Monday, October 31, 2005

Travelogue 105 – October 31
Is it Just Chikachik?

It’s Halloween in America. Our teacher, Wogayehu, hasn’t heard of it. I try to explain but I get distracted by my own discourse about history, All Saint’s Day, and all that, and she gets confused. “It’s for Catholics?” “No, it’s for kids. They dress up in costume.” I’m not even sure she understands about costumes, beyond traditional dress for Ethiopian dances or rituals. “You know, it for fun. Ghosts and witches and what not.” Okay. Well, just write it in your calendar: Halloween.

The government knows what day it is. The federal police are out in droves again, in their blue army costumes. They stand in pairs along every major street. Actually, most of them slouch against a convenient wall. They eye me, fingers on the triggers of the semi-automatics in their laps.

It’s hard to say what motivates their redeployment. Undoubtedly, their supervisors would say it’s the African Union conference this week. Several motorcades with police sirens pass me by this morning. They’re all heading up to the American Embassy, apparently, to pay their respects before the conference gets going. The US Embassy is just above our school. I pass it every day when I go to town.

It’s a bit eerie when Arat Kilo – that swinging little city hub down the hill from us, next to the university – when Arat Kilo is stilled. I’ve mentioned in other blogs the spooky stillness on holidays. Today, it’s the motorcades: police stop all traffic for their approach. Cars idle; everyone watches. But it’s something more. People are expectant.

The Kinijit, our main opposition party since May, has been dormant. They’ve cited Ramadan as their excuse, though they can’t quite keep reports of splintering at their core out of the papers. They balance them with statements that they’re studying the best methods for peaceful protest. These are usually countered with blunt government statements that aren’t much subtler than, “Don’t even think about it.” Meles, our prime minister for fourteen years now, is developing an Arab brutality to his rhetoric. No colorful name-calling, no snakes, scorpions or Satans, but lots of heavy-handed challenges and accusations.

Suddenly, though the conclusion of Ramadan is still half a week away, the Kinijit leaders let loose with calls for protest. Today, every supporter with a horn to honk during morning rush hour is supposed to honk. A rather unimpressive launch to a movement, I thought, but last night the government broadcast the usual threats. Remember, this is the government that has so far refused to either investigate or apologize for the army killings of demonstrators in the streets last June.

Did they honk? Nothing. Other calls for protest this week: don’t talk to your friends who are government supporters. Or boycott government services. Right. This is what we get from a party led mostly by college professors. And our government ministers? By and large, guerrilla soldiers who emerged straight out of the hills up north after almost twenty years of insurgency. It makes for a lop-sided debate.

Eventually, we’re supposed to warm up to a general strike. This, as I’ve reported before, is what worries me. Every day, I ask my taxi drivers and baristas, “Is the strike coming?” But for the fervent YES, all answers vary. This week, next week. One day, one week.

Sophie and Saba, government supporters the both of them, say it’s chikachik: all talk. And these days, there’s a small glint of doubt in the eyes of my Kinijit friends. With a laugh, Meseret says very sad things about what fools she and all Ethiopians were to think things could change.

Still, there’s a tension in the air. This week will likely tell us something about the direction of national politics. Blended into the city hubbub is a strange silence. Everyone turns their heads to watch the Mercedes with dark windows race by, the African dignitaries, police motorcycles ahead and behind them. They watch with unusual melancholy.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Travelogue 104 – October 28

The mabrat, the electricity, cuts out on me three times first thing in the morning when I have to get some computer work done. The battery for this laptop failed months ago. After many exclamations of frustration that small children shouldn’t hear as they arrive to school, I finish my project.

On the taxi down the hill, a crazy man settles next to me. He behaves for a while, just mumbling and staring. He can’t contain himself; he has to scream at the faranji. “Techewat!” he shouts: Let’s talk! Everyone turns in their seats. “Where are you going?” “Here,” I reply, and I walk the rest of the way to the internet place.

The electricity is out. Everyone is sitting indolently about. A candle is lit. Almost every day is some saint’s day, and shop-owners often light candles for their favorites. I’m curious. She says it’s Stephen’s day. “The first martyr,” I comment. “No. You don’t know Estiphanos?” “Sure,” I say, “The first Christian martyr. Stoned.” “Really?” I wonder why she likes Stephen when she doesn’t know who he is. I describe what a martyr is. She promises to look him up in the Bible. The girls look at me with religion in their eyes. Not my intention, really.

I walk slowly and without purpose along, feeling a bit bruised by the day already. At the café, I read Homer. Hector hectors his brother, Paris: “The Trojans are all cowards, or you would have had a coat of stone long ago for the evil you have done.”

So he’s afraid to go mano a mano with Menelaus; so he has a weakness for women. So he has a funny name. My position is that stoning is an extreme option.

Francois takes me to a concert a few nights ago. Oliver Mtukudsi is playing at the Alliance Francaise. It’s a beautiful evening, and the concert is outdoors, in the luxurious courtyard of the complex. The place is crowded with white people, come to see the famous black Zimbabwean. I’m stunned, as I always am when I stumble upon more than two or three white people. It’s been three months since I’ve seen this many gathered. I wander among them in a daze. “White women are beautiful!” I whisper to Francois. He laughs.

I have a difficult time concentrating on the concert. I’m intent upon the exotic life milling about. Where did these people come from? You don’t seem them in the street or in cafes. You’ll catch a few of them in some restaurants, if the stars are aligned. Francois is bored with the music, and so am I after a few songs. It’s a lot of that happy South African strumming, and some loose-limbed dancing on the stage. Mtukudsi is likeable, but that’s not enough for two hours.

The next day, God speaks. At my internet spot, Stephen has moved on to heaven, but in his place, there’s a white woman! She’s blonde, and she has a sunny smile. She is Italian! She is Antonella from Napoli. She is here, just like Francois, to study Ge’ez and early church history. Her accent is magical.

I’m in love! I’m in love with Italian. One evening, we go to the Italian Cultural Center in town to watch a movie. (Beautiful movie: “Io Non Ho Paura.”) This place can’t compare to the Alliance. It’s a plain, 60s set of buildings, painted mustard yellow. Inside is one tree, shading a corner of a dusty soccer field. But people in line speak Italian. I can’t stop smiling; I’m high as a kite listening to them. “In Paradiso, parlano l'Italiano,” I declare. They laugh, but no one disagrees.

Antonella whispers in my ear for half the movie, but I find I’m catching on. It’s a wonderful date. But for those of you concerned about my innocence, don’t worry. Antonella has a boyfriend back home. My affair is with her language. Che bella!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Travelogue 103 – October 19
Lazy Days and Distractions

My life has become pretty sedate, and, by and large, I find that agreeable. I sit on my front step for the last hour of the day. Sometimes I stay into night. I watch the bats come out among the eucalyptus trees. I watch the sky flush with royal blue. I watch Venus come out, and then Antares.

The other night, a full moon rose over the horizon, climbing over the high hills behind our bathrooms, climbing up the yellowing sky between two tall black eucalyptus trees, climbing so quietly as not to rustle a leaf. Almost as neat a feat as Francois climbing over our front gate a few hours later.

Francois found a house to rent. Actually, it’s a few rooms in a weedy compound in Faransae, the district next to mine. He has decided he likes the hills on this side of town. He takes me for a walk one afternoon to take a look. We descend the slope below the school, along roads laid with rock, along dirt paths, down to the river that divides our districts. One of its banks is all high eucalyptus over bare red earth. A few dead trunks are propped so that the local boys can ride them like bucking broncos. They invite us to join in on the fun.

Steeply uphill we climb then, along curving lanes, into Faransae, into “Yesus,” an area high above the city, named for one of the twin churches that command the neighborhood. Both churches are new. They’re painted the colors of the Ethiopian flag. One is the traditional hexagonal shape. They share a bell tower, painted silver to look like an Iowa grain silo. A priest stops us to ask for money. Francois takes off after some kids who are pelting a retarded man with stones.

Tonight, he’s climbing my gate. He had to leave one of his bags for a second trip. It’s 9pm, and I’m ready for bed. He taps at my window. I’m not sure which is more disturbing: that Francois so easily jumps the wall, or that my guard is nowhere to be found.

With nights so peaceful, my mornings are early. I rush outside to see the rising sun cast its light on the other side of the tree trunks. These days, mornings and evenings are clear-skied. Midday, clouds push harmlessly by overhead. I work; I watch the kids come in. I catch the taxi down to my internet place.

This morning, I notice that the cute internet girl, for whom I had a burning crush some time ago, is pregnant. I am reluctant to point to her swelling stomach. It would be typical if I were mistaken and then had to stammer apologies. But I do inquire, “Lijj? Baby?”

“Whenever you like,” she replies in Amharic.

“Mm,” I say, and let it go. I want to contemplate that sweet exchange for a while. She doesn’t understand. She thinks that I’m resuming my earlier invitations for a lunch date, and instinctively she humors me. I’ll leave clarification for another day.

After the internet work, after some coffee, I return to the school and meet with staff. Muluken, Saba, and I drag our chairs out of the office. I set up in the sun, they in the shade, and we pursue the topics at hand in as desultory a manner as possible, spiced with lazy banter and useless tangents. We drink buna, we drink shai, and we gossip about the rumblings afoot about more political troubles. Saba absolves the prime minister of all sins, while Muluken castigates and wrings his hands over the fate of the nation.

Jack yips at a bird. She yips at the child who runs to the bathroom. She prances around at the end of her leash, and pants, and distracts. I’ve changed her name from Jack to “Jib-snack.” Jib means hyena. Unfortunately, all the staff loves her now, and I’m having a hard time convincing them that Jack’s got to be evicted. They don’t find her at all annoying.

I have to admit she has her cute moments. When no one else is around, we play with the leather collar that she chewed through. I toss it for her, and while it’s in the air, she turns quick circles looking for it. I hold it high and she jumps, with little concern for landings. Thump! she’ll fall on her ribs, and then bound up for more.

So it goes until another night, and the bats take over, and Venus inches her way east, and the moon wanes below the hills, and the internet girl waxes with child, and Francois disappears into the hills, chasing bad boys and girls, and I pray for no more yips and no more taps at the window.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Travelogue 102 – October 10
Waiting for Francois

I’m sitting in the school courtyard, waiting for Francois. It’s the last of the afternoon, when the world is in an uproar. The church is blasting hymns. Kids are screaming all around the neighbourhood. The birds are in a riot, chasing bugs and diving for Jackie’s food. She’s bouncing at the end of her leash, issuing her squealing yap at the intruders. The sky is gloomy. It’s been raining the last three days, though kerempt should have been over weeks ago. I tell Saba that someone exchanged the Congo for Ethiopia in the night. Whither has Ethiopia gone?

I’m waiting for Francois. When will he return? Girma, our guard doesn’t come until sunset, so I’m alone on the premises in the Congo’s gloaming. I have to unlock the gate whenever Francois knocks. He said he would be back in the afternoon.

I’m waiting. I met Francois in the internet café a week or so ago. He had just arrived from Nantes. He’s a thin, bright-eyed young guy with slight whiskers and Rasta hair, with an infectious and innocent grin. He has lived in Ethiopia before. He was a real Rastafarian back then. But it’s hard to maintain an image of Haile Selassie as God once you’ve been here a while. So he says. I’ve never tried.

This time he’s here to launch his PhD work with some study of Amharic, and of Ge’ez, the predecessor of Amharic, the liturgical language, much as Latin used to be for us. He studies the history of the Orthodox church here. He likes to tell stories from the semi-mythological record of Ethiopia’s religion. He tells Sophia and I about King Ezana and his conversion in the fourth century by two ship-wrecked Greeks. As if the story weren’t fabulous enough, his wonderful accent gives it just the right folkloric touch.

I’m waiting for Francois. He arrived in Ethiopia only days before, and he’s staying in a hotel until he finds a house to rent. I offer him a room at the school. He can stay in the kids’ nap room for a little while. We make quite a pair strolling down the steep, rocky street to the school, he in his Seuss hat and I with my long hair, getting more 70s every week, among the muddy, staring kids and the grandmothers in their white shawls. But that’s one thing about travel in Ethiopia: the way has been paved by many a weirdo, and there will be many more to come. The unique is organically blended with the mundane in the image of the faranji here. Francois tells me yesterday there’s a black Rastafarian in the neighbourhood who fled New Orleans six years ago, predicting disaster. “You see?” the man says now.

Waiting for Francois, I savor the last, fading sensation of my own uniqueness. Last week, I had finally made it: I had become a writer. My cough had become so violent and so prolonged that a doctor had recommended tests for TB. The tests eventually came up negative, but for a few exalted days, I had joined the ranks of Keats and others, a host of wheezing, fragile authors shambling their brief paths through the past. Of course, Keats had produced volumes by the age of 26, when he died, but that was back when artists were encouraged toward excess in all things, including work.

No, I was so content to have made it, I laid down the pen and peacefully closed the laptop to watch the breeze in the treetops and contemplate my success.

It’s Columbus Day in America, and a momentous day here, as parliament is called into session, and the main opposition party refuses to join, citing election fraud and a laundry list of other government offenses. At the café this morning, the radio broadcasts parliament speech after speech. They sound as dry and far from reality as any American political speech.

And I’m waiting for Francois, bereft of my dream by doctors, while the trees become silhouettes against the deep blue dusk. I wonder if he’ll ever come.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Travelogue 101 – October 5
A Miracle in the Ribs

There’s singing and wailing over the wall this afternoon. It’s a luxo, a wake. I’m daydreaming on my front step. Singing is not so unusual in these parts. I don’t notice at first. When I do, I reflect on its beauty and solemnity. And only later do I realize what the occasion is. I doubt many American funerals go unrecognized. And fewer strike a bystander as beautiful.

To conclude my Meskel narrative, I can only say that the holiday itself is somber in comparison with its eve. No singing boys romping around, no joyous processions of young people in traditional garb, clapping and chanting. It’s hard for me to gauge whether that is because Meskel itself is no big deal, or if everyone is hungover and tired, or whether it’s the news of the clash with police in Meskel Square the previous evening.

“Ethiopia is a land of miracles,” one taxi driver tells me. “So many miracles!” He’s remarking that no one was hurt during the clash. The police didn’t shoot this time. He tells me that a previous demonstration was called off because of rain. He says that that time the police did shoot and forty were killed last June, a sudden shower stopped the situation from getting worse. Judging by my experience this summer, I can hardly call rain in Ethiopia a miracle, but I don’t comment.

The taxi drivers are fired up. Every one of them I encounter rails against the government. They all say they’re going to the demonstration Sunday. “It’ll be dangerous,” I comment. They simply nod, with no bravado or rage. They’re going.

Sunday comes and goes. I decide to hire extra security and stay at home, partly for comfort, partly because I don’t want to be seen by my community as fleeing. It’s an empty gesture. The government decides to negotiate, seemingly spurred on by the opposition’s call for a general strike beginning Monday.

On Monday, everything is open. I go to the clinic to get a chest x-ray. I’ve been coughing for a month now, leaving green junk from my lungs all over town. Sitting in the clinic, abandoned to an old Michelle Pfeiffer movie, I muse over the metaphysics of a strike in Ethiopia. I never do see the doctor that day, but I do see the x-ray man.

The whole afternoon is lazy and distracted. The friend who volunteers to take me to the clinic does little more than drag me along on her and her friend’s errands, eventually dropping me at the clinic and promising that she’ll call to check on me later.

One of our errands is at the post office. The driver and I stay in the car. I’m feeling suddenly gloomy. Looking into the sky, I blame the incoming clouds. Most of the sky is still blue. Without really thinking about it, I glance repeatedly up at these offending clouds. They seem fairly harmless. How can they cast such a pall over the city?

The friends return. “Did you notice the eclipse?” one says. We try the old pinhole in a piece of paper trick, and sure enough, the sun is a thin crescent on the hood of the car. A drifting cloud veils the light just enough for us to look directly. So strange.

“It’s beautiful,” gushes the x-ray man in the parking lot of the clinic. “We are so lucky. We are so lucky.” He is laughing. He is holding up an x-ray to see the sliver of sun. He lets me look. He shows another woman, who is shocked. He laughs. “It’s a miracle!” We stand together gazing at the crescent of light gleaming through some guy’s ribs. “We are so lucky!”