21 November 2017

Shiny shoes

Ethiopia has, by far, the largest number of shoe shiners per-capita of any country I’ve ever been. Kyrgyzstan was quite obsessed with shoe-shininess, but it was something you did yourself at home before leaving each day. Not so in Ethiopia. There are shoe shiners on nearly every corner and busy streets are lined with dozens of stands offering to wash your sneakers, polish your dress shoes, and replace your laces. Even as you sit crouched low in a coffee stall, boys will wander in with a box of equipment and a block on which to rest your foot to offer their services while you chat and sip your coffee.

It is, sadly, a losing battle. During Ethiopia’s wet season, a lack of paved roads means that even the most beautifully shined dress shoe or scrubbed sneaker quickly disappears behind a thick coat of mud. Perhaps this just means more business for the shiners. After all, at somewhere around $0.25 to $0.50 for a comprehensive cleaning and shine, it is a common luxury rather than something reserved for the wealthy.

Enter my young friend in Axum, Central Tigray. I have been there twice this year managing a ten-year longitudinal study of Save the Children’s programming in the area. This adolescent is one of the more gifted business-minded individual’s I’ve come across in my life. He owns a modest two-seat stall nearby one the tourist hotels in the town (Axum is the alleged home of the Ark of the Covenant and the certain home of some spectacular obelisks from the Axumite empire).

The first time I visited him back in May, this teenager does the most thorough cleaning and shining of my shoes I’ve ever had. The process takes 40 minutes, and my shoes look like new when he is finished. When I ask how much I owe him, he states that (translated through my Ethiopian colleague) he will not accept payment for my first visit and rather hopes that I am satisfied and will return in the future. I am impressed. Later, I drop off another pair of shoes and this time insist on paying an above-average price, his plan undoubtedly paying off. But I remain impressed when he spots me with my suitcase, heading to the airport and insists that I sit down for a complimentary touch up before I depart the region. That’s what I call good customer service.

Coming back again to Axum a few weeks ago, I know I must visit him again. And for me, the utility that I get, both in satisfaction and some really well-shined shoes, certainly makes it a fantastic deal for the both of us. After receiving my shoes back, I inquire as to the price, and he ingeniously says, in English, “As you will, as you wish.” Hook, line, and sinker.

When I discussed the episode with Saori later, she pointed out the child labor dimension of the whole story. No doubt she is right—it is unfortunate to see many of the boys in the shoe-shining trade that should be in school. Am I guilty of contributing to the problem through contributing to the “demand” side? Would I, in the long term, be better serving their interests by refusing these services? I’m not sure. On one hand, the opportunity to education is a fundamental right. On the other hand, they are likely contributing to their family’s well-being through what I would not consider an exploitive form of labor. I was somewhat comforted to learn that Ethiopia offers primary and secondary school evening courses for children who are employed during the day, I’m still not sure the ethics of the situation. But I am sure of one thing—get my friend in Axum a small business loan and he will someday run the entire industry in the region.

Not-so-triumphant return (again)

I started this blog in 2008 as I embarked on the biggest journey of my life—joining Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan. Though I stopped updating it mid-service, I've been told several times over nearly a decade that people, both strangers and friends, actually enjoyed reading it. I'm glad that I was able to, in some small way, work towards Peace Corps’ Goal 3 of “Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

Fortunately for me, my life has been substantially less idle than my blog. The highlights of the past eight years would be something like:

-worked for Catholic Relief Services in the emergency response to the 2010 Osh riots
-moved to Japan to join Saori and lived with her mother grandparents for four years
-worked in the HQ of a chain of English designing curricula and digital learning tools
-got married
-came back to the US in 2015 for grad school
-graduated and moved to DC last year to take a research job with Save the Children


I’ve recently been feeling the urge to write again. I travel a lot for my current job and am often gripped by the peculiarities of life that inspired me to share my experiences here in the first place. I don’t plan to post here regularly, but rather share the occasional anecdote from my current life and from memories from past years. I hope you’ll indulge me.

27 December 2009

Waiting... Uzbek style

12:48 24 December 2009

I am currently sitting in Tashkent International Airport of Uzbekistan waiting for my connecting flight to Tokyo Japan in the International Transit Lounge. Yeah, I’m pretty excited about that. So far my trip has gone pretty well other than an unusually long and obnoxious marshrutka ride into Bishkek yesterday. But I stayed at a friends place in the city last night and we ate shashlik (grilled marinated meat on a stick like a shish kabob) and I got duck, which was delicious. I’ve just been so excited about my trip, and getting a badly needed respite from Kyrgyzstan, and of course most excitedly, getting to see Saori!!! I barely slept last night, we went to bed super early because I was tired from the marshrutka ride and I woke up thinking, “Alright! I slept a lot now I am ready to get up and go to Japan!” only to find out that it was actually 2345 and I had a good 6 hours of on again off again sleep to get through before I departed. The departure from Bishkek was good and smooth- it is only an hour long flight from Bishkek to Tashkent but I have a twelve hour layover here which is just passing by with the most cruel slowness… Oh well, as soon as I get on the plane to Japan, I am going to hopefully be able to sleep (Peace Corps Medical gave me Melofonin specifically for that purpose) and then I will be reunited with Saori when I wake up!!! Yay!!! I can’t wait. Seriously. I can’t wait.

oh nos!

19:30 21 December 2009

Uh-oh… I just got sick! And so soon to me leaving!!! I woke up with a sore throat today and it has degenerated into a full hacking productive cough- ewww, I will spare you the rest of the details but I am upset because I am leaving so soon and I don’t want to be sick in transit or at Saori’s place in Tokyo… Yikes. Luckily Peace Corps Medical got me started on some azithromycin, which, if it is bacterial, should ensure that I’m on the mend by the time I get there and, perhaps even more importantly, make it so I definitely won’t be contagious. But I say to my illness- Hey, buddy, bad timing!

In other news today I worked at the rayon-level English Olympiads for which I designed the tests for and I will just say that it was an… interesting experience more on that later I suppose. It was fun working with Holo though, a fellow volunteer that works not too far from me in Jet-Oguz and who I don’t get to see often, and it is always rewarding to see the tests that you designed and wrote used for relatively high-level purposes…

Heat-tenticilious

11:20 16 December 2009

I’m home on my lunch break and I have been mulling over in my head an idea for my blog for some time about the cold here and the snow and the ice. My mom recently asked me if there was any black-ice here. But let’s start with some basics- while I don’t live in a terribly northern area, I live at a high altitude (over 6,000 feet) and it is pretty darn cold here- winter lows can be in the low single digits to teens below zero sometimes where I live and even colder (-40 and worse) in places like Naryn. Overall though, it’s a pretty cold country. And with November being unusually cool (as you remember we got a decent amount of snow and the temperature didn’t peak it’s head about freezing for over a week) a lot of people are afraid of the winter this year.

Now some of you that read this blog are in pretty cold places your self- Ithaca comes to mind, and no doubt are there much colder places during winter in the US than even the coldest locale of Kyrgyzstan. However, there are two main differences that I think bear consideration when assessing the impact of winter. The first is snow removal and the second is heat.

I saw the first snow plow in Kyrgyzstan I had ever seen a few days ago. I was stunned. I didn’t know they existed here. Why? Because the roads are pretty much covered with snow from November to March with only the main road (do to it’s traffic) ever really seeing periods of true clarity during the winter. This is because Kyrgyzstan is a very poor country- it can hardly afford to feed and clothe itself so I understand why snow-removal is not a top priority of the country’s government. So what happens when the collected snow isn’t removed and instead is just trampled by cars, horses, sheep, people, etc. Well, it turns to ice. And this is where the problems start. Kids love this, Kyrgyz children have a remarkable sense of balance and it is truly common sight to see kids take a daring running start and slide a good 20 feet. Impressive. Unfortunately, being the klutz I am, I can not nearly as successfully cope with such slippery areas. More often than not, I just fall (which is when I get to experience one of that aspects of Kyrgyz reaction that does actually upset me a little bit- instead of helping me up or asking if I am okay or even ignoring me, if someone falls, the almost universal immediate response is “Should have been more careful” Thanks… That would have been more useful BEFORE I fell…) Regardless, I fall a fair amount here and have learned a few tricks (walking on the toes of your feet, walking super slow, titling your head forward) to reduce the likelihood of my falling while increasing the ridiculousness of how I look.

But I have strayed from my original topic- snow removal is treacherous for pedestrians and also causes a huge amount of automotive accidents each year… I personally have seen vehicles slip off the road, hit each other, and winter taxis and marshrutkas are always at least a bit of a gamble. But in my opinion, winter this year here isn’t made so hard by ice on the roads- it is made by a much more pertinent problem of not having heat.

I live in an apartment that was built during the Soviet Union to house workers at a factory that made construction supplies. During the Soviet Union- this was a really great place- it had a toilet, refrigerator, running hot and cold water, really the works for a village in which the vast majority of people have outdoor toilets and have to fetch their water from a public well or spigot. But nowadays, while they are still good (I still have a working fridge and toilet and the water is on for at least a few hours each day when it isn’t off for three weeks at a time) the central heating system that was providing heat and hot water 20 years ago no longer works. This means that my apartment, other than the Peace Corps issued electric heater, has no heat. This is bad- most mornings I wake up and my kitchen is about 40 degrees (Fahrenheit). Brr… But I have been coping with this problem by using a combination of my Peace Corps heater and what I have dubbed my “Heat Tent 2.0” (to distinguish it from the useful but less successful Heat Tent 1.0). This is a really fabulous invention. It combines the heat of a heater with the heat-trapping ability of a tent to make a livable area in my apartment. I sleep in it and do most of my work in it, I just cook and eat outside of it. Essentially all I did was place some old sheets and drapes over a line I strung over my bed, but boy does it work! It gets right nice and toasty in there! So if you’ve called or chatted with me recently, you probably know how much I like my heat tent, but it really has improved my quality of life in this country and in my apartment.

Anyhow, I am tired of talking about heat and cold and ice and snow for know, but it is usually one of my favorite topics to talk about so feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to reply…

Heat Tent 2.0 4eva!

Dien Blogadariena - Thanks Giving!

21:40 30 November 2009

Mmm… Thanksgiving dinner was DELICIOUS!!! We all gathered at fellow volunteer Lynnie’s house and had a pot-luck style dinner complete with stuffing, cranberries, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, veggies, and in place of turkey, four delicious rotisserie chickens. We all went the first round and then chilled out for a while and then had a much more disgusting and more awesome second round that primarily consisted of seven volunteers standing around in mostly silence munching on chicken and scooping up the rest of the fixings… Yum… I have no manners.

After the dinner itself we were planning on going home but in our path was a new club- CCCP (USSR) and with its thumping beats, Soviet decorum, enticing location, and spotlight, it drew us in where we decided to work off that Thanksgiving meal by dancing it all away. I have been to a few clubs in Kyrgyzstan (and honestly, I don’t really know if it is really part of being a volunteer) but this was far and away the best I have been too. Most clubs in Kyrgyzstan are dimly lit renovated sports halls with bad music from somebody’s mp3 player and maybe a disco-ball. But at CCCP, the music was great (still crapping Russian pop for the most part- but I have to admit that it is growing on me) and it was actually spun really well, in comparison to the awkward pauses and silences that plague some of the nightclubs here. The lighting was good, there was a fog machine, and the whole place was made to play off of the old Soviet Union- all the workers wore the Pinoneer’s uniform (the Soviet’s mandatory participation version of the Boy/Girl Scouts). So pretty much, it was a great time dancing and getting rid of the lethargy that was followed by the gluttony of earlier and made what was a good night a great one.

Russian Wedding Pictures


















Wow, free and fast internet is awesome. That's why I'm putting up so many pictures...