28 December 2007

Not one but two

I knew when I got married, things would change. Some things drastically, others slightly, some things would greatly improve, other things not so much—but its all part of the choice you make when you say ‘yes’ to that question!! However, there were a few things that I had not expected to change—and one of those is my relationship with you—my ‘readers’ if I can say that. I had not realized that from now on, my stories will generally be about 2 people and if number 2 doesn’t want that story told, it doesn’t get told. See, number one (me) is not shy, and will tell anyone just about anything in her life. She doesn’t get embarrassed when she tells stories outlining her inadequacies or plain old stupid actions, and she doesn’t feel much really needs to be private. I started writing these letters b/c I wanted to share with people what my life was like abroad. I have been places and seen things I never dreamed of—and I love sharing that. But, as number 2 (Henok) is now part of the story; I may have to start editing what I tell you. These stories may involve him, and so it is only with his permission I share—but don’t worry, I do tend to embarrass myself often while alone and venture out quite a bit alone—so all is not lost.

First, some random observations and annoyances in my life:
You all know I have started swimming. I am still doing it, and still hating it. And, I must say my hair is hating it too!! I am doing all these little tricks to save my hair, but it is in all out rebellion and I am in a panic. If I have to choose between my hair and swimming, you better believe I choose my hair. I have a hair fetish if you didn’t know—I blame my mother and this boy I had a crush on in HS who essentially said I only looked good with long hair (I know, time to get over it). But I like my long hair, Henok likes my long hair, and my long hair DOES NOT like Chlorine. Stupid and pointless—so not worthy of news time, it’s still an issue I am very annoyed with. You see, I’m not stupid---if I had to choose between my hair and my health, of course I choose my health. Swimming has done wonders for my back. Who knew all them MD’s were right?!?! But, I am not quite ready to chop off the hair—I am stubborn and will continue to fight, whoever it is I’m fighting that is. I’ll let you know.
Speaking of swimming, I have learned Ethiopians do not know pool etiquette. I mean, not like I know that much either—but I do know you don’t jump in the pool and start swimming in someone’s lane, thus pushing them out. I do know, if you are resting, you don’t hang out (in groups of like 6 or 8) at the end of the pool blocking access to the edge to those who are still swimming laps. I also know, that you do not spit or ‘blow your nose’ in the pool (so do most of people I swim with, there are just a few jerks). So—each day as I battle to keep my lane and I wonder how am I going to approach this problem? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.
Lanes. I am not exactly sure how the white dashed lines on the roads are painted in Ethiopia. I am assuming they don’t have a fancy machine like we have in the US, and it is possibly man made or a really old machine that needs much human input and has no automation. Well, you would think, knowing all the work that goes into those lines people would have at least an inkling of respect for them. However, the opposite is true. I can not even begin to explain how little attention is given to lanes. Drivers swerve (slowly or quickly) over the road covering many lanes incessantly. This is all done under the watchful eye of the traffic police, which just drives me bonkers. The worst is when they straddle a lane. Here I am trying to follow the law (lanes) and some loser will straddle the lanes. When I honk to note my displeasure, they yell at me and tell me I’m some stupid ‘ferenji’ (foreigner) who doesn’t know what she is doing. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! It drives me crazy—CRAZY!!
Packages—here in Ethiopia mail is not delivered to your home. Everyone, every business has a PO Box. If you receive a package, a small paper is placed in your PO Box informing you to pick up your package. For each day the package sits in the Post Office, you pay ‘rent’ for it’s storage space. I jut think that’s funny. The annoying part is the procedure for picking up the packages. They have yet to really figure out what that procedure is—as each time I get a package, the procedure is drastically different. The most recent package was quite possibly the greatest moment in my life—comedically speaking. Though when I got peed on by all those goats in Moldova, that was good. So, Henok and I arrive at the post office. It is a large building with hundreds of PO Boxes and against one wall a long row of windows, about 10. Each of the windows has a sign over it telling you the service provided there. I can’t read the signs, as they are in Amharic (except one poorly handwritten sign that says “By Stamps,” I think they meant, buy). I just follow Henok. First we have to let them know we are here to pick up a package so you give them the slip of paper you found in your box. This man (they happen to all be men this day, but I have seen women) who looks very ornery reads it 10 or so times and looks you over 20 or so times, hands you back the paper and tells you to go to window X. So, Henok and I look up and down to see window X (they are numbered, not necessarily in order). We see the number we need and walk to the window. Guess who is there?!?! THE SAME MAN. I kind of giggle, because I feel like I am in some 1950’s comedy, Henok gives me a look to act appropriate (aka not America), so I quiet down. We hand him BACK the paper and he looks through a pile of papers to find one that matches ours. It tells him what day the package arrived, he then tells us the amount of ‘rent’ we’ll need to pay and tells us to go pay at window Y. Okay, look up and down, see window Y and walk to it; it says cashier above it. Handy. Guess who is there!!!?? THE SAME MAN!! I swear, I thought there were twins, or something, I looked around for cameras—am I on some British comedy hidden camera show?!?!? I couldn’t help but crack up laughing, another strange look from Henok. The best part is each time he acts like he doesn’t know us. We hand him our paper and he reads it, again just like right before he gave it to us!! He tells us we owe 6 birr (like 65 cents). We pay the man, he fills out a form, then fills out a second one (their copy), stamps them both, takes our cash, and gives us one of the papers he just filled out—a receipt of sorts. He tells us to go to window W. At this point I CAN NOT wait to see who is there. I rush over, and am disappointed to see a new guy. We hand him our paper and he asks for ID’s. We have to prove we are who we say we are. We produce said ID’s and he informs us he needs a photo copy of them. Henok is essentially growling at this point he is so annoyed, and I am still giggling looking for hidden cameras. Henok takes our ID’s and goes OUT of the post office, down the street, to a little stationary store where they have a copy machine. I stand and wait. Then he shows his face, our famous 3 window man walks up behind our new guy and just stares at me—still pretty ornery. I smile and walk away trying to hide my laughter. Henok comes back, copy in hand and gives it to guy number 2. He then takes our receipt and gives it AND the photo copy to our number one guy!!! This dude, then actually reads over the receipt, the one he just filled out, looks over our ID’s and disappears into a back room. FINALLY, after 3 or 4 minutes he arrives with the familiar padded envelope of the US postal service—sent with loving care by my mommy. Of course, at this point it has lots of marks on it, possible it’s been run over, and there are holes in it, but it arrived. J I grab the package and we hit the road. Can’t wait for the next one!!

Some of you may wonder about Ethiopian Christmas traditions. December 25th, well nothing happens. Actually, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and remember their New Year was on September 11th so no crazy New Years at the end of December. Quite different—Christmas is a religious holiday here still, vs the US where it is spiritual for some but just a big party with presents and d├ęcor for others. The only ‘traditional’ decorations here are to put candy on a type of evergreen bushy tree that grows in most of Ethiopia. A feast is made on Christmas, animal and more animal marking the end of a fast, you go to church, and a traditional game of ‘Kile’ is played. It’s similar to field hockey. No presents, no Santa, no lights (they used those for New Years in September), no carols, no chaos like America. However, it is slipping in—the western influence. A few businesses, those that cater to foreigners, have Christmas Trees up, and I saw a picture of Santa in a window.

Warning—drastic topic change:
So, I live in a mud house. No, it’s true—my house is made out of mud, straw, and animal manure. Really. You wouldn’t know it if you saw it. It seems like it is made out of cement—it’s FASCINATING what they can do with mud. They paint over it and you never know. Only where our paint has peeled can I see the mud (and don’t worry Lisa and others with this concern, you can’t smell the manure anymore. It just gives the mud sticking power). On my floor they have laid wood boards in one room and cement tiles in the others. Mud houses have great benefits like CHEAP materials and they stay cool inside. It can be 150 degrees outside, but your house will be cool. Granted there are some down sides, when it’s cold out side your house is COLD!! Eeek. Also, as your walls are made of mud, well bugs, spiders, creatures abound. There aren’t as many spiders as I had thought there would be, and they mainly look like ‘daddy long-legs,’ which I am not as frightened of. But, so you know, in general I am TERRIFIED of spiders. And, to make matters worse I’ve gone and married one of them religious hippy types that doesn’t think you should kill ANY creature of God (except the ones you eat of course). So, I have learned if I want something dead, it’s up to me. I’m getting pretty good at it. The bulk of what I deal with is actually cockroaches. I am not frightened of them (unless they are crawling across my bed that sicks me out). But they are FAST and if you miss them on the first go, it’s over. So, I’ve gotten good—my first few weeks here I didn’t kill one, I missed and missed. Now, I never miss. J However, this leaves unpleasant squished cockroach carcass on my walls and floor—I am working on Henok being okay with cleaning up what I have already killed. J

Living abroad has lots of benefits—I am sure I have written about many, but today I want to lament what I miss in the US. I miss healthy food. I know what you are thinking, “Um, Jessica, Americans are fat and UNHEALTHY—Ethiopians probably have better food then us.” You are right, in a way. The traditional Ethiopian diet is very healthy. Whole grain enjera as the base, veggies and beans everyday. However, I have this issue that I was raised in a country where we eat the foods of everyone. And, though I love Ethiopian (vegetarian) food, I can not eat it three meals a day 7 days a week AND, most importantly, I don’t like their version of breakfast. So—I must diversify or die. My version of breakfast, a hot bowl of WHOLE oatmeal with banana’s or apple—well it can’t happen. Whole oat meal (or labeled Old-fashioned in the US grocery stores and found on the bottom shelf) is not available. And, the ‘instant’ or ‘quick cooking’ oats, which I abhor, are EXPENSIVE!! There in lies my dilemma. I am a milk drinker, love it—but prefer it in it’s skim form. However, skim milk is 5 to 7 TIMES the cost of 2% or whole milk. Not 5 to 7 more birr, 5 to 7 times the cost!! And cereal, if I want to buy cold cereal made of pure sugar and flavored with ‘honey’ or ‘chocolate’ aka sugar, then I can pay 25 birr for a box (almost 3 dollars). However, if I want a ‘healthy’ whole grain cold cereal, I pay 75 birr a box (over 8 dollars a box and they are smaller boxes). Whole wheat bread?? Yummy, but only sold in 2 stores I know of in this city and usually 8 or 9 TIMES the cost of white bread. I know, you are thinking I am lazy and should just buy whole wheat flower and make my own bread, pancakes, etc. Great idea! Brillian! However, whole wheat flower is not sold in Addis, at all. Diet soda? (I know not healthy, but this is a good example of what they can do to ferenji) A can of regular Coke is 3 birr, a can of Diet Coke 18 birr. Only ferenji are interested in ‘diet’ or those who are rich, so they can jack up the prices. What about fruits and veggies?? There I am blessed and cursed. In general, bananas, tomatoes, kale, carrots, hot hot red peppers, onions, potatoes, mangoes (in season), and avocados (in season) are cheap, especially when compared to American prices. However, if you want something outside of that—forget it!! One kilogram of bananas (2.2 pounds) is 3 to 4 birr (about 40 cents). FIVE apples cost 25 to 30 birr!!!!! I know, what am I complaining about—I can get mangoes. But, you just miss what you grew up with; a nice crunchy apple—yum. Or a pear or kiwi, grapes, sweet peppers, broccoli, spinach, etc etc. You just miss variety. I know some day if we leave here, I’ll miss cheap avocados and mangoes, but for today I just want to complain about what I miss from America.

Speaking of America, this next story is GREAT. Just brilliant—made my day (please note intended sarcasm). Each day on my way to work I get asked for money/food at least 20 times; some days 40 times, other days 10, but usually around 20 times. I see at least 5 lepers on my way to work, 10 cripples, and at minimum 10 street kids (children living on the streets ranging in ages of 5 and up. If they are under 5, they are usually with an older sibling. However, I have seen two 5 years olds trying to make it on their own. They tend to band together for survival). You choose who you give to, if you give, and how much or what you give; each day. I personally have a soft spot for street kids and women with children. Henok on the other hand has a weak spot for cripples. I can’t say I give every time, sometimes I don’t have change and sometimes I think they aren’t ‘for real.’ I know that sounds cruel, but there are ‘opportunist’ beggars. Those who have a home, possibly not the best home, possibly they are poor, I don’t know, but they generally don’t beg for their existence. However, when they see a white girl walking down the street—their faces suddenly become sullen and sad, and the spit out the only words in English they know, “bread, so hungry, so hungry. No mother, no father, so hungry.” Granted, they might be wearing a school uniform and carrying a backpack as they say this—so you take it with a grain of salt. The street kids in my area I have become friends with, specifically a cute girl, about 12 her little brother who is about 7 and a toddler. I don’t know their story, but I see them everyday. They are great—they come running up to me each day—they know I won’t give them cash (I prefer to give something) and they’ll come up and beg for bananas. One time I bought them cookies, and they WERE NOT PLEASED. They wanted oranges, bananas, or some other tasty treat. Those cookies, ick!! So, I’ll buy them a liter of milk and some bread, or bananas—and they walk with me a ways as I go to work. Darlings. Anyway—the story I was planning on telling you was about a unique approach to begging. Often people come up with unique lines which catch you off guard. This latest one takes the cake!! I was walking down the road to meet Henok. Henok loves croissants, so I had bought him one at a baker near my office. It was a chilly day. A man, maybe early 30’s, approached me. He said hello and asked how I was. At first I thought it was just somebody who wanted to practice English, so I engaged in conversation. However, he then said bluntly, “You are American.” I was caught off guard, they don’t always guess but then realized I was wearing my cousins FDNY (Fire Department New York) sweatshirt—so I laughed pointed to the patch on the sleeve and said, “Yes.” He looked at it weird, and I realized that was not the tip he had gotten.
He continued, “You are an American woman. American’s eat too much and their women are fat. You are fat.”
STUNNED, I stopped walking and looked at him, “Are you calling me fat?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Still stunned, and I’m pretty sure open mouthed I just stood there—I wasn’t sure what to say!! I turned and started walking away—confused and hurt.
He followed me, and continued, “You are too fat! So give me your bread.”
OH, I get it—“Sorry this is for my husband, my Ethiopian husband, so scat!” Jerk. He probably doesn’t realize calling an American woman fat is quite the insult, as calling an Ethiopian woman fat is a HUGE compliment. But, still—it did NOT make my day!!

In closing, I know finally I’m almost done, I have some political/social commentary. First an American decision I find disgusting and second, a truly beautiful American story.
First—The Devils name is Putin. I CAN NOT believe TIME magazine named Putin (of Russia, for those of you behind the times) man of the year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s disgusting to give the former KGB head, and man responsible for taking Russia back to communism and removing civil liberties, MAN OF THE FREAKING YEAR!! It’s beyond words, just nauseating. I was happy to see on line I was not the only disgusted person, but what’s done is done. How can they give this tyrant, this man responsible for so many innocent deaths, for outright human rights violations, such an honor? Such attention to his plight—it will only make him stronger among his people and his foes in turn will become weaker. It is a sad sad day.

On the reverse, is an American story I can hold onto for the rest of my life—a story that gives me hope America still exists and has a chance. What is it you ask? I am SURE you heard it, or hope you did—it must have been national news. The story of a gang of Christians attacking a Jew, only to be stopped by a Muslim. Ring any bells?? For those of you who have been under a rock, I’ll remind you. Late on a NYC evening, a group of Christians were getting on the subway. They were coming from a Christmas party, and as they entered the train car, shouted out “Merry Christmas.”
In response, a Jewish man shouted out, “Happy Hanuakah.” This greatly upset the Christians, of whom I feel had NO Christmas spirit—and long story short, they attacked this Jewish guy!! It’s true, look it up on line!! So, here on a moving train is a group of Christians beating on a Jew (and apparently yelling Anti-Semitic things) with the rest of the train (filled with Jews and Christians) watching!!!!! Until, a small (he’s a little guy, I saw his picture) Sunni Muslim jumped to his aid. The attackers then turned to this Muslim man and the Christian guy rang the alarm. At the next station, police officers came on and arrested the group. Initially, the Muslim man was also taken into custody, but Jewish victim quickly fixed this grave error and the Christians were hauled off to jail. Astounding. Again, another story that leaves me speechless—something of historical precedence. I wonder what I would have done—what would you have done? I hope I would have jumped to their aid, but you never know. I do know that there are NOT many countries on this planet where Christians attack Jews and get saved by Muslims. Love America.

Alright, it is time for me to sign off—Merry Christmas on the 25th who celebrate, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year, and Merry Christmas on the 7th—for those of you on the Orthodox calendar.

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