January 10, 2011

Thank You

I have always said that the people that I am blessed to call my friends are truly the best people in the world, and right now I am so overwhelmed and humbled by just how true it is. I wish I had a forum that seemed more sincere than a blog or Facebook post to communicate just how appreciative of everyone who has committed time, energy, money, and prayers to trying to get Wooti home to the US with me. But the truth is, this means so much to me, there is no way I will ever be able to put my gratitude into words.

I can imagine it might seem unusual—or even selfish—to some to put so much energy into one dog in the midst of so many atrocities, so much hardship and suffering. But that’s precisely why helping this dog is so important. For those of us who come to work in the developing world (and for aid workers anywhere, for that matter), we are immersed in situations in which the level of need is literally unfathomable—both in its scope and magnitude. Every day I must walk past literally hundreds of people and animals who are malnourished, have inadequate shelter, extremely limited access to water, many with visible health ailments and no access to healthcare. Every day children approach me in tattered clothes, who have clearly not eaten a good meal in weeks, begging for money. Every day I see horses and donkeys being whipped and beaten, skin and bones hauling carts that are far too heavy for their physical condition. And, frankly, there isn’t anything I can do about it.

Now you all know, I am not about negativity—I believe in the power of positivity, optimism, and empowerment, and I believe that we all have a significantly greater impact than we realize, and that every person has the power to facilitate change. But the reality is that no single person can save the world, and that in order to begin the process and instigate change for the better, we must bear witness to atrocities which we cannot solve, and have faith that our actions will have an impact in the long term, even if the immediate results seem rather intangible and small compared to the scale of need. And in order to do this; in order to function amidst so much hardship, one must develop a certain tolerance for it—if you allow yourself to truly comprehend life experiences of everyone around you, it would be crippling. So just as a surgeon must form a certain detachment from his patient, when working in the developing world, you must numb yourself to those around you. And though doing this does make you grow stronger and work more effectively, it also suffocates a part of your soul; a piece of your humanity feels as though it has become frozen, shriveled up, and died off, when you realize you can look an impoverished person in the eye and not immediately break down into tears.

But every so often you have a personal connection, you encounter a situation in which you actually feel a solution is within your grasp—a tiny piece of the puzzle that you can actually put into place, a small bit of salvation that you can actually deliver. And for me, when Wooti came limping up to me, looked me in the eye, and silently pleaded for my help, this was one of those moments. Not only is this about Wooti; it is about hope. It is about that little piece of humanity, a small reminder that things can change, things can get better, that if we focus our help and time and energy, we can genuinely save a life—even if we have to do it one life at a time.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not yet ready to write a formal memoir of Wooti’s experience, because I am still so terrified that we will not be able to bring him back, and the thought of me abandoning him, allowing him returning to the streets after becoming so accustomed to a full belly, peaceful sleep, love, kisses, snuggling—every night we sleep forehead to forehead, and sometimes he wakes me up to give me kisses on my nose; he hates going outside, and loves the warmth and comfort of a home—well, this thought is simply more than I can handle right now. And along with the thought of not being able to help him, comes a mental flood of all of the terrible things I’ve been blocking out, first for him, then for everything else around me—the idea of him going back to the streets, to a cold world where he had to scrounge for every bite of food, the world where he was left with a gaping wound for over six weeks, where he will be mocked and kicked and called worthless because of his lost leg, and will live out the rest of his days sad and lonely. This, compounded with everything else here that I can’t help; it’s just too much for me to bear. (I actually started to cry just writing this…). I need to see a happy ending. And it is only because of your suppot that Wooti has any chance of salvation—with your gifts of time, energy, and money, you’ve given me hope, and him the possible chance at a good life—and those are greater gifts than you can ever imagine.

Right now, our biggest problem is the logistics—we barely have ten days to finalize his transport details, because if I can’t get him to the airport, no one will, so even if we were able to book a flight a few days later, it would be too late. Please continue to send your thoughts and prayers Wooti’s way—even if not for him, then for me. If we are able to help him, it is entirely because of the dedication and compassion that you all have shown for Wooti and for me, and for that, I will never be able to properly thank you. You all are my inspirations and I truly love each and every one of you.


Humbly yours,

I am SO beka…!

Anyone who is Ethiopia-bound, now or in the future, heed my warning: if you learn only one phrase in Amharic, make it ishii, beka! Literal translation “Ok, enough!” Pragmatic translation “No, seriously, I’m FULL!” Now, you might think a more useful phrase would be something like “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m sick.” But I went weeks without knowing those phrases, and did just fine (charades and Pictionary are among the better preparatory measures one should take prior to departing for a country in which one doesn’t speak the language; one who possess the dual qualities of being well-versed in the art of pantomime and having no shame/qualms about looking ridiculous in a crowd of strangers can go a long way, I assure you, particularly in a place like Ethiopia, where people will bend over backwards to accommodate you). No, the phrase that you need to get by in Ethiopia is ishii, beka! You see, in Ethiopian culture, there is an almost unfathomable practice of hospitality toward guests—not only guests in a home, but guests in a school, even simply guests in the country—and as such, if you have any interactions with any Ethiopians at all, you will almost certainly be invited—in a non-negotiable sort of way—for a coffee ceremony and dinner. On a regular basis.

Now, dinner at an Ethiopian’s house is a truly special experience. While some people are more casual, the whole process is typically quite elaborate, beautiful, anf humbling—at least from an outsider’s perspective. After a warm reception with ladies shaking right hands and kissing opposite cheeks three times (think cliché classy Italian—where I suspect this tradition began), and men shaking right hands while bumping right shoulders in a sort of half-hug, the guest is ushered to the table. A pitcher and basin are brought out, and the host pours water over the guest’s hands as s/he washes them (in some cases, the host will actually wash the guest’s hands). Then comes the food. So much food…SO much food.

For those who have not had the pleasure of indulging in an Ethiopian meal (there are Ethiopian restaurants in almost every major US city—seriously go try some!), it’s a truly beautiful communal sort of experience, and even the food itself is indicative of this. Food is served on a large (and I mean LARGE—sometimes a yard in diameter) platter, covered in one or more pieces of injera laid flat. Injera is a sort of thin pancake made out of fermented teff flour—the best description of it that I’ve come across is a giant sour dough crepe—that actually pretty accurately describes it. Various highly aromatic, exotically seasoned wots (stews) are spooned in separate piles atop the injera, almost mimicking bright splotches of color on a painter’s palate—and equally enticing; you can hardly wait to delve in and make a taste-painting in your mouth. After the food is presented, rolls of injera are passed around, and you are quickly ordered to be, be! (eat, eat!). In the US our traditional eating habbits are somewhat alienated—our separate plates alienate us from each other, our utensils alienate us from our food. In Ethiopia, this is not the case. Food is consumed without utensils—a piece of injera is torn off, dipped in some wot, then rolled neatly into a bite-sized spiral of goodness (all done with the right hand, incidentally, as the taboo of eating with the left hand is still widely practiced, though exceptions can be made for farenji such as myself). People reach across the table for the far-away wots, lean against each other as they laugh and eat, tear off pieces of injera on their side and pass them around if they see another side is running low on injera. It is even customary to roll a piece of injera with wot, and feed eachother—directly from one person’s hand into another person’s mouth. With this level of intimacy and connection with food, it is nearly impossible not to feel the intense bond of human connection to those with whom you share a meal.

But in addition to this human connection, is the food. So, so, SO much food. Even though the initial quantities of injera and wot typically far exceed what one could comfortably consume, it is customary to continue serving more and more—so just as you think you have managed the incredible feat of finishing, the host slips away and reappears with more—at some points it literally seems endless. And this is where the magical phrase “ishii, beka!” comes in handy. The only way to end this seemingly endless stream of food is to say “ishi, beka.” Of course one “ishii, beka” is hardly going to be enough—Ethiopian hospitality is far too generous for that, plus, it is customary to feign fullness so as not to impose on your host, so your first (few) ishi-beka’s will be met by (several) insistant “be, be!”’s (eat, eat!). but, if you persevere, and hold strong, several utterances of this phrase, should be enough to render the meal complete. Without this magic phrase, the food will not stop, I assure you, and a very beautiful meal will turn into a very painful evening (and those of you who know me and my eating habits should know that if I say it’s too much food, it’s too much food!!!)

So, take it from me—if you ever have the opportunity to visit this fine country and partake in a home-cooked meal, by all means DO it, but do not, under any circumstances, refrain from utilizing “ishi, beka!” unless you intend to eat your bodyweight in injera. Seriously, you’ve been warned.

American Girl

As you’re entering Addis Ababa from Debre Zeyit, there’s one spot where, out of nowhere, the crudely constructed, intermittently paved road rises up into a white concrete spiral overpass intertwined with several other entirely modern paved roads, soaring above a well-maintained green grassy lawn and past a high-rise apartment building. For a tiny split second, a fraction of a turn as the road weaves around the entrance to the city, all of the surrounding slums slip out of view; there are no chickens or sheep crossing the road; no burning piles of garbage—nothing but the Western—no, American—style entirely artificial concrete-mask can be seen.

Growing up—and, indeed, up until my recent travel experiences—I always perceived such obliteration of nature as oppressive and suffocating. And from an intellectual standpoint, I still entirely do. But in the same way that most granola-crunching vegan hippies still have a special place in out hearts for Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, in spite of finding it repulsive on several levels, this tiny spot is the place that I feel the most at home here. That is not to say that I don’t love my village—the natural beauty of the lakes and mountains; the warmth of my compound and indescribably kind host family; the little bit of joy I get when I hear the sound of a lizard scuttling into the bushes as I step past him on the cobblestone street—or to say that I don’t love it here, or haven’t established the sort of routines which differentiate living somewhere from merely staying there. Indeed all of those things are true. But, for me, for better or worse, the world in which I was raised was imprinted on my soul, and—almost in spite of myself—whenever I pass this spot, even if I wasn’t paying attention prior, it almost feels as though for one moment, my entire being releases a sigh of relief.

And, in a strange way, I’m almost glad that I feel this way. You see, despite my dislike of some political policies in the US, despite the fact that so many of my most deeply-held views are in an overwhelming minority, I am, undeniably, an American. And as much as I like to assimilate into local culture; as hard as I work to genuinely experience life as it is for people here (and intend to do in future travels—I definitely have the travel bug!), it really is true that for me (and I know I’m not alone in this), this sort of travel is more draining than one might expect, or even realize, because as many gripes and frustrations as I may have with some things about the US, culture runs deep. It’s not just food, art, expressions, language. It’s communication, social structure, gender roles, and so much more.

And I am proud to be an American. I’m proud of our history, I’m proud of our tolerance (it definitely feels lacking at times when you’re in the thick of it, but when you leave and experience the homogeny that is required to be accepted in many other cultures, the racism you’re subjected to as a foreigner, it is quickly evident how much more tolerant we are of individuality, and of sub-cultural identities). I’m proud of our activism, and of our freedom to speak out. I appreciate the fact that we value privacy and time alone. Although I think we could benefit a lot from helping each other out a bit more, and losing the “stranger danger” mentality, I also appreciate that friendship is voluntary, not socially required—in the US, people are friends because they genuinely like each other, not because it would be rude not to be (obviously we all have a few “convenience” acquaintances, but we appreciate the distinction between acquaintance and friend—just because you happen to sit by someone on a bus in the US, doesn’t mean that you’re expected to hang out with them every day and get scolded for having other friends). I appreciate that in the US we are allowed to stay in for a night if we don’t feel like being extraverted.

Of course, I also appreciate the opportunity to escape, to learn, and to reflect on these nuances, and fully recognize that my preferences are a result of my upbringing, not the result of some empirical right or wrong, better or worse-ness of my culture over any other culture. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to explore, and am frankly not ready to return home (I’m not comfortable discussing what happened with my visa in a public forum until I’m safely back in the US). But just as an emotion like sadness or happiness will persist, regardless of an intellectual awareness that the emotion is illogical, cultural identity is firmly rooted, and even in the face of obvious evidence of cultural relativism, I am, through and through, an American girl.

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking there
Was a little more life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to…