Saturday, August 02, 2008

Addis Pounding

I did buy a plane ticket, but, after spending inordinate amouts of time sitting on runways and then flying in circles waiting for permission to land, it's almost a surprise that I am actually in Ethiopia.

Except that it's after one am and I'm too awake, squinting at the bright computer screen while my high altitude headache screams that I am in a new place that is not humid and hot.

In fact, it is humid and cold. Very cold. My numb fingers are telling my memory that last week's weather reports of 68 degree lows and 70 degree highs were lies. Or, during the long, sleepless flight, hurtling forward in time while sitting next to a very nice, but VERY large man, winter fell on Addis.

I am wearing a maternity sweater, the single warm item in 140 pounds of checked luggage squashed full of donations.

There would have been more sweaters, but, according to the gum smacking woman at the Continental counter, “Delta doesn't go by our baggage rules when we book our customers on their flights, so we sure aren't going by theirs just because they booked you on our flight – I don't care what medallion status you have - and you have to give me $200 to take those overweight suitcases and that extra bag.

Thank God my friend Wade had a good poker night prior to taking me that morning, or I would have had to do an entire re-pack in the hallway of the airport. As it was, Wade paid $100 for the two overweight bags and took the last one – sweater, shoe and jean bag – home.

Now that I'm here and have seen what Hanna's girls have to wear, I'm really wishing I'd paid the $100 for that one bag. I keep going through all that is in it in my mind – good quality clothes and shoes that would hold up to the rainy season and walking long distances for the girls I saw smiling and shivering in their studies today. Their classrooms, which Hanna calls the “plastic house” because it is made of blue tarps under a roof, flooded earlier this week. The woven mats from the floor are scattered around the back yard in a vain effort to dry them out.

Today we went to the mercado and bought white fabric. Hanna wants the girls to learn embroidery, so they will begin by making themselves outfits for the new year, each girl embroidering her own shirt with one of the classic Ethiopian crosses or flower motifs. Asher, one of the workers at Hanna's office, got into an amusing discussion with Hanna and the other office girl, Miriam, about the skirt design. He felt if they made the long, A-line skirts Hanna suggested, the girls would cut the slits too high on the sides. So, he voted for wrap around skirts. It turns out that zippers are cheap compared to the extra length of fabric for a wrap skirt, so Asher lost.

I like this young introvert. He loves peace and nature, yet finds himself surrounded by 44 orphan and partially orphaned girls, and two other female staff members. His mother was a Muslim, and he is fairly sure his father was Jewish, though he always refused to say he was anything other than “Ethiopian.” Asher recently changed his name and seemed quite interested in reading my favorite book, My Name is Asher Lev, when I described it. I plan to send it to him.

Asher went with us to the mercado, one of the largest open air markets in all of Africa, because Hanna says you can get a better price when you shop with a man. I informed her that you get a much worse price when you shop with a ferangie (white person), and I don't think she believed me at first, but it quickly became an obvious truth, and she told me to stay behind with Asher and not let the shop people see me until she struck a bargain.

In spite of my presence, we managed to buy two bolts of white fabric, rolls of multi colored embroidery wool, a new clay coffee pot and three large drums for the girls to practice music. The drums are made of goat skin stretched over metal containers. My favorite was one marked with all sorts of runny stains and danger signs like “flamable” and “toxic.” Hanna didn't agree that it was cool and instead bought ones that we think may be made out of metal buckets, but are covered with flowered fabric, so we can't be sure. I kindof figured I might have trouble getting my chosen drum on the airplane, what with the bleached red triangle toxic sign and the dead animal skin, so I settled on a wonderful sounding small drum made of wood and skin for my son. I couldn't stop tapping it. Neither could anyone else. Random men kept walking up to me to smack my drum and smile crazily. Hanna shook her head, pointing at beautiful Miriam, walking ahead of me with the bigger drums, “Why do they let two drums go by and they only hit yours?”

Ferangie power.

It's a stronger pull than beauty, evidently. Useful to know if you want to pay quadruple an item's value and enjoy muddy strangers smacking your goat skin.

Oh, and, note to traveling photographers. If you dare take photos in places where it may not be appreciated, you might not want to count on the "cover" of your public taxi van speeding away after your not-so-secret photo nabbing. After spending 15 minutes making sure every possible cranny of the taxi was full, we finally lurched forward, sputtered, and then ran out of gas.