Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Camp GROW!!!

It seems that the closer I get to my Completion of Service Date (COS), the harder it is to write in this blog!  The sad thing is, so much has happened and I've had so much to tell, but I just keep putting it off.
First, the big news; I have been granted an early COS, and I OFFICIALLY will be completing service and heading home to the U.S. on October 22, 2013! Since that date was set I have had a really hard time not counting down (83 days…); not that I won’t be sad to leave, but it feels like time for a change, and it’s felt that way for a while now.  The only alarming thing is if I can’t handle a full two years in one spot without feeling restless, how on earth am I going to handle life back in the states??  Well, I’ll just have to find me a job that allows me to travel… a lot.
These past few months I've been busying myself with tree plantings, gardening projects, and best of all, Camp.  
Camp GROW 2013
I discovered with last year’s camp, Camp Tigray, that being involved was one of the most rewarding experiences of my Peace Corps Service here in Ethiopia; so this year, I decided to be a little more involved and volunteered to be the Finance Officer.  This meant creating all the camp and meeting budgets, coordinating all the purchasing and contracting, and managing anything money related.  While last year I taught sessions and got to know campers as a group leader, this year I spent a lot of time behind the scenes making sure supplies were in place, people got paid, and transportation ran smoothly.  To my surprise, I really enjoyed the position, and would volunteer again in a heartbeat.  Camp was a huge success, and despite a few little hiccups here and there, it ran very smoothly.  The five of us Administrative staff (Camp President, Secretary, Finance Officer, Logistician, and Programming/M&E Officer) were a great team and worked well together.
PCVs and Counterparts of Camp GROW 2013
The best part about this year’s camp, was that we held the region’s first ever Environment camp called camp GROW (Growing and Renewing our World), and taught the campers to “Discover the Circle of Life”.  We had sessions on ecosystems, microorganisms, sanitation and hand washing, geography, tree planting, perma-gardening, wildlife, nutrition and proper food preparation, and environmental problems and how humans are a part of it.  We took a day trip to a nearby nature park, had a presenter come from Addis to teach about new gardening techniques, and at the end, each town created an action plan for a project to improve their own communities.
From my town I brought two campers and a junior counselor (one of my campers who attended last year) and I watched my two campers come to camp shy, timid, and unsure of their English, only to watch them leave with confidence, knowledge, and a determination to make a difference in their community; that, more than anything else made my time worth every moment.
One final post before I leave Ethiopia for good?  'It is possible', and I am determined to make it happen!  Stay tuned...

PCVs of Camp GROW
Left to Right: Bernard, Lizzie, Katheryn, Thor, Rashad, Chris, Pam, Ben, Me, Becca, Carla, and Ally

Friday, April 26, 2013

A little Breathing Room

Holding a snake charmer's Cobra

 It’s been so long since I’ve written you all probably thought I forgot about this blog.  The truth is, it’s been a bit of a chore to sit down and write on it; not because I have nothing to write, but for the opposite reason; I have put this off so often that now I have several blog topics to write about, and the thought of spending hours and hours getting it all out there sounds tedious and time consuming.  So, to back up a few months, to early March, I might as well start this long catch-up process.

Elephant in Jaipur
Early March I was scrambling to finish up one major project, doing research for another project, and most importantly (I thought at the time), preparing for my first out-of-country vacation since I arrived in Ethiopia 18 months prior.  It may not seem like a big deal, but in Peace Corps time, 18 months in country is a looong time to go without a vacation out.  I was finding myself short with my coworkers and neighbors for their lack of commitment to projects, their ‘demanding’ of my time (you know you need a vacation when someone asks you to have coffee with them and it feels like a chore), and not understanding my slow and sometimes struggling Tigrinya. I was frustrated with the “social norms” (Do I really have to greet you EVERY time I pass you on the street??) of my town, the harassment on the streets felt worse than usual, and I was annoyed because there was no meat in town due to pre-Easter fasting.  To top it off, my compound had recently bought the loudest rooster I have even known.  This rooster goes off at 3 AM every morning for about 15 minutes, again at 5 AM for another 15, and then wakes up for real around 6, to continue his incisive crowing until someone finally opens the compound door and he escapes. Did I mention this thing is loud, like a car alarm? I consider myself a great animal lover, but there were days when I wanted nothing more than to give that Rooster a swift kick at 3 AM.
Sunset over Udaipur
So, being sleep deprived, protein deficient, and angry with everyone, I was ready to jump on that plane to sunny, beautiful India, and not look back.  The way there, stepping away for a moment from the Ethiopian culture, felt like a breath of fresh air; the international terminal felt like a step closer to a familiar culture, I was so excited about “Duty Free”, that I dragged my friend Carla to every shop I could find (only to buy nothing because I was in sticker shock of how much things actually cost outside of Ethiopia), and even the airline food was a delicious and fancy meal.  Off the plane and into Mumbai, in the second highest populated country in the world, even felt like I finally had a little space, a little breathing room, and I began to relax.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, often I feel restrained by cultural expectations (I can’t really say what I’m thinking as it would be considered inappropriate- for example, “your traditional medicine doesn’t actually work”, “No, the traditional food ‘Ga’at’ is actually really disgusting”, or “you, sir, are a misogynistic, self-centered jerk and I wouldn’t work with you if you were the last person available for the project”… stuff like that.) and stressed to meet the expectations of my community as a volunteer. There is a constant pressure of being productive, bringing that great project into the community, and not to mention being as “great and wonderful” as the last volunteer.  I’ve mentioned it before, but comparing me to the last volunteer is something of a favorite pastime of my neighbors and it gets tedious and frustrating to constantly attempt to live up to the expectations the last volunteer (unknowingly) set.  Either way, those three weeks in India felt like the breathing room I had much needed.
Elephant lining up at the Amber Fort, Jaipur
Starting out in Mumbai, we spent a day in the northern part of the city enjoying a more-so developed-world lifestyle of shopping malls, cute clothes, and (shamefully) fast food. Tell me you wouldn’t be excited to see a Starbucks after 18 months without?  Or jump up and down when you spot a McDonalds…  We ended our Northern Mumbai time with a trip to Sunjay National Park for a little monkey sighting, then hoped a 3rd Tier AC sleeper train to Udaipur (word of advice, NEVER get the middle berth on a sleeper train… it’s like sleeping in a cubby hole).
Hindu temple in Udaipur

Udaipur was a beautiful city in Rajasthan set beside a series of lakes, dotted with palaces and temples, and already on my list of places I want to live when I am old and pursue my ex-pat lifestyle.  Three days of exploring city palaces, Hindu temples, gardens, and narrow streets of down town Udaipur, we were sad to leave, but excited to see what was down the tracks to Jaipur.  One of our biggest ‘learning moments’ was discovering that booking train tickets in advance is a must… and our 7-hour trip from Udaipur to Jaipur was in the 2nd Seater car similar to an overcrowded Ethiopian bus (minus the closed windows and smell of rancid butter that usually accompanies Ethiopian transportation).  Being used to this, it really wasn’t too bad, and even fun at times to meet different people and share (somewhat alarming) food.

The town of Udaipur
Compared to Udaipur, Jaipur was a fast-paced, bustling city with packed streets and full of excitement. Known as the “Pink City”, the main down town is made out of pink stucco filled with interesting architecture.  Besides shopping, we spent our 5 days there touring the Palace of the Winds, Jantar Mangar Observatory, and the Amber fort; a highlight of my trip as it included getting up close and personal with the Elephants of Jaipur and riding one up the hill to the fort.  Besides the sites, we also got to watch the traditional dancing of the Holi Festival (which was supposed to be the Elephant festival and something I was looking forward to immensely, but thanks to PETA’s meddling, that portion was eliminated.  I could say quite a bit on my feelings towards PETA, but this blog post is long enough), and celebrated Holi with music, dancing and colors.  Other high moments in Jaipur (besides riding the elephant) was holding an Egyptian Cobra, and winning a carrying-water-on-your-head race during the Holi festival (and getting a cool Elephant trophy).
At the Gateway to India

Leaving Jaipur with stained skin and hair from Holi, we took a 27 hour train back to Mumbai for two days in the southern part of the city.  After an alarming amount of more fast-food (please note that we also enjoyed delicious street food and Indian cuisine as well), we spent the two days walking the old, Victorian streets around Victoria Terminus, got our photos at the Gateway to India, strolled along Chappati beach, watched a Bollywood film, and took a trip to Elephanta Island to view the carvings in a cave temple dedicated to Shiva (definitely a highlight).

To finish our trip, we made our way down to Goa, for 6 wonderfully relaxing days on the beach. When not lounging at the beach, swimming, eating sea food, or enjoying two-for-one cocktail hour, we spent the time with new hostel friends hiking up to the nearby old Portuguese fort and the quaint little fishing village, perusing the flea market at the nearby Anjuna beach, and going out to fancy restaurants and dance clubs.  In spite of delicious sea food and naps on the beach, I was ready to go when it came time to head back to Mumbai (this could have been due to the fact that the temperature was reaching the high 90s, low 100s every day, or to the fact that I was burnt to a crisp and running low on Aloe Vera gel).
Carving done by an anonymous artist on the beach
Relaxing on the beach in Goa
Waiting at the airport and boarding that plane to Ethiopia, all those pressures and expectations slowly put their weight back on me as I began a mental list of things I needed to do when I returned to site.  We boarded the plan, and things didn’t seem so rosy anymore.  The airplane food wasn’t as good, and they even took away my airline blanket before I could stash it in my bag.  As Addis Ababa slowly came into view, I could feel myself slowly returning back to that angry, cynical person I had left, griping about the social and cultural expectations of my service; when the man sitting next to me (I had been asleep for most of the flight before this) eagerly leaned over to get a view of his first visit to Africa.  I couldn’t help smiling at his excitement and reminiscing my first trip to Africa, and then the first time I flew into Ethiopia.  We started talking, and he explained that after a short time in Ethiopia, he was off to Togo to be a mining consultant.  He told me how nervous he was to be in Africa for the first time and immediately I began describing all the wonderful memories and cultures I’ve experienced while living here and in West Africa.  His eagerness brought me back to why I was excited to come here in the first place and slowly, the thought of returning back to my demanding life full of cultural and social pressures didn’t seem so bad.  How many people get this experience?  Come to think of it, I only get this experience and this lifestyle for 8 more months and then never again- it’s frustrating, difficult, and demoralizing at times, but that also comes with moments of joy, accomplishment, and friendship; memories I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

I arrived in my town, late the next afternoon after two days of traveling; tired, and ready to collapse in bed, when I was greeted by choruses of “Welcome Back!!” “Nichole’s back!” “Thanks be to God, you’re home!” and I smiled as I realized there was nowhere else I’d rather be.  

Three weeks later, the rooster is still here, STILL waking me up at 3, 5, and 6 AM, and I smile, because I know that when Ethiopian Easter rolls around next week, I am going to enjoy EVERY BITE of that Dorho Wat...  
Entrance to Elephanta Caves

In front of a carving in the Elephanta Caves
Holi, the festival of Colors!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

An Ethiopian Wedding

I’ve been to weddings here before, or so I thought.  Usually if I get invited, I show up in time for dinner, see the bride and groom arrive, do a little dancing, and after about 2 hours, gracefully explain I have a “program”and head home.  This past week (actually, 3 weeks), however, I got to see the whooooole picture; the behind the scenes, all the preparation, the entire wedding day, plus the 5 days of partying before and after.  The family who owns my compound announced about 3 weeks ago that one of the daughters is getting married and that (woohoo) all the festivities would be right here in our compound.  This was, of course, back when I was na├»ve about Ethiopian Weddings and thought it was just a one day affair.  WRONG.
Making Sewa

About one week after the announcement, the preparations began:  several huge tubs were brought in and washed to begin the ‘Sewa’ (a homemade beer served at literally every Ethiopian function I’ve ever been to) and ‘Mes’ (a really delicious honey wine, also homemade) processes.  Several women spent several days mixing, kneading, and storing buckets of grain slurry and gesho leaf mixtures to put in the sewa barrels.  Following that, clay vases big enough for a person to sit in were brought in and the red pepper-onion tomato paste was created and stored to begin fermenting (for the wedding main course “Taho’lo).  

Up all night cooking
Cooking the Onions...
About three days away from the wedding, friends and relatives started pouring in from all over the country and suddenly every night was a dance party, every morning was a lengthy Bunna (Coffee) ceremony and every afternoon included some sort of preparation.  Being the novel “Ferenji” in the compound, I was expected to join in for every activity and every conversation; if I didn’t, I would get stern comments of “Where have you been?”, “Why are you in your house?”, “Where are you go?”, “TECHAWATI!” (literally means ‘play’, but more meaning come talk and chat with us).  I really don’t mind joining in, talking with the out of town family once in a while, but Ethiopia has a different concept of personal space; explaining that I needed a couple hours to myself every day or that having music blasting that heavy Tigrinya beat loud enough to rattle the windows from 6:00 AM to 3:00 AM every day is overwhelming for me, didn’t translate- they simply assumed I was having as much fun as they were.  Here they are constantly surrounded by people and noise- Ethiopians seem to be able to sleep anywhere and through anything, and are used to being jostled and hustled.  I consider myself fairly adapted to the Ethiopian life and maybe even more patient than the average foreigner traveling around, but I will admit that there were moments when I was well over this wedding before it even started.
Dancing around the Groom's car

The day before the wedding the real preparations began, and all the women in the compound pronounced me “gobez” (clever)and “ambassa” (lion- meaning hard worker) as I sat down and chopped onions with them for 4 hours.  They were even more impressed as I joined in the dancing that evening showing off my Tigrinya beat shoulder-shake (I have been told I am pretty good… just saying.)  And I thought, hey, one more day and this wedding will be over- might as well enjoy myself! (Again, WRONG.)

The Band
That night the music did not turn off at the usual 3 AM, but continued all through the night; I sat in my bed with earplugs that not quite blocked what I now decided was a merciless music beat and felt sorry for myself (it also happened to be the day before my birthday), until the next morning when I discovered that all the women had stayed up all night preparing all the food.  Feeling sleep deprived and quite resentful of the unchanging music selection, I got dressed in my Ethiopian traditional clothes and went down to help.  I spend the next 5 hours being paraded around like a show dog to guests and my compound family gave me small chores like handing out cups or walking around and telling everyone to keep eating and drinking (So Ethiopian, but really..?).  And when I wasn’t doing that, it was like I was the hired Disney character at a birthday party and EVERYONE wanted a photo with the ferenji.  
Me and 3 of my compound brothers

Showing off the wedding clothes bought for the bride
The wedding officially started around 2 PM, and the number of people crammed in to that tent was overwhelming.  The bride waited in the back room of the house, as the groom’s wedding party showed up in their caravan of cars.  The bride’s wedding party welcomed them in by dancing around the car and escorting the groom to the wedding stand, and after some intense dancing, the groom, followed by both wedding parties drumming, singing, and dancing, went in to the house to claim his bride.  When the bride was claimed and everyone was in the tent, there was more dancing and dinner (dinner number 2 that is) was served.  What food does a traditional Ethiopian wedding have?  In the area of Tigray I am in we are known for our “Taho’lo”, which I’m pretty sure I’ve described before, but basically it is a clay pot filled with a spicy red meat sauce, a yogurt/bean paste, and other spices, in which you dip barley flour dough with a stick.  Delicious, but I had also had this about 4 times in the past 2 days, so I was a little taho’loed out.  For the wedding party, there was a huge buffet of several kinds of meat sauces (they bought a cow for this) rice, fried zucchini, fried meat balls, potato chips, beats, cabbage, eggs, fried kale, and so much more…
Claiming the Bride
Following the feast, the priest said a blessing, blessed the rings, and the bride and groom exchanged them.  I was really interesting to see the Ethiopian traditions that were also mixed with so much western culture; the rings, the bride’s dress, the wedding party, and even the cake and champagne were all very western, but the drumming, dancing, and food were very traditional.  After a cake cutting, and a bride and groom dance, the party began and dancing continued.  Even now, 5 days later, people stop me on the street and say “hey!! I saw you dancing at the wedding!”

Proof that I danced..
The Wedding Stand
I went to bed that night thinking, whew- good experience, but glad that’s over.  It also happened to be my birthday that day, but I really didn’t think it would be very tactful to mention it… but I guess I can’t complain about not having a party. The next day, however, the party continued, the drumming continued, the dancing continued, and that brutal Tigrinya beat continued to reverberate through the entire compound.  Around noon, I packed a bag and headed off to a nearby town for a little peace and quiet (and to eat something other than Taho’lo) but the next morning I returned to find that not only was the party still going (and I got my usual stern comments of “where were you??”, “Why did you go?”, “TACHAWATI!”) but today was a whole new party to celebrate the consummation of the marriage (awesome.).  I put on my party face for one more day, did some dancing and made the best of it, though I gave in that night and begged my site mate to let me stay at her place (the next morning I returned to a compound that looked like the aftermath of an intense frat party).

So there it was, 5 days of wedding celebration and today, day 6, the music has finally stopped J Don’t get me wrong, this was a truly fun experience and very few foreigners get to be so involved in the wedding.  I have a whole new appreciation for Ethiopians, their traditions, their sense of community, and most of all their endurance for a party!

The Priest's Blessing 
Even the Injera was fancy and dyed Ethiopian Colors!


The bride and groom in front of the cake and champagne...contraption. 
And the sparklers were lit and the cake was cut...

The Bride and Groom's dance
Champagne Cheers!
More Dancing
And finally it was time for the groom to take his bride away into the night

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My long lost blog...

G6 MSC... preparing for Capture the Flag.

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I've written last; I know I’m pretty bad on keeping up, but this is an all-time low!  So much to say, I don’t even know where to start!

I guess at the beginning.  Life has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions, work, struggles, and frustrations.  The day that I looked on line and saw that my Peace Corps Project funding was full was one of the best on my service so far; a couple weeks later when I walked into the education office to discuss implementation only to find out that EVERYONE I had worked on this proposal with had left for other jobs or school and when I asked the head of the office when we could start, he replied with, “and who are you?” was one of the worst days in my service.  But, what goes up must come down, or I guess vice-versa in this case, and the project (after re-assessing everything, compiling a new budget, and starting from scratch with these new partners) moved forward. 
The location given to us for our Environmental Club
The education office handed me off to the water and sanitation bureau who agreed to supervise my project and do all the hiring and contracting for the well.  We brought their experts to the area to look over the space to determine a location and the probability that there would be water under there (every expert said “most likely, but we won’t know until we dig”…so comforting) and then we sat together and drafted a lengthy contract and final budget.  The office hired the local youth association (designed to give unemployed youth and drop outs in the area a chance for employment through small projects such as this) and after a dramatic signing session of contracts, designs, and budgets, an initial payment was given and construction began.
The beginnings of our project... why it had to be so BIG is beyond me, but I was told that's just the way it's done here...
 At this point I ran off to Debre Zeit, near Addis Ababa for a Mid-Service Conference, all the while crossing my fingers that that found some water down there (our other alternative was to turn our big hole into a water catchment system- not a bad idea, but not exactly helpful for starting environmental club projects this year…) and when I returned, I got another one of those roller-coaster highs: WATER!  It was a relief and an exciting day to see a project going right. (update, a week later we discovered it wasn't ground water, but run off water- so we have changed the design to be a water catchment pond; not quite as effective as a well, but still will get the job done.)

A little pause from the project, our Mid-Service Conference was great and just the break we all needed.  With only 18 of us in our group, we are probably more close-knit that other incoming groups and as a result, we get along.  On the one side, we spent the week grafting and pruning trees, talking about our projects, and discussing ideas and advice; on the other, we played sardines, capture the flag, did a gift swap and even voted on “superlatives” for each other (I won the coveted "most likely to be an extra in Harry Potter", and "most likely to become a crazy pony lady"... I think I can live with both of those.). 
Learning 'budding' technique on Avocado trees
Teaching Ethiopians the art of pie baking- they were really impressed with canned pie filling: so t'urum!
Another great day during MSC was Thanksgiving Day; our APCD, Heywot, had gone the extra mile and got us a spot in the culinary school to cook our thanksgiving feast.  The way she managed this was presenting it as a teaching opportunity for the culinary students to learn some ‘ferengi’ cooking, and we had a great time teaching them everything from stuffing, sweet potatoes, and chicken, to chocolate chip cookies and apple, cherry, blueberry, and pumpkin pie.
It was a crowded kitchen.
This day was a dramatic high-low in itself with great experiences teaching and baking, and one sour experience at the end of “who broke the blender”, in which the students vs. the volunteers all claimed the other did it (I watched the whole thing, and one of the students did indeed knock it down, though I understand why he wouldn’t want to fess up as it would probably come out of his pocket), thus making a rather upsetting end to an otherwise perfect day.  Grr.

Back to my town:  MSC ended, we all spent a few days in Addis Ababa getting our mid-service medical exams done (my doctor was surprised to see my file as one of the healthiest PCVs in country with only a dog bite reported, well, and two cavities) and spending far too much money on eating out and going out dancing; so I flew back tired, happy, and broke to my small town in Tigray.  With only three days to spare before turning around and heading back to Addis for a Volunteer Advisory Committee meeting, I checked up on my project, took some pictures, and listened to my well contractor go on about how the budget wasn’t enough, they weren’t getting paid enough, and he needed another payment.  I had this sneaking suspicion that this might happen (it happens a lot here) and the realization that contracts and budgets mean very little slowly set in.

Back to Addis, had a great VAC meeting, and was asked to head down to the town of Assela for a few days and give a presentation on the world map project to the new PC trainee group. 
Presentation on Peace Corps "World Map Project"
Fast forward, I am now back in my town after basically three weeks absent, and trying to gather myself and throw myself into my work again.  Yesterday the well contractor, office supervisor, and I met together to discuss the second payment for the well: I (shamefully) became that rude ferengi that insists that things have to be done her way and demanded that the project had to follow the pre-agreed budget and made everyone sign a new contract describing the payments received, and the remaining balance of the budget that would be paid at the completion of the project.  I am usually a very relaxed and easy going person, but I felt like the contractor was trying to take advantage of the foreign girl who ‘undoubtedly has tons of money and can afford to pay us more’ and lost my cool.  It happens to the best of us.
The project continues, and soon we will be starting on our mini gardens and tree nursery with the students- then the real fun begins!  In other big news, I just got the go-ahead to commence project “rebuild the irrigation system” at the tree nursery site!  With two projects underway, Christmas and New Year’s, some traveling planning in January with my brother, an all-volunteer conference and a trip to India planned for March, It’s going to be a busy few months! 
Kept it simple and planted squash, cantaloupe, and egg plants in the garden- out of the three, squash apparently love Ethiopia..
Squash dominating my garden
The two extremes of holiday food:  above, the pre-holiday feast of "dulet"; everything BUT the meat (all the little intestinal bits and pieces)  and below, the post-holiday feast: my favorite dish of "Ta'halo" a spicy meat sauce eaten with yogurt and barley dough. (Most holidays include 3 feasts... )