Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travelogue 311 – December 31
Last of the Oh's

It's the last day of the year and my second day in Ethiopia. Yesterday I adhered to a mild schedule, keeping appointments I could handle on very little sleep. I had arrived at Addis Ababa's Bole airport at 4 am.

Yesterday's joy was visiting our newest school, the one in the Mercato district of the city. This has been a project long in the dreaming and longer in the manifestation. Mercato, you might be surprised to find out, is the market district of the capital city, supposedly home to the biggest market in Africa. But what is fact is the pervasive poverty and squalor. It's a neighborhood that is hard on its children, crowded and dangerous, and lacking in resources to support the needs of the young. It's an old district, densely packed with mud shacks and market stalls. Finding space for a school was a laborious process.

The school is tucked away among a tight concentration of dirt roads and alleys. On Mondays, you have to squeeze and cough your way among throngs of trucks bringing wares to the markets. Inside the school compound, the courtyard is a peaceful well of brick and concrete. The children are arranged in rows of tiny chairs in the sun. The small building's porch is festooned with ribbons. Once we have arrived the program begins. That includes songs and dancing. The guests get to pass out candy to the children. The children are shy, quiet, almost sullen. Part of that is the culture; tradition dictates that children are respectful. Poor families are strongly traditional. The other part of their subdued behavior I surmise is malnutrition. Many are lethargic from being underfed.

Ethiopia has already asserted its farcical nature. Just today, the hot water and my stove have died. Staff that is supposed to escort me on my first run is late, and I leave without some of them. The taxi driver is pulled over for talking on his mobile, and we sit for twenty minutes while he confers with the cop. And Selam doesn't show up with the money I needed changed from dollars to birr, so I'm broke.

But the day moves forward and I'm smiling. We do make it up Entoto mountain at dawn, and I get a grueling run up above the city. We can see much of Addis Ababa from up there. Fog is creeping along the valleys, obscuring some neighborhoods, but most of the town stands peacefully exposed to our view, hardly seeming to add up to a major city.

We all stand on a mountain of sorts today. It's the last day of the year, and if it's not the end of a decade, it's the last of the oh's. It's been an exciting set of zeros. The world will never be the same, after our servitude to Bush and/or Bin Laden. And I've spent a majority of the aughts in thrall to my own strange mission, Leeza's mission. Here I am again in Ethiopia, even as the aughts dissolve.

It's on to the teens. Or back to the teens. One never escapes them, does one? Well, maybe I'll live long enough to see the Roaring 20s.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Travelogue 310 – December 28

There are two things I wanted from England right away: football and bitter. I arrive in England on Boxing Day. That's an ambiguous holiday. Boxing Day: what does it signify? Since it's the day after Christmas, I have half-thought it was the day when Brits put their gifts back in the boxes they came in. It would be properly British to set aside a day for putting their gifts in order. But in fact it seems to have been a day set aside for the servants. Send them home to their families, give them gifts and wish them well. Good for morale and all that.

I've arrived in Bath in late afternoon. Pey and her family have plans to visit Giles's parents, so I think I will be arriving to an empty house. I decide to stop by the old Ram for a taste of Britain. The only bitter they have is called 'Rolicking Rudolph' or something like that, unsuitably fey-sounding, but a bitter is a bitter. And it just so happens that a football match is just starting up: Liverpool meets Wolverhampton. Groups of middle-aged men start streaming in at game-time. Also entering, a young couple with an amusing bull terrier that enjoys stretching out in extravagant sleeping poses and uttering great sighs. Also entering, an old man with a mop top who continues talking to the bartender even when the bartender has moved on.

It might be a sign of my advancing age, but I watch more sports now than I could ever have imagined as a youth. I have entertained myself with American football all autumn, though really I have serious reservations about the sport. Half of the draw is the Favre factor, Brett having joined the Vikings and boosted them into high ratings and high hopes.

Now that I'm in transition, becoming an eastern hemisphere man for half a year, my attention swings back toward European football. My level of knowledge about the sport has really decayed, even though it was never much. Giles is appalled. I can't name one player on Tottenham's team.

It turns out everyone has been worried because of the terrorist who popped up in Detroit on Christmas Day, the same day I traveled. He wasn't the most impressive terrorist, it would seem, managing only to seriously burn himself. But Pey and family came home early, and I had a number of nervous emails to answer.

One travel corner rounded, today has turned out to be the most relaxing day in months. It started with a shock, when I saw the clock as I awoke. It was 1pm! And this wasn't a matter of lazy half-wakings and rolling over. I was out cold all night. I had a leisurely breakfast, and a few hours later I was out for a long run.

You can't stroll around the lovely town of Bath without stumbling upon the Avon River. Some two hundred meters away from the back of the train station, you'll see the old Kennet and Avon Canal breaking away from the river, turning off under a small stone archway. Beside the canal runs a dirt towpath, which is perfect for long walks and long runs. I'm restless after all the sleep, so I'm eager to log some real distance.

While the canal travels through Bath, you pass a few locks; you pass under cute little bridges; you dodge winter puddles and nettles, and still your legs are a mess before long, Passing under large roads, the path cleaves to a narrow ledge between the wall of the overhanging arch and the water. It gets quite dark in there, and you must take care for your ankles.

On the left, across the valley, you'll see Salisbury Hill. Eventually, you leave Bath proper and the canal veers toward the south. You enter a narrow, rural valley. The sky, already winter-contracted, seems to dim and concentrate even further. There's only the train track, the river, and you. The puddles become icy. The sun weakens. It's four o'clock, and the long solstice sunset begins. You should turn around, but the air is damp and fresh and invigorating. And there is the anticipation about what may lie around the next bend in the canal underneath the stoic hills.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Travelogue 309 – December 17

I've had a run of bad luck this week. If I were to describe my bad luck with a color and with a scent, I would say color it like the glacier in my sinuses. I wish them all well in Copenhagen, but climate change has had zero impact on this particular glacier. It congeals at night until my head is about as dense as a bowling ball. In the morning, there's a spring thaw and I'm toppling china and books and bottles looking for tissue paper. The head cold is long gone; I'm working at full capacity at school, computer, and gym. But the sinus passages are completely blocked. Waking in the morning is like coming to consciousness after a night in a sulfurous marsh.

Color it white, but not the white of mucus. Make it crystalline white and odorless as a puff of breath on a winter morning. There's no sound to it. The block is hushed in the Arctic suspense. There is only a click. I turn the key again, but there's only a click. Let a big, vaporless sigh and admit you're stranded.

Color it white as the bars at the bottom of my computer screen that indicate connection. They should be green. I've devoted the day to my final push at grading. It sounds like someone's climbing up the side of the house. I don't see anything out the window. Nothing except a white car parked in front, its tailpipe steaming. There's a flicker inside one of the car windows. I walk around the house, checking windows. The car is in motion. Now it's in back. An arm swings out a partially lowered window, and in the hand is a camera. Click. He moves on. Next door, there's a cable guy fooling with black clusters of cable hanging from the roof. He says 'sir' with an oily smile. Things have gotten too weird at home, and I can't get my work done. I pack up and walk for the bus.

Life at the gym is good. Leg and lung are strong. I'm happy cultivating my new crush on Rachael Ray. I try to imagine her voice. The TVs are on mute, and I've never heard of her before I started at the gym. I log my hour on the elliptical. Rachael Ray says, “Let's consider the ellipse, Nature's circle. It took humankind to invent the circle. Nature is satisfied with the ellipse. Consider honorable Johannes Kepler, natural philosopher with a mind in Nature's imprint. Kepler understood that, as much as man wants constants, Nature abhors them. The grooves of planets will be stretched into gentle curves, and then wrapped around tight, accelerated turns, all dictated by the weakest but most unforgiving of the four forces governing this peculiar universe.”

Hallelujah, Rachael! I know imperfect shapes. I confront them every day – in the mirror, at work, and in my dreams. Can you see me now, describing seven-thousand of them with my feet? The body won't make circles, no matter what DaVinci or the whirling dervishes might imagine. At its most precise, it might make ellipses, just like the heavenly bodies from which we sprung. The term ellipse comes to us from Greek, from a word that means 'falling short'. That's what we do, Rachael, we fall short.

So today I sit stranded at a Caribou Coffee downtown, working my day into an imperfect shape. Determined to be cheerful, I take the bus downtown to do errands. I walk up and down Nicollet Mall, stopping here and there, carrying heavy bags. I go to the gym, and count off thousands of ellipses. Now, here I am. I sit near the window of the skyway, watching buses pass. Up above the buildings shine lights at each other in their windows, and display glowing reflections of each other. The sun is sinking quickly. I'm thinking the buildings want to tell us something with their straight lines and pure colors, but it will be night before we figure it out.

I have to be downtown again in the evening. I should go home first, but I don't think I can move again. I think I'll have to surrender peacefully to the fall of night right here. I'm discovering some virtue to sitting quietly while the world travels its elliptical course.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Travelogue 308 – December 6

Life retreats inside. I'm even running inside now, on most days of the week. I've traded the winding trail along the Mississippi River for the static view of Nicollet Mall outside the Y's big picture windows. I've traded the feel of the road under my feet for the unvarying support of the elliptical. Sad: it's a concession to age. 'Low-impact' was not in my vocabulary even five years ago. So I sweat and I watch the people walk by in heavy coats.

About a week ago, temperatures fell below freezing, and they haven't approached the thaw mark since. Just that quickly, the lungs and sinuses are robbed of moisture. The world is crackling dry.

So I run in one place, partaking of a single view. I breathe the uniformly humid air. My thoughts resolve into similarly static patterns. The word 'thoughts' falsely implies thinking. It's not really thinking. These 'thoughts' are default subjects and images. One entertains them with the same diffuse intensity as television. At most, they evoke nostalgia or the kind of momentary sadness that poses as profound feeling. Or one chews on notions that are like old gum, previously chewed and flavorless.

I have a slight cold, and the closed, stuffy air in my head seems to mirror the claustrophobic environment of the gym. There's a piquancy to the first winter head cold, like a seasonal aroma that awakens a fond memory, a feeling that feeds the sense that I'm having deep thoughts while I'm working on the elliptical. What mysterious brain chemical corresponds to nostalgia? One stands on a Minnesota hillock and feels as though one has surmounted Everest.

My banal thoughts carry on a dialogue with the three TVs mounted above the picture windows of the gym. The sad truth is, I can't resist watching. The only thing more powerful than my contempt for TV is my powerlessness to turn away from one. I always seem to come to the gym when Dr. Oz is on. Everyone applauds formerly obese people as they appear from the wings and stand next to images of themselves at full weight. Meanwhile, the mind stops at a few favorite stations in my childhood. It flits among them, and among heartaches. It flows along well-worn grooves toward aspirations once vital, now desiccated. The pain on the exercise machine suggests all sorts of past aches, while the mind strives after dreams of glory to compensate. On another TV screen, talking heads conduct one more discussion about Afghanistan – a place that seems to serve as a stand-in for all that is frightening in the unconscious among a variety of conquering nations in history. “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” (Written about the Crimea, I realize, which exists in no one's unconscious, except maybe some retired apparatchiks.)

And as I enter the chilly shadow of another approaching departure, my mind darkens with anxiety and mourning. There are sudden panics about what I've forgotten. Involuntarily I ponder death. I'm haunted by endings, thinking of apologies I should make, thanks I should offer, and other sorts of last wishes. I'm missing things before they're gone.

'You're going to miss us, aren't you?' my students ask, not with an interrogative rise at the end, but with a falling syllable of certainty. They brandish sweet smiles, conspicuous for their absence through most of the semester. They ask what classes I'm teaching next semester. I tell them none, and they seem sad. “Ethiopia?” they ask, almost with horror.

Yeah, there could be nowhere farther from the downtown gym than Ethiopia. I'm trying to conjure up images of it while I clock 150 steps per minute on the elliptical. The images are slow to upload. I've said good-bye to the place under my feet, and can't even imagine the destination. It's like being suspended above the earth on pedals that simulate a running motion. Maybe if I pedal faster.