I recently volunteered at perma-culture farm in Southern Ethiopia for 2 weeks. At the farm there was a great mix of locals and foreigners working side-by-side. I lived in a hut without electricity, did some carpentry work, put up some fences, fed the chickens, etc.
One example of the drama that would occur on the farm was The Great Rabbit Mass Murder. One night, a fox (or something) got into the rabbit pen and killed 12 of the 15 rabbits. Two of the survivors got loose on the farm. Another volunteer and I had to catch them (damn rabbits are fast!), you should have seen that, it was a comedy for sure.
In response to this tragedy, we turned the rabbit pen into an impregnable fortress. There isn’t another one in the world like it, I’m sure of it. Nothing is getting in or out of that place now. It’s a masterpiece.
I’m glad to have volunteered somewhere on this trip, but I was relieved when had I finished. To be honest, after so many years of doing whatever I want whenever I want, doing what somebody asked me to do got really old and annoying after about, oh, 4 hours :)
One of my heroes, The Most Interesting Man in the World, once advised, “Find out in life what it is that you don’t do well. And then don’t do that thing.” At this point in my life, that “thing” for me is working. So, after I had fulfilled the 2-week commitment I had made to the farm, I quit. As the other volunteers soldiered on, I went back to doing what I do best: having a good time. I visited local towns and villages, drank beer, went to the market, chatted with locals, socialized with the volunteers, and sampled the local vices. Let me show you a few:
Chaca is a drink that the locals love in the south. It’s full of sediment. Afterward drinking it, your teeth feel like you just ate a fistful of sand. Every once in a while a bottle spontaneously explodes! (My fellow volunteers call this a “chaca bomb”.) This seems to me like a good reason not to drink it. Plus, it tastes like shit.
Tej. Now here is some good stuff. It’s a honey wine of some sort. I once went to a tej bar at 10am on a Sunday. The place was packed and everybody was trashed on the stuff. (Including yours truly… these Ethiopians are always filling up my glass again, you know how it is.) The other volunteers and I went out for tej so often we turned the word into a verb, as in, “Were you out tejjing again last night?”
That’s an Ethiopian pour, right to the rim. To do otherwise is considered bad luck. I won’t argue.
Chat is a plant that grows in Ethiopia. It seems like the locals are always chewing it. If you want to fit in, there is no better way than to learn how to chew. That’s where I got you covered! In installment #24 of my “How To” videos on world travel, I enlist a local expert to show us how it’s done. The leaves of the plant are supposedly a mild hallucinogenic. For the record, all I got was a stomach ache. The video is a bit long, but chewing chat is a … slow process.
Oh, btw, I was told after the video that chat is now illegal in the UK as well. Sorry to get you folks excited.
As I have said too many times: in travel, timing is everything. I have been pretty lucky on this trip, but I think this one takes the cake: I visited a village while the locals were digging their “30-year lake”! That’s right, the people of this area dig a new lake for holding water once every 30 years… and I was there. As was everybody else from the surrounding villages. The sight of all these people working together, and the celebrations afterwards, was mesmerizing to watch. (Truth be told, I only worked for about 20 minutes, then took part in the party :-) Watch:
Here are a few other random experiences/observations:
– At the farm, local women do all the real hard labour. I once spent an afternoon helping them carry rocks and sand from one place to another under the vicious African sun. We couldn’t speak a word to each other, but we would smile and laugh together just the same. I really liked those ladies. But, the work was so tough it almost killed me. After that day, whenever they invited me to work with them again, I would pretend I needed to go feed the chickens.
– The African sky has so many stars it’s incredible!! Many a night, we walked home in complete blackness (the village rarely has electricity) after drinking too much tej, navigating only by the billions of stars that dot the sky here, from horizon to horizon.
– One day we walked 3 hours into the hills to visit a school that was having a celebration. As we walked through the countryside we were followed by an ever-growing group of kids. We lead them, as my friend Eddie put it, “Pied Piper style.” If only I had a photo. This school is another one of those places where I’m kind of a big deal (although, so were the 2 other foreigners I was with). The younger kids hesitantly touched my white skin, like they thought it might be fake. I would tell them, “Don’t worry, it’s quite real.” The older ones asked why I was wearing glasses on my eyes. I explained that the sun was too bright for my faranji (Ethiopian for “foreigner”) eyes and they laughed. They asked why Eddie was wearing a hat — “Is there something wrong with this head?” He showed the masses that his head was indeed normal, and every kid wanted to touch his hair. Funny stuff (you had to be there).
– The locals in the rural areas have some strange beliefs: ie, moving air causes diseases! Particularly TB. So, in a hot, stuffy bus the people are afraid to open the windows. So, instead we all suffocate and sweat. Craziness, I tell you. Or, in some places that see few or no tourists, the people are afraid of cameras — they think it will suck out their soul! So, in these places, if the kids are bugging you and won’t leave you alone (common in Ethiopia), one technique I’ve seen is to just point your camera that them: they will run away in fear :)
I’m heading east to a place that claims to be its own independent country, but the rest of the world doesn’t seem to think so. I’m not sure who to believe or what to think, but I always find in these situations of uncertainty the best thing to do is go see for yourself. So that’s what I’m going to do.