Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travelogue 472 – October 24
The Maas

I arrive at the humble little structure. It sits on the verge of Het Park. It sits on the verge of the river. It's taller than your average public lavatory, but the side facing landward, facing the park, is covered in the kind of tile that makes one think of bathrooms, tile the color of Dutch East Indies tea. What's more, there are always people streaming out of the double glass doors: not a steady flow of people, like out of a New York subway station, but singles and couples in fits and starts. Many people have their bicycles with them. Standing across the street, on the grass of Het Park, one is tempted to chuckle, as if watching a kind of magic act or doctored film clip, in which dozens of people are climbing out of a VW bug.

This is the pedestrian entrance to the Maas Tunnel, and I am about to pull off a magic trick. I will run underneath the river, the big, grey, greasy Nieuwe Maas.

Proof of the weird trance of time in Europe is the name 'New' Maas. It seems that flooding in the 13th century shifted the course of the Maas (or Meuse), and the 'New Maas' came to be considered a branch of the Maas, compliment to the 'Old Maas', which runs further south. Note, this does not mean that the 'new' river itself changed at all, just the course of its relatives, and its name.

The truth is, if you ever wanted to make a case for the arbitrary nature of names for geographical features, the bewildering, many-mouthed delta in Holland is your first exhibit. Technically, it's the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta, but where one begins and where the other leaves off is a riddle. Aside from the big names, there are the Bergse Maas, the Afgedamde Maas, the Merwede, the Waal, the Nederrijn, the Lek, the Schie, and and the Ijssel running around, and a dozen canals dug to connect or disconnect them all.

Either way, I'm set to run beneath the waters. I enter the magic lavatory, glancing before I do at the complimentary building across the river. I should note that the riverside dispensation of these 'ventilation' buildings is much more attractive, something like a Washington monument or an old, copper-domed planetarium.

So I attempt the miracle, running underneath the river. I enter the lavatory, and inside I discover the sense, the five senses, of history, smell being the strongest of them, the aroma of age and of stagnant air. This tunnel was only the second crossing of Rotterdam's main river. Bridges are problematic here, in what until very recently was the world's biggest port: anything spanning the waters has to be high enough to let through some fairly magnificent ocean-sailing ships. Talk of a tunnel dates back to the nineteenth century; construction waited until the 30s. The tunnel was given a secret opening ceremony during the Nazi occupation. And the old Rotterdam fixture still serves 75,000 cars and 4,500 cyclists every day.

The tunnel is well with the trip, if only to see the corny and primitive tile mosaics over the escalators, portraying sea deities and little cars and mopeds; if only to see the ancient escalator itself, with its chunky steps and wood slats in the surface of them; and if only to see the photos along the wall of pedestrians from decades long past making use of the escalator and the tunnel.

I'm down below the rushing waters now. The tunnel is rectangular, except for a small slant at the top of both vertical walls, where occasional orange lamps are placed to glow feebly against the tunnel's yellow tile. I'm only seeing one of four tunnels, in actual fact. There are separate tunnels for cars in either direction, for cyclists, and for those of us on foot. Our pedestrian tunnel is nearly empty. Ahead of me is a little girl with her grandparents. She is running and leaping for the lamp panels. Her grandfather is whistling, and such are the acoustics in the tunnel that, even after I pass them and continue on, the whistling hangs right behind my right shoulder. I keep glancing back to see if he has decided to join me on my run.

Emerging from the corresponding lavatory on the south bank, I feel like I'm in another town, even though the fist lavatory is plainly visible on the north bank. I turn south and start running. I find myself on the busy road that proceeds beside the sprawling port, a wilderness of heavy ships standing in boxes of water, and tracts of oily caged waters, swaying restlessly, quietly threatening to spill over and take back the Netherlands. Whatever you call the waters, they are everywhere.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Travelogue 471 – October 20

Jan is standing by the door of the building as my cab pulls up. It looks as though he has just walked up, and I'm relieved to see him. Our appointment was a tentative if-I'm-not-able-to-call kind of appointment, proposed in a final email from Ethiopia.

I've just arrived from Schiphol and taken a train through Amsterdam Centraal and onward. Outside the train station of my destination, I show the cabbie my address, and off we go, with nary a word. The cabbie is Arab, so I'm thinking I'll enjoy some good conversation about the town on the way, but he's not having it. Maybe it's the relatively early hour on a Saturday. I sit in the back, and watch the blocks swim by.

My street is Saturday-morning quiet. Everything is made of brick, including the street itself. Cars are silently crowded into every available space along the kerbs, on one side parallel to the street, on the other squeezed together side by side. Between the cars and the pavement is a pink bike path, the only strip actually paved in asphalt. The street is unremarkable. It could be anywhere in northern Europe, bland and square contiguous housing stacked uniformly three storeys high, unbroken from street to street. But just around the corner is a pretty canal, something most everyone in Holland can say, it would seem.

Jan says hello uncertainly. He is Dutch tall and blonde, and Dutch reserved, though he bears the appearance of once having been a hippie of sorts, his hair still disheveled and his attire tired youthful, tired gallant, much as his face has the markings of European early middle age, something haggard, a look like the North Sea winds.

Jan leads me up the Dutch staircase to the flat, a stairway almost comically long and dim and narrow, each step barely a toehold. Upstairs is something more inviting and cozy, two spacious rooms with generous windows, furnished adequately, comfortably.

We settle up and return to the street together. Standing on the flagstones under the grim northern sky, Jan is telling me about the neighborhood, pointing vaguely left and then right. He is interrupted by a thought. You know, he says, he has an extra bicycle, if I'd like to use it. Of course I do. He invites me back to his place to pick up said vehicle. He unlocks his bike, swings one leg over, and he pats the little luggage rack on the back. I climb on.

We pass over one canal and then another. We pass historic Delfshaven, a narrow alley lined with small gabled roofs, a cobblestone road that heads toward the river. We roll along the bike path on Nieuwe Binnenweg, past 'coffee shops', and sex shops, and corner shops with African flavor, and corner shops with Arab products, and with Turkish, and my behind is beginning to ache.

Jan lives with his wife and three children up an even more precipitous flight of stairs in a hundred year-old building across the street from a neighborhood park. The children stand behind the art deco wrought iron railing that encloses their balcony, and they yell down at their dad. He smiles, an unguarded and unreserved smile, something I may never have seen without the kids.

My bicycle is an old grey monster with deflated tires, but I think she's beautiful. Jan gives me the key to its lock. I delicately push up the old kickstand, and I wobble off toward home. Climbing the precarious stairs to my flat, I sing, 'Welkom in Rotterdam'.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Travelogue 470 – October 16

This is the bar at the Finfine Adarash. The adarash is a government-owned meeting place in the center of town, where the earth's tumble from the mountains pauses in a kind of pastoral bowl before rolling mildly on toward the brown valleys of Debre Zeit, and the long vistas of the Rift Valley Lake district. The adarash is where families meet for weddings, where businessmen come in suits to sulk or joke over alcohol, and where middle-class families dress in their best traditional clothes and gather around the mosob for a special occasion. The wedding parties take place in the outdoor space behind the bar, a cement-paved area as many square meters as the indoor space, broken up by small geometrical patterns of earth cultivated with bright flowers and shade trees, centered around a concrete gazebo-and-stage. During wedding parties, this gazebo is where the DJ stands at his equipment. The middle class families enter and climb the stairs indoors, gathering many stools and chairs and mosob – the traditional wicker stands topped with round serving platforms just the size and shape of injera. And after ten minutes, the middle-class children start screaming and running circles around the second floor, which is built as a mezzanine, looking down on the bar. And those moaning businessmen, they gravitate to that bar.

The esteemed reader should be able to make out a piece of the circular bar in my photo. This is the location of many an important work discussion among our set, in which philosophies are presented and dissected; projects designed, dismantled, and banged together again; the under-privileged are gathered in the finest nets of kindness, and Addis society is analyzed under the finest blades.

Setting lends its colors to debate. That's why location is so important to policy; the gravest issues need the gladdest settings. The Finfine has just the charm for serious matters. Every obstacle is wood. The ceilings were painted back in Solomon's day with patterns suggestive of the garden of love. The bar is dark wood suspended in beds of varnish. It describes a circle around two clumsy pillars and the prosaic, tiled work space of the bartenders. The bar is furnished with stools like thrones, seats covered in goat skin.

Most of the bartenders know us. They know us as a group. Tonight it's only Cien and I. They ask after Menna. The bar is staffed today by one of the stout women and one of the thin men with crooked faces, dressed in those perennial lime-skin green uniforms. The woman won't speak to us, glancing at us with terror. We smile and she smiles back, but the language barrier is too much for her. The man, by contrast, revels in our (exaggerated) Amharic facility. 'Ooh,' he shakes his head, 'bedemp you speak Amaregna!'

The waiters lean against the railings of the second floor level and watch TV. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to get their attention. At some point, all the TVs in the place will get turned up to 'blast' for the waiters' pleasure, and switched to the deadly dull Ethiopian government channel. The monotonous narration of government meetings and meetings of farmers and meetings of Parliament will rise in volume in counterpoise to the customers' conversation. But that game only starts after nine or so. For now, the businessmen are still in tickled mourning.

This is one of my last nights in Addis. Cien and I have much business to discuss. Our success depends on how fast the Chivas goes down. And the Metas. The astute reader will just discern to the right of the photo a bottle of the Meta, though this particular bottle contains the despised 'Premium'. We order only the original recipe, which comes in the stubby bottles printed with white brand identification. There are no glued labels. When you stop in an Ethiopian bar, ask for Meta acheru , the short one, if you want the authentic experience.

There will be critical subject matter forgotten among countless digressions and stories, the business eventually succumbing to the alcohol and the banter. But that's the beauty and the tragedy of the Finfine Adarash, lacunae woven intimately among its triumphs. One walks out of the bar feeling fulfilled in any case, walking down the long pavement, between narrow gardens and, behind them, the two wings that house the baths. This little geographic bowl provides something like the spiritual center of Addis Ababa, once a tiny Oromo village named, Finfine: the hot springs. The rooms in these two wings feature baths, family-size and … more intimate. I have yet to see them. I come here only for business.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Travelogue 469 – October 8
The Priests

This is the gun that guards the monks. The man is guard and tour guide. He is currently leading our group up the hill above the Debre Libanos monastery, to the famous cave where the saint Tekle Haimenot prayed standing (meaning, standing continuously) for almost thirty years, for so long that one of his legs purportedly fell off. He is traditionally depicted with a detached leg nicely wrapped for him off in one corner.

The cave is a long crevice cut horizontally into the bottom of a cliff. Water drips from the ceiling continuously, the saint's tears. Pilgrims climb the steep steps, nothing more than stones set along a narrow trail, hundreds of them climbing every day in order to bask in the saint's glory. Just outside the gate at the top of the steps, the gate that accesses the small dirt courtyard outside the cave, there is a square shack made of corrugated iron. From inside the shack come the music of splashing water and the crazed, shrieking screams of someone possessed. 'Enough! Enough! I'm burning!' she cries.

Debre Libanos is off the northern road, about two hours or so from Addis. Confession: our first objective is wildlife. I have never driven up to this monastery without a sighting of the Gelada baboon, native only to Ethiopia. They like to hang out in the fields above the canyon near to the road to the monastery. That's just a kilometer or so off the northern highway. You know you're approaching the turnoff when you see the roadside vendors of crosses carved in pink stone.

You'll see the baboons fairly soon after you turn off the highway; they'll be grazing in the fields where some local farmer has built crude boxes on legs for bee hives. The baboons leisurely pick among the grasses, and pick among each other's hides, paying no mind to the sheep or the nearby traffic. But they will mind the humans shouting at them and throwing stones. These local humans will very often wait until you've patiently worked your way to within ten meters of a big, wild-maned father, or a mom with its infant on her back, to run up and start delivering a proud, touristic lecture about the apes in braying voices. Nearby, a farmer will practice his aim with a slingshot on the Geladas. Even that will only motivate the baboons to turn lazily away and migrate to another part of the field.

The monastery is set among dramatic scenery, below high cliffs, and overlooking a broad, hazy gorge that meanders away to the west. The church was rebuilt around 1960 by order of the Emperor. Tekle Haimenot is a saint to be reckoned with. The church is a solid construction of well-worked stone, with a steep dome of silver. It is very pretty against the high bluffs behind it. At this time of year, so soon after rainy season, there are waterfalls to be spotted among those heights.

There are hundreds of pilgrims, even on a weekday. They climb up to the cave. They pray in the church. The monks greet all and sundry with holy boredom. The guard brusquely pushes us toward the office, so we can pay for tickets. One priest in a rose-colored robe asks the ladies if they have had sex recently, assuming, perhaps, in the way of celibate men, that the men in the party had little to do with it. He charges foreigners in the party double the ticket price, and I protest. He just rolls his eyes. I call him a racist. He sighs and gives his nails a glance-over.

The tour begins. Desultorily, the priest gestures toward the church. Some from our party enter. The rest sit in the sun by God' well-provisioned lawns and gardens. Then the priest leads us through the museum, narrating in a nasal tone of disapproval, while a colleague sits at the entrance entertaining himself noisily on his iPhone. The displays are interesting enough, though I've seen many like them across Ethiopia, medieval manuscripts, silver processional crosses, priest's robes, and the knick-knacks of a monk's life before the iPhone came along.

We are led to the beginning of the path up to the cave. The trees obscure the route. The priest passes us off to the guard, an old man with an unsteady gait and a gun. He waves us on in an abbreviated welcome and hello and let's go. He swings the old rifle up over his shoulders, and wrists over each end, shuffling forward in this posture, a traditional Ethiopian long-and-weary-road posture, and we are on our way.

This is the day-to-day of religion now, I guess. It's a tough business the priest and guard might say, a rough and tumble with tedium and dust, brushes with the sins of pilgrims and saints, and the shoe sole sacrifice of miles along the museum pavement and the ancient rocks of penance and prayer. But someone must follow in the big, stationary footsteps of the saint, and they are just the corps to do it.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Travelogue 468 – October 4
The Things That Signify

This design has penetrated into my psyche fairly deeply. I stare at it almost daily when I'm in Ethiopia. I see pictures in it, busts and blossoms, integers and fountains. The familiar and then something new. It's a quasi-paisley wallpaper in the brain.

This is the design in the glass in my salon window at home. It's a big fat window, floor to ceiling, and across the whole front of the room. It allows in light and heat -- especially heat in the afternoon, when the sun shines on it directly – but doesn't allow prying eyes access.

You'll see the shadow of a bar behind the glass. I live behind bars, just like Wheezer the dog. The difference is, I have keys and opposable thumbs. I can get out. But there is security everywhere, bars in all windows and doors. The wall around the compound has broken glass embedded in the cement on top. Above that are rolls of barbed wire.

During the summer, during my last stay in Ethiopia, I slammed the door and shattered the glass. For a few days, the top panel of our door was wide open. The bars remained, to discourage the thieves that might have made it over the barbed wire and shards of glass, but the eyes were free to roam, as were the cold winds of rainy season. The door panel displayed a new design, kind of like the cartoon of a TNT blast, jagged lightning edges around the frame.

Ijigu buys us a new panel of glass and places it back in the door frame. He has found the same quasi-paisley design – I have the feeling there are too many other choices in the market – and I am comforted.

I have one ritual particularly tied to that pattern, and that is my daily workout. When I'm not running up in the mountains, when I need an exercise fix that doesn't require driving, I work out in the salon. There are reasons I don't use the compound's courtyard. The family that owns the property is often making use of the space, hanging laundry, sweeping up, gardening, or just passing through. There is an old man, victim of a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, who is daily wheeled out to take in the sun. Atomsa sits on the low wall containing the garden and holds an old transistor radio to his ear. Wheezer chuffs, and his companion whines.

I've had frequent occasion to comment on staring on this blog. It is a fact of life in Ethiopia, the psychological weight of which is probably hard to imagine for those of my devoted readership comfortably settled in home territory, in European cultures. Life in Addis is very public; so much of it occurs on the street. There are no private spaces. And so, public spaces are continuous, colorful, and commingling dialogue. Everyone is visible, commentary flows freely. It is fun; it is admirable; it is exhausting for people used to privacy cultures.

So I bring the workout indoors. And whatever the activity, I have my face turned toward the sunlight, toward the window. I fix my eyes on a piece of the pattern, a brick in the wall, and the mind goes blank. Blank minds are the most receptive.

I wonder about the symbols that are internalized during lives defined by coincidence and chance, shaped by odd furnishings. How often do we see our nation's flag – artificial symbol of something we think has powerful significance – compared to, say, a red traffic light, or the lines dividing lanes in our asphalt streets? Which symbols sink most deeply in among the equipment of the brain, silently and permanently? And which signs are more arbitrary, which are unique to our age? How many generations can claim whole life spans under the gaze of those red and green and yellow lights?

I sit at the kitchen table and I adopt the attitude of a man looking out his window upon a beautiful day. I am oriented toward the daylight, toward the radiation of the sun filtering into the house, but I see nothing; I'm just contemplating the patterns of the brain, the swoosh, the arc, the curve, the turning of time on its axis.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Travelogue 467– October 2
Tiny Homes

This is Wheezer. Wheezer is a dog. He's a big mutt, orange in general color, like most dogs in Ethiopia. There are many specimens like Wheezer running the streets. He's got more muscle than most of his street cousins, and his hair is thick and matted. I don't know dog science well enough to say why the street dogs have healthier coats. Maybe it's because they get to roll in the dirt and in the grass. Wheezer only has concrete walls and the concrete floor. As far as I know, he has never had a life outside his cage. This is where Wheezer lives, day after day.

Wheezer is one of a pair. There are two cages, and two dogs. His companion is older, but looks a lot like Wheezer. They look enough alike that I've wondered if they are family. Maybe it's Wheezer's father. The two never get to play together or sniff each other up. They only see each other through bars, when one gets a minute to run outside the cage.

Once or twice a week, Atomsa cleans the cage. He comes in the morning, stretching the hose across the courtyard of the compound. He turns the water on, and then he lets one dog out, making sure that none of the human family is outside. The dog gallops around the courtyard, stopping to sniff and to raise his leg. Both dogs have gotten used to my smell. If I'm around, I'll play with them, chasing them from one side of the yard to the other.

Atomsa hoses the cage clean, and then he calls the dog back in. Once the dog is inside, Atomsa hoses him down. Then the other dog gets a minute outside. I've noticed that Wheezer is not as fun-loving as his older companion. He is more athletic, and he bounds around the yard with more gusto. But he's not as interested in playing with anyone. He would rather get a good smell of everything.

Wheezer has one job in life, one job with one duty, and that is to bark. That is the job description of most domestic dogs. Someone rattles the compound gate, he barks. A stranger comes in, he barks. He takes his job seriously. He practices all night, when the city comes alive with sound, when dogs everywhere raise their song, and one hears a chorus of hundreds. Wheezer enjoys the nighttime chorals.

Wheezer has a sharp bark, but it's his companion who barks more and longer. Wheezer is a technician; he prefers to make his bark mean something. He will wait until someone is less than a meter away, and then he'll stand and shout. And Wheezer has a broader repertoire than his companion. He has a growl. He puts us all on notice sometimes. If I swat a mosquito, smacking the wall of my little house, he starts the growl. I say, 'Growl, Wheezer, growl.' That sometimes makes him stop, with a snort, more out of contempt than from familiarity.

Our little abode faces the dog cages. If I sit on the front steps of our little house, I stare at Wheezer and he stares back. I tell him, 'our little house isn't much bigger than yours. We are two people and we have two rooms, too. Okay, we have a bathroom, too. That would be nice, wouldn't it, Wheezer? Do you wish you had a bathroom?' Wheezer listens to me, leaning his face against the bars, rolling his eyes to look at me. His eyes look sad. He's thinking about that bathroom. What would that be like, he wonders.

I ask Wheezer if he would like his coat shaved. 'You might feel cooler.' It must be healthier, too, I think to myself. Wheezer shrugs. He's indifferent to comfort. He rests up for his next barking assignment. He dreams about the night, and his wide network of friend around the city. I ask Atomsa if we can give Wheezer a shave. Atomsa shrugs, says Wheezer will bite. Who will hold him? I sit on my front steps and think about that. Wheezer watches me with a mocking look.