Thursday, August 23, 2007

Travelogue 197 – August 23
Redolence of Things Past

My house is redolent with a musk of nostalgia. It’s the odor of mold, and it’s not a subtle fragrance, but nearly overpowering. It reminds me of all the various basements I’ve crashed in over the years, beginning with my brother’s in Tacoma, Washington when I was a teen.

And why is my house the focus of such fond stinks? A couple of nights ago, the place was flooded. Just when you think kerempt, or the rainy season, is diminishing, that’s when it will hit you. We had a storm to remember. I awoke at one a.m. to the roar of torrential rain on the tin roof. It was unnerving, the unrelenting volume, but that was just the beginning. The torrent turned to hail and went on for quite a while. In the morning, there were piles of ice like snow banks behind the house.

And in the morning, there were the remains of the storm, strewn through half the house, streaks of mud and puddles of water and ice on my uneven floor. The flood seems to have been stopped at the threshold of my bedroom by some mysterious and much-appreciated intervention. Similarly it stopped just before the live power cords on the ground in the salon. The gods of my nostalgia: what was able to creep in under my bedroom door so infected my carpet as to arouse very powerful triggers to the memory.

It’s an age of water and an age of disasters. On my way into Piassa in the morning, I pass one of Addis Ababa’s new city lakes, and I feel I might just be in Minneapolis, but for the beggars, cripples, waifs and wretches clogging one’s muddy way. The lake is actually a construction site. It has been one since I first arrived in Addis Ababa. Since then, though, I must say it has gained the prestige of fencing. Whatever it will be someday will be massive and important. It will occupy a huge chunk of land across the street from City Hall.

For now, it must stand as a symbol of the real (e)state of affairs next to the stately symbol of what we’d like, the sinkhole of the commonwealth. Oromia, by all reports, is becoming one such murky quagmire in our patchwork state. The approaching millennium affords all kinds of causes their day under the summer clouds. Bands of armed bandits calling themselves freedom fighters (all the rage among roaming armed bands) are said to be roaming about eastern Oromia demanding hard cash in the name of ... well, of whatever ethnic or religious principle comes to mind, I guess. There have been bomb scares, too, just to spice up the holidays.

This makes life difficult for anyone doing business in Mojo or Debre Zeit, ... say, someone like me. Just the other day Saba had to head off toward Mojo to negotiate for the release of one of our staff from the county jail. He was the unfortunate man in the middle, caught between employers in Addis who needed furniture moved from one site to another and officials and landlords always alert to chances for graft. He was charged with theft and held overnight while officials meditated the opportunities. Our man has been let go, but the paperwork grinds on toward its forgone conclusion: money in the proper hands. And Saba spends two hours in ‘customs’, along with crowds of others trying to re-enter the capital city.

That zone east of Addis is notoriously difficult. In nearby Nazarit, we had to walk away from a proposed school because the education officer wanted jobs for family and rent money for friends. Meanwhile, in Mojo, the owner of a private school is spreading lots of cash to shut us down. “We don’t need schools in Mojo,’ the enlightened education officer tells us. Hmm.

I have my comforts: the scent of sour sentiment and scenes of Mississippi mud in downtown Addis, they lend me inspiration. Onward ho!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Travelogue 196 – August 19

I’ve returned to Ethiopia at the height of the rainy season. The first impression is everything I dread: cold, damp, and moldy. The clouds never part. The house is dark and forlorn.

But after a few days, the clouds and my mood lift. The weather resumes a familiar pattern, lacking all pattern at all. Rather, it moves in waves across the sky, predictable only in being dynamic. It never stops. It might be sunny through strips of ambiguous cloud, while a black storm front builds on the horizon. It might sprinkle on you while the sun stays shining. It might be hailing in half an hour. The wind will rise suddenly and shake the trees of moisture. The concrete of my little courtyard is green with damp. The weather is something I begin to wonder at and even enjoy.

Today is Buhe, the end to another of the Ethiopian Christians’ many fasts. On this day, and adjoining days, troupes of boys parade around in a happy ritual not unlike trick-or-treat, in which the boys go door to door and sing a lyric that they adapt for whomever answers the door, making the song a silly song of praise. If you don’t give, they set off firecrackers.

I’ve heard two explanations for this fast in August. The first is the Assumption, when Mary gets swept up into heaven. This seems to be the popular explanation. Most people will answer that they’re fasting for Mary. Considering the general love for Mary here, that doesn’t mean they understand the origins of the fast.

The second I like better. It’s the time of the Transfiguration, which is the celebration of Jesus being proclaimed by the Father on Mount Tabor. Christ glowed, they say, which I suppose we all do in our dad’s pride. At the time, shepherd boys danced and sang all night. This leads into the tradition of Buhe.

Another thing about this season I had forgotten: the early evening migrations. In a pause in the showers, Jackie and I are playing in the yard when suddenly we spot, almost at the same moment, the first winged intruder. I believe they’re termites. Hardly a cause for celebration, but they are a fun sport for Jackie and me. Soon they’re fluttering overhead by the dozen, four gossamer wings struggling to keep going toward some instinctive haven. When one sinks down into our yard, Jackie starts jumping and snapping her jaws. Apparently, she finds the brown juicy bodies tasty. So do the birds. Detached wings drift upon the breeze. The game reminds me of when we lived at the school in Shiro Meda. It makes me nostalgic. From across the street, I hear the children screaming and laughing as the bugs descend into their yard.

Some other autumnal pests are descending on Addis. I’ve never seen so many white tourists here, presumably early for the millennium. Spanish, German, Dutch, French: I’ve heard them all as they strut up the street. In the hotels of Piassa, as I’ve mentioned before, the tourists are the backpackers. They always seem very proud, for reasons I haven’t figured out. I say ‘hello’, but they ignore me as an impostor in their dream. The taxi guys are happy, though. Business has been slow this summer.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Travelogue 195 – August 13
Fat Times

Everyone here in Addis Ababa is in agreement: I’ve gained weight. They insist it’s for the better. Even Melesech, who has lost as much as I’ve gained. She didn’t have it to lose. She lies in bed, as she has for months, with a permanently stunned look in her eye. She was in the hospital while I was away, bleeding internally. ‘You look good,’ she murmurs in Amharic, and I can’t answer for the bitter sadness and helplessness in my heart. She’s never been well, since Leeza died. There doesn’t seem to anything anyone can do. But we hope, and we take her to doctors.

If I’ve gotten fat, a fair share of the blame belongs in Great Britain. As Pete will confirm, I’ve become a great admirer of British cuisine, a cuisine known round the globe for its delicate qualities: sausage and mash, mushy peas, fish and chips, stout and ale. Ah, the refinement of it.

And now that Pete has moved out of London, I can taste it in its native environs. As far as I can tell, British cuisine has deteriorated in the capital, giving way to tepid palates grown accustomed to weak international dishes, Asian, Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern, African, etc. Alas.

The triumphs this trip: fish and chips and bitter. We scored some fabulous fish and chips. Maybe that’s not too surprising, being in a coastal fishing town. The fresh salt air wasn’t dulling my senses, either. So, so good it felt to be seaside – for the first time in years. Even among my passes through Rome, I haven’t made it to the sea.

And this place is perfect. Maybe it isn’t technically the sea – a channel instead? – but even standing on the great green cliffs (not so very far from Dover) I can’t descry the continent. So it’s sea to me. The hills are beautiful, and old town, filling one vale between them, flowing down toward the calm, grey, flatness of the sea is serene and pleasant.

It’s down among those narrow lanes and their squat, ageless pubs that I get my education in bitters. Pete is a connoiseur. I’ve resisted darker beers, for no good reason beyond an attachment for lagers formed in central Europe. But I’m talked into tasting, and then into a pint. One has to put in some time with bitters. With some, it’s like sticking your nose into a freshly trimmed hedge. But steady on: the rewards are considerable. Taste from a lager after you’ve put down a hedge or two, and you’ll find it flat and bland. The real bitter is flavor, no doubt about it.

And now time begins to bend. Maybe the Normans had no fish and chip joints, but I can imagine that bitter wouldn’t be too alien to them. Climb back up to the cliffs and you’re in their world, back to the beginning of something, overlooking the seas they crossed to defend William’s honor and defend the crown promised him by his Saxon brother-in-law.

Half his castle is missing, along with much of the hill it was built on, lost to erosion natural and planned. But it still makes for a nice tour. There’s a great view of the sea, and enough left of the old structure to make it interesting: the beginning of a new England. John from Worcester says the Anglo-Saxons built nothing higher than an arm’s-length. Certainly they don’t seem to have left anything behind. Unless it’s Stonehenge, the old stuff is Norman.

Particularly amusing is the fifteen-minute history presentation in the little theater, complete with plastic kings in the corners that light up, and yellowed-film re-enactments in which overweight Normans swing in slow, inaccurate arcs.

Pete and I take a tour of the 1066 battle site, which is not actually in Hastings, but in ... Battle(!), a tiny town quaint and gone tony in the way almost every town in southeastern England has gone tony, except Hastings.

The battle took place on a rather steep hillside, believe it or not, with the Saxons holding the crest. Now, and for a thousand years, the crest is commanded by Battle Abbey, a beautiful establishment, founded by William to cleanse himself of the blood spilled there. (Did you know that the Pope was on William’s side? The Normans carried His banner.) The old arch was placed where King Harold is supposed to have fallen with an arrow to his eye.

We tour the whole field, following a path that is set with placards describing the progress of the day’s battle: from the initial successes of the Saxons, who had already beaten the Danes in York and just managed to march back to face William, through the rumors of William’s demise and his famous raising of his helmet to give heart to the troops, through the faked retreats of the Normans to draw the Saxons down the hill, and on to victory at the top of the hill and the launch of a dynasty.

We manage to get lost, and discover a lovely fish pond and some fields that might have changed little since the eighteenth century, when the land was cultivated for pleasure and profit by aristocrats in wigs, fields shaded by huge yew and oaks. (Yes, Pete had to teach me what a yew tree was, though honestly, it look like nothing more than a drooping fir to me.)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Travelogue 194 – August 4
The Bridge

8.2 Helicopters circle. Traffic congeals along unlikely avenues. Roadblocks go up. Traffic cops blow their whistles. There’s a kind of hunted look in people’s eyes. Mortality is on the prowl again.

Public disaster is its own little climate system. Within its perimeters, within a few miles from the epicenter, you sweat under an oppressive anxiety. You look over your shoulder. You hesitate and second-guess yourself because nothing feels right. You snap at friends. You’re easily distracted and unsettled.

I circled the site today, traveling from errand to appointment and back to errands, crossing the river several times, and finally passing the place itself. Crossing over the highway, you can’t miss it, a chunk of the roadway thrust into the air where the bridge was wrenched free and fell into the Mississippi. It gives you a shudder and a fleeting feeling of land’s-end.

First word is a phone call while we’re at Steve’s last night. Roxana passes on the news from her call that a bridge has collapsed. Where it was, she didn’t catch. But the concerned calls continue to come. Steve’s got the TV on, and we are stunned at the image. Everyone has a story about their last pass over the bridge. The media voices drone through scarce facts and over limited video. ‘What did you feel when you first arrived at the site?’ she asks the transportation official.

Late tonight, I’m riding my bike back to Wes’s. We’ve made it through the first day of trauma. I have to cross the river. The closest bridges are shut. I have to cycle back to Hennepin to cross and then alongside the river to where my original path picks up.

The site of the collapse is awash in light. Rescue teams are still at it. The glow is forlorn, and it attracts a slow stream of tourists and melancholics. Small groups stand above the river, staring in morbid curiosity and murmuring.

Cars rest at the bottom of the river. Divers struggle against the Mississippi current to shine torches into the windows. I turn away and pedal past cops manning barricades. I’m eager to get away.

8.4 I wake earlier than I had planned. One thing about tent living, you’re exposed to the elements. Elements like jet engines churning the early morning air not too far above your head, taking off from the nearby airport, resounding like dream-shattering, aural mementi mori: ‘your time is coming.’

I get on the bike and work off a few quick miles. As I approach the café, a military helicopter roars directly over us, headed toward the river.

I absorb some caffeine and brood over inconsequential things, and I set out again. Today, I pedal across the university bridge. There are more people than usual on a summer morn. They’re standing at the edge, looking upriver. I assume they’re trying for a glimpse of the new ruins, but they’re not. On a field at river’s edge below, the helicopter is parked among an assortment of emergency vehicles. It’s Bush. He’s come to town to look over the fallen bridge.

Is the copter his ride or an escort? ‘It’s a decoy,’ opines one spectator. Nothing’s quite real here, until it’s time to clean up. Bush spends the afternoon at a fundraiser while the work in the river resumes.