Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Where's the Starbucks?

The first day of traveling anywhere is the day that I stumble off a red-eye flight early in the morning and try to find an ATM, an internet connection, a cell phone, a hot shower, a bed to sleep in, and a taxi driver to get me there for just an arm, but not a leg. No matter how many stamps are already in my passport, I'm just for a few hours a gringo, freshly unwrapped from the shiny packaging of a 767. A mixture of homesickness, sleeplessness, and hunger drives me to be considerably pushier with the locals for getting my way. "Tomorrow I'll start exploring," I always say on the first day, but it's ironically the clash of the my desire to get comfortable that makes me quickly realize that I'm far outside my comfort zone. And deep down, I go through all of it knowing I didn't fly to Ethiopia for a Frappuccino anyway.

So the following is a short summary of a day's worth of Ethiopian life from an exhausted, demanding American thinking he'd start tomorrow, when he'd really started today.

The first thing I noticed was that I don't stand out here, even though I've yet to come across another white person. I must admit, I expected after my travels in India and Nepal as a tall, blond-haired American male to receive the quarter-endearing, three-quarters-uncomfortable celebrity status for my looks in Ethiopia. To the relief of my sense of rights and privileges earned by skin color, I don't feel like I stand out in any particular way here. Where New Delhi would form a crowd around me like a seed crystal in an oversaturated solution, Addis Ababa treats me like an anonymous, errant particle. Even the guy with the cart of oranges with whom I spent fifteen minutes under a bush during a sudden rainfall didn't deem me a particularly exceptional sales prospect; he was more concerned with keeping the fruit dry.

Which means, thankfully, that I am not special here. I am unconditionally welcome, without reservation, be it fear, uncertainty, or even elevated status.

Though with no special status, there was also no one I could pay to expedite the first-day chores of getting comfortable in my new home for a month. I met the same, full, blunt difficulty as any Ethiopian would have in getting a pre-arranged taxi driver to make me wait for less than eight hours at the baggage carousel at the airport, getting a mobile internet device and a mobile internet subscription under one roof (you can't), and finding a place to do my laundry in a hurry (the bathtub, with a hand-broken cube of Tide over a pile of wet dress shirts).

But among those inconveniences bound to happen on the first day of any trip outside the OECD, the people of Addis Ababa have already proven to be some of the most welcoming and friendly that I've ever met on a personal level; everyone is willing to give directions, share a meal (and drinks!), and go out of their way to make sure that I got what I needed, even if the system wasn't already arranged in a way to make it easy.

It's with that optimism that I begin the monthlong exploration of Ethiopian culture and meetings with officials from the US Embassy, two universities, and various government agencies in Ethiopia in order to establish Concordia Humana's PowerUp Ethiopia project.

And of course, tomorrow's the day to start really exploring.

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