Friday, 17 September 2010

Week Five

Thursday 29th July

This is the rainy season, so you have to make the most of good weather. This morning then, I did exactly that. Due to yesterday’s change to afternoon lessons, I had a bit of free time after breakfast and so with the sun shining, I walked up to the top of the hill where the Goha Hotel is found – the most expensive place you can stay at here. The reason I went was for the view. Looking out across the sprawling city, I felt at home and at once in awe of the scenery, the patchworks of corrugated iron roves and the bustling streets. It’s amazing how a place can appear so beautiful from a distant viewpoint and yet contain such stark harshness in reality.

Having descended the hill, I went to the Kindu Trust with the intention of saying goodbye. An hour and a half later, and several computer problems solved, I finally exchanged goodbyes with Fente, Kassahun and Marta – three of the kindest people I’ve ever met, working for one of the finest charities around.

After lunch with Sam and Getu, the teacher at the language school I help at on Mondays, I had my two afternoon classes. Amy and Emily had taught at the same school as me when they were here two years ago, and so knew some of my students. I decided to invite them to my lessons today, which was a great success. I got the class to come up with interview questions for them, and the resulting interrogation was both productive and hilarious. I have a feeling that they were glad to be back, as well.

My penultimate night here in Gondar saw the five of us head back to the brewery for some food and a chance to relax in the beautiful gardens they have there. There may have been some beer involved too. It really does seem scary how soon I’ll be leaving here – although I miss friends and family back in the UK, I will equally miss the friends I’ve made in my time out here.

Friday 30th July

Today is a day for ‘lasts’. My last day in Gondar; my last session at Mother Theresa’s; my last lessons and my last night with the other volunteers. The end has come around so quickly, and even though I’ll be in Addis until Monday, this feels like goodbye.

This morning me and Megan headed down to Mother Theresa’s, armed with stickers and bubbles. The latter were an instant hit with the kids, and they never seemed to tire of chasing after them, as if it were some sort of act of magic. The usual games of ‘duck, duck, fish’ and pretending to be animals, combined with some more relaxed crayon drawing, made for a rewarding, if exhausting, morning. The highlight though was a blind boy who only wanted one thing – to feel our hands tapping on the side of his face. He seemed to like the warmth on his cheek, and so alternated between holding my hand to his face and jumping up and down gleefully. When we tried to leave, he wouldn’t let go of my hand, and it was only when we found a suitable substitute that we managed to break free.

With a lift back into town from a kind guy outside Mother Theresa’s, and then the remaining minibus journey paid for by him, we found ourselves on the receiving end of a real act of kindness, and not for the first time on this trip. He asked for nothing in return, and we never managed to find out his name.

After lunch, I had my final two classes, and like the last lesson before Christmas, I decided that we should do something fun. Chinese whispers and charades went down reasonably well, but it was the second half of each lesson that I’ll never forget. Firstly, I got them to show off some traditional Ethiopian dancing, and attempted some myself (with little success, still). Accompanied by traditional music, one guy even sang for us, and everyone seemed to love it. In exchange for their Ethiopian performances, it was my turn to do something. Having borrowed Sam’s guitar, I played them some songs, and taught them the opening lines of Wonderwall. Having a whole class of Ethiopian students singing Oasis back to me is an experience I’ll always remember.

Once the lesson was wrapped up, a few students told me to wait, until they emerged with presents for me: a poster of a coffee ceremony; an Arsenal poster (we shared allegiances); an Ethiopian flag and scarf; and a CD of traditional music. It was overwhelming that these guys had gone so out of their way to show their appreciation. I gave them some football magazines in return, but that seems to pale in comparison. Anyway, I feel I’ve made some friends I’ll be in touch with for a long time to come.

Having had my last cold shower (I hope!), we went out for our last night as a group, accompanied by Amy, Emily and Mulugeta. After dinner we thought we would go back to a traditional bar, to see if we’d made any progress with the shoulder dancing. Evidently, we had not. It was the perfect way to spend my last evening though, and we rounded it off with a drink at a more contemporary bar. Sipping on St George beer made me think of home, and the weekend that separates me from it. I’m perhaps a little sceptical about whether I’ll enjoy Addis Ababa, but on other things I’m more certain: I am sad to be leaving Gondar.

Saturday 31st July

Over the last month I’ve grown accustomed to the Ethiopian culture, people and way of life – or at least I thought I had. Addis Ababa is not the Ethiopia I know. Not that that’s a bad thing though, in fact, it’s much like any big city I’m familiar with. Traffic jams, fast food, cinemas and building work. A lot of building work. It has the feel of a construction site, hardly surprising when you consider that it’s one of Africa’s fastest growing cities. All in all, it’s ugly, but full of fun.

Tonight I met up with Tesfa (Belayneh’s son) who happens to be staying here for a couple of weeks. He took me to the cinema, where we watched ‘Salt’ – some dodgy Angelina Jolie movie. Although the film was average, it was a great evening, and fantastic to have someone to show me around – I’d been nervous when I got here, and needed all my courage to go for a walk alone this afternoon. Tesfa, a biologist by training, even revealed to me that he wants to be a film directore, and has five movies planned out already. All in all, he’s an incredibly genuine guy, and we’ve already arranged to meet up tomorrow.

This morning I met up with the other volunteers for breakfast before I left for my flight, and said goodbye to Megan and Courtney. While I may see Megan again at university in October, it was still weird parting with two people I’ve spent so much time with over the last month. I’ll see Sam and Sheree when they come to Addis tomorrow, but I’m sure it will be the same case for them.

After a bumpy flight down, I successfully haggled for a taxi to get me to my hotel. On arrival, I discovered that it wasn’t only Addis that lacks in the looks department – the hotel corridors have a prison-like feel to them. What it lacks in character though, it makes up for in utility. Comfortable beds, real towels (my travel towel has gone through a lot this month) and a steaming hot shower round off a room that feels pretty luxurious, by Ethiopian standards. As I write though, I have just seen a cockroach out of the corner of my eye, but that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

On the whole then, it’s a different world here in the capital: kids wear fashionable clothes, swish cars drive down the (muddy) streets, and wealth – or at least, relative wealth – seems to be all around, to contrast with the same desperate poverty that is all too familiar. Even the ‘farenji frenzy’ we get in Gondar, where complete strangers call out to you across the street countless times a day, doesn’t exist here – nobody bats an eyelid at where you’re from or the colour of your skin. It’s a multicultural city, and one I’m looking forward to exploring in more depth tomorrow.

Sunday 1st August

This morning was an early start, and I’m glad I made the effort to wake up, because it was well worth it. After a hearty breakfast, me and Tesfa headed to St George’s Cathedral, as the sun shone on Addis. The Cathedral is perhaps the Ethiopian equivalent of Westminster Abbey – the place where Emperors used to be crowned. We arrived just as a marriage ceremony was beginning to swing into action, with dancing and singing adding to the warm morning sunshine. We started in the museum, which was all very interesting, but it was the Cathedral itself that was the star of the show. Although it was closed to the public today, a small tip to our guide earned us a private tour of the majestic, and empty, building. Inside, we saw stunning paintings covering the walls, and colourful mosaics by Ethiopia’s most famous artists (famous is a relative term). Some of the paintings celebrated Ethiopia’s freedom from Italian rule, with some thought-provoking reminders of the failures of Allied governments in the 1930s.

We then returned to the hotel to meet Sam and Sheree, who flew from Gondar this morning. While the two of them went for some last-minute souvenir shopping, I went to Tesfa’s cousin’s place for lunch. There I met a 17-year-old who counted Led Zeppelin and The Beatles as two of his favourite bands, and a whole host of other bands that has restored my confidence in the Ethiopians’ music taste after several weeks of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. After one of the best (and longest) traditional meals I’ve had, we re-joined Sam and Sheree for coffee, before saying goodbye to Sheree as she left to start her journey back to Sydney.

Sam and I went for a walk around town, taking advantage of my first day in Ethiopia where it hasn’t rained (maybe the rainy season stops as soon as we hit August?). We headed to some parks that had been built in 2006, only to find them closed, for no apparent reason. They looked nice from the outside. We then walked up past the Prime Minister’s compound, a huge estate that resembled a North American forest – whereas in the roads alongside were to be found run-down streets and beggars, just one of the many contrasts in this city. We continued to a grand mausoleum in a tucked-away green area that holds the bodies of past Emperors. Despite it being a beautiful building, we were far more interested in the giant tortoises wallowing in the gardens.

We found a restaurant called ‘The Cottage’ which was supposedly English-themed, and had one of the best meals of the trip there – if there’s one thing Addis has in abundance it is places to eat good food. It was also Sam’s last meal, and once the bill was paid he jumped into a taxi for the airport. As I write, he is on his way back to Manchester. In some ways it’s odd to think that in twenty-four hours I’ll be leaving too, maybe because being here already feels like being in a different country to the one I was in when I was in Gondar.

Monday 2nd August

And so this is it; my last day in Ethiopia. I’m currently sitting in the departure lounge of Addis Ababa airport, reflecting on the day and the trip. I’ll wait until I’ve fully reflected on the month before I write about it, so for now, I’ll run through the day.

When I left Gondar, I was sceptical about Addis, and half of me wanted to miss it out altogether and carry straight on to London. When I arrived even, I was reluctant to leave my hotel initially. But I was wrong to be sceptical. After a really good Saturday and Sunday here, Monday was just as interesting. Tesfa was busy this morning, so I headed out alone to walk up to the part of town where the museums are. On the way I passed the Sheraton Hotel, where a suite could set you back $12,000 a night. In front of the grand building, I saw a patch of grass where a barefoot shepherd was looking after his goats. The contrast was surreal, especially bearing in mind that on the other side of the road was the luxurious compound belonging to the Prime Minister.

I also passed a large group of people huddled around a noticeboard, or rifling through newspapers. I caught sight of the word ‘vacancies’ on the pages – highlighting another problem: everyone in Ethiopia wants to be in Addis, but there just aren’t enough jobs here for all of them.

I started at the National Museum, which was full of a lot of old stuff. Aside from some nice paintings, there was only really one exhibit worth the 50 pence entrance fee. Fossilised human bones from human species, dating from a couple of hundred thousand years ago to nearly ten million years ago (just the teeth, in that one though). There was also ‘Lucy’, the oldest skeleton ever found, from over three million years ago, and like all the other bones, discovered in Ethiopia. After lunch I went to the Addis Ababa University for the Ethnological Museum; all about the history of the Ethiopian peoples. It guided me through countless customs and traditions, with some fascinating exhibits on the way. Half way through was a collection of photographs of items, rather than the actual items themselves. Intrigued, I read the inscriptions below, and each one said: “Looted by the British Army and now housed in the V&A Museum/British Museum in London.” I felt so proud. I also found an exhibition of traditional musical instruments there, before I wandered into a bedroom. Apparently the University was previously Emperor Haileselassie’s Palace, and his quarters have been preserved perfectly, even down to the bullet hole in his mirror as a result of a failed Coup d’État.

I then braved the Addis minibus system alone, and perhaps through a bit of luck, I got back to my hotel. After some last minute souvenir shopping, I met up with Tesfa for coffee. On the way, we were confronted by a street child asking for us to buy him some food. Tesfa spotted a bottle of solvents in the child’s hand, however, and it was clear he had been sniffing it habitually. We agreed to get him something, but only if he threw the solvents over a fence, which he did. Hopefully he won’t need the solvents again, but I guess you can never know.

My ‘last supper; wasn’t quite how I had imagined it would be. I went with Tesfa to meet some of his old friends from university, and we went to a burger bar that put me firmly back in the Western world. It was delicious though, and his friends were great fun, so I didn’t mind at all. And so after a celebratory coffee back at Tesfa’s mother’s house, I got in a taxi and now here I am at the airport. And after all that I’ve just written, I still haven’t been served in this café. 'This is Africa.'

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Week Four

Thursday 22nd July

There’s a first time for everything. Tonight it was hitch-hiking. After an evening at the brewery, me and Sam were faced with a walk of a couple of hours back home, and the prospect of leaving at 6am for our flight to Lalibela. The idea to stick our thumbs out, perhaps a little foolish, was unsuccessful with the first car that drove past. A few minutes later though, on the second attempt, a Land Rover stopped and reversed back to where we were. Despite the fact it was pretty much full before we got in, it delivered us back to the town centre. They even refused to accept any money we offered them, on the basis that we were volunteers and one of the guys had done some work for Link Ethiopia in the past. It renewed our faith in the Ethiopians and was an act of generosity that is certainly very rare back in the UK.

The evening at the brewery had been good fun as well – cheap beer, good food and excellent company. Sefanit, my co-teacher, leaves for Addis this weekend so it was our last night together as a group of six. It’s certainly a night I’ll remember for a long time, and for the right reasons – the gardens of the brewery are beautiful, peaceful and relaxing in contrast to the bustle of the centre of town.

The rest of the day warranted a good night, because it was hard work. Our first class were slow to get going, lacking enthusiasm initially. Perhaps the wet weather was to blame, but they picked up eventually. Fortunately however, the second class were brilliant, and Sefanit got the send-off she deserved.

Another afternoon at the Kindu Trust was once again rewarding. Although it was difficult, being on accounting duties again, it was very satisfying – the work they do is so valuable, and the donations of their sponsors so generous, it’s easy to see just how much of a difference they can make to the lives of vulnerable children. And it’s still so easy to have a kick-about with the kids outside on the street –Sam and I are becoming regular players down there.

Friday 23rd July - Lalibela

We only arrived in Lalibela this afternoon, but it’s fast become clear what a strange place this is. It’s remote: our flight was only 25 minutes from Gondar, but it would have been a day and a half’s drive by road (if ‘road’ is the right term). It’s small: with a population an eighth the size of Gondar, it is very different, and very backward. The place is full of contrasts: even more so than Gondar, because this is a tourist destination of sorts, so there are top hotels (by Ethiopian standards) scattered between mud houses, and the same desperate poverty we’ve seen in every place we’ve been too. But most of all, it’s magnificent: Sam and I wandered around some of the Churches this afternoon and they can only be described as awe-inspiring. Each one has been dug out of the rock, going vertically down through tough volcanic layers. They say Western scholars are confused by how a 12th Century civilisation managed it all, and I can see why.

Because Friday is a fasting day in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, we didn’t get inside many of the Churches, but the ones we did see are almost as intriguing on the inside as they are outside. And to reach some it is necessary to navigate dark, underground tunnels – we went without a guide, so that was an adventure in itself.

Our room is small, and not particularly well-lit, but it’s clean, and has hot water, so we aren’t complaining! And the hotel we went to for dinner served up one of the best meals we have eaten out here – we could get used to this place. We even met up with Mario, an engineer working for Link Ethiopia here on a project. He’s lived here for several months, so he was able to give us plenty of helpful tips, and told us some things we didn’t know. He told us more about the huge building projects the Chinese are running all over Ethiopia, using Chinese prisoners for labour, and all for a ridiculously low price. Their motive? It’s anyone’s guess, but some think that they’re hoping to make the most of Africa’s natural resources; some think it’s a political tie-up, but who knows?

Tomorrow we’ll have the chance to properly explore the twelve rock-hewn Churches, including the most famous – Bet Gyorgis (dedicated to St George, patron saint of Ethiopia!) – and see how lost we can get in the tunnels.

Saturday 24th July – Lalibela

With only one full day to properly investigate the astounding Churches of Lalibela, it was important to start the day right. So, following a recommendation from Mario, we went to a tiny little restaurant (that looked more like a living room) for breakfast. Despite our initial reservations, we were served up hot honey pancakes and freshly made coffee before heading off on our way.

The day continued to get better when we began with Bet Gyorgis, the most famous rock-hewn Church. It’s easy to see why it’s so famous: the huge cross-shaped Church is beautiful and at the same time impossible to comprehend. How people 800 years ago carved the Church out of the rock with such perfection is beyond me. And to add to the awe, even the interior remains part of the same piece of rock – the churches were built by sculptors, not builders.

Over the following hours, we looked around the other churches, half before lunch and half after. Without a guide, we relied on our guidebook, priests and a bit of luck to find our way around the complex maze of trenches and pitch-black underground tunnels. Somehow though, we managed to find all the Churches, and each one was spectacular in its own way. Once inside, the priests were very obliging to tell us about their Church, and we much preferred giving a small tip at each Church in return, rather than shelling out for a guide. Remarkably, there were hardly any tourists around other than us, and we even avoided too much hassle from locals by pretending to be French, Spanish or Polish at various times. It worked, until we forgot which nationality we were to various people, confusing them as well as us!

Wandering around the small town after our sight-seeing, we were reminded of the poverty that exists side-by-side with the majesty of the town’s attractions. It is hard to understand how a place with such good natural resources (like Gondar, it is incredibly green) and a ready-made tourist draw can still be so backward. Even the shops aimed at tourists – with one enthusiastically called ‘Obama Souvenirs’ – were either empty or closed. It is the low season, but you wonder when the tourism boom will hit.

After a traditional dinner, me and Sam acted on a recommendation in the guidebook, and headed down to a local ‘tej house’. The ‘torpedo tej’ they serve (a honey-wine, like mead) comes in varying strengths and in a curious flask that looks like it’s been stolen from a chemistry lesson. Nevertheless, it is delicious, even if a little potent, so we made an effort to drink in the culture. But it was who we met there that made the night – a guy called Habtamu who manages hotels, and his father. Habtamu entertained us with the most open-minded discussion about politics, religion and society that we’ve heard from any Ethiopian – unfortunately most avoid talking about such things, perhaps out of fear of the ‘elected’ government, or perhaps from ignorance, so it was refreshing to hear an Ethiopian note his disbelief that the ruling party could attain 98.7% of the vote in this May’s elections. His Father was just as entertaining, a man who used to live in Kingston upon Thames in the 1950s. He came up with quotations such as “East or West, Scotch is Best,” “The World is One” and “They didn’t know white people could also be devils.” Tej-induced words of wisdom entertained us all night, and at the end Habtamu offered to show me around Addis, where he lives, when I go next weekend. All in all then, a fantastic day.

Sunday 25th July

There was no way we weren’t going for pancakes again, after yesterday’s delicious serving. The coffee was definitely necessary as well, given the late finish the night before. That would be our last moment in Lalibela though, as we got a taxi to the airport for our flight back home (if we can call Gondar home now). Despite the fact that Lalibela airport handles no more than three flights a day, it was still delayed, but when we got going there were some incredible views from the plane across the 2500m+ hills.

On arriving back at our room, we found that Megan, Sheree and Courtney had made a welcome-back poster, complete with drawings of us and a heartfelt message that may just have had a note of seriousness in it. Maybe two days is a longer time than we thought. In some ways though, they were genuinely glad we were back: Sheree had had a bad experience with a guy and a bajaj, while the others had continued to receive letters or marriage proposals. Megan however, hasn’t been proposed to for at least a week now, so Sam and I are debating who should fill the current lack of sleaze heading her way.

Using the afternoon as a time to relax, Sam and I walked down to the markets, but most of them were closed because it was a Sunday. In true British spirit, we decided to have a beer instead, having chilled out in our room before dinner. Now we’re all back together (minus Sefanit, who’s now on her way back to California), we’re looking forward to our final week as a group, for now at least.

Monday 26th July

Back to school. Monday was once again full to the brim with lessons, and pretty non-stop, but fulfilling because of it. Despite a drizzly and dark morning, the first two classes picked up after inevitably slow starts. The better weather in the afternoon, combined with the reassuring enthusiasm of the post-lunch class, added some substance to our theories that the students only work well when the sun shines.

In between the two shifts, I went for lunch at the house of one of my students, Berhanu. Along with Getamsa and Amanuel, also students of mine, and the whole of Berhanu’s family, they laid on injera with shiro (chickpea sauce), tibs (meat stew), cabbage, Ethiopian pizza (not really pizza in any way) and popcorn, of course. Rounded off with coffee, I waddled back to class having heard all about the dying Ethiopian tradition of arranged marriages. None of them were too upset to see the tradition fade away, if I’m honest.

After a short trip to the markets for presents and some mighty fine haggling, I wandered up to my teaching venue for the evening, Getu’s language school. Despite the standard of the teacher’s English being a little suspect (‘unforgettable’ became ‘nonforgettable’, and ‘never’ became ‘niver’), it was good fun, and an experience teaching such a large group. While it’s great that kids have the opportunity to learn all through their summer vacation, an important point has to be raised about the teaching. Judging by the standard of English of the two Ethiopian teachers I’ve taught with, and the incorrect English sometimes common to all students (‘before one year’ instead of ‘one year ago’, etc.) points to the need for more native English speakers in the education system here. I remember as well how difficult it was initially to understand the accent they speak English with. But it’s hardly surprising when you realise that these students have been taught by Ethiopian teachers with flawed English, who themselves have been taught by Ethiopian teachers with flawed English: in such a system, mistakes will accumulate and be learnt as true English. The result is a form of English that although understandable, is very different to what you would hear in the UK, USA, Australia or even from most Europeans speaking English as a second language. It gets them through their exams, but whether it gets them anywhere in the world remains to be seen.

Tuesday 27th July

It is amazing how quickly the end has come around: today I reconfirmed my flight to Addis, and we planned out the last few days we’ll spend together as a group. It’s made me realised that I really wish I was staying for longer, too. The town does have a homely feel about it now – whether from the feeling of safety we have, or from how we’ve grown to be regulars at various cafés, or the suspicious way most people seem to know who you are, even if you’ve never met them before (but I guess I stand out a bit).

That aside, today was another day, with lessons this morning and a session at the Kindu Trust this afternoon. The lessons could not have gone better. My first group are my most difficult; sometimes lacking enthusiasm, sometimes lacking in understanding. But today they excelled: the activities we did were difficult and challenging, but they really surprised me and perhaps themselves too. It meant we were in the wonderful position of having seen noticeable progress in the space of just one lesson, and even more when put in the perspective of where they were at the start of the course. The second group were excellent as well, true to form, and so I was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

At Kindu, I visited a young girl called Tesfalem. She’s an orphan – her parents died from AIDS – and she is HIV positive herself. In the care of a foster family, she has no living relatives. Unfortunately, both of her foster are also HIV positive, and the mud-house they live in merely contributed to a family life in dire need of the generous support they are receiving from the Kindu Trust and their sponsor. I took the opportunity to give them a hand-knitted blanket from Paula Walker and friends, which they were very appreciative of: when her parents are out working, Tesfalem cares for younger children in the family, and makes them tea. It might be my last home visit with Kindu, but it still feels strange when they are so appreciative and happy to see you: the sponsors are the people who really deserve medals, and in a sense I’m just lucky enough to be able to see the consequences of their generous aid.

As we pondered our stays over dinner, myself and Sheree both agreed that we would love to be here for longer. Courtney is lucky enough to be here for seven more weeks, and is finally starting the bulk of her project work with the Sister Cities Foundation. We’ve all thought about coming back too, and I guess one day I will.

Wednesday 28th July

‘This is Africa’. That was the excuse I heard several times during a frustrating morning. When I arrived at my classroom as usual, in order to teach my normal 9am class, I was surprised to find a lesson already going on. Perturbed, confused and irritated, I went to see the school director. It’s worth explaining that the students I teach do not come from the same school as the one where our classroom is – their school is too far away in the rainy season. Anyway, the director said that there were no classrooms available as of today, due to a new set of English classes being run by students from the local university. Rather rudely, he told us to find another school, as 30 of my students waited outside in the rain.

With the help of Belayneh and several phone calls, we established that there was no other classroom in the area available (this is their summer holidays!), but that we could use our normal classroom in the afternoons. That means squeezing three 90 minute classes into two hour-long classes, which isn’t ideal, but it’s only for two more days.

While my first class was too big to do anything with, my second class is smaller. So when they arrived on time, with no classroom for them to go into, we decided to innovate. For today then, my bedroom became a classroom. With students sat on the floor and books perched on the bed, we did as much as we could. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than nothing – and we had a good laugh about it too. Like they told me, ‘This is Africa’.

With a bumped-sized afternoon class, I was nervous about what to do. But with an activity involving students coming up with their own adverts, we had a great time. There were some particularly hilarious ones, and some downright silly ones too, but the English was good so I can’t complain!

After school I went to have coffee at one of my student’s houses – Miru. Aside from the fleas, I was kept company by Amy and Emily, two girls from Bristol who had been Link Ethiopia volunteers two years previously. They are on the last leg of a journey from Namibia to Ethiopia which has taken them five months so far. As we shared stories, it seems as though Gondar isn’t much different now to what it was then, in both good and bad ways. Funnily enough, Amy is going to university in Wycombe next year, and has family down the road from me, in Gerrards Cross. Small world.

And it was again time to attempt cooking at home, as we all went round to Megan’s and huddled into the tiny kitchen there. Pasta with tomato sauce, bananas, cake and biscuits, and a bottle of Ethiopian red wine gave us one of the tastiest, and cheapest (if it’s possible for food to get cheaper!) meals we’ve had out here. After the frustration of the morning, the rest of the day just fitted into place perfectly.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Week Three

Thursday 15th July

I knew the Ethiopian wildlife would eventually get the better of me. Not the Simien leopards though, nor the stray street animals. It wasn’t the rats, or even the mosquitoes. Fleas. I woke up covered in tiny, but irritating bites, and it seems as though the bed is their hiding place. Taking no chances, I’ve covered every fabric in the room, and all my clothes, in super-strength flea spray. Tomorrow we’ll see if I’m successful, but for now the war continues.

This morning’s lessons were some of my favourite so far – attendance is still high, despite competition from a badly timed set of summer classes at another local school. Maybe the mint sweets we gave out today were the clinchers. In any case, we’ll be doing extra classes on Monday and Wednesday afternoons from now on, so that everyone who wants to come along is able to.

After lunch at Sefanit’s grandmother’s house, with some of the most succulent lamb I’ve ever tasted, I was back at the Kindu Trust for the afternoon. Today, having written up a couple of reports, we went on a visit to the home of Birtukan, a 10-year-old girl, orphaned by AIDS, who is cared for by her aunt and sister. They’d just received a gift of enough money to install a pit latrine behind their house. It sounds basic, and it is, but it’s a huge step forward for them in terms of health and hygiene.

Meanwhile, the fact we’ve had no running water for two days now seems a paltry complaint. If our enforced drought (it rained all day yesterday!) lasts any longer though, I’ll stop dreaming about hot showers, and start dreaming of just any shower!

Friday 16th July

Today I went solo. Just for the lessons, though, because Sefanit was going to Bahir Dar to visit some cousins. Having got them to give a speech about a difficulty they’ve overcome, it was soon evident that even being in school was a success for a lot of them. A host of stories about families who wanted to marry their children off, or wanted them to stay and work, make you wonder how many other potential students weren’t so lucky.

It was an odd, yet ultimately productive day. Even breakfast was strange. Me and Courtney happened to meet Steve, a British ex-forces guy, who works as a military trainer in the UAE, while having our daily coffee and bombolino (a doughnut-type bread they do for breakfast here). Having been here a monumental two weeks, we were able to answer questions he had on accommodation and how to find someone to arrange a trip to the mountains for him. He’s not the sort of guy you’d mess with though – he told us a story about how he got mugged in Durban, South Africa, only to mug the attackers back to retrieve his camera. I assume it wasn’t a disposable camera.

This afternoon I headed to Mother Theresa, having eventually negotiated the Gondar minibus system (the driver shouts out the destination and everyone just crams in!). Within minutes my preconceptions of these kids had been shattered. Yes, some of them are seriously disadvantaged, but at the end of the day they are still children. They still live playing ‘duck-duck-goose’, climbing all over the slide and drawing pictures (even if my arms became the canvas once they ran out of paper). I thoroughly enjoyed being there, and since my only job was to play games with them, the fact that they appeared to be having as much fun as I was means it was an afternoon that couldn’t have been better spent anywhere else.

Back at home we were still without running water for the third day. Out of growing impatience, and a growing desire for cleanliness (perhaps on the part of others, as well as us), both me and Sam went to Courtney’s to use her shower. We didn’t even care that it was cold, at least it was wet.

And it was at Courtney’s that we all ended up. A couple of beers and ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ on her laptop meant that all five of us had a good evening, despite the small bereavement suffered earlier that day: Courtney had found and nursed an abandoned just-born puppy earlier in the week, which had unfortunately failed to make it, having refused all sorts of milk. In a town with such deep problems of its own, it’s easy to see how concerns for the welfare or animals pale in comparison to everything else.

Saturday 17th July

Perhaps it’s time to comment on the Ethiopian people, since I feel I’ve now been here long enough to grow accustomed, in a small way, to what they’re like. In general, they are an incredibly friendly, considerate and welcoming people. Many of them seem to understand that the presence of foreigners here can only be a good thing – whether it is through benevolent work or through tourism that boosts the economy. As such, we’ve found them to be helpful and obliging. It is true that for some our visit is a novelty, and that every day we hear shouts of ‘Hello!’, ‘You!’ or ‘Farenji!’, but these are never malicious, and always accompanied by a smile. But with every rule there exists exceptions.

Unfortunately there is a significant minority of those who see foreigners as a way of simply making a lot of money. We’ve been here long enough to know the price of things, but still find that bajaj (three-wheeled taxis) drivers try to charge us twenty times the standard fare, some cafés give out higher-priced menus to you, and bars will attempt to raise the price of a beer to more than the equivalent of dinner at a local hotel. Tonight we went out, and it seemed that wherever we went there was someone trying to rip us off. Of course, it’s not the price that’s the problem, but why should someone pay vastly more for an identical product simply because of the colour of their skin? I do wonder if holding such principles is worth it, and perhaps we shouldn’t complain because we can afford. But in a town that desperately needs a boost of tourism in order to develop, it’s worrying that volunteer teachers are being targeted, let alone potential tourists.

Speaking of tourism though, me and Sam walked up the hill to a beautiful Church this morning, which had 18th Century paintings adorning all the walls and ceiling inside. It was peaceful, and yet simultaneously majestic – with the bonus of some wonderfully colourful birds in the garden.

Having survived the lunchtime downpour, we relaxed in the local brewery’s beer house before dinner, and our not-so-successful night out. We still managed to enjoy some traditional dancing though, much to the amusement of the locals.

Sunday 18th July

I could be mistaken for thinking we’re back in the Simiens, the distance we walked today. It was decent weather, so we decided to make the most of it. Me and Sam headed off though the backstreets to the valley this morning, to be greeted by a stunning view. After playing with paper aeroplanes with some kids, and a quick kick-about with some older lads, we headed back into town to meet the others. There, we met up with Megan, Sheree, Courtney and new friend Steve, before going walking in a different direction after lunch. We ended up in farming country, but the views were magnificent and we made some friends on the way. One guy, Tewodros, has invited us to his place tomorrow for a coffee ceremony. And as he’s an Arsenal fan, I might go along.

Continuing to feast our eyes, we stopped for a drink at the hotel atop the hill, looking out over the reservoir. It was interesting to hear more about Steve, who increasingly sounds like a man you want to be on the right side of. He flies on to Addis tomorrow, so we had dinner to cap the weekend off. One great thing about being here is the solidarity between all the volunteers and travellers, ensuring there’s always good company.

Having returned home, it soon became clear that despite the fact we have running water for the first time since Tuesday, another issue is yet to be resolved. A new attack by our resident fleas means a prolonged offensive with the insect spray will have to begin in the morning – no bug will be spared.

Monday 19th July

Today was a teaching marathon. Aside from the usual morning of classes, we did an extra class this afternoon, and I then went to teach at a language school this evening. It was tiring, but enjoyable, some highlights including an 18-year-old male student imitating Shakira’s dance in her latest song. A good day’s work, but there was still room for some fun.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was invited to coffee at Tewodros’ house, so I went along for a ceremony this evening. It’s a great tradition, with the beans roasted as the family sit around, and I helped out by grinding the beans down myself. And to top it off, when it was served the coffee was deliciously smooth. The Ethiopians claim to have been the first to drink coffee, whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it certainly tastes like they have been perfecting it for a very long time. In the ceremony, it’s customary to drink three cups of varying strength: each cup has its own name and special significance (as well as heaps of sugar). The only significance of the three cups to me is that I won’t sleep tonight for all the caffeine searing through me!

Tuesday 20th July

It’s nice when plans come together. Ever since planning this trip, I’d wanted to go to Lalibela, the home of a dozen incredible rock-hewn churches and a deeply spiritual place. But the price of flights had threatened to curtail that ambition. Like I’ve mentioned before, many places charge more to foreigners, and it seems even the national airline imposes this ‘skin tax’, as it is known. Unfortunately I don’t look like a local, but some gentle persuasion and proof that I was a volunteer helped me secure the local rates for my flights – a quarter of the foreigners’ fare. I fly out on Friday, coming back on Sunday night.

What this morning’s lesson lack in creativity – the story of the Mary Rose was met with some blank faces – it made up for in progress. The students are becoming less shy every day, and so tomorrow we’re going to try something a bit different. Whether it works or not remains to be seen though.

My afternoon with the Kindu Trust was rewarding as well, today I was helping with the accounts, cutting a day’s work down to just a couple of hours for Marta, who is still grasping how to use computers.

This evening was brilliant for two reasons. Firstly, I came home for a shower and nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt warm water coming out, instead of the icy water I had been braced for. After quietly celebrating, I thoroughly enjoyed the best shower I’ve ever had – three weeks of cold ones making sure of that. And instead of going out for dinner, the six of us decided to do it ourselves. On a little charcoal stove, we cooked up a tasty Spanish Omelette, followed by a crazy concoction of bananas, honey, biscuits and a doughnut. It sounds strange, but it was so much more satisfying than anything we could have got from a restaurant. And it’s always fun to act like you’re in scouts again, isn’t it?

Wednesday 21st July

Patience is a virtue, but moreso here than anywhere else. Whether it be overcharging waitresses or bureaucratic airlines, today patience was required in bucketloads. Hoping to join me on my trip to Lalibela, Sam and Sheree went to book their flights. Yet the same letter I had yesterday informing them I was a volunteer didn’t work today, so the airline continued to ask them four time the price. Even when they cited me as an example, they were told that there was no passenger with my name booked on the flight. Of course, this concerned me greatly, and after an hour of phone calls I discovered that even though I booked yesterday, my reservation had been automatically cancelled. Eventually re-instated, it looks like I’m back on the flight, but Sam and Sheree will have to try again tomorrow.

Fortunately though, the rest of the day could not have been better. In this morning and this afternoon’s lessons, we tried something new. Each class came up with several programmes for a TV channel, with various groups producing, between them, interviews, documentaries, sports shows and soap operas with incredible enthusiasm and hilarity.

And of all the places I thought I would end up in while I was here, I never thought a photo studio would be one of them. But since Sefanit is leaving on Saturday, she wanted some pictures of all of us. Cue ridiculous poses, cheesy grins and a rather questionable human pyramid. I can only hope that the photos never make it into wider circulation.

No evening would be complete without a badly-lit Ethiopian restaurant with one dish on the menu, though. Fortunately, it was pizza, and even if it was nothing like pizza we know (think cabbage instead of cheese, carrot instead of meat) it was a treat nonetheless. A quick stop at a cake shop on the way home did no damage either.

Week Two

Thursday 8th July

Things are really into full swing now. Our two lessons this morning, the first in our new permanent classroom – apparently we were too noisy, despite being the only people in the school during the holidays! – went really well. This afternoon was also my first at the Kindu Trust. Today I helped with some of the accounts, a task that sounds boring, but takes on a new meaning when matching sponsor donations to the names of the children due to receive them. I even ended up helping the staff with how to use a database; who would have thought that GCSE IT would come in handy out here?

In the evening we had dinner with a salsa teacher who we later found out was a judge on Ethiopian Idol (it really does exist, we watched it in a café the other day!). Maybe this is our chance for a big break.

Tomorrow we head up to the Simien Mountains for 3 days, trekking through the famous landscape and sampling some incredible wildlife. We leave at dawn, and start with a three hour trip in a 4x4 to the Northern Highland town of Debark. I can’t wait.

Friday 9th July to Sunday 11th July (Simien Mountains)

At dawn then, me, Courtney, Megan and Sheree got into a 4x4 and headed for the road that takes us North. I had expected at least tarmac on the road, but the car was fortunately more than up the challenge of muddy, rocky and sometimes flooded roads on the 100km journey.

Three hours later in Debark we entered the National Park. In the office was a stuffed leopard, an animal we hadn’t realised could be found here. Our fears were confirmed when we were allocated a scout with an AK47 for our protection. He jumped into the back of the car with a cook and several other people who we neither knew who they were nor how they managed to fit into the 4x4.

The moment we got away from the town, and into the foothills, we saw our first animals. The Gelada Baboons, found only in Ethiopia, are beautiful creatures, with fiery red skin on their chests (like the ones in The Lion King), giving them the nickname ‘bleeding heart baboons’. We couldn’t get very close, but it was a sight nonetheless.

We trekked 14km on the first day, with a couple of amazing views across the volcanic landscape, but unfortunately most were obscured by low clouds. The spectacular scenery did, however, give us some walks along sheer cliff edges with unimaginably deep drops.

In the evening our cook prepared us food that was probably better than anything we had eaten back in Gondar, and we made friends with a couple of Israeli girls, a few Germans and a Chinese man. Huddled around a multicultural campfire sheltering from the cold and wet weather, various classics such as ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ were given outstanding renditions. There was even some rap on show, but the less said about that the better.

Greeted by bread and nutella for breakfast (well not quite nutella, but it tasted like it) on our second day of trekking, we prepared ourselves for a 17km walk up to a peak. All morning we trudged uphill in dire weather until we reached the top at 4070m, but again the low cloud thwarted our chances of seeing the supposedly magnificent view. We settled for munching on fresh mangoes at what felt like the top of the world, staring into the misty abyss below.

A little disheartened having not seen a lot of animals or many views during the day, we arrived at our new camp. No sooner had we sat down to some coffee with the Israelis (as you do) than I saw a magnificent Walia Ibex on the hill a couple of hundred yards away. Armed with cameras, we snuck over to find a couple of the majestic beasts with enormous antlers grazing behind our campsite. We later discovered a herd of nine or ten of the critically endangered animals munching on the trees behind our tents.

As if that wasn’t enough, when the Ibex moved out, the baboons moved in. A whole group of about 50 came and picked at the grass right next to us. They seemed happy for us to be amongst them, and didn’t seem perturbed by me taking dozens of pictures of them as they walked all around me. They’re very human-like, even down to the noises they make – little mumblings almost. The clouds even lifted for us just long enough to see the spectacular views down the valleys, rounding off an amazing couple of hours.

Sunday began with more low clouds, but the hot breakfast more than made up for that and the chilly night spent in our tents. The plan was to go for a morning hike up to a viewpoint, so we headed off, this time with Patrick, a German guy about my age, coming with us so he could hitch a lift back to Gondar with us. When we had arrived in Debark on Friday we had been puzzled as to why so many locals carried umbrellas, when some didn’t even have shoes. Today we found out: having got to the viewpoint, unfortunately without the view, the journey back saw the heavens open. Soaked to the skin, the return journey would best be described as squelchy. We were relieved to be back and to have dry clothes again, but it had been an incredible weekend, in spectacular surroundings, with great company from humans and animals alike.

We rounded the day off, back in Gondar, watching the World Cup Final on a big screen by the castle with the locals. It’s a shame the game wasn’t more exciting, but the place went mad when Spain scored. I wonder what it would have been like had it been Ghana scoring in the final.

Monday 12th July

The start of my second week of teaching was also the beginning of a couple of other things. Firstly, the first time that I finally had a full weekly programme, encompassing teaching each morning and a couple of afternoons, and other volunteer work the rest of the time. And secondly, the moment when reality really hit home.

It was at the Mother Theresa project, where I’ll be working on Friday afternoons from now on. I went this afternoon to introduce myself and offer my help for a couple of hours a week, and I realise now it may be the most worthwhile thing I do here.

The project is essentially a shelter for children who have nowhere else to go: mentally ill, orphaned and disabled children. Wandering through the men’s section, the sheer range of disabilities and difficulties these people endure shocked me. At first I was stunned into silence, but soon realised that communication is something they crave. In the children’s section, where I will be helping, I was greeted by a child running to me and hugging me, with an expression of glee on his face. I couldn’t work out whether to feel sympathetic and sad for his plight, or inspired that he seemed so happy. I’m confused about the mixed emotions, but I’m absolutely certain that working there will be a mind-opening experience.

This evening I went with Sam to help at a local language school, which proved to be good fun, and we’ll no doubt return next week: the kids certainly will in droves, they don’t seem to have noticed that these are their summer holidays.

We had dinner at Belayneh’s house, because today marked the end of the Orthodox Christians’ fasting period, so meat was back on the menu for them. A whole lamb filled the fridge and there were noticeable fewer on sale in the street today than there were yesterday. The end of fasting brings the silence of the lambs, then.

Tuesday 13th July

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well apparently quite a lot, if you’re Ethiopian. I’d thought that there was little trace left of the Italians’ brief invasion in the 1930s, but today I discovered that that is most definitely not the case. Much of the paved streets were Italian-built, as were many of the prominent hotels and government buildings. Fente, who works for the Kindu Trust, even told me he wished that the Italians had stayed for 50 years, as we walked through the streets of Gondar.

We were on our way to visit Hailemariam, a five-year-old boy who is waiting for a new sponsor through the Kindu Trust, which is appearing to me to be more and more of a worthwhile organisation every time I go to work there. While I translated the interview, I realised the harsh reality of this child’s situation: he is HIV positive. His older sister looks after him, because both his parents have died, but she is ill and so can only work small amounts, and at nothing labour intensive. Another sister has learning difficulties. And yet while we were there he happily drew pictures with crayons, in order to send to a future sponsor. He couldn’t stop smiling, but I just don’t know how.

In other news, lessons are still going well – today we managed to get all the students acting out imaginary situations, some with near-flawless English. And myself, Sam and Courtney picked up a 6-pack of beer for the equivalent of £1.20, and relaxed back at our room with a guitar and some songs. It was a much-needed time for reflection on the day.

Wednesday 14th July

Today was something of a rest day, given how full-on the last week has been. Lessons went ahead as normal, despite some torrential rain, and our second class refused to leave because it was so wet outside. So we spent an extra hour playing various games and talking about England, even after the rain had stopped. It was a shame that it did clear up in the end, we could easily have carried on all day.

At lunchtime I came back to our room to find that Sam wasn’t there, as I’d expected him to be. In fact, he had befriended our Chinese neighbours upstairs, and I was promptly invited up to join them. The three guys, all 24 or younger, cooked us Chinese food for lunch – much better than our planned lunch would have been, we were heading to a street stall! They are working for a Chinese communications company that’s doing various projects in Gondar. In fact, the presence of Chinese businesses in Ethiopia is marked – on the way up to the Simiens we followed a road that is being built by the Chinese Government. A more relaxing afternoon followed, reading a book, going to the bank, and using the internet café (until there was a power cut).

After dinner in town, we showed up at the Chinese guys’ place with some beer, returning their earlier generosity – it looks like we’ve made some good contacts, and I’m sure we’ll see more of them, even if just for the luxury of home-cooked food!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Week One

Thursday 1st July

Chocks away. The final (propeller-powered) plane completed my journey to Gondar. Having spent a few hours in Istanbul without any Turkish money, and a sleepy night in Addis Ababa airport, I was glad to be at my final destination.

Currently, I’m in the hotel room which is my home for tonight, along with 20-year-old university student Sam, until we move in to our permanent accommodation tomorrow. It’s basic. The bed is comfortable, but I think they expect you to provide your own toilet seat and shower curtain. It’s clean enough though, and it’s perfect for tonight.

Our room for the first night

At lunch we met up with Sheree, an Australian girl who reliably informs us that Foster’s can’t be bought in Australia, and Megan, a 17-year-old from Aberdeen who’s already been here for three weeks. For Sheree this is her first trip outside of Australia, and Megan is in exactly the same situation as me, having left school this summer too.

Sheree and Megan

Later in the afternoon we were taken all around Gondar by Belayneh and Mulugeta, the guys in charge of Link Ethiopia out here. Dodging the insane tuk tuk drivers (3 wheeled taxis), we saw the full range of the town: from the urbanised areas around the Castle, we wandered through the market stalls (affectionately described by Belayneh as Gondar’s ‘Central Business District’), until we hit the slums.

They’re not pretty. Domed houses (if house is the word) constructed of plastic and string, they aren’t fit for anyone to live in. Think the Crack Fox’s den in the Mighty Boosh, remove all the comedy and add human suffering, and you’re someway to understanding the life these people live. It’s a moving sight, and one that is hard to describe in words.

And yet every small child we saw in the slums smiled at us, peeping out a cheeky ‘hello’ before laughing to their friends. Despite the desolation they live through every day, they still simply enjoy the chance to shake a foreigner’s hand. The powerful impact of the presence of ‘farenji’ (white people) is both moving and terrifying at the same time. This latter reflection is one I feel sure will reoccur in the coming days or weeks.

Back in the main part of town, and a couple of local beers better off, we headed for our first real taste of traditional Ethiopian food. The sour, pancakey, bread-like ‘injera’, which acts both as a plate and the staple of the meal, wrapped around some chunks of roasted lamb, was surprisingly satisfying. If that wasn’t good enough, dinner and drinks for five came to under £5. But I guess that’s hardly surprising in this town of the cruellest extremes.

Friday 2nd July

A culture clash. The Ethiopians know how to do a night out, but a surreal one at that. We met up with Courtney, a uni student from the States, for dinner in front of the Brazil game, before meeting a couple of Megan’s Ethiopian friends. They took us to a traditional Ethiopian dance house: in Ethiopian dancing everything is done with the shoulders. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before, but within minutes we were shaking our shoulders like nobody’s business (much to the amusement of the locals).

After that, we changed tack, heading to a Western-style club. It’s no Revs, in fact it barely qualifies as a club at all, but walking in to B.o.B’s ‘Nothing on You’ made me think twice about which continent I was actually on. Having briefly populated the club, we went to the local Rastafari bar. Bob Marley clearly lives on in Gondar. Fascinatingly, Rastafarianism originated from Ethiopia, and is based on worship of former Ethiopian Emperor Haileselassie (the red, green and yellow colours that symbolise Rastafarianism come from Ethiopian flag). All in all, it was a completely unexpected but immensely enjoyable evening.

Earlier in the day, me and Sam moved into the apartment where we’ll be staying for the rest of the month. It’s quite new, and clean, so it should be pretty good for us. I also got the first chance to meet my students. Lessons don’t start until Monday, but they seemed keen and as excited as I am. Like all the young people in Gondar (I say young, some of the students are older than me!), they all want to talk to you and find out as much as they can about you. Bring on Monday.

Mulugeta in front of Angereb School

At lunchtime, the rains came. When it rains here, it really rains. We dived inside for some tasty fish goulash until the roads no longer resembled rivers. Once they had finally dried up, we had a final briefing on how to teach, ahead of our first lessons. It seemed as though we fitted a year’s PGCE training into an hour, but we’ll give it our best shot on Monday. If all else fails, I’ll bring out some of the shoulder-dancing moves we learnt – they’re sure to love that.

Saturday 3rd July

I dreamt of a hot shower last night. The now daily jumps in and out of the stream (trickle) of cold water certainly serves to wake me up. But that’s about the only luxury I find myself missing. The food is great so far, who would’ve thought that scrambled egg and spicy bean stew would be such a natural breakfast combination? Try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

This morning we did the obligatory touristy things. This meant we had a tour around the 17th Century Fasil Castle in the middle of town, with a keen guide. His parting speech was a rant about how the Ethiopian education system is in need of radical reform. The relevance of that to the Great Kings of Ethiopia, or the castle’s bombing by the Italians, remains to be seen. But it was interesting nonetheless.

Fasil Castle

At lunchtime me and Sam met up with one of the guys that took us out last night. Since today was a town-wide day of celebration for the graduation of the local university students, he invited us to his friend’s house for lunch. The friend, and English graduate as of today, was welcoming and supplied us with plenty of local food and fenugreek juice (no, me neither). They were so welcoming, in fact, that he encourage me to drive his Toyota Land Cruiser back to our apartment, on the other side of town. I was less keen, bearing in mind the 4x4 was left-hand drive, and I had to navigate through crazy taxis, tuk tuks, minibuses, people, donkeys, goats, stray dogs, sheep and other assorted animals. But we got there, not having hit anything, even if it was the most terrifying driving experience of my life.

Tonight we were invited over to Mulugeta’s for dinner (Mulugeta is the younger of the two Link Ethiopia guys here) and to watch the Germany v Argentina game. Quickly though, the night became a memorable one. Whereas last night had been all about traditional dancing, tonight it was our turn. Between us we managed to show the Ethiopians, and a couple of young children, varyingly good interpretations of Waltz, Salsa, Merengue and Cha Cha. After that we played games with the kids, and laughter was the soundtrack to the evening. If it sounds ridiculous, it was, but it was certainly great fun.

More rope needed...

I’m trying to pick up a bit of Amharic here, but it’s not proving easy. An impromptu lesson with one of Megan’s students tonight taught me that their word for ‘bird’ is ‘woof’ and the word for ‘dinner’ is ‘rat’. Make of that what you will, but for now – ‘Chou!’.

Sunday 4th July

It was inevitable really. It was only a matter of time before I would succumb to the local food. Myself and Sam both spent last night in and out of the bathroom, and this morning wasn’t much better.

We ventured out for some light lunch, but I couldn’t stomach anything and dramatically fainted in the middle of the café – not the best moment of the trip so far.

The good news, though, is that after an afternoon in bed, we both managed almost a full meal this evening and look to be over the worst of it. Let’s hope that by 9am tomorrow, when my lessons begin, that everything will be back to normal.

Monday 5th July

Today has been a day of doing without. Since we woke up, we’ve had no running water, and it looks like that could last. All morning, there was no phone service, so we couldn’t find each other, nor was there any internet, thwarting my second attempt to upload a blog. And during dinner, the power went out, but eating by torchlight produced some surprisingly amusing results.

Despite that though, it’s been a really good day. My first lesson was this morning, with 24 kids turning up to the dusty classroom with a chalkboard and broken windows. At first they were shy, but a game of 20 questions got them all smiling and the class going. By the end, most of them were getting involved, and it seemed to be a successful couple of hours.

My class in our first classroom

I was then whisked away to someone’s house for lunch, not really knowing what was going on, but finding there Sefanit, and Ethiopian-Canadian living in California, who is the latest volunteer to join us. From tomorrow we’ll be teaching together, and from the hour I spent with her, I think that’s going to be fun.

A brisk tour of the markets and dinner with the other volunteers rounded off the day, and all that’s left to do is relax with my ipod and start planning tomorrow’s lessons. I could get used to this...

Tuesday 6th July

The best plans are made an hour before the event. My second day of teaching, and Sefanit’s first, began with breakfast, as we worked out what to do in the lesson. Neither of us, though, expected yesterday’s numbers to increase to 35, so everything we had planned was immediately thrown out of the window. The classroom jam packed, we tried with varying degrees of success, to teach some English through song, drama, games and old-fashioned comprehension. I think we’re starting to get the hang of it, but it’s still remarkable how some of the students can be so keen to learn that they turn up religiously in their summer holidays, and yet be so shy in a classroom environment.

A lunchtime thunderstorm stopped us venturing out too much in the afternoon, but we met with the man who is organising our trip to the Simien Mountains this weekend. We’ll be trekking for three days amongst the famous wildlife, an experience that should be unforgettable.

Today was also Megan’s 18th birthday, so we took her to a traditional coffee ceremony for tej (honey wine), coffee from beans roasted before our eyes, and popcorn (they’re obsessed with it, for some reason). A birthday dinner followed at a local hotel, to round off an 18th birthday vastly different to most.

The coffee ceremony (below) and Sam, Megan, Me and Sheree (above)

Wednesday 7th July

It feels like we’ve broken the shyness barrier. The solution? Sweets. After rewarding a couple of groups for trying their English conversation in front of the class with some Devonshire toffees, everyone was keen to have a go. By the end, there were no sweets left, but the performances kept on coming. And because our class keeps growing, tomorrow we’re going to have to split the group into two classes, which can only be a good thing.

Students acting out a dialogue

This afternoon me and Sheree went to an organisation called the Kindu Trust; a charity which matches needy children here with sponsors in the UK and USA. Since we’re only teaching in the mornings at the moment, we’re looking to do some other volunteer work. So from tomorrow, I’ll be working there a couple of afternoons a week, helping with visits to sponsored kids, writing letters to sponsors and arranging the charity’s finances.

After that, I was invited to an English class at a local language school, to see how they do things. I picked up some tips for teaching, and was used as an example of a native speaker to demonstrate that we do actually say ‘How do you do?’ and ‘Pray let me introduce myself’. Despite the old-fashioned language, it was intriguing, and I learnt a fair bit about how to teach a large group of students.

We rounded off the day with a drink on the hilltop, looking out across the valley behind Gondar as the sun set, and vultures circled menacingly above us. For a moment, I thought I was in the Lion King.

Sheree, Megan, Sefanit and Me

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Time to Fly

So this is it. Not in a historic, Michael Jackson's final swansong sort of way, no, but this marks the very beginning of what should be an incredible five weeks.

My alarm clock is set for 3 am. If all goes to plan, I'll be on my way to Istanbul by 7 am and will touch down there about 4 hours later. After a considerable departure lounge wait, spent making final preparations for the lessons which begin on Monday, I'll complete the rest of the journey to Ethiopia, arriving about midnight tomorrow. Then a couple of hours kip (hopefully) at Addis Ababa before flying on to Gondar at 6 am on Wednesday.

That final journey will, I'm told, be in a De Havilland plane. Like any other boy who was an airfix enthusiast at the age of 8, I immediately thought I'd be flying in one of these, a De Havilland mosquito from the Second World War:

Fortunately, they have made more modern planes since then, but it should be an adventure nonetheless. Ethiopian Airlines tells me there is a 'chance of storms' on Thursday morning. Cool

Nerves about the journey aside, I haven't felt this excited in a long time. Perhaps because I really don't know what it will be like, and because it's going to be so radically different from what I'm used to, I have a real urge to get there and get things going. I'm looking forward to meeting the other three 18ish-year-olds who are going to be there too (and who will be my co-pilots on the final flight in the Mosquito), although my efforts to stalk them on Facebook proved fruitless.

But more than anything, I'm looking forward to immersing myself in a culture which is foreign to me, with people who have been labelled the friendliest in the world, and with kids who's desire to learn could never be doubted by anyone. Bunking doesn't really exist as a concept.

I have no idea when I'll next be able to post a blog, but I'll be sure to keep a record of everything, ready for the opportune moment when I manage to find an internet café or a computer which has survived the inevitable power cuts and lack of any computer support technicians. And I'll be taking lots of pictures, which I might be able to feed you with at some point. If you want to leave me a message on this blog, that's probably the easiest way to get hold of me, but otherwise - see you in August!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Final Preparations

10 days to go.

I've been searching around for things to take: posters to decorate my classroom, chalk for the blackboard, storybooks for the lessons. But most importantly, an England football shirt - I was banking on England still being in the competition when I get there, but the way they're going I can't be so sure! Either way, I'm looking forward to a few lunchtime kick-abouts, even if I do get horrendously shown up for my complete lack of coordination.

I'm arranging to go here to see the incredible Churches they've dug down into the Earth, and I'm working out arrangements to spend my final weekend in the capital - the availability of some readily-available Western food might be a blessing after the traditionally spicy dishes I'll be enjoying in the North!

But the principal feeling is one of excitement, I can't wait to get on that (slightly too small and rickety) plane and get out there. Am I nervous? Yes. But somehow it seems certain to be a life-changing experience. And who knows, maybe I'll be watching England in the World Cup Final in a café somewhere in Gondar come the 11th of July...

P.S. Check out Link Ethiopia's website, if you have time