I’ve been traveling around Ethiopia for three days now. My work has taken me only 150 km away from Addis to a hospital in Debre Zeit where I spent three days finding out about treatment of HIV patients. While 1 week may not be enough to observe people, culture and community; here are some fun highlights:
1. Ethiopians spend an inordinate amount of time greeting each other. Everytime they meet you, even if they ran into you 30 minutes ago, they will do the elaborate handshake + shoulder touch greeting, and ask “selaum, denna nesh?” (Peace, how are you?). Not replying is considered to be offensive and English words like “Fine, thanks” or “How are you” are met with scorn. So just like Indians spend the first ten minutes talking about chai or today’s news, Ethiopians spend 10 minutes greeting every single person in the room!
2. Ethiopians love comparing people. So wherever I went I was asked why my Amharic wasn’t as good as my other expat friends. That I had been in Ethiopia for exactly 5 days didn’t matter to them!
3. There are a surprising number of languages, ethnicities and regional identities in this country. This is to the extent that two people from different regions , both talking the same Amharic language, often fail to understand each other.
4. Ethiopia is the first country where I’ve found coffee that *tasty*. Called the macchiato locally, it isn’t too bitter, it’s not too creamy, it doesn’t smell of preservatives and it has this lovely aroma which (for the first time ever in my experience) translates beautifully into the actual taste of the coffee.
5. While some Ethiopians genuinely want to talk to you because you’re a novelty to them and they believe that their community is big on hospitality – some of them only want to learn English or want lots of money out of you. I think being in Ethiopia for a long time makes expats skeptical at worse or very good judges of character at best.
In the last week I’ve met a lot of people from across the world, who have been working in Ethiopia for more than 2 years now and I’ve been curious about their reasons for staying on in Ethiopia. One such Peace Corp volunteer said that his experiences in Ethiopia were often very intense, sometimes disorienting and often crushingly lonely. But what made it worthwhile was that he was finally living the dream he’d had since he was in 5th grade. I think that’s the key to making a life thousands of miles away from home. It can’t be only the satisfaction of doing impactful work or the love of traveling. It’s a bug that’s in you – that pushes you to seek new ways to live, in completely unknown countries and trying to fit in. Another Peace Corp friend also said that those who stayed out for too long often didn’t fit into their communities when they went back home and found it very difficult to readjust themselves. Perhaps this was also the reason they left – because they wanted to find a place where they’d fit better. Personally I think it’s a idiosyncratic to move to a country of a different race, 7000 miles away to “fit in”. But then, each one dances to his own tune.