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.