27 December 2007

i may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you're looking for.

Hope everyone's Christmas was exciting. Candace and I made homemade
french onion soup (with the provolone cheese we procured on a trip to
Addis for which we paid dearly). Delicious, if not very Christmasy.
Then we watched Southpark. I feel like all I ever talk about is food,
but that's really all we do here since I don't start working until
next week. I promise I'll soon start discussions about things more
interesting than what I eat each day.

I don't remember if I ever talked about the tissue Mafia in Jordan,
but they definitely have an active branch here in Ethiopia. For those
unaware, the tissue Mafia is a gang of street children who make their
money by shoving little packs of tissues in your face until you buy
them to make them go away. I, fortunately, have no soul and rarely
cave unless I'm in the throes of a GI emergency, but it appears to be
a pretty lucrative business. The Ethiopia branch has diversified
their product, also offering gum, and in the larger bus stops around
Addis, cigarettes. In Jordan, the tissue brand was Fine, but here
it's called Soft, hence giving us great pleasure when the kids run up
saying "Soft, Soft," and we respond with, "No, but do you have rough?
I'm looking for something to scratch my rectum." They don't speak
that much english, but it amuses us and that's all that matters. For
the record, Soft isn't appropriately named.

Four altercations on four different busses yesterday. Fortunately, we
weren't involved in any of them. TIA. The whole gang's coming in on
Saturday for a massive twenty four-hour feast with fun and games and
movies. We'll probably traumatize the neighbors, but they're already
used to the town freaks.

On the way to the internet today, I stopped to buy bananas and the guy
in the fruit stand asked me to marry him. He was very insistent. My
first Ethiopian marriage proposal - how special.

Merry belated Christmas! Joey, you made my day. Thank you SOOO much
for calling! Andy, sorry if I made little sense when we talked, but
it was equally wonderful to hear from you. It's business time. Nick,
I got your letter on Christmas Day (there are perks to Christmas not
being a real holiday here) - thanks! Jas and Jules and Grandma, got
your letters as well. Mom, box 3 of 3 made it, but boxes 1 and 2 are
still MIA. TIA. Letters are en route to all of you!

24 December 2007

you gotta bleed it first.

On Saturday, to practice for our Christmas feast, Candace and I
purchased, carried home, helped kill (okay, watched), cleaned,
prepared, battered, and fried our very first chicken. Well, my first,
since she'd done it in Swaziland, but our first in Ethiopia. I
carried him home, a sight which brought great amusement to the people
of Assela. The lone white girl in town is exciting enough, but the
lone white girl carrying a live chicken by its feet (which is how the
Ethiopians do it) was almost more than they could handle.

We were fully prepared to kill him (and by we I mean Candace), but
women don't do that in Ethiopia, so the older brother of Candace's
compound family did it for us, then we de-feathered and prepared him.
Real American-style fried chicken. And let me tell you, we certainly
know how to pick a bird - he was enormous and delicious. We made some
seasoned potatoes as a side dish and has ourselves a delicious
organic, farm-raised meal. If we only could find cornmeal in this
town, we would have had ourselves a southern feast. Alas, we had
banana bread instead, which was equally delicious if a slightly
inappropriate food pairing.

Keeping with our established weekend tradition of extravagant
breakfasts, on Sunday morning we made banana pancakes and hash browns.
Not the same as Dad's waffles, but quite delicious under the
circumstances. We'd open a diner here if not for Peace Corps' "no
outside income" policy. Cinnamon buns next weekend for the Christmas
party. Thank god the entire town is situated on a steep hill and
there's no oxygen here, otherwise we'd be bulking up appallingly fast.
There's little else to do in your free time besides cook or read, and
we don't want to run out of books too quickly.

I finally have a house - I started moving in on Christmas Eve. It's
actually at the first homestay I visited, but they're partitioning the
hallway and giving me the bigger room, kitchen, and bathroom and I'll
use the back door as my private entrance while they have the front
door to the other half of the house. The main room is large enough
for a bed and couch, so it'll function as a bedroom/living room/eating
area in the spirit of the tiny studio apartment I'll one day have in a
bad neighborhood of Washington, DC. Making up for the odd common room
arrangement, the kitchen is fabulous - it even has a sink, which is a
far bigger deal than you'd imagine. It doesn't function yet, but I've
been assured that'll be fixed soon. They're leaving the cabinet in
there, so I'll have a counter and storage space. Indoor flushing
western toilet and shower too, so life is good. There's a nice corner
out back where I envision my chickens and a healthy looking section of
soil for my garden. The kitchen even has a quaint windowsill for my
herbs. The layout is a bit strange and disjointed, but the perks make
up for it and I have a lot of ideas to liven the place up. I'm
excited. Now I get to start work next week, which is even more
exciting.

Wishlist:
-Books
-The usual
-Hot cocoa mix (with marshmallows!)
-Post-Christmas baking/food sale items (frosting, cake mixes, candy,
etc - all the stuff that goes on sale after Christmas)

22 December 2007

get behind the wheel, stay in front of the storm.

While balanced precariously in the back of a gari (park bench on wheels pulled by a horse) with our mattresses, Candace and I noticed that the bells on the horse's harness made a pleasant jingly sound. To distract ourselves from the fact that I was slowly falling off the side of the cart, we sang "Jingle Bells" at the top of our lungs, since that was probably the closest we'd ever get to a one horse open sleigh. The neighbors stared, but they do anyway, so it wasn't new. And people thought I didn't have the Christmas spirit. We listen to Christmas carols all day when we're home and I'm starting to really like them. I even sing and dance. When no one else cares about your holiday, you're suddenly quite proud of it. Sinead's even going to draw a chalk tree on the wall for our party. Maybe even a fireplace.

Speaking of one horse open sleighs, transportation in Africa just might be what hell is like. We went into Adama on Tuesday to shop for kitchen supplies and the many foodstuffs that can't be had in Assela. Little did we know, but Wednesday was a major Muslim holiday (one with which I am not familiar, but Ethiopians don't skimp on holidays), hence the entire town of Assela had traveled to Adama to buy supplies for the festivities. Come 4 PM, we went to the bus stop to catch a ride back to Assela. So did the rest of the town, resulting in a 100+ person line-esque mob snaking through the parking lot. Ethiopians have no problems waiting in lines, but when the bus arrives, all hell breaks loose and they stampede the doors, much to the chagrin of the poor old man in the puff ball hat trying to maintain a semblance of order. After an hour of this mess, we were at the end of our rope. In the meantime, we watched a bus pull away with four goats (loosely) tied to the roof. They were swaying and stumbling around the top with a look of sheer terror on their faces. I suppose they have to get from town to town somehow, and better there than inside the bus. I wish I could have gotten a picture, but it's a common enough occurrence, so I'm sure I'll have another opportunity in the next two years.

When the next bus arrived, we were towards the front of the line, but when we got there, the bus was already full of line-cutters. Fortunately, the puff ball-hatted man runs a tight ship and reorganized the line, putting me, Candace, and the nine others who'd been screwed at the front. When the next bus came. a gang of men tried to bum rush it. Led by a feisty young Ethiopian woman, Candace and I (and the rest of the line, I might add) fought the revolution and scored a victory for the rule of law. Someone got a bag of metal pots to the family jewels. Whoops. Watching the woman lead us was great - for living a life as a second-class citizen, she certainly took nicely to her moment of glory, standing up to the men. Just outside of town, an old woman boarded with a chicken. An angry chicken (given that it was probably going to become dinner, I think its anger was justified). It got loose and ran around the dark bus for a while before her kid caught it and cradled it the rest of the way. TIA.

Thursday I went to Adama again to pick up some chairs so we could have a semblance of order in the house (still no tables, beds, etc, but it's the little things). I bought six bamboo chairs and paid a nice kid with a wheelbarrow to help me get them to the bus station. At the gate, a man accosted me and insisted he carry the chairs the twenty feet to the bus, only so I'd have to pay two people instead of just the kid. Irritating, but bearable. I paid twenty birr (it's ten birr per person for the bus) to have them tied to the roof, which is too much but I was in a "pick your battles" sort of mood, so I let it slide. When we got to Assela, a man tried to convince me he was owed 180 birr for getting the chairs down (they cost 150 birr for all six) while a horde of twenty men clamored for the opportunity to rip me off while carrying the chairs to the house. I may be white, but that doesn't mean I'm a stupid walking ATM who spits out money. I'm probbaly growing a bit bitter about the firenji treatment, but they say journaling and humor are good coping mechanisms, so just enjoy the tongue-in-cheek sarcastic renditions of transport adventures.

As I shooed them all off, a handful tried to be my "savior" by telling the others to leave, then plopping their happy asses into my chairs to claim the labor. Candace arrived just as I was ready to take a chair to the ringleader's head, and the two of us waddled out of the bus station laden with chairs to catch a gari. That proved more difficult than we thought, and the guy we finally found also decided to rip us off by demanding 20 birr for the ride (standard gari rides are 1 birr), even though we loaded and unloaded our own chairs. He called us thieves, we uttered some choice obscenities that he may or may not have understood, but I think our tone conveyed our meaning just fine. But Candace's landlord family son helped us dust them off and carry them into the house and didn't even ask for candy, so that was uplifting. And John, the compound dog, is starting to like us too, so that's even better. I think it's the food we're giving him, but I've never claimed to be above bribery.

Hellish transport experiences aside, the sight of a lone tree silhouetted against the sunset is consistently one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Say what you want about the suburban-ization of America, but there's something to be said for the convenience of having everything you need in every town. Sure, you can drive to the coast for fresh shrimp or something and some fruits are seasonal, but it doesn't take three days and two towns to find something like baking soda. Still looking for brown sugar. TIA.

If your Christmas is white, I hope you enjoy it. Throw a snowball or two for me. Everyone else, revel in the pretty lights and desserts - try not to get caught up in the commercialism.

17 December 2007

dreaming of a white christmas.

It's official - training is over and we're Peace Corps volunteers.  All 42 of us made it.  The swearing-in ceremony, held in the garden outside the Ambassador's house, was actually quite nice, despite the blinding sun.  There's a picture of us somewhere on the Peace Corps website and probably an article.  Internet being what it is, we're taking the staff's word for it on that one.  We spent the evening after swearing in at a dance club in Addis, enjoying the strange feeling of being not only awake, but out of the house, until 1 AM.  Friday we roamed the city in search of things we can't buy at site (a not-hard pillow and a cheaper kerosene stove), binged on good food, and splurged at the firenji grocery stores (mmm...olive oil!).  Since we were leaving at the butt crack of dawn on Saturday, we spent Friday evening at the hotel, swapping music and watching Blood Diamond.  Probably not the best choice as we prepare to move to random small towns, but the film strikes much closer to home now that we actually live in Africa.  TIA.

We've now spent two nights in Assela.  I'm living the squatter life in Candace's living room, which makes cooking more fun but I think we're both looking forward to independence.  We christened our new electric hot plate with some Ramen noodles, seasoned french fries, and popcorn while watching Tommy Boy.  Candace, like myself, has a penchant for toilet humor, so life is grand.  Sunday morning, since nothing is open in Assela (well, Ethiopia), we slept late and made hash browns and cinnamon french toast since there's little else to do besides peel and grate potatoes.  Then the power promptly cut out for the remainder of the afternoon, along with the running water.  We wondered the streets and bought a few more things for our kitchens - like cups so we wouldn't have to drink from cut off water bottles - from the few shops that were open.  It's a classy life we're living.  We're hoarding water in buckets so we can flush during the day, since it appears we only have water at night.  But two days of hot delicious food is more than we've had in all of the last ten weeks, so there's really nothing to complain about.  Plus, there's no malaria and it's cold at night.  

While wandering the town, we had the good fortune to meet the village idiot who was apparently on vacation during our previous site visit.  Upon the sight of a pasty firenji like myself, he launched into a screaming tirade and followed us for a good twenty minutes.  He started by telling me he wanted to suck my blood because he can tell I'm a Jew and they're the best sex.  I can't make this stuff up.  The rest of his ranting isn't really fit for print.  How he learned this much English is a mystery for another day.  He apparently hangs out only on the asphalt road, so he's easy enough to avoid, but I hope he gets committed soon because I'm not sure I have the patience to ignore him on a daily basis without resorting to violence.  

My counterpart has been tasked with the urgent goal of finding me a house, so while Candace met with her boss to discuss work, I continued the search for vital household goods.  And went to the bank, which was an hour of my life that I can never get back.  I also visited the post office, opening our Assela PO box for the very first time.  It was exciting.  Rita, I got your letter - thanks!

Dad, the CD of pictures is on its way to you.  I'm sure you'll be impressed with my wrap job.  Careful cutting through all the duct tape!  Everyone else, pictures will be posted online as soon as that CD reaches Orlando and Jenna/Christine has the free time to upload them all.  There are a lot, so be patient and prepare to be amused.  Sinead likes to take photos of people making awkward faces.  You'll love it, I promise.  

Jessica Ducey
PO Box 986
Assela, Ethiopia

Wishlist:
-Books!
-Apricot face scrub
-Clothespins
-Bobby pins
-Margaret Atwood's new book of poetry
-Trivial Pursuit (we can MacGuyver a board and pieces if necessary, so even just the cards will suffice if that's all that fits)
-Usual edible goodies

12 December 2007

freedom's just another word.

In less than 24 hours, we'll officially be Peace Corps Volunteers! I've spoken my last Afan Oromo in one of the most excruciatingly time-wasting exams I've ever taken. Parroting back a random assortment of phrases hardly counts as learning. As it turns out, our language instructors aren't certified, so we can't even receive proficiency scores. It's all so much clearer now. But PC Director Tsetter (spelling? pronounced like "cheddar") is coming to swear us in, which is apparently quite a big deal among the Peace Corps. To any prospective applicants out there, try to get into a reentry program - you get some nice perks. Afterwards, we're heading out to a dance club in Addis for our first night of real freedom in more than two months. It's going to be ridiculous. I'm mailing home a CD a pictures the next morning, so hopefully they'll be online by the new year. Prepare to be amused by visual evidence of how we've all let ourselves go while here - shaggy hair, increasingly sparse make-up, saggy pants. Sinead has a penchant for awkward and/or ridiculous photos, so that should make everyone laugh.

Language woes aside, I couldn't be happier to be out of training. Everyone says training is the hardest (worst?) part of Peace Corps service, and they're absolutely right. With the perks of reentry also comes unorganized training and inexperienced staff, two factors that have combined to make much of the last ten weeks unnecessarily painful. But, 42 of the original 43 are still here, an attrition rate unheard of across the Peace Corps, so apparently someone put some extra time into selecting us. I think I'll look back on training and Wolisso the way I do Jordan - a valuable experience with some amazing people in a place for which I'll hold little nostalgia.

I was so excited for my own place in Assela - cooking my own meals, dancing in my underwear, sleeping in a larger-than-twin-sized bed - but, as it turns out, I'm back to being homeless. My landlord, most likely upon discovering that I was a pale white foreigner, tripled my rent from 500 to 1500 birr per month, which is obscene considering the Peace Corps' already-lofty upper limit is 600 birr. He may also have decided he didn't want to rent the place anymore, but I think it would be easier to turn someone down than price gouge the rent to drive them out. So, instead of spending my first week shopping, moving in, decorating, and compulsively baking Christmas cookies to send to other volunteers, I'll be trying to prod my counterpart into taking me to every remotely available house in Assela. My goal is to have something by New Year's, preferably Christmas. I was really looking forward to hosting our region's Christmas party, too. On the upside, I'll be able to crash in Candace's living room, hence saving the money Peace Corps will be giving me for a hotel room in the interim. Kayaking in Madagascar, anyone?

We had ourselves a little party at Negash last night to celebrate the end of training, which meant an extra edible meal in our lives and some last-minute firenji company. Anna and I, competitors for the title of nerdiest PCV in Ethiopia, played yet another game of Scrabble before the food came. I'm currently leading the tournament 3-1, but unfortunately, she'll be up in Bahir Dar, so we have to put the games on hold until April's in service training. We were also supposed to have an American government trivia contest at the party, but due to food delays, we postponed until this morning. Anna, Chris, Aly, Straw, and I made a valiant effort but finished second when we got an inordinate amount of colonial America trivia instead of the twentieth century I know and love. I guess Peace Corps leaves out the Cold War questions in order to reinforce its independence from the intelligence community.

At the end of the party, Yohannes brought the mail, which is always the most exciting part of our week. Caitlin, your letter made my day and I'm very excited to have something not-depressing to read! Jas and Jules, the soup will be an excellent belated Hanukkah celebration. Michael and Dan, did you two go to the post office together? Getting packages from both of you on the same day was adorable. Everyone's jealous that I have friends in England who love me enough to send me mail (Will, that goes for you too!). Letters are on their way to all of you! Thank you so much!

New Address:
Jessica Ducey
PO Box 986
Assela, Ethiopia

West Wing quote of the day: "They're not wearing wooden shoes."

Wishlist:
-Usual edible goodies
-Books!
-Clothespins
-Bobby pins
-Margaret Atwood's new book of poetry
-Trivial Pursuit (we can MacGuyver a board and pieces if necessary, so even just the cards will suffice if that's all that fits)

09 December 2007

gobez or go home.

We're in the home stretch (and not a moment too soon!)- Thursday morning at the butt crack of dawn we load up the bus for the last time and head to Addis for the swearing in ceremony at the Embassy.  The PC Director is coming, as are a host of local and international media, so look for us in the news!  Technical training is over, as is language training.  Our final language exams are tomorrow, so in 24 hours I'll be done with Afan Oromo and free to go back to Amharic, the language I originally wanted to learn and the one spoken in my town.  I know I sound bitter, but with so little of our lives within our control, figuring out what language is spoken in a town seems like a relatively simple way to make one aspect of training less painful. 

We finally made our attempt to play football after Saturday's goodbye lunch with our host families, but instead Nod, Levi, and I ended up in an hour-long game of catch waiting for other firenji to not show up.  Quitters.  The local stadium kids were enthralled by the funny-shaped ball and our constant use of our hands.  We tried to show them how to throw and/or catch a football, but you would have had better luck teaching a company of ballerinas.  Speaking as a former ballerina, I'm glad Dad also taught me how to throw a football as a child so I didn't have to embarrass myself. 

I've been reading a lot in the past few weeks and feel compelled to offer my reviews.  Robert Kaplan's Surrender or Starve is an excellent look at the intersection between famine, politics, and international aid in the Horn of Africa.  It's a bit dated, but like most things involving this part of the world, history tends to repeat itself.  Living in a nation that doesn't value the First Amendment as much as I do, I won't express my reactions in detail, but read it and let me know who you're cheering for in the region's current mounting situation.  

I finally read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and while it hasn't changed my life, it's definitely thought provoking.  Dry as all hell and a bit dense at times, but meticulously researched.  As I sat on the couch reading it and my family stared in wonder every day for a week, I understand the argument.  Coming from a society with the agricultural package suited to the development of sedentary agriculture, I have both the time and inclination to read for pleasure, while my host family can't even begin to wrap their heads around the concept that I am, in fact, relaxing with a six-hundred page treatise on the history of the world.  Although Diamond's fundamental point is convincing, I still have too much faith in the individual to believe that we don't matter.  Maybe we don't matter that much, but I believe one well-placed person can make an impact. 

For some lighter (?) reading, I just finished Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, about the 24-year-old from the DC suburbs who hitchhiked to Alaska, went out into the woods, and was found dead of starvation four months later.  I think it's a movie back in the free world?  A few of us have read it here and we all found some striking parallels between his life and our own.  I suppose there's only a fine line between finding yourself in rural Africa or the Alaskan wilderness.  Everything is just a matter of degree, after all. 

Also read, but less provoking: The Hobbit, Ape and Essence (in fact, excellent, although I now realize I'd read it before), and two Agatha Christie mysteries.  Also, Salinger's Franny and Zooey.  In progress: Naked Lunch (stressful) and The Human Stain.  I'm about to run out of books.  Please send more!

On the topic of reading, I had an evening that illustrated why I hesitate to call myself a feminist.  I was reading Ms. magazine for the first time (Thanks Ruby!), and while I found some interesting articles, particularly one about women in Gaza under Hamas, there's an underlying combative tone that rubs me the wrong way.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for equality, but I like men.  In fact, I love them and don't believe blaming them gets us anywhere.  After Ms., I picked up Cosmo for some mindless advice and hot bachelors, realizing that the staff of Ms. would probably not approve while the Cosmo editors would applaud my liberated tastes.  Hence, my beliefs in a nutshell.

Thanks Rhonda for the Christmas package!  There's a letter in the mail for you!

Ruby, now that I've read The Hotline, I'm wondering where it's been all my life.  Thank you so much!

Word on the street is Tim Tebow was the Heisman front runner - anyone care to offer a quick update on the outcome?  Ditto some Presidential primary polling data - Iowa and New Hampshire are coming up mighty quick!

Mail note:  For those not yet aware (both my readers and the friends and parents of other volunteers who've stumbled across this blog), the US Postal Service offers a nifty international service in the form of flat-rate envelopes and boxes.  Envelopes are $11 for up to four pounds, and boxes are $36 for as much as you can fill them with.  Seriously, you can send bricks if you want (although I'm sure most of us would prefer chocolate).  Seeing the postage on the boxes that have arrived here thus far, most everyone would be saving a bundle with flat rate boxes.  Just a helpful hint!

New Address:
Jessica Ducey
PO Box 986
Assela, Ethiopia

Wishlist:
-Margaret Atwood's new book of poetry.  I don't know the name, but it'll be the one with a 2007 publishing date.  I think it's been out long enough to be in paperback, but if not, I can wait.
-Books!
-The usual edible requests

04 December 2007

letting off the happiness.

En route back from my visit to Assela, we decided to stop in Addis for the day to get some not-nauseating food and have an extra few hours of freedom. Candace and I got to Adama in a record hour and 15 minutes and changed busses for Addis. That's when it all went wrong. Before we left, the driver got off to get a wrench from someone, which is never a good sign. We broke down a few kilometers outside Adama, and the driver and money guy spend a few minutes smearing paint into the engine (perhaps for lubrication? We weren't sure) and tightening things before we got back on the road.

A side note on public transportation in this country: Ethiopians have a pathological fear of any sort of fresh air entering a moving vehicle. Hence, all windows are sealed tight on public busses, and any effort to crack them for even a brief second garners angry stares and slammed windows. Compounding this problem, deodorant is an unknown concept. The women in the seat in front of me took advantage of the ride to paint their nails, adding the smell of nail polish to the general perfume of burning paint, exhaust, and unwashed flesh. Thank god there was no livestock on board. There is a near constant cool breeze blowing in much of the country, but you wouldn't know it on a bus. The siding of our particular bus was rotting away, so occasionally the breeze would enter through a hole in the metal and slip into the back of the bus through the flapping paneling. Not often enough. I never experienced motion sickness until I came to this country.

We broke down again a half hour later, this time for longer, and Candace left the bus to try to hail a passing minibus. Unfortunately, all were full, so we got back on our original bus when they finally fixed it. We broke down for a third time within sight of the city limits of Addis Ababa. Frustrations mounting, we collected our bags and started walking towards Addis, trying to hail a ride. We finally found a minibus, who took us closer, instructed us to get off and take another minibus to another destination. This continued for no less than seven minibusses to get us to the main bus station, where we were meeting Sinead for lunch. All of this with our giant hiking backpacks, which don't really fit well into vans already crammed to the brim with people.

The two hour, 175 km trip ended up taking about 4 and a half, which is actually quite good by African standards. We originally intended to grab lunch in Addis and hit the road to Wolisso that night, but the thought of getting on another bus made Candace and I want to cry, so we crashed at the house of four of Sinead's friends who are teaching in Addis. We sat around watching movies and eating popcorn all night, then devoured a box of cereal for breakfast. It was a lovely evening after a hellish bus ride.

We were going to leave the next morning, but instead decided to get one last good meal at Blue Tops and raid a firenji grocery store, finally making it back to Wolisso at 7 PM, in time to collect the massive amounts of mail that had accumulated in our absence. My family had gone on a mission to repair the television and didn't get back until 10 PM, so I had a few hours of peace and quiet to decompress and write some letters. Then the kids came home and all semblance of silence was shattered. Two more weeks of screaming and bad food, and I can live independently again! Sadly, our television has been repaired, so no more peaceful nights of reading.

We're in the home stretch here in Wolisso - a few more days of (useless) language training since PC is insisting on testing us in our original language, not the one actually spoken in our towns, last minute training sessions, goodbye party with the community, and we're out. We have a swearing in ceremony and reception at the embassy next Thursday, then we hit the road for our sites on Saturday.

After ten days of no mail, it was an exciting welcome back to Wolisso. J^2, I got your letter and am anxiously awaiting the Hanukkah package. Grandma, I got your letter as well. Responses are in the mail. Dad and Mom, got packages from both of you - firenji football game this weekend! Ruby, your package was made even better because it was a complete and utter surprise (and Rose, the Rice Krispy treats were delicious - excellent packing job, they still tasted fresh after two weeks)! You have excellent taste in candy and reading materials - a letter is on its way back to you! Thank you so much!

Happy birthday little bro! Write your sister.

Extra-special Christmas edition wishlist:
-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Butter-flavored popcorn salt
-Marshmallow fluff
-Peanut butter
-Buillion cubes
-Apple cider mix (does this even exist?)
-Matzo ball soup mix
-Ramen noodles (oriental)
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Reese's peanut butter cups
-Butterfingers
-Baby Ruths
-Brownie mix
-Chocolate-covered gummi bears
 
Non-food items:
-Books!
-Yarn (variegated bright blue and any other colors)
-Right Guard Xtreme invisible solid deodorant
-Gillette Venus razor blades
-Zip-loc bags
-Whitening toothpaste
-Home waxing strips (non-microwaveable)
-Body lotion with sunscreen
-Pantene shampoo/conditioner combo

30 November 2007

life is how it is, not how it was.

The current road asphalt paving project seems to have Assela in a
tizzy. I walked out of the internet cafe on Monday to the sight of
hordes of people crowded along the side of the road and the median
watching the bulldozer creep down the street. The project, in true
bureaucratic third world form, appears to involve virtually every
remotely able-bodied man in the town. A contingent of men sweeps the
dirt and rocks off the road, then another group crawls on their hands
and knees with steel brushes, scrubbing the animal dung off the old
layer of rocky asphalt, before the bulldozer goes through with the
actual asphalt. The purpose of the poo-scrubbers escapes me, but I'm
still impressed with the efficiency of the project. Almost an entire
direction of the road is done already - we may see the completion of
this project before we move in permanently in December.

Tuesday morning we visited a handful of the NGOs around Assela that
work on HIV-related issues. The health center has tested some 12,000
people in the last two years (total population 75,000) with a
prevalence rate around 11-12%, which is frightening considering the
national prevalence is around 2.1%, but the number tested is
impressive. Other organizations have what appear to be some excellent
programs in progress (including some education and income generation
projects for commercial sex workers), but how effective they actually
are remains to be seen. Either way, it's exciting to begin to see
what we'll be doing. Our actual jobs are still quite vaguely defined,
but meeting people is a step in the right direction.

After two days of excruciating attempts to communicate our desire for
housing with our counterparts, we finally called Lisa, the assistant
PC director. Apparently PC has paid a deposit for the homestay that I
visited on Saturday and fully intended for me to live there until we
told them otherwise. I wanted to cry. Okay, I did a little. The one
good house we visited has been secured for Candace, which is great for
her but I find insulting since I was probably placed in the homestay
because I'm younger. I'm so sick of being treated like an animal
and/or a child here. I was selected for this job for a reason and I
wish someone (anyone!) would believe that I might actually be
competent and capable of living my life unsupervised. For the love of
all that's good and holy, I can wash clothes and cook food! Is that
so hard to believe? I can come home to an empty house and be safe. I
have parents. I moved out of their house(s). I'm not looking for new
ones and I certainly don't need a babysitter.

PC is communicating with my counterpart since I can't, and hopefully I
can see some more options this week and find housing that will enable
me to maintain some semblance of my sanity during the next two years.
I can shit in a hole as long as it's my hole, but I can't handle being
a trick-performing monkey who has to hide in a bedroom in order to
remember what it feels like to be a person. Everyone has a breaking
point and I know full well exactly where mine lies. I adjusted and
internalized near-constant sexual harassment and assault in Jordan,
but this is so much harder. I guess if I had to choose, it's easier
to be a sex object than a freak. (NB: This isn't a solicitation for
advice or consolation, it's my way of expressing my emotions. There's
no right or wrong, there's just the way I feel. Please don't confuse
frustration with unhappiness or regret.)

To move onto more amusing aspects of my life, the best food we've had
thus far in Assela has been a day-old chocolate donut. I've been
eating egg sandwiches for lunch and dinner for four days now. I
really like eggs and all, but the prospect of cooking my own food is
the most appealing idea I've heard in two months. We're quitting my
hotel's restaurant and switching to bread and fruit tomorrow. Without
a Negash Lodge to distract us, we're realizing just how terribly most
Ethiopians cook. My kingdom for some cheese. Or really, just
anything prepared without a foundation of a half gallon of vegetable
oil. Candace and I already have elaborate plans for Christmas dinner
(see wishlist below, please contribute!) at our house(s).

My counterpart abandoned us all day Wednesday, so we didn't get to
visit the other housing options. The suspense is killing me.
However, Candace and I spent the day exploring the town and pricing
various items we'll eventually have to buy. This being an
Amharic-speaking town, we struggled a bit at the furniture stores, but
I think we got decent price quotes. We don't know what kind of space
we'll be dealing with, so we can't actually purchase things yet, but
knowing is half the battle, right?

We also found the market and the decent souqs selling firenji food.
There are, in fact, vegetables in this town, something our restaurant
doesn't seem to know, but in two weeks we're breaking in the new
stoves with french onion soup (sans provolone, sadly) and homemade
bagels (not related to vegetables, but related to not-nauseating
food). We also found ketchup, black currant jam, vanilla extract,
cinnamon (apple pie for Christmas if we can find apples!), tuna, and a
grater, all things we thought we were going to have to find in Addis.
No olive oil, cocoa, yeast, cheese, or syrup, so we still have an
excuse to occasionally venture into civilization. Housing issues
aside, we're growing to really like Assela. It's beautiful here, both
weather and scenery, and once the road paving project is finished,
there will be significantly less dust in the air, so the prospects
look good for the next two years. Although the sun is blindingly hot,
there is a constant cool breeze running through the town and the
nights are downright chilly. I love it!

Reading over this, I'm realizing why people keep journals. It's
entertaining to track my emotions over the last few days. On Thursday
morning, we decided to take the plunge and negotiate for our beds.
Good thing we did, since the carpenter said it'd take a month to make
them, which will put us sleeping on mattresses on the floor for our
first two weeks. We also ventured back into the market since Thursday
is an official market day, and were we ever glad we did. The
selection widened considerably when everyone showed up. We found
scallions, which improves our plans for a Chinese (thanks Will for
that sweet and sour sauce!)-and tapas-themed Christmas feast and,
better yet, guavas. Considering the only other fruit here is bananas
and (green) oranges, we nearly peed with excitement when we smelled
them and realized what they were. Better yet, they cost 10 birr cents
each, which is slightly more than a penny. Life gets better and
better.

I also further explored my plans to keep chickens for eggs, and
discovered that each hen will cost me approximately four dollars, plus
a few more birr to feed them and build a coop and nests. Yes. We
were surrounded and accosted by a horde of men who were fascinated by
an obvious firenji and a vaguely-Ethiopian-looking firenji who wanted
to buy chickens. They also like to touch, usually inappropriately.
White skin feels just like black skin, I promise. I'm thinking four
chickens so I can slowly build a surplus of eggs for baking. Two have
already been named Ducky and Piggy (long stories), but any suggestions
for the other two?

After lunch, Daniel took us to the Assela hospital to meet a few
people, then we visited what will become my new house. Apparently I
got the "no homestay" message across, and I now have a cozy baby blue
private house inside a family's compound. It's a 2 room + bathroom
house with a little porch that looks onto the back of the family's
house. I think the chicken coop will go in the corner of the porch so
they stay out of the way and I can easily get the eggs. My bathroom
(when finished) will have an indoor shower, sink, and western toilet,
something I'm no longer ashamed to be happy about. I can't wait to
move in and decorate! The compound already has a pretty lush garden
in the front, which means the soil is fertile. The corn on the cob is
terrible here, so I can't wait to grow sweet corn. We won't even
discuss how excited Candace and I are for broccoli and zucchini. I
can't believe I spelled both of those right on the first try.

After the housing adventure, with both of our houses finalized, we
went back to the furniture stores to order the rest so they could get
started on production. We went with Daniel, my counterpart, but soon
discovered that our inability to communicate with him wasn't helping
us get better prices. He noticed too, and used the opportunity to
ditch us again. It worked out in our favor since we now have the
satisfaction of knowing we obtained our furniture entirely on our own
with our dozen words of Amharic. We're feeling pretty good about
ourselves, not going to lie. We should have fully furnished places by
New Year's, if not Christmas.

I was still on a nice high from knowing I had a place to live, so
while fighting with one guy over the cost of a simple kitchen table, I
decided to dash across the street and ask another carpenter. I
sketched out what we wanted and he quoted half of what the other guy
was asking, which resulted in a fun battle for other pieces and better
prices for us. The word "sofa" here means any sort of living room
seat, from chair to loveseat to three- or four-person couches, so I
scored amusing foreigner points when I explained that I wanted a sofa
for "sost koot" (three butts) since I didn't know the word for person.
Explaining a bookshelf was a difficult process in a country where
most people don't read for pleasure, but thanks to my artistic skills,
we got that covered as well. We're picking out fabric for curtains
tomorrow. I feel like a newlywed, except I'll be living alone. Well,
I guess the chickens will be like roommates.

We're stopping off in Addis on Saturday for a decent lunch before the
return to Wolisso for two more weeks of greasy homestay food. More
homemade pasta and pesto for me! Maybe even a banana split. Eating
to live is decidedly depressing (the satisfaction of increasingly
saggy pants aside), but no matter how bad the food gets, we still have
that American love for good food. Candace and I have plans to start
running in Assela, which will probably leave me ready for a marathon
by the time I move back to the oxygen-rich paradise that is the
eastern seaboard of the United States. We haven't had mail since
before Thanksgiving in Addis, so our return to Wolisso should be
thrilling.

New Address (hint hint):
Jessica Ducey
PO Box 986
Assela, Ethiopia

26 November 2007

assela: part one.

I'm keeping this entry as a journal of sorts during my site visit, so
pardon the lack of logical transitions.

Thanks-mas dinner was a rousing success. Peter, our country director,
lives in a beautifully un-integrated compound mansion, where we were
able to have a proper binge, albeit sadly lacking apple pie and
cornbread. For having never actually lived in the United States,
Peter puts on a pretty fabulous holiday party. Six gallons of
Breyer's chocolate chip ice cream was the highlight of my evening, but
the turkey and mashed potatoes were also delicious. Yes, I ate mashed
potatoes - amazing what life in the third world does to you.

Before dinner, we had a hilarious white elephant gift exchange - given
the lack of stores and wrapping paper in Wolisso, there was a
disproportionate amount of toilet paper, odd snack foods, and duct
tape. Plus some uber-stylish fashion accessories. Just wait for the
pictures, they'll be up sometime around real Christmas. After dinner,
we skipped the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas and went
straight to Elf on a television of such enormity and modernity that it
took a dozen of us a good ten minutes to remember how to turn it on.
God bless America.

The next morning, we took off with our counterparts for our site
visits. Daniel, my supervisor, is a delightfully jolly man with
limited english but full knowledge of all development buzzwords -
capacity building, social mobilization, monitoring and evaluation. I
visited one of my potential homes on Saturday afternoon. It's a room
in a house with satellite TV, a fridge, and a western toilet, but I'd
give anything to be living somewhere else. Is that strange? I just
can't imagine myself remotely happy living as a zoo animal for another
two years. My potential landlord doesn't have kids, but I'd still be
sharing a house with a family and hence only have a bedroom as a
sanctuary. The first thing she said (in Amharic) was "she's just a
child," which doesn't bode well for my independent streak. I just
want the freedom to come home and make dinner while dancing around in
my underwear if I so desire. I want to be able to sit on my couch and
laugh at immature toilet humor and not put on a happy face or perform
tricks or make conversation night after night. It's not finalized
yet, so I'm going to do everything I can to not live there. I just
want to have a place of my own to go home to at night. If it's a
one-room mud hut with a pit latrine out back, that's fine.

Ethiopians remind me a lot of Floridians. It's probably 75-80 degrees
during the day here and perhaps down to 60 at night here in Assela,
and everyone is bundled up in coats and the traditional shawls that
function as blankets. I'm so excited to be living in a temperate
climate for the first time in my life!

The entire town of Assela is an enormous construction site. It's in
the midst of a massive project to asphalt the main road and
build/update gutters and sewer systems, so currently, the main road is
a rocky mess with four-foot-deep gullies on the sides and precariously
balanced logs or concrete slabs functioning as deathtrap bridges
leading to the various shops. It'll be extremely convenient when it's
finally finished, but currently, I've lost count of the number of
shattered ankles we've narrowly avoided.

On Sunday, Daniel and I teamed up with Candace and her supervisor for
continued housing tours. At dinner Saturday night, I explained that I
did not, under any circumstances, want to live with a family, and
thankfully, Candace backed me up Sunday morning. As a returned
volunteer, I think her opinion carries more weight than mine, but I'm
just glad my feelings were validated. We visited a second possibility
that was a private home within a compound - a bedroom, indoor
bathroom, and living room/kitchen area, all with its own private
entrance and currently under renovation, so it'll be a nice place when
it's done. The host family in the compound was very nice and hands
off, so that's a significant improvement.

There's another private home, no other family on the compound, off the
main road that we're going to see later in the week. Daniel seems to
think that the no family part is a problem, but Candace and I are
doing our best to make it clear that Americans love their privacy and
are, in fact, quite capable of washing our own laundry unsupervised.
He also thinks it's on the expensive side and potentially un-secure
since it's on the road with no family, but we're prepared to live
together and squelch both of those problems with one blow. Plus,
being able to furnish one home with two settling-in allowances will
result in one fabulous party house in a gorgeous city. I'm trying not
to get my hopes up in case the house isn't as nice as it appears from
the outside, but it'd be great to have my/our own garden and chickens
and privacy.

After the housing visits, Candace, her counterpart, and I went on a
tour of the market area, but since Sunday is generally a day off and
specifically a holiday this weekend, most of it was boarded up. We
also found a handful of internet cafes along the main drag, and have
located the bank and post office, although they're closed for the
weekend so we haven't actually been in them yet. We got dinner at my
hotel since Candace got food poisoning from hers, and then a
contingent of Ethiopian men cornered us as we were leaving, telling us
"we want to invite you." Not sure to what or where, but we erred on
the side of caution and beat it out of there. At least our town is
lively!

Monday morning we opened our PO box with surprisingly little
difficulty. Copying the key however, has proven a far more difficult
feat. We decided to save money and share a box, so if you know
Candace and have stumbled on this blog, go ahead and mail to the same
box. If you haven't written to me yet, now would be a great time
considering I'll arrive just in time to spend Christmas moving in. My
new address:

Jessica Ducey
PO Box 986
Assela, Ethiopia

Perhaps as punishment for the rapidity with which we were able to open
a PO box, we then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to open
our bank accounts. After handing over residency permits and passport
photos, we waited while they hand wrote our files. Then, they
demanded our father and grandfather's names, just in case. We
explained the paternal nature of surnames in America, but the teller
couldn't grasp the concept. My paternal grandfather being dead didn't
faze them, but Candace was adopted. Incidentally, by two women, thus
leaving her fatherless, a fact that completely bewildered the teller.
She invented ancestors to pacify them, and then we waited again while
they dealt with this new information.

As we actually opened the accounts, he asked if I had had problems
with immigration (um, no?) and warned me that because of problems in
Ethiopia, I shouldn't try to withdraw more than 10,000 birr.
Considering we opened the accounts with 500 birr, I didn't forsee that
being a problem, but he insisted that 10,000 birr wasn't that much. I
assured him I'd never even have that much in the account. Candace,
being half-African American, got no such warning, but my milky
whiteness apparently meant I was likely to have massive influxes of
cash. He didn't grasp the "volunteer" concept and couldn't move past
"firenji give me money" assumptions. TIA.

Tomorrow we get to meet the police and maybe some of the people with
whom we'll actually be working. We're also holding out for visiting
the lonely house and reinforcing that bizarrely American desire for
privacy. Perhaps putting some down payments on furniture, too? It's
an exciting life we lead here in Ethiopia.

21 November 2007

what's the meeting about? farting, i think.

Firenji movie night was a success, although I think our counterparts may have been a bit scarred by some of the choicer examples of stoner-toilet humor (see post title).  Such is American culture - high and low.  The staff even gave us permission notes to take home to our families the day before explaining that we would be with PC staff until 830 PM.  That was the latest most of us had ever been allowed out, so when the movie ended at 730, a group of us stuck around and had a dance party at the hotel to take advantage of the unprecedented level of freedom.  Probably frightened the hotel staff, but we're already stared at like freaks anyway, so it's about time we started earning the whispers and stares. 

On Saturday we all went into Addis to learn how to use public transportation.  They bussed us all into the city en masse and turned us loose in small groups to explore.  Addis reminds me of Amman in a lot of ways, although significantly less developed.  It's dotted with small enclaves where foreigners can go and not be treated like zoo monkeys on holiday from their cage.  Steph, Levi, and I, under the expert guidance of the hilarious Ato Mokonen (choice quotes: "That dog is ferocious.  He will devour us" and "It's so windy today you should put rocks in your pockets so you don't blow away."), went to a firenji restaurant called The Blue Tops where we had delicious homemade pasta and banana splits (plus a milkshake appetizer...don't judge).  As I learned in Amman, the true marker of a good firenji establishment is a menu entirely in English with no traces of the native language.  Better still if the name is in English - the Blue Tops meets all these criteria.  Since we discovered this place via Lonely Planet, we also ran into approximately half of our PC group during the course of our meal.  The promise of ice cream sundaes is hard to resist - we're easy, what can we say? 

After lunch, Mokonen led us on a whirlwind tour of the city, of which we remember precious little, but perhaps it'll come back to us when we're abandoned there alone.  We rode public transport, better known as blue donkeys or service taxis - they're little death trap blue and white vans that careen through the streets of the city, stopping only to unload or cram in a few more people at quasi-designated stops.  We visited a firenji grocery store, which leaves much to be desired after the Safeway and Cozmo of Amman, but at least carries peanut butter and cereal, if lacking a refrigerated section and hence cheese.  Supposedly there are others around the city, so I trust that in time, I'll find a way to MacGuyver some mozzarella cheese sticks.

Since we were told to be at the bus station no later than 4 to catch public transport back to Wolisso, you can imagine that all of us clung to every second of freedom and bombarded the bus station precisely at 4 PM.  As a result, we were able to pack an entire bus full of firenji, thus losing much of the experience of public transport (chickens and goats, anyone?), but giving us a fun end to a day of freedom.  Levi and I frightened my former Amharic teacher by (not-so?) silently rocking out to an iPod mix featuring such classics as Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch."  Guess she thought I was a bit more sweet and lovable than that.  Funny how people make that mistake. 

I gave Zacharas and Sarah (plus a random neighbor kid wearing an Orlando Magic sweatshirt - cue "It's a Small World") a small squishy ball to play with the other night.  Myself being an American kid raised on football and baseball (I've been a St. Louis Cardinals fan since birth - ask Dad for pictures), my instinct when thrown a ball is to catch it and throw it back.  Not so with Ethiopian children.  Granted, my two are a bit young to be expected to have the hand-eye coordination to consistently catch a ball, but the ten-year-old was just as inept.  I suppose spending your childhood watching a game where you're not allowed to touch the ball with your hands really ruins the instinct to catch.  I still don't like little children, but I'm making an effort. 

Burdette, our medical officer (and perhaps the greatest member of Peace Corps/Ethiopia staff, and not just for the candy she always brings) came into town on Monday for an entertaining presentation about sex in Peace Corps and thankfully fewer shots than anticipated.  Seems our influenza and HPV vaccines are held up in customs.  A side bar - although Peace Corps may seem illogical and disorganized at time, I salute their HPV vaccine policy.  They're paying for the vaccine for volunteers through next spring since it wasn't approved recently enough for most of us to have been in country long enough to receive the series (and save the money since most insurance companies won't pay for it).  Hooray for Peace Corps medical services! 

Parents entertaining naive notions about your little babies' innocence may want to skip this paragraph.  Speaking of sex in PC, apparently only 30% of sexually active volunteers always use condoms.  Since most of us work in fields at least indirectly related to health education, that's more than a little frightening.  I hope the married couples are skewing that statistic.  Forty percent of PCVs will have sexual relationships with host country nationals, and 90% are sexually active by the first 20 months of service.  I'll leave that for your pondering. 

After a day's delay for the ultimately non-existent shots, we finally discovered our site placements in an elaborate afternoon "Price is Right"-themed ceremony involving a map and pushpins designed solely for the purpose of torturing poor volunteers with little else to do in the past weeks besides wonder about our placements.  They did throw in a celebratory party at the lodge (with an 830 curfew again!) to pacify us, so life isn't all bad.  Anna accidently stepped on a cat, who retaliated with a small nip on the ankle, which means she gets to go to Addis for rabies boosters, just in case.  Nice to know they're looking out for us.

I'm going to Asela (the town I mentioned a few posts ago with the FGAE branch!), along with the lovely Candice (who loves children and will hence spare me all of the OVC projects).  It's about 3-4 hours south of Addis Ababa, up the mountains lining the Great Rift Valley and chain of lakes region.  Candice and I will both be paired with the local HAPCO (HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office), the federal agency overseeing all HIV/AIDS work in Ethiopia.  We don't have a lot of specifics yet, but there are quite a few local NGOs operating in the area, so I imagine we'll be doing a lot of networking between different programs.  Candice is a returned PCV who served in Swaziland before this, so I'm excited about having someone with a ton of experience with which to work.  Apparently Amharic is widely spoken in Asela, which isn't doing much to help my complete lack of interest in Oromiffa.  Three more weeks and I can hire a tutor to learn the language I wanted to learn anyway, and as it turns out, will be using. 

Sinead's about two hours north of me in Welenchiti, a small town that doesn't appear to make it into any of the guidebooks but is quite close to Addis.  Levi's up in Bahir Dar and Steph is in a small town about an hour around Lake Tana from it, so at least it'll be easy to visit my favorite Amhara region volunteers (well, easy in the sense that Ethiopian Airlines has cheap domestic flights - 15 hours by Ethiopian bus is pretty much everyone's definition of hell).  A couple of people are way out in the sticks - two days by bus from Addis and several hours from internet or cell service in the case of Tikil Dingay (the only consolation is the sheer fun-ness of saying "Tikil Dingay"), so I'm pretty content with my site.  Can't wait to see what I'll actually be doing! 

After Friday night's Thanksgiving/Christmas party at our country director's house in Addis, we leave on Saturday for a week at our new sites.  Most of us should have our housing arranged, so we'll be able to start setting up our new homes.  Our future supervisors will babysit us as we explore the town to set up banking services, PO boxes, furniture, utilities, etc.  We'll all be having electricity and some form of running water - if not pipes in the house, than a spigot on property.  A far cry from the rural mud huts most of us were expecting (hoping for, perhaps?).  The verdict's still out on whether or not we're actually disappointed.  I'll have a new PO box next week - I'll post the address here, but the Addis one will still get to me (eventually) as staff make visits to our sites during the first few months.  Feel free to send to Addis in the meantime, but then switch to the new one. 

I'm not sure how much time we'll have for internet during site visits, so don't expect an update from me for a while.  I'll do what I can, but you'll probably not hear from me again until the first week of December.  Mom, I got the box - not sure at what point you got the impression I liked pumpkin pie, but several others were excited!  Thanks for the UF news!

Hi Anna's mom!  Hi Straw's mom!

Wishlist:
-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Cashews
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Crystal light packets
-Books!

15 November 2007

when life seems absurd, all you need is some laughter.

As I sat at Negash Lodge, enjoying the company of some of my favorite
volunteers in our free time before dark, a mischievous little monkey
sat quietly in the tree above our table. He strategically positioned
himself on his branch, steadied himself, whipped it out, and proceeded
to let loose a stream of urine. Not a little stream, either, a
full-on golden thunderstorm. Our reaction time was admirable,
however, as Aly yelped an "oh shit!" and we all leapt over our chairs
to safety, immediate breaking into hysterical laughter as the
Ethiopian staff stared in confusion, gazed up into the tree, back down
at the puddle on the table, and suddenly understood. TIA. (this is
Africa.)

... in other news ...

Despite the monkey pee, I'm currently in a splendidly good mood after
several carefully executed surprises (although the recent influx of
candy and letters hasn't hurt either!). Several of us were discussing
how much we love a particular volunteer who wasn't getting enough
mail, in our humble opinions, so we wrote an onslaught of letters to
surprise him. It's going to be wildly amusing for us when they all
arrive en masse with no return addresses. I threw in an extra for
another friend just for the additional entertainment. Then, Sinead
and I rallied the kids in her neighborhood for a massive photo project
involving them holding up signs wishing her friend luck at his
wrestling tournament this weekend. Steph and I have also organized a
massive firenji movie night at the hotel (well, late afternoon, given
our curfews), complete with popcorn. Grandma's Boy comes to Ethiopia.
If you haven't seen it, go rent it.

The kids and creepy men have been particularly spunky lately, and I
accidently stumbled across a man beating up a mentally retarded kid
yesterday, but I can't be brought down. It's times like this I'm
reminded why I'm here. Sure, it's not always fun and rarely easy, but
no one ever said it would be. You don't join the Peace Corps for a
vacation (well, maybe if you get assigned to a beach in Fiji, but I've
heard even that's no cakewalk!). Hard times and obnoxious children
aside, this is one of the most rewarding, albeit challenging, things
I'll ever do. I've learned more about myself and what I'm capable of
in a few short weeks here than in four years of college. The group of
people I'm currently working with are, without exception, incredible.
New programs have an attrition rate around 50%, but we've only lost
one and no one is showing signs of lagging. Our six returned
volunteers say that this is the most dedicated (stubborn, perhaps?)
group they've ever seen, and I can believe it.

For those concerned that us lonely PCVs wouldn't be able to properly
binge on Thanksgiving, have no fear. Our country director, Peter, has
invited us all to his house in Addis, where we've been assured we will
be stuffed to the brim with the closest thing to a Thanksgiving feast
we can conjure up here. I'm really just hoping for apple pie since
dad already sent the can of olives. That doesn't mean we won't still
be freshly arrived at our sites and alone on Christmas, though, so
keep sending those care packages!

Site announcements come on Monday - I'll finally know where I'm going
and have a vague sense of what I'll be actually doing!

Candace, I've been listening to Reema's "Love on a Bike" mix for days
now and have only been able to identify four songs. You wouldn't
happen to have a song/artist list, would you now? I'd love you
forever if you'd email it to me!

It's been a windfall mail week. Mom, your box and a letter made it -
thanks for everything, especially the Reese's! Grandma, I got your
letter as well. Matt N and Nick, you two seriously made my day on
Tuesday - I never expected to hear from y'all that quickly, and both
on the same day! Love you guys! Jess - thank you for an excellent
package (Haribo = delicious, and there really aren't words to describe
how excited I was when I saw the Oreos!) and thank your class for the
great letters! I had a whole afternoon of entertainment reading them.
A response is on the way, and I should have pictures online by
Christmas.

12 November 2007

the curious girl realizes she's under glass.

I listen to far too much Bright Eyes.

Although training sessions tend to err on the side of ever-so-stimulating lectures, we had a surprisingly lively lesson about Ethiopian administrative structures. Although it sounds horrendously dull, Ethiopian society is divided almost exclusively on ethnic lines, much to the chagrin of several of our staff members. Ethnicity isn't clearly inherited on either side, so intermarriage is screwing up the numbers. Ethiopia being the democratic utopia it is (ahem), our presenters were hesitant to express their true feelings, but a sizable number of thinly veiled criticisms got the point across. All in all, a very interesting picture of the Ethiopian political culture.

Due to some poor planning on our part, our cultural exchange day was a culinary disappointment since we didn't get to raid the firenji grocery stores in Addis. However, we thoroughly amused our counterparts with a racy version of "The Dating Game" and some hilarious dancing, including classics like the sprinkler, shopping cart, lawnmower, and, exclusively choreographed for Ethiopia, the buna (coffee) ceremony. The Chicken Dance, Electric Slide, and Macarena all suffered without the background music, but fortunately we all have less shame than musical talent and were able to hum. I think our language and culture teachers are all utterly traumatized by American culture. Interestingly, they were most impressed with how well everything came together, since we started planning the afternoon before. Skillful procrastination must also be a uniquely American value.

Speaking of American culture, I've introduced my family to the wonders of Ramen. We'd lost power that night and I ended up having to make it on a gas burner with the children hovering in the darkness and staring. It was actually rather creepy since it's hard to see them coming in the dark, but the deliciousness was worth every awkward moment. Send more please!

Next week we're having "practicum" sessions, where we'll be out in the town visiting various NGOs and clinics to observe, report, and make recommendations on their current practices. To prepare, we've made some brief visits to a handful of organizations in the area. Our first was to the Wolisso People Living With HIV/AIDS Association (henceforth PLWHA). Although it was interesting to hear about the progress they've made in reducing stigma and encouraging members to be open about their status, a lot of their hopes for Peace Corps volunteers were disappointing. Seems the principles of sustainable development haven't quite caught on in the developing world. All they could think of getting from PC was money and material resources, the two things we don't do. I understand the urgency of the situation necessitates immediate solutions, but Ethiopia has already seen backlash from the collapse of outside-funded projects. Case in point - a project giving formula to HIV+ mothers so they could reduce the risk of breast milk transmission fell apart in the second year, resulting in a massive increase in infant mortality in that area. If that doesn't illustrate the importance of local sustainability, I don't know what does.

At another visit, I had a thrilling afternoon where I was hit with why I came here and why I'm so excited to get to work. We visited a private clinic, funded in part by IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Fund) that was precisely the kind of organization in which I envisioned myself working. It provides low cost (sliding scale, so free to some) contraceptive and family planning services, HIV counseling and testing, and a host of peer education programs for kids and young adults in the community. It's set up as a community center (a la the YMCA) with sports equipment, games, and a library for kids to use in the afternoons. While they're there, they can't help but be exposed to a little comprehensive sex-ed in addition to their constructive social development. There are several dozen branches of these clinics around the country, some in the towns we'll be assigned to, and I really hope I end up at one of them. I get to do my practicum observing their programs, so hopefully PC staff will notice how excited I am and actually do something in line with my expressed interests (if y'all are monitoring our blogs, I'd love to work with the FGAE in Asela!).

My next door neighbor got me drunk Wednesday night. I live in government housing consisting of duplexes, and the other half of my house is inhabited by a family hosting Miranda, another PC volunteer. Miranda's little sister came over to retrieve me and bring me to their house, where her mother proceeded to pour a seemingly ceaseless flow of tella, which is the equivalent of Ethiopian moonshine - home-brewed, frightfully strong, foul-tasting beer. I've virtually given up drinking here since I'm not a huge fan of the beer and there are few socially acceptable opportunities to drink anyway, so my tolerance has rapidly declined since my days as a Gator. I came home after two glasses and my mother made fun of my white girl flushed cheeks.

The weather's getting increasingly dry and windy - clear sunny days with storm force winds that are doing a number on the gates and fences, not to mention our eyes. I'm sure I'll regret this, but I can't wait for rainy season!

Shocking reproductive health fact about Ethiopia: We visited St. Luke's Catholic Hospital to see their PMCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission - I feel like I"m beginning to live my life based on acronyms) and education programs. They mentioned that they provide post-abortion care, which naturally led to the question of whether they perform abortions. Being a religiously-affiliated hospital, they don't (*bites tongue*), but it turns out abortion is not entirely illegal in Ethiopia anymore. Recently, laws have been passed (apparently in response to the numbers of unsafe and illegal abortions - how convenient when your argument plays out to its logical end) permitting abortion in cases of rape and (*gasp*) underage pregnancy. If a woman goes to a medical facility and says she's been raped or is under 18 (medical records being what they are here, age is more difficult to prove than you'd expect), she can have an abortion. Interesting that baby steps to liberalize abortion law in Ethiopia are exact opposites of parental notification/consent laws to restrict it in the US. Given the broad (oppressive?) reach of the Orthodox church here in Ethiopia, I think it says a lot that advocates have been able to pass these laws. It gives me hope for other religiously-backed governments.

Although my frustration with Oromiffa has been brewing since the day I found out I was switching languages, I think I've reached a breaking point. My teacher is a really nice person, but that doesn't translate to teaching skill. Also, several of the counterparts we met a few weeks ago told us that they speak predominantly Amharic in their towns. We'll be working directly with government counterparts, and government work is conducted in the national language (that's Amharic, if my annoyance wasn't apparent). To add on the final straw, after today's lesson about shopping and bargaining, we went out into Wolisso (a town situated well within the Oromo region) to practice our new skills. I wanted to buy a pair of tennis shoes (a mission at which I was successful, no thanks to language class), so we visited a series of shoe stores. In not one of the shops did the clerk speak, let alone understand, Oromiffa. I just wanted to ask prices and haggle, and they couldn't tell me numbers. My host mother speaks no Oromiffa. My father does, but if he's home one night out of seven, I consider it a banner-headline week. So, I'm getting sub-par classes, no practice at home, and minimal practice in town for a language it may turn out I won't even need to understand. But, since I'm not learning Amharic, I'll be SOL when I get to my site and have to figure it out as I go along. A perfectly logical arrangement, wouldn't you agree?

On a cheerier note, it turns out Miranda, my neighbor volunteer with the alcoholic mother, used to read palms. We had an entertaining morning reading futures as we waited for training to start. I'll apparently have two significant romantic relationships, possibly marriages, and two boys. Success will come easy and all my choices will lead to a single destiny. I'm moderately cautious in love, but fall hard when I do. Sounds like things that could describe virtually anyone, but it was a fun exercise.

Will, you're fabulous - Sinead and Levi extend their thanks for the Cadbury that has brightened our Arrested Development/movie afternoons and the soup cubes are a welcome change from my mother's oil soup. Eight day arrival from the UK may be a record for a box delivered by the Ethiopian postal service. I don't think they're as quick on the outgoing mail, but everyone keep an eye on your mailboxes - I've been keeping busy with letter writing.

Wishlist:
-Bullion/soup cubes
-Dried fruit
-Cashews
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Peanut butter anything (reese's PB cups!)
-Blank CDs
-Gum
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Ramen noodles (oriental flavor)
-Books!

07 November 2007

everything all of the time.

Happy "UN-Peacekeeping troops-pull-out-of-the-Ethiopia/Eritrea-DMZ!" day!   Let's hope this all goes well.

 

It's come to my attention that the parent email list has resulted in some new readers.  Hi Randie's mom!  Hi Sarah's mom!   Hi to anyone else reading - we're all still alive and well!

 

Sorry about last week's downer post.  We were in a rut there, but we're coming back out.  Our language and culture facilitators put on a mock wedding and funeral to teach us about Ethiopian culture and traditions.   There're dramatic, let me just put it that way.  Wailing at the funerals, spirited dancing and singing at the weddings.   The best man's job is to wave the bloody handkerchief around town after the wedding night to celebrate the deflowering of the bride.  No blood can mean grounds for returning the bride.   American men, I'm sorry if I've ever suggested that a bachelor party with strippers was somehow demeaning to women.  I was wrong.  

 

We're doing our own "cultural exchange" next week.  We're thinking about a Superbowl party/tailgate, 4th of July, and Christmas extravaganza.   Mainly for the food, but those are also some of the most American holidays around. 

 

As a reward for making it four weeks, we went on a firenji field trip on Saturday.  They took us out to Wenchi Crater Lake, a beautiful mountain lake 40 km from Wolisso.   Ethiopian roads being what they are, that means an hour and a half roller coaster ride of a bus trip.  I never had motion sickness problems until I moved to the developing world.   To add insult to injury, the 2.5 mile road from the top of the crater down to the water is not bus accessible, so we had to hike to our relaxation site.   I briefly regretted not bringing tennis shoes to this country.  (That turned into serious regret the following day when I attempted to play basketball barefoot.   Whoops.)  Thank god for the horses on the way back up! 

 

But seriously, whining aside, it was a welcome respite from training.  A few lunatics went swimming in the frigid water, but most of us just relaxed on the shore.   To top off the evening, Peace Corps bought us all pizza at the lodge.  They're making a concerted effort to keep our fledgling program happy, and I must say, our love certainly comes cheap.   Our six repeat volunteers said they never had it this good.  If this program fails, it won't be because the volunteers left - we're still at 42 of the original 43!   (We are, however, watching the border situation closely.  We'll all be very far from Eritrea, no worries.)   We had a quick update before the field trip, and I will admit, I had a bad flashback to the hotel in Tel Aviv last summer. 

 

We got let out of Wolisso again on Monday for a trip to Addis for the day's training to meet with some people from Save the Children and CDC.  These busses and roads will be the death of me!   More exciting, however, was the firenji market near the hotel.  I didn't make it because I was distracted by mail (Mom and Grandma - I got the three letters but no packages.   Leah, you made my life!  Dad and Christine, the box was excellent!  Everyone else, your packages/letters haven't arrived yet.), but some people brought back cheese and chocolate.   Coupled with the hot and delicious buffet at the hotel we used for training, it all worked out to a pretty exciting afternoon. 

 

To top it all off, a fruit actually entered my house.  I got an orange with my oil soup for dinner that night.  I don't particularly like oranges (and they're especially strange here, since they're green, but still called orange), but it was fruit and I devoured it.   My kingdom for a banana. 

 

Word on the street among the firenji is that there is an Olive Garden restaurant in Addis Ababa.  I think we may all be projecting our desires on to our new home - I was pretty certain OG hadn't gone international yet.   Dad, can you look into that and let me know?  You have the potential to make or break 42 people's days. 

 

Seriously, someone send me a football.  We played basketball for firenji sport time on Sunday, and it wasn't pretty.  Footballs appear to be the only piece of sporting equipment you can't purchase in Ethiopia.   Figures.  Volleyball next week, so please hurry!

 

Wishlist:

-Small deflated football!

-Blank CDs

-Cheddar goldfish crackers

-Peanut butter anything (reese's PB cups!)

-Gum

-Kraft mac and cheese

-Ramen noodles (oriental flavor)

-Books!

31 October 2007

time is relative, or did you misread einstein?

For those familiar with the cultural adjustment curve, we're rapidly sliding out of the honeymoon stage.  Waiting for the internet the other day, someone expressed it best: "We're tired of always having to be 'on.'"   After training is over, we fend off the armies of children on the walk home only to have to continue entertaining our families with our language practice and other silly firenji behavior.   Being constantly amusing was fun in there for a while, but it gets tiring and dehumanizing - I understand the lives of zoo monkeys now.  My mother brought a neighbor over to stand in the doorway and laugh as I chopped an onion the other day, and no less than two other neighbors came over to watch me make my water (an elaborate chemical treatment/filtering process).   I don't speak much Amharic or Oromiffa yet, but I get enough to realize when I'm being talked about. 

 

Craving solitude isn't normal here, so there's no chance to simply sit and write a letter or read a book without a small child climbing on you or your family urging you to talk.  It's a fishbowl life in the most ridiculous sense of the word.  Couple that with food that is charitably described as interesting and the gastrointestinal difficulties that often follow (I've been spared thus far...knock on wood!), and it's a constant battle to stay on the bright side.   We've described it as a bipolar life - one minute you're feeling good, excited to be here, and then one little moment or person ruins your day and puts you in a funk.   Fortunately, we're all going through the same thing, so everyone's incredibly supportive and willing to listen to you vent or simply hug you, since, chances are, they'll be in the same place in a few days while you're on a high.  

 

Everyone says training is the hardest part of the Peace Corps, and they're absolutely right.  This (relatively) short time period with a finite end in sight feels transitional, so you tell yourself you'll be living independently, cooking your own food and living on your own schedule soon, but then you realize that's still almost two months away.   Then, you realize that independence also means being alone without the friends we've come to rely on for a break from the zoo animal life.  It's hard to believe we've all only known each other for a month - I suppose daily discussions of bowel movements help us bond quicker than is usually possible in the free world. 

 

But moving away from things that are less-than-cheerful (since I don't journal, this is my way of constructively venting), we're finding other ways to cope with cultural adjustment.   An informal recreation committee organized a massive game of ultimate Frisbee on Saturday afternoon, and although the firenji parade to the stadium attracted fewer followers than we'd expected, those who did find us were thoroughly amused.   Nan, one of our senior volunteers, taught some kids how to throw a frisbee while the rest of us played.  Living this high up is rough - we were all dying after the first game, so we switched to a three team rotation for a while, followed by one final, full-field sudden death match.   My team dominated, but I wasn't much help since my Frisbee skills are virtually nil.  I'm improving though - I even caught a few short passes.   I tried to explain the game to my host mother as American football with a plate, but she didn't seem to get it.  It was one of those David Sedaris-Easter-in-French-class moments.   Sadly, it seems none of us brought a football, so touch/flag games are out.  We're entertaining discussions of volleyball and dodgeball for future games.  

 

There's ice cream at the Nagash Lodge.  It's no Ben and Jerry's, and it's only available on weekends (which, apparently, do not include Friday nights), but it's ice cream nonetheless.   It's not great now, but ask me in a few months and I bet it'll be delicious.  There's also a pair of giant turkeys roaming the grounds of the lodge.   Not entirely sure where they came from, but with Thanksgiving fast approaching, we're discussing kidnapping them for a feast. 

 

Speaking of fat Americanism, I can now join the club of other volunteers who have had their families call them fat (usually only a few minutes removed from a conversation about how we don't eat enough).   While looking at my pictures from home, my mom and her sister laughed and pointed out how fat I was.  Seems the vast majority of us have had similar experiences.   Coming from a culture that teaches women to worry constantly about their body size and base a good deal of their self-worth on their physical appearance, it's been hard for all of us to deal with.   None of us are particularly large by American standards.  We told our language teacher that that was possibly one of the rudest things you could say to someone in the states, and she laughed and explained that it's a compliment here.   Not to capitalize on stereotypes or anything, but being "fat" means you're rich enough to eat regularly and hence are probably pretty healthy.   Thanks to many meals of watery oatmeal, however, I'm losing weight.  I don't care if fat is good here, I'm still an American conditioned against jellyrolls.  

 

Sharon, our beloved 66-year-old volunteer and surrogate grandma, was telling us about two of the young volunteers from her Lesotho group who ended up getting married after their service ended.   She's a big fan of PC weddings.  In her words, "I know you all are young and energetic and have needs.  It's important that you stay safe and get them from each other instead of taking risks."   We all almost died laughing.  I love Sharon.

 

Since we're not getting less interesting to the begging, screaming children, we're conspiring to find ways of amusing ourselves when they attack.  When they shout firenji, we respond with "habesha," which is the Amharic word for Ethiopian.   The kids aren't fazed, but their parents always laugh hysterically.  My friend Levi (a former college defensive lineman, to put this in perspective) likes to jump at them to scare them away.   He's the only one big enough to do it effectively, but it's amusing to watch for the rest of us.  It's a small victory, but at least most of them have stopped trying to touch us and are now satisfied with a friendly wave.  

 

I'd love a polling data update on the Presidential primary races.  (PS. Thanks Claire for the package - the Obama stickers were a big hit!).  If someone could post some recent numbers, I (and several others) would be eternally grateful.  College football updates are also welcome.  Letters too!

 

Wishlist:

-How We Are Hungry , Dave Eggers (little bro, that's your cue to start mailing your sister her books!)

-Powdered Gatorade mix

-Small football (deflated!)

-Blank CDs

-Cheddar goldfish crackers

-Peanut butter anything (reese's PB cups!)

-Gum

-Kraft mac and cheese

-Ramen noodles (oriental flavor)

-Books!