Awash, music, and BONGA

Awash National Park

I just returned from a 3 day stay at Awash National Park. So far, my experience in Africa has been very atypical from what most picture when they think of Africa. This weekend was the exception. Awash screams Africa, from the dry grassland and intense heat, to the lions and warthogs.  My experience was similarly African. In the matter of two days I managed to:

  1. Swim in a river with crocodiles
  2. Watch a lion eat a goat
  3. See a leopard moments before spending a night on the *toilet
  4. Get (innocently) charged at by the alpha male in a pack of baboons.

From the beginning:

The drive down to awash was beautiful, leading to the following alternating conversation/stream of consciousness between my friend Spencer and I:

“This is ridiculous”

“So this is what Africa looks like”

“How can anyone not be looking out the window?”

“Its like people who don’t look out the window on a plane. Screw them.”

“People pay money for beautiful views but shut the window on a plane?–Pisses me off”

“I know right?!?! You are in a FREAKING PLANE. For thousands of years this wasn’t possible. You are literally flying through the air.“

“Seriously people (indicating the masses) Stop complaining. Sorry it takes you four hours to fly across a continent. A hundred years ago that would have taken 3 months. Seriously, shut up.”

We arrived at our site to find tents set up along a beautiful river at sunset. There were giant trees all around teeming with monkeys who were as interested in us as we in them. Just before bed, we were walking towards our tents when a couple of us spotted two bright eyes in the dark. In the low light we could tell that it was a cat. It had a long tail and was three or four feet long. It was a wild cat, most likely a leopard—both beautiful and frightening to watch. Its curiosity settled, it vanished into the forest.

With images of being eaten alive in my mind, I drifted off to sleep. At 3 am I woke up with a start, an intense stomach pain begging for relief. Although we were told not to use the bathroom at night, I had no choice. I spent a solid (liquid) hour that night in a safari forest, my mind racing.

The next day, although feeling sick, I went on a safari tour. We saw tons of large birds, small deer, giant antelopes, warthogs and other animals. A recently captured lion, in a rudimentary cage, was being fed a goat which was absolutely fascinating to watch.

After lunch, we arrived at the famous awash falls and our guide suggested that we should swim. After repeatedly being told it was safe, and in consideration of the extreme heat, we all obliged him. My friend John asked me to take his underwater camera to the opposite side of the river. However, once across the river, I noticed that two of our directors came running down to the beach. They were gesturing to me to get back quickly– a few crocodiles were about 50 yards away. I swam to the bank in a well-hidden terror, making the river slightly warmer in the process.

…About 6 years ago, my family was vacationing in Italy. In Venice, my brother and I met a great British guy who offered to show us around the city. After dinner we met up at a bar. Five hours later and one brief stint of testing the waters of the grand canal, Luke and I realized it was 2 o’clock in the morning. Before we got to the hotel, my dad and mom were upon us, heavily considering whether to hug us or punch us. In one of the most memorable moments of my life, the first thing out of my Dad’s mouth, anger and pure emotion in his eyes,

“do you know what fear is?”

I think I can answer that question now. Fear is sitting, quite vulnerably, in an African forest knowing hyenas and leopards might be considering what I taste like. Fear is swimming across a river knowing there are crocodiles nearby. Fear is also loving someone more than yourself, and the perception that you might lose them. Fear is the thought of failure or letting someone, or a village, down. Fear sucks.

*by toilet I mean hole in the ground


I have a strange relationship with music. I have appreciated it more as time goes on, and have come to love several songs. Of the thousands of songs I have on my computer, I probably only listen to 100 regularly. What I have noticed recently, and especially here in Africa, is that music can really add to an experience. It can turn an everyday walk into an enlightened event. A few of my favorites:

Mary by Soulive: Soulive is one of my favorite bands, introduced to me by musical guru Ben Hawkins. (Hi Ben! come to Ethiopia ASAP to visit/volunteer) This song is a prayer to Mother Mary to not give up on the ghetto. It is a prayer for understanding given the extreme poverty and sadness that exist in the poorest communities. It is my favorite song to hear and witness on a walk across town.

Let it be and In my life by the Beatles: I love the Beatles, especially when they were on drugs.

Waving flag by K’Naan: the unofficial anthem of Africa, and a song that when I play on a bus ride makes me feel African. I am no longer a visitor but a part of the way of life.

Golden Days by the Damnwells, Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright, and Hands of Time by Groove Armada. No explanation here, these just sound good. And yes, I’m embarrassed.

You don’t know how it feels by Tom Petty and Comptine d un Autre été by Yann Tiersen: These songs are awesome because they remind me of Carly.


I’ve been sitting here for about 10 minutes and I can no longer think of a clever or romanticized way to tell you about Bonga. I will have to supplement my words with pictures and trust that you will understand when you visit!

I live in a jungle, a tropical rainforest. There are hot springs, an insanely beautiful waterfall, beautiful people, great food, and the views are absolutely epic. The mist every morning gets burned off around 9 am, the clouds evaporating against the giant trees. Monkeys and Toucans wake me up every morning. This place is one of the worlds hidden gems.


My life
Last week I told my host family, “I have training in Chilimo for the next two weeks.” They gasped, then repeated “Jiboch. Bizzu Jiboch allaw.” Hyenas. Lots and lots of hyenas are there.
With that in mind, I set off to Chilimo, an awesome park in the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. We have been primarily studying perma-culture, the study of how to maximize land use for sustainable food production. Ideally, a family could acquire all of their food needs from an area the size of a living room.
I was skeptical at first, remembering I had tried harder in school after summers of manual labor. Nevertheless here I was, a wooden pickaxe in hand, digging into Ethiopia. And yet, I can honestly say, I really enjoyed the week.
We have learned how to use a branch, a piece of string, and a rock to find level ground on a sloped piece of land to collect water. We have learned that it is smart to grow beans along with corn, and a big mistake to grow beans near onions. In the classroom, we have studied how to use the land for economic gain. I have learned methods that can help me with my coffee co-op, made connections with business owners, and studied how to develop and market rare commodities. A small project I hope to do at my site is to dry mango, banana and papaya fruit, and sell them to tourists hiking in the Simien and Bale mountains. All the proceeds would go towards generating income for an orphanage or perhaps individuals living with HIV. The peace corps is really all about finding innovative ways to improve life with limited resources.
I remember graduating from college and thinking… I can perform a SWOT analysis and accrue financial data, but I have no tangible skills. I just have a more expensive brain filled with a ton of dumb acronyms. Learning how to actually make something- out of nothing-requires knowledge, demands patience, and is entirely therapeutic.
But if there were only one thing to take out of training it would be this:
We have a trainer, a silent badass. an African agricultural Miagi, who told me about his first trip to the U.S.
He said, “my first time to the U.S. I cried. I openly wept.”
I could see the sadness in his eyes as he recalled, “…the sprinklers, pouring gallons of water on top of grass. GRASS!?!? To know what this water would mean to millions of Ethiopians, it broke my heart.”
I guess my kids will have to play soccer in the dirt. Maybe one of them will be used to it.

I have a moustache. Basically this means that I’m a man now. I can sleep on the couch. I can read a newspaper on the toilet and wear a top hat. I can listen to Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan without being a stoner, and I can wear aviators on a daily basis. I can probably fly a plane. I can drink scotch and fall asleep watching the news. I can do woodwork in my spare time and yell at politicians on TV.
Yes, I’m a man now.

The Beauty of Pixar
I have a game for you: name something American that is better than Pixar movies…
Maryland Crabs smothered in Old Bay? 64 ounce steaks? Jennifer Love Hewitt circa 1998? Snood? Monday Night Football? All you can eat Sushi Buffets?
All fantastic things, but Pixar gets my vote.
Pixar represents a company that operates differently than most. They could easily double their efforts, making four or five movies a year. Rather, Pixar focuses on the perfection of their characters, story lines, and animation. They focus on the process, rather than production, perfection rather than profit.
I’ve only come to fully appreciate their movies in the past couple days.
My posse of kids who wait at my door has been growing exponentially. It started out with my two brothers and has grown to a few dozen neighbors and friends. I have literally been reduced to the role of a clown. Kids expect me to dance, make jokes, give plastic gifts in the shape of animals, and younger kids are, at first, scared shitless of me.
When I offered to show my entourage a movie, I got 20 immediate RSVPs.
My host brothers always request bloody war movies, but for a more diverse audience I turned to the most recent Pixar film, “Up.” Making up the audience was my favorite three year old, Kidest, a sixty year old grandfather, and everything in between.
To watch them is to watch a 6 year old playing a video game for the first time, the exaggerated movements, as if they were driving a car themselves. Kids were literally running around the room, screaming, gasping, shouting “RUN!!!” personifying the emotions the creators visualized. The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers, unblinking. The grandfather was riveted, Kidest was beaming. The movie was a unanimous success. The following nights we watched Ratatouille and Monsters Inc.
Yes Pixar gets my vote for the best thing America has to offer. Well, except for running water.

Language Lesson
In language class we learned how to use conjunctions to connect continuous thoughts. For example:
Yih Samint, Sim allegn. Bemkatilo Samint Fikrana Gin Yallagnim
This week I have a moustache, however next week I will not have a girlfriend.

The bus picks me up at 7 am and we drive for about an hour. I’ll either talk to a friend (I love talking) or look out the window (I love looking out the window). We pass rows of teff, now turning a shade of red as the dry season approaches. Kids as young as six break up the sea of green, herding a dozen or so goats or sheep.
When we arrive, we walk a half-mile to our training center. On the way I will talk to some of new friends. We cross a bridge that a week from now, one of us will break our leg on. Along the way I will strike up a conversation with one of my new friends.
Seth is a natural leader. He is well spoken and is ridiculously strong. He trained as a bodybuilder and is absurdly ripped, so we have that in common. We talk about our past and future travels. I tell him about Carly and our adventures in Europe and he tells me about traveling through South America, living for free in a program that partners willing workers with organic farmers.
John and Spencer are two of the funniest people I have met in my life. Johnny is our version of Michael Cera and Spencer has a perfect sense of humor. I could talk to them for days about absolutely nothing, and we have become a little too capable of making each other laugh. Ramona and Tracy, the other members of my language class, are really smart and really in love. Being with them everyday makes me want to A) throw up and B) do the Peace Corps with Carly. Tracy knows everything about anything and Ramona has become my pseudo big-sister here.
Along the way I might stop and talk to Campbell, my soccer partner and a former white water raft guide, or Chase –Californian in every possible way– and a former volunteer in Madagascar. I might talk to Anna, a scrabble champion, Bob and Nancy, our parents/professors for this trip or Brandon and Mark. The three of us connected by the shared bond of graduating from College in May and missing our girlfriends back home.
Kids will come up to us asking for money, or water bottles. Most of the kids here are more rural and traditional, their families living on the land for perhaps thousands of years. Traditionally, they wear a small patch of hair on their heads. The logic behind this is heartbreaking. Because so many kids die before they see adolescence, the hair patch is supposed to act as a handle for God to pull them up to heaven.
The other day, our hike interrupted a much more important gathering. A woman had died of typhoid fever, and her loved ones were carrying her casket up the mountain for burial. She was 26.
Ethiopians express love and emotion much differently than Americans do. It is rarely spoken and often simply assumed. Adults rarely cry or express love, but dote upon and brag about their children endlessly. During a funeral, all the bottled up thoughts, unsaid words, and tears explode from those in mourning. The wailing is bone chilling, the cries undeniably human and eerily inhuman. The crying and sobbing will last all day and through the week, perhaps months. Those in mourning will wear black for years.
A perfect reminder that you should never save love for a rainy day.

My future life:
This morning we gathered in Holeta to find out our future sites. I can’t put into words the anxiety and speculation that preceded this morning. My heart was racing as they called my name and my future town:
Bonga, in the Kaffa forest.
To say that I got lucky is a vast understatement. My director took into account the little she knew about my preferences and myself and picked the perfect spot for me. I will paraphrase my guidebook to show you how excited I am:
The medieval kingdom of Kaffa, whose name is immortalized as the derivative of the words Coffee and Cafe, lies to the southwest of Jimma.
Bonga is an attractive town, sprawling along a high ridge that offers some stunning views of the surrounding forested slopes, and studded with a few buildings that must date to before the Italian occupation. A more convincing reason to visit Bonga perhaps is the opportunity to visit the Bonga Forest Reserve. These are among the last remaining sub-tropical forests of any size to be found in Ethiopia, and are renowned for their abundance of sustainable non timber forest products: coffee, cardamom, forest pepper and honey.
These closed canopy forests also host a large number of monkeys, babboons, and animal life. They also boast natural features such as waterfalls and hot springs. Beautiful campground can be discovered by guides on Horseback.

The awesome history of Bonga and the Kaffa Region.
According to legend, Kaffa is the birthplace of Coffee, rumored to be discovered by a local monk from Bonga in the 3rd century. This monk realized that his livestock became energetic when they ate the plant. When he showed his spiritual superiors, they ridiculed him for bringing stimulants to a house of God and threw the beans in the fire.
Incensed by the smells, they apologized, experimented with the bean, and were the first humans to taste what we know as coffee.
For 1,000 years Coffee remained a regional secret, until Venetian Merchants came to Ethiopia in the 16th century. The Kaffa region became the exclusive proveder of Cofee for all of Italy for most of the 16th – 18th centuries, traveling from Ethiopia to Venice and elsewhere. The rest, as they say, is history. So the next time you go to starbucks, just remember to thank a 1700 year old monk and his hyper goats.