Out of Abyssinia - part three
Sat, 22 January, 2011 16:27 - last email from ethiopia
Apologies for a few execrably written emails. I blame woeful internet speeds (set to improve when results of recent handover from government monopoly to French private enterprise kick in) and atrocious keyboards, especially in otherwise delightful Lalibela. Apologies too for frequent sideswipes at religion. Some good friends of mine believe. I don't, but as I rediscovered when I wrote six months ago about Guatemalans of the calibre of Father Stanley Rother and Bishop Juan Geradi, it's what people do that counts.
I've just seen (not for the first time) a grinning young man, buff naked and hugely endowed, walk down the busy Addis street outside the internet shop where I type. No one batted an eyelid. Wish I'd had my camera at the ready. And that women went in for the natural look too, since some of the most beautiful I ever set eyes on are here.
Met on the plane in from Bahir Dar on Thursday: one pleasant, walnut tanned Englishwoman, resident of Addis for 42 years. She'd seen out 'Lion of Judah' Haile Selassi and Mengistu's murderous Derg so what did she think of the present lot. "Well", she said after gathering her thoughts, "would you want to run this country with its problems?" She'd taught English to and still communicates with the daughter of PM Meles Zenawi who, it seems, hasn't had a day off in sixteen years. For what it's worth Worretta is for Zenawi, Abebe against. Whatever the relative merits of their positions, the fact two Ethiopians can express such easy disagreement over coffee on a busy Addis sidewalk is a tribute to democratic progress since Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe to toady up in his dotage with Mad Bob.
Hippos, surfacing on landlocked Ethiopia's largest lake, photographed as I relaxed on boat trip at Bahir Dar. Fish eagles also seen and duly snapped, ditto other raptors, parrots and a super hued version of our starlings. I've never been big on birds but this country is so full of exotic and uninhibited species I'll be sure to make good on that. Idaho Steve, on the same boat, had with him a pair of binoculars and copy of Birds of the Horn of Africa, which I'm tempted to buy. I also got improved shots of those earlier reported gelada baboons above Lalibela, which is just as well because the initial pictures now live, see next bullet point, on the planet of lost data.
Disaster in Bahir Dar! I'd only been in town a few hours, enjoying the relative lack of hassle. With 18 of my 20 gigabytes of camera card storage used up (shooting Raw on new 18MPX Canon 7D gives 25-30MB pictures) I found a digital shop to burn my CF cards to DVD so I could reuse. A young and confidence-inspiring Bob Marley reincarnation - ten a penny here - assured me no problem, man, and the first two 4GB cards did copy without a hitch. Then catastrophe as he went on to corrupt all data on my 8GB card, helped I guess by power surge at critical juncture. With precious shots of Lalibela and surrounds irrecoverable (for now at least) my sunny mood took such a battering that getting drunk seemed the only viable course of A. Half an hour later I sat in dimly lit bar packed with locals enjoying trad Ethiopian dancing, whose shaking discombobulations, to discordant but mightily energising blasts from a cornet thing and the weirdest violin ever, have to be seen to be believed. With four of the potent and not bad local beers down the hatch I was well on the way to spiritual recovery and sufficiently loosed up to join the crazy rave. Doubtless I looked a right prat but what care I for praise when (a) I'd be on the plane out within days and (b) the locals love it when faranji make idiots of themselves. Next morning I had thumping head but the pain of lost data had dropped from all-consuming to merely acute.
On a hilltop behind the 7 Olives, waiting for sunrise. As dawn broke a man came up to blow another of the cornet thingies and shout down on the town. Ultra friendly like most Ethiopians, especially the poor ones, he spoke no English so it wasn't until later I learned he'd be paid to announce, local radio being thin on the ground here, the death of a regional bigshot. The night before, I'd awaited sunset on the same hilltop when up came another faranji with the camera model I have. This was my first encounter with Toronto William, in spirit more American than Canadian, of whom more later. I offered use of my tripod but then wished I'd simply let him slip his card into my camera to capture the beauty of the dying light. When I got back I found I'd left up in the long grass a small and inexpensive - but here irreplaceable - screw, without which my tripod would be so much dead weight to be lugged around northern Ethiopia. Man of steel that I sometimes am, I braved the now pitch black ascent to scan if need be every inch of that hilltop with my wind-up torch. Got it after twenty of the most focused minutes I ever spent. "Fuck it man!" William shouted as he high-fived me on my triumphant return to the 7 Olives, pleased as I was with my success. "I'd have given up." ( A week later a borrowed phone I'd lost would be found on that hilltop, though not before I was hundreds of miles away.)
In a minibus with TW and his Ethiopian girlfriend Azeb on a dusty but thus far metalled road to another amazing church, Imerano Christos, built inside a cave, when we hit a donkey foal. By the time we'd stopped and walked back the animal lay quivering on the baking tarmac like Bambi in the final throes, its keeper in tears. Genuine grief, or talking up the compo? I couldn't say, or even be sure both weren't in the picture: why can't we accept in others the complexity of mixed motives we cheerfully overlook in ourselves? As it happens TW, who insists his driver had taken all due care - I'd been enjoying the scenery so couldn't say - began filming the moment we got out the van. Watching it today with Abebe and Worretta - we'd hooked up with TW at the Addis Hilton - Abebe translated the sound track to reveal the main driver of the young man's sorrow as awareness of the severe thrashing he'd be in for, in this most patriarchal of societies, when dad got hold of the bad news. Somehow it was agreed the boy's companion would report the disaster while the lad himself laid low by accompanying us as we sent dust clouds into the stratosphere over mile after mile of dirt road to the church, spent two hours there photographing human skeletons and another drinking coffee, then drove back to the village nearest the crime scene where armed police were waiting with the boy's family and the animal itself. Interesting, I thought, as I got out to take pictures now filed under Data Disaster at Bahir Dar. But the police, who'd obviously done an advanced course in mediation, were content to see that negotiations stayed in the politeness zone. When we were through, 200 birr at 25 to the pound had changed hands and the foal, now upright and consolingly patted by rifle toting cops, seemed in fine fettle though I guess its market value has slipped. Even the boy was smiling; probably, as we now think, with relief at whipping averted. All's well that ends well.
At the bank this morning, wanting to buy back pounds as I fly tonight to cold grey Heathrow. (I intend coming back this summer but with inflation at 65% some years - that's the declared rate - don't want a stack of birr depreciating under my bed.) The hotel I use suggests Bank A which tells me I need Bank B which sends me to Bank C whose staff throw hands in the air and suggest Bank A. I speak loudly of my suffering and discontent, of the many fine things I have done and will do for this country; of the countless faranji who have yet to taste Ethiopia's waters and whose decision To Come or Not To Come will be heavily influenced by whether my thumb points north or south on my return. I don't for a moment suppose I'm doing other than giving vent to frustration but, as I get into the swing, start to enjoy myself. To my surprise the teller begins to show acute embarrassment. It's as if I'm berating him personally whereas, whenever I feel the need to throw such strops - as from time to time I do in good old England - I make a point of assuring the immediate recipients, if they aren't actually being rude, that they are excellent people doing their damnedest in the face of obstacles recklessly tossed in their path by the insane machinery of the sad outfits they have the misfortune to be employed by. Today is no exception but for all my reassurances the young man still looks anxiously over his shoulder in fear of witnesses, as a sensitive man will when the smoking volcano he calls his sweetheart erupts white hot in a crowded restaurant. Sensing advantage I step up the volume. He gestures placatingly then swims out of his booth into the currents and eddies of that visible back room where, in banks the world over, arcane processes play out on pieces of paper gently floating desk to desk to languid tappings of keyboard and laid back consultations of computer screen. I note the words exchanged between my man and those whose better suits and footwear bespeak seniority. I note glances cast my way, unreadable to an outsider. Presently and by one of those mysteries I first witnessed decades ago in the banks of New Delhi, I'm given in increments to understand that what had been impossible is no longer so. Of course there'll be the obligatory forty minute wait - with much form filling and the surrender, always disconcerting, of passport; even, in this case, of airline ticket too - but the upshot is I walk out with documents restored, fewer birr and more sterling. Every age has its compensations they say. One of the compensations of mine is being less averse to - in fact positively relishing at certain moments - the making of scenes. Just as my dad, to my horror, did when I was but a lad.
Lastly, one unforgettable night a week ago on the plateau 3800 metres above Lalibela where Mesfin, with the blessing of Ethiopian Government and Tourist Board, is developing a set of sparse traditional huts for off-the-beaten-track adventurers. Sisay had taken me up a few days earlier but now we were to spend the night there - we being two faranji,Toronto William and me, with a dozen Ethiopians including Sisay, Mesfin, several staff from Seven Olives and hillsmen paid to work on the unfinished huts. And Azeb, TW's girlfriend from Axum, sole female in the party. The climb was murder because I'd been sick the day before with man flu caught from Mesfin and because Mesfin, in an advance party that set off hours earlier, was driving us on by remote control. We were meant to leave at 2 but didn't set off till 4 because William and Azeb insisted on washing down the most leisurely of lunches with yet more leisurely pots of tea. We'd barely left town before Mesfin phoned Sisay from the plateau to hurry us up or we'd miss the sunset. Sisay then set such a blistering pace we did a climb that days earlier had taken four hours in under two. I've struggled before on mountains but not at this altitude or this much. I thought I'd die and wanted to at times. But we made the plateau with the magic hour full on to bathe yellowing grass and gorse, surrounding hills and plateaux in ethereal gold. I drank close to a litre of water, assembled tripod and got to work. Some of the shots I'll have regardless of whether I recover lost data from the corrupted flash card. Sunset was a dream and, as night fell, the whole scene - seven thatched huts, each two hundred metres from closest neighbour, with silhouetted stickmen flitting back and forth to prepare evening meal - acquired by degree the cold blue wash of a moon three days from full as it climbed the sky. Once or twice in a lifetime you might if you're lucky get such a night. The nearest I recall was a full moon party on a Goa beach in the early seventies, carafes of fruit juice laced with acid; clothing optional. But here there were no drugs; even the beer and wine had been mistakenly left behind by the mule men and, leaving aside a peasant conservativism that would give the Taliban a run for their money, it's too cold up here for nudity after sunset.Mesfin walked me around the magically lit plateau and expounded on his dream of ecological tourism funding a better life for the people he cares for. Bullshit? I don't think so. I already gave my opinion on this little guy with big heart and bigger vision. He showed me stones he'd picked for dining tables and bar counters where a larger hut looks due west over the cliffs across hills that stretch forever. Each weighs many tons and took a hundred men pulling giant wooden frames over log rollers. I told of something I'd seen earlier, after nightfall but before the moon was high; a scene I've witnessed on smaller scale in my native Peak District as tiny weasel chases bigger rabbit, the latter zig-zagging in terrified flight from the dimunitive killing machine gaining ground. Here the long grass had been cleaved by that same zigzag movement but the prey was now the size of a goat - one was reported missing the next morning - and the predator the length of a largish dog but lower slung. Mesfin said it had to be a leopard; nothing else fitted the facts related. (Leopard, confusingly called tiger here, are not rare and can easily kill a man but no one seems much afraid of them. What people are afraid of is the hyena which, for all its supposed cowardice, will flush out weakness and fear, striking with bite strength several times that of a pit bull terrier when it calculates the odds as in its favour.)
Mesfin shows me the hut made ready for William and Azeb, beautiful in its simplicity, double bed brought by mule, single candle burning in alcove crudely fashioned in the mud wall. With a goatskin on the earth floor and no other decoration, the scene makes the Sheraton bridal suite look clumsy. "He'd better perform tonight", I say, which cracks Mesfin up.
Later we're round a camp fire, gorged on goat meat and injera, everyone happy: William and me for a night we'll never forget ... Mesfin, Sisay and other 7 Olives staff because the two honoured guests are so patently in love with their country and this part of it ... the peasants who live in the mountains because we've interrupted the monotony of their lives. On this last I have ISO on my camera cranked up to 6400 to enables flash-free shots when sufficient kindling is added to the fire to throw up a bright yellow blaze. Gleaming eyes in coal black faces etched with lines of toil and poverty and dignity - if that sounds sentimental you should have been there - are, I hope, not on the card hit by the Bahir Dar Fuckup. These same men begin to sing in a tradition lost in the west but captured by, amongst others, Ry Cooder on his trip to Cuba's Beuna Vista Social Club; singer improvising as he sees fit or to cues suggested by the audience. Daniel, a sort of foreman at the 7 Olives, translates one old man's song for me: I am so happy and proud to have Mesfin as my boss, to nods of approval that give way to roars of laughter as he goes on to assert his confidence that he is so generous I know he will pay me many birr in the morning.
Then there's stand up acting as scenes of patriotic heroism against Mussolini's fascists, re-enacted with the kind of macho stand-off seen in rural Spain - circling movements and threatening advances that back off at the last moment - are interspersed with philosophical admonishments: don't brag to me of your strong arms; show me the strength of your heart!
Inevitably a British song is demanded by Mesfin. To my astonishment these hillsmen without a word of English lean in, seemingly raptly attentive as I sing the first verse of Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond, tell of its meaning via Mesfin, then resume the second verse. This, to them, is exotic: a faranji entertainment to punctuate lives equally exotic to me but repetitive and predictable to them. When I'm done there's huge applause and William jumps up to slap a ten birr note on my forehead, as you do to dancers in town here, but that's just to deflect attention from the fact he would not deliver a Canadian song ...
Next day, after a sunrise to rival the sunset, the baboons allow me within twenty metres to get my best shots yet. And they are not part of the Bahir Dar Fuckup.
Talked out again. Flying home in a few hours.
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