I Have Seen the Three Motherlands, and Now I can Finally Die Happy… Maybe

 

I think with all cultures and religions there is a motherland, a piece of Earth designated to a specific group of people representing the assembly of common heritage and beliefs. As a Jewish American, my motherland is Israel. I always thought it would be such an enlightening journey to go to the land of milk and honey, the land of “my people.” I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Israel with Birthright. Before, I always thought to myself that if I ever visited Israel, I could die happy. I hiked Masada, touched the Wailing Wall, floated in the Dead Sea, trekked through the desert on a camel, and got bat mitzvahed. Yes, I really got bat mitzvahed. Are you kidding? What more could a girl ask for?

Apparently…more.

Traveling, like many great joys, is an infectious thing. Once you experience a different culture and language, you want to experience another, and then another, and then another. We live in one of the biggest countries in the world with every range of climate and terrain possible, yet, millions of Americans yearn to roam lands abroad, stuff their mouths full of foreign food, hear alien tongue, see real history, and basically be anywhere other than in the United States. It’s the cool thing to do, isn’t it? Why is this? It may be because as humans we constantly crave more. Better yet, we tell ourselves that we deserve more, many times for things that are not necessities, but luxuries. Traveling is definitely a luxury.

This New Year is special because we are ringing in a new decade. Not only can we reflect on the past year, but reflect on the past ten years and acknowledge the memorable events or things that happened that make our lives great. With me, almost always it relates to traveling. To me, seeing and experiencing different cultures and ways of life with my own eyes and not through a tv screen or hearing it through someone else is the ultimate luxury.

Ethiopia is a place I consider a motherland, the land of Lucy’s bones, (the oldest hominid bones ever found). Do not get it twisted, we all came from Africa. I served in the Peace Corps proudly, every day of my service. I fed hyenas in Harare, one of the holy cities of Islam. I gazed at zebras, baboons, and gazelles in the wild on foot. Only a 50 minute walk from my house into the countryside ripped the Great Rift Valley of Africa, (picture at the top). Incredible. I ate raw beef. Relax, it was mixed with clarified butter.

Serving in the Peace Corps was a life dream come true. I lived in the cradle of humanity for over two years. I told myself, “When I serve in the Peace Corps, I will die happy.” What more could I ask for? Apparently…still more.

This summer, I had a life changing experience that has been on my bucket list since I was a kid, fusing on the final leg of the tripod of motherlands of the world.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been mesmerized by Egypt, the mystical land of pharaohs. Learning about Egypt in school, the pictures of the pyramids became engrained in my mind. For most Americans, the pyramids are the only connection we make to Egypt. Egypt is much more than this. Luxor is where the real history is at. Trekking almost 400 miles south of Cairo will take you to some of the most massive, most extensive, most elaborate graveyards; the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Behold the ancient world, and what a spectacle it is. Room after room after room of extensively detailed colored hieroglyphics, paintings, and messages, on stone. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was standing inside a structure that was built almost 4,000 years ago as the…burial chamber of a pharaoh!? I could not believe it. Hatshepsut’s Temple; more hieroglyphics, everywhere. At Karnak Temple I was captivated by mammoth stone structures towering over me. More hieroglyphics. Wall after wall and room after room of ornate chiseled drawings done by hand in stone, even covering the ceiling.

We then journeyed to Alexandria: toured the famous library, stayed with a local family, ate freshly butchered fish along the coast, lost a phone, found the phone, all with the help of a local who became our traveling buddy and savior.

Cairo was our last stop, and by the time we arrived, I was excited to see the pyramids, but I felt like I had seen so much already. My brain was twitching from the explosion of history. I didn’t think I could handle any more, but let me tell you something: my life completely changed when I saw the tips of the pyramids poking through the trees. Come on, you’re just casually driving on the highway and oh! one of the wonders of the ancient world just peeps out. Are you kidding? I could not. I really just could not believe it. I was in complete awe the entire walk through the Giza complex. My mouth must have been open in shock for a good two hours.

This trip was special. My cousin and I had the amazing opportunity to trek the Earth where our ancestors were once slaves. As I touched the cool stone wall of the pyramids, I thought about how the Israelites helped create this colossal, monumental edifice.

Over the last ten years, I am grateful to have visited different continents and experienced many cultures. Often, even in the middle of a task, I think about a place I visited, pause, and say to myself, “Did I really get to do that?” “Did that really happen?” As humans, we never seem satisfied with what we have and always crave more. We go about our lives wanting certain things so badly, and then when it finally happens, it whips right through us before realizing this remarkable thing that just occurred.

I always told myself when I visit Egypt, I can die happy, but now all I can think about is other places I want to visit and I feel ashamed. How many times in your life have you said, “If I could just —–, I could die happy?”

Take a moment to humble yourself, because damn, I sure needed to. There are millions of people who will never get the opportunity to travel abroad, nevertheless travel out of their town. Instead of thinking about things that if you did them you could die happy, think about reasons why you will die happy. Hold on to this. I came to the realization that of course I will die happy; visiting Egypt was just an added bonus.

The Aftermath

DSC03215     As I got dressed one morning a few months after I returned home, I was looking for my favorite pair of jeans. We all have that one pair. Mine I’ve had since sophomore year of college (2002), from Express, which in their golden years, still had all of the brown rhinestones in a swivel pattern on the back pockets. Every time I hand-washed them in Ethiopia, one more rhinestone would fall off and die, sinking to the bottom of my shallow green wide laundry bucket shimmering from the always blinding African sun. Those jeans got a lot of good years. I spent many afternoons in those jeans sitting on my concrete stoop with my site mate on Saturdays after going to the market, which is a far and distant run from what those jeans encountered in my wild college party days. Instead of alcohol and pizza stains, and at times throw up that wasn’t mine, they were now splattered with dust and the remainders of whose hand I shook that day, and smidgens of animal poop. Towards the very end of my Peace Corps service as I was taking a beautiful hike into the countryside with my friend from home who was visiting, I of course was wearing these jeans.  My friend in her very light hiking pants couldn’t believe I was wearing jeans on a hike, but at this point, they were so worn in, they felt more like leggings. The crotch ripped 3 times during my service. Instead of throwing them out, which I would have immediately done if I was in the states, I had them patched up every time. I was determined to have these jeans last until the end of my service, which I did.

As I looked for these jeans, thinking that I wanted to wear my favorite pair as I went food shopping; that pair with the ripped bottoms; the pair with the thinning sides; the pair I’ve had for over a decade, I remembered that in the last week I was in Ethiopia, the jeans and I said our final goodbye when I donated them along with other clothes to my town’s homeless. Those jeans…… 13 years. I could have given them a bat-mitzvah.

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Life back in the states is….surreal…..still. Exactly one year ago today I returned on U.S. soil. Hot water is amazing. Feeling hot water on a constant basis is amazing. Being able to use hot water when your clothes are being washed IN A WASHING MACHINE is amazing. I repeat, there is a machine that washes your clothes for you….BE GRATEFUL FOR THIS—-millions of people spend their whole lives hand washing their clothes, and all their kids’ clothes, and all their spouse’s clothes, and ALL their dishes, every week, always. Cold water with a slice of lime is amazing. Craft beer is amazing. Running in a park with red and orange leaves is refreshing and breath-taking. Greek yogurt with homemade granola is comforting. Sushi. Steak with asparagus or broccoli. My mom’s matzah ball soup. Chinese take-out. Ginger ale. Baseball games. American football. Driving in my OWN car, just me and the American radio going anywhere I choose, THEN, driving home that same night to sleep in my OWN bed. Being able to get ready sliced meats and cheeses to eat in a sandwich. Enough said.

In the 26 months I had been gone, I only drove in a car once, with my dad, when I came home to visit mid-service. When I returned home for good, I drove on the turnpike by myself for the first time in over 26 months, and I went right through the toll…..   whoops. A few months later I was at a friend’s wedding. Near the end there was an enormous dessert bar. I was so overwhelmed by all the food, that I didn’t have a single dessert, not even cake. This is ME we are talking about. My very sweet boyfriend went out and bought us Wendy’s the next day. When he returned home with a vanilla Frosty instead of a chocolate one I borderline had a tantrum and almost started crying……because the first time I had a Frosty in almost 3 years was vanilla and not chocolate like I was expecting. Who—-DOES—that?

I was so excited for the cheeseburger, but after eating freshly killed and butchered meat for over 2 years, I thought it was sub-par. My anxiety with shopping malls has deepened. A few months ago I realized I had been home for almost 9 months and I hadn’t bought any new clothes. I dread shopping for clothes now. Instead of going to a store to buy a bathing suit, I did it online. I returned it. I spent an hour and a half in DSW one day because it was so overwhelming and I bought 6 pairs of shoes I thought I needed. I was disgusted that I thought I needed that many shoes. One month later I returned 4 pairs that I never used. The only pairs I kept were my running sneakers and work loafers. I have become more empathetic to others’ struggles and hardships. I think about all my co-workers, students, landlord, my community, and feel bad about these first world luxuries I experience on a daily basis. I can’t help it.

Beautiful Moments Not Captured on Camera as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia

  1. The way my landlord smiles at me….always with a gleam of pride in her eyes.
  2. Running on the dirt road in my town with little kids running beside me giggling.
  3. Funerals, especially those of elders. The funeral compound flooded with the entire community crying and wailing inside a cloth tent garbed in their traditional white scarves and blankets.
  4. Muslims bowing and praying outside the mosque on Ed-al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
  5. Walking out of my school compound with 100 elementary students following me and giggling.
  6. Playing American music for my students as a warm up activity and dancing with the other teachers in the library.
  7. Habesha squatting with my landlord as she and I hand grind dried ginger.
  8. The farmer who was whipping his herd to make them go faster, but, when he saw me, he picked up one of his sheep, cradled it, kissed it, and smiled toothlessly at me.
  9. Taking a cold bucket bath in the dark by candlelight because the power went out so I couldn’t heat up water.
  10. Screeching at the top of my lungs when huge winged insects get in my room and my landlords rush over to come kill them for me. Yes, I am referring to the worm fly or just really big moths I mistake for the infamous worm fly. Then there was the ant hill…….let that sink in….

Things I don’t miss:

  1. Days when there is no power, no water, and no network all at once. It is pouring down rain so I always get soaked just walking to my kitchen all at the same time.
  2. Public transportation. Sitting on an overcrowded public mini bus; stopping every five minutes to pick people up or drop them off while people cough on you and stare. It gets very hot in there.
  3. The staring and laughing. China being screamed from across the street.
  4. Feeling dirty the second I walk outside my compound or house most of the time.
  5. Having to wash my feet every time I come home because of the dust, dirt, and pebbles.
  6. The blaring sun facing my house every day from 12-6.
  7. Hand washing my sheets, jeans, and sweaters (heavy clothes). Socks, underwear, and shirts aren’t so bad.
  8. Feeling like I am looked at as a bank, not a human sometimes.

Things I miss:

  1. My Ethiopian nicknames: Darinha, Daraye (my Dara)
  2. Hearing all the varieties of my name and getting a giggle out of it because almost 2 years of living in the same town people still don’t know how to pronounce it: Darias, Diyarias, Diyaria, Dari, Diyari, etc.
  3. My amazing landlord S’dala with her feisty sassy attitude and her high pitched voice I can hear from down the street. “Dara, Darinha, my beautiful, come, coffee!” She basically runs the town. Her husband Teshay is also wonderful and protective.
  4. Eating food that doesn’t have to be labeled “organic,” it just naturally is (ie: farm fresh fruits, veggies, and eggs from the market every Saturday. Eating the truest form of organic meat. It doesn’t get any fresher than eating something slaughtered only an hour before you eat it.
  5. Having Africa’s Great Rift Valley only a 45 minute walk away.
  6. My amazing hard working students. Enough said.
  7. Ethiopian holidays. Tej (honey wine). Dorro wat (homemade chicken stew). Diffo Dabbo (thick freshly made bread).
  8. The stars when the power goes out. Looking up, it’s my own natural planetarium.
  9. Coffee and chat time with my landlord. As time went on and my Amharic got better, we could have deeper conversations, or at least I like to assume so.
  10. Listening to the rain in my house and standing at my doorway and watching the rain come down in buckets, then, the sun shining 5 minutes later.
  11. Rahel Café: going with Alex, the cake, the food, the staff!!
  12. The sunsets from my front door.

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Dear Peace Corps,

I am ever so grateful to have you as part of my life. Now….

Onward and upward…..DSC03242

Let’s Go Back to the Start (The Secret Prequel to “Dear U2, I Found What I Was Looking For…Have You?”)

I would have to say my mid-twenties was a series of encounters and experiences, good and bad, that led me to an awakening of what I was supposed to do with my life and when I was supposed to do it. My second year out of college, as I was unhappily going about my daily life, impatiently waiting for a teaching position after getting laid off my previous one due to the school closing, two of my close friends brought up they were thinking of going to a Peace Corps interest meeting. I had heard of the Peace Corps before, but, it was a mere cloud to me, not knowing the statistics of it.

One fall Saturday afternoon in 2006 when I was living with an ex-boyfriend, I decided to tinker on the Peace Corps website for the first time. As I was scrolling through the different links, the colorful world map of all the places where Americans served glowed at me. Images of cheery volunteers reading to young kids with crooked smiles and worn clothing under a straw bungalow, and an American clad in foreign attire with almond eyed friends cooking international cuisine beaming with pride, hypnotized my eyes. I was immediately hooked. Instantly, something changed inside me on that late autumn day. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment in time when I knew one day I would join Peace Corps, it would be this afternoon.

Casually bringing up that Peace Corps would be an amazing experience to my boyfriend at the time, he responded disconcertingly with, “Why? Are you not fulfilled here with me? Am I not fulfilling enough for you?” This was the challenge with Peace Corps; what made it stand out from any other organization; it was a 27 month commitment; the real deal; the big shebang. I quickly put Peace Corps on the back burner because I felt bad about hurting my boyfriend’s feelings.

My ex constantly picked arguments with me about things I did that made him upset, stating that my actions constantly showed him I didn’t care. He blamed our failing relationship on the fact that I was too immature to handle it, that I didn’t make the effort, that “This is what a real relationship is.” His defense mechanism remained the same; continuously reminding me of how I would never find anyone better, or smarter, or more handsome than him, and that all of my guy friends were only boys. Whenever his guilt spell was cast upon me, I always told myself the reason why he said hurtful things was because he loved me so much, that he was so afraid to lose me. I planted the fact in my head that this was it; I wasn’t going to find anyone better or who loved me more, and, how dare I mess this up.

I will never forget the weekend I wanted to drive to my alma mater for the annual pig roast and spend time with my college friends for an alumni weekend. Grumpily he blurted, “Soooooo, instead of hanging out with ME, you’d rather spend time with people you don’t even see anymore?” instead of “Oh, cool! Have fun.” He was so upset because he wanted to go to the blues festival in our town with me. That night, we winded up not even going to the festival, but, of course, stayed in. I will never forgive him for that. I guess it’s about time I should let that go…..

After all of our exhausting arguments, I still wanted to have a glimmer of hope, so, I forced myself to go away with him for a weekend in the Poconos with all of his friends. As we were driving home I awkwardly listened as he told me that the past weekend made him realize how much he wanted things to work out with us, how our relationship was worth fighting for. When he said, “What do you think? Do you want to try and make this work?” my body froze. This was the defining moment in our relationship. This was my moment to do what was right, not just for me, but for him. I realized then that “trying to make it work” was like beating a dead horse. It wasn’t until the very end of our relationship, one that lasted much longer than it should have, that my courage to do what felt right in my heart triumphed over my ex’s sneaky business of always making me feel guilty for wanting to do things that didn’t concern him. Come late winter, after a year and half of dating, his insecurities and intense personality bore too much of a toll on my sanity. Admitting to him that I just wasn’t happy and didn’t love him anymore was one of the most difficult moments of my life. Is there a nice or a right way to tell someone you fell out of love?

My gut instinct spilled out of me as I bluntly said, “NO.” He was heartbroken. I acted like I didn’t see a tear fall from his face covered behind sunglasses. I felt like a balloon of built up emotions just deflated in my stomach. I put so much effort into something that I knew for a long time was not right for me. I immediately packed up my stuff and gladly moved back home with my parents. I felt like I had just been released from prison when we broke up. I went nuts. I wanted to run through the streets screaming, “I’m free, I’m free!!!”

A few months after that, my ex and I started seeing each other again when the all too common “feeling lonely and going back to what’s comfortable” crept in, but, it didn’t last long. I am sure almost every person reading this knows EXACTLY what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there. We’ve ALL done it….and it’s okay.

That summer was one of my all-time favorites. I definitely made up for lost time by spending every weekend at the shore with my friends not giving a thought about my sorry excuse of a man ex. I landed a full time job as a teacher’s assistant and also picked up a job of tutoring students, since I clearly wasn’t going to watch my ex’s nieces anymore. I loved working at the school, but, was still dispirited about not finding a teaching position and having no benefits. That summer the beach was my savior; when I was there, all of my problems went away.

I didn’t realize it until years later, but, emotional abuse was definitely present in our relationship. It took me almost a year to apprehend that it wasn’t because I didn’t care enough to make the effort in my relationship, I definitely wasn’t lazy; I just didn’t care about him because he wasn’t right for me. Relationships aren’t supposed to be draining or tiring, or that much work. Trust me, he wasn’t that handsome and I did find someone better, much MUCH better, the best actually. Although I was unfulfilled with my ex, my yearning to do the Peace Corps had nothing to do with me being unhappy with him. This had nothing to do with my family and friends. I certainly wasn’t “running away” from anything, which some people thought I was doing. It was about my life and what I wanted for me; to feel fulfilled and happy with myself. I simply wanted to experience and be part of something bigger than me; to do something special; something that gave my life meaning; to contribute something to society and the world.

Dear U2, I Found What I’m Looking For……Have You?

“This is pretty serious, though only for experience sake…it’ll be interesting, you bet, and I’ll look back on it someday and feel sure I did the right thing and all, but not be sure exactly why I think so; full steam ahead.” “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford

            I really don’t know how to start this. There are so many thoughts racing through my head, as I am now in the single digit days until I touch back onto U.S. soil. I keep typing, then, deleting, typing, then, deleting, typing, staring at my faded sea blue wall covering the mud that makes up my tiny square house, listening to my landlord’s voice outside, instead of typing. I have five days left in my town….F-I-V-E. Wasn’t it just last year that I sent in my application for Peace Corps? No, it was almost 4 years ago. Wasn’t it just last month that I nervously drove to my parents’ house to tell them I was chosen to serve in Ethiopia? No, it was almost 3 years ago. Wasn’t it just last week that our group had our mid-service conference? No, it was almost a year ago. Even after 2 years, I still have my moments, whether teaching my English club students, or walking around the market, or staring at the sunset, I think to myself, “Am I really here… in Ethiopia?! Do I really live in rural Africa? Am I really teaching in Africa? Do I really live here? Am I really doing this? Sometimes I think I am dreaming, but, no, this is real life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In August 2009 I visited the wonderful country of Israel. Let me tell you folks something—Israel is AMAZING. Go visit. Get to know its people. Understand its culture. Respect and appreciate its history. While there, I spent some time with Israeli soldiers. They are very special people who have strong pride for their country. They do not let anyone steer them wrong. For those of you who don’t know, once 18, Israeli law mandates male citizens to serve in the military for three years and women for two years. The government also allows community service options. I am not casting my views on anyone else, but, in my opinion, I repeat, in MY opinion, the Israeli government has it right. Why not serve my country? I have no desire to join the military, a commitment and skill I have deeply rooted respect of our soldiers for. Seriously, our soldiers are heroes. I am most certainly not a hero, but, I wanted to help and give something to the world in another way. Why not take the skills and experience I had professionally and personally and help others who cannot help themselves? I am not saying citizens of third world countries are incompetent, no, most certainly not. I now looked at all that I had been given, all of my opportunities and my first world education as a luxury. Why not use this luxury to good? Why contain it to my life in the states? It was on this trip to Israel that my views of joining the Peace Corps became more serious.

For me, joining Peace Corps turned into an obligation rather than a choice. Although to clarify, it was my choice. No one was forcing me. I had this dream of living in Africa, not just going there as a tourist, but, really living with its people and understanding the history, the land, the culture. It’s hard to explain in words why Africa was it, and not Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Latin America. I always thought Africa was very misunderstood, its people looked over, its history unappreciated. I had my mind set on living in Africa. I was inexplicably drawn to it, but especially, to Ethiopia because a friend of mine’s family was from there. Whenever I went to her parents’ house her dad was happily eating stewed food over this big thin pancake bread thing which I later found out was injera. I knew that Ethiopia had one of the oldest histories in the world and I quickly became very intrigued with serving there.

When I first told my parents about thinking of joining in early September 2011, the conversation was shut down very quickly by my father. He wasn’t having it, to say the least. About 5 months later, driving home from work on a Friday afternoon after another stressful week of teaching in my inner city school, something inside of me just snapped. This overwhelming feeling of suffocation took over me, a feeling that there was something more I could be doing with my life than staying at a job I hated. The next day I banged out 3 essays and submitted my application, but, did not tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone except for my roommate at the time, and if you are reading this, you know who you are. My friend whose family is from Ethiopia wrote the friend recommendation for me for my application. I did not tell Peace Corps, but, I had my heart set on Ethiopia.

About five months later during my summer vacation Peace Corps informed I was accepted to serve and placed me in the Africa region, although the country was undecided. Of course, less than two months later, I met Mike. Of course. Isn’t that always how life goes? As summer turned into fall and fall turned into winter, the months just went by in a whirl of contentment and sheer bliss with Mike. He made me so happy and I couldn’t believe that I was going to leave him. Over the course of months I researched other volunteer programs that were a much shorter commitment, but, my heart and my gut constantly drew me back to Peace Corps. From day one, Mike supported me and my dream. He completely understood why I wanted to serve. It made it this harder to leave him.

I will never forget the day when I found out. I was checking my email at work on my lunch break. February 13, 2013. I still have the letter. I never even deleted it from my email history. All I saw was Ethiopia in bold letters. The other words were a gray haze. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I just kept staring at the word Ethiopia. Out of all the Peace Corps Africa posts, I was chosen to serve in the one country I secretly hoped for. A feeling of complete nirvana came over me, but, my parents were furious. They could not wrap their heads around the fact that at 30, with a loving boyfriend and a job with benefits and pension, I was going to leave for over 2 years to……volunteer? They refused to believe that I was doing this simply because it was what I thought was best for me, what I wanted in my heart. They were completely beside themselves that I wasn’t doing it for my resume; to gain work experience. They were dumbfounded. When it came to the end, right before I was to leave, some people said, “Oh….. you’re really going?! I didn’t think you’d actually go…”

*******

“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” ― Frank Zappa

It is now the last day I spend in my town. My very last care package I received was two months ago, from a hometown friend and his wife. About five months ago I sent this friend a brutally honest and negative email scolding him for disappearing and that I didn’t understand why. Ask anyone that is close to me and they will reassure you of how I always say I hate change. Change sucks sometimes. Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black? I think I made this friend feel guilty, so he sent me the package because he felt bad……or to shut me up. Hahaha. In the small shoe box package stuffed with chocolate and Kraft mac and cheese (SCORE!) was a handwritten letter, something I always greatly appreciate people taking the time to do. He wrote, “I hope that you found what it is you were looking for.” My immediate reaction I became very offended and defensive, saying to myself, “Huuuuuh??? I wasn’t LOOKING for anything! How dare he! Oh, what, the American girl has to come to Africa to find herself?!” Then, when I thought about it for a minute, I realized he was right and how caring and genuine the comment actually was.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” JFK

Every Peace Corps volunteer from every town or village in every Peace Corps country joins at different stages in their lives for very different reasons. The most important thing I learned is that the service; the experiences and challenges themselves are so drastic from one volunteer to the next. There is no way to compare my Peace Corps service from another Ethiopia volunteer even from the town next to me. I went into Peace Corps knowing that I was not going to change the world or cure illiteracy. For me, it was being a part of something bigger than me, doing something for myself and my country and the world at large. For me, joining Peace Corps was taking a leap of faith in myself. There is not a day that goes by that I regret my decision or staying until the end. This is what the universe wanted for me. I truly believe that. There is a reason that I didn’t join when I was 24. I wasn’t ready then. So, I waited until I was ready, and I gave it the best I could. My journey to the Peace Corps has not been an easy one. It has been a stressful, soul searching windy bumpy road.

So, to my friend that hoped I, found what it is I was looking for, the answer is yes. In fact, this one comment in his letter was my inspiration to write this final post. When I didn’t even realize I was looking for it, I found my inner peace; an inner peace within myself that my decisions and following my gut instinct are what is best for me and I will not have it any other way. You shouldn’t either. The quote at the beginning of this post from Richard Ford is pretty spot on to how I feel about my Peace Corps experience when I left for my service.

Now, I will be back on U.S soil tomorrow….T-O-M-O-R-R-O-W….Well Ethiopia, you’ve had me for over two years, but, now you need to let me go. It was such a pleasure getting to know you and your people, your children, your culture and your beautiful, ancient soil. Serving in the Peace Corps has been the greatest experience of my life. I am so proud that I had the chance to represent my country abroad, but, dinners for one are getting old. “Coming to America, The Sequel” hits the Philadelphia area August 21. Get ready America. You’re welcome.

“Who knows their own story? Certainly it makes no sense when we are living in the midst of it. It’s all just clamor and confusion. It only becomes a story when we tell it and re-tell it. Our small precious recollections that we speak again and again to ourselves or to others…first creating the narrative of our lives and then keeping the story from dissolving into darkness.” ~Nick Cave “20,000 Days on Earth”

Cory and Erik Visit Me in Ethiopia!!!

DSC03523 One of the things I hoped for the most was that a loved one from back home would visit me in Ethiopia to get a first- hand account of the third world country and culture I am so deeply integrated in, to see with their own eyes and to understand the beautiful complexity, spontaneity, and simplicity of my life here. One of my best friends from home, someone I have worked with and lived with endured all of the shots to fly half way across the world to visit little ‘ol me and brought her boyfriend with her on this crazy adventure! I decided to take Cory and Erik to the south of Ethiopia. Here we go……
Our first stop was Hawassa. Since there are no traveler rest stations like in the states, they got their first taste of what a “pit stop” is in Ethiopia. People unload of the bus and simply find a space in the grass to do their business. The men pee wherever, even at the side of the road, while the women search for places with trees so they can hide their bum. A couple hours later we were in the heart of the Ethiopian hotel experience: waiting 30 minutes for our room even though we had a reservation, a shower with half the door missing so water gets everywhere, therefore the bathroom floor is sopping wet, taking 10 minutes to figure out how to turn on the hot water even though the water heater is “on,” an insufficient amount of bath towels so you have to track down the staff 3 or 4 times, overly curious hotel staff, and the power going out every night and occasionally throughout the day.
It was nice to sit by Lake Hawassa and eat fresh fish and drink beer while monkeys and different species of birds frolicked about, animal life I don’t get see in Sheno. The next day we went to a town nearby, Wondo Genet to hike and see hot springs. There, more of the Ethiopian experience bloomed complete with haggling the price for every single thing and nicely warding off gangs of kids following us everywhere we went. That night they experienced t’ej (honey wine) and we went to a cultural dancing house to see the dances from all the different regions in Ethiopia.
Our next stop was deeper south to Arba Minch (40 Springs). Deeper into the Ethiopian travel adventure we went as they experienced the chaos of bus stations and the stuffiness, stench, and bumpiness of public transportation. What fun!! Here they got their first true Ethiopian dining experience with a café that didn’t have anything offered on their menu except for an egg sandwich. They were perplexed, just as I was at first, of the false advertising of restaurants with colorful pictures of cake, pizza, and cheeseburgers, when all that was offered was…..you guessed it….egg sandwiches. Oh, and pasta drowned in oil. They ate that one day. I couldn’t stop giggling. We took a boat to Nechisar National Park on Lake Chamo. In the lake we saw pelicans and enormous crocodiles and hippos in the wild, some crocs reaching 4 or 5 meters. It was a little……..too real. The crocs got a little……too close for comfort. Haha. Now, unlike most safaris, we were able to go on foot throughout the park, mostly because there were no animals that wanted to have us for lunch. There was not a soul in site except for the three of us, our local guide, and our guard draped in military gear complete with rifle in hand. The only sounds were our footsteps swishing through the grass and the light breeze fluttering across the flat plain spotted with wild flowers. We walked amongst antelope and zebras. I repeat, I was a few hundred feet from zebras IN-THE-WILD. Amazing. After Nechisar, came the Arba Minch forest where I saw a warthog and families of baboons in the wild for the first time. I have seen baboons in Ethiopia many times before, but, NEVER that close. So cool.
It was finally time for us to make the long trek back to the capital, and thereafter my town for a few days. The Ethiopian travel experience continued, complete with waking up at the crack of dawn. Our total travel time from Arba Minch to my site was 14 hours straight including bus switches. It was…….rough. What made our long journey so special was seeing the plush green countryside and traditional south Sidamo huts. At our pit stops, Cory would quickly whip up origami birds to give out to the local kids who stopped to say hello. Cory and Erik quickly fell in love with the coffee right away and were always eager to sit at the local coffee house to sip the jebena bunna (hand brewed coffee). They closed their eyes and sipped slowly. My heart was smiling.
They spent 3 nights and 3 days in my town. There was no water the entire time; the worst water shortage we have had in Sheno in all the time I have lived here. I had just enough to cook and for hygiene, but, no showering. Of course. Haha. The bright side was there was no rain. I was nervous for months before they arrived that it would be raining every day and we wouldn’t be able to do anything, but, it was the complete opposite. The sun shone on us every day and there was power most of the time. When there wasn’t, we basked in the quiet dark of night together. We were very fortunate to get one clear night when all the stars were out. Erik said it was the most beautiful starry night he had seen in his life. I took them to the old church near our town that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, and coincidentally enough, there was a funeral that day I didn’t know about, so, they experienced the Ethiopian mourning process as well. As people flooded into the church’s compound, wailing for the deceased, Cory and Erik agreed it was like nothing they had ever experienced before.
Every morning they would wake up excited to go to the café to get their jebena bunna and egg sandwich fix. They also loved tagabino. I planned an English club and invited as many students that I saw on the street. We divided the students up into grades. With the grade 9 students Cory did origami. Erik tossed his Frisbee around with the 5th-8th grade students as I decorated body paints on them. Then, we switched groups. I gave my students time at the end to ask them questions so they could use their English on other people except me. It was great and the students had a blast. I took them to the weekly Saturday market where we weaved through the crowed outdoor vendors as they bought some souvenirs for loved ones and themselves. We hung out at local bars in my town and they met many of my co-workers and neighbors. My landlord’s family came over on their last day in my town and we had a lunch celebration complete with me doing the entire coffee ceremony start to finish. Cory helped hand grind the coffee with me using a mortar and pestle. We made a birthday video for Cory’s mother where we sang “Happy Birthday” to her in Amharic, and my landlord and her family loved it. In fact, they bring it up every time I am with them and start singing the birthday song in Amharic. I think they all felt honored to give a very special gift to someone in their language.
Cory and Erik got the true small town Ethiopian experience including using the outdoor latrine and liking it, I might add. Our last day was spent in the capital in a section called Piazza. They met my Amharic teacher from training, who I consider my closest and best Ethiopian friend. I would trust him with my life and was so grateful my friends got to spend time with him. We talked about development and culture over beers and lunch, then, we all walked the row of shops to buy lots of cultural good quality souvenirs, helping my friends haggle for good prices.
Saying goodbye to them was much weirder than seeing them when they arrived. After they left, I kept saying to myself, “Did that REALLY just happen? Did Cory REALLY visit me in Ethiopia?! Was she REALLY just right next to me in MY town, in MY little mud square home?! Was she REALLY using MY outdoor latrine?! Cory and Erik, I am ever so grateful that you got to experience Ethiopia, a country and culture that has become so dear to my heart, a place I call home.

Ode to Gabby (Ode to Friends Part 2)

DSC03368 This is the second part of my ode to friends. Yesterday afternoon I said goodbye to my dearest friend in Peace Corps Ethiopia, one of my fellow group mates. The Peace Corps bond is something very unique and special; different from any connection I have with my dearest and oldest friends from childhood and college. No one will ever understand my Peace Corps experience except other Ethiopia RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), but, especially ones that served around the same time as me. We watch each other grow and change. We crave sushi and Mexican food together. We argue over who gets to take the toilet paper from hotel rooms because it’s expensive here. We call each other, then, hang up, because we don’t have any money left on our phone and praying the other does to call us back.
Gabby is one tough cookie. I can say with a truly honest heart, that I believe she will one day be the next Olivia Pope. Get ready folks! Gabby is strong willed, grounded, determined, and puts up with my crazy self! This past Halloween Gabby and I dressed and acted as EACH OTHER. Picture that folks. In fact, I don’t have a picture from that night, so if someone is reading this and has a picture of us, send it my way. I have a little over 4 weeks left in country. It is so weird that I will not be able to call or text her whenever I want, but, then again, when I get home in about 4 weeks I can! I went to text Gabby last night, already completely forgetting that she was on a plane back to the states. Gabby, I will miss calling you, then, our call getting cut off five or ten minutes later because one of us never has enough money on our phone and don’t feel like leaving our compounds to put more money on. What am I saying, the one with no money is usually me! Ha! I once again, feel at a loss, because when I return to the states, she will be on the other side of the country instead of 40 minutes away from me. Gabby, cheers to you! Oh hell, cheers to us….duh. Also, the picture above perfectly captures us, right y’all?

Ode to Alex

DSC05991 Many volunteers in Peace Corps request not to have a site mate, when Peace Corps volunteers live in the same town. I requested to have a site mate because I could not imagine being alone in a foreign third world town for two years by myself. My first site mate who was a health volunteer from another group left after 6 months of me arriving at site. We lived in the same compound, which almost never happens, so we saw each other all the time. Before I arrived she was in Sheno for 9 months by herself. When I first arrived at site, she opened up her house to me and let me sleep on her guest bed when I had nothing. She helped me buy all of my house stuff; showing me around town and telling me where she bought her things and how much she paid. She cooked for me and was always helpful.
We need space to develop our own sense of self in our communities; to find our niche. Being in the same compound doesn’t give volunteers the same experience as ones who live separate from each other because you are constantly in the same vicinity. After she left, I was surprisingly overcome with the very guilty feeling of appreciation for having the town to myself. I am sure any volunteer would agree that volunteers become territorial of their town and some like being the only foreigner around. When there is more than one foreigner in the same town, the community constantly compares them in terms of personality, work ethic, language ability, weight, YES, weight, other physical features, and everything else you could imagine.
For 6 months I had Sheno all to myself. I spent a lot of time with my landlords and neighbors; improving my language and getting to know them better. I am grateful to have had the experience of being the only foreigner in my small town, but when Peace Corps asked if I wanted a site mate from the new education group, I gladly said yes, not only because I wanted company, but, because I thought it would be a great experience for the high school students to have a foreign teacher as well. I couldn’t believe the day finally came. I was so excited now to be the one welcoming a new volunteer in, showing him or her around, cooking for them, and sharing my experiences. One day in mid-August I met my new site mate, a cheery and sweet Colorado native.
Our next 10 months together were just so lovely. I couldn’t have imagined being in Sheno without her. We would always text each other thinking of excuses to eat out in town, even though we just did the day before. We ate out at least twice a week. A certain café in town became our spot and we would anticipate the days when there was cream cake, something the café didn’t have every day. We walked to the post office together. At least once a month, we walked the 50 minute journey from our town to the old church that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, each time feeling as if the vast beauty was something we were seeing for the first time. Every time one of us had a school celebration or went to a neighbor’s house for coffee or lunch, we would invite the other. Many of my old students were her students. I loved hearing how they were growing over the course of the school year, from shy eighth graders to very chatty almost tenth graders. Just like me, she was very proud of her roots and loved the outdoors. We would vent to each other about work and it seemed we were venting to a mirror.
We have helped each other cope through death and other losses; things that are extremely difficult to endure alone. She as well has a boyfriend back home and understood all of the challenges and sadness that comes with not having the love of your life by your side. We would miss each other when one of us was on vacation or in the capital for trainings, even though we saw each other almost every day. We couldn’t wait to come back to site to fill each other in on funny or weird things that happened. I have never had a sister, but, I’d like to think of Alex as a sister. Even though we are very different, it seemed we did everything together and accepted each other for exactly as we were are. We don’t have many of the same hobbies or views on things, or react to things the same way, but, we understand each other. We borrowed each other’s clothes and books, hard drives, and swapped pictures from our cameras. Alex got me hooked on tv shows that I never thought I would have liked, and vice versa. On Eid-al-Fetir we walked from one end of town to the other in hijabs to celebrate with our Muslim friends the end of the Ramadan.
Since Alex is doing trainings for the new group of volunteers, then, going on vacation for three weeks, this morning was the last time we will spend in Sheno together. I have exactly four weeks left in my town and it will be without Alex. I will get to say goodbye to her right before I leave to return to America next month because she will be returning from her vacation the same day. Our final goodbye will be in the capital. It feels…..weird. When I said goodbye to her at the bus station this morning it felt surreal. I walked home feeling at a loss. We will never text each other to make up an excuse to go eat at Rahel café again or walk to the post office. We will never again trek the peaceful hike to the Great Rift Valley. She will never stop by on a Saturday morning after her market run to chat. We will never sit outside the high school together. All good things come to an end. I was in Sheno for 6 months before Alex came, but, now that we are site mates, I can’t imagine being in Sheno without her here. Alex, thank you for a great ten months. I am honored to have shared Sheno with you and all of the craziness that came with it.

Ramadan Kareem

Eid-al-Fitr Kareem everyone!!!!
I have never had Muslim friends or co-workers in the states, therefore was not able to learn about Islam firsthand until moving to Ethiopia. During Pre- Service Training (PST) I experienced my first taste of Muslim culture up close. The eve before Eid-al-Fitr, the day which marks the end to the holy month of Ramadan; the 30 day fast from sunrise to sunset from mid-June to mid-July, I heard the beautiful symphonic bellowing of the praying Muslims at the mosque. I stood outside my host family’s house in the dark cold of night and just listened. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The sound was so rich, so thick, so genuine, as if it took over the whole sky and each star and tree was roaring its holy calls and bowing as well. I decided that night, that before I left Ethiopia I would visit a mosque with a female friend to get a first-hand account of this religion that is so disregarded and stereotyped by American culture as dangerous, meaningless, and dirty.
It was on my first Eid-al-Fitr in Ethiopia that my own ill-informed views of Muslims changed. Yes, I am attesting to being ignorant and not having the most perfect view of Muslims and the culture of Islam before coming to Ethiopia. I feel so lucky to be so infused in another culture where I can see the true beauty in such things that are at most times misrepresented and misunderstood. As I came to know Ethiopian culture and observed my surroundings very closely, I came to understand Ethiopian Muslims as clean, trustworthy, honest, and very peaceful souls. They admired their religion and their God and just wanted to be left alone. I knew I would never be cheated if a Muslim family owned the shop I was buying things at. Not once, in over the two years I have lived in Ethiopia, in all the times I was harassed by men, not once was it a Muslim man. No, this was certainly not a coincidence.
A few months after arriving at site in my town Sheno, a series of mini bus bombings emerged in far west Ethiopia near the Sudan border by the Shia and Sunni extremist Muslim groups. Just like the men who are responsible for 9/11 and so many other terrorist attacks, these men who have no value for human life including their own, dilute and dissolve the beauty that is the Muslim religion and culture, and make a bad name for the millions of innocent people who just want to worship and live in peace. My heart sank for my Ethiopian Muslim friends and neighbors and the Muslim world as a whole during the time of these bombings. You could see the disgrace and embarrassment in their eyes as they bowed their heads in shame of yet again, another blatant falsification of their beliefs to the world. I quickly learned that everything Muslim extremists believe is against anything the Qur’an stands for. Muslim extremists expound their following of the Qur’an, but, any Muslim will tell you that everything they preach is in exact opposite of the accordance of Islam. I learned these extremists brainwash children at a very young age telling them what the Qur’an says instead of showing them by having them read it. The final test for these naïve young Muslims is, they are told that by strapping bombs to their chests, they will be accepted by Allah and the bomb will not hurt them, instead, dispensing outward only.
My connecting flight to and from the states during my summer vacation in 2014 was in Qatar. On my return to Ethiopia in mid-July, it was during the end of Ramadan. I melted at the beautiful detailed jeweled garb that the Muslim women adorned. All over I saw signs that read “Ramadan Kareem,” which meant “Happy Ramadan” in Arabic. When I came back to Ethiopia, I repeated Ramadan Kareem to all of my Muslim friends and they giggled impressively.
My second eve of Eid-al-Fitr Eve was a chilly clear Sunday night. Once again I heard the soft wailing from the mosque just like I did that night I stood on the porch of my host family’s house one year before. I stepped outside my bedroom and once again stood there to listen and pay homage. A vibration seemed to pulsate throughout the air around my town and into me. I looked up at the skinny bodied eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind along with the worship songs of the starred sky. When I laid back down in my bed something inside me wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to get dressed right then and walk to the mosque in the dark to hear the mesmerizing trance like sound up close, but, it wasn’t a good idea to go by myself.
The next morning I awoke to hearing the Muslims praying on Eid-al-Fitr morning. I gulped down a cup of coffee and headed out the door in fear it would be over by my arrival. It wasn’t. I walked up to a nearby hill and watched in amazement. I observed the men in one section and the women in another just like at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I watched their occasional bow and hands fall in appreciation and honor of Allah.
Later that day I went to a female Muslim co-worker’s house, one of my favorite people in Sheno. I was honored to spend time with her on her holy day. She looked absolutely stunning. To match her gold head scarf she was dressed in a sky blue silk hijab with white hand stitched designs and blue beads around the neckline, wrists, and bottom. The result of her fasting was evident on her sunken skinnier face. She didn’t look unhealthy, just….tinier.
A little while later 4 other Muslim women entered her house. When they saw me sitting there, they lost it; they were so excited. They started giggling and hugging and kissing me. They were so impressed I was wearing a cultural Habesha dress and I was helping my friend make coffee for their holiday. One of the women was the owner of a shop on the main road that I bought a lot of my house supplies for. She was sweet as pie and always smiled when she saw me. Every time I walked past her store I would stop and say hi to her. I realized that day that she and my friend were sisters. It was so lovely to finally hang out with her and finally remember her name.
I learned many years ago that Muslims pray 5 times a day. One by one each of the women spent time to do their late afternoon prayer, but, I noticed the only one that didn’t was my co-worker. She explained that because she was menstruating, she didn’t pray. This was very disturbing for me to hear. Who’s right is it to tell a woman she can’t pray because she is menstruating? I had to remind myself that this was simply culture and religion and there was nothing I could say or do to change it. It is what it is.
Nevertheless, this Eid-al-Fitr marked one of my favorite days in Ethiopia. It was one of the very rare times that I was at someone’s house where I wasn’t itching to get out or checking my watch every 15 minutes for the time. I was truly living in the moment, just me, the ferenj in Habesha dress and a group of beautiful, outgoing, funny Muslim women on their holy day wrapped in sparkling hijabs with their body parts drowned in henna, drinking coffee together and eating goat ribs with injera on the floor. It was truly spectacular.
A few months later I finally visited a mosque with my Muslim co-worker for the first time in my life. It was on a holiday, although I do not know which one. I waited to change into my hijab I bought at her house. Could you picture the stares and confusion of the townspeople; the white foreigner walking from one side of town to the other in a hijab? I wrapped a gray silk scarf with tiny gold beads around my head because I had to be completely covered up in the mosque. As I stepped in I heard gasps of shock and intrigue from the women as I took off my shoes. I am sure they were very confused, but, appreciated my curiosity into their religion and culture. They smiled respectively as I did in return and sat down with the other women on the floor. The men and women are separated inside the mosque. It was nice to spend time with women in my community whom I didn’t know. I felt a part of their world completely; truly. I ate lunch on the floor with all the women. I danced around singing and clapping with all the women. I offered to hand grind the coffee giggling and talking with all the women. This day was one for the ages. Just when I visited Jerusalem a few years before, I once again had a newfound appreciation of religion. I may not agree with it or understand it, but, I respected it and accepted it for what it was.
A short while after my day at the mosque Mike and I went on vacation in Zanzibar. Those of you who don’t know, Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar is a mostly Muslim city, therefore it is respectful to cover your shoulders and knees. I had no problem honoring their religion by wearing a long skirt, and I was so excited to cover my shoulders in my beautiful coral scarf etched with tiny diamond beads I purchased during my trip to Harar. The thing that impressed me the most was Mike’s reaction to the mosque. He assumed it would be loud and annoying, but, when he heard the wailing at night for the first time he said, “It’s very symphonic and soothing, it’s unlike anything I have ever heard.” He must have stayed on the top balcony of our hotel to listen to the prayers for at least 10 minutes. I was impressed.
My third and final Ramadan just ended in Ethiopia. Every night for an entire month I was lulled to sleep by the nightly prayers from the mosque. I was lovingly fed by my Muslim friends homemade sweet crackers and sambusas (fried dough pockets with sautéed meat, lentils, spices, and vegetables on the inside) when the sun went down. My last Ed-al-Fitr in country was a very special day. I decided to treat myself to a new hijab which I bought secondhand at the Saturday market a few weeks before. Now, I had one hijab for Alex to wear, and one for me. Alex and I changed into our hijabs and scarves at my co-worker Lula’s house. We ate steaming hot homemade sweet biscuits, which tasted like fresh funnel cake that Lula prepared fresh for us. We sat on her floor and ate meat stew with injera, downed a cup of coffee, then, headed off to her mother’s home to continue more of Eid-al Fetir festivities. After Lula’s family’s home, Alex and I spent time with her landlords who are also Muslim. Imagine two young white American women wearing hijabs complete with scarves wrapped around their heads walking from one side of a rural Ethiopian town to the other. Wow. What a site. I would have to say that my awakening to the truly unique culture of Islam is one of the things I am most grateful to have experienced in my time here in Ethiopia.

Running Routine

During Pre-Service Training (PST), which was my first three months in Ethiopia, I got into the habit of running in the early morning, something I never did and refused to do in the states; something I told myself I would never do. I thought, “I could never work out on an empty stomach! I have to eat breakfast first! That’s unhealthy!” Here in Ethiopia, I had to run in the morning, the first of many things, I told myself I would never do, but did. At first these things were done because there was no other choice, but as I adapted to my new environment, my new schedule, my new culture and life, I found myself doing many new things because I wanted to. Training started at 8:00 am every week day. Sometimes I didn’t get home until 7 in the evening. We had language class every Saturday morning from 8-12, blah. The weekends were spent hand washing my clothes and various sorts of activities such as hiking or spending time with my host family.
I recognized that the reason why it was so easy to get up at 6:00 am and run was because I had the company of two other girls with me. We all ran together. When my alarm went off I was excited to see them, to have our morning chats as we trotted proudly, to have the stillness of the town and the green fertile Earth all to ourselves before anyone else was up, and to watch the hot African sun rise, orange and pink at first, then blinding white, letting us know we accomplished our mission. One morning on our run we discussed how fun it would be if we all went to Awassa for the annual marathon and watched the runners, but even better if we ran the race. When I found out there was a half marathon and a 7K, I knew the 7K would be perfect for me.
I said to the girls, “There’s no way I can do the half marathon, I can’t even run 10 miles!” And right then and there as I said the words out loud, my thoughts changed. I decided that I would do something I told myself even after years of running I would never do. We all decided on that morning we were going to train for the half marathon and be each other’s support system when we went to site. I wouldn’t have the girls by my side forever and sadness quickly came upon me when I realized I would be training for the half marathon myself.
The first few weeks at site were rough. I felt like my belongings and mind were scattered all over like misplaced puzzle pieces thrown afar by some frantic 10 year old. I didn’t run at first because I wanted the townspeople to become familiar with me, which I don’t regret doing, but secretly I was scared to run. I heard horror stories of people getting bit by dogs while running. I set my alarm a bunch of times on various mornings, but just laid in my bed and thought, “Shit.” A flashback of me turning the corner in Butajira to see the girls stretching in front of their houses made me lonely inside. I was thinking of every excuse in the book not to go running: I don’t know where I am. What if a dog chases me?! It’s too cold…
When I finally got up the courage to run it was about 3 weeks into being at site (September 2013). I ran on the main road to the next town over which was 5 kilometers away. “Perfect,” I thought, “I’ll run 3 kilometers there and back.” Well, little did I know that the road went steeply downhill. I ran only 2 kilometers and turned around, but the big downhill part now faced me as a stone wall. As I started running back up, I just couldn’t do it; it was too steep, too long. I walked the rest of the way, kicking rocks, angry with my situation, but moreover, disappointed in myself. On a good day I ran over an hour in the states, but, was now giving up after only minutes. Frankly at that particular moment, I could have cared less. I remember thinking to myself, “Where the hell am I? What am I doing?” I missed the comforts of home, being able to run at any time of the day, anywhere, in whatever you wanted to wear, but you just couldn’t here. You just couldn’t do a lot of things.
I was quickly saddened by flashbacks of running in the beautiful Wissahickon Park in Philadelphia near the historic Valley Green Inn which was walking distance from my apartment. You can hear the trickle of the Schuylkill River dotted with gray bearded men dressed in baggy waterproof pants, suspenders, and rubber boots and the thin metal sliver of the fishing rod wading in the sometimes very still water. It’s nice motivation seeing so many other people running, and comforting seeing families walking with their dogs trying to keep up with their youngsters on bicycles, everyone there for the same purpose, to enjoy the beauty of nature. One day at Wissahickon, it was only the second and last time in my life I saw a pure breed St. Bernard, one of the most beautiful dogs ever. Its long marshmallow and brown colored fur flapped in the spring wind while it pranced. One of my favorite things to do while running is to observe all the different breeds of dogs and the people that owned them.
Snapping back to reality I let out a big sigh. There was no park, no fluffy dogs, but instead the occasional stray dog with stretched out nipples from over birthing. There was no trickling river, no beautiful historic inn, and no green trees, just a steep hilly road covered with horse, cow, and sheep dung. I thought to myself, “How am I going to run a half marathon when I give up after 2 miles just because of a steep hill?” I didn’t give up that day because I couldn’t do it, I gave up simply because I felt like it, because I was in a bad mood, because I was constantly comparing how things were in the states to how they were in Ethiopia, because even though some people do things because change is necessary, sometimes change just sucks, which is ironic because this is my life in Ethiopia. Everything is a change.
I realized that I had to royally suck it up, get it together, and figure out how to run here, to train for a half marathon in this foreign third world rural town all by myself, to get the motivation to run, to not be so scared of change and new things and a new way of living, even though that is exactly what I was here to do. A couple days later I was walking to work when I stopped for a moment and realized what a beautiful view I had from where my school was. Sheno Primary 1 was at the top of the town, so looking down you could see the entire main road and the ripples of the hills and valleys into the rural areas. The scene was breathtaking. My awestruck eyes zoned in on a dirt road that seemed to connect with the main asphalt road; the asphalt road going horizontally and the dirt road going straight back vertically into the hills and valleys. “Jackpot!” I screamed inside, “That’s the road I need to run on! It’s perfect.” I really wanted to find that road and thought about it for the rest of the day.
A couple days after that, I got up the courage to run again, almost dragging myself out of bed. This time I decided to run the other direction on the main road, which was hilly as well, but more stretched out. As soon as I turned the corner onto the asphalt road, I looked to my left and admired the hills and valleys that housed the dirt road I was obsessed with finding. “It’s there somewhere,” my mind burned, “It’s sooooo close, I just have to find where it connects with the asphalt.” And in the blink of an eye, I made a flash decision to take a chance and turn left going down a different dirt road towards the rural area instead of going straight on the main road, the path I was comfortable with. “I have to find this road” my mind yearned. I wasn’t worried; it was there somewhere.
And sure enough, I found it. The smaller dirt road I decided to turn down connected with the road I was searching for. As I started my trek on this new route, in the near distance on the left was a perfectly rectangular bright teal mud building. “That’s my target,” I thought, “I will run to that house and back. It looks about 2 miles down.” I noticed the road went on for miles more past the point where I turned around, so I knew this would be my training road. As I ran to where the teal house was, I realized it was a school. In the upcoming months I learned there were other rural schools that were even further from the asphalt.
As I passed herds of goats, cows, and sheep with their owners, men on horses, young kids helping graze livestock in the fields, and women carrying jugs of water and other materials, I said hello to every single one of them, even doing the slight bow and putting my palms together, my closed hands facing them to show the cultural sign of respect. Many of them were too in shock to say hello back. “Who was this random foreigner running? Was she lost?” I assumed they probably thought. Some people cheered me on saying, “Yes, yes, good, good. Ayzosh! Gobez! Gobez!” which means ‘Stay strong! Clever, clever!’ I was glowing the entire way. For someone who hated running through parks because of the grass, stones, and other such things that weren’t as even as asphalt, I was now happily scampering over a somewhat uneven rocky road. I felt at peace, one with nature again, just like I did when I ran in parks back in the states. To both sides of me were miles of green brown fields sprinkled with herds of livestock and traditional straw hut countryside homes. I just ran where the hills and valleys took me.
It took me by surprise at first the way people acted when they saw me running. Again, another typical routine in the states which permitted one complete space and privacy among hundreds of others around you in public, another thing that was drastically different in small town Ethiopia. Until I hit the dirt road, it was a bit hectic. Little kids jutted out of nowhere, their tiny dirty hands eagerly stretched out to shake mine. I did the pound, which they loved, but inside I thought, “Do they really expect me to stop and shake their hand while I’m running? I’m running!” Others would scream my name, actually trying to start a conversation. One day a group of young boys sprinted from the fields onto the road by my side. “Dara, Dara!” they yelped and started running alongside of me, their torn dirty shoes scuffing the pebbles, clearly not well equipped shoes for running. They ran almost two miles of my journey with me, not breaking their smile for a second. I looked over at them with a big grin to show my appreciation. Another day was particularly interesting. In a matter of 5 minutes I ran into two co-workers, both stood there smiling waiting for me to stop and hug them, which I gladly did. A minute later an old farmer waved me over. In his dirty aged hand was a mound of cheese he was waving at me to give me a gorsha, (a traditional Ethiopian sign of respect when you feed someone else a handful of food). He looked at me with the most innocent face, a tooth missing to the side, expecting me to actually stop my run and eat a handful of farmer’s cheese. There was no way I was going to get a cheese gorsha by some farmer who probably just had his labored fingers in manure or up his nose. I of course appreciated the thought and contentedly shook his hand, smiled and went on my way.
The funny thing is, at the very beginning, the American in me, the selfish, private, first world minded person thought, “What the hell is with these people? Why do they constantly try to talk to me, shake my hand, hug me, and ask me questions? Can’t they see that I’m running?” I quickly concluded that they were glad to have me around. Even though I was running, I was still the foreigner running. The people in my town could care less what I was doing. I was the foreigner and they wanted to acknowledge my presence. And you know what? I loved every second of it.
I ran a little more each time. I didn’t use my ipod the first time, so what I thought was 4 miles to the teal house and back was only 3.5, but, I was still proud of myself and still in amazement of the natural splendor around me. I didn’t get annoyed no matter how many little kids put out their hands, or how many friends I saw that wanted to hug me. People at work would always point out when they would see me running. I felt special. Running quickly became therapeutic for me again, just like it was during PST with the girls. Every time I would run the scenery would still take my breath away, like it was brand new. Once I hit the dirt road, it was so peaceful and quiet, allowing me to have my thoughts all to myself. Yes, there were people around me, but they were all farmers who signaled their respect by the simple bow and wave, which I gladly did in return, or most of the time, I did it first. I didn’t want to admit it at first, but running on this road was better than any park in the states.

Ethiopia’s Ancient Walled City

DSC02071After almost 15 months of living in Ethiopia, I still hadn’t done any travelling other than the two cities I lived in, (Butajira during our 3 month training period, and my site, Sheno). As September was coming to an end, so was the infamous rainy season, and it had taken its toll on my sanity. Becoming hypnotized and intrigued by the beauty and wonder that was Ethiopian Muslim culture, one of the places I really wanted to visit was Harar in the north east part of the country; the fourth holiest city of Islam. I heard nothing but good things from every volunteer that visited the ancient walled city which is marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was stoked. A group of girls from my group and I went right before we were due in the capital for our Mid-Service Conference (MSC). It was a great celebration to a new school year and our second year at site.
Let’s start with the 9 hour bus ride where we saw families of baboons frolicking on the dusty dry earth. Babies were being carried on their mommas’ backs with their pink colored behinds waving to and fro. Sometimes there were so many baboons walking together, that all you could see was a puff of brown fur with wisps of white from their beards of hair around their face that seemed to just dance with the wind. Then, there were the camels……
E-N-O-U-G-H S-A-I-D…….
We were very lucky to meet an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) who served in Morocco the 1980’s. She was now retired and travelling around Africa by herself. We ate lunch with her when our bus stopped for a break and she shared stories of her travels so far. We invited her to stay with us at the traditional Harari home that the owner converted as her bed and breakfast inside the walled city. As soon as we stepped inside the massively tall beige stone wall that separated the inside of the city from the outside, our adventure began. I quickly noticed that every street was a winding mysterious alleyway guarded by tall colorful walls. As we stepped inside the guest house compound, the first thing I noticed was the intricately carved wooden door, which, I would come to find out was very common in Harar. As we moved inside the house, my skin brushed past a thin veil of sparkling yellow curtain. My eyes were color shocked again. The walls were covered with collections of plates, teacup sets, pans, bowls, injera holders, and other cultural household items. Shoes must always be taken off before entering any Muslim home. My socks glided over beautiful plush traditional Muslim rugs. We met the adorable and tiny, yet, very feisty owner who was draped in a lavender sparkling scarf and matching pants and hijab. That night I finally had what I had been waiting a very long time for; an ice cold draft of Hakim Stout, the famous beer made by the Harar Brewing Company.
The next day we gorged on a delicious breakfast of fetira (homemade sweet flatbread drowned in honey) and coffee. Then, we were off to the Harar Brewing Company, which, I learned was part of Heineken. There we sat and relaxed in the late morning drinking very cheap drafts of ice cold Hakim Stout. Normally a draft is around 12 birr, but at the brewery, each stout was only 8 birr. Converted to American dollars, this is only 39 cents. Let that soak in for a second……3-9—-c-e-n-t-s……
We spent the day wandering the cobblestone labyrinth streets. We happened upon the section of town where you can buy meat. Oh, but, this wasn’t your average row of butcher shops to buy beef. Here, in the ancient walled city, you could buy camel meat. As I looked down and saw a cut off camel’s head, I knew we were in the right place. As my friends were trying to find a good place to buy camel meat, I spent some time with the hawks. You put a piece of meat in your hand and a hawk swoops down and plucks it right from you. I was having a blast. I even placed a small piece of meat on my head. That was great. The hawk swooped down and before I could even feel anything, it was gone.
We met a local who offered his family’s home to us to cook our camel meat, which was a very nice gesture because we would have just gone to a restaurant. We bought his mother onions and garlic and she made t’ibs. This is a traditional Ethiopian dish of cubed cooked meat sautéed in spices and vegetables eaten with injera. It was a great new experience. We got to sit in their traditional Harari home on the floor. All 5 of us ate family style off a big tin platter. Home cooked camel t’ibs. Perfection. We chatted with his family. Their home had a beautifully carved wooden door just like our guest house. That night we visited the famous Hyena Man of Harar; Mulugeta Haile Mariam. For 50 birr, you got to HAND feed hyenas. I repeat, HAND feed hyenas. As night fell, Mulugeta called his hyenas through a high pitched series of yelps. Slowly, the ugly spotted wild creatures came out of the dark and walked towards the circle of people, their beady eyes glistening in the black of night. It is one of those experiences where you think to yourself beforehand, “Yeah, pffffft, I got this in the bag. This ‘aint no thang.” I felt fearless. But, when the hyena crept up, staring at me hungrily waiting to be fed, my body froze. Mulugeta bent his arm over my head and dangled a piece of raw meat from a thin twig, so the hyena had to crawl on my back to fetch the meat. My heart skipped a beat as I felt its paws, but, after the first time, I eased up. I am telling you, those furry creatures could have cared less about us; they just cared about eating.
The next day was another wonderful adventure wandering the old walled streets. We walked up and down Fabric Row, the famous street covered in fabric shops where you can buy beautiful jeweled silk scarves and other items. Again, I was shocked by bright colors all around me. Lucky for us, there was a Muslim wedding going on that afternoon and we were invited in, which is not uncommon to happen. Ethiopians are very warming and hospitable to guests. They love sharing their culture and their food to foreigners. They feed you until you almost explode. A relative of the bride let us into a room where all of the women were singing to the bride to be. Beautiful Muslim Ethiopian women were dancing around and singing covered in henna and sparkling bright colored hijabs. I felt so special to capture this moment in my mind. Then, a man invited us in to eat a traditional Muslim meal. We sat on the floor family style again and all 5 of us ate delicious rice with meat and spices with this tasty green sauce that I wasn’t familiar with.
Our last day there we continued to wander the streets, specifically in hopes of finding someone to paint henna on us. After walking all over town on a blistering hot day and visiting a woman’s home who definitely tried to overcharge us, we came upon two friends who were painting henna on each other. We asked the woman if she could paint us and she accepted giggling. For only 25 birr an arm, (a big steal; we got lucky), both of my arms were covered in sultry black henna design. I won’t lie, I felt like a rock star. I kept over using my hands when I talked. Picture a group of 5 foreigners getting henna done right in the center of town. The locals loved it. We loved it. Fun for all. As the others were getting henna done, I bought a secondhand hijab to wear when I visited the mosque in my town. A beautiful black long sleeved dress with red and white stitching and sparkling jewels. It was the perfect end to the perfect true Harari experience. I would have to say that next to Jerusalem, Harar is my favorite foreign historical city.