Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Travelogue 396 – May 31
Welcome to the Jungle

One invents excuses to dash out into isolated moments of sunshine. I'll run to the office. I'll work outdoors at the cafe. There are already dark clouds gathering to the east and along the ridge of the mountains. There is barely time to make it down the hill from home to the office, slow and limping because I've aggravated my foot in the latest long run. The roads are oddly deserted. Citizens of this waterlogged city don't feel the urgency I do for warmth and heat.

The walk: four boys in pink school uniforms match my debilitated pace. They wave soiled and bent worksheets as they walk.. With wide smiles, they want to say hello, ask where I'm from, ask if I've seen Lalibela. A man sitting on a stool in an alley with ch'at-chewing friends yells, 'Hey hey!' When I look he kisses his fingertips and grins ambiguously. A pseudo-Rasta boy stares at me with malice. A toothless old lady approaches with a foolish open grin and an open hand. The walk is a half-mile and always eventful.

By the time I reach the cafe, the day is very dark and fat raindrops are beginning to fall. The cafe is crowded with everyone that had dared to commune with the sun at outdoors tables. I have to content myself with a small round table in the middle of the room, where everyone stares at me at leisure, just as the rain begins in earnest. The electricity is out, so the room is dark. There is no music above the loud chatter. And there is no coffee, which I was thirsting for.

And still this isn't the jungle. Were the sun to shine for a full day, the earth would resume its red and dry contours. The meadows at the summits of Entoto would have shed the days of rain almost immediately, the runoff unhindered by the forests of eucalyptus.

It was only a week or so ago I was driving among the damper regions of Ethiopia, areas that might be called jungle. One enters Arba Minch along the 'highway' south from Soddo. It winds quietly among increasingly green lands, between Lake Abaya a few miles off to the right and vividly green mountains to the right, the ones that remind me of Peru. It winds among abandoned construction zones, evidence that someone had the idea this should be a real highway once upon a time. We drive on the dirt margins while boys with curved knives in their belts walk the asphalt.

At one point, we find a zendo on the road, its head crushed and its entrails squished out of him. A zendo is an anaconda. This one appears to be a baby, only six feet long or so.

The further south we go, the more I think of the zendo and watch for his brethren among the trees. I've long held to a playful theory that people and culture evolve in ways that mirror the animal life around them. Arabic sounds like camels talking, and northern Ethiopians dance like chickens. Now, approaching Arba Minch, where the marsh spreads boldly inland from lakeside, where the greenery grows more and more densely, where you find the gateway to the Nech Saar wildlife park, I see something more fierce in the eyes of the people. These are the tribes of the south. Their faces are rounder; their skin is darker. They walk in droves along the sides of the highway, for miles leading into Arba Minch. They grin at us with something like feral mischief. I wonder if Menna, with her northern features and lighter skin, feels as intimidated as I do.

We arrive. It's a town that climbs a mountain, almost every road mud. Our hotel is at the top. It overlooks the vast wildlife park. The park is why we came. Menna wants to see animals. From the hotel terrace, we can both lakes, Chamo and Abaya. There's a strip of hilly land between them. There are steep islands near to shore. Beyond the lakes are another range of low mountains. Everything we see is a part of the park. Tomorrow, we will drive in.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Travelogue 395 – May 24
Hotel Ethiopia

It's 8:30am. The cafe crowd is lively already. The boys from the university are sitting inside because of the damp and the cold. Here in Addis, rainy season has started a month early. Driving home from my trip south a few days ago, I could tell where Addis was on the horizon by the rain clouds and grey sheets of precipitation.

Suddenly the cafe speakers buzz with the sad strains of 'Hotel California', placed eerily among a set of Ethio-pop, trapped somewhere it doesn't belong. That quickly, my morning mood is tainted by a powerful mix of home-sickness and nostalgia, geography and time both under assault. My life becomes unrecognizable. Where am I?

Right: that spot on the horizon, among the brown peaks, that concentration of grey. Binyam is driving. We hired Binyam in Awasa, and have covered a number of miles since then. Binyam is a genial, heavy-set guy of about 30, with the brown teeth of the south. He is a safe driver, sometimes maddeningly so. If you engage him in conversation, he slows to a crawl. And Binyam does like conversation. He's a story-teller. He tells about the days he worked for the Chinese. He tells about his encounters among the various tribes and ethnicities of Ethiopia. Hearing we are planning a build in Kambata, he shares a derogatory saying about the Kambata people in sing-song Amharic. 'K'sira metfo, armata; k'libs metfo, putanta; k'zer metfo, Kambata.' If you're offended, let me say there's probably one of these for every tribe.

One tribe Binyam seems to have special relations with is the Dorze. This is a small tribe in the mountains above Arba Minch. Looking up at the peaks from the highway north out of Arba Minch – sorry, but I have to use the word 'highway' for lack of a better word. In fact, this is a narrow strip of rutted asphalt, interrupted frequently with dirt stretches all the way to Soddo. But it's the only route linking north and south. I say, looking up at the peaks from the Ethiopian superhighway, one could be forgiven for thinking of Peru. The slopes incline steeply away from the flats, where bananas and mangoes are grown among the marshy grounds beside Lake Abaya, up into misty clouds that hide the summits. It's the color of the slopes that reminds me of the Sacred Valley, the bright shade of green.

We drive an hour on dirt roads up those slopes, into the mists, into the valleys. I keep hoping to glimpse the summit, see the other side, but mountain ranges are stubborn. They unfold themselves at their leisure, revealing only more of themselves, more bone, more sinew, reluctant to show us their limits when they can show their power.

There's a village where the steep inclines seem to abate for the moment. This is a Dorze village. Identity has taken firm root. As it will even in the remotest corners of the globe in our times, identity markets itself with admirable tenacity. This is not the Arba Minch superhighway. This is an obscure branch off the well-traveled road, all mud and peace. But entering the village, one passes the stands of local tradition for sale, bright articles of clothing. One also passes a steady representation of the tribe, walking up the hill it took us an hour to climb in a car. One has the feeling this is a regular ritual, the full-day trip to the market in Arba Minch. One old lady we pass twice because of a bathroom stop. Each time, she nods with dignity and announces solemnly, 'Hello.'

There's a tourist stop in this little village, a communal village within a village, run by a shrewd young Rastafarian named Mekonnen. He has thick dreds, a soft voice, a steady eye. Binyam has obviously struck up a friendship and business relationship some time ago.

For 200 birr, Mekonnen gives us the tour of his little commune. The huts are built along traditional lines, high and open inside, shaped to remind one of the now-vanished elephants once indigenous to this area, two lidded vents near the top acting as sleepy eyes, and a protrusion over the entrance that runs the height of the hut and reminds one of the elephant's nose.

We get to see how k'ojo is made, the traditional bread made of the meat of the false banana tree trunk. There are a lot of things made from this ubiquitous tree. Fibers from the leaves go into all sorts of weaving. The leaves also contribute to the skin of the huts.

We are led to the shelter in back, where commune members sell their wares at tourist prices. We are fed some of the k'ojo with local honey and local spices. It's very tasty. Mekonnen offers us local areke, the potent spirit made from ginger and garlic and a host of other local produce that I don't recall. I'm sure the false banana must make a vaporous appearance in there, as well. For a spirit of this proof, there's actually a flavor to it. Mekonnen drains the whole glass and slams it on the locally carved table.

We could stay and watch some local dance, drink some more areke. But it's getting late in the day. Binyam selflessly offers to drives down the hill in the darkness of night, but we decide to go. Powerful mountain areke coursing through our blood, we embark on the steep journey home, with dusk already descending. It's light enough to still see the remarkable view outside the village, encompassing both of the huge lakes here, Abaya and Chamo. We cut back and forth through the forests. Villagers are still climbing along the margins of the road, all the way down. Small children stand in the middle of the muddy road, dancing for us in an appeal for our water bottles. These are the mountains of the south.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Travelogue 394 – May 9

As the bus approaches Ziway, we see clouds of dust being raised in long lines, along the furrows of small farms, along dirt paths that lead away from the highway.

Ziway is located among the open spaces south of Addis, golden with heat, dotted sparsely with acacias, gentle, dry land that hosts small, dusty villages. Along the southern highway are strung the towns of the region, bustling unappealing market towns of small crumbling mud structures, crowded, loud, and devoted to extreme micro-commerce. The road swarms with vans passing through, and with bajajes, the three-wheel buggies driven by motorcycle engines that tirelessly convey people locally. Ethiopia is all motion. Everywhere has somewhere to go. One would be forgiven for assuming that the entire population is out shopping, gauging by the myriad of shops and markets and street vendors that make up the towns, like the building blocks without which the town would subside back into the dust. Ethiopia is all commerce.

One might also be forgiven by assuming that all the commotion is simply desperate social activity. If the streets are strung like beads with shop after shop, the air of the town is a net of human noise. Voices rise to the skies endlessly, emissions from the soul, choking the atmosphere daily since bipeds first discovered the delights of gossip. Boys quarrel in the streets, old ladies exchange elaborate greetings, men in suits bow and flatter. The conversations cycle with suffocating persistence. Whatever structure is not a shop has a good chance of being a cafe, where talk spirals in the air, redolent and toxic as cigar smoke. Everyone who has no partner in the flesh is screaming into a mobile. 'Hello? Hello? Aysamam? (Can't you hear me?)'

The van itself is a little society, weaving at high speeds along the ribbon of asphalt, squeezed almost comically into its bubble of steel, a tiny ephemeral community collected from the society at large: farmers, old ladies, proud businessman, flip taxi boys, wondering children, and the foreigner. Swirling around the interior of the van are varieties of the bodiless beast, Talk. Even the pulsing Ethio-pop is declaiming to all and sundry, about love, about culture. Regularly someone picks up his little talk machine: 'Hello! Hello! Aysamam?'

The winds are bearing down on Ziway. Menna and I quickly debate whether or not to stop. We remember the winds off the lake during our last visit in the fall. It mars the idyll somewhat. It might be why Lake Ziway seems the least popular of the Rift Valley Lakes. But we like this dumpy little town, and the modest lake.

We check in to the hotel, and we head immediately to the lakeside. There is no resort here, just a humble attempt at a menafesha, or park. But the scene doesn't need to be restructured for either appeal or for recreation. The pale blue waters roll in from the horizon, meeting our shore among dense reeds. The far line of the water is broken by what appears to be an island or two, shadowed in blue as though they would be mountains. Just south of the park entrance the reeds make way for a small, rocky bulwark against the waters. Here an assortment of locals has gathered. Most seem to be middle school kids hanging out and practicing the fine arts of talk and giggle. Among the lakeside rocks are boys of various ages bathing and swimming.

We three sit on an outcrop of stone and talk about the trip's business. It doesn't take long for me to notice a presence close and inquisitive on my right side. There's a boy standing beside me staring intently. That I look back doesn't faze him. I like that. What's your name? 'My name is Wendu.' Wendu means 'the boy'. Intelligence and curiosity shine in Wendu's eyes. I ask about school. He's in eighth grade, near the top of his class. He says he speaks English, but he still needs what I say to be translated. It only takes a few minutes to exhaust all avenues of conversation. And it takes even less to register how tough it is to be a bright boy in a small town in Ethiopia. He is drawn to us as something to study. We are like messengers from a more stimulating world.

We take Wendu out for some cake and juice, and our reward is being introduced to the best cafe in Ziway. I had no idea how deeply Addis-style cafe culture had penetrated into the countryside. Suddenly there is decent cake in Ziway. Look for the Right Cafe next time you make a stop in the windy city. They also have good fish for dinner, and cheap.