My First Week! (non-medical)

My first week in Mekelle has been a rollercoaster filled with the cliché emotional highs and lows but also included sights, sounds, smells and experiences that are completely new to me. So much has happened that I’ll split this blog post up into 2 parts. The first being a personal life update and the second, a medical update.

The SIM card:

Since I had no pre-arranged place to live, I stayed at the Axum hotel for the first week. It was a very nice place with tight security, occasional WIFI and breakfast every morning. To add to its comfort, Erin (the UIC OBGYN) also was staying at the same hotel and made the transition to Mekelle infinitely easier, and for that, I will be forever indebted to her. Despite the jet lag (Mekelle is 7 hours ahead of east coast time), the action of the weekend made it easy to sleep some. Theoretically, transportation was arranged from Axum hotel to Ayder hospital each morning, but that was extremely variable. The day-to-day in the hospital, I’ll describe in the next post. To cut it short, the days were quick and myself and Yilkal (Yul-li-kal; the ENT department head at Ayder) spent a lot of time doing random errands during downtime to help get myself set up here.

One of the first things to do was to get an Ethiopian SIM card. As far as I understand it, in all of Ethiopia, the only way to make calls/texts and use data is by registering your phone with the Ethiopian government via EthioTelecom. In Mekelle, there is only one place to do this and the queue is sometimes daunting. Not to mention that the language (Tigrinya, similar to Amharic, but unique to the area/people its named after), is extremely difficult to understand. Thus, Yilkal was nice enough to escort me and get things set up. The building was within walking distance of Axum Hotel, so I met him there. After long conversations that I understood not a word of, an exchanging of passport copies and data entered into the computer database, I was sent over to another desk for processing. Thank goodness I had Yilkal with me, because normally after you buy the SIM card, you have to purchase paper codes that you then enter into your phone, which allows you to purchase special packages that you then need to refresh by repeating the process each time. Yilkal convinced the Telecom people to set me up with Post Pay which allows me to use whatever data I want and then pay at the end of each month (in cash, in person at Telecom).

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Because it’s not a one-size-fits-all SIM card, we had to go find a guy in an electronics shop that has a special SIM card cutter to cut down to the size of my smartphone nano SIM card (an extra 50 Birr; 27/1 conversion = ~$2). Well worth it though, because I would have no idea how to do it otherwise.

The Contract:

The next day, we made a trip up to Mekelle University to get papers signed from Ayder Hospital so that my official contract could be drafted. They printed the contract in English for me to review. Seeing that this was my first every job contract, I thought it’d be smart to read carefully. Hidden in two lines was the phrase “two-year commitment.” I reminded Yilkal that we were going to take this one year at a time and with his always big and kind smile, passed that reminder on to the Mekelle University official helping us. A few quick changes and my first contract was signed.  Of course, they also needed copies of my passport, business visa and real photos of me (which I did not have), so we left them to process with the promise to return next week with what they needed.

Getting Out of Axum Hotel….and Puppies!

My favorite part about these trips with Yilkal is that he always insisted on stopping for Buna (traditional Ethiopian espresso). For usually 15-20 Birr, we would enjoy a quick, extremely potent Buna and continue with our adventures. Some days, drinking 3-4 cups a day. My coffee addiction is going to become a real problem here.

Next on my problem list was finding a place to live. Axum Hotel was nice sometimes, but I didn’t like the isolation, I didn’t feel like I was actually part of the Mekelle life, and it costed $40/day. Yilkal took me to see the Ayder Guest house which was basically a dorm-style building with 3 floors and about 12 rooms. A shared kitchen on each floor and was partially furnished. It was OK, but I would have been the only guest in the entire place. Way too isolating.

My new Spanish UNICEF friends (Jon and Alina) were kind enough to invite me to their home one afternoon to see their spare bedroom. Their house was actually about 300 meters from the Ayder Guest house and about a 20 min ride to Ayder Hospital. Right about now, I’ll give you a map to help orient you.

Map of area

Off the paved main road onto a cobblestone road, just past a popular hotel (Desta Hotel), and onto a dirt (really mud) road sat a gated 2 story pink cement house with welcoming ceramic tile and a floor-to celling-window doorway. Just through the doorway was a large, common room with a couple of couches and a plastic table. The kitchen (offering a sink, a plug-in electric stove and a small fridge) and a bathroom were on the ground level. A beautiful staircase with huge never-before-cleaned, dust stained windows overlooked the house in the back of the compound. On the second floor are 4 rooms. One, too small to really occupy held a stained foam mattress and windows overlooking all of Mekelle. The next was Jon’s room, the 3rd the spare room and the master belonging to Alina(uh-line-eh). There was a bathroom with a flush toilet and a tub with a faucet that I would share with Jon. Alina’s master features a large spacious room with its own bathroom. Alina’s partner (Mikel; sp?) is in Spain and should return in September.

In case you were wondering, water is delivered to the house every Saturday and a tank on the ground floor is filled. A motorized pump then transfers it to another tank on the roof. Then by gravity, sinks and showers are supplied with extremely cold water.

The room I would take had two doors to balconies that clearly haven’t been used since the building was created and a large window overlooking the front of the house. There was plenty of room here and the idea of living with two great people was infinitely better than the thought of living alone. I’d accept the offer 3 days later. Oh, and how could I forget! Featured with the house is a stray/domestic dog named Skype. She had a litter of 3 puppies just 2 weeks prior to my arrival. Skype greeted me as soon as I arrived with a calm, blissful demeanor that helped explain how difficult her life has probably been. Human attention was life-saving for her and she was clearly elated to have Jon and Alina.

Endless Celebrations and Food:

Each night featured some random adventure and a ridiculous amount of food. I’ll probably have to make a post just on the food here, but it is amazing and extremely filling. Friday marked the end of my first work week and the incredibly sad departure day for Erin. She was to return to UIC for the next 3 months with the idea of returning to Mekelle in the winter for a slightly longer stay. She had been so instrumental in my transition here that is was very difficult to have her leave. It was the first time the homesick-feeling set in while I sipped coffee alone at Axum Hotel.

However, as if sensing my despair, Alina calls to invite me out with her and a bunch of UNICEF people celebrating 65 years in Ethiopia. Over my phone, Joseph (one of the general surgery residents) described to my Bajaj driver how to get to the bar and 10 mins later, I was with 15 other people dancing the night away. After ending the night ironically, at a place called the “white house,” I was reminded that I’ll never be alone if I don’t want to be. One of the guys there named Nigus (translating to King) made sure I got home safely, eventually entering his number in my phone under the name “King.”

The next morning, I was ready to leave Axum Hotel and arranged a car to take me and ALL of my stuff to my new place.


After somehow making it there with all my stuff intact, Jon and Alina (and Alina’s sister Elisa; visiting for 7 weeks) whisked me away to a lunch with their UNICEF director at a neighbor’s house. The UNICEF director is from Zimbabwe and the neighbor is from Nigeria and the combinations of food there was spectacular. I started to realize that meals were marathons and each required at least a 2-4 hours dedication. As soon as that was done, Joseph picked us up in his car to go shopping for his girl friend’s birthday (Judith; a nutritionist at Ayder that has been there for 7 years). A small amount of downtime allowed for a Buna break and a great deep conversation with Alina’s sister Elisa. Here to work with an NGO for children, Elisa is using her summer before university to learn, mature and experience life. Something certainly I had no perception of when I was that age. Following coffee and since we started to accumulate more people, the decision was made that Jon and I would take a taxi up to the special restaurant in Quiha (a town near the airport; which is pretty far away).

What you don’t know, is that a taxi here is actually a van that piles people in at a depo and heads off in some random direction that can only be deciphered by translating the Amharic signs on their roofs. Joseph pointed out the correct area and Jon and I listened for someone to yell “Quiha.” We heard it, pilled on through the mud and my taxi experience was underway. 5 miles and 5 birr later (~20cents) we arrived in Quiha at an unfortunately located, but beautiful restaurant. We set up balloons, drank more beer and spent 6 hours enjoying the night and celebrating Judith’s birthday.


We all went home that night ready to crash, exhausted from the endless parties, beer, and food. Alina was kind enough to lend me a mattress and sheets so I didn’t have the sleep on the common room couch. I was beyond appreciative and fell asleep immediately.

The Mattress:

Sunday, I had arranged to meet up again with Yilkal to go mattress shopping. I an attempt at my first shower at my new place, I went to boil water so that I could have my first warm water “shower” since coming to Ethiopia (Axum Hotel did not have hot water). But of course, the second I turn on the electric stove, the power goes out. Thus, the roof water tank provided me with my closest 40 second shower thus far.

I met Yilkal down by the Desta Hotel and we headed to the market. The market defines chaos and its navigation requires basic Tigrinya, awareness, and aggressive haggling skills. After a couple hours, a Buna break and a lot of confusion on my part, we had managed to obtain a mattress, sheets, comforter (its pretty cold at night), pillow, sandals and a rug for about 3000 Birr (110 USD). To get the mattress back to my home, we had to hire a Bajaj, strap it to its roof and direct him to our new home. Overall, not too difficult. I arrived only with time to throw my stuff again into the common room to turn around and head to another UNICEF neighbor’s lunch party; this time for a graduation. There was endless food and dancing, again for hours.

Each time I arrive at a stranger’s house I’m invited in and treated like family. It’s a wonderful feeling, one of which I so rarely experience in the US. It’s a foreign concept and feeling to me, but it’s wonderful.

Of course, at the end of that celebration, Alina received a call to come to yet another celebration across town. Jon and Alina went, Elisa went to meet a coworker and I walked home to unpack and set up my room. I found myself alone, for only the 2nd time in 7 days. This time, however, it was only physical; emotionally, I realized that I am connected to my new Mekelle family.

The view from my new roof 🙂

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