Sunday, June 19, 2016

Travelogue 704 – June 19
She Plays with the Balloon

I’m missing Baby. This trip is work and sleep. In between there is solitary time to reflect. I think of her often. I laugh when I think about her first birthday party. I watch the video in which she’s crawling across the floor with a balloon held in her new teeth. This is a trick she really enjoys. With all the formalities of the party, she was a star, taking centre stage very naturally.

It was all Ethiopians and Eritreans at the party. Chuchu and his family drove up from Antwerp, so Baby had friends. Chuchu’s second daughter is one week older. We had a big cake, and all the adults sang birthday songs. Solomon worked the camera. Baby sat serenely with her friends in front of the cake. She seemed to find all our antics intriguing. Left to play, she found the balloons the most fun.

I go to the office. The children sitting in the library make me think of Baby, make me wonder which little girl she might be like. Will she be the shy and giggling one, the bold and saucy one, the serious and bookish one?

We work in the top floor conference room. That room has a small balcony outside a sliding glass door. I take a break and I watch the activity in the tiny courtyard below. The children take breaks. Several small boys play outside. They kick a ball around. When they tire of that, they kick puddle water at each other out in the small dirt road. A passing grandmother admonishes them, but they don’t stop. Two little girls are playing on the swing set frame that we are storing in the courtyard. One climbs to stand on the supporting bar, and the other tries to push her off. One looks up to see me watching. She smiles in a most beguiling way. She whispers to her friend. Then she pushes her. The guard stops the game.

I take a break on the third floor balcony, and I look out over the neighbourhood. From here the view is rich with detail. The hills seem tightly gathered around us, houses amid the trees and roads winding among them. The few multi-storey buildings appear nestled among the houses, and then again farther out, where one senses the big city. But bigger than the big city are the mountains beyond and, here and there, the domes of the churches, echoing the spirit of the heights.

It’s funny, but with all there is to look at, my view is habitually drawn down to the familiar street view. People pass only occasionally. Some notice me up on my balcony. Most don’t. I prefer they don’t, because even these sorts of innocent interactions between the local and the foreign can become complex. I prefer the children. They see the same white face, but the difference between us is a kind of game. I smile at them, and they become shy. They shout back. They perform. They pose, and they run away.

I’m wondering which little girl is Baby. And how can I make her laugh?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Travelogue 703 – June 18
The Anxious Clouds

Places like Minnesota and Holland may boast their construction seasons. Certainly there’s every day a new detour in Rotterdam these days. But nothing compares to Addis Ababa. There is no landscape as mutable as the cityscape in the Ethiopian capital. Whole districts change beyond recognition from one year to the next. Selfishly, I’m sad to note on this morning’s taxi ride that there is more work at the Sidist Kilo campus of Addis Ababa University. I remember it as a calm place of trees behind the several antique stone gates that survive from the days of the Emperor’s palace. I remember a spacious campus inside reflecting the layout of the imperial gardens. Now, many of the trees are dug up for ambitious construction. New buildings are claiming piece after piece of campus space, and the gates seem imperilled, crowded by scaffolding and covered in dust.

This summer, it’s the road in front of my home gate that is under construction, victim of the lengthy project to convert all dirt roads in the city to cobblestone or macadam. The way has been steamrolled flat, and along both sides are laid the huge concrete cylinders that will, I assume, serve for drainage or sewage. I never see any activity. Perhaps the road will lie in this unfinished state all rainy season.

I wake early, after going to bed very early. Travel is an opportunity to work and sleep. Between them is only the small window I make for a Euro Cup match and a light dinner. At night, the sleep comes fast and goes deep. There’s an urgency to the sleep that comes from months without much of it.

I’m sleeping a lot, and I’m paying the price. My back aches from the long hours on my tiny Ethiopian bed, sleeping on a foam mattress compressed with years of use. When it comes time to rise, I have to sit a while and delicately work one shoulder to ease the pain in my neck. Nothing comes gratis anymore. Rest is purchased with pain.

There will be more. I check the faucet, in futile hope, and there is nothing. I pull out the bucket, and splash the cold water over my face, over my torso. I wince, and it hurts. I can’t move freely yet because of the neck pain. The air is chilly. It’s rainy season. I dry and dress.

It’s not raining when I leave, but it’s cloudy. There is something unsettling about these moody storm fronts during rainy season. They impress the unconscious with dread. Maybe it’s just me. The Ethiopians seem to enjoy rainy season. But these aren’t the peaceful clouds of Holland, or the gentle showers of northern Europe that can be beautiful and soothing. The weather seems unstable. The clouds gather and menace, sometimes eerily yellow underneath, like the sky is bruised. The darkness they bring doesn’t tease out any beauty in the cityscape, like the European clouds can, highlighting the greens of the parks, the opaque depths of the rivers and canals, and the weird sentience of the architecture. What is highlighted here is the dirt and everything aged.

The only beauty comes in the morning, when I’m walking up my little road, now under construction and lined with mud, when I can catch a glimpse of the mountains, topped by mists and carpeted in shadowy greens. I relish that. The hymns emanating from the churches in the hills seem written for these moments.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Travelogue 702 – June 16
The Ethiopian Story of Beer and Coffee

The top two football teams in Ethiopia are called Beer and Coffee. Ostensibly, this is a matter of sponsorship, though that only seems true in one case. Either way, Addis Ababa’s top two teams have been around for years, battling each other for the title in the capital city’s decrepit old stadium before rowdy crowds. At the moment, Coffee has been banned in two stadiums because of the hooliganism of their fans. They are the Russians of the Ethiopian leagues.

I arrived in Addis Ababa yesterday. After a few hours at the office, I retired to a hotel for dinner. The Slovakia-Russia game was on. Actually, what was on at the moment was a frozen picture of the game on one small TV, an abstract caused by the broken broadcast, yellow squares dispersed among the green of the pitch, players in red and white stopped mid-play. And in the lounge area, a few of the waiters were engaged in what appeared to be a comic skit, trying to set up a recalcitrant projection screen. They extended the frame, and it wouldn’t catch. They stretched the screen; it snapped back and fell to the ground. They tilted it. They kicked it. Then there was the projector. They had to focus and re-focus. Ultimately, the game was projected on the screen in all its distressed glory. We were sixty minutes into the game.

Having lived in Slovakia for a year, my allegiance was decided. And I was immediately, enthusiastically, engaged when I saw the Slovaks were winning. They were winning by two points. Much of the rest of the game was Slovakia on the defensive, as the Russians launched assault after assault. They did manage one goal, but no second to tie. The Slovaks were ecstatic. The team joined in a circle, jumped and shouted. Fans in the stands looked stunned.

The Israeli men next to me were similarly stunned. I don’t speak Hebrew, but it’s clear they were surprised. I couldn’t really tell whether they were happy or sad for Russia’s loss. They dismissed the topic with the same vigour they brought to every topic during their tenure in the seats next to me. They were big fellows, and occupied much more space than seemed possible, with their luggage spread around the room, their voices booming, their legs splayed in all directions. They had ordered nothing. Rather than leave the table in front of them empty, one placed his feet there. Football is universal, so when I asked one to sit rather than gesticulating in front of the screen, he complied meekly. There was no need to explain. It was the Euro Cup.

Apparently it was the Greeks who launched modern football in Ethiopia, with the founding of the St. Giorgis team in Addis in 1935, just as the Italians invaded. The team became a symbol of Ethiopian nationalism. These days, it is still Ethiopia’s favourite, often number one, and arch-rival to the Coffee Team founded in 1975. Though it is popularly associated with the beer of the same name, I’m not sure there is actually any connection between St. Giorgis beer and St. Giorgis football. It is supported by Sheik Al Amoudi, Ethiopia’s richest and most influential man outside government offices.

When I ask about Coffee’s antics, Ijigu is immediately defensive. He cites Russia and England, and I assure him that, yes of course, I know the European teams are far worse. But, hey, give me the dirt. He shrugs, and in his inimitable way, states in a few words that it’s a story as old as time. The fans had stormed the field in Hawassa in protest of an opposition goal. The coach is being investigated for inciting violence. And Coffee is under a shadow of scandal. Ijigu cynically implies that Beer is just as bad, but they are protected by the riches of Al Amoudi. And so it goes in the perennial struggle between Beer and Coffee.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Travelogue 701 – June 9
The Spaansebocht

Behind my apartment complex, the Effen Block, there’s a quiet little canal that describes a gentle arc between the Marconiplein and the Sparta Stadium. That kilometre or two is the extent of its existence. Beside the canal runs a quiet brick lane called the Spaansebocht.

In the mornings, I steer the bicycle out the gate of the complex, turn onto the Potgieterstraat, and then right onto the Spaansebocht. I turn the pedals as slowly as it takes to keep the bike upright. I listen to the breezes among the leaves, and I watch the ducks as they make their waddling way across the grass beside the canal. There’s a mama coot that sits on a makeshift nest made of sticks and grass in the middle of the shallow canal.

The canal follows an old rail line no longer in use. The tracks are raised above the level of the road, hidden from view on top of a grassy slope. There is a line of trees and shrubbery at the base of the slope. There is a footpath with benches every hundred metres or so.

It’s a comfort to me that the Spaansebocht is there every morning. It’s a bit of peace first thing in the morning. It’s called ‘Spaanse’ after the nearby polder project, the Spaanse Polder, completed in 1961. So says the historical sign attached to a nearby school building. Bocht corresponds to the English word ‘bight’. And ‘bight’, I have discovered, refers to the curve in the canal. It can also mean a loop of rope.

It’s a comfort to me that the Spaansebocht is there every morning. The solstice approaches. Dawn comes earlier every day. I was awake briefly at 5:20am, and I stood before the window looking up at the pink clouds. I went back to sleep for a short while. Before I rose to go, I held Baby on my chest, listening to her breath as she slept.

Leaving the apartment in the morning, I walk along the upstairs balcony, assessing the sky and the prospects for the day. Today is chillier than yesterday, but there’s enough blue sky to make me hopeful. I say hello to the caretaker, who is setting up a vacuum in the stairwell. He doesn’t speak English, but we exchange friendly greetings in Dutch. He throws a one-word question after me as I descend the stairs, and I reply with a hearty ‘Ja,’ though I didn’t understand. I’m thinking it was something about the weather.

I unlock the bike, and I’m off, steering out the gateway and into the road. During the night, I was enduring some variation of this year’s repetitive dream struggle, some knot that will never come loose, and I wake tired. I’m longing for peace, and the bike ride in the morning is one of my only opportunities for it. The birds are sympathetic, offering their song, telling me every little thing is going to be all right.

It’s a peaceful routine.

Yesterday was Baby’s birthday. She’s going to have a big party on Saturday, so we kept the celebration simple. She got her own piece of birthday cake to smear all over the table. She made a face when she tasted it. She preferred the tactile experience. We helped her blow out the candle. I can’t say whether she made a wish. I wished for her happiness.

I marvel sometimes to think she is just starting out. I watch her play, and idly I review experiences from my own life, like flipping through pages, and I marvel that she has all this ahead of her. It’s hard to fathom what it means to be at the start of life. I was there once, wasn’t I? It’s hard to imagine.