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.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First World Problems in the Third World

::Things that don't work outside the US::
1. Netflix streaming
2. Pandora
3. Youtube
4. Hulu

Guess I'll have to make friends in Ethiopia instead of hanging out with my BFF, the internet?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dad, your rug guy is totally stalking me.

Just kidding, my dad doesn't read my blog. But his rug guy is stalking me. Or courting me. Or trying to sell me a rug. Or all three. I like attention and textiles, so it's a workable relationship.

My parents came to Turkey last summer on a cooking tour. My mom came home with several new kebab recipes and my father with more rugs than floor space in his house. When I decided to stop in Istanbul on my way to Ethiopia my father offered to send some emails to acquaitances he had made in Turkey. After much online research I had selected what I thought would be the best hotel for me- only to learn that of the hundreds of hotels in Istanbul, this was the same one my parents had stayed in over the summer. It turns out that my dad's rug guy also happens to be the owner of the hotel. A few emails later and I had secured a room at the hotel for a reduced rate and was assured they were awaiting my arrival.

When I did arrive I was surprised to find that the guy at the front desk already knew my name. I didn't think too much of it, or think anything at all after my red eye flight. I was shown to my room and immediately crashed for several hours. When I woke up the guy at the front desk told me that Hamit, the rug guy/hotel owner had stopped by to see me. It wasn't until the next morning that I was able to piece together that I was the only guest at the hotel and that's why they were so sure of my name. It seemed a little strange until they walked me to breakfast at their neighboring hotel, then it seemed really strange. The sister hotel was entirely booked, and my hotel really was just that "my hotel". As in, I come and go as I please and there are full-time doormen and housekeepers. At the sister hotel I met Hamit, who showed me to breakfast on the terrace. I thought he was just showing me where to go, but it turns out he had been waiting to have breakfast with me. After breakfast I mentioned I wanted to go to the Topaki Palace, and he walked me there, told me where to have lunch and suggested I come to his shop for tea afterwards. After the Palace (which was awesome!), I blew off his suggestion to come back to his shop and went on a quest for shoes that wouldn't get me stopped on the street and asked what was wrong with my feet (apparently the Turkish don't understand my Spanish Ace bandage shoes either). This quest ended up with me in a mall in the suburbs, only to later observe that Converse are sold on every street corner in Istanbul. After an adventure on public transportation, I made my way back to the city and wandered through the Spice Bazaar and a few other tourist attractions. I spent the night in a tea lounge, drinking beers, smoking a hookah (or nargliegh as the locals call it) and losing backgammon games to the guy who works at the front desk.

This morning brought a mild hangover and the ill-effects of only three hours of sleep. After a lovely solo breakfast on the terrace, I came back and crashed for a few more hours. I woke up to an email from my mom, "Watch out for Hamit; he can be a very persuasive man, just ask your Dad! " I was beginning to get the feeling that my dad had really done something to win his favor. When I really think about it he is the most soft-spoken and least aggressive of all the Turkish men I have met thus far. In a classic "blowing off my mothers advice" move and feeling bad about blowing off Hamit yesterday afternoon, I decided to stop by his store. After tea and chatting I pulled out the photo I had of an inspiration rug. He the began pulling dozens of rugs from piles that almost reached the ceiling in his tiny (maybe 6' *12') shop and laying them out for my inspection. Having no real home to envision a rug in, I was shooting from my hip. What I did and did not like is really subject to my current whim. I picked a few favorites from the ones that did strike a chord with me. It wasn't until we started talking prices that I realized all the ones I really loved were at least twice what I'd budgeted for my homeless carpet. It wasn't til I was safely out of my price range that I got to feeling really lavish and picked out two rug that were much bigger and more expensive than I'd initially envisioned and even re-envisioned. Not wanting to make a rash decision and pick between the two, I decided to try to work my way out of the situation and come back tomorrow.

It kind of worked. Somehow me leaving turned into me leaving to go to the German Hospital on the other side of town with Hamit. He suggested that I could go with him and check out the neighborhood near the hospital- known for being the hip center of town. As we got closer to the hospital he convinced me to come with him while he dropped off paperwork and he would show me around. Being a public policy/health geek, I decided it would be interesting to come see the hospital. The hospital rivaled some of the nicest hotels I've ever been in. After waiting for half an hour or so for his paperwork to be completed, we walked through Beyoglu, a neighborhood that winds down the hillside. We stopped for coffee and I inquired about something on the menu called "chicken breast pudding." Big mistake. After a quick exchange with the waiter in Turkish, it was delivered to me for a special treat. Kind of like an especially glue-like gelatin tasting of cinnamon and chicken. We wound up our afternoon wandering through the spice market, walking across the Bosphorus on bridges crowded with old men fishing for sport and profit and Hamit telling me about his childhood as a nomadic tribe member. A priceless afternoon. Or maybe an afternoon worth the price of a rug?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fitting It All In

One of my favorite things about traveling is packing. Not just packing for like a long weekend away, but packing for multi-country, multi-climate extravaganzas. And I'm totally vain and prefer that it isn't immediately obvious from my appearance that I dressed out of my backpack.

The adventure I'm about to embark on will include:
-winter in NYC
-winter in Istanbul
-the beginning of the rainy season in Ethiopia
-the end of the rainy season and resumption of the heat in Tanzania
-end of spring in NYC
-beginning of summer in DC

I also refuse to bring more than one bag with me; must have room for plenty of textiles on the way back; and on the way there I need to make room for the $35 worth of granola bars, fruit snacks and trail mix I bought last weekend (yes, the Trader Joe's checker did give me that look that silently expressed concern/disgust with my nutritional habits and/or cooking skills). I will be living in a hotel in Ethiopia and don't want to rely on hotel food meals three times a day.

In order to minimize the space that some essentials are taking, I went to Lush to load up on beauty products in bar form. I'm now on day three of a shampoo bar/blow dryer free hair style test run. Results are not pretty.

Other newly-acquired essentials include two pairs of Action Slacks and a black fleece. In my opinion a black fleece jacket is a dangerous clothing item. It's so practical! It works in a variety of weather situations. It's the kind of thing I will wear constantly, but it's never fashionable, flattering or exciting. Others feel similarly about my new black flats with a wide ACE Bandage strap across the arch of the foot, though I maintain that they're a Spanish brand and my loved ones just don't understand such sophisticated style.

I was second-guessing my new shoes and contemplating switching them out for something more neutrally appealing until I read an article on the ethics of collecting data with orphans and vulnerable children internationally. The article talks about how what seems like simple data collection can bring up sensitive subjects for children and one example they gave was collecting data on whether or not children have shoes. It suggested silently noting whether the interviewee was wearing shoes or not rather than directly asking them. This guideline helped bring it all home for me- why I'm going to Ethiopia and how very unimportant it is what my shoes look like and how very fortunate I am to have a choice of shoes to bring with me. Though I'm struggling to make the best clothing choices and make everything fit in one bag, it's a luxury that my wardrobe is bigger than my backpack. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of privilege that I'm about to confront. Watch out.

(Even so, I promise that there will be still be some of the regularly scheduled First World naval gazing on this blog.)