Saturday, March 30, 2013

Travelogue 489 – March 30
Is it Mary or Mars?

It's Maryam. Today is the 21st of the month in the Ethiopian calendar, and the 21st is always Maryam. No matter what the month, it's the day of Mary. The road up to Entoto, and to the church of Entoto Maryam, is full of pilgrims walking up the mountainside, some already walking down.

In America and Europe, I like to be up with the dawn. In Ethiopia, this pattern doesn't hold, and I get to blame my wife for that. The country may be jumping by sunrise, farmers working, laborers halfway through their long commutes, and the devout of both Musim and Orthodox stripes wrapping up their prayers, but Menna cannot be moved until the sun has established his claim over the day, well beyond the reach of the tallest mounts of the highlands.

The sun is shining brightly by the time we head out for my last Ethiopian run of the season. I head out for Europe tomorrow. I want one last long run to tire me out for a deep rest tonight. We start up the hill and find the road beset by the pious,walking with the patience of the Virgin up the long road, couples with grandparents, with children, all cheerfully hiking.

Up top, the field of dust in front of the church, where we usually warm up – often mimicked by a circle of small children who might be from the village behind us, or might be beggar's children – the field of dust has become a colorful parking lot, filled with the cars and taxis and vans and the festive buses of the more well-to-do of the religious. The perennial host of poor and disabled has swelled to great numbers, as have the numbers of church-day vendors, selling the long orange church tapers and sacred texts and pictures of saints … and shoes.

Tesfahun and Fikre and I set out, leaving Shimeles the driver to find some shady spot for a nap. We are soon beyond the reach of Mary. While I still have breath, I pump Tesfahun for soccer news. He continues to contend that Mourinho will come back to Chelsea. Don't place any money on that. I taunt Fikre by asking whether today is Maryam or Muhammed. I get these Ms all mixed up. Madonna? Mubarak? She doesn't find that very amusing.

Soon enough, the real athletes need worry no longer about the nattering of the false one. My breath and my concentration are absorbed wholly in keeping up. A big race approacheth, so I have renewed commitment, if no new speed. We're putting in ninety minutes today.

The small rains have passed. The clouds linger, this being our slow-moving highland weather system. Full days of sunshine will be a while in returning. The trails in the mountaisn have dried, though it's still early for the dust to fly. There are spells of powerful sunlight to dapple the packed red earth of the forest floor. These are not bulldozed and raked woodland trails . One lets one's eyes stray from the terrain at one's own risk. The sharp light and shadow of a sunny day can dazzle just enough to lose an ankle.

Tesfahun likes to lay the most tangled lines among the trees and gullies as he leads. It tests all my feeble powers of concentration, and quite a few feeble muscle groups, as well. Rather than follow the lip of a steep gully, we bound down and up again, seizing all spare breath like a punch in the gut.

The dancing steps among roots and rocks and fallen branches and rising shards of tree stump can be fun when you're full of life and breath, but when you're winded and fatigued, it takes everything you've got. I charge the side of the gully, choosing each step with all the precision possible in a split second of decision, planting my toes between thick, twisting roots, on a few inches of horizontal earth jutting from the gully wall, on the flattest stone among a pool of them. Having to plant and turn, I catch an old, stray goat skull with the heel of my back foot, and send it tumbing down into this little winding crack in the hillside.I have no time to look back or to apologize to the long-since-dearly-departed. I must keep going I make a note that I must offer a goat's prayer at Maryam. Or was it Merril Lynch, or
Mississippi, or Lionel Messi?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Travelogue 488 – March 24
The Drive

It's a training day. Since last week, the small rains have moved in. The stones of my little road glisten with the most recent downpour. It's a short cimb up to the asphalt road, stepping on flat stone after flat stone, laid in a pattern I must unconsciously know by rote. I'm in shorts and running jersey. Years into this ritual, there are stil people who stop in wonder at the sight of me. I pass under the windows of the Yerusalem school. Some child shouts out 'Faranju!' I'm proud to note that the 'u' at the end denotes 'the' Faranj. They know me.

Weather moves slowly in the highlands. A pattern is set, and the days look the same for five days, two weeks. First the clouds darken at the close of a long sunny day, accumulating over the mountains. The next day the clouds gather again, and this time there is a sprinkle in the northern neighborhoods. A day or two later, there are showers of significance during the night, iron roofs resounding. And after that, the showers come regularly, clouds forming and breaking on their slow and unrelenting timetable.

Today, the clouds have broken some time before dawn. The road shimmers with damp. Shimeles moves quickly up the Entoto Road, past the U.S. Embassy and into Shiro Meda, three runners in his taxi. I'm in front. Fikre and Tesfahun are in back.

Shiro Meda is a northern district of Addis Ababa, dating back to Menelik's glory days. Shiro Meda is a crossroads, where another northern road, the one from Menen, empties into this one, where another road leads down the hill behind the embassy, and once led to the first of the Tesfa schools. Shiro Meda is a market. Past the intersection the gebiya starts up, the long line of stalls on either side of the road selling traditional Ethiopian clothing, beads and jewelry, the classic clay coffee poots, Marley T-shirts.

The road narrows, and the crowds increase. Some are shoppers, milling absent-mindedly by the stalls. More are pedestrians making their way down the long hill. Since before daybreak they've been streaming down this hill, some all the way from Entoto, making their way to jobs and classes and church and market.

There are several primary schools in the area. On weekday mornings, you will see young crossing guards in uniform standing in the zebra crossings. They look to be ten to fourteen years of age. Their uniforms are smart, with the reflective white stripe across the belly and peaked hats. The boys seem to have been instructed properly in all the essentials of the post: posture, the straight arm stop, the flat palms, the sharp bend at the elbow beckoning forward. I'm missing them this Sunday morning.

Our little blue Lada bobs and weaves at Shimeles's hand, swinging back and forth among the throng. School boys walk arm in arm four across at the side of the road. We miss one by inches. An old man is jogging down the hill, straying deep into the road in order to avoid the crowds. Shimeles sounds the horn and swerves around him.

A puppy is not so lucky, leaping out into the taxi's front fender. Shimeles doesn't pause for a beat. If I didn't shout a late warning and then look back in concern, it might not have occurred to the driver or the runners to spend a second thought. We look behind at us at the prostrate little tan body. A larger dog is sniffing tentatively over it. And then the scene is gone.

Higher up the hill, the crowds thin, but there are new hazards. Here it is the exigencies of commerce, the trade in wood and tinder from the eucalyptus groves on the higher slopes. Donkeys laden with wood come trotting down, drifting into and across the road, two or three or four at a time. Their shepherd jogs behind, switch in hand, country woman in a tattered dress and a blanket wrapped round her head, or a man in an ancient sport jacket and baseball cap.

Further on, it will be the women carryng wood on their backs. They can take up quite a bit of road, with the huge bundles of branches across their shoulders, some a good several meters long. Every morning, these women sweep the mountains clean of branches and leaves, bundle them up and carry them all the way down the mountain. Shimeles gives each a head's up with two toots of the horn.

By this time we don't pose much of a menace. The taxi, which bears the name 'Itchy', has slowed down to a crawl on the steep incline. Even without hitting the brakes, the most damage we would cause would be to gently knock one of the wood-bearers back onto her cushion of leaves. But we slowly pass instead, Itchy growling at them as we do.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Travelogue 487 – March 23
Wheezer's Plaint

Wheezer the dog has taken to growling spontaneously. He will take it up in the middle of the night, starting slowly inside his cell, like an engine warmng up, and then raising the volume up to the threat of attack, sometimes climaxing in a bark or two, and then letting it subside. Fifteen minutes later he will start up again. The song doesn't vary much. Same lyrics, same tune. Wheezer's companion in the next cell doesn't respond.

It's after midnight. I can't sleep, and I don't want to wake Menna, so I'm lying on the couch in the front room, hoping for the best. This puts me closer to Wheezer and his voicings. The front room has a door of iron and glazed glass, set among windows that are the same. The iron doesn't meet the tile floor. So there is free access to ants and breezes and dog song.

'Wheezer! Shh!' He drops his voice momentarily, more out of curiosity than anything. I watch him in the light of the courtyard. He's licking his paw. I think he may have hurt himself, maybe on the metal water dish that he was clanking about with crashing fury earlier in the night. 'Wheezer, it's okay.' A few minutes later, he takes up his growling song again. I try putting a pillow over my ear.

Wheezer seemed okay a few days ago, when he was allowed to run the courtyard while Atomsa cleaned his cell. Wheezer's companion is more personable. After the round of pee stains, he likes to dash up to me as I stand on my front steps and wriggle his body in playful joy. Wheezer is more circumspect when he's let out.

Both dogs are squat and red-haired. Both have snub snouts and round, brown eyes. But Wheezer has a dejected air. He hangs his head and looks at you askance. His coat is in poor shape, faded chunks of it hanging from his side. On his better days, he approaches and seems to think about playing. I want to sneak anti-depressants into Wheezer's food.

Now he raises his song of despair and resentment into the night. Other dogs respond from other compounds. But otherwise there is no one to listen to his protest but me. And even me he can't keep awake all night; I drift off eventually. The reaches of night are indifferent.

In the morning, I am reminded that it is the weekend. We share a wall with the next door neighbor. This dark and rotund man has been improving his property by centimeters since before I moved in, occasionally picking up the hammer to bang on our mutual wall in a tattoo of frustrated middle class desire. I … want … a … pretty … little … house. …. I … want … a … pretty … little … house …. He fiddles with the corrugated iron roofing. He'll erect wooden framing for tiny rooms that will make the place complete. He piles trash against the wall, and rests for weeks at a time, and then he will start again. I'm … a … man … of … conse … quence ….

And so the weekend begins, echoes rolling through my head of animal complaints against the lesser fates. Wheezer is quiet now, lying his head against the cage's door. He rolls an eye toward me. He twitches an ear against the intrusion of a fly.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Travelogue 486 – March 16

It's the season of flies in Ethiopia. The air is warm and breezy. You sit outside in the sun, and are reminded why it's best not to sit in shorts. The flies circle and land, circle and land. Wheezer the dog can't sleep; he has to blink away the pests. Windows and doors are open at almost all hours.

Indoors, the flies buzz in twos and threes. You can't keep them out. Wave them off when you try to concentrate. Wave them off when you eat. Wave them off in bed, until you get angry and stalk after them with one sandal on and the other in hand. Little corpses lie in corners until tomorrow.

The skies are persistently bright. The streets are dry. The dust flies high when one steps in it. The neighborhood has a summer feel. People are cheerful, their shouts and laughter attenuated by the sun and the dry breezes. They move with leisure, each step distinct and carried through as an act of will or ceremony.

The colors of the land have blanched, the greens become dusky, the browns yellowed and chalky. The distances below the city resolve into a tawny, smoky bowl, quiet and timeless. The meadows in the mountains are brittle and yellow. They rest among tracts of dark woods that have almost no color to them. Inside them are dusty shadows.

There is rarely water in the tap these days. We leave the faucet turned on in the kitchen when we're home. Once in a while it hisses with a burst of unproductive pressure. Then it gurgles noisily, and Menna and I sit up straight. There's a tentative rush of water, and we hold our breath. If it holds, one of us dashes to the shower. After cleaning up, we fill buckets. Bucket water is for washing ourselves during the days in between. It is for washing dishes. It's for flushing the toilet.

I'll sit outside on one of my durable little wire and metal stools. I like the summer skies, their pale blue calms perpetual. There are clouds, but the intermitent and peaceful sort, intent upon their plump dignity only, pursuing no haste. Wheezer the dog stares at me sorrowfully, blinking and twitching away the flies.