Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm alive!

And I'm back in the US. And not living in San Francisco anymore! And we have so much to catch up on. But for now I need a little electrical shock or a blocker on all non-work related internet usage that reminds me "You're not on vacation anymore!"
P.S. They should really warn you at the coffee shop if you order a vegan cookie. I also ordered a latte, obviously I'm not vegan. I want a refund on the cookie and the calories.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The thing about dating in the US is...

no matter how awkward it gets, it's unlikely anyone's going to try to feed you. Gursha or feeding someone out of your hand is an Ethiopian custom. And one that I'm still trying to get used to. Injera is filling stuff and when I'm full and stop eating, it's not generally a sign that I want you to try to feed me. And I generally consider myself open to most cultural customs, as long as you can convince me that they're cultural and customs and not overly affectionate African men trying to fatten me up. But this, this is too much. That's not to say I don't find it utterly charming when the little kids at the orphanage I work with come and bring me bites of their food.

Ethiopian greetings and displays of affection are fascinating. A customary greeting is three kisses on alternate cheeks. When shaking someone else's hand or passing them something, it's respectful to hold your arm near the elbow to show the weight of the honor. If you want to shake someone's hand and their hand is dirty you might just grab the wrist. If both of your hands are dirty you just cross each others wrists, laying your forearms on each other. Couples rarely kiss, hug or hold hands in public. In general, the only people who hold hands while they walk down the street are straight men. Yep.

This is all to say that the Ethiopian people I have encountered here are incredibly open and warm and welcoming. The kind of people that would feed you off their plate, or what is the communal plate. This week I was looking for an office and popped my head into a small dimly lit shack. Inside were a group of women sitting around a table eating lunch. Without knowing who I was or what I was doing there, they first invited me to have lunch with them. This is the kind of hospitality I encounter on an hourly basis in Ethiopia. It's hard not to fall in love, even if I want to feed myself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

If photo upload was working right now, I'd put in a picture of the lovely fruit basket, or fruit and avocado basket- depending on your definition of these things, that arrived in my room this afternoon. The freaky thing was that I was in my teeny tiny room for about two hours before I noticed it. It just appeared out of nowhere.

And the stranger thing was that I then had to wrack my brain to figure out which one of my suitors might have sent me a fruit basket--- "George firenge" or "George foreigner" my expat pursuer? The night manager at the hotel who asks whenever I'm not at breakfast or in the bar in the evenings? Maybe the lab manager from work who keeps trying to feed me during lunch? Perhaps the nurse from the local health center who made eyes at me over the support group for HIV positive mothers? Ummm.... this NEVER happens at home. Never, never, never.

This weekend is full of data analysis, orphanage visits, spa appointments, and a coffee date with one of the mysterious African suitors. Me in a nutshell.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An update!

I'm still here (in Addis), still alive, still well, and still Giardia-free. Work continues to be interesting. Great, even. My Ethiopian social life is picking up steam to the point where I only spent like two nights in the hotel bar this week. The others were spent out on dates with boys I'm not interested in, fancy dinners with the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and going away parties for people I've met twice (but like a lot). Well, one of each of those things anyway.

Last Sunday was Easter and many a lamb was slaughtered. I grew up in a religious environment and was familiar enough with all those stories in the bible about various holidays and celebrations requiring the slaughtering of an animal. I have to say that I didn't give much thought to it until I came face-to-face with the half million or so sheep and goats brought into Addis to be killed for Easter festivities. That's a lot of sheep. Especially in a city without traffic signals and a city the size of New York. A lot of livestock wandering the streets. And this week? A lot of skulls and limbs left out to rot/be eaten by dogs/who knows. TMI?

Yesterday Ephrem and I hiked to a spot where people go to have their HIV cured with holy water. It turns out that we weren't supposed to be there. And we definitely weren't supposed to be taking pictures. I was pretty sure we were going to get our asses kicked. I'm going to intend on expanding on this experience in the near future- In the meantime, I'm so glad that blogger is working, but really wish that the internets would be spending their energy downloading the statistical software rather than permitting me to illegally post my thoughts. Thoughts like- now that I've finished Season Two of Mad Men, I'm going to have to re-learn how to read in my spare time.

More soon!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Censorship and Study Abroad

Last night I went out with the expat crowd. We went to some French pub and I had the best meal since I’ve arrived in Addis- leek tart and salad. I think I dreamed about it all night. It was interesting chatting with the expats and I’m pretty sure I learned more about Ethiopian policies in one night of drinking than in months of research. One of the things I learned that it’s not just my computer that gets access to blogs intermittently- they are actually blocked in Ethiopia. And Skype is illegal because it takes business away from Ethiopian companies. News you can use.

I’m pretty sure I’ll keep talking in this space when the webernet gods allow for it, but because both my employer and the government frown on it- I’ll be keeping most of my thoughts on the status quo here to myself.

Last night reminded me that working in international development can be a bit like an overgrown study abroad experience. Complete with late night clubbing- only the 3am pizza replaced with 3am shiro and injera. This morning I'm remembering that I'm no longer 21 and trying to keep the pace that I did in my early twenties doesn't feel so hot on my late twenties body.

There's an article in the New York Times today about how the differences between the have and have not's in Haiti is even more apparent after the earthquake. I agree that the differences between foreign aide workers and the intended recipients of this aide can be disquieting, but I think the starkness between economic classes is always more noticeable when we are outside our own homeland. I wonder if the author of that article had been in Haiti before the earthquake. Part of the article pointed to the influx of development and aide workers pouring money into the casinos, hotels and fancy restaurants in Haiti and wondering whether this money ways flowing down to those in tent cities. I think the same questions could be asked of any country with a large population of development practitioners, Cape Town comes to mind immediately as well as Addis- but I'm not talking about Ethiopia on here...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Running is dangerous these days

I’ve been in Ethiopia for four days now. Or a lifetime. Something like that.

Addis is a special subtle kind of overwhelming. At first glace it might seem obvious: poverty, dust, pollution, and spicy food. In the four days or four years I’ve been here I’ve only begun to recently notice other layers and implications and beauty. It also took me four days to notice that there are no traffic signals in the city. Hate waiting at red lights? Come to Addis.

While I work out of an AIDS clinic, a disease that has ravaged the population I’m working with- it seems that everything is coming to life rather than dying. There is construction everywhere- big cinderblock frames with bamboo scaffolding. Dusty paths being turned into paved roads. Most employed men I've met work in construction as day laborers.

I’m interviewing people about their employment and income, housing and other factors. The depths of the poverty we’re learning about are frightening. The survey had been modified before I arrived to include other variables that might not actually be useful to the study- but I’m discovering that these questions that ask people about their hopes for their careers and their families are an optimistic way to end our conversations.

I say “our conversations” but mostly it’s a lab tech that is proficient in English who does the interviewing in Amharic and me who interjects with follow-up questions. On the first day he was insistent that I learn how to say “thank you” so that I could personally thank each interviewee. Easier said than done. “Ameseghinalehu” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but I’m working on it- and five new words a day. Today was the much easier “ishi” or “okay”. The language here is more than just words and phrases. People talk with their eyes as much as their voices and their gasps. As far as I can figure gasp means both “yeah” and “okay” and “understand?” Amharic is a beautiful language and I find it incredibly soothing, so much so that I have trouble staying awake at times…

In the afternoons we go to the kindergarten to try to interview parents of the children. The vast majority of the children who attend these schools are orphans who live in orphanages and many of the rest walk home on their own- so I’ve been spending a part of each afternoon playing with the pre-school class who comes over from the orphanage for the school day. They are energetic, playful and sweet. Yesterday afternoon I was treated to a duet (complete with fancy footwork) by two pre-schoolers. Most was in Amharic but I could pick out “merengue!” and “cha-cha-cha!” with appropriate dance steps inserted. The younger girls called out requests for other songs and the boys were happy to play to their audience.

I also have a new BFF, the youngest pre-schooler from an orphanage run by the organization I work for. Neither of us can pronounce each other’s names so we call each other “Mary.” She started this cause she knows another white lady named Mary- so I think it’s her substitute for “firenje” or “foreigner” – the term people yell at me on my walk to work.

The view from my room

Most of my evenings have been spent in my hotel room trying to get websites to load and fighting jetlag. Last night I met up with some fellow expats for dinner. After just a few days here I’ve come to think of having a security guard and a housekeeper as a social responsibility and income-generating activity rather than a status symbol for expats.

Like most African cities, Addis has rolling blackouts and only the wealthy have generators. One of the expats was telling me about the power flickers at her gym and how the staff keep telling her “it’s too dangerous to run these days”, because she goes flying off the treadmill each time it stops.

For my own exercise needs, I made hiking plans with the new ex-pat friends today. I tried to tell someone at work today, only to have to explain what hiking was. “Walking. In the woods. For fun." More than just a foreign word, truly foreign concept here where only the poorest of the urban poor live in the woods.

In summary: I’m learning a lot, mostly about life and poverty but also about the stuff I was appointed to study while here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Three continents in 24 hours

After seven or so years of studying, dreaming about and working on programs in Ethiopia- I never thought I’d dread going. But, guys? Istanbul (or ‘stanbul according to the locals), I could seriously get used to that place.

Turkey is the first Muslim country I’ve ever visited and the religion and the culture are fascinating to me. The call to prayer every few hours sets a regular and audible reminder of the dominant religion. Women in full burkas shuffle through the streets alongside their counterparts in fashionable boots and designer coats.

Turkey is also incredibly fast changing, there is abundant free wi-fi, but people my age lament the loss of milkmen.

As a tourist you are incredibly visible and it is impossible to walk anywhere without hordes of men (beautiful dark, tall, blue eyed men) beg for your attention and your business. Their questions come at a rapid fire,“Excuse me? Can I ask you one question? Where are you from? What did you think of the mosque? How are you today? Would you like to come in and have tea?” It was a big success the day I counted more questioning in Spanish than English.

My first real experience of the Turkish charm was on the flight to Istanbul. I sat next to a Turkish man who owns several gourmet food shops in NYC. Throughout the flight he kept getting up and coming back from first class with an array dried fruits for me to try, cups of tea and suggestions on what to see in Istanbul. Thoughtful but he came on a bit strong. Such is the case with all the Turkish men I encountered.

Tea, or cai (pronounced “chai”) is everywhere. Each shop you go in, every social interaction, every meal starts and ends with tea. Men with carry trays from shop to shop delivering little glass cups of tea with two sugar cubes to each saucer. There are two main flavors: “Turkish tea” a black tea, and “apple tea” which is more of a hot sour apple flavored kool-aide of sorts.

They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, and Istanbul is the city that never stops eating. But in my experience, Istanbul is the city that never stops drinking. In addition to the tea in shops and the men selling tea from carts on the street, there are also big carts that freshly squeeze orange and pomegranate juice on demand.

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice several times a day- I told you I could get used to that place. Abundant bathhouses with cheap massages. Hookahs and backgammon. Finally figuring out just how good Baklava is supposed to taste. Ethiopia has a lot to compete with.