I immediately hit the deck, the deck being a red dirt dusty road. My bag of tomatoes got squished between my chest and the road, while I got a mouthful of dirt. As I had said, there was a 2/11th chance of perishing in Burkina Faso, but I was really hoping it wouldn’t be on my third day in village, the very first time I went out by myself (I had just gotten the place so clean!).

I was still on the ground unsure what to do – those three months of Peace Corps training had not really prepared me for this situation. Should I roll around and do some ‘manvouers’ (whatever those might be)? Should I get up and run zig-zagging in the other direction? Should I throw my tomatoes in his face and charge? Even if I got away now this was not that big a village, surely he would find me later. Would I have to spend the next two years dodging bows & arrows?

While calculating my next move, I began to hear a loud noise. A roar if you will. It was laughter, a ton and ton of laughter. I peaked my head up and saw that the entire town, everyone who had been sitting on either side of the road watching my every move, had continued to watch after I bought the tomatoes and now were laughing hysterically. This is an odd village I thought, how can what is happening be funnier than the Aw ni tile joke?

I was a bit confused so I looked up some more, to see if my tormentor was still there. To my surprise he was laughing as well. It didn’t seem like my life was in immediate danger anymore, so I slowly stood up. The man I thought was going to be the last I ever saw was standing there, dressed in complete rags. He had knotty hair, and in between laughing was trying to sing a song. He wasn’t very good. But when I inspected him further, I realized the bow was indeed still in his possession, but he didn’t have an arrow. And he likely never did.

Still a bit confused, I dusted myself off and tried to salvage what I could out of my tomatoes. A young man approached me, also laughing, but perhaps taking pity on me. “Il faut pas t’inquiéter, il est fou!” – or “Don’t worry, he is a crazy person!” That’s when I fully comprehended the situation. For whatever reason, just like dust and goats, many villages also have a crazy person – a fou (or sometimes a crazy women, a folle). The lack of mental health facilities probably doesn’t help, but they are harmless. Often they amble about, signing songs, telling tales – an almost jester sort of role at times. We had great moments with the one in our training village up north, actually he was quite an entertaining individual (he claimed he had asked the World Bank for 20,000 white people to build an international airport in his village of less than 200, and the four of us in training were the first to arrive – that meant he also considered himself to be our boss in a sort of way, and always carried around the hand-drawn blueprints of the prospective airport design to prove it).

However, they are also crazy. And they do crazy things. And for some reason in this village, someone had decided to give this crazy fou a bow. Luckily, however, they had the foresight not to give him the accompanying arrow. This was all unbeknownst to me, but I was getting a quick education in it now.

So I was alive, but my confidence completely shattered again, and no amount of tomatoes would bring it back. I meekly smiled and tried to say something to the fou. Of course he was laughing too hard and trying to sing when he wasn’t laughing, so it was tough to get anything through. Usually he made people laugh around the village, at least I was able to do the reverse to him. That and the entire village had finally stopped watching . . . no wait, that wasn’t true at all.

It was a bit of an awkward situation, the kind I was desperately trying to avoid, so I resigned myself to failure and walked away off the main road and back to my house tomato-less. There’s no way everyone saw that right, I reckoned to myself. No one would remember that, the fou has probably pulled that trick on plenty of people. This is going to be ok, I bet people in this village hate to laugh.

I spent the rest of that afternoon in my house, not leaving. My counterpart came over that afternoon, to recount the story of ‘The Fou and I,” that he had just heard. Oh well, looks like Day 4 was going to be another cleaning day!

The main drag of my torments

The main drag of my torments

Before I left to go to Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps, I figured there was a 2/11ths chance I might meet an untimely demise while there. This was based on absolutely no legitimate math or rational information whatsoever, as I had rarely met a fraction I could comprehend, but a number I kept in mind that was just low enough to avoid any justification to back out under concern for such pretexts.

Fast forward to three months later. I had completed our three month training program, and affecté (sent) to my site. I was replacing a married couple in the southwest of the country in a small town known as Sideradougou. However, that couple had left Burkina six months prior, and by the time I arrived in the house I was to be living at, the lack of cleaning over a the past half year in a place where things get very dirty, very quickly really showed. So I spent my first day entirely cleaning up the joint, and then again on the second. It was not exactly glamorous, nor involved saving babies from endemic cholera on an hourly basis as I had imagined, but it had to be done.

However, there was another reason I spent two days cleaning, two more days that I had ever cleaned anything in my entire life combined prior to that. After three months in Burkina, I had become somewhat accustomed to the culture and country. However, during training, which was located on the north side of the country far away from my current posting, I was always surrounded by other volunteers. We split off into small groups of 4-5 where we did language training all day, then came together every 10 days or so as a big group to do more technical training. It was easy to go around and explore with others by your side. Being dropped off in village and realizing you were all alone for the first time in three months was a daunting feeling.

So cleaning in some ways kept me occupied, and delayed the process of exploring my village on my own. However, I couldn’t handle a third day of cleaning, no matter how much I dreaded the first time leaving my house (in addition, given my lack of cleaning prowess and the rapid rate of dust resettlement in Burkina Faso, things were unlikely to get any cleaner. Ever). So on Day 3 I resolved to get out and explore. I didn’t really know what to do, but I figured maybe buying some vegetables would be a good way to ease in to village life. This was another first for me, as I had eaten about three total vegetables in my life to that point (two of them were potatoes). Between all this cleaning and vegetable shopping, Burkina Faso was domesticating me at a rapidly unexpected pace.

It wasn’t market day, but my neighbor told me there were a few stalls along the main road. So I quickly reviewed my local language (Dioula) greetings and headed out that way, my first big trip in little Sideradougou. I walked at a brisk pace and could feel everyone’s eyes on my every move. I was really the only foreigner around, and this was my first foray out – I’m sure everyone was curious as to what the new guy was going to do (I carried similar questions). I tried to greet a few people by but clearly messed it up. They politely tried not to laugh and responded, but I could tell (saying Aw ni tile [good afternoon] when it was instead time to say Aw ni sogoma [good morning] is apparently a classic Burkinabe joke). Oh well, at least I wasn’t cleaning.

After about 10 minutes I reached the main road. I thought there had been a lot of people I had passed already, but that was nothing compared to the amount hanging out on both sides of the road. And every single one of them was staring at me. Or so I felt.

I walked up slowly surveying the scene as I didn’t even know exactly what to do, and wanted to avoid looking awkward and confused (likely 14 years too late on that one), or at least minimize that as much as possible. Luckily I saw a lady by a stall selling tomatoes out of the corner of my eye. Perfect I thought, tomatoes are a vegetable, right? If I just do something normal and get me some tomatoes, then maybe everyone will see I am just like them, that I eat vegetables too. I approached the lady and attempted to ask how much they cost in local language, but quickly switched to French. I had no idea how much they should cost or how many tomatoes was a sufficient amount (since I had never really bought any ever in my life and I didn’t know even what I would use them for), so I just gave her some money and took what she allowed me to.

I felt pretty accomplished, I had just completed my first business transaction in my village (as a business volunteer, I had basically finished my job for the day). Growing more confident, I decided to walk down the main road and explore a bit more before heading back home. This was going to be all right I told myself, I was going to do well here.

I turned around to start walking away from the tomato stall. But what I saw I was not prepared for, and instantly shattered all my new found confidence. A man was standing in the middle of the road and aiming a bow and arrow right directly at my chest, about to launch what would certainly be a deadly strike.

to be continued . . . maybe

A place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

The place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

Rats in the BF (Part III)

Posted: 16 May 2013 in Travel
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I gagged and looked away. The smell was so strong now, but that couldn’t be the reason, could it? There is no way that a dead rat has been sitting in my utensil jar for two weeks now, rubbing up against the very utensils I use to eat, that I put in my mouth on a daily basis! I looked again and it was still there, as dead and rotting as ever. I couldn’t believe it, it all made sense now why every time I took a sip of ice tea it smelled like poo – the spoon that I had used to stir and then left in my cup inexplicably had been rubbing against this dead rat for some time. I was basically licking a dead rat for the past two weeks!

I came out of a semi state of shock, took the utensil jar outside of my house and dumped its contents in a garbage area of sorts (the previous dead rats, Dimanche had all picked up by hand and thrown over the wall of my house, as I had no plans on touching them). I didn’t know if I should tell Dimanche, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I was going to become seriously ill, but then I reasoned that I had basically been licking the dead rat everyday for the past two weeks and not gotten ill, so it must be ok (maybe even good for me?). I was going to call our PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) to ask her, but then I thought, how on earth am I going to explain this? It was probably best to not even try, they might just wackyvac (a Peace Corps slang term for someone who is sent home because they have gone ‘crazy’ to some extent, at least in the eyes of the administration) immediately, since it is pretty odd that I knowingly smelled rotten sewage all over my kitchen but didn’t do much about it.  No, I was still here, alive, and in Burkina Faso, if this was going to kill me, it would have happened by now.

So I did not call anyone or tell a single soul in my village, but spent the next few days on edge, constantly worried that I would fall violently ill. The fact that I didn’t is amazing in itself. I considered throwing away all my silverware immediately, but did not feel like buying new ones either (Peace Corps volunteers are known for being incredibly stingy, something I probably took to the max). So I spent the afternoon washing each of them with bleach, over and over. As soon as I had gotten rid of the rat there was no longer a smell in my kitchen, but that made it even harder to clean since I did not really know when to stop. So I didn’t, for a couple of hours at least.

At any rate, that was not the last time I encountered rodents that needed to be killed in my humble abode. However, that was the largest haul – in total it was five. After having seen four of them the day after we put out the poison, I figured that had been plenty and we got them all. I didn’t think much about it in the following two weeks, but given that the dead ones were spread out across the house, it had been highly likely there were others. I had considered the matter done, but that dead rat hadn’t. In fact, he ensured that he would get the last laugh. Unlike his brethren that laid down to die within a small radius of the poison, this punk rat stumbled onward, looked around for a suitable location, climbed up the table and crawled in my utensil jar to die. He wanted to ensure that his rotting carcass would continue haunt me, and that it did. Alas, though I did learn a valuable life lesson. To this day now, whenever my ice tea starts to smell like poop, I immediately stop drinking it and try to figure out the issue, instead of waiting until after the fact (who says you don’t learn any valuable life skills in the Peace Corps?).

THE END (at least I hope – I don’t think any rotting carcasses followed me back home . . . )

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The sacrifices we make for such goodness

Rats in the BF (Part II)

Posted: 9 May 2013 in Travel
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Fast forward to two weeks later. I had grown more confident in my surroundings after the demise of the rats, and often even left my mosquito net to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night now. It had been about six weeks in village, and I was starting to settle in. This particular day I had just come back from buying some bread along the main strip, and returned to make a sandwich. Another great prize from my care package was a jar of real American peanut butter, along with a jar of marshmallow fluff.  I was going to enjoy myself and make a fluffer nutter this fine afternoon, in addition to drinking some ice tea from a mix I had bought in my regional capital – middle class Sideradougou life was good.

I went into my kitchen to begin preparing, and noticed a really foul smell. It had been there for sometime actually, but smells come and go in these parts. I hadn’t paid too much attention, assuming it would go away eventually. It was definitely worse today though, but no matter – I had a mission and wasn’t going to let something like a putrid smell distract me.

I went over to the corner of my kitchen were my utensil jar was, and where the smell seemed strongest, and got out a knife to cut open my bread and spread the peanut butter, followed by the fluff (there are competing schools of thought on the right way to do it, but I’m a peanut butter first kind of guy). I grabbed another utensil to prepare my ice tea. As is typical, after stirring I left the spoon in the cup. I took both my sandwich and drink over to a table in my living room so to speak (I actually had a very large house by Burkina Peace Corps standards – as I had replaced a married couple, the village had ensured they received a big house since there was two of them). I began happily eating my sandwich and drinking my ice tea. Something was odd though – before the smell had been confined just to that corner of the kitchen. Now it seemed to have followed me (could it be I? yes probably, but it seemed there was also something in addition to that). My food in particular had a bit of an odor around it, and it was strong whenever I drank my ice tea. No matter, I was eating a fluffer nutter and drinking ice tea – life was good for the moment and I didn’t want a wretched stench to bring me down, I could deal with that later.

So I finished up my meal and decided maybe now was time to figure this all out. I brought my dishes back to my kitchen and started sniffing around, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. It was definitely the back corner, where on a small table I had my water filter and utensil jar. As I sniffed around I noticed it was actually strongest right by the utensil jar. That’s odd I thought, I wash my utensils all the time, I wonder why they would be stinking so bad?

I sniffed around a bit more just to make sure it was the utensil jar and not something else, but it was definitely strongest there. It literally smelled like poo, something must’ve been rotting there for some reason. But what, metal spoons don’t typically rot do they?  I peered into my utensil jar, but as the married couple prior had left me with more knives, spoons, and forks than I could ever want, it was too crowded to see anything inside but blackness. I poked around a bit, but still nothing. I figured the smell must be something else, but thought I would do my due diligence and take out all the utensils for a better look.

As I was taking them out by the handful I saw something and froze. It could not be, no way! I took out some more and kept looking – then I almost puked. There were no more utensils remaining in my utensil jar, but there was a brown blob, similar to the one I had showered with two weeks ago . . . a dead, rotting rat was sitting in my utensil jar!

to be continued . . .

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If you were a dying rodent, where would you hide? (note: utensil jar on the shelf is already taken)

Rats in the BF (Part I)

Posted: 5 May 2013 in Travel
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This story is positively gross. If you plan on judging me, I suggest you avoid reading it (especially if you have food around you, or plan on consuming some at any point in the next 72 hours).

During the first few weeks at my house in the village of Sideradougou, Burkina Faso, where I lived for two years during my Peace Corps service, I spent a lot of time cleaning the place up. The volunteers before me, a married couple, had left nearly six months before I arrived, and the house had not really been kept up during that gap. It was actually quite in disarray, but at least it gave me a ‘project’ of sorts to concentrate on during the beginning when everything was weird and awkward in village, and I had no idea what I was doing there (not much of that really changed drastically later on anyways).  At any rate, after about a month I had finally gotten the place set up how I had wanted, cleaned it up with some help, made a few modifications, and got some new furniture – it was finally starting to feel like home.

However, there was a small, continuing problem. I had received a care package from my parents in the United States, with a Costco sized bag of Cheez-its as its main prize. I would leave them out on a recently constructed but very uneven shelf that I used as a pantry in my kitchen area. Overnight,  I often heard weird noises and shuffles around my house, but given my deathly fear of bugs at the time, I refused to get out of my impregnable mosquito net fortress (like hiding under the covers as a child, I assumed I was ‘safe’ in there). Yet one morning, I was looking over that beloved box of Cheez-its (as I typically did first thing every day), and saw some scratch marks towards the bottom. Someone, or something, seemed to have been trying to get into them – this was personal now. I told a friend of mine in village about it, and he quickly figure out the issue – some unwanted houseguests had remained even after the intensive clean up, and were now trying to sabotage the one thing making me happy.

In short, there were rats in my house. Not to worry my friend, Dimanche (Sunday in English, as he was born on a Sunday), told me. It was bound to happen and probably will again, but it’s fairly easy to get rid of them with a little poison and a lot of death.  Given closer inspection around my house, the prevailing notion was that instead of just a single newfound roommate, I had in fact a whole family of squatters. Thus we would need to put out a decent amount of poison, probably for multiple nights in a row, to make sure we got all of them.

While I am not a huge fan of genocide, even for rats, I am a huge fan of Cheez-its. If it came down to them versus my prized care package possession, well that was an easy choice. We went out and acquired the poison, placed it strategically right in front of the increasingly crooked pantry shelves (ironically that Dimanche, a builder by trade, had constructed), and mixed it amongst some food (peanut butter, and I even sacrificed a single Cheez-it in order to save the rest) to fool these silly rats into a delicious death. We left it there, and I went into my mosquito net fortress as usual, but with open ears to hopefully hear a sudden stop of all the shuffling in the middle of the night.

The next morning I awoke and went to check the poison area, but I did not have my glasses on. I didn’t see much and assumed it hadn’t worked. Oh well, I went to take a shower – unlike most volunteer houses in Burkina, I had an indoor shower. There was no running water of course, but it just meant there was a small dark room in my house with a tiny pipe leading outside (the type of pipe that various rodents could conceivably easily crawl the other way back in) where I could take a bucket shower indoors (it was the definition of middle class Sideradougou life).

While showering in this 2×2 closet sized room or sorts, I noticed something large near the pipe. I still didn’t have my glasses on and had already begun showering, so I continued, but attempted to stand near the entrance, and away from whatever that motionless thing was. I finished, got dressed, and put on my glasses. When I returned to inspect the brown blob that I had showered with, I was astonished to see that it was a dead rodent. It had worked! I soon walked around my house and saw another dead rodent in the hallway, and two in the kitchen. Never had I been so happy to see dead animals all over the place, my Cheez-its would be safe now! It may have been a bit weird to accidentally ritually cleanse yourself with the dead body of something you had just killed, but hey I was in Burkina Faso now, and a lot of things were a bit weird.

to be continued . . .

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The not-so straight pantry shelf that housed my prized care package possessions

The Proposal (Part IV of life!)

Posted: 18 December 2012 in Travel
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To Propose or to not Propose

After a picture taking session, I lingered around a bit as everyone else made a move on.  It was more than sprinkling now, and I still had my little companion saying to me every 10 seconds, “mister, you buy?”  The Israelis were moving around a bend and soon to be out of sight.  I felt that this would probably be my best opportunity.   Christine turned around to me and gave me a quizzical face, demanding to know why I was going so slow and that we needed to keep up with everyone, especially as it was raining.  I replied that I just wanted to enjoy the scene.  She shrugged, unaware of any previous soft spot I had for waterfalls, and turned her back to meander forward a bit, in an attempt to keep me moving.  I felt like this must be it.

My heart was pounding rather heavily and my hands shaking as I reached into my side pocket.  The Israelis and Co. were now out of sight.  I had to do it!  But I was still questioning if it was right, if I should do this right here, right now.  I had a serious five second debate where I decided against the move, only to overrule myself.  The little girl was still chattering away. I really had hoped to lose her somehow, but she was persistent and clearly not going anywhere.  I just had to ignore her and go ahead.

I grabbed the ring out of my pocket.  Christine was about 10 feet in front of me, the falls to my left.  I called out “Christine!” and got down on one knee.  She turned around, saw me, and gave me the most confused, boggled look.  I put out my hand and said “Christine, I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you, will you marry me?”  I couldn’t believe it, I had actually done it!  The little girl, to her credit, must’ve sensed something special was happening as she stopped talking and just stared at us.  Christine also was just staring.  Not exactly the reaction I had expected.  I think her mind was literally blown.

I didn’t really want to be down on my knee on the rocks in the rain anymore, so I got up.  All Christine could mutter as a response was “oh my goodness” over and over.   I gave her the ring and said, “Well, you can think about it.”  At that point she realized she had not given me an answer, and said something to the effect of “yes, of course!”  She put the ring on her finger, we embraced, and took some self photos by the waterfall.  The little girl stared at us dumbfounded the entire time.

Christine was still in shock, but it was starting to rain a bit more, so we felt we needed to catch up.  As soon as we started moving again I heard a “mister, you buy?”  She had resumed her selling stance (in retrospect I think I should’ve bought her recorder after all, it would’ve been a nice keepsake of the moment).  I continued to ignore her though, pulling Christine’s hand as I was ready to go faster now, while she was nearly paralyzed with her mind still in a state of semi-shock.

We caught up to the Israeli girls and had them take some pictures of us, but decided not to tell them the news (we didn’t really know them, and felt it would be an awkward thing – though it was perhaps even more awkward for us to try to pretend to be normal and like nothing happened, when all Christine could mutter for the next hour in the car ride home was “oh my goodness,” over and over).  Anyways, we continued, it rained harder, and the little girl pleaded harder.  We made it back to our car a bit wet and recorder-less, but having finished the Blue Nile Falls in manner not to be forgotten.

Now We Live Happily Ever After . . . Right?

We had a wonderful time during the rest of our stay in Ethiopia (unfortunately that night we had made prior dinner plans with an older Israeli couple – we didn’t want to tell them either so we did not really celebrate that evening – Israelis were cramping our style all over Ethiopia!).  I kept thinking about the moment, how nervous I was, and how literally close I was to not even doing it.  In the end, it was weird, not quite the way I drew it up, but it all worked out (sounds like our lives).  The Israelis never knew (it has become my personal goal to ensure the nation never finds out), the little recorder salesgirl had a memory that maybe she will piece together later on in life, and I started the process of making it legally difficult for my beloved Christine to leave my side.  Everybody wins (or really just me)!

The End!

The Proposal (Part III of life!)

Posted: 12 December 2012 in Travel
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The Falls (getting closer . . .)

It was an hour ride to the spot from which you hike about 30 minutes to get to the Blue Nile Falls.  During that ride we made some small chit-chat with our fellow passengers, while I wondered whether this felt ‘right’ or not.  Once we got there, the driver dropped us off, and we were instructed to walk down a bridge, up a hill, through a village, passed a yellow Yeti eating a popsicle, and then we would see the falls.  I began wondering at which part might be best – I had known there would be some walking involved but hadn’t really started to think about where exactly I might want to fake an injury and get down on one knee.  However I did not have much time to think, for as soon as Christine and I, plus the three Israeli girls, walked through the village, a cadre of about 10 to 15 small children surrounded us, more than half of them insistent that we contribute to the local small goods economy.

I wanted to distance myself from this crowd, while somehow also breaking off Christine.  The Israeli girls led the way and interacted with many of the kids, drawing most of their attention.  I lagged behind and Christine was in the middle.  It was a decent situation, and one I was later grateful for, because if the Israeli girls had not been there, then the entire undivided focus of all these tiny salespeople would’ve been solely on Christine and I, and who knows what would’ve happened (for the record, Christine is not the most ‘kid-friendly’ individual).

So I was walking slowly up the hill, thinking everything could still work.  However there was one small, eight year old, female problem.  One of the girls had decided to attach herself to me, and that I was definitely going to buy her recorder.  Now while I was pretty much an all world ‘hot cross buns’ recorder player in my prime, I figured that this might not impress the ladies (re: Christine) now as much as it had in third grade.   I was probably not going to buy this girl’s recorder and I tried to communicate that message clearly, but she was persistent.  It was actually a good marketing strategy on her part; all the other kids were trying to vie for the attention of three individuals, while she was one-on-one with me.  For some reason no kid followed Christine, I suppose she looks ‘not-kid-friendly’ on the outside as well.

So the circumstances weren’t great – the morning hadn’t been awesome, we had a lot of company on this trip, I specifically had some very persistent company, and on top of that it started to rain.  It was not a ton of rain, but enough to make you want to pick up the pace a bit and get the falls over with.  Unfortunately I did not have that luxury.  I was walking as slowly as possible while not making it look awkward, hoping that the Israeli girls would charge ahead with the crowd, and not just wait for me to catch up.  Christine was in the middle, trying to keep pace, but confused as to why I was going so slowly.  We came up to the falls, which are actually very, very brown, and everyone stopped to take pictures, meaning I would have to start being slow to avoid the crowd all over again.  The falls, for the record, were actually pretty decent – many had told us a recent dam and the beginning of the rainy season meant that there would barely be any water trickling out, but luckily for us it had supposedly rained the previous day (the first truly positive sign).

The Blue (Brown) Nile Falls

to be continued . . .

The Proposal (Part II of life!)

Posted: 5 December 2012 in Travel
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Ethiopia!

Fast forward to our trip.  Lalibella was cool, but definitely not the place for this.  Next up was Bahir Dar, which I felt would be more appropriate.  We arrived and planned to spend three days there.  The first one was just hanging out, the second going to the Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon (where I would do my deed), and the third touring around Lake Tana in the boat and visiting the monasteries in the area.

On our second day, in the afternoon, I sneakily put the ring in my side pocket as we left our hotel room to grab the bus for the falls.  We were waiting around the lobby for a bit, when the manager of the hotel told us the weather out at the falls was very rainy right now and it would be a bad time to go (it was the wet season in Ethiopia at the time).  I, however, really wanted to push on regardless, given my pre-arranged plans.  But he assured me we could go in the afternoon tomorrow instead, after touring the lake in the morning.  I asked “but what if it rains tomorrow,” as we had to leave the day after that, meaning I would have to devise a new plan.  But he assured me, “oh, it won’t rain tomorrow.”  With that, we instead toured some sites around Bahir Dar that afternoon, which involved a small walk to a viewpoint of the city.  I still had the ring in my pocket and was seriously contemplating making a move then, but thought it best to stick with my gut and the original plan.

The next day we met our tour guide in the morning, and proceeded to go in a boat around Lana Tana’s monasteries.  It was a resounding failure, and put us in a really bad mood.  To begin, our guide was a rookie, this was literally his first time taking people around.  That was fine enough, I like giving people chances (unless they are pilots or pedicurists).  He was very nice and spoke English well, though he had a hard time understanding us.  What we thought we understood though, was that he was our guide, and not just someone tagging along for the ride.  He apparently did not seem to understand that last part, and once we got to the first monastery, he explained that we would have to pay for a new guide there.  All he had literally done was sit with us for a 45-minute boat ride across the lake, making awkward small talk.  It was a bit of a fiasco, and we wound up paying for new guides, refusing to pay him, getting reimbursed by the hotel manager for the new guides we paid for, then ultimately paying him his fare, even though he provided absolutely no value to the morning whatsoever (the boat driver, supposedly ‘unskilled labor’ as our guide implied, spoke better English and knew more about the area than he did).  We also cut the morning tour short, because we were incensed at the idea of paying for a new guide at each and every monastery (we were supposed to visit anywhere from three to eight).  So we arrived back at home not in the best of moods.  Not the way I had imagined the morning of the day we would remember for the rest of our lives (though in my imagination there were also a lot more dinosaurs carrying exotic cheeses around).

After getting some lunch out in town, we walked back to our hotel to get ready for the trip to the Blue Nile Falls (and pray that various Ethiopian rain gods in fact did not exist).  On the way back, a group of three young female tourists stopped us on the side of the road and asked us if we were Spanish.  That was an odd question, but many people in Ethiopia had assumed we were Spanish so far on the trip, though usually other Ethiopians (to their credit though, I did happen to be fighting a bull while taking a siesta on a bed of paella at the time).  We said no, and they seemed a bit dejected and puzzled, which made me wonder why they were wandering the streets of Bahir Dar looking for Spanish tourists.  But then they asked if we were going to the Blue Nile Falls this afternoon.  We said yes and they were less dejected (however I became more so).  They said they might come along on our trip as there were empty spots in the car.  Great I said enthusiastically out loud, but sarcastically inside.  Before we had been the only ones signed up, and I obviously was hoping for a little privacy.  But they were just getting lunch now and we were scheduled to go soon, so I figured they wouldn’t make it back in time, and we would indeed be on our own.

We got back to the hotel and were ready for our 3:00 departure.   The three female tourists, who we discovered were from Israel, were nowhere to be found.  This was looking good.  However we did not depart at 3:00, but instead waited around for some time.  This is what happened the previous day, before we ultimately were not able to go.  I was preparing for the worst, and began racking my brain for other suitable locations on our trip.  However once all hope was lost, the manager decided that we were leaving.  It seemed like it would only be us and we headed for the car . . . when we saw the three Israeli tourists enter the hotel compound and walk right into the vehicle.  We were all in it together now I suppose (though in some ways, this development technically gave me some backup options in case Christine felt more ‘seasick’ than overjoyed).

Lallibella is sweet!

to be continued . . .

The Proposal (Part I of life!)

Posted: 29 November 2012 in Travel
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The Lead Up

Around the sixth month of the twelfth year in the second millennium of our Gregorian calendar, the time had come for two things in my life: to visit Ethiopia, a country that fascinated me, I had extensively studied, and desperately wanted to experience, and to finally ensure that the girl of my dreams would not be able to run away in the middle of the night (or at least make it a bit more legally complex for her to do so).  I had been thinking about the latter move for some time, as many of my previous excuses had run dry.  I was now out of school, in a stable job, and attaining financial independence.  I even had health insurance and a retirement plan.  In other words, I was the ‘realest’ person I knew, so it seemed like the right time to become ever ‘realer.’

However, despite thinking about such moves for a short while, I hadn’t acted upon them.  I wanted to do something special, despite it not really being my nature, as I assumed I would have to tell this story for the rest of my life (hence why I am writing this, to eliminate that necessity).  You see, Christine and I had met many moons ago on a study abroad trip in South Africa.  Following, we both did the Peace Corps in West Africa, I in Burkina Faso, she in Benin (Christine did a Fulbright in Burkina as well).  So despite the fact that I wouldn’t necessarily say we are full-fledged Africa-philes for life (more just enjoy anything international), Africa has significantly defined our relationship.  I thought it only logical for the next step to involve the continent as well.  I had toyed with the idea of going back to our old college hangouts in Charlottesville and doing it there, but that was too normal.  A nice restaurant in DC just seemed boring, and my dream of doing it on Mars was about 83 years premature (as patient as Christine is, even I doubted she would wait that long).  Thus when I got word that I was going to be spending a week in Kenya taking a course for work, I started to scheme.

If I was going to Kenya, then I was going to neighboring Ethiopia as well (it was a package deal for me).  I cashed in all my paltry vacation days to ensure I would have two full weeks to romp around (I was previously more accustomed to the frequent three month travel stints during my extensive time in the not-so ’real’ world).  Now that that was done, arranging a trip to the country I had studied so much, and the region I want to focus a large part of my career on, I had to figure out how to get Christine there.  That, unsurprisingly, was easy.  You see, convincing Christine to take a trip abroad to a country she has never been to is a fairly easy enterprise (it happens to be a bit trickier if that country is a focal point in our generational ‘war on terror,’ a la Pakistan, but not impossible!).  She also just so happens to work as a contractor for the World Bank, where she is ‘forced’ to take three months off a year.  We should all be so lucky.  So when I PROPOSED the idea that she come meet me in Ethiopia, about eleven minutes later she had a plane ticket.

These events took place around March or April of 2012.  Now that I knew we were going to Ethiopia, I had to first of all ignore the constant pleas from everyone else around me to ‘lock her down before it’s too late,’ (I informed essentially no one of my plan) and figure out where/when to ask the proverbial question.  Despite having studied Ethiopia’s external relations extensively, I knew very little about the country from a tourist’s perspective.  After flipping through a Lonely Planet book a bit, we decided we would head north during our travels, visiting some old Christian churches hand carved completely from large stones in the ground (Lalibella – look it up), a small town on the shore of Lake Tana near many old monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls (Bahir Dar), and another city known for its medieval castles (Gonder).  Those all sounded like awesome places, so it was hard to pick which one might be best for such an occasion.  I initially thought Lalibella, but decided against it once I realized how touristy it might be (wasn’t as much as I had imagined, but a bit – like popping the question at your local TGIF, but on a Tuesday).  I then thought Lake Tana might be a nice place.  However that consists of a day-long boat trip around the massive lake visiting various monasteries, and Christine doesn’t do so well with boats.  I wanted to avoid a situation where she would mistake the seasickness in her stomach for how she felt about the prospects of my offer.  Thus, I felt the Blue Nile Falls might be the best option, but I resolved to more or less play it by ear once we got there, in case a more opportune situation arose.

Now that I had decided to go forward, found a location in Africa, and schemed to get Christine to that location, there remained a slight issue of obtaining a ring.  I am not much of one to dole out a month’s salary for the blood of an African miner (sorry, little diamond editorial!), and the odds that I would be able to identify a ring suitable to Christine were perilously low.  However, luckily I had another viable, and more meaningful, option.  In my village in Burkina Faso, there was a man who used to make rings out of coins.  One day when Christine was visiting me, we went and hung out with him for a bit.  We watched as he made two rings out of CFA (Burkinabe coins) and gave them to us.  It was pretty cool to see the coin, and then see him do the labor to turn it into something cheap machines at tourist traps do in America (in fact I told him if he ever wanted to come to America, he’d make a great machine).  But then, as we were talking with him and admiring his handiwork, he unveiled an old gold coin from Ghana, likely from colonial times.  It was awfully shiny and he said he had been saving it for a special occasion.  Us hanging out at his little corner was apparently enough of a special occasion.  I felt bad, but he insisted on using this coin he had been saving for so long, and turned it into a gold ring right before our very eyes.  Though it didn’t look like anything overly special (and in fact it turns Christine’s fingers green), it meant a lot to us, and was pretty cool as we were an integral part of its formation.  He gave it to me, ostensibly thinking I would know what to do with it, but rather it sat in my closet for over five years.  Now was the perfect time to bring it out of the woodworks.

This might’ve been a nice time to do it

Now I pride myself on being an aware traveler and realize the majority of the people so overtly approaching me on the street in not so wealthy countries have motives ulterior of pure friendship.   However the wonders of Ethiopian hospitality has been stressed to me many times past, and I had no reason to suspect this situation was anything but.  At any rate Isaias worked at the hotel, had not mentioned anything about money or anything else out of the ordinary thus far, and generally passed my personal gut-check of a vetting process.

So we continued walking, stopping at a few phone kiosks.  Isaias would say a few sentences to them in Amharic that extended beyond my 20 word vocabulary, but nothing would happen and we would leave.  It seemed like he was genuinely trying, but despite how easy I had heard it was to get a phone unlocked in Addis, was not meeting much success.

We made a left at a major roundabout that I had remembered from my walk home from the airport.  I was now truly in unchartered waters, the place looked a bit more residential.  We kept walking farther away from what I knew so I felt compelled to make sure the coffee shop was not too far away, as I had limited time.  Isaias reassured me that it was just up the road.

Isaias greeted someone on the road and right after we entered a residential courtyard.  I was a bit confused as to why we were not at some café, but followed him in regardless.  There were two pretty girls dressed in ‘traditional’ clothing standing in the courtyard.  We greeted them as we entered, they seemed happy to see us and even spoke to me a bit in broken English.  We went inside and greeted an older lady before sitting down on a couch.  This was not quite the café I had expected, but assumed it was prolly Isaias’s house.  I reasoned that we must have become such good friends that he bestowed upon me the ultimate honor of inviting me into his home instead!  I mean, who doesn’t become such good friends with me within 10 minutes of engrossing mind-altering conversation (typically about cell phone logistics)?  I must just be that good at relating to Africans, even after nearly 5 years out of the game.  Thus were the self-inflating thoughts running through my mind at this point of time, taking the place of the arousing suspicions that should be been present instead.

We sat down the couch and now there were three girls standing next to us, swaying from side to side.  An older man in a lab coat also came out and greeted me.  Isaias’s father?  The chemist?

It must’ve been when the girls did not sit on the couch but instead remained standing that made me a bit curious.  The lab coat did not really help matters either.  I felt compelled to be reassured, so I turned to Isaias and asked “is this your house? Is that your mother?”  To his credit and perhaps ultimately folly, he truthfully replied “no, this is the place where we can drink coffee and see the girls dance.”  Alarms bells finally shrieked throughout my brain and flashes of the ‘siren scam’ text from the Lonely Planet appeared vividly in front of me.  I realized I was in that exact situation, how on earth had that happened?   It was obvious, a polite well-dressed young male approached me, invited me to coffee, and took me to a house.  It was all so textbook and I couldn’t believe that is where I found myself at that very moment in this world.

I immediately decided I needed to get out.  I had two choices – I was seated at the outer end of the couch near the door and was in a position to make a run for it, or I could try to somehow leave in a more polite and less blatant manner.  If I failed at one I couldn’t really do the other and would probably be in an even worse situation, as my intentions to get the hell out of there would be well known.

I turned to Isaias and attempted to calmly explain that I had to go, I had no time and needed to call a friend I was going to meet soon.  He pulled out his phone so I could make the call and not have to leave, but I firmly, yet politely insisted I had to go to a telecenter to do it.  Isaias’s was resisting, he replied “you don’t even have 10 minutes for coffee?”  I continued and made motions of getting up.  Isaias, to my surprise, said ok.  I quickly got up, thanked the not-so-smiley-anymore girls, and exited the courtyard without looking back.  Isaias followed me out.

I had fully expected there to me some sort of showdown and much more aggressive resistance to my leaving.  I was certain I was going to be held against my will until I paid an exorbitant sum to secure my exit.  A scene was going to erupt, this was going to take time, and Christine would not even know where I disappeared to.  I did not even have that much money on my person – I had no idea how it was really going to go down but I expected the worst.  But now that I was out, I wasn’t going to think twice about it.  I quickly turned to Isaias once we were about 10 yards from the courtyard, thanked him and said I would go back now and find a telecenter.  I expected him to resist further, follow and harass me as I attempted to get back onto the main road as quickly as possible.

He asked me if I knew the way, then asked “something for me,” and for “for the entrance.”  I knew that code but wasn’t going to give him anything.  I said “I can’t, I don’t have that much.”  To which he bluntly got to the core of the matter by asking, “Ok, how much do you have? 100 birr for the entrance.” (I had left with the idea of unlocking my phone and buying a SIM card, he surely knew I had some money on me).  I again politely but firmly resisted, and called his bluff.   “Ok, well I’ll get you back at the hotel when I see you there.”  He relented at that comment, and I quickly turned to walk in the other direction, saying “ok I’ll see you back at the hotel next time.”

I walked as quickly as I could to the main road, recounting what had just happened.  I could not believe I fell victim to such a naïve practice, but also could not believe I had gotten out of there unscathed.  It could’ve been much, much worse.  I had no recourse once I had entered the house, had they chosen to ‘block’ my exit.  I had not phone to call, no one knew where I was, and in fact I didn’t even really know anyone. As I made my hurriedly made my way back, I was paranoid the entire time that Isaias would be following me, or call some people to come ‘get’ or mug me.  He was reaching for his phone as I left, but luckily I made it back to the main road rather quickly and seemingly with no tails.

On the way back I felt so pathetic and duped.  How could I have been so silly, was I really that long out of the game?  I began replaying the incident in my head to see where I went wrong and came to the conclusion that Isaias prolly did not work for my hotel at all.  He seemingly knew some pertinent details, but in reality he mentioned nothing specifically at all about the place I was staying at and very well could have made the whole thing up.  The ‘tall Swiss couple’ comment was the most convincing, but really I had no idea if there were any tall Swiss people in Ethiopia or elsewhere, ‘twas impossible to verify (Note: I left the next day and stayed at a different hotel upon my return, but I did not see Isaias there afterwards).

I was near the hotel now and realized I was completely empty handed.  How was I going to explain this to ‘sleeping beauty,’ how incompetent did I look?  I passed by a small child selling toilet paper, I figured I might as well buy some to demonstrate I accomplished something at least.  So I acquired a roll, made it back home, attempted to explain the fruits of my past hour – that is, why I left with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone, but returned with an unlocked SIM card-less cellphone and an unwarranted roll of toilet paper.  The whole thing made me realize I sorely need more travel ‘practice.’  Good thing it was just the first day of our two week journey, there was nowhere to go but up (or out, the next time I fall for such a silly scam)!

Note: while I did manage to conduct the toilet paper transaction more or less in crappy Amharic, salvaging some sort of dignity, we never once had to open it over the course of the trip.  Another great victory indeed.