Saturday, April 30, 2011

Travelogue 393 – April 30
Zaf K'Hona

Yosef is chewing on healthy chunk of sugar cane. He's gazing intently out the window. 'Yosef!' I try, 'Yosef, indet new?' Yosef doesn't answer. He stares out the window at the passing trees. He sits on the edge of the seat so that he's almost wedged into the gap between the window and his father's seat in front of him. His father laughs. 'Yosi!' he shouts. 'Min new?' Yosef is three. He likes his sugar cane. His father is Shimeles, my regular taxi driver. Next to Yosef is Fikre, athlete and trainer.

I wake to rain today. My head is fuzzy from a small but concentrated amount of vodka ingested last night at the night club. My head is fuzzy from lack of sleep. The rain is the first thing to register in my waking mind. It is a sound. It's unmistakable, peaceful. Maybe it's a blessing, as I've made the foolish decision to train at 9:30am today.

By 8:30 I can't hide under my pillow anymore. I peek out the window. The rain is subsiding. There are brighter patches among the clouds. By training time, it will be muddy but fine. I start stretching. The only way I will survive one mile is to jump-start my poor, beleaguered lungs. It's been a hard few weeks for those tired organs of breath and life, beginning with the cold and continuing on into the asthma. I stretch and cough and wheeze.

'Yosef,' I say, 'please tell these crazy people that I am in no shape for training.' My head throbs. My chest is tight and uncomfortable. Tesfahun speaks English. 'What's wrong?' he asks, and he squints the way he always does when I try English on him. 'No training today, comrade,' I say. 'Fun today.' He squints some more, and then he smiles dismissively. Training is not for fun.

By the time we reach the summit, the clouds are breaking. A cool breeze is riffling the grass, and moving sheets of sunshine are lighting them spring green. I have convinced my ruthless trainers to give me an easy day. We set out at a pace that allows me to breathe. It is going to be a great run.

I'm in a buoyant mood suddenly. My lungs are turning over the oxygen merrily. The morning has become decidedly beautiful. I goad Tesfahun into some trail tourism. I want to see the northern slopes again, where one can look out over the hills and the highway away from Addis, winding among the forests of the mountainside and then across a long brown plain, passing through the town of Selulta and off toward the low hills of Chancho.

'YeFikre chaka,' I demand. Let's go to Fikre's forest, which is on that northern slope. As a means of explaining myself, though in an entirely obscure way, I say, 'YeFikre chaka zaf yellum.' And I point to the bare slopes north of us, bright with sun through the trees ahead of us.

Fikre's forest has been wholly harvested during the last few months. What remains are rows of tree trunks left to sprout new life for a future harvest. Eucalyptus grows remarkably fast, and the trunks look like rows of knee-high shrubs already. We jog through the carpet of dead leaves, and I repeat, 'YeFikre chaka zaf yellum. Ayzush.'

I'm saying in pigeon Amharic, 'Fikre's forest has no trees.' and consoling her. I'm teasing her. But I like the phrase so much, I repeat it to myself in my mind as we take a long incline in the sun among the budding stumps. It feels poetic, in the magical sense that Maugham disparages in his 'Summing Up'. 'Some writers who do not think clearly are inclined to suppose that their thoughts have a significance greater than at first sight appears,' he says. 'From this there is only a little way to go to fall into the habit of setting down one's impressions in all their original vagueness. Fools can always be found to discover a hidden sense in them.'

I've been that writer – in my youth because of lack of self-awareness, and in my non-youth because of irony and contrariness. Yes, I like the phrase and I stand by it. There's a meaning in it that awaits the perfect fool. This forest has no trees.

Meanwhile, we've arrived at the scenic view. 'That's Ethiopia', I inform Fikre, taking in miles of countryside with a gesture. I insist we carry on toward Shinkurt Mikael. That's a church that serves a quiet little bowl of a valley behind Faransae. The actual name is Shinkoro Mikael, the meaning of which I don't know, but I call it Shinkurt Mikael, which means 'Onion Michael', just to joke around. My Ethiopian trainers never seem to find that funny. The valley is pretty. The church is a circular roof of patina green among a grove of trees.

And back we go into the chaka. I'm having fun. All my unpleasant symptoms have retreated. I even have enough breath for a short conversation with Tesfahun about Mourinho. Just enough. If my relative breathlessness doesn't keep it simple, my knowledge base certainly does. Fortunately, I do more listening than speaking.

Eighty minutes flies by, and well before I expect it, we're passing by the final fields where the boys are screaming over their soccer game. Someone has just scored. I pump my fists in the air for the victor, and they screech some more. At Maryam, our point of origin, Yosef is playing with some of the local boys. Wide-eyed he bids them farewell.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Travelogue 392 – April 27
Carnage and Drizzle

The moisture doesn't help the stink. If anything, it makes it worse. This year, some jaded young sky god has threaded together the 'small rains' of spring with Fasika, the day Christ rose from the grave. Easter being a holiday of unusual savagery and the rains in Ethiopia being a time of low skies, dense atmospherics and mud, the combination is unfortunate. The carnage has still not passed. There are animal parts strewn by the side of the road. Sheep skins are piled here and there, often with a sleeping head set on top, homage to the peace of death, a challenge to the Son of Man, who would intrude upon that slumber.

I walk to the end of my road, where I catch a taxi to the cafe where I work. It's a road made of dirt and rocks that would seem ill-suited for a road. Many of them turn sharp edges up toward our feet and toward the tires of our occasional motor vehicles. I pass a few shrines to the Lamb, piles of skins and hoofs and skulls. The indolent boy in the sky gives us only the scorn of his indecision. Light showers start and stop. The dirt road is slimy mud from previous rainfall. There is a rot in the air, legacy of the soul's salvation.

I always seem to get out of the house during the morning rush hour. There are no taxi vans at the asphalt road. There are dozens of people milling about at the intersection, most waiting for the next taxi. I know the routine; when a taxi does show up, the people run for it and crowd around it as though this were the blessed ferry to salvation. There is little courtesy for the meek or the foreign at the door of a taxi van.

I slip the second strap of my heavy backpack over the second shoulder, readying for the hike downhill. I pick up my pace, weaving among the crowds walking to work or school. The planter's tinnitus in my left heel is aching me, but I push on, knowing that exercise tends to loosen it up, attenuate the pain.

Later in the day, I will head up into the mountains for a workout. Shimeles will take us all the way to the top, since the small rains are attended by a chill in the air that comes as a relief to small automotive engines. As we three athletes, insignificant in the eyes of the snide young sky god, will pile into the car by my house, we will be soaked by a sudden blast of rain. We will eye the skies anxiously as we climb the mountain. We will see breaks in the clouds above the summit. The rain will be concentrated below, in the city. As we run, the ground beneath us will be a little slick, slightly treacherous. Light sprays of rain will come and go. I will pull on my runner's jacket as I run, only to shake it off again a few minutes later. This will be an experiment; this will be the first time I run in the rain in Ethiopia. I will be rewarded at the end of the run by a full rainbow over the mountain meadows. In Amharic, rainbows are called kapto demena, the cloud's belt.

I've been fighting off a slight cold that wants to invite in its evil associate, asthma. I don't mind the long walk first thing in the morning, because it seems that my best ally against this plague is exercise. The remedy is counter-intuitive. I want to make myself breathe hard, though breath comes with difficulty and with pain. Giving in to it, though, especially in Ethiopia, is only to surrender to very long convalescence, and probably to other bugs that prey on the weak.

I time each segment of the walk: seven minutes down to Medhane Alem; four more to the university gates; five to get to the other side of the Sidist Kilo roundabout; five more to my cafe. Not bad.

I salute the guard in forest green at the gate to the cafe compound. Everyone knows me here. I say hello to the city parking attendant, who has worked here as long as I remember. He is small and bent; he does his job on crutches. The waitress asks me, 'the usual?' Yes: zebib cake and Italian espresso. Above, the effete boy flicks a finger and rain beats a new pulse on the iron roof.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Travelogue 391 – April 23
The March

The days of 2011 march by. The days of every year have their own pace, I suppose. Some years stroll by, some dash, some skip. These are the days of the forced march. There's some small element of joy missing. We're taking the plains, taking the towns.

The days march. First there was Hosanna, Ethiopia Palm Sunday. Men and boys wear homemade hats and rings made of slim palm fronds. It seems as though someone in every house has the knack of folding palm fronds into neat little square temples that rest above the knuckle or in the center of the forehead. Christ has entered the city. We celebrate his entry.

Shimeles's taxi won't make it up the steep incline of Entoto anymore. A few weeks ago, we had to start training halfway up the mountain, at a place called Kusquam. So we lose the gentle slopes, the high meadows, the soft, mossy forest floors. In exchange, we have rugged hills, brambles, gullies, rocks, and roots. The hills turn into hikes instead of runs. We are running at midday, and this is the hottest season. My phantom disease, plantar tinnitus, flares up again.

Yes, the days have none of the light spontaneity of the chaka, where one runs with cool ease in cool shadows, joyfully weaving among the tall trunks of doomed eucalyptus.

Yesterday, Jesus paid his debt to God and man. To celebrate, we met up with Cien and Chris at the Chicken Shack, a new place in Bole that serves BBQ chicken wings and curly fries. The place is owned and run by a big guy who played football in America. The flavor is somewhat dampened by the din of ESPN. Onscreen, there is a southern football coach informing a young athlete with a smirk that if he plays in France, he will have to learn another language. The young man nods earnestly and takes note of that in his spiral pad.

Menna and I flee the crash and boom of sports television to the relative calm of the Ethiopian multiplex, where Helen Mirren continues her streak of reprisals of classic male roles. And of course she pulls it off with heartbreaking dignity and grace.

No, the role isn't Prospero; this is Hobson. The movie is a remake of a personal favorite as a hard-drinking college boy: 'Arthur'. If it weren't for the profound distraction at the core of the project, the riddle of how the the lead female was chosen, a woman who would be lucky to reach as high as 'leaden' in her performance, someone as unlikely to excite the romantic interest of someone like Russell Brand as a lamppost, a woman who compares so unfavorably beside the sophistication of Helen Mirren as to make the audience avert their eyes; if it weren't for this flat Hollywood mystery dumped in our laps, the movie is a fair go as a light comedy. Brand as Moore works out well. Cuing pathos comes easily to him. And his toxic buffoonery is suitably cute and unthreatening.

There's a not entirely convincing moral at the center of this Arthurian tale, that joy is the measure of life. This is most explicitly unpacked for us in a monologue in which our hero asks the question, who becomes a systems analyst? the pretext being, of course, that the spoiled billionaire now has to get a job. Well, okay. I suppose the point needs to be made once in a while, even if it's by a fantastical, pretty-boy alcoholic who lives and breathes within ninety minutes of chaos and then unaccountably falls for the blandest blonde in Queens. It's an ancient prerogative, joy.

Today Christ lies in dormancy. The men in Shiro Meda have donned their palm headbands again. The sky is a stew of clouds and hazy blue. The sunshine touches us once in a while, but most of each hour is grey. Tomorrow He rises. We will share in the Father's joy. We'll all eat lamb.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Travelogue 390 – April 2

I would have to say, if pressed to say anything about philosophies of life, that a pretty good one is finding the moments that impart perspective – those moments that inspire wonder and put one in proper relationship with the big, wide world. I don't think humility is something you cultivate by righteous thought. I think it comes about through a challenging dialogue with the world. The challenge is as often a pleasure.

We have arrived at the airport. It's late in the evening. The four of us have been entertaining ourselves at a nearby hotel. That means sitting in plastic patio chairs under the night sky under tall, sheltering trees, listening to Ethio-pop, listening to the horrible karaoke next door. We have had an argument with the waiter because he brought the women in the group bad wine. He insists it's all right. Then he suggests adding Coke. Oh well. We enjoy the evening air.

We have timed our evening travels well, we get to the airport just as the arriving children are waiting for their baggage. We can see them from outside the departure gate. Bole International stands tall and bright as ever, the vast and antiseptic white hall glimmering with cheap lighting. We mill around outside the gate, sleepy and cheerful. We catch glimpses of Daguma in the baggage hall. He waves his long, adolescent arms. The Tesfa crew wave back. We're his family tonight. He lives with only with his mother in the village of Ekodaga, and she hasn't come to Addis.

We're standing with some of the families. They are all country folk. You can tell by the sturdy brown suits of the fathers and the traditional gabis of the mothers. Their faces give them away, too, a weathered and dazed look to them. Some of the mothers have tears in their eyes. They have started with a sing-song muttering that seems to be half prayer and half monologue of thanks and amazement.

The children emerge. Dr Hodes is standing inside the rope that creates a corridor for emerging passengers. He greets them first. The doctor is one who has arranged all this. He has saved countless children with back and heart issues, referring them on to specialists who donate their services once or twice a year, fundraising year-round for the airfare and costs of travel and operations.

Daguma is about thirteen. He grew up with an severe case of scoliosis that bent him forward, gave him a hunchback, and threatened to crush his lungs before he ever reached adulthood. In spite of his disfiguring disability, Daguma has a great spirit. He walked to Chancho every day for school. He was always first in his class. When construction began on the school in Ekodaga, Daguma was on-site, ready to work every day. He hefted huge rocks when the site had to be cleared. He pushed the wheelbarrow when dirt was moved away, or mud was needed for the walls. He was tireless, and always in good cheer.

He's in good cheer at the airport, too. We all hug him – delicately. We stare: he's unbent and taller. I don't understand the particulars about the operation, but I think it's something like taking the distorted bit of spine out and replacing it with a friendly bit of metal. In any case, it's changed him. He looks like a regular gangly early teen now. There are some bumps and bulges in his torso that shouldn't be there, and maybe he will always carry some as mementos. But he stands erect, and he breathes.

Daguma's beaming. How was Ghana? we ask. It was okay. 'They don't speak American English,' he says in Amharic. How was the food? He didn't like it. He's emphatic about that. He can't wait to get some ferfer and wot. He's taken away for photos with the group. Cien stands in for family when each kid gets a family shot. Then the sleepy families start to drift away. The doctor tells us Daguma can't travel by car for a few weeks, especially to Ekodaga, where he would have to cross some rough terrain. He will stay with the doctor. In a few days we'll bring Daguma's mother down to Addis.

We bid the boy good night. He waves as he walks off. We all watch him and admire.