30 March 2008

not a morning person

I left the Netherlands early Thursday morning. I had to be at the airport at 6:30 a.m., so my aunt and uncle and I woke up at 5 a.m. I raced about readying myself and packing for 25 minutes and at about 5:25 I finished braiding my hair (couldn't wash it; wanted to conserve water) and turned the lock to open the bathroom door. It's hard to explain this lock; it is old-fashioned and looks something like a deadbolt, but with a little sliding piece that goes into the door frame and seems to be connected to the knob by a spring. I turned the knob, and it turned, and then it just kept turning and turning. Without opening the lock. So I pulled on the little sliding piece, trying to pry it out of the frame, but the spring was still in there somewhere, albeit not connected to the knob, and keeping the sliding piece locked.

I looked around for any useful utensils for prying, but there were none. I started knocking on the door. I was up a floor from my uncle and aunt, and they thought I was packing, so it took a while for them to realize that the knocking was not clattering about but actual need for assistance. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do. The gap under the door was too narrow for any tools to be passed to me, the hinges were on my side of the door, and the nail file and scissors to which they directed me were useless in attacking the lock.

Then suddenly my uncle went off down the stairs. "Where is he going?" I asked through the door. "To get a ladder," my aunt said.

And so I climbed, in my socks, in the dark, over a slippery wet roof covered with clay roofing tiles and down a cold metal ladder, before six a.m. I have to say that I still made it into the car by 5:46, only one minute after our intended departure time.

I just keep hoping that I left the window far enough open that Oom C. could get back into the bathroom, since we had to leave it open to go to the airport. I thought he was saying to close the window, but he turned out to be saying NOT to close it, so that it wouldn't be locked.

It was the start of a really long day, is all I'm going to say about the ridiculous, needless delays and cancellations and lost luggage and the fact that Northwest Airlines has lost all sense of customer service and I will be paying extra to avoid them in the future unless they provide some serious compensation in response to the angry letter I am composing. I got to my parents' house in Michigan more than 24 hours after I left C. and D.'s house in the Netherlands. And only 10-11 of those hours were flying. And 6 extra of them were spent in the armpit hair of the armpit of the earth that is the B Terminal at the Detroit Wayne County Airport. (I hate that airport. Have I given my rant here yet about how they invented the hub and spoke system for a reason and there was no good reason to abandon that and turn an airport into one interminably long tube? No? Well, you are in for a treat someday when I get around to it.) And my luggage got to my parents' house much later even than I did, for no reason but sheer airline incompetence.

Somehow, though, I made it back to Gone West, extremely sleep deprived and having been resident in 4 different time zones across a span of ten of them in less than five days. Now I have a chaos of bike, in pieces, and various strewnnesses of Ethiopian scarves across my apartment, and somehow I have to sleep and work on a Pacific Daylight Time schedule when my internal clock thinks day is night and night is day.

I might be seriously regretting having left Ethiopia.

26 March 2008


So, I've been gone. The fundamental problem was that I spent about four days irrately furious with Ethiopian men for being like Latin men instead of like African men. That is, for being catcallers instead of nice human beings. What would I have written during that time, "I hate Ethiopian men?" Because that's about all I had to say until I reprogrammed my head to be used to it and to ignore them completely. And then I fell in with some very nice US American people who took me in and gave me a raging social life for the last three days I was in Ethiopia, which was so much fun that I neglected to do anything relating to the internet. And then I flew to the Netherlands and if the choice is between y'all and a cup of tea by the fire while the snow swirls down outside (snow! in the Netherlands! at the end of March! - "March does what it wills," my aunt keeps telling me)... well. I think you would make the same decision. But as of tomorrow I'll be back in the US with stories galore to share. Now I'm off to help with dinner.

18 March 2008

I've been sucked in by the internet. I'm intending to go south of Addis Ababa today, but it's 10:30 and I'm playing on the addicting high speed internet.

The original plan was to stay this week in Lalibela, famous home of 10 churches carved down into the rock (accessed by tunnels and trenches). Unfortunately, Lalibela is also the home of unbelievable number of young men who will not leave you alone, with the phrases "I love you!" and "Do you need a husband?" featuring prominently next to rather more vulgar ones. I visited the churches (one afternoon) and then I rode a mule/climbed up to a set of cliff churches (one morning and half an afternoon), and then I had done everything there was to do within a reasonable radius of distance and cost, so I sat in the Ethiopian Airlines office until 6 pm when they were certain that the last person was not going to reconfirm the flight back to Addis the next day, and then they put me on it. Especially convenient was the fact that they somehow managed to work my flights so that I got $75 of a refund back.

We flew a Fokker 50 two-prop from Lalibela back to Addis. By "we," I mean about 30 Polish tourists, an older Italian dentist coming back from making pretty smiles for kids in Tanzania, a few Ethiopians, and me. I learned the following: 1. Polish women apparently do not believe in hair colors that exist in nature. 2. People who haven't flown much in Africa are freaked out by prop planes and African turbulence, which is oddly more swoopy than the bumpy turbulence further north. In the bus from the plane to the airport, they were repeating loudly in deliberate English, "All. Is. Well. That. Ends. Well." The Fokker 50 happens to be the same plane that the UN flies from Juba to The-Town-Formerly-Known-On
-this-Blog-as-Central-Location, aka Rumbek, in Southern Sudan, so I've seen it buffetted around a bit before. Plus one of my colleagues when I worked in Rwanda was the son of a pilot and told me about how much tougher the prop planes are than jets.

The best part of Lalibela was not the churches, although they are pretty amazing. The best part was the climb up above the cliff churches. My guide asked me if I wanted to climb the rocky outcropping up above, and I looked at it for a while and thought about my already-tired legs, and then said yes. I am one of those stubborn people. We hiked up the side for a while and then we started scrambling up the rock face. "Be careful." my guide kept saying, "Do not be afraid." I was not the one who was afraid. (He later admitted to not liking heights and having only gone up the outcropping three times, during guide training, because most people don't bother with the extra climbing.) Finally I popped up through a hole in the rock and I was on the top, looking out over what seemed to be all of Ethiopia. We sat on the top, looking out. I looked and thought, and the guide looked and called people on his mobile phone, which apparently has better network coverage than anywhere below. I wondered why everyone doesn't choose Ethiopia for their vacations.

14 March 2008


i am practically giddy with the excitement of having the ability to post things. the biggest leap, actually, was the need to type these things in gmail. a whole different screen? very unnerving.

right now, i shall have to type without capitals, because the shift and letter keys on this keyboard do not function in coordination with one another. sometimes you can get a capital, say, g, by pressing down the wrong shift key and slamming the g key many times, but just as often you cannot. so i am going the easy, capital-less route.

ethiopia is famous for its handwoven white cloth with colored ends. well. famous. famous-ish. i had a vague idea that they existed, largely because i went to an ethiopian orthodox church once in nairobi and also because when i was in college/university there was one ethiopian restaurant in town and they had some in the corner for sale. i always wanted one. now that i'm here, it is clear that they are not just tourist items. every woman wears them, and both women and men wear a heavier version at night, to stay warm. i am infatuated with them. i have mentioned before my obsession with textiles. now that i am here and surrounded by them, i cannot keep myself from buying ridiculous quantities. or, after i have purchased ridiculous quantities, from walking around oogling the colored weaving on the ends of other women's shawls. ooh! a black and gold one! oooh! a red and yellow one! ooooh! blue with silver! (never mind that i already have a blue with silver. and a blue with gold.)

so i went to the market today in search of more. because i only have two so far! that's not enough, at all. it's a ways out of town and the number of faranji (whiteys) drops dramatically. not that, comparatively, there are really that many faranjis here. one little kid followed me and told me where to go, and then an older one came to translate. we haggled and discussed, and i ended up with two double-wide shawls, the single widths sewn together by a woman bent over a treadle machine like i learned on as a kid in liberia.

on the way back, the littler kid asked for money. for books, he said. i am very reluctant to give money, ever, to anyone, without a reason. i will sit down and eat with someone, but i don't want to give money. usually, my strategy in any city is simply to look beggars in the eye and smile and say hello (hey, they are people, too), but not to give money. this kid, though, had actually been helpful. i was going to give him money anyway. so i stopped, and explained through the older kid that faranji really dislike being asked for money, but i was grateful for his help and he didn't need to ask, i was going to give him something as a thank you.

the older kid walked me back to my hotel, asking me about w. bush, as he called him, and whether the americans might change their government. I might have, um, accidentally, claimed to be canadian (i've been throwing the two nationalities out at random for some unknown reason. it's the first time and country in which i've ever bothered, but it's sort of addicting to claim to be canadian, oddly), so i had to answer his questions in the third person.

when we arrived at the hotel, i dug into my bag for some change.

no, no. he said, and shook my hand, then leaned in to nudge my shoulder with his the way friends greet one another in east africa. no money. next time you are here, look for me.

(my quotation marks don't work either, by the way.)

i'm probably not going to recognize this kid all grown up, the next time i make it to ethiopia, but it was very sweet.

14 March 2008

I know that you were all waiting with bated breath (baited? where does this phrase come from, anyway?) for posting all about Ethiopia, but it turns out to be nigh unto impossible to post from here. I'm writing this in email and sending it to someone to post from the US.
Ethiopia is not what I expected. I knew it wasn't all brown dirt like the stereotypical starving child photo from the 1980s. I expected Uganda, I think. Green hills and lots of English. I should have read the guidebook before I got here, because Ethiopia 1. does not speak English (it's Amharig, mostly), 2. has many many different kinds of landscape, and 3. has serious history. I've been going to castles and churches like you would in Europe, only better, because this is Africa and in between castles and churches, there are adventures.
A guidebook is your best friend in a place like this, but it limits you to well-trodden trails and keeps you solidly with the other tourists. The best moments, I think, are when you leave the crowds behind and get stuck somewhere obscure. I don't even mean a town. I mean a hillside far from even the smallest semblance of a town, like the hillside I sat on yesterday, with little kids swarming and offering me "injera? milk? water? fish?" One of them screamed and hid behind her sister every time I so much as glanced in her direction. After a while, when we got bored with taking photos on the digital camera and looking at them, I took the guidebook out and showed them the pictures. One older one, who spoke some English ("Are you in school? Do you learn English in school?" I asked. "No," he said, "no school. The teachers do not come."), tried to read the book, and we looked together at pictures of all the famous sites in Ethiopia. "Debre Birihan Selassie!" they shouted excitedly when the page turned to the painted ceiling of the church in Gonder. "Lake Tana!" at the photo of a man fishing in the lake. They were remarkably well-informed kids. Would American eight-year old recognize a church by its paintings, even one in the nearest large town?
The men were loading wood on the truck that brought me, the first of four rides that, patched together, would finally bring me back to Gonder after three and a half hours (the guidebook claimed it was one hour in a bus and two hours in a slow, constantly stopping minibus. Ha.) They had tattoos of a square cross on their foreheads. The little kids wore necklaces with crosses and keys and circles of metal. "What is this?" I asked the boy who spoke English. "For the church," he said. When we set off, we left behind the man who had shown us the way, who sat sideways to stare at the white girl the entire ride (awkward, very awkward). Instead, an old woman sat next to me, smiling and speaking to me in Amharig. I smiled and answered in English and I don't think either of us cared that the details weren't clear.
Today I had planned to see another castle, south on the road to Bahir Dar. But then the prospect of sleeping in won out against the prospect of at least as much driving as yesterday (6 hours - the intended castle was further but on better roads than yesterday) and instead I woke up late and hiked up the hill to Empress Mentewab's palace and church right near town. In a shady compound on the hill, surrounded by tall pine trees and stone walls, I decided that is where I want to live. Right there, on the hill, in the walls. I'm going to set up a little living room in the shade and never go inside again, unless it rains. I can see why an Empress would choose that location. I climbed up the steep stairs to her bedroom (no floor now) and tried to imagine living there.
Empress Mentewab's bones are in a glass-topped casket in the basement of the church, with the bones of her son and grandson. At first it seemed disrespectful to display them like that, but I began to think, after looking at her castle, that maybe she's happy to stay right there in her beautiful mountaintop compound. I wouldn't want to leave, either.
Now I am extremely dehydrated from hiking in the sun. Not remembering water before beginning a hike up a mountain was not my brightest moment, and the shop on the way up the hill was out. It only had Pepsi. I came back to town and drank two pineapple juices with lemon in a row (brilliant drink, just brilliant), but I don't think they have yet rehydrated me, if my body's screaming for water is any indication.
(P.S. If I did manage to post something yesterday - I tried - then this overlaps a bit. Ignore that!)

04 March 2008

two completely unrelated topics

I've lived about 12.5 years of my life in Michigan. (Compare to Africa: about 13 years.) So I'm not exactly new to this place. I do not seem to have learned much in 12.5 years here, though. Yesterday, for example, I went for a nice bike ride. In 35 degree weather. With bad gloves. And no hat.

By the time I came back inside, there were shooting pains through my ears into my head. I paced around for five minutes, waving my hands over my ears, unable to sit or think for the pain. I can still feel the reverberations of it today.

Smart, very smart. Twelve.5 years of utterly wasted experience.


After writing about how Ethiopia is a VACATION ONLY, I started thinking about the concept. Here in Michigan, it's mostly going to a lake to swim/fish/boat or driving somewhere new. Sometimes even a flight to a beach somewhere. And it's weird to think that for me, going to Ethiopia is approximately equivalent to that. Not exactly, because I can go to a cottage on a lake in Michigan, too, but it isn't so far away that I can't fathom it. Clearly I can, because I'm going.

I was talking to a friend the other day about this phrase that people have said to me several times since I first moved to Rwanda. It goes like this, "It's so wonderful that you've made that sacrifice to go and help those poor people in Africa." If you have said this to someone before, don't feel bad (although please don't use the words "those people," ever, because people are people and that phrase is so divisive and belittling), it's just that... I love being in Africa. It's not a sacrifice. I am just living where I love to live. And I'm not doing much, if anything. I'm doing exactly what I do here in the US: working and living and doing the best I can. I don't think I can "save" Africa, and I'm not even sure what such "saving" would look like and it wouldn't come from some white girl from Michigan. All I know is that, in many ways, going to Africa is as much of a homecoming for me as landing in Michigan, except that there's no family waiting to meet me. I don't need a reason to go. The bigger problem is that I can't stay away.

03 March 2008

So, I crossed the country. 2/3 of it, anyway. I'm in Michigan. I spent my time in the airport in Gone West cackling joyously over the tiny little two-seater planes taking off. So tiny! So cute! Like you could pick them up and hold them in the palm of your hand! I have a not-really-hidden desire to learn how to fly a plane. The only thing (other than paying off the loans) that tempts me toward working at a law firm for the $$$ is the idea that I could afford to take pilot lessons. Except then I figured out that I would probably have to spend my weekends in the office and would have no time for pilot lessons, so I decided I could conserve in other ways and still do the lessons on a lower-paying job. I have priorities. Travel and learning to fly a plane are high on them.

Then again, about traveling. Let's discuss.

Flying with a US-based airline: worst airline experience ever. I'm torn between "Americans suck at customer service" and "This airline must treat their employees really terribly for them to hate the customers so much." I guess it's probably a combination. You can see the hatred in the eyes of the flight attendants when someone asks for something, and I am of the opinion that one does not get that level of hatred, even for annoying customers who dare to ask politely for water, of all things, unless you are being belittled and underpaid by your employer. (Yes, Northwest Airlines, I am talking about you.) Also, remember those packages of pretzels that probably cost $0.001 each? Yeah, those are gone. In their place is a package of disgusting snacks that you have to pay $5.00 to buy (well, I don't buy them, but one could), and which probably cost the airline 14 cents to put together. It's a total racket. If I had a choice (which I don't, really, given the Michigan factor), I would never set foot in a NWA plane again. (Then again, I've already sworn off ATA and American - worst bathrooms I've ever seen - and I do have to FLY sometimes, so...)

Anyway, I made it to Michigan. Now I just have to pull myself together for the trip to Ethiopia. I don't bother to do much reading ahead anymore about where I'm going, because I assume it will be fine, but I did happen to notice something about roasted corn sold on the side of the road, which made me (virtually) twirl about with glee. Other than the part where the corn sticks in your teeth, there is almost nothing I like better than slightly burned roasted corn on the side of the road in East Africa. It's not sweet, you see. I don't really like sweet corn. But this corn is nuttier-tasting. Still not excited, really, because there are two overnight flights and a trans-London bus ride between me and the ground in Ethiopia, but the corn is something to anticipate.

Oh, one more thing: my mom told me that people keep asking what I'm doing, expecting a good story, and she says, "Oh, she just took the bar, and now she's going on vacation to Ethiopia." And the other party asks, "Oh, but what's she doing there?"

"Just visiting. Vacationing."

"But... who is she working for?"

"NO ONE. She's going for VACATION."

Apparently the concept of going to Africa just for fun does not exist in Michigan.

"Well," my dad said, "You could just tell them she'll save a few souls on the side, while she's touring the country."

Then we all fell over laughing.

01 March 2008


You know you haven't quite reintegrated to your current country when you start fretting about a friend's safety when she goes on vacation and you call on the day she's supposed to come back to find out how it was and to say hi because the bar exam is over! What else is there to do? And she's not back within cell range by 7 p.m. "But, it's dark." you think, "How will she make it back tonight?" After a few hours, you suddenly remember that people drive in the dark here. Even long distances. How novel!