01 November 2014

A Truly Great Idea: Yosemite National Park

Before reporting to my new post in Tel Aviv, I took a week in Yosemite National Park to relax, and go for a long hike. Luckily the camping equipment I had ordered back in early December for a vacation to South Africa – which was supposed to take place in January, but which I obviously had to cancel – eventually arrived in the post and was forwarded to DC.

On the way to California, I stopped to see family in Albuquerque, visited old Santa Fe and the Garden of Eden oasis known as the Botanical Gardens. We also hit up the Sandia Peak Tramway - an impressive 2.7 mile ride unlike any in the USA: at the top a very decent meal with a spectacular view. Surprisingly chilly though when the sun plummeted rather quickly.

When I was on a country road in central California, buzzing along at 75 mph in sublime wine country, I resurrected that feeling I had a year ago when driving north out of Vegas towards Zion NP – of my heart leaping over the wide-open spaces of my own country. The land out there is just too expansive to contain any measure of selfishness. Self-pity floats away like a tumbleweed of tissue paper. Stress is sparse and only for survival, like water in a cactus. Pressure is buried, deep beneath granite. The wind and soil erode ego. In the smooth folds of granite pressed clean by the most recent Ice Age, the problems of modern man are but a shadow of a flick of a lizard’s tail.

Before joining a four day, three night hike to start in Yosemite Valley, basing in a fine motel in Sonora, I made a foray into Yosemite’s secret place. I first saw Hetch Hetchy on Ken Burns’s documentary on America’s National Parks. On the documentary, Mr. Burns tells of one man's remark that having a system of national parks were America's Greatest Idea. At least that idea saved some of America's greatest national wonders. Others weren't so lucky. One hundred years ago – in 1914 – some fools thought it would be a grand idea to flood a pristine canyon that rivaled Yosemite. Well, I suppose it’s true that San Francisco needs to drink. Still, it makes the wonderer wonder – what’s under all that water?

Through the skeleton of a burned out forest (a great fire spread through just the year before and was threatening to burn again that summer), I arrived at the foot of O’Shaughnessy Dam to the scene of police, FBI and SWAT scurrying around the place like bulletproof ants. They were having some sort of drill. I milled about for a minute or so, hoping to catch a glimpse of a 007 repel like in Golden Eye. No luck. Deciding I had had enough excitement anyway to last me through the current year and next, I moved on and walked along the reservoir, spotting a retreating rattlesnake, several fine song birds and some picnicking vultures.

The next few days were pure bliss in a place God meant pure bliss to launch from the walls like chocolate in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This place was, literally, the sole reason for creating national parks to begin with and there is no reason to waste my time here on a Friday evening trying to explain it to you all. See these pictures. Now stop what you are doing, buy a ticket to Fresno and go see Yosemite. But don’t go in summer. Way too crowded.

In Yosemite Valley, I met up with my REI hiking group and spent the evening at a crowded campsite under the trees. Invading bears remained a theme of that night as they had the entire year. But in Yosemite, the bears had tracking collars and when they infiltrated the campsite at 2am to steal things some nice camp wardens had noisemakers and flashlights and the bears scurried away. Light and law scare the bears away - rather useful lessons these days.

We thankfully escaped the valley and the crowds the next day and proceeded on a three-day hike towards the rim. We glimpsed peregrine falcon, mule deer, a Western tanager and a baby rubber boa. I gazed on the Milky Way at night, sipping red wine from a goat skin bag – shivering at night in a sleeping bag designed for summer in South Africa.

The Chaos Excuse: Why I Haven't Written

Given the wide availability of negative news, I figured this blog would be a safe space for a little old fashioned American optimism. But the events of the past year, the tragedies in the countries and the indescribable suffering of the people I have come to know and love have not afforded me much opportunity to practice my optimism. It's been difficult to write anything these past 10 months. From Syria to Liberia, this has been a pretty awful year in much of the world. I know many people would say that the hard are times are the ideal times to write. But I honestly don't know how writers endure the self-punishment.

I penned my last blog entry on a sunny Sunday afternoon in South Sudan - the 15th of December, 2013. The next morning, on 16 December, 2013 I woke up as usual to a Monday morning 6am run around the insider perimeter of the walled compound I lived on in Juba. That was the last happy moment I had in South Sudan – running through the morning haze of a fine morning, listening to music on a quarter sized MP3 player. By the end of the day, there was rampant gunfire and the reverberation of artillery shells. The country had suddenly descended into chaos. Over the next 24 hours, the violence intensified, to the point were there were firefights between the factions alongside the walls of our compound. However by Wednesday, the fighting moved out of town and as soon as the road to the airport was safe, the US Air Force arrived in C130s with US Army Rangers, and thanks to the phenomenal bravery of the USMC guards and DSS agents and clockwork interagency coordination of the US Government, we were eating dinner in a Nairobi hotel by the evening of 18 December. Kenya wasn’t far enough away, though, not to hear the sounds of automatic gunfire in my sleep.

By the next week I was having Christmas dinner at my aunts' houses in the suburbs of Baltimore. It was difficult to explain what I went through, what continued to bother me, and to those that lived in plenty and slept in safe beds, how much those in that confluence of the Niles were suffering amid a new and disastrous civil war.

Wintering in Washington DC was frustrating on many levels. Our team had to operate our development activities thousands of miles and seven time zones away from where our beneficiaries were struggling to survive. We did whatever we could to continue providing help to South Sudan, but what ever we did never felt like it was enough. With all the resources at our disposal, we were powerless to stop the spreading violence. Famine loomed large with the impending rainy season; few crops would likely get planted, harvested and make it to market in the ensuing firestorm. We worked too much and slept too little, overwhelmed with the negative news. All discomforts seemed trivial, complaints; outrageous.

Since the conflict erupted in December, over 1 million people have been displaced internally in South Sudan and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in what is already being labeled online as the Second Civil War. I doubt anyone will ever know the exact number of those killed, but according to what I have read in the New York Times and other places, including the International Crisis Group, more than 10,000 South Sudanese have died.


Meanwhile, Ukraine also began to fall into turmoil. As someone who was deeply in love with Ukraine, had lived there for more than four years I began to become physically ill with the news coverage Yanukovich’s Government shooting unarmed protesters in the streets of Kyiv. My elation at the victory of the freedom of assembly, the departure of Yanukovich and the return of peace and order was premature. Russia invaded Crimea and my former hometown of Sevastopol and then proceeded to invade Eastern Ukraine. With the violation of the territorial sanctity of the first [and now likely, last] nation to give up its nuclear arms - that dream of a nuclear arms free world has been crushed by clenched fists. I listened to the talking heads on cable news while I chopped garlic for my dinner in a rented flat in Penn Quarter. Correspondents pattered on endlessly about the novelty of a new cold war or sanctions, seemingly oblivious to the geopolitical significance of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Europe or the abrogation of the Budapest memorandum.

According to the UN, more than 2,200 people have died in Ukraine as a result of the fighting [http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/26/us-ukraine-crisis-rights-un-idUSKBN0GQ1TA20140826]. Thousands more are wounded. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Torture and imprisonment without trial is rampant. And some Russian soldiers likely shot down a Malaysian passenger airliner inside Ukrainian airspace with surface to air missiles eagerly provided to them by the Russian Federation.

I realize you, the reader can find this information on a website with more credibility. But it never hurts for you to read the facts again and again. Russia invaded Europe this year.


At the end of the maximum 180 days in ordered departure status, I had accumulated a wardrobe of new clothes (we were only allowed to take a small backpack with us during evacuation), a much, much higher blood pressure, five overly expensive tooth fillings and orders to my onward assignment with the West Bank/Gaza portfolio. Then I was back in a series of pressurized tubes that, precisely seven motion pictures later, transported me to the Holy Land, my new home for three or four or five years.

I had been living out of a new suitcase of new clothes since the evacuation, and I was going to continue living out of the same suitcase for another two months at least until my shipments arrived – but I was finally home in my own place that wasn’t a hotel or rented room.

Helping out at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July event at his seaside house north of Tel Aviv, guests enjoyed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream courtesy of some Vermont hippies and some Israeli cows. McDonald’s hamburgers, liberated of cheese, were served on silver platters. President Shimon Peres eloquently recalled meeting President John F. Kennedy.

The next week, I was washing dishes after dinner on a Tuesday evening when I heard the low eeire whine of an air raid siren that I had only heard in World War II movies. I made my way to my bomb shelter, otherwise known as a reinforced concrete walk-in closet-with-anti-poison-gas-system in which I am unable to install shelves. Fifteen seconds later, I heard a boom, the first of dozens of rockets fired from Hamas that would be intercepted above the skies of Tel Aviv this Summer.

The next morning after a swim, I entered my apartment to receive a text message that instructed me not to go to work – seven months had come full circle. I’d gone from one frying pan into another. The next six weeks were mostly a blurr of long hours at work responding to supply Gaza with humanitarian needs, running to bomb shelters and somewhere in between the two; making lame attempts to get to know my new city.

Juba, Kyiv and Tel Aviv are all lie within the same time zone, but are worlds apart. Before this year started, few scholars could have likely drawn any similarities between the three places. And now they all have the same dreadful thing in common; when South Sudanese, Ukrainian, Israeli or Palestinian school children read about this year – for 2014 the milestone of progress has been replaced by a tombstone. Instead of a lean forward to the future for these countries, it was a wild eyed duck to the ground in fear; a slide backward into the oblivion of chaos. And in all three places, the disaster was completely and categorically - manmade.

2,150 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed in the conflict this summer http://www.unrwa.org/gaza-emergency. War left tens of thousands of Gazans homeless, and hundreds of thousands on both sides angrier with the other side than they had ever been.

One moment from my first weeks in Tel Aviv will stick with me forever. I was walking to the office one morning, when the air raid sirens went off. I didn’t know what to do. It was the first week of the conflict and I had always had a bomb shelter within a few steps at home or at work. A kind stranger, immediately noticing either my bewilderment or my foreignness, took me by the elbow and led me into a day care center. Inside the school, there was a tiny shelter built into a coat closet. I bowed my head and navigated my six foot body between the racks of clothes, backpacks and shoes among two teachers, a half dozen kindergarteners and a stray parent. The teachers began leading songs in Hebrew with the kids. Then, a boom echoed in the room as a rocket from Gaza was intercepted by the Iron Dome, just above our heads. The singing continued.

15 December 2013

Zanzibar and the Definition of Exotic

The folks at Merriam Webster list several widely disparate definitions of the word exotic. For example, one definition is “introduced from a foreign country: not native to the place where found.” Does that mean that camera wielding Thais, or fanny-packed Americans are “exotic people” in a place like Rome? The second definition is more straightforward: “Foreign, Alien.” I suppose this definition is the most utilitarian, as it is all-encompassing. Star Wars is full of exotic creatures. Balut and durian are exotic foods. A third definition involves dancing, although I doubt it is foreign or alien to the patrons, proprietors or dancers of the trade.

My favorite definition of Webster’s though, is by far the best: “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual…” For a little kid entranced by books about sea journey, trade-by-sail and far-flung adventure, the very word “Zanzibar” has always meant all of those things.

Last month, on a much-needed week-long breather from my Juba pressure-cooker that I work and live in, I joined the millions of travelers who have come before me in being dazzled, awed and enchanted by this impossibly fertile land that lies just off the coast of Tanzania.

Zanzibar is actually made up of hundreds of small islands, but the main island where I landed, Unguja, is about 50 mile long. The turquoise waters stretched out below the plane as we descended off the short hop from Dar-es-Salaam.

My luggage decided to spend an extra evening in Addis to visit with friends, so I continued alone with my carry-on along the horrible road north to my hotel; located at the tip of the main island. A torrential rain storm arrived with me and caused me, my elderly driver and his elderly vehicle considerable discomfort as we limped through small rivers and ponds that had emerged in the so-called road. At least there were no pesky wind shield wipers to slow down the aerodynamics of the ancient Peugeot.

I won’t bore you with my tales of my week long vacation. I devoured excellent seafood and a few books, ran into a friend and her visitor (who went to one of the high schools I attended, believe it or not), took in some mind-shattering sunsets and partied with some 20-something dive instructors. Plodding barefoot on the white sugar beach in the starlight, I found some of the most textbook-perfect seashells I’d ever seen.

One thing I will bore you with is the two days of diving I did off the coast. The first day, quite groggy, we boat dived just a mile or too out from Nungwi, a fishing village recently infested-invested by resorts, on the Hunga Reefs. I sucked up way too much air too quickly and half-hypoxic, followed a sea turtle. *sigh* I always see sea turtles when I’m diving! (If I didn’t trust so in science, I’d begin to suspect their endangered-ness). The second day was far more interesting. This time, the boat traveled close to an hour to the spectacular Menemba Reef. If there was a postcard that I wanted to send to friends living in Duluth, Minnesota in February to make them jealous: I’d take a picture of this scene of a small tropical island surrounded by the loveliest aquamarine color that exists in our universe. The first dive was on an excellent wall of color. But the last dive of this trip was among the finest ever: a strong current pushed us along an underwater river as we encountered first a forest of coral, that tapered out onto a sandy desert dotted with oases of coral islands among a watery Sahara. Along the way: an awakening seahorse, a gigantic spider lobster hiding under a rock (like Shelob in the Lord of the Rings) and psychedelic sea slugs.

Each oasis was its own unique, self-contained ecosystem: with its own school of fish and distinct type of coral. Thanks to Dominik from Germany for the excellent underwater pics.

On my last day in Zanzibar, I spent the day walking around Stone Town (the capital of Zanzibar) with a local guide who described the tumultuous history of this long-bustling port town of the resource wealthy islands. Optimally located on the sea route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it was occupied variably through the centuries by Persians, Portuguese, Arabs, and the British. Zanzibar played host not only to the spice trade, but also to the slave trade, and the inter-imperialist wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

(This is only a sample of the excellent pics I snapped on this journey: Zanzibar sure awes in color, but jaw-dropping gorgeous in black and white)

My guide also showed me the slave markets on the grounds of the Anglican Church, including the terrible basement cells in which the slaves were chained: an ineffaceable monument to the wickedness and cruelty of man.

The whole municipality of the Old Quarter of Stone Town should be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. What a superb mixture of mosques and churches; Indian, British and Arab architecture, bustle and calm! Hiring a guide to see this town was a brilliant move on my part: Stone Town is a tangle of tight alleyways, hidden passages and intimate side streets. Attractions: the market, the busy port and Freddie Mercury’s boyhood home.

Eagerly, I took copious pictures of doors, just like I did when I was in Morocco back in April. My guide explained to me why Indians installed decorative spikes on their doors: to keep elephants from scratching their bums on them and breaking them.

I was sad that I only spent the day in Stone Town. When I return to Zanzibar, I’d like to wander the alleyways, browse the woodworking shops and enjoy a morning cup of coffee on a rooftop watching the sun rise above this sublimely exotic cityscape.

Zanzibar, strikingly, excitingly and mysteriously different, and so much more, for all of time.

17 November 2013

Counting Elephants

If, in a year from now, someone asks me: "Is your life sufficiently unpredictable, full of surprise and adventure?" All I need to do is to think back to a few weeks ago when I spent the day flying 200 feet over South Sudan in a Cessna. "Yes," I'd say, smiling to myself, "You never know when you'll be counting elephants."

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of USAID's implementing partners here, has spent the past six years protecting the fragile remains of this country's biological crown jewels. Supported by several donors, WCS's efforts are dedicated to, among other things, collecting valuable data via aerial surveys, collaring and GPS tracking of wildlife as well as developing a professional, effective and fully-resourced cadre of park rangers to prevent poaching. Data collected during aerial surveys for example, is used to not only maintain a critical database of wildlife movements in this vast country, but is also used to recommend and establish boundaries for new protected areas and corridors for migrations.

So one morning, WCS invites my colleague and I out to occupy two vacant seats on the plane, assist in wildlife counting, and well, and hold a five hour meeting in a facility equipped with a reinforced undercarriage, expanded fuel tanks, spectacular views, natural air conditioning but no restroom. It was in fact, an invite to an aerial presentation of the last frontier of Africa, narrated by an experienced biologist who is also a commercial pilot. Well, let's just say it would have been imprudent to decline the invitation.

We took off heading due north, across the villages which dot the northern outskirts of the capital. We started our journey low, at around 400 feet, but would soon descend to 200 feet, which is prime wildlife viewing altitude. After a mere ten minutes flying from Juba, there were barely any signs of civilization below. Out in the bush, we flew over a tiny village. A mother and her child looked up and waved. I waved back.

It was only about 45 minutes before we saw our first herd of elephants. The plane banked hard left and we circled around the pack of 150 or so elephants. When we first saw them from afar, the pack was spread out in a wide formation across the tall grass. But as we circled, the sounds of the engines frightened them and they receded into tight clusters, like mighty wagons in the Old West, with larger adults in the outer circle and the smaller and younger elephants in the middle. While most of the pack was running from the airplane, with my binoculars I caught the glimpse of some larger ones standing their ground, perhaps even charging towards the strange iron bird that was interrupting their breakfast. I felt happy to be safely up in an airplane, and not down there on their carpet.

We left them after a few minutes to return to their grazing.

The plane then bound northeast towards the White Nile, which snaked out in wide, gorgeous curves. Below, we saw small fishing settlements situated on stilts on the side of the river. They might as well have been on a watered moon orbiting the earth. Out here, there was nothing of man, except them to speak of.

"Down there! Hippo!" the biologist called out. I didn't see anything at first, but as we circled, I could finally make out two pinkish-grey humps in the water. How he saw them as we passed them by at 100 miles an hour is beyond me. With my specs, I could just discern their snorting with annoyance as they submerged. Another quiet Friday morning ruined by the curiosity of science.

We then happened on a bachelor party; a scattering of grazing male elephants. They largely ignored the plane, and listless in the mid morning sun, appear as if they had been up all night reeking havoc on the grasslands.

The third pack of elephants we encountered was much larger than the first, and also paid us less attention; retaining their relaxed, wide formations.

Returning southwards, we crossed Jonglei State and we shown some interesting points of interest of the human species. Not the least of which was the massive skeleton of a canal building machine that had been rendered inoperable by RPGs of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army back in the early 80's. I could hardly imagine a better monument.

From the air it was also easy to see some unfortunate effects of man's interaction with the natural world, some of it instigated by nature and some of it inflicted by man. We happened on flooded villages [see cattle collecting on the dry portions of the remaining ground] and dissected pieces landscape evidenced by seismic oil exploration.

We flew across a vast, uninhabited fluorescent green landscape for some time before the plane started banking widely. Our biologist-pilot, endowed by our creator with some supernatural sense of wildlife detection was excited. Below us, the ground was moving. We had happened on the Great Migration of 25,000 white-eared kob accompanied by a smattering of tiang.

For twenty minutes we swooped over a plain completely covered from horizon to horizon with the stampede of these small and fast creatures. It was not unlike a Fourth of July in a world turned upside down. Instead of fireworks above across a night sky, the daylight explosions of color were born of the wildlife cascading below us in every direction. As we would descend, our new orange-brown friends would flee in all directions, setting off secondary explosions of white birds and black birds across a green canvas. [Yes, friends, I know these pictures do not do you, or the experience of seeing you, any justice whatsoever.]

As we returned to Juba (AKA "diamonds scattered across a green carpet"), the smile was indelible on my face. I had witnessed a tremendous wonder of the natural world largely ignored or unknown by the world of man.

There are no rhino left in South Sudan, and zebra haven't been seen for years. Giraffe are rare. Here in the last frontier of Africa, nothing must be spared to ensure that we never stop counting elephants.

14 October 2013

A Brief Unburdening in Ethiopia

Breaking out northeast from South Sudan on an Ethiopian Airlines turboprop, there was much to dispense with on my first vacation. First there was the load of an occupational hazard: that annual build-up of tension and stress that accompanies the end of the fiscal year. Second, the turbulence and political preoccupations brought forth by the shutdown of my country's government. There was also the caged existence of life on a compound and work in a fortress; an abrasion on the spirit imperceivable, but the weight of which, when the wheels of the plane retract, can be felt lifting with every meter of ascent above the floodplain floor.

Ethiopia requires no branding campaign. In the family of nations, its coat of arms is famous. Injera is leavened from Wellington to Washington DC. The Lion of Judah roars from rooftops in Rome, Kingston and Rio De Janeiro. I've always been fascinated by this great nation in east Africa that had formed sophisticated systems of written language, arithmetic and social order before the Coliseum was erected, when my ancestors were still painting their faces blue and spending their days stalking deer.

I'd never been to a place before where the people had rethought the very concept of time. In Ethiopia, 6am is midnight. This is a little confusing at first, but yet it makes perfect sense: the day begins at sunrise, and ends when the sun rises anew. Everyone may rejoice at the dawn and birth of another day on planet Earth in Ethiopia, but back home in America, all but the late-night revelers and the third-shifters snore their way through the shredding of the calendar.

After a brief evening in Addis, I awoke early to hop another turboprop - I was heading north to the highlands to escape the thick marsh air of the Nile lands.

This time of year, Ethiopia is an Ireland of Africa. A hundred shades of green reflect from the fields and glens of Gondar shimmering a magic canvas of light and color into the cabin during the mid morning flight. In the course of the half hour hop from Gondar to Lalibela, the landscape turns quickly from green flat to green hilly, then to army colored cliffs and sepia painted plateaus.

I picked Lalibela to spend my long weekend because I wanted mountain air and dramatic scenery specifically. I heard there were churches carved out of solid rock there, but it wasn't really the destination I was seeking, rather than the journey. In Lalibela, I was pleasantly surprised to find both quite appealing.

The first thing I noticed on the drive to town from the airport was the waving. Everyone waved. Children leading goats waved smiling from the side of the road. A woman paused in her laundry and waved. Three men talking by a store stopped talking to wave as my van rolled by. I waved back, enjoying the feeling of being in a place where people have not tired of tourism, and tourists are an attraction. Only in some of the most remote places in the world: Liberia, Guatemala, Georgia do strangers still wave at strange passers by - finding familiarity solely in our own humanity.

The churches of Lalibela are a sight to behold. Petra is famous because it is carved out of rock. Yet at Petra, the edifice is only carved at the front of a cliff face. In Lalibela, the churches are carved in total: all four sides and the interior in a four story free standing church, out of solid rock. The effect on the traveler is similar to any of the storied feats of human engineering: the Mayan ruins at Tikal, the Golden Temple at Kyoto, the Parthenon in Athens; except that the churches here are not as well known, so the surprise in impression is that much more enjoyable.

The churches are grouped in two distinctive clusters; every church is vastly different in style, substance and character. They are connected with a network of water run off channels, tunnels and semi-covered pathways. My local guide and I accompanied several pilgrims in a tunnel that was completely dark that connected two of the churches. My guide explained that the tunnel was symbolic of man's ascent to heaven; darkness in the turbulent material world is followed by the brilliant light of emerging from the tunnel into the second church.

In the holiest church, a 20 foot tall pillar in the center of the room was covered by a cloth stretched tightly around it from floor to ceiling. My guide explained that on this pillar was inscribed the past, present and future, and no man has set eyes on the pillar since it was created. In every church, in the Ethiopian tradition, there is cordoned off by large drapes a "holy of the holies" section where only the priests are allowed. The desire to peek was insatiable, so much the better that we moved on in earnest.

I was lucky to be in Lalibela during the Saturday market. What color and products were brought forth from the fertile countryside! Goats, plastic sandals, onions, pots and pans, belts, piglets, used shoes, furniture and tomatoes. I shared a coffee with my guide at a local brewshop: the proprietress lovingly roasted coffee beans on a metal plate over an open fire. After they were roasted to a deep raw umber I watched her place the pan of bean by the entrance door to cool, leaving the irresistible scent pliable to seize unwitting wanderers like the Sirens of Capreae. What aromatic advertising genius!

That evening, after a fantastic Ethiopian dinner, I stopped in at a famous local bar, Torpido, to imbibe in some delicious honey wine, or "Tej", and witness local dancing. Two young people danced smiling with impossible energy. Dancing was done fully with the shoulders, intersected with bouts of terrific pulsating moves that only can be described by this Yankee as Ethiopian breakdancing.

The national costume is very interesting. The traditional Ethiopian garment is the white garment covering the head and body worn by men and women. Plastic sandals are standard issue (my guide informed me that no, they aren't manufactured in China, but made by an Ethiopian company). However, green shorts and matching green collared short sleeved shirts covered with pleated tassels and white buttons are the traditional countryside dress of local men and boys. Most people carry a walking stick, shepherd's crook or cane. Also, I counted at least twelve persons wearing Obama t-shirts.

On the final day of my excursion, my tour guide dropped me off along a dusty road with three locals, two Italians and two donkeys. Unburdened by our luggage thanks to the donkeys, the company proceeded down the road out into the countryside. We passed through quiet farms and sleepy villages, where women smiled and children waved and beckoned hello. We forded a rushing stream where cattle napped lazily on a rocky island, paying us only minor interest. Up into the foothills we climbed, then up a small mountain and over a plateau until we reached a wide, generous valley beaming copper and olive. Out on a point was a group of huts where we would spend the night. Below, the village of Genet Mariam, of its namesake monolithic church.

After a hearty lunch of lentils and injera, we hiked out, beyond an ancient fig tree, over to greet the church and its medieval captions. Upon exit, we ran into an impromptu bible class and the church's sentry, who donned a smile and an AK-47.

That evening I shared beers with my new friends in the hut as we listened to Miles Davis on my I-Phone. Wanderers from the village happened in and made themselves mud wall flowers draped in white.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh ground Ethiopian coffee, scrambled eggs with local honey and flatbread, I bid adieu to the Italians and hiked down the hill to the road, where a car picked me up and deposited me at the airport. The Italians would be continuing on across an ambitious week long excursion up several mountain summits.

By the evening I was sweating in a hotel steamroom in Addis, and by the next, I was back in Juba, feet up, devouring a biography of Benjamin Franklin while sipping Kenyan black tea with lemon - unburdened like the donkey up on a ridge in the Ethiopian highlands, minus a modest, but rather heavy American backpack.