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Ethiopian smiles.

October 21, 2009
tags: ,

Sorry I’ve been absent – I’ve been working like crazy (e.g. today I spent 14 hours at my desk in the office) so I haven’t had much time to post, but I went for a field visit this weekend and needed to update.

So it’s week number four of my six week stint in Ethiopia, and I’m still a little bit in awe of this place.

Awash River

Awash River

A little bit? Make that a LOT.

I’m constantly surprised by the Ethiopian’s ability to take anything (an empty water bottle, rubber from old tires, anything) and make it into something sellable.

Used water bottles for sale

Used water bottles for sale

And don’t get me started on the people! For a country with as tough a history as Ethiopia’s (if you’re not sure what I mean, just look up anything from the Italian occupation, to the Derg regime, or the famines of the 80s), you’d expect there to be some rancor or at least some unhappiness at having had to make it through all that. But instead?

Smiles. Oodles and oodles of SMILES!

Smiles. Oodles and oodles of SMILES!

This has got to be the most (categorically) happy people I have ever encountered. Driving through the streets, you can see the sheer optimism of this people as the rise to the challenges of daily life. Whether it be the 40-something women with (what I’m sure is) 50 lbs. laundry strapped to their backs, on the way to the nearest riverside to beat their clothing clean in muddy red water, the teenage boys whipping herds cattle across the road, or the old men tipping their hats to one another as they stroll of an evening, everyone is greeted with a smile, a laugh, a joke (and in most cases, a passing giggle at the faranji girl in the Land Rover, watching them from behind her bugeyed sunglasses).

And they’re not just happy – they genuinely care about one another – even strangers! For example, my friend Val and I rode in a cab from point A to point B. The cab was filthy – there was dirt on the dashboard, and it smelled really really bad. In recounting the story of this cab ride of grossness to one of our official IFPRI drivers, the driver replied, “Well, you told him he needed to clean it right? I mean, it’s too late for your ride, but he needs to know for the next customer.” Val and I were, of course, dumbfounded. No, we hadn’t said anything, and from this perspective, that actually seemed really selfish!

I can honestly say this has been the easiest international living experience I’ve had so far, which, yes, is probably largely due to the number of international experiences I’ve had (I’m up to 12 countries and 3 continents so far), but it’s also due to the incredibly hospitable nature of the people here. I’ve also avoided getting sick, if you can believe it (see my original posting on the number of medicines I brought that are now totally unnecessary!), so I’m sure that tempers things as well.

All in all, I’m still in love with Ethiopia, with the people, with the weather (it’s BEAUTIFUL), and with the scenery. One category is clearly lacking from this post, and that’s the food. Honestly, I’m a general food lover, not a hater, and I hate to give negative marks for anything in this country, but with the many positive marks in the people, weather, and experience columns, I think Ethiopia can afford some polite critiques on the food.

Fasting sampler platter: from left, cabbage and carrots, green chili, split peas, more cabbage and carrots, shiro, green chili, more split peas, potatoes, cabbage and carrots, and shiro. In the middle are lentils.

Fasting sampler platter: from left, cabbage and carrots, green chili, split peas, more cabbage and carrots, shiro, green chili, more split peas, potatoes, cabbage and carrots, and shiro. In the middle are lentils.

In general, I do not have a problem with Ethiopian food. Injera is, yes, very sour and spongy, and the shiro can be a bit spicy and heavy on the oil. But generally, OK, fine. The problem is that no matter where you go the food tastes exactly the same.

If you don’t know me well, you probably don’t know that I thrive on variety. In the States, I can’t eat the same leftovers more than once. I can’t even (usually) eat the same cuisine more than once in a week! So the idea of having injera-tibs-shiro for lunch and dinner every day is NOT appealing. Instead, I’ve had to get a bit creative.

I’ve mentioned before that Ethiopia actually has a surprising variety of things. I should clarify: Ethiopia has a surprising number of pasta and pizza places. This should in no way be construed as “variety,” as, again, they’re the same basic flavors at every one of these establishments. At first blush, when you’re only here a week, it’s wonderful! You can have fried fish, traditional food, pasta OR pizza! But after week 2 you start to realize…you can have fried fish. traditional food. pasta. or pizza. And after week 3? Forget it. You’d rather eat rocks.

So I shopped, and I cooked (I made a fantastic roast chicken which I’m convinced was only cooked properly because it was so incredibly tiny and yardbird-like that it cooked through before it had time to burn), and I tried my best to keep things lively, but somehow, just somehow, everything still tastes exactly the same. So, I dose everything up with extra garlic and hot pepper, and wish on my lucky star that between my fork and my mouth, my mouthful of spaghetti will somehow morph itself from a bland, tomato-y lump to a fantastic roller-coaster for the tongue.

…you can guess how often that happens.

Long story short, I’m still going strong, but I am desperately missing my main food groups:

1. Cheddar cheese. As sharp as you can get it.

2. Cupcakes. It’s a testament to the delicious desserts I’ve had access to here (fresh pastries and bombalino) that cupcakes aren’t #1, but there you go.

3. Fresh meat whenever I want it.

4. Sour cream.

5. Fresh milk. And cream for my coffee. Generally all the cream-based products, including homemade butter, custard, ice cream, anything.

So what’s the moral of today’s tale? Ethiopia is awesome, but bring some snacks. I’ve already eaten my way through my stash of Mini Oreos, Nutter Butter Bites, Chips Ahoy! Minis, and Teddy Grahams. all that’s left are my almonds and trail mix bars. Sigh. Healthy stuff.

For more pictures, check out my Picasa Album from the trip this weekend!

Thanks for keeping up with the blog, and when I get back to the States, I’ll be on a much more regular posting regimen (because I’ll have many wonderful recipes to try!).

Ooh! Ooh! Cupcake news! I’ve been asked by a very sweet friend and his fiancĂ©e to make wedding cupcakes for their reception in D.C. after their wedding this fall! So I’ll be trying out different cake and frosting techniques to the theme of black and white – look for pics (and tastes, if you work with me or live nearby) in the months to come.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa Lambert permalink
    October 21, 2009 4:37 pm

    Wow – what a great post! Sounds like you really have had a good time there. I agree, the people are ridiculously nice and happy all of the time, no matter what the situation seems to be. And I can see how the lack of variety of food can get boring – I was only there for a week and I never want to eat spaghetti or injera ever again!

    Looking forward to having you back soon!

  2. Rob permalink
    October 21, 2009 5:26 pm

    I second the awesome post comment!

  3. Rachel Plugge permalink
    October 22, 2009 1:23 pm


    Looks fabulous! I saw your mom a few weeks ago and she told me you were in Ethopia. Loved your post and am slightly jealous of your exciting adventure.

    Hope all is well!

  4. Val permalink
    October 22, 2009 1:46 pm

    Sorry I missed the field trip. At least we’ll have Lalibela. See you soon!

  5. November 3, 2009 2:36 am

    Em it looks nice, glad u like Ethiopia!

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