Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Travelogue 663 – November 24
By the Gulf

I’ve been called back to Addis suddenly. Impatient government officials are asserting their prerogatives. I’ve decided to try a new airline.

I laugh to write here about airlines. I’ve observed how much expats love to talk about airlines, at least in Ethiopia. The travel choice is an interesting calculation, balancing price with comfort with timing. One rarely gets everything. Some time ago, KLM cancelled their direct flights to Addis, and I’ve never quite settled back into any happy routine. My default choice has been Lufthansa. But it’s an uncomfortable compromise. I could recite a few complaints, but the biggest one is that I’m stuck with overnight flights. My body can’t take it.

Bole Airport in Addis late at night is bleak. It has become Purgatory. It is crowded. Hundreds of Chinese men spill out of the smoking area. The hallway smells. The lights are dim and sickly yellow. I will wear mourning the next time.

I’ve decided to try Emirates. I’ve heard goods things. If I spend the night in Dubai, I can fly in daylight.

I’m standing at the window just as the sun rises over the buildings in the east. The sky is yellow. Behind me in the room, the décor is simple, everything yellow and brown, like the painting above the bed, a brilliant piece of Arab kitsch, in which elders sit around the ancient divan in the days before oil, old fishermen and traders in long gowns and high turbans singing along as one of them plays a lyre-like instrument.

The scene out the window is instantly familiar. Years ago I worked in Kuwait. The buildings seem the same, the close clusters of stacked concrete, flat roofs to the sky. It’s the same Gulf sun, seeming to rise at full power. I can see the street below. There aren’t too many people out, a few men walking to work.

The Dubai airport is like a cavernous temple to celebrate the city as a kind of miracle state, to celebrate commerce, and of course to celebrate the Sheikh Mohammed, Emir of Dubai, the author of all this success. The lobby is a good half kilometre of slick open tile under high pillars covered with reflecting silver. Once you pass through passport control, a surprisingly relaxed procedure, you enter the real palace, multiple high-ceilinged storeys accessed by an open escalator surrounded by glass and light, revealing all storeys at once. On the third floor, there is a long gallery of duty free shops. I stop at a Costa Coffee, a chain I associate with London, and I watch the waves of people.

I’m reminded how truly diverse the populations are in the Gulf. Their terms of engagement are complex, of course. I doubt the U.A.E. is paradise for the workers from south Asia or Africa. But I’m a visitor. The world walks the gaudy halls of the airport in sunlight. I’m escaping the grim paranoia in Europe, experiencing peace and diversity in the Middle East.

I’ve missed the cultures that believe in courtesy. It’s refreshing. My cultures seem allergic to anything that might be taken as corny or sentimental. To this sort of adolescent mind set, the courtesies of older cultures seem naïve. But they are ancient and have evolved for a purpose, even if only aesthetic. I’m sure it’s more.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Travelogue 662 – November 16
Lacking Enemies

On Monday morning the wind is blowing. Our clothes on the line outside are in disarray. My running shirt has fallen to the ground. The wind screeches suddenly as it finds a crack in window or door.

It’s dark when I get up now. I leave the house while the wind is blowing, while the clouds in the night sky pick up the lights of the waking city and reflect them back in colours like war.

The bad boys from Brussels have done their work. There are calls for war now. France is closing their borders. One questions in both cases, ‘against whom?’ My job has made a project manager out of me, and I can’t help asking for detail.

It was easier for the boys from Brussels. Their objectives were very concrete. We will kill and cause mayhem, they said over their martyr’s whisky. That was a manageable project. It had become somewhat divorced from its originating principle. Just as France’s principle has the most tenuous connection to task.

It seems to me that history has become like an untethered balloon in the winds above my city, buffeted wildly among the clouds. The dark winter sky obscures.

There is plenty of war in our world, and yet it’s a beast without purpose. Since World War II, it’s awfully hard to craft rational narratives for our myriad wars. They surge and they halt, and they run rampant, and the witnesses wonder at the psychology of the beast. Was it religion? Then why is it so bloodthirsty? Was it a political program, a ‘freedom’, a ‘democracy’? Then why the strange gleam in the eye, the relish, and the lapse into chaos when the wall is down?

Dare we say that the terrorist program is already bankrupt? Was it conceived to scare the governments of the West into withdrawing from the Middle East? Are the terrorists encouraged by some sign that the rest of us have missed? They terrorize the people but can they terrorize the governments? In fear, the people support government’s security measures and the calls for war. Just as the people were tired of the expense and the cynical grind of foreign wars, the terrorists show up to provide new fuel.

Little wonder that conspiracy theorists think the terrorists are inventions of the victim governments. Unwitting tools, maybe. I’ve always been sceptical about the drunken shouts of ‘genius’ when talking about boys with box-cutters or about the desperate boys with clogged arteries in Washington.

And so the animal with horns reels this way and that, yielding to the martyr’s whisky and the seduction of wild action. It feels so much like purpose.

Pity the rest of us, whose lives are so much less romantic. Lacking enemies we have only families. Lacking glory we have only the ride into work of a morning. I read the stories about boys and their glory while I read the Metro into town. I have the bilingual dictionary in my lap. I do this every morning. I read and I study. It’s something to do when you have no one to kill.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Travelogue 661 – November 5

I pull the car door shut behind me. ‘Shimeles! Indemen adark? Good morning.’ The day starts. Shimeles pulls away from the kerb and into the wide sweep of asphalt that, at this hour, serves almost exclusively the taxi vans roaring downhill from the communities on the Entoto Road. Shimeles doesn’t need to ask where I’m going. I’ve been following the same routine every morning, a routine dictated by dependence on reliable internet. I have to put in a few hours of work on the computer before I show up at the office in the Kebena district. I’m going to the Radisson in Kasanchis.

The Radisson is located on one of those streets in Addis blessed by a sudden chic, where the hotels and the construction cranes suddenly soar, where traffic suddenly clogs, where money seems to pool and eddy in its wild course across the city. Shimeles curses as he maneuvers among the slow streams of traffic. He pulls over and glances back with an anxious look. The traffic is stopped behind him, and one of the hotel guards is already on his way over. I know to get out as fast as I can. Shimeles is moving as the door shuts behind me.

Inside, the guards salute and smile. Two of them stand inside the sentry post set in the barrier separating the hotel from the street. They run my backpack through the x-ray machine, and one sweeps my body with his little beeper. This is standard in the new Addis. The hostesses in the lounge greet me. They know to place my order for English cake and espresso, for the largest bottle of water they have and the limes to go with it. The lobby is something modern. We’ve emerged from a quick succession of styles signifying luxury, from the Hilton era, luxury as inherited from the late Selasse era, 70s California, through the flashy Arab period, and through the explosion of Ethiopian kitsch, to this, the understated and anonymous. I might be in Europe. The floors are marble tiling and brown carpet. The arm chairs are solid and comfortable. The tasteful black-and-white photography on the wall is Ethiopian in theme, but only if you look closely. The big screen placed at one end of the room is pointedly not tuned to Ethiopian TV, but instead to an international swim meet in Qatar.

My seat is closest to one corner, furthest from the TV, closest to an electrical plug. The waitress brings me the day’s internet code, and I am ready to go.

In Hawassa my destination is the Haile Resort by the lake, and my ride is the three-legged bajaj. From my new hotel, the place of echoes, I have to walk half a kilometre down one of those extravagant new city roads one sees all around Ethiopia these days, wide enough for three lanes each way and divided by a high-kerbed meridian, where often there are only bajaj drivers and horse carts to sparsely populate the macadam.

It seems as though there has been some unionization among the bajaj drivers. They don’t want to negotiate anymore, and the prices are relatively uniform. I try to haggle, just for nostalgia’s sake, but I pay the driver’s first price, and I swing myself into the back seat. He revs the buzzing little engine, and away we go, cruising at bajaj speed (something less than lightning) across town.

I’m not always so lucky with internet at the Haile. But I can’t imagine it’s better elsewhere in town. When the connection is working, it’s quick, and I can catch up on a lot of work. When it’s not, I fiddle with some documents, and I look around the vast lobby. The ceilings and the windows look to soar some twenty meters above us. It’s sparsely furnished to emphasize this feeling of space. Outside is a garden and the lake. You can see the whole lake. The opposite shore is indistinct in the morning mist.

It’s Yenebeb who says it best. The place seems to reflect Haile’s character, or what we think we know of it, the perfectionism, the dedication to excellence. So many luxury hotels have been built in recent years, one might think the craze accounts for all the new construction in Ethiopia, every crane in downtown Addis lifting new shower stalls to the sixth storey. But the standards are questionable. The fashionable hotels one year are very often the fading beauties the very next year, dirty, chipped and peeling, those beautiful showers malfunctioning. But there seems to be a pride in the workmanship here at the Haile, some substance and durability. Even the garden is still neat and ordered. There is sculpture. There is an interesting variety to the plants and trees.

I step outside, and I descend the garden steps toward the lakeside. There are fishermen among the reeds just off shore. They are standing, and it appears for the moment as though there must be a shoal underneath the reeds, but the fishermen are standing on small bamboo rafts.

There are still morning colours in the water. There are boys swimming in the water, off the plot of land next to the resort’s. They are shouting and splashing. Some are washing. At this hour, the outdoor tables are deserted. I sit and watch the waters. A Chinese man appears and slowly crosses my field of vision. He is stalking a heron. He’s holding forward an expensive camera.

A young couple arrives, clearly Diaspora, both in sporty hats, his a fedora and hers a huge sun hat. They are laughing and leaning into each other. They pause at lakeside for some posed, pouting pictures. Tourist photos are supposed to look like sly jokes these days. They stroll off, back toward the hotel, holding hands and still giggling, while I check my watch. It’s nearly time to go.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Travelogue 660 – November 4
Under Construction

The sun is up in Addis Ababa. Shimeles and I are travelling down the hill into town. Even this early, the lines have started for taxis in Arat Kilo. It’s only in the past few years you see these lines. There are too many people, too few taxis. They stand patiently beside the side of the busy road, thirty or more people deep. Even as there are more cars in Ethiopia, travel around town becomes more difficult. Even as the city launches the babur, the light rail, transport in the city is stalled. If anything the light rail did more to stop the town during its construction than to get people moving.

The light rail project has changed the landscape of Addis. Mexico Square has disappeared down a circular well of dirt among remodelled roads and the elevated railway. An elevated line bursts even into the solemn space of Meskel Square at the center of town. This particular line isn’t running yet, so the pillars of this strange viaduct stand silently, casting shadows over sections of town, feeling like an accusation. You make us do this to you.

Change is the norm in Addis now. There are streets wholly dedicated to progress, districts ordained a fashion by new asphalt, where rows of hulking buildings stand unfinished, fitted with eucalyptus scaffolding and covered with torn shrouds of grey tarp that make them look like creatures from Harry Potter.

One day I’m lost among a legion of these monsters searching for an old haunt, the quiet café called Kabu. It has vanished, and vanished so completely that I have to pace back and forth along the whole stretch of road to find clues to where it had once stood. Eventually I do identify the monster that swallowed my café. I survey the row of them, effectively just slabs of concrete stacked on bare supports like toothpicks.

Hawassa in southern Ethiopia is another city under construction, suffering the shocks of hasty development. I’m staying at a hotel that used to be a standard of class in the parochial old town. Even at this late date, Masresha, Hawassa native and man about town, suggests meeting in the restaurant of my hotel, which at one time was clearly the best. After only a few minutes, just as we’re getting comfortable at our table, the lights go out. They are gone for the rest of the evening. The waiters express surprise, assure us the lights will be back. But their movement in the dark is rote. Candles are brought to select tables, where somber men in suits are being served, and the waiters are suspiciously adept at serving while holding their mobile phones in their mouths, flashlights forward.

The food arrives. We enjoy the evening, even with the lights out, sitting outside in the balmy air of Hawassa, air aromatic with the flowers below in the terrace, humid from the nearby lake, and full of the chatter from the street.

The next morning I awake to an alarming racket. It sounds like glass being ground under foot and raked across concrete, screeching with bell-like tones. At the end of the hall, they’re renovating a room, tearing up the tile and sweeping it together.

At the end of the day I return, and my room door is open. They’ve ripped the room apart. The concrete floor is bare. The floor tile has been removed and the pieces gathered in one corner. In another corner, the furniture is piled in a mass, partially covered by a tarp. Everything is abandoned to dust and dejected silence. No one is around. No other room has been touched, though I don’t remember seeing any other guests.

It takes us an hour to locate my things and to negotiate a refund. And then we are forced to search town for another room. We settle on the Enjory, which at least has the benefit of electricity through the evening. But it’s a hotel cast in the usual mould, concrete chambers set around a square courtyard in an architecture that an acoustical engineer could do well studying, inside which the most trivial sound is preserved and amplified to all corners.

The hotel guards and the cleaners have a nice relationship. They chat until midnight, clinking and thumping through their final duties. All the room doors are closed, they reason, so the place is deserted. They are free. Finally, they carry their laughter to the street, where they join the rest of the celebrants. We are in Hawassa, they say. We are the lucky ones.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Travelogue 659 – November 3
She’s in Russia Now

Maybe it’s my night time reading. Maybe it’s Le Carré and his 60s narratives triggering memories. I awake in the morning from a dream about my mother. She’s in some foreign place. She’s unrecognizable, and apparently I am as well. It has been so long. Still, we do see each other, and we talk.

I’m awake at five. I realize this is my best chance at a shower, so I drag myself out of bed. It’s chilly, and it’s pitch black in my little flat. Outside the churches have begun their songs. I turn on the light in the bathroom, interrupting the night-long party of the roaches and spiders. ‘Sorry, boys. Morning always comes too soon.’

I’m more than a week into my Ethiopia trip. I feel the fatigue throughout. I’ve just returned from a four-day trip to the south of Ethiopia, to Hawassa. The ache of van travel on rough roads lingers. Hawassa is about five hours from Addis. Some will say less, but they haven’t ridden with trusty Tamrat. I encourage his relaxed style and pace. Even if he is tempted to speed, his vehicle won’t allow it. The old 4x4 will start shuddering sickeningly.

Road time is helped enormously by the new expressway from Addis to Mojo (and beyond). It’s a toll road bypassing the horrible old Debre Zeit road, and the asphalt is new and smooth and wide, and we drift along it in a kind of dream. Could this be Ethiopia? After lunch in Mojo at the old Daema Hotel -- unexpectedly the best fish of the trip, even though we spend four days by Hawassa’s lake, -- we rediscover the familiar Ethiopia, the road south broken and pitted. One really benefits from the seasoned driver who knows the road intimately. He swerves with an uncanny prescience around chains of nasty potholes, predicting the behaviour of erratic drivers oncoming, the rash youngsters ferrying travellers in battered vans, the screaming Isuzu flatbeds, the middle class frivolous on holiday. The high-speed daydream of American road trips is not the norm here. Very rare is the stretch of uniform speed. One brakes for crossing herds of cattle. One slows to pass horse carts using the highway.

The last span of road into Hawassa we undertake at night. I’ve done this before, so I know what to expect but it’s still unnerving, the sudden silhouettes of families on their horse carts in the headlights, the boy standing with the reins in his hands, the family serenely occupying their portion of the narrow road, even while cars converge from both directions. It pays to have the calm hand of Tamrat on the wheel.

It’s 5am in Addis Ababa. There is water. I submit to the warmth of it. I stand without moving, hoping for some renewal, hoping to coax the fatigue out of me, into the streams going down the drain. It’s unwise to wait too long; the water may waver.

I wonder what my mother and I had to say to each other. I don’t remember much. The encounter had the feel of a chance meeting of old barflies in an obscure watering hole overseas. I dream often of Russia, a country I’ve never seen, a landscape drawn for me by Dostoevsky, I suppose, in ethereal code for depression. I carry a fantastical miniature of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg with me, a geography of abandonment. Mom slouches at the bar, her head shaved in gulag style. She has a companion, a kind of Nick Nolte dishevelment with no real definition. They cackle in the way of drunks, needing no humour. When I talk to her, she is sober and someone else, a third, not my mother nor the barfly, and we talk about books.

Shimeles, my regular taxi man, will be at the top of the hill at seven. I was up before dawn to catch the water. Now I lie back again on the bed. I won’t sleep, but I can rest, watching the colour in the curtains slowly change, glow with new born daylight.