29 March 2008

the edge of your affection broke my skin.

Happy belated Easter! We all rallied in Adama Saturday night at a
guest house owned by a friend of ours, but were kicked out for a last
minute meeting of the Ministry of Police (unannounced for security
reasons). Taking pity on us, they paid for four hotel rooms and
bought us dinner. The following morning, we went to Debre Zeit for
the delicious Mexican food. I may or may not have overdosed on
cheese, but it was worth every bloated minute.

Despite an alarming (but unsurprising) lack of coverage in the
international press, Ethiopia and Eritrea are at it again. Media
access being what it is here, I don't know more than a bus blew up
near the border last week. Speaking from the ground, however, we've
been hearing planes flying over and there's a sudden surplus of
soldiers and police roaming the towns. We haven't quite reached
Israeli levels of automatic weapons on the street, but I suppose I do
live in a podunk mountain town. On the bright side, I'm at least two
days from the border and rumor has it Eritrea doesn't have an air
force that can reach Addis.

If political instability get boring, it appears Ethiopia is headed for
a drought year. Hence the recent inflation across the country and
whispers of another famine in the rural areas. Water cut out across
Assela for a few days this week, and they brought in a water tanker,
which resulted in hours-long lines to fill buckets. The gari
(horsecart) drivers have been making a small fortune since everyone's
dragging twenty-liter cans across town. On top of that, it appears a
great deal of our electrical power comes from hydroelectric sources.
Since there's no water, the electricity has been cutting out for
longer and longer periods. I used to be without for maybe a few hours
each week, that's now becoming several hours per day (or just several
days in a row). Usually in the middle of the day when we'd like to do
something like use the internet or just after sunset, in prime reading
time. Convenient. I'm just glad I shelled out for the propane stove
instead of going the cheap route and trying to rely on electric hot
plates. It's funny how we were all mentally prepared for no
electricity or running water, but since we ended up with it, we
maintained our American indignation about outages and shortages.

Apologies to anyone I ever ridiculed for liking Harry Potter. I read
all 700 pages of book 4 in one night. It's addicting. I understand
now. I still maintain my respect for a woman who can get kids excited
enough to demand their parents take them to a book store at midnight.
In a related development, I've also finished the Lord of the Rings
trilogy. I'm feeling more in touch with pop culture. On the topic of
literature, everyone should go read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
It's simply mind-blowing.

I am just nuts for the birds in this country! Seems like every day
there's some new species to amuse me, much to the amusement of the
Ethiopians. The postal service just released a new stamp featuring a
topless woman, so now would be a good time to write me if you want a
semi-risque stamp for your collection.

My shipments of coffee should be arriving soon-ish (some already
have). Let me know if it's good - if not, I'm sorry and you can just
blame it on the Ethiopian post, but if it's good, I'll do it again

Nick and Claire, got your mail - you guys are the best!

-Green, yellow, and red yarn (Ethiopia's flag)
-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Sour Jelly Bellys
-Those big marshmallow eggs with a thick sugary shell (not Peeps)
-Other rejected post-easter candy
-Twizzlers pull and peel
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Chocolate covered gummi bears
-Gummi anything
-Garlic salt
-Popcorn salt
-Dry pesto seasoning
-***SPF 15 body lotion
-Any other yarn

18 March 2008

not all those who wander are lost.

Mefloquin is a hell of a drug. Weird dream updates - Candace and I
were robbing a pastry shop and tried to hide in the bathroom, only to
be caught by another PCV who was working as a janitor. Candace had
one where we were at a buffet and started a fist fight with one
another over which variety of spring rolls to get. I also had one
about a team of cheese super heroes - you know, brie could change
shape, cheddar had knife powers, limburger had chemical warfare, and
mozzarella could be launched as a cannon. Then I had one about
shopping in Publix and buying out their stock of candy apples. Who
needs hallucinogenics?

So, at long last, I've started Amharic tutoring. Candace doesn't want
to learn to read and write, so we're doing separate classes. There
are 35 letters, each with seven forms, for a total of 245. Plus an
extra variation on 30 of the letters. And the widespread illiteracy
in this country is a mystery? This is like the early days of Arabic,
trying to sound out words like house and table. At least this is
following a more logical pattern - I haven't learned "United Nations"
yet but I can spell my colors.

On Friday afternoon, we did a training session with some commercial
sex workers. AfD put on a two day workshop for them, including family
planning, STIs, safe v. unsafe abortion, etc and we handled the HIV
and proper condom use section. I did my first condom demonstration in
Africa (well, besides during training), and not to be too culturally
observant/stereotypical, the Ethiopian penis model was significantly
darker than the Caucasian varieties I used in college. We had some of
the women practice afterwards, and at least one woman used her very
first condom. We had a great discussion with them about standing up
for their health in the face of reluctant partners. One woman's
husband had moved to another city but tried to come back to her for
sex. He refused to be tested, so she refused to put out. Damn
straight. For everyone who's never seen a condom or considered being
tested, there's another one who'll get riled up and launch into a
passionate defense of teaching children. Day-to-day frustrations
aside, that's why I'm here.

Then I remodeled my kitchen. My landlord wanted the kitchen cabinet
back, so I found a cheap table and bookshelf. Candace melted a hole
in my linoleum floor covering with a dutch oven our first week here,
so I also picked up some new stuff (Negash was very excited about my
replacing it on my own - he used to look at the hole in the floor with
disdain every time he was in my house). It took an hour to get the
old cabinet out of the house. I'm glad I passed high school geometry
- they were very impressed with my techniques of using the window
(wider than the walls) and turning the cabinet on end. He still
didn't trust me to measure and cut the linoleum, though - he looked
shocked every time the piece fit. Oh well. Now I have a shiny new
kitchen floor and a bigger countertop. We had to saw down the legs of
the table and take the door off the hinges to make it all happen, but
it's something to pass the time, right?

While attempting to remove the cabinet, Negash noticed the thyme on my
windowsill and asked, "Do you think that's a flower?" (he likes to
grow flowers outside). I tried to explain seasoning and herbs to him,
but he didn't believe that I really ate it. The basil was even more
confusing since it doesn't even have the sad little flowers thyme
does. He also doesn't understand why I would bother to bring
pineapples, zucchini, cucumbers, or broccoli (well, just that one
glorious time) back from Adama either - it's just a cultural aversion
to new fruits and vegetables.

Despite the missing rains, spring has sprung in Assela. Those famed
indigenous birds are chirping in greater number and there's a surplus
of baby animals running around. Mainly donkeys and goats, but also
the occasional kitten or puppy. I'm especially excited about the
birds - we have some crazy ones in town: electric blue finch-like
birds, mohawk-ed woodpeckers, and penguin-looking crows, to name a
few. To top it all off, my tortoise friend came back.

My compound temporarily adopted a cat last week. In a possibly
related incident, there are no longer rats living in my ceiling.
We're down to 38 volunteers in Ethiopia with two weeks until
in-service training. Easter's coming, which means all that delicious
Easter candy will be on sale in a few short days. I love Easter

A couple of photos from coffee roasting, plus my tortoise friend:

-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Sour cream and onion pringles
-Sour Jelly Bellys
-Those big marshmallow eggs with a thick sugary shell (not Peeps)
-Other rejected easter candy
-Twizzlers pull and peel
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Chocolate covered gummi bears
-Gummi anything
-Garlic salt
-Popcorn salt
-***SPF 15 body lotion

11 March 2008

it's going to be a glorious day.

Inflation is a bitch. I guess I never followed price increases that
closely in the US - when they're a few cents at a time, it's less
dramatic. But here, centimes are virtually worthless and everything
is measured in birr, so it's more noticeable. Or living on four
dollars a day has made me more observant (and still wealthier than
half the world, I might add). With gas prices on the increase (I'm so
glad I don't have a car!), everything has gone up - sugar, flour,
salt, bus rides... even cookies. I'm guessing stamps are next. Let's
hope our living allowance increases accordingly. Hint, hint to any
Peace Corps staff monitoring this blog.

I've noticed that much of my writing is tongue-in-cheek descriptions
of the less cheerful aspects of life here, and I promise I'm not
unhappy, just witty. Last Tuesday was a fabulous day, however. We
went down to the Assela Teacher's College to meet the dean, offer our
services, and find a tutor. It was a thoroughly satisfying meeting,
although we didn't secure a tutor until the following day. Since I
have almost complete freedom in my job (or lack thereof), he was very
excited about the prospect of two years of free labor. He introduced
me to the coordinator for the anti-AIDS club on campus, who's going to
set me up with an office on campus (about the size of my
living/bed/dining room, but with more windows) to start, and then
basically give me the run of the place. English teaching, HIV/AIDS
and health seminars, and whatever else tickles my fancy. I'm excited.
The office is next door to Andre, the VSO volunteer teaching computer
classes and currently attempting to wire the campus for internet.
That may be a pipe dream, but it could mean free internet. At this
point, I'll take not-expensive.

Sidebar: I don't know a whole lot about game theory, but I have vivid
recollections of the prisoner's dilemma. Essentially, life is easier
and more profitable if you work with other people (say soft drink
companies or internet cafes conspiring to keep prices artificially
inflated) instead of allowing competition to drive you into a price
battle, thus lowering everyone's profits. Ethiopians are still
grasping the finer points of capitalist business principles (showing
up on time, keeping regular hours, etc), but Assela internet cafes
(all three of them) have this one down to a science. They charge 40
centimes a minute, which works out to 24 birr/hour. That's
approximately USD 2.75, obscene by any standards (even in Europe it's
rarely more than a euro), but especially for Africa. In Adama, it's 6
birr/hour, meaning even with the fuel increases, I can ride a bus
three hours round trip and use the internet for an hour for four birr
more than it costs me to walk ten minutes down the road in my own
city. To quote a wise man, that just doesn't make sense. Well, it
makes perfect sense, but you see my point.

Returning to my happy day, on the way home, I had my first run in with
a real, live African wild animal (I'm not counting the semi-tame
monkeys at Negash, or the birds, of which there are many varieties).
Crawling through the gutter in front of my house was a giant tortoise,
three feet long and I'd guess in the 100lbs range. What's the point
of living in Africa if you don't get to see crazy animals sometimes,
right? On top of the close encounter, the bank received our monthly
allowance transfer, setting a new speed record for Peace Corps
bureaucracy. Finally, I went to the post office and got a delicious
package (thanks Dad!) and Candace and I discovered how to make
teriyaki sauce, thus broadening our culinary horizons. When you're
dealing with three vegetables, sauces become vital. All in all, a
lovely day.

Friday afternoon, we did a training/discussion session with Alliance
for Development's "community-based reproductive health agents,"
basically door-to-door sex educators. This was our first time with
people with actual heath training, as opposed to just basic prevention
education. We delved into more of the details of how the virus and
ARVs work, which was interesting. This being a group of more or less
health professionals, I finally abandoned possible cultural
insensitivity and asked how many of the group had been tested and knew
their status. Cultural values aside, it's an important question -
this virus will only be squelched if people lead by example. Imagine
my excitement when the entire group raised their hand without
hesitation. I love AfD. One guy also talked about his own CD4 count
before and after ART as a means of encouraging testing and treatment.
That takes courage, but what better place to end stigma than in a
group of educators?

The following day, Gizaw called me to come back to AfD because the
group wanted another Q&A about HIV. Candace was at the next town up
the road for an event with some orphans, so I had my first discussion
session flying solo. It was fun. Since she's older and has done this
before, I found myself deferring to her in joint sessions, making this
a great opportunity to step up and answer the strange, difficult, or
just flat-out ridiculous questions. (Does eating garlic cure AIDS?)
I was feeling good about myself, handling some hard questions and
knowing that they liked us enough to want us to come back. They even
asked me to hand out the certificates when they completed their
training, and invited me to come to their bimonthly coffee ceremonies
to answer questions from community members about HIV and general
reproductive health. Then Gizaw took me out to see the gardens at two
local elementary schools, where AfD is teaching kids to grow
vegetables and indigenous trees (for fun and profit!). When the
saplings are big enough, they're going to do a big tree planting day
in the deforested areas outside Assela. Sadly, I think that'll be
after my tenure, but the notion that it will happen is heartwarming

The maid on my compound was fired - I've been warned to not let her in
if she knocks on the gate. Not sure what happened, but I liked her.
She was always sweet to me and taught me random Amharic words. Like
tortoise. But, on the bright side, Negash said I can have the little
fenced in area in front of our wall for a garden. The ground is in
serious disrepair, so it'll be a big project, but the fence is intact,
which is a plus. Not like Ethiopians would want my strange
vegetables, but I'm confident the goats don't discriminate. I'm going
to start planting in mid-April, after we get back from our inservice
training. Apparently the little rainy season has been nonexistent, so
I don't want everything to die while I'm gone for two weeks. But, the
prospect of broccoli reentering my life is almost emotionally more
than I can handle.

On Sunday, Candace and I went with Children Aid to Dera, the dusty,
burning hot bump in the road on the way to Adama for an orphan
program. OVCs and their caregivers had graduated from a training
program, so there was a lengthy event with speeches, skits, songs, the
works. But, the high point for us (and I imagine everyone else) was
our presentation about HIV. Using a stuffed white blood cell and some
paper drawings of scary viruses and diseases, we illustrated how the
immune system works and how HIV affects it. We were so inspired by
this (and, let's admit, had a fabulous time acting out the battle
scenes - so what if we're four-year-olds at heart?) that we've decided
to create some more permanent HIV and disease models from yarn and
clay so we can improve the act.

I finally read CS Lewis's Mere Christianity. I'm thinking about
converting. And quitting Peace Corps to work on Mike Huckabee's
campaign. Dedicated readers of this blog may remember last year's
adventures in Jordan with al-Majali's fabulous textbook. While Lewis
has a far sturdier grasp of English (as well he should, being an
Englishman), I can't help but notice a startling resemblance in his
readiness to dismiss challenges as silly and unfounded, distort
opposing arguments in order to dismiss them in as smug and patronizing
a manner as possible, and make wild logical leaps. Even some of the
ideas presented are similar - homosexuality is a perversion, start
people on the easy parts of the religion before revealing the hard
stuff, sexual desire is detrimental to society, the importance of
accepting the religion in its totality. It lacks the blatant
anti-Semitism, fanaticism, and grammatical atrocities of Majali, but I
did laugh out loud at points. It's so silly to think I might not want
my husband to be the final authority. Me and that nutty notion that I
can be a complete person without a man looking out for me! I suppose
I'm just destined for hell. I think I'm okay with that. I'll take
the Chronicles of Narnia any day.

Speaking of hell and those who are going there - WIll, I got the next
installment. You're awesome. Ashley and Gordon, got your letters as
well. Love you guys!

-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Sour cream and onion pringles
-Jelly beans
-Sour Jelly Bellys
-Those big marshmallow eggs with a thick sugary shell (not Peeps)
-Cadbury eggs
-Malted milk balls
-Twizzlers pull and peel
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Chocolate covered gummi bears
-Gummi anything

03 March 2008

it's gonna take a lifetime to take me away from you.

Um...it's March already? Five months ago today I got on a plane,
landed in DC, and signed my life away to the Peace Corps. That feels
like it was yesterday, yet I feel like I've lived here forever.

Last Friday, we went to a HIV/health/hygiene program for OVCs and
their caregivers, put on by Youth 2 Youth, an anti-AIDS club (not
affiliated with a high school or college, a sort of AIDS-focused YMCA
or scout troop). Our friends at Child Aid Ethiopia, a local NGO,
invited us so we could meet the organizers, health department
officials who were there, etc. If this sounds like precisely the sort
of organization I should be working with, then you've been paying
attention for the last few months. Who should we run into at the
event but my boss, in the flesh? He seemed shocked to see me there,
probably because he realized this was the sort of thing he should have
told me about. Whoops. Thanks goodness for Child Aid and the other
NGOs, or I'd have even less to do.

Y2Y meets weekly, so we went back on Thursday afternoon for a coffee
ceremony/discussion (is anyone seeing a pattern here?) with a couple
dozen students aged 11-18. En route, I forgot I lived in Africa and
showed up early, so I got to talk to the organizers for a while as
they set up and prepared the coffee. It brought back fond memories of
Vox meetings in college - the group members are obviously all friends,
which makes for a more relaxed group dynamic. All our old roles were
filled - the token guy, organized leader, and even the shameless girl
who was singing and dancing, but probably would have worn the gator or
condom costume if that was an option. Ahh, memories.

Unfortunately, the english speaker was "late" (I spent 3 and a half
hours there, so I'm of the opinion that the "late" ship had sailed in
favor of the "not showing up" one), so I had only a vague idea of what
was happening, but the discussion seemed quite spirited. That fact
that kids were willing to sit for what turned out to be two hours of
discussion about HIV and sex with no giggling kept me interested, even
if I missed the salient details. The organization is doing some great
work - they have little compound with an office (someone's there every
day, manning the phone and office for clients), storage room, and a
garden/courtyard where they have meetings and events. It may be made
from straw and mud, but it's far nicer (and bigger!) than anything Vox
ever had at the Reitz. Ya'll should be jealous.

I had a dream about being in a grocery store marveling at the array of
broccoli in the produce section and trying to decide how many heads I
could conceivably buy and eat before they would rot in my kitchen.
The following night, I dreamt I was on a yacht making donuts with a
tall, dark haired, handsome stranger while sailing to Australia. I
also dreamt I joined the Army, but I think that was prompted by
watching Lions for Lambs. Speaking of food, it turns out you can use
unripe papaya in place of apples, but only if you cook them. We make
turnovers, saving a small fortune since papayas are 5 birr/kilo and
widely available, and apples are 8 birr each and only available
sporadically in Adama.

While splurging on some cornflakes at a local souk, the guy asked me
where I came from. Feeling spunky, I told him I was habesha
(Ethiopian) with a straight face. I had him going for a few rounds
before I lost it. He was amused.

Fun fact about American gluttony. La Vache qui rit (Laughing Cow)
cheese spread is available in Ethiopia, and since it doesn't have to
be refrigerated, it's been a lifesaver in keeping my cheese habit at
bay. The Ethiopian version (which is actually an imported European
one) is a 120g package, while the American version I got in the mail
is closer to 160g. Either way, it's delicious.

Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything, but a diatribe on the
resiliency of Ethiopian flies is necessary. In cartoons about
Ethiopia (most memorably, Starvin' Marvin in Southpark), people are
depicted with enormous flies crawling all over them. That's not a
Hollywood theatrical device. The flies here are bigger, louder, and
hardier than anything I've ever encountered. They don't respond to a
simple twitch or wave of the hand, either. They'll continue to crawl
over your skin until you actually make an effort to swat them. As a
result, Ethiopians have grown immune to the tickling sensation, and
the little bastards don't know when to quit. The only option is to
get used to them or go insane trying to fight them. The
probably-carcinogenic bug murdering aerosol spray is effective in the
home, but then they just wait outside the door and follow me around
town. At least there aren't mosquitoes in Assela.

How long would you guess it takes to clean, roast, and grind a kilo of
raw coffee beans? If it was a movie, it'd need a potty break in the
middle. Just over 3 hours. In a peace offering to my landlord, since
I usually refuse his food in the name of gastrointestinal tranquility,
I asked him and his wife to teach me how to roast coffee, Ethiopian
style, so I could send it to people back home. First you rinse the
beans several times, then roast them over a charcoal fire. The
charcoal burners are maybe 10 inches in diameter, so you can only do a
handful at a time, hence the long process. We roasted them with a
mysterious spice that I'm almost certain is cardamom, but may well be
something I've never heard of. The grinding is the most satisfying -
no electric grinders here, just a giant mortar-and-pestle. There will
be photos on facebook at some point in the not-so-distant future. If
you'd like some coffee next time I do this, write me a letter and
request some.

I went to the post office in Assela to attempt to mail my coffee
presents, where they were weighed, stamped, and on their way to the
mail bin when he caught a whiff of the envelopes. I tried to pretend
they were letters, but I think the pungent odor gave me away. Since
there's no customs official in Assela, all non-letters have to be
mailed from Adama. I sort of knew this in the back of my mind, but I
was trying to beat the system. I failed. But, I love my post office,
since he put up with my failed cunning and peeled off all of the
stamps without charging me for them. Then I signed for a registered
letter in Candace's name and picked up boxes for me (thanks
Stephanie!), Jolene, and Nod. He just thinks I have many names. And
even more friends, I suppose. TIA.

-Cheddar goldfish crackers
-Sour cream and onion pringles
-Jelly beans
-Sour Jelly Bellys
-Those big marshmallow eggs with a thick sugary shell (not Peeps)
-Cadbury eggs
-Malted milk balls
-Twizzlers pull and peel
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Chocolate covered gummi bears
-Gummi anything