Friday, February 24, 2006

Travelogue 125 – February 24
Things in My Hair

The night before my mid-term exam, I wake up and a huge beetle is tangled in my hair. I pick it out and hurl it across the room. An hour later, he’s chewing on my arm. I have to smash him, though it’s a pity because he’s an interesting looking creature. I can’t get back to sleep after that.

I’m early to class, so I go next door, as I often do, to the Samen hotel. I sit in the lobby and read, and have some mineral water. There’s always a curious collection of people in the lobby bar, dazed couples staring at the TV, bubble gum-popping prostitutes, well-dressed pairs self-consciously perusing the Watchtower and glancing around to see who is falling for the bait.

I study for about ten minutes before I give in to the Elmore Leonard in my backpack. I either know the material or I don’t, I tell myself, decades of life after school sliding away.

The Americans arrive. There’s little missing them. They enter to proud trumpets. They saunter into the lobby bar and spread across the room, one stationed in front of the TV, one at the bar, one stays in the next room by the registration desk, several take seats at different tables. They carry on their conversations right across the intervening space, as if there were no one else there.

Ethiopians are generally quiet and mild-mannered. They politely watch and listen to the Americans. The men are overweight. All are ageing but the one carrying the laptop, a swarthy man with a thick black beard and a ponytail. The women have sour, puffy faces and sit as though their vertebrae might spill.

There’s no tuning the conversation out. They’ve been out all day on some charitable expedition, somewhere down a long, rough road. They’re proud of their sweat and tired muscles. They grin like cowboys come in off the range.

The sad thing is, they’re nice. Their smiles are kind. Their dialogues are innocent. They bear none of the contempt or malice I’ve seen in German tourists treading on Eastern European or Turkish soil. If these Americans are offensive, it’s entirely their obliviousness. They really don’t seem to see anyone else in the room. They’ve strolled into a friend’s lodge after gathering some award-winning antlers, and now’s the time for friendly boasting. Very strange. I wonder about this American capacity to inhabit happy, hermetic worlds anywhere they go.

I can’t delay my own brave destiny. I leave the hotel and go next door, to the Italian Cultural Center. It’s exam time in the second level language course.

Some time just after New Year’s I signed up for this evening class. I’m the only white guy, and I quickly established myself as the nerd of the class. It was inevitable, since the instructors made a lot of my having studied in Perugia, and since I’m the only foreigner in the room besides the teacher, who likes to wink at me and sit next to me while someone is at the blackboard.

Carla, our teacher, is from Torino. She’s a tiny redhead with lively eyes, clearly the bellissima in her day. She has a smoker’s voice and a tint of grappa on her breath. She sends kisses to anyone who answers well, and she likes to cradle boys’ heads against her breast. The modest Ethiopes are overwhelmed by her. But she’s a good teacher. She’s been here for twenty years, and has traveled far and wide. She tells me about Central America as though we have something to share. None of the Europeans I’ve met here, by the way, has ever been to the US. It’s a point of pride.

The students are very nice. I’m reminded of my teaching days in Ethiopia last year. The men are professionals, shy, but eager to try. The women, all but the wife who comes with her husband, are painfully desirable. Their trips to the blackboard are entrancing. Everyone is cooperative, and everyone has a good time. And yet none of us makes too much progress.

It’s that way with these projects – attendance problems, long days, lack of time for homework. It’s all for fun, and Carla knows that, though she may huff at us. She winks and all is forgiven until exam time. Della, dalla, alla –the Italians take the field with their temperamental prepositions. Thinking I passed, though without impressing Carla, I rush home to the solace of my many-legged family.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Travelogue 124 – February 19
Sickness Unto Death

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We’re chugging forward, uphill in the taxi, almost home. There’s a loud screech of brakes in the road and exclamations from fellow passengers. I turn in time to catch sight of a car shimmying to a halt on the other side of the road, bouncing against the curb. The car is flying a banner across its hood. It’s a scarf or a shawl. A man leaps out of the car and runs back. There’s someone in the road. Our taxi slows to a stop. There’s an old woman lying in the road. She’s motionless and sprawled in an awkward way. The driver runs up, slowing to an unsteady walk. His face is twisted in vivid grief. People are running up from all sides. No one touches the old woman. Her face is very quiet.

I’m wrestling, like everyone in the taxi, with what to do. I have an impulse to jump out. I’m used to having faranji power. I have money; I have authority. But now, I can’t come up with any thing I can do. There is a crowd circled around the scene already. The taxi starts moving again, uncertainly, then gathering speed. Passengers are chattering wildly, but I can’t make any of it out. I don’t know how it happened. I find myself unable to ask, though I’m sure someone here speaks enough English.

We’re quickly at my stop, the end of the taxi line. Everyone gets out, me last. As I’m stepping away from the taxi, a shoeshine boy passes, walking in the street, wailing bitterly. This can’t be related to the old woman, but the sound of his weeping oppresses me, like a heavy blanket on my shoulders, like darkness before my eyes. I see the old woman. I’ll never know if she died there on the road while I scanned the street, trying to decipher the commotion. I’m walking downhill, away from the tarmac, and my heart is very sore. I’m feeling sick.

His face is so malevolent, it evokes the same churning in my stomach, like the body wants to purge itself of a lifetime in this world.

That a human being could soak in that much malice day after day, his spirit suspended in so much alkaline hatred, evokes profound wonder in me. I stare into his burning eyes. This is where you find evil, in the most mundane of places, where the power indulged in is the most trivial.

I’m back in the pea green halls of Immigration, taking my monthly turn through the revolving door of my visa issue. I’ve prepared myself for days: I will smile. I will breathe deeply.

I smile to the guard of the inner sanctum, a grim specter who glares at all the unfortunates huddled in the outer hall on miserable benches. I breathe deeply at the desk of the first minion, a lady with an evil gleam in her eye. She grins as she misreads everything in the worst light, and then she spots the real sin. She looks up at me and licks her lips.

My stamina is weakening by the time I make it to the dark angel of the building, the one who won’t look at you. His face is drawn in ash. It droops with years of disappointment. His clothes are rumpled. He doesn’t bother leaving this airtight room anymore. I’m not allowed to finish a question. He names my transgression with all his soiled indignation. He says I have ten days to leave the country. I begin another question, and he abruptly refers me to another building, where a superior awaits – someone in whom the final spark of life was smothered long ago.

No one is waiting to see him. He has a full secretarial staff with perfected sneers. They wave me in with disgust. He sits at a two-ton desk and chats on the phone. He has a companion who sits in front of the desk, with shades and a Hollywood smile.

While the owner of his soul is occupied, the little apprentice wants to know all about me. I resist, but this far inside the Inferno, my strength is sapped. I mention I help children. This enrages the corpse behind the desk, who hangs up and seizes my papers. “This is a tourist visa. Why are you helping Ethiopians?” He thrashes the paperwork around. His teeth are bared.

He stares. I can find no answer; the illogic of his rage is unassailable. He threatens court. He demands it. He scribbles furiously on my papers. He tosses them back and grips the edge of the desk, poised for something, like a cobra upright and swaying. The eyes gleam. I’m fascinated, and slow to understand that I’m dismissed.

It only occurs to me later that the absurdity may have been a signal for a bribe. I recall that the little companion demon is shaking his head with a wry smile as I leave.

I don’t continue on into the next circle of Hell like I’m supposed to. I leave the complex. I stand a while at the head of the imperial stairs leading up to the gateway into Immigration, waiting for Saba to return for me. Above, the sky is blue as innocence. Below, the beggars are swarming for me. “Why are you helping Ethiopians?” he asks.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Travelogue 123 – February 14

Note: devoted readers, the blogspot server is becoming increasingly difficult for me to access from here. I don’t know why. There may be delays in getting blog entries uploaded. Please be patient, and always check to see if I’ve been forced to load two entries at once.

Welcome to Valentine’s Day, the Western calendar’s celebration of self-consciousness. I’m not immune to it here, though it’s a forgettable day for most Ethiopians – especially those without money.

I decide I should make the rounds, delivering chocolate. It’s such a nice gift. Chocolate is beyond the budget of many people. You can only find it in a few select groceries, and in those places they know my face.

Yes, I’ve allowed myself to be cornered by a few more girlfriends. It’s a pleasant enough corner. My girlfriends are pretty and sweet, and they don’t seem to expect much. There are the knowing smiles and flirty eyes, the minutes of stilted chit-chat in bad Amharic, the occasional phone calls saying nothing. They get to daydream about life in America, lots of dollars and cars and a big house. By some coincidence, all my girlfriends have applications in for the Diversity Lottery for a US visa.

One of them took a step out of the proscribed dance of our ‘relationship’ to invite me to a play! I was touched. It’s the first time one of them thought about what I might enjoy.

We go on a Sunday afternoon. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a corner of the old world, something Shakespeare would recognize. The theater is popular. It’s a Sunday afternoon and people, young and old, are lining up in the lobby of this imperial-era theater, which is located in the back of the city hall. It’s one of the major theaters in the city, and well worth a visit for a look at the vintage 60s lobby – high square columns tiled colorfully, black shiny floors, wood fluting up the side walls, cushioned benches built-in underneath art deco flares in the partition walls. The broad windows frame the traffic circle outside with its statue of the emperor Menelik in an attractive almost unfamiliar way.

What can I say about the play itself? I understood very little of the language. But what my friend didn’t whisper to me, I picked up fairly easily: a group of high-school classmates reunites in an Addis Ababa hotel. The stiff guy in the wheelchair went to America and made a fortune, but he was in a car accident recently. He wants to bequeath a bunch of money to one of his friends. Everyone begins scheming. Murder plans are bred.

It’s an old-style melodrama with heightened language and long speeches. There are bits of music piped in with the softened lights, something Celtic sounding, something that sounds like the beginning of “Desperado”. But there’s a good portion of humor written in, and the acting is very enjoyable. Apparently, everyone but the hotel waiters is a famous actor.

Almost four hours we sit there, until the bad guy is finally led away by the police. The good guy, by the way, is a painter and doesn’t want the old man’s money. I like that touch, although he is prone to tedious expositions of his angst. Almost four hours we sit there, without an intermission. And everyone is with the production to the end. Maybe that’s what most reminds me of another era.

Outside, the sun is about to set. We push into a crowded cafe to wait for my regular taxi guy to show up. Everyone watches us. We don’t have much to say; we’re never alone with each other. Our audience is impatient, staring in that baleful African way. I clarify: so what happened to everyone else in the plot? Only the one guy gets hauled off to jail. Oh, they were all pretending. I see. We’re quiet. How’s your mom? She’s fine. All rightie. Well, the taxi’s here. Curtain.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Travelogue 122 – February 7

It seems I have a better nose for trouble than the locals. It’s no fine science. They just have a reflex for denying it.

It’s almost midnight. We turn onto Saba’s street. Everyone is looking the same way, toward us, past us, as we weave among them in our taxi. Two policemen with big sticks march by with grim countenance. “Chigir,” I say. “Trouble.” No, no, everyone in the car answers. “Sakaram. Drunks.”

Granted, Saba’s neighbourhood, Piassa, is always a bit of mayhem at night. There are as many bars per square meter as Wisconsin, but the vibe is less mullet and more cheap gold, stilettos, and smudged mascara. It has the aura of tired, boozy thrills. There are lots of cheap hotels with young faranjis, who are surrounded by slick new Abasha friends.

No, no trouble, they say as they pile out of the taxi. They think I’m a worrier. It doesn’t matter that most of the times I’ve predicted trouble, I’ve been right. It’s just the fact that I’m concerned about it.

I’ve been out with the family: Saba, her mother, and her brother, Dalul. It may be the first time we’ve all been outside of their house together. And what united us in this venture? Football! It’s the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup. Saba and Dalul are big fans. Their mother doesn’t much care, but she tags along cheerfully enough. I’ve invited the family to the Ghion Hotel, where the game is projected onto a big screen.

This match is between Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, two powerhouses – the former a World Cup veteran, the latter a World Cup qualifier this year. Saba roots for Cameroon, Dalul for Ivory Coast.

Brother and sister aren’t talking. For reasons I don’t completely understand, Dalul has dropped out of school. It has something to do with a fight he got into. He has some rough friends to match his homemade tattoos. He himself is a lanky, shy boy with a sweet smile. He sits with his mother during the game, and the two of them talk the whole time. I’m happy. I know he’s caused her a lot of grief lately.

I decide in the first minutes of the game that I’m an Ivory Coast fan because Drogba from Chelsea is on the team, abandoning Saba. The TV screen is huge. I start a stream of treats coming for everyone. The only trouble with the plan: the screen is outdoors, in a broad patio area by the hotel pool, and it’s getting chilly. No, no, Saba’s mother protests, no problem. She has her gabi wrapped tightly around her.

The game is a match of defense. No one scores. The moon climbs high into the sky. Groups of beer-drinkers get loud. We shiver as the game goes into extra time. Both teams immediately score, one after the other, in the first five minutes. The tie endures. No, no, Saba’s mother protests, no problem.

Extra time expires; they launch into penalty kicks – twelve rounds of them! Men are pacing the patio area like men outside a delivery room. Eto’o, Cameroon’s golden boy, is the one who finally blows it, on his second penalty kick, sending the ball sailing over the net. Drogba follows up with a cool, straight score. Done.

We stand, all a bit stiff and dazed. The family is smiling, grateful. I’m exhausted. Soon, we’re passing through the stream of anxious faces in Piassa. As the taxi makes it way out of the neighbourhood, people are all looking toward some epicenter, drifting toward it with chins raised.

The taxi driver gets a call on his mobile. It was a bomb. That’s all he can communicate to me in his staccato Amharic.

Saba fills me in the next day. There’s a blast a block away from her house, at a utility building. Later, I’m asking a friend who’s behind it. Nobody knows. “Oromo?” I ask. The liberation movement? No, my friend assures me. They aren’t smart enough. Okay.

Well, the organizers wouldn’t pass any terrorist’s competency exam, anyway. The same bomb in rush hour might have killed dozens. As it is, when I pass the offended building the next day, there are only broken windows. Not even a police cordon to dignify the bomber’s work.