Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Travelogue 321 – February 24
Way of the Goat

Everybody's leaving. Last weekend is was Troy and Erin. Then it was Mike. Last night it was Jamie. Jamie was here for about six weeks, getting to know the athletes on Team Tesfa. She is a former athlete at the University of Minnesota, recently graduated. She works with our advisory committee based at the U, and she is the second U athlete to visit Ethiopia.

Before going to the airport, Jamie meets us for dinner. She's invited a few team members, Tsege, Workinesh, and Teklu. And she's invited the entire household staff at our guest house: her name is also Workinesh. We go to the premier restaurant on this side of Addis, Serenade. It's an Italian or Mediterranean restaurant (there's been some dispute among my guests) located between Sidist Kilo and Piassa. It's almost impossible to provide directions to the place – sorry, future tourists – a small house that smells of European bread, lost among the houses of an indistinct neighborhood. The clientele is overwhelmingly white. Its walls are decorated with versions of Modigliani. The highlights are the fresh bread and oil, and the desserts.

One dessert is good ice cream, a delicacy hard to find in Addis Ababa, and almost always provided by Italians here – one of my arguments in the debate about Serenade's identity, that and the Modigliani on the walls. The highlight of our evening is watching the Ethiopians try ice cream for the first time. How is it, we ask. “Kazkaze,” they say with surprise and dismay: Cold! Workinesh, the housekeeper, puts a large spoonful in her mouth and chews. Her eyes open wide in dismay, and she winces. She grabs her cheek. Teklu tries, and the contortions in his face has everyone shouting with laughter. Tsege is experienced. She has already tried ice cream with us. She is trying to teach the others how to let it melt in their mouths.

The next morning at 6am we're up in the mountains. My runs have felt great lately. I've hit my stride. We pace in a group along the rocky roads along the ridge for about three miles. And then we reach the monster hill, where I am usually reduced to a shuffle. I tell everyone to stop, and I make my slow way up to the top of the first steep slope alone.

I've taken a group of short and middle distance athletes under my wing. Ethiopia is not a kind environment for these athletes. Compared to the darlings of long distance running, these athletes are held in mild contempt. It just so happens that we have a few modest talents on our team in the middle distances. But how could one know what they're capable of? There is one open track meet per year, and the date seems to float. I've made the decision that, if possible, our team will host a track meet in the late spring.

At the top of the hill, I wave my hands, and the two women below set off. From my vantage point, their movements seem sluggish and indistinct. It hardly looks like running at first. But their efforts come into focus; they are leaning forward and their arms and legs are working in a strong, machine-like harmony. They push past me in just over a minute each. I'm timing them with my new watch, bought for me by Dirige, one of my running partners and a 400-meter talent. I wave my arms again and the men start their sprint.

After our drills, the remainder of our run is about 45 minutes, at first along the wide road, which spans a long and pleasant plateau after the killer hill, and then down paths among farmland back into the city. This latter part is particularly fun. The hills are beautiful. Tilled fields spread to either side of us, dotted by occasional huts, and in the distance the green slopes of the mountains descend toward Addis Ababa. It's a challenging stretch for runners. The paths are rutted and rocky. The running is something like a dance, and I can't help throwing caution to the winds, dismissing the fear of twisted ankles just before my road race, abandoning myself to the gravity and to the crazy paths. Further down, we're dashing down gullies that are jumbled courses of boulders. We're going too fast to think; our feet find their places on their own. It's exhilarating. Eventually we arrive at another uneven dirt road that leads us down to the highest reaches of the Faransae district, where the taxi boys make crude comments at us, where a small Downs boy mimics our stretching exercises and laughs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Travelogue 320 – February 23

I see that the sun is struggling to make a comeback this morning. I'm inside the Romina Cafe, facing the big windows, facing the terraced patio, the patio full of tilting aluminum tables with red tablecloths that are dappled by the shade of a variety of trees. When I arrived, two meetings and two coffees ago, the clouds seemed to have won the day. I don't complain anymore: the clouds have already won the war for the month of February. It's only recently that Helios has taken a few battles, allowing us to soak up some light and warmth, walking the muddy streets of Addis Ababa in a contented daze.

The Romina is one of my long-time regular spots, though I haven't frequented it much lately. I've had to rediscover it. It's a relaxing stop in late morning, between the early and lunch rushes, one broad room done up in a vibrant palette of reds and oranges. The orange floor tiles are clean. There are no rude smells intruding upon one's snack. The cakes and coffee are nice. The clientele is largely drawn from the nearby university, ebullient kids and earnest elders. But best of all is the American 80s soundtrack.

I'm led to wonder again, what is it about the 80s that preserves the decade forever? You find it in the Dinkytown cafe in Minneapolis, where the spike-topped manager in his late 20s plays Depeche Mode for hours on end. You can't escape it in Italy, where teen-agers sport jean jackets and painfully awkward hairstyles, spiky mullets with dyed patches. And you find the decade alive and well in Addis Ababa cafes, where Whitey is still queen, forever young and sober.

I've been doing some 80s diving lately. I've been reading, and really enjoying John Irving. Shocking that this is the first novel of his I've read. It's been a while since I laughed out loud while reading a novel. Very fun. It's an interesting little Jesus parable he's written, set during the buildup of the Vietnam War.

Mid-February brought rains, the kind of rains common in summer, the kind that bring cold winds and downpours that can turn into hail. While I grumbled, the crew up in Chancho took in stride, saying the clouds were a nice break from toiling in the glaring sun. Now the rains have tapered off, but the clouds have been persistent. It's pleasant to see sunshine among the leafy canopy of the patio outside.

Leeza used to talk about this Addis Ababa neighborhood, called Arat Kilo, and remembering it made her smile. It brought back cheerful memories of her teenage years, when she would go to Arat Kilo with her friends. She couldn't talk about Arat Kilo without mentioning the cakes, without a mischievous arching of an eyebrow. Things haven't changed too much. Even though tasty cakes can be found in almost any quarter of the capital city now, Arat Kilo holds its own, dozens of premier cafes within its narrow bounds.

And Leeza loved Whitney Houston. She had a CD of Whitney's greatest hits, and she wondered why I wouldn't dance with her. I wish I had. This morning, Whitney wants to dance with somebody. Her mood is joyful. Her voice is young. It is caressing, and it's strong. She tells me she will always love me. I can listen to her with a smile of my own now. For years, Whitney's voice brought to me a stabbing pain in the heart.

That passes. Whitney had her happy days, just like we did, God bless her.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Travelogue 319 – February 4
Chancho, Part Two

The new school is in the village of Ekodaga, where the people are friendly and where the gentle hills bring peace to the crowded mind. The village is a twenty-minute walk from the town of Chancho. The walk is a triumph of sorts: alone under a big African sky, among golden meadows and grazing lambs, under mild breezes, and always within sight of our school project on its small hilltop.

Ahead, Chancho looks like a charming town, gathered around two tall, round hills, among foothills that lead west toward picturesque mountains in the near distance. But the experience of Chancho strikes one as something altogether more sordid. This town clings to the highway (never more than ten meters across, despite it being part of the busiest north-south artery in Ethiopia) like children along a parade route, or like beggars along the boulevard, as the case may be. The people seem brusque and childish, mixing greed and innocence in mystical ratios. Strolling the strip – an unremarkable set of ad hoc shops and shabby cafes – is to run a gauntlet of cat-calls, comments, sulky stares, and a tedious litany of 'Money, money,' chanted by children who can't address you eye-to-eye, but only after you've passed.

But stop: first impressions in Ethiopia are rarely flattering. We're not here to flatter, but it doesn't serve to take easy offense. Try – and this can be extremely hard in Ethiopia – try to take yourself out of the picture. Observe. This is a culture of banter. The streets are as crazy a tapestry of sound as of sights, a continuous swirl of chatter and laughter. The faranji wanders by and is woven in, a bright new color. An American reacts as though to a challenge; an Ethiopian reacts by joining in. Try it: reply with a joke. The crowd will enjoy it, and you'll be a part of the scene, rather than the object of jest.

Tuesday is market day. A field on the edge of town is devoted to the event. There are simple stalls erected from sticks and canvas or plastic, but most commodities are laid out on the ground in rough rows. Old women from the countryside sit beside their vegetables and spices. Men haggle over donkeys that lie hobbled in the grass. Market day is a time for the community. Men sit on bags of grain and gossip. Women gather in groups, the groceries a pretext for a morning of chit-chat.

If you doubt the gravitational pull of market day, hike into the countryside on Tuesday morning. Travel the peasant superhighway, the worn paths that radiate outward from the town. I'm running long distances these days, so I have the advantage of logging long miles across the endless fields. I follow the ancient lines of mud from grassy valley to grassy valley, past each tortoise-backed hill and its moss-like growths of eucalyptus, past villages of each a dozen huts, past patches of broken mud, the family plots that barely feed the children; I run an hour out until I can't even spot the landmark hilltops of Chancho. It's dawn when I start, and I'll pass the occasional shepherd, the occasional old man with his arms flung over the dula, or walking stick, that is perched across his shoulders. I pass the occasional man on horseback, trotting toward Chancho. But by eight or nine, by the time I'm returning, there is an exodus in progress, families on foot from at least six or seven miles outside of Chancho, heading in to the market.

Back in town, the only way you're going to get from one end to the other of the attenuated roadside city is either on foot under the hot sun or by gari. A gari is a simple horse-drawn cart. I love traveling this way; I've done so often in other towns. But this is the only town this size I've seen in which it's the only option. I inspire much hilarity when I pass in a gari. It would appear that I'm the first faranj many have seen riding this way. There's hardly a way to be more conspicuous. Nothing to do but smile and wave and join in the fun!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Travelogue 318 – February 3
Chancho, Part One

Chancho is just far enough north on the highway to Bahir Dar to escape being a suburb of the rapidly expanding capital city. When you travel north out of Addis Ababa, you speed through a shallow pass called Fitasha, which is where I often launch long runs along the ridge, and which forms the northern limit to the city. Beyond is a gentle decline through eucalyptus forests and by small farmsteads, until you enter the precincts of Selulta, a town that was a quiet village before being overrun by the Addis Ababa leisure class. Now, where the road levels out and the landscape opens up into rolling yellow hills, you can find dozens of concrete hotels with sprawling courtyard restaurants, in various stages of construction or operation or premature decay. The athletic class has also found a home in this area. The Olympic star, Kenenisa, has been partnering with the government in opening a track camp and stadium in the hills below the ridge. This road is where Team Tesfa had a start of sorts, where we conducted a time trial for several of the original team members. Runners like this road: it's smooth and relatively straight for long miles.

The entry into Chancho mirrors to a lesser degree the south side of Selulta, in that the southern road is lined with optimistic rows of concrete hotels. One of the few that is completed is where I stay during this week's visit to the building site.

School Number Seven, Project Selam, is funded by Mike and his family and his church in Green Bay. Mike is an early retiree, and excited to make a difference with his new freedom. The school is located in a tiny village in the hills near Chancho. It's a twenty-minute walk across open meadows of yellow grass. You can see the hilltop dedicated to the project from town. As you approach, you can make out the project's labor force: just the colors of clothing in motion from a distance, but they are Mike and his family, Cien as foreman, half a dozen men from Team Tesfa, and a varying host of village men and women pitching in with hands, shovels, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows. The initial work was relocating a wall, stone by stone. Then came the leveling of the rocky land, and tearing down the original small and decrepit house. Next was digging post holes.

It's a beautiful site. One of the pleasures of working there is the view, which spans nearly three-quarters of a circle in perspective from our hilltop, across miles of hills and open fields and small villages. The villages are identifiable by the round, peaked thatched roofs of the huts gathered in clusters, usually on a hillside. In summer, during rainy season, I hear that much of the meadowland in the valleys becomes inaccessible marsh.

It's at the bottom of the nearest valley, in a modest riverbed, that Ijigu is overseeing a local group who is mixing the mud to put on the walls of the school. You can just make them out from the school site. Walk down to watch the work. It's messy. They've dammed the stream that runs between high walls of mud and grass; they've dammed it with mud to create a pool. Along the banks of the stream, they've cultivated big pools of mud through which the workers wade barefoot, churning and overturning slop with shovels. One woman splashes the mud with water from the steam continuously. Others mix in the straw and gravel. This concoction sits for days, fermenting. Some time next week, we'll get a train of donkeys together to transport the mud to the school site. A few of those donkeys are crossing the stream now, one of them pausing to relieve himself in the water.

When the day's work is done, Mike and his family, Cien and some of the team boys return to the house we've rented in Chancho. Everywhere they go, they are accompanied by a chorus of 'Faranj!', stares and laughter. The house is one of the nicest in town. It's concrete. There's hot water. It's a tight fit for the group, being only a series of four rooms in a one long and narrow construction, but it's cozy enough. The house has a huge grassy yard, where the group plays a silly variation of volleyball in a circle while individuals take turns cleaning up and while the sun goes down. Tall eucalyptus surround us, among the tallest branches of which kites flap their wings and call.

On afternoon, Ijigu and the team boys bring home a young gelada baboon that has escaped his master. He has twine tied around his neck. The little guy is a bit jumpy, especially when the team boys tease him; the white people are all a little scared of him. But he stays in the yard with us, and he settles down, and we feed him bananas. Neighborhood children are crowding the compound gate to peek in.