Sunday, March 29, 2009

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.

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