Friday, June 10, 2011

Just do your business and don't look down . . .

I’ve made it to Shire (pronounced “Shi-ray,” there are no hobbits here)! Shire and I got off to a bit of a rocky start. I was told that there was an airport in Shire and that the IRC would fly me up, a convenient arrangement as a road trip up from Addis would take 3 days. However, as the plane was descending and the rocky, red ground growing ever closer, I was struggling to identify anything that resembled a runway or an airport. The pilot had made a point of announcing, in both Amharic and English, that he was allowing the co-pilot to land the plane, which I hadn’t really thought much of, but it was now making me nervous. When we were moments away from touching down, I realized the red rocks were our runway and the tin shed (even this is a generous description) was the airport. As we bounced our way to the “airport” through a cloud of red dust, herders were running around attempting to keep their animals out of the way and children were standing just on the edge of our rocky path to watch the arrival of the plane. It was not a safe program and I still don’t feel good about it.

Shire is an interesting town, a little bit larger than Finote Selam, but crawling with international aid workers. It’s close to a contested portion of the Ethiopian/ Eritrean border, so everyone has an office here. There are two nice-ish places to eat/ drink coffee in town, so I end up eating my meals with the IOM (International Office of Migration) office head, Chinese construction workers, and various other expats who have been placed here. It’s an interesting experience and I’ve enjoyed hearing the stories of people who have been in the development/ relief business for years.

The IRC is operating in two refugee camps in the area and I arrived just in time for the annual grant-opening meeting (where they share how each program will use the funds that have been allotted to them for the year) and staff retreat. It was really quite good timing as I got to spend time with the entire staff and see historical sights around the Tigray region, which I had never seen before. I was also glad I had the opportunity to sit in on the grant meetings, as it has been good to hear what activities the different programs are implementing (water and sanitation, gender based violence, child and youth protection, livelihoods, education, etc).

The people I am working with are hilarious, interact together so well, and immediately made me feel like part of the team. They are from all different parts of Ethiopia and yet they treat each other like family. The staff is extremely male dominated, but the women handle it well and always have a response for any teasing comment the guys send their way. I think the girls are happy to have a boost in their ranks, so I’ve been trying to keep up with the constant joking and am working on my quick Amharic retorts.

I will confess that I have completely lost track of how many places we visited during this 4-day retreat. Being thrown into Tigray was a great way to get started, but also completely overwhelming. They speak a different language, Tigrinya, but have many of the same traditions and culture as the rest of Ethiopia. It was disconcerting to be in a country I feel so familiar with, but to be starting over again with language. Also, the look of this region is completely different- I’m not in the injera-basket anymore! A vast majority of our time was spent driving through the countryside, which, I am convinced, is one big rock. Everything is made of rock. Roads, houses, churches, cafes, the fields the farmers were plowing… Massive hunks of rock merge together to form striking mountains and cliffs, though sometimes they stand alone like they were dropped from the sky. I think it might even rain rocks here, if it were ever to rain.

Northern Ethiopia is considered to be the origin of the Ethiopian empire, so there are ruins dating back to 5th century BC (approximate) when settlers came from Yemen (though some say that Ethiopians were here first and then influenced Yemen). Regardless, there is a temple in a village called Yeha made from perfectly fitted, huge squares of stone that apparently resembles Yemeni architecture. No concrete was involved and yet the building is still standing centuries later. They also found ancient rock tablets with Sabean script carved into them, which they think was the linguistic predecessor of Gi’ze, which gave birth to Tigrinya, which begat Amharic (kind of). I am accustomed to seeing such things safely shielded in the glass cases of museums, but not here! These tablets were kept in an attic over a food storage shed and were shown to us as an afterthought when we kept asking questions about the origin of the temple. Ethiopia is awesome.

A group of us also went to see a remote rock-hewn Orthodox church. Some people opted out of this excursion and I assumed it was because they were too tired to hike 20 minutes to get there. There are some things that I forgot/ weren’t clearly communicated: 1) when a rural Ethiopian guide says “20 minutes,” you must assume that he means more than an hour. 2) Reaching the church required scaling a mountain and walking across an exposed plank over a 700ft drop. The title of this blog was sound advice given in regards to a particularly foul latrine (shint beyt!) situation, but I’ve found it to be applicable in various settings over the past week. Even with the “don’t look down” mantra running through my head, there came a point (after climbing barefooted up the mountain face, wondering at the inspiration that drove people to build a church in such an impossible to reach place, but before the exposed plank) that I decided I had seen plenty of Orthodox churches and that I would just enjoy the view. I felt great about the decision, but our guide- a 65-year-old priest who moved like a mountain goat up that beast of a rock- was less than pleased. I offered to build a handrail and then come across, but he didn’t seem to feel there was a need for that. Curious.

That's the update for now! I've made it out to the camp and am loving it! More soon! Miss you all!


Patrick said...

Straw, question: did you walk across the plank? This detail is quite unclear.

Can't wait to see pictures of the camp. Hope it's going well!

Allison said...

Yes...I too am left wondering. Glad to hear you made it to camp. I think I heard there was a volcanic erution in Eritrea?

Can't wait for the next update!

Alyssa Conn ΠΟΛΙΤΗΣ ΤΟΥ ΚΟΣΜΟΥ said...

Hi! My name is Alyssa and I'm a PCV in Uganda. My family and I are traveling to Ethiopia for a few days in August and I was wondering if I could get some travel information from you.
We'd like, ideally, to spend some few days in Addis and then I was suggesting we go out to Bale Mountains National park. I was wondering if you knew of any good tour operators (not terribly expensive) that would be able to arrange a short trip for us (my mother is refusing to use buses). Also, do you know of any good places to stay around the park?
Or, is there another park that's better than Bale that maybe we could fly to? I saw that Omo looks really cool but is a bit difficult to get to. What do you suggest? We're only going to be in the big E for 6 days.
My e-mail address is