Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Taxis Round II

Monday May 24, 2010

Ethiopians have a flare for faux fur. This did not go unnoticed by me for more than 20 seconds because I am hyper attuned to the hilariously tacky. They like to coat everything short of their person with said fur, and seem to favor car interiors. Dashboards, back window “displays,” steering wheels, seats, gear stick, no surface is immune. The more eccentric driver uses the fur to prop up miscellaneous items such as dolls, stuffed animals (aka more fur), and souvenirs in general.

But now I must back-track and apologize for any sarcastic, condescending or otherwise insensitive comment I made about the fur. For today, I appreciate the fur, I thank the fur, I owe it my intact skull.

On my way home from foster care today I was in my very first automobile collision. It is kind of surprising that it was my first considering the condition of the road. Picture your average 4 lane highway, three rows of broken white lines dividing the lanes, nothing too unusual. Now picture both flows of traffic driving head on amongst these four lanes. Not rationally dividing them two and two either, oh no. All four lanes are free for all. Drivers just weave in and out of each other’s way and 99% of the time avoid head on, side on or rear end collisions. Today, my taxi was the exception to the rule. To narrowly avoid a head on crash, the taxi veerd right, and slammed sideways into a big jeepy car. Thankfully no one was moving fast by any means and aside from some sever denting and a bum headlight there was no damage done…people included.

But why the peace with fur? Well my taxi was exceptional in more ways than just crashing. When I climbed in I nearly had to shove my fist in my mouth to avoid laughing. It was decked out in faux fur. The ceiling had a fur rug affixed to it and held in place with a clear plastic covering. Dangling from the plastic were 8 rows of tassels run horizontally across the van. The seats, the dash, the gear shift, all the usual suspects covered in fur. There was even fur trimming the windows. And this is where my qualms end. Instead of bashing my head into the window frame during impact, I nestled nicely into some fur. I have a major goose-egg bearing resemblance to a plum in both size and color, but that is largely better than any other alternative I can consider. Of course I was the only one to demand a refund of my 4 birr (roughly 30 cents) but it’s the principle that counts, and at heart I will always be a New Yorker.

Ethiopia is really growing me. Nothing is short of an experience and an adventure.

But I can’t let all this excitement distract me from the best part of my day. After I finish reading I pass out the books for “alone time,” were the children usually spread out, some even go to their own corner, and flip though the pages. Some talk to themselves, others are deep in concentration, and still others give it a quick once over and move on. Just like adults hold varying levels of interest for books, it is fascinating to see these different levels of excitement play out in children. “Alone time” is my favorite time to just watch them, although I usually end up re-reading most of what I just read. Today, however, in one of the rooms the toddlers stayed clustered relatively close together. Then they chorused the ABC’s and “Are You Sleeping, Brother John?” I was beside myself it was so adorable.

Another new development, for the older ones at least, has been “trading.” They are cautious, but if they can be sure the other is going to release the book and not run away with two, they will make trades repeatedly.

Today is the first day of fasting for the Orthodox Church, which means that about half of Addis goes vegan for the next month. I fully believe the food is about to get better, especially since today for lunch we had this amazing chickpea puree with spicy spices in it and then big chucks of chickpea that resembled falafel. The smell was so strong and fresh it made my eyes water and in my opinion there are not enough bright orange foods. Even the ingera has significantly grown on me, dare I say I almost like it. I am beginning to feel like Sam-I-Am, the central character in “Green Eggs and Ham.” (These are my literary references of late, it’s that or Twilight)

The point I am trying to make has nothing to do with food however. It is the first day of fasting which means that it was a school holiday. In addition to having the 4-6 year olds, I also had the 7 and ups, which changed the whole dynamic of the room in a more positive way than I could have anticipated. At first I was wary, thinking they would be board because the books are “baby.” But they were so enthusiastic, and the younger kids, who clearly look up to them, followed the lead. They had them making more animal noises than I could, naming all the animals or colors on the pages and actually asking questions about stuff they didn’t recognize. I was so pleasantly shocked.

Like I said, nothing in Ethiopia is short of an experience, an adventure and, I will add, a surprise.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Two Crazy Days

Saturday May 22, 2010

The past two days have been both wildly successful and more of an experience than I can accurately describe. So please excuse my attempt at explanation.

Due to election rallies and a heard of unruly bulls blocking the highway, I got to Foster seriously late. Once the bulls got the goats involved and the goats rallied the donkeys it totally redefined grid-lock. In the end, I made it and read through an abridged version of my book pile in two of the rooms. When I went to the third, however, they were playing with play-dough! But it was so much more than just play. Three of the girls had made an entire coffee ceremony set out of the play-dough and were performing the ceremony with the help of one of the caregivers. This is comparable to having a tea party, but the coffee ceremony is not simple by any means. The others were making animals or cars and just generally using their imagination. Two of the boys had made a tiny ball and were kicking it around.

I didn’t have the heart to interrupt this productive play, and I especially wanted to encourage the caregivers to initiate these types of activities more often, so I skipped reading and instead played! It was so adorable, the kids were beside themselves. They were showing me their play-dough like it was Christmas morning.

Finally, making it back to the office, I met Yemamu and we went to Merkato to scout supplies for the next “On Their Own” project. Merkato is huge and such a maze of loud streets and foreboding alleyways that people rarely come out where they entered. Massive and incoherent might be the best way to describe it. Even the most seasoned Ethiopian can get completely turned around. And this is not one of those picturesque markets either, with neatly lined stalls displaying wares. Depending on your perspective it can be anything from exotic to downright slummy. You can literally purchase anything from spices to your very own camel, which is precisely how it smells; a combination of spice, baking bread, incense, animal and their accompanying by-products.

I did however get a good idea of what I could find, and the next project is in the brain-storming phase.

Yesterday I FOUND THE BOOKS! When I walked into the Foster home for the oldest kids, they had a cabinet in the kitchen full of books, good ones too. Eric Carle, Sandra Boynton, Dr. Seuss, all the children’s classics. Then the caregivers were taking them all out to show me what I should read. Why they don’t have them available to the kids is one of those cultural things. They are concerned that they will get destroyed (which is probably true) so they keep them “put away” to monitor use. This was the same situation I came across in Guatemala. Needless to say, there are a lot more options now, and after the kids get familiar with the pile I brought I will be able to integrate more into the pattern. I found “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and decided to try that one out on the older kids. (It contains one of my favorite quotes too: “These things are fun, and fun is good.”) There was a group of 5 boys at my feet gasping and giggling every time I turned the page, then pointing and discussing what they saw. They LOVE Dr. Seuss illustrations and I love seeing them be so imaginative.

What I am thrilled about, however, is the fact that the caregivers shared this with me, means that they are beginning to trust and open up with me. In the beginning they were rightfully wary of my presence, because they think of the children as their own. Like any parent, they are protective until you prove that you are equally loving of their child. They also invited me to their coffee ceremony yesterday an invitation to a coffee ceremony is a showing of respect, thanks and friendship. Besides the kids love it because they get popcorn as their snack, a fact that I can appreciate.

I read this quote the other day, “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” I believe this is so true everywhere, but so much more so in Ethiopia. Compared to what I am used to there is just so little here. There is more poverty, more struggle than I have experienced anywhere else. Yet, everywhere you look there is a little celebration a moment of joy, which conveys hope across the faces of its people. The pinnacle of this celebration being the coffee ceremony, which is why I think it was so endearing that the girls were learning this testament to their culture in play. The third cup of coffee is called “berekha” (the blessing). It just goes to show how even with nothing, Ethiopians are aware that there are blessings all around, there is celebration in life, and that is enough to be grateful for.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Barbie and Foosball

Wednesday May 19, 2010

My head is searing with pain. It is burning! I got “Barbied.”

Some of the Kechene women maintain a hair salon, a second endeavor to the shop. While working at the office, I got recruited to the salon, plopped in a chair and styled. They braided the sides of my head and gave me a poof on top and HOLY MOLY are these braids tight! If I move my face I feel it in my scalp. It looks like I had some nipping and tucking done, my cheekbones are like an inch higher!
I really do like the hair, the design is beautiful and if I de-poof the top my hair falls over the braided sides with is the kind of subtly I appreciate. I have a completely new admiration for women who have their whole head braded…man oh man, are they tough!

One of the girls has taken a particular liking to me, and I to her. So afterwards, I wore my sunglasses and we paraded around trying to convince people I was a Hollywood celebrity. We had the shoeshine boys believing I was Spiderman’s girlfriend. Didn’t see myself passing for that one…but hey I’m flattered. And since I am never going to blend in, I might as well totally rock it!

But the real success of the day, however, was winning over my neighborhood bullies. There is a group of pre-pubescent and teenage boys who harmlessly taunt me on my walk home every evening. I am pretty sure I am their nightly entertainment. They usually follow me a little ways, call me “milk” and tell me they love me. They also “own” the foosball table that lives on the street corner. That is always where they are, and how they seem me when I walk by. These neighborhood foosball tables are relatively common and I see them all over Addis, but I am unsure of the exact edict. I think some are “public” and others belong to the toughest group of boys.

Well maybe I was emboldened by my hair, or the fact that I am now a celebrity, but today I turned to them and said, “You know what, lets go!”

I won only once (and there was a questionable goal involved there) and got my bum handed to me about 12,000 other times, but I put a Birr (about 7 cents) down on myself every time, and bought them all Cokes. I guess that’s the going rate for protection these days. I am not about to argue with having the neighborhood “gang” on my side, even if it was a buy-off. They really do love me now. Cliche time- If you can’t be ‘em, join ‘em!

I swear I do real work too! I have been going out to foster care daily and reading in the toddler rooms and the children ages 4-6, who now call me “Chicka Chicka.” They are really responding well, repeating animal sounds after me, as well as colors, numbers and the alphabet. But more than anything they love their time with the books. The older ones are even beginning to “trade” nicely, which I see as a big step. From experience when a child gets their hands on a toy, they usually like to own that toy until playtime is over or they can be won over with something more interesting. The fact that they will exchange books is really wonderful to see.

My Dove chocolate (yes, I brought 2 packages) just told me to “make a date with my favorite book tonight.” And since I am currently horrifically enthralled in the Twilight series and since I do everything Dove tells me, I am going to take that advice.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Saturday May 15, 2010

I am still reeling in the success of this week!

I stared on Wednesday reading at Gladney’s Foster Care centers in the 2 toddler rooms and to the children ages 4-6. Riveted doesn’t even begin to describe it. I have never seen kids so fascinated by books and pictures. The toddlers love making the animal sounds and the older children love to do the “Barnyard Dance” (a book by Sandra Boynton). By far the favorite is playing the drums in “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” by Al Perkins and of course screaming “Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom!”

It is pretty much mayhem when I walk into the room carrying a pile of books. All the babies go crazy trying to grab them. Eventually the caregivers assist me in getting them to sit and we read through the pile. I usually have about 15 minutes of attention with the toddlers, which is more than I initially expected. When focus begins to fade, I pass out the books and they will literally spread out on the floor, flipping through them over and over. They all get really serious in concentration. I mean this is real work!

The older children are just as adorable. They love interacting with my reading, but attention usually beings to drift, because there are other toys around for them to play with. They stay nearby to listen but I notice their focus becomes divided with other toy distractions. They too loved reading on their own, although some are more interested than others, naturally. When I am done, they like to bring books up to me and ask for individual time…this usually starts fights. Yesterday’s conflict resulted in me getting attacked by a magic marker!

The “On Their Own” necklaces are already finished. It took two days and could have taken one, but I deliberately tried to extend the project. The women were so enthused and were such a joy to work with. They are obviously skilled in crafting and literally flew through the project with very little assistance from me. The necklaces are well done, and the women were so grateful for work, they kept asking if they could make more, or if this could be a continuous thing. “I really hope it will be,” is all I kept responding.

Yesterday they performed a coffee ceremony in the shop in my honor. This is a 2+ hour process. That involves roasting the beans, grinding them by hand, and brewing the coffee over coals. Three pots are brewed in succession called, adobe (the first), tona (the second) and I forget the Amharic name but the third is called “the blessing.” They also serve popcorn with the coffee ceremony, but no one knows the significance of this. It was all so sweet and fun!

I should probably explain that I titled this entry “Works” in honor of my BFF Yemamu. He tells me every day “I have so much works,” or “I got so much works done today.” He means “things to do/things done” but I like the use of works. I think it describes much better than “things.” So that’s what I’ve been up to… works!

Friday, May 14, 2010


Wednesday May 12, 2010

Everything about this country is hard. The expression on people’s faces, the roads, the houses, just the general way of life. Yet, everyone finds a way to remain joyful, in good humor, they survive because of their relationships. Relationships with literally everyone around them, it is not unusual to be approached at random and walk away with a new friend. People don’t passively pass one another as we are used to. They don’t live in indifference to others. It is common to share tables at coffee houses and restaurants with strangers and people do not put up the protective barriers that we do, they don’t sit with books, newspapers or computers. Ethiopians always leave themselves open to conversation, to each other. I believe this is more than cultural…its survival.

They also hold a deep relationship with their faith. I wake every morning to the Orthodox Church’s call to prayer. I shuffle around people in the streets praying towards Mecca. I think everything about this is beautiful. It makes me jealous. If people with nothing, can have faith, can find someone else to pray for, something to be thankful for, why is it so difficult for us, in a country of over-indulgence, to be grateful?

Most importantly, Ethiopians have such a connected relationship with their surrounding, their land. They can literally make anything out of nothing, I’ve never seen so little waste. I’ve never seen more garbage either, but those are just my eyes. People throw what they do not need into the streets, literally everything, but this is not littering, it’s recycling. Someone else will find a purpose.

Ethiopians are nothing if not proud- and they should be too. Their nation stands out in Africa, never colonized, retaining its own culture, language, script, clock (7am and 7pm are 1am and 1pm respectively, it kind of makes sense, you start your day at 1)and calendar (there are 13 months).

Some days are hard. Sometimes I forget these relationships. I get annoyed at the stranger at my table, interrupting my book, I don’t want to talk on the taxi, I get tired of being asked my religion and I turn up my nose at all the trash, disgusted tip-toeing through the sewer of a street in the rain. But here is a life-style that I have only just begun to comprehend. And it is unique and wonderful in so many ways. It is so freeing to be so open and unabashed, it is so Ethiopian!

I read this quote by historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, and it is really the only way to describe the uniqueness of Ethiopians- “ Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept nearly a thousand years , forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.”

Getting Started

Tuesday May 11, 2010

Tomorrow is the big day. I am starting not just one, but both of my projects. It is going to be my first day reading at foster care, and also the Kechene girls are really anxious to start the necklaces.

I feel ready to get going. I had successful meetings in both places over the past few days and have been receiving good feedback. On Saturday I made the long journey out to Foster (soon to be my daily commute- involving 3 taxis and a tuck-tuck, yes the same as in Guatemala only blue!) I got the tour of the 4 foster homes, 3 of which I will be working in. Because there are just so many kids, and I only have 2 hours there, I’ve narrowed my time down to the 2 toddler rooms and the house with children ages 4-6. There I will be able to see progress, since they are already speaking, and besides they are so adorable!

Yesterday (Monday), I meet with the Kechene girls in the shop to discuss the “On Their Own” necklaces. They are really enthusiastic about the project (I think because of a bit of steady income) and were actually dismayed that we were only making 70. I told them (through my translator) that after this project, we would look for local supplies that they could craft, and I would bring back to sell in the US, in the same fashion as the necklaces. Originally I had planned to start next week, but they are really into the project, so I figured why not begin when the energy is up and they were so gracious and grateful that I didn’t want to let them down

So all that being said, I am finally going to have a full day, and not just full by moseying around drinking macchiato, but actually an accomplished day. This is WILD by Ethiopian standards, attempting to do two things in one day is an absurdity. I mean really something to do in the morning AND afternoon….crazy!

Monday, May 10, 2010


This morning I shared a taxi with a goat. We bonded over vegetarianism.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Welcome to Ethiopia - May 5th

So much has happened in the past few days, although I haven’t actually done anything. Today is Wednesday May 5, 2010. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Yesterday I made it to the Gladney office and got a taste of Ethiopian reality. I spent the morning with my new best friend/taxi guide/translator/life-line, Yemamu. He has an incredible story! I am going to ask him if it’s okay to share it here. Anyway, after getting to know one another, we go to the tourist shop where I get incredible feedback regarding the necklaces. Although I was scarce on details, the woman running the shop was really excited. The other girls? They were missing because today was the opening of a Bazaar on the other side of Addis, and they were preparing things to sell at the fair.

So in typical Ethiopian fashion, Yemamu needs to get something from his home, on the walk there, literally the length of 3 NYC short blocks, we stop in 2 hair salons and an office looking place, just to sit and chat. Then we get to the home, the gate is locked and Yemamu left the key at Gladney. Ok so we start to walk back, but no, let’s just stop in here for a Macchiato (the coffee beverage of choice). Needless to say, we never go the key, never got the something, but we did accomplish a lovely leisurely stroll and an espresso boost.

Afterward I went over to the foster care home for babies and toddlers and where I will be reading shortly. I arrived after lunch, at what I assumed was nap time. I am very excited to get the kids out and reading.

Today, I started learning the taxi system. Should be easy, considering there is a person calling out all the stops, however they say this so fast and combine all the words that it sounds to me like a bunch of jibber-jabber. The only place I can accurately identify is Mexico. Yes, there is a sub-city in Addis named Mexico. We practiced the taxis by taking them to the Bazaar, which was only being set up when we got there. But I learned that the government gifts the booths to micro-enterprises as an incentive to keep them motivated, it seems like a good plan, except that they close the actually business in favor of a booth for 5 days.

After which I had my first traditional Ethiopian lunch. For the first time can’t say I love the food. Personally I thought the injera tasted and looked like a moldy sponge. I suppose I should get used to it, it is served with everything! The meat was okay, however I was distracted by the tables around us eating it totally, utterly and completely raw. I don’t think it’s called carpaccio either when you are cutting off hunks of fat and it’s definitely not cured, this is going to be a new one for me stomach (pun intended). Love the wine though. It’s called tudge and it a little bubbly, made with honey and has this fermented sweetness to it. It is the color of orange juice and served in a science beaker, so delicious.

Later, we drove over to one of the Government orphanages to drop off a care package from an eager family. Never have I seen a little girl so excited by bubbles and bouncy balls and Reece’s peanut-butter eggs. Then she so generously shared her M&M’s with the other children flocking the door even though “they were mean to her sometimes.” She put on the flip-flops from the package, and immediately thought to give her sneakers to one of her friends because she no longer needed them. In the package was a letter with a picture of all her new siblings, and she repeatedly kissed each one of them in the picture with such enthusiasm I thought she might rip the paper. And while I have a mouthful to say about the orphanage, for the moment, I want to enjoy that moment and the tremendous smile on this little girls face and in her eyes.

So that’s life on this side of the Atlantic (and almost to the Indian).

Arrival!- May 3rd

I am writing this entry on Monday May 3rd, which I decided is important to include because I have no idea when I will get the internet access to post it. Ethiopia lesson number 1: don’t ever expect power. I have been here now 2 days and have spent more time without use of electricity, than with its lovely convinces. Tonight my guest house got the generator up and running so I can at least type this from the electrical current generated by the wall with a light on above my head…so appreciative. The internet however, is 1) down and 2) dial up, so I’m thinking my blogs will be posted in groupings when I have the chance to finagle some wireless over at one of the hotels.

The flight…long. And the layover in Germany, most unusual. I got there so early that my flight wasn’t even up on the board yet, so not knowing which terminal to go to I chose one at random and lay down for a nap. Then someone tells me that this terminal has been “evacuated” and I need to go to my terminal. “But I don’t know where that is yet,” I reply? “Well, you can’t stay here, were evacuated.”


Needless to say I spent 5 hours hopping terminals that were “open” and then once the flight boarded I was evacuated. And who uses the term “evacuated” in an airport anyway. Isn’t that one of those “no-no” words like “BOMB!” Please choose a less panic inducing word!

Then when I got to Ethiopia I was almost turned away because apparently it is extremely important that immigration has the exact address of where you will be staying before they can allow you into their country. They granted me a visa just fine, but when I went to get stamped through, the nice man asks if I know my address here, I do not. I have put such blind faith in those coming to rescue me from airport hell that I have absolutely no contact information except an e-mail address. He calls another man over and I feel like I am going to faint, but instead I do what my mom taught me. I smile and sigh, “but I’m volunteering for orphans.” BAM, I’m stamped through!

So I made it, I am staying in a lovely guest home, which is exactly what it sound like. It is a home, much like my own, with a living room, kitchen, dining area and comfy front porch. I have a room and share a bathroom with one other girl, we have use of the kitchen and a pot of coffee is waiting at ALL times!

Yesterday was relaxing, I recovered from jet lag and had dinner with my host family, not much gets done here on Sunday’s.

Today, I had the privilege of sharing lunch with 3 families here to bring home babies! Hearing them talk was so exciting to me. It was definitely the catharsis I missed in Guatemala.

Later I backpacked it to the grocery store and got some basics. Then I bleached my fruit. Yes, that is right I prefer to consume bleach to whatever else might be living on my grapes. And they have mango verde in Ethiopia! A personal favorite from Guatemala.

By the time this is posted it will be so dated, but that’s okay and there will be way more interesting things to share. Tomorrow I am going to the office and am going to learn how to use the “taxi” system, aka a blue and white 15 passenger van, vaguely reminiscent of a chicken bus.