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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Day I Ate A Sheep Testicle!

September is a month of holidays here in Ethiopia (January too, I hear!). We had the New Year celebration a few weeks ago, and this week was Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). As far as I understand it, from hearing several versions over the last few days, here is the story behind the celebration:

A Ethiopian lady had a dream that she found the True Cross (the one that Jesus was crucified on). She was in Israel at the time (no clue why), and she prayed and prayed to God for directions to the location of the cross. She lit some incense while she was praying, and the smoke trail went up to heaven and back down, and led her to a landfill outside Addis Ababa. She dug and dug and dug, and eventually found three crosses - the True Cross and the two crosses where the robbers who were crucified next to Jesus had been crucified. In order to figure out which was which, she tried touching sick people with the different crosses. The one that cured the sick was the True Cross.

To celebrate Meskel, people set up wooden crosses on piles of grass and sticks in their yards and along the roads. Then they dance around them, sing some songs and light them on fire. Surprisingly, most of the burning happens during the day - apparently because the smoke represents the incense that led the lady to the True Cross and it's hard to follow smoke signals at night. :) We went to Debark for the holiday. Tuesday night, we went to one cross burning - lots of coffee, beer, dancing and flames. at one point, the entire cross structure started to topple over towards us! luckily someone propped it back up quickly, but it was a little scary!

On Wednesday, the actual holiday, our "program" started early in the morning - around 6:30am we were rousted from our beds and ushered to the house next store, where there was another cross ready and waiting. we had coffee ceremony and ate popcorn while the cross burned (and one of the Peace Corps volunteers' puppies slept on my lap the whole time!). We had to stay until the center supporting pole of the cross fell over - apparently the direction the pole falls points to the direction where the crops will prosper in the coming year, or something like that.

After the neighbors' ceremony, we headed over to the official town cross burning. What an event! There were probably five thousand people there, all dressed in their special occasion white shawls and dresses and pants. We sure stood out with our white skin and colorful clothes! Because we were the only white people there, we were given seats of honor - the top row of the bleachers, just below the dais where all the priests and the mayor and the speakers and people like that were sitting! This meant, of course, that allllll the other people there were looking straight at us the entire time! It was a really cool event though - lots of chanting and dancing and kids and grownups in fancy costumes. We never really figured out what the costumes signified - they looked like they were going to do a play or something, but ended up just sitting around in groups of similar costumes. There were a ton of Orthodox priests too, with fancy robes and velvet umbrellas with tassels and turbans. The cross that they burned was really really big - once the fire got started, we could feel the heat all the way at the top of the bleachers!

In the afternoon, we hung out with Shif (our Ethiopian friend) and Claire and Derek (the Peace Corps volunteers in Debark) and the puppies. It was very nice to just relax and chat with people other than ourselves! We all made dinner together and spent the evening doing nothing much. Very nice break from work!

This morning, we drove back early from Debark and worked a full morning's work. Then we finally made it home and unpacked all our groceries and sleeping bags and what not. As we were heating water for our weekly shower, one of the kids from the village came down saying "buna buna! beg allah!" which basically means "come for coffee! and also there is a sheep!" we tried to beg off, since we really wanted to shower, but she wouldn't take no for an answer! So we headed up the hill, and discovered that the entire village had assembled for an outdoor bbq/picnic/coffee ceremony event thing in honor of the Meskel holiday. They had done their cross burning while we were in Debark, but since Wednesdays are mandatory fasting days (no meat) for Orthodox Christians, they had had to postpone the sheep killing. As we walked up to the fire pit, we saw the sheep hanging from a tree - they were in the process of skinning and butchering it!

Coffee was very good, and then we learned a lot of anatomical vocabulary words as the sheep was butchered. Asmaro, the head scout and butcher du jour, would hold up an organ, say its name in Amharic, and then ask what the English word was. We also got to see firsthand what goes into beg tibs (essentially stir fried lamb with onions and hot peppers) - not just the muscles, but also the heart, kidneys, trachea and testicles. That's right, lamb testicles. Of course, we had to take ridiculous pictures with the testicles, and then I said I'd eat some of one if it were served to me. This unsurprisingly led to Julie asking specifically for a testicle (good thing we had learned the Amharic word, right?) so that I could taste it. I tried it (it was a little weird in terms of texture but didn't taste that remarkable), then goaded Ali and Julie (both vegetarians, although Ali has started eating meat again since being out here) into eating some too! So we all had some sheep testicle for lunch! Don't worry - there are pictures and I will try to post them next week from town! What an adventure. I also ate some kidney and some heart, two new food items for me. Definitely the most interesting lunch I've eaten in my life!

Now that that exciting meal is over, we've had a chance to shower and are getting back to work. Ali and I are making our ID sheet this afternoon so that we can start data collection tomorrow!! Very exciting. It will be good to be collecting my own data instead of just helping out with general project stuff. It's nearly October, which means I've been here for a month already - so crazy! I feel like I'm getting into the swing of things pretty well. Hopefully the transition from photographing ears and helping Julie out with adults to doing observations and fecal sample collection with rowdy juveniles will go smoothly! The weather is getting better every day, and the muddy road is drying up slowly but surely. Fall is off to an awesome start!

Hope things are good back in the USA or wherever you are at the moment!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

just discovered that I can upload pictures today in town! so no post - sorry - but a few pictures to tide you over! tonight and tomorrow is Meskel, the finding of the True Cross, so there will be a lot to report once the festivities are over! miss you lots!

Julie, me, Ali and Ambaye in our New Year photoshoot!

the mountains are beautiful right now!!

me with the geladas this morning! very misty but still worth working!

lots of monkeys this morning.... here is Ambaye doing some observations.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Crazy (Good!) Week

Helping with sheep herding
This last week has been a little crazy. Last weekend, we were invited to the Simien Lodge to have dinner and to schmooze with some ladies from the African Wildlife Foundation. It was a very nice evening - good company, excellent food, hot showers and comfy beds! Lots of treats. The two women were very interested in the park and the geladas, and it was quite an experience to talk to them. They are so well-traveled and so smart! They've worked on a number of high-profile projects in Africa, including the parks in Rwanda and the Congo where mountain gorillas live. It was very interesting to hear about their work, and to learn a bit about how conservation is put into action in Africa. In the morning, we took them out to see the geladas. Luckily for us, the monkeys cooperated and were easy to find! There were a few hundred sitting on one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the park, and it was a blast to spend some time there with the AWF women. They took lots of pictures and asked lots of really good questions, and everyone had a good time. Our day off ended up being a bit of a work day - we had to get up early and drive out to see the monkeys - but it was very neat to get to spend time with some movers and shakers! As they were leaving, they gave us their business cards, and it turned out that one of them was the president of the organization!! It really put their visit in a whole different light to know that they had found our site interesting and valuable enough to send their top-ranked member! After they left us, they went to Addis to meet with the head of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority, the ministry that oversees us. We are hopeful that we impressed them enough to have AWF invest in fixing and preserving the Simien Mountains National Park!

On Monday and Tuesday, we had regular work days. Ali and I have taken lots of ID photos and have been organizing them into a cheat sheet that we can take to the field with us. The identification is going really well, and I feel good about starting on some of the smaller units next week! It will be great to get my data collection really underway.

On Wednesday, we hiked out to a number of sleep sites and didn't find any of our monkeys. So, around 9:30am, we hiked back to the house and spent the day doing some of the backlog of computer work that has been building up. I organized ID photos of the juveniles, we typed up the fecal sample list, and Julie updated the behavioral observation program and the demography. Despite not being able to do observations, we got a lot done. In the late afternoon, we drove again to the Lodge - this time to give two nights of lectures to some Australian tour groups. It was a pretty wonderful experience - the group paid for us to have dinner with them each night, breakfast in the mornings, and a room at the Lodge for both nights! They were a really great group - a bunch of medical professionals who had been at a conference in Kenya and were doing an add-on trip to the highlights of Ethiopia. Julie and I made a powerpoint presentation, and we showed that, talked about our research and about basic gelada biology, and then answered a lot of questions. It was really fun to get to share our knowledge and our excitement about our work with a bunch of smart, interested people!

On Thursday after breakfast, we did some work in the morning with the units that live near the Lodge. It was great because we don't see them very often and they usually involve a lot of driving to find. Since we were already at the Lodge, it was very easy! Around lunchtime, we drove to Debark for our weekly shopping trip. Again, very good timing - the Lodge is about halfway from our house to Debark, so we saved again on driving! Debark was crazy, as usual. Lots of people and livestock on the roads, stressful driving conditions, and a host of other small problems - the guy we wanted to see at the park office was out, the post office was closed, etc etc. We did get to spend some time with the local Peace Corps volunteers, which was excellent. and there was both electricity and internet, so I got to check my gmail for the first time in weeks! I even got to miraculously chat with Sam online for a little while. And as usual, the Peace Corps couple's puppies were running around and being adorable. AND there were tomatoes at the market this week! So that was exciting too. All in all, a good trip!

Thursday night was another lecture to the Australians, with their second group of tourists. It went well and people had lots of good questions. This morning, we had breakfast with them and escorted their bus to some favorite gelada haunts. It was really gratifying to see them appreciate the information we had given them about gelada behavior, and to see that they were following our directions about how to approach the monkeys without scaring them. It was also really fun to walk around the tour group and answer questions while they had monkeys to look at! They left around 9:30am, so we still had most of the morning to do our real work. I got some more photos done, which was good. It will be nice to be finished with them and on to just collecting poop and observing behavior!

Julie strained her back while working, so I got my first opportunity to drive in Ethiopia! It was a little stressful but overall not as bad as I was expecting. It helped that we had had several days without rain, so most of the really bad ruts weren't muddy and slippery. I gained a whole new appreciation for Julie's driving skills - navigating ruts, mud, sharp rocks, cliff edges, enormous speeding trucks, errant livestock and a manual transmission is definitely a feat! But we made it home safely and our scout even told me I was a good driver. Hopefully I'll be able to help Julie out with the driving responsibilities now!

That's it for the moment! Three nights at the Lodge in a week is a new record - we have been very spoiled this week! Now that all our fun plans are over, it's nose-to-the-grindstone time. We will go to Debark for the Meskel holiday next Wednesday, but other than that, our plans are lots of observations and lots of poop collection from now until the end of October when we go to Gondar and Bahir Dar to ship off samples and do a big grocery shop. Hope all is well back in America - I miss you guys and think about you often!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ethiopian New Year and Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!

Melkam Addis Amet! Happy Ethiopian New Year!

Today, according to the Ethiopian calendar, is September 1st, 2004 – New Year’s Day and the official end of the rainy season. Yay! We knew that nobody would be working today, so we worked yesterday and took today as a holiday. We had grand plans of sleeping in this morning but were thwarted by a passel of adorable Ethiopian children banging on our door and shouting our names at 7am. They had brought us all yellow flowers for the holiday and were so excited to see us that getting up early on our day off didn’t matter too much. We took some cute pictures with them – the kids look super adorable, and we look extremely disheveled and half asleep. Soon after they left, another set of children arrived with MORE flowers, and then a kid from the first group came back to invite us to his parents’ house for coffee ceremony. So by 8am on our day off, we were squashed together on a bench in Berarra’s house drinking the first of many cups of coffee.

Coffee in Ethiopia is an event. They roast the beans right there on a little ceramic stove, then make three pots of coffee, which they serve to you in tiny cups filled with sugar. There is also a snack, which this morning was bread and popcorn. Everyone sits around drinking cups and cups of coffee and chatting. Usually they burn incense or frankincense, so the house is smoky and dark and smells delicious. Most of the people that live in our camp came to the coffee ceremony this morning, so there was lots of chatter and small children running in and out.

Now that we are back home, we’ve started heating water for showers (yay!!), charging computers because it’s sunny out, and generally relaxing. We’ve got another coffee invitation for just after lunch, so we’re trying to get some real food in out stomachs before the next three pots of coffee! One of those days, I guess! :)


Well, it turned out that what we thought was an afternoon invitation was in fact a 10am invitation. and it was for an additional four cups of coffee each, three types of snacks and a celebratory tin can of home-brewed beer. We managed - somehow - to keep the beer down, though I don't think any of the four of us actually finished the entire tin can. Something about the gritty texture and the knowledge that it was made with unfiltered water was a little off-putting.... very friendly and gracious hosts though, to provide it for us! And now we just got ANOTHER invitation - from a very cute boy wearing a roll of tin foil like a hat and cape to keep the rain off. We told him "maybe later", since we are waaaay full of coffee and beer at the moment. Ali is making some soup for us, which will be a nice change from what we've eaten so far today....

After getting back home, we started the weekly shower rotation just as the rain began. So - hot showers were had, but you had to run back and forth from the tent in the yard to the house to get them. It will be so nice when it's dry!

On the work front, this has actually been a very productive week. Our first day up here (last Thursday) was rainy and gray, but since then it’s been sunny and warm in the mornings. The afternoons are consistently wet and gross, so we’ve been diligent about getting back from the field by lunch time to avoid being caught in the rain, hail and thunderstorms. I’ve been helping Julie collect fecal samples from the adult geladas, and have also been making some serious headway on identifying juveniles for my own study. I’m hoping to start data collection in the next week or two, depending on which units I can find between now and then. It’s so nice to be back out in the mountains, especially when it’s sunny. Last year, I was here for the entire rainy season, so sunshine and fieldwork is a fairly new thing for me. It’s so wonderful to see the green hills and the waterfalls appear when the fog burns off! The geladas, for the most part, look fat and happy and there are lots of adorable new babies. So far, we’ve named them Berbere, Pterodactyl, Zazu and Kaleidoscope. All the babies I knew from last summer are brown juveniles now, and it’s fun to see how much they have grown up! I am looking forward to getting started on my real work soon – it will be very neat to actually start observing the juveniles. I can already tell there are going to be interesting differences between the large units and the smaller ones, and of course between the males and females. Ali has been sick this week so hasn’t gotten much time with the monkeys, but I know already that having an extra set of eyes on those rascally juveniles will be helpful!

It’s also been fun to really get to establish myself in our house. Last summer, I was in a tent in the backyard for most of the summer. This time, I have a real room, and I don’t even have to share it! I’ve put a bunch of pictures up on the wall, and unpacked my clothes and books and things out of my trunk onto some shelves. It’s great to not live out of a suitcase, and to have a real bed and a window and walls that I can put things on. It makes me feel like I’m actually staying for a while. That’s good, since I’m going to be here until May! My room is very homey and it makes me happy to come back to it after work. I also have a real bed frame – not sleeping on a cot this year! :)

I guess that’s all for the moment. I’m hoping for one more week of preliminary work, maybe two, then get started with data collection by the end of the month. Wish me luck!
Sunset from our lookout

Happy New Year! And happy start of school for all of you doing that at the moment!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Adventures in Addis (or Yay Sisay!)

I have just finished my first week in Ethiopia, all in the capital Addis Ababa. My first few days were extremely busy, but things have been very low-key since then.

I arrived at 7am on Thursday morning (September 1st), after approximately 28 hours of traveling. I was pretty exhausted but since Friday is often a half-day for government workers, I needed to get started on my official business right away. One of the friends of the project arranged a driver for me, Sisay, and he and I left my hotel for the offices of the Wildlife Authority soon after my arrival. After a number of trips up and down 10 flights of stairs, a hell of a time trying to find the correct bank to deposit my and Ali’s research fees in, and the help of some very kind wildlife officials, I made it out with my official letter of support and a receipt for my fee payment.

With that in hand, Sisay and I headed across town to the Immigration Ministry, where I needed to apply for a resident’s card. What an adventure. First I went in the wrong entrance – apparently men and women enter on different sides of a building and I had tried to go in the men’s side. Oops! Once inside, I wandered around for a little bit trying to find the correct room to wait in. All the signs were in Amharic so it was a little challenging! Finally, I found the correct room and the correct forms to fill out, and a Somali lady nicely loaned me a pen. I filled out the form to the best of my knowledge and waited in a long queue to have my paperwork checked. I was starting to get worried as the clock ticked its way towards noon, as everything shuts down for lunch at that point. Luckily, I was the last person the lady checking papers helped! So I got my forms nominally approved and was instructed to come back at 2pm to a different room with a different line. I went at met Sisay and the car and we headed to the Lucy Restaurant near the National Museum for lunch.

We finished eating around 1pm, so we figured we could try and get my driver’s license approved at the US Embassy before heading back to Immigration. So I headed inside, armed with passport and license. Once again there were many sets of lines and frazzled workers, but at least some of the signs were in English! Once I had gotten my license checked, paid my $50 notary fee and waited in yet another line, I was sent to an embassy worker who made me raise my right hand and swear that all the information on my license was correct. I didn’t tell her that I no longer weigh 125lbs (although that may change over the course of the next 9 months!), so I was able to get my official stamp and instructions about my next destination in the quest for an Ethiopian license – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since Sisay and I had a little time before we needed to be at Immigration and the MoFA office was nearby, we headed there next. Once again, I picked the wrong entrance. Once I made it to the correct entrance, I was told that driver’s license certification was done at a different branch of the MoFA! And not just that, the officials at the second branch were having an important meeting so the offices were closed all afternoon. So much for that errand.

Next stop – Immigration. I waited in another line for a while to have my picture taken, then an additional line to pay for the processing fee. I was hoping that once I had done that, they would just hand me my resident’s card, but no luck – I was instructed to come back the next day at 2pm to pick it up. Sigh. It was okay though. With no more errands possible for the day, Sisay drove me back to my hotel and I took a much-needed nap!

I was woken from my nap by my phone ringing – it was the wildlife official I had been working with, telling me I needed to come back to his office because he had forgotten to give me a letter for the park officials in Debark! So on Friday morning, after sitting in a traffic jam for at least an hour, Sisay and I made it back to the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority office. I was hoping to just pop my head in and get the paper, but the man I needed was in a meeting, and then when he was out of the meeting, the Archives person he needed to file the forms with was out of the office. What a start to the day! It was nearly noon and I hadn’t even started on the list of errands I had been hoping to accomplish Friday morning! As I was preparing to leave however, the Archives man returned and I was able to get everything processed quite quickly. Yay!

Onwards to the MoFA branch #2! We arrived – of course – just as they closed for lunch. So Sisay and I killed another hour and a half of our time at the Lucy Restaurant (I guess Sisay really loves their food!). Then we joined another line at the MoFA, sat in the rain for a while, then finally had the privilege of paying for yet another stamp on my license certification paper. Then off to the Immigration Ministry again, where I was able to use the correct entrance, avoid all lines (amazingly!), and pick up my bright green, squeaky clean, hot off the press resident’s permit! Very exciting! One set of tasks was completely accomplished! And only one more errand remained – taking my many-times-stamped sheet and license to the Road Authority.

I think the Road Authority was my favorite of the places we stopped at, perhaps because I didn’t have to do any of the talking or negotiating!  Since EVERYTHING there is conducted in Amharic (including all the forms you have to fill out), Sisay came with me and basically did everything for me. After a fair amount of shuffling from one desk to another, we were handed my new license – a tiny slip of paper with a photocopied picture of me on it, a postage stamp sort of thing on the back, and an incorrect birthdate. I was a little surprised that after all the stops along the way, all the stamps and signatures and this and that, I just had a business card basically (and printed on regular weight paper!). Luckily, we weren’t entirely done. Sisay ushered me out of the building we were in to one next store, where I paid a lady 15 cents to laminate my license! Amazing! Now at least it won’t get destroyed in my pocket. :) So great.

So those were my two crazy days of bureaucracy. Since Saturday, life has been pretty much off-the-clock. I walked to the Hilton one day (about 40 mins from my hotel) to buy plane tickets up to the field site, change some money, use the internet, buy shampoo and conditioner, and generally just get out of my hotel. I also went to church with Sisay on Sunday – a riotous, lengthy (but pretty fun) affair full of singing and dancing and jumping around while it bucketed down rain and thundered like crazy outside. I’ve watched a number of movies on the TV in my room, read some books on my Kindle and generally relaxed. I also went on a trip to the Piazza to buy some methanol for the lab. Now that all the necessary official stuff is done, I’m itching to be up in the mountains! Yesterday (Tuesday) – Julie (camp manager) and her friend returned from their vacation and Ali is arrived from the US. This morning, we flew to Gondar, ran some errands and drove up to Debark. We had coffee there with some Peace Corps volunteers, then headed up to the Simiens! Hurrah! It’s been foggy and rainy since we arrived in the highlands, but hopefully it will clear up in the morning so we can go see geladas!