Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Life in Addis

My alarm goes off at 6:59. I dress and pack my bag. I wear the same thing every day – jeans, a t-shirt, a hoodie and tennis shoes. At this hour it is cold enough to see my breath, but it won’t be long before the piercing sun stirs the coals of the city and I shed the hoodie.

I go to the bathroom and take a leisurely #2 while reading. The first two weeks I pooped six times a day but now I’m back to my usual one or two. For breakfast I have a cup of tea along with banana bread or cookies that our chef, Asni, baked the day before. I continue to read or idly chat with housemates before brushing my teeth, filling my 2-liter water bottle 2/3 full of filtered water, and heading out.

Our house is located between a brothel masquerading as a bar and the Palestinian Embassy. A 19-year old Jew we call “The Kid” is staying at the house. Insert your own joke here.

I walk down a hill to the Tor Highluch bus station.

Tor Highluch is probably Torhai Loch; nobody knows or cares. Tor Highluch is a monstrous clusterfuck in the morning, and this will be the worst part of my day. The emissions of a hundred minibuses, fifty idling taxis, and a thousand passing cars mingle with the dust to create a thick, choking haze.

In Addis, cars do not depreciate; they only appreciate. The price of a gallon of gas – $4, the same as a generous meal in one of the city’s nicer restaurants – is not enough to dissuade the fire-breathing dragons of commerce.

Boarding this first minibus is an animalistic, vile, degrading experience. I stand on the curb until two dozen of us spot the Piazza bus. The half of us who fight the hardest, who attack the bus doors most aggressively, who sacrifice the most dignity will land the coveted seats. Later this same bus will hold as many as nineteen people, but passengers are limited to twelve under the “jurisdiction” of Tor Highluch. It will take eight times as long to load the bus this way, loading it before the exiting passengers have a chance to escape. Such are the inefficiencies of disorganization. On my hourlong commute to school, I will see hundreds of hungry Habesha, dozens of destitute orphans and a multitude of amputee beggars, but it is the legislative failure of Tor Highluch that perturbs me the most because it would be so easy to fix. When people are made to behave like animals, forced to push each other aside to feed at the trough of transportation, it undermines their civility as humans. However, this is the only ignoble activity that I will witness or take part in during the day, and the only one of my four minibus rides that will present any sort of difficulty.

It will take between zero and thirty minutes for me to board a minibus. The longer it takes, the more upset I get with myself for not scrapping harder to get on the last one. Once boarded, the bus will travel northeast through the city to Piazza, one of the city’s several commercial hubs. I was transfixed by the minibus experience the first two weeks here, eyes glued to the window so I could see every treacherous move the driver made, every store on the street, every Habesha interaction. I was also enraptured with the smells – eucalyptus, goats, manure, body odor, and spicy berbere - intoxicating but fleeting, usually choked off by burning gasoline within a few seconds.

But now it’s all the same, and I usually just read my book. Piazza isn’t that far away, but it takes twenty-five strident minutes to get there in rush hour. On the day I will ride four minibuses across the city. Each will cost 2.70 birr, a total of 10.80, equal to about seventy cents.

Though it is the commercial center of East Africa, Addis is basically a giant shanty town. No one really knows how many people live here; estimates range from 2 to 9 million, depending on what you count as city. It's unfair to generalize so many people - you can find every financial sector here - but the majority of the city's residents are somewhere between poor and destitute. But it is not an unhappy place.

Piazza is alive in the morning. Piazza probably never dies, but I’ve never been out after midnight. I walk four minutes through the shops, stands, and throngs to where the Kechene minibuses load. Getting on a Kechene bus is stress-free, and twelve minutes later I will weraj at the Medianhealem Church.

I then walk seven minutes up this hill.

I often stop for a moment to chat with a boy who washes cars named Taigen. Many Habesha will engage me in conversation throughout the day. The desperate and uneducated just yell things in Amharic, which serves no purpose and deserves no reply. Sometimes children just hold out a palm and ask for money; I’ve found the best response here is just to turn it on its head and reply “money?” as if they are offering it to me – if they get the joke, they laugh, if not, they usually walk away puzzled. It works either way.

Some offer a friendly greeting which I will reciprocate, but that is the limit of my Amharic and their English. And roughly once a day, a Habesha who speaks fluently will talk to me for several minutes. The majority of the time, this exchange is purely innocuous. Unlike Morocco, where almost everyone who spoke English to firenjes did so from financial motivation, most Habesha who do so are genuinely interested in genial conversation, friendship, erudition, or just practicing their English. I have several Habesha friends I’ve met in this manner, including Taigen.

I turn right on a cobblestone/dirt road,

gaze at a local dog who reminds me of Bailey for a moment,

take in this vista along with a few deep breaths of cleaner, elevated air,

and walk into the IEICA school. I arrive between 8:40 and 9.

I am immediately, adoringly swarmed by a gaggle of 4-6 year-olds. After a series of hugs, kisses, and high-fives, I exchange three-step handshakes and greetings with the faculty in a mix of English and Amharic.

The student-faculty ratio at our school is surprisingly small. There are about 25 students in two classes, KG1 and KG2. There is a principal, three full-time teachers, two full-time guards, one cook/cleaning lady, one cool young dude whose role is still unclear to me, one wise old man who just kinda shows up around lunchtime, frequent and arbitrary visitors, and me.

The kids play for a bit as everyone arrives. Around 9, Ficulta, the female teacher/disciplinarian, raises the Ethiopian flag while the kids sing the national anthem.

Then it’s time for class.

Both KG1 and KG2 have English, Math, and Amharic every day along with a sprinkling of art, science, and music. Math became my favorite once I learned the Amharic numbers. It is easier for me to communicate in arithmetic than it is in English, which the kids (especially KG1) know so little. Ficulta does not speak English, so I assist Asrat and Mulugeta in their classes. They are passionate teachers. I learn greatly from watching them conduct class, even though most of it is in Amharic. Asrat’s style is expressive and playful, while Mulugeta is more composed and methodical. Asrat is in university studying education. Mulugeta is in his last semester at the school and will soon be an accountant.

My role in class is an amalgamation of teaching, assisting, sitting at a desk and watching attentively, checking classwork and homework, sharpening pencils, and keeping kids on task.

After two half-hour morning classes comes the dreaded two-hour recess.

There is always a soccer game which Mulugeta, Asrat and I often join. Sometimes I play monkey in the middle with a few kids, sometimes I play on the slide, lift the kids up to do chin-ups, or just hang out in the cacophony. Lately I have been tutoring groups or individuals more, which has made recess shorter and more worthwhile. When the lunch buzzer mercifully rings around 12:20, I am hungry and tired.

Lunch is the most important facet of IEICA. Many of the students don’t eat breakfast, and some won’t get dinner either. Half-days end with lunch, and I get the feeling the tertiary faculty is there for the meal. Around forty former students who now attend the government school will arrive for lunch as well. We hand out the meal in an assembly-line, then eat our own share.

Four days a week we eat a bowl of rice, usually with potatoes and cabbage. It’s always filling. Once every week or two we have injera. Lunch winds down into a halfhearted naptime, followed by another, shorter recess. During this time I will usually end up discussing American, Ethiopian, and world affairs with Asrat and/or an old man named Meksala. I feel this reciprocal period of teaching is just as important as the classes with the students.

Around 1:50 the afternoon classes start, three and a half hours after the morning session ended. After this pair of classes the flag is lowered, the kids kiss goodbye, and I walk back down the hill and catch a bus to Piazza. The weather is the same every day – cloudless, 78 degrees with an occasional breeze. Though the temperature isn’t extreme, the intensity of the sun is ferocious. The equatorial proximity along with the 8,000 foot altitude create a brand of sunshine I have never experienced before, an enrapturing warmth that penetrates every pore of your body. To my amazement, most Habesha spend the entire day clothed in pants and an overcoat of some sort.

My immediate goal is usually to dissipate a couple hours before heading home. The Cherokee House is a frenzy at this point in the afternoon, and there is nothing I can do there in peace other than a 20-minute workout mashup of pushups, situps, jumping, wallsits, and tae-bo I developed a couple weeks in. So usually I hang around Piazza for a while, stopping in a café for a while and reading, checking email and CU Buffs basketball scores in primitive internet cafes, or just walking around and getting slightly lost.

Eventually I find my way to the final bus stop of the day down by this mosque.

I am rather well-liked at the house and will be greeted warmly upon return. The social situation was awkward the first week here, but now we have a merry community which satisfies my desires for companionship. Sadly my three closest friends are leaving this weekend, and I will miss them dearly. I doubt if the house will be as enjoyable hereafter, but I do have many other Habesha and firenje friends throughout the city at this point. There are Korean Mondays, soccer Wednesdays and Ultimate Frisbee Thursdays. The worst case scenario – a dozen books and the third season of The Wire – is appealing as well.

Together we eat a delicious meal Asni prepared around 6:30, then play Settlers of Catan or shoot the shit for a while before retiring to our quarters.

Early on, the sleeping situation was rather dire as I was needlessly sharing a room with another guy, then two other guys, and an excruciatingly irritating water pump located fifteen feet from the bedroom was haunting my every waking and fitfully sleeping hour. But we neutralized the pump by turning it off at night and then I moved into an empty room on the second floor, and now I sleep peacefully every night. There is a hole in one of the windows making the room feel as if it is partially outside, which I enjoy. During the night the temperature will slip into the low 50s or high 40s, so I sleep under my blanket in shorts, a t-shirt, and socks. I usually sleep hard for seven hours and change, then wake up rested and tired.

It may sound as if I have described a disgruntled existence in Addis, but that is not the case. Life is not particularly entertaining, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I have a hard time explaining why I am happier here than I have been in Boulder for most of the last year. I suppose it is the balance. I have put great emphasis on balance for many years, yet it has always remained elusive. Somehow I have fount that equilibrium here in Africa. I am satisfied by my work, my social life and my athletic pursuits. I get to play lots of games, learn new things, and constantly improve myself. Upward mobility is part of everyday life. The only thing missing is romance, though I do meet new people all the time. It doesn’t matter; that part of me is currently comatose. I am not ready for Her arrival; searching would serve no purpose. Eventually that part of me will return. When it does, I will be deserving of the sort of companion I have long envisioned.


Blogger Lele said...

aw love the bailey lookalike - but of course bailey is WAYYYY more cute :-)

3:31 PM  
Blogger Bag said...

Nice post Moon, sounds like quite an experience. Looking forward to more updates like this.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous SamENole said...

Great blog as always. Your Buffs are putting up a pretty solid season, but they're hurt by playing in the pathetic Pac 12. An at-large isn't completely out of the question but they probably need to win out in the regular season.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely riveted by the story. Thanks for sharing.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Geoff Duncan said...

Spot on description of a day in Addis! Miss you brother.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Spencetron said...

Thanks for the update as well as all the pictures. Just going on the pictures it seems to me that you are focusing on the exact right things... people and how they live. We (myself included) get so caught up in the things that don't matter that it may take this type of drastic change to refocus on people and how they live. Have you had a chance to enjoy any coffee or beer? I hear Ethiopians do those things pretty well.

3:57 PM  
Blogger kwickchick said...

Sounds like a life changing experience. Enjoy each day!

7:43 AM  
Blogger 81Trucolors said...

Best post in quite some time! Love the photos. More please.

1:41 PM  

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