28 February 2008

Lalibela and Donkeys

Greetings all—I hope you are all well. Most of you are still in winter right now, so I imagine you are chilly. Here in Ethiopia, it got cold last night—I had to use all the blankets on the bed. Ha Ha. Actually, I miss winter. I know, only someone living in a climate with no snow or cold could say this, but it’s true. Winter and spring are my favorite seasons. It started out as a child there were less spiders (they all die in winter, thankfully and in spring haven’t quite replenished to their full glory like in summer). But, living in ‘warm year round’ climates I have realized I really like winter. I like a season of bundling up, hot cider, yummy soups, shoveling snow (really I like it, though I hear I wouldn’t have liked it this year—too much), playing in the snow, the gorgeous white covered trees and mountains, etc etc. I miss it. I think I also love winter, b/c it reminds you how good spring and summer are. It’s the same reason why I live abroad, I like the daily reminder of how blessed I am to keep me in check. Winter, keeps you in check—lets you really enjoy spring and summer. When it’s summer and/or spring all the time, you take it for granted. Thus, in short—I am jealous of your suffering. J

So, somehow, my new husband tricked me into going to a wedding with his sister, mother, and a neighbor. The sister speaks broken English and the other two, nothing. Suddenly, I am sitting at a table, the tallest (some how I ended up with the tall chair, which adding to my height as I am tall here was a bit conspicuous), the only white person, the only non-Amharic speaker, and the only one not knowing what is going on. The priest comes in to the sit down dinner, sees the odd looking white giraffe at one table, and makes a beeline for me. I was hoping the man spoke some English, as several priests I have met do. They travel and meet with other Orthodox priests, and the common language is of course English. However, this was not the case. He joined our table of mainly retirees, my sister-in-law, and the neighbor. Everyone stared at me, I smiled back. Awkward!
I have gained this talent (I think while in the Peace Corps) of TOTALLY entertaining myself no matter the situation. I can just drift away in my mind and I don’t know, just entertain myself in the big dark space up there. I can do this for hours—meditating and thinking (often of what to tell you). It has come in handy on cold days in Moldova when I was stuck in my house, long train rides in India, long bus trips in Romania, boring seminars, etc. So—here I am in an ideal situation to drift away, with one exception—a stubborn priest. When I am spoken to, I of course come out of my little daze, back to reality and try to rejoin society. The priest, despite knowing I spoke no Amharic and he spoke no English, wanted to talk with me. He repeatedly made statements at me (I put it that way, b/c they were just a blur of sounds. I didn’t know if they were questions or observations). Everyone would turn and look at me, waiting to see if I could/would respond. I would either just smile, or randomly say, yes or no, to which the retirees would erupt into laughter. Possibly, I had agreed to marry his son, or even him (he was a young priest). Who knows? Randomly, my sister-in-law would translate bits of what he had sad, but was unable to translate back my response. This fun time lasted 2 hours, as my husband lay home watching TV (to be fair, he had gotten a wisdom tooth pulled out that morning, but why did I have to go to the wedding?!?!?!?)

Speaking of the wedding, I learned of a tradition I find interesting. The Ethiopian Orthodox church (EOC), due to Ethiopia’s role in the Old Testament, focuses heavily on the OT compared to other Christian Faiths. Members of the EOC know their Old Testament forward and backward. So, it makes sense that at weddings to celebrate they sing a song about Abraham and Sarah. It was a beautiful song with a lively chorus of shouting and clapping. Not that I understood the words, but wonderful nonetheless.

One thing I have noticed in my travels, and Ethiopia is no exception, that those in ‘developing countries’ tend to cherish life more. I mean they are more cautious and even in the teen years when most of us throw caution to the wind, they make wiser safer choices. I think when there is no real tragedy (losing life or limb) in your life, you don’t understand the finiteness of life. When you grow up with poor health care, no immunizations, lots of dangers in the road, etc you lose family, friends, and neighbors more often. People die from simple accidents and diseases we would consider of no consequence. You cherish each day God lets you have. Being raised in the environment where we are practically encouraged to throw caution to the wind, I find myself less cautious then my husband. For him, you never ever make a decision that’s puts your life or health in possible jeopardy. Sounds reasonable enough, yes-but I guarantee many of your daily decisions would not pass his (or that of his friends and family) criteria for being safe. In the US when you see a ‘hole in the all’ restaurant, if you are like me you are eager to try it as it could be really good. But Henok, if he sees any sign of uncleanliness will refuse to step foot in the place. Another great example is salads. I know, you are thinking—what is so dangerous about lettuce? First, we don’t have lettuce here, but that isn’t important to the story. Second, if you are going to pick up some bug or get any form of food poisoning it’s far more likely to come from something raw then something cooked, thus the danger of salad. Truly, many of my Ethiopian friends will NOT eat salad outside of their home. In Lalibela (more explanation on that later), I got my fork remotely close to the cabbage and Henok would panic. Another great example is water. My mom, lovely woman that she is, bought me this fancy schmancy water bottle. It has a filter inside it so you can drink whatever, and it kills bacteria, viruses, amoebas, and filters out toxins. It’s a great thing. My first trip into the field with it I was excited to try it out. I didn’t jump into the first river and start drinking, but after 8 hours of walking around to different villages in a VERY mountainous area on a very hot day, I was out of bottled water (I had had two 2 liter bottles with me). I grabbed my fancy schmancy bottle and headed to the nearest stream. My team, Henok was one them, FLIPPED OUT!! Why in the world would I consider putting myself so close to death!!!??? I explained the nature of the fancy schmancy water bottle, thinking with the explanation they might want to try it too. It is fancy! The explanation didn’t change their minds, and the fact that I tried to rationalize my ‘unreasonable’ choice, made things worse. . Henok removed the bottle from my hands and handed me some of his water. I was stunned (and to be honest a bit sad, I wanted to use the bottle). To this day, Henok is still upset that I even considered drinking that water. Truly, he brings it up whenever he feels I am about to make a stupid decision, he reminds me of the ‘stupidest thought I ever had.’ Another example is just kids playing in the streets here. I know my nieces and nephews (and me when I was younger) would go CRAZY with all the adventure they see here. There are discarded cars, deep holes dug for who knows why by who knows who, random chunks of pipes, construction sites with no fences, etc etc. But, the kids here stay clear of anything that is remotely dangerous. It’s fascinating to watch them ‘parent’ themselves, as I know American kids (the adventurous ones) would bound right up to danger.

I got off on a tangent—my point is I see kids and parents far more cautious here. There literally are hundreds of dangerous points within 1 minute of my house. Large holes (really random large deep hidden holes that even I want to crawl into just see what’s there), random things poking out of the ground (pipes, barbed wire, metal chunks), exposed electrical wires, crazy cars with no brakes, and if none of those things get you-the Hyenas will. Okay, not so much where I live, but on the outskirts of Addis and in much of the country, Hyenas are a real danger for small children. Many children do not survive the dangers and random disease outbreaks. With this, there is a better respect for life and it’s fragility here (and many other places). As Henok always, and I mean ALWAYS says, “Why would you mess with your health?”

Next I would like to reflect on my absolute all consuming ignorance. It’s true the more you learn, the more you understand how much you don’t know. I was reading over some of my old emails from Moldova and India. I am stunned at how naïve I was, and what idiotic things I wrote. I mean, its one thing to be ignorant, its another to essentially advertise it in a mass email and on a blog! Many of my ignorant comments (generally random observations) come from the fact that I am “country” and didn’t know it. I mean, I generally tell people I am country because relative to other Americans my upbringing was. We raised most of our own food, we had cows, trees, garden, etc and my town had like 2-3 thousand people in it when I was growing up (people from developing countries find this FASCINATING as they kind of assume all Americans live in NYC or something). So, most people call my upbringing country. BUT, and this is an important distinction, I never EVER thought I was country. I mean, I lived 15 minutes from Provo, Utah, a thriving metropolis in my view and just an hour from the capitol, Salt Lake City. To me, to be country there are two requirements: 1 you are people from towns smaller then mine AND 2 your town is in an isolated areas. So, 1 hour drive to the nearest grocery store type stuff. Towns more similar to where my sister Kristi lives in Trenton, Utah (not to be confused with the metropolis of Tremonton which is large). Even as I write this, I know you real city dwellers are laughing that I called Provo and SLC cities.

Many of you may remember my friend Mark from the Peace Corps. We used to fight over this point, as he had been to Salt Lake City, and said it was a town not a city. He was from Minneapolis. At the time, I thought he was just teasing me to annoy me—but now I realize he was serious. I am from the country. I am a country girl. I am sure my sisters and brothers don’t feel they are country, like I did, but I am here to tell you we are. Now, being married to a CITY kid, born and raised in a city of 4 million, I am seeing more and more that I am country. AND, referring back to me going through my old emails, I am starting to see that many of my observations were not ‘different country’ observations, but rather a country bumpkin living in big cities for the first time observations!! It’s crazy and down right embarrassing. Why didn’t any of you city folk tell me I was so hick (that’s an adjective for people from the rural areas for you non-American readers)? It’s like when someone has food on their face, and everyone at the table can see it but says nothing and lets the person figure it out later and feel very embarrassed. I hope you’re satisfied!! (a random note, as I do those best, is one leftover trait from my ‘country’ dwelling I have yet to get rid of is my estimates on travel times. When I think about going from point A to point B, I think about the actual distance. If it is 2 miles, in a car that should take 2 minutes [if you have stop signs or the road isn’t paved!]. But, in the city, 2 miles can be 2 hours with traffic and lights. Its crazy and gets me EVERY time. I get so upset when Henok tells me he’s at “Meskel,” which is like a mile and a half from where I work, and it takes him 30 minutes to get there. What is he doing?!?!?!?)

I want to point out the fact that I don’t like city dwelling, but it is a necessary evil. I think some cities are worse then others (um, no offense, but New Delhi comes to mind—Ack!), but in general the country is more livable for me. Perfect examples are found in Ethiopia. I would LOVE to live in a rural Ethiopian town, teach at the school, work at the health clinic, work with youth, tons of stuff—but Henok, no way. He could barely handle being in Lalibela for 3 days (again, more info on this later). I’ve married a city kid, who when he visited my town of Mapleton (now a whopping 6 thousand people) was bored! We have 3 gas stations now and 2 restaurants, that’s hopping!! In fact, he felt all of Utah was boring, even Provo was too small (his first introduction to the US was Maryland and DC area, I’ll give him they are more populous). It was a serious shock to my system. I told you how when we went up to our cabin near Kamas (Park City) Utah, he about died of boredome and we left early. I could stay there for days with NO problem, he could handle about 2 hours as long as he knew he would be leaving in 2 hours. On top of that, the career I have chosen doesn’t lend itself well to living in ‘rural areas,’ unless I want to earn like 10 thousand dollars a year. The organizations I want to work for, the projects I want to work with, the action is all in big cities. DC (the worst, after Delhi), NYC, Atlanta, San Diego, Seattle, London, Rome, Paris, Addis, Nairobi, etc etc etc. I’ve cursed myself.

Back to my ignorance, I got off onto one part of my ignorance, but want to come back to the fact that I am ignorant. I know so little about, well most things. It fascinates (and depresses) me. I won’t go on on this topic for now, I’ll move on or this could be 20 pages of embarrassing revelations of my lack of knowledge!

Okay, enough whining—on to exciting topics, the anticipated Lalibela. I am going to venture a guess that most of you have never heard of Lalibela. That is a shame and you are in luck as today you will learn. Lalibela is in Northern Ethiopia. It is a small town, just 9000 residents (yea that’s a town!). It is known as “Africa’s Petra,” and is Ethiopia’s number one tourist destination. In fact, ‘tourists’ have been visiting Lalibela since the 16th century! Lalibela ranks as one of the greatest religio-historical sites not only in Africa, but the Christian World. (previous few sentences, and some more to follow compliments of Lonely Planet Guide, Ethiopia and Eritrea).What I, and many others who have visited, find fascinating is that the people of Lalibela live largely the same life today they did 900 years ago. So you as a tourist stop to see the incredible sights, but that can include the houses made the same way as 900 years ago, food processed the same way as 900 years ago, etc (key difference, coke bottles).

So, what is so special about Lalibela? 11 churches to be exact. 11 churches commissioned by King Lalibela who had spent time in Jerusalem. After he returned to Ethiopia, he wanted to build a new Jerusalem. Lalibela is HIGH in rugged rocky mountains (2630 meters or 8630 feet). So, with few trees available—they carved these churches directly out of the mountain. It is stunning. Absolutely, 100% amazing. The churches have been declared a UNESCO heritage site and currently the European Union is in process to build protective coverings for them as some are cracking and showing their age (fun fact for you, Ethiopia is the African country with the MOST UNESCO sites). The churches are named for 11 saints who are important for EOC and vary in size and design. They are in 2 main groups of 5 with an 11th one, the most famous of them, slightly south of them. The churches are amazing for three reasons (Lonely Planet): 1-the churches are mostly not carved INTO the rock, but carved FROM it. Meaning, they are free standing with rock cliffs around them. It’s hard to explain, I’ll post some pictures on my blog. 2-B/c the buildings are so detailed and refined, considering they were carved 900 years ago, and Lastly because there are so many in such a small (ten minute walk) space. The churches in the different groups actually connect to one another with corridors. Outside the town lie even more churches, though not as glorious or famous most still have monks or nuns living in them Two of the churches, are connected by what the Ethiopians believe to be an example of hell. It is a 25 meter (85 feet) tunnel with no windows. It is PITCH black. It is of course not smooth ground and drops down sometimes, and you must feel your way through. It is a harrowing experience to say the least.
It was so interesting—and beautiful. The majority of the doors are the original doors from 900 years ago. Large old wooden doors with the original nails. The churches all have the original crosses which were created for each of them (unique for each one). These crosses are very famous, and you’ll often see them depicted on Ethiopian memorabilia. The most famous church, is that of St George. It is said he showed up when Lalibela had finished the other churches and was bitter there was not one for him. King Lalibela, built him the one that is a bit south of the others. You can still see the hoof prints ‘left’ by St. Georges horse. Scholars say it must have taken like 40,000 men to build the churches, but locals believe the locals worked in the day time and angels took over at night, completing the bulk of the work. In many of the churches you can still find original murals depicting bible stories, and in one an original book of history from 900 years ago. It is fascinating. I actually can’t put into words what an amazing experience it is to walk through these caves and come out into these intricately carved rooms with pillars (the largest church as 82 pillars), statues, murals, etc. The churches are all still used, meaning they have services for locals and are a major site of pilgrimage for Ethiopians. I can’t really explain, so I’ll just put up pictures.

Lastly, on Lalibela—there were of course many foreigners there. It is common, when foreigners are done with magazines or books they will give them to locals who have helped them. These are often youth, who know English from school. The books and magazines serve as a great teaching tool for these youth (in Moldova I knew a woman who had some gossip magazine from the UK that was a decade old someone had given her. Her kids read it). At the airport, there were some ‘Texans’ saying good bye to their guides. One man reached into his bag and pulled out a “Fortune” magazine to give the boy, funny enough as this boys fortune I am sure is less then 10 dollars. But, when I got a closer look the headline was “What to do with 100,000 dollars.” I am sure the boys could figure something out.

In closing, two short stories. First, just to make me pay, fate dealt me a hand in favor of Henok. Translation: I did eat some salad in Lalibela, and when we got home found out I had brought some Amoebas with me. Henok was more then overjoyed to say “I told you so.” And, for you uninitiated, Amoebas aren’t so bad themselves, but the medicine to kill them just about kills you. The guaranteed side effects are severe nausea, exhaustion, dizziness, and a metallic taste in your mouth. It is awful—you truly consider keeping the little guys around just to be rid of the medicine.

And lastly, a small laugh for you. I had to take a taxi home today. I HATE doing that, b/c I have to negotiate with taxi drivers. They see white girl and dollar signs light up in their eyes. It just annoys me they feel they can rip me off. I once considered the fact that I am haggling over just a dollar difference sometimes, and maybe I should give it to them-but, since I already pay double what locals pay, I refuse to pay triple. Anyway—so I go up to the taxi driver and tell him I need to go to Gofa (my neighborhood). He says 50 birr. The day before, I had paid 30 birr from a spot just further up the road. I said no. We argued for a brief moment, where I stated over and over, I would just pay 30 and he slowly dropped by 5 birr the amount he would charge. Finally, he came to 30 (still double what a local would pay for the same trip) and I went to get in the car, then it happened. I had spoken no Amharic during our short debate, and he assumed I knew none. I do know very little, but I knew right away when he said the following in Amharic, “This girls a donkey.” It’s a major insult. He was expressing his bitterness he couldn’t get me to pay more.
I turned to him, and in English said, “Did you just call me a donkey?” Stunned, he and the other taxi drivers looked at me in silence. I then said in Amharic, “I have an Ethiopian husband.” At which point they all busted up laughing realizing they had been caught. Jerk. I SOOOO wish I knew more—so I could say what is on my mind, for example, “Does it say stupid on my forehead?!?! Just because I’m white and a girl doesn’t mean I’m an idiot or should pay more!” After which I would storm off. I can say that in Romanian, but unfortunately it doesn’t help here. I’ve tried out of mere frustration.

Cheers,
jess (see pictures below)

1 comment:

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