It is too early to make any real judgments about Debremarkos. Our experience so far has been a series of vignettes that do not yet form a coherent anthology. Here, though, are a few of those vignettes:
As we search for housing for KB along with our supervisors, we meet Tirssaw, or “tooth man” as it translates to English. The name is impossible to forget once you see him, as his front four teeth protrude nearly perpendicularly from his gray gums, with enough space between them to drive an Ethiopian minibus. In our first sighting of him, he is sitting on the side of the road having his shoes shined. He sits on a small wooden stool underneath a tent made of bright blue tarp, looking much like a king surveying the passing peasants under his rule. When he sees us, he leaps up from his throne and chases us down, talking excitedly. KB’s bilingual supervisor is conspicuously not translating the Toothman’s words for our benefit, but judging from the slimy, snaggle-toothed, leering grin in my direction with which he punctuates his speech, I am better off left in ignorance.
We are introduced to 65 members of the local PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS) association, all draped in white for the occasion of their Sunday morning Orthodox worship service. They tell us that they have no money to buy the nutritious diet necessary for taking ARVs. They want us to help them generate income. I wonder what miracles they expect me to work with my shiny American economics degree and how much I will disappoint them.
I chat with KB’s supervisor about soccer while we enjoy coffee and tea at a local café. When we ask him about his normal Sunday routine, he tells us, “If there is soccer on television, I must always watch it. Sometimes I go to church.”
KB and I learn a new English word: “respection”. It is a favorite of KB’s supervisor, who has used it at least four different times in translating his introductions of us to the community – as in, “I am telling them that you are professional who need respection.” We should probably correct him, but I think we will rather start using the word ourselves, as that is sure to be more amusing.
At each introduction, my supervisor pulls out his notebook and conveys to the community and organization leaders what he has gathered from the Peace Corps’ workshop on American office culture and communication. Translated though one of KB’s World Learning counterparts, this is: “Americans like privacy…Also, don’t touch them.”
KB and I discover a great restaurant in town that serves a wide selection of both Ethiopian and farenji food. It also offers satellite TV, which, at the time of our meal there, is showing a melodramatic made-for-TV American movie based on the Lacey Petersen trial, starring Dean Cain and Roy from “The Office”. We ask for an Amharic menu, and after some time spent interpreting the Ge’ez script, we realize that the prices are half those listed in the English menu. It comes as no surprise that farenji are overcharged, but it is funny to see how formalized the practice is.
It takes about 14 minutes, extended through bouts of laughter, for me to inquire in Amharic about the bed in my room and for my landlady to communicate that I may use the frame but should buy a new mattress. I learn the Amharic word for “mattress”.
KB and I eat dinner at the newest hotel in town, on its second night of business. Someone has tethered his sheep to the fence inside the front patio area.
As I walk down the main road in the evening, a young Ethiopian man approaches me and tells me, “I saw you this morning. You walked to the blue store and bought bananas, and then you went into the Shebel Hotel.” It is my first real (and rather unnerving) encounter with the reality that my every move is being watched.
KB and I, lacking the string and hook we need, hang my mosquito net above the bed using two nails, duct tape, and dental floss.