Travel Stories


         I awaken on Timkat - the Day of Epiphany - early enough to do an extended yoga practice, which is such a gift, mostly gentle stretching without there being any clock that matters, just breath and body awareness, the movements connected to deep yogic breathing, committed not to strength and muscle as such, but to flexibility, liquidity, the absence and relief of pain, mindlessness, mindfulness, thoughtlessness, breath awareness, the passage of the physical oxygen molecules from the lungs into the blood stream, pumped by my heart so as to reach every one of the more than one billion cells of my body, none of which can survive without it, the oxygen molecule with its real dimension and mass passing through the cell wall, the cell itself expanding to accommodate its revered visitor, the cell itself breathing, incorporating the energy of the oxygen into its very essence, its self, releasing what is not needed, relaxing, contracting, the ebb and flow of oxygen into the cell the essence of life, the definition of life, oxygen into the body, oxygen upon the earth.
         I walk to Saint George’s church to attend this day's Timkat ceremonies.  The streets of Addis are filled with more nicely dressed people than usual, more suits, more dresses, white dresses, golden dresses, eye make up that yields sparkling results, green, red, and yellow banners and pennants, the colors of the Ethiopian flag, stretched across the streets, people walking with palm fronds and reeds, the entrances to shops covered with some sort of long grasses that people entering and leaving the stores, the coffee shops, and the internet cafes, must walk across, like cattle threshing wheat, the grasses shredding as the day unfolds.
         I walk around Saint George’s church once, twice, three times, a walking meditation on Faith.  I am very taken with the notion of “Faith” these days, with what faith actually is, what it means, what its existence suggests, in what manner faith “exists” in the first place, perhaps like consciousness only a manifestation of mind, but also perhaps, like consciousness, some “thing” that is not a thing, that has no mass, not even the energetic emissions of mind/brain/neuron, not even the mass of molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks - some “thing” that exists, but of itself has no “substance,” no cause, only effect.  I embarrass myself with these reveries.  I demand of myself that I disclose them.  It no longer matters what others think of my philosophical/etiological reveries.  I am not I.  The score today is Epiphany one - Resistance zero.
         The deacon of the St. George museum, Mebratu, which means “light” in Amharinga, invites me to visit the museum, even though it is closed for the day.  Love them guides.  Mebratu invites me to walk up to the bell tower where the 10,000 kilogram bell hangs and says he will show me the museum after I get back down.  The steps up to the bell tower are very narrow, there is a handrail on my right side, and I clutch it dearly - this is not my thing climbing narrow stairs - and my anxiety only contributes to the risk.  But I need somehow to get to the bell, well okay, I want to get to the bell, and I do, although I don’t stay long on the bell ringer's platform and when i walk down the stairs i walk backwards most of the way … hoping I’ll get to hear the bell ring later in the day when the St. George’s church holy ark - containing a replica of the more than two thousand year old wooden ten commandments the Ethiopians believe reside in an ark in Aksum - will arrive back at the St. George's from its annual procession out in the free polluted air of Addis. 
         The small museum itself is actually quite interesting and Mebratu is a more than competent guide.  I learn a lot.  What most impresses me most are the paintings, the expressions on the faces of the saints and the condemned, the frequent appearance of six pointed stars, the examples I see of the more than 400 different Ethiopian Orthodox cross styles, each reflective of a specific city, area, sect - Aksum, Lalibela, Gondar.
         At the end of the tour Mebratu opens a cabinet from which he brings out some completely unusual silver alloy icons and crosses for sale, all hand made in Aksum.  I’ve seen nothing like them, and spend a serious amount of money buying half a dozen, to “help support the church.” 
         Once back outside in the church courtyard the mass of people present has increased significantly, there is music being blasted over fuzzy loudspeakers, and periodically someone speaks/preaches over the loudspeakers, to which people yell, ululate, and cheer in response.  Many folks are dressed to the nines.  Some of the dresses have lovely colorful trim that gives them a South American, Central America peasant flavor.  You can hear the procession approaching in the street, the drumming and the singing.  People are dancing in the church plaza - mostly young men - in a style a bit like the call and response dancing of the South Africans, but with nowhere near the South Africans' fluid rhythm and grace.
         I hang around the church for hours just looking at the stunning faces of Ethiopian men and women, some of whom are absolutely breathtaking, wondering again how I will bear my predictable somewhat ordinary daily existence in Orleans, divine though it well may be, nay, divine as it actually is, but not nearly as entertaining and distracting as is stepping out the door into the streets and villages of Africa or Asia.
         I walk down the street away from the church. The crowd has thinned considerably.  Most stores are closed for the holiday.  I notice a very short old woman dressed all in black approaching me just before she engages me.  I can’t recall what she says, but her English is fair, and when I ask if she is in mourning she says her mother died just a month ago, and she was in church this morning praying for a good job, and we’re babbling back and forth like old friends standing in the street, as she points to a coffee shop across from us and says, “Come, please, we sit.”  Fine, what can this cost?
         Her name is Elizabeth, she’s originally from Harar, she’s skinnier than a broom stick, can’t weigh eighty pounds sopping wet, and looks every bit the gaunt refugee.  I’m usually pretty good at age guessing and put her in her worn late forties.  And after she tells me she has a fourteen year old daughter, I’m feeling pretty confident in my guess, but not wanting to err I ask, “So, how old were you when you had your daughter?”  She tells me thirteen.  You do the math.
         In the coffee shop I order black coffee and Elizabeth orders an orange soda and two immense pastries, the second of which she tries valiantly to finish, but cannot.  She tells me this is her lucky day, that she prayed to Saint Mariam and then as she was walking down the street she saw a god approaching.  I tell her everyone is god, but she is adamant this cannot be.  I take out my computer and show her a picture of Joy.  She asks if Joy is my wife and I say no, she is the woman I live with, love, and am faithful to.  She says Joy is beautiful.  I say Joy is beautiful.
         I show Elizabeth one of the unusual(?) icons I bought at the St. George Museum and she immediately recognizes it as having been made in Aksum, which pleases me.  She asks if I will give it to her and how much it cost.  I say fifteen dollars, which I recognize as an extraordinarily high price, but I really prize its uniqueness - it opens like a book and has two small hand-painted portraits inside.  Which would you prefer I ask, the icon or the fifteen dollars?  Don’t even ask why I do things like this.  The icon she says.  Fine, I say, let’s go back to the church and I will buy you one.  But first I must find an ATM because I no longer have that much Ethiopian cash. 
         We leave the coffee shop.  We make a very odd pair walking down the street I think, the gaunt lady all in black, complete with black shawl who is not five feet tall, and the tall bearded old white guy, especially when she takes my hand, almost childlike and says, “You are my father.”  “Fodder” is what she actually says.  And I like it.  I admit it.  It all feels very safe, nonsexual, and not exploitative on my end, while on her end I expect all she wants is to get as much out of the sugar daddy Saint Mariam has sent her way as she can.  And if I’m open to guides appearing everywhere, in human persons, birds, churches, skeletons, beggars, thieves, drunks, Maasai warriors, Zulu children with HIV, lions, dead zebras, patterns of clouds in the sky, then don’t I also have to be opened from time to time to being someone else’s guide myself?
         “You are a good man,” Elizabeth tells me.  I can accept that.  “I am so happy, today,” Elizabeth says, “I prayed to Mother Miriam to help me and she did.”  I can accept that too.
         After I’ve withdrawn some cash from the ATM Elizabeth decides she’d prefer the fifteen dollars instead of the silver icon, a wise choice, and I give it to her.  And as odd as it feels to be giving someone I’ve just met - and hasn’t seen fifteen dollars in months – a nice gift that I trust will really make a difference to her, it also feels good, and right.  We’re talking fifteen dollars for Christ’s sake, the cost of a pizza, a quarter of a tank of gas, a yoga class, a movie ticket.  And as we walkr down toward the big Mercato, Elizabeth blows off all the beggars who normally assault me, and any time I give one some money - usually only to mothers with dirty kids and blind people - she says, “You’re a good man.”  She is also insistent on my buying some toothpaste she says will whiten my old yellow teeth and goes into half a dozen drug stores asking loudly but without finding the particular brand she wants.  I start to think she is a little daft.  I know I am.  She tries on shoes at open-air stand after stand and asks me to buy them for her.  I say, “You have the money, now.”  She says, “Maybe next time.” 
         Elizabeth tells me she’s only been with one man besides her husband in her entire life, also a “good man,” an Englishman with a wife and four children who gave her $750.00 for an operation when she was very sick, but who doesn’t write her any more.  I’m not sure I believe she has only been with two men in her life, and I’m not sure why.  It just seems impossible to me that someone can be as assertive as Elizabeth is and as naïve at the same time.  Besides I keep thinking of her as being an old woman rather than a twenty seven year old child, as someone who can and does survive in part by engaging foreign men as she has engaged me.  I tell her I think this and she denies it.
      Certainly no one has ever said, “I am so happy,” as many times in so few hours as Elizabeth does, at least not around me.  And Elizabeth’s happiness, which I actually do take as a genuine expression of the pleasure and surprise she is deriving from her good fortune this day, an ordinary Day of Epiphany that has turned into a special day of epiphanies, undeniably also makes me happy, even if she is trying to get all she can out of me, strolling along the streets of Addis Ababa with “such a good man,” who she repeatedly urges to buy Joy clothing and jewelry and has interactions with vendors and strangers that seem a little odd and out of the mainstream … how loudly she talks, the things she seems to say, the way people look at her as if she is a little off … or at least has very odd loose boundaries.
         “What do you think people who see us walking together think?” I ask Elizabeth.
         “That we are friends,” she says, but I personally don’t think so, and everything I imagine they are thinking makes me wince, because even though in my eyes she is an old, sexless, penniless waif who I want nothing from except the good humor and occasional insights of her company, I’m sure everybody else sees an old white guy with a young destitute woman who he is exploiting.
         Toward dusk, Elizabeth takes me to Saint Haymanot’s church where the Epiphany services/celebrations have long since ended.  What again impresses me is the immense devotion I witness among the supplicants, how they kiss the gates of the church, and the stone walls of the church, falling onto their knees to pray, I have no real idea to whom or for what, whether asking gifts or grace or giving gratitude, but the passion and earnestness of their expression is undeniably genuine, and as I sit on a bench outside the church with my hands in my lap I am again overwhelmed by a reverential aura, a sense that I too want to cross myself, and kiss the stones. To say, "thank you."
         And then, after buying Elizabeth an expensive by Ethiopian standards (three dollar) dinner of “sheep tips” on injeera with sauce, which she consumes as if starving, and I take no part in, our time together and the day are over.  “Please, you will call me,” Elizabeth asks, giving me her phone number, “perhaps you will want to wire me some money.”  To which I say, I hope not too unkindly, “A movie starts, Elizabeth.  A movie ends.  Much as we enjoy the movie it is not real and it is over.”  Then we peck each other’s cheeks as Ethiopians do when greeting and departing. 
       “I will come to the airport to see you,” Elizabeth says. 
       I walk back to my hotel knowing that is not possible and glad that is so.