Monday, August 29, 2005

Travelogue 95 – August 29
Macchiato in the Time of Amputation

It’s Sunday. I wake with the roosters. I listen for rain. I check for pain, rolling my tongue across the ravaged tooth. For the first time in nearly a week, it doesn’t scream. Something Dr. Mickey gave me is working. For a few days, something he gave me was giving me fevers and muscle aches, but that has passed.

Well it was bound to happen. I’m losing a body part. After all the insults upon my body, I should have known Ethiopia would eventually claim a part of me. Dr. Mickey says in his polished accent that it’s got to go. He shows me the x-ray. Yep, the roots curve and branch ominously, and the filling made by my American dentist is too close to the nerve. The wisdom tooth that has stood by me for decades has been sabotaged.

I get up. The skies are dark. Tuesday I have the tooth yanked. Even with my newfound faith in Dr. Mickey, I’m scared. I search for signs that I’ll be all right. It starts to rain. The clouds are black. As I watch, it turns to hail.

Dr. Mickey also shows me the broken tooth from a few weeks ago. The cheap filling placed by the other Ethiopian dentist has already fallen apart. Dr. Mickey will fix that. The price for both operations will be less than the other clinic charged for the one bad filling. Dr. Mickey patiently explains all the mistakes of the other dentists. He’s Armenian, young and serious and bald. By the end of his consultation, I’m wishing all my dental troubles would come in Ethiopia.

The rain passes. The black clouds break and succumb to white ones that look like piles of vapour miles high. There are fleeting patches of blue. As an omen, I’ll choose this one over the hail. Isn’t that how omens work? Then I notice that two enormous wasps are stationed on either side of my bedroom window. Up above, they’ve started a new home underneath the eave of the house. How should I read that?

I decide I had better search for omens outside of home. I’m going out for a macchiato. I’m not sure Dr. Mickey would approve, but why deny the dying tooth a last taste of sugar?

I notice there are a lot of priests out today. I pass the patriarch’s office, where there are a cohort of them lined up, greeting visitors arriving in big cars with tinted windows. The priests are like jungle birds in their plumage, clothed in robes of black or tan or deep maroon, with round, flat-topped hats. I don’t know who gets to wear which color, but it just seems right that they dress so richly. What’s the use in having plain-clothes priests?

I’ve come to the traffic circle at Arat Kilo. It’s one of the busiest neighbourhoods in a busy city, near the university and full of coffee shops and stores. In the center of the circle is a column topped by a stone imperial lion. Colorful priests regally pass in pairs or lines of three or four among the students and bustling businessmen. I notice that a circle of blue sky has opened above us, corresponding almost perfectly with the traffic circle. Good omens, all.

And yet images of doom haunt me. I see the dentist’s chair. I hear the creepy drill. Dr. Mickey says he only needs local anaesthesia. I don’t want to be awake for this. I can’t imagine how he will get into the back of my mouth and pull. The last time I lost a body part, I was a pre-teen ready for braces. They put me to sleep. Last night, I dreamt of shattered teeth and blood.

Ethiopia is in my gurgling stomach. It’s written all over my skin, like a map of red stars, all my bug bites. I’m back to my monkeyish habits morning and night of counting my wounds. This morning, they’re on my bum. I stand scratching as I wait for a taxi. I’m travelling all the way to Bole for my macchiato today, hoping to absorb a bit of the good-times vibe of the well-to-do down there.

As I enter my taxi, a young lady has to move over for me. As she does so, she presents me with a whole lot of macchiato skin down her blouse. I say, “Thank you,” and take my seat. I feel the stirring of humanity. I take that as a very positive sign. It’s been a while. There’s nothing about dentistry that inspires those feelings, pain or cure.

At the café, sugar and caffeine coursing through my blood, I tally my omens, and say they are good. Bole gets good weather, being lower in altitude and some distance into the plain. The clouds take on a benevolent shade. And they have a good orange cake at the Café Paradiso, so sweet it makes your teeth ache.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Travelogue 94 – August 23
Under the Effects

It wouldn’t be fair to my readers if I didn’t admit right now that I was composing this entry under the influence of drugs. Regrettable, but if I don’t write now, I’m afraid I’ll end up allowing too much time between logs. I’ve already had complaints. I can’t even tell you which drug, which is sad. That’s half the drug-user’s joy: name-dropping. Back when I had my chipped tooth, the dentist prescribed these little nameless tablets. They do provide relief.

Out in the school courtyard, a summer sun beats down on the concrete. It’s not the timid sun of kerempt, dashing from cloud to cloud, weak and joyless, but the Ethiopian sun that I remember, blazing in a sky of royal blue. Is kerempt waning? Sunday was nearly a whole day like this. And then on Monday, I cheated by taking another trip to Nazarit, where the rule of rainy season is tenuous. It was hot, and I blamed the headache on the glare. Riding back in the bus, you watch the cloud front smashing darkly against the mountains over Addis Ababa.

The kids welcomed me back this morning by yelling my name and mobbing me. What can I tell you about the kids, after nearly a year of acquaintance? They’ve grown. My back explained that to me when I picked two of my girls up at once. That was the first of today’s persecutions.

I’ll skip the part about “cute and lovable,” and tell you they’re eager learners. There are days I enter the classroom in the morning, before school begins, when they are allowed playtime, and a group of them is sitting with books, sounding out each letter like they’re reading out loud. During recesses, I’ve seen them playing school. One or two of them, usually girls, stand before a semi-circle of kids seated on the ground. The teacher(s) points to letters that are stencilled onto our gate and walls, and the children name them.

They persevere, smiling and playing so consistently that it is easy to forget about the trials of life outside our gate. Last Friday we went to a luxo for the father of one of our boys. A luxo is something like a wake, though I don’t know where the body is. Benches and chairs are set up inside and outside the house of the bereaved. Friends and extended family take care of the immediate family and guests. People come at any time during the next few days and quietly take a seat. They stay for minutes or for hours. Often a tent is set up outside with benches for visitors. Walk around town routinely and you’ll see these tents fairly often, just as you’ll notice that a discomfiting percentage of women here are wearing the black of mourning.

This boy comes from one of the poorer households. He lives with his grandmother in a tiny mud hut that’s morbidly dark. The mother is gone. The father has been dying from AIDS for a while. The grandmother sits on her bench at the luxo, and she sighs and she groans. She has seen six of her seven children die.

But the kids go on, and I’m proud of them. It’s as close to the pride of parenthood as I’ll get, I suppose. And doesn’t every parent experience the misery of one disappointing child? Isn’t that part of the package? That’s where Jackie comes in. I’ve had to face the difficult reality that she just isn’t the smartest pup to grace this planet. Case in point: she’s had to learn how to live with a chain and collar since I’ve been back. I didn’t think that would be a challenging concept, even for a dog. For the first week, she raced to its length and squealed. Her bewildered eyes broke my heart, as much for the lack of wit in them as for the pain. The next and continuing stage was tying the chain in knots around the pole and staring from her inch of slack. I let her go in the late afternoons and she runs wild. We play stare-and-pace, which is her version of fetch, and I sigh sadly. Yes, I understand parenthood now.

Massive clouds are catching up to the sun as the afternoon shadows stretch. I wonder how much longer my pills will protect me. Around noon today, the headaches of the last few days exploded. I was besieged by waves of blinding pain, and in between the waves, I realized with a corresponding emotional pain that my adventures with Ethiopian dentists were not over. This time, it’s the other side of the jaw. I pray the pills carry me through the night, and through the jostling taxi ride tomorrow, and through the to the answer of the agonizing questions: why now? why in Ethiopia?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Travelogue 93 – August 14
Mr. Flower

Nazarit is balmy and inviting. The sun is out. The air smells clean. After we check into our hotel, we run our first errand: meeting a big boss in the city administration. Muluken sets out at a trot down the busy avenue. Muluken is older than I, though a touch of grey is the only indication. He’s wearing a suit, and still he’s outpacing me. We’ve already walked this neighbourhood from one side to the other looking for accommodation, but he’s off to the races again. I beg him to flag a taxi. He grimly cites the cost, but I get him to compromise. We catch a taxi-van. We ride to the end of the line, and then we have to walk another long way. We’ve gone to the wrong office. We walk back. Another van, another walk. We find the right office, but it’s lunch hour.

We go for tea. We seem to be downtown. The crowds are thick. The buildings are two-stories and full of small businesses. I haven’t seen one other faranji yet. Business lunchers stare. Boys begging and boys selling are so relentless I begin dismissing them like flies mid-sentence. They stand aside and fix dark eyes on me.

We meet our bigwig. He enters with the customary frowning formality. All city officials with authority that I’ve met bear the same load of ice on their shoulders. He sits behind his desk and invites us to present our case with a solemn nod, which Muluken does, with the requisite flatteries and humble timbre. The boss passes judgement in gloomy cadence: he’s grateful for our interest. They’ll do all in their power. He refers us to his subordinate, who has sat in the meeting with us. Outside, Mr. Ilala, the silent subordinate, is jolly and welcoming and full of ideas. He refers us to four kebeles, or city wards, where the need is greatest and where we will probably get most support. We bow and shake hands. Outside the gates, I stop Muluken and I insist on a taxi. He laughs indulgently.

Our favourite kebele is 03, the last one we visit. Kebele 03 is a cheraka kebele. Cheraka means moon. Basically, this area of the city was settled by squatters, who built their houses under the light of the moon. Now it’s accepted as a legitimate city ward. The taxi can’t take us all the way to the kebele office. We have to walk a ways down a muddy, narrow lane. The gate to the office is crowded by solicitors, as they often are. People are astounded to see faranj in this setting. They stare in shock as we pass through. The police sitting on benches inside the compound also stare. We’re led into a room by some young guys who I assume work for the kebele. Muluken explains. They send word to the kebele boss. This man enters and grabs me, shouting the Oromo greeting in my ear and laughing. He’s a bear of a man and dark-skinned. He listens benevolently to Muluken, and when it’s his turn to speak, he tells us he’s grateful for our interest; they’ll do all in their power, speaking in a basso profundo that makes the mud room vibrate. His name is Ato Ababa: Mr. Flower. The name is pronounced a little like “Bubba,” which I think might be more apt. He roars good-bye in Oromo after me.

Muluken and I celebrate at the Bekele Molla, a hotel on the Strip with a peaceful patio. We share some tibs and some fries. We toast to our success. I’m crying. It’s not the emotion of the occasion. It’s the amazing amount of dust in the air in this town. By evening, I’m sneezing and my nose is running like a faucet. The hotel patio is a mild respite, being off the street. I learn something new there: why those pretty, yellow birds are called weavers. They are busy flying around the trees of the patio. I finally notice their nests. They are little woven bulbs, like Chinese lanterns, hanging from the end of branches above. The birds enter from below. The handiwork is impressive. At first, I think they’re man-made. Then I’m wondering if we didn’t learn weaving from the birds.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Travelogue 92 – August 9
A Trip to Vegas

I arrive at the bus station at 7am. To call it a station is generous. It’s a muddy lot with rows of aching, idling old Eurobuses. People with bags are wandering around the iridescent puddles. The air is thick with noxious fumes. Muluken isn’t here yet, so I look for a café.

We’re going to Nazarit, a small city about 100km southeast of Addis Ababa. I say small city, though Muluken is quick to point out that Nazarit is number two in the nation now, in the same league as Bahir Dar and Dire Dawa. We’re investigating the town as a site for our second school.

Once Muluken has arrived, we search for our bus. We are the last two on board, so Muluken is squeezed into a sweaty back row, and I’m perched on a hard, little fold-down seat at the end of a crowded row. There looks to be close to a hundred people packed into this stout bus. We roll forward, angling around in the mud a while, among the other buses, and finally roll out onto the street.

My apprehensions about riding in this crowded a vehicle are put to rest. Ethiopians are mild-mannered people to begin with, and well-used to patience in crowds. Men read the paper. Women raise a hum of chatter. Everybody is still and cozy. A pudgy boy in front of me is particularly well-behaved. He jokes quietly with his mother; he passes out gum to his family. The man sitting next to me is an old friend of Muluken’s, which is not surprising: everywhere we go, we find friends of Muluken. Mulugeta is his name. He shyly points out sights for me along the way.

We pass Leeza’s graveyard on the way out of town. The town goes on and on after that. The bus station is at the southernmost edge of my Addis Ababa, the city that I know. I was vaguely aware that some neighborhoods stretched on from there, but it takes us a half hour to get clear of the city. Most of it is ugly industry, with the occasional ugly corporate building posing as style.

City buildings give way to the corrugated iron roofs of small suburbs, which give way to thatched roofs, which give way to fields and hills. It’s vividly green out here, in mid-rainy season, with abrupt and beautiful green peaks rising from the gentle hills. There’s not a soul out among the meadows and fields. These fields are not the vast and uniform farm fields of the American Midwest, but small, rough squares among the riot of natural greenery, obviously tilled by hand and by animal. There are no machines out there. My overly romantic imagination sees medieval Italy.

About the time my backside is too sore to sit anymore, we head down a long slope into the Rift Valley. Things dry out. The Seattle skies clear. We wind along among rocky gullies, eventually passing over a ridge that overlooks our destination. This is city number two? I wonder. It’s like entering Las Vegas fifty years ago, coasting down the one desolate road into town, passing hotels, silent desert ridges overlooking – though these are dotted with a bit of rainy-season growth.

It’s just like Vegas: there’s a convention in town, and there are no rooms. Nazarit is a business town, and also a government center. Until a few weeks ago, it served as capital for the Oromo regional administration. (In a bit of dirty politicking, the present federal administration moved it to Addis, in order to complicate matters for the new opposition party that will be taking over Addis’ City Hall.)

We walk and walk, led by Mulugeta, who has a computer training business in Nazarit and knows the town. We amble from hotel to hotel, along the dusty shoulder of the one asphalt road in this part of town, dodging taxis and the staring crowds. The one hotel that isn’t full wants to charge me a faranji fee. We pass.

Okay, so it’s not like Vegas. Dusty little boys tag along after you, peddling peanuts from a cone of newspaper. Horse-drawn, wooden two-wheelers stand idle here and there, ready to take you to your convention. Cattle with loose-skinned throats cross the avenue.

Mulugeta leads us off the asphalt, onto a wide dirt channel that will one day be a broad new boulevard, about a half mile to a solitary hotel that stands incongruously among the mud houses. It is used to being a luxury stop, but the road construction has diverted business. We get a great deal: hot water and mosquito nets, echoing walls of cinder block and plaster, a view over grassy courtyards and the open-air Pentecostal church next door, all for about six dollars a night. We drop off our bags and head to the Strip.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Travelogue 91 – August 2
The Voices

It’s not raining tonight. If it were raining, all I would hear is the steady percussion of water on my iron roof, and on everyone else’s iron roof. Every shower is a deluge here, to judge by the sound.

Instead, I faintly catch a hint of something else. I stop and listen. It sounds like a crowd. It sounds like someone shouting through a bullhorn angrily and a crowd roaring something in approval.

The day before, more results in May’s federal elections were announced. That’s why I listen intently. A few months ago, these elections led to demonstrations and the deaths of forty people when the military opened fire on protestors. The city shut down. Everything was closed, and taxis were parked.

I listen outside. The echoing shouts are eerie. I climb up the school’s jungle gym to catch the sound better. It drifts down our little valley, undulating, reverberating. The air in these little vales is thick with voices. We get them day and night, from the churches, from children’s shouts, from radios, from salesmen and policemen up the hill with megaphones. And what is this now? The night is so peaceful, I think it might be something from another time. Maybe it is; it seems no one else heard them.

We had a delegation of important visitors a week or so ago. They met our children and their parents, all huddling inside the classroom against the rain, watching the TV that Saba brought from home for the occasion. The kids shyly sang and posed for pictures. The parents watched the visitors, humbly, expectantly. They asked what would happen to their children. Our guests gushed with American affirmations: any opportunity is theirs to have. The parents sigh happily and grasp the visitors’ hands and thank them with trembling emotion. I feel guilty for having brought them. As they’re leaving, one guest puts money in my hand and says to treat them all to lunch.

Ethiopians love ceremony. A week later, we arrange for a big feast at the school. Before eating, the staff and the parents trade small orations. The parents want to tell me again how grateful they are. One mother tells us how she feared her boy was autistic before enrolling him in our program. Now, he talks and plays. He was abducted by beggars once when he was little. Apparently, they like to grab little children for begging companions and maim them for effect. Fortunately, neighbors spotted the little boy in time.

A tall grandfather with a mischievous and nearly toothless grin wants me to know how happy they are with our teacher, who treats their children like family. He wants me to know how much it means to them that I live with them in their “slum.” I make promises. When they eat, they eat quietly, and with a decorum that might be awakened by the classroom atmosphere.

It’s at this meal that I break my tooth. We staff members eat after everyone has gone. It seems that bits of bone settle toward the bottom of the pot. We rush off to the dentist. This is one business sector I was ready to boycott in Ethiopia. I find the types of pain I encounter in dentist’s chairs to be unforgivable. I beg dentists for novocaine, even for cleanings. They tsk-tsk. But now, being forced to face those murderous instruments far from home is one more reason to question God’s good will.

Luckily, I haven’t chipped it too deep. That evening, the dentist on staff, with hostile stares and incomprehensible mumbles, installs a temporary filling. It only hurts when he pours air over it, like hurrying a wet sock with a hair dryer. The next morning, I face an Asian lady who is even more incomprehensible. I stop her, drill in hand. “Pain!” I say with intensity. “No pain, no pain.” And to my credit, I surrender to the ordeal, sweating and ready to cry though I am. For the most part, she is correct. When she isn’t, I jump in a very communicative way. It’s over quickly. She peers at the filling. She picks at it and worries it with her drill. “How’s that?” the cute assistant asks. I smile. I’m discharged. A day later, my tongue is raw from the sharp edge left over. Shall I return?