Saturday, December 30, 2006

Travelogue 167 – December 30

Today is a Muslim holiday. I’m reminded immediately, as I try to make my way to Bole in the morning. The roads are clogged with veiled women and men in white, walking home from the stadium, where they gather together by the thousands on important holidays.

It’s Eid al Adha, or Arafa, when Muslims celebrate the day Abraham brought his son to the mountain for sacrifice. But in the Muslim version, it’s Ishmael, not Isaac, who was offered up to the irascible Middle Eastern god. Apparently, a fair amount of effort has been dedicated to proving the Koran right and the Bible mistaken on this point. Count the days, count the years, I’ve been told, and you’ll find Ishmael was the right age for the story, while Isaac was still a babe. I don’t know; I haven’t tried.

I make it to my appointment in Bole, but only because I had set out early in hopes of coffee beforehand. Instead, I languish in the sun-side window seat of a taxi minibus while hundreds of the devout stream by. At least there’s a pleasant variety of costume. The traditional costume of the Orthodox has become ‘hager libs’, or the picture of traditional Ethiopia. Muslim costume is more international, with touches of north African, Somali, Arabian, Palestinian influence.

The appointment is a waste of time, as most are here that have any pretense of business. I’ve been trying to reach out in past weeks, see what kind of partnerships I can forge. I prefer working with others. But invariably this kind of exploratory meeting decays into purple tales of woe, abuse, and crimes suffered by my interlocutor. I try to commiserate, and I bear suspicious gazes until the meeting ends, at which time I’m encouraged to call back with more ideas. Somehow, I don’t have the heart to.

I had high hopes for this meeting because it was a faranj, a Brit who has been fairly successful here. But it isn’t long before the tales of woe appear, like bubbles of air that cannot be repressed.

It’s all a bit Gothic for my taste. I can’t take it seriously. I laugh when I should shake my head. I shake my head when I should affirm, “Yes, you’re absolutely right.” I leave without a deal, and thankful. The business climate is permanently set at ‘hot-house’ and I don’t think I’ll get too far. These delicate creatures will devour me, given the chance. When the bones are picked clean, the melancholic bards will weave their story.

I arrive at Eman’s family’s just as a sheep is being slaughtered. One man holds the still-kicking legs. One saws through its neck with a long knife. It’s chance that my shoes aren’t splattered with blood. I look at the pool of blood. It’s a brighter color than seems right. The sheep’s head lolls to one side. Its hind legs still twitch.

There are guests inside, a couple from Yemen. Rukeia was once married to a Yemeni. She struck up a conversation with this couple today and found out they had nowhere to go for the holiday. They were in town for business, and – pay attention; unpredictable plot twist here – they were cheated out of a quarter million by their Ethiopian business associates.

They seem serene enough now, despite their travails. He’s smoking, gulping down tea, and chewing ch’at, reminding me of the bright-eyed Kuwaitis and their demanding daily regimen of stimulants. The couple speaks only Arabic, so Ali fills the conversational space with one of his disquisitions, telling me how the Yemeni and Ethiopies are historically related and were once both classified as ‘Habash’. This appetite for ch’at is one of those last palpable threads of brotherhood. The Yemeni nods, and with a feral spark in his eye – an eye and a face distinctly Arab, and bearing no resemblance to the gentler contours and coloring of Ethiopian physiognomy, -- he offers me a stalk of ch’at. I’m advised to reply with a sincere ‘shukran’. I do. I tell him I want to see Sana’a. He invites me with a wide, tobacco-stained grin.

As it happens, they – and who the they are is a sensitive question – have executed Saddam today, on the morning of a major Muslim holy day. Al-Jazeera will not let it go. For hours, they broadcast the same video loop of Saddam’s history, with many a noble shot of him among his people, and endless rapid-fire commentary in Arabic. Occasionally there’s a new clip of bootleg-style video slipped in, video from the execution itself: the old man led toward the gallows, fierce glint in his eye. Finally, there’s a brief shot, like footage from the moon landing, of the body in its bag, head revealed, and its red neck.

My hosts and companions are by turns outraged and heart-broken. The cycling video strikes the intended emotional notes every time. Eman’s mother wants me to know that this is Bush’s doing. Ali explains how this is a message to all Muslims. “Yes, yes. Tsk, tsk,”: what do I say? It’s hard for me to work up much sympathy for Saddam or to become truly alarmed about a world-wide conspiracy against Islam, but I was never a fan of this war, of Bush, or of the death penalty, anyway, so a part of me is with them. The other part squirms with familiar discomfort on account of patriae. But I’m safe. I’m an honorary Muslim when I visit this house.

Oddly enough, later the same day, this is what happens to me. I’m on the way to class in Mercato. A woman in a black hijab gets on the taxi and sits next to me. She tries a few words in Arabic with me. When I’m not too responsive, she asks me, “Arabic or English?” Despite my answer, she talks to me in Amharic. She tells me I look like I could be Saudi. Something around the eyes. I’m speechless. Saudi? As soon as I can, I check a mirror. Ishmael, is that you? Have you survived your trip to the mountain?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Travelogue 166 – December 20

Hey everybody, I got my green card! I’m legal! Time for a party. I’ve got the house for it now. We’ll eat lots of injera and sauce, drink local beer out of the bottle, and dance the skista. With enough beers down, we might invite the next door Pentes over for some blessed moaning and Twister. God will smile on us.

But I’ve got other plans tonight. I’m off to Mercato for the evening. I’ve opened a little class for English language, the launch of a business empire to boggle the minds of generations to come. Much like Alexander’s empire, mine issues from humble beginnings. Mercato is my Macedonia, an unforgiving land of hardy folk.

Notorious among Addis Ababans, notable as Addis’ s preeminent tourist attraction, Mercato has largely escaped my own worthy notice for almost three years. That’s because there really isn’t reason to go but to shop. Now, you can study English – at Jarvis Language, the only language center in the district. Please stop by. If you’re spending time on this blog, chances are your language skills aren’t too sophisticated. We can help.

It’ll be fun. But be prepared. There’s nowhere like Mercato. Maybe we can say it’s Ethiopia to a highly distilled degree. If you think Arat Kilo is crowded, prepare. If you think Piassa is noisy, prepare. If you think Meganagna is dirty and chaotic – and I’ve heard all your complaints about Addis urban life – prepare yourself.

First, on the taxi, secure everything. Where’s your wallet? Where’s your phone. Button and zip all pockets and bags and keep a hand on anything loose. Ready? Disembark!

(Note: I had an interesting criminal encounter last week. I was walking with Graham in the Ambassador neighborhood. A couple tall teens seem to be roughhousing. As we pass, they jostle into us. One grabs me around the knees, seemingly in a playful way. The other starts frisking. All I do is put a hand on my wallet, just as the boy’s fingers find it. As suddenly as they came, they roll away, running across the busy street. So easily foiled, so quickly passed, Graham has barely broken stride.)

Disembark! It’s best if you’ve ridden in on the most packed taxi possible so when you do disembark, you roll like a commando into the crowds. It’s also best if you have a ten year-old boy near to the surface of your psyche, or at least can easily summon up the Mission Impossible theme (and who can’t?) Be in a hurry, even if you’re not.

It’s a lot more fun than Times Square or the Fourth of July, weaving among bustling crowds on narrow streets, among crowds who have shed their customary courtesies. Okay, now add taxis and trucks that sway beneath massive loads, usually with a man or two perched precariously atop. Add dollies, donkeys, and men bent forward under bags packed with twice a man’s mass. None of these creatures looks where they’re going. Add frequent clusters of yelling men unloading trucks, paying no mind to pedestrians. Add clouds of dust and oppressive sun. O’Hare with a twenty-minute connection? Please.

If you have no mission, let alone an impossible one, you might find Mercato boring. Lots of merchants’ stalls, but mostly household goods: bland clothes, shoes, kitchen items, luggage, and the ubiquitous foam mattresses – and not much variety from stall to stall.

My advice in those circumstances: take a few hours, choose some item at random, and enjoy one of my favorite pastimes in this part of the world, bargaining. Nothing here matches my fond memories of Istanbul in this respect – the luxury and timelessness of the ritual. But there’s still the magic of ready service and easy smiles amid the chaos. Still the gentle and human art of negotiation – the careless offer, the laugh and cocky dismissal. Your counter, a tsk-tsk and some fabricated flaws, the better deals down the street, the I-know-better cock of the head. Your last price, his scoff, the reluctant exit. Mercato merchants are the best, friendly but hard-bitten.

Afterward, come down to Jarvis Language at about sunset and watch the day’s last frenzy. We’re on the third floor and there’s no wall or railing on our balcony. Stand at the edge and watch the whole mad drama, block upon block of it to where it fades into Piassa. You can see much of the city from here, looking east, all the way to the hills. But you’ll always be drawn back to observing the clamor below. There’s something endlessly fascinating about it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Travelogue 165 – December 15
The Gibi

I’ve got a new house. Still northside. I’m in a neighborhood called ‘Addisu Gebiya’, which means something like the New Market. Still up against the mountains, but a little more city than Shiro Meda. It’s just off the main road north out of town.

To an untrained eye, things may not appear so different, except that my new neighborhood isn’t so pretty. The mountains and the trees don’t rise so scenically around us. Things are flatter. I’m closer to transport. There are more houses with walls and gates. When I go to a shop or café, fewer people are startled or delighted by the sight of faranj. That I like. As near anonymity as I can get in Addis Ababa.

Ride in the taxi up from Piassa. Quickly you pass the Italian Cultural Center and the Samen Hotel. The latter lends its name to the district between Piassa and mine. So further on you’ll pass the Semen Chapel – which might only be an unfortunate transliteration. Hard to say: the hardcore Protestants are making a fierce play for this country. Listen to their services, as anyone within blocks is obliged to do, and one might wonder what all the moaning is about.

I have some ‘Pentes’, as they are called, next door at my new place. We share a wall. They get to chanting and moaning sometimes. I toss in a Hallefuckinglujah, just because I hate to be left out of anything involving God and moaning. I think it makes them happy because there’s a pause afterward.

Continue up the long, slow grade. You’ll pass the Guinean embassy. The road jogs to the left, and when you see the ‘Full Dose’ bar, you’ll call out ‘waraj alla’, signaling your stop. I’m a block away. You can take the busy road, alive with markets and butchers and traffic. Or you can take the quiet one with bridge over a stream loaded with trash and excrement. I prefer the latter route.

The prime asset of my little house is the gibi, the quiet, clean square of concrete behind high walls, bright with sunshine, where I sit and read or throw the ball for Jackie. She’s more interested in the abundant cats that patrol the local walls and roofs. Even more abundant are the doves and crows and falcon-like kites that trade perches and glide overhead and whistle and croak and coo.

Two sides of the gibi are walls. Along the third side are the old-style kitchen and two small rooms commonly called servants’ quarters. On the fourth side is the house proper, relatively small, though my Abasha friends are impressed. Saba finds me a magisterial dining room set for the salon, or the Pente room. Bakalech enjoys serving me there. She’s disappointed when I prefer to eat my meal on a stool in the sun.

Every move has its mishaps, every house its foibles. But my charming new manor presents more than the usual. My first night, there’s no electricity. The next two days, there’s no water. For the odd day that I have running water, I have a little water-heater for the shower – a big step up in the world. But the experience is marred by the acrid smoke from behind the electrical plug panel. Something about that makes me uneasy. Then there are the two doors into the house that both jam and never open without a struggle. One dark night, I almost break a knuckle pushing the back door open, and I bleed all over the hall. ‘Hallefuckinglujah,’ I shout, and I sense sympathy in the rustling behind the Pente wall. God loves me. Why else would I suffer? I think I’m getting the hang of religious logic. I’ll just have to pray over the bloody wound, anyway, since there’s no water.

But the stars are shining in the gibi.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Travelogue 164 – December 1
Like New

I run out of fuel midday. I’m on my way back to the computer after a break, a working break – pan and paper and coffee. I can’t do it. I veer from my path, turning into the Hotel Taitu – founded a hundred years ago by the Empress Taitu herself. Through the lobby I go -- it murmurs with CNN – and out the back door onto the small, terraced patio with the long view. I spend a very long time sipping tea. I refuse to think about a thing. Thought is like a strong, nurturing sun, and underneath it, weed-like details and problems are flourishing. I can’t tend to them anymore.

The sky is an ideal mixture of blue and white. When the heat is too much, a cloud comes to cool you off. The eye and the imagination are drawn out past the city by the hills. You’re in Africa. You’re nowhere. A breeze transports you to Rome.

The several other faranjis on the patio are solidly in Africa. An elderly British lady reads a guide book. When a young Korean comes to sit with her, she recounts a visit to a medieval church, a retelling complete with her opinions about religion. “Nevertheless, I found it quite intriguing,” is the summary for a fortunate Ethiopia. A Midwestern redhead arrives to announce that the bus is ready. The windows are clean. A tall, muscular man in his fifties, with the standard Celtic chain tattooed around one bicep, emerges from his room, bent forward, hawkish face intense. Africa is in his sights.

I have to get back to work. The day doesn’t get any better. That night, I’m escaping to another hotel, this time to the Samen Hotel north of Piassa, on the road that eventually surmounts the mountains and winds off toward Bahir Dar. On the top floor is a nice, quiet bar. Out the big windows, there’s no sky; there’s Addis Ababa in lights, stretching one way through Mercato to blackness, another way south, through Piassa and Bole to a further, softer blackness.

Teddy has gone missing for nearly two weeks. I asked Saba to check up on him. Teddy is one of our new kids at Tsegereda. He’s an unremarkable boy – quiet, chubby, not dazzlingly cute like some of them are. Most days he comes in a square and heavy little plaid suit coat that you know his mother or grandmother is very proud of.

I’m supposed to meet Graham here, but he’s late. In this way, he has adapted well to Ethiopia. He’ll arrive in a flurry of smiles, apologies, and patter about his day in his beautiful London accent. He’ll charm the waitress and any other lady within a reasonable radius. And I’ll enjoy it. But I’m grateful he’s late tonight. I need this time with darkness. One nice thing about this bar is the rare opportunity it provides for seating away from the ubiquitous TV sets. They flicker and buzz in three corners of the bar – CNN, ETV, football – far enough for a relative silence.

I sit by the window, in the dimmest light, at a high table with stools. I can watch the quiet entrances and exits at the elevator. Couples, men in suits and women in tight pink pants. Two well-fed men. The one in a suit has a face like a shark. He leads his friend in a prayer before they taste their soft drinks. He watches his friend pray. His eyes are dark and unforgiving.

Teddy has been to the hospital, Saba finds out. They discover that Teddy has HIV. That’s all I know so far. Saba told me an hour ago.

That’s how pain is, always a surprise. You know it’s coming: you go for a long and hilly run; you work with children at risk. When the pain arrives, it’s new.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Travelogue 163 – November 26
O Hard-Hearted Africa

“It’s hot,” I think, and the thought disperses into the gold and red fog whence it emerged. Only one other thought is possible, and that’s not really a thought. If it had words, they would be, “This hurts.”

Maybe that’s what I like about running. The low-level agony obliterates any coherent thought. Not that my thought process is ever very coherent, but it’s busy. There’s a lot of it. These days, business has me in a perpetual state of planning. What a relief once a day when my only duty is to register pain

Today is the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest road run, a 10K through the city, and the focus of two months’ training. Unfortunately, as I quickly realize, my training was a little misguided. I train before dawn, when it’s chilly and there’s no sun beating down on my tender white skin. And, aside from the occasional corps of Christ’s zombies, I have the streets to myself before sunrise. Today, I am flotsam on a river of green shirts that stretches beyond the horizon forward and back, some 25,000 of them, the media says. The pre-dawn zombies don’t jockey for position like the green-shirts do. The green-shirts are absolutely African alinear, multiplied into infinite agitation. They meander left and right, gather into groups, stop suddenly, spurt ahead just to become distracted and stall. Street children decide to join in, darting this way and that. And when the crowd gets tight, the elbows come out.

It’s hot. The sun blazes on my back and neck as we labor up the first long hill. Everyone still has a lot of energy – energy to zigzag, shout, and laugh … and chant. A series of chants start up and gather strength. They take on a call-and-response format. This continues for miles. I don’t know where they get the breath. ‘Leba!’ they chant: ‘Thief!’ They’re referring to our beloved prime minister, specifically to his miraculous win in last year’s elections. There are other slogans, calling for the release of political prisoners, etc. I’m working hard, so about halfway through the course, my companions on the road quiet down. It falls to the slower crowd to pelt the Ministry of Justice, which is nearer the finish line, with stones and trash.

I’m accustomed to standing out in Ethiopia, but there are times when you really don’t want to – like when your body hurts and you’re sweating extravagantly and you’re huffing like a train; like when you think you’re running a race but you unexpectedly find yourself the foreigner inside a crowd of political demonstrators. People line the roads. ‘Faranj!’ they yell and laugh. ‘Not too many celebs run marathons,’ I muse, another fleeting thought in red letters. It’s just not a moment you want to smile and wave to the crowd. But them when is?

I’ve made myself even more conspicuous in the choice of the team’s T-shirts: bright yellow with our name front and back. It was fun entering the mass of thousands, all of them in the event’s green T-shirt that was handed out at registration, all of the team in yellow. But we were dispersed quickly once the running began.

In the last kilometer, the green river still stretches ahead, all the way to the finish. I’ve been passing hundreds all along the way, and yet there’s no sign of progress. I gain on an obese woman who hasn’t broken a sweat. I wonder if there is a contingent of (shall we say) late entries. I hobble toward the end. Looking around, I realize the race organizers have arranged for one more final confirmation of futility: there’s no clock. No one wears numbers or chips, so we arrive at the finish like so much new sand on the shore, uncounted and unrecorded, … though we do get a nice little medallion to hang around our necks.

The team gathers again in front of Estiphanos church to pose for more photos and to bake on the asphalt while we wait for stragglers. Yohannes is exceedingly proud to have beaten me. He trained for one day while I boasted for two months about my morning runs. In every photo, he’s very particular about lining us up in order of our finish. As I invited two elite runners onto our team, I’m a humble team fourth. And not even the excuse for fresh pain to console me.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Travelogue 162 – November 15
The Voices

She does look like a boy. Like a ten year-old boy, her hair cropped short, her features blunt and square. She enters late and sits at the back, and I wonder what the boy is doing in this class of adolescent girls.

She has tried to turn her looks to her advantage. She joined a boys’ group once, a program for homeless boys, but she was discovered and raped. While the authorities investigated the incident, she was the one lodged in jail.

She’s shy and sweet when she talks to us after class. She seems to urgently want this minute or two with us. She smiles and she is tentative as she tells us that she is trying to believe in God. But she’s sure she’s going to die soon. Voices tell her so. They like to visit her at night.

There are about twenty-five girls in the room. Some look like young women, some like pre-teen girls. They’re all living on the street, and they all have been or are sex workers. They participate in this day program in the crazy Mercato district of Addis Ababa in hopes that they will be accepted into the longer-term live-in program and have a chance to go to school.

My first impression: they are just like my girls back home. I’m referring to the teenage ‘welfare moms’ that I taught in Minneapolis. They grin the same way; they move the same way; they’re sassy the same way. A few extroverts gather around me right away, and they shriek with laughter when they hear my Amharic. They’re delighted. They cant on and on about it, yelling at Graham in Amharic, ‘He speaks Amharic! Why don’t you?’

Graham smiles back blandly, the blank, uncertain look we all get when faced with a flood of foreign words. He’s only been here a week or two, and it’s only the second time in Ethiopia. The language and the volume combine with the jet lag to stump him, but only for a moment. This is his class, and this is what he does. He has led these workshops in Africa and India. His philosophy, to find those most in need and try to teach them hope, self-awareness, and some new survival skills through the arts of self-expression. In his former life, he was a photographer and painter.

The girls are teenagers. If you forget, they’ll remind you. They can’t sit still. They fill the opening discussion time with complaints: can we do something else today? Why do we stay so long? We’re hungry. When Graham wants us to stand together and hold hands, they giggle.

But, also like teenagers, when it comes to work – today it’s drawing – they let go and become absorbed in it. Graham has them completing personal ‘mandalas’ – as he insists on calling them, – which means ordering the things of their lives according to their importance in concentric circles, arranged around their own faces in the center. Common items of great import are shoes, clothes, mom, and brothers. Common items to be despised: drugs and police. You would never guess how isolated these girls really are, estranged from family and old friends, all human contact the fleeting sort of the streets. It’s this isolation and vulnerability that draws Graham to this population.

Lydia is Irish. Her accent is wonderful. Her temperament is even and unflappable. It’s not these things that the girls see, though. It’s the skin so white it’s pink. It’s the blonde hair and green eyes. She peacefully prepares the paper with blank ‘mandalas’, and Alem, a girl as black as Lydia is white, stares. Her eyes are red. They don’t waver. There’s no discernible emotion in them. She just watches.

We observe another fidgeting and giggling silence at the end of class. This time, we have two elected leaders of the class to bring them around. When we break, there are smiles and shouts, and the girls move brightly back and forth between the courtyard and the class, their movement something between a defiant strut and a carefree skip.

Hannah sits by herself with a shy girls’ diverted gaze. She squirms in her chair like a child. The voices will continue to come. Their pronouncements will be dire. We know there’s nothing we can do. Graham muses at the door about help, intervention, drugs, counseling. We fall silent. It’s time to go.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Travelogue 161 – November 5
Screen Life

Bezawit is one of the new children. I mean new among the new: she started later than her classmates, who comprise the entering class of four and five year-olds at the Shiro Meda school. A few disappeared; a few others were too young. Bezawit is one of the replacements.

Is that why she keeps to herself? I don’t think so. Pudgy little Meheret started even later, but I remember her pushing her way into the playground games immediately. You hear her voice above all others when the class sings. Bezawit still prefers to sit on the schoolroom’s front step and brood. Her face is perfectly proportioned, strikingly adult and earnest. Her eyes are intense. She doesn’t smile for me when I try to cheer her up.

I think about the kids a lot these days. Everything I see during the day makes me wonder about their lives ahead of them. I watch young adults and their funny ways – no funnier than ours, in essence – and I wonder.

I’ve seen a couple Ethiopian movies lately. Last night’s offered no subtitles in English, so I got to practice my Amharic. That’s a flattering notion: I don’t have enough Amharic to practice. Fortunately, language wasn’t much of a barrier to understanding the film – or perhaps language wouldn’t have clarified the odd lacunae in plot.

Amharic film – if I may generalize from my vast experience – seems to carry forward a tradition of story-telling from the very lively local theater. Themes are social and very moralistic; plot development is melodramatic. The acting is often very nice, while everything else is sloppy to a greater or lesser degree. In time this may be looked upon as the time of cinema’s great flowering in Ethiopia. I’ve noticed a real shift in several years. Now it’s hard to find a Western film for a weekend evening. Amharic titles are proliferating faster than the few venues can handle.

The title last night was ‘Zema Hiwot’, ‘Song of Life’. She’s a rich and famous pop singer with a secret dark past that catches up with her in the end – I won’t give it away. She’s a wide-eyed innocent surrounded by conniving show business types. She suffers a creative block and realizes she needs to help AIDS children. Etc. The director seems more concerned about daring camera angles than patching up the rough fabric of his plot.

There are some nice shots of Addis Ababa. There’s nothing like putting a frame around the familiar to make it romantic. One nice consequence of my wanderlust has been living in a number of cities that double as frequent film-sets. My favorite experience of that sort was sitting in a theater in New York City watching a Woody Allen movie, only to see that very theater interior featured in the film.

This theater interior is about as romantic as a high school auditorium. This is the Cinema Empire (pronounced ‘Impeer’) in Piassa. Everything is square. The room is a big, plain cube. The screen is square, and looks as though it would snap up with a yank. The chairs are square and hard. There is a balcony, where most of the crowd congregates. I want to be close to the screen so I can read the video prompts – “Pause”, “Play”. I buy a Mirinda for Saba from the old man strolling around, clinking bottles for advertisement. It’s as sickly orange and sickly sweet as movie pop should be. It reminds me of Turkey, where Fanta is as ubiquitous as Ataturk.

And there’s Addis on the screen. It doesn’t look half bad up there, bloated and stretched and pixilated, but still Addis among its dusty green hills. It doesn’t look half bad in real time, either, as we exit the theater. It’s Saturday night; the streets are crowded. Mayhem and peace and laughter mingle and jostle among us. Languorous couples squeeze by. Old drunks lurch forward in hopes of change. Children appear at your elbows with chewing gum and tissues. If you stop, they gather and fight. But they can be fun to chat with, observant , witty, and savvy.

This is ‘Doro Manikeh’, a section of Piassa known to be rough. The name translates roughly into ‘Chicken with its Throat Cut.’

The chicken is still jumping. I can be forgiven for some delusional romance, I think, on a Saturday night, for projecting the scenic upon the sordid. Can’t I? Isn’t this London or New York before they matured as movie sets – raucous and ill-mannered, rough-hewn and functional, crammed with people whose fun is simple and immediate?

Everything is a museum piece in this night light and noise. Shop after shop, improvised from canvas and sheets of iron, stacked with rows of shoes and with piles of the most disparate household articles. The Madonna and child asleep in the middle of the jammed sidewalk, wrapped in frayed white cotton. Such a sweet face the baby has, and so surrendered to its sleep. You keep walking because you have to, and the motion and the madness make the tranquil faces striking. The sight doesn’t fade like it might with staring.

The question come sup in conversation with a Brit newly arrived in Ethiopia, ‘How does one create hope for them’ – these children, these casualties, these shoe-shiners, these gum-brokers and baby prostitutes and tiny denizens of the street? And the enduring non-answer is, ‘How does one protect it inside oneself?’

The museum is stories in repose. They don’t need to be told; we know them. We go on.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Travelogue 160 – October 30
Friends and Foes of the One True God

Today’s delay in the taxi ride home is that the passenger-side door in the cabin is stuck, and the man there can’t get out. Everyone is good-humored about it, including the traffic cop standing a few yards off. Taxi boys from all around come for a try at the recalcitrant door. It won’t budge. Everybody is chiming in with quips and commentary, including the frail old woman who boarded while we’re stopped. People stand and offer her a seat, but she refuses and sits on the back wheel well. She’s a wit. Her comments raise the most laughter. The boys give up, and the passenger slides out the driver’s side. For some reason, a new taxi boy takes over as wayala. It’s a loose and fluid guild, that of the taxi boys.

Wogayehu is back. The parents insist on entering the school grounds, where they are usually prohibited during school hours. They each shake her hand. Together they bow before her. Several have tears in their eyes. I’ll have to get used to seeing Wogayehu in black. Mourning in Ethiopia lasts a long time, especially for someone as close as one’s father.

All this courtesy and thoughtfulness is given an unpleasant contrast later in the day at the internet café. An American in a suit is slumming. He looks like a standard character actor cast as middle management in the Mafia or in a bank. He has a young Ethiopian man in a suit as flunky for his stay in town. Or maybe the computers at his office are down, and his assistant is along for the miserable errand.

Our man from Delaware is irritated. He poses loud questions to his flunky about emails, berates him, curses the computer. Eventually, like a tired mule, the computer comes to a stubborn halt. Our friend lets loose with a stream of vile imprecations. ‘Are you going to stuff your fat face, or are you going to fix this computer?’ he shouts at the woman at her desk. She eats lunch at her desk because she rarely leaves it, morning to night, all week. Those are his words! A deeply-repressed cavalier gene emerges: ‘Don’t talk like that.’ He whines back at me, and he actually does whine, ‘But my computer doesn’t work.’ I discover that my chivalric personality is a character out of Dashiell Hammett: ‘Just show a little class, would ya?’

It’s embarrassing when someone from back home acts the ass, as I’ve had too much opportunity to observe – karma for the many times I’ve been the embarrassment. It’s interesting how you come to expect a higher standard from compatriots than you would at home.

On the weekend, I went to a film at the Italian Cultural Center. My expectations were high. Happily, I was alone so I was free to walk out after ten minutes. Mediocrity is unacceptable thousands of miles from home. First insult: the film was English and dubbed in Italian. Second, the concept, plot, scene, direction, and acting, adding up to a typical Western bathos – the lonely urban hero, who we’re supposed to believe is gorgeous, smart and sensitive but can’t get a date, this hero is beset by a series of mildly humorous, petty, and ultimately uninteresting difficulties; the hero despairs in various lush city environments; … oh, etc. That’s how it is that a Friday night can be spent – living among some of the world’s most desperate poverty and disorder – wringing one’s hands over the state of the Euro-American soul, a thing become as arid as any African desert.

The day continues. It happens that today is the ‘small Eid’. Any Muslim with moxie has put in that extra six days of fasting and now breaks it with a special shine applied to the soul. I have lunch with Eman’s family, a rare group of women who combine religious zeal with authentic goodness of heart. It’s very pleasant. Good food, children reciting the Koran on an Arab channel, Eman’s two adorable nieces showing off their English.

Religion is the air we breathe here. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was malodorous sometimes. I don’t find that a discussion about God or Mary or the Sharia reflects anything recognizable about the world I see outside the window.

But discussion about religion, there you encounter man’s sad dealings with man. It seems Ethiopia can’t escape the fate of rest of Earth’s rabid millions, after all. Muslim and Christian have lived here together for centuries in peace, more or less. But it seems that last month – news is slow to reach my faranji ears – there was a clash in the western town of Jima between these two communities so esteemed by God. This God is the only one who knows what actually happened. Stones were thrown, several rounds of revenge were exacted, priests were killed and churches burned.

Who knows what fuels this tension? World news a la CNN doesn’t help. Next door, Somalia is embroiled in Islamist ‘rebellion’, (who are they rebelling against?) and these enemies of the world order dare restore order to large sections of that miserable country. Ethiopia, according to some reports, has sent troops in to oppose the Islamists in western Somalia. Closer to home, I know there have been a few stone-throwing episodes in Addis over city zoning problems with new or proposed mosques.

As secure as this government may be, after last year’s contested elections and demonstrations, it faces a credibility problem on any number of fronts. Befriending what seems to many to be an anti-Muslim coalition of Western nations, in hopes of recovering favor and aid money, is not likely to play well. Ethiopian Muslims are keenly aware of their exploding demographic power, where 50-50 in 2000 has been replaced by 60-plus in their favor. Mecca is just a couple hours north by plane. Allah is watching, and He doesn’t seem pleased. (Does He ever?)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Travelogue 159 – October 22
Sad Pop and the Zombies

It’s Sunday again. If the moon hadn’t been coy and refused us a glimpse of her lovely face, today would have been Eid, the end of Ramadan fasting and one of Islam’s biggest parties. As it is, it’s just another Sunday.

They’re playing soft 80s pop at my regular café. There’s Phil and Whitney and the whole gang. I prolong my stay. In my former life, I might have run. It’s funny what havoc several years away from home will wreak in the psyche. I’m hungry for sad music. Ethiopian pop is relentlessly peppy. Traditional church music can be somber and meditative. But it’s alien enough that the spell it casts is fleeting. I bask in Top 40 melancholy.

It makes me want to write cheap, fluffy fiction. And so I indulge, filling in a few pages of my notebook: yet another beginning to my infamous novel, Zlaty Pes, infamous on several continents for its lack of substance, material or literary. Lacking amusements, I think I’ll devote myself to another unconvincing attempt at my masterpiece. To underscore my seriousness, I’ll emulate the Victorian masters by publishing in serialized form. Any sane editor would refuse me, so I’ll launch it on the web with the following caveat: ‘Dear reader, follow at your own peril, and remember – just because I’m publishing doesn’t mean I care to hear your opinion. Don’t waste precious time on critique. Enjoy or reject, as you like.’

My marvelously incoherent style is enhanced today by lack of sleep and runner’s fatigue. I got up extra early today because it’s Sunday and I knew the zombies would be out in force.

Scouts for Christ’s army have indeed hit the streets by 4:30 a.m., shuffling in semi-conscious clusters in the middle of the road, swaying so their layers of tattered rags swing back and forth. They mutter; they moan. They carry tall roods on their shoulders or walking sticks. Many have heavy loads on their backs, bags of candles or missals or incense or traditional clothing that they’ll sell out front of the church. There will be dozens and dozens of them squatting as near as they can to the entrance of today’s church, as designated by the calendar of saints and angels and the various personalities of Mary or of the prolific Trinity. Small children lead blind elders in muddy rags into the path of anyone or thing approaching. Decrepit warriors race along on their crutches. The occasional taxi careens by with its load of the undead. But the road is quiet, abandoned to the foot soldiers. These shuffling ones look at me hungrily, but I’m out of reach.

It’s cold. The stars are brilliant. At the top of the last breathless height is the church of Kidane Meheret. The zombies here are harmless, neutralized by the power of religion. They emerge in shambling sorrow from dark dirt alleyways, from the paths among the shadows of tall trees, hooded and hidden deep within their winding sheets, and they turn to follow the swaying tapers of others. Many slump to their knees among their rags, crack their debile skulls against the stone gate posts, and whisper long, groaning complaints. I touch the gate in honor of the god who oversees the ticking of my much-abused heart, and I head back downhill.

Above the eastern wooded ridge is the first hint of blue among the black. The undead pull their shrouds tighter. For my part, I rejoice. I’ve made it another day, into and out of beauties, evading the leprous glances of the Chosen, evading Orion’s last arrow as he descends toward the west, facing the prospect of another fierce, defiant sun.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Travelogue 158 – October 15
The Chinese Mafia’s Work is Never Done

The coffeehouse is quiet, except for the Sunday pool players in shorts and ties who want us all to appreciate their party. The sun beams on my back. The view extends over rooftops to the mountains streaked with morning shadows.

The cashier gives me a long, shrewd look and clucks her tongue. She makes a comment to her co-workers about China. She’s been curious about me. That’s the trouble with being a regular in Ethiopia; there’s no anonymity or wall between patron and employee.

‘Where are you from?’ she asks brusquely. I say China. She nods thoughtfully. Then she wants to know about the people I’m always bringing in here for meetings. I say I’m mafia. That she can laugh at. China she’s still chewing over.

I’m exhausted, but it’s a pleasant sort of tiredness, one that comes from work you feel good about. Yesterday we mounted another expedition to Mojo. Okay, so much of the work on the trip is time spent on the bus. Fortunately, I have good company. Travel was the stuff of bad farce.

Out of four trips to or from Mojo, only one leg, last week, passed without incident. The morning leg yesterday began in an encouraging way: we caught an early minibus, which whizzed along at a cheering rate. We recovered from one minor dust-up with another taxi, which had already sent a cyclist flying before backing into us. Then, in Debre Zeit, we’re stopped by a belligerent traffic cop. He disappears with our driver. Passengers drift away to catch other conveyances, though aseveral of them are waylaid by other police a few hundred yeards along. A half hour later, we’re moving again, but stopping every quarter-mile or so to pick up new passengers.

The way home in the evening is a nightmare. There are no buses to Addis: we have to get to Debre Zeit first. Against my better judgement, we board one of the big buses. This one is operated by an unusually enterprising pair, driver and wayala, who are determined to serve hundreds of customers on this seventy-kilometer trip. Maybe it’s not business; maybe it’s charity. They’ll swing to the side of the highway for any lonely or weary sojourner, anyone who looks to have a few centime in his pocket. A one-hour trip turns into two and more. We make intimate acquaintance with the southern suburbs of Addis, halting about every hundred meters. By the time we step down to the street in Addis, we feel as though we’ve traversed Alaska. We stare blankly around, all memory of our happy day erased in a daze of pointless exhaustion.

But happy day it is. I’m euphoric to arrive at Mojo and set foot on terra firma, though it’s only to jump right into a gari. I enjoy the horse carts. The same can’t be said for my entourage of Addis staff, city slickers all. At best, they find the gari hilarious, at worst contemptible. Bakalech gets her foot caught in a brace of the cart as she dismounts, and she has to hop alongside as the careless horse starts forward.

All in all, Bakalech has a miserable day. She shows up late in the morning, and she shows up in heels. Right away, she’s jogging along behind me with sore feet. My scheduled taxi is a no-show. The next one raises his price en route. I storm out of the taxi at our destination, refusing to pay the extra – these dramatics are accepted practice – and the driver proceeds to abscond with Bakalech. The lock on her door is jammed, and I only wish I had had my camera ready to capture the look on her face in the passing window.

Anyway, I pay her ransom, and we carry on with what, to her, is a hot, dusty, and futile day – but to me is the reason for all the rest of the misery and farce I endure in Ethiopia.

We return to the beat house, which has been magically transformed by tall and humble Malaku with the rust-stained teeth common to this area, our local man. Walls are painted, the yards are leveled and rid of all weeds, dilapidated outhouses are torn down, one interior wall removed to create a classroom.

That’s not what we notice first. It’s the crowd of applicants piling into the road. We enter the front yard and wade through them, moms and grandmothers and men in work-clothes kneeling in the dirt or leaning against the leaning iron fence, children standing wide-eyed in groups. If I smile and squeeze one’s hand, they all advance in pleasure and wonder on the faranj. Their noses run, their hands are dirty, their faces and hair harbor fleets of flies. They are beautiful.

On the porch, one of our volunteers reads from a list of two hundred. Originally, almost five hundred applied. These have been winnowed by half. In back, more volunteers sit at a table and interview applicants, who stand meekly and expectantly before the table. Each child answers his or her own questions, usually in a whisper. I stand in back, useless as ever. I have one role: to record. I have camera and camcorder, and I have an outsider’s wonder: this is human dignity; this is worth; this is the real gold standard.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Travelogue 157 – October 7
Saved by Mojo

It’s Saturday morning. There are no kids, no school, no staff. Bakalech is moping. She’s bored. It’s too quiet, and since I’ve recovered she cooks me the same things over and over. Francois left the house early today. He returns to France in a few days. Weekdays are fun around here: both staff and kids laugh a lot, and the adults have become close. Weekends: just me.

I try to cheer her up, but I’m fundamentally unamusing. A quip or two won’t change that. I’m a little mopey myself. I woke up missing Minnesota, which is a rare emotion. I lay in bed for a while savoring memories of such things as bookstores and libraries, theaters, quiet parks, lectures and readings, peaceful bars with baseball on the tube.

Girma, the guard, is quiet and dopey. He’s a victim of my training craze in anticipation of the Great Ethiopian Run in November. We’re getting a team of staff and friends together to run in it, all wearing Tsegereda T-shirts. A friendly competition has sprung up among staff. Girma announced he was coming in first among the team. This opened him up to all sorts of merciless teasing from the ladies. Girma is overweight, and there’s no polite convention here of circumspection about such matters. ‘Girma is fat, Dana,’ they cry and imitate him waddling along the race course. They laugh uproariously. I stand up for him. ‘Girma is strong,’ I say, and his smile is touchingly grateful.

Desalegn is his friend. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve hired him to run with me while he’s on hiatus from soccer training. He has become poor Girma’s coach, as well. Whereas I train every other morning, Girma is up every day at 5:00, running, jumping rope, counting off dozens of sit-ups. He staggers wearily through the rest of his day.

Myself, I’m paying for having impressed Desalegn in early runs. His gaze became hard and assessing. He began pushing indecently on the hills and submitting me to ever more grueling rounds of calisthenics afterward. I sleep-walk through my days. I resort to reminding him of my advanced age. And then Mojo comes along to rescue me.

Mojo is a small town about an hour and a half southeast of Addis Ababa, halfway between Debre Zeit and Nazarit, two towns that devoted readers may recall from last year’s blogs. (Ethiopian year) Mojo is where we are opening Tesfa’s second school. Need for Tesfa’s services in Ethiopian is infinite, of course, but real cooperation is very finite. In Mojo, we have discovered a happy meeting of minds among officials, landlords, volunteers, teachers, and families who would like to help disadvantaged children. Thursday night, I cheerfully send a message to Desalegn that I can’t train the following morning. I’m going to Mojo.

It’s a dubious trade, the rigors of pre-dawn training for the rigors of bus travel in Ethiopia. It hasn’t changed at all: the chaos and suffocating smog of the station, the misshapen bus seats shoved to within inches of each other, Today I have a choice of the knee-less sun-seat or sitting above the well of the back door on a truncated seat that slopes forward. I made the wrong choice: the seat in the back. My backside and legs are screaming before we’re halfway. The mind plays tricks in these situations. It says the trip is only an hour and a half; you can take anything for that short a time.

Passengers climb over you. There is the usual contingent of wide-eyed country folk with walking sticks, shawls, rude turbans, rough hands, overbites, and guileless stares. Egress from the city is long and unbearably tedious. But break it does, tawdry shops and office buildings built from kits giving way to sudden fields and views of the hills, reclaiming the view, giving it up, letting it go finally. Fields of teff, a bright green, delicate grass that is grown for injera, sway under the patchy sun, under occasional stunted tree, as far as you can see. No more square mud; instead, the infrequent round gojo with thatched roof.

In Mojo, you travel by gari, horse-drawn cart, along lazy dirt roads laid out in grids around decaying compounds lush with unrestrained vegetation. Everybody is slow at midday, sheep and oxen and donkeys and Muslims and Christians.

I’m in Mojo to videotape. Here is our proposed school site before we lay hands on it. Here is the high, peaked iron ceiling and it’s hand-hewn eucalyptus rafters. Here is the cracked concrete floor of the main room, and the dirt floors of the others. Here are the approximate lines of thick mud walls barely exceeding my arm span that have to house twenty children, windowless and brown. ‘I’m the only one who thinks this place is appalling, right?’ Innocent nods reply. The city government is ecstatic. Local volunteers are proud. Teachers at expensive private schools are ready to jump ship to catch our leaky vessel.

All right, then. Turn off the camera and start the work: cleaning, painting, digging latrines. Where’s the champagne for the christening. In two weeks we launch Tsegereda-Mojo. All four year-olds on deck!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Travelogue 156 – September 29
An Emperor Ages Another Year

Can I complain? A two-day birthday, and the whole country stops as though to honor me – much as they greet each other with ‘Are you Dana?’ every day. I am the secret emperor of Abyssinia.

On the eve of the imperial birthday, (otherwise known in Ethiopia as Meskel, the day the peasants celebrate the finding of the True Cross by Constantine’s mommy: I sense fascinating allegories to develop in my autobiography,) the road to Kidane Meheret is crowded with the pious at 5:30 a.m. Apparently, the 26th of every month is ‘Kidane Meheret’, which means that every church of that name is choked with the observant. This particular church, being an arduous climb, has distinct Christian virtue.

Both sides of the road are murky dawn-lit streams of sleep-walking pilgrims in robes white and not, wielding walking sticks. The conscientious athlete weaves among them and dodges the buses and cars crammed with heaven-seekers. Is he an apostate? Or simply more eager than most for his celestial reward? The way God’s motor vehicles barrel at him and past him, it would seem heaven is just a rusted bumper away. Praise Our Reckless Saviour!

The athlete, having turned in a rare performance, fueled by adrenaline, washes up and rests at home, awaits the festivities. As I’ve noted before, it’s the ‘eve’ that is often most fun. The eve of Meskel is the occasion of the Demera, the re-enactment everywhere of the bonfire that led the imperial mommy to our buried relic.

Get ready for another sort of adrenaline. Demera on school premises can be harrowing. Toddlers bearing fire: it’s a set-up for a 70s horror flick. And yet, it all turns out beautifully. The bonfire is lit, and nothing else. The kids clap and sing and run circles around the last of the flames. I’m afraid the video of the event will look like a horror. Never much with a camera anyway, I’m caught off guard by the rush of events, and I bound around kids and flames, swinging the little camcorder like a search light.

More genial holiday terrors await. I have to pay the family visit to Saba’s house. Saba herself is sequestered at Asheber’s to heal. That is unfortunate because she usually acts as a brake on her mothers’ exhausting generosity. She’s an excellent cook, but there’s a limit to the amount one body can absorb. ‘Eat, eat! You don’t like it? Just a little more.’ She’ll pile up your plate before you’re halfway through the last one. I soldier through, eventually excusing myself to stagger out, perspiring and sleepy nearly to unconsciousness.

Holiday survival: pay an emergency visit to your regular coffeehouse. Convenient that it’s across the street from the site of your excesses, though up three flights of stairs. Say, ‘Inkwan adarasash’ to each of the pretty waitresses. This is the generic holiday greeting. Literally, it means something like, ‘So you made it,’ appropriate for a country in which life expectancy tops out in the 40s, I suppose. They respond, ‘So we made it.’ Yes. Coffee, please.

You may have to endure the advances of waitresses. This will probably be no more painless than accepting a phone number. But if you’re across the street from Saba’s, you may get Abay, who demands that you meet her after her shift. You’ll act like you don’t understand and smile blandly. After which, she’ll tell you to buy her a phone card. Continue your helpless pantomime, and she’ll have to retreat.

I forgot about the best part of the day: the kids throw me a birthday party. It’s a simple affair. The teacher sits them in chairs along the wall of the classroom. I sit at a table in the middle with the cake. They sing and clap. I cut the cake. We pass out candies. We take pictures. At age four, they are already instilled with a sense of formal occasion, and so they sit silently and soberly through the ceremony.

These are the new kids. The school year started two weeks ago. Our first crew has graduated from kindergarten, and now the school is full of small, unfamiliar faces. They’re an extraordinarily cute bunch. They’re shy and tentative. They mill around the playground uncertainly. They sit on the swings, frowning and still, watching me with big eyes. Some still cry when mommy leaves. Brave new world for all of us. Shall we invoke wide-eyed Constantine to lead us by the sign of mommy’s old bit of wood? Maybe not.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Travelogue 155 – September 24
Ayzu: Be Strong

Asheber is a big guy, kind of like Tony Soprano in physique – and in community stature, as well, to judge by appearances. His coterie of friends is awfully deferential. He owns the taxi we travel in together. He’s just back from Dubai on an undefined business trip. He pays for Saba’s large hospital bill with cash.

Ethiopes are secretive, and Saba more than most. So in three years, I’ve never heard mention of a boyfriend. When I returned from Europe this time, she couldn’t well deny that she was pregnant, though there’s no way she was going to tell me. I took on the big brother’s voice, and that’s when I heard about Asheber.

Saba is very attractive. Asheber is not. The first time I meet him, he doesn’t have much to say. He slouches while he watches Saba’s TV. I wonder what she sees in him.

I spot him on the street the next day. Watching him, I get an idea. He has that nonchalance and faraway look of power as people approach him. Then there are the subsequent displays of wealth. It all makes sense. Growing up in Piassa makes you street-savvy, makes you a survivor. Saba moves among the melee like royalty. It only makes sense she would ally herself with a prince.

Circumstances overtake us. I find out Asheber is not too big a man to cry when he finds out his baby has died in the womb. He’s big enough to care for Saba tenderly during her three days’ hospital stay. He’s not too big to look after Saba’s older faranji brother, making sure I have something to eat at the hospital, sending me home in his taxi at night. When I clumsily spill my water bottle, he meticulously refills it from his own. He offers tissue when I need it. All in cool capo style.

Saba is strong. She is composed and healthy-looking after her operation, even as a crowd of anonymous family members shake their heads and click their tongues over and commiserate over her bed in a quick mix of Amharic and Tigrenya. “I’m fine,” she says simply and looks back at us with unclouded eyes.

Outside the hospital, Asheber has strong words (in a calm voice) for the doctors. He’s sure a course of medicine prescribed two weeks ago killed the fetus. Who knows if that is the real cause of the tragedy, but it seems clear there was some sort of negligence. They sent her home after every check-up, and … suddenly the baby is dead.

Though Fate may be amused to send me back to the hospital on a weekly basis this fall, my own health has improved dramatically. In Ethiopia, I’m either next to death or in the best health of my life and overflowing with energy. It helps that I’ve had to reduce my diet to about half a dozen food items. Coffee is my only vice, and that I take in cautious sips.

Fortunate man, I’ve gotten to see Orion twice in the last week. It’s high in the sky at 5:30 a.m. The tail end of rainy season holds dawn in reverence and retreats into the mountains. Desalegn, local soccer star and old friend of the school, is free from training in early fall, and therefore destitute. This year, I employ him to train me for November’s 10K, the Great Ethiopian Run.

I run at that hour to avoid my customary Ethiopian audience and peanut gallery, but I’m happy for the excuse to enjoy the dawn – cock’s crow, first hymns from the churches, quiet streets, the first light over the hills of Faransae, our eastern neighboring district.

This morning, I’m determined to make it to Kidane Meheret, the church at the end of one road that branches off from the main one through Shiro Meda, that heads off into the hills. It’s only a few kilometers away, but most of the last kilometer to the church is uphill, and I mean uphill at a deadly angle, pushing my poor heart and lungs toward or over 8,000 feet above sea level.

The morning before last I had to stop after the first hill, but today I make it all the way, my pride somewhat compromised by the middle-aged ladies late for service who pass me on the last hill. Can I blame that on genetics? Humbled, I’m still happy. I touch the old stone gate-supports in triumph. Desalegn nods his head a few times and kisses the gate in a triumph of belief.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Travelogue 154 – September 12
It’s Beauty Killed the Beast

Finally the timing clicks. I hear about movies in the States, movies I’m dying to see, but they’ve passed or haven’t arrived. And now they’re making it to Ethiopia. Okay, not all of them – only block-busters like ‘King Kong’.

Yes, I’m unashamed to say I was eager to see Kong. I love good special effects, and I love watching Jack Black. So, yesterday, New Year’s Day in Ethiopia, when I heard that Kong was at the Ambassador Theater, the dreary holiday became magical. I’ve acquired in Ethiopia some of the thrill that a small town boy in the 30s and 40s must have felt about the cinema.

I propose the movie to the family over New Year’s lunch of lamb and doro wot, (with the untraditional addition of rice for my delicate stomach.) Saba and Dalul, the two young ones decline. So whom do I take to ‘King Kong’ but the middle-aged ladies, Melesech and her country cousin, (speaking literally,) and Saba’s cousin, Ashenafe, the only one with a few words of English.

I have to rush them, as Melesech and her cousin want to put on their holiday finest, beautiful white cotton dresses and shawls with colorful, hand-sewn fringes. I feel silly taking them to Kong now, but it’s too late.

Of course, the experience is pure cultural disjunction, awkward and hilarious. How does one begin to explain: okay, this is New York City in the Depression – ‘konjo ager,’ Melesech comments, ‘beautiful country’ – and the heroine is in vaudeville …. Well, we’ll just wait for the monsters.

First, we have to weather the attacks of the vicious black island people, with their convulsive voodoo fits and murderous rituals. Back home we laugh in mild rebuke at this persistent, passive racism of our movie-makers, but it feels different here. After we have seen the last of the voodoo tribe, Melesech scowls and asks, ‘Tekuru – these blacks – who are they?’ I have to shrug. And sure enough, the true-blue black and the zany Asian die quickly on the island. Even the ugly, clownish cook with moments of wisdom bites the dust.

At last the monsters come, and Melesech and her cousin surrender to long series of exclamations. I can’t help laughing all the way through. I’m loving it. Rex fights gorilla. People fight bugs. Kong battles pterodactyls. I’m a little embarrassed by the brazen excess, but abandoned to it as well. I have a sense that it’s all an incoherent blur to Melesech. She sighs with relief when Kong succumbs to the chloroform, and I have to explain that he’s not dead. She blinks and settles back in.

I’ll never really know what the movie experience is like to people like Melesech. It’s clearly different. Each of my three companions dozes off at various times. Or they launch into unmuffled dialogue about something onscreen during the most innocuous scenes. But some of the basics, Hollywood pulls off effortlessly. The house applauds when Kong sends a few biplanes sizzling off into the Hudson. And there’s a tender silence for Kong’s anguished exit – though no one waits for Jack Black’s unconvincing delivery of the movie’s moral. They’re headed up the aisles, to the ringing clamor of Coke bottles rolling down the concrete floor.

Melesech is much more comfortable back home among her family. It’s visiting hour on a holiday. By the door, in the comfortable chairs, sit the men discussing something serious. Around the coffee sit the women, all in white. They are the majority. Everyone is related somehow. After almost three years in Ethiopia, I still can’t figure out the complex web of relations in Saba’s family, and new members appear all the time.

The room is cozy. I’ve come a long way since the shock of my first visit, when this room spoke to me only of desperate deprivation, its walls of uneven planks, its floor of cheap linoleum, the door that never entirely shuts out the dirty alleyway. I love this tiny space now and it’s everything comfortable. Rooms are more than walls and décor.

I’m sitting with the women and quite content. The conversation is al most simple enough for me to follow. Much of it is silence and non-verbal commentary. Some of it is doting over me because I was sick. They sit in a circle, and they direct much into the atmosphere with easy detachment. I’m a child and an acolyte. There’s something about Ethiopian women in the home. Husbands and lovers and fathers fade to irrelevance. The world is simple – no less dark for that, but a matter of shrugs and dismissive chuckles. Here is the hearth and the Academy and everything meaningful, around the coffee and the bread.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Travelogue 153 – September 10
Benign Powers and Natural Cures

I slept through some benedictions this morning. It’s the thirteenth month of the Ethiopian calendar. It lasts for five days. According to Orthodox tradition, rain during this month is tsabel, or holy water.

I’ve slept through all the morning showers because I’ve been up most of the night with another bout of the stomach bug, passing a wondrous variety of noxious gases and substances up and down my system, some painful, all exhausting. I slept through half the next day and several meetings as well.

I did get out in the afternoon, fit in my requisite couple of hours in front of a computer. I have a new internet café. New cafes open all the time, and their computers are clean. It takes about half a year before the drives are clogged and corrupt. This place is across the street from Saba’s house. It’s on the second floor of a pink new building.

On the top floor is a bright and clean coffeehouse with a pool table. For some reason, the owners have placed the pool table on the side with the panoramic view of the south side of the city, which recedes away from this hilltop in Piassa, into the distant hills that are green with holy precipitation. We at our café tables overlook the rusting neighborhood roofs of iron. … (unfinished)

Two days later, I’m on my way to the hospital again. I’ve healed once, just to succumb again to a worse version of the same. I’m up all night with quarter-hour visits to the toilet, all the while belching up infernal vapors. In the morning, I have a meeting, and this time I make it, though body and soul are like rubber left in the sun.

Saba has to beg me to go to the hospital because I’m dumb and stubborn. Why go a second time, I ask. That makes her sad, so I have to go. I sleep until afternoon. Then Saba arrives at sunset with one of our regular taxi guys. The town is forlorn. Though the puddles are full of blessed waters, they look black as any other rainwater trapped in mud. Solitaries hurry home with bowed heads. Beleaguered shepherd boys are driving crowds of sheep toward holiday dinner tables. Ethiopian New Year’s is nigh.

Tonight we’re trying a new hospital. Word is the Korean hospital is now the best. It’s across town in Gurgi, one of my first neighborhoods in Addis, an up-and-coming hangout for the nouveau riche, if I may apply several layers of exaggeration.

The Myungsung Christian Medical Center, (Myungsung in small letters and Christian in large,) is vast by local standards, spacious and sterile – and empty. No faranji, we notice. They communicate office to office by computer. They have a large-screen TV in the reception area. They employ the same staff as my last hospital, or so it seems. There’s the same awkward shuffle from room to room, the same sense I’ve interrupted a staff party, the same mysterious and painful tummy probe.

I fail everyone when I cannot provide a stool sample. (Francois would say in his almost-perfect English, ‘they wanted to examine my tool, but I didn’t have any.’) I’m absolutely dry after the long night of diarrhea. We drive home disappointed.

The next day is better. I return to Korea on my own. I call up my trusty new driver, Kifle. (Shimeles has moved on to paradise – NGO employment.) Kifle is a good guy, a neighborhood man, fair with his prices, laconic. He lives from fare to fare, like most – especially now that the government has withdrawn a large amount of subsidies from the oil market, driving prices up by a third – a World Bank idea, which fits nicely with the government’s need to cut back after Western governments started cutting aid in the aftermath of last year’s crackdown on protesters. It’s comforting how everything fits together so well in the modern world.

We run out of gas on the way home. Only in Ethiopia would I have to help push my taxi to a gas station on a visit to the emergency room. That’s all right: I think it’s contributed as much to my cure as anything the doctor did.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Devoted readers: I've been having a very hard time accessing my blog server from Ethiopia, so be advised -- entries may come late, or in batches. Thank you for your patient patronage....

Travelogue 152 – September 4
She’s Enough

Bakalech, my housekeeper, likes to be helpful. Maybe it’s in her name, which means something like ‘She’s enough’.

Yesterday, a day of relentless rain, Daba and Dalul came to the school in order to paint the classrooms. I was there, as was Bakalech.

It was a cozy group, waiting out the rain while Dalul labored. He doesn’t have much experience with house-painting, but he makes up for that with gusto, enjoying the feel of the big brush, heavy with white paint, in his hand. He wields it like a seventeen year-old should, in great, sloppy arcs across the wall, spraying the floor and his clothing.

We’re waiting out the rain. Usually, rain comes and goes in Ethiopia, and you can watch the day’s story in the clouds. Today, all is uniform.

I’m standing in the doorway, watching the downpour. Bakalech comes to push food on me again. “B’demb, bla,” she says with her unwavering elfin smile. “Really, you should eat.” I’m largely recovered from the horrible stomach ailment, but I’m still tired. Ethiopians think eating enough is the cure, and eating too little the cause, of most illness. “Eat!” She runs through a few of my favorites, but I’m not hungry. She’s disappointed, as is Saba.

They return to their listless gossip, sitting amid the clutter of furniture moved away from the walls. The tables are stripped of their white tops, waiting for their day to be fixed. Both women wear kerchiefs over their hair and heavy shawls over their shoulders. It’s cold. Bakalech was sweeping, but she has set the broom aside. There’s really no reason for her to hang around. Her day is done. But she seems happy. She pulls the shawl tight around her with her strong hands. Their talk turns back to Francois, and Bakalech giggles like a girl.

Last week, I’m awakened by a knock on my bedroom door. I was deep asleep, so I stumble in confusion to the door. No one is there. I open the window, thinking it might have been the guard outside knocking. No. I return to the door, and there’s Francois standing in the dim hallway, looking grey as a phantom. He’s stooped forward, hands over his middle. He has dark circles under his eyes.

I’m instantly awake, though still stumbling. Francois has contracted the same stomach bug that I had last week. I shove meds at him, but there’s no way he’ll keep anything down. I send Girma for a taxi. I call another taxi. I start dressing and run out to direct him this way and Bakalech that way, all in all behaving like a cartoon husband with a wife in labor.

Eventually we make our groaning way to the hospital, the same facility I visited last week. I leave Bakalech with Francois, pushing my way to the counter. My first objective is to get him the shot of pain killer that marked my own return from hell before.

All goes well. We navigate reception and the doctor’s office. This doctor isn’t moved to knead Francois’ screaming stomach like mine had been. We make it into the nurse’s room, where the blessed injections will be administered – all in half the time it took me.

And this is where I have to leave him. I’m late for a meeting. We’ll leave him on the nurse’s table, pants half down for the injections. They’re wheeling in the IV stand for glucose as I pass a big bag of pharmaceuticals off to Bakalech.

Some four hours later, I arrive back at the house. “How’s Francois?” Bakalech can’t stop giggling. Girma is also laughing. “Where is he?”

“He’s gone,” she says, and laughs uncontrollably. “He had a lunch appointment.” I’m puzzled – as much by her giggles as by Francois’ disappearance. “Heda?” I say, incredulously. “He left? Is he fine?”

According to Bakalech, he’s more than fine. After some breakfast, he has headed off to walk across the valley and all the way to Faransae, where his appointment is.

“He’s Jesus,” I remark, and Bakalech surrenders to another fit of laughter.

It turns out the truth isn’t so miraculous. After an hour of glucose and a nap, Francois felt somewhat human. He dodged the spicy ferfer that Bakalech offered, hiding it in his room. He felt guilty about missing this important lunch date, so he called a taxi and dragged himself out.

The tests at the hospital were inconclusive, except in proving Bakalech’s sterling character. She remained by his side throughout the whole experience, including his unsuccessful attempt to provide a stool sample. Somehow, he found it impossible to deliver with Bakalech standing beside him, prompting him to go ahead. When he had given it up, she reached down to help him up with his pants, but he declined the kind offer.

Bakalech had enough fun, and more, that day. But I’m still not sure what she was giggling about.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Travelogue 151 – August 29
Run-ins and the Runs

My belly is near the sky. They speak to each other in dialects of grief and irritation, grumbling without cease.

The sky is rolling heavy and thundering all afternoon. I’m lying on my back. My stomach answers the clouds. I’m recovering from the first bout of stomach ills this trip, and the worst to date. I was in the doctor’s office the day before yesterday, clenched up in awful pain. Now my belly rumbles in concert with the season, recovering. All afternoon the sky sounds like the seashore, and when it finally rains, it’s just a gentle pattering.

Before all this, it was the parents who were grumbling. They mob me outside the compound one day, querulous and agitated. The last they’ve heard from us, their little graduates were going off to a nice but distant private school. They’re panicked: who will cover transport and the costs of attending a school like that? ‘Please, Mr. Dana, you’ve got to help us,’ says Ephrem’s grandfather.

I have another plan for the kids, but it has to wait for another meeting. On that day, parents and grandparents file in and take seats in the tiny kindergarten chairs. They stand when I enter, and each shakes my hand, bowing over our hands as they do. I take my seat. Yohannes presents our plan to them with all the quiet formality that Ethiopians expect.

The parents want more, but that I don’t have the money. And besides, going further down that road doesn’t feel right to any of us: to me, to my Ethiopian committee, to supporters in Europe. In this case, less is more.

Once we’ve made our case, they hold up their hands to speak. I expect another round of arguments, but they like the plan. I’m so relieved, particularly in the state I’m in that day. Every speech is rich with expressions of happiness and gratitude. Ethiopians are natural orators. I may not understand much of their language, but they are wonderful to watch, speaking with ease and conviction and style. They receive signs of assent from the others, nods and clicks, hmms and hands toward the ceiling. But finally, I can’t sit still any longer. Yohannes notices, and he announces that I’ve got to go. There’s a taxi waiting outside to take me to the hospital. Yes, that’s the day.

It’s also, by sad coincidence, the day we throw a school party for Francois, who returned to Addis Friday for further work on his thesis. He’s only in Addis for a week before heading north to Tigray.

I had to forego most of the party, but this I saw: the children arrive early and immediately begin to play. Almost all come – though school has been out for a few months. I watch them form a circle with Francois and sing the bits of French songs that they remember. Then they sing in English and Amharic. I see them hug and kiss each other spontaneously.

That’s when I’m sure our plan is correct. Less is more. Why break up a community like this or uproot it – a community we were instrumental in forming? School’s out, and parents are acting together in the interests of their children. School’s out, and children are happy to return. Lesson learned.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Travelogue 150 – August 24
Rose Petals and Candy Wrappers

Kids are everywhere. When I walk up my street, there is a corps of the little buggers who call out ‘faranju’ and grab my hand. They insist on walking with me, and it’s often a struggle to get my hand back.

After the luxo, or wake, next door, after the tent is disassembled and almost all the benches are hauled away, there is family left, clots of them laughing and shouting into dozens of mobiles: ‘Huh? Huh? Aysamam? Hello! Hello!’ Mama’s children have been very successful. They block my gate with their SUVs and blandly ignore the locals.

But not the children. They stand on one of the remaining benches and stare at me over the wall, giggling, calling to Jackie, throwing their ball for me to fetch. When eventually I complain to one of the mothers, she giggles like the kids. I cede the yard and go indoors. This is parenting ‘faranji-style’, Saba says. The kids at my school couldn’t be a stronger contrast, with their sweet smiles and shy shows of respect.

Before the end of the luxo, before the relatives of the dearly-departed rev up the party, leading in the ram for slaughter, before all that, the day arrives for our first graduation ceremony. Our first class has completed their two-year course. That was in June, but the school staff have postponed the ceremony until I’m back in town.

It starts early in the morning. Parents are milling around our small playground. The children are in the classroom dressing up. It seems the graduation ceremony will be part variety show – and long. Only in Ethiopia could a kindergarten graduation extend for four hours, parents and friends patiently sitting through it all.

Little Kalkidan recites a poem in Amharic. The kids sing songs together, including ‘Tsegereda is the Place to Be’ in English. We have dramas. Kids get to dress up as mother and father and teacher. In the English drama, one of two brothers wins the DV, Diversity Lottery, and goes to America. The lazy brother left behind receives letters but can’t read them because he never learned to read. ‘Learning is important!’ the children declare.

Now things get silly. We have extended traditional dances in a semblance of costume, four or five major ethnic dances of Ethiopia. The last dance is ‘African’ and the kids dress in hip-hop gear and wag their butts in the air. There’s a beauty contest. Each girl makes her entrance, swaying her hips in a ludicrous manner, mimicking I know not whom among the staff. Etsub wins, though I’m not sure who judged. She dons a paper crown and waves to the crowd. Then some moms who volunteer from the audience are made to run a race across the courtyard with an egg on a spoon in each of their mouths. Yalemzerf’s mom is victor, and receives an onion for her trouble, a joke that has the crowd in stitches. All in all, everyone has fun.

We return to solemnities. Awards are passed to our top three students by Leeza’s mother, Melesech. The kids line up in their black gowns, and diplomas are awarded by yours truly. Someone has donated thirty red roses, and I pass one to each child. Rose is the translation of ‘Tsegereda’, adding to the poignancy of the gesture.

And that’s that, except for a chaotic and tedious round of photos. Family drags child and shoves him or her next to the faranj. I’m sure I look fresh as a daisy in those shots.

Suddenly, they’re all gone. Weary staff files out last with cheery good-byes, and I’m left with the remains of the day. The playground is a mess. The class is a mess, and will remain so for a week or more, until someone comes back to work.

I sit on the steps and watch the clouds gather. The heavy-weights thunder from miles away. Their approach takes a long time. Birds peck among the debris. Neighbors clatter their pots, and fires are lilt. I smell the smoke. The death party next door has subsided for the moment.

The storm arrives with a gust of wind that bends the eucalyptus and speaks with their leaves. A light sprinkle sweeps in first, but it is followed quickly by fat drops cascading down noisily on all our iron roofs. Jackie paces with her ears flattened in fear, looking at me for rescue, but I’ve retreated inside. Rose petals are captured by the rushing stream that crosses our broken concrete. Large foil candy wrappers spin like boats out of control. The air becomes so chilly that I have to close the door. I’m reluctant to let it all go.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Travelogue 149 – August 19
Many Happy Returns

It’s been a rough rainy season for Ethiopia. There have been flash floods in the east and in the west, fatal for hundreds. No deaths in Addis; it’s just been fatally dreary. As Pete says about London, it’s not the rain; it’s the relentless grey skies. Addis doesn’t profit from subdued light and shadow, like Germany or England might, where high and clean lines suggest meditation. Lack of light here just accentuates the seediness, disorder, and decay. It’s a country meant for the distraction of blue skies and dazzling light like laughter.

I’m back – back in the land of beautiful smiles beside disfigurement and despair, back on the streets where everyone sees faranj and nobody likes him. And yet I’m not really back yet. Every day feels like a different arrival. It’s not simple. It’s such an idiosyncratic and largely unpleasant life I resume. First is work: who’s still here? Where exactly has each person dropped the ball? Where and how much did we go overbudget on Dana’s dime? It takes a few days to gather everyone and longer to arrive at answers.

I’m back in Ethiopia, a land with ambitions. It wants to redefine despair. It wants to add new colors to the lower mood register of human experience. I can say it has redefined loneliness for me.

Eman will kill me if she reads this. But it should be clear by now that this is by no means an objective account of anywhere. Need I say that? Haven’t we sidelined that concept for this century? I read the news. Reports from Iraq read like journals of self-discovery from each ‘journalist’. Stories in business, crime, or sports sections aren’t too different. So why fight the zeitgeist, except maybe to turn it on its head and write a journal of self-burial.

To continue: during the day, I’m melancholy with business and with solitude. It’s at night that the anxiety hits, and it hits hard. I’m bestowed with preternaturally acute insight into the desperation of my situation, how far I’ve pushed the limits. I pace and worry and fall into a restless sleep some time before dawn.

One morning, I’m awakened at 6:30 by wailing voices. It’s death, I realize, and I roll over. Recall that my abode is just up the hill from a kind of community center where the occasional luxo, or wake, is staged.

But the keening is insistent, and I can’t turn away. It comes to me by slow degrees that the luxo is next door. I give up on rest. It’s the old man who has died. I learn that his wife, whom we all called Mama, died while I was away.

I never saw much of the old man. It spooks me to realize that I saw him the day before, standing motionless in his gate while I left my house, standing and watching me. He didn’t appear particularly frail, or even that old. He didn’t acknowledge me in any way, but to look at me quizzically. He’s wondering about something.

Today is a sudden reprieve. The clouds retreat and the sun is summer hot. People become dazed – everyone but the revelers. It’s Pentecost, or some such holy day. Apparently the day our twelve tongue-tied heroes of Acts succumbed to the Holy Spirit merits commemoration by bands of singing boys, much in the spirit of our trick-or-treaters. What better occasion for silliness? There’s a traditional song the boys chant together, rapping long sticks against the ground, while one boy improves a humorous rhyme about the person being accosted.

My favorite café this season is also many others’ favorite. I have to sit by the door, which means I become the object of attention for the heavy foot traffic outside. Beggar children try to push in past the doorman. One group he can’t stop. They are fresh in from the country. They sing and grin and dance around him, gathering before my table, waving their staffs and fistfuls of grass. One sets a tuft of grass by my coffee. “It’s a blessing,” my neighbor says. So why is he asking for cash, I wonder. But it’s all so innocent, I can’t help laughing. Neither can the whole café. Eventually, the doorman gets the upper hand. I offer back their grass, but it’s too late. I’m blessed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Travelogue 148 – August 15

It seems weeks ago now, the day Ugo drove me to Fiumicino airport. It’s a gorgeous day in Rome, and I take a last sad turn around the dusty paths of Caffarella Park, where, from a hilltop, you can see St. Peter’s and the towers of God’s white summer clouds above it.

I’m fortunate Ugo is available this afternoon. I have four bags of stuff, fortification for six months in Ethiopia. We coast out of Rome along tree-lined highways vaguely reminiscent of Florida, toward the delta of the Tiber. Ugo says we’ll cross l’Isola Sacra, the one island in the delta, but I don’t notice it. I’m preoccupied by my last blue sky of the European summer.

I’m flying German this time, and Frankfurt is dim and damp. It emerges from grey cloud cover outside my window like it was conjured – almost exactly like Addis Ababa will magically appear a day later, except that it’s night in Addis, and what you see are the strings of winding orange street lights surrounded by black masses of mountains. Frankfurt is grey as the clouds, business-industrial modern.

There are advantages to flying German. Check-in is orderly. I check my bags all the way to Addis. Boarding is a breeze. Used to the cattle call at Ryan Air and squeezing into tight seats, Germany in the air is perfect comfort. I arrive in Frankfurt – never mind that I’m absolutely shattered by two hours of screeching in the seats ahead while papa, in good Italian parenting style, snoozes across the aisle – I arrive in Frankfurt and all is sweet efficiency. No passport control, a quick dash along cavernous, immaculate halls far from debilitating sunshine to the train, which runs frequently and smoothly, carrying no one at that hour who speaks German as a first language, three stops to downtown in fifteen minutes.

The town experience begins in a familiar way, the high arching canopies at the train platform emptying into vast desperate chambers, the long walk to the imposing station entrance, stone muses looming above – woman with sword, woman daydreaming, someone holding the globe – and out to the roar of the anonymous street.

I’ve been fortunate this summer. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this kind of bleak rain, under low and uniform clouds, looking like it will never leave. Station zones are always grim, but this one seems particularly devoid of life or virtue. The few skyscrapers nearby could be abandoned, could have been built without doors.

A block away, I enter a sex district that might go on for miles, and yet it’s as dead as Wall Street at the same time of night. This is where my hotel is, in a courtyard off the street. It’s run by Russians. Only women work here and they’re all as eager as though they’ve just opened. I have to fill in a card, like the old days. The dining room is always empty, but in the morning it’s very well-stocked for a continental breakfast, much beyond the usual tired bread and banana. There’s salami and cheese and muesli and boiled eggs and yogurt and a lady to ask if everything’s all right. I’m cheered.

This long day continues well. The travel is painless. The rush hour crowd is all German, muttering and looking at nothing, drinking their coffee and brushing their lapels furiously. Everyone is silent. I’m still finding locations German a little creepy.

The crowd on the plane is sparse and sane. I have my comfortable seat and the one next to me. I watch movies until my eyes hurt. They feed us constantly. I’m happy.

At some point, a mist gathers over the Sahara. I’ve been watching the wandering track of the Nile. The sun is hanging low and red, redder as we descend into the clouds and haze. Khartoum starts as small and isolated walled compounds in the desert. They proliferate and begin to cluster, particularly along the river. The city never loses this clay-figurine quality, at least from the air, even as the walls and buildings grow, and the minarets and their crescents multiply. In the final approach, we pass over the Blue Nile, within clear sight of where it breaks away from the White. On the ground, we roll by installations of anti-aircraft artillery. We park several hundred meters from the terminal. A tractor approaches, towing luggage carts.

It’s night by the time we reach Addis. The cloud banks are thick. We break through suddenly, just as I’m brooding on the darkness outside, thinking of nothing concrete. The lights of the city emerge and crystallize, orange and white, and the now-familiar sensation arises in my heart: what am I doing here?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Travelogue 147 -- August 6
Roma Capoccia

I've made my first sighting of Orion this year. By this year I don't mean the calendar year, which I've never really identified with, anyway. Maybe I've been in schools too long. Maybe it's the sad hippie in me that marks the tides of time by the waning of the sun. But I respond to years that open and close some time around the summer solstice, as opposed to the winter one.

I've made my first sighting of Orion this year. He was rising over the shoulder of one of the Appenines. 'Una collina,' my hostess Valentina would have corrected me -- a foothill -- though they look like mountains to me. Orion is not many steps ahead of the sun. Dawn is quickening blue behind him, through him.

We're getting into Guido's car for the ride back into Rome. The night at Maurizio's and Valentina's began late. It must be nearly 11:00 by the time we arrive, bounding down the dirt road to the gate in Guido's too-cute-to-be-a-jeep 4X4. We're met by Dago, (pronounce in Latin style, please, so the slur is based on species rather than nationality,) the cuddly husky.

It's not too late for dinner in the backyard. It's all meat -- pork and bacon and beef off the grill -- and many bottles of wine. Guido wants beer, and Francesco takes exception. Valentina takes exception to my nationality -- there's one in every European crowd -- but I'm quickly forgiven. I try to soothe with clumsy Italian. They don't accept that, and the group talks to me in clownish pigeon English most of the night, entertaining each other immoderately. We're a few colline from Castel Madama, and the central tower is lit.

The next part of the program, as night deepens into early morning, as we drift inside among loud chatter, is Italian karaoke, believe it or not. Maurizio has a bounty of sound and computer and video equipment for his work, and he diverts it toward this insidious purpose when he can lure friends up from town. It's an entertaining couple of hours. No one is shy, either to dance or to belt out punishing versions of Italian standards -- none of which I recognize -- in nostalgic homage to a set of aging crooners whom I imagine to look all same. And none of the women, some of them holding credentials as fierce intellectuals, objects to singing along to tunes like 'Dieci Ragazze Per Me' -- 'Ten Girls for Me'. Meanwhile I get to read along with the lyrics projected on one wall. It's a good tutorial.

In a disorderly way, the party slows down. Guests leave, and the remainder settle into couches and armchairs for one of those long and strangely elegant investigations into the character of a departed friend that I remember from the last party I attended in spring. Yawns overwhelm us and it's over.

Orion and the sun are rising, and we roll down the highway into Rome. Guido is in no hurry. We stop at a rest stop for sustenance. Even at a rest stop at 5am, there is a little bar for Italian travelers to crowd toward for the quick cappuccino and cornetto. In much less dispassionate language than the earlier character-discussion, we discuss the beauty of tall, voluptuous Lorenza with the black Sicilian eyes. She's a belly-dancer. Guido is already heart-broken. Umberto is impassive. His bloodshot eyes are rolling with fatigue.

We bump along miles of Roman streets, by identical buildings that I'm calling banlieux to Guido's mystification, until we emerge at my particular character-less piazza. I'm staying in Colli Albani, a neighborhood that has the virtue of being closer to downtown than my digs this spring, and very close to the Metro. This time, I'm staying with Ugo, who is toying with the idea of turning his spare bedroom of his flat into a bed and breakfast without the breakfast. It works for me.

I like being close to the real Roma, beyond the tourist pathways, where I can collect the local scorn unadulterated. The way of the people here is too fun to watch, so unique -- an alloy of swagger and perennial irritability. Though even the most elaborate displays of grumpiness convey enjoyment in life.

Another benefit to this location is our proximity to Caffarella Park, an expanse of gentle hills between the Vias Appia Nuova and Antica. I walk into the park in the morning, when the sky is clearest, and I fortify myself with sun on my back for the return to Ethiopia during its rainy season. Actually, I hobble rather than walk into the park, since I seem to have done in my foot while I was in London. It's frustrating, and a lesson in the value of mobility.

I force myself slowly down the park's paths. I can't report on much because I don't get too far. There is Little Vienna as you enter, where owners of big dogs gather to share their fetish, and where middle-aged guys with appalling tans flex in their Speedos. Somehow none of this is quite as disturbing as it could be because it's all carried off with an implied Italian shrug.

Go further, following the road into the trees, despite the creeps that Little Vienna has engendered, and you eventually come to an old palazzo turned into a farmstead, an island of private life inside the park. There's something very charming about the sight, something that seems lost in time: great and crumbling and still a shadow of salmon coloring. A cottage is built atop one of its heights. Chicken coops and animal pens are attached to one side. At the bottom of a staircase from chambers above, two forlorn chairs sit. One can imagine generations of old men’s gossip and cigarettes. A young man is slinging dung in a field. Further on, an old one slowly picks blackberries in the sun.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Travelogue 146 -- July 27
Africa Approaches

The language on the screen is Somali. I recognize it; I'm helped along by the obvious Somali features of the man behind the counter. Many of the internet places I've visited in North London are Somali-run. He's happy I identify his mother tongue. The website is news and the feature photo shows Islamic militants, appropriately rageful.

"I hear the Ethiopians have invaded." Yes, he affirms with a meek smile, favoring African hospitality over instinctive indignation. "How are things back home?" I ask. He shakes his head ambiguously. He tells me about the warlords and clans, and how Mogadishu has been closed for so long. Now it's open.

"You like them," I say, pointing to the photo on the computer screen, referring to the Islamists who are gaining control over a large section of Somalia. Yes. I swallow my aversion to religious fundamentalism. "They help people," I say. "They unify." He eagerly agrees, relieved that I give it words, because he didn't want to offend. I nod. Why wouldn't he like them? Lately, I feel like a Roman in the last days before Constantine, bemused by the appeal of Christianity. Fundamentalists work for allegiance, and they're getting it, everywhere.

"God bless you," Meseret gushes, for no real reason. She owns an Ethiopian deli in Camden Town, London. I shocked her the first time we met with a few words in Amharic. Now she knows about Tesfa. She translates a call to Saba. She calls Saba yeni konjo, my dear or my pretty. She's my age or less, but she's thoroughly maternal. "God bless you," she says with feeling. Her own mother, a sweet old woman at the counter, says, "Don't speak in English. He knows Amharic." She insists that I come to her house when she's back home.

Meseret has a friend named Paul, a Brit of Jewish heritage, who is married to a Jamaican. He's a carpenter. He has built cabinets for the likes of Bono. He wants to move to Ethiopia. North London is full of Ethiopians, and it seems like Paul knows them all. Certainly he knows every Ethiopian shop-owner on Caledonian Road and in Camden. Somehow, the Ethiopes are more human for him than his compatriots. They are warm and hospitable and earthy. When I introduce him to some of the difficulties he may encounter on the ground, he pauses and comments, "Ah, but it's the same sort of song and dance everywhere, isn't it?" Well ...

I walk home from lunch with Paul. It's not far, but I'm soaked with sweat and exhausted. The press has had a field day with this heat. It is intense. For days, I can do little but sleep. Outside, the atmosphere is oppressive. Maybe it's the pollution. Last week in Nantes, it was hotter, but I was energized. I craved to be outside. The sky was clear and enchanting. The evening at Yves' house stands out.

I know Yves from his trip to Ethiopia in the spring. He stopped by the school several times with Francois. He's a doctor in Nantes. He's from Martinique. His sister and her husband and children are visiting from the Caribbean. Francois and I are led into the backyard, where we sit with all of them under a flawless summer sky for four hours, blue deepening into glorious dusk and night. Yves' boy and his cousin are fascinated by the planes taking off into that kind sky from the nearby airport. The youngest cousin is more taken with the stones in the garden. She earnestly pours them onto a small patio table.

I'm relatively indifferent to culinary pleasures -- a flaw in character that I have to confess with some shame. But that evening is memorable for the feast. It happens that Yves' wife is a remarkable chef -- a reputation with some distinction in France, I would guess. She refuses to cook professionally, on principle, and also, oddly enough, to eat with her guests. She sits and chats; she just doesn't believe in partaking of the food she has prepared for others.

Sadly, cretin that I am in matters of the palate, I can't describe the meal, other than to say it consisted of cuisine from the African island of Reunion, the birthplace of Yves' wife. On it comes, course after slow course, accompanied by a sweet rum from Martinique, mixed with preserves made by Yves' mother: beautiful. The conversation rolls on effortlessly and pleasantly, and I'm having one of those episodes where the dark glass of a foreign language is not so opaque after all. There's a tinge of the religious to this phenomenon, a 'hearing in tongues'. By midnight, I'm bathing in a warm spring of contentment, and it's a real effort to stand and leave with Francois, to get in the car and head for that bridge across the Loire that stands so bizarrely high, like a new Babel's assault on the skies.

I'm walking back to Pete's place the long way around, via King's Cross. I'm not sure precisely where I am. I pass speakers of Arabic, of Italian. I pass the Filipino Center. I'm a few paces behind two Somali women in full gear, red and pink. I stop in a spacious pub that smells of dog hair and urine. The perpetrator of the first odor is romping across the flowery carpet after a ball kicked by the old man with a bulbous nose. His smile says jolly lifetime drunkard. In the next room, a few men watch the horse races on TV. An Irish songster blisters our ears from the jukebox.

I've been strolling every night around the streets of North London, connecting lots of names that have floated freely in my mind before. I'm working to escape a haunting. It's not her. It's the horror of what happened: her pain and her terror. It comes sometimes, whether my eyes are open or shut. I run from it; it blinds me. I find myself on strange streets. There's no help for it.

Africa's coming. it's everywhere around me, like the first chill heralding a storm. So be it.

Please, all our love to Carolyn and her family, who have been visited by tragedy. We're in it together.