Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/31/16

Personal Experiences from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 08/31/16


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. We had lived in Morocco together; my husband has been all over - Pakistan (x2), Tashkent, numerous extended TDYs.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

US (DC). On average, from door to door is almost 24 hours, given the nightmare of the airport here in Addis (factor in three hours at least and you will mostly need it, especially on a Friday or Saturday night - all flights out of her are late evening for the US).

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3. How long have you lived here?

12 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is fine-ish. All large houses/compounds (although it's my understanding the embassy is going to add some apartments to the pool this years). On one hand, I'm not complaining: I live here for free, thanks to the US tax payers and for that, I'm honestly really grateful. However, let's be real: the houses are fraught with issues...constant work orders in at any one time. There is nothing in the way of insulation so you will be cold here, especially from June through September when the primary rainy season is in effect. It gets cold at night. The embassy provides space heaters but a) those always scare me, especially given the electrical nightmare that is Addis and b) they are not efficient, plus the metal gets scalding hot and don't really emit heat beyond a couple inches' radius of the heater.

Mold. None of the bathrooms have exhausts/vents. This means a growing (literally) wave of what almost looks like black mold in our bathroom that peaked during rainy season. The embassy's solution? Paint over it. Neither of us has respiratory issues nor are we smokers but honestly, don't come here if you have breathing issues (we'll get to air quality later). I know there were posts about pests/rodents - honestly, we don't have too much of an issue although the rainy season seems to have brought ants. Occasionally we see some quasi-scary looking spiders but it's not terrible.

Location - we're in Bole Rwanda, adjacent to 'little Mogadishu' because of the large population of Somalis. Without traffic, which is almost never, we are about 25 minutes (6 miles) from the embassy. With traffic and when it's raining, just forget about getting home in anything less than an hour.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Hit-or-miss, expensive and crappy quality. Also, as someone else posted, you can't find everything you need at one store so you have to go to at least two or three. Because traffic is a constant nightmare AND there is, literally, no parking, this translates into an all-afternoon affair and not a cheap one at that. You can find some western things at some of the stores but you will pay through the nose for those. You can also hit the commissary up but be prepared for a limited quantity and to pay a huge mark-up. Wine/beer - you can get but don't expect the best quality and expect to pay more for it. HH supplies, like soap and bleach? Again, the quality is terrible. Bring a lot of that with you when come to will be thankful you did later.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Laundry detergent, paper towels, toilet paper, hand soap, tooth paste, pasta sauce, peanut butter/jams, cat/dog food. As someone else said, if we could ship perishables - definitely cheeses (all sorts), veggies and meats.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

We use Deliver Addis frequently - quality is hit or miss and luckily, the guys know where we live but as the other person stated, forget about addresses so expect the drivers to get lost the first couple of times. Oh and nobody, and I mean nobody in this country, seems to have change and everything is cash so plan on having lots of smaller bills on hand for everything (restaurants frequented by ex-pats are an exception).

There are some decent places but one reason we don't venture out is that it's a process: traffic, no parking, traffic after dinner when it's likely darker out and way, way more dangerous to drive because there are few street lights. They are useless and pedestrians just don't understand that while they have the right, as they should, stepping out in front of car in the dark when nobody can see you, is very dangerous. Driving is a nightmare. So...on the rare occasion we do go out to a restaurant, there are some decent Italian places, relatively.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

See above. Not really although a bit of an issue with ants during the rainy season.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Pouch. Allegedly, DPO " coming soon" but I've heard that for the last 12 months. Not holding my breath. I sent a set of important documents (was selling my house in the US) by DHL and it made it to DC within three working days. I was pleasantly surprised.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

While I've only encountered having to hire domestic household staff at one other post, this has been more challenging. People definitely try to gauge you (expected) but the quality of work has been hit or miss. Also, English is an issue and if you do find someone who speaks English, s/he will expect more. I will say, however, that paying more someone with experiences of having worked with expats is worth it. We do not have a driver but employ a day guard/gardener and a housekeeper/cleaning woman. The embassy provides night guards (non-optional).

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

I'm a gym rat and having access to a place to exercise is important. There is a gym at the embassy which is fine but come lunch time, it's crowded. After work, very crowded. I'm not sure why they built such a small facility when there are hundreds of people employed at the embassy. The pool and tennis courts are nice. I don't know about outside gym facilities: before we came here, we bought a good quality treadmill, which has been a life saver, as well as kettle bells, bands, etc. So...we use a combo of the gym at the embassy and our equipment at home.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I've used CC at the large hotels without problems. We use ATM cards at the embassy and a couple of the banks. It's almost 22 ETB to the dollar so as one person pointed out, you are carrying around a ridiculous wad of cash (that is the most vile currency I've ever handled - much of it is literally falling apart/disintegrating and even the new stuff smells awful. Do carry around hand sanitizer for that purpose alone).

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I am not aware as I am not religious but I've heard there are catholic services.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Lots of Ethiopians do not speak English well or at all although it is taught in school (speaks directly to the level of education but that's another issue). I believe university is in English too although not totally sure. Where you will run into the most trouble is likely in the taxis b/c frequently, they have little to no English and with the lack of addresses? you can see where the challenges are. I think there is a "survival Amharic" class at the embassy.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Serious difficulties. I hate to say it but I don't recommend this city if you are physically impaired. The infrastructure just does not lend itself to easy mobility (no sidewalks, pot holes, mud/small rivers during the rainy season), trash upon trash, etc.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Nope to the local 'blue donkeys' (mostly blue and white vans) and I don't recommend the buses. The taxis are not really affordable and almost remind me of US prices - ten bucks one way to the embassy from where we live and the drivers will always give you 'firengi prices.' I recommend finding someone in the beginning, getting his number and using him exclusively to help defray costs and also, he will know where you live, which is challenging b/c actual addresses do not exist.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Something that you don't really care about if it gets dinged, scratched or worse. Also, the roads are mostly terrible and during rainy season? Terrible-er. They will do damage to your car. People drive here as if they haven't ever been in a car before and I've heard that most people just pay off whatever ministry is running this, just to get the license. It shows. The volume of cars/trucks on the streets is overwhelming. Also, the cars/trucks are in terrible shape. Also, people do NOT obey traffic laws and I'm pretty sure said laws are considered optional by local drivers. I've been to Mexico City, Delhi, Casablanca, Luanda and other traffic-clogged cities. This is, by far, THE WORST.

And driving? This is the most stressful place I have ever driven (I used to think driving in NYC or DC or Morocco was tricky; forget it...this place takes the cake). Oh - and the gas quality? Terrible. Luckily you can pick up some sort of treatment at the embassy but we brought our own oil. Recommend doing so if you care about your car.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

This question made me laugh (and then irritated). High-speed? It's more like the dial-up we had back in the '90s, but at modern-day overly-expensive prices. So you get the worst of both worlds: crappy, slow connectivity AND you pay through the nose. Then there are the days/weeks on end without internet for a variety of reasons and with little explanation. It's all infuriating and I agree with the person who commented on the teleworking situation. Ironically, I telework for my company back in DC. I rely on the regular Ethio-telecom connection and then have the hot spot wifi. We pay hundreds of dollars just to have some sort of semi-secure internet connection for me. It's been 90% ok -- save for the week two months ago when the GOE decided to turn off access, nationally, to social media sites. The only problem? They are so inept on all levels that they essentially broke the entire internet, if that's possible. And it affected phone service.

There was internet at the embassy (which is where I went - the pool/gym area has wifi and I was hanging out there a lot), but it was dial-up speed. Unbelievable, actually. We're promised more of that should the GOE feel the need to further oppress people and in response to potential civil unrest. Plan on having a router ready. We bought the router from the person who lived here before us but that's risky too because the 'make-ready' nonsense that goes into the house between occupants means a high volume of people coming/going who can easily take the router and then it's your problem.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

I have one but again, like the internet, it's a monopoly controlled by the GOE. It's crap. At peak times, don't expect to be able to get calls out. Non-peak times, it works but you get dropped calls left and right. The telecommunications infrastructure was managed by the Chinese so the quality is just terrible. You can pick up a SIM card anywhere if you have an existing phone but you will have to jury-rig it for iPhone 5s or less (the SIM card won't physically fit appropriately).

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

This was an important issue to us as we came with animals (cats) and of course, given the stray dog population in this country, we now have dogs (NB: for animal lovers like myself and my husband, this place is heart wrenching. I know many other countries are as well but it's worth mentioning. I almost can't stand going outside because inevitably, you will see dog/cat/donkey/other carcasses (once saw two recently hit/killed donkeys just lying there and for days. People drive like hell and most people don't know how or understand the potential damage a vehicle can do to humans/animals).

There are a couple of decent vets but they have limited vaccines and equipment. There is not one x-ray machine in this entire country accessible to animals (so I'm told by the vets; not even at the university). We've picked up two dogs both abused on the street and each with a broken leg. The vet could not x-ray them and had to palpate by hand (which itself necessitated anaesthesia-- all access to gas anaesthesia, which is far more tricky for dosing and takes longer for the animal to recover from). One dog's leg could not be set so he's had to live with the consequences. Vaccines are another issue. If possible, if you have a good relationship with your vet, see what can be arranged although I know there are strict regulations on the movement/transfer of rabies and other vaccines (plus they require cold chain so they would have to on your person when you came over). Complicated but there is very basic vet care here.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

I'm not entirely sure but I think they stink - not intellectually satisfying and low-pay. I'm fortunate enough to have my old job, here (teleworking) but that's an anomaly. I have one friend at post here who was a vet in the States. Now? She is applying for an admin job at the embassy. I am not judging anyone or any job but simply stating the facts. From a financial perspective, making that sort of salary adjustment would be really difficult for most families/people, let alone what it does to one's career, etc.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

I'm not sure but I would think so: there are dozens of NGOs and not-for-profits and the poverty and needs are staggering. Also, my vet friend volunteers with one of the local vets, which is an awesome arrangement.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

what you would expect for an embassy: business attire, then business casual on Fridays (half day). I brought several gowns for Marine Balls and other formal events. It rains a lot so bring boots.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Mehhhh...hard to say. As a woman, I never really feel 'nervous' or scared but I don't really do a lot of solo walking - mostly because the infrastructure doesn't support it and the vehicle pollution is a factor. We've gone hiking up Mount Entoto (near the embassy) and you get the usual interest from locals. I've done it by myself too during the day but in hindsight, probably not a good idea. Mostly, Ethiopians are not violent and frankly, I'm more afraid in DC and getting into it with someone because we have a gun culture. Here? Not at all. Rapes, don't hear about that really. It's mostly petty crime and pick pockets (throngs of kids that look innocent but are stealing from your pockets). If you have read the news lately, unfortunately, there is a percolating and growing civil unrest and many Ethiopians have been killed throughout the country. On the other hand, it's a huge post and with hundreds of kids/families. I think you just need to be aware, like anywhere else.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

We don't have kids here so I can't speak to that and we are generally pretty health so I've only used the medical folks once (serious food poisoning); they are busy and I think there are rotating physicians so if you are looking for some intimate relationship with a health care provider, forget it. You can get basic vaccines and I think basic meds.

Medical conditions to be wary of: malaria (not in Addis but below 2100 meters), dengue (in Addis there have been outbreaks), cholera (currently, big outbreak although the GOE insisted on calling it "acute water diarrhea" because I guess the optic of "cholera outbreak" made them look bad...?), rabies (dogs, monkeys, cats for sure) - get vaccinated before you come, allergies/respiratory stuff; and of course...GI issues.

Do not think you will come here and somehow avoid WILL get sick the question is really around the frequency. I've been traveling in developing countries for 11 years and Ethiopia is the only place that no matter what, I would somehow get sick. Now that I live here? You do the math. The embassy recently started testing the air quality for particulate matter, etc. Apparently, we are worse than Beijing and Delhi. If I had children and/or respiratory problems (asthma, COPD, history of smoking), I would not come to this post.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

See above. Terrible. I don't know if it's are but it's terrible. I also had an issue when I first came with my contacts -- I started having pain and weird vision in one eye (I'm a contact wearer during the day, hard lenses). The physician here triaged me to an ophthalogist here - apparently western trained and very good. I ended up going to the States for work and was seen there. I had suffered some sort of corneal strangulation and subsequent scratching and deposition of some sort of bodies. Why did all this happen? Because we are at 7500 - 8000 feet AND it's filthy. FYI -my eye is fine but I don't wear contacts as much now, use a wetting solution/gel and bit the bullet on disposables. Those really helped and I think the money spent on them is worth it given we have a year left here.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

See above. This place is filthy and the air quality, horrendous. Also, when we first got here, there was an aflatoxin outbreak with the local dairy. We buy milk at the embassy (UHT) but the cheese and yogurt? We were buying local. Apparently, if your health is fine, this isn't too much of a concern but women who were pregnant, breast feeding and people who were immunocompromised were recommended to avoid local dairy. We do a six-month or so Kenya meat/cheese order, which is ok but don't come here thinking it's Whole Foods quality...just near Whole Foods prices.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Morale stinks here I think. People are agitated and frustrated - the traffic/driving alone will just take years off of your life. I know I'm painting a dark picture but it's true. As I mentioned, we actually choose not to leave the house a majority of the time because of the: driving/traffic, lack of parking, potential to see dead/dying animals, extreme poverty that is just killing us (please note: I've been in development work for over ten years and have seen terrible/sad things, etc but on a daily basis, month after month for a year now? It's taking its toll.). Polio is a problem here too so it's not uncommon to see the repercussions of it - the begging is over the top. I think depression is a problem. Luckily I travel for work (although, to developing countries) but sometimes to Europe and the US. It helps getting out for sure. Then there's the airport though...

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Ok for me, this is the one perk: it's not hot AND I happen to love rain (the problem here with the rain is that people turn into huge morons and it makes the traffic worse, if that's possible). There is no humidity and it never gets really hot (upper 80s maybe, at most?). The major rainy season is end of June-early September. The housing insulation doesn't really exist so it gets colder. You are at around 7500 feet so be prepared. My parents (sixties) came and were on Diamox although they are smokers).

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I hear ICS is good but we do not have children here.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

relative size? Large. I have heard figures of about 30,000 expats in Addis. Morale? Low (at least among Americans).

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Parties mostly (at peoples' homes). I ride horses and use the British Embassy so that's been nice to meet people. For local stuff, I'm not really sure how to answer.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I think as far as being a FSO, there are a lot of people and definitely, single people even though this is a big family post. There are lots of embassies here, the AU is here, tons of NGOs so...lots of single people circulating through (good for dating, not so good for longer term I guess due to the transient nature of posting every couple of years). Good for families I think, mostly b/c there are so many here. I'm not tapped into that part of the FS as again, we don't have kids here.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Absolutely no way, definitely not. Ethiopians are very very conservative and devout. I was in a cab the other day and some jerk driver was going on about sins and how gay people were sinning, etc. If I had another way to get where I needed to go (and if even knew where I was at that moment!), I would have just told him to stop and left the cab.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes; Ethiopians are all part of different tribes, which has caused many deaths this past 12 months, particularly in the SW of the country. Gender issues? Definitely. I don't know how else to say this and it's not meant in any other way than to be upfront, but this is a very male-dominate society and women play a secondary role. I have heard from several Ethiopian women that they do not date Ethiopian men b/c of how they are treated. Obviously, this is anecdotal but I've seen it too (as a woman). If this sort of thing is something you cannot tolerate, think before you come here. It's not Europe or the US. It's the Horn of Africa.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

There are aspects I like very much about Ethiopia and the history and culture. People are generally really welcoming and super laid back, which I love (and actually, take that into account if you plan on working here -- overly aggressive and loud people will not get far in the work place. Ethiopians are demure and passive so coming in and just bowling people over and being obnoxious won't work).

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

The Born Free animal preserve.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Not really. The stuff gets old. The baskets/weaving stuff is nice many baskets can one person buy? The coffee rocks though. If you are a coffee person? You are coming to the right place.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Advantages? Three hour plane ride to the Seychelles and a major hub to other SSA cities if you need to travel. That's about it. Well, and the coffee.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Everything I just said above: health stuff, driving/traffic and realities of moving around the city. They also took the COLA away, which I don't understand. This may not be a hardship post like Pakistan, for example, but it should be a hardship post.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?


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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

expectations around internet/telecommunications

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4. But don't forget your:

Rain gear, Immodium, antacids, Gatorade or other rehydrating liquid, bleach and sunblock (at this altitude, if I'm outside for more than ten minutes, I really do get sunburn - be careful out here).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?


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6. Do you have any other comments?

I realize I sound really negative and down and maybe even ungrateful. I always think about this situation as we are guests here in this country and the people and culture are beautiful in many ways. But the realities of living here outweigh those pros. I know too I keep harping on the driving. That's because it impacts everything we do here. And it is so so dangerous and there are far too many confounding factors regarding the driving that I don't know how to improve it even a little. Also, if you are seriously ill or hurt here? You have to be med-evac'd out (and even dent-evac'd). I would hate to have an appendix burst, for example, or...hurt in an MVA an have a life-threatening trauma of some sort. I could have done this for one year. Two? No. I'm done already.

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