Saturday, July 28, 2012

Travelogue 456– July 28

She can't get over it. She keeps looking back at the television screen with something between wonder and horror playing across her face. She doesn't think of this as the Olympics. The Olympics are all about the runners, maybe some football.

Meseret has stopped by while we're having dinner. Menna and I are eating out at a favorite restaurant, one with two essentials, good food and sports broadcasts. Meseret's visit is a work trip: She has been entrusted with a document that needs a stamp, and Menna is holder of the agency seal.

Meseret, some of you may recall, is one of our original teen athletes. She still works with us in the office, and with the Team, though her teen years have slipped away a while ago. There is something wonderfully innocent about her still, or perhaps it is the resilience of her innocence that is wonderful, more than the quality of it. It's as though she just arrived in Addis from the countryside.

We share our dinners with her. Whenever we see athletes, we give them food. They ask for money; we give them food. As athletes, it's their most urgent need. None of them eat properly, running twice a day on one meal of bread and thin sauce. If they have money to spend on food, they opt for the quick calories -- for pasta and bread. The only healthy craving they have is for fruit juices. But protein is something they have only the vaguest understanding of. They will insist that pasta has protein.

On screen today at the restaurant are women weight-lifters. Some are surprisingly petite; some are not. Some of them jump off stage after their performance into the arms of their coaches, allowing themselves a girlish moment. None of them are girlish with bar and weights in front of them. They snarl and grunt. They gasp and grimace. They shout in triumph and toss the bar down to bounce resoundingly off the floor, and then they stalk off like gangsters.

Meseret watches with round eyes. She clearly doesn't even know how to form an opinion about these women. She's speechless. 'Meseret, we're going to start training you for 2016.' I point at the television. She stares at me, her eyes growing even rounder. There is that delightful naivete again. Menna has to tell her I am joking. She was set to cry.

Not so naive are the street boys outside the restaurant. In this part of town, they are a nuisance and menace. One shoves his homemade tray full of cigarettes and gum in your face while another reaches into your pockets. They are sharp, smooth, and chillingly cynical, pulling grotesque faces of mourning and whining about their dead parents until they see you dismiss them, and then they are instantly at play again, dancing and mocking. I like their spirit, though I prefer to admire fro a distance.

On the way to the restaurant, I pass a faranj headed the opposite direction. One of the street boys is standing beside us as our paths cross. For less than a second, the mask falls. A wave of anxiety ripples across the boy's face. A decision must be made, which white guy to follow. He chooses the other. I wonder for a few minutes why. There is a body language specific to tourists, of course. My head is down; his is up and swinging left and right to take in the sights. There is also a language to one's dress. The other man is wearing orange shorts. He has new sneakers. His hair is dyed. My look is a little more ... broken in, shall we say?

I turn to watch the boy, riding close beside the faranji, who is looking down at the boy with interest and concern. The boy made the right decision.

The streets are wet. Rains sweep across the city in regular waves. I get caught in one shower. I'm walking to the restaurant, and I have about half a mile to go when the rain starts up. I give it up, ducking under the overhanging roof of a small clothing shop. I was going to arrive at the restaurant early anyway. I stand outside the shop as the rain gains force. The traffic hisses as it passes, one small blue Lada taxi, and another. Faces peer out at me from the tiny cabin.

From where I'm standing, I can see a map of the storm across the sky. These rains start up against the mountains and move south, through Bole, and then out of the city. I can see the clouds breaking to the north. The mountains are getting some dusky sunshine. That strip of light is expanding, and soon the rain will diminish down here.

One of the store clerks invites me to come into the store and keep dry. But I'm fine outside. I'm enjoying myself. For a moment, I think there might be something to like about kerempt, about rainy season. I am grateful for the excuse to take a break and watch the world go by.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Travelogue 455– July 26

Today is Gabriel, so the roads are clogged in the vicinity of the Gabriel church next to Meles's palace. We have to take a detour to the cafe today. At the cafe, they have set up candles and incense and traditional gear for the coffee ceremony.

As I've reported before, some of the superstars among saints and archangels of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity get days of the month designated for their worship. On Mary's day, for example, all the Maryam churches attract crowds, not only of worshipers, but of merchants. The roads are taken over by a fairly cynical trade in everything from church tallows to shoes and wallets. Then, there are the mega-days: some of these superstars get an even more special day once a year. Gabriel belongs to that rank.

They say Meles is back from his hospital stay in Belgium. Maybe this will put a stop to the apocalyptic talk around town. Maybe Meles himself has stopped into Gabriel church to pay his thanks to the capricious Fates. Maybe his brush with death has sobered him. Maybe he has penciled contrition into his calendar; maybe some soul-searching and moral inventory. Maybe he has seen a light.

Me, I could certainly use a change of pace. Maybe I need the intercession of some colorful saint or archangel. Don't we all merit one divine visitation once in a lifetime? Right now, the only ones providing intercessions in my life are dentists and policemen.

Not that I have particular reason to dislike either Dr, Micky or 'Sajin', the cop. 'Sajin' they call him in a corrupted version, I suppose, of 'sergeant'. Dr. Micky has stood by me, and by my fragile teeth, for many years now. I somewhat enjoy his Spartan manner, listening in silence, slouching forward in his chair, heavily-lidded eyes on me as I list my complaints. His answers are always curt and resound with of-course common sense, delivered in his rich Armenian-Ethiopian accent. And then he points at the chair, and I am thrilled by both solace and horror at once.

The last visit pushed me over the top, however. It has been the fourth or fifth time in this short summer visit to Ethiopia. Two teeth had started misfiring the previous week, one so badly that it kept me up at night with earaches. Dr. Micky casually points at the x-ray, with the slightest of sardonic smiles on his face. I know what's coming: this will be my second root canal this month. But what I didn't expect was the ominous wave toward the chair. 'Today? Right now?'

It's an upper tooth, so the drill feels like it's going straight into my skull. I experience the sound of it like something private, a malignant thought become possession. And because it is harder to see and to reach, the good doctor and his assistants wrestle with my jaw as though they want to crack it like a wishbone. I rerun in my head a scene from the recent 'King Kong' that I just caught on the television in Dr Micky's reception area, in which Kong battles with a T-Rex, killing it by gripping the lizard's jaws and tearing them apart. At some point, my spirit caves, and I just resign to it. I've had too much tooth pain in recent months. I can't respond to it anymore. I sit sullenly through Dr. Micky's debrief, and I mope through the rest of my achy blur of a day.

Then this morning, Sajin stops by, and my entire morning is sacrificed to more aimless questioning about the robbery. Sajin is a nice enough young man, more or less sincere. Taking in his clean-shaven face, his grown boy's eyes, his vague and passive method, I can't help sensing the humanity in his position. Good cop, bad cop, the person with the badge encounters people at their most vulnerable and essential. Movie-makers jumped on that long ago, but debarked for lands of wild caricature, leaving life in its common hues to the rest of us.

Sajin has such a guileless way about him. He shakes his head at our mystery. He calls in the landlord, whose brother has just bought a new car. He guides her with soft-spoken and simple questions. She talks a lot and with feeling. After she goes, Sajin just shakes his head. She sounds so sincere. This was how it was with our housekeeper. She says she didn't do it. He shakes his head. How could this be?

Menna and I suggest a few strategies, maybe talking to the boys who sit just outside our compound gate, maybe bringing in the housekeeper's boyfriend, maybe sending someone at night when the landlord's whole family will be home. He nods quietly. He hesitates meaningfully when it's time to leave. A gift might fortify him, fuel the flagging investigation. But the moment passes.

When we spoke to the commander at the police station weeks ago, he had complained that there were no eyewitness. Their hands were tied. I reflected on the courteous boundaries that thieves and cops observe here. It all happens with gentle voices and wide-eyed simplicity. No one seems to have done anything.

Finally free of Sajin, I strike out for the day's delayed work. Delay is the rule, I say to myself. Work is delayed; life is delayed, like a line of cars waiting at the railway crossing, waiting for Illness and Corruption, dressed as Laurel and Hardy, to pass on a handcar.

A light rain is falling outside, and the sky is an ambiguous cross-hatching of condensation and light. It makes one hesitates in the doorway, unsure which way the weather will turn.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Travelogue 454– July 22
Things That Go Bump in the Night

The hyenas like kerempt, or rainy season. The light matches their standards for good times, the clouds making for a continuous gloaming. There are jib (hyena) sightings during the daytime. Last year, we saw a few in the mountains. Runners are edgy in this season; scanning in all directions with sharp eyes as they train in the woods.

Fikre, one of my athletes, says that someone was telling her about the growing problem with yesew jib. These are the Ethiopian equivalent of werewolves, but men who become hyenas. Apparently they've been coming out of the mountains in such numbers that the police were forced to make a deal with them, that they should be allowed to raid graveyards, as long as they leave the living alone.

She tells us this story on our taxi ride up the mountain to train. Tesfahun replies facetiously that this is a good deal. Fikre moans aloud, in fear, or in disgust. I tell her Ethiopian has a population problem. Why not let them grab a few drunks, or babies? Fikre laughs, but grudgingly and with a shudder.

Kerempt is no time to train for speed. One has to watch one's footing with more concentration. One's footfalls are on mud, sometimes packed and slick, sometimes new and several inches deep. It's the former that are dangerous. I have no extra attention for the jib-watch. I'm relying on my coaches.

I'm asking a lot of my coaches this summer. I've never been in this bad of shape. In my defense, I've never juggled so many ails and aches and ills. I'm understanding ageing better every week. I can claim that much emotional progress in life. Some philosophy enters even the most obtuse of minds, forced in by Great Nature, unbidden, inexorable. We admit to wisdom at last: I have limits; I will become weak.

A few days ago, we strike out into the woods of Entoto. I'm feeling unusually strong. We climb the slope, dancing among tree roots, mud slicks, and patches of moss, zig-zagging across the hillside, under the dense trees.

But today the run follows a dentist's appointment, my second root canal this month. The pain in my jaw fades, but what doesn't is the sleeplessness. Eventually my muscles begin to ache. Every time we turn uphill, I feel the burn. Appearing almost as a salve, a gentle rain comes, falling with a hush over the forest, bringing with it a cool breeze. For a sweet interlude, there is nothing but the hiss of the rain, among the leaves overhead, gathering in small, trickling streams. After ten minutes, the clouds darken further, and thunder resounds overhead. We turn back early, just as the rain gains in force.

At night, you can hear the hyenas. They have a peculiar call, a kind of dipping huff and yip. It's a sound that inspires a pall of silence among the neighborhoods. Their calls are quickly followed by rounds of frantic barking among hundreds of dogs for miles around.

We're home early. Dropping us off, Shimeles says he's going home though it's the weekend. He usually works nearly all night on Saturday, making as much cash as he can. But it's another night of disturbances in the Mercato district. Muslims are rioting, storming and blockading the main mosque, throwing stones and screaming. The police are not allowed to enter the mosques, but they are busting as many heads as they can outside, hauling dozens of young men to jail.

Apparently, many Muslims object to the government's intervention in their affairs, appointing national religious leaders, promoting a peaceful, homegrown doctrine known as Al Ahbash . Most Christian Ethiopians I talk to dismiss the whole situation with a belittling suggestion that the Muslims here just want to make-believe they're in Egypt and play at revolution.

Rumors are running the streets like mad hyena-men. Meles, the prime minister, is in the hospital in Europe. Everyone seems ready to assume he is dying. Everyone foresees chaos.

In the morning, both the hyenas and the Muslims have retreated. I leave the house, locking the compound gate behind me. The rains have passed for the moment. The sun never comes back with all its force. We content ourselves with a few hours of warm haziness. My street is a quiet one, made of stones laid in the ground. A mother passes hand in hand with her small girl. The girl smiles and wave and sing out, 'China!' With every passing year, all foreigners merge further into one homogenous, Chinese identity.

By the gutter, a man of about fifty stands taking a pee. He smiles at me and waves with his unoccupied hand. 'Hello, my friend! Where are you go?' I'm headed this a-way, sir. Carry on.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Travelogue 453– July 11
The Remote

I have some time after work. I walk to a familiar place, just missing an approaching downpour -- a savage attack on the sun, clouds spreading like ink across the tissue of sky, drops just beginning to gain momentum. The drops strike the earth with force. It might be music -- the strokes of hammers on the pianoforte -- to judge by the spirited response on the streets. Boys run. People smile, and they duck under awnings and under umbrellas cheerfully, awkwardly.

I walk to a familiar place. This place doubles as a sports bar. The manager makes periodic circuits around the restaurant with remotes in hand, changing screens willy-nilly, without a thought for anyone watching. I find myself watching a basketball game. The teams are Nigeria and the Dominican Republic. The athletes don't look much different than U.S. stars, but they play differently, sending a noticeably higher percentage of shots into oblivion and botching passes. But they're massive; they scowl the right way; the tattoos look correct. They labor in hope. The Nigerian coaches watch impassively, exhibiting that mud-and-stone patience that marks them as African.

The game takes me back some five or six months. I'm watching basketball in Denver. The games are part of some dramatic stretch in the interminable season, maybe one of the long, long stages in the months and months of playoffs. Boys are strutting. Analysts are rhapsodizing. Now, those games form a kind of motif in the mind, one tempo making up the background of a strange time -- combining with the colors of stained wood, the taste of beer, the crisp winter air, and the sense of exile. Denver, last winter.

Memory is such a tedious companion. How is it we so seldom tire of its ministrations? It flashes its mirrors, discovers many fascinating angles upon our unremarkable faces. We delight in these images. That the exercise is so fragmented and incomplete becomes part of its appeal, but it is also the application of the scourge. Indulging memory is a shallow entertainment. It is false.

Today is a day for memory. It's the ninth anniversary of Leeza's passing. Remarking it is betrayal. It strips the occasion of anything but its repetition. It emphasizes a false uniformity, year by year. It implies that emotion is raw, and that memory is as changeless as the fact of the event. We can smile at our evolving perception of birthdays, but there aren't words for the tragedy of a memorial diminishing into lack of substance, like the slow dying of a musical note. The hammer strikes the string and the string finds stillness again. Emotion is inconstant, made of perishable human substance.

The chairman of the remote passes, and the view changes from live and obscure to huge and rebroadcast. Football season has adjourned and the Olympics are still just a dark premonition, Super Sport has been airing Euro Cup games over and over. Tonight, it's Germany and Italia, the game that put my prediction of Teutonic triumph to bed. The Germans are suddenly ineffectual, listless. The Italians are charged and relentless

I was in Addis for that game. We watched it at the Tsion Hotel, another signature in the score of memory. That place rings back a long way, to days when I lived in the Addis Gebiya neighborhood, to drunks with the Brits, to the first days of my friendship with Stephanie. The room is dark with faux wood. The waiters are as careless as ever, the hotel as shady and suspect. The TV hangs high. The athletes are dots of color. Memory says things were still fresh then, closer to the beginning. Menna was a new acquaintance. Leeza was around.

Sometimes the pattern trumps the action. The Italians labor in hope; they find their way safely to the final minute, with the same result. The rains have gone. The evening advances. I've got to go.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Travelogue 452– July 7

It turns out she's a more interesting study than we ever knew. Always a supercilious grin and tumbling words about the weather. Always late, always cheerful. Lean and stooped frame, strong hands with the manner of a child. Beti has been a part of my household for three years.

She has a little boy, kindergarten age. She lives somewhere up in Shiro Meda, above us, up the hill. She has an impetuous side, maybe wild, maybe romantic. This we know from the desperate love letters to Cien. That doesn't make her terribly unique; Cien has an extensive archive. But there was a surprising urgency in her words.

The police find her tough. 'Dereq', they say and shake their heads. One or two stand with us in the small veranda at the Menen neighborhood police station. The station is located on one of those tedious roads, ribbons of asphalt among the hills, narrow enough without the crowded procession of pedestrians along the sides. You enter the gate in the walls, and, after being searched, you climb up a steep and muddy incline to the station itself, once long ago a household, the building a loose interpretation of Italian colonial. Your last bit of fun is negotiating the tiny steps up the last slope, laid with small square blocks as stairs. Then you're inside.

The design, the landscaping, the floor plan seem perfect for Ethiopian officialdom. The lawn is ragged. A mouldy log bench is dedicated to the day's cadre of criminals, waiting for the day's petty judgement. They are called in; they are sent out to the bench. Hours pass in an idyll of discomfort and fear.

And so it goes with Beti, and with us, all day long. Beti is summoned in from the bleak lawn. Then we are summoned in from the wooden bench on the veranda. Shimeles sits with us a while. We are dismissed for lunch for an hour.

'Dereq,' they say, shaking their heads, gazing beyond the mud, beyond the sullen crowds on the street, gazing into a world where lions lie with the lambs. Beti won't confess, and that confounds the hapless policemen. They grind small mysteries between their teeth, spitting out splinters of it, picking at it. Chewing some more. Life is a shard of toothpick, a labor for the jaw -- who walked off with our money? What are the policemen chewing?

And that is Ethiopia: shaking one's head with sad wonder and murmuring, 'aschagari'. It's all so hard, so tough. And one holds the hardship to one's breast so tenderly. It is life. The way honor might have been to the ancient Greeks, undeserved suffering is to the Ethiopes. There is something so deeply satisfying about even the recounting of suffering that one might say there's a hunger for the next bad news.

Beti's real name is Almaz, the police inform us. She emerges from the darkness within, unsteady, the back of her hand applied to her nose and lip. She walks silently down to the disheveled lawn of outlaws. She sits there and stares up at us, round-eyed.

The policemen asks again if we're sure we didn't misplace the money. Well, I say, if we had misplaced it right out of the abandoned envelope, and then carefully stuffed the envelope with empty plastic bags afterward, why then, yes it's quite possible. Is that the way you misplace things to home? The policeman nods thoughtfully.

Did poor Beti, or devious Almaz, find herself maneuvered into this, we wonder. Did she conceive an ill-fated passion for young Atomsa, the young relative of the landlords, the boy who does the family's wash and cleans the dog's cages and trims the invalid uncle's toenails? Was this a lovers' plot, or a lover's plot? Were they dreaming of running away to some fondly-remembered village, where they would ... buy a cow? Or perhaps the family engineered the romance and the plot entire, using innocent Atomsa's untested sexuality for communal gain, perhaps even planning for Beti's sacrifice to the law's need for a working-class perp? It's a fine intrigue at play here, something to raise goosebumps among a TV audience.

Beti is summoned again. She doesn't hesitate. Only her bowed head might suggest trepidation. She re-enters that building so perfectly designed for it purpose. The interior hall was never wired for electric bulbs. To get inside to the offices, you feel your way ten meters down a tight, unlit hall, and stumble to the left, and left again, into the long station office, stark and dim and furnished only with policemen's desks. You've essentially doubled back, and you sit only a few meters from where you entered, from where we sit on our victims' bench, separated from the offices by only a thin wall of plywood. There is no insulation from justice. We can hear the shouting. We hear the blows.

In wonderment, the officers return. "Dereq,' they mutter with an ancient resignation. This is such a hard case. We sink into silence, each in our place, like the act of theft holds us now, condemns us. The crime is a spot on all our souls.