Monday, May 31, 2004

Travelogue 16 – May 31
Cannibals and Angels

Around Lake T’ana are a bunch of old churches that are world-famous among those who like such things. By such things, I suppose I mean history and art, and especially when the two meet. You pile into a motor boat off the hotel’s pier, an hour later than planned, per Ethiopian etiquette. You sit next to Saba and a couple guys from Addis on one side, a Swiss couple and a Japanese lady on the other, and you set off across the peaceful waters. It takes a good hour to cross to the Zegae peninsula, stopping by Abay Ras (the beginnings of the Nile) in order to gawk at the glistening backs of some hippos. They oblige us with some horse noises as they spit out water, and I’m reminded that their name means “river horse” in ancient Greek. It takes an hour, and you wonder how far you’ve come. The Swiss couple has a guide book, and you realize by looking at the map you’ve only crossed the little lobe at the bottom of the huge lake.

At the shore, you’re greeted by a horde of kids. They escort you up the wooded path, trying to sell the usual trinkets, plying their English, trying to get your address. This latter is a mystery, unless it’s a long-term investment strategy, thinking that, with years to wear you down, you might finally buy them a visa.

There are three churches on this headland, two within walking distance. One supports a little museum, as well, which is really nothing more than a display in a wooden stable, where you can look over some imperial crowns and crosses and vestments. The churches are generally fourteenth century or so. They all follow a similar floor plan: round, with an open portico around the outside; in the center, the sanctum for priests, and then the passage around it for worship. No tourists enter the sanctum. On the walls of the sanctum and the rafters above are the art, painted by monks and priests way-back-when on cloth and then hung upon the walls. The themes are patterned, as is the style. St. George killing the dragon is always prominent as you walk in, and the doors of the inner sanctum are guarded by two angels, Gabriel and Urael, or maybe Rafael. They are beautiful depictions, colorful, kind of cartoonish, but somber. We follow the life of Jesus in one set of panels. In another, we get gory representations of martyrs. In another, Mary cries over the blue-skinned sinners in hell. Above, the classic Ethiopian cherubs dot the rafters: big-eyed faces with wings attached. In one church, the paintings are fading, but still vivid. In another, locals have executed an awful restoration, in the colors of the Ethiopian flag, and with modern donors joining in the Biblical events. The latter reminds me of Italy, where medieval patrons are attending on Mary’s presentation in the temple, and so forth.

My favorite is the island monastery. The women have to go to their own island, where, unfortunately, the convent was burned down or bombed in recent history, and everything is newly built. On our island, the church hasn’t been restored. The church is ancient, the paintings faded, and it’s wonderful. The pattern of subject matter changes. Archangels glare at you from the columns. Mary and child are painted by Luke himself on one wall! And in the “museum”, aside from the usual crowns and crosses, is a library of medieval manuscripts, which the monk in charge is happy to open and let you touch. Illuminated goatskin, written on in Ge’ez, the forefather of Amharic, and one of the grand old Christian languages, dating back nearly as far as the church itself.

And so, a rather severe old religion carries on. At the gates of every church, you take off your shoes, and I curse my long laces. Saba and the other Abasha cross themselves, bow, and kiss the door frame three times, touching it with their foreheads in between. At the door of the sanctum, they kneel and bow. We pause at the painting on the right hand wall of the sanctum that you see in every church, the story of Belai, I believe his name was: an upright farmer tempted by the devil into cannibalism. Every artist portrays him gnawing with a manic look on the severed teat of his mother. Some residue of piety moves him to pour a drop of water for a Marian hermit, so, towering above this panel of pictures is Mary herself who saves Belai by dropping the shadow of two fingers into the archangel’s balance as the demons at her feet are grasping at the desperate soul of Belai, who is cringing and hanging onto Mary’s cloak.

“You aren’t very religious, are you?” she asks. This young lady would like to take me to a service of the Jehovah’s witnesses. I have to answer no to her question, reflecting that I don’t say yes in my heart, like I might have at an earlier date. There is no one coming to my rescue. Every day they hang on the walls of their churches, I wonder how I go on without my Leeza.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Travelogue #15 – May 29
The Woofs and the Zafs

My landlord gives me looks in the morning now. He has to open the gate to the compound so I can get out. I’m always awake and waiting for him when he emerges in his robe and wrinkled face. I’m not sure how to read it. I might label the expression “mystified”. Last night was a party night. I call it “Meles Day” because I can’t remember the real name. It’s basically a celebration of the victory of the present leaders over the last -- Meles, our prime minister since 1991, over Mengistu, socialist dictator who overthrew the emperor Haile Selasie in 1974. Anyway, maybe it’s just a hangover.

In Bahir Dar, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to leave my hotel room. I just strolled out my door as light dawned and took a seat on the gorgeous terrace overlooking the lake. The rooms at the Ghion Hotel are in a poor state of repair. The staff are all hustlers, sweet-talking the faranj into one more expensive tour. But the terrace and the garden are beautiful. At dawn, I’m alone on the terrace. The lake is absolutely still and misty. Above in the sprawling warqa tree, an amazing assortment of woofs (birds) hop around. My favorite you can hear growling up there before you see him. He swoops from branch to branch, head bigger than his body. It’s a hornbill – something like the toucan, except less colorful and with an extra ridge on top of its enormous bill. He’s as big as a small dog, and he spends his day picking what I assume are dates from the palms and then coughing them up on another branch. There are parrots and bullhorn geese. And once you start your breakfast, the bright yellow little weavers show up, some alighting right on the table. I’ve mentioned the huge warqa tree. There are two zafs (trees) in Bahir Dar that instantly put you in the Africa mood. This is one. Its limbs spread and twist horizontally from a broad trunk. The leaves are wide and dusty feeling. It took me several days to find out what it is in English, and my information is incomplete. At first, they insisted it was a fig tree, which I knew was false. Then one Frenchie informed me it was a sort of sycamore. A ficus? Pronounced like fig. Anyway, the other tree is the jacaranda, that sometimes blooms in beautiful, scarlet flowers. These trees are not only cultivated on hotel grounds, but can be seen all around town, and even out in the dry hills.

The warqa spreads its limbs wide out in the hills around Tis Abay. That is the name of the waterfall in the Blue Nile that you’ll see displayed in any tourist materials on Ethiopia. The name means “smoke of the Nile,” to describe the effect of the mist from the falls. Sometimes it’s called Tis Isat, or fire smoke. If you’ve seen any pictures of it, they are at least a few years old, because, sad to say, Tis Abay is pretty much a thing of the past. They have just completed the hydroelectricity project that diverts almost all the water of the Nile around the falls. The day we saw it, the whole of the falls was a thin strip of water along a long, rocky cliff that once was roaring water. Still beautiful, but disappointing. You hesitate to complain, knowing the needs of the country have to come first. You just enjoy the hike among the hills, followed by a ragtag bunch of locals, mostly children, who try to sell you bamboo flutes, tepid pop, and calabash water vessels. You climb down to the pool of water underneath the falls, where kids are enthusiastically swimming, and, if you’re not too bright, you jump around the rocks like I did and drop your camera, breaking it open and spoiling most of your shots. It’s a nice little tour, going to Tis Abay. You hike from below to above the falls, crossing the oldest bridge over the Ethiopian Nile below, a vestige of Portuguese presence, and then crossing back in a boat, hoping to catch sight of alligators. You climb back on the tour bus, satisfied despite the anemic falls, and brace for the long ride back along dirt roads.

Back in town, you pass some hours staring at the lake, and then, as sun nears setting, you and Saba take a walk through town. The lanes are crowded. It’s a small enough town that you almost walk the whole perimeter, walking by the tall minarets of the mosque and by the community center blasting music and by the old Italian library, and you stop by the dabbo bet (bread shop) and you pick up a bag of rolls that you pass out among the street children.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Travelogue #14 – May 27
The Tankwa

I’m up at 5:30 again. I take my cold shower before the sunrise. I examine today’s bug bites. Seems like my roommates, the insects, feel entitled to extra portions because I starved them for five days. I was away feeding other bugs. I was up in Bahir Dar, a town northwest, an hour by plane. Its name means “by the sea”, though it’s not by the sea at all. It’s by a lake, Lake T’ana, and since T’ana is the third largest lake in Africa, I suppose the name is acceptable. (Another “third” about Ethiopia: I read yesterday that Addis Ababa is the third highest capital city in the world.)

Bahir Dar is where I got into the habit of 5:30 awakenings. Yesterday, I’m up and out the door at 5:30. I have to meet my tankwa connection. I leave the hotel grounds and walk. I can’t go too fast in my new, green, plastic Captain America sandals. (We called them flip-flops in California. Is that a general term in English? I know here they have a name that’s too long to recall. The more common the item, the more syllables in Amharic. Abstractions get the one- and two-syllable words.) I’ve been wearing them so much here they hurt.

I cut through the church grounds and scramble along the dirt paths through the village of huts behind it. These people farm a plot of land between the church and the next hotel, and they fish. I get to lakeshore, picking my way delicately down the rocky slope. My contact isn’t here yet, so I wait. Sitting on one rock pile are two young guys with blankets over their heads and shoulders, bibles on their knees. One reads aloud. The other is singing mezmur, the Ethiopian hymns. As you walk through the village, you hear similar voices inside the huts.

My connection arrives – Demelesh, a young fisherman. We don’t say much. He knows what I want. He wraps his arms around one of the tankwas leaning against the rock pile and throws it in the water. He tosses in a bundle of papyrus for a seat. I get in, adjusting my balance, careful not to tip over. He hands me the two-headed oar, gives me a push, and I’m off. I glide through the still water, past stones and past the high papyrus that supplies the fishermen with their little boats – the tankwas, made of reeds. The water is profoundly still, as it is every morning. The days here follow an unvarying pattern: still and sunny in the morning, winds from the north and some clouds in the afternoon, then sunny again as the sun sets. I struggle with my paddling technique. The oar is a thick, round branch with paddles nailed on. The fishermen wrap their hands around the top of the branch and paddle side to side. My hands aren’t strong enough to do that. I have to hold it from the bottom, making me slow. But I am steady. After a while, I can develop a flowing movement, side to side, keeping the papyrus point of the boat straight ahead of me. When you see a tankwa from the distance, you see the oar turning like a windmill. I fancy that I look like that from shore. The sun comes over the brown hills in the distance. I stop and sing a mezmur to Helios or to Ra. Actually, I don’t know any mezmur. Not even a prayer. But I’m reverent, and hopefully that’s enough. I row for an hour, past various marshy coves, past another few hotels. Tankwa men shout, “Hello, Mister,” and wave. Several enormous pelicans paddle close behind me, looking for scraps of fish. Egrets fly overhead. I believe I spot an ibis. In one cove, I circle around a lotus flower.

After an hour, I arrive at my destination. There’s one little cove, and another. You see the water encircles an island here. There’s a wooden shack on the island and a yawning man. There’s cactus on the bluffs. You see that the water continues on beyond the island. Ahead there’s another inlet. This water flowing so peacefully inland all collects into one river, beyond sight. This river is the Abay River, the Nile. I’m looking at the beginnings of the Blue Nile, one of the two sources of the great river. The other is Lake Victoria in Uganda, the source of the White Nile. The two Niles join in Khartoum, Sudan. (I saw this from the air, actually -- an impressive sight in the middle of the brown desert below.) I float here a while, soaking in the sun which is rising higher over the hills that recede along the Nile valley. It’s utterly quiet here, except for the subtle lapping of a tankwa’s paddle in the Nile waters. I search the waters for the backs of hippos. On a previous trip -- in a motor boat that time – we saw them, sunning as peacefully as I am now.

I don’t stay long. I know they need the tankwa. On the way back, Demelesh catches up to me. He shows me some of the morning’s catch from his nets. I slip him some birr. I don’t want to give him money in front of his friends in case they become jealous. We stop at another of his nets on the way back. I wait for him while he untangles a bit of it that has knotted around the float, a piece of styrofoam. We row back together. It’s bathing time at lakeside, and a bunch of naked people laugh and wave at me from the rocks. A couple boys dive in and try to catch me. The boat back on shore, I head back to the hotel for breakfast.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Travelogue #13 – May 20
All About the Laughs

Buon giorno, Mario,” I say. It’s a pleasure to have an Italian acquaintance here. I get to practice a little Italian. And who can’t love the accent? Almost every morning we encounter each other at my café. I think he comes here because it’s the closest thing he can find to an Italian breakfast, which is really just an excuse for a quick infusion of sugar and caffeine. For the brioche, he substitutes cookies. He’s trained them how to make an approximation of a cappuccino. And he’s relaxed enough in thirty years in Africa to even sit down for breakfast. He’s a cheerful fellow, about sixty years-old, tall, healthy, shaven-headed, with bright blue, laughing eyes. He teases the ladies here and kisses them on the cheek -- always in a gentlemanly way. “Where in Italia could a man my age kiss a pretty woman like this?” His theory is that Mussolini meant the women when he cited “natural resources” as the reason for invasion. Mario happens to hale from a town where I spent a few days this winter, and in which I actually set a short scene in Chapter One of Jarvis’ big novel, which I haplessly struggle with every day at this very café. He tells me how the centro of his town has changed. When he was young, everyone wanted to move out into the country. Now their kids are moving back into the centro. Sounds like America. When I ask him about his work, he obliges me with the classic gesture: fingers and thumb together, up, and shake loosely. He shakes his head. That’s all.

Mario is the coolest faranj in Ethiopia. Generally, there’s something in the air that denies us any coolness, any savoir faire. We make an ugly lot. Most of us are old, getting in some last-minute good works. There’s a set of 90s swingers in the bars, long hair and ties, and a contingent of the starry-eyed Birkenstockers. There’s a small middle-aged PC crowd, weary and reclusive. Nothing redeems our pallid self-consciousness on the street. One quickly sees our ugliness through their eyes. Not the jolly Chinese are immune to this effect, nor the intense sari-and-suit Indians, who are buying up all the real estate for their next lives. So it goes.

That’s not to say the Abasha are cool. That quality really doesn’t exist here, except as an anti-matter produced by the faranj. Jaunty maybe. Everything’s natural: the grin and wink of the breast-feeding mother on the street; the laborers piled into the back of the dump truck, singing and clapping; the teenage boys on the sidewalk practicing some dance step they saw on TV; the sullen stare that’s friendly in an instant. You just have to joke. Make everything a joke and you’re fine. Laughter is the currency here. You hear that all the time about Africa. Actually, it gets to be grating. Everyone starts to look a little manic, and playing for laughs gets tiresome. Anything goes. I remember the morning I saw a naked man strolling down the middle of the street, cars streaming around him. As we passed, no one in the taxi batted an eye. The same morning, in a different taxi, we passed an obese women, (unusual itself in Ethiopia,) sitting on a stool on the sidewalk and scrubbing herself. No reaction. But the faranji get a laugh. So it goes.

Sanbat, my little street girl, is coming along. She runs up behind me in her one, midnight blue , felt dress too big for her. She smiles brightly and holds my hand. We are able to hold a little conversation in our second language. How are you? Good, thanks God. What do you want today, I ask? “Dabbo!” she says. Bread. So I pull the little loaf out of my backpack and give it to her. She runs back to her family, which sits together on the same corner every day, looking shamelessly happy. I watched them one day, laughing, clapping to some song the mother was singing. The boy, a toddler, is trying to dance.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Travelogue #12 – May 15
Saturday Morning

The brown, stubbly grass is dotted with blue plastic bags. An inquisitive lam (cow) eyes you, considers following, while the bugs sleep. You hear a baby’s cry and beside the trail you see the VW shell sheltered in grass and the mother peering out. All around it are men sprawled and sleeping. There’s a cluster of aheya (donkeys) looking about as happy as aheya ever do. Two of them have locked onto the back of each other’s necks with their teeth, and they walk in a wide, slow circle together. You stop to watch, but they just continue. The soccer fields are strangely quiet. You scramble down the side of a miniature, red canyon and jump across a stream that looks clean but smells rancid. The grass becomes greener. Some squatters have tended small crops here and there. You pass a haystack and plod over ploughed earth and tiny runnels in high, green grass of water that’s a kind of detergent blue. You stop at the sight of a new bird, sleek and pretty, black and white in sharp divisions on its head and breast, and tan on its back. Three kites watch from their perches on rocks. Behind you a shepherd cracks his whip. The crops get thicker as you go. You have to climb over a makeshift fence of thorns and thistles to get to the road. Along narrow dirt roads you pass small shops and the gates of expensive homes. The walls are embellished with handsome hedges and morning glories. An old man sits behind a table underneath a tent. On his table is a sewing machine that’s at least fifty years old. A man is walking his bug like a lawnmower, holding its back legs. Further, between two high gates, a bug’s head sleeps under a bustling encampment of flies. You’re breaking a sweat. This week, it’s been hot and glaring. The cry of the street vendor seems made of the sunshine. It may be one of the walking mop-and-broom salesmen; they get an early start. Every type of vendor has its distinctive cry. This one is high and nasal. You wonder how they make it all day, like you wonder about the taxi boys who hang out the van windows all day and shout out destinations. It’s quiet again. A boy lazily holds out his hand as you pass. You emerge into the road construction, a big avenue that will lead to the multi-million dollar church they’re building, touting it as the biggest in Africa. Biggest church, you wonder, or biggest Orthodox church? Ethiopia and Egypt have the only large Orthodox communities in Africa. It is big. The three green domes can be spotted from miles away. Relief workers and educators look on it with a dose of bitter irony. Dodging the bulldozer, you cross the packed gravel and climb back onto the intersecting dirt road, where warm silence prevails again. Dogs sleep in the shadows of walls and shopkeepers stare from inside their small, square windows. The alleyway peters out at the edge of one last vacant lot. The busy street is beyond. To your right are the tarara above downtown. Tall summer clouds are accumulating there. You reflect that you left home four months ago today, and all you miss of your former life, aside from the people, are your bicycle and a crisp autumn breeze.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Travelogue #11 – May 13
Till the Lams Come Home

Without expecting it, I was up the tarara (mountain) again. It was the day I was to speak to an agency about partnering with the foundation (see link.) Up and up we drove, toward their office. We drove by the huge, wooded estate, up the side of a steep hillside, that is the French embassy. The embassy gives this neighborhood its name, Farantsay, and some say gives us the term faranj. Looking up the road of this agency’s office, it seems as though you can see the end of town at the base of the tarara. Above are trees and meadows. I’m huffing and puffing again, barely recovered from a cold and suffering from my asthma.

After the meeting, we drive around to a few of their sites. Several of them are right against the green mountainside. I want to run up under the trees; I want to have the breath to run up under the trees. They don’t think twice when I say it’s beautiful. When I mention beauty to the chauffer on the way, he thinks I’m talking about the women – another point of pride among Ethiopians. It’s funny to me how oblivious they seem to be to what I think is beauty. I draw equally blank looks mentioning the tarara as the blue skies or sunsets. I suppose they have plenty of others things to think about, like empty stomachs and what’s in the faranj’s pockets. Even the middle class here is very preoccupied with being middle class – being pioneers, I guess. They buy their houses out in the plain, by my house or in Bole, avoiding the gorgeous foothills because that’s the older part of town and where the poor have congregated. It all works against California law. No Topanga canyon, no mansions in the hills.

We visit three schools. All are projects to which these prospective partners have contributed. They are meant to represent the range of possibility. The poorest is a long, low building of corrugated iron and wood. The children are gathered at desks and are drawing in their workbooks. “What’s that?” I ask. “Saat!” A watch. Okay. Every book has a watch and a house drawn in it, circle and peaked square. Next door is a youth project where they keep young guys occupied converting a dump into a working garden. These guys crowd around us jovially; they want to show me. We have to say next time. The nicest facility we visit was built courtesy of the Italian embassy and then given over to the kebele (district.) It’s got a few concrete buildings and a slide. It accommodates four classes of fifty kids each.

One of the schools is in recess, and the kids rush me on the playground. I have my Bill Clinton moment, reaching into the crowd with both hands. Every one of them has to shake my hand. Some little boys cheat and approach two or three times. I say nothing, especially when I see the astonishment with which they look up at me. The other two kindergartens are in session. When we enter the classrooms, the kids stand and we ask, “How are you, lijjoch (children)?” All in unison, they answer: “We’re fine, thanks to God.” Then the teacher has them show off their English by singing a song or two. One is “Mary had a little lamb,” I think, though it’s a bit garbled. This must be a confusing ditty for them, as lam means cow, and little girls really don’t tend cattle. They chant another song and dance to it, bobbing back and forth. One class recites the alphabet in a deafening chorus. It’s overwhelming. The kids are much too cute. They gape at me with such wonder. I’m sold on the mission here. If I could, I would transport all donors and volunteers to one classroom.

Leaving, I make my guide promise we’ll come back and hike a bit. He glances back at the tarara and shrugs. Sure, why not?

Birdwatch: I almost stepped on a little mouse of a bird the other day in my field. It’s the color of a mouse along its back, but underneath it’s a bright turquoise, and on its cheek is a patch of vermilion. Beautiful little bird, and fearless. It barely hopped out from under my foot, and then it continued to peck in the dirt while I loomed overhead, watching. Other little finches? We’ve got them: red ones, yellow ones.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Travelogue #10 – May 8

I’ve neglected to report about a trip to Entoto a week ago, preferring, I suppose, trivialities, that being the make-up of my character. Entoto is a mountain above Addis Ababa where the emperor Menelik first settled in the 1870s & 80s. Still standing is the Maryam church, which he built, and which his wife later renovated and expanded. And you can also still visit his palace.

Entoto is a long way up. It doesn’t seem like it from below. It looks like a hike of an hour or two. No, it’s a series of grinding taxi rides, first to the northern edge of town and into the neighborhoods that climb the foothills. Then one waits a good long while at the base of the mountain for the last taxi to fill up. This is one of those that is a pickup with a shell over the back. You sit on one of two benches on top of the wheel well. The driver won’t depart until he has six people per side. That is a serious squeeze. People trickle in from other taxis or buses. My friend and I sit and chat with a father and his baby daughter who are both going to see Entoto for the first time. “I’ve lived in Addis all my life and never made it,” the father says. The little girl is all dressed up in her traditional garments, like linen pajamas. Eventually, enough people cram in, and we roll. The last one in pulls the back door shut and sits on the little steel shelf screwed to the door. Seems a tenuous hold on life, especially going uphill.

We take a long series of hairpin turns, biodiversity strangely perishing as we go. There is literally nothing on this mountain but eucalyptus, and green grass between wide gullies of red earth. You pass old women trudging down the hill with bundles of eucalyptus branches strapped horizontally to their backs, and the occasional donkey doing the same work.

Up top, I can barely breathe. That’s been an issue for me in Ethiopia, with my asthma-wracked respiratory system. Addis is about two thousand meters above sea level already. Even by the time I’m at the bottom of the hill, I’m short of breath. A runner passes and stops at the shop by the taxi stand. I’m in awe. I ask him if he’s going to Athens. He just sneers. I worship him all the more. Only the good ones sneer.

The church is a traditional structure, octagonal or so in design, with pretty, carved eaves. We don’t enter. Instead, we’re shuffled into a small museum, where a guide attempts explanation in English. There are pictures, crowns, and garments of the great king. He had an intriguing face, humble and frank, it seems to me. He’s the guy who beat the Italians the first time around. We see the gun he shot at them. Behind the church, we see his “palace”. That consists of three or four structures with mud walls and thatched roof. His residence is the most modest of them all, two rooms, basically. The hall where he eats with international guests is the biggest. That makes sense to me, Ethiopians even today being delighted with their cuisine. It’s the one consistent line of questions a visitor will receive: how do you like the food? And then, you’ll have to respond about each of the major dishes. From his residence, a window opens out over the wide plain. It’s said he ruled from this window. You can believe it from the view. Below lies just about the whole city of Addis Ababa. Wheezing horribly, I pick out my neighborhood, out in the flattest and furthest plain, by the airport. And then I sit on a tree root.

On the way out, the daddy and girl catch up to us. He wants to walk down with us. I pretend to be enthusiastic. We make it about a quarter mile, look for a few photo vantages, and turn back. The knees ache on such a steep hill, and seeing one’s home town in miniature like that is daunting. We turn back for the taxis. I would rather have headed for the meadows on neighboring tarara (mountains) myself, but that’ll be another time. It looks like I’ll have opportunities, if plans on the school work out in the direction they’re headed. Next installment …

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Travelogue #9 – May 6, 2004
Sarg, the Sequel

It seems that two days after a sarg (wedding,) the couple is invited, along with many guests, to the bride’s family’s house. The original purpose was to offer a chance for the dissatisfied groom to return her. Now, it’s a big banquet and party. My Protestant friend, Samson, invited me to the Mals, as it’s called, (I’m familiar with that word as meaning change, like from a dollar,) of his sister. I was already coming down with this cold and should have declined, but I forgot how these events unfold, and he was insistent. Sure enough, we met at five, and the couple didn’t show until after eight. The “hall” looked to be canvas thrown over the courtyard between two rows of small houses, one of which was Samson’s. Rows of unendurable, metal folding chairs were tightly packed into a bit of slanting concrete, so that one buttock suffered more than the other, unless you leaned into the shoulder of your neighbor. My neighbor didn’t mind. He was a friend of Samson’s and fondled me all evening. Who am I to complain? I haven’t had that kind of intimacy in a while. Few of my girlfriends have been so publicly affectionate, gripping my inner thigh as the show gets going. When they finally arrived, we stood and awaited their entrance while the video crew enacted their elaborate rituals, blinding us all with sweeps of halogen. They enter. The couple wears black gowns embroidered with gold patterns, and she wears a diadem. Led before them is the unfortunate bug who will provide the main course. I recall that I’d already passed this hall on a walk earlier that same day, and I had noticed a bull’s hide stretched out on the grass, its head laid ignominiously beside the path. He had a kind of bored and sleepy expression, this bull, and looked as though he might have been buried there like a kid in the sand at the beach. Anyway, couple and attendants take their seat on a small dais festooned with Christmas lights. My new friend is squeezing me with renewed ardor. I’m just waiting for the tajj bottles to be opened. (That’s the honey mead.) Maybe the bug is offering resistance backstage. We sit and sit. Eventually, they allow the bottles to be opened, primarily out of pity for me, I think. I’ve got a good glassful down and have an arm around my buddy when they start calling us back for food. I’m the only faranj, so I follow right after the dignitaries. There’s quite a spread. I think Samson said forty dishes. I take a good sample, passing with good humor the raw meat, which Ethiopians love. They all smile. Things liven up once we’ve eaten. Some guests begin to break out into skista while the couple endures an endless series of poses in front of the cameramen. The guests drag the faranj up for amusement. I do my best skista, but it’s crowded and I’m weary. They enjoy it anyway. I’m having a nice time trying to talk to the old ladies next to me. They’re shy with me; they have beautiful smiles. I try to coax them into drinking tajj. No, no. Their husbands grin drunkenly from across the table. It’s verging on ten, and my friend says it’s time to go. He escorts me most of the way home, massaging my hand in his as he talks about marriage. “You’re not married? Girlfriend? No?” He’s shocked, and lectures me about this. I try to take cover behind my advanced age. It won’t work. Watat, he repeats. Young. And the discourse continues thus, in pigeon Amharic, a discourse to the effect of “a man needs a maid,” and he pats my genitals occasionally to highlight his argument. I agree and agree. He eventually brings up the widow, and I smell a conspiracy. She’s beautiful. She’s alone. And she didn’t make it to the Mals. He says she’s fasting and shrugs. He’s as Christian as she is and doesn’t know why she’s fasting. That’s frightening, someone who fasts even more than necessary in Ethiopia. A man needs a maid. He tells me about how he and his wife do it every night and he massages my palm with extra vigor. I’m able to pry myself loose at last, and I make my exit, wandering down the pitch black lanes to my house. My head throbs, my throat is raw, and I feel a bit molested. But it was worth going to see pretty women skista. One of them reminded me of Leeza. The next day, they laugh at my hangover and advanced cold at Sami’s café. He tells me that in a few more nights, the families gather at the bridegroom’s family’s house for something called Kelekel. I think I’ll have to pass.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Travelogue #8 – May 4
Fields of Trash

Dalul touches my face. Dalul is Leeza’s brother. He’s fourteen and curious. He often stares at me with his wide, brown eyes and touches my skin and my hair. He finds the faranj an intriguing phenomenon. He’s a gentle, quiet boy, crazy about soccer, not so good in school, respectful of his mother. He takes my hand when we walk together, which is not an uncommon thing among men here. Today he touches in order to watch the white spot it leaves on my red forehead. I’ve been irresponsible with my sunshine this weekend. I can’t help it. I can’t resist the sun, and I can’t resist my new pleasure: strolling through the fields that lie between Gurgi and Bole. Gurgi is my neighborhood. South of it lies the airport, and east from the airport gates runs Bole Road, along both sides of which lies the fashionable Bole district. There are nice outdoor cafes there, and, more importantly, the fields lie behind the new buildings and around the airport. They were probably pretty before all the trash collected, and before the quarry and the construction. But they are green, by and large, and I can be alone for minutes at a time without being badgered. The clusters of trees are pretty. The big clouds that drift overhead make for handsome skies. The mountains in the distance are alluring. And the life drawn to the fields is diverse and interesting. First of all, the myriad heaps of trash draw some of the city’s more notorious birds. There are the brown kites that circle and that dot the treetops. There are the white-breasted crows that sound like dying car horns when they call. There are the remarkably ugly buzzards, with their pointy white heads that look like skulls. They are huge and ungainly and prefer to gallop away from you than to fly. Then there are some odd, pelican-like birds with long bills with which they root through the garbage. I believe these are ibises. There are people encamped here and there, some just napping, others who have built shelters. There are the small herds of bugs and cattle brought here to graze, oblivious to the skulls and leg bones of their cousins who have made meals for the local humans. There are the soccer players on their ad hoc fields, running and shouting. Between one field and another there is a cluster of huts like a village. There, a group of giggling mothers with kids on their backs engulfs me, their hands out for birr (the currency.) They don’t see many faranj in these parts. I tease them by asking them for money. It sounds cruel, but they get a kick out of it. I have to amuse myself somehow; it gets tiresome being the walking gunzeb. Beyond the village are the fields apparently designated by the community as athletic. The soccer fields are cleaner, the players better. Runners circle the lot of them. Bugs and cows watch the games with me. Walk beyond that, and you arrive at the Orthodox revival tent, where a priest is almost always preaching across the loudspeaker. He stands in front, in his long gown and flat-topped cap, colleagues sitting in a line beside him in folding chairs. Those spooky figures in white are gathered on the small hilltops. A circle of kids and mothers in white cloaks sings hymns. They smile or stare as I pass, but, notably, no one raises a cupped hand for handouts. Past that, I re-enter the city streets, in Gurgi. I should mention that it’s on this walk that I met Sanbat. She’s about eight, a pretty little girl with a sunny smile. Her head is shaved and she wears the dark rags that signal that she’s a street child. She spots me as I pass and runs to catch me. I grab her and ask if she’s my gwadenya, my friend. It took me a while to figure out that she speaks about as much Amharic as I do. I think she’s from a region in the north called Tigrae. She walks with me, cajoling me for some gift. When we first met, I was carrying leftover fries from a café in Bole. Of course, I gave them to her for her and her family. Since then, I try to carry a bit of dabbo (bread) with me in case I run into her. They say about ten percent of the city’s kids live on the street. Even if they have shelter, they beg for their families. It’s a precarious existence, especially for girls, who are often abducted.