Travel Stories


         I wonder on my last day in Ethiopia, my last day in East Africa, what happened to Innocent Eric, the man I hoped would facilitate the recovery of my stolen phone in Tanzania, the man I entrusted with one hundred and sixty dollars that he promised to get to me if he could not secure my phone.  Why had his cellphone gone unanswered?  Why are my emails un-replied to?  Have I misread the whole situation … again?  And, as always, it is not the money that matters to me.  Really.  It is about trust - one of if not the core issue in my life - trust that I am being told the truth, trust in my judgment about others, trust I am not being exploited, or at least that I know I am being exploited.
         What do I care, for example, if Awet the Eritrean refuge didn’t really need twenty dollars to be able to afford a week’s stay in Debre Libanos and to pay for his bus fare home.  I mean, let’s say he needed five dollars and pocketed fifteen.  I don’t care.  And if in the alternative he’d been able to say, “Sir, would you kindly like to give me the equivalent of what I live on each month – twenty dollars – just because it would make my life a little easier,” would I have given it to him, a man who clearly has no surplus, no wiggle room, and virtually no escape options, while twenty dollars is what I pay for a pizza?  I think I would have.  Happily.  As I often comment, one of the big differences between life for most first world economy folks like me and life for most third world economy folks like Awet has to do with the ability to save for big budget items.  Because - to be really over simplistic - if Ethiopian wages are one tenth what they are in America, and the cost of living in Ethiopia is one tenth of what it is in America, everything should more or less balance out, except, as I say, for the cost of big budget items, like cars, or airplane tickets, which are basically the same absolute price regardless of the market they are sold in.  So for me to save two thousand dollars, let’s say for a plane trip to Africa for my son and me on a modest hypothetical salary of 50,000 dollars a year is quite imaginable, being only four percent of my income, whereas for Awet to save two thousand dollars on his five thousand dollar income is forty percent of his annual net and clearly impossible.
         And in the same vein, so what if Kae, the young orphaned woman in the dirt poor town I visited across the river from Yangon - who I met selling watermelon slices at the ferry at just this time last year - who lived in a shack with no running water, no refrigeration, no mattress, no stove, and who was left responsible for her younger siblings living in their leaky one room hut with her aunt and uncle and their kids, who couldn’t afford a better place to live, or to save enough for a bicycle to get to work, so what if she didn’t use the three hundred dollars I gave her to rent a better hut but instead what?  Spent it on rice, or meat, a pair of sandals or a bicycle?  Who cares?
         And if gaunt Elizabeth used her wiles to extract fifteen whole dollars from me, it’s not as if she, or any of the persons I encounter on my path, are spending the small amount of money I’m able to part with on guns, drugs, or alcohol.  And that’s all I really care about, that the money I am able to give to someone fate has arranged for me to encounter, someone I’ve come to care about no matter how briefly, someone who has touched me, and touched my heart, will be helped to survive better, even just a little better, even for just a little while.  You should have seen how much those forty three five cent pens brightened and enriched – if only for a few moments – the lives of those children in Adidi Mariam.  And if the woman sitting in the street with a malnourished child at her breast is not “really” totally destitute, but only partially destitute, do I care what she does with the dime or dolar I give her? 
         The far more important question for me, when I look inside myself to see where my agitation arises while on this subject, is, of course, about the overall irrationality of poverty, homelessness, and malnutrition in the modern world, a sense of helplessness in the face of real people sleeping under newspapers, and the man walking around wearing plastic bags for clothing, and folks with no clean water to drink.  And I could literally throw up when I open, even for a moment, to the grinding reality of what I see every day when I step out into the streets - as opposed to being as inured as I am in order to make it through those same streets - those filthy, fucking, garbage strewn, desperate streets in Soweto, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Addis Ababa … places where a real difference could be made if we were able to enact a world peace plan, or a Global Marshall Plan** - or something like that - and where the United States military defense budget (and the Chinese, British, Russian, German, Egyptian, French, Belgian, and Israeli defense budgets), budgets where trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dollars - not no fucking dimes, dinars, shillings, pennies, handouts, pieces of bread and grains of rice - but real money - could be used to transform the entire planet from the stone aged, overpopulated, fear driven, competitive, oil consuming, corporate profit driven, arms exploding, wasteful, irrational, environmental shit hole it is becoming, into an evolved, more conscious, more creative, rational, musical, loving, cross species communicating, kind, unimagined place of delight.  Oh please forgive this rant, my friends, but it is about the war machine god damn it, about fat bastards immune from prosecution for their crimes against humanity because corporations really do rule, about those who truly have more than they will ever need, and about those of us who can only say in response thereto, “I wish there was something I could do about i,” when there is.  And when we must.  Or as President Obama said in his inaugural speech today, (and you thought I wasn’t paying attention): “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
         And coming on the heels of these moments where my mild generosity triumphs over cynicism, distrust, and doubt - I joked with my driver, Hemot, that Saint Haymanot came to Ethiopia to spread Christianity, and I came to spread a little money - five cent pens, a twenty five cent tip, a piece of bread I put into the hand of a blind beggar - I receive the following email from Innocent late in the afternoon before packing to fly out the next morning:
                  Hello sir,
                  How are you? Down my side things are not okay dad, this man stolen your
                  phone has hurt with poison knife and i am still on medication and hope some
                  days soon i get better.  How are you? I just want to say hello and please stay
                  in contact.
                 With much respect,
                 Innocent Eric
         And I do leave for Dakar in the morning.  And I can’t stream the Pat’s game because the Internet is down and later learn they’ve lost.  And you think you’ve got problems.