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.
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.”
It was the day after the third presidential debate. The TV in the hotel lobby was tuned to CNN and showing a rerun of it. Evan, a loud, brash young man was baiting John. “Bill Clinton was the one who deregulated Wall Street,” John, not good at refusing the bait, was saying. The next day I ate lunch with Evan among others. Ethiopian food was typically eaten with one’s hands, so greasy hands were par for the course. He wiped his on my favorite sweater.
“They told me that 20 percent of volunteers are over 50,” John said to me. “Not here.” In fact the Peace Corps’s official statistics show only seven percent of volunteers being over 50. But he also admitted that perhaps that was why he was accepted into the Peace Corps as soon as he applied, when in general only a quarter of applicants made it. A kind of affirmative action by age.
John was far from alone in fearing government monitoring. Under the state of emergency order, foreigners could be arrested for discussing Ethiopian politics just as readily as any local. Indeed, the government was now blocking all social media sites while at the same time making it a crime to post about Ethiopia on Facebook and Twitter.
For all the censorship, however, BBC World Service played freely on TVs in airport lounges. With all the Chinese investments in this country, the Ethiopian government took its lessons in authoritarian control from China, where international channels like BBC and CNN would black out the instant they reported anything that displeased Beijing. But here, passengers waiting for their flights seemed in little danger of being exposed to some critical segment on Ethiopia. It was less an indictment against the government than against the rest of the world for how little attention it paid to events in Africa.
As for the Peace Corps, for as long as it has existed, it has often operated in many countries under a cloud of suspicion that it might really be an arm of the CIA. When speaking on the phone to family members back in the States, several volunteers had their calls suddenly dropped when they started talking about the protests. George, a slight, handsome 25-year-old from Massachusetts (“near Salem, with the witches”), recalled his experience: The call would drop and “you’d just hear a crackle on the phone.”
Liane, a girl-next-door type brunette from Maryland, recalled hearing a playback of the immediately preceding conversation after her call was cut off. I mentioned how back in the USSR the KGB used to bug every hotel room, so that if you needed maintenance all you had to do was to say so in the middle of your bedroom. (And as recent news demonstrates, the Russians are still doing it.) “You don’t think they bug the rooms here?” She was suddenly alarmed. “Because if they did I’d be in real trouble.” We decided that the Ethiopian government probably didn’t work as hard as the Russians to listen to every conversation in every hotel room. Nonetheless we settled on a code word for all the things we weren’t supposed to talk about while in-country: “pumpkin spice.” “Very seasonal,” Liane nodded.
(To be continued...)
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."