Saturday, October 27, 2007

Travelogue 204 – October 27
Intermittent Sunshine of the Lungs

I slept ten hours last night, and I can still say that I was out of bed before the sun was up, though that was at seven-thirty. The authorities over time have delayed Daylight Savings so that we can all feel like eager individuals. The very first thing I do – and there is not a dot of exaggeration in this statement – is to put on my running togs and enter the nearly freezing Minnesota dawn in my shorts.

I have resolved to be healthy on this visit home. I am compelled to because my lungs have declined into a scary state. There were a spate of nights in Ethiopia in which I awoke breathless, chest burning, dim and distant Christmas lights drifting across the ceiling. I was forced to track down an inhaler, and I thought my travails were over until I took a run yesterday. About halfway, the moribund lights started slowly spinning and my lungs were squeaking with the terrific effort of keeping my legs under me. How dispiriting! I determined then and there, doubled over, hands on my knees, that I must purge this disease. I must exert discipline over my frail frame, purge this delicate house for the fleeting flame of life, forge strength where there is weakness. I've got to exercise.

Sweet old October plains, they give me hope. The sky is absolutely clear. A full moon hovers over the western fringe of bare branches. And Saturday morning is quiet. I pass only two neighbors walking their dogs. Therese lives on a parkway. That means a long, straight stretch of plush grass. This morning, I can report that my lungs showed signs of recovery, slight though they may be.

I'm taking a risk that is greater than pushing empty lungs. Therese has lent me a sweatshirt, and the logo on front, in loud yellow and green, is 'Green Bay Packers'. The letters can be seen for blocks. It can't be much worse than wearing a silk screen portrait of Bin Laden.

I don't linger after the exercise, but wash up and pack Andre's vehicle, cherry-red Jetta, with laptop (Steve's) and cell phone (Roxana's) to do some work (all mine). Oh, but the tedious lessons of life never cease. I learn that 'wireless' isn't the uniform quantity that my imagination – faithful to visions of the world as a happy place – has projected. In the first two cafes, I find that the wireless service isn't strong enough for my little machine. By the time I've made it to lucky number three I've had so much coffee that I am very ready for work, juggling two or three internet windows and the same number in Word, while glancing through the local paper.

That's good because I got absolutely nothing done in transit. These days, flights are like long trances. I surrender myself to stasis and to movies – movie after movie. And I can report two good finds among the half dozen or more I devoured. My favorite was La Vie en Rose, the story of Edith Piaf. I was lucky to have no neighbor in the next seat, as I had to wipe away a tear or two. Edith and I share so much painful history: upbringing in the brothel, raw talent nearly undiscovered, the struggle in the streets of a city devastated by war and depression, drug habits and ruthless men. Well, okay, in my case substitute mediocrity in the suburbs, addiction to sugar, and good women who find me a disappointment. But let's not quibble; she and I are kin.

And then there was the movie about the space mission into the sun: beautiful young people on a cool rocket ship equipped with long tracks of mood music; inaudible dialogue that's clearly profound; distress signals; disobedient shipboard computers; evil and diseased humans; a mission to save the planet. It doesn't get any better. Much of it I saw twice, as movies on British Air loop. It's impossible to catch any film at the beginning.

'Sunshine' the movie was called. And once we were out of London, all the sky was just that. It followed us to the ground in Minnesota, sweeping the runway clear of gloom for us. And it's been sunshine ever since, chilly but brilliant as children's hopes – slums of Paris, slums of Ethiopia, California ticky-tack, all one, – visibility high.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Travelogue 203 – October 14
New Day on the Streets

I get a call at 3pm today. I get a string of calls. It’s my next group of volunteers, calling from Heathrow. These volunteers are three sisters from Ireland, and they will be spending two months here working with the children. It’s thoughtful of them to call. They’re telling me the flight is leaving on time. I even get a call from Suzanne’s husband in Ireland. I pick them up tonight at 1am.

I’m due to leave Ethiopia in a week, if all goes well. But it doesn’t feel like it. Maybe it’s arrivals. Maybe it’s the arrival of the sunny season at long last. Maybe it’s the false lull in school activities – (in actual fact, things have never seemed so precarious.) Maybe it’s the abeyance of the relentless string of Ethiopian maladies – head, stomach, head, stomach. Maybe it’s the return of my regular shoeshine guy from the countryside after the holidays are over. But I seem to see the streets again. Where was I before? A kind of anxious business fog, I suppose.

Today, the taxi is dodging a couple guys on bicycles. They are pedaling desperately. God knows I would, too, feeling pretty vulnerable among the weaving taxis. But you do see more bicycles around town these days. And that includes some sportsmen up in the mountains.

I haven’t stopped my training excursions into the mountains after the Brits left, even through my various illnesses. It’s too sweet up there. And I love the sport. I’ve been contemplating founding an athletic club here for talented but disadvantaged young people. Saturday morning, we took Ijigu’s latest recruits up over the mountains to time them in a ten-kilometer run.

There are so many runners here! Once we’re in the hills, we pass runners alongside the length of the highway we travel, pacing along by themselves and in packs. It’s impressive. We release the crew from the minibus and start the stopwatches. The two teenage girls are real heroes. They’ve never run this distance, but they turn in a good performance. Meseret is sixteen, and she lives alone in Addis Ababa, working at a cafe. She has great potential. I hope I can get this team up and running.

I’m so inspired by the athletes that I get up early this morning for a run. Five minutes into the run, I recall I’m no teenage star. There’s no sensation like being breathless in the Ethiopian highlands. It’s a good reminder of one’s limitations.

An hour later, I’m in the taxi riding behind these desperate bikers, who don’t look so desperate, after all. They almost seem to be taunting the taxi drivers, coasting down the steep hill in the middle of the road.

I’m reminded of my summer in Minnesota. There’s a movement among proud cyclists to take over the roads. Every so often, you encounter a mob of them pedaling along, blocking a major city street. I came across one of these mobs one day while I was on my bike. I had to cross the street that they were merrily commanding. Their group was a good quarter-mile long, so I endeavor to weave through their mass. They’ve been taunting motorists, yelling righteous slogans. When suddenly they see me weaving among them, they turn indignant eyes upon me and get ready a shout, then stop in confusion. I wave an apology. I’ve compromised their moment.

I notice another trend in Addis: cheesy cowboy hats. There must have been a recent shipment dumped into the city’s markets, because the hipsters are wearing them in droves. The wayala of our taxi is wearing one, leaning out the window proudly, shouting and dipping his brim into the wind.

Jackie’s gotten kind of ‘street’ lately. Maybe it’s her teen years. She’s coming up to her third birthday. I think it’s nutrition. The new housekeeper (I’ve been through a few lately) is very scrupulous about feeding Jackie, and feeding her lots of meat. My courtyard looks like a charnel house. And Jackie has begun to growl at any approach, especially if one of the ubiqitous bones is nearby. At first, it was cute, like the teenager’s first cool outfit or sulky snarl. Now it’s tedious. I lecture her, but she rolls her eyes.

The best part of these days is the return of clear skies. Standing in my courtyard soaking in the sunshine, I feel empowered to let myself drift into some eddy of timelessness. There’s no better cure for stress. And I had forgotten about that moment during this season, right about 6:30 in the evening, when the sky flares into a riot of colors. Suddenly there are east-west swaths of turqoise alternating with violet and rose. The few clouds are green and purple. Jupiter appears in the west, just above Scorpio, which is still invisible. Tonight a crescent moon, just leaving Libra, becomes luminous above the roof of my house. Just as suddenly, the sky is uniform, gloaming blue, still beautiful. It’s night.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Travelogue 202 – October 5
Money and Monkeys and By the Way

9.13 Sticktown is just a fading dream in lurid colors. We wend our way silently down and across the great gorge, its villages asleep under the majestic river of clouds. We stop just over the other side in a town whose name is too long to recall. We are now in Oromia. Across the river to the north, we were in Gojjam. Signs are in the Roman alphabet again, in the funny, vowel-choked Oromo spellings.

We have our first meal and lots of coffee in a cozy, new hotel. We stand in their courtyard, in the warm sun, for a while. Spirits are revived.

In a couple hours, we arrive at the tourist spot of the day: Debre Libanos is a monastery and famous holy site, founded by one of Ethiopia’s dearest saints, Tekle Haimanot, in the thirteenth century. It’s one of the most important monasteries in the nation. Nothing remains of the original. Apparently the old building is a casualty of medieval Muslim-Christian wars. In modern times, it was victim to another war. An insulted Italian viceroy executed 267 monks and 129 deacons during the occupation.

You turn off the main highway to get there, and almost immediately, you’re struck by another one of those surprising Ethiopian panoramas. Off to the left, there’s another Wild West canyon, hazy and roseate strata captured among the roadside trees. ‘Oh, that’s pretty,’ we say. If we hadn’t just come from the granddaddy of great gorges, we might have been more wowed.

What we are excited about are the baboons. Pete and I have been watching all trip, knowing these are the hills in which to catch sight of the famous gelada baboon. By this stage of the journey, we’ve given up. But there they are, dozens of them in the grasses just beside the road. We get out and commune a while. It is odd to see animals so closely related to humans, to watch how they move and to try to gauge what’s behind the eyes. I like the big guys, the giant old-timers with great wigs of brown hair and insanely sharp teeth and bright red chests. They are content to pick shoots of grass and chew while we watch. But we have to stop the drivers, who think it’s funny to throw stones at them.

The monastery itself is another Haile Selasse structure, something so like a shiny toy in the distance, set against high cliffs, a toy you want to like and yet is just too awkward. We stand at the gates and debate whether we’ll go in. Mark doesn’t hesitate, but starts down a trail alongside the compound wall, toward the closest cliff, which hosts one of those high silvery falls.

We are still debating when we’re approached by a couple monks or monks-in-training. One is a dwarf. They offer us a tour, and we agree. It turns out the tour leads down the very path Mark has scampered down ... illegally.

The trail leads across a creek and then up a steep incline, up stones set as stairs. We aren’t really sure where we’re being led, but our guide, the dwarf, is having a good time. He’s joking and babbling about the monastery. His English is very good, and yet I’m still not sure what he’s saying. Pete and Neil have convinced him that Thomas is eighty years old and needs special attention, so we leave him behind to tend to our ageing friend, who, in fact, does need extra time to climb this hill in his expensive street shoes.

We discover at the top of the climb a damp cave. This was the original attraction for the great founding ascetic. He found this dark, cramped space, with its perennially dripping ceiling, perfect for prayer and meditation on the nature of God. There you go.

It’s while we’re there that we first notice the clouds. ‘Uh-oh.’ We aren’t quick enough. Halfway down the steps, the rain comes, and within minutes it’s a downpour. We run for cover of a tree. We dash across the swelling creek, jumping from one slick rock to another. We run for the cinder-block lavatories, which absolutely reek. Safe inside, we share our concerns about poor Thomas. We wonder what may have happened to him. We hope he’s all right. We debate who will go looking for him. He shows up, and we can’t help laughing: he’s completely drenched and forlorn, led by the arm by his small attendant. The cliche ‘like a wet cat’ fits Thomas so perfectly no one dares utter it.

He takes it well. We wait out the storm, pinching our noses. Eventually, we make a run for the minibus, where we find a crowd of locals has taken refuge. An elderly couple wants a ride to the highway. We’re willing, but we ‘re having trouble getting started. Mark’s been found out. Several monks have gathered at the door of the minibus, hollering at Mark. The dwarf is shoving an open palm in his face. Mark will not budge. He didn’t take the tour, he insists. He was going for a walk. None of us intervene. This is between Mark and the cliff gods. It turns out Mark wins, with the help of the drivers. Or does he win? About a half-hour down the road, Mark discovers his watch is missing. Spooky.