Short Stories: The time I stopped running to Wush Wush

Looking back on some of the times here I’ve realized there are so many things i’ve forgotten to share. That’s one of the strangest epiphanies I’ve had recently. The surreal seems ordinary now. The poverty and even death i’ve seen are parts of everyday existance. If i were to witness something today a few years ago it would have been life changing. At least newsworthy. Now its just a tuesday.

So as a recurring feature I’ll throw up some short stories and observations on my blog. Up first: a pretty hilarious/frightening exchange that happened a few months back when I was training for a half marathon.

I needed a place to run to and train. I set Wush-Wush as my goal, a town about 17 km away. Over a month I would get closer and closer until I was ready for the race. Wush-Wush is the perfect destination. In this hilly area, the run is relatively flat and not very populated, meaning less harassment from kids as I ran. Also, Wush-Wush is ridiculously awesome. It looks like heaven. It is the center of tea production in Ethiopia. The tea grown there is pretty delicious. Also, the fields of tea leaves are bright green, resembling Asian rice fields but with more color.

So I started running that direction. But the first day someone told me I should not run that direction as I passed. At least that’s what I thought he said in Amharic. I wasn’t sure. My next run, people kept calling me “Ambessa.” It’s a compliment here that means they think you are strong. Locals say it if you are very intelligent for instance, or carrying something heavy. Literally, “Ambessa” means lion.

I smiled. A quick boost of self esteem. The light came on the next day. A neighbor walked up to me.

“weda wush-wush ba igir iya rotkih naber?” he asked me.

Yes I replied. I was in fact going to wush wush on foot the day before. I added that i was training for a race.

You can’t go that way he cried. he looked serious.

“menged lay, ambessa yinoral!!”

translation: — Lions live on the way to wush-wush!. He continued, “They hang out by the road. You will be eaten for sure.”

And that’s the  story of when I stopped running to Wush Wush.


Information Overload

So here are my everyday options for communicating with Carly:

I could call her on my phone but it’s really expensive. Maybe I can call her blackberry through skype on my computer. Or Gmail chat. Or she can call me from a calling card. She could use Skype from her blackberry, iPad, or computer. I know, I’ll send her a text from my email account to her phone. Or we can video chat on instant messenger. Or through Skype on her iPad. We could Facebook chat on her phone. Or Skype chat between computers. Or between my computer and her phone. I know,  she could use her iPad to call my phone. Maybe this new thing called MagicJack will work?

So yeah.

1) With so many options, why won’t one (please just one) ever work?

2) What has the world come to? I can send her a message from my computer or phone through countless mediums to 4 different devices.

3) Here, cell phones don’t work everyday. It’s amazing to be disconnected from technology. I have a pick-up basketball game a few days a week. We all know to meet at 5:30 on wednesdays and fridays. And everyone shows up– no need to call.  If my friends back home wanted to play pick up, I think 40 calls and texts would be exchanged. People would show up at different times.

The simple life can be so relaxing.


The 20 (or so) most re-watchable movies

Because it’s the rainy season. Which, when you are in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia means you have a lot of down time.  And I love movies. A lot.

This list was nearly impossible to write, as evidenced by my honorable mention list that continues to grow.  The movies I watch repeatedly are almost entirely comedies, but this list needed to be different. So I asked myself a question that became the criteria for choosing the movies.

If I could only watch 20 movies for my time in Peace Corps what would they be?

I needed a good mix of humor and heart. Movies that bring up good times and good memories. Movies that make me laugh and movies that make me not cry because I don’t cry during movies. ever.

Here they are:

20. The Bourne Trilogy: Pure entertainment. Carly could leave me for Matt Damon and I would congratulate her and ask for his autograph.

19. Remember the Titans: In my opinion, the best sports movie ever made. Also it came out when I was a star receiver at a high school near the featured TC Williams. And by star I mean that I’m pretty sure the Head Coach thought my name was Neiman.

18. Superbad: Michael Cera plays the awkward teen to perfection. I think he’s the reason I have a girlfriend because he made dorks cool. I watched this with Brian Yost and a bunch of other idiots and I haven’t laughed that hard in a theater ever. Mom, don’t watch this one.

17. The Lives of Others: Maybe not the most re-watchable film, but one that I think everyone should see. It’s in my top ten all time movies and it makes me look cool that I like a movie that you might not have heard of.

Quick tangent: I think three Nazi WWII movies would make my best movies list. I love sad movies.

1a. The Lives of Others

1b. The Pianist (Best acting job I’ve ever seen. Best scene as well, (when he plays for the soldier near the end)

1c.  Schindlers List (The red dress. Liam Niesen. The second to last scene when Liam chokes up before getting in the car.)

16. Rounders: I love Poker. I love Matt Damon and Ed Norton. How could I not love this movie? Teddy KGB? “Pay dat mayn hees mahney”  Plus I can’t watch this movie without thinking of my favorite family.

15. Home Alone: Some families watch the Christmas Story every Holiday Season. We seemed to always watch Home Alone. Good memories. Great movie.

14. Anchorman: Strangely, I didn’t like this movie the first time around. Since then, if I watch it, I’m quoting Ron Burgandy for a week.

13. Death at a Funeral: I’ve heard that some people found this movie to be awful and entirely unfunny. Those people suck. It’s one of the funniest movies ever.

12. The Green Mile: This was the first movie that made me tear up. And it happened twice. The first time I watched it was with my old roommate Ben Hawkins. We were pretty sure that it changed our lives for a good year.

11. Fight Club: Edward Norton might be the most underrated actor. Brad Pitt is cool too I guess. I’d put American History X on this list but it’s too sad to watch more than a few times.

10. LOTR Trilogy: I’m a nerd. My family and I love these books and movies. Especially the two towers. Moving on…

9. Office Space: Even funnier after having worked in an office. The boss kills me. Same with the interviews, the stapler guy and the smashing of the equipment.

8. The Sixth Sense: I’m rarely in the mood for horror movies. That changes if The Sixth Sense is on TV. Its masterful, suspenseful and the twist at the end kicked my ass.

7. Good Will Hunting: Classic film. “Do you like apples?” Matt Damon is awesome. The scene where Ben Affleck tells him the best part of his day is hoping Matt doesn’t come to work? Brilliant.

6. Happy Gilmore: I was the perfect age when this (and Billy Madison) came out. “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast.”

“You eat pieces of shit for breakfast??”

5. Gladiator: The greatest Historical Action Drama. Narrowly beats out Braveheart as the most badass movie of all time. I’ve probably watched it ten times, and I’m always entertained.

4. Groundhog Day: This certainly isn’t the funniest movie I’ve seen, but I could never turn it off if it was on.  Is there a better actor for any character than this movie? Imagining this movie without Bill Murray is scary. This is my dad’s all time favorite comedy as well.

3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: If this is on TV, I’m not moving until its over. Ferris is my hero.

2. Forrest Gump: The most quotable movie of all time, and the movie that made me wonder if Tom Hanks is actually Jesus. It’s the perfect mixture of humor and heart.

1.  Shawshank Redemption: This is the single greatest movie ever made. It is truly perfect. I think I know every line. Morgan Freeman was brilliant. The depth, acting, storytelling and pace are incredible. I’m truly jealous of everyone who has not seen this movie because they get to experience it for the first time.


Honorable mentions:


  • Up/Finding Nemo/Ratatouille: I tried to narrow it down to one Pixar movie but instead I picked my three favorites.
  • The Sandlot: FOR-EV-ER
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Golden. Reminds me of College.
  • Swingers: My favorite people love this movie so therefore I do too.
  • Mighty Ducks: Makes me miss being a kid and Mike Jennings as does:
  • Back to the Future: classic.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Mostly I just love
  • Robin Hood, Robin Hood Men in Tights, Disney’s animated Robin Hood: all three are classics.
  • The Dark Knight, Batman Begins: Great movies but not ones I’d watch over and over.
  • Top Gun: well its on every day and I always watch it. Great soundtrack.
  • Hot Shots Part Deux: and you can’t mention Top Gun without Hot Shots.
  • Almost Famous: Almost cracked the top 20
  • Rain Man: I love this movie. I love quoting it.
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Definitely a love/hate movie. I love it.
  • Dazed and Confused: I’ve probably watched this 15 times. Couldn’t tell you what it’s about.
  • There’s Something About Mary: My favorite part about this movie is Matt Dillon’s hilariously politically incorrect statements.
  • Airplane: also came close to cracking the top 20
  • Step Brothers: like anchorman, I didn’t love it the first time around. I was a little Will Ferelled out. Since, it’s been gold everytime. The first 45 minutes are incredible.
  • Tommy Boy: RIP Chris Farley
  • Avatar: Only makes the list if I could watch in 3d. Blew me away the first time. Also it was the first movie date Carly and I went on.
  • Pulp Fiction/Kill Bill Volume 1/Inglorious Bastards: I’m not a huge fan of this genre. But I can always watch these three Tarantino gems.
  • Stranger than Fiction: I LOVE this movie.
  • Star Wars trilogy: Close to making the final list but I only like certain parts in each movie.

What did I get wrong/right? What are your top 5, 10, 20?



Getting Stoned

After leaving Addis, Carly and I spent an awesome weekend in the south. We hung out with some of my favorite people, Chase, Campbell, Ellie and Emily. We toured Arba Minch and took a boat ride to see the largest crocodiles in the world. Hippos, storks and eagles hung out side by side. This was Africa. Fisherman in papyrus boats fished alongside the bank—looking for a catch that can grow to be over 200 pounds. I asked our guide how many fisherman are killed annually by the Crocodiles and Hippos.
He said, “one or two.”

“Each month”

We hiked to Chencha, a highland town sitting close to 10,000 feet. We toured the park, saw hot springs, baboons and some incredible views. Arba Minch may be the most perfectly placed city in Africa.

From Arba Minch we had a few stops before settling down in Bonga. First, all the volunteers were gathering in the lake resort town of Awassa to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. It coincided with a half marathon I had been training hard for. However, the night before the race I came down with the flu and couldn’t run.

Our next stop was Jimma. The closest large city to Bonga, Jimma should be an oasis for me. Swimming pools, pizza, hot showers. Yet, I’m never happy to be there. It’s dirty and loud. The kids are horrible and men harass women and foreigners. The bus station represents all the worst parts of Ethiopia. Its an unforgiving town, gritty, filled with pick pocketers.

Operation Smile was coming to Jimma and had asked for some volunteers. Because Carly and I were passing through, I thought we should help for a few days.

Previously, Operation Smile for me was not real. It was that organization that fixed kids lips. I had seen their advertisements. Perhaps I had thought about it in passing. I never allowed the idea of the organization to sink in. It was just a collection of before and after pictures. A little Asian girl with a new smile, right? A schema that remained as such, not indecent but not human either. Thinking back on this previous categorization makes me realize how easy it is to not care.

It’s like watching a great movie or show, ‘The Wire’ or ‘Arrested Development’ for a second time. You catch some of the things you missed the first time around. Things you missed when you were too busy closing the gaps of a stories arc. Too concerned with writing your own narrative to focus on the smaller details.

But ignorance is bliss. If we allowed ourselves to become emotionally attached to everyone, every cause, we would not have time to think.

Yet our ignorance is almost mandatory. There are too many causes, and one person can only do so much. So we forget about all of them and focus on today.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I haven’t reached my conclusion because I haven’t arrived at one yet. All I know is that a few months ago, Operation Smile was just a leaflet. And now it has a face. It has names and tears and smiles. I think this is what every cause needs. They need a name and a face that demands your full attention. Operation Smile made me wonder what else I’m missing.

The first day was tough. I was translating between the doctors and the patients. Simple questions. What’s your name? What is your child’s name. Were you taking any medication during pregnancy? In your opinion, why did this happen? Did you arrive by bus or donkey?

I took a quick break. I tracked down Carly who was on the verge of tears. The kids had gotten to her. Little girls and boys with cleft lips. They already had nothing, but to be born this way was simply cruel. It was a heavy day. This was tough for anyone but especially her. She gets emotionally attached to places and vibes. Her pictures were weighing heavily on her mind. There was so much sadness and anxiety in the air. It was palpable. And yet, this was offset by the genuine positivity of the people. Being here was a reminder of how good we had it. Carly could not believe how happy these kids were who had been given nothing.
One girl, about 13 years old was self conscious to smile, but sometimes you can’t hold it in. Her smile was crooked, asymmetric. The most beautiful smile in the world.

We passed out toys to the kids. Carly took the best photo I’ve ever seen. An adorable girl with a cleft lip blowing bubbles. Her entire face brimming with unbridled joy. (To see more great photos from Ethiopia, check out her blog…

Back to the interviews–
“Simih Man No?” –what is your name, I asked to a kid about the age of seven.

“Chigir” He replied. My jaw dropped. Chigir means problem.

Later that day I turned to an Ethiopian volunteer. I told her I had tried to track down children with cleft lips or palates in my town. But I had no luck. Perhaps there were no children in Bonga with cleft lips. Dave even went to the hospital to ask. Quickly she replied, “that’s because these kids never see the light of day.”

Sure enough, I found out today that there are more than 8 kids around Bonga with Cleft lips. My friend Yidne took them to Addis for surgery last week. I had never seen one of them.

A full week of surgery followed the interviews and medical checks. My friend Chigir was one of the first patients headed for surgery. He had traveled four days by bus to come to Jimma. I hung out in the post surgery room. I waited for hours with the most anxious parents you can imagine. Or grandparents. The first child had been abandoned by his mother and father. When he came out of surgery, his grandfather could not stop crying. He told me over and over, “Praise God. Finally my child is beautiful. Praise God”

And in 45 minutes, his grandson’s life was changed forever. Previously, his future had a low ceiling. He was likely working in the home as an indentured servant of sorts. Speaking would be difficult. Friends were unlikely, as was any formal schooling. 45 minutes later, that ceiling was removed.

Carly and I had planned on staying for two days. We stayed for five. The week was life changing for the both of us. It had a profound impact on what I consider to be worthwhile. To witness from a few inches away– the first instant a child looked in the mirror with happiness, smiling and crying instantaneously. Grandparents rejoicing. A life entirely changed in an hour. A servant becoming a child. There are no words for this kind of miracle.

I got to know the volunteers and doctors who have already realized this. The salt of the earth. I was most impressed by the doctors. Giving up time and money to do the most selfless work. They worked around the clock in an attempt to fit in as many surgeries as possible. Over 100 cleft lips and palates were fixed that week by just a few doctors. Twenty surgeries every day, lasting up to an hour and a half each.

I caught up with one of the Doctors who was drinking tea. Sometimes you just know when someone is a great person. In his book, “blink” Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes this takes 2 seconds. Now I already knew this Doctor was a great person. He was here after all.

But it was something in his demeanor that made me realize he was a special person. I wanted to let him know how thankful the patients were for his service. I told him about the first surgery, the child who had been abandoned.

I told him how being there was such a personal pleasure. How speaking the language gave me extra insight. I told him about how the grandfather had started crying, thanking god for giving him a beautiful new child.

The doctor started choking up. He started crying as he scolded me for getting to his emotions. He explained that as a doctor he rarely gets to hear those stories. It’s just in and out and he misses the human element. He said hearing that story makes all the hard work worthwhile. Then he said something I’ll never forget:

“Coming here is a drug. It’s medicine for the soul. It really is a drug”

Let’s all get high.