April 1 – 10, 2014.
“You should tell your friend you were kidnapped,” says the dark-featured young man I met a short while ago, cigarette dangling from his grinning lips. The car careens down a dusty new highway in northern Iraq. The man has a bulwark of long eyelashes around his murky eyes, and short dark hair with a hint of silver emerging from the edges. “It is April, after all,” he says with a wink. As I peer out the window, oil wells, billboards for Turkish and Russian companies, and craggy mountains whiz by.
A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
Addis Ababa is many different cities to many different people – the rich, the poor, men, women, locals, foreigners, the diaspora, those born in the city, and those from the provinces. Fickle Addis defies generalization. It is reliably inconsistent. One sees too many luxury amenities to call it poor, too many wretched beggars to call it wealthy; too many easy smiles to call it mean, too many menacing glares to call it friendly; too many courtly bows to call it impolite, too much street boorishness to call it respectful; too much public affection to call it cold, too much impunity and indifference to call it compassionate; too much hope and joy to call it miserable, too much despair to call it happy; too much fraternity and piety to call it selfish, too much opportunism and greed to call it generous. Xenophobia and hospitality live side by side. There is a justifiable feeling of deep pride in Ethiopia’s rich culture and glorious history, but also a bitter resentment and shame in the poverty and wars that have ravaged the country.
“So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t — that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decision to make?”
It’s Tuesday evening in Addis Ababa’s garish central Bole neighbourhood. Wealthy, Westernized, and dodgy, Bole is a favourite spot for Addis’s expat population, and my most hated part of the city. Outside the rainy season is chilly and grey. The sun sets into a funereal sky stained with diesel smoke. Droves of begging children aggressively harass anyone who looks like they have money. Shoe shiners use their bare hands to polish muck-covered loafers. Bratty rich kids (‘Bole Kids’) lacing their Amharic with American English sneer at the beggars and snicker at the bug-bitten, sunburned foreigners who are running to the hideous architecture and isolated bubble worlds of their luxury hotels.
It must be an omen from God. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Impossible weather for the subtropics of Addis Ababa in late July, the height of the rainy season. The sun is preciously scarce this time of year, and a chance like this mustn’t be squandered.
Doing laundry is tough during the chilly, dark rainy season – drying the clothes is a losing battle. The best you can hope for is a cool breeze and a few minutes of sunlight filtering through the clouds, and even then it takes all day and night to dry. Then of course they must be ironed, which helps to dry and soften them, and kills any bed bugs or fleas hiding in the tucks and folds. Washing machines are rare even amongst the wealthy here, and dryers are unheard of outside of laundromats.
I remember it more like a surreal, misty dream than a real memory.
Seven years ago, I was living in the most beautiful city in the world – Istanbul.
I taught English there after graduating from university in Canada. For a 23 year-old Winnipegger who had never travelled before, the city was impossibly beautiful, like something out of my childhood imagination. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a forgotten fairy tale.
I remember when I left Russia, I told a friend proshai – farewell. She grew angry and implored me to instead say do svidaniya – until next time. Russians use this as goodbye, like the French say au revoir, or the Italians arrivederci. Proshai carried with it a cold tone of finality that my friend didn’t quite like, though it turned out to be sadly accurate.
Goodbye is an absurd word – nothing feels “good” about it at all. Well, actually Godbwye – “God be with ye,” is the mother of this devastating term. It seems fitting that such a calamitous event be allayed by God.
“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels.”
“Journeys are the midwives of thought.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
He wonders why he is here. Why did he flee from such comforts? Why forgo the hot, pressurized water, the ever-present super high-speed Internet, the machines that do the laundry and dishes for him, the voicemail, the ubiquitous coffee to go, the gargantuan stores that supply his every need, the clean, comfortable, safe lifestyle, and the obese GDP? Why go from the rich to the poor?
The Traveller’s story is a tragic one. He will never catch what he is chasing, never escape from what pursues him. Telling himself that home is everywhere, he fears it is nowhere. As though there are hot coals beneath his feet, he cannot stay in one place. Like the Flying Dutchman, he is doomed to sail the seas forever. His tortured soul is disillusioned, disappointed, distant. He chases a mirage. He is condemned to travel.