Saturday, October 4, 2008

The other, other white meat

Happy New Year! My how the time does fly. On September 11th we celebrated the beginning of the year 2001 here in Ethiopia. To help bring in the New Year, my good friend Patrick came over to travel around! We, along with two volunteer friends, headed up to Lalibela to see the famous rock-hewn churches. Lalibela (previously named Roha) was the capital of a large dynasty during the 12th and 13th centuries and the 11 rock churches we saw were built during that time. King Lalibela got it into his head that he wanted to build a new Jerusalem and began an ambitious building project. He also named things after the old Jerusalem- Calvary, the River Jordan- which is a little disorienting. The churches are amazing, many of them completely cut free of the massive slabs of stone that surround them. It's hard to reconcile this ornate, detailed, powerful picture of Ethiopia past with the Ethiopia that I currently live in. Discuss Lalibela with any Orthodox Ethiopian and they'll tell you that angels did much of the church building. It wouldn't take much to convince me. I just don't understand how a person could chisel 50 feet down into a slab of rock and carve out a freestanding, three-story tall church in the shape of the cross. Apparently neither could some 14th century pilgrims to Lalibela. They were so amazed that they decided to up and leave their decaying bones laying around for the enjoyment of tourist for centuries to come.

Notes about tourism in Ethiopia: It's not safe for children, people who are not sure-footed, or daredevils: there are often no guardrails where there should be guardrails. They haven't gotten the hang of preserving ancient relics: books that are older than the United States of America are just laying around for anyone to thumb through. And there are bones everywhere. Just so you're aware.

After getting stuck in Lalibela for an extra day, Pat and I headed straight for the Finote. Why no guidebook has deemed Finote Selam worthy of mention, I do not know. We had a full day of monkey tracking and hiking out to the local waterfall. Sure, monkeys are a little less predictable during rainy season and the towering cornfields are disorienting when trying to locate the waterfall. but it's still lovely. It was great to have a friend come, to have that touch of home, to share my life here, to introduce new friends, to demonstrate my skills at the coffee ceremony. And to have someone else experience the rat situation and know that I'm not exaggerating. No lie- a rat crawled across my forehead the other night. I stopped messing around, put out poison, and the next morning it was lying dead on my stoop. The family I live with has not stopped reenacting my freak-out 5 days later. Don't worry- there are still two more living in my ceiling.

The party didn't stop with Pat's departure- we're still celebrating holidays here! Last weekend was the celebration of Meskel- the cross. This is when we celebrate Queen Helena finding the cross Jesus was crucified on by lighting a huge bonfire and following the smoke of the incense to the cross. Some will say that this story can be found in the Bible. That's debatable. This was probably the most exciting Ethiopian holiday I've experienced thus far, however. On Friday, the eve of Meskel, literally all of Finote Selam gathered in a large field beside the St. George Church. The priests were there with their umbrellas, the ark, and big sticks that they swing around in the air while chanting. There was also a massive bonfire that I swear would rival the Texas A&M bonfire. As dusk approached, the priests circled the bonfire with large flaming sticks to the sound of beating drums.

After the fire was lit and we sang and danced around it for an acceptable length of time, we took charred pieces of wood from the bonfire and used the ash to mark crosses on our foreheads. We then formed a drum beating, Ethiopian flag waving, chanting processional behind the priests to make our way back towards town. It was such a neat sense of community and a feeling of joy to be celebrating as a body with the people I live and work with. even if the history of the holiday is a bit sketch.

The actual day of Meskel began at 4:30am when the whole town awoke and lit millions of bonfires. The sky had the eerie glow of a town on fire and the smell of incense lingered for days. How everyone could be so cognizant, alert, and enthusiastically beating drums at that hour is beyond me- but it was really cool. The rest of the day was spent in community drinking coffee, dancing in the street, and eating meat. So much meat. The Peace Corps community has begun referring to the meat we consume as 'the other, other white meat.' It can be located at your local meat house- huge slabs of it just hanging there waiting to be gnawed on. Don't mistake it for the tender and juicy other white meat. This other, other meat is nice and chewy and you can feel it clogging your arteries as it goes down. Yet this fatty substance is a delicacy so what choice do you have, I ask you?

Work has been frustrating as of late, but I've been trying to step back and gain some perspective. It is sometimes easy to get caught up in the pride of being a volunteer. It is easy to say "I am giving up my time, my energy, my comforts to serve you people. You should want to work with me." It's easy to focus on the fact that I'm doing this alone, I'm living amongst the people, I'm living on less than other foreigners in this country, I'm riding public transportation. Finote Selam should recognize the sacrifices I'm making and be tripping over themselves to start projects with me. It hit me last week that, as much as I try to live like those in my community, it will never be the same because I made a choice to be here and it is within my power to choose to leave tomorrow. The people I live with don't have this luxury of mobility; they didn't choose this lifestyle. They also do not have the luxury of deciding to drop their daily tasks to help me out because I cannot promise tangible compensation. They have to earn money to meet their needs and volunteering time and energy is not a luxury the people I work with can afford. When I focus on the ways in which I live like those around me, it's easy to forget that their money does not just magically appear in a bank account at the beginning of every month regardless of the work they have or have not done. It's easy to revert to thinking about poverty as a vague concept rather than something my neighbors face daily because we're eating the same food and washing our clothes by hand together. But they're fighting for their food and I have enough money to pay someone else to wash my clothes if I wanted to. The last weeks have been intensely humbling and have raised some challenging questions, but I pray that they have also led me to be more sensitive and understanding rather than frustrated.

Next week, October 7th marks my one-year mark in Ethiopia. So strange how long a year can seem and yet how quickly it goes by. So strange how comfortable you can feel in a place after only one year and yet continue to be reminded by people yelling 'ferengi ferengi! (foreigner foreigner!)' that you don't really belong here. Strange that you can feel increasingly confident and supported through new friendships and families that have formed over the past year and yet still long so deeply for friends and family back home. All in all, a strange place to be in right now- but a good one. I am thankful for the peace and confidence that God has provided lately that this is where I am supposed to be today and He'll be there to let me know when that changes.

I don't say this enough, but thank you all for the support and encouragement you've shown this past year. I can't begin to say how it has held me up and pushed me forward. I thank God every time I think of you all and trust me- that's often. I miss you all! 70 days!! Much love!