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essays | places
a bit of this and a bit of that, but mostly something else
Chennek, Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 fading away
A society written in Amharic hieroglyphs, Ethiopia is its own encrypted world. There’s Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa and then there is Ethiopia, which is a bit of this and a bit of that, but mostly something else. Handsome people with noble faces, every farmer looking like a prince. And these landscapes, just as handsome. I scratched the surface for about a month, collected dust and human samples, but the results were most inconclusive. I must come back with one of these big yellow excavators.
passages LIVELIHOOD | His skin was leather, witness to a noble life spent beneath the generous Ethiopian sun. He looked like 80, but was probably closer to 60 when deducting the dignifying furrows a career of arduous labor had left on his face. The wide-awake eyes gave it away. And at no point did the cruel Simien ascends seem to take a toll on him, while I paid plenty. His reticent demeanor expressed a polite indifference to my existence. And yet, somehow I felt like he would guard that existence with his if necessary. He exuded an air of loyalty to his responsibility as a scout, and at least by proxy to any wannabe adventurer in tow. All he carried with him into the mountains was a small rucksack, a quilted jacket, an umbrella, a shawl that inexplicably sufficed him as a blanket throughout the relentless altitude nights, and the AK-47. Ka-lash-ni-kov, rat-tat-tat-tat – what a perfect last name to invent a rifle, I thought. The phonetics and connotation were a match made in Russia. What kind of machine gun would a “Wilson” or “Gonzales” be? But if the rifle made me feel any safer, it made me feel unsafer in at least equal measure. I disliked the tangible proximity of death the presence of the gun established, notwithstanding that this one was more livelihood than weapon – a tool of life and death that was just a tool. Some written or unwritten rule somewhere obliged him to carry it, and me to enter the park accompanied by an armed veteran. Wild animals or robbers are no real threat here, as I learned, but a family going hungry is.
Ahh, these bus rides. Russian Roulette, wheels for barrels, spin all six of them at maximum speed and every other traffic participant becomes a bullet or a missile. Six hours straight. Six hours of cursing and praying at every bend in the road. The conductor is possessed by youth and overconfidence. He gains some meters here, loses them there, but he can’t stop gambling with the 60 lives in the back, alive, still, by virtue of sheer luck; dying would be the more reasonable outcome of his demonic maneuvers. Behind me somebody laughs a laugh that is so dirty that it crescendos into a villain’s cough. A little girl drops her cookie and I pick it up, a hero saving the entire world singlehandedly, or so I feel. A guy in the row in front of me points out empty seats in the back to new passengers. Such unnecessary solidarity. If he places one more passenger, he is more hero than I am.
Ethiopia · 2017 sticks and mud
Just look at all this world outside the bus! I want to live under that baby tree forever, and then I want to roll into that valley, through those pebble villages, and up on the other side and back and forth like a perpetuum mobile, and then I want to hide somewhere and at night I will light a fire to stare at that rockface for hours. The music in my ear helps sculpting these daydreams. It isn’t speaking to me, it’s speaking but out of me.
Ethiopia · 2017 green terrace
Ethiopia · 2017 spotting the spotter
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 vulture wall
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 shepherd kids
places / stories
Addis Ababa / Piano & Pickpockets
Addis Ababa / Ethiopia · 2017 hallway tunnel
The very first hotel in Ethiopia, the Taitu is in classy decay all the way. A hundred and ten years living and rotting in that wood. All ethnicities one can imagine ghosting through the hallways. A lot of atmospheric volume compressed into historic molecules that drip from the damp ceilings. The restaurant’s walls an accident of burgundy, salmon, and chestnut, even some puddles of purple in my favorite corner where I hide under all the paint that is flaking off – decadence dying just like anything else. The light bulbs. Some cold, some warm, most of them without screens or much virtue. Four of them making up a poor man's chandelier. No juice, just beer and soda. Pizza on the menu. The cheese optional. Not a pizza. Meaningless paintings scattered over the walls unevenly. Power cuts every other hour to remind us of the great human wonders. Every upper middle-class person in town seems acquainted with the vegan lunch buffet. I raise mountains on my plate, then a second round of hummus with that rustic dark bread. There isn’t the slightest need to build these gluttonous Babylonian food-towers. It’s all you can eat, not all you can eat at once. I pour another ladle of pure relish.
Someone is playing the piano today and the guy next to me hums along while he loads his plate in a much more civilized fashion. Dimdiduududu, dadadidimdudu. It goes well with the smooth aura shining all around his buff build like a muscular halo. This time, I end up on one of the metal chairs with that upholstery that looks and feels like rude plastic, but I do get to look at the wooden chairs, and that is more important because eyes are spoiled beings and asses aren’t. Eyes demand aesthetics, asses just a surface. People eat with their hands, like in South Asia. I need to go to the reception, but the tune circles around me until I’m tied down to the chair. A woman is playing. She is neither old nor young – her age is beautiful. She just keeps playing and playing, walking her hands up and down the keys without going anywhere near a distinguishable song. It is all one long chance symphony, an improvised harmony. One song, inventing and reinventing itself over and over again like ocean waves. She plays in trance, as though she’s striking a secret code on the keys to open the door to her personal dimension behind the piano. What an elegant trip. With that water bottle and the saltshaker on the piano she’s got everything she needs to play forever and a day.
Her hair is pinned up. She wears pearl earrings, a chocolate sweater, a golden ring on her left ring finger, and a small rectangular watch. Only few others around me have the luxury of being without company, of being fully able to join her symphony with the mind on it. All in all, there is a deeper knowledge in this room and some carry devices to intercept it. Sometimes she turns her head and looks at me, or maybe at the table in-between us, or maybe through it at me. Maybe I am melting into the dimension she is writing with the keys. Maybe she’s inviting all of us along. I am free in her tune, but perishable. She is becoming an immortal prisoner in my word, living on this page forever for better or worse. Then I leave, a free man. It’s hard to let go of such moments, such delicacies, but one has to live on. It can all linger in the mind, but not in the room. She stops playing before I can leave and it makes me sad because in my mind, and only there, the whole room had applauded her. I go up to her. “That was beautiful, thank you.” She smiles and mumbles something in an alien tongue. Our words are murky waters for the other, but our feelings are crisp as blips.
The rain came down like stones in those days. Loud and impactful. Especially in the afternoon and evening. It’s the only way I can write. When there is nothing else to do. And maybe I should write more. A legacy perhaps? But what’s the difference between a legacy and worm-food? Sometimes I’d go for a long walk after lunch to get lost. Never a single Westerner out there. Once I thought I saw one, but he was an albino. My favorite street is Haile Selassie. Stores queuing up on both sides of the road: jeweler, electrician, hardware store, shoe store, jeweler, jeweler, neon-colored kids bikes, people, people, people, somebody pushing a wheelbarrow full of neatly arranged knives, the omnipresent shoe shiners. Walking towards the Taitu, tiny alleys crawl up the hills to the left like portals to little flower villages that bloom on the aching and benevolent back of this sprawl. I beat the rain, again.
Addis Ababa / Ethiopia · 2017 starfish in the sky
The back of the shower head is broken. A ruin of plastic with little holes, through which little, mischievous fountains squirt into my eyes until I cover the holes with my hand. The next day the shower head is gone. The choice is now between faucet and hose. Some days later there is a new shower head. It has been fixed to the wall with a majestic mount, so that one can shower hands free now, like a king. A saxophone tune climbs into the shower from the garden below and then a piano chimes in, then a female singer. The jazzy melody shakes me into a dance while I’m washing my underwear. I leave the shower clean and amused as a mermaid.
Addis Ababa / Ethiopia · 2017 metropolis in the backyard
One day, I’m almost back at the Taitu from my walk when two pickpockets take a liking to me. They are young guys, hardly a minute older than kids, pretending to be a team of tissue vendors. A good deception; I should have known though. There are no such teams. Vendors are lone wolfs. But it had been a while since my last encounter with these gifted artists. One starts shaking my left arm, praising the tissues with words that are just sounds to me, making it impossible not to give him my attention. A moment later, they are both gone. That was it. An entire surgery performed in just one moment. But the gut knows before the mind shows and when I brush my pocket to check for my phone, I know that it’s gone before the hand hits the fabric. Accelerated by the nauseating fear of petty loss, my feet pivot into the direction of pursuit. The direction is instinct really, because you never get a good look at these magicians’ faces. If I’m following the wrong guys, I’m some sort of creepy clown
The whole street, hundreds of people, are holding their breath while watching the scene like a movie, or maybe not. I feel it, but I can’t take my eyes off the target. It’s my only play. I’m close now, but another five or six teenagers catch up to me first and point the other way, suggesting I’m following the wrong batch. For a second, I am inclined to believe them. But the whole thing seems like theater and now I’m pretty sure I’m following the right faces. Anyway, it’s too late for any change in direction. A few leaps later, I’m right next to them. “What about my phone,” I demand with unauthorized authority. They fold. My hand wasn’t much more than a bluff and had they called it, I might have been the one folding. But now I’m getting my phone back as one of them produces it from his underpants. Thanks a lot.
Simien Mountains / Hard Work
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 mountains or canyon?
Those mountains were hard work. Especially for the tourists.
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 bleeding light
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 refuge
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 AK and umbrella
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 Claire
When heaven descended, you could tell what cloud nine was made of. Nothing really.
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 cotton sky
But a wall of air hides just as much as a wall of stone.
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 wall of air
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 on his turf
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 pickup bus
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 monkey clan
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 chief
Those geladas were delightful little humans.
Simien Mountains / Ethiopia · 2017 down-to-earth heaven
Gondar / Old Town, New Friend
Gondar / Ethiopia · 2017 rust on stone
Gondar / Ethiopia · 2017 royal leftovers
Gondar was old. You could guess that they'd buried an emperor or two there. But we built a brand-new friendship on their bones, Claire and I, and the fact that its medium is email makes us modern day pen pals, I’d say. Pen-less pals. Pals.
Gondar / Ethiopia · 2017 cleaning centuries
Gondar / Ethiopia · 2017 into time's bowels
Himalayas / Hiking Alone, Astray & Everestless
when you set out to see Everest, but Everest doesn’t care
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