Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Travelogue 277 – April 28

It must be close to a year since I first wrote about Abiyu, the high school boy from the village of Debre Tabol who spends his school breaks in Bahir Dar playing tourist guide and hotel broker. We took him on as a temporary employee back then, taking him out to the Gobame school with us. After we returned to Addis, he carried on with a few tasks for us in Bahir Dar.

We met up with him again on our latest trip to Bahir Dar. He’s getting ready for his final exam, which will qualify him for university study. He says he wants to be a doctor. For the moment he joins us again in our endeavors. Further, we convince him to follow us down to Addis since he has a break before his exams.

It’s a fun trip for him, if a little distracted and hectic. It’s his first time in the capital city, and some things come as a shock. At first, we have him staying in a room that Selam has rented for him. But he calls us in great distress because his landlord is an ageing lady who is fond of chewing ch’at. As if that isn’t already too much to contend with, he has decided that she is a witch. He’s afraid to sleep there.

So we set Abiyu up with a little bed at the Tsegereda School, and he eats with Yigramachew’s family. He and Yig have become close in Bahir Dar; Abiyu is great with kids. He works for us, getting a taste of what business in the big city is like. He handles himself well.

We are so confident in him, in fact, that we send him to do some of the research in a town where we would like to set up the next school. He returns with five pages of hand-written notes in both Amharic and English. I’m ready to weep at the sight this document, as much professionalism as I’ve seen in years! I accept neat pages of information with great ceremony.

A more typical work session occurs a few nights ago. We have sent Addisu and Ijigu out with Menna’s camera to document another potential school site in the city. (Yes, another school project: things are popping here, folks!) The two guys do a great job, and they return with about twenty photos. The trouble is, clear as some of the photos are, the boys cannot agree on what they depict. It’s a big house: so big that the pictures could originate in completely different sites.

I stop the debate about which room is which, and ask the boys to draw me a map of the house. Simple enough, I’m thinking: a big square for the compound and then rows of smaller squares for rooms, and so on. But what I get are intersecting blobs, and each room a heavy, drifting, single line. The boys start arguing again. My head is in my hands and Menna is laughing. Meanwhile our bill is mounting at the cafe as the boys eagerly fuel their dispute with tea.

We often meet in cafes because, to date, there is no office. The HQ cafe on this trip has become the ‘La Coquette’, one of a new generation of high-end cafes: clean and well-lit, with nicer cakes and higher prices. There seem to be quite a few of these suddenly. I’m not sure where the boutique crowd came from, but every cafe in Addis still manages to be crowded in the evenings. The advantage to the higher prices is a chance at a table. We hold on to this table at prime time in the evening; the bill climbs in tandem with the frustration. We leave with little less knowledge about the house in question, but easy consensus among the boys that it’s perfect.

As a reward for Abiyu’s efficient service, we take him out to dinner and to the new mall in Bole, where there is an American-style movie theater. I’ve mentioned this place before with much enthusiasm. For dinner we take him to one of the best pizza places in town. It’s the first time he’s tried pizza, and he wrestles with it mightily, holding it upside down in both hands, curling it, rolling it, and letting the cheese hang over his mouth. It’s also the first time he’s seen cheese. Abiyu professes to have enjoyed it, though it seems to me that he might have thought that pizza was a lot of work for food.

He is wide-eyed as we enter the multi-storied mall. We do the movie right, with popcorn and soda, and sitting up front to catch every bit of lurid action in this classic American guns-and-car-chase story. Afterward, in the lobby, he sums up his assessment of the place with a big smile and his beginner’s English, ‘This place,’ he says, ‘it’s surprising!’

Friday, April 24, 2009

Travelogue 276 – April 24
And the Ugly

One eye is almost swollen shut when I awake today. I think some little bug took advantage of me last night, biting me near the inside corner of my eyelid, and now I’m a monster. I splash cold water on it, and work the distressed flesh in the mirror. It’s funny how one clings to the accustomed contours of his face, and the slightest distortion completely throws him. A day’s bug-bite swelling makes me ugly. I don’t want to go out.

I’m in a foul mood. Breakfast is late. There is a renewed canopy of clouds overhead. I’ve dreamt about hopping onto the metro of some European city, heading toward some stimulating stop, a luxurious cafe, a downtown riverside, a bustling modern avenue. But worst of all, I’m ugly.

I stand in the concrete courtyard and I stretch. The morning is fresh and cool enough to be pleasant. The clouds are the type that are likely to burn off and scatter across a blue sky. I can veritably feel the sun on my shoulders in anticipation of a beautiful day.

From outside the gate come sounds of the day’s start. They are happy sounds, children running by and shouting, neighbors hailing one another. Who can listen to the bustle of a fresh morning without hearing the echoes of others, thousands or millions of others, depending on the power of his or her imagination? Who doesn’t wonder at the resilience of mornings and the life that awakens in them every day?

I confess that the noise from beyond that gate, and a dozen others in Ethiopia, has oppressed me in the past. Beyond is the Other, difficult homo sapiens, difficult town. Out there are kids who push each other into me for giggles, the duryes who call me names, the glaring old men, and the rag-tag, insistent beggars. The noise beyond contains every conflict and insult, every birr I’ve been cheated out of, and every embarrassing encounter.

But today I stand in the courtyard, brooding, and the sound of life creeps into my awareness, and I listen to it. The noise has been transubstantiated from everyday clamor into hope. It complements the hint of sun among the clouds, suggesting that even those disfigured as me have a place in the pageant of the a.m.

I’ve been watching moods lately, fascinated by the whimsy of them and trying to find a logical correspondence between triggers and the emotions they fire off. By trigger, I don’t mean the speeding car that splashes you with mud as it passes. I mean the unpredictable impressions. Why does the combination of a song and the color scheme of a cafe’s decor, tossed in with the timbre of a man’s voice as he answers his mobile, transport you to one morning in a hotel lobby in Monfalcone and perhaps excite a longing that is as absurd as it is intense, considering how remote and unlikely the recovery of that memory was in the first place? Are moods a lottery? Is there really a mathematics to chaos? Either way, we don’t turn away the jackpots. My mood is three bars of gold when I open the gate.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Travelogue 275 – April 23
Buna and the Philosopher

The visitors are gone. I’m sitting at the table in the modest salon of my home – white walls, linoleum tiles, boxes of Stuff lined against one wall, the small white fridge tucked in among them. I have the laptop open, the ancient Mac PowerBook donated by Pey and Giles. The screen radiates a bright and artificial shade of blue, almost matching the cushions on the backs and seats of the wooden chairs that Saba bought for me a few years ago.

Right next to the table, next to the door to the kitchen, in the sunlight admitted by the front door, sits Tsegenet. She is roasting coffee beans, and she is doing it the traditional way, sitting on a low stool in front of the small stove, the pot of beans, the jebena (the traditional coffee pot), and the tiny coffee cups, like Japanese tea cups, which are placed on a wooden tray equipped neatly with a small drawer. On the ground is a scattering of grass.

All I see is the part in her thick, black hair as she bends over the miniature gas stove. It’s a comfort to me, I find: Tsegenet’s competency and the smell of roasting coffee. I return to my glowing, blue work station with renewed confidence.

When the beans are roasted, she holds the pot high and swings it slowly in the air about the room to spread the aroma. Then she passes it to Gete, who will take the beans outside to grind them. This is done with a heavy rod of metal in a chunk of wood that has been hollowed out at the top. The compound resounds with the thump, thump of her labors. The vibrations of it travel through the concrete of the courtyard and through the hollow cinder blocks of the walls.

Gete is a regular part of the household now. She has settled into her routine here, showing up late, hanging around listlessly until someone reminds her of her duties, her youthful face slack with mysterious thoughts. She has a lot to think about for someone of her age. She’s already been married for some four years before she came to Addis. She’s sixteen, though she appears to be fourteen.

We make sure she keeps her studies up. Some evenings, once all work is done and we’ve had dinner, we sit her down in front of her notebook, which she bends over as though she has sight problems while she sounds out the letters of English words or Amharic characters. ‘P-A-T,’ she whispers. She stares for a minute, and then she pats herself on the head with a smile, remembering my demonstration.

Sometimes, we’ll pull out the old Connect Four game, which she became familiar with in Bahir Dar. She’s quite adept at it. She’s earned the nickname ‘the Philosopher’ at this game, she pursues her victory with such single-minded and inscrutable concentration. Sometimes the Philosopher will lean over until her nose nearly touches the middle of the vertical board, and she’ll chew on her game piece. She reaches up and drops the piece in with considerable deliberation.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Travelogue 274 – April 11
The Golden Mask

Early one morning, we go for a lake cruise to the headwaters of the Blue Nile. We walk up Lake T’ana’s shore to a small set of docks for tourist boats, far away from the convenient and high-priced docks by the Ghion Hotel. We rent a boat for 150 birr, and head out, the boat and the pilot-guide to ourselves. No one’s in a hurry – the morning is calm and sweet – so it takes us about a half-hour to get to the headwaters. We’re lucky to come upon a group of about five hippos, lounging in the water near the islands at the headwaters. They wiggle their ears and glance at us sleepily. We enter the mouth of the Nile. You can see right where the waters divide between lake and river; there’s the steady ripple of a current, looking like a watery zipper joining seams.

It’s hard for me to be in Bahir Dar without thinking about Egypt. I wonder if others are similarly reminded. Now I think of Cairo, and the glinting, sea-like blue of the Nile winding its wide way through downtown. They are good complements for each other, Bahir Dar and Cairo. Most travelers go to Cairo to connect with the ancient roots of our civilization, but they might find it hard to tap into the feeling of millennia lapsed and set aside like rolls of papyrus as they negotiate the sprawling metropolis of Cairo, let alone any feeling for the lives of the ancients. Drifting on Lake T’ana, particularly in a papyrus boat, as the orange mask of Helios rises in the east, one feels time.

Okay, one does glimpse fleeting time among the sands of Giza. To my credit, I’m wearing my cheesy tourist cap from Rome – upstart little town across the Mediterranean – as I ride the camel across the sand dunes. I was offered a cheap version of Arab headdress by one of the camel guys, and I proudly refused. I will enter the realm of history as Western, compromised and corrupted as the Caesars ... though perhaps with less panache. Little does all that matter, though, once one is out on the sands, under the oppressive gaze of Amen Ra. Even now, in the age of highways and encroaching suburbs, one approaches the Great Pyramids ant-sized among the blank dunes at the edges of the Sahara. There are other ants leaving their ephemeral trails, but the blaze of the sun and the sands’ radiation blot everything out but the enormity of the pyramids. One doesn’t know the pyramids from photos. One must approach them, like subjects toward their kings.

I’m riding with Said today, a former air force helicopter pilot, now retired and driving vans for a tourist company. He’s from Port Said. He has a friend, Said, who rents camels. We meet him in an indifferent neighborhood of Giza, where camels and boys mill around restlessly. It’s strange to travel by camel through suburban streets, rolling along with the animal’s distinctive gait. But it’s only a few blocks to the gate in the wall that separates suburb from unbound desert. I ask Said the camel driver how far it is to Libya. The answer is in weeks, but I am instantly sold on the idea. ‘Let’s go.’ He says no one does it anymore. In his dad’s time, they would set up camel caravans. Now it’s SUVs, and a matter of days.

Said the van driver has several obsessions. First is the new Ring Road, which has shortened the drive to Giza considerably. I can appreciate that after the ride from the airport, which is an hour of traffic any time of day. ‘See, see!’ he points out a narrow road that passes underneath the new road, clogged with cars. It’s a hazy day; we should be able to see the pyramids already. ‘Al Humdillah,’ I say. Thank God for ring roads. It’s a strange echo from Ethiopia, this obsession with roads.

Second on Said’s list is an admiration for the houses of the rich. After Giza, we cruise south along the western edge of the metropolitan area. We’re headed toward Saqqara, where I will stand in the hot sun before the oldest standing pyramid, erected nearly six thousand years ago. Stand on a height and you can see the Giza set to the north. Look south and see a few more in the distance. There are over a hundred that have been discovered. We drive by fields, and by dusty enclaves of suburbia. You really see how the Nile makes Egypt. Signs of life in this city strictly follow the map of canals that fan out from the river. To Said’s delight, there are mansions galore on this road, many not finished yet. He slows every few hundred yards to point out another. Many have a view of the Great Pyramids.

His last obsession is one that I can share: good food. He shares with me an Egyptian fast food delight called koshary. It’s a mixture of rice, pasta, chickpeas, and various etceteras that together make something delicious and filling. He warns that you can’t find good koshary just anywhere. He has a friend who owns a fast food shop in Giza, and he sells the best koshary. He’s so proud of the dish, he pays for mine. We sit in the car after my visit to History, and we greedily eat koshary.

Back downtown, I make the pilgrimage to the famous museum of Egyptian antiquities. It’s a short walk from the Sadat metro station. I mingle among the bus-tour crowds, and file in. The place is like a grand warehouse, organized very loosely according to period, featuring amazing antiquities standing in confusing jumbles. My eyes glaze over fairly quickly, I’m afraid. I’m very well behaved in an art museum, but not at my best among bits of stone.

But there are some wonders that penetrate even my bland crust. There’s the heavy lid to a stone sarcophagus carved with a beautiful woman made of stars, reaching out to the deceased. I’m not sure how comforting that would be after a few hundred years: I might have wished for consummation before then. But there are worse sights for the stiffly departed, I suppose.

There are rows of crazy wooden armies and wooden fishermen who accompanied the deceased into the lands beyond, carrying on with their bucolic, river-bound lifestyles for eternity. And upstairs there are the heavenly furnishings of our friend, young King Tut, including the famous mask of gold, its glassy eyes staring forever upon ... paunchy American tourists? Or upon the bliss of the Western Lands?

Personally, I have to prefer the statues of Tutankhamen’s predecessor, the famously perverse Akhenaton, whose mysterious wife Nefertiti became something of an archetype of regal beauty. The pharoah himself preferred to see himself in bizarrely androgynous terms. He has been called the world’s first individualist, and he survived the disgust of his successors to purse his ample lips at us all. Was he the inspiration for Moses’s monotheistic revolution, as Freud suggested? That would be fun.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Travelogue 273 – April 9
Barack and the Pelicans

A street boy walks alongside me, with nothing better to do than chat. It has just rained, though the sun is breaking through in the east. He points out a rainbow. In Amharic, it’s called Mary’s Belt. When I tell him I’m from America, he wants to lead me to the new hot spot in Bahir Dar, the Obama Restaurant. People in Ethiopia are very enthusiastic about Obama. He’s tiru sew, a good man, in everyone’s estimation. Finally, America has another president who stands tall, says one taxi driver. ‘Bush’, scowls another, ‘only he want, war, war.’

I’m up early for a walk, something I particularly enjoy when I’m in Bahir Dar. The breezes are gentle, and the lake is peaceful. The sun’s first reflections on the water are subdued and lead one toward meditation. Reflection and the gentler activities of the mind have been hard to come by during this trip to Ethiopia. The agenda has been action only and stark decisions.

We’ve come to Bahir Dar as a full team this time. Mark’s in-country from London, only for two weeks. We had a narrow window for this trip, and the airline wasn’t cooperating, so we arranged for a van. With seats to spare, we expanded the expedition, inviting Mark’s sponsored child and his uncle, and inviting Gete. The van is deluxe: spacious, clean, and powerful. But it doesn’t save us from the ravages of the long and spotty road. It’s still too many hours of bumps and swerves. You might say our drivers are ‘deluxe’, as well, steaming ahead, leaden-footed and minds afire with ch’at. And somehow they proliferate. We leave Addis with two drivers and return with four. Over the course of the journey, they exile us to the back seats with their feverish discussions and feverish accelerations.

There are some highlights to the long, long drive, despite the damage to our nerves and rear ends. There’s a nostalgic stopover in Sticktown, scene of much merriment on New Year’s Eve of the Ethiopian Millennium in 2007, when the whole UK contingent was in Ethiopia. It had the feeling of a homecoming, teens with sticks chasing us up the steep road out of the Blue Nile Gorge as we approached that sweet old Dodge City of the African highlands.

This time we crossed over the new bridge at the bottom of the gorge. Last time it was only under construction. Though the bluffs are all brown with the season, the Nile is still wide and glinting in the hot sun. The federal guards allow us to stop and take pictures, though they, sitting on folding chairs in the shade of a few dusty trees, guns across their laps, yell every so often to caution us against arbitrary pathways, as though either baiting us or proving they’re on the job.

Once in Bahir Dar, as though the bone-jarring odyssey weren’t enough, we’re straightaway in vans for a few more trips. The first is to Gobame, site of one of our schools. The dust is overwhelming, and we stagger into the village on half a lung each. The children run from the school in their heavy green dresses and cloaks, but they don’t mob us the way Addis children do. They hesitate a few yards away, and they duck their heads and stare, walking beside us. Some of the children are frightened of Mark and I, and I can’t help exploiting that to the hilarity of the others, reaching out a quick hand toward them. Their eyes widen and they stumble and flee. Once we’re all gathered at the schoolhouse, I find these timid ones and take their hands. They can only stare back.

The second trip is to T’is Abay, the waterfall some half an hour from the Nile’s Lake T’ana origins. It’s along another teeth-chattering dirt road. Once you’ve reached the village, you have to walk to a river crossing, where you negotiate with a grouchy latter-day Charon to ride five minutes in an old metal skiff with benches along both sides. It’s a beautiful little passage, among reeds and papyrus, with sunny hills in the background. There’s another, longer walk on the other side among farmer’s small fields, under the gaze of shepherd children. Some of the fields are devoted to ch’at, a burgeoning crop here of late. Once you’re near the falls, you are assaulted by a variety of enterprising young sales-people, offering you soft drinks and pseudo-traditional knick-knacks. One lad wants to provide the soundtrack for your entire experience with his bamboo shepherd’s flute. He would follow you into the rocks underneath the falls if he thought you had a birr or two for him.

Even with all this drama, or perhaps in consequence of it, I find the mellow evenings by the lake most pleasant. We gather every evening, the whole team from Addis, in the lakeside ‘Mango Park’, just as the sun is getting ready to set, when the sunlight on the lake is most golden and there’s a strong breeze coming in off the water. This park is little more than stepped concrete leading to the lakeside, each step furnished with lines of rusty chairs facing the water. We always meet at the farthest end of the park, right by the water. Mark and I have Meta beers and the rest have Mirinda or Coca. Mark has brought along a little plastic game of ‘Connect 4’, so we play game after game, collecting numbers of wins and losses and declaring champions. Pelicans gather on the water, just beyond the papyrus. In the late afternoon, a cafe employee will go out in a papyrus boat filled with fish to try to entice the big birds closer to the park. Sometimes he is successful, sometimes not. On several afternoons, we catch sight of a hippo that has strayed from the Nile’s headwaters and pops his ears up close to the cafe. This goes on until it’s dark and we pack up to seek out one of Bahir Dar’s small and dimly lit restaurants. Strangely enough, now that I look back, I realize we never did try the Obama Restaurant.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Travelogue 272 – April 3
The Body Electric

Among the adventures of life in Ethiopia, few are as misadventurous as those concerning electricity.

Internet will be the first complaint you’ll hear from tourists. If you’re a local, or have achieved the patience of the saints, it must be comic to sit in an internet cafe that’s popular among faranjis and listen to the concert of huff and fluster and forlorn sighs that rise from every other station. The connections are slow and unreliable. Alas, my patience falls a good deal short of the saints’ – it hovers somewhere around the level of a taxi driver’s – so it’s rare that I’ll enjoy the spectacle. I’m usually contributing.

In my case, the predominant challenge has been getting any current at all in my new house. A little known secret about Ethiopia’s electrical sockets: it seems there are two sizes for the two-pronged attachments that give life. The outlets in my house admit the smaller size, and everything I own seems to be fitted with the larger size. There are only three outlets in my house. One outlet is dedicated to the refrigerator. Menna works a sleight of hand in which the fridge’s plug hangs from the outlet, the tips of the plug just making contact with the juice. We went shopping for extension cords and those little multiplier plugs. The cord we found didn’t work, and the first multiple-outlet was molded for the small size. When finally we found an attachment with small-size prongs for the wall and accommodation for large-size plugs, -- this begins to sound obscene – it was time for celebration. But the neighborhood was blacked out.

It is late in the dry season now. The rainy season ends in September. For a city that derives a significant percentage of its electrical power from hydroelectric sources, this creates a situation near crisis. So at this time of the year, the city starts rationing. One or two days a week, neighborhoods experience day-long blackouts. The hydro-hieratic planners alternate the neighborhoods so that coffee and internet service (in the abstract sense) can be found on any day. That’s the theory, but of course there are the random and unexplained blackouts to contend with.

There are also the mysterious ‘dry-outs’ in water service, as well. As I’ve observed before, these often follow strange daily cycles – water from the faucets in the morning, dry in the evenings, etc., -- but it happens that two or three whole, mournful days go by without water. I bring water up in connection with electricity because these are the two essential ingredients in the life-sustaining elixir we call hot showers. The powers behind the powers seem to have decided that one flowing service to any given house is boon enough, so the hot shower is something to be cherished. Ethiopian quandary: if you discover on a 3am toilet run that there is light and the water is running, what do you do? Can you sleep knowing that this could be your only chance for a hot shower?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Travelogue 271 – April 1
Oikos, Dolce Bet

This year, home is in the hills of Shiro Meda. I’m back on the north side of Addis Ababa, among the meandering lanes of uneven stones, among the humble and the poor, among old ladies in traditional white, and among loitering teenage boys trapped uncertainly between awkward poses – sardonic or friendly or menacing – particularly conflicted when a white guy appears. Menna and Ijigu have outdone themselves on this house. It’s quiet and relatively well-appointed. We share the compound with the landlord’s family and servants, a small and respectful household. The compound is laid with concrete. It’s furnished with the usual vicious dogs who live their lives inside barred iron boxes barely wide enough to hold them. My little house is closest to the compound gate.

Gete is of indeterminate age, in her teens. She wears her rural upbringing in her humble clothes, thick skirts and kerchief over her hair; she wears it in her gait, ungoverned by the clock and stooped in docility; and she wears it in her face, slack in deference and innocence and a kind of wonder at the crowd and flash of the city. She is sister to one of the teen athletes of Team Tesfa. She has been tentatively invited to join the staff of Casa di Jarvis, working as house cleaner – though much of the time I make her and her sad face sit and eat or copy out alphabets and numerals.

Conforming to the theme of the year, I’ve had all possessions and all my thoughts (conveniently suspended in notebooks) gathered at the new house, and whenever possible, while directing staff from the dining room table command center, I sort through the Stuff, breaking open boxes like tombs at Saqqara, boxes with no corners or seams left, held together by stubborn packing tape, holding my breath through clouds of dust, sweeping away dead spiders, rat turds and cockroaches to access treasures from the past. Five years I’ve been here! I marvel; the household carries on its work.

I think, at times like these – the cook is in the kitchen, the courtyard is being swept by someone from the landlord’s retinue, the bathroom is being mopped by Gete, bedsheets hang from the clotheslines, Menna is calculating budgets at the table – I think of the household in its traditional role in history, the oikos, the fundamental unit within the organization of civilization, the microcosm of society, the central root in the Greek word that becomes ‘economy’.

‘We’re just about out of soft, Gete.’ Soft is the word for tissue or toilet paper, an essential item in the oikos, forced to serve a variety of sanitary purposes in Ethiopia. When she returns, she leaves tracks of mud, so she wants to mop again. It seems I’ve arrived in Addis at the leading edge of a storm front that brings the spring’s ‘little rains’. All the locals rejoice, enjoying the respite from months of harsh sunshine, while I curse my ever-cloudy fate.