Sunday, July 14, 2013

Last Day in Addis

My last day of classes was Friday. So I made sure we had some fun. I got the kids on their feet with games, improv, and then writing and performing skits.

When I first sat them down in randomly assigned pairs to write a script, I asked them to make four things clear from the beginning: the location, the characters, the relationship between their characters, and some problem for the characters to solve.

So I spent my last half hour with these kids watching them play grandparents, pickpockets, waitresses with crazy customers, professors, and of course students. All using English skills I certainly didn't hear from them on the first day of class.

It had only been two weeks, but at the end of it, when I was saying my goodbyes as the class filed out, the question I kept getting over and over was when was I going to come back and visit. I wish travel were that simple.

Traveling the way I and many other people like me do, you pick up and adapt to being places very very easily. And it becomes a way of starting a life, or many mini-lives, in a way. You find your place in a community where people look up to you, where you find the people you look up to, the dozen friends who will come to your birthday party, you favorite places to go and spend time, eat, listen to music, watch the game (whatever the local game is). And if you've done it in enough places, you can do it almost anywhere there are people.

The catch is that you stop noticing things sometimes. It's not until someone in culture shock next to you exclaims that there are farm animals in the road that you realize how normal it is to you to see donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, and horses wander around the collection of rocks you've already started to think of as the sidewalk, or the lane-less, traffic signal-less, divided strips of chaos and concrete you think of as streets, winding through half-cement skeletons of houses constructed by bareheaded men standing on scaffolds of tied-together poles of eucalyptus. If you're not careful, the women in white shrouds going to church for saints day become just strangers, background noise, to whatever life you've constructed.

It's when that life abruptly ends at an airport that changes things. When the kid wants to know when they'll see you again and you have to admit that you don't know. Even if you don't finish the out loud sentence: I don't know if you will at all. It may very well happen. But Ethiopia is not close to where my family lives or where I pay rent, and flights are long and expensive. And I'm only just now getting used to the idea that my time on the planet is limited and I won't be able to do everything.

On Friday, when they were writing their scripts, one of the kids raised their hand to ask me a question. I came over and they said they understood that the scene needed a problem. But did they have to find a solution to the problem, or was it okay to leave it unsolved? I told them they didn't have to find a solution. Their time was limited. And in any case, some problems don't have one.

If all goes to plan, I'll be picked up for my flight in a little over two hours. Whether it really feels like it or not, it's time to go home.

...and by home I mean crashing in New York for a few days, performing in a theater festival in San Francisco, visiting friends in Portland, home to Seattle for a week or so, out to see family in Eastern Washington, down to explore Santa Barbara with my girlfriend, and then flying back to New York again a week or so before grad school orientation. Which for me, taken together, is about as much home as I can ask for.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Small Gift

Today, July 9, happens to be my birthday. I had a great party this evening with a fantastic home cooked Ethiopian dinner and then about a dozen of us going out for traditional music, dancing, and drinks. I have pictures from all of that that I will post with this. But this post will be about another story that happened to occur on this day.

Because our class is made up of 13-to-16-year-olds, a little under half of whom are girls, we three male teachers realized a couple days ago that our women's bathrooms weren't properly equipped with everything our female students needed. So one of our friends who's been helping out with administrative tasks did some shopping for us and bought a costco-size pack of small packs of sanitary pads. Jeff made an announcement today that we had put them in the womens' room before lunch. As lunch ended, we noticed several of the girls hadn't returned to class on time, and speculated that it had something to do with inspecting the wares. 

A little later, I noticed a small wrapped gift in Yosef's cubby (each student has one in the main classroom) with writing on the wrapping saying it was from one of the girls, Hayamanot. I thought that that was really cute. I hadn't noticed before, but the two did sit next to each other in the next class discussion. Yosef's a good looking kid. I thought we might have our first couple on our hands.

At least until it occurred to me that the gift was about the same size and shape as one of the packs of sanitary pads. Then I started thinking it was sort of a mean joke (though not the first and nowhere near the meanest I'd heard about here-- ask me or Jeff sometime about the "bleach is not juice" story). I was amused but felt a bit bad for Yosef. A little later I noticed his bag was in the cubby and the gift gone, and nobody seemed too angry about anything, so I figured no major harm was done.

Until after classes ended, and one of the girls, Beti I think, asked me to come back into the room. She said they had something for me. A group of students, mostly girls, appeared with the same wrapped gift, and most of them were trying unsuccessfully to stifle giggles. The "present" hadn't been for Yosef. It was for me.

I could piece things together so I was feeling and looking pretty skeptical.  But I removed the wrapping made of paper and toilet paper twisted into ribbon, and found a box originally use for batteries. Still big enough to hold the sanitary napkins. I clearly was expecting a joke present, so when I opened the box and found little bits of toilet paper, I was a bit surprised. So I used the paper wrapping to fish around until I pulled out the gift.

It wasn't a joke sanitary napkin. It was a pair of small chocolates. The kids had actually wanted to give me something for my birthday. Remember, these are the scholarship kids. Most of them are quite poor, and more than one of them are orphans. I felt sheepish for having opened that sort of gift with obvious skepticism. But they didn't mind, and were clearly pleased to have given me something. It wasn't just Hayamanot. Three other girls had written their names on the wrapping and they mentioned a boy or two who they said the gift was also from. I thanked them as they left for the day, all of them still smiling and giggling.

I think that says more about Ethiopian hospitality than anything else I could write about tonight.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Internet Access Is Important for Development

AU 50 Year Development Construction
I've come here and secured this internship to learn a few things about sustainable development. Sustainable development roughly translates to "how to make the lives of people in poor countries significantly better today without making them worse later on." I'm a booster of the internet and its ability to accomplish these goals.

People can be skeptical about this for two reasons: one, many people mostly associate the internet with World of Warcraft and funny videos about cats, and don't see how either are likely to help poor people. Which would be entirely fair, if that were all the internet contained. We'll get to that later. What I want to talk about is the second, more salient reason: for most people, the internet isn't always all that reliable.

It's true. But the thing is, in a place like Ethiopia, almost no infrastructure is any more reliable than the internet back home. Roads flood, electricity cuts out, running water loses pressure or vanishes entirely. In some ways, the average Ethiopian is better mentally prepared for the instability of technology than the average American iPhone user whining about how his device takes longer than 15 seconds to load Facebook. Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don't.

Take this current weekend for example. Yesterday, Saturday, we we explored a museum and monument to those who had lost their lives under the oppressive Derg regime, kinda sorta crashed a wedding at the orphanage where Dawit grew up and now teaches, bowled, played pool, saw a movie, and went out to bar with a couple graduation parties. Big day, lots of fun, lots done.

Today on the other hand, was entirely different. After dealing with one morning power outage and almost no water pressure (toilets couldn't flush for example) we set out for a more modest goal: make copies of three documents in time for class tomorrow. After more than five hours trying all over town, we gave up and came home to cook some dinner. As soon as we started chopping the carrots and eggplant, the power went out again (and with it, the use of the electric stove). Unreliability is not new and had quite an effect on our days.

Another example: Jeff's vacation. Just as I arrived in town, Jeff's 14 day vacation period ended. In the beginning, he had planned on renting a car with a couple friends, and traveling. Even with the local, Amharic-speaking friends helping out, it took them ten of the fourteen days to find and rent a car.

The critical piece missing here that causes a ton of these issues and delays is information. We don't know who has a car available, what price they want, and what minimum time they expect. We don't know what copy shops are open where, where, and whether their machines happen to be working today. Come to that we don't know the hours any business keeps, when someone will be out of town, what transit routes are where, and what roads are jammed, under construction, or clear.

All of these problems of information can be solved by widespread internet access, especially at home and on mobile devices. The internet is the place where anyone can put all of this information from anywhere, and where anyone who needs the information can access it from anywhere. Maybe it won't be reliable at first, but having it work even sometimes will save time, money, and stress.

But more than that, it can be a way for individuals to get access to some kinds of support they might have a hard time finding elsewhere. I saw one particularly important example today at an internet cafe we tried in a last-ditch effort for a working copy machine. This is not a gay friendly society, so I was somewhat intrigued when I saw a young man watching a video of what looked like a white, gay couple, talking to the camera. It was a video from the It Gets Better project. I can't obviously draw any conclusions from this. But at the very least, it's touching to theorize that someone can create a video in New York and make someone on the other side of the world feel better about who they are.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Friday, July 5, 2013

First Week of Lessons

It's been a while since the last time I taught a classroom in a developing country. This time it's been Monday to Friday, 9am-3pm, and I'm one of two TAs helping Jeff, a teacher with over two decades of experience. In fact I was one of his students, first in 8th grade, then again in 10th grade. Jeff was the humanities/geography teacher who, when I returned to Seattle from my big trip around the world, rolled out the blank world map and told me to show him where I'd been.

First lesson I've learned standing on the other end of the classroom? Get your students' names memorized ASAP. Everything becomes easier after that. As a tutor, I tend to engage students individually if I can, and my being able to tell, for example, goofball Adugna from quiet, precise Natnael instantly is absolutely necessary. In fact, after about two days, I couldn't see how anyone could possibly mix them up.

As a classroom experience, it was pretty intimidating for the first day, but then, once I engaged a proper lesson plan and saw it really work in the room, it all felt much smoother. I'm not that good a classroom teacher yet, but I'm feeling pretty confident, especially after getting to know each of the kids' personalities and quirks. We've worked with them on reading comprehension and analysis, word roots and vocab, typing, grammar, speech, and a book out of a curriculum called Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions (which contains more or less what it says on the tin).

It's been great getting them to stand up and practice English by either reading Shel Silverstein poems (and seeing who knows enough English to laugh at which parts) and to get them doing improv games. "Gumbies" was a big hit today-- you put people in pairs, one person can talk but can only move when their partner (who can't talk) physically moves them. There're at least two more theater teachers inbound to the school, so this is only the beginning for these kids.

But one of the funniest moments from school this week is something that wasn't in the classroom. It was in the cafeteria. I'm going to finish this post with a JTrek first: a video. Before you watch, there are a couple things you need to be familiar with:

1. Ethiopian food is traditionally eaten with your right hand. You use flat injeera bread to scoop up the food and stick it all in your mouth.

2. A traditional way of expressing affection and intimacy for someone, usually a family member, is to feed them by hand. It's called gursha.

So, this is what happened when my fellow TA, Dawit, talked one of our students, Hayamanot, into trying this out at lunch:

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Farenji Returns to Habesha Land

This place has changed.

It's fascinating coming back to a country you haven't been to in a long time. You start remembering things you had forgotten. Buildings, smells, words, and views all start looking familiar again. It really is striking how much I'd forgotten in only three years.

Even more striking though, is what's new. Last time I was in Ethiopia, I stayed with a family whose only running water came out of a shared spigot in a shared makeshift compound, fenced in with corrugated metal. The bare cement walls formed only a room or two for the multiple people living there, and to bathe you needed to go catch a minibus to a public shower. Most of what I saw in Addis was like this.

But now there are five, six, or seven story buildings springing up like weeds. There's even a proper skyscraper or two built for the African Union headquarters. A foreign development company is building a municipal railway that should be completed in two years time. And that same family I stayed with is probably now in one of the public housing apartment units, about ten stories high. I won't know for sure because my host's couchsurfing profile has been removed, but it seems likely.

A great deal of this development has come from Chinese companies who import their workers, and a good amount of resentment is brewing. Partially it's because of the fact that all the jobs created are going to imported Chinese laborers instead of Ethiopians, and partially because the stuff they build... well, most of it isn't very good. It'll look great on day one, but roads for example keep falling apart or don't have enough drainage to prevent serious flooding in the rains. Generally speaking if something is falling apart or doesn't work around here, people who live here shrug and say derisively that it's probably Chinese.

I'm living next door to my 8th and 10th grade humanities teacher, Jeff, in an apartment on the campus of Hope University College. ILAE, the high school I'm interning with, shares space on campus for its offices and classrooms. It's not large, but the architecture is interesting. The school is brand new, the first class of freshman start this fall, so all of the rooms are pretty spartan. I've got a few donated world maps on their way which will help, and with any luck there will be some art classes to produce stuff as well.

It's not easy being a country with no major ports. Apparently only Djibouti has a port that does the country any good, and they capitalize on the monopoly-- things take forever to ship and don't come cheap. For example, unplanned power outages are big problem here. The college supposedly has had a generator ordered and on its way for months. Nobody knows where it is in Djibouti. But it's probably there somewhere. All the other possible port countries are either unstable, have poor relations with Ethiopia, or just don't have good roads to the country.

The result is scarcity and high prices. It was explained to me that most people here are living at more or less a subsistence level, while a wealthy elite tries to pretend the live in the west. They'll rent fancy houses with barbed wire fences, eat at western restaurants and frequent western-style nightclubs and bars.  Speaking of those restaurants, places serving pizza are surprisingly common (from what I see, local menu consensus seems to hold that a Margherita pizza has tomato sauce, mozzarella and oregano).

A local taxi driver took Jeff and I hiking up the side of a large hill for a view of the city. When we hit the summit (or as our guide, Shemeles, said when "mountain is finished"), I asked to see the other side, facing away from the city. Shemeles didn't recommend it, saying there was nothing to see. I insisted, and we walked  the twenty or so yards to the other side. We saw a wide expanse of farms and small villages. Shemeles told us that was the kind of place he had grown up.

"There? Darkness. No electricity, no education, no running water. Nothing. Only God." He said. Then he explained that people living out there in the "darkness" lived 80 or 90 years, while on the other side of the mountain, in the city, they might only reach their forties or fifties. As he put it, it was because out in the countryside, it was "clean."

As someone who is going to school this year to work in development, it's certainly food for thought. I'll expect a lot of this to evolve as my trip continues, and especially when I start teaching. Classes start tomorrow morning.

Here's an interesting one: want a different view on Ethiopia and the work of ILAE? Check out Jeff's blog, Blairabouts. He's been here for two months now, and you can get an interesting perspective on life out here and the work of the school. Check it out!
Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Almost out the door.

I always feel like I'm forgetting something when I leave. Closest thing I have to travel anxiety.

Bag on the right is my usual back pack. The bag on the left is 40lbs of goodies for the school and kids that I'm working with. Most of it is books, but also there are some school supplies, a soccer and air pump, and a few other assorted things they requested like cleaning rags.

I bus to DC this afternoon, then fly directly to Addis Ababa the next morning.

Time to get out of here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Hitting the Road Again!

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been far, far too long. I'm getting out of this country. Out of this continent in fact. It's only going to be about three weeks this time, but I will be leaving June 25 to go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for an internship with the International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia. And as always, you'll be able to read all about my travels, right here.

My 8th grade Humanities/Geography teacher is going to be my boss. If you know him, you know that's awesome.

With any luck this will help fulfill an internship requirement with the Masters degree program I'm starting at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs this fall. And I'm going to do it by teaching kids and maybe helping out a little bit with the administration.

And this time, you can get involved in the trip. You see the school needs a few things, so I'm taking donations for the following:

1. School supplies (e.g. pens, pencils, erasers, tape, paper)
2. Sports equipment (e.g. soccer balls, volleyballs)
3. Up-to-date wall maps (National Geographic style)
4. Cleaning rags
5. DVD copy of The Outsiders (We only want one of these!)

I will have an empty suitcase at a reading of ART I'm performing in next Thursday, the 20th (read more about that here). If you can't make that, get in touch with me (jtrekmail (at) gmail (dot) com) and I can arrange another time to meet you for these things.

More details as things progress. It's going to feel very, very good to be back on the road.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Travel Tip: Ignore the Hipsters, Get a Guidebook

It's been a while! I've been talking to some people recently who are going out and traveling the world, and I'm really pleased to see people doing that. However, one of them said something to me that made me realize  many of them are making a basic mistake because they think they're "in the know": They don't want to get guidebooks.

Now I understand the impulse, we all want authentic, unique experiences, and how could we possibly get that from any mass-market paperback carried by so many people. But not getting a guidebook is still a mistake.

I've already talked about what's wrong with setting your main goal to be  *trying no to be tourist*. This is closely related to that in terms of philosophy. Just because the tourists are doing it doesn't mean you shouldn't. Here's why:

Guidebooks will tell you more practical information, more conveniently, efficiently, and quickly than anything else you can find on the internet or pack in your backpack. True, there are other sources of information (local friends are the ideal) but a guidebook is better than nothing. At many points in your trip, if you don't pack a guidebook, nothing is exactly what you're going to have.

It's true, not all of the books' contents are gold. Restaurant and hostel/hotel information is often out of date, and will probably be decidedly on the beaten path by the time you read it. But those aren't the useful part of the guidebooks.

The useful part of the guidebook that you want immediately include the name and location of all transport hubs, local laws you wouldn't otherwise know about, local customs to know that help you be a respectful visitor, a brief (and usually hilariously written) history of the place you're going, a rough idea of how to ask for basic things in the local language, and here's the surprising one: the most common local scams travelers fall for, and how to avoid them.

It's that last one that all of your "cool" friends without guidebooks are going to wish they knew about. The rest, you *could* find with a lot of time, effort, and a stable internet connection. But a book is cheap, portable, easy to access, doesn't rely on electricity, and can tell you all of the information in a fraction of the time you'd spend otherwise. Time you can then spend actually enjoying your travels.

If the idea of getting a guidebook still sticks in you craw, just think of it this way: you have to know the rules before you break them.

Have fun!