Entering Ethiopia

The ten hour car ride plunged us into a vivid collage of images the expectant traveler dreams he will see as he sits in the comforts of his first world home. Darkness veiled the dark continent an hour into our ride until a neon pink sunrise escaped behind an escarpment of tall thin trees and emerging Ethiopians. For the next few hours our weariness was postponed as we witnessed the experience of being in Africa for the first time. Amy and I looked at each other with side-long smiles, sharing the knowledge that we had finally made it to Ethiopia.


I feel that this trip waour way of testing the practice of remaining calm in the face of overwhelming challenge. It is incredibly easy to breath through a difficult situation when that situation takes place in your own country, city, and can be discussed in your own language. But six hours into our ride south, fatigue was taking its toll. (We had been traveling two days straight by air and then thrown into a vehicle for a 800+ kilometer trip.)

Perhaps because of the obvious lack of rest, I was not as conscious as I should have been of my deteriorating mental state. My external world was challenging the calmness inside me yet I was no longer aware that my beliefs were also in danger. The road that we took was less traveled by car than it was by foot and hoof. Thousands of cattle and goats combed the roads guided by their human counterparts. Every ten meters, we passed twenty Ethiopians. Our vehicle weaved with ease around this living obstacle course, though from this ferenji’s perspective it appeared far from simple. By day three I was impressed that we had only hit one cow.

Still driving south, we stopped to fix a flat tire in the middle of nowwhere. The reality, there is no middle of nowhere in Ethiopia. For as far as the eye can see there is at least one person in the distance, and behind that bush or bend there are 300 others. Alex and our driver got out to assess the situation. We had in fact stopped next to a woman standing on the side of the road, resting in transit from wherever she happened to be going. Beyond her was a child, beyond the child another child, and onward for 100 meters. It was the same in the opposite direction. Within five minutes there were twenty people within arms reach and children could be seen running top speed in our direction. The people spoke to each other but not to us nor we to them. In fact, it seemed odd that neither Alex nor our driver said as much as a hello to them. Being ignorant to this I extended smiles to the children (who outnumbered the adults 10-1) who in turn eyed me with curiosity and suspicion.

The tire being fixed, we got back into the truck and were encircled on all sides, peering into the car as one might do to a limo. Finally, it came. “Money?” They smiled at each other and then immediately mimicked, “Money, Money!”

There is a ferenji madness in Ethiopia. Massive tour operators have for years trucked out foreigners to the south to see tribes that are living on the brink of cultural extinction. Arriving, tourists take pictures of these painted people like they are animals on two legs with plates in their lips and scarred tattoos on their body. All the villages and people in-between that day long journey are nothing more than visual stimulation for the tourist on wheels. The locals reap nothing of the tourist’s 10 second stay and this brief cultural interaction is about all they experience from the white man. But every now and then a truck will break down along the way and a tourist will take pity on a shoeless child carrying a back-load of vegetables and give them some money. This child, not knowing what he did to deserve such good fortune, goes out and tells his friends that the ferenji gave him money for no good reason, who in turn tell everyone they possibly know. Because of this, ferenji madness grips the population with relentless intensity.

I would be willing to imagine that 9 out of 10 children that we passed on our 10 hour car ride ran after us – no matter how fast we were going.

(We arguably passed 50,000 children, and I would say that’s a low estimate.)

This leads us to this week’s topical video about education, on which I will elaborate more as the week evolves.

For those headed to Konso in southern Ethiopia, I would recommend staying at Strawberry Fields, a comfortable tourist eco-lodge which also teaches perma-culture to anyone interested for a fair price.

Challenges to Perception Invoke Evolution

To get to the center you have to go to the edge.

The backpacker inside of me wants to see it all, the  philanthropist wants to help all who I encounter along the way, the prophet wants to share the learned truths, and the cynic wonders if any of it matters in the first place. Thus the quandary I often find myself in.

To clear up a point, yes I think it does matter, I think it matters a lot. But in the midst of personal evolution, I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to go back to my old way of thinking. After 9 weeks in Ethiopia and Somaliland, I realize that the reason my system still feels so out of whack is because a lot of my previous beliefs about life, the universe, and everything have radically changed.

Perception is an interesting thing. No two are ever alike yet collectively, we share beliefs and ideas about things we still aren’t able to tangibly define. I think we are alive during a very interesting moment in history. As our world becomes smaller and smaller and as information and perspectives become easier to identify and discern, we are truly beginning to bridge the gap between the individual and the collective. We are seeing that some of these long held beliefs no longer hold as much weight as they once did. We are discovering that there are new ways to experience reality, a reality that many of us never new existed in the first place. We are beginning to shed some of our fears. Who knows, maybe we’re growing up.

Our experiences shape our perceptions and our perceptions shape who we are and who we become. The more we challenge our perception of reality the more opportunity we have to experience a new reality. Now let me say straight away, that you don’t have to go to Ethiopia to challenge your perceptions (though you could – and in turn come home seriously fucking challenged). My point is, reality awaits to be challenged in every corner of the world, including our own.

Every time I return home from a trip I am always surprised how easily I am able to slip back into the comfort of “being home.” No longer am I challenged to pay attention to body language, because everyone speaks English. The shower is hot when I want it to be, turning on a light switch won’t electrocute me, there are parks to relax in, there is one car per lane, no cows per road, and thus less need to be actively involved in the present to get through my day. In the world of convenience of which we live, we must find time to interact with our reality in a way that is challenging, in a way that helps us to evolve.

Returning home, I am inspired by people my age who are taking action on a local level. They have challenged their beliefs, at home or abroad, and are returning to the community with lessons learned and a curriculum in place. I challenge all of us to seek out these individuals, to become these individuals. Let us implement changing ideas for a changing world. Challenging your own reality in a positive way has repercussions that ripple across the community, the country, the planet.

Conscious Evolution

How do you expand your consciousness?

This is one of many questions that we ask the people we film on our travels across the globe. Almost two years ago, a friend of mine came to me in Seattle with a proposal: “Let’s buy a camera, go to another country, and film everything that happens to us along the way.” Six months later we were traveling through Colombia with a camera and a list of questions. Among them were, “What do you think is the greatest problem in the world right now?” and “How can average people make the world a better place?”

The world is changing, fast. Soon, the problems that we collectively face will become a tangible reality for us all, if they haven’t become so already – climate change, over-population, teetering economies, take your pick. Across the globe, people are questioning the methods that our leaders are taking to lead us. In a world of over 6 billion people, how can one person possibly make a difference?

The title of our documentary is The MapMakers:Project Colombia. Before going to South America, everyone I knew warned me about the infamous country I was about to visit. I was told that I was crazy to go there. I would probably get kidnapped, robbed, or killed. None of these people however, had ever been to Colombia themselves. Their information was usually relayed from whatever television news source that they regularly watched. Consequently, their beliefs about the rest of the world were also very similar.

Fear, unfortunately, has become a staple in the American media diet.

Consider that. If we are constantly bombarded with problems with no real call to action, other than fear, how are we supposed to meet the challenges that we now face?

The answer may be surprising.

After asking hundreds of people what the average person can do to make the world a better place, we got an overwhelmingly similar response: Change your attitude.

“If I change my attitude about the world, about the world’s problems, and about myself, and this change in attitude is positive, then I am on my way to improving the world,” said one person.

“Many people are always looking to blame something exterior. It’s the government’s fault, it’s the media’s fault. But if we change our attitude, and look inside ourselves, then suddenly these problems are not so big anymore, as long as we take the next step to change our own behaviors,” said another person.

Hence the name of the documentary, The MapMakers. Each of us has the power and opportunity to look at life any way we choose to – we each travel through life using the map we ourselves have created. We can believe that the world is full of scary people, scary situations, and hopeless scenarios. Some of these beliefs may be true, and some of them may not be true. Life is of course, a very subjective experience.

Now with that in mind, we can choose to look at life the opposite way – that the world is full kind and helpful people, that not everyone is out to get us, and that these big problems that we face are not as overwhelming as we have been led to believe. My point is this: we are at a critical moment in history and our collective beliefs will shape the outcome of our world. If we continue to believe that our problems are beyond fixing then we have already failed the challenge to fix them.

Luckily, we can wield our positive perceptions of the world and share them with those around us. We can begin to map out a new reality, one that is not based on fear but on cooperation and open-mindedness.

Creating your own map of reality is not always easy. But fortunately, you don’t have to go to Colombia to do it. All it takes is a bit of courage and curiosity. It takes courage to question your beliefs about the world, and it is curiosity about the world that creates the canvas on which we will draw our maps.

In March we will travel to Ethiopia to film our next documentary. Literally halfway across the world, Ethiopia couldn’t be further from our concept of “normal”. My own perception of that country comes from what I see and hear on the news – poverty, AIDS, war. But like all else, there are two sides to every coin.

I invite you to visit our website www.themapmakers.org for more information about mapmaking and how we can begin to solve the problems that we all face. I do not believe that these problems are so great that they cannon be solved. But it will take more than just one perception of a positive future…

The definition of travel

It has been some time since we´ve seen used a guidebook and it has been some time since we have seen a fellow backpacker.

Now two months traveling in Colombia and just two months remaining, my travel companion and I have much country to explore. With a little intuition and a bit of luck, we have found ourselves in some of the most beautiful and unique places the country has to offer. But surprisingly, we are often the only gringos in sight. Adam, my companion, commented that maybe we should call the documentary “Where is Everyone?”

At the moment we are in a small beautiful beach town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Our hotel is $10 a night for the both of us, a great big plate of big fat fish costs about $2.50 and a beer on a nearly deserted beach costs 70 cents.

Where is everyone indeed. Perhaps the answer lies in the Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet is perhaps the best selling guidebook in the world. It´s usually filled with reliable information, good advice, and country hot spots. But its popularity is a double-sided coin. Small remote villages quickly lose that far away feeling when they suddenly become filled with foreigners and ATMs. Guidebooks become so trusted that travelers often forget to guide themselves. I cannot count the times I´ve seen tourists with their noses buried in their guidebooks instead of looking at the beautiful place they´ve been guided to. But it would be wrong to say that Colombia is suffering from a lack of travelers.

The tourist industry in Colombia increases by about 20% each year. So where are they? Open your guidebook and there they are. The two places we have been that are mentioned in Lonely Planet were filled with backpackers. Follow the tourist trail and you will always find tourists. But stray just a few miles off the loop and suddenly no one speaks English, prices are local, and real traveling begins. So what is real traveling? A question we ask people we interview is “What´s the difference between a tourist and a traveler?” One man responded, “Tourists take pictures of the locals and locals take pictures of the travelers.” Maybe real traveling is just going somewhere uncomfortable and finding comfort. If this is the definition of traveling then anyone can travel, it only takes an open mind and the desire to experience something new. In Colombia, something new is about to happen. We can feel it, because everywhere we go we see mirages of five star hotels and tour buses. Being in Colombia right now feels as if we just walked into Cambodia 15 years ago when they opened their borders to tourism. Word is traveling fast and everything in Colombia is about to change.

Three weeks ago we were in a pueblo called Guatape just two hours outside of Medellin, the third largest city in the country. In Medellin, we met a woman on the metro who invited us to stay at her lakeside 4th story apartment in Guatape, by ourselves, for a week. Guatape is one of several villages surrounded by hundreds of lakes and green-shrouded mountains. It is beautiful. Naturally, we were the only foreigners there. But not for long. In 2010, the South American summer games will be held in Medellin. That means that all the water sports will be held in Guatape. A local informed us that a field of cows will soon be replaced with two resort hotels and that sand will be brought in from Cartagena to create artificial beaches. If safety in Colombia continues to improve, Colombia just might well become the Costa Rica of South America.

But for now, just off the tourist trail (you understand if I don´t reveal our exact location) life is quiet and life is good. Be it tourist or traveler, finding yourself in someplace new changes many things, if not just your perception. “Can traveling make the world a better place?” we ask people. This traveler believes that it can. We are all ambassadors of our place of origin, like it or not. When we meet someone from another country, we often reference that country based on our experience with the people from that country. If it´s a good experience we might say, “You know, I met a Colombian/American the other day. They´re not so bad after all.

So may we represent ourselves well, tourist or traveler.

check out our documentary — The MapMakers: Project Colombia at http://www.themapmakers.org