Sunday, June 30, 2013

Travelogue 505 – June 30

Travelogue 505 – June 30
The Brief

I think it just became summer within the last hour. This morning, Rotterdam felt much like it has for months, a chill and a breeze and the scudding clouds, as though winter were hanging on to a secret and we just couldn't let her go yet.

We emerge from the cafe at midday. Outside the cafe window, sunlight has appeared in steady, unwavering blocks of heat on the brick pavements. Looking outside, we have spotted people in short sleeves, smiling at the sky without restraint. We emerge and blink.

I say 'we' because my dear Menna has joined me in Holland. This morning we left our apartment together. We caught the No. 4 tram together, riding up the Nieuwe Binnenweg side by side, hand-in-hand, as the tram bell rang and Saturday night's junkies melted away among the stout storefronts.

Sunday is for the families, and they are out in force. We blink in the humid sunlight, and we walk toward the Museum Park. Though the park has been taken over by a circus, we are able to sit on the stone benches streetside and watch the cycles and the prams and the shy pre-teens, bubbling over with summer's exhilaration. We are entertained. We are safe. We make note: how relaxing! There is none of the ambient tension of Ethiopia, no fear of the random, of feral cops or of the unhinged ultra-beggar, of Saba's hit squads. Nobody is staring at us. We scan the crowd, amazed: no one is even glancing at us!

Menna has made it. Behind that are months of intense paperwork. There are the agonized hours in government offices, where officials glare at passive rows of citizens. There is the nerve-wracking English-language test at the British Council. There are convoluted financial transactions with the university, across three continents.

Behind Menna's release are days of wrenching negotiations with two airlines. Embassy officials in Addis have run out of a one-page form, so, even though the visa has been approved and paid for, we have to postpone flights. Where the devil really gets his nails into us is in the original reservation, made via a travel website, where the magic of modern travel allows two airlines to own the same flight and book separately. We devote no less than the mornings of four days straight shuttling between two airline offices in Addis.

Left behind us in Menna's flight from Ethiopia is our house in Shiro Meda, left ransacked. The tickets come suddenly, like the jammed door that gives way and sends you sprawling. We have a day for good-byes and final work meetings and … packing. Menna has spent weeks imagining what and how she will pack. The reality is a 45-minute frenzy, throwing the contents of our closets onto the bed, onto the couch, and swimming through it all, tossing clots of it to the side, ramming other bits into an old suitcase once used for delivering books to us.

Behind us is the sustained roar of the jet airliner, wrapped around us like a dream, the stuttered flashes of our little movies in front of us, and the long eerie silences of the skies. Then we are at Schiphol, and it's morning. We emerge into the air of Europe.

Families stumble along on their Sunday outings, and none are thinking about Africa. Toddlers dash off the path, stop among the pebbles of the fringe, and they sway and look back at their parents in wonder. The family dog is sniffing up a bench leg. The sullen teen rolls her bike up to the line of parked cycles. She sets the kickstand with a kind of pouting wrath.

Summer envelopes us. Menna asks me again, what does 'humid' mean?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Travelogue 504 – June 18
A Brief Visit to Ethiopia
Part Three

I'm on my own tonight. Menna has to spend time with the family. I decide to stop in at the Jupiter Hotel. I want to sit in the lobby and do some reading. The trouble is, I've forgotten my reading glasses and the lobby is dark. If I concentrate I can make out the words. I have an old Harper's. I'm reading about a prison in Peru. The rich drug elite have their own wing, and they hold annual elections for leadership. The job of leadership seems mainly to keep cops and guards out of the wing, and to levy taxes for upkeep of the compound. There's an Israeli running; there's a Kurd.

It's an international crowd that frequents the Jupiter. Unfortunately, the group at the closest table is from my dear old country. I have the American's disdain for his compatriots. I think we feel cheated, traveling this far only to be surrounded by American movies, American music, and worst of all, American conversation. For the recently arrived, it robs him or her of the feeling of having discovered something special. I've caught that kind of resentment in many a blue eye as it happens to spot me on the street. For an old-timer like me, the resentment can be something as petty as not wanting to understand the banal chatter while one is trying to read.

The chatter here is particularly banal. It's a group of very young Christian women from the Midwest. Each one is on Skype. They sit before tablets propped up, screens filled with the visages of women so alike that the tablets could be mirrors. One shows the other new jewelry. The one in America tells of a fast food place that has closed down. The one in Africa says they're going bowling tonight. And it goes on like this for a stupefying hour, while the ladies sip at their single round of Cokes.

The Jupiter is known for its internet connection. Late afternoons the lobby is like an odd telecenter, foreigners holding laptops in front of their faces and shouting. But it's a telecenter with plush armchairs and very low glass tables. The lights are low. The walls are broken by huge, round pillars with spreading capitals painted in a way that reminds me of ancient terracotta, though the rest of the lobby is modern in cool rose and purple. It's a cool jazz kind of place. And in fact, aside from its internet the Jupiter is known for its jazz night on Thursdays. The same band performs every week, a band that is technically pretty good, plays pleasantly enough, but sticks to a set list that is mellow and predictable to the final note. I have never made it through more than an hour with them.

The Christian women finally start packing up their gear. They might be a domesticated jazz band striking for the night. I watch them until the last has waddled out of sight, and then I try to return to the magazine, but I find I'm comparing life in a Peruvian prison to my own, and not coming out ahead. I stow the magazine.

I watch the nature channel that the management insists on tuning in. I'm the only one. I watch new customers come in. There's a middle-aged couple takes a seat next to me. They are New Yorkers, it seems. He wears narrow purple stripes over his big belly. He covers his head with a broad-brimmed hat in soft leather. He's talking about degree programs in Vermont. He's comparing various beers in Africa. His companion just smiles. Her lipstick is the exact color of her blouse. 'Hey,' he says, 'I've heard they have a jazz night here.'

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Travelogue 503 – June 16
A Brief Visit to Ethiopia
Part Two

We didn't realized it would be such a big deal. Menna and I have been working at our computers at internet-friendly Kabu Cafe, so naturally when the dinner hour approaches, we decide to walk down toward the Edna Mall, toward one of our spots to eat. We're halfway to the mall when we reach the intersection where traffic is being diverted. We continue on, into the eerie quiet. Teens are running past us, holding the corners of the Ethiopian flags draped over their shoulders.

There's a rumble ahead. There's a crowd. We approach the traffic circle. We see the white and blue building, five storeys of mall. We see a bus, full of passengers, stalled out amid the people and the traffic. Everyone in the bus is staring in the direction of the mall. We see the heads of the mob, all staring. The mob stretches back through one side of the traffic circle and beyond.

We hear the game. It's being broadcast for free on the billboard-size video screen suspended above the entrance to the mall, where the cinema usually advertises, where they blare music videos at night.

Of course the game is a big deal. It's the first time in thirty years or so that the Ethiopian national soccer team has made it this far in the World Cup qualifying games. They are leading their group near the end of the second round. They play South Africa today.

We skirt the crowd and head for the Harmony Hotel. We like to sit on the sixth floor patio when there is sun. These days, the sun is a half-timer. He comes, he goes. At the moment, he's in between, either coming or going. But there is enough of his light to enjoy for some end-of-day relaxation.

The sixth floor is closed. There is a wedding party. We are told there is a new lobby in the back of the ground floor. We try that, but none of the three television screens is turned to the game, and there is no sunlight. It's kind of the worst of both worlds. Three Indian businessmen sit on a sofa watching a women's soccer match between Zimbabwe and South Africa. They keep cranking the volume and laughing. We leave.

Next door to the Harmony is the Kaleb Hotel. This little strip, heading south from the big Medhane Alem church is an odd one. It has become very fashionable, with hotels and shops and cafes and restaurants set along it like precious stones. However, the road itself was apparently never zoned for anything like this. It is a narrow stretch of cracking asphalt and mud connecting Bole with Medhane Alem. The traffic creeps along it, precariously close to the pedestrian traffic, which is forced into single file, stepping over holes in the asphalt and mud pits. There are no sidewalks. Even in dry season, there are puddles because, inexplicably, this is where some enterprising young men have set up their car-washing enterprise. It could be the car rental place across the street from the Harmony that gave them their start.

We make it safely to the Kaleb. The place is mobbed because they, unlike the Harmony, are showing the game. The lobby is occupied by a fan-shaped set of fans in chairs brought down from the ballroom. That ballroom is upstairs, half-occupied by fans watching the game on another screen. The other half is empty, except for a few long rows of leftover chairs, set with photocopied programs on their seats, leftover from some convention or seminar.

The staff is in a beneficent mood. We say we'd like sunlight, so our waiter carries a table over and sets it in the light pouring through a half-dome skylight above. If we stand, we can see over the heads of the crowd and see the game. It's a tied game at the moment, 1-1.

It's a lively meal. We are trying to wrap up some of the day's work, but it's an emotional crowd; they cry and yip and sigh every time the ball comes close to either side's net. Menna jumps when there is a yell. I stand and look. I miss Ethiopia's second goal, but I catch it in the replay. It's actually an own-goal by a South African player. That doesn't dilute the joy in the room. People are laughing, embracing, screaming.

The sound starts to escalate outside. When the final whistle blows, and Ethiopia is the winner, the sound rises like a tide that will never ebb. There are car horns, there are wild screeches, there are vuvuzelas; there is a general, unwavering roar of talk and laughter. We know we will not be able to get out of the neighborhood for a long while. The ballroom has emptied almost immediately. We are alone, standing at the windows. The crazy strip is crawling with people and cars, alive with celebration.

When we do finally venture onto the street, wading through the party in order to reach our taxi, the sun now nearly gone, we are surrounded by kids in face paint, wearing flags as capes. People of all ages are wearing the colors of Ethiopia. Cars pass, and people are hanging out windows. Young men are riding on top of vans, leaning out of the backs of pickups, pumping their fists.

Riding home in the taxi, it's night. The streets are mayhem. They are a kaleidoscope of riot, of funny hats and Ethiopia jerseys. Boys are running in the streets. They gather and run after cars, waving their hands. We're laughing all the way.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Travelogue 502 – June 11
A Brief Visit to Ethiopia
Part One

The days without water are blurring together. The sink in the bathroom is bone dry. The levels in the buckets are getting dangerously low. We hold out for toilets outside whenever possible. Flushing requires too much of the bucket water. That is water we need for washing. The last time I had a real shower was three days ago or so. I forget exactly, though I remember it was late at night. The water comes at odd times. We have to take showers whenever we can. Day to day we clean from the buckets. I can only be so thorough working from the bucket. And sometimes washing hair is just too much trouble. I get used to that greasy feeling.

'How do you find the air conditioning?' Ethiopians who know some English will ask. The first time, that is a confusing question. Is he really asking about my air conditioner? I don't actually have one. I'm not sure I've ever seen one in Ethiopia. How do I answer?

Eventually, one learns to answer, 'I love it. Beautiful.' He is asking about the weather. It's June. No one has asked me about air conditioning. In the morning, Menna and I head down the hill to the Malada, (or Sunrise) Cafe. Most mornings we can sit in the sun while we have breakfast and we plan the day. By mid-morning, the clouds are gathering.

Yesterday at midday, we are in the Mesalemiyah district of the Mercato. We have operated a kindergarten in that district for four years now. But the landlord has given us notice. We are investigating options. There's a local charity that has three centers in the Mercato area. One center is just over the hill from our school. We are discussing collaboration.

The moment we arrive commences a downpour. Shimeles is not able to take his taxi to the gate of the compound because the road is too rough. It is being laid with cobblestone – as are many roads in Addis this year. The cobblestone ends in a pile of rubble two hundred meters from our destination. We have to run for it, taking care not to slip in the mud.

The compound is like a cement box wedged into a steep incline. The bottom floor disappears into the hill, into the foundation of the top floor. We start on the bottom floor, where three classrooms are housed, simple echoing squares with a minimum of home-made teaching aids, handwritten numbers on sheets of paper suspended on a string tied to opposite corners of the ceiling, crude wooden shelves with single books laid flat on each. The windows are blocked out with squiggles of paint. There are no students around today.

The upstairs is an empty library. These are tables and chairs for a hundred or so, and shelves behind a high counter with five hundred locally published English-language study guides designed to supplement the secondary curriculum. Most of the chairs have lost their backs. The square poles that held them jut up above the lines of the tabletops. The windows that aren't painted over are coated with dust. We have to wait fifteen minutes for a staff member to show up with a key to the library. It seems the library is only used for occasional tutorials for girls in local high schools.

While we wait, we sit in the stuffy little office on the top floor. Some one makes us tea. After a quick tour of the library, we stand by the rail on the second floor, listening to the rain. It has swelled and subsided in several waves. The path / gutter that leads around the corner and to the bathrooms is now a rushing stream. Our view extends beyond the fence and over the scores of corrugated roofs of the neighborhood. I know I'm looking in the direction of the old school, but I recognize no landmarks. Neighborhoods like this don't offer much variety to the eye.

We are still obliged to make a dash for the taxi. This time, there is water flowing among and over the stones of the old road. The mud is trickier. Menna has an umbrella, but I get soaked. Half a mile away, back on the asphalt road, we enter suddenly into sunlight. The storm is over. We brainstorm quickly about where we can order lunch and sit outside. Somewhere with a nice bathroom.