this post was an attempt to introduce you to the people that define my world right now. i went about it many ways but time after time it landed on the cutting room floor.
i have been trying to write this post for over a week now, and i just couldn’t find a way to define these characters, and when i thought i had, i couldn’t find a way to conclude it. i think, perhaps i had run out of words. i think, perhaps i may need to borrow a few words from my colleagues. read it in pieces if you will. there are a lot of people to meet.
so, without further ado, i present to you: peace corps ethiopia as interpreted through the words of it’s PCVs…
hi, i’m brittany. i already ate.
- brittany. memphis, tennessee
let me tell you all about un faux pas apropos.
we have been dispatched to out host families, and one glaring culture clash is that, whenever you meet someone, they feed you.
sounds great, eh?
trust me, that shit piles up, literally.
but sometimes, from small mistakes come great discoveries.
here in boru kebele (village) five of us have found ourselves on the maiden voyage of a town that has never seen peace corps before. a town that may have never seen a white person before. monica, brittany, DT, deanna, and myself are stationed in a town that sprung up from the mud and tangled weeds and bleached cattle bones, as if from nowhere for nowhy. boru is not on the map, and for good reason. it might not be here next week, let alone the next time they send a cartographer around to line things up. it looks like the last ditch efforts of a roving band of gypsies. they don’t know how to treat americans because they’ve never seen any before, and for some reason the solution is often to overfeed us.
needless to say, a lot of people want to meet us, and that’s a lot of mekses and shai (snacks and tea).
as boru crew begins proper language classes, we are learning all the (not so) subtle mistakes we have been making. for example, when you meet someone for the first time, it’s polite to say, “dave ibalalihu”, which means, “i am called dave”. it’s slightly less polite to say, “brittany, ibelalihu” which means “i’m brittany. i already ate”.
lord! monica done got bit by a dog!
- DT. apalachicola, the oyster capital of the world, in the grrreat state of florida
the US really is in the minority when it comes to domestic animals.
whenever you ask people in other countries “what’s the dog’s name?” the answer is often “no name. dog”.
when you see a dog in the states, it looks at you quizzically as if to say, “are you my buddy? do you have snacks?”
look at a dog in ethiopia. go ahead. i dare you. they seem to be saying something more along the lines of “you see this here? this is all me. you come into my zone and i’mma eatchu”.
“i’m gonna eat you”, by the way, translates as “ib’ alilihu”, which is perhaps the worst way to introduce oneself in this or any country.
the reason the dogs are so ornery out here is that these ain’t pettin’ dogs. these are workin’ dogs.
all day these dogs roam the mucky go-betweens of boru like dickensian orphans, but when darkness falls, and the packs of glowing eyes come bouncing through town, carried on the lilting laughs of hungry hyenas, those mangy mutts clock in.
they work the graveyard shift, tied to the front gate, fighting off the hyenas that prowl the streets… every night.
if that were your job, you’d be a little on edge, yourself.
compound that with the fact that these pups have to drink stagnant water out of the gutter (ok, so gutter may be a little generous. let’s say… garbage trench), and get by on little more than bleached cattle bones and old shoes, and you can see why monica found her tasty leg on the business end of a snausages hallucination.
mama bear’s getting her groove back with a vengeance.
- brendan. san francisco, california
moonshine, pruno, hooch, bathtub mint julep, gut rot, paint thinner, engine polish, toilet wine… same same, but different.
the difference in ethiopia is that you buy it out by the dumpster behind the king hotel, it’s called t’aj, and it tastes like rancid pineapple.
bottoms up, buttercup.
now, jean was just about the last person i expected to hook up a backdoor deal for intoxicants. jean looks like the 5th grade teacher you hope your kids get. she looks like the nurse you don’t mind getting bad news from. so when she reached into a nondescript black bag and pulled out three dusty water bottles full of what looked like raw sewage, i knew me and jean, we were going to get along just fine.
what can i say? i like people who break character.
the moment started off slow. just dave and jean, drinking some pruno. then (don’t call her) abuelita priscilla stepped up to the plate.
now, up to this point, priscilla had managed just fine on a few beers, and the occasional tequila shot, but we knew better. jean and i knew that a 65 year old woman doesn’t volunteer to move to third world africa with a bunch of 20-something hippies unless she’s got a little fire in the belly, and we planned to put a little fire back in that belly.
she reluctantly tipped back a glass of t’aj, and the moment that sweet pungent nectar hit her lips, mama bear was born.
see, most of us had left mothers and fathers and abuelitas behind. priscilla had left kids and grandkids, and news had just reached us that she was expecting a brand new little chitlin. like a fine toilet wine, the maternal instinct can remain bottled up only so long.
t’aj in hand, mama bear sat in her grand velvet throne on the patio of the king hotel, pouring shots, and pouring affections upon us. up the marble stairs they ambled, a few at a time, unwittingly into priscilla’s kingdom as subjects to their queen. at the top of those stairs each was handed a questionably sanitary glass of t’aj, and was toasted. at that moment, trepidations evaporated like the fumes of so much 100 proof honey mead into the balmy night air as we professed our love for priscilla and she returned the sentiments. laps were sat upon, arms thrown over shoulders, and babies named.
amongst the verdant palm fronds and elegantly carved wooden furniture, a family was born. with tobacco smoke like incense wafting in from the darkness beyond the cobblestone walk, and casio keyboard like the pipes of the grandest church organ blaring in from the glass walls behind, priscilla was christened mama bear, and each of us adopted as her own.
meanwhile, somewhere halfway around the world, a new member of the family was on the way, and if peace corps ethiopia has anything to say about it, that baby’s name will be addis abeba…
small talk is bullshit.
- will. everywhere, USA
or so says my addis roommate, william power (real name, true story).
i guess when you’re an army brat who’s been bounced around the country your whole life, you have two options 1) never knowing your friends’ favorite colors, or 2) knowing everyone’s favorite color, and never having any friends.
i, for one, love small talk, mostly because i like to read into the answers.
i swear, you can learn a lot about a person from the way they answer silly questions like “if you could have any modern article of clothing made to look like pilgrim clothing (heavy black wool, white lace, pewter buckles), what would it be?” (best answer so far: lingerie. it would be itchy as hell, but lingerie isn’t built for comfort) or “if you were trapped on gilligan’s island, which would you succumb to first, passion or cannibalism, and with whom?” (best answer so far: i’d have sex with all the women, and eat anyone who challenged me).
but after the fifth straight day of language classes that are focused on greetings and introductions, in a culture that is known to drag greetings and introductions on for a half an hour or more (how are your cattle, how are your chickens…) i think mr. power might be on to something.
alright shint bet, it’s just you and me.
- deanna. simi valley, california
DT has come a long way since i had to draw her a diagram of how to use a shint bet (aka shit pit, or pit toilet, not to be confused with garbage trench).
there are many ways to approach the first encounter with a raunchy hole in the ground that you’re supposed to poop in, and sometimes the whole (hole) experience raises more questions than it answers.
imagine this: you walk into a dark, moist room, usually about the size of a closet. there is a hole in the ground flanked by two foot pads. there is no toilet paper, no lid, no handle or button or chain to flush. in fact, there are no pipes, or plumbing at all.
which way are you supposed to face? where do you sit? how do you wipe? how do you flush? what if you miss? what about splashback? what about splashback?!
few things in this life are certain, but this i can promise you: no two shint bet are quite the same, every other shint bet is better than yours (the ass is always cleaner on the other side), and you have to approach with confidence.
the first time you see a shint bet, you stare it down and in the immortal words of deanna, you declare with all due mettle, “alright shint bet, it’s just you and me. how we gonna do this?”
the last thing you want to do is panic.
well… the last thing you want to do is panic and call DT (who, you may recall, needed me to draw her a diagram of how to use a shint bet not but a week ago). the last question you want to ask is, “what the hell is this thing?”
…and if you’re amaka, and this is your first shint bet, and you do panic, and you do call DT and ask “what the hell is this thing?” the last thing you want to hear is, “amaka, it is just a… lord! monica done got bit by a dog! hold on, girl. i will call you back.”
i imagine at that moment amaka uttered the words
…alright shint bet, it’s just you and me.
you’d better scoot over, because that cow is going on this boat.
- helen. seattle, washington
helen was detailing her boyfriend’s peace corps station in panama. five hours by dugout canoe from the nearest big town, and that cow was getting on that boat one way or another.
i could see the tears welling up in her eyes a little as she talked, and i’m not too proud to admit that my eyes were a little watery as well.
helen and boyfriend had decided to do peace corps as separate adventures, and he had left for panama ten months before she came to ethiopia. in those ten months she was faced with business as usual minus one. her boyfriend, however, he had so many things to fill his time, and occupy his mind. building his own house, for example, might have distracted him from thoughts of his helen of ethiopia (the face that launched a thousand canoes), but one can only imagine that, no matter how eventful, a five hour canoe ride might afford some time to get wistful.
i can tell you this for sure: a nine hour language class certainly does.
i have a great respect for helen and her boyfriend. i have a great respect as well for tony and erin, who decided to do peace corps as separate adventures a few years ago, and are back as a couple to do it again.
for me, the moral of this conversation with helen was: it is possible for people to have completely different experiences on the same adventure. it just depends on how you define the adventure. for helen the adventure looks like ethiopia, health clinics, injera, and hyenas. for her boyfriend it looks like panama, expat bars, and canoe rides, but that doesn’t mean they are on different adventures.
the great adventure in life is life itself. never shall it be defined, because every waking moment is its ever growing definition.
of all the people who are helping to define my experience right now, the most important is the one who isn’t with me. for me the adventure looks a lot like helen’s, and soon enough for jenny, it will look like togo, and… i can’t wait for her to fill in that list.
simply because, over the next two and a half years, jenny and i will tell completely different stories, it does not mean that we aren’t on this adventure together.
i had a great conversation with erin the other day, and the moral was this: it isn’t about making it work within the parameters of other people’s ideals. it’s about whatever works for you.
for some people, sharing an adventure means picket fences, hot showers, a tire swing, 2.5 kids and a dog. for some it means hyena perimeters, and bucket baths.
we’re not so different, you and i. i have a bunch of barefoot kids playing with an old tire in my yard. i don’t know who’s kids they are, i wouldn’t be playing with that tire if i was them, and don’t you pet that dog boy, you fixin’ to get bit, but it’s all in how you look at it. whether you’re in suburban america, or rural africa, on saturday afternoon we all pile into the SUV and drive into town for lunch and a beer, don’t we?
i had a great conversation with tony the other day. the moral of that conversation was: our Ethiopian Gladiators names will be the fightin’ ferenji (white man) and shaibuna (it means coffee break, but it sounds so much cooler in amharic).
jesus, every conversation doesn’t have to be a deep philosophical ponderance, does it?
perhaps now is not the time for conclusions.
- paul. minneapolis, minnesota
my writer’s block had fallen right on my conclusion once again.
i wanted to introduce you all to some of the characters that define my experience out here, but i just couldn’t find a way to wrap it up.
maybe it’s because there are more than just the sixty-nine new volunteers. there are second year volunteers, third years, language teachers, administrators, a smooth talking doctor, a busboy who looks like sammy davis jr and sells moonshine out by the dumpster. there are boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren at home and abroad. there are host families, neighbors, town harlots, save the children, USAID, VSO, cornell grad students, cats on leashes, cats in closets, cats on leashes in closets (we call him the gimp), dogs that should be on leashes, australian bush pilots, fur traders, mayors, door-to-door nurses, the list goes on, and it gets longer every day.
every day our relationships are redefined. busboys become bootleggers, for example. nurses become host cousins. trainers become site mates. coworkers become den mothers. strangers become friends. roommates and neighbors move hundreds of miles away in an instant.
i can’t count the people i have left out of this post, they number too many, and those i have included appear in no particular order. names have not been changed to protect the innocent.
these are simply a few of the characters that are helping me now to define the great adventure that is life.
as i closed my laptop on a dead battery, and prepared to board a bus for boru, paul read the frustrations on my face. he knew all about my tribulations in creating this piece, and he said to me…
perhaps now is not the time for conclusions. perhaps now is the time to leave things undefined.
perhaps now is the time to start something new.
well, where the hell were you ten minutes ago, paul?
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stay tuned for our next episode: