Thursday, October 28, 2010

Travelogue 366 – October 28

For the duration of this stopover in England, I'm a resident of Hounslow. Hounslow is a township in southwestern Greater London. It gives its name to the borough, which is one of thirty-three that make up the same 'Greater London', a relatively recent creation. The town is linked in history with the heath of the same name. This town used to stand, quietly independent of the great capital, along the Great Western Road. The town is linked in contemporary blog history with the vast airport (roomy enough to swallow a few Houslows) to the west. Hounslow Central is three Tube stops from Terminal Four, which is where Delta patrons heading to America embark.

It's one of those London suburbs that has forged a unique relationship with the horizon. There might be a few multi-story business buildings in the center, but they are surrounded and suffocated by miles of streets of one- and two-story brick, tiled roofs, and square chimneys. Each dwelling looks to be a few strides wide. The cars in front seem rivals in comfort. The narrow streets go on and on, and the world seems a small place.

My time in Hounslow is a happy one. My guest house serves a good, free breakfast. And only a few blocks away, housed in one of the several high-rises, is a gym that charges a daily rate of only £5. A few blocks in the other direction is a spacious park, spacious enough for a run of a few miles in the morning, (a morning that comes appallingly late – I'm feeling very weird when it's still dark at seven a.m.). And nearby is a high street with lots of shops with cheap conveniences, and a Costa Coffee, too.

There are a lot of guys wearing turbans in Hounslow. To turn that around, it must be said that there are very few white faces in Hounslow. I didn't really notice or care on the first day. But it became clear to me that everyone else noticed. I acquired a foreboding sense that there are race problems round these parts.

The Asian faces are grim. I encounter them on my morning walk in the park. Most are middle-aged and set in disapproval when they pass me. The bodies accompanying the faces are garbed in middle class workout gear. The walks are brisk constitutionals that seem to become slightly martial in the presence of a white man. The old men in turbans sneer.

The gym is dominated by toned Indian and Pakistani youth. They glance at me with a mix of curiosity and hostility. The latter fades when I smile and when they hear my accent. They return to their workouts, workouts that have a disturbing intentionality to them. I'm sure that can be said of most men at the gym, including myself. It's probably the rare male that doesn't radiate a bit of I'll-show-him/her/them at the gym.

Lest I risk being unfair or insensitive, I should make mention of the Somalis. There they are, strolling the high street. The teenage Somalis sport distinctly British cuts. I'm not sure what's behind the prevalence of this faux-Mohawk that's so popular in Britain, the line of longer, greased hair along the center of the scalp. I'm certainly no one to speak about style, but the odd attachment of Europe to 80s hairstyles has long been a matter of concern for me. These are the people we would like to see as full partners in world governance, after all. That said, I confess that I have yet to see a true mullet in London.

And what is description of British life without reference to the ubiquitous Wetherspoon's chain? There is one in Hounslow center. I stop there for fish and chips one afternoon. I'll admit to one bitter. Maybe it's the taste of alcohol that moved me to ask about football. The friendly bartender gave me recommendations of venues to view the Arsenal match. There were two choices, the pub on the high street that will charge me. Or the pub that advertises both English and Indian food and is situated on the road that leads to my guest house. The bartender tells me that they have a beautiful big screen, but ruefully is moved to warn me that things often get contentious there, due to the crowd being of a split personality, 'a split reflected in the town population at large, I'm afraid.' Enough said, mate.

O Hounslow, must you succumb to the contentious spirit of the age, You, my idyllic town of gym and cheap electronics, of brick one-family bliss, of shaded park pathways beneath the above-ground Piccadilly line? Embrace those of turban and beard, make them your own, the boons of empire. Share together a Costa latte, put disputes to rest, and discover your bright future together, together in the shadows of the estimable airliners roaring above, O Hounslow, dear Hounslow.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Travelogue 365 – October 26
Scots, Teens, and Vamps

I fly Ethiopia Air back to London. My way in from the US was two night flights broken up by one dose of daylight in Britain. My way out is two daytime flights. I'm happy.

Menna and I arrive at the airport by seven. My flight is at ten. I'm driven to check in obsessively early because Ethiopia Air doesn't allow seat selection online. The prospect of nine hours on a flight brings out all manner of anxiety in me: I must do everything possible to secure a window seat.

Menna and I have coffee and cake in the vast airport lobby, and we go over some last-minute planning. There's a tottering, wide-eyed Scotsman wandering the lobby cafe, stinking of prodigious quantities of liquor. Though he's smiling with a kind of diffuse glee, he has the grey and crumpled look of exhaustion. He's a young man prematurely dry and creased. None of that matters to him now. He's discovered an American, and he circles me with merry fascination. He asks where we're from. 'O-o-o-oh,' he replies with impish delight. I ask where he's going. He's he was on his way home, but seems to have missed his flight. He tells me I have lovely eyes.

I ask if he'll be all right. Does he have a plan to get home? After a bright-eyed pause, he tells us what his mother said. ' “Martin,” me mum says to me, “Martin, when you're in the shit,” she says to me, “Martin, are you … Martin!” she says to me, “are you in the shit? Look at me, and tell me, are you in the shit?” '

I nod with a pretense of comprehension and with real compassion. I reiterate that I hope he'll be all right. It occurs to dear Martin that he needs a cigarette. He teeters off toward the counter.

It's time for me to go. We pay up, I pack up the notebook, and we're on our way to departures when Martin intercepts us. 'O-o-o-oh, you're off then?' He gives us each a lingering hug, and a withering breath in the face. 'Remember this,' he says. 'My grandmother once said, “Martin!” she says, “Remember what I tell ye! It's better for a man to stand one full day in the sun than, than … Martin!” she says, “than to (and here he demonstrates) spend a lifetime on his knees.” Ha!' He struggles to his feet as I contemplate this indecipherable aphorism. He grabs me again nd plants a bristling kiss on my cheek. He offers the same to Menna, who declines, giggling uncontrollably. 'Bye, bye, now.'

The flight is not quite full, allowing Will, the British geologist, and I to share a set of three seats. Will spends most of the flight bent over a fat thriller, spectacles a few inches from the page. Everyone within half a dozen rows either way shares the aural zone with a chubby Somali girl of three or so, one seat behind us but mercifully across the aisle. The girl has a mother and a brother, both of them playmates, neither of them a curb to the screeching. Fortunately, my earplugs muffle the noise just enough to bring it below adrenaline levels. I envy the geologist his intense engagement in what appears to be a substandard paperback. I'm reading some vintage Chandler, stories dating back to the 30s. They're fun, but I'm distracted, distracted by the lack of distraction. Ethiopia Air provides one film for the entire flight, on tiny screens every third row or so. I slip in and out of a light dozing, punctuated by the Somali girl's most penetrating screams.

The one movie today, which I've awaited with much anticipation, turns out to be 'Eclipse', one of the Twilight series about teenage vampires. It seems that our world is just a chessboard for warring packs of wistful, tan-eyed vampires and awkward wolfmen, embarrassingly fond of their physiques while human and unconvincingly digital as wolves.

While the prospect of a girl forever trapped in pre-pubescence in 'Let the Right One In', (the Swedish version, than you very much) is haunting and sublime, the spectacle of a circle of forever-eighteens is shockingly bathetic. Don't you all recall (with a blush) the days you could talk all night about relationships without a blush? Imagine eternity in that state! In a sense, the makers of these movies have reinvented horror as a genre. The next step would be inventing a society frozen in the 80s. Wait ….

I wonder what the teens in the section up front thought of all this. There's a pack of twenty or more British high-schoolers who seem to be returning from a field trip to … Ethiopia! They seem curiously unaffected by the experience, far more interested really in the airline meals and the vagaries of trans-time-zone travel than in the lessons of the developing world. Fortunately, their eyes come in a variety of colors. As self-consciously as a circle of vampires, they spend every moment of the flight together, gathering in the aisle, sitting on the armrests, smiling with brave irony as they tease each other.

The teens are accompanied by a smaller pack of teachers, all strangely uncommitted to being adults. One is a wide-shouldered man proud of his looks, flirting with the young females of the species, and mirroring those self-conscious smiles of youth. Another is a blowsy woman with admirable hips and admirable cleavage, who bestows fond gazes on the young males of the species. Another, more sexually neutral, still feels inclined to reveal a disturbing amount of chest hair. His sense of style is admirably modern, replete with tats and piercings and tight clothing.

The flight does reach its destination. Neither time nor ageing have been brought to a stop. We emerge from the plane nine hours older, though no wiser, and no one has needed a transfusion, not even the study little Somali, who has exercised her tiny lungs all day with nary a pause. My boon on this flight: nearly everyone on the plane was a UK citizen. I rush to the head of the 'All Others' passport control line at Heathrow. Every cloud has its silver bullet ….

Monday, October 18, 2010

Travelogue 364 – October 18

I've been back in Addis for six days, and I haven't had a shower since Ziway. The water has utterly evaporated from the Shiro Meda neighborhood, and several others in a swath across the northern districts of the city. Beti brings me buckets every day; from where I'm not even sure. From the neighbors while they still had some in their tank. Now from down the street. Early on, I would find that there was water at 3am, but was too sleepy to jump in the shower. After so many days now, I wouldn't take the time to shake off my clothes. But I'm stuck with washing out of buckets for now. I never quite feel clean. My technique in bucket baths is very undeveloped, though I've had lots of practice in Ethiopia. It doesn't come naturally.

Naive Westerner, slave to the Greeks, I see it all in terms of politics. How can thousands of households in the capital city be cut off from plumbing indefinitely without a word from the government? What's behind it? To the locals, it's a matter to be shrugged off, and I'm sure that goes for the officials 'behind' the problem. Services come; services go. Everyone adapts and carries on. The smiles don't falter.

Oh, Addis, capital city, where luxuries gather like beads of water spiraling down the walls of jungle leaves, toward the base, toward the roots, there is still so little comfort. You can find chocolate here, and you can find dental floss for afterward. There are ATMs! There are Time magazines. But, poor old one-legged city, you can't always find electricity or water. One breathes in burning plastic and diesel fumes while waiting for overcrowded transit. One wades through the trash and animal bones on the city's dirt roads, and leap over pools of oil. Oh, Addis.

Better the sticks. I'm already waxing nostalgic over Awasa and Yirgacheffe in the south, as though it were months since I was there. I never went without electricity or water there. Even in dusty Ziway on the way back.

No fan of rain, I even entertain fond memories of the southern showers, like the one that overtook us at the noon hour in lush Yirgacheffe. We had spent most of the morning covering the hundred kilometers or so from Awasa, and by the time we arrived, the clouds were accumulating. Yirgacheffe lies among mountains reminiscent of those above Addis, except they are closer and encircling. And the landscape is green and lush, palms and papaya crowding the alien eucalyptus. And underneath, everywhere, is the buna plant: coffee!

We disembark from the crowded bus at the first sight of a hotel – as it turns out the only faranji-friendly hotel in the small town. I want to taste the coffee. I don't really expected anything different than the usual, pungent Ethiopian brew but I want to be able to say I've sipped some java in Yirgacheffe. When the steaming, dark berry juice appears, and I've tasted it, I'm amazed. It really is phenomenal. The flavor is absolutely unique and wonderful. I don't know enough about coffee to explain, but it is delicious. I rush into the center of town, and make my entourage stop at a small, local place. Same thing! I'm a convert.

The town itself has little else to offer. We stroll the main strip, a bustling stretch of asphalt that could be anywhere in Ethiopia. We hide from the cloudburst and taste more buna. We stroll through the market.

Awasa is our base for the southern trip. It's the capital city for the southern nations, so there are city comforts and faranji-friendly services for all the NGOs based here. (Oddly enough, we rarely see any faranjis.) Unlike Addis, the terrain is flat and the air is clear. The city is situated on Lake Awasa, one of Ethiopia's southernmost Rift Valley lakes. And the surrounding hills are greener, more welcoming. Vegetation is dense. The squat false banana trees are everywhere. The area is famous for its bird life. We see parrots and big-billed bullies with frog voices. We see kingfishers, cormorants, colorful finches and, of course, the tall and hideous storks.

And there are the monkeys. You'll see two varieties: the playful, long-tailed vervets and the much larger gurezas. The latter are the long-haired, black and white monkeys that locals call the priest monkeys. I don't remember their Latin or English names. Gureza is Amharic, I think.

We see the birds and the monkeys on our breaks at the Wube Shebele hotel on the lake shore. We bring a cheap soccer ball and play volleyball in the high grass, out in the strong sun. We rest in chairs lined up lakeside and order Mirindas. The vervets run up and watch for chances to steal our soft drinks. Sometimes we let them. They are adept at turning the bottles over with their black-nailed hands so that they can lap up the pop from the puddles they create. The gurezas stay further away, leaping among branches of the massive warqa trees, and occasionally onto the roof of the hotel, making great thumps as they do. This lake is a calm one, the waters quiet and green. On the other side are the green hills separating Awasa from Shashemene.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Travelogue 363 – October 12

The streets of Ziway are wide and dusty. Everything in Ziway has a coat of dust. It's like seeing the world through a tinted lens; everything is tawny and gritty. There's a steady wind from the lake, so nothing is still. The roads themselves squirm with it. The dust rises and turns. It gallops.

The lake is restless. The wind won't leave it alone. The water protests with wave after wave. They reach the shore with their complaints, growling and slapping the mud ceaselessly. It looks as thought the waters have risen sometime recently. Enormous trees stand on islands of grass, enduring the assault of the waters. High grass sways with each wave, describing a new, miniature bay with their green extent into the lake.

It's a large lake. You can't see the other side. There's a wooded island within easy reach of a rowing fisherman. Otherwise, it's the troubled aqua-white surface to the horizon. The wind has no impediment for miles. But it carries no weather. The skies are clear. The temperatures are perfect.

There's a resort of sorts beside the lake. It's a modest place for a modest town – nothing like the quasi-grand establishments on some of the other Rift Valley lakes. One of the lateral avenues finds its vague terminus in a clearing among grass. Beyond, one must choose between the private restaurant on the right, and the public mezananya, or park, on the left, both facing the lake.

We are dropped in the unassuming clearing by our bajaj. A bajaj is one of those three-wheeled covered buggies buzzing around on a motorcycle engine, its rounded carapace painted the baby blue that says 'taxi' in Ethiopia. On foot, we veer right and are immediately set upon by a barefoot fellow and his accomplice. Thy have a dogeared receipt book and want to charge fifteen birr to enter. Enter what isn't clear. We back away quickly and try the opposite direction.

The park has a well-marked gateway, where we are charged two birr each. Inside are small and simple gazebos with cement benches extending from the wall. Behind, there is a row of unfinished concrete bungalows for future honeymooners, currently suggesting Normandy before Nice. The grass descends into the anxious waters, rising quickly around the roots of the spreading warqa tree and then advancing somnolently into the rocking shallows of the lake. There's a fisherman astride his papyrus boat among the reeds, inspecting his white net, strand by strand, link by link.

For our part, we sit silently, all contemplating the line of the horizon. There isn't much happening out there. The line has remained very steady for a long, long time. We are not able to discern any change. And it's exactly that that requires long and sincere contemplation. We're wrapping up a week of hard work. The horizon performs its task admirably. It is still.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Travelogue 362 – October 4
The Den

It's 5am in Addis. It's dark out, of course, but there are signs of life. A few priests have begun their morning chants, broadcasting from the great bullhorn speakers attached to their bell towers. The sweet singsong seems to wax and wane with the early morning breezes.

There are dogs barking. If you have spent a night in Addis, that will come as no surprise. 'Who can sleep?' complains every visitor from abroad. Who can sleep, indeed.

It's 5am, and I'm wide awake. I've been awake since 3am. I've resigned myself to it and gotten up to do some work. My netbook blazes like a blue signal fire in the night.

Is it jet lag, or is it anxiety? I've observed that 3am is the witching hour for international travelers. It's common to find oneself awake at that hour, as little sense as that makes for the American traveler, who would normally be having dinner at about that time. Is any routine enough to ring alarms? 3am doesn't seem to register in Cien's dream life. He's in the next room, sleeping soundly, though he arrived a day later than I. Is it the slumber of the innocent?

Is it stress then? There is plenty to stress about. I'm reciting the exhaustive list of objectives for my one month in Ethiopia. One objective is a paradox: restoring order to staff and operations while mobilizing them for the rest of the objectives. I've been away for more than four months, and things here seem habitually to decay after three months. So when I do sleep, I'm bailing buckets of entropy from my slim, green yellow and red canoe.

One discovers one's age inside insomnia, I think. The consciousness is a complex of dim caves. Inside each chamber resound the songs of one's times. They collect with the years, of course. They ferment and sweeten. Their resonances become like hauntings. The music swells during the course of long insomnia, and one becomes a ghost in one's own time.

When a generation dies off, so does the music. For some reason, John Lennon comes to visit me singing, 'Oh Yoko'. What could that song possibly mean to someone who didn't hear it during Lennon's lifetime? My entire experience of Lennon is of a living artist – even after he died, he was someone who was alive to me. What does the music become to those who come after? What am I experiencing when I listen to Mozart? It must be a cold thing compared to what his contemporaries experienced. I don't know.

Eventually the soul emerges from its den, finding the 'real', either in dreams or in morning light. The shadows one has entertained dissipate. One collects a few more songs.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Travelogue 361 – October 3
The Summit

The sun has just risen as our airliner approaches Addis Ababa. I'm watching out the window as we clear the banks of clouds that seem to have western Ethiopia firmly in their grasp. The clouds are my amusement for nearly the full final hour of a flight that is desperately short of amusement. There was one movie, an acceptable piece, despite Demi Moore's unforgiving facial work. I've read off and on. I've shut my eyes in vain attempts at sleep. The best I'm able to manage on a plane is a vertiginous state just short of dozing, in which the mind disengages from its imagery and tiny, nonsensical narratives rise like sparks. Then it's done, and I'm delicately maneuvering from beneath the heavy elbow of the fat man next to me.

The drama of the clouds is complex and fascinating. The story of the clouds is in their variety and their mixture. There are the clouds like high fogs, contiguous and gloomy. There are the happier, billowing variety, the ones that reveal themselves in detailed relief in the dawning day's light. There are the clouds that drift lightly, like shredded cotton, and soak in the roseate glow of the rising sun. They all mix in the wide sky, seeming even to be driven by different winds. The light changes every minute, adding golds and slow stains of blue.

When the clouds break, the ground revealed is remarkably green and I'm reminded that I haven't been to Ethiopia during the fall for three years now. Fall, when the long rainy season finally ends. The land below is dark with lingering night. The gentle hills are broken into irregular, small shapes of family agriculture. We are not far from Addis Ababa, as it turns out. The clouds slowly dissipate, the fields capture the new sunlight among their emerald crops. Extensive ridges and river valleys unfurl themselves for us. Then the mountains become familiar. I watch them gather momentum, and then with a start I recognize them. I'm looking down on the dirt roads that I and my team habitually run, along the ridge just north of the capital city. The morning is now glorious and clear. The roads run east down below, and I'm following them and naming the places. Beyond are the hazy buildings of the city. It's a fun way to re-enter. The plane swings south just past Kotebe and begins to circle toward the airport.

Now it's a different day. The morning unfolds much like the morning of the flight. The sun detaches from the rugged eastern horizon and rises to cast slanted light among the woods. I'm running those trails I've sighted from the plane, running with Dirige, Alaye, Cien, and Derartu. The three Ethiopians are from my team, among the most talented. And for the moment, strictly confining their talent in order to run with the faranjis.

I'm feeling some trepidation as we ride in a taxi up to the summit of Entoto. The first run in Ethiopia is usually excruciating. Jet lag tugs like extra gravity at aching muscles. My sleep cycles haven't adjusted yet. The altitude grips your lungs and makes you a little dizzy.

But today, everything feels fine. I set off cautiously, but the steps follow one another fluidly. I'm mentally checking in on muscles and oxygen. Everything's functioning. I surrender to the rhythm of running. Soon we're hitting that summit behind Entoto and higher than Entoto, running uphill toward the radio tower at the top. The miniature terrain of the dirt road adds complication to the exertion of climbing. Jutting up from the earth is a soft, pale stone that wrinkles like brain matter. You have to watch every step. Running these roads takes full attention. Beyond the summit, the wide road eases into a gentle decline among dense woods, where the danger of hyenas is greatest. The brain stone has disappeared but in its place are legions of grey, sharp ankle-breakers. I enjoy the concentration that this type of running demands.

We round the final bend before we turn back on this initial run. We turn into the heat of the sun. The light that has been coyly playing among the eucalyptus leaves is now in our faces. It's a good day on the summit.