Posted by: mastevens27 | June 22, 2012

Back Again

The count down has begun. It seems not too long ago that my count was at twenty months, now, in what seems like a blink of an eye, I’m almost finished. I only have about five months. I’m not sure what happened. Just a heart beat ago I was just moving to Ethiopia knowing no one and with no idea of what I was getting myself into. Now I’m realizing that it’s time to start planning of the next step. How does twenty-two months go by so quickly?
So a brief catch up on basically the last year since I’ve been so remiss in posting. The major project that has kept me occupied has been the tourism initiative. We have made major leaps and bounds not only in infrastructure development but also in visitor numbers. In the first year I was working here I think we had about thirty paying tourists. Then about a month ago we had twenty-five people stay at the lodge in one weekend, so I’d say we’ve seen a bit of an up-tick. I’m very pleased with how much improvement we’ve seen. However I’m glad that rainy season is here because we were not completely prepared huge increase. But when tourists come they usually bring delicious food and I always make sure I’m within view when they sit down to eat, so I’m not going complain too much. I’ve found myself eating way better. I even managed to land a turkey sandwich a few weeks ago which basically blew my brain right out my nose. The good thing is I think the community is now starting to realize how much potential tourism has as an income generating activity. Before they had no concept of what tourism was or what the possible benefits were. Now I think they are grasping the concept of how profitable a long term tourism project can be.
As for my part, I’ve been attempting to lay a strong foundation on the operations and infrastructure side of things so things will continue to operate smoothly after I’ve left. I’m working on making sure the staff is well trained as has at least a basic understanding of customer service and that it’s better to make money for the next twenty years then to try and rip people off for short term gains. My main focus has been on working with the tourism manager that we just hired. I think he’s a great addition and will work to continue improving the project. He has a university degree, speaks a decent amount of English, and is very interested actually working to improve the project, not just to sit back and collect the salary (some times hard to find here). However he still lacks some basic managerial know-how such has basic accounting and what the foreigner’s service expectations are, and what his basic duties are. With him I’ve been creating all the forms, procedures, and reporting tools necessary for running the project and also giving him the basics on what his job responsibilities are. We’ve had to create everything from the annual operating budget to a reservation system to a receipt form to a recording system for all incomes from entrance fees to the community levy. It’s been a bit of an undertaking but something that makes me feel like I’m really making a positive contribution that will continue to be helpful after I’ve left.
When I’m not trapped doing office work I go out into the park to find and GPS tourists new trekking routes. I’m not sure if I can really classify this as work because I get to hike around and see interesting things and it’s something I really enjoy, but it’s necessary and no one else seems interested in doing it. I’ve managed to explore almost every part of the park and have spent days on end just wandering around, standing in the middle of hundreds of Gelada baboon, searching for the Ethiopian Wolf, and staring down into the rift valley. There definitely worse ways to spend a day. The next goal is to find a new camp site that will make our camping trek a full circle instead of requiring tourists to get picked up by a car.
Another project that is going on is preparing for the Camp GLOW summer camp. This is were we bring high school kids together from all over the Amhara region for a five day training on everything from computer skills to study tips to HIV education. I’m very excited to be a part of the camp again. I participated in same program last year and it was probably been the most rewarding thing I’ve done so far in Peace Corp. What’s even better is this year we managed to find the budget for me to bring two students from the local high school to the camp. For one of them it will be the first time he has ever left Mehal Meda, much less been to Addis Ababa, seen a college campus, or flown on a plane. So the plan for the next month is to prepare my two kids to be away from home for the first time and to take part in something they can’t even imagine. It should be an interesting time.

Posted by: mastevens27 | November 19, 2011

New Car!!!

On the work front, we finally got a car!!!!  After having to rely on the government offices to provide transportation (which equaled never actually going anywhere) we now have the freedom to make our own schedule.  All projects that I have wanted to get started and couldn’t do because of the unreliable transportation situation are finally coming to fruition.  InAmericaI defiantly underappreciated how fantastic having constant access to reliable transportation is.  The freedom to go where I need to without begging a ride or walking for hours is fantastic.  Never again will I take for granted how wonderful it is to have regular access to a car.


Because of this car situation, in the last few weeks I been able to start work on developing the environmental clubs in the rural primary schools, doing serious work on the tourism products, and gave a week long tour guide training.  Life is so much easier when I don’t have to walk four hours one way to get into the park.  What is more exciting is that this is just the beginning.  There are plans for several training, village visits, and other projects


The one new project I’m very excited about starting is the website development.  The Guassa Community Conservation Area now has a functioning website.  Feel free do visit and check out where I’m living and what I’m working on.  But my new idea is to create new videos and slideshows highlighting the different tourist attractions that Guassa has.  So I’m planning to make video clips of the interesting attractions like the traditional villages, the 400 year old church, a walking tour of the lodge, and of the wildlife.  I’ve started by taking some videos of the market that happens every Saturday and is a really interesting attraction.  This will be an interesting project, and it gives me an excuse to get out and visit all the tourism sites for “work”. 

Posted by: mastevens27 | October 3, 2011

One Year In

I just celebrated my second Mescal. I have to say that my love of lighting things on fire hasn’t diminished with age. This is an infatuation I might not be able to escape. Anyway, in case you don’t remember from last year, Mescal is celebrating the day part of the cross Jesus was crucified was brought to Ethiopia. I have had mixed reports on who did this and what exactly happened. But I think the basics are the leader of Ethiopia at the time (again mixed reports) went to Egypt and through a series of strange events and some political maneuvering, somehow managed to bring a piece of the cross back. It is really one of those times I wish I had Google at the touch of a button.
The way Ethiopians celebrate this is by making a huge pile of wood with a cross sticking out the top, having the priests pray over it, and then lighting it on fire. I don’t really get the correlation, but I’m a big fan. Here in Mehal Meda we had a stack of wood that was at least fifteen feet tall and basically the whole town turned out to watch. It was me and about a couple thousand people watching a towering inferno (somehow I was more interesting to watch than the fire for the majority of the crowd. I would think after a year I wouldn’t be a novelty any more. Or at least a gigantic fire would be a bit more interesting, but I digress.
For me, the best part of the night came afterward. When the community fire was done everyone when home and made their own bonfire in front of their home. It was beautiful to see the streets lit up with dozens of fires and families gathered around them singing and dancing. Every street I walked down had at least seventy percent of the houses had a fire going in front of it. Ethiopians really know how to do holidays.
This Mescal was much different than the first on I experienced. It’s interesting to see how my views have changed in one year. My first Mescal was day three in Ethiopia and day one with the host family. I remember going up to the church in Addis Alem, not knowing what was happening, and seeing a mob of Africans set a cross on fire, an interesting introduction into Africa life. However this year I was able to relax and enjoy the celebration and actually take in the different culture instead of being scared out of wits. It’s amazing how comfortable a person can become with a culture in such a short time. Just twelve months ago I was in a foreign land with a foreign people. However now it feels kind of like home (I much emphasize ‘kind of’) and I’ve managed to create a life here. I have learned so much in a year, but somehow I still get shocked on a regular basis.

Apparently reaching the one year mark is making me sentimental, didn’t really see that coming.

Posted by: mastevens27 | September 19, 2011

This is the New Year….in September

We just celebrated Ethiopian New Year. The calendar here is completely different than the one the rest of the world uses. They have thirteen months, twelve with thirty days and one month with five days, thus the very clever catch phrase “Thirteen months of sunshine.” Since they never switched over to the Gregorian calendar the New Year is obviously on a different than the rest of the world. What I’m thankful for is basically all government and NGO activities are run on the Gregorian calendar, so I am able to operate on the normal calendar. However it does make it a bit complicated to make appointments with local artisans.

The New Year celebration was great and much lower key than the American New Years party (and most Ethiopian celebration). There was no ball drops or mass consumption of alcohol. The basics of it are the whole family gets together and cooks a special meal. The family I celebrated New Year with had doro watt(sort of like a thick spicy chicken soup), kitfo(raw seasoned ground meat), and tibs(chunks of fried meat, goat maybe). It was a huge amount of meat with basically nothing else. Kind of an unfortunate thing because I’ve basically turned into a vegetarian here other then the canned meat you wonderful people send me. However my favorite part of the meal was the tella, which is a local honey and barley beer. It takes a bit of getting use to, it is a bit strange to have floating grain in your cup, but is utterly delicious.

After the meat feast we went outside and there was a bonfire in the street and the grandfather said a prayer thanking god for good in the past year and asking for help in the coming year, or at least that’s what I got out of it. What I really enjoy about Ethiopian celebrations is all of them require the whole family to be there. There is something really cool about having everything three or four generations all in one place.

I was actually very surprised at how family oriented the celebration was. For almost every celebration I’ve seen people take to the streets with huge parades with singing and dancing. It is one of my favorite parts of Ethiopian culture. They really do holidays right. We should bring parties in the street to America. There is such a feeling of community that happens.

Now that New Year is over, Mescal is only about two weeks away, which will mark one year in country. I can believe how slow yet fast this past year has gone. It has been a time of amazing personal growth, self discovery, and getting very comfortable having no idea what is going on. Peace Corps has really been the hardest and most challenging thing I have ever done, however when I’m having a hard day I just have to remind myself that I’m living in a place that was featured in Planet Earth and it isn’t uncommon for a Tuesday to involve looking down into the Great Rift valley being surrounded by hundreds of Gelada Baboons. There are definitely worse ways to spend a Tuesday.

Posted by: mastevens27 | August 29, 2011

After just a short break

Hello all, sorry about the long absence. Time seems to be getting away from me.

Since the last post there have been some developments. First was the summer camp. The basics of the camp were we brought Ethiopian girls ages 14-16 to Gonder University for five days of fun and learning. The themes of the days were leadership, environment, gender, career, and health. I am always amazed at how resourceful some Peace Corps volunteers are. We were able to bring in some very influential guest speakers like the first female pilot for Ethiopian Air, several very successful business owners, church leaders, and NGO directors. It was an incredible learning experience not just for the girls but me as well. I learned an incredible amount about Ethiopian culture. I hadn’t really realized how many obstacles girls here have to over come to just get to high school much less go to college and get a job. It was an eye opening experience and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
On the home front work is developing. The tourism project is starting to move. A couple of months ago I gave a week long English training for the tour guides and in theory I’ll be giving another one in about a month. However at this point most of the work that needs to be done is improvements to the lodge. We are making a new parking area, building a new dining area, and making improvements to the existing bedrooms. At the end of it the lodge should be beautiful and something most westerners would be happy to say at(fingers crossed). However things are moving at the Ethiopian pace, which is painfully slow. It’s been a difficult to learn to move at the Ethiopian work pace. I have realized how much people focus on work in America. It’s kind of crazy how different the pace of life is here and how different peoples priories are(some for the better some for the worse).
There is also a lot of development work to do, like creating pricing, hiring a lodge manager and cook, and developing the village visit. There is plenty of work yet to do before this project is actually functional. However the person who is heading up this project is probably one on my favorite people I’ve meet in country, so I have faith that we’ll get everything worked out.
One thing that I’m very excited about is school finally starting back up. I’m trying to get a jump start on things and have written a proposal to start a life skills club at the high school. In theory this club will teach students everything from business development to basic computer skills to English to Environmental Education. Now all I have to do is get the school director to sign off on it without trying to get me to pay to use the school’s materials. But I have been trying to gather support and already have a teacher who is willing to help me coordinate. So the probability of success is actually pretty high.
On the non work side of things, life is a bit rough. For the last three months the modern amenities in Mehal Meda have been a bit lacking. The phone network has been down 99 percent of the time, we have only have water for a total four days in three months, and the power is now only on maybe 50 percent of the time. But I guess I didn’t sign up for Peace Corp to be comfortable. It has been a real learning experience. I don’t think I will ever take a sink, constant electricity, or not having to choose between drinking water, clean clothes, or clean body for granted ever again.

Posted by: mastevens27 | June 1, 2011

Good Times

Life is always full of surprises. The last couple weeks have been a prime example of this. I had resigned myself to a few weeks boredom. Once again my counterpart was in Addis Ababa not saying when she would be back and the schools have started the end of year testing, so my work possibilities were looking pretty slim until either the summer camps start or the counterpart decided to show up, which I know from extensive experience could be a very long time. However life decided to throw me a bone.
I was sitting in my room when a white guy pops his head in my window. Keep in mind this is the first white person I’ve seen in Mehal Meda that hasn’t been a Peace Corp volunteer. The guy’s name is Rob, he is from Finland, and stopped in on his way to Addis to try and see the Ethiopian Wolf. Honestly I still have no idea how he even heard of this area. Apparently as soon as he got off the bus some kid led him to my compound, such is life in small town Africa. Since I have absolutely nothing to do I show him around the town. While doing this I run into a friend who tells me that there is apparently another white guy in town preaching at the Methodist church. So of course we go and meet him. He ends up being from Kansas City, which is only about three hours from where I grew up. I’m not sure what the odds of that are, but they have to be pretty astronomically low. The only two people from Kansas in Ethiopia end up in the same small rural town. Another amazing this is that I, at 23, ended up being the oldest one. So I started out the day sitting alone in my house with nothing to do, and I end the day hanging out with two white guys.
However the weirdness doesn’t end there. So the next day I take Rob out into the park in search of the Ethiopian Wolf. We fail to find any, however we do manage to stumble upon the Gelada baboon researchers. Which is an accomplishment because it’s so foggy we can only see about 20 feet in front of us. We walk into their camp at 6am and find that there are five white people in the camp, two Americans, one British lady, and two Canadians. I’m pretty sure I scared them half to death when I stuck my head in the tent. However they end up feeding us, taking us to see the Geladas, and tell me to come back any time.
Now this in itself would have made my month. However the day after Rob leaves I hear from my counterpart that she is coming back and bringing the tourism specialist and a handicraft expert. The handicraft specialist ends up being a French lady, who has been to almost every country in Africa developing tourism products. So for the last few days I’ve been following them around helping them develop the products that will be sold to the tourists who visit the park. We’ve also visited all the different tourist areas, which included a 400 year old church complete with people living in caves next to it and a traditional Guassa village that has been there for hundreds of years and the people live in exactly the same way their ancestors did a thousand years ago.
All in all, I have to admit I’m having a pretty good couple weeks, and finally having the types of experiences I hoped for when I first signed up for the Peace Corp. And if that all wasn’t enough, this weekend I’m going out to walk the purposed hiking trails and look for sites that would interest tourists. So I’m basically going out to find the most beautiful spots in the park. I can think of some worse ways to spend a weekend.

Posted by: mastevens27 | May 19, 2011

Back from America

I have returned!! I just spent about two weeks attending my brothers wedding in Brooklyn. It was and incredible about of fun. I also lived life at an economic level that I have never done before, making it just a bit harder to return to the lowest economic level I have ever lived at.
But I am glad to be back, I have quite a few projects that are developing. The one I’m most excited for is the possible development of an eco-tourism site in the national park. I think that has a high probability of actually happening. Before I left I created the entrance exam for the new tour guides and hopefully with in the next week we will actually go through the process of actually testing and hiring them. I have also be assigned the job of creating and running a basic five day training to teach the new guides basic skills of guiding, wildlife knowledge, and customer service(something very much lacking here).
Another project, actually two, is summer camp. We are developing regional overnight summer camps. We will teach them everything from environmental conservation to hand washing techniques to computer skills. I have signed up to participate in the Amhara and Oromia regional camps. Which will involve a significant amount of work, but will be a fantastic opportunity to work with the kids on some very sensitive topics. I just got done with doing the planning for the Amhara camp. The day after I got back I went up to Ba Hadar and planned out how we were going to structure the days and who was in charge of each activity. I some how managed to sign up for way more than necessary so I am now the safety and security warden, and part of the teams for gender, career development, and leadership days. Should be a very full week for me, but very exciting
On another topic, I have returned just in time for the rainy season to start. It has basically not stopped raining since I got back to site(this was only about 24hrs ago). I’m actually enjoying it quite a lot, the sound of rain on the tin roof is very relaxing and the excuse I’ll give for sleeping 14hrs last night, jet lag and not sleeping for more than 6hrs a night for the 4 days I was in Ba Hadar might have a little to do with it as well.
The other project that is coming up is the development of the Environmental radio show. Last year some health volunteers developed a radio show that was a drama type show that introduced different topics like sanitation and HIV information. My group thought it would be a good idea to develop a similar show that focused on environmental topics. So I have my first meeting for that in two weeks.
Should be a busy couple of months, hopefully. I’ll try and do a better job of keeping you guys updated.

Posted by: mastevens27 | March 22, 2011

Here we go

View of Mehal Meda



The Mescel Celebration


Coming Into Town

A few more pictures of the town.  I wish I could do more but on a dial up connection it takes about a hour.  In other news, sadly the basketball program hasn’t happened yet.  The guy I was working with decided he would leave town for two weeks without telling me, but not before skipping three separate meeting I had set up with him.  But hopefully once I get back from my training next week I can get it off the ground finally.

In other news I’ve decided that I’m not a fan of rainy season.  The short rainy season just ended, it only lasted about three weeks, but it was more than enough.  I’m glad I’ll be going home before the actual rainy season because I don’t think my clothes can survive.  I’m going to need to stock up on more pants.

One great experience that I’ve had recently happened when I went to a Kamisse to help a fellow volunteer with a project.  The project was to start a community garden for the HIV positive in the town.  We created a garden from start to finish including digging up the land, laying out the beds, and planting vegetables.  It was a fantastic experience and the participants were very excited and very willing to work hard.  It was fun just to see them design a garden and then actually create it.  Fingers crossed I can create a similar project here in Mehal Meda.

Posted by: mastevens27 | March 12, 2011

Out and about

I’ve managed to have a very interesting and productive week. I started off by going to Ba Hadar for the opening of the first regional Peace Corp office. Ba Hadar is a truly beautiful city that has the modern amenity but some how isn’t as dirty and overwhelming as most big cities in Ethiopia. The best thing that we did was rent a boat for an afternoon and go on a booze cruise. We spent three hours cruising around and just hanging out. It was a fantastic time and I even got to see my first wild hippo. It was also a great time just meeting some of the other Peace Corp volunteers. Almost all of the volunteers that live in my region (Amhara) went, so it was my first opportunity to meet volunteers from other groups.

After the office opening I went to a city called Kamisse to help a fellow volunteer with a project. Kamisse is a great town, and the people are very nice. They also have camels all over the place. However it made me incredibly thankful for the climate I have. I really do not enjoy sweating day and night. The project I helped with was starting a community garden for the HIV positive in the community. In the morning we had class room sessions where we taught them about garden design, methods of cultivation, planting, fertilizers, and nutrition. Than in the afternoon we went out and actually created the garden. It was a great time and very rewarding. I also managed to get a large number of blisters and a wicked sunburn. I was really impressed with how hard working and interested the participants were. Most of the trainings I’ve attended so far it seemed like most of the people were only there to collect the per diem. However these people work extremely hard and seemed to really enjoy themselves. I feel like this was a sustainable project, which is really hard to come by. I hope that I will be able to create a similar project in my town.

But tomorrow I’ll be back at site finally. I’m going to actually have some work to get do. I’m very excited that my basketball program is finally going to get started. I’ve had the sign ups, set a date, and made a schedule. So next Saturday and Sunday I will be teaching basketball to about thirty Ethiopians if all goes according to plan. I really hope this comes together as I have been envisioning. I’ve had quite a few locals volunteer to help me teach so when I get back I’ll have to see if they were actually serious. But the hope is that I can turn this into a weekly activity. And I really hope that I can turn it from just basketball into a youth development club where we can hopefully help the kids succeed in life. But we shall see, the rainy season is staring so I’m hoping that I can squeeze this in before it truly hits

Posted by: mastevens27 | February 23, 2011

In Addis

I’m in Addis Ababa at the moment. I had to come down to work out some passport issues. Coming here makes me really appreciate my town. Addis is dirty, stressful, expensive, and has most of my least favorite places in the world within its boundaries. However it does have some upsides. I have had pizza every day I’ve been here, and also had a ballin cheeseburger. So the ups and downs of life. The first non Ethiopian food that I haven’t made in about a month.
But other than that not much else has changed. The site activities are just about the same. I haven’t been able to move past the planning stages on any of my projects yet, but hopefully I can change that as soon as I return. One nice thing was I was finally able to go out and visit the park. My office put on a training that taught local farmers how to create nurseries so we had to go out and visit all the existing nursery sites. We spent the whole day hiking around and I found out that it is actually a pretty beautiful area. The area is quite mountainous and some of the views were incredible. I also found out that even though I’m living at a level that is unheard of in the States, for Ethiopia I’m living in luxury. I saw villages that had no running water, electricity, and didn’t have a road for about five miles. It’s pretty incredible that people live their whole lives like that. It makes me truly thankful for the opportunities I was given. It’s strange to see the kids out there and realize that there isn’t a school for about fifteen miles and they have no real opportunity to change their situation.
But I head back to site tommorow. Traveling in this country still frightens me, and I have to go to my least favorite place on earth, the Marcato bus station. But it will be nice to get back to my town. I am apparently turning into a small town guy, didn’t see that happening.

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