Monday, January 30, 2006

Travelogue 121 – January 30
Horse Days

I’m sleepy. I daydream. Some days I might be back in Covina, the suburb outside LA where I grew up. I could be sitting in the tall grasses on the hillside above a neighbor’s corral, throwing clumps of it down to the ponies.

It could be summer. Sometimes I wake from a daydream, and Jackie is watching me with peppy eyes, tongue lolling. I’m standing. I’m twitching my legs like a horse does to shake the flies.

We’ve turned a corner among seasons in Ethiopia. A week or so ago, the clouds that had gathered day by day, like old men poolside, finally let loose with a night of rain, and that was that. Now we’re into the lazy brown-grass weeks – Phase Two of the Ethiopian year. The brilliant skies become hazy. The evenings become warm. Clouds drift like mountain sky lily pads, softening the glare of the haze. And the flies appear, proliferating suddenly, dodging around your eyes and lighting on any open skin. You develop horse reflexes. I remember this cycle from the last few years, January to April.

Soon enough, I’ll start the manic travel again – in another month and a half. Some time in March, jarvis hits the road again in earnest, and will be moving for a good three or four months. Readers are encouraged to stay tuned, as there are sure to be plenty of misadventures.

Saba and I will be poking around the Ethiopian countryside, scouting for school locations. Soon afterward, I have to leave the country, having impaled myself on yet another internet airline ticket deal. I have an Addis-London leg I have to redeem before it spoils in cyberspace.

In the meantime, I’m happy in my idylls, my afternoon spells on the front step, days during which I alternate the haze of my laptop screen for the haze of the world. Inside, my life is the chikachik of planning documents. Outside, it’s the ring of Jackie’s chain against the pole of the swing-set, the whistling cry of hawks, the rustle of eucalyptus leaves, the warmth of blurry sunshine on my back, the itch and whine of flies.

I look up at the flag that my staff forgot to lower from its height. It registers on me that we’re probably committing some unforgivable treason in flying this flag. Every regime has had its own variation on the famous tri-color scheme of the Ethiopian flag. Haile Selassie’s featured an imperial lion in the middle. The current regime features a five-pointed star, vaguely sinister, the origin of which no one seems to fathom. The Communist regime in between flew the colors unadorned. This is the flag we have hoisted. The taxi drivers would approve: so many of them paste portraits of Mengistu, the tyrant of those good old days, onto their dashboards.

Smoke pours over the wall. The neighbors are cooking or burning trash again. Jackie circles anxiously, looking at the cloud descending into our courtyard, her ears cocked. It drifts toward me, blue and aromatic. This menace to my lungs used to bother me. Now I shrug it off. It’s a change from the smell of rotting meat that wafts over the other wall, where those neighbors keep their dogs. These monsters bay constantly, and when they move, their chains rattle like an angry man looking through his tool chest.

On top of a wooden pole for electrical wires that looks like the leg of a fallen dock, two doves preen each other. Nearby, a tiny yellow weaver assiduously pulls a long bit of fiber out of the leaf of a false banana tree. I notice now the long leave is broken into many small segments, torn apart by the little nesters.

And so on: life primps and sighs and rages around me, and I’m free to shrug it off. I’m greedy for my idylls. In one idyll, I dream of the next. In the next, I’m nostalgic for the last. I ponder the history of idleness, and I regret that in my many years of practice I haven’t realized my dream of the perfect indolence. I believe it’s out there. I think Plato had a nightmare about it. It was Jung’s shadow. It was a mote inside a glint of grief for Nietzsche. He spied it in the eye of that horse. I can wait, searching the skies like a good, quiet hunter. Minnesota had big skies, too.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Travelogue 120 – January 21
Ol’ Blue Eyes

Thursday nights at the Alliance Francaise are an occasionally regular affair: Azmari Night. Something of a misnomer, really. Azmari is the traditional art form in which a raffish gentleman with a masinko slung over his shoulder strolls around the stage, or among the audience, improvising insulting tunes about his audience or other musicians – ancient rap. The masinko, by the way, is a very cool instrument, kind of a one-string cello that looks like a square, goat-skin banjo, held vertically and played with a bow. It is surprisingly versatile and is capable of some very interesting noises, sometimes sounding like a Beatles backward loop.

The Alliance version of Azmari is designed for faranji: it’s just the standard, cleaned-up tourist act, with a band made up of traditional instruments and with dancers who perform cultural dances from a variety of regions in Ethiopia. It’s worth the twenty birr, since the performers are very good.

Stop by, if you can find a taxi driver who knows the way, or if you can direct him yourself. It’s in Piassa, near Catedral, tell him. First, you’ll have to talk him down to half his original price. He’ll cite the price of benzene per liter. Ignore that, make some jokes, strike dramatic poses. Once you’ve agreed, allow him take off in the wrong direction. That’s all right. His price remains the same, and the program will start late anyway. Eventually, you’ll convince him to turn around.

You’ll wend your way west again, into the last crimson light of the day, back to Churchill Road, the broad scenic avenue that runs a kilometre or two downhill from City Hall and then back uphill to the old train station, gathering a fine sample of Haile Selassie-era buildings along the way. You’ll cross, passing the stark and sooty Italian cathedral – no grand duomo, should you miss it in the gloaming. You’ll swing around a traffic circle, head toward Mercato, and just where you would least expect anything but hovels of corrugated iron, turn left down the narrow dirt alleyway. Pay the driver at the gate of the Alliance.

Step inside and experience cross-dimensional travel – from the dirt and cacophony outside into the European courtyard with meticulously tended gardens, spacious and peaceful. People play elegant. The central building consists of three long and narrow rooms in a row. One is a café – a beautiful spot to enjoy haughty French negligence from the Abasha wait staff – and the other two are commonly used as galleries for local artists. The middle one is made up for Azmari Night.

The room is decked out nicely in traditional Ethiopian style. We sit at a round table on traditional wooden stools hollowed out in the seat, designed by village elders so that your back will ache in an hour. It encourages quick decision-making or standing up to dance.

We get our chances to dance. The professional dancer works the crowd, stopping by every table. She is dressed to the hilt in traditional attire. She knows every style in Ethiopia. There’s the chicken step. There’s the chicken drinking water. There’s the pecking in the dirt. Someone will stand up at every table and start the shoulders going. The pro will raise her arms, draped in white cotton scarves, in a final rooster’s challenge.

Tonight is a special occasion. A superstar is present. You feel him enter the room. Or you unconsciously pick up on the flush of glimpses. He sits at a table across the performance area from you, with his retinue. There is some magic to celebrity. You’re sure of it now. It isn’t even your culture, and you can feel it. He’s been a star of Ethiopian pop culture for more than forty years.

It so happens that one of this man’s sons has been a friend of mine since my first visit to Ethiopia. I’ve never met the iconic father, but I’ve been familiar with him and his story.

Tonight’s lead singer, a minor star in her own right, finally convinces the bigger star to stand and sing. He is charismatic. He’s tall; his hair is white, but his face is clear and young. He has that perfectly longing, playful glance – something between melancholy and mischief – that makes for a great crooner’s visage. And he can sing.

I’m not big on the singing style here, sentimental and punctuated by showy Arab gargling, but this guy has a powerful voice and he connects with the audience. It’s a night with Sinatra. The women are entranced. The audience murmurs in waves of assent and appreciation.

And in an instant, I find out I’m behind in my gossip about the old man, when he summons his third wife from the group at his table. She sways with him as he sings – a classic tune of his, the title of which translates into “Memories” – her head on his shoulder. With her in his arms, he brings the Azmari to Azmari Night, improvising lyrics while his admirers sigh and laugh and applaud.

What’s more, he pulls it off. This much schmaltz in a lesser man, and he would have been thrown to the hyenas. A tip of the Tin-Pan derby to the old stalwart.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Travelogue 119 – January 16
Old Man and the Soil

The old man sleeps in a box made of corrugated iron, slightly larger than a coffin. In the morning, he emerges and rolls the box away, out of sight. It’s not long afterward that I arrive. He’s cleaning at an outdoor faucet. He is still wearing his pink towel turban.

The old man has a classic face, marked by deep lines, but sharply defined, with a strong chin and cheekbones. He has large, round eyes that are nearly menacing. He is tall, and though he moves slowly, it isn’t for lack of power in his limbs. He looks like he’s former military, which many of these city guards are.

The old man is guard at the café where I start my day. My guard at home is asleep when I get going. I’m sure he wouldn’t stir if I threw rocks at his door. The lanes outside my gate are uncrowded. The trees on the hillsides are throwing their shadows toward America. Clouds are catching the sun’s first red light. Yes, we’ve getting some clouds lately. Still no rain. I can think of one time it’s rained since October.

The taxi boys are playing around at the top of the hill. One says something silly to me and salutes. Silly comments in Africa are like pebbles on the mountainside; they roll a ways and stop, and you walk on. I’m listening instead to the alluring calls of the morning birds.

Down the hill, it’s the lions I’m listening to. Some mornings they roar as I stroll by the lion’s zoo. It’s a thrilling sound. It echoes like it’s from miles away. The sun is up. Its rays pour through the limbs of the trees. Shoeshine boys run by. They stoop by a clogged street drain to fill their little plastic containers with brown water for the morning’s work.

My morning ritual is a science. I sit at the second table in the farthest row, next to the narrow garden under the hedge. In a matter of minutes, the sun will crest the café wall behind me and warm my back. Without need of consulting me, the waiter appears with cake and coffee.

Like any ritualist, I’m disconcerted by a change in routine. Today, the old man strolls up and slides past me into the garden. He begins digging with a hand hoe, turning the soil over. I’m distracted. I sit in front of my blank notebook page and watch. His motions are soothing. They are sure and measured.

At some point he turns his head slightly and gives me a sly look. He says something I don’t understand. He says, “Africa,” with more volume. He stands with a clod of rich earth in his hand. “Africa,” he says. His voice is husky. It matches his rough hands. I think he’s rhapsodizing about home, about the fertile soil, about the men of the earth – a one-word pastoral ode to his beloved land. I nod with what I hope is a sentimental glint in my eye.

He continues. He speaks haltingly but loudly, as though I’m deaf as well as handicapped in his language. I catch a few words: “sleep,” “work.” He simplifies. “Africa sleeps.” He piles a few clods on the concrete base of the flagpole – the tall flagpole that never flies any banner – and he says, “Europa.” He carefully pushes this pile of earth together, compacts it on the concrete. “Europe works.” I wonder how the pile illustrates his point. “Europa like this. Work. Africa sleeps.” He shrugs with sad irony, and he drops the soil in his hand into the garden. I nod again with a different sentiment. He slides an eye toward me with that first sly look. He bends back to his work.

I think of the vision I had one day, months ago, as I walk to the café, looking up into the violet dawn air. Banks of flowers catch my eye up the hill by the university, by St. Markos Church. At that moment, an angel reveals the future of Addis Ababa to me. Maybe it was St. Mark himself, maybe it was the angel of hunger and coffee, but the vision was vivid: Addis Ababa in fifty years or more, when Africa is past its wars and famines, when Africa has banded together economically and discovered its strength. The city is all flowers, living up to its name, home to a powerful middle class from all over the continent, expensive and attractive as an African San Francisco or Denver, peaceful and hip as the gentleness of the land would order if it were given a chance. That was the vision of Mark, and maybe of the eagle-eyed old man.

Anyway, this isn’t what I wanted to write about. I was going to write about Frank Sinatra.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Travelogue 118 – January 9
Holiday Blur

The holiday season churns on without respite. After the faranji holidays come Ethiopian Christmas on the 7th. Tomorrow is Eid-al-Adha. A week later is Temket, or Epiphany, which is as big as Christmas in this country.

Where do I turn? In the US, there are many thousands of sympathetic solitaries who hate holidays, many with more fervor than myself. Here, the concept gets blank stares. “Gana alwedim,” I say. I don’t like Christmas. I haven’t received a reply yet. It simply doesn’t register – (a technique to file away for cutting through the prolific African chatter.)

Santa gets his revenge. This year, his curse is a plague of gundan. They climb up the wall in a long line, and they spoil all the food I have for the long weekend. So I eat a lot of peanut butter for Ethiopian Christmas and the day after Ethiopian Christmas. I’m reminded of the Christmas in Minnesota some years back when the heat in my apartment building went out. Landlords, other tenants, friends are all out of town and there’s nowhere to go but to a movie for a few hours to warm up. I’m not fond of holidays.

Santa shows up at the school to taunt me with a rollicking dance. It’s our Christmas party. The kids are all there in their paper crowns, sitting politely at the tables set outside, a candle lit in front of each of them. Half of them have come in their holiday whites, most of the girls in their pretty white cotton dresses. Tiny Kalkidan sits at the head of the table because it’s her birthday.

Santa knocks at the gate. He strolls in with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” He has a thick sheet of cotton taped to his face. He’s wearing shorts and sandals under his Santa coat, and he has hairy legs. His hat bulges in a strange way. He has a strange accent.

Santa spent a long time in make-up back in the kitchen, all the women hovering around him, attaching more tape to his cheeks and forehead, pushing his hair back inside his cap. It’s taken us quite a while stuffing his copious dreads into the pointy red hat. I’m coaching him on English Santa phrases. We debate long and hard about whether to let him wear jeans under the little red shorts. Myself, I prefer them to the pale legs, but the women veto the jeans.

Somehow, the kids are fooled. They stare at Santa with wonder and dread. They whisper, “Thank you, Santa,” when he gives each of them candy. Santa’s a little perturbed by this somber reception. He tries to loosen them up. He leads them in Christmas songs, most of which they only know one verse to. He gets a few of them to giggle when he cavorts around the table as they sing.

They never figure it out, even as he slips in and out of his funereal Santa tones to flirt with the lady visitors. “I don’t believe you’ve been a good girl, this year, Sophie,” he says with a sugar-coated dose of French savoir faire. They don’t suspect a thing when Santa dozes at the table as the children patiently wait for their cake. I circle the table with my video camera, catching their wide-eyed responses to this cavalier angel.

They don’t get it when Francois shows up five minutes after Santa has to get back to work. “I missed Santa?” he cries out when they tell him. “Oh no,” he groans melodramatically. “And what did Santa give you, Sophie?” he purrs.

And so on. This is how holidays unfold all around the world. Isn’t it? The guy in the costume opens the ceremonies with false words and a wink for the ladies. And then it’s time to dance. We put on the Amharic pop and the kids start to skista, that fetching dance of the highlanders here, all shoulders and alluring looks. We put Kalkidan on the table and she lifts her pretty skirt from her feet, shrugs sweetly and shyly, tilting her head forward and fluttering her thick lashes for her admirers, like girls have done for centuries of holidays.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Travelogue 117 – January 2
Holiday Cheer

Here’s New Year’s Day: a morning’s vigorous hike in the mountains under a hot sun. Francois and I have been planning this excursion for weeks. That we finally get to go has less to do with the spectacular date than with it being a free Sunday.

I’m up early and I walk into the dazzling new year’s sun, across the valley between our neighbourhoods. I bang on his gate until someone stirs, and I wake the Frenchman up. He’s cheerful. He’s packed a lunch, and he’s ready to go – after he meticulously packs his long dreads into the Seuss cap. I should have watched him do it; it must be a curious process. But I’ve become immersed in a book of his with transcriptions in Geez, the ancient Semitic daddy of several major Ethiopian languages. Amharic uses the same alphabet. I sound out words. I discover that many haven’t changed too much, particularly those dealing with royalty or religion. Saint So-and-So died in the XXth year of King So-and So’s reign….

We’re under way. First there’s the kilometer uphill to get out of the city. Unfortunately, we spend much of this time discussing women. The road peters out; we’re given a choice of dirt paths, and we head west. The path becomes winding. It empties out into a rocky riverbed, dry but for a trickle from some high, persistent spring. The talk has turned to happier subjects, like the early Egyptian monks.

We jump around the riverbed. I’m reminded of my childhood in southern California. He of idylls in France. The city ends very abruptly; there’s not a soul around – except three ragged kids who want to follow us and shout, “Money!” They make it difficult to sustain my California feeling. Francois tells them we have no money. He tells them to go away. He tells them he’ll throw rocks at them. They’re enjoying all this. Their voices bounce from the walls of the little canyon.

In desperation, we start climbing up, scrambling up steep walls of rock and loose dirt. It does us no good. We become stranded on a lonely outcrop of rock on the wall’s face. The children cast their echoing laughter at us. We resign wearily to our fate, standing like Egyptian martyrs in bold relief against the towering rocks, gazing out over the dramatic view of Addis Ababa.

We do eventually manage to escape. We jog down shaded trails, bound along the tops of more rocks, this time below a nearly dry waterfall about fifty meters high. We find the top of the ridge and meander among dry grasses. We stop for a doze in a small clearing at the top of a hill, where the blue sky is vast. I lie on the short, yellow grass and listen to the breeze among the eucalyptus saplings around us. Eucalyptus are great wind trees; they whisper drowsily. I pick a few juniper berries, and their scent evokes many a gin-and-tonic evening back home.

No, there’s no big party for New Years’s Eve. The closest thing I get to celebration is the afternoon gathering of my odd crowd in the Razel Café in Piassa. Francois is there with his friend Adonijah, a black American and a doctrinaire Rastafarian. He’s from New Orleans, but has lived a while in Minneapolis – small world. He’s been in Ethiopia for six years now, living meagrely but happily off the sales price of his life in the US. He has a few kids now, here and there in Ethiopia. I love his soft, slow accent. Tall, with a bit of grey in his long beard, he leans into the table, quietly smiling.

Saba is there, shy and struggling to keep up with the English. We’ve come around to politics, as is inevitable in a country so unstable. Martina is asking in a loud voice, “Why?” or “What do you mean?” Martina is German, and she insists on definitions. Her pale blue eyes stare at you earnestly, and she poses stern questions. Martina is a kindergarten teacher, and she volunteers at our school. At the moment, she’s demanding an explanation from me.

I had rather cavalierly posited that Ethiopians will have to live with this government until they learn how to organize. The present opposition parties have an air of improvisation about them, and once they crumbled, people gave way to moaning, “No democracy for us.” I become nervous under her steady, schoolmarm gaze. But I rise to the challenge: I’ve actually thought about this one. Very seldom do you see people here bond together to work voluntarily toward a common goal. In work situations, they wait for orders. On the street, they wait for handouts. Everyone but Martina nods. I give examples, beginning to sweat anxiously. I offer up the NGOs that are teaching Ethiopians in the countryside how to organize coffee cooperatives as models of indirect tutoring in political action. She finally nods. “I see what you mean,” she says, and we all sigh.

Martina rants with her frustration at the arrogance of the police here. She tells of challenging them. The other faranji wince. We’ve all been here longer and had unpleasant encounters with officers of the law. Francois tells of seeing a cop beating a woman with a baton as she clasps his knees. He stands to illustrate the story. Saba laughs, “Ay, Francois.” Francois sits, and for a moment is unusually sober. He’s not sure how to respond to Saba’s mirth. She doesn’t hide it, though all the faranji are silent. Francois looks at me and gives me a Gallic shrug.