Thursday, January 22, 2015

Travelogue 598 – January 22

I’m running in the fog. It masks my path. It masks the river. It designs little mysteries from the stuff of everyday life. Things will emerge in a day or two, wearing the aspect of the normal again.

My joints vaguely ache. I should have worn more gear, something over my legs. But the ache is something for me of Europe. I take it into the body, with the damp air of the mornings. It tells me I’m here, tells me also I’m older. I’m ageing, and this is the place for these years, gliding among sea salt skies, the continent named not for the charging bull, but for the submissive cow.

This is the grim timelessness I’ve inherited in returning to European winter. Europe endures, somewhat like the blinded will in a fog, pushing time aside in its tortoise progress through the mud of continuity. There is even in the perishing of things a continuity. I think I have found it here. There are marshes still here, in this land of drained marshes. The sea gulls find it, and they fight over it, winging crazy circles around each other.

Since returning from Africa, I’ve been revisiting the sites of my European hometown. I’m writing a report on projects in Ethiopia, sitting at a table at the Hopper Café, when ‘Purple Rain’ starts to play, the measured sad strains of it, sweaty little ballad made of Minneapolis in the 1980s. I’ve been reading academic anthropology, about identities of mobility, the slippery notion of community in the post-modern era. I’ve also been reading biographies.

There was a boy once who was captured in the woods while duck hunting. His captors kept him, raised him, and taught them their language and their ways. He eventually broke free again, rejoined his people, forged a new identity among the frontiers. He was an adventurer. He was a trader. He entered villages with his hands raised in the air, and he spoke their languages. He hunted in forests far and wide. Young Pierre-Esprit explored, and he collected furs.

This boy is acknowledged to one of the first white men to set foot in Minnesota. His family name is Radisson. In the 1660s, Radisson with his brother-in-law did much of the early exploration of the Hudson Bay, collecting boat loads of fine furs, and laying the foundations for the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670. The French and English were tussling then over the expanses of land and resources in North America, and Radisson played one side against the other and switched, as best suited him, but he had the wisdom to approach the Brits about business matters. Eventually, trading days over, he ended up in London on a pension.

It was the heirs to the British Empire in North America who established a luxury hotel in Minneapolis in 1909 and named it the Radisson. The boy was nearly forgotten, but his name and memory fit the branding well. The name has now arrived in many cities around the world, raising flags and speaking all languages.

In 2015, I am one weary traveler loitering on the grounds of one Radisson, not to stay, but only for nourishment and for wifi. This is the Radisson Blu in Addis Ababa. This is Kasanchis, a grubby section of the capital, just down the hill from the prime minister’s palace, where the old Hilton set a standard for fine hotels in the day.

While I savour a real espresso, I’m reviewing days spent in the south, where coffee is a heady and gritty elixir, brewed in clay and delivered into any old cup of plastic or glass at hand. It is delicious and powerful, but I am comforted by the dainty little espresso.

We have traveled to far Kembata-Tembaro, where we entered the villages with our hands held high … while children clamoured around us, showering us with shouts and smiles. We wade through them toward the school buildings. The teachers are wearing the white lab coats, as is the fashion among teachers here. They lead us inside the library, under high ceilings of corrugated iron laid on beams of slender eucalyptus, and we are treated to local avocados and bananas, and to some amazing honey collected from village hives.

We are working in this village because one of its own children now lives thousands of miles away in America, being taught our language and our strange ways.

Other children remain, all along this road forever under construction. They shout at us from the side of the road as we make our way back, along the long road laid covered in deep layers of fine dust. They shout at us, and then they pull their shirts up over their noses as the dust overtakes them.

It’s a place of accidents, this world.

‘Being persuaded in the morning by two of my comrades to go and recreat ourselves in fowling, I disposed myselfe to keepe them Company,’ writes the boy from Trois-Rivières, writes the man years later, after the twist of fate – twist that left his two companions dead – has written a story for him. ‘… Wherfor I cloathed myselfe the lightest way I could possible, that I might be the nimbler and not stay behind ….’

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Travelogue 597 – January 21

Where does the fog come from? It might rise from the river. It might rise from the sea. I can indulge in idle thoughts. The fog has robbed me of time. It has rolled in for a long stay. It stays for days. It’s a cold fog. My fingertips burn in a mild but icy wind.

I’m taking a run along the river. The fog hides the other side of the river. It hides most of the river itself. What is left is the one river bank at my side, and the spirals of squealing gulls and terns above, challenging the heights of the cold lamp poles and the heights of the fog itself.

My thoughts spiral like the birds, among my travels and my readings. My readings have led me through the ravages of the French Revolution, through the ravages of jihadist emotion. They lead finally to eternity, like all worldly struggles do.

Fog soaks up the light, and it soaks up time. To say that the fog prompts thoughts of eternity is to be lazy. Eternity is not the same as timelessness. What fog erases does not constitute a positive space, a place where time frolics unbounded.

Even as I move, the fog robs me of the sense of movement. There is no measure as I throw step forward after step. Here shadows are cast by everything and nothing. There is barely light to call the day, nor shadow to call the night.

In days of fog, a part of me remains in sunlight. A couple weeks ago I was in Tunto, in the Kembata-Tembaro region of Ethiopia. My colleagues and I are crowding together in the busy cafe, our knees set round the circular table. The café door and window of the café open directly onto the expanse of dust that separates this set of ramshackle buildings from the road. This is the same road that has tortured us for several days already as we, with only good intentions, have returned to school sites that cleave to this tenuous ribbon of transport, the road that is barely a road. It is a road because the land is cleared along a long, meandering line threading villages and hills, because cars do travel it, but any definition beyond that must be tentative, must be forgiving. No surface prevails, no standard of smoothness. There’s a child standing at the peak of the bank above the road, staring. She is waiting for the cloud of chalky dust from our passage to overtake her. Then she disappears into the trees behind her.

A girl comes to pour us all coffee. She first brings the little cups. She shakes them like shallow porcelain bells, spraying the water in which they were soaked, setting them on the table. She offers sugar, broken clumps of it from a battered little aluminum can, collected in a small tin spoon. Next she brings the jebena, the traditional clay pot. Coffee slops onto the table. She makes a point of pouring to the brim for everyone.

The place is crowded. The crowds are staring. Gruff old men encircling the next table cast long, assessing glances our way. Boys stop by the window, lean into the frame and watch us, with a keen and unselfconscious interest. They inspect my face and my hair and my clothes at length. I’ve been coming to Ethiopia for years; it doesn’t bother me. I’m focusing on Yonas, an enterprising young local, who might serve as a guide for the moment among the capricious ways of Kembata-Tembaro, green hills harboring peoples, at densities high relative to other regions where we work, open grasslands, villages sparse. We would like to know about the schools in the district, from someone outside the system, someone raised and educated here, someone who cares.

We lapse into silence. It’s a comfortable one. We sip our coffee. The café crowds look, and I look back. There’s no challenge. I’m just a visitor. I don’t give; I don’t take. The measured chaos of the town carries on outside the walls, across the town square made of dust. The horse comes to rest, and the family climbs out of the two-wheeled cart. They pay the driver. The horse is sweating, shaking off the flies. It has so little flesh on its bones, and scabs from the work of the whip.

As we prepare to go, we realize Yonas has paid for the coffees without any of us knowing. We are guests.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Travelogue 596 – January 8
Feel the Noise

I don’t like noise. I’m one of those untouchable solitaries who haunt cafes and want no contact. I need people around, but not too close. We’re a miserable lot, who really should give up coffee.

That confession on record, I can say that I understand that noise is necessary. More, it’s desirable. It’s the sensory correlate to happy chance.

Is chance happy? Matter is a product of chance. So says the modern. From the chaotic clouds of rebounding particles and atoms to the accidents of evolution, the material world is a product of chance. Society mimics nature, and we all suffer and prosper by chance collision.

Are we happy for chance? There is that in human nature that abhors the noise of it. There is that that sets the mind to working out how to minimize or abolish it.

Of course I’m speaking about Paris. It seems as though some people can stand no dissonance. The world is their café, and the rest of us shall keep the chatter down. Or else.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog, I’ve been reading about the French Revolution. First it was Mantel. Now it’s Thomas Carlyle, oversized author, often annoying author, whose Voice must resound even above the clamour of one of History’s noisiest events. And yet, his style does fit, the Revolution as much a rhetorical achievement as a physical one, an accomplishment of writers every bit as sensationalist as Carlyle himself, (who was writing, it must be said, only twenty years after Waterloo). I speak of the pamphleteers, direct antecedents of the hard-working satirists at Charlie Hebdo.

‘Freedom of the press’ became a rallying cry back then. Practically overnight, there were hundreds of little bulletins and pamphlets being circulated, with vivid cartoons drawn of the fat king -- the ‘baker’ they liked to call him, -- and of his wife, accused of every sort of vice and crime. She’s portrayed kissing one of many lovers. She’s portrayed reaching for a giant male member rearing on horse’s legs. The people consume these publications. They rush to the streets to protect the authors, men like Marat and Desmoulins. They elect them to one or the other of the pinwheeling representative assemblies of the early days of the Revolution.

Days before I’ve heard of Charlie, I’m indulging in some of my own reading from favorite magazines. It’s Ethiopian Christmas. I have some down time. I can sit in the sun and read through the latest Harper’s. There’s an article there by Sam Frank about the occult musings among super-geniuses in Silicon Valley, the Bayesian extropists, extreme believers in the power of mind, to overcome psychology, corruption and poverty, ageing, and even the biological anomaly we call death. It’s an odd little lab for tyranny, somewhat reminiscent of the Jacobin club in the early days of the Revolution, where debate among the best and brightest of the patriots could only lead to finest solutions. Of course, everything is reminding me of the French Revolution right now.

There’s a vicious sort of self-selection at work among geniuses who would serve the world, whether it’s Allah’s geniuses or Rousseau’s or Stanford’s. How exhilarating it must be to discover that everyone in the room (those who have survived the mental shake-down at the door,) all have the same vocabulary and have stumbled upon the same solutions to the world’s ills! It must be providence! Shut out the noise. When we have the strength, we will issue forth from this room. We will eradicate the noise. Our solutions will prevail, and the thousand-year reign of paradise can begin.

Oh, well. I’m no genius. There’s little I can do to avert the next invasion of bright-eyed problem-solvers. (Has anyone studied the influence of coffee on the French Revolution? Coffee houses were all the rage among the political and culture classes of Europe in the eighteenth century. And I’ve seen firsthand the manic pace of caffeine consumption in the Middle East.)

As much as I complain about it, I will miss the noise. It’s distracting, but it is the language of celebration and exultation. It’s the true sound of pain and protest. It is song. It is the language of things spontaneous. Of course we will all be happy under the rule of the geniuses, every move planned by the smartest and the best. But I might just miss the whoop on a Saturday night from the mouths of dumb kids, the outburst of uncouth laughter, the whistle of the girl so happy she hasn’t noticed I’m reading.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Travelogue 595 – January 6
Bugs on Parade

Back in Addis, the Parade of the Bugs has begun. It’s the day before Ethiopian Christmas. Families are preparing for the feast. Bug means sheep in Amharic. Anywhere there’s a bit of open dirt roadside, the shepherds have set up shop. Families stroll among the meager herds, and they haggle. Young men follow their matriarchs home, each holding up one side, one holding horns, one holding hooves, while the big ram squirms against the ropes binding him.

We have made it back to Addis safe and sound, even if exhausted, even if a few of us are still coughing up the white powder of the roads of Kembata-Tembaro. (Driving through a moon-dust landscape, where the powder has coated everything near the road. Children standing at the top of the bank of the channel of the road, arms and cheeks white with dust, staring down at us as we pass, even as we raise clouds of the noxious powder.)

We hit the asphalt road early in the morning, heading north again. We have been bunking in Hosanna, nondescript capital of the Hadiya region. We take to the highway again, the highway being a slim and dilapidated ribbon of asphalt winding around its north-south meridian, connecting Addis to Ethiopia’s southern regions, only one of two main arteries doing so. When we stop in Butajira for lunch, Ijigu goes out to buy sugar cane and a pumpkin for his family.

The rest of us indulge in ‘fool’ for breakfast. That’s a treat. I remember when Leeza’s mom used to make it for us. It’s one of the few Ethiopian dishes with beans. In this case, beans and eggs. We sit outside at a small, bustling roadside café that the driver has recommended. We sit in the usual formation, me in the sun and everyone else, as many as can manage it, in the shade.

The weather has been getting heavier. When I first arrived in Ethiopia the skies were bright and clear. But a haze has been gathering day by day. Horizons fade into the murk of it. A few high clouds drift slowly along, far away. The afternoons are sweltering.

We’re home in Addis. We’ve returned to the office. It’s going to be a busy day. There will be two days off for Christmas, and then I only have Friday with staff before I fly home. I set up on the third floor, in the conference room, a room too cold in the morning and too hot in the afternoon, when the sun beats on the windows. There is a sliding glass door opening onto a narrow balcony. I stand there in idle moments, soaking up the sun, taking in the view over the neighborhood and beyond, to the hills around Arat Kilo.

On the bottom floor of the office compound is the Gebeta library for children. There are plenty of children there in the afternoon. Semhal, our in-house librarian, has arranged a Christmas party. She has set up a small Christmas tree, and underneath it are empty boxes, wrapped colorfully. The children are laughing uproariously. Jessica from Madison is leading them in a game. ‘Run, run, run, four!’ she chants, and the children have to grab each other in groups of four. Whoever is without a group is out. ‘Run, run, run, two!’

The day wheels by quickly in a succession of meetings. When it’s done, I head home to rest. I want nothing more than sleep. Opening the gate to our compound, I see the landlord family has secured its bug. It is tied up in the courtyard, and it bleats mournfully. The dogs in their guard post cages growl at him. It’s no way to spend one’s final hours, but there’s nothing I can do. I know its fate in the morning when the knives come out. Merry Christmas, little guy.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Travelogue 594 – January 4

We’re traveling in the south. It’s my fifth sunny day in a row, dazzling to someone who has been living in the Netherlands. We are driving west into Kambata. The road changes from asphalt to dirt to a substance in between, a rocky amalgam of earth and macadam. A road all the way to Jima is being cut into and across the hilly landscape. The road has been under construction as long as I have been traveling here. We rarely see road workers. We encounter lonely signs saying ‘Men Working,’ and we take pictures of them.

We go further and whole sections of the road are surrendered to dust. Passing buses raise it sky high. When we pass them, we drive blind into a cloud of it. My throat is burning. I hold a scarf over my nose, but still I’m blowing it so often there are spots of blood.

We pass through Mudula, a town built on hills, a town of mud roads and mud walls, set among country that is a southern Ethiopian shade of green, rich but not the heavy color of jungle, leavened by the yellows of the highlands. The blue skies are still bright and crisp with morning.

We have left the new road now, to travel downhill along a road just wider than our vehicle. We are looking for our teacher. His name is Ananu. He is a local we have hired to facilitate our rural literacy program hereabouts. We are stopping people along the road and asking, ‘Have you seen Ananu?’ ‘Have you seen a guy on a horse?’ The mobile network isn’t working here.

We ask an old man leading a donkey. A young man on his motorcycle stops. Some boys emerge from the trees lining the road, from among the hits and small plots of farmland we see through the leaves. There’s an old man with a naked infant on his hip. There are girls giggling at us. The boys peer into the car windows to stare at me. They whisper to each other, and they laugh.

Someone says Deresho. Look in Deresho. Where is that? It’s a village back up the road the way we came. The driver executes a laborious U-turn in the narrow road, and we’re driving again. We turn onto a smaller road, and we don’t go far before we arrive at the local schoolhouse, two mud and stick rooms alone in a small grassy field grass. We meet the teacher, young and shy, and we peek into the rooms, dark and empty. There is a warped blackboard on the wall, and a few long boards close to the ground for seats. They can accommodate only a fraction of the students. Fifty have to cram into each room.

Nearby is a clearing where the hundred or so young students have gathered to hear stories read by Mr. Ananu. Some elders have gathered, too, sitting in a row of chairs to one side. He has a book of children’s stories in Amharic. He has to translate as he reads into Tembarigna. The children are quiet, transfixed, by the story, by the occasion, by the strange-looking faranj.

I feel as though I’m being a distraction, so I take a walk. I find a small track through the trees, and I stroll slowly in the strong sunshine, by rough patches of ploughed earth, by huts. I am stopped by the decorations on one hut. It is the typical round hut with peaked thatched roof. Some of the huts around here are partially covered with smoothed mud and plaster, painted with designs and pictures. This one has two pictures outlined on either side of its doorway. One depicts a common theme, the roaring lion conquering the hyena, heavy paw on the creature’s head. It’s the other side that is surprising, dissonant: two men sitting in chairs, one with a guitar and the other with a keyboard. One wears little square glasses.

A little girl in rags comes up the path. She stands beside me and smiles. She whispers in reply to my greeting, in accented Amharic. When I pose a question, she answers the same way she did before. She just knows these few words in Amharic. We turn and walk together back toward the clearing.