11 May 2008

3500 miles away. what would you change if you could?

Happy (belated) birthday to me...

Being white in small town Africa is like what I imagine it would be to
be born either stunningly beautiful or horribly disfigured. Everyone
makes no effort to disguise their blatant staring, whispering,
pointing, laughing in an unabashed way that suggests that, to
compensate for your striking appearance, you had been denied the
faculties of seeing and hearing. Some days this is ceaselessly
amusing, other days it makes you want to hide in your house and read
Russian literature.

In-service training was long, but it was fabulous to see the other
volunteers and swap stories. The hot showers were great, but we were
all excited to get back to site by the end - talking to other people
about work and life gave us new motivation to push past the
difficulties of working in a bureaucratic system and start the new
projects we all inspired in each other. I've been riding a new high
back at site trying to get projects off the ground. A group of us
also watched the first three seasons of Grey's Anatomy in their
entirety, and I'd like to extend my apologies for ridiculing fans of
the show - it's great. If anyone wanted to burn the fourth season and
mail it this way, I wouldn't object...

Over the course of a three-day weekend in Addis producing our new
volunteer newsletter, I managed to almost lose my camera, lose and
recover my flash drive (after a two week delay, hence the long hiatus
in blog posts), and permanently lose my sunglasses. But, I also
discovered great pizza and salads and went to the movie theater, so
all was not lost.

We (half the Rift Valley zone) spent Ethiopian Easter weekend in
Harar, the fourth holiest site in Islam, which seemed a fitting choice
for an Orthodox holiday weekend. Since I'm technically banned by
virtue of my gender and heathen status from the top two, I think this
is the best I can do for now. The actual site is a small shrine to a
famous imam, a bit disappointing visually if you lack faith, but we've
now made the pilgrimage popular among those who can't afford Mecca.
The city is very different from the rest of Ethiopia - it's
predominantly Muslim, and the historic walled section feels more like
Jerusalem or Chefchaoen (Morocco) than Africa proper. There's a
definite Arab flair to the town, most obviously seen in fetira, the
delicious Yemeni bread (and of course, the occasional 'salam alekum').

We spent the weekend posing as Slovakian missionaries (Slovakian to
account for the whiteness but avoid the rich American stereotype, and
missionaries to stave off the creepy men). Sinead and I had a
detailed conversation with a police officer about Bratislava
(fortunately I spent two days there once) and how the breakup of
Czechoslovakia was like Ethiopia and Eritrea. On our tour of the
Harar Brewery (the best of the Ethiopian beers), we discovered that
the factory had been built with help from the Czechoslovak government
under the Derg, which explains why everyone had heard of our adopted

Harar's most famous tourist attraction (at least for infidels) is the
quasi-tame hyenas that gather on the edge of town every night for
feeding. A group of "hyena men" know each hyena by name and feed them
strips of raw meat from their mouths and hands. Of course, they
encourage the tourists to join in the fun. I've now communed with
hyenas, and I must say, for such an absurd-looking creature, they're

One of the VSO volunteers left yesterday, so we combined my birthday
with her going away party for a gluttonous feast last week. We
introduced the teacher's college language department to the wonders of
chocolate fudge cake, American style. Eshetu, my tutor, was so
enamored of it that he scraped the pan clean. That's what I call
sharing cultures. The two-year-old girl at the party, however, wanted
nothing to do with the gummi worm garnish. She wouldn't even let it
touch her cake. I guess some things can't cross borders.

Fun Amharic fact: when you describe something pretty, small, or you
feel a fondness for, you use the feminine. If it's big, strong, or
anything else, you use the masculine. If something is both (like a
big, pretty house), masculine prevails. In Ethiopia, women are
expected to defer to men in all situations. I should have been a
psycholinguist. This fascinates me. On a related note, Ethiopia is
always feminine because Ethiopians love their country.

It seems the whispers of drought were premature (at least for Assela)
- it's been raining almost constantly for a week and the temperature
has dropped some twenty degrees. Good thing I've been knitting those
scarves. This is putting a strain on my supply of clean clothes,
however, since the rain hasn't stopped long enough for them to dry.
My living room (and by living room, I mean entire house) is covered in
wet clothes.

Photos: coming soon.

Matt, Will, Kimberly, Stephanie, J^2, Caitlin, Dad, Grandma, Mom, and
Rhonda, thanks for the recent influx of postal love. Nothing like
checking your PO box after a three week absence - I love you all!

-Books (especially):
...Martin Amis, The Second Plane, other novels
...David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
...Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan
...Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
...Peter George, Red Alert
...Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza
-usual snacky foods

1 comment:

James said...

Good to read some stuff from you Jess...hope life is well. If the offer to visit is still on the table, I am totally will to take it, just let me know...