Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Travelogue 460– August 22

I'm at Schiphol when I hear about Meles dying. I'm waiting to board my flight to Michigan. Something on Facebook catches my eye., something that has the ring of reality. There have been rumors among the expat Ethiopian communities for months, stuff always sounds like conspiracy theory. Meles has died a myriad of times in a myriad of ways in diasporic gossip this summer. But the post I see is just a brief note of condolence. I do two things immediately. I look up BBC News. And I call Menna.

BBC doesn't have much to say, just confirmation that Meles has been in and out of European hospitals all summer. Apparently the end came suddenly, after he'd been convalescing just fine. But actual cause of death: no comment. We'll probably never know.

My first reaction, like that of many others, is concern for people back home. Menna says everything is calm. People are sad, she says, a state that the state is dedicated to milking for weeks. The government media has already started its 24-hour-a-day vigil and 'coverage', which means retrospectives and teary interviews ad infinitum. After only a few days, the country has re-imagined their much-reviled, diminutive leader as a giant and a saint among men.

Meanwhile, we all brace ourselves. Ethiopia has seen exactly three supreme leaders since the 1920s. And there has never been a peaceful transition of power since the modern state came into being. Ethnic tensions have built steadily year by year. And it was only a few weeks ago that the Mercato district in Addis was the scene of rioting over religion.

It's been comforting to see that the first response has been peaceful. Though 'shock' might be the correct diagnosis. I'm not optimistic. In 2005, the worst uprisings were a full six months after the election.

It's time to board, and I obediently follow the crowd onto the plane -- though I'm ill at ease, and irrationally I feel like I should abandon my plans. Everything, including the work, is thrown into a tenuous sort of no man's land by this development. In the end, one has no choice but to carry on until events themselves provide the final judgement on your planning. I board.

The skies over the Atlantic are wonderfully clear. We pass over Greenland in thaw, and we can see every crevice and every retreating glacier. We can see the sun glinting off metal roofs in what appear to be tiny, isolated vales with the slightest hints of green. Otherwise, the landscape is white or craggy brown. The imagination boggles at the sight of those villages.

It's only as we approach Detroit in the late afternoon that the skies change. The pilot warns us it will, and we begin our descent through piles of clouds. The plane starts bucking, and people are gasping and laughing. I'm watching the distinctly Midwestern masses of condensation out the window. The Nederlander next to me is nervous. 'We don't get storms like this,' he says. I nod; I like that about both places.

As we bank one way and then the other, the view out the windows changes dramatically. Facing one direction, the sun is blotted out by ominous storms, clouds nearly black and suspended in a sickly yellow light. The plane circles, and looking the other direction the clouds disperse and we see promising blue skies over the horizon. It seems that the pilots have circled around this violent storm, and the landing is quiet and uneventful. I sense the Nederlander's wonder that a storm of that intensity could be simply skirted, like an iceberg in a calm sea.

But there you go. One more twilight, one more dizzying tilt of the ship, one more arrival.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Travelogue 459– August 16
Waters and Harbours

From summer at its worst to summer at its best, from Ethiopia to Nederland. Much as I might miss my family for a few weeks, I am happy for the trade. Nederland is showing me all its finest colors. Blue skies hold the clouds at bay. The temperatures hold on the pleasant side of hot, under yellow, benign sun. The parks are green, here a color of love, life flourishing under the sweet attentions of the season.

Sights and sounds are healing. I walk along lines of poplars, the wind whispering among the leaves, the leaves shimmering above. They play with sunlight. The water plays with the sunlight, catching it and dispersing it with a mischievous sense of generosity. The ducks have their games, self-satisfied and lazy, clucking and diving.

Here at the Hotel of the Gods (see my last entry) I am located next to the Rembrandt Park and a ten-minute jog from the Slotermeer, that man-made lake where once there was a God-made lake (see entry from last winter some time).

There is water in the air. It is not the falling sort, as in Addis, accompanied by damp chill and echoes of thunder. This is a floating moisture, shattered and thrown into the sky to hang there, refracting and intensifying the sunlight. It is so bright out as I run toward the open sky above the Slotermeer.

I can be forgiven for being happy. This last trip to Addis was bruising. I was led forward by the days like a mongrel, with a fist gripping me by the hair. I was sick most of the time, and plagued by Ethiopian bureaucracies at their worst. The streets and the mountains were coated with mud.

This seems like paradise. There are children in little kayaks on the Slotermeer, shouting and laughing, overseen by young people with kind voices. Pairs and groups of people are strolling on serene paths, people of all ages and races. No one says anything to me -- one wouldn't know how blissful that can be without spending long periods in a place like Ethiopia. There is only the breeze among the leaves above. They are the only voices I could want to listen to.

Paradise moves me to get out before I should. I run every day -- even the day I arrive after a sleepless, overnight flight. I'm running like I'm learning about legs again, I'm so tired, so slow. But the pain in my joints is soothed by the hand of the sun on my back. It feels glorious. I will pay for this run, I think, and I don't mind And, in fact, I never do pay. I run the next day.

The last streets running before I reach the Hotel of the Gods are dedicated to Dutch artists. I have half a mile on the street for Mondriaan. His unspeaking presence seems just right for Amsterdam, whose buildings seem fitted to his designs, whose language and whose pleasures seem woven from his color schemes. It all feels oddly safe.

And maybe, when all is said and done, that is Amsterdam's sin. It is the performer in stripes pantomiming 'Safe' in an unsafe world, signaling 'Calm' by stormy seas, singing 'Stable' while ships are capsizing. It is an idyll among protected woods, a picnic on the bluff above an ugly battle. A joy to visit, a delusion to stay.

Well, a few more days with the high poplars and the peace of amicable skies. I will be forgiven.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Travelogue 458– August 15
Meeting of Divines

I'm staying in the Ramada in Amsterdam this trip. It's not just the Ramada, but the Ramada Apollo. I found the hotel on When I search for a hotel, my leading variable is price. My second is comfort. Every so often, the twain shall meet, and it looks like they do in this listing, the Ramada Apollo.

It is difficult to pronounce the name of this hotel properly in my mind. It has been the holy month of Ramadan, as anyone watching the Olympics should know. The British press has made much of it, Muslim athletes having to compete on empty stomachs, and so on, anything Muslim getting that weirdly indulgent-while-hostile treatment in the Western press. But in Ethiopia, it's just another fast. The Orthodox are fasting as well, it being one of their odd long stretches in honor of God's extensive family.

Today is the Dormition of the Theotokos, by the way, the falling asleep of the god-bearer, or Assumption in the Catholic calendar. Mary gets her pass to heaven. Looking over the Orthodox calendar, I notice an interesting commemoration coming up on the 29th, that of the beheading of John the Baptist. I'm not sure how one celebrates that one. Maybe with a special dance. In any case, fasting is much less complicated for the Muslims. One month every year, and one needn't recall which fallen saint to honor.

So I pronounce Ramada with those heavy consonant sounds and a misplaced accent, and I confuse myself. Especially combining it with Apollo. The mythologies are clashing. I picture Gabriel and Apollo meeting at sunrise on a plateau overlooking a dusty plain, the trumpeter meeting Phoebus on a day outside history. What will they say to each other?

Gabriel is dressed in linen. He's lit up with purpose, eyes afire. Apollo is partial to nudity, but has thrown a stretch of cloth around his middle for the sake of the Abrahamic demi. While Apollo is clean-shaven and has a glow of youth about him, Gabriel is severe and venerable, however his visage may have resisted the years.

Gabriel asks after Zeus's health. Apollo shrugs like a teenager. 'And how's YHWH?' Allah, Gabriel corrects him, but Apollo's bland smile does not fade or vary. Gabriel relents, and with a strained smile says only, 'ineffable.'

Gabriel eyes the sun, just breaking free if the horizon, and commends Apollo on another job well-done. 'Another day,' he says with a hint of ecstasy. Apollo glances languorously over his shoulder. 'Thank you.' Oops. His slight robe has slipped. Gabriel looks away, curling his lip in disgust.

'And what will it be for you, today, Archangel?' Apollo asks as he adjusts his cloth. 'More souls saved? More saviors to thrust upon the poor creatures?' 'As God wills,' Gabriel pronounces, and he bows deferentially. He is endearingly earnest, Apollo reflects, a quality sorely lacking on Mount Olympus. He will bring it up at the next family congress. It might be an enlightening exercise. Can we just try it? He will refer everyone to his sister Artemis's dour expression, and say, 'It kind of looks like that, but ... imagine that it feels good. Imagine that you know that ... that everything will turn out all right.' Oh, they'll just laugh at him. He sighs.

'You know I was once a savior.' Apollo says brightly. Gabriel nods. 'Hard to believe, but yes, I do remember.' Apollo smiles with a winning innocence. He starts dreaming about old glories. Gabriel fidgets. The trumpeter clears his throat. 'And what's it to be for you today, Phoebus?' 'Oh, I'm a man of simple pleasures, Archangel. I have my lyre. I have my bow. These things make me happy.'

Gabriel purses his lips. 'And what is it you give?' Apollo doesn't respond. He only smiles, and slowly he tilts his head, allowing the sun behind him to glare into Gabriel's eye. Gabriel squints and shifts to catch the god's shadow. He thinks that Apollo doesn't understand. He tries again, 'I mean, don't you feel a sense of duty? You are divine. Do you have a gift, a blessing, to bestow upon the mortals?' Apollo tilts his head again; looking up into the sky, as if in thought, and again Gabriel has to duck from the sharp light in his eye. Apollo speaks, 'I think I will build a hotel.'

And it's not a bad hotel. It's some seventeen stories of solid construction, rising above the Rembrandt Park. The park is familiar to me, a generous, if shabby, tract of grass broken with small lakes, set on the west part of town, a frequent setting for my running while I'm in Amsterdam. It's bordered on the west by corporate parks, on the south by gentrified neighborhoods, and on the north by neighborhoods begging for gentrification, as poor as this side of Amsterdam gets. The teens from the north drift into the park as the day ages, many of them kids of Muslim immigrants, certainly not fasting from cigarettes or other stimulants. Gabriel watches them with a stern eye. Apollo's hotel is an incursion into their side of town. I watch them with a wary eye.

On the side of the hotel is a banner announcing, 'Open Augustus 2012'. And that is why price meets comfort this once. While I check in, there are still guys with tool belts and hand drills roaming the lobby, applying themselves to various touch ups. There are extension cords snaking across the floor. The place smells like paint and sawdust. Everything is shiny and untested, including the smiles and greetings of the myriad new employees. The room is nice, seven floors up and facing south, quiet and comfortable. I will be thanking Apollo for his graciousness. Though my best hotel experience in Amsterdam will still remain the Novotel on the south side of town, one of those rare internet deals that landed me in luxury. And secular: no gods to taketh away as they giveth. Ahem! All hail Aegletes.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Travelogue 457– August 7

It has become a lovely afternoon -- for rainy season. A satisfying suggestion of diffuse sunlight has penetrated the cloud cover. I yearn to be outside. This is true for me whenever I see sunshine: my mood responds immediately, and my body wants to soak it in, breathe sun-infused fresh air. But today I have to stay indoors. I am at Menna's family's house. Menna's sister invited us for a lunch party. In true Ethiopian fashion, Menna will be late -- a few hours late -- so I'm there on my own, among family and family friends.

There is food on the table, a good variety of dishes, including kitfo, the raw ground beef with local butter that is so good and so dangerous. We line up for food and return to the couches, where I have little to do beyond smile and nod and eat. Conversation swirls around the room. Children are dashing back and forth between moms and the long windows in the door, where they plant their hands and stare out at the dog, Jackie. They make the floorboards resound with their running.

I find I'm one of a line of abandoned men, sitting along one wall. At my right is the TV. We conspire to get the set switched on. The Olympics are on, and it happens that we tune in during the women's marathon. They're about eight kilometers into the race. The streets are wet. Recaps of the race start show it was raining. The streets are wet, and they are lined with people, densely along the entire route. I recognize locales. They're in the City, running by banks. They're following the Thames. There's Embankment. They pass the Parliament building and Big Ben.

When we first tune in, an Italian woman is leading. I sense something is wrong. There are far too many white faces in the leading pack. But it doesn't last. With in a few more miles, the Kenyans and Ethiopians move smoothly to the front. They form a block of six, trading places according to some long and seemingly effortless plan. They lead a small coterie of white hangers-on. One is a tiny, stubborn Russian woman, who is destined to take a surprise bronze.

Along the route are rows of tables with little square flags above them. These are water tables, and they play their part in the rhythm of the race. The Ethiopians pick up their bottles and fall a pace or two behind as they refresh themselves. Then the Kenyans pick up their provisions and drop back. It all seems strangely relaxed. The endless crowd along the route is unceasingly pleasant and enthusiastic. The athletes lack no moral support today.

I finish my meal, and my silent alarm tells me it's time to get back to work. I say my good-byes. Menna hasn't shown, and the family makes me promise to come back with her. The weather has only improved in the last hour, improved from an already fine start. The rainy season has been so mild this year.

I'm working at home when I hear the cheer go up around the neighborhood. I know which country has won the marathon. I find out later it's Tiki, the one least favored among those in the know about Ethiopian athletes. And what's more, she has set a record. Then came a Kenyan. ... And then that tenacious little Russian.

This has been the year of white encroachment. One of my personal heroes of the Olympics is Galen Rupp, Oregonian who takes the silver in the men's ten-thousand, the first white guy to place in that event since 1988, the first American to place since the 60s. He trains with Mo Farah, the British wunderkind this year, trains with him under Alberto Salazar, the distance great from the 80s, when America had its last heyday in long-distance running.

Fourth in that race is the great Kenenisa, one of the very small club of men who have won golds in both the five thousand and ten. Ethiopia is in shock. The great one has been performing erratically lately, and irritably rebuffing any questions about it. Now the nation stands amazed. His brother, Tariku, takes the bronze. To tease my athlete friends -- and celebrating the return of the faranjis, embodied by young Rupp, -- whenever Kenenisa comes up in conversation, I say, 'Oh, you mean Ato Aratenya?' You mean, Mr. Fourth?