Monday, November 28, 2005

Travelogue 112 – November 28
Hora Dreams
Debre Zeit, Part Two

I shouldn’t take Saba, Leeza’s sister, away from her work. She is our school’s principal, and she does a great job. But she’s also a great travelling companion. She’s amiable. She takes care of foreign language situations. She’s a trooper. When I must have cake and a macchiato, and when the first café says they have neither, Saba leads on to the other café (and there are only two in downtown Debre Zeit) without a complaint. When I must see four of the five lakes in town, she agrees with a smile.

So when she has a request on the second day of our trip, I acquiesce willingly and gratefully. We return to Lake Hora.

Hora is the nicest of the lakes. You trek out of town a little ways, struggling through mobs of schoolchildren in their uniforms. They will be there, no matter what hour of day you travel; Debre Zeit holds firm to the peripatetic school of pedagogy. They practice their wit upon you. A dirt road leads down to the lake. You pass a staring group of swimmers in their underwear by the shore. You weather the inevitable comments, and you approach the entrance to the sleepy park. One man sits lazily beside his gun. Another sells you tickets. A third offers you ch’at. You decline, saying “It’s a bit too early in the day, thank you,” and pass on. He laughs with childlike glee.

The park is a strand of grass along the lakeside, and a rundown café. We pass all this luxury and the few staring couples. At the end of the park, a trail leads further on, into high grasses. Yesterday, I led this way. Today, it’s Saba. She is eager. We pass beneath huge, sprawling fig trees with smooth limbs and wide leaves of bright green. We pass beneath acacia trees like dusky clouds stretching toward the west. They are Saba’s favourites. Thorns in the vines and stickers in the grasses catch in our clothes. The trail eventually leads down to our tiny pebble beach. We sit there for a long time, saying nothing, gazing at the waters.

The waters of Lake Hora are a milky green. They glow with sunshine. The hills glow, yellow as still fire, dotted with acacia clouds. The hills are high on one side and mellow on the other, and you can almost imagine the trajectory of this meteor. On ancient stumps of trees in the shallows, long-necked water birds preen and doze. Everything shimmers with mild light, and you are helpless. You dream about home. You dream about faraway, hectic home, and dream about dreams, the ones you had when you were trapped under fluorescent bulbs, dreams about peace and about real light. The shadow of a cloud passes across the surface of Hora and you watch it all the way across. You surrender again to the sun. Even dreams lose their substance.

In another life, Saba and I brave dust and glare along the highway that runs through Debre Zeit, making slow progress toward the bus station. Taxis pass and taunt us, but we don’t hail them. Sometimes it’s more effort to save effort.

Our tiny bus to Addis seems to be waiting for us. We climb on. I wedge my knees in behind the seat in front. A group of country gents boards, in patched trousers and cloaks over their shoulders. They all carry walking sticks. Their eyes are feral and innocent. One breaks off a chunk of styrofoam for his companion and one for himself, and they begin polishing their teeth.

Invariably, unconsciously, I choose the sunny side of the bus on these journeys. Halfway home, I’m dizzy with sun. My neck aches from angling my head so the bill of my cap protects my face. I’ve drawn the sleeves of my shirt high. Every bump of the road echoes inside my knees. All of us are quiet. We come to the city. We sway and bump forward in low gears, through traffic. I know all the signs along this highway.

I know where the graveyard is. This is where Leeza is buried. The graveyard gate stands silently open beside a church along this road. I watch it go by. I don’t look at Saba, but turn back into the blast of the descending sun.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Travelogue 111 – November 25
The Devil’s Pit
Debre Zeit, Part One

I finally tear myself away from Addis Ababa. The same small circuit, the same old taunts on the street: I need a change. Heroically, I throw myself against the month’s inertia, and I make the trip to Debre Zeit with Saba.

Debre Zeit is a town on the way to Nazarit, about an hour southeast of Addis. We passed through it every time we went to do our research last summer in Nazarit. Debre Zeit is a town famous for its five lakes. On some primeval afternoon, presumably before Ethiopia had bred its first plague of humans, a set of pebbles cast from the skies slammed into the earth in Debre Zeit and the dry land sprung a leak.

Resolved on our excursion, we get up early and pay ten times the bus fare to the taxi driver who will take us to the bus station. Once there, we squeeze onto the little exhaust machine, wait for it to fill up, and we’re on our creaking, unsteady way. The trip is painless enough, but for the enthusiasm of the old ladies behind us, telling their family gossip with smacks to the back of our seat for emphasis.

You wouldn’t think there was water anywhere nearby, disembarking from the bus in Debre Zeit, looking around at the yellow hills. You jump in a taxi-van for the short ride into “downtown.” You walk a few short blocks to the premier hotel in town, which, behind its gate, is a wide courtyard/driveway between two, one-story blocks of about half a dozen rooms each. At the end of the courtyard, you see a restaurant with wide windows full of blue sky, and you know there’s something out there. The windows draw you. Standing before the glass, you stand at the edge of a steep drop into one of the largest lakes, Lake Bishoftu.

Later, you hear the whispered rumors about Bishoftu. It appears that Emperor Haile Selassie chose this as the site for evil rituals, meant to ensure his power. It was here that he gathered every boy he could find whose eyebrows grew together, and he had their throats slit and their bodies dumped into the lake. He did the same to herds of sheep and flocks of fowl.

Indeed, the place seems sinister. The walls of the crater are steep as they meet deep waters of a hard green color. The surface glints with harsh sunlight and shudders with gusts of wind. The hills around the lake are particularly stark, brown and nearly treeless. Sitting in the restaurant, you watch ravens rise and fall on the hellish air, and you wonder at the ugliest breed of pigeons you’ve ever seen, lighting on the window ledges. They’re over-sized, grey and copper, and their eyes are ringed by bright red, swollen and scaly skin. At a nearby table are a group of middle-aged Russians who stare covetously at your food.

To this day, locals are both scared and respectful of the place. Apparently, they hedge their prayers to happier deities by throwing chicken guts and injera into the lake on certain holidays. Supposedly, they are scared to approach the waters, and I’ll confirm that I saw no one near the slivers of shoreline. Saba asks the gari driver if Satan lives in Bishoftu, and he soberly nods to us. Of course, this is the same guy who doubled the fare he quoted us once the ride was through.

I complained and called him leba, or thief, but really the ride was fun and probably worth every birr: breathing the horse’s dust and having every bone shaken into new alignment as we are driven to the lakes outside of town. It’s harvest time. Golden piles of hay dot the fields. And out of Satan’s reach, trees spread their branches, children laugh at the faranj and chase the gari, and gojo, the circular huts with pointed thatched roofs, stand peacefully aloof.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Travelogue 110 – November 18
Strange Quarks

It’s raining again – a bit of kerempt after a solid month of glorious sunshine. It’s cold, and the kids are staying indoors for lunch and playtime.

I went out this morning, in spite of the weather, and I managed to get some dry time at the café. The clouds were low, telegraphing their intentions for the day. Alarmed ibises flew overhead, making their strange, honking call.

People look gloomy. I get more hostile stares now than I used to. People here feel let down by the West. I’m imagining an increase of general suspicion. I know that suspicion was like oxygen under the former Communist regime, when nothing could be said directly or openly. The populace will revert to this practice now, I’m sure. Many of them still remember. They remember the many Russians in town, well-trained in Amharic. Now it’s the Americans, they will think. Meles is a client of the America. A soldier on the street calls me “trash”. Is he testing whether I understand?

At the café, I watch the clouds, wishing they would break. I lazily turn to some work I’ve brought along. I get a call from my new girlfriend. It’s one of those girlfriends that I pick up without knowing it. Romance here is something like elemental particles, some positive, some negative, careening, matching soundlessly, and breaking away, all somewhat anonymously. I found out one day I was supposed to call this woman, though I barely knew her. Now she phones me daily and chides me for not calling.

I think we went on a date the other day. She had badgered me for a meeting, so I agreed to tea. She is dressed up, and she brushes against me as we walk, with a big smile. We don’t talk much, but that seems standard for Ethiopian dates. At the café, she gazes into the distance and looks so sullen that I feel obliged to try some small talk. She isn’t very responsive. But she proudly walks beside me afterward, and before parting, she reminds me to call.

I don’t really want a girlfriend, but this liaison seems harmless enough: I forget about it most of the time. Our phone conversation is brief. “Why didn’t you call?” “Oh, well, busy-busy.”

Next, Abdurazaq drifts toward my table. He finds me out whenever I’m at this cafe. He likes to chat, this nice old man who studied in the States in the 60s. He’s had one of those erratic careers that characterize the last forty years of Ethiopian history. He studied in the States and in Japan, served the Empire, the Communists and the current capitalists, a smart and reliable worker, but not a good ideologue. So he never served at the level he should have. He rose once to become a Vice-Minister early during the current regime, but quickly found himself odd man out and retired. Overeducated, underappreciated, now he lives on a pension of about $70 per month.

He likes to tell me about America. He ponders with his milky eyes turned slightly skyward, and starts his story, “In 1968, at the State University in Buffalo, ….” He was popular in Buffalo, among students and staff. He was offered work at the university when he graduated, and he could have stayed, but he was his mother’s only son.

He’s Muslim, but religion was ruined for him by 60s America. He tells me often of the rabbi in Buffalo who encouraged his flock to think critically about the Ten Commandments. He also tells me about the time he scolded a fellow student, a Pakistani, who forced his American wife to wear full veils. Christianity and Islam are both sick religions, he confides to me. My time is up this morning. I leave him there in Buffalo in the 60s, a place he inhabits with great peace and grace and pleasure.

It’s back to Addis Ababa of the 00s for me, where we all bounce along, according to invisible laws of uncertainty, clinging to the pleasures we encounter. It’s back to the kids, who are sheltered from the coming rain, at least for one afternoon.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Travelogue 109 – November 13
Salam … ?

The week that began in chaos ends in peace. Life seems to have returned to normal.

Tuesday the taxis appear on the streets again, materializing as though magically. I’m on the mobile, talking to Sophia. She is telling me that Meles, our beloved leader, has threatened to start rescinding taxi licenses. He has sent soldiers around to bang on the doors of closed and striking businesses. Cheered by this merciless tactic, expecting good things soon, I hang up and stow my phone. At the moment, I’m walking home from Saba’s, which is a good distance in the midday sun. Suddenly, taxis round corners from either direction, wayalas crying for customers with voices already hoarse. It feels a bit like a movie stunt, but I gratefully board one for home.

The next day, the cafes are bustling. People are smiling. I can think of nothing more African than this brisk transition. One day war, the next day laughter. And tomorrow? Well, let’s drink today’s macchiato first.

The café’s regular shoeshine boy is back. Actually, he’s a man. He has two kids and a wife, as he feels compelled to tell me today, in bits of Amharic and fragments of English. He’s also pointing repeatedly and unambiguously at his anus, looking up at me with much earnestness. He’s a thin man, and he sits at my feet with knees up in the air. He really wants me to look closely and appreciate that something is wrong down there. I’m nodding with a sincere look of concern, hoping this subject passes quickly. But he’s insistent. Is it worms? He’s saying something about medicine, and opening his mouth wide, so I can see the discoloration under his tongue. He’s pointing south again. “Right. Okay. Ayzu,” I say. I assume this is an appeal for money, and it’s working. I give him a big tip and wave him away. Yes, it’s back to business in Africa.

Thursday is “Little Eid,” something I hadn’t heard of before this year. It appears that really serious Muslims are invited, somewhere among the words of Allah, to fast for six more days after the close of Ramadan. Their reward is heaven, and a second celebration. Since “Big Eid” fell during the troubles, I’m invited to Eman’s family for the little one.

As always at Eman’s family’s house, it’s good food and good company. Arab channels blare on the TV: Oprahs in Muslim headdress, or chatter about explosions. We sit on the floor and gorge ourselves. Eman’s mother tells me I’ll be Muslim some day, “inshallah.” Today, she says, “Bush and Meles: one!” with a grimace of extreme distaste on her lips. “One!”

After Little Eid, I have to rush to a wedding. John calls me that morning: he needs a witness. I rush to Mezzagaja, or City Hall. It’s my first time inside this 60s monstrosity on top of its hill overlooking Addis. We’re searched; we’re questioned; our cameras are confiscated; we’re waved in. We push into a crowded hall to present papers. We fill in some more, watching “The King and I” on a TV set in the corner, sweating and gasping for air as we glance at the many hermetically sealed windows. John’s Ethiopian bride is eager and happy, dressed to kill. John, an old-school Brit, sports a vermilion tie against plaid. He makes many a dry crack about the romance of the place. They are shunted about, from window to window, and finally, exhausted, we are all led into a chamber decorated with heavy white and red draperies and plastic roses, sat at a formidable black table, and we all sign in the thick register, clapping as the man and wife scribble their signatures. Before we get too comfortable, the smiles vanish, and we are ushered out. In the dusty, glaring little courtyard outside, we congratulate and shake hands, and off we go. Brusquely, but no less sincerely, life asserts itself again.

So what next? As coffee is sipped between bitter words about wounded democracy; as our beloved leader contemptuously dismisses foreign calls for leniency, and demands that opposition party leaders be tried for treason; as foreign investment dries up; as life nonetheless rolls pluckily on – birr spent, marriages consummated, worms happily burrowing up their dark cavities – what next?

Well, those who are already bored glance northward, where the proudly insane leader of neighboring Eritrea lustily waves his battle flag. He has dismissed UN helicopters from the border, and troops are mustering on both sides of the vague line between them. One army is “performing exercises,” the other is “helping with the harvest.” Five years of arcane diplomacy after the last war has proven unsatisfying to hypertrophied adrenal glands in the Horn of Africa. We prepare for the next circus. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Travelogue 108 – November 5
The Rubsha, Part Three

We settle in for the long haul. So it seems.

Disturbances continued into Thursday, particularly in the neighboring district of Faransae. Troubles spread to other cities in Ethiopia, but news is scanty.

All of the night between Wednesday and Thursday, police scoured areas like ours, knocking on doors and grabbing young men and boys, taking them to jail. I hear there have been 5,000 arrests. The prime minister has said nothing, apparently acknowledging that the Ethiopian people are his enemy. Truckloads of soldiers, guns trained, still cruise the town.

Opposition leaders are in jail; their houses have been busted up and burned. One reason Faransae was a battle zone was that it was the location of one of these houses: that of Birtukan, the young woman who was vice president of the Kinijit. An inspiring story (unconfirmed) has it that a crowd of men from the district surrounded her, protecting her from the police, and escorted her to the nearby French Embassy, where she is holed up still. High casualties.

Taxis have stopped running. The government bus system is functioning, despite the loss of some buses to bonfires Wednesday. Most businesses are shut, and no end to this undeclared strike is in sight.

I walk down the hill every day, trying email, fighting boredom. It’s very quiet now. A steady stream of people walks from one place to another, but the streets are comparatively empty. The mood’s not entirely grim, though the heat doesn’t help.

Some kids glare and comment. One says, “You are faranj; I am Abasha; what do you do?” He says it at the edge of audibility, behind my back, as many do here. I confront him. He accuses my government of not helping. I counter with my dual objections: what am I supposed to do, and whose problem is this, anyway?

I’m disgusted yesterday with all parties. Disgust with the government hardly needs explaining. For the rest of them, it’s an old story of chikachik and shaybuna. A general strike? Great: more time with the family and at the café, talking about everyone’s evils but our own. My staff checks out, without a qualm for the kids or for unfinished business.

I march back up the long hill in the midday sun, about three kilometres, back to the school. I collect my two security guys and we start the afternoon’s spontaneous mission. I’m going to visit every one of my students and their families, bring some bread, make sure they’re all right. It takes us four hours, but we visit twenty-six of them before the sun begins to set. The families’ homes are spread all around the nearby hills. The two guys are good sports, putting up even with my minor asthma attack, miles from my medicine.

Everyone is fine, though several of them have lived through some scary days and nights, stray stones peppering their roofs, police banging on their doors in the search for boys to arrest.

Some of them live better than I do: furniture, TVs. Most have bare rooms of mud with essentials. Some live in tragic squalor, in crumbing rooms they can barely fit into, down alleys of mud and stone smelling like sewers. The kids from one house will lead us to the next. Sometimes, I have a crowd of little ones to escort me. Always the stories of street battles, always the surrender, always the beautiful hills around us.

In one, Grandpa sits in a pit dug into the ground, behind a loom. He may sleep there. He obviously doesn’t move by himself, judging by the state of his gnarled feet, long nails curling. His hands are permanently cramped, but he can thread and pull the loom. He wears a greasy, old military cap. His hair and beard are long. The natalas he weaves are lovely.

The police stop us. One of them is the same guy who arrested me last spring. I could never forget his face – the cold, hateful stare and the bared teeth, even in the grimace of a smile. He retains us for a while, with questions and challenges, reading over our IDs repeatedly. Eventually, with his staring, death’s head grin, he lets us go.

In day’s last light, we arrive home. I haven’t eaten all day. My housekeeper didn’t come in. There’s no food in the house. I devour some bread left over from the mission.

What was it I accomplished, really? I’ll sleep soundly from the exertion, anyway.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Travelogue 107 – November 2
The Rubsha, Part Two

Wednesday evening. We’re cozy enough tonight at the school. The five of us sit in tiny chairs in the classroom. Bakalech makes coffee. She’s burning it’an, the incense that accompanies the buna ceremony. The boys tease Wogayehu. One would hardly guess at the brutality of the day.

Wogayehu and Bakalech have to spend the night tonight because all transportation has stopped. She’s been here since morning, when parents brought their students. Everyone was just a little late, including Wogayehu. I sadly watched the clock as 8:00 a.m. approached, with Girma the guard as my only company. The first to arrive were little Yonas and Genet, followed soon afterward by Wogayehu and then Bakalech. More kids appeared. To me, their faces shone with hope and resilience. I was touched more than I can say by the sight of them all.

I left them to their school day and went down to Arat Kilo. After a while, I called the school, and all they said was, “Come back now.” Everything in Arat Kilo was peaceful, but I obeyed. Little did they know they were calling me back into the midst of the danger.

The taxi up to Shiro Meda swerves aside some half a mile from my neighborhood, and they kick us out. The taxi swings around and speed away. It’s the last taxi I see. I walk home. The streets are nearly deserted. At the top of my street are army and police trucks. Stones are in the street. Police are spread out, guns held high. I pass one who is coming up an alley, shooting into the air. Down my street, people are standing mute, looking up behind me, watching and waiting. No one at the school knows what’s happened yet. The kids have been sent home.

We can hear from several directions the sound of guns, people wailing and howling and whistling. We stand outside the school. Francois comes: he was supposed to tutor the kids in French today. As we watch, several boys run up the hill, throwing stones. As they run back down, they are followed by army men shooting at them. It’s my first time seeing men shoot at human beings. I don’t think they hit anyone. We witness several waves like this from both directions, boys running and police or army shooting. They are accompanied by the hooting and whistling of women in their houses. It’s the very sound of shame. Shiro Meda eventually calms down, but beyond the hill, the shooting goes on a long time, including several blasts that are bombs or big guns.

Muluken is also trapped at the school. After we all have lunch together, we resolve to walk down to Arat Kilo. Muluken wants to walk home to his family. I’m concerned about Sophia, whois trapped in her office at the university. Listening to the echoes in the hills around us, the fighting seems to have stopped. Indeed, people have begun to emerge. On the main road, many are walking home from work or school. We find that Arat Kilo is fine. Several stores and cafes have remained open. We meet with Sophia and have tea. All seems well, except for the trucks full of troops passing every few minutes. The soldiers sit facing outward, guns ready. Several tanks roll toward Piassa.

We manage to flag down one of the sparse taxis for Sophia. Francois and I are not so lucky. We have to walk back up the long hill as the afternoon wanes. He has decided to try for home, so our paths diverge. I worry about him. Desalegn tells me that a faranji was killed today in another part of town.

The violence that began in our neighborhood, one of the northernmost, spreads throughout the day, southward through many areas of the city. Presently, they’re fighting in several of the southernmost districts. It seems that something like twenty have been killed today, and over 500 injured. Buses and police cars have been burned. Meles has retreated outside Addis Ababa.

Huddled around the radio, we listen to the Voice of America broadcast, which waxes and wanes among static and radio-chirping. I feel for a moment like I’m in Prague, 1968.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Travelogue 106 – November 1
The Rubsha, Part One

It seems the rubsha we’ve been dreading for so long has broken upon us today, with pent-up fury, though as I write this on Tuesday evening, I have only sketchy details.

The day had an odd tone to it from the start. At 7:00, I’m still half asleep in bed, when our teacher, who always arrives early, concludes that she should clean the toilet. The bathroom is right next to my bedroom. She’s scrubbing and sloshing water by the gallon from a bucket into the toilet. “Wohayehu?” She turns with a charming smile from her position over the toilet bowl. “Good morning!” She tells me a dirty toilet bowl is bad for my sinuses. All right, then. Hazily, I wander outside. There are clouds in the morning sky, something I haven’t seen for a month.

I was supposed to start work today. I’ve been pursuing a work permit since I arrived three months ago. Whether I am closing in on the document or not, I’ve discovered work: back at the school where I taught last winter. Maybe, in this bent place, the work leads to the paperwork.

I’m killing some time before my noon class, drinking coffee, soaking up every fleeting bit of sunshine, when Muluken calls. They’ve shut the school; all the staff has left. There’s something brewing in the Mercato. This is all the information I have for hours. The Mercato district is where those forty poor souls were gunned down by the army last June. Sure enough, I notice now that the school across the street is mobbed by parents picking up their kids. There’s a subdued sense of panic. Everyone is on their mobiles.

The mobile network is clogged. I can’t get through to my employers. I assume I had better go, so I take my usual stroll, which leads me by the prime minister’s palace. Where yesterday troops were thick as pedestrians, now there are none. I take that as a bad sign.

I meet Shimeles, my taxi driver. He doesn’t know anything. We head toward Bole, both of working our mobiles. Halfway there, I make contact. The school is closing. We turn back.

The balance of the afternoon is woven of strange peace and pleasure. I’m selfishly glad to be released from work, and I return to my café for lunch. The streets in Arat Kilo have thinned out, but there is no trouble, just that unnatural peace. The few people sharing lunchtime with me at the café are clearly in the same strange, adrenalized, exhilarated state. They watch the street with a light in their eyes.

Gossip arrives. It’s a bomb. It’s a fight between taxi drivers and the police. People are dead. The battle’s still raging. No, all is quiet.

Back home, I enjoy the fading of a quiet day in the hills. Shiro Meda is untroubled. Kids are playing outside. I look over the newspaper. Ten dead in Kenya in clashes with police at a rally for constitutional change. Protests over election results in Zanzibar. Burundi threatens force against rebels. Next door, the dictator of Eritrea continues to rattle his saber. Recently, he banned UN peacekeepers’ helicopters from his side of the border.

By nightfall, news takes on more substance. Police have killed as many as six in clashes in the Mercato, possibly provoked by CUD’s call to honk horns. At least two policemen were killed. There are barricades and fires. Kids are running rampant in several other districts, throwing stones, causing havoc. CUD leaders have been arrested. More arrests are coming. One rumor has it African ministers have started leaving.

If the moon says so, tomorrow is Eid. It’s impossible to predict what will happen. I’m stuck in the hills. Desalegn has arrived. He’s the extra security I brought in last time. He just shows up. He knows. “Naga?” I ask. Tomorrow? He just shrugs.