Sunday, April 25, 2010

Travelogue 336 – April 25
Part Three

No desert isle is further from solace, further from hope than the family farmstead on a morning after rain. Stand on the hilltop, immobilized, measuring with a farmer's eye the distance from household isle to household isle across soggy fields. It's hours; it's miles; it's centuries. Another lesson in what we take for granted.

I rise at first light, desperate to be on my way. Menna and I are ready to depart, and again the grinning locals – looking more and more like extras in the Thriller video – tell us we can't possibly leave. The mud won't allow it. They assure us we'll travel by horse to the highway.

We check up on Altaye, who is saddling horses. At the moment, he's working on one tan beast that scares Menna with his restless stamping. We return to the prospect outside the compound of waterlogged earth stretching to the horizon. The fields are barren of life … until we see some figures. They are athletes training. One of them is Altaye. The caravan has obviously been postponed.

In despair – the kind that makes a fox chew off its leg to escape the trap – I dash to the shore of the isle. I recklessly stride out into the fields, into the muddy surf. Within twenty meters, my shoes are encased in massive mud slippers. I turn back.

I figure it will be a few more hours until escape. I pace. I feverishly begin pacing off the boundaries of our imprisonment. Soon, I hear someone slopping along behind me. Dirige, another of our runners, is coming to fetch me. The horses are ready.

Menna's horse is a tame and diminutive brown mare. Menna is scared nonetheless, and has to be helped aboard by several of the laughing elders. The mare accepts her placidly. My steed will be the tan buck that was snorting in the courtyard earlier. He's all saddled up now, and seems calm enough. I approach, put a foot in the stirrup and swing myself up. As soon as my butt is in the saddle, the stallion lets loose. He starts kicking, yanking the reins from the old man who was holding them.

There's one exhilarating moment on the back of a bucking bronco, when the first dose of adrenaline kicks in and the boyish thought flits through one's mind, 'Wow, this is cool!' And then, in rapid succession, one perceives the danger and sees the need for a decision. Before my angry steed really gets going, I let loose and let myself fly with the next kick. I hit the mud hard, and barely escape a hoof to the jaw. The horse keeps kicking, but moves forward and away.

The boyish reaction comes first again, and I start laughing with the thrill of the adventure, sitting in the mud and scanning the stunned faces. The others break into a laugh. The numbness passes. My back aches, and I realize I've somehow popped a finger. It's swelling rapidly. Menna is beside herself. She jumps off her horse with a shout and runs to my side. There we sit among the unnaturally prolonged laughter of the surrounding elders. It becomes eerie. I stand shakily. Menna looks around with wide eyes, and finally whispers, 'Let's get out of here!' She takes my hand and we limp to the shore of the asylum. We strike out into the mud. Nobody follows.

I picked up a few technique for crossing the mud while pacing around the island. 'Stick to the grass,' I tell Menna. There are clumps of grass here and there; if you hop just right from one to the other, you won't pick up too much mud. Still, our shoes become heavy clods in no time.

This is how we travel. We hop from grass to grass; we stop to scrape mud from our shoes. We carry on. I'm holding my damaged finger in the other hand. Eventually, Altaye and Dirige catch up with us. Wordlessly, they lead the way.

Forty minutes, they had said. That comes and goes. An hour comes and goes. We haven't eaten. We haven't slept. We're exhausted with hopping and scraping. I give it up and resign myself to the extra ten pounds. An hour and a half comes and goes. When we finally sight the highway, we scream like castaways. It's still another half hour through the mud, but we have rediscovered hope. When we reach the asphalt, I kneel down to kiss it. Certainly there's no danger of being run over. We sit on the shoulder of the road for another half hour before a van comes by and stops.

Once we're safely at the road, Altaye and Dirige melt away into the hills. Menna and I sit in silence staring back across the road at those hills, hills of mud, the hills of dread.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Travelogue 335 – April 24
Part Two

Day bleeds away and night is left to hang over the farmstead – a real night, like men have cowered under for millennia. As for Altaye's family and what is left of the wedding party, they gather in the dark chamber and the celebration begins. Menna and I are isolated in one corner of the smoky room, isolated among those who are crowded onto benches against the walls, isolated among revelers who have become as obtuse on t'ala as the chamber's airs. T'ala is the home-brewed Ethiopian beer. A man circles continuously, filling cups from a pitcherful.

The dancing begins in earnest. An attempt is made to provide music from a cassette tape in a much-abused boom box, but that proves less reliable and less interesting than old-fashioned clapping and singing. The home-made music usually begins with a clapping rhythm, joined by one repetitive chant taken up by the rest, obviously a song they've all learned at their mother's knee. Then someone begins a somewhat melodic rant, often a humorous indictment of the crowd or of particular characters in the room. Most of what's going on is in Oromo, so I'm at sea. But it's amusing to watch. The dancing is lively. The women are vigorously engaged in a dance that requires them to bend at the waist and swing an shake their heads and shoulders. They are soon crowded out by the men, whose dance is even more vigorous, often involving a rhythmic stamping of the ground, a kick and and a shout, arms around each other's shoulders. It's fun and absurd and surreal, all shadow play in that dim, smoky room. Soon, the sitters are sneezing from the dust raised on the dirt floor by our spirit squad.

Altaye eventually comes and leads Menna and I to the kitchen. The kitchen is a separate building, a single large room, lit by fire, and nearly open to the sky with its loose and decayed construction, gaps between mud walls and corrugated roof, holes in the roof for watching the clouds. We're set upon an old curled mattress against the wall. Altaye's father comes with a can of bug spray and generously lays down the rich stink against the ants. The only position possible is half-recumbent, and it's easy to get sleepy in this peaceful room. Several old ladies are sitting at various points around the large room, cooking and gossiping. One tends the coffee over a large, hypnotic fire. Someone brings me eggs and injera. An hour later, someone serves coffee. A little boy in a tiny suit lies down next to me and is asleep instantly. Half an hour later, another, smaller boy lies down next to him, and they both slumber deeply, without a sound, without a move.

Eventually we're informed that it's bed time. The party is still going on in the dark chamber, and it will go on until 3:15am. I know the exact time because I was awake. I was awake the entire night, as were my persecutors. I was given a dank mud room all to myself. My bed was straw covered with burlap. This straw was home to an army of angry fleas, who swarmed over this intrusive Gulliver. I could feel their deployments over my skin all night. After a few hours, one just gives up. The devastation wrought by this army will haunt me for weeks, a regular red pimpling over my entire body.

The rain comes to complete my imprisonment. It rains all night, sometimes sounding as though it would cave in the corrugated iron above me.

I have another persecutor: Francis the insomniac donkey. Of all the friendly – and silent – donkeys on the estate, Francis is the donkey who beds down directly opposite me on the outside of the mud wall of my room. Every hour he launches into a long braying session. The few times that I do just begin to drowse, Francis lets loose. And when the cock gets going several hours before dawn, Francis feels challenged. He lights up every half hour. I entertain myself seeing if I can predict the next outburst. I start to be able to feel the urges inside Francis's dark, tormented soul.

Finally, I discern the first crack in night's ruthless grip over the country, the first blue light in the high windows. I'm out of bed and out the door. I find Menna and insist we start for the highway. But things are never that simple in the countryside ...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Travelogue 334 – April 23
Part One

The Oromo culture is fond of its horses. As we're driving through the countryside northeast of Addis Ababa, we pass a wedding party on horseback. The horses are dressed in the traditional garb, embroidered covers for the saddles. The men are dressed for holiday, as well, white gabis draped over their shoulders.

We're heading for the family manor of one Altaye, a talented 800-meter runner and member of my team. Altaye is a goofy guy, eager to please, ready with a smile, a little shifty. But it's a pleasure to watch him run. He's strong as a horse.

And it's no surprise when you see where he grew up. Horses must be a boy's role models out there. The men are rough-hewn, garbed in sober farm clothes, adorned in somber farm dirt, soaked in strong t'ala, or home-brewed beer. They don't say much, at least not much that isn't gruff and obvious.

Look around from the vantage of the front gate at Altaye's family complex – a hilltop encircled by a stone wall and furnished with mud-and-thatch dwellings, rough corrals for the noble horses, and free-roaming livestock – look around and see nothing else but fields and infrequent hilltop settlements like this one. Blue on the horizon are the mountains that shelter Addis Ababa.

You won't see roads, even dirt ones. The journey takes us about three hours. We hire a van in Megenagna, a transport hub on the eastern side of Addis. We drive east out of Addis, and rounding the mountains, head north. We pass through the town of Sendafa. We keep going. Eventually we have to leave the highway, tramping up a dirt road. Eventually we have to depart from the dirt road, tramping across fields. The drivers finally stop and say no. We beg them to wait, but as soon as we alight, they turn the vehicle around and spray mud in their wake, content to leave without even a cent toward their contracted pay. I watch them go with something like horror. The team boys are all laughing that they would fore-go their pay, while I'm secretly willing them to come back for double, for quadruple the price. We turn toward the distant farmstead and walk.

We're met with an odd mixture of astonishment, apathy, and derision at the farmstead – with very scant welcome. We're led into a dark chamber where most people have gathered. I can't make out who or even how many are here. We sit on benches while every so often someone takes up clapping and a few people stand to dance for a few minutes. I make out the bride, sitting in one corner under veils. She is making a show of trembling, and when I try to say hello she ducks still further under cover.

Outside, I get hassled by the men. They've been drinking all day. Now they're looking for some cheap entertainment. Some bully me; some make jokes. They show off the horses in the yard. They ask for jobs and money.

The bride and groom emerge from the dark chamber, the chanting crowd behind them. A man rushes out with am AK-47 and recklessly fires a few shots into the air. Outside the complex, the bride, finally smiling, is lifted onto one of the horses. The groom, in a brown suit and a green fedora, awkwardly climbs on behind her, and the two ride off to their new lives. I grab Menna's elbow and start walking toward the setting sun, in the direction of the highway.

We trudge through a field or two before we're hailed by a few team boys. 'Where are you going?' They said the highway was only forty minutes away on foot. I'd rather take my chances standing in front of a semi and hoping he'll take us on board than spending the night at the asylum. But the sun is near the horizon. They say it's too dangerous to be walking at night. They say there's no traffic on the highway after dark.

In despair, Menna and I sit where we are, between rows of grassy earth, and watch the sun set. As it grows dark, no lights come on. There's no electricity out here. The empty miles resound with the shouts of departing guests. Eventually, we head back to the farm.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Travelogue 333 – April 14

It says a lot about the state of affairs in Addis that it takes me three days without electricity for me to suspect that something is wrong. Sure enough, my bill hasn't been paid. Felicity says her mother emailed her about a report she had heard a report that Ethiopia is leading the way with electric cars. That might just solve the traffic problem.

Daily life is a puzzle. When do you shower? When do you recharge the phone? When do you recharge the computer? I've responsible for a variety of reports and budgets this month. Thankfully, I have a long-life battery on the netbook. One looks in vain for patterns in the blackouts. One looks at the sky a lot. When will it rain? It's been unusually gloomy in Addis, the clouds piling against the mountains and every day a shower or two. Which way do I walk? Which way do I run? Dirt roads are mud. Asphalt roads make splashing pools.

Happily, the morning that I visit Ekodaga and the new school the clouds are shot with blue sky and the temperatures are mild. I walk from Chancho to Ekodaga with Dirige. It's a fifteen-minute walk across green fields. You can see the new school on its hill, all the way from Chancho, its peaked iron roof, the mud wall, soon to be covered in cement. Dirige is rhapsodizing about the clean air around Chancho, and he's absolutely right. It's refreshing, calming. I find the calm refreshing. I quite enjoy the tranquil walk. I enjoy not having to dodge rain. Dirige points up the slope to the man ploughing his fields with an iron blade secured to eucalyptus poles and pulled by oxen. 'Do you have those in America?' he asks. I say no, though I wonder if there aren't some pockets of near-Ethiopian poverty somewhere.

One persistent impression of my country that visits me and revisits when I travel is its size. It's a vast country, with an intense variety to it. Living in the Upper Midwest, its easy to succumb to a perspective on America of homogeneity and superhighway blandness. But the good ol' US of A spans some territory. It spans some spectra of culture, Jacksonian rainbows of human experience.

I'm happy here, though, inside my leisurely stroll, appreciating my new school, crossing the sweet but narrow bowl of green grasses under blue skies. Or nearly blue: I'm eyeballing the contamination of grey to the south, from the direction of the morbidly waterlogged capital. I have a few hours.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Travelogue 332 – April 8
Hard Talk

I'm sitting in the luminous seventh-story restaurant at the top of the Samen Hotel, (the aging and unfortunate Samen Hotel, sad victim of bad transliteration and thus universally called the Simien), luminous because the sun is just setting and sending lateral light through its generous windows.

On TV is the BBC's 'Hard Talk', self-consciously named as it is self-consciously stylized, a forum for aggressive interviews staged less for content than for the thrill of the aggression and the pose of 'real journalism' afforded to photogenic hosts and business-minded producers.

Tonight's unlucky guest is the vice-president of Sudan, Salva Kir. He sits stiffly in his studio chair with a certain stunned dignity, in a white suit and a broad-brimmed hat. The TV personality is a color- and policy-coordinated choice, a black woman with a clipped, edgy, nicotine-stained delivery and the occasional smile that slides easily between reassurance and sarcasm.

The interviewer moves in quickly, peppering her subject with questions in polished Oxford English, often before the second-language VP has a chance to arrive at his point. He performs admirably, knowing that the media mob is paying him to take a dive, and that the rules of the game allow him only gracious loss as a positive outcome.

The questions themselves are variations on 'Why haven't you?' backed by 'But the numbers say.' The audience is Western and ready to be appalled: violence, fraud, starvation, oh my! And thus, catharsis is served. I notice that Kir offers no numbers back. I doubt he's a saint, but I sympathize. He works in an arena in which success is to stay one step ahead of chaos and dissolution. Numbers are necessary; numbers are a luxury. If a number falls in the desert where there is no one to hear, does it make a crash?

I'm waiting at the Samen for two guests, two visitors to Ethiopia. They have both volunteered for the foundation in the past. I'm waiting with a heavy heart because the two have succumbed to an African malaise, and I don't mean a physical one. It happens. Sometimes Ethiopia exhilarates the visitor; sometimes it irritates and discomfits the visitor to such an extent that he / she must act out. It's often the invitation that must be sacrificed on the altar of Comfort. People lack self-awareness to such an extent that they must twist the mosquito bites and the lack of hot water into a comprehensive critique of the nation or the race, or of the charity they loved in the comfort of their apartments back home. Comfort becomes a moral imperative, and the numbers will prove it. When they arrive I will be forced to explain and apologize. Years of work will be picked apart. By the end, even the donation of $150 for three weeks of room and board will appear an outrage, though these 'volunteers' have barely put in an appearance in the schools. The terms of the exchange are irrational, and the outcome predetermined. The rights and privilege of the tourist cum volunteer must be maintained.

The interview on TV ends as abruptly as it began. The VP hasn't scored a point, but he wasn't meant to. He sits calmly while the camera examines him for scars. The encounter is largely irrelevant to the African chieftain; it's an interesting European ritual and he indulges his hosts. He looks for a moment like he's the audience. He's watching a strange dance in which the natives are completely absorbed, to the psychological exclusion of cameras, lights, stage, humanity ….

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Travelogue 331 – April 6
Quo Vadis

It's the day after Easter. He is risen, for something near the two-thousandth time, and celebration is a spring rain shower moving over Rome, the seat of Peter's earthly power. It moves in a visible bar of cloud and shadow from the sea toward the mountains, parallel to the coast. We see it all from the plane, and as we coast in toward the runway we are baptized by it, sudden streams of Easter rain across the wings and across the windows.

I'm flying Ryan Air from London. My fellow passengers are a throng of holiday-goers from Italy, also taking the discount airline, crowding the vessel's aisles with a roar, and moving my bag from one overhead compartment to the next and back again in order to ram in all their bags and jackets. Once we're seated, the two-hour sales pitch begins. Ryan Air is the only airline I know that airs ads, for duty-free, for lotteries, for rental cars, for refreshments, and round and round. It's exhausting.

It's evening by the time I make it to the hotel, my old standard in the Colli Albani neighborhood. It's like a homecoming. It's the passegiata hour. Everyone is out; everyone has a holiday smile. I stop by my usual cafe for a 'buona sera', and a dose of Roman rudeness that warms my heart.

It's two days after Easter. I'd like to be taking in a museum downtown, but instead I'm waiting my turn at a neighborhood bank, waiting to change money so I can pay my hotel bill. I have one day in Rome. Tonight I fly to Addis Ababa, arriving at 8am for a 10am meeting. It's okay; my love for Rome extends to the dullest business lobby, the stuffiest office, the dumpiest storefront – as long as there is Italian in the air. Of course, the bank teller wants to discuss Obama, whom he considers a mere child, and 'Avatar', which is wow! He raves about America, and bless his European heart, perfectly toes that line between silliness and sarcasm.

My treat for the day will be a long a.m. walk through Caffarella Park, the expansive wooded park between the new and the old Appian Ways. It's a lovely morning; the fields are a vivid spring green. I set a brisk pace and cross the park in half an hour, emerging on the ancient Via Appia right by the Chiesa Quo Vadis, the site of Peter's interview with Jesus as he attempts to sneak away from his martyrdom. 'Where are you going?' asks the good shepherd.

The internal Jehovah, writ small, is repeatedly asking me the same question. Often I'm at another airport, strolling past pretty perfumeries, jewelry shops, and bookstores. 'Quo vadis, Jarvis?'

'I'm not really sure, Mr. Jehovah. Not sure at all.' Fortunately, the query is of an entirely different order than the same posed to our first papa. I've already served my upside-down martyrdom after the half marathon in March and lived to see another day, another airport.

Like it did in Inca territory, my walk among the hills of the Caffarella takes me past the occasional anonymous ruin. In this case, most are likely to be tombs, a favorite adornment of the imperial Via Appia just outside the walls of the city. But this kind of knowledge the silent structures shrug off, as effectively as they do the passing years, the rains, the leaves, the names, the painters and the photographers, the duci, the imperatori, and the PMs. In essence, they are unanswerable riddles. They hold, in mortar like amber, the sweat of nameless workers; they suggest a legion of others, in ripples outward, all nameless; they describe in their dimensions rituals that are alien, that will never excite worship in another human breast, no matter how detailed the re-enactment. We live beside the unknowable past, and it never seems to offer answers. More often, it asks a familiar question.