Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Third Addis Herald


In this Issue:
Carnivores and Vegetarians for a Peaceful Thanksgiving
A Very Thriller Christmas
Trekking For Wimps
Everyone Speaks Frisian Eventually
Why (WHY) Must There Be Single Men Here? (The Perspective of a Single Woman on the Frontline)

Merry Christmas from Africa!

It was a busy and good one here. A friend spent Christmas Eve at my house and the next morning we went to a luncheon with a group of embassy people (who, sadly, aren't much fun). Then another friend met me (rescued me) at the same restaurant and he and I got a cab to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with our regular Sunday night group (the medical team who adopted me in late September). That was a blast. This family's house is the only place I get to have three little kids climb on me for hours. The six or seven adults had fun, too. We exchanged a few gifts, ate take-out Mexican food (we had our more civilized dinner earlier in December before someone left), played games, talked, and laughed a lot. As the doctor was driving us home that night, I thought Thank you, God, for providing a family here. Time with all of these people is special.

I don't have enough time (or energy) to write "deep" stuff in this issue. There have been several cultural problems that I'd just as soon forget during the holidays. This country is a mess. I continue to work through these things and will write about them eventually. But consider December the "People" section of The Addis Herald. I'll bring you up to speed on some of my social scene here. (I hope even this will offer snapshots of life in Ethiopia).

And I keep meaning to try to upload pictures someday, but it is a painful process on dial-up …

Note: Names have been changed or avoided altogether through nicknames to protect the guilty. Newsletters circulate enough to make me nervous …

Carnivores and Vegetarians for a Peaceful Thanksgiving
No Tofurkeys were carved during the course of Addis Thanksgiving 2007. (And almost all of the expatriates rejoiced.) Early Thanksgiving afternoon, the Sunday night group of more traditional carnivores gathered as usual at the home of a tiny Southern woman who does things with stuffing and chicken that I didn't know were possible. Dinner was delicious, and apparently, Southern Living does more than hide dusty coffee tables after all. Then, just two hours after the first meal, four of us from this group rolled ourselves into a taxi to go to our vegetarian friend Jamie's feast, which was just as tasty and even more expansive. All I had to bring was wine. Just two bottles of South African wine, and *poof* all the cooking and prep was done for me. (This is a very good thing since I still haven't truly figured out my oven or cooking at this altitude.) Jamie invited 20 other people from all over the planet, so it was an international Thanksgiving with Austrians, Swiss, Indians (dot not feather), Canadians and Ethiopians. Even more fun.

A note on Jamie, by the way: She's a native New Yorker who's working on a Ph.D. and employed by Bill Clinton (truly). Her world is so different from mine that ours is probably not a friendship found in nature. In fact, sometimes I chuckle and think our friendship is somewhat analogous to Hillary Clinton and the Church Lady suddenly becoming buddy-buddy and hanging out over coffee at Starbucks twice a week. She works in public health, so her bathroom's theme, for example, is condoms. Condoms, condoms everywhere (and I love it). My bathroom's theme, if it even has one, is rubber duck.

But we enjoy each other and hey, she's a fantastic cook. (The woman can do things with a pumpkin. A pumpkin.) We talk and laugh a lot despite our different backgrounds. She still razzes me mercilessly about Liberty, though. She has a hard time picturing me in a Fundamentalist environment even though I feel like Miss Prim in comparison.

At least Falwell gives people an in to lovingly tease me (well, it's usually in love …). I razz her about several choice things, too.

A Very Thriller Christmas
I just saw on "Nightline" (which I watch at 7 a.m., by the way) that there is actually a "Star Wars Holiday Special." Thirty years later, George Lucas still cringes about making it (it's on YouTube if you want to help solidify his shame). The first 10 minutes of the two-hour program is just Wookie chirping as Chewbacca and his family decorate the tree for "Life Day"--apparently, Jesus is not in space. Then Bea Arthur (!) waltzes into the living room to dance and sing a Life Day carol with one of the Wookie children. Things deteriorate even further after that, not that things weren't already shot beyond all hope as it was.

About five minutes of our Sunday night group's Christmas tree decorating night felt something like this three weeks ago. Surreal. Campy. Frightening. Like watching a train wreck and feeling guilty for staring.

It seemed innocuous enough at first. Microbiologist Dude (oh yes, he is still part of my world …) plays viola, and Attorney Guy plays violin. They were playing classical music and Christmas carols after dinner. They are the two funniest human beings in Africa (e.g., Microbiologist Dude is author of the yet unpublished "TB Songbook"), so I knew something was up when Attorney Guy got a glint in his eye and tipped his bow toward Micro Dude. Suddenly, after "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" they began to play "Billie Jean." During the first few notes I wasn't sure what was happening. Our "Little House on the Prairie" evening was morphing into a bad parody of the 1980's.

They played the whole song (the whole song) with mostly straight faces. It was one of the best things I've seen all year. I guess you'd have to know and enjoy these two to fully appreciate the humor, but I laughed so hard my temples hurt. Attorney Guy's eyes exuded wit, and Microbiologist Dude danced a little as he played. I've forgotten most of the other songs they performed, but I vividly remember "classical" Michael Jackson searing into my brain for the rest of my life. It was so ridiculous it was great. The next evening Microbiologist Dude went to Baltimore for two and a half months, so this is a nice, albeit scary, memory of him until he comes back.

Trekking For Wimps
My friend Alice is a Fulbright professor who is teaching journalism law in Addis until July. She's 20 years older than I am, but we hang out quite a bit and enjoy each other. She's been to 100 countries over the years and is still up for more. During dinner the other night we started comparing our schedules and discovered we both have at least a month off in February and March. She grinned and said, "How would you like to go to South Africa with me?" I practically spat out my fish kebob (or, actually, kabub, according to the "English" menu) with glee. "YES. Let's do it." So the next half hour was devoted to planning a potential five-week trek through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and possibly Kenya.

The problem, however, is that I am a wimp and she, though tiny, is Iron Woman. As we talked, I realized she is planning to backpack, take bird baths, use questionable transportation, and hike a LOT with just two shirts and a pair of pants. I am a city girl who enjoys walking on and admiring asphalt at least twice a day (and I have admired exotic asphalts in New York, London, Vienna, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, etc., etc.). I'm not sure I can handle her flavor of adventure or obliviousness to body odor and dirt, but I need to at least think and pray about it. We are suckers for collecting visas, and our passports have thick amendments that scream to be completely filled. The trip could be all talk, but even talk is fun. We shall see. It would be good to spend the time with her.

Besides this, my Austrian and Ethiopian friends (yes, they come interestingly grouped) and I are thinking about a trip to Israel during the summer—hot, but probably worth it. Again, we shall see what happens. The beauty of living in Ethiopia is that many of the exotic locations most people would like to see are fairly close, and airfare is reasonable. Between us all, we also have a million contacts we could stay with or get advice from.

Life here is so international it's almost ludicrous. I wish you could experience it, too. It changes your worldview in drastic and interesting ways. I'll try to scratch the surface on this next month.

Everyone Speaks Frisian Eventually
I love my Dutch colleagues Truus ("Troosh") and her husband, Jan ("Yawn," though he's hardly boring). I would be stark raving mad if I weren't going through the insanity at school with them. They live just 20 feet away, so we usually chat every day and have a cup of coffee two or three times a week to debrief, laugh, gripe, or just talk about life. Gentle Jan's commands for feisty Truus and me: 1) Never be surprised. 2) Enjoy everything. 3) Do not hit anyone. Ever.

Though Jan is much calmer about the university's goings-on than Truus and I, he still has his moments. His favorite technique for handling cultural frustration is speaking Frisian to those he is especially ticked off with. "It's amazing," he says, "how many Ethiopians speak Frisian when my tone gets just firm enough." He also "practices" Frisian with one of our guards, who doesn't speak a single word of English but seems to believe we will magically understand his incessant Amharic chatter. Sometimes Jan sits on his porch and reads books out loud in Dutch or Frisian while the guard leans against the railing, nodding and looking at Jan intently as if he understands every word.

Truus is funny, too. This morning I had music blaring while I was in the shower. Still, I vaguely heard pounding on my front door. To me, pounding means an emergency, so I jumped for a towel and hurried to investigate. It was just Truus, who was startled by my wet hair and pink wrapping. Still, she laughed and said as she navigated around my toothbrush, "We're leaving this morning. I'm going to kiss you now." She planted one on my cheek without poking her eye out. Impressive.

Truus and Jan are here for only another month and a half after they come back from their two-week holiday. When they leave, I will be in the compound and at the school alone, and that won't be nearly as much fun. We'll celebrate Jan's 64th birthday next month, and I'm looking forward to that. I'm not, however, looking forward to being by myself at home.

Why (WHY) Must There Be Single Men Here? (The Perspective of a Single Woman on the Frontline)
Other than being around to carry heavy things, walk me home at night, make me laugh until I hurt, and teach me about football (i.e., soccer—I have a hard time calling it soccer now), what good are single men in Ethiopia??! (You will notice the prepositional phrase "in Ethiopia" protects me from the ire of single men elsewhere.) They are maddening. But to be fair, I should rephrase this. One of them is maddening. And his being in Baltimore just makes it worse.

I've about had it.

First, it might help you to have some background on life here:

No matter the gender combination, many friendships in Addis are often accelerated. We already have so much in common that we're able to do what I call "emotional shorthand." We automatically assume (and are rarely wrong) that foreigners who live here are strong-minded, adventurous, type A, intelligent, and unconventional, so we approach most relationships from this foundational perspective. We also know we have limited time together and that we are each other's comfort zones and emotional support while we're here. Consequently, there's no point in a hesitant "new friend status" when we could be discussing deeper things and learning more from each other. This is especially true of strong Christians from the same denominational background, which all of us in the Sunday night group are. Jamie jokes that she's "easy" now because she shares in three weeks what most people take six months to express. (It's true. I've been through it with her and am still recovering. ;-) ) This might sound unhealthy or odd to some, but it's life in Addis. It is what it is. If you haven't been through it, you might be wary, but it's fascinating to watch and experience.

So. Microbiologist Dude. We met in late September and within three days we'd had lunch and talked for four hours without coming up for air. Within three weeks he'd called me a good friend and was commenting on how well we click. Within six weeks we'd logged impressive conversation and laughter time in groups and by ourselves as we'd discussed any number of topics. I really enjoyed him while remaining as cautious as I could be—remember, I'm seven years older and, scientist that he is, he is entirely oblivious to the ways of women. (What was God thinking when He put this guy in my path? What? What?!!)

Before he went back to Baltimore, we parted on a difficult note at the airport. (I'll spare you the details. Thank me later.) Now we type around the "elephant in the room" if we e-mail. But Jamie told me something interesting before she went home for Christmas last week. She said he'd asked if he could mail a Christmas present to her sister's house, and asked if Jamie would bring it back to me. Then she smirked and added, "He didn't buy anyone else a present, Meredith."

He doesn't know I know. But he's brilliant and mischievous—a deadly combination—so he might be torturing me since he might think it's telegraph, telephone, teleJamie. She won't be back until mid January. I have to sit on this quietly until then. I think sitting on a thumbtack until 2009 would be more comfortable. This "present" could be good or it could be bad based on our egregiously awkward parting words.

Even at our ages and with all our life experience, we are still 16 years old when it comes to the opposite sex. I'm sorry. Does this ever change? (Please say yes even if you're lying to me.) He'll be back in February. If things are awkward between us, it will be painful for the whole Sunday night group. If you pray, this is one I'd ask for help with. Really. (I'd bet two million bucks he's prayed about it, too.)

Welcome to my world. If you wanna live vicariously or watch a reenactment of your adolescence, I'm your girl right now. People ask what's going on, I tell them (perhaps too much in this case, but hey. It lets you know how to pray.) Such is life here.

Till next month. May you and yours be warm while you eat too much, visit with family you haven't seen for most of the year, and open presents. Part of me wishes I were with you. Then I remember how long the flight to Africa was, and I realize I am just fine here.

Love (and Happy New Year),


Monday, March 30, 2009

A Little Caveat (of sorts)

New posts, when they come, will NOT be as long as newsletters. I realize the letters are massive. Most people think they're worth it, though! And for you who like to live vicariously, there's your chance, baby.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Second Addis Herald (see disclaimer on the first!)


In this Issue:
The Great Ethiopian Weight-Loss Plan
Red Tape as an Art Form
"My Cat the Uncle Is Died."
These Are the People in My Neighborhood
Hardcore Lessons in Contentment
A Little Extra For Dedicated Readers (affectionately known as Newsletter Junkies)

Hello all. Greetings from Addis. (Yup. I'm still here! If you bet against that, you're out a few bucks—as you should be.)

While many of you are bundling up for miserable weather, I am comfortable in an African paradise. (Well, paradise has much less pollution, but at least this place is always sunny after rainy season.) I wear light shirts, skirts, and capris every day. After shivering through winters that froze my nostrils together in China and Colorado, this is fabulous! Still, it's strange to live in eternal springtime. Even in November, I am surrounded by hibiscus blossoms and flowering trees. The only thing that reminded me it's almost Thanksgiving was an invitation to dinner at a friend's house. Otherwise, I have completely lost track of time. It's May to me. Christmas, if I remember to celebrate it, will feel bizarre with sunscreen.

I have learned a lot since I last wrote. In some ways, I'm having an easier time. I've learned how to navigate this "massive and incoherent" city. I've worked to improve my home. I've learned how to speak a few more words of Amharic. I have made new friends and had a lot more fun than I did during my first few days here. And I continue to learn at least some of what God seems to be trying to teach me. (But the latter is a trial-and-error process.)

Now for a few snapshots of life in my world … (maybe real pictures later) …

The Great Ethiopian Weight-Loss Plan
Starving Ethiopians are rare nowadays. But in starvation's place is a little-known weight-loss wonder called EXTREME MOVEMENT (who knew?). Most days I walk between 2 to four miles to go to campus, meet friends, catch public transportation, and go to the grocery store. Besides this, I go to a gym for stress management via treadmill (only those with a death wish run outside). Judging from my now tentlike clothing, I have lost another 15 pounds in the last six weeks or so. (2009 note: Yeah, this lasted until I came back to the States. Ugh.)

Ethiopian colleagues, however, comment on fat I am (even though I am NOT). The men tell me to exercise, though I easily run up four flights of stairs that leave them winded. If these guys knew how close they are to death when they criticize me, they would back off. But the average Ethiopian woman is size 2 or 4, and three inches shorter than I am. To these men, I am a walrus at size 10. (And since their first weight remark, I no longer carry sharp objects to faculty meetings.)

Red Tape as an Art Form
I came here thinking I could help students and work with Ethiopians to improve education. But I now understand that accomplishing anything at xxxx, and in Ethiopia as a whole, is nigh near impossible. Just ask any expatriate in town, regardless of their profession. Some of us want to form a foreigner's support group with witty T-shirts and martinis on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Bureaucracy is the rule in this country. If you don't have the proper forms and signatures in triplicate, you are not allowed to do even simple things such as pay your electric bill or buy a mobile phone (my Canadian friend Alice is sitting phoneless in her pitch-black living room as I type). Getting these forms and signatures is a wild-goose chase, even for Ethiopians. Thankfully, the U.S. embassy cuts through a lot of this red tape for me—and sometimes illegally, though I don't even mind that at this point. But the embassy cannot protect me from xxxx's procedures. It doesn't matter, for example, what question I ask school officials; the doublespeak pattern I get is the same. Allow me to illustrate using a simple question. Imagine the dazzling complexity if I ask a more difficult question. You will think I'm kidding, but I'm not.

(Ato means "Mr." and Tekalign [sounds like "TEKahleen"] is head of the Language Department):

Meredith: Ato Tekalign, where can I make photocopies?
Takalign: I understand what you are asking and how you feel.
M: Really? That's amazing. I'm not even sure how I feel today. About the copies …
T: The administration can help you discover this information.
M: But the office is closed for two weeks. So, do you think you could tell me?
T: There are many copies made every day.
M: Well, that's true, but I'm not the one making them. So, where can I make them?
T: We have standard procedures for assessing this information.
M: Great. So what would those procedures be?
T: We are happy to make the copies for you.
M: That's very kind, but it's been five days and no one has yet. I need copies by tomorrow.
T: The administration understands how you feel. We agree.
M: (Quizzical look.) You agree with what, exactly? (Personal thought: You agree with the fact I want to choke you until your eyes pop out?)
T: We agree with your argument.
M: (Mental backtracking: Argument? Did I have an argument??) And what argument is that?
T: That it is very important to know where to make photocopies.
M: Yes. It is. And for some reason, I still don't. (My temple is twitching now.)
T: You will.
M: Do you think it is possible to tell me now?
T: The administration is happy to help you. You will need three signatures of approval for each copy. Surely, you understand our procedures.

Yeah. I understand their procedures. Launching the space shuttle is less complicated than doing anything in Ethiopia.

Try working with this mentality for several months. There is rarely a clear yes, no, or even maybe in their world. Many times, there is no answer at all, and important questions are left hanging, even if they are as simple as my asking where a meeting is to be held. (If I develop a personality disorder in Africa, please be patient with me when I come home.)

On a less maddening note, I have bypassed much of the nonsense by ignoring officials and doing my own thing in (as yet) undetectable ways. This is necessary if I want to actually work. And if I get in trouble at some point, I think I can take the heat. Sanity is worth the risk. Besides, I'm distantly related to Harry Truman, so I think I'll be OK--the whole "get out of the kitchen" thing, you know. It must run in my family. :-)

"My Cat the Uncle Is Died."
Last month an otherwise prim American missionary summed it up nicely, and surprisingly, when he said, "This country's educational system is so [expletive] up that we can't teach anything." After watching the system at "work," I see his point.

One of my 20-year-old Sophomore Writing students wrote the above heading as a topic sentence. (Though I'm still uncertain what it means, she did not mean that her uncle's cat is dead.) She wrote this pseudo-sentence even after the class and I had spent two weeks working on how to write basic topic sentences. There are about six ability levels in her class of 69 (yes, 69, though they tell me it will be split soon). Many students do no homework at all because they cannot understand enough English to know what's happening during class. Only an Amharic-speaking teacher could really help these students. I often feel as if I'm putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

Students learn in Amharic, their official language, until eighth grade (age 14). By law, teachers then abruptly switch the language of instruction to English, so for the rest of the students' education, classes are in English, whether or not they can understand it. Besides this, many Ethiopian teachers do not speak English well themselves, and the instructional materials I am required to teach with—though I disregard them and use my own—are poorly designed and riddled with grammatical errors.

Maybe I'm missing crucial inside information, but people at school seem to accept chaos as a way of life. The administration, for example, has changed my class schedule, student rosters, and room assignments five times without telling me. I have shown up in the wrong place at the wrong time more often than not. Students and I are baffled each week because we don't know where to have class. But this, apparently, is considered normal. Students and teachers don't complain or protest because they don't seem to think it will change anything. They have not lived with the sense of hope that many Westerners take for granted.

As for teaching itself, the most analogous description I can give is this: herding cats. In a perfect world, I would be able to utilize all the techniques I learned in graduate school. This world, however, is a mess. Many students are good-natured, and we often have fun, but they know only disorder. It doesn't matter how clear and simple my instructions are, many do not know how to follow directions. Ethiopian teachers do not enforce a standard of quality or organization, and they cannot fail even the poorest student. As a result, students are used to turning in scraps of paper with illegible scribbles as homework. They expect me to accept this. When I refuse, they are shocked. I'm at a loss to know how to grade assignments, because so far they haven't turned in anything coherent. Colleagues just laugh knowingly when I share these things.

After some extreme irritation and culture shock during the past two weeks, I'm once again rolling with the punches, for the most part. I try to brush off work aggravation and focus on more uplifting things like the fact my house's cockroach population is dwindling, or the fact a friend and I had fun cooking for a dinner party last week. I also relish the fact Thanksgiving is coming.

Side note: Last Thanksgiving I was in England, and for several years before that, I was in China. I'm not sure what Thanksgiving in Africa will be like, but I'll let you know. Two friends are vegetarians, so Tofurky with turnip puree might actually be in my future. (But I hope not.)

These Are the People in My Neighborhood
Despite the chaos (or maybe because of it), Ethiopia attracts driven, extremely intelligent Westerners. A group of expatriate friends and I had lunch earlier this week, and of the eight other folks at the table, alma maters were Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, Cambridge, and Stanford. After they realize I'm not kidding and I actually did attend Liberty University, they tease me. They can't imagine me with Falwell. Frankly, I still can't either.

Many in this group work in public health, though one of the men is an attorney and one of the women is a British embassy official. I am the only teacher in the bunch, which is a shame because I can't talk shop with anyone. Instead of discussing school-related issues, as I did with expats in China, I hear a lot about parasites, tuberculosis, HIV drugs, and stool samples. While these topics are lovely over tortellini and wine, I do enjoy our other conversations more. I actually like to read The Lancet, though, so I try to join discussions about things like mitochondrial DNA research (operative word: try). And if it's not research, it's anagrams or jokes, or banter and some other form of wit. They are nothing if not entertaining. (And they are proof that hopeless high-school nerds win in life as adults.)

But regardless of the number of foreigners here, and although I hang out with many of them, I'm still quite lonely at times. Life abroad can feel isolated because friendships are different in a revolving-door world. Just as you are getting to know someone better or even well, one of you goes home. Three in my crowd have left already. I feel a bit fragmented, and I wonder why God seems to deny some people deep friendships while they are overseas—especially since He designed us to need meaningful companionship. I'm not maudlin about this, though. It's just part of my world right now. Many of you have asked to know the nitty-gritty of life here, and loneliness is certainly part of it.

My daily walk to campus includes passing through a 200-yard-long stretch of beggars lined up on the street. Most have grotesque disabilities—no limbs or misshapen limbs, discharges, hideous burns, diseased eyes that have wasted away, leprosy, paralysis. The experience makes me appreciate what Jesus must have seen and healed. Many beggars sit or lie on dusty mats on the sidewalk, crying out in Amharic for money. Last week I saw a man who shook violently because of what I assume was advanced Parkinson's disease. His companions held him up as he groaned to me for help. I dug in my bag for change and tried not to cry. All I could think was, "What if this were my father? There but for the grace of God …"

If you live here, you see human suffering every day. I frequently step over men who lie in the street because they have nowhere else to sleep. Filthy children follow me and grab at my shirt, yelling. Able-bodied but unemployed men and women sometimes block my path and shout in English, "Give me money!" I give to a few beggars who are less brazen, but not every day and not very much. If I were to give too lavishly or too often, it would make me a target for attack. I've already been grabbed and shaken by a desperate man as it is. Now I try to walk the gauntlet without seeing anyone.

I realize this sounds heartless, but you learn quickly that little can ease the suffering. I struggle daily with Jesus's words "Give to all who ask," and "Sell all you have ..." I realize that the latter was spoken to a man whose heart was wrapped up in his money, but I still don't know exactly what it means for me. I have no satisfying answers, though I'm asking Him to show me how I should respond to the misery. I'm not sure I'll ever understand. It is so overwhelming it can leave foreigners speechless.

Hardcore Lessons in Contentment
If you have prayed for me in the last month or so, thank you. I've felt it even through the frustrations. I hope to grow a little wiser because of the struggles and the joys—and there are joys in all of this, too. They are little things like making soup while having a great conversation with an expat friend, or going to lunch with a student. The little joys are frequent enough to keep me sane (if I was sane to begin with) :-).

My good buddy C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Faith … is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." Ha. Some days my moods swing hourly. Life here is more intense than life at home. But through the difficulties, God is teaching me hardcore lessons in contentment. At least three times a day I stop and speak Truth to myself: 1. God is good. 2. God is in control. 3. God has my best at heart, even if situations and feelings seem to say otherwise.

I am realizing that most of the things we think we need in life are not what we really need at all. I am learning how to be content even when my most legitimate desires go unmet (keyword: learning … I'm not there yet). I am also learning how to trust God when He is silent. It's all good stuff to learn.

I hope you're well wherever you are. I hope you're learning, too. And if you aren't learning, then, hey. Come on over to the other side of the planet. My door is always open. I have a newly debugged house, an extremely comfortable couch, extra blankets, and enough American goodies to keep you well fed if you don't want to try injera. All you need are a ticket, a visa, some shots, and a passport. Easy peasy.

Till next month,


A Little Extra For Dedicated Readers (affectionately known as Newsletter Junkies)
(This section is neither here nor there in an already too-long newsletter. Read at your own risk.)

As I have watched foreigners who live in Addis, and in other exotic locations, I've noticed definite categories of people over the years. For your edification, and because I still feel like typing, I will try to capture the essences of various world travelers …

1. Relatively Normal People Who Happen to Live Abroad—Can be any age. Really, the only differences between you and this group are that they have a more acute need for adventure, a whole lotta vaccinations, more bureaucratic headaches and frequent flyer miles, and a passport as thick as a small-town phone book. I like to know them. I need to know them. And after all the absurdity at school, I hope to remain one of them.

2. International Burnouts—Usually between 45 and 65 years old. These people have lived overseas for so long they don't have an address in their native country. Their wardrobe is usually an odd fusion of local attire and psychedelic 1960's-type garb—if Birkenstock makes garments, these folks own all of them in tie-dyed hemp. They have no remaining concept of the North American "personal bubble," so they stand alarmingly close to other expats, who try to back away. When burnouts do return to the West, they have never seen and cannot operate simple things like ice machines in fast-food restaurants (one expat I knew in China said she had cubes falling around her ankles). They are sadly are out of touch with their own culture, but on a happier note, they have no idea who Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are. That alone makes me consider this lifestyle.

3. Single Women—Usually 25 to 60 years old (but in my book, you're not truly single until you're 30). Often feisty and capable. Typically well-educated and well-traveled. But those between 32 and 42 usually grieve their withering childbearing years in Ethiopia's vast dating wasteland. Many older single women have become bitter and snappish over the years (cf. Angry Missionary Matriarchs). I pray I don't end up like those chicks.

4. Single Men—More data has been collected on Big Foot than on single men living overseas. Only three specimens live in Addis (I hang out with them all). Many single women here speak of them frequently and wistfully, though these guys are oblivious (we typically want to hit them over the head with sticks). I'm not certain why there are so few single men here, but maybe it's because single women are tougher in general …

5. Angry Missionary Matriarchs—Usually between 50 and 70 years old. Typically have impressive facial hair despite being female. Short on grace, but long on correctness (cf. Pharisees). Their wardrobe includes sack-like polyester dresses and frilly socks with sandals, because, apparently, style is sinful. Just as bad is their sour attitude toward younger people with differing opinions (including 49-year-olds). Do not question these women unless you have the strength to hear a diatribe against keeping a church library book for an extra night. Their children have been born in the backs of Land Rovers in Indonesia, Sudan, and/or Papua New Guinea. Said children were home-schooled and have graduated from Oxford or Harvard in order to save mankind through various types of genetic research, which you will hear of ad nauseum. A high horse is required to be part of this club. I wonder if the air is better up there.

6. Married Missionary Men—Significantly more numerous than single men. They regularly complain about driving in psychotic traffic, but will race across town if a good football game is televised at the pub on Churchill Road (Premier League soccer included). If married to an Angry Missionary Matriarch, they ignore all other women (lest they seem lustful) and are humorless. If married to a normal woman, however, a married man is quick to help a single women in trouble. I'm a big fan of these guys when they give me a ride home at night or protect me from hordes of people on the street.

7. Children and Mothers—Very rare in my world. The only kids I ever see are six and under, so their mom is busy. Conversations with her typically go like this: "Meredith, it's a fabulous book and we should discuss … WILLEM, stop hitting your sister … it next week … CHARLOTTE! Take the doll out of your brother's mouth … Excuse me, let me wipe this up [fiercely mopping juice] … Anyway, let's get together next week … PARKER, it is you, me, and the Spanking Stick, mister … So what were we talking about?"

This family is wonderful, but an afternoon with them is effective birth control for those on the fence about having children. (Which would include me.)

8. Militant Cultural Imperialists—Any age, though usually new to international travel. Aggressive. Arrogant. They are angry most of the time because the natives aren't changing in drastic ways within six weeks of their arrival. They complain bitterly about the way things "should" be and how natives "should" behave. I usually want to bang this type over the head with my book bag. (But after teaching for several weeks, I share some of their frustration.)

9. Psycho Adventurers—Typically 25 to 40. Were born with bungee cords in their abdomens. Catchphrase: "Kilimanjaro is cake next to K2." Always pink from sunburn. Their paraphernalia includes sporty sunglasses, a NorthFace backpack, a can of Red Bull, and a beat-up Land Cruiser. Usually South African or Australian for some reason. They are barking mad and can be found at the bar down the street once their gear is loaded (where they invariably get loaded themselves).

Such is life in Addis this month. I will "see" you next month if not before. :-) Be well!

The First Addis Herald

Hi again, guys.

Because I still need to write more about our trek through the south of Africa, as well as tie up some loose ends on Ethiopia, I've decided to re-post the first newsletters as a "refresher" for context.

Please note: These letters are not "politically correct." Rather, they're the musings of an often culture-shocked woman who was, and is, learning. As a result, the letters offer one traveler's perspective, not the gospel truth about a country, people group or anything else--though they do offer a pretty intense and reliable view of life overseas.

The letters are not meant to be offensive, but brutally honest (I can see the comments I might get ...). I chose not to sugarcoat things because so many people had asked me to share my real life. But that said, I also looked on the humorous side of my experiences--because if you don't, you just suffer needlessly!

Some of the details have been either changed or deleted in order to protect the guilty. :)

With no further ado or delay, here is the first letter.

More on the trek to come later. Not to mention new posts.


(Because "The Hohhot Times" doesn't work anymore ...)

In This Issue
Why I Am in Ethiopia
You Know You're Sick When …
Ongoing Household Projects
Dirty Laundry and the Illusion of Control
Diplomacy 101
New Kid on the Block
Brutal Honesty (and Attempts at Perseverance)
Contact Info

P.S. (For Those Who Want Even More: General Addis Info)

Hello, Old China Gang! (and a few newbies)

Long time no write. Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If you didn't know of my whereabouts until now, then welcome to my latest adventure. I want to keep up with my old newsletter gang. I've really missed you.

I can't access blogs here, and dial-up is SLOW, so a newsletter is the best alternative. If you don't want to receive a newsletter, e-mail me and I'll take your name off the list. No problem.

I've been in Africa for almost a month, and I'm contracted through the State Department to stay until mid July, 2008. (At this writing, that is 286.3 days. Not that I'm counting or anything.) (2009 update: In the end, I stayed for an extra 21 days.) In a few weeks I'll begin teaching sophomore-level academic writing at xxxxx University, a private school of about 10,000 students. At first the deans talked of giving me five writing classes of 50 students each. I am trying to convince them that is homicide. We will see what happens.

Why I Am in Ethiopia
This is usually where you'd expect to read heartfelt reasons why I chose Ethiopia and how I have longed to be here for years. But this time I can't express any of that. Quite frankly, Addis Ababa has been on my radar screen for only the past 18 months. And as unromantic as it sounds, I applied to the State Department's fellowship program on a whim. When the U.S. embassy here offered me a post, I was surprised, but it sounded interesting. The adventurer in me doesn't want to live a life of what ifs, so I'm here to find out what it's like for myself.

For cultural reasons, I'm not even sure what kind of relationship I will have with students, or anyone else. But God directs through open and closed doors, and He guided through this door most directly. I don't know why, nor do I really have to understand it all, as I'm learning. The question is whether I will trust Him and learn from the ride. Remember the "lean not on your own understanding" bit of Proverbs 3:5? (Yeah. I'm working on it, too.)

You Know You're Sick When
In Ethiopia, it's not if you get sick, it's when and how often. A few drops of tap water on a dinner dish can ruin some people for a couple of days.

My first few days here qualify me to say you know you're sick when …

*You lie on your back with arms and legs folded up like a dead beetle.

*You stay in this position for two or more hours without moving very much.

*The hotel bedspread you're lying on is filthy, but you couldn't care less.

*Even food advertisements on TV nauseate you.

*Your American colleague sees you and runs back to his room to share his precious Cipro.

*You would even lick the bedspread if it were the only way to reach a Cipro pill.

On the other hand, I know I'm feeling better when I can lip-sync to "Play That Funky Music White Boy" playing in the hotel disco. (This is just between you and me.) Thankfully, the stomach cramps mostly subsided within 36 hours and life resumed as usual. Until next time.

Ongoing Household Projects
I've been in my own house for one week. The school provided a gated compound with guards, which is helpful because theft is rampant in this city. My new colleagues, an older Dutch couple, live in the main house, and I have the guesthouse in back. It is two concrete rooms—living and bedroom—and a narrow bathroom with a tub. I do dishes in a bucket in the tub because there's no sink in the kitchen, which is a separate part of the compound entirely. At least there's hot water here! (positive thinking, positive thinking …)

Major household projects include:
Mentally and emotionally adjusting to having a dish rack in the bathroom

Counting insects on the ceiling before I go to sleep

Killing enormous spiders (with much gusto)

Burning enough lavender oil to choke New York City (because this place smells "different")

Finding creative ways to avoid walking barefoot on the carpet (very dirty)

Living here sometimes feels like perpetual camping, but I'm learning how to make it a home. And it's not all difficult. The yard is full of roses, lilies, and a hundred other flowers I can't identify. Sitting on the porch near the lawn is fantastic. Add Ethiopian coffee to this activity and it gets even better. (OHMYGOSH Starbucks has lost its power. I'm looking for an IV of this stuff.) The rest of the house presents a new challenge to become a closet Martha Stewart. It's all about finding cleaner, prettier, niftier ways to live and maintain sanity.

I can sink or swim here, but most days I try to swim. Sometimes I sink miserably and sometimes I manage a good stroke, but I hope to hang on and see what God does. It is the process of making a new home and carving out a new life—for what seems like the hundredth time. I'll be honest and say it's really hard sometimes, but my new expat community (more on them later) understands this as well as I do. We also know the struggle is often worth it.

Dirty Laundry and the Illusion of Control
The laundry woman came for the first time yesterday. She set up large tubs of cold soapy water in the courtyard. I gave her the week's clothes and went back to reading a novel in the living room. Fifteen minutes later the day guard, who apparently helps with chores because his English is best, appeared at the door holding a piece of my laciest underwear and asking very personal questions about it. (Sorry. Perhaps I should have a TMI section.) If I hadn't lived in several foreign countries already, I probably would have come unglued. Experience, though, has taught me to ask questions first and dissolve into laughter (or tears) later. We sorted it out, and he was not being perverted. But when I walked back outside, most of my undergarments were hanging from the clothesline like a string of Tibetan prayer flags—colorful and flapping. My school officials had arrived unexpectedly and were looking right at them. But no one missed a beat. Apparently, no one cares. Maybe I shouldn't either.

Learning to cede control of your life is one of the hardest lessons God offers us. When your underwear goes public and a parade of strangers is in and out of your house for whatever reason (the language barrier makes life a mystery most of the time), you realize that any sense of control you have is an illusion anyway. The harder you fight to live life on your own terms, the more offensive you become to your host culture. "Roll With It Baby" has become my overseas theme song. And my motto is "Live humorously or die." If you can't laugh at the chaos, confusion, and embarrassment, you will merely suffer and miss out on the good stuff. And there is a lot of good stuff—but it usually doesn't involve my underwear. (And there are still days when I do not laugh at all.)

Diplomacy 101
The dean of administration at xxxx seems to be a crude man and he often frustrates me. Last week he asked me if I am married and if I have children. No to each, of course. He replied, "Yes, many Americans are selfish and they do not want to love anyone but themselves. And if you are not married, you must be a loser."

(… please breathe now … really ...)

What I really, really (really) wanted to say was, "With that logic, if I'm a selfish loser, then you're a starving, thieving, illiterate syphilitic." (But I bit my tongue—and my lip and my cheek. Besides, the word syphilitic would be lost on him.) Instead I said, "I thought you were smart enough not to believe stereotypes. Clearly, you're not." Then, just like that, he suddenly talked about the price of fruit in Addis. Apparently, apples are very expensive. Who knew? (I didn't win any points with this schmuck, but for once I don't care.)

I try to let this slide, but it cuts deep. And I think the singleness stereotype is a burden singles bear in the United States, too.

New Kid on the Block
After days of being alone far too much, worrying that I would never find peers, and going through the roller coaster of emotions that comes with initial culture shock, last week I attended St. Matthew's Anglican Church for the first time. I'm not Anglican, I knew no one, and I was a little nervous—after all, I'm the new kid … again. But I soon realized St. Matt's is much friendlier than the first international church I attended. Mostly Brits, Aussies, and a few Americans who work for embassies, NGO's, or medical teams, a large group of us went out for a long lunch after service. Later I had dinner with several from the lunch group, too.

That night I was adopted by a medical team—a public health specialist, a microbiologist, a counselor (helps HIV/AIDS patients spiritually), and a doctor/nurse married couple. I'd known him all of eight hours when the extremely attentive microbiologist announced, "You're one of us now. We want you." (Unfortunately, three days later he backed way off when he learned I'm seven years his senior. Looking younger than my age has its drawbacks.) They invited me to attend their team meetings on weekends, and that's a source of comfort. The best thing is, these are my "people," so to speak. They understand this lifestyle when most Americans cannot. We've all lived in several countries and we share a similar sense of adventure and ministry. Not to mention a sick sense of humor (don't get these people started on certain body parts). We talked for three hours about a hundred different things that a lot of people never experience, including what God does in our own hearts when we serve overseas. And I pray the fellowship continues.

(It would also be fantastic if the microbiologist snaps out of his apparent prejudice. I enjoy him, too.)

Brutal Honesty (and Attempts at Perseverance)
A lot of you might not want to read this, but I need to say it for my own sanity. I struggle quite a bit here. The U.S. embassy personnel are not the most organized bunch and they seem to lie to us even when telling the truth makes more sense (at least two Fulbright scholars in town agree wholeheartedly with me on this). The Ethiopian school system is a bit chaotic, and I can already see I'm going to spin my wheels most of the time—and students won't learn much. And despite my being adopted, I'm alone a lot more than I want to be. I'm also tired of having (or not having) unpredictable water, breathing gray air, killing weird insects, "camping" in my own home, and missing friends.

I don't know why God guided toward this door, nor am I absolutely positive I should have walked through it. But I do believe this: Our happiness depends more on the way we meet problems than the nature of the problems themselves. So I am trying to learn. I'm trying to be strong. I'm trying to make a life here, even if I don't particularly want to right now. The alternative is quitting, and I hate to quit.

Signing off for now. Keep me posted on life over there! It means a lot.


P.S. (For Those Who Want More: General Addis Info)

*Pronunciation of Addis Ababa: Choose your own. No one minds. But most often I hear AHdis uhBAHbuh (think British sheep).
2009 update: This seems to be the English pronunciation I heard frequently at first. More people said A(as in apple)ddis A(as in apple)buhbuh.

*Population: between 4 and 6 million, but most reference books say 2 million. (What do they care? No one's even sure how to say it. :-) )
*Lonely Planet's opinion of Addis: "Massive and incoherent." (True dat.)
*Elevation: Between 7,000 and 8,400 feet (It takes 10 years to boil an egg here.)
*Weather: Freakishly cold at night. Pounding rain every day (rainy season will soon end, thank goodness). Day temps are usually between 55 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
*Traffic: Statistically, this truly is the very worst place on earth to be a pedestrian. Many cab and minibus drivers are high, drunk, or both, and most Ethiopians don't watch where they walk. I try not to be a casualty.
*Attitude toward Christianity: This is an Islamic and Orthodox Christian nation. Voice of the Martyrs categorizes it as a hostile country because native Christians are often persecuted for their faith. I think this happens more in the countryside. Not sure.
*Typical Ethiopian food: injera (massive, spongy, gray sourdough crepes) dolloped with various piles of spiced lamb, beef, chicken, lentils, and vegetables (no pork), all very greasy. People eat with their hands. This is hard for me because I eat pizza with a knife and fork. I'm also not a huge fan of injera.
*Typical sounds around town/at home: Islamic and Orthodox prayers, Islamic and Ethiopian music, howling dogs, jets (I'm fairly close to a runway), car horns and bus brakes, people yelling in Amharic, occasional hyenas at night (they sound like laughing women—bizarre and unnerving)
*Satellite TV: Comes from the Middle East. One reason that area is so tense might be because "ALF" reruns are broadcast there. Who wouldn't hate America?

*Any other questions? Ask. I answer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The first and long-prompted post

A wise older friend told me a few years ago, thankfully not with regard to my blood alcohol level, “If 20 people tell you you’re drunk then sit down.”

Crookedly following his logic, since about 100 people have told me over the years that I should blog, I’ve finally started to sit down at my laptop. But it’s not been without deliberation. Besides figuring out blogging logistics, I’ve tried to understand my motives.

With zillions of blogosphere voices, what can mine contribute that’s different? Answer: I’m still not sure, and maybe nothing. But I do consider my boss’ words: “You have a gift for teaching and entertaining readers through everyday experiences.” (While I thank him for pointing out and appreciating this, he’s still my boss and not on the blog list. Heh heh.)

Since I’ve come home from Africa, I’ve missed noodling around on a keyboard in order to understand the world and share my "findings" with others. Maybe life in the States isn’t as dramatic or wild as life in Africa, Asia or even England was, but this country is still pretty fraught with things to explore. I’d love to continue to share my findings. Not to mention the questions.

Beyond this, I need writing discipline! Even though I write between 8 and 36 hours a day (so it feels at times), reentry to the United States upsets EVERYTHING. I’ve been spinning my wheels for the past six months trying to reestablish routines, personal schedules, and even eating habits among other things. A few blog entries per month could provide some creative writing structure. And hey, if I want to occasionally shoot my mouth off as I did several times in Ethiopia, well … here’s a way to go public. :)

I don’t take this lightly, though. As writer Bob Kauflin said in a Boundless webzine article on blogging, “The blogosphere is a mixed blessing. Used wisely we can benefit from the lives, insights, and creativity of others. Used without discernment, it can be a temptation and distraction for anyone who wants to please God.”

I don’t want to be distracted or cause a distraction, and I do want to please God as I hone my writing skills. I'd also like to share a good laugh now and then.

So in the next weeks and months, if you’d like to join this blogging adventure, come on down. Come along for the ride and share it with your friends if you like. Seriously, the more the merrier is usually my motto.

I might start out by posting my Ethiopia newsletters for those who’ve never read them. We’ll see, since they're not for the faint of heart. :) And I still have to write about South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique and London.

Till my next post, and with affection for longtime readers,