The Hills are Alive
It’s my last day in Dire Dawa. We successfully managed to get Kevin onto the train to Djibouti, despite a fluid, minute-by-minute schedule for its arrival and departure. To pass the time while the train is delayed, we take one last hitch out of town, arriving in a village along the train tracks. Veiled women sit with their children in cleanly swept dirt yards. The children run from us. On the way back, we stop quickly to watch for a few moments the group of old men in skirts carving up a camel. The beast lies like it might be sleeping, its neck stretched forward, but its mid-section is all sliced open to reveal pink meat. We get back to board Kevin. He wants to ride in cargo so he can lie down and sleep. Hours after he’s boarded, the sad old train lurches forth toward his 118th country or so.
The next afternoon I’m to fly. I spend the last hours of that day strolling straight out of town, toward the north. I love desert landscapes, and I’m dying to be alone, out of cities. I follow dirt paths through the cactus. I steer away from the few collections of houses – the suburbs – and toward a long, flat, uninterrupted plateau on the horizon, sort of like you might see driving through the American Southwest, except for the unbroken length of it. I wonder if I’m looking at the other side of the Rift Valley there. Beyond it is a distant, blue mountain. Sunset approaches; big white clouds above the plateau glow with day’s end. I reach a dry riverbed, where men are mining for stone. Several see me, and momentarily they’re all waving. It would be a beautiful river: lots of white water.
My flight home is a nightmare. I should say the eight-hour delay for the one-hour flight is a nightmare. I arrive home at midnight. My servant, Bakalech, has hung a picture of crucified Jesus on my wall. I contemplate it for quite a while before I retire. He looks like a sweet child sleeping. The sky is green. Jerusalem in the background looks like a Hopi village at the base of purple mountains. John looks like a girl; but then, he always does.
I’ve moved back into the school building since then. I’m back in bed with the bugs. By the end of the first week, my body looks like I’ve got the pox again. I take an afternoon to lacquer all surfaces with bug spray. It slows them down a day or two. I’m back to cold showers. I’m back to waking to the sound of little children, but with the added element of Jack’s yapping. She gets chased around the yard a lot now. The kids alternate between fear of the dog and an impulse to crowd in and touch her. “Jack, Jack, Jack,” they chant. Or they say, “poochie,” which I think is funny -- to find a word like that crossing languages.
I’m back to waking early to the chanting from the church up the hill rather than to the off-key muezzin in the last neighborhood. It’s a much nicer experience. The
There are a lot of churches up this way. I get many opportunities to catch a little blessing. It’s a tradition here to genuflect whenever you pass a church. The extent of the devotion, of course, varies with each person. Some just nod three times. Some stop and face the church and bow and do full genuflections. I like standing in front of the church and bowing back. They don’t get it. It’s an odd tradition. Apparently, there’s no rule on the range of your genuflection. I’ve seen people stop at the sight of a church a mile away, on another mountain or across broad fields. Sometimes I don’t even see the church they’re aiming at. I figure that’s why they must be late all the time. There’s always a church somewhere.