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.