Two Stories on Las Tortugas

Las Tortugas: Dance of the Dead IV

Umphrey's McGee performs at this year's Las Tortugas

This Halloween I attended Las Tortugas: Dance of the Dead IV in the Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite National Park. I had the opportunity to write about the music festival for two music and culture magazines, Vermont’s State of Mind and New York’s Impose. Check out my stories and photos below!

State of Mind:

“The west coast sure has a lot of music festivals‚” fellow farmer and transplant from the Midwest‚ Erica Bell‚ remarks as we sink our hands into the cool‚ organic soil of Sonoma County.
We’re planting garlic and reminiscing about our most recent music adventure at Las Tortugas: Dance of the Dead IV‚ where we traded in our Carhartts for wigs and torn tutus in celebration of Halloween.
Point taken. The west wheels in a lot of fests: Coachella‚ High Sierra‚ Hardly‚ Strictly… We begin listing. It’s enough to make us never want to leave. Read More

Impose Magazine:

Dancing with the Dead in Yosemite
I’m riding to Yosemite National Park in a funky green camper. A forest of sequoias gives way to the remote campground where Las Tortugas: Dance of the Dead IV unfolds. The music reflects the spirit of its surroundings: raw, rustic and real. Read More


I was walking along the bay in San Francisco last weekend when I came across a small bookstore. The first book to catch my eye was a collection of poetry by Nikki Giovanni. I remembered that my friend photographer Josh Armstrong had taken her portrait not too long ago, but I had never really read her work until that day by the bay. Her words truly resonated with me.

I’d like to share one of her poems, titled Habits :

i haven’t written a poem in so long
i may have forgotten how
unless writing a poem
is like riding a bike
or swimming upstream
or loving you
it may be a habit that once aquired
is never lost

but you say i’m foolish
of course you love me
but being loved of course
is not the same as being loved because
or being loved despite
or being loved

if you love me why
do i feel so lonely
and why do i always wake up alone
and why am i practicing
not having you to love
i never loved you that way

Hardly, Strictly featured in Impose Magazine: Scene and Heard

Impose Magazine featured a story I wrote about the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Check it out:

Naked feet sprint through Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park – a distant echo of familiar songs splintering the air as a cacophony of hipsters and old-timey folk listen and share their wares. Just a few more leaps through the thicket of eucalyptus, and we barely arrive at the edge of the “Towers of Gold” stage. My right hand is now pouring red wine, the left slapping my knee to the psychedelic sound of Dr. Dog, just one of the 81 musical performances at this year’s bluegrass weekend festival in San Francisco, Hardly Strictly.

Read the complete story at Impose Magazine: http://www.imposemagazine.com/photos/hardly-strictly-in-san-francisc

So it had been a long time since I had updated my blog for reasons of school, a new job at the university and a little bit of traveling with my family – most recently in Guatemala.

There’s so much to update on and stories to tell I don’t know where to start!

First off, below are a couple older stories that I wrote about my trip to Africa: Ailing and Addis about my experience at an Ethiopian hospital and Obamamania about my experience following the elections while in Eastern Africa and the support for Obama I found in Kenya because of his heritage.

Also, this year I had a role as a multimedia producer for the award-winning Soul of Athens, a magazine produced by students at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication. Please visit the site, and in particular check out some of the stories I produced and edited:

Simply Sassafras

Photography by Go Takayma

A Beautiful Soul

Photography, audio by Kevin Riddell
Interactive by Andy Phillips

What if Death was Three Months Away

Photography by Xiaomei Chen

The Athens Farmers Market

Videography by me

Obamamania in Kenya

The World is Watching

“The world is watching what we do here.” The words flooded my ears like the first day of rain after the dry season. Barack Obama’s speech in Texas crackled from an old television set into the green patio of a dusty hotel in Yabello, Ethiopia. It was early March, and Obama had just lost my home state of Ohio to Hillary Clinton. I was on the other side of the globe, probably at the only satellite TV in a hundred miles, but I had never felt closer to the man who spoke of change.

That morning in Yabello, I looked over at the faces the young Ethiopian men watching the screen, their eyes filled with eagerness and excitement. I knew in that moment that across the world, in living rooms, classrooms, restaurants and bars, the world was indeed watching.

I had left the U.S. in January, right after the Iowa Caucus, to report on water scarcity and climate change in Ethiopia and Kenya. Two months in, we were halfway down the deteriorating road from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. Post-election violence in Kenya had calmed for the time being, and I was eager to spend my last few weeks in Africa in a country as riveted to Presidential politics as my own.


On a cool morning a few days after our eventual arrival in Nairobi, I squeezed my way into an overcrowded matatu headed for downtown. The minibus was silent as we wound through the green jacaranda trees and glass-windowed malls of the suburbs. Then I heard it. A reggae beat started up, punctuated with calls of “Obama.” As lyrics extolling the candidate’s virtues poured from the blaring speakers, I could sense the exuberance and pride of my fellow passengers.

The Nairobi I saw in early March seemed recovered from the violence that had recently swept the country – and ready to let Obamamania sweep over recent unpleasant memories.

Henry Gadiga, a senior in Communications at Daystar University in Nairobi, says he watches news of the elections on CNN every morning.

“Now that things are coming back to normal, we’re back to talking about the elections in the U.S. ” he told me, standing in a stone courtyard outside the university. As we talked we were joined by other students eager to share their views on elections here in Kenya and in the U.S.

“Truth be told, it’s either you have the traditional McCain, who is like the rest of the presidents that the U.S. has had, or you have a black man who has African roots, or you have a woman. I don’t think Americans have been faced with such a decision before, and that’s part of the excitement,” added Moharry Matua, also a Communications senior at Daystar. But he worries that excitement over superficial change could distract from the meat of the race. “People are [more] caught up with the image of who he is than really with his policies.”

But Gadiga points out that the symbolism in this race is important. “Most people are proud that Obama has a Kenyan father,” he said, “most people, especially right now, did not believe in the American Dream in a way. But if the son of an immigrant can become president, then anything is possible. Just the chance is good enough for us.”
Claiming a Piece of Obama

Penninah A. Ogada, PhD, a lecturer of Gender and Political Economy, helped explain why this election resonates so strongly for Kenyans: “Obama has a piece of Kenya. He has a piece of the Luo [ethnic group]. He has a piece of Islam,” she says, adding that an Obama presidency would help the world see the U.S. in a new light.

Obama also seems to have piece of all Americans: of the white man who’s been laid off, of the immigrant trying to feed his family, of the African American struggling through the education system.

Although I am now back in the U.S., I have thought back to that moment in Yabello, Ethiopia many times. I remember the questions Obama addressed in that March speech, and the answers we were searching for.

As he talked about coming together across party, religion and race, about being a responsible global leader, about making our country the “last best, hope of Earth,” I looked at my colleagues. All our faces were contorted with a plethora of emotions – shock, inspiration, empowerment.

Obama was talking to the women who walk miles a day to fetch water from a contaminated spring. He was speaking to the Somali pastoralists who have clashed with neighboring tribes over resources. And he was talking to us – a group of five weary travelers in Ethiopia. He was saying to the world, “Yes we can.” And we were hoping he was right.

© 2008 The Common Language Project

Ailing in Addis

A classic form of torture is the practice of ripping off the fingernails of the victim until the information is forcefully and mercilessly extracted.

For a CLP reporter, a single fingernail torn out by the quick bite of a rusty folding chair, to the smell of unpalatable spaghetti, only evokes sympathetic questions.

And while such a bloody episode is more often dealt with by the likes of a fictional character played by George Clooney in the sociopolitical montage Syriana, my encounter was very real, covert activity notwithstanding.

On the contrary, my absurd experience at St. Gabriel’s hospital in Addis Ababa exposed me to the realities of healthcare in Eastern Africa, and provoked me to look further into healthcare availability and costs while comparing the Ethiopian system to healthcare realities in the United States.

It all started at the 7Up hotel and restaurant across from the CLP’s Addis Ababa home in a pocket of the 22nd neighborhood. We were planning on enjoying a late lunch. Tired of the fermented injera that we had consumed relentlessly for the past two weeks, we ordered a few plates of warm oily spaghetti and a round of cold St. George.

In my eagerness to take a closer look and whiff at the food served, I naturally scooted my chair closer to the table, tucking my hands between the two metal bars of the chair.

I felt a sharp quick tear, which soon turned to a numbing pain. My little finger had been mangled in the rusty joint of the chair. Choked up by tears, no words could come through my lips, except for a nonsensical screech, that my colleagues told me sounded like a distressed street cat. I assured the group that I was fine, and that they could continue eating. But suddenly none of the food seemed appetizing and Sarah insisted that we go to the nearest clinic or hospital.

Do you think my finger nail is even still there? I ask, looking down at the small, crimson ponds of blood oozing out of the sides of my finger.

“Ummm… I don’t know,” Sarah replied hesitantly, looking over at Jessica.

“Let’s just go see about a Tetanus shot,” said Jess avoiding the question.

We soon arrive at the small, white private hospital just a block from our house. There were a few other people in the waiting room, all sitting patiently and calmly. I looked around, and didn’t see any other blood but the one that was gushing from my finger. Within only five minutes I was already meeting with a doctor, who began pouring water and disinfectant onto the wound.

I immediately thought about how long I’d have waited in the U.S. to see a doctor.

“I think your finger nail is still here,” the doctor said.

The cold antiseptic burned like fire, and sent shivers throughout my arm.

She swabbed my finger gently and looked at me curiously. She could tell that I was eager to ask her something.

Which was true, while I was there, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to interview her about some health issues related to our stories on sanitation and water, not to mention health concerns regarding traveling.

As a traveler in Africa in particular, health is a topic of discussion several times a day. It might go something like this:

“Don ‘t drink this water, you’ll get diarrhea.

“Ok, just bottled then. And what about this fresh lettuce?”

“No, no, that’s washed in the contaminated water.”

“Ok. But I miss salad.”

“Well, you’ll miss proper digestion too when you become a hotel for parasites.”

“I think I already have parasites.”

“Ok, well, let’s get some Zentel. Did you remember your malaria pill today?”

“Yes, and I have my yellow fever vaccination card so I can cross the border into Kenya.”

“Ok, good.”

My conversation with the doctor took a bit more serious tone.

“Do many people come in here because of water-related illness?” I asked.

She told me that a large percentage of her patients suffer from waterborne diseases by simply drinking the city water, mainly due to road construction, which has broken some of the water pipeline, exposing this water to dirt and contamination.

“Most people don’t believe they are sick because of the city water, so they don’t boil it,” she added.

In Ethiopia, less than 40% of the population has regular access to an improved water source, compared to almost 100% of the U.S. population, according to the World Health Organization.

Due to these poor sanitary conditions, 250,000 children die every year in Ethiopia. One woman Ernest and I spoke with in the poor slum of Kechene in Addis told us how she had lost her granddaughter because of a water-borne disease. Where she lived, she had to walk 45 minutes to find a spring which was still probably too dirty to drink by most standards.

We also met NGO workers at CARE international who work on improving malnutrition in children around the border town of Moyale. With more than half of children under five severely malnourished, many Ethiopians chronically suffer from a lack of regular food.

There is no doubt that Ethiopians suffer from poverty and disease at an exponentially greater rate than Americans. But like my surprise regarding the accessibility of healthcare here it’s important to examine the benefits and drawbacks of both places – maybe with some lessons to learn in the process.

While most Americans have enough food to eat and drink, it is difficult to find organic meat or vegetables at affordable prices. Processed fast food, with its lack of nutrients, is much more accessible to America’s poor, who often suffer health problems as a result.

Ethiopia on the other hand, raises and serves grass-fed beef and organic vegetables by default. You won’t find a trendy, organic health food store here. Instead, market-fresh vegetables and fruits are found on almost every corner in Addis, and freshly butchered goats hang lifelessly in corner-store windows.

Unlike in America, most everyone here has access, though irregular, to organic meat and vegetables, but ironically, these foods raised in a natural environment without chemical fertilizers or pesticides are also often tainted by being irrigated or washed with contaminated water.

The same idea extends to healthcare costs. According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC Survey, almost 50 percent of the American public say the cost of health care is their number one economic concern. While an emergency room visit for someone without health insurance in the US can cost a month’s paycheck, in Addis, a trip to a private hospital is closer to $10 or $20. Public hospitals are even more accessible to Addis’ poor and working classes.

But in many remote regions of the country, Ethiopians have no access to hospitals private or otherwise and for many a few dollars in medical fees might as well be thousands. The grinding poverty of the country combined with a desperate lack of infrastructure creates an environment where most Ethiopian’s won’t live to see their fifty-fifth birthday.

Back at St. Gabriel’s hospital, with my interview completed and my finger snugly dressed I welcomed Sarah and Jessica as they arrived to pick me up.

“Well, the doctor thinks that my nail is still there. It’s just crushed,” I said.

“Actually,” Jessica said… “No.”

She held a single nail up in the air, the nail’s surface reflecting sunlight upon its incandescent curve.

“Oh…uh…really?” I laugh nervously.

“We found it under the chair. We just didn’t want to put you into shock.”

Laughing, I went and showed the doctor the nail. She was as dumbfounded as I was. I tucked the finger nail in my bag, and decided it might be a good thing to keep as a souvenir.

It’s easy to say that the healthcare system is far more advanced in the U.S. compared to a country like Ethiopia, and in many ways it is. But the reality is that the U.S. healthcare system is also in need of change. And like access to clean water, access to regular medical care—or lack there of—speaks to the level of development in a country.

My hospital visit in Ethiopia made me realize that while country is in great need of more medical resources, some services are more readily available and affordable than in the privileged nation of the U.S.

Losing a fingernail is the least of most people’s worries. Meeting those in Ethiopia who struggle daily with common yet potentially deadly diseases such as diarrhea and malaria makes me thankful for my health and the health of those around me more than ever. And it helps me understand the crucial issue of healthcare with a new depth.

Throughout the globe, it is up to us as individuals and our leaders, to help ensure the health and well being of all within our society. I know it sounds funny, but I still have that fingernail. I carried it all the way here from Africa to remember the experience and to remind me that as old systems die off, new ones can grow back.

© 2008 The Common Language Project

This March 22 is World Water Day, reminding us of the 1 billion people on Earth who lack easy access to the water most of us take for granted. This week, our first ever piece to broadcast on TV, CLP’s “Water Wars,” will air on PBS’ Foreign Exchange. It was a really profound experience work on this project and to discover how global climate change is leading to increasing drought and drying wells, threatening an ancient way of life and fueling conflict. Check it out on PBS’s Foreign Exchange all week; and on the CLP Web site and YouTube any time.

Also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and 1H20.org is featuring a series of other multimedia stories by the Common Language Project group. For more details, check out CLPmag.org.

Cheers to the release of all these new stories, and Happy Easter!