Sunday, October 17, 2010

53 - And Yet Another Curfew Tolls The Knell

St. Mary's church

Security at Dire Dawa airport is intense. They use huge dentist-style mirrors to look under the tuk-tuk for possible bombs. There are three different frisks, shoes-off, and luggage checks (in fact there are body frisks at the hotel, too). After the electronic inspection, muggins has to open his checked luggage for a hand search; deodorant and other sprays have been detected on the screen. OK, I don't know what I'm thinking but perhaps I shouldn't be making a detonation noise as I try out the deodorant spray at the inspector's request; but this not being America I'm not shot, nor clapped in irons and thrown into jail - the guy just laughs. After all that, we have to again identify our luggage out on the tarmac.

It's almost dark: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea/The ploughman homeward plods his weary way... OK, the day has long since parted, there's not a murmur of a plane engine to replace the lowing herd o'er the tarmac, and muggins may not be a ploughman but he sure is weary.


Outside St. Mary's church
And That Vision?

The plane finally comes in two hours late and it's almost 5 o'clock Ethiopian time, or 2300, when we land in Addis. Now the chase is on for an agent to arrange my luxury hotel etc. He pushes me through security again to check in for tomorrow's flight, then takes my passport to 'arrange it all,' and disappears. Let's just report that it's closer to 1 a.m. (7 o'clock Ethiopian time) when we leave the airport. 'It's so good they communicated to us from Dire Dawa about you, it makes it so easy,' quoths the agent. Gawd, it must take a month when they don't communicate.

As for the vision? Well, the hostelry is clean, extremely cozy and pleasant, with comfortable little bay lounges on each floor. BUT it's way out in the boondocks on a construction site for a new neighbourhood miles from the centre, the rooms are tiny, and the little dining room recalls an English boarding house for a Terence Rattigan play. Muggins' mirage (yes after Djibouti's fiasco I at last have a mirage) of a 24-hour coffee shop with luscious pastries and fruit salads seductively beckoning is just that - a mirage. There's no easy walk out to the big city, bright lights, no nearby nothing - and a full day of daylight hours to kill. Luxury? What luxury?

Lead-in to St. Mary's
The paid meals are single courses - steak, fried fish or vegetables and rice; looking at the regular menu is verbotenissimo, unless you pay, which muggins does for a fruit salad; Ethiopian Airlines won't even pay the less than $2 for that! Not even a free tea at 40 US cents a pot! As for killing the hours - well, the multi-brass-domed octagonal Ethiopian Orthodox church of St Mary's is within walking distance, and you can always visit the limp and the lame, the beggars and the lepers, who continue to call me 'Papa' as they assail me for alms. Papa Hemingway you mean?


Back in the US of A. At West Falls Church metro station, brought there by the Washington Flyer shuttle from Dulles airport, trying to understand the instructions on how to buy a single fare ticket from the huge machine to Dupont Circle for the bus to New York; staring at the machine for a full five minutes, trying to discern which buttons to push. It might just as well be in Chinese. It's like a lot of those US road signs - you can only understand them if you already know what to do, but if you already know what to do you don't need them.

A couple of other people who were on the bus amble up. 'Did you leave your case on the bus,' asks one, 'the driver's down there trying to find out whose it is.' OMG! Gawd bless the Washington metro company for writing all their instructions in Chinese, or else I'd already be speeding Dupont Circle-wards sans baggage. I rush back out of the station. D-E-M-E-N-T-I-A!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

52 - Achtung! Halt!

A Dire Dawa square
Back again in daylight at the station cafe terrace; there's a lot of bustle. Evidently some train did arrive from somewhere during the hours of darkness. There's quite a crowd, piles of sacks, tuk-tuks tuk-tuking about, browsing goats, and a couple of horse buggies. This merits investigation. But muggins' attempt to enter the holy of holies this time is greeted by a serried array of upraised palms from a horde of police, soldiers and sundry others, suggesting that a halt to the sudden impulse is advisable. Where's your licence, one cop asks, aghast at my temerity.

OK, it's back to the café table. And muggins now has a new Deep Throat, an Ethiopian who has plonked himself down and informs me on the highest authority and deepest anonymous background that the flags flapping from the grey locomotive in the centre of the roundabout are indeed beer adverts and not part of an anti-AIDS campaign; they're for St. George beer. Meanwhile the shoeshine boys are taking customers' shoes to a little corner where they shine them; one little kid is using an awl and thread to do some sophisticated repairs.
St Michael's church

There's a rival station cafe across the square where tea at 12 US cents costs 4 cents more; but it has a pretty trellis with bright yellow-breasted little birds hopping on the branches. Each cafe seems to have its regular set of clients. This is indeed Jorge Amado-type territory with all its tales of provincial intrigue.

We're Gonna Rock Around The Clock Tonight

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock... A visit to Ethiopian Airlines office in Dire Dawa produces a little surprise. The plane will be leaving at 8 instead of 5.20. Now this is confusing because it could mean two things; Ethiopians generally give you the time according to their clock, by which counting begins at 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening. Hence they say 2 o'clock for our 8 o'clock, 6 o'clock for our noon etc. So the lady's announcement of muggins' flight change could mean an earlier departure at 2 p.m. But the Ethiopian beauty clarifies that she’s using the western clock; this means arrival in Addis at 2100.

Dire Dawa's flowering streets
Connecting with the ongoing flight back to the US, leaving at 2215, is virtually impossible, but they promise to put me up, all expenses paid, until the next flight in 24 hours time if I can't make the connection. Visions of first class luxury burgeon up in my mind's eye.

Some Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever England

With hours on my hands, it's time for another walkabout. Down the road past the station square, past the mauve, red and yellow flowering trees, past a long wall of anti-AIDS murals (including one of a whore-like woman handing what could be a packet of condoms to a man sitting on a bed, his trousers coming down - and a real life beggar lying in the dust on the pavement beneath it), past the turn-off to the airport, lies one more of those little corners of England - a British war cemetery in a foreign land. Unlike many, this one is no manicured grassy oasis, but a small pebbled yard with 80 graves in rows. Virtually none is British; there are inscriptions in Arabic script, very non-English names from the King's African Rifles, Gold Coast Regiment, East African Rifles, some with crosses, some without – Africans fighting in the name of a far away empire against the Eye-Ties who had invaded Ethiopia, the only part of sub-Saharan Africa not to be colonised. Only two names are non-African, from South Africa. 
British war cemetery
Oh dear, muggins' nasty mind - could in be that these poor Africans were mere cannon fodder? At the far back, against a wall and a small domed memorial, are stelae with the names of three Royal Air force men, a 20-year-old pilot officer, two with no ages given, over the inscription: 'Their glory shall not be blotted out.' All died on August 20, 1940, their remains buried in Dire Dawa civil cemetery, their true graves now lost. These corners of English and un-English England across the world, from Kenya to Madagascar to Papua New Guinea, the epitome of Rupert Brooke's poem, are always extremely moving – youth cut down in their prime in stupid wars. Muggins must be getting sentimental in his old age - more like semi-mental. But my faith in human nature is restored - the guardian who unlocked the gate refuses point blank to take a tip.
Start of the AIDS murals
Sleeping beggar beneath AIDS mural
Dire Dawa's Thinker passes AIDS murals
The mural continues
And continues
And continues
The mistaken AIDS flags in station square
Shoeshine boys in station square
Dire Dawa's flowering squares

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

51 - Bread And Circuses

Dire Dawa road traffic
Inside the 14-seater minivan bus, level 2 (less crowded than the cheaper level 3 but not as 'luxurious' as the more expensive level 1), waiting for it to fill up the remaining six seats for Dire Dawa. Outside in Harar's dusty dirt bus 'station,' a man is teasing a blind beggar - with virtually just the whites visible in his horribly twisted eyes; the bully pulls at a box the poor sod is holding; now he snatches his stick, threatens further manhandling. And the others hanging round do absolutely zilch. This is definitely not cricket. So sharp bangings from muggins on the windows put an end to the circus. Then a bulb flickers on in my head. What if the beggar has come to expect such daily joshings and perversely enjoys them?

Further meditation is curtailed by the arrival of a final passenger, and muggins reverts to making eyes with a baby on its mother's back outside. The van won't start, of course, and cohorts have to push it to ignition. We stop after five minutes to fill up with petrol; this time the driver gets out and pushes it to the cusp of a slope, jumping back just in time.

The Natives Are Getting Ugly

All I'm doing it trying to have another photo op, this time with Haile Selassie's old palace in Dire Dawa, and a couple of policemen outside have suddenly come down with a bad attack of St. Vitus dance. They're raising their feet, flailing their arms, and making it most manifest that my Robert Capa moment is zehr verboten. As is photographing any signs of poverty; the masses are now screaming at me when I raise the digital in the direction of a row of beggars (and they are legion) lying in the dust near a health centre.

Beggars outside dental clinic
Stealth shot towards palace gates

Dire Dawa (pronounced dirEduhwuh) is literally a railway town, a service centre when the French laid the Djibouti-Addis Ababa tracks a century ago. It's a remarkably pleasant place on a semi-arid plain, an hour's ride from, but lower and quite a bit hotter than Harar, though still balmy, green and flowery enough to deserve the title of garden city. In fact the locals call it Queen City of the Desert. It has masses of grassy roundabouts with tree-lined avenues spoking out diagonally, the ubiquitous green broken by splashes of red, yellow and orange from the blooms.

Equally ubiquitous are the tuk-tuks, onomatopoeic three-wheel open-side taxi carts working on motorbike engines and weaving in between pedestrians, goats and the occasional loaded camel. Muggins has splurged out, treating himself to the best hotel in town – huge corner bay-windowed room with a/c (not needed), fan, hot water, TV etc, even if in need of a bit of paint and other touchings up, all for $40.

Dire Dawa station
The Dire Dawa Choo-Choo

It's all rather sad. The railway that gave birth to the town hardly functions any more. This was the journey that Evelyn Waugh took from Djibouti to Addis Ababa to cover Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930 for The Times, etched later into immortality in Scoop. Now it no longer runs to Addis at all and is very degraded; there only seems to be one train from Djibouti every seven to 10 days or so, although there are some local routes.

Time for an aperitif (tea) at a pavement cafe in the station square opposite the nondescript yellow building with its blue lettering. An ebullient Frenchman, married to an Ethiopian, who spends part of his time in Dire Dawa and part in Toulouse, is my Deep Throat on latest intelligence. A train from Djibouti is due in at noon, he informs me; it may be an hour or two late but it's worth waiting for the sight - 'quite an experience, quite a commotion,' quoths he. Westerners are advised not to take it, he adds; it takes longer than the bus, 14 to 20 hours or even more, and is swarming with robbers, bandits, ne'er-do-wells, rapists, paedophile priests, the taxman, the abominable snowman and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Locomotive in station square with 'AIDS' flags
Little Knell

The siren tolls the knell of noon-time day/At 3 it tolls again for post-noon play. Well, just in case you forget to take your siesta. As for muggins, it's flash back time to the London blitz, ready to dive for the shelter. After the siren-bracketed hiatus it's back to the station. There's no sign of the Djibouti bullet train but visits to and, what's more, photographs of the station and tracks are mysteriously not verboten, once you get a pass from management. The line is single track, but there are numerous ones here in the station and yard, all overgrown with grass. Broken down carriages from third to first class, goods wagons, burned out old locomotives, others crashed, haunt the tracks. A true railway graveyard.

Back at the station cafe just before twilight; not a sign of my shinkansen from Djibouti - no train, no crowds, no pre-arrival bustle, no nothing, just a few kids playing football outside the closed iron gates. The only thing that even smells of rail transport is an old grey locomotive stuck on an island in the middle of the roundabout as a memorial to what once was, with two AIDS campaign flags flapping from it. Aha, those red-pink bows might not be for AIDS; they could be beer adverts since they're also on the sides of a beer van. It's getting darker and darker; a huge beer bottle-flanked screen has lit up with local news and adverts.
Station platform
An official looking person standing near the railway headquarters building knows nothing of any train from Djibouti in the next 100 years. A local train may be coming in at 4 a.m. tomorrow if it feels like it, but that's the only thing they have on their horizon. So much for my Deep Throat! He must have laryngitis. Now it's almost totally dark: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea. Except that this time the lowing herd are tuk-tuking tuk-tuks zigzagging all o'er the black tarmac.

Tracks and broken down trains
Third class
First class
No need to raise or lower the toilet seat
These trains have seen better days
And these
Run into the ground

Saturday, October 9, 2010

50 - Al Qaeda in Ethiopia

In eastern Ethiopia Al Qaeda is the name used for the white Isuzu trucks that zoom at breakneck speed down the highway to Somaliland loaded with huge bags of qat, sweeping all before them in frequent deadly crashes to be the first to bring the choicest and freshest plants least dried by the sun to waiting Somali mandibulas. The fresher the qat, the more the money, the more reckless the driving - and the more overturned wrecks you see by the roadside.
Babile phallus
A Somali lady called Sura living in the Ethiopian town of Jijiga sees to have cornered the market and now flies around in her own private plane purchased with the proceeds. It's all legal and she doesn't seem to have fallen foul of the real Al Qaeda allies in the region, Somalia's Moslem Shabaab militants who, according to local buzz, opened fire from a hilltop on US special forces in Jijiga, killing no one but persuading the Yanks to move back to the town of Dire Dawa. On the other hand they did manage to kill some Chinese in the Ogaden region. The Chinese, as elsewhere in Africa, are here in considerable numbers, building roads and getting the same complaints about terrible shoddy work as in Angola.

Kids at another phallus
Ju-Phallic Park - Forget about the Jurassic one. Muggins is not alone in seeing a myriad massive stone circumcised penises among the amazing boulders and crags at Babile park between Harare and Jijiga. The locals call it Dakheta, which in Somali evidently means dick. But if the wide mountainous expanses of penis park is a place for solitude and meditation, it ain't today. Muggins has become a pied piper, again, and I'm now being followed by a horde of 10-to-12-year-old shepherds, goatherds, cowherds and whatever-herds who have abandoned their herds and flocks to flock after a new quarry. Actually they're all rather sweet, jabbering away and posing for photos with their fingers in suggestive gestures under the lofty stone willies.
Babile boulders
Shoe Shine Express - Beautifully peaceful afternoon, sitting at an outdoor cafe in Harar, sipping fresh mango juice (they're in season and wonderful); a shoe shine boy passes, and after much pleading muggins finally relents. The boy proceeds to pull off my shoes, puts a wooden board under my feet and walks off with them (the shoes that is). Now this could be interesting - let's see if he comes back. All the kids passing by are cackling and shouting 'farango' (foreigner), a word that apparently derives from the time when the French were building the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway; that was the way the locals said 'from France.'

After half an hour, another mango juice, and a couple of teas, he still has not reappeared. OK, they were getting a bit down at the heels and I can always hobble to the market down the street and buy some flip-flops. Suddenly the kid reappears, my shoes in one hand, a jar of some messy cream in the other, and proceeds to sit down in front of me, deftly dabbing the cream on and giving them the final almost-sparkle with all the concentration and dedication of a master craftsman.

Hyenas with flash working
It restores your faith in human nature, until it comes in for another beating at Hyenas - Take Two. The guy promised to feed them again tonight without charge in case I got my camera flash reworking, which it now is, but he now isn't. His no: 2 just throws pieces of meat instead of feeding the slinking beasts from a stick in his mouth, the hyenas themselves are in an apathetic mood, totally ignoring my calls of 'kitty, kitty, come kitty, kitty, kitty' and, to boot, no: 2 now demands a new payment of 50 birr.That's only about $3.70, but bangs goes faith.

English As She Is Spoke - The people here deserve full admiration for their linguistics – they speak two or three languages from totally different families, like Amharic (Semitic), Oromo and Somali (both Cushitic but different). But some attempts at English are worthy of note. One guide advertises himself with the motto 'Gust's are always right.' Meanwhile a hotel restaurant is promising 'domestic and international cousins.'

Outside Harar's walls
On the inside
Harar old town

Red bird among the cow or donkey crap

View from Harar city

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

49 - Hip Hip Harar

Mad Dog Muggins -Wandering through the markets and streets of the walled old city of Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage site; the kids beg to be photographed and then demand to be paid. No go, sonny! And now a demented old git is making menacing gestures with his walking stick, trying to crack me on the shins. I bark at him, literally, stopping him in his tracks.

Meanwhile I'm getting even more confused; the hotel receptionist speaks just like the gay-sounding kid, Fez, in 'That '70s Show,' the same labial contortions, the same inclinations of the head, the same grimaces. I have to hit myself below the belt, repeatedly, to stop imitating him.

Harar street with flowering tree

Harar's setting is splendid, overlooking green plains and valleys with a backdrop of wooded mountains scattered with mosques and churches. Inside the town there is plenty of green, too, as well as the reds, mauves, yellows and orange of flamboyans, bougainvillea and other trees. The 1,200-year-old city, right in the heart of the Moslem part of Ethiopia, was an emirate until Emperor Menelik II, victor over the Italians at Adwa, captured it in the late 19th century as part of his efforts to ward off Rome's imperialism. In the process, he killed off the last emir and several hundred others in a nice little massacre.
Harar street
The central mosque is now an Ethiopian orthodox church with a cross atop its minaret, but there are over 80 other functioning mosques, as well as the tombs of the various emirs. The two large markets, one Moslem, the other Christian, exhibit an incredible amount of spices piled high in mountainous heaps or in barrels - including, frankincense which, according to muggins' gold-standard odour test, smells very much like industrial strength, nostril-busting pine toilet disinfectant. Bang goes one of the Three King's gifts! There's also a rather bloody meat market with camel and cow heads littering the pavement.

Many houses are being painted in bright greens, pinks and other colours in honour of the upcoming ramadan. There are six main gates and 360 streets in the old city, plus several little cubbyhole 'gates' built by its founder for scavenger hyenas to enter and clean up the refuse every night.

Gate to old city
Who's Your Dad? - So you see, Haile Selassie wasn't the son of Harar Governor Ras Makonnen, Solomonic dynasty scion and Menelik II's great lieutenant, but the produce of an Indian man who had it off with Makonnen's missus while the old man wasn't looking. Thus speaks a Moslem guide at the palace Haile Selassie had in Harar when he was governor there before becoming emperor.
Old city market street
What's more, Makonnen's immediate successor as governor, his eldest son Yilme, died within two years; from poison, the guide adds with a knowing wink when asked who might have done the deed most foul. What about that bust of Makonnen over there that looks just like Haile, muggins ventures. Ah, quoths the all-knowing, all-winking guide, that was sculpted when Haile was already emperor to make his 'dad' look like him. And so the palace intrigue goes on. The palace, a modest building now a museum in the throes of repairs, holds Menelik's rifle and sword.

Outside, the good citizens of Harar couldn't care a damn about rifle, sword or Haile's dad. They're far too gone on qat already, though it's only morning, lolling on the cobblestones by the piles of spices and whirling sowing machines.

Old city alley
French poet Rimbaud also lived here in the late 1800s, doffing his verses for more Rambo-like pursuits in the gun and slave trades. In the Rimbaud museum there's a letter he wrote complaining that Menelik hadn't paid him for 400 rifles. Menelik in turn accused Rimbaud of being late on delivery. Outside, it's now almost noon and everybody seems to be starting off in a Pamplona-like stampede to the qat market beyond the gates to get the choicest and freshest for the afternoon session.

Laughing Hyenas - Yes, laughing hyenas really do sound like the maniacal guffaws you get at an executive board meeting of your favourite company. In a centuries-old tradition there are several sites round the walls of old Harar where men feed the hyenas every night - it's considered good luck to do so – draping bits of meat around sticks that they put in their own mouths while the spotted dog-like creatures with the low-slung back chassis come up and snatch them (the bits of meat, that is).

Goats, anyone?
Onlookers stand around, watch and pay the guy. As opposed to elsewhere where the animals, who pack enormous pressure in their super-potent jaws, can be pretty lethal to humans, especially if they mass-attack, Harar's flock is said to be pretty docile, spending the day sleeping in nearby caves and turning up for their regular evening supper. Of course, muggins' flash light, which for some obscure reason has been flashing all day in the bright sunlight, now packs it in. To put me in an even better mood, the huge cap on a wisdom tooth has just become nomadic, travelling all round my mouth until I spit it out.

Qat taking its toll

Old city main square with old mosque, now a church

Inside mosque, now church

Brightly painted for Ramadan

Haile Selassie's palace

Old city's main mosque
First Emir's tomb
Hyenas in car headlights - without flash