Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Travelogue 211 – December 26
Back to the Source

On Christmas morning, a full moon is setting over the opposite shore of Lake T’ana. The sun isn’t quite up yet, and the calm waters are Monet shades of pink and violet. There are blessed few people out alongside the lake.

On Christmas morning, I’m in Bahir Dar. I haven’t been back to Bahir Dar since the very first trip to Ethiopia, four years ago. Bahir Dar is a town on the southern shores of Lake T’ana and the capital of the Amhara region. It’s the closest major town to the headwaters of the Blue Nile. And it’s still one of my favorite spots in Ethiopia.

Bahir Dar looks just the same, mellow streets and mellow sun. The waters are a soft and peaceful green. There are, though, a few changes. My little lakeside paradise at the Ghion Hotel has gone to seed. It still boasts pleasant garden among the rooms, but the quiet patio with chairs under an afternoon spread of fig branches, open to the breeze off the lake, is now compromised: it’s fenced off from the lake and covered by an unattractive iron shelter.

The second change more than compensates. That is a pedestrian walkway along the shore from downtown almost to the headwaters of the Nile.

I’m up at 6:30 to walk the length of it, which only takes a half-hour or so. You pass inlets wild with reeds and papyrus. You pass morning glories and poinsettia and papaya trees. Out in the lake, lone fishermen in tiny papyrus boats are checking their nets. The path ends suddenly at a marsh, within sight of the first islands in the mouth of the Nile. Actually it ends at the trunk of a fig tree, from which a startled ibis takes flight. I turn around and head back to the new T’ana Hotel, a luxury spot with a very nice patio overlooking the lake, where I can have a full breakfast among a host of travelers, Italian, French, American, Kenyan, etc.

On Christmas morning, after breakfast, I walk out the front entrance of the T’ana Hotel, which is not the feat of a few steps down a staircase. The hotel is set quite a ways off the road, at the end of a long driveway through bits of farmland. Once at the road, I catch a minibus taxi, having only a slight idea where it will go. Yes, I was right: five minutes later, we’re crossing the Blue Nile on a wide, low bridge. I call for a stop and then walk back across the bridge. The usual stern policeman sits on a chair with his gun at the start of the bridge. I don’t have my camera, so I pose no security risk. I take my time, watching the swift, muddy current below. The river is wide and punctuated by grassy isles of mud like unstable stepping stones. The actual headwaters are just out of sight.

I take a path through a primitive city-village on the shore, along dung-filled dirt alleys, following the river toward the lake. As expected, I’m stopped by a marsh. Abiu and a friend are goofing around on a makeshift pier of igneous stones from the hills. The shirtless and grinning friend cuts me a papyrus reed as a gift. Abiu offers to guide me to Debre Maryam, a church on one of the islands in the mouth of the river. Off we go.

We’re further from the lake than I thought. We trek along a wide dirt road. It ends. We trudge on, down many a walking path, crossing fields and passing small farms. Most of the farmers cultivate ch’at or cabbage. But there is also mango, papaya, banana, and coffee. I try ishr, a small orange fruit that Abiu likes, but it’s sour and gummy in the palate, not good for a sweaty hike without water.

Debre Maryam stands on an island that’s only about thirty meters from shore, across a quiet channel. Abiu and some local boys shout across for the ferry, which is an amorphous raft of papyrus reeds. They shout back they want twenty birr. I shake my head no. The boys are anxious. I’m not. I like sitting in the sun, watching the slow and obscure tide through the channel. Eventually, I say ten. There’s a lot of shouting about that. The raft drifts across.

The pilot of the raft disappears, and Abiu picks up the long pole. He and a curious shepherd boy push us off and across, so slowly and with such soft lapping of the waters I could sleep. It turns out our twenty-birr Charon is no ferrymen at all, but a shriveled old woman in sackcloth. She collects my birr with a steely glint in her eye. Charon she is because she wears the fare of a previous soul around her neck, an intriguing old coin, huge and polished almost smooth by time. It features on one side the decayed profile of some plump, eighteenth-century European lord, by the looks of him; and on the other side is a two-headed eagle.

The island is quiet. The church is closed. We see a priest in his high turban vigorously row off in his own little boat. We stroll a while among the priestly fields of ch’at and turn back. A dour midget of a priest rides back with us. He is suspicious of me, maybe concerned for the virtue of his buxom servant girl, who rows the raft for us. But of course I make no notice of her charms, immersed as I am in the wisdom of melodious waters.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Travelogue 210 – December 22
The Breakfast Club

There’s something cheering about a fat, hairy man blowing you a kiss in the morning, ‘Ciao, Giorgio,’ I cry, passing him in front of the Ethiopia Airlines building in Piassa – curving wall peach and avocado green in the sunshine. ‘Ciao, bello,’ he replies. Of course, Giorgio is Italian. But he isn’t.

Some time mid-century, so Giorgio tells me, Haile Selasse rescued forty Armenians out of Jerusalem, survivors of the holocaust in Turkey that someone in our quick State Department just discovered languishing in his inbox at an inconvenient moment. One of these was Giorgio’s grandfather. The Armenian community flourished here. (As evidence, I produce my dentist, Dr. Mickey, and the pretty stone Armenian church in Piassa.) But restless Giorgio went to Italia as a young man. There he became a sculptor. Now, at the other end of life’s journey, he’s considering coming home.

Danieli has adopted Giorgio as an accessory. Danieli is a crazy Austrian, continuing my chain of them. He’s middle-aged, a big man with a wild, greying mane, a Beethoven jaw, wide-set eyes, and a magnificent pot belly. He’s actually Israeli by birth, though central European by blood. It’s his second time in Ethiopia, and he plans to spend six months. Danieli’s itinerary is very free. His final plans seem to revolve around women. There is the girl he met on his last trip that is now in police training camp outside Addis Ababa. They touch hands through the fence. She tells him to go buy her shoes. Then there’s the Muslim girl whose daddy he appealed to to let her travel with him to Harar. Apparently the man has relented.

Yesterday morning, all the talk at the Taitu Hotel was about the Gambela girl. “Phoo!” Danieli exclaims. “She could dance!” This long story involves several Piassa night clubs, a clan of Taitu foreigners, and the girl’s sexually explicit moves. One of the implicated men was another Israeli, who has joined us at the outdoor table, a quiet young man with long hair and beard. They exchange polite reminiscences of the girl in Hebrew. Danieli wants to know what happened after he left. Giorgio laughs at him. “Playboy,” he calls him in his gravelly, smoothly accented voice. Danieli objects. “I have my limits,” he declares in his harshly accented voice. “I would never do that. She is sixteen. No!”

I’m diverted from my usual morning routine because I’m looking for someone at the Taitu, someone I never find. My routine is to collect my thoughts at the old Razel cafe in Piassa. This cafe has done something extraordinary; it has remained at the height of fashion for all the time I’ve been in Ethiopia. And it has maintained its standard in coffee and pastries. It’s a relief to know that one can still feast the palate and the eyes at the same city font.

Any day of the week, the beautiful people will come: stunning women in expensive styles to make old white guys weep and confident men in the style of confident men in Addis – which means they look like Americans on a Sunday, except their sneakers have been polished. It’s an odd sign of our times that the poor men here wear suits coats and slacks, but men with power look like they’re pushing a stroller around the Mall of America. A few young ones will appear in a very clean rapper’s uniform, something teenage American, 1998 in a white suburb. And then there are the two ten year-old boys who come in and drop a week’s salary for most papas on a carbohydrate orgy. And what do the beautiful people eat for breakfast in Addis? Burger and fries, almost universally.

But lest we forget where we are in the world, incidents like the following will happen. I look up and a woman is rubbing her head. She’s bashed her head against the serving platter of a waiter on the stairs. Everybody’s staring out the front window. Everybody is up and rushing toward the stairs and the doors, a wild look in their eyes. There’s smoke in the street, and smoke billowing into the cafe. They’re pulling down the metal grates over the windows and door. I glimpse police grabbing men and smacking them across the face. A crowd is running this way and that. I don’t move until I know what the story is.

So what happened? Apparently a car went by that was on fire. That tells you the level of tension in this place, despite appearances in the stylish spots. I set down my pen and close my notebook. I’m revisited by the agonies of the ordeal two years ago after the election. I’m reminded how all my pretty plans are vapor in the face of the next terror.

The crisis passes, and the beautiful people resume their seats.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Travelogue 209 – December 14
The Girls

The sun roars like a lion. We faranjis all have red necks. Tomorrow are time trials. I want my girls to roar like the sun.

I’m distracted this month. My most pleasant distraction is Team Tesfa, which is a new project that I shouldn’t have started. The team is just five strong, Ijigu and four teenage girls with a glimmer of promise as runners.

Meseret’s story represents many others. She’s seventeen. She moved to the city from some small town, away from her family, in order to become an athlete. Fast forward to when we meet, and she’s working in a cafe all day and has no time to train. She dropped out of school a long time ago.

Today, they’re sitting around the cafe table. The place is bright with leonine sun. My back and red neck are warm. The girls are shy and silent. They wink at each other and smile. We’re signing contracts today. These are the final documents for registration of the team. And this occurs with no time to spare. The winter’s major cross country meet happens in two weeks. I’m hoping there are no glitches. One never knows in Ethiopia, but we have a man on the inside.

Here they are, the four young lionesses, acting shy. But I’ve seen them run. Here’s lovely Meseret with her golden smile, an innocence to her, a simple confidence. She runs with regal grace, and I read that as great potential.

Beside me is Tsion, contrast to Meseret, the brooding and proud teenager. She has a bright smile when you address her, but otherwise she sulks and slouches. She always has an argument ready for us. Even this I enjoy about her. She reminds me of a pit bull when she runs, all muscle and earthbound. She’s very determined, and so far she’s the best of the lot.

These two have started tutorial classes with Haregwa from the Shiro Meda school. Both left school long ago. Their first session is at my house. Tsion couldn’t write the English alphabet. Meseret has her troubles with Amharic writing. It’s been a long time – and those were country schools.

I’m watching Meseret as she works her way through the contract. She mouths the words, and with a good deal of animation, too. I hadn’t realized how much drama was packed into this legal document. Then again, I can only hope there is: the sound of her future in these dry words.

We sign. We stain the papers with coffee. I harangue them good-naturedly about the time trials coming up. It takes a while to explain the concept of goals. The girls chat about the course and times. We come up with a fairly modest number. Not entirely seriously, I lecture them, locker-room style, about being hungry. ‘You’ve got to want it!’ They’re smiling politely. I find out there’s no Amharic word for ambition. Of course, I shrug. ‘Anbessa!’ I say. ‘Lion!’ This is what they call Kenenisa and other great athletes. My final result: very meekly Meseret points at her chest. ‘Anbessa,’ she whispers with a self-conscious smile. I have to laugh. It’s not a boastful culture. You have to respect that.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Travelogue 208 – December 6
The Nose of Sisyphus

My first week in Ethiopia is bliss. The sun is strong. The mountain breeze keeps it pleasant. My staff is welcoming. Their work while I was gone was good. The schools look wonderful, filled with new art, thanks to the two months’ work of our volunteers from Ireland. When I arrive at school, the little ones are joyfully foaming at the mouth, brushing their teeth with tiny brushes donated by the Irish. My house is quiet and cozy. I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is pretty nice. What’s my rush in getting out of here?’

And then I really arrive in Ethiopia. Or I should say, Ethiopia arrives in me. Overnight, the super cold moves in. These aren’t charming seasonal sniffles. This is rheumy-eyed brain-melt with a continual stream out the nose, complete with bone-deep fatigue and existential woe. If it follows its usual course, it will muscle down into my lungs and take up a month’s residence as a racking cough and life-sapping asthma.

After four years as a slave to petty diseases, a question suggests itself. A hypothesis inside a question, a question inside a philosophy, a philosophy inside a regret, and that inside a breathe: exactly when was it that I committed suicide? The question suggests a method of inquiry: sifting back through the four-year trail of colds, fevers, coughs, nausea, asthma, fatigue, diarrhea, headaches, stomach cramps, and flu to assess ‘life’ as a medium of travel.

But I don’t have the energy. Tomorrow I devote myself back to the conundrum of living without living. The exit from my house lets into a subway tunnel, mucous grey, underneath the city. Above the ground is color and energy. Below are the shadows of color, a static nuisance. People are obstacles. Sound is jarring noise.

When you’re sick, you rush away from the living. You find quiet corners for tea. The topography of the city deteriorates until it’s all safe havens and bathrooms. (The latter, I must comment, is particularly humiliating for a male traveler, especially in a country where any ditch or wall will do for locals.)

Always a minor hypochondriac, now I’m a major case. I’ve been outfitted with germ vision. Disease crawls, in colonies the color of key lime custard, along fingertips and doorknobs and tabletops. A friendly handshake makes me sweat. A cough across the room makes me twitch. I douse everything in lime juice, even french fries. Glasses are suspicious. Green leafy vegetables make me nauseous.

And if this weren’t enough, if the sights and sounds of life abroad weren’t just the sunny side of inescapable alienation, being ill is the cave inside the shadow. ‘I’m sick’ prompts laughter. These faranjis! In a culture where home and family form the very fabric of the cosmos, one does not want to be the solitary bachelor in bed with only his illness. It’s one thing to prefer solitude, but no one volunteers for this type. This is lunar orbit, conserving on oxygen.

I sniffle and wheeze in my corner of the hip cafe, and I warn the youngsters, ‘Wa! Pozor! Beware! Choose your poison carefully. The Creator, Great Nature, the Father of Waters, the Belcher of Life sets out his pharmacopoeia of free will. Ponder long over the colorful pills.’ But they never listen.

Health is a philosophy unto itself. It’s a philosophy that brooks no questions. It’s the hypothesis with its own proof: innocence. Innocence is a state before decisions. Every decision narrows the playing field, just like every meal skewers the metabolism.

Wa! says the old man. But it’s just another bright day in Ethiopia. The sun rolls along its track in the sky. Prometheus has liver disease. Sisyphus has emphysema. Life goes on.