Thursday, April 29, 2004

Travelogue #7 –April 29
This My God

I find myself in the position of employer here, (see Tesfa Foundation link,) the unemployed employer. I’ve conducted three preliminary interviews with teachers so far, and learned nothing. The usual exchange goes like this: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” A blank look, and, “Only God knows.” All right. I tell them about the foundation and why they should be excited. More blank looks. Are you interested? A wan smile and a nod. Okay. It was great talking to you.

I try to provoke a little English, but they’re shy. The first one brought her husband, who, I learned, speaks English very well, and has his own school. The second one teaches already for the same wage I’m offering. I asked how she feels about that. Apparently, she feels nothing. I ask if she needs more money. What follows is a long discussion in rough English about transportation costs. I ask if she has a minimum she needs to make. She starts in about the taxis, and about the work she couldn’t do at night because of the commute. “A number,” I say. The third seems most interesting, but I’ll just have to guess at her interest. She does manage to say she likes kids. Anyway, we’ll have another round of interviews with some of my Abasha (Ethiopian) committee members, who can read the body language, or God language.

God is a persistent presence here. When you make a plan, it’s “God willing.” That’s “insh’Allah,” if your friend is Muslim. It’s kind of nice, unless you’re in an anxious mood. “Yes or no?” -- “God willing.” Well, I guess I should have just talked to Him.

I’ve made friends with some Protestants. They’ve taken me under their wing at my breakfast café, where I start the day with fresh papaya juice. The Protestants have made great headway here in Meles’ reign, much to the chagrin of the Orthodox, who feel this is their country. Muslims are one thing, but Protestants. Generally, I side with the Orthodox – it’s my affection for tradition. But these particular Protestants are very nice. Only once has the owner of the café, Samson, asked me, “Have you had a personal experience of salvation through Jesus?” or some such thing. It’s a great question, because there’s absolutely no way to answer it. I think born-agains have been tutored with the writings some ancient, arcane Surrealist. It’s like asking someone if he slipped through the wormhole downtown this morning. I'm not really sure. How would one tell? I'll venture a no, since I feel about the same as I did this morning.

"Ooo, I like this my God," one of these new friends says. "Everything. Everything because of Him. I say thanks God and pray." She's the widow who owns the building that houses Sami's café. On her dresser is a photo of her husband who died young. She is young and pretty, and has two bright, English-speaking kids who delight in parading before me everything they know about science and geography. The daughter wants to be the first woman politician in Ethiopia. She admires Condoleeza-Rice. I'm not sure how to respond to that one, but decide it's best to leave a kid her fantasies. The children are eager to go to America, and I'm instantly alert to the danger of picking up another fiancée. "Ooo, I like this my God," she says with a beautiful smile, and I might even be close to a personal experience with the Surrealist Jesus, because there is such a beautiful lilt to the Ethiopian accent. It's native to their language. It rises and tumbles in pitch musically, and at times the sound of women chatting sounds to me like birdsong.

"Any time, you come. Here is family. Me, my daughters, (even though she has a boy and a girl,) any time you come." We're sitting on their narrow terrace between her house and the building she rents out. Stars are appearing, and little David announces proudly there are two of them, and tells me how you can tell one is a planet. With an emphatic wave of her hand, she repeats, "Any time, you come," and the first A of any is a long, high note.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Travelogue #6 – April 25
Body Parts

It’s been one of those days. The power’s down at my café, so I can’t get on the computer to do any work. Okay. I have a coffee and head home again. A weak and sad-looking boy lingers at the taxi-van’s door, giving me the gunzeb look. (Gunzeb is money.) I’m used to that, but he’s particularly down and out, his clothes rags, and his eyes and nose oozing yellow stuff. I toss him a coin. He’s too weak to lift his arms and catch. He searches the ground in a dazed fashion. Beside the van, in the sun, a man sits on his little rug, holding up his stump of a leg for passers-by. The sidewalks of major roads are a showcase for every misfortune, especially around the regular taxi stops. You’ll see every type of physical deformity and loss. Men will wave their handless stumps of arms at you through the window. Men with withered legs, swollen and pussy ones, with bodies twisted like pretzels, all will plant themselves in the sidewalks. I haven’t asked anyone yet why there are so many amputees here, but I assume it’s the war(s) with Eritrea. Army ‘recruiters’ would roam and pick up boys of nearly any age to take them to the front. The families would hear nothing for years from the boy who disappeared one day.

I walk home from the taxi stand, passing by a vacant lot where the boys have improvised soccer fields. The crumpled corpse of a donkey lies next to it, and has for a while. It’s been slow to deteriorate, this one. There’s a bull’s head that lies along another route of mine that was bone within a week, except for a patch of black on top like a toupee. I begin to monitor such things out of curiosity.

The animals here have it tough. I’ve written about the bugs, and the poor chickens, who seem to spend half their lives hanging upside down from human hands. Farm animals really travel in this town. The bulls get around, too. They are perpetually being driven, with wide, confused eyes, along major roads. I’ve seen them milling around in the middle of the highway, being badgered by stray dogs. The donkeys are worked mercilessly. They run back and forth loaded to the sky. My route in the morning passes a field where the donkey herders gather in the morning. The beasts look so haggard. The herdsmen hobble them by twisting one leg back and tying it tightly with twine to the upper part of the leg. Or they tie two guys together, so tightly you can see the twine biting into the skin. I’ve seen severed donkey hooves in that field and wondered if the limb died from lack of circulation. The cats I’ve seen are pathetically thin and mangy. They run from humans because humans usually throw things at them.

I go for lunch. It’s been beautiful out this week. I think rainy season #1 has passed. I sit outside, but of course, that’s an invitation to all passing kids. One little girl in her tattered blanket has an eloquently suffering face. She stands and watches me eat. Once she’s given up, I run to the bathroom in the middle of my meal, suddenly assaulted by the old stomach bug. The toilet doesn’t work so well; it’s full of previous contributions. I return and finish my lunch. One becomes inured to many sensory cues here.

On the walk home, hands and sad smiles accompany me. “Money!” Even men in dress clothes will stop to tell me they’re hungry. I can see why most faranj have cars and travel from home compound to work compound to the hotel restaurant or bar, most likely all in Bole, the wealthy part of town. But not all hands are held out for money. On the last street before my own, there are a group of girls who stop their play and run toward me. “How are you?” they shout. I have to shake their hands, and they walk with me the length of their street. At the next corner, the boys kick their flat soccer ball to me, and I have to play for a few minutes.

And there are the gorgeous skies as consolation. I’ve figured out the general plan of the town, by watching the sun and stars, not by ever seeing a map. It seems the town runs mostly west to east. The “Hollywood Hills”, as I’ve termed them, run along the north side, and curve south, so that the other side of town climbs them. To the south are the arid plains and far mountains of Nevada. I live on the east side, and from some vantage points can see all the way west. Piassa, the nearest thing to downtown, is a cluster of recognizable buildings and roofs rising from one wooded hillside

Monday, April 19, 2004

Travelogue #5 – April 19
Sarg Season

The rainy season prelims continue. In the morning, I battle the bimbi (mosquitoes) in the shower. I inflict great casualties, but there are always more. On the road, my shoes stick in the mud. But the sky clears for the majority of the day now, and gets muggy while great clouds drift slowly overhead.

Fortunately for all the young couples in town, the weekend was relatively sunny. It’s sarg season. That means wedding. Easter is over, so it’s time to get the weddings in, before the next fast. They work hard for their salvation in this country. I believe half the days of the year end up being fast days, if you dare count them. And even if you’re Muslim, many of your guests will be Christian, & counting down till the next fast. So on Sunday, I counted five wedding processions down Haile Gebreselasie while I worked. They’re not much different than American processions, several decorated cars leading a line of bored attendees. But here, in front of them all is a pickup with a video camera man in the back.

The video man has taken pre-eminence over the priest here. Every move is orchestrated. I myself went to a sarg Saturday night, my second in Ethiopia. The first was that of Leeza’s cousin, Abebaw, during my first stay in Addis, in January. That happens to be one of the other main sarg seasons, being a hiatus of several weeks from good Christian hunger. Abebaw’s was a classier affair than Saturday’s. Saturday’s took place in a part of town, Kasanchis, that isn’t known for class. Its main streets are crowded with the kind of bars I mentioned in an earlier log, with the ladies in the back.

The houses are modest. But here there is a community hall that rents to wedding parties, and they managed to make it very nice. We gathered on either side of the hall in folding chairs and waited, because I guess that’s what guests do, wait and sweat. The wedding party showed up an hour late, preceded by the video crew, of course. They march in in specific order, sweating under the relentless lights of the crew, and take their places on a kind of dais. The couple sits in high thrones. What follows is an hour or so of well-choreographed poses, broken by a bit of eating and a bit of dancing.

I downed my tajj, the honey mead that is one of the national drinks, (and very good,) and waited to dance. I like the Ethiopian dances. Each ethnic group seems to have contributed one special step to the repertoire. Predominant as the Amara race is in Ethiopia, so is their dance, the skista. Some of you have seen it already. It consists mostly of a rhythmic movement of the shoulders. Apparently, I’m pretty damned good at it for a faranj. I think I may have initiated a courtship with one of the wedding party because I squared off with her in the skista. We’ll see. But my specialty is the dance of the Garagae, a group from the west or southwest. It’s more fun, I think, and a great workout. It’s kind of like the running, kicking, 80s New Wave style. I wowed the crowd with my Duran-Duran moves. But I couldn’t keep it up too long in the steam bath. I went in search, fruitlessly, for more tajj. It was all over too quickly. The last ritual was the cake-cutting. The couple mounts a series of steps to reach the multi-level cake, and perform a series of postures dictated by the video director, eventually pouring the champagne and waving some sparklers. By this time, the neighborhood kids had pushed their way in, and the scene deteriorated into a free-for-all for the food. The wedding party did their best to exit with dignity, going on to the groom’s or the bride’s family’s house for more celebration.

I go drunkenly home to my quiet little house and pull out the Amharic book to review vocabulary. I think I’m making progress, helped along by some unfortunate correspondences between Amharic words and ours. Amharic for “morning” is an unmentionable name for part of the female anatomy. The word for love, sadly, is rather close to an English obscenity. The word for “husband” is bal. Maybe there’s some mystical significance behind it all. My favorite word so far is chinikinik, which means crowded.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Travelogue #4: April 12, 2004
The Bugs

It’s the day after Easter and I’m sitting at an outdoor table at my internet café, writing. I’m relieved to see a boy driving a herd of sheep by. I was afraid they’d be wiped out after this holiday. The Amharic word for sheep, by the way, is bug -- it takes a little getting used to. The day before Easter should be called Bug Saturday. They’re everywhere, poor creatures helplessly bleating from the roofs of taxis, or inside, on the floor, feet roped together. They know what’s in store. The next day, everyone is full and sleepy, and the bugs are reduced to piles of skins that are littered here and there. Next door to Melesech’s house, a bug carcass is hanging from a rafter, blue bag of guts hanging out. But, anyway, some bugs have survived the holocaust to propagate.

Saturday night, I made it into a church to watch the goings-on, escorted by a friend I made at the hotel. I showed up at the church gates at 10 pm. The worship goes on until 3 am, when everyone rushes home to break the fast with some bug and doro wot. It’s a little spooky. There are figures in white gowns swarming from all sides in the darkness. Beggars and kids and small merchants hang out in front of the gates. Inside the gates, the ghostly worshippers are sitting, standing, sleeping, all around the outside of the church. It’s an octagonal building lit up like a Christmas tree. The brothers of this friend lead me in the doors. It’s choked with worshippers walking in slow circles around the inner sanctum. They’re holding candles high. It’s the “thanksgiving” part of the program, they tell me. It’s hot and packed, and the air is thick with incense. When we pass through the women’s side of the church, they stand at either side and hand us candles. Only men are circling. They are all delighted to see the faranj. We stop after a while, and the prayers start. Someone recites through a loudspeaker. The crowd sings back with something else. After a time, that’s over, and everyone finds a place to sit for a while. I know later the mezmer will start, traditional music and a beautiful ritual dance in which two lines of monks or religious students face each other and take a slow series of steps forward and back, accompanied by a lifting of their canes. It’s hypnotizing. I’d like to stay, but I’m fading.

So now, it’s all over and life is back to normal. The bugs run by, and the occasional hump-backed brahma bull. Once in a while, you’ll see the shepherds who run along with their herds for miles and miles, whipping their animals. These are the cousins of Ethiopia's famous marathoners. The beggars wander by, the destitute old men, the boys in green cloaks and short pants selling lottery tickets. And when I get up to go myself, the shoe-shine boys whistle as I go by and call out, “Hello.” There’s one boy who shouts out, “I love you,” whenever he sees me, and it’s delivered with such intensity, I’m not sure what to tell him. I’ve decided to be loyal to one little boy who’s just skin and bones and the same rags for clothes that hang off him every day. He has a sweet smile and scrubs my shoes very earnestly. The operators of this café call him to do errands for them and he’s always happy to help.

Many kids are happy to help here. If you walk along this stretch of road with bags, you’ll end up in a tug-of-war with knee-highs who want some change for helping. The mothers sitting on the ground with their babies appeal to me, “Father. Eat, eat.” And everyone else laughs to see me. It’s every adolescent’s nightmare, walking down the street and being the subject of endless mirth. The boys especially really get a kick out of the faranj. You get used to it. It could be worse.

April 13: I spent the first night in my new place. The first house didn’t work out. I had to defer to the local foundation committee, who felt I was wasting money. Now I’m in two rooms in a nice family’s compound. As near as I can tell, (I still can’t find a map to this town,) I’m at the southeastern edge of town, a couple taxi rides away from Piassa, which is the nearest thing to a downtown, and where Leeza’s family lives. It’s a nice, quiet place, it seems, and no bugs, (of either sort.) But with morning comes the real test: a cold shower in the concrete outhouse. It’s kind of fun, like camping. But I cheat. I don’t get right under the water. Afterward, it’s out to my little street that can’t be called muddy with justice. Slimy might be a better word. So much for my Italian shoes.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Travelogue #3 – April 8
Are You Dana?

I’m content: the gathering clouds of the morning broke. That means a little bit of sun. Since I left home almost three months ago, I’ve seen about three sunny days. Everywhere I go, the rain follows. I challenged my Ethiopian friends here, “I thought you said the rainy season is June and July.” They consider and say there really are two rainy seasons. The first builds up to the second, overlapping neatly to cover about all my time here. The rain here gets pretty heavy, leaving a muddy mess everywhere. No one is too bothered by it, though. Easter approaches.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. People are smiling and bustling. Christians get to break their fifty day fast on Easter with lots of meat and buttery sauces, all the animal products they’ve had to forego. You see men and women making their way home with fat chickens under their arms, or swinging by their feet. These will be slaughtered for the famous delicacy doro wot. You see men following behind old women with heavy bags of grain on their backs. In yards or on the street in front of shops, old women squat over flat baskets of corn or grains that they’re preparing for Sunday.

The churches seem busier than usual. They’re a sight in any season, surrounded by dense crowds. Music is broadcast from within. Beggars sit at the gates and doorways. People dressed in the traditional white veils kneel in the yard praying toward the church. People stop to kiss the gateway. Tomorrow I’ll go to watch some of the ceremony in Giorgis, one of the bigger churches. Christians pray all day on Good Friday, asking forgiveness for what happened to poor Jesus.

Today was a happy day for me for another reason. I had a normal bowel movement. For a good week or so, I’ve been suffering from what I call Menelik’s Revenge. Menelik was Emperor late in the last century, the strong man who beat off the Italians. It was his wife, by the way, who pointed the way to what would become the site of the new capital, Addis Ababa.

I don’t know if it was the tomatoes, the milk in my macchiattos, the butter in the sauces I’ve eaten. I thought I was being careful. But suddenly, elimination became an adventure. At least it never comes unannounced. It’s time to look for a bathroom when I’m seized with an explosive pain in my gut. Public bathrooms, as I’ve noted before, are a little scary. I’ve come to appreciate the squatters. Something about that position makes it all a little quicker and cleaner. And no bathroom has paper. You think I would have learned my lesson in Eastern Europe, where toilet paper is a hot commodity. No wonder there are legions of little kids selling tissue paper on the streets here. About twelve cents a packet. It’s a good business selling to faranj, I’m sure.

Anyway, I think this is a good segue into a subject that Sue wanted me to address, the smells of Addis. Two smells are prevalent. The first is that which issues from the bathrooms and sewers, and is wafted about by the gentle breezes of this town. The other is exhaust from the crowded streets. But underneath these is a very distinct scent that characterizes this place. You smell it as soon as you leave the airport, and any time the man-made smells clear. And it seems to me it’s in the food, too. I don’t know how to describe it. But it makes me think of the red soil here. When I first came to Ethiopia, it reminded me strongly of when I was in southern Egypt. Since one source of the Nile is not too far away, maybe it makes sense to say it’s in the soil. It’s a very evocative scent. I like it.

And I’d say Ethiopia likes me. They sing my name in the streets. In Amharic, the predominant language, dehna means fine or well. In everyday pronunciation, it sounds a lot like my name. Since greetings revolve around a repeated questioning after someone’s health, I start to feel very special. “Are you Dana?” they ask. “I’m Dana, Thank God.” “Are you Dana?” “Thank God, I’m Dana. Your family, are they Dana?” I enjoy it.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Travelogue #2 … 4-4-04
Local Time

It’s ihud, Sunday. I’m up early, with the many roosters that strut around the neighborhood, and with the churchgoers. Churches here are as fond of the loudspeaker as the mosques. My new house is peaceful, though I can hear the landlord’s servants starting their day. The landlord and family live behind the house in a smaller structure. I’ve taken the lime green bedroom as mine. I affectionately call it the silverfish room. The sow bugs and gnats have claimed the bathroom, cockroaches the kitchen, and flies the other bedroom. So far only the big living room is unclaimed. That’s where the kids will meet some day, hopefully.

Outside, the streets are relatively quiet and almost everyone is wearing the traditional white cloth over their heads in honor of the holy day. Next week will be Fasika, or Easter. There should be lots of great ceremony to witness. Easter here and Easter home are the same day this year. That's unusual. Everything about time is different in Ethiopia: hours, days, years. The clock is six hours off, so 12 for them is associated with dawn and dusk, as opposed to midday and night. Days and years lag behind ours because they use the Julian calendar. When I signed a lease on the last day of March, their date read 7-22-96.

I navigate the ankle-breaking stone street I live on, to the mud road, to the asphalt one, on to Haile Gebreselassie Street. I should mention that this street is named for a marathon runner. You’ve got to love a country that makes a national hero of a marathon runner. His picture is everywhere. He’s rich, and owns several of the nicer buildings in this area. For you track and field fans, I should inform you there’s a new kid on the block: Kananisa. He’s already broken one of HG’s records. A local joke says that HG walks in on his wife with someone else. This man jumps out the window before he can see who it is. But HG jumps out after him and chases him. 26 miles later, when he hasn’t caught him, he knows it can only be Kananisa.

Anyway, the view is nice along the boulevard. It’s a city in the mountains, as I’ve said. It rises as it spreads itself over the hills. If you look one way, it’s down into a brown valley and distant hills. The other way is up into closer, greener hills. One way is Nevada, and the other is Hollywood. Nature note: the doves have orange eyes and orange in the feathers of their wing tips. One hangs out on the electric wires over our concrete front yard, where the landlord’s servants grind up leaves and grains and peppers and leave them to dry, and it waits until no one is around to swoop down.