Saturday, June 23, 2012

Travelogue 451– June 23
Abraham on the Mountain

I just saw a ridiculous film, made well. It seems horror must be ridiculous. Only a cross can redeem serious horror. Outside the exorcist's chamber, credibility lies in humor. What this says is, our fears are laughable. Or it says we are comic when we are afraid. Both true, I suppose.

The film has another message. It says we find our history inscrutable. That is a healthy admission, I think. It's got to be a good thing when we laugh about our mysteries. It's the most humble way to deal with frustration. Better for everyone if Americans find healthy channels for frustration, as, say, the last fifty years might demonstrate.

Its funny. I just finished re-reading Gore Vidal's fine book about Father Abraham. Vidal's portrait has mystery at its center. What motivated the great man? Just what was his devotion to the Union?

The horror film 'solves' the mystery. Obviously, vampires were leading the rebellion, and wanted a nation of their own. Abraham kills vampires as avocation. His mother was bitten: sacred territory is the virginal throat of one's mother. Sacred as the innocence and tenderness of a young nation encircled by red-eyed predators.

Vidal lays it out well, the wonderful ambiguity and fragility of history. Because history is made of finished business, we tend to see it as a train on its one iron track. But Vidal finds the feeder tracks, the tenuous zigs and zags: the president's selective readings of the Constitution, and his vague and shifting positions on slavery, for example. Moreover, Vidal takes a measure of the astonishing power that this one man exerts, almost passively, on the historical moment, becoming something like the eye of the needle. Astonishing most of all to his contemporaries, as Vidal so well portrays.

But there are no final answers. History may be finished business, but much of its course is cloaked in obscurity. We don't like that. Father Abraham's portrait on the penny is etched in very clear lines. That is how truth should be.

So persecuted vampires want a nation of their own. (A reference to Israel? Jews as blood-sucking racists? Israelis in Confederate uniforms?) Papa Vampire meets with Jefferson Davis in a vine-clad mansion in New Orleans. And Lincoln's Union is code for the struggle against monsters who move in darkness. Sure. Why not?

The mysteries are bundled conveniently for us. And it's so much more fun than the usual conspiracy theory. Was Lincoln a Mason? An Illuminati? Was he secretly married to Mary Magdalene and taking orders from Pontius Rothschild?

Meanwhile, rest in peace, Father Abraham. Yuu took your child to the mountain under threat of death, only to have him reborn. Isaac lives on, and you are the sacrifice. Isaac is the new corporate party and the new corporate state, child of the Fourteenth Amendment, harbinger of qualified equality to all: banks, railroads, and ... slaves.

And the monsters? They are returned to their natural state, that of vaudeville. They lurk and they hope. And they write history.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Travelogue 450– June 20
Sick on the Mountain

It creeps up on me during the Awasa trip, a dull pain radiating through my lower jaw after the first bites of a meal. It grows into a horrible earache. Twice a day, I'm immobilized. There is a gland underneath the jawline that gets triggered by the pain, swells into a constant menace.

Mauro has his own problems. He is an Italian hippie. He is sick. He is cramped in the back seat of Shimeles's taxi, and he is sick. But not as sick as his wife.

Mauro is middle-aged and grizzled. He has been in Ethiopia for five years. He farms down south, in Arba Minch. He speaks only in pigeon Amharic. He doesn't know English. He won't speak Italian, rebutting with a simple and intriguing sort of disavowal: 'I'm Veneziano.' His wife speaks Amharic. I can't say whether she's learned any of the Venetian dialect.

Me, I'm thinking I can still train. I get up early and stretch. I leave home, and I walk up the road, laid with stones, up to the asphalt, where Shimeles and the runners are waiting. I ease myself into the car. 'Kusquam,' I say: our destination for today. The place is code for short run. Kusquam is the closer of my training areas. It's halfway up the mountain. The terrain is very rocky. It's not made for long runs.

Mauro says that everyone has weba down in Arba Minch. Weba is malaria. I think of our trip down that way last year. It's a wet and fertile land. The fruit there is amazing. So are the crocs. And the mosquitoes. He has weba. His wife has weba. The minute you're not strong, he says, it gets you.

My training partners and I set out on the run. The first half mile or so is uphill, up a rough dirt road, through what used to be forest. The road is even rougher now. They've been logging in our chaka, our forest. The trucks have been chugging up and down my road, churning up the mud. The trees are missing along the southern side of the road, exposing hazy Addis below. We will have to follow the trails off the road for a while to get back into full chaka.

I don't make it that far. My jaw is throbbing. I am tired to the bones. I can't sleep at night for the pain. There's an infection raging along the root nerves of one molar. I make it a few hundred meters, and I have to stop. I have deep muscle fatigue. I can feel it all the way through my body. We walk back down to the asphalt. But Shimeles is not there. The car is gone.

Mauro's girlfriend is dark-skinned Ethiopian, from the south. She is very sick. She is rocking in her seat, moaning, 'Weny, weny,' an Amharic cry of pain or despair, meaning something like, 'Why me?' We have to stop halfway down the mountain, while she retches, leaning out the door and into the street. We sit in silence for five minutes while she is sick.

Shimeles keeps a roll of plastic bags in his glove box. He passes back a bag. She leans over it for a second round. Mauro holds her gently, says, 'Ayzush.' Shimeles starts the car, and we start drifting down the mountainside again.

After I have given up on the run, we walk back down the hill. Shimeles's taxi is not there. And everyone's mobile phone is in the taxi. Tesfahun is resourceful. He manages to beg a few coins from a store-owner. When I ask why, I'm astounded to see that there's actually a working pay phone up here, at this hiccup in the climb to sacred Entoto.

Shimeles tells us he got a fare while we were gone. He's on his way back down from Entoto. We wait. Little boys with mud on their faces play soccer around us. This is a way station for the van taxis, so there's a good cohort of the mordant boys that make up this trade. They are among the world's great satirists. I'm years beyond minding as they make quick work of me in my bright running gear.

When Shimeles arrives, there is a faranj in the back seat, a faranj with his Ethiopian wife. The faranj is middle-ages and long-haired. His skin is bronzed from years in the fields of the south, so that it takes a second glance to determine that he is faranj. He is slouched forward and leaning into his wife. He is preoccupied.

They need to be taken to a clinic. I climb in front. My runners will now have to take a van taxi down the hill. They are gracious about it. We set off, and I reach back to shake his hand. He introduces himself as Mauro. His teeth are dark from tobacco. 'Miste amowatal,' he says. My wife is sick.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Travelogue 449– June 17
Steady and Moving
Part Two

And then there's Bekoji, small town accreted from mud and from humbler skies than Awasa's. One visit informs of its unchanging qualities. A new asphalt highway winds through the town center, and the residents turn away from it, turning toward the bold hills to east and west. There are no taxis; residents amble along the highway, stopping in the middle of the road for conversation.

The hills feel newly risen from the high plain. That has everything to do with the drive. From Awasa, one passes through shabby Shashemene and turns east. From there, due east, are mild hills, mild farms, and the rough-hewn, staring towns common to Oromiya. The mellow pastoral and the harsh angles of the farmers slip into one's unconscious as dream-like symbols, and one seems to doze until the van reaches the juncture with the northern road.

There the land opens up, until the traveler is speeding through a most unusual feature in this part of the country, flat spaces. The towns become scarce. The farmland pours into spacious tracts. One passes a tractor on the road, a most unique animal.

After a while, the hills return with a sort of primeval pungency, and one enters Bekoji. Unknown Bekoji, famous Bekoji. It's an odd town. The people mill about on the highway. Horse-drawn carts stop on the muddy shoulder. There is a sense of imminence. We arrive at the town hall just as rain starts. Town hall is an assembly of mud walls among high grass. Everyone is out for lunch. We sit in the van, listening to the thrum of rain on the roof.

Once people arrive, we splash through puddles to the office. We sit together without lights. The talk is formal. Around the walls are posters in English and Amharic, each hailing a hero from Bekoji. They comprise an impressive list. Coach Sintayehu shows us the over-sized ledger that records all his Project kids during the past decade. Recorded among the first pages are Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa. The Project: in Ethiopia, this is the term for kebele-sponsored athletic programs for youth. The running Project in Bekoji is legendary.

The best hotel in Bekoji is owned by a runner, an alum of the amazing talent factory that is this town. It conforms to the standards of 'good hotel' in small town Ethiopia: single-level concrete structures, two long rows of rooms. The doors and the locks work. The TV works. There is hot water. The restaurant is clean, and the food is not bad at all. ...There is a mosquito net.

The following morning is clear and chilly. We are invited to a training session. Just off the still highway is a curving dirt road that ends above a grove of eucalyptus that occupies a sharply defined bowl in the landscape. On one wide but shallow, grassy slope, between a local's wooden fence and the declivity, they gather, small and quiet groups occasionally appearing from north and south, some emerging from the woods in the bowl. They stand and sit in an informal crescent of expectation. The coach is a short man with greying hair. He smiles benignly and talks little. He wears a baseball cap and sneakers. He strolls among the athletes, and along the edges of the accumulating crowd. By 7am, there are more than a hundred there, and more coming, all waiting for orders.

He stands before them, only a few minutes behind schedule -- a miracle of discipline in itself in Ethiopia -- and he mildly spells out the morning regimen in a few short sentences. The crowd of youngsters starts off, streaming to the right, around the fence, and down a well-trod mud path. The coach describes the workout vaguely, gesturing in sweeping waves of his arm: twenty minutes of warm-up, and then speed drills among the trees below.

The morning is a glorious one. The sky is blue, the air fresh. We wander among the eucalyptus. After their warm-up, the young athletes start passing in groups, thundering by in full stride. The groups are organized by their distances. First are several clusters of the core 'middle' distances, five and ten kilometers. Then the short distance people, looking tall and muscular. Then the long distance runners, with set faces and measured pace. Everyone waits for them at the end. They have may more repeats than anyone else. Each distance has its male groups and female.

The circuit they run is obviously programmed into their blood. They run alongside the eucalyptus grove and up the mud path between fences. Five minutes later, they're running down through the trees to the bottom of the hill, where they circle back and attack the incline, dropping steps perfectly among the networks of roots marbling the earth. Repeat, repeat. Tesfahun and Ijigu from Team Tesfa have traveled with us. They have risen to the challenge, changed clothes and joined in.

Menna and I are happy to enjoy the brisk morning and the peace of the trees. The area is beautiful. The work we're witnessing is also beautiful. I can't say why exactly. It's funny how Bekoji is the meeting of archetypes: the first is ancient Ethiopia and the second is new Ethiopia. There is hope in every stride of the runners. And that becomes strength and freedom. I know the feeling inside that tenth lap, if one is healthy. This is life, pinpointed in the pace, all focus on this path through the woods. Even strolling alongside of them, we feel it. This is the first place, the original place. We didn't arrive. We'll never leave. The marathoners roll by, and one is singing with joy.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Travelogue 448– June 16
Steady and Moving
Part One

In town, the hotels decay quickly. Electrical sockets short out; door locks jam; bathrooms develop permanent puddles; the showers have no hot water; TVs malfunction; anything wooden becomes infested; beds sag; ceilings stain; toilets don't flush, become dark nests for mosquitoes; bedsheets become grey and frayed. The prices reflect no depreciation. They climb, and are simply surpassed by the latest facility in a town that never ceases to grow: Awasa, capital of the southern nations.

Politics are funny at the moment. This town, founded only fifty years ago, has found a handy heritage and history. As capital of a region that consists of more than fifty nationalities, this city is a day-long procession of ethnicity. The federal government would like to declare it a federal city and administer it directly. The Sidama people protest. The arbitrary site of Awasa lies in Sidama territory. Suddenly Awasa is their historic capital. Many are on strike today. Many meet illicitly. Peaceful Awasa streets host sinister riot vehicles from Addis.

The tender skies of the region register no change, beyond that of the season. Gentle humidity sustains us. Sun warms us in the morning: we take an outdoor table at the Time Cafe. Just after midday, clouds quietly gather. By five, there will be rain. But they will be smiling showers, short in duration and little more than an inconvenience, stark contrast to the fierce deluges in Addis, already beginning to claim our afternoons. As rainy season gathers momentum in Addis, during July and August, they will consume whole days in their violence.

The current kings in the Awasa hotel market are the two resorts on the lake. One is owned by athlete Haile Gebreselasse. The architecture is square, slick, monolithic. It turns inward, around the vast restaurant / bar that echoes like an airport terminal. A piano man in a tux plays nursery rhymes. Several high TV screens regale visitors in their plush couches. American military shout their conversation, Sudanese businessmen slip lower and lower into their chairs, issuing nonsense drunken witticisms in accented English and giggling.

This is where we go in the evenings to watch the first games of the Euro Cup. After a few nights, we've made friends with the manager, one of Haile's team of business managers in what amounts to an impressive empire in his native country. The man is sharp, and sharp about more than selling cars and hospitality. He calls the subs in the Netherlands game perfectly during the half. They will need Huntelaar and Van Der Vaart, he says. The coach obliges.

Traveling first-class Haile, our destinations in the evening are Poland and the Ukraine, rowdy host peoples of the cup, hosts always on the verge of smoke bombs and racist chants. We watch Germany in its cool march toward the finals; Croatia in its impetuous rush for advancement; Ronaldo pouting and Ribery scowling and Bendtner as hapless white knight.

During the day our destinations are more prosaic: dim and sleepy government offices, painted a mild mustard yellow, and holiday quiet -- Sidama-protest holiday. We wait for officials, as always, but it's a benign interval, so unlike Addis government offices, where hope dies alone and in agonies every minute of the day.

We emerge into the broad dirt road, into the mellow afternoon sun. We turn toward Piassa, the center of town, and stroll lazily forward together, past the variegated shuffle of Ethiopia's intense diversity, proud ethnicities lost until found, boys driving standing their flat horse-drawn carts, women to and from markets, to and from markets, teens roaming with humor and without will, small staring children lost until found.

In good time, we flag down a bajaj, the three-wheelers always good for a laugh. I can measure my age, racing and retrograde, by how easily I can slide into these little blue buggies. Today, I lose my cap backing in and bow to my clumsiness, picking it up. The driver has an eye cocked back and down, watching my shoe. The minute it lifts from the ground, he twists the accelerator and we buzz forth, bound for Wraclow.