Being Useless in Gondar

I duck into the rattling blue tuk tuk of the only driver who seems to maybe recognize where I’m trying to head. We’re heading back through town, past busy streets and stands of eucalyptus. The driver stops in front of a cement block hotel. There are zero cars around. And when my tuktuk driver leaves, it’s strangely quiet. (I try not to think about how I’ll get home.)

Instead, I convince a shyly smiling woman to help me dial Anteneh on the hotel phone, as men watching the soccer game in the next room, stare curiously between both. In another minute, I’m talking to the inspiring young, medical student, himself. Studied abroad, and returned to work at the local hospital, in Gondar, where kids run to him and adults wave.

Strangely exhausted, but camera-loaded and ready to put myself (finally!) to some use, and capture Gondar life, as it is–I’m completely taken back when the party Anteneh invites me to (a gathering of volunteers, local and imported hospital staff) is a real full-blown party.

The metal gates swing open to a giant white house, with a garden nearly taken over by a home-made volleyball net. The first person to greet me is a friendly doctor, in Gondar, from sleepy northeastern US.

It’s hard not to notice a couple flecks of blood on his shaved face — a bad shave, I assume, and hope he’s not a surgeon.

“Welcome to Gondar!” He smiles and shakes my hand. He laughs good-naturedly, “I just slaughtered a goat!”

It’s so unexpected, but yet strangely so normal, I burst out laughing. Then see the deflated carcass and furry head sit in a pool of blood, to the side. “Would you like a beer?”

I break my golden-rule of solo-travel, and accept a cold beer, and dive head first into a dizzying round of introductions, and purposes, and stories. Amazing stories and reasons for being here, in Gondar. From as far as the Philippines and India. From the UK and the states. Even a woman who grew up in the same distant beach town, on the central Oregon coast, where I spent my summers. Doctors, peace corp volunteers, teachers, students-on-a-gap-year.

I, on the other hand, have a laptop, and marketing-skills that will help someone sell 2% more of something back home, and a beaten-down dream of working and traveling abroad and making a difference.

And standing there, as I’m generously offered to share in their celebration, with fresh goat kababs, rice, wat and veggies, I feel the intense disappointment of my own shortcomings in a brutal way. They’re all actually doing something. Something of value. Something that will make a difference.

Whereas, I was drawn here with no amazing purpose, no special life-saving skill, no ability to make a difference. Despite my insistence that this was going to be something different, it’s just more of the same. I’m a tourist. I’ve arrived, I’ve hopped the tourist circuit, I’m cutting my trip short by two months, and dodging a photo opportunity to document a historic HIV/AIDs testing in a small Ethiopian town because I’m not hitting my deadlines, my savings are suffering, my mortgage is looming and I’m wondering how I got this far, without a better plan, without actually doing anything of value…

I grip my camera and task myself with at least just documenting the fun, frivolity of this lovely group, this lovely evening.

A wild, no rules game of volleyball in a wild yard turns to soccer, which ends when the light falls and the group heads inside. In some conversation, Meskel comes up. Didn’t I know? It’s the festival (second only to Timkat in December) in just two days. You have to stay in Gondar to see it, they tell me. It’ll be like nothing else, really amazing. People from the villages come for miles. You can adjust your plane ticket in town, easy!

I think of the piles of work waiting. I think of returning to my solitary room. Of celebrating Meskel in massive Addis.

I think of a few more days with these people. I think of working all day tomorrow so I could justify Meskel off. I can’t think of anything better. Yes, I’ll stay!

Like any party anywhere, talk turns to music and dancing. At some point, the friendly and funny doctor (one of many names I cannot remember) and I talk of little-known G. Love & Special Sauce, and that one song. And then he’s finding the song and I’m nearly falling down as we’re in Gondar, Ethiopia, laughing and singing, to my favorite song from the summer when I was 15 and pulling weeds in my parents yard: “I like cold beverages, I like cold beverages..”

Music and beer. The room spins with people dancing and laughing. We sing our hearts out to Michael Jackson, “Billy Jean” and “Bad”. The music shifts to the exotic local songs, the Ethiopians in the group teach us a local dance that feels something like a modified electric-slide along with the art of shoulder-dancing (a series of non-stop shoulder shrugging that feels epileptic, and puts us all in fits of laughter as we try, until it wears our shoulders down to nothing).

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.