It’s frickin’ hot.
It’s frickin’ humid.
I have just negotiated the 4-stage hill of death that I live atop.
For all intents and purposes, I am liquid. My shirt squishes with each step, my back is attached to my backpack like a bloodied Bandaid. My vision is blurry and burning with salty sweat. This doesn’t matter, since my glasses wouldn’t be useful without windshield wipers.
Moreover, I have read today that this would be James Sirius Potter’s first day at Hogwarts. I know. I know. But here’s the thing, this means that the fictional Harry Potter is (almost) at the age I am and therefore dealing with the same issues. If Harry Potter is suffering the same pestering annoyances of middle age, how can the world be a good place to live? Also, it’s 11,000 degrees in Prague and there is no air conditioning anywhere west of Dresden.
By the time we get out of the airlines office, we’ve decided that it’s going to be a drinking day. We walk down the hectic Gondar streets. Men sell wooden replica cigarettes, so other men can ease their nicotine fits during Ramadan fasting. Tuktuks fly down the road, every driver instinctively calls to us.
Gondar’s center is filled with a variety of shops with no discernible theme. One has a shelf of plumbing supplies and another shelf of fabrics. There are no shops which sell food and an oddly large ratio of barber shops. There is an internet café with no computers, a looming post office. The people crowd along the sidewalks and rush towards nothing in particular.
We find a café on the corner of the main intersection: The Hotel Ethiopia. The high ceilings and mirrored walls evoke a nostalgia for mid-60s Cuba Mark instantly terms the place Greeneland because it embodies the cafés and dens present in Graham Greene novels.
We sit in the corner on padded chairs and a gap-toothed ebony goddess approaches with a wide smile conveying absolute terror. We order two beers and two Araki and she runs away in a fit of the giggles. Her boss comes over and speaks to us in English, we repeat the order and a moment later are drinking at faranji prices.
Mark raises his glass. “To?”
“To not getting on that fucking bus.”
It’s already been a long day and it’s only noon.
My summer mornings are perfect. I get up, work out, slam coffee, and then write for a few hours. It’s how I can rationalize devoting the rest of my day to baseball, reading, and hanging out with my weird family.
Sometimes I find time to take part in America’s favorite pastime, which is watching people be assholes on the internet.
Today on Facebook there’s a video of a drunk guy making a snide remark to an old woman on the subway. There’s another of a man jumping on a six-year-old boy in order to snag a foul ball from him at a baseball game. I have watched it three or four times and thought: prick.
The comments adjoining the video are filled with such fury that one would think it’s a video of Donald Trump kicking the crap out of Pope Francis.
This afternoon, I run errands. I get in the truck and enjoy the novelty of driving, which is a great deal of fun if you don’t have to do it two hours every day. I crank up the oldies station on the radio and swing the pick-up down windy Pennsylvania roads.
A block my from my parents’ house, a tree service truck blocks traffic by backing out of a driveway in front of the light. I am trapped waiting through two green lights.
In my acute aggravation I let loose on a braided hairnet of vitriol that would make Louis CK blush. I theorize on the tree service worker’s miniature man bits, suggest they have inappropriate relationships with their mothers, and hypothesize that they engage in a self-coitus only possible for French circus folk.
Before you furrow your brow, three points.
We are lost and trying to get away from a leper. This is one of those problems I never had until I arrived in Ethiopia. This is our second one today. Leper, that is. The first one had no nose. There was nothing between his mouth and eyes but a red, raw gap split by thin lines of cartilage. It made us wince. When he reached out his hand for money, we moved quickly away. Though neither of us said it, I know we both irrationally felt that by handing him money we would somehow contract leprosy by association.
We couldn’t even feel bad at that moment, as I’ve found that any sympathy I have for a leper in my direct vicinity is strictly in hindsight.
Our second leper of the day is clearly following us. He’s shuffling along (this one has no fingers or toes) and casing us while keeping a constant distance of about twelve or thirteen feet. He’s keeping his cool. Occasionally, we watch him to let him know we’re on to him, but he doesn’t get rattled. He rather nonchalantly dips into a hut or scans the items on a blanket full of dirty wares. I guess once you have leprosy any potential social embarrassment or awkwardness is really small potatoes.
There are full-on, war-room discussions concerning leaving times, the best route to take, and what we are planning on bringing. The seriousness of the discussions suggest a dedication to planning unheard of in the civilian vacationing world.
The discussions are often about time, since my family is time obsessed. Discussions involve meeting times, dinner times, and how much time will be spent in the ocean. There are an awful lot of conversations about leaving and arrival time.
This is when traffic and unplanned stops (but always planned unplanned stops) rear their heads. There are many considerations to keep in mind, to be fair. There might be a major backup on Route 1, there might be a line at the kennel. What if the bank we have to stop at gets held up? That could put us back an hour or two. The danger is that after a while of ruminating these potential delays, my dad starts exerting his propensity for eking back a departure time. So, what was once a 10 am departure time becomes 9:45, and then 9:30. Hell, we might as well leave at 6 am. Get there before the traffic even starts!
“Ethiopian women are really beautiful,” I say to Robin, guide wonder.
“You want to meet Ethiopian women?”
“I can bring you to a good nightclub. Lots of local people there.”
Mark and I huddle up and discuss.
Conversation overview: Could this be shady? I’m not getting a shady vibe. It might be fun to go to a local place and meet locals. Yeah. I don’t know, this kid is a little…something. True. But isn’t this the sort of adventurous thing we came here to do? Yes. OK, here’s the plan, we meet him, and if something seems weird or unsafe, we go home. Deal? Deal.
Gist (for those who scanned or with ADHD): We will meet him and if something scary happens, we will run away.
We agree to meet at the hotel at 9:30 the next evening.
The next evening Axum is in the dark. It has been without power or water for two days. We sit in the hotel bar and sip on beers in the candlelight. Our waitress makes us practice our Tigrinyan pronunciation and when we tell her we are going to a club she laughs at us for an unsettling amount of time. Mark and I are at once interested and half-hoping that Robin doesn’t show.
At 9:30 on the button, Robin excites and disappoints by showing up on the doorstep of the hotel. We step out into the pitch black night. The only light comes from the weak headlights of the tuktuks buzzing down the street and the candles on the tables at the nearby bars. It feels like the end of the world.
Robin points us to a tuktuk and we are introduced to his baby-faced brother and his baby-faced tuktuk driver friend. We all stuff inside and take off. Gangsta rap blares at us and Mark and I laugh at the ridiculousness of this whole affair.
Doing something like this is a bit tricky.
There are only four of us in this minibus. There is our driver, a baby-faced kid who oozed himself in the front seat seconds before we disembarked (and whose name or purpose we have yet to explore or learn), Mark, and myself. In direct rebellion to our last minibus trip, Mark and I are stretched out in the back, taking up as much space as is possible without taking part in a game of African Twister.
The four of us are heading through the desert towards our destination: Debre Damo.
Debre Damo is a 6th century monastery in Northern Ethiopia. It is known for having the oldest church building in Ethiopia still in its original style, for its manuscripts, known for its herds of pilgrim visits, and it’s known for its inaccessibility.
It’s inaccessible in a number of ways. In the first place, it is in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere. At one point during the trip, we have turned off of the main road and directly into the bible. We head far into mountains and valleys that are inhabited by a few tribespeople wondering when they can move to a place that has Netflix.
And Debre Damo resides on top of a mountain; a very steep, trapezoidal, flat-topped mountain. And it is accessible only by climbing a rope up a 50-foot sheer cliff.
After driving up dirt switchbacks, the driver pulls over in an area of desolate road overlooking a valley and a few distant mountains. He points, “There is Debre Damo.”
Mark and I make a sound that one makes while watching a professional athlete violently attain a compound fracture.
This trip has thus far been adventurous and intense, but it has been chock full of things way more fun to talk about in the future or in the past. Once it comes to actually having to go through with it is when I am overwhelmed by all the worrisome possibilities.
The only things standing between me and Debre Damo are a dangerous drive through a rocky desert, a 400 meter steep hike at 2,200 meters altitude, and the 50-foot sheer cliff that I have to climb. All of this in order to get a picture of the church and look into its well of holy water.
The kid turns to me and says, “You know that you must climb a rope to get into Debre Damo, yes?”
“Yes,” I say. “I know.” I am trying to concentrate on climbing in my head.
“I know you will do it.” He points at me and nods his head.
“Thank you.” I smile, having received my one and only Ethiopian pep talk.
Yesterday, we met at a nice Italian restaurant for my grandmother’s 92nd birthday party. Since many of them – myself included – come from out-of-town, we are trying to get in another day of family fun insanity by having a barbecue.
There is nothing better than having a weekend filled with family fun. It usually results in a whole new set of issues to deal with, dregs up a repressed memory or two, and leads to a gain of ten pounds.
Further, when it’s over I drink enough alcohol to actually understand Keith Richards.
At today’s party we are a bit louder than we were at yesterday’s, a little more rambunctious. This is because while yesterday’s party took place at a nice restaurant, today’s takes place at my uncle’s house.
So? You are probably asking.
We arrive on a prop plane in Axum, far to the north and center of the ancient Axumite Empire, early on Saturday morning. The tarmac consists of two guys waiting for our plane, our plane, and one other plane about to take off on the runway. It’s quiet and in the middle of a mountainous terrain of desert and rock. The sky is a peaceful and perfect blue.
We walk through the arrival room and I am overcome with the familiar gratitude and disbelief that I enjoy every time I disembark from an airplane. Despite the quiet, there is something happening, some unrest which causes our faranji sense to go off.
We are becoming experts in this. We have grown faranji eyes and see everything. Outside of the arrivals room, three inches past the threshold into the hallway, there are ten men waiting with signs featuring various hotels. A second before they were chatting amiably, but at our appearance they battle for placement. They push and grapple each other. They hoist the signs while shouting their hotel’s distinguishing characteristics at the top of their lungs.
They are held behind the threshold of the doorway by a soldier holding a machine and glaring at their toes with diligence. Normally, I don’t enjoy a military presence, having seen too many movies with a “things go wrong for American tourist in a big way” theme. However, today Mark and I are quietly grateful for our soldier, since after four days in the country we know that the only thing that could keep these men at bay is a machine gun in the hands of a guy who doesn’t mind using it before lunch.
Every public place we have been in Ethiopia has found us an immediate source of attention. It has become a fact of travel here for us. While the attention is unending, the interactions are different.
The Ethiopian people are without a doubt amongst the nicest people we have ever met. They smile genuinely and are generous and lovely. They have a pleasant attitude towards others and the vibe in the cities reflects that. Many Ethiopians just want to say hello or try out the one or two English phrases in their lexicon. On the streets we are bombarded with greetings. “Hello Faranji!” or “Welcome, faranji!” or “Have a nice day, Faranji!” (faranji means foreigner and we will have heard it roughly 35,000 times in the next two weeks.)
Others try something similar, but clearly get in over their linguistic heads.
“How are you, faranji?”
“Good. How are you, Hapashat?” (Hapashat means Ethiopian.)
Eyes wide. “Money?”
Others use the English they have clearly only heard in movies. “Hey faranji, fuck you!” One boy shouted “Fuck it, faranji!” Mark’s response, “I’m trying, Hapashat!” fell upon sadly indifferent ears.
In Addis, we walked by a group of gents selling bibles and wearing huge grins. They gawked at us, calling after us and raising their bibles in the air as we walked on. “Hey sir, bitch! Sir! Fuck you, sir, you bitch! Hey bitch, come have a beer with us, you fucking bitch! Fuck you!”
We might have considered the beer if we weren’t too busy doubling over in laughter.
There are not a lot of discussions about bus rides. People talk about the great train ride from Venice to Salzburg or the bumpy flight from San Francisco to Detroit. But there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of discussion about bus rides.
There are several reasons for this. For me, I suppose it’s because on a bus I almost always wish I were in a state of suspended animation. Just like those movies where people jaunt into space and lie in a wet coffin and wake up in a wormhole being eaten by a giant cosmic ant.
Time on a bus shouldn’t be mentionable. What is bus time? Nothing. It’s negative time, a non-time in between a time when you were in one cool place and when you’ll be in another cool place. And so, if bus travel is mentionable, it’s usually because of something negative. On this ten-hour minibus trip from Harar to Addis Ababa, I often wished I were being eaten by that giant cosmic ant.
I am trying to rationalize writing two whole posts about our Ethiopian minibus trip. If you didn’t sit next to a porn star or someone didn’t busjack the vehicle, who the hell wants to read about a bus trip? I read for a while, then sat back, rested, and hated my life. Exciting. The only point I can use to defend my decision is to say that African minibus travel is mentionable.
We set out in the dark predawn hours and Mark and I reach the conclusion that the only benefit of darkness is that we can’t experience the terror of watching the road ahead of us. Our driver’s attitude towards driving bespeaks a dedicated faith in both the minibus’s shocks and in the religious philosophy of fatalism. Since he hits every bump and ditch in the road, we also assume he is playing a game called “The people in the back wronged my mother.”
At 7:30 am, we stop in Asebe Teferi for a thirty minute break. We get out and celebrate our legs and cool morning air. The dirt road in town is busy with people and the minibus becomes the focal point of attention. One of my fellow passengers points me to a seat with a broad smile and says, “Sit!” I thank him, but tell him I’d rather walk around. As the left side of my ass has been numb for an hour and a half, I would like to walk the life back into it. He walks with me and shoos the beggars and children as we walk and chat.
“You do this ride a lot?” I ask.
“Oh yes, very often. My family lives in Harar and I live in Addis.”
“Ah. When do you think we will get to Addis?”
He looks at his watch. “11 o’clock.”
“11 o’clock!” I look at my watch. That’s three more hours. We will be in Addis four hours ahead of schedule. I am overcome with joy. “I can’t believe it’ll be that soon.”
“Soon? No. It’s very long, Addis is very far away.”
I squint. He squints. Something is wrong.