Friday, December 30, 2011

Travelogue 429 – December 30
The Good Bad Life

'This place makes me nervous,' Daniel from the Peace Corps says. He's speaking about Addis Ababa. He's speaking about the Hilton. Meeting here was my idea because I want to sit in the sun in the patio area. The weather in Addis has been spectacular, and I'm all too conscious of the approaching trip to Europe and America in mid-winter.

'I'm not used to being around so many white people,' he says. I remember saying that during my first years in Ethiopia. I spent months at a time exclusively among Ethiopes in those early days, as my much-anticipated memoir, due out in June of 2024, will illustrate and illuminate. These days such things don't make much of an impression on me. I have to think about it: 'was this a faranji day or an Abasha day?' Hmm.

The Hilton is a rare respite. The afternoon sun drops speckles of playful light across my shirt and across my face, peeking through the leaves of trees along the border of the compound, and I can allow business to vanish into the brilliance for one instant, then another.

I don't mind the luxury too much, the clean spaciousness, the posh lobby and bar, the magazines,
the cricket on the TV. I have made my peace with luxury. In case I overwhelm a valid point with my irony, let me emphasize that this is a common sore spot among green aid expats in Ethiopia. They are working and often living among the poor. A four or five-star hotel can stand like an eyesore, an insult, on the cityscape. It is personally offensive.

I still have those moments, especially when I meet with quick-stop types who haven't registered the cruel contrast. But the months unfurl, and I am one moment among my rag-tag neighbors in Shiro Meda, the next among my well-fed neighbors in Bath; I'm scanning the contents of rows of tiny souks in Addis, made of corrugated iron, then I'm passing perfume racks in duty-free that are as big as each of those souks; and then I'm skinning prawn at harbour-side in Cape Town.

Cape Town: We're in John's van again. We're driving among the mountains of the Western Cape. Clouds have overtaken us; they creep over the mountaintops. We are winding up a curving road, and pull suddenly into a long drive. It leads to a parking lot, and from this platform of asphalt we take in a serene prospect of attenuated little valleys hosting long green patches of grape vines.

We turn toward the building, walking beside lush gardens, spotted with slick modernist bronzes. We enter the complex through a doorway twice our height, doors all made of expensive, polished wood. We pass a vast room sealed off by glass in which rows and rows of casks rest upon their supports, storing their red gold for the day its taste is perfected. We are led to plush couches, and glasses are set before us. It's our turn.

This is the Delaire Graff Estate, one of 200+ wine estates in the Stellenbosch region of the Western Cape. In the foyer is a facsimile of a square yellow diamond about two fingers in width and in breadth. In the tasting room are as many glasses of premium South African as you want for ten rand a pop. We splurge for five each, two white and two red. Amazingly for a man with a wooden tongue, I choose the red that the hostess subtly suggests is the one most 'wine people' choose, suggesting it with a shrug of non-alliance. The shrug works, and I rave about it at length while John rolls his eyes. We even buy a bottle to order to celebrate our arrival among our own people, the people in the know.

Afterward, we return to the town of Stellenbosch. You couldn't ask for a prettier setting, set among wine estates and mountains. It is also a college town, boasting one of South Africa's premier universities. It's an Afrikaaner university, though, and English is the second language. We sit in a cafe and eavesdrop on heavy-set men conversing in this strange, flattened version of Dutch.

Menna begins to fidget again, and I know she's struggling with the alienation of being in an all-white environment. She's been convinced that everyone in South Africa is staring with disapproving scowls. I have to admit to my own discomforts with race relations in the Cape. They've achieved marvelous things in this country, under Nelson's benign, god-like smile. But there's an unshakeable sense of tension. Menna's light skin and her features that obviously divert from those of ethnicities indigenous to southern Africa draw second glances everywhere we go. Under apartheid, I think she would have been classified as 'coloured'.

I am divided between concern for her and a desire to needle her and say, 'See what it feels like?' But I just keep my counsel and add more caffeine into my wine-soaked blood stream. We will drive back toward the ocean now.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Travelogue 428 – December 9
The Cape

Today we are in hot pursuit of Vasco da Gama. We will discover the Cape of Good Hope. Of course, that will be in the comfort of John's clean and modern minibus. For da Gama, it was the creaking, smelly mass of the São Gabriel, along with 170 men in his and three other ships, cresting wave after cold wave along the entire coast of Africa. Four months at close quarters with nutritionally challenged sailors.

But our comfort and ease does not detract from the enormity of our mission. We will discover the southernmost point of my life's explorations to date. We will watch oceans collide from the vantage of one of the world's most famous stands of rock. We will gaze south toward Antarctica with nothing to obstruct us … except for thousands of miles of water.

Actually it was not Vasco who discovered the Cape. I could be there were a few Africans there first. And then there was Bartolomeu Dias, the European credited with discovery some ten years earlier – knight in the service of King John II of Portugal. But Dias had no sense of poetry, first naming our promontory the Cape of Storms, descriptive but offering no sense of the moment, Europe poised on the threshold of exploration and empire. It took the king, John II to name it Cabo da Boa Esperança.

It took the Portuguese royals, the House of Aviz, to turn eyes west and south, inspired by Henry the Navigator in the mid-15th century. John II – the Perfect Prince they called him – picked up Henry's legacy in the 1480s, and pushed the boundaries all the way to India, eager to steal Venice's fire, the spice trade to the east – a trade already suffering from the fall of Constantinople a generation earlier. It should be noted here that it was the Perfect Prince who sent explorers to Ethiopia, leaving behind the first bridges over the Blue Nile and a lingering distaste for Catholics.

Our modern day exploration follows the course of a well-paved asphalt road down the Cape promontory. The first stop is Hout Bay, a cute little town tucked away below high bluffs and protected from the ocean by one arm of the bay. We park by the arts and crafts fair, and we browse among the wood carvings and jewelry until a place opens up on a tour boat. We pay our fees and board. The motors rev and we are set upon the waters, heading toward the open seas. We round the jutting northern escarpment guarding the bay and we slow to approach one stand of rock just off the shore. This they call 'Seal Island', and with good reason. There are hundreds of seals cavorting on and around the rocks. Cavort is a word made for seals. They are having tremendous fun, rolling in the water, jumping, waving their flippers in the air, and sliding off the rocks into the water.

We arrive at the cape itself after a drive among treeless hills, featuring many fine examples of South Africa's national flower, the protea. We meet up with some wild ostriches, who are standing by the road staring at tourists indignantly. And then we run out of land.

The cape itself is stunning. You can take your picture by the sign announcing 'The Cape of Good Hope', gaze upon the waters, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are said to meet, (though in fact they don't until further east,) and then turn around for home. But so much better to commit to the climb above the parking lot. It's a long and steep one, but at the top you find yourself perched high above the oceans, catching your breath at the edge of a dizzying drop down to the boulders and crashing waves below. Follow the cliffs a bit and you'll see the real cape about a half mile to the east, one finger of high stone reaching a few hundred meters further south and hosting the lighthouse, set not on top but down the cliffside in order to delay the sighting of the beacon by ships rounding the cape.

Returning to Cape Town, we drive up the east side of the promontory, reaching Simon's Town just as the shadows are getting long. Past Simon's Town is a little cove where one can commune with the African penguin. You walk among the grassy dunes on raised wooden walkways, and all around you penguins waddle and raise their beaks to the sky with a squeaky howl. They're cute, but they lack the merriment and bright-eyed wit of our seals. They trundle along like indigents looking for aluminum cans, stopping in their tracks for a brief nap. One stands placidly in place while a friend sprays him with sand as he digs his nest. Irritably the first shakes his scanty fur but never thinks to move.

We return to the city via the Old Cape Road, crossing the Cape Flats in the shadow of Devil's Peak and Table Mountain. The journey of discovery done, we settle in for some sea food and South African wine, reviewing our trip in the screen of our digital camera, much as Da Gama and his boys must have done so many years ago.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Travelogue 427 – December 6

It takes two hours to cross the country by plane. The terrain starts out east-coast mellow, green and cultivated, but continental desiccation sets in quickly, and the terrain becomes red desert. It is a long time before there is much else to see. Gradually, the land rebels, bucking and rising into sharp-toothed mountains. They subside and they swell as we approach the western ocean. In between, we see the appearance of golden grasslands, and then dark green squares of rich farmland, many of these devoted to wine, my bacchanalian sense tells me. And then, faintly glowing on the afternoon horizon is the ocean.

The captain of our vessel begins to speak to us through the static of the speakers. 'We will be flying right out to Robben Island and then turning toward the airport. Out the left-hand windows you will see …' And I gaze out my right-hand window. I'm sitting in the absolute last row of the airliner, sharing that row with exactly three children under the age of five and their moms. Only one mom and her baby share my side of the aisle. She sits with her chubby-cheeked boy on her lap, and she coos and whispers and tickles and bounces him all the way. I give her credit for keeping the purring little creature relatively quiet.

'Welcome to the Mother City,' announces the captain, and clear as day I heard the mom whisper to her baby, 'God says hi.' I glance at the athletic blonde madonna and her red-headed child. No, it can't be. Can I already be reaching that age, when decrepitude and religion conspire behind the blood-red curtain of the unconscious? Have I been flying too much, looking at too many clouds?

The Mother City is, of course, Cape Town. It's the oldest and presumably sweetest city in South Africa. Its lovely location was discovered and settled by Jan van Riebeeck and cronies from the Dutch East India Company. The town and the bay became base for the burgeoning Cape Colony, and until the relatively recent boom of feral Johannesburg, Cape Town was the biggest in South Africa. It is still the Mother City.

The historical town is set in the bowl between the bay and the three striking peaks that form its backdrop, Devil's Peak, Signal Hill, and Table Mountain. The most striking is Table Mountain, rising like a stone wall behind the town. Table Mountain is currently in the running to be one of the 'New 7' wonders of nature. The Bishop has been spokesman for the old geographic anomaly, (while also making time for the great spiritual anomaly, the Dalai Lama, who was recently denied a visa to South Africa. The Bishop marched in the streets, challenging his own dear ANC, saying it is worse than apartheid. He really wanted Dalai to attend his 80th birthday party. China frowned.)

But China's power does not yet extend to Table Mountain, which has withstood six million years of erosion and kept a level head. Up top, it hosts the richest, yet smallest floral kingdom on earth with over 1,470 floral species. And, not even the Dalai Lama can boast a constellation named after him, at least in his current incarnation. It so happens that Table Mountain had another cleric in its corner, the Abbe and astronomer Nicholas Lacaille, who named 'Mensa' after the mountain that served as a site for his observations of southern stars.

I arrive at the end of the day, and about all I have time to do is admire this immortalized mountain. I've heard so many horror stories about crime in South Africa, I don't wander too far from my hotel. But I do wander far enough to discover one of the very few neighborhood cafes in this area, the Narona, and I feel immediately welcome. The staff is international, Croats working alongside the native Xhosa, but the spirit is transcendentally hip, mini-skirts and scratchy alternative music, and there is Jameson's behind the bar, providing an immediate signature taste of life outside of Ethiopia.

The next day, my conference begins, if only barely. It's check-in; it's schmoozing; it's speeches. And then we're released upon the city. I get a bizarre take on Cape Town right away. The conference takes place in a five-star hotel in a strange section of the area called Century City. It's a development that wants to be an exclusive green-lawn suburb for families with some money to spend. It features domino-blocks of condos overlooking a canal lined with parks and crossed by cute bridges, everything feeling a bit abandoned. And in the middle of the complex is a massive indoor mall that wants to be the biggest in Africa. Inside, the noise, the proliferation of brand-name stores, and the food courts upon food courts all impinge on the senses the way a good mall should. But the cumulative effect of Century City is hollow. I'm happy to jump into John's van and head back to the town center.

John is a private tour guide operator in Cape Town. He partners with my hotel. He drives me to and from the conference this week in his van. He is an older white citizen of Cape Town, born in Germany but raised here. He has a wonderful, schooled accent in English. The accent of English-speakers sounds to this American ear more Australian than British, with slight Germanic overtones, but John's reaches for Oxford -- not quite arriving, but still pleasant.

I must see the ocean. John agrees to drive me to Sea Point, one of the seaside districts of Cape Town. It lies on the other side of one of those city-defining mountains, Signal Hill. This hill is also called Lion's Head. According to the lively local imagination, the shape of the hill, with its one high peak, swooping back, and round rise of rump, resembles a lion in repose. The district on the lion's right side is narrow and long, squeezed between the lion's flanks and the ocean. The view over the waves is from a promenade along the top of a cliff. Several miles of seaside are devoted to a green park with a meandering brick walkway. I have John wait for me while I clock an hour's training.

The Atlantic is wild; the breakers are dramatic. Blustery winds rarely cease to blow in from across the wide stretches of sea water. I run up past the small, candy-striped lighthouse, past Green Point and the stadium where Spain beat Cape Town's colonial founders last year. I run out of coast and have to run city streets toward the lion's backside in order to complete my mileage, passing through another of the town's many chic little neighborhoods, by restaurants and guest houses and backpacker hostels, until I reach quiet streets that host sedate little Riviera-style homes that tell me -- in concert with my straining lungs -- that I'm gaining altitude. I turn around.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Travelogue 426 – December 5

The cloth is drawn over the table. The day's light is damp and uncertain. The sounds from the street are subdued. The cloth is hundreds of meters. It wants to spill over the table and gather on the floor of the basin beneath.

I'm in my running clothes when the view out the window bleaches into a blank mist. Nothing survives in much more than outline. Where once was a view that extended as far as the bay, now there are only the abandoned heavens above and the scurry of startled ghosts below.

The wind picks up, and the window rattles. Below, at the ceiling level of the parking ramp, I can see waves of rain leaving their mark among the puddles. I watch, hoping to see something like a quick twist in the story of the storm. Nothing varies, and I mull over other stories, work stories. I write lots of them now, stories for people with money. That's what they told me yesterday in the conference workshop: tell us the story of the girls. It's the best thing I can do for them.

Suddenly I discern a change in the light. The mist hasn't varied, but it glows with a higher degree of intensity. The puddles in the parking lot have grown calm. I take my cue.

Gusts blow past me, over me, carrying needles of mist. I am undeterred. I head uphill. There is a whole lot of uphill ahead of me. My shoes and socks are wet before half a mile is accomplished. My jersey is wet. My cap is soaked.

The higher reaches of the town's roads become exclusive. I'm jogging past houses worthy of the Hollywood Hills. Everything money in this city could be West LA, sedate in a dream of the 60s.

I climb and climb, and at length I achieve the highest reaches of quiet, winding roads. I find myself on a cul-de-sac that offers a stairway at its blunt end. I spend the last of my muscle on those steps, and I emerge onto the highway over the pass.

After another quarter mile or so, I arrive at the crest, where the road passes humbly beneath the gaze of two formidable giants, the lion's head of Signal Hill and one impassive stone corner of Table Mountain. I bargain my path among the obdurate automobiles who are negotiating their four-point courses over the ridge.

On the other side lies the cold ocean, source of the sobering weather, roiling under the fracturing mass of cloud that was the storm, the storm that wove the interminable cloth for Table Mountain. The sea strikes land at Camps Bay, and there it finds kindness, it finds color, accepting tender greens into its palette as it discovers the rare shore. It rolls into the hospitable bay with a roar, after thousands of miles of storms, and it foams, but it surrenders.

The rain has ceased. I follow the highway down the mountain slope. The first vision is striking, the roofs of the town clustered beside the bay, the bay a crescent of white beach and white foam, those gentle greens filling the half-moon bowl.

The rain tapers and leaves off. I follow the highway down the slope, keeping to the narrow strip of asphalt that serves as margin and sidewalk. Cars whip past. Above the crags of the twelve apostles stand watch, jutting their chins into the wind. I make it down into the town, though not to the bay. I turn around to return over the pass.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Travelogue 425 – December 1
The Will

Sometimes you're tired. Sometimes your muscles ache. Sometimes your motivation flags; or perhaps its the memory of your motivation that flags. You awake with a faraway feeling, and it's difficult to tell whether it's you that's faraway or the land under your bed or the land you were dreaming of.

Maybe it's the whiskey from last night. You sat in the high throne at the Finfine bar, nestled among the dark rotting wood of the ancient place, relishing your habitual spot at the circular bar. Daniel is overflowing from the throne next to you. You are drinking a toast to his and Cien's great progress in the southern village of Kololo. Foundations are in place. Framework goes up next week.

Maybe you are sad that the conversation has been so diverting. It's true that occasionally he is polite. But it's his American accent that counts; it's the clumsy-cool diction that is only American. You realize it's approaching three months in Ethiopia this time. The emotions are becoming unsteady.

You find yourself among small things. You remembered to shave this morning; that's kind of exciting. Walking down the stone-paved road from your house, you realize you're looking at things you never noticed before. There's a bougainvillea with small, purple blossoms growing over the wall of that compound. A gate is open; you see the soapy water gathered at the base of stone steps.

Yesterday: Fikre is there; she vanishes. I'm slapped in the face; I'm drenched in a sudden shower. Fikre is there; she's not. I crash through the foliage, and I'm sprayed with dew. Fikre pushes on. Last winter, we called this 'Fikre's forest', and it was a joke: this entire hillside was cleared and eucalyptus saplings were rising from every stump. Back then, they were knee-high. You saw for miles. Now the trees are higher than our heads. Their leaves still exhibit a tender green of youth, and the shape of each tree is nearly round. Their trunks have attained no height, some branches touch the ground as some reach for the sun. We crash between the trees, and we release a spray of dew.

I've never been much of a morning athlete, but my schedule demands it. I tell myself it's healthy. The sun rising over the mountains is inspiring. I'm growing stronger. I imagine the next race while I train. I try to count how many more races I have. I picture Fikre's forest next year. I admire the trees full-grown on the day before the saws return.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travelogue 424 – November 29

Every so often a call arises, like a lonely cry in the fog, a call in defense of poor Saba. A traveler returns to England and drops a line to the UK board. Stephanie gets vicious messages via Facebook.

It's like a grainy voice message from a missing person, a few words one can almost make out. And then the line is cut. But in fact, it's just Saba, who lives across town, whom I've seen just once in two years.

For years, Saba was a single blurred image on Leeza's counter, her little half-sister who she would never see again. Saba was standing in a garden somewhere, an awkward adolescent. Leeza worried about her, missed her, cried about her.

Saba was the slight figure in black who met me at the airport when I first arrived in Ethiopia. She was so thin, all angles. The face that peered out from under the black scarf featured high cheek bones and hollow-eyes. She spoke no English. She didn't speak much at all in those days. She silently worked around the tiny, one-room house, taking care of her grieving mother and errant younger brother.

She blossomed in the early days of the foundation, demonstrating a canny grasp of things, iron determination, street smarts, and a tough hand with employees. Between her and Chuchu, the first school got off to a strong start.

There is something about charity that touches a nerve. It affects people deeply, sometimes too deeply. Is it a feeling of helplessness in other spheres? A loss of identification with the state, with God, with bowling leagues? People invest something of their souls in their charity choices. They donate; they volunteer. And they want the emotional payoff for that investment. Woe to any project manager that can't produce magic.

Saba was never much good with the children. She would show up less and less to the school, and when she did, it was to sit in the chair behind the desk in the office, issue orders, glance over the numbers, chew out the teacher or janitor or guard. She would smile distantly at the children during holiday activities, laugh at their antics, but was otherwise cold to their charms.

When it seemed she had reached the limit of her interest, when she began to fade from view, I was forced to hire more people. I wanted more from the schools. I wanted to talk to someone about quality of instruction. I wanted to talk about ways to reach more children, about ways to help the parents. For Saba, the job was done. She was impatient with discussions like these. She resented the new people.

Mixing family and business is dangerous in any culture, but seems to produce special blends of poison in Ethiopia. There's a sense here, it seems to me, that one endures any extreme at the hands of family, but one never walks away. One would think that honor calls upon family test all limits of endurance.

That was the mortal sin: I walked away. When Saba became hostile, shutting the school to visitors and refusing to provide any budgets or photos or progress reports; when she began making accusations to the police, hounding my staff, and telling officials we were stealing money; when she demanded more and more money without any accountability, I did it. After two years of protecting her from the anger of my boards and donors. I turned by back. I let the school close.

After all, poor Saba failed to understand the central principle of our work. Our good works are forever at the mercy of the good feelings of people far away, often faceless. They believe; we work. Shout and stamp your feet, and the big family of humanity will turn away.

But Ethiopian family doesn't give up. I was family once. She will hound me till the end of my days. She hardly thinks about what she shouts. She just shouts. She shouts to the world that she didn't know we were cutting her funding until the last minute, despite cyber-reams of internet scroll devoted to delicate negotiations with her, negotiations conducted by various board members and donors.

At the end of the day, a school is closed. We offered to help her find other funding; we offered to fund her in registering a charity of her own. But it was the black-veil principle that enveloped her heart. And as long as she is Ethiopian and I am not, her word will carry across the valleys, will drown out my white whisper. Someone will always hear and will tingle with the sense of injury, lending another voice to the great shout.

I wish her well. It's only just that I am followed by cries of her Furies. There is no good without bad. It would be an eerie world without her malignancy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Travelogue 423 – November 21
Coach is Dancing Again

I have earned a Sunday apart from my computer. It's been weeks since we have been separated, and I am very anxious about it. Duty calls. I must witness some human achievement today, That's my task.

My first stop is Jan Meda. This is the name of an open field preserved from Selasse's term in the heart of the Sidist Kilo area, and now used as informal athletic fields for the north-side, and particularly for runners. Every year this 'meda', or field, is the site for two big events in the lives of Ethiopia's amateur runners: the city and the national club championships in cross country, Sunday is the city competition.

I arrive after eight in the morning, and races should have been underway. They're not. Athletes are everywhere, warming up, sitting on the grass together. It's a bright morning and already hot, but the athletes are in long-sleeved warmup suits. About the only time you'll see athletes in shorts is during a race. Is it sensitivity to the residual chill of the night? Is it shyness? Some of both, though shyness must be sacrificed to exigencies. Just before every race, everyone has to change into uniform in the field, among the crowd of athletes, men and women. They pin their numbers onto each other. They run in place, kicking their butts; they head off jogging toward the start in single file.

The first race today is the women's 6K. We wish our group well, and away they go. The race officials lecture them at the start. They make the athletes stand around for ten minutes. And suddenly they're off, a group already attenuating along the stretch of grass underneath the crisp blue of the sky, underneath the nearby range of wooded mountains.

The crowds are smaller this year than I remember. The Federation has instituted new rules, a prerogative they enjoy exercising. Only twenty-nine of the city's clubs were able to met the last-minute call for data like bank account info, office address, etc. I believe we were the last to submit our information.

So the women run their races. They come around three times as they run the course. The race leaders come by in a tight group. Two of our women are together behind the leaders' group. With each succeeding lap, the chain of runners is stretched further and finer. The leaders are impressive specimens, running for the first division teams, like Bank and the Defense Ministry. Our 6K team brings in a trophy as the best among the second division. I congratulate the coach, and he crushes my hand in his, issuing a booming laugh.

Fikre has been sick. She runs in the next race, everyone's prediction for second among our team. Chaltu is the women's star. But she's even sicker, drops out after the first lap. Fikre plugs away inside that compact, indefatigable gait of hers that I'm so familiar with. Fikre is my coach. I run with her in the mountains. She's first for our team, 42nd overall.

It's afternoon; I stop by Ijigu's house. I had the opportunity yesterday, coincidentally, to write about Ijigu, pursuing my very slow memoir project. 'And then I'm at Hanna's. The manager of the cafe is a young man with an embarrassing penchant for short shorts and tight white sweat-tops. It will take a while until I get to know him. Getting to know him will be a game-changer. His name is Ijigu, and he's a runner.'

Ijigu was the anchor for my team project, the first Ethiopian runner I got to know. He introduced us to Coach Berhanu, our gentle giant and guide for the team since its inception, the giant who is now making Ijigu's house shake with his thunderous dance step. We are celebrating the baptism of Ijigu's tiny daughter. A majority of the guests are Oromo villagers from Ekodaga, where Ijigu's wife Konjit hails from. Those Oromo like to dance.

You can't spend any time in Ethiopia without learning more than the average person ever wanted to know about traditional dance. It takes a week at most to learn that every tribe in Ethiopia has its distinctive style of dance. The Oromo style is on display tonight in great glory, a kind of horse-like stamping in rows, chicken-like pumping of the neck, organized in a kind of call-and-response challenge that leads to peals of laughter when someone screws up. There is no music beyond the chant-like traditional songs and a persistent drumming on an old jerry can.

We are sitting in the bedroom, separated from the salon and the dancing only by a wide and blank doorway tentatively veiled over by a bit of cloth hung by wire, an innovation done in rather early on by a clumsy dancer. The baby lies in Menna's lap, alternately dozing and then gasping and staring up at the strangers. She wraps her tiny fingers around one of mine and makes bubbles between her lips.

Coach is carrying an old wine bottle aloft as he thumps amidst the group, shaking primeval dust from the ceiling with every footfall. Someone else is holding up a woven platter heavy with the massive holiday loaf of bread. I suppose this is a a kind of thanks for the good things of life.

Before we can leave, they sit us down among the group and the elders pronounce a blessing. It starts in Oromifa, is translated into Amharic by the coach, and then into English for my benefit. I'm given a nod as Ijigu's benefactor. I can only nod back. Life is bigger than that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Travelogue 422 – November 17

One of the enduring challenges of my life in Ethiopia is finding and managing reading materials. I always beg visitors to bring me a pile of magazines. And if this inspires any of my readers to collect, to ship, to carry me monthlies in their luggage, remember: New Yorker, Atlantic, and Harper's. And I don't mean Bazaar.

I've been making my way through a New Yorker's from May, a magazine that Cien kindly carried over a few moths ago. I'm reading an article called 'Test Tube Burgers' about research on growing meat in labs. I'm not a vegetarian, though I'm as prone to the meat-industry gross-out as anyone. Sordid data numbering in the billions of tons of meat eaten every year, chickens and pigs raised in hat boxes, the waste, the methane, the drugs, the cancers and diseases. It's a comforting tale.

There are virtues to life in a place like Ethiopia. One lives close to one's meals. Your meat crosses the road in front of your taxi, making you late for appointments. That animal has been spared hat boxes and expensive drug treatments to protect and fatten. It has been allowed some of life's little pleasures, like holding me up while it crosses the road. I remember city life back home, dashing into the climate-controlled supermarket for my groceries, never thinking of the animal that contributed to the substance encased in plastic.

I don't see myself responding to this article any more than others. My moral sense is not so refined. I've never forgotten that we are animals. Do vegetarians reach higher than this? Do futurist meat scientists?Are we imagining a day when we can that radically change the order of things? When we have risen above the chain of cruelty that defines the animal kingdom? We want to become a new species, one that isn't soiled by our roots branching deeply in the mud of evolution.

I have not recorded every story about the Mudula visit. It's the morning after my desperate fight with food poisoning. The sun is just rising, but powerfully so, gilding the hills with light like healing, like promise. It's my first sight of the these hills. We arrived at night. They are lush with growth, and they surround the town silently and jealously. It's a beautiful spot. I pull a chair into the yard and sit with my face in the sun. My stomach is sore, and I'm weak, but I feel the first signs of restored health. I'll be fine. I just need to sit in the sun for a while.

The morning rituals are well under way, the bustling, the washing, the rattling of utensils that inform any proper start to the day. Two young guys lead two sheep to a corner of the yard, some twenty meters from my seat in the sun. Slowly and methodically, they lay each on its side, beside the gutter, and they slit its throat. They make sure to saw most of the way through, so the head lolls backward at a strange angle. The beast kicks a little; one boy holds it down while they chat, while the blood drains into the gutter. Once that is more or less complete, the boy tosses the carcass aside. The bodies still kick occasionally while the boys set up for gutting and skinning. This is about the time, as they sink the knives in, that the van is ready and I summon the energy to lift out of my chair, facing the sun, summoning good things, summoning life over death, and some morsel of hope for all of us, doomed as we are to meet with one knife or another, to give our blood back to the hills.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Travelogue 421 – November 11

Culture defies us. One never knows what endures. Van Gogh dies in obscurity. Wealthy singers in Abba outlive their pickled personae. Elvis was a god … until he wasn't. Clapton was a god until he survived.

I'm in the Red Bean cafe in Haya Houlet, the uber-hip district of Addis, where chubby middle class high-schoolers mimicking hip-hop sensibilities sit next to the cosmopolitan Abasha man in pinstripes who eyes the youth with benevolent sentiment; where the rough-hewn Oromo gentleman with a dent in his head, clothed in K-Mart 80s leisurewear, shouting into his mobile with half-comprehending irritably indulges in European-style coffee at a table next to a gaggle of bubble-gum girls adolescent before their time and clothed in a disturbingly discordant pastiche of music video style.

And all of them, all types and shades, nod their heads to 'Country Road' by John Denver. What will survive of the American century? John Denver.

And maybe a host of R&B cantors whose names I will never recall. I sound like my father in declaring smugly that it all sounds the same. I do remember Mariah, but probably best for her cameo in Adam Sandler's movie. In any case, this rot makes Cien go soft, and immediately transports Menna. There's no use talking once the soundtrack starts.

Ethiopians love it. Going out at night means listening to R&B and soft-focus hip-hop all evening. Last night, we encounter a live version of it. A local band does an admirable job reproducing these questionable hits. Two healthy Ethiopian women, barely out of high school, are belting out radio sounds with all their heart, and I want to believe. The rest of the audience certainly does.

Back at the cafe I find myself, in a lapse of consciousness and dignity, singing a few words of 'Country Road'. The dapper gentleman in the middle of the room winks at me. There's mischief in his eye. Perhaps he notices the flicker of horror that crosses my countenance as I realize what I've done. There is something subversive in his wink.

Do Ethiopians – or, for that matter, the citizens of any nation that feeds on our overflow of sap – country, rap, heartthrob pop – do they wink at it as they sing to it? Do they know its real value? Do they see us wince?

There is something subversive in culture. There's an element of 'I like what I like' to any cultural stance or creation. One generation mocks and loves the previous generation. It produces a frightening mutation that feeds on the carcass of the elder. That's evolution. In cultural biology, there is no line separating defiance and love, satire and homage.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Travelogue 420 – October 24
On the Shoulders
Part Four

We have made it one whole mile. Now we stand in the noon sun beside our packed 4X4 while the driver and his brother examine the tire and something in the engine; I'm not understanding the mechanical problem, but I'm registering the sad deja vu.

We should have left for Kololo bright and early, but I was up all night with stomach pains. So instead we're loading up the car at eleven. And standing beside the road at 12:30. The car is sagging under a load of furniture and supplies for Cien in Kololo.

We hail a bajaj, and head for lunch.

It's night. Our headlights pick up nothing but the trees along the side of the road, and the occasional local walking home. It's been miles since we saw the lights of any town. We're wondering about these nocturnal hikers. Sometimes we come across two or three standing on the shoulder of the road conversing in the pitch black night like it were noon in the town square. Like there were no hyenas around.

It's a rough dirt road; there's only so fast we can go, but we've been driving with seven people in the car all afternoon and evening. We want to arrive somewhere. The stars are magnificent. The Milky Way is out, but there is no light on the earth.

Mudula seems like a city of the dead when we arrive, a confluence of rugged dirt roads negotiating rugged hills, like an old logging town. The hotel is a compound that smells powerfully of t'ela, the traditional beer. Behind the loud bar is a row of spartan guest rooms on the right and functional rooms to the left. We try to go to immediately to sleep, but are back out in the compound within minutes. Menna has welts on her face. The beds are infested with bed bugs.

Several of us try to sleep in the car in the middle of the compound, while the bar pumps out music and waiters run by yelling orders. But Shewa has forgotten about a fish he bought in Awasa. He's left it in the hot car all day. After twenty minutes, I'm crouching beside the car puking my guts out. Biniam has pulled the mattress off his bed and allows me to crash on the floor of his room while he sleeps on the bare wood of the bed frame.

The next morning, the sun reveals the beautiful hills around Mudula, and my four hours' sleep has somehow restored me. I feel fine. The day is scheduled for Kololo, a village we passed in the night, among all those blank hills, a village in which we will build a school and library.

Kololo is about a mile down a dirt track off the road, some twenty kilometers from Mudula. It consist of a set of huts among green hills, among small crops of ginger and teff, bananas and coffee. Ginger seems to be the cash crop in these parts, that and religion. The area is so hilly that no hut neighbors another, but each is placed upon its own tentative perch. The crops are carved little terraces. The view is gorgeous. Walk a few hundred meters further from the road, and you come to a series of waterfalls.

Molore is an old man who tells us in Tembaregna that he's forty. He doesn't bat an eye when he tells us a few minutes later that his eldest is thirty-five. We're sitting in the hut he built for his family. He sits beside four of the youngest of his brood of sixteen children. His second wife, mother of the last nine is off at the noisy evangelical church up the hill, up by Cien's house, where he'll be living with Ijigu for the next three or four months. Immediately outside his circular hut, with is adorned with a band of painted geometrical designs and roofed with heavy straw, are his crops. Central to them are the short and bright green ginger plants, their spiky leaves reaching toward the powerful sun of this region. He stands with a proud look over his plants, his hands on the shoulders of one of his boys, a boy who will attend our school, a boy who will speak Amharic and read English.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Travelogue 419 – October 22
On the Shoulders
Part Three

Dawn is quick and tidy, always around six this near the equator. The air is efficiently recharged with the sun's white energy. The heat is gathering.

I'm at my usual table at the Time Cafe, inside in order to protect the computer from dust, but by a key window so I can oversee the start of the day.

Awasa awakens, Ethiopia's new city on the hill, capital and mecca of the southern nations. The SNNPR, 'Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region ', is one of Ethiopia's nine administrative regions, and is Ethiopia's hothouse of diversity. It is roughly half the size of Minnesota in area, almost three times Minnesota in population, and hosts nearly fifty distinct ethnicities, languages, or 'nations'.

Awasa, arriviste, is finding itself. It is a town only fifty years-old, booming now, hosting every tribe and every international aid agency that works in Ethiopia. It is a town of trade, a town of SUVs and fine restaurants. It is a town that hosts conferences every week of the calendar.

The city has finally unveiled its signature piece of public art, a tiled sculpture that stands at the center of the traffic circle in front of Gabriel Church. For as long as I've known this town, this has been a monster of scaffolding and plastic dominating the town with its blue tarp ugliness, like a hyena panting over its kill. Now it's a spiral of color standing before the gold domes of the church. The sculpture is a curling juice straw, with the sharp end pointing at the sky. Along its scrolls are mosaics proclaiming a civic pride in the national diversity that made the town what it is.

I think I see a new pride in the eyes of the citizens, like a reflection off the tile of the monument, as though the posture of their fictional ancestors portrayed in the mosaics has straightened their own spines. I watch them now attacking the streets of a new day.

The road south out of Awasa passes between a pair of strange hills, guarding the land of sacred tribes like the Pillars of Hercules, standing abruptly on a dry plain. Behind the small, rocky hill there supposedly lies a healing spring. In front of it is the scar of a mine. The other hill is a mammoth grassy hump, rising like the back of a hippo from the water.

Ten kilometers or so beyond the Pillars is the town / suburb of Tulla. The US military has a Civil Affairs group stationed in Awasa. They have a charitable mission here, and they have taken an interest in this muddy little town, home to a cluster of failing schools.

The lead school is only a quarter mile from the big southern road, behind the sordid 'downtown' of Tulla, an intersection of dirt roads and lines of squat mud rooms devoted to commerce. The school serves nearly four thousand children in two shifts. The Civil Affairs crew is suited up like military, and the kids go wild, gathering and running and laughing around us. We stroll among the long rows of classrooms, the campus looking like army barracks, cinder block and mud, roofed with corrugated metal. We stop in on the chaos of a library. The school director translates from Menna's Amharic to Sidama. He is a young guy with shifty eyes.

I suggest visiting the homes of a few typical students. The school director chooses a teenage girl. I choose a boy of about ten. The girl lives in the town, only a few hundred meters away. The director knows the way well. We enter the dark dwelling, and the large central room is furnished with tables and chairs like a cafe or bar. I'm immediately on alert. The men of the neighborhood see the military group enter, and they crowd around the doorway. There are only women at home. The mother is truculent. The older sister translates. Steadily, the men push forward, entering and surrounding us. The pretty sixteen year-old, now in fourth grade, has grown up in a brothel. That much is clear to me right away. To confirm, I ask in a naïve foreigner's way to see more of the house. As intrusive as this sounds, most Ethiopians would not hesitate. This family refuses. We wade through the mob of men out front and back to the cars.

The boy's house is far. His family farms a plot of land a good half hours' walk into the green hills above Tulla. The dirt road gets rougher and narrower. Children run after us yelling, 'Car! Car!'. The roads are bone dry, but for one series of puddles. Our lead car becomes stuck. The driver rocks it, races the engine, digs himself a neat and inescapable hole. We have to leave half the crew to dig while we continue walking. We wind among fields of corn and coffee, ch'at and inset, bypassing thatched-roof huts with babies and dogs and roosters milling around their doorways.

The boy's family owns two rooms with mud walls and a square patch of grass out front where the cow grazes, among high walls of false banana trees, corn and coffee. On the walls is one of the intriguing primitive murals by a 'famous local artist', as the farmer says. This one portrays a vicious-looking man in camouflage hunting a lion and a cheetah with an AK-47. In another work nearby that I've noticed, a similar terrorista looks to be sacrificing a bull with a curved knife, while another man is tied up nearby.

We sit on the porch and contemplate our long walk among the farmsteads, vividly green and fertile. The youngest stares at us with a finger in his mouth, flies gathering at the corners of his eyes. The father, a spare man with rough-hewn features, leans back in his chair and watches his wife swat the cow's behind with a switch and tells us proudly that three of his brood are in school. They walk far, he says. It's hard for them. He shrugs. The ten year-old boy leans over the wooden banister of the porch and smiles shyly at us.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Travelogue 418 – October 19
On the Shoulders
Part Two

We're standing in the dust by the side of the road, trying to flag down taxis. The morning sun is already dazzling. We have sparse company, just a few fellow travelers from the same flight and some local farmers loitering in the shadow of a road sign and gossiping. We are waiting beside a traffic circle that is warped by the hard land underneath, like vinyl in the sun. The occasional bus or truck passes by too closely, grinding its tire in the dirt at our feet. The circle sends you toward Mekele in one direction, toward the village of Quiha in the other. In between is the turnoff for the airport, a quiet stretch of asphalt about a quarter of a mile long that we just hiked with our luggage.

Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia. It is dry and rocky, a perfect set for injera westerns. It feels like the Wild West anyway, without the rodeos. This has been the landscape for two of Ethiopia's recent wars, the civil war through the 80s and the Eritrean War ten years ago. The people are proud. They cherish their guns as much as any Confederate. They commemorate their victory in the 90s with every ounce of identity they can muster. Young men wear their hair long in honor of their grandfathers who fought in the hills.

History reaches deep here. Tigray is also the setting for much of Ethiopia's ancient glory, home of the Axumite Empire and the previous, mysterious Yeha civilization. Their language is eldest son to the Ge'ez language, native tongue of the Axumites and later the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – still the language of Bible and priests.

I have traveled in Tigray before, with dear Saba, who would as happily perform ritual sacrifice on my dry carcass as look at me now. We were friends then. She took me with her to meet her old grandfather in the hills outside Adigrat, a moving experience. I'm rediscovering how that trip affected me.

We stay at the Milano, a decrepit mansion that aspires to pink decadence. The owner is specimen of eccentricity; having spent his youth in Italia, he resurrects it in his heart by sporting expensive jeans and a blonde wig capped by sunglasses like a diadem. He sits in the lobby every evening hosting Mekele's somebodies at his table. He drinks only bottled water. The suit-and-tie nobility overlook his unsettling appearance.

It's only after a few days at the Milano that I remember that I stayed here years ago. Something stirs in the slumbering unconscious, and an image is released: I had sat in that very lobby late into one evening, watching the procession of Tigray's finest, drinking myself into a haze. I was waiting for Saba to arrive in Mekele.

After that, the rest of the city begins to emerge from the dust of my deteriorated memory. I took many walks those several days of waiting for Saba. What had just been a new place became, circuit by circuit, a familiar one.

There's the circle in front of the Emperor Yohannes's castle. There are the neglected gardens at the Castle Hotel on the other side of town. There are the long, arid ridges to the north, and oh yes, I remember the bus climbing up that ridge on its way to Adigrat. There is the cafe hidden among trees on that side street, where the Catholic church is. That's the street that for several blocks could be an Axumite alley, all cobblestone and walls of hewn stone.

Ephrem's house is made of stone. Ephrem lives outside the village of Quiha, among the dusty hills that have played wary host to the generations of hungry farmers. Ephrem's house is a small beehive of stone. Inside, the cone-shaped abode is coated with plaster and whitewash. It takes a few minutes to become accustomed to the darkness. One sits on a bench jutting from the wall. One takes in the charcoal stove, the hanging baskets, the niche midway up one wall that houses the family's bed. Ephrem is ten. Only his grandmother is home when we visit. She is bent and grizzled. There is innocence and uncertainty in her eyes; she is unflinchingly hospitable.

Sitting across the compound outside is a very old man who speaks a few words of Italian. The traditional cross carved in his third eye has sunken into his skull as age has shriveled him. This custom of skin carving is prevalent. One often sees these crosses between the eyes or trenches dug into the skin beside the eyes. One taxi driver has carved a dollar sign into forehead.

The old man lists in his seat. He speaks Amharic with a heavy accent. He keeps asking over and over who I am.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travelogue 417 – October 16
On the Shoulders
Part One

There is one quality that determines one's relationship with Ethiopia. One may enjoy the culture, love the people, thrill at the landscapes, but these do not a relationship make.

I awake in the bare hotel room, a room that seems as though it were stripped clean during the night. Through the mist of the mosquito netting, through the blear of shallow, nervous sleep, I examine the place, feeling lost. The walls are a bare, faded mustard yellow. The cockroaches from last night have retreated. There is a TV screen suspended just below the ceiling by the wall. There is a small plywood box of a bedside table with drawers. I have set only my water bottle there. These little furnishings are treacherous, one learns quickly; they are usually infested with cockroaches. Avoid rooms with lots of wood. Invest in concrete boxes.

There is carpet, the kind would rather not have, less than a centimeter in depth, rough, and grimy. The color is dead ocean. It absorbs the cockroach casualties like an ocean would; they are sped to their ignominy by the one three-watt bulb in the ambiguous light fixture overhead. One walks gingerly over this water, even in the plastic flip-flops always provided by hotels, counting one's steps to the bathroom. This latter chamber is better lit, and might remind one of his/her time in prison in the 40s. It's a tile box with a shower, toilet and sink, all stripped to minimalist function, the shower a pipe with a head, the toilet sans seat, the sink tiny and indestructible.

I wash my face, wash it again. I would like to wash my ears out, perhaps my mind. It's Sunday. We're mighty close to the Gabriel church, Awasa's cathedral, and the chants have rung through the night, shaking all my dreams to their roots. The melancholy strains continue on into the morning.

The room serves. It was not mine to choose. Samri, Cien's girlfriend, had to arrange rooms for us last night. We were arriving after midnight, and Awasa is full to overflowing because of some conference or other.

The van roars along the highway under a moon just past full. A long shoal of clouds outlined in moonlight obscures the stars that the moon hasn't washed out of the sky. One the right is the high bluff that stands guard over the valley of Lake Awasa, announcing one's blessed descent from the plateau of unhappy Shashemene. The bluff is a dark mass over the fields tinted silver by the moon. A caravan of horse-drawn flatbed carts emerges suddenly from the night, bathed in the harsh light of the van's headlights. Boys stand with legs spread on the cart beds with reins in their hands. Other figures huddle in blankets and hang their legs from the sides. The night yields the quickest snapshot of their wide eyes, and then the train is swallowed up in obscurity again. The driver is pushing our van to its limit along this straight road.

Pull back: it's mid-afternoon, some indeterminate hour. The time has lost significance by now. We've been sitting by the side of the highway for hours – if not at this spot then a spot ten kilometers back, or at another spot ten kilometers before that. Several rubber hoses carrying coolant to the radiator have been chewed up by the engine fan. The driver is applying electrical tape. Someone is looking for water.

Cien is moving to Kololo. He and Ijigu will be supervising the build on Number Eight, a school and library project deep in the countryside of the Kambata region of the Southern Nations. He has furnishings and food. He has three stools. We sit in the dust of the generous margin of the highway, providing theatre for a group of shy children. We are not the most amusing of entertainments, slouching in dejection while the driver leans like over the engine, applying electrical tape as delicately as surgical gauze. The kids don't mind. Every so often, I give chase to a few. They stand in a barefoot group together, their tender faces, their heavily calloused feet, and their layers of ragged clothing all coated with the dust of the open land. Here, the landscape is dry and gentle and prone to the full weight of the African sky. The children tend a few stubborn sheep and one befuddled old cow, all of which harbor an acute death wish, making a dash for the dangerous highway every chance they get. One of the youngsters trips along after the miscreants yelling and waving a stick.

The highway is a theatre of its own, a theatre of terror. Rules of the road are few and flexible. Two lanes stretch from horizon to horizon, and the traffic using them is not constant, but it is intense. The road can be silent for minutes on end, and then a truck roars by, vans crowding it, beeping and flashing lights, trying to pass, while from behind comes a rich man's or rich NGO's SUV blazing past both of them. Once in a while, someone screeches to a halt before a forlorn, bleating member of the local livestock, sending the tailgater into a fishtailing panic. Even the deadliest of road warriors has a split second to taunt the stranded faranjis with a thumb's-up.

I have to leave off chasing children. One of the littlest ones is genuinely terrified of me. She bawls in terror as her big sister and friends laugh at her. They retreat, all holding hands, through a small gap in the straight hedges of prickly half-cactus something-or-other that surround the homesteads here.

Forward: Barcelona is practicing their graceful art against some unfortunate compadres in La Liga. They have accumulated 80+% possession and three unanswered goals. Messi is in fine form, dodging defenders like cones on a drill course he's memorized. We are alone in a drab little grotto in Ziway, but for the listless waiters and the occasional locals that don't seem to have the patience for an entire game of football, who stop cold in wonder at the sight of us.

We wait under the tortured glare of bad fluorescence off baby blue paint, mesmerized both by the magic of football's best team and by our incredible misfortune, numbed by a day wasted in waiting on electrical tape and rubber hoses, and now waiting on the replacement van. It's nine and we're still waiting, having clocked thirteen hours to cover three hours' distance.

And forward: blinking on the balcony outside my hotel room, overlooking calm and sunny Awasa, We made it. One earns everything in Ethiopia, paying for the blankest sunny moment with the coin of futility. One labors through it all, and that is the blood of the system: incommensurate and nonsensical labor. There is, after all, one quality that determines one's relationship with Ethiopia. That quality is stamina.

Two trips in two weeks, and I feel the bone-weariness of Ethiopian love. Last week it was Mekele. This week, Awasa. I will do my best to catch my loyal readers up on both. First there must be sleep.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Travelogue 416 – October 3
High Spirits

Spirits are high now that the sun has returned. You walk the streets and you perceive it. It doesn't take very refined senses. People are beaming. The children you pass are rowdy. They lean out of third-floor classroom windows to shout, 'What is your name?'

On the day after Meskel, I receive adey flowers twice, first from a stranger on the road, handing me a single yellow daisy bloom on a broken stem; the second a gift of the staff of my regular cafe, a full bouquet. The adey blossom is the symbol of the new year here.

Among the duryes, the party boys on the street, it manifests as an even higher degree of mouthiness. They have delight in their eyes and sarcasm on their lips, an unfortunate excrescence of joy, like a hearty belch after a great meal. The faranj runs the gauntlet.

Nature runs riot, too. Up in the mountains, calves roll in the grass, the bright new shoots of grass that have grown higher than all the livestock together can clip. The woods resound with screaming cicadas, a powerful cousin of our cicadas, making one think of an air-raid siren with a dying battery.

The bugs are cheerful. They rush my place in conga lines once the sun sets. The spiders set up shop in the corners. The silverfish make dashes across the walls. Ants send out search parties for the bar. Sow bugs in Shriner hats gather on my ceiling. Killing them only fuels the party. Dead bugs plastered on the walls become buffet tables. Fortunately nobody invited the mosquitoes.

Speaking of nefarious insects, even government officials are showing a frisky side these days. I catch one or two in an illicit smile. They playfully red-line our proposals and wish us luck.

We have sent the teens in our Gorumsa project to a primary school in Shiro Meda. Their job is to dig a drainage ditch around the library building in order to stop the decay of one wall. And they will break down one internal wall to expand the library space.

The boys cheerfully dig deeply into the deluvian muds left by the rains, working under the supervision of the team men. The children of the school stand and watch. They taunt the visiting faranjis. The unearthed sow bugs race half-dressed into the grasses.

Officials visit. They stand with hands behind their backs and scowl. But the season gets the better of them. They approach the faranjis and show manifest delight. You have come yourselves, they say. You don't wait; you do the work yourselves. They shake our hands. Exhausted by their magnanimity, they loiter uncertainly and then skulk off, embarrassed by their display of emotion.

The boys stand ankle-high in mud, and they joke. It's a time of stolen joys.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Travelogue 415 – September 29
The Big Day

I'm fortunate enough to be sitting outside the morning after. Ethiopian sunshine – the genuine stuff – lays a stripe of heat across my table. Blue sky among the leaves of the sheltering trees heralds the arrival of baga, the dry season.

Local wisdom holds true to the letter this year. The dry season arrives with Meskel. This holiday celebrates the discovery of the True Cross, (meskel meaning cross). It is one of the two most colorful of Ethiopian Christian holidays, along with January's Temket. What makes the holiday fun is the bonfires on the night before, called Demera.

Demera is a memory chain reaching pretty far for me: four and five year-old boys running around the fire built taller than they are in the school yard. They're singing; teachers are clapping; all quite sanguine about kindergarteners playing with fire. Earlier in the day will have been my birthday party, always following a precise formula: the song while children sit in their chairs, the ceremonial cutting of the cake, photos and kisses. Those were birthdays to remember.

It's late at night, well after most of the bonfires have subsided into ash, when we stumble upon one more, tended by young toughs who would normally be harassing us. Now they are skipping around the fire on the sidewalk like they were boys again, each carrying a brand of twigs intertwined and reciting traditional chants and songs.

This occurs not too long after my birth-minute, and I'm choosing it as the sign of my wonderful new cycle. It's a big birthday, a round number and all. We have come from the calm old Finfine, where we sat in our throne-like seats at the round bar and talked like old comrades. That had to give way to either sleep or to nonsense. That is how we ended up on Wacky Street again.

Wacky Street is a short street with rows of tiny, shabby grottoes devoted entirely to nonsense. Getting out of the cab, we step directly into the scene of the young bullies tending their sentimental fires. We stop to watch and to honor the auguries. Then we enter the den.

You don't go to Wacky Street except for special occasions. You must devote the night to Wacky Street. You wedge yourself in among the dozens of debauching Ethiopes, rammed into one room, who are jumping up randomly to dance to the lunacy of the asmari players. The tireless dancers / singers circle the place, provoking the audience, dancing and cajoling, joking and demanding money. The waitresses are rotund wizards, appearing with drinks you only wished for and tabulating false bills with savant-like acumen.

Somehow the hours pass in laughter and idiocy. The place is a Lynch-like dream that turns like a carousel and never abates, and then arbitrarily spits you out in the early morning into the arms of an unscrupulous taxi driver.

So the big day is done. I'm staring up into a glittering sky. I have spotted Orion for the first time this season, shining alongside the Seven Sisters and the Bull. I'm captivated.

The day started innocently enough, dull errands becoming intent computer time becoming afternoon showers. When the latter had spent themselves, I was escorted to my work party, a harking back to history. Some grads from that first school were there, twelve years-old now. Team athletes were there, as were the teens, as was the team coach. Co-workers managed the event: the birthday song, the ceremonial cutting of the cake, the photos and the kisses. But this time, we had music, and we danced in the courtyard, the twelve year-olds being silly, the teens giggling, the coach stomping in country style. We carried on until sunset, sun setting on rainy season.

The big day comes, the big day goes, as they always do – blithely, sailing by under the power of Kundera's lightness of being. The vessel is manned by acrobats and dancers and gnome-like waitresses. Downstream the lazy river widens into dissolution. What do you call it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Travelogue 414 – September 21
Home on the Range

I'm back to ten thousand feet above sea level. Things look different. The sky is crystal blue this morning. The fields on top of Entoto are replete with high, dewy grass in vivid green, dotted with tiny purple flowers. Abeba is the word for flower; and as often as I am forced to pronounce this word, it does not come easy. I practice with Tesfahun, my trainer. A schwa surrounded by strong Latin A's. It does not roll off the Western tongue.

The abebas are out. It's a new year. It's 2004 in Ethiopia. The symbol of the new year is the adey flower, a yellow daisy that blooms at the end of the rainy season. It's tempting to call it spring, though we are still in the northern hemisphere, descending into shorter days and autumn, just like chilly Bath, England; just like Minneapolis, Minnesota, soon to be an icebox.

Here, New Year's is a joyous time, as much to celebrate the change in weather and release from 'winter' as to celebrate Time's conquest of our hearts.

But rainy season isn't vanquished overnight. We still get the occasional showers. The clouds haven't freed us entirely. This morning it might seem, looking up at the brilliant skies, that one will never see a cloud again. But once one starts running, once one's eyes settle on the mud underfoot, one realizes that baga, the long, dry season, hasn't quite taken command yet.

Fikre leads the running today, in honor of her tenth-place finish in the recent seven-kilometer race. Our team's women claimed fourth, tenth, and fourteenth, a very good sign for the coming cross country season. She leads with an easy lope: I've asked for a kind pace, something gentle for the old man returning to Ethiopia's highlands from damp, sea-bound England.

I can be spared the pace, but not the dangers of the chaka. The slopes are compacted, slick mud. I'm running with hands out for balance. I'm grabbing the trunks of saplings in passing to steady myself. We run along patches of thick moss where we can, like running on cushions. When we break out of the trees, the scene is striking – the green of the grasses, the clean air, the crisp lines of the mountains.

Yesterday was the high slopes and the chaka. Today it's the daget, the hill up from Kusquam to Entoto, twenty-five minutes of intensely steep incline on a dirt-and-rock road. Twenty-five minutes today, which is surprising, given the way I feel, something like the old man I see sometimes here whose rapid, shaking, stooped steps forward have to be measured in centimeters. His tottering advance is about a block every half hour.

It's a grueling run. Tesfahun leads today, and his step is light and playful. He has to pull back sometimes, just so he doesn't drift ahead too far. I'm gasping like an fish out of water and straining for every shuffling step. And yet, somehow, I manage my second best time up the hill. I can't say whether that's a sign of residual glory from past training or a measure of exactly how pathetic my condition has always been.

Either way I'm happy. We emerge at the top of the hill among the sordid commerce by Maryam church. And we jog toward the brilliant fields, refreshed and awakening to the sunlight of a new year.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Travelogue 413 – September 11
Is it a Country?

Today's the day of history, the only one we're allowed this century, it would seem. Even in the United Kingdom, we commemorate all week, secretly sighing over our poverty of occasions of moment. Analysis is little more than repeated phrasings of 'decline of the west'.

My mind is occupied with smaller quandaries. 'Is this a country,' I wonder. A lot hangs on this question. Just about every year among the last ten, I've managed to make it to one new country. This year's quota hinges on the identity of this little corner of the world. Only in Europe could one be faced with this riddle.

Here's the evidence: They have their own flag. They have their own language, printed prominently on bilingual signage. I strain my ears for a hint of it being spoken, but have no luck. They have their own team in the playoffs for the Euro Cup. They have their own team in the Rugby World Cup. They have a national assembly. They spend their own money, by and large. Crossing the border, one notices a difference in manicure of the landscape (for the worse, I might say).

My last two days in the United Kingdom are spent in another country. Only an hour from Bath, across the River Severn, lies a land, discrete and autonomous, a strange and mountainous land named Wales, or Cymru in their own, odd language, made up of improbably groupings of consonants.

The genesis of this trip lies in my profoundly mediocre showing in the half marathon last month. I do a quick search for 10Ks in the region and find one in Cardiff on my last day in the UK. I sign up. Coincidentally, Mark has just taken a job in Cardiff. I figure it's an opportunity to visit him, tally up another country, and test myself as a runner one last time this year. I can't allow all those months of training to have only one lackluster time to speak for them.

The train emerges from the Severn Tunnel. Immediately, yards and fields are unkempt and shabby. What towns I see are fairly grim. Cardiff is no exception. It seems to me gritty and hard as Nick Nolte at an AA meeting. There are bits of the center that are nice enough, but pointedly so, as though putting on a brave face. The River Taff winds through downtown, by the castle and the pleasant downtown park made of its grounds, by the Millennium Stadium, by the old Brains Brewery, by a few nondescript housing blocks, and out to Cardiff Bay, where a few other blank millennial builds try to offset the industry of the port. The High Street could be Main Street in South Dakota, with its squat, nineteenth-century, stone commercial buildings, elegant in their way, but erected with sober purpose. But it could never be South Dakota because High Street is laid with brick and no cars are allowed.

At one end of the High Street is the old castle, the town's first reason to exist. This is the site of a Roman fort in late imperial days. William the Conqueror first began the work that would make a castle from a Roman ruin. And successive lords have done their part, in particular a fanciful Victorian master, to make the castle a tourist sight, a classic of Gothic revival. Kind of fun is the Animal Wall, nineteenth century sculptures of fifteen animals climbing over the walls of the castle grounds.

Old Caerdydd ends up being a charming stop, the grimness probably a product of my own dread of the work that faces me at the other end of my journey, in Ethiopia. Travel is always colored by the destination. I am ready to be indulgent. The Romans believed in it. So did Owen Glendower, who makes an appearance in Shakespeare's Henry IV. And let's not forget that Old Caerdydd has only been capital since 1955 of this … country. It takes a while to grow into one's glory.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Travelogue 412 – September 6
Hey Ho

'With a hey ho, the wind and the rain,' I'm singing as I walk down the hill. It's the second day of rain here in Bath, and this morning it is dark and steady. The winds are a-trilling as well, bending branches and setting up a considerable noise among the woods on Beechen Cliff.

This song has always made me fond of Twelfth Night. It's such an odd way, so whimsical and dark, to end a comedy. Perfect, really, as there are ways in which tragedy cannot match the darkness of comedy in theatre or in poetry. The tragedian must use the language of a believer.

'When that I was and a little tiny boy,' I can sing, and testing out a variety of Pseudo-British accents. The only thing I cannot do is settle on a melody. I know there are versions of the 'song' put to music out there, but we can never know what tune was wafting through dear Will's bright mind, can we? I'm trying to fit it to 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'.

'For the rain it raineth every day.' There is sweet religion there. As I wend my way down my hill, just one of those that ring the town, young boys are laboring their glum way up. They have started school again this week. It's autumn, and the lord headmaster will have us know it.

'But when I came to man’s estate,' I come to commerce; I arrive in town. It's time to leave the elements to their song. Inside, I set up the infernal machine of work, the winking screen that shapes my hours. These windows allow no rain, allow no sun. They browse and process, and they calculate. But there's no third dimension to a pixel.

'A great while ago the world begun, with hey, ho, the wind and the rain.' My Somerset story has run its course. I arrived in summer and will leave under the shadow of fall. Today will be my last day's work. There are meetings in London. There is my last race of the year in Wales. There is a plane to board toward Ethiopia. It's been a wonderful interlude, a scent of lavender by the Avon.

'But that’s all one, our play is done.' At night, I'll shake the rain off me cap, won't I? and set it tenderly aside. With any luck it will be dry for tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Travelogue 411 – August 30
The Summation

The only thing on one small table in my room is the paper written over in Amharic, a simple document, with a letterhead and one paragraph of text, and the all-important agency stamp. One piece of paper, it's a heavy sheet, a burden. Sometimes I stare at it, measuring it with my eyes.

As much as any paper could, this one captures a human life within its weave and its ink. This is the certificate of a race time issued by the Athletics Federation, passed to me by Mekonnen, athlete and former member of our team. It's his best time yet, summation of a young life's achievement.

He ran so well for Team Tesfa that several years ago he was courted by organizers of what was then the new 'Tirunesh' camp, a government-run facility for young athletes with Olympic chances. Several of our runners left for the camp. Only Mekonnen has stayed the course there. The camp is far from Addis, in the countryside. They provide food and some education … and day after day of intense training.

For years now, running has formed the entire substance of his life. He wants nothing else. The day before I left Ethiopia, he came to the office with this piece of paper and his diffident smile. As important as the paper is, it has already become crumpled in the transport. Ethiopians can be a bit clumsy with paperwork that way. It's as though the thin shreds of chatter aren't completely real for them yet; good for them.

Mekonnen is not allowed to compete in Ethiopia, unless it's a camp event. But we can represent him to run internationally. He pursues me out of the office as I leave to pack, and he asks me for my phone number. I smile; 'I'll be in England, Mekonnen.' He continues to smile, though he's not sure what to do with that information. He's a very sweet guy. He came to us straight away once he was let go for summer break, telling us he still misses everybody, and offering a hand if we need him. He has his motives, of course, but they are so mild, and so submerged in genuine sentiment, that I can't help wanting to help.

If my life could be summed up in a page, it might just now be a spreadsheet. I play with numbers. I calculate; I review; I project. I've begun seeing the spreadsheet as a form of poem, heightened language, condensed meaning. So much of significance gets stripped down, captured in digits, poured into the columns and rows of the spreadsheet. One document becomes a powerful statement about a group of people. It's philosophy. It's an aesthetic work of symmetry.

The balloons are up this morning, drifting up above the fringes of western Bath and above the fields and the vales between here and Bristol, seeming halfway to the ceiling of rippled clouds. I'm surprised to see them today, on the business day after the last bank holiday of the summer.

They rise regularly from some hill or other and lazily drift over town. One sees the occasional glow of the fire inside the base of the balloon. The balloons are silent, nearly still. I can watch them and feel something like meditation. I am lifted from the spreadsheets. And what do I see? The fields and the vales, and the days left to me in England. They aren't many.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Travelogue 410 – August 22
The Schools
Part Two

Stunning are the edifices we inherit from the inspired Cambridge intellectuals, high halls and Gothic chapels and elaborate gateways that are every bit as somber and earnest, playful and smirking as college students, set among their sweetly restrained gardens and the subdued skies of Britain.

While you're in Cambridge, be sure to spend some minutes on the King's Parade, dramatic piazza before the gates of King's College. There you have your first breathtaking view of King's College Chapel, high Gothic at its most striking, built by Henrys VI-VIII, boasting the largest fan vault ceiling in the world. This grand church has survived housing Cromwell's troops, who busted all the original stained glass. It will survive our irreligious gawking. Be sure to spend some minutes sighing over the Bridge of Sighs in St. John's College, a Gothic (though 19th century) covered bridge over the peaceful River Cam, looking as romantic as the name, particularly standing close over the boats being punted underneath in summer.

As it happens, Oxford gets a second chance with me only a week later. I have a meeting there. I'm happy to make the meeting, not so happy to re-visit dreaded Oxford. But Life often forces me to reconsider. That's the kind of relationship Life and I have.

As I say, Oxford has provided me my education: I bow my head disembarking from the train, refusing Oxford its malign 1209 shadow over my naïve trust. This time it's summer. The day opens as it advances, the morning's chill dispersing into astonishingly blue skies. My meeting wraps up in late afternoon, and I am released into the accursed city at a blessed moment.

I decide to allow Oxford an hour to win me. And this time I find a side to the town I hadn't the fortune to see the first time. Granted, I didn't try too hard, caving to disillusionment rather quickly. This time, I see the wonderful Bodleian Library, set against Radcliffe Square, the Radcliffe Camera and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the university's official church, and a beautiful one at that, The Radcliffe Camera is an eighteenth-century round, domed building, originally a separate science library, but finally consumed by the Bodleian.

Next door is the Sheldonian Theatre, built in the seventeenth century according to a design by Christopher Wren, built expressly to take the secular ritual of graduations ceremonies out of the university church. Over the years, it has served as a lecture and music hall – Handle made his appearances there – but never as a dramatic theatre – even though it's design was in part inspired by the ancient Roman Theatre of Marcellus. What makes the place fun are the goofy stone heads that adorn the railing around the theatre, grimaces and smiles borrowing from the dramatic tradition, regardless of the use put to the building.

Keep walking south, and you encounter the Christ Church Meadow, wide fields devoted to grazing, to sport, and to summer picnics. These fields extend as far as the Thames, where the punters and rowers are again active in numbers. Oxford is nothing without its arcane traditions: this part of the Thames is traditionally known as the Isis. It seems as though everything must have several names here and, of course, a collection of associated apocryphal tales. Sadly, all the medieval code seems finally to be fading, unable to compete with bland modernism, the sarcasm of post-modernism, and the apathy of international students. Such is life.

I end my tour at the 'Head of the River' pub, which stands by the Folly Bridge across the Thames. It has a terrace beside the river, a perfect spot to watch the boat traffic and the antics of some of the student expeditions on the river. I sit in the sun, I reconsider my previous judgement of Oxford. Harsh, really, don't you think? I take a taste of bitter, and I contemplate. Yes, quite. Maybe we all deserve a second chance. Cheers.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Travelogue 409 – August 21
The Schools
Part One

Influenced as much by the vagaries of British transport – there seems no easy way to get to Lincoln in Lincolnshire – I've determined that my tourist stop after Grimsthorpe will be Cambridge, a quick train trip south from Peterborough.

I visited Oxford last spring, and that was a thoroughly disappointing experience, particularly for a frustrated academic who has romanticized the grand old European universities for a lifetime. The town seemed trashy and noisy. The colleges seemed locked behind walls, which themselves were obscured by the mobs of flippant French high-schoolers and Japanese chain-gang tourists.

I've learned my lesson. Exiting the train station in Cambridge, I duck my eyes well below the bill of my cap and withhold all judgement, like holding my breath, until I've passed through the city districts adjoining the station. I should know better, university towns in the U.S. are the same, attracting all sorts of experimental and tentative personalities, all those who are stalled out in life, stalled in fortune or dallying in adolescence. There is a ring of blessed compassion around universities, similar to what may have surrounded the medieval churches that they sprung from, an atmosphere that attracts afflicted souls.

The mile-long gauntlet run, beautiful Cambridge opens up to me. I might have felt like the first refugees from Oxford who came to Cambridge in 1209, fleeing persecution in the ugly first university town, and setting up shop along the banks of the kind River Cam, or River Granta, as it was apparently called in earlier days.

Trusty old Roger of Wendover, high medieval gossip, tells us that an Oxford student killed a woman in that fateful year of 1209, and townspeople rose in a mob against the school population, hanging several students. The good King John seemed to applaud this turn of events, being excommunicated at the moment because of a dispute with the Pope over a clerical appointment. Anything smacking of church was receiving no protection from the king. The university closed down for a while, and scholars went in search of greener pastures.

There are plenty of green pastures in Cambridge, even to this day. While in Cambridge, make a point of strolling among the lawns of 'the Backs', which are across the River Cam from the colleges. They provide peace and privileged views of the beautiful medieval college complexes.

The first of the surviving colleges to be founded was Peterhouse, founded in 1280. It's now one of the smallest of the colleges, and the southernmost among the chain of schools along the river. You can take in all the colleges in a short walk from Peterhouse up to Magdalen College, (founded in 1458), near the curve in the river that constitutes the approximate site of the original, ancient settlement that became Cambridge.

So why the breakdown between 'colleges' and 'universities', and what was it that our 1209 refugees fled to, if the first college was founded 71 years later? It seems, if I'm understanding the history of European universities correctly, that higher education was the province of church men, but in a kind of free enterprise method, in which schools were set up as independent enterprises with church sanction in order to train bright candidates for clerical service.

As Roger's harrowing tale demonstrates, life as a pious college scholar was no guarantee of protection from the rough and tumble of life in medieval England. So it is that the scholars, shameless liberals even then, organized collectively in associations called universities.

So when Roger's exiles fled to Cambridge, it was because there were already schools in place there, as there were in a few other owns around southern England. It was apparently the entrance of this wave of new blood that gave Cambridge the impetus to grow into the number two spot.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Travelogue 408 – August 15
There's Best and Best

I've turned in my athletic performance for the summer. It was the best I could do, and I use that phrase fairly literally. There are best and there are bests. In this case, I was working at my limit throughout the race. I have the aches and pains on display on the day after to more than prove my case. I feel a wreck.

I'm not so much of a wreck that, when I awake and see the sun shining, I hesitate to place my grieving arse on that instrument of terror, Sheila's bicycle, and with a great groan launch toward Bourne for my last morning of touring in Lincolnshire.

Thinking about the race as I cycle – my knees wouldn't let me forget – I'm thinking that I accomplished what I meant to. I ran that race with everything I had. That the result was less than dazzling is immaterial. I did my best. And in doing my best, I was blessed by near-perfect conditions. I have to be grateful – so seldom does Nature bother supporting us in our small endeavors, and so seldom are we grateful when it does. I had the weather with me; I had health; and I had a course that fairly well matched the conditions of my training in Ethiopia. There were hills and more dirt track than asphalt. I can't say much was lacking for a good result.

And that result? On paper, one minute faster than my last race, where I wanted ten, and NOT my personal best. But somewhere among the top twenty-five finishers, I'd say. Ironically, I was defeated by the terrain, the very terrain that I felt would be one of my strengths in this race. One would have to be phenomenally fit to make this course provide a great time. A few grim hills hit you just when you're struggling; there are stretches on uneven grass; there was a persistent headwind that miraculously seemed to find us at every turn. Given a flat course on asphalt, what would my training have yielded? We'll have to wait for the sequel, a race in the Arizona desert I'm looking at for winter.

In the meantime, it's the day after. It's the time for relief and celebration. I'm built for anxiety and 'what's next', but I have a strong ally in authentic relaxation, and that is the sun. My friendly relations with the universe seem to have extended beyond the race. I was astonished to pull back the blinds this morning and see a ravishing blue sky this morning. I gasped – though as much because of the pain rippling up my calves, thighs and through my bruised backside as in response to the sunshine – and couldn't help a big, celebratory grin. I gulped down my muesli as quickly as I could in order to get out into the day. What with rainy season in Ethiopia and Britain being Britain, it feels like a long time since I've seen a pristine blue sky like this one.

Shall I craft a moral to the story? I kind of feel like it, so please bear with me, in solemn respect for my hard-earned aches and pains, or skip this paragraph if you must. The moral: if you love something, go out and do your best, making no excuses. How's that? It 's an easy moral to digest. And yet, it doesn't quite capture it. No, here's the real moral: exercise integrity. Know when Nature has done you a good turn. Acknowledge when you've been handed the chance to do your best unimpeded. THEN apply moral #1. I think it must be one of the supreme pleasures in life to receive a bit of circumstantial joy in an adverse world.

I'm coasting down the country lane. All is still, and as long as I'm still on the seat, my aching muscles don't persecute me. The fields expand peacefully toward the horizon. Behind me somewhere are the castle grounds where the race started and finished yesterday. I somehow feel their calm and restfulness, and it's a comfort. Why do humans invent with dangerous playthings like bests? Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they ache.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Travelogue 407 – August 13

I'm in Lincolnshire. I've arrived for my race a few days early, to rest up and to get to know the area.

This is an area that gets a bum rap. You receive this impression immediately. The residents make apologies. It's boring, it's flat, they say with a shrug. But they love it. If flat landscape is a communal character flaw, what will they think of Minnesotans? They should fund a citizens' booster field trip to the American Midwest.

In actual fact, the landscape is lovely. And not flat at all. Undulating is the perfect descriptor for it, with low rolling hills stretching for mile after mile. At this time of year, the fields are golden, divided from each other by dark green copses. The skies are low, gathering in amiable humidity as the day passes mid-morning, shredded by vague clouds that bestow only tender occasional drizzles.

The journey here from Bath was long and tedious, six hours train to subway to train to bus. That much only gets you to anonymous little Bourne, where all lines seem to stop. The final leg ends up being a taxi. There are five miles and ten pounds left to reach the village and castle of Grimsthorpe.

I'm staying at the Black Horse Inn, one of a handful of roadside buildings on the busy road northwest from Bourne that comprise the healthy village of Grimsthorpe. If you happen down this stretch of road, I can recommend the inn. It's set just across the road from the castle grounds. It's comfortable. The inn has its own pub that serves great food. Richard and Sheila are the latest to own and operate the inn, latest in a chain stretching back to the eighteenth century, so they say. They are exceedingly welcoming and kind.

Richard and Sheila are puzzled by the sudden influx of runners. There have been a few ultra racers stopping in already. In addition to Sunday's half marathon, there are a 70- and 100-miler on Friday. Apparently, the Grimsthorpe running events are kept very low-key, as none of the locals know much about them.

I have a chance to meet a few of the event organizers yesterday, on that ultra Friday. They are nothing if not low-key, young guys with runner's bodies and diffident British manners. I have a few questions about the Sunday race, and they are met with that disconcerting British deadpan, a kind of embarrassed regret for your rash approach, with averted look and coy and curt half-answer. 'Will there be mile markers on Sunday?' I ask, amiably. There follows the long pause in which the interloper must reflect on his boldness. 'There might be,' comes the answer, delivered with a mordant smile and a tone that matches shyness with defiance. I think I'm supposed to be abashed, but I don't abash too easily. Rather, I'm left wondering what it is about mile markers that strikes this poor sod as so terribly private.

Once I'm out at the Black Horse, I realize that I'm somewhat stranded. Going anywhere will be ten pounds a pop. Richard and Sheila come to the rescue, dragging out Sheila's old mountain bike. I'm ecstatic. I haven't been on a bike all year. Of course, this one requires a painful bend of the leg to operate. And the seat seems designed to torture. After a mile, my backside is in agonies. But it's a bike.

The first thing I do is take a tour of the race course. I manage to squeeze a map of the ultra course from the Spartans in the HQ tent, and I head out on my little torture machine. It's a beautiful day, and it's a beautiful course, by turns winding through woods on a dirt track and then jogging alongside fields of ripe wheat. The half will be a challenge: there is precious little asphalt and precious few flat stretches. It's not a course for time. But it's a pretty one.

The next day, I get to explore. I take the bike out on the country roads. My goal is to make it to the town of Bourne, my nearest source of espresso and wireless. Richard draws out a course by which I can avoid the main road. British roads are frightening: too narrow, curving wildly, and populated by confident locals in speeding, swerving little cars careening inches from the margin.

My course is peaceful and scenic. I am as happy as I've been in months, pedaling along the country lanes, first through Elsthorpe, then over the ridge toward Hanthorpe, and then down a lovely dirt track to Cawthorpe, with always a view of miles of farmland. At the other end of Cawthorpe, I catch the highway that aims north toward Lincoln, but heading south into Bourne. I park my bike across from the Costa Coffee and discreetly massage my bottom for a while before I can walk normally.