Thursday, May 31, 2012

Travelogue 447– May 31
Ants Twenty

May is quiet. May is hot. Harmless summer clouds pause over Addis Ababa, like a gentle pause in the calendar before the darkening mood of June. A smoky haze and occasional stiff breezes presage the rains of summer. But May is made for idyll.

Mark insists on a trip to Debre Zeit during the weekend that breaks up the faranjis' training trip. We oblige him. On a previous trip, Mark has found a 'lodge' by Lake Babogaya, where rows of mosquito-infested huts sit among pleasant gardens. The owner has captured some guinea fowl, and put them in a pen with dikdiks, There is a formidable old turkey that roams the grounds free, chasing guests who get too near. There is a tired nag that gives rides to the children. There are campfires and tasty grilled fish at night.

May hangs over Lake Babogaya like a smoked-glass mirror set over the bowl of surrounding hills, gathering the gold of the grasses and the blue of the lake. The waters lap against the concrete foundation of the lakeside terrace. I've stolen away from the huts to the new, mosquito-free Babogaya Resort, where I can sit next to the lake, watching the calming motion of the waters, listen to the stilted monologue of the member of the Ethiopian parliament next to me, where I can read my book in a desultory way until the rest of the party joins me. They have gone for a hike in the dry hills. I spend an hour battling with the internet connection inside, and finally give up to enjoy the terrace.

Yes, it's Gunboat. That's the Amharic name for May. Ethiopians don't particularly like this idyllic miniature summer, between the April showers and the deluges of rainy season. The heat oppresses them. I tell them I love Gunboat. I also love playing with their language -- since I have so little facility with it in seriousness. By some silly association, I called the big holiday of this month 'Gundan Haya'. It's supposed to be 'Gunboat Haya', or May 20, a rather prosaic name for a big holiday, the day the Derg regime was ousted by the present one. I find holidays like this faintly ridiculous, with the uniforms and the marching bands and all the police. So the accidental name 'Ants Twenty' makes comic sense. The Abashas laugh guiltily.

I am not so smooth on another day, when I have the honor to meet the grandson of Haile Selasse. His name is unfortunately close to a bad word, and I fall into the linguistic trap. So I am shaking his hand, and essentially I am saying, 'It's such a pleasure to meet you, Mister F**ker. How are you today, Mister F**ker?' His coterie of friends are horrified, but he takes it stride. He is a friendly and accessible man, with big, doe-like brown eyes. He is unaffected, and I would not have picked him out as a prince.

We meet a second time in the Wabe Shebelle Hotel down in what I call the Haile Selasse side of Addis, where the architecture of the grand period remains preserved in benign neglect. The Wabe Shebelle was the happening place in its day, they tell me. I've always liked the place because of its cool, 60s cosmopolitan look. In its heyday, all the legendary singers of Ethiopia's first pop period sang here. I can just see it, suits and ties and cigarettes, while outside the night closes in on the thousands and thousands of shacks in candlelight.

In any case, let's leave the young couples of the imperial era to dance the night away; let's give Prince F**ker some respite from clumsy faranjis; and let's return to Lake Babogaya, while the sun still shines. We sit in deck chairs beside the water, drinking beer, and we play Connect Four. Gelila always loses; Menna always wins. The sun is high in the sky. All is just.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Travelogue 446– May 15
The One Constant

I'm disoriented. It will take me a while to adjust. After more than eight years, I have changed blog sites, and I am overcome with melancholy thoughts about the transience of life. What forms our foundations, our touchstones, in a world where blogger sites can be shuffled like college residencies? I have to re-assess all that is jarvis, all that formed the bedrock of the jarvis world.

I stand outside Bole International, and I reflect: if a website can be so ephemeral, so vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then are there any real anchors in life? Will the Ethiopian sun rise in the west? Will the aroma of Ethiopia fade or change? Does it give itself away a degree every year, while I don't even notice? The first joy in every arrival -- from the moment I pass through the door of the airliner -- is this very comfort, this balm among the hardships of travel, that earthy scent in the air of this place, made of charcoal and berbere, onion and red earth, coffee and eucalyptus. It is arrival.

One thing slavishly obedient to the principle of change is the dispensation of people and cars, baggage and taxis at the airport -- just about any thing or system moveable in the complex. The entries and exits change. The cafes change. Today, there is no entry at all into the terminal for visitors. And no cars are allowed to drive up to the terminal. Now one enters the empty terminal from baggage claim, and then makes one's way through the parking lot, full of milling crowds, to the far end of the asphalt, where police are allowing cars through in a narrow, choked stream. It's mayhem.

It takes me half an hour to find Shimeles. He has made a major change himself, having finally saved enough to buy his own car. Most drivers pay commissions for use of a regular car. Now he owns his own. This car looks much like the last, small, square, and taxi blue. He has a few more sporty lights now; he has a few more Christian bumper stickers in Amharic or Ge'ez inside and out. And he is proud.

My cozy little place is no longer my own, of course. The walls show new colors; The floor space has contracted. Menna has used my long absence to do some work, closing up with plaster the many portals from the insect universe into our own. There are frilly things on the bed and over the windows. The bathroom hosts rows of mysterious bottles. We have a television. I contentedly part the pretty new sheets, and I find the profound sleep of the pilgrim.

I have meetings immediately, first thing in the morning. They do not take place in our Spartan old office, where four people share two desks, and Yemisrach sits behind a child-sized writing table; where we meet in the center, sitting on plastic stools, sharing a knee-high table that allows only a few notebooks and coffee cups from the cafe downstairs; where closing the shades over our one window in the afternoon, when the sun glares in, involves climbing halfway onto our short book cases. No, today we meet in our spacious new digs, where either of our two new rooms could swallow the old office whole. Even adding in the new furniture to the old, the first room echoes with unused space. The second is still empty.

In the staff meeting, we review the year. Both the program year and school year are coming to a close. It has been a year of successes and growth. When we break, staff disperses to the far corners of our office. I stand in the center, arms akimbo, the lost captain of a well-appointed and well-directed ship.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Travelogue 445– May 11
Bless the Waters

Note: Dear Readers, as I face the prospect of blogger blackout in my once and future destination, I am forced to diversify in order to protect the continual and, indeed, survival of this vital account. Please, therefore, after this entry, visit my new site for further entries once I have crossed into Africa. Once I am back in America or Europe, I will update this site. Thank you for your indulgence.

My place of transition is green and flat. Everything about the land is sculpted by man, even the waters. Near my hotel is the Sloterplas, a lake on the site of a lake, a refashioning of water. The ancient lake was a messy affair, waxing and waning with the seasons, unpredictable. And ultimately, in the way. More land was needed for tilling. The magicians of the prosperous new Nederland drained the old lake, and for centuries it was peaceful farmland.

In the twentieth century, land for housing became more necessary than land for farming. But houses require foundations and terra firma. And so a lake was reborn, made in the likeness of nature, made from the pit left by excavation for sand to raise surrounding lands. Now, there are homes and streets and parks. And when I go for a jog, I run around this very pleasant, domesticated plot of water, There are lawns and trails and fine-looking geese. There is even a fountain some thirty meters off shore.

Amsterdam is nothing if not a pleasant city. Despite the international image of mayhem and licentiousness, I've always found this to be a preternaturally calm and orderly people and place. It would seem to be designed for greatest comfort. It is, after all, the first and most constant instance of European bourgeoisie.

This is the Osdorp district out here, on the other side of the Sloterplas. It might be considered something of an immigrant slum by some. Every race is represented, but all others are outnumbered by the Turks and Arabs. People are poor. The kids do their best to look menacing. But the tough teens have it hard here. How does project danger while loitering on green lawns beside scenic canals, feeding the water fowl? I feel for them. They do their best. They don shiny puff jackets, and shave parts of their heads; they slouch and drag their feet and smoke, and somehow it all just floats down the canal like a smile.

I share the walkways with them, the wide pavements through peaceful parks. We share those with veiled mothers pushing carriages. We gather at the tram stop. Public transport runs frequently and efficiently. We file into the car in an ordered manner. There are seats for everyone. We head toward the city center. One sits in an attitude of defiance, but it is hard to direct one's rebellion. Maybe it's the skies one resents, the source of scarcely relenting fog or drizzle. These are some of life's challenges around the North Sea.