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

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