Category Archives: International Development

Luxury Huts

My plan was to get a fantastic night’s sleep before flying to Lalibela.  There was no internet, so it was easy to crash early.  I awoke at 3am to a donkey braying. Wow, they really sound pathetic, like they are being squeezed to death in a vise—it’s a cool sound.  I fell back to sleep.

I woke up to a rooster crowing.  It was still dark, so I was mildly irritated but also amused to hear a noise I associate with the country, since I am such a city person.  I fell back to sleep.

Then the chanting began.  It was 4am. Must be the call to prayer, I thought.  Half of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim.  I knew the call typically lasted 10 minutes, so I laid there and listened; if you don’t know the words, it sounds exotic as it wafts from the loudspeakers.  It’s beautiful.

But this call sounded different from other places I’d heard it, like Dubai, Jordan, or Turkey.  It didn’t sound Arabic.  Could they be chanting in Amharic?  It went on for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30.  I wondered if it was a religious holiday as I screwed in earplugs and feel asleep again.  When I woke up at 8am and took them out, the chanting was still droning on.  Mysterious.

I waited on the steps of my hotel for the driver.  The steps were in an alcove, so people walking by didn’t see me until they were right there, then they did a double take.  Ferenji!

I was weirded out that some men across the street were staring at me.

Until I realized they were mannequins.

A young man approached me.  “Seebeetee?”  I smiled uncertainly and said “no thanks” to whatever that was.  He came back a minute later with another guy who said “C-V-T?” My employer.

“Oh!  Yes!” I answered, and hopped into his truck.  He spoke no English.  There was a boy in the back seat who appeared to be about 12.  His little brother?  He spoke no English either, so I sat back and watched the scenery for the hour-long drive to Axum.

The flight was the same as the previous day’s flight—there were muffins and a selection of three beverages.  But you know that background music they play when passengers are boarding a plane?  On this flight they played really loud, schmaltzy music for the whole flight.  I thought about asking someone to turn it off, but figured some of the passengers considered it a benefit.

We landed at the same time as a charter plane of Chinese tourists.  They stared at me—and I mean stared hard—they must have never seen a real white person before.  I hope I didn’t disappoint them.

Maki had arranged for a guide to meet me, Tesfaye.  He had a driver lined up to take me to my hotel, and there were three kids in the back seat.  Did kids just go along for the ride in Ethiopia?

As part of our small talk, I asked Tesfaye about the chanting I’d heard in the morning.

“Is it a Muslim holiday?”

He laughed.  “No, it’s our crazy Ethiopian Orthodox church.  The priests do that every day.”

Note to self: Buy more ear plugs.

We arrived at the Tukal Village Hotel. It was so nice I was tempted to tell Tesfaye I would just stay there for the day.  It was a series of “luxury huts,” with a nice restaurant too—and wireless.

This was the first time I’d been able to get online since Frankfurt.  Maki had told me that the government of Ethiopia had shut down the Internet in the entire country the week before to prevent students cheating on their standardized exams.  Now it was back to its usual state of extremely weak and unreliable.

I threw my things in my hut and Tesfaye and I began a long hike up through the town of Lalibela to the site. “Children will call you ferenji,” he told me.  “People will try to sell you things.  Do not talk to the”

Well then, how was I going to get any souvenirs, I wondered?

Not Again

I wrote three posts about Ethiopia while I was there.  Night of the Rat was about, well, the rat in my bathroom and other unpleasantries I encountered.  Happy to Be Here was about the positive stuff, like meeting my colleagues and seeing our program first hand.  Beasts of Burden was about the endless streams of people and animals that trudged along the roads  carrying burdens no one should have to bear.  The post before this one was Frankfurt to Axum, which described traveling on Ethiopia Airlines.

After traveling for nearly 18 hours, Maki and I were seated in her office in Shire.  I was exhausted and felt that special griminess that only comes from air travel.  It was Friday afternoon and I just wanted to go to my hotel, take a de-grodifying shower, and sleep.

“What are you doing this weekend?” Maki asked.  I shrugged.  How did I know?  Everyone had told me there was nothing to do in Shire, and a few stabs at proving them wrong on Trip Advisor had proven them right.

“You should go to Lalibela,” Maki said.  “You’ll have to get up really early tomorrow and drive back to Axum, then fly to Lalibela and come back the next day.”

Drive?  Fly?  Again?  That was the last thing I wanted to do.  But a co-worker I trusted had urged me to see Lalibela if I could.

“Can’t I hire a driver?” I whined.

Maki laughed flatly.  “You can’t drive there.  Let’s have the driver take us to the hotel now, before everyone comes back from the camps.  The travel agent is in your hotel.”

The Gebar Hotel was the tallest building in Shire.  To get to reception, you walk up a flight of stairs, then walk up another flights of stairs, and then another, and another.  There was no elevator.  Luckily a young man came along and hoiked my suitcase effortlessly up the countless stairs for me.  I gave him one of the filthy, ragged 10 Birr notes I had wadded in my pocket, then groaned inwardly as I calculated that I had just tipped him 42 cents.  He smiled anyway.

The lobby walls and floors were covered in faux-marble tiles.  It was cavernous and dark.  I wondered if they kept the lights off to conserve energy, to keep it cool, or both.  We left my bag behind the desk and schlepped down the stairs to the travel agency.  Maki did all the talking.

“The flight will be 1,817 Birr,” she repeated to me after the agent told her this.

“I don’t suppose they take credit cards, do they?” I asked weakly.

“No, of course not,” she said in her matter-of-fact fashion.  “There’s a cash machine in the lobby but they often run out of money on the weekends so you might have to run around to others.  You can take a mini bus to Shire and it’ll cost you 100 Birr, or you can hire a driver and pay 1,600.  Then there’s the hotel—I can recommend a good one—that’ll be about 1,200.  The guide will want 500 and it’s 1,200 to get in.”

I can usually do math in my head, but I was tired and doing the conversions plus adding it all up was beyond me.  All I knew was, it sounded like a lot of money to get up really early and knock myself out all over again with road trips and flights.  I was not committed. Then Maki took a phone call and I did the calculations on my phone.  The two hour-long drives, flight, taxi to the hotel, the hotel itself, the Lalibela entrance fee, and personal guide would all cost me less than $200.  Okay then.

I was finally in my hotel room.  Here was the shower set up.

The combo electric-plumbing made me nervous, but not enough to skip a shower.  I went up to the restaurant and drank a beer while I pondered the menu and napkin holder.

I enjoyed the view from the balcony.  The little three-wheeled vehicles are called Jijigas.

I went back to my room, washed some underwear, watched a dust storm roll in, then crashed.

Frankfurt to Axum

The next day, Ingrid left on the train to go home to the Netherlands, and I stayed at the hotel and sat in the breakfast bar for hours catching up on work, emails, and blog posts.  Then I caught a cab to the airport.  On the way, the cabbie and I both had a laugh at this doggie on a bike:

At the airport, I splurged and spent $1 a minute to call my mom.  Phone service was by far the most complicated, difficult aspect of going abroad.  I must have research 10 different options, and none of them were good.  In the end I paid $40 for a month of unlimited texting, $1  minute calling, and 1 GB of data with ATT.  Unfortunately, the texting didn’t work.  I would send a text and not hear back from the recipient for four days, when they would say, “Just got your text!”  There was no data in Ethiopia, let alone texting or calling.  So I let the plan drop at the end of the month.

My mother and I spoke for 10 minutes.  She’s never been much of a phone talker, and at 82, I think she still believes that international calls cost hundreds of dollars.  As I said goodbye, she started to cry.  I felt terrible, but what could I do?  I told her that the UK was a lot more dangerous than Ethiopia and hoped she would forget that by the time I got to the UK 10 days later.

Flying to Ethiopia from the global north is arduous.  There is no option but overnight flights arriving in Addis at 6:00am.  I’ve already written about all the flights and jeep rides it took to get from Europe to the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. There were so many “Huh?” moments along the way.

On the flight from Frankfurt to Ethiopia, I shared my row with an Eritrean guy who now lives in Canada who was going back to visit his sister, who he hadn’t seen in 12 years.  I felt rude, but I smiled as I donned my sleep mask and told him I wanted to get some shut eye.  He smiled back and said, “I don’t think I will sleep all night; I am so excited.”

When the plane landed, everyone applauded.

“I didn’t get a visa before coming,” blurted out my seat mate.  “I’m sure they’ll give me one on arrival.”

I smiled but had serious doubts.  When I told Maki, our country director, this story, she groaned and put her face in her hands.  “They won’t have let him in,” she said.  “They’ll send him back.  Oh, why do people do that?  I think they believe their chances are better in person, but they’re definitely not.”

On our flight to Axum, the flight attendant offered a tray of plastic cups with clear, brown, and yellowish beverages.  I reached for the clear one and she said anxiously, “That’s water!”

“Yes, I know,” I replied.  Could she just not imagine that someone would choose water over a free coke or beer?  She came back a minute later with a tray of muffins wrapped in plastic.  When I said no thanks, she exclaimed, “Why not!?”  I said I didn’t like sweet snacks, and she looked at me like I was nuts.

Maki was seated in a different row.  I looked around and noticed the other passengers were eating their muffins with their fingers.  I have eaten with my fingers in Ethiopian restaurants many times but hadn’t realized they eat everything with their fingers.

I flipped through the inflight magazine.  The flight attendants were all as beautiful as the one in this ad.

Because of Ethiopia … what?  I had no idea what this was advertising or why these blokes were drinking out of laboratory beakers.

I assume this guy must be a famous marathon runner.

I often get passionate about packaging, especially when it involves gusseted stitched sacks.

I wasn’t going to learn Amharic on this flight, but I could pretend to try.

Here’s Ethiopian Air’s route map.

I found this sign in the bathroom puzzling.

Isn’t poop solid waste?

I was so entertained, the flight went fast and we soon landed in Axum.

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

Happy to Be Here

I’ve written about the rats, dust, diesel fumes, noise, and mosquitoes here in Ethiopia.

Now for the good things.  It is so great to be here.  With others I’ve been trying to raise funds for our Ethiopia program for about three years, and I am finally seeing first-hand what happens here.  It’s easy to get a bit cynical when you’re sitting at HQ.  This has swept my cynicism away.

It took a lot to get here.  I took an overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, the capital.  An hour later I flew north to Axum, and from there it was a one-hour drive to Shire, where CVT has an office.  I flew to Lalibela for some weekend R&R and I’ll write about that later.  On Monday morning, back in Shire, everyone piled into one of the ubiquitous white NGO trucks plastered with our logo and donor recognition—in our case, the US flag with the note, “Gift of the United States Government PRM” (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).

Our destination was Mai Tsebri, home of my dearly departed rat (I hope).  In Mai Tsebri, CVT has a walled compound. The trucks back in through the gate into a courtyard with a dirt floor planted with mango trees and a water cistern as big as a Humvee.  Two floors of rooms ring it—a kitchen, canteen, training room, staff quarters, HR, logistics, and the oh-so important generator shed.

Each morning the staff pile into the trucks for the drive to the refugee camps, which is about a half hour.  It’s spectacular countryside, along twisting roads through the mountains.  I had heard that the ride makes people sick, so I was relieved it didn’t happen to me.

So after eight flights in 13 days and five long, dusty drives, I was in one of the camps where we work.

And it’s great.  I am so happy to meet the staff whose names I’ve entered into online forms.

There’s a lot to write about, but for now I’ll describe the camp and the mornings’ activity.

There’s a small Ethiopian settlement called Adi Harush.  The ground is red, rocky, uneven, and dusty.  The houses are built of square cement bricks and are maybe 15 by 12 feet.  Each has a tin roof, a door, and windows on two sides.  The houses are in pretty rough shape.

Then you cross some invisible line and you’re in a refugee camp.  The houses are the same but they’re brand new, neat and tidy.  The people are the same ethnic group, but they’re Eritrean, not Ethiopian, and they speak Tigrinya instead of Amharic.

There are communal latrines (below) and water spigots, schools, an amphitheater where boys were playing basketball, a women’s center (below) where the ladies can get their hair done, watch TV, and discuss Gender Based Violence.

There’s no barbed wire fence or armed guard to keep anyone in, and that’s a problem, as you’ll learn.

Three CVT staff found a spot of shade against a house and a group of people began to assemble.  One staffer set down two stools about eight inches high, gestured for me to sit down, and sat next to me.  The other two employees began to present information on trauma and torture to about 30 men, women, and children while my stool mate interpreted for me.  We call this a sensitization—to help people understand that if they’re depressed, anxious or not sleeping, that’s normal given what they’ve been through, and CVT can help.

Almost everyone in the camp is separated from his or her family.  Some were forced into never-ending military service, kept in underground prisons, or trafficked.  There are lots of children on their own, and there are waves of suicide among them.

I had the interpreter seriously repeating everything into my ear, while two tiny boys stood directly in front of me making funny faces.  One had no pants on.  Did I laugh at them and risk looking insensitive to the crowd, or remain serious and miss the joy of flirting with small children?  I think I did all of the above.

Night of the Rat

Greetings from Mai Tsebri, Ethiopia, 25 miles from the Eritrean border—although it’s hard to know because this town isn’t on Google Maps.  I’ve been in Ethiopia for a week now, and I’m ready to get out of here.

Mainly because of the rat.

I am staying at the Center for Victims of Trauma office here (we are the Center for Victims of Torture everywhere else but for political reasons we had to tone down the name here).

I am in the guest room.  Here are some pictures:

The first night, exhausted from traveling all day, hot and sticky, my head clogged up from the chemicals they use to disinfect everything, I finally fell asleep with the ceiling fan turned on high, wafting my mosquito netting up and down.

Some time later I was awakened by the loud sound of something scrabbling its way up the drain pipe in the bathroom and then slurp! I could hear it pop out and scurry around in the dark.

The power had gone out, so I couldn’t turn on the light.  It had to be a rat because the other things that come up drain pipes, like cockroaches and snakes, would be silent.  I have experience with this from Mexico, where you didn’t know the giant cockroaches were in your room until they ran up your arm in the dark.

I wasn’t going to wait for a rat to run up my arm.  I got the first shot in the rabies series before I left home and I would have to get the rest of them if I was bitten by a rat—but where would I find the rabies series here?  It took two flights and three hours of driving to get here.

I turned my cell phone up as bright as it would go, then flashed it into all the nooks and crannies and under the bed.  I didn’t see anything.  I got back into bed and could hear it scuttling around beneath me.  I got up and blasted the phone blindly, then climbed back into bed and fell asleep with the phone clutched in my hand.

Right now I am in a training room furnished with red and green upholstered hotel chairs.  Our master’s-degree-level Ethiopian counselors are training 17 Eritrean counselors who work for Norwegian Refugee Council in how to recognize the symptoms of torture and trauma and what to do about them.  One of the counselors has a small child on her lap and another has a baby strapped to her back.

I did a fundraising training with our employees yesterday. Part II was supposed to be today, but I’ve completely lost my voice.  I don’t have a cold, so it must be the diesel fumes and dust and chemicals.

“Ferenji, ferenji!” come the high calls of children as I walk by.  “White person, white person!”  I pass a woman with a small daughter; the mother pulls her daughter close and says in a hushed warning tone, “Ferenji,” like I’m a monster.  Our country director, who is Japanese, hears “China, China!”, which she doesn’t appreciate.  Sometimes they call me China too.  I guess we all look alike.

In the morning, I thought maybe I had imagined the rat.  Maybe I was just being dramatic.  When I told the country director she said phlegmatically, “Yes, there are rats here.  I hate them.”

Our Kenyan psychotherapist, who has the room next to mine informed me that he’s got traps set.

“Oh great,” I said with a laugh, “That probably drives them into my room!”

I put a plate over the drain and placed a heavy rock on top of it.

There was no rat that night, although I was wearing ear plugs to blur out the sound of drumming and singing and ululating that went on for hours somewhere nearby, so maybe I just didn’t hear the little bastard.

Third night: the rat was back.  It’s not like the room was well sealed.  Then I heard a terrifying squealing from next door.  I choose to believe it was my rat.  Game over, rat!

Auf Wiedersehen

Greetings from Salzurg, Austria.  I am sitting in the breakfast lounge at Pension Elizabeth, where Abba is playing on a loop, the Internet is super slow, and the hotel staff are having some kind of meeting with a salesperson at the next table.

I’ll leave for the airport in a few hours to fly to Ethiopia, where I’m told I’ll have no Internet.  I would love to say I’m going to write enough posts to take you along with me, but that’s a fairy dream.  Complications are following me, and I can’t say I’ve really had one day off since I left 11 days ago.

I’ve got 200 emails in my work inbox.  The June 1 payment from my renters back home hasn’t shown up in my checking account.  I am getting texts and phone calls from someone who needs to know something about the sale of my condo and I have no idea who they’re from or what they’re about.

The most “exciting” complication happened when I flew from Copenhagen to Amsterdam.  I received a reminder from Expedia the night before to check in.  Norwegian Air’s website didn’t recognize the routing number but I got a message that said, “Don’t Worry! We’re still working on our website.”  Really?  Did Norway just get the Internet?

The train to the airport the next day left late and stopped twice to let other trains go by in the other direction.  In general, I think this is good, but not when it keeps you standing still for 20 minutes at a time. Finally, we were told to get off and take another train.  I had, as they always advise you, allowed plenty of time to get to the airport early but got there about an hour before my flight was to leave.

And Norwegian Air had no record of the flight.

It’s a long story, but I ran from one terminal to another, then back again, then back in the other direction, and was quoted up to $800 for a new ticket.  I did all this with my big bag full of books, since I hadn’t been able to check it.

In the end, I was lucky to get the last seat on a Scandinavian Airlines flight for $406.  Expedia says their records show I took the Norwegian flight.  They are telling me to call Norwegian Air id I still think there is a problem.  Call?—as in make an international call that will cost me $1 a minute to sit on hold?  I protested, but Expedia hasn’t responded.  If anyone has advice to doing battle with Expedia, please let me know.

Four hundred bucks is a lot of money to lose, but also in the mad rushing around in the airport, I must have dropped my bag on my foot.  Once I arrived in the Netherlands and took my socks off at my friend’s house, I saw an alarming gold-ball sized green swelling on the top of my left foot.  I immediately thought of the American journalist Miles O’Brien, who had a freak accident where something fell on his arm.  The incident seemed mild, but it caused something called Acute Compartment Syndrome.  He had to have his arm amputated.  Boy, is he good looking—you really should check out that article.

My foot swelling went down that night, but my whole foot has been black and blue for a week.  I showed it to my friend and we went down a check list: it’s not numb.  I can bend my toes.  It’s tender to the touch but not painful to walk.  The swelling is gone.

Good to go to Ethiopia, right!?

Other than the potentially fatal foot injury, $406 loss, and the nonstop rain that follows me everywhere, I’ve had a great time so far.

Okay, I’m off to bring the rain to Ethiopia.

I’ll write more when I get to Cornwall, England in a week or so.