Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Travelogue 211 – December 26
Back to the Source

On Christmas morning, a full moon is setting over the opposite shore of Lake T’ana. The sun isn’t quite up yet, and the calm waters are Monet shades of pink and violet. There are blessed few people out alongside the lake.

On Christmas morning, I’m in Bahir Dar. I haven’t been back to Bahir Dar since the very first trip to Ethiopia, four years ago. Bahir Dar is a town on the southern shores of Lake T’ana and the capital of the Amhara region. It’s the closest major town to the headwaters of the Blue Nile. And it’s still one of my favorite spots in Ethiopia.

Bahir Dar looks just the same, mellow streets and mellow sun. The waters are a soft and peaceful green. There are, though, a few changes. My little lakeside paradise at the Ghion Hotel has gone to seed. It still boasts pleasant garden among the rooms, but the quiet patio with chairs under an afternoon spread of fig branches, open to the breeze off the lake, is now compromised: it’s fenced off from the lake and covered by an unattractive iron shelter.

The second change more than compensates. That is a pedestrian walkway along the shore from downtown almost to the headwaters of the Nile.

I’m up at 6:30 to walk the length of it, which only takes a half-hour or so. You pass inlets wild with reeds and papyrus. You pass morning glories and poinsettia and papaya trees. Out in the lake, lone fishermen in tiny papyrus boats are checking their nets. The path ends suddenly at a marsh, within sight of the first islands in the mouth of the Nile. Actually it ends at the trunk of a fig tree, from which a startled ibis takes flight. I turn around and head back to the new T’ana Hotel, a luxury spot with a very nice patio overlooking the lake, where I can have a full breakfast among a host of travelers, Italian, French, American, Kenyan, etc.

On Christmas morning, after breakfast, I walk out the front entrance of the T’ana Hotel, which is not the feat of a few steps down a staircase. The hotel is set quite a ways off the road, at the end of a long driveway through bits of farmland. Once at the road, I catch a minibus taxi, having only a slight idea where it will go. Yes, I was right: five minutes later, we’re crossing the Blue Nile on a wide, low bridge. I call for a stop and then walk back across the bridge. The usual stern policeman sits on a chair with his gun at the start of the bridge. I don’t have my camera, so I pose no security risk. I take my time, watching the swift, muddy current below. The river is wide and punctuated by grassy isles of mud like unstable stepping stones. The actual headwaters are just out of sight.

I take a path through a primitive city-village on the shore, along dung-filled dirt alleys, following the river toward the lake. As expected, I’m stopped by a marsh. Abiu and a friend are goofing around on a makeshift pier of igneous stones from the hills. The shirtless and grinning friend cuts me a papyrus reed as a gift. Abiu offers to guide me to Debre Maryam, a church on one of the islands in the mouth of the river. Off we go.

We’re further from the lake than I thought. We trek along a wide dirt road. It ends. We trudge on, down many a walking path, crossing fields and passing small farms. Most of the farmers cultivate ch’at or cabbage. But there is also mango, papaya, banana, and coffee. I try ishr, a small orange fruit that Abiu likes, but it’s sour and gummy in the palate, not good for a sweaty hike without water.

Debre Maryam stands on an island that’s only about thirty meters from shore, across a quiet channel. Abiu and some local boys shout across for the ferry, which is an amorphous raft of papyrus reeds. They shout back they want twenty birr. I shake my head no. The boys are anxious. I’m not. I like sitting in the sun, watching the slow and obscure tide through the channel. Eventually, I say ten. There’s a lot of shouting about that. The raft drifts across.

The pilot of the raft disappears, and Abiu picks up the long pole. He and a curious shepherd boy push us off and across, so slowly and with such soft lapping of the waters I could sleep. It turns out our twenty-birr Charon is no ferrymen at all, but a shriveled old woman in sackcloth. She collects my birr with a steely glint in her eye. Charon she is because she wears the fare of a previous soul around her neck, an intriguing old coin, huge and polished almost smooth by time. It features on one side the decayed profile of some plump, eighteenth-century European lord, by the looks of him; and on the other side is a two-headed eagle.

The island is quiet. The church is closed. We see a priest in his high turban vigorously row off in his own little boat. We stroll a while among the priestly fields of ch’at and turn back. A dour midget of a priest rides back with us. He is suspicious of me, maybe concerned for the virtue of his buxom servant girl, who rows the raft for us. But of course I make no notice of her charms, immersed as I am in the wisdom of melodious waters.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Travelogue 210 – December 22
The Breakfast Club

There’s something cheering about a fat, hairy man blowing you a kiss in the morning, ‘Ciao, Giorgio,’ I cry, passing him in front of the Ethiopia Airlines building in Piassa – curving wall peach and avocado green in the sunshine. ‘Ciao, bello,’ he replies. Of course, Giorgio is Italian. But he isn’t.

Some time mid-century, so Giorgio tells me, Haile Selasse rescued forty Armenians out of Jerusalem, survivors of the holocaust in Turkey that someone in our quick State Department just discovered languishing in his inbox at an inconvenient moment. One of these was Giorgio’s grandfather. The Armenian community flourished here. (As evidence, I produce my dentist, Dr. Mickey, and the pretty stone Armenian church in Piassa.) But restless Giorgio went to Italia as a young man. There he became a sculptor. Now, at the other end of life’s journey, he’s considering coming home.

Danieli has adopted Giorgio as an accessory. Danieli is a crazy Austrian, continuing my chain of them. He’s middle-aged, a big man with a wild, greying mane, a Beethoven jaw, wide-set eyes, and a magnificent pot belly. He’s actually Israeli by birth, though central European by blood. It’s his second time in Ethiopia, and he plans to spend six months. Danieli’s itinerary is very free. His final plans seem to revolve around women. There is the girl he met on his last trip that is now in police training camp outside Addis Ababa. They touch hands through the fence. She tells him to go buy her shoes. Then there’s the Muslim girl whose daddy he appealed to to let her travel with him to Harar. Apparently the man has relented.

Yesterday morning, all the talk at the Taitu Hotel was about the Gambela girl. “Phoo!” Danieli exclaims. “She could dance!” This long story involves several Piassa night clubs, a clan of Taitu foreigners, and the girl’s sexually explicit moves. One of the implicated men was another Israeli, who has joined us at the outdoor table, a quiet young man with long hair and beard. They exchange polite reminiscences of the girl in Hebrew. Danieli wants to know what happened after he left. Giorgio laughs at him. “Playboy,” he calls him in his gravelly, smoothly accented voice. Danieli objects. “I have my limits,” he declares in his harshly accented voice. “I would never do that. She is sixteen. No!”

I’m diverted from my usual morning routine because I’m looking for someone at the Taitu, someone I never find. My routine is to collect my thoughts at the old Razel cafe in Piassa. This cafe has done something extraordinary; it has remained at the height of fashion for all the time I’ve been in Ethiopia. And it has maintained its standard in coffee and pastries. It’s a relief to know that one can still feast the palate and the eyes at the same city font.

Any day of the week, the beautiful people will come: stunning women in expensive styles to make old white guys weep and confident men in the style of confident men in Addis – which means they look like Americans on a Sunday, except their sneakers have been polished. It’s an odd sign of our times that the poor men here wear suits coats and slacks, but men with power look like they’re pushing a stroller around the Mall of America. A few young ones will appear in a very clean rapper’s uniform, something teenage American, 1998 in a white suburb. And then there are the two ten year-old boys who come in and drop a week’s salary for most papas on a carbohydrate orgy. And what do the beautiful people eat for breakfast in Addis? Burger and fries, almost universally.

But lest we forget where we are in the world, incidents like the following will happen. I look up and a woman is rubbing her head. She’s bashed her head against the serving platter of a waiter on the stairs. Everybody’s staring out the front window. Everybody is up and rushing toward the stairs and the doors, a wild look in their eyes. There’s smoke in the street, and smoke billowing into the cafe. They’re pulling down the metal grates over the windows and door. I glimpse police grabbing men and smacking them across the face. A crowd is running this way and that. I don’t move until I know what the story is.

So what happened? Apparently a car went by that was on fire. That tells you the level of tension in this place, despite appearances in the stylish spots. I set down my pen and close my notebook. I’m revisited by the agonies of the ordeal two years ago after the election. I’m reminded how all my pretty plans are vapor in the face of the next terror.

The crisis passes, and the beautiful people resume their seats.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Travelogue 209 – December 14
The Girls

The sun roars like a lion. We faranjis all have red necks. Tomorrow are time trials. I want my girls to roar like the sun.

I’m distracted this month. My most pleasant distraction is Team Tesfa, which is a new project that I shouldn’t have started. The team is just five strong, Ijigu and four teenage girls with a glimmer of promise as runners.

Meseret’s story represents many others. She’s seventeen. She moved to the city from some small town, away from her family, in order to become an athlete. Fast forward to when we meet, and she’s working in a cafe all day and has no time to train. She dropped out of school a long time ago.

Today, they’re sitting around the cafe table. The place is bright with leonine sun. My back and red neck are warm. The girls are shy and silent. They wink at each other and smile. We’re signing contracts today. These are the final documents for registration of the team. And this occurs with no time to spare. The winter’s major cross country meet happens in two weeks. I’m hoping there are no glitches. One never knows in Ethiopia, but we have a man on the inside.

Here they are, the four young lionesses, acting shy. But I’ve seen them run. Here’s lovely Meseret with her golden smile, an innocence to her, a simple confidence. She runs with regal grace, and I read that as great potential.

Beside me is Tsion, contrast to Meseret, the brooding and proud teenager. She has a bright smile when you address her, but otherwise she sulks and slouches. She always has an argument ready for us. Even this I enjoy about her. She reminds me of a pit bull when she runs, all muscle and earthbound. She’s very determined, and so far she’s the best of the lot.

These two have started tutorial classes with Haregwa from the Shiro Meda school. Both left school long ago. Their first session is at my house. Tsion couldn’t write the English alphabet. Meseret has her troubles with Amharic writing. It’s been a long time – and those were country schools.

I’m watching Meseret as she works her way through the contract. She mouths the words, and with a good deal of animation, too. I hadn’t realized how much drama was packed into this legal document. Then again, I can only hope there is: the sound of her future in these dry words.

We sign. We stain the papers with coffee. I harangue them good-naturedly about the time trials coming up. It takes a while to explain the concept of goals. The girls chat about the course and times. We come up with a fairly modest number. Not entirely seriously, I lecture them, locker-room style, about being hungry. ‘You’ve got to want it!’ They’re smiling politely. I find out there’s no Amharic word for ambition. Of course, I shrug. ‘Anbessa!’ I say. ‘Lion!’ This is what they call Kenenisa and other great athletes. My final result: very meekly Meseret points at her chest. ‘Anbessa,’ she whispers with a self-conscious smile. I have to laugh. It’s not a boastful culture. You have to respect that.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Travelogue 208 – December 6
The Nose of Sisyphus

My first week in Ethiopia is bliss. The sun is strong. The mountain breeze keeps it pleasant. My staff is welcoming. Their work while I was gone was good. The schools look wonderful, filled with new art, thanks to the two months’ work of our volunteers from Ireland. When I arrive at school, the little ones are joyfully foaming at the mouth, brushing their teeth with tiny brushes donated by the Irish. My house is quiet and cozy. I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is pretty nice. What’s my rush in getting out of here?’

And then I really arrive in Ethiopia. Or I should say, Ethiopia arrives in me. Overnight, the super cold moves in. These aren’t charming seasonal sniffles. This is rheumy-eyed brain-melt with a continual stream out the nose, complete with bone-deep fatigue and existential woe. If it follows its usual course, it will muscle down into my lungs and take up a month’s residence as a racking cough and life-sapping asthma.

After four years as a slave to petty diseases, a question suggests itself. A hypothesis inside a question, a question inside a philosophy, a philosophy inside a regret, and that inside a breathe: exactly when was it that I committed suicide? The question suggests a method of inquiry: sifting back through the four-year trail of colds, fevers, coughs, nausea, asthma, fatigue, diarrhea, headaches, stomach cramps, and flu to assess ‘life’ as a medium of travel.

But I don’t have the energy. Tomorrow I devote myself back to the conundrum of living without living. The exit from my house lets into a subway tunnel, mucous grey, underneath the city. Above the ground is color and energy. Below are the shadows of color, a static nuisance. People are obstacles. Sound is jarring noise.

When you’re sick, you rush away from the living. You find quiet corners for tea. The topography of the city deteriorates until it’s all safe havens and bathrooms. (The latter, I must comment, is particularly humiliating for a male traveler, especially in a country where any ditch or wall will do for locals.)

Always a minor hypochondriac, now I’m a major case. I’ve been outfitted with germ vision. Disease crawls, in colonies the color of key lime custard, along fingertips and doorknobs and tabletops. A friendly handshake makes me sweat. A cough across the room makes me twitch. I douse everything in lime juice, even french fries. Glasses are suspicious. Green leafy vegetables make me nauseous.

And if this weren’t enough, if the sights and sounds of life abroad weren’t just the sunny side of inescapable alienation, being ill is the cave inside the shadow. ‘I’m sick’ prompts laughter. These faranjis! In a culture where home and family form the very fabric of the cosmos, one does not want to be the solitary bachelor in bed with only his illness. It’s one thing to prefer solitude, but no one volunteers for this type. This is lunar orbit, conserving on oxygen.

I sniffle and wheeze in my corner of the hip cafe, and I warn the youngsters, ‘Wa! Pozor! Beware! Choose your poison carefully. The Creator, Great Nature, the Father of Waters, the Belcher of Life sets out his pharmacopoeia of free will. Ponder long over the colorful pills.’ But they never listen.

Health is a philosophy unto itself. It’s a philosophy that brooks no questions. It’s the hypothesis with its own proof: innocence. Innocence is a state before decisions. Every decision narrows the playing field, just like every meal skewers the metabolism.

Wa! says the old man. But it’s just another bright day in Ethiopia. The sun rolls along its track in the sky. Prometheus has liver disease. Sisyphus has emphysema. Life goes on.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Travelogue 207 – November 26
White to Dark

We get a white Thanksgiving. It's not totally white. Maybe a half-inch on the ground. Roads and sidewalks are white. Some roofs are white. It depends on the angle they're pitched at. Parks are green with white fringes. The snowfall began late in the afternoon yesterday. I take a run just as it's getting dark.

The snow drifts down gently, yellow shadows in the globe of street lamps, like feather-tips against my face. And despite being rush hour, all seems silent. Headlights float in procession along the parkway. Some Christmas lights sparkle already. Here on the pedestrian path, there's the sound of footfall and of my breath. There are several worlds within sight of each other, but they aren't linked by any other sense.

It gets darker as I jog along. It's feeling good, so I keep going. I arrive in scenes more and more northern. There's a brooding spirit of Christmas descending, deep forest greens verging on black, with red lights and orange lights, and snowflakes drifting in as heralds of the season, soft as breath.

In the morning, it's still coming down. I awake from ten hours' sleep, refreshed and pleasantly dazed. It's my first Thanksgiving in a long time. We're scheduled to go to Therese's parents' house, but first there's work to be done. Outside the cafe, snow is gathering momentum. Still, the people are streaming in: runners from some race in town, whole families with shouting children. I'm smiling through all the noise. What's happened to me?

The mood persists. My first Thanksgiving dinner in years is altogether too idyllic. A long dusk settles over the snow-dusted world outside as I sit down to a long table with Therese’s family, three generations of them, with two year-old Gracie in her high chair. The Packers have won, and this Wisconsin group is pleased. I’ve won a good game of chess, so I’m pleased. The food is perfect, and the company is very comfortable. I’ve never liked holidays, but today they make sense. Ah, so this is what all that is about, I’m thinking. It’s a revelation.

Minnesota is emerging from its past. It lives, this place that was full of ghosts and shadows. Every corner, every address, every stretch of light was Polaroid grey with grief. There could be no relief for me here in the years after Leeza died. But I feel a pulse.

And now I leave. Midday the day after Thanksgiving, the commuter train slides underground and into the airport terminal. By takeoff, it’s night. The Twin Cities are curving grids of yellow lights. The rivers are a juncture of blackness.

The day dawns early somewhere between Greenland and Ireland. And our jet engines eat up the morning. By the time I’m out of Gatwick, and by the time I’ve made the chilly trip on two trains to Bath, the sun is low and its light is feeble. The four o’clock northern dusk descends on me.

I get only one full day in England, and then I’m back in day-hungry transit. I fly out of Heathrow, again against the sun. We consume the afternoon with the same voracity as fuel, and dusk arrives over southern Europe. We hang in shadows a long, long moment, and then it’s quiet night.

The plane is very quiet. After fueling in Amman, there are only a dozen or so of us on the plane. Most of the others know each other. On the tarmac in Amman, they talk NGO talk. Without knowing too much about it, I would describe NGO talk as something between celeb talk and bureaucrat talk. Names are dropped. Many of them are geographical names. Many are acronyms. They eagerly interrupt each other with droppings. Two pair off with a low hum of planning. They disperse when it’s time to take off again, and the solemn, black sky embraces us.

It’s the first flight from Britain to arrive on time in quite a while. Ijigu is surprised to see me. It’s fortunate he’s there. We depart into the cool mountain air of Addis Ababa. There are fewer lights than in Minnesota. There are more stars. There is the dark outline of mountains ahead of us. We cross the parking lot, and even the taxi guys are subdued in their appeals. Sober night.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Travelogue 206 – November 15
Great Nature Has Another

So I get the whole show on this trip. Yesterday it snows. It's not the kind of snow that collects. It comes down in little pellets that sting. It gathers in waves and drifts that snake across the road as you drive. I have to cross the Mississippi, and Andre's little red car shudders in the strong winds. It wants to veer into the cold, tragic river. It bucks at a sudden memory of the bridge that collapsed last summer. It wants the icy impact and wants to drown its gritty engine oil in the father of waters.

I'm thinking about the monsters alone in the bitter cold. We're dead center among autumnal holidays, days cast in the orange of failing embers, days for Time's sad glances. They are holidays that play well in Minnesota, where great nature orchestrates the blaze of decay that thrilled our New England forbears.

The day of ghouls has passed. The day of saints has passed. Leaves are thick in their yards, strewn about and spilling from piles. The holiday beasts are abandoned outside their houses. There are skeletons and witches, stuffed monsters and jack o' lanterns.

What a piece of work is man! Such ingenuity, engineering such subtle jests at God, ghoul, and self at one stroke. The ghouls walk, and we burlesque. We mock death with masks, and we give the masks to children. And our creatures, they sit in yards, naked in their futile intent. They're left to the cold, to the cool contemplations of lonely types of me on cloud-covered nights.

Contemplate things made so small in the slow typhoon of decay, while winter's first winds bare the trees, bring down the leaves, threaten snow, and chase us indoors. These satiric puppets stare down the assault alone, like giggling gargoyles. We give them up: we laugh at ourselves at last. There are a few monsters dressed up as Bush, or as the World Bank. That got a laugh weeks ago. Now the beast and the message perish together, sagging in the dust.

After the ghouls, the monsters, and the monster-saints come the veterans in this autumnal parade of futility. Coincidentally, I'm led to the VFW bar on the eve of Veteran's Day. The Liquor Pigs are playing here since the Viking closed. The stage is set in the large dining room, where long cafeteria tables have been moved aside for dancing. Old couples sway and turn to the see-saw rhythms of guitar and fiddle.

Craig and I sit in the bar proper, where craggy old men brood in isolation, suspicious of the new crowd. Our table is underneath the huge screen lit with football action, and very near the display case with a stuffed bald eagle. The room is dimly lit, with ruddy autumnal light. It's like an evening in a folk America forever preserved from the summer light of places like ... Iraq?

I have an appointment in another America, or I might have basked in this soft, artificial light. The next place will glare with brash light and blare with splashes of music. We'll drink margaritas and play chess as though a library had a bar and attendants in very tight clothes. As though a library might pass around mikes and project Spanish words to obscure pop songs on a screen.

Mexican karaoke: the one with the mike gets to pace among the restaurant tables. The matron at the next table belts out accompaniment. She must be somebody, the way everyone stops by for a greeting. A group of very white university students surround the center table and studiously ignore the activities. One of the boys is coming up with excruciatingly self-conscious ploys to touch the girl next to him, the one sitting very straight, whose choo-choo hat is turned very precisely to the right of center and shifts not one centimeter all evening. Me, I read the words as they are sung, sure that my high school Spanish will kick in suddenly, and I'd better not miss the elementary sentence that will trigger it. I'm pretty sure no one sang 'te quiero'. But the choo-choo hat was blocking some of the screen.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Travelogue 205 – November 1
All Saints

Today is All Saints' Day, and a better day couldn't be had for wandering among the unmartyred. The heavens are crisp and clear. It's just chilly enough below to keep mortals awake, but the sun warms their animal backs at midday. Me, I spend my unofficial lunch hour strolling among parks downtown, soaking as much of that autumn heat as I can through my jacket of animal skin.

Today is also called Hallowmas, or the mass of the hallows. Thence comes the name of the e'en preceding, during which the graveyards yield up their messengers. Indeed, in many countries, celebrants of the Day of All Saints follow the ghouls back to their resting places. They make festive picnics among departed relatives, their minds far from the examples of saints.

It makes sense when one realizes that the first saints in Christian tradition were the martyrs. And the first celebrations of their lives were eucharists performed over the graves of martyrs. Celebrations they were, history tells us, as would befit a triumph of the purified soul. And so it is, the dead always leading the way.

I like saints. Maybe it's the Catholic blood in dead daddy's blood, dried genes that thread through the planet's soil back to the old Hapsburg empire. Maybe it's just the fun reading they make. Heaven's prerequisite that saints produce miracles is a wise strategy, judging religion by entertainment value. I'm not sure how miracles inspire morality, love or compassion, but the stories keep our attention. Maybe they evolve from the heroes' tales from the ancient world, tales that may simply be telling us 'ayzu', in Amharic parlance: take heart, be strong.

But then the strong among us are freaks, after all. There isn't too great a divide between ghouls, heroes, saints, and the undead, is there? Gandhi and Spiderman, Einstein and St. Francis: they all cast morbid spells on us with their uncanny powers. Most of appreciate St. Francis for talking to birds more than for his efforts to imitate Jesus in poverty and humility. And at the end of the day, is that such a bad thing?

Miracles and super powers. I'm reminded of the early Christian saint who grew copious body hair just in time to save her virtue. I'm reminded of Abuna Aregawi, Ethiopian saint and founder of the famous Debre Damo monastery in Tigray. When he reached the foot of the cliff below the future site of the monastery, God provided a huge serpent for him. At St. Michael's directions, the snake gathered our venerable saint in his coils and pulled him up the cliff. This feat becomes the model for the subsequent tradition for entering the monastery, climbing up by rope -- by which we mortals are reminded of our profane nature.

I was there in April, and gave it a good effort. That was after hiking about ten kilometers with five kilos of sugar on my back for the monks. It is absolutely a lovely spot for a miracle. The monastery stands on top of a tall mesa, and there really is no entry but up the clean white cliff. A bearded monk with a mischievous grin preceded me, swinging side to side and climbing with alarming agility. I launched in, sure that some residual, incorruptible spirit left in me would rise to the occasion. And sure enough, that little bit of saintliness inside got me a little bit of the way. I reached a part of the cliff where the rock bulges outward. I stopped, secure on a couple footholds, and made Satan's mistake of looking down. That's where I stopped. Some boys scrambled up after me and wrapped an extra rope around me. Up above, a husky man of god pulled while I climbed. No miracle from Jarvis for the books. But, to be fair, most visitors don't even try without the extra rope. Perhaps that just demonstrates stupidity on top of my unholy normality.

Another cool reason to study the stories of our saints is to learn a lot of arcane terms like heortology, menology, paterikon, and my favorite, synaxarion. I've decided this is the greatest reward to religion. I doubt it will turn any keys to heaven, but it will make for some delicious language. Just tasting words like these makes you feel like something is going on. I'm inclined to think that's enough, but I'm pretty easily satisfied on the spiritual plane these days. I always liked classical languages. Super powers and Latin: that is a killer combination.

Anyway, tomorrow is All Souls Day. That's when the normal set get some attention. All the dead faithful saddled with sin, stalled at the very portal to heaven, are honored on All Souls Day. The good news is, we get to nudge them on with prayers and masses. It's nice that the regular guy gets his day. It makes for a quiet holy day. The ghouls sleep in. Michael's divine pythons sun themselves on mesa tops. Mortals drag themselves to chilly, cavernous churches to pray. Ave, ave.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Travelogue 204 – October 27
Intermittent Sunshine of the Lungs

I slept ten hours last night, and I can still say that I was out of bed before the sun was up, though that was at seven-thirty. The authorities over time have delayed Daylight Savings so that we can all feel like eager individuals. The very first thing I do – and there is not a dot of exaggeration in this statement – is to put on my running togs and enter the nearly freezing Minnesota dawn in my shorts.

I have resolved to be healthy on this visit home. I am compelled to because my lungs have declined into a scary state. There were a spate of nights in Ethiopia in which I awoke breathless, chest burning, dim and distant Christmas lights drifting across the ceiling. I was forced to track down an inhaler, and I thought my travails were over until I took a run yesterday. About halfway, the moribund lights started slowly spinning and my lungs were squeaking with the terrific effort of keeping my legs under me. How dispiriting! I determined then and there, doubled over, hands on my knees, that I must purge this disease. I must exert discipline over my frail frame, purge this delicate house for the fleeting flame of life, forge strength where there is weakness. I've got to exercise.

Sweet old October plains, they give me hope. The sky is absolutely clear. A full moon hovers over the western fringe of bare branches. And Saturday morning is quiet. I pass only two neighbors walking their dogs. Therese lives on a parkway. That means a long, straight stretch of plush grass. This morning, I can report that my lungs showed signs of recovery, slight though they may be.

I'm taking a risk that is greater than pushing empty lungs. Therese has lent me a sweatshirt, and the logo on front, in loud yellow and green, is 'Green Bay Packers'. The letters can be seen for blocks. It can't be much worse than wearing a silk screen portrait of Bin Laden.

I don't linger after the exercise, but wash up and pack Andre's vehicle, cherry-red Jetta, with laptop (Steve's) and cell phone (Roxana's) to do some work (all mine). Oh, but the tedious lessons of life never cease. I learn that 'wireless' isn't the uniform quantity that my imagination – faithful to visions of the world as a happy place – has projected. In the first two cafes, I find that the wireless service isn't strong enough for my little machine. By the time I've made it to lucky number three I've had so much coffee that I am very ready for work, juggling two or three internet windows and the same number in Word, while glancing through the local paper.

That's good because I got absolutely nothing done in transit. These days, flights are like long trances. I surrender myself to stasis and to movies – movie after movie. And I can report two good finds among the half dozen or more I devoured. My favorite was La Vie en Rose, the story of Edith Piaf. I was lucky to have no neighbor in the next seat, as I had to wipe away a tear or two. Edith and I share so much painful history: upbringing in the brothel, raw talent nearly undiscovered, the struggle in the streets of a city devastated by war and depression, drug habits and ruthless men. Well, okay, in my case substitute mediocrity in the suburbs, addiction to sugar, and good women who find me a disappointment. But let's not quibble; she and I are kin.

And then there was the movie about the space mission into the sun: beautiful young people on a cool rocket ship equipped with long tracks of mood music; inaudible dialogue that's clearly profound; distress signals; disobedient shipboard computers; evil and diseased humans; a mission to save the planet. It doesn't get any better. Much of it I saw twice, as movies on British Air loop. It's impossible to catch any film at the beginning.

'Sunshine' the movie was called. And once we were out of London, all the sky was just that. It followed us to the ground in Minnesota, sweeping the runway clear of gloom for us. And it's been sunshine ever since, chilly but brilliant as children's hopes – slums of Paris, slums of Ethiopia, California ticky-tack, all one, – visibility high.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Travelogue 203 – October 14
New Day on the Streets

I get a call at 3pm today. I get a string of calls. It’s my next group of volunteers, calling from Heathrow. These volunteers are three sisters from Ireland, and they will be spending two months here working with the children. It’s thoughtful of them to call. They’re telling me the flight is leaving on time. I even get a call from Suzanne’s husband in Ireland. I pick them up tonight at 1am.

I’m due to leave Ethiopia in a week, if all goes well. But it doesn’t feel like it. Maybe it’s arrivals. Maybe it’s the arrival of the sunny season at long last. Maybe it’s the false lull in school activities – (in actual fact, things have never seemed so precarious.) Maybe it’s the abeyance of the relentless string of Ethiopian maladies – head, stomach, head, stomach. Maybe it’s the return of my regular shoeshine guy from the countryside after the holidays are over. But I seem to see the streets again. Where was I before? A kind of anxious business fog, I suppose.

Today, the taxi is dodging a couple guys on bicycles. They are pedaling desperately. God knows I would, too, feeling pretty vulnerable among the weaving taxis. But you do see more bicycles around town these days. And that includes some sportsmen up in the mountains.

I haven’t stopped my training excursions into the mountains after the Brits left, even through my various illnesses. It’s too sweet up there. And I love the sport. I’ve been contemplating founding an athletic club here for talented but disadvantaged young people. Saturday morning, we took Ijigu’s latest recruits up over the mountains to time them in a ten-kilometer run.

There are so many runners here! Once we’re in the hills, we pass runners alongside the length of the highway we travel, pacing along by themselves and in packs. It’s impressive. We release the crew from the minibus and start the stopwatches. The two teenage girls are real heroes. They’ve never run this distance, but they turn in a good performance. Meseret is sixteen, and she lives alone in Addis Ababa, working at a cafe. She has great potential. I hope I can get this team up and running.

I’m so inspired by the athletes that I get up early this morning for a run. Five minutes into the run, I recall I’m no teenage star. There’s no sensation like being breathless in the Ethiopian highlands. It’s a good reminder of one’s limitations.

An hour later, I’m in the taxi riding behind these desperate bikers, who don’t look so desperate, after all. They almost seem to be taunting the taxi drivers, coasting down the steep hill in the middle of the road.

I’m reminded of my summer in Minnesota. There’s a movement among proud cyclists to take over the roads. Every so often, you encounter a mob of them pedaling along, blocking a major city street. I came across one of these mobs one day while I was on my bike. I had to cross the street that they were merrily commanding. Their group was a good quarter-mile long, so I endeavor to weave through their mass. They’ve been taunting motorists, yelling righteous slogans. When suddenly they see me weaving among them, they turn indignant eyes upon me and get ready a shout, then stop in confusion. I wave an apology. I’ve compromised their moment.

I notice another trend in Addis: cheesy cowboy hats. There must have been a recent shipment dumped into the city’s markets, because the hipsters are wearing them in droves. The wayala of our taxi is wearing one, leaning out the window proudly, shouting and dipping his brim into the wind.

Jackie’s gotten kind of ‘street’ lately. Maybe it’s her teen years. She’s coming up to her third birthday. I think it’s nutrition. The new housekeeper (I’ve been through a few lately) is very scrupulous about feeding Jackie, and feeding her lots of meat. My courtyard looks like a charnel house. And Jackie has begun to growl at any approach, especially if one of the ubiqitous bones is nearby. At first, it was cute, like the teenager’s first cool outfit or sulky snarl. Now it’s tedious. I lecture her, but she rolls her eyes.

The best part of these days is the return of clear skies. Standing in my courtyard soaking in the sunshine, I feel empowered to let myself drift into some eddy of timelessness. There’s no better cure for stress. And I had forgotten about that moment during this season, right about 6:30 in the evening, when the sky flares into a riot of colors. Suddenly there are east-west swaths of turqoise alternating with violet and rose. The few clouds are green and purple. Jupiter appears in the west, just above Scorpio, which is still invisible. Tonight a crescent moon, just leaving Libra, becomes luminous above the roof of my house. Just as suddenly, the sky is uniform, gloaming blue, still beautiful. It’s night.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Travelogue 202 – October 5
Money and Monkeys and By the Way

9.13 Sticktown is just a fading dream in lurid colors. We wend our way silently down and across the great gorge, its villages asleep under the majestic river of clouds. We stop just over the other side in a town whose name is too long to recall. We are now in Oromia. Across the river to the north, we were in Gojjam. Signs are in the Roman alphabet again, in the funny, vowel-choked Oromo spellings.

We have our first meal and lots of coffee in a cozy, new hotel. We stand in their courtyard, in the warm sun, for a while. Spirits are revived.

In a couple hours, we arrive at the tourist spot of the day: Debre Libanos is a monastery and famous holy site, founded by one of Ethiopia’s dearest saints, Tekle Haimanot, in the thirteenth century. It’s one of the most important monasteries in the nation. Nothing remains of the original. Apparently the old building is a casualty of medieval Muslim-Christian wars. In modern times, it was victim to another war. An insulted Italian viceroy executed 267 monks and 129 deacons during the occupation.

You turn off the main highway to get there, and almost immediately, you’re struck by another one of those surprising Ethiopian panoramas. Off to the left, there’s another Wild West canyon, hazy and roseate strata captured among the roadside trees. ‘Oh, that’s pretty,’ we say. If we hadn’t just come from the granddaddy of great gorges, we might have been more wowed.

What we are excited about are the baboons. Pete and I have been watching all trip, knowing these are the hills in which to catch sight of the famous gelada baboon. By this stage of the journey, we’ve given up. But there they are, dozens of them in the grasses just beside the road. We get out and commune a while. It is odd to see animals so closely related to humans, to watch how they move and to try to gauge what’s behind the eyes. I like the big guys, the giant old-timers with great wigs of brown hair and insanely sharp teeth and bright red chests. They are content to pick shoots of grass and chew while we watch. But we have to stop the drivers, who think it’s funny to throw stones at them.

The monastery itself is another Haile Selasse structure, something so like a shiny toy in the distance, set against high cliffs, a toy you want to like and yet is just too awkward. We stand at the gates and debate whether we’ll go in. Mark doesn’t hesitate, but starts down a trail alongside the compound wall, toward the closest cliff, which hosts one of those high silvery falls.

We are still debating when we’re approached by a couple monks or monks-in-training. One is a dwarf. They offer us a tour, and we agree. It turns out the tour leads down the very path Mark has scampered down ... illegally.

The trail leads across a creek and then up a steep incline, up stones set as stairs. We aren’t really sure where we’re being led, but our guide, the dwarf, is having a good time. He’s joking and babbling about the monastery. His English is very good, and yet I’m still not sure what he’s saying. Pete and Neil have convinced him that Thomas is eighty years old and needs special attention, so we leave him behind to tend to our ageing friend, who, in fact, does need extra time to climb this hill in his expensive street shoes.

We discover at the top of the climb a damp cave. This was the original attraction for the great founding ascetic. He found this dark, cramped space, with its perennially dripping ceiling, perfect for prayer and meditation on the nature of God. There you go.

It’s while we’re there that we first notice the clouds. ‘Uh-oh.’ We aren’t quick enough. Halfway down the steps, the rain comes, and within minutes it’s a downpour. We run for cover of a tree. We dash across the swelling creek, jumping from one slick rock to another. We run for the cinder-block lavatories, which absolutely reek. Safe inside, we share our concerns about poor Thomas. We wonder what may have happened to him. We hope he’s all right. We debate who will go looking for him. He shows up, and we can’t help laughing: he’s completely drenched and forlorn, led by the arm by his small attendant. The cliche ‘like a wet cat’ fits Thomas so perfectly no one dares utter it.

He takes it well. We wait out the storm, pinching our noses. Eventually, we make a run for the minibus, where we find a crowd of locals has taken refuge. An elderly couple wants a ride to the highway. We’re willing, but we ‘re having trouble getting started. Mark’s been found out. Several monks have gathered at the door of the minibus, hollering at Mark. The dwarf is shoving an open palm in his face. Mark will not budge. He didn’t take the tour, he insists. He was going for a walk. None of us intervene. This is between Mark and the cliff gods. It turns out Mark wins, with the help of the drivers. Or does he win? About a half-hour down the road, Mark discovers his watch is missing. Spooky.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Travelogue 201 – September 22
Journey to Sticktown, Part Two

Drive up the north side of the Blue Nile Gorge on New Year’s Day and you pass through villages hanging on to hillsides, cultivating lovely green terraces hundreds of meters above the murky river. They’re not farming on New Year’s. You catch them in droves along the ‘highway’ – read dirt road, that nonetheless is their Main Street – clapping and singing in groups. These groups are circular and everyone is clustered very closely. They are struck dumb by the minibus full of faranjis that comes around the switchback ... struck dumb for a moment.

Across the great, wide gully, an hour or two ago, we were joking foolishly about the shifta, the local bandits. On this side, the jokes are picked up again. The boys have a penchant for chasing our van. They shout and laugh, they call out for money. A few run alongside for as long as they can. We call them ‘Kenenisa’ after the running champ and national hero.

But around every curve in the road, the groups become more formidable. And it seems that the equipment for boys in this singing and clapping ritual is a hefty staff that is rapped rhythmically against the rocks in the road. We’re still laughing when scores of boys are chasing the van, swinging their sticks. But we’re exchanging wide-eyed looks at the same time. The minibus takes a few loud blows. The driver halts once, and the kids immediately turn tail.

Every curve reveals a new congregation. ‘Stick people,’ we advise and slide the windows shut. ‘You! You!’ they shout with aggressive smiles, and they run. I could be in Paris, ensconced in my carriage on some narrow, barricaded street, upset because my powdered wig is askew.

We pass through the hilarious Terror unscathed, only to find some of the most glorious scenery awaiting us near the top. (See last entry and photo, please.) Our goal is – seemingly has been for days – the town of Dejen. At last it appears, some few kilometers past the ridge’s edge, as we ride into placid green hills like the ones on the other side. How could we help but notice the chebo piled up in great, upright piles like teepees: sticks and sticks. These will be burned later in celebration. Sophisticated wits that we are, we dub our new town ‘Sticktown’.

The name seems to fit. What better name for a pony express stop in the old Ethiopian Wild West? There’s Main Street, the highway, and the rest is slippery mud among squat, frontier homes. Dangerous men with white gabis over their shoulders walk along the highway. Others watch us from dark tea saloons. Our hotel is a compound behind high walls.

It’s nearly dark. Clouds are gathering for the night-long storm. We’re starving. We sit in the empty hotel dining room. We order food, and then forget about it. Four or five rounds of beer later, night has fallen and the place is packed. Sticktown has turned out for some holiday hoe-down. They are not shy. The Ethio-pop jukebox is jacked up and the bold are standing up with it, dancing for the crowd. We are the most vociferous of supporters, needless to say. The boldest is a man in a tan leisure suit. His eyes are unfocused; he coaxes the most painted of ladies to dance with him. His lazy glances settle among their bosoms. We decide he’s the mayor of Sticktown.

Soon, women in every sort of costume, traditional to tease, are standing and moving in very expressive ways. Our table has become silent. Oddly enough, the mayor’s striking wife is dressed most traditionally. She winks at me mockingly, and invites me to dance. I wow the crowd with my deep knowledge of traditional dance. Or is seems so in my foggy state. Lots of men telling me they love me: I take that for admiration of my dance style. Selam, the lovely mayor’s wife, doesn’t tell me she loves me. She just mocks with her eyes, and I can’t tear myself away. There’s a new mayor in Sticktown, Neil says.

Neil has troubles of his own. A lanky teenage boy in baggy jeans, with moves that suggest nothing traditional, has taken a shine to him. Long after Neil refuses him, he’s still mooning our way. When Mark returns from one of his stints in the Queen’s Bar – this hotel has two bars: ‘It’s like a cruise ship!’ Mark gushes – we direct the lovesick boy toward Mark, and Mark amuses us with a long, slinky performance with the boy. Alas, Mark realizes the joke and returns to the Queen’s Bar.

Bodies are writhing. Chaos is gaining primacy in the saloon. We cross the compound and climb the stairs to the Queen’s Bar. It’s empty but for our crew. Sadly, Kylo and the drivers have established a long loop of reggae songs, ‘One World, One Yawn: the Most Repeated and Indistinguishable Hits of the Century,’ is the name of the compilation, I think. Justine has taken over the area between six tables that passes as a dance floor. The (woman) bartender watches her hungrily.

I stand on the tiny balcony of the Queen’s Bar. I sway in the drizzle, and I watch the mayor and his wife leave the hotel, wondering if I should plant myself in the middle of the highway and call him out. I decide that wouldn’t be prudent. Down in the main bar, the women have fled and there’s no one left but Neil’s boys. Things might get rough.

I retreat from the night’s battles, from Marley-burn, and find my hotel room. There’s no running water in Sticktown. We wash from buckets in Sticktown, and that’s the way we likes it. We settle, greasy from the long road, in our bug-ridden beds, and we listen to African rain on iron roofs. We pray to our heavy-fisted God, and we scratch ourselves into dark, wilderness slumbers. No dreams because there is nowhere but the bogs of Sticktown. Good night, all, and Happy Millennium!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Travelogue 200 – September 15
Journey to Sticktown, Part One

Drive north out of Addis Ababa in mid-September and you encounter some localities familiar from ancient blogs, like Selulta and Chancho. But now they look fresh and Irish green. And that describes much of the half-day journey we pursue on Ethiopian New Year’s Day: bright green hills and pastures amid spells of mist. Lots of livestock.

The ten of us doze and chat. We take photos out the windows of the minibus. We stop in Fiche for lunch. A small crowd gathers to watch us. When he’s done eating, Mark entertains the children with magic tricks. It’s fun to see real amazement at old magic tricks.

About four hours into the driving, we come to the real goal of the trip. The first hint we’ve arrived is a sense of space ahead, the feeling you get when you’re approaching the ocean, a sense that the world is falling away. The sky expands. There are glimpses of distant ridges. Then the world does fall away. You’re poised on the edge of a gorge so wide and magnificent that it takes the breath away. Its far side is dim in the haze of the day.

This is the Blue Nile Gorge, and one thousand meters below snakes that grand old river, the ‘Abay’, as its termed in Amharic – a term that sounds identical to what children call their fathers.

It took us four hours to get here, and it takes us three hours to reach the opposite rim of the gorge. For one thing, there’s no asphalt on this road, (still one of two major arteries to northern Ethiopia). For another, we stop often for photos. Our first stop is only a few hundred meters down from the rim. There we find a beautiful waterfall. It crashes into a bed of boulders just beside the road’s bridge, and the stream continues on under the bridge, toward more falls. In fact, we almost become numb to the sight of high falls, like silver tassles among the rocks. They are everywhere along this road. I don’t know if this is only true in rainy season. I would guess most dry up in a few months’ time.

We’re content to look at the falls for a while, but the driver is nervous. He says this area is a favorite for shifta. That means bandits. We jump in the van, and of course, launch into many insensitive comments and alerts about bandits, boys being boys. Justine, the only woman on the trip, doesn’t find any of this humorous, but shows commendable patience.

The town halfway down becomes a bandit town. Boys run after the van, and we ask them if they’re bandits. Men with staring eyes and guns between their knees watch us from their front steps. We don’t ask them anything.

At the bottom of the gorge, among steep walls, run the muddy-brown and swift waters of the Blue Nile. Spanning it is a high bridge of Italian design. Thomas, an authority of all things Italian, squints at it and says it’s 1930s. I can’t verify that, but it’s old enough that supports have been raised for a second bridge almost next to the first.

Ethiopian officials have a thing about cameras. The drivers warn us, no photos of the bridge. This warning circulates several times around the van. And still, halfway across the span, Neil leans out his window with his camera, having tuned us all out long ago. The federal police, the grimacing-skulls, of whom I’m so very fond, stop us on the other side. There are words, but Neil calmly defuses the situation, deleting the photo while two uniformed lizards look on.

It’s a long road, but the view never gets dull. If anything, it becomes more delightful. As we near the opposite rim, we come across Shangri-La, green Alpine hills and terraces, crystalline falls and quiet farmsteads. I hope I can post a photo here.

The next morning, after our fateful night in Sticktown, we hit the road early. It has rained all night, but the morning is blue-skied. At least, it is above the gorge. When we arrive at the canyon, we see that down below the clouds have never parted. We look down into a serene and still inland sea of billowing white cloud.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Travelogue 199 – September 10
Intrepid Athletes All

Mud and mists and alarming pain in the lungs: these were our only rewards, but intrepid athletes all – well, only four of us, in actual fact – intrepid soldiers of athletics, we rose every other morning to make our assault on the mountains.

Ijigu arrives at seven to wake us. Rising from lack of sleep, from hangovers, and from the warmth of winter beds, we meet his summons. Ijigu is elite runner and general team attendant – and unanimous favorite of the Brits among my local staff. He is always cheerful and helpful, but never so cheerful as when he gets to take us out on the trails.

We pile into the team minibus and we motor uphill, nearly to the city limits. There we stretch and start at a brisk and anxious walk along the first trail. Anxious because in a matter of fifty meters or so we will encounter the first hill. It’s the longest and steepest hill of the course. It takes us literally to the top of the mountain ridge. Even the most fit among us – at sea level – are immediately breathless and light-headed, stung by the altitude. It’s a scary feeling to be so suddenly robbed of heart and breath. But, intrepid athletes all, we push through the pain and, by the end of the first week, we’re running up most or all of this incline.

At the summit, we’ve reached the rarified heights of athletics. Here, along a maze of dirt trails among the eucalyptus, train the cream of Addis Ababa’s runners. Ijigu, bored by our pace, falls into his loping, mountain habits, dashing into the trees and re-emerging at intervals to check on our progress. We plod by groups of them, doing high-step drills or passing like phantoms single-file among the trees. Kids in uniforms are playing soccer. Some laugh; some encourage. One can’t help but feel honored to be in their company – to feel exhilarated by the thin and chilly morning air and the glimpses of long green mountain slopes among the rainy season mists.

The Great Ethiopian Run was cancelled, as I reported, because of political weather, but the Brits take it in stride. We immediately begin plans for our own race. The Shiro Meda school is in the foothills. We train in the mountains. And most of our time in Addis Ababa is not spent downtown or in rich and faranji-friendly Bole, but in the hilly, poor northside, underneath the mountains. So, our run will be the ‘Tesfa Mountain Run’.

Mark and I leave the crew at John’s house one afternoon to walk the course. It runs about six kilometers along the top of the Entoto mountain range. It’s a very beautiful track, forested and still most of the way. In the last mile, the trees open up and the runner gets a panoramic view of the hills on the north side of the ridge, sloping away from the capital city. Our course ends at Entoto Maryam church, the first in Addis Ababa, established by old Menelik behind his first palace in the new capital.

The day of the race starts out cold and wet, but just as we set out in the minibus, the clouds part. We stop at the summit above my house, and we line up for launch. Two of our children hold the START banner in front of us. Wogayehu holds two stopwatches in either hand. Sost–houlet-and, she counts backward, and GO. We begin with a shout, rushing forward in a pack, until we hit the first hill.

The minibus passes us each on the course. Thomas leans out the side window with his camera and leaves us with wry comments on our plodding progress. At the end, the children stretch a home-made ribbon across the road, about a hundred meters up from the historic church. We each get a photo kicking through the ribbon in glory.

The rest of the children and parents are waiting for us down the hill at the Shiro Meda school. This is our Millennium party for the families. We’ve purchased a side of beef. Half a dozen parents sit at a long table outside, cutting up meat, onions and peppers. Bakalech is stirring with a stick the roasting food in a huge, shallow metal bowl that sits on a low fire. Inside, the parents sit formally and patiently at rows of tables. They are silent when we enter; they smile and nod at our greetings.

The kids, on the other hand, are boisterous. Mark has taught them a short song about the Millennium, which they perform for the parents. Then they sit on mats surrounding their parents while we conduct an awards ceremony for runners and for children. I’m forced as MC to announce my own award as second in the male runner’s category. I’m so nervous, I announce it twice ... and then once again at the end of the ceremony.

One millennium safely tucked away, with full stomachs and achy limbs we part. The children and teachers get two weeks off. We faranji head off to the bar to recount our adventures and victories, intrepid athletes all. New Year’s is still a few days away. Far are we from guessing the adventures still ahead ... in Sticktown.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Travelogue 198 – September 8
Times Passing

The media still chirps about the coming Ethiopian Millennium. The radio has a trademark jingle and advertising has become morbidly repetitive. In the real world, there’s little sign of the gleaming dawn. If anything, things seem grimmer than before.

The Great Ethiopian Run was postponed until November, news that my Brits – arriving to take part in the race – heard on the plane. The concert in Meskel Square was cancelled. Stern pairs of police have begun patrolling the streets again.

Celebration has submitted to fear. Eritrean and Somali agents are lurking: we musn’t provide them with targets. Locals take the cancellations well: by and large they weren’t too engaged in the first place. Foreigners bite their lips and tell themselves the trip was worth the millennial prices.

I’d say ‘so it goes; we carry on’, except that some of us don’t. Melesech, Leeza’s and Saba’s mother, passed away on the 2nd. She had been sick, but it was only afterward that most of us heard that her liver had failed her. Before that it was only stomach ailments.

It’s the day after the Brits arrived and I’m plunged into the chill fogs of family mourning. I’m scolded for my neglect and my absences. I’m forgiven and embraced. We sit joined in the gloom of bereavement, in the gloom of Saba’s tiny home, cleared for the wake. New arrivals initiate new rounds of wailing. This is the luxo, Ethiopia’s three-day rite of mourning.

I’m sunk into an aching lethargy. Memory hardens again into a leaden chain of loss. I’m numb and subdued even through the funeral, which in Ethiopia is a fiery catharsis. Hundreds flock to the graveyard. I arrive with Nebiyu, and we walk together among the crowd along the muddy road that bisects the huge graveyard. The crowd seems strangely urgent. We skirt puddles and stand aside for cars that bear the family and bear the well-to-do mourners.

I’m separated from Nebiyu. I realize I’m beside the hearse just as the back door swings open and a wild, multi-voiced keening begins. Saba rushes past, hoarsely screaming ‘Imaye!’ (‘my mother’), her clutched hands in the air. The coffin is lifted out and whisked away, and the chorus of suffering follows, squeezing through narrow alleys of graves. I’m pushed along through bogs of grass and mud.

The vanguard reaches Melesech’s grave and she is lowered in. Old ladies continue to push from behind. Wailing rises and falls from all around. Inside the suffocating circle are the hoarse shrieks and heart-breaking, sing-song laments of the immediate family.

Eventually, Saba and close relatives sweep by again, and the crowd surges to follow, though with less vigor than before. I linger behind, an island in the stream, until I’m left with the grave. I’m left with Leeza’s grave, and I feel an old horror and pain rise. Saba’s boyfriend calls to me, and reluctantly I abandon her.

Back along the pitted dirt track: we gather before the church, where some words are being recited. People are suddenly serene. They file past the family with sad nods and hand-shakes.

The formal luxo begins. The customary tent has been set up in the street. Hundreds gather there, filing past the family again, whom have been installed outside in a row of chairs. We are served lunch from huge pots, and we sit soberly inside the tent on benches. There are soft strains of conversation.

A few days later, the luxo has returned inside Saba’s small house. I sit among family, mostly old ladies in white shawls, who are no longer subdued. They chide Asfaw, Melesech’s cousin, because he breaks into weeping. It’s bad form to cry after dark. They gossip about family and about prices in the market. Saba rests on a mattress on the floor in the back of the room, staring blankly with half-closed eyes. Several other ladies sit with her, blankets over them, leaning against the wall. Saba hasn’t been alone since her mother passed.

And still the Millennium approaches, cruel in its blind march forward. No one is prepared. Somehow we must be ready to celebrate.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Travelogue 197 – August 23
Redolence of Things Past

My house is redolent with a musk of nostalgia. It’s the odor of mold, and it’s not a subtle fragrance, but nearly overpowering. It reminds me of all the various basements I’ve crashed in over the years, beginning with my brother’s in Tacoma, Washington when I was a teen.

And why is my house the focus of such fond stinks? A couple of nights ago, the place was flooded. Just when you think kerempt, or the rainy season, is diminishing, that’s when it will hit you. We had a storm to remember. I awoke at one a.m. to the roar of torrential rain on the tin roof. It was unnerving, the unrelenting volume, but that was just the beginning. The torrent turned to hail and went on for quite a while. In the morning, there were piles of ice like snow banks behind the house.

And in the morning, there were the remains of the storm, strewn through half the house, streaks of mud and puddles of water and ice on my uneven floor. The flood seems to have been stopped at the threshold of my bedroom by some mysterious and much-appreciated intervention. Similarly it stopped just before the live power cords on the ground in the salon. The gods of my nostalgia: what was able to creep in under my bedroom door so infected my carpet as to arouse very powerful triggers to the memory.

It’s an age of water and an age of disasters. On my way into Piassa in the morning, I pass one of Addis Ababa’s new city lakes, and I feel I might just be in Minneapolis, but for the beggars, cripples, waifs and wretches clogging one’s muddy way. The lake is actually a construction site. It has been one since I first arrived in Addis Ababa. Since then, though, I must say it has gained the prestige of fencing. Whatever it will be someday will be massive and important. It will occupy a huge chunk of land across the street from City Hall.

For now, it must stand as a symbol of the real (e)state of affairs next to the stately symbol of what we’d like, the sinkhole of the commonwealth. Oromia, by all reports, is becoming one such murky quagmire in our patchwork state. The approaching millennium affords all kinds of causes their day under the summer clouds. Bands of armed bandits calling themselves freedom fighters (all the rage among roaming armed bands) are said to be roaming about eastern Oromia demanding hard cash in the name of ... well, of whatever ethnic or religious principle comes to mind, I guess. There have been bomb scares, too, just to spice up the holidays.

This makes life difficult for anyone doing business in Mojo or Debre Zeit, ... say, someone like me. Just the other day Saba had to head off toward Mojo to negotiate for the release of one of our staff from the county jail. He was the unfortunate man in the middle, caught between employers in Addis who needed furniture moved from one site to another and officials and landlords always alert to chances for graft. He was charged with theft and held overnight while officials meditated the opportunities. Our man has been let go, but the paperwork grinds on toward its forgone conclusion: money in the proper hands. And Saba spends two hours in ‘customs’, along with crowds of others trying to re-enter the capital city.

That zone east of Addis is notoriously difficult. In nearby Nazarit, we had to walk away from a proposed school because the education officer wanted jobs for family and rent money for friends. Meanwhile, in Mojo, the owner of a private school is spreading lots of cash to shut us down. “We don’t need schools in Mojo,’ the enlightened education officer tells us. Hmm.

I have my comforts: the scent of sour sentiment and scenes of Mississippi mud in downtown Addis, they lend me inspiration. Onward ho!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Travelogue 196 – August 19

I’ve returned to Ethiopia at the height of the rainy season. The first impression is everything I dread: cold, damp, and moldy. The clouds never part. The house is dark and forlorn.

But after a few days, the clouds and my mood lift. The weather resumes a familiar pattern, lacking all pattern at all. Rather, it moves in waves across the sky, predictable only in being dynamic. It never stops. It might be sunny through strips of ambiguous cloud, while a black storm front builds on the horizon. It might sprinkle on you while the sun stays shining. It might be hailing in half an hour. The wind will rise suddenly and shake the trees of moisture. The concrete of my little courtyard is green with damp. The weather is something I begin to wonder at and even enjoy.

Today is Buhe, the end to another of the Ethiopian Christians’ many fasts. On this day, and adjoining days, troupes of boys parade around in a happy ritual not unlike trick-or-treat, in which the boys go door to door and sing a lyric that they adapt for whomever answers the door, making the song a silly song of praise. If you don’t give, they set off firecrackers.

I’ve heard two explanations for this fast in August. The first is the Assumption, when Mary gets swept up into heaven. This seems to be the popular explanation. Most people will answer that they’re fasting for Mary. Considering the general love for Mary here, that doesn’t mean they understand the origins of the fast.

The second I like better. It’s the time of the Transfiguration, which is the celebration of Jesus being proclaimed by the Father on Mount Tabor. Christ glowed, they say, which I suppose we all do in our dad’s pride. At the time, shepherd boys danced and sang all night. This leads into the tradition of Buhe.

Another thing about this season I had forgotten: the early evening migrations. In a pause in the showers, Jackie and I are playing in the yard when suddenly we spot, almost at the same moment, the first winged intruder. I believe they’re termites. Hardly a cause for celebration, but they are a fun sport for Jackie and me. Soon they’re fluttering overhead by the dozen, four gossamer wings struggling to keep going toward some instinctive haven. When one sinks down into our yard, Jackie starts jumping and snapping her jaws. Apparently, she finds the brown juicy bodies tasty. So do the birds. Detached wings drift upon the breeze. The game reminds me of when we lived at the school in Shiro Meda. It makes me nostalgic. From across the street, I hear the children screaming and laughing as the bugs descend into their yard.

Some other autumnal pests are descending on Addis. I’ve never seen so many white tourists here, presumably early for the millennium. Spanish, German, Dutch, French: I’ve heard them all as they strut up the street. In the hotels of Piassa, as I’ve mentioned before, the tourists are the backpackers. They always seem very proud, for reasons I haven’t figured out. I say ‘hello’, but they ignore me as an impostor in their dream. The taxi guys are happy, though. Business has been slow this summer.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Travelogue 195 – August 13
Fat Times

Everyone here in Addis Ababa is in agreement: I’ve gained weight. They insist it’s for the better. Even Melesech, who has lost as much as I’ve gained. She didn’t have it to lose. She lies in bed, as she has for months, with a permanently stunned look in her eye. She was in the hospital while I was away, bleeding internally. ‘You look good,’ she murmurs in Amharic, and I can’t answer for the bitter sadness and helplessness in my heart. She’s never been well, since Leeza died. There doesn’t seem to anything anyone can do. But we hope, and we take her to doctors.

If I’ve gotten fat, a fair share of the blame belongs in Great Britain. As Pete will confirm, I’ve become a great admirer of British cuisine, a cuisine known round the globe for its delicate qualities: sausage and mash, mushy peas, fish and chips, stout and ale. Ah, the refinement of it.

And now that Pete has moved out of London, I can taste it in its native environs. As far as I can tell, British cuisine has deteriorated in the capital, giving way to tepid palates grown accustomed to weak international dishes, Asian, Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern, African, etc. Alas.

The triumphs this trip: fish and chips and bitter. We scored some fabulous fish and chips. Maybe that’s not too surprising, being in a coastal fishing town. The fresh salt air wasn’t dulling my senses, either. So, so good it felt to be seaside – for the first time in years. Even among my passes through Rome, I haven’t made it to the sea.

And this place is perfect. Maybe it isn’t technically the sea – a channel instead? – but even standing on the great green cliffs (not so very far from Dover) I can’t descry the continent. So it’s sea to me. The hills are beautiful, and old town, filling one vale between them, flowing down toward the calm, grey, flatness of the sea is serene and pleasant.

It’s down among those narrow lanes and their squat, ageless pubs that I get my education in bitters. Pete is a connoiseur. I’ve resisted darker beers, for no good reason beyond an attachment for lagers formed in central Europe. But I’m talked into tasting, and then into a pint. One has to put in some time with bitters. With some, it’s like sticking your nose into a freshly trimmed hedge. But steady on: the rewards are considerable. Taste from a lager after you’ve put down a hedge or two, and you’ll find it flat and bland. The real bitter is flavor, no doubt about it.

And now time begins to bend. Maybe the Normans had no fish and chip joints, but I can imagine that bitter wouldn’t be too alien to them. Climb back up to the cliffs and you’re in their world, back to the beginning of something, overlooking the seas they crossed to defend William’s honor and defend the crown promised him by his Saxon brother-in-law.

Half his castle is missing, along with much of the hill it was built on, lost to erosion natural and planned. But it still makes for a nice tour. There’s a great view of the sea, and enough left of the old structure to make it interesting: the beginning of a new England. John from Worcester says the Anglo-Saxons built nothing higher than an arm’s-length. Certainly they don’t seem to have left anything behind. Unless it’s Stonehenge, the old stuff is Norman.

Particularly amusing is the fifteen-minute history presentation in the little theater, complete with plastic kings in the corners that light up, and yellowed-film re-enactments in which overweight Normans swing in slow, inaccurate arcs.

Pete and I take a tour of the 1066 battle site, which is not actually in Hastings, but in ... Battle(!), a tiny town quaint and gone tony in the way almost every town in southeastern England has gone tony, except Hastings.

The battle took place on a rather steep hillside, believe it or not, with the Saxons holding the crest. Now, and for a thousand years, the crest is commanded by Battle Abbey, a beautiful establishment, founded by William to cleanse himself of the blood spilled there. (Did you know that the Pope was on William’s side? The Normans carried His banner.) The old arch was placed where King Harold is supposed to have fallen with an arrow to his eye.

We tour the whole field, following a path that is set with placards describing the progress of the day’s battle: from the initial successes of the Saxons, who had already beaten the Danes in York and just managed to march back to face William, through the rumors of William’s demise and his famous raising of his helmet to give heart to the troops, through the faked retreats of the Normans to draw the Saxons down the hill, and on to victory at the top of the hill and the launch of a dynasty.

We manage to get lost, and discover a lovely fish pond and some fields that might have changed little since the eighteenth century, when the land was cultivated for pleasure and profit by aristocrats in wigs, fields shaded by huge yew and oaks. (Yes, Pete had to teach me what a yew tree was, though honestly, it look like nothing more than a drooping fir to me.)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Travelogue 194 – August 4
The Bridge

8.2 Helicopters circle. Traffic congeals along unlikely avenues. Roadblocks go up. Traffic cops blow their whistles. There’s a kind of hunted look in people’s eyes. Mortality is on the prowl again.

Public disaster is its own little climate system. Within its perimeters, within a few miles from the epicenter, you sweat under an oppressive anxiety. You look over your shoulder. You hesitate and second-guess yourself because nothing feels right. You snap at friends. You’re easily distracted and unsettled.

I circled the site today, traveling from errand to appointment and back to errands, crossing the river several times, and finally passing the place itself. Crossing over the highway, you can’t miss it, a chunk of the roadway thrust into the air where the bridge was wrenched free and fell into the Mississippi. It gives you a shudder and a fleeting feeling of land’s-end.

First word is a phone call while we’re at Steve’s last night. Roxana passes on the news from her call that a bridge has collapsed. Where it was, she didn’t catch. But the concerned calls continue to come. Steve’s got the TV on, and we are stunned at the image. Everyone has a story about their last pass over the bridge. The media voices drone through scarce facts and over limited video. ‘What did you feel when you first arrived at the site?’ she asks the transportation official.

Late tonight, I’m riding my bike back to Wes’s. We’ve made it through the first day of trauma. I have to cross the river. The closest bridges are shut. I have to cycle back to Hennepin to cross and then alongside the river to where my original path picks up.

The site of the collapse is awash in light. Rescue teams are still at it. The glow is forlorn, and it attracts a slow stream of tourists and melancholics. Small groups stand above the river, staring in morbid curiosity and murmuring.

Cars rest at the bottom of the river. Divers struggle against the Mississippi current to shine torches into the windows. I turn away and pedal past cops manning barricades. I’m eager to get away.

8.4 I wake earlier than I had planned. One thing about tent living, you’re exposed to the elements. Elements like jet engines churning the early morning air not too far above your head, taking off from the nearby airport, resounding like dream-shattering, aural mementi mori: ‘your time is coming.’

I get on the bike and work off a few quick miles. As I approach the café, a military helicopter roars directly over us, headed toward the river.

I absorb some caffeine and brood over inconsequential things, and I set out again. Today, I pedal across the university bridge. There are more people than usual on a summer morn. They’re standing at the edge, looking upriver. I assume they’re trying for a glimpse of the new ruins, but they’re not. On a field at river’s edge below, the helicopter is parked among an assortment of emergency vehicles. It’s Bush. He’s come to town to look over the fallen bridge.

Is the copter his ride or an escort? ‘It’s a decoy,’ opines one spectator. Nothing’s quite real here, until it’s time to clean up. Bush spends the afternoon at a fundraiser while the work in the river resumes.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Travelogue 193 – July 26
Red, White, and the Blue River

Life leads to funny places. What do I know about wine? I can discriminate between red and white on most evenings. The latter gives me headaches. One glass of the former makes me happy. Two glasses are likely to lead to faux pas. Three and I might fall in love, or some such other embarrassment.

Stephanie was in Ethiopia just this spring, leading the children in painting exercises. Now she’s driving to Minnesota with her boyfriend, carrying cases of wine in her trunk and stacks of children’s art on her back seat. She put together a fundraiser in her home state of Michigan, fusing art and wine, and making lots of dough. She made cute labels for the Michigan wine from pieces of children’s art.

Just the elegant setting should have been a draw to the Minnesota version of her event. Deneen hosted the event in her loft in a St. Paul artists’ co-op. The building is in a downtown neighborhood called Lowertown, which is a knot of brick relics converted into condos and malls, eerily quiet as only a Minnesota city could be. Deneen’s building is opened up inside so you can look up the tall brick shell and see the stacks of balconies that lead into artists’ lofts.

Ride the elevator and you may notice with a start the scorpion set in the plastic ceiling grate protecting the lights. Your heart jumps though you recognize it for plastic. It’s like the outlines of bugs are hard-wired into our alert systems. I study the menace in his claws and multiple legs and his low carriage, ready to pounce, and I feel like this little creature has been stalking me on this trip. I’ve taken a few stings.

We set the wine on one table, the cheese and crackers on another. We set the children’s art on just about any surface we can find, leaning the small matted pieces against the brick wall – the plentiful, cascading brick of this lovely loft – and lean them into the high windows that overlook the river.

We stand at the TV, watching Stephanie’s video of the kids dancing. The artists stand at the windows remarking on the evening light in the river valley. We teachers stand together and gossip. There’s a tug of war over the chocolate port, far and away our biggest seller. It’s a small crowd, and fortunately I’m not called upon to comment on the wines we’re tasting. That one is red, I say. This one is white. A toast to the little ones dancing on the TV screen. They have a future.

A few mornings later at seven a.m., I’m reciting the pledge of allegiance for the first time since grade school or high school. Mary and I are presenting to a Rotary Club. They meet at the clubhouse of a golf course. Outside the window, beyond the flag, lie the peaceful green hillocks of the course. The Rotarians have fed us a very nice breakfast. The old man next to us tells us about the fox in his yard.

The pledge made, I’m standing before a dozen or so at their tables. I’m referring them to Roxana’s power point and stumbling. It’s a tough crowd. I stop and look closer, from eye to eye, and I see in them how many charitable groups have presented here. I see how far away Ethiopia is. The children are dancing.

We do get one donation. It’s from the man who commented on the madrasas in the Middle East, inculcating radical Islam. He tells me later that a relative of his went to school with one of the Emperor’s family fifty years ago. He writes down the man’s name, saying he must be a minister by now. I agree to look him up.
Travelogue 192 – July 26

Suddenly it’s raining. When I enter the café at two, it’s ninety degrees and mostly sunny. Half an hour later, I look up and notice the rainfall outside.

The weather counts. My vagabond life has moved out of doors. Four weeks into my Minnesota visit, I have to find new digs at short notice. What I’m able to arrange is a tent and a sleeping bag in Wes’s back yard.

I travel by bicycle. Wes’s house is about an hour’s ride from Roxana’s apartment, which is my only regular access to computer technology. There are no internet cafes in Minneapolis. In a pinch, I can stop by the university and pretend to type in a password at the computer lab.

Everybody has a cell phone. I have one, too, but it doesn’t work. I’m guessing someone hasn’t paid the bill.

I run outside to slip a plastic bag over my bicycle seat. I’m wondering how to handle the unfortunate coincidence of downpour with appointment across town. But I see grace when I look above. Minnesotan Zeus, capricious weather-maker of the north, likes a rich palette. His one dome of sky is many stories, blue patches among milky white strata, beside high, black thunderheads, and darker masses to the east. Today’s story is about jarvis’s reprieve from a drenching.

And this is kind of like the tale of Tesfa, after all – Tesfa meaning hope, I remind the reader – a bit of doggerel scratched in sand. It’s an operation with a big heart and big ambitions and an office that roves – from Craig’s basement to car trunks to boxes and tents – with rotating phone numbers and then none, with borrowed and broken computers strewn across three continents.

All in all, I have to be happy at the end of the day, bicycling to the home of the day late at night, zigzagging among silent residential streets in South Minneapolis. The air is still and humid. The moon is up, its lines indistinct in the hazy sky. Crickets sing among the hedges and in the parks. I check in with Wes when I arrive, quick whispered hellos and news, careful not to wake the family. And then I climb into my blue pod of a tent. It crinkles as I crawl in. I lay across the sleeping bag. I unzip the flap that opens my screened window. I can look up at the stars. I fall asleep trying to figure out what piece of a constellation I’m looking at.

In the morning, it’s on the bike again, back into town for work. I spend a lot of time on that machine this month, and I love it. Occasionally, I think my friends are mystified. I ride it to meeting places even when I have a ride. But in a few weeks, I’ll have no bicycle.

One of the highlights this trip: the new ‘Greenway’. That’s a bike path, recently completed, that travels along an old railway line east to west, from the river to Uptown in Minneapolis. I look for errands along that route so I can cruise its smooth course, pedal without stopping. It’s the best meditation.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Travelogue 191 – July 5

I have to pre-empt the Tigray series again with another expedition, this one instigated by a crew of friends and believers back home. And that's where I write from today: 'back home'. That means Minnesota -- bright and sunny and clean old Minnesota, my happy and peaceful state picking up the pieces after its raucous national holiday.

I came by way of Rome and London. The latter for business, the former a pleasure required by the return ticket in hand whilst 'back home' in Ethiopia. Ah, Roma: it's like a long and luxuriously slow novel that I pick up every summer.

The Eternal City is baking when I pass through. I'm staying with Ugo, in his flat on the top floor of the mid-century high-rise among blocks of the same in Colli Albani.

Ugo has jump-started his artistic career since the last year's chapter. He's had an exhibit of his photography. He displayed a series about the story of Jesus, but featuring a nude female model in an empty room with brick walls. The exposures are long, so that any figures beside the woman are ghostly. He pours green and red light into the room at various angles. Several shots are very attractive, how ever dark and abstract the message may be.

Ugo wonders what my agenda is this time. I say, 'walk'. And that's just about all I do. I'm a bird released from his cage when I make it to the West. It could be Watts or it could be Rome; I just want to walk all day. It feels like freedom.

My favorite walking route on this trip (after the Metro and a bus) is to cross the river on the Ponte Sublicio and walk through Trastevere to the Ponte Sisto. I stop in my beloved Campo de' Fiori for a long coffee at Le Matte Teste and watch the neighborhood. The cute Romanian waitress is still there, singing along to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. I've been away too long time; she only half recognizes me.

I return to the river and walk along the bank below street level up to the Ponte Sant'Angelo. It's a peaceful way to go. You don't catch many sights , and you may have to dodge a bike or two, or skirt a homeless encampment underneath one or two of the bridges, but it's quiet. You stroll beside the green water on a broad bit of pavement. Up above are the plane trees along the Lungotevere. Climbing back into the city, I bypass the Vatican and explore the neighborhoods north.

One late afternoon, I end up back in the center. I like the old, winding streets just across the river on the Ponte Sant'Angelo. Without thinking about it, I come upon the Pantheon, one of my favorite spots. I soak in the place, leaning against the fountain in the middle of the piazza, and finding myself becoming an unlikely nuisance to photographers.

I think there are more cameras than people in the piazza. Certainly more lens tourism than naked-eye appreciation. It's that odd ratio that makes me a nuisance. I've chosen an innocuous position, but I'm so absorbed in the sight -- the age and majesty of it, standing since the days of Augustus -- that I attract the notice of the camera people. They are on schedules; they ebb and flow, circle and fidget so furiously that I must look like a statue in time-lapsed footage. They just need the angle at every tourist stop, and they need it quick. This guy's got the angle, they must think. They position themselves in front of me, back into me. Click. Finally, I become the photographer, couples handing me the dream machines to imprint their trips to Rome. I must be a natural dreamer: the structure is framed rather nicely in the digital screens from my spot. Stand there, between the colossal columns of the towering portico. Click: you are recorded and remembered, along with old Agrippa. The monument does its job.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Travelogue 191 – June 27
Muddy Doldrums

Seventh in the Tigray series. Hang in there!

4.17 Adigrat. All the best traveling involves a healthy amount of lingering. Lingering so healthy it would be unhealthy back home. If you drag home-style productivity into the travel experience, you’ll end up being one of those checklist travelers whose chipper litanies after the fact, complemented by volumes of photography, are so deeply alienating. Better you waste some time. Pass an entire trip without a spell of disaffected doldrums, and you know your travel-planning was off. That mid-trip melancholy, feeling adrift and lost, is the best sign that you are loved by the gods of travel. (Who would those be? Hermes? Carolyn, please inform…)

I’ve hit the sweet-trip doldrums. Saba and I can’t decide how we’re traveling to the next destination, Do we take the bus or hire a driver? The dilemma arises from our commitment to visit the historic Debre Damo monastery, which is a ways off the highway. Saba’s family searches for drivers; I interview cabbies in the town center; we wait.

I wake up early and walk down to the Catholic Cathedral – landmark in Adigrat, a leftover from Italian occupation, I believe. It’s a nice-looking building, a simple version of what you might find in Europe, though Spartan in ornamentation. There’s a campanile and a tiled dome. All is tasteful, except for the plaster super-Jesus above the door. He looks friendly enough, though kind of lumpy. It’s the Superman colors he’s wearing that put me off. I know he walks on water but I don’t remember the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet verse. I leave that to the theologians.

Back at the hotel, I’m restless. I decide on a long walk. I’ll head toward the mountain pass in the west. There are two old churches guarding entry into town on either side of the descending road. I brave the western neighborhoods – ‘you, you! Money!’ kids on my tail and old folks staring – until I reach the winding dry riverbed that courses down from the mountains and through town. I’m walking among small farmsteads, finding peace at last, and I’m reflecting on how this wide riverbed must roar during the rainy season – just as massive clouds gather over the mountains and thunder begins to rumble.

The story goes exactly where it must, in accordance with the ironclad logic of the travel doldrums. There are no gentle entrances for bad weather in Ethiopia, no reprieves or wistful mists. I’m drenched within minutes. I follow a few groaning cows down a slippery mud path back toward town. Once in town, people watch me from doorways and windows as I stomp through every puddle mid-road. I have the streets to myself; that much I can be grateful for.

And no less grateful am I for the hot water in my hotel room shower. Right about the time the storm is passing and the last raindrops are falling, I’m stepping under a new and much more pleasant stream. By the time I’m done, long shafts of sunlight are breaking through the clouds, slanting toward the east.

It isn’t long before the sun has consolidated his hold on the big blue sky again, blue growing ever deeper and rays slanting at ever more radical degrees, exaggerating the shadows of our cluttered little world. I want some horizons. I want some space. I ask our cringing landlord if the roof is open to visitors. It is. I’m even able to have a beer delivered to me there. I sit on top of an anonymous block of concrete and I contemplate the mountains in their darkening, end-of-the-day hues.

I’m on top of the city, on top of Africa. I’m on top of fogs of frustration and grief and joy. Minute by minute I rejoice, I reject. I want to leave; I want to stay. For one still moment, we find a truce, the country and I: me and this crazy, arid sunset paradise, land of aquamarine churches hundreds of years old, land of yellow stone and red earth, of magnificent silences and angelic smiles and innocent aggression, of native gentility and bedrock religion, of forever sun and avenging clouds, of ridges long in miles and ages, and of the drifting humanity at their feet, drifting for millennia, many millennia before they had a name for mountains or for themselves. It’s a terrible beauty, and hard to live with.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Travelogue 190 – June 23

Sixth in the Tigray series – into the hills ...

4.15 Adigrat. We come to the heart of the journey. For dear Saba, it’s the purpose. We will visit her family outside Adigrat. We will visit ayat, the grandfather who has become mythic in stories at home.

The family meets at a Shell station on the north side of town. There’s no way to Feredeshem except to hire an Isuzu flatbed. Once the driver has completed some important gossip across the street, we load up and rumble out of town: the Sabas and I in the cabin and the rest standing in the back.

We reach the armed men in uniform blocking the highway, and they are quite angry that I and Saba #2 have forgotten our identification, but they wave us on. At the second barricade there is no passing, just a turn right onto a dirt road, a dirt road that diminishes and wanes by the mile, until the ride is quite jarring and at points we are spinning wheels on traces of paths on slopes that are nearly bare rock.

It’s not far before the landscape simply cuts loose with stunning vistas like a Western painter’s dreams. It’s magnificent. Imagine the American Southwest undiscovered and unbranded, developing along its own historical path, far from the Europeans.

Later, I ask Saba’s cousin Hadgu and his mother how long the family has been out there. They recall a few names, but have to wave surrender before the enormity of the question. I joke, ‘since Lucy’. They find that hilarious.

Arrival comes in stages. First, we come to the hilltop schoolhouse under construction, just five empty rooms of cinder block alone on a hill. One of Melesech’s brothers is waiting for us there. I believe it was Gebre-Meskel. Asfaw disembarks and walks ahead. We coast across the hilltop, descending slightly, until we can go no further, parked at the edge of a steep fall.

This is where we hike, down into a glorious valley with a view of hunchback mountains receding into the mist, into far Afar. And all the way down into the canyon, on terraces and jutting rocks, are small homesteads – including Gebre’s. Gebre is Saba’s ancient grandfather. His is a small compound of rock walls and old, twisted tree branches, three rooms around a dirt courtyard that have been there for most of the last century. By the entrance is an enclosure with two bee hives for honey: they look like hollow logs drilled with single holes for the bees, covered with rags and wood.

Part of the courtyard is sheltered by a roof of corrugated iron. Underneath is a low platform covered by eucalyptus leaves and cow hides. Here sits Gebre, beautiful old man, nearly 100, in a brown suit coat and gabi over his shoulders, in shades and a brimmed, brown felt hat vaguely Bolivian in effect. He has a white, Whitmanesque beard, and sits alone in timeless dignity, as though meditating decades of milk, livestock, honey, and barley; meditating on his brood of twelve and the far reach of his progeny now.

The family pours out to greet us, Gebre’s children and their children and children’s children. They lead us to seats on the cow hide. One auntie screams into Gebre’s ear about Saba, his grandchild from Addis Ababa come to visit. Solid Saba seems overwhelmed. I quickly get out of the way and enjoy the show. One of the old uncles parades lambs and chickens by us to see what we would like for lunch. Saba insists they not trouble themselves. Still, we aren’t there long before ti’olo is served. We crowd together and eat with twigs.

When I get a chance, I go outside and walk around our terrace above the canyon, trying to take in the scope and beauty of this place. I pull out the camera, and shy children gather around me. I make them laugh with the pictures that are captured inside. If Pey helps me figure out how to upload photos, I’ll post one.

Before we go, Saba bows at Gebre’s feet to receive his blessing. He makes a short speech that brings tears and laughter from the crowd. He lays a palm on Saba’s head in blessing.

The way back is comic. We hike back to the truck and find waiiting for us a mob of extended family. Saba is beseiged by them; she submits to a half hour of more hugs and chit-chat. I sit in the passenger seat. A very old man comes and shouts a long speech at me, something akin to the city councilman’s peroration of welcome and thanks.

Saba is fried. She abandons the crowd and gives the signal to go. Relatives are hurt that we won’t come by their houses for coffee or meals. They plead with her. She becomes desperate to get moving.

At the sound of the engine, the mobs move on the truck, climbing up into the back until there’s not an inch to spare. The ride back is long and circuitous, the driver patiently making sure everyone gets dropped off where they need to be, and stopping for locals who need a ride down the hill. There are no buses or garis. Few have horses; the only way to Adigrat or Zal Anbessa is on foot. Interspersed along the long road to town, lonely men and women walk. The distance on foot takes all day. We pass a wedding, just a circle of people singing and clapping around the lucky couple.

The crowd in the back gets us in trouble with the border military. These grim reapers stop us and make everyone get out. No one in the back has ID. They must walk. We’re close enough to town that they can catch a taxi, so they still proceed into town. The logic escapes me, but I smile anyway, trying to appease the police-lizards, meeting their unblinking glare with apologies in my humble tourist’s eyes. Their spite doesn’t waver, even as they wave us on.

Feredeshem! The sun sets over Adigrat, and I think of the family we left behind in the hills. History and time and the corrosive anxieties we vainly assemble into stories, all disperse with the daylight. They’re still out there, making a fire, gathering around grandfather.