A Travellerspoint blog

Visitors of my very own

NOV 20, 2009

I’m listening to the most awesome rat fight right now. It’s happening just two feet above my head in my ceiling space which is essentially just a canvas tarp held up by widely latticed wood strips. This means that as these rats duke it out I am not only able to hear every high pitched squeak they make but also see their little feet run around as they slam each other about. It’s truly magical.

Buna time!

Buna time!

So, my parents were out in Ethiopia recently. In the last fifteen years I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about my parents in the plural. Actually I think I can only remember them in the same room a dozen or so times since I graduated middle school. Not that they don’t get along. For a divorced pair they actually get along quite well; but having a friendly conversation on the phone every now and again is much different than spending a week together in a third world country. I’m not going to lie, I was scared. Scared that they would drive each other crazy, scared that the stress of life here would throw them into a silly spat, scared that I would be put in the middle. I should have had more faith. They got along great.

My mom, Marsha, flew in on the first of November and after a Rasta filled day in Addis celebrating Haille Selasslie’s 79th coronation anniversary we headed up to Bahir Dar (by plane! High class!) to check out the Blue Nile falls. The Blue Nile falls are the product of Lake Tana and the beginning of the Nile River. A few years ago the falls were partially damned up in order to create a hydroelectric plant which resulted in an increase of electricity (which is mainly sold outside of country) but unfortunately limited the Falls to about 1/3 its natural size. Regardless, the diversion doesn’t deter from the Falls beauty. If I were to describe the Falls in one word it would be ‘Eden’. After a 20 min walk from the main road you stand directly in front of the Falls, surrounded by far off hills that roll into green valleys cultivated intermittently by corn, wheat and teff. There are no big buildings, only a speckling of grass huts and tin roof structures. The greens are greener, the browns browner, the blues bluer. It’s where life could have and should have begun.

Next stop was Gondar, my favorite Ethiopian city. It has an old feeling about it that I crave; most of the buildings are made of stone, horse drawn buggies rule the road and the city centers around an ancient castle compound. But I never really understood Gondar until I traveled up to the highest hotel in the city...no idea of the name now. Poised on a high hill overlooking the city it becomes immediately apparent why ancient kings would choose this place to settle. 20km or so off to the South you can see Lake Tana, not overly opposing but definitely close enough for fishing adventures. From the South vast mountain ranges stretch East and West enclosing a beautiful lush valley in which the heart of Gondar lies. Sitting up there, ignoring the obvious fact that at that moment I was a “tourist”, I felt like I got it.

After Gondar we headed back to Addis. My dad, Rick, had flown in the night before and graciously had been taken out by my friend, Fikre aka Fookie. We met up at a local hotel and strangely enough I felt immediately at ease. My mom and dad got along great. In fact their experience, being in a new and different country, seemed to bond them or at least level the playing field. For the first time I was watching my parents ‘be’ together. I was too young when they divorced to really remember them together and even seeing them together as traveling buddies was nice for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type that wants to see their parents rekindle a long forgotten love. I actually enjoy my parent being apart. I can’t even imagine them being together again. They are both too amazing in the same ways. I guess that’s why I turned out so perfect (wink, wink).

The next day we headed out to Ambo, the place of my Pre-Service Training where I lived with a host family for three months. For me this was a big deal. Ambo was a big deal for me. It was a place I struggled to figure out how to fit-in in this place I would live for two years. After the first trip to my host families house my dad said “ I just don’t know why we’re here?”… This made me smile. He was uncomfortable, just like I had been for three months. Nothing made sense, the normal meet and greet was not the same as a Western meet and greet… it was packed with language barriers and awkward silences… it was my life with my host family. It wasn’t always fun, but it was. (Period)

After Ambo we all headed out to Arjo. I felt a bit bad for my dad. He was only going to experience life out West for a day or so but was going to have to endure the 10+ hour bus ride back and forth. Both my parent were troopers though, hanging through multiple tire changes and insane drivers. And the next day when we arrived in Arjo they hit the town with the enthusiasm that only hard working Americans can have. ‘Bring it on…I’ll fix it!’

When my Dad had to leave the next day it was pretty hard. Even though I knew I would have my mom for another two weeks it was still difficult to let someone go. Someone from the ‘real world’., someone who represented what I use to have, how I use to live, my past happiness…did I really want to say goodbye to that again?

The next two weeks for me went by in a blur. My mom seemed to fit right into my life. In the morning we woke up, fed the chickens, she would make breakfast and we would head off to work. We would eat lunch together, visit friends. We just lived together…it had been a long time since I lived with someone. It was nice. I don’t think it was as easy on her. Fetching water from the river, cooking on my small gas or charcoal stove, the language barrier, harassing children… it’s not effortless and she did it.

On the weekend she was flying out “The Great Ethiopian Run” was being held in Addis Ababa; a 12km race through the downtown with an expected 30,000 person turnout. Me and mom went to the starting point, just to check it out and immediately were engrossed by the whole event. It wasn’t just a race for serious runners as I had anticipated but a celebration of running…and walking, and more importantly just being together. Ethiopians love to be together. Most of the time this is a serious offense to ferengies but I have found that there are a few moments that the whole ‘being one’ attitude really adds to the situation.

For example, last month I was fortunate enough to get into the Teddy Afro concert. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Teddy Afro is the most popular Ethiopian singer who has just recently been released from jail on charges I’d rather not mention. His first concert since his release was held in Addis Ababa, luckily on the weekend I happened to be in Addis picking up a grant check from the Peace Corps office… I don’t believe in coincidences. After standing in line for hours for the cheap tickets me and my friends finally made it into the stadium. The next few hours could only be described as pure harmony. It wasn’t like a normal concert where everyone was there with the commonality of seeing a band they like; it was as if everyone was there because they liked each other and just happened to like Teddy Afro as well.

So, after ‘The Great Run’ my mom headed out. Back to America, back to the husband that she loves, back to work, back to life….I’ve never wanted to be heading back to America more than the moment I said goodbye to her that day. Seeing her face before she checked in to board that plane, the face of relief, of accomplishment, of truly being done, made me ache. I wanted to be done, I wanted to feel accomplished, I wanted relief. I knew that as I said goodbye to her it was going to be another 15 months before I could mimic that face…another 15 months till I was done. And that was hard, harder than anything I’ve faced up until now.

Me and Mom

Me and Mom

But, it’s been two weeks since that moment. Admittedly, I’ve cried a lot of tears but I’ve also felt stronger than I’ve ever felt before. Because I am still here, I am still trying, I am still fighting.
And who knows, maybe I’ll just make it after all.

Posted by Gail B 23:53 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Me and Henrietta

DEC 14, 2009



I finally got a baby goat :) her name is Henrietta. She is light brown with an ashy white face and her favorite food is mango leaves. I bought her at the Arjo livestock market last market day, Wednesday. I was actually really nervous. I’ve been talking about getting a goat for months now but talking about it is much different from actually going and bargaining at a livestock market for a baby goat. Previously I was using the excuse that I already had two chickens and a baby chick taking up my back hut but last month my neighbor’s kitten decided to burrow into my chicken’s house and eat my baby and well since then my chickens haven’t really wanted to go in there… who could blame them? Now my chickens are sleeping at my other neighbor’s house which leaves my back hut vacant. So with no excuses I grabbed a piece of extra rope I had lying around and headed to the market.
Arjo’s livestock market is nothing short of overwhelming but I have to say I held my own amongst the hoards of men, cows, sheep, donkeys and goats. I sorted through them all with a distinguished air of someone who definitely knows what she is doing. Finally I came up on a scrawny little brown goat tied up to a post with a red wire. She looked pathetic, and I am a sucker for pathetic. I bargained with the sloppy, toothless man that claimed to be her owner, although from the little conversation I picked up around me I’m not all that sure it was true, and bought little Henrietta for 40 birr (about $3.50). Feeling pretty proud of myself for getting a fair price I looped my rope around my new baby’s neck and started to head out. For some reason I had it in my head that once I had purchased her she would automatically recognize me as her mother and come trotting after me with a smile on her little face and a sparkle in her eye. No such luck, the minute she felt a little resistance on her rope she buckled down to the ground and started bleating like a banshee and to my extreme embarrassment would not budge. Laughing a bit with the crowd I bent down to scoop her up in my arms cooing ‘its okay muca koo (my baby)’… she was not having it. Once off the ground her bleating rose to new levels. I ran out of the market, waving off anyone trying to help me with a big smile and a ‘rakotta hinjiru (no worries)’.
Once safely out of sight from the livestock I put little Henrietta down and tried to figure out how to work her. I’ve seen plenty of baby goats walking around in the last year to know this can’t be rocket science but whenever I tried to start walking she would plop down and yell “no way Jose, I’m not coming!” UGH… After many trials of walking a few feet, her stopping, me pulling, her sitting, me carrying, her screaming, I finally let a kid help me. Like magic he gave a little nudge to her behind, left a little slack in her rope and walked steadily behind her. She trotted along, given at a snails pace, but at least we were moving in the forward direction. I nodded to the kid, I think I got it now, and we slowly and painfully made it the rest of the way to work.
Since it was a Wednesday and I had a meeting in the afternoon I didn’t have much of a choice than to go to work even though I would much rather have headed home to investigate my possibly misguided purchase. But once at work we became the center of attention. My co-workers and friends all gathered around to check out this sorry little goat I had just spent money on. Not going to lie, we got a lot of laughs. “Jaaili, why would you buy such a small goat? It must be sick.” “Jaaili, you can’t have just one baby goat it will cry all the time” “Jaaili, when will we eat it?” “What do you mean she has a name?” But no matter what they said, I didn’t care, she was my baby now and I loved her.
It’s taken a few days for her to get use to me and my strange Ferengie ways but I think I’m starting to grow on her. Wherever I am is where she wants to be. Not in a needy puppy kind of way but in a ‘hey, where you going? I might want to be there too’, kind of way. When I cook dinner at night she follows me back and forth from my inside kitchen area to my outside stove. When I leave her out front to graze she notices immediately if I haven’t stayed to watch her and she pokes her head back in the front gate as if to say ‘mo-om, you’re not watching me!’. She’s a funny little thing and at least for now she’s given me one more reason to stay.

Posted by Gail B 23:38 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Welcome to the 21st Centrury Arjo!

DEC 4, 2009

After a year of hand writing project proposals, sketching out spreadsheets, and simply counting on my camera cards to house my pictures I’ve now got a computer. Brought to me graciously by my mom who was just out visiting she has effectively shifted my life (as well as many peoples in Arjo) into the technological era. In the last two days I took my computer to work I typed out three grant proposals, edited a local project plan and made endless picture folders. Okay, the last one isn’t really office work but teaching my office mate how to create new folders on a computer is work and let me tell you he’s a pro now.
Other than work though, a huge aspect of this crazy contraption I was looking forward to was finally having something in my house that made noise! Up until a few weeks ago all I had was a little MP3 player which only had 80 songs on it and needed to be charged in a USB port…cegger alleh. So with this computer I was going to be able to play the few CDs I had and even be able to watch some of the movies my dad brought on his trip out. Pretty exciting! I figured this was going to be the key to me making it through the next 15 months. I mean if I could make it a year with just a harmonica and books imagine how easy it would be with mindless entertainment, right?
But, I’ve now watched 6 movies in a matter of three days and truth be told I have never been lonelier in my life…maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration (apparently I’m known for those). I’m sure I’ve been lonelier than this, but what is disappointing is the one thing that I thought was going to make my next year fly by is actually creating quite the opposite effect.
Here’s the thing, I’m use to reading books now. Reading for hours upon hours on end and even then it takes me at least a day or a few days to finish a book; to finish a story, to finish an adventure out of this world and into another. But a movie doesn’t work that way. By the time it gets going it’s already half over and two hours later you’re left with a dark screen, feeling more alone than before. With a book you become part of it. Maybe there is an attractive main character that you give the face of that guy you’ve been eyeing lately or maybe it is set on a beautiful beach which you decided looks exactly like Blacks Beach in San Diego or maybe it’s a book about teenage wizards which you previously deemed extremely lame but now are so hooked on you could draw a picture of the silly wizard school in it by heart. Regardless, somehow over the past year I’ve turned into one huge book worm and now there is no going back.

Who knew?

Posted by Gail B 23:23 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Am I happy?

DEC 1, 2009

Am I happy? And more importantly does it matter? These are the questions that I ask myself not only daily but sometimes hourly. It’s been one year since I’ve been living in Ethiopia and soon it will be one year since I’ve been a sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and have been living in Arjo Guddettu… Am I happy? And does it matter?
I truly think I am a some what of a selfish person. You would have to ask my family to be sure, but to those who really know me… not just kind of know me but REALLY know me, they know that I often depend, rely and care about myself. Why did I join Peace Corps? Because I wanted to help? No, not really. I love volunteer work, actually nothing makes me happier but that’s not why I joined Peace Corps. I could volunteer anywhere. Because I wanted to travel the world? Absolutely, I told Peace Corps on my first interview, ‘I want to be in the health field but really send me anywhere and I’ll do anything’; probably exactly what they wanted to hear. But I meant it; I didn’t have a dollar to my name and I just wanted to be out there.
Now, I am out there. Am I happy? Does it matter? Probably one time out of ten I answer this question with YES I am happy, and NO it doesn’t matter. Because the times I am happiest is when I feel like I’m truly making a difference in someone’s life and then it doesn’t matter if I am happy or not; it’s about them not me. But nine times out of ten I answer, NO I am not happy, and I don’t know if that matters or not.

I came out here to help, so who cares if I’m happy.
I gave up two years of my life so shouldn’t I at least be happy?

A daily battle; a battle I get exhausted just fighting. Sometimes I just stare at the wall for 1, 2, 3 hours at a time wondering… Is it worth it? Is it worth the isolation, is it worth being away from my family, is it worth the daily harassment, is it worth losing touch with friends, is it worth being un-happy… does it matter?

What maybe makes it harder is that now is at the one year mark some really great people are starting to question their being here too. People that I never would have expected to go home. And as I talk with them, counsel them, feel for them, I wonder… Am I happy? Does it matter? I tell them, ‘If your not happy, then go home, it’s not worth it’. I say that will with all sincerity. I say it because I mean it. It’s not worth it. So why don’t I go home… I’m not happy… most of the time. But the times I am happy, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

So is it worth it?
Altokko, tokko

Posted by Gail B 23:03 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Leason learned, the hard way!

I’ve learned a lot living in Arjo Gudetu, Ethiopia and almost all of it I’ve had to learn the hard way. The cultural differences the language barrier and the fact that I am the only white person in town has led to countless misunderstandings, many frustrating interactions and above all endless embarrassing moments. Here is a recap of some of my favorite lessons learned to date as I am sure there will be many more to come.

Lesson #1 --> Do as the Locals do!

I arrived in Argo a stubborn, cocky American. I had been living in Ethiopia for 3 months (with my host family in Ambo during training) and I thought I knew it all. So when I was told that in order to get water I was going to have to fetch it from the river I thought no problem, I’ll go buy some buckets. Off I went to the local “suq” (shop) and picket out two 15 litter buckets (for those of you who have an understanding of the incredible weight of water you already understand my problem). I got home and looking like a proud parent showed my landlords wife my buckets and asked her where the river was. She laughed and pointed down the hill behind the house and insisted that she came along. I was of course resistant; ‘I can do it on my own’ I thought. But finally I gave in and the two of us trotted down the hill together.
The walk was not long but it wasn’t short and the last 10 meters or so was a steep descent to get tot the water spring (I realized the river was actually a fresh water spring that came out of a hill side). There was probably about 10 people waiting for the spring, none of whom were holding buckets but instead had 20 litter ‘jerry cans’, plastic jugs with a twist off cap that help cooking oil at one time. I looked down at my buckets and shrugged, surely my way of water carrying was just as good as theirs.
I waited my turn in the undefined line and when the time came I squatted down under the spring and filled my bucket despite the giggles from behind. When the bucket was full and it came time to lift it I was met with a shock; the bucket was heavy!!! Not just a little heavy but “break your back” heavy. There was no way to get it out of the river and back onto land without spilling a bit (hilarious to the girls waiting behind me) and I don’t know how much I lost on the walk back home. My landlord’s wife didn’t fair much better but was obviously use to the weight as she didn’t struggle, sway and curse at the thin metal handle cutting into her hand due to the incredible weight of the full bucket like I did.
Obviously the buckets were a poor choice but there was no way I could carry 20 litters of water back up that hill so back to the local “suq” I headed and picked out a reasonable 10 litter jug. I was in business now! But once again my cocky American attitude caught up to me as I figured I’d improve on the local way of doing things and the next evening I skipped down to the river with my 10 litter jug and two empty 1.5litter water bottles tucked neatly into my Northface backpack. Surely that would be easier than carrying them by hand and more secure than tying them to my back with old mosquito netting, as the locals do.
I waited my turn, filled up my containers, secured them n my pack and swung it onto my back with a smile thinking ‘oh yeah, I got this!’ I made it about three steps when I felt a few drops of water dripping from my pack down into my shorts. Ugh, I probably didn’t tighten the cap enough. But seeing as I didn’t want to take away from my triumphant water carrying moment I waited till I was up the first steep embankment and safely out of sight before I set my bag down to check it out. By that time my back (and rear-end) was quite damp and not at all comfortable. To my surprise though, when I opened the bag the lid of my jug was as secure as it could be. I took it out of the bag to inspect it and sure enough no leaks. As far as I was concerned it was a great unsolved mystery and my best bet was to just get home, fast! I replace the jug and started my trek home.
Because of my quick stop a few of the women who were coming up the hill behind me had caught up and it didn’t take long for them to notice my soaking (and now dripping) shorts. They began to shout, probably something along the lines of , “hey! Stupid ferengie, your leaking water!” (losing even a drop of collected water is considered a cardinal sin here). I just threw up my hands saying “nanbeeka, nanbeeka, homma meti” – I know, I know, no worries. They quickened their pace in order to reach out and gently pat my soaking bottom. Once it was established that yes, in fact my bottom is soaked there was not a woman or child walking up or down to the river who wasn’t called over to feel for her self and again express her concern for my leaking water and wet butt.
I was mortified, my rump hadn’t been felt up by so many strangers since I was 9 and my mom use to show off my freakishly strong glute muscles to dinner guests (a stunt I still continue to perform well into adulthood). Not only had I once again failed at water fetching but there was no way I was going to live this down and in fact it did take months for it not to be the topic of discussion every time I came around.
Since then I have learned my lesson and I either carry my 10 litter jog in my hand or I heave a 20 litter jerry can onto my back with a large grunt, balance it carefully and tie and long piece of fabric around to secure it. Quite a feet!
Oh and if your wondering why my jug was leaking it is not exactly the mystery I once thought…all Ethiopian jugs leak if not help up right so when I place it on my back in my pack there was just enough of a tilt for me to lose a litter or two of water. Now I have discovered the local way of preventing this, placing a plastic bag under the cap and twisting it down…genius! But never again have I dared to return to by back pack water carrier…now I just do as the locals do :)

Lesson #2 – “To learn a language you must be prepared to look like a fool”

I’ve never been great at languages. The only “C” I ever received in High school was in Spanish class and since then I’ve never bothered to give any other languages a real shot. But, I was excited to hear I’d be serving in a country where I’d have to learn a second language (and a third!) and was eager to become fluent based on forced immersion. After 8 weeks of Amharic training (the national language) and just 3 weeks of Oromifa (my local language) it was pretty clear that it was going to take a hell of a lot more than just ‘forced immersion’ for me to become fluent in either of these languages. When I moved out to Arjo I decided that no mater what I was going to work on my language every day… not too hard considering 99% of Arjo’s population doesn’t speak English. I’d talk to my co-workers, I’d greet people on the street, I’d bargain at the local suqs and market place but the one place that has been my greatest source of triumph and defeat has been the river!
My first few weeks living in Arjo I basically could say ‘hello’ and answer basic questions about food and my family. So down at the river I would be asked repeatedly the same question so that everyone could hear my answer.
“Nyaata Iytiopia nanjalaata?” – do you like Ethiopian food?
Eyee, nanjalaada. – Yes, I like it.
“Obolessa nanqabta?” – do you have a brother?
Eyee, tokko nanqaba - Yes, I have one.
“Oboleeti nanqabta?” – do you have a sister?
Eyee, lama nanqaba – Yes, I have two.
On and on and on, but for every question I understood they would ask 10 that I did not but slowly they figured out my limited topic range and stuck to it. The question that would get a real rise out of them was “Do you have ‘arakay’?” which is a local moonshine that tastes like only feet and burns like gasoline. I would look at them appalled and say “No, I do not have ‘arakay’. I do not like ‘arakay’!” (I am not a drinker as far as the town of Arjo is concerned for cultural reasons). The kids especially would laugh hysterically at my answer and the women would just giggle quietly. All the while I would stand there smiling, pleased that I managed to make some sort of Oromifa joke.
Turns out the joke was on me (as usual). The words ‘arakay’ and ‘haara kay’ – your mother, may sound exactly alike to a ferengie ear but are strikingly different to a local ear and obviously have very different meanings. All the while they had been asking me if I had a mother and I had been responding “I don’t have your mom. I don’t like your mom!” oooops!
I’ve also managed to repeatedly tell people I was breast feeding – ‘hossisa’ instead of that I was itchy ‘hoksisa’. I continue to call the health center pharmacist ‘maraatuu’ – crazy, instead of her name ‘Maratu’. I am forever telling kids, ‘Dhaaboo!” – bread, when I mean stop – “Dhaaba!” and if I had a BIRR for every time I’ve had to mimic a waling motion to express that I am just going for a walk ‘baashanana dema’ and not looking for water ‘baashani dema’ I would be a rich Ethiopia.
Admittedly after 7 months my language is still awful but I’m never afraid to looks like a complete fool for the safe of the cause.

Lesson #3 – Soup can not be made from water, onions and cabbage.

It’s no secret that I couldn’t cook in the states. All my meals I prepared in 5 min with a microwave and a corkscrew (oh the good ol’ days of TV dinners and two buck chuck). But it never fazed me that living in Ethiopia I would have to learn to rely on more that lean cuisine’s instructions and Trader Joes to feed myself. Needless to say I have made some horrific meals in the past 7 months and here is what I’ve found…
-tomato sauce consists of more than cutting up tomatoes, adding salt and boiling…and adding more water does not make it tomato soup.
-Popcorn can be made without a microwave! However if made by me inevitably half will be burnt
-Soup is not made from water, onions and cabbage. I have tried many different vegetable medleys and have come to the decision that I just can’t make soup.
-“Shiro Wat” is not red because it has a ton of ‘berbere’ in it – ask an Ethiopian why this is funny.
-you can’t make French fries by cutting up potatoes and placing them in a lightly oiled pan but I can’t stomach using more than a tiny bit of oil so I just can’t make fries, period!
-Experimentation is the key to success, unless your name is Gail and you’re cooking in Ethiopia, then experimentation is the key to an empty stomach!

Posted by Gail B 03:40 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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