Monday, April 6, 2009

The Sixth Addis Herald


In This Issue
A Room with a View
Thoughts in the Dark
Livin' La Vida Transitory
Where Kant Could

Hey guys! Happy April. Hope you got your taxes in. (I have a six-month extension. Woohoo.)

Well, it's official. I can't send everything about our trip in one newsletter without completely overwhelming you. So, I've decided to send a couple of trip vignettes (the first two items in this case) per newsletter for the next few months. (Well, a few months is all the time I have left in Africa anyway.)

This is a quick sketch of our trip: We flew to Johannesburg and traveled by bus to Mozambique late the next day. We went through Swaziland on our way back to South Africa from Mozambique. We crossed into Lesotho via the Drakensberg Mountains, crossed back into South Africa and then took a backpackers' hop-on-hop-off bus along most of the South African coastline to Cape Town. From Cape Town, we took another bus to Windhoek ("only" 26 hours). In Namibia, we hired a car and drove all over the country, which is twice the size of California. Then we took a bus to Pretoria (28 hours!) and finally made our way back to Joburg for the return flight to Addis.

In each sentence above, there is an encyclopedic story. (I will spare you. Don't worry.)

Here's a glossary for future reference:

Backpackers (people): slightly mad, often drunk individuals, usually in their 20's, who travel around the world for a year or two at a time with no apparent purpose other than to bungee jump and drink. (Can also be stretched to include people like Alice and me, who are "too old for this insanity" and have a little more life direction.)

Backpackers (place, singular and plural): hostels that are sometimes cockroach infested and shabby. The upside is they're about $10 US per night and (often) safe. And you can get virtually any illegal drug you want there, if you're in to that sort of thing.

Baz (rhymes with "has") Bus: the transportation choice of most backpackers (people) when in South Africa because it takes you to most of the backpackers (places)

Coast to Coast: a guidebook that lists almost all of the backpackers (places) in the southern Africa region

A Room with a View
I can't speak for others, but as a rule I avoid sleeping in places that display photos of half-naked women straddling motorcycles and wielding whips. Call me provincial, but this life decision has served me well. There are times, though, when rules have to be broken.

(Our first warning should have been that the mirrored bathroom ceiling was listed in Coast To Coast as a "stunning, experience-enhancing feature." But Alice and I were too hassled to notice when we made reservations. Besides, we had only two places to choose from.)

Every hostel, hotel, and mouse hole in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was booked because Celine Dion had come to wail "My Heart Will Go On" (and on and on and on). Twenty thousand people had hightailed it to town, and we were lucky to get a room at all. It was midnight when the bus finally made it through concert traffic and dropped us off. We lugged our packs to the battered front stoop of a Victorian house and rang the bell. We really needed a shower and sleep. Port Elizabeth was just a stopover.

Monique—ample, late-fiftiesish, red-haired, very busy—bustled up, gave me a hug though I'd never seen or spoken to her, and said (much too loudly) in an Afrikaans accent, "WELCOME! You must be EXHAUSTED!!!" Then her husband lurched down the hallway behind her wearing only a torn Speedo (men, no offense, but you need an aerodynamic reason to wear a whole Speedo, let alone a torn one). I knew things would go downhill, but not how quickly. As we walked upstairs to our room, one of the first-floor guests, a small, shadowy Eastern European man wearing pink leggings, offered me mushrooms—forget the salad kind.

I looked around for the rabbit hole I'd fallen down.

Alice (my traveling companion, not the character…) and I slept well despite Monique's 1 a.m. announcement: "BE QUIET! PEOPLE ARE SLEEPING!!!" The next morning, we actually felt somewhat rested. But when I wandered into the kitchen—a scary place with pictures of cartoon cats eating spaghetti, men wearing Halloween costumes and doing their thing at urinals, and, of course, said biker chicks—I freaked when more shadow people came out of dingy rooms and surrounded me, kinda like zombies. This time they asked if I had any money. I tried to look very Mexican, said, "No hablo inglés," and got the hayhook heck outta there, still hungry, but safer.

As Alice and I stood on the front porch waiting for (read: willing) the bus to pick us up quickly, Monique offered me tea. She wouldn't take "no thank you" for an answer. I held the cup she'd thrust at me and watched her toddle upstairs. She appeared on the second-floor balcony holding the sugar bowl she'd forgotten to bring down. She was certain that if I held my cup just so, she could pour it efficiently from there. I would have let her try it—hey, it wasn't any weirder than the rest of the place—but the cat walked by and she got distracted. Apparently, the cat speaks to her by winking. I am not kidding. One wink means he wants out. Two winks mean he's going over to the vacant house next door, where he spends much of his free time. (I would have been there, too, if I could have shimmied up the palm tree and over the razor wire fence.)

Alice, by this time, was the strangest shade of pink I've ever seen a human being turn. And she was shaking. Small bursts of air seemed to be coming out of her nose. Then, when we could stand it no longer and were sure Monique had ventured back into the depths of the house, we erupted like crazy people. In the history of laughter, I think we made the Top Five of those who laugh so hard they risk spontaneous combustion. Then we started to call to the bus: "Here, Baz. Here, Bazzy, Bazzy. Save us from this perverted Victorian nightmare! Please!"

Monique came downstairs, with sugar bowl, to see what was happening. I was practically on the ground. She must have thought we were insane, but she tried to make small talk. "What do you ladies do?" she asked warily, probably checking to see if we were asylum escapees.

"We're teachers," Alice choked, still trying to get air.

"Oh, that's just super!" Monique cried, as if we'd cured cancer. (Side note: I don't know how much experience you have with British and British Commonwealth accents—my deepest apologies to friends from these parts, and you personally are not guilty of this—but some of them enunciate the word "super" in such a way and register that makes me want to slap myself, let alone the speaker: "Seeeoooooopaaah!!")

Then Monique asked if we had traveled very much. She didn't hear a word we said, though. She just launched into a laundry list of travel tips, though she has been only to England, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Item 8 was "Never let the blacks do anything. They'll just ruin your trip. They think they're clever, but they're not." (Apartheid lives on in her generation, but more on that in a later issue). Item number 9 was, "When traveling with your cat, South African Airlines offers the best rates." Item 10 was, "Always keep your socks dry."

I thought about saying, "Wow! I've been to 14 countries on four continents in the last two years and I've never even considered sock malfunction!" But Alice looked like she'd lost control of her torso. I was worried about her spasms.

The bus interrupted Monique just as she started on item 11. I'm not sure what it was. Though I'm sorry I missed it, it was probably better to escape while we could. She was kind and hospitable, but she and her menagerie were more than we could handle that morning.

A cat costs 800 rand to transport, by the way, if you want to take Kitty from Johannesburg to London. I could give you the name of Monique's travel agent.

Thoughts in the Dark
I was five, but I remember it like yesterday. Mrs. McQueary towered above me one morning at St. Francis's kindergarten (as did the enormous bun on her head—I still think the thing housed small birds and should have had its own zip code). She asked me sweetly, as she'd asked all the boys and girls before me, "And what is your favorite color and why?" (Cue big smile and bounciness.) The other little girls had answered pink, purple, yellow, light blue. They'd squirmed and smiled shyly before they'd given a reason: "Because yellow is happy," "Because blue is pretty," or "Because Mommy made me a pink dress." Mrs. M had said, "Yellow is terrific, Jessica!", or, "I like pink, too, Heather!"

No awkwardness there. Perfect social acceptability and ease. But I had to open my big mouth and say point-blank, looking up unflinchingly at her, "Black. Just because I like it." (I rarely understood any woman who cooed at me and seemed to think we were all thick. Mrs. M, in turn, seemed not to know what to say to me sometimes.)

Black is still one of my favorite colors (and were I to see poor Mrs. M now, I'd assure her I'm not a psychopath). As an adult, I can articulate what I could not as a five-year-old: Apart from black's mystery, elegance, and depth—not to mention that I, as a Winter, look good in it—it makes a fantastic backdrop to set off whatever is laid across it.

I thought of this in Namibia.

We'd been navigating vague, washboarded gravel roads for 10 hours on our way to Sosuss Vlei, the Namib Desert's red sand dunes park. We'd had a punctured tire, witnessed a horrible car accident, crossed hairy mountain passes and a flooded river, and stupidly gone all day with nothing substantial to eat or drink (but hallelujah, I have found another place where McDonald's does not exist). We didn't know exactly where we were going or why, but we were going there as fast as possible on the left-hand side of the road. We were lost, tired, dusty, and irritable. (FYI, if you've already been traveling hard for more than three weeks, bumping up and down all day in the official Middle of Nowhere is pretty stupid. Take a day off already!)

We finally stopped at a small retreat center hundreds of miles from anywhere. We felt like we were still moving. It was dusk. I poured myself into a deck chair outside by the pool and didn't make it till dinner before falling asleep. A few hours later, I awoke to something I hadn't paid attention to in years: the night sky. It was so disorienting, I actually gasped. A hundred million diamond stars accentuated by a jet-black universe. The Southern Cross looked close enough to reach. The Milky Way was a pale river from horizon to horizon. Occasionally, a meteorite shot across and I made a silly wish. The sky was moonless, but the stars were light enough. It was so all-encompassing and deep that I felt dizzy and lifted up into it.

I'm drawn to cities and probably always will be. If I have one regret about urban areas, though, it's that the night sky in New York, Hong Kong, and even Colorado Springs just isn't the same as in Podunk, Kansas. But nothing will ever compare to Namibia. Even the memory makes me want to sing Psalm 19. Nights like that were why it was written.

As for the rest of the country, Namibia's landscapes are so surreal I felt like I was trapped inside a Salvador Dali painting. I kept looking for a watch or a pointy mustache draped over one of the weird mountain ranges that cropped up out of nowhere. In a day's drive, we saw ocean, savannah, mountains, absolutely barren sand, and the flowering Kalahari Desert during rainy season. We also saw gemsbok (gorgeous), springbok, a fox or two, and meerkats (unbelievably funny and annoying).

Swakopmund, a coastal town of about 25,000, is a popular site for adrenalin junkies who come to ride ATVs, bungee jump, deep-sea fish, or windsurf. Alice and I, however, only wanted to hang out for a day or two. It's a nice enough place, "more German than Germany," as Lonely Planet puts it (Germany colonized the country during WWI). But it did remind me vaguely of my cousin's Barbie Dream House when I was growing up: artificial, pretty deserted, and definitely a place that will stretch your appreciation of pastels. Most buildings were painted pink, light blue or green, or yellow (Mrs. M would have loved it). And most locals were uncommunicative (sort of like Ken). But we enjoyed shopping, poking around, and eating Wiener schnitzel and red cabbage even if people didn't have much to say.

They call the northern Namib Desert the Skeleton Coast because, in earlier days, any ship's crew stranded there was as good as dead. It is the strangest, most unsettling scenery I've ever experienced. On one side of the highway (I use this term loosely since it's mostly salt road), you have the Atlantic Ocean crashing in. On the other, fog and massive, barren dunes that stretch out as far as you can see. I felt trapped between two impossible environments. For a city girl who really does like skyscrapers and traffic, this juxtaposed, dreamlike scene was unnerving. It was good to visit, but I was happy to leave.

And as we eventually drove into the desert on our way back to Windhoek (nondescript, kind of like small-town Midwest USA with palm trees), every couple of miles there was a triangular "SAND!" sign. (Like you're gonna forget you're surrounded by it and think Oops. I thought I was in the Everglades.)

But I will say, for as weird, difficult, and occasionally disturbing as the country was, it was beautiful. Well worth the trip. I'll post pictures when I can.

eHarm Anyone?
The other night over french fries at Kaldi's, Jamie and I talked about men--and why some are attracted to you and why some aren't. She told me about how Microbiologist Dude and I are too genetically similar. How my immune system is too much like his. How romantic chemistry really does involve biological chemistry, and that's why he's not that into me. Blah blah. (I swear. I have never hung out with so many health professionals in my entire life. I miss English teachers. They would just quote Tennyson.)

When she finished the biology lesson, she told me she's thinking about going on eHarmony (this, despite my warnings and the fact she knows even it can be a vast dating wasteland). Since I couldn't talk her out of it, we started crafting really stupid profile statements:

"I would never buy you cute slippers."
"I hate to shop."
"We would never have to discuss our relationship."
"I prefer the lid up."
"You would always be right (when you agree with me)."
"Disease free with minor baggage."
"Not bipolar. Never have been. Probably won't be."
"I am Catherine Zeta-Jones' body double."
"ESPN rocks! Please! Watch it!"
"Dude. I am the perfect supplementary income."

With lines like that, I think she has a chance.

Livin' La Vida Transitory
As I've said, overseas life is full of transient relationships. Social circles can change every few months, and dynamics sometimes do a one-eighty overnight. This can be good and it can be bad. Currently, to put it bluntly, it bites. Sunday night used to be a haven. Everyone had something in common, and we all talked and had fun for hours. Not so much lately. Because people have been traveling or have left altogether, and because new people have come in, for the past month it's usually been four younger men, one very busy woman with small children, and me.

Two weeks ago, I transcribed part of the new guys' conversation. They asked what I was doing, but I was Cheshire Cat-like as I scribbled. (Note: It might seem like it, but they really hadn't been smoking pot.):

"Dude. 'Anchorman' is the funniest Will Ferrell movie ever."
"No, dude. It's 'Talladega Nights.' "
"Dear, Baby Jesus! Help me, Baby Jesus! Ha!"
"Hey, has he ever made a zombie movie? That would be so cool."
"Dude. Can zombies run? There's like this big debate online. No one can decide."
"Dunno, man. Did they run in 'Shawn of the Dead'?"
"It's totally George Romero's call, dude. He's the expert, so zombies can't run."
"How do you kill a zombie, anyway?"
"Cut its head off and shotgun its brain."
"But, man, they're like, already dead."
"Doesn't matter. You can kill 'em again."
"Yeah, but if they're dead … wouldn't they just come ba— … but if they're already dead … they're not alive … but … DUDE, how does that work?" [Cognitive wheels smoke as he figures out this conundrum.]

[Now I can't stand it anymore. I have to speak.] "Um, guys. Earth to guys. Hi. Yeah, you know what? The real issue is zombies do not exist. So why worry about it?"
[Well, OK, I've seen "zombies" in South Africa, but please … they just needed methadone.]

Everyone stops. They stare at me and blink for a second. Then they blink at each other. Eventually, one guy says to the rest: "So, dude. You ever heard of the United Negro Fried Chicken Fund?" Shortly after this, their conversation turned to wrestling moves. Check out the Superplex and the Power Bomb. They totally kick butt.

Some of you might be saying, "DUDE!! These people are A-W-E-SOME!! How can I hang out with them???" But for me, it's not so hot. I know. I know. It's my problem. I'm not silly enough and I have zero clue how to relate to them. Part of me really wishes I could. But the much larger part just wants to run the other way.

Where Kant Could
Living in Africa gives a person a lot of time to think about things. Yeah, life here is chaotic, totally maddening, and occasionally homicide inducing, but in some ways it's more laid back than Western life. And days here are often so hard but so interesting that there's always something heavy or new to ponder. Since I don't have a TV—it blew up and I didn't get it fixed—I've been reading a lot. Even the philosophy books I loathed in college.

I'm not an Immanuel Kant fan (way too much duty), but he hit the nail on the head occasionally. Especially with this thought: "Give a man everything he wants, and at that moment, everything is not everything." Not that I have everything I want. (HA!! There is a man reeling from amputation who would verify this.) I've had many of the things I've wanted, though. And when I look back on the few things I've achieved, at the many blessings God has given me, or at countries I've lived or traveled in, everything is not everything.

I don't think this in a hopeless, depressed way, but in a realistic way that knows "this" is not what it's all about. There's more, and we'll never reach it on this side.

I guess the biggest thing Africa has been teaching me is contentment. If what I have is meager or lavish, pleasing or hurtful, I want to be content. Here I have learned more deeply that:

1. Life will never get easier.
2. Even if you get what you think want, it's never what you wanted. (Admit it. We all secretly think, If only I had X, I would be happy.)
3. No one ever arrives.
4. You will make a complete ass of yourself at least once a day (much, much more if you are a foreign teacher).
5. If you can't look at today and be content in its trials, however grievous, you will never be content. (Because remember: Life never gets easier.)

And if I think I have it hard, 67 million people in this country have it harder. So I'm slowly, painfully learning to look at today and say "OK" rather than "Oh, no" or "If only" about the future (If only he loved me, If only I could _____________, If only …). It's a gradual process, but my vision is improving. I just wish it didn't take so much upheaval and craziness to teach me this.

But where would faith come in if things were easy?

Anyway, be well. I am.


P.S. Lately this John Newton hymn has encouraged me when I've worried about my (completely unknown) future. May it encourage you, too. The language is archaic, but come on. This beats "Shine Jesus Shine" any day:

Begone unbelief, my Savior is near, and for my relief will surely appear.
By faith let me wrestle with God in the storm, and help me, my Savior, the faith to adorn.

Though dark be my way, since He is my guide, it's mine to obey and His to provide.
Though cisterns be broken and creatures all fail, the Word He has spoken will surely prevail.

Why should I complain of want or distress, temptation or pain, He told me no less.
The heirs of salvation, I know from His Word, through much tribulation shall follow their Lord.

Since all that I meet will work for my good, the bitter is sweet, the medicine food,
The painful at present will cease be 'fore long, and then, oh, how glorious the conquerors' song.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Fifth Addis Herald

In this Issue:
I'm Home (Whew)
The Cat Who Came to Dinner
Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts

Hi everyone. Here's a note to say I'm back safely, as well as a few other things.

I'm Home (Whew)
Alice and I came home (a very relative term) last week. I'm still processing everything—the good, the wonderful, and the completely awful. I'll write more next month. Here's a preview: We went to South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia. We spent 32 days on the road, drove on the left-hand side of the street, and slept in 18 beds, three overnight busses, and a Volkswagen Chico (looks exactly like a Rabbit, but without the "frills" … I do not recommend it). We traveled approximately 11,000 miles, with 4,500 miles of them by land. We are still EXHAUSTED. But we had an incredible trip. There is so much to share once I wrap my brain around it.

And we did not kill each other!!! (Yippee!!) There were moments of temptation for both of us, however. Especially for me, I think, because Alice enjoys spontaneity only if it's meticulously planned and ruthlessly controlled. Microbiologist Dude and Jamie popped in over e-mail periodically and asked me how I was doing. Jamie sympathized. Micro Dude suggested using poisoned darts and a blowgun because of their availability, silence, and speed.

I don't know what Alice's crew suggested for me. :-) But she wants to travel together again, so there was no permanent damage done.

It was an amazing trip. And God took care of us in a few tricky situations (even if Alice doesn't believe in Him). For example, do not get stranded outside the Pretoria train station after 10 p.m. ...

Just give me a chance to process. (And sleep a whole lot.)

The Cat Who Came to Dinner
This quote has stuck with me for years, though I can't remember its source:
"She often wondered what it would be like to wake up with a man instead of her cat. But at least she never wondered if she was waking up with the wrong cat."

About two months ago, a tiny, painfully thin, gray and white kitten appeared in my yard. He ran up to me, tail militantly upright, and said, "MEOW! MEOWmeowmeowmeowmeow!" Then he wove around my legs.

Translated from ancient Ethiopian Hustler Cat language, this means: "Listen, white chick. You and I both know I'm starving and very cute. You won't be able to stand it. You will succumb and feed me. So start your Crazy Cat Lady collection tonight, and throw me some food here."

How does one resist such moxie? I was toast.

I tried to imagine what a cat might eat. Rice and whatever leftovers I had? I boiled some rice (hey, it's a filling main ingredient in cat food, so . . .) and mixed it with the bit of chicken casserole from lunch. He promptly turned his nose up because some of the rice was slightly burned (OK, a lot burned. I told you I'm having trouble cooking in a lousy kitchen at this altitude). He looked at me, all squinty cat-faced, as if to say, "Your cooking is so bad I have only five lives left." I did not dignify that with a response. But a few days later, I bought cat food at the commissary, and I knew I had been sucked into caring about the little beast. Ugh.

There are oh, so many reasons for the new guards to think I'm bats, but the cat was completely over the top. Ethiopians don't usually take care of animals—even work animals. Last month as I gave them instructions on how to feed him while I would be on holiday, they paused, looked at each other quizzically, and spoke in Amharic. I'm not fluent, but I think they said: "This woman is serious. We are going to feed a cat. Special food, no less. They don't pay us enough for this."

So far, the little guy is sticking around (if you feed it, it will stay). He has even become something of a group project, since the guards got attached to him while I was gone. He follows us around like a puppy and talks a lot, even if he's not a great conversationalist. And when he weaves around the guards' legs, I grin at them. They smile and throw up their hands as if they've surrendered to his charms, too. I even let him inside sometimes; I do best with a roommate, but a cat offers some company even if for short periods. I'm careful, however, and took him in for a checkup and shots. Rabies is endemic here, and even though I had three very, very expensive rabies vaccinations before I came, I'd rather not have to test their efficacy.

It surprises me how much I've missed taking care of something. (One of my nurse friends laughs at this, saying she wishes she didn't have so many people to take care of.) Maybe I care deeply because I feel powerless otherwise. Helping one cat is something I can accomplish in a huge city of suffering people and animals. Spiritually and emotionally, I can't handle the 30 or more beggars who approach me every day, but I can deal with a little animal that is plumping up, growing, and not hurting as much since I started to feed him. And besides, cats are cats all over the world— even if it's with a hustler twist. They are eminently universal, and therefore comforting.

I'm looking for bigger ways to help people. The cat is an introductory course.

Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Attorney Guy—who is 29, has taught graduate-level law classes for the past two and a half years, and who will soon return to the States to a $100K-per-year law career, ugh—calls me every ten days or so to invite me to lunch or coffee. His regular invitations feel incongruous because I've never had more trouble talking to another human being in my whole life. (Then again, he probably doesn't notice since he dominates most conversations. :-) ) Other friends think he's great, and I will say he's one of the funniest people anywhere. Still, I rarely feel perfectly at ease with him. Maybe this is because:
a) he is the most intelligent, most intellectually sophisticated person I have ever known. (This is significant because, for whatever reason, I've been around many intelligent people over the years.);
b) he seems a little slick to me;
and c) he seems like an unmitigated pragmatist (get over it, get on with it, find another way, good grief, why are you so upset because it didn't work?). Rightly or wrongly, I'm more idealistic. Actually, I am a guileless bumpkin in comparison, since all his life he's been groomed to think critically and gently manipulate people. He once told our Sunday night group, "Social skills are part manners and a whole lotta BS" (my apologies, I am quoting for full effect …).

Maybe this is why Shakespeare said we should kill all the lawyers. :-)

Last week over lunch, he and I ended up talking about romantic relationships (an awkward topic, yes, though he definitely enjoyed the conversation). But I'm not sure why, a few days later, his thoughts still deeply upset me:

He likened human sexuality to that of animals: elaborate mating rituals of birds and smitten men; men fantasizing about being professional athletes because that would increase their chance of getting sexually attractive mates; men and animals instinctively being more attracted to highly symmetrical bodies that indicate better health and fertility; Darwinian principles and microevolution explaining many of our behaviors; blah blah blah. He also agrees with the duplicity of dating: present the very best front you can, for as long as you can, even if you'll be your sordid self later.

Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm not sure he should still be putting on a front five or six months into a relationship. (I never said this guy is always wise. I just said he's brilliant.)

When I asked him what he thinks most single men are looking for, he chuckled, grinned at me, and said, "Just play the Game, Meredith. It's nothing but a Game." (I capitalize because he seemed to find it that important.)

A Game. Huh. Unfortunately, the only games I enjoy involve boards. Otherwise, I don't think they're always healthy, let alone wholly comprehensible. I do see his point in part, but where is God in his thinking? Can't God bring people together for His glory and their growth? Or am I unrealistic? (Rhetorical questions, all ... don't worry …)

As for his future romantic life, he wants to settle down when he returns to the South in July (side note: Culturally, most single Southern men and I are like apples and vodka or something, forget the oranges). He's all for having everything set up for him through eHarmony (personally, I call it eHarm, and ladies, feel free to call if you're matched with him). He's also open to his Indian family's network for arranged marriages. In fact, he just came back from a month in India and has some compelling evidence in support of arranged marriage. Maybe the West has it all wrong ...

But Attorney Guy does occasionally shed light on things for me. Last night at dinner, he happened to say that Microbiologist Dude would have made a fantastic Jesuit priest, barring the whole anti-Reformation bit. :-) If Presbyterians had monasteries, Micro Dude might sign up. (Yup. I know how to pick 'em. Maybe I should quit picking 'em.)

There's a store on Churchill Avenue with a sign that reads "Custom-Made Gents." It's referring to men's clothing, but it still makes me smile. If only it were that simple. Ha.

Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts
OK. So, you guys are spiritual giants and you caught on to all of this decades ago. I'm a late bloomer. But bear with me. It helps me to (try to) articulate lessons while they are gelling in my mind, and it probably can't hurt to be reminded of them. Maybe you'll identify.

Lately I've been especially struck by this verse: "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4, emphasis mine).

I've been wrestling with how often He does not feel like my life. Instead, problems, or goals, or dreams, or other seemingly urgent things seem much more tangible and pressing. And as hard as it is to admit, I (perhaps, we sometimes?) often treat God as a means to an end. A means to peace. A means to help. A means to blessing.

But HE is the blessing I've (and we've) been looking for.

I don't say this to arouse concern or sympathy—I am an expert in toughing things out and will be OK—but the last few weeks have knocked the wind out of me, to say the least. Still, it's been illuminating. The suffering caused me to live without crutches, with nothing comfortable to fall back on for affirmation, consolation, or control. Except God. So when I heard John Piper say the following in an audio sermon recently, personal experience drove home the comment: "Suffering is designed by God to increase your joy in Him. All the props that you're leaning on will be knocked out, and He is the only one to lean on."

Designed, not merely "allowed." Well, He's a good architect. I haven't had props for quite a while. And when God is all you have, you realize, in a fresh way, that He really is all you need.

I know this sounds insane or "überly" and obnoxiously pious to some of you. In fact, it didn't make sense to me for years. To merely hear someone say it or to read about it is not enough. It takes suffering and prayer to begin to comprehend it. (Enter my favorite "suffering verses": Romans 5:1–5, much of Romans 8, and James 1:2–4.)

We're all striving for joy through something—through career, possessions, marriage, children, achievement, whatever. And if we are completely denied something we deem precious, we might feel as if we are somehow dying. But even when we attain what we want, we're never completely fulfilled by it. Maybe our problem is not that we lack certain things or are let down by them when we do attain them. Maybe our problem is that we fail to see them for what they are: things, and not the true blessing. Our focus is off and we don't see Him clearly for who He is to us.

We miss the point that God is our life. And He LOVES us! (Why???? Have you looked at us lately???) At times, it's simply hard to remember this while slogging it out here on Earth. I (perhaps we?) need to refocus on things above. Anything else is passing, even if it seems ultimate.

My goal now? To remember He Himself is the Blessing.

And so ends the March edition. Be well. The cat says hi.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fourth Addis Herald

The Addis Herald, January 2008 Edition

In This (Longer) Issue:
I Am Racist (Which Is Why I Live in Africa)
Travels with Chicken Little
Trip-Planning for Dummies
Cookware Humor (?)
The Saga of Microbiology Dude and English Teacher Girl

(And, for those who have asked about such things)
General Stats (What a Difference a Few Months Make)
What I'm Listening To

Happy New Year! My Austrian friends and I ushered in 2008 with a party, a movie, and a lot of conversation over schnitzel. It was great. I'm blessed to know so many fun people—and humbled because God has provided an amazing sense of community in a foreign country. (But I became a schnitzel addict in Vienna about a decade ago and have been in recovery since. These friends encourage my once hard-to-feed habit—and they know it. Lousy enablers.)

Because of the Orthodox Church's influence, Ethiopia runs on the Julian calendar and is more than seven years behind the rest of the world (probably 70 or more metaphorically). Their huge millennium celebration was in mid September. Thankfully, I wasn't here for the chaos. But the cruel joke is that even though you're seven years younger in Ethiopia, living here for only four months might age you about eight years.

Life has been "interesting" for the past couple of months. Of course, you cannot live in such a place and not have something unique to share with those in the "real" world. I have so much to write about that a newsletter doesn't suffice anymore. (Case in point: I live on the same compound as the African Union, the African equivalent of the United Nations. They're having their annual summit meeting this week, so Momar Qadafi [how DOES one spell this?] and other famous leaders are literally twenty feet away from my bedroom. And every time I walk out of my gate I'm greeted by a heavily armed sniper every thirty yards. It's a bit jarring to be surrounded by AK-47s and lunatic dictators.) .

For those who want to know, here are a few snapshots of this place. Such is life in Addis.

(By the way, I am woefully behind on e-mail because I usually have poor access to it. Please don't take my radio silence personally if I haven't responded to your messages!)

I Am Racist (Which Is Why I Live in Africa)
I hesitate to share this. It's unpleasant and painful, and not a typical part of a newsletter that hopefully serves as a little pick-me-up. But it's part of the ride. This is for those who claimed they want the good, the bad, and the ugly of Ethiopia—you're gonna get it.

(Bear in mind that I am certainly tainted by culture shock. There are also many wonderful Ethiopians, and I really have enjoyed my time here overall. But teaching can be overwhelming.)

December was a horrible month at school. Students here are not like my hardworking, driven Chinese kids whom I loved and poured my life into. Not to put too fine a point on it (so unlike me, ha), but many students at xxxx can be arrogant, selfish, and lazy. Their marks were not good enough for acceptance to the better public university, so they must pay for classes at private schools in order to work their way into a degree program. Because they pay high fees (public school is virtually free), many feel entitled to good grades without working to earn them. And because all subject areas are taught exclusively in English, many students don't comprehend much about their majors. Even if you're a math wiz, you're still missing a huge part of your education if you don't speak the language of instruction well. The government refuses to change the system despite public outcry and the obvious problems it causes. Ethiopian teachers often push kids through the system.

One of my classes makes little or no effort to learn despite my efforts to help them. Yet they feel superior. A couple times a month a young man will challenge me in the middle of class. He'll shake his fist and test paper in my face and shout, "You am wrong! I am right! I answers right! (Like I haven't been speaking English for 35 years.) I shake a bit, but stand up to him even if he's 6 feet tall and could toss me like lint. I say calmly but firmly, "I failed you because you did not answer the questions correctly. SIT DOWN NOW before you make a bigger fool of yourself." (This probably does make me a horrible teacher. I agree.) He usually sits down. If not, he storms out and I shut the door behind him, feeling happy he left and will likely transfer to an easier teacher—a teacher who "understands" him and will shove him through the system without asking him to work.

A number of foreigners say I should herd students through the system because that's what's cultural. Unfortunately, I cannot do this and live with myself. I still try to hold them accountable for a few things. One day last month I waded through about 60 writing assignments from students who clearly plagiarized and did not follow the very simple instructions I had given. It was the proverbial straw. I lost it. I don't lose it often, but this time I spewed nuclear fallout that probably hovered over Kenya. I am not proud of this.

I stood in front of the class that afternoon and said, "You are immature, arrogant, ignorant and lazy. You would not succeed in a different university because you wouldn't work hard enough. My job is to help you learn how to write. I would love to do that, but you will not allow me to. I have decided to fail all of you on this assignment."

They understood me. Most don't speak well, but they understand more than they can produce. They didn't protest this time, though. I think it's because they couldn't deny they were in the wrong—even their self-delusion has its limits. Several actually apologized.

Still, because of my attempts to hold students accountable and my tell-it-like-it-is personality, I have been labeled "racist" by some students. (Naturally, racists move to foreign countries in order to be surrounded by all the people they hate. Note heavy sarcasm.)

Add to this the fact the school's administrators give me incorrect information and then lie about it to cover their … um … derrieres. For example, the final grades I submitted last week are completely wrong—but I calculated them according to the instructions an administrator gave me. Now students are protesting and calling me names (not only am I racist, I'm also stupid). The man who told me to calculate grades this way is, of course, lying and telling the dean that he did not speak to me at all.

I have washed my hands of these people. I try to be duck-like—letting it all slide off me—though I still have days when I feel sick with anger and frustration. There is no point in trying to work out the problems. Their culture, their lies, and the general stupidity of it all kill any possible understanding or good relationship.

And aside from the classroom mayhem, people in general are often unpleasant. From the very beginning, perfect strangers on the street have laughed and pointed at me, saying things like, "You are so fat!" (even though I'm not …). African colleagues tell me not to accept this, but I can do little about it besides bite my tongue off in order to refrain from telling them exactly what they are. My Dutch colleague Truus is twice my size and she gets teased more frequently. She just doesn't let it get to her. Maybe being 60 years old and European have something to do with this. :-)

I try to teach well regardless of the hassles and impossible situations. And even with the difficulties, students and I do have fun in class at times (not all of them are awful, of course). But my time is not devoted to teaching. It's hard to care about people who don't care about you or what you offer them. My energies are invested in developing deeper relationships with other foreigners. There are many here. These friendships, I am finding, are more important than working in a ludicrous, corrupt school system that ties your hands.

Forgive me if this negative report is a downer and, therefore, not what you'd like to hear. My bevy of foreign teacher friends and I are in exactly the same sinking boat. One friend even got a note on her office door that reads: "You'd better go back to your home soon, foreigner." She taped it to her refrigerator, weird Aussie that she is. We kvetch or brainstorm possible solutions over a meal at least once a week. We call it group therapy. Through this therapy, friendships and discussions about much deeper and important issues arise. That's one reason I'm still here. I love to talk to people who hold various worldviews, and about fifty percent of my friends here have significantly different beliefs than mine. It's fascinating to find out what makes people tick, and why they believe whatever they believe. (And some of them think my beliefs are just as bizarre.)

But we all suffer because of the Ethiopian school system. At least we suffer together.

Travels With Chicken Little
I won't send a February edition of the Herald (hence this issue being longer). I'm hoping to be in South Africa and other countries for a month. Yes. Alice and I decided to go for it. We've been planning for weeks—and I've been mentally prepping to carry a backpack in a world without asphalt. We still don't know what the heck we're doing, though. Lonely Planet tells you only so much, Internet access is difficult, and just a handful of folks we know have backpacked Southern Africa. Today we finally bought roundtrip tickets to Johannesburg. We'll wing it from there with the ubiquitous cloud of Rastafarian-patchouli-wearing-hippie types who flock to Africa. (But if I come back to the States with dreads and a newly pierced body part, it will be because I was ambushed.) This is so unlike me and my white-girl-Republican world that I can't begin to explain what caused the change of heart. But here I am. You know you're approaching psycho-adventurer status when you use abbreviations such as Joburg, CPT, Vic Falls, the Zim side, Baz it, and "Vint" (Windhoek, Namibia's capital—pronounced Vinthook). Sometimes I think my life's purpose is to expose people to weird geography and terminology.

Last month, over fish and wine, Alice and I decided this trip was a brilliant idea. What were we thinking?!! This afternoon I smiled and told her that friends in the States sometimes write to say they wish they could live my "glamorous life." I didn't even finish the sentence before she blurted, "No they don't," and started laughing. So as we sat in the Ethiopian Airlines office for yet another three hours waiting for the 1:20 attendant:customer ratio to improve, we giggled like two punchy teenagers. If most people spent one month here they might flee for their lives. We, however, were apparently unbalanced before we arrived. :-)

Alice was an attorney in New York City and Chicago for twenty years. She uses her negotiating powers when dealing with the U.S. embassy and her superiors in Washington, D.C. Technically, a Fulbrighter is not allowed to leave their host country for more than two weeks. But Alice, with her wheeler-dealer schemes, problems with authority, and generally skewed sense of her own mortality, has wormed her way into a sweet five-week vacation. While my time off is fully legit, hers is … well, dubious. But on the other hand, the official we deal with in Addis (who is incompetence personified) has screwed up her Fulbright project so inalterably that she has nothing to do for the next two months anyway. Why not travel if governmental ineptitude has barred her from anything else? (I should probably shut up about this, but the amount of government funds lost or misused because of miscommunication, corruption, or complete incompetence is phenomenal and disheartening. Lately my cynicism has been poking out.)

But back to Alice. Oh my gosh, Alice. If we don't hurt each other, we'll have a blast. But she's the kind of person who anticipates the worst, overreacts to simple frustrations, and sees the negative in even the most positive situations. Calling her Chicken Little on steroids is an understatement. Thankfully, I'm reasonably mellow (after years of being banged up) and am able to handle her—I've done it well for four months now. But if she gets out of hand on the trip, I might gag her. That, or force four tranquilizers down her throat. Possibly both. She needs to chill. Wow. WOW. Otherwise, I'm gonna ditch her in Maputo. And she might ditch me.

We shall see how this turns out. South Africa, etc., are not the safest places on earth. Prayers for protection would be appreciated. (Really.)

Trip-Planning for Dummies
We're in for some ride through who knows how many countries. Yesterday I got our passports back from Mozambique's embassy. That in itself was a chore. I want to write a pamphlet on "Trip-Planning for Dummies." The passport section would read like this:

How to Get a Visa in 120 Easy Steps:
1. Find the embassy and/or chancery. This could take up to eight hours of your free time. There are no valid phone books, and no one (not even the U.S. embassy) knows where anything is in Addis. You operate on cobwebs of information and your own street smarts, weak though they are.

2. Once you've located the chancery—which in Mozambique's case means a 1.5-mile walk off a main road, where taxis don't run—figure out when it's actually open. Sometimes this could be every ninth Tuesday or the twelfth of Never. And, even if they have posted hours, nothing is written in stone. It's more like Silly Putty.

3. Look at the flag flying over the chancery. Mozambique's flag boasts a semiautomatic weapon and something that resembles a machete. Thought question: Do you really want to visit this place?

4. Once you catch the chancery on a day it's open (you can't call ahead to their disconnected number, so catching them could take numerous attempts and pairs of shoes), get the list of visa requirements. In Mozambique's case it was the following: an official letter from the U.S. embassy; two passport photos; exact travel dates (almost impossible to get in the slippery African world); $60 US deposited into an Ethiopian bank account; official—and expensive—forms from the chancery; and relinquishment our passports (which no one likes to do for very long, especially to a country that has a semiautomatic weapon and machete on its flag).

5. Once you know the country's requirements, get busy fulfilling them. This in itself requires at least 100 steps. Don't get me started on the bureaucracy involved in getting embassy letters. And even getting enough U.S. dollars requires the black market. (Our embassy bank accounts haven't been available this month, which is often the case when we most need them.) Thankfully (?) I have a student who's a hustler. He likes me (even though I'm the teacher from hell who won't change his grade) and he was willing to do the heavy stuff for us. I have no desire to go to dark pool halls or bars and deal with Ethiopian men who probably wear fedoras and dangle cigarettes from their lips.

6. Once you have dollars in hand (my student got them in one afternoon), you try to find the obscure branch of the obscure bank with which Mozambique has an account. You ask everyone you know—and even some people you don't, Ethiopian and foreign—if they know where it is. Again, it might take you a week or more to narrow down possible locations. You take taxis to hunt for the mythical spot. You endure self-righteous drivers who illegally raise your fare and say things like, "Sister, if you don't know where you're going, why didn't you ask someone?" You practically chew your lower lip off to keep from snapping back, "Buddy, don't you think I #@%* did this???" (I don't like or want to swear, but there are moments of extreme culture shock and pure sinfulness when I do. This might come as a shock to some of you—thankfully, these moments are few. Life overseas will test you in ways you didn't know you could be tested, and ALL of your junk comes out in its entirety eventually. God deals with you. Believe me ...) Instead of snapping this time, you just start pulling out your hair.

7. When you FINALLY find the bank (yippee!!), you feel like primordial ooze as you pass beggars on the street. You are carrying more cash than they make in a decade, and, if you happen to have your iPod and MacBook on you that day, you're carrying more money than they will make in their lifetimes. They have one leg, no financial power, and HIV-related tuberculosis. You had the mere inconvenience of finding the bank. You are scum. (Truly, I struggle every day with the unfairness of life.)

8. Once at the bank (again, yippee!!), you're frisked so thoroughly you feel violated. You must also empty every crevice of your bag. (You didn't see this coming, so you hope no one mugs you on your way out if they see what you're carrying.) Once in the bank, you are shuffled around to no fewer than five tellers, each of whom tells you with great authority exactly the wrong things to do. Finally, you find someone who knows his stuff. But this person scowls and orders you to sit down. You sit. You proceed to watch him stare at the counter for ten minutes. (He might be on a power trip because you're foreign. He might be thinking, "This stupid American woman with a fresh bald spot on her head won't hurry me.") Then, miraculously, the teller motions to you. You go to the window, hold your breath and smile a lot. You show him Mozambique's account number, explain the procedure, and continue to smile. He looks at you, blinks, and says, "Impossible. It cannot be done."

Internally you are Vesuvius and Krakatoa, and you coin new compound nouns such as "snake-eating-scum-banker" and "evil-idiot-teller-feller." But externally you are the South Pacific on a beautiful day. You smile, slip him $2 US and say, "I'm sure it can be worked out." He is a changed man: "Oh. That account. Yes, I can do that." Again, you sit. He glows. You watch him process the money. Then he gives you the magical receipt. You dance out of the building hoping never to return.

9. You go back to Mozambique's chancery (on your third pair of shoes) with all of the visa requirements in your bag. It's Monday and the guard at the gate tells you the secretary is out for the entire week. Nothing can be done for you. But you smile sweetly (it really helps to look years younger than your age), pull out the magical bank receipt, say "urgent" a hundred times, flash your American passport, and eventually schmooze your way past the gate and into the secretary's office. It turns out he IS there and they can cut you a deal after all. (It just takes persistence and great frustration on your part.) T.S. Eliot once said, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." This is especially true when dealing with embassies—even with those that employ lethal weapons as part of their PR campaign. You get the passports back the next day as opposed to the next seven to ten.

All of the above is a mere sampling of the games one must play in order to function in developing countries. And people wonder why I'm quirky. Duh.

10. You need a break now. Take a day or two off from planning. Read chick lit. Eat pizza. Relax. The actual travel comes next, and you're going to need your strength.

Cookware Humor (?)
So my intense vegetarian friend Jamie called me two weeks ago and said breathlessly, with no greeting, "I have a joke for you. It's from Readers Digest." She could see my eyes glaze over even on the phone. "No. Really. This one is good," she added, though I'd said nothing.

The joke went like this:

Women are at a bridal shower and the bride-to-be is opening gifts. The whole time a single woman is complaining that she'll always be alone—there just isn't anyone out there for her. A grandmother type says cheerfully, "Honey, there's a lid for every pot!" Another women, clearly irritated by the complaining, says, "Yes, but you might be the skillet."

"You and I are skillets, baby," Jamie said triumphantly, as if being a skillet were the greatest thing in the world. I didn't know whether to laugh or reach through the phone and shake her. (I'm beginning to believe a Ph.D. isn't all it's cracked up to be; I've seen her transcripts, and she got flawless marks. There must have been a mistake.)

But last weekend at an American friend's wedding, Jamie leaned over and whispered "skillet" in my ear. It during an especially emotional part of the ceremony, and she must have known it was getting to me. Her little joke actually made me stifle laughter. And when she shared the anecdote with another friend, the woman said, "Pampered Chef has at least one covered skillet. You could still find your lid."

Well, I don't know about that. I think I am a permanently lidless pot. But I'm gradually becoming more OK with that. People like Jamie make this process more fun.

The Saga of Microbiologist Dude and English Teacher Girl
(I swear there should be music for this. Maybe something like a spaghetti western soundtrack.)

Enough people have asked me what happened. I will share. But a friend in the States summed it all up nicely last month in one sentence: "Prolonged singleness makes idiots of us all."

The first week of January I was in my office trying to catch up on e-mail while I had access. Out of the blue, Microbiologist Dude popped up on the screen. I hadn't known instant messaging was running, and I was in a broken office chair when he startled me. (This means I banged my knee on the desk as I nearly tipped over).

"Hey," he typed. "Are you there?"
The cursor was blinking way too fast. I couldn't think—especially with a broken knee. The frantic line wouldn't go away even when I tried to delete his message. "Depends on what this involves," I finally wrote.
"Let's talk about the elephant," he typed. (He meant, of course, the "elephant" we'd been dancing around for three weeks in our e-mail exchanges.)
"Do we have to?" I said. "It's hiding behind a bookcase. Just its butt is showing now."
(He didn't think this was funny. What is wrong with him?)

To spare you the whole conversation—which should not have been over a computer, but that's what we could do from two continents—this is the gist of our chat:

He said our friendship is a huge blessing to him. He can overlook my irrational love of olives, and he will always pick them out of his food for me. He appreciates my passion for God and concurrent knowledge of Chinese swear words. He thinks I'm intelligent, attractive, witty, cool, and fun. He wants my companionship. He's just not "at that point" in life. God hasn't laid it on his heart to be in a relationship. With anyone. He hopes I can try to understand. He's not hiding anything or protecting my feelings because we're way beyond that point now. He doesn't want to lose our friendship.

Here's a side note on this guy: He's too busy with work to notice a Christian version of Heidi Klum. He's doing TB research among other things; he's usually surrounded by HIV/AIDS-infected blood, stool, sputum, pus, and urine. (The only thing I ever want in his lab is out as soon as possible.) Besides this, he's 29 years old and has never, ever pursued a woman. Not in high school, college, grad school, or as an adult.

(Jamie and I have discussed this epidemic at length and are 200% convinced there's saltpeter in U.S. and Ethiopian drinking water. Consequently, we also whisper "saltpeter" to each other when it's fitting. People wonder why we're laughing.)

His olives comment made me smile. He caught me off guard with his thought on God's involvement, though. Israelite that I am, I forget that God has the ultimate say in these things. It's not about what I think I want. And ultimately, it's not even Microbiologist Dude saying no. It's God saying no.

But I was still angry. This guy is a perfect illustration of an intelligent but clueless man who has never felt the sting of singleness. I, on the other hand, have been grappling with it for the last few years. I typed back quickly, smacking the space bar. He "listened" and asked a few questions. Then he wrote in response (I could practically see him stroking his Vandyke and smirking slightly):

"So, basically, you're telling God He's wrong. Your heart's desire is not to be content. You're mad because you can't control Him. You are showing Him your own logic and holding it up against His perfect plan in keeping you single. That's really smart."

I didn't reply for two minutes. I just stared at the screen and breathed. Eventually he wrote, "You're frustrated now, aren't you."

(I hate it when he's right.)

Finally, he typed:

"You don't know how God is using your life or what He will do through you in the future. He's always working even when we can't feel it. Just keep toughing it out. I can tell it's hard on you to be single, but don't be discouraged. He is sovereign. He will use you. He has a plan—even in this situation."

Twenty minutes after our chat, I was back home and smoking a cigar on my patio, watching the Ethiopian Airlines sign down the road light up the sky in red, green, and yellow. (My doctor friend gave me the cigar. Since college, every five years or so I smoke one for just such guy-related occasions. It's a long story.) I flicked ashes into an old evaporated milk can and talked on the phone to an older single friend about how utterly miraculous it is when men and woman actually do get married. She said she doesn't have a clue how it happens either; that's probably why we're still single

I felt gutted that evening. But I couldn't deny that Micro Dude is right. And God began to reveal the edges of deeper issues in my heart. I vented to Him. I thrashed around spiritually like an angry two-year-old. I was still sulking when He "spoke." Softly. Out of nowhere, so it startled me. He "said": "Trust in Me. Hope in Me. Not him."

I know it was God because a) the thought was a one-eighty from my murky self-centeredness and anger; b) I wasn't looking for it; and c) it stopped me dead in my tracks.

Identify what makes you feel like jumping off a bridge when you lose it, and you've probably discovered something you find your identity in instead of God. Identify what you find the most hope in, and, if it's not God, you've just named one of your spiritual masters. When something good becomes something ultimate, it's no longer good. In my case lately, this has been marriage, or the lack thereof. But marriage is not anyone's life. It is not a solution for anything, and it causes problems of its own. I need to remember this as I enjoy gallivanting around the world as a single.

Still, I wouldn't change anything with Micro Dude. HE did the calling and inviting and initiating. What was I supposed to do? Stay home and wonder what could be? No. As usual, my buddy C.S. Lewis explains relationships well:

"Love [or care deeply about] anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. … We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him, throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it."

(I do read other authors besides Lewis. But he's more quotable than Dr. Seuss and The Economist—though a compelling case could be made for quoting Sam I Am in many situations.)

I'm not in love with Microbiology Dude. I just really, really wish I could have the opportunity to be. But to show you how quickly we got over it, we're already planning a potential trip somewhere during the summer. Jamie, Attorney Guy and I vote for Turkey or Morocco, but Micro Dude is holding out for Kenya. (We're calling him insane and will probably vote him down when he returns to Ethiopia.)

By the way, his Christmas gifts (via Jamie) were thoughtful, well selected, and a lot of fun. And no, I'm not telling what they are. A girl's gotta keep some secrets …

General Stats (What a difference a few months make)
I've been here about four and a half months. Here's a collection of important (or almost important) stats on life so far:

*Cups of coffee enjoyed: roughly 2,000 (Hey. It's cultural.)

*Number of Amharic phrases I can say comfortably: 4 (My language is ghetto—I don't plan to study Amharic because I can get by with English. And I'm still trying to stop speaking Chinese to locals who look at me like I'm from Mars.)

*(Mom, don't read this) Number of times I've almost been hit by a car: 7 or 8—depends on how you define car

*Number of times I've been attacked on the street (Mom …): 2 (no real harm done)

*Number of papers graded: far too many (I have to stop giving so much homework.)

*Favorite place to grade papers: Kaldi's—a Starbucks knockoff with better coffee than Starbucks

*Text messages sent/received per week to/from friends, colleagues: 25 to 35 (one colleague doesn't text well and accidentally wrote "Hell! I'm @ the meeting now." I snorted for an hour.)

*Number of books read since arriving: 12 (but this includes and Pat the Bunny and Green Eggs and Ham—kids, you know)

*Number of books on Africa: 1

*Number of zebra, lions, giraffes, and other African animals I've seen in Africa: 0

*Number of sheep in the street at any moment anywhere I am in Addis: about 35 (They rain poop and pee. It even sounds like a rain shower as they pass by and deposit their … stuff. It's alarming that God compares us to them.)

*Goats: 20

*Donkeys: 8

*Oxen: 5

*Random cow meandering down street: 1 or 2

*Drunk and/or high taxi drivers on the road : only God can count them

*Hours I spend waiting for public transportation every day: between 10 minutes and an hour and a half

*Rough number of foreigners I know: 70

*Rough number of foreigners I hang out with regularly: 20

*Number of cafes with free Wi-Fi: 2 (when it works, which apparently is every fifth Tuesday at 2 a.m.)

*Cost of one hour of Wi-Fi at the Sheraton (the swankiest place on earth): $13 US (worth every penny every couple of months)

*Times Jamie has clandestinely said "skillet" or "saltpeter" and made me laugh so loudly that people wonder what's funny: 5

*People we've told about our jokes: 1 (not counting you, and she is MORTIFIED that you know—though she's relieved I've changed her name)

*Number of times I've been propositioned on the street: 7 (What are these guys thinking? That if they gesture crudely and say, "Hey, baby" I'll magically want them? Right.)

*Number of dogs howling in my neighborhood at this moment: 7 million (ugh)

*Times I've wished I were back home: 8 (but this was mostly during my first few weeks here)

*Days until I leave for the United States: I don't know anymore, but not enough. (Yes, despite the nightmares at school, I'll be sad to leave this place.)

What I'm Listening To
Quite frequently (and surprisingly to me), people ask what I'm listening to. I guess I'll finally answer. For the aurally motivated who wonder what the Addis soundtrack is, this is what my iPod plays most lately. Picture me scurrying about to music:

Patty Griffin
Aretha Franklin
Sufjan Stevens
Caedmon's Call
Indelible Grace
John Lennon
Sandra McCracken
Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC—his sermons are incredible)
Nickel Creek (voted by Attorney Guy as one of the top ten "Way Too White" bands. He's half Indian—dot, not feather. For a man who weighs a buck 40 soaking wet, he'd be smarter not to criticize ...)
Badly Drawn Boy
Led Zeppelin (don't tell me you've never gotten the Led out)
Amy Winehouse
Billy Joel
Erik Satie (Any guy who titles songs Bureaucratic Sonatina, Dreamy Fish, and Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear is pretty cool in my book.)
Aaron Copland
Emmylou Harris
Monty Python (I grew up on Python, which is much of what's wrong with me today.)
Alison Krauss and Union Station
Various African stuff—Drums, baby. Drums.
Indigo Girls
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tori Amos
Sara Groves
Ray Charles
Bob Dylan
Collective Soul
Allen Ginsberg (Yeah. This was a gift from my Green Party friend. I hang with a lot of people who tell me I should repent from everything I've ever believed politically ... so far it's not going well for them, though they are strident.)

And here ends the January issue (if you've hung in there and read it all). Till next time.