Friday, 30 December 2011

Back on the job

Oh, I had such plans to bore you senseless with a detailed day-by-day account of every tedious little thing that has occurred on my travels. Sadly the dearth and quality of internet access as we drove deeper into the "Southern Nations" of Ethiopia put the mockers on that. Not helped by the theft of my iPhone (have I told you about that? Never fear, I will. At length) which was so useful for composing my ramblings during long days on the road.

Now I am back in business, you will have to content yourself (I take it that by now I have lost most of my audience and you, whoever you are, are now my last remaining reader - if indeed you exist. If in point of fact you don't actually exist, please let me know as soon as possible in order to spare me further effort) with odd snippets from my confused dog-eared and largely illegible notes.

Look here, I will get some sort of order into this at some point but first I've got to tell you this before I forget it forever:

Lalibela: This place is amazing. "Ooh! Aah!" I hear you say. It's got these sort of churches excavated out of the bedrock. Big ones. Bit like that thing in Petra, but these guys dug downwards. That's all I'm going to tell you, it's another one to google if you really care. Except that: the first one you see is, well, amazing. The second one is really good. The third one is good too. The fourth one's not bad either, and..... well, you get the picture. They've got 12 of the buggers, and a museum. And once you're in the clutches of an official guide, you're going to see them all whether you want to or not. At some point it became a clear "not" in my case. BTW: if you do go there, don't bother with a guide. Wander around at your own pace, on your own, in silence, and try to imagine how they might have done it and how the people must have felt when they first entered the finished churches, and how they used them and worshipped there. It is much more stimulating than a litany of facts and dates going on and on - and bloody on. And who cares about the reality of how they built them. What matters is whether you get a kick out of seeing them. There isn't going to be an exam at the end.

No. What I really like about Lalibela is the town, the people, the tej bars (patience, I will get round to them), Susan Aitchison (I'll get her too), Bim (and I'll get to him) and the Unique restaurant, but maybe not everything or we'll be here all night.

Let's start with Bim. I was walking on down the street, concentrating on trucking right . . . . Apologies, I was thinking about rastafarians and that just popped into my head, and after all those weeks with Marek anything that pops into my head has to pop out again in an endless stream of consciousness. Bim has nothing to do with rastafarians, and this is not the rastafarian part of Ethiopia and I didn't even see any when I was in the right part - due to Dasta (I'll get round to him too - I promise) telling us it would not be safe to visit their village because they were "all drunk". And they're not even Irish. Jesus Christ, Marek has done something seriously weird to my brain. Maybe I should just leave it and tell you about Bim when I'm feeling less deranged. No, let's get on with it, because it's a good story. I think it is anyway - and this is my blog and so there. Here goes:

I was routinely fending off the attentions of yet another shoeshine boy, when it struck me that my shoes did actually need cleaning. I asked "How much". "Whatever you think". That sounded pretty foolproof. There would be no nonsense about the terms of his quote when I came to pay (whoops, I haven't told you about the shoe shine scam in Gonder. I will. Remind me). He solemnly got to work and did a good job. I paid him the equivalent of two quid, knowing I was overpaying but, hell, I'm here to put some money into their economy - not to exploit their poverty - and a good shine is well worth two quid to me. I handed over the money and he stayed unmoving, still squatting, staring at the note. I briefly wondered if there was a problem. Maybe the note was forged, but he didn't say anything and I left him there. A few seconds later, somebody spoke just behind me "Excuse me can I say something?" Oh Jesus (I thought) here comes another amateurish scam. But there was no tug on my sleeve. No "Hello my friend". No "Where you from?". No "How are you?". Just a solemn boy in his early teens, still holding a 50Birr note and looking at me almost with wonder. "What's the problem?". "Can I just say that you have made me very happy?" He really meant it - for two quid. As we walked around town together I heard about his life. He normally gets one or two Birr - 4 or 8 pence - and is lucky to get three or four jobs a day. Sometimes he gets no work. He comes from a subsistence farm 25 miles from town. His parents can't feed themselves, let alone support him, and he sometimes sends them money from his paltry earnings. He told me "I have no family" and I understood what he meant. He is here so that he can go to school and he sleeps on the street. He owns a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, a pair of broken flip-flops, a home-made box containing: a couple of worn-out brushes, a small remnant of soap, an empty tin can, two almost empty tins of shoe polish. Also a ragged cotton overshirt in the bright pastel colour of his school - given to him because without it he could not attend classes. They turn a blind eye to his lack of uniform trousers. He has one other thing: a third share in a blanket owned jointly with two other kids who sleep with him on the street. This town is high in the mountains and it gets properly cold at night. I found little errands for him to run. I didn't want to humiliate this grave, clearly intelligent and painstakingly polite young man by giving him a handout. Ellen (the American nurse) and I met him later, on our way to an up-market restaurant. She realised before I did that the only decent thing was to invite him to join us. You can imagine his reaction to entering the restaurant - well, you can try. He didn't glance at the menu and just said one thing to the waitress; "Meat". I doubt he ever sees any in normal life. In fact he didn't eat much. I guess your stomach shrinks when you're always hungry. But he took plenty of food away with him to share with his companions. Africa really kicks some shit out of you.

The town: the main street is unpaved, but most of the buildings are properly constructed, there are a couple of decent hotels, the Ben Abeba restaurant (patience please), some smart tourist-orientated facilities, a disco, some tej bars (more patience please), and something strange in Africa: no hassle from kids, no begging and something you just don't see in tourist towns - childen playing normally together instead of hustling. Why? you may ask. Simple. They have made a by-law that children cannot speak to tourists unless invited to. And they enforce it - with a clip around the ear. It's a picturesque mountain town with a nice atmosphere. Poor, but not soul-searingly poor.

Tej bars. Tej is an alcoholic drink made from honey and some sort of fruit. Once you get used to the slightly sharp taste, it is quite light and pleasant. A bit like vodka and orange juice. And it cost nothing. A few pence for a small carafe. The bars are crude, but the tej keeps coming and there are plenty of locals to talk to. Or sing with. Or sing at. Or lean on. Or embrace and tell them they are your best mate. Or tell them tearfully that you are missing your wife. Or to pick you up when you fall off your stool. Jesus this stuff creeps up on you. I mean really. Tom Doyle from Cork City likes a drink, or two, or three and can hold it and remain a gentleman. Normally. After an evening on tej, trying to find his bed, he first appeared in the room shared by Michelle and Katya. I have no doubt he had no ulterior motive. Frankly I doubt he was capable of formulating an ulterior motive. Frankly he wasn't capable of anything. After the girls had gently steered him out into the yard, he still couldn't find his way home. So the next thing was that Danny the driver became aware that somebody was climbing into bed with him. A small Irishman who didn't know what planet he was on , let alone which bedroom. Danny took him back to the room he shared with Marek, and Marek reported that he slept with his legs in the bed and the rest of him on the floor. Apparently he was not a congenial room mate, for reasons it's best not to get into. I will draw a veil over my own condition. And we thought we were hard-drinking men. Oh yes, one other thing. Kelly Coogan is an Irish Kiwi - likes a drink and a bit of an old song. I distinctly remember him spending the latter part of the evening grabbing me and anybody else he could find, putting his face up close to theirs and urgently saying "Etcetera, etcetera". The longer it went on the funnier it got, and the more tej we drunk, and . . . . OK you get the picture - again.

The Unique restaurant. This isn't the smart restaurant we took Bim to. It's just an honest-to-God simple restaurant in an unadorned concrete room, run single-handedly by a shy young Ethiopian woman, serving really good food cooked on a wood fire, at prices which make you feel guilty. I tipped heavily and was told by a fellow-traveller that by overpaying I was spoiling things for the next load of tourists. Fuck the next load of tourists, the more they pay the happier I will be - as I politely explained. Try the Chicken Picata - and leave a big tip.

The only crap food I had in Lalibela was at the Seven Olives hotel. The smart western hotel with smart western prices.

Now let me tell you about Susan Aitchison and the Ben Abeba restaurant (Google it. Go on. You're not busy): Susan is a Scottish teacher who, in her own words, finds the poverty in Ethiopia heartbreaking. Instead of feeling sorry and going home she has stayed and is changing lives. She has built a restaurant on the edge of town where she is training a few lucky kids (actually quite a lot, maybe 40 so far and she hasn't been open long) to cook and wait at table. Skills which should give them some sort of chance in life. Not content with that, she has started a fund to help local kids who otherwise would have no chance of continuing their education to go to university or technical college. The sums are tiny, but she is currently funding 16 impoverished kids to study medicine, engineering and other worthwhile disciplines. Their appreciation is reflected in their startingly good academic results. Just because you are born into poverty it doesn't mean you are stupid. These could be our kids. Look, she tells the story much better than me. When I read her annual report I had to swallow hard. If you want a worthwhile cause to support where you can see tangible results you should look into the Susan Aitchison Scholarship Fund. It should get UK charitable status soon. If I can figure out how to do it, my next post will be her 2011 annual report. If I can't, tell me and I'll email it to you. Her restaurant is quite remarkable from an architectural point of view. It would be something special anywhere but in a poor African town it is extraordinary. I can't describe it, so I urge you once again to google "Ben Abeba Restaurant Lalibela". The construction alone has created jobs and boosted the economy. I have been in touch with Susan since I left Lalibela. She is going to help me get a present to Bim - two more blankets and three fleeces.

OK enough from me, until next time.