Mountain scenes/More talk about food


(Note: I have not been able to upload photos for this entry because of connectivity issues. They’ll be up here eventually. Until then, I hope my writing is evocative enough that photos are a nice-to-have, not essential.)

I’m currently in the Wabe Shebelle hotel in Roba, Ethiopia, more than 400 kilometres from Addis. It’s cold and damp here, the kind of cold that gets into your bones, and there’s no heat and only theoretical hot water here. Last week, I was with Anicet in Dassa, Benin, la porte du Sahel, climbing creepy lunar-like rock formations in the kind of 40-degree heat where just walking to the corner store makes you sweat and you practically have to wring out your clothes. Now I’m trying to keep warm and adapt to the kind of cold I haven’t felt since almost a year ago, when I was standing on a street corner at 3 a.m. on a Montreal December night, waiting for the bus to Trudeau.

At one point, my plan was to return to Montreal directly from Benin. That would have been brutal, taking off in 35-degree heat and landing in -15. I am proud of my current plan, which involves gradually scaling down from +30 + (Benin) to +15 (here) to +5 (Europe) to -15 (home). Now, I’m at Stage 2.

The ride up here was magnificent. We left at 6:30 a.m. and by 8, the pencil-grey clouds had cleared. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun shone down on fields of wheat, teff (the grain that injera is made from) and grasses used for animal feed. The wheat fields and the piles of straw literally glowed. It was what I always imagined Ukraine or Mongolia might look like — if in Ukraine or Mongolia there were curious baboons wandering across the road. As we drove through Oromiya, climbing the winding mountain roads, there were fewer and fewer other cars. We passed houses built from dung and sticks, and lonely mosques of pounded metal. A few hours outside of Addis, the car slowed, as a bunch of camels — camels!! I was today years old when I first saw camels! — were led across the highway.  People rode by in twos and threes in horse carts, leaving a Christmasy jingle in the air as they passed us or we passed them. Elegant women in niqabs rode on horseback, an umbrella in one hand and the reins in the other. Women were straining teff from basket to basket, and it caught the sun and glowed gold. A guy on horseback herded goats across the steppe, cracking a whip, like something out of Lermontov. Then up we went, climbing another mountain road and looking out over a jaw-dropping, green and yellow valley. Women and men my age and younger wandered by, on foot, on horseback or on motorcycles, and I wondered what their lives were like. They probably knew a whole lot of manual skills that I would never learn, like how to control a horse, how to strain teff and how to build sturdy walls and fences with sticks laying around. We passed college and university campuses, so many of the younger people would have been well educated, but others had probably never seen a website or read a book other than the Bible or Koran. Some probably travelled to Addis Ababa every now and then, other had never been and dreamed of the big city, others had never been and were fine with it. It varies.

I alternated between staring open-mouthed at the view and flipping through a novel about students in first-year university in Boston. It was surreal reading about a world where, say, stoplights and subway trains and insipid vending-machine sandwiches exist, then dipping out of that world into the time warp of this one.

In the middle of the afternoon, we stopped by the side of the road overlooking a valley, so the guys — there were four of us on the drive, two men and two women — could pee. I took the opportunity to get out and stretch. Around us, the silence was absolute.

“You can literally hear your heart out here,” I told the logistician.

“Haven’t you seen this view before?” she asked. (She’s a bit of a killjoy.)

Not wanting to repeat the experience of six months ago — where the driver hit something, or someone, after nightfall, practically threw us out of the car and screeched off back to Addis — we started at 7 in the morning and drove straight through, making just a few quick stops to pound back scrambled eggs and bunna — hot, almost chocolaty Ethiopian coffee, the best in the world — to pick up some avocados at a giant fruit market and to pee/stretch/contemplate the view. We arrived, hungry and tired, to find that practically the only thing the pricey restaurant had on offer was shiro, lentil stew. It was thin and tomatoey and the portions weren’t particularly generous, but I thought it was fine, if kind of lacking in spice. It tasted like mediocre tomato curry — ferenji shiro, my colleagues announced. But they couldn’t order anything else off the menu, because they were fasting and not allowed to eat meat. So they were not only hungry and tired but also cold and annoyed, and headed to their rooms at 5:30 p.m.. Which at least gave me a chance to write this.

This past Tuesday was my last full day of work in Pobè. I spent it shooting photos of a series of health facility user committee meetings (photos which I still need to process, hang tight to those who are waiting for them, if any of them are reading this) — long hours of meetings in clinics without electricity, with participants (particularly female participants) who had to sign the register with a swirl. That evening, I worked until 3:30 a.m. on my bilan, my big end-of-mandate report. I did fieldwork in the morning, napped and woke up 10 minutes before I had to give the report. I sprinted to the office — only to find no one there. No one would show up for the next 45 minutes. I called Célestin — who wasn’t there himself– to see if I hadn’t perhaps gotten the time wrong. “Oh, I told people four so they would all be there by five,” he said patiently. When will I ever learn?!

The next night I was in Cotonou, where a fellow volunteer had kindly offered to hold a goodbye cocktail party for me. It was at a rooftop bar with bright lights where small beers cost 3000 francs (eight times what they cost in Pobè) and a Haitian-American singer in a long gown sang “Route 66” and “Georgia On My Mind.” The bright lights, the glitz and the cognitive dissonance made my head spin after low-key Pobè. My lunch that day was a classic Béninois office drone feast of fermented corn paste, cured fish, raw onions and mysterious spicy sauce that cost 50 cents; dinner was half a spinach and feta pizza.

I appreciated the pizza — it was a gift, and the creamy, luxurious texture of the cheese was something I hadn’t felt in awhile — but it made me realize something about Western food. Whether it’s a bagel, a pizza or a mediocre club sandwich, “normal” Western food all tastes the same, sweet and bready, sometimes salty, almost always bland. Didier, my ex from Burundi who is a good friend, arrived in small-town Quebec as a refugee last fall. When he needed to go to Montreal, I would take him out for a bite to eat. He couldn’t finish a breakfast sandwich at my favourite bagel place. Banh mi were a slight improvement, as long as they had crunchy fresh vegetables and plenty of hot pepper sauce. Now I understand why he couldn’t bring himself to eat a ham, egg and mayonnaise sandwich. I don’t know if I ever will again. In Africa, yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but what food there is always tastes like food! The sourness of injera, the weird bracing bitterness of traditional Ethiopian cheese, the spice of good shiro with or without meat; the brightness of the raw onion, the saltiness of the cured fish, the ginger and garlic in the mystery sauce and the distinctive taste of the akassa or the corn paste; potatoey igname pilée dipped in spicy peanut sauce with gluey green crincrin, fatty lamb skin which I used to hate, and the iron-rich denseness of lamb organ meat. Juicy beef skewers and sweet aloko (plantains). Food in Africa doesn’t taste like wheat flour, tastes like food. 


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