Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Travelogue 44 – October 27
The Power in the Stomach

This morning, I’m up at 5:30 to go running. It’s a dream surviving from my spring in Ethiopia. I didn’t have any running gear back then, so I made a plan to pack it this time. Of course, that was when I lived about five hundred feet lower, in the southern part of the city, in the valley, where I could run on a wide, deserted, flat avenue for miles. It doesn’t look anything like that this morning. This is Shiro Meda, the northernmost and most mountainous section of the city. I’m running beside the young man who is temporarily working as guard at our compound. He plays soccer in one of the city’s leagues. He’s about half a foot taller than me and built. I’ve come from sea-level Minnesota and find myself heading up at 7500 feet or so, on the road right into the mountains. I’m surprised at how quickly the city is left behind. We’re on a narrow, winding, hilly road, running among high trees, shanty villages and glimpses of steep, green fields. We run beside men and women shuffling downhill to catch the bus, beside old women with bundles of wood on their backs, beside donkeys piled ten feet high with hay. Old women croak “faranj.” Boys out early to kick the soccer ball around are laughing at me. We’re almost at the end of the road, where there is a huge church, when I have to bow out. I tell Desalegn, “Heed,” which means “Go,” though, I might as well be speaking in Shakespearean English: “Heed, lest this old heart doth burst!”

Desalegn is a good guy. Most Ethiopian names, by the way, are either Biblical or they mean something. His means “I’m happy,” and it’s appropriate. He always has a smile and encouragement. He plays with the kids and helps out around the compound when he doesn’t have to. He walks me up to the main road out of concern. Already, I’m gaining some sort of notoriety in the neighborhood. The clean-cut young guys smile and wave, and they shoo away the kids who want to beg. The shady kids sneer and make cutting comments that mercifully I can’t understand. Old people bow. A young woman runs to catch up to me and ask if her son can enroll in the school. I defer to the committee, of course. Just a figurehead am I. As such, I’ve got to look good. They say Bush is a decent runner for his age.

The kids started this week. They are incredibly cute. My favorite is Rebka, a quiet little girl with a perpetual smile. She comes to school in her ragged, pink, ruffled skirt. She watches everyone timidly; she holds my hand. All the kids are amazed the first time they ride the toys that Saba had installed in the courtyard: carousel, swings, see-saw. Their little butts fit perfectly into the seats on the merry-go-round. They ride as it turns with wide eyes and fingers gripped on the arms of the seat.

We found our teacher last weekend. We had heard all about her from Lamlach. She seemed the perfect candidate, with four years experience and training at a government institute. On Saturday morning, I was scheduled to go to Lamlach’s school to meet Wagaiyo, the teacher, and interview her. Well, in a typical interaction in this country, Lamlach was headed for Shiro Meda while I was on my way to her school, which is all the way south. It takes me an hour and a half to taxi there. Traffic is diverted from the road that passes by the palace. Lamlach’s husband greets me and explains what has happened. We’ll wait until she returns, have some tea in his office. “Are you Christian?” he asks, and I know I’m in for a long wait. It seems he is deacon at the Gospel Light Church; a name that makes me think of beer. He’s what is termed here a “Pente.” It isn’t long before he’s repeating emphatically, “You MUST be born again.” He pulls out the Bible, and he has me turn to passage after passage about the Holy Spirit and recite. With a glowing smile that expires from time to time as he reaches for English words, he preaches. “I pray! I say, ‘Help me, counsel me, show me be better. Pray for me.’ Power enters. Here. My body.” And he beams with his hands held over his tummy. “Stomach,” I offer helpfully. “Yes,” he says. “Power comes up from stomach.” He closes his eyes and gives a little jump and demonstrates his tongues. It kind of sounds Italian. “You MUST be born again!” he shouts, and I pray. I pray for Lamlach’s safe return. Nothing comes up from my stomach, but eventually she does return. Wagaiyo is perfect. We offer her the job, and all’s well that ends well. “God is watching over you,” Lamlach smiles as we depart. Amen.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Travelogue 43 – October 22
He’s My Brother

Notice to jarvis-lovers: The internet here has decayed to nearly a standstill. I’ll keep writing, but don’t be surprised if I’m reduced to uploading multiple entries at a time. If there is a lag between travelogues, you may have to catch up. Sorry.

It’s my first morning awakening in the new digs. It’s wonderfully quiet, with the whole house to myself. Kind of lonely, though: only one sow bug stumbling along the base of the bedroom wall. I had more company in the hotel – mosquitoes and cockroaches. And that was a nice establishment, even if it served hourly customers primarily. There was a long mirror beside my bed and condoms on my nightstand. I’m sure hourly rooms are big business in traditional societies like this one. I happen to know that one other customer stayed all night. His car alarm went off once an hour until dawn.

I stroll happily through my new neighborhood as the sun gains strength. I’m on the north side of the city now, old Addis, hilly and poor Addis, administrative Addis, not far from the university, not far from my embassy. The main drag climbs fairly steeply toward the wooded mountain above town. I head downhill, since my house is near the top of the fun section of the street. It’s crowded. The ceaseless appeal for money begins. Eventually, I give in to two boys, about seven years old, who walk along beside me. I sit on the anchor of a low, concrete wall, and one of them shines my shoes. Within moments, a group of country folk gather around, mothers and children, garbed in the stretched and torn dresses of coarse, brown cotton that signal their origins. You find the country people on every street, their rough hands outstretched. They have uniform signals: a drooping of the head to one sign and a sad clucking of the tongue. The shoe-shine boys are not welcoming. They want to shoo them away, telling me they have plenty of money. The gypsies argue. In the end, some of the older shoe-shine boys join in, arbitrating. They say each side should get a birr. Okay.

“There’s a consciousness to beg,” says Yohannes, my newest friend and contributor to the school project (see tesfa.) “We have to change this consciousness.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard before. He speaks very earnestly. I meet a lot of earnest people here. I rather like it. Yohannes is taking me to meet Lamlach, a woman who runs her own lower-primary school. She’s willing to lend a hand. “You’re here to help Ethiopians. I have a duty to help you.” She also is very earnest, but with a broad smile. “God will open doors for you. As long as you are helping people, God will be on your side. He will lead you to the good people. There are cheaters, but God will punish them. Let God take care of them. God is our lawyer,” she says, with generous gestures and glances to the sky. When she speaks like this, I believe, and I am thankful.

Yohannes has a degree in child development. He consults for schools; he’s written a program to teach kids what we in the West have regretfully called “empowerment.” “I teach them to be workaholics,” he says, and I wince. “We must change. There is a consciousness to beg, and we are a country that must work.” I’ve heard many an earnest diagnosis from the young and educated here. It’s heart-felt. It’s strong and optimistic and delivered with sunny smiles. This is a generation dedicated to improving their society. And, as monotonous as the message becomes, it’s never wearying. I’m touched, and I’m impressed with them. A number of them have heard of our project and have contributed in one way or another. These are people who already give from their meager salaries to send small groups of needy kids to school, pay for their uniforms, and buy their books. These are people who volunteer at the crowded orphanages. I’ve seen them lead groups of kids in cheerful and lively discussions about AIDS, or about their responsibilities to give back to their society. It feels like I’ve entered our romantic picture of the early Sixties in America. It’s nice. Who needs post-Reagan irony?

One of the beggars I met with on the street today knew Reagan, by the way. “Where are you from? America? Jimmy Carter! Reagan!” He’s a round, dark-skinned man with dark shades and gaps between his rotting teeth. “Reagan. The one he dies. Reagan. Reagan is my brother. One birr, please.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Travelogue 42 – October 20

Indescribable the sensation of return to this place! From Minnesota’s approaching autumn and London’s clammy clime to brilliant blue in the sky and sun on my back; to the dusty mountains in the distance, the gentle breezes and the gentle faces. It’s like I never left. The girls at my old cafĂ© cry out happy greetings and we settle into our routine: internet and macchiato. The security guard mopping the steps grins affectionately. The road outside is crowded with the same taxis and traffic. The shoe-shine boys are at their sidewalk stations. The ubiquitous bugs (sheep) scamper by. The radio blares out its same old fare.

One night to the next couldn’t be a greater contrast. First, I’m camping on the floor of Thomas’ tiny but cozy efficiency, watching Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm on video. London grinds by out the window. The evening’s conversation at the pub had leapt from movies and art to the headlines, history and politics. The next night, I’m standing at 3 am in the hotel courtyard, fresh off the plane, stars bright and dense above, and packs of dogs howling in the dark streets. I’d forgotten how they carry on at night.

The day starts in a typically random way. There’s a rap on the hotel room’s metal door. I have a call from Sophia, who tells me to call another guy, whose paperwork I’ve brought over from America as a favor for Serawit. He offers to meet me at Saba’s, since I have a lunch appointment there. “Do I?” I ask. So it goes. I wash up and walk the half mile or so to the traffic circle in Magananya, where I hop in a taxi-van. Prices have risen since I left – from 55 to 60 centimes on this ride. The grinning youth collecting fares wants to enact the usual conversation. “How do you find our country?” etc. The exchange is cut short by our poor command of each other’s language. I hungrily take in the passing scenery.

At Saba’s, sure enough, a feast of a lunch awaits me. We have doro wot and injera, (chicken and egg sauce and spongy bread.) We have potatoes fried in egg, a new dish Melesech (Leeza’s mom) tries because she knows the Brits like it. It’s all delicious. Yohannes and Ashu from the local committee (see Tesfa) stop by to welcome me. We talk a little school business, but mostly just catch up. Everyone tells me I’ve gotten fatter. I bitterly blame my drinking buddies back home, but they insist I look better this way. Walking back to the taxi stand, I’m lazy, enjoying the sunshine and the bustle of the street. Something in the tone of the town has changed, it seems to me. People seem mellower. The pace seems slower. Is it the warmth? Is it Ramadan?

In the evening, I eagerly rush to last spring’s hangout, the GG Hotel. They had a beautiful terrace, where I used to watch the sunset. It turns out the terrace no longer exists. They’ve renovated, destroying the terrace and also the bar where I used to watch soccer and the news. Instead, they’ve opted for a traditional style restaurant. My old waitresses are dressed up in costume and the tables are all about six inches from the ground. They have a token table outside on a micro-terrace. I watch the sun set on top of the brown mountain southwest of town, and listen to the construction across the street on a new six-floor-and-counting building. Addis is booming. Night sets in. I sit at the bar writing, and the bartender asks me with a generous smile, interrupting my work, why I’m alone, why I have no friends. I answer, “Why not?” and he repeats the question.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Travelogue 41 – October 17
Hallowed Halls

My guilty pleasure in London: taking an hour of good touring time to read the Guardian. It’s so nice to linger over a good newspaper. Of course, an American never escapes America. The headline story is all about a survey done in a dozen countries or so around the world that finds a nearly desperate desire to see our current president sent packing.

The stars and stripes are flying over Westminster Abbey the first time I see it. The first time in two hundred years, it turns out – it’s flying for the memorial service for Alistair Cooke. It’s an odd impression when you’re standing in the shadow of Big Ben and the English Parliament.

I return to the abbey Saturday for evensong. Under the high, vaulted ceilings, surrounded by solemn centuries of stone, it’s an intensely stirring experience. The choir enters, proceeding in two rows down the nave, in red robes, boys first and then the men. Their voices weave a spell that’s everything one would care to call spiritual. Eventually, one realizes they’re singing the 109th Psalm, a violent cry for revenge by the psalmist.

Before the service, I look around at the monuments – Isaac Newton’s grave is directly in front of me – and I’m astounded to see an inscription in Amharic, the Ethiopian script, on a grave dated 1674. It’s engraved among Hebrew and Greek. It may be a verse in Ge’ez, the forefather of Amharic and the Biblical language of Ethiopia. I stand and go to one of the gentlemen in red set about the room to make sure we behave. With a gust of boozy breath, he explains that the man behind the monument was quite the “jack-a-lad,” pointing to the two side crests for his wives. It’s on one of these that the Amharic is inscribed. We’re interrupted by another stern red-robe, who rebukes me for having left my bag unattended.

I leave the abbey without getting to see the Poet’s Corner or the coronation throne because weekends are only for services. I rush away to another house of worship, the huge British Museum. I have time before it closes to see one exhibit, the one I’d come for: the Elgin Marbles. These are the sculptures pried from the surface of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. It’s no longer polite to call them by the pirate’s name, but I do so because I associate them with the poem written by Keats when they arrived in London. With due reverence, I study them, men grappling with centaurs, gods caught lounging in superhuman dimensions in the pediment of the temple. It’s like glimpsing the birth of western art. Ardent love of man is emerging from ardent love of gods. Philosophy and ideas of beauty are being born. I might say humanism, but I know that’s a despised term by one and all these days. I’m not sure what our gods among men are preparing to replace it, but the rest of us carry on. We bring our sacrifices to the temple. By the way, as far as I can tell, it seems the centaurs won the battle.

The sun has set behind the clouds, and I rush off again. “Next stop is Angel.” I like the sound of that. It’s a bit of a hipster’s neighborhood, judging by the blandly world-ubiquitous rebel styles. I turn right and follow the line of old, brick row houses down Noel Road, down to the Island Queen, my pub for the week. Despite its Mississippi steam boat name, it’s the stock Victorian pub, all red inside, with a horseshoe bar, ornamental sculpted ceilings, frosted glass and tall mirrors, etchings of clipper ships. It makes me happy. The manager makes me happy. She has bright blue eyes that lavish me with affection. My dull grey ones return the sentiment. I ask her to marry me so I can be an EU citizen. She, with heaving bosom, (I’ve been dying to use this expression, and who knows if I’ll get another chance?) with heaving bosom, I say, she offers to dedicate one of the evening lotteries to my enterprise in Africa. I sigh with delight. It’s all rather shameless, I know, but what cause, no matter how great, goes uncorrupted for long?

Okay, off to the next house of worship.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Travelogue 40 – October 15
I’m Back in Time

I’m a commuter in London. I push myself into the morning train. From Thomas’ neighborhood, the “tube” is above ground. Every stop is the same – brown, dirty brick and sullen faces. The faces are all colors. I haven’t seen such eclectic and even human diversity since, perhaps, Toronto. There are certainly a lot of Africans. We crowd in; we sway with the acceleration. A stout older woman with false flaxen hair scowls at me, and I realize that I’m smiling. But I have a right; I’ve recovered from the travel. I’m alert and strong, thanks to a full night’s sleep. I arrived yesterday after a sleepless night on the plane. Even with a personal video screen and my choice of movies, even seeing the aurora borealis over Greenland, the red-eye is hell. I can’t even say it’s a nightmare, since that takes sleep. It doesn’t help that my thoughtless friends kept me out until two the previous night. (Don’t listen to their protests that it was me.) I got to London in the morning and, after an hour’s nap at Thomas’, I attempt some sight-seeing. It makes for one of the more dangerous interludes in jarvis history. I’m blinking and stumbling about the bustling lanes like a stunned animal, utterly confused by the change in directions of traffic. I assure you, they don’t brake for dazed tourists. I find myself in a street market and I dig through my new pence in order to buy some fruit. (There’s no logic to the sizes and colors of these coins.) I confront the street again, purposely standing next to two bobbies, (one black and one Indian), in hopes they’ll keep me from stepping out into traffic looking the wrong way. And what do I accomplish? A dreamy tour of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. I watch with bleary eyes a changing of the guard. They look as silly as any men do marching with guns alone under a big sky. Why not wear silly hats to acknowledge it? I make it to Trafalgar Square and sit next to the blonde Japanese toughs I saw last year in Florence, and I admire the monuments of empire.

Today I’m a commuter in London. My job: to admire more spoils of empire in the National Gallery. I’m transported to the Renaissance again, taking in works I’ve seen reproduced in books: the Arnolfini Portait by Van Eyck, smaller than I expected and astounding in its detail; The Ambassadors by Holbein, with its irrelevant puzzle of a skull laid across the very real tiles they stand on, the living eyes of the brothers; the tender and mysterious Virgin of the Rocks by DaVinci -- the angel’s eyes are glowing, and why are they in the Bat Cave; Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli; the marvelous sensitivity of Rembrandt. You see the paint on his canvas. You try to measure the effect. But you will never figure out how the portraits come to life. I tag along with a tour. The witty black tour guide points to the black king Balthasar in Gossaert’s Adoration and recounts the checkered history of the wise men, never enumerated in the Bible but vivid in art and on American’s front lawns at Christmas. Is Balthasar still black on Alabama lawns?

Big Ben, the Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and in between, a big city. I have a hard time feeling like I’m in Europe. Dr. Johnson’s house, the monument commemorating the fire of 1666. It’s all here, everything I’ve eagerly read about. And in between, the big city. The past is here, but it isn’t breathing. All there is of London now: the fire-engine-red, double-decker buses and the accent that I never stop delighting in. They crack me up, this rainbow of the world’s faces, all talking like John Cleese. I sip my tea and listen, watching the unceasing, gentle rain outside. This is London.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Travelogue 39
Peace in Pounds

It's a blustery and pleasant day, perfect for jumping on the bike and gaining a few pounds. That's right, my patient readers, this reporter is finally preparing to hit the road again. Next stop, London. Today's battle against sedentariness: going to exchange a pocket full of dollars. (Now, Webster's says there is no noun to accompany "sedentary." If any adjective deserves a noun, wouldn’t you think it was sedentary?)

And, what's more, it's time to get me to a nunnery. A few blustery and pleasant days ago, I drove to Wisconsin again, this time in search of a host of good sisters. It's part of my research for Zlaty Pes, jarvis' opus #1, the novel under construction. And if that grand work ever progresses far enough, you'll find Chapter One available at Secretly, the trip is also a hungering in my blood for tradition. I launch myself upon our great thoroughfare, I-94, and it wasn't too far beyond city limits that the scenery began speaking. The sumac is burning cardinal and waving gently, whispering, "Jarvis, Jarvis. This way. It's east. It's east, your Bohemian roots, and the House of our Beneficent European Lord." I enter the St. Croix River Valley, wide and gorgeous. The trees climbing the banks of the river shore are bursting with color and they call me on. The water is broad and sleepy, more Mississippi than the Father of Waters himself. Across the line, quaint towns dot the shore selling antiques and vistas. Quaint townspeople crawl along the several streets parallel to the river in their SUVs, turning toward home up the steep roads climbing bluffs, heading into the beer-soaked hills. And it's up in these hills I find the sisters. They inhabit a house on the crest of one shady hill. You pull into their semi-circular drive, under pious pines. You bow uncertainly before the white, waist-high Mary, who acknowledges you without moving. It's that humble and knowing at-the-same-time look, and the palms open at her sides, invoking grace and at the same time giving up on you, shrugging to God and saying, "What can I do?"

The door is answered by a short and wizened old woman. Her hands are gnarled. I think I recall her wearing all white and glowing, but that could be a trick of memory. She says her name is Sister Gemma. Gemma, I mistily recall, means "twin" in Italian, and I try to decipher that. It only reminds me of baseball at the moment. Later, I think she says her name is Sister Yama, which gives me a chill, as that name I have always associated with the Angel of Death. Maybe this is an omen about our playoff chances. She asks me what I teach, and I am further spooked because I never mentioned my career. I try to stammer about jarvis' literary project and my mission, and she makes a wry comment like, "So you thought you'd better meet a real nun." Yes.

She offers to show me to the hermitage, and I think I had better just follow. We get in her SUV and coast a hundred yards down the gravel path beside the monastery to park in front of the cottage. She guides me in. The one room cottage looks eerily like my mother's bedroom in the Seventies, but with Munch-like representations of Christ on the walls. Sister Caroline is scrubbing the bathroom tiles. I nod and say how pretty it is. We sit on the screened-in porch. She asks about my classes again, and I learn she's confused me with someone else who wants a retreat in my mother's bedroom. I learn a little about Sister Gemma. She's been here since the monastery opened in 1963. She was prioress for a while. The sister has a terse and complacent way of answering questions. I set up the scene in jarvis' opus for her. She volunteers nothing, but responds in blunt phrases when I formulate more defined questions. Her summing up, delivered in a tone that might be irritable if it weren't sanctioned by God, is, "It's fiction. You can do whatever you want." Well, so it is.

I ride blissfully down the hill again, contemplating peaceful sisters with gnarled hands. Gemma. She's like a saint, sitting in her porch chair, gazing at the sky, so satisfied with the world. She's like a Twin, sitting in the dugout, gazing at the struggling pitcher, so satisfied with the chaw. Haven't you ever noticed the complacency of a baseball player in his dugout? I want to face disaster with that kind of equanimity. Twelfth inning double by the opposing team: chew, chew, scratch my groin. I like that. The four horsemen are released. It's Famine, Plague, and the skinny, old guy with the scythe: chew, chew, scratch my groin.

It's a blustery and pleasant day, one of my last in America, and a bunch of us are headed to Game Three of the playoff game with the Yankees. Too bad the Metrodome has a roof. But hey, God smiles on us anyway and Mary rolls her eyes. The saints will chew their cuds, come what may, and the managers will touch their groins till the last strike. And I think I'm on the road to authentic religion, opus or no opus.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Travelogue 38
Autumnal Rain

"How can you tell if you're sweating when the sky is pissing on you?" That's my thought of the day, I guess. I woke up feeling under the weather and decided, as often I'm led to do by some strange daemon, to "sweat it out." I'm running, slowly and painfully, in a chilly, light rain -- "under the weather." I am succeeding in punishing myself. But the question arises, "Am I sweating anything out? Am I sweating?" My heart is pounding, dully. I suppose that is something. I surrender to my suffering. I surrender to the humiliation of jogging along like an old man, slower than students striding along under their umbrellas. That's all right. It's fall; I derive some comfort in that. Underfoot, on the gleaming sidewalk, are curling, yellow leaves. Above, most of them are still green. But here and there are rashes of bright color. There are patches of apple red. There is yellow like summer squash and orange like pumpkins. My misery is compounded with hunger. I didn't bother to eat any breakfast. My hands hurt. Later, passing the bank, I see that it's 37 degrees out. That's kind of exciting: I had wanted to experience some real autumn before I left town. Late September was surprisingly moderate and sunny.

It's autumn. Sports on TV seem to take on new urgency. Teams are competing for championship spots in baseball. The Minnesota Twins have won their division and are in a nosedive now that will drop them right into Yankee stadium for some man-handling in the first round of championship games. Monday night football has started up. It's fun to watch in a distracted way, if you happen to be in the bar, -- that is, once the game has begun. The pre-game can be confusing. You're submitted to a long blitz of blustering, hyper-visual, and absurdly ebullient self-promotion before the game that makes you mentally check your calendar. Is it Monday after all? I mean, we're all here to see the game. What exactly are you selling? It reminds me of the odd tradition here of including a preview on your rented movie video for the movie that's on the cassette. I don't understand.

It's autumn. Guys are running for president. I watched two of them debating last night. I noticed some subtle maneuvers by the troll-like one on the right. He keeps repeating in a variety of contexts, "It's a hard job." I think he's trying to discourage the other guy from wanting the position. He stares blankly, and he stutters, "It's a hard job." He goes on to challenge his opponent with statements like, "What kind of message is that to send to our soldiers?" It reminds me of some board meetings I've sat through recently. You're thrown off by strange challenges like that, if you're not careful. You look around and try to remember which meeting you're in, or which rally. Actually, I felt sort of guilty watching these debates, like it's cheating. We're really supposed to wait for the media analysis, when the troll's flustered repetition becomes "staying on message," and the way he hunches over the podium and wrinkles his brow helplessly become "folksy" and "real."

Anyway, I'm out running and the road is glassy and black. I see the reflections of the trees in the wet surface. Cars are hissing. There aren't too many pedestrians anymore. Everything on the smaller streets is hushed. I like seeing the raindrops in the puddles and the breeze that shakes more water out of the tree limbs. I'm easing into a pleasant rhythm with my running. The punishment is paying off, perhaps -- if you judge by the way it isn’t so punishing anymore. And the rain's not coming down too hard. I judge by the dampness of my shirt. It's wet, but I could swear it's been wetter from sweat on summer afternoons.

Circling the empty baseball diamond in the park, I pass on my right the hulking, white, old grain elevator with the unfortunate name of Bunge. With the high tower and the pulley up near the top with rope that hangs all the way down, it just seems too obvious a suggestion to a frat boy. But no one's done it this year. And it's too cold today. They're all inside. The lonely tower projects into the sky. Shreds of dark cloud race along behind it. Things take on a solemn timelessness in fall weather, and you get to feel lost. I think that's a good Midwestern remedy for feeling under the weather.