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!

27 October 2007

bananas and monkeys.

My family's TV went on the fritz last Wednesday (two neighbors, my dad's brother, and my flashlight determined that it was a blown fuse), so we've been without evening entertainment for a week now.  Not such a strange situation for me, but my family's had a hard time coping.  At least I'm less freakish for going to bed at 830.  With nothing to watch, so does everyone else.  Without the functioning TV, I'm also temporarily off the hook for more traditional dancing. 

I made friends with some of the neighborhood kids by playing ball in the front yard last week.  We started with soccer, but with the fat American as the goalie, the game was less fun for the kids, so we switched to volleyball/monkey in the middle.  We were playing with a long-deflated soccer ball, so I borrowed another volunteer's pump (brilliant thing to pack!) and became a hero the following day when I re-inflated the ball.

As the day-to-day routine of training, sub-par food, and awkward silences at home settles in, we've taken to the Negash Lodge, the fancy hotel/restaurant/hot springs/swimming pool in Wolisso.  After several frightening lectures on the myriad diseases we can catch from African freshwater, we're avoiding the pools, but for 5 birr (~$0.50) you can take a hot shower, which is virtually orgasmic.  Plus, there are two species of monkeys running loose on the grounds, which makes for endless amusement.  A few people were having lunch there last weekend, stopped eating their pizza for a brief moment, and a monkey leaped on the table and stole a piece.  This is Africa.

Training is a tedious process, but we got a break from powerpoint slides and AIDS information on Monday and Tuesday when our future counterparts and supervisors came into town for a visit.  Sadly, it was badly organized and we each only got to meet a handful of the twenty or so representatives from each region.  Regardless, it was nice to finally talk to people in the specific towns in which we'll be working.  They're all much larger than we thought - seems we'll be in small cities and towns in the neighborhood of 50,000 people up to almost 200,000.  No tiny rural villages, which I consider a major disappointment, but we'll still be working in them and by living in the towns, we're more likely to have electricity and/or running water.  Win some, lose some.

I didn't have to go to church on Sunday, so I spent the morning knitting and reading.  I got two bananas when Simret's sister came over for a visit, which was the first time I'd seen fruit inside the walls of my house.  Then we went to Grandma's house for two hours of Orthodox choir music videos, interspersed with energetic commentary about the beauty of the Orthodox religion.  Simret's been confused since I told her I'm not religious, so I think she's hoping to swing me over to the land of icons.  During the videos, however, I did get a third banana, which helped ease the awkwardness.  I feel like a pet being rewarded for good behavior. 

Last week, I traded my friend Levi a deck of Florida playing cards for a wind-up toy airplane since I live with babies and his siblings are too old to be living at home (by American standards, anyway), let alone playing with toys.  I gave it to Sarah and Zacharas Sunday night after the music video bonanza.  It was like I'd turned them loose at Disney World after hours.  Sarah was so excited she peed all over the floor.  Then she removed her pants, left them in a wet pile, and continued chasing the plane around the living room.  Seems Ethiopian children don't wear underwear.

I learned to make firfir (or fitfit), a classic Ethiopian dish we've dubbed "injera with a side of injera."  It consists of chopped up pieces of injera (the spongy bread) mixed with oil, berbere (the ubiquitous Ethiopian spice), onion, and more oil.  Then, you eat it with injera.  It doesn't really qualify as good, but now I can make it.  Simret and her sister were amazed at my ability to chop an onion and saute it.  After surprising everyone with my ability to handwash my laundry correctly and make injera, I'm apparently well on my way to becoming a proper Ethiopian wife.  My family keeps introducing me to various Ethiopian men my age, but I think I'd rather join a convent than spend my life in a kitchen.  Don't get me wrong, I love cookie dough as much as the next person, but I think I'd also enjoy policy making. 

My host father accidentally walked in on me while I crouched naked on the bathroom floor, trying to shave my legs during my bucket bath.  I'm not sure he'd ever seen a naked firenji before.  He seemed pretty traumatized.

A short anecdote to illustrate the thrill of mail days:  I stopped by training HQ at the hotel on Wednesday to check for mail since our medical officer had come in from Addis (to give some of us the tetanus shots we'd missed, which was a day ruiner).  I didn't have any mail, but my friend Sinead (shin-nade, like the bald singer) got a letter from her boyfriend.  She'd bolted after lunch to beat the internet crowd and hadn't seen it, but by the time she went to the hotel two hours later, no less than eight people had sent her text messages to tell her about the letter and a dozen more had told her face to face.  News travels just a hair slower than the speed of light.  So does the gossip, which also keeps everyone amused.

I'm posting via email, so respond with comments so I know posts are making it.  I'd love a Gator football and/or electoral politics update, in addition to those much-appreciated letters and/or care packages. 

Wish list:
-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Chewy chocolate chip cookies
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Dried fruit
-Peanut butter anything
-Gummi candy
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Gum
-Ramen noodles (oriental flavor)
-Books!

20 October 2007

ethiopia kunjo (is beautiful).

I live in Ethiopia! I'm still getting used to the notion - as we're
walking through town, we occasionally stop to remind each other.
Usually after stepping in a fresh cow pie to avoid an approaching
donkey, but such is life. We spent three nights in Addis Ababa for a
crash course in PC policies and the myriad ways you can injure, maim,
or kill yourself in Africa, topped off with a host of injections to
inoculate us against such fun diseases as typhoid, yellow fever, and
rabies. A few of us played a roundtable game in which we took turns
naming ways we could die in Africa, but we got bored before we ran out
of scenarios. We've also been on malaria drugs for two weeks now, and
although we've all had some vivid dreams (I had one involving a
Yorkshire terrier being executed by a police officer), no one's
hallucinating yet.

We moved to Wolisso, our training site and home for the next ten
weeks, on Wednesday night. We're all staying with local families for
total language immersion in a community that looks like we imagined
Africa - livestock and chickens roaming freely on the dirt streets,
stick-and-dung huts, and of course, the small armies of children
shouting "firenji!" (foreigner) as they clamor to touch us. The
novelty of that is rapidly wearing off. The community is well served
by municipal facilities, so we all have electricity and most of us
have running water, a situation that disappointed most and, I think,
illustrates the masochism present among those who join the Peace
Corps. Since most of our sites will be entirely rural, with no
electricity and most likely only well water, not even pumps, we were
hoping to transition ourselves to latrines and bucket showers. Alas,
it's TVs in every home and in my case, a western toilet (that doesn't
flush) and a (icy is an understatement) shower. A few of my friends
came over on Saturday afternoon (after escaping a gang of pinching
children in the market), and after they left, I told Simret how
jealous they were of my luxurious shint beyt (bathroom) because they
had outside latrines. At least, that's what I meant to say, but since
I was using an elaborate pantomime and a smattering of Amharic words,
there's no way to know for sure. She seemed happy though, and told
her husband about it when he got home later that night, so I think the
message got through.

In addition to the facilities I wasn't expecting, my family also
includes two toddlers, ages two and four. Those who know me well are
already amused. After two awkward nights of laughing and staring at
each other, I bought their love with some crayons and paper.
(Incidentally, my love is also for sale, for the low price of a
letter. But not cards, I can write my own cheesy poetry!) For
children who often play with plastic bags tied to string, it was a big
hit. Zacharas, my four-year-old brother, was playing in the yard next
door when Simret, his mother, called him inside to get his present.
He broke the gate when he ran full speed into it, thinking it was
open. The daughter, Sarah, finally noticed my existence as more than
a silly nuisance and even sought me out after I went into my room that
night. Then, the next morning, Simret made me a hot bucket shower.
Score one for me. With the shots out of the way, ten weeks with
babies will be my biggest challenge.

Although the language barrier is intense (my family speaks only a
handful of words in English, few sentences), I at least retain the
ability to be thoroughly amusing. I told my host mother (in Amharic)
that my head was full (in the food sense of the word) from class, and
she was in stitches. My attempts to act out new words are similarly
amusing. Demonstrating my knowledge of the words for breast and butt
guarantees a laugh. My crowing achievement to date, however, was an
evening learning traditional dances from music videos. After nine
years of ballet and five of winterguard, I'm a pretty quick study at
the technical side, but anyone who's seen me attempt hip-hop knows
there's a certain je ne sais quais required to actually look good
doing new choreography. Fast-paced, jumpy dancing plus (milky white)
cups that runneth over equals bouncing hilarity. They were impressed,
however, with my ability to master the complicated footwork. I think
it makes up for my not eating meat.

Amharic is as hard as I expected it to be, but I've been doing well in
class because of my Arabic background. A handful of words are
identical and others are clearly related, but more importantly, I'm
used to Semitic structures. Others are better at regurgitating
greetings and phrases, but I'm quicker at recognizing patterns and
making new sentences. My family likes to help at night, reviewing the
words I've learned and playing the "point to something and name it"
game, so I'm feeling confident about not being entirely incompetent in
this language. I've also never spent this much time outside of class
actually doing work (I hope my former Arabic teachers arenít reading
this!), so that's a plus. Unfortunately, we're not learning to read
and write - the fidal (alphabet) system is extremely complicated, so
they decided our ten-week course was better served with spoken
language. Illiteracy is killing me, so I'm going to try to pick up
what I can on my own and get my language teacher to help me.

On Friday, we spent the afternoon doing a "community mapping" exercise
to prepare us for the one that will eventually become part of our
emergency evacuation plan once we move to our sites. For those
worried about my being kidnapped or caught in an Ethiopia-Eritrea
border war, this should make you feel better. In addition to mapping
such locations as the closest place for a small plane and helicopter
to land (the asphalt road and handball court, respectively), we were
also required to visit and speak with the local police and government
officials. As though forty some-odd foreigners weren't inherently
obvious, now they REALLY know we're here. More importantly, the
exercise illustrated a common stereotype about Ethiopia - people are,
in fact, ridiculously friendly and helpful. Even in our broken
Amharic, there was no shortage of people ready to walk us to our
location and introduce us to the local officials. Our families walked
us to and from language class (no more than a few minutes away, since
we meet in small groups at people's houses) and training for the first
few days, and even now, still offer in case we haven't learned the way
yet. I'm two turns off the asphalt road (yes, there's only one), so
even I can find my way home now.

Eating is a big part of Ethiopian culture (spare the famine jokes!) -
the major meals revolve around injera, a spongy, sour, floppy flat
bread that looks like a cross between naan and tortillas and tastes
nothing like any grain I've encountered. Food is eaten without
silverware - instead, you tear off a piece of injera and use it to
scoop up food or leftover sauces, placing it in your mouth without
letting your fingers touch your tongue or lips. It's a bit of an art,
but my eating skills warranted a surprised compliment from the mayor
of Wolisso at our welcome reception, as well as one from my host
father. I think it's the polite Ethiopian way of calling me a fat
American, but I'll take what I can get. I got to pour the batter onto
the hot plate on Tuesday to make the injera. It wasn't pretty, but
she was amused, so maybe I'll get to try again soon.

I went to church on Sunday. For two hours, beginning at 7 AM. Wow.
I'm pretty sure I haven't been in a church since the Vatican in May
2004, save a lecture at the coffee shop side of one in Gainesville,
but I don't think that counts. It's all in Amharic, usually sung, and
everyone (except a few special people - maybe the elderly?) sits or
stands outside. It's just as I remember Catholic mass - kids
fidgeting and looking around, waiting for the doughnuts. Except in
Ethiopia, there are no doughnuts, just a hike up a mountain to visit
the site of the old church. I gathered that it was a special
anniversary trek, not a weekly activity. The collection box goes
around frequently, of course, and, as usual, I was amazed by its
power. Mothers standing there with their coughing, hungry, shoeless
child, dropping their last few birr for the week into the box. I
quasi-understand the notion of religion as a source of hope in a hard
life, but I just don't think I'll ever really get it.

EDIT: Due to internet struggles in the last few days, this post has
gotten progressively longer. Posts won't be that common, so at least
there's some consolation for you. Although I was dominating my
Amharic class there for a while, I'm a complete novice again starting
Monday. We received our regional placements on Friday, and it turns
out, despite essays and interviews expressing my profound interest in
learning Amharic and being placed in the Amhara region, I'll be
working in the Oromiya region. That means I'll be learning Oromiffa,
an easier, Latin script-based language that's only spoken in the
region, as opposed to Amhara, which is the national language and
understood across the country. I was pretty pissed and disappointed
all afternoon, but I've since discovered that PC will reimburse us for
tutors if we want to learn Amharic, so I'll not only walk away with
two languages, I'll have a private tutor and will hence be able to
learn to read and write. Plus, all the monkeys are in Oromiya. As is
the fruit, something my family doesn't appear to know about. I'd kill
a man for a banana. Always a silver lining, though, I suppose.

I haven't shaved my head yet, but there are a few of us planning to,
so I've at least rallied a few comrades for the cause.

There are two internet cafes in town, with one computer each, and 42
PCVs trying to use it between the end of training and dark (this
really is kindergarten - have to be home before sunset since there're
no street lights!), so my original vision of weekly internet access
may have been a pipe dream. I'll do my best to update the blog, but
since it takes 10 minutes to load each message, I won't be responding
to email. Just write me letters (address to the right)! The service
is excruciatingly slow dial-up, so posting pictures will not be an
option. I may be able to burn them to CD and mail them to someone to
post for me periodically, so let me know if you're interested. I've
written a few letters, so watch your mail. Not too closely though,
since they'll take a few weeks and it'll take me a while to get to
everyone. Feel free to send one of your own in the meantime though!

Letters take 1 week to 10 days judging from everyone's postmarks, and
packages have gotten here in as little as 2 weeks, although 3 is more
likely. All in all, mail service doesn't seem to be as bad as I
anticipated. I also have a cell phone here - the number is posted on
Facebook and was sent via email to immediate family, so ask around and
spread the word.

Things you can send me to make my African life that much better:

-Letters!
-Gummi worms (or similar non-melting candy)
-Peanut butter
-Gum
-Dried fruit (mango, cranberry, pineapple, etc)
-Reese's pieces/Peanut butter M&Ms
-Ramen Noodles (oriental flavor)
-Kraft Mac & Cheese (just the powdered cheese packets if it's easier,
I can get pasta here)

For my family:

-Coloring books
-Squishy/Nerf-esque balls
-Saltwater taffy

PS. If you were interested in having your class penpal with me, go
ahead and have them write to me about whatever you so desire (thanks
Kimberly for already sending me mail!). I'll respond accordingly! If
I haven't already registered your class, go to www.peacecorps.gov and
find the World Wise Schools section to register your class with me so
you can get curriculum materials. My address is to the right and I'm
a health volunteer in Ethiopia.

06 October 2007

a piece of the puzzle.

Eight hours until we're on a plane for Addis Ababa (via Rome, but sadly not long enough to get off the plane for a final gelato!). Staging was a pretty standard orientation process - safety speeches, talking about "unwanted attention" (Jordan, anyone?), cultural adjustment, development, and meeting the group. The Director of the Peace Corps and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (henceforth RPCV) who now serves in Congress came by to speak to us, which is apparently quite exciting. The Director is also coming to our swearing in ceremony in December (after training), which is an even rarer event. Hooray for being special!

The group of volunteers is pretty amazing - tons of interesting people. There are 43 of us, 35 women and 8 men (not representative of PC in general, which is 59-41, women in the majority). Two married couples, at least two over-50 volunteers, six repeat volunteers (one of whom is over 50 - talk about a badass grandma!), two former military (both female), and, most importantly, two Gators! We're all getting along really well, going out at night, and generally bonding over the toilets and good food we're not going to have for two years.

The only downer so far has been today's trip to the clinic, as many of you know how I feel about shots. But, on the good side, I'm now vaccinated against yellow fever and polio, with many more to come on Monday, our first "real" day in Ethiopia. We're all starting our malaria medicine today, too, so hopefully we'll all be hallucinating together on the plane tomorrow.

We leave on Saturday evening (just in time to miss watching the LSU game, so someone email me scores!), refuel in Rome, and land in Addis Sunday evening. We're spending two days in Addis at a hotel for shots and meet-and-greets with our country staff, and then we're moving to Wolisso, a small town about 100 miles outside Addis for our community-based training. We'll be living in Wolisso with homestay families for 10 weeks then being sworn in December 15 and moving to our permanent sites a few days later. No, I don't know where my permanent site will be yet! We'll interview at the end of training to talk about placement, and a few days before we move, we'll know for sure. I probably won't have time for internet in Addis, but apparently there are cafes in Wolisso, so I'll try to post something every few days to keep everyone updated. Hope all is well in the free world!

02 October 2007

this is really happening.

My life, condensed into three bags (and a tripod). Checked luggage weighs in at a cool 79.5 lbs. We won't talk about the carry-on. It's finally here.


I did it. I chopped off my hair. It's all gone. I feel naked.


Three days in DC, two months in Addis Ababa, then off to my site for two years. After a year of applying and paperwork, it's hard to believe I'm actually leaving. Holy crap! Ethiopia, here I come!

Interesting NYT editorial.