Sunday, March 26, 2006

Travelogue 129 – March 26
Money on Bread

The compound is resounding with today’s hailstorm. The storms have been coming every afternoon. The days start with clear dawn skies and then fill slowly with haughty, high-breasted clouds. By three, the skies are dark and they rumble with menace. The hail bounces with a great clatter off the iron roofs, and Jackie paces with ears down and eyes full of fear. Overhead, the hawks whistle as they cling to the boughs of eucalyptus trees that bend thirty degrees in the wind.

I’m trying to pack my bag in the dim classroom, navigating around the many-armed puddle in the middle of the room, left by yesterday’s storm. I’m boarding a plane tomorrow.

Yes, it’s the last quiet moment before leaving, all stages of exit completed but this one.

We’re well past the “gimme stage.” Ijigu wanted running shoes. He wanted a sponsorship. Sintayehu wanted the SIM card from my mobile. Tesfay wanted my camera. Hirut just wanted cash. I’m gracious. Every petition gets my full attention like it’s the first, or the only, and my refusals are reluctant and well-reasoned. I’m in good spirits.

I’ve been through the stage of relief and desperate longing to get out. I duck into a cafe where they often have their television turned to the BBC. I sit with coffee and I try to effect a temporary flight from Ethiopia, looking at wet streets in Europe where something has happened.

Maybe the technique is too effective: another white man enters with an old Abasha man. He offers me his hand, shouting, “Hello, faranji” in a heavy accent. He’s very tall. His bear’s eyes stray apart a bit behind thick glasses. He and the old man find a table in the back, but he doesn’t sit. He shouts pleasantries at the staff, and they smile with embarrassment. He seems to know Amharic. He launches into a bit of herky-jerky skista, the traditional dance, along to the music coming from the kitchen. The joke is a tedious one, and he doesn’t give it up until the staff turns off the radio.

The old man leaves, and the faranji turns his commentary to the BBC. He picks up and moves to sit by me. He repeats headlines. He asks where I’m from. He tells me he’s from “the great empire of Armenia.” America is Number Two, he declares, and I yield. My daydream of Europe is waylaid by a European.

I’ve been through the stage of contentment. Life slows, and things become timeless. Ethiopia and I separate and drift apart. We regard each other from our bubbles. In the early mornings, I drop from the first taxi like I’m dropping from a space capsule. The Abasha waiting at bus stops watch me pass. I smile. I joke with the shoeshine boys. I sit for the first coffee, the first fuel of the day, and I lean back to take in the sky, breathing deeply as though I could fill my lungs with all the morning blue.

The rock-strewn road down to the school, with its rain gully in the middle, is a road home. The hills above are aglow, the sun lighting patches of yellow grass, catching the shimmer of eucalyptus leaves, casting intriguing shadows among the ridges.

The people with their comments are my friends. Two boys call, “Money, money,” and I wave. “Money b’injera,” one calls lazily – money on bread. Language is being born. Having sunk into meaninglessness, it re-emerges as perfect nonsense.

The lights flicker. Outside, the world has sunk into deep blue smoke. At any moment, the electricity could go. I have to finish packing while I can. But I’m kind of entranced by the rain. It’s something like the end of time, so peaceful and forgiving. I want to listen to it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Travelogue 128 – March 19

I haven’t heard of Durba until this morning. It’s a cloudy morning – part of a cloudy month. I’ve traveled over a mountain ridge in the company of Saba and two prospective business partners. The ridge is the one that looms over Addis Ababa, that rises above my house and the school. It’s Entoto, king of the central Ethiopian highlands. It’s a clean ridge, too. No switchbacks on the other side, no perennially shaded vales between rugged peaks. No, you climb steeply up from the city, the limits of which end at the divide, and the other side is a gentle slope into broad swaths of sunlit eucalyptus, and, further on, into yellow, unfenced pasture lands.

Our aim is little Chancho, a roadside town nestled among a cluster of round, brown hills. It’s a government center. We approach the officials with African humility and fear. They respond with suspicion. There’s always a need for schools out here. Chancho itself is well provided for by some Baptists. But in the countryside. And then there’s Durba.

It’s a growing town, almost as big as Chancho. It has a cement factory, and the Dutch have moved in with their flower farms. There’s another factory in the plans. The only way to get there is an erratic, crowded taxi down a dirt road. The taxi only comes back if there happen to be enough passengers.

Our colleagues search for another way out there, a driver of our own. By the uniformity of the haggling, I’m guessing we aren’t the first faranjis this way. After an hour, we find a van driver willing to drop his price to something only mildly offensive. It’s not a bad road, and the mellow hills develop real beauty as we head out of brown Chancho. The driver stops to pick up farmers.

People in the countryside dress very eclectically. Wide-brimmed hats, or none, walking sticks, blankets over their shoulders, shorts or slacks, shoes in all ragged styles. There’s a certain type of thick-woven, country bumpkin suit coat that you will find all over Ethiopia, even in the remotest hills. The shepherds we pass, with switches in hand, are wearing suit coats.

Contracts in Ethiopia, especially with drivers, change color with the passage of the sun across the sky. Our business concluded, we find we have been passed off to a truck driver leaving the cement factory. We cram into the back of his cabin. He and his comrade are salt-of-the-earth, contented guys in no hurry. They stop for a mother and child. They stop for an old man, though we have to stop in another hundred yards to eject him because he is incoherently drunk. To our good fortune, the truck is headed to Addis, so we stay with them, bent into the space behind their seats. The driver makes my companions laugh, so it’s all good.

Durba is one street and a few lanes. We stroll the length of the street first, spotting the kebele, or government, office with its dirt courtyard. We take pictures; we talk with locals. We follow a mother and child down a narrow dirt lane that turns to parallel Main Street. I stop at the turn. “What?” Across a small field of baby eucalyptus, the ground drops away. Across a dramatic red valley are Arizona buttes. Mist drifts from the mouths of distant canyons.

The kebele folk are a dapper young guy and a tall, clumsy policeman leaning on the rail of their porch. The young fellow has an easy smile and sleepy manner. It feels like Andy Griffith, African style. After a few jokes, we get to business. They had tried setting up a kindergarten a year ago; it hadn’t worked out. They have some land set aside for the purpose. He leads us behind the kebele office. “What?” My jaw drops. The plot of grassy land sits at the edge of another, more dramatic canyon. I beg our host to let me take some pictures. Ethiopian officials have a strange phobia of cameras.

It’s time to go. We are led to our new chauffers. They are idling on the grounds of the cement factory at the end of Main Street, talking to some sleepy guards. Our unfaithful first driver and his friends want to placate us with a little nature walk. I follow sullenly along a grassy little path. “What?”

This time I am awestruck. We emerge onto a narrow spur of land hundreds of feet above a scene that stretches for miles and miles to a hazy horizon, a ribbon of pale blue river water meandering through the middle of a grand, yellow valley, Arizona plateaus marching along in the distance out to the clouds. We are stunned – and successfully placated.

Snug in our diesel-choked compartment behind the truck driver, we look at each with round eyes and whisper, “Durba!”

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Travelogue 127 – March 12
A Saturday

Lidya is the first one to school on Saturday morning. She knocks on the gate. Naturally, I’m the only one around. She sets her timid round eyes on me. “Good morning, Mister.” She’s clutching her lunch bag to her breast. I’m sure I look a little wild after a long sleep.

She marches into the classroom and puts her lunch on the shelf. She marches out again, straight to the swing. “Mister Dana, gufan,” she says. It’s a refrain I hear daily. “Push me.” And suddenly, the shy girl I’ve known for a year and a half transforms. She chatters. She wants me to push her so her feet touch the corrugated iron of the sheltering roof. She squeals every time I pretend to send her flying. I stand in front of her and tap the toes of her worn boots. She’s full of little stories, this child who always stands apart from the other kids.

It occurs to me that little children here are rarely alone. She lives in the mess next door to the school, the patch of mud around which about ten families live in their tiny earthen shacks.

I leave her to her fun, and after a while she follows. It’s time for breakfast – a few crackers in the pocket of her heavy grey dress. It’s as heavy as wool, and has lines of tiny faded roses down its skirt. It reminds me of “Little House on the Prairie”.

She has me open the package for her. Stuffing one biscuit into her mouth, she runs to the swing, turns around and runs back, holding one out for me. “Nibla,” she says. “Let’s eat,” the polite offer of food. No, thank you. She runs away.

More students arrive. Saturday mornings, Martina comes to tell stories to the kids. Martina is a German student of education, and she loves our well-behaved children.

I start to tell Carla about my kids. I’m visiting her on the weekend because the visa monster is chasing me out of Ethiopia before the end of my Italian course. She will tutor me so I can take the exam early and collect my certificate.

She doesn’t tutor me. I arrive during Fernando’s tutorial. Fernando is a fifty year-old UN official from Spain. He has the piercing eyes and the accent of his countrymen, and a severe gentleness of manner that contrasts starkly with Carla’s. She interrupts, she scolds, she smokes, she tells stories, and spits when she speaks.

Fernando is working on prepositions. He reads sentences aloud, and I notice that with his Latin-trained tongue, he can rattle off chains of words in a way that I will never master, but his pronunciation often slips into Spanish.

Carla encourages us to converse in Italian, but when she leaves the room, we chat in a mixture of Spanish and English – mostly complaints about the peculiarities of Italian.

Carla and I begin wasting Fernando’s money in earnest, going on about the exam and about my approaching trip to Italia. She rhapsodizes about Italian cities and history and culture. As long as she’s rhapsodizing, I get her started on Dante. I recite the first tercet, and she carries on with ten more, tears welling in her eyes. We catalogue authors and artists, and pretty soon, it’s time for Fernando to go. He pays and leaves quietly.

Carla asks how I like Ethiopia. I’m ambiguous in my reply. She has to know why I’m not married, and I laugh. It’s a question I’m used to from Ethiopians. “Are you married?” and the subsequent moral diatribe are integral to introductory conversation here. I have no reason to hide the story of Leeza. I want it to lead to the kids, but somehow these exchanges never get past Leeza. When I search for words about the kids, there aren’t any. What can one say about kids, really? We sadly conclude. I say, “Baka.” She says, “Cosi.”

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Travelogue 126 – March 4
Word Play

Francois has just returned from nearly a month in Tigray, a region in the north of Ethiopia, dusty, poor, and religious. He was visiting churches and holy places for his research on that elusive piece of the Holy Cross that left a long trail of miracles across medieval Tigray. They speak a different language there. In Tigrenya, Francois’s name sounds like “fresh beer”, which is delightful to northern priests who drink a lot of the homebrew.

Francois and I have many epithets in the streets of Addis. One that makes the kids hysterical is “gamash faranj, gamash Abasha,” meaning half faranj and half Ethiopian. Others simply call us kayu, meaning red man. They don’t normally say “white man” here, unless it’s in imitation of the American term. Kayu fits Francois pretty well, since his face is always red from the sun. I’m a small part native American, so I feel I’ve earned the honorific. A name I’ve picked up from the shoeshine boys and beggars in my neighborhood is dembenya, or “the regular.” Kids I’ve never seen try it on me, seeing that I respond.

Tafa,” they say. This word is a standard part of greetings here, best intoned in a lazy way: “you disappeared.” Don’t take it too literally. People will say it even if they’ve seen you the day before. The proper response is allo, a phrase I dearly love. Every night, when I greet Girma, the school guard, and ask, “How are you?” he says, “allo.” I’m not sure how to translate it, other than “being.” In response to “Tafa,” it means, “I’m around.”

Tafa,” they say at the cafe if I miss a day. Ijigu is my dembenya waiter. I used to ask him about soccer results. Now I ask him about his training. I promise to bring my Sauconys for him to look at. I found out recently he’s a top-notch marathoner, trying to make the national team. He tells me his time in change, “two and twenty-five cents.” It’s funny how your image of a person can change. He has a kind of slack, farm-boy face, and I never thought much of him before. Now, he’s a star. I tip him extra. His name, Ijigu, means the Best.

I made a date with a waitress the other night by accident. That was at the hotel next to the Italian Center. She brought me my mineral water and my fries. I was cheerful. There was a nice movie on the TV, something fun, something with Brits being naughty in WWI-era London. I playfully say, “Nibla” to the waitress, an invitation to have some fries. Polite Ethiopians never start eating without offering some of their food, even to strangers. She declines, and I think she’s saying that she gets her dinner break now. She’s pointing toward what must be the break room. I nod agreeably. When she returns, I ask how her dinner was. There is some confusion. Apparently she hasn’t eaten. But maybe another time. Ah, I see. Yes, that would be nice. She’s being shy and sweet. Her co-workers are stealing girlish glances at me. Well, why resist? She’s cute.

The law is words, and yet words fail here. They dissolve into the pea-green gloom of Immigration hallways. We’re back. This time we’re being led through by our companion, the guy with bad teeth who looks like he would sell hot gold on the pavement. We wend our way through the rooms, by all the same desks, still slowly, still confronted with the impertinent questions, and yet things seem to resolve with a wrinkled brow and a wave. We make it to the dark angel’s office. Our gold broker goes in alone. The door, usually left open, swings silently shut. I see a fellow teacher from happier times, a Brit whose Ethiopian ex-wife has had his residency cancelled. Apparently, he has little recourse, even though he is father to her baby boy. We discuss the stench of evil pervading, until the door slowly opens, and our ‘advocate’ emerges with a swagger. No words. We simply leave.