Thursday, March 27, 2008

Travelogue 222 – March 27

Shall I resume the Somalia narrative, now that I’m safely ensconced in (blissfully) uneventful Bath?

1.7 I’m on the road south, from Bosaso to Garowe. Garowe is the capital of Puntland, that large chunk of real estate that comprises the middle section of old Somalia proper. Once you’re over the coastal range of salty hills, it’s mostly flat, scrubby desert for the five-hour drive.

Somalia’s empty. There’s not village after village, peasants along the highway, like in Ethiopia. The population of all Somalia is said to be about eight million. Next door, it’s topping seventy million.

I learn about camels on this trip. I learn that they can’t see cars. That’s the lore here. When approaching a herd that are close to the road, drivers roll down their windows and wave. Indeed, it seems as though the animals only start at the human motion.

We have a lively discussion about how many camels constitute a proper dowry. Fosio, wife of a well-to-do friend of Abdurashid’s, insists that it’s at least one hundred. Now, according to estimates of the cost per camel, that runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. Abdurashid says it’s ten to fifteen. They agree that if your bride-to-be loves you, there’s at least some room for negotiation.

There are check-points along the way. The second car in our convoy, the one with the guns and the guy in uniform, races ahead as we approach check-points. Local guards with guns peer in. They release the chain that blocks the road, or move aside the barrels.

One gets used to guns, especially the ubiquitous little AK-47s. They’re everywhere. I can’t go out without being attended by guys with guns. There are bullets in the car’s ashtray. One ride stands out in my memory: leaning away from the guard beside me in the backseat, gauging the trajectory of any accidental bullet from the barrel of the gun he handles carelessly in his lap. He slides it between his knees and the gun leans so that the barrel’s eye stares at me for much of the journey.

Garowe is a town of fifty thousand or so, sprawling liberally along the highway. The newer and nicer part of town anchors the southern end of town. This is where government offices are, as well as the college, the teacher’s college, and Abdurashid’s new public library.

It’s in the outskirts of these precincts, among the stone markers of land claimants like the ones I saw in Bosaso, that we find the first encampments of IDPs (internally displaced persons). Sixteen families have been living on this plot of land for two years now. They are victims of drought and flash floods and the tsunami of ‘06. Each family is living in its agal, which is the name of the traditional traveling tent for Somali nomads.

These agals don’t appear terribly traditional. They are rounded huts pieced together from bits of just about every fabric and material you can find along the roadside, from burlap to plastic bags, from cardboard to ragged blankets. These huts are closely packed in a tiny village, where children of all ages run in the dust unattended.

At our approach, mothers appear, nursing babies and shouting at the ones who run around. Everyone gathers to see me, shyly, uncertainly. Abdurashid intitiates a discussion about school. Sure, they say, they would like their kids in school. But first, they would like a house. Some two hundred IDP families have already been moved into a series of concrete flats nearby, built by UN Habitat. But the Japanese money behind the project ran out – even before the wells were dug or electricity arranged, before the school that was planned could be opened. No one is sure when construction will begin on new housing.

I play with the children while I listen. They’re very curious, but a little frightened. They have sand on their faces and their hands. Snot trails glisten on their upper lips. They’re children, and their eyes are bright. We gather them for photos, and most don’t smile. They stare mutely at the camera.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Travelogue 221 – March 23

It seems like the exodus begins here, like the far point on an elastic tether that will bounce back to cozy Addis for a moment and then fling me out of of the country. It’s been about ten days, but it’s a moment secure in my memory: open land and dust, a crowd of squinty-eyed farmers standing around me, the school room made of sticks.

This is Gobame, a village outside Bahir Dar in the north of Ethiopia. It’s my last stop on a quick trip north to clinch this school deal. Only the previous day, we have consulted with the sultans of education in Bahir Dar, which is the regional capital. In a refreshing twist, they are universally cooperative. Land? We’ll have it tomorrow.

The road to Gobame diverges from the western road to the airport, which is convenient because I’ve got two hours for a site visit before my flight to Addis. We stop to consult with lonely soldiers in a box next to a long stretch of barbed wire. It seems we’ll be passing a military camp – bright silver roofs of new metal and long halls under a hill.

The road is long and laid with stones like breakers in a stormy sea. It’s dusty, so that we have to ride behind closed windows in suffocating heat. Sweat beads on the necks in the front seat, our driver’s and the kebele official’s.

We come across the village. It spread among fields into clusters of huts. We keep going. On a rise ahead, next to a well-ploughed field, there stands the existing schoolhouse. It’s two rooms made of sticks, so lightly bound that you can see through them. The seats are benches made of mud. There are about twenty children of varying ages and two teachers in the traditional white coats.

The community has been warned of our visit. There is a collection of dads outside, standing docilely. The kebele contact gives me a little tour; I pull out the camera. This site is the first choice among two possibilities. It seems like a good plot of land to me. They say we’ll have the adjacent farmland for cultivation in order to help fund the school. It looks out over yellow grasses and sparse trees, as far as the gentle hills surrounding.

We pile back into the car to drive to the second site. A few dads push their way into the back seat with me. The rest set off to the walk. This bit of land is in a flatter locale, a few kilometers away. It’s further from any cluster of huts. It’s dotted by piles of rock that the dads have carried here in anticipation of school construction.

The dads arrive together, walking along the road, sticks over their shoulders with both hands draped over them. They gather around us in a large, staring group. They’re an intense bunch, with wizened faces, piercing eyes, scarves wound round their heads as protection from the sun. They’re almost all in shorts and sandals, gabis or blankets draped over the shoulders. Shepherd boys gather underfoot.

The discussion begins. They surround us in a dense circle and shout. This is the debate about which site. Apparently, the majority opinion is for site number two here, but a few have some loud dissensions to voice. Number two is a foregone conclusion, as I find out, since it’s the closer one to sources of electricity and water. The kebele official does a masterful job at directing and then wrapping up the debate.

We take our leave with little time to spare until check-in at the airport. I feel a pang of regret at leaving them so quickly. The three of us bounce along the old road again, stifling in heat and dust.

When one of my sojourns in this country is nearing completion, it always feels like this, a tumble of days down a narrowing chute, toward interminable silence in overlit airports.

I’m back in Bole, strolling with Menna underneath the green eyes of our glib Savior, Medhane Alem, strolling along with ice cream from Bruno’s. Beggar children with huge smiles run toward us. They kiss Menna’s hand.

I’m in Bath. It’s snowing in one quick flurry of hard pellets. I’m so tired I’m dizzy. I look at the green fields above town and time is slipping. Was I wondering something? It was either: how long have those grasses shone so brightly, or how long have I been yearning for them?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Travelogue 220 – March 16
Under the Wings of Notre Dame

I’ve moved back to Bole temporarily. You officianados of everything Ethiopian recall that Bole is the rich district of Addis out by the international airport.

I happily set aside the haunted house I’ve inhabited for a year and a quarter. It’s haunted by the neighborhood: by the holy rollers next door, by the miraculous baby that cries 24 hours a day, by the ghoul with the hammer behind my house, by the ghost cats that dash across the iron roof all night, by the specter Bogale who rises from the earth and commands conversation, by the grubby, small sprites that play ball against my wall, by the crone who sets stinky fires next to bedroom, moaning for the thane of Cawdor.

And I move back to Bole. I’m staying in the back rooms of Sophie’s friend Tirsit. She just bought this little house in a tony new neighborhood. We live practically in the shadow of the still-new cathedral of Medhane Alem, three high green domes above tan walls that give the unfortunate impression of a California mall, three green domes over a triangle of rich real estate, three domes one can see from almost anywhere in the city. When I first arrived in Ethiopia, this church was under construction. It was one of my first sights in Ethiopia. I remember clearly it being pointed out to me on the drive from the airport. This Bel Air to-be was all dust.

They’ll tell you this is the biggest Orthodox church in Africa: Medhane Alem, Savior of the World, a reference to our man on the cross, of course, though I like to think of the church as Notre Dame. Maybe it’s a certain medieval flavor the church lends – rather incongruously – to the chic blocks that have sprung up around it. There’s something that conjures up Hugo’s Paris cathedral for me, hunchback at the bells.

Though the chic neighborhoods are close, few seem to want to face the church. There are a few exceptions. One of which is the high-rise that hosts the new, American-style movie theater that has proven to be a God-send for me in these dark, sickly times. Movies in English have become nearly extinct in Addis lately. Another exception is the Gibson Academy, a school for kids from the most uppity of upper-crust families, no matter how much it looks like an elaborate LA diner behind high walls.

And there’s the Swiss Cafe, an expensive little hangout on the corner, with outside seating featuring a view of BMW and Mercedes headlights, and beyond those a choice of either the cathedral walls or the walls of posh new housing developments. Inside there’s ... wireless! If only I had a card in my old Powerbook. There’s a steady stream of beautiful people, powerful people, and loud people. There are some nice cakes and nice chairs. You might be lucky enough to be regaled by storms of Chinese conversation. And all day, images from the National Geographic channel dance muted on the wide-screen TV in the corner.

Otherwise, the church is something of an architectural leper, faced by stalls of religious items or walls of happier complexes. The church is semi-permanent home to hundreds of beggars. Their encampments surround the perimeter. At night, the lean-tos and bags and bare mats are abuzz with activity and dialogue. Bonfires are lit here and there. Zombies flit among the shadows. A faranji’s skin crawls walking by this house of God at night.

But that was always a part of the beauty of Notre Dame, I suppose, the fusion of ugliness and mercy, blessings and bad fortune, mud and mayhem underneath the soaring and enduring Gothic towers – or in this case, the Spanish mission, Olive Garden style towers of our Lord.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Travelogue 219 – March 8
For Whom the Bell Tolls

Lest we range too far from home, I had better interrupt the fun and games in Somalia to report on the month in Ethiopia.

While I’ve been busy reporting about the geographic neighbors, we’ve missed the entire month of Ethiopian January, which stretches in long, noisy angst from Western mid-January to mid-February. If only I had missed it myself. I think I would rather dodge bullets in Somalia.

Ethiopian January has a long, miserable tradition as the month of weddings. It’s one of the longest stretches of both good weather and fast-free weekends before Lent comes along. So off we go, in the thousands, to wed, eat, dance, and queue up in our cars behind the video guy sitting in the back of his pickup.

It so happens that there’s a favorite wedding park just down the road from me. This means that every weekend the street down to Piassa is choked with cars festooned with ribbons and honking uproariously.

It just so happens that several of my closest neighbors have marriageable commodities this year. So not once but twice the big top canvas goes up in the street outside my wall, furnished with the flashy, rented PA system. Wedding parties go all night. In pauses between the music, everyone claps and chants in an endearing tradition of advanced social brain damage. And lest you think conjugal unions are not made enough of in this part of the world, I should note that the wedding night is not the only party. There’s also three days later at the bride’s family’s house – an occasion called ‘Mels’, which by an odd twist can mean ‘Answer’ or ‘Change’, as in ‘keep the ...’ – and then a week later at the groom’s family’s house. I can’t remember what that party’s called. Probably the equivalent of ‘Boxing Day’.

What makes Ethiopian January stink even higher of new beginnings is the odd seasonal ambition that drives weary husbands onto their iron roofs for repairs. It must be something in the wedding tajj, or honey mead. Or maybe it’s a way for men to escape the hormonal excesses of women in wedding fever. The hammers come out. It may not occur to those who have never lived under corrugated iron, but this is not the quietest medium for work. Even walking across it makes that theatrical crackling noise that worms its way under human skin like the screech of fingernails across a chalkboard.

Three times I wave the white flag and retreat to a hotel. It’s a fun break spending a day at the Taitu, Addis Ababa’s oldest hotel, hanging out with dozens of faranjis, watching BBC in the lobby. But it’s not the most restful holiday. The Taitu is a big wooden box made of rows of echoing wooden rooms. The mattresses sag and the pillows are so hard your skulls rolls down them like bowling balls down Pike’s Peak.

In short, by the end of this festive month, I’m a wreck. When I head up to the mountains early one Sunday morning with Ijigu and Menna and Pomi to start my training for the Tesfa Mountain 5K, my body breaks. By the end of the day, I’m gathering symptoms like the neighborhood collects manic, flushed brides, and by nightfall I’m laid out flat. I still haven’t recovered. In fact, the ultimate white flag has been flown, and I’ll be retreating in several weeks to the airport and from there, far away, to lands where weddings peter out in quick and honest boredom, where doctors bore us with predictable cures.

You may ask what illness has laid me so low. That’s the 64 thousand-birr question. I must have spent nearly that amount trying to find out. I saw about five doctors, and they all had their own diagnoses and prescriptions. My arms and behind are bruised and scarred with the tests and shots administered at each place. It’s all a blur now, my extremely sweet and dedicated staff hauling me around from clinic to clinic. I waited on bench after bench in all sorts of anterooms, time a slow, clicking blur. Each doctor asks the same questions and manifests the same anxiety in his eye. Is it malaria? Is it typhoid? Is it an infection, in the lungs or in the intestine? I have a variety of answers to choose from, all delivered with certainty. When we see that there’s a consensus about several meds despite the varying diagnoses, we jump. They seem to have some effect. The fevers break. I’m exhausted, but I’m feeling human again.

In a couple weeks, I’ll be in the US, sitting in waiting rooms again, reading People magazine, wondering in the back of my mind how to make the most of my three minutes with a distracted professional. I can’t say my hopes are riding high for my chances in the US health care system, but it’s something to do. Maybe some brazen virus or worm will stand up and catch the eye of even the most blase doctor.