Meskel Morning and a Choir of Hundreds

I wake up coughing. My room is filled with acrid smoke, wafting lazy circles around the ceiling. Panic.

Then recognition. Meskel.

I fling back the covers and race to my balcony. Outside, the sky is a haze, as if the world was on fire, as plumes of smoke rise from between buildings and street corners further off. Crowds of people walk by.

Then the 15 foot cross, built the day before, begins to burn. Orange flames lick at the green grass, piled at the base, angrily exhaling sheets of gray smoke into the air. A block further another, smaller, cross has sprung up and burns.

I hurry through my morning routine, then set off to find my way to the coffee house (which is harder than it sounds, when the front desk replies to my question “how do I get to “The Coffee House”?” with “Which one?”…”THE Coffee House” until finally, a gasp and nod, “Yes, there is one coffee house that is called “The Coffee House”!” “Geubez!”), to meet the rest of the group.

I walk down the stairs and through the entrance I’d fled last night. In the warm sunlight, the world glows with friendly faces. It’s a new day. Wrapped in white netalahs, thousands wander through the street, men, women, children. I consult my napkin map, to navigate roads choked with people, as they walk from the countryside, to the center of town, to celebrate.

Just as I spot The Coffee House and familiar faces. Before I reach my group, there is a moment of unusual silence, only the whispering rustle of hundreds of clothes, the swish of long dresses.

And rising up the hill, as if out of nowhere, an army of people, a shout from the leader and then a brilliant, bright chorus begins.

I am frozen in complete and utter and complete awe, overwhelming gratitude to be here, at this very moment. I feel heart singing along with them, as it trills and falls, and hits lows and so very high notes.

It is the most beautiful sight. Hundreds moving and singing, together. I feel my eyes filling with water, as I clasp my hands to my heart.

Words I don’t understand, but their jubilation is universal, as men, women and children clap and sing and jump, steadily closing the gap between me and them.

Then them and I are feet, then only inches apart. Then their voices are swirling around me, they float past me. Thousands of beautiful voices, glowing faces, wrapped in gauzy, brilliant white. Laughing and smiling. The sun shining on us all. They carry armfuls of gold flowers, and crosses of all sorts (cardboard, tubing, charcoal sticks) and hoist them into the air.

A human wave of utter beauty. However traumatic the night-before, that fear, and that uncertainty, completely dissolves in the sunshine. Washed away by the song of the day. And I drink in the chorus, I’ve never hear before, as something familiar to my soul. It feels as if I’m seeing human-life for the very first time. Perhaps I was that scared the night before, so close to the end — or perhaps, sometimes, life is really and truly this rich, exotic, and beautiful beyond words, just at the precise moment you need it.

And then I dive in, and join the river of people, past street corners, where smaller crosses burn, where our little stream of hundreds will join the colorful ocean of hundreds of thousands. All against the backdrop of the massive, ancient Fasilides castle.

I breath deep. This is really happening.

Music & Dancing, at 7,546 Feet

Addis Ababa sits 7,500 feet above sea level. When it’s sunny, it’s deliciously warm and it takes only a few steps to work up a sultry sweat. Then the heavy, surreal-blue afternoon storm clouds, with monsoon-style gusts of cold rain, roll in and minutes later I’m shivering, reaching for a jacket or blanket. At night temperatures shift 30 degrees from a 70 degree afternoon is a cool 40 degree evening. Considering I packed (e.g. threw what was left of my closet back into the orange pack) for Africa at 2AM in the morning a mere 3 hours before hopping a plane, I’m repeatedly thankful I somehow grabbed long-johns and woolly warm socks for the chilly nights.

This afternoon, I run the power cord from my room to the massive balcony—working from a small picnic table. I work. I count the minutes until I can take another break and stand at the edges of the balcony and watch the life below, tired cars wobling over car-sized potholes, children playing and women wrapped in wispy scarves, walking through the corrugated-metal-lined roads, nudging the other and waving with wide smiles when they look up and catch a glimpse of me. (I find I stand out. Even hiding on a balcony, two stories up, I stand out.) I wave back. I sneak peeks between rough concrete slabs of the unfinished, wall-less skeleton of a building next door where a small fire heats a blackened kettle that she stoops over to stir as he add water, and more water to the steaming broth.

I’m not sure what to do with it. I sit back down, subdued, and back to work. Working until dark to the sounds of traditional, earthy, gargling chants of Orthadox priests microphoned across the valley.

Getu’s white van ambles down the road to pick me up. A rare treat, a night out with the American couples that are staying in Tsbay’s other guest house.They’re here to adopt. And over new years coffee and injera, where we traded the “ how I got here” stories, vivacious and charming Buffy and her character father, insist I join their group heading to Yod Abyssinia, the much acclaimed Ethiopian cultural restaurant. A boy brings a silver kettle of warm water and pours it over our hands as dinner is set before us: spongy sheets of injeera, piles of wat and vegetables. It’s all amazing, savory and that reverse comforting-feel of my familiar “Seattle” food here in Africa. The restaurant fills with Ethiopians, well dressed, beautiful, smiling. Families and groups of friends.

We’re joined by a group of gray-robed monks, friends of Buffy. To my surprise, they’re freaking hilarious. They ham it up for the camera, they tease each other and us. They make funny prayers, they freely punctuate sentences with a joking “Amen!” until we’re all cheering each other on with heartfelt “Amens!” And yet they speak with sincerity about their journey here and I admire their openness, their fraternity, their dedication and compassion, as they speak of the lives they’ve left (coming from France, Ivory Coast, and even exotic Kentucky!) and the places they will visit and the people and struggles of this time and place. I think to myself that this is the “good” kind of religion. I’m inspired by their infectious joy and sacrifice. They tell me of secret rock churches, and the map they’ll draw when I tell them I’ll be visiting Lalibela later.

Then the show starts.

Men play traditional instruments, as they take turns singing songs from the vastly different areas that make up Ethiopia (there are over 80 regions and over 80 languages). It’s fast, crisp and so rich.

Then the women, adorned in layers of light white cloth and wide smiles begin dancing. They shake and shift effortlessly, wildly, proudly. (I remember sitting in Tsbay’s red-gold living room on my first day in Gerji, watching the New Year’s TV programs with Nati—How the women and men jerked like whiplash, turning, hopping, shaking in happy seizures across backdrops of gilded living rooms or muddy fields where others cut wood or tend cattle…Unlikely setting for a music video to me. Fascinating but strange. I can’t find a way to understand it, appreciate it. It feels foreign. Unfamiliar, in context, sound, story and look.) And then I get it. Before me, right now–the traditional and the new colliding in a joyful celebration that is this evening–it’s infectious and just beautiful. I can’t take my eyes off their movements, and that sound of a new kind of song. I feel myself relaxing into the pulsing, earthy rhythms, as a woman in spiked 5 inch heels and a gorgeous white party dress belts Amharic words into a brilliant song – so unlike anything I’ve ever heard, her velvet voice shrills and falls, and seems to dance across the surprising pastoral melody in the background, like singing sideways, like a harmony but more, like she’s put all those beautiful, black flat notes on a piano we only rarely play in American music into a single song. It’s earthy, ancient and intoxicating.

In the midst of it, Ethiopian families out for a night on the town clap and call, they sing along and sway. This isn’t a tourist attraction (well, it is–we’re here afterall–but it’s more) They hop on stage as the music grabs them. It’s just another weeknight back home, and here, it’s a celebration. By the end of the night the room is on its feet. I watch a muscled father dance with his tiny daughter, he laughs and claps as she shakes and sways, in that controlled-out-of-control way they all do, arms outstretched.

Vibrant and alive.

Long after everyone’s gone to bed, I stay up and re-watch the bits of video from the evening.