Lessons from Kombucha

Life is Good.

Perhaps because I love to plan for the future, and daydream about a future life in India or Panama, I suck at living in the present. But thanks to some great people and a sense of community I’ve been able to really immerse myself in Ethiopia.

Part of that can be blamed on Ben Hawkins, my great friend and former roommate who first forced me to think of a life outside of college parties and internship opportunities. He’s been here with me for the last two weeks, and we’ve had an amazing time making jokes and having epic conversations that make us sound like crazy people.

I feel whole here.

Earlier I wrote that America was pure happiness. To me there is a difference between happiness and joy. There are times in my life when I’ve been very happy. In fact, there have been few times when I wasn’t very happy. What I experience here in Ethiopia is joy.

Right now, I’m sitting on my front porch. It’s 5:54 PM which means the light from the sun has turned the street into a golden paradise. People walk by that I know. Meheret from the High School, who spent weeks practicing English verb conjugations. Then I see Salamwit, the cutest girl in all of Bonga. I visited her at the hospital when she had pneumonia. She was a former Kindergarten student who won the heart of Milkiyas, my doctor friend who cared for her. When she sees me, her smile explodes. MICHAEL! DEHNA NEH??? HOW IS KARR-LEEE?!!

This feeling is a shade deeper than happiness. What I have experienced here is periods of loneliness and frustration punctuated with explosions of joy, and the frustration is giving way. Ben and I are living an awesome life. We spend every night with my host family, Yohanes and Alemua and their friends and family. When I look back on my time in Peace Corps, these are the times I will remember. Dinner lasts several hours, and the best way to describe these moments is that they are genuine and real. I make jokes and dance and Alemua forces amazing Ethiopian food on us until we can’t eat another bite. We call these dinners, “Guramyle” meaning a mixture of cultures. I often make a curry or pasta or hummus, and she prepares national dishes. Culture continues to collde as Ben plays the guitar while I (unfortunately) sing. It doesn’t matter that I have the natural rhythm of a newborn goat, they love it anyways.

During the day, we walk around town, stopping by the kindergartens to play them music, or we hike to the waterfall or the palm tree forest where we play catch. He’s come with me to a few planning meetings at the school and hospital, but most of our time is spent soaking in the realness of Bonga.

We spend all day making fun of each other, but we end up gravitating towards larger thoughts and the meaning of life. One thing we talked about these past two weeks was how content we were with our life, and how little synchronicities were linking thoughts and ideas together.

This ‘Synergy’ as we called it, was a term that found its way into my life from Carly. Her sense of wonder and spirituality always lead to her teaching me about things. She started thinking about it one day when a (potentially) crazy guy at a farmers market told her that feelings of déjà vu and coincidences are God’s way of telling us that we are on the right path. He later went on to tell her that she is possibly one of Jesus’ direct descendants.

But his message is one that I have adopted. Whenever things connect in a way that can’t be explained by simple coincidence, I like to think that I’m on the right path. And the synergies were present the past few weeks. Everything was connected.

One day we were talking about Kim chi, the Korean fermented cabbage dish. A few minutes later, Alemua knocks on my door with a giant head of cabbage. “You love cabbage! So I got this for you” she says. That night at Guramyle dinner, Alemua’s television, always tuned to Ethiopian TV, finds its way to some hour long special on how to prepare Kim chi.

The next day, I ask Ben about Kombucha, a symbiotic yeast bacteria that I was introduced to in America. (By Carly of course) We talk about how we all love it. That night at dinner, my friend Chuck asks if I would be interested in a starter kit to brew my own Kombucha. Yes I would.

So a quick summary: I’m turning into a crazy liberal, and I think simple coincidences are a message from God. Glad you’re still with me.

Later Ben and I get in an awesome debate centered on the book, “The Giving Tree.” We disagree on everything before finding out that we reached the same exact conclusion. Classic Ben and Mike.

We talk about what the purpose is in caring for the environment. There is little we can do to reverse the trends of destruction, because to do so, you must change the way people think. So truly what is the point? Eventually, by rapture, Armageddon, war, or the sun exploding, all of us will be gone, animals and all.

So why care about Selamwit, her dirty school, or the White Rhinoceros? Our conclusion is that the alternative is just too frightening. We care because it gives us hope, even if it is false. Empathy over Apathy. Our time on Earth will end, so why not spend that time in the glorious pursuit of the right path. I have been given so much, so I want to continue to learn and grow, become a better person, and share. Share what I’ve been given with those in need.

Later that night we are talking to Brian, the coolest Peace Corps Volunteer on the phone.

I ask him if he likes Kombucha. Are you kidding me? I love it. He goes on:

“The cool thing about Kombucha is it gets better over time. You can experiment and find the right recipe. It keeps growing, and eventually it gets so big that you are forced to share it with someone else.”

America

I’ve been in Ethiopia for almost three weeks after a brief trip home. I haven’t been writing recently, but I haven’t had a moment to sit down. I think of my time in America as pure happiness. I spent time with my whole family, reconnected with some great friends, and had some perfect days with the best girl that I know.

There were times that I was busy, rushing around wondering if I could ever get back into the grinding, bumper-to-bumper lifestyle that envelops DC. I got right back into that grind, as though I was just a cog in the system, a gear in the clock that fell back into place. The machine has to keep moving. We raced around and organized a fundraiser, and thanks to some amazing people raised nearly $10,000 in less than three weeks. Thank you so much to everyone who helped. We break ground on June 18th.

However it was when I actually slowed down, that I accomplished so much more. Carly and I spent some time in Lexington, Virginia where the pace of life is more akin to my liking. Our days were simple, yet somehow packed. This is a quality to life that I want to continually seek.

America is certainly overwhelming for those of us who have been squatting for the past 20 months. I understand how some ex-pats and volunteers can return jaded, and feel lost in a world that has remained unchanged while they themselves are transformed.

The anxiety I felt was not so much caused by the disparity in wealth so much as the disparity in lifestyle. Americans and Ethiopians just live different lives, with different concerns and priorities. America is shiny, overwhelming, glorious, comfortable, clean and straight. The electrical appliances fit nicely into the outlets, and the walls are perfectly angled. In the cities, everyone is in a rush to get somewhere that they can’t get to. We stare at the clock like an enemy.

For the negative reasons, some volunteers feel as though no one can understand them anymore. They have changed so much and Americans can never remove that thin veil of ignorance that so many people choose to see. But one thing I realized is that pretentiousness and pessimism are vices to be avoided. It can be easy to despise the ignorance of some Americans. It’s even hard to handle in status and image driven, white collar areas like Northern Virginia. But I tried not to see the negative aspects of America and focus on the positive. While the mentality and vibe of DC life scared me, the people did the opposite. They encouraged me. I found no ignorance and a lot of passion.

What I saw from the people I spent time with was a desire for connection and truth. People won’t understand what my walk into town is like, but they were genuinely interested. Everyone in my generation is searching for something bigger themselves. Some friends talked about their future plans with a quality in their voice that suggested that their big dreams were just that. A college friend of mine said he had been planning on starting a club and restaurant in Miami with some old friends. But he said it with an air of impossibility. As if the idea is one last chance at extending the good old days, but he himself knew he was just going to be a financial analyst in Mclean.

Most Americans I know share these same dreams. We’ve all had visions of moving to the Caribbean and starting a hotel or working at a bar in Australia. Or we dream of moving to London or Tanzania. Finding the good life. Everyone dreams of it. They wonder why their vacation to St. Barts has to end and they have to go to work on Monday. The reality is that they don’t.

I have a friend who travels around the world and dabbles in freelance video journalism. I have friends who started that hotel in the Carribean. Someone I want to get to know better is a humanitarian clown based out of Peru. Many friends are teaching in impoverished areas, from Turkey to Mississippi. I have a brother who lived in France for two years, and a sister who does development work in Haiti. I have a friend, quite nearby, who feels his calling is Elephant research in Africa. He’s spending his summer in Ruahu, Tanzania. I have two other brothers who moved by themselves to Europe.

Americans, we are the sons and daughters of explorers and risk takers. Our ancestors risked everything in the name of discovery and freedom. I felt that in the people I spoke with. Our desire to seek is innately wired into our blood — and the dreams of my friends are not limited to just travel. Because leaving America is not the only answer.

A high school friend of mine, after watching a documentary, completely changed the way he eats. A mutual friend of Carly and I has found her calling as a wilderness guide. Others are really trying to find their spirituality and their religion. Another good friend wants to do organic farming in New Zealand.

Five months and a lot of work from now, I’ll return home. I’m not scared to return to America. I don’t think I will live there for long, but I know that I’m not returning to a foreign land. There is a thirst for truth and growth that I don’t see in Ethiopia.

There is a desire to connect with something. We all want something more, but too many people think that the perfect life is a fading dream.

Even more noticeable though are the people who realize it isn’t.

Speeding Ticket

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I’m home after spending over one and a half years in the Peace Corps. I visited once before, last summer. But this time is different.

My last visit, I was an American who happened to live in Ethiopia. This time, I feel like an Ethiopian who happens to be in the DC area.

Being home is incredibly comfortable.  Comfort. That is the best way to describe it. I love walking barefoot on the carpet, opening he refrigerator, and lying down on clean, crisp fitted bed sheets. I’ve eaten my weight in cereal, cheese, and potato chips. My family is incredible and Carly feels like home. My first shower felt like a massage.

The lines here are definite, the corners are angled perfectly and electrical appliances fit perfectly into the sockets. There are sidewalks and perfectly mulched gardens. It seems foreign to me. Everything is the same and yet it is entirely different. Sometimes my neighborhood feels like home, and sometimes it feels fake. I don’t know if this is all a dream.

There is such a contrast in the aesthetics of my two countries. But the bigger contrast can’t be seen. Rather I can feel it. There is a collective anxiety that I feel in the air. Something about DC makes everyone feel that they are behind, behind on their inbox and behind on time.  People rush everywhere, but can’t get anywhere. Something in the air keeps people moving.  

I get caught up in it too. I’m not strong enough to repel the forces of anxious movement.

We in our 20’s obsess over movement. We aren’t content to hang out with our friends on the porch. To not have plans and be perfectly okay with it. It has to be at a bar. And once we are at the bar, we have to go to another bar. We obsess over careers, whether moving up or moving out. Our jobs and relationships are always changing. We change apartments, constantly on the move.  We crave it.  And then we wonder where the time went.

And like I said, I give in. I get sucked into the collective unconscious. Groupthink grabs me. Carly and I have felt this pull to constantly be doing something. Rather, we should have been focused on actively doing nothing, and embracing the present.

On Sunday, My Mom, Carly and I were heading home from Church. We were rushing to eat, and get home before some friends were coming over to plan a wedding. I got a speeding ticket, going 48 in a 30 on Lee Highway. A perfect welcome home present. But also a perfect reminder:

Slow down.