Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Travelogue #1: March 30, 2004
Taxis and Bathrooms

Back in Ethiopia four days or so. I’m exhausted from my two months of so-called rest in Italy. I stay close to the hotel. I take a little walk down Haile Gebreselassie, the crazy street that’s roughly six lanes wide with a dusty meridian with sad palms. Half the traffic is taxis: the blue Toyota vans that are the normal taxis. They stop and shout out the neighborhoods they’re heading toward. You jump in & pay your 12 cents or so. Or there are the contract taxis, also blue. For a couple bucks you can ride in (more) comfort in the little Ladas. There is constant beeping. Many people are on foot and they stare. Only the occasional donkeys or sheep don’t stare at me. Sad little children beg. So do the turbaned old men. Boys shout out to give you a shoe shine. Young guys yell at you, “Hello, Mister. How are you?” Some people smile shyly. I wave hello like a star, brush away flies and blink away the dust.

I want to do some writing, so I look for a café or bar where I think I won’t be bothered by beggars or kids selling something. The first place I stop seems all right. There are tables outside, but off the street. There aren’t many people, which is unusual, but I find out why when I go searching for the bathroom. I always forget that most of the bars in this area (the line between bar and café is a tentative one) have some side business in the back. I pass the several dirty rooms with beds and the “business women,” as they say here. Across the street from the little home of Melesech, Leeza’s mother, & next door, are a couple of these “hotels” or bars. So there’s the good news for the married men who visit. For the single men, some hope: since I’ve been here, I’ve received a number of marriage proposals, & invitations home to meet the family, and from some very pretty women. For the women, I’m not sure what I can offer for entertainment. Some wholesome staring, I suppose. Seems like some of the men here are very handsome, & their moms will teach you how to make injera.

I make it to another café, where I sit at a table in the middle of a small room and absorb a roomful of stares. I have my machiatto and sambusa for half a dollar & write. Somehow, the attention doesn’t bother me much anymore. Maybe I tap into it for creative juice. I beg for the key to the bathroom, which is out behind the place. Most places here are organized like compounds, with several buildings behind a gate, or front building. That includes middle class houses or businesses. Well, when I find the bathroom, the smell from the hole in the ground singes the hair on my face and my bangs.

I decide I need a haircut. I find a ladies salon in a tall, new building on the avenue. I ask if they have experience with faranj (white devil) hair. They confer together. I talk to the manager. They decide they’re up to it. Several of them gather around my chair, and they discuss every clip with the dull scissors, while the others look on. They cut here and there, and smooth down the rest. They’re cute and I don’t mind the new look.

The sky today, like every day I’ve been here, is a mixture of hazy sunshine and big, lazy clouds. It gets hot when the sun is shining, but it can also be cool. Addis Ababa sits at a high altitude. When you approach from the air, you see it spread across a series of valleys among a range of Southern-California-like mountains. From anywhere in the city, you see the hills around. That, and the many trees and the bright flowers everywhere, make the town pretty. The soil here is red, and fortunately, the people here grow many gardens. My hotel has a nice garden around the courtyard/parking lot where can sit peacefully. There’s a lemon tree, bottle brush, and other plants we will have to wait for an expert to name. But I’m happy to say my neighborhood boasts many beautiful morning glories.

There are funny birds here, too. There’s an oversized black hummingbird with a sweet song. There’s a big crow with a white collar makes a sound like a sick cat. There are many kites gliding like brown eagles overhead, rising up on thermals to circle high. Speaking of the sky, I have to say it’s cool to see how the stars are different this far south. Orion crosses straight overhead, and the North Star is close to the horizon.

Not so pretty is the corrugated iron that everywhere serves as fences or roofs, sometimes walls. The streets, most of which have no name, are rough stone or mud. Most houses are either concrete or mud. The latter seem thrown up haphazardly, usually in rows or clusters, surrounded by mud. The kitchen is a covered area outside, with a hole for the fire. The bathroom is another covered area with another, smellier hole. There are, of course, nicer neighborhoods, like the one I’m in, that have a few paved roads, and ordered rows of the concrete houses behind their gates. But they are never far from the shanty towns. And they’ll still probably have kitchens and bathrooms as described. It will be the servants who cook.

There’s no “downtown” that we would recognize as such – an area where money has fashioned a city atmosphere that we would be comfortable with. Just areas with heavier concentrations of people and concrete commercial buildings. There are a few palaces and government buildings and churches that are cleaner, more imposing, surrounded by gardens and fences and guards. But no Nicollet Mall.