Archive | May, 2014

An Engagement, and a Party

24 May
Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Oh my gosh you guys!!! My site mate Morgan just got engaged to her long term Ethiopian boyfriend Robel. What does that mean? It means a meat tent, a group of men jumping in circles chanting, being blessed by a priest, and a lot of ridiculous photos at the Gondar castles. What started as an “engagement party” basically turned in to a mini Ethiopian wedding.

I was unofficial photog for the day, capturing all the lovey dovey cute adorable moments, as well as a fair share of “what the hell is going on?” moments. This was the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Though don’t worry Peace Corps, we got some Goal 2 activities in there – I made some hot pink frosting cupcakes and we did a traditional American wedding cake photo 🙂

had to do a traditional "American" cake photo

had to do a traditional “American” cake photo

The day started gathering at Morgan’s compound to hang out with her “Ethiopian family.” Afterwards we were ushered into vans to drive to Robel’s house, the site of the party. But of course we had to do a little scenic route around Gondar first, just to let anyone who didn’t know yet that Morgan and Robel were engaged. (Seriously though, everybody knows.)

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody, wouldn’t be Ethiopia without a party bajaj/tuk-tuk

After arriving at Robel’s house, we were ushered through the crowd to the inner room. This is one of the few times I have been able to witness what goes on at these things. Being Morgan’s “family” we were VIP front row seats!  This entailed watching the priest bless the engagement and rings (Morgan got a new Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie, awesome) and then he danced around a bit. Gifts were given, and food was eaten. Always so much food.

this was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

This was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

so many people at Robel's house

so many people at Robel’s house

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name - Wolleta Selassie

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie

the rings

the rings – apparently they have to be gold to count in Ethiopia

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Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can't back out now!

Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can’t back out now!

After lunch, we headed to the Fasil Gibbi (the Gondar Castles) to take the oh so Gonderian castle wedding photos. Morgan is decked out in habesha libs, and Robel looks suave in his ferenji suit (they switched!).

waving off the kids

waving off the kids

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We had a big posse

We had a big posse

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Morgan's family

Morgan’s family

awwww... their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

awwww… their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

So there you have it. Morgan is engaged. When she goes back to the states at the end of her Peace Corps service (she’s leaving me so soon!) she will start the process to be reunited with Robel through a fiance visa. It could take years, but these too can do it! Then they will have a civil ceremony in America and be officially married. Though, I’m pretty sure the events on Sunday were pretty Ethiopian official. I mean, I signed papers in Amharic – do you really think I read them?

 

 

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From Saudi to Addis, A Conversation with Migrant Workers

20 May

Returning from my recent trip to India I had some pretty long layovers in Saudi Arabian airports. Considering I could never actually visit Saudi Arabia on my own (the whole independent woman thang), I’d say spending a collective 27 hours in Riyadh and Jeddah airports gets me as close as I’m going to get.

On my return flight from Jeddah to Addis Ababa my friends and I were the only non-Habesha (non-Ethiopian) passengers. The security men were so confused to see us that they actually pulled us aside to ask if we were on the right flight. Considering we were having full conversations in Amharic with other passengers seemed to make them believe us.

Having these full conversations brought forth some very interesting stories. Not only were we the only foreigners on the flight, but there were also almost no men. The flight was almost exclusively Muslim, Habesha women returning home to Ethiopia after working as household servants for Saudi Arabian families. These “returnee” flights have been happening for some months now, causing fire sale prices for Saudi Arabian flights out of Addis, which come in full and leave almost empty. This is how we got such cheap tickets to India.

I sat between two women, who both had worked for families in Jeddah. Their stories were unique, but also typical. Their passports had been taken, their visas had expired, and due to the push from Saudi to deport illegal workers (with much negotiation with the Ethiopian government), scores of these women have been going home. The problem is, many of these women arrive in Addis without any way to get home. Maybe they left a broken family, maybe they ran away, maybe they simply do not have the financial means to get themselves back to their villages. These “returnees” (a play on domestic refugee) have been swarming Addis, causing a pseudo refugee resettlement industry to pop up.

One woman was from Assela, in the Arsi region where I actually spent three months in a small town during my training. This is where I was introduced to Ethiopia, learned Amharic, and lived with a host family. Two of my language teachers were from Assela, and I remember going in to the city on weekends to use an internet café and update my family. The other woman was from Dessie, my first site, from which I had to move for safety reasons. I remember driving up the East Amhara road and seeing scores of these young women in the lines for visas to the Middle East. Ready to give up their lives in Ethiopia for the chance to make some money abroad. Many of the women were barely 15, having dropped out of school. Working for a family in Saudi, or Dubai, or Bahrain could yield more (immediate) results than finishing their education would, was the common assumption.

One woman had worked there for over three years, the other just 18 months. They compared photos on their phones – the girth of the Saudi children they raised surpassing any child I’ve seen in Ethiopia. This was a common joke – “Look how fat he is!” one of the women said. Seems that many of these priviledged Saudi families, with oil subsidies smoothing the way for easy lives, run a special kind of risk. Diabetes is rising fast in this region, and I remember overweight children were a common sight when I visited Kuwait as well.

They also compared salaries – something to the tune of 800 a month. I never figured out if this was 800 Birr (Ethiopian – 19:1 USD) or 800 Riyal (Saudi – 3.75:1 USD). Either way, this is much more than the 100 birr a month (about $5) many family servants in Ethiopian receive (a whole different story). I could see the temptation.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to young Muslim women, though they do make up the bulk of migrant workers to the Middle East from Ethiopia. I have known Orthodox women who have worked in Bahrain, and one of my favorite local business owners actually got his start as a chef in Dubai. He reinvested the money he made abroad into a thriving restaurant in Gondar, catering to tourists. His story gives me hope for how these beneficial migrant worker relationships could work.  Unfortunately, many of these workers come upon a dead end. Desperate women looking for any way to get abroad, fall prey to fake visa programs where their passports are detained and they have to work to repay “travel loans.”

Though most workers go willingly, they end up in situations where their options are incredibly limited. These limitations dance dangerously close to the line of human trafficking, and in some cases women who encounter domestic violence in the homes (at the least), and outright sex slavery (at the potential worst) have no legal advocate as “non-citizens” of the country they are trapped in.

Migrant work is a sticky subject. It has bounced around the US Congress for decades, but it is not unique to the Mexican border. Migrant workers from Africa and South East Asia flock to the Middle East and Europe every day. The money to be made can really make a difference for families back home. But the risks are high. Much of my work here is aimed at getting young girls to see the benefits of education, and staying in school.

My high school Girl’s Club has gone through 10 documentary shorts with the Girl Rising video this year. The film relates stories from around the world of challenges and successes for girls’ education.  Check it out here. Staying in school can dramatically increase a girl’s potential for success, the catch is, how to convince girls that is worth the investment. Peace Corps volunteers around the world work on these issues, though sometimes these unique challenges in Ethiopia can make our jobs seem more like sale pitches. But it is worth it. You just have to hope your girls, especially the ones standing in line to work abroad, agree.

A Quick Trip to India

14 May

Overnight trains, sweet lassis, glass bangles clanging, swimming with elephants, repelling down canyon walls. I just returned from India, land of colours and crowds, bindis and bangra. Over three weeks four friends and I visited the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur) and then headed down for a relaxing week on the beaches of Goa. It was a great first trip, though it will have to be a first. India is not a sub-continent for nothing; I only saw a very small slice of this diverse and fascinating country.

Having lived in a developing country myself for the past year and a half it was interesting to see a country that has moved so much farther ahead of its counterparts. While other tourists commented on the “mysticism” of India, the “simplicity” of life coupled with the crazy honking cars, and large crowds, I really heard them commenting on the “mysticism” of poverty.  That culture shock doesn’t hit me anymore. What I saw was where a country like Ethiopia could be in 30? 40? 50? years.

But enough on the larger themes of development and travel. What did I do? What did I see? How much did I spend on pretty things? Well, I had some amazing experiences (see photos below), saw some huge castles and forts (and the Taj Mahal), and too much. I spent too much. And yet still came out under budget (the magic of rupies).

So if you’re planning a trip, and you happen to be going to any of the above mentioned cities, here are some things you absolutely must do:

Delhi

Bike tour of the city. We rode bikes through the crooked alleyways and markets of old Delhi and through the grand architecture and colonial houses of newer Delhi. They also ended with an amazing lunch.

Alyssa excited to go biking

Alyssa excited to go biking

Flower market in Delhi

Flower market in Delhi

Us Girls

Us Girls

This is 7am. This is "not busy" at the Spice Market

This is 7am. This is “not busy” at the Spice Market

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

Agra

We hired a driver for the day who took us to many more sites than we would have thought to visit. For 600 rupies (split between 5 of us) it was very much worth it.

 

The Agra Fort

The Agra Fort

amazing detail work

amazing detail work

Every fort had some sort of palace in it

Every fort had some sort of palace in it

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because we are too cute

because we are too cute

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The baby taj! or some other mosoleum

The baby taj! or some other mosoleum

There it is!

There it is!

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not paint, actual inlaid marble.

not paint, actual inlaid marble.

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Jaipur

We spent a week in Jaipur. You could probably do it in a couple days. But you most definitely have to do Elephantastic! We fed, rode, painted and swam with rescued elephants who live in one of two elephant villages in the world (the other is in Thailand). We also took a day tour of the sights of Jaipur including some of the forts, silk printing and an observatory park. We also did some major shopping here.

It was amazing to be this close to the elephants

It was amazing to be this close to the elephants

we fed them by their trunks

we fed them by their trunks

His name was Raja. He was rescued from a circus.

His name was Raja. He was rescued from a circus.

This is how we got on their backs

This is how we got on their backs

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Our masterpiece

Our masterpiece

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Swimming with elephants!

Swimming with elephants!

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

The Albert Museum, so many birds!

The Albert Museum, so many birds!

a painting of Krishna

a painting of Krishna

so. many. bangles.

so. many. bangles.

The Jaipur observatory

The Jaipur observatory

horoscope lines

horoscope lines

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silk block printing

silk block printing

A view from the Amber Fort

A view from the Amber Fort

Mirror Palace... the whole thing was covered in glass and mirrors.

Mirror Palace… the whole thing was covered in glass and mirrors.

need I say more?

need I say more?

Goa

Goa is actually a region, not a city, but we managed to ride public transportation up and down for hours doing awesome things. In the south, near a city called Palolem, we went canyoning (repelling and jumping into to pools of water in the jungle). In the north, we visited Anjuna, a hippy town and host to one of the largest flea markets in the region- so many hippies. And we stayed in a town called Benaulim, with white sand beach for miles. We also visited some temples, a spice farm, and generally got our tan (ahem, sunburn) on.

At the Spice Farm, with our bindis

At the Spice Farm, with our bindis

Cashew harvesting by climbing palms

Cashew harvesting by climbing palms

local liquor - fenny. Rough.

local liquor – fenny. Rough.

getting my traditional dance on

getting my traditional dance on

Benaulim Beach

Benaulim Beach

Breanne got some henna

Breanne got some henna

Canyoning!

Canyoning!

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this is me, free falling... because the rope was too short! not. cool.

this is me, free falling… because the rope was too short! not. cool.

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temple in the jungle

temple in the jungle

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I was on vacation. what of it?

I was on vacation. what of it?

Giant flea market in Anjuna

Giant flea market in Anjuna

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