different up his sleeve. After cruising down relatively tame Chechnya Street (it was still daytime), we made a few twists and turns before navigating onto a bumpy dirt road. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.” I put my hand on the door knob and then paused. “Come on,” he said, beckoning me to get out with a wave. There are no street lights on this road–somewhat typical of Addis–and so at night we would have been wandering into the blackness. Wherever it was Fekadu was taking me. There was no sign to indicate what it was, just two open gates and a hallway flanked by ceiling-to-floor bamboo. “Welcome to Yohannes,” he said. “This is the best kitfo in Addis.”

I needed no introduction to kitfo. I had read about it in my guidebook and hoped to try it while I was here. Kitfo is an Ethiopian specialty: raw hamburger meat. I know what some of you are thinking: eating uncooked meat in a developing east African country would be about as questionable a decision as Justin Bieber deciding to make a sudden, unexpected appearance wearing ass-less chaps at a NAMBLA convention. The guidebook and everything else aimed at non-Ethiopians strongly recommended to get the cooked version of kifto. But I wanted whatever Fekadu was having. He ordered for us and within minutes small cast iron bowls were set in front of us, each one layered with an ensete leaf. The server plopped a huge mound of minced, raw beef in each bowl, garnished with dollops of soft, spiced cheese. I was nervous. Was this going to be a turning point for this trip? An Ethiopian version of the Delhi Belly, the Addis Ababa Bowel Effusion? Fekadu went first and I followed. It was delicious. Imagine steak tartar but imbued with mitmita, a spicy chili powder and then doused with niter kibbeh, a spice-and-herb-infused butter.

I ate mine so fast that Fekadu scooped some of his kifto into my bowl. As we ate, sometimes with the spoon, other times scooping it up with injera, the ubiquitous spongy bread Ethiopians use as edible silverware, my new friend told me about how he dreams of taking his wife and their seven-year-old son to live in San Diego where his older sister has been living for the last 20 years.

“We will not find kifto there,” he said. “But I think that’s an okay trade off, no?”

And with that I raised my beer, Fekadu his soda, and our bottles clinked, echoing for a long second to the high ceilings of a restaurant I would have never found on my own. In the end, I took his picture next to his car–yes, that’s really Fekadu above–and he drove me back to my hotel.

So, where, you’re most certainly wondering, is Yohannes? I couldn’t tell you. After all, that’s what cab drivers are for.