Sunday, July 31, 2011

Travelogue 404 – July 31
Dank and Anonymous

Things are improving quickly in Addis, but it's still true that indoor spaces in Ethiopia are not cheerful environments. Lights are dim, and there is no heat. The ratio of window to decrepit plaster is discouragingly low. And personal space comes much more dearly than in the West.

All this makes rainy season even more miserable than it needs to be. One escapes only the precipitation by going indoors. The rest – cold, damp, and lack of light – remains with you, like gaunt beggar children at your elbow.

Last night, as Arsenal gave up a two-point lead to the Boca Juniors in dispiriting fashion, we struggled to make the most of the dark and cold bar. The place was crowded, as anywhere will be that broadcasts either Arsenal or Manchester United games, so chairs are lined up right beside our table.

Trendy bars in Addis tend to mimic rather banal elements of US bars or restaurants, and package them as chic. This bar has adopted the sports bar motif, with half a dozen TV screens vying for patrons' attention. The result tonight is that the avid Arsenal fans beside us are staring past our profiles toward the big screen across the room, while we watch the game on a smaller screen hanging from the square pillar in front of us. In a country in which dead-pan staring is an ancient art form, it creates an unnerving effect.

By the end of the first half, my eyes are hurting from the close blast of intense light from the TV in the dark room. I'll have vivid football ghosts on my eyelids all night. So what do I do? I turn on the netbook and check email. And I fry my eyes with internet for a while.

The neighborhood is Tele Medhane Alem, one of the new, instant entertainment districts in Addis. When I first came to Addis, this area was open plots and dirt roads, with the massive new church at its center still being constructed. The church became the kernel around which the neighborhood grew. It wasn't until the new asphalt roads went in, connecting it with Bole and with the center of town, that the boom started. Now the place is teeming with hotels, restaurants, and night spots. And still going. Walking these streets you feel like you need a hard hat: most of the structures around you are unfinished, layers of concrete slabs rising into the sky.

Another of our spots here is Guramyle. I like this place, it feels like the most humble and yet coolest of Addis grottoes. On Monday nights, they host a jazz band that I like, a quartet with a small rotation of pretty good musicians. Sometimes it is fronted by two Scandinavian guys on sax and guitar. They are wonderfully self-conscious and proficient. On other occasions, the band is fronted by Ethiopians, two guys freer and equally proficient. The Ethiopian guitarist is impressive. His music is clearly the wilder side of him. Clean cut and dressed like a good college boy, he slouches on his stool and blandly checks out the women in the audience. It's rainy season, so the band is all Ethiopian now.

We stand at one of the high tables in back and watch the band. The crowd is a rare mix of Ethiopian and foreigner. I look around the place. I love the atmosphere, and yet have to admit it's a kind of anti-atmosphere. There is little to define the place. Windows here have been reduced in size and function to expressionist décor, black boxes that say most by saying nothing. The walls are each painted a different shade, somehow both both grim and bright. There's one huge poster over the stage, a photo of the Scandinavian version of the band, Olaf captured in a pose that self-consciously portrays abandon. I reflect that it's often in the most anonymous places that one feels one's location most. Here, I'm really in Addis Ababa for a moment. Keenly I feel faraway from home, in a strange land, a sensation I rarely feel in one of those traditional venues that try so hard.

In a few days, I'm off to Europe. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Travelogue 403 – July 17
Harry Potter in Ethiopia

The movie makes it to Ethiopia, and I make sure that we're there to see it. I've been following young Potter since about the third of the series. Despite growing reservations, I have been a steady consumer.

Opening night at the Edna Mall theaters is usually a sell-out, but there are plenty of seats available for Potter. It makes me curious about what the Ethiopian experience of Potter might be. I noticed that the afternoon show was a sell-out, but not the evening show. In Africa, perhaps Harry Potter is still children's fare.

To give an idea what sells here among English language films, 'Fast Five' lingered for a month, drawing crowds the whole time. America's comic book hero movies usually come and go pretty quickly. This peculiar brand of American infantilism doesn't export with the same power as muscle cars and guns.

I can't measure the Ethiopian response to Potter, especially the latest version of him, so prim, so grim, so stalwart. The theater is silent. A third of the crowd gets up to go as soon as Voldemort has been vanquished. This is standard Ethiopian practice – they don't seem to have the patience for our sappy wrap-ups. Good for them.

And my own response to the boy wizard's story, become so grandiose. I don't know. Wasn't it all more fun when the world wasn't at stake? Heroes and villains sell; but must Potter be made to serve as Savior?

It occurs to me that I'm not familiar with any epic traditions in Ethiopian culture, though I'm admittedly no expert. There are plenty of historical heroes, but no tragic and larger-than-life heroes, mythical giants, or demi-gods that I'm aware of, unless one counts the rather baroque medieval saint's tales. Did Joseph Campbell dig among Ethiopian archetypes? I don't recall. Doesn't it seem as though the great hero mythologies are northern in origin? Weren't even the great Greek heroes imports from the northern Doric traditions? Ethiopian audiences aren't plugging into the same psychological legacy as they watch Harry Potter become something operatic over time.

Particularly galling for me was the ghost scene, in which all Potter's dead family and comrades emerge from the trees. This is after Harry has found out he is destined to die. The ghosts are all very solicitous and caring. They say all the right things, like death doesn't hurt and that they will always be with him. It felt like Rowling was suddenly roused from her blood lust and thought she might do well to comfort some of the dazed little kiddies.

It doesn't help that I have recently survived another anniversary of Leeza's death, and dismally so. The day was grim and dispiriting, sunk in a sense of futility. No ghosts came shimmering to my aid. But then I am no wizard. And no noseless conquering demon has taken an erotic interest in me. I languish in the shadows of the mundane, in which Muggles muddle without solace, earning a day's bread and quietly missing their dearly departed ones.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Travelogue 402 – July 8
Rainy Day

Rainy season is called kerempt here. It has become entrenched in Addis Ababa. It has entered into us, permeated our pores, mixed with our blood. We tremble when we look at the sky. We walk differently; the surfaces of our world have become treacherous. Everywhere is mud. The concrete courtyard is slimy with condensation and moss.

The fields in the mountains are already turning an Irish green. I'm traveling up into the mountains every day or every other day. I am ambitious – and it takes kerempt to vividly illustrate the perversity in ambition. I am ambitious about my August race in England, and somehow my ambition survives every ugly challenge thrown down by the weather.

Twice now, we've driven up the mountain, and the sun has been shining. All auguries pointed toward a sweet run in the woods. I'm at the peak of my race training, so I have to keep going for well over an hour, sometimes for two hours. Some time near the first-hour mark, invariably the thunder begins. We carry on, but shrinking into ourselves, bracing. The rain begins, and we condole each other, 'Ayzu!' Within five more minutes, the rain is coming hard and cold. I've dressed in a cotton T, which is quickly soaked. Not long after, the denuded earth has had its fill, and water is running everywhere, collecting among the few grasses, rushing down gullies and pathways, We are splashing along, and slipping in the mud. And then the hail starts.

Today, the portent of bad times was a disoriented hyena. As close as it was – no more than fifty meters – Fikre and I might have missed it if Altaye hadn't pointed it out in his usual subtle way, stopping and shouting and pointing out the deadly creature. To be fair, this one didn't put on too deadly a demeanor. It was small, probably young, and it gazed dimly around in a fashion that suggested blindness. They say that hyenas don't see too well in the daylight. Fikre saw no need to evaluate alert levels. She immediately picked up a stone and threw it. We heard it crack against a tree trunk. The hyena was unfazed. Neither was it inspired to aggression It stood its unsteady ground, searching the gloomy forest with the air of a lost pup.

We reached the boundary between this little wood and a meadow, and a mother and boy stood fearfully there with the small packet of tree branches they had managed to collect. They shouted at us to be careful; there was a hyena on the loose. We thanked them for the warning and continued forward toward our destiny.

Destiny arrived shortly, announcing itself with the thunder's sound of doom. And then the hiss of rain. We were cold; we were soaked through. Our footsteps splashed, accents to the chorus of water. Altaye is filling in for Tesfahun for a week as member of my training team. He's leading the group of three today. He's a strong runner and a sweet, oafish man who is always willing to please. But he is not well-endowed with common sense. I had to stop the group and explain to him that water runs downhill. He has led us continually downward as the power of the storm has grown, as though hurrying to escape the onslaught, until we were sliding down steep slopes of near-liquid mud and wading through tremendous streams of runoff. I yelled at him through the din of wild waters, 'Up! Daget! For the love of God!'

We struggled upward, across myriad hopeless inclines and distressed woods, until we finally reach the korocunch road along the ridge. Even there, the ground is covered in a film of sudden waters. The rain began to diminish. We splashed along forlornly, weary, cold, and splattered with mud, out into the open meadows of the summits. We seemed so small against the elements. The race that survives with such force in my imagination now appeared as far as the dismal sun away. I can't say we were defeated. We finished the term of our training, sadly climbing back into our taxi, where the driver had been cozily snoozing in our absence. He laughed at our misery, and muttered, 'Kerempt'

Friday, July 01, 2011

Travelogue 401 – July 1

I see a distance in rainy blue. I see Lake Langano refreshing itself in the light rain. The hills on the far side of the lake are tinted in the palest blue, barely distinguishable from the cloudy sky. Immediately before me is the sad brown summit of the bluff that stands above the lake's beach. I see twenty meters of dry earth before the steep decline. There is a circle of concrete there, supporting chairs, supporting the crude shelter. I see just before me a lone, thorny acacia standing in its bed of sandy dirt, spiky clumps of green grass steadily encroaching. I see a fly struggling against the glass of the window of the resort's restaurant. I see two bright yellow weavers foraging under a table inside.

We have returned to the dry regions of Ethiopia, though the weather tries to mask it. The earth seems obdurately dusty even when the rain should be tamping it down. The acacias seem to sigh with millennial patience. The scarce, scrawny livestock hangs its head. The shepherd children stare quietly.

I've had the good fortune to see two of Ethiopia's prime resorts in one week. Just two days ago, we were in lush Yirgalem, staying at the Aregash Lodge. I can recommend this stop for anyone. You stay in clean and comfortable bungalows built in traditional style from bamboo. You overlook a green valley populated by the occasional huts of the villagers and filled with the sound of a narrow, rushing river called Goë. The people are darker-skinned and happier. They speak Sidama, a southern, vowel-packed language that adds a final flourish to the feeling that you have arrived in 'Africa'. In the late afternoon, the staff sets up a circle of chairs in the grass and brews coffee. The staff throw meat out on the slope below to draw the red-coated hyenas from the woods. The hyenas vie with the buzzards for the food. At dinner, the resort owner and his wife join you. He is half-Greek and she is half-Italian. He is in his 70s, but still proudly supervises every aspect of the operation.

The Sabana Lodge on Lake Langano suffers in comparison, but mostly because of the sudden die-off of the extravagant southern greenery. The staff is also less personable. But the accommodations are very comfortable. The view of the lake is pleasant. It is a bigger place; one listens to Italian and German conversations in the large restaurant.

The route of my run yesterday afternoon is flat and dusty. I take off on barely discernible pathways among the dry fields. I'm alone for most of the run in a large landscape. Sometimes there are huts in the distance, and the paths lead close to them. I come across an old women squatting in the dirt watching a toddler as it plays. I pass lone shepherd children. One girl runs after me, shouting something in Oromifa, but when she comes alongside me, she is shy and can only stop to stare. Once I've run on, she begins to shout again, single words in a sharp and pleading tone.