Parties and Pinatas

Hard to believe, it’s our last night in Miraflor.

A last ice-cold cup-shower, standing naked and shivering in the little cement room looking up at jungle trees and turquoise sky, as the dirt of the day washes from my body.

I have never felt more tired in my life. But follow Martina to Marlon’s parents home, across the street. They are incredibly well-off, by Miraflor standards, she tells me.

Martina has brought them a blue plastic water filter, and after kisses and greetings, sets up the terracotta filter and spigot.

Marlon’s mom takes me for a tour of her garden, piles of roses, and the freshly planted amaryllises that line the path to the outhouse.  She gives me the tour, speaking no English, and somehow my exhausted brain pumps out bits of Spanish in response with a series of tired smiles.

When we return Martina is resting in the hammock. She sits up, smiling, “There you are. I’m really impressed, one minute you’re snapping photos, the next minute in the garden I find you laughing and conversing in Spanish–I never have to worry about you. It’s so nice.”

She waves off my excuses that my Spanish is pathetic, “But you try, you’re learning. It’s means more than you think. To them, and to me.”

I appreciate the compliment more than she knows. It’s been so wonderful having Martina as a tour guide, knowing full well she has her hands full with her “day-job” that the last thing I would want to be is a burden.

As the sun sets we feast on a dinner of Myra’s amazing fried chicken with our frijoles and tortillas.

After dinner, fresh lemonade is spiced up with a little rum, the pinata in the shape of a red car, is pulled out and filled with candy, and hung from the living room. Everyone has a turn, blindfolded, spun around and then swinging. When it finally bursts, candy rains from the ceiling and adults and kids dive on the floor in one sweating, laughing mess.

Then the music is cranked up. We all get up and dance, sharing dance moves and goofing off, until we collapse on the living room bench. One happy, smiling heap.

I climb under the mosquito net, guarding my rock-hard bed, one last time. The pig settling down for the night grunts like a frog, being stepped on and sends Martina and I into fits of tired giggles. And, eventually, sleep.

Clearing Scorpions from Rock-Piles to Build a School

I sneak off to an empty hammock, and carefully, carefully lower my aching backside into a semi-comfortable position. I hug my laptop to my chest and hope for sleep. Just 15 minute refresher. Anything to lessen the cracked-out, tireder-than-anything, living-by-coffee feel.

But it’s not to be. Jackson and Marciela alternate visits, Jackson showing me things or dropping Flea in my  lap. Marciela leaning into my hammock curious about the photos on my computer.

A tired yawn and resignation. An awkward launch from the hammock, as Spencer, Martina and I head back to the school, now strangely deserted and quiet with the children gone for the day.The men were to leave their wheelbarrow, but there’s nothing, no tools. So we do it the old-fashioned way.

With bare hands, one at a time, we root through the weeds and drag out massive cement blocks from the pile (the remnants of a dilapidated building to be recycled into  foundation filler for the new building.)

Every rock we kick and turn over gingerly before picking up–waiting a minute, to give the scorpions a chance to run and find a new hiding place.

Every rock we lug saves Martina that much in fresh cement costs. So we work all afternoon, in the hot sun, coughing in the dust, our hands covered in cuts, until the pile is reduced to a clearing and the only rocks left are so massive we couldn’t move them, even with all of us trying.

Martina is beside herself with appreciation.

We sit on the stoop of the school, in the afternoon sun, sipping water and catching our breath. She tells of the children who have helped her, lugging baskets of rocks on their recess.

She points to the row of coleus, bravely sprouting, from rusted tins–“I don’t believe it, those are the paint cans we brought up to paint the school last time….nothing is wasted. Nothing.”

The Downside of Horses & Jungle Showers

The horses, apparently just as eager to return home after a long day, set off racing home. It’s such a mad dash, as the horses know the path home, and egg each other on. It’s borders out-of-control and scary, but thrilling. To understand my horse enough to know it’s responding to something else. Then to try to exert some control over the locomotive.

We actually end up taking turns running the horses, putting space between us, so the horses aren’t as influenced by the thunder of another horse. Sunshine on my face, arms in the air, the jungle spinning by me.

We slow for a curve, a steep section. Occasionally, I catch the looks from children, and housewives. Though, more often, I hear the kids cheering and whooping, as they hang from windows and lean over fence rails to watch as we race by. Martina explains that in all her years in Miraflor, she’s never seen a Nicaraguan woman do more than walk a horse. Maybe my Jane Austen comparison wasn’t so off-base. Maybe we are breaking a few customs and social norms. Today, as I race after Martina. This will be the day they will see two women gallop.

It’s not until the last stretch that it starts to hurt. Really hurt. Not the aches of earlier, but cutting raw pain on my backside. I squirm in the saddle as we bolt for home.

Finally, I’m checking off my familiar landmarks: the little blue and white school with the vibrant mural, the shiny tin outhouses, Myra’s garden.

Spencer steps from his horse, Martina and I gasp, then heartlessly laugh at the seat of his pants with a soggy, blood-red eight inch circle.

I walk to my room, dislodge the hen that’s made a nest for the day on my blankets, and change from my dirt-covered clothes. To my horror, I realize what had been causing so much pain that last bit. On the seat of my pants is a matching, bloody circle.

I hobble to the kitchen, for sympathy and coffee. But it’s laughter and jokes (and hot, life-giving, coffee) as we tease each-other in between quick turns at the shower, before the sunsets and mountain temperatures dip precipitously.

In the cinderblock room, with the jungle trees and blue sky as the only ceiling and a rug hung across the doorway, I ladle careful cupfuls of ice-cold water over my head and tired body. It seeps into my saddle sores, with a yelp! Marlon and Spenser laugh from their hammocks.

And though I hobble around like an old person (or the dreaded “city-slicker” from the movies) and can’t sit back that night at dinner (or the rest of the trip) and discover a whole new level of difficulty in using the outhouse grow accustomed to the embarrassing perpetual dampness on the seat of my pants (that screams “not used to riding horses, much!!”), early-start to bloody-finish, I could not have imagined a better day.

Malaria Scare and Throwing up at the Hilton

I start my morning with a walk to Kaldis (the Ethiopian coffee chain that looks like green-logo mimic of Starbucks). While the coffee is decent, the burgers are fantastic, and the waitress (who now runs up to hug me upon arrival after a week away) is a friend. I order in unfaltering Amharic now. She grins with my improvements. Then leaves me to work–which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this place, I can concentrate on work in relative peace (compared to other places, where I’m hounded with questions and male attention). That, and I know the two tables where there’s a power outlet.

Today the food is great, but little peace. An Ethiopian family, visiting from Australia, applaud my Amharic, as their 10 year-old son eyes me curiously. He complains that the burgers don’t have any toys (i.e. McDonalds) and asks me my name and how old I am. He speaks no Amharic, he won’t learn, his father tells me, then continues to say that I know more than him. Now that’s a shame! So I teach him one, two and three (and, huluet, sost) before they leave.

No sooner do they leave, than three British men walk in, to take their place. They do a triple-take when they see me sitting there with a laptop, trying to focus on the screen. What could I possibly be doing here? So on.

The gentlemen continue to tell me their story. They’re in a band. Prompting my question, What could you possibly be doing here?!

They’re military musicians. They’d volunteered with the military to train up the Ethiopian military band here in Addis.

Eventually, I retreat to the Hilton lounge to hide and work. On my walk up Menelik II Avenue, I break into a woozy sweat. Perhaps it’s hotter than I’d thought. But I plod on, each step feeling like a hundred pounds. A weak smile to the UN guards, who salute back. A tired hug to the Hilton guards, who dismiss my open bag over greetings of guardenia (friend) and questions about my husband’s health (He is doing well, amasegnalo) and questions of when they’ll possibly meet this most amazing man who could have won my hand in marriage (Gheez, I’d like to meet him too! Instead I shrug my shoulders and give a vague nod and a in a day or two, yichallal, it may be possible)

I drop into the nearest chair. I feel like trash. Look up, Franz (the German I blew off the night before) is one table over with another woman, and nods coolly. Great, to late to move now.

I try to focus on work, on my lamb sambusa and pepper salad that I always eat with ravenous delight. But my stomach is churning and the room is spinning. My whole body aches, my throat dry. My fingers look as white as the china teacup in my hand. What is going on.

Malaria pill. I forgot to take it last night. Again.

I’m dizzy as I google the symptoms for maleria, as my throat tightens into short asthmatic wheezes between waves of nausea. Who knows what this is. But I know I’m alone in this. I never did get travel insurance. That was stupid.

Ok, think Joya. But my sweaty hands can hardly type. I buy a 72 hour emergency evacuation pass, with medical rescue, the works: the $80 I spend is what I assume would be cheaper than sorting out what comes next if this does get bad. I can barely sit up straight when the payment processes and I see the confirmation number. My helpline.

I slowly stand up to cash out my tab when the room spins so sickeningly fast that, in front of a horrified Franz, the sweet waitress and a few other well-dressed Ethiopian women, I proceed to projectile vomit through cupped hands full of birr notes. Then I’m heaving, wretching over the sink, as it feels (and smells) as if my insides are being expelled from my body through my mouth. The smell alone makes me vomit more, as tears of utter pain and a shame squeeze from my eyes.

I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so so sorry. I whisper to the waitress who hands me towels, as I mop up the mess and wipe away tears.

Despite the horror and disgust that must be overwhelming her, I will never forget my waitress of the last 4 weeks patting my hand and brushing back my hair, It is no problem, angel. God be with you. And bless you. God be with you. And bless you….

They’ve called the nurse, I can hardly stand. I stumble through the Hilton halls to the infirmary. I sit. Hands in my head. I recount my travels. I recount the breakfast and lunch I’ve had time and again without so much trouble. Thanks to my little iron-stomach. And we deduce, when I spent 20 consecutive minutes not throwing up, that I probably don’t have malaria. That I should come back if I feel worse. Otherwise, I’m free to go.

I don’t know what to do. Too traumatized from the taxi-threats the night before, that I shuffle home, one slow step. Half-dead. I empty my pockets of any non-wet birr into the hands of the street beggars.

Thankful they’re busy at the front desk to notice my pathetic arrival, as I climb the stairs. I fall into bed, barely able to stand up, but still not throwing up, and set the alarm for 45 minute intervals, just in case the nurse is wrong and I do succumb to a malaria-induced seizure while sleeping (apparently, one article I read thought this was common — people resting and then never getting back up.) That way I can at least, I don’t know, email for an emergency evacuation and/or text my family and tell them I love them or something. I’d not thought that part totally through as I was still a little woozy. (I’d just thrown up all my internal organs.) But in the moment, it all made sense. Otherwise, I’d just nap for a spell and hope this passes so I can enjoy my last days in Ethiopia.

And I sleep.  For 45 minute, then 2 hour, then 5 hour intervals, until 14 hours pass. And while I can’t get out of bed for more than a minute or two at a time, I am alive and holding steady. It’s probably not malaria.

I curl up on my tiled balcony and watch the sun rise, in the cool morning, head alternating between the smoky heavens and resting on my knees.  Travel. It would be nice, I admit, to have someone here right now willing to trudge down the six flights of stairs and the half mile to the store…

Being Useless in Gondar

I duck into the rattling blue tuk tuk of the only driver who seems to maybe recognize where I’m trying to head. We’re heading back through town, past busy streets and stands of eucalyptus. The driver stops in front of a cement block hotel. There are zero cars around. And when my tuktuk driver leaves, it’s strangely quiet. (I try not to think about how I’ll get home.)

Instead, I convince a shyly smiling woman to help me dial Anteneh on the hotel phone, as men watching the soccer game in the next room, stare curiously between both. In another minute, I’m talking to the inspiring young, medical student, himself. Studied abroad, and returned to work at the local hospital, in Gondar, where kids run to him and adults wave.

Strangely exhausted, but camera-loaded and ready to put myself (finally!) to some use, and capture Gondar life, as it is–I’m completely taken back when the party Anteneh invites me to (a gathering of volunteers, local and imported hospital staff) is a real full-blown party.

The metal gates swing open to a giant white house, with a garden nearly taken over by a home-made volleyball net. The first person to greet me is a friendly doctor, in Gondar, from sleepy northeastern US.

It’s hard not to notice a couple flecks of blood on his shaved face — a bad shave, I assume, and hope he’s not a surgeon.

“Welcome to Gondar!” He smiles and shakes my hand. He laughs good-naturedly, “I just slaughtered a goat!”

It’s so unexpected, but yet strangely so normal, I burst out laughing. Then see the deflated carcass and furry head sit in a pool of blood, to the side. “Would you like a beer?”

I break my golden-rule of solo-travel, and accept a cold beer, and dive head first into a dizzying round of introductions, and purposes, and stories. Amazing stories and reasons for being here, in Gondar. From as far as the Philippines and India. From the UK and the states. Even a woman who grew up in the same distant beach town, on the central Oregon coast, where I spent my summers. Doctors, peace corp volunteers, teachers, students-on-a-gap-year.

I, on the other hand, have a laptop, and marketing-skills that will help someone sell 2% more of something back home, and a beaten-down dream of working and traveling abroad and making a difference.

And standing there, as I’m generously offered to share in their celebration, with fresh goat kababs, rice, wat and veggies, I feel the intense disappointment of my own shortcomings in a brutal way. They’re all actually doing something. Something of value. Something that will make a difference.

Whereas, I was drawn here with no amazing purpose, no special life-saving skill, no ability to make a difference. Despite my insistence that this was going to be something different, it’s just more of the same. I’m a tourist. I’ve arrived, I’ve hopped the tourist circuit, I’m cutting my trip short by two months, and dodging a photo opportunity to document a historic HIV/AIDs testing in a small Ethiopian town because I’m not hitting my deadlines, my savings are suffering, my mortgage is looming and I’m wondering how I got this far, without a better plan, without actually doing anything of value…

I grip my camera and task myself with at least just documenting the fun, frivolity of this lovely group, this lovely evening.

A wild, no rules game of volleyball in a wild yard turns to soccer, which ends when the light falls and the group heads inside. In some conversation, Meskel comes up. Didn’t I know? It’s the festival (second only to Timkat in December) in just two days. You have to stay in Gondar to see it, they tell me. It’ll be like nothing else, really amazing. People from the villages come for miles. You can adjust your plane ticket in town, easy!

I think of the piles of work waiting. I think of returning to my solitary room. Of celebrating Meskel in massive Addis.

I think of a few more days with these people. I think of working all day tomorrow so I could justify Meskel off. I can’t think of anything better. Yes, I’ll stay!

Like any party anywhere, talk turns to music and dancing. At some point, the friendly and funny doctor (one of many names I cannot remember) and I talk of little-known G. Love & Special Sauce, and that one song. And then he’s finding the song and I’m nearly falling down as we’re in Gondar, Ethiopia, laughing and singing, to my favorite song from the summer when I was 15 and pulling weeds in my parents yard: “I like cold beverages, I like cold beverages..”

Music and beer. The room spins with people dancing and laughing. We sing our hearts out to Michael Jackson, “Billy Jean” and “Bad”. The music shifts to the exotic local songs, the Ethiopians in the group teach us a local dance that feels something like a modified electric-slide along with the art of shoulder-dancing (a series of non-stop shoulder shrugging that feels epileptic, and puts us all in fits of laughter as we try, until it wears our shoulders down to nothing).