Monday, May 28, 2007

Travelogue 187 – May 28
Fish on the Rocks

Fourth in the Awasa series – pre-empting the Tigray series. The must-see walk.

5.7 Awasa. Pick a sunny morning and devote it to this walking tour. Make your way down to the lake and head south. If you’ve travelled down the main street, you’ll arrive at the jetty for small, expensive tour boats. There will be a Pepsi bar with loud music. Turn left and follow the shoreline path. To your left, there will be a little reedy marsh populated by the gruesome storks who thoughtfully pace.

You’ll have to take a detour: national security. If you miss your dirt road inland, a federal policeman will brusquely inform you. You’ve come to the promontory that divides this shore into north and south. The northern part of this little spit of land is critical to national defense, the southern critical for tourism. It’s there that you’ll find the Wabe Shebele Hotel that I mentioned earlier, the one with the monkeys. But we’ll skip that turnoff today.

We’re headed for the fish market. The dirt road detour will eventually deposit you at the lake again and at the entrance to a park occupying the southern shore of the peninsula facing a green little cove, very pretty, that looks across the lake to the southern hills. You can guide yourself to the fish market by the shouts of the crowd.

The guidebook calls it ‘the fish market’, but don’t be fooled by the formal name into visions of Seattle or Venice. This is nothing more than a mob at the lake shore, milling around the small metal rowboats that are bringing in the day’s catch. Boys are untangling nets. Fishermen are digging through the fish at the bottom of their boats, showing them to buyers. Curious boys crowd around. Other boys are cleaning fish on stones by the water’s edge with their curved knives. Kites are wheeling and swooping overhead. Ugly gentleman storks are wading in, and huge snow-white pelicans make skimming landings nearby.

I stroll back out of the park with a little boy tagging along, hoping for a tip. Rationale for the tip: that he tagged along. I stop for a photo of the far hills among the near reeds. A young man with a receipt book asks for ten birr. He says it’s an entrance fee for the park. I say I’ll be right with him, but in the meantime he can catch the dozen or so locals passing him by at that moment. Several of them laugh. He protests that they’re buying fish. I say I’ll buy one myself. Surely it’s cheaper than ten birr. He gives up, which is surprising. Rarely do I get off so easily when Ethiopians ask for money.

Outside the park, continue on lakeside. You’ll share the path with only the occasional shepherd and his several cows. It’s quiet. It’s short. You run into another resort. But the road curves up toward the hill that you’ve been contemplating since arrival in Awasa, because it’s the only hill visible from town. Tabour Hill is a flat-headed little mount with steep sides. As you reach the incline, choose your type of path: easy-going or steep and quick. I go for the latter. One benefit is that it climbs along the lakeside slope, right above the resort. I’m rewarded with many pleasant vistas, especially right above the resort, glancing at the water through the rich variety of trees planted for the rich.

Up on top, you’ll see the whole lake. The southern half, which you can’t see from town, is very pretty, surrounded by hills. Below you to the left is a village of thatched roofs and farms, and further down, a branch of the city reaching around from behind Tabour. It’s peaceful, but don’t sit until you’ve sussed out where the tykes and their sheep are. They will find you and start up about money. The nice thing about shepherds is, they can’t stray too far from their charges.

Much-needed meditation of beauty accomplished, look for another path down. You have two reasons for that: a different set of views and a shorter journey back into the city. I suggest the side overlooking Awasa. It looks steep, but it isn’t too bad. Once you start down, you’ll come across a path that will deposit you on the southern edge of town. You’ll be twenty minutes from the Pinna Cafe, where sugar and caffeine will revive and awaken your weary body and aesthetically-glutted spirit.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Travelogue 186 – May 22
ja-MI-cah and the Black Waters

Third in the Awasa series – pre-empting the Tigray series. Last we checked in on jarvis he was waving down southbound buses in Mojo.

5.6 Mojo and points southward. “Where you from, mon?” The voice is distinctly Caribbean. The driver leans into his door, and eyes me with a kind of hazy, timeless friendliness I haven’t seen since the 70s in Santa Barbara. We’re idling beside the road, waiting for more passengers. I’m in the front seat, a place of honor. He eyes me across the frozen profile of an attractive young lady headed for Ziway. She will refuse to acknowledge the faranj for the entire journey, a decision that will embarrass her when she falls asleep and repeatedly leans into me.

I laugh when I hear his accent. I should have predicted. Yes, this is the road south, and the tone is distinct from that of the northern roads, which was severe and drenched in ancient, rugged history. Here, you sway for hours along the road among gentle plains dotted with acacias. A blue mountain or two stand in the distance. The lakes appear off port side, off starboard. They’re the color of jacuzzis, salty, pale desert green. Villagers amble alongside the road. Herds cross at will, and our driver swerves or stalls as needed. He seems to know most every other driver on this happy highway, sending off lengthy codes with his horn and giving a thumbs-up.

Occasionally he looks aside at me. He furrows his brow, summons up some rusty English, and he delivers a sentence about places of note, usually something I know already. We cruise to many a stop, as passengers disembark, as we exchange passengers with other vans. Off we go again, among new series of morse klaxon. Some several hours into the journey, the driver winks and rubs his tummy. “Me hungry for some rice and oxtails.” He snaps his finger once to the reggae on the tape machine. It’s Sunday, and everybody in ja-MI-cah be eating rice and oxtails.

It isn’t long before we arrive at ja-MI-cah, the northern suburbs of Shashemene, a luxurious place compared to the town itself. The driver has decided in favor of lunch and flags another van for us, making sure I’m reserved the front seat. We part with promises to hang out in Shashemene one day.

I’ve been traveling for weeks, and I’ve just about given up on seeing anything much different out of Ethiopia than variations on dry and golden. And then, just about the time you pass through the teeming hillside town of Arsi Negele, something happens. I can’t put my finger on it at first. I just sense it, like a new scent. I’m a little uncomfortable, like I’ve crossed a border unawares. I figure it out: green!

Hillsides gather thin coats of grass, like a light patina of moss. Trees proliferate, and with a greater variety. The large fronds of the false banana appear, and the sprawling branches of the fig. The livestock lose their edge of desperation; they get fat and happy. The grass grows and grows. In a half hour’s drive, it’s a new country. And there, at the apex of Edenic growth, you come to Shashemene.

What’s the magic to that name? What’s the secret in the reference to rice and oxtails? For those of you unfamiliar with reggae or twentieth-century innovations in religion, Shashemene represents the promised land – or at least a toehold in the promised land – to practitioners of Rastafarianism, those New World worshippers of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie,(or Ras Tafari before he was crowned,) those blissed followers of Pan Marley, those One World, Old Testament smokers of sacred leaf and visionaries of a globe united in 70s fashion. An ageing Haile Selassie, though embarrassed to be called God by Caribbean hippies, acquiesced in their entreaties and granted them a large allotment of land north of Shashemene – now called Jamaica. It’s there still, odd Mecca to the stoned of the world.

I pass it this time, with rainbow-tinged promises to return, and continue on toward Awasa. The green fades a little; the Ethiopia of long highland ridges reasserts itself, and not much further, the lake appears below us, green in the sun and inviting.

The road swings around the northern side of the lake. It’s there that the hippos are reputed to hang out, in the tekur wuha, the black waters. You can’t see a thing from the highway. I have vague plans to hire a boat to search them out, but never do it. The boats are too expensive, and I think I can walk from town. I try one early morning, setting out before the sun rises. I don’t get anywhere near the black waters; the shore-side path peters out and dies at the fence of a resort. But the walk is wonderful.

What do you see lakeside at 6:30am? There are men among the rocks washing themselves and their clothes. There are gari drivers washing their horses. There are fishermen drifting among the reeds and beyond. These latter shout to you and sing. Morning people are songsters here. Solitary men walking to work belt out traditional-sounding melodies, though for all I know they’re improvised.

Most of all there’s blessed peace. Delicate, long-legged birds run along the tops of lily pads. A fresh breeze and tattered clouds keep things cool. The crooners go about their business, and in between them there’s lots of quiet walking. I sit beside the lake a long time. Somewhere behind me, one farmer works his tiny plot. A little boy wades in to wash his face. Sunlight creeps down the sides of hills across the lake.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Travelogue 185 – May 17
Monkeys On The Beach

Second in the Awasa series – pre-empting the Tigray series ...

5.6 Awasa. I’m sitting at the Wabe Shebele Hotel on the afternoon of my arrival in Awasa, relaxing. I’ve earned my oh-so-comfy plastic chair on the patio with my Harar beer, earned it with a whole lot of sitting in the morning. In a fit of rueful ambition, I decided to take the entire trip to Awasa in one day. My original plan had been a day’s rest for the hind parts in Mojo. But travel had proven to be so speedy on a Sunday morning, I was lulled into foolhardiness. After a sleepy breakfast at the Daema in Mojo, I strolled across the road to catch a southbound bus.

A note here to future generations of jarves: you will be overtaken by teenage boys who will insist on being your brokers for a ride. Politely tell them that your hand functions just fine, and demonstrate by waving down a bus. They will still insist on a fee. Politely say, ‘Bugger off.’

I’ve opted for the cozy plastic mounts on the hotel patio, rather than their counterparts on the grass by the shore, because I’ve already done my shoulder-to-shoulder time, looking at sights and absorbing Ethio-pop at thunderous levels. Apparently, local tastes in relaxation run parallel to their tastes in travel.

Lake Awasa is about the sixth of the Ethiopian Rift Valley Lakes, counting from north to south. You get to count them down on the trip, as they begin right there beside the southern road from Mojo: Koka, Ziway, Langano, Abiata, Shala, and then Awasa. The Rift Valley and its lakes continue on, of course, into southern Ethiopia, into Kenya and Tanzania, some of these southern lakes being the deepest in the world. Great Rift Valley? you wonder. Just one of the more intriguing geological phenomena on the planet, that’s all – a terrible grinding of tectonic teeth that, indirectly, we have to thank for monkeys standing on two legs and writing novels. But all that’s beyond my province.

The Rift Valley lakes are most commonly a tourist’s destination because of the wildlife, particularly the birds. Once I’m checked into my hotel, I seek out the lake. I follow a path alongside the shore, and I watch. You can’t help noticing a few denizens of the town: the hideous Maribou storks, for one – gawky and huge, stalking around town and perching at the tops of trees in a strange way that seems to defy physics. There are some familiar characters: little kingfishers executing their dizzy dives and yellow weavers looking cheerful. There’s the hamerkop, a water bird with a crazy tuft of hair out the back of its head, perfect for Warner Brothers. And at the hotel, among the high branches of the fig trees, that ridiculous hornbill with a beak a big as its body. It’s most fun to see in flight. You expect it to tilt with the weight of the bill.

Perhaps the strangest genus I’ve seen today is the Amish family gathered at lakeside at the hotel: awkward bearded men in plaid and prim ladies in kerchiefs sheltering hordes of very white and wide-eyed children. I stare and hoist my Harar to them in salute. Did you come by boat?

And yes, I get my first dose of African monkeys. Too much: it’s the chips that lure them out. There are a lot of them. You see them dashing across the roads by the lake in the late afternoon. Once I’ve fed one, I have a family or two prancing around me. They jump onto the chairs and grab at my food with their black nails. Eventually, I set my plate onto the vacant table next to me and let them pick at my chips until they’re gone and one forlorn little guy is left to bend over the plate and lick the salt and grease.

These are vervet monkeys, kind of cute, lanky and brown with white trimming and black faces, sporting long tails. Their eyes dance around in a kind of blank wonder. One big male sits and watches to see if I drop anything. He shows off his robin’s-egg balls and cardinal pecker. I’m impressed, and guess that many of the babes hanging onto their mothers must be his.

Late in the afternoon, I’m blessed with the sight of an extraordinary monkey. He’s bigger and when he jumps around, you feel the weight of him. They call him the old priest, and his face is solemn and grave inside its black square, surrounded by a white fringe. He wears a black square hat, too, in the style of the Orthodox priests. If the head says church, the body says comic book hero. He has a deep black pelt with a cape of pure white in a U pattern on his back. At the end of his long, black tail is a large tuft of white. No wonder the colobus monkey has been hunted for his fur for centuries. He’s thriving in Awasa though, dashing through the trees like a huge, aerial skunk.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Travelogue 184 – May 13
On To the Peaceful South

Sorry, but I must interrupt the Tigray series to report on another, more recent journey – this time south to Awasa. I’ll return north after this burst of enthusiasm, I promise.

I’ve got to begin the story of the Awasa journey with its conclusion. The journey ends back in familiar Mojo, which cheerful little town sits cheerfully astride what may be the most important highway junction outside of Addis Ababa. It’s the choice of northern or southern Ethiopia, east or west, right there beyond the garden walls of the Daema Hotel, which is where my journey ends.

It’s a pleasant garden, by the way. The hotel is an anomaly. Everything else in Mojo is tawdry, dusty, and telegraphs ‘gas up and keep going’. But this place has a bit of polish: CNN, a decent dining room and menu, and the garden. The garden is tidy and hosts a lovely variety of flowers and trees. It features a small quadrangle of grass that is so peaceful that, travel-weary as I am, I can’t get myself to move for several hours, choosing instead to chart the sun’s progress among billowing white clouds and measure the fine shifts in the slight afternoon breeze and watch the colorful and strangely large Ethiopian hummingbirds.

Afterward I walk home. Yes, home in Mojo. I spend my first night in the summer cottage. Because I have so much business in Mojo and Debre Zeit this summer, and because the rainy season in Addis Ababa is no joy, I’ve rented a small house. It features all the luxuries a summer house should: a tap outside in the grass, where I’ll have to wash, a room with a hole in cement for my loo, and a papaya tree in the corner of the yard. The small main house on the property is uninhabitable, made of mud and more mud – and old mud at that. For some reason, several of the tiny service quarters in the back are built to a higher standard and provide the base of comfort I’ll need: cement floors and straight walls.

The first night is a delight – though I find out quickly that I’ll need a mosquito net. I lash out at the buzz in my ears for a few hours and then give up. Instead, I listen to the moans of the cow next door and chuckle of hens on the other side. There’s a rustle of wind in the treetops in Mojo that I find characterizes the place. You’ll see it in the ambling walk of citizens and in the shade of lazy green in the grass. The walk home under the softly rustling leaves is particularly nice, idyllic even. The streets are sparsely populated, and those out walking are not terribly tempted by the sight of a faranj. The most common form of transport is gari, the horse-drawn carts. Second might be the bicycle.

Morning comes early, especially in the bright eyes of the ambitious cock next door. He’s crowing regularly by two a.m. I’m out of bed at five. My aged guard is standing sentinel outdoors by the bathroom in the half-light, draped in his white gabi. At five in the morning it’s a jarring sight, and yet oddly tranquil after the first adrenaline. I wash up and I’m out the gate to scout for a minibus back to Addis.

The day before, it had been five a.m. out the back gate of the hotel compound in Awasa. Even that early, I’d missed a few buses. I caught a small one calling out for Shashemene. It promptly turned back around for the bus station because there weren’t enough passengers. So I resigned myself to the big, slow ride advertising Addis Ababa, spewing out deadly fumes as people climbed aboard. I managed a window seat, though I had the bad luck to draw a big-shouldered lump for a neighbor. Three souls to a seat, bag on my knees, and not an inch to move for four hours, watching a classic bit of Africa spin its story, the land draining of green again, down into the dusty bed of central Ethiopia.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Travelogue 183 – May 5
Triumphant Stacks of Stone

Third in the series on Tigray. Two must-see’s in Mekele:

4.13 Mekele. Just about the time the afternoon begins to cool and the sun begins his downward slide, take the Mekele walk of the churches. Not too far from the traffic circle that I described last time, there’s a road to the base of one ridge. You’ll see a church arch at the end of the dirt road. That church you see is just the first of five practically piled one on top of the other, crowned by the highest – which else? – Maryam.

It’s a lovely walk up the hill, the dirt lane winding steeply among the churches, among the little neighborhoods like villages, and finally above the town. For an Italophile like myself, it can be spooky. The eerie identification with Italy seems only to grow stronger up here, but now it’s combined with a sense of time travel.

It can feel as though you’ve entered a parallel to Giotto’s world: the steep dusty roads among houses of yellow stone, the hay stacks and wandering donkeys and sheep, the people leaning over their low walls and chattering. Of course, the faces are darker. The roofs are made of sheets of iron. The churches are round and painted red, green, and yellow. The religious ornamentation is distinctly Ethiopian. But the illusion still maintains some power somehow.

A pack of children come running, shouting ‘faranji!’ and they mob you with big smiles. Several will accompany you up the path beyond walls and churches, past the last monastery, babbling away in Amharic and Tigrinya, eagerly pointing, explaining, naming while they hold your hands. Here’s the cactus flower bud that’s a delicacy in Tigray, but it’s too early or late in the season. Here are a few of the small yellow berries from the sprawling fig or fig-cousin. Here’s where the hyena took down that cow the other day. Here’s where the rats come from, those little cracks in the cliff. “Ah, yes, rats!” Here’s something I can comment on. We trade stories about how they chew on our clothes. Once you’re up high, look down on the sleepy desert city.

Before you’re in danger of losing the sunset, aim yourself toward the other side of town. You can use that big bowling trophy on the horizon as a guide, the monument raised in the era of our current beloved administration, the monument that nows characterizes Mekele in photos and on TV.

I suppose we can afford a short digression about the monument, a slim tower of curving concrete on a hilltop, crowned by a golden sphere. The tower stands wach over a vast new museum devoted to the intrepid soldiers of the Tigrinya separatist movement of the 70s and 80s – oh, one of whom happens to be our beloved federal prime minister. The museum is quite the pretty complex, and larger than any museum I’ve seen in Ethiopia, including the National Museum in Addis Ababa.

The structure is heroic, and no doubt the soldiers were heroic in their day. Their eventual triumph over the Derg, the Communist regime, is ambiguous, as most glorious victories are. As far as I know, this glorious tale reads like a US-engineered magic trick: a re-routed flight for the Communist dictator and a relatively anti-climatic march into Addis Ababa. But so it goes: the museum is beautiful.

Somewhere on the way toward the great bowling trophy, you’ll come across another traffic circle dominated by another castle, a companion to the earlier one. This one once belonged to a lesser relative of the Emperor Yohannes IV, and I would say the lowly cousin got the better real estate. The castle stands high above said traffic circle, inside a large estate, looking a bit Addams Family. Enter: it’s a hotel now, the Abreha Castle Hotel.

Time your arrival for twenty minutes before sunset. Use that interval to stroll through the gardens that climb the hill. They’re very peaceful and pretty, in a seedy sort of way. You might come across the occasional group of students, but it’s quiet. Atop the hill, the castle is surrounded by a very nice terrace where you can have tea and watch the desert sunset tint the town with its colors.