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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Travelogue 189 – June 12
The Crossroads

Fifth in the Tigray series – still wandering in the great yellow north ...

4.13 Adigrat. Saba’s family leads us to the Hohoma Hotel, but that establishment is full. We wait in the tiny restaurant while Asfaw checks on another place. I’ll become well-acquainted with this characterless but clean room during my stay in Adigrat. There aren’t many options for hanging out in Adigrat.

What should be a bustling town dominating a major highway and one corner of the country’s map is, in fact, kind of a sleepy frontier town. What bustle there is is military. That major highway I mention, it leads to Eritrea. About a mile out of town on that two-lane road to Asmara, you’re stopped by men with guns. About a half-hour past that, you’ll be crossing the border.

There is a tense echo of war in the air here. It reminds me of the feeling I had in Turkish Cyprus. Lots of uniforms, lots of UN vehicles, lots of memories. These are tough people. When you watch Tigrinya TV, you get martial music, reels of war footage, pop music videos that swell with brassy jingoism – Tigray jingoism, not Ethiopian. Several of the most popular women pop singers were soldiers in their youth.

There’s lots of talk from other ethnic minorities in Ethiopia, and even the occasional bomb, but I’m quite sure that the Tigray people would pick up arms again if challenged – to a man (and woman). I don’t think any other group in Ethiopia is committed this way, top to bottom.

When we visit, Asfaw’s house, he shows us pictures from his days fighting in the hills against the Derg, the Communist regime. There’s an oddly calm atmosphere in these photos: no bravado, no sense of drama or even danger. But there was danger. There’s a faded photo on the wall of Asfaw’s home of his brother who died in the war.

The photos come out after the lot of us have crowded around the table for Adigrat’s most traditional dish, ti’olo, and have eaten far more than the stomach was designed to handle. Ti’olo consists of dumplings of barley dough rolled as you eat by the woman of the house, dipped into a red chili and meat sauce and yogurt. You eat ti’olo with the only native Ethiopian table utensil I’ve ever seen, a wooden two-pronged fork, slim as a chopstick. In the country, that’s just a stripped twig.

Back to the Shewit Hotel. I like this place. Half the price of the Hohoma and a lot more character. It’s a squat old structure, ochre in color, with a square, open courtyard in the center where the pigeons coo in the morning and evening. The rooms are basic, the water hot. The venerable old building was dropped among indifferent, bustling blocks of residence ... and among simple entertainments. Even in the morning, you’ll see the many red lights. They don’t signify what we westerners expect, or at least not as a primary purpose. Those are the t’ala houses, serving cheap traditional brew.

The hotel is a short walk from ‘downtown’: that lazy traffic circle with the dead fountain in the center. It’s another of those 60s-70s oddities you find everywhere, cement with large, bland grey marble tiles, several levels held together with concrete arms. Somehow it does capture the tenuous and shabby nature of the modern town set among history and open land – the land visible beyond in beautiful ridges like Bonanza.

On the other side of the circle is ‘Aratenya Yohannes’, one of the few cafes serving cake. I’m led there by a boy offering lottery tickets. My first reaction to his appeal is to wave him off, but he tags along beside me and says, “You’re handsome.” I believe in rewarding exceptional intelligence, so I offer him cake if he can find me a place that serves it. Thus I discover the Aratenya Yohannes, a very comfortable little venue, run by a big and quiet man who looks to be half Italian. He sits behind the counter being unimpressed by whoever he sees, even faranjis.

And back to the Shewit Hotel. They have a bar below. Day or night, it’s attended by a young woman with one of the most slack and world-weary faces in the eastern hemisphere. I do manage, after a few days, to get one sad-as-Mary half-smile out of her.

One evening, I’m abandoned to my own devices and I spend a few hours in the bar – quite happily, as it turns out, because there’s a championship game on, Chelsea-Blackburn. It’s a great game, going into overtime.

Somehow, one never feels as lost in the wilderness as when one watches football overseas. It’s a dim room with sweating walls in dying pastels and mid-century, heavy tile on the floor, almost black with age. There are several strings of Christmas lights hung above the bar. My Magdalene bar-keep does a slow and labored version of the dance called work, dousing glasses in water, pouring, wiping surfaces.

Halfway through the match, predictably, patrons call for Ethio-pop and our long-suffering Mary mutes the game, cutting off that wonderful lifeline to my soul, trivial British banter. I realize that much of my love for football in Ethiopia is just that voice: frivolous, inane, perky, suggestive of all sorts of comforts. And it’s gone. Mary, another beer, please.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Travelogue 188 – June 7
Dally, Shall We?

Fourth in the Tigray series – yes, we’re back up north for a while....

4.12 Mekele. Saba and her friend Saba (count them: two Sabas) are supposed to be arriving by bus. Originally, that bus was supposed to leave the day before I fly, arriving in Mekele that same day as I do. Then the bus was delayed because there aren’t enough passengers. So last I know, they’re arriving the day after I do.

I call Saba late on my second day in Mekele. It takes me quite a while to get through: the network is problematic up here. “Where are you, Saba?”

Now, pay close attention! This anecdote will teach you much about Ethiopia. “Where are you, Saba?” “I don’t know.” Right. I can hear the bus in the background. Looking out a bus window, one is hard-pressed to name a location. Though, addressing someone who expected you in Mekele around noon-time, a response like “still on the bus” might leap to mind. It does occur to her to tell me it’s raining hard wherever she is. I glance up at the Mekele sky, a little cloudy but benevolent on the whole, with a bit of concern. “Really?” Saba’s done with the conversation. I say, “Okay, well, call me when you’re here.”

I wait; I dally. I watch the sky to see if Saba’s rain approaches. I try to gauge how far the nearest rain is. Well, folks, ... not only doesn’t it occur to Saba to say, “Oh, I’m still on the bus,” but it doesn’t occur to her to say, “We won’t be arriving today at all.” Their bus left late on the first day, making for three days of travel instead of two – information in her possession and transmittable in an estimated three seconds of phone time. It just doesn’t occur to her.

I wait; I dally. I try to call. I worry. I decide she must have stopped in on relatives. She must be staying with them. She has a few in Mekele. She has them littered all over Ethiopia, as far as I can tell. She’ll call, I tell myself. I hang out at the glorious Milano hotel, owned by an incongruously flamboyant Ethiope, back from many years in Italy. I watch him glad-hand locals, his curls dyed orange, prancing about on very high-soled boots. The next day, I wander. I take in the castle hotel described in previous log. I’m a regular in Mekele already. Citizens wave familiarly.

I check in on my hotel at regular intervals. It’s about 2pm when I find them at my hotel. “Saba! Imagine meeting you here!” I don’t bother getting mad. She wouldn’t understand. Instead I listen to complaints about the bus journey. And I register some surprise at the resolution of my two Sabas: let’s go! We were scheduled to press on toward Adigrat; what are we waiting for? Okay, I check out of the hotel, and we walk down to the bus station for the two-hour trip north.

We catch a minibus. There are the usual amenities: three to a tight bench, not an inch to move, windows shut against demon germs, shrieking baby behind me. A couple earplugs and I’m ready to enjoy the scenery.

The first half-hour we climb one of the barren ridges outside Mekele, chugging up switchbacks, up the face of Rushmore, it seems. We finally surmount and arrive on a plateau of tough, dusty desert – not too tough for locals, who walk miles alongside the highway between villages. We pass several quarries for the pretty yellow stone that everything is built from.

The journey greens up in the middle, near Wukro, and the long desert views break into small hills and vales and charming little homesteads. It reminds me of Cappadocia. This geography holds until you reach the famous Negash, site of the first mosque outside Arabia, in the town where some of the prophet’s followers found refuge during his lifetime. Harar-green is the little dome, which you can see from the highway if you’re alert – (not the original mosque, but pretty darn old....)

Just beyond the town is a conical little hill with an old church built on top. It’s so unlikely and pretty that you watch it come and go for fifteen minutes. All the scenery in this region is striking, kind of over-the-top movie-Western backdrop, but settled by age-old farming families in their humble stone houses, many painted with square crosses. This greater region is famed for far-flung clusters of medieval churches carved into cliffs and rocks, the kind that make Ethiopia famous among history buffs.

We descend along the side of another dramatic ridge, greener than the earlier one, and we cruise along a surprisingly lush and cultivated valley, until suddenly we’re in Adigrat, speeding by swarms of school kids in red sweaters, deposited by a crazy 60s fountain, in sight of the imposing Italian cathedral. Adigrat, set in a half-bowl of three high ridges, the one to the west currently swallowing up the sun. A host of Saba’s relatives is waiting for us. They surround us and chatter and grab our bags, leading us to a hotel.