While all of you fools back home are sweating through summer, I’m enjoying the mild temperatures and near-daily downpours of Ethiopia’s rainy season (at least here in the western highlands, where drought isn’t a problem like in the hot, dry eastern part of the country). In a country with few paved roads, that can only mean one thing: mud, and lots of it.
My relatively large town is fortunate to have a beautifully paved main road, complete with stone sidewalks (gasp!) and covered gutters (be jealous, others in Ethiopia. Be jealous.) But just about as soon as you step off the main road — say, for instance, to get to my house — you go from walking in relative comfort in all weather to one huge mud slick.
Now, they’re going to pave my road soon, supposedly after the rainy season. They’ve already done the prep work, installing the gutters along each side. Each gutter consists of two stone walls, one about a foot thick, the other maybe nine inches, and folks often walk on them to escape the mud pit that the road becomes after a rain shower. So, let’s review the options here: walk on an incredibly slick, mud-covered road, or balance with muddy shoes on a narrow stone walkway.
My first afternoon in town was a story of pride, recklessness, failure, and the kindness of a stranger. I made the poor decision to brave the road in my flip-flops, and then, after a painfully slow fall (with an internal monologue something like: “can I please just hit the ground already so this will be over?), found myself wallowing in a giant mud puddle. I picked myself back up, laughing because I didn’t know what else to do. Passersby politely stifled their laughter and encouraged me to “izohsh” — be strong. I was covered in mud: my hand, my arm, my skirt, my shirt. Humbled, I continued on my way home, this time trying my luck on the gutter wall. An old man was walking behind me, shaking his head sympathetically, and trying to tell me something in Amharic. We reached a house, and he motioned for me to follow him. He kicked some female family members off their stools on the front porch, had me sit down, and had a little kid wash my hands, arm, and water bottle. He probably would have had the kid wash my clothes had I not finally communicated that my house was nearby, and that I would take care of it there.
Though that wasn’t exactly the introduction to a neighbor I had been hoping for, it was certainly a bonding moment: now I look for him every time I pass his house, and if he’s hanging out in front of it, he waves enthusiastically and we exchange greetings of the extended variety favored among Ethiopians. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this little cultural tidbit. If Ethiopians greeted each other in English, here’s what it would sound like:
How is your day?
Fine! Are you fine?
Fine! How are you?
Fine, thanks to God. Are you fine?
…and so on. And that’s before inquiring after family, friends, home/livelihood, etc.)
Moral of the story: I maybe should have brought better shoes, but embarrassing yourself is a good way to make friends.