Sunday, January 31, 2010

Selfish Giving and the Implications for Altruism

Perhaps you've seen Disney's commercials on TV offering a day to one of its parks in return for a day of volunteering. Sounds good. I even sent the link to my friend on Facebook. But it wasn't until my cousin sent me an article from a sociology blog and struck up a discussion that I actually started thinking about the implications of this "selfish giving" on altruism and development.

In the article, the author basically critiques development approaches that tie consumerist behavior to giving - cause-marketing strategies like the Red Campaign and Shopping For A Cure. She talks about mandated volunteering (an oxymoron if there ever was one, she notes) like racking up community service hours to satisfy graduation requirements or being sentenced in court to community service. Her own research tells her these people aren't any more likely to see this as a way to enrich their lives. Her argument is essentially: "That such (social positive) activities are increasingly tied to commodity exchanges cheapens and demeans not only those activities but also leaves our society much less enriched since those behaviors are not seen as life-long pursuits."

For me this raises two questions: Does altruism exist and, more interestingly, does it even matter for development? I think the former question is a bit easier. I would be lying to you if I said I wanted to get into development purely for altruistic motives. Simplistically put, I want to be successful, I have an interest and concern for poverty, so that's why I am getting into it. I am expecting things in return - a living, fulfillment in life, etc. But I think this interest and concern for poverty probably is some form of altruism (Self-promotion is another interest of mine...). I also think altruism is much easier to identify on a smaller scale - "random acts of kindness" are one example. In China I had one lady help me with my bags off the train, book a bus ticket, and show me around town, just because she wanted to help.

But do we even need altruism for development? Can't we just use incentives, like salaries, Disney tickets, or even just the experience? I'm a just-get-the-job-done kind of utilitarian, so my gut instinct was no, we don't need altruism. After all, some of the ex-McKinsey and investment bankers who volunteer with TechnoServe come for a resume builder, to make contacts for a job opportunity, or for a new experience. Not everyone who comes to TechnoServe wants to save the poor from the clutches of poverty, but they are very talented people and in the end create big impacts. We need these people in the fight. Thus, perhaps incentivization of volunteering is the way to go - we don't need altruism.

But then I thought about the situation more. I tend to think of the poverty problem as a bunch of smaller, inter-related problems. As such, right now I think that perhaps in the short term, altruism might be less important. TechnoServe can bring in consultants, regardless of their feelings about poverty, and help get the poultry industry launched, for example. Smaller battles can probably be won without altruism. But the bigger war probably requires altruism. When you're trying to develop an entire country, you need committed people to stick it out to the end.

When you add business to the mix, I think the picture becomes clearer. I've seen a ridiculous amount of money-making opportunities while I've been abroad, from bars to hostels to farming. But anything I formed would be a social business. I want to create change in people, not just make money. Similarly, my friend Gustav here in Maputo is starting a social venture capital fund - every project he invests in must have a social impact. I think this is the kind of thinking - evidence of altruism - that is necessary in the long term.

So should you volunteer and go to Disney? I'm torn. Perhaps this is one of the short-term opportunities that I'm referring to. But if, like she says, the message we're sending people about giving and expecting to receive has negative repercussions down the line, maybe it's not the best way to go. Or is it too idealistic or esoteric to think about possible long-term repercussions on the mentality of a rich population when you have over 30,000 children dying every day from preventable disease and starvation? Should we just try to get these problems under control now, mentality be damned? Or is the development picture bigger than that and should we really be concerned about the possible dearth or death of altruism?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The West or China: Who Should Save Africa?

I hate using the word “save” because it smacks of patronization, but I think it encapsulates the intense outside assistance that the continent needs to get its economic engines going. So who should be their Clark Kent?

The US and other developed nations have been in Africa for decades, trying various development efforts but making little headway. On the other hand, you have the Chinese, the new kids on the block. I’d read a bit about the Chinese in Africa before coming, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized their pervasiveness. Even in Mozambique, not one of China’s most favored nations (Sudan, Angola, and Congo), it’s not hard to run into them. They’ve helped construct the Mozambiquean Parliament building, the Foreign Ministry, and are currently building the new national soccer stadium, just to name a few. Not only are the companies Chinese, but so are the cheap Chinese workers they bring. In the mornings I run past these workers waiting for their shifts to start, and just outside our TechnoServe building a Chinese construction project is going up. Rumors go around that the Chinese workers are convicted criminals, but it’s more likely that they are just a part of China’s need to feed its growth and keep unemployment down.

I’ve asked various people about the West vs. China question. Development agencies like USAID and the World Bank come into African nations and tag stipulations of “democracy” and “transparency” with almost any inflow of money. Some people argue that it’s almost colonialism in itself, and others have pointed out that we are treating them like children. The Chinese, they say, don’t try to impose their ideology – they are just here to do business, like adults.

In some respects I agree with them. True to Chinese form, when they say something will get done, it gets done. My friend Gerson of CLUSA said he had talked to a Chinese contractor, who told him something to the extent of, “I would love to employ Mozambiqueans, but my guys already know the system and work twice as hard as the locals. It’s just not cost-effective.” I also recently spoke with a former USAID employee, who I won’t name here. Commenting on USAID strategy, she said, “Nothing is ever done for the right reason. You don’t plant bananas in a particular place because they grow well there. There’s always an ulterior motive.” USAID is in the same building as TechnoServe, and there’s a large banner out front showing the Mozambiquean and US flags, with the words “25 Years of Progress & Partnership.” I know development is a difficult thing, but it seems odd to me that USAID would brag about being in a country for a quarter of century, when the nation still remains one of the 10 poorest on the planet. For an entertaining slight of development, read "Bring on the Chinese".

They have a point, and the evidence provides a compelling argument, so I’m not completely decided. However, I’m leaning in the opposite direction. It seems to me that China is here for more than business – in some cases they are using manipulation for exploitation (Admittedly, the US’s record on this front is too spotless). For evidence check their funding of the war in Darfur. Rather than training African workers up and promoting knowledge transfer, China seems only interested in the bottom line. I talked recently with a couple of experienced TechnoServe leaders. They explained that the Chinese investments do in fact come with stipulations – tax breaks or free land, the latter of which they are getting in the Beira Corridor in the middle of the country.

One of the two TNS leaders, a Mozambiquean who actually previously worked for the government, said he saw no problem with treating the African governments like children – they are acting like children. He said that politicians often spend more time in the air than in their offices. The ceiling on government salaries has caused their travel per diem to skyrocket. The Director of the National Agricultural Survey, he said, had just a year or two ago requested over 400 days of travel in a year! Either that’s a blatant attempt at corruption or this guy should be on Heroes. In The Bottom Billion, a book I just finished, Paul Collier continues this thought by arguing that we’ve already went through the experiment of giving African countries a huge, no-strings-attached injection of budget support (i.e. aid). It’s called oil. He cites Nigeria, which has received around $280 billion in oil revenue over the past 30 years. Most of it has ended up in the government’s budget. How are the Joe Everydays of Nigeria doing? Exactly. Collier goes through each country that has had a similar large injection and finds no difference in growth rates between countries with and without large inflows.

For a big China fan like myself, this talk may come as a surprise to some people. The verdict is still out in my mind, so over the next few months I’m sure I’ll get to talk more about it and perhaps share with you if I find anything interesting.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chronicle of a Mozambiquean Bus Trip, Day 2 of 2

So, to continue the story...

Day 2, 9:40am: The Indian-esque men get off the bus and into a minivan. It turns out they were Pakistani. The bus comes alive with chatter and laughter. Someone says to me, “Two days, they eat nothing.” And he was right – the entire trip I hadn’t seen any of them eat anything, say anything, or get off the bus even briefly. Bizarre.

Day 2, 1:20pm: Bread and bananas. This time though, I go crazy with some cashews. Lunch is served.

Day 2, 2:30pm-ish: I notice for the first time how the dirt is caked on me thicker than a notebook. I can rub my skin anywhere – face, hands, arms – and watch as the dirt comes off in rings. It becomes a game after a while. Again, you run out of things to do.

Day 2, 4:23pm: Stopped for the umpteenth time. The stops are getting ridiculous. This time, however, it is the police. Our crew gets off the bus and there's a lot of talking. Somehow we are back on the road in 10 minutes.

Day 2, 4:40pm: That didn’t last long. We end up at the district police station. This is absurd. The driver and his crew are taken inside. Apparently, the driver didn’t have any documents to drive a bus! I assume the situation was amended with a bribe of some sort because we’re back on the road in a half hour. Like an eager dog, I’m the first one on the bus.

Day 2, 5:15pm: The stout Mozambiquean passenger who has been inhaling cheap gin like it’s air is starting to get a bit out of hand. He’s hitting on women, grabbing babies, making loud and obnoxious comments about the driver, and harassing me to buy him a beer once we get to Maputo.

Day 2, 6:36pm: The police stop us again. They start questioning the crew. I start (continue?) questioning my decision to take this bus. People on both sides have their cell phones out. Meanwhile, a drunkard on the bus is being helped off the bus by the other aforementioned stout drunkard – they both make their way to the bathroom. I’m watching this spectacle just as another passenger is yanked off the bus and quarantined by several militarypersonnel. They have him surrounded and are questioning him behind a military truck. Then, just as I'm watching this, another officer hops onboard and comes straight to me, asking for my passport. He looks at the cover and says “America”, before barely taking a look inside and handing it back to me. “Have a nice day” he says to me.

As soon as he gets off the passengers in the back shout “Vamos!” with a sense of urgency that seems to say they just want to get out of there. As we start going one of the women on board says “America!” and is echoed by another man who says, “Obama, Mozambique. No problem!” It’s at this point that I become known as “Obama” to all the passengers. Everyone on board seems to be having a pretty good time with me, the token foreigner who has no idea what’s going – the deer in the headlights so to speak. The passenger who was pulled off is left behind.

Day 2, 7:05pm: Stopped by the police again. An officer gets on and says rousingly, “Bon dia!” The passengers all reply back with excitement. I’m thinking, “Shut up and just drive.” Now I learn why all the police stops: they’re looking for illegal immigrants. The guy who was pulled off was Somali and the Pakistanis were immigrants leaving the bus for small vehicle to take back roads. So we’re transporting illegal immigrants.

Day 2, 8:00pm-ish: We make a big stop in the suburbs of Maputo, and because of all the luggage being unloaded, we sit and sit. Eventually I grab my bag and take local transport.

At 9:20 (6 hours late), I finally ended up in my cozy apartment. My roommate is out with friends, but since I look and feel I’ve been run over by a semi I decide not to join. At final count, souvenirs from the trip include: two phone numbers, stench and filth that would make my younger brother look like a princess, the early stages of a beard, a short-term aversion to bananas, 4 hours of sleep, a digestive system that feels like it’s had a roto-tiller taken to it, a raging migraine, and what seems like a minor sprained ankle (I have no idea how). And I wanted to see the countryside…dumb.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chronicle of a Mozambiquean Bus Trip, Day 1ish of 2

This past Friday I returned from a 2-day bus ride spanning pretty much the entire country of Mozambique north to south. Not only was it a 2-day bus ride and not only was it in a 3rd world country, but it was the cheap bus in a 3rd world country. When I told people here I was taking the bus, especially the TechnoServe people (who were willing to pay for a flight), I received responses just short of “You are going to die.” Here’s a few of my notes from the trip:

Day 1, 1:30am: I arrive at the “bus station”, which is essentially a bus parked at someone’s house. By this time the bus is almost completely full and someone’s in my seat. After franticly searching for bus management in fear that the bus might take off with me seated on the floor, I find out that they sold two seat #37s. Convenient. I get moved around and end up in an aisle seat rather than my ticketed window seat. The bus, mind you, looks like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and sitting in my seat instantly blasts me back to the 1940s. I’m concerned we may not make it around the block.

Day 1, 2:12am: Our bus makes the move. But out of nowhere comes about 9 Indian-looking men. It’s odd: all 9 of them board at the last minute, all wearing thick clothes like heavy woolens and scarves wrapping their faces to go with their expressionless faces. It seems as though they paid informally because they take their seats in the aisle, on the floor and on little stools. The one seated to my right and the overweight Mozambiquean taking up 1/3 of my seat to my left create a space for me tighter than Dolly Parton’s face. Taking something out of my pocket requires that I stand up in my seat, and sitting down becomes a human game of Tetris, where I have to contort my body into exactly the right position to fit between them. The layer of sweat coating all of us makes this considerably easier.

Day 1, 2:30am-ish: The driver starts blasting Portuguese reggae. Are you kidding? It’s 2 in the freakin’ morning! Meanwhile, two babies are already crying and the smell of chicken, French fries, and sweat wafts through the air. In a duel of shoulders, I jostle with the Indian for space, and pray by the grace of God that I might be able to fall asleep.

Day 1, 7:23am: We pull up on the side of the road and are bombarded by hawkers. I buy bananas and bread, two of the few safe, non-messy eatables. I estimate that the night before I “slept” for about 1 hour. My shirt is already soaked through with sweat, and on we go.

Day 1, 1:18pm: Bananas and bread for lunch – watch for a recurring theme.

Day 1, 5:37pm: We are stopped at the first of probably 10 or so police checkpoints. It’s at this point that I notice how bad the BO is without any car breeze. I’m sure I’m a contributor to this.

Day 1, 10:40-11:45pm: The bus has “mechanical problems”. I hear words like “screws loose”, but no one seems to really know, including the guys trying to fix it. Passengers chat and sleep on the road while it’s being fixed, while I delete old contacts in my cell phone. You run out of things to do and people to talk to…

Day 2, 1:23am: We pull over and the lights come on. I suddenly get a nauseous feeling. An announcement is made. The ticket man says the driver is tired and wants to sleep. I’m thinking, “What are we paying for?” Realizing I probably won’t be able to sleep and haven’t eaten since the banquet I had for lunch, I start walking down the highway into the dark with about 10 other passengers. I felt like I was searching tirelessly in the desert for water, just with the lights out. We finally find a little foodstand and I tell them that yes, I will absolutely have the chicken and rice. That sounds delightful.

I’m quite confident that by this time my stomach has consumed itself. The chicken was cold and the rice was as gritty as my skin at this point, but there could’ve been rocks in there and I would’ve eaten it. I ate with some passengers over conversations about Arnold Swarzennegar (an all-time favorite abroad) and then headed back to the bus. Finding that we had an hour to kill before 4am, I laid down on the road and stared up into the stars. It really is everything it’s cracked up to be. Out there in the bush with no lights, the African sky is a vivid canopy of constellations extending all the way down to the horizon. I fall asleep briefly and am woken up only by the headlights of oncoming traffic.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti and the Fleeting Nature of Consciousness

The destruction and suffering in Haiti is incredible. The images are quite simply gut-wrenching. That much is obvious. But the more mind-boggling prospect to me is the thought of such an earthquake hitting a country that already has nothing. Now that I've seen the (lack of) infrastructure and personnel present in countries like Mozambique, I don't know what would happen if a cyclone or earthquake hit. Heck, some places look like they've already been hit.

In Haiti, and other developing nations during times of crisis, the aid is sorely needed. This is not a time for business approaches. This is not a time for sustainability or scalability. Expedient food, shelter, clean water, and medical assistance are simply what's required. In this respect I've been impressed by the American and international response. Perhaps because of a new American president, learning from past mistakes, or a desire to right the wrongs of Katrina, aid seems to be pouring into Haiti. This is a good start and it will save lives.

My bigger concern is what's in store for Haiti for the future. In my inbox over the past two days I've received 11 emails from people telling me how I can help. This is great: people are coming up with all kinds of ways to raise money. But it's also a time for glitz, glamor and fun. I've been invited to backyard barbecues, dinners at chic restaurants, and movie nights. iTunes and Wyclef Jean are also gunning for my dollar. I love the creativity, but my concern is what happens when when the peer pressure is gone. What happens when it's not "cool" to text in your donation to the Red Cross? What happens when the 3-second attention span of Americans like me is diverted by something like, say for example, Michael Jackson dying? (And I'm not downplaying this, so don't throw a fit) When it gets down to the actually rebuilding a nation, who will be left?

This is where I think business will be important. Certainly, support will need to come from all angles - foreign nations and aid agencies need to apply pressure for an efficient and transparent government, for example. But when there is a profit profit incentive, you can be sure businesses will stick around. Rwanda is an impressive example. Its government has worked hard to welcome businesses, and while all the credit isn't due to foreign business investments, a lot of the recent 8-10% economic growth is. The country's president has been welcoming to companies like Costco and Starbucks, both buying Rwandan coffee. The laws are accommodating to domestic business too - you can open a business in three weeks, quicker even than in Japan.

I like this thinking by the government. I believe it can happen in Haiti, and I hope the pressure and attention can continue from the US and abroad. My friend Richard, who I met in Bangladesh, visited Haiti a couple years back. He said the poverty he saw there was the worst he's ever seen. He said the population just wanted anything they could get for themselves, almost like survival of the fittest. Things seemed desperate and heartless - the people needed hope. If we stick around, maybe they will have hope.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where that T-Shirt You Donated Actually Ended Up

Remember those clothes you donated to Goodwill or maybe threw in the donation bin around Christmas time? Where exactly did they go? After only a few days in Mozambique, I began to realize that although everyone was speaking Portuguese, Mozambiqueans all seemed vaguely familiar. I guess it's easy to get that impression when they're all wearing the clothes you and your friends sported just a couple years back. Recently I was with a group of about 15 Mozambiqueans, and asked how many were wearing 2nd hand clothes. Everyone raised their hands. Here's a few shirts I noticed just in the past couple days:

"Got Your Tickets to the Gun Show?"
"Don't Mess with Texas"
"Nuva Ring" (worn by a man)
"Y Basketball" (YMCA)
Huge American flag with bald eagle in the foreground
Super Bowl XXXIX: Jacksonville, FL (I was pumped to see this one)

(On the back of the shirt of the kid in the picture it was all Sharpie'd up with notes like "Have a great summer!")

I'm still waiting on the Vanderbilt Cross Country shirt to turn up. Anyway, intrigued, I started asking some questions. As someone interested in development, I've thought a lot about whether clothes donations are in the end good or bad for the country. Do they help clothe people or are they really killing the textile industry and in effect the economy and potential jobs?

What struck me the most was how big of a business it is. It's not how I envisioned a bunch of people just getting hand-out shirts and shoes from the back of a truck in an isolated village. Instead, the owners of the for-profit resellers ( there are 8 in Nampula alone!) are often foreigners, driving Land Rovers like Bilal and Akram, a couple of Lebanese I interviewed. When your clothes go to the NGO donation boxes, a large portion of the articles (the good quality ones) are sold by the NGOs in the US to fund their other activities. Bilal and Akram speculated that only 20% of the clothes actually make it abroad. They then go through suppliers in the US to the port of Maputo, and eventually to large cities like Nampula.

Once they arrive here, they are packaged into 45 kg "mystery bundles". People like Mussa Xavier, a seller I met, dig through the bundles. They aren't allowed to open them, but amazingly they can get a feel for what's inside (see pic 2 for how just alittle bit of the clothes peeks through the wrapping). I talked to a group of buyers - the sought after items are athletic wear, or anything with a synthetic feel to it, and speficially size 40 or above. Laughing about the specialized nature of these resellers, Akram said, "They can know just by feeling. It's surprising." Mussa said he and most buyers prefer to sell shoes though, because with the high profit margin, 3 or 4 good pairs would cover the cost of the whole bundle. I asked what my shoes (retail $100) would fetch - only about $20, or half the price of a "good" pair. I guess that's what happens after 6 months of trekking in 4 different countries.

Mussa has a tiki-hut shop and has recently expanded his business to another nearby city. Withf our employees now under him, he said that 2nd hand clothes have greatly changed his life. “These days business has been increasing more than ever…Last year I bought my motorbike, and this year I was able to buy furniture and improve my home. I had money to buy a refrigerator, but I used it to buy a cell phone for my wife.” He says he will find a way to buy the refrigerator for his family.

It's easy to see the effects of the industry on people like Mussa. There are countless people in the market doing exactly as he. And it's not just the resellers - even the uneducated people loading the bundles into trucks were making decent money. In short, there's a lot of jobs created.

The more difficult thing to gauge is what could have been. Bilal and Akram explain that importation of 2nd-hand clothes is only allowed in countries where there is an absence of a garment industry. But could it be preventing the birth of an industry? My gut tells me that given the domestic political roadblocks and fierce competition from established textile countries like Bangladesh and China, it would be highly unlikely without a big external push. It wouldn't just happen on its own. At the same time, cheap clothes make the consumer happy, and after talking with many people I learned that remaining tailors make a good living repairing damaged 2nd-hand items. Still, something bothers me about promoting a practice, an industry if you want to call it, that really has no value added component. No one is producing anything. Just reselling. For a scathing critique of clothes donations, see this Washington Times article.

With my limited reading on the subject, I can't come to a conclusive conclusion. What I do think is that what is happening now is better than just handing out free t-shirts to every Dick and Jane that wants one - that's good for disaster relief but not for creating an "industry" like this. In a week or so I'll be chatting with a member of Parliament, so I'll be sure to get his thoughts.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Born into Religion, Ignorant of the Path?

I don’t usually open myself up like this. Especially about things I don’t know that much about, like the topic of this post. But I do know myself, and the questions that have been raised from my past experiences.

After visiting four countries focused on four major religions – Islam in Bangladesh, Buddhism in China, Hinduism in India, and now Christianity in Mozambique – I’ve seen how people and cultures have been transformed by and, specifically in the cases of India and Bangladesh, governed by the ethos of the dominant religion. The pervasiveness of religion has engulfed me. Abroad, people take their faith more seriously than Americans take the NFL, American Idol, and credit cards combined. I experienced an 8-hour Hindu dowry proceeding in India, which was only after extensive preparation, including careful purchasing of gifts, blessings, and song. If that was the dowry, Shiva only knows how long the wedding was. In Bangladesh I wanted to kill myself every time the public morning prayer blared right outside my window at 5am, but I know all the faithful Muslims were up performing their duties. In Mozambique I’ve been continuously impressed by all the Christians AND Muslims who can recite The Bible better than me.

I put out all these anecdotes to suggest that the intensity by which these cultures zealously follow their religions is praiseworthy, though the origin elicits questions. (And as a side note, I certainly don’t consider duration of ceremonies or numbers of prayers as the definition of religious intensity) If you’re reading this post right now, chances are you are BOTH American and Christian. That’s where I’m going with this. If someone asked me why I am Christian, the answer I wish I could give is that Christ died for my sins and that I am trying to follow the example set by him here on earth. The answer that probably gets more to the root is that, quite simply, I grew up in the US. My parents, family, and friends were and still mostly are Christian; I was baptized before I was cognizant of what was going on; and at an age when Power Rangers was still too violent for me, I was ushered into Vacation Bible School (which was awesome by the way, at least until I got a bit older and it was kind of awkward).

All this happened before I really even knew other religions even existed. My first substantial perception of Islam was that their holy book was instructing people to ram planes into buildings. Only later did I learn that the root of religion's name means “peace”. But by then, Christianity was cemented in my head as “the right way.”

But which religion is “the right way”? If you’re talking to the screen, “Come on Rob, Jesus is the only way”, I’d bet there are a billion Chinese who’d argue otherwise. And even if there is one right way – we don’t have to agree on which one – does that mean that the geographic lottery of birth has more to say about the post-mortem outcome of our soul than the intensity by which we praise Jesus, Buddha, Allah, or whoever? Of course, you can pick up a copy of any of the religious texts to compare, but how many people actually do this? I’d suggest the social and cultural forces are just too strong to compel the majority of people. My translator here in Mozambique, Mussa, is currently reading The Bible cover-to-cover to compare to the Qur'an, the book of his previous religion. This is laudable, but he has had to take great lengths to hide this and lie to his parents to accomplish this. His mother thinks he’s reading it for the English practice, so she bought him The Qur'an with English translation. Families, and cultures, don’t take these things lightly (see Bangladesh-India, the Gaza strip, and essentially the entire Middle East).

For me, my religion is something I’m now uncertain about. I’ve posed the above dilemma to many people, including pastors, but have never really received an answer that satisfied me. Though I wouldn’t be so crass to suggest that all religions are the same, I do think there is a lot in common that I’m trying to incorporate into my life. While by denomination I am a Methodist, I think to call myself a Christian would be a disservice to the faith. So right now, I’m simply trying to live my life in a good way and have the greatest positive impact on those around me, whether that is socially, culturally, or mentally. In high school, I was ardently religious, but in college the piles of homework left until the last minute on Sunday became an easy excuse out of church. While my faith has faded, I consider myself a much better person today than ever before. Today, I’m less judgmental, more open-minded, and seek social goals rather than monetary goals. And, (I think) I’m just a more fun person to be around…one of my friends is going to throw that one back in my face.

I don’t put out this post to attack Christianity, religion, or your beliefs, but rather to explain where I am in my faith journey and to invite anyone to suggest sources of information or inspiration.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The 6 Month Mark

Today marks 6 months since I took that debauchery-filled first class trip on Etihad Air after spending a night on the cold, tiled floor of JFK airport with my bags tethered to me. The time has flown by. I could go on about everything I’ve learned relating to poverty, but you’ve already read most of that and it would probably bore the majority of you anyway. Instead, I’ll list a few random comments/things I’ve learned about myself and other countries in general. But first, before I do that, I want to thank everyone who has supported me up to this point: those who have donated money, people who have given me great contacts, locals who have provided me with amazing guidance while in my target country, and all my friends and family who keep me in the loop enough so that I don’t come back completely socially awkward. I also want to stress how much I appreciate the comments and the lively debates they create. I enjoy the learning. Oh, and I suppose I owe that Michael Keegan guy some thanks as well. I can’t do this without you all. Anyway, on to my thoughts:

Bashing your own country helps. Forget complimenting my country, bash your own! There’s few things that bring me closer to a person than when he or she bashes his own country. Like when my friend Zhang complimented my laptop and explained how Chinese computers were complete garbage – I wanted to go have a beer with him. I think it shows a sense of open mindedness, a willingness to accept one’s (country’s) faults. Americans could take a hint here. So, following this example, I’m more apt to propound the US’s faults, for example our terrible health care system or deterioration of the family unit, than to brag about our successes. When I tell people I’m from America, they often say (insert Borat accent) “#1 country!” I tell them, “Sure, something like that. But really it’s a boring place.” (which it is on an everyday level…you know things will probably go as planned…in India, for example, you might get one thing done during an entire day because of some freak marriage parade in the street or stranger taking you to his house in the slums…not that those happened to me…)

You’re more likely to regret the things you didn’t do than the things you did. Like any good college senior I put this adage to good use last year. However, I think as post-grads a lot of us (myself included) tend to forget this. We take fewer chances. Things are less interesting. I’ve fallen back to this default on occasion during my trip, but I keep pushing myself to take chances. And it doesn’t have to be big things either. Just yesterday I broke the ice with a Kenyan couple who I’d seen for days at my hotel but never talked to. We ended up chatting for a good while, and later that night they invited me dinner, where we enjoyed pasta while nit picking all the things we find ridiculous about Mozambique. It was great fun.

The availability of toilet paper = level of development of a country. One easy way to judge the standard of living in a country is the check a stall in the nearest public bathroom. The more often you find TP, the more developed a country is. If even the company or NGO office doesn’t have any two-ply, then by God do not drink the water. Chances are you are in a really backwards place. There should be an index to measure this – I bet it would roughly in line with GDP per capita. You could even break it down to quality of TP, like number of ply, softness, etc.

Staying with the bathroom realm, finding a public toilet is like finding an oasis in the desert. It’s a beacon of hope. I say hope because even if you find it, you may have to attempt to sneak in (for example, at Pizza Hut), it may be closed down or locked, or you might be asked to pay when you don’t have any money on you. But at the end of the day, as long as it’s not #2, pretty much anywhere will do.

Does sarcasm exist abroad? I still find myself asking this question. I don’t know. My foreign language skills aren’t strong enough in any country to pick up on it if it does in fact exist, but I don’t think it does in Asia. Asian humor, from what I can tell, is over-the-top-not-funny humor. I think Africa might have a fighting chance. People in Mozambique seem to have a drier sense of comedy. Anyone have an idea?

I miss my family and friends more than I thought I would, and I feel closer for it. To be sure, I’ll hate my brothers within a week’s time of being home, but right now my ears are itching to hear one of their tasteful “that’s what she said” jokes after every sentence at the dinner table (or maybe that was my friend Matt).

I’m more excited about my travels now than I was even at the beginning. This is a bold statement, because anyone who talked to me before my trip would tell you that I would have tried to get a pilot’s license if it would’ve put me overseas any quicker. As geared as I was then, my excitement has only escalated. Assuming some freak accident doesn’t drain my bank account, not only do I not plan on coming home in under a year of travel, it could be a good bit longer. I think I’ll be riding this out as long as I can.

And, today also marks the day before my 23rd birthday, so if you’re still feeling thirsty after New Year’s, tip one back for me!