Wednesday, December 5, 2012

China it is!

Where in the world is...Devon-Patrick-Murphy?! (To the tune of Carmen Sandiego)

Well, a few days ago, I would have answered "purgatory." I had hopes for the future, but I had no way of knowing which way the road would split - to China where I'd meet my PC-buddy, Cowboy, or to Thailand where I'd meet warm beaches and surreal SCUBA adventures - until Tuesday the 4th when the Chinese embassy either granted or denied me a VISA. 

The verdict: CHINA IT IS! YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! My ticket is purchased, and I'll be leaving Kathmandu (Nepali for "City of infinite dust clouds, garbage, shitty roads, 600,000+ motorcycles and even more dust (did I mention how dusty it is?) and, um, more garbage...") on Saturday.  I'm looking forward to a vacation from my vacation when I hope to mix some (illegal) part-time work teaching/tutoring with further explorations.  Great wall, here I come! (Thanks to Cowboy and Mr. Brian Stock for planting the idea in my brain.)

Since leaving the Everest Region, I've been staying, ironically, with three priests, a German Shepard named Jackie and a puff-ball Paris-Hilton purse-dog named Jimmy - who, unexpectedly, I've taken a great liking to - at the local Catholic Church south of town.  Rodrigo, one of the Father's, only three years older than I, is awesome and has suggested places for me to visit as well as inviting me to events around the city (on Sunday, a party hosting Johnny Walker, Grey Goose and Maker's Mark as well as some amazing Ex-Pat's who have lived here for 30-50 years including a Peace Corps Volunteer from 66-68 (!) - who was then drafted to Vietnam! - and Jan Salter (, a well known artist and NGO-founder who gave me a swift kick in the ass about getting started on writing a book 15 minutes after I met her!... and Wednesday, to a meditation session taught by Antonio, a Spaniard that drove a van here from Spain back in '74, reached the Afghan border and, refusing their demand that he cut his long hair and beard, detoured 2000 KM to Pakistan and continued to Nepal via India and has remained ever since.  Amazing stories!)

Templed out at this point, I've focused my attentions on an amazing locally started NGO called "Himalayan Roots to Fruits"  ( that provides free English/Spanish/Chinese classes to interested Nepali's in addition to vocational training and job placement.  The staff is young, energetic and professional, and their dedication is inspiring.  To help, I've taken over their Conversational English classes for the week and have thoroughly enjoyed myself (on day #1, while working through a section on adjectives I heard both "You are very handsome!" and "You are a wonderful teacher!" so how could I NOT be enjoying it, eh?!).

I owe you a story about my travels in the Solu Khumbu region where I hung out with the giants of the world, but for that I'll wait until China where electricity is more stable and I have the ability to upload pictures.  I will say that I doubt I'll ever see such extremes concentrated in one place again: the epic, jagged peaks in all directions, the sickening greed of the local people, the near-vacuum quality of the air, the razor-sharp cold and the civil-war relations between me and my two travel partners (my father and his former priest...). 

Again, thank you for the "likes," kind words and keeping up with me.  I'm pumped to have you along for the adventure :)

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Look back and slightly forward...

I know very few people that would do their laundry in a toilet; those that would consist of PCV's, RPCV's and... probably my Dad.  That said, surely they would insure that the toilet was clean and unoccupied before they began.  Thus is came as a great shock to watch hundreds - thousands over the last three days - not only washing clothes but bathing, brushing teeth and drinking the water while squatters did their business 15 to 20 feet away.  Minutes later, boats with pumps and fire-hoses drifted up, and kids rinsed the filth away... literally flushing the largest toilet I've ever seen into the  the holiest river in India - the mighty Ganges (pronounced: "Gonga"or "Gonguh" NOT "Gan-geez").

Welcome to Varanasi, the CDC's worst nightmare!

I arrived here on the 26th, and have spent the many hours since elapsed exploring the tangled alleys of the Old City, exploring  the river-side Ghats (bathing, clothes-washing, drinking, poo'ing zones) and eating delicious food/drinking insanely delicious lassi (yogurt fruit smoothies).  The old city, unlike any other place I've been produces live memories...  the narrow "streets" (read: alleys big enough for one oversized cow and a thin human), like tetris pieces, fit together logically only for locals.  For the rest of us, they dance, spin and realign with every passing, laughing as we - the tourists - circle, round and round past the same street-food vendors, flower shops and temples with confused, half smiles pasted on our faces.

I love it.  I love, love, love it.  God what a unique city... covered in poo -  I cannot emphasize this enough - but surely one of the more amazing places I've been.  The spirtuality, something I am not usually keen on, is palpable.

I arrived here after a 12 hour train ride from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which on my arrival there I was still not convinced I wanted to spent 15 dollars to see.   "Ït's only a building," I'd said.  "Couldn't he have shown his wife that he loved here by stopping at THIRTEEN children (the 14th killed her...)?!" "15 dollars... that's like 1.5 days in the mountains!" etc... but I finally caved.

Spectacular.  A mirage.  Impossibly perfect.  Strikingly symmetrical.  The most beautiful building I've ever seen (and I've seen them all).  I had planned on being one of the first into the enormous compound where nearly 10,000 people per day visit, but I was screwed by a thousand tourists in groups that had pre-purchased their tickets.  Whatever.  Human beings disappear in the presence of infinity.  And the building just gets more beautiful as you get closer... the intricacies multiply time and again into the unimaginable.

It is a sight to behold.  I'll leave it at that.

Before Agra, I spent a day - far too long - in Delhi while I squared away my tickets.  I'd arrived there at around 6am, hallucinating after 24 hours of straight travel out of the Chitkul valley in Himachel Pradesh.  

I now know why babies scream when they leave the womb.  That mountains had been  my sanctuary.  The people: happy, honest, friendly, helpful! The air: crisp, thin, clean.  The views: EPIC.  The peaks: inspiring.  And SLAM, I was hit with a cricket paddle in the face with the filth of the cities, the reek of the smoggy air, the incessant calls of street-men trying to make a few rupees off you.  The traffic.  The... the... the... Agh! I made the transition quickly, like pulling off a bandaid.  RIP! But GOD did it ever keep on hurting.

Until Agra.  Until Varanasi.  ANd wouldn't you know it? I'm headed back into the hills! I leave in about 15 minutes to catch a train to Gorakhpor where I will bum it in a train station until tomorrow when I catch a bus to the Nepal border and continue on to Kathmandu where I will meet my Dad for some more TREKKING!!! in 2 days time.

Surreal! LIFE! YES!

God... the stories I have yet to tell! For instance: I was pick-pocketed! Yep! Got my wallet and all the money it it! But then - thinking quickly - I found the guy that did it (he was getting the crap kicked out of him by other people who wanted the wallet... or were mad that he had stolen it? Whatever... I got it back, money and picture of Michelle and all :)).  And more about Varanasi! God... I've not even mentured the cremation ghats.  The processions of people carrying wrapped bodies through the streets to the river where they are burned into the next world on great piles of sandalwood ("Hey, that's not a log... that's a LEG! And a head!").  Oh, the odd sound of crackling flames on flesh...

But onword I run.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Friday, October 19, 2012

(From my journal): A journey to Asia’s highest village:

Since leaving home, the name “Komic” has been stuck in my head.  Regarded as the highest village in Asia, I’d read about Komic being in the vicinity of Kaza.  Where? I had no clue.  I had mentioned to Fred – a Swiss man in Manali – my plans to go there, and he had said it was perfectly possible from Kibber, as most of the elevation had been gained by that point.  It was surprising to me that – when having lunch with the road crew on our way to Ki - that komic was described by Choper as being closer and far more accessible from Kaza.  A day hike.  I checked this information with the manager from my guest house and he confirmed it.  In fact, there were two ways to Komic, but one was steeper, more rocky and more dangerous.  I opted for that route possible on the way down. 

The alley providing access to the steps to the small temple were just where the manager said, and in 5 minutes I was overlooking kaza with several locked meditation rooms behind me.  The steps had ended, so I climbed over the ledge and headed towards a forest of prayer flags flapping in the crisp morning air.  The sun was out, and I was warm and full from breakfast, wearing only a t-shirt, beanie and gloves. 

Just beyond the flags, I find a well worn trail that switch-backed higher and higher.  At a rock pillar, prayer flags.  Higher and higher.  Another pillar – more flags.  While standing there admiring the view, I heard a *WHOOOOOOOISH!!!* as a black bird tucked, wings back in full attach dive blazed by me.

Eventually, I hit the road the manager had promised was there… the road to Ikim and Komic.  Down the road I walked passing two women and a man.  “Namaste!” I said.  “Jooleh!” They replied.  Oh yeah… Spitian here, not Hindi.

The road hooked far to the left, so I followed a foot path shortcut across an open, shallow wrinkle.  At the bottom, a large rectangular pile of rocks sat.  Carvings and pictures adorned the capstones.

By now I was close enough to see that village I had though I’d seen high on a cliff was actually the ruins of one.  Adobe houses falling into themselves like an old Indian pueblo.  Another house, well kept and lived in sat among them, empty.  It was only me, the view and two cows chomping away. 

Looking further up the road I could make out the white buildings of a small village.  Beyond, a steep triangle peak loomed, glittering white with snow:  Mt. Shilla - a 7026 m wonder - commanding attention.

Onward and downward, I am stopped cold by a fox standing in my path.  He doesn’t spook.  He stares.  Prances a few meters forward.  Stops.  Gives me another look.  I fumble with my bag to get at the camera, but the first pictures come out dark and the later pictures s/he is too far away.

Back to the road and down another shortcut, I am soon in the village.  Immediately, I meet an old woman collecting brush for a fire.  “Hello.” She gathers more  brush.  I am just about to walk away when I hear, “Chai?” I nod.  She leads me to her front door, the first house in the village.  “Ikim” I ask.  “Ikim,” she confirms and gestures that I enter.

I am blinded by darkness, and my eyes struggle to adjust to the room lit only by the sun sneaking through cracks.  It appears to be a communal room, a storage space.  There is a thick animal smell, unpleasant at first but dimming with time.

She opens another door in the right hand corner and invites me into a 20x20 room, well lit by two windows.  The floor, hard-packed, smooth dirt, is nearly covered by thin flower-covered mats.  Three wooden pillars support the ceiling.  Tiny stirrups hang from one of them.  Again, I am reminded of the adobe architecture of the Southwest. 

The old woman pours a pot of water from a larger pot resting on an old coal stove and begins to prepare hot water on a newer propane stove. 

One wall is dedicated to cooking.  Shelves of cups, bowls, plates, pots, pans.  In the middle, a propane stove.  To the left – I unhappily admit – a TV, vcr and set of speakers.  Yes, even up here there is power, and where there is power, there is TV. 

Mats for sleeping are stacked neatly in the corner.  Long, 1ft high tables for eating sit in front of the windowed walls.  There are no chairs.  Two small framed pictures, a clock and a calendar look lonely on the walls.

She serves me my tea in a small ceramic cup with dragons on it, walks to the corner and returns with some flat bread.  “Thank you!” She retires to the window, picks up a small prayer wheel and spins it round-and-round, breathes wheezing and quiet, and mumbles “om mani peme” over and over.   A small bell tinkles with each turn.

I finish my tea and bread and offer 10R.  She refuses.  I Ask for a pictures, and she says yes.  I finally get a good shot and show it to her.  She laughs, and despite her protests, I leave the 10R anyway.  Outside, the light is blinding.

I walk through the village, only a few houses collected on the hillside and meet five women and a man wearing a New York hat.  One woman plays with rocks.  Another rubs here dirty-gloves hands.  Another knits, while another picks nits out of the final woman’s hair.  The man tells me that Komic is 15 minutes away.  I thank them and walk on.

Beneath the village, there are terraced fields where donkeys graze on dry grass.  The path twists and turns.  I meet another group, excited to see me.  “Komic is half an hour away.”

Up and up over the rounded desert hills past more cows and donkey’s.  Another rock monument.  More flags.  Another hill, another crest.  And there on the horizon, I spot a rooftop.  I approach a woman who is collecting dried donkey  dung – stove fuel in the winter, after having been dried – in the flaps of the fabric on her shit.  “Komic?” I ask.  “Komic,” she replies.  I’ve made it!

The village is small comprising perhaps nine white-washed homes.  Inside each home, there are five or six rooms, each housing a family of four or five.  Conservatively, that’s 180 people… but you’d never guess it from afar.  It is placed on a wrinkle in the mountain where a small stream flows and is tapped into by black pipes to the villagers.  The road stars high and snakes lower through the village, over the stream – where, at this time of the year icicles are hanging – and ends at a pocket of homes and the start of the dusty terraced fields.  Down the valley, the drop to the stream gets treacherous.  That river flows all the way down to Kaza. 

I’m drawn to the top-most building in the village, the komic gompa- monastery.  Three main buildings stand on the hill, the right – red, the center – topped by a wind turbine, and the le – a two-story building with vertical stripe.  I learn later that the left-most building is the new gompa while the red building at right is the old. 

A man is standing in front of the new gompa looking my way.  A piece of angle-iron lays at his feet, angle down, and a hose is positioned such that the water flows onto the iron and creates a small stream down to an area to gather water or to wash clothes or dishes. 

The man is Chering, a monk, dressed in a hodge-podge set of jacket, pants, sweat-pants and a well-worn pair of converse sneakers.  “Are you alone?” he asks, a bit surprised to see me finding my own way.  “No, there are two more behind me,” I reply, lying but keeping with my “safety” answer.  Everyone wants to know if you’re alone here, and while I’ve never felt their question to be nefarious in nature, I think it better to be on the safe side.

Choper is amused with my trekking poles and can’t understand the need for two.  “Isn’t this one good enough?” I demonstrate the benefit of two by stepping up the three foot ledge that the water is streaming off of.  He tries to copy me, but the poles are too long.  Grunting, he makes it, laughing. 

Another man emerges from the gompa.  “This is Karmachering, the head cook.” “Nice to meet you.” “Come in for lunch.”

I enter the kitchen through a short door (I must bow through all doors in India due to my American-height). Another door continues into the main area – that looks like a fort or a rustic motel with a courtyard – and a window facing down the valley lets in more light.  Centered in the room is a large fire-stove with a huge vat of oil sitting on top, smoking.  One monk feeds shrub into the fire and then blows through a pipe to increase the flame while another – sitting cross-legged on top – holds a long forked stick, shiny from oil.  To his right sits a large pile of squiggly fried breads called mutter. 

Other monks enter the kitchen to joke and fill their plates with rice and dhal.  I am offered a plate heaping with rice and soaked with the delicious bean mixture.  I eat alone in the kitchen, the warm smoky air heating my outsides, the lunch heating the in.  The monks return for seconds.  My plate is filled again.  “Salt?” “Yes.” And a large pinch is dropped into my palm.  I’m filling up, topped off, stuffed and entering a food coma.  “Hello, man? Hello, man?! Want more dhal?” But I politely refuse. 

I ask about the mutter, and Chering gives me the good news.  “We are preparing for the festival. “ The festival! The one I’d heard of! “When is it?” “October 14th.” “Am I allowed to come?” “Yes, yes!”


I thank Chering, say goodbye to the other monks and walk off to see the village and start on the shortcut to Kaza that Chering has pointed out.

The “shortcut” ended up being “find anything that looks like a trail and follow it, or go cross country over those bluffs until you reach the cliffs, and then look for the trail from there.” Every twenty steps, I would turn to see both Komic, Ikim and Mt. Shilla towering behind them. 

The weather began to turn cloud, and the wind picked up as I approached the cliff edge overlooking Kaza.  Find Kaza: Done.  Now to get down… Cliff, cliff, cliff.  Nothing hikeable! NOTHING.  I made my way along the cliff edge, scouring for a trail.  Nothing promise.  In fact, it all looked downright dangerous.

My wheels began to spin… just a little.  “It’s cold.  I’m alone.  The sun is dropping.  The clouds are moving in.  And here I am, stuck on this stupid cliff.  Trail! SHOW YOURSELF.” I’d been promised switchbacks, but all I could see was scree and cliff. 

Making my way along the ledge, I eventually saw a trail.  Onward I walked, and the trailed snaked higher.  Finally, in the distance, I could see a rock pile and flags marking the start of the descent.  I was as good as home.

The down was steep and at times slippery, and after a few minutes flecks of snow began to pelt into me.  More and more, and soon it was pushing white-out, the flecks, swarming down the mountain towards Kaza, matching the angle of the slope as the wind whipped.  Down, down, down and finally… the road. 

A hot dinner.  A cold night but a warm sleeping bag were all in my future, as I strode the last few paces to my guest house.  “You made it!” said the manager  happily.  ”Yes!” I replied.

I made it.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


(From my journal): Ki Monastery, attempt #1

On the road to Ki, 12 km up the road from Kaza, seven women were sitting on the side of the road knitting socks while a man tended a small fire (They were road workers from Ki taking a rest.  ).  “Chai, chai, chai!” they called out, motioning us to sit.  An exchange of looks between R, S and I; a definite “yes.” Ten minutes later, we’d introduced ourselves, snapped pictures and were sitting smiling as our chai warmed over a small twig fire.  During our introductions, I’d pointed to myself and said, “Devon,” then pointed to the girl nearest me.  “Pusa!” she said.  The ma laughed and said something to her.  More laughter, then she pointed at herself and said, “Tashiputeh.” The man then called to me, “Pusa mean boy.”:My “Devon” had been misunderstood.

Tashiputeh then offered me a 1.5 L bottle of white liquid.  “Changa!” she said with a smile.  “Rice beer,” Choper called over my shoulder.  Beer? Yes, please! It was sour – similar to the beer in Zimbabwe and Lesotho – but tasty, quenching like lemonade but not as sweet. 

We were then given teeril (sp?), small cookie balls made of barley and slightly sugary.  “Those are given to us during religious ceremony.  The monks pray that whoever eats it has long life.  Normally, everyone gets one, but some not come, so there is some for you.”

With tea served, I pulled out a bag of apricots and walnuts to pass around.  They made the round, and all of a sudden a tin of momos appeared.  Then curry, rice, curd and rice and baked roti (tortillas).  A feast! Soon we were all eating, and each time we finished our plate, a woman would thrust something new forward insisting that we take just a little bit more!

Choper had just poured us each another cup of tea when two more hikers walked up.  “Chai, chai, chai!” the chant went.  All smiles, Irina and Pavel from Czechoslovakia, sat down.  They had just quit their jobs to travel the world, and after sharing more food and tea, we set off up the road trading logic puzzles to pass the kilometers. 

Soon, the tiny village of Ki was visible, but more exciting was the Ki monastery perched atop the tiny hillock at an elevation of 4116m.  Spellbound, we walked, paused, took pictures, walked, paused and took pictures (often of the same thing but in new light).  The mountains, the clouds, the farmers, the yaks, the valley, the monestary… “This is the most beautiful place in the world.”

Unfortunately, in the last hundred yards of the walk to the top of the monastery, I patted my pocket and realized that my travel wallet (passport, 300 american and 14,000 rupees) was GONE.  I checked all my bags (no luck), and ultimately had to race back to Kaza with a German couple happy to give me ride - “Of course! Jump in!”.\

They were Chris and Theresa, English and German history majors on the cusp of becoming teachers.  Jovial only begins to describe them.  Both dirty blonde and freckled, always smiling, they tell me about their trip thus far: “We never had plans to come to the mountains.  We were totally unprepared’ look how thin these pants are! I bought this jacket today!” Exploring India for 3 months, avoiding tourist traps, they ended up in Shimla, and one tour operator later, they found themselves doing my trip in reverse.  “It is so peaceful here!” Their driver dropped me off at the temple, and they left me with one final assurance, “You’ll find your passport!”

With haste, I marched to my guest house and into the office.  There was the manager.  “I’ve lost something VERY important!” He gives me a solemn nod.  “Yes.” He says, making his way over to where I’ve stashed my other gear.  “Your passport.” He pulls out my wallet from a small bag and hands it to me.  Passport, dollars, rupees: all there.  “Do you drink beer?” I ask him? “Yes.” “I’m taking you out tonight.”

I breathe a sigh of relief, and I give him a hug.  “Thank you again.” “It’s ok.”

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


(From my journal): Around Kaza (and a short poo’ story)

Today is cold.  I woke and opened the door to find the owner of the guest house emerging from the bathroom.  He pointed to the sky and mountains across the river that had been so sharp yesterday and said “snow on pass.  Very difficult.” Indeed, all is cloudy and the high rocks that had been brown and gold yesterday had a layer of snow on them.  So perhaps that is it? Rohtang is closed for the winter? If so, my change in trip was a great decision.  Now I wonder about the southern pass I don’t want to be trapped here! How must the locals feel? Used to it, I am sure, but the pinned down feeling of “so this is winter… I guess that’s the end of warmth and the freedom to travel freely and the beginning of survival mode,” might drive me mad. 

I found breakfast in a back-alley shop, a very local joint, where a short, smiling older man with graying hair parted on the side served me parantha and delicious tea.  While doubling down, I watched the man across from me try to shoo a dog that sat at the doorway to the shop.  “Go away!” I imagined him say in Hindi.  “NO FOOD HERE!” The dog’s reply being, “Yes-huh.  I can SEE it!” The dog stayed.  Panting.  Happy.  Steamed, the man grabbed a stick to prod the dog off.  Dodging the swing, the dog bounced off but was back as soon as the man sat back down, and both agreed to disagree. 

After breakfast, I hiked up the hill behind town in hopes of getting to an elevation where I could frame all of Kaza and the valley in one shot.  At first, my route was cross-country up an unpredictable scree slope, but later I found a footpath with water-pipes exposed running down to the city.  Up and up I walked until I came to a point where 20 switchbacks of the road climbing out of the valley were visible, and behind me sat all of Kaza.   Warm.  Peaceful.  And… guuuuuurgle.  God.  No.  Guuuuurgle.   Please.  No, no. 

Yes, the exercise had stimulated my cemented bowels.  And wouldn’t you know, I was out of paper? Agh! But life has taught me: When you’ve got to go.  You know the rest.

I choose a perfect squat rock.  270 degree views, all of Spiti before me.  Red berried bushes and grass clumps pop from the rocky landscape.  A thread of bushes – golden from season – trail down a mountain wrinkle (water there).  The occasional bird twitters.  A cool breeze blows, the sun’s rays passing through unhindered.  Ahh.

As for the paper… it ended up not being such a big deal.  I’d brought along my Lonely Planet guide book! I tore out 1.33-(bar) pages from the “INDIA’S TOP 20 MOST VISITED SITES!”-section, worthless as far as I am concerned, and recycled it. 

There you have it…

Most epic spot to poo: High above the Spiti valley

Most versatile guide book: Lonely Planet

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Thursday, October 18, 2012

(From my journal): Manali to the Spiti Valley.

It was pitch when we left the small, beautiful Manali, but the slow, cold blue transition of dawn was not far off.  We (Roy, and Shlomit, Israeli friends I’d met and were heading in the same direction) were climbing nearly immediately, switchback, straight, switchback.  Soon, the dim outline of trees appeared, and the valley we had climbed out of became visible… we were hundreds, a thousand feet up.  Still the craggy peaks above – now glowing in the sun – were a long way off. 

On the climb, I only remember feeling fear once.  The road was paved for most of it, and only once did I see the bus roll to the left – Cliffside – during a particularly sharp turn,  and I commented to R and S, “Yeah, if we went over, we’d be dead.” The cliffs were steep! And in many places, sheer.  The long roll to the bottom and the sudden stop would have been mashing. 

1000+ feet below the pass, we stopped for tea and breakfast.  I took the chance to explore the temple covered in prayer flags.  A large dish of incense was smoking heavily, carried away quickly by the wind, and a monk was chanting soothingly.  Parantha (Hash browns squished between two tortillas) and chai for breakfast, and then we were back on the road. 

The paved road gave way to long sections of rock and powdery dusty dirt.  It rose in billows from the front tires and caught up to us as we slowed for turns, clouded our vision, gritted our lips and turned our bags grey. 

Rohtang La pass (3978m… multiply by 3.3 to get feet), literally “Pile of Dead Bodies” climaxed on a thin strip of road wide enough for one vehicle only.  We stopped to wait our turn as a large backhoe crept towards us leading 2 jeeps.  As we moved forward cautiously, I tried to capture the perilous section on camera, but the images were bumped and blurred.  We had cleared the most dangerous section! The rest was easy.  Slow to the top, slow over and then a nerve-wracking descent.

Descending into the valley was… exciting.  Hair-raising really… because it was one of the first times we had heard the tremendous grinding crunch of the brakes (“Those don’t sound good.”).  Hair-raising because through each downward turn, there was that moment where the giant bus was pointed straight off the cliff (Skiers and snowboarders refer to the point – I think – as the “fall line.”  You turn, for an instant you are pointed straight down the mountain, and you complete the turn to one side or the other.  I refer to it as the “Oh shit”-point, as you either make the turn or it’s “OH SHIT I’M GONNA CRASH!”)… and those brakes! Would they stop us? Could they? It was all quite exciting as well, for I began to understand what driving with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy) in Kerouac’s “On the Road” must have felt like: Waste no momentum! Use the brakes only when our lives depend on it! Hug those turns in exactly the right spot! And most importantly: COAST TO SAVE ON GAS!


I decided to trust the driver and his gods he prayed to on the pass, and to sit back and enjoy it.

A shimmering ribbon lay below us, a river that appeared thin and frozen.  At the bottom, it was 50ft across and moving quickly, the water teal-grey from sediment. 

The valley, tight at first, opened, and soon we were in an enormous boulder-field.  Around bends, I could see where old sections of road had been rushed over by rock slides. The new section cleared by tractor will be crushed over in the future. 

The enormity of all that surrounded me gave me great hope for the earth.  The wilderness remains! (Joe, if you’re reading this, it really exists!) Man is a colony of ants: we can build and demolish all we want, but the slow groan of nature’s forward progress continues, with or without us.  Mammals survived the asteroid-earth collision that annihilated the dinosaurs.  Man may not survive the human-earth collision currently in progress.  But life… LIFE!... it will find a way.

I’ve never felt so small.  I’ve never felt so free.

Our next big pass before descending into the Spiti valley was Kunzum La, a 4551m viewpoint topped with a temple, the ever-present prayer flags and fantastic views of snowcaps in the distance.  Every now and then during the prayer break, the wind would die completely, the flags would settle and only an occasional *ding* of a bell was heard.

As the hours passed, the grind of the rocky road, the dust and my inability to drink from my wide-mouth nalgene began to erode my ability to keep my eyes open.  I would dose, balanced with the motions of the vehicle, drop a bit to far into sleep, jolt awake to keep from falling from my seat, dose, balance and then get rocked into the air, spine compressed, from a horrendous jut in the road.  Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

The final hour of the trip was an anxious one.  I kept seeing views I wanted pictures of.  I was tired of the dust.  I was hungry.  After a few more bends in the road, (the river was a thousand feet below having cut an enormous valley for itself) the frequency of villages increased.  Fields and cattle and a few yaks appeared.  Every now and then a man would give a whistle for a stop.  But where were we? Where were they headed? To that pile of rocks over there? Oh, to that solitary tent?

…After finding my guest house in Kaza, I ventured out to find food… momos (veggies dumplings).  There, I met Jampu – well-dressed, even stylish in his jeans and black motor-cycle jacket - an exiled Tibetan - he left in 1993 - who now lives in McLeod Ganj (The headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government).  He was passing through Kaza on his yearly travels to the surrounding monasteries to teach Tibetan language and grammar to the monks.  I asked him how Himachel Pradesh compared to Tibet:

“The Indian Himalayas are far more harsh than Tibet.  There is less water here, and the wind always blows.  In Tibet, we have beautiful grasslands.”

In between long pauses to joke and play with the kids, showing them videos on his semi-smart phone, he talked about the Tibetan populations in this area (around 75%), recalls his meeting with His Holiness, The Dali Lama in 2010 (“He pulled me aside and said ‘Jampu, let us take a moment together,”) and tells me how important it is to visit Tibet “to see what the Chinese government is doing… so horrible (grabbing his throat as if to choke himself).”

After dinner, I left for further exploration of Kaza but not before I had him write a few phrases in Tibetan in my journal.  “Good luck.” “Good morning.” “Good afternoon.” “Good night.” “How are you?”

And on a separate page:

”Go and enjoy good travels.”

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Saturday, October 6, 2012


I am in the town of Manali, India  After arriving in Delhi, I got the fuck out of there as fast as I could... that was not without trouble.  For some reason, I kept going to tourist agencies, and all of them basically told me that my plans were stupid, or impossible without a guide, or blah-fucking-blah.  I hung strong though, finally located a REAL government tourist bureau (actually, the supid-rad BRIT had showed me one earlier), and they put all my fears out.  I boarded a bus at 6:30 that night and arrived here the next day.

Manali puts Boulder to mother-fucking SHAME.  In fact, it puts every place I have ever been to shame.  It's absurd.  The small, cutesy town is in a valley.  The east and west ridges are covered in tall-ass pines, and high above them are even greater peaks covered i rock and ice.  They gleam in the sunlight and call to me. I'll be up there shortly.

On getting off the bus, I was told by Fred - owner of Himalayan Extreme, an adventure sport company here, originally from Switzerland and says that this place is exactly the same... but cheaper, MUCH cheaper - a fellow traveler on the bus that I should head to cheaper, backpacker-friendly "Old Manali."At that moment, a man named Mr. Sarju asked if I needed a place, presented a card and a price for the room (250, exchange is 50, so that's 5 bucks a night!) and assured me a free Auto-rickshaw up to is.  SWEET.  I jumped on boad.

The hotel... I was expecting something similar to what I had looked at in Delhi, i.e. shit-pits, but I was pleasantly surprised.  My view isn't the best, but it isn't the worst, I get first-morning sun, the bed is big, and - most importantly -I have hot, HOT, LAVA-HOT running water.  Sold.  (Today I found a local woman that wanted to put me up and cook for me for 150 a night, but I didn't have the heart to leave Sarju.  Oh, and she offered me "Charra" which is HASH, assuring me that her's was the best in the area and to tell my friends.  "Will do, Miss.").

I ventured out to find soap for body and clothes, and inspired by the gorgeous blue, turquoise and purple house high on the hill above me, I ventured UP.  Flowers abound here... mainly marigolds,  Goat and cows live in small barns in between the houses.  Everything is colorful in a laid back, not for flair but for color sort of way.  Pot grows everywhere.

Pot... charra.  The people rub the leaves between their hands until the oils come out.  They then rub their hands together to get the oils to mash together to form a black resin (dirt is also surely involved).  They then pick the pieces off and smash them into flat globs to serve to tourists.  It seems that this is a very hippie place.  Everyone I've met is smoking or or going to smoke or drinking tea and talking about smoking later.  Peace Corps volunteers would do well here. 

I met a fellow traveler, Sanda, on my way back to the room (I was perusing the abundance of fake north face backpacks and jackets).  She is a physical therapist from Austria and has been on the road for almost a year.  We decided to grab tea and chat more, and at the coffee shop we met Jason, a film major from temple that had been working in hollywood, started feeling lost and decided that a travel of indefinite time period was in order.  The three of us ended up spending the remainder of the day together, sipping tea, talking about books and psychopathy, hiking into the hills, drinking beer and smoking hookah.

Needless to say, my fears of traveling alone were both silly and unfounded   In an incredible stroke of coincidence, the four travelers that I have had the greatest conversations with were all 29, all educated and talented and all without a real clue what they wanted to do... and so they hit the road.  Talk about reaffirmation that I'm not crazy for wanting to see more of the world and to avoid the norm at all costs.  THANK YOU FELLOW TRAVELERS! 

After a delicious dinner of veggie curry and naan, I crashed out in a bed for the first time since monday night and slept well.

Today, my mission is to figure out how to get to Kaza, one of two towns in the Spiti valley, about ten hours away.  I believe public transit goes there leaving at 4:30 in the morning, so I could be out of town a early as tomorrow.  I've also got to pick up an "Inner Line Permit"to travel from the Spiti valley over the range into the Kinnaur valley and pick up a American-to-Indian wall socket converter.  I've also met some really fun Israelis that I hope to hang out with more a bit later.  

Weather wise, the trip could not be more perfect.  Fluffy clouds here and there in the sky, delightfully warm in the sun (not hot, not sweaty hot, just pleasant) and chilly in the shade (I pull on a thin fleece now and then).  The nights get cold, but they are nothing compared to the sub-freezing temperatures I'll encounter at higher elevations in Spiti.  Based on this weather, I think the pass to Spiti will surely be open.


Thanks for reading.

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Holy Cow! I'm in INDIA!

After the airlines screwed up my first ticket (i.e. CANCELED it on account of me not using the Dulles-Roanoke segment of my flight home), I was able to pull another one for the following day.  Tuesday rolled around, and so did the bad weather.  After getting booted by TSA because I had two 4-ounce bottles of sunscreen (each terroristically higher than the police-state required 3.4 ounces), I got them checked with my other deadly weapons (trekking poles), and re-entered.  And waited... and waited... Original flight: diverted to Charlotte.  Connecting flight to Newark: Rescheduled.  I pulled in with an hour before go-time.  Grabbed two kiddie-meal SMASH-burgers out of desperation.  The small headache I'd been nursing (stress/no caffeine/stress...) was creeping towards migraine as I stood in line massaging my temples.  Creeping headache.  Creeping forward in line.  Soon, I am nauseous.  I race to get water, pound 2 liters and 4 ibuprofen's.  Take my seat.  Miracle of the day: my ticket is re-printed, and I am given those delicious 5 extra inches of space for knees.  Heaven.  With shaking hands, I eat my kiddie-burgers (same size as regular smash burgers but without pickles and iceburg lettuce... you know... cause kid's hate "veggies"), my fries and drink more water.  Weather has us socked in again.     Delayed again.  Half an hour before we begin to move? Eventually, we arrive at first position only to be told that Newark is locked down, as another airport is using the airspace.  Whatever... I've got Weeds, Madmen and Everybody Loves Raymond on demand.  Eventually, we take the air...

14 hours later, we land.  After passing all the checkpoints, I leave the main airport into the lobby and try to find a place to curl up for the next 8 hours... only security guards keep walking by disturbingly close with their ginormous weapons.  "Am I allowed to sleep here?" I walk around and finally settle down next to some people on the wall... roll out the camp pad and sleep fitfully until 5 when I showered (washed my face) and pulled out my travel book to begin making plans.  6:30 rolls around, and I head to the metro to take me into town.  OUT OF SERVICE.  I choose the bus instead.

On my way in, I meet Mel, a man pushing 70 who first came to India 48 years ago when he traveled OVER-LAND from western Europe (he's a Brit) through all of the middle-east and ultimately made it into Nepal.  This guy: my hero.  He hears that I am an RPCV and gushes about all the great PCVs he's met over the years.  Again: My hero.  He's also traveled extensively in Uganda, as he was stationed in Kenya in the fifties with the British Air Force, so we trade stories about the changes the country has seen.  We get off so he can show me the tourist office and a quiet place to stay with food nearby.

Delhi reminds me of Kampala, only the population is around 9 times larger here, and all the bodas are auto-rickshaws... and the people are Indians.  Same hustle.  Same bustle.  Same dust.  Same heat.  I felt rather at home.

Trouble arises... it turns out that the road I must use to get into Ladakh, Kashmir closes at the end of September to mid-October due to snowy conditions on the high passes (3 of which are over 5,000 meters!!!).  This means that I (a.) go straight to the north NOW and skip all of my planned travels in Himachel Pradesh, (b.) Travel through H.P., risk not making it through the pass to Leh - thus missing my flight - and feel rushed and stressed through HP or (c.) Cancel my flight from Leh-Kathmandu (that I purchased on Monday in a flurry of last minute idiocy) and reverse my direction through HP.  I checked with the tourism office, and it turns out that the pass is still open... fine... but I don't think I want to spend ALL my time up there.


The frenetic pace of Delhi was not helping me decide...  That, and I've never been good at making a decision with any more 2 options (You should see me picking out Ben and Jerry's with Michelle...)  Mel showed back up unexpectedly, and we sorted through the tangles.  Conclusion: Cancel the ticket, reverse directions through H.P. and time permitting, travel over-land from Delhi to Kathmandu instead of flying.  There will be a cancellation fee on the tickets.  Fine.  I earned that.  But my options are far more open this way.  I see all of HP, AND I'll get to see the Taj Mahal and Varanasi on the Ganges where all the Ghats are.

I was stressed before I left.  The prospect of traveling alone was really weighing on my mind.  "Will I survive without Brian's pop-eye arms to back me up in times of danger?" I thought time and again.  But now that I am on the ground, it feels natural.  I feel a bit absurd for being so... um... immature.  At some point - perhaps in my thirties? - I will learn to trust in myself.

Tonight, I travel to Manali.  From there, I'll try to get to Kaza and Kiber.  From there... Rekonk Peo? Kalpa? Shimla? One thing at a time... First, get food.  Second, get the hell out of Delhi.  Third, shower and wash my boxers.

Must run... hour's up, and key-rist am I hungry.

Thanks for reading,

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Friday, April 20, 2012

an Ethiopian Update...

All is well on the African continent.  I've been in Ethiopia for nearly a month now.  Been to Harar to watch a guy feed hyena's with a stick stuck in his mouth. A stick, i.e. a chop stick.  And then I did the same thing, only I held the stick in my hand.  Ha!!  Later, as I sat there, he loaded his stick again and had one of them lunge onto us.  Imagine having a beast that has the power of 7 horses packed into its over-sized dogs body - with a giraffe neck - rubbing it's cheek on yours and you'll know only a speck of the thrill I encountered.  So enamored with the feeding was I that I returned a second night to watch and partake.  And all for around 3 to 4 bucks a night.  Yeah.  Worth it.

I feel as though I could write a book about the people in Harar.  The people there are among the most spectacular I've ever met.  Beautifully generous, beautifully accepting of my skin-tone, and beautifully beautiful (France hold's the cylindrical shaped standard for the kilogram, and Ethiopia holds the woman-shaped standard for beauty... Yes, my girlfriend is still better, ok?... good).  I was invited in for numerous coffee ceremonies, partook in the smoking of some smooth sheesha, and was protected from the endless line of beggars as I sat just inside an "old" gate to the "old city" eating my morning breakfast of bread and sauce while sipping "shy" (tea) intermixed with "buna" (coffee).  On the night before my departure, I met a man named Hadi.  "I've lived here my entire life, and I am STILL learning about Harar," he told me.  Every piece of me in that moment wanted to know all that he knew and would know. 

UNESCO, who I hate (more on this in the next paragraph), presented Harar with a Peace Award some years ago because of the exceptional way in which they have figured out how to take one Large-part Christians and another Large-part Muslims and a Small-part minority-religions, place them in a blender and spin them into a deliciousandpeacefulbeyondexplanation-smoothie of happy, accepting people just trying to do the best they can for their families without the radical "I'm going to blow myself up on a bus full of you guys" or "I'm going to mow down a church full of you guys"-mentalities so often seen in the prime-time newscasts today.  As my friend Maria Mohammed told me, "You are free to believe whatever you like, and I have the same freedom.  Still, we can be friends." And we were friends.  I shared three cups of coffee with her and her grandfather in their traditional adare house - think: southwestern adobe with a room covered in rugs and pillows to lounge around on - while chomping away on the tiny, baby leaves of chat and feeling the delicate euphoria that accompanies it.   

When I left the city, a piece of my soul remained.  I do hope to return one day. 

Following Harar, I hit Addis, the capital, but only for a night.  I left the next morning for a two day trip to Lalibela to see these famous rock-hewn churches that I'd heard so much about.  Churches: rad.  Tourists: fucking suck.  Environment that 28,000 tourists per year in a tiny dusty got-nothing-but-big-BIG-
IMPRESSIVELYBIG-rock-churches nourish: sucks even more.  UGH! Add to that that UNESCO came in and put hideous umbrella structures that more closely resemble a 21st century super-dome than a spiritual African landscape from 900 years ago over all but ONE church for "protection from the elements" (ahem, these guys just kicked the SHIT out of 900 years, folks, what's the worry???), and you've got Lalibela.  The churches were beautiful, and the fact that they were made from pure stone was mind-blowing.  More powerful was the fact that the churches, all of them, were still being used, and we were there for a pre-Easter mass.  Let me say: Ethiopian Orthodox Christians... a bit loony.  But... BUT... beautiful in their spirituality.  I was content to enter these temples as quietly and meekly as possible, retreat to a dark corner and observe while trying to make myself as small as a mouse.  The other tourists talked at nearly full volume while snapping pictures and listening to a guide speak AT full volume while the locals around them cryed out for their sins to their beloved Mary and Jesus.  It was a hard site to bear.


From Lalibela, Brian and I headed to Gonder where we stayed the night before heading to Debark where the park offices were for the Simien Mountains.  For ONCE in Ethiopia, we didn't have to rise at 430, hit the bus park by 5 and leave at 6 creating a exhausting, hallucination-laden day.  No.  We had a leisurely morning with bread, tons of coffee and fruit-tart at a local cafe before taking off. 

Debark was dusty and terrible.  The people were awful.  That was a first for Ethiopia.  A second if you count Lalibela where everyone was "Farangi-fied".  Found the park offices easy enough and took care of the bill.  For 8 days in the park it cost us each about 17 bucks per day.  Not bad! Even with additional food we were coming in under our $20 dollar travel budget.  Got our gear (tent, pads, sleeping bags, cook stove, all of which looked as though it came straight out of a Kmart/Wal-Mart "backpackers" catalog... I was unimpressed... scared, even... consider this foreshadowing).  We then met a married Peace Corps couple in town, introduced through a couple of eager local boys.  The same boys took us to two other white girls who "are also Peace Corps" who were unloading their truck from a journey.  Definitely not Peace Corps.  The girls ended up being researchers inside the park, studying the Gelada baboon population (if you haven't heard of these critters, rent BBC's Planet Earth "Pole to Pole" or "Mountains" IMMEDIATELY and check 'em out.  So rad.  More on them later...).  Brian and I, after squaring away our shitty Toys 'R Us backpacking gear, returned to our 50 Birr a night hotel, downed two icy-cold brewskies and then met up with the girls and the couple for dinner. Before leaving, I had to hold the key to the hotel's latrine for ransom until the kid gave me a bucket of water for drinking and bathing.  "10 Liters between two men is NOT much to ask for!" But until I threw that key in my pocket and walked away saying, "You BLEW it!!", it definitely was.  I got the water, they got the key, we were all happy (Until a man knocked on my door at 6am the next morning wanting his bucket back... damn youuuuuuu old man!).

Nothing to report about dinner aside from this: remember those girls, the researchers? Well, they were there when BBC filmed the most recent, 3D video that includes the Gilada's.  They tried to give advice about where the baboons - which aren't REALLY baboons, but monkeys... which is weird, because in my mind "monkey" suggests "jungle" and these guys live in about the polar-opposite of a jungle... - might be from day to day.  In doing so, they found out how the original scenes from planet earth were shot.  Brace yourselves: if you have seen the video, you may remember the Gelada's giving a warning call and evacuating the grassy field to bound down a sheer rock face dropping thousands of feet into the lowlands below.  Remember? Well, it happened... but not the way BBC spun it.  In the video, it shows the monkeys, shows the warning cry and then does an "Uh ohhhh! DANGER APPROACHES!" and cuts to video of a rare Ethiopian Fox.  The goal: make it look like the fox was chasing the monkeys.  the problem: Ethiopian foxes do not eat the Gelada baboons.  In fact, the scenes with the foxes were even shot in the Simiens but in another range six hours away. 

"How," you might ask, "did the BBC camera crews get the monkeys to go ape-shit-crazy then?"

Easy.  They took the stuffed Leopard from the Simien park office, placed it in a field with the monkeys and started making loud noises around it to get their attention. 

Danger calls ensued. 

Shame on you BBC. 

Actually, I learned two somethings from the evening: No United States Government officials are allowed to travel to Harar.  Harar!  Harar?!  Remember that beautiful place I raved about a few paragraphs back? No government travel... what???

Harar is situated only an 1.5 hours from the Somaliland border - a peaceful chunk of a country broken off from horrific Somalia - and is thus uncomfortably close to... Somalia.  Long story short, someone un-white kidnapped someone that is-white sometime back.  The result: it became a no-travel zone.


How did I feel when I heard the news? Like this...

"Hey dude, you know that field you just walked through?"
"Yeah man.  It was incredible! So many flowers and trees.  I just had to break from the trail and explore!"
"Yeah... that was a mine-field."

I felt a bit lucky, like I had dodged a bullet.  I couldn't help but think, "Cool! I did it! I saw it! I lived!" And I also couldn't help but think that the government was crazy for imposing such an absurd regulation on what was one of the coolest cities I've ever seen on account of a kidnapping or two. 

Just imagine the travel restrictions in the US if our government restricted travel to certain AMERICAN cities based on (a.) child abductions, (b.) murders (c.) rapes and (d.) robberies.  No more school-sponsored field-trips to D.C., that's for sure...

On "Fasika" (Easter) morning - Ethiopian Easter, that is... they are on a different calendar than us, one that has 13 months a year, hence the slogan "Ethiopia: 13 Months of Summer" - Brian and I began our trek into the park.  With us, we had our scout, Dowd, a gun-toting badass with a head wrap, a blue polar fleece and a very nice pair of Asic running shoes and Yareed, our Mule driver.  Mule? Yes, mule.  Toys 'R Us camping gear, remember? Combined with the food, Brian and I would have to be Nepalese Sherpas to have shouldered the load.  I mean... we could have... we're really buff and strong and stuff... but we are on vacation... so yeah... a mule... Anyway, Yareed wore cheap plastic sandals - think "Jellies" - which made me feel even more like a chump.

Day 1: Through town into the country, took a left and down into a valley.  "Where is the grass? Oh... it's been eaten to the dirt by all those bone-thin goats, ponies, mules? Bummer."  The devastation to the soil can only be described by pictures.  It was sickening.  Followed a winding river for a bit and then climbed out of the valley.  More rocky, dry fields.  The trail was nothing but powder - think: chalk dust - three inches thick.  Foot-step, foot-step.  Puff, puff.  Up went the clouds, stirred by the wind, straight into the nostrils of the man behind or in front of you depending on the ever-changing turbulence. 

Ten kilometers in, we emerged from a small village on an old road.  "Oh!" I heard.  I looked up.  "Nice, man!" A gelada baboon.  A field of them.  And there it was... we were in the planet earth video.  Only, in this season, nothing but the scarce ever-green trees, is "green".  Well that and the local "weed" which dominates 99% of the forested land, the Eucalyptus tree. 

In this season, all that is green is yellow, but the sky remains blue and the contrast remains beautiful. 

Snap, snap, snap.  Pictures.  Must have taken a hundred.  The baboons have a hilarious "lazy"-tactic of dragging their rumps across the grass to reach new place to paw - scrape, scrape, pick, pick, chew, chew, move on - in order to not get up and walk.  Think of a dog with worms dragging-ass across your mom's living-room carpet.  My response? The same was when my mom's poodle did it back in my dad's living room.  Gut-wrenching laughter.  "Oh my god, dude! Look how they move!"

After a dust-devil - "a Twista! a Twista!" - nearly carried off Dowd, we moved on, and soon we were on the edge of the escarpment.  Down, thousands of feet, we peered.  small villages dotted the countryside.  To them and from them: no roads, no wires, no water.  Utterly secluded.  The guidebook says (paraphrased) "looking down on these remote villages will make you feel happy to be alive."


Looking down on these remote villages made me feel happy to be American.  The villages I encountered ON the roads inside the park make Appalachian towns look like Rodeo drive.  The poverty of the villages in the lowlands, cut off from all outside humanity, cannot be described with words, at least not my vocabulary.

The book continues, again paraphrased: "There are numerous return routes from the mountains that can take you through all sorts of interesting villages.  Just ask your guide!"

Translation: If you pay your guide enough, he'll show you the geological etymology of the word "bereft." 

Brian and I found the towns we saw deeply depressing and were eager to depart quickly to the escarpment cliffs, the edge of the grasslands, dotted with giant lebelias and permanently bent windswept grasses, hosts only to the whisper of the wind and the whoosh of passing Lammergeyer wings.

We spent the night at Sankober, just inside the park.  Our tent ended up being worse than first thought... the zippers were broken on both the inside vestibule AND the rain-fly.  Hello frigged draft.  The mattresses were as bad; one was uncomfortable, the other miserably so.  The sleeping bags? Criminally thin.  We cooked up a bag of noodles flavored by a cube of chicken bullion - gummy gag-inducing-nonsense - ate while making cracks about how it was the worst meal we'd ever had, and crashed beneath a starry sky that, in my mind, has only one rival: the Namibian desert.  Gorgeous.  Unfortunately, I was so cold, I could only admire it for 15 minutes while trying to click a few ISO1600, 30 second exposure photos.  It was so clear and so bright that for the first time, the photos turned out.  Brilliant.

Day 2: It was a pleasure to wake after feeling like I was going to die for most of the night.  "I made it!" I thought.  "Tonight, I'll be breaking out the emergency space-blanket," I told Brian.   

The walk followed the escarpment.  Dowd, though lacking every word in the English language,  understood that hikers like to see views, and so he took us to every viewpoint on the trail... ad infinitum.  It really did screw the rhythm of the hike, and with the sun always in front of us washing out the lighting, we couldn't really capture the immensity of the view.  Still, we smiled and thanked him for his work.  He was the picture of happy dedication. 

The highlight of the day came when we descended into a valley and took an hour and a half long break on a small stream terminating in a waterfall.  I set up at the lip of the waterfall - dipping my blackened, dust-caked feet into the icy waters, to soothe the ache - while Brian sat in a boulder's shade just upstream.  Within half an hour, we were surrounded on the cliffs on all sides by Geladas.  Down they came, one by one and two by two to the water, a pool just 10 feet from me, to reach out, stretch-stretch-stretch, out to the middle and scoop a handful of the greenest algae out to eat.  And then one would spring across.  Snap! Captured, but blurred, by the camera! Time and again.  The gurgle of the stream, the call of monkeys from the cliffs.  Planet earth, baby. 

As we moved on, a male that had gotten just a bit too forward with the ladies got his ass chased around the valley.  He screamed in terror until he climbed a tree and shook it violently and screamed.  Snap, snap, snap.  Meanwhile, the male closest to me, interested in nothing but licking for something under a rock took a break to flip up his monstrous lip to reveal his fierce fangs.  "Say cheese!" Cheeeeeeese! Snap, and captured (I showed the picture to the researcher days later, and she said even she hadn't gotten that shot yet.  Cool.).

We stayed at a place just outside Geech village.  On entering the village, I mimicked a chicken taking a dump well enough to convince six children to run to their homes and return with eggs.  At two Birr a piece (exchange is 17 Birr/$), Brian and I bought up eleven to supplement our horrifically unpalatable breakfasts - we ate the pasta-filth for breakfast too - and dinners.  Two ended up being rotten.  The others were eaten for dinner in the dark and for breakfast in the morning.  The morning eggs were fine.  But the vile atmosphere of the tent for the next two nights suggests that we may not have found ALL of the bad eggs.  (When I was feeling especially ill on day three, Brian came into the 95+ degree tent - a temperature that made him feel like "oh, wow, it's too hot in here" and me feel like, "I'm just starting to warm up" - and ripped one.  Son of a... I looked at him, as only I, Devon-nicknamed-Satan, can and accosted him with the first word to come to mind.  "FUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!").  Venom.

In the evening we yakked it up with a French Canadian Lawer exploring Ethiopia for its history and a Spanish UNICEF worker taking a break from her duties in her beloved Sudan.  Verdict: aid in Africa is FUBAR, and Che was a really cool and attractive guy, and an incredible leader though too radical, far too stubborn and with the wrong idols.  We were invited for Vodka and jumped at the opportunity.  Oh Absolut.  How smooth thy are. 

Sleep was not entirely sleepless on night two.  With my emergency blanket mirroring all my radiation back at my body, I actually slept between the tosses and turns and readjustments of the crinkly wrapping-paper blanket, but the condensation did freak me out, and while the scale tilted towards comfortable, it never really got there.

Day 3: Warmed buy the sun, we rocked it to Imet Gogo, a viewpoint showing us both where we were going and where we had come from.  At 12,900 feet, the air was thin, clear and cool, and we spent half an hour just taking in the sites.  From there, down, down, down into the valley.  Fields of grass.  Fields of lebelia.  And then up, up, up.  Huff, huff, huff.  The air, the thin air, so thin.  More dust from the ravaged lands.  Always the dust, always painting us. 

We passed children, perhaps the fifth set in the entire walk, that had set up shop on the trail trying to sell overpriced tiny baskets, strange helmet-shaped hats, and necklaces to dumb hikers.  I'd passed all to that point without even answering to their calls of "You! You! Hello! Hello! Where are you go?!" but at this one I stopped.  "The hat? How much?" "50 Birr." "Pshaw. 10 Birr!" Back and fourth.  I put one of the hats on.  Brian said I looked like King Leer, i.e. Stupid.  but at least I was a king, right? No go on the 10 Birr, but they would have sold their crappy flute.  I was long gone, and their last calls never caught me.

Up the hill.  Past another set of kids selling trinkets.  Nothing else to do all day while they tend the sheep.  Life is hard but simple in the hills.  Water might be lacking.  Food, depending on the season, might be supplied by the guilty-feeling citizens of the United States instead of your land.  Hard.  But simple.  You wake up, you throw on another blanket.  You grab the whip and crack the ground outside your stable, and you and your flock ascend, up, and up into the void, up where only the loudest calls of your village dogs can reach you.  Everything else is erased by space.  And there you stay until the sun approaches its last hurdle, the horizon, a hurdle that, when crossed makes others feel warm leaving you cold.  Hard, and simple. 

We stopped at the top of the hill taking shelter from the wind among the rocks.  Dipped our stale bread into the dripping peanut butter and glued our mouths closed and then unglued them with sips of water-turned-lemon-aid complements of saccharin and artificial flavoring.  Set the alarm for 15 minutes later and snagged a nap in the noon-time sun.  Oh, god, the warmth.  The alarm was our safety net for fear that we sleep away the day.  Delicious.

Up.  Hiked.  Saw more views.  The afternoon was a slog for me.  My feet were swollen and blistered inside my toosmallbyahalfsize-shoes, and my body ached with a resemblance to the flu.  "Am I becoming arthritic already?" I thought in one especially steep and rocky downhill section.  Thud, thud, thud.  Hit camp hours before we thought we would. Off came the shoes and out came the limp.  And then **WHAM!!!!** I'm down for the count with a headache that would have split granite.  Day three, and I'd had the same headache every afternoon of the trek.  And the only thing that could cure it was by taking two pills consisting of part Tylenol, part caffeine and part Codeine.  Ahhhhhhhhhhh, instant release.  MAGIC. 

Altitude sickness? But I wasn't up that high, around 12,000 ft... Caffeine withdrawal? More than likely. I'd been taking in about 6 Ethiopian-strength, read: Espresso, coffees per day up until the trek, and I was taking one packaged coffee each morning on the walk... I've been through this before, sophomore year of college when, after cutting out my habit of 2 POTS of coffee a day - one in the morning before dynamics class to wake up and one at night while studying because "why the hell not?" - I suffered headaches for a month and almost went to a neurologist because I was convinced I had a brain tumor slowly creeping. 

So that afternoon, I was down for the count until I broke down and took one of the magic pills (I had been hesitant to take them because I fear the Codeine addiction).  Released, I showered, limb by limb in the icy waters of Chenek camps showers.  Finishing, I was met with exclamations of, "Did you see it? it was right there! HUUUUGE Horns!! I went to get my camera, but when I came back it was gone." "I didn't.  You lucky bastard.  You saw an Ibex!" And he was lucky.  And he was a bastard, because just minutes before he had farted in my 95 degree tent and nearly sent me into a puking frenzy.  Bad Eggs. 

Later, after we had done some laundry - which, Brian couldn't figure out why I was doing it seeing as my clothes were "only dusty and not smelly" - the Ibex returned, and I was able to get within 10 ft of him. 

Walia Ibex: a beautiful endangered species that can be seen only from a distance, bouncing among the cliffs of mountain ranges when young, as they are rightfully afraid of men that kill them. 

Walia Ibex: borderline deaf, blind and lacking all ability to smell me when I am 10 feet away when they've reached the ripe old age of 20 years. 

I was thrilled. 

More bad food for dinner.  We spent time with Ellie, an Israeli traveling for a year from Ethiopia to Cape Town and swapped travel advice and discussed "the conflict." I just finished "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and was well versed in the history.  What I wanted was an update on the clashes.  He was happy not to provide it.  All I got was that I, as an American, would probably be fine in all areas but the Gaza strip.  Damn.  Guess I'll have to research it all on my own.

The sun dropped, and I began to shiver uncontrollably.  To hell with the teeth-brushing. 

Rumbles from the eggs from breakfast before bed.  Cramps followed our dinner of rice with bullion crumbs and roasted barely almost immediately.  Another cold night lay before me, and I felt an infinite sadness holding hands with trapped-with-no-other-choices as I entered my sleeping bag bundled in both my jackets, my pants, socks, hood over my head, wrapped tight, with my emergency blanket around me.  And it got worse.  Cold air began pouring onto my face.  The tent door was broken again... only this time, no matter how hard I tried, I could not close the inner vestibule. 

I've felt explosive rage before on trips.  Years ago I pulled the speedometer cable through the fire-wall of my beloved VW on a x-country trip to Seattle (my grad-school buddies found this HILARIOUS, and in hind-site, so, now, do I.).

In a violent rage manifested by a breaking down body and an inability to get warm I rendered the zipper useless for eternity, punched Brian in the head by accident - "Sorry, bro" (And he was so mellow he didn't even mention it!) - and ended up saying to hell with the whole thing and tying the flap off and out of the way. 

Hell ensued. 

With only one layer between us and the night, I was ripped apart by cold air all night long.  Brian, for reasons I cannot understand slept more warmly.  Perhaps it was his beanie and his long-johns.  Perhaps he is just more manly than I.

Toss.  Turn.  Repeat.  Freezing and jittering from the cold but boiling when I laid my hand on my face.  Sometime in the morning, I finally snapped.  "Brian, what time is it?" 2 AM. I had been hoping he was going to say 5... or better yet, 6.  Instead, I had 5 more hours of this shit ahead of me.  "Brian.  I'm done.  I'm leaving the mountain today." And then I tossed, turned, ached, panted and moaned until the sun broke the mountain top 5 hours later. 

Day 4: I awoke resolute.  I was leaving the mountain.  When Brian awoke, I told him so again.  "We'll talk," he said.  But there was no talking about it.  I made my way down to the bathroom and then back to the kitchen were we were cooking up breakfast.  We laid down the options.  He would not have to leave the park, I would never have suggested that.  Instead, I would get a ride out somehow.  I told the mule-man, and he suggested I stay at the lodge.  Done.  After 3 days, I could simply walk out when my original scout returned.  The problem was that all visitors to the park needed a scout, and Dowd was relentless about following the rules.  "The park entrusted you to me, and you cannot be alone in the park without a scout!" he said to me in Amharic, translated by the punk-teenagers nearby.  "Ok, then I'll leave the park on the first vehicle that passes out." Settled.

But it wasn't.  Soon, other officials came up and told me that I would have to purchase another scout to accompany me on the vehicle out.  Feeling like hell, I let 'em have it.  Not rude, but straight forward.  "I'm not buying a scout.  If you don't like it, I'm sorry but you'll just have to deal with it." (But what I wanted to say was, "You can fuck off.  I'm tired of these games."). They let me go. 

Goodbye Brian.  A shake and a birthday hug.  "I'm sorry it had to end like this.  Next time'll be better.  I promise." And off he went. 

Waited for the truck.  The first wanted 400 Birr.  Clearly a farangi price.  I jumped off.  The next came.  200.  Fine.  Whatever.  I jumped on board.  It was a lorrie, a cattle truck being used to haul empty bottles from somewhere deep in the mountains to somewhere else not-so-deep in the mountains.  People spilled in.  I jumped on board.  And away we went. 

The dust was magnificent.  Great plumes rose behind us marking our advance to everyone watching form afar.  When we slowed to take on a hill, the plumes caught us, clouded us, filled our lungs, our eyes, entered our pours, our eyes, made us cough.  I'd always wanted to ride one of these trucks.  And now I was swinging around mountain twists and turns, ripples in the fabric of the land at a rate that made my heart pound, my mouth grin and my eyes dry.  The other passengers turned to look at me.  Locking eyes for a few seconds, I'd raise my eyebrows and smile and they'd flash a grin, and onward we drove.

I began to get hassled for the payment. "How much?" I'd been told 200 B.  "300 B." No, you said 200.  "Ok, 200." But you just said 300.  Now you say 200.  How do I know it is not actually 100. Perhaps you're overcharging me and will keep the excess for your pocket.  "Pay the driver then." Ok.

Another Kilometer passed.  We stopped.  Behind me I hear, "give me money." How much do you want.  The whole 300, 200 bit again.  Angry now I let him have it.  "Look, give me a fair price.  I want to pay what they pay.  Stop looking at my skin.  Stop trying to steal from me! You have one more chance.  Give me the fair price, or I'm jumping off this truck, not paying you a thing and waiting for the next truck to come along." Silence.  "Ok, give me 150." Done.  I handed him the bills, and forward we rolled.  (I learned later that the correct price is more like 100, but as a white guy traveling illegally in the park without a guide it is next to impossible to get that.)

There were checkpoints on the road.  It is illegal for Farangi to travel in lorries in this country.  It is illegal for Farangi to travel without a scount in the park.  I was doing both.  Three times I heard, "get down." And I did.  Hood over my head, glasses on, hands into my pockets, hunkered there trying not to show my reflective skin.  Pass, pass, no problem.  A man got on board carrying a gun.  They shuffled him next to me and said, "he is your guide!" and giggled over their creativity. 

Finally, we hit the park gate.  I did not know this as I was hiding in the masses.  Then, "Stand up." Discovered.  A man in uniform began harassing me about not having a scout.  I explained the situation.  He scolded me and said I needed to pay, his chest puffed behind the camo.  I declined.  He asked for the receipt.  I said I didn't have it (but in truth was too lazy and perturbed to take it out for him).  He let me go but shouted as we pulled away, "but go to head office or the police will get you." All I could do was laugh.  The threat might have rattled me two years ago, but after two years of asshole big-shots in crappy fitting uniforms, it did nothing but tickle me.

"So long Simiens" I said, giving a salute.  Those around me copied the action, and we all grinned and breathed deeply.

Into Debark, back into the shitty town, straight to the hotel where I'd enjoyed dinner days before.  Placed an order, Dabo Fir Fir, bread mixed up with a spicy sauce, and drank a beer that made my throat ache with cold.  Threw down two more before I decided it was time to hit my hotel and sleep.  I slept, and woke 2 hours later.  More "On the Road" as I awoke slowly, still buzzed.  And then... ring, RING.  The telephone. 

It was Michelle.  The first words I heard: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!"

And it was one of the happiest birthdays.  Twenty-nine, still a twenty-something and still 'out there' ripping through the wilds, sorting through the adventures.  And I was warm again, and I was full, and I was buzzing, and I had Michelle's sweet voice in my ear. 

I arrived in Gonder yesterday and immediately hit up the local Tej Beat for a large bottle of honey wine for my breakfast/lunch because why not? It was delicious.  I got into a development discussion with the boys sitting next to me.  The same tired words, only they filled in more of the blanks than usual. 

I am living like a king here dropping money freely on espresso and cake and glasses of mango smoothie to my hearts content.  It finally hit me that while I may grimace about spending 10 dollars on food here per day, it is only the lingering spirit of PCV and its accompanying paltry paycheck in me that makes me feel guilty. 

Passing the time reading "On the Road", AGAIN, and loving every word.  Actually, I just finished it, and as it is my only book I'm flipping it over and starting it over...  The only time I've ever done that, and it feels just right.  Dig that mad, gone Kerouac.

There are also two Germans here that I hung out with last night.  They told me I was their favorite American that they'd ever met... that I was well educated and well informed... they were probably drunk.  I accepted the compliment anyway.  I'll join them tonight for more spectacular food while taking in some traditional dances at a restaurant down the road. 

Keeeeeeeerist! That was a long update.  But a lot happens in a month out here.  Ethiopia is hands down the favorite of the 14 African countries I've seen, but I'm itching to see Egypt, to feel the 180 flip between the ways of Sub-Saharan countries and the Arab world.  People - some of you - have expressed concerns about my travel in that region, as there has been violence there recently.  Don't worry.  I just got news through the travel-grapevine that an American worker up in Cairo says the coast is clear, and as long as I stick to the well traveled trail, I'll remain safe. 

I fly next week to Cairo to begin the journey.  after 13 days I'll jump to Israel with a brief stint in Jordan (assuming Petra isn't too expensive).  Then back to Israel to explore.  I'm looking forward to seeing a country the size of a small New England state instead of Texas where "you drive and drive and tomorrow night you're still in Texas." 

More as it unfolds!

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Overland Part 2

From the first days of the second part of my overland trip from Cape Town to Cairo:

Day 1: left Kampala at 6PM and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya at around 8 the next morning.

Day 2: Caught a taxi out of "Nairobbery" to Isiolo via Nanyuki (where, in the shadow of Mt. Kenya I demonstrated my water purifier to 15 men and one psycho woman who kept shouting, "I love you Jesus" while simultaneously covering her face with streaks of charcoal like a jungle warrior, offering sex and blowing me kisses). Isiolo = sketch-as-hell. Caught a private 4x4 out of there headed to Moyale leaving at night to avoid daytime banditry in the north. Paused from 1-4AM for the drivers stomach problems.

Day 3: Watched the sun rise, a red orb right out of the earth, just after one of our fellow passengers laid out his prayer rug and sang into a westerly wind in the baron Kenyan landscape. Magic. This is what I came for. Made Moyale, the border town by lunch and stayed the night. Prevailing Islamic influence, half the town is Somali, the rest... not. Another world, finally.

Day 4: Caught a 6am bus out of town. Bus ride was hellish (seats designed by a pious midget, i.e. not fit for an atheist giant... knees and back = fucked). Stayed in Aswa.

Day 5: Yesterday. Made Addis! Part of my journal entry from yesterday: Dirty streets. Foul. "You!! You!!"-s shouted at us from everywhere. While a man grabbed my wrist, asked for the time over and over despite my repeating "No watch!! Not a watch!" another guy spit on Brian and went to wipe it off focusing far too much attention on the wallet area. Sketch as hell. Left them in the dust and nearly ran head-long into a gnarly looking homeless guy, pants dropped to the floor, stinking to high heaven and doing the happy-dance in front of five police officers who, for money, couldn't have cared less. After finding the hotel, we trekked off to Addis Ababa restaurant which looked too rich for our pockets but dazzled us with the incredibly delicious and inexpensive food, tej (a honey-wine (meade?) that had us buzzing and euphoric by the evenings end. On the way home, I felt a tug on on my bag and quickly turned around o find a thief still attached to the zipper. I whipped around and cuffed him square across the face. *WHAM!!* And down he went. Looking down on him and pointing I said, "Don't fucking do that!", turned and walked away. No protests from he or the surrounding crowd. I returned to the hotel with a buzz - part tej, part mind-blowing food, part adrenaline, part coffee (ethiopian crack), and part thrill of this life in general.

Off to the walled city of Harar in two days. Back to Addis and then off to Lalibela and the Eth. Highlands to pet the Planet Earth badass cliff-dwelling baboons. Sudan is almost definitely out due to them (a.) sucking and (b.) George Clooney telling them a bit too publicly that they suck.

Will likely fly to Cairo which'll save us travel days and give us more time to explore Eth., Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

Damnit it all. I wish all of you could experience this. Wish you were here. I really do.

More to come!!

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


P.S. If you haven't already read The Diary of Anne Frank, read it. Damnit the world lost a beautiful mind with that girls passing. Huge bummer.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Kony 2012 Video

**NOTE** I wrote a week ago, and then the power went out. And then it went out again. And again. Thus, I gave up posting my thoughts until today.

At this point, the Kony 2012 video is probably a thing of the long-lost-past in the rest of the world (rendering my post irrelevant), but here in Uganda it remains a hot topic. In short, the government is angry. In a radio report I heard yesterday members of parliament were discussing the issue. Long story short, the video makes Uganda look like a war-zone and frightens would-be tourists away thereby hurting the economy. My point: when the news stories fall out of the main CNN, FOX, BBC, REUTERS, NYTIMES, ABC, etc... headlines, American's often think, "Hey, everything worked out!" But often, it didn't, as is the case here.

Last week a video was released by an NGO in Uganda called Invisible Children (IC). The video went viral on YouTube, and if I understand correctly, there has been a sudden avalanche of support from the American people who want to donate money to IC which would enable them to put more pressure on the US government to increase the US military efforts currently under way to capture Kony.

But you probably already know that.

A few days ago, a friend suggested the following in her facebook status (paraphrased): Before you buy into the hype and jump on the bandwagon, a more critical inspection of Invisible Children is in order. She then suggested that there are many other charities in Africa that are worthy of donations and that the public should look into them. Finally, she asked me, based on my experiences in Uganda, to comment. Never one opposed to voicing an opinion, I jumped at the opportunity.

What lies ahead of you should you continue reading?

(a.) Thoughts on the IC - Kony 2012 video
(b.) What does IC do?
(c.) More thoughts on the video
(d.) Thoughts on aid in Uganda (which are applicable to aid in general)
(e.) “Devon, I want to help. How can I help?”

(a.) Thoughts on the IC - Kony 2012 video

Before I left home, I watched a film called "GO" about IC bringing twelve students from the USA to Uganda to see where the money they raised for the "Schools for Schools" program was going. With a solid narration, an awesome soundtrack and creative videography - not to mention key-words including Child Soldiers, War, Joseph Kony, War-Ravaged, HIV/AIDS and Poverty sprinkled liberally throughout - the movie was incredibly moving, leaving some of the people I showed it to speechless and others in tears.

What was I thinking post-“GO” as I boarded a plane for Uganda?

“Holy shit. Half of the country I am moving to is at war!!!”

Like so many other misconceptions I had about my future service, I could not have been further from the truth, and it was Invisible Children that had happily lead me astray.

Uganda has (many) problems, but right now, war isn't one of them.

Is there a war in Northern Uganda? No.

Do villages in the north reflect the devastation of the war? As far as I’ve seen in my travels, villages in the north look about the same as villages in the south, east, or west: Lots of mud huts and houses, and the buildings that are falling in on themselves do so because they are not maintained.

Are their child-soldiers roaming around killing innocent northerners? Absolutely not.

[Note: It warrants mention, however, that there are Ex-child soldiers that are being reintegrated into society. As you can imagine, they are in need of serious counseling to overcome all that they have seen and participated in.]

Are there men lurking in the nighttime shadows of Gulu trying to abduct children into the Lord’s Resistance Army’s ranks? No, no, no.

Therein lies Invisible Children’s dirty little secret:

There are no more INVISIBLE CHILDREN in Uganda.

Is Joseph Kony in Uganda? No. He left years ago. He is now in the Democratic Republic of Congo (or so it has been reported).

[Note: That doesn’t mean he isn’t a bad man who is still doing bad things. But should the USA continue to go after all bad men who do bad things? Our government’s world-police mentality it is one of the things for which I catch the most flack for when I announce that I am from America (which is getting scarier and scarier to do, by the way…).

“Why did you kill (Person)?!”
“Why are you fighting in (Place)?”
“All you want in America is (Thing… typically OIL).”

I’ve heard them all and more time and again.]

[Another Note: What Northern Uganda lacks in guerilla warriors and horror, it makes up for in idle people, again, like much of Uganda. With all the atrocities of the war, NGOs rushed to Gulu and other northern cities to begin doling out food, money, etc... to victims. After years of taking, people began to see that if they sat around long enough, a white land-cruiser would pass by offering handouts. The more miserable they looked, the more terrible their story, the more access to aid they got.

A nasty downward spiral ensued.

Case in point: A school is overcrowded, and a new building is desperately needed. What should be done is for the village to get together, pool their resources and begin building. What actually happens is that the village puts up with the overcrowding until IC or another NGO comes along and offers to pick up the tab.]

What do I think about the Kony 2012 video?

It’s 30-minute lie that has made part of Uganda look like hell and has thus done damage to the Ugandan people. IC is using fear-mongering, playing to an audience eager to be indignant.

In my opinion, the video should be completely disregarded.

But forget my opinion: What do the Ugandan’s think?

Every Ugandan I know was angry when they found out that the US had sent soldiers here to assist in the tracking down of Kony (Well, almost all. I did meet one soldier who was happy to receive our weapons and the instruction on how to use them. But in terms of getting out into the field and using them, he was confident that the Ugandan military could work without the US advisers). Why? Because they all think that the real reason the soldiers came here was to gather intelligence about the oil reserves discovered in the North West.

I was peppered with more questions:

“Why would the US send soldiers to Uganda to track Kony when he has gone to Congo?”

“Where was America when there was actually war here?”

Good points!

The Ugandan take on the IC Kony 2012 video: OUTRAGE.

This about sums it up:

(b.) What does IC do?

What does IC do? They build schools. Are they nice? Yes, very. My buddy works at an IC-funded complex that makes me drool. Solar power, a beautiful library, incredible classrooms, a nice science lab... BUT it is ranked almost DEAD LAST out of the nearly 1200 Ugandan schools receiving "Universal Secondary Education (USE)"-funds by the Ugandan government.

Buildings don't make a school; teachers do. A good teacher conducting class under a mango tree does more for Uganda than a bad teacher in a shiny classroom.

So what does IC really do? They build buildings.

Where does the money that should have been ear-marked by the government to build that school go? No one knows.

In the end, IC is like any other NGO. They need money to continue doing what they think is "good." Unfortunately, whether or not they are actually helping or hindering Uganda’s development process doesn't factor into the equation so long as those running the company, the volunteers and aid-workers get their monthly pay-check.

(c.) More thoughts on the video

What shocks the hell out of me is the extensive publicity that IC has gotten out of the video. Think about it: A small-time guerilla leader who years ago terrified the northern region of Uganda now has a YouTube video with 70 MILLION-plus views!!!

Is there a single video about any present-day lunatic than can claim as much airtime?

And frankly, I can’t understand how people outraged about Kony today but haven’t batted an eyelash over:

(1.) The atrocities (mass murders, gang-rapes and pillaging) happening every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo

(2.) The goons that run around Zimbabwe doing Mugabe’s dirty deeds (i.e. killing anyone that even resembles opposition), or Mugabe and all his violence and bad governance in general

(3.) The genocide that has gone on for decades in The Sudan

(4.) Every corrupt government on this continent that continues to keep their people in the dirt

Or elsewhere:

(1.) A ruthless and unstable dictator in North Korea

(2.) Iran developing nuclear power

(3.) The Israel/Middle-East conflict

Or… perhaps most importantly, as from it stems - has stemmed and will stem - boundless suffering around the world:

(1.) People who worship some higher power but call it by different names refuse to stop killing each other because they have FAITH that everyone in their club is right and everyone else is wrong

Why did the Kony video go viral?

Because Invisible Children knows how to SELL!

They canvas the streets, produce videos and hurl their propaganda all over the internet in such a way that creates massive resonance among their audience.

If only they sold something worth buying… Just imagine the positive effect they could have on other pressing world issues by invigorating the American public, uniting them in a cause and focusing their energies towards positive action!

“Hey, IC! Please make your next video about Global Warming. But please do not release it on Al Gore’s birthday. Thanks.”

(d.) Thoughts on aid in Uganda (which are applicable to aid in general)

In the last two years, my opinion of aid in Uganda – which I now believe can be applied to Africa and even developing countries in general – has changed dramatically. When I first arrived, I was of the mindset that Uganda could use all the help it could get from the developed world to grow and become developed itself. The solution: Money, people and resources.

Today I’m of the mindset that Uganda has, in abundance, its own money, people and resources to shape-up and join the “developed world” (whatever the hell that means: Constant access to ridiculously inexpensive cheese? Fifteen-thousand different types of T.V. dinners? A population with a70 + % overweight/obesity rate?), and that is the last thing NGOs and the representatives of the government want the first-world Givers to find out.

Outsiders have been throwing money around here for far too long. The Government shirks responsibilities because outside donors pick up the slack. The divide between rich – who are buying luxury jets - and poor - who lack access to clean water - is appalling and growing. HIV/AIDS is on the rise once again, as people believe Anti-Retrovirals are a cure - research shows that a patient on a consistent regiment of ARVs will live as long as the average man/woman not suffering from HIV - and thus the fear of the virus is gone.

I've conducted teaching seminars at primary teacher's colleges and secondary schools here and asked the question "Who in this room fears HIV/AIDS?" to rooms filled with hundreds of students and not one of them raised their hands.

Hmm... not the answer you might expect.

Thus, I can no longer subscribe to the “give all that you can”-mindset because I’ve seen that the resulting mentality on the receiving end is “take all you can get.”

The surest way to ensure that I child never grows up is to foster a feeling of complete dependency. The same is true of developing nations.

Unfortunately, the biggest donors (USAID, UN, CHINA, WHO) are more politically motivated. Quid pro quo – “We’ll give you X-billion dollars if you fight so-and-so and let us keep a military outpost within your border.” If we don’t offer it, someone else that we’re competing with will, and then we lose our bargaining chip.


So... I recognize that foreign aid will not soon disappear. The question then becomes: What kind of aid should we give?

(e.) “Devon, I want to help. How can I help?”

What’s that you say? You want to help a developing country but you no longer want to send money to Invisible Children, Save the Children, Christ for Children, Mohammad for Munchkins, Buddha for Babies, Prophets for Progeny, etc…?

Pack your bags, and go there!! The greatest resource we can offer to countries in need is our people.

Blend in as best you can, and teach about yourself and our cultures back home. Be a role model. Inspire. Walk with the locals, sit with them, and learn their language and their culture. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Get angry with them. Feel what it is to be an outsider, to be gawked at, to be pointed and shouted at, laughed at, grabbed, poked, and petted. Hole up in your room, and feel the loneliness fully. But trudge on. Make a foothold. Plant the seed of trust, and when it begins to grow introduce solutions not to the problems that you see in the lives of your new community but what they see as problems.

There are plenty of programs that you can join (Peace Corps, Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO), Engineers/Doctors without borders, etc…) that can get you on track to an experience you’ll never forget.

If you can’t go abroad, find a volunteer in the field and ask them how you can help. A Peace Corps Volunteer can do more in a small community with a one-hundred dollar donation than an NGO can do with one-thousand or a corrupt government can do with one-million. would be a great place to start that search.

Most importantly, educate yourselves on issues abroad. Take the “Kony 2012”-esque videos with a grain of salt. Diversify your news providers. And go read more about the good/evil sides of foreign aid (Check into “End of Poverty,” “White Man’s Burden,” “Dead Aid,” and, one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read, “The Road to Hell: The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity.”)... see if that aid-money you wanted to send might not be better invested into your own country.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)