Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Travelogue 175 – February 28
Much Ado About Moving

What can I say? As I sit to write, what emanates from the speakers but “Hotel California”? There’s never a day here without some surreal touch. The glass of the window radiates with African sunshine. Outside are the squalid streets and the mountains above, laid with eucalyptus shag, scorched with brilliant midday light. But I’m testing myself to see if i remember the guitar solo at the end. An American never leaves home.

Yesterday was also a scorcher. I sat outside, partaking of breezes and pollution, and watching those same furry mountains rub themselves against a scanty line of white clouds. Sebla joins me and introduces herself. Everyone knows Sebla, but I’d never known her name. She is here every day, just like I am. But her daddy owns the cafe. In fact, her daddy owns the whole building.

There’s a story to that. The building previously occupying this site was the Tigray Hotel. People still call this structure the Tigray Hotel, though the real thing was bombed four years ago. Forty people died. It’s politics; why else are bombs set off? See if you can follow: there’s an Oromo separatist movement that is fond of bombs. The current Ethiopian government is dominated by Tigrenya people, led by Mr. Meles, who, in his day, returned many souls to their Maker in the name of Tigrenya independence. The Tigray Hotel was, oddly enough, a hang-out for many Tigrenya people. Ergo, what better spot for incendiary devices and murder to advance the cause of Oromo pride? More terrorist logic bred in caves, ingested with the native soil that peppers their raw, native meat.

The property is bought by Sebla’s daddy, who is blessedly neither – he is Guragay. He builds the current bit of pink modernity amid the iron-roofed, colonial-era brothels and bars: four floors and basement, middle floors commercial rentals, top and bottom family businesses – cafe above and night club below. All is well. Sebla, fresh out of business school gets to manage the whole show.

Sebla is cute. She’s pretty in an elaborate, manicured way. The eyebrows are plucked and sketched back in. The nails are immaculate and feature tiny flower designs. Her clothing says upscale, way beyond the needs of this neighborhood.

So, pretty Ethiopian woman approaches. I know what is expected: money, America; America, money. I’m lucky to get away for only the cost for her tea. But Sebla has money and she has work. I’m intrigued.

She smiles. She’s nervous. There’s the usual small talk about Ethiopia: why I’m here, how long, what I think of it. And by the way, where are you from? “I’m going to America,” she tells me. Okay, one hurdle cleared. She already has a visa. The other shoe drops: “How do I stay? Do you know? Do you have any ideas?” No, I sure don’t. “Why do you want to stay in America when you’ve got work and family and plenty of money here?”

“Oh, I just want the choice. Get my green card, and then I can come and go. ... So, what do you think? Marry somebody?” She smirks to hide her hunger.

My neighbor Bogale tells me that out of twenty-two childhood friends, there are four or five left in Ethiopia. The rest are in America or Europe. He shrugs. Bogale is a philosopher. “My family teach me, look first, find out who I am. Why go?” Life is simple. First family, then friends, then other humans, and then? Then what? Money? Very firmly, he says. “Love is not money.” He repeats it with a stern look, “Love is not money.”

Bogale doesn’t believe in a anything that divides people. I’m impressed with him. Even religion is suspect. “I know what I know,” he says. “Everything else, zimbolo.” It doesn’t matter.

With feeling, he says that it hurts him that his friends go abroad and they fade away. Communication drops off. He says you can even tell who is getting ready to go. “They come out of their gate, they don’t show you their face.” They don’t say hello on the street. They’re gone.

So who’s the success, Sebla or Bogale? And who’s the more human? Cheap moral, I know. Check in on the story after a year: watch for Sebla on the streets of Georgetown. And look in on us here. I’ll be admiring Bogale’s martial arts books under the same old sun.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Travelogue 174 – February 21

I have an ally in the neighborhood named Bogale. I’m not unique in that; he is everyone’s friend. He comes to my rescue when Bakalech is sick and she refuses to run in my phone bill payment, – it’s the simple things that reduce expats to functional infancy – giving us his true-blue, gap-toothed smile: “No problem.”

Bogale lives next door in his family’s house, where he rents rooms out. He’s a young man with some talent and ideas, a guileless face. He studies wood-working. He likes martial arts. I’ve had to promise him some training time this summer when I start running again. His English is better than that of most Ethiopes.

He’s not so ambitious that he doesn’t have time for standing outside his gate and chatting with passers-by, and not so complacent that he won’t pitch in with neighborhood work. He spends a weekend sweeping the length of our dirt road. He watches neighbors’ houses while they’re away. He lends a hand painting. He helps me on move-in day. None of these seems motivated by hopes of reward, which is pleasant, unusual.

My other neighbors have been behaving, conscientiously piecing together a silence of sorts, an Ethio version of silence, an Ethio-Pente-with-young-kids version: a confined ruckus and roar. They try, and I appreciate that. Still they have their prayer sessions three times a week, wailing sessions called prayer.

I find the Pentecostal concept confusing. The Spirit took possession of the Apostles and they spoke in tongues – once, as far as I recall. It came as a surprise and then they went out to conquer the world. Fast forward to this bunch, who get the Spirit right on schedule, three times a week, and their tongues sound exactly the same every time. They part with civil good-nights and promises to be back on Tuesday. Am I missing something? It reminds me of history’s zealots, determined to suffer more than Jesus, by a magnitude of hundreds if they could.

I’m having some trouble with one new neighbor, the mouse who has borrowed in under the wooden wardrobe in my bedroom. I wake up, and he’s chewed holes in another one of my dwindling garments. Will Jackie accept a cat? I’ve tried a mousetrap. The delicate little creature just eats the food without triggering the trap. Check the sores on my fingers to see how sensitively I’ve tried to set the mechanism.

Here’s me at the school in Shiro Meda: founder in his dotage – a nuisance, but what can you do? I arrive and I take a deep breath. I swear the air in that little playground is different. It’s like springtime. I trade greetings with Tsehay, Mintawab, and Fellaku, the non-teaching staff, and then I rush back to the classrooms.

Wogayehu is with the first-graders now. Wogayehu is determined, dedicated, and talented, slight in body but big in voice She has this challenge ahead of her now: to lead the children through a year’s curriculum in the next semester. Still, she makes way for me, indulgently, when I enter the class. The students are all smiles. Me, I’m still so delighted to have them back that I’ll stand and admire them for long minutes, until some protest that I’m standing in front of the blackboard: “Move, Mister Dana!” I’m so charmed that I don’t move at all.

I wander around the class, patting heads and looking over shoulders. It’s a tight fit because Wogayehu has insisted we move her class into my old bedroom. I wouldn’t have believed they would fit, but she made it work. It works better than the bigger space in the back. I ask the kids to recite English for me. I unroll the map of Africa that Laura brought for them, and I challenge them to find Ethiopia. I wade through the waving arms and pointing fingers. It’s Ermias who gets it. “Addis Ababa,” he adds, showing off, pressing his finger deeply into his continent.

Wogayehu has her limits. I’ve got to go. I stop in on the KG class and get everyone giggling. The new KG teacher, Haregwa, endures the interruption gracefully. I’m outside, a hard day’s work at the school done, looking up at the sky, feeling a bit lost.

Stephanie has been to the school a few times now. She participates in the Friday art projects. Stephanie is an artist. She’s from Michigan. That sort of distinction goes over Graham’s head. It’s enough that she’s from America – the first and perhaps most devastating fact in a deteriorating relationship. Being from America is like a secular original sin, one that I seem to have recovered from because I have submitted and enjoyed his wit. Stephanie didn’t. She came to Ethiopia to volunteer for his program, which is how she eventually arrived in our classrooms. But the two just never hit it off.

Stephanie is a striking woman, tall and blonde and graceful. Her smile is beautiful. We stay late at the Tsion several nights, after Laura has retired, drinking beer and talking about art. She seems impressed that I know a few big names. We’ve been to some of the same galleries in Europe. She tells me how Rembrandt’s eyes changed after his wife died. “Look at the eyes.” She’s a believer.

Stephanie is planning a project for next week combining music and art. We’ll be testing that old superstition about Mozart and kids and higher mind function. She plans to auction the art that comes out of her experiment as a fundraiser for the school: the Classics in Crayon. Let me know if you’d like to bid.

Another visitor and another. I think Tsegereda will appear in the guidebooks soon. Next month we’ll be receiving a visitor from the US. Enough said, or shall I report that he’s from Minnesota? The mission of Patrick’s non-profit is to spread the gospel of kites around Africa. He and his entourage will visit four or five countries, reeling out the string and running into the wind. Tsegereda School is on the itinerary, but I may be out of town, scouting future school sites and being a tourist up north in Tigray.

And shall I report about Dai, our new Japanese friend? I’ve seen him in the cafe at intervals all winter. He sits absorbed in his notebook for half a day, the picture of a new Japan: tall and strong, scruffy hair confined in a hip-hop ski cap, Allman Brothers tie-dye T-shirt, curled wooden spike in his ear, sheep’s horn on a string around his neck, totemic tattoo on his biceps of an Alaskan eagle. He has motorcycled across much of Africa in previous years, and he’s settled on Ethiopia as a place worthy of more time and further photographic treatment. He has a website, which I’m happy to pass along to the curious. Let me know. And pass word along about the hottest new tourist attraction in Africa: a little kindergarten in the hills above Addis Ababa ....

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Travelogue 173 – February 17
The Mountain

It’s an odd-looking mountain, kind of a trapezoid with steep sides. t stands alone. It’s dark green with a forest of firs, something of old Ethiopia, I would think: old growth that hasn’t been supplanted by eucalyptus. That might have happened because, as you would expect with such an odd mountain, it has become a holy place. There’s a church halfway up and another on top. Monks and nuns are common sights on the roads.

This is Menagesha, a spot easily missed on the western highway out of Addis, about forty minutes by bus. Call for a stop once you hit the first town after passing a huge complex of Dutch greenhouses. You’ll have spotted the odd mountain almost as soon as you left the capital city.

How do I know about Menagesha? It was a favorite get-away of Francois’. He learned about it from his friend Adonijah, the black Rastafarian from Louisiana, who has been in Ethiopia for about eight years on a tourist visa that expired seven years ago. He moved to Menagesha last year. But when Saba asked locals about him, we discovered that he had decamped some time ago. It occurs to me that Francois may have told me already that he moved south to be with one of his wives. Rastafarian men have rigorous sexual duties.

Try to get an earlier start than we did. It’s one of those places easy to get to and not so easy to leave. Even at 2:30, when we’re back in town, we have to settle for an Addis city bus. It isn’t too bad. It takes a different route back, more rural and more scenic. You pass a nice little lake that I didn’t know existed, watering hole for a few handsome flocks of herons. Scenic as it is, though, the road rattles the brain until it aches. And that’s before you enter the interminable northern suburbs of the capital, sun and crowds robbing you of oxygen.

Once you’re in Menagesha, stroll the main drag until you find the entrance to the road to the mountain, which is designated by an arch topped by a cross. You’re immediately in the farmers’ town, a few parallel dirt roads saving it a place on the map. Beyond, our road meanders past small farms, where locals are cultivating potatoes and spinach and false banana trees. They shout helloes. When I say small farms, I mean small, like a hundred yards from the road to the brown grasses of the untamed.

School children in red ask for pens or money. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself alone with the impressive scenery: the small, lush farms and their huts, and past them, the long, yellow fields and valleys. One flat-topped acacia stands solitary, as though its field were a Japanese garden.

The mountain is calling me. I leave Saba and Laura, who don’t hear the call and would rather walk slowly. Our time is limited, so I stride ahead. It’s not the smartest plan. I should have relaxed with them in the churchyard instead. No, I pass the pretty church, circular and colorful according to tradition, and the shady field of graves behind it, on to the steep slopes made dim by thick forests. Saba said I would see monkeys, but I don’t. I think I hear them, but it’s the trees, clacking against each other in the breezes, groaning as they bend, screeching as they rub against each other. The road up is grueling, and the trees are too dense to allow much of a view. At the top is another church or monastery, still as a ruin. I sit a while on pine needles. I could be lost in the Sierra Nevadas.

By the time I’m back to the first church, where Laura and Saba are sitting peacefully under a tree, greeting church visitors, my legs are shaking . My knees are aching. Happily, Saba has packed a lunch. It’s bad manners to eat outdoors, but we can’t be stopped by convention now.

At the bottom of the first slope, we’re lucky to encounter a gari dropping children at their house. We crowd in. It’s a ride to make one question, trembling knees and all, wouldn’t it have been better to walk? Laura and scream alternately. Her shouts are fear; mine are pain. I’m at the end of the bench, one buttock on the wooden plank and one buttock on the iron rail twisted into a sort of rail. The rocks in this road are like the stars in the sky, infinite and varied, random and mysterious, turning an impersonal and vaguely malevolent eye on the affairs of man.

We arrive, sore and grateful, at the dusty highway, where we take our place among the crowd at the bus shelter, standing in the sun, crouching in any shade. There are no schedules. Just wait, contemplate the odd mountain.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Travelogue 172 – February 13
Two Episodes

that illustrate life in Addis. The first features myself and Pete, who is Tesfa Lord in London. He happens to be in Ethiopia on other business. Some time after I left Europe last summer, he scored a job with another NGO working in Ethiopia, a real NGO, one with money and history. He’s director of the office in London, and now he gets his first introduction to programs here.

He’s been here almost three weeks and every time he gets a chance, he sneaks away from the day job to join us, look in on the school or hang out. Our routine on these occasions is quickly resolved: coffee and beer, in that order.

There’s coffee at the regular Piassa cafe with the view over the city, accompanied by long and leisurely and circular discussions of strategy for Tesfa. About the time we have once again acheived universal education across Africa, or we have forgotten what we were talking about, we head out into the sunshine in order to catch a taxi north. Pete and I will stop at my place to sit in the sun and throw the ball for Jackie. In spirited moments, we go in for soccer. Jackie shows some talent, stopping or shuffling the ball with her front paw.

Evenings are reserved for beers at the Tsion Hotel, the city’s last major patio on the road north, a few blocks from Laura’s house. The outdoor tables are crowded and unfit for conversation, condemned with Ethio-pop, but inside is a cosy room of dark faux wood and quiet. The bartender is friendly. He knows what we will drink. The waiters are prepared for Laura’s guilty order of spaghetti and meat sauce.

It’s a nice refuge, but not a failsafe one. One night a very drunk man strikes up a loud, one-way conversation with us. He’s an Ethio expat come home. For thirty years he lived abroad, in Russia, Paris, London, Washington. He’s come home to care of his 91 year-old father, one of three surviving generals of the imperial army, lucky to have escaped the fate of most of his colleagues, a bullet. The son teaches at Addis Ababa University now, making 2500 birr a month to his great distress. But his 78 ‘children’ (students) love him. He insists on that. Moral of the story, (with an emphatic slur): you think it’s hard being faranj, but it’s ten times harder coming back.

But I digress. Or rather, I haven’t begun. Episode #1: Pete and I are due at the Tsion in an hour. It’s a lovely afternoon. We decide to walk, and since we have time, we will take a diversion off the main road.

It doesn’t take more than fifty paces down a side road made of large stones, (roads popularly known as CARE roads because they are the handiwork of an NGO by that name,) before you’re out of big-city Addis. We come to one of those stinky, trash-laden gullies called rivers. On the left side of the road the river is bound by a steep slope occupied by what looks like a community garden. It’s very neat. Pete is intrigued, so we divert again, up a small dirt path.

A pair of boys joins us. My reflex is to tell them we have no money. But they want to tell us about the gardens. Family plots, we pick up: an NGO. The story is fleshed out when we come upon some adults who work for the NGO.

After a quarter mile or so, the slope broadens and the gardens spread above us. We see a group gathered around a mechanical water pump that operates like a stepper. Most of the group is boys delighting in the top. Two men are supervising: founders of the local NGO. The family plots are tended by AIDS victims. The project looks well-organized: clear plot boundaries, irrigation, delicate plants in bags. The men become very earnest when they learn Pete runs a British NGO. I drift away when I see the look in their eyes. I’ve seen it before, and it usually means long lectures that brook no interruption or humor.

One boy has an attractive amulet that looks like a small gear set with fake diamonds. When I remark upon it, he offers it. I always forget about this tic of Ethiopian hospitality. He’s insistent, but I’m more so. As a group, the boys and I make it up the slope, climbing like goats single-file. We come across a toothless old woman carrying two 20-liter jugs of water from the pump up to containers that release into irrigation channels. I take one jug, though she protests, and stagger ahead. This woman has muscle. One of the other boys takes the other, two-handed.

On top of the hill, local teens hassle our boys. Participating in the program identifies them as sons of HIV families. Pete and I move on, and the boys don’t abandon us. They want to show us a church up another obscure road. We each have our group of chatterers, holding our hands and testing their English. We must know about the neighborhood. They must hear how we love Ethiopia. They must know what we think of Henry and Rooney and other soccer stars. We must see their collections of stamp-sized and wadded pictures of favorite players.

There is indeed a church at the top, but our gaze is drawn instead to the city below and the wooded mountains above. The views never stop on this side of town. We continue up, along the bed of an asphalt road in the works, amid the peace of the trees and the comments of older women who pass on their way to church. The boys just giggle and look back at them.

I’ve only had space for one episode. And what’s so emblematic about it, after all? The urban garden project that, in its order and innovation, has to be NGO work? The earnest Ethio-NGO dudes, who struggle to impress and fish for support at the same time? The stoic strength of the crone? The innocence of the boys, and the beauty of their city village? I don’t know. The chemistry of it all together, maybe, an admixture of simple and horrible, and the relentless intertwining stream of it. Anyway, Episode #2 another time...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Travelogue 171 – February 2

It’s time we check in on Mojo. The mega-school in small town Ethiopia has been operational for three months. How’s it doing?

We don’t tell them we’re coming: best if we catch them on an average day. Though it’s not entirely average. We’ve been beseiged by the first of the miniature rainy seasons. It has rained all night, and the first morning’s light is dim. I want to cancel, but Laura and Saba are sure it will be fine. They’re right.

Report on Mojo: transport is fine. We catch a minibus, and the ride is smooth. Day dawns with increasing light and strength. The clouds are giving way.

Report on Mojo: the cafe where we traditionally have brunch has gone downhill. The patio is surrounded by mud and trash and ragged dogs that linger and hang their heads. The cafe doesn’t offer anything to eat but raw meat. We take tea.

Report on Mojo: the garis are efficient as ever, if difficult to climb into. The horse-drawn carts have become emblematic of Mojo in our imaginations, though garis can be found in all Ethiopian towns. We could walk to the school, but why, when we can bounce along in these elegantly awkward little conveyances, waving at local kids and collecting spots of mud on our clothes?

Report on Mojo: we arrive and it’s still early in the school day. Our principal is in her office. She looks at me with her customary perplexity, not the most hospitable soul. Why didn’t we call? She insists that we can’t understand her challenges with these small town children. She complains that she is pregnant again and can’t continue her coursework in Nazarit. Whatever her character flaws, though, she administers a strong school. Everything is running like clockwork.

In the first classroom, the biggest, the children are learning English. The teacher is a young man who is determined that our visit won’t disrupt his lesson. The children are naming letters and matching them on the board. Nothing is conducted in less than a jarring shout. Later, in the yard, the kids will sing the alphabet song for us.

In the second, the smallest classroom, they are working on math. They are becoming acquainted with 22 and 23, reciting again in earth-shaking chorus.

The third room is dedicated to the Oromo language. We’re learning body parts. Master linguist I may be, but these 5 and 6 year-olds have hand and stomach and nose down pat and I’ve already forgotten.

We stay through break-time while our little students patiently line up for turns on the merry-go-round and the swing. Pair by pair, they abandon those toys for the more amusing white-skinned ones, living dolls with cameras and funny words and cat’s eyes. We each have a circle of kids around us. ‘My name is Birtukan.’ ‘My name is Abeba.’

We take Laura back to Debre Zeit for some sight-seeing. We check into the Bishoftu Hotel, our favorite from last year, where the bar overlooks the crater-lake from the lip of its sheer-sided bowl, overlooks the placid green water and the occasional shadow flights of pelicans and pigeons. The same Russians with big bellies sit on deck chairs outside their rooms, except at dawn when they’re ordering scrambled eggs in the restaurant. The same slow waiters shout as they sweep up the courtyard after ten o’clock closing time in the bar. The same ancient taps release their trickle of water after four full turns of the faucet.

Our party splits up. Saba shows Laura the town. They go to Lake Hora and stroll along the shore in the park, bird-watching and teen-watching. An entire secondary school class is communing with nature, complaining about the very site they frequent with friends in their free time.
I set out on a hike along the path I tried last year, determined to go farther this time. This is the road that follows the curve of the lake, passing big houses and shacks and the stark bones of new hotels rising above the cliffs. On the far side, the road turns away from the lake on a tangent that climbs beside the large, barren hill opposite our hotel. The town peters out; the dirt road turns into a vague path beside a gully.

Keep climbing. Resist the temptation to take the right-hand path into some shade. Your path will pass left between small, brown hills and you’ll descend into a wide valley. It is summer gold and traversed by several meager shepherd’s paths. There’s one homestead with a pack of boys playing soccer in the yard. They’ll invite you to play, invite you to pay for a new ball. Keep going, and you’ll find yourself alone between brilliant blue sky and golden grasses, with only the occasional set of shepherd boys who shout and wave from a distance.

I realize at once that for six months I’ve only been alone inside the walls of my house. Take a walk in Addis and you’re anything but alone. Lots of sense impressions, but peace and solitude are the last.

Before reaching the valley, I have excited the usual rants and stares and whistles and laughter. Last year I bristled at the attention, retorted and scowled. This year I only notice it in retrospect, in contrast to the profound silence in the valley. I walk on in wonder, feeling liberated, intoxicated by the combination of sun and silence.

I decide to climb the mountain across the valley. And this I do, up the steep incline, among the eucalyptus that hides me from eyes below – another blessed degree of privacy. I can’t stop, though finally I’m dizzy with heat and exertion. There’s no shade on the last slope, but I just about run up it in exhilaration. At the top is a single, stunted fir that lends enough shade for sitting.

I take off my shoes and stretch my feet toward the steep decline on the other side that tumbles into Shangri La itself, a narrow vale of yellow fields and a cluster of round thatched roofs. Several neighbors are talking across a boundary between fields. I can just about hear their words, though they are little more than pebbles to my sight.

Beyond them is a larger and greener mount, the site of another meteor impact by the looks of it. The nearest side is hollow and offers a rock face that my inexpert eye would call a fun climb – unusual in this area of mellow, grassy grades. It appears there’s another impressive crater beside the mountain, to the left. And all is quiet as a breeze.

Down one adjacent shoulder of the peak is a herd of cattle grazing. I spotted them as I climbed, a few movie-set silhouettes against the sky. No one is tending them. That’s all the company I have, except for the occasional gliding kite, and they’re wonderfully uninterested in the faranj. I love them for that.