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.