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.
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.
Parties or not, time in Ethiopia left an indelible mark. Of course they were already a heavily self-selected group, and now they were more unlike the average American than ever. All spoke some Amharic, the lingua franca of Ethiopia, and some spoke other local languages depending on where they were posted. The average American has surely never heard of Amharic. (Although hardly anyone had learned to read the very complicated writing system.) And the longer they stayed, the more it showed.
Mark, 29 and from upstate New York, had signed up for a second helping with the Peace Corps. He had been in-country for three years and eight months. He had trained as a biologist and been in the Air Force before coming to Ethiopia to work in conservation with some of the larger animals of East Africa. This in turn led him to tourism. “It’s just not realistic,” he said, “people who want to do conservation without tourism. Tourists are what pay for the conservation.” He was gaunt and had black short-cropped hair, perhaps a habit attained in the military, and an air of weariness, even madness, about him.
It was a rarity to sign up for a second tour, but not in Mark’s cohort. “In my group,” he recalled, “I think 18 out of 35 renewed. Five married Ethiopians. One had a kid here. Two others, other than me, are working here right now.”
But Mark acknowledged that his group was unusual. Among the current crop of volunteers, an overwhelmingly white group, only one was dating an Ethiopian. And they looked with unmistakable awkwardness upon Valencia and Hassan with their bodies intertwined on the couch. Race was on the minds of people here in a way that a white liberal American would loathe to acknowledge. Nevertheless Liane had admitted how much men in her village prized the chance to sleep with a white woman. “They’d call after 9pm,” she explained, “when the rates are cheaper.” White women had a reputation in Ethiopia for being sexually adventurous, she added, in no small part because the only pornography in the country came from the West. Later in Lalibela a hotel proprietor would ask me in earnest where in the world he had to go for sex tourism with white women.
In the case of tall, blonde Valencia and her beau Hassan, whether or not race played a role, the disparateness of their respective social positions seemed enough to make one look twice. Valencia had the air of the kind of woman who enjoyed the thrill of transgressing social norms. She referred to Hassan as “the man I’m fucking, the man I love.” But paradoxically perhaps there was something safe about being with a black man in this country, in a white woman knowing that she occupied such superior status that he would never dare leave her.
These barriers hinted at the limitations of the Peace Corps. “Are we reinforcing the notion of the white savior?” George asked rhetorically over hookah, referring to the colonially derived impression that Africans couldn’t help themselves without white people coming to save them. “Absolutely. Look, I’ve been here two years. If I had one project where I felt like it truly helped, I’d be happy. The Peace Corps is as much about them helping us, by giving us this experience, as it is about us helping them.” Later he added, sagely, “We Americans always need to be doing things, to feel like we’re doing something, working toward something.” But for now he blew perfect smoke rings out of his mouth and then grinned. “We’ve had a lot of time on our hands.”
And if one of the core missions of the Peace Corps was to baptize young Americans in vastly different societies, then it certainly did its job with this group, at least the ones not fresh off the plane. Tessa, 25 and from Montana, was stealing out the Ghion with two of her comrades to get a team tattoo commemorating their time in Ethiopia. Her time in-country had already left an indelible mark on the inside, and now she wanted one on the outside as well before she got on the plane home. She solicited opinions as to where it should go before settling on the shoulder, like the USMC tattoo that Marines might get. Her brother was a Marine. “Don’t tell my husband,” she said on her way out the door.
John for one was simultaneously deeply protective of “the mission” of the Peace Corps and deeply skeptical of Ethiopians. “We’re not here to make friends,” he’d say, obviously with his younger colleagues in mind who lived for those moments where genuine exchange seemed possible. “We’re just marks to them, rich Americans with our money.” In a corner store he balked at being overcharged for bottled water. But if no genuine give-and-take was possible, then what was the mission exactly?
Perhaps it was like what George said — Americans just liked to feel like they were doing something. But John never said whether he concurred. He was still worried that I might not be who I said I was. “I still think you might be an agent,” he said.
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."