Epiphany

Yesterday, My friend Yiznaling and I went to the Bonga soccer field looking for a pick up game. We happened upon an event that brought me back in time.

First, I should note, the “shortcut” we took to the game was breathtaking. This path took longer, but offered a serene environment with better scenery. The trail stretched around the hillside with incredible views of the rainforest. In the distance we could see tiny mud homes built into the jungle. The rolling hills, forested mountains, and the green of the jungle make the longer path well worth the effort.

We approached the stadium to a much bigger crowd than I anticipated. More than 500 people had gathered to watch Bonga College versus Wush-Wush town. For interested parties, this is a big rivalry, the Bonga version of Cowboys-Skins, UNC-Duke, Yankees-Sox. We had forgotten that the game was scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

The game was far more organized than one would imagine. The goals had nets, the referees in full attire, and the teams dressed in European-league uniforms. The skill level was relatively high, on par with perhaps a high school J-V team. However some players were FAST.

My epiphany occurred when I realized how eerily similar this environment was. I was taken back to High School Football games at Yorktown High.

Forgetting for a moment that I was living in a jungle with incredible sights and incredible poverty. Forgetting for a moment that I only ate with my right hand because your left is your wiping hand. Forgetting for a moment that I had seen a hyena and a leopard last week,  trekked to a 300 foot waterfall the day before, and had spent the afternoon explaining to the town, that no, I don’t have a woman to cook and clean for me.

Forgetting all these things, I was transported back to Arlington, Virginia.

The realization came to me– Everyone shares the very similar interests associated with being human.

Here at the stadium, older parents and loved ones watched diligently. Men yelled directions to the players and instructions to the refs. I like to think that some men marveled at the skill of the youth, while others imagined what they would have done had they been 20 again. “In that situation, I would have taken the shot.”

Wives and girlfriends watched curiously, more worried. Every time the opposing team worked their way towards the goal was a cause for anxiety. On very close calls, the woman would look away or close their eyes.

Universally, youngsters are there to play. The elementary school kids played smaller versions of the bigger game. They would kick rudimentary soccer balls, or run around the hillside, play-tackling each other. Young entrepreneurs sold roasted peanuts, and those smart enough to bring a dollar enjoyed the indulgence. The parallels to the old games at Yorktown stadium were ever-apparent.

Meanwhile, the adolescents were having the most fun.

Middle school aged boys would run up to a targeted female, steal something trivial — a hair-band or pencil — and run off giggling. The girl, feigning irritation, would chase the boy. This cat and mouse game could go on for hours. In a society with arranged marriages and conservative traditions– any excuse to fraternize with the opposite sex is very welcome.

The game itself was spectacular, as if it was choreographed just for my enjoyment. Bonga, down 3-1 with 10 minutes left, rallied to score 3 goals and win 4-3. As the final goal trickled across the line, the entire town ran onto the field to congratulate the team. The hero was carried around on their shoulders while the players waved their shirts around their head.

It made me wonder what its like to have a team I rooted for actually win…(R.I.P. Washington DC sports)

After the game, the Bonga players walked around town, fully aware of how cool they were. They walked around town wanting to be seen and talked about. Sure enough, they were. They kept their jerseys on and stayed in the town center longer than they otherwise would have.

So yes, different people in different places have the same desires. Different cultures with very different lifestyles have the same interests. Most everybody likes to flirt. Everyone wants to be liked. Boys have crushes. Girls do too. Youth is celebrated and nostalgic. Everyone loves compliments. Losing sucks. Roasted peanuts are delicious. Town pride is universal. Incredible views are universally appreciated. Young kids dream of being older, while everyone else dreams of being a kid again.  Everywhere, there are good people, bad people, selfish and unselfish people. And anywhere you go, be it a football game in America or a classroom in Ethiopia the one universal trait of virtue, the best gift one can give, is the gift of kindness.

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I’m back!

Hey guys, remember me?

The last two weeks have been a blur, and I can finally say, time is starting to pass quickly. I’ve officially moved into my house in Bonga, my new home.

My days have been spent working on making my life comfortable and my room livable. Those of you who know me well, know how carefully I will decorate and organize my room. It can become almost obsessive but the rewards are worth it. Life is a lot easier when Home feels like Home. So I’ve replaced the dirt floors with a plastic covering, made a nice bed, painted and covered my walls and set up a small kitchen. I even bought a spare mattress for when you visit me.

My last days in Addis Alem were full of tears and anxiety. My host family cried every night for the week leading up to my departure. Fetsom, the 9 year old, ran away the day I left because he didn’t want to say goodbye. They were as emotional as I was anxious. Personally, I was ready for some alone time. Ready for some sleep! Ready to become a volunteer and start doing something. We had been cooped up for almost 3 months training and learning the language and were about to be released into the wild. We headed to our swearing in ceremony, where we had the privelage of meeting the President of Ethiopia. He shook our hands, handed us a certificate, and with that, we were off.

Last summer, the concept of being alone in a remote African town seemed daunting. Now, I couldn’t wait.

Spending the past months with 33 Peace Corps Volunteers was incredibly fun. I made close friends, fast. These were the kinds of guys who brought out the best, and worst, in me. It was like being back in college, constantly joking and having a blast. But a large part of me was aching to get away.

I would say the biggest personal reason for coming here was to figure out more about myself and become a better person. Being with awesome people brought out my social and extroverted self, but that’s not who I came here to be.

Secondly, I was very excited at the idea of becoming entirely independent. And I can honestly say the process of relying on myself has been very therapeutic. I cook, clean, and do my laundry.

Yes Mom, you read that. I know, hard to believe.

 

For example, yesterday afternoon was a busy day for me: I cooked and I did the dishes.

Yet, this was an all day event. I walked through the jungle for 40 minutes to the store that sells eggs. Then I headed to another store for some onions and garlic. Finally I bought a pound of potatoes.

By the time I got home, peeled the potatoes, roasted them until slightly burnt, and fried the eggs on top, the sun was setting. I washed the dishes while listening to some Otis Redding and called it a day. A very productive day I’d say.

So this is life in the Peace Corps. I am in the process of working with an orphanage, honey farmers, a coffee co-op, and the tourism office. However, just as with cooking, working here takes a great amount of patience. Everything moves slowly here, and worrying over fast results is counter-productive. I have big dreams but letting these develop rather than forcing them is likely the better strategy.

This has been the lesson so far: So much of the Peace Corps is about slowing down. I’m losing my obsession with time, losing this American obligation to the clock.  Back home, we are all so connected to the seconds and minutes. We display the time on our watches, cell phones, ipods, alarm clocks, microwaves, radios, and computers. Being on time is being late.

Here in Ethiopia, showing up is being early. Here, we have the sun.

In some ways this lifestyle is better, and in some ways it is worse. However it is certainly more relaxing.

 

Thoughts of the week:

  1. The music that I have to listen to during my walk into town is hilarious. Out of a mud hut, a boom box will blast either: Avril Lavigne, Jay-Z or Celine Dion. The Ethiopian obsession with Celine Dion is hilarious. Even funnier is listening to them rap Jay-Z songs in their African accents.
  2. I’ve gotten 5 marriage proposals so far. When I declined, all 5 asked me if I had a brother. Luke, you have some prospects down here. One even handed me a picture and a letter in broken English asking to become your wife. Something to think about I guess.
    1. The best proposal came from my neighbor, Sedenya, age 5. She came over with her photo album, a plastic ring, and told me she loves me. She is painfully cute.
    2. Like I said, I will likely be coming home the father of an adopted child.
    3. The most homesick you’ll ever get is when you are sick. And far from home.
    4. Its just not Christmas when its 80 degrees out. I’ve always loved summer, and thought living in San Diego would be wonderful. But I think the best part of home is the seasons.
    5. That being said, wouldn’t it be nice to get a break from the cold and come here for a week? Think about it…
    6. So far here is what I’ve gathered about what is on the mind of any given Ethiopian on any given day.
      1. Religion/Family
      2. Soccer/Religion
      3. Family/Soccer
      4. Coffee/Religion
      5. Soccer/Coffee

7. I can’t help but think my Peace Corps experience isn’t quite authentic. However I won’t complain. Having the ability to video chat with Carly has been          absolutely amazing. I often think about those in the Military who leave their wives behind– and how what I’m doing pales in comparison to them. That            takes balls.

 

A look back

Searching through my computer I found a document titled “My Dream Job.” Curious, I opened the file. What I found was pretty awesome, an assignment I wrote 4 years ago as a freshman in college. The assignment was to write a paragraph about an organization you respected and would like to work for upon graduation.

This is what I wrote…

“As of today, it is hard to picture myself at a desk, crunching numbers and counting down the hours until it is politically correct for me to leave. Few organizations seem worthy of such an existence, save for one. And in this organization, a desk may be hard to find. The Peace Corps is my dream job.

The Peace Corps is widely known and praised for the work it has accomplished around the world. Established by John F. Kennedy in 1960, the Peace Corps places Americans in underdeveloped countries for a period of 2 years. They are placed with the expectation of doing what they can to improve the quality of life, gain experience, and perform micro-diplomacy.

Selfishly, it will allow me to learn a language, enhance my perception, and travel the world. The job opportunities are many, ranging from teaching English to managing sustainable farmland. If I were to choose, I would most like to work in the small business development department and I would love to work in a Spanish speaking country, Asia or Africa”

Funny how things work out sometimes.

The Peace Corps has lived up to my expectations and more. Being here, I’ve realized that so many people I know could do the Peace Corps, love it and do some awesome things. More and more age groups are joining, (people with actual experience) and the age range here in Ethiopia is 22-69.

*Peace Corps is not paying me for this marketing, but if interested, I think (hope) they know where to find me*

For example, my parents would do great in the Peace Corps, as would my siblings and cousins. My friends

Well, maybe some of them

 

Thoughts of the week:

  1. I’m generally kind to animals. That being said, the next time I see a rooster I’m going to kill it.
  2. I got outrun by an 11 year old today. We ran about 4 miles and she could have probably tripled that. Yes I said she.
  3. I’ve gotten pretty good at pooping in a hole. Accuracy is the name of the game.
  4. I gave Dum Dum’s to my family. The way they cherish them is incredible. Its taken my host mom four days to finish hers. Makes me realize how good we have it back home.
  5. Both my family here and back home are renovating their kitchens. Here, that means replacing the dirt floor with concrete. It’s a big deal. They pace back and forth, inspecting the work, worrying about the process. It’s like I’m at home–except this renovation cost 18 dollars.
  6. The stars here are nuts. At 8,000 feet and with a total of 10 light bulbs in town, I think I can see the whole universe
  7. My host mom gave a speech at our end of training celebration. She thanked Peace Corps for giving them a son to replace the one she lost. She said I was very loveable and was now a part of her family. She had tears in her eyes, as did most of the mother’s and fathers who spoke. It was a really powerful moment for me.

 

The Hard Days

I am aware that I have the problem of romanticizing my experiences here. In my defense, it does not require much embellishment to describe the better aspects of life in Ethiopia. Life is certainly a struggle here, more so a survival. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to see one thing a day that justifies everything, or reminds me that people can have a lot in common despite vastly different environments.

However I rarely mention the harder parts of Peace Corps. I tend to exclude some of the more difficult aspects of living here, from daily life, to the sights I’ve seen. Last week I watched a 6 year old, suffering from malaria, throwing up into her skirt on the bus. This is a country where shoes are luxuries; many families collect water from puddles on the side of the road, and way too many kids don’t get to see their 2nd year. A contentious debate in country paints the best picture of life here. Should HIV positive mothers breast-feed their baby? The risk of giving the virus to the baby is small but very much possible. Common sense would say it should be illegal for a HIV positive woman to breast feed. But this is Ethiopia. There simply isn’t enough food Many children would die without breast milk in the first 6 months.. This is a problem with no immediate solution and the reality of it is truly ugly.

So yes, there are days when life is hard. These are often days when I feel like I can’t change anything here. There are sick days, and days where the food is tough to swallow. There are cold nights with cold showers and feeling a little too alone. But the worst days are when I’ll see a picture of Carly on my computer. Man is she pretty. I showed a picture of her to my friend Brian. He looked at it and said. “Good Lord! What the hell are you doing here?!?!”

 

Some days I have to ask myself the same question.

 

The Good Days

Such is life in the Peace Corps. My life doesn’t follow the gentle rolling slope of ups and downs happened in America. Here there are mountains and valleys. Whereas yesterday was a bad day, today reminded me of how awesome Ethiopia can be. Nothing of note happened, just a different vibe in my community.

The sun came out. Everyone called me by name now rather than calling me foreigner, hey you, or china china. I told people I was leaving and they cried. Its good to know you will be missed. My girl Kidest, 3 years old, gave her last piece of candy, to her little brother. I invited her to movie night and she gave me her signature move by blowing me a kiss.

The reality is that I didn’t come here for life to be easy. During the rough times is when I’ll become a better person with a better perspective. In the challenges I’ll find the rewards.

 

Quotes

The other day, the Peace Corps interviewed me for a small newsletter they put out for volunteers. Among the questions, “what is your favorite quote” was the one that left me thinking the most. I love quotes, and the question left me wondering: what are my favorite quotes?

Bobby Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

Bobby Kennedy is my homeboy. I really think that Bobby Kennedy could and would have been an incredible President. The assassination of Bobby, his brother, and MLK in the same decade is one of our greatest tragedies. This quote was actually attributed to Bobby by his brother during his eulogy. It is one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. If you get the time, go on Youtube and search for “eulogy of bobby kennedy”. The last minute is magic.

So I’m not really one to write down inspirational sayings or post motivational sayings on my mirror, but this quote might be the exception. It is my adopted mentality for my time in the Peace Corps. It would be very easy to get caught up in how bad things are here. To see the poverty can be tough, the sickness and the sadness.  And yet, the culture shock has not been too bad. I expected extreme poverty, but the mentality of the people here is more fascinating than their lack of money. Nevertheless it would be easy to give up in a place like this. Hopefully, I can see solutions more often than problems, and make Bobby proud.

1. Materialism “The best things in life aren’t things”

On the way to Bonga we passed a school on the side of the road. It was in a rural area, surrounded by grassy plains, kids herding goats, and fields of teff running up the mountains. The front wall of the school was painted with a bright mural of kids playing together. In large block letters above the mural it said:

“Welcome: We do things different here”

It was the perfect microcosm for life here, pretty hilarious, and would have made for an awesome picture. I will have to write a thousand words to make up for my inability to snap a photo.

Living in Ethiopia is a life-changing event. Regardless of prior disposition or world-view, Ethiopia will change you. It is an indisputable fact. The most obvious difference I’ve noticed is very much intangible. It is the way of life here– that prohibits materialism and trivializes time. There is no concept of time here, only recently did kids start celebrating their birthdays. Most adults here just know the month they were born in. This can make getting work done extremely hard, but highlights the pettiness of the American obsession with time.

I’ve been even more impressed by the nature of the people here. They are genuinely happy with very few possessions. I’m embarrassed by how many things I’ve brough. I could wear different clothes each day for two weeks, whereas my host brother has one shirt. The kids see my room as some sort of playground Mecca, filled with things they didn’t know existed. I hope they realize that while I have many things, the only things I can’t do without are back home. They have it good here. They don’t have good shoes but they have an unbreakable sense of family, and traditions that best our commercialized ones. So, “the best things in life aren’t things” is one of my new favorite quotes. I’ve translated it into Amharic and it has even caught on in my neighborhood…

”Yaheywot mirt nehger kus aydalum”

People

“I only like people who like people”

I can’t remember who told me this, but I like to think I made it up. Sure enough, all my best friends and favorite people love people. I got a conference call last week from Carly and a bunch of my best friends, all guys who like and seek good company. Michael Jennings, for those of you who know him, is a good example. The guy loves people and he also ‘loves his liiife” Miss you brother.

Miss you too Pat.

Peace Corps

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example rather than the example of our power”

Bill Clinton, for all of his rights and wrongs, discretions and triumphs, really knows how to deliver a message. I smoked but I didn’t inhale? Genius.  This quote, given at the 2008 Democratic National Convention paints the best picture of why I applied to the Peace Corps. I remember traveling to Europe and Morocco and hating seeing graffiti saying ‘death to America’ or suggesting that I have (relations?) with our previous president. I love America and I’m glad that people share that opinion here. I can’t go a day without someone telling me they love Obama, that he is in fact, Kenyan, and asking me if I know him. Yes, America has the capacity to blow up the world several times over, but it is our (sometimes hard to find) selflessness and caring that leave a bigger impact.

 

This much I know. What the Peace Corps does around the world has far reaching consequences. If an anti-American radical sect arrived in Ethiopia, they would have a lot of trouble recruiting in my neighborhood, where my pack of kids will have hopefully grown up with a positive and tangible example of our better nature.

 

Oh and don’t worry Dad (and Grandpa), I’m not that liberal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ethiopia trip

*Disclaimer* This blog post is probably pretty boring, unless you are planning a trip here, which you should be doing. Right now.

Friends and family who visit me should be assured that I would pick you up at the airport, arrange for your accommodations and give you a great feel for the country. For those of you I do not know, I will write and continue to edit my travel advice. Of course, for the small price of several dozen homemade cookies and fresh socks, I could probably be your personal tour guide as well.

Ethiopia is a great place to have a planned itinerary through a travel agency. In a country where transportation is pretty awful, having someone organize your stay is relatively cheap, and will save you several headaches. For adventurers on a budget, a little research, patience, and planning can make traveling in Ethiopia easier.

I would recommend arranging a flight that arrives in the early morning in Addis, giving you plenty of time to arrange your accommodations for the night. From the airport, and anywhere in Addis, you have two options for getting around by bus. For adventurers trying to save money, you can find a line bus that will take you to a destination in the city. Your best bet for a good hotel is in the district called “Mexico” any bus driver will let you know if they are headed that way. Otherwise, save yourself the hassle and contract a taxi (small blue cars) to take you to a hotel. You will pay perhaps 50 times the price, but even that is less than 10 American dollars. Don’t forget to haggle for everything. A contract taxi from the airport should cost no more than 150 birr.

Within the Mexico district, the Ras and Waba-Shebele hotel are reasonably priced modern hotels with hot showers. The price fluctuates but should be less than 300 birr per night (15 dollars) For those traveling with lots of money, the Sheraton is the best hotel in Africa. The prices are in dollars and are very expensive but it is incredible from what I hear.

In Addis, be very careful with your wallet and valuables. Your hotel room should be safe, and there is very little crime here, save for pick-pockets. Especially be careful if you (and you should) visit Mercado, the biggest outdoor market in Africa. For food, take a bus or taxi to “Bole” where you can find Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, and Italian restaurants…

If I wanted to give someone a tour of the best Ethiopia has to offer, a true taste of the country, these are the ten destinations I would choose. In order:

  • Simien Mountains (imagine a greener, more epic grand canyon, filled with monkeys)
  • The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
  • The ancient city of Harrar
  • Arba Minche, Nechisar Park, and Chencha
  • The Bale Mountains National Park (especially If the Simiens aren’t an option)
  • Bonga/The Kaffa Rainforest (A little bias here perhaps)
  • The Blue Nile Falls
  • The cities of Bahir Dar and/or Gonder
  • Awash National Park
  • Wenchi Crater Lake (great day trip/weekend getaway from Addis)

 

Given a week, a traveler would have to choose between visiting Northern, Southern, or Eastern Ethiopia. Personally, I would head north, spending a night in Addis, a night in Gonder or Bahir Dar, 2 nights in the Simien Mountains, and a night in Lalibela. Plan for two travel days.

However, developing an itinerary is very difficult. In Europe you can depend on things like schedules, (brilliant!) set prices, and paved roads. In Ethiopia there are no schedules, and the roads, well, they suck. To see all of these sites by public transport, one might have to go back to Addis in between each stop. . Your best bet therefore is to fly to major destinations. I know flying is an option between Addis and major cities and destinations. If the price is reasonable, it is definitely worth it.

If you are taking public transportation, try and use Salam bus or Sky bus. These will give you a guaranteed seat, and help you avoid the sheer craziness of the alternative…on my way to Bonga, 100 people crammed into a bus that in America would seat 30

I hope this was hopeful for those traveling to Ethiopia. Later, I will include a packing list for travelers, and one for future Peace Corps Volunteers here.