Friday, February 25, 2005

Travelogue 64 – February 25
When the Lions Lie Down With the Bugs

It rained again last night. We had a long stretch of beautiful, sunny days that became increasingly hot and oppressive and hazy, so the hills were like mist. Then the clouds started coming. They arrive in the afternoon. When you wake, the sun is streaming your window, like it has for weeks. About noon, the first clouds appear, white and harmless. By four, a grey mass of them is hanging over the mountains, and with darkness comes the lightning.

I leave the house during rush hour in the morning, while the sun is bright and cheerful. The big dirt roads are peopled with the workers, walking to the asphalt road, where they’ll catch their taxis. An old woman shouts, “Bene!” Many of the elderly here are proud of their Italian. The kids find me and crowd around. They know my name. A while ago, I graduated from “faranj” to “faranju” in my neighborhood: THE faranj. Then my name leaked, and the children shout “Dana!” When they see me at the end of the block, and run to mob me and giggle and ask for cookies.

I don’t mind kids. They grow on you. The other day, I went to the school to take pictures of our kindergarteners. I wanted individual shots, so someday I can “sell” them back home, get them sponsorships for later education. These ones also like to mob me. And they know my name now, too. There, I’ve graduated from “Mister.” I tickle them. I toss a couple of them on the slide. I turn a couple upside down. Kids like this sort of thing. The teacher establishes order. I test the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve come by on this mission. Last time, my new camera refused to work. I have to resort to the old one I left here last year, the one you have to tape shut once the film is in. The spirit of this place is strong. It invades foreign machinery. It isn’t happy until there’s a bit of chaos and improvisation to the simplest activity. We have a good laugh at the kids as they come up in single-file to pose. They aren’t used to it. “Smile,” I say. “Saki,” the teacher says, and they form charming little grins, thinking about saki.

I pay homage to our poor pet sheep in the back. This sheep was a gift from the board, sent via some agency that sends congratulations from afar, with a live sheep, cakes and flowers. I fought for the school pet idea, but it was a lost cause. His skin hangs on the back wall now. Apparently, he made for a good lunch for the school one special day. I lay a twig of grass below the hide, and reflect how he did, after all, have a shabby coat.

I went to see the lions the other day. I was in the neighborhood, waiting for a concert, so I ventured in. They reside in a small zoo, right by the university, down the hill from our school – the lion zoo. They’re the only animals in this little urban complex. They live in a circle of concrete, in wedge-shaped cages, a mom and dad per wedge. The cubs live in a separate facility. The ladies pace back and forth; the men hold their manes high. Or the two of them lie on their sides at the back of their condos. It wouldn’t be Ethiopia if someone weren’t at your elbow asking for money. In this case, it’s one or two of the staff photographers. Most of the Abasha are game. They pose in front of the sneering lions. I try to get away, find some peace with the kings and queens. They are huge. Their tawny hides are sleek and beautiful. They look down their wide noses at me, as they should. “Stranger,” they say. “Commoner.” The head photographer is shouting at us. “Nu, nu, lijjoch!” Come on, kids, he’s saying. It’s closing time. I sigh. The royalty looks away haughtily. I’m off to the concert, which I’ll describe next time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Travelogue 63 – February 15

Until you know a little of the language, you’re amazed at the stream of verbiage between acquaintances and friends in the street. They launch themselves at each other, kiss cheeks or shake hands and embrace, and release upon each other a cascade of words. The warmth is genuine, and wonderful to see. One American passing another may say, “Hey,” and the other, “What’s new?” If it’s been a while, they may stop. A few condensed items of news, and then they shove off. Here is a people, you think, who knows how to converse. A few months of language, and you realize the conversation runs something like this: “How are you? How’s everything? Is everything well? Are you well? How are you? Are you well? How’s work? How are you? Is everything all right? How’s the family? How are you? Are you well? You disappeared. How are you?” Maybe an occasional answer, like, “I’m well, thank God. How are you? Are you fine? Is everything fine? How are you? Okay. Okay.”

Putting two and two together, you solve the cell phone quandary. E.g., it’s the weekend and a couple enters the café. They sit together in silence, clutching cell phones. One rings, and he or she jumps on it. Such sudden animation: “How are you? Are you well? Is everything fine? How are you? Where have you been? How are you? Are you fine?” The partner soon gets his/her chance. After a few cellular conversations, they pay up and leave. You realize that everyone on the other end of the line is at some other café, desperate for “conversation.” There are only so many how-are-you’s you can exchange with a spouse with any real enjoyment.

My landlord and I emerge at the same late hour in the morning, a coincidence I do my best to avoid. He offers me a ride. I know I’ll end up somewhere far from my destination, but it’s a gesture so magnanimous here it’s difficult to refuse. This should be an interesting guy to speak to. He runs a hotel in Kasanchis, a neighborhood known for its seedy hotels. He works strange hours. He looks like a gruff capitalist, with a protruding belly and heavy brow. Apparently, he has a good sense of humor, despite the stormy countenance, because he always makes the servant girls giggle. With me, he’s got one topic. “Did you forget what I asked you to do?” he begins as we pull away from home, in a tone to match the J.P. Morgan stare. I sigh. Ever since I brought Jack home, he wants Jack’s twin. I’ve told him in a variety of ways that Jack was a chance deal. I’ve seen the shepherd boys now and again, but they’ve had nothing to match Jack for cuteness. And it’s only occasionally I see them. This time, J.P. tells me the circumstances behind this obsession. He had a cute puppy once. The vet gave him a solution for fleas that basically sizzled the poor animal alive. “My God, did you go after this vet?” “Yes, I was very annoyed.” “Right. I think I would be annoyed, too.”

The cell rings. He picks it up, stony stare on the road. He growls in Amharic, “Yes? Hello. How are you? Are you well? What’s new? Where have you been? You disappeared. How are you? How’s work? Are you well? What’s up? What’s going on? How are you? You’re fine? Everything’s fine? How are you?” I watch the road, and the strange dance they call driving here. On large, asphalt roads, traffic resolves into three “lanes,” weaving in an ancient braiding pattern. The next time we drift to the curb side, I tell him this is fine. I can catch a taxi. He slows and stops. “How are you? How’s it going? What’s happening?” he continues as I disembark.

It’s pineapple season. I didn’t realize pineapples had a season, but here they are all of a sudden, piled high in wheelbarrows pushed around town by venders. For twenty cents, the guy will slice a bit off for you. Delicious. I’m transported by the taste into a sunny mood to match the skies.

Speaking of dogs, Jack’s latest trick: she’s in the well-known fabric stage of growth. She yearns for fabric to sink her teeth into. We grab opposing ends of a rag and I swing her around as she growls. It’s great fun, particularly when she lets go and is sent sprawling across the tile floor. She bounds right back again, flattening her ears and yanking that rag back and forth for all she’s worth.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Travelogue 62 – February 11
A Thin Line

The Marley wave has just about passed. There are still some scruffy faranji wandering about town. Some appear frighteningly blissful. Some have reached the stage of forcing their smiles. No doubt some of them are returning from Shashemene, where there was supposed to be the party to end all parties. I still get shouts from street kids of “Ya, Rasta!” There’s still an excess of reggae on the radio. I would have thought I’d be grateful for the break from Abasha pop. But I’m eager for the wave to finally pass.

There are some truly ugly aftershocks from the whole affair. A day or two after the concert, I go to a café. A couple of Germans have bullied their way into conducting a video interview there, taking up half the place. Our subjects are a couple “Rastas” from somewhere – France? Brazil? Portugal? I’m not close enough to tell. It’s a mother and daughter. The mother has some fraction of African blood. The daughter is about as white as can be, with rosy cheeks and clean, neatly braided dreads. They’re dressed in beautiful gowns a la Africa, straight from the boutique downtown wherever they live, perfectly pressed. The college-age girl beams, starry eyes and gleaming teeth. The two sing a cute duet, some homespun, sunshine song about moving mountains with good cheer.

Not all was in poor taste this Marley season. By the night before the concert, Meskel Square was looking sharp. The trees on the hill behind the stadium – a very wide bowl with many shallow steps, topped by an old stone wall to what must have been a palace once and now is a museum – the trees are lit green, an appropriate color for an affair of this sort, I think. The wall itself has a line of blue lights attached. The steps have been decorated with fancy street lamps with multiple lights in white globes. Hundreds of people mill about the night before, pleased with the transformation. It feels like Christmas Eve.

And the concert? When I ask Sergio about it the next day, his reply is, “Merda.” He was fine, though. He got to shake Bob’s mother’s hand as they wheeled her out. I stopped by for five minutes or so. It seems the usual concert fare: impressive for a moment, with its sea of humanity, the boom and echo of the music, the festive spirit in costumes, banners and smiles; banal for the remaining moments, when boom and echo is all you get, and the festive spirit becomes the mercantile spirit. You watch the tiny figure strut back and forth on stage. He shouts, “Are you ready?” a half dozen times. The Abasha in the back row practice their characteristic mirth that’s simultaneously for and against you. I’m never prouder of them. I walk away from the event with a shrug. How do you measure a thing like this? Horribly self-serving? Maybe, but it brings in tourism and money for Ethiopia.

Not long after, I’m trooping around Addis with my own video man in tow. I’m preparing a video presentation for marketing the school when I get back to America (see We’ve taken a group of kids out of school, and we’re tramping around their neighborhood, visiting their homes. It’s another gorgeous day. We walk under brilliant skies. And this neighborhood, so poor, is so pretty, nestled in wooded hills. We arrive at the first house, of mud and grass. The boy’s feeble grandmother invites us in. She kisses my hand. There’s one room for all the family, with a dirt-floor and one old bed. Pots and pans litter one corner of the floor. Cheap poster representations of Jesus and Mary hang from the walls. She has us sit on low, crude benches covered with threadbare cloth. The video man’s assistant sets up the glaring light. The video guy focuses, gives us a cue. He pushes the big, black lens forward. The old woman blinks meekly. After the interview, the video man takes long, sweeping shots of the dark, little house. The grandmother stands by, rubbing her hands together. I feel ashamed. I leave her with a little money, and she kisses my hand again. I feel more ashamed. It’s all for the good, I tell myself, to little effect.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Travelogue 61 – February 3
No Faranji, No Cry

There’s a sudden influx of the hip and grubby. Sunday launches a series of events in honor of Bob Marley’s 60th birthday, starting with a concert featuring every branch and twig of the Marley tree. There’s been talk of a soccer game between the national team and a cast of European stars. There are Marleys in taxi windows and on restaurant gates. There has been reggae on the radio. I didn’t know reggae could be cheesy, but I’ve heard a whole slate of sentimental tribute songs to Bob. Rita, his widow, has recorded a radio ad with lots of forced enthusiasm and wows. “Come on down, Ethiopia!” Quick crops of young, grinning faranji, many with less-than-flattering knit bags blossoming from the back of their heads, with the insouciant shuffles, with the studiously casual hello’s, are met with renewed light in the eyes of every merchant, peddler, and beggar. The taxi drivers are in heat. They slow on busy avenues beside me. They shout, “Mister!”

Sergio is here for the events. I met him at a hotel where I’m watching Chelsea-Birmingham. He’s ended up here somehow, probably a deal between the manager and the taxi driver. He came alone to Ethiopia on a whim and doesn’t know anything about it. He’s faranji; he seems friendly, so I approach him. He doesn’t speak much English, and I quickly discover how much Italian I’ve forgotten, but we manage a conversation. I tell him he could do better for a hotel. They’re charging too much. Sergio isn’t a Rasta, but he says he’s an anarchist. I think that counts. He’s a plumber in Abruzzo. He likes music. I guess the anarchy thing is why he isn’t impressed when I denounce Bush, usually a standard how-do-you-do with Western Europeans.

The next day, I pick him up and take him to the old Debre Damo, my alma mater. I happily make the rounds, greeting the staff. I take him on a short tour of this side of Addis. We stop at Meskel Square, the site of the concert. There must be some money in memorializing dreadlocks and revolution because they’re giving the old plaza a face lift, tearing up asphalt and laying what looks like Minnesota limestone, erecting European style wrought iron lamps at the base of the earthen steps of the amphitheatre. They’ve blocked off half the crazy fifteen-lane road crossing the square to construct a stage. I’m not sure whether it’s fitting or ironic that Meskel Square is still known as “Abyiot,” or Revolution, from the days when the Communist dictator of the Eighties would convene the People for annual harangues.

One night, we tour some night spots that showcase Ethiopian culture. In truth, they’re just expensive bars with lounge-act versions of tribal dances and music. Men and women rush in, garbed in idealized historical dress and jump around in tightly choreographed steps that I’m sure someone in the country would barely recognize. We meet and sit with another Italian, a Moroccan who speaks Italian, and a dark-skinned, intense Eritrean with a scar over one eye who speaks everyone else’s language. I’m left far behind in conversation, but it’s fun. Sergio eyes his compatriot suspiciously. He’s a lawyer; he’s handsome. He pulls out a video camera to record us dining from the mosob, which is the traditional, woven platform for eating, shaped like a fat hourglass. On top is a broad piece of injera with various meat sauces. One is raw meat, and I worry about my perpetually troubled stomach. We discuss driving south to Shashemene, some half a day’s drive south of Addis, by all accounts a dump, but the site of the Jamaican settlement, on land I believe was granted by said Communist dictator. Trying to function in three languages is dizzying. I head home early.

I’m reeling from another trauma, anyway. I found out Jack is a girl. I’d never really bothered to examine her genitals carefully, following a code of honor among men. I saw something hanging, so fine. But as she’s grown, people have made comments. I finally had to have that awkward confrontation with her. It’s a terrible kind of intimacy, this kind of conference between roommates. I turn her over in my lap and take a closer look. She doesn’t seem to mind too much. Sure enough, that is no penis. It’s difficult. I don’t know how to talk to her anymore. And rough-housing just isn’t the same. I’m sure it will all work out in time, but it’s a shock.