Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In my previous post I wrote about the legends of Antarctica, of Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen from the heroic age of exploration.
But Antarctica is such a forbidding place, a place unlike anywhere else on earth, not even the Arctic, that even today the men and women who go there are nearly as remarkable as their predecessors. Nowhere else on earth would the commercial traveler — there’s hardly any other kind, given the impossibility of reaching the seventh continent as a backpacker — find himself guided by such uncommon individuals.
For now, while they were cloistered in this hotel, the newbies’ summer camp attitude seemed oddly more appropriate. Indeed the volunteers were hopelessly bored and trying to entertain themselves as best as they could. Card games went on in the lounge. As a group, the volunteers went out to Bole, the hip neighborhood near the airport, for salsa dancing. Parties were thrown, and on more than one night they migrated to one of the so-called “villas” outside of the hotel’s main building. Weed got passed around. “Never Have I Ever” was played, revolving around the themes of sex and drugs. “Never have I ever dropped acid.” “Never have I ever had a threesome.” “Never have I ever done meth.” “Never have I ever slept with my professor.”
Beer pong featured prominently, although with water in the cups instead of beer. “Don’t drink the water!” Someone admonished. “It’s sink water,” which in Ethiopia could make you very sick indeed. The volunteers had tried to get a keg in here, but the logistics proved too complicated. Indeed, for a party, there was a shortage of alcohol, and everyone nursed her drink as a precious commodity. They could’ve bought six packs, but the way things worked in Ethiopia they would’ve had to put down twice the money for bottle deposits. So these were relatively tame gatherings. At another hotel where the Peace Corps sometimes put up its volunteers, after one night of debauchery, the hotel had to replace the wall papers.
Liane and her friend Alana (along with as many as two million others) were at the Irreecha festival in Bishoftu where dozens had been killed. She was still visibly shaken by what she saw, which she would not describe. Yet she was delaying her departure from Ethiopia. “I don’t want to be home for Halloween with all the revelry,” she said. The contrast would have been too jarring.
Alana went so far as to describe the government’s policy toward the Hamar people of Ethiopia as “acts of genocide.” Reportedly, the government had been forcibly removing the Hamar people, a small and isolated tribe living in the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia, from their homeland into villages. A clash in 2015 between soldiers and tribesmen allegedly killed dozens.
But her outspokenness was far from universal. Lana, a nurse from Maine, carefully circumvented every political discussion as long as she was in-country. John for his part endlessly quoted vague proverbs. “I like to talk in Ethiopian proverbs,” he explained, “to avoid taking a stance on politics.”
John had a much more personal reason for being here. The couple had talked about joining the Peace Corps but never got around to it. “We had this ad for the Peace Corps cut out from the New Yorker and pinned on our fridge.” Now that she was gone, he decided to get away from the States and do what they’d always talked about in her memory. “I made the good will gesture of giving everything I owned to Goodwill.”
Actually there were several young couples here, couples in their twenties, some of whom looking as though they got married on graduation day and promptly went off to Africa. There were Norma and Jason, Shawna and Cliff, Tessa and Barry. Others left boyfriends and girlfriends behind. Some, like Liam, managed to keep the flame going despite the odds. Others had long since broken up.
“It’s horrible” being so much older than most everyone else (the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28), John admitted. Indeed, he wasn’t much loved among his fellows, not least because, in an overwhelmingly liberal group, he declared, “Trump is a buffoon, but Hillary is just as bad.”
“You don’t work for the Ethiopian government, do you?” John (all names have been changed) was asking me. He was less than half-joking. “Because I’ve realized that one fifth of the times when I go anywhere, there’s a government person tailing me. There was a guy here just the other day from the Ministry of Defense.”
It was the latter half of October at the landmark (if terrible) Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and John had good reason to be worried.
Nearly a year earlier major ethnic groups largely left out of the country’s governance began protesting the government dominated by the minority Tigray people, who represented only about six percent of the population. On October 2, a religious festival in Oromia, the region surrounding Addis, turned bloody when police confronted protestors. Official and local accounts of how over fifty individuals (and perhaps many more) died remained conflicting. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds more had already died in the preceding year.
For reasons that should be obvious by the end of this post, a young man I met once in college has been on my mind in recent days. I met him early in 2003, soon before the Iraq War began. I was a junior at Yale, and the prospect of war felt like all that anyone could talk about on campus.
I was at the dining hall of my residence getting dinner when I ran into this girl I knew — let’s call her Giselle — and the guy she introduced to me as her new boyfriend. The three of us sat down together. He said his name was Aleksey. He had short blond hair, what I remember as a slightly gaunt frame, and gold-rimmed glasses. He spoke with a slight Russian accent and said his family was Russian but had immigrated from Uzbekistan.
Then, in rapid succession, Aleksey offered the following about himself: He was a Tibetan buddhist; he was a master of martial arts; he was a tennis champion; he worked as a male model; he started his own company and was still the CEO; he was a member of the Russian mafia; and he was an undercover operative for the CIA.
In Lalibela, “Ethiopia’s Jerusalem,” my hotel manager Abraham (not his real name) invited me to sit with him and his friend. He was thirty-something and wore a gray hoodie as though in emulation of Luke Cage. We were in the tranquil backyard, sitting on white plastic chairs and chewing khat, the tobacco-like stimulating shrub leaves common here and in the Middle East.
Like a surprisingly number of Ethiopians, he spoke fluent English, although his friend struggled to understand me and found it hard to get a word in edgewise. Abraham later explained that years ago a Finnish woman had helped him get an education, and he worked very hard to learn English well.
“You are Chinese?” he asked.
“But you are not Chinese.”
“How did you know?”
“You are not like other Chinese people I have met.”
“I live in America.” I repeated this lie, not wanting to explain the complications about how I’d left already.
I was just about sick of answering these overtures. They tend to get very excited seeing foreigners in Ethiopia. A chorus of "hello, hello," "China, China," and "how are you where do you come from" had followed me wherever I went. Just as often boys and young men physically followed me for as much as a mile.
So when one more voice asked me where I was from, I mumbled the second most acceptable answer, "Taiwan," then began heading inside. But he heard my American accent.
"But you live in America?" The guess surprised me, and I paused.
I was in Aksum, or Axum, in northern Ethiopia, an area chiefly populated by the Tigray people, an ethnic minority who dominated the Ethiopian government. According to tradition, this small, dusty town hosted not only the palace of the Queen of Sheba but also the Ark of the Covenant.
From Thamel I caught a cab to Bhaktapur, the ancient city five miles east of Kathmandu proper. The driver was a tallish, chatty man of about forty named Ben.
“Are you married?” he asked. I said I wasn’t. “Good. Single life better. Once you marry, in Nepal, all the responsibility is on the man.” I asked how many children he had. He said he had a 12-year-old daughter.
I asked whether the earthquake last year affected his family. “Yes,” he nodded. “Our house collapsed. Thankfully no one in my family was hurt.”
“Have you rebuilt it?”
“No. We’re waiting for the government assistance. But actually the amount of money they give is only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s not much for rebuilding a house.”
He shook his head in agreement. “It’s not enough. So I hope that God will help me.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."