Monday, May 19, 2008

Travelogue 230 – May 19
Grand Rapids, Part Two
The Open Hand

There are a couple things I can say about Michigan now. First, people do say hello. You pass them, running in the park or strolling downtown, and they nod, say hello, and open their hands in friendly benediction. That feels good. I remember hello’s from my childhood in California, remember them through a soft-hued mist that must be similar to the feeling around soda fountains for my parents’ generation.

Michiganers open their palms for another purpose, a habit they share with only one other people on earth that I’ve ever seen: Wisconsinites. ‘This is Michigan,’ they say, holding their hand up. You may have noticed that both Wisconsin and lower Michigan have little thumbs of land that extend from mitten-like mainlands. ‘Here we are,’ they say, jabbing the fleshy map. Grand Rapids is in the beefy heel of the palm.

We’re about a cell or two north of downtown at Stephanie’s house. There’s a bike path by the Grand River that we can follow to get downtown. Pass the historic iron trestle bridge. Pass the shallow, straight, manmade falls where the river is widest. Pass the locals fishing just underneath the falls. Pass under the highway, where homeless souls flit like shadows among the concrete rubble.

Now you enter the downtown of DeVos, Van Andel, and Ford. The first two are families made rich by the Amway empire, patrons of arts and architecture, religion and conservative politics. The riverfront downtown is a very nice tribute to their largesse, well worth an afternoon’s stroll.

When I say Ford, I refer of course to our recently deceased thirty-eighth president, who was raised in Grand Rapids. Across the river from the heart of downtown, you’ll see the Gerald R Ford Museum, surrounded by great swaths of lawn – tribute to the perennial backdrop during those years, the golf course? – lawns oddly interrupted by a solitary space suit, arms lifted toward infinity.

It’s a nice city, but I have trouble locating the gold paving stones and trees dripping with manna. This is Michigan isn’t it? I’m a little disappointed. An old friend from Michigan made it clear to me that his home state was heaven. Gold and manna were staples among his vivid imagery. There were brotherly love and lions lying with lambs, too, I believe. But that was a while ago: the summer of ’96.

I never knew his real name, this Michiganer. He insisted on being called Spooky Nimbus and would respond to no other moniker. I ended up rooming with Spooky after I returned to Minneapolis from Kuwait. Spooky was a real inspiration to me. I had to rebuild a life in the Twin Cities, and he was my model. He wasn’t working at the time, and neither was I. He was mooching off his brother, and so was I. Spooky’s brother believed he was a member in good standing of the Kennedy family, and styled himself Joseph P., after the ambassador.

Spooky at the time was engaged in a rather time-consuming project. He had only the duration of that summer to master the complete script of ‘Dumb and Dumber’. Spooky was earnest about this project. It wasn’t just a matter of memorizing lines. There was the entire spirit and genius that Jim Carrey brought to his role – gestures, faces, nuance of voicing and movement. I was uplifted by his commitment. I believe I owe something of my subsequent achievements to this mentorship

In between study sessions, Spooky talked wistfully of Michigan. ‘It’s not just a place,’ he would say. ‘I mean, yes, it’s on the map. But it’s not just a place on the map. It’s actually a real place. So much more than ink on paper. There are people there. They walk around and talk. You’ll never see that on a map.’ Imagery like that made me hunger to see Michigan, but I was broke.

Anyway, that was a grand old summer. Spooky often said in later days that that was the high point of his life, a life that has had no dearth of drama. I’m honoured to have been a part of it. I wonder what ever happened to ol’ Spooky Nimbus. Wherever he is, I open up my palm to him and say, ‘This is Michigan.’

I never locate the unicorns or a Kennedy or even Jim Carrey, but I do see lots of people who walk and talk, and they say hello to me. And I would have to say that Stephanie’s house, and the wonderful event she stages for the schools are about as close to heaven as I have any reason to expect. Grand Rapids is a sweet little town, and I feel a little sad getting back on the 196 heading south – particularly as I anticipate the asphalt hell along the southern shore of Lake Michigan that guards Shangri-La. I hear Spooky’s voice urging me on: ‘Forge on, soldier. It’s only a map. Well, not really.’

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Travelogue 229 – May 13
Grand Rapids, Part One
Sweats and Chill

I coast across the finish line, driving into Grand Rapids, Michigan, still rattled by big city driving, though soothed by the wooded hills of south-western Michigan.

I started the day at the Wisconsin-Illinois border, speeding past flat and expansive farmland. Cruising into Chicago was pleasant at first. Who doesn’t have a song in his heart at the first sight of the skyline of the Midwest’s dynamo, speeding forward through the brick neighbourhoods of the Windy City? Jazz emerges from the braying spaces of highway radio. Downtown towers rise, casting reassuring shadows on the world. Cars crowd. The cymbal tempos and skipping piano from the radio merge with the driving, describing the increasingly frenetic highway. I’m alert. My heart’s racing.

Downtown falls away. The lanes narrow, and the local train joins us, humming down the center of the highway. We pass station after station, citizens idling and watching us zoom and sweat. The road outpaces the jazz. Highways 80, 90, and 94 pour all their transcontinental traffic onto the pitted lanes. On one side you have your wall, wide as the state, of groaning behemoths travelling just under the speed limit. On the other, you have your shuddering, swaying, and swerving candidates for road smear, trying to add thirty percent to the generous speed limit. We enact dog’s rituals, prancing side to side and sniffing each other’s bottoms. The highway secretions are savory for road dogs: aggression, adrenaline, and damp panics.

At Portage Indiana, the highways untangle. I pull off to breathe through my fear of death and to raise comforting caffeine to my lips with a shaking hand. I’m a long way from Addis Ababa. Death on the road is just as final there as far as I know, but it comes in a serendipitous manner. It’s not attended by the black masks of rage that Americans bring to the road.

I coast across the finish line. I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan, green and peaceful and friendly. To get to Stephanie’s house you pass by downtown. It’s a blink of the eye, a snapshot of ten blocks by ten with half a dozen stubby skyscrapers, streets looking clean and inviting. Stephanie lives up northside, a few blocks from the Grand River. And grand it is, about as wide as the Mississippi in Minneapolis, managing to appear a little darker and wilder than our tame river, suggesting primeval northern roots.

Stephanie’s neighbourhood inspires a culture flinch in me, my first impression being rolling phalanxes of small, ageing clapboard houses, American flags above oil-spotted driveways, garage mouths agape in weekend war cries, bristling with lawn and auto equipment. There’s no break in the houses in any direction, not even for shops. Places like that scare me. Something about this kind of archetypal American landscape, suggesting infinite anonymity, suggests bottomless melancholy.

But nothing is anonymous for long. Inside, Stephanie’s house is unique as she is, painted in vibrant colors and full of art, both hers and others’. I recognize some Ethiopian wood sculpture. Off the scary street, she has a spacious and green backyard, shaded by a huge maple, and decorated with gardens getting their spring start.

She’s about a quarter-mile from the river, and from a luxurious riverside park. So, yes, I change immediately into running gear and stomp down the street. The park is broad expanses of grass, broken by small lakes where guys are actually wading in and fishing. I cross little golf-course arched bridges over creeks. Young people are playing frisbee golf! This is a bit Edenic to believe, but I carry on for a few miles, turning around only when I come to the end of a dirt path under a canoply of maple trees that glows in late afternoon sunshine a bright spring green. For the first time since Gary, I’m happy I made the trip.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Travelogue 228 – May 12
Road Trip

The waters of the Rock River are high with record Wisconsin snows. They are fast and swirling and spotted with foam from the hydroelectric dam a couple of hundred meters upstream. They run flush with the grassy banks.

I’m putting in three miles as best I can after a day’s driving and a pint of beer, miserably plodding forward under beautiful skies that suggest Midwestern summer on the way: a few high and stately white frigates accumulating above the southern horizon. The air I’m gasping for is redolent of cut grass and trees blossoming in the riverside park.

I’ve driven the length of Wisconsin today. I’m headed to Michigan for Stephanie’s fundraiser. I’ve been on the road for six hours. Now, if Ethiopia had good highways, the same amount of time would take me from Addis to Bahir Dar in the north or Harar in the east. I would cross any number of frontiers, historical, religious, ethnic, and what I’ll call time-leap frontiers – those patchwork zones in which people inhabit one or another of the various centuries between Christ and ourselves.

But six hours across Wisconsin doesn’t present much more variety than the difference of a dozen meters among hills and trading woods for fields or trading needles for leaves. There are red barns and silos and healthy cows: that’s fun. There are cheese shaped erasers in the gas stops. The measure of time is the frequency of highway signs for fast food.

The radio tells me that we’re aborting ourselves into extinction. One out of three Christian babies is murdered, while the Muslim population of the world explodes. There’s a time, the reasonable voice avers, when we must choose between tolerance and human rights. Helpless before the delicacy of this nuance, I change channels.

There’s bland country and bland pop and tired rock. Passing Madison, I have a half hour of radio joy, but the signal is weak and dissolves into static. The speakers in Roxana’s car are set somewhere between the taillights, so I have to shut the windows and submit to spring sun striving to be summer, beaming through weak-spirited mucous haze, shreds of winter that want to be friends now, beaming into my lap and warming my gut. Trucks roll by, like moving walls, like city blocks sliding by with amplified sighs like weightlifters.

Six hours behind the wheel and I don’t feel like I’ve travelled. I’ve submitted myself to Wendy’s fries and Denny’s sausage. My bottom is sore, and so is my gas pedal ankle. But I’m cheated of the sense of travel.

Set on the border with Illinois and on the banks of the Rock River is the small college town of Beloit. This is where I stop for the day. I have an appointment with some college staff at the Café Belwah. We’re on a roll this year with colleges. A number of them seem interested in our programs in Ethiopia.

I arrive early. The sun’s out. Downtown there are parks by the river. Across the water there’s a huge, failed foundry that has been converted into something more fun. (see photo) The walls facing the water have become galleries for art. Many are portrayals of the decades of sepia-toned labor that took place inside. I stop at a café. Outside, an ageing hippie is reading Neil Gaimon. He smiles wistfully as I sit down with a small, steaming cup in hand. He recalls his first espresso in California in ‘84; he didn’t like it. We contemplate that while we admire the sunshine.

It’s still sunny after my meeting. I take my painful run, and I head back to the hotel. There I stop in the bar to eat and watch baseball. On two sets are the two teams wrestling for the soul of southern Wisconsinites, the Cubs and the Brewers. Both are winning. There’s no smoking ban here. The bartender is pregnant and slow. Her husband is playing video slots. Her two year-old is watching me wide-eyed from behind the bar as I chew my patty melt. This is travel.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Travelogue 227 – May 5
Desert Interlude, or
Escape, the Epilogue

1.16 Did I mention that the ch’at flight out of Bosaso was headed neither toward Addis Ababa, nor back to Djibouti, which was my original departure point for Somalia? No, this flight flies daily in and out of Dire Dawa in eastern Ethiopia.

We arrive in time for a thunderstorm, and we make a dash for the terminal from the landing strip. I tag along with the weary Khyrgistanis through passport control and then out to their van. They have offered me a ride into town. We sit in the parking lot as one of the green-tooths from Somalia argues with the Ethiopian driver about money. After fifteen minutes, I bid them all farewell and run for a private taxi.

The taxi ride provides me with one final spooky moment for the trip. Exiting the airport, the driver slows to shout out to another driver in passing, gesturing back at me: ‘Sidistenya!’ There are five regular crew for the flight. Sidistenya means ‘the sixth’. It’s an odd sort of notoriety.

I immediately check into the old Mekonnen Hotel, across the circle from the train station. It’s been three years since Kevin and I sat on the balcony of my room in that hotel, drinking Harar beer and eating goat meat, watching the crowds below. Sadly, that room is taken, but the room I do rent is a comparable beauty: vast square box painted avocado, lazy fan above the vast bed, and nothing else: all for about $4 per night. The bathroom is a shared one down the hall, but I do have a balcony, and when night comes I raise a Harar beer to great Kevin, wherever in the world he may be this year. Working on country #150?

Before the beer, I have a busy afternoon. First, there’s the airline office. I discover that flights to Addis are fully booked for the next week. See me heave a monumental sigh at that news. All rightie, how about stand-by?

I check email. I do some work. I catch a little three-wheel taxi to ‘Taiwan’. This is what they call the new market in Dire Dawa. It’s a covered marketplace with rows of stalls hawking electronics and shoes and cosmetics. I’m here to change money. Hush-hush, now: that’s black market activity. This Taiwan might as well be where the other one floats for all it resembles the old market in town. Merchants wear jeans and smirks and slouches as confidently as any proud barista in downtown Minneapolis.

The contrast lies one three-wheeler ride across town. It’s called Kefira, the old market. When you go, be sure to enter the market through the arches of the old city wall, erected in the style of the medieval emirate. Inside is one of the great markets of Ethiopia. You enter meandering dirt alleyways under the shade of sagging plastic and burlap roofs hung on crooked poles, tight zig-zag alleyways among small individual stalls where women sit close to the ground among piles of vegetables, fruit, and spices.

In back, Kefira wanders among simple houses at the base of a desert hill. Keep going until you are deposited in the great river bed. Walk upstream in the sand. There’s no water at all, but the width of the channel encourages some meditations on the power of nature. This was the path of the raging waters that swept through Dire Dawa in 2006 and killed hundreds. For most of the year it’s dry. Paths cross it, as do garis, and the sand and rocks are strewn with galaxies of plastic ch’at bags.

To your left, a steep hill descends to the ‘river’s’ edge. Squat houses and primitive mosques tumble downhill in another medieval scene, shoulder-width paths barely discernable among them. In half a mile you’re leaving town.

You notice on your left that the big hill has a side layered in slanting slabs of rock, very tempting for an afternoon climb. It’s a hike worth its gallon of sweat, (though Pete informs me later that there are leopards lurking in them hills.) The view of the region is reward enough, but it’s the other way that you’ll find the richest rewards, descending the other side of the hill back into town.

It’s an accelerated (and perhaps appropriately downhill) tour of history. On top of the hill are Somali-style huts, planted randomly on the open, rocky slope. Next come low, parallel rock walls built to terrace the hill but acting as impromptu zoning among the itinerant housing. Paths follow the walls or cross them where they crumble.

The slope becomes steeper. The walls break; the paths become well-worn and continuous. Houses of stone and plaster appear. Houses crowd and the paths become alleys that slide down the hill at a slant. You reach corners where dirt paths meet stone-paved ones. Houses have crude steps. They have multiple rooms and paint on their walls. Shops appear. Some roads end in courtyards. You reach a road paved with cement. Buildings feature clean lines and ornamentation.

And then, quite suddenly, in a quantum evolutionary leap, you’re dumped onto asphalt among taxis and radios and electronics shops. Welcome to the moment!