Video

Here are two videos that pretty much single handedly affirm that I have lost my manhood, have no friends, and am a 13 year old girl

The first one is a video of my site mate Dave (a truly amazing man) and Aleah, the 3 year old daughter of the hospital director in Chiri. I’d say how insanely cute this girl is but I’ll just keep it to myself for now.

Here is the second video — of my Kindergarten class. I told them February 16th was Carly and I’s anniversary but used the wrong word. They thought I said it was her birthday. They each made her a card, a giant poster out of beans, and sang this song to me when I got to class. Good times and the communication error turned out to be for the best. It was hilarious.

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Staring at the Wall

There is a Peace Corps saying, “Some volunteers read for two years. Others just stare at the wall.”

There is a painful truth to this statement, but I’ve come to learn the better aspects of this reality. While I feel as though I am a ‘starer’ I also belong to a third category.

I fall into the strange and annoying category of doers. I need to see progress, both personally and in work to be happy. This is a new relevation for me, but one that I take pride in. I’ve spent the last 2 months setting myself up with a number of projects. I have a good reputation in town and I expect to be very busy here in Bonga. And like I’ve said, busy is a beautiful thing in the Peace Corps.

I’m teaching English at the local schools, working with honey and coffee cooperatives, assisting the tourism bureau by training tour guides, designing brochures and creating a tourism website. I’m in charge of marketing the inauguration of Bonga as a UNESCO biosphere reserve that will be attended by the President. Next week I’m helping the doctors in Chiri as they venture to the smallest towns to provide medical support and do agricultural trainings. I’m working with a few teachers to hopefully build Bonga’s only orphanage. I’m also studying Amharic, playing basketball, have become addicted to working out, and am learning to cook.

I run around town from meeting to meeting all day. My house is over a mile trek, uphill to most offices. I probably walk 6 miles per day. Most days I end up quite exhausted. Herein lies the great time conundrum of my current experience. I try to fill my days and yet I have an abundance of down time. Time is a vacuum in the third world, you can try and occupy it, but you have to embrace the sheer intimidating size of it.

It is no wonder that the people here stop 5 times a day to roast and drink coffee. It is a time killer that fosters cultural identity and promotes socializing. But mostly, it is a way to pass the time. Due to a number of factors including coffee breaks and communication errors, I’m faced everyday with 6-10 hours of free time.

So in those hours, If I’m not writing or working out, I’m staring. I’ve become really good at it, and have come to enjoy it. For hours at a time, I can just think. A lot of these thoughts are trivial. I think about food; Crisp and Juicy, All you can eat sushi,  and Panang Curry. I think about my friends, playing basketball with Jennings at Glebe Park or inventing games with the Deanes. I think about College and Carly.

Somewhere hidden in these day-dreams, emerge the bigger thoughts that are the sole cause of personal growth.  I can try and explain.

Back home I would spend my days as follows.  I would wake up early and spend an hour violently dreading work. I would commute one hour to work in bumper to bumper traffic, eyes fixed on a clock determined to make me late. I would try and pass the time at work, eyes on the clock. I would spend 8 hours looking at a computer.  I would drive home and recover. This would consist of activities that required no thought: Casually surfing the internet or watching TV. I would never write or think, but I would feel sorry for myself. I would spend several hours a day worrying about time, being late, avoiding thinking about my chronic pain, or looking for something that I lost.

Ok, looking for something I had lost was probably 85% of my free time.

There is a therapy to the downtime here. I feel that many people join Peace Corps because they are good people. I joined Peace Corps because I wanted to become a good person. Those who know me best, know there is a truth to this statement. It could be that I take things for granted less, but I think these hours of nothingness are doing wonders.

 

Pearls of Waidmann

10 quick thoughts:

  1. I’m experiencing vivid dreams of dessert. I’ve had dreams where all I do is eat Ice Cream. I don’t know if this means I’m going crazy.
  2. There is either a rat/mouse in my house that I’m in a battle of wits with. I’m currently losing. My mouse-trap has successfully fed it dinner three times. It stole my headband and a pair of socks that were by my bed. The one time I had it cornered, I broke my broom trying to kill it. The little guy almost chewed through my phone charger the other night. I’m dumber than a rat.
  3. The local library here has only about 600 books. I’m thinking of starting a book drive back home/petitioning my former schools to help improve the library. Then I can teach kids their high school equivalency. Then I’m going to dig a tunnel through my house and crawl through poop to freedom.
  4. But in all seriousness, I’m wondering if anyone back home could organize for a book collection. Everything from children’s books to used textbooks would be great.
  5. …Is there a better movie than the Shawshank Redemption? I wish Morgan Freeman could narrate my blog.
  6. Political rant: Why is it that whenever there is a headline about Democrats accomplishing something it is always quantified? $100 billion jobs bill. 800 billion stimulus package. $20 billion schools package. Come on guys, you can’t just throw money at a problem and expect results. 
  7. One more. A year ago I told my Dad I thought John Thune was the Republican’s Obama. If he runs, I predict he will be our new President or Vice President.
  8. I think my brother is coming in late March to visit. We are hoping to hike the Simien Mountains for a few days. I’m a little too excited.
  9. The Packers won. Good > Evil. Aaron Rodgers conquers both Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger in a single night. And he beats dog killer Mike Vick along the way. Thanks, Sports God. Now can you show some mercy to D.C?
  10. Maybe start by changing the Wizards stupid name/uniform. I’d take the Bullets back in a heartbeat. But what about starting with D.C. instead of Washington? I kind of like “The D.C. Elite.” Thoughts?

Home and Holy Water

America

I read an awesome article several years ago published on realclearpolitics.com. The author wrote about how it was often when he left America that he realized how American he really was. He quoted T.S. Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Here is the article: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/12/coming_home_to_america.html

This is possibly a different sentiment from many other international volunteers. Some believe their identity is more linked to their host country. I understand that sentiment very well. It’s easy to fall in love with a culture that promotes community over personal independence. But out here, I’m constantly reminded of how American I am.

I believe in individualism and in ice water. I better understand the joys of privacy and punctuality. If I set a meeting there is a 50% chance the person shows up. I miss my Grandpa’s code of the west, “your word is your bond.”

I miss the words please and thank you. I see a spirit of entitlement here and I pine for more American entrepreneurship. I miss the variety of America; that I can speak Spanish with my friend from Columbia in a Thai restaurant, drinking German beer while watching European Soccer. I miss affection between guys and girls. Either that, or I haven’t gotten used to how here in Ethiopia, guys are only allowed to hold hands with other guys.

There are definitely ways that the lifestyle here is better – the emphasis on family for one. The abstract nature of time here is both frustrating and relaxing. But I’m really not trying to compare the two countries. Its just ironic that I left America looking for something more. I found it, and yet I miss home. That is more of a universal idea though. Most Ethiopians who move to D.C. long to come back here. Everybody misses home.

So I’m understanding my roots and feeling a little homesick. Yet, all the while, I’m becoming more and more African as well. I’m adapting to life here; the demands, the obstacles, and the food.

After my impromptu speech at the wedding, and the teaching I’ve done at the schools, I’m developing a good reputation, and am integrated into the community. Many people today told me how much they enjoyed my presence at the wedding. They enjoy showing off their culture. They like that I am taking the time to understand it. Unlike other foreigners, I walk everywhere I go, just like them. I eat at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, as they do. Along that vein, that is the one piece of advice I would give to future volunteers. Precedent, especially in the first few months is vital. By showing the people you live and act like them, you can earn their respect and integrate into their culture.

So little by little, the chorus of “you, you, you’s!” and “foreigner, give me money” chants are starting to die down. They are calling me by name, a sweet sweet sound.

The best example of my adaption to life here is a lesson in the Amharic language. Like many other languages, expressing the verb ‘to be’ requires tone and context. For example “Salaam No” can be both a statement and a question. “Are you at peace?” or “you are at peace!”

So a few months ago, I would often hear the phrase ‘lamerk’ It is a very common expression here, designated towards newcomers to a job, school, or location. It was always tonally phrased as a question. ‘Have you adapted?’

Now, I still hear the same phrase. But this time it is a statement.

“you have adapted!”

I’m starting that slow transition from foreigner to friend. Eventually it will happen. In the meantime, I can take some joy in the fact that I’m feeling more American while becoming more African.

 

Holy Water


I’ve been sick a large part of the last month. We haven’t had water in our spring in 10 days. The power has been out for two days. The internet is down and cell service is hard to find. This is my life.

So having been so sick, my landlady called the elderly priest from the Orthodox Church. She made me come into her house where he prayed over me and read from the Bible. He finished by, without telling me, splashing me with holy water that he had concealed. He doused me with probably a liter of water. Then he clasped both his hands around mine and kissed me on the forehead. This is my life.

 

On Faith

 

Faith is such a major aspect of life here. Several things about religion here in Ethiopia stand out to me. One terrific aspect of Bonga is the co-existence of Muslims and Christians. The town is about 70% Christian Orthodox but they live in absolute harmony with the Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. This brotherhood is a fostered culture based on mutual respect for ones religion. This relationship will be incredibly important in the future – especially in this region of the world.

Also notable is the commitment and dedication of men and women to their religions. On holidays, Ethiopians from 30 miles away will walk to Bonga and sleep outside the Church for days. They will eat very little and pray and sing through the night. Church services last up to 6 hours on a weekly basis, Priests will proselytize for an entire night. Funerals can last weeks. These are a very dedicated people when it comes to God.

I’m not a very spiritual person. Perhaps I am, but in my own way. My mom cries everytime she prays, which is often. But that is because she is an angel.

I’m just of the opinion that there is no one “right” religion. Islam is a beautiful religion, as is Christianity. It’s a shame when radicals, such as the Westboro Baptist Church and more egregiously, the Taliban, distort the true message of these religions.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the incredible spirituality here. People across Ethiopia have very few things. Disease claims many young lives. Birth rates are low. Starvation is not common but malnourishment is rampant. Life often plays out as a tragedy. When the two kids died at the hospital last month after a tree fell on them, the cries were painful to hear. Truly gut-wrenching. The women were screaming, “God Save me. God Take me.”

They have so little, yet they praise God at every chance they have. This type of unshakeable passion is inspiring and thought provoking. Mostly it is humbling.

Love and Basketball

Basketball

I’ve found an awesome pick up basketball game. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I go to the teacher’s college. It has an awesome and quiet campus with a pretty good basketball court. The court overlooks the forest and the town of Bonga. It might as well be Glebe Park in Arlington.

But the best part of the Basketball game? I’m by far the best player. Now, you have to understand something. I suck at Basketball. At least back home I do. I spent years figuring out how to do this horrifyingly ugly reverse layup just so Ben Deane wouldn’t slam the ball back into my face. So I’ve been taking a little too much pleasure in winning every game of “21” by about 19 points.

I did my ugly reverse lay up thing tonight. WOW! Said my friend. You are Michael! Michael Jordan!

Yes, Yes I am.

Ethiopian Wedding:

I was invited to an Ethiopian Wedding last night.

It had to be one of the craziest and most unique experiences of my life. And the crazy began early. With about 100 people sitting outside at night, the wedding procession came down the aisle. They were chanting what sounded like a Native American tribal dance. Everybody was piss drunk.

The bridesmaids came first holding candles. The bride and groom, in long gold and black robes, followed them. Brides here are expected to show no emotion. They are to act solemn and happiness is considered to be vain. I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be trepidation in her eyes. After all, just behind her, a relative carried a massive straw basket. These baskets are an Ethiopian tradition and are placed in every home after a wedding. At the top of the hour-glass shaped basket is a white cloth. Following the consummation of marriage, this soon-to-be blood soaked cloth is placed in the basket to display the purity of the marriage.

The groomsmen came last, each dragging one leg of a sheep. It was painful to watch this sheep struggle so hard, and the men force it down the aisle. The sheep was fighting for its life. They presented the sheep to the bride and groom. Then, 18 inches from where I was sitting, they cut its head off with a machete.

The wedding could now begin. Everyone started to drink even more Tej — a wine made from fermented honey. Its tasty, but gives more of a sugar high than anything else. This produced dancing unlike anything I could pull off. I was the only white person at a tribal ceremony dancing like a 13 year old at a bar mitzvah, surrounded by people with a natural ability to dance. Their shoulder popping and near convulsions defy physics. They took great pride and apparent amusement in seeing me attempt the traditional dancing.

Everyone was ushered to sit down for the present distribution. I couldn’t imagine this happening in America: The emcee for the night started calling out people’s names. They would stand, bring forward their present, and lay it at the young couples feet. The crowd would react to how good the present was. All the while 100 drunk people would chant the name of the gift giver. The emcee of the night saw that I had a gift (Perfume for the bride). He called my name last. My name, by the way, is “You America, Come”

Now this was awesome! They did not know what to chant. They tried chanting “You” repeatedly and then “Foreigner.” Then someone got an idea.

For 5 minutes the entire room burst into the infamous U-S-A! — U-S-A! chant. Awesome. They then forced me give a speech. I did as best as I could in broken Amharic and the chants continued.

Finally before the night ended with dancing, they brought out dinner.

It was freshly roasted lamb. Putting two and two together, I turned to my neighbor. “Oh no thanks, I’m a vegetarian.”

A Day in the Life*

Enough with my meandering epiphanies and thoughts. Here is what I’ve been doing…A day in the life

The asterik represents the folly of writing about an average day. There are no average days in the Peace Corps. Every day has unforeseen obstacles and inspirations. Most days I wake up early. Some days I can stay in bed until noon, writing, reading or surfing the web. The best part of Peace Corps is the freedom and the opportunity to do as one pleases. Nevertheless here is my best attempt at an average, yet productive day. This is an actual day that occurred last week.

6:30: I wake up, normally to the sound of priests chanting, cows mooing, roosters crowing, and goats bleating. Eating meat is sometimes an act of revenge that I take a sick pleasure in.

7:30 I’ll drag myself out of bed. I’ve likely spent the last hour talking on the phone with Carly, reading a book, or watching a show on my laptop.

8:00 I step outside my house and am greeted by the aforementioned animals. There is also a puppy that I’ve fallen for. She roams free, but has attached herself to me. I’m not allowed to have pets so I try and discourage this behavior. Nevertheless, “jibby” (translation: my little hyena) waits by my door for me to leave. She’ll run up to me and smother me with attention. We also just bought a 3 week old kitten to train as a mouse killer.

8:15: I’m heading to a nearby restaurant. Outside my door there is giant tree where monkeys often play. Just behind my front door is a small garden. Here, forest coffee dominates the space, save for some fruit trees; Avocados, bananas, papayas. To my extreme delight, the mango tree is starting to bear fruit.

I exit my compound and am greeted simultaneously by 30 people. My house is at a crossroads. Some of the greetings come from college students walking to their first class. They ask if I am at Peace (Salaam no?) and offer me a good morning (dehna derk!) Women are sitting under a grove of trees to my right. They sit there all day with big baskets of Injera that they sell. A storeowner yells out, “Na Bunna Teta” (come drink coffee). Other hello’s come from a group of kids who have a shoe shining operation right on the street. They tell me to come join them while they shine my shoes. The Ethiopians who own shoes are oddly paranoid about keeping them shined. Other kids stop playing soccer and shout “Mykil! Mykil! Na! Techewot? (Michael, Michael! Come and play!)

This dance that is Ethiopian greetings can last minutes and I try and shorten this process. My breakfast spot is just a few blocks away, and I’m cranky when I’m hungry.

8:30 My absolute favorite food in Ethiopia is called Fule. It is considered the food of the poor, but it tastes incredible. It costs around 15 cents and is the one dish that doesn’t use Injera. French loaves are dipped into a sauce of onions, garlic, spices and refried beans. It tastes positively Mexican and I eat it often. Otherwise I’ll make hash browns and eggs in my house with an avocado, banana and fresh milk.

9:00 – I’ve started my walk into town. I have two options. The quick way or the long way. The long way is preferred as it bends through the eucalyptus forrests, the sheta river, and offers great views of the forest. It is quiet, but tiresome, about 4 km into town.

The faster way presents the opportunity of catching a bus into town. If not, the road is dusty, hot, and filled with Kids who are still yet to call me by my name. They shout out for money, at their mothers’ request.

9:30 I have an appointment with a local leader. These meetings are often a social occasion. It can be frustrating, as meetings, in my opinion, is the main opponent of work. In life, some people meet, but I want to do.

So far, I have had several of these appointments a week. I’ve met with the education department, the priests, the development office, and local NGO’s. The day before I met with a principal to hammer out my teaching schedule. Starting mid-february I will be teaching English a couple hours a day. I’ll split my week between the kindergarten, elementary school and high school. I’ve already started at the Kindergarten and the kids are AWESOME. I make up games and try and teach them as much as I can. In turn, my Amharic is getting a lot better.

But today I’m meeting with the tourism department and I’m relatively excited. We meet over Shay-Bunna (A coffee/tea ceremony) and discuss possible projects. There is some promising stuff here. I tell them I am working on some brochures and a website (with the help of Carly) to promote the area. They tell me some rangers are coming for 2 months to train in Bonga and ask me to teach the future guides how to cater to tourists and speak English. That would be an awesome project. We discuss the need to facilitate communication with the local hotels, to create the type of infrastructure needed to become a tourist destination. I tell them my plans to train a couple orphaned kids to lead small groups of tourists to the waterfall. They like this idea. The meeting ends.

11:00: I’ll stop by my main office, the Honey cooperative and talk to Wasihun Benti. He is my counterpart and a great man. He has helped me so much so I feel obligated to help him where I can. Again I am using my more skilled girlfriend to create a website to promote his honey—so I’ve been working to complete the photographs and the text for his website. After lunch we are traveling to a nearby town so I can photograph the bee keepers. On my way to lunch I stop by NABU, a terrific german NGO run by a great Ethiopian man who will help me with lots of projects. However, his office is closed.

12:30 I grab lunch with Dave at a local restaurant. I order shekela tibs, which is slices of meat caramelized in a clay pot with oil, onions and peppers. Its really good, and costs about 80 cents. After Lunch, me and Dave always go next door to the fruit stand. Here you can get bananas, pineapple or avocado and papaya smoothies for 35 cents. Life is good.

2:00: I meet with Wasihun and we head to the small town of Wush-Wush, 9 miles away. The drive there is INCREDIBLE. We pass through the bonga forest reserve and vast fields of tea. The tea leaves are bright green and built along the slopes, rivaling the beautiful rice fields found in Asia. Wush-Wush is also home to a few packs of lions but I don’t see any on this trip.

2:30: We arrive in Wush-Wush. We hike up a hill to some local farms. Here 3 different farmers teach me the elaborate process of creating honey. This consists of forming hollowed logs and coating them with Eucalyptus leaves. The logs are wrapped in broad leaves and hoisted, sometimes 60 feet, into the trees. Here they attract the bees. I take tons of pictures, but I get too close. The bees attack me and I run a quarter of a mile slapping my face as the locals laugh hysterically. I counted 20 stings. It sucked, but I got some great pictures and spoke with the local farmers who really enjoyed showing me their lives.

5:30: We make it back to Bonga. I head home where I have the whole afternoon to myself. I work on cleaning up my room. I can be kind of anal about making my room look good, but it helps when your house feels like a home. On this day, I rearranged my furniture so I can watch a movie from bed.

6:30: I force myself to work out, against my will. I’ve now lost 40 pounds from when I first got my disease. I need to fatten up and bulk up. I look like a pussy.

8:00: I make popcorn with some melted peanut butter that my Grandma sent me. I watch a movie called “What Dreams May Come.” My friend Ben recommended this movie a long time ago. It is a relatively strange, but awesome movie. Its a tragedy of a movie that pits Robin Williams in a heaven made from his Wife’s paintings, searching for his deceased family. I love Robin Williams. The movie makes me think about Carly way more than I’d like to. I can’t wait for her to come here and paint Bonga.

10:00 I think about going for a run. I’ve always loved running at night. Its cool, quiet and the stars are ridiculous. I talk myself out of it. I fall asleep with the lights on. It was a good day.