Monday, June 27, 2011

Travelogue 400 – June 27
Awasa Again

The day begins. It seems as though the children own the streets of Awasa in the early morning. There are the girls with the wining smiles standing by their scale, saying 'Fifty centime, fifty centime,' the cost of getting one's weight. There are the shoeshine boys sitting behind their kits telling me my shoes are dirty. This much is true, but in my world one doesn't shine and polish old trainers. There is the group of boys, looking to be about seven years-old, just being awoken by one of their number. They're sleeping in a tight group in the dirt beside the avenue. Their friend is swatting them on the head.

I haven't seen Awasa with its rainy season face on before. There is no sun, which robs me of some of the joy of the Time Cafe, with its wide patio facing east. Instead, the sky overhead is a dim grey, a plain of clouds.

To review, Awasa is the capital of the southern nations, south of Addis five hours by weaving bus. We have been blessed with a bit of luxury this time because we're with a delegation of some dozen faranjis on a mission, riding in a high-ceilinged bus with generous windows and, much more importantly, some solid suspension underneath us. The driver is a professional, a man who is not power-mad with his brakes and steering wheel, no frenzied Ahab who has forgotten the other passengers in his queasy pursuit of glory on the highway. We arrive in Awasa stomachs intact, every organ intact but the ears. There always has to be one visceral price to pay in Ethiopia for any pleasure. In this case, the curse is the tour guide, a man outfitted – to my mystification and misery – with a microphone. He has an uncertain command of English and an unforgiving confidence in himself. His facts have the air of improvisation; he repeats the discoveries that particularly please him. 'Yes, these trees are the acacia. They are strong trees. Yes, strong. That means, strong, the smell is strong. In England, in America … in England, the pronunciation can be different. There is acacia, and there is acazia. And the spelling … the spelling is A-C-A-S-Z-A. Acazia. In America, you can say acacia.'

The real Ethiopia unfolds for us in the picture windows, the dry plains of central Ethiopia, individual ACASZA trees rising from the packed earth. A cluster of huts stands by the highway, children playing in the puddles from our last rain. There are graves nearby, two or three somber rectangular stones with primitive paintings of horsemen on them.

In Awasa, the vast yard of the Haik Primary School is quiet. School is out, and where two thousand-plus children would normally be squalling and running with abandon, there is nothing but the dust and the tired grass of flat earth trampled into submission, cringing before its next blow. There is only the tiny old guard, blind in one eye, to administer any blows to rebellious life.

The library is the scene of the only activity at Haik Primary. Twenty sets of Ethiopian eyes are focused forward; they follow me to the front of the class. This is training day. The eyes are serious, thoughtful and curious; they are lit with an eagerness to learn. These are school directors and school librarians from north and south along that long southern highway. Some are from the city of Awasa. Some are from remote country schools. They are linked by libraries. I stand in front of them now only to make introductions. There are visiting experts from the States. I wish I had something to offer thesem myself, something rich as their expectations. Some have traveled five hours on rough roads to make it here.

I have stood in the library of each of them, during last month's southern tour. I have stood in the small school library in Dila Afrara while children gathered at every window to look at me. I have stood at the window in Leku, part of the backstage set of a school play performed for hundreds of children sitting on the ground and gathered many rows deep, older boys hanging on the back fence of the school. I have listened to the testimonies of children in the library in Dumerso, outside Yirgacheffe, telling us what books mean. They read physics; they read stories. They want to be doctors and engineers. They want more books. They want more chairs. The older kids advocate for the young children. The schools are so large, the libraries so small, that only the high grades get library time.

I sit with the class and I can feel the hunger for learning. I envy them. There is love and optimism in the hunger for learning. It is only in this sense that I would want to be young again.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Travelogue 399 – June 10
High Hopes

The jungle has followed us home to Addis with its damp terrors. The skies over the mountains are leaden and heavy with an expectation of rain. The air resounds with the gunshot cracks of the shepherd boys up the hill playing with their whips. I've seen them at their sport, making the heavy whips writhe in the air, cocky expressions on their young faces. This is the aspiration of the moment, wetting the whips and creating the loudest report.

What does a shepherd boy hope for? To make the perfect snap of his whip? Does he dream about getting off the mountain, going to school and working on computers? Does he dream about the next bounty earned with his animals? Does he wait for nighttime TV, fantasize about girls, picture himself beating on the village bully? All I know is that I've known these boys to crack their whips repeatedly for hours at a time. My mind wanders to the Arcadian visions of pastoral poets and Enlightenment painters, the shepherd boys playing their pipes on picturesque hillsides. I've come across something similar, boys with their flutes, in remote areas of Ethiopia. Around Addis, it's the whip.

The dreams of runners are somewhat tamer, and yet more arrogant. It seems that way in every nation, runners are understated and vain, the bass players of athletics. They are naturally mellow and unshakably sure of themselves. I've tried the 'but-what-if' debate with athletes here: what if you AREN'T the next Kenenisa Bekele or Tirunesh Debebe? They shrug off the question with a knowing smile.

I toy with the theory that hopes and aspirations are among the last things one understands in crossing cultures. The Ethiopian kindergartener from a destitute family says she wants to be a doctor. 'I will be a famous runner,' declares a young Ethiopian athlete. The foreigner either smiles in bland encouragement or shakes his/her head in sad negation. We listen to the words and read them as we would at home. But what do we know about what the Ethiopian feels or pictures when he/she makes such a statement? Might the athlete simply be saying that he has a right to be great? Is that why he will not allow another to question his greatness? Is the feeling behind the vision of greatness something we would consider tepid and passing; a rather thin film to throw over the present, an after-thought? Or perhaps greatness is just something less grand – and stressful – than it is in the developed world. What does it mean to 'make it' in the two cultures? I would venture that extreme success in our world is very complex and intimidating. The scale of wealth and self-indulgence in the minds of ambitious young Westerners might boggle the minds of Ethiopian athletes. Here, they might picture extreme success as a car and a house and banquets for their families. In the West, anything short of paparazzi, fleets of sports cars, limos and champagne, cameos in movies, meetings with investment bankers on the hundredth floor, showcase rehab sessions, etc., would be second-best.

One of the most fascinating aspects of aspirations is the way experience refines them. There is a natural humbling process to experience – not 'humiliating'. One finds one's level. In Ethiopia, athletes don't have as many blessed opportunities to get tested as Americans. So ambition can remain somewhat unsophisticated.

I remember discovering my talent as a runner. The skies opened, and I saw myself at the Olympics. Every practice just affirmed my powers. Then I encountered other teams and other talents. Then I encountered more of them at championships. The field grew and grew. The complexity of the sport expanded exponentially, and the Olympics withdrew from me like the horizon, the higher one I climbed. Very disappointing, but a much more satisfying world to inhabit, in the long run. Upon any reflection at all, wouldn't one prefer the larger world to the smaller?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Travelogue 398 – June 8
The Shiner

I walk the streets of Addis with a swagger these days. I got a a black eye, and I'm feeling rather cool about it. I don't think I've ever had a black eye before. The people in my neighborhood have looked at me somewhat dubiously, even before the injury. I'm friendly with the little kids, but otherwise I mind my own business. I live in Shiro Meda, in a poor neighborhood where there aren't many faranjis hanging around. The locals can't decide whether I'm a durye, a white party boy, or a stuck-up NGO type. Now they pass me with startled looks, or with sneers of judgement.

I don't volunteer information about how I got the black eye. My language skills aren't up to it, and I wouldn't get any James Dean value out of it. The truth is, I took another bad fall while running. It was a speed day. We were wrapping up the run, taking the downhill korocunch (dirt and rock) road fast, and I took a tumble. I took a lot of scrapes on arms and legs, and it appears that I smacked my face against a rock very near the eye. I lay on the ground laughing afterward, while Fikre and Tesfahun hovered above with anxious faces. Then I got up, and I made the group finish the run. The exercise made my blood flow, and I emerged onto the asphalt road a bloody mess. It looked like I had a biker tattoo, a long red tear from the corner of my eye. 'Ayzu,' said one of the street boys who would normally mock me.

Now I walk to work every day like a gangsta. If being a faranji on the streets of Addis feels like being a zoo specimen on a normal day, now the lion's out of its cage.

Lions are what we long to see when we are in Arba Minch. It seems like the rain might stop us in our mission. But we lie in wait for our goal, like a good predator should, and we strike after lunch on the first day. We have been told repeatedly that early morning is the best time for stalking wild animals, but the rain has denied us one morning, and nothing says that we won't be denied again. We return to the gate of Nech Saar park after lunch, and we await pronouncement from the sphinx-like ranger sitting behind the window. It takes some coaxing, apparently, but eventually we get the melancholy nod and we dash into our vehicle to make the most of the afternoon.

Park regulations require that we take a guide with us. He's a solemn young man who cradles a rifle and makes occasional comments about the park. He names the dik-dik when we see him, a delicate little critter that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a tiny deer. He names the warthogs. He names the baboons. He is our Adam. He names the river that has overflowed its banks and claimed the road. Binyam, our driver is nervous, but the guide assures him every stretch of water is navigable.

It's a long and bone-rattling ride. We have to traverse the bridge of land that separates the two vast lakes here, the Abaya and the Chamo, and there is no part of this dirt road that is level, that isn't pitted and broken by rock. We grind along up one hill and down another, overlooking one lake, then twenty minutes later pitching along a steep stretch that overlooks the other lake. The vegetation is thick and thorny. It gets drier as we move east.

Well over an hour later, we emerge into some high, grassy areas east of the lakes. Beyond the fleet-looted dik-diks and the occasional warthogs, we haven't seen much wildlife. But suddenly, we have some space to scan, and we are quickly rewarded. All on the same wide grassland, we spot herds of zebras and gazelles and kudus. Menna and I get out of the car and stalk the indifferent zebra, stepping softly like camera-cheetahs, pouncing every ten feet or so. The zebras lift their ears at us occasionally but find nothing alarming about these tourists and return to grazing. Finally, Altaye comes stomping out to us, shouting as he does. The zebra begrudgingly trot away.

We never do see any lions. The guide and Binyam reveal to us, well after the hunt is wrapped up, that lions are very rare. Only the most patient of nature photographers, camping in the park and sitting motionless under acacias for hours on end, get the prize. By then, we are satisfied with our catch. We end the journey out at the head of a grand vista of Lake Chamo. Altaye begs the guide to pose for our cameras with his gun, and any spell that the majesty of nature had over us is broken. Soon, Menna is swinging the rifle over her shoulder in a frightening way and demanding a picture. It's time to head back to town.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Travelogue 397 – June 5
The Rain, the Animals

Waiting for my coffee, I'm watching the flies. There are a prodigious number of them, leaping from tabletops and careening about. The patterns they cut in the morning air are impressive expressions of chaos, inscribing continual lines across the scene, like the lines in stained glass, drawing and erasing spontaneously.

I'm restless myself, perpetually stretching and working my over-strained body. My race is threatening to enter the two-month zone. I'm feeling invaded; Time is particularly pushy lately. Yesterday, sunny and breezy on the mountain, was a reward for good behavior, the kind of good behavior that runs long distances though I shouldn't, broken and old and masquerading as a younger and fitter member of the species. It was a lovely day. The ninety minutes flew, even if I didn't.

Yes, flown like morning flies are the melancholy runs on damp days, stamping one's foot on the move in order to shake loose the mud, catching alarming glimpses of what appear to be hyena tracks in the waterlogged red earth of crisscrossing paths in the woods.

I'm reminded of Arba Minch. It rains the entire first night we are there. Manic shows of lightning wake me at odd hours. The electricity is out, as it is our entire stay in that hotel on the hill. When we arise in the morning, the world is gripped in mud.

The entrance to the wildlife park is a quagmire. The 'rangers' shake their weary heads. There's no way we would make it the twenty-plus kilometers to our appointment with the animals. We bury our disappointment and head back toward trusty asphalt.

Fortunately there are alternatives. There is the crocodile farm outside town. We still have to traverse some mud – mud is simply a question of degree here – but we make it to the obscure address, just a ramshackle gate off a nowhere road. We pull in and have our first sighting of living wildlife: a couple of warthogs happily rooting around in the ur-element of the south, the mud.

A guide walks us down a long – yes, mud – road. He points out some ominous, large tracks: hyena and hippo. Eventually we reach a small complex in concrete set against a dramatic vista, lush marsh set against a backdrop of green mountain. We reach the crocs by a series of planks crossing the bog. What we encounter are a few concrete pools surrounded by fences. We pass over them on a dividing wall. Here are the babies, little four footers by the dozens, sunning themselves on the cement or on each other, except where the team of cleaners has arrived. These people have no trepidation. They spray the crocs with water to get them to move off the concrete and into the pools. The reptiles open their mouths in a strange kind of passive threat. Then they move. The cleaners then wash down the concrete.

In another pool lie the fat elders, twenty-five years and still young by the measure of crocodile life spans; so says the guide. They are bloated; their exteriors are heavy plates of impenetrable material. Their crude teeth and nails grow at crazy angles. The guide clocks one of them on the head, and the beast opens his mouth. Later, the driver angles a long pole into the gaping maw, and it snaps shut with a resounding crack. The guide reprimands the driver, saying that the jaws of these crocs are so powerful that they can bust their own teeth.

We return along the hippo trail. The sun is beginning to exert its power. The mud is hardening. After a leisurely lunch in town, we head back to the park. This time, we are more successful.