Monday, December 31, 2012

Travelogue 480 – December 31
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Four

It sounds as though there is occasional gunfire in the neighborhoods of Amsterdam, like snipers in a failed revolution are taking their last shots. It can be eerie, these disembodied shots in broad daylight. I am made to jump more than once by the explosions echoing off the blank walls of some housing development.

It's the approaching new year, of course. I turn a corner and see a lumbering youth hidden in his hoodie, walking alone down a concrete alley. Listlessly, he drops something beneath his shoe and he steps on it There is a report that bounces among the surrounding buildings. He shuffles further on. I am his only audience.

Today I visit the centrum. Faithful readers will know that I usually don't bother with the center of town, but I have fallen for a very particular neighborhood, the Spui. This is not the love of discovery; I've passed through the Spui square on previous trips. This time, I am compelled to hang out.

There is little mystery to the attraction. It's all about books. The square hosts two huge bookstores. And there is a Waterstone's (a major British chain) just around the corner. And there is a weekly book fair, of the sort I became familiar with in Rome, lanes of vendors under canopies, selling used and rare books from cardboard boxes.

The square has a sort of accidental charm. Its cobblestone expanse occupies what was once a body of water. I suppose that can be said of much in the Netherlands. For several centuries, this was as far as the city reached. Eventually new canal projects diverted the insistent waters and the new traffic. But it wasn't until the 1880s that the Spui became land. It wasn't until the 1990s that the stream of cars was diverted, much as the waters were.

A number of city tram lines wind by the square, on their way from the Dam on out to the Leidseplein. On one side of the tracks is the Athenaeum bookstore and on the other, the American Bookstore. The former is the more scholarly bookstore, and the latter has one of the better mystery collections I've seen in Europe. Today I'm in an Athenaeum mood. I buy Barnes; I buy a history of Henry VII.

Outside, the Lieverdje stands smirking. This is a bronze of mischief, a kind of Amsterdamsche counterpart to Piccadilly's statue of Eros. The Lieverdje was a gift to the city from a tobacco company, and became a rallying point in the 60s for youth movements – the genesis of which, oddly enough, was an anti-smoking campaign.

I'm writing this from far away. I have arrived back in Minnesota. As in Holland, I started the day before the sun had risen. The moon still presides over the early hours. She has lost some mass, one edge blurring into blackness. There are few stars to accompany her. Instead, there is that unearthly mist that comes with extreme cold. The streets are bare; they are lined with snow. I'm downtown; I cross wide avenues in winter silence, breathing deeply of the freezing air. It seems so clean. It has sharp edges like ice. It doesn't forgive.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Travelogue 479 – December 29
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Three

This morning there is no moon. The cloud cover has congealed above, locking off the night. To the southwest, the airport sends yellow light up into the purple clouds, as though trying to bore through them. There is a plane descending ahead of me as a I run toward the north. It could be the plane from Addis. This is about the time we landed a few days ago. It could be my flight from Minneapolis, too. Same arrival time. I'm always stumbling into Schiphol from an overnight flight.

Tomorrow, I board another plane. I'm returning to America, trading the chill of Holland for the deep freeze of Minnesota. I'm not sure how I always seem to end up there in January.

There is a warm breeze, a nice contrast to yesterday's chill. But a brush of warmth on my cheek in pre-dawn Amsterdam is still a far cry from sunny Kuskwam. Kuskwam is that little church and village on the road up to Entoto. Fikre and Tesfahun don't like training in this area. The terrain is rough. The soil is dotted by an uncanny number of rocks and tree roots, roots of trees once harvested and trees now growing back. You can't build up much speed running in these woods, but during my days I need the time I save by stopping here instead of going to the top of the mountain. And I find the rocky terrain exhilarating. The placement of each step must be carefully minded. It's a type of meditation.

And the sun. I was blessed by bright skies on this trip to Ethiopia. The blue sky overhead is inspiring, transporting. In Amsterdam, it is night. It will be night for hours, though I'm running at 6:30am.

In southern Ethiopia, the sun is blazing with even more intensity We visit Cien at the work site, where school number nine is being built. On the day we arrive, the kindergarten building and the library building are collections of sticks, stood in rows to make walls, looking like a child's project. I've seen school buildings in the countryside that were no more than this. But of course, this is more and will be more than sticks planted in the dirt. Cien and his crew have leveled the land, dug post holes, and raised framework, all before playing with sticks. The sticks are the substructure to hold the mud, which will now be mixed and applied. That will happen after the roof of corrugated iron is added. And after the mud, there will be a layer of cement applied to the exterior to provide strength to and protection for the mud walls.

The crew also had to build a wall around the build site. The kindergarten and library are being built on the land of an existing government school. The construction area had to be kept clear of curious children. The wall is also of sticks, though fit together more tightly than the sticks in the building walls. This is the one school in the town of Azedebo, in the region of Kambata-Tembaro. The area is lovely, greener and hotter than Addis. The school is situated rather picturesquely among lush fields that boast a backdrop of beautiful hills. Though the hills are walking distance away, it's best to admire them from a distance, as they host a thriving community of hyenas, and even a couple leopards.

All the crew wear wide-brimmed straw hats, and it doesn't take long in the midday sun to figure out why. Everyone takes a break during our visit, and they cluster together in the shade of one of the new walls, sitting on large stones piled for some later stage of work. Some of the workers want to say a few words, thanking us for the opportunity to work, thanking us for the kindergarten for their children. Several teachers from the school next door are there. They say they've never seen a faranj like Cien, or for the matter, an Abasha like Ijigu, a faranj who lives and works among them, an Abasha who turns up first thing in the morning six days a week and starts right in on the hard labor.

Ethiopians like their ceremonies. And I like them for that. On another day, back in Addis, we present a few schools with small collections of books, and in each case we are led into the library for a formal thank you. Officials stand and speak, expressing thanks and hopes. I have to follow with the same, and with exhortations to put the materials to use. In one school, a parents committee of twenty or more is there, radiating gratitude and excitement. We break open the boxes and show them some of the donations. They applaud.

I remember that it's the night of the ceremonies that Menna and I stop by a bar called Guramyle. It's long been a favorite, a place where you feel like something out of the ordinary might happen. It's usually a quiet enclave for drunk artists of one sort or another, but every once in a while, you'll encounter a jazz night or dance night. Tonight a band called 'Qwanqwa' (their unfortunate choice of spelling – the word means language in Amharic) is debuting. It's a quartet, drums and fiddle and two krars, one bass, one not. The krar is a traditional string instrument that reminds me, in my ignorance of musical instruments, of a lyre. The lead krar player is named Mesele, and he brings some renown to the project. He outfits his krar with all sorts of guitar effects and generally has a really good time playing, applying his beer bottle to the strings, among other magic tricks, making the instrument cry like Hendrix. The fiddle is handled to great effect by a young faranji woman who demonstrates a surprising feel for local music. It makes for a fun show: experimentation is still the exception in Ethiopia, the rare exception. And it makes that much more impact on me after the traditional meetings of the morning, parents lined up in the classroom in their white gabis.

Behind the clouds of northern Europe, the moon begins its waning cycle. I might catch a glimpse of it on my flight over the ocean tomorrow. Maybe not. I'll likely see her again, diminished but no less bright for appearing over the snowy fields of North America.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Travelogue 478 – December 28
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Two

The early morning run today is grim. The temperatures have dropped. I don't notice straightaway, just emerging from a warm bed. I'm three minutes down the road before my hands feel the bite of the chill. I shrug it off; the morning runs are short.

I'm alone on the bike path that runs alongside the open fields. There is a string of humble street lights beside the path that describe a curving line ahead. I know this path. It turns to follow this canal. On the other side is a set of athletic facilities and football pitches. Another kilometer ahead there is a highway, and the path turns to follow it. I dip my head and concentrate on the flagstones beneath me. I'm feeling the clumsiness and aches of morning. It's darker out than yesterday. The cloud cover seals the city from the sky. I can just make out the location of the moon by its dim glow above the horizon.

I'm recovering from the recent travel. I'm always recovering from travel. I didn't cross many time zones coming to Holland, but the trip has taken its toll in any case. I'm tired. I haven't got my energy back yet. Maybe it's the sudden change in climates, or the sudden lack of sunlight. Maybe it's the backlash from a strenuous trip.

It wasn't a long stay in Ethiopia, but it was eventful. I wasn't twelve hours on the ground in Addis before we discovered that the office had been broken into. These were very particular burglars. They left cash where they found it. They broke the lock on one door, made a beeline to the desk drawer where staff kept the key to the next office, and then they made off with Menna's computer equipment. The building guard later commented that he saw the roaming beams of flashlights in our office windows, commenting on it as though it were a fine meteor shower.

Work immediately slows down after that. Menna is at the center of everything in our office, an observation too clearly shared by our burglars. Liz kindly offers to carry over a laptop on her next trip, but that's not until February. Meanwhile, documents are missing and Menna is inaccessible.

The police borrow all my staff for the day, taking fingerprints and questioning, robbing the charity of one more productive day. I spend the day catching up with other work, work I could have done in Europe. No one expects a thing from the police. And, indeed, almost a month later, there is nothing. They stop by regularly at first, pulling Menna aside for private, whispering discussions in which they assure their commitment to the case, lingering after the words are spoken, waiting for that offer of cash. After they give up, the case goes quiet. This is a replay of the robbery from our house only months before: much sound and fury and time wasted over a case never destined for resolution.

An hour after the plane lands in Schiphol, I'm checked into the hotel and settling in. I have followed the prime minister down the gangway and all the way to passport control. The line is short, the officials there brisk and efficient. I access some euros at the ATM while waiting for my luggage. Right outside the terminal, I catch the hotel shuttle, and since my hotel is furthest from the centrum, I am dropped first. And so, just that easily, I have arrived.

Order is perhaps what distinguishes Holland from Ethiopia most markedly. I often comment that Holland is the tonic to Ethiopia, the contrast. And the axis of my measure is very plain: it is order. I see civilization in the simplest terms now, maybe because I appreciate how tremendously hard order is for the human species. If it seems so easy in a place like the Netherlands, it is because of the centuries of concentrated work.

Oh, but who wouldn't trade order for the sweet whimsy of life in the Ethiopian highlands – the sleepy pace, the helter-skelter of the markets, the hours over coffee as dusk draws on? Well, maybe me. The aromatic disorder is fine for tourists who have confused social order with their own repressions, mistaken dirt for romance, mistaken lawlessness for passion. Can I offer a few of those hills for a policeman who solves a his case? How about a sunset meadow for a teacher who spends a minute on imagining one good lesson, who doesn't strike his or her students?

As a kind of bookend to the burglary, we have to take Cien to the doctor on one of our last days in Addis. He's in town for meetings, having traveled up from the south, where he is supervising our latest school build. He was attacked and beaten the night before. He has several gashes on his head: some local boys rushed him from behind as he was walking home at night and bashed him in the head with rocks. Cien being strong as an ox, they didn't manage to keep him down. He fought back and made it home safely. But in the morning we have to take him in for stitches.

Menna and I wait for Cien at a nearby cafe, sitting in the sun. I am keenly aware of how little sun I'll get in Holland and in Minnesota. I soak it up, grateful for the brief interlude of peace, sitting among the well-to-do of the country, whose money by and large comes from lands with order. Cien arrives, a big plaster on his head and a wry smile on his lips. He shows us a photo he took of himself as the doctors started in with the needles. There's no anaesthetic, but he's laughing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Travelogue 477 – December 27
The Moon and Mischance,
Part One

The moon hangs below the wing. For just a moment, I'm not sure what that light could be. It's the moon, and it's nearly full. There's a scrap of cloud adrift just above it. We are banking; we are arriving at Schiphol. It's been an overnight flight from Addis Ababa, and morning approaches. The last time I looked out the window, I saw the lights of Amsterdam. Now there is only the moon.

I've been watching 'Dumb and Dumber', trying to master some of the nuance. It's been a while since I've had a chance to catch this film. It's always nice to bring a few more years of age and wisdom to a masterwork.

The flight has been a mellow one. There aren't too many people flying on Christmas Day. In fact there are none in my entire row. In Khartoum, we picked up a big man with a cough, who sits a few rows ahead of me, who wheezes and snorts throughout the flight.

And still I manage to sleep. That is a rarity for me. I make it through a movie in which Kirsten Dunst plays tough girl, plays sex, plays wit, and manages the hard and the sheen of zirconium. Then I sleep. I don't think I move for three hours. When I wake, my muscles protest. My stomach protests even more vehemently, acting out against the airline snacks. I make a dash for the lavatory. After that, there's nothing for it but to boot up 'Dumb and Dumber' the for the remainder of the flight.

Coughing Man is not the only passenger to board in Khartoum. As we sit on the tarmac being refueled, airport officials roll out an actual red carpet from the front door toward the plane. A van disgorges a small corps of thin men in military parade ground dress. They have guns. They wear shakoes, with little plumes on top. They look like cartoon characters as they stumble stork-like from the van and assemble. They perform a few stamping drills for our benefit, and then jog in botched time toward the red carpet. A few more minutes pass, and a motorcade of black cars races in, surrounded by motorcycle cops with red lights blazing. While civilian passengers board the normal way, the dignitaries walk through a perfunctory carpet walk and then board in a special raised walkway attached to the right side of the plane. Two sharp-eyed guards, perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed, take a seat at the front of our cabin, up near Coughing Man. I start conniving how I can implicate Cougher in an assassination plot. But instead I surprise myself by falling asleep.

It turns out the important man is the prime minister of Burkina Faso. I spot him in the morning, marching ahead of me on the boarding ramp in a green corduroy sports coat, his much better dressed escorts sweating under loads of carry-ons. And again I see them, passing on a motorized cart down the long airport passageway. The two guards are looking dejected, slumped forward in the tiny back seats of the cart and facing backward. The PM sits ramrod straight, looking straight forward through his black-framed glasses.

It's seven in the morning when we arrive, and it's still night. The sun still hasn't risen by the time I make it to the hotel. I'm staying at a hotel in Osdorp, one of the furthest suburbs west. I have stayed at this hotel before. I like that it stands at the edge of open fields striped with small canals.

This morning, I'm up before seven for a run. It's deep night, of course. Outside the lobby door are a couple who have not made it to bed yet. They are Russian. The man looks like Randy Quaid; he stands silently in his fur-lined cap with ear flaps, and he smokes. The woman is wide-hipped and blonde. She wears shorts. She wants to talk. 'Do you speak English? Do you speak Russian? This is time for sleep.'

Enough sleep, I say. 'You never sleep!' she shouts after me.

The moon is out again this morning, shining full, again trailed by a shred of aspiring cloud. It is only an hour from setting, hanging just above the silhouettes of bare trees and silent suburban buildings. One has no sense of pace or distance running at night. One exerts among stillness, listening to his breath, and suddenly finds that the moon has slid overhead, and beckons from dead ahead.