The Most Unbelievable Moment of My Life

I catch my breath, as I stand with my little tour-guide/self-appointed guardian, in the shadows of the stone walls of the Castle, well away from the chaos of the inner circle. Where the burning cross had once stood, is now a pile of coal, spewing smoke and tissue-paper ashes onto the dark heads and bodies smeared with charcoal streaks, that seem to tirelessly dance (like one might breath) raising sticks and deep shouts, as more and more men and boys join in.

I think to myself that I should probably stand still and stay, safe, on the sidelines. And I watch for a few more minutes as like an outsider, with the other handful of white people in attendance, in khaki-travel attire and sunhats, and cool smiles. But I can’t take my eyes off the circle, teaming with chaos, celebration, abandon, life.  It’s a ceremony that I’ve never seen before. It’s beautiful and raw. I’m not sure what may happen, but if I wanted to play it safe, I would have stayed in Seattle. To stand still, when the entire world before me celebrates, feels like a death-sentence.

I sling my NikonD90 across my chest, bandolero style, so the expensive body hugs my frame, and I can move freely. Not sure what will happen next, I take 30 maddeningly giddy steps descending  into the fray. My little tour-guide runs to try to catch up with me, asking me to stop. Energy ripples through the crowd. The shouting gets thunderously loud, “Abeba, Abeba!”

And I add my own to voice to the chorus, ” Abeba! Abeba!” and shake my fist in time with a couple men next to me. They’re smiling with surprise. (I’m smiling wide because we’re all screaming “Flower! Flower!”)

Another, insanely tall ferengi, floats heads and shoulders above the crowd. Dirty-blond, curled hair flops in his face, as he raises his even longer arms above the pandemonium to snap shots of the inner circle. I look on jealously. And finally, craving some memory of the moment, I reach up and try to snap a few nervous shots. (But even my 5’10” height is no real advantage today, as men are packed around me, and I get a series of shots of the backs of heads.) The move attracts even more attention. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, I start to hide the camera from sight. A man turns to me, “You want pictures?” Then says something I can’t understand. I try to laugh it off. Whatever it is.

But he continues talking, offering, with friendly grin, “Climb on my shoulders, sister. You will get the best pictures.”

I burst out laughing, thinking it a joke. What would people think.

But he insists, then his friends chime in their support. Even my tour guide joins them, as they all promise to carefully watch over me and not let me fall.

I blush, and try to use my 5’10” height as an out. He assures me he’s lifted much heavier burdens, sizes me up and shakes his head, “You are like nothing.”

It would be amazing…Then two men bend and lock wrists to make a “step”. I laugh, then up I go, I’m suddenly soaring feet above the crowd. A swirl of faces. A sea of dancing in the center. The song “Abeba, Abeba” infinitely sweeter from such  heights, and I’m lost in the excitement. A photo, a video clip, and then I just sit on my human perch and drink it in. The experience of floating above the crowd, wildly chanting.

Slowly the people on the ground begin to nudge each other, I see them point to the ferengi on the man’s shoulders. I’m nervous. But they smile and wave. I wave back, and sing Amharic “Meskel. Betam Conjo. Amasagnalo!!” I must look like some babbling idiot-tourist. Hands on my heart, I wish there was some way to communicate my appreciation for this moment. For today, for Meskel, for the finding of the true cross. Suddenly inspired, with a laugh and grin, I shoot my fist into the air, and sing “Abeba! Abeba!”

To my utter astonishment, from the ground 10 feet below me, rises a chorus chanting a return, “Abeba! Abeba!”

Like a bullet to the brain, reality hits me so hard and fast. How did I get here?! How is any of this real?! How is this my life?!

I see my life zip before my eyes in fast forward: being 10 and climbing a tree in the backyard to hide and write in my journal about being a grown up, studying late and getting up early to serve hors d’oeuvres at another party, only to work my into a quiet coffin of a cubicle wondering if this is what it’s all about, heartbreak, then breaking, then freelancing, then learning Indonesian, terra-cotta rooftops in south France, standing in Istanbul’s glittering Hagia Sofia at sunset,and now in Africa, in a small town in Ethiopia,  smoke stingingmy nose, sitting on top of a stranger’s shoulders, celebrating the burning of a massive cross, with hundreds of thousands of people cheering at the sound of my single voice.

It makes no sense and, yet, all the sense in the world. But not in a million years could I have dreamed this moment, so amazing, bursting with life and surprise.  I’ve never felt so alone, I’ve also never felt so alive. A wave of gratitude so immense. Gratitude for everything that brought me here, everything around me, every person, creature, nation, tiny town, castle, golden hillside, angelic-white netalahs flying in the wind and smoke. I’m not sure where, or why. But I lift my arm in the air, smiling, and shout: “Abeba!”

And they love it. The air around me trembles. Every man and boy around me, jumps. From below there is a collective roar back: “Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

“Abeba! Abeba!”

An Army of Men & Boys Shouting “Flower! Flower!” (& Finding My Place in This World…)

I ask what the men, dancing in the center around the cross, are shouting.

Abeba” they tell me. Or “flower” (Addis Ababa is really Addis Abeba, which means “new flower”).

Flowers. The past time I love above all others, since childhood.

Of course, I’m find my way here. Now. Of course the grown men, with savage, charcoal-smeared faces, sweat streaming down their faces, hoisting sticks as they dance madly in circles, are chant-singing at the tops of their lungs:

“Flower! Flower! Flower!”

I can’t stop smiling. Every moment seems bursting with validation that taking this trip, stepping out into a brand new world, all alone, and all the doubts and uncertainty — I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. With an army of men, shouting the creation and beauty I revere most:  “Flower!”

On top of my happiness, everyone I talk to tells me they are glad that I am here.  The day has become like no other I have ever known. I am near speechless with gratitude.

The mosh pit in the center has grown wilder. I can’t resist the urge to dig deeper, to see up close my first Meskel. I gradually work my way into center, to where excitement is whipped to a frenzy and women are few.

The only other tourist I’ve seen in hours sneaks by. I point, and shout gleefully, “Ferengi!”

Ethiopians and the pale stranger all turn and laugh, “Come on!” he yells.

Ferengi and I weave through the crowd, ducking between arms, as we creep towards the center. Until I lose him.

I am stuck behind a wall of Ethiopian men. Shoulder to shoulder. I can hardly breath. I’m alone and tiptoeing to see. The bodies packed against me are holding me up.

The burning cross is raging, and now leaning precariously. I realize I’m within a 20 foot radius of danger, I mean, it’s increasingly lean is heading our way. Surely, everyone will leave soon. I tap the man next to me. “What happens after the cross falls?”

“Oh.” A shrug,”Then there will be a fight.”

“A fight?” I panic.

“Yes. For the cross!” He smiles, as if at an innocent child, “This is your first Meskel? Yes?”