Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Travelogue 56 – December 29
A Visit to the Vet, or Surviving the Cure

I come home in the afternoon and Jack is lying in a pool of saliva. He’s foaming at the mouth, his eyes are rolling, he’s shivering. I think he’s a goner. In desperation, I run to the shop down the street to call Sophia. She quickly confers with someone on her side and comes back with a phone number.

The vet on the line asks a few terse questions about symptoms. He asks where I am and if I have a car. I don’t. He says, “Be at Topview in twenty minutes.” Topview the restaurant? Yes, that’s right. He rings off. Okay. I run back and stuff Jack into a bag. Out again and down to the end of the block where I hail a taxi. It’s a quick drive to the Magananya neighborhood, and then up the steep hill to Topview. We get out and stand there, a bit foolishly, at the entrance to the parking lot. A gang of local kids takes up the chant of “money” across the street, seeing faranj. The security guard keeps them at bay. I sit on a low concrete border by the road, looking at Topview’s view. It’s a gorgeous one at this time of day. Almost the whole city spreads itself below, across its geographic bowl. A few high, billowing clouds hang above the mountains, catching the white afternoon sunshine, breaking it into long, translucent rays. Jack staggers out of his bag and teeters along the wide concrete strip we sit on. He slowly wheels over onto his butt and over into the bushes in what I had taken for a shallow planter. He disappears and squeals all the way down the side of the wall, which turns out to be about six feet high. I and one of the money kids run around the wall and down the hill. I hold back the thorny bush while the boy reaches in for Jack. Back in my hand, the poor pup rolls sad eyes up into mine and whimpers.

Eventually, a man in a dark suit and shades pulls up in his jeep. He glances left and right before making shaded eye contact. He smiles wryly at the sight of us. He nods discreetly and pulls into the parking lot. There, he walks briskly to the back of his jeep and opens it up, opening the black bag stowed there and withdrawing tools of the trade. His gaze roves this way and that as he questions me again. He nods at the answers, begins preparing medicines. “Where are you from?” I admit America, knowing full well it’s a question about his fee. Quickly glancing around the empty parking lot again, he tells me he was trained in Cuba. With deft fingers, he readies a needle-less syringe and picks Jack up around the collar. He squeezes out some brown solution down his throat. Jack gags. The vet puts him down on a narrow shelf, says, “Worms.” Now he puts the needle on and picks Jack up. He jabs him in back of the leg, and Jack barks, with his little muzzle wide open. The poor pup begins to squirt blood. The vet tells me irritably I’ve got to hold him. He mops up blood, and then we try again. I hold him around the neck, so small it fits neatly in the circle of forefinger and thumb. First, the vet has to sterilize the new wound. More desperate crying. Then, the shot, and it seems like Jack will never stop barking in pain. Briskly, the man prepares another solution to go down Jack’s throat in the morning. He glances furtively around us and hands me a business card. “Call, I’ll meet you.” He jumps in the jeep, and he’s off.

Jack and I walk home. By this time the sun’s farflung light is becoming yellow and pink. It illuminates the bottoms of the clouds. With Jack in my arms, his head sticking out of the bag, I stroll down the hill to strains of “Money,” down to the roundabout, where the taxis race by, down the new asphalt road. Along the sidewalk, I pass the old men sitting like sages by the sidewalk with blankets spread before them, past the woman selling peanuts and tissues, past the little girl with blank eyes who’s there every day, wrapped in her blanket and making occasional loud appeals for help in her strange, whining voice. Wusha, wusha I hear whispered all around, the word for dog. People smile. “Beautiful dog,” one young man comments in passing.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Travelogue 55 -- December 24
The Game

There’s always something to entertain on an afternoon out in the city, amusing, sordid or anything in between. I’m at the cafe beside the school where I’m teaching a class in the early evening. The usual parade is on, of beggars and students, businessmen and the dirt poor. This is the cafe with the view across the streets into the fields and hills beyond. One use for the field directly across the street is the storage of heavy construction machinery. One big Caterpillar with a big shovel retracted comes whizzing by, and the man who isn’t driving is sitting on top and waving to everyone with a big grin. He winks and mugs; he gives a thumbs-up and waves to us to come along. Everything is a show. Next are the two kids with roller blades. They seem to be trail-blazers here, the first with roller blades. Everyone stares. Maybe that’s because they choose to play on the highway, dodging up and down the middle or the side of the road. And one of them seems to have lost one of blades, so he pushes along on one as though it were a skate board. Next is the elderly British a teacher, who walks by with a young Abasha boy, that is, she walks by until one of the huge table umbrellas at the cafe blows loose in a stiff breeze and smacks her in the head. She bends over onto the ground. No one budges. I run over to check on her. Fortunately, she’s not hurt, just dazed. One or two of the waitresses come and stare at her and go away. When she’s collected herself, she returns to the cafe and lectures the manager. He just smiles. This isn’t a country of civil suits yet. Nor is it one where minor tragedies elicit too much sympathy.

I have some time before class. I walk through Bole, across the field where I found Jack. The shepherds wave a hello and show me another puppy. It’s apparently a relative of Jack’s. When I ask the puppy’s name, they say “Jack.” I’m a little shocked; they don’t know my Jacks’ name. Another strange incident around this little dog. I stop at a cafe in the “Haile” building, as it’s called, built and owned by the famous marathoner, Haile Gebrselassie. It’s quite fashionable, and the haunt of the moneyed classes here. I sit inside, where it’s not too crowded. I’m not there long before shouting and laughing starts up between tables across the room. It seems as though the man at the table nearest me is some mover and shaker. Everyone smiles too much with him. His companion at the table wears too much gold. The party gets up to leave, and I notice one of those “celebrity waves” around the guy, the subtle aura that makes everyone look at him and act awkwardly. When I finally get a look, I realize I’ve been sitting next to Haile himself. As I’ve mentioned before, you’ve got to love a country where a marathoner is a hero.

I came close to attending my first soccer match here. It was the day of the semi-finals in the East Africa Cup. Ethiopia was among the four remaining teams. I was scheduled to meet at the house of a new British acquaintance at 3:00 for a 4:00 game. If he were Abasha, I would have planned for late time, but I showed up on time. He showed up at a quarter to four; we arrived after four. The lines were impossible. Kids were roaming around, either begging for tickets or selling them. We stood in one queue until we realized it was hopeless. I rushed to a hotel where I could watch the game in relative peace. I was happy I didn’t make it into the stadium. Ethiopia played its neighbor, Kenya, and there were fights between players throughout the game. God knows what was happening among the crowd. What could clearly be seen on TV were the fires they were setting to newspapers or something and waving in the air. The game went into extra time, and then was decided by penalty kicks: Ethiopia won. The city went wild. Outside, kids were running around in packs, whooping it up. Screams could be heard from everywhere. Buses and taxis were honking and blinking their lights. Firecrackers were exploding here and there. On TV, they broadcast the winning kick over and over. One of their venerable old singers sang on the field, and all the crowd joined in. And that was just a semi-finals match!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Travelogue 54 – December 19
Life Has to Be Let Go

Does anyone know of a muezzin school? I’m considering offering a scholarship to the guy across the street, the one who does the call at 5:30am. I’ve gotten used to the time; in fact, I find it useful on days I want to run, because that’s the hour I go. But this guy, the way he groans and applies his nursery song sensibility to the fourteen-hundred year-old summons makes everyone who answers look faintly stupid. This is the religion I found beautiful in Istanbul and Egypt? Every once in a while they get in a guest cantor, and I’m reminded of the dignity and haunting appeal.

Hiwot means life in Amharic. Hiwot is the name of a girl. She’s sixteen; she’s got a pretty face, an easy smile. She arrives one night in a flurry of activity and anxiety. “What are we going to feed her?” Sophia asks. “What do you mean?” I ask. “I thought this works the other way around.” Sophia’s brother found me a servant, and now Sophia’s asking me what I’m going to feed her. They’ve been trying to reach me all day, but I have no cell phone. The poor girl has been waiting around Sophia’s house. All I have at home are bananas, so she gets those, and I go to bed hungry. The next morning, we go to the school, where Saba is going to help her shop, and where we’re going to pick up Jack to bring him home. There’s no time for breakfast. Hiwot is fine; I’m exhausted.

The first signs of trouble come at dinnertime. I’m very ready to be served. She gives me soggy spaghetti and soggy potatoes. “Okay,” I think, “she hasn’t had much time today to get settled in and cook.” She hangs around while I eat, watching and smiling. She asks me about America. Here it comes; my heart sinks. Sure enough, she starts in with the line of questioning about how she can get to America. I shrug and try to choke down my dinner. She wants me to meet her family. I smile wanly and nod, and pull out an old newspaper to stare at.

The next day, I get pasta for breakfast and plain rice for lunch. She continues to smile and watch me. I’m getting spooked. She has to go to the store, so she leaves the house when I do. She tells me more about her family, all in Amharic. I catch half of it and respond in single words. Later, I ask Tsion whether servants are supposed to use the shower and describe when I came home for lunch, how she emerged from the bathroom naked and dripping, reaching for her clothes and smiling. Tsion just laughs and laughs. When I tell Sophia, she just says, “Oh, my God,” over and over. The next day, I hide from Hiwot. She knocks at my door and smiles in the window, and I sign her away. “Later!” Sophia sends her brother over to fire her. He has a frightened look on his face. She just smiles.

Now it’s just me and Jack. I’ve become everything I’ve disdained about pet owners. I’ve taken half a roll of film of him. I baby-talk. I carry on about how cute he is with friends. But the charm is wearing thin. I spend much of my time at home wiping up his pee. He can’t go outside, because the compound’s dogs will eat him. They hover at my door, waiting for their chance. I try to potty-train Jack like a cat. When I go upstairs, he whines. In fact, he whines much of the time. He’s regaining his strength from the weeks growing up in the fields with sparse food. He uses that strength to chew on everything and tear up my papers. I’m missing Hiwot. I’ll eat the pasta; just take care of Jack.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Travelogue 53 – December 13
Kwas and Jack

Ethiopia is hosting a soccer championship for teams from all Africa. I happened to catch the end of Ethiopia’s first game in the tournament, against Burundi. I’ve gotten to be a soccer fan, so I was happy to watch. Of course, I’ve gotten used to European style coverage, where they show minutes and the score, and you can follow along in English or Italian. Here, one of two cameras gamely tracks the ball until it approaches the goal. There, you suddenly see the silver edge of the cameraman’s window. It takes them a couple seconds to switch cameras, during which time you’re not quite sure what happened by the goal. There are a couple of other cameras, actually, the sole responsibility of which are the goalies. Whenever one kicks, you get a long, loving shot of him that includes a few moments of him watching the ball sail, and then watching the game, hands on his hips.

I’ve found a nice afternoon routine for free days. I go back to the athletic fields out behind Gurgi. I believe I wrote about them last spring. To call them athletic fields is visually misleading to a Westerner, who will picture trim, lined, green fields among chain link fences. No, I speak only of function. These are lumpy, trashy, undeveloped lots of land out by the airport. Some of the best runners in town congregate here, along with some decent young soccer players. I should call the game by its true name, igger kwas, (foot ball,) or kwas for short. In the last, golden light of the day, you can see them all out here. The runners are doing drills along trails among brown grasses and so many hillocks that it makes my ankles ache to look at them. The view here is very nice, mountains at one’s back and those alluring, dry hills in the distance, turning purple. Eagles are circling above and whistling. The sun is ready to set over the city. A few games of kwas are going inside rectangles of trampled earth. One is for the big kids in uniforms, and the other for the little ones. The game among the little ones is the wild one. The ball rolls toward me, and I kick it back, right into the cluster of kids sitting on the sideline. The goalie yells at me with a big smile, something along the lines of, “Over here!” I shrug, and continue on to the other side, where I sit on a rock and watch in peace. That’s one beauty about this place: it’s one of the only spots in Ethiopia where I can sit outside and not be pestered. Runners wave politely as they pass. Kwas kids joke about me, but they don’t bother me. A couple bigger guys are playing with the youngsters. The tall, grinning one is good, but he doesn’t hog the ball. He just moves it downfield and passes. The kids bounce it around inexpertly among themselves. Someone gets a good run going the other way. He sends the ball into the legs of one of the sheep that is grazing on isolated clumps of grass near the sidelines. The kids pass again, fighting over possession of the ball far past anything you could reasonably call “out.”

Eventually, as the sun begins to be eclipsed by the southwestern mountain, I get up to go. A trio of shepherds hails me and approaches. I figure it’s money, and I’m not wrong, but they’re offering something for it, a puppy that fits into the palm of my hand. He lies there, on his back, drowsing, tiny paws in the air. He’s a ball of golden fluff, but for a white stripe running up from his nose, between round, black eyes that haven’t been open too long. Well, I fall for it. I pay the $2.50 or so and drop the boy into the outer pocket of my backpack. I’m thinking he could be the school pet. I name him Jack for the time being. He’s very cuddly. The problem with Jack is when you’re not cuddling with him, he raises a heart-breaking whimper and howl until you’re back. I can’t even run to the bathroom without the siren starting up. I think Jack may be another administrative project for Saba. She has a cool and efficient way with my myriad problems.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Travelogue 52 – December 8

“Dance, Sami!” they shout. I’m at the Classic Hotel bar, watching soccer. The Manchester United game is about to begin. We hear him coming, the sound of music from the hallway. He enters, a swaying, dark-skinned man with a radio on his shoulder. “Sami!” they laugh, and they bid him turn it down. He’s drunk, and it takes him a while to be convinced. He makes his rounds, shaking hands and making people laugh. I knew it was just a matter of time until he comes to me. “A white man,” he says, and then he starts up in Spanish. Loudly, he tells me about himself. He studied Spanish in Valencia, he says repeatedly. He lived with a white family. He says he loves white people. “Los negros,” he says disparagingly, “he doesn’t like their mentality. It takes me a while to understand why he’s in Ethiopia. My Spanish isn’t great, and he’s excited to speak it again, so he’s fast. And he’s slurring. He’s here working as a translator. He speaks a number of languages, it seems, including French and English and Ashanti, his native tongue. He’s from Ghana. But I’m more Spanish than Ghanan, he insists. Apparently, he’s even studied ancient Greek. He’s been to Mount Athos. He’s all about Jesus he says. His kids speak Greek. That story is lost on me, somewhere in the Spanish. Five children he may have. At least one is in Topeka, Kansas. Some may be in Thessalonika. “Dance, Sami!” the boys at the bar yell, trying to rescue me. I’m trying to watch the game and listen. Sami turns on his radio and shakes a little out on the floor, but stops, insisting he needs a woman. The boys try to encourage one of the waitresses. He has a tape of Ghanan music. He sets about convincing the boys that he’s from the Ghanan royal family. Apparently, they’ve heard it before and laugh. “Blue blood,” he repeats. It doesn’t seem to translate very directly into Amharic. All of this is conducted in high spirits and high volume, while the rest of the lounge, a Saturday night crowd of relatively staid, middle class Ethiopians, watches mutely. “Dance Ashanti!” They ask him good-naturedly if the Ashanti aren’t kings of all Africa. He has no answer for that, but reverts to what must be his default argument, that black people don’t like him, because he’s more black than white. When they question European colonialism to taunt him, he shouts, “For fourteen hundred years, your deadliest enemy has been the Arabs, and you’re complaining about the Europeans. It’s the Arabs!” At that point, he seems to become conscious of all the eyes upon him, and he hushes us, though he can’t resist whispering again, “Arabs are the bad ones. I love white people.”

It’s been a strange day, another day of exploration. I walked around the neighborhood of Kasanchis in the afternoon, trying to locate a nice restaurant I’d been to in the spring. It’s hot, and I eventually give up, stopping in a little Abasha place. It’s typical, in that it’s deceptively large inside the compound gates. There’s the bar and the pool hall, the patio with some nice tables, and the booths along one compound wall. The regulars glare at me resentfully when I sit, but get over it quickly enough. The gates of the compound are guarded jealously, because this is a poor neighborhood. I’m writing, and ironically, I’m writing about pictures that impress themselves upon the mind and never let go. I see the old man approaching outside the gate. I know he’s looking at me, and I know he’s going to try to enter. I couldn’t see he had a companion, a little boy. When I look again, they’re inside the gate, but hesitating to enter further because the staff is watching them. The boy appeals to me from there. At first glance, it looks as though he’s wearing something on his face, something over one eye. The rest of his face is completely normal. But I realize with a chill that he has some sort of isolated growth out of his skull there. It’s pink and blotchy, about the size of a softball, and my mind doesn’t want to accept it, until he turns and I see the other eye, big and red, blinking against a fly, on the side of the growth. The two are ushered out, and I’m left a little dazed. I’ve seen every sort of twisted, torn, and withered limb here, but this is new. I shut the notebook. Some things take the life out of my little projects.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Travelogue 51 – December 4
Eating Eshet

I’ve been eating eshet for days. Apparently, it’s in season. Suddenly the city is flooded with eshet. Guys from the country walk the streets with piles of it on their heads. At first, I thought it was a big new shipment of ch’at from the east, ch’at being the leaf that is the favorite stimulant in these parts. But ch’at has bigger leaves, and everybody is chewing eshet, not just the bad boys. Eshet is a name for chickpeas. Actually, the more exact term is shimbra, eshet being a general category for raw, unprepared foods. Chickpeas are the raw material for shiro, a soupy, brown sauce that’s universally eaten as “fasting food”. Everywhere, people are sitting around eating chickpeas, picking them right from the stalk. That’s how you do it. You buy a little bundle of the plants, roots, leaves, and all, and you sit down and graze. The plants are of a modest size, growing only a couple feet tall. The leaves are small and similar in shape to locust tree leaves. The peas come in light green pods, from one to three in a pod. These bright green little pods are all over the streets. The chickpeas look like lumpy peas, small and dark green, nothing like what I’m used to calling chickpeas. But they taste good. Yesterday, I’m sitting with my bundle of plants at a new café. It’s a place with a patio that fortunately gets nice morning sun -- that unfortunately overlooks a busy road -- that fortunately, also has a view past the road of the distant hills and the open fields near Bole. People passing on the sidewalk beneath the patio chuckle to see faranj eating eshet. I smile. I wave away the blind man and his begging companion, the old man with blessings, the country girl. A street person strides by happily shouting into a rolled up piece of cardboard that he holds by his ear like a cell phone. He’s laughing and swinging his arms about. The waitresses watch him cheerfully. A truck blows by honking and leaving a billows of black, diesel smoke. A distressed aheya, (donkey) goes crying right out into the street. Somehow he makes it across without getting hit, and without breaking stride. I believe they are magical animals; I’ve seen this miracle before.

I’m exploring the neighborhood. I’m still looking for the cafes where I can sit in the sun. I find another courtyard with tables off the main road. It’s just a square of concrete, half parking lot, half patio, encircled by a bar, a café, and a pool hall. I sit at one table, partially in the shade of its umbrella. I examine the intriguing bit of sculpture in front of the restaurant. It’s standing in the basin of what once must have been a fountain. Inside the basin is pretty blue tile. The sculpture, of plaster or concrete, sits atop a shapeless pile if concrete. It has three interesting figures in the group: to the left is a white woman sitting naked and smiling, pulling a blanket over herself in a kind of dazed and uncertain modesty. Beside her stands a strong Ethiopian woman, gazing into the distance with resolution. Her hair is braided traditionally. She’s garbed in heavy robes. Under one of these robes is a child. All you see of her is her face peeking out shyly. With one hand, the determined black woman shelters the girl. With the other, she holds up a red, metal table umbrella. I’m puzzling over this piece, having given up on being served my coffee, but I’m distracted by the table of giggling young women nearby. I know the giggling is about the faranj. As I pass, they invite me to join them in their lunch of shiro. As it happens, I may like eating eshet, I’m not fond of shiro. I decline. As I’m leaving, one shouts after me that she loves me. I’m just passing a group of men hidden in a leafy alcove. One of them bitterly grumbles, “She loves him.” The others laugh grimly.

I head back toward the hotel where I often dine. The staff knows me and smiles. I read and write at the bar. I try to extract some world news from the confusion of sound coming out of the TV. The set receives several signals at once. But soon, the young man starts up at his keyboard, and the TV has to be muted. This is the latest trend among hotels, the latest notion in luxury here: live lounge music. I sigh and give in to it. Suddenly, it all stops. The place goes dark. It’s a blackout. As they pull out the candles, I gratefully read by the sun’s last light. There’s a small window by my end of the bar. Outside, shadows are settling across the city’s hills, on the forested mountains above, and on the dry hills to the west.