Monday, April 25, 2011

How Blessed Is This Day

It's the night before Easter in Addis Ababa.  The walk to the Holy Trinity Cathedral for Midnight Mass is not one I would want to do alone.  During the day, the streets of Addis are teeming with all sorts of sweet, savory and unsavory (often it seems mostly unsavory) characters, but at night they are empty, and the dusty, unlit roads radiate a sense of desolateness that is eerie.  There are no neon signs, no pedestrian promenades, no commercial centers, no rows of restaurants or stores, no tall modern buildings to light up the sky.  Addis has none of these.

The gate to the church is guarded by a mass of humanity.  In the shadows of night they have no faces, no arms, no legs.  They are a huddled stack of blankets, wrapped up to guard against the surprisingly chilly night they will spend on the street, as they always do.  As we walk through a hand reaches out and shakes slowly, inquiring for alms in the international language of jingling change.

We enter the church grounds, following the sound of the distorted voice chanting in Amharic, booming across the city from the top of the church spire.  We round the corner, and there they are.

There are hundreds, no thousands, each and every one wrapped in a long white shawl.  Some hold long wooden staffs, some burning candles.  They are old and young, some obviously wealthier than others.  I assume they fill the entire inside of the church, but I can't confirm.  I can barely get near the door.  They spill out onto the steps of the church, onto the platform below, around all sides of the church, filling the church grounds.  They sit on blankets like it was a rock concert.  They lean against statues and trees, they sit between cars.  Some are standing, some are sleeping.  All are perfectly quiet.

The priest's chanting slows to a beautifully gentle speaking voice.  Every twenty to thirty seconds it pauses and the worshippers chime in with an equally soft melodic murmur.  They stand up and prostrate.  At one point they applaud wildly.  It goes on and on into Easter sunday.

I am new to Ethiopia, but there is something in the service that feels unique and uniquely Ethiopian.  It is definitely Christian and definitely African, and yet the dress and the melody and the setting lends a Semitic feel to it.  I wonder where else in the world can it be like this.  Somalia?  Sudan?

At some point there is a massacre.  I don't know when or how, but when I wake up on the morning of Easter Sunday the street corners are stacked high with goat hides and it is not so uncommon to see someone walking the street with a bag of meat or a severed goat head.  The fifty-five day vegetarian fast has ended, and they are celebrating the return to the eating of flesh.

This day is a quiet day on the streets of Addis.  Nothing is open, no stores or banks or internet cafes (the few that exist), only the ubiquitous coffee shops, selling what is regarded as some of the world's best java.  The minivans with the howling conductors come by only every few minutes rather than every twenty or so seconds.  It even seems there are somehow fewer homeless on the streets, as if they too are taking the day off.

I like Addis this way.  Tomorrow it will go back to the roads crowded with people and old vehicles spewing black smoke, the pickpockets, the disabled and dirty asking for change, the prostitutes with their supposed fifty percent HIV infection rate, the homeless and filthy children, the near post-apocalyptic reality that can be the day-to-day street scene.  This is how Addis is, at least as it seems to me, in my very brief encounter.  It is something I will always remember, something I could never forget, even if I tried.

But of course, even on the normal days, there is more to it than that. They are here somewhere, those devotees, behind closed doors, that quiet amidst the madness.  I will remember them too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Impressions of the Middle East

People get ready for that [taxi] to Jordan.

Lodged between the rugged cliffs of the Jordanian desert is Petra, a valley that was home to a B.C. city and that now bears the remains of hundreds of deep and sometimes ornate tombs carved into the rock.  It's dope, I'm into it.  I'm especially into the long day hikes up into the surrounding mountains during which you might stumble across the occasional Bedouin goat herder who invites you into his simple home for tea.  Some hot tea, some soccer with Bedouin kids, some goats, some fantastic views across the rocky desert landscape... like I said, into it.

I don't have much else to say about Jordan.  Really, the point of this post was to drop the Curtis Mayfield references I've been storing up for months in preparation.

Since this is the Middle East, I guess I can provide some political commentary.  You ready for it?  Ok, here goes...

That there are entire swaths of the planet that I can't just stumble around meeting people and exchanging handshakes and smiles is stupid.  That there are whole portions of the city of Jerusalem or entire villages in Israel where I can't go without fear of getting harassed is stupid.  That I can't even come to a tourist center like Petra without experiencing (very slight) undertones of fear and animosity is stupid.  Hey world, grow up.

Really took you to school there, didn't I?

Anyway, tomorrow I leave Jordan to do what any respectable JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist) does after a pilgrimage to Asia and Israel.  Travel through Ethiopia, duh!

Here's a (long exposure) picture of the Treasury at Petra at night.  That shit's just carved right into the rock face.  Not bad, huh?

Talk to you from AFRICA!

Monday, April 11, 2011

This is Israel

"Allahu Akbar."  I stir on Friday morning, awakening to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, the Muslim's voice booming from the loudspeaker sitting atop the spire of the nearby mosque.  This is Israel.

I am in Cana, an Arab village a day's walk out of Nazareth along the "Jesus Trail", a Christian pilgrimage route stretching across the Galilee, the land of Jesus' ministry.  I am nervous and excited as I have a lofty goal for the day: to walk thirty kilometers, turning the hike from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee - normally a four day trek - into a three day trek.  Rolling out of bed I pack up my possessions into the bag I am to carry on my back, and walk into the living room of the Arab-Christian guest house that lodges the various hikers and pilgrims who pass through Cana as they walk the trail.

"The Kingdom of God is like a Jesus Trail marker.  If you know where to look, it is always there to guide the way."

Entering the living room of the home-stay guest house I am confronted with eighteen Christian pilgrims, seventeen students and a professor, from Eastern Mennonite University in Pennsylvania.  Sitting in a circle of couches, the class conducts their morning session as each student takes a turn to complete the sentence "The Kingdom of God is like..." with something they had seen on the first day of the walk.  Grabbing my breakfast of hard-boiled egg, pita and hummus, the professor kindly asks if I would like to join, and though I politely decline the invitation, I continue to listen as the students share their analogies.

"The Kingdom of God is like a field in the Galilee.  It may be obscured by trash and pollution, but the beauty is always there if you know how to look."  

I smile to myself.  This is Israel.

By 8:30 a.m. I am on the trail and hiking out of Cana, into the beautifully forested hills of the Galilee.  Seeing the Arab town of Tur'an after less than two hours of walking, I note with pride that I am making great time.  Pleased with myself, my mind begins to wander into complacency and when I return to mindfulness, I realize I haven't seen a trail marker in at least ten minutes.  Time for some navigation skills!  Looking at a map, I realize I now have two options:  (A) backtrack at least ten minutes uphill and pick up the trail wherever I had lost it or (B) hike towards the highway I can spot in the distance and walk along the road until it crosses the trail, a route that will shorten my total walk for the day.  Option B it is!

Hmmm, I soon realize.... walking along a busy highway is not fun.  And, those clouds... yep, and now it is less fun as it has started to rain.  So, okay, we're at a crossroads.  Do I to continue to hike in the rain, for another two kilometers on a busy highway, and as a reward for making it off the highway, possibly have to trudge my way through the mud for another twenty kilometers, or is it better to cut my losses, swallow my pride and hop a bus to Tiberias, the nearest Israeli city of significance?

Reasonableness wins this battle (don't get used to it fella!), and within a half hour I had found a bus going my way.  Sweaty, wet and muddy, I pay my eleven shekel fare and sit down next to a green clad Israeli soldier, passed out in his seat and clutching an automatic rifle in his lap.  This too is Israel.

Ok Noah, time to regroup, here's the new plan: arrive in Tiberias, rent a car and drive north exploring my way through the Galilee until I reach my friend's couch in the Golan Heights, then spend the next day hiking the Golan.  Thrilled with the new itinerary I send my friend a text message and then drive to the Christian holy spots I had hoped to hit on the trek.  First was the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, a small and tranquil church commemorating one of Jesus' supposed miracles.  Next, a short walk over to the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, a Franciscan church set right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on the spot where Jesus transferred leadership of the church to Peter.

It's a beautiful walk downhill through gardens towards the water and the church.  The sun is bright, the weather is warm, and, well, I begin to hear heavenly music.  Okay, I know I'm visiting some pretty holy sights here, but really, am I having visions (hearings?) now??  As I round a corner the chanting grows louder, and nearing the church, I see that the singing is coming from a group of Franciscan pilgrims, fifty or so Catholics dressed all in white, performing an outdoor mass in a shaded area overlooking the Sea (sanity, you are mine again you beautiful son-of-a-bitch!).  Backed with two nylon string acoustic guitars and a softly tapped conga drum, the Christian's voices drift across the grass and out into the sea, speaking out wonderfully moving and beautiful minor melodies giving praise to the Lord.  Does the setting sound too good to be true, too fantastic and idyllic, out of a movie or a story book or a Christian propaganda film?  Well, this is how it is, I swear, it's true! (unless I really am crazy).  The service is mesmerizing and beautiful and I sit until the mass culminates in the Eucharist, the priest distributing the blood and body of Christ directly into the mouths of the followers.  Uh-huh, this is Israel.

I hike up to the Mount of Beatitudes, the overlook where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount  ("Blessed are the..."), to see unparalleled views across the Sea and hills of Galilee.  And then to Capernaum, the home base for Jesus' ministry over two thousand years ago.  It's now 4:30 and I check my phone to see my friend in the Galilee has responded to say that her couch is not available for the night.  So once again a decision must be made.  Looking at a map and giving it little thought, I decide to go to drive north to Tsfat, a hilltop Orthodox/Hassidic/Kabbalistic/Artsy/Bohemian Jewish community and spiritual center.

My trusted Lonely Planet recommends a place called Ascent as the most affordable option in Tsfat, so, not reading past the price line, I head there looking for a place to spend the night.  Walking into the "guest house" at 5:15, Ascent is a whirlwind of activity, as the staff and guests prepare for the town-wide (and country-wide) shutdown that is to come in a few hours as Shabbat begins.

"Hi, do you have a bed available."
"No reservation?  Um, ok, it will cost 195 Shekels for a bed in the dorm."
"195 Shekels?!?  My book says 45...."
"It's Shabbat.  It includes meals and services and the courses."
"Oh, I don't need all that.  Just a bed is fine."
"  no.  You do need it.  You want it.  There is no option."

So it turns out that had I read further in the guidebook, I would have seen that Ascent is not really a hotel, but a Chabad house, a Hassidic center for housing Jews and teaching them in the ways of the Jewish tradition (and in Ascent's case, the Hassidic and kabbalistic traditions).   And so it is that by the time night arrives, I find myself in the center of a circle of orthodox Jewish men, holding hands with a black-coated, black-hatted, bearded Hassidic rabbi, spinning each other as we dance to the sounds of the Jewish mystics.  Oh yea, I laugh... this is Israel too.

My last stop for the night is Shabbat dinner at the home of the Leiters, a Hassidic family of eleven children (to date) and thirteen grandchildren (to date).  As Rabbi Mordechai walks me to the home of my hosts, he asks how it was that I heard about Ascent and ended up in Tsfat that night.  I begin by telling him it was an accident, and then relate my story about the hike, the lost trail, the rain, the text message from my friend, and at the end Rabbi Mo laughs, slaps me on the back and with a smile in his eyes like he was party to his own private joke, tells me it was "quite a fortunate accident."

And my dinner with the Leiter clan....?  Delicious food, noise, confusion, family, prayers, caring, more delicious food, stories, interruptions, spiritual discussions, even more delicious food.  Everything you might expect, plus an extra dose of intensity.  This is Israel after all.