December 30, 2010

The Wheels on the Bus

Wow…I have SO much to write about, most of it so ginormous that I literally don’t even know how to begin…as my facebook friends know, I’ve been robbed (twice), been in a bus accident and gotten stitches, had my first German Christmas, spent so much time at Immigration I feel like I should be paying them rent, and found a badly injured dog, and was able to get his leg amputated at the veterinary university (and am now, with the help of my amazing friends Dallas and Tommy, desperately trying to funds together to get him to the US so he can get a forever home and a good life. Even if you have $1, you have NO idea how much it would mean to me if we could give this dog a chance).

Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks, and I’ve got a lot to say.  A LOT.  I could start with one of the aforementioned stories, each of which are actually important, but every time I try, I get overwhelmed a couple of paragraphs in, so in typical Chelsea-fashion, instead, I’m going to write about something far more mundane: busses.  That’s right, busses.  In spite of all of my recent (mis)adventures, it is still part of my intention to utilize this blog to examine cultural differences, and as trivial as it sounds, compared with the bigger stuff, I think it’s often the mundane details which reveal the more nuanced aspects of culture—the sort of things that you can’t quite put your finger on, but somehow manage to drive you mad, fill you up with joy, and shape your impressions of the world around you.  And in my opinion, busses are a prime example of this.  Either that, or the four hours every day for the last two weeks that I’ve spending on the bus to and from Addis to sort out visa issues have given me a permanent case of the road crazies…but either way, you’re getting a blog about busses.  You’re welcome.

When you travel internationally, unless you are entirely fluent in the local language and cultural norms, one thing that you quickly learn to get used to is the fact that most of the time, you pretty much no idea what is going on.  At first it’s kind of nerve-wracking—all around you, people are talking, laughing, yelling, reacting to things you say or do, behaving in ways that seem erratic, trying to tell you where to go, what do do or not do, strangers trying to explain things in broken English with wild gestures. It is initially quite difficult to tell whether you’ve just done something terrible or rude, whether the people around you are trying to help or taking advantage of the fact that you are clearly unfamiliar with the culture (there’s always a little of both).  But after a jarring few days of anxiousness, you learn to just go with it.  Sometimes you get mislead or taken advantage of, but usually things work out.  Which is good, because I was initially so baffled by the bus system, I’m quite sure I’d still be stranded somewhere in the middle of Ethiopia if they didn’t. 

Unlike in the US, busses here do not run on a schedule.  There is no external source one can consult on when and where a bus is going or may be caught—and, indeed, there isn’t even a clear routine in place.  When you arrive at the bus rink, you encounter one of two circumstances: a dizzying scene of people rushing about, crowding onto busses in their business suits or tattered farming clothes, carrying briefcases, chickens, teff, huge baskets of injera, and anything else one could conceivably carry on a bus, while young children follow you around trying to sell gum and snacks (I encountered someone hawking Tic Tacs using the Mentos jingle…made me a wee nostalgic for home, I must admit), and bus attendants aggressively yell things like “Come on! Come on!!!” “You! You! You!” “Where are you go?!” “Farenji! Farenji!” along with extraordinarily garbled names of their destinations, as they grab your arm, trying to load you on their bus (even if you tell them that you are not headed for their destination—they seem to think that you won’t mind getting off one hundred miles in the opposite direction of where you were trying to go).  Or when you arrive at the bus station, it’s entirely deserted: a few empty busses, one or two bus attendants, so terribly bored they fail to even notice a Farenji…nothing but dust and some candy wrappers; one can almost imagine a tumbleweed blowing through, just to punctuate the scene.

As you can guess, despite the intensity of the former situation, it is the more desirable of the two—by a longshot.  You see, in Ethiopia, since there are no formal bus schedules, no formal bus routes; drivers simply do what is most advantageous for themselves—arrive at the station whenever they feel the most people are leaving, travel only to the destinations which they feel will attract the most passengers, and leave only when the bus is one hundred percent full (or more).  So, if the bus station is busy, the odds that you’ll actually be able to catch a bus are significantly increased. 

The whole “fill ‘er up and go” approach seems great, if you have the luxury of going to a popular destination, leaving from a popular destination, and picking a popular time to leave—then the busses seem to fill up almost as they arrive, with nary a moment’s time wasted waiting.  But if any one of these factors—time, location of pick-up, or final destination—isn’t spot on, the failures of this approach rapidly become apparent. 

For example, if you pick an unpopular time or destination, you may, quite literally board a bus and wait for hours before it leaves—even if the trip itself is short.  There have been times when I have been on a bus that is almost completely full, except for one person, yet we waited upwards of an hour for the last person to arrive.  If the destination from which you are leaving is not one of the main pick-up points, you may not only have to wait hours upon hours, but you may actually never be able to catch a bus at all—since the drivers refuse to leave until the bus is entirely full, there is no room to pick up people along the way.  (Incidentally, in my opinion, this only increases social and economic disparity by further isolating members of rural communities and limiting their access to resources available in city centers.)  If the trip is long and a few passengers get off before the last stop, many drivers refuse to continue until the bus is full again, and will circle repeatedly, shouting at passers by (and in my case, often advertising that there is a Farenji on the bus to try to drum up business)—as though if they shout enough, someone will spontaneously decide to drop what they are doing and get on the bus.  So, even once a bus departs, it is unclear when you will arrive, because if you have the bad luck of catching a bus with a few passengers getting off early, your trip could be delayed by hours. 

Worse yet, because drivers have the liberty of determining their routes on a whim, there is no way (at least for an outsider) to predict when or if you even can make a trip.  For example, if there is a celebration in one village on one day, there may be absolutely no busses going to any other villages that day.  If a bus advertises that it is going to one village, but it is not filling quickly enough, the driver may announce (in Amharic, of course) that the bus has changed destinations, and everyone must disembark (which of course means that as you’re happily waiting and listening to your iPod, waiting for the bus to leave, suddenly everyone gets off, for no apparent reason…). 

Another extremely curious aspect of bus transport here (at least curious to me, as a foreigner) is that often a bus will advertise that it is going to one destination, then, midway through the trip, call out the destination, and when you affirm that that’s where you’re going, they pull over and throw you off—clearly not where you intended to be—or grab you by the wrist and shove you on another bus.  (Again, remarkably jarring when you have no idea what they are doing or whether you’ve just been abandoned in the middle of nowhere [hehe, MON!]).  And, again, this seems to be entirely dependant on the driver’s mood, so you can never tell whether you’re taking a direct bus, or will have to transfer (or how many times you’ll have to transfer), or how long your trip will take.  For example, in my trips to and from Awassa, there have been times I’ve gotten a direct bus, which has taken about 3 hours, and other times I’ve had to transfer, up to five times, in which case it’s taken well over 6 hours—and I left at the same time on the same day of the week!

Additionally, because drivers make more money for more trips, their MO is clear: go as fast as they possibly can, even when they are very clearly putting all of their passengers at risk.  Drivers are widely regarded by the general public as greedy and reckless, and, as a broad stereotype, I can’t say I disagree.  There have been many, many, many occasions when I’ve been on a bus and literally every passenger has been yelling and pleading with the driver to slow down, but with no success.  And the worry is genuine—I’ve passed fatal bus crashes on nearly every single long bus journey I’ve taken, and (as mentioned earlier), I’ve even been in a minor crash myself (thank GOD it was as minor as it was and a few stitches were all any of us needed).

In terms of the busses themselves, the quality varies dramatically.  There are two types of busses—minibuses/combi’s, which are essentially vans that seat 15-20 people (not comfortably!)—and large busses which seat maybe 100 people or so.  As consistent with Ethiopian culture, most busses are elaborately adorned with accessories reflecting the drivers’ taste—typically including religious art, futbol team merchandise, brightly colored curtains, faux fur and tassles, or some combination thereof.  Most busses have a great deal of exposed metal, and some form of cushioned seats, though some are made of plastic, and literally look more like giant toy leggo busses, than actual human transport.  The glass in the windows on the busses is ordinary glass—not special shatter-safe car glass—a fact which is brought to your attention every time you go over a bump and the entire bus makes a loud clinking sound.  In Ethiopian culture (as with Batswana culture—it seems to be almost a pan-African view, based on other travelers I’ve talked to), it is considered extremely bad luck to have windows open on a bus, so, in addition to being crowded, busses are also usually quite hot and stuffy, and an attempt to open a window or curtain is typically met with a flurry of hands rushing to slam it closed.

Now, as with most of my writings, I should be clear—this is not intended to be critical, merely to point out the cultural differences which one must adapt to when residing outside of one’s own comfort zone.  And as I said, I think it actually illustrates some of the more subtle manifistations of the broader cultural differences which exist between American and Ethiopian culture.  For example, my most frequently-cited difference: that of the individualistic culture versus the collective culture.  From a collective approach, it makes more sense to organize busses this way—the majority of people reach their destinations faster and more effectively, and no space on the bus is wasted.  From an individual approach, however, it’s quite difficult to swallow, because, while the majority is well-served, those who do not happen to be fortunate enough to be headed in the “right” direction at the “right” time from the “right” starting point, are left in the dust—literally.

It’s also incredibly demonstrative of the difference in the cultural approach to time and planning.  It is literally impossible to create a travel plan with any more accuracy than what day you’ll be arriving or leaving—and sometimes even that isn’t feasible.  To a member of a time-conscious society like the US, it is almost inconceivable to have so little ability to manage your time—it’s not even the waiting that’s frustrating, it’s the lack of understanding and control over the situation that’s difficult for a Westerner to grasp (well, was difficult to grasp—the benefit of this sort of travel is that that sort of thing kind of stops getting to you…most of the time…).  But here, it’s simply expected—things just happen as they happen, and it’s okay to arrive somewhere “late;” plans are flexible, and people genuinely don’t mind the lack of control.  Being faced with such differences, at such a simultaneously micro and macro level is one of the benefits, and stress-factors of travel like this, and really does force you to grapple with the impact that your own culture has had upon you.  And I have to admit, while I appreciate the differences, I really am an American.  But more on that later (in theory, anyway).

Anyway, this blog seems to have come to its natural end, so I’ll just say I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing more; it’s NOT for lack of things to say; I’ve just actually had work to do, made friends, and kept extremely busy—pretty much the opposite of Botswana (and a much more Peace Corps situation than being there was), and as it turns out, being busy basically means I don’t have as much time to contemplate and document everything….but I really am hoping to soon, before I forget it all, and before I return to the US and get sucked back into the cushy web of technology and  hot showers (*sigh* hot showers…*sigh* ;oP).  Love you all so much, and still miss you like crazy, even though I’m really, really loving it here! if you have a spare buck or two—it would mean everything to me!  Three more weeks…so crazy…!!!

November 19, 2010

Desmond Has a Barrow in the Marketplace

Aaaand now Oblidi Oblida is stuck in my head.... (Yeah, three Beatle references in a row…they’re the greatest band ever, what can I say? [Not to be mistaken with my favorite band ever, obviously, Hanson…just to clarify in case there was any doubt as to my allegiance.])

So, this is just a precursor to a possible future blog (I say “possible” because I have yet to determine whether a future blog will be warranted), as it is about the local market in Debre Zeyit—I still have not been to the BIG Marketo in Addis (and it is BIG—allegedly the second-biggest market in all of Africa), although I intend to pay a visit this Saturday.  Nonetheless, the market in DZ is an experience that I wish to share.

The local market is admittedly much like the images of African markets which are portrayed in National Geographic, travel shows, and Hollywood movies—it is a noisy, crowded, bustling, maze of colorful makeshift stalls, tables, and tarps strewn about and covered in goods of nearly every kind imaginable, separated by narrow, dusty paths full of people bartering, shop owners wheeling carts full of produce, and the occasional goats and chickens sleeping under the shade of tables or sneaking an afternoon snack on inadequately guarded grains—and it is all beautiful.  There is some semblance of order in this chaotic scene: the market is divided into several sections: produce, pottery, baskets, spices, fabrics/tailors, pre-made clothes, pre-made knick-knacks, small café stalls, etc.—however that’s where the order ends, at least by my account. 

My favorite part of the market is the fabric portion.  This is one of the “nicer” parts, in terms of the quality of the stalls—while the stalls throughout the rest of the market are rather haphazardly constructed of discarded plastic and metal scraps, the fabric section consists of twenty or so cement stalls, each full of dozens of varieties of breathtakingly beautiful traditional fabric.  Traditional fabric is extraordinarily striking in my opinion—it is a white muslin with extremely ornate, colorful (sometimes sparkly) patterned edges, usually between 2-6 inches, ranging from brilliant purples, to reds, golds, blues, and greens—nearly every color of edging imaginable is available.  The fabric is not sold by the yard, but is arranged by the type of item for which it is to be used—for instance there is a certain amount of fabric needed to make a dress, and a different amount of fabric needed for a scarf, blanket, etc. (it is not pre-cut in the shape that will be sewed, however—that is for the tailor to do).  Each stall is adorned with hangers with sample finished-products—ornate dresses, shirts, and blankets—none of which can actually be purchased, but all of the supplies necessary to complete these creations are available within the stall.  Instead, after purchasing a fabric, one can proceed to the area directly adjacent to the fabric section, which contains a sea of tailors—almost all male—amidst a flurry of fabric flowing through their old-fashioned non-electric Singer-style sewing machines, and have your project made there.  It’s a rather frantic scene, but incredibly beautiful, and dangerous for me, because I want to buy everything there!

Another favorite area of mine is the area with the spices and grains.  Stall after stall with gigantic bags overflowing with a selection of ground spices far greater than you can imagine, heaps of crystal white unground salt, bright red spicy dried peppers—which at times fill the air with such potency that one can hardly breathe without coughing, nor see without the blur of watering eyes—and more varieties of grains than I even knew existed.  It is truly a feast for the senses, with more smells and vibrant colors than can be captured by words or photos.

The produce section is similar—a patchwork of colors.  Piles upon piles of brown and red potatoes, purple shallots, green cabbage, yellow carrots, red tomatoes, lush, leafy greens, fresh herbs of every variety imaginable—all stacked nearly as tall as I am, usually with young children perched on a stool nearby, clamoring to make a sale. 

As you navigate your way through the alleys of the market, the various temperaments of the salesmen is incredibly apparent—some overzealous younsters shouting at each customer, trying to generate business, others are older and barely seem to manage to stay awake, almost failing to notice potential customers.  Of course haggling is commonplace, but more challenging than that is attempting to purchase non-industrial quantities of items—it seems that most people who frequent the market are serving large families (farenji’s typically frequent the small, slightly more westernized markets on the main street, not the actual marketplace), so when my friend and I were simply trying to purchase enough for a few meals, we had an incredibly difficult time trying to explain that we did not want to buy 3 dozen potatoes. 

Standing amidst the vibrant hum of the marketplace is definitely one of the instances which produces what my former Bots PCV’s referred to as a TIA (This Is Africa) moment—slightly surreal and entirely mesmerizing—and makes me once again profoundly grateful for this experience.

With a Little Help from My Friends (or Complete Strangers)

Another quick note, but once again, I want to share a little slice of Ethiopian culture…I seriously freaking LOVE it here…

In Ethiopia (or at least in my fairly large village), perhaps because of the sheer volume of people, or perhaps as a small measure of privacy (privacy is still an almost entirely western concept here, as in many places throughout the world), strangers are not expected to greet or speak to each other unless the situation warrants it, much like in America (i.e. no need to talk to everyone you pass on the street).  (Of course, as a farenji, a large number of people try to speak to me, but that’s for entirely different reasons.)  However despite this social norm, people are remarkably quick to come to one another’s aid when distressing situations occur. 

For instance, in the situation I described in an earlier blog, when a horse carrying a cart fell, a large group of men rushed to her aid, and persisted kindly helped her until she was back on her feet.  Similarly, when a minibus stalled, passers-by—even some who were quite well-dressed—immediately began pushing it to the side of the road.  On one occasion, a man began following me aggressively, trying to grab me and shouting “farenji” (something that is remarkably uncommon here—although people may try to get me to talk to them, very few are at all threatening or harassing), a total stranger ran across the street and pulled the man from me, yelling at him in Amharic, telling him that it is not okay to treat me that way.  On another occasion, I took a bajaj home from a friends’ house; we had a agreed on a price, but when I went to leave, he doubled it (again, incredibly uncommon here).  I refused to pay the extra money and he began to yell at me.  A woman at a shop nearby burst out of her shop, asked what happened, and told the man to leave, grabbing me and bringing me to my shop—she didn’t let me leave until he was out of sight, and then she walked me all the way to my door.  (The following day, I gave her a scarf and candle to thank her for her kindness—gift-giving is a common form of thanks here.)

In my short time here, I’ve witnessed similar occurrences time and time again, and each time it still creates a warm fuzzy feeling—a sense of incredible comfort and safety.  When I arrived, I asked the director of my NGO what the Amharic word for “help” was.  He told me, but quickly assured me that there was no way I would ever need to use it.  At the time, I thought he was simply trying to quiet any concerns I may have had for my safety, but now I see what he meant—it is superfluous to ask for help here; it comes naturally.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

This is going to be a quick one—there are just so many aspects of Ethiopian culture that I want to capture and share, even if it means writing in small snippets here and there.  So here goes…

Like many countries around the world, Ethiopia is all about the PDA (physical displays of affection). However, unlike America, this PDA is strictly not to be directed towards significant others—in fact, public physical contact between romantic partners is almost entirely nonexistent and severely frowned upon if one wants to remain within the confines of social norms.  Instead, physical affection is directed toward friends and is a signal of platonic fondness for one another.  As such, men are frequently seen holding hands with other men, women walking side by side, arm-in-arm, and I find myself walking to and from all of my classes with a glom of students at my side, arms around my waist, holding hands, and leaning against me.  When I first arrive in class, all of the girls run towards me and kiss me on the cheek, and the boys shake hands and bump shoulders with me (this is the traditional casual greeting for men—for women the European kissing of the cheek, minus the jubilant cannon-ball-like hug is common, but my students are great and full of love, so what can I say?!) 

As an American, where platonic touching is almost completely culturally forbidden, I must admit it was a bit off-putting at first—the prolonged hand-holding throughout the twenty-minute walk to the main road produced a level of awkwardness that almost made my stomach churn (although I obviously made no indication of this to my students, as it was clear that I was the odd man out for maintaining this sentiment).  However, having been here for a month or so now, it’s strange how comforting touch really is—I now count myself among the locals, who feel more awkward when walking or sitting next to a friend and NOT holding hands or touching in some way.  And it’s nice to be able to give my students a pat on the shoulder for a job well done, or a small hug if they feel embarrassed after speaking incorrectly in class, without worrying that such a gesture will be misconstrued or that I will be reprimanded for such an action. 

It is also comforting, because since touching is a sign of friendship, it is equally inappropriate for strangers to touch, so unlike in Botswana, where I was constantly groped, pulled on, and expected to put up with it because to refuse to be touched was considered rude, here when the occasional guy tries to grab my hands, it is entirely socially acceptable for me to pull away and tell him “no.”

…like I said, this was a short one, but just one of the many cultural nuances that I love and wanted to convey.

Holes, Lakes, Vets, and My Own Private God (oh, and more coffee) (Also, longest blog EVER--sorry!)

I probably should be at least slightly ashamed that today began with me falling in a hole, and nearly concluded with me being locked in a bathroom, but anyone who knows me would probably expect nothing less—I am absurdly clumsy, and I haven’t fallen in public in a few months, so it seems fitting that my fall would be in broad daylight, on the biggest street in Debre Zeyit (and consequently witnessed by many, many people), into a sudden 6-foot drop, because I’m busy looking across the street, trying to avoid getting lost, and resulting in two huge welts, a bloody pant-leg (which would stay with me for the rest of the day), and slightly less embarrassment than I probably should’ve felt (but I have become quite accustomed to the mishaps that my lack of coordination and easily distracted temperament have afforded me).  Nonetheless, today is among the better days I’ve had—an I-need-to-pinch-myself/how-did-I-ever-get-this-lucky? kind of day.

Today a friend of my host family offered to take me out on some hikes and to show me more of Debre Zeyit.  We were to meet at 2:30 and then spend the day exploring the village .(Incidentally, 2:30 really means 8:30am—Ethiopia operates on a 12-hour clock like the us, except 12:00am in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00am in the US, and 12:00pm in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00pm in the US.  In other words, the clock starts when the sun rises and ends when the sun sets.  Overall, I think it’s a much more rational system, however it creates significant confusion for visitors if you forget to specify whether an agreed upon meeting time or event is using the Western or Ethiopian clock.  [Incidentall, Ethiopia also operates on a different calendar, and it’s currently 2003 here…woohoo, looks like I’ll be turning 21 in a week instead of 28!] But I digress…)  At roughly 2:15 I fell in a hole, but still managed to find our meeting spot on time, and we were off. 

We began the day by visiting Lake Bishoftu, my new favorite of the three lakes in Debre Zeyit.  It is the least developed (farenji [foreigner] hotels have a knack for sprouting up on the edges of most of the lakes here, creating beautiful views for tourists, but destroying the serenity for everyone else, at least in my opinion).  All of the lakes in Debre Zeyit are volcanic lakes—meaning they are essentially circular, quite deep, and enclosed by the rim of the former volcano.  Bishoftu is the largest of the lakes and has by far the steepest slope to reach the water.  Navigating the dusty, narrow, near-vertical path down, which is almost entirely free of switch-backs (read: it goes straight down), felt more like scaling a two-hundred-foot cliff than taking a stroll to a lake.  (Normally this would’ve excited me, but I will confess to feeling a tad of anxiety following my display of grace and dexterity earlier in the day.) 

As a result of the sharp incline, Bishoftu is the second-deepest lake in Ethiopia (or so I am told).  Its depth, combined with the difficulty of access and the demon that is fabled to live in the lake and occasionally cause many fish to die and float to the surface (we were in luck and did not encounter any such creature during our visit) render it a fairly unpopular spot for locals to wash clothes and bathe, or to visit in general, for that matter, apart from a few daring swimmers (many of whom were clad only in several pieces of discarded Styrofoam strung together by a rope and strewn around the waist as a sort of lifevest).  Because of its lack of popularity with the locals, it is remarkably clean, relative to the stagnation of the water (since it is a volcanic lake, it is not fed or drained by any rivers or streams), and because there are only a few hotels on its rim, it is almost entirely un-landscaped, so the native plants remain in-tact nearly all the way around the lake.  One of the many things I love about Ethiopia is how many endemic (exclusive-to-Ethiopia) species there are, and Lake Bishoftu is home to many, including many brightly colored flowers, which create bright flecks of color throughout the ridge which surrounds the lake.

Following our descent to the shore, we loitered for a bit, wandering around and observing the various birds soaring from the trees to the lake, and bobbing atop the water, then we scuttled back up to the top of the hill, trudged past the fancy hotels directly adjacent to the slums and shanty homes which are prevalent throughout DZ, and continued our tour of the village.

As fate would have it, Debre Zeyit is home to one of the ten veterinary schools in Ethiopia, and my new friend is a graduate student at the school—both pieces of news delighted me of course, given how much I love animals.  One thing I’ve eluded to before, but haven’t had a chance to write about in detail, is how incredibly impressed I am by the Ethiopian culture’s respect for animals.  Companion cats and dogs are nearly ubiquitous, and unlike Botswana, where any animals you see—regardless of species—are starving and terrified of humans because they are badly abused by almost everyone, in Ethiopia, nearly every animal you encounter, from goats to chickens, to dogs and cats, is entirely comfortable around people, used to being pet and treated kindly.  Many people allow animals in their homes, and all animals I’ve seen are generally as well-fed as their human guardians. 

The only exceptions that I’ve noted are the horses and donkeys used for transport and hauling goods.  These animals are typically overworked (incidentally, this is the case for most horses used for carriages in America, too, so I am not in any way pointing fingers).  However, it seems to be the case that most people here hold a certain level of respect even for these animals—for instance, while I was running, I saw a horse fall down while pulling a cart.  The man driving the cart began to beat and whip the horse trying to get her to stand.  All of the people around, myself included, looked on in horror, but after only a few seconds, nearly a dozen men (and I, of course) rushed to the scene, made the driver stop beating the horse, and gently helped the horse stand.  I’ve seen far worse atrocities toward animals take place publicly in the States, without even a hint of such a reaction, so if Gandhi was right and “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” then I think by that account, Ethiopia is doing quite well.  But again, I digress... 

As I was saying, Debre Zeyit is home to a veterinary school, which also houses an SPCA and horse and donkey sanctuary.  These facilities provide veterinary care free-of-charge for working and companion animals (but not farmed animals which will generate profit for their guardians).  Once my friend discovered my love of animals, he insisted on taking me for a tour of the school.  It was remarkably similar to a University in the States—complete with co-ed dormitories, a computer lab, several cafeterias, and a volleyball and soccer field (none of which are commiserate with Western standards, of course, but they are very nice nonetheless [and the more traveling you do, the less important Western standards of living seem {apart from hot showers, that is…I stand firmly by my adoration of hot showers. And toilet paper}]).  Although I was not allowed into classrooms, the academic facilities seemed excellent and comprehensive, containing everything from a pathology lab, to a surgical lab, and vaccination clinic (and many, many other departments, which I cannot recall at the moment). 

As I’ve mentioned before, another thing I really love about Ethiopian culture is the attention to detail.  As my friend and I were exploring the campus, I noticed something I’d seen almost everywhere throughout Debre Zeyit—most of the large windows had white “X”’s painted on them.  I’d been curious about this for a while, but this was the first opportunity I had to ask what the X’s signified.  I was expecting that they had something to do with construction or window-cleaning.  In fact, my friend informed me, they are to prevent birds from flying into them and dying.  How often does this happen in the States—ALL the time—but our culture is either too callous or vein (or some combination of both) to even permit putting big X’s on windows, let alone making such an act commonplace.  I don’t mean to vent about American culture (as I’ve said before, on a whole, my travels have made me far more appreciative of it), it’s just that it’s nice to experience a culture which has such respect for animals, and which takes the care and effort, even when resources are scarce, to look out for the “little things” like the wild birds. (Another cool random fact: the headmaster of one of my schools has even started a global warming club, working to promote tree-planting and environmental awareness, and his work has dramatically shaped the school campus, but that’s another story…)  It almost makes up for the man who sells goat heads right outside of one of the schools where I teach.

Following our visit to the veterinary school, we proceeded to the second of our three-lake tour: Lake Hora.  This is the one lake in DZ that I had visited before, as was evidenced by the several locals who shouted “Chelsea!” a la Cheers, once I arrived (as a Farenji, most people talk to me and ask my name, and since my name happens to be shared by a football team, most people I meet easily remember it, making such greetings less infrequent than one might expect).  Despite my prior visits to the lake, however, today something quite different was in store.

One thing which distinguishes Lake Hora from the other two lakes in DZ is that it is a holy spot for one of the local ethnic groups.  As such, it is the site of periodic religious ceremonies (I say “periodic” because every time I have asked one of my local friends how often the ceremonies are, I am told anywhere from every 6 months to every year, but each of the three times I’ve been to the lake, there has been some sort of ceremony taking place, so your guess is as good as mine…).  When we arrived at the lake we were greeted by the sweet, spicy scent of incense burning, and smokey smell of roasting coffee wafting up the hill.  These fragrances have become quite familiar in the month or so since I arrived in Ethiopia, as coffee ceremonies are a common way of welcoming a guest (among other things), however my experience today was far from ordinary.

Now, before I proceed with my story, it is incredibly important to me to clarify something: one of my biggest pet peeves is when people go other countries and turn traditional activities and ceremonies into a spectacle, a curiosity; a tourist attraction where other cultures are perceived as strange, naïve, and with (usually subtle) condescension.  I do not know how what I write will wind up sounding, and I have no control over how you choose to read it, however I want to make it clear that my intention in writing this arises purely out of respect for the culture, and a wish to share the beautiful experience that I was very fortunate to have.

Anyway…as my friend and I proceeded down the hill towards the lake, we were greeted by a slightly less familiar sight: a crowd of people gathered around a large tree near the lake shore, women adorned in brightly-colored skirts and dresses, with large shawls draped over their heads and shoulders, sitting in several different circular groups.  Several women were standing at the water’s edge, burning incense and pouring perfume, milk, honey, and barley into the water, then walking to the tree and covering various spots on the tree with the leftovers, all the while chanting rhythmic prayers.  Not wanting to intrude, I suggested to my friend that perhaps we should proceed to the next lake, however almost as the words were leaving my mouth, an elderly man from the group approached my friend and began to speak to him in Amharic (or Oromic, the local language—could’ve been either as far as I know…).  I was immediately worried that we had caused a disturbance, but quite on the contrary—my friend informed me that the gentleman from the group had invited me to join them.  I asked my friend if he thought it was a good idea, and he said yes—their invitation was sincere and they would not do anything “weird” to me—so I agreed.

I was ushered into one of the larger circles of people seated near the trees, and immediately cloaked in a shawl—apparently showing your head during the ceremony is very bad—and just like that, I was a slightly puzzled participant.  Inside the circle was a large tray with twenty of so of the traditional small espresso-sized coffee cups adjacent to a pot of coffee already roasting atop a bed of freshly cut reeds from the lake, a dozen or so sticks of incense stuck in various places on the ground, slowly burning away, a large variety of breads—from two-sided injera to the traditional LARGE (2-3’ in diameter) circular white bread, and various others that I am unfamiliar with—and a tray full of roasted barley, peanuts, popcorn, and other grains.  As one of the women roasted the coffee, the others in the circle sat cross-legged with their hands on their knees, palms open to the sky, and heads bowed.  One member of the group chanted a prayer while the others chanted rhythmic “Amen…amen…amen”’s.  After a while, the members of the group began singing an upbeat song and clapping; throughout the song, random members of the group burst out hisses and gutteral sounds, as the rest of the group continued singing and clapping. 

As I sat there rather bewildered, brimming with questions, but not about to ask any of them, for fear of disrupting the ceremony, one of the women in the group presented me with some of the grains, then an elderly man passed around a plate of bread, and the woman preparing the coffee handed me a cup.  I looked to my friend to be sure that it was alright for me to partake in the food and drink offered to me, and he nodded.  As I was drinking the coffee, I was given a large branch of chat—a green leafy plant that many local people chew because it is allegedly a stimulant, slightly less potent than coffee.  Again I looked to my friend, and he nodded that it was okay, and I recalled speaking with a fellow volunteer from England who had tried the chat and said it had no effect on him, other than tasting rather bitter, so I felt it was alright to give it a try.  As I chewed a piece and rapidly concluded that my English friend’s analysis was correct, the group switched back to praying and chanting “amen,” several more women got up to walk toward the lake with offerings of perfume, milk, honey and barley, and the woman began preparing more coffee (indeed, the Day of Six Coffees [see earlier blog] was no anomaly). 

I sat, breathing in the smoke from the fire and incense, hypnotized by the rhythmic chants, and gazing upon the sparkling water in front of me and I suddenly became overwhelmed with gratitude—how lucky was I to be sitting in a country, thousands of miles from my home, amongst people I had just met, and to be welcomed in such a manner—not simply to observe a living culture, so different from my own, but to actually be allowed to participate in it; right now I could be sitting behind a desk doing data entry, but here I was in Africa, having this amazing experience.  And along with the gratitude, I began to feel almost guilty—what had I done to deserve all of this? 

Exactly as these feelings began to swell up inside of me, a middle-aged woman next to me leaned over with a smile, and began to explain the ceremony.  In rather broken English, she explained that the ceremony was about expressing gratitude toward their god for all of their good fortune, and for asking forgiveness for their flaws—remarkably, exactly the sentiments that the ceremony incited in me, without any knowledge of what was being said or done around me.  Possibly a coincidence, possibly I picked up on some subtle nuances which conveyed these ideas, but I have to admit it brought me chills nonetheless.

As the ceremony proceeded, more coffee, more breads, and more chat was served, and the kind woman next to me began sharing more information about the group’s beliefs, and little by little, I gained an understanding of what was going on around me.  Apparently, they believe a fusion of traditional religion and either Christianity or Islam (the woman said that believers of each were present).  They believe that each person has their own private God, a child of the biblical God and a traditional Godess, who takes care of them and acts as a sort of liaison between each person and the biblical God (which varies, of course, depending on whether you are Christian or Muslim).  She was quick to inform me that this personal God is not racist, and even though I am white and do not believe in him, I have one taking care of me as well.  She said that the people at this ceremony all share the same mother Goddess, and she lives at Lake Hora.  When the women pour the food into the water and onto the tree, they are making offerings to their Mother God and her children, and she said that this ceremony is done twice a year: before the winter, to pray for help surviving the season, and after the winter, to thank the private Gods for keeping them safe (incidentally, it’s the end of winter in Ethiopia now).  Occasionally during the songs and prayers, she would translate bits of the prayers to me, and when one elder man let out a startling hissing sound, she informed me that that was the sound of the individuals casting out the devil.

I honestly have no idea how long I sat with the group because the ceremony really is quite meditational and magical, even when you don’t know what’s being said (every time I’d glance at my friend to see if he was ready to leave, he signaled that it was ok—he had already told me he wanted me to learn all about Ethiopian culture, so I think he was actually pleased I was able to have such an experience), but when I got up to leave, I expressed profound thanks, and everyone smiled and waved.  I still cannot get over how incredibly welcoming Ethiopian culture is to guests—and my friend told me that they really liked me, and could tell that I was genuinely interested in learning about them, not just a farenji tourist—which delighted me, as that was my intention.

Following my “religious experience,” we went to the final lake, lake Babu Gaya (I am sure I butchered the spelling there), which was much like Lake Hora—entirely touristy, surrounded by expensive hotels, resorts, and boat docks—although slightly less polluted.  We had a soda as the sun went down—not a bright, colorful sunset by any means, but pretty nonetheless—and then took a bajaj (the correct name for the three-wheeled enclosed motorcycles) to a fairly posh restaurant where I had salad with injera (everything’s better with injera), and almost got locked in the bathroom forever (as soon as I was inside and shut the door, I realized that the inside handle was broken off, leaving me with absolutely no way of getting out; fortunately a staff member quickly came to my aid and opened it from the outside, so it was not nearly the calamity that the day began with, but still demonstrative of my luck, nonetheless), and I returned home.

All in all, it was an incredible day, and entirely exemplary of what I love about Ethiopia—it is full of natural beauty, profoundly rich living culture, and simultaneously evolving with modernity.  Also, it has a lot of coffee.

The Day of Six Coffees

That title pretty much says enough to be an entry in and of itself, right?  Especially if you’ve ever been around me to see my typical un-caffeinated energy level!  But, as those of you who’ve been kind enough to peruse through my Facebook pictures (and you’re reading my blog now—anyone who’s taken the time to do both, you are incredible!!  Much, much love!) know, The Day of Six Coffees was about a lot more than coffee. 

The second school that I teach at is located on the outskirts of town; the students from this school struggle the most to get to and from school and most spend all of their free time helping their parents with their farms.  One student approached me, full of shame and guilt, to tell me that she will not be able to attend many of my classes because there is too much work at the house—I of course reassured her that she is always welcome in class, and told her she was amazing for working so hard both at school and at home.  Another student told me that she has not seen her parents in two years because they live in the country, where she would not have access to school, so they sent her here to live with her aunt and uncle, and even though it has been a long time since she has been home, she is still plagued with homesickeness.  These students face the greatest struggles, by far, out of all of the students that I work with.  They are also the most enthusiastic, cheerful, and grateful to work with me.

My former teaching partner (he was at the end of his trip and returned to England) and I are the first volunteers to teach at this school, and as such, the students were extraordinarily excited when we began working with them.  They clinged to us when we walked through the long, dusty field back to the main road, teaching us Amharic, singing songs, and asking questions about English.  One day, several of the students began persistently asking me if I liked coffee—their diligence seemed a little odd, but since coffee is essentially THE national drink, I assumed they were just trying to see how well I’m fitting in here (people often expect farenji’s [foreigners] to dislike the local food and drink, as it is far different from most other global cuisine).  I assured them that I love coffee, and even drink it in America (something which comes as a surprise to a lot of the people I have spoken to, who think most Americans only drink instant coffee—a misconception that I am determined to rectify…).  Entirely unbeknownst to me, they had a very different motive for asking this question. 

The following day at class, all of the students began begging the other teacher and I to attend a party they wanted to throw for us (they needn’t have begged—of course we would have come regardless, but they were incredibly concerned that we would not show up), so we agreed on a time to meet at the school.  Now, I don’t know what the other teacher expected, but I anticipated that the students would have a bit of food, maybe some music, and that it was more of an excuse for the students to socialize with each other than anything else—essentially what one might expect from young teenagers in America.  (Not a diss on America, just saying…)

I could not have been more wrong.  When I arrived at the school, dressed extremely casually, and carrying a couple of packets of cookies, several of my students appeared out of nowhere, dressed in what were clearly their fanciest clothes running toward me, nearly giddy.  They grabbed my arms and rushed me to a classroom constructed of mud and straw on the far side of campus, where all of the students waited exuberantly (sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s the best description I can think of), also dressed in their finest, primarily traditional clothes.  They had cleared the room of all of its furniture, except for two chairs, which they placed next to each other—for my co-teacher and I.  They promptly placed me in my seat, and asked if the other teacher was coming.  Unfortunately, he had a commitment elsewhere, and was not able to arrive for an hour or so.  When I broke this news to the students, the room erupted in a flurry of discussion—apparently on whether to begin the party or not.  As the debate amongst the students raged on, I surveyed the room that they had so elaborately prepared.  Several of the girls hovered over the necessary components of a traditional coffee ceremony: a large tray made of dark, carved wood, with several small china espresso cups, a large bowl full of coffee and candy, an hourglass-shaped pedestal, full of fragrant burning wood, a black clay pan full of unroasted coffee beans, and a black vase-like coffee pot, all atop a pile of freshly-cut grasses.  The traditional clothing that the many of the children were wearing was incredibly beautiful—the girls in long, white muslin dresses with colorful embroidery; the boys in similar pantsuits, or brightly-colored zig-zagged patterned outfits with matching hats.  Belts and scarves with the Ethiopian flag colors—red, green, and yellow—were abundant. 

The students concluded their discussion, and a decision had been reached: begin the party now.  To my great surprise, the students had organized an entire program of events—including traditional dancing (which I was obliged to participate in, much to the dismay of anyone who may have been observing, I am quite sure), and the Ethiopian Circus, which is very similar to Cirque Du Solei (I’m sure I butchered the spelling, but don’t feel like googling it), where several students performed acrobatics and contorted their bodies into positions that make my muscles hurt even thinking about.  Throughout the performances, the students kept asking if I was enjoying it—they were so concerned that I would not approve, which is mind-boggling, because I could not have been more elated and impressed by the whole thing; it is an experience that will stay with me for the remainder of my coherent life.  My students wanted my full attention to the ceremony, so one of them hijacked my camera, so that I wouldn’t be distracted (he took plenty of pictures, and was quite proud to be the “photo-grapher”).  Throughout the performances, the girls preparing the coffee would run up to me to show me the roasted coffee, show me how they ground it and prepared it on the stove, and offer me popcorn and cake.  I was also presented with a traditional scarf, and told the Amharic name for it (which sounds a lot like Nutella), as well as a sparkly blue barrette—the kids said they pooled their money together to purchase the supplies for the event.  It took about everything in me not to cry, I was so overwhelmed. (I think if I had cried they wouldn’t have understood, and they were incredibly concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the party, so I didn’t want to send any mixed messages.)

Following the elaborate show that they put on, they presented me with a cup of coffee, full to the brim, which I delicately balanced on my saucer and carefully sipped (the coffee is much more like espresso than coffee—in other words S T R O N G).  After I finished, the students quickly collected my cup and brought me another.  Repeat.  After my third cup of coffee, I was not offered any more (and rather pleased, as I was already shaky from the first three cups, but, again, did not want to displease my students, who had gone to such remarkable efforts to welcome me). 

Just then, my co-teacher arrived, and everyone rejoiced (yay…hehe Monty Python…).  The students were extraordinarily excited, and did a repeat of all of the performances, then brought the other teacher and I another cup of coffee, and I whispered to him that I had already had sooooooo much, I didn’t want anymore.  He informed me that I was  doomed—apparently it is bad luck to serve coffee in increments other than 3 (in other words, 3, 6, 9, 12, etc. are okay, but any other numbers are unlucky) so unbeknownst to me, my acceptance of the fourth cup of coffee bound me to another two, which were eagerly served by our students.

The whole ceremony literally left me speechless—I honestly cannot get over the enthusiasm, gratitude, and motivation that these kids have, and continue to have, even a month into my classes.  They work so hard on every lesson, participate so fervently in every class, and express appreciation and affection adamantly.  Even now, several weeks after the party the students threw (like I’ve said—I actually have work to do here, which means far less time to write!), my students still astound me—they always insist on carrying my bag for me, cleaning up the classroom before and after we use it, and continue to surprise me with small trinkets and candy.  Particularly following my abysmal experience in Botswana, words cannot express how incredibly grateful and inspired working with these students makes me.

Incidentally, the title is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as since I first began writing this blog, there have actually been several more Days of Six Coffees—though none anywhere near as elaborate and heartfelt as the one put on by my students.  Ethiopian culture is extraordinarily welcoming, so for new visitors, coffee ceremonies abound, and frequently result in the consumption of far, far, far too much coffee (at least for me). 

November 5, 2010

My Village...

For some reason, when I meander through the sidestreets and dirt roads of my village, Debre Zeyit, in many ways, I feel more like I have traveled in time and have popped out somewhere in Medival Europe—or perhaps I should rephrase that to say it conjures up literary and Hollywood-created images of Medival Europe, considering that I’m not quite old enough to have any basis of comparison to the real thing. 

Debre Zeyit has a few very large paved main streets, which resemble what I remember of Addis—bursting with all sorts of incredibly noisy traffic, and surrounded by a jumble of newly constructed three-story buildings and small shoddily-constructed market store-fronts. 

But to me, the soul of the village lies outside these crowded streets.  As soon as you veer off the main roads, you find yourself in a very different world.  Instead of pavement, you enter a maze of streets, some covered in cobblestone, carefully constructed in concentric circles or other ornamental patterns, regularly swept and maintained by community members; but most streets are simply dirt paths, the source of a perpetual swirl of dust in the air, tickling the nostrils and covering all who pass in a faint beige haze.  The streets are surrounded by living compounds, primarily constructed of mud and straw, some of stone and cement, and some entirely out of view, concealed by ornate, brightly colored steel gates adorned with pointy decorative arrows, or swirly filigree.  Art appears to be an important aspect of the local culture here, because even the “simpler” dwellings, walls, ditches, and other structures have hexagonal or faux-rock patterns etched into them, and as you explore, you feel surrounded by sublime beauty.  From the compounds, grow rich hanging ivy, flowering plants, and towering green trees, which draw your eyes upwards and into the surrounding, mostly uninhabited and undeveloped green mountains, encircling the village like a fortress.  The tops of some of the lower hills are adorned with single structures, like jewels on a crown: huge, brightly colored, yet stoic churches, which have a strange sort of middle-Eastern or Mediterranean appearance, and several rather treacherous-looking roads pointing up to them, creating an obvious focal point for the village.  As your eyes continue upward, your attention will almost immediately be caught by the vast wingspan of pair of giant, dark, ominous falcon-like birds gliding through the sky above, making it their own, as they survey the land below, almost like mystical protectors of the village. 

Of course, if you get too distracted in the lofty view, you’ll quickly be brought back down, as a horse-drawn cart clamors by, nearly running you over as though you were invisible (which you almost certainly will be for a bit, until the dust kicked up by the horse settles).  Although most of the other pedestrians are wearing modern clothes, there are still many women who wear traditional white, flowing dresses adorned with bright embroidery and scarves around the head and neck, adding to the feeling of being in another time.  Streets buzz with activity, lined with merchants with bins of vegetables for sale and the occasional makeshift home-based storefront, people burning trash, shepherds wearily slumped against a shady tree, watching a small herd of goats, sheep or cattle (it is rare to see animals without their caregiver here, and I must say that the vast majority of animals here are treated incredibly well, even by Western standards), all the while traditional music floats out of the compounds, and calls to prayer drone from the nearby churches. 

If you stray far enough to reach the fields, you will see a sea of yellow grassy barley and teff, and farmers out tending or harvesting the crops by hand.  It is harvesting time now, so the fields are full of men wielding large knives slashing through their crops, as the falcons (I’m calling them falcons; I have no idea what they are) gaze down from soaring above.  The finished fields are cleanly cut and evenly dotted with bundles of grain and large circular haystacks, which look almost exactly like the Monet paintings of the haystack (I am not an art buff by any means, so I don’t recall what the series of paintings was called; sorry, guys).  All the while young children play, and older children closely study their parent’s activity, preparing for their eventual participation.

Of course, there are plenty of reminders that I am not, in fact, in Medival Europe—the large trucks and bejej (I really must remember the correct word; the enclosed motorized tricycle taxies I described in an earlier blog), people talking on cell phones, occasional homes playing Shakira or Beyonce (although the vast majority of music I’ve heard here has been traditional), power lines in some places.  Some of the items sold at the markets alone are telling—modern t-shirts, “bling,” and even some very immodest undergarments (which are often in view for sale directly adjacent to tomatoes and bread).  And, obviously, technology.  And I should point out that these comments are not meant in any way to be disparaging.  On the contrary, I adore my village, and as my friends and family know, I have a very active imagination, and I rather like thinking of it in a romanticized fashion, even though it’s entirely possible that no one else sees it this way.  But to me, at least after two weeks of observation, this is Debre Zeyit.

Funny the Way It Is

Ahh yes, I’m back to my song-reference titles already!  As always, I have a hunch this will seem a bit disjointed—in part because there is too much to say to try to present it in a cohesive fashion and in part because I find myself quite busy, so it’s a little trickier (at the moment at least) to find an occasion when I have the time and energy to hash out a full entry at once.  So apologies for that!  Additionally, I am struggling a bit, because it is immensely difficult to avoid constant comparisons to my experiences in Botswana, primarily because being here, working here, has validated each and every issue that I had with my placement in Botswana, to an extraordinary degree…which is excellent, because I could not feel better about my decisions—to leave Botswana, and to return to Africa on my own terms.  Nonetheless, the intention of this blog is hardly for vindication or negativity, so I am trying my utmost to avoid references to my past experience.  Anyway…

There are a precious few moments in life when it seems that every ounce of untarnished goodness in the world—all of the pure joy, energy, hope, kindness, and naïve optimism—meets with every shard of badness in the world—cruelty, unfairness, anger, misery, and suffering—coalescing to form a perfect eclipse.  For those who bear witness to these moments, it feels as though for a split-second emotions have gone into in exile; nothing is left but complete numbness combined with an acute sense that the instant the moment passes, a swell of passion is imminent—though it is entirely unclear whether one will be wrought with a soul-crushing sadness or lifted into a billow of inspired laughter.

For me, these collisions, though immensely difficult to cope with, create the sparks, which continue to ignite my soul.  The lonely old man who frequented the food bank each week, on the cusp of senility, and far too frail to work, yet too proud and too grateful for our service to accept charity—instead, each week he presented one of the volunteers with a small painting of a flower and kind message, painstakingly created by his arthritic hands.  A mother cat, coldly abandoned at a shelter after each of the kittens she so proudly raised were plucked away from her—they, after all, are babies, still “cute” and “fun”—while she is sentenced to a life confined in a cage staring at the same wall day in and day out.  Even though her depression is evident each time she is passed over by would-be adopters, she somehow manages to muster a purr when someone takes the time to open her cage and pet her.  A family who lost everything—even other family members—in a hurricane, yet can express nothing but sheer happiness when they discover that their beloved dog is safe; the loving tears and joyous embraces as they are reunited.  The bright green of a young tree, pushing its way up through the suffocating trash and concrete-lined ground of a polluted urban area. 

Although the bad demonstrated instances have filled me up with sorrow, lead to sleepless nights full of anxiety and sullenness over the callousness that exists in the world, they have also instilled a perpetual sense of gratitude for all of the good fortune that my life has been colored with.  And the good in these moments elicit a sort of feeling like nothing else—a motivation to share what I have and to learn from those around me; those individuals who can stare genuine hardship in the face and smile right back, rather than reacting with anger, cynicism, or self-pity—responses with which I am all too familiar.

Though I have only been here in Ethiopia for a week, I have already had too many of these sorts of moments to even begin to count.  The kids I have the privilege of working with are among the most inspiring people I have met, and, as after-school-special as I know it sounds, I sincerely feel like I will be doing a lot more learning over the coming months than they will.

Every Monday through Friday I teach four extra-curricular English classes at two different elementary schools—one school in the mornings, one school in the afternoon.  Technically these are elementary schools, but many of my students are in their teens, and there are even several in their early twenties—education is very difficult to obtain here, and just managing to get into school can be a challenge for many.  Many of our students live locally, but many walk miles and miles over dusty roads just to have access to education.  The quality of the school facilities vary significantly, but the schools I am placed in are as bare-boned as it gets: walls constructed of mud and straw, no electricity, no running water in the bathrooms—many classrooms do not even come equipped with blackboards (my NGO is working very hard to ensure that such basic resources are available, and supplied one of the classrooms I’m working in with one).

My role is kind of a strange one.  You see, in many African countries, including Ethiopia, there is enormous cultural diversity—think the United States, pre-Western invasion; many, many, many different indigenous peoples, each with their own culture and language (that’s where I come in).  In Ethiopia, there are 83 different traditional cultural groups (well, 80-something—I’ve been told 83 more than a few times, so I’m sticking with that), and consequently 83 different languages, most of which are not mutually intelligible.  Obviously, it would be quite difficult to organize and run a country while maintaining 83 separate translations of everything (think of the mass hysteria that erupts in the US whenever the topic of making Spanish a national language is brought up), so as a result, in order to maintain order, the government has selected one traditional language—Amharic, in Ethiopia’s case—to be the national language.  Consequently, all classes in elementary school are taught completely in Amharic, rather than the traditional local language.  Some assistance may be given, but for most students, even at the beginning of their education, they are being taught in a second, not entirely familiar language. 

But it gets more difficult.  Because most African countries wish to engage in internationally on a global scale, many countries have elected to have their higher-education—high school and beyond—taught entirely in English—a third language for the vast majority of students.  Chemistry was hard enough in my first language; I can’t imagine trying to learn it from someone speaking Arabic (or Russian, or…you get the idea).  Students are provided English classes, however these classes are not taught by native speakers, and are typically not extensive enough to facilitate the skill level required to excel in the other classes.  So, that is where I come in.

Four days a week, for 1 hour each day, my students have a chance to build their confidence, practice speaking, writing, reading, and listening to English with a native speaker (me).  For me it is a challenge on many levels—I am still trying to get a sense of what they already know and what is new; I don’t speak Amharic (or Oromo, the local language) so providing explanations of new words or grammatical principles can be quite difficult; there seems to be a huge variance in students’ skill levels, both individually and from class to class, and I want the lessons to be useful to everyone, and so on.  The learning curve for me is quite steep, and while I do feel that I will get better, at the moment, I don’t feel my first week’s lessons were especially good. 

But these kids…

Speaking as someone who was a full-fledged nerd in school (actually, I suppose I didn’t need the “in school” caveat, as my nerddom certainly continues to this day), the idea of staying at school an hour or two late every single day for a purely academic after-school club would’ve made me groan.  And I didn’t have to walk to and from school with broken sandals; after school I didn’t have to walk miles to fetch a huge jug of water for my home; I didn’t have to wash my clothes by hand, tend to animals or land, as most of the kids I’m working with do.  I got to come home, wach TV, have a delicious family dinner, and still managed to find a way to complain because I had “too much homework.”  But these kids… they are so eager to learn.  Not only are each of my classes full, and each student incredibly focused and attentive (well, relative to the age-group, anyway), but each class is so full that there is a burgeoning wait-list, and while I teach, a crowd of kids forms outside, standing tip-toed by the windows and doors, struggling to hear the lessons, as the sun beats down on their shoulders.  Some of it is spectacle, of course, since I’m a farenji (foreigner), but Debre Zeyit is quite a large village, and people are used to seeing tourists and foreigners.  Many students genuinely just want access to the classes—I’ve heard stories from other volunteers of kids forging their names and saying they are on the class register when they are not; kids skipping their real classes to attend the lessons—because they know their chances of success hinge on their ability to communicate in English, and they feel they must take advantage of every bit of help they can get.  It is heartbreaking not to all of the students in, but the reality is that the classes are already so full that it is difficult to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak each day; allowing more students in would only be detrimental to the whole group

And from this scene comes the emotional eclipse I was speaking of earlier.  The rush of pride and optimism to stare out into a sea of eager, smiling faces, glimmering eyes, raised, waving hands; to receive heart-felt (and entirely unsolicited) thank-you letters carefully hand-written by students using the best English they could.  Such dedication, such gratitude and appreciation—it is overwhelming.  But then comes the sudden drop; the claustrophobic sinking feeling as I notice that the children are sitting crammed three to a desk; they wear the same torn clothes under their uniforms every day; several don’t even have pens and must borrow from me every day.  These kids work so hard—they struggle so much relative to kids in the West, yet the odds that they will ever have access to the same resources that we (myself very much included) take entirely for granted are miniscule. 

But these kids…

Now, a warning: I am once again about to venture into full-fledged sappy hippie territory on this one, but I assure, it is entirely true, and simply too poignant, if trite and obvious, not to mention.  Because I’m new, this week I was co-teaching with an English fellow who has been here for three months and is on his way out—that way I have a chance to learn and observe instead of being dropped in a classroom to fend for myself.  One of the exercises that the other volunteer has prepared is a debate—this allows students to think of how to articulate their ideas quickly, and gives them an opportunity to speak before the class.  It also helps us as teachers, because it is free-form enough to allow us to observe the students’ skill level and identify systematic errors that we may be able to design a future lesson around (like, not ending a sentence with a preposition? [Obviously none of the students are advanced enough to even know what a preposition is, but I couldn’t help but point my error out…nerd humor!]).  This week, the topic that the other volunteer selected was “Love or Money?”

Now, Debre Zeyit is a large village with a great disparity in wealth.  Most of the students I work with are living in poverty by any western standard, but even relative to some of the individuals in the community—I’ve seen students from other schools with nice cell phones(the girl living at my house has an iPhone [I told you my accommodations were posh!]), and there are people in the village with laptops.  I still haven’t seen any housing nicer than mine, but as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is a huge difference between my accommodations and the mud and tin shanty houses in which most community members dwell.  The students I work with are aware of the impact that greater financial wealth would have on their lives.  Consequently, it seems only rational that many students would choose money—with money they wouldn’t have to worry about food; instead of walking everywhere, they could take public transport, or perhaps even obtain their own vehicle; they could buy a computer or nice clothes.  It seems perfectly understandable that these issues would be on the forefront of the students’ minds. 

But these kids… 

Out of the entire group of 70 or so students in my four classes, only one or two said money—each and every other student argued in favor of love, most saying they didn’t have money, but they had love, and love is the foundation for everything; without love, everything crumbles (perhaps I should introduce them to the teachings of John Lennon ;o). 

Those who did argue for money, did not use the sort of argument that you would expect.  Not one student said they wanted money for nice clothes, a big house, a TV.  One student said he chose money because without money none of the students there would be able to attend school, and without school and education, life is empty.  He argued that if he had more money, he could buy books and uniforms for everyone, and make sure the school had the supplies it needed.  Another argued for money because then he could help family and community members that had fallen on hard times.  Not one student made a selfish or materialistic argument. 

Hearing these arguments made so passionately in very broken English was incredibly humbling, and invoked the emotional eclipse I’ve been describing.  And while these sorts of moments have already caused tears, even in the short time I’ve been here, that day, as I walked home surrounded by students holding my hands (holding hands is a platonic sign of friendship here), singing songs and giggling as they try to teach me Amharic, all I felt was a rush of love.  Silly, happy, proud love.

October 26, 2010


Phew!  Well, once again I find myself with so much to say that I almost have no idea where to begin, so I suppose I’ll pick a thesis statement that’s as clear and concise as possible: I LOVE Ethiopia!  LOVE it!

Now, many of you may be thinking that I am in no way qualified to make such an emphatic categorical statement, considering that it has been less than 48 hours since I caught my first glimpse of the leafy green mountains flashing by in a blur as I felt the thud of the landing gear burst from the plane and the momentum of the wheels sliding across the runway.  But, as the author of Blink would attest, there is more to first impressions than superficialities—gut reactions more often than not accurately convey the same impressions ideas about substance and character that individuals hold about people, places, and things over the long-term.  And just as the neurons in my brain began to fire off joyously the first instant my tongue made contact with the that the sweet, richness that is chocolate; just as I found myself overcome with giddiness the first time the sound of my now favorite band playing MMMBop tickled my earbuds; yesterday when the plane wings permeated through the thick layer of cotton-ball clouds hovering over the land, concealing it like a buried treasure, and the bustling city and mountainous brilliant green landscape beneath were revealed, I was overtaken by a wave of comfort and tranquility.  The scene hushed my raging bout of anxiety (which my 30+ hours of travel, plagued with unexpected complications, sleep deprivation, and far, far too much time to think, had given me more than ample time to develop), and left me extremely eager to disembark from the plane and begin my exploration.

Of course, due to the aforementioned lack of sleep and extended period of travel, my immediate motivation to survey my surroundings rapidly waned as I collected my baggage, changed my currency, shuffled through customs, and found myself finally outside the state of suspended reality that is travel, and back in the real world.  I was to be met at the airport by a representative from my organization, but, perhaps as a result of my state of exhaustion, perhaps as a result of other factors, I was unable to find him.  Fortunately, I apparently looked sufficiently bewildered to provoke a very kind English-speaking family to approach me to see if I needed help.  Also fortunately, I had the name of the hotel where I was to meet the director of my organization, and the family helped me get a cab and instructed the driver on where to take me—they even insisted on talking a porter into carrying my bags for me, even though I was unable to pay (the bills I was given from the currency exchange were far too large for such a service), and gave me their cell phone number (even though I told them I did not have a local SIM card yet), in case I was not able to find what I was looking for, or needed any other help.  Ahh.  I do love America—and am even more appreciative of much of the culture and comforts it has to offer as a result of my travels—but the lack of perceived “stranger danger” in many other countries is something that I think America would really benefit from.

I spent most of the day in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, catching up on sleep (the Director of my organization was in town and was kind enough to let me use his hotel room while he was working) and meeting the members of my NGO, and then went directly to my town in the evening.  As a result, I don’t have a great deal to say about Addis apart from my observations from a cab window.  Addis is huge, both in size and population (I don’t know the exact specifications of either, but I know the country has 77or 78 million people, and Addis is the biggest city), and seems to be a microcosm of the country’s rich cultural history and diversity.  The city is high in the mountains—the elevation is 8,000 feet above sea level—and the tips of the lush green peaks which encompass the city hide behind the higher buildings, then burst out and create a zig-zagged skyline over the lower buildings and gaps.  The architecture is a hodgepodge of posh three and four story modern buildings, traditional historic buildings (“traditional” is a rather vague term anywhere, but particularly in Ethiopia, where it’s history as a trade route in the middle ages entails European, Middle-Eastern, and African influences), including churches, mosques, and Jewish temples, tiny stores, open markets, and shanty buildings.  The streets are a swarm of activity with cars, combi’s/mini-busses, busses, bicycles, motorbikes, rajej (I *believe* that’s the proper term, but am too lazy to look it up at the moment)—sort an enclosed motorized tri-cicle with three seats in the back, typically adorned with fringe and crosses and religious art—donkeys, horse-drawn carts, and pedestrians everywhere, each of which seem to be going different speeds and directions.  Even the pedestrians boast a tremendous amount of diversity—some dressed in modern business clothes, others in casual attire, some in traditional dress (and once again, the use of the desctiption “traditional” isn’t of any particular use, given that there are some 80-odd different identified ethnic and cultural groups within Ethiopia); and the appearance of wealth and extreme poverty is apparent throughout (not unlike the juxtaposition of high-paid executives and homeless individuals in many downtown areas in the United States).  Even the sounds and smells which seeped through the windows in my taxi and hotel room added to the eclectic ambiance—in addition to the noise from the traffic and conversations, there is a mix of traditional and modern/western music plating from many of the stores and cafes, and the sound of construction, which seems to be ubiquitous.  The air is a pot-pourri of the spicy-cinnamon-ey smell of various wot’s (Ethiopian curry-style stews), incense, coffee, sweets from the bakery, and a hint of smog (it is a very large city, after all). 

Darkness fell, and my first impression of the city came to a close as my NGO’s office director for Debre Zeyit and I waited for our ride on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, amongst my baggage (which took up all too much space, and required all too much effort to lug up and down the stairs to and from the second-story hotel room—amazing what an 8,000 foot elevation will do!).  Throughout the 90 minute cab ride, first over smooth pavement, then over not-so-smooth pavement, then over an extremely bumpy dirt road; repeat, the office director and I talked and joked, and kept making each other yawn (it’s contagious!), and he made sure to put me at ease. 

Because we had arrived at my village after dark, we went directly to my house for the night.  Although I was not nervous per se, because I felt extremely confident in the NGO that I am working with, one of the few unknowns that had been lurking in the back of my mind prior to this moment, was my housing—I was told that some volunteers are placed alone, some in pairs, some are with host families, some in accommodations that more closely resemble apartments.  To be quite honest, I feel that I got the best of all possible situations.  Now, to be clear, my NGO’s MO is very different from that of the Peace Corps, in that their goal is to ensure our comfort, within the parameters of reasonably available accommodation, whereas the Peace Corps’ approach is to ensure that your lifestyle is at or below the average standard of living within your community.  Now is not the time to delve into the pro’s and con’s of each approach—it is what it is, and I do believe there are advantages to each.  Nonetheless, I merely bring this up in order to point out that my accommodations are far superior to common standard of living in my community—which ranges from very small mud and thatch houses shared by extended family groups, with no electricity or running water, to housing like mine.  Technically, I am living in a sort of a duplex—my housing shares a wall with my landlord, but no common entrances or rooms, so I have all of the comfort of very close neighbors looking out for me, and all of the privacy of my own place. 

My house has two long and narrow compartments, all painted a cheerful yellow color.  The front door opens into a long narrow entryway with two burglar-bar-encased windows, a table and two cushioned floral-print chairs (which match the floral printed curtains on the windows).  On the far end, there is a door to my bedroom, 2/3 of which is my room, and 1/3 is divided off as my bathroom (totally enclosed with a door, of course).  I do not have a kitchen, but it is actually quite alright—meals here are only about $1-2 USD, and they are huge, healthy and filling; espressos (which are also the ticket to the free wifi, thank you Café Dot Com! [if you happen to catch me on FB chat, that is why I might appear rather over-caffienated]), are only about 25 cents US, each, and sambusa’s (basically big samosas with rice or lentils) or bananas can be purchased as snacks for about 6 cents US, each.  So there is really no need for a kitchen—and frankly any food I could make wouldn’t be nearly as good as what I can buy, so I’m more than happy to support the local economy, so to speak! 

But I digress.  My room is furnished with a single bed—foam mattress with sheets, blankets, and a shiny peach and cream-colored bedspread and matching pillows.  The room has one window with blue flowery curtains, and a large built-in locking closet and chest of drawers.  My bathroom has (get this!) RUNNING WATER with a FLUSHING toilet, sink, and shower.  In theory my shower has hot water, but despite several efforts on my landlord’s part, it doesn’t seem to be working (now, if I truly cared, I could contact someone from my NGO, but I didn’t expect hot water, it’s quite warm here, and I’m extremely happy with my living conditions, especially relative to the common standard of living here, so I have no inclination to complain—I am merely pointing this out so that it will not reflect poorly on the sort of accommodations that my NGO provides). 

My floors are covered in clay-colored brick-shaped tile, and I have a ceiling instead of an exposed roof.  I have a light in each room, and an outlet in my bedroom and entry/living room area. There are a few random exposed wires, and the walls are a bit cracked, so it’s not too wussy-American-style, but it is definitely very, very, very nice.  And safe—all of my doors lock, and there is a large locking solid red metal gate keeping the compound secure.

Anyway, when we arrived that night, to be perfectly honest, I was rather ready for bed (yes, I had already slept 4 or 5 hours that day, but traveling is exhausting!), but my landlord had other plans.  Even though she is technically more of a landlord than a “host”—seeing as I don’t exactly live in her house, per se—she had planned on welcoming me as a guest, and had prepared a lovely meal.  And fortunately, in Ethiopia, Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days—meaning everyone eats entirely vegetarian meals—and I arrived on a Friday, so I didn’t even have to have the awkward “thank you but I’m a vegetarian” conversation (and my office director, who joined us for the meal, also explained that I am “fasting” all of the time, so all future confusion has been preemptively avoided—booyah!).  Following the meal, we sat at the couch with my landlord and her three children, and chatted while the TV played Nickelodeon in the background (again—this is absolutely not the norm in my community, but Debre Zeyit is a large town, and the disparity in wealth here is profound, and my NGO goes out of its way to ensure that the accommodations that we are provided are the best that are available).  My landlord does not speak English, but her fifteen-year-old daughter speaks quite well.  But more on that later.

OH!  And I almost forgot!  THE DOG!!!!!  My landlord has an incredibly sweet and snuggly little girl dog!  And she—and all of the animals I have seen here so far, even the “working” animals—is treated SO well and is supersweet and happy!  We play and snuggle and, the kids play and wrestle with her, too—she is even allowed in the house!! 

Anyway, I began typing this several days ago and keep leaving it—I’ve been quite busy since arriving, which is a GOOD thing!—and now am about to prepare for my second day of classes (more on that later, too—trying to go through one thing at a time—so much to say!), so I must be off, but I will conclude by saying again, I LOVE IT HERE!   Still full of homesickness—that never goes away, no matter how happy you are with your placement.  Love and miss you all!!!!  More coming ASAP!

Wish List for Ethiopia...

To be honest, since my stay here is significantly shorter than my anticipated 26 months in the Peace Corps, since I had a slightly better idea of what to pack, and since the food here actually has nutritional value, there is little that I need for myself. 
If you have the inclination to send something, what we could REALLY use is books for the local schools and mobile libraries.  Books written in English are very hard come by here in Ethiopia, and are quite costly even when available, yet, as we all know, reading provides so many benefits, in addition to helping facilitate language learning.  Because the books are intended to aid in language learning, the sort of books we are looking for are primarily children’s books, with simple words and ideas—think Cat in the Hat—and perhaps some geared at young adults (although when in doubt, it is best to err on the simpler side, as more students will be able to utilize them). 

You can also check Link Ethiopia’s website,, to see if they have any donation requests that you can help out with, or even make a monetary donation through their paypal account (note: Link Ethiopia is a British NGO, and as such, donation amounts are in Pounds or Euros, NOT US dollars, unless otherwise specified.  Make sure to check the exchange rates for the currency indicated in the donation field before entering a donation amount, to ensure that you are indeed donating the amount you intend to!)

If you really feel inclined to send things for me, I certainly won’t turn them down.  As always, dark chocolate (no milk) is always a priority, and if you have any of the following television shows that you could send on a CD, that would be amazing:
GLEE: Any seasons!
Dexter: Seasons 4 and 5 (well, as far into 5 as you can get :o)
Mad Men: Season 2 and beyond
The Office: Any
30 Rock: Any
Sex and the City: Season 3 and beyond
Any other TV shows/movies/music that you think I might like.

Additionally, if you happen to be sending a package anyway, and felt inclined to throw in a tube of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste (any), deodorant/anti-perspirant, tampons (no applicator—too much unnecessary trash/not always a place to dispose [sorry; probably TMI, but it is what it is]), shampoo (my favorite is Whole Foods generic 365 brand, for normal/oily hair, but any that’s vegan is fine :o), soap, iodine, Gator Aid powder (bottled water is expensive, and I’ve primarily been filtering tap water, and adding a touch of iodine, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the healthiest, so I’ve been adding Gator Aid so hopefully I will retain more and won’t have to drink quite so much).  I packed all of this stuff, but not exactly sure if I have enough.

And as always, letters, e-mails, and kind words mean everything to me!  Love you all so much—I am very happy for this opportunity, but am also excited for the time to come when I can actually see you all again!  THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING!!!

September 16, 2010

ET...Phone Home

(Yeah, I'm sure everyone who has ET'ed from the PC and has a sense of humor as awesome as mine has made that reference.  But that's just because it's an awesome reference.)

As I read over my many failed attempts to capture my experience of going through the actual process of ET-ing, it is becoming clearer why I am having so much difficulty writing about this ever-so-pivotal moment in my life.  Although the whole process took place over a period of about 72 hours, emotions (and travel-related sleep deprivation) have a strange way of distorting time, and it has all blurred together in such a way that reflecting back on it feels more like looking through a prism than wading through a stream of events.  My memories don’t feel sequential or logical; it is as though it happened all at once, and each cut of the prism contains a different portion of the experience, each angle entirely unique, casting a different light and a different view, all with equal depth and detail and all of equal importance; jarringly unrelated, yet glommed together.  So when I try to write about it—or even think about it—it feels jerky and disjointed, delving into one crystallized moment then flashing over to the next.  So here are a few of these moments flickering through my mind, in absolutely no rational order—because that’s how surreal and strange the memory feels to me.  And I am aware that bits of it (if not all of it) may sound a bit overdramatic, but it was by far the toughest decision I’ve made, and my personality is such that when I have a rather emotional experience, I like to let myself feel it, so that I can move on.  The sooner you fall, the sooner you can get back up.


I was so numb, as I sat in the lobby of the Peace Corps office waiting to meet with the doctor (a thorough medical exam is required upon termination of service), that I couldn’t even cry as my eyes fixated on the saddest squares of white paper I had ever seen in my life.  I could only focus on how uneven they were—the bottom was cut so sloppily and slanted so far to the right, I almost wanted to ask for a pair of scissors so that I could fix them. 

During training, the Peace Corps takes each volunteer’s picture for our photo IDs, residency permits, and official records, but unbeknownst to us, as we stood in line itching for the driver’s-licence-esque photo shoot to be over so that we could go eat, these pictures are also prominently displayed, along with each volunteer’s name and program, in the lobby of the Peace Corps office (perhaps if we had known that, we’d have made the extra effort to wear clean clothes or brush our hair beforehand, instead of just going with our newfound hippie-not-so-sheik look). 

But as I stared at them now, the flat, black-and-white images of the people who had added so much depth and color to my experience, all I could see were four white squares of paper.  You see, I was not the first volunteer to leave my group.  And rather than printing a new line-up, or just leaving the wall of photos for our Peace Corps class as it was, when volunteers left, their faces and names were covered up with a tiny square of paper.  Whited-out, as though they were a mistake, a blemish that needed to be concealed.  All of the time and energy, tears and sacrifice that had put into their experiences.  All hidden by a white piece of paper. 

I looked at my own smiling face underneath the waving flag of the Peace Corps logo and thought of the imminence of my own white piece of paper.  At that point, all I could do was hope that they would at least take the time to cut a straight edge when they covered me up and erased me from the annals of their history.  But it’s Botswana, after all, so I knew I couldn’t really expect too much.


I had only really been to downtown Gabs once before, but it was right after my stay in the hospital, so was still a little loopy, and had the luxury of being escorted by a third-year PCV who lived in the area, so I didn’t actually have to pay attention or do any navigational work by myself.  None of this was the case the second time around.  I needed to get from one side of town to another in order to have a dental exam and cleaning (another end-of-service requirement).  Armed with only a blue notecard with the dentist’s name, address, and appointment time (which was quickly approaching), I strutted out of my lodge and proceeded through the pink graffitied alleyway and toward the street. 

Now, to be clear, downtown Gabs is a legitimate downtown—I mean, it’s no NY or LA, but it’s not some small village either.  Four months ago, even two months ago, had I been faced with such a task—attempting to navigate an almost entirely new city alone, with absolutely no idea where I needed to be, how I needed to get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, etc.—it would have been the source of immeasurable anxiety: a pit in my stomach, a preemptive sleepless night, attempts to locate a map or figure out how to get there beforehand.  But that’s the difference that Peace Corps service makes.  I had no plan.  No worries.  I knew it would be fine.  Either I’d make it to the appointment or I wouldn’t.  Most likely I would, but even if I didn’t, really, what’s the worst that would happen?  Cliché, but anyone who knows me should know just how significant such a genuine lack of worry is for me. 

So I walked to the main road, approached the first person I saw, and I asked.  In typical Batswana fashion, she took the card from my hand, and walked me to the stop where I was to pick up the combi.  So I picked up the combi.  And as soon as I was on, I showed my card to a man wearing a bright pink button-up shirt in the seat next to me, and asked when I needed to get off.  He told the driver where to stop.  Then we talked about the differences between poverty in the US and poverty in Botswana until the driver said it was my stop, and I paid and got off.  I had to walk a ways to get from the stop to the dentist office, but I had no idea which direction to go or what to look for.  So I asked a group of people, and a woman took me by the hand and walked me down the crowded street to her blue soccer-mom van, and told me she’d drive me.  Again, I should note that pretty much every aspect of this story—including getting into a car with a complete stranger—would have absolutely terrified me before Peace Corps service.  But not so much as twitch of anxiety passed over me at any point in this experience. 

The woman and I chatted as she drove to pick her son up (she said it was on the way to my dentist).  It turned out she was a teacher and worked with some other PCV’s.  When she learned I had been living in Shakawe, she asked me to send her some fish, and was quite disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to, and suggested that I call a friend to see if someone else could, because she thought that Shakawe has the best fish, but it wasn’t worth the trip.  We picked up her son, then proceeded to the area where she thought the dentist’s office was located.  However it wasn’t there.  She pulled over on the side of the road and flagged another stranger down and showed him the card with the address.  He pointed us in the right direction, and I made it to my dentist only slightly late—which is basically on time in Botswana. 

On the way back, I decided to be a tourist and indulge myself in the abundance of traditional art lining the streets the Main Mall—one the only spots ion all of Botswana where such items are sold (even though a substantial portion of the art is from neighboring countries, rather than Botswana itself)—which happened to be only a couple of blocks away from my dentist. 

I left the market with absolutely no idea where I was heading, balancing my Chico bags full of carefully selected carvings and baskets, my mouth feeling almost uncomfortably sterile and clean especially after four months of feeling dirty all over, and hoping that I had retained enough pula to pay for the ride home.   As I walked, I became acutely aware of that oh-so-common aspect of being a white girl in Botswana: it seemed that I was being followed by what appeared to be a suitor.  Yet another experience which would have produced chills a matter of months earlier—alone and lost in the “big city” being followed by a strange man…scary, right?!  But, once again, no fear, no stress.  Instead, without so much as looking back at him, I said “Dumela, rra.  O ya kae?”  (Hello, sir.  Where are you going?)  As it turned out, he was not actually following me because he wanted to try to date me (now THAT shocked me), but because he was an artist trying to sell his paintings.  I told him that I was out of pula, but he was quite persistent and saw a couple of American dollars.  I did like his paintings and had to admire his determination, so I agreed to a price that I knew was on the high side.  “BUT,” I told him, “I need to get back to Game City [the part of town I was staying in] and I don’t know how to get there.  So if I buy this from you, you need to help me.”  And he agreed.  As it turns out, he didn’t know about the combi I had taken on the way there, and walked me all the way to the bus rink—quite farther than I had expected, and completely out of his way.  Not only that, but he took me all the way to the combi I needed, and told the driver where I was trying to go, to make sure I would arrive without any difficulties.

As I rode the combi back to my lodge, still saddled with all of my purchases, now with the addition of the waxy brightly colored painted fabric, I felt a calm, similar to the calm I felt in the Kgaladi.  The ease in this, my final independent jaunt through Botswana, did not feel like an omen that I was finally fitting in, but rather as a farewell sendoff—I did what I needed to do here; I was done.


It was a little off-putting, to say the least, to find myself once again experiencing such isolation, fear, and sadness in the very same place that I had nearly fallen apart before.  The last time I was in this hotel room—or if not this one specifically, another exactly like it—was when I felt like I had been left for dead, my first night after reporting to the Peace Corps Medical Office with the fever that would land me in the hospital the next day.  At that time, I couldn’t move because I was physically crippled—the combination of having sustained a 104 fever for over 24 hours, severe dehydration, and inability to keep food down had rendered me unable to do anything but stare at the brown animal-print curtains, the fortress keeping any sunlight from permeating the room’s round walls. I faded in and out of consciousness as I listened to my phone emitting the final beeps of it’s battery’s slow death, signaling the impending hush of any connection to life outside my room.  I really don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone than I did on that night. 

And here I was again.  Broken again, but not from a physical malady.  This time it was my emotional turmoil that had rendered me listless.  Despite my inner certainty that I was making the right choice, the sadness of walking away from a lifelong dream, even when the reality was so distorted, is nearly debilitating.  I sat, frozen in a hypnotic daze as Oprah talked about a Catholic monastery, and my phone beeped persistently.  This time the beeps were not a sign of death, but of life—fellow PCV’s texting as they heard the news that I was leaving.  Even though I knew the messages were full of encouraging words, I couldn’t muster any motivation to read them.  I felt equally severed from their world and my own back home; suspended in the purgatory that this room had become, once again counting the hours and minutes until I would be released, consumed by uncertainty about what the future would hold.


It’s odd how such a pivotal moment in one person’s life is nothing but a mundane detail for someone else.  This was made rather poignantly apparent to me, as I was filing out my final admin paperwork.  Although the Peace Corps has aims very different than most government agencies, the government is the government, and that means there’s paperwork—even when you just want to go home.  From my side of the desk, filling out the paperwork felt like being pricked by a shard of the world that had just shattered around me.  But I’d imagine from the other side of the desk, it just felt like paperwork.  As I was signing my final termination of service, my throat was swelling up and I struggled to hold back tears.  The admin officer sucked on a lollipop.  Every time the red candy clicked against her teeth, it echoed in my ears like children giggling during a memorial service.  I don’t know why it stung so much—all of the Peace Corps staff was incredibly supportive and kind—but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy a lollipop the same way again.


My last few conversations before my ride to the airport arrived were appropriately strange and surreal, consistent with the entire duration of my service.  They weren’t at all dramatic or emotional, but entirely matter-of-fact—a conversation with a PCV weighing the pro’s and cons of bed pans versus outhouses; a conversation with another PCV about food in America (that one isn’t especially surprising, as American food is by far the most pined-for aspect of America amongst PCV’s, at least in Botswana); and finally, a conversation with Peggy, our country director, reminding me to bring snacks to the airport, since my layover might be long, and food might not be served immediately on my flight.  Although Peggy and I had several substantive discussions about my reasons for leaving, this was by far my most meaningful interaction.  It wasn’t the face-value of the advice—obviously I knew to get something to eat before I left.  It was the sentiment behind it.  It felt like a parent reminding an adult child to wear a jacket—a nurturing instinct, a final attempt to provide some wisdom and protection to a child taking her first step into the big, scary world.  As I’ve said time and again, I still really value the Peace Corps, even though my specific assignment was a bad fit for me.  The Peace Corps really is a big family, and this was the perfect comforting note to end my service on, before beginning my next journey—what I now feel is my real journey—even though at that time I had no idea what it would entail.