Thursday, March 29, 2007

Travelogue 179 – March 29
The Bourne Conveyancy

Dreams are funny. In one, I’m crippled beyond repair in an auto accident, disfigured. I have no hands. In the next, I’m Matt Damon hanging out with his buds. Waking in the morning is neither too consoling nor too disappointing. I’ve got hands, but I’m not Matt Damon. I can tie my shoes, but the ladies are still indifferent. So it goes.

I may not have Damon’s paparazzi at my door, but I still generate some buzz. At the bus station, the shouting wayalas gather around and tug at me. Once I’ve boarded one of their buses, the proud wayala struts away, advertising that he’s got the nich-so on his bus, the white guy. He’s riffing in the brassy, high-pitched rant of these boys who spend a lot of time on the street. He’s making a good joke out of it, and everyone in the van laughs and turns to look at me – though in a kindly way.

It’s a tight fit. A row of broad-shouldered men share the back bench with me. Still the wayala is trolling for more passengers as we bounce along through the southern Addis suburbs. We find one, a young woman who sits in the fold-out aisle seat directly in front of me, pressing back into my knees. I’m wedged in tight for the rest of the trip, which might be a good thing. It might help with motion sickness, which I find almost inevitable on these Ethiopian buses, what with the exhaust that pours into the bus, and what with the Ethiopian superstition against opening car windows. The breeze will give them a cold. Everyone draws curtains against the sun, so we bump along in a sweaty cocoon.

The bus driver is talking to himself. He’s a stout old man who appears to put a lot of muscle into the steering wheel. I can see his round face in the rear-view mirror. He’s put on an Eastwood grimace. He’s narrating a noir tale from his days on the force. The wayala sits after a while. He keeps glancing back at me over his shoulder. He’s trying to come up with a crack about me and regain some of his glory, but seems cramped by the restricted theater.

An older fellow in a green plaid sports jacket is telling stories. He’s turned in his seat so he can address the people behind him. I wonder how he has space to do that. en his neighbor speaks, he listens with a spooky intensity. I think of the kite guy’s observation about Ethiopes.

We’re having beers at the old Hotel Taitu and spinning theories. He says, “Even the Rastas here, they’ll say, ‘Take it easy, man,’ but it’s not, ‘Take it easy, man.’ It’s TAKE IT EASY ... MAN.’ You know?” And he imitates the stare.

I remind him of the long, proud history. I remind him that it’s almost as much a Middle Eastern culture as an African one. I think of the impressive stares of the Arabs, stares that could be visitations of the old souls of warriors who rode for the Caliph. Indeed, they would have to be to justify such a gleam of pride.

We arrive at the outskirts of Debre Zeit. The Addis end of DZ, the west side, is the upscale area, where the town’s nouveau riche can’t put up houses or offices or hotels fast enough. I call out for a stop and somehow dislodge myself. Outside, I stand at the side of the highway, sweaty, woozy. I take a deep breath and straighten my clothes, my knees, my back. I still have my hands. That’s a plus.

I take a seat at the Pyramid Paradise, my preferred hangout in DZ these days. They have a pleasant courtyard, spacious and cultivated with a nice variety of flowers and trees. They have a tasty egg sandwich. I call Saba. We’re supposed to meet at the station but Saba’s always late, and you never hold still in Ethiopia, so I board. Saba says she’s on her way. She’ll be here momentarily.

At the next table sits a local businessman. He has a belligerent look about him, a scowling brow and a heavy bottom lip. He has a mobile phone ear-piece that makes him look even more menacing. It’s 8 a.m. He starts with a beer. Once that is down, he orders a black coffee and adds three spoons of sugar. A few minutes later, he’s off to his day of cracking knuckles.

What is it that makes people happy? Matt Damon just wanted peace on his tropical shore with Run Lola Run. This guy looks like he wants to strike terror into the hearts of peasants – just another backwater tyrant. A Cheney without missiles.

Baboons organize themselves in cozy and violent hierarchies. If it weren’t for the language barrier, Cheney would find a sympathetic community in the hills around the Blue Nile. It sounds like he needs one these days.

I haven’t heard of many baboons that enjoy leisurely strolls in quiet places. I’m obviously one of the failed mutations among primate evolution. When our morning meetings are done, and Saba has left to check on a few things around twon, I opt for the walk along quiet dirt lanes, a chance to scrutinize this resort village that might, if all goes well, become home for the summer.

I like it. It isn’t Damon’s beach town, but it’s something of a paradise for a guy of lesser genetic virtues. Everything is ambling and genial: the clouds, the cows, the old men in green plaid. Even the occasional ‘money’ boy is amiable and shy and unconvincing. There are no crowds to navigate, though a fair share of dust. I find a broad lane that doubles as a gully during the occasional rains, and I aim for the next lazy curve in the road, there beyond the cows hanging their heads, where the shrubs and palms overcome the view of where we’re going.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Travelogue 178 – March 23
The Kite Guy

The spring mini-rains have set in. The timing is almost disastrous. The kite guy has arrived. I’m watching the skies anxiously. Mornings are bright and cheerful, but clouds move in quickly, crowding the heights all day, and getting darker as the afternoon advances, letting loose by 5:00 or so. If kite day follows this pattern, we’ll be okay, getting the kids out in late morning.

The kite guy comes from Minneapolis. He’s friend of a friend, and we met at a party once upon a time. The kite guy has been around the world; he’s worked in Peru and Rome. He’s been in Ethiopia before. He’s made some money in the last year that he wanted to spend in a fun way. He founded a charity that brings good cheer and healing to kids who have gotten a rough deal in life – whether from disease, poverty, or loss of parents. He brings them kites. He’s working on a plan whereby local families earn a little by manufacturing kites for his project. On this trip, the kite guy has been through Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania. Next, he goes to Chad.

Fortune brings us a kite day hot and breezy. The clouds are big and friendly. Rather than muddy clothes, I get sunburn instead. We pile the kids into four mini-vans, and we dash off down the hill toward Jan Meda, a series of wide open fields. This may be the kids’ favorite part of day, laughing at each other out their mini-van windows as the drivers weave in and out of traffic, and among each other’s vehicles, to every adult’s distress and the children’s glee.

The kite guy pulls out the big ones first, and every time a big set of wings lifts off, the children scream and run behind. One of the large kites has the kids’ colors all over it, pictures of hands and cats and vegetables that they drew the day before, all amid balloon letters that spell ‘Tsegereda Memorial School’.

Some of the teenage boys loitering in the fields join in the act, and, all in all, they act the gentlemen, helping the children along, holding kites while the kids get a head of steam. When the little ones get a crack at child-sized kites, the boys entertain themselves with the big ones.

The kids line up patiently for their chance at the little kites. The kite guy is donating one for each child. They are tiny square kites with a long spool of string. Though they’re watching with great fascination, each child has to be briefed again by teachers. That briefing runs like this: ‘Run!’ Some stare back. Some turn and take a step or two and turn around, dragging the kite. Eventually, they get it and take off as fast as they can, charging ahead across the grass without looking back. ‘Look up!’ I cry futilely. They don’t. But they’re grinning anyway as they run back. Success!

I’m sure you want the rat update. It’s a mixed report. Jackie has failed as a rat-hound. The two animals have reached some kind of detente. She gets a quiet night indoors, and the rat roams free, as long as it doesn’t disturb her sleep. We resort to Plan C or D: poison. Sad to have to turn to violence, though vengeance feels good. Bakalech leaves enough poison among some bits of bread to take out a village, and in the morning, the entire feast is gone. We hold our breath and there is indeed a hiatus of a few days from rat turds and holes in my socks. But if one has died, another one found the trail indoors. The next step might have to be a kitten.

Everyone has been sick this week: Laura, Linda, and even my favorite waitress, Tigist. Tigist is my favorite because of her professional attitude ... and her gorgeous smile. She’s had a cold and a bad stomach. I tell her to drink tea. No, stomach problems, she says in rat-a-tat Amharic. Tigist has great faith in my genius. She speaks not a word of English. And every day, she asks if I’ve learned Amharic. No matter what I answer, she launches into long streams of pleasantries. I nod and enjoy her sweet smile. I suggest lemon. No, bad stomach. How about ginger? No, bad stomach. Doctor? No, Jesus. Jesus and bad stomach must logically relate, though I don’t know which came first. Her solution, I see later, is a glass of holy water mixed with dirt from a church floor. Cheers, Tigist.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Travelogue 177 – March 15

It’s the Ides of March and there’s nothing much to beware, except maybe sunburn. Jackie trots after the ball at half-speed at midday, her head hanging and tongue lolling. Bakalech drags her feet as she slouches across the bright courtyard.

Sophie called yesterday from Awasa, and I had no answer to “What’s new?” I tried to think of something for today’s call. All I could come up with was, “Did you hear about the rat chewing on my head?” She enjoyed that story, as all my Ethiopes have. There’s something of the sadist in many Ethiopes. Is it something about a culture shaped by suffering?

It’s a true story, too! I awoke one night last week with the sensation of someone munching on the hair on the back of my head. A little bed-time nibbling I’m not opposed to, depending on the bed-mate – though hair seemed an odd choice. But memory eventually dawns: I have no bed-mate, and I’ve played fortunate host to aggressive rodents lately. I turn over and, sure enough, there she goes, in an unconcerned waddle across the floor. She’s a big one, with a long tail.

Watching her go, I almost feel regret and pity. The poor thing wants a little company, or maybe she needs some protein. She has to fill her belly, like any creature. But I do change rooms then and there. God knows what she would have fed on if I had been turned the other way.

The next night, Jackie gets indoor sleeping privileges. And the little mutt performs well, standing guard while also keeping quiet enough for sleeping humans. I’m pleasantly surprised. Perhaps she knew that Plan B was a cat. To save her place in the food chain, she must be versatile. This morning I observed her cleaning herself like a cat, licking a paw to wash her face.

Okay, so there are man-eating rodents to beware this Ides, and sunburn. And I might mention that crafty old devil, Death, who seems craftier in his work here than he is back home. Or maybe it’s more blunt.

Graham calls this morning. He has to postpone the parenting workshop scheduled for Friday, the infamous parenting workshop that’s been rushing forward like the next Ice Age since its conception last fall. It seems there’s been a death in the family of his assistant. It’s a case of fine one day, dead the next, which seems very common in Ethiopia. They were driving somewhere. Said relative entered the car under his own power and exited in the arms of his family. “He was about thirty!” Graham exclaimed.

I asked if there were a cause of death, knowing full well the likely answer. None. “You know how it is,” Graham says, “trying to get details out of these people.” I do, though, to either of us, cause of death would hardly be a minor detail. “Wasn’t your friend in the car with him? How did he die?” I ask. Again, no details. He’s dead.

Coincidentally, another one of my Shiro Meda parents died yesterday. Cause? Unknown. He’s dead. I’ve only worked with sixty children at that school! How many parents or guardians would you imagine, in three years, could keel over? It’s mind-boggling. In Abraham’s family, it’s been mother, then father, then grandmother. He’s with an aunt now. Now it’s little Yabsira’s father. Cause unknown.

It makes you think about the Western idea of death. Graham says, “People don’t just die!” Well, until recently, they did do just that. Now, in the West, it doesn’t simply happen; it always has a Reason. We may not be able to stop it, but every darkness has its label, and every rat its hole.

I can report that Death, that bitter old angel, hasn’t had his wretched way with everyone in Ethiopia. There’s one crusty old survivor he’s still chasing: Saba’s grandfather. We’ll be shaking hands with this Methuselah next month when we travel north into Tigray, into the homeland of Saba’s family. Upon every report, this gentleman increases in longevity. The first word a few years ago was that he was just over a hundred years-old. But this morning, Saba insisted he was 125! I tried to reason with her. How can Melesech, who’s only a few years older than I, have a father who is 125? Saba’s retort: Melesech’s eldest sister is in her 80s! Well, what can I say? I can’t wait to (gently) slap this old soldier’s back. “Say, how have you kept the rats away?”

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Travelogue 176 – March 8
You Go

It’s another in an amazing string of brilliant cloudless days. The morning ritual has returned to its old, peaceful custom. I never tire of the same breakfast, and Bakalech never tires of the same jokes: no dinner today; she’ll give my food to Jackie; she’ll take Jackie home one day. But there’s a surprise for her today, the enormous rat that found its demise on my dining room floor, finally taken by the trap. The poor thing is growing stiff in the trash out back. I didn’t have the stomach to extract the thing from the trap, so Bakalech has to buy me a new trap. She laughs a long time over that one, but I notice she doesn’t volunteer to do the job herself.

As I leave for the day, as I click the gate shut behind me, a man passes muttering to himself as though chanting. His shirt is unbuttoned to his belly. His eyes are concentrated on the road ahead. The sandals on his crusty feet slap noisily. It sounds like he’s saying, “You go. You go. You go. You go.”

I stop in Piassa to see the boys. They sit in a long line roadside, where the taxis stop. My dembenya, or regular guy, is busy, so I sit in his neighbor’s chair. He starts in on my shoes while the dembenya complains. When Laura and I come around, there’s always an uproar. The boys fight for our business. There’s the trouble-maker, a charming guy with a big mouth, bossy and sarcastic. There are the two little brothers whom Laura favors. My dembenya is one of the quiet ones. Everyone gets into the vaudeville of this moment, including the tea lady who serves out of thermoses, and the newspaper guys. Everyone is a comedian.

Today there’s a tiny, barefoot old woman with a face marked by a million lines. She’s so busy trading remarks with the boys that she neglects to beg. One of the guys directs her toward me, and when she sees me she breaks into such a smile, like she’s being introduced to her child’s best friend. She could be reaching out to pinch my cheek, but there are coins in her palm. I can’t resist – though usually I’m a difficult mark – and I hand her fifty centime. She hangs around with a dazed smile, and the boys tease her. I’m guessing it’s all good-natured, though she’s provoked into a quick battery of blows on the back of my shoeshine boy. They all laugh. Another boy shouts something provocative so that she’ll chase him in circles. A minute later, she’s beaming again.

In Piassa, I go in for the daily internet lottery: will it work? How slow is it? A-OK. Pete has emailed with an impatient reminder about information I’ve forgotten to send. Later in the day, he calls.

“Graham is no Peter,” I’m reminded of John’s famous quote, famous among the latest ephemeral expat community I have gathered – so fragile a community it’s already dispersed – who have decided that Graham and Peter represent the opposite poles of British manhood.

John has left with his wife Tayat for England. They’ll be back by summer, unless, as John muttered to me apprehensively, Tayat should discover while they’re in England that they have a bun in the oven. Then all bets are off. John wants to stay in Ethiopia. They’ve been married for over a year now. I was witness in their wedding back in the fall of ’05, some time after the street demonstrations. It may be time for babies.

Laura and I have been made very familiar with their chances of conception. They relish their sex life and don’t hesitate to share. Neither Laura nor I encourage these confidences, but they flow without check, and to our chagrin, often come illustrated. Tayat pulls out the digital camera which doubles as a video recorder.. I can report to you, dear reader, that John is a rare specimen of manhood at 78. He has the physique of a man of ... 50? I don’t know, but apparently it functions as it should, except when he drinks too much.

This we toast at their going-away party. Which ritual Tayat watches with a grimace of disgust. But John’s alcohol levels matter little at the moment because it’s Orthodox Lent, which is a manic fifty-five days in length, and which enumerates sex as one of those temptations that thou shalt avoid. This the couple has informed us, as well. So John and I raise our glasses and wink, and down goes the spirit of male joy and impotence, glug-glug, past my yellowing middle-aged teeth and past his white false ones, on to work its magic. Cheers!