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 CafĂ© 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, www.linkethiopia.org, 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!!!