Sunday, March 15, 2015

Travelogue 609 – March 15
Sounds of Soddo
Part Seven

Outside the hotel bar window, the pitch of blue in the sky has deepened suddenly, and the day is coming to a close. The gold tint to the air has been turned. There is something crisp there instead. The goatherd looks aside. He stirs. He snaps the switch in his hand. The goat leaps. It leaves the grass behind to leap onto the macadam of the city road.

I’ve become fascinated by the science that makes roads. One sees so much of it in Ethiopia. In Kembata-Tembaro, road-making is a matter left to ghosts. In Addis, the procedure seems to require one Chinese man at every site standing idle in a straw conical hat. Is that culture, or is it science?

I’ve become fascinated with science of many stripes lately. It’s because I’ve begun returning to academic reading, curious about research in my field of work, and also curious about history again, reading for example about the men of the French Revolution who believed that culture was a matter of reason, or could be, that it should be.

Levis-Strauss seems to know better, writing a century and a half later, as a scholar well acquainted with Freud, writing about his travels during the early years of World War II, that final and perverse indulgence in forces released by the French Revolution. He might be forgiven for saying, ‘Travel and travelers are two things I loathe,’ when travel in this instance is forced on him. This is no happy adventure. It yields no shamanic power of discovery through displacement. It’s a demeaning escape from persecution. He will make his way to study and teach in America while French Jews are deported and killed. Earnest modern, he will not abandon the tradition, the grand enterprise that begins among the excited gestures of the Enlightenment. He will write.

Interestingly, very much as though there were an artist behind things, as though there were a tableau to complete on that boat, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, there are a few other hot-blooded moderns escaping France, one André Breton, father of surrealism, and one Russian revolutionary and journalist named Victor Serge. One wonders about the playfulness of the eagle-eyed destinies.

I’m becoming a believer in science again, in my own way. It could be said that I have to be, as a child of the space age. It’s my culture. I know it’s my culture because I found it so boring for so long. I’m taking another look.

What motivated the moderns was a belief in the tradition, the literature that accumulates over centuries, that evolves, and that changes reality. I am a child of the space age. I am a witness to reality changed. I have watched the Chinese man with the straw hat, standing at the side of the road construction site in Ethiopia. I am a witness.

What motivated the moderns was a faith in the religion of betterment. Underneath it was the scientific method, a scripture that post-moderns feel arbitrary. Like cartoon characters upset by three dimensions, the post-moderns protest the power of text.

Levi-Strauss stands at the stern of the ship, resolving to write, even as his prospect extends to the last frontiers of modernism, where the philosophers of relativity and psychoanalysis collude to question philosophy itself. He writes anyway, standing against the shamans and the cynics, declaiming for straight paths even as he admits that no way is straight.

The shamans don’t write rebuttals.

I think of Kevin. I think of his crazy road around the planet. I met him almost exactly ten years ago. He had travelled eight months of every year of his adult life. He had seen 120 countries or so. His eyes glittered with a kind of manic alertness made of the alienation gathered and inverted over twenty years. Unlike me or Levi-Strauss, Kevin had resolved never to write. And so he was the witch doctor without a village. There’s an integrity to that silence that seems a kind of bookend to Levi-Strauss’s.

I write Kevin’s name among the romping goats on my page. We are in Dire Dawa together, in the east of Ethiopia. We have travelled there from Harar in the back of an Isuzu flatbed. We are going to celebrate his birthday at the old Mekonnen Hotel, a beauty of neo and post and decrepit colonial architecture on the main square, where the ancient French train station stands, a little yellow dream of a building from a time of brutal elegance. We are sitting on my room’s balcony above the square, as the sun goes down. We are eating goat mat and drinking Harar beer, and we are talking about scimitars and about hyenas and about Ethiopian women. The next day, I will say farewell as he boards the train to Djibouti. He doesn’t board the passenger car. He slips in among the burlap bags in a freight car. He will cross the desert here, napping and dreaming among the grains and the coffee.

These are the days of the goat paths. Levi-Strauss knew that, standing at the stern of the good Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, noting every stage and every detail of the dramatic sunsets over the Atlantic, notating them among the text of Enlightenment. It’s a kind of admission, gentle poetry in the work of a young scientist. Even in the ocean there are goat paths. Even in war there are the moments of beauty. Even in science there are moments made for the priest.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Travelogue 608 – March 14
Sounds of Soddo
Part Six

These sorts of pauses are the stuff of travel, the hours in the van covering miles across the yellow hills of Ethiopia, Levi-Strauss’s sunsets over the Atlantic, and then the more prosaic moments, the hotels and the airports.

I’m tired. I could have stayed horizontal in the hotel room, but the mattress is hard. The sheets are rough. My skin is irritated by dust. There was no water to wash. I may as well sit in the hotel bar, where I can drink something and stare at something besides the blank TV screen.

I feel like I’ve been tired a long time. At least I can share it with someone, with the strangers in the bar. We share the thin light. We share the ambient dust. We share the flies. What I share with the notebook is a kind of lateral and parallel sketch of the day’s journey, drawings from a distorted mirror. Reassemble a picture from the surviving fragments of detail.

We are on our way to see the rural literacy site on the magical hilltop, when we are stopped by a crowd in the road. They are gathered around a figure face down in the road, some of them advancing on the helpless man, and then retreating. They are throwing stones. The driver rolls down the window to ask what’s going on. They say he has been eating human flesh. ‘Ah.’ He rolls the window back up, and we edge slowly through the crowd. The Ethiopians in the car, city people all of them, seem stunned.

Does one read it as fact? Did the man eat human flesh? Did the people in the road even believe it? Or were most of them indulging in the excitement of the moment? I tell my urban Ethiopians about Belai the cannibal, saint portrayed in medieval church paintings in northern Ethiopia. At first they deny it. No, there’s no such saint. I repeat the story a few times, remembering more details of it as I go. There is the shadow of merciful Mary, adding just enough weight to the right side of the scale to save the cannibal’s soul. Now Ijigu remembers a piece of the story. There were seventy-seven victims. The rest nod somberly. There was a Saint Belai, after all. It appears to make them sad ‘But that was in Jerusalem,’ Ijigu asserts. ‘He wasn’t Ethiopian.’

Does one record the event in the road as a cultural artefact? In Kembata-Tembaro, I’m reporting breathlessly, cannibals are punished by stoning in the middle of the road. It would make an exciting passage. Maybe accuracy was never as important as amusement. Maybe it’s enough that the story is a diversion from the mundane. The crowd in the road may say the same. It’s something to do, they might say with a shrug. ‘But what about Belai here?’ I ask the crowd. ‘Do we leave him here in the road?’ They laugh.

The road Belai lies in is unfinished, perpetually unfinished. Here it is only a winding way cut into the stubborn hills of southern Ethiopia, wide dirt highway, with deep gutters along each side. This road has earned a certain fame as the never-finished road. There are anonymous detours marked with signs saying, ‘Men Working,’ set in a wondrous silence, a silence of deep irony. The cars crawl along rocky and deeply rutted country detours in silence, spotting through the trees heavy machinery idle, abandoned on the never-finished road. All is empty. These detours are moved from time to time, as though by playful spirits.

There is something totemic about the asphalt road here in Ethiopia. It means a lot. And it’s a labour never quite done. Do we admit in Europe or America how fragile our foundations are? Even as we are diverted time after time by work crews in our lush cities, can we admit how fragile the network of beautiful macadam really is?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Travelogue 607 – March 13
Sounds of Soddo
Part Five

I am ready for dinner, though I can’t say I approach it with much anticipation. The menu at the Soddo hotel is limited. There is meat, and there is spaghetti with meat sauce. The meat was tough last night. The atmosphere will be spare. These rooms lose their only charm as the sun sets. There is a corollary to Ethiopian culture that light must be found suspect. Homes and inside spaces shall be dim. Lamps shall be fitted with the lowest wattage. The TV must outshine lamps. The foreign psychology bows under this pressure, becoming either sleepy or depressed. All instincts toward life are suppressed. My companions will be tired from the day’s travels. We will chew our tough meat in silence.

Still, that will come later. There is some lingering light in the skies. The heat of the day has built behind these high windows. The flies are indulging in a final bacchanal before the darkness that must comprise a significant spell of mourning in their short lives. They buzz with quiet and desperate abandon. I place the dry half lime over the opening of my bottle of tonic.

Levi-Strauss mocks the travel writer of his day for peddling false tonics, distillations of heightened experience, appealing to domestic audiences who seek a scent of wisdom come from the wilds of the borderlands, where civilization falls off the edge of the world, like the map did in Columbus’s day. Psychological monsters peer over the edge at us. For several centuries after the discovery of the New World, writers churned out stories about the bizarre monsters found there, the wild tribes, the paradises and the infernos.

Levi-Strauss doesn’t seem to question the existence of the monsters, just the motives of the hunters. He simply impugns the quest for thrills. He prefers the pursuit of real knowledge, travel for purposes of science. Writers for thrills tend to distort, he says. They reflect the common naiveté of travellers. They see, they discover for themselves, of course, and personal discovery is authentic as far as it goes. It’s when they draw general rule from personal discovery that they get into trouble. Everything observed is offered as a first; every sign of culture offered as ancient and unchanging.

I am recording ‘awesome’. We’re riding up the mountain on the back of motorcycles, each one of us riding behind one driver, as we assault the dirt trails winding up the slopes, riding over stones, swinging wildly to catch a dirt groove on the side of the trail, inches from the drop down a steep hillside. At one point, I turn to see a young, tan bull galloping after us, its horns only a couple feet from my back. I’m not sure how scared to be. The bull is persistent, but could be following, playing, fearful, as much as attacking. I’m more alarmed later, as we whip round another bull, black and stubborn, lowering his head to swing his horns. There are six of us on six bikes. Senayit is quite at ease on the back of her bike. She’s turning to take photos of us, while she’s talking on her mobile.

We arrive just below our intended rural literacy site. We have to abandon our bikes to cross a narrow river on the backs of stones. This river, we discover, empties into a waterfall a few meters on, a waterfall so high we can’t see the bottom. Our trail leads up the slope opposite, so that we emerge on a small summit that overlooks the ravine of the waterfall, so that we see the ribbon of it against the rock, still never seeing the bottom, even when we climb down to the edge of the ravine. We gather at the bare summit of the hill, while the teacher points out the villages on adjacent hills, villages whose children will participate in our mobile literacy program.

We ride back down the hill, and one of the foreign guests says, ‘That was awesome.’ I write it in the notebook. I know what made it awesome was the motor bikes. It was indeed fun.

The dust of the road still clogs my nose, still makes everything gritty. I know from long experience that it will be days before I’m rid of it. I accept it. It’s just a kind of duty paid on the travel.

The goats bleat on the notebook page, and I must write some response to them. This is what humans find awesome on their journeys out of the yard, I write. They find dust. They find grass. They find wild trails. I must talk to the goats on the page in their language. It’s a kind of hunger, I say. ‘Awesome’ is like coming on ripe fruit on the ground. It’s like Changeable Nature loves you just then.

The goatherd stands blankly by the side of the road outside the hotel. His several animals stumble over each other among the spare grasses on the blunt hillside. I can tell by the quality of the light that the sun is readying to set.

Levi-Strauss interrupts his account of weightier matters to describe in several pages of lyrical language the sunsets over the Atlantic. This he writes largely from notebooks and from memory. This is the process of thought. He is unashamed of that, always a traveller, even for science.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Travelogue 606 – March 12
Sounds of Soddo
Part Four

I had to buy this notebook on the run. I mislaid my last one. This is a new habit of mine, manufacturing the missing item, usually something important, the list of critical tasks I had laboured over for days, or the paper I had printed so I would always have it handy. I’m missing the latest notebook, with all its lists, so I stopped by the corner mudabbir by my house, local stand stocked with an amazing variety of household goods inside its narrow walls. I asked the boy at the counter for a dubter, and his hand reached instinctively to the stack beneath his counter. These are the small, ruled booklets for primary school students, about 4X6, with always some new fanciful design on the cover. That day’s was ‘Dream Car’, words stencilled in blue outline over pink and blue splotches and yellow lines. In the center there was an orange cartoon of a sports car, the kind in which doors slide up in the fashion of wings.

I’m spoiling another page, drawing goats in ink. I’m sketching out schemata for false ideas. The hotel bar in Soddo is awash in a soft yellow glow of late afternoon. It resonates softly with the cheers of football crowds in England. The flies make no noise as they circle. They are fond of their circuits. I wonder about them, why they want so badly to land where they landed last. Even as I chased them off, did they still have time to leave some trace of themselves, some smack of fly scent, some invisible beacon?

We know about place. We circle, too, in our way. We call the pathways ‘culture’. Humans return to their fires. They built their early fires according to patterns that became ritual. The stories they told at the fires became religion. The masks for characters became worship. So on. It all speaks to me about harsh lives spent in a harsh world, where knowledge is impossibly fragile.

It’s a new age. The fires have proliferated. Bored with the routines of safety, we turn away from ours. We discover other fires, other people circled around their own boredom. We seek difference, and we settle for the immediate signs of it, vaguely disappointed to discover underneath them the same organization around boredom, the same construct of ego fighting instinct with civilization. Difference becomes an enthusiasm for aesthetics. We study cuisine. We study architecture. We study language. Travellers’ discussions become text for footnotes.

Sometimes I wonder what it is that still strikes the senses, strikes them with something more than the cool touch of intellect. I’ve got the notebook open. I’m reviewing the events of this trip. There might be insight.

First, I’ll record ‘unique’. I heard the word one time among the foreign visitors during the trip. I’ve invited RJ on a run into the mountains with some members of the team. We’re running the fiel menged, the goat path through the chaka, or the forest. This is the way the athletes train, following each other single file through the trees, weave and dodge and climb. I have missed it. RJ bravely, stubbornly stays with us. I’m second in line behind Fikre. I’m focussing on enjoying the run, every moment, the liberation inside this style of running, in which every moment is a challenge and a departure from the steadiness that defines city running, from the lulling, from the same and sustained, from the breath held and the eye on the horizon. A glimpse of the sunlight flashing among the leaves above, and then one must concentrate quickly on the root below, the stone, and then right into the pain of the steep, scrambling ascent.

‘Unique,’ he says. I make a note of that.

At the end of the run, as we re-enter the village on top of the mountain, as we emerge from a rocky trail between rows of houses, emerging into the open, dusty lot in front of old Maryam church, I try to find the strength for a final kick. We’ve run for an hour, but I still have something left. The athletes are re-engaged by this, roused by a spark of native competitiveness to sprint with each other to the end. We laugh, and we all shake hands, a kind of ritual.

This ‘village green’ on the mountaintop is a timeless place. I like being here, lingering briefly after the run. Small children gather and mimic our stretching exercises. The beggar, the ascetic, sits on his blanket, and he eyes us. Women guide their school-age children by, and they laugh. The men sit by the road, waiting for work, waiting for taxis, waiting for the afternoon and then the evening. They are making jokes about us. They wave when we wave. Their smiles are both genuine and mocking. I love that sincerity in Ethiopia, the accommodation of all sentiments simultaneously.

Maryam might be the oldest church in Addis Ababa. The emperor Menelik was crowned here in 1882. RJ and I enter the grounds and walk around the octagonal church, austere grey in the walls, encircled by a wooden portico painted in light blue and Ethiopian colours. It’s peaceful. I meditate on the century of worship here, fervent and focussed, its ancient words lifted above the mountain, above the hum of the capital city, where the nation tries every day to write history.

We turn back toward the van. It was the run that was unique. I’ve written it on the goat’s page.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Travelogue 605 – March 11
Sounds of Soddo
Part Three

A blank notebook page is a wonderful thing, a source of hope. We might write many silly words in a row. We may draw pictures. It’s a delusive sort of hope, luring men and women into committing to paper all sorts of follies. We say fatuous things when we’re lulled by hope. And we are proud of them, even knowing they are fatuous. And we know intuitively that for most of us it’s the freedom of the page that counts, more than the value in dried ink. It must be a game to be really worth the time.

We follow the fiel menged. The Amharic comes with an image. We’re running in the mountains above Addis. Ijigu can’t help himself. He cannot run along the dirt road. He must break away and dash through the forests and brush, weaving, climbing and falling among the rocks and roots of the hillside. This is the fiel menged, the goat path. I tease him with this, until I discover the fun of the fiel menged for myself. I’ve been conditioned by years of city running to think of straight lines and destinations. The goat’s way is much more fun, and, finally, meaningful.

I’m watching the goats now, out the window of the hotel bar in Soddo, three of them making their herky jerky way along the side of the road, under the lazy watch of their keeper. They nibble. They lift their heads on long necks, craning, staring through those odd eyes, distorted pupils. Goats never become graceful. They are perpetually knock-kneed kids.

I draw in my notebook a goat with an elephant’s howdah on his back. The man inside is not hunting or leading armies. He’s a man of science with a mortarboard cap and a smile of discovery. He hauls some verbiage behind the filthy goat tail, like a haul of trash, leaving tracks in the dust that has settled on the notebook. I’ve outlined my meditations on the term ‘monoculture’, used by Levi-Strauss in his Tristes Tropiques.

The first tenet, I say, is that the only monoculture is the one that stands inside boredom. As long as we find something charming – goats on the road, the coffee ceremony – we have not entered the monoculture. We are observing it. And it is not an element of culture until the persons performing it perform it absent-mindedly, with that critical attitude of boredom.

Secondly, the elements of said culture of boredom are utilitarian. If the ingredients or order vary from place to place, it is only a recipe of chance among the several mundane ingredients of survival.

We want ‘culture’ to be the coffee ceremony and we want it to be the group of people gathered around it. This equation never resolves. People are not single quantities. They are amalgams of content and motion that only appear as unities. If this is true of individuals, so much more should it be true of groups. More interesting than identities is why we want them so badly.

So, a third law, perhaps: as tempting as it is to extend ‘culture’ to identity, it will always be problematic. Even self-identification, ‘I am the people of the coffee ceremony.’ It is messy. We find it easy to cede the fact of change in our own time, while insisting on a nostalgia for ‘traditional’ cultures as stable, as bedrock. But societies were always fluid and unstable. Classical Greece was a chance and ephemeral amalgam of various local brands with Persian and Egyptian, and others hard to count. Imperial Rome was strata upon strata of cultural artefacts, some enforced, some local, some international, some perverse and signs of rebellion.

But back to monoculture, centred in its ring of boredom. One turns inward and sees little. One turns outward and perceives the event horizon. That rouses curiosity, excitement. This thrill is what fuels the ritual ordeal that Levi-Strauss references. Approaching the event horizon, one suddenly sees the objects of one’s monoculture. One begins to dress them, paint them with designs, create cults from culture. At the horizon, the blood races. One has visions. And then one escapes. One sees a galaxy of monoculture systems, like circles of people with their hands to the fire.

The TV in the bar has begun airing a Premiership game. All eyes fix on the fixture. It’s a passion here. I know any one of these guys could recite names and results with keen accuracy. More important are the loyalties. Hazard is dangerous, and the fan smiles with real enjoyment of the Belgian’s game, and with a feeling that the star plays for him.

I turn back to my game with the flies, protecting my drink with lazy swats. On average, it takes three repetitions to discourage the fly from coming back. I could write a new theology, sprung from the contest with flies. ‘Wave thrice, place one palm over the chalice.’ The flies like my backpack. I debate internally the health hazard of flies on my backpack. Shall I double my efforts, expanding my territory to the adjacent chair, where the backpack sits?

The goat returns to its flock. It has pursued its vision along the hillside abutting the road, following erratic paths. It has found its meagre clump of grass. It awkwardly runs behind, the joints of its legs seeming strung only loosely with string. It falls into formation, its head bobbing, one eye set alertly, inscrutably out toward the street. I return to my drawing, and I play around with the pupil of the eye, such an odd aperture into that box of angles, the goat’s head.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that humankind saw the globe of earth. We still marvel at the sight, at least I hope we do. It features in so many movies, I notice, as a kind of revelatory image. Journalists have tried to attach text, but wisdom from beyond the event horizon isn’t convenient that way. Text doesn’t attach. We see stuff. We know something more, but only in the value-neutral way of true knowledge.

Pour the coffee. It doesn’t speak. One grows bored listening.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Travelogue 604 – March 10
Sounds of Soddo
Part Two

It’s a hot afternoon in Soddo, and I’m trying to read. I’m doing my best to read while also monitoring the flies. I’m sitting by the window, watching the street through the gauzy white drapes. There is a reassuring familiarity to the sounds of the Ethiopian street, the nasal voices crying out, the horns of the cars and rumble of the trucks. The traffic surges with familiar urgency, cars swerving around the three-wheeled bajaj, around the goats. Boys in sky-blue school uniforms are horsing around, shouting, while lanky elders in windbreakers and baseball caps leisurely climb the slope.

Soddo is a town of slopes, arrayed against the side of one green range of hills rising above the surrounding countryside. It’s a pretty setting. It had been Jon’s idea to make Soddo the base for our trip, instead of Hosanna, a city to the north of our school sites, in the Hadiya zone. It was a good idea. There’s an element of peace to Soddo completely lacking in Hosanna, where the streets are madness in dust. The one faranji-friendly hotel in Hosanna, the Lemma, stands like a fortress on a hill. Outside the gates of the Lemma, the van wades through jeering crowds.

I return to the text. Between the erratic attacks of the flies and the senseless slaughter of random words by the e-reader, I find it slow going. The poetic rhythm to Levi-Strauss’s prose is all but lost. I push forward.

With what seems like notable prescience in someone writing in 1955, Levi-Strauss develops a quiet, recurring argument that the boom in population will rob the world of particularity, that, in his words, ‘… humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet.’

It’s not a difficult argument to digest in our times, something we say ourselves with the ease of familiarity, a Time Magazine lament – though I think Time editors might hesitate at the big dose of salt there in that word ‘civilization’.

Myself, I hesitate over the word ‘monoculture’. I begin to wonder how the word should be deployed. I might easily set the concept on its head.

There are few places that can strike someone from my culture as more different and perhaps alienating, maybe disturbing, certainly discomfiting, than Ethiopia. One can thrill at the differences, or one may despair. But ultimately, submerged in the culture for a while, one can hardly avoid the real experience of tedium and boredom. For all the chatter about diversity, as an endangered quantity, as something to celebrate, there is little discussion about how monotonous culture is from the inside, no matter how challenging the entry into it. So which way is the indicator, this term ‘monoculture’, pointing? Or to put it another way, what exactly is the diversity we fret over?

Isn’t it possible that the discipline of anthropology has become as much a relic as the items in its cabinets? Isn’t there something to it, some key ingredient in the mix that makes up its foundation that could only have germinated in the colonial era and blossomed in the twentieth century, a conception of ‘cultures’ as tectonic plates, contemporaneous sets of manners and habits rubbing against one they slowly shift? The researcher creates a taxonomy, and then he worries about the fragility of the species he has charted, a sort of solipsistic method, calling his snapshot the measure, building an institution to preserve it.

Mr. Levi-Strauss makes much in his book about the path in his youth that led to anthropology, how it fit him so perfectly, young man fascinated by geology, history, and psycho-analysis. It was in the youthful science of anthropology that he found the perfect fusion of his interests. But I think I see something in his nature that bridles against the codifying instincts of his discipline. I’ve seen there is a playfulness to the man. He teases and challenges. Theory is the pick-up game after school, rather than theological councils in debate. This is the man, after all, who composed structuralist theory around the trickster figure in mythology, long before hordes of fantasy and sci-fi authors made cotton candy out of Jungian thought.

Dust motes settle among afternoon’s golden light, a sort of African summer shower upon the wings of the flies settled on the edge of my table, and I am drawing spider webs around the word ‘monoculture’, the nib of my pen catching on dust, and I’m sketching out theories of culture in my notebook. I’ve made a drawing of a goat, and on his back balances my contribution to science, a new theory, the boredom index to culture.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Travelogue 603 – March 9
Sounds of Soddo
Part One

I’m in Soddo. The city is the head of the Wolaita region of the Southern Nations, Ethiopia. This is one of the best hotels of the city, but still I’m fighting off the flies. There’s been no water. We’ve been out all day, visiting two schools in the Kembata-Tembaro region. I would have loved a shower. I’ve only been able to wash out of buckets for days now, even in Addis Ababa. Now they have taken the bucket away so, returning from a day driving among the dusts of our roads, I have no water whatsoever.

The sun beats in the window of the ‘bar’, which is a bare room with plain tables that looks exactly like the ‘restaurant’ across the lobby. The flies are relentless. I’m drinking bottled water. Mercifully, they have limes to add flavour, and to cleanse the palette. This much water I can have. I may have to splash down with bottled water later.

I’m re-reading ‘Tristes Tropiques’ by Claude Levi-Strauss. The book had come up in conversation recently at my café in Rotterdam, brought up by the philosopher barista there, the philosopher and professional football player. It seems like a good read while travelling. Claude Levi-Strauss famously opens his book by saying, ‘Travel and travelers are two things I loathe ….’

I’m having trouble focusing on the book. It’s been a long day among the dusts of Kembata-Tembaro, and I’m tired. It doesn’t help that my version of the book, adapted for the e-reader, is rather garbled. I have to interpret nonsense text mid-sentence. Often, it’s a matter of squinting my eyes and seeing if some resemblance to a real word emerges. Sometimes it’s context. If it’s a name, I assume it will pop up again somewhere. The names are challenging, anyway. He’s writing about his anthropological work in Brazil during his youth, in the 1930s. The book was published in 1955. It’s a memoir looking back twenty years, and he writes as though it is a time lost in the distant past. It must have seemed so, separated from him by the war and asylum in the States. But reading the book now adds another, longer angle of perspective, if the reader knows that Levi-Strauss died only recently, in 2009, having lived to be over a hundred.

‘Travel and travelers are two things I loathe ….’ I’ve been meaning to write a rebuttal to this, though I’m not sure what arguments I could marshal. He spends a good amount of time early in the book criticizing travel writers in particular, and I’m trying to self-publish this travel memoir about Ethiopia, with Troy’s help. I might be a little sensitive. Obviously he makes his case somewhat ironically, embedded as it is in a travel memoir.

He hypothesizes rather broadly that the popularity of the travel story (with real colour photos, in 1955!) is related to the ritual ordeals among certain native North American tribes, in which young people achieved wisdom and power by submitting themselves in solitude to extreme situations outside the norms of their societies. Ordeal scenarios were often contests with elements traditionally seen as alien and hostile to the culture; i.e., wild beasts and cruel nature. The ordeals had to involve suffering, of course, and extreme alienation.

I wonder if the preponderance of flies in this bar will qualify as ordeal. I am suffering a good deal of annoyance. And when I blow my nose, I am still finding dust and blood. I am hoping there is some wisdom for me in this, as reward for my suffering.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Travelogue 602 – March 2
Making the Rounds

Ijigu and Frehiwot are hanging back. I’m leading a small group of white guys down the rocky slope of the dirt road, down toward the stink of the wenz, or river, below, and apparently into danger. ‘You know,’ Ken says, ‘your own staff is saying we shouldn’t go down there.’

I had wanted to take the group as far as the wenz. It stands well below high banks overgrown in sickly brush. You can’t see it, but you can smell it. Like most streams through the city, it is treated as latrine, wash basin, trash dump, and bath for both human and animal, and it is horribly filthy. I remember the wenz from earlier visits to families, stepping with some trepidation into dilapidated shacks of corrugated iron that teetered on the edge of the bank.

We don’t make it that far. I see the brush atop the banks, past the point that our road disintegrates into an abandoned plot of dust and trash. The road was once laid with stones. They form now a broken mosaic of disuse in monochromatic tan tones of summer dust. There is no one around, not even the children begging attention. But there lurks some risk there in the shadowless terrain, I am being warned, and since I must be responsible for the safety of the guests I turn us back, commit us to the sweaty climb back up to the asphalt, where the van can pick us up.

I’m disappointed. I want the foreign guests to see where our students come from. I can’t say why, really. No one in this group funded the Mercato project. But I wish they could see those families the way I have. Maybe it’s a certain loneliness inside my history.

So yes, I am completing the work on a memoir about the first years in Ethiopia. Writing does strange things to my brain. I see double; I see triple. The day merges with other days. Last week I was writing about Ethiopia. This week I’m here. The two Ethiopias aren’t lining up quite right.

It could be that you write your story, and afterward you realize that not all of it is true. That’s not to say any of it was a lie or a fantasy. But a memory is one step from truth, and writing is another step. You’ve said something about a place, and the place denies it. You’ve said something about the Self, and the Self denies it.

We’re visiting the first location of the school. It looks the same to me, standing quietly amidst the chaos of the Mercato, warehouses on one side and on the other the hillside that descends through kilometres of shantytown.

Last year we had to close the Mercato school. It was a sad experience. Two years ago we were forced out of this location by a restless landlord, hungry for commercial projects. We moved into a second house, not too distant from the first but across a line dividing administrative districts. The officials in the new district refused to re-license, stringing us along with ever new sets of conditions.

We stand outside the gate of the first location, and there is nothing different. There is no G+ under construction. There is no banner above the gate advertising grand enterprise. There is no commotion, no trucks moving merchandise, no ring of cash registers. All is silent.

So we tramp back toward the melee that is the Mercato, where all is relentless motion, and into it. We walk single-file among the crowds, past the warehouses, past the trucks, past the streams of people who seem so intent, as though intention has lost its purpose, become the purpose. People push against each other and against us, past the open stalls of merchandise, displayed in piles and stacks, sacks of grain, plastic flowers, and rows of shoes; alleyway of bras, jamboree of carpets, carnival of plastic and aluminium pots.