Despite the fact that I had only really been in Ethiopia for a day and a half I hadn't really gone out, and I felt like I'd been here for about two weeks. As I said, though, I hadn't really gone out during the day, and had spent my days reading and lazing about and wondering how I was going to get rid of this outrageous jetlag. Yesterday we finally went out during the day, and took a drive around sunny Addis Ababa. It was a glorious day and I immediately regretted my decision to save space and leave my cameras at home. Mind you, at the time I had thought that my folks would be here and that I'd use their much nicer (and smaller) camera, but what with my folks being in Paris longer than expected I was stuck at the home of friends and with no camera at all. Once again, I would regret this decision many times throughout the course of the day.
The thing that strikes you first, on a sunny, clear day, is that it is still cold. I had arrived in Ethiopia expecting it to be like the Sudan to a great extent - that is to say, khaki colored and hot as Satan's armpit. Wrong. Addis Ababa's being in the highlands makes it quite cool, all year round. Moreover, it makes Addis a city of many hills and shallow valleys, that make driving quite fun and interesting. The city is populated by some of the most beautiful people you are likely to see on earth, and they know it. Not in a show-off sort of way, but in the sense that they take care of their appearance, and even the meanest person is well groomed and well dressed. However, this doesn't always mean Armani suits and Dolce and Gabana shirts. Frequently it means shirts that have made their way from somewhere else, with some english phrase on them. The colors work, but the phrases leave a lot to be desired. "God Bless America", Sisquo t-shirts showing the singer's dyed blonde hair, R. Kelly t-shirts, and finally the improbably sighted "Phoenix, AZ, USA" t-shirt. Not what I was expecting, exactly. Still, the folks layer their clothes and have a good sense of colors, which leaves their Sudanese brethren in the sartorial dust.
Driving through the market places one is quickly fooled into thinking that Ethiopia is like any country in southern Europe, which is not entirely true. Behind the clean facades lay some depressing slums, shanty towns that can be seen by looking down any of the narrow streets that separate the blocks of stores. This is not surprising, although it is sad of course. The shanties cling to the sides of the downwards slopes of the hills of the city. They are built of corrugated aluminum or "zinc" and whatever materials are at hand, and they are quite small. Large families live in cramped spaces, and one wonders about the public hygiene of such areas. Access to these jury-rigged neighborhoods is via narrow, unpaved alleys, and rocks jut out of the surface of the ground at odd angles, a reminder of the volcanic past of the area. A quick drive through one neighborhood that my host had nearly moved into, and would have had it not been so far from work, revealed a surprising bit of graffiti: "Ja Rule". Hip hop lives, my friends.
Noting all of this I rode on, with my guides: my avuncular Sudanese host and a former student of his, a young Ethiopian who had just returned from getting his M. Phil. in Norway. Between the two of them they told tales of the city, from the heavily fortified Israeli embassy to the last remnant of the Communist government of the country, a tall spire topped with a hammer and sickle and some statue at the top that we couldn't make out. I suppose it was lauding the "workers" and their struggle. I was particularly impressed by the newly completed ring road around Addis which enabled us to quickly get around the city and see far more shanty towns than we would have been able to taking surface streets. In all honesty though, it's not all so bad and it appears that the government is making attempts at gentrification, including building subsidized housing. The land around the city is stunning, and resembles the south of France. We got lost in it for about 20 minutes - on purpose of course - and only turned around when it appeared we would be leaving the county proper. We headed back and stopped by a hotel for a quick cup of tea in their rooftop cafe, before heading back to the house to change and rest before dinner.
We had dinner at a restaurant called Jenet (which is similar to the Arabic word for "heavens", Jannaat). It was slightly hidden, in a little nook off Cape Verde St.
aside: all the streets in central Addis Ababa have been renamed with the help of a consultant. They are named after African nations and major landmarks. The street I was staying on was Rwanda St, so named because it is the location of the Rwandan embassy.
The restaurant was far more spacious than I had expected it to be, and furnished in the traditional Ethiopian style. The staff was dressed in clothes made of the particular cloth that one finds in Ethiopia, sort of a mix between linen and canvas. It's very comfortable and frequently is embroidered with bright red and orange and yellow thread. The restaurant featured a dinner show, with traditional dances from all of the Ethiopian provinces, performed by two men and two women. I must say I was captivated! Their dancing was amazing, not simply because of the beauty of the dances, but the fact that they so closely resemble Sudanese folk dances, and even the ones that we dance at weddings. Moreover, they reminded me of being in a club in Queens, because some of the dances had made it there. The final dance from the Walayta people in the northeast, looking like Michael Jackson dancing.
The ones that really took my breath away were where the men came out with sticks and danced around the women, who twirled their heads around so fast that it seemed as if their necks were broken and were twirled by some invisible puppeteer. They spin so fast that the dance culminates in the women fainting, literally, into the arms of their partners. Another beautiful dance is a sort of pastoral one, part dance, part pantomime. The two women are picking flowers or whatnot when they are accosted by the men, who flirt with them playfully. The women dance and the men watch them, finally throwing a gauzy shawl over one of the girls and taking her to the side. There the couple both sit beneath the shawl, hidden, as the other couple flirts. It was made more fun by an overzealous audience member who kept getting up and dancing with them. He really got into it and underscored another difference between them and Sudanese, namely their liveliness. They are a people not afraid to dance and not afraid to take the happy moments when they come to them, and I love that about them.
My parents were landing late that night, and had been very secretive about their arrival. I ascribe this to my father's time spent in service with the CIA. Eventually we tracked down their probably arrival time and since it was to be around midnight we retired to the Concorde Hotel piano bar to wait it out. We arrived just in time to watch our octogenarian Wayne Newton launch into his rendition of Lionel Richie's "Lady", and some Jerry Lee Lewis tune. I know it's hard to believe but he was pretty good, and was soon joined during the break by a stunning young woman in tight white trousers and a hooped sleeveless shirt. They talked and he eventually serenaded her, which just about knocked me out of my seat. It was not to be, and the bird flew the coop, leaving him joking at the bar, before ending his set with James Brown's "I Feel Good". Which was our cue to leave for the airport.
The reunion with the folks was wonderful, as I knew it would be. I crept up behind my mom and shouted out her name as she was walking out of the international arrivals. She got all teary eyed as I hugged her but didn't really cry outright, which made me so happy. We walked out to see my Dad at the other end of the airport. Apparently he's some sort of VIP now, which is an interesting turn of events! At the house we just talked and talked, late into the night, enjoying each others' company, before drifting off to sleep. I regretted not having my things with me (they were still at my host's house) but it was good to be home nonetheless.
aside: We woke up this morning to the sound of our door being knocked on. The neighbors had slaughtered a sheep for themselves and one for us as well, because of the occasion of my mother's health. Another sheep (this one live) was delivered to the house around noon or so. Apparently, we'll be having it slaughtered this weekend to mark the auspicious occasion of my finally being done. There is talk of inviting the Sudanese community at large. I see a very busy month ahead ...