Saturday, September 22, 2007

Travelogue 201 – September 22
Journey to Sticktown, Part Two

Drive up the north side of the Blue Nile Gorge on New Year’s Day and you pass through villages hanging on to hillsides, cultivating lovely green terraces hundreds of meters above the murky river. They’re not farming on New Year’s. You catch them in droves along the ‘highway’ – read dirt road, that nonetheless is their Main Street – clapping and singing in groups. These groups are circular and everyone is clustered very closely. They are struck dumb by the minibus full of faranjis that comes around the switchback ... struck dumb for a moment.

Across the great, wide gully, an hour or two ago, we were joking foolishly about the shifta, the local bandits. On this side, the jokes are picked up again. The boys have a penchant for chasing our van. They shout and laugh, they call out for money. A few run alongside for as long as they can. We call them ‘Kenenisa’ after the running champ and national hero.

But around every curve in the road, the groups become more formidable. And it seems that the equipment for boys in this singing and clapping ritual is a hefty staff that is rapped rhythmically against the rocks in the road. We’re still laughing when scores of boys are chasing the van, swinging their sticks. But we’re exchanging wide-eyed looks at the same time. The minibus takes a few loud blows. The driver halts once, and the kids immediately turn tail.

Every curve reveals a new congregation. ‘Stick people,’ we advise and slide the windows shut. ‘You! You!’ they shout with aggressive smiles, and they run. I could be in Paris, ensconced in my carriage on some narrow, barricaded street, upset because my powdered wig is askew.

We pass through the hilarious Terror unscathed, only to find some of the most glorious scenery awaiting us near the top. (See last entry and photo, please.) Our goal is – seemingly has been for days – the town of Dejen. At last it appears, some few kilometers past the ridge’s edge, as we ride into placid green hills like the ones on the other side. How could we help but notice the chebo piled up in great, upright piles like teepees: sticks and sticks. These will be burned later in celebration. Sophisticated wits that we are, we dub our new town ‘Sticktown’.

The name seems to fit. What better name for a pony express stop in the old Ethiopian Wild West? There’s Main Street, the highway, and the rest is slippery mud among squat, frontier homes. Dangerous men with white gabis over their shoulders walk along the highway. Others watch us from dark tea saloons. Our hotel is a compound behind high walls.

It’s nearly dark. Clouds are gathering for the night-long storm. We’re starving. We sit in the empty hotel dining room. We order food, and then forget about it. Four or five rounds of beer later, night has fallen and the place is packed. Sticktown has turned out for some holiday hoe-down. They are not shy. The Ethio-pop jukebox is jacked up and the bold are standing up with it, dancing for the crowd. We are the most vociferous of supporters, needless to say. The boldest is a man in a tan leisure suit. His eyes are unfocused; he coaxes the most painted of ladies to dance with him. His lazy glances settle among their bosoms. We decide he’s the mayor of Sticktown.

Soon, women in every sort of costume, traditional to tease, are standing and moving in very expressive ways. Our table has become silent. Oddly enough, the mayor’s striking wife is dressed most traditionally. She winks at me mockingly, and invites me to dance. I wow the crowd with my deep knowledge of traditional dance. Or is seems so in my foggy state. Lots of men telling me they love me: I take that for admiration of my dance style. Selam, the lovely mayor’s wife, doesn’t tell me she loves me. She just mocks with her eyes, and I can’t tear myself away. There’s a new mayor in Sticktown, Neil says.

Neil has troubles of his own. A lanky teenage boy in baggy jeans, with moves that suggest nothing traditional, has taken a shine to him. Long after Neil refuses him, he’s still mooning our way. When Mark returns from one of his stints in the Queen’s Bar – this hotel has two bars: ‘It’s like a cruise ship!’ Mark gushes – we direct the lovesick boy toward Mark, and Mark amuses us with a long, slinky performance with the boy. Alas, Mark realizes the joke and returns to the Queen’s Bar.

Bodies are writhing. Chaos is gaining primacy in the saloon. We cross the compound and climb the stairs to the Queen’s Bar. It’s empty but for our crew. Sadly, Kylo and the drivers have established a long loop of reggae songs, ‘One World, One Yawn: the Most Repeated and Indistinguishable Hits of the Century,’ is the name of the compilation, I think. Justine has taken over the area between six tables that passes as a dance floor. The (woman) bartender watches her hungrily.

I stand on the tiny balcony of the Queen’s Bar. I sway in the drizzle, and I watch the mayor and his wife leave the hotel, wondering if I should plant myself in the middle of the highway and call him out. I decide that wouldn’t be prudent. Down in the main bar, the women have fled and there’s no one left but Neil’s boys. Things might get rough.

I retreat from the night’s battles, from Marley-burn, and find my hotel room. There’s no running water in Sticktown. We wash from buckets in Sticktown, and that’s the way we likes it. We settle, greasy from the long road, in our bug-ridden beds, and we listen to African rain on iron roofs. We pray to our heavy-fisted God, and we scratch ourselves into dark, wilderness slumbers. No dreams because there is nowhere but the bogs of Sticktown. Good night, all, and Happy Millennium!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Travelogue 200 – September 15
Journey to Sticktown, Part One

Drive north out of Addis Ababa in mid-September and you encounter some localities familiar from ancient blogs, like Selulta and Chancho. But now they look fresh and Irish green. And that describes much of the half-day journey we pursue on Ethiopian New Year’s Day: bright green hills and pastures amid spells of mist. Lots of livestock.

The ten of us doze and chat. We take photos out the windows of the minibus. We stop in Fiche for lunch. A small crowd gathers to watch us. When he’s done eating, Mark entertains the children with magic tricks. It’s fun to see real amazement at old magic tricks.

About four hours into the driving, we come to the real goal of the trip. The first hint we’ve arrived is a sense of space ahead, the feeling you get when you’re approaching the ocean, a sense that the world is falling away. The sky expands. There are glimpses of distant ridges. Then the world does fall away. You’re poised on the edge of a gorge so wide and magnificent that it takes the breath away. Its far side is dim in the haze of the day.

This is the Blue Nile Gorge, and one thousand meters below snakes that grand old river, the ‘Abay’, as its termed in Amharic – a term that sounds identical to what children call their fathers.

It took us four hours to get here, and it takes us three hours to reach the opposite rim of the gorge. For one thing, there’s no asphalt on this road, (still one of two major arteries to northern Ethiopia). For another, we stop often for photos. Our first stop is only a few hundred meters down from the rim. There we find a beautiful waterfall. It crashes into a bed of boulders just beside the road’s bridge, and the stream continues on under the bridge, toward more falls. In fact, we almost become numb to the sight of high falls, like silver tassles among the rocks. They are everywhere along this road. I don’t know if this is only true in rainy season. I would guess most dry up in a few months’ time.

We’re content to look at the falls for a while, but the driver is nervous. He says this area is a favorite for shifta. That means bandits. We jump in the van, and of course, launch into many insensitive comments and alerts about bandits, boys being boys. Justine, the only woman on the trip, doesn’t find any of this humorous, but shows commendable patience.

The town halfway down becomes a bandit town. Boys run after the van, and we ask them if they’re bandits. Men with staring eyes and guns between their knees watch us from their front steps. We don’t ask them anything.

At the bottom of the gorge, among steep walls, run the muddy-brown and swift waters of the Blue Nile. Spanning it is a high bridge of Italian design. Thomas, an authority of all things Italian, squints at it and says it’s 1930s. I can’t verify that, but it’s old enough that supports have been raised for a second bridge almost next to the first.

Ethiopian officials have a thing about cameras. The drivers warn us, no photos of the bridge. This warning circulates several times around the van. And still, halfway across the span, Neil leans out his window with his camera, having tuned us all out long ago. The federal police, the grimacing-skulls, of whom I’m so very fond, stop us on the other side. There are words, but Neil calmly defuses the situation, deleting the photo while two uniformed lizards look on.

It’s a long road, but the view never gets dull. If anything, it becomes more delightful. As we near the opposite rim, we come across Shangri-La, green Alpine hills and terraces, crystalline falls and quiet farmsteads. I hope I can post a photo here.

The next morning, after our fateful night in Sticktown, we hit the road early. It has rained all night, but the morning is blue-skied. At least, it is above the gorge. When we arrive at the canyon, we see that down below the clouds have never parted. We look down into a serene and still inland sea of billowing white cloud.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Travelogue 199 – September 10
Intrepid Athletes All

Mud and mists and alarming pain in the lungs: these were our only rewards, but intrepid athletes all – well, only four of us, in actual fact – intrepid soldiers of athletics, we rose every other morning to make our assault on the mountains.

Ijigu arrives at seven to wake us. Rising from lack of sleep, from hangovers, and from the warmth of winter beds, we meet his summons. Ijigu is elite runner and general team attendant – and unanimous favorite of the Brits among my local staff. He is always cheerful and helpful, but never so cheerful as when he gets to take us out on the trails.

We pile into the team minibus and we motor uphill, nearly to the city limits. There we stretch and start at a brisk and anxious walk along the first trail. Anxious because in a matter of fifty meters or so we will encounter the first hill. It’s the longest and steepest hill of the course. It takes us literally to the top of the mountain ridge. Even the most fit among us – at sea level – are immediately breathless and light-headed, stung by the altitude. It’s a scary feeling to be so suddenly robbed of heart and breath. But, intrepid athletes all, we push through the pain and, by the end of the first week, we’re running up most or all of this incline.

At the summit, we’ve reached the rarified heights of athletics. Here, along a maze of dirt trails among the eucalyptus, train the cream of Addis Ababa’s runners. Ijigu, bored by our pace, falls into his loping, mountain habits, dashing into the trees and re-emerging at intervals to check on our progress. We plod by groups of them, doing high-step drills or passing like phantoms single-file among the trees. Kids in uniforms are playing soccer. Some laugh; some encourage. One can’t help but feel honored to be in their company – to feel exhilarated by the thin and chilly morning air and the glimpses of long green mountain slopes among the rainy season mists.

The Great Ethiopian Run was cancelled, as I reported, because of political weather, but the Brits take it in stride. We immediately begin plans for our own race. The Shiro Meda school is in the foothills. We train in the mountains. And most of our time in Addis Ababa is not spent downtown or in rich and faranji-friendly Bole, but in the hilly, poor northside, underneath the mountains. So, our run will be the ‘Tesfa Mountain Run’.

Mark and I leave the crew at John’s house one afternoon to walk the course. It runs about six kilometers along the top of the Entoto mountain range. It’s a very beautiful track, forested and still most of the way. In the last mile, the trees open up and the runner gets a panoramic view of the hills on the north side of the ridge, sloping away from the capital city. Our course ends at Entoto Maryam church, the first in Addis Ababa, established by old Menelik behind his first palace in the new capital.

The day of the race starts out cold and wet, but just as we set out in the minibus, the clouds part. We stop at the summit above my house, and we line up for launch. Two of our children hold the START banner in front of us. Wogayehu holds two stopwatches in either hand. Sost–houlet-and, she counts backward, and GO. We begin with a shout, rushing forward in a pack, until we hit the first hill.

The minibus passes us each on the course. Thomas leans out the side window with his camera and leaves us with wry comments on our plodding progress. At the end, the children stretch a home-made ribbon across the road, about a hundred meters up from the historic church. We each get a photo kicking through the ribbon in glory.

The rest of the children and parents are waiting for us down the hill at the Shiro Meda school. This is our Millennium party for the families. We’ve purchased a side of beef. Half a dozen parents sit at a long table outside, cutting up meat, onions and peppers. Bakalech is stirring with a stick the roasting food in a huge, shallow metal bowl that sits on a low fire. Inside, the parents sit formally and patiently at rows of tables. They are silent when we enter; they smile and nod at our greetings.

The kids, on the other hand, are boisterous. Mark has taught them a short song about the Millennium, which they perform for the parents. Then they sit on mats surrounding their parents while we conduct an awards ceremony for runners and for children. I’m forced as MC to announce my own award as second in the male runner’s category. I’m so nervous, I announce it twice ... and then once again at the end of the ceremony.

One millennium safely tucked away, with full stomachs and achy limbs we part. The children and teachers get two weeks off. We faranji head off to the bar to recount our adventures and victories, intrepid athletes all. New Year’s is still a few days away. Far are we from guessing the adventures still ahead ... in Sticktown.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Travelogue 198 – September 8
Times Passing

The media still chirps about the coming Ethiopian Millennium. The radio has a trademark jingle and advertising has become morbidly repetitive. In the real world, there’s little sign of the gleaming dawn. If anything, things seem grimmer than before.

The Great Ethiopian Run was postponed until November, news that my Brits – arriving to take part in the race – heard on the plane. The concert in Meskel Square was cancelled. Stern pairs of police have begun patrolling the streets again.

Celebration has submitted to fear. Eritrean and Somali agents are lurking: we musn’t provide them with targets. Locals take the cancellations well: by and large they weren’t too engaged in the first place. Foreigners bite their lips and tell themselves the trip was worth the millennial prices.

I’d say ‘so it goes; we carry on’, except that some of us don’t. Melesech, Leeza’s and Saba’s mother, passed away on the 2nd. She had been sick, but it was only afterward that most of us heard that her liver had failed her. Before that it was only stomach ailments.

It’s the day after the Brits arrived and I’m plunged into the chill fogs of family mourning. I’m scolded for my neglect and my absences. I’m forgiven and embraced. We sit joined in the gloom of bereavement, in the gloom of Saba’s tiny home, cleared for the wake. New arrivals initiate new rounds of wailing. This is the luxo, Ethiopia’s three-day rite of mourning.

I’m sunk into an aching lethargy. Memory hardens again into a leaden chain of loss. I’m numb and subdued even through the funeral, which in Ethiopia is a fiery catharsis. Hundreds flock to the graveyard. I arrive with Nebiyu, and we walk together among the crowd along the muddy road that bisects the huge graveyard. The crowd seems strangely urgent. We skirt puddles and stand aside for cars that bear the family and bear the well-to-do mourners.

I’m separated from Nebiyu. I realize I’m beside the hearse just as the back door swings open and a wild, multi-voiced keening begins. Saba rushes past, hoarsely screaming ‘Imaye!’ (‘my mother’), her clutched hands in the air. The coffin is lifted out and whisked away, and the chorus of suffering follows, squeezing through narrow alleys of graves. I’m pushed along through bogs of grass and mud.

The vanguard reaches Melesech’s grave and she is lowered in. Old ladies continue to push from behind. Wailing rises and falls from all around. Inside the suffocating circle are the hoarse shrieks and heart-breaking, sing-song laments of the immediate family.

Eventually, Saba and close relatives sweep by again, and the crowd surges to follow, though with less vigor than before. I linger behind, an island in the stream, until I’m left with the grave. I’m left with Leeza’s grave, and I feel an old horror and pain rise. Saba’s boyfriend calls to me, and reluctantly I abandon her.

Back along the pitted dirt track: we gather before the church, where some words are being recited. People are suddenly serene. They file past the family with sad nods and hand-shakes.

The formal luxo begins. The customary tent has been set up in the street. Hundreds gather there, filing past the family again, whom have been installed outside in a row of chairs. We are served lunch from huge pots, and we sit soberly inside the tent on benches. There are soft strains of conversation.

A few days later, the luxo has returned inside Saba’s small house. I sit among family, mostly old ladies in white shawls, who are no longer subdued. They chide Asfaw, Melesech’s cousin, because he breaks into weeping. It’s bad form to cry after dark. They gossip about family and about prices in the market. Saba rests on a mattress on the floor in the back of the room, staring blankly with half-closed eyes. Several other ladies sit with her, blankets over them, leaning against the wall. Saba hasn’t been alone since her mother passed.

And still the Millennium approaches, cruel in its blind march forward. No one is prepared. Somehow we must be ready to celebrate.