Monday, March 28, 2005

Travelogue 70 – March 28
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 mezmur, or hymns, the priest sings over the loudspeaker are very beautiful. They are haunting -- even more so floating among the valleys up here.

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.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Travelogue 69 – March 19
Trip East, Part Four
Kevin and the Isuzu

It’s our last day in Harar, though I don’t know it yet. We eat pastries and drink tea, and lazily we decide on a course of action. I want to get out of the town, see some countryside. Girma decides on a tomb/shrine on the hillside just out of town. We take a taxi; we hike a little ways. We enter the peaceful compound there, and encounter another blue little beehive. This one honors Ali, a Persian sage and missionary. The view is lovely. This is where I get the view of the whole walled city, green and white – the former shade means faith, apparently, and the latter means purity.

“Let’s go in,” Girma says, and I think he means inside the tomb, but he walks away. That’s when I realize we’re in on a family’s small plot of land. These are the descendants of Ali. We enter the mosque, a small, dim room that the chickens keep stalking into. The walls are hung with various rugs and tapestries, quotes from the Koran, depictions of the K’aba. There’s a small platform at one end, and a big drum. An old woman welcomes us in. She invites us for some coffee, and she sits on the floor on the other end of the room, among the paraphernalia for the coffee ceremony. She begins to speak in a chanting sort of way. She welcomes us. She blesses us. She tells us (all via Girma’s translation, of course,) about the many good spirits and angels that abide in Harar. She goes on chanting as she prepares the coffee, her hands working without guidance, it seems. As she chants she stares out the door. I assume a lot of the rest is Koranic. Girma tells us she’s revered around here as a healer and counselor and even fortune-teller. “Wow. Thank you, mama,” Kevin keeps saying, with that charming informality that only an American can pull off. The woman’s daughter enters, a tall, beautiful woman. Kevin is flirting, even after we find out her wedding is a few months away. No one is offended. We stay quite a while, and afterward, climb further up the hill. I certainly feel healed. Kevin waves to the daughter from above.

Back in town, we have lunch: goat meat and beer. We eat a lot of goat meat on this trip. Kevin is heading back to Dire Dawa. He says I should accompany him; his birthday is the next day. I’m game. “But we travel my way,” he says.

We pick up my bag at the hotel, which is on the road to Dire Dawa. We walk up the road a ways, and we wait. He studies the passing traffic with an expert eye. The taxi vans pull over, and we wave them on. Finally, a pickup stops. Two old men are in the front. The back is full of bags of mangoes. They want to bargain. Kevin is obdurate; we have to pay less than the van fare. “You don’t have money?” “No, it’s for the fun, boss!” Kevin exclaims. “For the fun!” Baffled, they finally agree. They invite us into the cab, but we prefer the back. The bags make comfortable cushioning. It’s a great ride, waving at the astounded people we pass. We make it about halfway before the old guys stop, in a village. The clouds ahead are menacing. One of them bustles off in search of a tarp. The driver tells us he was an air force pilot. He tells us he admires Bush’s philosophy. “No, boss. The Bush family, they’re all about control and money.” The driver smiles uncertainly. Kevin keeps a nervous eye on the gang of kids that has gathered. He says he saw a kid get squashed by a bus a month or two before, in some other country, maybe Kenya.

The old man seems to have disappeared on his errand. Kevin flags down an Isuzu flatbed truck. He’s happy. He says these are the best rides; they dominate the highways in Ethiopia. They’re fast. We climb into the back, into the muddy, stinky remnants of the cows they had transported. We’re off. We hit the long curves that descend into the Rift Valley. The boys in front are having fun, cruising at the vehicle’s limit. I’m admiring the miles of desert hills, and the huge, dark thunderheads that have so far missed us. The wind in our faces is cool and moist. We stand in the back and look out over the cab. Sitting in the back is impossible because of the flying dust from the bed. I point out to Kevin how all the hills are terraced. Who knows how ancient that work is. The rain hits, just outside of Dire Dawa. The boys stop to let us in front. There are three of them. We squeeze in. The cab is made up fairly elaborately, with pictures, decorative cloth, and tassels. Kevin chats them up with nonsense and everyone’s smiling as we roll into town.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Travelogue 68 – March 15
Trip East, Part Three
Kevin and the Jib

I’m looking for a guide in the central circle of Harar. The few I’ve seen don’t inspire confidence. That’s when I see an American guy pass in the company of a young Abasha man, whom I correctly guess to be a guide. Girma is a serious young engineering student with big, soulful eyes, and a careful mode of speech. The American is Kevin, tall, lanky, and blonde. If anyone deserves more than Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes to be called “Bright Eyes,” this is the guy. He gushes about Girma and about Harar, says I can take Girma from him when he’s done. They were about to go ancient knife-hunting in the shops. We resolve to go to lunch first.

Kevin’s about my age. He’s from Maine. He began five months ago in South Africa and he’s been traveling through Africa ever since. When I marvel at that, he dismissively says he’s traveled seven months of the year for twenty years or so. He’s coming up on 120 countries that he’s seen. He works on church steeples in New England those other months. Next year, it’s Antarctica, and then he’s ready to settle. He’s in the market, ladies – he’s looking for a tall Cancer. Much of the afternoon, while Girma meekly guides, I eagerly listen to stories of Kevin’s adventures.

One stop in the afternoon is the shrine/tomb of Emir Nur, the man who allegedly built the walls. The tomb is walled off itself inside a white-washed courtyard. I find it mentioned in my guidebook. “It resembles a spiky beehive.” Yep. That’s it. It stands about a man-and-a-half tall, pointed at the top, and it’s turquoise. We sit in the courtyard a while, watching a man with green teeth grinding ch’at in a traditional wooden mortar that stands about two feet tall. Apparently, it’s for the eccentric old attendant, whom Kevin met on an earlier visit. The old man has no teeth.

Maybe this is the time to describe ch’at. It’s an unremarkable looking leaf that one chews for a mildly narcotic effect. You buy a handful of twigs from the plant and you chew. We’re in the heart of ch’at country, here in eastern Ethiopia, where it’s grown, and where everyone chews. There are different types, according to where it’s grown. I try a little nibble from the pile that the man is making in the mortar. Kevin advises budding leaves as the most potent. It has a sweet, cloying taste. No buzz. A few days ago, I sit down to a formal ch’at session with Diana, Eman’s sister, and a few of her friends in Addis, after lunch. The lunch was a wonderful relief, by the way. It’s a Muslim family, and so we ate meat and rice. Orthodox Ethiopes are in the midst of their version of Lent, in which they proudly outdo the Catholics, with 55 days. During this fast, I’ve found that even some restaurants won’t serve anything but the plainest, meatless sauces. Anyway, I take my handful of twigs, and I graze. The taste is sickening. And my stomach rebels because I find it hard to keep the remnants of the leaf in my cheek, as you’re supposed to do. We recline on our pillows. The boys make piles of leaves; Diana just bites them off the stalk. I get a few twigs-worth down, but I stop, buzzless and disenchanted. I suppose you have to choke down a whole plant to feel anything. Ergo, the green teeth and the green ooze in the mouths of the boys in their ch’at circles on the street.

At sunset, Girma leads us down to the edge of town. At a break in a secondary city wall, we meet the young man who, every evening, plies his version of an ancient trade. He walks out beyond the wall, yelling, summoning. And before too long, they come. They come from the hills below, come out of the scrub brush out there, come out of the night as they have for centuries: the jib. They lope around the dusty clearing, eyes gleaming. The young guy and his assistants bring out the meat, and the jib begin to circle. Most animals have some beauty, but it’s hard to find it in hyenas. Hunch-backed and short-legged in the back, they have a peculiar gate. Their faces are something between a raccoon’s and a monkey’s, with round ears and a short, black muzzle. The dominant one among this group is a big female. She is the one who gets most of the meat. She is the one who approaches the young man most often to snatch the meat hanging from a stick he holds in his teeth. And once we get up the nerve to sit next to him on the blanket, she’s the one who snatches the meat from in front of each of our faces. She doesn’t have bad breath, I’ll report. For Kevin, it’s like an exorcism. Camping his way up eastern Africa, he’s lived in mortal fear of the jib, and heard all kinds of horror stories about their atrocities. He gets the special treatment, a juicy rib held up before his eyes, a view into the maw of the beast. We stroll back up to town with a boost of adrenalin in our systems. Beats ch’at any day.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Travelogue 67 – March 11
Trip East, Part Two

You follow the guide book’s map to the “bus station” in Dire Dawa, with a lot of help from locals, and you find it’s just a fenced-in lot where the white vans congregate. They shuttle out of there every day, stopping along the road, like normal taxis in Addis, to pick up travelers. I’m there early the second morning of my trip, ready for Harar. I’m picked up right away by an affable, rotund driver who has a golden tooth. We’re on the road. There’s one other passenger and the wayala, the boy who collects money at the van door. We’re climbing as soon as we’re out of town, and the driver is not shy. The faranj sits up front and gets the full adrenalin shot. The driver has the engine screaming all the way up, about twenty minutes of sharp curves, passing other vans and trucks, dodging pedestrians and donkeys on the sides. It’s a pretty ride through desert mountains of peach-colored stone. As you arrive at the top, you expect to go “over”, but instead, in a strange transition, you pass into fertile and populated red-earthed hills. The trees are back, with the farms and the muddy crossroads. What you’ve done is climb out of the desert basin in this corner of Ethiopia, back into the predominant highlands.

Up top, the real traffic begins. We’re stopping at every little juncture for passengers; that is, until the weary engine gives way. The deflated driver shakes his head a while over the machinery, and we all pile out. I walk on a little ways, until another taxi stops. I squeeze in among the stares. An army man wants to talk, though his English is nil. I pull my usual joke when asked where I’m from, replying, “China.” It doesn’t seem odd to him, and a discussion ensues among the passengers about what Chinese look like. Fortunately, the army man disembarks before too long. Just past the abandoned Russian tanks of the socialist regime, you approach fair Harar. I jump out just short of town, at my hotel. After checking in, I walk down to tour.

This entry does no justice to the town, as I discover the next day, when we go climbing the hills on the other side. From there, you can see just about the whole town, spread over a round hill, surrounded by its ancient wall. Little blue domes and minarets abound. This is the heart of Ethiopian Islam, as it was for centuries the capital of an independent Muslim kingdom. When Menelik II (founder of Addis Ababa) moved in in the 1880s, he took over the central mosque and converted it into a church, which it remains today, strange reminder of internal African imperialism. Menelik’s cousin took over the district. This cousin’s son spent a good part of his childhood in Harar. His name was Ras Tafari, later King of Kings, Haile Selassie. You can still visit the house where they lived, now inhabited by a prominent local healer.

Another notable personage in Harar history is Arthur Rimbaud. Fed up with bohemian Paris and with poetry, Rimbaud set off into parts unknown, to end up here, only thirty years or so after Richard Burton became the first white man to sneak into Harar. He arrived just about the time Menelik’s forces were kicking out the emirs. He settled in this area to become a respectable businessman, an arms merchant, that is, and worked all through old Abyssinia and Yemen. Harar was one of his bases. There are two sites associated with him. The first is the shabby old Harar Hotel that still stands in the Feres Magala (Horse Market,) the central circle, where said church stands. He is said to have lived there briefly. This circle is a crazy location, swarming with life, surrounded by dilapidated little buildings. One corner of it is devoted to a bustling ch’at market. All roads in the town lead to this nexus, and all of them are more attractive. It’s a small town, and everything about it is small: narrow, white-washed alleys, those tiny mosques and shrines of Muslim saints sprinkled among mud stairways and mud houses. Mosques inside the walls are said to number 82, and shrines 300 both inside and outside the wall.

The second Rimbaud stop is the “Rimbaud House,” a museum rather arbitrarily chosen to honor his presence. It’s very unlikely he ever even visited this luxurious dwelling, which in reality was built and owned by an Indian merchant. It’s a beautiful old house with three floors. It commands a wonderful view of the city from the top floor. The highlight of the museum is a collection of photographs from that era, a few even of Rimbaud – that is, two of them that he took of himself. And he did a rather poor job of it. They’re blurred and blotchy. But there are some remarkable scenes from Harar a hundred years ago, some portaits of Ras Tafari and his father, portraits of warriors. Worth badgering the attendant to put down the ch’at let you in.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Travelogue 66 – March 8
Trip East, Part One
Dire Dawa

I waste no time diving into my first new town, my first trip outside Addis Ababa in nearly five months. My bag stashed at the hotel, I start walking. This is Dire Dawa, (DRE-dwa) due east and almost to the Somali border, train town established to accommodate the French as they built a railroad to Djibouti. Look at a topographical map of Ethiopia, and you’ll see why. Harar, ancient city with the better claim to a train stop, is over a ridge of mountains, while Dire Dawa lies on the edge of that triangular flatland that spreads toward the Red Sea, a stretch of desert that becomes quite desolate and protects all kinds of secrets about the beginnings of our species.

The town is divided into two sections by a spooky dry riverbed -- spooky because it is about as wide as the Mississippi in Minneapolis. You wonder what kind of crazy torrent comes crashing down from the mountains in the rainy season. But today, it’s a span of glaring sand that townies cross, lazily and reluctantly. I stop on the main bridge crossing it to take a picture of the impressive Italianate government center on a wooded hilltop, but I’m yelled at by the police lounging on the other side in their green uniforms under sparse green cover. No pictures. They direct me to a spot below them on the river shore. I oblige them. I continue along the riverside. The short retaining wall there serves as backrest to scores of ch’at chewers, circles of men with idiot grins who shout invitations. The lane becomes increasingly hallucinatory as I advance. Teetering young toughs approach with green ooze dribbling from the corners of their mouths. Proud old men with hennaed beards and colorful skirts pass. Boys play on the ubiquitous Ethiopian foosball and ping-pong tables. Women leer. “You! You!” they all shout.

I cross the river and enter the more European side of town again, where streets are wide and follow a geometrical plan, where there are occasional circles with dry, plaster fountains like children’s ceramics. One has a couple of rudely realized duckies on top. From anywhere, the desert hills are visible, and I wrestle with the vivid impression that I’m in a California desert town run amok. The hills are alluring, reminding me of my home state. Reaching the town’s southern extremity, I don’t hesitate, but climb right up into the hills, passing stone and mud hovels perched on the steep sides. Kids stare and giggle, the type at home being shyer than the ones in the street. I stop to talk to a few. Even these know a little English. Up I go, among the thistles and the blooming cactus so like the cactus in our Southwest, the kind with the multiple flat heads. Everything is like home, except for that occasional horizontal, bristly evergreen that is so emblematic of Africa. That and the hump-backed cattle clinging to the incline.

Back on the ground, I amble through the bustling Kafira market in the “old town” side of the river, dodging camels and the two-wheeled, wooden buggies drawn by tired horses. The alleys here are narrow and confusing. I’m suddenly at the center, where stand some handsome old portals to the original market, crenellated tops and those Arabian arches so popular here: broken into two parts, square on the bottom and circular on top. Boys accost me. Everyone’s a bit more Somali here. By that I mean loud and brusque. I’m familiar with this interpersonal style from the Somalis in Minnesota. The only way to respond is with the same bravado and a lot of joshing. I take their pictures and bargain rowdily over the price. They guide me among the beautifully aromatic spices arrayed in bags in stall after stall under improvised canopies of plastic and cloth.

I’m staying in the Makonnen Hotel opposite the train station. It’s a classic spot. The station is set on a broad, dusty circle with a dead, silver caboose as the centerpiece. The station looks like an abandoned relic of the early twentieth century, yellow as corn flour and every portal closed and barred, a stylized DE high in its face. But it is still in use, as I’ll have occasion to describe later. The hotel itself is a quirky piece of Italian colonial era architecture. You enter by way of cafe and bar. The way to the rooms is a funny cornered passage the width of one’s shoulders behind the bar. I have the premier room, overlooking the circle and almost the size of my school’s classroom. The bare walls are two shades of avocado, and the ceiling fan from “Apocalypse Now” adorns the ceiling. I have two balconies, one above the circle, and another above the adjoining avenue. The bed is super king-sized, and at midnight I lay watching the blades of the fan in the sultry heat.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Travelogue 65 – March 1
The Hode and Humanity

Nothing enhances that special Long March feeling you get from living in Ethiopia more than the recurrent fit of the hode chigirs – stomach problems. More precisely, that’s diarrhea. It’s become a more or less permanent condition with relapses into good health. You launch into your day’s interminable errands and travels with a map of acceptable bathrooms securely in mind. You break up the taxi rides. You plan on places to sit and allow the intestines to compose themselves. You start the day with mineral water, and superstitiously taste everything you plan on ingesting, testing for a twinge in the gut that may caution you.

The hode chigirs do not help your attitude in dealing with the hordes of crazies and beggars you will face. Today, it’s a man with hides of small animals over his shoulder and a walking stick. “No money,” you say as a reflex to his approach on your periphery. He laughs and begins to shout. He shouts at passing cars about you. He follows alongside and harangues with a great smile. Eventually, he tangles with a taxi at the roadside. It runs over his stick, and you make your getaway. Yesterday, it’s the boy of about sixteen who follows you all the length of your walk toward home, chattering good-naturedly about “No mother, no father,” and how he arrived from Shashemene recently. “My big problem, my big problem is clotheses. Clotheses. You buy nice clotheses for me. God gives me small,” he says cryptically. You are stuck with him because you’ve begun to cross a wide field, intending to enjoy the nice day. Your lower intestine has quieted, and you think you might make it home okay. God knows, a long walk can be easier to handle than the jostling of the taxi. You are regaled for almost an hour about the state of the young lad’s clothes. On the other side, you make a detour and duck into a hotel where you know security will stop him.

There’s a philosopher on the taxi today. He’s in terribly frayed clothes. His hands are rough and dirty. He says hello. “How are you?” you reply. He seems to take the question quite seriously. He rambles on in answer, but his English is so broken, you can’t make it out. Something about the system and challenges and work. “It’s hard,” you venture, that being a safe reply to most any comment from an Ethiopian. He carries on. The theme is definitely “challenges.” “It’s a challenge,” you say. He heartily concurs. Amid the next strophe, you hear “work.” “It’s good to work,” you essay. This doesn’t go down so well. He has some words about that. And suddenly, he’s speaking clearly. “In this system,” he says, “work is dangerous. For the man outside, in nature, work is necessary. Yes.” He descends into obscurity. Something about psychology. More about the system. He sinks into a sullen spell. Before your stop, he emerges from his reverie to ask your name. You answer; he falls still.

The hodes all seem in working order at the concert last weekend. There are lots of faranji sitting peacefully. It’s a benefit. A German NGO has flown down four mop-top cellists for the occasion. They have worked up a program with the university’s music program. Apparently, many of these students had never seen their instruments before they arrived at the university. They handle themselves just fine. Some of them form a choir with beautiful voices. They perform simple songs about Jesus. The mop-tops, after a first set of classical pieces, play some American jazz standards and Michael Jackson. “Michael Jackson in a church!” Sophia and her friend marvel. It’s a German church, so I figure God understands.

Before the show, I need to make my safety trip to the restroom. I ask an Abasha lady at the ticket table where they are. She asks me, “German or English?” I tell her whichever one flushes. No one finds that funny. She explains, “Actually, I was asking so that, etc.” The musicians are meandering about the yard, practicing. The sky is rosy with the sunset. The men’s room is marked with a picture of John Kerry shielding his eyes. Somehow, again, it all makes perfect sense.