Today marks the close of my first three weeks in Mehal Meda. For the past twenty-one days, the most pressing task on my to do list has been hitting up the local market for tomatoes and checking my post office box. Such a drastic change from the chaos of pre-service training. On August 18th I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. The next day, all 70 PCVs in my training group packed up and dispersed throughout Ethiopia. Life in Mehal Meda has re-introduced me to freedom and free time, two crucial components of sanity that I lacked during training. With freedom comes the responsibility to cook on my own. With free time comes absolutely nothing to do when I’m not cooking.
I have a few weeks until school starts which means my only responsibility is to get know the community and teach kids my name so when I walk through the streets they yell “Leslye, Leslye!” instead of “Ferengi, Ferengi!” So far I’ve made great progress. All my daily routes around town are filled with kids who now yell “Lawslee” with their fists held out in hopes of a fist bump. On a day when I feel obliging, my fist bump count is about 30. Other days I ignore every kid in sight and keep walking. Gotta find sanity somehow.
Luckily when I got to site I was welcomed by other ferengi. There are two environment PCVs who will be in Mehal Meda for the next month, and for my first 10 days a Scottish researcher named Rory was also in town. My sitemates left for their close of service conference just a few days after I got to site, leaving Rory and me to explore Mehal Meda on our own.
Mehal Meda may be in the middle of nowhere in the Ethiopian highlands, but for what it lacks in technology and proximity to civilization, it makes for in natural beauty and exotic wildlife. Rory and I took a 45-minute hike to a breathtaking canon just outside Mehal Meda. No kids to yell at me, no donkeys to run me over, and no creepy men to ask me where I’m going. I can definitely foresee spending some quality time out there with a good book. About 15 kilometers out of town is a conservation site established to protect guassa, a grass that is widely used to make huts. The guassa reserve is also home to gelata baboons, an endemic baboon species here in Ethiopia. We hiked around the guassa reserve, saw hundreds of gelatas and met two American gelata researchers who live up in the mountains in tents. Lots to see and lots to explore. Without a doubt Mehal Meda is an interesting and beautiful place to live.
What I eat
I have a small kerosene stove where all the cooking magic goes down. Mehal Meda is home to a whopping five varieties of vegetables- potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers and tomatoes. The only fruit I can get regularly are bananas. Pasta, rice and bread make up the other half of my nutritional intake. Meat is sold in the form of livestock. I do not have the resources, nor know-how to kill and cook chicken, sheep and goat on my own, thus I refrain from the preparation of meat altogether. I’m only two weeks in, but I think I’ve exhausted all possible combinations of vegetables and pasta/rice. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll dig through the boxes that friends and family have sent me and eat some good ole American non-perishable food. Keep the packages coming, loved ones.
Where I sleep
My home is a humble two-room house with mustard yellow walls and quaint flooring installed by yours truly. I live on a compound with three other families. An adorable 2 year old boy lives next door who I swore was a girl for the first week. I even justified his short hair as a result of head lice. The root of my confusion stemmed from his adorable girlish features in conjunction with the fact that Ethiopians do not subscribe to the idea that pink and glitter clothing are associated with girls. I realized his true gender when I saw him running naked chasing a goat around my compound.
I like to think of myself as Cinderella pre-Prince Charming. Field mice scamper about my house at night, chickens sing sweet songs to me in the morning, and swarms of flies melodiously buzz and hum in every corner of my room. I like to think of the flies as little fairy godmothers waiting for the right moment to wave their wands and conjure up a western toilet from the shint bet and a beautiful, yet culturally appropriate gown from my heaping pile of dirty clothes.
The only furniture I have at the moments is a bed. The carpenter who was building my furniture was three weeks late. We exchanged some choice words in our native tongues, but somehow it was made clear that I was taking my business elsewhere. An outraged, furniture-less ferengi who knows just enough Amharic to express dissatisfaction is not someone you want to mess with. All I want is a simple, elevated surface so I don’t have to cut vegetables on the floor and so creatures of the night don’t taint the food that is already susceptible to educing all sorts of gastrointestinal woes.
I don’t have a shower, so I take bucket bathes whenever I decide that it’s worth the effort (usually every 5 days). My bathroom is a standard Ethiopian shint bet- a dirt floored hole in the ground with walls haphazardly constructed from mangled tin, mud and old grain sacks. I laugh when I think of all the gas station bathrooms that I once thought here absolutely unacceptable.
What I do
Wake up, make a pretend to do list because I love to do lists, eat breakfast (usually oatmeal and a banana), venture out into the town to tackle my bogus to do list that gives me purpose for the day, cook lunch (a 2 hour ordeal normally resulting in a sub-par vegetable concoction), watch a few episodes of Community, wash dishes inside my house to avoid my neighbors mocking me for my poor dish washing technique (I don’t know how they only use 1 liter of water for a mountain of dishes. I’m slowly giving up on a quality clean just to keep up with the Joneses.), meet with a friend, co-worker, or a random person on the street for coffee to evade a quick completion of the 2 seasons of Community on my hard drive and to avoid sanity loss from being cooped up in my fly ridden abode, heat up lunch’s left overs for dinner, read the Game of Thrones, then it’s bed by 9:00pm.
Ethiopia will welcome the year 2005 tomorrow. Ethiopian New Years is on September 11th, 2012 by the European calendar and on September 1st, 2005 by the Ethiopian calendar. I was told school will eventually start at some point after new years. With no concrete start date, I’m just going to show up and wait until other teachers start to trickle in. I can’t wait to get started.
I inherited an old January 2012 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine the other day that quickly turned into my go-to fly killing device. I have no interest in what nail polish color matches my mood any more. The only magazine I can relate to these days is National Geographic, and even then I’ve never heard of a Nat Geo special concerning Sub-Saharan Africa optimal fly killing methodology or the proper shint bet squatting technique.
I live out of buckets. I have a bucket for every need possible. There is no indoor plumbing in Mehal Meda, so I have a bucket for washing my hands, a bucket for washing dishes, a bucket for trash, a bucket for washing clothes, a bucket for taking a bath, a bucket for storing water and a bucket to pee in the middle of the night when it’s too cold and rainy to go outside. Too much information? Spend a few weeks in Ethiopia and there’s no such thing as too much information.
I’ve had cell phone service for a whole 3 hours for the past 2 weeks. By some miracle, I had three straight days of service that ended last night. I woke up this morning and it’s back to using my phone strictly as a time telling device. I have to walk 15 minutes to a “network hotspot” just to get two bars of signal. Internet? I’m a tortuous 5 hour bus ride from this internet thing that I hear is pretty popular.
Saturdays are market days, thus I leave my house only in extreme circumstances as to avoid stares and harassment from the huge influx of people that wander to Mehal Meda for their weekly fix of vegetables, chickens, sheep and Obama flashlights. Maybe next week I’ll venture out to get one of those flashlights. A snap shot of market day- thousands of Ethiopians bartering for livestock and arguing about the price of barely in rows of rickety wooden posts complemented by removable cloth awnings. Aside from the presence of Obama flashlights, it’s a timeless vista that could easily be mistaken as a scene from the early 1800s.
I electrocuted myself the other day. I got my kerosene stove working and decided to use my electric kettle to heat up water in an effort to speed up the process. With an open flame beneath me, I idiotically plugged the kettle into the dangling, janky Ethiopian socket. I then convulsed uncontrollably due to electrocution over a blazing kerosene stove. With my hand muscles involuntarily clenched around the socket, adrenaline finally took over and I was able to kick myself over the flames beneath me let go of the source of my electrocution. Side note on outlets here- sockets run on 240 volts of electricity. Power enough to fry a US hair straightener ran through my entire existence. It was actually quite exhilarating. Side note on the kerosene stove- the directions were in Mandarin and for a different stove model. I still managed to somehow piece it together. I might not have figured out where all the parts go, but even with a few pieces not in use, it works just fine.
The Ethiopian Prime Minster sadly past away a few weeks ago. I walked outside my compound a few days after his death was announced and found tens of thousands of Ethiopians dressed in white traditional garb yelling, screaming, and chanting- some riding donkeys while raising rifles in the air, some crammed in the back of the beds of fruit trucks, and others holding up signs in cryptic Amharic script. I naturally assumed I was in the middle of a revolution, thus several minutes of panic ensued. Cultural difference #897898789789- Ethiopians morn very differently than Americans. Through some broken Amharic and by disregarding my context clues entirely, I managed to discover that these seemingly outraged, vengeful and angry Ethiopians where actually expressing sorrow while simultaneously fulfilling some sort of cultural responsibility to their beloved leader.
The Mehal Meda creeper that I mentioned in my previous blog post is a shopkeeper at the shop closest to my house. I found that out the hard way. Mehal Meda hasn’t had cell phone service lately, so sadly I haven’t gotten any riveting new texts.
To post this blog, I thrice daily visited the post office for a week straight in hopes that it would be open to mail a flash drive to a friend with internet who could then post this on my behalf. Moral of the story, mail me letters to give me something to look forward to on the off chance that the post office will be open.
Despite the ridiculous daily occurrences of Mehal Meda life, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. I honestly have a blast all by myself in my house coming up with things to do to past the time. My days are quite polarized. One second resource deprivation and irritating children frustrate me to the point of insanity, then the next minute I find myself in the middle of a gorgeous canon or watching hundreds of baboons roam about on a nature reserve. Every day is a new challenge. Every experience helps to decode cultural mysteries that once left me completely baffled. I’ve learned to accept that I’ve entered into a unique situation in a unique corner of the world. By turning confusion and frustration into humor, I’ve learned a lot about this place and will surely and hopefully learn a whole lot more