Thursday, September 29, 2011

Travelogue 415 – September 29
The Big Day

I'm fortunate enough to be sitting outside the morning after. Ethiopian sunshine – the genuine stuff – lays a stripe of heat across my table. Blue sky among the leaves of the sheltering trees heralds the arrival of baga, the dry season.

Local wisdom holds true to the letter this year. The dry season arrives with Meskel. This holiday celebrates the discovery of the True Cross, (meskel meaning cross). It is one of the two most colorful of Ethiopian Christian holidays, along with January's Temket. What makes the holiday fun is the bonfires on the night before, called Demera.

Demera is a memory chain reaching pretty far for me: four and five year-old boys running around the fire built taller than they are in the school yard. They're singing; teachers are clapping; all quite sanguine about kindergarteners playing with fire. Earlier in the day will have been my birthday party, always following a precise formula: the song while children sit in their chairs, the ceremonial cutting of the cake, photos and kisses. Those were birthdays to remember.

It's late at night, well after most of the bonfires have subsided into ash, when we stumble upon one more, tended by young toughs who would normally be harassing us. Now they are skipping around the fire on the sidewalk like they were boys again, each carrying a brand of twigs intertwined and reciting traditional chants and songs.

This occurs not too long after my birth-minute, and I'm choosing it as the sign of my wonderful new cycle. It's a big birthday, a round number and all. We have come from the calm old Finfine, where we sat in our throne-like seats at the round bar and talked like old comrades. That had to give way to either sleep or to nonsense. That is how we ended up on Wacky Street again.

Wacky Street is a short street with rows of tiny, shabby grottoes devoted entirely to nonsense. Getting out of the cab, we step directly into the scene of the young bullies tending their sentimental fires. We stop to watch and to honor the auguries. Then we enter the den.

You don't go to Wacky Street except for special occasions. You must devote the night to Wacky Street. You wedge yourself in among the dozens of debauching Ethiopes, rammed into one room, who are jumping up randomly to dance to the lunacy of the asmari players. The tireless dancers / singers circle the place, provoking the audience, dancing and cajoling, joking and demanding money. The waitresses are rotund wizards, appearing with drinks you only wished for and tabulating false bills with savant-like acumen.

Somehow the hours pass in laughter and idiocy. The place is a Lynch-like dream that turns like a carousel and never abates, and then arbitrarily spits you out in the early morning into the arms of an unscrupulous taxi driver.

So the big day is done. I'm staring up into a glittering sky. I have spotted Orion for the first time this season, shining alongside the Seven Sisters and the Bull. I'm captivated.

The day started innocently enough, dull errands becoming intent computer time becoming afternoon showers. When the latter had spent themselves, I was escorted to my work party, a harking back to history. Some grads from that first school were there, twelve years-old now. Team athletes were there, as were the teens, as was the team coach. Co-workers managed the event: the birthday song, the ceremonial cutting of the cake, the photos and the kisses. But this time, we had music, and we danced in the courtyard, the twelve year-olds being silly, the teens giggling, the coach stomping in country style. We carried on until sunset, sun setting on rainy season.

The big day comes, the big day goes, as they always do – blithely, sailing by under the power of Kundera's lightness of being. The vessel is manned by acrobats and dancers and gnome-like waitresses. Downstream the lazy river widens into dissolution. What do you call it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Travelogue 414 – September 21
Home on the Range

I'm back to ten thousand feet above sea level. Things look different. The sky is crystal blue this morning. The fields on top of Entoto are replete with high, dewy grass in vivid green, dotted with tiny purple flowers. Abeba is the word for flower; and as often as I am forced to pronounce this word, it does not come easy. I practice with Tesfahun, my trainer. A schwa surrounded by strong Latin A's. It does not roll off the Western tongue.

The abebas are out. It's a new year. It's 2004 in Ethiopia. The symbol of the new year is the adey flower, a yellow daisy that blooms at the end of the rainy season. It's tempting to call it spring, though we are still in the northern hemisphere, descending into shorter days and autumn, just like chilly Bath, England; just like Minneapolis, Minnesota, soon to be an icebox.

Here, New Year's is a joyous time, as much to celebrate the change in weather and release from 'winter' as to celebrate Time's conquest of our hearts.

But rainy season isn't vanquished overnight. We still get the occasional showers. The clouds haven't freed us entirely. This morning it might seem, looking up at the brilliant skies, that one will never see a cloud again. But once one starts running, once one's eyes settle on the mud underfoot, one realizes that baga, the long, dry season, hasn't quite taken command yet.

Fikre leads the running today, in honor of her tenth-place finish in the recent seven-kilometer race. Our team's women claimed fourth, tenth, and fourteenth, a very good sign for the coming cross country season. She leads with an easy lope: I've asked for a kind pace, something gentle for the old man returning to Ethiopia's highlands from damp, sea-bound England.

I can be spared the pace, but not the dangers of the chaka. The slopes are compacted, slick mud. I'm running with hands out for balance. I'm grabbing the trunks of saplings in passing to steady myself. We run along patches of thick moss where we can, like running on cushions. When we break out of the trees, the scene is striking – the green of the grasses, the clean air, the crisp lines of the mountains.

Yesterday was the high slopes and the chaka. Today it's the daget, the hill up from Kusquam to Entoto, twenty-five minutes of intensely steep incline on a dirt-and-rock road. Twenty-five minutes today, which is surprising, given the way I feel, something like the old man I see sometimes here whose rapid, shaking, stooped steps forward have to be measured in centimeters. His tottering advance is about a block every half hour.

It's a grueling run. Tesfahun leads today, and his step is light and playful. He has to pull back sometimes, just so he doesn't drift ahead too far. I'm gasping like an fish out of water and straining for every shuffling step. And yet, somehow, I manage my second best time up the hill. I can't say whether that's a sign of residual glory from past training or a measure of exactly how pathetic my condition has always been.

Either way I'm happy. We emerge at the top of the hill among the sordid commerce by Maryam church. And we jog toward the brilliant fields, refreshed and awakening to the sunlight of a new year.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Travelogue 413 – September 11
Is it a Country?

Today's the day of history, the only one we're allowed this century, it would seem. Even in the United Kingdom, we commemorate all week, secretly sighing over our poverty of occasions of moment. Analysis is little more than repeated phrasings of 'decline of the west'.

My mind is occupied with smaller quandaries. 'Is this a country,' I wonder. A lot hangs on this question. Just about every year among the last ten, I've managed to make it to one new country. This year's quota hinges on the identity of this little corner of the world. Only in Europe could one be faced with this riddle.

Here's the evidence: They have their own flag. They have their own language, printed prominently on bilingual signage. I strain my ears for a hint of it being spoken, but have no luck. They have their own team in the playoffs for the Euro Cup. They have their own team in the Rugby World Cup. They have a national assembly. They spend their own money, by and large. Crossing the border, one notices a difference in manicure of the landscape (for the worse, I might say).

My last two days in the United Kingdom are spent in another country. Only an hour from Bath, across the River Severn, lies a land, discrete and autonomous, a strange and mountainous land named Wales, or Cymru in their own, odd language, made up of improbably groupings of consonants.

The genesis of this trip lies in my profoundly mediocre showing in the half marathon last month. I do a quick search for 10Ks in the region and find one in Cardiff on my last day in the UK. I sign up. Coincidentally, Mark has just taken a job in Cardiff. I figure it's an opportunity to visit him, tally up another country, and test myself as a runner one last time this year. I can't allow all those months of training to have only one lackluster time to speak for them.

The train emerges from the Severn Tunnel. Immediately, yards and fields are unkempt and shabby. What towns I see are fairly grim. Cardiff is no exception. It seems to me gritty and hard as Nick Nolte at an AA meeting. There are bits of the center that are nice enough, but pointedly so, as though putting on a brave face. The River Taff winds through downtown, by the castle and the pleasant downtown park made of its grounds, by the Millennium Stadium, by the old Brains Brewery, by a few nondescript housing blocks, and out to Cardiff Bay, where a few other blank millennial builds try to offset the industry of the port. The High Street could be Main Street in South Dakota, with its squat, nineteenth-century, stone commercial buildings, elegant in their way, but erected with sober purpose. But it could never be South Dakota because High Street is laid with brick and no cars are allowed.

At one end of the High Street is the old castle, the town's first reason to exist. This is the site of a Roman fort in late imperial days. William the Conqueror first began the work that would make a castle from a Roman ruin. And successive lords have done their part, in particular a fanciful Victorian master, to make the castle a tourist sight, a classic of Gothic revival. Kind of fun is the Animal Wall, nineteenth century sculptures of fifteen animals climbing over the walls of the castle grounds.

Old Caerdydd ends up being a charming stop, the grimness probably a product of my own dread of the work that faces me at the other end of my journey, in Ethiopia. Travel is always colored by the destination. I am ready to be indulgent. The Romans believed in it. So did Owen Glendower, who makes an appearance in Shakespeare's Henry IV. And let's not forget that Old Caerdydd has only been capital since 1955 of this … country. It takes a while to grow into one's glory.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Travelogue 412 – September 6
Hey Ho

'With a hey ho, the wind and the rain,' I'm singing as I walk down the hill. It's the second day of rain here in Bath, and this morning it is dark and steady. The winds are a-trilling as well, bending branches and setting up a considerable noise among the woods on Beechen Cliff.

This song has always made me fond of Twelfth Night. It's such an odd way, so whimsical and dark, to end a comedy. Perfect, really, as there are ways in which tragedy cannot match the darkness of comedy in theatre or in poetry. The tragedian must use the language of a believer.

'When that I was and a little tiny boy,' I can sing, and testing out a variety of Pseudo-British accents. The only thing I cannot do is settle on a melody. I know there are versions of the 'song' put to music out there, but we can never know what tune was wafting through dear Will's bright mind, can we? I'm trying to fit it to 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'.

'For the rain it raineth every day.' There is sweet religion there. As I wend my way down my hill, just one of those that ring the town, young boys are laboring their glum way up. They have started school again this week. It's autumn, and the lord headmaster will have us know it.

'But when I came to man’s estate,' I come to commerce; I arrive in town. It's time to leave the elements to their song. Inside, I set up the infernal machine of work, the winking screen that shapes my hours. These windows allow no rain, allow no sun. They browse and process, and they calculate. But there's no third dimension to a pixel.

'A great while ago the world begun, with hey, ho, the wind and the rain.' My Somerset story has run its course. I arrived in summer and will leave under the shadow of fall. Today will be my last day's work. There are meetings in London. There is my last race of the year in Wales. There is a plane to board toward Ethiopia. It's been a wonderful interlude, a scent of lavender by the Avon.

'But that’s all one, our play is done.' At night, I'll shake the rain off me cap, won't I? and set it tenderly aside. With any luck it will be dry for tomorrow.