Sunday, July 14, 2013

Last Day in Addis

My last day of classes was Friday. So I made sure we had some fun. I got the kids on their feet with games, improv, and then writing and performing skits.

When I first sat them down in randomly assigned pairs to write a script, I asked them to make four things clear from the beginning: the location, the characters, the relationship between their characters, and some problem for the characters to solve.

So I spent my last half hour with these kids watching them play grandparents, pickpockets, waitresses with crazy customers, professors, and of course students. All using English skills I certainly didn't hear from them on the first day of class.

It had only been two weeks, but at the end of it, when I was saying my goodbyes as the class filed out, the question I kept getting over and over was when was I going to come back and visit. I wish travel were that simple.

Traveling the way I and many other people like me do, you pick up and adapt to being places very very easily. And it becomes a way of starting a life, or many mini-lives, in a way. You find your place in a community where people look up to you, where you find the people you look up to, the dozen friends who will come to your birthday party, you favorite places to go and spend time, eat, listen to music, watch the game (whatever the local game is). And if you've done it in enough places, you can do it almost anywhere there are people.

The catch is that you stop noticing things sometimes. It's not until someone in culture shock next to you exclaims that there are farm animals in the road that you realize how normal it is to you to see donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, and horses wander around the collection of rocks you've already started to think of as the sidewalk, or the lane-less, traffic signal-less, divided strips of chaos and concrete you think of as streets, winding through half-cement skeletons of houses constructed by bareheaded men standing on scaffolds of tied-together poles of eucalyptus. If you're not careful, the women in white shrouds going to church for saints day become just strangers, background noise, to whatever life you've constructed.

It's when that life abruptly ends at an airport that changes things. When the kid wants to know when they'll see you again and you have to admit that you don't know. Even if you don't finish the out loud sentence: I don't know if you will at all. It may very well happen. But Ethiopia is not close to where my family lives or where I pay rent, and flights are long and expensive. And I'm only just now getting used to the idea that my time on the planet is limited and I won't be able to do everything.

On Friday, when they were writing their scripts, one of the kids raised their hand to ask me a question. I came over and they said they understood that the scene needed a problem. But did they have to find a solution to the problem, or was it okay to leave it unsolved? I told them they didn't have to find a solution. Their time was limited. And in any case, some problems don't have one.

If all goes to plan, I'll be picked up for my flight in a little over two hours. Whether it really feels like it or not, it's time to go home.

...and by home I mean crashing in New York for a few days, performing in a theater festival in San Francisco, visiting friends in Portland, home to Seattle for a week or so, out to see family in Eastern Washington, down to explore Santa Barbara with my girlfriend, and then flying back to New York again a week or so before grad school orientation. Which for me, taken together, is about as much home as I can ask for.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Hi Joel. Nice blog! I'm a fellow Columbia SIPA student (class of 2015). I can see here that you've been traveling around the globe for years now. Fascinating pics and stories btw. As someone who is also interested in traveling and who has done SOME herself I must ask, how do you pay for all of this?

    Best of luck with all your adventures,

  2. Hey Joel! Saw your pictures on SIPA blog. Niiice! Love this sentence "it becomes a way of starting a life, or many mini-lives, in a way" :)

  3. Thank you guys! The funding question is one I get pretty often. I travel very cheaply, thanks to couchsurfing, connections, a little hitchhiking on occasion, etc. For the main trip that this blog was created to follow (2008-2010) I had been saving up since I was little kid, mowing lawns, some farm work at my grandparents' place, and then weekend and summer jobs, all the way until I graduated from college. On other trips like this last one to Ethiopia, most of the money has come from living cheaply and saving my income from my work as a private tutor New York City. If you ever want tips on the traveling cheaply part, drop me line! Anything I can do to encourage more travel is a good thing.

  4. Hi Joel, you're living the life we all want to live! I hadn't heard the term 'couch-surfing' since I finished in Uni a long time ago! I did a 10k run in Addis Abbaba two years ago for an eye charity, so I know how beautiful the place is.

    Is it your plan to continue writing?


    1. That's great, Alex! Hats off for doing that kind of a run at that kind of an altitude. I keep the blog around more as a repository for when I go traveling. Next time I leave the country, I'll likely start doing more. Thanks and best of luck with TreasurePen!