Friday, November 26, 2004

Travelogue 50 – November 26
Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Okay, a personality quiz: It’s 5:30 in the morning. Rank the following noises in terms of their power to irritate or invoke hatred. There’s the call to prayer from the mosque loudspeaker across the street. There is the yapping of the little dog below your bedroom window, a dog with remarkable endurance. There is the man who wakes with the prayer call and revs his car engine just outside your door for ten minutes to warm it up. There is the sudden buzz of a mosquito around your head. I’ve put a lot of thought into this. As many and visceral have been my fantasies about the dog’s destruction, the mosquito has to rank first. The reason is that, out of all these annoyances, the mosquito is the only one that compels action. I must get out of bed, to save the bit of unmarred skin I have left.

I’ve moved into a new house. It’s actually a nice little house, near my earlier neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city. It’s an independent structure within a well-to-do family’s compound. It’s two-story; from the second floor, I have a nice view of the mountains, (and the minaret.) I have a guest room for visitors from America! It’s in a quieter part of town, (generally,) and more affluent, so I’m not besieged when I leave the compound with mockery and begging. It’s close to the airport – another appeal to visitors. And hot water for the shower!

The new place is close to a neighborhood that’s special to me, where my first hotel is located – the site of my first impressions of Addis. There’s my first internet café, where the baristas still remember me. Wesene, the beautiful cashier, invited me to lunch with her family once, though she made clear she’s not one of my fiancees. She lives in a part of town inexplicably called Mexico, in the southwest of the city. It’s funny to hear the taxi guys calling out, “Mexico!” Like a true Mexican, she’s very devout. Almost every day of the month here is a saint’s or angel’s day. On Mary’s day, and a few select saints’days, Wesene lights candles over the money box. The little shoeshine guy still positions himself on the sidewalk outside the café. He’s still as ragged, and still as eager to please. I have him do my disgracefully dusty shoes. Dirty shoes are just bad taste here. I catch many men sneering at my dusty shoes. But I never want to take the time to have them cleaned.

After the internet café, I have an hour to kill. I want to find another café where I can sit in the sun and write. It’s not so easy to find. Abasha, as a rule, complain about the sun. Cafes will generally be situated on the south side of the road, where the building shades outdoor seating, or tables will be gathered under a tin roof or tarp. I happen to run into a taxi driver who remembers me from those first hotel days, though I don’t remember him. I tell him what I’m looking for – it’s a standard question from Abasha on the street that I don’t understand: where are you going? I usually answer, “The moon,” but today I tell the truth. He says he knows a place. “Follow me.” After a half mile, I’m anxious about the time. We’re almost there, he insists, and soon thereafter, we do arrive. We enter a dusty little dirt courtyard, and he shuts the gate behind us. The house has been converted into a bar. The taxi guy shouts at the women there, commanding they bring some chairs out into the sun. We sit in a little circle in the dirt. A heavy older woman sits fanning herself and asks a lot of laughing questions. A couple of haggard young women in traditional white dresses emerge and sit with us. After a minute, the taxi guy excuses himself. He has a phone call to make, and he leaves. The two young ladies tease me. One of them announces she wants to marry me. But she would prefer, apparently, if I were Canadian. A scrawny, middle-aged woman in a disconcertingly see-through blouse starts preparing coffee, and then forgets about it. The young ladies are begging for drinks. I have no money, I tell them. One of my errands today is getting some cash. See-Through brings out some bottles, anyway, bottles of ah-che a sour version of tajj the bright yellow honey mead traditional at weddings. We go on planning our sour little wedding, until I see that it’s time to go. I got no writing done, got no coffee or tea. The girls lazily say good-bye. Miss See-Through badgers me for money. She says those bottles were twenty-five birr each, which is impossibly high. I give her the few birr I have left, showing her my empty wallet, and I run. Later, I have to explain to Leeza’s mother how I spent the morning in a house of ill-repute. She finds it funny. They say I’m a meskin, which is sort of like what you would call Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies, a poor innocent.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Travelogue 49 – November 22
The Beautiful

How many miles does it take? I’m trying to block America out, being disgusted by the recent news. But America haunts its expats. There really is no escape. Adidas shirts and shouts from street kids – it’s all American, fashion and music and movies. I’m white. I could be Canadian, German, or French, but the heckling is all American. And then, there are the taxis. There’s the mack daddy who picks me up one night. He’s in a plum-colored sports coat and a wide-brimmed fedora. He’s got fake fur on the dash and under the back window, on top of the red seat. He’s got the dash ornament – a circle around a heart stuck with an arrow – and it blinks with lights that are supposed to move around the circle and down the arrow, but the power supply is spotty. He’s got the hip-hop. And, oddly enough, he’s got a picture of Mengistu placed above his rearview mirror. Mengistu was the ruthless Marxist dictator of the 70s and 80s. He tells me he was military in Mengistu’s time. He had fought against the present prime minister’s forces in the north. His wife and child are riding with us. I must be his last fare. The wife is in traditional Ethiopian garb. The baby boy is about a year old. Daddy is continually playing with him. He takes him and bounces him on his knee while he drives. When the boy stares at me, mommy says, “Ababa.” That’s not “Ababa,” as in the name of the city. This is the familiar for “father.” An old man taxi driver, ejects his tape of Ethiopian pop when I get in and puts in a tape of 70s American R&B. Some of it is good; some is “I Believe in Music.” Another young guy, who plays the tough, puts in something in English, something I’ve never heard. It’s a white voice doing something vaguely soul, vaguely hip-hop. I think there must be a big market for second-rate Americans recording in Europe. I’ve heard too many unfamiliar mediocrities in Italy and here for it to be chance.

There’s the day I meet the Ethiopian-American from Washington, DC. He’s been there all his life. It’s obvious from the accent. He sounds black. That makes me happy. I’m not excited by the prospect of meeting the whites here. They fall into a few unattractive categories. They’ve either got the Bradies-on-vacation face, or they’ve got the proud Protestant bustle to their walks. Or, more rarely, it’s the pseudo-Bohemian here to party. This guy is on a visit to family. He’s the suburban father of two back home. Today, he’s relaxing at the café and conversing with whomever is around. We express revulsion for our politics. We shock Sophia with accounts of Marion Barry, and how violent our capital city is. Good fun.

At night, we go to Bole, the refuge of faranj and middle class Abasha. We eat at the Rodeo House. It’s a bar/restaurant decorated in faux Western theme, where Abasha dress up to eat burgers. Inside, part of the wall is Disney log cabin style. One wall is inexplicably made of the round ends of the logs, instead of the sides. Above, where the shiny, over-varnished logs give out, there are all sorts of Reaganesque horse pictures. There’s a “Mexico” wall hanging. The “hamburger,” I’ve noticed, is more expensive than the cheeseburger. The reason, I discover, is that they put ham on the “hamburger.” They just put a layer of lunch meat over the burger patty in the sandwich. Well, on the plus side, their Freedom fries aren’t bad.

I met some Cuban fellows the other day. My pattern overseas tries to assert itself once again. Invariably, no matter what country I’m in, no matter what new language I want to master, I’ll run into Spanish speakers and end up spending too much time in comfortable Spanish. Pablo and Rafael are having a lunch-time coffee Saturday. They have powerful spirits on their breath. They’re here for a year, working at the hospital. They say there’s lots of salsa going on in Bole. They say there are plenty of discotecas and lots, they say with big grins, of chicas fantasticas. Well, I tell them, we’ll just have to go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Travelogue 48 – November 17
Meditation on the Squatter

It’s a squatter like any other, a small closet of a latrine detached from the restaurant in the back. It’s a cozy, if airy, little space, and blissfully private for faranj. Nobody is staring—though if they wanted to, they could. There are plenty of spy-holes. The door is a battered sheet of tin nailed to a primitive frame of round bahir zaf limbs. Bahir zaf is eucalyptus, the invader from afar that has taken over the ecosystem of the mountains. The name literally means ocean tree. The door hangs pretty loosely on its hinges and never really closes. Similarly, the ceiling is only an approximation of a ceiling – the same kind of hammered tin on a bahir zaf frame. It makes for a nice breeze, and an attractive view of the brilliantly blue sky between door and ceiling. The walls of the room are cinder block, which are covered by white tile up to about three feet. Above that, they’re bare and festooned with cobwebs. I’m not as favorably disposed toward spiders as I once was, but none are out and about. The plumbing is simple. There’s the squat basin itself, the porcelain cover of which has been cracked, so that the concrete hole beneath is partially visible. There’s a rusting shower spout above and a tiny faucet for hand-washing. Beside the squat basin is a tub filled with water. A little, plastic pitcher floats in the water. This is the “flush” mechanism. Completing, pervading, and really overpowering this tableau, is the stench. Does one grow fond of it? Does one miss it when one returns to toilet economies?

Like so much else about this city, it just serves to emphasize the essential awkwardness of being human. There’s nothing graceful about it. A drunk takes a swing at me on the street. He’s shouting something vile about faranj. But the people who gather are smiling – protective but smiling. The drunk man starts asking me if I’m Philistine. I have to say yes. We all laugh, and some boys lead him away. It makes perfect sense somehow. I stop at a café that’s at the top of a steep hill overlooking the street. I think I can enjoy the afternoon there without being hassled. A group of boys below spots me and starts screaming. They jump around and act out a bunch of hip-hop moves for me. They shout, “I love you,” and “Shut up.” The two phrases complement each other perfectly from my experience. I have to wave and give them a thumbs-up. A gaunt, old man starts tailing me on my way to catch a taxi. I can’t shake him; he boards the taxi with me. He wants “one word” with me. He tells me he was in Chicago once thirty years ago. He says he was a sailor on a Greek ship. His eyes are sunken and unfocussed. His breath stinks of alcohol. He wants his “one word.” He seems to forget what the word was for a moment. He says he wants no money. He just needs help buying this medicine. He pulls out an ancient inhaler that he probably found on the street. It just so happens he’s approached me with the same plea months ago and doesn’t remember. His faraway eyes are resigned. He doesn’t have enough to pay for the taxi ride. The ragged boy starts into the café to ask rich patrons for change. It’s the waiter’s job to turn him away. He does it with a smile and a joke, and he passes along some of his own change. This waiter can’t make more than ten or fifteen dollars a month. It’s late at night. The taxi boys are stuffing their vehicles with everyone that can possibly fit. The priest is high on something he’s sniffing in one hand. He has to sit on the van’s wheel well. He objects to that noisily. Everyone idly watches him. His final protest is to tear the corners of the birr he pays. The boy humbly takes them.

And now, here I am on the squatter, meditating the gracelessness of it all. The need never seems to come upon me when there’s a western toilet nearby. And yet, there’s some peace here. No one’s begging; no one’s staring. The sky is blue and clear above. There’s a fresh breeze to battle the stench. And there’s a sense to it all. Graceless as it is, the posture is essentially comfortable and efficient. It all works out. Everything is clumsy; everything is rough. There’s no escape into ease and soft edges. But it all makes sense, an absurd, silly sense. This is a race that is both rawer and wiser than me. I can’t hope to figure life out here, or to find my poise again. That’s all right. Nothing for it but to wash up and head back out into the world.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Travelogue 47 – November 13
Tips and Bows and Stunts

Marta is pouting. She’s one of the waiters at my morning café. She’s skinny and girlish and has long, straight hair, half-dyed gold. She’s got a cute smile, and now that she’s pouting, she looks like one of our kindergarteners. What’s wrong, I ask her. She can’t relax her worried brows. She launches into a stream of Amharic, from which I can just deduce that some guys walked out on their hisab, their bill. By the way she’s so anxious about it, I assume she’ll have to cover it. She sits on the border of the little garden by my table and continues to pout. Jerusalem, another waitress comes over and commiserates. These two have taken me under their wing. They say they’re my friends; they say they’ll teach me Amharic. There’s not much to say now. I lean back into the sun, pick up my notebook and work a few minutes, put it down. I try to initiate conversation. I ask how old they are. Marta looks so young when she mopes. She says she’s eighteen. Jerusalem is twenty. I ask about money. Apparently, the tips are bad. Maybe a faranj comes and leaves a birr or two. Otherwise, it’s all Abasha tips, five or ten cents. I point at the other faranj at another table. They make faces. He doesn’t leave anything. One macchiatto and he keeps the change. But there’s a table of Abasha professors from the university. Some Abasha are good. So what do you make total, I ask. They say maybe a hundred birr a week, working every day of the week. That’s about $12. Marta pouts some more. I leave double my usual tip when I leave.

It’s Eid today. Ramadan went quickly. About the only time I had contact with it was one day when I ventured into the west side of downtown, where many of the biggest mosques are. I stopped at a café that I remembered from last time. It happens to be next door to one of the oldest mosques in town, and there’s a mob outside. It’s about noon, just about prayer time. I sit down to some tea and cake inside. The TV is silently broadcasting a Van Damme movie. I get hypnotized by all the stunts and bullets and explosions. The next time I look outside, the curb is lined with men standing on their prayer rugs, facing what I would have said was west, but could be north. I believe Mecca is due north of here. I’m assuming this is an overflow crowd from the mosque. I divide my attention between Van Damme driving his motorcycle through a hail of bullets and the prayers. VD stands on the seat of his moving bike the better to shoot; the devout have closed their eyes and raised open hands beside their faces. VD jumps from the seat to sail over the oncoming car, which crashes into the bike; the men outside bow and sink to their knees, all in unison. They mutter prayers together. VD rolls gracefully across the asphalt of the road and bounds to his feet as more bullets skim by; the Muslim men bend forward toward the ground, hands outstretched. This is the act of submission to God. They pull back up erect again, still on their knees, muttering prayers, and then bow to the ground. They repeat this several times. By the time they’re done, VD has escaped into the bayou. When I leave, I have to work my way through a dense crowd, everyone with headscarves or the Muslim caps. I place myself behind a small herd of bugs going my way. The little shepherd girl grabs my sleeve and won’t let go. She grins up at me with a broken-toothed smile. She’s not asking for money. I guess she just wants a pet faranj.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Travelogue 46—November 8

It’s hot today. I’m riding in the back of a taxi in which the windows will not open. I’m sweating and fuming. I’ve already had to walk a good mile in the midday sun because the taxis were scarce. This is a new development here, along with the score of new buildings going up, new restaurants and hotels, all since I was here last: this dearth of taxis when I really need them. My misery is somewhat lightened by an elderly man who sits next to me. He asks if I’m from America, and I irritably expect this will evolve into the usual appeal for money, or stilted series of questions. One of the more common and humorous of the standard queries is what I think of the air conditioning. The first impulse is always to respond with, “What air conditioning?” until I recall that “air,” pronounced like “ayer,” in Amharic means weather, and they’re asking about the climate. “Wonderful, wonderful,” which is the truth, no matter how monotonous the catechism. But this old man isn’t going to ask me about air conditioning. He’s going to tell me that he had American teachers when he was young. I’ve heard this a few times: there’s a lot of good will here from the Peace Corps days. He says the Americans were very good to the kids, and he made lasting friendships with a few of them. “Americans are very sociable, very simple. They like to talk. They go out to the t’ala houses with us.” T’ala is like a home-brew beer. Yeah, that’s Americans, I say, feeling very un-American in my grouchiness. He wants to know which state I’m from. “Minnesota,” and I try to place it on the map for him. “It’s in the middle, the north.” But he knows where it is. “We studied American geography. I know every state and its capital.” He starts reciting state names. “What’s Minnesota’s capital?” I ask. He’s forgotten. He goes on reciting, “California, Nevada, Texas, Nebraska.” “That’s great,” I say, like a Peace Corps volunteer. “Alaska, Hawaii. Hawaii is very beautiful, isn’t it?” “That’s what I hear.” “There was a movie there, Jake and the Fat Man. I like Jake. I like the fat man. He’s dead now.” Hm. “Kentucky, Florida ….” We get off the taxi and I’m surprised that I have to guide him toward his destination. It turns out he’s from Awasa, in the south. He invites me to visit. He says it’s a resort town by a lake. I ask if it’s hot. I’ve been hankering for some hot, dry air. He says it is, and I promise to visit soon.

The kids have been learning quickly. They come tramping in in the morning. I hear them outside my door as I do some early morning work. Then they run outside for play time. After a while, Wogayehu, the teacher, gets them in line and has them do something like calisthenics. With arms straight, they hold onto the shoulder of the kid in front, and, on command, drop their arms, raise them, drop them. They do some little stretches to a chant called out by the teacher. They jump. They sing the “Teensy Weensy Spider” song (or whatever it’s called,) in Amharic, which makes me itch and reach for the night’s sores. And they march into class. A lot of their learning is accompanied by songs and calling out in unison. It’s fun to listen to. They’re also being prepared for our big opening day ceremony, which has been postponed repeatedly while the adults try to prepare. They’re going to sing songs, some in Amharic and some in English. We’ll have them in their uniforms by then. One day I come home during class and sneak in by the back entrance. They’re shouting out something together, following the teacher’s lead. It takes me a few minutes to make it out. They’re shouting, word by word, “Tsegereda Metasebia Atsade Hetsanat,” and repeating. They’re learning the name of the school. Tsegereda is what Leeza was called when she was about their age. Metasabia means something like “Memorial,” though without the morbid tone that the English word has. It’s inevitable, according to human nature, to forget the significance of what you’re doing, and something like this reminds you. I think of Leeza. I wish she could hear them. I want her to know they’re singing her name, in her school.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Travelogue 45 – November 2
Spirit Problems

Well, I’ve been here long enough to settle into a familiar routine. My first task upon awakening is to inspect the night’s war wounds. The bugs have discovered me. And it’s the same mysterious breed, stealth bugs. They leave nary a trace but their itchy bites. I’ve got them all over now. The other day, I awoke with a monstrous welt on my arm – the redness radiating from a particularly malevolent bite. It was that night I made the acquaintance of the spider. He’s about the size of half my index finger. He’s casually sitting atop my love seat (that is, the foam pad with a sheet over it.) My first thought is that he must be the culprit. I shudder to think he was crawling on me in the middle of the night. That almost induces me to crush him, but I like spiders, and in the end, I just guide him outdoors. The cockroaches and silverfish get no such treatment. They die instantly. This morning, it’s a cricket trekking across the room.

My second task is the cold shower. It’s nice how the thought of a cold shower makes one’s bed so cozy. It’s enhancing my dream life tremendously. But some time or other, you’re in the cold water, and you’re wide awake. There’s no middle ground between sleepy and alert. Afterward, I open the doors to the compound. I open the classroom. Our teacher is always here early, preparing for class. I hang around long enough to see the first kids arrive. Their brothers or sisters or grandmothers timidly drop them at the gate. Each child comes in with hands gripping the top of her lunch bag, usually an old plastic one. She gets a kiss from the teacher, and then, with tiny, solemn steps she takes her lunch down the corridor to the kitchen. The steps become light then. She runs back outside to spend the minutes before class playing on the merry-go-round or the swing. Still whenever I come around, they all stop and stare. “How are you?” I ask, and they answer in unison. Rebka comes and takes my hand.

Before class gets going, I leave. Up our busy little street I go, up to the main drag where I catch the taxi. “Hello, Mister,” some say. “Money,” the gang of little boys says. And it never fails to crack them up when I say “Money” back and hold out my empty hand, looking sad and beggarly. At Hanna’s, my favorite café, the waitresses rush to greet me with big smiles. They race each other to be mine because I order a lot and tip. The usual customers, I’ve noticed, order a tea and then sit and stare blankly for a half hour or more. If I’m around, I’m good staring material. I just get out my jarvis papers and edit.

Daniel shuffles up with a salesman’s oily smile. He’s going to sit at my table. That’s not unusual if the tables are filled, but today there are plenty open. He wants to talk. I shut my notebook with a sigh. Daniel: scruffy, graying hair, a few yellow teeth yet, a ragged suit. I’m American? Well, he used to work for an American aid agency way back in the day. In fact, it was when the Derg came to power, the Marxist dictatorship. He barely made it out of the country with his life, to the Sudan. No, I have no family. How about you, Daniel? Well, that’s a long, sad story. The first wife, well, she went mad when the Derg persecuted them. And the second, she had spirit problems. What did you say? At first, I think he’s saying “speech” problems. You broke up because of a speech impediment? “Spirit problems.” It seems the wife is subject to visitations. And this spirit is jealous. “This isn’t your husband,” Spirit would say. “I am.” Daniel replied, in what must have been an interesting debate, “Yeah? Well, who’s paying the bills?” Apparently, this wasn’t a compelling enough argument for the wife. Now we come to the pitch. I’ve heard this one before, from other gaunt figures in threadbare suits. I’ve got an interview today, in Nazarit, but I don’t have the money for the bus ticket. Could you help? It’s only ten birr. Right. Well, here’s one birr, Daniel, for the story. Thanks. Not another word, but like a ghost, he drifts away.