Archive | November, 2012

A Thanksgiving Abroad

23 Nov

What’s a girl to do when her most favorite string of holidays falls within the first 4 months of Peace Corps service?

A-     Sulk

B-      Drink with other volunteers… a lot.

C-      Attempt to use Ethiopian ingredients to make a bastardized version of stuffing

D-     Share American culture with our communities

E-      All of the above

If you chose any of these, or E, welcome to Peace Corps holidays! So far we have gone through Halloween and Thanksgiving during our pre service training. Christmas will fall within the first 2 weeks of moving to my site (that particular holiday may weigh heavily on A and B).

If anything, holidays mean our most creative sides come out. For Halloween, we happened to all be together in Addis before site visit so we organized a party in the basement of our hotel. Found pumpkins, carved them with butter knives and repurposed everything from sheets to trashcans for costumes. The costume that used the most hotel accoutrement was a tie between toilet paper mummies, and someone who came as a basketball hoop… hence the wastebasket. There were also plenty of Romans in togas. The laundry staff may have had a bit more work that week, but I think they were ok with it since we taught to hotel staff to dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. American culture sharing? Check Peace Corps Goal #2.

Raggedy Ann, Day of the Dead, A dead scuba diver, and a butterfly – all without any prior planning!

For Thanksgiving we were all together in Assela. This time the creativity came on the food end. Someone’s mother (god bless her soul) sent a package of stuffing. Mashed potatoes- easy. Turkey? Does not exist. Attempts at chicken were made, though that included getting someone to buy the live chicken, slit its neck, drain it, pluck it and THEN cook it. Worth it.

Side note: Two major food groups I had all the time in American but eat almost never here are chicken and cheese. I never thought I could go without them, but both are very labour intensive and so I no longer bother.

I really like Thanksgiving because it is a uniquely (north) American holiday (Canada shout out). It celebrates family and friends and is not ethnically or religiously affiliated. It sort of represents the best of America in that sense. An inclusive holiday based on over eating. Awesome. It’s interesting to explain the holiday here because almost every aspect of life is determined by sort of religious undercurrent, whether Orthodox or Muslim. To have a holiday like Thanksgiving is a nice opportunity to share some of the broader cultural themes in America.

A Peace Corps Thanksgiving, saying what we’re thankful for… (flea spray being #1)

And we were treated to a performance by a few of the volunteers from the Sagure site. What are the odds that everyone who brought instruments ended up in the same place? Musical fate. The best part is their name: The Peace Chords… awwwww.

The Peace Chords- mandolin, guitar, and violin- you’ve probably never heard of them, making me automatically cooler than you

One last thing, speaking of holidays, send me your addresses! Email me your address or post in the comments so I can write you a post card and put it in the snail mail. It will probably contain information that is over a month old, but how excited would you be if you received a postcard from your awesome friend in Ethiopia? The answer is very excited. Plus the envelopes here are very Carmen San Diego. If you want to know what that means, send me your address. When I find out my new address in Gonder you can then return the favour (life updates appreciated!).

Rules for Surviving Peace Corps #1- Flexibility

22 Nov

Every single one of my Returned PCV friends told me before I left that anything you think you know about Peace Corps will change. And I said, haha yup, of course, flexibility I get it. And they said, no really. And I said, ok whatever. Then I went back to my microbrew. Those were the days.

They were right. When I first had my interview many months ago I was told one thing, the invitation that showed up in the mail said Ethiopia. Three weeks ago, I was told my site placement was a city called Dessie, yesterday I found out they are moving me to Gonder.

Luckily I am still in training and haven’t fully set up yet in my site. If they were going to switch me to a small town somewhere and I couldn’t do communication technologies I would have stayed in Dessie, but I still get to work with the AIDS Resource Center regional office in Gonder, and it’s still a big city. In fact, if the stats are the same and it’s safer than works for me!

Here are the pros:

-          I get to fly there (as cool as 8 hour bus rides are…)

-          It is near WAY more PCVs

-          It is a tourism hub with the castles and on the Aksum, Lalibella loop (Wikipedia that shit!) Also, it will be WAY easier for anyone to visit me and see the cool things in Ethiopia and visit my site at the same time! And you can fly from Addis for super cheap (like $40).

-          There are a lot more NGOs working there and international orgs so I can make more professional contacts

-          Apparently some American and British med schools do research there-  cute English med student expats, yes please

-          It’s near Bahar Dar and Lake Tana, which is supposed to be beautiful

-          Also near the Simien Mountains, and they have monkeys! (clearly this should have been pro #1)

The Cons:

-          It will be a logistical nightmare getting my stuff (including a mattress and bed frame) from Dessie to Gonder

-          New PO Box stuff will be delayed

-          With so many international orgs and tourists, I will have that much harder of a time integrating (but I just have to know going in that I will have to try hard to keep up with the language and limit my ferenji interaction so I don’t become dependent)

-          Unknowns of no house yet or counterpart

-          Meeting awesome people in East Amhara region and having to tell them I am moving

So ultimately this is probably a good change. However, the timing and mental 180 I had to do this week though were more than frustrating. But, at least I’m (re)learning the flexibility lesson early, as I’m sure I will be relearning again and again over the next two years.

Gobez Food Combinations

16 Nov

There are few food items here that are the most genius, clever, delicious combinations of tastes I have ever seen. Recipes and habits I will most definitely be bringing back to America, and cannot believe do not already exist there outside Ethiopian restaurants are as follows:

LowzShay- Peanut Butter Tea

Yes. You read that correctly. There is a tea with peanut butter in it that tastes exactly as you would imagine. Like melted peanut butter with tea. It is one of the most delicious concoctions ever invented and I don’t understand why Starbucks has not picked up on this yet.

Oatmeal Goop

I don’t know what this one is called, but it basically like cinnamon oatmeal in a drink form. It tastes like Christmas. It’s some sort of oat flour tea mix that is thick but you drink it from a mug. Did I mention it tastes like Christmas. Seriously, Starbucks, get on it.

Kaysir Wot- Beet stew

I don’t know if you’ve caught on yet, but the majority of food in Ethiopia is some kind of soupy, mushy liquid food. This is not a bad thing. Especially when you have beets, potatoes, garlic and spices all together in a heavenly mix. I’ll even give props to the berbere here (the infamous spicy almost curry-like spice mix used in basically every single Ethiopian dish ever).

Chocola Tibs- Roast Meat (usually ox)

This dish is literally a bunch of small bite sized bits of red meat charred to a crisp over charcoal. Let every man rejoice. It is served over a hot charcoal plate, sometimes with spicy peppers and tomatoes, and you eat it with injera and dip it in berbere powder (duh).

Tagabino- basically spicy humus

Tagabino is made from chickpeas and … you guessed it berbere. With onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes, we have all the staple foods here covered. It is cooked down to an almost playdough like texture and basically tastes like spicy humus. It’s awesome, not least because it isn’t as soupy as most wots. Plus it’s vegetarian so you can get it on Wednesdays and Fridays when there is no meat for the Orthodox fasting days.

Special Ful- Mashed Beans

This dish is a crossover from the Arabian Peninsula, but with an Ethiopian (read berbere) flair. It is basically garbanzo beans mashed with onions and garlic. But what makes it special you ask? It comes with scrambled eggs (and berbere) and sometimes even avocado! Plus it’s served with a baguette type bread, which is a nice break from injera.

Mar- Honey

Ya calm down- we have honey in America. But this is the real deal. It comes in huge vats and you buy it at the marketplace with the bees and honeycomb still floating in it and everything. Just a little protein, no worries! It is unfiltered and straight from the hives meaning it is thick and delicious. I will never eat honey that I can see through again. Worms, shmerms.

Somehow with all of this goodness I am dropping weight here. My worries of a carb filled diet were pretty accurate, but everything is so natural and the combination of new foods, stress, and probably a lot more walking have meant I’m slimming down a bit. Chiger yellum! (No problem!)

Nooks and Crannies

13 Nov

This update is going to sound like an advertisement for Thomas’s English muffins. And maybe this is because about 70% of my thoughts are about food, but I promise there is a point, bear with me.

This past week I visited the town that will be my work site and home for the next two years. So I went in with a “you will like it or die trying” attitude. I think the mantra helped.

My site, Dessie, is large town of about 200,000 nestled between/on/in/around/under/through Mount Tossa (thyme in Amharic). They say it was designed by a blind man if that gives you any clue to how very nestled we are. The walk up to my house from my work is literally a 45 degree angle hike up a mountain. I highly doubt Peace Corps will be able to get a car up there with my luggage… I will be the fittest volunteer in Ethiopia. The pro to this, besides the exercise, is that nobody would bother walking up that way unless they lived there so I won’t have any strangers hanging around. And of course the view. I live above the clouds.

The eight hour drive from Addis Ababa to Dessie is breathtaking. A road through flatlands, mountains, valleys, cliffs, and farms, the only way I can describe the topography of Ethiopia is as a Thomas’s English muffin. The sheer cliffs and mountains drop so suddenly into valleys and steppes that it literally looks like the pastry’s nooks and crannies. I apologize for the lack of photos in this blog so far, my internet access has always been shorter than I want.

On the road from Addis to Dessie, an attempt to capture the landscape

But this week also produced some other realizations about culture, physical space and my place here that fit oh so nicely into the nooks and crannies theme. Moving into my house and beginning to meet my landlord’s family I started to understand the spaces, both big and small that I would be occupying in the compound and their lives. Right now I am the new exciting thing, but all I want is to be boring and ordinary. I never realized how much we prize privacy in my culture until I had none at all. I take my private moments in fits and starts- on a walk to work, sitting in café, the few minutes before I fall asleep. Squeezing my personal preferences and idiosyncrasies around the already established norm, I will settle into new routines and develop relationships that compromise the halves of a mismatched muffin.

While I am still dipping in and out of cultural nooks and crannies, I will also need to find my place and purpose in work and with my site specific reasons for volunteering here. It was nice to meet my coworkers and possible partners over the next two years, but it is clear I will be in and out of projects and organizations, providing bridges and weaving relationships, navigating the mountains and valleys of the professional bureaucracy.

The view from my office at the Aids Resource Center in Dessie

Finally I need to literally fit in the physical nooks and crannies. Attempting to return to my training site on my own yielded a very harsh lesson in safety and physical space. I already know that I am just about four inches too tall for any bus in Ethiopia. When my knees are hitting my chin, my elbow is behind my head, and there are five people in a seat made for three, a three hour bus ride feels like five. But when this is preceded by fights at the bus station (typical) where I am grabbed and shoved away from boarding (atypical) I do sometimes wish I was 4’2”.

But the best part of an English muffin is the juxtaposition of a crunchy toasted peak next to a buttery pool in the cranny. What makes this experience worth it is both the highs and the lows, the mistakes and the education, to form a more complete delicious whole. I probably could have made the same analogy with the bubbles in injera, but I eat so much of that I wanted to leave it alone for a while.

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