The emperor’s throne

January 12, 2014
10:00 p.m. local time
Bethel Guest House
Addis Ababa, Ethiopa

This guest house is very lovely. It’s almost new, and at three stories it towers over the surrounding houses, so there’s a view in all directions from the top-floor common room. There’s a high wall all around the house with a metal gate and concertina wire, so you feel very safe inside. Next to the gate, an old man keeps watch in a telephone-booth-sized guardhouse.

But there’s a problem with water. The faucet in my bathroom sink has never worked since I arrived on Friday. The bathtub faucet has worked intermittently. Apparently, the shower head hasn’t worked in ages, because someone has taken down the rod and curtain and has leaned them into one corner of the bathroom.

This morning, there was cold water in the tub, but not hot. So I decided that I would again take a cold bath. But halfway through the filling of the tub, the hot water started, and I ended up with a perfectly pleasant warm bath. The water was even colorless rather than brown!

But tonight — no water in my bathroom at all. The clerk at the desk tells me that the tanker is being filled, and after it’s filled, the pump will pump water up, and then my bath water will run. I hope so, because I have to get up at 5 a.m. Kitty and I will leave for the airport at 5:30, and our flight to Lalibella, in the northern part of the country, is to depart at 7:40 a.m.

This morning was Sunday, and I had hoped to attend the Anglican church in Addis. But it was also the only day that I would have with Kitty and with her team of missionaries who live in Yei, South Sudan. The group was planning to spend the day together, and so I tagged along.

After we enjoyed a good breakfast of French toast and eggs and that strong, strong Ethiopian coffee, our hired van arrived at 9 a.m. Our group included the Pooles — an Australian doctor and his super-efficient wife and three young kids. And Katherine, the New Zealander nurse who works side-by-side with Kitty every day in Yei. And Rebecca, the young Chinese-Malaysian-Australian doctor who has been in Yei for the last six months or so but who is now headed back to Malaysia to see her relatives and decide what to do next — master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins? Or perhaps more work as a missionary doctor? Simone, the Swiss teacher who lives in Yei, had other plans to meet a friend in Addis today, so she didn’t join us.

And so off we went with our driver, a very pleasant 35-year-old man named Dagin. First he took us to the Cure Hospital, where the whole Yei group went in to visit an Australian woman they knew who had recently broken her leg. This woman had had to have surgery right there in Addis. The Cure Hospital seemed extremely clean and pleasant to me, and it’s situated on a hillside above the downtown. Several cars full of well-dressed Ethiopians drove by as Dagin and I waited outside the hospital, chatting about his sister in Las Vegas and the impossibility of Ethiopians getting a tourist visa to visit America. These passers-by were on their way to a wedding reception in the park nearby. Dagin told me that this is wedding season, because no weddings are permitted during the long Ethiopian Advent season or during Lent. Since Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas was just last week, the weekend following the holiday was especially popular for weddings.

And the weather couldn’t have been more pleasant. I must tell you, after two days, I am in love with the climate of Addis! It’s warm, sunny, and dry during the day. It’s brisk at night. It’s simply gorgeous, and there are eucalyptus trees and jacaranda and other plants that flourish in Southern California, my birthplace.

Once we left the hospital, we drove up a steep road in the Entoto Mountains that rise above Addis to the north. At the top, at an elevation of 3,200 meters (or about 10,000 feet), are a series of monastic churches and one of the palaces of Ethiopia’s hero, the Emperor Menelik II. I was at his tomb in the crypt of the old monastic church down in the city yesterday, but here we were high above the smog, the air just a bit nippy, exploring the home he made before his consort decided it was too cold on the mountain. The roofs of the house are thatched, the stucco made with ground ostrich eggs, and when you are inside the house and look up, you can see that the underside of the thatch is bamboo tied together with leather straps. Fascinating.

Oh, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie visited there when they were in town and had the same museum guide. Also fascinating.

In the small museum, there were many of the gifts that international dignitaries had given to Menelik II during his reign — a mother-of-pearl mirror from Queen Victoria, an icon from the Russian emperor, and more.

I needed to use the toilet, so I asked our driver and he inquired of the guard. Just around back, we were told. So I went out back, where a cinder-block outhouse stood. Inside it was both filthy and overwhelmingly smelly — a “long drop” or “Turkish toilet” with no running water. Of course I had my own toilet paper and sanitary hand wipes — I’ve been in the third world enough to know not to leave home without them. But when Linda in our party — the mother of the three kids — followed me into the outhouse, she was overcome by the stench, lurched out the door, and was sick on the grass. I felt bad for her. Her two sons watched but didn’t seem too upset by it. I guess when you grow up on a hospital compound in the poorest country in the world, you’ve seen a lot worse than Mum losing her breakfast on the lawn.

One of the other churches up on the mountain included a small hewn cave church out back. Now, Kitty and I are going to the world capital of rock-hewn churches tomorrow, so I was feeling dubious about this one — it was small and primitive. But being inside a cave church is pretty cool. There were three chambers, which the local guide called the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Ghost” rooms. He said that the “Father” chamber would have contained the Holy of Holies. The “Holy Ghost” chamber was where the small congregation would have gathered — surely it couldn’t hold more than 20 worshipers. And the “Son” chamber was where the faithful would go to receive the Sacrament.

I’m not sure about how trustworthy this guide was, since this was a liturgical practice completely unknown to me — the faithful receiving communion in a room other than the “nave” (i.e., the “Holy Ghost” room) or the chancel (i.e., the “Father” room)? But what do I know of Ethiopian Christianity? Almost nothing, that’s what. I do now know, however, that almost all their churches or octagonal, that their priests can be married, and that there are two kinds of monks — virgins and widowers. I’ve learned something in the last two days.

On the way down the mountain, we stopped at a long line of roadside market stalls that were busy, busy, busy with local people looking for bargains. These stalls all seemed to sell textiles — mostly women’s clothing, scarves, table linens, and the like. I wasn’t that interested, but I did find a table runner hand-embroidered with a cross-like design. I liked it quite a bit. And then the shopkeeper showed me eight matching cloths that I took for napkins, but he said they were coverings for chairs. OK. I did a little bargaining and was genuinely going to walk away, because I could do without these things. But he came down to $10 for the set of nine hand-embroidered linens. I’m sure he made more than he would have, had he sold them to an Ethiopian. And I got a nice gift for somebody.

By this time, it was lunchtime, and I think we were all feeling tired and hot. We headed back into the area of Addis that surrounds the university, and there we found a very nice restaurant called “Lucy” tucked away next to the National Museum, where the bones of the real Lucy — the ancient Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 1974 — currently reside. I had more traditional Ethiopian food, and I tried one of the fruit smoothies that Addis Ababa is known for. When you order a mixed fruit smoothy here, they blend each fruit separately and put the results into separate pitchers. Then they pour the contents of the different pitchers into a transparent glass, and you end up with a charming stained-glass design. Pretty and tasty both.

After lunch, we headed over to the university, which is on land donated by Haile Selassie and includes one of his palaces. The palace building itself now houses the ethnographic museum — a combination of anthropology and traditional arts. The anthropological section was fine — Ethiopia has more than 100 tribes, each with its own cultural distinctions, and it’s rather hard for someone like me, with no knowledge of any of them, to grasp the differences.

But I really enjoyed the section of the museum that focused on traditional art. The Ethiopian style of painting is remarkable — it’s brightly colored, and the human figures are almost cartoon-like in their simplicity. The art is beautiful — I wouldn’t mind having it on my wall.

As we were looking at some religious paintings that were 400 and 500 years old, I was amazed some strong similarities to Western religious art of the same period. To be sure, Ethiopian figure drawing is completely different. But both the subject matter and the composition of the images were almost identical to European art of the same period. Here were Madonna and Child in the center of a triptych, the infant holding up his fingers in blessing. There, below them, St. George slaying his ancient enemy, that great dragon. Here the twelve apostles. There the whole company of heaven, forever praising God and saying, “Holy, holy, holy.”

How on earth did Ethiopian painters of 500 years ago have contact with European painters of the same period? I suppose they could communicate up and down the Nile, but I must learn more about this cultural interplay. Whatever it was, Ethiopia was not cut off from the world in centuries past. And it wasn’t some kind of primitive culture. The Ethiopia of the medieval and modern periods was a complex civilization with a strong architectural and artistic tradition.

Lest it be forgotten that this was Haile Selassie’s old palace, the museum also included the Emperor’s former bedchamber and, my favorite, his marble bathroom, complete with double sinks, shower bath, flush toilet, and bidet. Our driver, who was with me, said, “The emperor had the best bathroom in all Ethiopia.”

“It’s a beautiful bathroom,” I replied gravely. But what I wanted to say was, “The emperor’s throne!”

By the time we finished at the museum, all of us were exhausted and ready to head back to the guest house. I pulled out a bag of trail mix from Target that I had brought along, and everyone in the van started scarfing down nuts and chocolate. We stopped at a cafe that specialized in those fruit smoothies, and then we all drank them through straws in the car. I said to no one in particular, “Why does every straw in Ethiopia have a hole in it!” My new friends mocked me until they started sucking air. Every single straw: defective.

Back at the guest house, we separated. I tried and failed to nap, thwarted by the imam’s call and the bleating of goats outside my window. For dinner, we came together for pizza and leftovers at the guest house dining table. Katherine, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, was sick in the third-floor common room, and Simone, the Swiss woman, went to clean up the mess.

And finally we separated. The Pooles leave for Sydney tomorrow. Rebecca is flying to Kuala Lumpur. Katherine and Simone are going to return to South Sudan via Uganda. And Kitty and I will leave earliest of all, on our way to the isolated mountain town of Lalibella, where Ethiopian Christians of centuries past tried to recreate the Holy City of Jerusalem. I can’t wait.

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