I’m Better Because of You, Ethiopia

The cool wind rustles the fragrant eucalyptus leaves as I slowly make my way down the hill one last time.  The kids see my overly full bag and ask where I’m going.  When I say America, they ask how long I’ll be gone.  “Kisab macherasha,” I say.  Forever.   A flood of emotion pours over me like a long overdue kerempti rain, taking with it the composure I had hoped to keep.  Today I know what bittersweet means.  Today I understand what a goodbye truly is. 

As the bus pulls away from Atsbi, I think back over the tumultuous past two years. What have I given Ethiopia?  What has Ethiopia given me?  What has she taken from me and what will I carry away from this experience?  Is Ethiopia better off because of me? Quantifying a Peace Corps service is impossible, like avoiding bed bugs in a $2 hotel, but at least I can reflect on my time in this paradox of a country. 

My days-long journey home continues with a death defying minibus ride from Wukero to Mekele, and I choose this dangerous hour to ponder what Ethiopia has given me.  Where can I possibly even begin? Strangers that welcomed me with open arms who quickly became the best friends I’ve ever known.  A warm, heartfelt culture that shaped my worldview and reminded me to wholly appreciate life.  Coworkers, students, and neighbors who taught me more than I could ever hope to teach in a lifetime.  The highest of highs and the lowest of lows that led to more personal growth than I thought possible.  After all, I was never out to “find myself,” but it seems even those of us who think we know ourselves, don’t really.  Let me continue my list…parasites, adventure, nightmares about being stuck in Ethiopia forever, the full heart feeling that comes from thinking about the loved ones at home whose support means so much, a safety net of other PCVs who I’ll lean on forever. Before I know it, the terrifying ride is over, but my list is nowhere near complete.  It never will be.

Sitting in a dingy hotel room I click through photos of my students and consider what I’ve given them, consider what I’ve given my community, my “village.” Of course there are tangible things, like the wardrobe full of clothes I distributed among several dozen people last week and the million fist bumps I’ve passed out to screaming kids.  My friends and family back home gave the school a cow.  But these are not the things a PCV wants to leave as a legacy.  This question can really only be answered five, ten, thirty years from now.  When my girls are sitting in the front of a university lecture hall, answering questions with all the boys.  When a farmer’s patience and hard work are rewarded with healthier soil and a brighter future.  When my campers walk out their front doors and pick fresh, healthy vegetables to cook for their families. 

The wheels of the plane part with hot Mekele asphalt and I worry that Ethiopia will leave me cynical and jaded forever – that I’ll roll my eyes when I hear someone mention foreign aid or that I’ll never regain the trusting demeanor I once possessed.  What are the long-term consequences of being sexually harassed every single day for two years?  Extreme feminism, to name one.  What about poverty?  Will I ever take poverty seriously in countries where they have food stamps and homeless shelters?      

From Atsbi to Addis Ababa I’ve contemplated these questions, but I don’t think I’ll ever know whether or not Ethiopia is actually a better place because of me.  I like to think that in some small, indefinable way, it is.  Then again, maybe not. But through the good and the bad, the beautiful and the hideous, the simple and the impossibly difficult, the daily collision of two vastly different cultures, there is one thing I know to be true: I’m better because of you, Ethiopia. 

 

 

This will be my last post from Ethiopia, and likely my last post on this blog.  The love and support I’ve received from friends, family and strangers is staggering, and I owe the last two years to you.  If adventure calls again, I’ll post a link to my new blog here, but until then, contact me at katherynhoerster@gmail.com.  For as long as I can remember Ethiopia, I will be happy to answer questions and share stories.  Thank you!

The Last Weeks

Hello, friends!  As my weeks in Ethiopia are dwindling, I’ve been wrapping up projects, enjoying time with friends and doing a lot of cleaning, organizing and packing.  Slowly but surely my house is returning to the prison-like cell it was before I made it a home.  Each day another person asks when I’m leaving and each day it sinks in a little more that I’m going home so soon.

Last week Belaynesh threw me a wonderful “well-go” party to celebrate the completion of my time in Atsbi.  We had all of the traditional Ethiopian celebration components – dorowat, alcohol, loud Tigrinia music, dancing and a coffee ceremony.  It warmed my heart to see so many of the friends I’ve made over the last two years all together in one place.  During the party my landlady took it upon herself to formally invite me back to Ethiopia for the baptism of my first child; obviously she thinks it’s time for me to get on with my life!

For such a celebration, I was up early the next morning and off to join the TigrayTrek282 crew.  This awesome group of PCVs ran 282 kilometers (175 miles) across the region in eight days, all in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness and education.  They are so awesome!  I was proud to spend one day running with them and another cheering them on as they completed leg after leg of the grueling run.  They finished the trek on Thursday after having run almost eight marathons in a row and holding the same number of educational sessions for kids and teens all across the region.

I’m back in Atsbi now for a few more days before saying goodbye for good.  While I’m trying to focus on the “here and now” during my remaining time in Ethiopia, it’s difficult to do so with thoughts of Thanksgiving, football and fall weather crowding my head.  I’m very much looking forward to going home, but as each day passes I realize more and more that the Ethiopia portion of my life is one that I’ll miss dearly in the future.

Stay tuned for my final post!

1403643_564195146993437_1735570872_o1400614_564195220326763_99571490_o  1412314_564194950326790_1481368864_o

Birthday Bucket List

Another year of my life has indeed come and gone, and what a year twenty-four has been.  For my twenty-fifth birthday I decided it would be a good idea to finally write an official bucket list, so for the past year I’ve been jotting things down as I think of them.  Recently I narrowed it down to the following eleven.

  • Dive the Great Barrier Reef – Oh, the urgency! It’s going to be gone before my future kids are old enough to scuba dive.  And I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid myself.
  • Take a floral design class – Four years in a row at Texas A&M I tried to register for flower arranging, but all those dang early registration worthy football players got there first.  One year I even called the professor!  It didn’t help.  When my turn finally comes around, my teacher is going to be impressed with my dedication.
  • Go bungee jumping and/or skydiving – When I studied abroad in Europe I signed up to go bungee jumping and then chickened out.  I’ve regretted that decision ever since, and someday I’ll make up for it.
  • Go on a spur of the moment trip – The jet setting lifestyle I lead in Ethiopia once allowed me to walk into the Ethiopian Air office and say “I need to book the next flight to Mekele.”  While that was a bit of a rush, I’m thinking larger scale.  Oh, you don’t have anything to do this week either? Want to go diving in Australia?
  • Explore Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam occupy the top four spots on my “list.” This one is a no brainer.
  • Own a piece of this Earth – I’ve always looked forward to my first Earth purchase.  I can’t imagine that there’s a greater feeling than standing on a piece of land that actually belongs to you.  Until you realize you just signed a thirty-year mortgage.  I guess I’ll just have to get over my fear of debt to mark this one off the list.
  • Visit the Amazon – Like the Barrier reef, the Amazon doesn’t have much longer.  I imagine the beauty to be astounding.  The biodiversity, the wilderness, the only remaining unexplored places on Earth…so cool!
  • Participate in a protest – I want to stand up for something I passionately believe in with others who have similar views.  My sign might read something like “Stop cutting down the Amazon because I haven’t gone there yet!”
  • Live in a city – I’m twenty-five years old and the largest “city” I’ve ever lived in was College Station, with a whopping population of 90,000.  I need to experience how half of the world’s population lives!
  • Celebrate a new year in Tonga –Tonga is the Eastern most landmass, meaning that if you stand on the East side of the island late on December 31st, you could be the first person in the WHOLE WORLD to welcome a new year.  That’s just awesome. I’ll admit, this one is a little far fetched, but believe me when I say it’s going to happen.
  • Ride in a fighter jet – I hate flying, but somehow I know I would love flying if it were in a fighter jet.  Also, Top Gun is my favorite movie.

Yikes, it’s a pretty extensive (and super expensive) to-do list.  I better get started soon.

Unchangeable Ethiopia, Part II

Those of you who keep up with my posts probably understand the love-hate relationship I have with Ethiopia.  Some days I think I’m living it up in a beautiful, sincere, vivacious country; Other days I can’t leave my house for fear of being swallowed up by the God forsaken hellhole that exists outside my door.  Thursday was one of the hellhole days.

There’s no easier way to hate Ethiopia than by traveling by public transport.  Except to travel by public transport the day before a major holiday.  I should have known better.  I should have known that getting back to Atsbi wouldn’t be worth the tears I’d shed.  But I did it anyway.  I made my way to the bus station, where, as fate would have it, I missed getting a spot on a bus by just seconds.  As the minutes passed, the station filled with irritable travelers carrying livestock of all kinds, but no more busses arrived.  I sat in the shade, looking up the mountain for the telltale cloud of dust that would mean the impending arrival of a bus.

So an hour later, when one did finally pull into the station, people were expecting it.  As per the usual approach, dozens of people bum rushed the bus while it was still moving, grabbing onto the door and windows to be drug along until is stopped.  Then before anyone exited the bus, people began pushing, shoving, clawing and fighting their way up the steps in an attempt to gain a coveted seat.  The only way for me to get a seat was to do the same, but I dropped my bag in the mob and was left pinned to the ground as people clambered over me to get on the bus.  It wasn’t until I began screaming and kicking that people gave me room to get off the ground.

By the time I got on the bus, my rage was near blinding.  But then I looked around and I was the only woman on board, despite the fact that at least half of those who were waiting were women.  None of the others had been able to fight their way on. I had already been voicing my harsh opinion of the behavior of Ethiopians, but I decided it was my duty to stand up and address what had just happened.  I asked who spoke English, and several responded, so I asked them to translate.  Voice shaking, I asked, “where are all the women?” Blank stares.  Then snickers.  I explained that I had lived in Ethiopia for two years and that the most common question people ask me is “how do you find the condition of Ethiopia.”

“I find the condition to be crap,” I said, “complete crap.” More snickers.  Finally someone shouted “it’s our culture, our custom.” There it was: The answer to every problem in Ethiopia.  Culture.  Screw culture.  This was just another group of moronic Ethiopians who were too stubborn and lazy to change their awful behavior.  And let me be clear, it’s almost always men who have this attitude. I sat back down in my seat, tears streaming down my face as I listened to the disgusting men talk about what I had just said, laughing with one another and mocking me.

Before I moved to Ethiopia I had never felt disrespected by a man just because I’m a woman.  Here, it happens every single day.  I cried the whole way to Atsbi for the women that are forced to live in a society where they are disrespected and demeaned daily.  Where they are forced to do far more than their share of the work while their husbands drink away the family’s meager income.  Where women actually believe they are inferior to men because that is what they’ve been told their whole lives.

In my last Unchangeable Ethiopia post several Ethiopian women commented, mostly sticking up for a country they love.  So let’s hear it, women of Ethiopia: are you going to stick up for the men of your country?  The hateful, chauvinistic pigs that are running your country into the ground?  The fathers of your daughters? Because I certainly never will.

The Most Beautiful Place in the World

We found it.  I’m certain.  I can’t imagine a more beautiful place exists.

Last week, Bridget and Joe graced Tigray with their presence and to celebrate we climbed Tsibet, the highest mountain in the region. What we found on our accent to the 13,000-foot peak was astounding, secluded, wondrous beauty like no other I’ve experienced.  As Joe pointed out, there’s no parking lot at the bottom of this one.  In fact, as we scrambled higher and higher up the face of the mountain, we began making our own trails.  There are no railings, no signs, no other tourists.

We began our adventure in Maichew, where we ate a big breakfast and then climbed in the van that would take us closer to the base of Tsibet.  As we bumped along, Maichew grew smaller in the rear view mirror and in front of us loomed our destination.  Finally, when the van could advance no more, we hopped out and continued on foot.  As usual, we had a host of Ethiopian hosts accompanying us every step of the way, eager to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it.  Green pastures of wheat, purple and white-dotted fields of potatoes and shadowy forests of evergreens flanked the rocky trails as we made our way over and around smaller peaks in route to the highest.  We hopped over clear streams and gazed down valleys that looked like they came straight from a Bob Ross painting.  Around each turn was a more beautiful, classic African scene, with round mud huts and thatched roofs.

It’s hard to put into words the atmosphere that surrounded us as we walked.  At one point, we passed a small school that was registering students.  A few hours later, several students caught up to us, carrying the pastel registration cards back home to their village.  When school starts in a few weeks, they’ll make the grueling hike each morning and afternoon.  When we passed through the last little group of huts, the women stood in their doorways and pointed us in the right direction.  The final leg of the journey was the most difficult, but as we climbed, the children tending goats skipped around in their rain boots as though the ground was flat.  Just minutes before we reached the top, it began to hail and rain, but it subsided in time to enjoy a view that was only partially obstructed by angry clouds.  For a few minutes we shivered in the cold wind before heading down again.

On our way back down, the women of the highest village were waiting with kitcha, or flatbread, and smiles of encouragement.  On the return journey, we took a different route that seemed even more pristine.  Waterfalls cascaded down from overhangs and the late afternoon sun sparkled through wispy clouds.  Kids laughing and calves bawling replaced the common city sounds of loud speakers and horns.  As the four of us rounded a corner, we met the driver of the van, who had brought bottles of water and news that the car was close.  The final decent was enjoyed with windows wide open and the cool, crisp air rushing in as we relaxed our tired legs.

102_2269

Photo credit: Joe Milbrath

Photo credit: Joe Milbrath

102_2265

Photo credit: Joe Milbrath

Photo credit: Joe Milbrath

Photo Credit: Joe Milbrath

Photo Credit: Joe Milbrath

Ashenda: Celebrating the Women of Tigray

When the beles fruit get mushy and the hills are as green as they get all year, Tigray begins to gear up for Ashenda, a holiday like no other I’ve ever experienced.  I really don’t understand the “why” behind it, but the three-day festival is a time for young, single girls and women to dress up in cultural clothes and roam the streets, accosting men with singing and dancing until they’re paid with pocket change or a few birr.  The beautiful girls, who wear bright blue eye shadow and have their hair twisted in triceratops-like braids that end in a frizzy poof, then move on to the next victim, all the while, pounding drums and hootin’-n-hollerin.’

Ashenda starts off mild.  The tiniest girls shyly recite their songs and then smile when they’re given something.  By day three, the streets are literally full of young women, each one more elaborately adorned than the next.  Loud speakers blast Ashenda songs and the sidewalks are lined with observers.  Groups of the pretty panhandlers team up together and, all in good fun, of course, chase groups of men through the city and even face off in playful bouts of pushing and shoving.

Last year the holiday was canceled due to the death of Prime Minister Zenawi, so I didn’t get to experience the chaos that is Ashenda.  This year I was able to observe the rowdy crowds in the wide streets of Mekele. In accordance with the customs of Halloween, my favorite American holiday, I handed out candy instead of money.  Besides, I’m a single woman and traditionally only men are solicited for their coins.  After seeing a city full of bold, confident women who have given up cooking and cleaning for a few days, I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t promote Ashenda in every country.  Who needs boring International Women’s Day when you have a festive holiday to celebrate the beautiful women of the world??  Count me in.

1173808_10200883048571076_874885937_n 1000338_10200883045851008_1345857088_n 1173899_10200883040970886_1926157524_n 102_2238