Monday, June 28, 2004

Travelogue 22 – June 28
Despising Lavoro

“Odia la Guerra; Odia il Lavoro,” says the graffiti on the pizzeria wall across the mini piazza. I would translate this roughly, (and probably incorrectly,) as “Hate War; Hate Work.” It’s an airtight philosophy, and it fits pretty neatly into mine. I’d say I’m demonstrating it well this noon hour in Trastevere, Roma at my little cafe in the mini piazza. And when I say mini, I mean it. Five alleyways the width of a European car converge here, and I could toss my cappuccino cup across the space ahead without breaking the stricture of “Odia Il Lavoro”. I could do it underhanded -- though, actually, it looks like it might be uphill. The cobblestones look more like Pompei’s lava field than a roadway. The only level space is the manhole cover in the center of the square. A row of Vespas is parked by the yellow building. The cafe building behind me is crumbling mustard. The one across the road to my right was once russet before it contracted leprosy. There are laundry and ferns hanging over my head. Down the alley ahead, there are glimpses of high, red-tiled roofs, and below, a collection of carabinieri, gathered around their squad cars; they’ve been idle as long as I have. I think most of my readers know my capacity for idleness.

But why lavora? It’s noon. The sun reigns at the center of a marvelously blue sky, scorching, allowing no shade. Rome is in bloom, all green with cypress, pine, maple and palm, and rooftop gardens among the peach- and apricot- and squash-colored buildings. It’s abloom with bright sun and white skin. I somehow thought pink flesh would be distasteful after Africa, but it does have its sugary charm. It gathers by the ton at the Ostiense railway terminal, on its way to the beach. I find my will sorely tested when we arrive at my station, the one for Ostia Antica. The history-lover in me vanquishes the mortal aesthete, and I disembark to stroll the remains of ancient Rome’s port city. At first, it’s a relief from the cacophony of capitol cities: birdsong; dandelions and red poppies among the old flagstones rounded and spread by two thousand years of weather; ancient red brick, silent and decrepit underneath the grand, red-trunked pines; the peaceful, green Tiber rolling by. But morning advances toward noon, and the air seems a bit too white and rare, and I’m getting dizzy. When I left Ethiopia, I taunted friends there with all the sun I would soon be enjoying. If only they could see me now, ducking from shade to shade and fleeing to the shelter of the train station. In the evening, I admire my new red crown, glowing in corners exposed by the Ethiopian buzz cut. Today, indolence is king, under cafe table umbrellas.

Yesterday afternoon, I’m investigating a new neighborhood in the south of the city, research for the novel. I’m resting in a park set square in the middle of a dreary traffic hub among blocks of apartment buildings set up like dominoes. There are dusty trees; there is shade. Three old men share one bench. The rest are vacant. A trash can is overturned. I notice, halfway through my pizza, what the crowd of boys to my left is up to. On a clear bit of pavement, they’ve set up a long and convoluted track for their battery-powered race cars, which are about the size of one’s hand. They’re entranced by their buzzing little robots circling almost faster than the eye. A grey-haired man with a pipe joins in. Passing teens stop to watch. A touch of innocence in the urban scene: I’m struck again by the amiable nature of kids here. They’re loud and boisterous – and God knows, their sense of style became stunted some time around Reagan’s last memory – but fundamentally, they bear no one ill will. Generations mix naturally, without a bit of self-consciousness.

Someone shouts and I flinch. Ethiopia has added to my already considerable burden of complexes and neuroses. All the voices in the street are directed at me! Children want money. I turn away and shake my head “no”. I respond with “ow” to anything an Italian says to me. (It’s Amharic for “yes”.) They pause sadly and think, “Mama mia, these Americans are sensitive.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Travelogue #21 – June 23
We Adore Our Customers

I'm having a macchiatto at the Open Door Cafe near Addis Ababa University while an afternoon shower threatens. Opposite me, along the aluminum wall of the patio is a painting, right on the metal. "We adore the customers," it says in white lettering that hovers inexplicably across a sunset sky over silhouetted mountains and a desert valley. Equally inexplicable are the huge wedding cake, cup of coffee, and assortment of fruits that figure in the landscape. Crossing one corner, like a black comet, is the silhouette of a strange, rootless palm tree. A team of Jungians couldn’t interpret this.

It's Friday night, and I decide at the last minute to run to the Hilton, where they have a program on Ethiopia's traditional musical instruments, hosted by the Alliance Francaise. I'm half an hour's walk away. I fight the tide of workers headed home. I take a wrong turn and end up opposite the Sheraton. I resign myself to having to resort to one of the "contract" taxis -- the small, individual ones. They always bilk me, and the negotiations are exhausting, so usually I avoid them. But time is running out. I call one, and I buy a handful of peanuts from one of the women crouching by the side of the road, selling them from their woven baskets, while I wait for the driver to pull around. Even she bilks me, for 12 cents. It's okay. I'm enjoying the sunset over the hills. The taxi is one of those Ladas that kind of shimmies in a sickly way, side to side. It's a little disconcerting on the winding roads in this part of town. We wobble into the Hilton grounds, and I run in to buy my ticket. Seated inside the auditorium, I realize I'm not in the mood. The program is running on Abasha time (indefinably late) and the people make me uneasy: French vacationers, white American kids that are too smart and well-groomed. I abandon the plan, and look for the bar. This week, because of the European Cup, I've become a sudden soccer enthusiast. I settle in for the game. The sexy young lady next to me starts a conversation. Being sexy is her profession, as it turns out. While she scouts the room and smiles coyly, we share a beer and laugh about it. She says she’s taking classes on the side so she can get a regular job. She’s bright, if I’m to judge by her English. When I ask how much she charges, (just for curiosity’s sake, I assure you,) she shrugs. “Sometimes, I need rent; sometimes I need tuition.” Beside her, the aged, fat Norwegian tamely cheers for Denmark. On my side, the Brits mock the Norwegian. They tell me things got out of hand last night during the English game. Go figure. I leave at halftime. My lady friend has had no business.

I’m looking through the last batch of pictures; the ones from Bahir Dar. You may recall I dropped my camera at the falls. The photos are funny. There’s a bright haze to everything, and scenes drop off on the side into orange light. There are strange yellow lines like sub-atomic particles colliding, and burning geometrical shapes. We subjects smile, faded and oblivious to the fireworks. I like these pictures. People laugh because of my preference for drugstore cameras, but it’s just for these effects. It makes photography fun. If I want the perfect snapshot, I buy a postcard. I’ve never seen a picture yet, bought or taken myself, that looks like what I saw, so why not have some fun with it?

I'm packing. That's why I stop to look over pics. It's time to head out of this particular dream. What's strangest about it, about this dreamscape, is how thoroughly I became accomodated. The shouts along the sidewalk as I pass; the stares; the beggar with withered legs bent behind his back; the crazy traffic that stops for cows; the twelve sturdy pop tunes that have played in every cafe, taxi, restaurant, and office since I arrived, (I never want to hear an American complain about "overplay" back home;) the blackouts mid-composition on the computer; the slimy streets lined with corrugated tin, behind which families huddle in bug-ridden rooms; it's all quite "normal" to me now. I reflect on the shock I felt in my first weeks, and wonder at the powerful adaptability human psyche. There's a beauty to the squalor, and even the irritations here have a certain charm. And now I close the chapter. Bring in the shamans, and read it for me.

Hey, if anyone out there is reading, keep checking. Jarvis continues.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Travelogue 20 – June 19
Shades of Haile

Ah, morning. The rain has cleared. Our habitual haze hangs over the town from a city burning its trash. The hills of downtown have a brown pall over them and the air has a faint, acrid stink of burning plastic. Workers rush by on the way to the power station down the road. Another set of workers lazily drive their aheya (donkeys) the other way.

My life is a series of meetings now as I prepare to leave. Much remains to be settled about the school. (See Fregenet link.) But I have my moments in between, and my luxuries. I stop by Fil Wuha for a shower. Here I should humbly offer to correct an earlier impression – that Addis Ababa has no downtown to speak of. Not entirely true. At the top of the hill that is the district of Piassa, Leeza’s family’s area, is City Hall, a large concrete complex with a clock tower on which it’s always 2:00. This tower is how I spot Piassa from my own neighborhood. Anyway, a broad boulevard, called Churchill Road, runs down the hill from City Hall and across a wide valley to what used to be the train station, (and is still called Lagar -- a bastardization of Le Gare.) Standing at one end or the other, you can see the whole span of the boulevard, and it can be quite striking, with the hills behind. Along this road is a sort of downtown. Its style seems vaguely 1960s Sunset Boulevard -- square concrete and flat, colored windows; concrete balconies; some California experiments in shape & color -- a circular building, some ugly textures, a few funky-primitive curves in a facade. And in between, squat, little souvenir shops, all selling the same things. Shop owners sit outside and shout at you. Pitiful mothers from the country, babies on their backs, and toddlers trained to beg swarm around you. "Father, father." It appears to me that the only contribution to town from the 70s is the imposing obelisk-like war monument in front of the Black Lion Hospital, complete with hammer and sickle and red star. It dates from Ethiopia’s socialist regime, now in its grave thirteen years. But it’s a far sight better than most of the 90s & 00s contributions out on the city’s fringes, where style means godawful pseudo-pseudo marble tiling.

About in the middle of Churchill Road, you turn onto a winding side road and head toward Fil Wuha, the historical hot springs I mentioned before. If you keep going, you emerge into a small pocket of beautiful cityscape. You might, for the span of half a kilometer, forget where you are. On one hill is the grand United Nations complex, housing the Economic Commission for Africa. Up the hill is the Hilton. On an adjacent hill is the famous Sheraton, a luxurious compound, a la Santa Fe, where world leaders sip champagne. Down the hill, a few more hotels. My favorite is the Ghion, where Abebaw, Leeza's cousin had his wedding reception. I like it because they cultivate a huge lawn and garden (for their bustling business in weddings,) and it is visible from the road. At the top of the hill, past the hotels is one of the old palace grounds, now occupied by Meles, our current leader. Another palace occupies a large bit of ground across from Fil Wuha. Between the Hilton and the U.N. complex is a broad avenue with an island down its whole length as wide as any street. The whole stretch of it has been bought by the owner of the Sheraton, and it is currently under construction to create more entertainment for the 1% of the population who can afford such things. Beauty has its price, and I have to admit I enjoy this corner of the city, in spite of its bad politics. Continue down the hill to the end of the road and you find yourself in Meskel Square. Meskel means cross. It used to be Revolution Square in the socialist years, and the grand leader of the day, Mengistu, made grand addresses there to enforced crowds. It’s a broad, dirt amphitheatre, and in the mornings, it’s the practice arena for runners, who have measured how many kilometers it is to run every level of seating.

It was last week I was walking along that connecting street to Fil Wuha, when I met Solomon, an old man modestly dressed. He seemed eager to talk to me. These days, I walk faster when someone is eager to talk to me. But he was persistent, and wasn’t asking for money. We were passing the lower palace of Haile Selassie, and he told me he met the emperor when he was a child, several times. It seems he was a student at Haile’s own elite school. The emperor would visit, pat heads and pass out fruit. At the end of the year, the number one student would receive a suit; the second a pair of British shoes. Solomon decries the state of affairs now. The kids today …

Monday, June 14, 2004

Travelogue #19 – June 14
It Never Rains in Ethiopia …

Whatever you call the season, it’s raining every afternoon. The clouds move in over the mountains, and for a couple hours, it comes down – sometimes in a downpour. The by-roads, particularly my own street, have become stretches of slime. The shoe-shine boys are making a mint.

But my business goes on. That includes the serious business of tourism, which I’ve neglected. Last week, I visited Lucy. She’s one of the dignitaries of this city, and there’s talk she may move to America for a while, so I wanted to see her on this trip. She’s a slight and frail old lady. If she ever stood, she would rise to a mere three and a half feet. But she can’t. Her muscles have withered away to nothing. In fact, there’s little left of her at all. Collect the fragments of bone and she would handily fit into my backpack. That’s what three and a half million years will do to you. All in all, I’d say she’s handled it well: the oldest pre-human skeleton in the world. She has some cousins upstairs in the National Museum, who left us more complete skulls. I wouldn’t say they flatter the original owners. The one for which they reconstructed flesh, hair, and eyeballs would win no beauty contest, even among chimps. Maybe Lucy found him irresistible. Even an Australopithecus has to be loved by someone. There was a time when Lucy was hailed as grandma to us all. She’s since been relegated to great-aunt: they’ve found some older ancestors, including a new Australopithecus not far from where Lucy was found, dating back four and a half million years. Auntie, proud in her glass case, boasts of being one of the first monkeys to walk erect. Ethiopia was one of the best schools for walking back in the day, being recently stripped of its jungle by the Great Rift and a change in climate. Grassland encourages height for seeing distances, and marathon endurance for traveling. By the way, the Abasha don't call her Lucy. They call her Dinknesh, which corresponds roughly with, "You're precious".

My other notable excursion was to Fil Wuha. As I’ve related in an earlier blog, Emperor Menelik settled himself and his court up on the mountain, Entoto, some time in the 1880s or so. Being a simple man and a warrior by heart, the settlement remained fairly spartan. It didn’t take long for his wife, Taito, to discover the hot springs down in the valley and to begin dreaming of an easier existence than living on the mountain. She set her mind on a new and more comfortable capitol. One day by the springs, she sighted a new blossom, (called Ade in Amharic – I still have to research what it is in English,) and she made a plan for the new city: New Flower, Addis Ababa. These springs still exist in the heart of the city, and are called Fil Wuha. In Haile Selassie’s day, it was built up as a series of public baths -- a natural destination for yours truly after a week with no water at home. You pay your fee at the gate to the complex, something just less than a dollar, and you head up the hill to the long buildings with rows of shower stalls. Give your ticket to the woman with the mop and she gives you a towel and a hotel-style bar of soap, and there you go. It felt wonderful, but then again, how could it not? Was it therapeutic? Absolutely. They have a physical therapy clinic on site. I asked a doctor for a tour, and he happily obliged. They have hydrotherapy and massage. I will be back. We had tea and we chatted a little in Spanish. He was trained in Cuba, naturally, during the socialist Derg regime.

Does a movie count as tourism? I attended my first one in Ethiopia last night – in fact, the first since I left home five and more months ago. The movie was something American, something I don’t believe was ever released back there, with subtitles in some mystery language. Nothing remotely East African. It was pleasant enough. My expectations were low, recalling the movie experience in Kuwait, where people mill about and chat, come and go, make calls. Once you’ve navigated the swarm of beggars and peddlars outside, and sweated for a while in the overcrowded lobby, waiting for the previous movie to end, you’re all right. It’s an old-fashioned, cavernous movie house with a big screen, and, aside from the almost continual clatter of overturned pop bottles, distraction is well-contained. There are three movie theatres in town that play foreign films, one that shows local ones. There’s no directory. You taxi around among them and make your choice. Afterward, it’s dark. The air is fresh with the rain just passed. You slide back into the muddy streets.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Travelogue #18 – June 9

I’m back after a couple days convalescing. Addis Ababa and I have been sick. Every so often, my back seizes up with some kind of muscle spasm. And it seems that Addis has similar sorts of fits. It’s been about five days since we’ve had water at my place. There’s road construction down the road. (The amount of road construction here feels like one palpable link to my hometown, Minneapolis.) There have also been more power outages than usual. It happens regularly that whole sections of town go down. But it must be three times this week it’s gone out while I sit at my neighborhood evening hotel, the GG Royale. This is my favorite place to unwind lately. They have an outdoor terrace on the third floor where you can watch the sun set over the fields and hills of town. It’s very nice. When it gets cool, I go in for a beer and CNN … until the lights go out. Nobody bats an eye. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing. Rainy season approaches. That’s what they keep saying, though already it rains every afternoon. I’m counting the days until departure, to Roma, where it really is summer.

For about as long as the water’s been out, the phone at my internet place has been out. Every day, it’s “tomorrow”. This morning, they couldn’t even get the computers started. The closest they came was getting one of the power bars to flicker. “Okay,” they said. “Try.” I said, “Naga. (Tomorrow.)” So life grinds to a halt. Not that it was going so fast, anyway.

These back spasms are excruciating. I had motivation to experiment. I decided I would try the clinic across the street from GG. The name of this clinic is “Jest”, so I had my doubts. But the pain moved me -- I wouldn’t dare try a taxi in this state. The diagnostic procedure ran like this: I gripped my shoulder; they suggested a massage. It sounded good to me. So upstairs I went and undressed for the masseuse, another one of Ethiopia’s army of gorgeous ladies. If I was embarrassed, it wasn’t my scrawny body but the fact that I hadn’t bathed in days. I hoped she understood. I got the full-body massage, for about $7.00 – very nice. Except for the part where she dug into my shoulder muscles mercilessly, ignoring my writhing and cries of pain. “You will be free,” she kept repeating cryptically. In the end, I suppose I was. I had a few more degrees of motion in my neck, and I got to take a hot shower to rinse off the oil. That was my happiest moment. I was in a good mood as I crossed the street to have my beer and sit in the dark.

The next day, I returned for another treatment. “You will be free,” she said, and I said yes. I suffered through the ruthless clenching of my neck muscles, all the while dreaming of the hot shower to come. She’s chatty today. She tells me how she likes Americans. They leave good tips. I take the hint. She recited her mobile number for me, and I’m not sure how to interpret that. But I promise I’ll be back next week. A few more minutes and I’m free – to run to the shower. Yes, all is good is Addis, I think. Sophia and I sit in the dark at the hotel, and I list my woes for her amusement: no water, no internet. The landlord accosted me in the morning, asking for another month’s rent. I have to spend fifteen minutes with him counting until he realizes that from April to June is just two months, and I’ve paid for three. Sophia laughs: “These are problems?” I try to explain what neurotic means. This is new vocabulary in Ethiopia.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Travelogue #17 – June 4
The Hello Revolution

Anyway, I’ve been back in the big city for over a week now, and prey to big city problems. I’m sure my readers are familiar with this one: having to stay in a hotel because they arrived home after dark. That was my fate last night. Most housing is in compounds, and most have guards, but my landlord is too cheap to hire one. He locks up the gate himself. Therefore, I have a ten o’clock curfew. But time is funny in Ethiopia, as I’ve noted before. All clocks said nine thirty; the gate said ten. I get to visit my old friends at the Debre Damo Hotel. The silver lining is my first hot shower in months.

Yes, big city life goes on. When the loudspeakers are out at the church, the deacons pile into somebody’s car, probably a taxi, at 5 a.m. and cruise around the neighborhood honking the horn and calling us to prayer. The roosters take their cue and start up. The army of old men begins their peregrinations. Bent bodies wrapped in dirty cloaks, grizzled pates in white head scarves, they begin their day of prayers. They shake a handful of coins in the open taxi door, intoning a blessing. They poke their heads into cafes and chant. The proper response is something like, “God bless you; thank you,” and they grudgingly retreat. But most of the crowd is occupied with their cell phones. Prayers are wasted. Modern life has swept us along in its tide. God knows, we may live behind mud walls and under corrugated iron, but our pockets bulge with “mobiles”, as they’re called -- even if the technology hasn’t quite kept up. They look nice; they ring all right. It’s just that nine times out of ten there’s no one on the other end. “Hello! Hello!” the mobile owner shouts. “Hello! Hello!” he shouts a half dozen times in case the solar flare passes. It rings again. “Hello! Hello!” he shouts and shrugs. The fashionable cafĂ© becomes like a pond at twilight. A tree frog peeps, “Auld Lang Syne,” or the “Marseilles,” and the bullfrog answers, “Hello! Hello!” and across the still waters, there’s a reply, “Hello! Hello!” The refrain catches, and they croak from all parts, “Hello! Hello!” That’s how it is in the big city.

There’s the problem of faranj hair. I thought I had resolved that one with Mimi, my discovery last month. She was a haircut the way it should be done, the way I remember service in the Middle East, but with a woman’s hands. I was smitten: an hour in the chair, plied with tea and American videos, delicate fingers turning your chin and clipping so carefully, attentively. She gives you a shave and washes your face, and closes the ceremony with a shoulder massage. I counted the days to my next cut. And it was everything I hoped for, everything except the cut itself. One doesn’t mind as it’s happening, as they pour your tea, and one young lady stirs it, and another squeezes lemon in. One doesn’t mind during the scalp massage. But afterward, one faces the cold truth. Mimi isn’t all you thought she was. The next day, you go to an old man, sure he’ll understand. And he does, with sharper clarity than you were ready for. He sits you down and sets the razor only once. He has the barber’s touch; he’s gentle, but ruthless. Off it goes. Snip, snip; he clips ear hair, eyebrows. You haven’t been this hairless in years. He washes your face, and he brushes you off with a huge multi-colored feather duster. There you are, out the door in ten minutes, in shock and feeling naked. Later, you study your skull. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen the shape of it like this. You wonder if there are phrenologists in Ethiopia. This would be the perfect opportunity. You also see like never before how high your high line has receded over the years. Everyone says you look younger. You know better. The pretty barista says you’re konjo (good-looking,) and you’re tempted to believe her, until she explains that your face is wofram (fat) now.

It’s not the best timing to go bald. The weather is inexorably rounding that corner toward what the Ethiopians call winter – the rainy season. Clouds are starting to linger overhead. The temperature is dropping, until one hesitates before one’s early morning cold shower. In a few days, it’ll be Sunny, the Ethiopian equivalent of June, and the rain moves in. The name causes an Abbot and Costello moment between Saba and myself. I say something like, “But June is rainy, right?” “No, it’s Sunny,” etc. Anyway, that’s life in the big city.