Skip to content

A Brief Trip to Rwanda (with the required reference to coffee)

February 11, 2012

In early January, 2012, I took a brief trip to Rwanda with the Global Knowledge Initiative to work with a team at the National University of Rwanda on collaborative research to build off the success of the Rwandan specialty coffee industry. Here are a few photos from the trip:

Mother and child in Maraba, Rwanda

Coffee Cherry in Butare, Rwanda

Fields outside of Butare, Rwanda

Fields outside of Butare, Rwanda

Farmers outside of Butare, Rwanda

Fog outside of Butare

Advertisements

GKI at Black Rock City (and some photos)

November 6, 2011

Recently, Sara Farley, the COO of the organization I’ve been fortunate to work with for the last year, The Global Knowledge Initiative, was asked to give a TEDx talk at Black Rock City (ie. Burning Man). The video finally came out online, and I just wanted to pass it along, as well as encourage you to check out The Global Knowledge Initiative.

While we’re on the subject of Rwanda: thought I’d pass along some photos of my trip. Can’t wait to get an opportunity to go back.

Sorting green coffee at Maraba

Old woman with fresh coffee

Wooden Bike, Maraba Rwanda

Kids running outside of Maraba, Rwanda

A Few Companies Helping Make Coffee Work for Rwanda (Happy Coffee Day)

September 30, 2011

Coffee cupping in Kigali

You say you want to help poor people, and your eye seems to be twitching. You might want to grab a coffee.

A couple months ago I was in Rwanda for work, work that fortunately for me has to do with Rwandan coffee – one of my favorite varietals. While in Rwanda, and since I’ve returned, I’ve been interested in the work of coffee companies in Rwanda to improve the quality of coffee cherries, which has the dual effects of giving me a really good cup of Rwanda Bourbon and increasing the take-home pay of Rwandan smallholder farmers. According to the US Agency for International Development, which funds the coffee project SPREAD in Rwanda, pay to farmers increased from 60-80 Rwandan Francs in 2004 to 160-180 francs in 2008 due to increased demand and improvements in quality. Here are a few of the companies that, as far as I can tell, are doing a pretty good job helping farmers improve the quality of the coffee they grow, and increase the price they’re paid to grow it:

Green Mountain Coffee: Green Mountain collaborated with USAID coffee projects, and has trained Rwandan cuppers, who ensure quality control before export. They also work with farming cooperatives in capacity building and helped broker the relationship between Kirkland Coffee and Rwandan cooperatives. In the last couple years, they’ve also partnered with the Clinton Foundation and Transfair USA to produce a Fair Trade blend. Here’s an overview of their work in Rwanda.

Intelligentsia: Intelligentsia is, first off, one of my favorite coffee companies in terms of quality and great varietals. They have also worked in Rwanda in partnership with USAID, on similar projects (sometimes the same projects) to those Green Mountain has done. Intelligentsia seems to be very hands-on organization, and their leadership does cool things like this and this. Also, Intelligentsia has direct trade relationships with coffee cooperatives in Rwanda.

Kirkland: Surprisingly, Costco’s Kirkland Coffee imports a serious volume of Rwandan coffee for its Rwanda French Roast, which is roasted by Green Mountain.  It’s also one of the two biggest American importers of Rwandan coffee (with Starbucks), according to an excellent Fast Company article.

Counter Culture Coffee: One interesting program that Counter Culture and other coffee companies have started in conjunction with USAID teaches farmers to roast their own coffee. The idea is that farmers’ specialty coffee is exported to developed countries, where consumers pay high prices for the coffee, but that Rwandan farmers rarely if ever taste their own product. Counter Culture and others provide simple kits that farmers can use to roast and brew their own coffee.

Thanksgiving Coffee: Thanksgiving has also been involved with USAID projects, does direct trade with Rwandan cooperatives, and also works with Bikes to Rwanda to help get bicycles to farmers, which helps them get their fresh beans to market or washing stations quicker.

 A couple more:

Union Hand Roasted: http://www.unionroasted.com/about/farms/abahuzamugambi-ba-kawa.html

Starbucks: Credit where credit is due: Starbucks has started a farmer training center and donated substantially to Rwandan coffee cooperatives. It also featured Rwandan coffee for its Black Apron varietal in 2008: http://news.starbucks.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=236

Stumptown Coffee Roasters: http://info.stumptowncoffee.com/coffee/rwanda-kanzu/

Roger’s Family Coffee: http://www.rogersfamilyco.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=149&Itemid=204

Finally, here are two coffee companies that work exclusively, or in large part, in Rwanda. Both seem to be doing good work. You can order both companies’ coffee online. Check em out:

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee: http://www.landofathousandhills.com/home/

Equal World Coffee: http://equalworldcoffee.com/

Martin Luther King and Rick Perry

August 15, 2011

I want to focus as little on Rick Perry as possible here, but do want to, a few days before dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, throw out a couple quotes that, although not entirely related (I think when Rick Perry says “Washington DC” he doesn’t actually mean “Washington DC”), do provide a jarring difference.

Perry: Said in announcing his candidacy that he would “work everyday to try and make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

MLK, in 1965, said that congress had been “derelict in their duties and sacred responsibility to make justice and freedom a reality for all citizens in the District of Columbia.”

Admittedly, they were talking about different things, and different DCs. But for those of us lucky enough to live in the Capital, being insulted at the beginning of a campaign by a(nother) Texas governor with a penchant for redneck violence does make it odd and refreshing to see a quote from an American hero not saying that Washington is broken (most hackneyed phrase in punditry), but that Washington has been let down.

If you want to see the unveiling of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, come to West Potomac Park at 11 AM on Sunday, August 28. Click here for a list off all the dedication week events. And if you don’t like taxation without representation, click here.

 

(Full disclosure: the full MLK quote was published in an advertisement in Mid City DC, a community paper, for DCvote.org. I have posted two references for the quote, each of which have essentially half of the quote. I am curious, and will try to look up, why this quote exists in an advertisement, and seems to have been quoted by both Mayor Vincent Grey and the city of Washington DC, but when it is Google searched in its entirety, well, you get this blog. I may take the blog post down if I can’t find a better reference. I would hate for this to become a cautionary tale about not trusting everything you read.)

Back Alleys, Bathrooms, and Back seats of taxis

August 9, 2011

Man carrying eggs, Bujumbura

Informal Sector 1:

When I have thought about the informal sector, generally I have been in a university classroom, listening to a professor hold forth or students argue about measurement or what the sector’s size means to an economy. The informal sector (depending on if you include agriculturalists or not) can make up to eighty percent or so of the money, or employment depending on how you look at it, of an economy. This is particularly true of Africa. In 2000, 78% of African non-agricultural employment was estimated to take place in the informal economy. Because God likes irony, the countries that probably have the biggest informal sectors sometimes do not have the capacity to measure it and, if they are both poor and not often in the news, the odds that the international community will put much money into research is also low. This seems to be the case for Burundi; I can’t seem to find a confident number on the size of the informal sector.

While in the country, those, people I interviewed did tell me on a number of occasions that there “really isn’t much of a private sector – everybody who works for the government.” This not, in a strict sense, true. Enterprise is happening everywhere, spilling out of the streets and into the alleys and out of the backs of vans. Every young kid with a carton of eggs or middle aged woman riding a bicycle with a crate of Amstels hanging off the back is engaging in market activity, and this activity is decidedly private sector. But there is no quality control – those eggs on the kid’s head may be spoiled, and the tires that the woman bought for her bicycle were not road tested – if they blow out, she will spill her beer all over the street. And, although consumers and producers may prefer it, the fact that the government cannot collect revenue from informal transactions exacerbates problems of infrastructure, health, education – any provision of government services. That is the informal sector.

When a government’s rules are onerous, when businesses are taxed usuriously, when permits are difficult to come by, it makes the formal sector look unattractive (or this is what I’ve read). I can only say that the rules and systems regulating cross country currency trade between Tanzania and Burundi seem, to the uninitiated, to be a provocation to break the law (and to pull your hair out, incidentally).

All this nonsense is just to say that when I got to Burundi I was carrying over 2.5 million Tanzanian Shillings. Why I was carrying around $1600 in Tanzanian currency isn’t all that interesting (an important point for understanding any of this story: there are no ATMs in Burundi, and businesses do not take credit cards), but I was, and thought that it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to change Shillings into Burundian Francs at the Bujumbura airport. When I landed (on a nearly empty plane, after a circuitous flight from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Bujumbura) the moneychanger in the airport was closed. The taxi driver, Eric, took me to a changer in the city. I hopped out of the cab and walked into the exchange bureau, a dark room in a drab building in central Bujumbura, where a woman behind steel bars greeted me in French.  I said, after a mumbled French greeting, “Hi there. I have quite a bit of money I need to change from Tanzanian Shillings into francs.” The teller gave me a funny look, as did the guard next to the window with a pump shotgun, and the woman in the office getting a Western Union transfer. “Do you have the new bills?” the teller asked. He held up 10,000 Shilling bills of a sort I’d never seen in Tanzania.

“No,” I said, “I’ve never seen those before.”

“Well it’s all we can take.”

“Seriously, you can’t take this?” and I held up a massive stack of bills, indicating that I had a lot more. I don’t know if somehow I thought the sight of huge amounts of cash would entice the changer to take the money (if I understand how money exchange works, they generally keep a large amounts of just about every currency on hand, so I was about half out of my mind to try to impress a money changer with, well, money). The teller indicated that my stack of money was not enough to change his business’s policy on Tanzanian currency.

I had a little US cash with me, but as I walked back to the cab I mentally counted how far it would go. It would not be enough to pay for the hotel, food, a translator, and transportation. I would need to change money somehow or another, or ask for the very expensive assistance of a Western Union transfer from the US. As we drove to the hotel, the huge and ungracefully aging Source Du Nil, I told Eric, the taxi driver, that it hadn’t worked, I hadn’t been able to exchange money.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I didn’t realize you had Tanzanian money. I think we can find a place – there are lots of exchange bureaus. And, of course, there’s the black market.”

I don’t think I had ever heard anyone explicitly refer to the black market like that before – I thought there would be euphemisms – “I know a guy who might be able to help,” or “well, it’s not completely legal, but I think we can help you.” In any case, it did not really matter that much, I thought, because he’s probably kidding.

Two days later I asked Eric to drive to an exchange bureau that he thought was most likely to exchange shillings. That day I brought a few hundred dollars in shillings with me, not entirely sure it would be exchanged and not wanting to carry around a couple pounds of cash. We drove to a fairly new, clean office in central Bujumbura. I walked in and told the cashier I had Tanzanian and needed Burundian. She gave me a sad look and said, “We cannot do this. No Tanzanian.” Before I protested, she leaned forward and whispered, “Do you know about the petrol station?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and could barely understand her. She called an associate from a back room, a little man who, without speaking, led me out of the building. We walked across the dusty boulevard and half a block down the road to a large, out-of-business gas station. As the man led me into a series of alleys on the edge of the station, I noticed that a few of the smiling, dodgy-looking men milling around the entrance to the alley held folded fifty dollar bills in their palms, flashing them at me as I walked by.

Self-Conscious Interlude:

I should stop here to note that what was happening to me probably doesn’t happen to a lot of international development professionals. This is not because they are too good for making informal exchanges; it is because they know enough to go to the black market in the first place. That is where you get the best rate. In talking to old (and a lot less old) pros, I’ve heard “I never exchanged anywhere else – the exchange rate was so much better,” and “the important thing is that you pick up enough words in the local language to keep from getting screwed.” Those involved in international development or business, or for that matter Burundians, Ugandans, Tanzanians – individuals who do not have access to stable exchange rates or, for that matter, international ATMs – may understandably feel some sort of tender condescension for the sort of innocent who wanders into Burundi with $1,600 in Tanzanian Shillings and who stands in wide-eyed wonder that some people don’t have access to ATMs. This is all true. One of the unfortunate but necessary realities in writing about foreign places and things unknown, is that most writers do not spend a huge amount of time on the area where there writing focuses. Many, admittedly, do spend a lot longer than a week. But a lot of what we write about travels in the developing world, or travel generally comes down to “something strange happened to me that I like to think you may find amusing.” And what I experienced, in the space of a few minutes in Bujumbura, may be amusing to people unaccustomed to making whispered exchanges in back alleys. Or at least not back alleys in Burundi.

The man leading me through the crowd of dirty-clothed men with fifty-dollar bills in their hands took me to the edge of the group, to an alley within an alley. A teller sat at a small window surrounded by steel bars. The man who had been leading me said “He can help you,” and left me. I approached the window and pulled out my overstuffed envelope.

“You can do shillings?” I asked.

The man looked at the bulging envelope, gave me an exasperated look, and waved his hands. “Yes, yes, get in the booth now!” he said, louder than I expected.

That I needed to be in the booth with him, and that he immediately slammed a three-foot long, steel deadbolt closed, locking me in from his side of the booth, made me nervous. I looked around the dingy booth. It was designed oddly like a confessional, with a wall of bars between the teller and me, and steel-bar walls between me and the outside. There were shades under the steel bars that made up the booth, keeping people outside from looking in. On the one hand, I was glad that people would not see me exchanging money. On the other, the need to be locked into a steel cage, the fact that the teller could do whatever he wanted to me, and that all those men with the fifty dollar bills had seen me go inside the booth and had a damn good idea what I was doing – these thoughts all occurred to me. But before I could reflect for too long, I was giving the man money, and he was giving me an exchange in Burundian.

“Eighty percent,” he said, a very good rate. I took the money.

“No, count it,” he said. I counted it, and saw that he had given me an accurate exchange. He smiled, an odd, gentle smile. “Come back any time you like.”

I got up to leave and thought about the deadbolt, the crowd of grinning men with fifty dollar bills, and the need for a steel cage (good God, would they have pulled me out if it wasn’t locked?), and I realized that as soon as I was outside I would be the only white man for perhaps miles, in a new suit, knowing negligible French and no Kirundi, and that everyone would have known exactly what I had been doing in there. The teller paused, waiting for me to leave, and I thought, “I’m wearing boxer briefs today.” I stuffed the stacks of wrinkled Burundian francs (two stacks, each about an inch tall) into my underwear (I do not feel the need to be more descriptive than this). The teller watched me tiredly, as if to say “I see weirder things than this most days before breakfast.” I opened the door, and sprinted through the alley toward sunlight. The crowd had largely disbursed. I jogged to the taxi, a few blocks away, and fell into the front seat laughing. Eric looked at me like I was an idiot, and when I told him what happened, was neither surprised nor concerned.

Retrieval

Retrieval

We drove directly to a meeting across town. I imagined an hour and a half with an education specialist in an un-airconditioned, eighty degree office with a stack of bills down my shorts, and begged off to the bathroom to retrieve my, ahem, booty.

Informal Sector Two:

Two days before I left Burundi for the United States I discovered one reason why the Burundian exchange bureaus may not have liked my Tanzanian shillings: it is illegal to take Tanzanian currency in or out of the country. I have not extensively researched why this is the case, but I read enough on the porch of my hotel in Bujumbura to convince me that I would not be able to exchange the remainder of roughly $1000 worth of shillings back to US dollars in the states. It was back to the black market.

This time when Eric picked me up at my hotel, instead of messing around with exchange bureaus, I said “let’s go to the black market. I need money.”

“Ok,” he said, “but let’s do this my way.”

“Sure.”

His way was considerably more civilized. As we drove through the center of Bujumbura, I looked for the petrol station, but realized that, although we were slowing down, we were still a few blocks away. No matter, I thought, we’ll probably park nearby and I can walk there. As I thought this, or something like it, a man in a raggedy Chicago Bulls jersey came slamming into the back seat of the car – he’d jumped in while we were still moving and as soon as he was in the car Eric hit the gas. I was jolted and yelled “What the hell?!”

“No problem,” Eric said, “I know this guy.”

The money changer pulled out a wad of Burundian francs and, before he could give me a pitch, Eric insisted on knowing exchange rates. I cannot accurately relay what they said, but it consisted mostly of the man telling Eric a rate, Eric telling him to go to hell and get out of his car, the man adjusting the rate, Eric telling him that he liked to get kissed before he got screwed, etc. Eventually they settled at a very good exchange rate, we all grinned at each other, and the man hopped out of the car to get more money. We drove around the block a few times, and the man hopped back into  the back seat. Eric drove us to a driveway on the edge of a market area, and said, “You can count your money here.”

I took my money out of its envelope – around 1.5 million Tanzanian Shillings – and began counting just below my lap, out of site of passersby and police officers.

“No, no,” Eric said, “please, take your rest. No one will bother you here.”

And no one did.  The man in the Bulls jersey and I made the exchange, we all shook hands, and Eric drove me back to my hotel.

Since I’ve gotten back from Africa I like to think about where my Tanzanian shillings went, and why anyone wanted them in the first place. Maybe they headed to the Tanzanian border, where Burundian tea or coffee crossed untaxed, and Tanzanian importers were paid in their own currency, giving them the perk of not having to deal with the fluctuating Burundian franc.  How it got the border, if indeed it did, and how many other Tanzanian shillings went with it, I don’t know – maybe it traveled by pickup truck through the mountains, maybe by boat across Lake Tanganyika. I just hope, for the sake of whichever unit of the informal labor force was tasked with carrying it, that nobody had to stick anything down their pants.

Don’t Mess with Texas

July 7, 2011

When I realized I got had, I was standing in the Dar es Salaam airport Duty Free shop, a place I don’t generally associate with sober reflection. When I realized I got had, my first thought was, “it was the damn shoes.”

The shoes were Converse All-Stars, and the guy wearing them was friendly, seemed cosmopolitan, and was wearing a “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirt, skinny jeans, and those damn Converse All-Stars. He described his artistic process in great detail (pallet knives, oil paint, traditional treatment for the canvass, which is made out of local plant materials, etcetc) and told me about his great joy at being funded by a USAID project encouraging youth to pursue artistic careers. The All-Stars signaled a couple things to me. One, they told me that he (I can’t remember his real name – his artist name is “Shaman”) knew how artists/hipsters in the US dressed. That meant he was probably quite committed to art, or at least looking like an artist – tapping into that culture in Dar es Salaam could not be especially easy. Second, they told me he had a little bit of money and didn’t need to be hustling tourists on the street (someone I ignored that this is exactly how I met him: “Hello there. Where are you from. America? I am from Dar es Salaam. I’m a painter.”). He must be the real deal.

He rolled out a few canvasses. I liked his work, though it wasn’t edgy enough for me (and I was a little surprised that All-Star would go for this sort of traditional art). I went through the painting a couple times and found the most unique piece of his batch, a group of Masai warriors in red and blue. He asked 30,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about $20); I countered with 20,000 Shillings (just over $13), because that is actually all I had on me. He very carefully rolled up the canvass, gave it to me, and I walked back to my hotel thinking about whether I would go through the trouble to frame the painting, or find a way to fix it directly to the wall. It could go in my room, but maybe it would fit better in the office. When I left for the airport the next day I made sure the painting was tightly rolled in my suitcase.

Standing in the Duty Free shop in the Dar es Salaam airport, I picked up a stack of 20 or 30 paintings, largely of Masai warriors. They were all familiar. I looked at the artist’s signature and you will not be shocked that it said “Shaman.” I called over the manager and asked “do you know who painted these?” He did not and said he had a buyer who handled that sort of thing. I told him that I had bought an identical painting on the street from a young guy, and wondered if there was an off-chance that he had sold the painting to the Duty Free. “In Africa there is a lot of this, you know. Maybe there is a shipment and some of it goes missing and it ends up on the street.” He shook his head. “People just steal thing and sell them.” I told him I had paid more on the street for the painting than he was asking and he was shocked – he thought his price was already too high and (I think) was appalled that someone was out-gauging him. He said, “this is very, very sad,” shook his head again, and walked away.

Nationalism is the Crutch of the Morally Weak

January 17, 2011

Robes in Amman

Note: This piece was written in spring, 2009 in Amman, Jordan. I thought I might try to get it published (alright, I did try to get it published). Failing that: to the blogosphere.

Nationalism is the crutch of the morally weak.

I was standing at one of the University of Jordan’s bus stations, waiting with perhaps one hundred students, going home for the evening. I was making my way to Madaba, roughly an hour bus ride south of Amman. Not being able to read the Arabic on the sides of the buses or on the station billboards, I approached a young man to ask about the bus to Madaba.

“As-Salam Aleikem, this bus to Madaba? Autobus to Madaba?” I asked in a traveler’s pigeon-English.

“Aleikem Salam. La, la. There buses to Madaba,” He pointed. “That way. Yellow bus. Not blue, not red. Yellow bus.”

“Shukran.”

And so I walked fifty meters to the next stopping point and approached another student. I received the same answer, roughly, and so I kept walking. I asked again when I thought I had gone far enough. This time: “Yes, here is the bus to Madaba.”

Being unable to speak the language of a place very nearly equals helplessness. It certainly equals awkwardness. To engage in illiterate world travel, one must be able to put shame away, to grin like the idiotic American one is, and to pray to St. Christopher that the pose one strikes elicits sympathy, as well as interest. I did all of this, I think. Or perhaps I did not need to. I missed two buses, due to crowding and an incredible amount of fighting at the bus doors. Male students would grab the arms of other young men and hurl them out of the way. Girls, most in Hijab, were quieter about this, but at one point I felt a tug at my arm and realized that a petite, demure-looking Hijab-ed girl had pulled me out of the way and darted past.

As I missed the second bus, a young man with a short beard approached me. “Don’t try to get on this bus. I’m telling you, I will find you a spot. Don’t worry.” This man, Jesus Christ we’ll call him, shoved me toward a friend of his, Yeshem, who grabbed my arm and pulled me to where a group of loud, twenty-something guys were attacking an incoming bus. They smacked the sides with their palms and held the doors and pretended to guide and push it into its slot. The driver honked and cursed at them (he was, as it turned out, an old friend of theirs). When the bus stopped, one of the men held me back while the other two slammed their bodies into the doorway, shoving violently. My new friend Yeshem and I waited peacefully while the remainder of the students worked their way into the bus and filled it, save the two seats reserved for us. Our spots were guarded by a violent, loud Indian-Jordanian who was introduced to me, and will from this mention forward be known, as “Mr. Hindi.”

Upon entering the bus, “Mr. Hindi” began yelling at me in Arabic and showing me photos on his cell phone. “Mr. Hindi” lifting weights, “Mr. Hindi” dressing as a Bedouin warrior, “Mr. Hindi” with a succession of cute American girls. “That one from Florida. Yes. And this one, Chicavo. And this one – look at her – she from China.” Finally, photos of “Mr. Hindi” holding various handguns and machine guns. The slide show finished, absurdly, with a photo of a three year old boy standing against a wall next to an assault rifle just slightly taller than him.  The child may have been “Mr. Hindi”’s brother or cousin or who knows, but the gun was decidedly owned by “Mr. Hindi.”

“Mr. Hindi” switched spots with Yesham, and now you get to see why I wrote that thing earlier about nationalism and moral weakness. I wrote it to remind me, and you (whoever you are) that this essay is supposed to represent confusion, not resolution. It is a display of dischordancy, not finality. If it illustrates a point, it is that the point is not clear or simple. But it also – this conversation, this idea – may hold some truth.

Upon sitting down, and pausing briefly to collect his thoughts, Yesham asked me about the US government, in a way I did not expect and had not encountered.

“I would very much like to ask you about your juries in America,” he started. “Tell me about the American legal system. This separation of two types of law – civil and criminal is it? I really do not understand it well at all, despite studying it at university.”

From here the conversation moved, as it does, to foreign policy; to Barack Obama, to the pain inflicted on the Arab people by George W. Bush, to the recent attack on Gaza, to the French, and finally back to juries.  The conversation, to this point, was interesting, but not especially different (excepting the initial surprise topic of juries) from other Amman-bus conversations I’d had. It was the return to juries that turned the conversation toward an eccentric and profound place.

“Do you watch Oprah?” Yeshem asked.  “I was watching Oprah and I saw a story of a murderer who was freed, and he was in love with a woman. And her father would not let her see him. And the court would not let this happen.  They took the side of the father.  I do not know if it was a jury or if it was a judge. How does this work?”

I said that in this case I did not know, and could not know without more information.

“They were in love,” he continued. “I saw it on the television, how the man wept. He had tears coming down his face…He was in love with her. I am interested in this, because I am in love. I tell her many times, ‘I will marry you, please marry me.’ And she gives me words. She says maybe, she lets me walk her to the bus. But she will not marry me. I say ‘then give me a word, and I will wait for you,’ but she will not do this. And if I ask her to go somewhere to talk to me, she says she cannot, because of her parents and my parents and so forth. I will be in love with her until I die.”

I told him that in the US, we would go on a few dates and maybe realize we didn’t like each other after all. Or that we did. This simple relational revolution allows one to be shut down on date three, rather than at the beginning or never. He should think about this, I thought. He had, more than I.

“Sometimes I think, you know, that the Middle East will modernize some. Technology will change, we will all have cell phones and computers and drive good cars. But there are things you cannot change here, as much as you want to. Ideas. Ideas here do not change. We may modernize what we do, but we cannot change how we think. Sometimes I think we are stuck like this. This makes me very afraid. Maybe we cannot become like you in America. This saddens me so very much. America is what we need to be like, I think. You are so free.  But I do not think can change our minds.”

Then, out of the loud darkness of the bus, the voice of Liberty:

“You know, Abraham Lincoln was a very good man. Like Barack Obama is now. You know he never went to school? He just studied law on his own, in his small house. And he became the president.  And he united America, when the south tried to break away. We studied about this at school. He was assassinated while he watched a movie. He freed the niggers.”

A pause, and then:

“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…” He nearly knocked me over, emotionally reciting the Gettysburg address in a very thick Jordanian accent.

It trailed off – he could not remember all of the words – but I do not exaggerate when I say that this conversation, this bus ride, and this man…they are the goddamned American dream. Not money. Not capitalism. Not the rugged individual. Freedom from war. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from crooked juries. The Freedom to watch Oprah. Freedom to tell a girl you love her.