Monday, April 30, 2007

Travelogue 182 – April 30
Mekele and Yohannes

Second in the series on Tigray. Stay alert: don’t miss one in this award-winning series.

4.12 Mekele. I’m resting from a long walking tour of the city, sitting upstairs in a quarter circle of a cafe that is set astride the top corner of a building. The big cafe windows overlook the most important traffic circle in the city. Off one spoke of the circle, across from the cafe, is the city hall; off another spoke is the nineteenth-century castle of Emperor Yohannes IV, now a museum. Behind both are the two Nevada ridges that are the city’s backdrop.

Don’t be fooled into picturing Piccadilly. It’s a small, dusty town. In fact, I think I can safely conclude after this latest trip that Ethiopia is one real city and a smattering of dusty towns.

Two students are eyeing me cynically. One has African features. The other is classic Ethiope: Hindu eyes and a sweet smile when it appears. They speak in Amharic, but the hard glint in the eye is Tigrinya. They are a proud people, conditioned by the desert, I suppose, by their long history, and the years of war in recent history.

Everyone but the students is speaking Tigrinya. The language certainly has an edge to it. Previously, I’ve heard it most from the mouth of Saba’s mother and her relatives. It’s an odd shift from Amharic. The voice drops into the throat to reach for the Semitic gutturals. Amharic has the same roots, but has dropped these sounds somewhere along the way. It sounds like a warrior tongue.

The women here almost universally wear their hair in the Tigrinya style: tight braids across the pate, dissolving into free, bushy hair in the back. Two, sometimes three braids are stung across the forehead, sometimes decorated with gold jewelry with the same motif as their earrings – which they often wear on the upper part of the ear – the round shield-like design with a convex circle in the middle.

My first impression of Tigray is a spooky hint of Italy. For some reason, I feel like the people and the place are more European. Maybe it’s the aloofness. Maybe it’s the stone houses. Elsewhere in Ethiopia, houses are commonly built with mud walls. All over Tigray, the walls are stone, either loosely but artfully pieced together, or held together by mortar. It’s very attractive. The stone is mostly yellow, like Minnesota limestone. Everything seems cleaner and brighter. Brighter from the outside, anyway; the windows are scarce and small because of the sun.

The castle across the way was designed by Italians. You can see it in the chevrons along the top of the structure that remind me of Verona. When I go to visit the museum, the staff seems surprised. They have to turn on the lights for me. They bluster a bit, as though they have to be reminded of the routine.

The main exhibit, of course, is the building itself: one large hall with juniper ceilings. A steep staircase of juniper to a few small rooms and a door onto the roof, where you can take in a nice view of the city. There are some nice items inside: the usual plethora of medieval crosses and crowns and manuscripts on goat skin, all beautiful. There are a few relics of ancient empire: statuettes and inscriptions in ancient Sabaean, the old Yemeni precursor to Ge’ez, Tigrinya, and Amharic. One fifth century BC housewife or priestess in clay looks like she could be selling spices in the market today: braids and nearly the same costume. On the floor in one corner is a bronze bust of a sneering Mussolini.

Upstairs is most fascinating: costumes and saddles from Yohannes’s time, and in the middle, the gigantic throne carved from one piece of juniper. That includes the steps and platform and the huge crown suspended above the seat with lion’s head hand-rests. ‘King of kings’ is woven into the back cushion.

The reign of the only Tigrinya king of kings was illustrious but ended tragically. He died saving the kingdom from the advance of the Mahdist forces from Sudan in 1889, forces that had already proven too much for the Brits. He won the day, but lost his life, clearing the way for the King of Shoa to take over and become Menelik II.

Yohannes IV was second in a run of three great emperors in the mid and late nineteenth century. The first was the quirky and also tragic figure of Tewodros, who is much beloved by modern Ethiopes. Tewodros was raised in a monastery, and his first career was as a bandit. But he had a chieftain as a father and he was a capable general, so he eventually rose to unite a long-segmented Ethiopia and become emperor. He was a reformer and a rebel, and proud.

The story of Tewodros’s demise is characteristically odd, and even more oddly held in great reverence by the modern Ethiope. Apparently, he put a friendly message to Queen Victoria into the hands of the local consul. Tewodros was insulted that the consul didn’t carry it himself, and even more insulted that the queen didn’t reply, preferring her chances with the Ottomans. Tewodros started taking hostages. One thing led to another, and soon he was facing Napier himself with the bit of artillery he had introduced to Ethiopia as reformer-king, (largely with help from the Brits). When the battle was lost, he swallowed a bullet, plunging the empire into a new round of chaos that opened the way to the Tigrinya adventurer, Yohannes IV.

Well, such are the tales of empire, I suppose. And the brief interlude during which Mekele was imperial city leaves us a few proud ruins to stroll among: the several castles of Verona.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Travelogue 181 – April 28
A Tale of Two Airports

I’m back! Back from two weeks in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia. Prepare yourselves: you’re going to be hearing a lot about Tigray in the next few weeks. The journey begins with a flight to Mekele, the regional capital.

4.11 It’s mid-morning and I’m sitting in my cafe in Addis Ababa, watching a fine day spoil by fine degrees as grey clouds boil over the northwestern mountains. I’m watching carefully, trying to gauge how quickly the mass will make its way south to the airport at Bole. I sigh with practiced resignation: this is Addis Ababa. I share my tired joke with the waitresses: ‘thirteen minutes of sunshine’ – a play on Ethiopian tourism’s slogan of ‘thirteen months....’

I’m at the airport on time. I’m safely inside, where no clouds can disturb my tea. Domestic flights take off from the old terminal. The new Bole airport is wonderful, the toast of African travelers. The old one, well, it’s old.

I’m sitting at the marble slab of a counter at the Sky Bar in the square, blank, concrete terminal, leaning into the back of my white plastic swivel stool. I’m sipping tea and enjoying the time warp. But suddenly it’s faranji corner. Is it the dashing figure I cut, or do all faranji think alike? There’s a restaurant beyond me that looks perfectly fine; the counter is long and has plenty of seating. But here they come.

First it’s a pair of young German women. They studiously ignore me as they sit next to me, order mineral water, and light up cigarettes. There’s an elderly couple, an Irish priest and his wife who served in this area years ago. There’s an odd trio: a roly-poly, greying Italian man regaling two starchy German ladies with travel stories. Every one of them ignores the rest and me, in perennial fashion of faranjis in Africa, pretending to be there first, and speaks to anyone local with a cringing air of apology.

It’s only a fifty-minute flight, mountains all the way. I read the Ethiopian Airlines magazine – an article about swinging Beijing – occasionally glancing down at the landscape becoming increasingly lunar. By the time we’re approaching Mekele, the mountains have mellowed but become tawny, bone dry. And that’s when you recognize it, nestled under a ridge with verges of green. I’ve seen it a hundred times on Ethio-television, that very ridge. You don’t see the surrounding wasteland on TV, so you imagine it to be a bit of cool Colorado. The plane keeps going, landing somewhere over the green ridge and off toward the desert.

Stride confidently from the plane, enjoying the familiar feeling of having everything on your back. Sling the cap over your head against the dazzling sun, walking across the tarmac toward the tiny terminal. Regain some of the romance sacrificed so brutally to the Germans. They stop to wait for baggage; you don’t. Walk through the two-room airport and outside. Assess the situation. Yes, there are the taxis. But they only go when they’ve got four passengers, unless you want to pay for four.

Quickly re-assess the situation. Yes, there, at the end of a long drive is the highway into Mekele, and there, unmistakably, you see the blue minibus that means cheap travel. Throw that bag over your shoulder and walk. Sure enough, by the time you reach the highway, one of the drivers has mutinied and followed you. Keep walking while you answer his price with some thing half as much. Eventually, you’ll get him, just as the next minibus approaches. But be forewarned, he will whine about the price all the way to Mekele, and that’s twenty minutes or so because his Lada rattles up the hills in second gear. Get him started on Tigrinya lexicon to distract him. ‘Dihandehee. Tseboh.’

We pass my hotel and have to turn around. Sure enough, the Dallas Hotel, recommended by my tour book, and where I’m supposed to meet Saba the next day, has no sign out front. My phone is receiving no signal. All rightie. Welcome to Mekele!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Travelogue 180 – April 6
Shoes and the Cross

It’s Good Friday. Every year, Jesus is nailed to the cross, and every year we celebrate. The churches are loud. The neighbors are loud. They commemorate the event with synchronized moaning. And then, duty done, they crank their Ethio-pop and laugh through the thin walls.

It’s Good Friday. Christ dies miserably again, to rise from the grave in three days. In only two, on Sunday, we will celebrate the resurrection – the point of the drama, if I have understood the gospel.

As if to celebrate the Resurrection symbolically, lyrically, the city is engulfed with choruses of cries of the cockerel. Every family has bought one for the occasion, but the motive isn’t life everlasting but the lusty wring of the neck come Easter and the end of the long fast.

Toward a similar purpose, bands of hawk-eyed shepherds in sandals and long blankets and rude switches have crossed the hills and mountains to enter Addis Ababa behind large flocks of sheep. Tonight they take positions along all major thoroughfares to stand vigil beside their beasts and to haggle with city folk hungry for meat.

A man in a business suit passes you, a parcel of green grass under one arm and a live chicken under the other. He’s grinning with great anticipation, and you wonder what it is about holidays that makes people so happy. The day off work? A day with family? Unconvincing. Food seems the most plausible argument: a resurrection of the senses.

The kite guy returned to Addis for a few days, bringing with him stories of desperate people. He’s been to Chad, where he was determined to reach the refugees from Darfur. It’s not a well-travelled route. He bought one of two astronomically-priced tickets on the market, flew to the capital, crossed the entire nation on a UN plane as a kind of charity hitchhiker. He arrived at the last major town in the east, a place that looked in his photos like scattered mud bunkers among sand and dust and withered, solitary acacias, home to wild men in white and wild men in jeeps with rocket launchers.

He found himself stranded there, behind barbed wire with an odd assortment of fiery Europeans. Among this set, it isn’t ‘how could you have voted for that man?’ It’s ‘why haven’t you killed your president?’ The ‘you’ is personal, and the stare is accusing.

The rest of the trip to the camps proves impossible because of cost and because of time. He ventures out among the local kids. They play a bit rough. They mob cars. They stone him. They swarm over the largest kite when it lands and tear at it with claws and knives.

Here at home, things are tamer. This time through Addis, the kite guy says it feels like Beverly Hills, except the people have manners. I see through his eyes: people are gracious and gentle. The smiles are genuine as they shake your hand. They look at you like children as they struggle with their faded grade-school English.

Last night, we go to a play. It’s a production by Graham’s charity. It’s something written and performed by the teenage sex workers. My Amharic is not up to the task but, with or without language, it’s poignant. It’s a short piece and plot is reduced to a small tableau on the side, where a girl is sick on her couch, attended by her mother. Center stage are the rest of the girls singing together in a series of sad meditations, moving in simple, coordinated lines or circles across the stage, subdued and sincere and almost like church processional. The only dramatic moment is when a man enters in order to push one tender young girl onto the ground. All in all, a beautiful effort. I was touched, anyway. The kite guy was lulled by the darkness and the melancholy voices and the momentary lack of danger into a sleepy daze.

My children in Shiro Meda enter their holiday in new shoes, thanks to Margaret in Minneapolis. Thank, thank you! She sent some money express, concerned that the kids be happy on their holiday, concerned that they have good gear on their feet, but especially concerned that our girls have something pink to wear.

So there they are at our Easter party, beaming in sturdy, blue and pink footwear, lining up to bow to Laura and hand her pages of art they made for her during the week, saying, “Thank you, Miss Laura” – beaming, as I say, like kids will though the occasion is a sad one. It’s still an occasion, still a party, even though it’s time to say good-bye to Laura. She leaves Saturday.

How can they understand? Shoes arrive. They love them. They’re instructed to say thank you. Wonderful people arrive from across the seas. After a few weeks, they’re shouting, “Miss Laura, I love you!” Nobody asks them to. I’m not even sure where they learned the phrase. Then one day, they’re told, “Say good-bye.”

Good-bye, Miss Laura. Thank you for everything you did for us.